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Lieutenant Max Stromboli straightened with a bone-deep sigh and racked his tools neatly. Other members of his minute staff were busy elsewhere, mounting the transmission dishes on the tower roof, but there were too few of them for him to stand back and leave it all to the techs. Besides, he still installed a pretty mean circuit board himself, he thought, regarding the console with proprietary pride.

Not that pride was the first thing he'd felt on arriving on Medusa's surface. He'd just started to feel himself slipping back into the groove aboard Fearless after the shock of being banished to Basilisk Station, when he'd found himself banished yet again. This time clear out of the ship!

He dropped into the cushioned bucket seat and brought his panel on line, punching into the new space control data net fed by Fearless's sensors and the deployed recon probe, and smiled as the transplanted holo display came alive. It looked perfect, but he set up a complete systems test just in case and leaned back while the computers ran it.

The Captain, he reflected, didn't do things by halves—and she didn't have much patience with anyone who did. Like a certain Lieutenant (Senior Grade) Maxwell Artois Stromboli who'd been dragging his ass and feeling sorry for himself ever since the Fleet exercise, he admitted. Max Stromboli didn't consider himself the most brilliant officer the planet of Manticore had ever produced, but he knew he was better than he'd let himself become. He'd been slacking off like a sulky kid, and when Captain Harrington asked him for that course to Medusa he didn't have—

He shuddered in memory. God, he'd expected her to bite off his head and shi—spit down his neck! And, he knew, he would have deserved it. But she hadn't. She'd only sat there, waiting patiently, and he'd felt about a centimeter high while he figured the course, mostly because she wasn't jumping his shit in front of the entire bridge watch.

And this job wasn't the slap in the face he'd first thought, either. He admitted that, too. Medusa's atmosphere might smell like the downwind side of a chemical refinery with buggered filtration, and the natives might look like some sort of circus freaks, but his assignment was more important than he'd thought. He'd realized that the moment he saw the jury-rigged lash-up with which the NPA had been trying to watch the high orbitals. They'd greeted him and his people with all the fervor of a relieved garrison, and they'd had only good things to say about the Captain, but the very way they said them made him uncomfortably aware of how badly—and for how long—the Fleet had let them down.

He sighed and swiveled his chair to check the first test printouts. They looked good, and he let the hardcopy spill into the printer tray and looked out the window.

Lord, what a piss-poor excuse for a planet! His newly installed control center was on the upper floor of one of the government compound's corner towers, and he had an appallingly good view of klicks and klicks of gray-green, mottled moss. It stretched down to the bank of something the natives called a river. The greasy-looking, turgid flow, heavy with silt, was one of hundreds of channels cutting through the swampy delta, and the walls of a Stilty city rose beyond it.

He lifted a pair of electronic binoculars from a console and peered through them at the distant curtain wall fronting the river. The binocs brought it to arm's length, and he marveled at the size of its stones. That rock had been quarried far upstream and ferried down, and the smallest single hunk of it must be a meter on a side. That was damned impressive engineering for a muscle-powered civilization, even in this gravity. And especially for something as stalky and ungainly looking as a Stilty.

He zeroed in on one of the natives, still unable to believe, deep down inside, that they could have built that massive wall. As on Sphinx, what passed for mammals on Medusa (there were no birds) were hexapedal, but the similarity ended there. Sphinxian beasties tended to the sturdy and blocky, aside from arboreals like the treecats, because of their native gravity. Medusans were tall and slender and trilaterally symmetrical, to boot. The natives were undeniably warm-blooded and bore living young, but they reminded Stromboli far more of a holo he'd seen of an Old Earth insect called a praying mantis than of anything he would have called a mammal. Except, of course, that no Solarian bug ever had its limbs arranged equidistantly about its body that way.

The dominant life form had freed its upper limbs for manipulation just as Man had, by standing upright on its rearmost limbs, but the legs were impossibly long and slender by human standards. Of course, that tripod arrangement did give them extraordinary stability once they locked all six knee joints, but those knees were another thing that bothered Stromboli. Neither they nor the hip joints above them bent; they swiveled, and watching a Stilty walk made the lieutenant's stomach vaguely uneasy. God only knew what they looked like when they ran!

The computer burped softly to announce the end of the systems check, and Stromboli laid his glasses aside and turned back to his panel. It was a miserable excuse for a planet, but its orbit traffic was all his, and he felt an unexpected eagerness to be about it.


The mammoth counter-grav cargo shuttle looked like an insect as it nuzzled alongside its Manticoran-registry mother ship. The customs pinnace tubed to it looked more like a microbe, and two of the shuttle crew stood stiffly, flanking the shuttle end of the access tube like surly sentries. Ensign Scotty Tremaine was not quite thirteen Manticoran years old, on his first deployment after graduation, but something about the way they stood there wasn't right. He knew it wasn't, and they'd looked mighty unhappy when he first came aboard, so he turned to watch PO Harkness with casual interest.

