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Dec 29, 2019


In the sequel to Metal Hearts a shanghaied Julie Calvert is right back where she wanted never again to be. Her one-way ticket to a death zone has her nemesis sharing the ride. This time there's no hope of an outside rescue. She's doing it all on her own. The gigantic alien derelict spacecraft, home of an intelligence that may or may not be a friend, awaits. The new effort pits the crew of ISS Persephone and a stalwart force of ex imperial marines, bolstered by an army of maniacs, against the most powerful forces in the universe. Chances of success are not good, and not much better than the last time, but the prize is worth it: no less than ascendancy over all the human race.

Dec 29, 2019

Über den Autor

I am a retired HS math teacher. living in Alberta, Canada with Bachelor degrees in Education and humanities English. I've been writing since the early 1980s and my genre is Science Fiction.

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Mercenaries - Gabriel Darke


Chapter One - A Change in Plans

The Jack of Hearts no help despite how it complimented its companion face up cards. Wheeler scanned her competitors’ hands with a purposefully glum look. The only other up-card valued higher than her Jack was the Queen of Diamonds. Its recipient, despite obtaining her services early, had abdicated his betting privilege, even after the ten of the same suit arrived and was slipped beneath the Queen to respect her better.

Every other face-up card was a nine or less—false comfort to a marooned naval officer reduced to pin money to finance her day to day expenses. Every player had two cards face-down, ‘in the hole’, with which her opponents might produce some ruinous combinations against her.

Wheeler sucked in tobacco smoke, from the almond-flavoured cheroot that was courtesy of the civilian sitting across the table from her. The smoke coated the inside of her mouth before she expelled it gangster fashion: lips ajar, nostrils flared, eyes narrowed, cheeks drawn in.

A tenth, declared Engineer O’Shea, as the next to last distribution of cards sent the Seven of Clubs to twin with the Seven of Diamonds he already possessed. His token, denomination lowest, being yellow, skipped into the desultory heap centred on the table’s green cloth cover—the game as lacking in hazard as it was in enthusiasm.

The suede jacket warming the back of O’Shea’s chair backstopped a canary yellow polo shirt, its top buttons undone. Features rough and stubby were also moustached and topped with curly brown hair. Bushy brows, snub nose, mildly protuberant lips. His age a cosy late thirties.

The civilian, whose name was Shore, a man in his late sixties, followed the bet. The tenth of a credit hazarded would not be missed by the many tokens in the neat stacks piled between his elbows. Dove grey suit, red tie, white shirt that had started crisp and was by this a trifle melted. Jet black hair, lustreless pale blue eyes, dimpled chin. Shore cared more about winning than competition, socializing or even money. His mood was sour, at times passing into surly. When he won, he neither gloated nor grumbled, rather he exhibited a grim satisfaction.

The Queen, after being insulted by the Three of Clubs tossed on her crown, was quietly put on her face by the other engineer. Grandfather frumpy in plaid shirt and denims. Wrinkled face, lump of a nose, white hair. Embers was 127 years old. His associate O’Shea, two seats away, sniffed significantly.

Wheeler’s turn came to either follow or fold. A slender, dark-haired, thirty-seven year old in plain blue uniform. Her in-the-hole cards were the Five of Diamonds and Two of Clubs. The aforementioned Jack along with her Two of Spades, Five of Clubs and Three of Diamonds were nothing to be proud of—her paired twos easily vanquished by O’Shea’s paired sevens. Her Jack with promise now that the Queen was retired, however.

One more card was to come. With the betting so low, a player of modest means could afford to stay in, even should consequences be bad. See you. Wheeler added her token. Should it and the others hazarded be lost, a dozen siblings were in the tumbled pile before her seat. Two others, red, she’d squirrelled away into a trouser pocket.

See and raise four. The fifth player was a politico with a title as long as her arm: Assistant to the Chairman of the Naval and Civilian Joint Committee for the Overview of Colonial Development and Economic Policy, Capri System. He was the right honourable Darcy Edmund Thackery Collingwood.

Collingwood was in his late twenties. An excess of amber-blond hair was tucked inside a thumb-sized onyx clasp. Hook nose, ice blue eyes, flawless complexion. His trim, athletic figure and Nordic good looks might appeal to either sex.

Collinwood’s features had stayed neat thanks to the hard working depilatory he’d used the day before. Both engineers had started scruffy and gone scruffier. Shore’s lower face to the extent it was blue and spotted.

A suit of pale green silk draped the young bureaucrat. One of the two rings he wore had on its face a cross of diamonds. The other was a naval academy ring with its graduation date fifteen years past Wheeler’s. Early on Collingwood had confessed a single tour of duty. A tidy service record was almost a prerequisite for a career in the Colonial Bureau.

Plenty of well to do kids dabbled with naval assignments until the careers they were better suited for came along. Instructing youthful dilettantes in the basics of navigation, command and combat had at times been a waste of Lt. Cmdr. Catherine Anne Wheeler’s time.

O’Shea and Shore followed the raise, as did Wheeler, despite that to lose the hand would be bound to end her night’s entertainment. A last card was doled out by Shore, and the surviving contenders then contemplated whether to hazard more or fold.

Two, declared O’Shea and tossed a blue token in. Shore followed. As a seeming afterthought, the civilian made adjustment to his wager, saying: Plus two.

Wheeler sensed neither man had been enriched by their last card and only played to form because they could afford to. The wagering threatened to march beyond her means to follow. The tokens banked in her pocket were intended for the entertainment she now and then treated herself to while waiting for her ride. See you, she said and tossed in her last table tokens as if their risk was trivial. She had not laboured through a mediocre hand and dull play to succumb to faintness of heart when courage was called for.

Four to me. Collingwood dropped two blue tokens in. Looking Wheeler squarely in the face, he continued: And five more. A green token represented the five.

Wheeler sucked in her cheeks. Collingwood’s face up cards portended a flush, in diamonds. She wasn’t about to cave in to what was likely a bluff. A prize arrived to a condition of respectability must not be let to be won by junk cards.

Fold, went O’Shea, flipping over his hand.

See you and . . . Shore mulled over options long enough to annoy at least one of his spectators, raise five.

A full ten credits Wheeler’s way. One red was drawn out and tossed.

Five to me, Collingwood declared, taking up a green token. Another calculating look was sent the Commander’s way. A tap of the green to a red stack. Two tokens went in instead of one. Green and red. Plus ten.

