Original Fiction Exiled to Glory (Morningstar I)


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Hi, everyone

This is a completely new series, set in a completely new universe. I do have a fairly detailed plan for the long-term development of this universe, and this character (and the supporting cast) but this novel is intended to serve as both a stand-alone book and the launch pad for something greater.

If you have any comments, suggestions, spelling corrections, or any other feedback please don’t hesitate to offer it. I read every piece of feedback I get and often integrate it into the final whole.

You can find some universe details here:

An Introduction To The Morningstar Universe

I hope to keep a steady pace, but there will be a pause - my family and I have a lot to deal with right now.

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The Chrishanger

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PS – if you want to write yourself, please check out the post here - Oh No More Updates. We are looking for more submissions.

Prologue I

: Transcript of Remarks by Grand Senator (Admiral) Sullivan, Presented at the Daybreak Naval Academy Graduation Ceremony. Daybreak. Year 204.

There is a question we are asked, time and time again, and that is this: why empire?

The people who ask that question, by and large, wish to believe that our empire is evil, and that by extension we are evil, that we are building our empire for our own self-aggrandizement. They do not wish to consider that we might have good cause for reuniting the human race under our banner, nor that their former independence was doing them more harm than good. They cannot be blamed for mourning their lost freedoms, nor can they be punished for questioning our motives. But they cannot, also, be allowed to be free.

It is a strong trait of our society that we always look truth in the face, that we do not permit the punishment of those who speak truth, no matter how unwelcome. It is not an easy standard to maintain, as no one enjoys being told something they do not wish to hear, but it has been the key to our success for so long that anyone who tries to sugar-coat the truth, or suppress it, must be counted as an enemy of civilisation.

And it is of civilisation that I wish to speak to you tonight.

Civilisation is a constant struggle. Those of you who have studied history will note that there have been hundreds of civilisations that had flourished, then collapsed and vanished … either through conquest, as has happened many times, or internal decay. The former is often spurred by the latter. A strong and resolute civilisation, with the ability to make best use of its manpower, technology and weapons – and develop more – is unbeatable, as long as it does not fall to internal enemies. And yet, such civilisations often have fallen? Why?

The paradox of civilisation is this; to maintain a civilisation, one must maintain the laws that created and shaped that civilisation. Yet, as that civilisation gets more developed it starts to forget the underlying reality of human nature; they start to forget that there is nothing natural about their peace and freedom, which leads – inevitably – to the collapse of their peace and freedom. They make excuses for bad behaviour, rather than confronting it openly; they allow themselves to be shamed into passivity, rather than standing up for their rights and upholding the foundations of their civilisation; they tolerate the smart prissy intellectuals who make subtle arguments that sound good, and defy anyone to speak against them, yet have no experience of the real world and therefore make fools of themselves. A civilisation, therefore, often harbours the seeds of its own destruction.

Maintaining civilisation requires, therefore, a certain degree of balance between too much freedom and too little. A completely free society, with no rules or customs, will collapse into chaos, either leading to extinction or the rule of the strong. A society with no personal freedom will decay from within, eventually – again – collapsing into chaos or the rule of the strong. It is not easy to strike a balance between the two points, to grant the maximum of personal – private – freedom while preventing individuals from infringing on the rights of others. Too much intrusion into private lives is often just as dangerous as too little.

If a failure to maintain the law through upholding and enforcing it can weaken or destroy a civilisation, a failure to uphold the convents of international – and interstellar – law can destroy an entire species. The intellectuals I mentioned above spoke of international codes of conduct that would bind nations, on the assumption that all nations would consider them binding and therefore war would be civilised … and ran, hard, into the cold reality that it was, and remains, incredibly difficult to force a nation to abide by such codes. They were unenforceable, save by force, and the lack of any power with both the demonstrated ability and willingness to enforce them ensured they were worse than useless. Indeed, having proven that international convents were worthless, they spurred the decay of older convents drawn up by wiser men, ensuring that war, never civilised, became even less so.

The great mistake of the United Nations was in launching thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of colony missions without laying the groundwork for any framework of interstellar law, and enforcement, that could prevent large-scale interstellar conflict. It was a failure that would cost it dear, as jump drives improved and military operations became more than just random pirates and raiders preying on worlds too weak to defend themselves. The lack of any strong authority to keep the spacelanes open led directly to war, a series of minor conflicts that rapidly expanded into a holocaust that came far too close to destroying the entire human race. It may seem absurd, but so too did some fool thing in the Balkans that led to a war that set the entire world on fire.

That is the reason behind our empire, our ever-expanding control over the spacelanes and our determination to ensure the human race is reunited. We are a strong, ruthlessly pragmatic power that can and will impose our will on the rest of the universe. We keep smaller conflicts under control, sometimes by enforcing a peace and sometimes by transporting one side to another world; we provide a neutral forum for debates, and courts which follow a series of simple laws, backed by naked force. We do not allow ourselves any illusions about the true nature of humanity, or the universe itself. Our goal is to prevent a second war, because – in the end – there is no guarantee there will be anyone left, after a second war, to rebuild and fight a third.

As the old saying goes, “good times make weak men; weak men make hard times; hard times make strong men; strong men make good times.”

We are the strong men. And we will do everything in our power to ensure weak men do not have the chance to tear down what we’ve built from within …

You cadets have all passed through the most gruelling space naval training program known to man. You are well-versed in everything from modern engineering to history, moral philosophy, and basic interstellar law. You will go to your ships and serve the empire, and in doing so, serve the human race itself. You must never forget that you are part of a society – a ruling class - that seeks to prevent a second war, you must never let yourself get too close to local concerns and forget your duty.

And as you advance in the ranks, as many of you will, you must never forget how the universe truly works.

We are harsh and stern father figures. It cannot be denied. But the alternative is worse.

You must never forget that, either.
Prologue II

The young man waiting in the antechamber, Deputy Commandant Horace Valerian thought sourly, could have stepped off a recruiting poster.

He had been on a poster, according to his file. The Daybreak Naval Academy regularly showcased the careers of talented young cadets, highlighting their struggles as they tried to become naval officers in a bid to invite others to sign up. The training program was deliberately hard, to ensure that only the best passed the four years of training they needed to become an officer and start a climb that could easily take them to the very top, and the young man had been one of the best. No, the best. He wouldn’t have become class valedictorian three years out of four if he hadn’t had the right combination of aptitude, skill and luck – and a willingness to work hard – to pass. And yet …

Horace rubbed his eyes, cursing the young man under his breath. It was impossible to think him a fool – space was an unforgiving environment, and anyone who lacked a brain and the wisdom to use it was unlikely to survive long enough to be expelled – and yet, he’d done something incredibly foolish. Or had he? The timing was exact, almost perfect. A week earlier and the politics could have been finessed, ensuring the Academy wouldn’t have to tolerate such a cad giving the final address at graduation; a week later and it would be someone else’s problem, someone who might solve the problem by summarily busting the young idiot down to crewman or assigning him to detached duty, ensuring he’d never be troubled again. Horace had no idea if the twit had done it deliberately or not – there was no hint, in any of the overt and covert assessments he’d passed over the years, that he harboured a deep hatred for the Academy – and yet, it hardly mattered. The Academy was going to take one hell of a black eye, and it was all the fault of the young man waiting outside.

A flash of anger ran through Horace, a reminder of the old shame that came from spending most of his career in the rear. He’d always been more of a bureaucratic administrator than a warfighter and he knew, without false modesty, that he’d never be anything more. The odds of him becoming Commandant were very low, and the odds of him ever rising high were even lower. The cadets might respect his administrative ability, how he judged schedules and balanced the egos of training officers who were often experts in their fields and complete naifs in others, but they knew better than to emulate him. They wanted to win glory, to carry the flag into the distant reaches of space, to bring new worlds and civilisations into the empire and, in doing so, boost their careers into heights even they could barely imagine. Horace had thought, privately, that the class valedictorian was just another overly-ambitious young man, one who would learn many hard lessons before he rose to the top. And instead …

He shook his head, trying not to glance at the antique clock ticking in the corner. There were bare hours before the graduation ceremony was due to begin, when the academy would have to decide between allowing the valedictorian to give his damned speech or coming up with some excuse, no matter how absurd, to deny it. They were fucked either way, Horace thought, using words he would never say out loud. If they let the fool speak, they’d wind up with egg on their faces; if they denied him, the young man’s patron would be angry and the consequences of that were incalculable. The Grand Senator might believe his young client deserved punishment – no one reached the highest senatorial rank without a firm grasp of reality and a willingness to cut a misbehaving client loose if they became an embarrassment – but no patron could afford to be seen as abandoning a client without very good cause. A week earlier and it might have been possible to come to terms, to ensure there was good cause, but the timing simply hadn’t worked out. Horace was an old master at playing the political game and he knew there was no time. No matter what he did, the Academy was going to get a black eye …

… And Horace was morbidly sure he’d be the one taking the blame.

Angry boiled through him. Commandant O’Hara could not be faulted for stepping aside and allowing his deputy to handle the crisis, damn the man. No court martial board in existence would accept a man so hurt, so betrayed, passing judgement on the man who had betrayed him. Horace knew anything his superior did would be questioned savagely, perhaps overturned, by the board of inquiry. Commandant O’Hara had enemies – no one rose so high without making a few enemies along the way – and they’d gather like flies on shit, pointing out the sheer injustice and undermining his position, without a single care for the legalities of the affair. Why would they care, when they had a perfect opportunity to bring their enemy down? No, Horace could hardly fault the Commandant for passing the poisonous charge to him. But his understanding would not save his career.

His thoughts ran in circles. The young fool cannot be allowed to give the address, because the Academy cannot afford to turn a blind eye to his conduct, or be seen to be affirming it. The young fool cannot be stripped of rank and title, because it would bring his patron down on our heads. We don’t have time to call the Grand Senator and discuss the matter and … what the hell are we going to do?

He scowled as another message popped up on his terminal. Preparations for the ceremony were well underway. Families, patrons and journalists were already arriving in the nearest town, to watch the cadets pass out – and take their relatives out for lunch – before the young men reported to their first real duty stations. He should be out there, supervising his crew and making damn sure that everything was in order, before the crowd arrived at the Academy itself. The slightest mistake could – would – be horrifically embarrassing. The eyes of the galaxy were upon them, some looking to the benefits of empire and others watching for signs the empire’s ability to enforce its will was declining. Horace had no illusions. If something went wrong, no matter how minor, the consequences would be felt hundreds of light years away.

And they won’t stop, he reflected ruefully, with the destruction of my career.

He sat back in his seat, trying to think of something – anything – that could get him and the navy out of the political nightmare the young idiot had created. It was hard to remember – to force himself to believe – that the fool hadn’t intended to craft such a nightmare … in truth, Horace didn’t really believe it. The timing was just too good. It was … far too good.

I can’t demote him, I can’t expel him, I can’t …

Horace stopped, his mouth hanging open as a thought occurred to him. What if … his hands darted to the terminal, bringing up nearly two hundred years of naval history in a desperate search for a precedent. The idea was absurd, on paper; it was the kind of concept that, under normal circumstances, would land him in very hot water indeed. There were limits to just how much a patron, no matter how important, could boost a client’s career. And Horace wasn’t even the young fool’s patron. People would talk …

But would it solve the problem?

A flash of excitement ran through Horace, even as he checked and rechecked the files to make absolutely sure he wasn’t crossing a line. The precedents existed … barely. It would be one hell of a court martial, if the matter became public before it was too late, but who would discuss the issue openly? Everyone involved, even the young fool himself, had excellent reason to keep their mouths firmly shut. Horace was too old a hand to believe it would remain a secret indefinitely – the political graveyards were littered with men who believed their secrets would never be uncovered – but by the time it came out the issue would be resolved, one way or the other. It galled him to be rewarding the young man, even if it was a reward that came with a sting in the tail, yet …

It wasn’t a perfect solution, Horace reflected as he worked his way through the paperwork with terrifying speed, then called a handful of friends in various departments to ensure the paperwork was submitted and processed. It helped that the post-graduation assignments were never revealed, not even to patrons, before the ceremony was completed. There’d be no one in a position to both notice the discrepancy and do something about it … and anyone who did, he was sure, wouldn’t realise what had really happened. Whoever heard of punishing someone by giving him a promotion?

The terminal pinged. The orders were ready. Horace printed them – by long custom, duty assignments were always on paper – and leaned back in his chair, congratulating himself on his own cleverness. It had been a very close run thing, but he’d made it. One way or another, he told himself, the matter would be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. And there was no way the young idiot could protest, not without sinking his entire career.

And if nothing else, he reflected as he called his secretary and asked her to send Cadet Morningstar into his office, he would never have to see the young man again.
Chapter One

Cadet – Provisional Lieutenant - Leo Morningstar sat outside the Deputy Commandant’s office and waited.

He was not, precisely, under arrest. The provosts who had taken custody of him, after the shore patrol had caught him in flagrante delicto, had neither handcuffed him nor stripped his rank badges from his uniform, before marching him to the outer office and ordering him to wait. Leo had spent a couple of nights in the guardhouse – it was almost a rite of passage, after completing the first year at the academy – and he knew what it was like, but this was different. He wasn’t sure just how much trouble he was in, although the fact he’d been brought to the office – rather than the guardhouse – suggested he was not on the verge of being expelled. That would be awkward, to say the least. And yet …

His lips quirked, briefly, as he tried to force himself to relax. He had graduated. He couldn’t be expelled, not now, and he doubted he could be put in front of a court martial board. The Old Man – Commandant O’Hara – was no doubt trying to find a way to do just that, but it was a legal impossibility. The mere fact he was sitting outside the Deputy Commandant’s office suggested O’Hara agreed, although there was no way to be sure. Leo hadn’t been in naval service for long, but he was all too aware that the letter of the law could be manipulated to evade the spirit. Daybreak prided itself on keeping the law as simple as possible, to make it harder for a planet to ignore its responsibilities to the interstellar union, yet there was plenty of precedent for a legal officer finding ways to get whatever his CO wanted done with a veneer of legality. They didn’t always get away with it, when their decisions were reviewed by the Senate, but it was often too late to help the planet adversely impacted by the poor legal work. And that meant …

He took another breath. He had gradated. And he had a powerful patron. He was safe.

The secretary looked up. “Cadet Morningstar, you may enter the office.”

Leo stood, keeping his irritation under tight control. A cadet who passed the first two years had the right to be addressed as Midshipman, and Leo was one of the few – the very few – cadets who had been promoted to Lieutenant before formally graduating. It was a provisional rank, and it could be lost very easily, but it was still a mark of accomplishment, as well as the faith his tutors had in him. He had promised himself that he would not lose the rank, and indeed he would strive to see it confirmed within the year. It was not unprecedented. And the few who had achieved it before had gone on to great things indeed.

He stepped into the Deputy Commandant’s office and saluted, trying not to look around with interest. It was hardly the first time he’d met Deputy Commandant Horace Valerian, but he’d never actually been in the man’s office before and he had to admit he was a little curious. The office was surprisingly spartan – like most of the academy – but there were a handful of antiques scattered around, including a grandfather clock that ticked loudly, something that bothered Leo more than he cared to admit. The man himself wore a dress uniform carefully tailored to hide his paunch, but he still managed to give off the air of being more at home behind a desk than on a starship’s bridge. Leo wondered, idly, how he’d managed to avoid being rotated back to front-line service, a legal requirement to keep rear-area officers losing track of what was actually important. Perhaps Valerian believed he would never be promoted again. It wasn’t impossible. The Daybreak Navy was constantly expanding, but there were limits to just how many men could hold high-ranking positions at any one time. The senatorial rolls listed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of officers who would never see a combat command again.

