Point of Ignition

by Jonathan Cresswell







Chapter One



Jamal Battutah laid his cheek against the viewport’s cold surface and looked down at the abandoned world below.

KSV Belvedere’s Control compartment hummed in familiar comfort around him, monitoring the powered-down Konstantine trading vessel – keeping the air in and the radiation out, as the Konstantines said. Like the ship, Samarkand Colony had fought to keep humans alive in a hostile environment, and was slowly losing.

Unlike the colonists, though, Belvedere’s crew still hadn’t given up.

Jamal pushed away from the triangular viewport, turning gently in free fall, and scanned Con’s displays by habit although he was off-watch. Schematics showed worn but functional systems shut down to dock with the orbital station; depleted fuel tanks glared yellow and red. Nav said they were over three hundred light-years from home, although this clapped-out merchant ship had long since become Jamal’s true home.

The shuttle climbing up to meet them was the only moving contact in the holographic situation display in the compartment’s center. To its right, at the flight console, Second Officer Kipanthalay Dupont was entering final settings. Amber light scattered from the display grid, striking a glow from both her sculpted half-Kilimanjaro complexion and the gold silk jacket she wore. As usual, she was the best-dressed individual aboard the ship.

Jamal moved close by her and spoke quietly, mindful of the two ratings at their stations aft. “Kip, has the Captain said anything to you about what cargo we’re intending to take on here?”

“No. No mass or trim specifications.”

“That’s not like him. You’re Flight Officer, after all...”

“It’ll be fine, Jamal. You haven’t been this nervous since you first came aboard, and that turned out all right, didn’t it?” She spared a hand from the console to clasp his for a moment; he managed to smile back at her. Jamal had been fourteen standard years old when he’d joined Belvedere’s crew after exile from his home world; Kip, only a year older, had been his instructor, mentor – lover, for a tempestuous year – then friend and fellow officer. It had turned out all right.

Until this year... Captain Ontabe had said that crossing outside of Safe Zone Eight was an acceptable risk for a private vessel on the verge of bankruptcy. Jamal looked back to the ports and the bleak expanse of Samarkand’s only habitable continent sliding past below, and frowned. Doubting his own judgment was something he’d trained to overcome; doubting his captain was a far more uncomfortable feeling.

“I still don’t like it, Kip. Samarkand was never rich; there can’t be much left down there.”

She sighed. “There’s one cargo on every world with people on it.”

“No. Barthe wouldn’t do that. It must –” He paused as the Bosun entered Con and moved forward to the command section.

“Mr. Battutah?”

“Yes, Fyodor.”

“I would like you to, ah, to take on my trading share. If you find anything groundside to buy. I cannot leave ship with empty tanks.” He held out a data chit.

Jamal took the chit, blinked at the displayed figure – more than they’d been able to pay Fyodor in the last hundred days – and tucked it into a pocket of the red Hong robe he wore over white trousers and tunic. Although the robe didn't include insignia as such, there was a subtle chevron stitched into each sleeve, a minor vanity. He was Belvedere's First Officer, holder of a Konstantine spinship qualification ticket, a reward for a decade of hard study and work in a world very different from his past – and as proud of that as anyone could be of anything.

“I’ll do my best. I can’t promise what I’ll find, though.”

Kip pushed back from the console. “Bosun, we’re secured in dock. The ship is yours.”

“Aye, ma’am.” Fyodor took her place with a slow somersault; he had more experience in space than both of them combined.

Jamal made his way out Con’s open hatchway; Kip followed him down the mid-line corridor, gliding into Belvedere’s small wardroom. To one side and upward, Third Officer Trevor Grayling nodded to them. Grayling’s utilitarian clothing, colourless as the man himself, all but camouflaged him against the metal bulkhead.

Captain Ontabe joined them from aft. “Hello, Jamal. Orbit watch is set?"

“Yes, sir,” said Jamal. “Fyodor's got two people in Con, and two more in Engineering. The rest are looking forward to seeing a horizon again.”

Barthe Ontabe moved into the wardroom. A tiny, silver model of Belvedere rode on his left lapel, identifying him as her owner and commanding officer. His graying hair was pulled back into a queue, making his features almost hawk-like, but the mild eyes softened the effect. “You’d better cancel the leaves, First Officer. I don't want anyone going groundside just yet who isn't invited to dinner. We may need everyone aboard to handle incoming cargo anyway."

Jamal glance at Kip, saw her hesitation that matched his own. Instead of querying Barthe about the cargo to be expected, he asked,  “Sir, who exactly is it that we're dining with?”

“Bishop Olivan of the Unity Church. There’s no government here any longer; the Church has taken over administration of whatever’s left.”

 “Then who controls the colony?”

“Apparently, he does.”

“Supreme Leader, then,” said Grayling lazily. “Should we be intimidated?”

“With one other ship docked at this entire transfer station?” said Kip. “We’ll be the most interesting crew to come along in months. Well, I will, anyway. Flight Officers’ tales of exotic lands – that always translates to an extra portion at dinner, or a better room.”

“Not exactly, Kip.” Ontabe slowly rubbed one hand with the other. “That other ship’s a Cordeban, a trader. Their officers have already met with Olivan. That’s another reason I don’t want crew ashore.”

Grayling had gone very still. “A trader. Are they armed, sir? We didn’t get a look at them on approach.”

“Well, they’ve no reason to be,” said Ontabe uncomfortably.  “No weapons at the dinner, certainly. And we have a safe-conduct for the ship – Olivan confirms it."

Jamal took that as less than a perfect guarantee. Personally, he'd never met a Cordeban that he'd cared to, and he agreed with the factions back home that rated Cordoba Colony as Konstantin's most dangerous rival. They'd had groundside brawls before. The commoner crews weren't permitted much in the way of genetic enhancement, but you wanted to watch for the officers…

“I don't want any trouble.” Ontabe lowered his voice. “We can’t afford any. I’m not sure we can even afford enough fuel to get home – unless we abandon some cargo mass. According to the Samarkand net, our currency’s fallen against the ducat, and…” A soft clunk announced the shuttle’s arrival.

“Well. I don't have to tell you to be on your best behavior – if Bishop Olivan approves a deal, it could get us through this year. If he decides to wait for the next ship...Am I understood?"

 A chorus of yessirs answered him. “Then let's go put Belvedere in the black again."

Jamal turned back toward Con, wondering how best to break the news.


The elderly shuttle began to shudder in the thickening air. Loose harnesses stirred among the rows of scuffed, empty seats surrounding the four Konstantine officers. Jamal felt the heavy return of gravity after twenty-four days of free fall in a ship too cramped for a centrifuge drum.

“No pilot,” said Kipanthalay in nervous disgust. “God knows where we’ll end up. When a colony starts automating things like that...”

Jamal suppressed his own jitters and studied Grayling, seated next to him in apparent unconcern, his cropped, ash-blonde head rocking idly with the jolts. The Fourth Officer had served aboard an interstellar courier before joining Belvedere several years after Jamal had. “Remind you of old times, Grayling?”

The Third Officer smiled thinly. The tiny couriers ran flat-out, and often put their crews through hell to do it. “Not really,” he said. “Nothing to do here, the shuttle runs itself; that was boring enough, at times, but this...”

Most courier crews only lasted a year before moving to other fields, despite high salaries. Grayling had served aboard the same vessel for five years; Jamal had no idea how he’d stood it.

The shuttle made no course changes during its descent. There was no other traffic to avoid. What might have once been farmlands surrounding Malacca City expanded into a harsh yellow plain in the viewports; then they touched down and jostled to a halt in the open, rather than landing from a hover wherever they might choose. Jamal glanced at Kipanthalay, who nodded. Not too many flights left in this one.

Barthe was the first one to rise. He staggered, grabbing at a seat back, then moved carefully to the opening ramp. “Runway’s cracked all to hell,” he said as he stepped out into harsh sunlight.. “Native weeds. Bad even for...” He took another step downward, suddenly quiet. Jamal edged past him, squinting in the light.

A long mound of piled shoes ran beside the runway.

Kip leaned past Jamal’s shoulder. “What are they doing here? There must be tens of thousands...”

He nodded. “Easily. How big a city was this?”

“The old charts, the ’sixty-fours – they said Malacca City had a population of ninety-five thousand.”

Metal pinged as it cooled, a sound that Jamal had rarely heard over the bustling noise of shuttle ports. Here, all was silent. Samarkand’s sun, a searing blue-white pinpoint halfway down to the horizon, threw warm shadows over tarmac that still rippled with midday heat.

“They must have walked here from the buildings,” said Barthe, gesturing. The shuttle port hangars, half a kilometer beyond,  had shuttered windows and closed doors. The domes and walls of Malacca City hulked further behind them. “Lined up here to board, and kicked off their shoes onto the piles...They’d never stand under gravity again, so why would they need them?”

