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Promised Land

by Jane Lindskold

Judith had been very young when the raiders took the ship, young, but not too young to remember. There had been explosions, the shrill scream of tearing metal, the insidious tugging of air leaking from a ruptured compartment before someone slapped on a patch.

The battle had been muffled, somehow less than real, made distant by the swaddling vac suit two sizes too big, but the best they'd had intact. It had been muffled, less than real, but that didn't save the child.

Reality came through later, came through with a vengeance.

* * *

Despite everything he'd been through, all the time and energy he'd put into his training, into getting marks that wouldn't shame his family, when it came time for his middy cruise, someone had gotten cold feet. Michael Winton first heard the rumor that they were going to put him on a system defense ship near Gryphon from his roommate, Todd Liatt.

Todd was one of those people who always heard things before anyone else. Michael had teased Todd, that he, not Michael, was the one who should be specializing in communications.

"You wouldn't even need a com set, Toad-breath. Information seeps directly into your nervous system. Think of the savings in time and resources that would be."

Todd had laughed, even played along with the joke, but there'd really never been a question where he would concentrate. Tactics was the best specialization for those who hoped for a ship of their own someday, and Todd wanted command.

"Hey," Todd said, mock serious, "I've got four older sisters and three older brothers. I've taken other people's orders all my life. It's time I get a turn, right?"

But they'd both known Todd's desire was motivated by an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a desire to make things right. Michael was certain that the white beret would fit Todd as naturally as his skin.

And himself? Michael didn't want command. He hadn't even wanted a career in the Navy, not at first, but now he was as devoted to the service as Todd was. He just knew he didn't want to command a vessel. Michael would never say so to Todd, but he knew too much about the cost of command to long for it.

Communications appealed to Michael: the rapid flow of information, the need to weigh and measure, to sort and balance, were all as familiar to him as breathing. He'd been playing some version of that game all his life.

He was good at it too. His memory was excellent. Pressure didn't fluster him. It seemed to focus him, to make things clearer, contrast more acute. He felt sure that no one who'd gone through a training sim with him had any doubt that he'd earned his standing on graduation.

Michael was proud of that class standing. It's very hard to be judged on your own merits when you're so highly born that people are automatically going to figure you were being carried. That's what made Todd's news almost more than he could take.

"You heard what?" Michael said to Todd, his voice taut with anger.

"I heard," Todd replied stiffly, unintimidated, "that you are going to be assigned to the Saint Elmo for her Gryphon deployment. Apparently, your singular ability to process information came to the attention of BuWeapons. They're working on some top secret sensor technology and they want the best people they can get for the trial runs."

Michael's response was long, eloquent, and suggested that he'd hung around with Marines at some time in his life. That was true. His sister was married to a former Marine, but Justin Zyrr had never used language like that in Michael's hearing.

Todd listened, his expression mingling shock and grudging admiration.

"Two years," he said. "Two years I share a room with you, and never do I learn that you can swear like that."

Michael didn't answer. He was too busy grabbing various items of clothing, obviously preparatory to storming out of the room.

"Hey, Michael, where're you going?"

"To talk to someone about my posting."

"You can't! It isn't official yet."

"If I wait until it's official," Michael said, his voice tight, "then it's going to be too late. Insubordination at least. Now I might be able to do something."

Todd was too smart to fight a losing engagement.

"Who're you going to talk to? Commander Shrake?"

"No. I'm going to screen Beth. If this is her idea, I need to know why. If it isn't her idea, I need to know so someone can't try to convince me that it is. When I know that, then I'll try Shrake."

"Forewarned is forearmed," Todd agreed.

Michael nodded. One thing his com training had taught him. Find a secure line if you want to discuss a sensitive matter.

He guessed it was pretty sensitive when you were going to place a person to person call to the Queen.

* * *

The ship that had captured theirs had been from Masada. Judith had been too young to understand the difference between pirates and privateers. When she was old enough to know, she was also old enough to know that when it came to Masadans preying on Graysons the distinctions were so much fertilizer.

Her father had been killed helping to defend the ship. Her mother had died trying to defend her child. Judith only wished she could have died with them.

At twelve standards Judith was married to a man over four times her age. Ephraim Templeton had captained the Masadan privateer that had taken the Grayson vessel, and he claimed the girl child as part of his prize. If this was somewhat irregular, there was no one left alive to protest when Judith was not repatriated to her own people.

Even disregarding the difference in their ages—Ephraim had seen five and half decades by standard reckoning—Judith and Ephraim were not at all alike. Where Ephraim was heavily built, Judith possessed a light, gazelle's build. Her hair was dark brown, sun-kissed with reddish gold highlights. His was fair, silver mixed in increasing proportion to the blond. The eyes Judith learned to carry downcast lest Ephraim beat her for impudence were hazel, brown ringing vibrant green. Ephraim's eyes were pale blue and as cold as ice.

At thirteen Judith had her first miscarriage. When she had her second miscarriage six months later, the doctor suggested that her husband stop trying to impregnate her for a few years lest her reproductive equipment suffer permanent damage. Ephraim did as the doctor suggested, though that didn't mean he stopped exercising his conjugal privileges.

At sixteen Judith was pregnant again. When tests showed that the unborn child was a girl, her husband ordered an abortion, saying he didn't want to waste the useless bitch he'd been feeding all these years to no purpose, and what was more purposeless than breeding a girl child?

If before Judith had hated and feared Ephraim, now that emotion transformed into loathing so deep she thought it a wonder that her gaze did not sear Ephraim to ash where he stood. Her sweat should have been acid on his skin, her breath poison. That was how deeply she hated him.

Some women would have committed suicide. Some might have resorted to murder—which in Masadan society was the same as suicide, though a bit more satisfactory in that the murderer achieved something in return for her death. But Judith did neither.

She had a secret, a secret she held onto even as she bit her lip to keep from crying out when her husband used her again and yet again. She held onto it even when she saw the grudging pity in the eyes of her co-wives. She held onto it as she had from the moment she watched her mother bleed her life out onto the deck plates, remembering that brave woman's final warning.

"Never let them know that you can read."

* * *

It hadn't been Elizabeth's idea to have him posted to a lumbering superdreadnought that would never even leave the Star Kingdom's home binary system. Michael's relief when he learned this was boundless. Even before their father's death, Beth had encouraged Michael to find his own place, to push his limits. Distracted as she had been by the heavy responsibilities she assumed after their father's tragic death, Beth still had made time for Michael, listening to the problems he couldn't seem to discuss with their mother, the dowager Queen Angelique.

To have found that Beth had suddenly changed would have been a new orphaning, worse in many ways, for on some level Michael expected it—indeed, knew he should strive for it, since it was his place to support his Queen, not hers to support him.

Now that he knew that he would not be undermining his Queen's policy, Michael made an appointment to see the Fourth Form dean. That he could almost certainly have demanded an appointment with the commandant of the Academy and been granted it occurred to him, but the option was as quickly rejected. The Navy could be—and was—officially unyielding where matters of birth and privilege were concerned. That didn't mean strings weren't quietly pulled in the background, but anyone who too blatantly abused his position could expect to pay a price throughout the entire course of his career. Besides, it would have been self-defeating. The appointment would have been granted to the Crown Prince, not to Midshipman Michael Winton, and being seen as Crown Prince Michael rather than Midshipman Winton was precisely what Michael was trying to avoid.

However, if his appointment with the dean came rather more promptly than even a fourth form midshipman who stood in the top quarter of his class could usually hope for, Michael wasn't fool enough to refuse it. He arrived promptly, sharp in his undress uniform, every button, and bit of trim in as perfect order as he and Todd could make them.

Michael saluted crisply when admitted to his superior officer's presence. Indeed, though there had been those who had expected the Crown Prince to indicate in fashions subtle or less so that in the past these same officers had bent knee before him, Michael had never given them reason. He knew, as those who were not close to the Crown never could, how human monarchs were, how an accident could make an eighteen-year-old queen . . . could make a thirteen-year-old crown prince.

Michael wondered how many of those officers who expected him to slight them realized how greatly in awe of them he stood. They had earned their ranks, earned their awards and honors. The long list of titles Michael heard recited on formal occasions had nothing to do with him, everything to do with his father.

He thought that Commander Brenda Shrake, Lady Weatherfell, might actually realize how he felt, for there was a warmth in her pale green eyes that spoke of understanding that in no way could be confused with indulgence or laxity. The dean's title identified her to Michael as the holder of a prosperous grant on Sphinx, but long ago Lady Weatherfell had decided that her calling was in the Navy.

Even the battle that had left traces of scaring on rather stark features, that had bent and twisted two fingers of her right hand, had not made her renounce her decision. Instead Commander Shrake had moved with all the wisdom of her long years shipboard to the academy, where, in addition to her administrative duties, she taught some of the toughest courses in fusion engineering.

Commander Shrake was a leader within an academy responsible for turning out competent naval officers on what anyone with any sense must realize was the eve of war. There was no room for indulgence in her job, but there was room for compassion.

"You wished to see me, Mr. Winton?"

Michael nodded stiffly.

"Yes, Ma'am. It's about a rumor."

"A rumor?"

Suddenly Michael felt the speeches he had been rehearsing since Todd's revelation the day before dry up and flake away. After a panicked moment, he forced himself to begin afresh and was pleased to find words came smoothly.

"Yes, Ma'am. A rumor about Fourth Form postings."

Commander Shrake smiled. "Yes, those rumors would be starting about now. They always do, no matter how carefully we keep the information to ourselves."

She didn't ask how Michael had heard and for that Michael was grateful. Getting Todd into trouble was not on his agenda, but neither was lying to the Fourth Form dean.

"And whose posting is it you wish to speak about?" Commander Shrake continued.

"My own, Ma'am."

"Yes?"

"Commander Shrake, I have heard that I am to be posted to the SD Saint Elmo."

The dean didn't even make a show of consulting her computer. Michael respected her for it. Doubtless the matter had been discussed, maybe even debated. Someone at Mount Royal Palace might even have leaked back news of Michael's call to Beth last night.

"That matches my own information," Commander Shrake replied. "Is that what you wished to know?"

"Yes, Ma'am, and no, Ma'am. I did wish to have the rumor confirmed, Ma'am, but I," Michael took a deep breath and let the rest of his words hurry out on its eddy, "also wished to request another posting, Ma'am. One that isn't so close to home."

"You have a desire to see more of the universe, Mr. Winton?" asked the dean with a dangerous twinkle in her eyes.

"Yes, Ma'am," Michael replied, "but that isn't my reason for requesting a change of posting."

"And that reason is?"

"I want . . ."

Michael hesitated. He'd been over this so many times he'd lost count, and he still couldn't find a way to state his case without sounding pompous.

"Ma'am, I want to be a naval officer, and I can't do that if people start protecting me."

Twin silver arches of raised eyebrows made Michael flush.

"It is not the Navy's habit to protect her officers, Mr. Winton," Commander Shrake said coolly, and the scarred hand she rested on the desk in front of her was mute testimony to her words. "Rather it is those officers' job to protect the rest of the kingdom."

"Yes, Ma'am," Michael said, pressing on through he felt he'd doomed his case. "That's why keeping me back here isn't right. The Queen's brother . . ."

The damned words fell from his lips like bricks.

"The Queen's brother might have right to protection, but when I entered the academy I gave that up. It shouldn't start again now that I'm about to leave."

Commander Shrake steepled her fingers thoughtfully.

"And that's what you think this posting is, Mr. Winton?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"And if I told you that Admiral Hemphill herself had heard of your qualifications and requested you?"

"I would be pleased, Ma'am, but that wouldn't stop others from thinking that I was being protected."

"And it matters to you what others think?"

"I'd like to say that it didn't, Ma'am," Michael said earnestly, "but I'd be lying. I could live with it if it was only me. I've done that before, but I don't like what it might make others think about the Navy."

"Oh?"

"Yes, Ma'am. If the Queen's brother is given a posting where he's not subjected to as great a risk of combat, then how long will it be before some other nobles start thinking that's their right, too?"

Michael paused, not knowing if he'd overstepped himself, but the dean nodded for him to continue.

"The Navy needs recruits, Ma'am," Michael continued, "from all elements of our society. I don't like to think what will happen if the word gets around that certain people are too valuable for dangerous postings—and that by implication other people are considered more disposable."

"Mr. Winton, surely you realize that this has always been the case. Frankly, certain people are more valuable."

"Yes, Ma'am, but they are valuable because of what they know, because of what they have learned, because of what they can contribute to the conduct of naval operations. They are not," Michael concluded, unable to keep a trace of bitterness from his voice, "considered more valuable due to an accident of birth."

"I see," Commander Shrake said after an uncomfortably long pause. "I see, and I believe I understand. What, then, are you requesting, Mr. Winton?"

"A more usual midshipman's posting, Ma'am," Michael said. "If the Navy truly believes I can be of greatest service in an SD orbiting Gryphon then I will give that posting everything I have."

"But you would prefer, say, a battlecruiser heading out to deal with Silesian pirates."

"I believe that is more usual, Ma'am," Michael said.

"I see," the dean repeated. "Very well. You have made your case. I will consider it and perhaps present the matter to the Commandant. Is there anything else, Mr. Winton?"

"No, Ma'am. Thank you for hearing me out, Commander."

"Listening is part of being a good commander," Shrake said, sounding rather like she had returned to the lecture hall. "Then if you are finished, you are dismissed."

* * *

Grayson and Masada shared certain attitudes towards women, a factor that was not at all surprising since the Masadans had originally been part of the Grayson colony. Both societies refused women the vote and the right to own property. Both considered women inferior to men, seeing as their main role supporting and upholding their homes and husbands. Both societies, to be blunt, considered women property.

But property can be valued and valuable. The Graysons came to see their women as treasures. Grayson men might refuse their women numerous rights and privileges, but in return they were enjoined to love and protect them. The protection might be smothering and binding, but usually it was not damaging.

The Masadans, after their separation from Grayson, grew to see women in a different light. Since the Masadan attempt to gain control of Grayson society had been thwarted by a woman—even as God's plan for Man had been thwarted by Eve—so women were perceived as the visible, living embodiments of sin and suffering. Few actions were considered out of line when inflicted on such creatures. Indeed, a woman might work her way toward redemption by accepting whatever was done to her.

On Grayson a man did not mistreat a woman because she was precious. On Masada, theoretically, a man might treat any woman as harshly as he wished. Most were wise enough not to exercise this right because to do so would be to invite similar treatment of their own property. Individual owners might abuse their women as much as they deemed right to preserve the sanctity and order of their households. Most did.

One did not bother to educate property on Masada. On Grayson, higher education and formal degrees might be denied to women, but basic literacy and math were routinely taught. They had to be, if only because the daily maintenance of household technology in such a hostile environment required it.

Masada's less lethal planetary environment obviated that need, and no good Masadan patriarch was about to waste education on a mere female. Judith's parents, scions of a merchant family with ties outside the Grayson system, had begun her education earlier than most. They'd decided to have her educated beyond even the normal Grayson standards for a variety of reasons. One of these was that they did not wish to seem backward in the eyes of those with whom they sought to do business. Another was that they were good, God-fearing people who did not see how the ability to contemplate God's wonders and mysteries intellectually, as well as with the blind obedience of faith, could hurt anyone. Especially not in a faith which enshrined the doctrine of the Test.

Finally, there was an element of practicality. Even though propriety meant that a girl would not be exposed to the prying eyes of strangers, that didn't mean she had to be useless. A girl who could read, write, and work sums could help with the business. When her parents discovered that Judith had an almost preternatural quickness with mathematics and logic patterns, they delighted in giving her puzzles and games meant to enhance this ability.

But Judith's mother understood, as her father might not have done, the danger that knowledge placed the girl in when the Masadan raiders took their ship. Despite her tender years, Judith understood her mother's warning. Even within Grayson society she had been encouraged to conceal just how much she knew. Indeed, as she grew older she had concealed from her parents just how much she had learned, fearing they might view her education as complete.

That habit of secrecy and the knowledge it concealed was why Judith didn't kill herself, why she didn't kill the man who called himself her husband, lord, and master. She had something else in mind. Something that would hurt Ephraim Templeton a great deal more.

Judith began training for her revenge during the first years of her captivity, continued after her marriage, focused more intensely once Ephraim began to try to father children upon her. She hoped to put her plan into action before he could tie her to Masada through their children. What she had never realized was that she would care about those little lives, even those never born.

On the day she learned that the child she carried was a girl—a girl Ephraim did not plan to let live—Judith knew she had no choice but to put her plan into action.

Even so, she knew it was unlikely that she could save this baby. Her hope was that she could save the next.

* * *

"I simply don't see how we can pretend to forget that his sister is the Queen," said Lieutenant Carlotta Dunsinane, assistant tactical officer of Her Majesty's light cruiser, Intransigent.

"Carlie, a slew of instructors and classmates at Saganami Island have been pretending it for the last three and a half years," replied Abelard Boniece, Intransigent's captain. "Now it's our turn."

"But still . . ."

Lieutenant Dunsinane let her voice trail off. In her inflection was a wealth of unspoken knowledge, the awareness that the young man whose dossier glowed on the screen between them was next in line for the crown of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. True, Michael's sister, Queen Elizabeth the Third, was married and her firstborn child would undoubtedly replace him as Heir in due time. But Michael Winton had been the Crown Prince for the last nine years. His social and political rank were not easy things to disregard.

Then there was the uncomfortable resemblance between Midshipman Michael Winton and his father, the much-loved King Roger III. The latter had died long before his time, victim of a freak jet-ski accident that had left the Star Kingdom grieving, and thrust Elizabeth and her brother into the public eye.

For Elizabeth, just a few years short of her majority, this scrutiny was something for which she had some training. For thirteen year-old Michael, still at an age when traditional forbearance shielded him from the greedy eye of the newsies, there had been little preparation.

The resemblance between father and son came across despite Prince Michael's apparent youth, extending beyond the Winton's clean-cut features and strikingly dark skin. It had something to do with the set of the youth's jaw, the manner in which he carried his head straight and square on his shoulders, even in the way he seemed unaware of the myriad gazes that flickered in his direction and then politely away again—an unawareness that was never rude or rejecting, simply unaware.

To be fair to Prince Michael—Midshipman Winton—Carlie reminded herself with the fierce determination of one who is certain it is only a matter of time before she screws up, part of Carlie's own uncertainty had nothing to do with Michael Winton himself. The midshipman's dossier had given no indication that Michael Winton expected privileges or had been given them, but Lieutenant Carlotta Dunsinane couldn't quite believe this was so, and deep inside she was steeled for trouble.

To make matters worse, as part of the RMN's on-going naval expansion, Intransigent's middy berth was filled to bursting—and suddenly, cynically, Carlie realized the reason why there had been a couple of changes in those assigned to her care. Doubtless there were those in a position to learn of Mr. Winton's new assignment in advance, those who saw an advantage to having their son or daughter serve on the Crown Prince's middy cruise, an advantage that nothing as trivial as a sudden change in posting could make impossible.

As supervisor of Intransigent's middy berth, Lieutenant Dunsinane was under conflicting pressures. She had to simultaneously guard and direct her young charges, yet try to break them if there was anything in them that needed breaking. This was never an easy task, but it was going to be made more difficult with a middy berth overloaded with scions of rank and privilege.

Then there was the ATO's acute awareness that the RMN desperately needed good officers—with the emphasis on "good"—but there were those who thought that any officer was a good officer with the fleet spread so thin. So Carlie knew that there would be those in the command structure who would fault her for breaking any of those who had survived the gruelling three and a half T-years they'd spent at the Academy—not to mention fault her for wasting the money invested in that training.

And fault her even more if one of those whose training didn't pan out was the carefully watched, highly observed Prince Michael Winton. Yet she'd also be faulted if Midshipman Winton passed his cruise without proving himself.

Carlie swallowed an impulse to offer her resignation here and now.

"Mr. Winton will be reporting to you in just a few days, so you have time to prepare yourself," Captain Boniece continued. "May I offer you a word of advice?"

"I would accept your advice gladly, Sir."

"Give the young man a chance to prove himself before you condemn him."

"I'll do my best, Sir."

Carlie Dunsinane meant every word. She also knew how difficult keeping those words was going to be.

As she was leaving, she saw Tab Tilson, the head communications' officer, coming in with the latest dispatches. Before the door slid closed, she heard him say:

"More changes, Sir, I'm afraid."

The door slid shut before Carlie could hear what those changes were, but she sincerely hoped they had nothing to do with her already overcomplicated middy berth.

* * *

Ephraim Templeton ruled his household with an iron rod—or more literally a very flexible whip and a willingness to use it. However, much of how he regulated his household was based on certain assumptions.

None of Ephraim's wives could read. Therefore, no effort was made to secure the library against them. None of his wives could use the computer beyond activating the simple pictorial icons used for routine household chores. Certainly, none of them could manage anything as complicated as programming.

Judith, however, could read. She was familiar with the more complicated computers used by the Graysons, and her parents had taught her elementary programming. This last, combined with ready access to Ephraim's household databanks, made it possible for Judith to continue her education.

Her mother's dying warning had also provided a hint as to along which path lay Judith's freedom. If the Masadans did not want her to know anything, then she would seek to know everything—and to keep her acquisition of that knowledge from them.

Judith's programmed safeguards would not have stopped a careful security check, but where there can be no mice, no one sets mousetraps. She had another advantage as well. She was not her husband's favorite wife. Indeed, in many ways she was his least favorite, but Ephraim did not dispose of her because she was a prize.

To his fellows, who hated the Graysons with singleminded fanaticism, Judith was presented as a soul redeemed from sin, a vessel who would carry within her womb those who would prove the undoing of their own forbearers. For this reason, Ephraim often took Judith with him when his duties took him away from home. She was a trophy: living, breathing proof that the Masadan struggle to conquer Grayson would not be in vain.

Initially, Judith, then only twelve, had hated these voyages. They forced her into increased intimacy with her husband, for Ephraim didn't bring any other of his wives. However, once Judith realized that during her voyages on Aaron's Rod she was free from observation—for jealous Ephraim kept her locked in the captain's quarters lest she incite unholy lust among his crew—she took advantage of her isolation.

