2950-07-05 – Tales from the Inbox: A Personal Mission

Still working on that interview. I thought I had something lined up with one of the senior members of the Fifth Fleet command staff, but the officer who’d scheduled with us canceled at the last moment and I later learned that he has been reassigned to Admiral Abarca’s Seventh Fleet staff effective immediately. 

In the meantime, I’ve received a series of messages from a previous correspondant, pseudonymously named Ramiro W. in this space, who sent in an account I broke down into several segments for this feed (the first two are Tales from the Inbox: A Spacer’s Ruination and Tales from the Inbox: A Spacer’s Tempest). Where prior events took place late last year, he claims the events of this new account took place recently – perhaps ending as recently as this prior week, though he was deliberately vague as to this detail.
While as usual with these accounts I cannot verify them, I find the events described quite plausible, and will use them in this space until either Fifth Fleet Headquarters gives me the interview I’m looking for, or something else worth immediate coverage takes place here on the Frontier. 

The moment moment Livia escorted the passenger aboard, Ramiro knew he’d be trouble. The little man’s deeply shadowed eyes stayed firmly locked to the deck in front of his feet, and the fine smart-fabric clothing that had once been carefully configured to hug his stooped shoulders and wiry frame now hung limply after a recent and apparently extreme weight loss. He clutched a satchel to his chest with both hands, and a single self-powered, wheeled valise trundled behind him, unheeded. The man had the look of a thing hunted and tired of running. 

Ramiro caught Livia’s eyes over the man’s shoulder and gave her the slightest shake of his head. He had let her talk him into configuring Jen Daley for limited passenger service and flying her all the way to Maribel on the understanding that they’d be ferrying well-off but boring Maribelans to safer ports farther from the war’s ravages. If they turned away the worn-out little man, they’d have five other clients lined up in an hour, none of whom were being hunted by anything worse than their own fears. 

Livia met Ramiro’s gaze with a smile and a wink before sealing the airlock behind her. “Mr. A., this is Ramiro, Daley’s skipper.” 

Ramiro winced, but squared his shoulders and extended a hand. “I understand you’re looking to hire passage to Allenden?” 

The man glanced up at Ramiro only for a moment. “Uh, yes, Allenden. When can we leave?” 

“I’ll request departure clearance when we’ve-” 

“When we're done loading your cargo.” Livia held up a hand behind Mr. A, rubbing her fingers together in the universal signal for money. “Come on, Mr. A., let me show you our passenger cabin. We just had it re-done in January, you know. Right this way.” 

Ramiro did his best to stare daggers at Livia’s back as she led the stranger deeper into his ship. He wanted this “Mr. A.” off his ship, and was wondering whether or not to offload Livia with him. Their arrangement had been clear – he had the final say in who came aboard, and where they would be taken. 

Just as she herded the man around the corner and up to the hab deck, she flashed a sunny and entirely insincere smile over her shoulder.  

Ramiro dropped his shoulders, shook his head, and headed up to the ship’s tiny one-seat command deck. Livia would explain what she was up to if she wanted the ship to go anywhere; she couldn’t fly Jen Daley even if she could hack past his access codes. 

Almost as soon as he sat down, Ramiro heard Livia’s quiet footsteps in the corridor behind him. 

“Poor bastard barely made it to the bed.” Livia chuckled, snaking one arm around the back of the chair to grip Ramiro’s shoulder. “How’s that departure clearance?” 

“We aren’t moving. Get him off my ship, Liv. You know better than I do that he’s-” 

“That he’s got all the Hells following him?” Livia pulled on the chair, turning Ramiro toward her. “Damned right I do, based on what he paid. I’ve got that covered, as long as we get out in the next few hours." 

Ramiro folded his arms and shook his head. He was still Daley’s skipper. He’d gone to space so that he wouldn’t have to answer to anyone, especially not Livia Farran. “I don’t care what he paid. Give it back and get him off my ship.” 

Livia reacted to the phrase “give it back” the way most people would react to a blow to the chest, gasping and stepping back into the corridor. “Ramie, you don’t understand, he’s-” 

“You are damned right. I don’t understand. Next time, it might be smart to rectify that before you promise anything to anybody.” Ramiro removed her hand from his chair and spun it back to the controls. “Get him off.” 