Valerian nodded curtly, then studied a datapad thoughtfully. Leo remained calm and composed, standing at attention and waiting to be ordered to relax. The Deputy Commandant was playing a power game by forcing him to wait, something that would have been a little more effective if Leo’s old headmaster hadn’t done the same, back when he’d been a simple schoolboy. He might have been firmly convinced that sparing the rod was spoiling the child, and he’d often put theory into practice, but making someone wait just betrayed a certain kind of insecurity. Leo knew he was young, barely twenty, and yet even he could tell the difference between someone who knew what he was talking about – and was therefore worth listening to – and someone who was faking it in the certain knowledge there was no way he could make it. The two men would have been shocked if they knew he’d compared the two, but they had a great deal in common …

“Leo Morningstar,” Valerian said. He didn’t look up from his datapad, although there was something in his manner that suggested he’d read the file already, before summoning Leo into his office. “Born, Year 184. Father, Senior Crew Chief Davis on RSS Morningstar, who was awarded the Navy Cross by then-Captain Sullivan and took the name of his ship in thanks, as was and remains customary for recipients of the Cross. Mother, Hoshiko Davis, nee Yu, the daughter of a pair of immigrants who were granted citizenship in Year 160 and, after doing her planetary service, became a teacher, married Davis, and gave birth to six children, including you.”

He paused, as if he were inviting comment. Leo knew better than to say a word.

“You grew up in Cold Harbour, a suburb of Augustus City, because your mother worked in the local school. Your father died saving his commander’s life, for which he gave you and your family patronage, ensuring you would study at a very good secondary school and then enter the Naval Academy itself at sixteen, a year younger than most cadets. You did very well, in your first year, and would have probably made valedictorian if you hadn’t got into a fight with a senior cadet …”

He looked up. “Why?”

“He insulted my mother, sir,” Leo said.

The Deputy Commandant cocked his head. “And that justified beating Senior Cadet Francis Blackthrone to within an inch of his life?”

“Yes, sir,” Leo said. It had been one thing to be harassed himself – he understood he’d be put through the wringer, to make sure the men were separated from the boys before it was too late – but quite another to tolerate suggestions his mother had been a whore, earning a patron through providing sexual services to her husband’s CO. “He deserved it.”

It was hard not to smile. Blackthrone had been an idiot. It was bad enough to make the snide accusations, time and time again, but far worse to do it when he was well within range. Leo had struck fast and hard, ramming his fist into the older cadet’s chest and then following up with a kick that had ended the fight for good. It hadn’t really been a fight, to be honest. Leo had no idea how Blackthrone had gotten through the unarmed combat course, but even he should have known to keep his distance if he was going to shout unbearable insults. But then, it was rare for a junior to try to put a senior in his place. The few who tried followed protocol and did it openly.

“You were nearly expelled, and your career was only saved through the direct intervention of Grand Senator Sullivan,” Valerian continued. “You went on to do extremely well in your second year, which ensured you did your third year on a training ship rather than a station, and you earned a converted – if provisional – promotion to lieutenant after saving the lives of both your peers and training officers. The only black mark on your record, as you went into your fourth and final year, was that you asked the training supervisor if the incident had been faked to test you. He was not pleased.”

“No, sir,” Leo said. The supervisor had never raised his voice, but he’d still managed to put him in his place with a sharp lecture, pointing out that the staff would never risk putting the cadets in very real danger. Not like that, certainly. “He wasn’t.”

Valerian nodded. “You recently completed your fourth year, without losing your provisional promotion, and became – for a third time – class valedictorian, ensuring you were granted the right to give the valedictorian address at the graduation ceremony. Your classmates also voted you the Marty Sue Award, although you were denied the full honours” – his lips quirked – “because you didn’t make valedictorian during your first year. There was no reason to believe you wouldn’t give your speech, then report to your first duty station and go on to a long and honourable naval career.”

He paused. “And then, only a few short hours ago, you were caught in bed with the Commandant’s wife.”

“Yes, sir.”

Valerian looked up at him. “Explain.”

Leo said nothing. He hadn’t known who Fleur O’Hara was, when he’d met her the first time, and even after he’d realised he hadn’t abandoned the affair. She’d been bored and desperately lonely, her husband largely uninterested in her … Leo had wondered, privately, if picking up a cadet was her way of getting back at her husband, although the sex had been great and completely without any strings attached. They had both known the affair would come to an end, eventually, but … he cursed, inwardly. In hindsight, it might have been smarter to insist they went to a love hotel, rather than her apartment. But she had insisted she could not be seen anywhere near such an establishment.

“Explain,” Valerian repeated.

“I met her in the bar,” Leo said, keeping the details as vague as possible. He wasn’t sure how much the older man knew. “I didn’t realise who she was, at first. We had sex, which is how we were caught …”

It was hard to hide his anger. Fleur had assured him her neighbours were discreet and yet … someone had clearly called the shore patrol. Who, and why? It was rare for cadets to visit the married quarters, certainly so close to graduation. A previous commandant had landed himself in hot water after ordering a cadet to mow his lawn, from what he’d heard, and a surprising number of military spouses thought they shared their partner’s rank. Better to stay away, the cadets had been cautioned, rather than wind up on report for ignoring orders from civilians – even citizens – who thought they had the right to issue them.

“You are fortunate that Mrs O’Hara swore blind she seduced you, rather than insisting you picked her up … or raped her,” Valerian said, coldly. “Regardless, your actions have brought great shame on the Naval Academy, and the Commandant is insisting you be severely punished.”

He paused. “You may not have openly broken any regulations, young man, but you certainly bent the honour code into a pretzel. You have also ensured, thanks to the mystery informant, that the incident cannot be covered up. Worse, your timing was extremely good. You cannot be punished, not easily, and yet you are unworthy to serve as valedictorian. A young naval officer is expected to be a model of pure-perfect rectitude at all times. How does that square with an illicit affair with a senior officer’s wife?”

Leo took a breath. He had read the rules and regulations and he was fairly sure he couldn’t be given more than a slap on the wrist, not now. Any demotion – let alone expulsion – would have to be justified and doing that would be difficult, if not impossible, without provoking the wrath of his patron and – or – a public enquiry. The Commandant and his Deputy had to answer to the Board of Directors, which in turn answered to the Senate, and it would be difficult to convince all of them that their actions had been justified. His patron would certainly not be very pleased.

“You are thinking you cannot be punished,” Valerian said, as if he’d been reading Leo’s thoughts. Leo remembered, too late, that Valerian might be a paper-pusher, rather than an officer who led from the front, but he was very far from being a fool. “In a sense, young man, you are quite right. We cannot demote or expel you, nor can we contrive an excuse to deny you the position and honours you have earned, certainly not without causing problems we cannot overcome.”

Leo felt a flash of hope. Perhaps, just perhaps, the whole affair could be buried …

“So we’re prompting you,” Valerian said. His lips curved into a humourless smile. “Congratulations, Lieutenant-Commander Morningstar.”

“What?” Leo boggled. His Lieutenancy was provisional, a point that had been made clear to him time and time again. The idea of being jumped up two ranks without even a day of real starship service was just absurd. No one would take him seriously, and everyone would check his service record and ask pointed questions of the men who’d promoted him. “Sir, I …”

Valerian’s smile grew wider. “It is a honour to be promoted so quickly,” he said. “And your new duty station has already been assigned. You will be heading there shortly, to take up your new post. Unfortunately, you will not have the time to attend your own graduation and give your planned speech, but everyone will understand that there was no choice.”

Leo stared at him. “Sir …”

“You are aware, of course, that we have recently started the process of incorporating several new sectors into our empire,” Valerian continued. “Those sectors have seen little law and order since the First Interstellar War, and they have suffered for it. The Senate believes it is vitally important to establish our authority, and in doing so convince the locals that they have a better future with us, rather than remaining independent and vulnerable to both pirates and predatory neighbours. They have put pressure on the navy to assign more ships to the sector, despite the massive commitments elsewhere. One of those ships is RSS Waterhen.”

Leo frowned. He’d never heard of Waterhen.

“It is a sad story,” Valerian said. “She was a noble ship, in her time, but now she is somewhat outdated, and would be withdrawn from service if we were not so desperate for hulls. She remains on the fleet list, yet her commanding officer is very hands-off. So hands-off, in fact, that he has managed to ensure his command remained in-system, allowing him to spend most of his time in the pleasure dens rather than doing his job. If he were not so well-connected, he would have been ordered to get on with it by now, or summarily stripped of rank, but …”

He shrugged, expressively. “His ship remains in-system. And he remains planetside.”

“Sir …” Leo found it hard to put his thoughts into words. “And he gets away with it?”

“It is astonishing what someone can get away with, if they have good connections and they avoid unwanted attention,” Valerian said. “If Captain Reginald Archibald were in command of a modern starship, he would have been court-martialed by now and even his connections wouldn’t be enough to save him. As it is, Waterhen is simply too unimportant for anyone to notice. The handful of crew assigned to her are the dregs of the service – anyone with any common sense starts bucking for a transfer, the moment they realise that staying on Waterhen will kill their careers – and none, I suspect, have any inkling that they’re supposed to be preparing to leave Daybreak and make their way to their assigned posting.”

He met Leo’s eyes. “And you will be in command.”

Leo blinked. That was impossible. “What?”

“Oh, not on paper,” Valerian assured him. “On paper, Captain Archibald will be in command and you will be nothing more than third-ranking officer. In practice, you will be the commander because the CO is going to remain behind and the XO managed to get herself transferred to an asteroid station. It must have seemed an improvement over Waterhen.”

He paused. “Your promotion is quite valid, I assure you. But you won’t be back here in a hurry.”

Leo felt a flicker of dull respect, mingled with anger and horror. The promotion was bad enough. No one would believe he’d earned it, because he hadn’t. And yet, there was no way he could refuse it either. It was vanishingly rare for anyone who declined a promotion to be offered a second chance … hell, there was no way his patron could complain. On paper, he was being rewarded … he cursed under his breath, realising just how well he’d been stitched up. He might be the de facto commander of an entire starship, but his assignment to the far edge of explored and incorporated space would limit his chances to be noticed. His unearned promotion would be the last, no matter how well he did …

And the moment another ship was assigned to the sector, he’d find himself effectively demoted.

Valerian passed him a folder. “Everything is in order,” he said. “Your shuttle is already arranged; you have just under an hour to grab your bags, then hurry to the pad before it’s too late. Your mother will be informed of your promotion, and we’ll arrange for her to be greeted and honoured instead of attending the graduation. I imagine you’ll have time to message her before you jump out. If you miss the shuttle, you’ll find yourself in very hot water indeed.”

Leo swallowed, still stunned. “Sir, I …”

“You were the most promising cadet we had over the past few years,” Valerian said, bluntly. “You knew your worth very well. And now you have thrown it all away, and risked hitting us with a scandal that could – that still might – do immense damage to the Academy and the Navy itself. If we had time to arrange it, your fate would not be so kind.”

He met Leo’s eyes. “I hope you enjoy your new assignment. Command at such a young age will look very good on your record, even if you don’t enjoy command rank. But one way or another, young man, we will never see each other again.

Chapter Two

Leo was still stunned as he grabbed his bag – already packed – from his former dorm and made his way to the shuttlepad.

He had been fairly certain he couldn’t be demoted, certainly not without causing a major political headache for all involved. There had been no coercion, nothing that could have justified summarily removing him from the graduation ceremony .. certainly, nothing that could have stood up to even a minor investigation. He’d expected a slap on the wrist at best, if the staff didn’t quietly pretend the whole affair hadn’t happened. It was in everyone’s interest, or so he’d thought, that the incident be buried as quickly as possible.

His head spun. He’d underestimated Valerian. The old man might have been a bureaucrat with little real military experience – Leo had looked up the Deputy Commandant’s record and it was about as unimpressive as he’d expected – but he’d found a neat way to square the circle, ensuring Leo was heavily punished without making it obvious he was being punished. Leo wondered, sourly, why Valerian had never taken his tactical instincts onto the battlefield, where his –previously unproven – talent for ingenious solutions would have made him a terror. He’d been put in a neat little trap. If he accepted the promotion and the de facto command of a starship, he would spend most of his career a very long way from Daybreak; if he refused it, he’d never be offered another one. The navy would agree with his implicit assessment of his own abilities and act accordingly, ensuring he spent the remainder of his career on an asteroid mining station … if he were lucky. He ground his teeth in silent frustration. In hindsight, he should never have let himself get so close to Fleur.

But she was so attractive, part of his mind whined. Fleur had been middle-aged, with the desires and experience – and confidence – to match. And she made the first move.

Sure, another part of his mind retorted. And now she’s fucked you in all ways possible.

He knew that wasn’t true, as he stepped onto the shuttlepad and made his way to the sole spacecraft resting on the pad. He hadn’t been raped, any more than her. He could have said no at any moment, before or after he discovered who she truly was. Their relationship could have been nothing more than a one-night stand, a brief night of passion before they went their separate ways … he knew, he’d never been in any doubt, that their relationship really had never been about anything more than sex, but it was still hard to acknowledge that it would have come to an end eventually anyway. He wondered, bitterly, just who had called her husband or alerted the patrolmen, then shrugged. It was unlikely he’d ever know.

The pilot shot him a sharp look. “You the boy flying out to Waterhen?”

“Yes.” Leo had to bite his tongue to keep from saying something sharp. He was a commissioned officer now, and his rank was not – according to the paperwork – provisional. It wasn’t a good thing. No one would hold losing a provisional rank against him – it wasn’t uncommon for a cadet to be promoted too high, then demoted so they could gain more seasoning – but a formal rank was something else and being demoted from that would be stain on his record. “Should I strap myself in, or let your stewardess buckle the straps for me?”

The pilot snorted. “No stewardess on this flight, mate,” he said. “She’s off on leave. She’s been on leave for the last year and a half. I can’t imagine why.”

Leo buckled himself in, checking the straps automatically. “I can’t imagine why either,” he said, dryly. There was no stewardess, although the bigger transport shuttles did have a crewman assigned to make sure the cadets had strapped themselves in before the shuttle took off. “How long to Waterhen?”

“Couple of hours,” the pilot said. “You’re leaving early.”

“Orders are orders,” Leo said. He had a nasty feeling the pilot had been reassigned on short notice too. “Can’t be helped.”

“I’ll say,” the pilot said. “What happened to graduation?”

Leo coloured as the pilot ran through a brief set of checks, then launched the shuttle into the air. He leaned forward, peering out the porthole as the Academy fell away below him, catching brief glimpses of Heinlein Town – the nearest watering hole, where he’d met Fleur – and, in the distance, Augustus City, before the shuttle passed through the clouds and headed into orbit. He swallowed hard, glancing at the chronometer. A few hours from now, his classmates would be marching onto the parade grounds to start the graduation ceremony, where their names and honours would be read to the crowd before the valedictorian – the new valedictorian – gave the final speech. He wondered, bitterly, just who’d get the coveted spot – and just what they’d think of how they’d gotten it. There had been five or six cadets who had been just below him, the difference between them practically microscopic. It would be interesting to hear, later, who’d been chosen. He guessed Valerian would choose the least controversial option and hope for the best.

It was hard not to feel a sense of loss, even though he was honest enough to admit he’d brought the disaster on himself. He had worked hard for the last four years, making himself top of the class three years out of four, and he’d known he had a brilliant career awaiting him. There was no way to know – not now, certainly – where the navy had intended to send him, after graduation, but he was fairly sure it would have been somewhere he could show off his abilities and prove himself worthy of promotion. The youngest commanding officer in naval history had reached command rank six years after graduation and Leo had intended to beat that record … it occurred to him, in a sense, that he had ...