Hacking into the ship's computer was Judith's first challenge, but one for which her education on Grayson's more sophisticated systems had given her the tools. Once she had access to Aaron's Rod's computer, and safeguard programs in place, Judith immersed herself in the joys of forbidden knowledge.

While she was supposed to be praying or memorizing scripture, Judith familiarized herself with the ship's systems, starting with the basics of life support, engineering, and communications, moving from these into the more arcane specializations of weaponry and astrogation. Later, when she was fourteen, she began studying elementary tactics.

Had Ephraim but known, his youngest wife at fifteen was as well-educated—at least in theory—as any member of his crew. Instead he thought her something of an idiot, for her inability to memorize the scripture passages he set for her—even with the incentive of a beating for her failure—was nearly beyond belief.

But Ephraim didn't have energy to waste worrying about the deficiencies of a woman who, after all, hardly needed a mind to serve her purpose. As he had been when Aaron's Rod took the merchant vessel that had carried Judith and her parents, Ephraim continued to serve as a Masadan privateer.

Ephraim was very careful which ships he hunted. Most of the time he was content to masquerade as an armed merchantman, even to the extent of carrying regular cargos. The missile tubes and laser batteries that were part of his vessel could be turned to other purposes than self-defense, however, and when the situation was deemed propitious, unarmed ships fell before Aaron's Rod's might.

Judith, of course, did not take part in these battles. When Aaron's Rod went into battle, she remained locked in the captain's quarters. Ephraim valued her sufficiently to provide a vac suit lest she die from a breach in the hull, but that suit was an uncertain refuge. Ephraim had no wish to have Judith become some other man's prize, so tied into her vac suit was a version of the dead man's switch, rigged so that if Ephraim died, or even if he viewed their situation as hopeless, Judith would also die.

What Ephraim didn't realize was that Judith knew all about the switch, and had disabled it while leaving the circuit sufficiently intact to hide her tampering from routine equipment checks. She re-checked the suit every time she put it on, reassured in the knowledge that the suit was only issued to her when the situation was critical, and her captors too distracted to do more than scan the telltales.

Thus Judith came to revel in her shipboard time.

As her confidence grew, Judith didn't restrict her education in ship systems to when she was aboard Aaron's Rod. Ephraim had purchased training simulation software for the use of his sons. Both the software and the VR rigs used for the most realistic training were expensive beyond Ephraim's usual prudent parsimony. However, he dreamed of one day commanding a privateer fleet with his sons as captains. The actions of this fleet would make the name Templeton famous throughout Masada, earning the clan a posting at the forefront of the action when the day came to make a decisive strike against the heretics on Grayson.

Fourteen year-old Judith discovered the best times to extract a VR rig from the lockers. Unlike her stepsons, who gloried in battle scenarios, she concentrated on the boring programs: Piloting a ship. Preparing for a hyper translation and adjusting to post-translation nausea. Checking and understanding astrogation coordinates. Scanning for communications.

In careful secrecy, Judith forced herself to learn how to get the most out of each of the preprogrammed routines that ran the essential ship stations, knowing that when her time came she would likely have to do without much in the way of a crew.

Judith was working her way through a particularly complicated scenario dealing with the aftereffects of a power surge following a return to N-space, when the VR rig was jerked off her face.

"What do you think you are doing?" Ephraim's senior wife hissed.

* * *

Like every other member of his graduating class, Michael Winton was given an opportunity to visit his family before reporting to his new assignment. It was good to be home, though Michael's suite at Mount Royal Palace seemed unnecessarily large and rather empty without Todd's explosively effusive companionship.

Empty, that was, unless Beth's son, Roger, came exploding into the room. Roger was three T-years old, with all the energy and curiosity that could be wished for in that delightful age when a baby is becoming distinctly a little boy.

When Roger reached his sixth Manticoran birthday—which would make him just over ten, by standard reckoning—he would be subjected to a comprehensive battery of physical and mental tests meant to guarantee that he was suited to be the next king. Until then, Michael would continue to hold the title Crown Prince and be next in the succession. Remembering his own encounter with a similar battery of tests, Michael had no doubt that Roger would pass with well over the minimum requirements.

Seven more years to go, Michael thought without the least trace of wistfulness. Then I can be just plain Prince Michael again—and if Beth has another kid or two, I'll drop so far down the succession I'll be like Aunt Caitrin, just another superfluous noble. 

He grinned at the thought, swinging a delightedly shrieking Roger around and around in circles. He thought there was probably no one less superfluous than Duchess Winton-Henke, his late father's younger sister, but he knew she'd enjoy the joke as much as he did.

All in all, Michael didn't mind having someone else make his bed, having the luxury to sleep late, the opportunity to wear something other than his uniform. The business of the Star Kingdom did not precisely stop because the Crown Prince was home from school, but Beth found excuses to avoid several formal engagements in favor of quiet evenings with her brother.

Even when Beth couldn't get free, Queen Mother Angelique might be available, and Roger always wanted a chance to play. For a few days, Michael could almost forget that his was a family any different from any other.

One evening after Justin had gone to put Roger to bed, brother and sister sat playing chess. Their only audience was Beth's treecat, Ariel, who sprawled drowsily across his human's lap. To Michael's complete surprise, Beth extended one long finger and tipped over her king, conceding the game to him.

"I haven't checkmated you yet!" Michael protested.

"You would have in two moves," Beth said, "and I have something I need to discuss with you."

Michael heard an odd twang in his sister's voice, a barely suppressed tension that warned him that the Queen was going to confide in him information that at least some of her advisors would rather she didn't—and that she was worried that their judgement, rather than her own, might be right.

Michael kept his observation of Beth's mood to himself, reaching instead for the chess pieces and beginning to methodically fit them into their velvet-lined niches in the polished hardwood box.

After a few moments, Beth continued, "I know where Intransigent is being sent."

Michael cocked an eyebrow at her. He'd been told that his new posting, the light cruiser Intransigent, was being sent to Silesia. He didn't know which sector, but he expected they'd be taking over one of the standard anti-pirate patrols. If that was the case, though, why did Beth look so thoughtful?

"Don't be a pig," Michael prompted when her silence stretched on. "Give."

Beth smiled at the bantering note in his voice.

"Intransigent isn't going to Silesia," she said, "at least not right away. She's being diverted to deliver new orders and relief personnel to a diplomatic contingent we have negotiating with the government of the Endicott System."

"Endicott?" Michael asked, not certain he had heard right.

Beth nodded. Stealing a few chess pieces from their velvet niches, she worked up a makeshift map on the board that still rested between them.

"This queen," she said, setting the carved ebony figure at one extreme, "is the Star Kingdom. This," she said, setting the white king at the other extreme, "is the People's Republic of Haven."

"They wouldn't appreciate your using a king," Michael teased. "They're a republic, not a decadent, top-heavy monarchy like us."

Beth grinned, but she didn't exchange the piece. Instead she drew imaginary, curving lines marking the sphere of influence ruled by each piece. The area ruled by the black queen was markedly smaller than the one ruled by the white king.

"Between our two less than harmonious governments," Beth went on, "is a certain amount of stellar real estate not claimed by either us or the Peeps. Unlike the People's Republic, the Star Kingdom of Manticore does not advocate a policy of forced annexation."

The Queen spoke lightly, but there was steel beneath her words, steel that had been forged and tempered through numerous battles in the political arena against those of Beth's subjects who felt that Elizabeth the Third, like her father before her, was a bit too fond of acquiring new extra-system responsibilities for the Star Kingdom. The conflict had come to a head with the acquisition of the Basilisk System in the very year Elizabeth had been born. Despite the passage of twenty-some years and the increasingly obvious predation of the PRH, the arguments against keeping the Basilisk System had not quieted in the least.

For Michael, his term at the Academy had only made him more certain, not less, that the policy followed by the Crown was the only sensible one. The words "Star Kingdom" might sound sweepingly grand, but when it came down to facts, before the acquisition of the Basilisk System, the Star Kingdom had only been one tidy little binary solar system.

True, the Manticore System had been blessed with three habitable planets. True, it commanded a wormhole terminus that was the envy of its neighbors and the heart of a profitable trade empire. But the fact remained that one home system, now supplemented by a second much poorer system, was a very small empire in the face of all the habitable worlds within the vast region commanded by the People's Republic of Haven.

Beth now placed two bishops—one white, one black, Michael noticed in amusement—on the board so that they occupied a space between the two spheres of influence.

"Between us and the Peeps," she continued, "are a variety of neutral entities. Right now Manticoran diplomatic focus is on two of them—the only inhabited worlds in a volume twenty light years across and rather conveniently placed between us and the Peeps. One of these," she touched the black bishop, "occupies the Yeltsin's Star System. The other occupies the Endicott System."

"The Graysons," Michael said, showing off just a little, "and the Masadans."

Elizabeth cocked an eyebrow at him, clearly impressed.

"Pretty good. I guess you did learn something at the Academy."

"Luck," Michael said modestly. "I just happened to do a paper on that region for a history class. Did you know that both those systems were settled long before Manticore?"

Elizabeth nodded, a sly grin spreading across her face.

" 'Just happened to do a paper,' " she mused aloud. "Gee, anyone with a sneaky turn of mind would think you were anticipating what the Star Kingdom might need to do if the Peeps kept pressing our borders. Dad would be impressed."

Michael was pleased despite himself—as well as glad, not for the first time, that his dark skin hid his blush. Lest Beth realize his embarrassment, he kept talking.

"I even know," he said, "why you chose bishops to mark these systems on your tac board. Both Masada and Grayson are ruled by theocracies, one almost as crazy as the other."

"Almost?"

Michael shrugged.

"The Faithful of Masada are a splinter group off the original Grayson colony. If I had to pick between them, I'd pick the original Graysons. They're remarkably backward in some of their social customs, but they're marginally more tolerant than the Masadans. They have a higher tech base than the Masadans, too."

Elizabeth nodded.

"I agree with you. However, not all of my advisors are so certain that an alliance with Grayson is preferable to one with Masada. They point out that Masada is a far more habitable planet than Grayson. They also see the Masadans' technological weaknesses as our potential strengths. Not only wouldn't we need to worry about our ally getting uppity, but the Masadans should jump through hoops to have a shot at the technological jump-start we can offer."

Michael shook his head.

"I wish I believed that," he said, "but from what I recall from my research, the Masadans were willing to destroy the Graysons when they couldn't conquer them. Even after the Masadans were exiled from the Yeltsin System, they kept coming back and trying to take Grayson. Those don't sound like people who would be willing to jump through anyone's hoop."

Beth nodded.

"Again, I agree with you. However, not all my advisors are so reasonable and, despite what many of my subjects think, my whim is not what governs the Star Kingdom. To complicate matters, we're probably years away from having to pick one group over the other. Hell, not everyone is even convinced that war against the People's Republic is inevitable. So for now, we're collecting information, learning everything we can about the Masadans and Graysons while they in turn learn about us—and while they learn about the Peeps."

"And if part of that learning experience," Michael said, understanding, "is a Manticoran light cruiser sweeping through as diplomatic limousine service, then all the better."

"You've got it," Beth said. "Before you start wondering, it's not pure coincidence that Intransigent has been chosen for escort duty. Apparently, the Masadans and Graysons are both misogynists. One of the sticking points in our negotiations with both societies has been that not only do we permit women to serve in our armed forces, but also that our 'kingdom' is actually a 'queendom.' "

If Michael hadn't already encountered some information on this social peculiarity he would have thought Beth was joking, but he already knew how blinkered both the Masadans and the Graysons were by elements of their religious heritage.

"The Graysons are showing some signs of thawing on that point," Beth went on, "but the Masadans are not. Some of my advisors thought that the Masadans might be distracted by, well, by . . ."

She stopped and Michael, uncertain when was the last time he had seen his sister so at a loss for words, waited in mild astonishment.

"They thought if you went out there," Beth continued in a rush, "that the Masadans might draw the conclusion that I was just a figurehead—a broody hen laying eggs to hatch the next generation of Winton monarchs. Certainly, Roger's existence would confirm their willingness to think that way. When a culture deliberately isolates itself as the Masadans have, it tends to interpret data solely through its own distorted viewpoint."

"And," Michael said, taking up the thread to spare Beth further irritation, "the Faithful of Masada might even be honored, if they think that someone holding real power came all that way to see them."

He considered the plan, then shook his head decisively.

"It's stupid, Beth. There's lots of information available that would counter any attempt to make you look like a 'broody hen' possessed of the right pedigree. Anyhow, I'll just be a midshipman. That's hardly a rank guaranteed to impress."

"Actually," Beth said, ignoring Michael's first point to concentrate on the second. "The Masadans may well be impressed. They're a hard society, one that seems to believe equally that God preordains their success and that success is proof that God favors someone. They're also warlike, and their leaders often lead in battle as well as in the political arena."

"So a prince who's 'warrior' enough to come up through the Academy and serve in a midshipman's berth would impress them?" Michael said dubiously.

"Let's just say it couldn't hurt," Beth assured him.

Michael decided to leave this for further consideration and turned to what seemed to be what he really needed to know. He suspected that Elizabeth's advisors had wanted this part of his briefing to come from the diplomatic corps, not from the Queen—just in case her sense of priorities was different than their own.

"How much do you want me to do when I'm there? As far as that goes, is the Navy being told that I'm wearing an extra hat?"

Beth's answer was equally direct.

"I want you to cooperate with the diplomatic service as much as seems reasonable. I do not want you to make any promises to anyone in my name or your own."

Michael's dark brown eyes widened in shock.

"As if I would!"

"I know you wouldn't," Beth said softly, "but you'd be astonished how many people don't believe that."

Michael snapped a few pawns into their velvet niches to cover his reaction. He'd supported Beth and her policies since the day she was crowned. It deeply angered him that anyone would believe he would usurp her authority.

"As for the Navy," Beth continued, pretending not to notice how upset he was, "Intransigent's captain will be requested to release you for certain social and diplomatic receptions once the ship is within the Endicott System. Captain Boniece will be assured, however, that your 'second hat' is not to be allowed to distract you from your duties as a Queen's officer. Any briefings the diplomatic representatives feel you need in preparation for arrival at Masada are to be fit into your spare time."

After three and a half T-years at the Academy, Michael had a fair idea of how little spare time a midshipman had. He suppressed a groan.

"I live to serve my Queen," he said, keeping his tone light.

Beth reached over and patted his hand.

"Thanks, Michael. In a few years, the Star Kingdom is going to need all the friends we can get. Who knows? Maybe with your help we can find a way to win over both Endicott and Yeltsin."

"Right," Michael said, looking at the black queen standing all alone on her side of the board. "Maybe we can."

* * *

Dinah, Ephraim's senior wife, was a few years younger than her husband. They had married when she was fifteen and he seventeen. Their first son, Gideon, had already fathered an extensive brood of his own, and some of his sons were reaching an age where they could help crew their father's ship, even as Gideon had Ephraim's.

Now the senior wife stared at her rebellious junior, her anger evident.

"What do you think you are doing?" Dinah repeated.

Judith returned Dinah's gaze as levelly as she could, but meeting those steel gray eyes wasn't easy. Judith had been ten when Ephraim had first brought her into his home. For the two years before he had taken Judith as his youngest bride, Dinah had been a surrogate mother to the orphaned girl. The senior wife had been strict, but not cruel, coaching Judith on matters of etiquette, listening to her recitations, and standing between her and the resentment of Ephraim's other wives—all of whom knew perfectly well that he hadn't brought the Grayson girl home out of high-mindedness.

When a few years later, Judith had suffered her miscarriages, Dinah had sided with the doctor who had advised giving the girl a few more years to physically mature. She had held her ground even in the face of cutting remarks from Ephraim, who accused Dinah of envying the younger woman's youth and potential fecundity.

Now, hair as gray as those piercing eyes, her figure spread from the children, living and dead, she had carried in the thirty-eight years of her marriage, Dinah stood as accusing judge of her co-wife. What Judith didn't understand was why Dinah didn't immediately com for Ephraim or one of her sons.

"I wanted to see what it was like," Judith answered lamely. "I saw Zachariah using it and it looked like fun."

As Dinah set the headset in its rack, Judith could swear that the older woman looked at the program list and understood what was written there. But that was impossible, wasn't it?

For the first time in the four years she had lived beneath Ephraim's roof, Judith doubted that she understood how things worked.

"Come away, Judith," Dinah ordered, her fingers tapping the tabs for the shut-down sequence.

These were standard, the same as for every appliance in the house, so Judith shouldn't have been surprised, but something stirred within her, an inkling of an emotion so alien that she had all but forgotten what it felt like.

Hope.

Afraid to feed that strange emotion, Judith bent her head and dutifully trailed Dinah to the private chamber that, as senior wife, Dinah claimed as her right. The other wives slept in dormitories, an arrangement meant to prevent something vaguely referred to as Vice.

Judith had an idea that Vice might involve sex, but nothing in her experiences with Ephraim gave her any idea why this might be something to pursue. She'd filed this away as a piece of useless information, devoting her energy instead into devising ruses for leaving the dormitory unquestioned. During the two years she had resided with the other wives, she had come up with a large number of these and was careful never to use any one too often.

Dinah motioned Judith to a chair, then closed the door.

"Power surge following transit into N-space," Dinah said. "How useful is that?"

Judith actually started to answer, so matter-of-factly was the question put to her. Then she realized what this meant.

"You can read!"

"My father was very elderly when I was born," Dinah said levelly, "and his eyesight was failing. He never cared for the restrictions of recordings, and had me taught to read so that I could read scripture to him. Later, when my meekness and piety caught Ephraim's eye, my father commanded me to forget what I had learned, for it was well-known that the Templetons saw no use for women's education. I, of course, obeyed, never disabusing my lord and master of his assumptions regarding me."

Judith knew that Dinah's family had been poor and not well-placed within the Masadan hierarchy. An alliance with the ambitious Templetons, especially one that also disposed of a useless daughter would have been worth a little lie.

"Did you know that I . . ." Judith asked, feeling every bit the child, all the confidence of her fourteen years fleeing.

"Could read?" Dinah set an audio recording of chanted scripture playing on her room's system. "I guessed. You were very careful, even when there were no men present. I commend you for that. Even so, there were times your gaze would rest over-long on some printed label or other bit of text. I was certain the day you saved little Uriel from harming himself.

Judith remembered the day quite clearly. Uriel had been a toddler when first she came to Ephraim's house. His mother, Raphaela, was great with child once more and chasing after the boy had been one of the many tasks bestowed on the Grayson captive.

Not able to transfer her hatred of Ephraim to any of his children, Judith's secret and her honor had warred against each other on the day that Uriel had reached for a brightly colored plug that superficially looked like any number of toys scattered about the nursery.

What it was, however, was a partially installed electrical system that a careless technician had not finished sealing.

For a moment that seemed far longer than it had been, Judith had stared at the chubby hand and the plug. Only the writing on the wiring revealed it for the danger it was. If she stopped Uriel, she might give away her secret.

The little hand had barely moved toward the apparent toy when Judith scooped Uriel away. Once she had soothed the screaming child, distracting him with an even more fascinating toy, Judith had returned to put the wires out of reach. Now that she thought back, Dinah had been present, but as the senior wife had made no comment, Judith had thought her too distracted by her own duties.

"That long," Judith said, and her inflection was a question.

"You were very careful," Dinah replied, "and Ephraim never noticed anything odd about you—except, perhaps, for wondering whether your apparent stupidity was a form of rebellion. I assured him that I thought not."

"You protected me," Judith said, almost accusingly. "Then and today. Why?"

"Then, today, and a dozen times since," Dinah answered. "Why? Because you were careful, because you were kind to those you had reason to hate, and because I pitied you. And for one reason more."

Dinah paused for so long that Judith thought she might not finish her thought.

"Yes?" the younger woman prompted.

"And," said Dinah, a strange light shining in her grey eyes, "because I thought you might somehow be the One prophesied, the Moses sent to lead us from this place and into a better life."

* * *

That Midshipman Winton was polite and dutiful to a fault, no matter how much work or how many practice sessions the ATO scheduled for him, didn't moderate Carlie's sense of unease regarding her royal charge.

Unless actually on duty, the young man was rarely without a cadre of hangers-on. Two of these—Astrid Heywood and Osgood Russo—had been transferred to Intransigent immediately after Michael's own assignment. The other three had already been assigned to the ship, but that didn't stop them from taking advantage of their proximity to the Crown Prince.

The presence of this cadre had split the middy berth into two groups, for the remaining six members seemed to go out of their way to avoid Midshipman Winton. To make matters worse, even ten days after the last member of the middy berth had reported for duty, Carlie was uncertain whether Michael did or did not encourage his followers. What she was certain of was that he did nothing to discourage them, and in her eyes that was just as bad.

Then there was the problem of Michael Winton's extra duties, duties that required him to spend a great deal of time consulting with the diplomatic contingent that was Intransigent's reason for heading to the Endicott System. Carlie didn't doubt that once the diplomats had Prince Michael behind closed doors they bowed and scraped to him in the most abject manner. Certainly, Michael seemed even more distant and self-contained whenever he returned from one of these meetings.

That Michael couldn't take his toadies with him to these diplomatic sessions was one of the few good things about them, Carlie thought, but they served even more than his little cadre to emphasize that Michael Winton was someone apart from the rest of the middy berth. Hell, from the rest of Intransigent's crew.

How different Michael Winton was had been reinforced at Captain Boniece's latest dinner. As was the practice of some of the Navy's better captains, Boniece periodically invited various of his officers to dine with him. On this particular night, both Carlie and Michael had been included, and Carlie kept a sharp—though she hoped not too obvious—eye on her charge.

The evening went smoothly, Midshipman Winton not speaking unless spoken to, but offering intelligent answers to those questions put to him. Carlie had even begun to think that maybe Michael wasn't as stuck-up as she had believed.

Then came the conclusion of the meal, and wine was poured for the traditional toast to the Queen. As the junior officer present, the duty fell on Midshipman Winton.

He needed no prompting. Nor did Carlie expect him to need such. Carlie had shared stories with many officers of her acquaintance, and all agreed that this stepping forth into the limelight in the presence of those who were for the first time your peers rather than those august others known as Officers was a landmark occasion in a career.

Raising his glass to just the right level, Michael Winton said in a clear, carrying voice: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Queen!"

"The Queen!" came the affirmation.