Shore reacted as would a mouse startled by an odd movement in the grass. He drew each hole card by turns to the edge of the table to peek at, next all three together. He pursed his lips, gazed at the bureaucrat’s cards, next Wheeler’s. The single red token she’d hoped for was dropped in.

Wheeler drew in a gulp of smoke while fishing the last of her casual wealth out of her pocket. Another gangster exhale of smoke pursued the token along its way to a landing.

Collingwood turned over his cards. No flush. Two pairs. Queens and nines. Shore blinked, muttered a curse, and put away his cards.

Wheeler revealed her Two of Clubs, the hidden part of the pair she’d at no time been proud of. Next the last card received. Two of Diamonds. Three of kind bested two pair, no matter how pretty or powerful the pairs. Collingwood dipped his head in defeat. He smiled graciously as she gathered her winnings before taking a sip of wine from the glass by his elbow.

Wheeler returned two reds plus one more to her pocket, and made a modest construction with the rest. When done, what she displayed still was nothing much when compared to the other piles arrayed against her, but it would do.

Well played, Commander, Shore said. He’d been reluctant to permit her a seat at the table at the start. With looks, comments, and body language, he’d let her know his resentment lingered. Other players played conservatively to respect her poverty, was his reason. Yet he’d not taken advantage of opportunities when he might have paupered her out of the game.

Thank you, sir, Wheeler said and exchanged glances with O’Shea, who seemed glad for the improvement in her fortunes. Her look neither conspiratorial nor flirtatious, merely friendly. After a seventh session of wrangling youngsters half her age, she’d been glad for the mature company.

O’Shea kept on grinning as he shook his head. Thought for sure you had the flush, Mr. C. Still you had me beat for sure. Commander, that last card must have done the trick for you.

It did, Wheeler replied. A prim smile took in the compliment while she examined her down cards. Junk again. A heartfelt sigh was firmly clamped before it could manifest.

A well played hand, commented Shore, sucking in his cheeks before exhausting the smoke within them. Saying so, he seemed to imply he was owed part credit for her success.

Wheeler’s first face-up card paired nicely with one of her hole cards and she wriggled in her seat to ease the tension accumulated in the small of her back. Perhaps not such junk after all.

What ship is it you have orders for, Lieutenant Commander? Collingwood asked in an offhand manner.

"Nassau." She followed her reply with a sip of the whiskey O’Shea had given her.

Your transport arrives when?

Two weeks. She was allotted a berth in a courier. The accommodations so cramped she would use them only to sleep in. Her anticipatory sigh elicited sympathetic murmurs from the engineers, who no doubt had had similar voyages of their own.

A necessity of the service, Collingwood said with the air of yet another space traveller who’d endured plain berths and long journeys. He led the betting with two credits. You’ve been dirtside some time already?

Four weeks. Four plus two weeks more was an inordinate amount of time to wait for a ride, yet Wheeler had learned patience early on and so did not indulge in complaint.

All players followed the initial bet with no raises. Wheeler’s next face up card was an ace. Its power entitled her to set the pace for the next round of bets, which she led with two credits.

Your previous posting was in a frigate? Collingwood saw her two and then raised the betting by another two. He’d the King and Queen of Spades to be proud of.

"ISS Cassius . . . training vessel." Her pause was owed to a look out the window. The Sparrow Club games room was soft lighting, dark panelling, cosy mud-brown leather chairs, and pale blue plush carpeting. Whole wall 3D decorations depicted jungles and grasslands and the animals that dwelt in them. Red-felted billiards tables and green-felted card tables. Cosy padded seats. The ground-based military complex, Planet Cimarron, Capri System, whose inky landscape she noted out the window, was the primary avionics and technical training campus for Frontier Fleet.

Twenty square kilometres of lecture halls, labs, dormitories and simulation theatres with attached marine base. The planet’s primary defence structures were three massive missile platforms inside asteroid-forts sized in the 100 km plus diameter range. Capri System’s manufacturing facilities, in orbit about its fifth and sixth planets, both gas giants, turned out ships’ missiles by the gross besides minor space craft, including latest edition starfighters.

Crewed by cadets, Collingword added.

That’s so. The majority of her students came from the prestigious Old Boston and Annapolis Academies, come to receive instruction after ten months travelled while in suspension of life.

Wheeler had been a popular fixture in Cassius owing to her war hero and Fleet Medal of Honour status.

In the midst of the current game’s third round Embers folded as Wheeler’s third face-up card was an ace. Shore and O’Shea followed his example. Collingwood welcomed the twin for his king and seemed unintimidated by the power displayed on her section of table. The fourth up-card did nothing for either player. Wheeler bet ten credits to honour the strength of her cards. Her bet seen and not raised. After examining his last card, delivered face-down, Collingwood buried it and the rest, conceding the game to the naval officer. Wheeler let go her relief in a little gasp, which she capped with another small smile. Two more red tokens were shifted to her pocket bank. Neat towers were made with the rest.

That’s two in a row, Wheeler, Shore grumbled. He’d not paid near as much as Collingwood to better her condition. Wheeler offered neither protest nor excuse. She’d no control over the cards dropped before her seat.

The next three games saw her dropping out when her evolving hands exhibited little promise. Embers won the next round with three aces despite he flirted with folding throughout the play. The betting, owing to the power he displayed was slight. Wheeler had again dropped out early.

A good hand, Collingwood commented after the Embers game ended, intimating by his tone that, had he Embers’ cards, it should have gone better.

The deck returned to Shore, who declared a game in which highest and lowest hands split the pot. All players stayed in, Wheeler and Collingwood winning. Her part amounted to over one hundred credits. Fortune seems to have smiled on you, Commander, Collingwood remarked affably as they matched tokens while splitting the pot. Wheeler had won low while for Collingwood the difference between her Two of Diamonds to his Three of Spades had kept him from winning both ends of the play.

And on you, sir. Collingwood had regained all that he had lost in earlier rounds, thanks to the ignorant play of Embers and Shore.

The next game accumulated an even larger pot that O’Shea outlasted Collingwood and Shore to win. Wheeler had stayed in too long, dropping out only after the final distribution of cards. She regarded the diminishment of her fortune with contained anxiety, having lost near all she had won except for the money put in her pocket.

When it was her turn to deal Wheeler named a conservative game, which she narrowly won, recovering fifty of the four hundred lost in the previous game. Collingwood initiated another split winnings game which Wheeler and O’Shea won. Wheeler dropped out early in the next game and won small after.

