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Denver Summervale raised his head from the data terminal with a cold frown as his office door opened, and the woman who'd opened it swallowed unobtrusively. Summervale was a hard, dangerous man, with a record of dead bodies to prove it, and he disliked interruptions, but she stood her ground. It wasn't as if she had a choice. Besides, he'd been working on the books, and most of that scowl probably stemmed more from his hatred for paperwork than her sudden appearance.

"What?" he demanded in an arctic, aristocratic accent.

"There's a call for you," she said. His scowl deepened, and she hastened to add, "It's from the boss."

Summervale's face smoothed quickly into a masklike calm, and he rose with a curt nod. The woman stepped back out of the doorway, and he brushed past her with an oddly courteous apology.

She watched him vanish down the hall, moving toward the com room with his customary cat-footed grace, and felt the familiar shiver he left in his wake. There was something coldly reptilian about him, part and parcel of his upper-class accent and the sort of instinctive courtesy he showed to all about him. He was like an heirloom sword, graceful and poised, but honed and lethal as chilled steel. She'd known more than her share of dangerous, lawless men, but none quite like him, and he frightened her. She hated to admit that, even to herself, yet it was true.

The com room door closed behind him, and she turned away with another shiver, adjusting her dust mask as she opened the door to the lab and returned to her own responsibilities.

* * *

Summervale took one look at the face on his com screen, then nodded curtly to the duty operator. The man departed without a word, and Summervale seated himself in the chair he'd abandoned. Long habit drew his eyes to the panel, double-checking the scrambler circuits, before he looked up at the man on the screen.

"What?" he asked without preamble.

"We may have a problem," his caller said carefully. The man's Sphinxian accent was pronounced—possibly too pronounced, Summervale thought yet again. It had an almost theatrical quality, as if it were a mask for something else, but that was fine with Summervale. Its owner paid well for his services; if he wanted to maintain an extra level of security, that was his business.

"What problem?"

"The NPA's spotted the new mekoha," his caller replied, and Summervale's mouth tightened.


"We're not certain—our informant couldn't tell us—but I'd guess it's a side effect of Harrington's operations. She's freed up a lot of NPA manpower, and they're extending their patrols."

Summervale's eyes flashed at the name "Harrington," and his tight mouth twisted. He'd never met the commander, but he didn't have to meet her to hate her. She represented too many things out of his own past, and he felt the familiar heat tingle in his nerves. Yet he was a professional. He recognized the danger of visceral reactions, however pleasant they might be.

"How much do they know?" he asked.

"Again, we're not certain, but they've been running analyses of the stuff they've brought in. The odds are pretty good they'll figure out it's not Stilty-produced. In fact, they may have already. One of my other sources tells me Harrington's pulled one of her pinnaces off the customs assignment."

"To run orbital sweeps," Summervale said flatly.

"Probably," his caller agreed.

"Not probably—certainly. I told you it was risky to make the stuff so pure."

"The Stilties prefer it that way."

"Damn the Stilties." Summervale spoke almost mildly, but his eyes were hard. "You're paying the freight, so the decision's yours, but when one of these bucks gets hopped on a pipeful of our stuff, he turns into a nuke about to go critical."

"No skin off our nose," his employer said cynically.

"Maybe. But I'll lay odds that's what attracted the NPA's attention. And the same elements that give it the kick will prove it wasn't made by any Stilty alchemist. Which means it was either shipped in or made somewhere on-planet. Like here." The man on the screen began to say something else, but Summervale raised a hand. Again, it was an oddly courteous gesture. "Never mind. Done is done, and it's your operation. What do you want me to do at this end?"

"Watch your security, especially the air traffic. If they're making overflights, we can't afford to attract their attention."

"I can hold down the cargo flights. I can even reduce foot traffic around the complex," Summervale pointed out. "What I can't do is hide from Fleet sensors. Our power relay will stick out like a sore thumb, and once it draws their attention, we'll leak enough background energy for them to zero us despite the wall shields. You know that."

He chose not to add that he'd argued against a beamed power relay from the beginning. The extra cost in time and labor to run a buried feeder cable would have been negligible beside the investment his employers had already made, and it would have made the entire operation vastly more secure. But he'd been overruled at the outset. And while he had no intention of allowing his caller to saddle him with full responsibility for concealment at this point, there was no point rubbing the man's nose in it.

