“Another fun addition to a very entertaining science fiction series…An exciting space opera that is set in the universe of Kris Longknife.”—Night Owl Reviews (on Vicky Peterwald: Target)
Seeking revenge for her brother’s death, Grand Duchess Vicky Peterwald underwent an unlikely transformation—from pampered heir to naval lieutenant. Now a new challenge looms: Vicky will need to use both her military and political ranks to rebuild war-torn planets, planets ruined both by the Peterwald Empire and by Kris Longknife’s revolutionary quests.
But not everyone shares Vicky’s goals. When the death-before-dishonor code of the Navy meets the anything-goes-to-win motto of the Imperial family, Vicky must confront, outwit, and conquer both revolutionaries and her own family to stifle galactic disorder.
And nothing stops a Grand Duchess, on or off the field.
About the Author
Mike Shepherd is a pseudonym for Mike Moscoe, a full-time writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the Kris Longknife series including Kris Longknife: Defender, and the Jump Universe series including To Do or Die.
Read an Excerpt
HER Imperial Grace, the Grand Duchess, Lieutenant Commander Vicky Peterwald cinched in her five-point restraint harness as tight as she could. Beside her, the man sworn to protect her life with his own, Commander Gerrit Schlieffen, did the same. Only then did he begin to activate the myriad of controls and systems of the loaned shuttle.
Vicky was careful not to touch anything.
Kris Longknife could probably land the shuttle herself from orbit, while dodging lasers all the way down. Vicky winced; she’d been raised to be traded off for some advantageous marriage by her dad, the Emperor. Her training had consisted mainly of looking pretty while learning needlepoint and the Kama Sutra for both defense and offense.
In the world she’d been raised to expect, she would be back in the passenger compartment of the shuttle, seducing her husband into the five-hundred-mile-high club.
Today, Vicky’s partner would either dodge the threatened lasers aimed at them, or both of them would die.
And Vicky couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
Then again, if they survived the next couple of hours, Vicky just might save a couple of planets in the Emperor’s crumbling Empire from economic collapse, starvation, and cannibalism.
If she was lucky, and could pull a political miracle out of thin air.
Too bad she had no idea how she might do that.
“You want to turn on the electronic-countermeasures suite?” Commander Schlieffen said.
Vicky looked at the collection of gauges, dials, and lights in front of her. Most were a duplicate of those in front of the pilot’s seat. There was a light gray panel identified as made by Singer. Vicky pointed at it.
“You mean this?”
“Yep. The admiral wasn’t kidding when he said he was giving us his most expendable shuttle. You need to warm up the ECM system if it’s going to do us any good in a few minutes.”
During her three years in the Imperial Greenfeld Navy, Vicky had learned to stand communications watches on the bridges of battleships. They usually had a couple of specialists standing the ECM watches. As a boot ensign, Vicky had rotated through one watch at the ECM station.
She hadn’t learned much.
However, as limited as her education was, she could recognize an on/off button. She pressed it. The lights on the gray board slowly flickered to life.
“That old system isn’t worth much,” the commander said, glancing from his own board. “Still, if you hold down the update button on the central screen, it might give you a tutorial.”
“Might?” Vicky said.
“Some versions did. Others were too old and too limited to store that in the system. Give it a try and see what happens.”
Vicky held the identified button down. The small central screen on the gray box began to scroll instructions. The Grand Duchess had learned to read. Today, what she read told her the system could identify threats that were in its database, prioritize them, and provide a limited amount of distraction.
“I wonder when the database was last updated?” Vicky asked.
“There should be an option in the menu for that.”
Vicky found the option and activated it.
The system went down.
She rebooted the light gray box and went to the update option again.
It went out to lunch . . . again.
The third time, it updated.
“This shuttle isn’t in very good shape,” she observed dryly.
“As the plane captain told me.”
Vicky raised an eyebrow. “This wreck has a plane captain?”
“Actually no,” the commander admitted, flipping a switch several times before the data strip above it came to life. “But a second class petty officer was told two hours ago that this wreck was his to captain. It’s in as good a shape as it is because he and the best half dozen Sailors he could lay his hands on spent their time getting it fit for a drop. He hopes.”
“I can only imagine what it must have looked like four hours ago,” Vicky said dryly.
The commander flipped a switch slowly, a half dozen times, frowned, and said, “I doubt it.”
Vicky was trying to get a report on the number of reloads of chaff the ECM system had. She’d interrogated it three times and gotten three different answers when the commander announced, “You better say any prayers you know. I’m about to activate the antimatter reactor.”
“Now I lay me down to sleep,” Vicky muttered.
“Is that the only prayer you know?”
“You may have noticed, we don’t do a lot of praying at the Imperial Palace.”
“Then I guess my ‘God help us’ will have to do.”
The commander threw a large double switch between them.
A few breathless seconds later, several strip gauges lit up, and lights began to dance up and down them.
“Is that good?” Vicky asked.
“You’re still here to ask,” the commander said. “It appears that either I, or my dear mother, still has some pull with the Big Man.”
“I suspect it’s your mother,” Vicky answered.
Together, they watched the gauges as their dance settled down to a placid wiggle in the green zones of all six strip gauges.
“I believe we’re ready to drop,” the commander said.
“I do have a meeting to attend with an old friend.”
“Assuming he doesn’t carry through with his threat to have us shot out of his sky. Do you affect all your old flames like that?”
“Most. You seem to be a nice exception to the rule.”
“Our relationship hardly has the blush off the rose,” the commander said.
“I hadn’t noticed any blushes on your part.”
“Or yours, Your Grace.”
“Shall we quit stalling and see if this contraption can get away from the station?”
“Why not? I don’t want to live forever.”
So saying, Commander Schlieffen reached above his head for the red bar with RELEASE in yellow letters and pulled it.
The shuttle did not depart the station with the grace of a falling angel. Instead, the aft tie-down released their rear to dangle. The spin of the station pressed them tight against their seats.
