But the active defenses were up to the challenge they actually faced, countermissiles in the incoming missile storm, and then the laser clusters began to track and fire with cold, computer-controlled efficiency.
   Vice Admiral Malone and Rear Admiral Trikoupis watched with narrow eyes as the ragged survivors of the initial Peep launch continued to close, and then, at the very last minute, the order flashed out from the flagship and every ship of the picket force rolled ship simultaneously, presenting only the bellies of their wedges to their attackers.
   Some of the missiles got through anyway. There were simply too many of them for any other result, and Isaiah MacKenzie and Edward Esterhaus shuddered and jerked as they took hits. The SD(P)s bow-walls, copied from the new LACs, helped reduce their damage enormously, and Belisarius actually escaped without a single hit. But she was the only superdreadnought who could make that claim, and the battlecruisers Amphitrite and Lysander bucked in agony as lasers blasted into their far more fragile hulls. Amphitrite shook off the blows and continued to run, streaming atmosphere from her mangled flanks but still under full command. Lysander was less fortunate. Three separate hits went home in her after impeller ring, destroying two alpha nodes and at least four beta nodes, and more ripped into her midships section, gutting her starboard broadside, destroying CIC, her flag bridge (the latter thankfully unoccupied), and two of her three fusion plants. A third of her crew was killed or wounded, and she staggered, lagging as her acceleration fell.
   She was doomed, but the Peeps had clearly been stunned by the magnitude of the blow they'd just taken. Their own acceleration dropped suddenly, and Lysander was able to continue pulling slowly away from them.
   Vice Admiral Malone assessed the situation quickly. There was no way to get Lysander out of the system with her after Warshawski sail completely disabled, but at least he could get her people out. His superdreadnoughts, none of them seriously injured, slowed to the best pace the crippled battlecruiser could maintain, rolling to open their broadsides once more and thundering defiance back at the Peeps while Lysander's squadron mates closed. It was a risky decision, for without the full pod capability of the Harrington/Medusas, the balance of power still favored the Peeps heavily, and he was forbidden to use that full capability.
   But the Peeps had had enough. It was as if the force which had driven them had disappeared — as perhaps it had, Trikoupis thought grimly, for he'd concentrated his fire on the volume of the enemy wall that should have contained the Peep flagship — and their initial determination wavered. They allowed the range to continue to open slowly, showering the picket with a desultory spatter of missiles that were utterly ineffective against targets protected by Ghost Rider, and Trikoupis and Malone were more than happy to accept that.
   They completed the recovery of all of Lysander's personnel and then continued their withdrawal, as per their orders from Sir Thomas Caparelli and Wesley Matthews. Behind them, the survivors of TF 12.3 watched them go and settled sullenly into the possession of the system which, had they but known, their enemies' high command wanted them to have.


   "I'll be damned. It actually works."
   Commander Scotty Tremaine sat in his command chair aboard Bad Penny and shook his head. On the display before him, Hydra Six's icon flashed the bright, strobing green that indicated a unit shielded by an active sidewall. Which was very interesting, since Bad Penny was directly astern of Lieutenant Commander Roden's LAC.
   "Yep." Sir Horace Harkness tapped a query into the auxiliary terminal to the left of his own chair at the Engineer's station. He studied the numbers, then frowned. "Still got some interference with the after nodes," he announced. "Nothing big, but it could be a problem if a hit came in on it just wrong. There's a grav eddy here." He tapped a command into the touchpad and dumped a large-scale schematic of Cutthroat's after aspect to Tremaine's main display, and a cursor blinked, indicating a shaded patch where the sternwall should have merged flawlessly with the roof of the LAC's wedge.
   "See it, Sir?"
   "I see it," Tremaine confirmed. He studied it carefully, then input a command of his own. The computers considered his order and obediently overlaid the schematic with a gridded readout on the sternwall's density. The shaded area Harkness had indicated grew slightly as the numbers came up, and the commander grunted.
   "Got a seventy percent drop in wall strength all along the eddy," he told the CWO, "and it drops almost to zero right along the edge of the seam. Not good, Chief."
   "But it's not all that terrible, either, Skipper," Ensign Pyne put in from Tactical. "The eddy's not that big," she pointed out, "and the bad guys'd have to hit it dead on at exactly the right angle to get through it. Compared to a wide open kilt, that's one hell of an improvement in my book!"
   "Oh, there's no question about that, Audrey. But if we're going to build this thing, we might as well get it right. And we know it can be done right, because the Ferrets don't have any chinks like that."