He put the thought out of his mind – there was no point in brooding on things that hadn’t been, and now never would be – and forced himself to study the near-orbit display. Daybreak was surrounded by hundreds of orbital fortresses, industrial nodes, shipyards and space habitats, the latter housing thousands upon thousands of trained workers as they strove to turn the planet into the greatest concentration of industrial might in human history. Countless starships flitted about, from the powerful Home Fleet – constantly drilling to keep their skills sharp, the officers and crew all too aware they’d be reassigned to more active duty stations shortly – to thousands of freighters, courier boats and diplomatic vessels from the Autonomous Worlds, designed to look fancy even though their homeworlds only maintained a limited internal independence though Daybreak’s good grace. Leo felt a flicker of contempt as the sensors zeroed in, briefly, on a starship that was clearly from Earth. Humanity’s homeworld still claimed to be the cultural centre of the known universe – wisely, few challenged the claim – but it was clear the Earthers had no sense of practicality. Their starship looked fancy, yet if she went into battle she’d be taken apart within seconds. There were just too many vulnerabilities in her design.

The pilot glanced back. “We’re clear of the high orbitals now,” he said. “You want a cup of tea?”

Leo shook his head, taking his datapad from his bag and bringing it online. Valerian had ensured he had the clearance to access and download anything a regular Lieutenant-Commander could, as well as transferring files that would normally only be open to Waterhen’s commander and his XO, and Leo wasn’t fool enough to waste time when he could be studying his new posting. The cadets had been advised to read up on their postings, when they were assigned, in hopes of avoiding mistakes that would make them look like idiots in front of the crew, or – worse – senior officers. A full-sized battleship was so big and complex, they’d been told, that it was easy to get lost within the maze of corridors and maintenance tubes. Leo hadn’t believed it until the cadets had been assigned to RSS Švejk, where the crew had been trained to be as difficult as possible to handle, certainly for young and inexperienced officers, and the senior officers tyrants. The training vessel had been an eye-opening experience, for young men who’d thought two years of training had prepared them for actual shipboard duty. Leo had enjoyed the cruise, but …

He scowled as he scanned the files, cursing under his breath. Valerian hadn’t exaggerated. RSS Waterhen was not in good shape, to the point there was something about the files that didn’t quite add up. He checked the dates and swore to himself, noting the latest maintenance report had been filed a full year ago … and it was clear, just looking at it, that the engineers had skimped on the reporting. If he could see it, why couldn’t the IG? Everyone would understand why a captain on a long deployment, hundreds of light years away, hadn’t filed his report in time, but Waterhen hadn’t left Daybreak for years. The IG should have noted the discrepancies – if Leo could see them, an inspector certainly could – and dispatched an investigative team to discover the truth. And yet, they hadn’t. It boded ill.

His mood darkened as he scanned the personnel files. Waterhen was meant to have a fifty-man crew, but she had barely twenty-three … counting the absent Captain and reassigned XO. There was a certain vagueness about the files that suggested trouble, probably problems that didn’t quite rise to the level of meriting summarily dismissal, or early retirement instead of a court martial, but … he scowled. He’d been cautioned that some officers would try to offload problematic crewmen on other ships, rather than go through the paperwork for formal punishment, yet he’d always thought the stories exaggerated. Now, he had the feeling those unwanted crewmen had been reassigned to Waterhen, where they could spend the rest of their careers out of sight and mind.

“Fuck,” he muttered. The files weren’t meant, he was sure, to reveal that the ship’s CO had left his command several months ago, never to return, but they did. He wasn’t even sure who was in command. The chain of command was supposed to be absolute – there were cases when a ship had taken such heavy damage that a young midshipman, ninth in the chain of command, had been forced to take the helm – but the files were vague about just who was the senior remaining officer. “How the hell did this get so badly out of hand?”

He shook his head, knowing the answer. He’d met his fair share of officers who came from old money, their families so prominent that nothing short of complete disaster or outright criminality could get them demoted or dismissed. There’d been a couple of cadets who’d thought their family names entitled them to honours and glories and an easy ride … the tutors had been good at deflating their egos, teaching them they needed to learn to follow before they could lead, but not all – from what he’d heard – remained so capable once they left the academy and started climbing the ladder to high rank. The navy tended to make sure the worst never saw combat command, or promotion beyond a certain point, yet it wasn’t easy to keep them from getting too high unless they embarrassed themselves. Captain Reginald Archibald, a scion of a family with a long history of military and political service, had the connections he needed to survive anything, short of a major military disaster. Leo felt torn between contempt and envy. He’d never met the man, yet he already detested him.

And the best way to embarrass him, Leo thought coldly, would be to do the job he’s supposed to do, all the while making it clear I did it.

He smirked, then forced himself to sit back and read through the remaining files. The internal files were a mess … his earlier thoughts came back to haunt him, reminding him that memorising the official deck plans might be actively misleading. Starships were designed to allow a considerable degree of internal reconfiguration, but all such redesigns were supposed to be carefully charted and then reported to Navy HQ. It didn’t look as if anyone had bothered … no, it looked as if some reconfigurations had been reported and others left off the books. His heart sank. It was going to be a nightmare just sorting out the mess long enough to get the ship underway. And if the IG finally got its thumb out of its ass and came to investigate …

They’d blame me for everything, he thought. He wouldn’t have been on the ship for more than a few days, at most, but it was possible they’d try to pin the blame on him. An officer could not be blamed, his instructors had said, for the situation they found when they reached their new duty posting, yet there was a very short time limit for that officer to either fix the problem or report it to higher authority before he became responsible for it. And that would be pretty bad.

“We’re nearing your new posting,” the pilot said, with false cheer. “You want me to swing around the ship so you can get a good look at her?”

“Yeah.” Leo unbuckled his straps and stood, making his way to the empty co-pilot’s chair. “Did they challenge us?”

“No,” the pilot said. “That’s odd, isn’t it?”

Leo swore under his breath as he peered into the starfield. Modern weapons could strike a target so far beyond visual range that the whole idea of waiting until you saw the whites of their eyes was not only stupid, but suicidal. They were already close enough to unleash a spread of missiles, or plasma balls, or simply push the drive to full power and ram the shuttle into the destroyer’s hull. Waterhen was supposed to be tough – she’d been built in an era where closing with the enemy was the expected tactic – yet there were limits. Her duty officer should not have allowed the shuttle to get so close without making damn sure of her bona fides. The risk was just too great.

“Send our IFF codes,” he ordered, shortly. He’d been told bridge duty was boring, particularly when the ship rested within the most powerful fixed defences known to mankind, but it wasn’t that hard to set an automatic alert. If the duty officer – he hoped to hell there was one – was playing with himself, rather than doing his job, Leo would kick him up the arse. Literally. “Let’s see how long they take to respond.”

His eyes narrowed as they flew closer, the dark starfield slowly revealing a dozen shipyard stripes, industrial nodes, and starships in varying states of repair or refit. Waterhen was holding position at the edge of the assembly, a dark flattened arrowhead bristling with weapons and sensor nodes. Leo frowned as he spotted the heavy phaser banks emplaced at the ship’s prow – those hadn’t been on the diagrams – and the handful of outdated sensor nodes positioned right behind them, so close that the backwash was likely to do considerable damage to the sensors, perhaps partly blinding the whole ship. There should have been two assault shuttles mounted on the hull – Waterhen was too small to have an internal shuttlebay – but they were both missing. Leo cursed under his breath. It was one thing to send the shuttle elsewhere, if there was no prospect of the ship being ordered to depart in a hurry; it was quite another to file a false readiness report. He made a mental note to report the discrepancies as soon as possible, perhaps after they were underway. It would hopefully lead to trouble for the ship’s nominal commanding officer.

“We just got pinged.” The pilot sounded as if he were amused, but there was an edge to his tone that suggested otherwise. “You think they’re asleep over there, or dead drunk?”

Leo shook his head in dismay. The shuttle was far too close to the hull for anyone’s peace of mind. They could ram the hull … hell, they could have mounted a primitive bomb-pumped laser on the shuttle and fired a ravening beam of destructive power into the destroyer, fired at such point-blank range that it would be impossible to miss. A lone shuttle could have taken out the entire ship … he reminded himself that, technically, he had the authority to flog his crewmen. It was rare, but it did happen. If someone really was drunk on duty, he would spend the rest of his short and miserable life being very sorry indeed.

“I don’t know,” he said, grimly. “But I’ll find out.”

“They’ve cleared us to dock at the upper hatch,” the pilot said. “You want to bet the hatch is crusted over through disuse?”

“No bet.” Leo had never heard of a hatch that couldn’t be opened – they were designed to be opened manually, if the power failed – but he wasn’t prepared to bet against it. “Take us there, please.”

He paused. “You want a job?”

“Nah,” the pilot said. He shook his head, clearly intending to get away before Leo could have him – and his shuttle – reassigned. “I think that ship’s a death trap.”

Leo scowled as the shuttle locked onto the hatch, a handful of alerts flashing up briefly before fading away again. He had the nasty feeling the pilot was right. The hatch seemed to be working properly, but how could they be sure? If the internal sensors were not in good shape …

We can check and recheck everything, and replace what needs to be replaced, he told himself, as he stepped into the airlock. The ship doesn’t have to be a death trap.

But the smell, which hit him the moment the inner hatch hissed open, suggested otherwise.
Chapter Three

Leo gagged.

It was rare, almost unknown, for a starship to smell of anything. Each planet had its own scent, he’d been told, but starships had internal life support systems that were intended to scrub the air as it circulated through the hull. A new ship, fresh out of the shipyards, might have a newish scent; an older vessel, at least in theory, shouldn’t smell of anything. And yet, there was a faint – and yet unmistakable – scent of decay in the atmosphere, a clear sign that some of the onboard air scrubbers needed to be replaced. It might not be lethal – not yet – but it suggested the crew wasn’t bothering to perform even basic maintenance. And that cautioned him that it was only a matter of time before someone more important failed.

He sucked in his breath, looking up the corridor towards the bridge hatch. A lowly Lieutenant-Commander didn’t merit the entire senior crew mustering to meet him, but there should have been someone. Instead, Waterhen felt disturbingly quiet, almost abandoned. There should have been a slight thrumming from the drives, even at rest, but instead … he stepped forward, feeling the air brushing against his bare skin. There should have been a breeze, a sign the air was circulating properly, but there was none. The metal bulkheads looked distinctly unclean. Leo cursed under his breath. He was starting to think he should have brought a small army with him, or perhaps something heavier than his pistol. The ship felt as if it were a haunted vessel out of legend, rather than a frontline military starship.

She isn’t really a frontline vessel, he reminded himself. Waterhen and her sisters had been amongst the best, fifty years ago, but now they were relegated to minor roles or independent navies. And yet, we are going to be on our own out there.

The bridge hatch opened. Leo looked up, ready to tear a strip or two off the young officer who had only just come to greet him, then stopped dead as he saw a vision of female loveliness practically gliding towards him. The effect was so stunning he couldn’t make out her features, beyond a heart-shaped face, deep dark eyes and red hair that seemed to fan out around her like a halo of red light. He felt his breath catch in his throat as he swallowed hard – he’d known dozens of pretty girls and women, but none so seductive – and forced himself to take a step backwards. The aura of naked sexuality seemed to vanish a second later. Leo bit his lip, hard. The woman wore a naval uniform so carefully tailored that it left very little to the imagination.

He gritted his teeth, trying to ignore the sudden – almost painful – erection. If the woman in front of him was a bona fide naval officer, he was a Grand Senator’s son. “Who are you?”

The woman gave him a considering look. Leo forced himself to look back at her. Up close, she was elegant and pretty, yet not quite as beautiful as he’d thought. He recalled being cautioned about young women in the upper-class Houses of Joys – brothels, by any other name – who were trained in mystical arts designed to separate a young naval officer from his money, although he’d never been sure how seriously to take them. The woman had stunned him and yet … her sensuality was something, he noted grimly, that she could turn on and off like a flashlight. He felt a hot flash of anger, cooling his ardour. He hated being manipulated, and yet she’d done it so easily …

“I am Flower Primrose,” the woman said. Her voice was calm and composed, but he had the feeling she could switch it to sensual warmth or ice in the blink of an eye. “I take it you’re the new officer?”

“Yeah.” Leo’s mouth was dry. “What are you doing on this ship?”

Flower – and her name certainly sounded as though she had come right out of a House of Joys – snorted. “Didn’t anyone tell you?”

She turned and led the way onto the bridge. Leo followed, careful to keep his eyes on her back rather than allowing them to drift down to her perfect rear and shapely legs. She was walking straight, without allowing her hips to roll in a sensual rhythm, and yet … he reminded himself, sharply, that he’d already got into trouble with one woman and he really didn’t need to get into trouble with another. He looked around the bridge instead, cursing under his breath. It was a mishmash of technologies from at least three different eras, consoles that had have been installed fifty years ago clashing oddly with systems that were a great deal more modern. He reached out to touch the command chair, flicking the switch to activate the near-space holographic display. The image was disturbingly fuzzy. He hadn’t seen that since childhood, when his school had been last in line for new equipment.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Leo said. There was no one else on the bridge, so he sat at the helm console and motioned for her to take the tactical seat. “Why are you here?”

Flower said nothing for a long moment, then spoke with a bitterness that chilled him to the bone. “Reginald bought my contract from the House of Joy,” she said, confirming his earlier thoughts. “I wasn’t just trained in all the sensual arts. I was trained to assist my master in all his roles, from simple secretarial work to arranging and fixing … well, anything and everything. If he wanted something, it was my job to get it for him. It was a little boring, to be honest. He never really made use of my talents.”

“Oh.” Leo wasn’t sure what to make of it. “And why did he leave you here?”

“Like I said, he never really made use of my talents,” Flower said. “He went to the pleasure dens and left me here, maintaining the illusion he was in command and the ship was ready to depart at a moment’s notice. And …”

Leo shook his head in disbelief. “And what are your talents?”

Flower looked him in the eye. “A great many things. Administrative practices. Negotiating. Personal management. Medical care. Bodyguard skills. Emotional reading … I speak nine languages fluently, and several others with varying degrees of competence. And that, Commander Morningstar, is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“I see,” Leo said. He wasn’t sure he did. He’d heard stories about girls trained in the Houses of Joys, but he’d never met one. “And if you know my name, I assume you know why I’m here?”

“Your real orders are to take this ship to her duty station, while leaving her formal commander behind,” Flower said, flatly. “You have my sympathy, for what it is worth.”

Leo cocked his head. “And how do you know about my orders?”

“I have his codes,” Flower said. “I was well aware of the dilemma facing his family long before you were selected for the post, and how hard they were trying to cover up the Captain’s issues.”

“You have his codes,” Leo repeated. An idea was starting to germinate in his mind. “Do you want to stay on this ship?”

Flower grimaced. “It would be preferable to spending time with him,” she said. “He’s quite boring, in person. And he has nothing resembling ambition.”

“Charming,” Leo said. “If you have his codes, will you assist me to prepare this ship for departure? We have a week to get ready and it isn’t going to be enough, not without help.”

Flower smiled. There was something oddly predatory about it. “It will be my pleasure.”

Leo smiled back. Flower was odd, no doubt about it, but he had the feeling she’d be a useful ally. She could certainly help use the captain’s codes to requisition shipyard crews, spare parts and whatever else they needed to get Waterhen into fighting trim as quickly as possible … assuming, of course, it could be done. Leo wasn’t sure it could, not yet. If what he’d seen on the hull was a sign of just how badly the ship had been refitted, they might have to rebuild the vessel from scratch and that would take months.