Styles and colours varied among the decomposing mounds, but almost all looked adult size. There’d been few children on Samarkand in the final years, when the shuttles lifted every hour – draining the colony away, back across the lightyears to Sol system and the Unity.

Kipanthalay tried to smile. “Maybe I can find a pair that fit.”

Jamal glanced toward the rising whine of a motor. Between two of the port buildings, a six-wheeled jeep raised an orange cloud of dust.

“Customers,” he said in a hopeful tone.

The vehicle was open-topped. Two outriders perched high at the rear, holding shoulder weapons. Jamal, sharply aware of the order that their party be unarmed, glanced at Barthe; but the Captain waved confidently, and when Jamal looked back, a white-robed figure seated forward on the vehicle returned the wave. In a few moments the jeep whined up to them and halted.

“Welcome! I’m Bishop Olivan.” His wrinkled face was burned as dark as the teenaged Malaccan outriders, who added brilliant grins to his gentle smile. They both held heavy military coilguns in very unmilitary slouches. At least they weren’t being pointed anywhere near Jamal and his companions.

“A beautiful sight, isn’t it.” Olivan gestured along the mounds. His Trade English carried a soft accent – Samarkand’s mark upon him. “The buildings are full of possessions and trinkets, but this has more meaning for me. They’d never take another step, except the greatest one of all...

“Please, climb on. I’m sorry about the lack of proper transport.” Olivan lifted a hand, frail but unyielding, to steady Barthe as the Captain twisted onto the seat next to him. The others followed. Olivan spoke a few words in what Jamal guessed to be Malay; the jeep backed, turned, and rumbled towards the port structures.

Malacca City flowed past in tan and yellow shades – wide, deserted streets, drifts of sand. Although a  few structures were scorched and one gutted, there was surprisingly little damage beyond an odd broken window: few looters or vandals, then. The two guards clinging as the jeep jounced over debris, however, indicated that there might be expectation of that from time to time.

The jeep slowed as it passed a mural of a seascape, and halted.

Bishop Olivan dismounted without aid from his guards; they hopped down and wandered toward the building’s side. “Please,” he said to the Konstantines, “come inside. I understand that you wouldn’t feel comfortable at my temple – but I’ve always found this a peaceful place, and I hope you will as well.”

Three high entryways were carved in fossil-shapes and ferns. Their powered doors stood still and dusty, but the emergency panel in one had been kicked out. Jamal stepped through into the cool dimness of a lobby lined with kiosks, signs in Malay, large glass tanks brimming with water – and smiled for a moment. He’d been to this city years before, when Samarkand had still been a functioning society among thirty other colonized worlds; but he’d never visited the city aquarium.

He thought he might like Olivan at that.

Barthe made introductions as they walked, his voice wavering over their footfalls. Jamal didn’t offer to shake hands in Konstantine fashion, bowing instead. Olivan returned the bow, touching three fingers to the gray, spherical Unity pendant resting between the lapels of his white robe – a tiny representation of the colossal shell that had engulfed inner Sol system, the final destination of the emigrants from here and a dozen other worlds.

He was still a small and wizened man; but for a moment, his presence seemed to fill the passageway. The man and the pendant channeled the power of an idea that had drawn millions of people over light-years’ distance – abandoning their physical bodies, like the shoes that lay beside a runway nearby; abandoning their solid worlds for a Dyson shell of drifting microprocessors that drank a sun for power; abandoning their lives for an infinite afterlife.

They still called it uploading, even after almost a century. Jamal shivered under his own robe. He glanced away from Olivan, and looked ahead to the open, brighter space that they walked toward. It was the Konstantine way, to look out instead of inward – and it had been Jamal’s way since before he’d joined this ship and these people.

The passageway opened out into a hall forty meters long – longer than Belvedere’s pressure hull. Whitewashed concrete walls curved together overhead; the two long sides were pierced with several tall viewports. Shapes moved in the cool green depths behind them. One fluked creature, long and sinuous, swam in a lazy sweep from one port to the next.

Lengthwise in the hallway, a table was laid for a meal. The three figures already seated along one side had all turned to face the passageway and the newly arrived guests, but they didn’t trouble to rise.

Cordeban officers weren’t noted for courtesy to the lesser breeds of man.

“You said they’d be gone,” muttered Barthe.

“I’m sorry, we are still negotiating their shipping fees. If you wish, I can have food served to you in the lobby, until we–”

“No.” Barthe straightened slightly. “I won’t hide from competitors. We can still teach them a thing or two about trade.”

“May I present Estan cagt Rohdahl, captain of the trading vessel Nero Augustus,” said Olivan. It seemed that Trade English would remain the language during dinner –  perhaps the only tongue that Olivan and his Cordeban guests had in common as well. “His officers – Vulpes Vettius, and Septimus cagt Quintillus.”

Jamal watched the Cordebans as Olivan rattled off his companion’s names in turn. Cagt Rohdahl’s dress was the most elaborate: a sort of kimono, several overlapping panels, each longer and of a darker shade of cool gray; the others wore simpler versions. His eyes flicked idly across the Konstantines. Cordebans didn’t think of themselves as supermen; they were simply the most up-to-date version of humanity.

Of course, that meant that in their view, everyone else was now subhuman.

“Please, join us,” said Olivan, waving the party towards the table. Four places were set along the left side, with white napkins folded into the four-pointed Konstantine star.

Barthe took the place to Olivan’s right; Jamal took the next, leaving Kipanthalay and Grayling to round out the order. He picked up the napkin, which unfolded into soft fabric when touched. The Cordebans settled opposite them with equal elegance.

Servants scurried about, placing chafing-dishes laden with food along the table’s centerline. Olivan gestured at a platter. “Some livestock are kept in the city parks – we breed enough to feed the few of us that remain.” He smiled. “And our infrequent guests.”

“On that topic...” cagt Quintillus, the one a touch shorter and slighter than his fellows, leaned forward as he draped his own napkin. He cocked his head, nostrils flaring. “Second Officer, I notice that you’re ovulating today. Do you have a gene record I might see? My people are always in need of co-breeding material, and I’d enjoy siring a vassal by you.”

Jamal’s fork clashed onto his plate; Barthe’s hand stopped him halfway out of his chair. He controlled the hot pulse of rage, noting the deceptively casual poses of the Cordebans – and also the glare that their senior shot sideways at cagt Quintillus. Something’s not right, he thought; the Cordys hadn’t traveled here just to start a brawl. He’d known Kip a long time, and she didn’t need a protector; but his fingers touched the knife at his place setting, and his eyes stayed on the Cordys. Protection and backup were two different things.

Kipanthalay’s breath hissed in. Her voice was flat as she said, “You son of a bitch. If you—“

Gentlemen! Milady!” shouted Olivan. For a moment, his voice carried as it must have once to thousands. “Please! Let us have no discord here. Estan cagt Rohdahl, I have given my word to these people – and that carries the weight of the Church behind it as well.”

cagt Rohdahl bowed where he sat, but then glanced at his host. “There are those within the Church who would say that a word given to a heretic is of...lesser value.”

“They are not here.”

“That is evident.” He smiled. “Perhaps if you were more progressive in your outlook, you would not be here, but at Corcanya with the Brethren, leading five worlds instead of sermonizing to a deserted heap of sand.”

Olivan shrugged. “I serve where I may. But while you are my guests, you will be courteous to these others.”

cagt Rohdahl bowed again, and turned to cagt Quintillus.

The smaller man shook his head ruefully. “I see that I have forgotten myself,” he said. “We are your guests – and even at home, I tend to be, shall we say, too direct? My apologies.”

Some of the savage tension eased around the table; Jamal settled back slightly. Cutlery clattered as guests tried to resume a conventional meal.

Kip did not. “What does ‘too direct’ mean, Quintillus?”

Barthe shifted. “Kip, drop it,” he said quietly, although he didn’t look at her as he said it.

The Cordeban swallowed a forkful and smiled. “You understand our relationship with the original colonists of our world? Many years ago, we rescued them from a plague that would have killed them all, and in gratitude they granted us dominion over them.” His eyes moved to Jamal. “Much as your alArabi ancestors did at Halsbraad, Mr. Battutah. With so many of the colonies failing, even collapsing, it’s the duty of those who are capable to lead those who are not.”

“It was an entirely unexplained plague, of course,” said Jamal. He rarely spoke to strangers about the society he’d been exiled from, and he wasn’t about to now – not to aristocrats who abused those they ruled over. “None of the slander suggesting that the Cordebans themselves arranged it in the first place has ever been proven. Of course.”

“One of the mysteries of Near Space,” agreed cagt Quintillus. “Of course. But the plague left genetic damage in its wake, and without the resources we once commanded in Sol, we were unable to help them as much as we would have liked to. Still, we can make contributions to their genetic welfare. Droit de seigneur, it was called once. They will never meet the true standards of Homo proteus, but they can be brought along somewhat…At any rate, you asked a more specific question.” He smiled tightly as he looked back to Kipanthalay. “Some of us have genomes that do not cross well with unimproved humanity’s. I’m one of those – and so when I go a-wooing among my family’s vassals, the results are generally poor.”