Livia stood silent and still at the threshold for some time as Ramiro initiated several systems diagnostics and checked the ship’s various security feeds to look busy. He didn’t doubt that she was trying to seem hurt and confused, but she knew perfectly well what she’d done. She’d been aboard his ship nearly seven months now, and this was the first time she dared to push their little partnership to see how far it would bend in her favor. Ramiro had honestly been secretly impressed that she’d been so well behaved for so long, but the habits and instincts of a con artist died hard. 

“Look, Ramie, I’m sorry. I didn’t have time to comm.” Livia stepped forward again, leaning on one of the outlying console displays. “He paid fifty thousand up front, and he says he has fifty more if we can get him to Allenden in ten days or less. He’s only got a hundred kilos of cargo. We can’t pass this up.” 

“I am passing this up.” Ramiro did his best not to let slip how impressed he was with the sum the would-be passenger had promised – it amounted to nearly a fifth of the value of his entire ship. It wasn't a high enough sum for him to surrender final say over his own vessel, but it was impressive sum for a simple passenger and cargo haul. “And you know why.” 

Livia’s silence indicated that she did indeed know exactly what she’d dome wrong. Her full lips pursed and twitched from side to side as she considered the situation and searched desperately for some way out of it. 

Ramiro shook his head. “If he’s not off the ship in thirty minutes, I’m putting you both on the other side of an airlock and setting a course back to Philadelphia.” 

“Fine.” Livia winced and looked out forward, where the hull panels of the spaceport curved away into the darkness. Neither the stellar primary nor the planet of Maribel were visible, but Ramiro knew that in a few minutes, both would appear. “If you dump him, I’m going with him anyway.” 

“I-” Ramiro shut his mouth before a traitorous thought could escape and enslave him to Livia’s will and whim, perhaps forever. He took a slow, deep breath. “What about this poor bastard’s got you so worked up? What happened to all the time you need to work your big score?” 

Livia squeezed her eyes shut. “Can you just trust me with this one? Please?” 

Ramiro wanted to say yes, but he knew the folly of that course. “Liv, if you knew I’d say yes to carrying him, you’d have told me the problem. You think I’d refuse to fly him if I knew what you did, so you’re making me either throw him out or admit that you own me.” 

Livia straightened. “Is that what you think this is? Some petty power struggle?” 

Ramiro raised one eyebrow, not bothering to agree. Livia already knew that’s what it looked like, and he had no interest in pretending her surprised reaction was genuine. 

Livia met Ramiro’s gaze for a few seconds, then looked away. “Cards on the table, Ramie. This one... it’s sort of close to home. You can keep the whole hundred thousand if that helps.” 

Ramiro wondered how much of her hurt expression was genuine, and how much of it was exaggerated for effect. Somehow, he knew that not all of it was fake. Making a show of thinking about the situation, he held out one finger. “On one condition.” 

Livia nodded suspiciously, expecting a hard counter-bargain. 

Ramiro shrugged. “Hand over your encryption keys. All of them. You can change them after we drop him off." 

Livia paled, her lips parting in a quickly-stifled gasp. “You can’t be serious. You know how much that’s-” 

“Trust for trust.” Ramiro pointed to the console. “Transfer them and I’ll call station control.” 

Livia stormed out and down the corridor. For a moment, Ramiro wondered whether he was wrong and she was going to eject the passenger after all, but his console pinged a moment later.  

After verifying that the keys she’d sent worked on all her files in the ship’s datasphere and on several items tagged to her wider digital footprint, Ramiro requested departure clearance, curious what could be so personal to Livia Farran that she’d lay bare her entire catalogue of fraud over it. 

2950-06-28 – Tales from the Service: The Professor’s Landfall 

As Rubicelle Randy sailed past the huge doors of the enemy transport’s launch hangar, Rachel Aldershoff shut off the ion drive and kicked on the standard gravitics. She’d watched several shuttles do this, so it was fairly easy to mimic the acceleration profile of these larger, lumbering transports. At first, she was tense, worried that a particularly attentive sensor-watching spacer aboard the transport would raise the alarm, but as the seconds ticked by, she was increasingly certain that none of the various members of the Incarnation crew had noticed anything amiss or started to ask questions. 

As the huge transport moved out of view behind Randy, Jarvis Courtenay drummed his fingers on the back of Rachel’s chair. “This is the fastest we can go, yes?” 

“This is as fast as we can go without being really suspicious, Professor.” Rachel tightened her grip on the controls. “You’d better go below and get strapped in. Re-entry tends to get bumpy, even through the A-grav.” 