"We know that," the man on the screen said. "We never expected to have to face Fleet sensors"—Summervale knew that was as close to an apology as he was likely to get—"but now that we do, we don't expect you to work miracles. On the other hand, I doubt you'll have to. Remember, we have people on the inside. Maybe not high enough to tap into Matsuko's office or communications, but high enough to let us know if the NPA starts assembling anything big enough to come after you. We'll try to get inside Harrington's information channels and keep an eye on her recon reports, but even if we can't, we should be able to give you a minimum of six or seven hours' warning before anything local heads your way."

Summervale nodded slowly, mind racing as he considered alternatives. Six hours would be more than enough to get his people away, but anything less than a full day would be too little to get even a tithe of the equipment out. And that didn't even consider the meticulous records his employer had insisted he keep. He couldn't fault the man for wanting to track every gram of mekoha the lab produced—nothing could be better calculated to arouse Estelle Matsuko's fury than finding off-worlders peddling dream smoke to the Stilties, and if one of his people had set up as a dealer on his own time the odds of detection would have gone up astronomically—but maintaining complete hardcopy backups was stupid. The increase in vulnerability far outweighed the advantages, but there, again, he had been overruled.

He shrugged internally. That was his employer's lookout, and he'd made damned sure his own name never appeared anywhere in them.

"How do I handle the hardware?" he asked after a moment.

"If there's time, take it with you. If there's not—" His caller shrugged. "It's only hardware. We can replace it."

"Understood." Summervale drummed on the edge of the console for a moment, then shrugged, physically this time. "Anything else?"

"Not right now. I'll get back to you if something else breaks."

"Understood," Summervale repeated, and killed the circuit.

He sat before the silent screen for several minutes, thinking, then rose to pace the small com room. There were things about this entire operation that never had added up to his satisfaction, and his employer's apparent lack of concern over the loss of his entire lab complex was one more puzzle. Oh, the facilities weren't that expensive—mekoha production wasn't particularly difficult or complicated—but putting them in without detection had been a major operation. If they lost them, they also lost their production base, at least until a new one could be assembled, and installing a new lab would expose them to detection all over again.

Or would it?

He paused in his pacing, and an eyebrow curved in speculation. Suppose they already had a backup facility in place? That was certainly possible, particularly in light of some of his other unanswered questions. Like why the Organization had gone to such lengths to sell drugs, especially something like mekoha, to a bunch of primitive abos in the first place. He couldn't quite convince himself that Medusa hid some unknown, priceless treasure the Stilties were trading for the stuff, and any Medusan commodity he could think of could have been purchased for far less investment (and risk) with legitimate trade goods. Of course, he wasn't privy to the distribution end of the pipeline. He and his people distributed some of their production to the local chieftains and shamans in return for a network of Stilty scouts and sentinels, but the vast bulk of it was shipped out for disposal elsewhere.

And if they were going to sell drugs, why choose mekoha? There were half a dozen other Stilty drugs and intoxicants the Organization might have chosen. Not ones that would produce the same price, perhaps, but ones that could have been manufactured even more cheaply. And ones which were far less likely to bring the NPA down on their heads, as well. Mekoha's violent side effects were certain to infuriate Matsuko, and not just because she felt a genuine mission to protect the Stilties from off-world exploitation. Only a lunatic would be unconcerned over the massive distribution of something that could turn the most peaceful native into a raging maniac.

But, as he'd told the man on the screen, that was the Organization's concern, not his. Besides, his lip curled unpleasantly, anything that upset the Resident Commissioner, the NPA, and the Royal Manticoran Navy was eminently worthwhile in its own right.

He resumed his pacing, and his eyes were dark and ugly with memories. There had been a time when Captain the Honorable Denver Summervale, Royal Manticoran Marine Corps, would have been on the other side of this problem. But today he was in his element, on the side he should have been on from the beginning, for the Marines had decided they'd made a mistake the day they accepted his oath of allegiance. One they had corrected in the formal drama of a full-dress court martial.

