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THE MARK OF CAIN

Naomi Hezikiah felt out of place in Pommern's command chair, for a heavy cruiser was not normally a lieutenant commander's billet, and even the thin Bible in the breast of her vac suit was scant comfort as she contemplated what was about to happen.

She punched up communications, and a painfully young ensign answered her. Yet another sign of the times; it should have been at least a full lieutenant.

"Anything from the flagship, Harvey?"

"No, sir." The young black man shook his head in mild surprise. "Standing orders are to maintain com silence, sir," he reminded respectfully.

"I know." Naomi probed the ensign's face for any uncertainty and started to say more, but she'd set her hand to the plow, as Elder Haberman would say. To every thing there was a season . . . even to this, she supposed drearily. So she made herself smile, instead. "Carry on, Ensign."

"Aye, aye, sir," the com officer said, and the screen blanked.

Naomi leaned back and closed her eyes. All she wanted was to be back on cold, bleak New Covenant. But she couldn't be there-and after what had already happened . . . after what was about to happen . . . not even New Covenant would want her back. She remembered Abraham and prayed silently for God to send another ram before the blade fell. But he wouldn't.

Her mind went back over the past, terrible two weeks that had started so wonderfully. She and Earnest had had the medic's official report; they'd actually been discussing ways to finagle their assignments so she could take her maternity leave at home on New Covenant when the scrambled transmission came over the relay net. An entire Battle Fleet task force-not just a battlegroup, a task force-taken by its own personnel. Casualties had been heavy, and the few ships which remained loyal had been hunted down and captured or destroyed before they got far. But not before they got their courier drones away.

Commodore Prien had been a fool. Naomi's eyes stung as she remembered the kindly old man, a Heart Worlder who couldn't believe his own squadron might follow suit. He'd actually broadcast his decision to return to base immediately . . . and why. He should have known what would happen-and it had happened within hours. Desperate men and women had met, and the Fringers among his crews had risen against him.

But not all of them. No, not all of them. The meetings had been too clandestine, too hurried. Everything had been improvised by isolated groups, trusting no one outside their own little band. Not until the first mutineer drew his weapon could anyone know who stood where outside whatever tiny group they'd discussed it with, and the loyalists had fought back furiously. The carnage had been more savage than she would have believed possible; there were laser scars on the bulkheads around her, and the victorious mutineers had barely half the personnel they theoretically needed.

And when the fighting ended, Naomi found Earnest sprawled over his fire control panel, laser in hand, and two dead mutineers before him.

She had barely been able to read the funeral service through her tears. Had he known they were on different sides? Would he have fought beside her if he'd known? Or would his stubborn sense of duty, the courage she loved so much, still have ranged them against one another?

She didn't know. She couldn't know, for Earnest had died, and she had inherited command of a heavy cruiser . . . and even Elder Haberman would never be able to convince her that God could forgive her.

Not that the Elder would have the chance, she thought mordantly, glancing at the nav tank. She would have the opportunity to plead her case before the Lord herself all too soon, for the pulsing pattern of the nav beacons was clear in the tank, and her astrogator turned to her.

"Thirty seconds to transit, Captain," he said quietly.

"Very well," Naomi nodded curtly. "Carry on."

"Aye, aye, sir."

And so it was official. Toshiba wasn't going to relent.



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