Courtenay made a grumbling sound but hurried down the passage all the same. Rachel switched one of her screens over to show the bearing to his landing coordinates, then focused on trying to fly an atmospheric insertion as much like a lumbering cargo shuttle as she possibly could. 

It was only as the controls started to vibrate and jump that Rachel put two of the things at the forefront of her mind together and found that they did not match. The shuttles were going down to various places on the surface of Adimari Valis with their gravitic drives indicating lighter loads, and they were coming back with their drives straining and clawing for every meter of climb. On a world like Margaux, an industrial powerhouse by Frontier standards, that would make perfect sense – the invaders would have co-opted the planet’s industry for their war machine. Adimari Valis, however, had nowhere near the industrial base or the agricultural output to fill so many shuttles or the cavernous holds of as many transport ships as had just departed. 

In fact, other than a few minor deposits of rare earths, Adimari Valis had virtually no resources worth extracting. What, then, was the Incarnation dragging away in such quantities? 

The increasingly violent attempts by the planet’s upper atmosphere to hurl her craft off course forced Rachel to sideline this thought for a little while to wrestle with the controls. When Rubicelle Randy leveled off at ten thousand meters and flew level to let its hull cool off, she turned toward their destination and flicked on the ship’s intercom. Shadows cast by the planet’s bright blue-white primary lengthened and traveled across her consoles as Randy performed a wide, sweeping turn. 

“Welcome to Adimari Valis, Professor Courtenay. Altitude is ten klicks, pursuit is negative. You may now walk about the vessel, and if you would be so kind, could you come up here?” 

“On my way.” 

Courtenay stumped up the passage a moment later. Rachel switched the controls to automatic and spun her big chair toward the passenger. “Something’s been bugging me here. You’re an analytical sort, and you know Valis reasonably well, but you didn’t ask the obvious question.” 

Courtenay bowed his head. “I fear I’ve asked many obvious questions with obvious answers since you’ve had me aboard. Which did I miss?” 

“You saw all those transports same as I did. Shouldn’t that much traffic be odd? What are they moving around that has to come from Adimari Valis?” 

Courtenay raised his head, and one eyebrow. “Mathematically, yes, it is odd. I might have asked, had I not already been aware of the level of activity.” 

“You know what they’re moving.” 

“So do you, Captain Aldershoff. At least, you do now.” Courtenay looked out at the blue-gray sky beyond the canopy. “There really is only one possibility, isn’t there?” 

Rachel scowled. “That’s damned insane. Even for Nate. What do they want with all of it? Where will they take it?” 

“That, I neither know nor care.” Courtenay’s face suddenly took on a hard-edged look that Rachel didn’t like. “They are taking it from here, knowing as well as I do how much knowledge is lost in the very moving. Knowing, and still doing it... It is worse than sacrilege.” 

Rachel wouldn’t take it quite that far, but given her passenger’s academic specialization, she could hardly blame him for his anger. “You can’t do a damned thing to stop it, though.” 

“No.” Courtenay shook his head, his eyes still focused on the distant sky. “I cannot.” 

The console behind Rachel beeped, and she spun her chair back around to find that they were approaching the top of their long spiraling arc toward the ground. As Rubicelle Randy overflew the landing site, she used the ventral cameras to spy out the place. It looked like just another stretch of rocky Adimari Valis uplands, far from the nearest of the lush valleys where most of the population lived. There was no sign of life, not even the crumbled foundations of a Xenarch ruin. “You said your son was at a dig site? I sure don’t see anything like that here.” 

“Much work has been done to conceal it from the invaders.” Courtenay leaned over the side of the controls to point at the images. “Can you put this ship on that open ground there?” 

Rachel chuckled. “Old man, I could park this ship on a lighter’s tailplane.”  

As the ship looped around on its programmed course, she cut the automatics and took control back personally, adopting a low and fast approach that would leave plenty of speed for an escape climb if there was trouble. Fortunately, as the last knob of rock fell away to reveal the landing site, she saw no sign of Incarnation presence in the air or on the ground. With one graceful motion, she flipped the nose up, deployed the landing skids, then brought Rubicelle Randy down lightly onto the bone-white Adimari Valis gravel. 

“Job’s done, Professor.” Rachel held up a hand. “Hand over the chits.” 

Courtenay chuckled, then fished in his pocket for the ring of credit chits he’d showed her prior to departure from Maribel. “You still need to get out alive.” 

