HER Imperial Grace, the Grand Duchess Lieutenant Victoria Maria Teresa Inez Smythe-Peterwald watched the romantic vision on the screen. Slowly, Kris Longknife broke from her embrace and first kiss with her chief of security, Captain Jack Montoya.
It sure took you two long enough.
The flashing red icon at the bottom of the screen told Vicky that she was the only one watching the touching scene. Captain Drago had pulled the quarterdeck video from the public net.
Who would have taken the hard-nosed skipper for such a softy, letting the star-crossed lovers have their privacy?
Vicky saw no reason for anyone to have any privacy. Not if it cost her her life. She’d paid a pretty penny, with a few extra benefits on the side, to make sure anything that happened on the Wasp was no secret to her.
It was very unlikely that the small personal tragedy playing out pier side would impact Vicky’s safety. Still, she watched. How would the ineffable Kris Longknife handle this situation? Though Vicky doubted she’d ever have to leave her one true love, still, it would be well to study how a Longknife did it.
Who knew what might come in handy someday?
Kris certainly had the “sincere” down solid. Vicky would have bet money that she and that big loving lunkhead of a man were seriously thinking of taking the chance, trying their luck at outrunning or outfighting the dozen battle-armored Marines the local admiral had brought to make sure her orders were obeyed.
With slow agony, the great Kris Longknife took another step and broke finger contact with her frozen-in-place love. Vicky could almost hear the strings in the background that always went with such movie scenes of heartbreak and denial.
Vicky felt like puking.
She didn’t. Her staff was watching her watching Kris, and Vicky would measure her reaction to their expectations of their lord and master.
Finally, Kris turned from Jack and hurried into the waiting courier ship.
“I’m glad that’s over,” Vicky said dryly to her own audience . . . and switched gears, back to survival mode. “Lieutenant Heinbock, drop down to the wardroom and see if you can overhear anything about what they intend to do with this wreck of a ship. Chief Materhand, you know where the CPO still is. Go have a drink. Hang around and see if they have any better scuttlebutt.”
Her two subordinates might be serving members of the Greenfeld fleet, but here, on the strange ship that Kris Longknife had put together with more spirit than intent, they had become accepted as just one of the boys. Vicky still wasn’t sure how to take that. After all, the Peterwalds and the Longknifes did hate each other’s guts.
The two men hurried off to obey her. Vicky turned to Kit and Kat, two of the most deadly women she had ever met. Each was 120 pounds of death in either hands, feet, or, no doubt, other portions of their lovely bodies.
They were also her body servants. “I would kill right now for a clean set of underwear.”
Since freshwater was flowing from the station into the wreck of the Wasp, laundry was finally possible. The two set to work on that immediately.
That took care of four of Vicky’s five remaining friends in this world, if you could call those bound to obey her every whim friends. Her one true friend, Dr. Margarita Rodriguez, had been making herself scarce for the last couple of weeks. The good doctor hadn’t much cared for the attack that killed, what, billions of aliens. She had been in a huff after Vicky went on a bender and very likely said some really nasty things.
Vicky, of course, had no recollection of anything she said that night. All she remembered was something about showing up on Kris Longknife’s doorstep and maybe something about Doc Maggie, and then waking up violently ill the next day.
I must be more careful with alcohol.
That left Vicky assigning herself a task.
Kris Longknife had been right about one thing: Vicky dare not go ashore. Until she got an update on conditions at her father’s Imperial Palace, there was no way to guess if, no, not if but rather how many assassins would be waiting for her the moment she set foot off the Wasp.
Vicky had come a long way on the Wasp and, at least of late, no one among the crew had tried to kill her. Strange as it sounded, this Peterwald had come to feel safe on this Longknife’s ship.
Vicky shook her head at that unheard-of thought. Her family and the Longknifes had been at each other’s throats since before the Iteeche Wars. For over a hundred years, if she was to believe the angry words her dad threw around at the mere mention of the Longknifes. Her father liked to brag that the Peterwalds had had wealth and power since the times when the Pope still had an army. But for three generations it had been the Longknifes. Always the Longknifes. Every turn, every twist that had kept the Peterwalds from their just place at the forefront of human affairs had a Longknife at the bottom of it.
Vicky had grown up believing every word her dad spoke. Lately, watching one Kris Longknife at work, Vicky was having trouble matching those words to Kris’s actions. Had her dad and granddad been mistaken, or was Kris just a different kind of Longknife?
And did Vicky want to become a different kind of Peterwald?
Vicky mulled that question as she headed for the Forward Lounge. There, if anywhere on the crippled Wasp, she might find out both the fate of the ship . . . and her own.
As Vicky expected, Mother MacCreedy was back in business, if not fully restocked. Vicky ordered a beer at the bar and turned to survey the place for potential sources of information. It took her only a second to spot her best bet.
Kris and her team usually took the table most forward, the one just below the huge screen. The screen was dead at the moment, like so much in the ship, but Jack Montoya of the recent kiss and Penny Lien Pasley were huddled together over beers at the usual table.
Vicky headed for them.
As so often happened when Vicky approached a conversation, it died. It wasn’t just that way on a Longknife ship. It had been that way everywhere and for as long as she could remember. She’d put it down to being born to power, but she couldn’t help but notice how rarely talk came to a roaring halt when Kris joined a conversation.
More to think about . . . when she found the time.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Vicky asked.
“No,” Jack said. “Pull up a chair.”
Vicky chose to sit across from Jack. Penny had been resting her hand on Jack’s but had quickly withdrawn it when Vicky approached. Vicky didn’t want to appear a threat to them. Still, she had to wonder just how consoling Penny might be, and how much “support” Jack was willing to accept.