“I need to speak to the Chief Engineer,” he said, shortly. “Where is he?”

“He’s normally in his cabin,” Flower said. She reached into her pocket and produced a packet of pills. “You might need these.”

Leo took the pills and glanced at the label. “Cleansers?”

“Yes,” Flower said. “He is often dead drunk by this time.”

“I see,” Leo said. Drinking on duty was a serious offense … and the Chief Engineer was meant to be on duty at all times. “I’ll deal with him.”

He stood and left the bridge, making his way down to the engineering section. The air grew thicker, a grim reminder the air scrubbers needed to be replaced as quickly as possible; Leo felt his mood darken, along with the atmosphere, as he noted a handful of missing light fixtures and a bulkhead that had been removed, something else that hadn’t been included on the files. His skin crawled as he reached the cabin and tapped on the door, trying not to swear out loud as he realised someone had removed the buzzer and replaced it with a mishmash of components that didn’t seem to fit together. Leo wasn’t a proper engineer, but it looked as if the original system had been smashed and someone had tried to replace it with inadequate parts. The door remained firmly closed. Leo gritted his teeth, took a multitool out of his pocket, and poked the door in just the right place. The door hissed open. The interior was dark …

A bottle flew out of the darkness and crashed against the bulkhead, narrowly missing the man in the door. Leo reached for his pistol instinctively, then tapped the light switch instead. The lights came on, revealing a wrecked cabin and a man sitting at a table, surrounded by bottles of liquid. Leo made a mental bet with himself they were alcoholic. The man looked up, blearily, then down again. A pistol rested on the table. Leo tensed. He’d never killed a man before, not really, and he didn’t want to start by killing a member of his crew. And yet …

“Fuck off,” the man managed. He had a thick accent that suggested he was from the north, although it was hard to be sure. “I said, fuck off.”

Leo stepped forward, keeping his eyes on the pistol. If the engineer reached for the gun, Leo would have to knock him out and hope for the best. There was supposed to be a sickbay and a doctor on Waterhen, but Leo wouldn’t have bet his life on either being where they were supposed to be.

“That will do,” he said, pushing as much command authority into his voice as he could. “You need to sober up …”

“Don’t take that tone with me, you arrogant young bastard,” the engineer managed. “Born with a silver spoon in your mouth …”

Leo felt his patience snap. He yanked the man to his feet and shoved a pill into his mouth, forcing him to swallow. He had no idea how much alcohol the man had drunk, but there were so many empty bottles lying around that Leo was surprised he hadn’t drunk himself to death by now. The pistol was a bad sign, definitely. Leo took advantage of the man’s distraction to take the pistol, put the safety on, and stick it in his belt, then watched – grimly – as the man staggered into his washroom and threw up. Leo would have been sorrier for him if he hadn’t known the man was neglecting his duty, no matter who his commanding officer happened to be. Waterhen was dangerously close to being a death trap.

“Fuck you,” the engineer managed, staggering back out of the washroom. “Bring on the court-martial.”

Leo pointed to a chair. The engineer sat. “Name?”

“Chief Engineer Bryon Harris,” the engineer managed. “You need my name for the paperwork?”

“No,” Leo said. The paperwork had insisted the engineer was called Thomas Lenox, not Bryon Harris. “What happened to Lenox?”

Harris snorted. “He got himself reassigned,” he said. “Smart guy. So did the XO. Smart bitch. She went off to an asteroid mining station. Can you imagine? Fucking captain tried to fuck her and then he did fuck her and …”

Leo felt ice prickling down his spine. “What happened?”

“The captain was a bastard,” he said. “Treated her like shit. He’s got that pretty bird and you’d think he’d be happy, but no. He just has to try to get into his XO’s panties too. And she volunteered for an asteroid just to get away from him.”

“Fuck,” Leo muttered. That wasn’t just against regulations, but also thoroughly illegal. “And didn’t anyone try to report him?”

“Fuck, no,” Harris said. “You think anyone here wanted to get a little more fucked?”

He reached for a bottle. Leo slapped his hand away. “You little …”

Leo took a long breath. “I have been sent here to take command,” he said. “In fact, if not in name. This ship is going to the Yangtze Sector, leaving Captain Archibald behind. You have two choices. You can do your duty, and help me get the vessel ready for departure, or I can” – he caught himself before he could threaten reassignment; he had a feeling it would be more of a reward than a punishment – “put you out the airlock, and tell the navy you had a terrible accident.”

Harris blinked at him. “Are you for real?”

“Yes.” Leo leaned closer, until their noses were almost touching. “I fucked up, and I was sent to this ship because I fucked up. This deployment is my one chance to prove I am not a total fuck up. If we get out there, and we do a good job, we will embarrass our dear commanding officer and prove we’re not a ship of fuck ups.”

“Hah,” Harris said. He snorted, rudely. “Do you know how badly this ship is fucked up?”

He went on before Leo could answer. “Where do I even start? Basic maintenance has been neglected for the last year or so, which means an awful lot of installed components are already past their active lives and are on the verge of failing, if they haven’t failed already. A couple of previous commanding officers wanted more punch, so they insisted on installing modern phaser banks that might have a lot of P-O-W, but almost no E-R. The ship’s fusion cores don’t have the output to power both the phasers and everything else. Both assault shuttles were reassigned; the only shuttle we’ve got is teetering on the brink of being unspaceworthy. Half the onboard datanodes won’t talk to the other half, and a number of our stockpiled spare components were … ah … sold onwards.”

Leo sucked in his breath. “And if we could get the support we needed, could the ship be prepared for departure within a week?”

“Maybe,” Harris said. He scowled at his shaking hands. It would be some time before the effects of the pill wore off. “But we couldn’t do it alone.”

“We’ll ask for help,” Leo said. He shook his head slowly. “Is there anything else I ought to know about this ship, before we depart?”

Harris shrugged. “It would be easier to list the things you don’t need to know,” he said. He smiled, but there was no humour in the expression. “The captain signed the engineering reports we submitted to the naval office, but …”

“We’ll get the ship in order before the IG notices all the discrepancies and sends out an inspection team,” Leo assured him. It was going to be a hell of a job, even with Captain Archibald’s command codes and priority orders from the navy to do whatever it took to ensure they left by their planned departure date. “And whatever you have done before now …”

He eyed the older man thoughtfully. He’d mentioned spare parts being sold … had he been responsible for selling them? There was a thriving black market in military-grade starship components, particularly ones from vessels too old to make it easy for the components to be traced back to their source. Waterhen would be a prime source, particularly with a commanding officer who took little interest in his own command and – probably – signed everything put in front of him without reading it first.

“If you shape up and do your duty from now on, we will draw a veil over everything that happened prior to today,” he said, flatly. “Everything. Now, I want you to get a shower, change into a proper uniform and assemble the rest of the crew in the mess hall for 1700. I have a great deal to say, and not much time to say it.”

Harris eyed him, warily. “And you think the crew will be impressed by a baby-faced officer right out of the Academy?”

“I don’t care if they’re impressed by me or not,” Leo said. As a junior cadet, he’d wondered why senior cadets looked down on them; as a senior, he’d come to realise the juniors were dangerously ignorant of too many things, including their own ignorance. He couldn’t really blame the crew for having the same doubts about a jumped-up senior cadet, no matter how good he was on paper. “All that matters is that they start looking and acting like naval officers, before we have to head to our duty post and get to work.”

“We shall see,” Harris said.

“Yes,” Leo agreed. He added several more items to his list of tasks he’d need to handle before departure. They needed a marine contingent, if there was one going. “We shall.”
Chapter Four

It was common, on capital ships, for the officers to eat apart from the men, something Leo suspected had as much to do with elitism than simple practicality. Waterhen was too small to host both a wardroom and a mess hall, so her CO and his officers had no choice but to share space with the enlisted crewmen. Leo had a private theory that Captain Archibald had insisted on eating his meals in his cabin – Leo hadn’t had time to check out his cabin yet – but he hadn’t bothered to ask. There were more important things to worry about, starting with imposing his authority on the crew. It wasn’t going to be easy.

He kept his expression under tight control as four officers and fifteen crewmen filed into the mess hall, their faces reflecting a complex mixture of emotions. Some looked relieved to see him, others looked irked or outright angry … he chose to ignore the crewmen who shot him nasty glances, or the midshipwoman who looked downright scared of him. Her companion eyed Leo warily, his face determined and yet worried. Leo cursed Captain Archibald under his breath. Waterhen was not a very happy ship.

Harris stood at the front, looking more like a naval officer than a homeless drunk. Leo hoped – prayed – the man had been smart enough not to drink anything more dangerous than coffee or tea, now they were about to start putting the vessel into fighting trim. There were some things that could be overlooked, tiny breaches of discipline that could be quietly ignored – or so he’d been told – but an engineer drinking was very definitely not one of them. Leo would not have hesitated to reassign Harris if there’d been a successor waiting in the wings … there wasn’t. Waterhen was too old a design to draw the very best talent, if only because any engineer smart enough to pass the exams would be all too aware that serving on an outdated ship would be a career-limiter in any number of ways. He made yet another mental note to see if he could find a civilian engineer who might be interested, if he had the right skill set. There was provision for hiring – or press-ganging - civilians if there were no naval personnel available. It wasn’t as if there was anything classified on a fifty-year-old destroyer.

Leo took a step forward, wishing – for the first time – he had more experience. The enlisted men he’d commanded earlier, on the training vessel, had been very experienced indeed, trained to push buttons to test a prospective officer’s reactions when he was pushed to the limit, but nothing on that ship had been real. Here … the men and women under his command, no matter the formalities, could react in unexpected ways, making it hard or impossible for him to cope. He was mildly surprised no one had arranged an accident for their former commander, rigging something that would be very difficult to prove anything other than a genuine accident. And now …

“I won’t waste your time,” he said, allowing his accent to reflect his lower-class origins more than he’d ever dared at the academy. “I am Lieutenant-Commander Leo Morningstar and I have received orders to prepare this ship for departure, then take her to the Yangtze Sector to assist in the process of incorporating the populated worlds into the empire. Captain Archibald will not be joining us” – he pretended not to notice the ripple of relief running through the compartment – “and I will be in command.”

He let the words hang in the air for a long cold moment, then continued. “We have a great deal of work to do. This ship is in very poor condition and, despite the promised assistance from the local shipyards, we will all be working extremely hard over the next few days and, I’m afraid, we will probably be working hard during transit. Worse, it has become clear that standards of both training and discipline have been allowed to slip sharply, including into behaviour that is both dangerous and borderline criminal.

“That will not be allowed to continue.

“I am aware of the problems you have faced over the last few months, and I have a great deal of sympathy, so this is how I intend to deal with it. I will not investigate or penalise anything that happened prior to my arrival on this ship, as long as it stops. This is your one chance to put whatever you have been doing, no matter how much it breaks regulations, behind you. If you have hidden stills, destroy them. If you have stockpiles of alcohol, drugs, or feelie porn, or anything else that can render you unsuitable for duty, dispose of them. If you are gambling for real money, or anything more serious than sweets, stop it. This is your one chance, like I said, to put such things behind you.”

He paused, again. “If you have problems caused by this edict, you can bring them to me and I will deal with them; if you try to deal with them yourselves, you will regret it. I am aware that certain kinds of behaviour are tolerated on larger ships, as long as they don’t interfere with discipline, but Waterhen is too small for anything of the sort. I hope I make myself clear.”

His gaze flickered from face to face. “Many of you did not ask to be here. The officers who sent you here considered you the dregs of the service, the people who could not be permitted to serve on more modern ships and yet could not be reasonably charged with some offense against naval order and dismissed. I didn’t ask to be here either, but you know what? I’m going to make Waterhen the best damned ship, with the best damned crew, in the navy. If you work with me, I will make you proud. If not, you will suffer the consequences.”

He let the words hang in the air, then nodded. “You’ll get your orders in two hours,” he finished. “I suggest you use that time to clean up your act. There will be no second chances. Dismissed.”

Harris lingered as the rest of the crew filed out. “You think the speech will impress them?”

Leo shrugged. “They can’t say they weren’t warned,” he said. He’d started putting together a list of maintenance tasks, but the outdated – or false – maintenance reports Harris and his predecessor had filed made it tricky. “And the most important thing, right now, is to get everyone up and working before they have a chance to object.”

He smiled, rather coldly. “And you need to start work too,” he added. “We really don’t have very much time.”

“I think you’re crazy,” Harris said. “Do you think the navy will give you everything you ask?”

“We’ll see,” Leo said. “Put together a list of spare parts and other stuff we’ll need – make it a long one. We’ll be a very long way from support. Maybe we can convince them to let us borrow a freighter too.”

Harris snorted. “Good luck.”

Leo watched him go, then looked around the mess hall. It was strikingly bare, the food prepared well ahead of time and simply stuffed in the microwave, rather than being cooked by a dedicated kitchen staff. That would have to change, he reflected, although he had no idea how. Proper food would do wonders for morale, but there just wasn’t room for a functional kitchen unit. He made a mental note to consider the question later, then forced himself to walk back to his cabin. It had belonged to the previous XO, who had vacated it so quickly she’d left some of her possessions behind. Leo was surprised the cabin hadn’t been looted. It spoke wonders about the respect she’d enjoyed from the crew.

He opened the hatch and stepped inside. The scent of perfume wafted across his nostrils. He tensed, one hand dropping to his pistol before he caught himself. Flower was sitting upright in a decidedly non-regulation bed, wearing a string of pearls and nothing else. Leo stared numbly at her breasts, as perfect as the rest of her, then forced himself to look at the deck as a flash of anger shot through him.

“You …” He gathered himself with an effort. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Testing you,” Flower said, with a brutal honesty he couldn’t help finding a little disarming. “You passed.”

“Oh, thank you,” Leo said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “I take it Captain Archibald required your services at all times?”

“Captain Archibald showed surprisingly little interest in me.” Flower stood, without a hint of self-consciousness, and started to dress. Leo had to force himself to turn his back. “I was little more than a bauble on his arm, with no opportunity to show off my skills …”

“No, he preferred harassing the officers under his command instead,” Le snarled. “Did you know he drove away his XO? No one would volunteer for an asteroid mining post unless they were desperate!”

“I figured as much,” Flower said. She had the grace to sound regretful. “He is not a very nice man.”

“So I gathered,” Leo said. “Why?”

“There is a certain mentality that enjoys pushing people around,” Flower told him. “He would never be satisfied with a woman he purchased, not when he gained pleasure from forcing others to submit to him.”

Leo shook his head in disgust. There were rules and regulations, damn it, that even a well-connected officer should not have been able to avoid. Not forever. He promised himself he’d get a collection of testimonials together and quietly slip them to the IG, or maybe even tip off the media and let them handle it. Being a rogue was one thing, but outright sexual assault was quite another. Captain Archibald might discover his family abandoning him if the outrage grew too hot to handle. Or maybe he’d be reassigned to an asteroid mining platform.

“Bastard,” he said.

“Yes.” Flower sounded regretful. “You can turn around now. I’m decent.”

Leo turned. Flower looked surprisingly … naval, he noted, as she held out a datapad. He suspected acting was part of her training too, allowing her to present herself as anything from a simple naval officer to an outright sex kitten, or anything in-between. She extruded an air of calm competence he found soothing, even though he feared it was far from genuine. It was unlikely, to say the least, that she’d had any real naval training. She’d certainly never gone to the Academy.

“I arranged for you to get everything you wanted,” Flower said. “The first work crews, and pallets of supplies, will arrive tomorrow. You should get the rest in three to four days.”