The commander yanked again, harder, on the release.
Reluctantly, their forward tie-down came loose. They drifted away from High St. Petersburg station with the deck canted down to the right.
“That wasn’t the best launch I ever made,” the commander observed, half to himself. “Nor was it the worst. Now, let’s go see if the mayor of Sevastopol really intends to kill us.”
BEFORE the mayor of Sevastopol could have his go at killing them, they had to get away from the station. That proved exciting.
“Damn,” the commander said, as the shuttle began to spin. “I’ve got a stuck thruster.”
Vicky was close to graying out before the commander got the thruster off-line.
“Let’s try that again,” he said as he slowly backed them away from the station using long, low burns from the four thrusters he found trustworthy. This time, there were no surprises.
“Who’s tracking us?” he asked, as they crossed the ten-klick threshold from station control to orbital control.
“I’ve got five search radars on us,” Vicky reported crisply.
“Can that Ouija board tell you which are ground-based and might have fire-control radars slaved to them?”
“Not a clue.”
“Well, I could hope.”
“I like a man who can hope,” Vicky said.
“I have many admirable qualities,” he muttered, firing the main retro engine. “Some of them don’t even require a bed.”
“I could like the ones that don’t,” Vicky purred.
“Variety from a woman is nice,” he said, eyeing his readouts. “Consistency, however, is very appreciated from rocket engines. Ours, at least for now, appear to be demonstrating a delightful degree of reliability.”
“That can, at the proper time, be quite nice,” Vicky agreed.
Their verbal foreplay abruptly ended as the radio squawked.
“Unidentified shuttle. This is Petersburg Orbital Control. You are not authorized in our space. Return to the station.”
Commander Schlieffen glanced at his comm unit and toggled a switch. “Petersburg Orbital Control, this is shuttle November, X-ray, three four niner. I have filed a flight plan for a descent to Sevastopol Bay shuttle-landing area. I am on descent.”
“Shuttle November, X-ray, three four niner, be advised. Your flight plan was rejected. Return to station.”
Vicky glanced at Gerrit. He pulled a flimsy from his shipsuit pocket. A large header at the top of it identified it as a flight plan. Even larger print, in red letters, read REJECTED.
“Orbital Control, this is three four niner. I have an approved flight plan here. I’m on my way down.”
“Three four niner, I have a flight plan for you that was rejected. It shows a time stamp of one hour, fifty-six minutes ago. Cease your burn and return to the station.”
“Sorry, Control. Shuttle three four niner is committed to a deorbiting burn. I’ll see you in thirty minutes.”
“Shuttle November, X-ray, three four niner, be advised that Petersburg reserves control of its space to our sovereignty. I am authorized to use deadly force to protect our sovereign space.”
Gerrit glanced at Vicky. She shrugged, as much as her five-point restraining harness allowed.
“Orbital Control, I understand your politics. Be advised, I have the Grand Duchess Victoria Peterwald on board, and I am committed to descent. Again, we’ll see you in thirty minutes.”
A new voice came on the radio. “We know who you have on board, and we will see you in hell.”
The transmission ended in a determined click.
“Was that the mayor?” the commander asked.
“I think so,” Vicky said. “It’s been a while.”
“Touchy fellow, don’t you think?”
“He was much nicer the last time we met. But then, he wanted an official, Imperial-approved city charter. Give a guy what he wants, and he never calls back for a second date.”
“I’d call you back for a second date,” the commander said, helpfully, hopefully, even a bit consolingly. Vicky wasn’t quite sure which to choose from. Distraction was probably the overriding content of his answer.
The main engine was not firing smoothly.
There were coughs in the flow of reaction mass to the engines. The deorbital burn was not only uneven, it seemed to pull to the right, then left, then right again, with no particular pattern.
The commander concentrated on doing some of that nifty pilot stuff.
Vicky checked her board.
“We got fire-control radars scanning us,” she said.
“They locked on?”
“So they aren’t serious yet.”
“I hope this crazy dance we’re doing is causing them as much trouble as it’s causing me.”
Vicky left the commander to do his piloting thing and eyed her board. The fire-control radars were still in scanning mode. In a few minutes, as they began their fiery reentry, radar would become useless.
The problem was surviving until then.
One of the scanning radars locked on.
“They’ve got a lock,” she announced in a low, firm voice. Admiral Krätz would be so proud of his student.
“I’m going to initiate a bit of a turn. When I tell you, release chaff.”
Vicky rested her thumb on the chaff-release button. “Ready.”
“Hold it, hold it,” the commander said softly, mostly to himself. “Now.”
Vicky depressed the button firmly once, then let up. The shuttle, responding to the commander’s firm hand, began a shallow pull to the right.
The solid tone of the fire-control radar went back to an intermittent beeping as it found itself suddenly with two targets and unable to determine which was its intended.
“Lost you,” the commander chortled.
A moment later, the solid tone was back.
He swung the lander to the left softly. Again the tone broke up, then, a few seconds later, was solid again.
“You weren’t sure where I was there for a second, were you?” the commander said to the distant men intent on tracking them for the kill.
Vicky said nothing.
Twice more, the commander did his dodge. Twice more, the tone broke briefly, then came back. The second time, he had Vicky release chaff.
Each time, the threatened lasers remained silent.
When firebugs began to flow over the shuttle’s tiny windows, the commander seemed to relax a bit.
“We’re entering the atmosphere. They can’t be sure where we are in all this static. Let’s really make them unsure. I’m going to take us through some wide, gentle S turns to bleed off energy and be unpredictable. You get ready to squirt out chaff.”
“Ready,” Vicky said.
The gee force was climbing as the atmosphere slowed them, still, Vicky kept her finger on the button. As the commander readied to edge his control stick over a fraction, he whispered, “Pop chaff.”
Vicky shot a packet of chaff into their fiery slipstream. The bits of aluminum instantly burned away into droplets and fell behind. They showed as one track; the shuttle as another. Vicky could imagine the picture facing the radar operators: two flaming balls. Either one might be a lander.