   "No, they don't," Harkness said. "On the other hand, BuShips has got a shit pot of engineers and computers to model the thing. And they got to put the generator inside the hull, too, so they had a lot more leeway on where to place it. Hate to say it, but I think Bolgeo did a pretty damned good job, all things considered."
   "For God's sake don't let him hear you say that, Chief!" Pyne cautioned. "He and Smith and Paulk got half-snockered last night over at Dempsey's and nearly put their arms out of joint patting themselves on the back as it is."
   Harkness gave a deep, grunting laugh, and the rest of Bad Penny's crew joined in. HMSS Weyland, like Hephaestus and Vulcan, had its own branch of the popular restaurant chain. Since the Admiralty's decision to turn Manticore-B into its own private playground as a place to test its newest toys, Weyland's civilian traffic had all but vanished. Dempsey's had more than made up the loss from the tremendous upsurge in naval personnel staging through the space station, but not without the occasional unfortunate incident which ended in the arrival of the SPs. The arrival of Admiral Truman's LAC wings and their obstreperous personnel had increased the rate of those incidents by a power of two. The LAC crews' decision to turn Dempsey's into their watering hole and club house, which, naturally, required them to physically expel any outsider who dared poke his or her nose into their lair, hadn't helped, but at least it gave them a place where they could talk shop over copious quantities of beer. Tremaine hoped ONI was keeping a close eye on the restaurant's staff, since there was no possible way to keep details the Peeps would have loved to know from popping out in such conversations. The good news was that Nikola Pakovic, the manager, and his people appeared to have adopted the LAC wings, one and all. They fussed over them, made allowances for them, and didn't even pad the (frequent) bills for repairs which Dempsey's presented to them, and more than once Tremaine had heard Nikola or Miguel Williams, the bartender, quietly suggest to someone that they might be straying into matters they ought not to be discussing in public. Still...
   "Were they actually talking about it in public?" he asked, and Pyne chuckled.
   "Oh, no, Skip! As a matter of fact, they'd gotten Lieutenant Gilley and Shelton to sucker some poor ensign from the Sixty-First into playing spades with them. For fifty cents a point, no less." She shook her head. "Fleeced the poor sucker like a sheep, too. But they had this entire side conversation going — wouldn't have meant a thing to anyone who didn't know about their project — the whole time. They never actually said a single word about what they were working on, only about how well they were doing whatever it was. Cryptic as hell, and confused the crap out of their victim, too, but the more beer they got outside of, the more pleased they were with themselves."
   "Over the cards, or the sternwall?" Lieutenant Hayman, Bad Penny's EW officer inquired.
   "Both... I think. It's hard to be sure with those characters. Bolgeo, especially. He's downright insufferable whenever he sets anyone, and he was snarfing so loudly over a busted nil the ensign bid that I thought he was going to drown in his own beer."
   "All right," Tremaine said. "In that case, I agree with you, Audrey. We definitely don't need to be giving Roden's happy crew any more reason to feel full of themselves. In fact, Chief, I want you to write up this grav eddy in detail. We'll give 'em a problem to fix right along with the attaboys to keep their heads from getting too big."
   "Too late for Bolgeo," Harkness sighed, then flashed a grin. "Still, Sir, I 'spect I can phrase it so's to make 'em feel just a little humble if I put my mind to it."
* * *
   "Well, well, well, well..."
   First Space Lord Sir Thomas Caparelli sat at his console in the Pit and frowned pensively. He'd just finished reading the after-action report on Elric from Vice Admiral Malone and Rear Admiral Trikoupis. It had taken two standard weeks to reach him by courier boat, and it was quite similar to reports he also had from Solway and Treadway. The Solway picket, with no Medusas to thicken its missile fire, had inflicted lower losses, but the Ghost Rider systems had passed their first comprehensive test with flying colors in all three actions. Some of the new hardware had been tested in isolation in earlier engagements, but this was the first time entire task groups had been able to put all the defensive applications to the test simultaneously, and Allied losses had been absurdly low. Not a single ship of the wall had been lost, and only three battlecruisers. The Treadway picket had lost five destroyers out of a single squadron, but that had been sheer bad luck. The squadron had been conducting independent maneuvers, and the Peeps' arrival translation had just happened to put the entire attack force right on top of them. The squadron CO had shown great presence of mind and skill in getting any of her ships out, and Caparelli deeply regretted that her own ship hadn't been one of them.