“I …” Leo ran his eye down the datapad. “How did you do that?”

Flower smirked. “I’m a very good negotiator.”

Leo eyed her, warily. “Details?”

“A good magician never reveals her secrets,” Flower said. “Trust me.”

“And I don’t want to be bitten in the arse by something I don’t know exists until it bites me,” Leo said, flatly. He’d always been told never to look a gift horse in the mouth, but he’d often suspected it was very bad advice. If someone was giving a horse away for free, they probably wanted something in return … or there was something very wrong with the horse. “What did you do?”

Flower’s expression shifted, becoming alarmingly businesslike. “Well, in my role as Captain Archibald’s personal assistant – I’m entered onto the Navy Rolls as a steward, by the way – I made full use of both his command codes and his family’s extensive network of friends, clients and sub-clients. I cited the orders sent to you for some officials, and dropped extensive hints about future patronage and rewards to others. When juniors balked, I worked my way up to seniors and talked to them instead. It did help that the person who cut your orders was determined to get you on your way as quickly as possible, which made it easier to convince everyone to do as I wished.”

Leo grinned. Valerian might come to regret sending him away so quickly. Leo would bet half his savings the Deputy Commandant had no idea just how badly Waterhen had been maintained, let alone how much work she’d need to get her ready to depart in time to meet the deadline. If they were lucky, the whole affair would bite him on the rear soon enough … and there would be no way he could blame Leo for just following orders. It was a dangerous defence at times, he’d been taught, but not here. It wasn’t as if Valerian had given him orders to commit a genuine war crime.

He felt his mood darken, suddenly. “Are you happy to come along?”

Flower met his eyes. “Answer me a question,” she said. “You did four years studying how to be a naval officer, learning the basics of everything from interstellar jump drive technology to military tactics and logistics. Until yesterday, you had a promising career in front of you. How would you feel if, through no fault of your own, you were told you were going to spend the rest of your life pushing paper in the Admiralty? Or maybe not even that … just some damned office a hundred light years away, without even the slightest hope of advancement. How would you feel?”

Leo didn’t have to think. “I’d hate it.”

“Yes,” Flower said. “I spent four years in one of the most advanced educational establishments on the planet, then another four years being tutored in the arts of the Houses of Joys, an education that covered far more than most people realise. They think of us as glorified courtesans, little better than whores, when they think of us at all. We’re property, as far as they’re concerned; our master buys our contracts and effectively owns us.”

“It sounds horrific,” Leo said. “Do they?”

“Yes and no.” Flower shrugged. “I thought I’d gotten lucky, when my contract was purchased by an up and coming naval officer. I would have the chance to use all the training, to see how well it held up in the real world. Instead … I wasn’t even a whore. He bought me and … it was like buying a top of the line starship and using it for nothing more than storage space. It was … disappointing.”

Leo looked her up and down. “I see, I think,” he said. “You do understand we might be flying into danger?”

“That was part of the training,” Flower said. “I have degrees in everything from sharpshooting and close protection skills to unarmed combat and knife fighting.”

“And he wasted you,” Leo said. He saw her point, all too well. A question shot through his mind and he asked it before he could think better of it. “How do you switch your sex appeal on and off?”

Flower made no pretence of being puzzled by the question. “Sexuality is more than just being nude, or revealing too much skin,” she said. “It is, at core, a way of hinting that you are sexually available, pushing buttons in your targets subconscious mind to align your presentation of yourself with his needs and desires, even the ones he won’t admit to feeling … even to himself. A woman who doesn’t wear underwear, while wearing tight trousers that reveal her lack of underwear, is hinting she’s available without making it blatantly obvious. And if she’s a good observer of the person she’s after, she’ll note the effect she’s having and adjust her tactics accordingly.”

“I see,” Leo said. He’d never thought of it that way. It made him wonder just what Fleur had been doing, when she’d seduced him. “You make it sound calculated.”

“It is.” Flower tapped the space between her breasts, drawing his eyes before he could pull them back. “It is all about making the right presentation, quietly steering events ... even after you’ve let yourself be taken to bed, touching them in just the right way to elicit the right reactions. Yes, it is calculated. And I want the chance to use my skills properly.”

She smiled. “You do know I’m a trained spy?”

“You’d get the Mary Sue award, if you were in the Academy,” Leo said. It was hard to recall he’d been in the Academy, only a few short hours ago. He tried not to yawn as tiredness threatened to catch up with him. There was too much to do, and not enough time to do it. “I want you to keep an eye on the crew, as well as help preparing for departure. Someone is going to cause trouble, and I want that person caught before they infect the rest of the crew.”

Flower nodded. “Yes, sir,” she said. “I get on well with the crew.”

Leo raised his eyebrows. “You do?”

“It’s just a matter of presentation,” Flower said. There was no hint of boastfulness in her tone, which was more convincing than any insistence she could do the job. “I can be anything to anyone.”

“Just be honest with me,” Leo said.

“I will.” Flower met his eyes. “And if you let me, I can be very useful.”

“Understood,” Leo said. He held out a hand. She shook it, firmly enough to assert herself without trying to crush his hand. Impressive, he noted, and slightly disconcerting. It made him wonder just how much she could tell, just by watching him. “And please don’t try to manipulate me again.”

Flower smiled. “I won’t,” she said. There was a hint of a pout on her face, just long enough to catch his attention before vanishing again. “But what is conversation, but a form of manipulation?”

“I have no idea,” Leo said. “But right now I have too much to do to worry about it.”
Chapter Five

Leo had expected, in all honesty, that something would go wrong over the week between his arrival and their planned departure date.

It wasn’t as if there weren’t a hundred and one – and more – places where something could go wrong. The ship’s maintenance records were so patchy he had ordered the crews to start from scratch, inspecting every last component and logging the ones that needed replaced sooner rather than later. The lack of air scrubbers alone had caused an entire string of problems, from compartments that were distinctly unwelcoming to human life to moisture damage to sensitive equipment that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace without a shipyard and an unlimited budget. Leo felt torn between excitement for the coming voyage – and deployment – and fear of what might happen, the moment they jumped far from civilised space. In theory, they could demand spare parts and service from any outpost; in practice, he had a nasty feeling the outposts had little to give. He drove himself to the brink of utter exhaustion checking everything he could, while doing the same to the crew. If nothing else, he told himself firmly, they’d be too busy working – and then snatching what sleep they could – to cause trouble.

He did his best to lead by example, taking only a few short hours of sleep each day and then making sure he was seen to be doing his fair share of the work. It was something a commanding officer shouldn’t normally be doing – such work was normally tasked to the XO, who could get his hands dirty in a manner the CO could not – but Leo didn’t have a formal XO. Waterhen didn’t have the manpower, either, to allow someone to sit around doing nothing. Leo was uneasily aware he was building up one hell of a backlog of paperwork, something he’d have to tackle in transit, but … he shook his head. If they didn’t find and fix every life-threatening problem before they jumped out, the odds were good – he had no idea how good – that unfinished paperwork would be the least of his problems.

“How the hell,” he asked one evening, “did Captain Archibald managed to get through the Academy without being kicked out?”

“Good connections and a certain willingness to bribe his classmates into helping,” Flower answered. Her voice was as calm as always, but Leo was sure he heard tiredness under her tone. She’d been working hard too, ensuring the crew – and shipyard workers – had everything they needed to complete the job in record time. “And he still graduated right at the bottom.”

Leo scowled. He’d been told that anyone who failed to reach a certain score, each year, would either been denied advancement to the next level or simply be advised to leave before he was expelled. It had happened, too. He could name a dozen cadets who’d been held back or simply vanished, after the yearly exams. It was incredible to think that one man’s connections would be enough to get him through the tests and training exercises, particularly the ones carefully designed to throw a cadet back on his own resources, but … he made a mental note to worry about it later. Perhaps he could drop a hint to an investigative journalist and suggest he took a look at the captain’s progress … perhaps. The Academy was supposed to judge cadets as individuals, rather than by their families or their origins. It would be a major black eye for the institution’s reputation if it allowed someone to graduate because of their connections, rather than their family name.

“He was bloody lucky he didn’t kill himself,” Leo said. Space was an unforgiving environment – and someone stupid enough to take it for granted would either wind up dead or be kicked out by his peers, who would recognise him as a liability – and the slightest mistake could easily have ended very badly indeed. “How did you put up with him?”

“I spent a lot of time trying not to roll my eyes,” Flower admitted. She looked down at her datapad. “There’s two pieces of news: first, we’ll be escorting a convoy to the sector and the freighters are already assembling for departure.”

Leo made a face. “They’re that determined to get rid of us?”

“It looks that way.” Flower shot him a sharp look. He hadn’t told her why he’d been promoted and sent into de facto exile, but she had the connections to get most of the story and the experience and insights to guess the rest. “We haven’t been told we have to be ready to go or else, yet it was very strongly implied.”

“Charming,” Leo said. He took the datapad and skimmed it quickly. Nine bulk freighters, three lighter freighters … the latter, he suspected, more tempting targets for pirates than the bigger vessels. The manifests didn’t suggest they carried anything particularly valuable, but value was relative. A piece of colony equipment that was cheap and inexpensive near the core worlds would be worth its weight in gold, along the rim of explored space. “Can you arrange for them to carry spare parts for us too?”

“Already underway,” Flower said. “I took the liberty of arranging for payment from Captain Archibald’s trust fund. He won’t notice.”

Leo swore. “Are you sure?”

Flower shrugged. “Compared to the amount he spends on his pleasures, hiring a handful of compartments on a freighter or nine is nothing.”

She shrugged. “Technically, naval authority can be used to claim those compartments without payment, but practically … paying ensures the freighter commanders are more willing to carry our goods without complaining to their head officers, which will go crying to the navy about lost cargo space and other such things. It isn’t ideal, but it will suffice.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Leo said. He wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but … they needed more than grudging support, once they reached Yangtze and started their deployment in earnest. “And the other piece of news?”

Flower looked down. “There won’t be any Marines assigned to this ship.”

Leo cursed under his breath. “Did they give any reason?”

“None,” Flower told him. “Reading between the lines, I suspect the Corps has too many other calls on its resources, and it has a persistent manpower shortage.”

“And to think I thought about joining them,” Leo said. The Daybreak Marines were famed for being the best of the best, at least when it came to ground combat, and their training process was so intense that two-thirds of the volunteers washed out before they even completed the first quarter. The refusal to compromise on excellence was admirable, at least in his view, but it also meant there were never enough Marines to go around. Leo had hoped for a platoon or two, to give him a deployable military force and some muscle to back up his authority if he ran into trouble with the crew, yet … he shook his head. “Is there anything else we can call upon?”

“Not here,” Flower said. “There are few space-rated units available and most will be too much trouble, at least until they get their space legs.”

“And we’re too small to train them,” Leo said. A battleship could have taken a military unit and provided all the training they needed to prepare them for space, but Waterhen had neither the space nor the crew. “We’ll just have to find a way to cope.”

He scowled. Right now, he had no idea how. He couldn’t reassign his crew to boarding parties without risking heavy, if not catastrophic, losses. In theory, he could operate the ship with five crewmen; in practice, it would be damn near impossible under any circumstances and completely impossible if they came under enemy fire. Perhaps they could recruit spacers at Yangtze, or mercenaries … no, that was a bad idea. Mercenaries simply couldn’t be trusted completely, no matter how good they looked on paper. It would be asking for trouble to let them anywhere near his ship.

Flower cleared her throat. “You have an appointment with Lieutenant Halloran this afternoon,” she said. “Do you need help preparing for it?”

Leo snorted. “Did Captain Archibald require you to wipe his arse for him too?”

He sighed, inwardly. He’d taken the time to meet most of the crew, one by one, but Lieutenant Stuart Halloran was going to be a problem. Probably. If they’d been on a regular ship, Leo would have been reporting to Lieutenant Halloran … instead, Leo was his superior and Lieutenant Halloran would have to be superhuman not to feel a little resentment. He’d be smart, Leo acknowledged sourly, to doubt the jumped-up Lieutenant-Commander’s basic competence, and to wonder if Leo had been promoted through connections rather than military merit. The hell of it was that he would have a point. Leo knew he had been given a promotion he really didn’t deserve, and the crowning irony was that he’d been given it as part of a scheme to get rid of him. And no one would believe it.

The thought nagged at his mind as he dismissed Flower, then resumed his work preparing Waterhen for departure. The tiny destroyer was heaving with crewmen and shipyard workers, the air considerably more breathable as the air scrubbers were replaced, the life support units pushed to circulate and cleanse the air, then the scrubbers pulled out and replaced again. Leo had ordered Flower to ensure the ship got the best of food too, along with everything they needed. They’d be back on shipboard rations soon enough, and recycled muck it was better not to think about too much, but getting better food had done wonders for morale. Leo couldn’t help cursing Captain Archibald as he walked the decks, silently noting the progress they’d made and how much remained to be done. A man with his connections could have done a lot for his crew …

On the plus side, he reflected as he took a brief lunch and then returned to his cabin, it is easy to make a better impression on the crew.

It was rare for an officer, or a crewman, to be called to the commander’s cabin, but there was nowhere else Leo could speak to individual crewmen in relative privacy. He didn’t have a ready room or even a small office; he was reluctant to take possession of the captain’s cabin, not least because he wasn’t the ship’s formal commanding officer. He hoped Lieutenant Halloran wouldn’t hold it against him, or that some of his crew wouldn’t fear the worst when they were invited. Captain Archibald had left his mark on the vessel … and it wasn’t a good one.

The hatch chimed, then opened. Leo looked up and studied the newcomer thoughtfully. Lieutenant Halloran was only a couple of years older than himself – his file noted he’d graduated as a midshipman, rather than a provisional lieutenant – and he should have started a long career, rather than being assigned to a dead end like Waterhen. There hadn’t been anything in his file to suggest why he’d been transferred, or why his requests for reassignment had been quietly ignored. There certainly wasn’t anything to explain a stalled career. He hadn’t done much of anything, but he hadn’t had much of a chance.

“Sir,” Lieutenant Halloran said. His tone was one step short of naked disrespect. Leo, who had been disrespected by experts, ignored it. “Lieutenant Stuart Halloran, reporting as ordered.”

Leo motioned for the older man to sit on the chair. “Why are you here, Lieutenant?”

Lieutenant Halloran eyed him warily. “You summoned me. Sir.”

“You know what I meant,” Leo said, allowing a hint of irritation to seep into his tone. “Why are you on this ship?”

He leaned forward. “You may speak freely, by the way.”

“I told my commanding officer the truth,” Lieutenant Halloran said, flatly. “And it bit me.”

Leo met his eyes. “How?”

“Our ship was not ready for departure, as Captain Vladimir had ordered,” Lieutenant Halloran said. “There were a great many reasons for that, sir, but they all stemmed from the captain’s failure to issue the right orders, and put in the right requests, in time for us to depart. He was embarrassed in front of the admiral, and he asked me what went wrong. I told him.”

His eyes narrowed. “And so I found myself reassigned to Waterhen,” he said. There was a hint of anger in his tone. Leo suspected Lieutenant Halloran had requested the transfer, after his former CO had taken his embarrassment out on him. “Does that answer your question? Sir?”

“Yes.” Leo considered his officer for a moment, then decided to go with brutal honesty – and a certain degree of crudity. “I won’t fuck you around. I was given this assignment to get rid of me as quickly as possible, hence the instruction to meet our departure date or else. Our captain will not be returning” – he didn’t miss the relief, clearly visible for a long moment, on the other man’s face – “and I will be in de facto command. If I was in your shoes, I would be pretty pissed to see a new graduate promoted over me. Can I rely on you to be professional, regardless?”