Meanwhile, the commander slid the actual lander off to the left.
The commander made four more shallow S turns but didn’t task Vicky with spiking any of the others with burning aluminum.
The threatened lasers held their peace all the while.
“What happens when we clear out of this reentry phase?” Vicky asked the commander when he seemed less intent on his flying.
“They’ll track us. You’ll use all the chaff we have aboard. There isn’t nearly enough. They either burn us out of their sky, or they let you come down and talk to them.”
The commander glanced at Vicky. “I sure hope Your Grace has a nice dog and pony show ready. As much as I find your body delectable and desirable, I don’t think they’ll be much interested in a striptease.”
“I suspect you’re right,” Vicky said.
Too bad she had no idea what she might say to enlist Mannie and his fellow mayors in a program of whose details she hadn’t the foggiest idea yet.
THE threatened lasers never fired. The shuttle-landing ground in the middle of Sevastopol Bay was not blocked with shipping. The commander brought the shuttle down in a spray of cooling water.
Then they sat there.
The radio stayed silent. No tug appeared.
“Does this expendable shuttle Admiral von Mittleburg loaned us have any ground-mobility options?” Vicky asked.
Commander Schlieffen tapped the main screen and ran it through several menus before answering. “Yes, it appears it does have auxiliary waterpower.”
It took him a bit of time to activate it, but soon he was steering them toward a shuttle ramp.
“No pier we can dock at?” Vicky asked.
“Nope. We got to go up that ramp.”
“I don’t see any tug waiting,” Vicky noted.
“Hmm, neither do I.”
“Will I have to dive off this thing and swim for shore?” Vicky asked. She was willing, though not looking forward, to starting her plea for cooperation while dripping wet.
“I think we have motors on our landing gear,” the commander said.
“I’ve never seen a shuttle use them.”
Gerrit studied the screen as more instructions scrolled down.
“They haven’t been standard on most shuttles in a while. I did this once back in my Academy days. Let’s see if I do better this time,” he said with a grin.
Vicky checked her harness. She couldn’t make it any tighter.
“Could you lower the landing gear?” the commander asked.
Surprise of surprises, the landing gear lowered when Vicky pulled up on the lever between them.
“Do it again,” the commander ordered. “The right main gear hasn’t locked down.”
Vicky recycled the landing gear. On the second try, the right main gear locked, but the left didn’t. She recycled the gear four times before all three gears dropped and locked in place together.
“I hope the motors are a bit more reliable,” Gerrit mused.
The nose gear bumped onto the ramp. There was a grinding noise, but the nose began to rise from the water. There was more grinding as the main gear engaged and pushed the lander from the water and up the ramp.
At least, they did for a moment.
“Help me with the wheel. The left main wheel motor has dropped out.”
Vicky grabbed the control wheel that she’d been careful not to touch and helped Gerrit haul the nose wheel off to the right. The yaw to the left damped down, but it was clear the shuttle could not make it all the way up the ramp.
“Engage the brake,” the commander ordered. “Let’s get out of here before this wreck drifts back down the ramp and heads out to sea.”
Vicky popped her harness. Three of the five restraint points broke loose. The ones around her waist and between her legs stayed locked in place.
She hit the release again, and nothing happened.
Beside her, the commander was wiggling out of his harness. The top two of his restraint points hadn’t popped. She tried to do some wiggling up, but she really had gotten the harness tight.
The brakes groaned.
Gerrit freed himself and came over to feel around between her legs. On another day, that would have been fun. “Get me out of this, and you can feel all you want between my legs tonight,” Vicky offered.
“Promises, promises,” he said, working on the release.
“I’ve kept my promises,” she pointed out.
There was a snap.
“Ouch,” Vicky said. “That pinched.”
“I’ll kiss it and make it all better later. Let’s get out of here before we have to swim for it.
They exited the forward hatch. There were chocks slung beside the door. Vicky grabbed one, the commander grabbed the other, and they each raced for a different one of the main landing gears.
They got the chocks in place about two seconds before the brake gave up the ghost, and the lander slid back. Back onto the chocks rather than into the bay.
A pickup truck drove up, with a tug not far behind. Three men in coveralls got out of the truck. The senior of the three held a life buoy with a long length of rope attached.
He seemed disappointed that he hadn’t gotten a chance to use it.
Tossing the buoy in the back of the truck, he ordered the other two to hitch the lander’s nose to the tug. They did.
The foreman approached Vicky. “We’ll tow the lander to a parking spot on the ramp. You got a credit chit to pay for the tow and ramp rental?”
Vicky was about to open her mouth, but the commander got there first. “Nope. No credit chit that hasn’t been canceled. Guess you’ll have to throw it back.”
“Don’t you think I wouldn’t,” the man grumbled, “but I got my orders to deliver you two to City Hall, so hop in. Maybe while I’m there, I can get someone to impound the lander for lack of payment.”
“I doubt if that wreck is worth enough to pay your charges,” the commander said, and opened the passenger door for Vicky. She settled in the middle slot, with the gearshift nearly in her lap.
When the commander settled in beside her, she cuddled up close to him with her legs well away from the gearshift.
The foreman chuckled softly as he got in, started the engine, and reached for the stick.
It was a very quiet drive to City Hall.
THE man in coveralls deposited them at the curb in front of a new and gleaming glass high-rise.
“You been here before?” the commander asked.
“Nope. City Hall was a mite bit smaller last time I visited.”
Many people hurried by them on the street. Many more crossed the gray cobblestoned courtyard as they entered or exited the building.
None so much as glanced at the two Imperial Greenfeld Navy officers in green shipsuits.
With a slight bow, the commander directed Vicky to head inside. He even opened the door for her when they got there.
The ground floor was a marbled foyer full of potted plants and busy people going about their business. None offered to help two Navy officers.
There was an information desk.
No one sat behind it.