Vicky quickly went down the short list of what she was supposed to know and decided a good opener was, “Jack, you look terrible. Is something wrong?”
“Kris has been rushed onto a fast courier for Wardhaven,” Penny supplied.
“Without any security support,” Jack growled into his hardly touched beer. “Not me. Not anyone.”
Vicky decided that a few supportive words might be in order. “If Wardhaven fast couriers are anything like the ones we have in Greenfeld, they’re about the safest way to travel in space. The crews are small, and they’ve been scrubbed for any security flaw. If Kris got on one, I’d bet anything she gets off of it.”
“Yes, but where?” Jack snapped.
“Her great-grandfather, the king, wants to see her,” Penny provided.
“That sounds reasonable to me,” Vicky admitted. “We did kind of start a war out there.” Vicky found herself glancing over her shoulder as if she might, even now, see some angry alien raider chasing after them. They had been chased nearly halfway across the galaxy.
“I know, I know,” Jack said. “She’s safe on the courier. She’s safe around the king. But what next? Where will they send her? Wherever they do, she’s going to need security. Me. My Marines. A secure inner and outer perimeter. Otherwise, her odds of staying alive aren’t any better than yours.” Jack finished by running a worried hand through his hair. He was long past due for a haircut. It had grown out wavy and kind of cute on the guy.
Vicky kept her hands to herself. No running them through that mane.
Off-limits, girl. No one else may have seen that kiss, but you did.
“Wasn’t it the king himself that got Kris her security team?” Vicky said. “Abby, you, Marines, then more Marines. Don’t you think he’ll be careful with his great-granddaughter?”
Jack glanced at the blank screen, then closed his eyes, as if to avoid seeing something only he could see. “Yes. Yes. Yes. I know. The king will do his best, but will it be enough? I know Kris. I’ve kept her safe for five years. I know the damn fool stuff she does. Sometimes I know what she’s going to do beforeshe knows she’s going to do it. I can keep her safe. You willing to bet anyone else can?”
Vicky would bet that the real center of this conversation was that secret kiss, but Penny was shaking her head no, so Vicky shook her head no. That seemed to satisfy Jack. He put his head in his hands, rested his elbows on the table, and went silent.
Penny rested a supportive hand on Jack’s arm. Vicky was about ready to give up on finding an opportunity to raise her own concerns when Penny turned to eye her.
“How are you doing?” the intelligence officer asked.
“I’m still breathing,” Vicky admitted. “Not all that sure that I will continue that bad habit if I go ashore. How safe is High Chance?”
Penny almost chuckled. “Last time we were here, it was the dead end of nowhere, but I hear things have changed. Now it’s part of the Helvetican Confederation and becoming something of a trading center. This station is still U.S. territory, though. Don’t ask me to explain how we ended up owning the station above a sovereign planet. It’s a long, twisted, and kind of funny story.”
“Kris said I wouldn’t last an hour if she put me ashore.”
“I think she might have gotten carried away,” Penny said of her friend. “You have to weigh the odds. Your enemies only have so much money to hire assassins. They can’t know where you’ll be coming back to, or, let’s face it, even if we were coming back. I think you’ll be safe for now.”
“That your professional opinion? What you’d give Kris?”
That got Vicky a wry grin. “Kris could make enemies on the spot in no time at all. You don’t strike me as that kind of gal. Are you?”
“I try not to inspire murder by my walk.”
“On the contrary,” Penny said, now smiling. “Your walk inspires a lot of things in men’s minds, but murder is hardly one of them.”
Vicky shrugged. “I am what I was raised to be, somebody’s wife.”
“But now you stand to inherit an empire, Grand Duchess.”
“Weary rests the head that wears the crown,” Vicky said.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that one before. So, I don’t see any of your four security types following you. You feel safe on the Wasp?”
“Hard as it is for me to believe it, yes.”
“So you’re wondering how long you can stay in this safe cocoon, aren’t you?”
“Am I that transparent?”
“I’m an intelligence officer. I’m paid to connect the dots. Your dots are rather obvious. And I’ve been wondering, too. The chief engineer told Captain Drago this morning that he was down checking the reactors for space. He wanted to go cold steel just as fast as he could. Ship’s Lieutenant says that the only thing keeping space out of half of the Wasp’s spaces is emergency goo, and we’re not supposed to trust our lives to goo. At least not on a regular basis.”
Penny took a moment to reflect on the information she’d just passed along. “My best guess is they’ll scrap the Wasp here at the pier, or haul her out and set her on a course to crash into the sun.”
“It’s a coin flip, huh?”
“Mimzy, what’s your call?” Penny asked her computer.
“Chance is growing economically at nine to ten percent a year,” the computer answered. “The price for scrap metal is twelve percent above the average. There’s a ship wrecker on Bern just three jumps away that’s likely to bid on any contract to take the Wasp apart and drop it dirtside. While the reactors may not be safe for space, Chance is hungry for power and will jump at the chance to get two more reactors, cheap. If you gave me fifty-fifty odds she’d be scrapped, I’d take the bet.”
“No bet, Mimzy. I’d never bet against one of Nelly’s kids,” Vicky said.
“It would be dumb to,” Mimzy agreed.
“Are they all like that?” Vicky asked Penny, with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re that great,” the Navy officer said with a grin.
“We are humble. We know our limitations,” Mimzy shot back. “But calculating the odds on a simple economic transaction is something we could do all day and never get wrong.”
“You have limits?” Vicky said, surprised to hear one of Nelly’s kids admit to any such thing.
The computer got real quiet.
Vicky turned back to Penny. “So you don’t think I need to worry about anyone trying to kill me just now. But about the time I need to start worrying about somebody getting here with a contract on my fair head, I’m likely to be shut out of house and home and dumped on the beach.”