 Jamal wondered what the ratio of stillbirths to monsters was, over cagt Quintillus’ extended lifespan. He continued to eat stolidly.

 “I had high hopes for the seventh attempt; the gene scans were excellent. But when I arrived at my nest, my fine hen had flown, and her fine eggs along with her.”

 “She didn’t suit your fancy after all?” said Kip.

 “She had cut her own throat, actually.” cagt Quintillus made a moue of distaste, and ate another forkful. “A sad waste. It does demonstrate that rationality is not the province of the unimproved, though.”

He quirked a chilling smile at Kip. “Vassals do talk amongst themselves. I find it necessary to be more direct now. And so it may be that I have forgotten how to woo.”

 “I think you’ve forgotten what it means to be human, Quintillus.” Kip stared back for a moment before she lowered her gaze to her food.


 * * *


Talk shifted to trade, which had the virtue of inviting less outrage, and another course came and went without further clashes. The Cordebans claimed to have made great inroads in the field, with their own small vessel and its crew made up of vassals drawn from the families of its officers. Jamal had doubts. They didn’t seem well versed at all. Of course, the Cordebans were tyros, just beginning to venture into interstellar trade after years of isolation.

And at each opportunity, Olivan spoke of the Unity; how it had uplifted a crowded Earth from disease and poverty to transcendence; how the risky scrabble of life on colonies like Samarkand was coming to an end. Only holdouts and fanatics remained; the latter were doomed, but Olivan claimed that he wouldn’t leave himself until the last inhabitant woke to their future.

Barthe stared at the table during those times.

Wine came with each course; Vulpes and Cagt Rohdahl only sipped it, but cagt Quintillus drank heavily. It didn’t appear to have any effect, other than an increasing restlessness on his part. The Konstantines drank in moderation, following Barthe’s cautious example; or at least most of them did.

 “A glass with you, Mr. Battutah?” called out Olivan from the table’s head.

 Jamal covered his glass with a palm as he had done once already, when the servant behind him made to fill it. “I don’t drink,  sir,” he said. “One of my birth culture’s ways that I’ve kept.”

“I understand. We do not ban such things in the Church, but the notion of intoxicating a physical body to change its senses and emotions – well, that seems a poor substitute for what may be done by uploading, if you see my meaning.”

“It’s one thing to drink wine,” said cagt Quintillus. He swirled the glass that a servant had topped up. “It’s another to destroy one’s body, or neglect it. Or abandon it.”

Cagt Rohdahl flicked a glance at his subordinate – who wasn’t wearing a Unity pendant. Jamal formed a sympathetic smile. “How frustrating for you, cagt Quintillus. All those years of genetic research and engineering...only to create a more expensive carcass to be abandoned after uploading.”

Jamal turned to Barthe; after a few moments of silence during which Barthe didn’t meet his gaze, he looked past the captain to Olivan. “Sir, we’re here to trade. I don’t mean to be rude...but this philosophical talk isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Olivan nodded. “Captain?”

“He’s right,” grunted Barthe. “Let’s get on with it. What do you have here to trade, and what can you pay us with?”

“We aren’t quite as poor as we seem.” The bishop waved at the two servants remaining in the hall; one came forward with a satchel, unfastened it, and thumped it onto the table. Coins spilled onto the polished wood: glittering Outcast ducats that could only be manufactured at Sol.

Jamal leaned past Kip to stare. Unlike the fluctuating colonial currencies, this was solid wealth – enough to refit Belvedere from Con to stern, pay off the crew’s salaries, redeem a dozen overdue docking charges...

At the table’s other side, Estan cagt Rohdahl chuckled.

“My place here is a minor one, Captain, but I can buy what you’re brought me – and pay well for another voyage from here to Sol.” Olivan leaned forward. “But there is only one cargo to be carried there. You will be doing them a great good.”

Jamal froze. Barthe, you knew already. There were Konstantine shipowners who’d grown rich on the Upload Runs, taking pilgrims from one of several failing colonies to the Unity at Sol, then hauling nano-manufactured components back to Konstantin. But for Barthe to commit to this, without including his officers in the decision–

“God damn it, sir,” said Kip.  She leaned forward to face Barthe. “We’ve never taken ‘pilgrims’ aboard!”

“Kipanthalay. Please.”

“You’d help these people do what they do?”

Barthe shoved his chair back from the table. “You don’t understand. The government’s going to take her away from me!”

Jamal’s shoulders sagged. “The drive repairs were on credit,” he muttered. “First Mariners, wasn’t it? Collapsed, no recovery payouts.”

“Yes. One Upload Run – one – can put us in the black again. If we go home now with empty holds...”

“But, sir,” said Kipanthalay, “there’s other ships to fly in, other crews. We don’t have to do this.”

“They want to go,” insisted Barthe. “They’re not slaves, or implantees with a computer overseeing their brain. It’s their own goddamned choice! We just have to haul a pressure can to Sol.”

“Sir,” said Jamal. Barthe turned a haggard face to him. “I know what it’s like to lose everything; it happened to me twelve years ago, and you took me in then, gave me a place. Someone will do that for you too, without making you do something like this. And it’s your own people, too, sir. You won’t have to run offworld like I did–”

“Goddamn it, Jamal, your people did it too! They still ship the implantees out from Halsbraad to reward them!”

He flinched; Barthe sucked in his breath. “I’m sorry, Jamal, I didn’t mean it that way. But you know that they weren’t evil to do that...and we wouldn’t be wrong to do it either. You see?”  

“Sir,” said Jamal with great care. “We would not be breaking Konstantine laws. We’d be doing good by this man’s standards.” He nodded to Olivan. “But I know that all of us would rather be bankrupt and working hand-to-mouth in the Belt, before we’d do this. And I’ll speak for the crew in my division on that as well.”

“Mine too,” said Kip, although Grayling was as silent as the Cordebans opposite.

Bankrupt,” whispered Barthe; in a way, it was the foulest word a property-class Konstantine could speak. His genecode record would be tagged for ten years as a non-property-owner. If he had children, they would be tagged so from birth. It was a long, long way to fall...but there were worse ways.

Barthe Ontabe sighed. He studied his officers’ faces, then turned to face Olivan. “Sir, we’ll carry messages for you; we’ll carry masks, or glassware, or pornographic recordings. We won’t carry two hundred sedated pilgrims to remove themselves from existence. If that’s your only offer, then we’ll buy four hundred liters of He-De and depart.”

And dump the cargo we brought here, in order to make it home on that small an amount of fuel. Jamal couldn’t be happy; but still, he was relieved.

“I’m sorry,” said Bishop Olivan. He gestured to the waiting servant, who gathered up the spilled ducats and the satchel. “I had hoped we would  work together in this. But I respect your decision, Captain; may you yet find the Unity yourself.” He inclined his head, touching the gray pendant once again.

 Rhythmic slapping filled the quiet. Cagt Quintillus was applauding, three fingers against a palm.

 “Gentle cagt Quintillus!” said Olivan. “The bottle stands by you.”

 The Cordeban sniffed and picked up the bottle of red wine. “Perhaps it’s time to move–” he began as he tilted it.

 The stream of wine splattered along the tablecloth. The Cordeban gave an angry cry and jerked the bottle upright again. From the mistake, he was obviously used to centrifugal gravity and to compensating for its Coriolis effect; but the small trader he was supposedly serving on wouldn’t have a centrifuge. It was obvious that he’d lied.

 cagt Quintillus slammed the bottle back onto the table. He snapped out a flurry of words in what must be the High Tongue of Cordeban nobles; cagt Rohdahl answered coldly. Before the exchange had even finished, Quintillus rose from his chair.

 Estan cagt Rohdahl switched to Trade English. “You will continue with the plan we agreed upon with the good Bishop.”

 cagt Quintillus snapped his fingers. “That’s for courtesy...You may be the eldest at playing trader-games, but my family rules yours, Estan. And this is a family matter.” He began to walk behind his fellows towards the table’s head.

  “Of all the insolent – very well, then!” cagt Rohdahl wiped his mouth with his napkin, then tossed it on the table. “Settle your affairs as you wish. But don’t delay us past the next launch window.”

Olivan twisted in his seat. “Return to your place, cagt Quintillus.”

 “Don’t tell me my place, cleric,” rasped cagt Quintillus from behind him, circling the table’s head. “You are wasting our time.” None of the others seemed to be paying attention to the tensed Konstantines opposite them; but Quintillus was intent upon Barthe.

 “What the Hell is this, Olivan?” cried Barthe.

If these officers came from a larger ship or station, thought Jamal, then where are the real traders–?