No one continued to sit behind it for a full five minutes while Vicky watched it, and busy people ignored them.
“Computer,” Vicky finally said. Her computer was made of the same self-organizing material as Kris Longknife’s Nelly. Unlike Nelly, it did not talk back.
It also did not offer suggestions.
“Can you connect to this building’s net?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Do so, please.”
“I am connected to the public portion. There appears to be a much larger private net behind a firewall.”
“Can you get through that firewall?”
“No, Your Grace.”
“Can you locate the office of the mayor of Sevastopol?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Guide us there.”
“You will need to take the bank of elevators that services floors fifteen through thirty.”
No one interfered with their boarding an elevator. They shared it with many busy people. Some got off. Others got on.
None so much as made eye contact with Vicky.
“Their welcoming committee seems very well organized,” Vicky observed dryly.
“Very well organized,” the commander agreed. “One has to wonder if they’ve been practicing for days.”
A young woman, arms full of paper files, almost laughed at that, but she covered her mouth and turned away before Vicky could say anything in response.
They got off on the thirtieth floor.
Down the hall, at a corner office, they found an unmarked door that Vicky’s computer insisted was the mayor’s office.
The commander opened the door.
A young woman studied her computer screen intently. She did not look up.
“Do you have an appointment with the mayor?” she asked, eyes still on the computer.
“I suspect not,” Vicky admitted.
“The mayor is a very busy man. He only sees people by appointment,” she said, eyes still only for the screen.
Vicky could have mentioned that Mannie had waited on her the last time they met, but she chose not to argue with the gatekeeper.
She also did not show any willingness to go away.
The woman finally glanced at Vicky. “I may be able to slip you in later in the day. Please be seated.”
There were plenty of seats in the outer office.
There was no one sitting in them.
Vicky decided that she would not sit in one either.
There were three doors out of the waiting room besides the door she’d come in.
She remembered a story she’d read when very young. It involved a man and two doors. Behind one was a gorgeous woman.
Behind the other was a man-eating tiger.
Today, Vicky faced three doors.
Might there be a half-naked hunk behind one of them?
Alas, more likely one only led to the restroom. The other might shield a broom closet. The third led to the mayor.
Vicky studied her three doors. Was the light fooling her or did the carpet leading to one of them show more wear?
She picked her door, praying to any interested God that a lot of people hadn’t beaten a pathway to the head.
The commander stepped in front of Vicky and opened the door.
“You can’t go in there,” the secretary said, coming out of her chair.
Vicky had chosen well.
MAYOR Manuel Artamus’s office was quite spacious. His expansive wooden desk had a magnificent view, but his back was to the windows. Vicky doubted he ever swung his chair around to gaze out over the city he managed.
Facing him, and behind Vicky, were two walls paneled in light wood. On them, eight large screens showed people working hard at their desks.
None of them looked up as Vicky walked into the office. That none included Mannie.
Vicky sized up her situation. If she addressed Mannie at his desk, she’d have her back to the eight other people. If she turned to face them, Mannie got her back, something she doubted he’d care for.
She covered the distance to the side of Mannie’s desk and turned so she could face him and them at the same time.
Commander Schlieffen moved to cover her back.
She had plenty of time to do this; the important people of the planet of St. Petersburg continued to ignore her. It was tempting to see how long that could go on, but Vicky wanted to know what was going to happen next too much to just wait around and twiddle her thumbs.
Also, she had promises to keep to a certain commander.
“Having a busy day, Mannie?”
“I don’t have any slow ones,” he said, not looking up.
“You were having a pretty slow one the day you hit Kris Longknife up to talk me into giving you a royal city charter. How’s that working out?” Vicky said, playing her single ace.
“It’s on the wall there,” Mannie said, glancing up at the framed charter. Metal seals hung from it. Kris Longknife’s staff had researched what a mediaeval city charter looked like. When Kris Longknife’s gang staffed out something, it came on parchment and with silver seals.
Vicky would give her right arm just now for a staff like that.
But Vicky’s glance at the framed charter had included the eight city mayors keeping busy in their offices around this globe. On the wall behind most of them was a charter just like the one Mannie had.
Vicky took a few steps toward the wall of screens, studying the charters. “My dad was not at all happy to learn I’d signed that charter. Who’d you get to sign the other ones?”
“Nobody looks at the signatures all that closely,” Mannie said, now leaning back in his chair and eyeing Vicky. “We forged your signature and Kris Longknife’s on all of the other seven.”
“If it works for you,” Vicky said with a shrug.
“It’s given us the cover we need to keep our heads down and stay out of the shitstorm sweeping your father’s so-called Empire. We’re not going hungry here,” had force behind it.
“I know. You’re doing well here on St. Petersburg. You got the Navy to keep my darling stepmother out of your hair, and you have Navy contracts to keep jobs going on your factory floors. It couldn’t be better.”
“So why are you here?” didn’t give Vicky any cover.
The Grand Duchess chose to dodge the question. “How are you set for crystal? You need it for most of your high-power industry and communications. You need it for those screens you’re talking to me through. How long will your stockpile last?”
Mannie looked at one of the screens. A middle-aged woman frowned for a second, then tapped her desk. Numbers began to flow on a screen embedded in Mannie’s desk. Vicky could just barely make them out. Mannie, however, studied them intently. A frown grew on his face as he did.
On seven screens, a lot of men and women frowned at what they saw.
“We can buy more,” the woman who’d done the work said.
“At a price set by my stepmother’s family,” Vicky pointed out. “Are you prepared to pay that piper? Their charge isn’t just an arm and a leg. They demand a chunk of your soul to go with it.”
“There are other sources,” the woman said.
“Yes,” Vicky said. “Presov is just a few jumps away from here. I recently visited them. Their miners are getting zero supplies, neither food nor spare parts. In three to six months, they’ll be unable to produce a gram of any kind of crystal. In six to nine months, they’ll be in economic chaos. By early next year, those who haven’t managed to beg, steal, or borrow a ride off that bejeweled mud ball will be eating each other.”