Penny winced at the obvious conclusion to her assessment. “I guess I did say that, didn’t I?” the intelligence officer admitted. “You want to run for it now rather than wait for them to come here?”
“Run for where, and with what? Your Kris kind of got my fleet whipped out.” Vicky had shown up to join Kris’s Fleet of Discovery with four of the biggest battleships in human space. She was coming back from the other side of the galaxy with little more than the clothes on her back. She would have some explaining to do when she got home. No doubt about that.
Penny’s face got circumspect as she nodded agreement. “We lost a lot of good people.”
“I lost just about everybody I knew. Everyone I could count on or trust,” Vicky said, and had to make herself not reach for the beer. She’d gone there, and it hadn’t worked all that well. She needed to keep all her wits about her, or she would die dead drunk.
Jack looked up from his funk. “I’ve got to get to Kris. I’ll go talk to Admiral Santiago. There has to be a ship leaving for Wardhaven soon. Maybe she could order that cruiser guarding the jump to the alien worlds off station for a quick run.”
Penny was shaking her head even as she said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Jack. The scuttlebutt is that they want to keep the crew together for a debriefing. Or maybe to keep the newsies away from us. We’re on lockdown, Jack. I’m not even sure the Marines at the brow would let you go see the admiral.”
“I’ve got to try, Penny. I’ve got to try.”
Jack was up and fast-walking for the exit. Penny trailed him by only a few paces. She glanced over her shoulder at Vicky. “Sorry, I got to run. Men!”
Vicky raised a hand for a sardonic wave. It must be nice to have a friend at your side, trying to keep you from making the worse mistake of your life. Though, from the looks of it, Penny’s chances of getting through to the big lug were pretty slim.
Did he tell her what happened on the pier? Does the poor woman know what she’s up against?
Vicky shrugged. That was their problem. She had her own.
And no one to talk it over with.
She studied the bubbles rising in her beer. What was her problem?
The list went long.
She was the Grand Duchess, the recognized heir to the newly created throne of the Peterwald Empire. Vicky winced. That should have been an asset, not a problem. But Dad had this new wife, Annah Bowlingame. The Empress was what, six months older than Vicky?
Kind of hard to call her Mommy.
But then the two had hardly shared more than a few minutes together. Just long enough for Vicky to swear fealty to the newly created Emperor and Empress and then ship out for the other side of the galaxy.
That should have been a safe distance.
Funny how it wasn’t.
Empress Annah had taken no time at all before announcing that she was knocked up and it was a boy and she was going to bear it in her own body. Dad had gone all goo-goo over it all.
Vicky sighed. Dad liked boys. He’d doted over Henry Smythe-Peterwald XIII. Vicky had witnessed all that doting from the shadows. And God help her if she did anything to cause big brother any pain.
Boys were everything in the Peterwald world. Girls were good for marrying off and having babies. Oh, and for seduction. Vicky had seen enough of that around court.
So, Dad had a baby boy on the way and the Empress had a family of brothers and uncles and other vultures who were spreading out, taking every advantage of their place at court and grabbing for all the money and power in reach.
Oh, and likely hiring a couple of assassins and getting them into the Fleet of Discovery. Three tries at Vicky and three failures before the aliens wiped out four battleships and put an end to further attempts.
Should Vicky just go home and set up her own security team to help her stay alive in that jungle? Could she?
But that presented the problem of getting home. She’d come on four huge battleships with some of the best people she’d ever met in her life. Kris Longknife had lost them in a fight that may or may not have saved a planet from being wiped out.
Which was bound to cause Vicky problems. Problems with the Navy and problems with Dad.
Somehow, she had to cover her rear end for the loss of the fleet, then figure out how to get home without becoming excessively dead on the way.
Vicky left her hardly touched beer on the table and walked slowly, lost in thought, from the Forward Lounge. She needed to get out to the people her own version of how it came to pass that four powerful Peterwald battleships went exploring, and none were coming home.
And she’d better get it out soon. If Penny’s assessment could be trusted, and Kris had almost always trusted her intelligence officer, Vicky was safe to walk the station today. Maybe tomorrow.
After that, not so much.
Vicky needed to talk to someone in the media, and real soon. That shouldn’t be too hard. The Wasp’s communications section had been bombarded with calls. Her computer had a list of them, stripped out from the ship’s computer. Vicky would have no problem getting a call out to the right one. They’d be delighted to have someone to talk to.
Still, she’d have to hold their attention for the full amount of time.
Vicky went down the wardrobe she’d managed to save from the Fury. Sure enough, she had one or two outfits that would be most camera worthy.
IT was so easy. Just one quick call, and the media vultures were panting. Vicky agreed to meet early the next morning on the station; no news team would ever have gotten aboard the Wasp.
Getting off the Wasp, even at that early hour, proved to be more of a challenge than Vicky had expected, but no Marine sergeant was going to stop a Grand Duchess. Certainly no United Society Marine could stop a future Peterwald Empress.
Vicky had covered the dress, what there was of it, with a hooded cloak. No surprise, the sergeant of the guard got physical when she refused to let him stop her. He grabbed for her. The cloak came open, and he ended up with a handful of her right boob when that bit of ribbon that was the halter top slipped easily aside. That left one red-faced Marine sputtering apologies as Vicky stormed away.
Vicky grinned to herself. She’d planned to use that trick in the interview. Now, when it happened, if anyone asked, she’d have a ham-handed Marine to blame for it.
This just gets better and better.
Her newsie was waiting for Vicky at the end of the pier. By now, her hood was again fully covering her face. She let the reporter guide her anonymously through the mob of other newsies hanging around the station.