   But painful as the Allies losses might have been, they were much lower than the Peeps'. Of course, they probably didn't realize that. It was fairly evident from the Elric report, for example, that the Peeps' fire control had been completely fooled by the EW drones generating superdreadnought signatures. Given the confusion which was always part of any battle, and especially one so short and intense and in such a heavy EW environment, it was likely the PN believed the disappearance of the drones marked the destruction of actual ships of the wall. A really close, critical look at their scan data might cause them to question that conclusion, but Caparelli rather doubted anyone would look that closely. It was only human to need to believe one had scored at least some success against an opponent, especially when that opponent had killed fourteen percent of one's own ships of the wall. If the Peeps did believe they'd killed four or five SDs, however, then the losses at Elric became almost even by their reckoning, and Elric was where they'd gotten hurt worst.
   So the Peeps were now in possession of three strategically important (but not critically so) star systems, at a cost which certainly wasn't extravagant considering the amount of real estate they'd retaken, and probably believed they'd inflicted roughly equal ship losses on the Alliance. Moreover, it appeared Trikoupis and his fellows had used their Ghost Rider technology and the Medusas' capabilities as intelligently as Caparelli could have asked, and it seemed unlikely the Peeps had any clear notion of what had been done to them. They had to know the Allies' EW capabilities had been far more effective than usual, but they couldn't be certain exactly why that was so. Not yet.
   All of which meant there was going to be a lot of pressure for McQueen to push boldly ahead. For that matter, it was possible she herself would read the outcome of her latest operation as an indication the Allies were on the ropes. He doubted she would let her euphoria overcome her common sense, but she didn't operate in a vacuum, and Pierre had to be desperate for military victories in the wake of what Amos Parnell's testimony before the Solly Assembly was doing to the PRH's diplomatic relations. It was clear from the reports of Pat Givens' sources within the Republic that the Peep pipeline to Solly technology had taken a heavy hit, and it looked like it was getting worse for them quickly.
   The loss of that pipeline, or even a moderately serious constriction in its flow, could only put even more pressure on the PN's strategists and planners. And not just because anyone on the civilian side was getting hysterical, either. If Caparelli were in McQueen's shoes and had a fistful of reports which even hinted at the capabilities of Ghost Rider, the potential loss of his link to the League's military R&D types would be downright terrifying to him. The need to push ahead quickly, while the Allies were still on the defensive and before they could get enough of the new hardware, whatever it was, to their front-line battle squadrons, would become even greater. Even if he was afraid of the losses he would take, he would realize losses would be even higher later if he delayed long enough for his enemies to fully deploy their new systems, and his immediate response would be to charge ahead — hard.
   And the place he'd do it, Caparelli thought, gazing into the tank, would be where he'd already kicked in the Alliance's front door, had the shortest distance to go to reach a really important Allied base and shipyard, and had his best command team in place and ready to go. He'd round up every hull he could free from other duties and send it forward to support his Twelfth Fleet, and then he would drive straight for Grendelsbane. Of all the targets within his reach, that was the one which would hurt the Allies worst, and putting pressure on it would compel the Alliance to redeploy to meet his attack, thereby retaining the initiative in his own hands.
   The First Space Lord cocked his chair back, whistling soundlessly through pursed lips while he contemplated the icons of Elric, Treadway, and Solway. It was dangerous to try to read an enemy's mind. If you guessed right and acted on the guess, you might score a huge success. But if you guessed wrong... Worse, it was hellishly easy to guess wrong, to decide the enemy was going to do something because you needed so very badly for that to be the thing he decided to do. Or to assume he saw something as clearly as you did when he didn't, or when what he actually saw was something you hadn't even noticed way over at the other edge of the strategic picture.
   Yet this time Caparelli was prepared to play a hunch. The Peeps were going to keep pushing in from their new conquests and driving on Grendelsbane. It was what he'd hoped for, and he knew that probably predisposed him to conclude that it was what they would do, but he felt totally confident anyway.
   The only bad thing about it was that it was too soon. The turnaround time for dispatches would be even longer for the Peeps. McQueen wouldn't be finding out about Elric for at least another twelve or thirteen standard days, for instance, and it would take almost another full month for her to get her forces their fresh orders and begin moving any reinforcements into the area. But that didn't help his problems very much.
   He'd wanted another month — two or three, if he could get them — for the new LAC wings to finish working up in Manticore-B space. Alice Truman's reports were encouraging, and Caparelli was beginning to think the new Shrike-Bs and Ferrets might end up surpassing the predictions of even their fiercer partisans, but it was obvious they hadn't yet attained full readiness. Some were closer to combat ready than others, but he wanted desperately to give them at least several more weeks of drills and exercises.