He slapped at his throat com before he completed the thought. “Fyodor, watch out for an attack from the station! Alert all hands, draw arms. Fyodor!”

 “You fool,” said Vulpes tiredly, “he’s been jamming your coms since you arrived. Did you think everything here was as decrepit as you saw? Your ship is already ours, your crew are our prisoners. They will travel to Sol with the bishop’s blessing...and you will come to Cordoba with ours.”

“God damn you all,” said Barthe. “You don’t dare. Outright piracy...”

 This is insane, thought Jamal. Brawls, yes, but boarding and capturing a Konstantine-flagged vessel...“What about your safe-conduct, Olivan?” he called out.

“You will all be safe, in the end. I wish that it could have been easier for you – doing the Church’s good works, in command of your ship, as I offered – but you refused. Your way will be hard now, but it will still take you to the Unity. And nothing that you suffer along the way will diminish that...”

But if the officers and crew never come home, how would we know?

cagt Quintillus halted a few steps from Barthe. “You, Trader Ontabe. As captain, you hold yourself responsible for your crew’s conduct, yes?”

 “Of course,” said Barthe. He straightened with a brittle dignity. “And I demand that you treat my crew as civilized—“

 “Not today! Their conduct two years ago – when a cargo-handler from Iojanic, my countryman, my vassal, was killed in a brawl with your precious crew!”

 Barthe gaped in incomprehension. Jamal himself remembered that bar fight in Briggs’ capitol only as a blur. There had been three Cordeban spacers down when the Konstantines had regrouped and fled the authorities, but he hadn’t known that one had died – if cagt Quintillus wasn’t lying again.

 “You are of the property class; he would have been nothing to you. But he was my vassal.”

“I’m sorry,” said Barthe. “And I am responsible. But that cannot justify what you’re doing. Sending my crew to be uploaded– ”

“They will have a new life. And so will I. Your Second Officer will bear me a new vassal, to serve my family in place of the one who was killed.” Quintillus pointed the first two fingers of his left hand at Barthe; they were rock-steady despite his rage. “Step to the side, Captain – unless you wish your officers to suffer as well.”

  He slipped a small object from one pocket, grasped it with both hands and twisted it.

 “Mister Battutah…” said Barthe in a hollow voice. “Jamal. Take care of my people – keep talking to the Cordy officers – negotiate. Get them out if you can. Forget the ship, just try to save the people.”

 “Sir!” cried Jamal. “Wait—“

 Barthe Ontabe took two long steps to his left, away from his officers, and turned unsteadily to face cagt Quintillus. “Get them out,” he repeated.

 Jamal shifted forward. “Olivan, stop this!” he cried; but the bishop looked as shocked and overwhelmed as his Konstantine guests.

 cagt Quintillus threw the object; it twinkled in the air, splitting into two pieces that struck Barthe. Nothing more seemed to happen for an instant –

 The  two long scything cuts that opened on Barthe’s torso were deep enough that for an instant Jamal could see pale bone; then a spray of blood gouted from them. Barthe coughed more blood to join it, twisted, and fell.

 Jamal stared in frozen horror. The weapon had been a monobolo, a section of single-molecule wire joining two sapphire crystals.

 A few meters away, Bishop Olivan stood stock-still, right hand locked around his Unity pendant. “You murderous blasphemer,” he mumbled. Behind him, one of the teenaged guards burst through the south entrance, followed closely by the other, who was fumbling a power cell into his weapon’s foregrip. They both pulled up short; the second took another hesitant step forward.

Jamal looked to Kip, then Grayling. He realized dully that he was now the senior officer of the group. God, how will I protect them? He tried to think as he looked back toward Barthe – if any other ships had spoken them on the voyage, if he could somehow convince the Cordebans that the trick was known; but it was too sudden, too great a shock, and the fear and rage surged through him. Barthe had said to negotiate – but Barthe was dead because of his misjudgment, and you couldn’t negotiate with someone who smiled while they killed…

He’d always had the Captain to back his decisions, or to overrule them if need be. Now that man lay still in a spreading pool of blood, his face seemingly relaxed; as though he’d given up a long burden, the burden of command. The replica of Belvedere on his lapel had been sheared clean in half by the monowire that had killed him. Jamal’s right hand strayed to the chevron stitched onto his own left sleeve. That burden settled onto him, into him – a weight, but an anchor as well. Goodbye, Barthe.

He turned back to face the men who’d attacked his ship.

 “Now that you’ve satisfied your family honor, Septimus,” said Cagt Rohdahl, “you and Vulpes get them aboard Nero Augustus, and then you can return to your own magnificent vessel. Just—“

“Do you confuse high blood-vengeance with common murder, then, cleric?” rasped Quintillus. “D’you think me common as well?”

“You had no right,” said Olivan. “No right. To end a life before it can find the Unity? Get out of my house – leave my world!”

“Or you will do what? Deprive me of the Unity?” Quintillus sauntered toward the nearer of the two guards; she glanced toward Olivan, lifting her weapon hesitantly. “Would you like a blood-vengeance laid at your own throat?”

“Septimus, enough!”

All three Cordebans were shouting now – but both doors were a long way away. Kip cursed softly, venomously. “What the hell do we do, Jamal?”

  “Listen to me, Kip – both of you. We are going to get our people out of this, whatever it t-takes.” He fought down the shudder that tore through him. “Any advantage, anything we can exploit, we will. We know space, and they don’t – always remember that.”

 Kip’s face was tight with fear and anger, but tensely alert now, and Grayling…didn’t have much expression at all. He was hunched – no, crouched, ready for any opportunity. “Understood,” he said for both of them.

 Three of us, three of them – but they’re damned lethal, and there’s likely more of those butcher-weapons. Jamal was frankly terrified; but he was a Konstantine officer, and officers didn’t panic. If he let go now, he would never be able to cope with what would follow.

 Kip and Grayling needed him. Somewhere fourteen others would as well – if they were still alive.

Quintillus stopped, arm’s length from the guard a head shorter than him, the coilgun leveled now between them. Her eyes cut sideways to Olivan – and Quintillus slapped the weapon out of her grasp with a crack of flesh on plastic. She staggered back a step; he turned away, rotating the coilgun to cradle it. The other guard aimed at him but did not fire, apparently not realizing that Quintillus, now walking down the hall, could turn back just as quickly as he’d snatched the weapon.

Jamal wondered bleakly if either of them had ever fired their guns at all.

“There was to be no violence in this place!” cried Olivan. “I had your word, Estan cagt Rohdahl!”

“We are not beholden to you above the demands of family honour. But there will be no more bloodshed here.” The senior officer sipped the last of his wine; then he rose, pointing to Grayling. “You first. Kneel with your hands behind your head.”

Grayling said nothing, but shifted his weight slightly, hands open at his sides. Jamal eyed the table setting; he’d lunge for the knife and roll under the table, trying for an upward slash...

But he’d seen how quickly Quintillus moved.

“You see yourself as a fisher of men, Olivan?” called out Quintillus from ten meters down the hall. “Bringing those poor, gasping, stranded individuals into the great ocean of the Unity?”

He aimed the coilgun at the base of one of the viewports; but his eyes were on Olivan, and his smiled glinted like the broken glass of the window Jamal had seen en route. “Your own fish will be thirsty by sundown, I think.”

“No!” shouted Olivan – in panic, not in fear. The second guard dropped his coilgun, turning to run as it clattered on the marble floor.

Quintillus squeezed off a single shot. The ballistic snap of the projectile was submerged in an explosive crack as the massive viewport of silica glass shattered.

.  A wall of water and broken glass, twice Quintillus’ height, roared outward at him. He reacted with stunning speed; he’d already spun and taken his first step when twenty tons of water enveloped him and smashed into the opposite wall.

Jamal had survived flash floods in the past. He pivoted and braced side-on to the oncoming roar, hands gripping his robe to give the water as little purchase as possible; and his eyes were locked on the silvery gleam of the coilgun that Kip was already sprinting toward.

Chill water slammed into and around him, staggered him. The table surged as it trapped a pulse of the flood,  shrugging off the dishes and cutlery in a flick of spray. Kip tumbled underneath a breaking crest; Olivan fell, a single hand flailing over the tossing foam and debris. Jamal spared no time to look for the Cordebans or Grayling. The wave front scooped up the bulky coilgun, flicked it along and flung it into an alcove in the eastern wall, one of the few calm regions in the rapidly filling hall.

Fifteen meters away, and the clean-swept table in between; but it was still their best chance. Kipanthalay broke the hip-high surface, flinging water from her face – closer than he was. “Kip!” shouted Jamal over the thundering roar. He pointed. “Over there!”

Estan cagt Rohdahl turned at the shout. He must have recognized the danger, because he began to thrash his way toward the same alcove; he had farther to go, but he moved quickly despite the water’s drag. On the near side of the table, Vulpes started into motion as well.