Carlie had sipped from her glass, using the action to cover a glance at her charge. Michael Winton had settled back into his seat, but he wasn't drinking the captain's excellent wine. Instead he was—Carlie was certain of it—he was smirking.

Lieutenant Carlotta Dunsinane, loyal officer of the Navy and therefore to the Queen it served, was shocked to the core. Her shock must have shown in her expression because the Intransigent's communications officer, Tab Tilson, leaned toward her.

"Are you feeling all right, Carlie?"

"Fine," she managed. "Just got a little wine down the wrong pipe."

Tab nodded, reassured, and turned to answer a question put to him by Captain Boniece. When Carlie again turned her gaze to Mr. Winton, the prince was politely talking to his near neighbor, his expression as correct as it had been all evening.

But Carlie knew what she had seen, and again doubted to the depths of her heart whether this prince could ever humble himself from his position of power and privilege to embrace the life of service that was at the heart and soul of what it meant to be a true naval officer.

* * *

Michael didn't know if he was going to survive this middy cruise. It wasn't just the workload, though he had done a quiet survey of his own as compared to his fellows and knew that it wasn't just his imagination that Lieutenant Dunsinane heaped more on him than on any of the other eleven middies.

It wasn't that about half of his ostensible free time was taken up by the diplomatic corps briefings, briefings that—to him—seemed unnecessary, since his job was to be seen but, as Lawler stated over and over again, definitely not heard.

It was the isolation that was killing him.

Michael had lived for fifteen days now crowded into a berth furnished with six double bunks, each bunk furnished with its tenant, and he had yet to have a decent conversation with anyone—not even with several people who, on Saganami Island, he would have called friends.

Michael wasn't a fool. He'd even expected something like this. It took time for people to get used to the idea that they were rooming with someone who, if he talked about his sister, was talking about the Queen. Michael and his first roommate at Saganami Island had been stiff and formal strangers for a few weeks, but eventually Sam had become comfortable enough with the idea of rooming with royalty that Michael hadn't felt like he was letting the Crown down by walking around in his underwear.

He and Sam had never become buddies, but they had become solid acquaintances. Maybe helped by a bit of distance, Michael had made his best friends among those who didn't have to share living quarters with him. Foremost among these had been Todd Liatt, who had bridged that final gap to become Michael's roommate later on.

What wouldn't Michael give to have Toad-breath here now! That psychic radar of Todd's would pin down why it was that Lieutenant Dunsinane never looked at Michael without her expression turning stiff as an armorplast bulkhead. But Todd wasn't here and Michael didn't want to think what Lieutenant Dunsinane would think of him if she caught him looking at her public record. It was pretty clear she didn't think much of him already.

Michael could have kicked himself up one side of the hull and around the other when he saw the ATO's expression there at Captain Boniece's dinner party. He'd been feeling so good about getting through that toast that he'd slipped, remembering how Beth had teased him regarding that very earth-shattering event while he was on his last leave.

"And don't forget you'll have to toast the Queen," she had said primly one morning over a very informal breakfast. "You're my officer now, you know."

Michael had seen an irresistible opportunity.

"Let me practice, Your Majesty," he'd said, and rising to his feet he'd picked up the entire plate of freshly toasted bread slices and up-ended them over her head.

Beth had shrieked like they were both kids again, and started throwing toast at him, her treecat Ariel joining the game with pinpoint enthusiasm. The sound had pulled Justin out of his drowsy perusal of the morning newsfax, and brought Queen Mother Angelique into the room at an undignified run.

The memory of Beth's reaction had brought a smile to Michael's lips, a smile he had instantly tried to suppress lest he be seen as irreverent at this most solemn occasion. Unhappily, he'd caught his own expression in a polished serving dish and knew the squelched smile looked worse than any open grin would have done.

He'd longed to talk to Lieutenant Dunsinane, to explain what had happened, but he couldn't seem to find an opening. Talking to the ATO was much harder than talking to the dean. Commander Shrake at least seemed to think Michael was a person. Lieutenant Dunsinane couldn't seem to see past the prince and everything Michael did only made her more formal and severe.

Michael knew he couldn't ask someone else to talk to her, though he was tempted to ask Lieutenant Tilson, the communications' chief. Whenever they met, the com officer seemed quite businesslike, as if he believed Michael was more interested in learning his duties than in reminding people he was the Queen's little brother.

But though Michael's nascent specialization in communications placed him frequently in Lieutenant Tilson's sphere, Michael couldn't talk to Tilson about his problems with Lieutenant Dunsinane. It wouldn't be right. Michael possessed a Winton's fierce loyalty and he wouldn't undermine the officer responsible for supervising the middy berth, even if Lieutenant Dunsinane had misjudged him.

Lieutenant Dunsinane wasn't the worst of Michael's problems. He hoped that if he worked hard enough, he might win her over. What really troubled him were the five middies who, despite everything Michael did to gently dissuade them, hung around him like a self-appointed honor guard.

Soon after the middy berth was fully assembled, Michael learned that the leaders of this corps were also newly reassigned to Intransigent. It didn't take Michael's lifelong immersion in politics to realize that the pair had gotten posted to Intransigent precisely for the proximity that would give them to the Crown Prince.

Astrid Heywood was a scion of one of Manticore's more powerful noble houses, the Honorable Astrid in civilian life. She was a pretty young woman, honey-blond, with enormous long-lashed blue eyes. Her slightly too regular features suggested that her attractiveness had been helped along with various cosmetic enhancements, but Michael doubted that most men his age would look beyond the melting glances Astrid kept casting in his direction to notice.

Astrid's mother, Baroness White Springs, sat in Lords where she was an increasingly vocal speaker for the Independents. Unlike the Crown Loyalists, each Independent supported Crown policy more flexibly. Michael didn't know how Baroness White Springs would react if her daughter was openly rebuked by the Queen's brother, but he didn't think it would be good. The Heywood family had to have put out a good amount in favors or bribes to get Astrid moved onto Intransigent at such short notice, and Michael suspected the baroness expected a solid return on her investment.

That calculating use by mother of daughter might have made Michael pity Astrid, except for something that had become all too apparent during the days Astrid had been trailing him. Despite her intelligence and willingness to work hard—traits proven by her completing Saganami Island—Astrid was one of those impossible members of the Manticoran nobility who really did believe that an accident of birth made her better than anyone else. Astrid didn't see Michael's attempts to avoid her as anything other than a fellow dodging the awkward attentions of a pretty girl, simply because it didn't occur to her that anyone would want to avoid her. Moreover, despite the logical twisting involved in such thinking, Astrid's already good opinion of herself was enhanced by the fact that she now shared a berth with the Crown Prince.

Osgood "Ozzie" Russo was a more subtle character, though one would never guess it on initially meeting this bright-eyed, laughing imp. His family was connected to the incredibly rich Hauptman cartel, and Michael was certain that Ozzie's transfer had been bought outright. Whether the purchase price had been in bribes or in concessions for supplies needed by the rapidly expanding Navy, Michael had no idea, nor did he really care—except to hope that the Navy proper rather than some corrupt individual over in BuPersonnel had benefitted.

Not surprisingly, given his family interests, Ozzie was specializing in Supply. Logistically, he was brilliant, able to glance at a complicated schematic and reduce it to its component parts before Michael had finished reading the headers. Although Supply was outside the line of command, and thus often discounted by ambitious sorts, Michael was enough of a history buff to realize that many battles had been won or lost even before they were joined due to logistical considerations.

The problem with Ozzie was that he apparently saw Michael as another resource to be cultivated for the future benefit of himself and his family—and he figured Michael should see him in the same light. Michael didn't like this one bit, but although Ozzie was not ostensibly connected to anyone in politics, money could be used as easily as aristocratic connections to obstruct the Queen and her policies, so Michael made certain not to alienate Ozzie, while quietly fuming beneath the other's fawning attention.

What united Astrid and Ozzie was a sense of superiority over their fellows, though ironically Michael was fairly certain that each privately thought little of the other. Like a lodestone attracting iron filings, these two had drawn the more amorally ambitious middies toward them. In doing so they had pushed away what Michael, at least, saw as the better elements of the middy berth, those who wanted to earn their rank on their own merit, not because of whom they knew.

Not wishing to be seen in the same light as Astrid and Ozzie—neither by Michael nor by the rest of the ship's officers—six of the middies hardly spoke to Michael. That two of these, Sally Pike and Kareem Jones, had been among Michael's circle of friendly acquaintances at Saganami Island, made this ostracization confusing as well as painful.

But there was nothing Michael could say to them that wouldn't make the situation worse, so he hauled his way through his day, wondering if what he was feeling was anything like what he'd heard about the isolation of command.

* * *

At fourteen, after several very intensive sessions with Dinah—sessions that were represented to a pleased Ephraim as preparing Judith to resume her childbearing duties—Judith had been initiated into the very small, highly secret, and slightly mystical Sisterhood of Barbara.

The Sisterhood took its inspiration from Barbara Bancroft, the woman who had foiled the Masadan plot to destroy all life on Grayson following the failure of their attempt to seize control of it. Even before she was captured by Ephraim, Judith had heard of Barbara, for on Grayson she was revered as the planet's savior. The Barbara of whom Judith heard from the Faithful was a completely different person: evil, conniving, traitorous, faithless, and blasphemous.

Indeed, the Faithful's version of Barbara Bancroft was so horrendous that initially Judith wondered that the Sisterhood had taken "this Harlot of Satan" as their patron. After a few secret meetings with Dinah and her cell, Judith understood that it was precisely because Barbara was so vilified that these brave Masadan women named themselves for her. However else Barbara Bancroft was represented by the Masadans, the one thing the Faithful could not say of her was that she was cowardly. Moreover, Barbara had won in her battle against Masadan tyranny. She had paid a terrifying price for that victory, but she had won.

The Sisterhood had two goals. The first was to educate and, when possible, to protect other women. That protection was granted to any woman, but the educational benefits were only extended to those women who had been tried and found perfectly trustworthy. Maintaining secrecy was made easier in that any woman who so much as learned to read a few simple lines or do more complex mathematics than could be worked out by counting on fingers was considered suspect by the Elders of the Faithful.

Tales of the punishments doled out to those who had transgressed were told in the nursery, repeated in sermons, and reinforced in a hundred little ways. There was even a sub-set of the Faithful who viewed these simple arts as the first step down the slippery slope to technological corruption. These, known as the Pure in Faith, refused to have even their men learn to read or write. As a result, the Pure lived in isolated enclaves and had little to do with the rest of the Faithful—other than providing some of the most ferocious and unquestioning soldiers.

Such indoctrination made it highly unlikely that any Masadan woman who took the daring step of joining the Sisterhood would betray her Sisters later. Indeed, that irrevocable loss of intellectual virginity drew the women closer to each other, bound by their awareness of the penalties all would share—even one who might later regret her learning and report the rest.

Judith rapidly discovered that the Sisterhood did more than teach forbidden arts and knowledge. The Sisters were also trained in dissembling so that the accidental revelation of their knowledge—even by something as casual as being seen to read a printed label—could not betray them.

But these were all elements of the first of the Sisterhood's missions. The second of the Sisterhood's goals was far more daring, perhaps impossible, for the Sisterhood hoped to someday lead an Exodus that would set the Sisters free from domination by their masters.

No matter how hard the Faithful tried to keep knowledge of the outer universe from their women, the truth had filtered in—often hinted at in the very restrictions and rulings the men enforced upon their women. The Sisters knew that somewhere beyond the reach of Masada's sun were worlds where women were not regarded as property. There were worlds where women were permitted to read, write, and think; worlds where, so the most daring among them whispered, women were even permitted to live without male protectors.

From the day Ephraim had dragged the shocked and traumatized Grayson ten-year-old into the nursery, Dinah had dreamed that Judith might be the promised Moses who would lead the Sisterhood to freedom. Nor had the girl disappointed the older woman's hopes. From the start Judith had demonstrated both education and self-control—and the intelligence to hide both. Her innocent anecdotes about the life she had left, mostly told before she realized how dangerous they were, had confirmed the Sisterhood's most sacred hopes and dreams.

Thus Judith, while believing herself alone, had been cocooned within the watchful web of the senior Sisters. They had not dared draw her into their secret, not until they saw if Judith would, like so many women, perversely fasten onto her tormentor, envisioning him as a hero who had the right to treat her as a mere thing. Four years of brutal testing, two of those after Judith was married to a man who had set his seal on ostensibly stronger souls, were allowed to pass before Dinah confronted Judith and drew her into the Sisterhood.

Now, two years after Judith's initiation, faced with Ephraim's plans to abort her unborn daughter, confronting a future marked by similar abuse, Judith accepted the mantle the Sisterhood had set upon her shoulders. She would be their Moses, and, though hearing no divine voice to guide her actions, she decreed that the time for the Sisterhood's Exodus had come.

* * *

Although he understood the reasons, Michael still found the wholly male diplomatic corps bound for Endicott rather odd. Every political meeting he had attended since his father's death had been dominated by Beth. Even when Beth had been a minor, her regent had been their aunt Caitrin, the Grand Duchess Winton-Henke. This all male group was positively weird.

Then again, maybe the fact that gender and availability, rather than pure ability, had been key elements in selecting this group was why it was so peculiar. There was also the fact that much of the Manticoran diplomatic corps felt that its first task was preserving peace rather than preparing for war. Many of the best and the brightest among them were employing their energies trying to figure out how to work with the Peeps. Doubtless the Masadan mission was not an assignment those would seek.

Perhaps, too, the reality that Masada was not the Queen's first choice for an ally in this region of space had something to do with those who had volunteered. Those diplomats, like Sir Anthony Langtry, more of Her Majesty's way of thinking and ready to embrace the possibility that war could not be prevented would be striving to win over the Graysons.

The men who had volunteered for the Masadan mission were eager for any chance to prove themselves—as they most surely would if they could win the misogynistic and egocentric Faithful over to an alliance.

Forbes Lawler, a first generation prolong recipient and former member of the House of Commons, was the head of the group. Handsome, with iron grey hair, and a lean, athletic build, Lawler spoke in a straight-at-them, square-jawed fashion that reminded Michael of his first gym teacher. Although Lawler never said so directly, he clearly hoped that in addition to bringing new instructions he would soon be replacing the current ambassador.

Quentin Cayen served as Lawler's personal assistant. Young enough to be a second-generation prolong recipient, Cayen tinted his hair silver at the temples and affected reading glasses in an attempt to bring gravity to his otherwise boyishly plump features. Michael thought Cayen looked rather silly, but since Cayen was otherwise competent, and eager to please without being offensive, the midshipman tried to overlook the other man's cosmetic enhancements.

The last member of the delegation, John Hill, was ostensibly a computer specialist. He was very knowledgeable about the Masadans, including being familiar with the Faithful's religious rituals and dietary restrictions. Hill was pretty clearly a spy, but Michael thought he might well be the most competent member of the trio.

On the day Intransigent entered the Endicott System, Michael was working in the almost empty middy berth when a memo requesting his attendance at a final planning session came from Lawler. Since Michael had a mess of homework—it might be called other things, but it still felt like homework—he wasn't terribly pleased. However, he knew his duty and reluctantly put aside the fusion repair sim he'd been assigned by the chief engineer herself.

"Where are you going, Michael?" Astrid asked, setting her own reader aside, apparently prepared to accompany him.

"Mr. Lawler wants me," Michael replied.

"Oh," Astrid said, disappointed, and turned back to her work.

Michael, who had the vague feeling that Astrid had been trying to get him alone for several days now, saw Sally Pike smirking, and thought he might be right. Relieved, he grabbed a few things, waved a vague farewell, and got out of there before Ozzie or one of the other hangers-on could decide to walk him to the diplomats' suite.

When Michael arrived, Lawler was pacing back and forth, barely containing his excitement.

"A notice just came from the bridge," he said, thrusting hard copy into Michael's hand. "There is at least one Peep ship in system."

"Doesn't the People's Republic have an embassy here, just like we do?" Michael asked.

"They do," Lawler agreed. "However, an embassy is no reason for the Peeps to station a heavy cruiser here, is it?"

Michael felt his eyebrows shoot toward his hairline. Intransigent was a light cruiser, and Beth had considered sending her on a diplomatic mission a rather heavy-handed move. Apparently, the Peeps were less subtle.

"It's the Moscow, Prince Michael," John Hill added. "Not one of their newest models, but not one of the oldest either."

"Has she been here long?" Michael asked, feeling odd, as he always did after existing within the Navy's rigid command structure, to be back among those who subtly deferred to him.

"Not long enough to state that Moscow is stationed here," Hill replied, with the vaguely exasperated note in his voice that Michael had learned was reserved for correcting Lawler's more extreme statements. "Nor would I say that Moscow was sent in anticipation of our own arrival, though that isn't impossible. Mr. Lawler's coming with new instructions has not precisely been kept a secret."

There was no real reason Lawler's arrival should have been, Michael knew, but he had a feeling that Hill was the type of man who kept secrets by reflex. Hill probably thought it would be a breach of basic security if he knew the color of his own socks.

"Ambassador Faldo is most impatient for our arrival," Lawler interjected happily, "but Captain Boniece tells me we cannot be shuttled planetside until tomorrow morning. That leaves us ample time to review."

For the next several hours, Michael tried not to think wistfully of the engineering sim he hadn't completed, nor about the trauma team drill Surgeon Commander Rink had promised to run for the middies. When the twittering of the com broke into Lawler's nearly uninterrupted lecture, Michael realized he'd been all but dozing.

"Ambassador Faldo wishes to speak with you and your shore party," the duty communications officer announced. "If you are free."

Lawler smothered a look of mild annoyance, then nodded.

"Please patch the Ambassador through."

"Just a moment, Mr. Lawler."

Cayen had leapt to his feet the moment the com chimed and, by the time the call came through, he had modified the desk unit so that the ambassador's face was projected on one of the cabin's bulkheads, sparing them the need to crowd around a terminal.

Ambassador Faldo, like Mr. Lawler, was a first-generation prolong recipient. Unlike Lawler, who managed to project incredible vigor, Faldo looked tired. His hair had apparently once been blond, but had now faded to a muddy gray with just enough of the original color left to make him appear molting. His eyes, sunk beneath puffy lids, were a washed-out brown, but their gaze remained direct and penetrating.

"The reaction," the ambassador began after minimal polite greetings had been exchanged, "to the presence of Prince Michael aboard Intransigent has been—to speak mildly—beyond my greatest expectations. Not only has the Chief Elder expressed a desire to meet Mr. Winton, but the Senior Elders are to be included in the reception. In fact, as far as I can tell, everyone who is anyone as well as everyone who wants to be thought anyone is attending some enormous conclave of Elders that the Faithful have 'coincidentally' announced will be happening at this time."

"That's wonderful, Sir," Lawler said.

"I suppose so," Faldo agreed. "However, it means I want to move up the time for our meeting tomorrow. We're to join the Chief Elder at precisely noon, and I want time to prepare for such an important event. The Chief Elder has honored us by putting at our disposal a meeting room at the Hall of the Just."

Doesn't want us talking where he can't try to overhear us, Michael wondered with inbred cynicism. Probably. He knows that'll mean Faldo won't be able to give me too detailed a list of do's and don'ts. Maybe figures he'll be able to trip me up somehow. 

Michael listened attentively as plans for the next day's meeting were made, but nothing more significant was said, doubtless because of fear that either the Peeps or the Masadans would hear something they shouldn't. Tight-beam communications were good, but as a communications officer Michael knew all too many ways their security measures could be circumvented.

After the connection had been cut, Lawler resumed pacing, rubbing his hands together with vigorous enthusiasm.

"Well, that's very interesting, very interesting . . ." he was beginning, but Hill interrupted.

"It is indeed," he said. "There have been some rumblings of discontent regarding how Chief Elder Simonds has been making policy. I wonder if this is his way of demonstrating to his own people how integral he is, and of convincing them that they do not want another leader."

"Mountain coming to Mohammed, and like that," Lawler said. "Yes. Well, we can let him play his games."

"In all deference, Sir," Hill replied, not sounding deferential at all, "I wouldn't use that particular analogy. The Faithful have rejected even the New Testament of the Christian bible. They view the Islamic faith—if they recall it at all—as a heresy."

Lawler looked momentarily nonplussed. Then he resumed his hand-rubbing.

"Right! That's why these briefings are so important. We don't want to make any mistakes."

Michael raised one hand, feeling more than ever that he was in school.

"Mr. Lawler, I really should report this change in schedule to Lieutenant Dunsinane."

Lawler waved his hand in a wide, breezy gesture.

"Do so, Mr. Winton. I shall write her myself requesting that you be freed from your more routine shipboard duties during this crucial moment in Manticoran diplomacy."

As Michael moved to com the ATO, he found himself wondering precisely what tomorrow would bring and hoping against hope that it would not include a very pissed-off Lieutenant Dunsinane.

* * *

Carlie looked at the memo from Mr. Lawler first with disbelief, then with anger. She continued staring at it for so long that at last the two emotions blended into a generalized confusion.

" . . . requests that Mister Midshipman Winton be relieved from a portion of his shipboard duties in order to be better able to serve the needs of Her Royal Majesty at this crucial diplomatic juncture."

There was more of the same, all soothing, all vaguely pompous, and all boiling down to what had already been clearly said in that first line. Midshipman Winton was being given a holiday from his responsibilities as a member of Intransigent's crew so that he could go play prince.

She'd known that Michael would be going down to the planet with Mr. Lawler's contingent, but she hadn't considered that Mr. Lawler would be so bold as to think that a midshipman's shipboard responsibilities could be superseded by anything else. She'd figured that Midshipman Winton would fit his trips planetside into his free time. He'd managed his numerous meetings with Lawler and company then, hadn't he?

Her first reaction was to refuse. Then she thought again about that phrase "crucial diplomatic juncture." It was no secret that there had been a Peep presence in system. The Havenites weren't being either coy or subtle. The fact that the Peeps—like the Manticorans—were demonstrating an armed presence indicated their own awareness of how touchy the situation was.

Could the presence of Crown Prince Michael make a difference in how the Masadans felt about the Manticorans? Would she be doing something foolish if she stuck to regulations? Reluctantly, for she very much wanted to go by The Book, Carlie commed Captain Boniece and was granted his first available appointment.