Actually, Vicky had put the cape over her dress to avoid drawing a mob of every functioning male in the place. The dress was called a halter top, but there was no halt in it. Not at all. The top shouted come and the short skirt was one big invitation.
Vicky figured her outfit would give her an extra five minutes on camera.
They quickly covered the distance to what the station laughingly called a hotel. The room was small, but a camera team was already set up with a star-covered backdrop behind Vicky’s chair.
Good, these folks know their business. That should make doing my business a whole lot easier.
Vicky settled herself in the offered chair. She had to pull the hem of her dress down. It still didn’t get close to midthigh. As the Marine had already discovered, the top wasn’t much. There was no back. The front consisted of two strips of cloth that struggled to cover her ample breasts as much as they revealed them. When Vicky pulled the dress from one of the foot lockers shipped over from the Fury when she asked Doc Maggie and Kit and Kat to join her, there had been strips of double-sided tape to hold it in place as she moved.
She’d left the tape in her quarters, as the Marine sergeant had already discovered and the newsies would find out in due course.
The woman producer smiled with delight and offered some whispered advice to the cameraman before asking, “Are you ready, Your Imperial Majesty?”
“Always,” Vicky purred, not bothering to correct the title.
“So,” said the interviewer, a man selected for eye candy rather than intelligence. “What did you think of the idea of the Great Voyage of Discovery?”
“Oh, it was wonderful,” Vicky gushed. And Vicky knew that she did gush very well. She laid it on thick about how exciting it was to be going out, deep into the heart of the galaxy. “Daily, we would see things no one had ever seen before. Our scientists were so excited. They would babble on and on over supper. We knew that we all were living a dream for the rest of humanity.”
“So, how did the Great Voyage of Discovery become the Great Battle?”
Vicky twisted in her seat. Now the strap of her dress went limp, just as she wanted it. All that held her top in place was hope. And every male viewer would be hoping it didn’t. Behind the interviewer, the producer smiled and nudged the cameraman. He zoomed in close.
Vicky had their attention. Not with her words. Her boobs.
“I have no idea how things changed,” Vicky said, breathlessly. “I was invited over to the Wasp for dinner with Princess Kris Longknife and then things started to go sideways so quickly that it was impossible to keep track. The admirals had all decided to go back to human space. All of them.
“But the princess would have none of that. She insisted we must attack these aliens. She had these fancy new weapons her king had sent her and she just had to use them. Somehow she got the admirals to change their minds and join her in the attack.”
At the “somehow,” Vicky twisted in her seat. She didn’t have to glance down. She knew she had a nipple showing by the way the producer grinned, and the camera cut in closer. Vicky went on talking, though she doubted any of those present were listening. She went on and on about Kris and the way she twisted the admirals to her wishes. She yammered on . . . and they let her.
This was as good as she’d hoped it would be.
“I know Admiral Krätz was all for returning. He’d been the first to insist we come back for further instructions. I think Kris paid a visit to the Fury before he changed his mind. I think Kris visited all the admirals personally to somehow persuade them.
Let Kris take the fall. I’m certainly not going to.
By now, Vicky was repeating herself. Repeating herself several times, but the camera just kept going. Finally, Vicky went for the climax. She glanced down, and said, “Oh,” as she shrugged her boob back under its minimal cover.
“How could that have happened?” she said looking directly into the camera. “A Marine sergeant tried to keep me on the Wasp. He grabbed me when I wouldn’t do what he wanted and damned if he didn’t knock my top down. He must have ripped something. I’m so sorry. You won’t use that material, will you?”
“Of course not, Your Grace,” the interviewer lied almost believably.
Vicky smiled so gullibly and went on. “The battle was horrible. Nothing went right. The aliens were just so much more powerful than anyone in the fleet had ever imagined. No question, Princess Longknife had bitten off a whole lot more than she could chew. Of course, only one of her ships had laid eyes on the alien fleet, and it had been running away from it the whole time it was in the same system. The aliens started shooting and battleships were blowing up and then Kris Longknife had her ships duck out of the fight so we never saw what happened to the battleships and then we were running for all that we could.”
Vicky managed to let a tear drop run down her cheek. “Running, running, running. Ships would fall behind, and Kris would just leave them. It was horrible. Finally, she managed to make a jump that the aliens couldn’t follow. Or maybe she ducked out while the aliens were beating up on the last ship that was still with her. I don’t know. It was just horrible. Horrible, I tell you.”
The camera was back on her boobs as she writhed in agony at the memory. They were hoping for another nipple slip.
So she gave them one.
“I don’t know how I will ever forget what I saw. I don’t know how any of us will ever forget what we went through. I’m just so glad that all of that was way on the other side of the galaxy. I’d hate to have something that horrible anywhere close to us. Wouldn’t you?” she asked the camera.
“No. No, I agree with you. Thank God they’re on the other side of the galaxy as far away from us as they can get,” the interviewer said.
Again, Vicky glanced down and noticed the supposed wayward bit of pink flesh. She shrugged herself back into place.
“I think we have enough,” the producer said. “We’ll have that formatted and back to corporate as quick as we can. No one else has given us an interview. I know this will be on every news show before the day is out.”
“Why thank you,” Vicky said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to be getting back to the ship and making arrangements for me and my handful of survivors to make our way back to Greenfeld. Four proud battleships left with full crews and only myself and five others survived to come back.”
Vicky noticed the camera was still on. No doubt, that final take would be the real end of the interview.
She returned the way she’d come, again putting the hooded cape to good use. The young sergeant was still guarding the quarterdeck. He reddened as she swept past him. He’d likely be doing something else tomorrow once they discovered how she’d used him.
Back on the Wasp, she headed straight for her quarters. It wouldn’t do to be spotted in this outfit aboard this wreck of a warship. Changed back into a modest shipsuit of blue, she checked in with her minions. The lieutenant and the chief had discovered no more than she had.