Draw poker was next. The betting frantic with everyone staying in to the last draw. Wheeler fanned her hand, and looked to O’Shea whose turn it was to lead off the betting. Fifty, he said and five red tokens made their splash. Six hundred credits had enriched the play already—a fortune to a naval officer of modest means waiting for her ride.

Shore studied how the other players held their cards as if he might predict an outcome through divination. Your fifty and fifty more.

Wheeler drew the last puff from her cheroot before stubbing it out. Shore was not likely to renew the gift of tobacco.

See and raise fifty, Embers announced. Had any other player made that bet she would have folded and left the table right after. Instead Wheeler followed, but did not raise.

One hundred fifty to me, said Collingwood, putting up his brow at Wheeler. And one hundred more. The naval officer twitched, one hand over the bulge in her pocket.

Two hundred to me, O’Shea said, squinted at his cards, and set his hand face down. His sidelong now-spectator look he set on Shore.

Humph! was the businessman’s comment. He pushed fifteen red tokens to the centre, creating an enormous wealth from Wheeler’s perspective, and added another ten.

Whazzit to me? Embers asked.

Two hundred, O’Shea translated.

A whole two hundred more to me?

Yup, O’Shea confirmed.

Oh, boy . . . Embers fanned his cards, ditched them, held them back up, gazed long and hard, ditched them again, opened and closed their fan, nearly set them down again, and then took two stacks of reds from his diminished hoard and with trembling hands pushed the tokens to the centre of the table.

Wheeler knew that what she needed from her table and pocket stakes to follow the wagering was considerable. When finished less than twenty credits worth of poker chips tenanted the table, and nothing left in her pocket.

Collingwood matched the bet and raised another two hundred credits. Shore matched the bet but did not raise.

Embers looked at his cards, the backs of his opponents’ cards, the heap in the centre of the table, and his cards again. He sighed, appeared about to say something, sighed again. When he had not committed himself a minute later his friend O’Shea cried, Ferchrissakes, Mike, pay up or fold!

I’m thinking, goddamn it.

Either you’re in or you’re out, Shore grumbled.

I’m in, Embers muttered, his expression half and half misery and hope, and cast in his tokens.

I don’t have enough, Wheeler announced quietly.

Do you wish to play the hand? Collingwood asked.

Collingwood resembled a cadet she remembered from the training cruise before last. Relation, Wheeler thought. That youngster had stepped right into a prestige post every bit as lucrative as Collingwood currently enjoyed. Yes, I do.

Collingwood pushed two piles of red tokens to her elbow.

Sir, I have no collateral.

I’ll trust you for it.

She set the tokens next to the accumulated wagers.

Flush! Shore announced triumphantly, laying down his hand, cards all of a suit though in a spaced order.

Full house, aces over tens, Embers responded, chuckling with relief.

Wheeler, gazing at Collingwood, revealed her cards. Straight flush to the king, she announced quietly.

Collingwood nodded and discarded his own cards without revealing them.

Wheeler gasped softly, an expression of restraint that was admirable despite how close she’d come to financial ruin, and pulled in her winnings. Embers muttered to himself. Shore went very dark in the face.

Gentlemen, announced Collingwood as he pushed himself to his feet. He bowed to Wheeler, and lady, a pleasure. I believe I will call it a night. Shore, I look forward to the conclusion of our dealings. Commander Wheeler, He took her hand to squeeze, may you make your way from here and nothing but good things encounter you.

Your money, sir, she reminded him while sensing a double meaning in his farewell.

Of course, said he and accepted the tokens she gave, dropping them into his pockets with little concern. Such a clumsy system. Paper script would be so much easier to deal with. Paper money, no matter how intricately constructed, always could be counterfeited.

I believe I’ve had enough too, announced Embers and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. Will you be coming along, Davey?

O’Shea directed a gaze Wheeler’s way. In a minute, Mike. Your game, Commander.

Showdown for five hundred credits, Shore declared angrily.

Collingwood and Embers, despite having been poised to leave, remained by their chairs.

Come then, Wheeler, Shore sneered. Five hundred credits. Certainly you can afford it now—after all the cash you’ve taken off Embers, Collingwood and me. What do you say?

O’Shea shook his head. Count me out, Shore.

It’s not you I’m asking. Five hundred, Wheeler. You got the guts for the game?

Catherine Wheeler was measuring her loot by the way it felt between her hands. Very good, sir, she heard herself say and with jaw set added, Mr. O’Shea, if you would be so kind as to shuffle and deal the cards?

Shore drew a fresh cheroot from inside his jacket and lit it.

While O’Shea shuffled the cards the players measured and matched wagers. Collingwood and Embers, purely spectators now, resumed their seats. O’Shea offered the deck to Shore to cut, next to Wheeler to do the same, and dealt first cards.

Wheeler a ten. Shore a seven.

Wheeler a six. Shore another seven. Shore grinned and puffed his cigar extravagantly.

O’Shea dealt Wheeler a three. Shore a king. Wheeler gazed at the fortune in the centre of the table, and reminded herself, without looking, of the ample wealth she’d kept and would take away with her. She could live with the consequences if they be bad, and regret them only a little.

O’Shea dealt Wheeler a second six. Shore a second king. O’Shea gazed at her sympathetically, his thumb caressed the last card she would receive. A six.

Son of a bitch, Embers muttered. O’Shea dealt Shore his last card. An ace.

Fuck, said Shore with extreme coarseness.


S’fine, a happily inebriated Catherine Wheeler pronounced an hour later, crowning her comment with an undignified giggle. She’d had too much to drink, yet it did not matter for she had no duty in a morning now less than two hours away. She’d been entitled to indulge herself owing to the skill and fortitude she’d displayed while amassing a fortune well disposed of. Three fourths of her winnings had gone home. The one fourth kept was set aside was for a new dress uniform, shoes to match, and contingencies, including two full weeks of entertainment of any shape or category she desired.

David O’Shea leaned them at the door and, precariously off balance, pressed his palm to the lock plate. Sus-sus-silly! Wheeler hissed, patting his shoulder several times fast. My door, my door.

A 4th floor corridor of the Female Officer’s Dormitory was their location. Wheeler, owing to rank and privilege, rated a room with two beds and attached bath rather than one with four bunks and a share of communal facilities. During her first week, the Commander had shared her accommodations with another mid-ranking female, who had since gone to stay in the town. There’d been no replacement.