“It can’t be that bad,” the woman on-screen said.
“Computer, deliver to them the workup you did for me on Presov. Toss in the analysis of Poznan as well.”
Vicky turned to the screens. “The executive summary won’t take you long to read. Both end the same. I may be off by a few months, plus or minus, for either planet. They all end in the total collapse of civilization, starvation, and, well, whatever else happens when people have nothing to eat.”
“We knew it was bad out there,” a young mayor said, a man in a three-piece suit with ruffles at his throat, “but there’s only so much room in our lifeboat. If we overload it, we all end up drowning, along with everybody else.”
“Or you can expand the lifeboat,” Vicky said, turning on the young man. “You need crystal for your lifeboat, so you include Presov. Poznan has resources you could use as well. Not as critical as crystal, but still nice to have. You’re already trading with the Navy colonies. You expand your safety net to include more.”
“Why should we?” an older woman demanded. “We keep our heads down, and your loving stepmother and the rest of the bloodthirsty Bowlingame family look for easier prey. When all this is over, we will have saved ourselves and our own.”
“You dodged a bullet when their Security Consultants showed up last time,” Vicky pointed out, almost delicately. “You sure they won’t show up again? This time they’ll be bigger and badder, having fattened on easier prey.”
Vicky paused for only a second. “They don’t like the Navy. They’re trying to take it down, or better yet, take it and its ships over. You sure that if you stay small, you won’t become next year’s prey? That if you do nothing, this tragedy will ever end well?”
“That’s strange talk coming from a Peterwald Grand Duchess,” the older woman snapped.
“And one who has a rather high price on her head,” the man with the frilly shirt added.
“True on both counts,” Vicky conceded.
“Are you planning on going rebel on your old man?” Mannie asked. “What are you looking for? Us to be your power base?”
“No, no, and no,” Vicky said quickly.
“Then may I ask,” Mannie said, coming to his feet, “just what the hell are you doing here?”
Vicky had been asking herself that question for way too long. She opened her mouth to give them the only answer she had.
“HAVE any of you read the file we have on Princess Kris Longknife?” Vicky asked.
Her answer was a collection of shaking heads.
“It’s interesting reading. My dad’s in a lot of it.”
“Why’d she have to save his neck?” someone asked.
Vicky ignored that question and went on.
“I don’t know how many of you were aware or remember those six rogue battleships that showed up in the Wardhaven system and threatened to blast them back to the Stone Age.”
Some of the heads on the screens nodded. Others shook from side to side.
“No one ever found out where the ships came from,” Mannie said.
“I found out,” Vicky said, and suddenly had their full attention.
“They were our ships. My father sent them. Navy reunions have had a lot of unexplained empty chairs at their tables of late, haven’t they, Gerrit?”
The commander nodded solemnly.
“How do you know?” the older woman demanded.
“I overheard my father arguing with an admiral shortly after the affair. I didn’t know what I was hearing until I shared it with Kris Longknife. Her and a few of her friends. One of them lost her husband of three days blowing up those battleships.”
“Oh my God,” someone said softly.
“But what is important for us here and now is that back then and there no one had any idea what to do about the incoming battleships. Wardhaven had been maneuvered into sending its fleet off on some wild-goose chase, and there was a caretaker government. No doubt my father’s fingerprints can be found on a lot of that.”
“Son of a bitch,” came from one screen.
Vicky wasn’t sure if it was a reaction to the revelation or a reference to her father. Once again, she tossed it off to bore in on her point.
“What matters to us here and now is that Princess Kris Longknife returned to her squadron. She’d been relieved of the command of one of the fast-attack boats. Tiny things, ships with no real chance against battleships. She declared herself the commander of the squadron. No one knew what to make of her actions. But while their government diddled, she and many others used her princess card as a pretense to rally a defense not one of them could have produced without her.”
Vicky stepped forward to face the eight screens. “I’m nothing. But I’m also a Grand Duchess. I can keep being nothing, or I can be the tiny grain of sand that causes an oyster to produce a pearl.”
“I understand the oyster considers that grain of sand an irritant,” Mannie said.
“I don’t doubt that,” Vicky said.
“Let me get this straight,” said the elder woman who wanted to wait until things blew over. “Are you rebelling against your father?”
“That is not my intention at this time. I pray it will never be my intention,” Vicky said with all the sincerity she could manage. She really meant the words. However, getting enough sincerity around anything a Peterwald said was always a problem.
The man with the frilly shirt was up from his desk and leaning into the camera so that his face filled the screen. “Are you trying to tell me that a Peterwald is doing something good for altruistic reasons?”
“Yes,” Vicky said back as blandly as she could.
“There’s got to be a first time for anything, folks,” Mannie said. “Remember, people, I was there when she signed the first city charter. Her neck may not have been on the line, but a good bit of her skin was in the game.”
He came to stand beside Vicky and stared hard into her eyes. “I don’t know where she’ll be coming from next month, and surely not next year, but right now, I really do think we have a Peterwald in our lap who cares about starving people and parents who look at their children and the stew pot. And vice versa.”
Mannie leaned back against his desk. “Where’s the Navy in all this?”
“They loaned me a shuttle to come down here to talk to you,” Vicky said without flinching.
“A shuttle that damn near fell out of the sky,” one mayor said.
“I didn’t have any trouble flying it,” Gerrit lied through a smile.
Vicky really owed him tonight.
“We’ve got a lot of out-of-work ships drifting around behind the station,” Mannie pointed out. “We’re harvesting a bumper crop. We can afford to risk some of it to help these other planets, and we do need that crystal.”
The consensus was building, slowly, with every nod.
Vicky kept her mouth shut and let the mayors of St. Petersburg talk themselves into what they knew was a good thing. But a good thing that only she could offer them a chance to grab for. She felt a strange feeling, sitting in silence while all those around her struggled to meet some high bar they thought she’d set.