Tab Tilson gave her a lazy wave as he exited the captain's briefing room, and Carlie had a moment to wonder if the communications officer was also present on Michael Winton's business. Then she was summoned into the captain's presence.

"Yes, Lieutenant?" Abelard Boniece looked amused as he motioned her to a seat. "Your call said you needed to consult me regarding Mr. Winton. I have read the memo you copied to me. You may proceed from that point."

Carlie could have far more easily handled the captain's looking stern or even angry than she could the twinkle in his eye, but she straightened herself in her chair and tried to report as if in the middle of a battle.

"Yes, Sir. Frankly, I don't know what to do. This is Mr. Winton's midshipman's cruise. I feel that the distraction of playing diplomat has not been good for him."

Captain Boniece merely raised an eyebrow and Carlie hastened to explain.

"I knew from the start, Sir, that Mr. Winton was going to have these distractions. However, to this point they have been secondary to his shipboard responsibilities. Mr. Lawler is, effectively, requesting that we give them precedence."

"That is exactly what he's doing," Captain Boniece agreed. "Moreover, his request is not precisely out of line with what we were told to expect from the moment Intransigent was diverted to Masada."

"I suppose not, Sir," Carlie admitted grudgingly.

Captain Boniece met her gaze squarely, any hint of amusement gone from his expression.

"Have you been dissatisfied with how Mr. Winton is conducting himself, Lieutenant?"

"Not really, Skipper. He does his duties, but he doesn't seem much like the other middies."

"Perhaps," Boniece replied, "because Mr. Winton is not like any other snotty—not on Intransigent, nor on any other ship in Her Majesty's navy."

Carlie's eyes widened. The term was openly, sometimes even affectionately, applied to middies, but as far as she could recall, it was the first time she had heard it applied to Intransigent's berth.

Captain Boniece seemed to think he had made a point of some sort, for his smile momentarily returned before he continued his train of thought.

"Even as you have been observing Mr. Winton," he said, "I have been observing you, Lieutenant. It seems to me that you're trying to make Michael Winton into just one of everyone else. What you must understand is that even if he serves in the Navy for a hundred years, Michael Winton will never be just like anyone else. Even if Queen Elizabeth has twenty children, Michael will always be her only brother. I want you to accept this and work with it. That's an order."

"Yes, Captain."

The snap in his tone was such that Carlie started to rise and salute, believing herself dismissed, but Captain Boniece motioned for her to remain.

"I want you to think about something else, Carlie," he said. "Not only is Mr. Winton unlike everyone else with whom he serves—so is every member of this crew different from every other."

Carlie blinked at him, too startled to manage even a routine "Yes, Sir."

"Have you ever wondered, Lieutenant Dunsinane," Boniece continued, "why the assistant tactical officer is put in charge of the middy berth? After all, what do a dozen or so snotties have to do with planning an attack or defense, deciding whether to roll the ship or fire from all ports?"

"Yes, Skipper," Carlie said, too confused now to be indirect. "Honestly, I have."

"Tactics," Boniece went on, "is the most direct track to command, and a commander needs to learn to work with the most important asset the ship possesses—the crew. Unlike energy batteries or missile tubes, crews don't come with neat specs listing limitations and advantages. Crews are unpredictable, annoying, surprising, and astonishing."

Carlie, beginning to understand now, was feeling like a complete idiot. Boniece, however, wasn't done with drumming his lesson home.

"If you win your white beret, you're going to need to deal with every variation of human temperament. You're going to need to learn the way to get the best out of each one. Sometimes that's going to mean preferring someone who seems too junior to merit preferment. Sometimes that's going to mean passing up someone who, by The Book, has every advantage going for him. Once the ship leaves base, there's no supply room with spare crew members. You need to train your crew for diversity and flexibility—and contrariwise, you need to train them for perfect expertise in their departments."

Carlie nodded.

"I think that I haven't been treating my snotties," she grinned as she said the formerly tabooed word, "as they deserve. I'll remember that, Sir. And now that you mention it, Mr. Winton has been drawing rather more than the usual workload. I believe he can miss a few hours here and there. I would, however, like him to report back to the ship to sleep."

Captain Boniece cocked an eyebrow at her.

"I don't think Mr. Winton will forget where his duty lies," Carlie explained. "However, I suspect that Mr. Lawler might. I'd like to make certain that Mr. Winton has at least a good night's sleep."

"I support you on that, Lieutenant," the Captain said. "Now, tell Mr. Winton to get ready to go planetside, and remind him that we expect him to do the Navy proud."

* * *

Judith had reasons other than her own crisis to set the Sisterhood's Exodus in motion.

From tapping into Ephraim's private communications channels, she had learned that envoys from other star nations regularly visited Masada. She had also learned that some of those envoys—specifically those from an enchantingly named place called the People's Republic of Haven—sought to win Ephraim's support in the Counsel of Elders with more than mere words.

Two of the vessels in Ephraim's privateer fleet, Psalms and Proverbs, had been offered technological modifications. Much of what the Havenite engineers did to the two ships merely improved their eyes and ears, but at Ephraim's insistence, their teeth had been sharpened as well. Since the Havenites were eager to show how useful they could be as allies they had agreed with few hesitations.

The modifications to both Psalms and Proverbs were carefully installed, so that the alterations were not evident in a routine external scan. Ephraim said this was because neither the Council of Elders nor the Havenites wanted anyone to detect the work and think ill of the acceptance of advanced technology. However, such care had been taken to conceal the modifications that Judith fleetingly wondered if the Havenites might suspect the dual use to which Ephraim turned his vessels.

In time Aaron's Rod would also be modified. It said something about Ephraim's essentially conservative nature that he had chosen to have ships other than his little fleet's flag undergo the modifications first. As with many other captains and their ships, Aaron's Rod was an extension of Ephraim's self and ego, and he did not wish that other self to be tampered with until he saw the results on others.

Judith feared that such extensive changes to Aaron's Rod's systems could mean delaying the Sisterhood's escape until she could learn how to use these new devices and then train her Sisters. All of the women were without question brave, but—as could only be expected given their Masadan upbringing—all but a few tended to follow Judith's instructions by rote rather than with any intellectual comprehension of the tasks she set them.

There were exceptions. In the early years of their marriage, Ephraim had taken Dinah on his voyages, and she, like Judith, had striven to learn something about the various departments. Dinah's actual skills were woefully outdated, but at least she understood the concept of three-dimensional astrogation and tactics. Many of the Sisters persisted, no matter how carefully Judith explained, in visualizing their ship as sailing over a flat surface.

Dinah thus became gunnery officer and XO to Judith's captain. Dinah's eldest daughter, Mahalia, a widow who had been returned to her father's house after the death of her husband, was put in charge of Engineering. Ephraim's third wife, Rena, mother of many children, was head of Damage Control.

Naomi, the second wife of Gideon, was put in charge of the passengers—for Judith and Dinah were determined to take as many of the Sisters with them as they could manage. Indeed, removing the Sisters from Masada was the entire reason for this venture. The leaders were all too aware that there would be no second chance, and that those Sisters who were left behind would be intensively and painfully interrogated if their connection to the rebels was in the least suspected.

Judith knew nothing of the specific escape plans for the majority of the Sisters. That stage of the process was in Dinah's hands. Judith did know that there were multiple plans for each Sister, and that in most households only one or two women at most needed to slip away. Ephraim's household was extraordinary in its concentrated membership in the Sisterhood, but that was hardly surprising given that it was Dinah's household and Dinah was the Sisterhood's head.

Escape for Judith herself was comparatively close at hand. Along with Mahalia and Rena, she was to take the cargo shuttle, Flower. If they failed, the rest of the program would not even be put into motion, for without Flower they could not reach Aaron's Rod.

Judith was woefully aware how few trained people she had to crew Aaron's Rod—assuming the Sisters would even manage to get aboard the ship, subdue its caretaker crew, and get it out of orbit. However, the ship's computer contained numerous preprogrammed routines, and each of Judith's department heads had several assistants. Those assistants at least understood how to get the most out of what the computer could offer.

Judith was mulling over her options for alternate crew assignments—all her information memorized, for the first rule of the Sisterhood was to leave as few written records as possible—when Dinah signaled for her to join her among the noisy children in the nursery.

The older woman's eyes were shining with barely suppressed excitement.

"I believe God is parting the Red Sea for us," she said softly. Then she spoke in more usual tones. "I have just come from Ephraim. He summoned me to give orders for what is to be done during his forthcoming absence."

Despite Dinah's initial words, Judith's heart sank. Was Ephraim preparing to take Aaron's Rod out on another voyage?

"Absence?" she managed.

"Yes," Dinah said. "A delegation has arrived from one of the star nations—the one ruled by a queen."

Now Judith understood that light in the older woman's eyes. Judith had always favored the People's Republic of Haven as their potential sanctuary, both for its name and for the marvelous way it had declared itself the protector of the weak and the oppressed. Dinah, however, preferred the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

Dinah's preference wasn't only because the Star Kingdom was ruled by a queen—though that did make a difference to her. Dinah reasoned, rather cynically to Judith's way of thinking, that any nation that spent as much time talking about how it defended the oppressed as the People's Republic did probably had something to hide.

"Honestly, child," Dinah had said a trace impatiently one day. "Look at our own men and how they go on about loving God and doing his Will and battling the Apostate. We know that few of them love God as much as they love their own honor and position.

"Ephraim may say he wants to build and train his fleet so that he can be in the forefront when the battle against the Apostate comes, but he certainly doesn't mind the benefits he has garnered in the meantime. You wouldn't recall the day he was elected into the Council of Elders, but Satan in all His peacock majesty never was prouder. Was that honor enough? No, now Ephraim's trying to be promoted to Senior Elder—and him not even three score years."

Judith had agreed that Dinah had a point, but she found the monstrous creatures that adorned the Manticoran heraldry frightening and disturbing. She also didn't much like the idea of a ruling nobility. It sounded far too much like the hierarchy on Masada.

Dinah had another, more telling point, to offer.

"And why, if this People's Republic of Haven is so willing to respect other people's rights, why are they improving Ephraim's ships for him—even to their fighting capacities? I might believe they were motivated by simple altruism, but for how easily he swayed them to his way of thinking when it came to weapons."

Judith had to admit Dinah's argument had weight, but she also knew how persuasive Ephraim could be. In any case, it didn't matter whether she or Dinah were right. The Sisterhood had agreed to let God guide the path of their escape, and the arrival of the Manticoran vessel at the very time the Sisterhood was setting Exodus into motion did seem like an omen of His intent.

"Why would the coming of a Manticoran vessel mean Ephraim must leave home?" Judith asked.

"The Manticorans have sent someone very important to meet the Council," Dinah said, and though her voice was respectful, her eyes gleamed with mischief. "It seems that all these years we have been foolish in believing that such a powerful kingdom could be ruled by a weak woman. It seems that there is a prince who actually holds the reins, though he was but a child when his father died and so the Queen was crowned in his stead. Now a grown man, this prince has come here himself to meet with our Elders."

"And none of the Elders will miss such an important occasion," Judith said, her heart pounding with excitement.

"None," Dinah agreed. "Ephraim has ordered Gideon and his other sons to accompany him."

"Many other households will do the same," Judith said, "for is it not true that a man's strength is in his sons?"

"There's even more," Dinah said. "A well-informed source tells me that the Navy is pulling out for maneuvers."

"They aren't worried about a Manticoran attack?"

"Not in the least. Manticore wants allies, not another system to administer. The Navy, however, does not want the Manticorans to get too close a look at what we have."

Judith, thinking of the modifications that had been worked on Psalms and Proverbs wondered if some similar tinkering might have been done to a few of the fleet vessels—just enough to whet the Admiralty's taste for what the People's Republic could offer, perhaps. She could see why they wouldn't want to show their hand without reason.

"God truly is with us," Judith breathed. "Surely we can escape from a few patrol boats."

They smiled at each other. It did seem that God had parted the Red Sea for them, for in none of their plans had they dared anticipate such a removal of the Masadan men from their households.

Yet this would not make the success of Exodus certain. Many households would be secured more tightly in the absence of their masters. Many women would be forced to accompany their husbands, and so be prevented from escape. Then there was each step of the escape itself: the taking of the shuttle, the subduing of the caretaker crew, getting the ship from orbit and to hyper limit. Judith's head swam. However she had to admit that the omens were still too good to ignore.

The Sisters were committed to making the attempt, no matter the risks. Death was preferable to the life they would be leaving behind them. At last resort, Judith thought grimly, Aaron's Rod would make a spectacular funeral pyre. Perhaps some new Moses would be guided by the bright burning of that beacon and finally set her Sisters free.

* * *

Michael thought he was ready for anything. However, when Lieutenant Dunsinane told him that not only was he being relieved of some of his shipboard assignments so that he could accompany Mr. Lawler to the surface, but even smiled as she did so, he was so startled he nearly forgot to thank her.

"I've reviewed your work," Dunsinane went on when Michael finished stammering, a trace of her former severity returning, "and I see that you've kept up on your assignments. And don't thank me too fast. There's one limitation to your shore leave, Mr. Winton."

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Unless you are prevented by some serious impediment from doing so, you are required to return on-board each night in order to report."

"I will, Lieutenant," Michael promised. "According to Mr. Hill's briefings, the Faithful are very unlikely to schedule any meetings after the dinner hour. It violates one of their social customs. All I'd miss is Mr. Lawler's recap of events."

Dunsinane didn't quite grin, but Michael thought that the twitch at one side of her mouth might mean that she had detected the inadvertent note of relief that had entered his voice at the thought of avoiding a few of Mr. Lawler's exhaustive—and largely pointless—analysis sessions.

"I'm certain that Mr. Cayen would be happy to make a transcript for you," Lieutenant Dunsinane said so confidently that Michael had a sneaking suspicion that she had already arranged for this.

In fact, for the first time Michael had the feeling the ATO was working with him rather than against him, and he was determined not to be a disappointment.

* * *

One of Intransigent's pinnaces took them down to a major Masadan spaceport first thing in the morning. Intransigent was not being permitted a close parking orbit. Indeed, she was being kept so far from the planet proper that Michael wondered if the Masadans were nervous about the possibility of attack.

I guess, he thought, that a planet that's made a career out of attacking its closest neighbor would be nervous about getting similar treatment from its tougher neighbors. Maybe not, though. The Faithful really do seem to believe that God is on their side and nothing else makes much of a difference. Maybe they just figure they're keeping us out of sensor range. 

He smiled a bit at this last thought. If that were indeed the case, then the Faithful must not realize how sophisticated Intransigent's sensors were. They were more than capable enough to insure that everything going on in the immediate area was available to her crew. Only a sufficiently large mass—like the planet itself—would keep something hidden.

The pinnace came down at what Michael knew was the largest and most modern facility of its type on Masada. Numerous elements in its design and construction showed the concentration the Faithful had dedicated toward building their fleet. He knew from his briefings that their navy swallowed a staggeringly large amount of their gross planetary product. Despite all of this, to Manticoran eyes, the facility was rather primitive.

Nothing he saw at the spaceport prepared him for the City of God itself. The number of people on foot was staggering. Men and women alike were bundled against the harsh weather, walking with bent heads and resigned postures against a biting wind.

Vehicle traffic was minimal and seemed restricted to transport trucks. Indeed, their guide did not take them to a private vehicle, but instead directed them toward a stair leading to a dimly lit, rather forbidding tunnel.

"The Faithful," John Hill said in a neutral tour guide's tone, "do their best to prosper without undue technological interference. This means that even their most important men do not keep private vehicles in a city. Everyone uses mass transport."

"Right," said Lawler. "Forgot that for a moment."

When they had descended into the mass transit tunnels, Michael quickly realized that although all the Faithful might travel on the same rails, the accommodations were not equal. Women, clad from head to foot in all enveloping robes, their faces veiled so that only their modestly downcast eyes were visible at all, were further sequestered in private carriages. These, Michael saw, had very few seats. He supposed it was some sort of mortification for the flesh.

Women traveling with children were permitted seats so that they might hold their children safely strapped on their laps. Carriages for men were always equipped with seats. This, apparently, was to make it possible for them to read or work, for Michael spotted few heads that were not bent attentively over some text or other.

An idle mind is the devil's playground, he thought, swallowing a wry grin lest their humorless guide think he was mocking the train system. Isn't there a saying like that? 

He noticed that not all the carriages were equipped with equal degrees of luxury. The majority seemed to be furnished with simple benches of shaped plastic crowded tightly together, an aisle left down the middle. Some carriages, however, had padded seating, spaced further apart and aligned front to back. The carriage into which their guide waved them not only had padded seats, but curtained windows, and better lighting.

But then, Michael thought, the Faithful believe that temporal success is a reflection of God's favor. Therefore, if someone has earned the right to travel in style, that's not an indulgence, because God favors him and so would want him to travel better than his more sinful fellows. 

As he settled into his own comfortable seat, the padding subtly conforming to his body to absorb the worst of the shocks and jolts, Michael couldn't help but think of the women he'd seen crammed into the standing carriages. It had been hard to tell, what with the heavy robes and winter cloaks they all wore, but some of those women had walked as if they were pregnant. Surely that alone was sufficient mortification of the flesh!

The curtains were drawn as soon as they were aboard the carriage, but Michael managed to peek out and get some feeling for the various stations as they flashed by. There were no advertisements, at least not in the sense there were on aggressively capitalist Manticore. Here the posters and streamers exhorted the Faithful to remember their responsibilities to God, and to those whom God had appointed to lead them on the path of righteousness. Printed in red or green against black backgrounds, the texts shouted at the eye.

 

Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Psalms 1:4.

 

Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him. Psalms 2:12.

 

The memory of the just is blessed: but the name of the wicked shall rot. Proverbs 9:7.

 

The way of transgressors is hard. Proverbs 13:15.

 

Nor were these sayings repeated only once or twice. Michael counted the piece about transgressors at least twenty different times. He thought there had been more, but apparently their train had switched onto an express track. They gained speed, slowing less and less frequently until, with a great squealing of brakes and a bone-jarring jolt, they came to a halt in a brightly lit, cleanly tiled station.

"The Palace of the Just," their guide announced, a thrill of pride entering his voice. "Follow me."

Michael did so, finding himself sandwiched neatly between Lawler and Cayen, Hill bringing up the rear. The steps they climbed were carpeted, the handrails gilded. Soft droning chants, like the voices of depressed angels came from hidden speakers.

Their guide stopped before an enormous door barred in gold.

"Your ambassador will meet you within. You will be given some time to pray and prepare for your meeting with the Elders."

Without a further word, he turned away, and Michael couldn't help but feel he was eager to be away from the contamination of their very presence.

* * *

At the appointed time, Judith began her deception. The usual attire for a Masadan woman was a long robe that covered the wearer from head to foot. In public, a veil was also worn, though in the shelter of the women's quarters this was not deemed necessary in any but the strictest households.

The advantage of this was that disguise as other than a woman was very easy. No one glimpsing someone in trousers and tunic saw anything but a male. To make matters even easier, Masada's planetary climate in general was cold. Ephraim's holdings were in one of the northerly reaches. A bulky coat and boots, both of which added to the concealment of a female form and manner of moving, were routine.

Needless to say, this disguise would not work for every woman. Judith, naturally neat and small-figured, could pass for a young man even without the coat. Although she had borne two children, the widow Mahalia had nearly died from the same illness that had killed her husband. Her emaciated form and the doubt that she would ever bear healthy children again was why she had been returned to her father's house after her husband's death. Even after she had recovered from her illness, Mahalia remained gaunt, hardly feminine any longer.

Rena's figure was distinctly maternal, or would have been had she not been also quite fat. As it was, her size was such that—at least when in coat and trousers—she made a large and convincing man.

The first stage of their deception was cutting their hair to the shorter style favored by spacefaring men, and never worn by women. The danger involved in this simple act was tremendous, for the three of them would be marked out for notice, even if Exodus was called off. Dinah had come up with several excuses to explain the oddity, but Judith still felt a thrill of fear when she felt cool air against her bare neck.

Men's clothing wasn't a problem. Ephraim Templeton was well-off, but he firmly believed that idle hands were the devil's playground. Laundry, mending, cooking, as well as child-tending and other "feminine" tasks were handled in the women's quarters. Dinah had long been such a superlative manager that Ephraim hardly ever listened to the reports she recorded for him. Making several sets of men's clothing in appropriate sizes and styles had been easy for the resourceful head wife.

Judith and her allies had also practiced adopting a man's gait and mannerisms. It had been hard at first to step out in the fashion trousers demanded, but oddly enough, boots made it easier. Even more difficult had been learning to look up and to make casual eye contact, for such directness was considered slatternly, even by a veiled woman, and was avoided even in the women's quarters except among close friends.

However, Judith didn't really feel like a woman once she'd donned her man's clothing. Only her eyes, still striking with their green rimmed in darker hazel, looked familiar. Once she had donned the very special contact lenses Dinah had insisted each woman wear, not even the eyes that gazed outward from the mirror were her own.

Mahalia and Rena were equally transformed, and Judith felt a thrill of satisfaction. If the rest of Dinah's planning was as thorough, Exodus might indeed succeed.

Although the Sisters had been tempted to carry out their deception under the friendly cover of night, Dinah had vetoed that. The Faithful did not approve of frivolous entertainment. Unless there was a major religious festival, streets and businesses grew quiet at the conclusion of the business day. This meant that the Sisters would find it more difficult to leave their homes. Moreover, morals proctors were more likely to make random vehicle checks after nightfall.

Therefore, Judith, Mahalia, and Rena crossed the chilly grounds toward the Templeton business property beneath a sun that shone with harsh brightness while granting no comforting warmth.

Flower was berthed in a voluminous hangar that protected the vessel from snow and ice. The hangar was large enough to permit cargo to be loaded and unloaded under cover. An attached hangar held Blossom, a smaller vessel, better equipped to carry people and used for ship-to-shore trading missions.

Blossom would have been the Sister's first choice, for the personnel shuttle was smaller and easier to maneuver. However, even with its cargo bay open, they could not squeeze in all the members of the Sisterhood. Even with the capacity of the heavy-lift cargo shuttle, it would be a tight fit. In fact, Judith was half afraid that if all of the Sisters succeeded in reaching the shuttle, she would be unable to get them all aboard.

Not, she reminded herself grimly, that all the Sisters would reach them safely.