The Wasp was going nowhere. What was to be done and when was no more than a series of guesses among the various members of the crew. Very likely, even the captain was waiting for orders.
Vicky took her team to lunch. Though only she and the lieutenant were officers, she usually had all four dine with her in the wardroom. No one had objected; the Wasp was nothing if not flexible. One of the benefits of having a contractor running the show, no doubt.
Vicky, Kit, and the chief settled down at a table, while the lieutenant and Kat went to fetch plates for them. They had learned their choices among the limited meals served on the Wasp. Today was better. Fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables had arrived, and the cook was doing himself proud.
Vicky found herself served with a steak, baked potato, mixed fresh vegetables, and a salad. It tasted like ambrosia to her after the last couple of weeks of dry rations . . . and short rations at that.
She was half-done when a man joined her table.
That was unusual.
Normally, she and her team dined alone. Even more unusual, the man was not in uniform. Kit stiffened; hands went for whatever weapons she had secreted on her body. Vicky glanced at the chief. He had a black box beside his dinner plate. He eyed it and shook his head.
Most likely, the stranger was unarmed and not carrying a bomb.
Most likely. One never knew for sure, what with the race between offense and defense going at a maddening rate. Her best resources said he was unarmed.
Had her best been outbested?
“Hello,” Vicky said, breaking the silence. “And who might you be?”
“I’m your new best friend,” the guy said with a knowing grin.
VICKY studied her new, putative, best friend.
He looked old enough to know better but young enough to still be doing foolish things. If his legs were as muscled as the bare arms his shirt showed her, he likely was in good enough shape to get out of the messes he got into.
The eyes that watched her would have done good service to a hawk. The face they rested in was intelligent and alert.
“Words are easy,” Vicky said. “Do you have any deeds to back them up?”
“You may remember that bomb that messed up the Forward Lounge just a few minutes after you left.”
“I do recall such an event.”
“I’m the reason it blew five minutes after it was supposed to.”
“Why five minutes? Why not never?” Vicky asked.
His narrow lips formed a tight grin. “But if it hadn’t, you wouldn’t know that you needed a new best friend to be grateful to. Or that you needed to have your eyes and ears open for the next assassin who will, inevitably, come along. Now you do, don’t you?”
“You have a point. It was kind of hard on the help. They did lose a waiter to space.”
He shrugged. “What was he to you? It sent a message that needed sending. Messengers have been dying for a long time.”
“I could get to like you,” Vicky said. “You want to draw a plate and eat with us?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” He stepped away to take a run down the steam table.
While she’d been talking to her new best friend, her team had returned with loaded plates. “What do we know about that man?” Vicky whispered to them.
The chief and the lieutenant were madly running their black boxes through their paces. “He looks as unarmed as a newborn babe,” the lieutenant finally said.
Kit spoke for the two. “We’ve seen him in the ship’s gym. He’s good. We could probably take him if we got the jump on him.”
“Let’s let him run with his own thing for a while,” Vicky said, as the stranger turned back to their table. Around her, her minions settled into watchful alert.
He was dressed in an unmarked blue shipsuit, which told Vicky only that he was of the Wasp, but nothing about rank, rate, or status. Most likely he was carried as a contractor, but he could be assigned to anything from weapons to short-order cook flipping burgers in one of the restaurants.
“So, do you have a name?” Vicky asked as he settled in.
“You can call me Smith. Mr. Smith. It works as well as any.”
“And where do you draw your paycheck?”
“That might take a while to explain since I draw several for all the different things I do for all the different folks I work for. If you catch my meaning.”
“So who paid you to delay that bomb? A friend of Kris Longknife, or a friend of mine?”
“Honey, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you don’t have that many friends just now.” He took a bite of steak. “Not many at all, and you could use a whole lot more.”
Vicky leaned back in her chair. “So, with Kris hauled off for points unknown, you’re out of work and looking for a new employer. If you catch my meaning.”
The man chuckled. “You aren’t slow. Not slow at all. I could deadhead back to Wardhaven and wait for some new assignment to come along, or, as I see it, I could sign on with you and start charging hours to your account immediately.”
“You sure I can pay?” Vicky asked.
“I must admit, there’s a little risk involved, seeing how you’re at severe risk of not making it through until next payday, but I’ve bet on worse cases and drawn a bonus for the risk.”
“Again, I find you a lot of talk but not so much on the deeds. How do I know you’re worth your paycheck?”
The man went on eating for a while, then put down his fork. “You asked Kris Longknife to let you have a better computer. The one around my neck is a couple of steps up from the one around your neck. That thing around your neck is the new, fancy self-organizing matrix. But the software isn’t all that good at organizing it. Not at all good.” He raised an eyebrow. “What would it be worth to you if I upgraded you while we finish lunch?”
“You’ve got a computer as good as Nelly?”
“Nobody has a computer as good as that bit of matrix, but my computer is better than anything you can get your hands on in Greenfeld. Maybe not the best in your Empire, but a whole lot better than any you can buy in a store there.”
“Why don’t you start the upgrade, and we’ll see.”
He reached for his fork again. “Joe, upgrade. Transmit.”
The computer at Vicky’s neck said, “Receiving.” A moment later, it announced, “Processing.”
“Now, while these two are doing their thing, why don’t you and I finish our dinner?”
Vicky picked up her fork, but she hadn’t taken one bite when one very-angry-looking Marine charged into the wardroom. Jack looked around, spotted Vicky, and headed for her table like a herd of charging bulls.
They couldn’t have released that interview already, Vicky thought, then retook her measure of the angry Marine rapidly approaching and changed her mind.I guess they rushed it into production and distribution.