PO Harkness was, Tremaine suspected, A Character. He'd had a peek at Harkness's personnel jacket before they left the ship (the Academy instructors had always insisted an officer should do that before taking command of a detachment), and he wished he'd had more time to peruse its fascinating reading. Harkness had been in the RMN for over twenty years, almost thirty-five T-years, and he'd been up for chief twelve times by Tremaine's count. He'd actually made it, once. But PO Harkness had a weakness—two of them, in fact. He was constitutionally incapable of passing a Marine tunic in an off-duty bar without endeavoring to thump the living daylights out of its wearer, and he labored under the belief that it was his humanitarian duty to provide his shipmates with all the little things the ship's store didn't normally carry.

He was also one of the best missile techs in the service, which perhaps explained why he was still in the service.

But what interested Tremaine just now was what Bosun MacBride had told him before he left the ship. Tremaine liked the Bosun. Even if she did regard him as a none-too-bright puppy, she seemed to feel that someday, with proper training by the bosuns whose bounden duty it was to wipe ensign's noses and bottoms and generally keep them from tripping over their own two feet, he might, possibly, make a worthwhile officer. In the meantime, her infinitely respectful suggestions usually managed to stop him just when he was about to put his foot in it.

"The Ensign might want to give PO Harkness his head, Sir," MacBride had said quietly. "If anyone in the detachment can recognize a crook cargo setup, it's him. And—" she'd given him one of her deadpan smiles "—I've . . . discussed the importance of his assignment with him."

So now Tremaine shifted position slightly, moving aside to lean his elbow on a freight conveyer where he could watch Harkness and still keep the corner of his eye on the crewmen.

Harkness was prowling around the neatly stacked counter-grav cargo pallets with a copy of the manifest, checking canister labels. The weight of a magnetic tape reader bulged the thigh pocket of his coveralls, but the flap was still sealed. Now he slowed his label checks and bent a bit closer to a pallet, and Tremaine noted the way one of the crewmen by the tube tensed.

"Mr. Tremaine?" Harkness called without turning.

"Yes, PO?"

"I think you might find this interesting, Sir." It was amazing what a fatherly voice could come out of those battered, prize-fighter features. Harkness sounded like a teacher about to demonstrate a classroom experiment for a favored pupil, and Tremaine crossed the cargo bay to stand beside him.

"What is it, PO?"

"This, Sir." A blunt finger with scarred knuckles indicated the shiny silver customs tape running around the canister and, in particular, the Royal Customs Service seal with its small starship surmounted by the crowned Manticore and flanking, rampant Sphinx and Gryphon of the Kingdom's arms. It looked perfect to Tremaine.

"What about it?"

"Well, Sir," Harkness said ruminatively, "I can't be certain, but—" The broad fingertip flipped the seal, and Tremaine blinked as it popped right off the tape it was supposed to be an integral part of. He bent closer and saw the clear plastic tape bridging the gap where the original seal had been sliced away.

"You know, Sir," Harkness went on in that same, thoughtful voice, "I'll bet those poor bloody—pardon, Sir—" he didn't sound especially apologetic, but Tremaine let it pass; he had other things on his mind "—NPA sods have been doing their best without the right equipment for so long these fellows just got sloppy." He shook his head, a craftsman mourning slovenly workmanship. "Never would have gotten by a regular customs man."

"I . . . see." Tremaine glanced over his shoulder at the now acutely unhappy crewmen. One of them was sidling sideways towards the shuttle flight deck, and Tremaine nodded to Private Kohl. The Marine shifted position slightly and unsnapped his stunner holster. The moving crewman froze.

"What do you suppose is in there, PO?" the ensign asked brightly, beginning to enjoy himself.

"Well, Sir, according to this manifest, this here—" Harkness thumped the canister "—is a shipment of duralloy animal-drawn plows for delivery to the Hauptman Cartel factor on Medusa."

"Let's open it up and take a look," Tremaine said.

"Aye, aye, Sir." Harkness's broad grin showed teeth far too even and regular to be natural as he drew a forceblade from one capacious pocket. He flicked the switch, waking the tooth-twisting warning whine Manticoran law required of all such tools, and ran the invisible blade around the doctored Customs tape. Silver plastic slivered, and the soft "Shuuush" of equalizing pressure sounded as he sprang the canister.

He lifted the lid—then paused, frozen in mid-movement.

"Well, well, well, well," he murmured, adding an absent-minded "Sir" as he remembered the ensign beside him. He shoved the lid fully up until it locked. "Mighty strange looking plowshares, I'd say, Mr. Tremaine."

"So would I," Tremaine said after a moment, leaning forward to stroke a hand over the lustrous, tawny-gold fur. The canister was two meters long by one wide and one deep, and it seemed to be completely full. "Is that what I think it is, PO?"