Wheeler concentrated on the lock, her hand wavering as if reluctant to follow her command. She giggled once more. Too many of ‘em.

You’re drunk, O’Shea announced merrily and helped her wrist with a grip and gentle pressure.

No-o-o, I’m not—maybe a little.

With O’Shea’s help palm met pad. The door opened and they stumbled in. A lazy upward flip of hand joined the other in a palm-to-wrist grip to drape his neck with. They kissed, and then drew apart to view and appreciate the result. You wanna stay?

O’Shea took in the two beds with his next glance. Your roommate won’t mind?

What roommate?

You mean . . .

She shook her head ‘no’.

Lieutenant Commander Catherine Wheeler? They’d neglected to close the door. A naval officer, silhouetted by hall lighting, stood within the aperture. Behind him was a marine in undress olive green.

Whah? What is it? Wheeler asked as she broke her comfy embrace with Davey O’Shea while desperately imposing order on a muddled mind. She had broken no rule nor regulation she could think of. Being tipsy while off duty was in no way a punishable offence.

My apologies for the hour, Lieutenant Commander, the officer said, putting up his salute. Lieutenant Anders Beaufort, sir, at your service. I have been instructed to bring you to an interview with Admiral Crane.

Beaufort looked a typical admin staffer, but who was Crane? Admiral Jeffrey L. Martinsen was C-in-C Star Base Cimarron Terrestrial. Rear Admiral Hal C. Umbers was Director of Personnel dirtside with indirect authority over her, including the overview of any activity she might indulge herself in. Beaufort tilted his head to the side, his slightly off kilter gazing taking in Wheeler and O’Shea, their proximity, and what their intentions might have been, but appeared neither to approve nor condemn.

David O’Shea squeezed her hand in farewell. I guess I better leave you to . . . He jerked his thumb in the direction of their full-stop interruption.

Yeah, sorry, Davey. Wheeler felt sick to her stomach. While O’Shea beat a hasty retreat, she was asking, What’s this about?

Admiral Crane has requested your attendance for an interview, Beaufort repeated.

I need to—give me couple minutes. She was going to be sick and came into the attached bath barely in time to avoid the splash that passed with amazing ease stomach to toilet bowl. Not a good start. Wipe mouth with back of hand. Most of her overindulgence in pretzels, beer and whiskey floated unpalatably before her eyes. She dropped the lid, flushed, and pushed her trembling self up. The aftermath of a fabulous win and its consequence she regretted only because Beaufort, with his warning of a required appearance before an unknown admiral with unknown intentions, had upset her digestion. She wouldn’t have drunk so much nor eaten so much if she’d known a flag flunky would pounce on her before her night of fun finished.

A glass of water and an aftereffects pill, from the bottle a thoughtful former resident had left in the cabinet above the sink, was followed by another glass of water which she forced down while seated on the toilet, cover down. Supporting her head in her hands, she waited to see would she be sick again and was relieved when she wasn’t.

Stand, turn, brush teeth, apply mouthwash, gargle, swirl and spit. Another glass of water she managed to drink the top half of while staring at her reflection and wondering whether it was possible to repair any of the accumulated flaws in her appearance and knowing, that aside from a quick brush of scalp, she’d time for nothing more. One kept an admiral waiting at one’s peril, she knew without ever having either read or heard the rule. By her reckoning, she’d delayed their meeting ten minutes already.

The lieutenant got up from the only chair in her reception space when she reentered it. The marine waited not in the hallway, but within the room in front of a door now closed. His uniform informed Wheeler he belonged to the base security detail. He was as normal in his appearance as Beaufort was in his. Neither man extraordinary or threatening, yet there was something peculiar about the pair. The clarion ringing in her head, however, contained nothing she could decipher with certainty. She didn’t want to go with them, but hadn’t the option not to.

An air car waited on the asphalt in front of the dormitory. A glow on the horizon, presaging the start of the new day, was by floating near lights overwhelmed. Another marine stood before the car and triggered the hatch to open at her approach.

The street was deserted, Wheeler noted with disquiet. People were made to disappear in circumstances such as these, never to be heard from again. After you, Lieutenant Commander, invited Beaufort.

Wheeler hesitated. If there was to be a last opportunity to change her mind, demur, run, then this was it.


Taking a breath to hold, she entered the vehicle. The conveyance was ordinary inside and out and supplied with basic power plant, seats and fittings. After rising into the dim, cool, moist predawn air, it sped east. Wheeler swallowed against residual nausea and unease, and then willed both into a corner and into a case, with a lid she could lock. She had been caught unawares, unprepared and unwilling, but she would need to bury all that. Whatever the unknown admiral had to tell her was important or she wouldn’t be on her way to see him. The aftereffects pill gave her a headache or her hangover had beaten the drug. Stoically she suffered in silence. The pill contained a late-acting analgesic tailored to counter headaches.

They did not fly southwest to the Rotunda in which was Naval Headquarters Cimarron Terrestrial as she anticipated, but to the suburb where high rankers domiciled. The lights of the sprawling campus receded behind them. Beneath were domestic roads, floating street lamps and large houses. A hill on the right boasted a Spanish mansion adored by its exterior lighting, skirt of wall, and mature oaks, but they did not go there although it seemed they might.

On another hill was another walled-in estate, the property less grand than the Spaniard’s and carpeted with sumptuous grass, mature elms and occasional statuary. A horseshoe drive. Three stories of house. Wheeler glimpsed water shimmering as the car coasted to a landing.

What she’d seen, she liked. Even she could imagine, owing to her recent acquired fortune, living in such a place.

The trip by car had lasted five minutes. The passengers exited—a lieutenant commander with no authority over anything other than herself must, logically, exit last. Wheeler, feeling more shanghaied than asked for, hung back until Beaumont looked in at her, no part of her cosy inebriation left, only cold, hard worry.

Sir? he queried for what had to be a second time.

Right, said Wheeler and thrust herself up. The path was crushed rock cemented together and given a pebble texture. Basalt slabs in concentric arcs made the one-two-three step to an oak-slab door with large brass fittings. The door swung in at their approach. Beaufort hung back to allow her to go in first. Many potted plants added colour, scent and life to the interior of the house. At her back three stories of windows had curtains rather than blinds. The interior walls were mint and cream. The inside was cool and moist. Cimarron winters could be extreme.