No one challenged them as they entered the hangar. Ephraim, jealous of keeping his wealth in the family, employed his sons as free labor and crew. His desire to bring an impressive entourage to the conclave meant that all but those sons least in favor were with him. This meant that in turn the nonfamily employees were being kept very busy handling unaccustomed duties—and Dinah had promised that various small catastrophes would keep these unfortunate souls quite distracted indeed.

"First," Judith said, keeping her voice very soft, "Flower."

Mahalia and Rena nodded. Judith thought Mahalia looked a bit pale, nor was she certain that the fanatic light that brightened Rena's eyes was any better. Then she caught her own reflection in a highly polished side panel. She looked scared stiff.

She grinned at that frightened young face, and her own fears vanished. This, after all, was the easy part.

The pass-code to open Flower's hatch was changed every sabbath, but Judith had found it easy to learn what the new one was. When Ephraim routinely copied the pass-code to those of his crew who might need to go aboard, unbeknownst to himself, he copied it to Judith as well.

There was no other security precaution in use here where Ephraim was secure. As soon as Judith pressed in "God hath made man upright; but they have sought many inventions," the hatch slid open, admitting them into a wide area lit only by stand-by lights.

Without further discussion, they went in three different directions: Mahalia to the small engine room; Rena to the cargo bay, and Judith to the cockpit.

She was running a standard systems check, trying to calm herself by imagining this was just another sim, when Mahalia signaled her on one of the small tight-beam communication units Dinah had somehow acquired for all of Exodus's most essential personnel.

"Isaac here. I have the engines warming," Mahalia reported, her voice very tight.

"Good. Meet me at the hatch in five," Judith said. "Routine check here will take me that long. I'll com Abraham to have cargo prepare for loading."

Dinah had insisted that they use code names, just in case some imp of Satan caused their communications to be overheard. Judith was Moses. Dinah was Abraham. Mahalia was Isaac, and so on. As a further precaution, the communication units transformed their voices into voices other than their own—and all selections were male.

Since Judith knew that Ephraim had several programs on Aaron's Rod that permitted him to display false images when contacting other vessels, she suspected that these communications units had been acquired to facilitate some similar ruse. It was all one to her. If they could turn Ephraim's pirate tools to the Sisterhood's good, it was a further sign that God approved of their cause.

Once Judith was certain Flower was in good running order and the systems warm-up was proceeding according to plan, she left the cockpit and joined Rena and Mahalia.

"Abraham says his sons are rising up to go into the Promised Land," she said, trying to sound confident. "We'd better deal with Blossom."

Judith had protested that she could disable the second shuttle herself, but Dinah had insisted that she take the others.

"They will have nothing to do but wait, as I understand it. In any case, you may need help."

A different code, "The dogs shall eat Jezebel," opened Blossom's hatch, and instantly Judith was grateful Dinah had insisted she bring help. Before them, lounging in the very comfortable seat that was reserved for Ephraim himself, sat a large fair man of arrogant mien.

His name was Joseph, though he was more commonly called Joe. Joe believed himself Ephraim's bastard, and took liberties on this presumed kinship that a wiser man would not. Twice he had patted Judith on her rump, stopping only when she had threatened to tell Ephraim. She knew he also stole from ships stores and did a little trading in prohibited items.

Doubtless Joe resented the fact that Ephraim had not summoned him to attend the conclave along with the rest of his sons and this hiding from his proper duties was his little rebellion. If so, it was very brief.

Rena jerked something from the pocket of her baggy coat. There was a sharp barking sound, and Joseph lay still, blood spreading from his chest.

"Is he dead?" Judith asked, in a hushed, hoarse whisper.

Rena touched the man, then nodded.

Judith tried to think of something to say. She hadn't even known Rena was armed. Then she decided it didn't matter. Rena had done what was needed, and what Joe would have done to them if he had gotten the upper hand did not bear thinking about. Turning them over to Ephraim would have been the least of it.

"Right," she said, her voice strong again, "I'll lock down the cockpit. You two know what to do."

Mahalia was already moving toward the engineering station.

Rena gave Judith a small smile before moving to her own assigned task.

"Trust in the Lord, Moses, and he will provide."

She patted her pocket and trotted aft to the cargo bay.

Judith shivered, and hurried forward.

* * *

The first of the Sisters arrived soon after. These were well known to Judith, for they were from Ephraim's own household and the households of his sons. First among them was Naomi, a slight, pretty woman with hair as light as spider silk and nearly as fair. Gideon had never looked beyond her beauty to see the wisdom in her dark gray eyes, and she, in turn, had never raised her voice for him to hear.

Hated by Gideon's first wife—a stolid, extremely traditional woman whose resentment of her husband's second marriage was her only rebellion from the role Masadan society had cast for her—Naomi had turned to Dinah. In her father-in-law's first wife she had found more than comfort and understanding. She had found dreams that had made her bear Gideon and all that came with him in patience.

Under Naomi's direction, the Sisters set about reconfiguring the cavernous cargo hold of the freight shuttle so that all those who would take part in the Exodus could travel safely. Much planning had been done in advance, and now Judith found herself reminded of some elaborate church ritual, everyone moving in calm but intensely emotionally charged order.

There were not enough vac suits for everyone—nor would there be on Aaron's Rod. This lack was a weakness in their plan, but one they couldn't avoid. Straps and padding could be scavenged from existing supplies and even ordered without raising comment, but there was no way that several hundred vac suits tailored for female plumbing could be acquired without raising comment. She wondered if that many suits even existed on all of Masada.

There were, however, a number of very nice military surplus hardened vac suits in the lockers, used, as Judith knew all too well, for boarding parties. These were issued to a handful of women code-named Samson's Bane, women who had proven their willingness to offer violence to men if needed.

Fleetingly, Judith wondered just how they had proved this willingness, but that hadn't been her department, nor did she doubt Dinah's judgement. Look at what Rena had done. . . . 

Judith had her own suit, and Dinah had insisted she wear it.

"It's noble of you to want to take the same risks as so many of our Sisters must, but the reality is that without you we have no chance at all."

Judith accepted this, a touch reassured by the fact that the groundside warehouses had contained sufficient suits for the rest of the command crew and a few other key personnel. Aaron's Rod did have rescue capsules, and the plan was to move the most vulnerable into them in case of emergency. But hopefully, that would not be necessary. Hopefully they would simply launch, get to the hyper limit, and make the translation into hyper before anyone on Masada could catch up with them.

Judith's duty station for this stage of Exodus was in the cockpit. After donning her suit, she headed there and began working out the details for Flower's rendezvous with Aaron's Rod. Happily such maneuvers were routine. Once she'd entered in the merchant vessel's parking orbit and a handful of other parameters, the computer could do the calculations.

Judith had deliberately left the cockpit door open, and was aware of a gradual rise in the noise level behind her as she worked. Crying of small children mingled with the soft voices of women soothing them and stronger voices giving orders. Subconsciously, then, she was prepared when Dinah's voice sounded over her com link.

"Abraham to Moses. We have everyone we're going to get. A few Sisters did not make the contact points, but God is with us. We have a full hold."

Judith felt her heart beating incredibly fast, but her voice was calm as she responded:

"Moses to Abraham. Close hatches. Report to cockpit. Moses to Exodus. Disconnect personal communication devices. Use shuttle intercom in case of emergency."

A handful of women had been filing forward as she gave her orders. Judith glanced over at the woman sitting at the sensors and communications station.

"Odelia, Naomi knows that we're in God's hands now, but even so, you may get calls regarding our passengers. I don't want to hear any of them—even if someone goes into labor. The only things I'm to hear are if something goes wrong with ship systems. Dinah will be primary on sensors, so only pass something on to me if she's missed it."

Odelia, a plain but strong woman from the household of a Senior Elder—and therefore someone with whom Judith had had only limited contact—nodded curtly.

"I'm on it, Moses."

Without giving any further instructions, Judith hit the release that opened the shuttle hanger doors. They slid easily and almost before she could wonder, Dinah reported:

"Scanning. No indication of any alarm sounding."

Judith brought up the shuttle's contragravity and fed power to its air-breathing turbines and watched the hangar walls beginning to move as it glided easily forward. She could tell from how Odelia's hand rose to her ear-set that the anticipated flurry of calls had begun. Odelia muttered into her throat mike, then Judith's own ear-set went live.

"Jacob in Engineering," came Rena's voice. "Everything looks good."

Judith resisted an urge to snap at her. Procedure was to report only problems. Then she forced herself to relax. After all, she was glad to know.

"Moses here. We'll be shifting to full flight mode. Ready?"

"Ready," came Rena's confident response.

Dinah commented almost casually, "We've been noticed. There are men running out onto the tarmac."

"Odelia, warn them back," Judith ordered. "I'm shifting for take-off."

Odelia touched her throat mike, and Judith knew that possibly for the first time since the Faithful had come to Masada the amplified voice of a woman giving orders—even if masked—was sounding.

She didn't have time to think about this, though, but concentrated on remembering the take-off and orbital boost sequences. The computer could have done it, but she wanted to prove to herself that she was more than back-up for the automated systems.

Her delight when the ship obeyed and launched gracefully from ground to sky, then began climbing was so enormous that she cheered aloud. The surprise on the other women's faces was such that Judith momentarily felt embarrassed, but she forced herself not to apologize.

"We have angel's wings," she said instead, letting them share her joy. "According to the computer, we'll rendezvous with Aaron's Rod right on schedule."

There was a palpable reduction in tension, and Odelia relayed the information back to the passenger cabin and cargo hold. They weren't home free yet, but although Masada did have intercept vehicles, the rights of Elders were so firmly established that any domestic air traffic enforcement would waste valuable time before interfering with a vessel belonging to Ephraim Templeton.

Odelia had a file of appropriate responses to use if they were queried and an appropriate male dummy to fill her screen. Oddly, nothing came from the surface but an automated confirmation of their course and reassurance that there were no impediments.

"Could it be," Odelia asked, breaking the listening silence in the cockpit, "that everyone is so busy watching the Manticorans that they have slacked off on domestic traffic control?"

"I suppose so," Judith agreed, but she didn't feel at all confident.

The next strange thing happened when they approached Aaron's Rod. Judith was about to command the shuttle bay doors to open, when they slid apart on their own.

"Sisters," she said, checking and double-checking the angle and cutting back on the shuttle's speed. "Something isn't right."

* * *

Chief Elder Simonds of the Faithful of the Church of Humanity Unchained was without a doubt the oldest looking man Michael had ever seen. His face was deeply lined. The skin sagged on his neck, but had drawn tight around the swollen knuckles of his hands. Eyelids drooped, but did not conceal a penetrating gaze.

Despite his appearance, Simonds was not the oldest man Michael had ever met—not by far, since the Faithful had decided that the use of prolong was an abomination against God—and so Simonds was quite likely younger than many of Michael's instructors at Saganami Island. Unlike them, however, Simonds had aged without even the slowing of that process that those first generation prolong recipients could expect.

For the first time in his life, Michael realized that there was a strange power that came with the physical trappings of age. In Simonds' wizened face numerous deeply graven lines proclaimed not only his years, but made one imagine some wisdom must have been gained in his long life. It was an interesting lesson, and Michael suddenly understood why Quentin Cayen had tinted his hair to create the appearance that he was graying. Cayen knew the Masadans would respect the signs of age and had sought to acquire them.

For a fleeting moment, Michael wondered if he should have tried something similar. Then he rejected the idea out of hand. He was a prince of Manticore. Nothing would change that, and no cosmetic alteration would make him any more himself.

Greetings were framed in praise of God and His wisdom, but Michael had not grown to maturity in Mount Royal Palace without learning to hear the notes of self-congratulation in a man's voice—nor were they especially hard to detect here. Chief Elder Simonds was a man very pleased with himself.

With what Michael hoped would be taken for the modesty of youth before age, he set himself to listening silence while Ambassador Faldo and Mr. Lawler said the appropriate, flattering things to the Chief Elder, his attendant Senior Elders, and the very few mere Elders who had been permitted to attend this first private conclave.

He was doing very well until the doors slid open to admit a small contingent who were most definitely not Masadan. Like Ambassador Faldo's diplomats, they wore civilian clothes, but the styles were not Masada's flowing robes. Instead they were in the neat, trim-lined tailoring currently in fashion in the People's Republic of Haven.

As Ambassador Faldo handled introductions, Michael remembered that the Peeps also were wooing the Masadans. Chief Elder Simonds was too canny a politician to ignore this opportunity to show his other suitor the presumed mark of favor Michael's presence was assumed to be. Michael remembered the Moscow and forced his lips to keep from twisting into a cynical grin.

We see your heavy cruiser and raise it by one Crown Prince, he thought, but he let nothing of his amusement touch his manner as he replied to introductions.

Indeed, that was easy enough to do. Michael was one of a bare handful of people who knew that King Roger III's death had not been an accident, but an assassination—an assassination planned by and paid for by the People's Republic of Haven. Beth had been convinced against her own inclinations to keep the matter secret, and so Michael must do the same, but his tone was cool as he accepted Ambassador Acuminata's congratulations on his completing Saganami Island.

"I understand you are specializing in Communications," Acuminata continued. "That's an interesting choice. I would have thought Tactics, or perhaps Engineering would be more the Winton way."

Michael pressed his fingernails into his palm, well-aware that he was being accused of cowardice and lack of ambition. Acuminata was only echoing what some of the more obnoxious newsies had been saying for years.

He forced a smile.

"Communications are very valuable. You wouldn't believe what you can learn if you only listen and watch, then draw the obvious conclusions."

Acuminata blinked, but what he might have said in reply was lost when Chief Elder Simonds, aware he was no longer the central focus of the gathering, coughed.

"Shall we adjourn?" he said, and without waiting for a response swept out of the room.

The conclave was being held in an enormous hall where, to Michael's relief, the Havenite contingent was seated some distance away. To keep himself from glowering at them, Michael sought to distract himself by studying those individual Masadans who stood out from their fellows. The Faithful largely wore their hair and beards long, after the model of Old Testament prophets. Their formal wear continued the motif, consisting of flowing robes enhanced with heavily embroidered arm-bands and belts that almost surely marked achievements in individual careers.

Here and there, however, were men who wore their hair shorter, shaved their beards, and seemed less at ease in the long robes. Michael knew from Lawler and Hill's exhaustive briefings that Masada had a large navy, enhanced by a civilian merchant fleet. Doubtless these men had sacrificed their hair out of the practical considerations of space travel.

Michael's dark Winton complexion had drawn more than a few stares ever since they left the shuttle. Here he understood why. It was one thing to read that the bulk of the original members of the Church of Humanity Unchained had come from a limited segment of Earth's population. It was another to see it so openly demonstrated. Not only had the Masadans come from one stock, unlike the Manticorans, they clearly had not encouraged any immigration.

He noted a family resemblance among many of those seated together, and a seating order that seemed to indicate that age was given precedence. That made sense, given that their equivalent of a king was a chief elder.

Maybe we can work with that, he mused. We respect family, so do they. Titles and such are passed down in order of birth in the Star Kingdom. I'd bet anything that there's a preference for age and experience here over youthful ambition. 

Michael's self-imposed task was made easier in that most of those gathered in the Conclave Hall were studying him in turn, their gazes holding curiosity, unease, or, most often, open hostility.

They have never learned, he thought, amused, that being part of a crowd gives very little protection from being seen if one cares to look. These men may be bulls in their own herds, but they are cattle beneath the rule of these Elders who claim to speak for God. 

He felt very glad, then, to belong to the Star Kingdom of Manticore where, no matter that there was a House of Lords and House of Commons, a talented individual could rise on merit alone, and, where, best of all, no one claimed to have an exclusive idea what was the Will of God.

It rapidly became apparent, to Michael's relief, Lawler's frustration, and Faldo's resigned acceptance, that Chief Elder Simonds intended today's gathering of the Conclave of Elders to be his opportunity to show off his new prizes. Although questions were directed to the Manticoran guests, the answers were often given by Simonds or one of his toadies. It was long and wearying, rather like listening to a shout and its echo, so Michael let his attention drift.

It was for this reason he noticed when a messenger made his unobtrusive way to one of the family groups, one of those that Michael had noticed before because of the predominance of short-haired individuals.

Messengers were not uncommon. Any form of electronic communication was forbidden in this gathering of ostensible technophobes. However, there was something about the swift and purposeful way this messenger advanced that caught Michael's eye. He grinned to himself, wondering if some of Todd's preternatural awareness for human interaction had rubbed off on him.

The messenger did not speak with the head of the clan, but to someone who had to be an older son. Michael noted with mild curiosity that the son did not pass the message on to his father, nor did the father inquire after it.

Chain of command? he thought. I'd bet anything they've served together and the father has learned to trust his son's judgement. 

Michael felt a familiar flicker of grief. His father had died when he was thirteen T-years old. He'd never know if Roger III would have approved of him and his choices. Given that there were times Michael himself doubted the wisdom of his entering the Navy, he supposed he should be relieved.

Chief Elder Simonds was declaiming something forceful and poetic about how God would guide his Chosen to the path of greatest wisdom—a speech that was basically a put-down of someone who had had the temerity to actually suggest some sort of cost-benefit analysis of the advantages of an alliance with the Star Kingdom of Manticore—when Michael noticed another messenger heading for the spacefaring clan.

In the interim he'd checked the seating chart they'd been given and learned that these were the Templetons, headed by one Ephraim Templeton who apparently headed a prosperous merchant trading fleet. According to John Hill's briefing (when Michael consulted the notes he had stored on a discreetly concealed pocket computer) the Templetons were in the awkward position of having too much to do with hated technology to be trusted in high government, but of having too much wealth to be ignored.

This time Gideon Templeton, identified by Hill's amazingly comprehensive brief as the eldest son of Ephraim and captain in his own right of the trading ship Psalms, passed the communiqué to his father. Ephraim read it and Michael saw him scowl. He scribbled something for the waiting messenger and then returned his attention to what the Senior Elder was saying.

Michael would have bet anything that neither Ephraim nor Gideon were listening very closely any longer. There was a tension in their seated forms that spoke volumes. Nor was he surprised when he saw a message being passed to one of the highest ranking Senior Elders. The man's bushy eyebrows shot up to his hairline and he wrote a terse reply.

Moments later, the messenger had returned to the Templetons. Ephraim glanced at the note handed to him, nodded crisply, and motioned for his sons to follow him. Without interrupting Chief Elder Simonds' harangue, the entire group filed from the hall.

Even before this, the exchange of messages had caught the attention of many of the gathered Elders. Simonds apparently realized that he was losing their attention and said rather sharply:

"I have been informed by Elder Huggins that Brother Ephraim Templeton and his sons have been called from us in order to deal with a technological problem."

The sneer in his voice when he mentioned the hated technology, along with the fact that he denied Ephraim Templeton his title while granting it to Huggins were signals to everyone present that the Chief Elder would be quite offended if the gathering paid any more attention to this diversion. Michael saw heads snap front and center, like recruits at a dress parade.

Simonds was returning to his speech when Michael felt a tap on his shoulder. John Hill leaned forward and whispered very softly.

"Come with me."

Michael raised an eyebrow, but Hill shook his head, refusing further discussion. Trusting that the spy would have already consulted Faldo and that Faldo would cover his departure, Michael obeyed.

Out in the corridor, Hill said, "We're getting you off planet. Something hinky is up, and you'd better not be in reach of these fanatics. If it turns out to be nothing, we can make apologies then."

Michael blinked.

"Hinky?"

John Hill led the way briskly down an astonishingly empty corridor.

"I'm still gathering information. Will you trust me?"

For a moment Michael thought about how much Hill seemed to have collected about the Masadans, about his overly comprehensive knowledge of even the minutia of their culture. Then he gave a mental shrug. This wasn't the time to get paranoid, not with what he'd seen out there on the conclave floor, not with the sudden departure of the Templetons, not with Simond's evident annoyance.

He nodded, then followed Hill as the other man moved briskly toward a stairway leading to the roof.

* * *

Despite the doors to Aaron's Rod's shuttlebay opening as of their own accord, Judith could see no good reason not to accept the invitation and several reasons why they should. Most importantly, the shuttle was far more vulnerable out in open space than it would be neatly parked within the hull.

She had no illusions that Ephraim would not be notified of the shuttle's unauthorized departure, only the hope that such notification would be delayed until he could not effectively pursue.

Judith was so busy concentrating on why Aaron's Rod's bay doors had opened of their own accord that she didn't notice that she had managed a textbook perfect landing until she saw Dinah's smile.

"No contact from Aaron's Rod," Odelia reported crisply, "but sensors report several strange things, including a higher power load on the reactor and a higher readiness level from Engineering."

Judith frowned, but signalled to begin powering down the shuttle.

"Forward your report to Samson's Bane, and tell them to be ready. . . ."

Odelia gave a slight start, and held up her hand in mute interruption. Then she switched what was coming over her ear-set so the rest of the cock-pit could hear.

"Hey, Joe," a laconic male voice she recognized as Sam, one of the caretaker crew, said over an audio-only channel. "Looking good. We'll be bringing out the carry flats when pressure and atmosphere are re-established. Why didn't you take Blossom? We were a little surprised."

Judith made a quick motion for Odelia to put her on.

"Hey, Sam," she replied, trusting that the computer simulated male voice wouldn't sound too unlike Joe. "Before he left the big man ordered Blossom given a thorough scrub."

"Sounds like him," Sam replied. "Pompous prick. Big problem when his private limo has blood stains on the fabric. Pressure's almost up. See ya . . ."

He signed off, and Judith blinked. She knew she had to say something calming or many of the Sisters would panic. Dealing with a caretaker crew aboard Aaron's Rod had been in their plans, but it sounded like Joe, Sam, and who knew what others were doing more than minding the ship.

"I guess we weren't the only ones taking advantage of Ephraim being away," Judith said, making her tone matter-of-fact. "We all know Joe's been smuggling for years. Makes sense he and his pals would use a ship in orbit as a rendezvous point."

"Explains why we weren't challenged before this," Dinah agreed, rising to leave the cockpit, doubtless to spread her own form of calm. "Joe must have filed a flight plan. God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes even sinners can be His hands and feet. Let's not disappoint Him by refusing a miracle when He offers it."