   Unfortunately, he didn't have those weeks. Or, rather, he might not have them... and dared not wait to find out if he did. It would take at least two weeks to get the more combat-ready CLACs ready for their first war deployment, and they'd need at least two or three weeks to integrate themselves into the more conventional forces which would have to operate with them. Which meant that if he meant to take advantage of the Peeps' most recent attacks, he had to give the order almost immediately.
   He swung his chair gently from side to side, staring into the holo tank and listening to the quiet, hushed efficiency of the Pit, and the weight of his responsibility crushed down on him. He could have called in his fellow space lords to discuss the situation. Yet he also knew that, in the end, the decision would be his. Or, rather, his and Baroness Morncreek's. But the First Lord had always been guided by the advice of her First Space Lord, which meant it was his call, whatever the official tables of organization might say.
   And it was better that way. Better that the responsibility for the decision was so clear cut. That there would be no question about who'd made it, or why.
   He gazed down into the tank for another silent, endless clutch of seconds, then nodded sharply and looked up. He waved to a communications lieutenant, and the young woman trotted over to him.
   "Yes, Sir Thomas?"
   "Record a dispatch for Rear Admiral Truman," he told her.
   "Yes, Sir." The lieutenant tapped controls on the recording unit she wore and shifted position very slightly, making certain that the lens and microphone were both trained properly on Caparelli. "Recording, Sir," she said crisply.
   "Admiral Truman," the First Space Lord told the recording unit, "this message is to be regarded as a first-stage alert for Operation Buttercup. Please place your squadron and ship COs on standby and prepare for immediate redeployment. I would appreciate latest readiness reports soonest, and you are instructed to compile a list of all needs for LogCom within six hours of receipt of this message." He paused, then smiled. "On my authority as First Space Lord, you will also consider this message notification of your brevet promotion to vice admiral. No one else is as well equipped to command your component of the operation, and I have no desire to break up your chain of command at this late date. I will advise Admiral White Haven, and the official paperwork from BuPers will follow as rapidly as possible."
   He paused, and his smile faded.
   "I realize this is sooner than any of us expected to put Buttercup on-line. If my evaluation of the Peeps' probable course of immediate future action is accurate, however, we're looking at a window of opportunity which is unlikely to present itself again any time soon. I anticipate approval of the operation from Baroness Morncreek within the next twenty to thirty hours. Assuming approval is forthcoming, you and your personnel will be expected to shoulder a heavy responsibility with less training and preparation time than anyone at the Admiralty had hoped to give you. I regret that, but I know I can depend on you and your people to come through for us anyway.
   "If Buttercup is approved, I will inform you immediately. Good luck, Admiral."
   He stopped speaking to the pickups and nodded to the lieutenant.
   "Get that out immediately, Lieutenant. And have me informed as soon as receipt is acknowledged."
   "Aye, aye, Sir!" The lieutenant came briefly to attention, then turned and headed for the com section with her message.
   Caparelli watched her go, then leaned back and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. There ought to be ominous music in the background, he thought. The sort HD producers used to tell the viewer monumental doings were afoot. But there was only the quiet hum of the Pit and the measured thump of his own pulse in his ears.
   How strange.How quiet when I've just committed so many thousands of men and women to battle... and condemned all too many of them to death.
   He lowered his hands and smiled crookedly into the tank one more time, then pushed himself up and stretched. Despite the message he'd just recorded, he still had com calls to place and people to see, starting with Pat Givens, proceeding through the other space lords, and ending up with Baroness Morncreek and (probably) the Prime Minister. Given that he proposed not to reinforce Grendelsbane's approaches to the maximum, he might even find himself required to explain the risks he was deliberately courting to the Queen in person. It was all dreadfully official and efficient seeming... and none of it meant a damned thing.
   The decision had already been made. All the rest was only window dressing, and Sir Thomas Caparelli turned and walked slowly from the Pit, spine straight as a sword, while the weight of the entire Alliance's war effort pressed down upon his broad and unbowed shoulders.


   Crawford Buckeridge appeared as if by magic, sailing through the study door with stately dignity, and paused with an expression of polite enquiry for his Steadholder.
   "Yes, My Lord?"
   "Mr. Baird and Mr. Kennedy are leaving now, Buckeridge. Please see them out."
   "Of course, My Lord." The steward turned to Baird and Kennedy and bowed majestically. "Gentlemen," he invited.
   "I'll look forward to our next meeting, gentlemen," Mueller said, reaching out to shake hands with both men in turn. "And I should have the details for the demonstration in Sutherland settled by then."