Kip flailed to the table’s near end, slapped her hands onto it, and surged upward out of the water in a flickering of spray – rolling onto the table, up onto her feet, and sprinting four long steps down its shifting bulk before she leapt feet-first towards the alcove and splashed into the water’s drag once again. There was still no sign of Grayling; Jamal flung a desperate glance around the spray-filled hall–

cagt Rohdahl jerked and disappeared under the roiling water: either Grayling had seized him, or some predator that the tank had contained. It didn’t matter much either way. Jamal angled his own driving steps into Vulpes’s path.

The Cordeban snarled and struck a backhand blow that smashed Jamal aside under the rush of water, dazed and reeling. He grabbed blindly at the motion that surged past him, gripping the Cordeban’s garment, the billowing weight of his own robe adding to the sudden drag. Vulpes’s reflexive back-kick – one that would probably have smashed ribs in air – was slowed into a bruising thud of heel on hipbone. Jamal’s right hand grabbed the ankle that should have been only a recoiling blur, as he burst out of the water that was waist height now. His own feet were planted as solidly as anything could be in the roil of foam and debris; and he checked Vulpes’s forward movement, breasted the water’s surge, and dragged the thrashing Cordeban back one grunting step, then another.

At the alcove wall, he glimpsed Kip’s jacket gleaming in the spray. She was groping along the submerged floor. Meters of distance, seconds of time; and Vulpes burst twisting out of the water and flung himself over Jamal like the wall of water that had struck his subordinate. He blocked Jamal’s instinctive punch without striking himself; instead he grappled, fingers clawing at the unenhanced human’s neck, ripping at the robe’s collar as Jamal pivoted, dragging him half-along, half-underneath the water’s surface, trying to keep him from gaining any solid ground. Back another step; and then Jamal’s left foot skidded on the hard curve of a dinner plate, and Vulpes drove him under with a forearm locked across his neck.

Jamal groped his left arm at the marble floor, trying to gain some purchase, and thrust his right hand upward past his own chin an instant before Vulpes moved to complete the hold. Water roared like the blood in his ears, the floor was out of reach in a rushing murk, and Vulpes’ free hand clamped across the back of his head as their torsos slammed together. The Cordeban didn’t have proper leverage or footing, and it didn’t matter; he was twice as strong as an unenhanced human who’d spent two weeks in free fall, and he bent Jamal’s head forward with an inexorable force. Instinct’s terror couldn’t break that grip or twist him out of the water. His lungs burned, but he wouldn’t have time to drown. Bone grated in his neck as the overstressed muscles failed to protect it; terrible pressure, terrible pain, white-and-silver flashes strobing  across his vision and a series of thudding cracks–

And the pressure slackened. Jamal’s feet touched the floor. He arched out of the water, whooping in a breath, blind with pain. Vulpes’ hand slipped loose from his neck; weight shifted from his side. A voice was screaming hold it, hold it! and he recognized it as Kip’s. He sloshed in a turn, trying to stand up fully, coughing and wiping slicked hair from his eyes. They burned; the tank had been salt water.

Vettius Vulpes slid into bloodied water on his side, one eye open. The right half of his head was gone. There was a crater of flesh and bone where his right shoulder had been; just under the water, ropy intestines were spreading.

“Hold it!” cried Kip a third time, with a hacking cough. Jamal turned back, his neck a bar of agony from shoulders to skull. Water thundered out through the passageway they’d entered by, steadily lowering the level in the hall. Grayling was sprawled across the table, gasping, pushing himself back upright; three meters away, cagt Rohdahl looked away from the man he’d thrown at least that distance through the air – to the other Konstantine who held a coilgun centered on his chest.

Olivan crouched on hands and knees in the swirl, coughing weakly, his robes pooled around him. There was no sign of his guards, although the small doorway they’d entered by – and likely fled through – gaped open around a draining current of its own.


Jamal gulped ragged breaths. Keep moving, he thought. If you stop now, you’ll collapse. It’s just like a shipboard emergency. He stepped to one side to look around the table; cagt Quintillus had risen to his knees, swaying, although his right arm trailed in the water. Blood poured from a dozen cuts, an echo of what he’d done to Barthe. Judging from the slashes along his left sleeve, he’d tried to protect his eyes with that arm as the wavefront whirled him among the fragments of the viewport. He’d failed; and Jamal looked away across the floor strewn with weeds, flopping sea fish, and the blue, humped coils of the creature he’d first seen, pinned down by the gravity that would soon kill it. Quintillus’ coilgun lay along the southern wall. Barthe Ontabe lay next to it, washed by the floodwater as though for the burial that they’d never have time for.

He splashed his way to Kip – still covering cagt Rohdahl steadily, although she looked drawn and shaking– and whispered, “Don’t look away from him, even for an instant.”

“Take the gun, quick,” rasped Kip.

He accepted the weapon, aimed it. “What’s wrong?”

“Salt water,” said Kip in a choked voice. “Swallowed–” She doubled over, retching.

Raising his voice, Jamal called out, “You, Rohdahl! Walk down the hall, slowly. Take the robe off your companion there, then take off your own – slowly. Put them in a pile and step back from it.”

Vulpes stared back, cold and intent as a cobra; then he complied, moving with an oily smoothness. His feet stirred ripples in the remaining few centimeters of water. Quintillus groaned as the other Cordeban touched him.

Kip, can you stand?” said Jamal.

She coughed. “Give me a moment. M’okay.”

“Good. Grayling?”

The Third rejoined them, skirting the Cordebans widely. “Yes,” he said, although he was visibly battered from the fighting. Vulpes must have been off-balance the entire time, or he would have pulled Grayling apart.

The two surviving Cordebans’ robes lay in a heap. Stripped to the waist, Vulpes looked more dangerous; his muscles weren’t bulky, but they flowed when he moved. Getting control of the captives was going to be a problem – and Olivan was bound to have more than two guards. There wasn’t much time. “Take the other, and face up against that wall,” Jamal ordered.

“Are you going to treat his wounds?” demanded Vulpes as he guided the weaving Quintillus.  “He is a prisoner, taken in fair combat, not in a blood-vengeance.”

Kip swore viciously. “If you—“

“Wait,” interrupted Jamal. The Cordebans were their prisoners now, and if he expected to get his own crew back, they might be useful hostages. First things first

Vulpes turned – carefully – to the doorway behind him, moments before Jamal heard the scuffing footfalls. “Ah,” he called out urgently, “you’re back. The Bishop needs you – this way!”

“Stop!” cried Jamal, but the teenaged guard had already begun to stride past Vulpes. In one smooth motion the Cordeban shifted behind her, grabbed her tunic, pivoted and slammed her into the door frame. He held up the staggering body and dragged it in two fast backward steps –

“Shoot them!” yelled Grayling.

Jamal’s sights wobbled over both bodies, the dazed terror of the guard’s face. All he could think of was her smile of an hour before; then she and the Cordeban vanished into the darkness of the corridor, and his paralysis broke.

“Stay here!” He bolted into the corridor, ran its length and ducked through the opening in the doors. The guard lay sprawled on the ground; in the bright sunlight, he glimpsed a silhouette atop the jeep, crouched, shouting. He aimed and fired, sending a burst into open air where the Cordeban had been. A blur of motion down the alleyway; he stepped past the jeep’s wheel, aimed, and saw only the shadows between the buildings, scattered debris, and far too many doorways, windows, balconies. He spun to look behind, cursed, and spared a moment to crouch and check the guard; her neck was broken. Might have told us which way he went. Of course he killed you. He didn’t hesitate a heartbeat.

He trotted back inside. The others looked around; perhaps it was imagination that made their eyes accuse him.

“He’s gone,” said Jamal. “We – we need to go too. Grayling, take the other coilgun. Test it and make sure it works.” The Third nodded; he picked up the dripping weapon, glanced at it, and shouldered it.

 “Olivan,” said Jamal, trying to hold his voice steady as he turned. “You are going to accompany all of us aboard a shuttle back to the sta—“

 Grayling killed the wounded Cordeban with a single shot to the head. The exploding pellet sprayed a pink mist across the floor; the remains of the body flopped onto its side.

 “It works,” he said.

 Jamal turned back. His mouth was open, but he couldn’t frame any words for a few seconds. “Why—”

 “We won’t make it back to the station,” said Grayling. “But after we’ve killed everyone in this city that we can find, the next churchman who wants to betray one of our trading vessels will think twice about it.”

“That won’t help our people!” cried Kip. She held the coilgun between herself and Grayling, although she didn’t aim it at the officer who suddenly seemed as inhuman as the Cordeban officer he’d shot.

 “They’re dead already, if one of those got a message off.”

 “Olivan was jamming the com frequencies,” protested Jamal. “I don’t think they even had coms. Watch the doors.” He sifted through the discarded Cordeban robes, and found jewelry, a handful of plastic restraint loops, and two more unopened monobolos – which must both have belonged to Quintillus, or else the fight would have ended very differently. No coms.