“I’ll figure that out when I get to it.” She had already shown the man far more of her secrets than she cared to. “I’ll wait an hour for a welcoming party, then you’re either getting off my ship or paying for the return flight.” 

Courtenay dropped the chits into Rachel’s hand. As she counted her fee, Rachel put the ship’s perimeter security system on high alert. She had no interest in being highjacked by a bunch of desperate mercenaries. 

“Aren’t you curious?” 

Rachel, who had forgotten her passenger’s presence, nearly jumped out of her chair. “Eh? About what?” 

“About what’s down here. What’s right under your nose, that is worth all this money and danger.” 

Rachel looked over her shoulder at the man. “Curiosity gets you killed in my business, Professor. Even when it isn’t lethal, it sure doesn’t pay.” 

Courtenay nodded, his eyes twinkling with mirth that hadn’t managed to tug the corners of his mouth into a smile. “As you prefer.” 

The console shrieked an alarm, and Rachel turned back to see several figures cowled in cloth as bone-white as the rocks coming over a nearby ridge-line. The weapons slung over their backs were similarly wrapped in fabric, but their outlines were unmistakable all the same. 

“That would be my welcoming party.” Jarvis Courtenay extended a hand. “It has been a pleasure flying with you, Captain Aldershoff.” 

Rachel eyed the tall man’s hand suspiciously before shaking it. “It’s been interesting, Professor. Try to be safe out there.” 

“I shall make no promises.” Courtenay turned to head below and collect his effects.  

Things are still in flux here at Maribel, but I am hopeful that next week’s episode will include a transcribed interview with someone in Admiral Venturi’s headquarters. This has been challenging to arrange because about half of the members of Fifth Fleet senior staff have been officially transferred to other commands, but most of them are still in-system and their replacements have yet to arrive. 

[N.T.B.: Before our Maribel readers get worried or Nate gets any ideas, the command shake-up doesn’t extend below the level of the senior staff. Captain Liao and all of his peers remain in their posts. Small-scale operations are continuing, and Maribel will be a tough nut to crack.]  

2950-06-21 – Tales from the Service: The Professor’s Anticipation 

News has reached us here that Seventh Fleet has apparently fought a large battle at Sagittarius Gate in the last few days. Since they still hold that system, this seems good news, but we don’t have good data on losses there yet.  

The only other major news here is that the battleship Maribel, which as far as I know is still slated to be sent across the Gap to Seventh Fleet, arrived here at its namesake system recently. The Navy has been showing the ship off to local officials and celebrities, presumably to show off the vast capabilities of this newest battleship in the entire fleet and to put local fears about this world’s safety at ease. I can't see how a ship about to be sent away will put them much at ease, but perhaps the Admiralty intends the next ship in the class to come to Fifth Fleet.

“This is going to work, correct?” 

Rachel Aldershoff scowled down into her controls, where she knew her passenger wouldn’t see it. For at least the twentieth time in five hours, she reminded herself that Professor Courtenay was no spacer, and probably had not left Maribel in many years prior to booking passage aboard her little ship. 

“Probably.” Rachel tried her best to sound chipper rather than frustrated. “There are no guarantees in this sort of work.” 

“Hmm.” Courtenay tapped on the headrest of Rachel’s chair for a few moments. “Well, do let me know if there’s anything I can do.” With that, he turned and headed back down the passage to the lounge.  

As Rubicelle Randy crept closer to Adimari Valis, the professor’s nervousness – or perhaps excitement – was growing, and with it his obvious sense of his helpless situation. Rachel could hardly blame her passenger for feeling useless and knowing that his fate was out of his own hands, but she absolutely intended to blame him for venting his unease by wandering up to the cockpit every few minutes to pose inane questions.  

Sneaking into an Incarnation-occupied system to land on a world wholly under sway of its chip-headed, lockstep legions was stressful enough. Rachel had originally outfitted her ship to evade the notice of the Coreward Frontier’s various overworked, underfunded system authority patrols, lackadaisical militia squadrons, and even the occasional bored crew of a second-line Navy detachment, not to slip un-noticed into actively patrolled warzones. That Incarnation front-line ships seemed to have better sensors than anything else in the Reach was nothing short of discouraging. If the only two major warships in-system weren’t dwindling toward the edge of Matusalemme’s grav shadow, she wouldn’t have attempted to put Professor Courtenay on the ground for any amount of credits. 