"If you think it's Gryphon kodiak max pelts it is, Sir." Harkness shook his head, and Tremaine could almost hear the credit terminal ringing behind his eyes. "Must be two, three hundred thousand dollars worth of them," the PO mused. "In this one canister," he added as an afterthought.

"And right off the controlled species list." Tremaine's voice was so grim the petty officer straightened and looked at him in surprise. The youngster beside him didn't look young at all as he stared down into the canister and then turned to glare at the wilting crewmen. "You think they were going to transship them down on the surface, PO?"

"There or in the warehouse. Can't rightly see anything else they might have done with 'em, Sir. Sure thing the Stilties wouldn't need 'em."

"My thought, exactly." The ensign nodded to himself, then glanced around the dim cargo bay. "PO Harkness, I think you'd better check all the other customs seals." The petty officer nodded, and Tremaine smiled thinly at the sweating shuttle crew. "In the meantime, these gentlemen and I will go pay a little visit on their captain. I want to arrange a visit to his main holds, as well, I think."

"Aye, aye, Sir." The burly petty officer braced to attention, a gesture of respect he rarely wasted on ensigns who didn't yank him up short for omitting it, and jerked his head to summon the rest of his two-man team as Tremaine, Private Kohl, and two very unhappy crewmen left the bay.


Honor shook her head as she finished Ensign Tremaine's recorded message. Then she flicked the terminal off, making a careful mental note of the way the ensign had credited PO Harkness, not himself, with the initial discovery. That was unusual in so junior an officer, but it confirmed her original impression of the youngster.

She'd expected that when she assigned him to the Medusa detachment. What she hadn't expected was for him to confirm Dame Estelle's smuggling hypothesis quite this soon. Nor, she admitted, had she expected to find a Manticoran vessel embroiled in it—and one on charter to the Hauptman Cartel, at that.

She turned her chair to glance across her desk at McKeon. The exec looked as if he'd just bitten into something sour, and Nimitz raised his chin from his cushioned rest to gaze thoughtfully at him.

"I don't know if Tremaine is more pleased with himself or worried over what to do next," she said, and McKeon twitched his taut shoulders. "I imagine there'll be some interesting repercussions back on Manticore."

"Yes, Ma'am." McKeon's lips worked for a moment, then he raised his eyes to meet hers. "You know Hauptman is going to deny they had anything to do with it."

"Forty-three million in illegal peltries? Of course they will—just as Mondragon's captain insists the space fairies must have brought them," Honor said ironically. "I wonder what else Tremaine is going to turn up when he tears into the ship's main holds?"

"Trouble, Captain." McKeon spoke softly and seemed to be struggling with some inner conflict, and she raised her eyebrows. The exec shifted uneasily in his chair, then sighed, and some of his stiff formality seemed to fall away. "Whatever else Tremaine finds, Hauptman is going to insist they didn't have anything to do with it, and you can bet they've got the paper to 'prove' they didn't. The best we're going to manage is to nail Mondragon's master and, probably, her purser."

"It's a start, Exec. And the paper may not be as cut and dried as you think."

"Look, Ma'am, I know we don't always—" The lieutenant commander broke off and bit his lip. "What I mean is, you're going to make the cartel very unhappy with you, and they've got the friends in high places to make their unhappiness felt. You've caught a shipment of illegal furs, but is it worth it? Really worth it?" Honor's eyes hardened dangerously, and he went on quickly. "I don't mean it wasn't illegal—God knows it was!—and I can see what you're trying to do. But the day we leave Basilisk Station, things are going to go right back to the way they were. This is probably a fleabite to them, something their cash flow won't even notice, but they're going to remember you."

"I sincerely hope they will, Commander," Honor said icily, and McKeon stared at her, his eyes worried. For the first time in far too long he was worried about his captain because she was his captain, but there was no give in that dark, armor-plated glare.

"But you're going to jeopardize your entire career over something that won't even make a difference!" he protested. "Captain, this sort of thing is—"

"Is what we're supposed to stop." Her voice cut across his like a dagger, and he winced as he saw something like hurt under the anger in her eyes. Hurt and something else. Contempt, perhaps, and that cut deep, too deep. He closed his mouth, and her nostrils flared.

"Commander McKeon," she said in that same, cold voice, "my duty is not affected by what others may or may not do to discharge their own. Nor do I care which criminals may engage in a criminal activity on my watch. We will support Ensign Tremaine to the maximum. In addition, I want an extra effort devoted to all other vessels—all other vessels, Commander—chartered by the Hauptman Cartel. Is that understood?"

"Understood, Ma'am," he said unhappily. "I only—"

"I appreciate your concern, Exec," she said sharply, "but Fearless will discharge her responsibilities. All of her responsibilities."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Thank you. Dismissed, Commander."

He rose and left her cabin, confused and worried, and the burden of a strange, deeply personal shame went with him.


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