Dad always bragged about what he’d done, what butt he’d kicked in this or that meeting. Vicky found herself kicking no butt and not really doing much of anything. Still, around her, because of her, things were being done that neither they nor she thought possible.
This was a change from everything she’d ever known, ever even thought feasible.
But there was more going on. Somewhere deep inside her, something was happening. That dirty, naked savage, willing to do anything for a morsel of food was changing, metamorphosing into something entirely different. Vicky was none too sure just what the changed her would be like, but she kind of liked it.
For maybe the first time in my life, I feel good about something I’m involved in, and I really like it.
AN hour later, Mannie ticked off their action plan on his fingers.
“We will send a trade delegation to Presov to see about swapping food for crystal. We’ll include industrial agents not only to check out the quality of the crystal but also to see what goods and services, parts and supplies they need. Maybe we’ll carry some of what they likely need with us as well,” he said, half to himself.
“Considering the quality of civil discourse no doubt now existent on Presov, we’ll need a cruiser to protect our merchant hulls and a Marine detachment to protect our negotiators. Possibly our food and supplies as well,” Mannie said, glancing at Vicky.
She replied with a confident smile she didn’t feel.
On the screens, eight people nodded. Mannie then added, “It would be nice to have a certain Grand Duchess present to provide irritation and some cover for this.”
Grand Duchess Vicky Peterwald nodded. There were a few scowls from the screen, but they weren’t too bad. Not at all as bad as she might have feared.
“Your Grace,” Mannie said. “In your official Navy capacity, I expect you to arrange with the appropriate admiral for the necessary escort, both cruiser and Marines.”
“That I will do,” Vicky said, having no idea how she would.
“Then I think we are done here,” Mannie said. “Your Grace, no doubt several people would like to have dinner with you tonight. Shall I have my chauffeur pick you up at eight?”
“That will be fine.” Where she would be at eight was anybody’s guess. That she had nothing to wear but a green shipsuit, now in need of a washing, went without saying.
The screens snapped off as the mayors no doubt returned to their busy day, which had gotten much more busy.
“I’ll arrange for your stay,” Mannie said. “The Imperial Suite at the Hilton has had few uses of late.”
“You know, of course, that my credit chit has been canceled,” Vicky said.
“So I was advised by our spaceport. We of St. Petersburg recognize a certain debt toward the Navy of unspecified monetary value. Your necessary expenses will be charged against that.”
“No doubt you’ve heard this from a woman before, but I really do have nothing to wear,” Vicky said, enjoying, for a moment, sounding just like any other girl.
“I also received a report from the spaceport that there was no luggage aboard your shuttle. Once you’re settled into your suite, I’ll have my grandmadre take you on a shopping expedition. Commander, we have tailors who can meet your needs.”
“I will need to stay at Her Grace’s side. My orders are that no one gets to her except over my dead body. From a personal interest, may I ask how secure she is on St. Petersburg?”
Mannie winced. “I’d like to say as safe as that pearl in a clam, but as we all know, that pearl is not safe at all. I suspect at least one of my fellow mayors will be sending a report to your stepmother. My net may even be compromised. Likely, a copy of our meeting will be on its way to Greenfeld within the hour. One of the few advantages of these troubled times is that news travels much more slowly, what with the lack of shipping using the jump points.”
“I suspect my dear loving stepmama will pay extra for premium communications service,” Vicky pointed out.
“And with the standing price on her head,” the commander pointed out, “any local freelancer is likely to already be moving into position for a shot.”
“Which is why you will find my best agents waiting outside,” Mannie said. “The Imperial Suite was not a casual choice for your stay, Your Grace. Your father, our Emperor, requested and required that all Imperial suites throughout Greenfeld have bulletproof glass. Your suite will not only tuck you way up and out of sight, but also behind glass strong enough to stop a rocket grenade.”
Mannie paused, then smiled at Vicky. “We play no more games, Your Grace. You are a pearl of great worth, and you’ll be treated as such.”
“Thank you, Mannie,” Vicky said. It was one of the few “thank-you’s” she’d ever said that she truly meant.
Mannie actually cracked a smile. Then his worried face was back. He turned to his desk. “I have work to do. A lot more than I expected this morning when I came in with a full to-do list. So, if you will please go make yourself imperially beautiful, I’ll get back to work.”
“Will I see you at eight?” Vicky asked.
“No doubt,” Mannie said without glancing back.
VICKY hardly had a moment to step into the hall and take a deep breath and exhale before she was surrounded by a team of eight agents. Vicky did her best to look beautiful while Commander Schlieffen and the Special Agent in Charge did their bulls-suddenly-locked-in-the-same-pasture male thing.
It didn’t last overly long.
At the elevator, they were joined by two female agents. The ride down was uninterrupted and longer in length.
They stepped out into a lower parking level. Five large black, passenger vehicles waited with motors running. Vicky was escorted to the fourth one in line as the agents with her joined those waiting in the cars.
She was asked to fasten her seat belt. She did.
Then the ride got exciting.
In the screeching race up three floors of parking, her ride changed from fourth to second to third in line. This game of musical cars continued when they hit the street. She wondered about the wisdom of her being in the lead car or the trailing car, but while driving five minutes to the Hilton, her car changed its place in line at just about every block.
“Are they taking this too seriously, or am I at this much risk?” Vicky asked the commander.
He smiled. “I don’t see a problem.”
The hotel was much like the City Hall. She was taken to the lowest parking level, then whisked up an elevator to the top floor.
“I have the shower while you talk security,” she declared, and was lathering up nicely in a spectacularly luxurious shower a minute later. The needlelike hot water washed off the tension of the morning, leaving her pink both in skin and mind . . . and delighting at the thought of sharing it with the commander when the time came.
Said commander came into the bathroom as she was getting out of the shower.
“All measures have been arranged,” was all he got out before she threw herself on him, wet and willing. His shipsuit was already in need of washing, so getting it wet certainly was a minor thing. She wrapped her legs around him as he stumbled back into the bedroom.