As it was, she had to bank on the remaining Incarnation forces having far weaker sensor suites. Of the half-dozen smaller vessels still in planetary orbit with the convoy’s departure, this seemed a safe bet – four were clearly former vessels of the Confederated Navy or its mercenary auxiliaries captured in the battle for the system and put back into service, and the other two were boxy, decrepit-looking transports of some variety. The force was less than the pre-war system defense forces of the large colonies in the region, but Rachel had to wonder as the hours ticked by whether any of them carried the advanced sensors of a proper Incarnation warship. If they did, she and her passenger would never reach the surface, except maybe as a brief meteor shower. 

Getting close enough to enter the atmosphere was only the first problem. When Randy hit the upper atmosphere, its blazing descent would be apparent both on the ground and in orbit. The coordinates Courtenay had given her were for a site near the south pole, so she intended to hide within Adimari Valis’s almost regular displays of aurora australis, but even so, they’d probably have a patrol of strike craft scrambled after them within minutes. There’d be barely enough time to drop the Professor near his destination, then to burn back toward orbit. 

The console pinged, and Rachel glanced over to see that the computer had detected a stream of small launches moving from the planet’s surface to one of the transports and back. The vessels – probably no more than cargo shuttles – were not much bigger than Rubicelle Randy, and they seemed to be moving to and fro from many sites on the ground, so that a wide swath of the sky was dotted with them. 

“Finally a stroke of luck.” Rachel muttered, altering the ship’s course to approach as close to the transport as possible. If the hulk’s sensors were in similar state to its hull, she could probably creep right under its nose without being detected. 

Ninety minutes and three more of the Professor’s interruptions later, Rachel killed the ion drive and synced orbits with the big transport. She had parked on the opposite side of the big ship from the maw of its launch bay, and so far the Incarnation ship still had apparently not noticed her. Watching the stream of shuttles, she tried to estimate how long it took any given vessel to make one round trip. Unfortunately, it seemed to vary; the computer had detected several that had departed and returned in the intervening ninety minutes, but several also had departed and were still groundside. 

So focused on the stream of vessels was Rachel that she didn’t hear her passenger tromp up the passage once more. “My word!” Courtenay pointed past Rachel’s head to the pitted hull barely six hundred meters beyond. “Really, must we be this close? Won’t they see us?” 

“I hope not.” Rachel batted his hand away. “Really not the time, Professor.” 

Courtenay withdrew his hand, but did not return to the lounge. After a brief pause, he cleared his throat. “I think I see. We are going to use those little ships to conceal our landing?” 

Rachel glanced up at him and nodded. “That’s right. But first I need to find the right one.” 

“The right one to follow down?” 

Rachel smiled and shook her head. “I thought you did your research.” Spying a ship returning from the southern hemisphere, she tapped a control below the console and one of the screens changed to the controls for the special operations suite which had cost her more than the rest of the ship put together. “I think that one will do.” 

“Oh?” Courtenay leaned over the back of Rachel’s chair. 

Locking the system onto the rising vehicle, Rachel tapped the control to copy its drive signature. Randy vibrated as various parts of the gravitic drive shifted in their cowlings to achieve a perfect duplicate of the Incarnation shuttle’s signature. A few more taps, and she had queried and duplicated the vessel’s identification transponder. 

“We don’t have to follow him.” Rachel quickly entered a course that would have her ship pass close by the hangar doors, then follow the same course down that the targeted ship had taken on its return flight. “All we have to do is look like him long enough to get down to the dirt.” 

“I see.” Jarvis Courtenay chuckled. “Your reputation appears to have been well-earned, Miss Aldershoff.” 

“Hold the praise until we’re dirtside, Professor.” Rachel’s finger hovered over the button to start their descent, watching her new duplicate line up to enter the hangar. “There’s a damned lot that can stil go very wrong.” 

2950-06-14 – Tales from the Inbox: The Professor’s Calculations

“This is not going to work.” Rachel Aldershoff shook her head, turning one of the flexible-mounted displays to face her passenger. “There are two cruisers in orbit. That means a lot of strike patrols. We’re going to have to wait and see if they leave. I think they will, but we’re going to be here a while.” 

“Hmm.” Professor Jarvis Courtenay perched his chin on his fingers as he watched the two huge warships drift over the dull-brown face of Adimari Valis amid the silhouettes of smaller, boxier ships. “Why are they here?” 

“Convoy escorts for all those transports, I’d guess.” Rachel shrugged. “Could be days or weeks. We’ve got supplies, but there are other problems.” 

