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The seeds of Terra's galactic empire were first sown in the early 21st Century, when Italian scientists from the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus observed neutrinos traveling faster than light. Initially believed to be the result of equipment failure, it was only a matter of time before those neutrinos were succeeded by spaceships. Transdimensional travel had unlocked Man's path to the stars.

—from “Terra and the Tau Neutrino: The History of the Deep Frontier” by Dr. Sergius Neumann

HIS EYES held the mark of Achernar.

The whites were not white, but a light blue shade peculiar to the descendants of the Terrans who over a hundred generations ago colonized the three worlds of that bluish sun, deep in the heart of the constellation Yggdrasil. Otherwise, Corden Hull, captain of the Horizon-class destroyer ATSV Draco, DD-10628, appeared to be an ordinary descendant of Terra. Stocky, muscled, his close-cropped hair shot with grey, he had the bronzed, leathery skin of a man who'd seen the light of a hundred suns. He was handsome, with a commanding presence, and it was not hard to imagine he must have a special friend in more than one port of call.

That was how he struck Daniela York at first glance. On the reasonable assumption that an Achernarni would not command a destroyer of the line without unusual qualities, York looked closer and saw what she would have noticed earlier were it not for the odd blue light in the captain's cabin. Hull's eyes were not the human norm in more ways than one. In addition to their light blue sclera, they also happened to be some of the most penetrating York had ever seen. Sharp, hard, and analytical, his eyes gave her no clue to whatever thoughts might be lurking behind them. Neither did the expression on his square-set, rugged face.

Only the tightness of his polite smile betrayed his understandable irritation. He was a man with terrible responsibilities, a man in a tremendous hurry, a man who clearly had much more important things to do than deal with a woman insistent on finding a berth on his warship.

Or so he thought.

Hull's voice was remarkably controlled under the circumstances, especially given the provocation she was offering him. “I am very sorry, Miss Lancaster, but Navy regulations absolutely prohibit the transport of civilians except under conditions of extreme emergency. As it happens, even if you could convince me that Xigaze's sun is on the verge of going nova, there is nothing for us to discuss.”

He didn't realize how he betrayed his concerns with that example, she thought, hiding her amusement. York took the captain's measure in the strange blue light of his cabin, wondering how difficult it would be to convince him to grant her passage. She reviewed the options available to her. Seduction was out of the question. Neither bribery nor pleading were going to avail her anything. Threats were pointless. That left only as much of the truth as it would require to satisfy his demands.

“That's precisely why I'm here, Captain. You are correct. It is indeed an emergency.” Her ears caught the sounds of banging hatches and creaking winches as the crew of the Draco made their hasty preparations to depart from Xigaze, the lonely, sparsely inhabited planet that orbited the midget star Blackett on which this far-flung military outpost stood; a solitary sentinel on the spinward edge of the Ascendancy.

The captain stared impassively at her. She'd seen his records and she knew he was relatively intelligent for a naval officer. It struck York that if Hull had been born on the right planet, to the right House, a man of his capabilities would be expected to command a Shiva-class cruiser rather than a petty destroyer at the borders of the Ascendancy. It was true that Draco carried long-range lasers, cobalt warheads, nucleonic bolts—all the conventional weapons—but she was not armed with the dreaded sunbuster manufactured by Speer-Markova Munitions. By both law and custom, only a trusted, Terran-born member of House Malhedron could command a Shiva-class warship. For all the terrible devastation it could wreak, Hull's ship couldn't inspire a star to suicide.

When Hull still didn't respond, but continued to calmly stare at her, York had no choice but to break the silence, “Captain, I know your crew has informed you that my authorization is confirmed by Admiral Borenhall. I can't imagine you would have consented to see me otherwise.”

Hull ignored her appeal to higher authority. “I've informed you of the regulations, Miss Lancaster.”

“And I've shown you my credentials.”

“They look legitimate,” Hull admitted. “However, I don't have the time to wait for the necessary confirmation. We have some unexpected business to address, so I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave now. As you have presumably observed, we are making our preparations to leave the system shortly.”

York found herself admiring the man's diplomatic aplomb. Unexpected business? That was putting it mildly. Looking at Hull, you would never imagine that the Ascendancy's naval hierarchy was on the reddest of red alerts. Forcing herself to mirror his equanimity, she persisted. “My authorization from Admiral Borenhall is tantamount to an order, Captain.”

“Admiral Borenhall commands the Tenth Sector,” replied Hull. “When in the Tenth Sector, I am under his command. At all other times I am subject only to the orders of the High Admiral of the Galactic Seas.” His voice turned glacial. “This is one of those times, Miss Lancaster.”

“I am travelling on Ascendancy business,” she objected. “Vital Ascendancy business, as it happens.”

“Not that I can see, Miss Lancaster.” Hull looked past her at the hulking figure lounging just inside the doorway. His name was Lieutenant Tregaski; he had brought her to the captain earlier. “Our business is done here. Lieutenant, would you kindly escort the lady from the ship?”

“Aye aye, sir,” replied Tregaski.

As Tregaski stepped forward, York sighed and shook her head, “I'm afraid you're forcing my hand here, Captain Hull.” She saw the captain stiffen as she slipped a hand into her vest, well aware that Tregaski was likely drawing his weapon behind her at range where he could hardly miss. Carefully now! After gingerly pulling out her wallet, she removed an ID card from it and held it out for Hull to read.

The captain read it. He shook his head, then read it again. His eyes flicked to the lieutenant. “Out,” he said.

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A Mind Programmed: Last Minute Passage