Lieutenant Halloran hesitated, noticeably. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Yes,” Leo said. “I told you that, did I not?”

“You cannot possibly be worse than Captain Archibald,” Lieutenant Halloran told him, bluntly. “The way he treated Abigail …”

Leo frowned. A lieutenant should look after the juniors under his command, and Lieutenant Halloran had a harder task than most, but there was a hint of affection in the other man’s tone that bothered him. There were regulations covering relationships between officers of different ranks, even when they weren’t in the same department, and most boiled down to don’t. If Lieutenant Halloran was too close to his subordinate … it was going to be one hell of a headache.

“Duly noted,” he said. He’d worry about that later. “The files state you are the tactical officer. Is that true?”

Lieutenant Halloran grimaced. On any other ship, it would be a silly question. On Waterhen, it was anything but.

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Halloran told him. There was a hint of resignation in his tone, as if he expected to be penalised for not doing his job … despite a CO who didn’t allow his crew to do their jobs and an XO who had managed to get herself reassigned, leaving her post unfilled. “I am, on paper, the tactical officer.”

“Good.” Leo suspected Lieutenant Halloran hadn’t spent much time doing his job. The crew should have been drilling constantly to keep their skills sharp, but there were no files on tactical exercises or … anything, really. “You will continue to serve as tactical officer. However” – he met the other man’s eyes – “you will also serve as my de facto XO. It will not be an easy job, not least because I will be doing a lot of tasks that would normally – unquestionably – be the XO’s responsibility, but it is one that needs doing. Can you handle it?”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Halloran said.

“I will also need you to point out issues before they become problems,” Leo told him. “I will listen to whatever you have to say, in private, and I will take it into consideration even if I don’t agree with it. I will be loyal to you, and I expect the same loyalty in return. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.” Lieutenant Halloran leaned forward. “You do realise we’re being sent to the ass-end of nowhere?”

“Yes,” Leo said. He knew it very well. “But there are very few – if any – ships patrolling the sector. There will be opportunities to make a name for ourselves, and who knows where they’ll lead?”

Lieutenant Halloran looked unconvinced. Leo didn’t really blame him. He might be serving as de facto XO, but he wouldn’t have the formal rank and Leo didn’t have the authority, on paper, to write him a glowing officer evaluation statement. It was possible Leo – or Flower – could get Captain Archibald to sign a statement, but Lieutenant Halloran would be foolish to take that for granted. And yet, a long period so far from senior authority would have all kinds of opportunities. Who knew just how far they could go?

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Halloran said, finally.

“Good.” Leo glanced at the chronometer. There were a few minutes left before they both had to return to duty, long enough to see if there were any issues his new XO wanted to raise. “While we’re here, do you have any concerns?”

“Two things,” Lieutenant Halloran said. “First, the main phaser banks cannot be fired without diverting all power to weapons, including the life support. The weapons are simply unreliable and I would hesitate to use them in combat.”

Leo nodded. Harris had said much the same. He’d also drawn up a possible solution.

“And the second thing?”

The lieutenant hesitated, again. “I won’t lie to you, sir, and I won’t sugar-coat the problem. This crew has issues. They have been stilled, for the moment, because everyone is very busy, but that will change once we get underway. You need to be prepared for problems.”

“We’ll be exercising constantly,” Leo said, flatly. The ship’s tactical scores weren’t so much poor as non-existent. Leo had been told the IG inspectors were former cadets who had flunked out of the Academy and gone into careers where they could harass cadets who’d been better than them in every way, but it would be hard to blame an inspector who called for Captain Archibald to be court-martialled and his crew summarily dismissed from the navy. He would be right. “And we will be keeping the crew busy.”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Halloran agreed. “But will it be enough?”

“I don’t know,” Leo said. They had four days to departure and they’d better be ready. “We’ll find out.”
Chapter Six

Leo sat in his command chair – it was his, no matter what the formal chain of command stated – and forced himself to relax as they counted down the seconds to departure. The last four days had been hectic, with several weeks worth of work completed – barely – before their planned departure date, yet it had had the great advantage of keeping everyone too busy to cause trouble. That would change – he hadn’t needed Lieutenant Halloran to tell him that – but he’d deal with that problem when it reared its ugly head. If nothing else, there was a new sense of unity amongst the crew. Leo just hoped it would last long enough for him to take full advantage.

He leaned back in his chair, trying to look as though he’d commanded the jump a hundred times before. It wasn’t true. He’d issued orders on RSS Švejk, but there had always been a sense of unreality around his commands, as if the training crews were humouring him rather than regarding him as an officer … in truth, he hadn’t been an officer and they’d been looking for ways to unnerve him, to see how he conducted himself when the crew ignored – or deliberately misinterpret – his orders. That wasn’t going to happen onboard Waterhen, he was sure, although there were a hundred other things that could go wrong. Having a crew primed to drive their nominal commander up the walls was bad enough, but at least they were playacting. A simple navigational mistake now could put Waterhen and her crew straight into a sun. They’d be dead before they knew what’d hit them.

His eyes roamed the compartment, narrowing as he noted how many compromises the destroyer’s designers had made to fit everything they needed into the tiny bridge. There should have been separate helm and navigational consoles – there were, on bigger ships – but Midshipwoman Abigail Landor had responsibility for both, without even a navigational department to back her up. Leo told himself he should be grateful he wasn’t that long out of the Academy. His tutors had forced him to calculate jumps by hand, with the minimum of computer assistance, and he hadn’t forgotten how. Not yet. He’d heard senior officers grumbling about having to do it on the bridge, but it was better to check the calculations rather than blindly rely on the navcomp. It was difficult to be sure the computer was completely reliable.

Lieutenant Halloran sat next to her, operating the tactical console. There was nothing wrong with his skills, according to the file, but the first set of tactical exercises suggested he’d allowed his skills to atrophy through disuse. They’d done what they could to fix that, yet Leo worried about what would happen if – when – they ran into a real target. The tactical experts back home had done everything in their power to ensure the simulations were as realistic as possible, but there were limits. There was always something that was difficult, if not impossible, to include in the exercises … Leo sighed, inwardly. Lieutenant Halloran was also doing double duty as the communications officer, something that really should have been assigned to a separate officer. It wouldn’t be a problem normally, but they were going to the rim of explored space. It was quite possible they’d run into someone who literally couldn’t speak universal. Or saw fit to pretend so.

His console chimed. Leo was his own operations officer too, something that should have been passed to the XO … he keyed the console, cursing under his breath. He needed Lieutenant Halloran at the tactical station … and besides, he was too unpolished to be trusted to determine what needed to be passed to the CO and what he could handle himself. Leo had heard officers grumbling about micromanaging commanders, but … he understood, now, why so many captains micromanaged their crews. It was hard to be sure what was important and what wasn’t, and – at best – getting it wrong would make a CO look incompetent in a very competitive society. At worst, the ship might never be seen again.

“Captain,” Harris said. It was a courtesy title, but it still sent a thrill down Leo’s spine. “We have completed the final set of drive tests. All units are at full operational readiness, and we are ready to begin the power-up sequence on your mark.”

Leo took a breath. “Begin power-up sequence.”

“Aye, sir.”

A low shiver ran through the hull as the drives came online, the drive field taking shape around the hull. Leo kept a wary eye on the internal senses, hoping to hell they could be trusted to report any power surges, fires, or any other problems caused by a combination of poor maintenance and a CO too ignorant or short-sighted to understand the dangers. There was a reason the crew was meant to perform routine checks or replacements on each and every component, damn it. Leo had never heard of a console exploding in the middle of a battle, not outside bad movies, but he wouldn’t be surprised if one of the old consoles burst into flames if the operator pushed the wrong button. It would be tricky for a saboteur to do more damage than shoddy maintenance …

“All systems report ready, Captain,” Lieutenant Halloran reported.

“Helm units online, awaiting orders,” Midshipwoman Landor added.

Leo studied his own console for a long moment, torn between excitement and fear. “Tactical, contact the convoy and inform them we will be departing in twenty minutes,” he ordered, shortly. “Helm, move us to the first jump point and recalculate the jump coordinates.”

“Aye, Captain,” Abigail said. Another shiver ran through the hull as Waterhen started to move, getting underway for the first time in months. Leo braced himself, half-expecting a mighty explosion, as the vessel picked up speed. “We’ll take up position on the jump point in fifteen minutes.”

“The convoy informs us they’re ready to go, sir,” Lieutenant Halloran said. “And they’re asking where we are.”

Leo hid his annoyance as he reached for his datapad and started to work through the jump coordinates. In theory, a starship could jump across the universe in the blink of an eye; in practice, it was vanishingly unlikely any ship that tried to jump so far would wind up anywhere near its destination, if it rematerialised at all. Leo didn’t pretend to understand the underlying equations governing FTL travel – very few did – but he know how a single gravity mass could alter their course, ensuring they’d arrive a very long way from their target coordinate. It wasn’t easy to jump past a certain range without getting hopelessly lost and most starships preferred to take it slow, jumping from one set of coordinates to the next and then recalculating before jumping again. He worked his way through the equations slowly and then checked them against the navcomp, breathing a sigh of relief as they matched. It would have been embarrassing, to say the least, if they hadn’t.

“Jump coordinates locked,” Abigail reported. “Jump drive is online, power curves nominal.”

“Tactical, signal Daybreak and inform them we are ready to depart,” Leo ordered. “And then inform the convoy to prepare for jump.”

He settled back into his chair, eying the nearspace display thoughtfully. His former classmates had graduated a week ago and, after a brief day or two with their families and friends, had been sent to their new duty stations. They were midshipmen and lieutenants … he felt torn between pride in being a de facto commanding officer so quickly and envy of his peers, who would have the chance to build their careers and impress officers and potential patrons … without, he noted sourly, being responsible for twenty lives and an entire starship. Leo knew, without false modesty, that he’d done well in training – he wouldn’t have been promoted to a provisional lieutenancy, if he hadn’t – but he couldn’t help wondering what he didn’t know, and what he would learn in the heat of battle instead of being mentored by an older and far more experienced officer. Lieutenant Halloran was the closest he had to such an officer – and Flower, he supposed – and neither could issue orders to him.

They’re probably envying me right now, he thought. The Academy would have issued some kind of explanation for his sudden departure … perhaps a little creative rescheduling combined with barefaced lying, the kind of bureaucratic double-speak Valerian and his type excelled at. They think I was jumped well ahead because of my academic brilliance, not because I fucked up.

“The convoy is reporting ready to jump,” Lieutenant Halloran said, as Waterhen took up position at the head of the convoy. “Captain?”

“Give the order,” Leo said. He took one final look at his inbox, breathing a sigh of relief that Captain Archibald had shown no inclination to return to his ship. It would be bloody awkward, to say the least. “Jump!”

“Aye, Captain,” Abigail said. “Jumping … now!”

Leo braced himself, an instant before the bridge dimmed around him. He’d been told it was like the entire universe was preparing to take a sneeze, a sensation that was incredibly difficult to put into words – it was almost as if the starship crews were imagining it and yet it was all too real – no matter how many times he travelled on a jump-capable ship. A low flicker of discomfort shot through him, an instant before the universe returned to normal … as if nothing had happened. The only sign something had changed was the nearspace display. The thousands of icons buzzing around Daybreak were gone, replaced by a handful of navigation beacons and little else. Leo felt a chill run down his spine. It was almost as if they were suddenly alone in the universe.

“Jump completed, Captain,” Abigail said.

“Noted.” Leo swallowed, hard. “Did we match the target coordinates?”

“We’re well within the margin of error,” Abigail said. She sounded relieved. A CO who discovered his ship was millions of miles off course might well take it out on the navigator. Leo knew better – he’d done the maths himself – but she didn’t know it. “I’m recalculating the second jump now.”

“Tactical, confirm the freighters have arrived safety,” Leo said. He realised his mistake a second later. “Scan local space. Confirm no threats within detection range.”

Lieutenant Halloran worked his console. “Confirmed, Captain,” he said. His tone was so flat Leo knew he was amused. The mistake hadn’t been fatal, but it was embarrassing and – in the middle of a war – it could easily have been disastrous. It was impossible to be sure where a starship would arrive – the margin of acceptable error was surprisingly high, to groundpounder eyes – but a starship with bad intentions could easily lurk near the most likely coordinates, ready to open fire the moment its target showed itself. “Local space is clear. No potential threats within detection range.”

He paused. “The freighters conform they have completed their jumps without issue,” he added. “They’re recharging their drives now.”

“Good.” Leo made a mental note to run through the simulations again. That had been embarrassing. He’d have been marked down if he’d done it on a regular ship, under an officer’s watchful gaze, and here … it would call his competence into question. “Helm, take us to the second jump point. We’ll continue our voyage as quickly as possible.”

“Aye, sir.”

Leo leaned back in his chair, studying the live datafeed from engineering. There had been no real problems, thankfully, and the jump drives were recharging hastily … they weren’t quite up to modern standards, he noted, but they were doing well enough. Waterhen would be fine as long as she didn’t blunder into an ambush. The research and development crews had been insisting they’d be able to put together a drive that allowed a starship to jump repeatedly, time and time again, but Leo would believe it when he saw it. The whole concept would change the face of war if it ever got off the drawing board and into cold hard reality, yet … he shook his head. There were hundreds of concepts that looked good on paper and simply didn’t work in real life. Starfighters, for one. They’d be wiped out in droves before they managed to get anywhere near their target.

He relaxed, slightly. They were underway. There’d be no going back now.

“Captain,” Abigail said. “We’re nearing the second jump point.”

“Jump when ready,” Leo ordered. The second jump would be further than the first, now they were clear of Daybreak. “Tactical, ensure the freighters follow our lead.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Leo leaned forward as the second jump was completed, taking the time to make sure he issued the right orders upon arrival. There were no encroachments, just a growing sense that they – and the remainder of the convoy – were ever more alone in the universe. Leo would almost have welcomed a pirate attack – they were the scourge of the galaxy, and naval officers had orders to kill pirates wherever they found them – as the sense of being alone grew stronger. If nothing else, it would be a chance to test his ship against a foe that was unlikely to risk everything in a bid to destroy him. Pirates were rarely brave, when confronted by a ship that might be able to give them a decent fight. There was no point in picking a fight they might lose, leaving them unable to spend their ill-gotten gains …

“Lieutenant Halloran, you have the bridge,” Leo said, after calling a replacement tactical officer. “Alert me if anything, and I mean anything, changes.”

“Aye, sir.”

Leo stood, feeling a twinge of unease as he studied the nearspace display. The convoy was a cluster of icons, gathered behind his ship, and beyond them … nothing. He’d known, intellectually, just how vast interstellar space truly was, but it was difficult – almost impossible – to believe it on an emotional level. Waterhen wasn’t a speak of dust on such a scale. She was an atom, perhaps something even smaller. The largest starship known to mankind simply wouldn’t register, not when compared to a planet or a star. There might be plans to construct planet-sized starships, but Leo would believe that – too – when he saw it. The whole concept struck him as thoroughly absurd.

But so would a starship, a few hundred years ago, he thought, as he left the bridge. It was harder than he’d expected. He knew he needed to let his officers have a turn at the command chair, to make sure they had the experience they needed when – if – they were promoted or the ship simply ran into trouble, but it still bothered him. It didn’t help that Lieutenant Halloran had more experience than him, even though it should. The first space explorers would have taken one look at us and dropped dead from shock.

