Ky Vatta glanced around the table at the captains crowded into her office. It still felt a little unreal, but here they were, all waiting for her to say something: Argelos and Pettygrew, there from the beginning; Yamini, who had been Argelos’ military adviser and who now captained the stealth observer they’d captured from the pirates; Ransome and Baskerville, the two surviving captains of Ransome’s Rangers; Major Douglas of Mackensee Military Assistance Corporation, assigned as MMAC’s liaison to her. His assistant, Master Sergeant Cally Pitt, seemed quite at ease standing in a corner.
“Our main problem, as I see it, is that we’re always reacting to Turek,” Ky said. “We don’t know much about him, what his goals are—besides killing people and getting power—and we can’t understand any of the transmissions we’ve overheard. We’ve got to find a way to get better intel.”
“Mackensee might share data with you,” Major Douglas said. “If you don’t mind me butting in.” He smiled at Ky.
“I don’t mind,” Ky said. “Before we go into jump, would you like to ask them about that?”
“You particularly want information about their language, any history anyone can dig up, is that right?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t mind knowing where they are right now, where they’re going next, and in what force,” Ky said, grinning.
“If we knew that, we’d be hauling mass,” Douglas said. “All of us. But I can ask if any of our linguists know the language. You gave them copies of the transmissions, right?”
“I did, yes,” Ky said. “And another thing . . . I know I need a staff structure. We talked about that before, but with over forty ships to command, I need something now, before we get to Cascadia.”
“Think any of those privateers will give you trouble?” Argelos asked. Ky was mildly amused to find that the former privateer no longer considered himself one of them.
“I doubt it,” Ky said. “Aunt Grace sent them; she’d have checked them out.”
“You don’t just need a staff,” Douglas said. “You need a combat control center. You can’t command forty ships from the bridge on this one—it’s too crowded, and it doesn’t have the right communications setup. Your shipboard ansibles are an incredible advance, but they can’t do everything and they are bulky.”
“Isn’t adequate,” Captain Yamini said. “I agree with Major Douglas. Running the additional communications cables in here would be next to impossible, and they must be shielded cables. You’re talking over forty ships now, and maybe more if the Moscoe Confederation sends ships from Cascadia. That’s a lot of equipment, not just for communications but also for scan, if you’re to have the data you need during a battle. I don’t know how you’d get one in this ship—you’d have to practically rebuild it, I’d think—but then you’ve told us it needs serious work anyway.”
“On our ships, the CCC is built in when the hulls are laid,” Douglas put in. “But I understand that some systems have modular CCCs that can be retrofitted to vessels. We don’t, but maybe they can do that at Cascadia.”
“Before we go FTL, we should ask Stella that,” Ky said, adding another line to the list in her implant. A long list, now, since she had heard about the Slotter Key privateers on their way to Cascadia, turned down Mackensee’s offer of a commission, and accepted the suggestion of a liaison to travel with her. In a few short hours, her little group would leave the Mackensee’s headquarters world and head for Cascadia Station . . . and she would have to be ready, when they arrived, to take charge in reality as the commander she had hoped to become.
“We’ll have two jump transitions on the way,” Argelos said. “Do you want communication there, or not?”
“They’re both just waypoints, aren’t they? Uninhabited systems?”
“Yes. But the ansibles are up in both right now. We might find out what’s going on—”
“Good idea,” Ky said. “We don’t want to delay more than we have to, but stripping bulletins from ansibles doesn’t take long. Everyone should do it, so you can each run your own analysis and we can share. Intership communication only by onboard ansibles, no matter how close we are.”
Her deskcom chimed; Hugh Pritang’s code. “Yes, Hugh?” Ky said.
“Last load’s coming aboard here, Captain. Last for Sharra’s Gift is a half hour out. Bassoon’s complete. Mackensee’s Traffic Control officer has given us a priority departure slot in two point five hours. Next after that’s at three point five. Thought you’d want to know.”
“Thanks, Hugh,” Ky said. To the others, she said, “We’d better get with it, hadn’t we? I’d like to take that early slot, so this meeting will have to be short.”
For another hour, they hammered out the organization of skeleton staff, to be filled out once they arrived at Cascadia, then dispersed to their various ships. Ky made the calls courtesy required to the Mackensee officers who had assisted them, sent databurst messages to Stella, Grace, and Rafe, and then went to the bridge as they undocked and headed out toward the jump point.