A new day would have its start in an hour.

Commander Wheeler, your cap? A butler stood before her. Most house servants were artificial. His/its looks seemed patterned. She surrendered her cap—should she keep it she’d worry for what her nervous fingers might do. As her motion resumed, Wheeler became aware of her smoke and whiskey aroma. If she’d permitted herself another five minutes, she would have donned a fresh uniform.

This way, Commander, invited Beaufort. The foyer, being so large, must double as a space for leisure. She would have liked to lounge here on a summer’s day, windows at full permeability, book in hand, lightly dressed.

Could she be comfortable in such a house? She could admire high ceilings, bright surfaces and inspirational art, but her lifetime of stinting would keep her from experiencing better than casual joy in so grand a space. With an inward shrug, she came, after a mildly circuitous way into a room remarkable for being unremarkable, and was left alone.

Have a seat, Commander. I’ll be with you shortly. The invitation seemed to come from inside the room which was unoccupied except for herself. No windows, and only one door. Oak panelling, a ceiling with its painted-on fixture casting a diffuse light, pale carpeting of good quality. Table and two chairs, sturdy, and out of place inside a room skinned so elegantly. No pictures on the walls, no plants, no statuary. Nothing on the table. No notepad, pens, pencils, folders, flimsies and no inlaid screen.

Admiral Crane? she asked, glancing sideways.

I’ll be right there. Do sit down. He had to be watching to know she remained standing. She supposed he was with others, whom she wouldn’t try to imagine for appearances, purposes or personalities, otherwise her speculation and suspicion would fill her with unhelpful doubt and worry. She sat, choosing the chair with its back to the door. Had she not been expecting an admiral, she would have taken the other chair.

The sound of an approach did not reach her until several minutes later. Wheeler stood to attention when she judged the great man about to enter the room. He brought himself to a stop ahead of her. They were near the same height or the admiral was a tad shorter. He was younger than she by five years or more, and his dark blond hair was trimmed neat and short.

She’d the impression of a soft-spoken disciplinarian who liked being liked. She wouldn’t trust his smile, because it touched his eyes but did not enliven them. His handshake was dry and smooth. Her own hand felt rougher during their contact. He’d blue eyes and a snub nose, a face square rather than wedge, a firm chin and a well tuned body.

I’m so pleased we’ve finally met, Crane said while holding her hand. It’s not every day I have the privilege of hosting a Medal of Honour recipient.

Thank you, sir, replied Wheeler quietly. She’d long since reconciled with her heroic stature; its mention no longer made her blush. He’d campaign ribbons she made an effort to identify. Charybdis Corridor and Bola Noy. What was Bola Noy? A skirmish, not a battle. The brass picked up ribbons for just passing through combat zones. Yet he’d a ribbon for valour. Green with a narrow silver stripe next to a gold one. The silver was bravery under fire, and the gold said he’d distinguished himself. Her FMH was pale sky blue with a chevron next to a circlet of stars, all gold. She had also her Carlsbad System campaign ribbon, red with gold sunburst, her blue and silver aviator’s ribbon, Cassius red with a tiny five star formation in silver surrounding the digits 376 and Tiger black with two bars yellow then eight stars surrounding the digits 1077.

Sit, sit, he invited, going to the chair on the other side of the table. Of course, you’d like to know what this is all about?

Yes, sir, I would, replied Wheeler, near to gasping.

"I’ve bad news to start off with. I regret to inform you that your assignment aboard Nassau has been cancelled." He’d watched her as he spoke. If she’d been able to think clearly, she might have provided him with a better reaction. As soon as she heard that her wished for assignment had been cancelled, her mind refused to operate in any manner that resembled coherent thought.

Cancelled? she managed, her reply like frogs croaking. She didn’t believe it. Nassau was a sure thing. Reward for fifteen years of dedicated service. It wasn’t right she was not to be rewarded. It wasn’t fair.

You’ve a new assignment, one better.

Wheeler straightened in her chair. She’d been about to add some stridency to the very next word out of her mouth. Crane was looking at her keenly, gauging her emotional state by her reactions, which she was painfully aware she’d exhibited too many of already. What might that be, sir?

Ah, yes . . . wait here a moment, won’t you? He was out of the room before she could protest. Nassau’s newly cancelled Tactics Third officer frowned darkly at the table top that even the muted lighting could not keep from shining. What had winning the FMH ever done for her, other than keep her in the same job for a decade? But had she cause for complaint when so many other, capable and equally deserving officers languished unemployed and on half pay? The Imperial Navy was a club that anyone who became qualified could join, yet not everyone was allowed to enjoy its benefits. That men like Crane, from wealthy families, his connections so high she could only imagine them, should achieve the rank of Admiral far before she, a person who’d experienced combat and lived and worked in warships half her life and who had last seen promotion five years ago—no fairness at all was in it.

If Crane had been the exception rather than the rule, she’d be far less likely to growl. Her type rarely rose beyond the rank of Commander. The number of working class captains in the Imperial Navy numbered less than ten, and not one commanded a ship larger than a cruiser. The practise of preference had not been so widespread during the war, when abuses had seemed to be remedied. After the peace, a bad practise had been resurrected and a great many capable lower class men and women had gotten cast aside in favor of the privileged classes yet again.

Here you are, said Crane, settling in her hand one of two folders so haphazardly that if she’d been more distracted its contents would have spilled. The mission is straightforward. You’re to proceed to the planet identified by the coordinates which will be given in your orders, pick up a cargo there, and transport it to another location. Because Crane remained in the room, and she was obliged to maintain respect toward him as a superior officer, she might only overview images in the proffered folder for now.

She could hardly believe her ears and now her eyes. She’d been torn from a solid berth in a man of war to pilot a dick transport A to B to C?

You have right of refusal, of course, said Crane, perched on the table and looking inverted onto her pages. However, should you decline, all that you’ve been shown will have to be kept secret. You may not disclose any part of what we’ve discussed to anyone under penalty of forfeiture of rank and position, and even there is possibility of imprisonment.

Wheeler wondered what could be the nature of the cargo she’d been picked to handle that her freedom of a sudden hinged upon it. "If my position aboard Nassau has been cancelled, what might I expect should I turn this job down?" She looked up in time to note the queer look her question caused an admiral to make.

Well, wuh—I hardly expect you to refuse.

Will I be given an equivalent position aboard another ship?