After a second’s thought, he dropped the restraint loops and one of the monobolos into a pocket. He looked over the corpse; no com patch on its neck. It would fit with the arrogance they’d shown…and there was no way to know that the Cordebans at the station weren’t alerted in any case. He took a deep breath and turned away before the sight could unsettle him any further. Assume they don’t know, then. Keep moving. “How long before we can reach the transfer station?”

 “Orbital ephermis’ll put the station over us in, ah…” Kip checked a polished fingernail. “Twenty-eight minutes. If we launch that shuttle in fifteen, we can make this orbit. Don’t know if there’s enough propellant, though.”

“What do we do when we get there?” asked Grayling. He grinned coldly. “Take Belvedere back from two dozen Cordy crew and maybe five more officers? They’ll be ripping her cargo out right now.”

 Forget the ship, Barthe had said. Just save the people. And from what cagt Rohdahl had ordered, the Konstantines were already being held aboard the Cordeban vessel…

 “No,” said Jamal. “We can’t get our ship back. But we can take theirs instead.”

 He locked eyes with the killer that had been Belvedere’s Third Officer. “And you call me sir, Grayling. You’re Second Officer now, and Ki—Ms. Dupont is the First.” He thought for a moment that Grayling might shoot him out of hand; but the moment passed, and he took a steady breath again.

 Kip blinked. “They’ll have guards, Jamal – ah, sir. An orbit watch for certain, maybe some outside their lock.”

“Won’t be a problem,” said Grayling. “Sir. Take their robes, for you and myself. They’re wet, but they’ll look just the same once we’re back in free fall... First Officer, throw some blood on your face; we’ll hold you between us when we turn the corner to the boarding lock. By the time someone really looks at our faces… it won’t be a problem by then.”

 “Fifteen minutes,” repeated Jamal. “We don’t know how many others there are in this damned city, though.”

 Grayling hefted the coilgun. “Two hundred rounds in these.”

“No!” snapped Jamal reflexively. “We’ve got Olivan for a hostage. If he only needed two guards, most of the people here must value his life at least some amount.”

 “Forget it…sir.” Grayling leveled his weapon at Olivan. “I say we start with him. It was his choice.”

Jamal placed his hand on the coilgun’s barrel. “Mister Grayling, you will only shoot either when you are given permission to fire, or to return it. Is that clear?”

 “Yes,” said Grayling. “Sir.” He lowered the weapon slightly.

 “Besides, the jeep’s keyed to his voice. Now keep watching that door.”

 Kip’s eyes tracked Jamal as he moved to the discarded clothing. “Kip,” he said as he took off his robe, “he’s right – you should look injured, to distract them. If there’s an officer on guard, we won’t stand a chance otherwise. But–” He hesitated. “Their blood’s the same colour as ours. If you’d rather—“

 Kipanthalay Dupont hawked and spat a gobbet toward the remains of the Cordeban. “No,” she said. “Sir.”

 Jamal nodded, and shrugged into the second layer of wet clothing. “I understand…But we have to hurry. And... we can’t bring him with us, Kip.”

“That’s not right...”

“Didn’t you see how fast Rohdahl moved?” snapped Jamal. “Two of us to carry Barthe, that’s only one gun to cover them. Not enough – maybe not even enough propellent in the shuttle to lift him anyway. Come on.”

  She walked toward Ontabe’s corpse without replying.

 Grayling picked up his weapon, which had never been more than arm’s reach away as he changed. “Are we ready, sir?”

 “In a moment,” replied Jamal absently. “You’ll go with Olivan; look north when we exit. I’ll watch south.”

 “Aye, aye, sir.” Grayling gripped the bishop’s tunic left-handed so that his right arm could cradle the weapon. He murmured something; Olivan nodded jerkily.

  Kip knelt in the wash of mingled blood and water that underlay the remains of Captain Barthe Ontabe. She bowed her head, and touched what was left of his chest. Jamal saw her shudder, saw her cup a hand in the brightest colour of the pool and splash it along her face and neck. She reached up with two fingertips and drew them slowly down her left cheek, then again on the right.

 For a moment he remembered Kip, the laughing dandy who reveled in life and luxury, who had traded her head start on Jamal for a cheerful Second Officer’s role to his more studied First. The woman on her knees in blood, her face like carved teak under the blood-streaks, wasn’t that person any more. The bland Grayling was a killer; and Jamal, the man who was supposedly commanding them –

 He’d no time to think about that. “Let’s go,” he ordered. “Kip. Let’s go!”

 Kipanthalay walked, not toward Jamal, but toward the jumbled ruins of the table. She retrieved the knife that Olivan had carved a roast with; forty centimeters of steel nearly as sharp as the monowire. She slit open her jacket’s lining, then slid the knife within, where it wouldn’t show.

 “Aye, aye, sir,” she said.

Outside, the sunlight struck at them. The jeep still waited there. A broad fan of mud and silt stretched outward from the aquarium’s broken doors, surrounding it; the three near-side wheels had trapped small drifts. Jamal ignored the dead guard and scanned the equally dead surroundings. “Rohdahl could be anywhere. He was trying to start the jeep, then he ran....”

“Good thing we have the keys.” Grayling set one foot on the vehicle’s step and half-threw Olivan aboard; the others followed.

“Take us back to the shuttleport,” said Jamal. He did not need to add any sort of threat.

Olivan called out orders; the jeep whined to life and jerked into motion. “The shuttle has not been serviced,” he added. “I don’t know if it will reach orbit again. Please, don’t throw your lives away like this–”

“It’s a standard ’Tauri design,” snapped Kip. “With the payload we’ll be lifting, there’ll be enough power. It won’t be crammed with pilgrims – not like you sent it up.”

No one fired on them as they drove.

They halted by the shuttle still waiting on the runway; Jamal dragged Olivan up its ramp, trailing Kip and Grayling, who scrambled forward into the flight deck’s two seats. They set about changing the controls over to manual. “We’re tight for propellant!” called out Kip. “Sir, I recommend leaving him behind. It’s going to be close.”

“They might still fire on us as we lift out.”  

“Doubt that anyone here’s got surface-to-air capability,” said Grayling over his shoulder. “We don’t need him any more. And he might warn the Cordys if he gets to a com.”

Jamal checked the coilgun he still held, his mind as cold as freezing water. “Olivan,” he said. “Let’s go outside.”

Framed by the flight deck hatchway, Grayling smiled and looked back to his panel. Olivan seemed to grow a little smaller in his robes; then he straightened, turned, and walked down the ramp ahead of his captor.

“Over by the jeep.” Jamal scanned the buildings as they walked; no visible movement... “Put your hands up by the fender, there.”

“It would appear that my...usefulness...is at an end,” said the bishop in a thin voice. He stumbled, and Jamal glanced at him; his eyes were focused on the horizon rather than his footing. “cagt Quintillus would have been amused. But a shepherd cannot always follow his flock. Sol est lux perpetuae, Unitas est transcendano...”

He pressed his shaking palms onto the jeep’s front wheel. Jamal remembered how Barthe had braced himself for the attack that had murdered him – how old he’d looked, how he’d twisted as he fell, the gleam of an insignia sheared in half. He raised the coilgun. They didn’t give him any chance at all.

“...elevatori infinitus. Unitas, Unitas.”

Jamal fired into the jeep’s control unit, walked the burst sideways. Metal ripped in flashes; Olivan jerked where he stood.

He slung the weapon and took one of the restraint loops from his pocket. “If I missed it,” he said as he secured Olivan’s wrists to the fender bracket, “don’t try driving anywhere... I don’t think you meant for him to die, Olivan. You betrayed him, but he wouldn’t have killed you for that – and I won’t either. You’ll follow your flock, and you’re just as damned as they are.”

If Olivan said anything as Jamal sprinted back, it was lost in the rising howl of the shuttle’s engines; then the closing hatch muffled even that.

He leaned into the flight deck. “Ramp’s up. Are we clear to lift?”

“God, yes,” said Kip. The engines keened to taxiing power.

“That was a long burst, sir,” observed Grayling from his console. “Waste of ammunition. Best not to be emotional about these things.”

“I didn’t kill him, I shot up the jeep.”

“Oh. I see...Rolling.”

Display panels on the flight deck’s sides gave external views; sliding buildings, the pivoting runway, and Olivan’s hunched figure by the jeep. A few shoes skittered past the bishop’s fluttering robe, and then he was gone, fading behind. The shuttle built speed and jolted into the air.

“Time?” said Jamal. He braced against the hatchway as they rolled into a turn.

 Kipanthalay checked and swiveled to face him. “We’ll make it, sir. Docking in approximately nine minutes.”

 “Right. When we—“ He broke off at her expression. “What is it?”