A dangerous snarl bared his teeth, and his pace quickened as he recalled the moment. The spectators' humming silence, with the point of his dress sword turned towards him on the table before the glittering senior officers while the president of the court read the formal verdict. The roll of drums as he was marched out in mess dress uniform to face his regiment, an officer of the Queen in gorgeous black and green, standing with emotionless face while the most junior enlisted man in his own battalion ripped the buttons and decorations from his tunic to the slow, bitter tapping of the drum. The expression on his colonel's face as his epaulets and insignia were taken from him to be ground under a booted heel. The flat, metallic crack as the blade of his archaic dress sword snapped in the colonel's gloved hands.

Oh, yes, he remembered. And, despite his hatred, he knew they'd been right. They were the sheep, but Denver Summervale was a wolf, and he'd made his way even then in the way a wolf knew best—with his teeth.

He dropped back into the chair before the com terminal, grinning dangerously at the blank screen. His father had been there, too, he recalled. His pious, noble father, clinging to the fringes of the Summervale glory despite his poverty. What had the high and mighty family ever given them, that they should ape its manners and honor its name? Their branch had none of the wealth, none of the power, that clung to the direct line of the Dukes of Cromarty!

Summervale's hands clenched in his lap, and he closed his eyes. His own flesh and blood sat in the prime minister's chair. Even then, the precious Duke of Cromarty had been Lord of the Exchequer, second in seniority in Her Majesty's Government, and had he raised a hand to help his distant cousin? Not he! Not that noble, proper, sanctimonious bastard.

But that, too, was all right. He made his hands relax, savoring the thought of the gossip and sidelong glances his disgrace must have brought upon the noble Duke and treasuring the look on his father's face as his sword snapped. All his life, his father had preached to him of duty and responsibility, of the glorious role his family had played in the history of the Kingdom. But duty and responsibility hadn't paid his debts. Family history hadn't won him the respect and fear it won the "true" line.

No, those things he had earned himself, earned on the "field of honor" while he laughed at their pretensions.

He opened his eyes once more, staring at his reflection in the com screen, remembering the dawn quiet and the weight of a pistol. Remembering the seconds and the master of the list's stern expression as he stared across thirty meters of smooth grass at a pale-faced opponent. It had been . . . Bullard? No. That first time had been Scott, and he shivered as his palm felt again the shock of recoil and Scott's white shirt blossomed crimson and he fell.

He shook himself. It had been a business transaction, nothing more, he told himself, and knew he lied. Oh, it had been business, and the money his secret sponsor had slipped him had cleared his debts . . . for a time. Until the next time. But the sensual thrill of knowing, even as Scott crumpled, that his bullet had blown his target's aristocratic heart apart—that had been his true reward. And the reason it had been so easy to accept the next assignment, and the next.

Yet in the end, the very people he hated with all his soul had won. "Professional duelist," they'd called him, when all the time they'd meant "paid killer." And they'd been right. He admitted that here in the quiet, empty room. But he'd killed too many of them, even when his sponsors would have been willing to settle for a wound. The blood taste had been too sweet, the aura of fear too heady, and finally the Corps had had enough.

He'd killed a "brother officer"—as if the uniform a dead man wore should matter! He wasn't the first serving officer to do so, but there were too many bodies in his past, too many families that owed too many debts. They couldn't try him for murder, for duels were legal. He'd faced his opponent's fire, and they couldn't prove he'd accepted money for it. But they'd all known the truth, and they could bring up his entire record: his gambling, his women, the adulterous affairs he'd used to lure targets onto the field, the arrogance he'd let color his relations with senior officers as the terror of his reputation grew. And that had been enough to find him "unfit to wear the Queen's uniform" and led to that bright, hot morning and the slow, degrading tap of the drums.

And it had led here, as well. Here where the money was good, but even here the money was only part of it. Only the means to an end that let him sneer at their self-proclaimed nobility of purpose and avenge himself upon them again and again, even if they never knew it.

His nostrils flared, and he pushed himself up out of the chair.

All right. He'd been warned that the operation was in jeopardy, and its security was his responsibility. So be it. There were too many records, too much evidence, in this facility, and as his employer had said, the lab was only hardware.

There were ways to evacuate, and there were ways to evacuate, he thought with a slow, hungry smile. If he had to leave the equipment behind, then he could at least abandon it in a way that would give him personal satisfaction.

He opened the com room door and walked briskly down the hall. He had arrangements to make.


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