I cannot foresee an equivalent position coming free any time in the near future. This was something she’d expected to hear. She’d reckoned the same thing back when she’d been happy with the turn her fortunes had made, and not very likely the alternative now confronting her.

Do I have time to consider my choice? A choice which was no choice. Cargo jockey or nothing.

I’m afraid not. She wished he would sit properly. Perching so close to her was irregular behaviour in a superior officer, who had been until minutes ago an absolute stranger. She wondered if he meant to coax her acquiescence with his proximity. Was his leaning over her a substitute for the lack of a relationship between them? We need your decision tonight.

This morning, you mean. What are the assets I would command? she heard herself ask. Stalling, she realized, and cursed inwardly therefore.

"Persephone, transport, and her crew of course."

There are no other items involved in the mission? My mission is a simple transport solution?

No and yes.

She had in her lap a few pages with the identification, specifications, and general description of a starship, but curiously no images or diagrams, not even the standard six views of flanks, bow, up, down and stern. Could you be more forthcoming, sir?

I’m afraid not. You will be under my command. As such you will answer to me.

This is a covert mission, she said.

It is a sanctioned naval expedition. You need have no worries on that score.

She was the right kind of officer to be recruited for a caper, she realized. An officer with few connections, competent and loyal, and anxious to advance her career. She’d have a better than average chance for distinction and promotion, provided she be successful. The results of the mission would never go past the highest circles of the Admiralty, however. All that had come before, including the parts that were strange, along with Crane’s earnest and uncompromising approach, and the crush of time, were good causes for second thoughts.

Something was not right about this offer, she’d been given insufficient details, and she had to trust a man she’d never heard of with her career, future and perhaps life. Yet her other option was no ship and half pay, her splendid winnings eked out to the decicred while she embraced a miser’s lifestyle. She’d hoped for much on account of her recent good fortune. Very well, she heard herself say.

Excellent! Crane beamed at her. You’ll leave at once.

I beg your pardon? gargled the startled officer as Crane deposited a second folder into her lap. Her official orders, sealed, and coated in right places with appropriate marks of authenticity. Before she could finish reading the cover note, instructing the recipient to proceed at once to take command of ISS Persephone, and to break the cover seal only after having been sworn in aboard that ship, Crane had her on her feet.

Beaufort, the Commander requires a ride to the launch zone, said Crane to the lieutenant in the next room. To Wheeler, he added, Congratulations, Commander, you won’t regret your decision. Allow me to wish you a safe journey and a successful mission.

Er, thank you, sir, Wheeler replied as he applied a confident pressure to their handshake while she gave back as much as a distracted mind was capable of. She received back her cap, was whisked through the house, and marched out to and into the waiting car. I need to return to my apartment to gather my things, she said upon being seated.

No need, Commander, your things have been removed and are waiting at the space port, replied Beaufort, who chose the seat next to hers to occupy.

I beg your pardon? Wheeler replied crossly.

As per the Admiral’s instructions, sir.

When did this happen?

After we picked you up, sir. A team arrived to pack up and remove your things.

Damn . . .

I was given to understand extreme haste was required. I apologize if you’ve been inconvenienced.

It’s not your responsibility to apologize, now is it? Wheeler replied sharply. Am I assured no part of my gear was left behind? She’d an image of anonymous hands heaping her underwear and toiletries into her space chest before her mind’s eye.

Absolutely, sir. All was accounted for, you can be sure.

Hum-m-m, was returned inside a scowl.

Your transport voucher, Beaumont said and gave her the plastic chit which would see her into orbit, which she put into a pocket. Again were her thoughts disturbed. How she was being treated was not how things were done in the Imperial Navy. Hurry even during wartime was not usual. Deliberation, months to reach the battle zone, detailed plans of action, coordinated attacks. What had happened this morning nothing like what she was used to. Yet there was consolation in knowing she travelled to meet her new command—a measly transport. She felt far better suited to a frigate, like the one that had been in her life for the past decade.

They arrived to the landing zone after gliding past automated watchtowers and sweeping lights. In front of hangers squatted medium-sized ground to orbit transports. A lone small jumper stood engines hot over a faded white square. A single man stood before the transport: young, dark-haired, earnest looking.

Lieutenant Commander Wheeler? he queried as she dismounted from the car, folders in hand.

That’s me, she said while throwing up her salute in answer to his.

"Ensign Jeff Brady, Persephone. This is your ride, sir."

Very well. Lead on, Ensign Jeff Brady. The transport was a six seater, including pilot and copilot seats. The barest ride she could have been provided with. A single pilot occupied the cockpit, who, being on its outside, grinned and nodded as she climbed in before resuming his place forward. I have to don my skin suit, said Wheeler, stating the obvious after noticing her trunk strapped in the rear of the passenger compartment.

Ah, yes, sir, said Brady and backed out through the hatch and onto the tarmac.

Welcome aboard, Commander, Wheeler heard as she unfastened the top of her tunic.

Thank you, Pilot. The straps securing her chest to the deck must have been cinched by a marine twice her size and three times her strength. She struggled to loosen them.

I’m Pilot Tech Ione, sir.

His name sounded familiar. She was uncomfortably aware that her struggle with the straps was taking an inordinate time to finish. Good morning to you, Pilot Tech Ione, she replied as she lifted the lid and noted the neat disposition of her things inside. She could not have packed them better.

"I was a flight crew tech aboard Tiger."

Yes, I remember, said Wheeler after a pause. She had peeled out of her clothes by then. Nude, she was rolling up the slippery fabric of her skin suit to step into, long practise made drawing the protective cover up and over easy, and even the plumbing insertion was accomplished with only minor discomfort. Her body long and lean even as she stood on the threshold of middle age. If there’d been more time, she would have selected a coverall to slip over the ‘skin’. Rather than keep the three of them grounded a moment longer than they needed to be, she put back on the smoke-scented garment she’d worn better than eighteen hours straight already.

A pleasure having you aboard, sir.

Thank you, Pilot Tech Ione. She resealed the front of her tunic. Next she called on the Ensign to enter. The pair strapped themselves in. Wheeler recalled the last time she’d ridden in an orbit jumper, and was concerned for the condition of her insides—dry, empty and apt to clench.

Begging yer pardon, sir, but you’ve something for me, Ione said.