She pointed. He looked down, wincing as his neck cramped. The right lapel of his stolen Cordy garment showed a spreading bloodstain. He tugged it aside; there was a superficial wound along his ribs. Now that he was aware of it, it burned.

“Every other round must have been set to explode,” he guessed. He remembered silver flashes that he’d thought to be his neck snapping. Kip had sawed the burst through the water and over both struggling figures. There would be at least two solid pellets embedded in Vulpes’s body, then; but if the first one that had struck flesh had been explosive, instead of the second...

Kip released the controls. She locked both hands together in front of her and began to shake so violently that the knife in her jacket clattered against her seat restraint.

Jamal didn’t know what to say, but after a few second Kip’s eyes opened again and she pried her hands apart. “They’ll need us,” she said thickly, “Rinaldi and Washburn and Williams and the rest. Won’t they, sir?”

“That’s right,” he said, “they will.” And knew that it was what he should have said to begin with. He touched her shoulder, and turned aft.

The shuttle arced upward, as though it were leaving the bloodied land below for pure, clean vacuum; but they were bringing something aboard it with them that wasn’t clean at all.


  No one in the docking port; no one in the corridors they darted through, dark and stale with the residue of a million processed pilgrims.

“Barthe–” Kip hesitated. “Barthe said the Cordy ship was docked in Beta Five, sir.”

 Jamal checked their location. “We’ll route well around Belvedere’s slot.” They wove through several junctions, and settled at Beta Four.

 “The docking port’s around this corner. Now listen. We’re not trained for this, so you can’t….take chances. What are they set for now, Grayling?”

 “Three-shot bursts, medium velocity, all rounds armed to explode.” Enough to tear a human apart, even badly placed; probably not enough to punch through a pressure hull. Oh, God. Don’t let me shoot one of our own. Please.

 “Good. We’ll have to make certain of our targets. Anyone with a weapon, shoot them. Anyone with a weapon, Grayling.”

 “Aye, sir. If I may?”

 Jamal frowned. “What?”

“They’ll have a watch in Con,” said Grayling softly. “If they get off a signal to whatever ship those officers really came from, we won’t even have time to do a preflight before they pounce. But we can’t risk shooting up Con if we want to get away quickly…”

 He was looking at Kipanthalay’s jacket as he spoke.

 Jamal nodded. “Once we get past the lock watch, give her your coilgun, then.” Kip slid the knife out unasked and passed it to Grayling.

“Ready?” The two men in Cordeban clothing each gripped one of Kipanthalay’s arms. She let her head roll loose.

 “Now.” They kicked off simultaneously and veered around the corner.

 Two armed men flanked the personnel lock fifteen meters away, which was closed. “You there!” shouted Jamal in the wrong language but the right tone of command. “Look alive!”

 They were still reacting to the confused picture they saw when Grayling swept a burst across both. None of the pellets struck the same spot on the bulkhead, and none punched through; the two Cordeban crew members both doubled over the ruins of their torsos.

Snatching at a handhold to stop the recoil’s drift, Grayling surged ahead again and led the others down the corridor. He ducked around one drifting, open-mouthed corpse and hunkered against the wall, opposite the lock hatch. He tossed the coilgun to Kip, drew the knife.

 Jamal flexed his fingers on the grips of his own weapon, then reached to the lock switch. “Go!” He pressed it.

 The hatch slid aside. Grayling sprang past a startled, unarmed Cordeban officer who was already reaching for the intruder when Jamal shot him with one burst, then a second, the recoil thrusting him back from the hatch edge and the Cordy officer lurching behind the bloody debris that propelled him. Jamal braced a foot on the wall and kicked inward, a half-leap ahead of Kipanthalay. Then there was only a confused stutter of sight pictures; two shrieking crewmen; a Cordy officer drawing a pistol in a blur that changed into a dozen hammering explosions as Kip put four bursts into him and through him; all too many stray rounds sparkling on the bulkheads.

 Grayling wove forward and disappeared into Con. Shouts echoed from the compartment, then screams.

 Jamal found himself nearly at the end of the main companionway, although he had no idea how he’d gotten there. The coilgun barrel was hot. He shot at a fleeting figure, missed, moved forward; the corridor opened into a large compartment, bodies ranked on both sides like a meat locker, dressed in Konstantine shipboard clothing. For an instant Jamal was ready to shoot every Cordy on the ship, whether they resisted or not; then some of the bodies stirred. “Hey,” cried one – Malcolm Rinaldi. “Hey! It’s Mr. Battutah!”

 “Cordeban crew!” shouted Jamal through a raw throat. His voice rang through the pressure hull; he didn’t recognize it. Hopefully they’d grasp its meaning. “Your vessel is the prize of the Konstantin Navy! Show yourselves unarmed in the main corridor, and you’ll be spared!”

 “Second section, take the aft hull!” bellowed Rinaldi. “Move!” He was doubled backward, secured wrist-and-ankle to a clip on the bulkhead, but he grinned at Jamal like a fiend as he added to the bluff of a nonexistent Konstantin Navy.

If it was a bluff. Somehow it hadn’t sounded like one when Jamal shouted it.

 He aimed at a cautious motion that resolved into a Cordy crewman pushing spread hands into the corridor space. After a moment, the man himself followed. He had a multitool clipped to his belt; Jamal tore it away, snicked out a cutting edge and freed Rinaldi. “Get the others loose fast,” he hissed, then kicked back to the corridor and the two other Cordy commoners emerging into it.

“Kip!” he called out. “Over here!”

 They drifted back-to-back in the midline of the main corridor, as Jamal continued to shout his surrender order; Kip waved crewmen from forward into an officer’s cabin with her gun muzzle, while Jamal covered movement aft. “Three back here so far,” said Jamal.

 “Four here – five.”

 With the work party expected to be at Belvedere, that should account for all. Fyodor slipped cautiously along the corridor side, out of Jamal’s line of fire. “Reporting, sir,” he said, rubbing a wrist. “F-five of those damned officers boarded our ship, with party of maybe fifteen men. They were all armed. We didn’t have goddamned chance – I am sorry, sir. They shot Williams – dumped his body out the lock – and Carladon is wounded. They have not drugged any of us yet – they said they might need some of us to work during the undocking, and would kill one by one until someone agreed. Only two officers came back with us…”

 Jamal tried to think while he stared along the coilgun. “Take two people, round up any weapons you can find, and set a lock watch. Then start a preflight. Can you do that, Fyodor?”

 “Aye, sir. She is new vessel, but not so strange.” He darted away.

 Jamal blinked hard and looked at the Konstantines boiling out of captivity. “Washburn, Stoltz. Take these weapons, and keep the main corridor covered. Don’t fire unless you’re sure it’s not one of us. Rinaldi, take five people and get the surrendered Cordys secured…” He trailed off.

 “Oh, my God,” said someone.

  Trevor Grayling drifted slowly down the corridor. He was covered in blood, his clothing torn; he clutched one arm tightly, but he still gripped the knife as well. His face was a red mask, eyes bright and blue and terrible within it.

 “Mister…Grayling?” said Rinaldi, an octave higher than his normal voice.

 “Second Officer reporting, sir. Con is secured with no damage to systems.”

 “Where are the prisoners?” asked Jamal hollowly.

“There aren’t any, sir.”


Grayling had been technically correct; Con was an abattoir, but the consoles still worked. Aft, Fyodor shouted as he organized a reactor crew to ignite the fusion plant.

Nobody shouted in Con.

Kip settled at an acceleration frame, the flight officer’s station, and wiped at the controls. “It’s awfully new,” she muttered. “Not like Belvedere. I, I don’t—“

“Report, First Officer!” snapped Jamal. If Kip cracked, he’d crack himself a moment later. He shivered at the thought of Grayling in command, rather than in mid-deck getting his arm splinted.

Kip closed her eyes for a moment. “Barquentine rig, a two-eight-four, with a ten-GN reaction drive. I’ll need, ah, Bannerjhee at main helm, and…”

Minutes raced by, while Jamal expected to hear shouts and gunfire at the personnel lock any moment. Nero Augustus slowly woke under the attention of the skilled crew that had seized her. The moment auxiliary power was available, Jamal ordered the locks disengaged; they drifted a few meters from the hatches with puffs of attitude thrusters. The avionics came up; the reactor lit.

“Anything on radio frequencies?”

“Checking, sir,” said Rinaldi. He couldn’t detect faster-than-light communications without a drive field of his own to work with, but then the Cordys couldn’t send one anyway unless they spun up Belvedere. “Nothing on – wait. Local transmission...looks like it’s from the Malacca City shuttleport. It’s in Spanglish. He’s, ah, ordering them to spin up Bel and signal another ship outsystem – they’re calling it a light cruiser; shit, it’s got a name so complicated it must be big, sir – they’re starting to spin up, they must have been warming her already...”

“Can we jam them?”