“You lying snake in the grass!” Jack whispered as he came to stand across the table from her, at Mr. Smith’s elbow. “You backstabbing purveyor of misinformation and twisted tales! I ought to lock you in the brig and throw away the key.”
“But you can’t because your brig is about to be torn down,” Vicky purred. She put her hands in her lap, struck up her most alluring pose, and waited for what would come next.
“I could leave you in it when they take away the outer hull,” Jack snarled. “I wonder how long a snake like you can breathe vacuum.”
Vicky knew Jack was just talking. No U.S. Marine would dare harm a Grand Duchess of the Empire. “Jack, why don’t you sit down and have something to eat? Life always looks worse on an empty stomach.”
“I wouldn’t take a drink of water from you if I were dying of thirst in a parched desert.”
“I’m sorry that you feel that way,” Vicky said, relaxing in her chair. “What does your Princess Kris say? ‘It looked like a good idea at the time.’ Well, I did what I felt I had to do.”
“We have orders not to talk to newsies,” Jack snapped.
“No order from United Society, or whatever you’re calling yourself today, has any power or authority over a Grand Duchess of the Peterwald Empire. I do what I will do.”
“Well, you can do it somewhere else. I want you off this boat. Now!”
“Fortunately, a Marine captain does not command a Navy ship. Why don’t you go talk to the real captain here?”
At that moment, Captain Drago himself walked into the wardroom. He too, looked around, spotted Vicky, and slow-marched for her table.
“Thank you, Captain Montoya, for sending me that news clip. Very informative. I had no idea any of that took place on our long voyage.” He turned to Vicky. “Miss Peterwald, your presence on my ship is no longer desired. You have one hour to cross the brow headed for the station. If you aren’t gone in one hour, I will have the Marines throw you out. Do we understand each other?”
“As always, Captain, your use of the Standard language is very exact and precise,” Vicky said, making no move to rise.
She locked eyes with the two captains for a long, hard minute. Then both of them turned and stalked toward the exit.
Vicky waited until they were gone before saying, “You heard the man. We have an hour to get out of here. Let’s start packing. We leave nothing behind.”
Her four minions were up and trotting without another word spoken. Mr. Smith continued eating.
“You coming?” Vicky asked.
“Ma’am, I packed my bag before I came down to talk with you. Give me ten minutes, and I’ll be across the quarterdeck. Now, my computer and yours are in the middle of a major upgrade. Unless you think you have to look over any of those four shoulders to make sure they get every little thing right, I suggest you stay seated here.”
Vicky stayed in her chair.
“Upgrade complete,” a pleasant male bass said. “I have a message for Her Grace, the Grand Duchess of Greenfeld.”
“Vicky will do just fine.”
“Vicky, you have a message coming in from Admiral Gort of Battle Cruiser Division 4. He has just jumped into the system and will be docking at High Chance station in twelve hours. He requests the pleasure of your company for a trip back to Greenfeld, if it pleases you.”
“Computer, who is Admiral Gort?”
“I don’t know, Vicky. When I was last synced to the Greenfeld database several months ago, there was a Captain Gort on the battlecruiser Stalker. That ship is now his flag, so I would assume he has been promoted since you were last at Greenfeld.”
“Sounds like a safe assumption,” Mr. Smith said.
There was still no way for Vicky to know if he had been sent to shepherd her home, or to see that she died “of natural causes” somewhere along the way. Still, unless she planned to walk home, she’d have to trust herself to some vagaries of fate. Her power base in the Navy seemed more dependable than the odds of her surviving a trip home on the average liner.
“Tell Admiral Gort that I will be happy for his support and protection on the trip back to Greenfeld.”
“I think you’ve just made a good decision,” Mr. Smith said before forking in a large bite of steak and potatoes.
“We’ll know in a week or two if I arrive at court still breathing rather than as a very lovely corpse.”
“Oh, you of little faith. Think of it as a game. Every breath you take is a win.”
“Are you sure you want to be so optimistic around me?” Vicky asked.
“It’s a whole lot more fun to live that way, Duchess, trust me.”
“Are our computers done?”
“Done enough for now.”
“Then I will go see how my team is doing.”
“And I will finish eating.”
Vicky left, wondering just how much her new best friend was going to be worth.
WITH an incoming battlecruiser division, Captain Drago relented on his one-hour deadline and agreed to let them stay until the Imperial fleet arrived and took Vicky off his hands.
Vicky put the time to good use. It turned out that Mr. Smith had a few extra grams of the same self-organizing matrix that Vicky had bought on Wardhaven to be the core of her new computer. While his computer did more things to upgrade Vicky’s computer, he added unique capabilities to the four personal computers of her minions.
In the end, none of them were as smart as Vicky’s computer, but they all could communicate on a tight beam with each other. Vicky had her own private net!
He also had a tiny wire headset that he half attached, half implanted on Vicky’s skull.
NOW YOU CAN TALK TO ME WITHOUT HAVING TO SAY A WORD, formed in Vicky’s mind.
WE CAN TALK, AND NO ONE WILL KNOW WHAT WE’RE SAYING, Vicky thought back.
EXACTLY. YOU WON’T HAVE TO HOLLER FOR HELP, JUST THINK IT. SAME FOR ME. IF I SEE TROUBLE, YOU’LL KNOW BEFORE ANYONE CAN SHOUT IT.
JUST LIKE KRIS CAN DO. I COULD GET TO LIKE THIS.
ALL PART OF THE SERVICE FROM NEW BEST FRIENDS, INC.
YOU’VE MADE A GOOD START AT EARNING YOUR PAY. NOW, MAKE ALL THIS KEEP ME ALIVE.
THAT’S THE PLAN.