Odelia had connected Zaneta, head of Samson's Bane, into the loop and now her voice came back, crisp and assured.

"We're going out before the men come in. There's no hope they wouldn't be suspicious if we left the shuttle armored up after they got here. This way they may overlook us. Pray for us."

Judith heard a soft murmur through the open cockpit door as those Sisters who must stand by and wait did precisely that. She lacked their faith, but found the soft, rhythmic sound oddly comforting.

"Odelia," she said to the com officer, "remind those who have suits to seal up. We don't know what other surprises there might be. Seal the inner locks of the shuttle as well, but leave the outer ones ajar, as if we're waiting for them to come aboard."

Odelia paled slightly, but she gave the order, even as she closed her own seals.

There was nothing they could do but wait, and they did so in silence, the only sounds Zaneta's terse report.

"We're off the shuttle, forming up on either side of the door."

"Lights show hatch into ship opening."

The next words were not meant for the waiting Sisters, but for Samson's Bane.

"Steady. Let them through . . . Miriam, you make sure that door stays open. We don't want to be sealed in the bay."

Odelia suddenly remembered that Flower had external cameras and turned them on. The image was distorted, for Odelia didn't take time to center, but the command crew watched as one, two, three men strolled through the door, heading toward the shuttle.

None wore even a vac suit, much less carried weapons. That was what made what followed so very ugly.

The fourth man coming through the hatch glanced casually to one side and caught sight of the suited figures flanking the portal. He started to cry out and Zaneta fired. Her shot caught him squarely in the throat and he went down, gouting blood.

The other members of Zaneta's corps were no less ready. The three who had already passed went down, then Samson's Bane were out of camera range as they moved into the body of the ship.

Zaneta's terse words came clear and unruffled.

"Two more in here, already down. Miriam! Take that man alive. We need to know if there are more. The caretaker crew should only have been two men."

Miriam apparently obeyed. A moment later her voice, dulcet, famous in her immediate circle for its graceful music, reported.

"He says there are three Silesians in the aft cargo bay."

"Hold him," Zaneta snapped. "Moses, which way do we go?"

Judith gave directions, reciting corridor turns from deck plans she had memorized, until her fingers made the computer bring up the schematics.

Ten men were dead, one captive before the boarding action was ended. The captive bleated that there were no others, alternately pleading for his life and—once he realized that his opponents were women—threatening them rather unconvincingly with God's wrath.

Shaken to the core, for the bloody bodies sprawled in the shuttle bay brought back long-buried memories, Judith kept one channel tuned to Zaneta's report as she moved toward Aaron's Rod's bridge. Only by concentrating on her immediate responsibilities could she keep herself from sinking back into the terrified ten-year-old who had watched her parents reduced to similar bloody stillness.

"Prisoner says that he and his fellows came aboard with contraband earlier. Sam had brought his cronies when Ephraim ordered a change of watch so he could have all his sons with him at the conclave. Joe was to meet them with Blossom so they could take the goods off, Ephraim none the wiser."

"Did the Silesians have a shuttle of their own?" Judith asked, fitting herself into the captain's chair and snapping on read-outs. Reassuring activity from Engineering told her that Mahalia and her crew were in place.

"A small one, parked in the aft hold. Apparently, Joe managed an override there. Didn't want to risk the shuttle bay itself."

"Smart. Lock the man in one of the cabins. Check his shuttle. There might be things we can use."

"Right."

"And find out if anyone expects the prisoner."

"Right."

"Mahalia in Engineering," came a new voice. "Captain, we're in luck. The smugglers did some of the powering up so they could operate bay doors and the like. We're ahead of schedule there, though of course they didn't need to bring up the impellers."

"Good."

"Naomi here," came a voice that sounded rough, as if the owner might have been shouting. "We have a bit of a situation with the passengers. Some are panicking, claiming that the presence of the smugglers is a bad omen. Children reacted badly to going by the dead bodies."

Judith felt a trace of impatience. That wasn't her department! She was just supposed to fly the ship out of here. She schooled herself to sound calm.

"If you must, use sedatives. Did Wanda make it?"

"Yes."

"Have her lead prayers. Something from Psalms should be perfect. Maybe number thirty-seven?"

"Right. Sedatives will make evacuating in case of emergency harder."

"Put the worst cases in the life pods and seal them in."

And leave me alone! Judith thought. All she did was turn to Odelia and say, "Limit Naomi's bridge link or connect her to Rena in Damage Control. I need sensor readings to plot our course out of here."

"On it, Moses," Odelia said. "Sensors are coming up. Dinah has put Sherlyn on them."

"Smart," Judith said, and was pleased to see Odelia smile.

As she turned her attention to the astrogation plot, she noticed that Dinah wasn't yet at her own station, but stilled her annoyance. It wasn't as if she needed a gunner quite yet, and as XO Dinah was doubtless sparing Judith problems the captain wouldn't hear about until after this was all over and the Sisters were safe. Hadn't Dinah done her duty and made certain there was someone minding the sensors?

Judith immersed herself in her calculations, hardly aware when Dinah arrived and took over fielding those queries Odelia couldn't divert elsewhere. Data flowed over her boards, organized and perfect. A ship here, a ship there, planetary mass there, farther out a larger vessel that had to be the Manticoran ship. Intransigent, its beacon announced.

That should be our name, Judith thought. If there has ever been anyone forced to hold their ground, it's us. 

Mahalia reported that Aaron's Rod's impeller nodes were hot and ready just as Odelia, her voice so tight Judith hardly recognized it, said, "Captain, we have a communication from the surface. They're ordering us to hold our orbit and await the authorities. Do you have an answer?"

Judith touched the keys that snapped Aaron's Rod's impeller wedge into existence and sent the privateer sweeping up and out of her parking orbit.

"That," she said, "is our answer."

* * *

What was supposed to be a sleepy watch was turning distinctly interesting. Carlie, at the Tac station on Intransigent's bridge, listened to the reports coming in while she took her turn plotting intra-system traffic.

Captain Boniece was not the type of commander to have his crew idle away an opportunity to gather information. Endicott might one day be an ally, in which case the information could be used to defend it. If it chose to side with the Peeps, well, the information would still be useful.

Intransigent did nothing overtly rude, but her sensors were so much better than the Masadans' that they took in a great deal that doubtless the Masadans assumed was out of range. Carlie knew, too, that Tab Tilson had requested the use of any middies who could be spared for what he promised would be an interesting training exercise.

Carlie remembered her own days as a middie and suspected that Tab was having them monitor all in-system and planetary communications. The sorting of order out of the myriad unshielded transmissions would be excellent training for the mad wash of information that flowed through the Combat Information Center in the midst of a battle.

And if they picked up some information on the Faithful's Navy, or on the presence of the Peeps in system, well, that wouldn't be a bad thing either. As the hours passed, the most interesting thing they found was how little evidence there was of either, almost as if both had decided to make themselves scarce.

Almost! Carlie snorted to herself. Get real, woman. This is no coincidence. 

She noted with interest that a personnel shuttle, sleek and easily maneuverable, had detached from a Silesian trading vessel and had entered a ship in parking orbit around the planet.

"Interesting," Boniece murmured when she passed this information on. "Beacon says the ship is Aaron's Rod, an armed merchie."

"If she's armed, the armament is well hidden," Carlie reported in response. "I wonder if there's a reason for them to hide their weapons?"

Armed merchantmen were often suspect since it didn't take much for one to turn pirate. This liaison with the Silesians—many of whom were themselves pirates—made this one even more suspect than usual

"Get a listing on Aaron's Rod," Boniece suggested.

Sally Pike, one of Carlie's middies doing a nervous turn on the bridge, reported, "She's registered to a Templeton Incorporated, Sir. She's also registered with the Masadan government as a privateer."

"Interesting," Boniece said again. "Does Templeton Incorporated have any other armed merchantmen?"

"Yes, Sir," Midshipwoman Pike replied with a promptness that made Carlie ridiculously proud, "Proverbs and Psalms. Both registered as privateers."

"It seems we should raise our estimate on the number of armed vessels available to the Faithful in time of war," Boniece commented.

"Privateers are hardly a problem, are they, Skipper?" commented an engineer with the lazy confidence of one who knows that his ship is in all ways superior.

"Guns," Boniece said, turning to Carlie, "what would you say?"

"I'd say, Sir," Carlie replied promptly, peripherally aware of Midshipwoman Pike listening with some astonishment to the ATO getting quizzed, "that anything that has guns and sidewalls can't be rated 'hardly a problem.' For that matter, even an unarmed vessel could ram."

"Paranoid," Boniece agreed, "but reasonable, and we cannot forget the psychology of the Faithful. In their own view, they are God's Chosen, and people who believe God is on their side are hard to predict."

The discussion went on and if Midshipwoman Pike was conscious of the fact that many of the questions tossed her way were something of a quiz she kept her concentration admirably.

Near the end of the watch, Carlie reported, "Skipper, there's a cargo shuttle rendezvousing with Aaron's Rod, one from groundside. ID Beacon says it's the Flower, currently adjunct to Aaron's Rod."

"Have the Silesians left?"

"No, Sir."

"I'd say then, we have a meeting. Interesting."

Later, just as the watch was changing, Carlie reported, "Captain, Aaron's Rod is powering up her impellers."

"Silesians still on board?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Tell your relief to keep the officer of the watch appraised."

"Yes, Sir."

* * *

Carlie was back in her quarters, taking a breather before going to check on her middies, when a call was relayed to her.

"Restricted channel from the surface," the com officer, Midshipman Kareem Jones reported crisply.

"Very good. I'll take it here."

A face Carlie remembered forgetting after one of Captain Boniece's dinners formed on the screen.

"Lieutenant Dunsinane, John Hill," the face said. "I'm with the embassy here. I'd like you to request the return of Mr. Midshipman Winton to Intransigent."

All Carlie's old doubts about Michael Winton came flooding back.

"Has he done something wrong?"

"He has done nothing, but I suspect that a situation is developing where it may not be best for Mr. Winton's continued welfare that he remain planetside."

Carlie had seen tabletops with more expression than Hill was showing, but there was an intensity in his gaze that made a lie of all the stiff neutrality.

"Situation?"

"I don't dare say more," Hill replied. "I only request that as the officer directly responsible for Intransigent's midshipmen you be prepared to say that he is returning on your order."

A crackle of static wavered across the connection, and Carlie knew she didn't have time to ask more questions.

"I'll send the order," she agreed. "He is due on board fourth watch anyhow."

"Th . . ."

John Hill's thanks, if thanks they were, were cut off. A moment later Midshipman Jones' voice came on, apologetic.

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. The call was interrupted at the surface. Would you like us to try and reestablish it from here?"

"No, Mr. Jones, that won't be necessary. Send a message to Captain Boniece asking him to call me at his first convenience."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Boniece returned her call almost before Carlie could finish mentally framing her report.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

Carlie explained about John Hill's mysterious call, finishing by saying, "So I agreed, Sir. I hope that was the right thing to do."

"Sounds to me like Mr. Hill wanted an excuse to get Mr. Winton—or perhaps it would be wiser to say Crown Prince Michael in this case—off the surface without creating a diplomatic incident. He didn't say anything about removing the rest of the diplomatic contingent, did he?"

"No, Sir. We were cut off, but I had no indication he was about to ask anything of the sort. His concern seemed solely for Mr. Winton."

"Interesting."

The captain bit into his lower lip for a moment.

"Sounds like Mr. Hill was apprehensive about a situation wherein either Prince Michael or Mr. Midshipman Winton would be facing a risk that the rest of the diplomatic contingent would not. Very strange."

"Do you think it's just a matter of his relationship to the Queen?" Carlie asked hesitantly.

"It could be, or it could be that Mr. Hill senses a situation developing where an officer in the Queen's service might be more vulnerable than a civilian diplomat."

"My apologies, Sir, but you're talking in riddles."

"Riddles are all Mr. Hill has left us with. Keep yourself available, Lieutenant. You may be needed."

"Yes, Sir."

The captain closed the connection almost as abruptly as had Mr. Hill. No longer in the least bit tired, Carlie straightened her tunic and went to review her other middies, vaguely seeking reassurance that they, at least, were out of danger.

* * *

On Aaron's Rod Judith felt the sudden clarity that comes with having made an irrevocable decision. She should have felt it when she cut her hair or when she donned men's clothing or when she took Flower from the planet's surface, but it wasn't until she sat here, nothing but the star-filled emptiness of space in front of her that she felt the last of the chains that had held her on Masada snap and leave her free.

"I'm plotting us the most direct course to hyper limit," she said crisply. "Odelia, let me know if anything new comes from the surface. Sherlyn, keep an eye out for anything moving on an intercept course."

An odd thought occurred to her.

"Connect me to Rena."

"Damage Control here."

"Rena. Has anyone taken a good look at the shuttle on which the smugglers came aboard?"

"I did, actually. My team seemed best equipped to inspect it."

"Where did it originate?"

"It's registered to a Silesian ship, the Firebird."

Sherlyn volunteered, "Firebird is here in system, Judith."

Judith nodded her thanks and continued, "How's it set in the hold?"

"Facing out toward the doors. I guess they turned it around somehow."

"Good. How confident do you feel about checking its piloting programs?"

"Pretty good. But, Moses, it's unarmed and unarmored. I don't think it will do as an escape vehicle."

"Good to know. Get acquainted with its piloting program. I may have something for you to put into it."

"Yes, Moses."

At least Masadan women are good at taking orders, Judith thought with a faint trace of humor.

Dinah had glanced over at her, but the older woman said nothing and when Judith volunteered nothing of her thoughts, returned to checking the weaponry boards.

Odelia broke the quiet that had settled over the bridge.

"Moses, surface is now insisting we return to orbit."

Judith nodded.

"Odelia, I don't think we can fool them for long, but let's mess up the works. Tell them you're Sam . . . Tell them we're taking the ship out on Ephraim's orders. That should at least slow them down long enough to talk with him."

Odelia nodded, the skin around her eyes tight with worry. Judith heard her query the computer for Sam's identification codes and instruct it to configure her voice mask to match his range.

Good. Thinking for herself. I suspect we're going to need a lot of that if we're going to get out of here alive. 

That diversion bought them enough time that the planet had visibly receded, but at last the call came as Judith had known it would.

"They say they've spoken with Elder Templeton and that he has no idea what they're talking about. They sound really angry."

"Let them be angry," Judith said. "The more angry they are, the less energy they'll have for clear thought. Any sign of pursuit?"

"Several drives have gone active," Sherlyn reported, "including the Firebird's. The only thing moving toward us are a couple of light attack craft."

"We're better armed than any of those," Dinah reported.

Judith knew that the Faithful's dedication to building a navy had not extended to extensive in-system defense. Simply put, the Graysons didn't want war, dedicating their energies to protecting their own system. The Faithful, on the other hand, had specifically designed their navy to take Yeltsin's Star back, and each LAC cut into offensive tonnage. They'd built just enough LACs to keep their system from being a sitting duck while the rest of the fleet was away, and those ships were widely spread out. Nor were they likely to fire on a ship belonging to a prominent citizen.

"Good, Dinah," she said. "We may need to remind them of that. How do we look for offensive capacity?"

"Full-up," Dinah reported crisply. "Jessica reports that the magazines are well-stocked and that her crews have the tubes ready for loading. The energy mounts are powered up and ready. Point defense is standing by."

"As I recall specs for the LACs," Judith mused. "They're pretty much limited to one salvo each from their box launchers and a single spinal laser, right?"

"Right," Dinah confirmed.

"Well, we won't throw away missiles unless absolutely necessary, and we have the range on them."

"We're also armored in Ephraim's reputation," Dinah reminded her. "They're going to be reluctant to fire on the vessel of such a successful privateer."

But what Ephraim gives, Judith thought, he can as surely take away. 

The hyper limit seemed very far away indeed. It seemed even farther when Odelia reported a few moments later:

"We have a call from Ephraim Templeton."

"Let us all hear it," Judith said, unwilling to let the man become a phantom to her companions.

Ephraim sounded very angry, what Rena called "beating angry." By the time Odelia put his transmission up, he was already in mid-flurry.

" . . . and I promise that only God's wrath will be greater than mine when we catch you. Turn around immediately!"

Judith grinned, forcing herself to seem more amused than she felt.

"Now there's real incentive."

"If you do not," the transmission continued, "I shall come after you myself, and my vengeance will be terrible!"

"Send back the following," Judith said. " 'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.' Then refuse further transmissions. I don't think we can talk him out of his course."

"Do you think he'll really come after us?" Odelia asked.

"Oh, yes," Judith said. "I'd guess he's already on his way. The question is whether or not he can get to either Psalms or Proverbs before we can get clear."

She glanced at the plot, which showed the planet not as far away as she had imagined, and suspected that Ephraim could catch up. Although her handling of Aaron's Rod had been competent, she was keeping the ship at a comparatively low rate of acceleration.

Part of that was because of her awareness of her delicate human cargo, which wasn't ready for space travel, but another part—and she had to be honest with herself—was because she was afraid to try and attempt anything too elaborate. Nor was she prepared, with her trained-by-rote Engineering crew, to risk reducing the safety margin on the privateers' inertial compensator the way a more experienced crew might have. Worst of all, the Havenite modifications to Ephraim's other ships had included upgrades for their compensators. Even with the same safety margin, they could pull a substantially higher acceleration than Aaron's Rod. With fully trained crews to get the highest possible speed out of them, their acceleration advantage would be even greater.

Still, there might be time for the Sisters to get away. Ephraim had been half the planet away from his estate when he was notified. She and her allies had disabled the Blossom, the only other ship to orbit vehicle available in his hangers. There might be time.

And if there wasn't?

Judith frowned, and, oblivious to her nervous crew, buried her face in her hands and tried to think.

 

"Would you mind telling me," Michael said as he chugged up the stairs after John Hill, "what is going on?"

"You saw those men exit the Conclave Hall?"

"Yes. Templeton. Shipping."

Michael kept his replies short. The program of exercise he'd been following shipboard, he was discovering, didn't prepare one to run up stairs.

"Someone has stolen a Templeton ship."

"So?"

"Right now Templeton has no idea who's stolen it."

"You do?"

John Hill tapped his ear, and Michael realized he was indicating something buried beneath the skin.

"I get better news than he does. There have been some interesting disappearances, some of which I may be the only one to have heard about."

"How?"

"Trust me."

"All right. But what makes it significant to us?"

"Let me just say that if anyone puts these disappearances together, they're going to remember you and wonder if your being here had anything to do with it."

"I don't understand."

"Templeton doesn't know this yet, but a woman was caught trying to leave her home. She was captured and under interrogation . . ."

Hill's inflection made clear that he meant something rather more severe than simple questioning.

"Before she died she admitted to the existence of an organization called the Sisterhood of Barbara and of something called Exodus. I'd like to believe otherwise, but I think the two events may be connected."

"Why . . . What does this have to do with us?"

"Nothing, but I don't think for a moment the Faithful will believe it."

They'd arrived on the roof by now, and to Michael's surprise a small air car was waiting for them. Hill ushered him aboard and spilled into the driver's seat and brought up the counter grav.

"Templeton took a similar vehicle out of here not long ago on his way to the nearest spaceport. You don't think the ban on technology applies to emergencies? This one is picking up some of his sons."

Michael shook his head in admiring disbelief.

"You were explaining why the Faithful wouldn't believe that we have nothing to do with this."

"Believe that their women, so good, so devout, so well-trained, would rebel without outside stimulus?" Hill snorted and banked the air car at a stomach-wrenching angle. "Easier to believe that such was instigated from without. They'll see you as the servant of your Queen."

"Which I am . . ."

"Except that to the Faithful, Elizabeth shares the dubious honor of being called the Harlot of Satan."

"Shares?"

"With Barbara Bancroft, the woman they blame for foiling their coup to overthrow Grayson."

"What about the rest of the diplomatic corps? What will happen to them?"

Hill shrugged. "I think they'll be all right. The Masadans are going to be very careful about respecting diplomatic immunity until they've made up their mind who they want to get into bed with. The thing is, it could be argued that you're not covered. You're a Navy midshipman, making a courtesy call, you see. . . ."

"Shit."

"In a bucket. So you've been recalled to duty. Lieutenant Dunsinane is such a stickler. . . ."

"That she is," Michael agreed. "Now that I think of it, my orders included having to report back shipboard every evening."

Michael could see they had now arrived at the spaceport. He was unsurprised to find Intransigent's pinnace rising to meet them. Nor did John Hill disappoint him. The vehicle to vehicle transfer was managed as smoothly as if Hill had handled similar procedures numerous times before.

As he took the hand the flight engineer held out to him, Michael called back.

"Thanks!"

"I'll try to keep you posted," Hill shouted over the wind's roar. Then he banked the air car and sped away.

"What's going on, Sir?" the pilot asked once they were buttoned up and streaking for the edge of atmosphere.

"I'm not sure," Michael admitted. "I guess we just follow orders."

"And those are to get back to Intransigent," the pilot agreed.

Michael took advantage of the pinnace's undermanned state to drop into the tac officer's cubby and bring its tactical plot on-line. He easily located what had to be the hijacked Templeton ship crawling tortoiselike out-system. He thought about what John Hill had told him, about this improbable Sisterhood and their desperate Exodus, and felt a surge of sympathy for them.

If they're really trying to get away, why don't they run? he thought. Why the hell don't they run? 

* * *

Carlie couldn't keep her mind off her absent middy and John Hill's peculiar call, so it was almost a relief when Intransigent was moved to a higher level of alert and she found herself on the bridge, officer of the watch, while Captain Boniece met with his department heads.

"Our pinnace has left the surface," Midshipman Jones reported. "En route to rendezvous with Intransigent."

Carlie acknowledged.

"How's Aaron's Rod?"

Ozzie Russo, another one of Carlie's middies, answered promptly.

"Still heading out-system. Looks like she's on a direct line for hyper limit, Ma'am."

"Hm."

"Lieutenant Dunsinane?"

"Yes, Mister Russo?"

"Why is she moving so slowly? There's not much traffic there."

"I couldn't say, Mister Russo. You sound like you have a theory."

Carlie saw the normally confident, even cocky, Ozzie color.

"Well, Ma'am, it reminds me of the first time my father let me take the helm of our yacht. It had looked so easy on the sims, but once I had all that to handle, I found out the sims hadn't really prepared me. Our pilot made me watch the tapes over and over again, just to get it through my head that I didn't know everything."