Yes. The transportation chit. She’d secured loose objects—key card to her apartment, which she would give to Ione to return, cash card with ten credit balance she’d made for herself after banking the rest of her winnings, the folders Crane had given her, and the chit—into a pouch pinned to the bulkhead next to her. A moment of fishing within the sack produced chit and door card. Both were inserted into a slot ahead of her seat.

Thank you, sir. Couldn’t launch without it. She’d ought to have dealt with the matter of the chit right away. Her thinking still foggy.

Whump! The jolt not unexpected. Wheeler had clenched her teeth at the moment of launch and forced herself to unclench them. The long rumbling, thumping, guts-shaking climb pushed the contents of her stomach high enough she was able to appreciate their sourness. A discomfort suffered without complaint. In the seat across from hers Brady appeared in tune and sync with the rumble and vibration. Even were his eyes closed as though he slept.

Inevitably the jarring lessened, became trembling, and then nothing. The shuttle had passed from atmosphere into vacuum. Wheeler’s stomach settled and began to normalize. Cimarron Star Base Orbital grew within her viewport. Built into a spherical asteroid five hundred kilometres in diameter, glowing in hundreds of places, inside a swarm of sentry buoys, it hovered behind the protective arc of three Monolith class missile forts. Despite the shuttle was the better part of an hour from the port she could see into its harbour and at the handful of ships parked therein with clarity.

Rear Admiral Arthur Cullum Daigleish was Commander Cimarron Orbital. His flagship, the Sulla, heavy cruiser, was the most powerful vessel within the anchorage. Also were a frigate, two commercial freighters, and a small passenger liner. An inbound courier—not the one she waited for—made flaring in her view’s upper right. No military transport could she see, nor any ship that might be mistaken for one.

We’re not in the harbour, sir, Brady explained.

She’d been focussed on the port—structures, ships and the base itself. The jumper flew on a course away from all that, she realized.

There she is, sir, called Ione.

"Persephone." Brady rapped on his porthole. Small jump shuttles had no artificial gravity. If she released for a look while Ione was in the midst of his manoeuvres, she’d be likely to plaster herself against ceiling or bulkhead. She had to wait until the shuttle brought them to the ship, which it did in short order, before unfastening herself.

You can release from restraints now, Ione announced.

After freeing herself, Wheeler drifted to Brady’s side of the cabin, peered out, and saw a section of fuselage surrounding an entry hatch. No boat bay. Montana class super-transports had extensive boat bays. Persephone was too small for one, being between forty and fifty thousand tonnes in mass. Ione appeared within the partition hatchway, his body not quite floating owing to the toe strap he’d notched a foot into. Sir, would you like a look before going aboard?

Wheeler needed no time to decide. I’d like that very much, Pilot Tech.

Aye, sir, said Ione, grinning, and resumed his cockpit. Wheeler followed, strapping herself into the copilot couch. She’s old, that’s for sure, Ione said as he set them on an elliptical path away from and next circling the transport.

Not just old. Ancient. Wheeler felt disappointment, which she forced from her mind. She could hardly expect to walk into the command of a new ship, being a nobody in the pecking order. Still she hadn’t expected what she saw. Ships half Persephone’s age, which a conservative guess pegged at 100 years, had greyhound profiles. Persephone had the look—if one included the bulges of her antiquated stardrive—of a middle-aged washerwoman.

Her engine design’s a hundred years old, Ione offered.

That’s about right, sir, said Jeff Brady, standing in the partition hatchway. Lieutenant Butterfield looked up the launch date and checked it against the ship’s clock. She’s seventy-eight years in service. Seventy-eight years ‘in service’ excluded ‘years in storage’. Persephone had no doubt been stored many times. To her seventy-eight active might be added fifty years or more of idleness.

Who? Wheeler asked, not trusting what her ears had heard.

Lieutenant William Butterfield, sir.

Well. Wheeler blew out her cheeks, and smiled. This was a night for surprises.

Persephone’s distinctive bulges implied her propulsion system had to be every bit as old as the ship. The basic principle of travel Star A to Star B had remained the same for millennia while improvements in engine design and performance made the process more reasonable in terms of time and comfort. Was Persephone capable of even one hundred gravities of acceleration? The newest drives put out between 114 and 125. Wheeler did not have her ship’s specs handy to examine but felt certain the old hauler would fail miserably to achieve even the 100 gravities standard for her type and age.

Unlike the majority of far larger sisters, Persephone was atmosphere capable, owing to a quartet of Cummings-Lothar Hydrogen Fuel Secondaries. The exhaust ports of the Cummings-Lothars pierced the ship’s counter grav keel with their bell-shaped ports.

Secondary engine design had also changed over the years. Modern exhaust ports were flush to the keel. Wheeler didn’t mind the bulbs, which bespoke reliability though they ruined contours and made extra demands on shields.

Above the primary nacelle a disk-and-rail hitch was integrated into the transport’s superstructure. The disk squatted atop a pillar ten metres thick and twenty metres high. The rail extended past the stern another sixty metres. Forward of the hitch was something she’d never seen before, a long, low box embedded in the ship’s spine.

Ah, not sure, Commander, was Ione’s judgement.

Sail, sir, said Brady cheerfully.

I beg your pardon? Wheeler gasped, and leaned eagerly forward. Ione slowed their progress to a crawl.

Complete set of sails with masts in collapsed mode. Lieutenant Butterfield examined the specs just the other day. If we run out of fuel, we won’t have to get out and push.

I’ll be gosh-darned, Wheeler muttered. When had solar sails last been employed by a service vessel? Someone’s idea of a renovation, tried once and afterward abandoned as too much bother. Should Persephone’s engines experience catastrophic failure, the ship herself would be their lifeboat. Nothing could be finer than that. That’s interesting.

Brady beamed at her.

An energy cannon mount snagged her attention next. After it appeared a rapid-fire small projectile launcher that curled against the hull like a snake, its metal markedly different than that of what surrounded it. Persephone should have no energy cannon and only six or eight heavy calibre external rifles.

Ione directed the shuttle into a turn and Wheeler decided to thank him for his care and efforts once the tour was done. Their light struck the energy cannon and she had to stare. Was it? Certainly it was. An ITA-120EPBC. Independent targeting. Enhanced beam. The most potent and sophisticated energy weapon available and currently in limited production.