   "That sounds good, My Lord." Baird, as always the spokesman for the duo, gripped Mueller's hand firmly.
   Neither he nor Kennedy mentioned the well-stuffed briefcase they'd left under Mueller's desk or the thick envelope of reports from Mueller's own sources which they'd received in return. To date, Mueller had been unable to confirm Baird's suspicions about any annexation proposals, but all involved had decided to treat their existence as a given until and unless it could be disproved. The result had been an even heavier flow of money from Baird's organization, coupled with carefully orchestrated demonstrations and protests against Benjamin's reforms in several good-sized cities. Mueller had been a bit disappointed in the degree of support Baird's people had been able to give in organizing those protests. In his opinion, a properly run mass-based party ought to be more capable of turning out manpower for a grassroots protest. On the other hand, all the protests were on the northern continent of New Covenant, where they could enjoy physical proximity to Austin City and Protector's Palace, and Baird had explained that his own organization was strongest in the south and the west.
   "Good evening, then," Mueller said, and the two organizers followed Buckeridge out. The steward, Mueller knew, would see to it that the two of them got off Mueller House's grounds discreetly, and he stood a moment in thought, running back through the points covered in their discussion. It was odd, he thought. Only a few months ago, he hadn't even known Baird and Kennedy or their organization existed. Now he had them woven firmly into his net and dancing to his piping along with everyone else under the Opposition's umbrella. And they paid him so well for producing the music.
   He chuckled at the thought, then turned to the armsman who'd stood post silently just inside the study door throughout the meeting.
   "Thank you, Steve. I think that will be all, and I'll need you fresh in the morning, so go get a good night's sleep."
   "Thank you, My Lord. I will." Sergeant Hughes bowed to his Steadholder and left the study. His heels clicked on the stone floor as he headed down the hall towards the east exit and the walkway to the armsmen's barracks, and no one could have guessed from his erect, military bearing or stern eyes the thoughts which were passing through his brain. Then again, no one in Mueller Steading would have believed those thoughts for a moment if they had known what they were. Not from Sergeant Hughes, with his well-known religious conservatism and intolerance for all of Protector Benjamin's "reforms."
   There were times when Hughes felt more than a little uncomfortable with his assignment. He'd volunteered for the duty, and he believed in it. More, he knew someone had to do it, and he was proud to answer his Protector's call. But the oaths a personal armsman swore were stark and unyielding, and whatever his duty or the need to play a part, Hughes had sworn those oaths before Samuel Mueller, his fellow Mueller Armsmen, and Brother Tobin, the Mueller Steading chaplain. All too often late at night, like tonight, the thought of violating them weighed heavily on his soul.
   It shouldn't. Mueller was in gross violation of his own oaths to the Protector, and the law of both the Sword and Father Church was clear on what that meant. No one could be held to an oath sworn to an oathbreaker. By the law of God and the law of Man alike, Steve Hughes owed Samuel Mueller no true allegiance. More than that, Hughes had been taken by Brother Clements, the Mayhew Steading Chaplain, to Deacon Anders' office in Mayhew Cathedral, before he ever reported to this assignment. There, with the approval of Reverend Sullivan, under the seal of the Sacristy and the provisions of a Sword finding of possible treason on the part of a steadholder, Anders had granted him a special dispensation, absolving him from the terms of his oath to Mueller.
   All of that was true, but Hughes was a man who took his sworn word seriously. If he hadn't been, he would never have been selected for this assignment. Yet those very qualities made him acutely... uncomfortable with lying in such solemn and sanctified manner to one of the great feudal lords of his home world.
   But not uncomfortable enough to reconsider having volunteered. It had taken him years to get this close to Mueller, to be so trusted, and that effort and dedication were finally beginning to pay off. His contacts with his Planetary Security superiors had to be circumspect, but he knew Colonel Thomason and General Yanakov were more than satisfied with the intelligence he'd developed and the evidence he'd secured for them. The recordings Hughes had made of Mueller's meetings with Baird and Kennedy, coupled with the duplicates he'd made of the various blind fund transfers Mueller had ordered him to set up, were utterly damning. Campaign finance law violations were scarcely high treason, and certainly didn't rise to the level of the crimes Planetary Security was convinced Mueller had already committed, but they were a beginning. Moreover, Mueller had personally planned them, personally received the illegal funds, and personally ordered Hughes to disburse them. There were no intermediaries to take the fall for him or for him to hide behind when his appointment with the Sword's justice came around. And as more and more money flowed through the web of illegal transfers, more and more of Mueller's cronies implicated themselves by accepting his illegal largesse. When the trap finally sprang, it would net an appalling number of highly placed individuals, and it was possible that someone among them would know enough about Mueller's other acts, and be desperate enough to turn Sword's Evidence and talk about them, to bring the rogue steadholder down once and for all.