Nexus II, Headquarters of InterStellar Communications
Rafe Dunbarger, acting CEO of InterStellar Communications, looked at the monitor in the central control room of ISC’s detention center. The man in the security cell looked older than his official years and very tired. All the gloss of wealth and power had leached away, leaving his face exposed, the dissatisfaction and ambition clear to see.
“You sure you’ve got everything?” Rafe asked his new internal security chief.
“As sure as we can be. His implant was coded to self-destruct if removed, of course, but we were able to block that and examine it. Downloaded everything we could. And before we took his implant, we’d done a full panel, ’cept what you’d told us not to.” Faint regret colored his tone.
“I have my reasons,” Rafe said.
“I’m sure, Ser Dunbarger. Not arguing, just saying.”
Rafe watched the man on the monitor shift his weight on the narrow bed. Now came the question, the final question at the end of all the data collection. What to do with the man who had destroyed his childhood and much of his adulthood, who had separated him from his father, who had schemed and plotted and finally attacked his own mentor, Rafe’s father? Who had contrived the killing of Rafe’s sisters, the death of his surviving sister’s husband and child? He surely deserved death, but . . . what death could encompass his crimes? And what about legal procedures?
He’d made discreet inquiries, and the answer came back that it was ISC’s problem. The government didn’t want a noisy, embarrassing, expensive trial any more than he did. They wanted the problem removed.
“He’s a hundred percent liability,” he’d been told. But he’d been told that about himself, when it wasn’t true. Was it ever true? The man had intelligence, talents, charisma . . . he had earned the trust of the Board, of Rafe’s father . . . could he have been, in some way, as misunderstood, or at least as complex, as Rafe?
“Would’ve been easier to kill him that first day,” Gary said.
“True.” Rafe sighed. No matter what he did, leaving Lewis Parmina alive would be too dangerous. The man was a threat, not only to him and his family but also to ISC, Nexus, and the new alliance. In the heat of his early rage, he could have enjoyed killing the man himself . . . but now his stomach churned at the thought.
“You going to tell him?”
“He expects it,” Rafe said. “He’s not stupid.”
“They always hope,” Gary said.
“I’ll speak to him,” Rafe said. He wasn’t sure why he felt that he must, but he knew if he didn’t he would regret it forever.
“Not without a guard,” Gary said.
“No,” Rafe said. “I’m not stupid, either.” Gary grunted, and Rafe grinned at him. “And not you—I’ll take whoever’s on duty in the section.”
It was only a short walk to the guard station at the entrance to the block of cells. He let the guard open the cell, and then followed him in. The guard stepped to one side, stun-rod ready.
“Enjoying yourself, aren’t you?” Lew Parmina said. His gaze flicked to the guard and back to Rafe’s face. His smile widened. “Still the scared little boy, are we?”
“Cautious,” Rafe said, keeping the edge out of his voice. Mild interest, no more. “You might take it as a sign of respect.”
“Not from me,” Lew said. He put his hands behind his head; the guard shifted slightly, watchful. “Having fun with the company? I left you a few surprises . . .”
“As much as possible,” Rafe said.
“My family?” Judging by the sneer on his face, he didn’t really care about them.
“Are fine,” Rafe said. He waited a predictable two beats.
“No conjugal visit before the end?”
“She refused,” Rafe said. Parmina’s wife had done more than refuse; she had gone into hysterics at the mention of that possibility.
“Ah. Well, then, I presume this is the obligatory so long, farewell, see-you-in-hell session? Or are you going to go all mushy and ask why I betrayed your father’s trust?”
“I have no interest in why you did it,” Rafe said.
Lew shrugged. “Well, then. Get it over with. Unless you’re planning to drag it out with torture or something. I know you—you can’t pretend you don’t enjoy killing.”
Rafe smiled down at him, holding Parmina’s gaze until the man had to look down. “I ration myself,” he said then. He nodded to the guard, who opened the door and turned to leave.
“You coward!” Lew screamed, and lurched forward. Even as Rafe spun, drawing his own weapon, the guard’s stunner struck Lew; he collapsed, clawing at his neck.
“Go on, ser; I’ll take care of this,” the guard said.
“Quickly,” Rafe said. He holstered his pistol. “No playtime.”
“Absolutely,” the guard said.
Rafe waited in the corridor outside. After a moment the guard emerged.