Vicky had other plans to think about while others packed.
What to wear?
She was returning to the Navy. The white dress she’d worn for the interview would be totally out of place among the more puritanical officers of the Imperial Navy. She chose a simple shipsuit, though of imperial purple, not the usual Greenfeld green. She subdued the imperial by wearing the proper shoulder tabs of a Navy lieutenant.
She was ready well before the twelve hours were up.
Right on time, Admiral Gort himself led an honor guard of two dozen Marines and several Sailors to Vicky’s room. The Sailors took over responsibility for hauling away her trunks and gear. Doc Maggie joined them at the last minute and added her few things to the collection of baggage going to the Stalker.
On the quarterdeck, Captain Drago himself was there to see her off.
“Good luck,” he told the admiral. “With her aboard, you’ll need it.”
“As I hear it, your own princess did a good job of making her own good luck. Is all your damage aft?” Gort asked with a snide grin.
“We must share a bottle of scotch when you’ve sailed with the Grand Duchess for three months,” Drago said dryly in reply.
The two exchanged salutes. The admiral saluted the flag aft, and then it was Vicky’s turn. She departed the Wasp as smartly as the admiral, and they marched, him at her side, for where his battlecruiser lay at the next pier.
Several newsies tried to jam mics in Vicky’s general direction, but the Marines moved swiftly enough to keep them at a distance, and if a few reporters got elbows in their guts, surely it was an accident.
Admiral Gort paid proper honors on his own quarterdeck, and Vicky did the same.
“Walk with me,” were the first words he exchanged with her.
She followed him to his in-port cabin. Only when the door closed behind him did he let his face show anything but bland, military neutrality.
When he turned on her, he was livid.
“How could you make such a spectacle of yourself?” he demanded.
Vicky braced, like she’d learned under Admiral Krätz’s tutelage, but she was not the green recruit anymore. “I might have acted differently if I’d known that you were coming, sir.”
“Have you heard of communications, Lieutenant? You could have sent us a simple message.”
Vicky felt the blood drain from her face. She had never thought of something so simple as sending out a message. Besides, she had no idea who to address it to. Her dad? The Navy? She hadn’t the foggiest notion who, in this situation, she was supposed to report to.
She blurted that out, ending with, “It’s not like this has ever happened before.”
The admiral paused, his mouth half-open for some retort. He closed it, then snapped out, “What were you doing on that Kris Longknife’s ship, anyway?”
That one Vicky had an answer for. “There had been three attempts on my life. It seemed safer on the Wasp than on the Fury.” Vicky paused for just a second. “And the Wasp is over there tied up at the pier, and the Fury is nothing but atoms. I think I guessed right.”
The admiral studied her for a long moment. Vicky studied him right back. He was young to have his own flag; his black hair was showing only flecks of gray. His uniform still fit him trimly; he carried none of Admiral Krätz’s middle-aged paunch. Vicky couldn’t think of this man in the fatherly way she had the older admiral. The Navy officer in front of her was more a big brother . . . or a mature lover.
The admiral finished his examination and turned from her scrutiny. “Take a seat, Lieutenant.”
Vicky looked around. She saw a standard suite: desk, conference table, a small discussion ring. Vicky settled herself on a red leather settee. The admiral took his own seat in a matching overstuffed leather chair across a low coffee table from her.
“May I ask, sir, how you came to be so close to Chance? It’s not like we were expected.”
“Yes. I saw that tub of Kris Longknife’s. Is it safe for space?”
“I’m told no. The wreck can’t be risked in another jump and will be scrapped where it lies there, pier side.”
“That news report I saw you give, was it accurate?”
“Allowing for the requirement that I entertain the lowest quality of viewer, yes, sir, what I said is basically accurate. We engaged the enemy by a battle plan that Kris Longknife developed . . .”
Admiral Gort interrupted, “The admirals let a mere lieutenant commander lead them around like bulls with rings in their noses?”
“She had the new superweapons. They had no idea how to use them. She came up with a plan, and the admirals went along, sir. Or maybe I should say, the other two admirals, the ones from Musashi and Helvetica agreed, and our Admiral Krätz had no choice but follow or be branded a coward.”
“No one would ever accuse Krätz of being a coward. Not to his face. I served under him,” Admiral Gort said. “If ships were headed into battle, he’d be at the head of them.”
“He was, sir. When we met the aliens, he was leading the battle line.”
“That sounds like Krätz. You said the aliens were more powerful than Kris Longknife expected. How much more powerful?”
“The main alien ship was the size of a large moon, sir.”
The Navy officer whistled. “That big, huh?”
“It had several hundred, I’m not sure exactly how many hundred, ships docked on it. Every one of the ‘smaller’ ships dwarfed our Terror-class battleships.”
That drew another whistle. “You’re right. I’m glad they are on the other side of the galaxy from here.”
The room filled with a worried silence for a few moments.
“Sir, may I ask again, how does it happen that your division was so close to Chance?”
The admiral frowned, not at Vicky but at a space off to the side. “Matters have not changed much since you sailed away. There is still much civil unrest. Far too much of the Navy is tied up to stations providing shore parties to back up the local police forces. There is even talk of forming an army. A real one, not the toy soldiers that prance around the palace and serve hors d’oeuvres at parties. The problem is, if they raise an army, they have to arm it and no one’s too sure that the army won’t become a player in the political blood sport that passes for governance at the moment.”
He eyed Vicky as he said those last words.
“No doubt Admiral Krätz turned in some kind of report and quoted my own opinion of the sad circumstances of our beloved Greenfeld,” Vicky said.