   And if no one is, we may get him anyway, Hughes reflected. I don't like this Baird fellow a bit. Kennedy — pfffft! A lightweight who's just along for the ride and to provide Baird with a sidekick, but Baird now... Baird knows what the hell he's doing, and I don't like how much money he's throwing around. Where the hell is he getting it all? There's no way — no way at all!—anyone should be able to move funds around on that level without Security catching even a whiff of it. But it's as if the money just materializes in his hand the instant before he hands over the newest bag of it. Like it doesn't leave any traceable trail because it doesn't even exist until that moment. Which is stupid, but damned if I can come up with another explanation for it.
   He chuckled mirthlessly and paused under one of the old-fashioned globe lights illuminating Mueller House's landscaped grounds to consult his chrono. He'd told Mueller he would get a good night's sleep, and that was precisely what he intended to do, but first he had a little errand to run. His piety was not at all feigned, although no one who'd known him before this assignment would have recognized the narrow, straitlaced, intolerant version of it he'd assumed here in Mueller Steading. Coupled with the persona he'd chosen to project, that gave him the one excuse he could rely on to make contact with his superiors when he had to, and he headed for Mueller House's main public entrance.
   If he cut through the back courts and alleyways, Mueller Cathedral was barely five blocks from the Steadholder's mansion, and Hughes made a point of visiting the church at least twice a week. Brother Tobin was not party to his assignment and, as far as Hughes could tell, was a hundred percent loyal to his Steadholder, but he was also a good man and a true priest of Father Church. Hughes didn't believe for a moment that Tobin knew what Mueller was up to... and the captain was positive Tobin had no idea Mueller had been implicated in Reverend Hanks' murder. If the chaplain had suspected that for even an instant, he would have resigned his post and left Mueller Steading so quickly the sonic boom would have demolished half the buildings along his exit route. Tobin certainly was a conservative, but he was too good a man to let it go completely to his head, and he'd often gently remonstrated with Hughes over his own assumed intolerance. He was also an excellent chess player, and he and Hughes looked forward to their twice-weekly games and the slow, wandering theological discussions which went with them.
   And it just happened that Hughes' message drop for his reports to his superiors was a bookstore on the direct route to Mueller Cathedral.
   The sentry at the main entrance recognized him and waved casually, without the snap he would have displayed had anyone else been present or the hour earlier.
   "Out late, Steve," he observed as Hughes paused beside the guard box. "Brother Tobin know you're coming?"
   "I told him I'd be late this evening," Hughes replied with a small smile. "He told me to come on whenever I got free — said he'd be up until all hours, anyway, working on Sunday's sermon, so I might as well come by and keep him company. Personally, I think the real reason he's so cheerful about the hour is that he thinks he's got checkmate in three more moves. Unfortunately, he's wrong."
   "You and your chess games." The sentry shook his head. "Too intellectual for me, boy. Anything more complicated than a deck of cards makes my head ache."
   "You mean," Hughes corrected with a broader smile, "that anything that doesn't give you the opportunity to fleece your hapless fellow children of God mercilessly doesn't pay enough for you to learn the rules."
   The sentry's laugh held just a hint of discomfort, for none of Hughes' fellows were certain how much of his condemnation of cards and gambling in general was meant in humor and how much of it carried the bite of true conviction. Father Church had no problem with games of chance, as long as he who gambled chose to do so, the games were honest, and a man's losses weren't such as to deprive his family of the means for a decent life. Not all of Father Church's children shared that tolerance, however, and Hughes' assumed conservatism made the sentry suspect he was one of those who did not. But Hughes only shook his head and clapped him on the shoulder.
   "Don't worry, Al. I won't tell Brother Tobin he needs to aim that sermon he's writing at your gambler's ways. I'm sure he's got more important sinners to bring to task. Besides, I happen to know you tithe even more than Father Church expects."
   "Well, I do try," Al agreed. "And I do like a good game of poker — for cash," he admitted.
   "No reason you shouldn't, as long as you don't get carried away," Hughes assured him. "And now I really should be on my way. Brother Tobin may've said `any time,' but I doubt he'll really be pleased to see me if I get there after midnight!"
   "Somehow I kind of doubt he would be," Al agreed, and waved him through the gate.