“No,” Rafe said. “The family has requested no autopsy and no funeral. I’d say dispose of the body to medical research, except that he might have hidden something else nasty internally. If you can remove the implant in a secure facility, do that. Direct cremation’s safest. Be sure to fill out the paperwork.”
Back in his office, Rafe made the necessary calls. Lew’s wife cried, more with relief than sorrow, but he still felt compelled to comfort her. The daughter Lew had abused listened stony-faced, and said only “Good.” Rafe’s sister Penny nodded once, then burst into tears—clearly relief, this time—and his mother, on the com, did the same. Official reaction was subdued but clearly glad that ISC had handled ISC’s problem.
He felt none of the exultation he had felt before . . . only a peculiar sense of loss that he finally identified as grief. Lew Parmina was dead, and deservedly so, but he had been as human as Rafe himself. He thought suddenly of Ky, and her moment of compassion for the spy they had caught on her ship . . . she would have understood this. How could someone have gone so wrong?
He informed the Board that afternoon, at their regular meeting. “Lew Parmina is dead,” he said. “He tried to attack me, in the cell; a guard killed him. The death was reported to all the proper authorities; the family declined to receive the remains or hold a funeral; they asked that ISC dispose of them. He was cremated immediately.”
“About time,” Vaclav Box said. He had urged the need for Parmina’s death more than once. “Poisonous creature.” Others murmured agreement. No one wanted to be seen as defending Parmina.
“Next,” Rafe said, “the latest medical report on my father.” At first they had demanded such reports almost daily, but lately he had noticed more time between questions, and less apparent interest. “His speech has improved, though slowly. His doctors, however, hold out no hope that he will be able to take up his duties as CEO even part-time within the next four months . . . and they do not think he will ever be able to use an internal implant.”
“Not even on the other side?” Vaclav Box asked.
“Apparently not,” Rafe said. “Because of the existing damage, they’re concerned that any manipulation to create the pocket could cause seizures—or worse. An external device might be possible, but . . . he had had a right-sided implant his whole life.” He looked down for a moment, imagining what it must be like without an implant, without that reassuring presence. “We had all hoped, of course, that the neural regeneration would proceed more swiftly.” Then he could have gotten back to his own life, though he had no idea what that life might be.
Glances passed back and forth across the table; for a long moment no one said anything.
Finally, Box cleared his throat. “About your father . . .”
“You know I’ve talked to him. So have some of the others. I’m certainly aware he’s not what he was. And—for the most part—we don’t want him back.” Box paused a moment, clearly trying to gauge Rafe’s reaction. Rafe felt as if a load of rock had dropped on his head; he couldn’t think of anything to say. “I’m one of his oldest friends; I still consider him a friend. But he got us into this whole mess; his judgment was faulty long before his injury. Or perhaps it had been tampered with, but that doesn’t really matter.”
“You’ve canvassed the Board?” Rafe found his voice at last, looking around at them all.
“You can’t blame everything on him. It was Lew—”
“He was fooled by Parmina, to the point of repudiating his own son.” Box went on, enumerating the same things Rafe had struggled not to see. “The policies he approved led directly to the mess we’re in now—the erosion of our ability to protect our monopoly, the failure to gain control of new technology, the theft of our intellectual property . . . Parmina may have been the mastermind, but your father did not see the dangers.”
Neither had the Board, Rafe thought. They had all been fooled just as much as his father. Had they ever done anything more than nod yes and take their compensation? “Then . . . if you don’t want my father, you won’t want me,” he said. He felt letdown and relief at the same moment.
“Not at all, Rafe. You did see the problems; you’ve clarified them for all of us; you’ve started turning the corporation around. We need you and we want you. Now and for the foreseeable future. I don’t believe—and I am sure the Board concurs—that there is anyone else who could possibly save as much of what we had.”
The others nodded. The weight fell back on his shoulders. He wanted to yell at them, insist he was not the one for the job, but he knew . . . he knew he was.
“The only problem,” Box said slowly, “is this thing with the Vatta family and your relationship with them. On this I stand with your father, and I think I speak for most of the Board. There are reasons to be concerned; they are involved in too many of the things that have gone wrong, that have cost us.”
“You can’t seriously believe . . .” Rafe stopped, faced with that double row of stony faces. They did believe it. He would have to change that—they would have to understand that their future lay with a Vatta alliance.
From the Hardcover edition.