He pushed the thought out of his mind as he keyed the buzzer outside the captain’s cabin. He’d resisted going into the compartment earlier, partly because he’d been afraid Captain Archibald would return and partly because he hadn’t wanted to know, but now … it couldn’t be put off any longer. Flower opened the door, wearing a summer dress that made her look an idealised housewife. Leo shook his head at her smile. She was a very interesting person, and very useful, but it was difficult to know what she was really thinking, when she could present herself as anything from a simple crewwoman to a sex kitten in the blink of an eye.

“Welcome home, sweetheart,” Flower said. She grinned, then dropped the act. “What do you think?”

Leo surveyed the cabin. It was larger than it should have been … he scowled as he realised Captain Archibald had taken down two bulkheads to merge his cabin with the ship’s tiny conference room and a storage compartment. The interior was designed to be remodelled, but … his eyes lingered on the painting hanging from the far bulkhead, a painting that was probably worth more than his entire salary. It was also disgusting. Leo didn’t consider himself a prude – he’d done his time in the fleshpots, the honey traps for cadets and spacers on leave – but there were limits. He didn’t want to meet the painter – no, that wasn’t true. He wanted to meet the man in a dark alley, with a baseball bat in hand and no witnesses.

“Charming,” he said. Captain Archibald had a great deal of money and absolutely no taste whatsoever. “And you had to sleep here?”

“I had the closet,” Flower said, indicating a door. “It was … preferable.”

Leo couldn’t disagree. “And his family found this … tolerable?”

Flower grimaced. “I suspect they wanted him to remain firmly out of sight and out of mind,” she said. “That might change shortly, of course.”

“Yeah.” Leo had filed a set of accurate reports, just before departure. He’d done nothing to draw them to the IG’s attention, but – as long as they weren’t asleep at their desks – they should have some pretty searching questions for Captain Archibald. The shipyard workers would probably file their own reports too. “It will be interesting to see how that works out.”

He peered into the bedroom and shook his head. “Pack up everything that isn’t naval-issue and put it in storage,” he said. “We can offload it at Yangtze and send it back to Daybreak … he can claim it, if he wants it.”

“That painting is worth a great deal of money,” Flower pointed out. “And technically it belongs to the navy.”

Leo shook his head. “I’d be worried about anyone who bought it,” he said. “Just … get it all into storage. I want my conference room back.”

Flower grinned. “Really?”

Leo grinned back. “I can’t keep inviting junior officers and crew to my cabin,” he said, with the private thought Captain Archibald had been doing just that. “People will talk.”

“Yeah,” Flower agreed. “They do little else.”
Chapter Seven

“I think we can install emergency power storage cells,” Harris finished, “and use them to fire the phasers.”

“Yes,” Lieutenant Halloran agreed. “Once.”

“Better than nothing,” Harris pointed out. “Those weapons are just dead weight right now.”

Leo tapped the table. “We need every edge we can get,” he said. They’d been doing tactical drills time and time again over the last week, until everyone was thoroughly sick of exercises, and it had become clear that Waterhen could easily find herself outgunned. Hell, it was quite possible her enemies would assume she was more heavily armed than she was and devote more effort to destroying her, a degree of overkill they wouldn’t know was overkill until it was too late. “Install the power cells and start charging.”

“Yes, sir,” Harris said. “We’ll get on with it at once.”

Lieutenant Halloran looked irked, but didn’t say anything. Leo allowed himself a moment of relief. A regular XO on a regular ship would know the written and unwritten conventions of serving as his commander’s right hand, from privately arguing his decisions to serving as the interpreter between him and the crew, but Lieutenant Halloran had almost no experience at being an X and a certain awareness that Leo really had been promoted over his head. Leo had no idea if his XO thought Leo really was hot shit, or he had connections, or at least had the great advantage of not being Captain Archibald, but … he shook his head. It didn’t matter, as long as he did his job. Leo would do what he could to ensure Lieutenant Halloran was promoted later.

He cleared his throat. “Is there anything else we should discuss?”

“No, sir,” Harris said. “We’re as close to perfect as we can reasonably hope.”

Lieutenant Halloran snorted. Leo couldn’t help a certain degree of private agreement. Harris had done wonders, with the help of the shipyard workers, but Waterhen was still a mishmash of components from two or three eras and not every command and control node talked to every other node. There would be problems, Harris had cautioned, if the ship took heavy damage. A modern vessel could reroute her internal datanet around any damaged sections, but Waterhen couldn’t … not without risking catastrophic datanet failure at the worst possible time. Leo suspected it would be the least of her problems – a battleship could soak up damage, a tiny destroyer could not – but it was something he had to bear in mind. A long-running engagement could easily end very badly indeed.

Leo looked at Lieutenant Halloran. “And tactical?”

“The crews are being cross-trained now,” Lieutenant Halloran assured him. “However, there are limits to how many billets we can fill without leaving others dangerously undermanned.”

“Understood,” Leo said. He’d put out a request for more crew, but none had been reassigned before their departure. “We’ll do the best we can.”

“We can requisition naval reserve personnel from merchant vessels, if necessary,” Lieutenant Halloran pointed out. “It would be legal …”

“Unless the owners bitch up a storm,” Harris muttered. “We could get sued.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Leo said. “In fact, I …”

The intercom bleeped. “Captain,” Abigail said, nervously. “I … ah, there’s an affray on Deck Four, Bunkroom Two.”

Leo’s eyes narrowed. “An affray?”

“Yes, sir,” Abigail said. “Shouting and screaming, and fighting, and …”

“I see.” Leo thought fast. Normally, the Marines and the XO would deal with whoever was having the affray and the Captain would deal with them later, once everyone had calmed down. He had no Marines and he wasn’t sure he wanted to send anyone else to deal with the crisis. “Seal off the area. I’m on my way.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Sir,” Lieutenant Halloran said. “I can go …”

“Better me,” Leo said. He couldn’t afford to let his XO be used as the enforcer too often. It was important to prove he was a better CO than Captain Archibald. “You take the bridge.”

“Aye, sir.”

Leo checked his sidearm, cursing under his breath. Trouble – real trouble – was rare on smaller ships, if only because everyone knew everyone else’s business. It was harder for problems to fester until they burst into the light, but Waterhen – once again – was an exception to the rule. Would it have killed Captain Archibald to be a good commanding officer? Or to let his XO get on with the job instead of trying to get into her pants? If the bastard had done his fucking job …

He made his way down to the lower deck, silently assessing the situation. The crew was a little more spread out than he’d expected, the reduced manpower allowing crewmen to claim individual cabins or share bunkrooms with one or two comrades instead of five or ten. Leo hadn’t realised that could be a problem, not until it was too late. He made a mental note to deal with it later as he stopped outside the sealed hatch, and used his command authority to open it. There was no sign of trouble as he slipped through the hatch, eyes flickering from side to side. He inched down the corridor, resisting the urge to draw his sidearm. He’d never drawn his service weapon in anger before and he was damned if he was starting now.

“I …”

Leo tensed. Someone was talking, someone up ahead. He kept moving until he reached an open hatch and peered inside. A crewman was sitting on a bunk, playing with a collection of metal pipes and containers that had been scavenged from spare parts … Leo had never seen the specific design before, but it was clearly a very illicit still. He sucked in his breath, a hot flash of anger burning through him. He’d given orders – very specific orders – that all stills were to be destroyed. It looked as if this one had been dismantled instead. Judging by the crewman’s condition, he either couldn’t take his booze or two weeks of enforced abstinence had taken its toll. Leo shook his head in dismay. He’d known someone would challenge his authority sooner or later, but this …

The crewman looked up. He was a mess, so much so that Leo had problems recognising him as Crewman Shields. The man’s service record was pitiful and the only reason his naval service had been extended was that he filled a billet on Waterhen, one that might otherwise have demanded a competent crewman. There’d been a long string of complaints too … Leo gritted his teeth. The training officers who’d pretended to be his subordinates had known when to stop. Shields … didn’t.

“On your feet,” Leo snapped. “Now!

“Captain Kid,” Shields managed. “You … you little brat …”

He sprang, moving faster than Leo would have believed possible. Leo barely had a second to brace himself before the man crashed into him, sending them both tumbling to the ground. His breath stank of alcohol and failure, a man whose career had been dead for years before he laid hands on his commanding officer. Leo wondered what Shields was thinking, or even if he was thinking at all, as he grasped the man’s ear and pulled, hard. Assaulting a starship captain carried the death penalty. And Shields had to know it.

Leo twisted as Shields recoiled, throwing a punch that would have put Leo’s lights out for good if it had connected. Instead, he hit the deck hard … Leo gritted his teeth and kicked the crewman in the chest, then pulled himself free and scrambled to his feet. Shields wasn’t bright enough to know he was woozy, Leo noted absently; he’d already fucked his career beyond hope of repair. Or had he … Leo shoved Shields down, then looked around for the sober-up he knew had to be somewhere within arms’ reach. Anyone fool enough to start brewing alcohol on an starship would be smart enough to have a sober-up, right? He smiled as he found the tab and shoved it against the man’s arms. Shields called him every name in the book, and a few Leo had never encountered before, as the drug worked its way through his system. It was not an improvement, Leo reflected. Shields was becoming sober enough to realise – all too clearly – just what he’d done.

“I …” Shields coughed and sputtered. “Captain, I …”

Leo met his eyes, refusing to show even a hint of weakness. “What were you thinking?”

Shields said nothing for a long moment, then started to whine. “Captain Archibald never cared …”

“I’m not Captain Archibald,” Leo snapped. “And you should be grateful. He would have nailed your underpants to your head and tossed you out the airlock, without bothering with any sort of formalities. What were you thinking?”

“It was just a little drink …”

Leo was temped, very tempted, to slap the older man as hard as he could. There was no such thing as a little drink. His mother had been a strict teetotaller, pointing to the drunkards who thronged the streets every weekend as clear proof of the evils of alcohol; Leo himself hadn’t gotten drunk until he’d been given two days off from his training, an experience that had convinced him his mother had a point. It was bad enough being picked up by the patrol and spending a night in the drunk tank, but getting drunk on a starship was suicidal. Shields was lucky his career hadn’t come to an end well before he’d assaulted his commanding officer.

“There’s no such thing as a little drink,” Leo said. The still didn’t look very safe – or clean. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t hold a Captain’s Mast and put you out the airlock myself?”

Shields shuddered, violently. He’d ignored direct orders, then rendered himself unfit for duty and – if that wasn’t bad enough – he’d assaulted his commanding officer. There were few grounds to avoid the first charge and none to avoid the remaining two. The IG would stamp fully approved on the execution warrant, and even if it thought otherwise and countermanded the sentence it would too late. Hell, the IG was reluctant to do anything that might call a Captain’s authority into question. It would be an interesting case – Leo was not a formal Captain – but no matter the outcome Shields wouldn’t be alive to see it.

He swallowed. He hadn’t thrown up, suggesting he hadn’t had much in his stomach. No wonder the alcohol had affected him so badly.

“I was drunk,” Shields managed. “I didn’t know who you were.”

“I shall pretend to believe that,” Leo said. He knew very well that was a lie. “Tell me, Shields. What happened to your career? Why …?”

Shields shook his head. “Does it matter? Get on with it.”

“I’ll give you a choice,” Leo said, flatly. “You can sober up and do your fucking job, or you can walk out an airlock. If you choose the former, if you turn your career around, I’ll forget this incident ever happened. You can work your arse off as part of this crew and restart your career. You will have a chance to actually make something of yourself. Or you can die.”

“That’s not much of a choice,” Shields said. “Sir, I …”

“Choose,” Leo said. The report would have to be very carefully written, just to obscure how badly he was bending regulations. He had a legal duty to execute Shields – or at least imprison him – and instead he was finding a way to avoid it. “Make something of yourself. Or die.”

“You don’t understand,” Shields protested. “Sir, I … I fucked up.”

“Yes, you did,” Leo agreed. “And now you can recover from that mistake or you can die.”

He stepped back and looked around the messy bunkroom. It didn’t look as if Shields was sharing the space with anyone, let alone someone with the authority – personal or positional – to tell him to shape up before he dragged everyone else down with him. That wasn’t a good sign. The senior crewmen should have dealt with Shields well before the officers got involved, something that would have happened on a bigger ship with a bigger – a much bigger – crew. Instead … Leo couldn’t afford to lose anyone, but there were limits to how far he could tolerate someone like Shields too. If he caused more trouble …

He’ll be going out the airlock, Leo thought. It was funny how the play-acted Captain’s Masts had been so easy, how he’d handled them without a care in the world … because, at base, they hadn’t been real. There had been no way in hell the sentences he’d handed out, back then, would actually be carried out. Here … he would be killing Shields, really killing him, if he carried out an execution. If I do that, what will it do to me?

“I’ll do my best,” Shields managed.

“Good.” Leo helped him to his feet. “Go to sickbay. The doctor can check you over and purge your bloodstream, then the engineer can put you to work. Do as you’re told, without argument, and we can put this incident in the past.”

He pointed Shields down the corridor, then walked after him. Harris was standing by the hatch, looking grim. He was holding a stunner in one hand. Leo met his eyes and motioned for him to remain behind, as Shields tottered to sickbay. It wasn’t idea, but it would have to do.

“I want that cabin – this entire deck – searched from top to bottom,” Leo ordered, curtly. It was hard to keep the anger out of his voice. Someone had been asleep at the switch and the blame, when the IG inspected the records, would probably fall on him. A captain was responsible for everything that happened on his ship, even if he didn’t have the formal rank or he’d only just taken command. “The still is to be destroyed, and any others – even dismantled – are to be destroyed too.”

Harris looked as if he wanted to argue, but didn’t dare. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’ll see to it personally.”

“You can get drunk on shore leave,” Leo told him. Shields hadn’t been the only drunkard on the ship. He dreaded to imagine what sort of trouble a drunken engineer could cause, when they were hundreds of light-years from home. “During flight, it’s a very bad idea.”

“Yes, sir,” Harris said. “I’ll make sure the rest of the crew knows too.”

“And put Shields on harsh duty,” Leo added. “He can share a bunkroom with crewmen who have a little more common sense. This could have ended very badly.”

“Yes, sir.”

Leo turned and headed down the corridor, heading back to the bridge. Lieutenant Halloran was sitting in the command chair, looking pale. Flower stood beside him, wearing a naval uniform in a manner that suggested she’d been a navy brat all her life. Leo wondered, idly, just what sort of life she’d had, before joining the Houses of Joy, then shrugged as Lieutenant Halloran stood. Leo filled them both in quickly as he took his seat. They had to know what had happened, and what he intended to do about it.

“Sir,” Lieutenant Halloran said, when he’d finished. “Is that wise?”

“I hope so,” Leo said. “We’ll keep a close eye on him, of course, and if he doesn’t shape up we’ll ditch him on Yangtze.”

He scowled. Shields’s service record had suggested a man who couldn’t win for losing, a crewman who had had a run of bad luck early on and never recovered. The complaints had been vague, the sort of thing that might be driven by personal dislike rather than actionable evidence. It was possible Shields had messed up badly and never had a chance to catch himself; it was also possible his superior had been unwilling to press formal charges because it would have made him look bad. Leo suspected he’d never know for sure. There was no point in sending a message back to Daybreak, asking for details. It would be months before he got a reply, assuming there was one, and he wouldn’t know if he could trust it.

“I’ll keep an eye on him too,” Flower said. “If he is an addict, it won’t be long before he’ll feel driven to start drinking again.”

“There are treatments for alcoholic dependency,” Leo snapped. It was true that a crewman who applied for them would wind up in trouble, but Shields was in trouble anyway. “If you think he’s slipping, let me know. We can deal with him.”