   Hughes stepped out onto the ancient, stone-slab sidewalks of the City of Mueller. Moonlight slanted down across narrow, twisting streets almost a thousand years old and beamed into wider thoroughfares which had been driven through the Old City in more recent times. Modern lighting had been added, but Mueller was a Grayson city, not a Manticoran one. It was a warren of low buildings, few more than eight or nine stories tall and none more than thirty, spread out in a sprawling, anachronistic confusion of streets and alleys and roadways. The Old City, in particular, had never been planned for modern lighting, and its constricted, twisty streets and lanes produced unexpected puddles of darkness at odd intervals.
   But it was also an orderly place, like most Grayson cities. Street crime wasn't unknown on Grayson, but it was vanishingly rare compared to most urbanized planets. Besides, Hughes was armed and wore his Mueller Guard uniform, and he walked confidently along the sidewalk, cutting through the maze of alleys towards the cathedral — and the back door of the bookstore — and whistling tunelessly.
* * *
   "That's him," the man who called himself Baird whispered to the two men who flanked him in the alley. The taller of the two turned his head, watching with cold and calculating eyes as the lanky sergeant ambled past the alley mouth, whistling.
   "No problem," he said, but Baird shook his head and caught the other's arm.
   "It has to be done cleanly," he said flatly. "And don't forget what you're really after."
   "No problem," the other repeated, and raised one arm in a beckoning gesture. Three more men blended out of the darkness, and a jerk of his head sent them moving soundlessly after the whistling sergeant. "We'll get it for you," he assured Baird.
   "Good, Brother. Good," Baird replied, and released the other man's arm. "This world is God's," he said formally, and the cold-eyed man bent his head briefly.
   "This world is God's," he confirmed, and then he and his final companion were out of the alley and hurrying after the others. Baird watched them go, then turned and walked away almost as silently as they had.
* * *
   Hughes didn't know what had alerted him. Whatever it was came and went too quickly for him to sort it out, and there was no time to try anyway. Perhaps it was simply instinct, or perhaps his trained subconscious had picked up on something his forebrain never noticed, but he was already turning when the first knife came out of the night.
   He grunted in agony as the keen-edged steel drove into his back, above and to the outside of his right kidney. The blade grated on rib, and then his own movement wrenched it out of his flesh. He staggered to one side, feeling the scalding rush of blood, and the man who'd knifed him snarled and closed for another thrust.
   But Captain Steve Hughes had been chosen for this assignment for many reasons, and one of them was that he was very, very tough and very well trained. His right hand had gone to his pulser even as he turned, and despite the agony of his wound, the weapon came out of the holster with smooth, deadly speed. The knife man's eyes widened in sudden panic as his forward rush rammed the pulser's muzzle into his own belly, and then Hughes squeezed the trigger.
   The burst of hypersonic darts almost ripped his assailant in two. The pulser's shrill whine rebounded from the stone buildings lining the narrow roadway, but it wasn't fueled by chemical explosives the way older-style side arms had been. There was no thunder of gunfire, and the man Hughes had shot went down without a sound, a corpse before he had time even to think about screaming.
   Hughes staggered back, nauseated and suddenly weak-kneed as the shock of the wound hit him through the adrenaline rush. His hand shook, and he gritted his teeth against the white-hot pain lashing through him. He couldn't reach the wound without dropping his pulser, but he leaned heavily against the facade of a building, forcing himself to remain on his feet while he tried to press the elbow of his right arm against the dreadful, bleeding gash.
   The combination of shock and pain was like a club, trying to beat him to his knees, and he shook his head doggedly. It had all happened so quickly there'd been no time to think about it, try to reason out what was happening, but instinct told him his assailant hadn't been alone.
   Nor had he. Another man came out of the darkness of the alley. Dim light, spilling from a window high overhead, gleamed faintly on a steel blade, and he charged Hughes with an ugly curse, trying to close before the dazed armsman could react.
   He almost made it, but another blast of pulser darts took him in the chest, and he sprawled backwards with a dull, meaty thud.
   Hughes gagged as the smell of blood, ruptured organs, and voiding sphincters washed over him, and his brain told him he needed help. That the wound he'd taken was even more serious than he'd thought. That he might very well die without immediate medical attention. Even with the support of the alley wall, it was harder and harder to stay on his feet, and he raised a suddenly clumsy left hand to key his com.
   And that was when the third man came out of the alley.
