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The needle-boat blinked out into norm-space. Both high and low wave detector plates flared.
"Flame!" The pilot scanned the board, jabbed a series of control studs to put all energy radiating equipment into a passive mode, and waited for the picture to build on his screens.
Energy concentrations peaked around the fourth planet, Haversol, then spread to a standard picket line and deep warning net typical of an Empire operation.
Whaler's fingers flickered over the control studs as he took in the information flowing from his receptors. While all the material would stay on tap for the Institute to dissect after his return, his own survival might depend on a nearly instantaneous understanding of the tactical pattern.
"Ten stans, max," he muttered to the controls, eyes darting from screen to screen. The needle-boat itself was a single pilot craft, jammed with sophisticated sensors and communications equipment, and made possible only through a combination of thin hull, minimal support and backup systems, and overpowered drives.
At the upper left of the board in front of Whaler, a flat panel flashed amber twice, then settled into a steady glow. He touched the panel and listened to the direct feed of the Imperial comm net through his own implant.
"Seven…clear on grid november five…interrogative…"
"Angel four…negative on survivors…send the junkman."
"Hawkstrike! Hawkstrike! Gremlin, Arthur class, vector zero eight five, radian one three three, ecliptic plus two."
"Hawkstrike, gremlin acquisition, closing."
The Imperial Fourth Fleet was obviously mopping up the scattered remnants of the Haversolan system defense forces.
"Class four on radian two five seven. Hotspot three. Interrogative waster. Interrogative waster."
"Waster's down. Negative."
"Unscramble, Northwave. Unscramble."
"Gremlin secured, Hawkstrike. Repeat, Gremlin secured."
The needle-boat pilot shook his head and touched the pale green panel to start the power-up for nullspace reentry.
The return coordinates for his out-space base flashed across the display. The Institute maintained its own forces independent of the Coordinate. So independently, thought the Ecolitan who was the needle-boat's pilot, captain, and crew, that the government itself had no idea of the Institute's strength.
"Sooner or later, they'll need us again," murmured the pilot. "Sooner, if this is any indication. Much sooner."
Nathaniel Firstborne Whaler, sometime scholar and full-time practicing Ecolitan, automatically squared himself within his seat cocoon and cleared the board readouts, returning all the data to the coded master disc in the center of the boat.
As the bell chime sounded in his ears, Whaler tapped the sequencing plate, and the needle-boat vanished from the norm-space where the Imperial detectors had failed to notice the discrepancy in the energy levels that had been the only sign of its presence.
Copyright © 2003 by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.