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Meanwhile, on a planet far, far away,
THE NEWLY INSTALLED minister of Coalition in-telligence listened in astonishment as an unex-pected visitor vented his spleen.
"Far Star must be terminated!"
The minister couldn't quite get over the coldness in his superior's eyes. You look as if you could do the job with your own two hands. He made a fist in his lap behind his desk where no one could spy the symptom of his nervous-nessor his grogginess. He'd been summoned straight out of bed and a deep sleep, made nec-essary after a hastily arranged meeting regard-ing a shocking encounter with a small, isolated world known only as Earth had kept him up far too late. "Far Star? As in Prime-major Far Star?"
"Yes, that one!"
The minister couldn't remember the officer ever causing any trouble. In fact, quite the opposite. Far Star seemed an affable sort, young and handsome. Intelligent, with a bright future. But his superior had been in the government since before he was born. Who was the minister to question that experience?
You ought to be standing, he realized sud-denly, and started to get up. He'd been the minister of Coalition intelligence for all of a week, not long enough to get over being a little starstruck dealing so personally with palace leadersSupreme Commander Neppal, Su-preme-second Fair Cirrus, Prime Minister Ris-sallen and the eunuch Tibor Frix, captain of the Palace Guardalthough he'd not yet met the queen, thank the gods.
At the thought of Queen Keira, the minister winced. Other men might like gorgeous, spoiled, willful, wildly unpredictable women. He did not.
"Be seated," hissuperior commanded. "Please. I'm here off the record."
Indeed. There was nothing lawful about an in-house assassination.
"The order was put in three Septumdays ago!
Receipt was confirmed by one of your REEFsthe very best, I was promised. Yet we've heard nothing, and now Far Star is missing. I had the late minister insert a code in the kill order giving the REEF a time limit to track down and kill Far Star. One week! The time is past. What happened?"
Barbaric, the minister thought. He knew it was possible to rig an assassin to self-destruct but had never heard of it being done. Though with a crime this heinous, one wouldn't want tracks leading back to the source, would they? Better to kill the killer and eliminate any messy evidence. "I'll see if I can contact the REEF." He swiveled his chair to access his computer. His communi-cation would be delivered directly to a computer implanted in the individual assassin's brain, giving a level of security unmatched by other means. After several tries under intense scrutiny, there was no answer. As a last-ditch effort, the minister pinged the REEF's ship. Nothing.
"I am unable to contact him. Since the REEF hasn't reported back within the prescribed time limit, I'm afraid he's likely suffered a total breakdown of his internal computer systems."
"Gods be damned. He's dead?"
"Or a vegetable." "Hire me another one!" His superior slammed a hand down on the desk, scattering the most recent panicked communiqué from the fleet commander fleeing planet Earth's unexpected wrath. That is the true threat here, this new and powerful world, not Far Star. Yes, the minister needed to devote his attention to galactic mat-ters, but at home trouble was brewing, kill orders were flying, and despite being the supposed overseer of intelligence, he knew nothing.
There was something innately humbling about being kept in the dark. But he summoned patience. "I'll find you a new REEF, though you'd better give him a longer rope, because we don't know where Far Star is." Probably lying dead somewhere with the broken REEF nearby. "Meanwhile, as a safeguard, I will leave the viewer on the original REEF's ship set to auto-matic two-way. The moment he powers up his ship, his image will be displayed on-screen in my office. Then we will have our answer."
"No. Set it to appear on my personal screen, and only my screen."
"As you wish."
The minister's comm device chimed and he unfurled it and laid it on the desk so that his superior could also see who was calling. The in-dividual wore a hooded cloak covering his or her face. "I understand there is a problem, Minister." It was a mana young man by the sound of it. The voice was regally modulated with an accent that sounded familiar, but not familiar enough that the minister could place it. "Is it true? Far Star lives?"
"Far Star is missing," the minister said. Again, he thought: I should be concentrating on the humiliating rout on Earth, not this.
"You sound distressed, Minister."
"Besides the fact that you have chosen not to identify yourself, I cannot understand this sudden interest in Far Star. He is missing. Gone. Vanished without a trace. Isn't that satisfac-tory?"
"Alive, he remains a major security risk," his superior explained. "It is why we must locate him. He disappeared before the news was formally announced, but Prime-major Far Star has been chosen to be consort to the queen. This marriage must not take place."
"Far Star? Royal consort? Good gods. The poor bastard. Years ago, I heard a rumor that the queen killed a man who tried to take her by force by hacking off his male parts with a plasma sword."
"So it is true, then."
"After she sliced off his bullocks, she decided that killing him would be an act of mercy. He lives on at the palace as a eunuchand as a reminder for those suitors who would attempt to take liberties with the queen."
The minister winced. Perhaps Far Star's ter-mination would not be so terrible, after all. Like euthanizing a sick dog to save it from further misery. "I would think, however, a military man like Far Star would make an ideal consort. With martial arts and weapons train-ing, at least he'd stand a chance at defending himself against her."
"A military man would make an excellent consort indeed. The right military man." The man on-screen threw back his hood. "Me."
Good gods. "You're, you're, " If Queen Keira were to marry this, this boy, this crea-ture, how would the Coalition survive? These conspirators don't mean for the Coalition to survive. "I will not be part of this!"
"You've already done your part, Minister.
Thanks to your help, the queen and I will enjoy a long and productive marriage."
Something hard pressed coldly against the back of the minister's skull. While he'd been focused on the comm, his superior had rounded the desk. Reflected in a crystal souvenir of the minister's last assignment on New Darva was the image of a gun being held to his head.
Of course, you fool. You know too much to be left alive. Briefly, he wondered what had happened to his predecessor. The woman's death had been ruled a tragic accident, but now he wondered. Perhaps, after issuing the original kill order, she, too, had known too much. Or perhaps the previous minister had been more courageous and refused to do as these men asked.
Does it matter what path you chose? The final result will be the same.
The minister stared at his desktop and waited for the burst of light that would end his life. It was a plasma gun: a merciful choice in weapons. The end would be quick and clean. Everything the demise of the Coalition wouldn't be if the circumstances of the queen's upcoming nuptials were any hint.
But if the monarch knew of the conspiracy, perhaps the result would be different. It was worth a try. With his heart thundering in his ears, the minister brushed a fingertip over the data-input port on his command center, secretly linking the automatic two-way visual to the queen's private chambers. If the REEF ever checked in, it would be with the queen. With any hope, and it was a tiny one indeed, she'd learn the assassin's purposeand the treachery behind it.
And if not, despite the confidence of her hopeful groom, Queen Keira would not go down without a fight. The image of the petulant goddess's likely reaction to his marriage proposal was so satisfying in the minister's mind that when the fatal shot was fired in the beautifully appointed office, he died with a smile on his face.