   Another knife flashed, and Hughes grunted as the blade struck. He managed to throw his left arm up to intercept the blow, and steel grated on the bone of his forearm. Fresh pain exploded through him, and he felt himself going down, but his wounded arm shot out and grabbed his attacker by the front of his jacket. His muscles felt weak and flaccid to him, but the other man cried out in sudden panic as he was jerked half off his feet and yanked towards the man he'd come to murder. His knife arm flailed for balance, and then he went down with a choked, gurgling scream as half a dozen pulser darts ripped through his chest and lungs.
   He and Hughes both went to their knees, facing one another on the blood-soaked sidewalk, and Hughes saw the dreadful understanding in the other man's eyes. Then there was nothing in those eyes at all, and the other man slumped to the side.
   Hughes knelt alone on the sidewalk, his brain working sluggishly. Three of them. There'd been three of them, and he'd gotten them all, but—
   The sudden, whiplash crack of an old-fashioned automatic pistol exploded down the alley, and the blinding brilliance of the muzzle flash flared like trapped lighting. Steve Hughes never heard or saw it, for the heavy handgun's bullet struck him squarely in the forehead, killing him instantly.
   People who hadn't heard the whine of Hughes' pulser heard the distinctive crack of the gun that killed him, and voices shouted in alarm. Windows were thrown open, and people craned their necks to peer out into the night. It was too dark, and there was too much confusion, for anyone to realize — yet — what had happened. But that was going to change, and the cold-eyed man who'd listened to Baird's orders swore venomously as he rushed to the dead armsman's side.
   Who the hell had this guy been? Taken by surprise by three trained killers, he'd still managed to kill all of them before he went down himself! The cold-eyed man had worked with Baird for over two T-years. Before that, he'd been a high-ranking officer in the Office of Inquisition on Masada, and this was far from the first sinner's death he'd overseen. But he was shocked by how quickly and completely a quiet, efficient assassination had gone wrong, and anger blazed like fiery ice in his eyes.
   He knelt in the hot, sticky pool of four men's blood, and his left hand ripped the top button from Hughes' tunic even while he held the pistol ready in his right. He shoved the button into his pocket, then took a moment to check the pulses of his three fellows.
   "We've got to get out of here!" his sole surviving henchman hissed from the shadows, and the cold-eyed man nodded curtly and shoved himself to his feet.
   "Cleanly," he snarled, his cold eyes blazing for just an instant with raw fury, and he kicked the dead armsman savagely. "Stinking bastard!" he hissed, his voice softer but even more malevolent.
   "Come on!" the other man demanded. "I can already hear sirens! We've gotta go now!"
   "Then shut up and go, damn it!" the cold-eyed man barked, and jerked a furious nod down a side alley to where their getaway car waited. The other man didn't hesitate. He was off with the gesture, racing down the alley and already fumbling the keys from his pocket.
   "Bastard!" the cold-eyed man hissed once more, then drew a deep breath and gazed down for one more moment at the bodies of his companions.
   "This world is God's," he told them, a man swearing a solemn oath, and then he, too, disappeared down the alley.


   "Welcome to Trevor's Star... finally, Dame Alice." Hamish Alexander's word choice might have been more felicitous, but he smiled broadly as he reached out to shake the golden-haired officer's hand firmly. They stood in the boat bay of GNS Benjamin the Great, and Alice Truman, in rear admiral's uniform but wearing a vice admiral's collar stars, grinned back at him as she returned his handclasp with interest.
   "It's good to be here, My Lord."
   "I'm glad you think so, because we've been waiting for you with what might be called bated breath," Earl White Haven told her. She raised an eyebrow, and he laughed. "Your arrival means we're about finished playing paper tiger for Barnett's benefit, and we've all been looking forward to that. Impatient as the public may be back home, I doubt they can even begin to match our impatience. For that matter, most folks back home probably don't even realize we were initially supposed to go after Barnett almost three full T-years ago!"
   "Probably not," Truman agreed. "As a matter of fact, My Lord, it's hard for a lot of us in the Service to really realize how long you've been sitting out here. Maybe—" she smiled again, this time mirthlessly "—because McQueen's managed to make life so... interesting that we haven't really had much leisure to think about it."
   "Well, leisure is one thing Eighth Fleet's had altogether too much of," White Haven said firmly, "and I'm looking forward to making things interesting for McQueen for a change."
   He turned and gestured for Truman to accompany him, and the two of them followed Lieutenant Robards towards Benjamin's central lifts.
   "I think we can confidently assume we'll manage at least that much, My Lord," she said. "I know my boys and girls are ready to hold up their end of it. I just hope ONI and the First Space Lord have figured McQueen's probable responses accurately."