“But you aren’t being paid to sit out here and watch them.” The professor sighed. “I can pay you more than we agreed if this takes too long.” 

“Are you daft?” Rachel turned her chair around. “For what you’re paying, I’d sit out here near a month, if we weren’t going to be found out by then.” 

“Found out? I thought this ship was hard to find when you wanted it to be.” 

Rachel scoffed. “Sure, Rubicelle Randy is sneaky, but it’s not invisible. Out there, you’re looking at two military grade optical surveillance suites which are scanning the sky in all directions. They’ll see us eventually, probably just as a weird piece of metal where it shouldn’t be. Then they'll send a flight of Coronachs out here to have a look.” 

“Presumably, those will shoot us to bits.” Courtenay nodded. “How long do we have?” 

“I’m not staying here more than three or four shifts, not for a hundred million credits.” Rachel stood up and pushed past her passenger, heading for the food-fab machine in the ship’s passenger lounge. “I’ve got some decent monitoring gear too, though. Maybe good enough to detect when they send someone out to get us with time to escape.” 

Courtenay followed her through the narrow gangway and down into the lounge. “You don’t seem all that worried.” 

Punching in a request for coffee, Rachel flopped down in one of the more comfortable chairs. “There will be time for that later. Since we’re stuck for a while, though, maybe you should tell me something, Doctor Courtenay.” 

“Eh? What was that?” The man, leaned on one bulkhead, his head stooped down as if in thought, looked up. 

“You told me your son is down there at a dig.” Rachel gestured forward, to the planet far ahead. “You implied he was a xenoarchaeologist, like you, but he’s not, is he?” 

Courtenay’s eyes went wide, then his face became an unreadable mask. “What makes you say that?” 

“I know my business, Professor.” Rachel leaned over to take her coffee from the machine and watched her passenger over the top of the cup for several seconds. “You told me your son’s name, and I looked him up before we left Maribel. He’s no xenoarchaeologist, but it was more interesting to me that, at least officially, he’s been dead for two years.” 

“Ah.” Courtenay met Rachel’s eyes, and a slight smile tugged at his thin lips. “You read the records correct. But did you read deeply enough, I wonder?” 

Rachel shrugged. “The records say his ship was blown up trying to flee Adimari Valis a few hours too late. That ship was a mercenary troopship, not a research expedition vessel. Your son was a merc ground-pounder on a protection contract. Perhaps you were not lying when you said he was at a dig site, were you?” 

Courtenay arched one eyebrow. “My son is not very much like me. That did not seem relevant to our arrangement.” 

“You knew he wasn’t on that ship.” Rachel pointed to Courtenay. “You let the authorities score him dead, when you knew better. I found no record you even contested it.” 

“You stand at the edge of a precipice, Miss Aldershoff.” Jarvis Courtenay stepped away from the wall. “Care you do not fall in.” 

“What was he wrapped up in that-” 

A harsh beeping from the cockpit controls interrupted Rachel’s question. Scowling, she hopped up and rushed to see what was the matter. It was too early to have been spotted by Incarnation surveillance, at any rate. 

“Before you finish your question, be sure you will want the answer when you have it.” Courtenay called after her as she slid into the pilot’s seat. 

Rachel rolled her eyes and scanned the displays, noticing that the alarm had been raised by a change in the formation of ships orbiting the planet. The transports had grouped up into a tight formation, with one big Tyrant cruiser moving out to break orbit and the other falling in behind them. 

“Looks like our luck is holding.” Rachel squinted at the displays. Somehow, she knew Courtenay had come to her to barter passage already knowing something about the movement schedules of the Incarnation ships. She could never prove it, of course, and was hesitant to ask. Something about his suggestion to be sure she wanted the answer made her shiver. Who was the man she had aboard her ship? 

“Ah, excellent.” Courtenay appeared behind Rachel’s chair. “I trust this lessens your concerns about being detected?” 

Rachel looked up at the man, but not even a twinkle in his eyes suggested what he knew, or what he was thinking. “A bit.” She switched on the stealthy hooded-ion drive and carefully eased the throttle up to a tiny fraction of one gee acceleration. “Let’s get you down there.” 

This week, with everything here at Maribel still settling down after the leadership change, I have little to report. The fleet’s command staff has been pretty tight-lipped about Admiral Venturi’s first days as Fifth Fleet’s commander in chief, though I suppose that won’t last long. Rumors have been circulating about a big shakeup, but nothing has happened yet.