The midshipman finished in an embarrassed rush, his color even higher. Carlie, accustomed to Ozzie's more usual rich boy attitude of self-importance, was amused and pleased.

"You may well have a point, Mister Russo. I'll make a note of it."

"Yes, Lieutenant. Thank you, Ma'am."

Later still, the routine business was interrupted from Tactical.

"Lieutenant Dunsinane, a pinnace just launched from the surface. It's going great guns. A second just followed it, also going fast."

"Vector?"

"First one is heading for an armed merchantman, Psalms. The second is heading for armed merchantman Proverbs."

"Those are the other Templeton ships," Carlie said. "Inform Captain Boniece. Then tight-beam our pinnace and suggest she increase her accel. I want those people back on board."

"Yes, Ma'ams," eddied around the bridge.

Next interruption came from the com station.

"Call coming in from planetary surface, Lieutenant Dunsinane. Originating at their Palace of the Just. Caller identifies himself as one Ronald Sands."

"Get Captain Boniece on the line," Carlie said. "Let him know what's up."

"Captain Boniece is on, Ma'am," came the reply hardly a breath later. "He says for you to take it. He'll ghost."

"Right. Pipe it to the bridge."

Ronald Sands proved to be a man of middle years whose light eyes seemed focused on some visionary distance. He wore his light brown hair well past his shoulders and his full beard neatly trimmed. When he moved, though, there was carefully controlled energy that reminded Carlie that the Faithful eschewed prolong. Sands was probably no more than thirty, possibly younger than that.

"You are Lieutenant Dunsinane?" Sands began, his tone almost concealing his disbelief and disgust. Carlie remembered hearing that the Faithful kept their women in isolation. This being the case, Sands was keeping his poise admirably.

"That is correct. Lieutenant Carlotta Dunsinane, officer of the watch, HMS Intransigent. How may I be of service?"

Sands' lips twitched in a very slight smile, one that was surely a concession to courtesy rather than an indication of any friendliness or warmth.

"I speak with the words of Chief Elder Simonds," he said.

Looking down at what was apparently a prepared script he read: "These are the words of Chief Elder Simonds: 'The people of the Star Kingdom have come to Masada speaking of mutual respect and the possibility of alliance. God in His infinite wisdom and greatness of heart has offered opportunity for the Star Kingdom to show the depth of its commitment to these words.

" 'A vessel belonging to one of our most honored and respected citizens has been stolen by those who have no respect for the Faithful. Its course will take it near to you. We do not ask you to take the vessel, nor to fire upon it, only that you slow it in its progress so that it may be reclaimed.

As God has said: 'He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breakth an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.' 'Thus they go from strength to strength. They are a stubborn and rebellious generation. However, God has shown that mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.' "

Carlie felt momentarily overwhelmed by this last spate of scripture, but she managed a courteous nod.

"Your request has been heard, however, I must consult my Captain."

"There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak," Ronald Sands agreed. "We ask only that the time for speech not be delayed overlong so that these thieves may slip away unimpeded."

"You will have the Captain's response promptly," Carlie agreed. "Intransigent out."

When the transmission was broken, Carlie took a deep breath.

"Captain Boniece, your orders, Sir?"

Boniece spoke slowly. "It isn't our place to interfere in a domestic situation, but we were charged with assisting our diplomats. See if you can get a secure line to them. I'd like their advice."

"And if Ronald Sands coms again?"

"Stall him. I'm tempted to have someone do a search for appropriate Bible texts, but the Faithful would probably not be flattered."

"Right, Sir."

Remembering the quickly concealed look of distaste that had flickered across Ronald Sands' face when he had realized he was speaking to a woman, Carlie thought he wouldn't be flattered at all—but that they might not know it until it was too late.

* * *

Already shocked when the pinnaces were seen heading for Psalms and Proverbs well ahead of her imagined schedule, Judith listened to Ronald Sands' "request" with a sense of mounting horror. She had anticipated having to out-run Psalms and Proverbs, even tangle with a LAC or two, but never in her wildest dreams had she thought that the Manticoran cruiser might be turned against them.

She shivered. Then, horribly, matters grew worse.

Odelia, her face as white as milk, spoke into the stillness.

"Judith, Ronald Sands is comming the other outsider ship, the Havenite Moscow. He's making the same request of them. Their bridge officer has also asked for time to consult his captain."

It's over. The traitorous voice that had whispered through Judith's thoughts as she had struggled to adapt their plans now repeated itself in mournfully triumphant song. Give up. It's over. 

"No!" she said aloud, and the heads of her already shocked bridge crew turned to look at her, clearly wondering if their young commander had lost her mind.

"It isn't over," Judith said aloud. "Didn't we swear to die rather than surrender ourselves to slavery? Hasn't God given us many miracles to prove He is with us?"

She saw Dinah nod, but everyone else remained stiff and tense.

"We are not going to be taken by a few words," Judith said stubbornly.

A thought that had been dwelling in the corners of her mind now came into sharp focus.

"The Faithful are not the only ones who could request help from the Manticorans and the Havenites," she said. "What if we requested sanctuary from Ephraim, what if we told these outsiders that we face being returned to torture and death?"

Dinah responded so quickly that Judith wondered how long she had been holding back a similar suggestion.

"What do we have to lose?" the older woman asked reasonably. "We will need to ask someone's aid sooner or later. Why not now?"

"We can't ask both of them," Odalia said reasonably. "From what I've heard, they're adversaries, if not outright enemies. We must choose one or the other."

Dinah looked at Judith.

"Captain?"

Judith licked her lips. She could think of many good reasons for favoring the Havenites. Their ship was larger and more powerful. They preached freedom and justice for all peoples. She remembered Dinah's words, though, remembering how the Havenites had modified Ephraim's ships. She remembered something else, too.

"Odelia, did you say 'he' when you spoke of the Havenite officer?"

"Yes, Judith." Odelia looked puzzled. "It was a male voice."

"But a woman spoke from Intransigent," Judith said. "Surely a woman would feel more sympathy for our cause."

Dinah, devil's advocate against what Judith knew would be her own choice, spoke, "But this Lieutenant Dunsinane may be commanded by a man."

"Still, he is a man who trusts his bridge to a woman," Judith said firmly. "He may listen to us."

There was no argument, so Judith took a moment to frame her request, then turned to Odelia.

"Put in a call to Intransigent. If possible, make it a tight link. We don't want Ephraim overhearing what we intend."

Odelia took a moment to consult the computer, then nodded.

"Intransigent is answering."

"Make sure you don't have the fake images up," Judith said. "It is time we were known as who we are."

Their eavesdropping on Ronald Sands's call had been audio only, so this was the first time Judith had seen Lieutenant Dunsinane. Her ears had not deceived her. The person facing her was a woman—a very young one, though older than Judith herself.

Then Judith recalled that the Manticorans had some medicine that permitted them to remain physically youthful, in violation, so the Faithful said, of God's will, for did not God say "There is a time to be born, and a time to die"? This was not the time to wonder about such things. If she didn't handle this right, the death time of the Sisterhood would be very close indeed.

"I am Judith," she said, deliberately leaving off the "wife of Ephraim" that was all the surname the Masadans granted their women. "I now command Aaron's Rod for the Sisterhood of Barbara. We have fled slavery on Masada."

"I am Lieutenant Carlotta Dunsinane," the woman responded courteously. "What may I do for you?"

"We request," Judith said, her heart beating far too rapidly, "that you assist us. Either grant us sanctuary from our enemies or at least prevent them from halting us in our flight. We have heard your monarch is a queen, and beg in the name of our shared womanhood that you assist us."

She didn't like how the word "beg" had slipped out, but it was too late for her to change it.

Dunsinane nodded her understanding.

"Judith, I am only officer of this watch and cannot answer for my Captain. I will contact him with your request and reply as soon as possible."

"We can only wait," she replied.

Dunsinane broke the connection, but they hardly had time to speculate on what her captain might think when Odelia indicated that Intransigent was signaling.

"Their captain wishes to speak with you," she said.

"Put him on," Judith said.

Captain Boniece was at least a man of some years, his commanding bearing reminding Judith of Gideon at his best. Nor did it hurt that he was darker than most Masadans. Judith knew it shouldn't matter, but she couldn't help trusting him more for not looking like her enemies.

"Captain Judith," Boniece said politely. "My watch officer has relayed your request. I am inclined to assist those who appeal to my Queen, however, I have one difficulty."

"Yes?"

"Some hours before Aaron's Rod departed orbit, a personnel shuttle and a cargo shuttle entered the ship. The personnel shuttle originated with the Silesian freetrader, Firebird, the shuttle from the surface."

He paused and Judith replied, "The cargo shuttle bore my Sisters and myself from slavery."

"And the personnel shuttle?"

"Belonged to smugglers transferring illegal goods which were to be picked up by allies in my husband's house."

She saw Captain Boniece's eyebrows raise.

"Can you confirm this?"

"We have the contraband," she replied, "and we have one of the Silesians."

"The rest?"

"Are dead. We could not risk their stopping us. Our course is most desperate." Judith managed a very small smile. "In any case, their lives were forfeit if the Faithful had caught them. Their cargo included liquor, drugs, and what I believe is pornographic material—any of which would have brought a death sentence from the Faithful. Indeed, we were probably kinder than the Faithful would have been."

"I note that you do not include yourself in the Faithful," Captain Boniece said. "Yet a moment ago you spoke of 'your husband.' "

Judith felt as if he was trying to trap her, and chose her words carefully.

"If we speak of faith in God," she said, "then we are all faithful, for we have trusted Him to guide us forth. However, if we speak of the Faithful of the Church of Humanity Unchained, then we are not of that number. Those Faithful rate their women as property. We defy that right."

She shook with the wrath that rose within her.

"By their law I am the youngest wife of Ephraim Templeton. He wed me when I was twelve years of age, after murdering my parents two years earlier and stealing me away. I am Grayson born."

"Grayson?"

"That is unimportant," Judith said. "For my Sisters are all born of Masada but have seen their way to freedom. They are my people, and I will do anything to keep them from those who treat them as slaves. I tell you this. We are sworn to die rather than be taken."

Pity, wonder, and calculation crossed Captain Boniece's features. Then he turned as if listening to something outside of the range of the pick-up.

"Forgive me, Captain Judith. Two questions. One, can you confirm your Grayson birth? We are not looking to abandon your Sisters, but the matter is of some interest."

"I know my parents' names and where I was born," she replied. "I know the name of the ship we were on, the ship Ephraim took and later converted into one of those that even now pursue us. If the Graysons have records, these things may help."

"Indeed." Boniece's gaze met hers squarely. "I am inclined to assist you, at least to the extent of letting you make your own escape. However, I cannot do this without confirming that you are who you say you are. Are you familiar with those programs that enable one person to look like another over communication lines?"

"Very well indeed," Judith said.

"Then you understand our dilemma. Unless we are certain you are who you are, then we might be accused of assisting someone—say those from Firebird—to hijack Aaron's Rod. If members of my crew could board you, confirm that you are who you say you are . . ."

Judith frowned.

"Might you not seek to take us in turn?"

Captain Boniece shrugged. "There must be some trust. However, I will make it easier for you. Did you note the pinnace from this ship that left Masada shortly after your own departure?"

"Yes."

"She has aboard a crew of only four: pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, and one passenger. The passenger is Midshipman Michael Winton, brother of the very Queen whose protection you invoked. Let them come aboard and confirm your account. After they do so, they will leave."

Judith frowned, sensing the unhappiness of her bridge crew.

"I must consult my Sisters," she said. "I will reply as soon as possible."

"Very good, Captain Judith. I will inform the pinnace as to her possible course change."

Judith thanked him and broke the connection, then turned to deal with Babel unleashed.

What had seemed like aeons ago, Sherlyn had reported the launching of the Manticoran pinnace, and that it appeared to be returning to Intransigent. Judith had filed the information away as unimportant. Now, however, the sleek vessel seemed to glow brighter on her plots.

"Men!" spat Odelia. "They'll get their men aboard and betray us. We might have had a chance if Intransigent's captain was a woman, but a man . . ."

"You forget," Dinah said, "that the Star Kingdom knew they were sending Intransigent to Masada. They would have chosen a ship with a male captain from routine diplomacy if nothing more. Stop thinking with your womb, Odelia. These are men who serve with women, men sworn to the service of a queen. They have no hatred of women."

"I still don't like the idea of letting four men aboard," Odelia sulked. "They may behave differently away from their female associates. Men do revert to animality when denied the gentler voice of women."

"The responsibility is mine," Judith said, finding her voice at last. "I am captain by your own election. We have said much about how God is testing us. Let us not forget that Satan has his due. Remember how the Chosen People were led astray to worship a Golden Calf in the desert."

"This is no Golden Calf," Odelia said, confused.

"It is a temptation to turn away from what God offers us," Judith said, amazed at her own confident tone, though she thought she had no trust in any god. "All this Captain Boniece asks for is confirmation that we are who we say we are. He does not ask us to come to him. Instead he sends to us."

Sherlyn spoke, "Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego they go into the fiery furnace, trusting we will not burn them."

"And do not forget," Dinah added, "they also send their Queen's own brother. They would not send him lightly."

Judith nodded.

"Odelia, connect me to Intransigent."

When Captain Boniece's features shaped on the screen, Judith said with what grace she could manage, "Captain, we would welcome your inspection team. My Sisters, however, are very fearful. We would be grateful if your men would leave their weapons aboard their vessel."

"That can be arranged," Captain Boniece said. "They will rendezvous with you as promptly as possible."

"And I will have an escort waiting to meet them," she replied. "Judith, out."

When the connection was cut, Judith said, "Send Samson's Bane to the aft cargo bay. Tell them to carry their weapons, but not to offer threat."

Odelia relaxed marginally as she relayed the instructions. Judith, watching the various pursuing dots on her plot, relaxed not at all.

* * *

Michael listened as Captain Boniece concluded his briefing.

"We'll send transcripts of our conversations with Captain Judith," Boniece said, "and of Ronald Sands' request on behalf of Chief Elder Simonds."

"May I ask, Sir," Michael said, "how you plan to respond to him?"

"That will depend on your report, Midshipman Winton. However, if you confirm that there is reason to believe Captain Judith's version of events, I intend to support her."

"Sir, that's going to pretty much destroy chances of an alliance with the Endicott System," Michael said, realizing even as he spoke that he was thinking more like a prince than a midshipman.

"I am aware of this, Mr. Winton."

Michael didn't think he was imagining the stress the captain placed on his surname.

"I have also consulted with Ambassador Faldo, and he has his own reasons for encouraging us. I have also heard Mr. Hill's report on the 'missing' people on Masada, and that seems to provide some external substantiation for Captain Judith's account of events."

"Yes, Sir. May I ask one more question?"

"Go ahead."

"Will the Ambassador and his contingent be in danger?"

Captain Boniece smiled. "John Hill thought you might ask. He said to tell you that arrangements for their safety had been made. You may make your report on the situation aboard Aaron's Rod without concern for them."

"Thank you, Sir."

"A reminder, Mr. Winton. The Sisterhood of Barbara is desperate. Captain Judith has openly admitted that they killed the smugglers they found aboard Aaron's Rod lest the Sisters be stopped in achieving their Exodus. John Hill reports that at least one dead man was found at the Templeton estate. Do not underestimate them. They may be lower tech than we are, but you can die from a knife wound as easily as from a pulser."

"Or from a punch in the kidney. Yes, Sir. I won't forget, and I won't let my crew forget."

"You are the senior officer, Mr. Winton. Don't forget that."

Michael hadn't, not for a moment. However, he wasn't about to act like some tin-plate godlet and forget that pinnace crew had all seen more action than he had.

"All right," he said, signing off and turning to his crew. "Captain Boniece has sent us transcripts. Let's review them while we approach. Then I'll give you a crash course in Masadan etiquette."

By the time the pinnace was easing into Aaron's Rod's aft cargo bay, Michael had had numerous opportunities to be grateful for Lawler's rambling discourses on Masadan culture, and even more for John Hill's unobtrusive competence.

"These women," he concluded, "are going to expect us to lord over them. We won't do that, but let's not err in the direction of self-abasement. That would just confuse them."

"We'll follow your lead, Sir," Chief Petty Officer Keane Lorne, the pilot, said without looking up from his controls. He was busy gentling the pinnace into the gaping cargo hatch without the assistance of the boat bay tractors that would normally have handled a final approach. "Will they even want us all to leave the pinnace?"

"I don't know," Michael admitted. "Let's let them issue the invitations."

The pinnace came to an easy halt alongside Firebird's shuttle.

When external readouts confirmed atmosphere and pressure had been reestablished, Michael walked to the hatch. He wore his vac suit, but carried his helmet in the crook of his left elbow, wanting to show both his face and a level of trust.

"I'll go first," he said, repeating earlier orders. "Follow on my command."

"Right, Mr. Winton," Chief Lorne replied for them all. "Luck."

Michael stepped out and trotted down the steps to stand on the deck. As he did so, the hatch into the cargo bay opened, admitting several figures, all, like him, wearing vac suits. Several of these women were quite obviously armed, but they kept their weapons at rest. Their leader, a broad-figured, grey-haired woman, carried no weapons and stepped ahead of them to greet him.

"I am Dinah," she said. "I believe I am the equivalent of executive officer. I am also one of those who established the Sisterhood of Barbara. What do you need to see to confirm our account of our actions?"

Michael was already convinced, but he had his orders from Captain Boniece. After all, unlike the Masadans, the Silesians did not sequester their women. It was possible that the hijackers were female Silesians masquerading as Masadan escapees. That seemed like a dreadful lot of trouble to go to just to take one armed, low-tech merchie, but Captain Boniece was putting his neck on the line in being willing to help Captain Judith and her crew. He had to be able to prove before a board of inquiry that he'd confirmed their need. Getting that confirmation was Michael's job.

"I need to see your passengers. Captain Judith spoke as if a large group is partaking in your Exodus."

He knew from the update from John Hill that both women and children were now being reported missing on Masada, but he didn't want to show his hand.

"This can be done," Dinah replied.

"I would like to speak with the surviving Silesian smuggler."

"This also can be arranged."

"I would also like to speak with Captain Judith."

"This, also, can be permitted."

"My crew," Michael said. "Would you like them to come with me or to remain here?"

Dinah's lips twitched in a tight smile.

"I care little, but some of my Sisters would feel safer if they remained here. Perhaps they can inspect the Silesian craft?"

"That will work," Michael agreed. "Let me introduce you."

He did so, and was pleased that the crewmen handled themselves well. They had left their weapons aboard, but each carried a com unit so compact it was unlikely the Sisters would even recognize it. He would know if anything happened to them.

"Commander Dinah," Michael said, "where would you have us start?"

"The Silesian smuggler is near here," she said. "Then we will go where you may observe the Sisters."

The Silesian smuggler was only too glad to confirm what had happened. In fact, he'd been locked up, in terror for his life, for long enough that Michael didn't even have to tell him that Firebird had abandoned him to get him to tell everything—right up to and including admitting that they had been smuggling into the Endicott System for several years.

Michael promised that he would do what he could to get the Silesian repatriated, then followed Dinah toward a lift. Several of the armed women paced them, but as Michael offered nothing but courtesy, they had marginally relaxed.

"All the Sisters are not gathered in one place," Dinah explained. "About a third of our number are assigned to various stations."

Michael did a quick estimate.

"You're rather under-strength," he said.

"We are," Dinah retorted, "remarkable for what we have done. Do you realize that most Masadan women cannot read or do mathematics more complex than what can be counted off on fingers? That we managed this many Sisters who can at least ask the computer for assistance and understand what it tells them strikes me as remarkable."

"I apologize," Michael said, appalled at what he was learning. "How did you manage this much?"

"Judith was a great help," Dinah said. "She has actually been into space repeatedly."

"The rest of you haven't?"

"Only a few," came the placid reply. "I myself have not been for twenty years. Some of our Sisters were . . . unable to join us." Her face tightened briefly, but then she drew a deep breath and continued. "Fortunately, none of them were among our department heads."

"Right."

They progressed to what Michael guessed were Aaron's Rod's common areas: dormitories, cafeteria, lounge. He was introduced to someone named Naomi who in turn introduced him to some of the women and children packed into these spaces.

"The ones experiencing the worst panic are in sickbay," Naomi said with a levelness that did not disguise her deep concern. "Happily, Elder Templeton did not stint on tranquilizers."

"Life support?" Michael asked Dinah when they had returned to the lift.

"In good shape," Dinah said. "I always made certain Ephraim took good care of such things. He was careful, too. A privateer cannot always go to the nearest port."

"What about facilities for all those people if the ship has to fight?" he asked as levelly as he could, hating the image of what a direct hit on one of those crowded cabins would do.

"We brought materials aboard," Dinah said, "but it is a weakness."

"I see." Michael looked around for several more seconds, then turned back to Dinah. "And Engineering?" he asked.

He had kept his tone as inflectionless as possible, but Dinah smiled grimly.

"Our engineers' training is limited to what we could achieve from stolen simulations," she told him. "I believe that is the reason Captain Judith has been holding us to a slower acceleration rate than our impatience to be away might otherwise dictate. She fears to cut our compensator's safety margin as a more experienced crew might."

Michael marveled at Dinah's calm.

"What were you before," he asked, "a teacher?"

"I was," she said. "Although not as you mean it. Remember, women are forbidden to learn. Officially, I was nothing more than Ephraim Templeton's elder wife, and mother of his children—many of whom," she finished, "are doubtless crewing the two ships that now pursue us."

They had arrived at the bridge, and Michael, shaken to the core by everything he had learned, was unprepared for his first meeting with Captain Judith.

Seeing her image on a transmission tape had not prepared him for the intensity of her brown-rimmed green eyes, nor for her youth. His introduction to so many of the Sisters during his whirlwind tour had brought home to him that not only was this a pre-prolong civilization, this was also a civilization that used its women hard.

Judith, then, was hardly more than a child. He remembered hearing her declare that Ephraim Templeton had wed her when she was twelve years of age. He realized that she'd meant twelve T-years. She couldn't be more than eighteen now.

How old are you? he thought, then realized to his horror he'd spoken aloud.