“Yes. He reported that to the Navy’s General Staff. I was provided copies when I was sent out on this mission. Officially, I was here to show the flag. Our intelligence was receiving a lot of reports from its sources that the Greenfeld fleet was being discounted as good for nothing but bashing in the heads of unarmed hooligans. We needed to counter that misperception, so it was decided to distribute the battlecruiser fleet by divisions around human space. To show the flag. To show that we could still make it away from the pier and to let the various Navies see the size of our guns.
“Oh, and being battlecruisers, we could make our way home very quickly if matters took a turn for the worse, or, young Lieutenant, if some of the mauled fleet came straggling in from what was supposed to have been a sightseeing excursion.”
“I and my six associates are all you will be getting back from our little ‘excursion,’ sir.”
“Are you sure?”
“I have the sensor take from the Wasp’s main computer. Computer, display battle visuals on the admiral’s screen.”
The large screen to Vicky’s left came to life. There was the main alien ship, fresh from the jump, looming huge and deadly, filling most all of the screen. Then the battle started. Lasers flashed through the thin space where the earlier scouts had died. Missiles from the Wasp lashed into the alien monster. Then the Hellburners smashed in, spewing fire and wreckage all over the screen.
Which went blank as the Wasp ducked through the jump the aliens had just used.
“That’s how she got out of there? That Longknife woman went where the aliens had just come from? She should have run into a huge fleet train.”
“Sir, the main alien ship was their fleet train,” Vicky said. “The previous system was as empty as any we had seen. It didn’t stay that way. The aliens were madder than hornets at us for burning their nest. They followed us. They followed us through three or four jumps before the Wasp managed to go one way and the Hornet seemed to lead the aliens in some other direction.”
“How did that happen?”
“The Wardhaven jump sensors can identify something they call a fuzzy jump. We’ve heard reports of this thing from research ships that have visited the newly discovered alien ruins that Kris Longknife found,” Vicky said. It was strange how often she had to say that woman’s name. Her fingerprints were on way too much of what was happening in human space.
“But those fuzzy jump points are only one of the surprises the Longknife princess popped on us. Those Hellburners as they call them. Where did they come from?” Vicky asked the admiral.
“I have no idea. That doesn’t bother me as much as our own intelligence services having no idea. The U.S. is pulling stuff out of their hat that has us scratching our head way too much. And while their researchers give them more and more, our own scientists have to stand in line for bread. Greenfeld needs a new day.”
That was a phrase that could be treason if said in the wrong place. But Vicky had heard it often enough from Admiral Krätz to know it was popping up more and more around wardrooms. “My dad is doing his best to settle the unrest. Admiral, the Navy is doing all it can to calm down the rioting.”
“Killing the Commander of State Security and dissolving that force was not well done.”
“General Boyng tried to kill my dad. What did you expect Dad to do, kiss him?”
“Of course not, Lieutenant. The Navy is not a pack of fools. Yes, State Security was rotten. It needed pruning. But burning down the tree, root and stem, has not worked for Greenfeld. Or do you see it differently?”
Vicky took time for a deep breath. Lieutenants did not argue with admirals. Certainly a young woman who needed a safe ride home did not argue with the only safe ride in sight. “No, Admiral, I do not see it differently. The suppression of State Security has caused no end of trouble. Separating the diseased limbs from the healthy ones looks wiser, with the benefit of hindsight, but it looked way too risky at the time. Dad solved the immediate problem. Yes, that did create the problem we have now. At the time, no one had a better idea for Dad.”
The admiral nodded. “That is the way it is with a benevolent despot. What he can see and do well is done well. What is beyond his grasp easily gets out of hand.”
“You’re starting to sound like Kris Longknife. Next thing I know, you’ll be calling for elections,” Vicky snapped.
“And let the mob raise up its own tyrant? Never!”
The two of them found themselves out of words, staring across the table at each other.
“What is happening right here and now?” Vicky finally asked.
“I’m trying to decide what to do next,” the admiral said, thoughtfully.
“What can you do next?” Vicky asked, suspecting that she was finally getting to the whole reason an admiral was having this little talk with a lieutenant.
“My orders are to deliver you immediately to Greenfeld and assure you a safe escort to the palace.”
Those sounded like the orders Vicky would expect him to have. Why did she hear a roaring “but” at the end of that sentence?
“But . . .” she provided.
“I have been offered a very large sum of money to assure that you suffer a serious illness on the way there. One sufficiently potent to assure that you arrive as a corpse.”
“And did you take that money?” Vicky asked, finding it hard to breathe.
“Of course I did. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t. Then, of course, I have also been provided with a somewhat smaller sum of money to assure that you arrive somewhere other than Greenfeld and the palace.”
Vicky couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. “I had no idea I was such a valuable pawn. Would it be too much for me to ask who the bidders are?”
“Do you really want to know? The more you know, the less likely you are to leave this ship alive.”
Revue de presse
“A whopping good read…Fast-paced, exciting, nicely detailed, with some innovative touches.”—Elizabeth Moon, Nebula Award–winning author of Crown of Renewal
“Shepherd delivers no shortage of military action, in space and on the ground. It’s cinematic, dramatic, and dynamic…[He also] demonstrates a knack for characterization, balancing serious moments with dry humor.”—Tor.com
“Readers have come to depend on Mike Shepherd for fast-paced military science fiction bound to compelling story lines and adrenaline-pumping battles…Kris Longknife is a hero to the core.”—Fresh Fiction
“Kris is a strong female character…The book focuses on action, with some interesting sci-fi twists thrown in…It excels as a page-turner.”—Fantasy Book Spot
“Fans of the Honor Harrington escapades will welcome the adventures of another strong female in outer space starring in a thrill-a-page military space opera…The audience will root for the determined, courageous, and endearing heroine as she displays intelligence and leadership during lethal confrontations.”—Alternative Worlds