“Things are a bit different from the ship,” he managed to mutter as her tongue explored his mouth.
Things were. No doubt she weighed more.
And there were two female agents across the bedroom.
One turned beet red.
The other, maybe a bit older, ushered the younger out and closed the door firmly behind them.
The commander fell backward into a large, fluffy bed. Vicky quickly lost herself in fulfilling all the promises she’d made him. She added some extras as a special reward for his outstanding performance in the hours since they’d docked at High St. Petersburg station.
It was a very pleasant hour and ended with her showing him just how delightful the shower was.
VICKY’S computer announced the arrival of Mannie’s grandmadre. “She has clothes for you. The Senior Agent in Charge also has clothes for the commander.”
The bathroom offered fluffy robes. The commander helped Vicky into one, then quickly slipped into the other as she went to meet their public.
Grandmadre had brought Vicky a simple business suit and skirt in soft earth tones. Everything, from bra to skirt, was exactly one size too small.
“I may have erred a bit when asked your sizing,” the commander admitted.
His set of dress greens fit him perfectly.
“I know just the store for you,” Grandmadre assured Vicky.
That store was their first stop. It was small and quiet but as modern as any on Greenfeld. Vicky’s measurements were quickly taken by lasers.
The store also had an amazing quantity of merchandise. Apparently, what was in the store could be augmented by a quick run across the street or a duck down the alley.
The staff ducked and ran a lot.
The senior of the two female agents insisted Vicky add ballistic protection to her ordered clothes, a recommendation supported by her own Senior Agent in Charge and Commander Schlieffen.
A beige suit that actually fit was quickly produced . . . with protection.
Vicky sighed as she put it on. She’d always been well rounded. Now her curves had padding.
The commander assured her she looked very cuddly.
A similar power suit, this one in red, was just as quickly made for her, armor and all.
Vicky balked when they tried to add ballistic protection to a simple black dress.
“First off, there’s not all that much dress here for you to armor,” Vicky pointed out.
“We were hoping you’d choose something more conservative,” the female agent said.
“I’m not,” Vicky said flatly.
The look on the agent’s face caused Vicky to offer a compromise. “Computer, do you have a copy of that new dinner dress uniform I wore at the palace not too long ago. The one I proposed that Admiral Heller authorize for all female Navy officers?”
“Provide it to them.”
The computer did. The entire sales staff quickly congregated around a hologram table where her diminutive self modeled the dinner dress uniform. From the sounds of their comments, they liked the design.
From the moans of the seamstresses, there was no way they could duplicate it anytime soon.
“We lack the cloth. We haven’t had any cloth of gold in months,” one pointed out.
“Those colors. We’d have to dye them ourselves,” another groaned.
“How did they get that skirt to fall that way with ballistic-resistant cloth?” a third asked.
“They didn’t,” Vicky said. “That dress was not armored.”
Vicky and the agent were back to a standoff.
“I will not go to dinner tonight looking like a brick outhouse,” Vicky said. She’d learned that expression during her Navy time and found it useful.
Vicky got her simple black dress.
As her purchases were bagged, the commander shook his head. “We have got to order you some of that spidersilk underall armor that they have in the U.S.”
“Why don’t we have any here?” Vicky asked.
“Restrictions on sales of it outside the U.S.,” Gerrit said. “We’ll have to smuggle it out.”
“Please have someone do it,” Vicky said.
Grandmadre returned Vicky to her suite a good four hours before Mannie was due to pick her up.
Vicky put it to good use. The commander voiced no complaints.
THE mayor of Sevastopol voiced delight in Vicky’s appearance when he met her at the door at eight o’clock sharp.
There were eight large, identical, vehicles waiting for Vicky in the lowest parking basement of the Hilton. Again, they played shuffle car, but this time it was a lengthy drive that took them out of the city.
The dinner meeting that evening was at an estate high in the hills overlooking the city lights and enhanced by the sparkle of a newly risen full moon on the bay. Surrounded by croplands, pasture, and woods, the uniformed and armed troops walking the perimeter had clear lanes of fire.
The commander voiced approval.
“We’ve had need of a secure meeting location a time or two,” Mannie admitted. “This used to belong to the head of State Security for our province. I doubt there will be time for a tour this evening of the lower basements. I would have thought dungeons had gone out with the horse-and-buggy whip.”
“When I was a little girl, General Boyng, the head of State Security, used to give me the loveliest dresses,” Vicky said dreamily, then added cynically, “With bugs on them so he could record my daddy’s conversations with me. I did not weep when my father had him killed,” she finished dryly.
“None of us did,” Mannie agreed. “It just would have been nicer if the destruction of the black shirts hadn’t taken the entire Empire down with them.”
“Yes, change is difficult. You seem to have managed it better than most.”
“Yes.” Mannie smiled at the praise. “We had the black shirts tamed and half replaced when your father chose to demolish the rest.”
They entered what might have passed for a hunting lodge on old Earth five hundred years ago. A wood fire blazed away with cheerful snaps. A dozen men and women awaited Vicky.
She was introduced to each one of them individually. Spouses had not been included in tonight’s invitation.
Colonel Mary White was introduced first. A tall, athletic woman, she’d been an explorer of the southern continent out in the back and beyond of Sevastopol when the need had arisen for a soldier. She’d mustered ranchers and distant farmers who had been allowed hunting rifles even under the old regime. A few retired Navy hands strengthened her organizational skills, and, suddenly, Sevastopol had an army.
“Now we’re standing up a National Guard. On old Earth, there’s an animal called the porcupine,” Colonel White said. “Sharp spines all over it. No one bothers it.”
“I doubt you’ll be bothered either,” Vicky offered.
“In a pig’s eye,” Mary spat. “We lose the Navy and we lose the high ground. Are we going to lose the Navy?”
“Not if the Navy has any say in the matter,” Vicky said, but aware of how insecure any meeting might be, she named no names.
Mary, the new-made colonel, didn’t look all that reassured.