She must have found his shock funny rather than offensive.

"I am sixteen T-years," she said. "And you? You look the beardless boy."

"I am twenty-one," he replied, matching her humor, "and neither of those figures matter in the least. Captain Judith, could your communications officer contact Intransigent for me? I want to make my report."

"There is a briefing room," Captain Judith offered politely, gesturing to a door at one side of the bridge.

"If you don't mind," Michael replied, "I'll speak to Captain Boniece from right here. It will save repetition."

Captain Judith appeared pleased by this indication of trust, and if her mouth tightened as Michael reported the limitations of her crew's abilities Michael didn't blame her. After all, Dinah was right. What the Sisterhood of Barbara had done in achieving this much of their Exodus was remarkable. It couldn't be easy to hear of their abilities spoken of in such a fashion.

Captain Boniece listened with very little interruption, then spoke directly to Captain Judith.

"Intransigent will cover your departure, Captain," he said. "I suggest that you raise your accel to the maximum you feel your crew can safely sustain. We have no desire to get into a fire fight with Ephraim Templeton or any Masadans."

"We will do what we can," Judith replied. "I fear, however, Ephraim will feel differently. And there is something I must tell you, something about Psalms and Proverbs."

* * *

Captain Boniece had sent Intransigent to battle stations, so Carlie was at the ATO's station on the bridge when Ephraim Templeton learned that the Manticorans had chosen to support Captain Judith rather than himself.

That Templeton was furious was evident from the moment his thick-set figure appeared on the screen. However, though his blue eyes blazed with cold fury, he attempted to be polite.

"I understand that you were not receptive to Chief Elder Simonds' request that you assist me in regaining my property."

Boniece replied levelly, "I was not."

"That is your right, of course," Templeton couldn't quite conceal a sneer, "but what is this Sands tells me, that not only have you refused to assist, you have informed him that you will actively impede any effort to regain Aaron's Rod?"

"It is distinctly possible," Boniece replied, "that Aaron's Rod will be returned to you. However, it is currently in use."

"Currently in use?"

"The question of the ship is a delicate one, I admit," Captain Boniece said, his conversational tone at odds with the fist he clenched out of sight of the pick-up. "However, without it the people on board would have difficulty removing themselves."

"People?" Templeton looked appalled. "You don't mean those insane bitches do you?"

"Pardon?"

"I have been informed that Aaron's Rod was stolen by Silesian pirates who somehow lured away a large number of Masadan women and children. It is those women to whom I refer."

Boniece shook his head. Carlie, watching her board, realized that Aaron's Rod was increasing speed. Boniece was obviously talking to buy her time. Carlie watched, waiting to see Intransigent's pinnace depart and bring her wandering midshipman to the relative safety of the light cruiser.

"First," Boniece said slowly, "I must disabuse you of the notion that the Silesians had anything to do with the taking of Aaron's Rod. Apparently, they were smugglers whose run happened to coincide with the arrival on Aaron's Rod of her new crew."

"New crew? Do you mean the women?"

"The Captain Judith to whom I spoke claims birth in the Yeltsin System," Boniece said. "She says her companions wish to emigrate from the Endicott System."

"Judith?" Templeton was so angry that he became momentarily incoherent. "That green-eyed whore . . . Is she behind this?"

"I suggest you speak with her yourself."

"Speak with a woman? Are you as crazy as they are?"

"I speak with women on a regular basis, Mr. Templeton. Umeko Palmer, my XO, is a woman. For that matter, I serve a woman—my Queen."

Templeton's sputter faded into something far uglier, an icy fury that made Carlie shiver.

"Captain Boniece, I advise you to cease interference in something that does not involve you or the Star Kingdom of Manticore. I will reclaim my ship and my property, with or without your assistance. Indeed, there may be others quite eager to assist me."

"Perhaps," Boniece replied, his tone equally cold. "However, I will not. Intransigent out."

He uncurled his fist and spoke in something more like his usual tones. Then he turned to Maurice Townsend, the tac officer.

"Guns, stand by. Com, get me Mr. Winton aboard Aaron's Rod, I want to know what's keeping him. Then place a call to Moscow. I want her captain to know that we'll view it quite unkindly if they interfere with Judith of Grayson's efforts to return home."

"Do you think they'll listen?" Townsend asked.

"I think so," Boniece said, grimly. "If they don't, then Intransigent is going to be responsible for starting a shooting war with the Peeps."

* * *

Judith had never even imagined someone with skin as dark as Michael Winton's. It reminded her of the night sky without stars. She corrected herself when he smiled at her as she concluded her report to Captain Boniece regarding the upgrades to Psalms and Proverbs. That smile and the brightness of his eyes put stars in the sky.

Perhaps it was because Michael Winton was so unlike any other man she'd seen—more a youth hardly out of boyhood in appearance than a man, his gaze the warm brown of a friendly animal's—but she found him easy to speak to. When he offered to delay his departure from Aaron's Rod long enough to make sure they were getting everything they could out of her inertial compensator, she accepted with ease.

It was at that moment that Intransigent signaled.

"We've had contact from Ephraim Templeton," Captain Boniece said bluntly. "I'm squirting a copy for your information. In brief, he's extremely angry."

"We never thought otherwise," Judith replied. "He will kill us all if he captures us, down to the least unborn babe."

Inadvertently, she cupped her hand over her abdomen as she spoke.

"He wants Aaron's Rod back," Boniece continued. "That may offer some protection."

"I doubt it," Judith replied. "He is like God—terrible in His wrath."

"Is Mr. Winton available?"

"I'm here, Sir," Michael cut in. "Captain Judith and I have just been discussing how to increase this ship's acceleration. Their engineers . . . aren't very experienced, Sir."

Captain Boniece blinked.

"I should have thought of that myself." He shook his head and gave Judith a quick, measuring glance. "In fact, it's remarkable that they have managed as much as they have, under the circumstances they must have faced. My compliments, Captain."

"I fear that Mr. Winton speaks only too accurately of our limitations," Judith admitted. "My Sisters studied hard, but the sims could teach any of us only so much, and—"

Sherlyn cut in, just as Judith became aware of staccato voices in the background of Captain Boniece's transmission.

"Proverbs and Psalms have raised their speed. They are splitting to go around Intransigent and come after us!"

Boniece returned his attention to her.

"Captain Judith, have you . . ."

"Yes. Ephraim is angry. He is coming for us."

"I am going to attempt to intervene, but it's going to be tough with them splitting that way. I don't want to be the first to fire."

"I understand."

Michael Winton leaned into the pick-up.

"Captain, I request permission to stay aboard Aaron's Rod and assist. Chief Lorne says PO O'Donnel knows his compensators backward and forward. I think we can increase her acceleration substantially if Captain Judith is willing to let him manage her safety margin."

"Mr. Winton . . ."

Captain Boniece seemed to be about to refuse. Judith never knew why he didn't. Was he thinking of the vulnerability of a pinnace out there against Ephraim's enhanced privateers? Was he thinking of how coordinating a rendezvous would restrict Intransigent's own maneuvers? Was he thinking how desperately Aaron's Rod needed every trained hand?

For whatever reason, Captain Boniece gave a crisp nod.

"Permission granted. You are to place yourself and your pinnace crew at Captain Judith's disposal."

"Yes, Sir!"

"Run for the hyper limit, Captain Judith. Good luck. Intransigent out."

* * *

Carlie tried not to voice her protest when Captain Boniece permitted Michael Winton to stay aboard Aaron's Rod, but something must have squeaked out. Boniece gave her a thin, hard-lipped grin.

"Well, ATO, I don't think anyone will think we've gone soft on our middies."

She managed an answering grin.

"No, Sir."

"Tactical, we're fighting defensive," the captain continued. "I do not, I repeat not want to fire on either Psalms or Proverbs. However, feel free to intercept their fire."

"You think they'll fire on us?" Maurice Townsend, the senior tac officer said in disbelief.

"Not on us, Guns," Boniece gestured vaguely toward where Aaron's Rod was picking up speed. "On her."

"They're splitting, Captain," Carlie reported, firing off coordinates.

"Above and below us," Boniece said. "Not bad. They know we can only keep our wedge between Aaron's Rod and one opponent. Ephraim Templeton's on Proverbs and he sounded angry enough to blow his wives and daughters into the heavens. We'll keep between Proverbs and Aaron's Rod.

"As for Psalms, I want point defense's perimeter extended to cover any fire from her. Send out a few decoys, too. They won't know for a while what they can ignore and what they can't. They can't be sure they didn't insult us beyond prudence.

"Remember, they've been modified. Their power plants and compensators are better, maneuverability increased. For all we know they've been up-gunned, as well. Don't make the mistake of thinking of these as just a couple of merchies."

Despite Boniece's warning, Carlie did find it hard not to underestimate Psalms and Proverbs. Not only were they merchies, they were from cultures several steps down the tech ladder from Manticore. It didn't take long—a couple of narrow misses on missiles—for her to realize that Proverbs and Psalms had an asset that nearly compensated for their disadvantages: killer crews.

Their warheads were pathetic by Manticoran standards, and their ECM was even worse. But even an old-fashioned nuke could kill if it got through, and their rate of fire was high. Their fire control must have profited from enhancement as well, for their targeting was excellent and their tac officers adjusted for Intransigent's dummies with thoughtful insight.

"I wonder," Tab Tilson commented after a particularly nasty brush, "just how many merchant vessels were 'lost' to this pair?"

"Too many," Boniece commented. "We may owe the Silesian pirates an apology."

There was a harsh laugh at that, but then Psalms put on a burst of acceleration, obviously trying to edge around Intransigent and get at Judith's ship. Ignoring the light cruiser, Psalms bore down on Aaron's Rod, seeking an angle where the other ship's wedge wouldn't protect her from attack.

Boniece was issuing orders with the measured calm that came over him when he was at his most intense, and Carlie felt her fingers flying to comply. One, two, three . . . She thought she had intercepted all the missiles heading toward Aaron's Rod, then another battery went off.

Four, five . . . 

Aaron's Rod fired lasers, intercepting the incoming missiles neatly, but a fresh broadside followed on their heels.

"Captain," Carlie heard her own voice like a stranger's, "Proverbs is speeding up and edging around us to port. If we're not careful . . ."

"Keep us between Proverbs and her target," Boniece commanded. "So far Aaron's Rod is doing some tidy defensive fire."

Carlie glanced at her board, but the hyper limit was still impossibly far away. She didn't know how much longer they could keep this on a purely defensive footing. The consequences if they did not, especially since to this point neither Psalms nor Proverbs had fired on Intransigent . . . 

She couldn't let herself think about it. Then she saw it, a missile from Psalms slipped through the joint defenses.

"Aaron's Rod has been hit!"

* * *

Michael Winton had gotten off the bridge almost immediately. His peculiar rapport with Captain Judith didn't extend to the rest of her bridge crew—Dinah possibly excepted—and he knew he was interfering with her ability to command.

He convinced Zaneta, the head of his armed escort, to take him back to his pinnace.

"O'Donnel, they need you in Engineering," he said crisply, and waved at one of Zaneta's Samson's Bane. "She'll take you there. How far you reduce the safety margin is up to Captain Judith, but I think we're going to have to get as close to maximum military power as you can take us."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

The petty officer sounded calm, but Michael saw the truth in his eyes. Maximum military power would mean running the compensator with no safety margin at all. That would enormously increase the possibility that it might fail and kill them all . . . but it would also give Judith at least half again the acceleration she'd been able to maintain so far.

"Good," Michael approved as warmly as he could. "On your way, then."

O'Donnel nodded and went jogging away behind his guide while Michael turned back to the other two crewmen.

"As for us, I think we'll serve best as damage control," he went on, both to them and the listening Zaneta. "Can you introduce us to the Chief, Ma'am?"

Zaneta did so. Rena proved to be Ephraim's third wife. Michael couldn't help but wonder both how many women Ephraim had married, and what kind of man he was that they were willing to risk so much to get away from him.

He didn't ask. Rena made him rather nervous.

A battle from below decks, rather than the bridge, proved to be a strange and elusive thing, a little like a very bad nightmare where everything shifts at the least prompting.

Michael's first assignment was to repair a set of overheating relays for one of the impeller nodes. O'Donnel was obviously doing his job with the compensator, Michael reflected. Aaron's Rod was no longer crawling by anyone's estimate. In fact, he doubted that even when she turned privateer she'd ever needed to pour on the heat this way.

Chief Lorne was diverted to sickbay when Michael learned that he'd done time as a sick berth assistant before becoming a coxswain. So far, the Sisters had been unreasonably lucky, and Michael knew it. The most frightened might have required sedation, but no one had been seriously injured during the escape. Yet. But, then, Aaron's Rod hadn't taken any hits yet, either.

With Lorne in sickbay and O'Donnel nursing the ship's compensator, PO Parello, Lorne's copilot, ended up in gunnery checking a hinky laser mount. That left them spread out over the entire ship, but their personal coms kept all four of them in close contact.

The absence of titles and the first names that were all the women gave for identification created a sense of intimacy almost immediately. If it hadn't been that Zaneta followed him everywhere, Michael might even have felt accepted. Even she soon tucked her weapon in its holster, and held leads and lines without comment.

Then a missile impact rocked Aaron's Rod. Michael froze, waiting for Rena's report.

"Aft cargo hold breached," she snapped. "Seals holding. Mr. Winton, anything on that pinnace of yours?"

They'd already handed out the med kits, vac suits, and anything else from the pinnace's stores that Michael thought could help even the odds.

"No problem," he said.

Another shudder went through and this time Rena paled.

"Sheared off one of the lasers. We've lost two Sisters in gunnery control. Teresa is taking Dara to sickbay."

Michael waited to be sent, but Rena just gave him a sad smile.

"Nothing we can do for a part that's missing. Teresa sealed the compartment and we're not losing much."

More reports came in. Michael found himself down in Engineering, flat on his belly reprogramming software to divert around a damaged circuit. His universe resolved into small problems, each intensely important while it lasted, each superseded by yet another problem as overtaxed systems collapsed under the strain of compensating for their fellows.

He wondered why Intransigent wasn't doing more to protect them, and discovered to his shock that she was soaking up most of the damage. He'd forgotten how vulnerable these older model ships were. Forgotten if he'd ever known . . . 

And the nightmare kept going on.

* * *

When she could spare a glance from her own duties, Judith felt nothing but awe for what Intransigent was doing. The light cruiser was keeping Proverbs at bay with nothing more—at least so it seemed—than her presence. Psalms had slipped around, but very few of the missiles Gideon Templeton lobbed relentlessly at the ship carrying his mother, step-mothers, and even a few of his children, got through.

Judith remembered her lessons and did her best to keep the cruiser's wedge between Aaron's Rod and incoming fire. She was fully aware that she wasn't managing it as well as a properly trained helmswoman might have, just as she knew that her inexperience kept her from rolling Aaron's Rod with the sort of confidence that would have used the privateer's own wedge with proper efficiency. But she was doing the best she could. She knew that . . . and so did any God who might actually be listening.

Besides, she had other things to worry about, as well. Along with Dinah, she was also responsible for point defense, fighting to intercept the incoming fire that got past Intransigent. They did well, but she was aware of how the older woman was slowing, her breathing becoming labored.

"Dinah, you need to rest," Judith said.

"I will have time enough to rest," Dinah said. "How far to the hyper limit?"

"Fifteen minutes."

"I can last fifteen minutes," Dinah insisted.

Judith couldn't press. She needed to do so much. Odelia had received coordinates for their translation into hyper-space from Captain Boniece, but Judith still had to put them in. She had to adapt her tactics, such as they were, to systems that kept failing. Sherlyn's sensors were only giving partial information as missile strikes wiped away external feed.

Yet minute by minute, the hyper limit approached. Something had happened, for Psalms was no longer following so closely. Maybe Intransigent had gotten frustrated and fired on it. Maybe even the Havenite modifications to the Masadan engineering couldn't take the strain.

Five.

"Odelia, tell Naomi to have the passengers prepare for translation into hyper."

Four.

"Judith! Proverbs is dropping back. Sensors show . . . I'm not sure what they show. I think a drive is out."

Three.

"We're leaking atmosphere from aft. Life support isn't happy about it."

Two.

"Judith . . ."

Dinah's face was very gray. When Judith grabbed her, she saw the read-outs on the older woman's vac suit were flickering from green to amber.

"My heart . . . I can't breathe . . ."

One.

"Hyper limit fifty-nine seconds," the computer intoned.

Judith thrust Dinah into the captain's chair, praying to a God she desperately wanted to believe in for one more miracle. She took a moment to fasten the straps on the frighteningly limp figure.

"Odelia, we need a medic on the bridge. Now! I think Dinah's having a heart attack."

"Thirty seconds."

Judith could hear Odelia calling for a medic, giving the warnings, signaling Intransigent that they'd resume contact after they'd translated into hyper. She leaned to the astrogation panel, pressed the buttons as she had done so many times in sims.

There was a strange feeling and the universe seemed to hiccup abruptly. She had the impression of distant cheering coming over open com links. The bridge was strangely quiet.

Judith rose and cradled Dinah's head against her. She saw gray lips move, bent her head to listen.

"We're safe?" Dinah whispered.

"Safe," Judith managed a stiff smile.

"I think," Dinah coughed. "I will never see the Promised Land, but my daughters . . ."

"Will!" Judith completed fiercely when the other woman could not draw breath. "As will you."

"Moses . . ."

"You call me that," Judith said, "but you are truly Moses, I was only your handmaid."

Dinah's lips twisted in what might have been a wry smile, might only have been pain.

"Moses never saw . . ."

"The Promised Land?" Judith finished. "Moses doubted God, but you never did. God will send one more miracle."

But Dinah was very still now, and slowly, one by one, the telltales on her suit shifted to red, then black.

Judith, who had not lost control for one moment during those interminable hours of flight and battle, bent her head and wept.

* * *

Carlie kept her gaze locked on the sensor boards, but there was no sign that either Psalms or Proverbs had followed them into hyper. Certainly Proverbs had shown signs of a drive malfunction, but Psalms might have had enough. She supposed they'd know someday, but right now it was enough to give her report.

"No sign of pursuit, Captain."

"Very good, Lieutenant. Com, contact Captain Judith."

Tab Tilson's voice held such concern when he spoke, that Carlie jerked her head around to look.

"Captain, Odelia—that's their com officer—says Captain Judith isn't available right now and would you talk to her?"

Captain Boniece blinked, but adjusted to the odd request.

"Put her on screen."

The screen took shape of image of a plain woman with round features and long hair drawn into a knot at the back of her head. Her eyes were red from weeping, but her expression tightened with determination as she looked at Captain Boniece.

"How may I help you?"

She sounded like she was offering to serve drinks, not in apparent command of a fighting ship's bridge.

"I had hoped to speak with Captain Judith," Boniece replied. "We registered no hits on the bridge. Is she . . ."

Odelia interrupted before Boniece could finish his rather awkward query.

"She lives, but Dinah . . ." She paused and gulped, tears welling back in her eyes. "Dinah is dying. Her heart."

Carlie doubted that Captain Boniece could make any more of this than she could, but he adapted smoothly.

"Medical emergency. It may be we can help. I'll send coordinates for taking Aaron's Rod out of the grav wave. Then our ships can rendezvous, and I'll extend every assistance my ship can offer. Is Mr. Winton available?"

"He is also with Dinah," Odelia said. "But I can link you to any or all of your other men."

Carlie saw Boniece relax marginally, and realized that he had been dreading that his men—like the Silesian smugglers—might have been killed by these fanatics.

"Give me PO O'Donnel," he said.

* * *

Michael Winton came aboard Intransigent shortly after the two ships left the grav wave. He looked tired and thinner, but Carlie Dunsinane thought that impossibly he might well have grown several inches. Maybe it was that he now walked straighter, his head held like a prince—or like the Navy officer he'd proven himself worthy to be.

They'd already had his report, transmitted as soon as the immediate crisis was over. Reading between the lines of his neat prose it had been a tough couple of hours.

Simply put, Aaron's Rod was a good ship for her type, but she'd never been intended for the punishment she'd taken during that Exodus. For days to come there would be repairs to make, systems to bring back on-line. Though Michael never said so, Captain Boniece had been wise to leave the four Intransigent crewmen on board. Without their skills, Aaron's Rod could never have won that deadly race.

Even so there were the wounded and dead. Few enough if this had been a military action, but in this close-knit community of rebels, each loss had been felt as if it had been of, well, a sister.

Worst, perhaps, had been the heart attack suffered by Dinah, senior wife of Ephraim Templeton, and, Carlie now realized, the true leader of the Exodus. Judith had been ship's captain, but Dinah had been admiral. Her collapse, just when the Sisterhood should have been able to feel joy at their release, had nearly broken them.

Carlie watched as Michael turned to take one end of the stretcher being extended out of the pinnace's side hatch. The other end was held by a green-eyed girl who Carlie realized with a shock was Captain Judith.

She covered her own reaction by stepping forward with the grav-assisted stretcher she'd brought from sickbay, no one questioning that an ATO would do the job of a medical attendant. The attendants were there, though, as was Surgeon Commander Kiah Rink, who immediately took charge.

"You'll save Dinah?" Judith asked, reaching out to Rink. "Tell us you will."

"I'll do what I can," Rink said, bending over the stretcher and taking readings, "and I'll do it better if you'll let me get her and my other patients to sickbay."

She softened.

"The oxygen was a good idea. So were the rest of the measures you took. You've done all you can. Let it go."

"Michael did it," Judith said, looking at him with pride. "Came to the bridge when we called for a medic. He had one of the kits from your pinnace. Your medicine is far better than Masadan medicine—and he had been trained that a woman needs different care than does a man."

Michael was too dark to show a blush, but Carlie had the distinct impression he was coloring.

"Why don't both of you escort the wounded to sickbay," she suggested. "Mr. Winton, when the wounded are settled, please escort Captain Judith to Captain Boniece, then report to me."

"I must return to my ship!" Judith protested.

"If you'll permit, Captain, we'll send over a relief crew," Carlie said. "I have one standing by, all women, under Commander Umeko Palmer, our own XO."

Judith smiled.

"Thank you for your consideration. I will accept your relief crew, but it does not need to be all women. The Sisterhood does not mind men—not if they are Manticorans."

 

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