“Drive’s not ready,” said Kip. “Five minutes, maybe six.”

“They’ll have sent all the warning they need to by then. It’s Olivan – or Rohdahl.” It had been thirty minutes – forty? Long enough for the surviving Cordeban to run to the shuttleport, find a com, or perhaps pressure Olivan into a transmission, without any hesitation in killing him...

“We won’t even begin to get out of intercept range before that cruiser gets the FTL signal,” rasped Kip. “This is a fast rig for climbing in a gravity well, but not that fast. And they’ll have the high gradient on us, intercepting from out in the system.”

“So they can’t be allowed to get that warning.” He spared a glance at an unfamiliar weapons console, not even sure yet if this ship mounted energy armament, and discarded the thought. “Is the reaction drive ready?”

“Yes,” said Kip. Her face changed as he looked at her. “You mean...”

“It’s the price of hesitation. God.” Jamal shut his eyes and prayed for forgiveness; he didn’t care about the officers, he’d happily kill them all right now, but fifteen Cordy commoners he’d never met, that hadn’t had a choice…

 “Flight, put us a thousand meters positive and hold.”

Nero Augustus shifted up into an orbit that was subtly different now from the station’s, higher and slower, and began to drift astern.

Jamal swallowed. “Cast loose the main reaction drive. Full power, zero choke.”

“Point zero five two gravities acceleration set, aye,” responded Kip. “Sir, I’ll line her—“

“No. I’ll do it. Give me pitch and yaw control here, and an aft camera zeroed to the drive plume.” In a moment, the station was gliding across his main console screen, with a red circle blazing on it. Belvedere was in Alpha Two berth; he touched controls, and the reticule hunted across the station as Nero Augustus yawed. The old, familiar silhouette slid into the circle, and he gently laid the central dot onto the pressure hull, just forward of the FTL drive that was spinning up to send its warning.

Barthe, I’m so sorry – I know you loved your ship. But it’s the best funeral pyre I can give you now.  “Trim set?”

“Aye, secured for acceleration. Sounding alarm.” An unfamiliar klaxon blared. That was a formality at one-twentieth gee, but formality seemed appropriate now.

“I won’t fly a ship with this name,” said Kip unexpectedly.

Jamal nodded. “Choose another.”

Kip searched her console, touched a switch. “Attention all hands,” rippled her voice throughout the ship. “This vessel is the captured property of Konstantine citizens. She is now rechristened ISV Vengeance.”

Voices howled through the hull like a pack of wolves.

Jamal initialized the reaction drive. The reactor bloomed to full power; partly fused helium-3 and deuterium roared through it, accelerated down the ship’s spine,  and emerged as a blue-white lance moving at over fifty thousand kilometers per second.

Belvedere boiled away under the lash of ions. The pressure hull ruptured as its atmosphere heated explosively; exposed systems melted to slag. Tiny flares stuttered in the inferno; perhaps supplies, perhaps the flesh of the Cordy prize crew, perhaps the memories that died with the ship they had dwelt in.

And Jamal still couldn’t weep.



“I can see no fractures, sir,” said Fyodor. He doubled as the ship’s medical technician, but the Cordeban imaging unit he held pressed to Jamal’s neck was of good enough quality to suit an expensive Centauri clinic. “Torn ligament – two, perhaps.”

Despite the positive report, Fyodor’s thin face was bleak. Carladon, shot in the boarding, had bled to death several hours ago, as the newly christened Vengeance had raced away from Samarkand system, leaving a slower Cordeban vessel in her wake.

“Thank you, Bosun.” Jamal nodded dismissal – cautiously. Would the Cordebans have given Carladon better medical attention if we’d turned back and surrendered? Unlikely, but we’ll never know.  

“Sir? Crew would like....that is, they asked me. Whether officers would consider petitioning our government for letter of reprisal.” He moved away, leaving Jamal to consider the statement. Would they even issue such a thing? It’s been at least–

Kipanthalay pushed past the departing Fyodor. Her clothing, like Jamal’s, had dried in stains and rumples. “Sir – ah, Jamal– ”

“I’m fine. Are they out of sensor range?”

“Out of ours, at least. I doubt theirs are any better, even with a longer hull baseline.”

Jamal gripped the edge of a marble panel that covered a storage cubby, and shuddered. Clear and gone. He felt that if he closed his eyes, he would sleep for days; and of course, he couldn’t. “Just to be sure, we’ll maintain sixteen hundred lights for another, ah, six hours. Then we’ll need to decide which way to veer around SC-6210's gradient.”

Kip didn’t need to check a display. “Sixty-eight by minus forty; that will put us on track for home.”

A mild voice sounded from the cabin’s hatchway. “Do we want to go home? Sir?” Second Officer Grayling pulled himself one-handed into the cabin.

“What do you mean?” Kip shifted aside, a little further than a spacer’s normal personal space required. Grayling had washed and changed clothes, but there was an aura about him now that couldn’t be cleansed by chemicals. The splint on his arm would administer a higher dose of the bone-building drugs that were routine use in a non-centrifuge vessel.

“We don’t have any proof,” continued the Second Officer. “We killed some of them, they killed some of us. We took one of their ships. Ours is destroyed – by our own action. If we go to our own government, who’s to say they will back us up?”

“There’s no other alternative!” said Kip.

“We could go ‘into the black’.” He smiled at her reaction, and glanced at Jamal. “Twelve skilled spacers, three officers, and a ship that could be rated a corvette by any ronin outfit. We might have to fight to keep command of her, of course....”

And who’d be most likely to win that sort of a fight, and become her captain? Jamal frowned. “Leave Konstantin for good, and fight for hire? No one signed on for that.”

“There’s no life like it.” Grayling grinned.

“I won’t leave my family,” said Kipanthalay. “A lot of the crew wouldn’t either.”

“They can send money home. Others have done it.”

Was he right? Jamal rubbed at his face. The Alpha Centauri Armed Forces, and the Centauri courts – who, between them, were all that remained of interstellar law – held a death penalty for piracy with murder. Taking the crew back to claim justice might kill them instead. They couldn’t bring Barthe back, or their ship...

But it’s not just our ship. Jamal slapped a hand against the marble panel; both officers turned at the sound. “Listen. If the Cordys did this to us, they can do it to others. And I think they already have. We’ve lost shipping for no known cause – and they were just too polished about it all. If–” He hesitated for a second, seeing Barthe cough blood and fall. “If Quintillus hadn’t been set on his personal revenge, we’d all be back aft in that hold right now, headed for Cordeba. Unless we go back and stop it, they’ll keep doing it. We’re going back home.”

“And if ‘home’ hands us over to the Tauris?” asked Grayling softly.

“Then we’ll trade our lives for a lot of other Konstantine spacers’.”

“Maybe we’re a navy after all,” said Kipanthalay. “That’s what one does, isn’t it?”

The man who’d killed everyone in a compartment stared at Jamal for a long moment; then he shrugged lopsidedly. “Aye, sir. Let’s see what happens, then.”

Jamal blinked, and realized that he’d been bracing one hand against the panel in case he needed to move suddenly. He withdrew it. “What route do you recommend, Flight– First Officer?”

“Direct, via Loop One’s western side.” Beside her, Grayling nodded agreement.

Two weeks to any contact. Too long. “Kyoto’s a lot closer, and it’s within Safe Zone Eight.”

“There’s enough fuel and life support aboard to go direct, and we’re better armed now–”

Jamal flicked a hand, rather than shaking his head. “We can’t risk encountering another Cordeban warship like this one with a full crew. We’ll route via Kyoto. There’s an ACAF detachment there we can warn; that’s the most important thing.”

“No,” said Kip. “It’s not. But it’s what we need to do first... Aye, sir.”

“Grayling, you’re fit to stand a watch?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get three drive and hullcrew watch divisions organized, then. First Officer, you take Con until sixteen hundred. I’ll be aft with Fyodor, if you need me.”

“Aye, sir,” said Grayling. He eased into the corridor, shouting for Stoltz. Jamal started to follow him, stopped at a touch on his shoulder, and turned.

“There wasn’t time,” said Kip. Her face twisted. “To look for it, for the other. Or to bring the bodies home...”

Jamal blinked in fatigue. “Look for what?”

Metal twinkled in Kipanthalay’s other hand. “This half was still on his jacket. Barthe’s. The other’s probably in the street outside the aquarium door...wherever the water took it.”

The silver miniature of Belvedere ended in a mirrored cut, where the monowire had sliced through it as it had through flesh and bone. Jamal slowly reached out and took it from her.

“I had to bring something back,” said Kip hollowly, and he gathered her to him, her face pressed into his shoulder. The sick ache in his own throat spilled into blurring spheres of water, each one a tiny world of its own.

Vengeance drove outward. Weeks of travel lay ahead: time enough to mourn, and to prepare a demand for retribution.

* * *