An ITA-120EPBC could be run either by its AI or a human operator. Targeting was exceptional, rate of recovery excellent, and power demands nothing short of excessive. They wouldn’t be running away from anything while the cannon was in operation. Powerful enough to punch a hole through any shield less than Triple A class. The Yard dogs had removed a twenty metre swatch of hull plate, and no doubt some underlying support, to accommodate the gun.

What was such a weapon doing attached to her ship?

Persephone ought not to have either the AI upgrade or the power runs for such a gun, but must have them. An ITA-120EPBC wouldn’t be tucked into the side of a ship if its support systems weren’t also in place. What type of console? The last upgrade to the TAC3300 was the TAC3750A. Cassius had recently upgraded to the TAC3510, which was better at coordination than the old system, but incapable of intricacies the new TAC3750 series managed with ease.

The shuttle slid past the primary engines’ exhaust ports beneath the docking rail. Wheeler noted the rear sensor array, and the gatlings mounted at either side of it. The rapid-fire guns sufficient to discourage even the boldest commerce raider. What need had Persephone of so much bang power?

A matching ITA-120 nestled into Port Side Aft, its location diagonally opposite from its twin. Having completed a lap, Ione delivered the shuttle back to its original position parallel with and approximately ten meters away from Persephone’s personnel entry hatch. We have to walk, sir, Brady said.

You can’t be serious. Wheeler recalled the shuttle sported a docking assembly in collapsed mode against its fuselage.

"Persephone’s external coupling design was discontinued decades ago. This shuttle’s hatch ring won’t seal on it." Without a good seal, they wouldn’t be able to pressurize the transport tube.

Perfect, Wheeler muttered angrily. She hadn’t expected a stumble through vacuum to cap her long night with.

Pardon me, sir?

Nothing, Brady.

Brady had brought vacuum suits from Persephone which the pair donned. Ione watched from his cockpit hatch. He would seal himself inside his piloting booth before the pair opened the door to start their walk. This, he said, offering a fingerprint-sized medallion on a gold chain, "belonged to a Tiger shipmate of ours. One that didn’t make it back. I think it right you take it, Commander."

Her impulse was to refuse, except former Tigers felt a special kinship because of their Citadel experience. Ione put the necklace into her hand. One side of the medal showed an angel haloed and kneeling. The other a harp. Thank you, Ione, Wheeler murmured and slipped the chain over her head. The pressure suit hadn’t a convenient pocket.

Good luck to you.

Good luck and good fortune to you.

Brady waited for her at the hatch. While they performed suit checks, Ione sealed himself inside his cockpit. Brady secured her space chest to his wrist with a cord. He intended drawing it across after he got to the other side. Wheeler had her orders inside the pouch that was now attached by a cord at her waist. She felt the same emptiness as when she said goodbye to her family, when she left Tiger, and after leaving Cassius.

What had she gotten herself into? Should she have refused? Crane told her the assignment for Nassau was cancelled and she’d taken him at his word. She ought to have demanded to see the cancellation orders. She’d been hung over, stupid with fatigue, and famished. She’d attended with only half the attention she ought to have used, and accepted everything Crane said without question. What a fool she’d been! With worry singing to her inner soul, she wished she could be anywhere but inside a claustrophobic pressure suit at the edge of an unknown future. Brady hummed beneath his breath, the hatch slid open, and she moved forward.

Persephone’s high wide flank blocked the stars. Despite extreme age, feeble acceleration, and small size, she was still inspirational. Transport dwarfed taxi. Ten decks of scrapes, dents, and parts seemingly attached at random. Brady waited for his Captain to start across. She hesitated. He had to think her queer for being so easily distracted.

Wheeler had stood long enough for the moment to feel prolonged, and then decided as her inspection was done so must her doubt be. She could not have refused. Not in front of Crane and not with stark reality before her. Persephone would become her home as Cassius and Tiger had been. She’d a mission to perform. Gauging angle of best approach and appropriate amount of spring, Wheeler launched herself. She was halfway across before realizing she would miss the recessed entrance by metres. Resigning herself to the inevitable, Wheeler skidded patiently the rest of the way, knowing the worst thing she might do was flail about in a futile effort to correct her trajectory. Persephone’s flank beneath her fingers provided a restorative to her stretched nerves. Gathering herself like a spider, she looked over to see Brady within the port he’d had no difficulty landing four-square inside. Crossing two intervening plates, refusing a crewmate’s assistance, she managed with only a little extra bother to put herself beside him.

Takes practise, sir, Brady volunteered as the exterior hatch slid along its rail, they entered the lock, and the hatch sealed behind them.

Wheeler declined to comment. The familiar pull of 0.75 standard gravity assured her of a return to the life she’d been missing. After weeks of 1.05 standard, three fourths was balm to overworked muscles. Atmosphere cycled into the lock. The indicator light over the interior hatch changed to green. Wheeler heard as well as felt a joy-filled springtime note, and then the inner hatch slid open.

Chapter Two - Independent Command

Wheeler stepped into a crowded space. The compartment attached to the airlock was in its shape hexagonal. Airlock one side, corridor the other, lockers for vacuum suits and emergency equipment in between. Receptions must of necessity happen here—no other place handy or large enough to accommodate them. The arrivals cracked helmet seals. In time with the commingling of helmet air with ship air was hollered the instruction: Head gear off. Next: Captain on deck!

A genuine bosun’s pipe twitter pierced the resultant silence, which was not the recording often substituted. The piper, in standard issue coverall, was a reddish blond whose bulbous build was owed to the beginnings of a paunch. His long facial features lent him a mournful aspect.

A line of space mariners stood, caps in right hands, hands at their sides. William Butterfield, whose features had once been as familiar and like her own, Wheeler discovered much aged and battered. Her in consequence discomfiture he could not fail to see, but there was official business to conduct, which could not wait.

Wheeler set down her helmet on a bench which usually embedded itself within the deck. Her throat clearing, while wishing she’d something to wet with, seemed far too loud. "By the authority invested in me and under the direction of Richard Crane, Rear Admiral in our Imperial Navy, I hereby assume command of ISS Persephone, her crew and all that she contains in accordance with my orders, as her Captain, along with all powers and responsibilities the position is endowed with."

Butterfield nodded solemnly. "Commander Wheeler’s assumption of command of this vessel is witnessed and verified by me, Lieutenant William Butterfield, second in command, ISS Persephone. Welcome aboard, Captain."

It’s been a long time, Will, said Wheeler. Fatigue, nervousness and stubborn doubt let her no better than smile bleakly back. Their handshake was odd owing to

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