“And if you’re wrong?” Lieutenant Halloran leaned closer. “If he’s planning to cause real trouble …?”

“Then we’ll deal with it,” Leo said. He understood Lieutenant Halloran’s concerns, but he owed it to his crew to give them a second chance. Perhaps, with a better commander and a genuine chance to prove himself, Shields would show he was worthy of the uniform. Perhaps not, but at least Leo would have given him that chance. “We’ll keep an eye on him and see what happens.”

He leaned back in his chair. “You can get some rest,” he added. “I’ll get back to my paperwork.”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Halloran said.

“You should leave the paperwork to me,” Flower said. “I can handle it.”

“I’m sure you can,” Leo said. He was very tempted to let her take the lead. “But I need to know what I’m signing.”

He dismissed her, then leaned back in his chair. There was never any shortage of things to do, from paperwork to books or videos, but the journey was starting to wear him down anyway, to the point he would have been almost relieved if they encountered a pirate ship. It would have been something to do …

Enjoy being bored, he reminded himself. His instructors had told him that naval service was long days and weeks of routine boredom, broken by moments of screaming terror, and he was starting to think they’d been right. You’ll have a great deal to do once you reach Yangtze.
Chapter Eight

“Jump completed, sir,” Abigail said.

Leo leaned forward, feeling a thrill of excitement as Yangtze appeared on the main display. He’d half-expected an undeveloped world, all alone in the night, but Yangtze was surprisingly well-developed for her age. The original colonist-carrier starship had been converted into an orbital transit station, opening the development of the high orbitals, and the local industrial base had been able to fund and establish a handful of zero-gee industrial nodes, primitive by modern standards and yet better than most worlds, isolated from the galactic mainstream by the war, had been able to built. A number of asteroid settlements – probably mining camps – were clearly visible on the display, as was a small but perfectly functional cloudscoop. Leo couldn’t help being impressed. It was a remarkable achievement.

“Tactical, send an IFF transmission,” Leo ordered. They’d been careful to jump into the designated emergence zones, but it was quite possible the planet would mistake them for a pirate vessel and sound the alert. The planetary authorities should have been informed of their impending arrival, yet interstellar schedules were always based on wishful thinking and no one took them for granted until the starship actually arrived. “Hel, hold us here until we we cleared to approach.”

“Aye, sir.”

Leo leaned back in the command chair and watched as more data flowed into the nearspace display. Yangtze had a handful of automated orbital weapons platforms – primitive, again, but enough to deter pirates and planetary raiders – and a network of sensor beacons that was surprisingly well developed, allowing the planet to monitor nearspace with an impressive thoroughness. Leo keyed his console, noting the presence of a handful of outdated patrol ships and what looked like a pair of converted freighters, their hulls crammed with weapons in a manner that wouldn’t turn them into genuine warships, but would give any pirate fool enough to pick a fight a nasty surprise. He wondered, grimly, just how much pirate activity there was in the sector, now it was slowly being incorporated into the empire. There would be rich pickings for any pirate willing to take the risk of running afoul of Daybreak, and it wouldn’t be that risky until more warships were deployed to the sector. Leo felt his eyes narrow as he studied the orbital installations. It was hard to be sure, but he had a feeling the local naval base was not up to the task of supporting even one outdated ship.

We’re going to have to do something about that, he mused. Waterhen was tough enough to take on most pirate ships, but she couldn’t be everywhere at once. Perhaps if we convince the locals to invest in a joint facility, one that can handle both our ships and theirs …

Lieutenant Halloran looked up. “The planet just pinged us, sir,” he said. “We are cleared to approach.”

“Helm, take us in,” Leo ordered. He was mildly surprised the planetary authorities hadn’t designated an orbital slot, but it wasn’t as if the high orbitals were crowded. It was unlikely they’d crash into anything unless they did it deliberately. The surface to orbit traffic was surprisingly high for a formerly-isolated world, but it was still quite low compared to Daybreak or Earth. “Tactical, maintain a light active and passive sensor scan at all times. I want to know if anything changes.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Halloran said. “You expect attack?”

Leo shrugged. “An inch of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” he said, citing a lesson his instructors had drilled into him, mainly with gruesome stories about surprise attacks that had only worked because the defendant hadn’t been paying close attention to what was going on around him. “Besides, our sensor crews need the practice.”

He frowned as a new message popped up in his inbox. Governor Brighton welcomed him to Yangtze, and invited him to visit Government House at his earliest convenience. The message was polite and friendly, but Leo knew it was an order. The governor would want to meet with him as quickly as possible, and to hell with his other commitments. Leo sent back a short reply noting he’d be on the way as soon as his ship entered orbit, then forwarded the message to Flower. She could come with him. He’d noted her observation and deduction skills were light-years ahead of his, fully on par with Sherlock Holmes.

“Captain,” Abigail said. “We have entered orbit.”

“Hold position,” Leo ordered. “Lieutenant Halloran, you have the bridge.”

“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Halloran said. “Should I prepare the crew for shore leave?”

“Groups of five, after I speak with the Governor,” Leo said. He didn’t expect trouble – he would have been warned by now if there was a reason not to allow his crew down to the surface – but it was well to be careful. Yangtze was so far from civilised space that there was little data on the planet’s political situation, and what there was appeared to be several years out of date. “Make sure they know it won’t be for long. We’ll have to go on patrol soon enough.”

“Aye, sir.”

Leo stood, then headed to the shuttle port. Flower was already there, waiting for him. Leo nodded to her as he opened the hatch, then motioned for her to take a seat as he sat in the pilot’s chair. It wasn’t that long since he’d flown a shuttle – it had been part of his training, although he knew he was nowhere near as good a pilot as a dedicated flyer - and he’d forgotten nothing. He wondered, as he ran through the brief pre-flight sequence, if Flower knew how to fly a shuttle too. She seemed to be able to do nearly everything else.

He glanced at her. “You look like a very capable young officer.”

Flower smiled back. “As far as anyone knows, right now I’m just a new and naive midshipwoman,” she said. “Don’t spoil the surprise.”


Leo started the drive, disengaged from Waterhen, and steered the shuttle down to the planet. There was a very limited ATC system, he noted absently; the network had given him permission to land and designated a landing site just outside Government House, but it wasn’t peering over his shoulder or demanding permission to take control of the flight itself. Leo wouldn’t have agreed, if it had. Most ATC systems were trustworthy, but the slightest mistake – or a hacking attack – could lead to absolute disaster. Besides, it went against the grain to allow anyone to take control of a Daybreak shuttle. It suggested the locals had a degree of authority over imperial personnel they lacked.

He didn’t pay much attention to the surrounding landscape as he glided the shuttle to the landing pad and set her down neatly, but he was confident that Flower was paying close attention and mentally filing her observations away for later contemplation. The landing pad itself was rough and crude, although perfectly functional; he powered down the shuttle, checked his sidearm automatically, and opened the hatch to step outside. A functionary, wearing a bright uniform that suggested a certain lack of seriousness, bowed politely, then motioned for them to follow him. He made no attempt to check, peace-bond or confiscate their weapons. Leo wasn’t sure if that was courtesy, or lax security. He hoped it was the former.

“Welcome to Government House,” the functionary said, as he led the way up the stairs and into the main door. “We hope you will enjoy your stay.”

Leo kept his thoughts to himself. Government House looked like a palace, right out of a historical or romantic drama. The outer structure had a certain elegance that suggested it had been designed and built by a craftsman with an unlimited budget; the interior was tastefully decorated, with artworks that looked expensive mingling with portraits of men and women in fancy clothes. The staff looked fancy too: the men wore outfits that highlighted their muscles; the women wore shirts with plunging necklines and skirts that were so short they’d be in danger of revealing everything if they bent over to pick something from the floor. Leo shook his head in disbelief. Servants were rare on Daybreak, rare and expensive. And they demanded to be treated with a little dignity.

The functionary showed them into an office that was surprisingly, almost disturbingly, roomy – and just as elegant as the rest of the mansion. “Captain Morningstar, Your Excellency.”

Leo tensed, slightly, as Governor Brighton stood and held out his hand. “You’re a little young to be a Captain,” he said, as Leo took his hand and shook it firmly. “How did you get the post?”

“Technically, I’m merely the senior ranking officer on Waterhen,” Leo told him. There was no point in trying to claim otherwise. The governor had full authority to request naval files from passing starships … Leo wondered, suddenly, if Governor Brighton might have been a little alarmed to discover Leo wasn’t listed in the fleet rolls. The files on Yangtze were several years out of date. It was quite possible their last update had been before Leo had even joined the navy, let alone completed his training. “The Captain is just a courtesy title.”

The governor tapped his lips. “Don’t mention that here, young man,” he said. “This place thrives on titles of nobility, and a Daybreak officer is a noble by default.”

He motioned for Leo to take a seat – he largely ignored Flower – and nodded to the functionary. “Please ask the Deputy to come along, when it suits him,” he said. “And have some tea and cake served at once.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“I must say, I’m glad to see the navy is finally responding to my demands for more military and economic support,” Governor Brighton said, once a maid had brought refreshments and left as silently as she’d come. “It hasn’t been easy to keep the local sector from boiling over, not when I have very limited direct authority and hardly anything backing it up. The locals are aware of our willingness to settle issues by force, if they are unwilling to do it for themselves, but not all – I’m sorry to say – believe in it. They weren’t touched that badly by the war, either.”

Leo frowned. “They don’t believe us?”

“They came a very long way from Earth, and they lost contact with much of human civilisation for decades, thanks to the war, until we started establishing our authority out here,” Governor Brighton told him. “Many resent the fact we incorporated them; others think we’re not living up to our promises. They have a point, to be fair. Piracy has been on the rise, as the sector continues its development, and we haven’t done much about it. Yangtze is just too far from the core for anyone to be particularly concerned.”

“The sector will receive more military support and economic development,” Leo said, recalling the files he’d read during the trip. “But there are many other demands on our resources.”

“Yes,” Governor Brighton told him. “And right now, the locals feel we are making demands of them while offering nothing in return. And they have a point.”

Leo said nothing for a long moment. The files had clearly understated the local industrial developments – and economic potential – and exaggerated the empire’s degree of control over local politics. It was true that most worlds were allowed to run their own internal affairs as they saw fit, as long as they didn’t cause interstellar trouble or otherwise break Imperial law, but … it was hard, almost impossible, for even a far-distant world to avoid a certain degree of imperial or corporate interference. It was the price of empire, he’d been told; it was a price deeply resented, from time to time, but one paid willingly because the alternative was worse.

Flower leaned forward. “Your Excellency, how much authority do you actually have?”

The Governor smiled. “On paper, I have complete authority over the sector,” he said, dryly. “In practice, my authority is entirely dependent on local willingness to go along with me – to accept me as a neutral arbiter, rather than their ruler – and their fear of imperial intervention. I have no way to impose my will on anyone, certainly not directly.”

Leo sucked in his breath. “Your Excellency …”

The door opened. Leo turned to see a middle-aged man, wearing a fancy outfit that should have been silly and somehow managed to give him an air of dignity, and a young red-haired girl wearing a long green dress that hinted at her curves without revealing anything below the neckline. She met his eyes, just briefly, and winked, before looking demurely down at the floor. There was something fresh-faced about her that called to him, in a manner Flower – or Fleur – never had. Leo couldn’t put it into words. It was just … a sense of youth and innocence, perhaps, that both older women had long lost. Or perhaps it was a form of kinship. They were the youngest people in the room.

“Captain Morningstar, allow me to introduce Deputy Governor Hari Bridgerton, Duke of the Duchy of Northumbria, and his daughter Gayle,” Governor Brighton said. “His family were closely involved in the annexation effort, and were rewarded for their services with the role he now holds.”

Leo held out a hand. The Deputy Governor shook it, his eyes studying Leo with almost savage intensity. There was an anger and resentment within his gaze that bothered Leo, not least because it reminded him of some of the young adults he’d known growing up. And yet, why would a Deputy Governor feel such emotions? He was easily the highest-ranking native on the planet, in a place he could easily make a name for himself …

“It is good to see Daybreak is finally taking the problem of piracy seriously,” Bridgerton said. His voice was heavily accented, his tone hard enough to make Leo wince. “I have lost two freighters in the past five months, and so far we have yet to recover them.”

“The Captain will begin patrolling the sector as soon as possible,” Governor Brighton said, trying to sound reassuring. “I’m sure the pirates will soon be driven out of their lairs and forced to flee, before they’re blown away.”

Leo kept his face impassive, somehow. It wasn’t easy to locate a pirate base, let alone destroy it. The Governor was making promises Leo knew he wouldn’t be able to keep. It would be better to escort a convoy, knowing the pirates would either have to risk an engagement or let their target go, but with only one starship there was a limit to how many convoys they could escort. His mind raced, searching for a silver bullet; cold logic told him there was none to be found. The Governor meant well, Leo was sure, but he’d set Leo up to fail.

“I shall believe it when I see it,” Bridgerton said, curtly. “We cannot keep taking these losses without serious consequences.”

Governor Brighton leaned forward. “You’ll have the chance to meet most of the local movers and shakers at the ball tonight,” he added. “I trust you brought a dress uniform?”

“I can arrange for a suit,” Gayle said, speaking for the first time. Her father looked as if he wanted to say something cutting and didn’t quite dare. “In fact, Captain, let me take you to the ball. I can make sure you are introduced to everyone.”

Leo hid his amusement with an effort. Bridgerton appeared to have bitten into something sour, while Governor Brighton favoured Gayle with a brilliant and benevolent smile. Leo didn’t pretend to understand local politics, and he had no idea why her father wasn’t pleased at her suggestion, but he was sure being escorted by Gayle would be better than going alone. It would give Flower a chance to circulate too, without him cramping her style.

“Thank you,” he said. “I accept your kind offer.”

The Governor nodded. “We will discuss local politics later,” he said, sitting back in his chair and sipping his tea. “Captain, if there is anything you need before you start your patrols, let me know. The entire planet is at your disposal.”

Leo suspected that was an exaggeration, but …

“There’s a billet I need filled,” he said. “Do you have any Daybreak Marines I can borrow?”

Governor Brighton said nothing for a long cold moment. “I have been unable to convince the government to assign even a handful of Marines – or close-protection specialists – out here,” he said. Leo blinked in surprise. He’d never heard of an imperial building that wasn’t protected by Marines. The locals might be competent or they might not, but either way they couldn’t be trusted completely. “There is a retired Marine who might be interested in taking service with you – he came out with the initial assessment team and stayed behind after completing his final mission – but you’d have to ask him personally. We’re not exactly friends.”

Leo frowned. That was an odd way to put it.

“I’ll ask him, if you forward the details,” he said. It wasn’t much, and it might come to nothing, but he was desperately aware he needed at least some shipboard troops. It was against regulations to recruit local troops, no matter how space-capable, or he’d have put in the request as soon as he reached Yangtze. “It’s better than nothing.”

“That’s very true, out here,” Bridgerton muttered.

“I also need to give my crew some leave,” Leo said. The journey had been long. The crew needed a break, even if it was just a day or two. “Can I start sending the first group down now?”

“Of course,” Governor Brighton beamed. “The spaceport will be glad of the trade.”

Bridgerton looked irked. “As long as they behave themselves.”

“They will,” Leo said. He tapped his communicator, sending the message to Waterhen. It wasn’t uncommon for spacers on shore leave to get into brawls, but they tended to be confined to the red light districts surrounding spaceports. “They’re a good crew.”

“Now that’s settled, you can tell us about developments on Daybreak,” Governor Brighton said. “Politics can wait.”

Leo sighed, inwardly. It was going to be a long afternoon.