Most of the remaining attendees were businesspeople, with only two women among them. Two were farmers who also had large ranching spreads in the valleys beyond the hills. All wanted to know what Vicky knew of matters on Greenfeld and how those would impact them.
Vicky answered with a shrug. “If this were a fairy tale, I’d say my father was under the spell of a witch. Unfortunately, this is no fairy tale, and what we are seeing is a middle-aged man making a fool of himself with his new, much younger bride. The Bowlingame family in the meantime is taking full advantage of his distraction to grab for power and wealth. You are lucky to be this far out. It’s worse closer in.”
“And I hear say that you talked the mayors into us making ourselves a target,” one of the ranchers said.
“I’ve suggested that you expand your sphere of influence to include all the resources you need to make a successful go of it in the present circumstances,” Vicky said. “I don’t know who said that ‘No man is an island,’ but you know you aren’t. You, sir, grow cows and crops. They feed the hungry city. You get wondrous things like the clothes on your back and those nice boots on your feet. You want to make a go of it on your own?”
The man raised his glass in salute and took a sip of the fine liquor. “I do like the finer things in life.”
“For others out there, it’s not a case of the finer things in life, sir,” Vicky said, taking the offered opportunity to drive home her point. “There’s not enough of any of the basic things they need for daily living. Not even food. People are literally starving to death. I saw it when we passed through their systems headed out here.”
Vicky paused, hunting for a conclusion. “We built a civilization to provide us with the things that make life worth enjoying. Now that civilization is tearing itself apart at the seams. Civilized people count on each other for the basics of life as well as the luxuries. All that has vanished for a lot of people. Together, we can bring it back to them.”
Vicky glanced around the room. “You here on St. Petersburg can do something about it. Not for everyone, but for some. Do you really want to turn your back on a starving child?”
“That’s a strange argument coming from a Peterwald,” an older man, his paunch hanging over his belt, said. He’d been introduced as George Gatewood, an industrialist.
Vicky nodded. “I’m hearing that a lot. It kind of surprises me, too.”
That brought a round of silence, but it was an expectant silence.
“I don’t know why my dad decided to send my brother to the Navy. All his upbringing had been business, but there was Hank one morning at the breakfast table in a Navy commodore’s uniform. I thought he looked so handsome and grown-up. We women have a weakness for guys in uniforms, don’t we?”
Two of the women present nodded agreement.
Mary’s grin was almost a leer. “A regular chick magnet.”
Vicky went on.
“Six months later, my brother was dead. I spent much of the next year trying to kill the woman I thought had killed him. You may have heard about her? Princess Kris Longknife.”
“You tried to kill her?” Mary was impressed.
“I tried. You may have noticed, she’s kind of hard to kill.”
There were nods.
“Then Dad shipped me off to the Navy, too. He didn’t say why. But there was no commodore’s uniform waiting for me. I was an ensign. A boot ensign.”
Vicky eyed Mary.
“You can’t get much lower than a butter bar LT,” the woman agreed.
“I learned basic things like how to shine my shoes. Dress myself. Keep my uniform shipshape. I learned to stand my watch and pull my weight. Not much weight at first, but more as I learned the Navy Way.”
She let her eyes rove around the circle. There was a lot of skepticism there, but maybe some belief. Some trust.
“There’s more to the Navy Way than shining shoes and getting your gig line straight. There’s things like duty and honor and professionalism. I hadn’t heard much about those things growing up in the palace. I learned it from Admiral Krätz.”
She paused. “And if I didn’t get it right, I got the toe of his boot up my ass.”
That brought a laugh.
“Up your Imperial ass?” Mary asked.
“For him, I don’t think there was anything Imperial about my rear end,” Vicky said. “I was a boot ensign, and my ass belonged to him.
“It was an entirely new sensation for me.”
That drew another laugh. Vicky let them enjoy it before she went on sardonically.
“And then there was Princess Kris Longknife. I kept running into her. A very strange woman.”
That drew nods all around.
“You went with her out there,” Mary said, motioning with her drink to the ceiling and the dark, star-speckled sky beyond.
“Yes, I went out there with Princess Kris Longknife in the Fleet of Discovery. And yes, I’m one of the few survivors who made it back.”
“How?” Mary demanded.
“More luck than any human had a right to, that I’ll tell you. Luck and some folks who were willing to fight to the death so that we might have even a slim chance of making it back here to tell the rest of you what’s out there.”
Mary took a drink from her glass. “Sometimes it’s like that.”
“And you have to learn to live with it,” Vicky said, then went on.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of Mike Shepherd
“Fast-paced, exciting, nicely detailed, with some innovative touches.”—Elizabeth Moon, Nebula Award–winning author of Crown of Renewal
“Shepherd delivers no shortage of military action, in space and on the ground. It’s cinematic, dramatic, and dynamic…[He also] demonstrates a knack for characterization, balancing serious moments with dry humor.”—Tor.com
“Readers have come to depend on Mike Shepherd for fast-paced military science fiction bound to compelling story lines and adrenaline-pumping battles.”—Fresh Fiction
“Fans of the Honor Harrington escapades will welcome the adventures of another strong female in outer space starring in a thrill-a-page military space opera…The audience will root for the determined, courageous, and endearing heroine as she displays intelligence and leadership during lethal confrontations.”—Alternative Worlds
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I like this book a lot. it gets into Vickiy's thoughts about things that happened in the past and forces her to come to some realizations about the future. The only thing that I think is negative about this book is that it takes her till half way through to figure out that it is her or her stepmother. Come on Mike it was obvious half way through the first book what she was going to have to do, why stretch it out so long before she admits it to herself. It has always been kill or be killed and it was obvious someone was raping the empire, and that there wasn't anyone else doing anything about it. Vicky should have come to that realization a lot sooner. I am looking forward to book 3 to see how this is going to play out and of course that will probably stretch out to book 5 or 6, after all it is space opera at its best.
At uph all reses.