“Sir?” York could hear the confusion in Tregaski's voice.
“You heard me. Out. Now.”
“Captain!” The lieutenant saluted with a crispness that effectively communicated his unhappiness and stalked out of Hull's quarters. As he exited, he slapped the panel and the door closed behind him.
“Ascendancy Intelligence?” Hull murmured the words quietly in a voice that betrayed both doubt and wonder.
“That is strictly in confidence, you understand. I would have preferred to tell you later.” York calmly met the captain's eyes. If the Ascendancy's Navy was the instrument that kept over four hundred inhabited planets living in reasonably civilized harmony, it was the shadowy agents of the Ascendancy Intelligence Directorate that nipped discord in the bud and preserved Terra's supremacy intact. Without the AID, as it was usually called, the restless posthuman worlds of the god-machines would long since have challenged the Ascendancy yoke, sunbuster or no sunbuster. And at least one of the thirteen Great Houses that ruled various collections of planets would have openly revolted against the dominance of House Malhedron instead of contenting themselves in an endless rivalry for the second position.
As it happened, she was aware that Li-Hu of House Dai Zhan, a prince who claimed to be able to trace his ancestry in an unbroken line to the Gòngchandang emperors of ancient China, had both his royal feet planted squarely in the middle of the captain's present emergency, even if Hull didn't know it yet.
Hull glanced up from the credentials, remarking, “This isn't sufficient, Miss Lancaster. Or Miss York, if that is actually your name.”
“Agent York. I'm sure you know the naval regs concerning the assistance due an intelligence operative as well as I do, Captain Hull,” she said dismissively. “You're not actually going to make me recite them for you, are you?”
“Anyone can carry a card,” Hull snapped back. “How do I know that you're Daniela York? You've produced two sets of credentials, Miss York. You came aboard as Ann-Margot Lancaster, an inspector for the Colonial Planets Administration, and, for some mysterious reason, credentials supposedly supplied by Admiral Borenhall. Now, you're suddenly Daniela York, an AID operative.”
He leaned towards her. “Now tell me who you really are. Or get off my ship.”
She smiled innocently. “I'm York. I'm a covert operative with the Directorate. Lancaster is merely one of my cover identities.”
“I can't simply take your word for that.”
“Of course you can't. But I can prove that I'm Daniela York. Have your ship's doctor scan my DNA. The ship can match it to the visitor's registry. As the senior naval officer on planet, you must have the necessary access.”
He nodded. “Very well. Ship?”
“Captain,” the ship's computer responded in a contralto voice.
“Can you confirm a Daniela York is listed as a present visitor to the planet?”
“Yes, I can confirm it, Captain.” York glanced at the screen on the wall facing the captain as it flared to life, displaying a not-entirely flattering picture of a brown-haired woman with small, sharp features in her mid-thirties, in addition to her name, her age, her date of arrival, and various other information. Her employer, however, was listed as AG General Galactic, not Ascendancy Intelligence.
She pointed to the name of her purported employer. “This particular branch of A Three Gee is a front operation, of course. We can't openly advertise our actual employer, you understand.”
“No, of course not.” Hull frowned and rubbed his chin. “I think we can dispense with the DNA examination, at least for now. Well, Miss York, you may be who you say you are, but this still doesn't prove you're actually what that card says you are.”
“An intelligence operative?” She nodded agreeably, her confidence growing. “That's true. An AID operative would be expected to know why you're rushing to push the Draco into space. She would know you were slated to remain on Xigaze for another two months, until secret orders arrived from the naval base at Nang La via X-courier.”
“Keep talking, Miss York.” If his eyes had been skeptical before, they were positively radiating suspicion now.
She leaned forward and spoke very slowly and deliberately. “The Shiva-class cruiser Rigel is missing. A deep space buoy picked up a distress call from subsector Zero Seven Zero Two. That was two weeks ago. Since then, there hasn't been a single word concerning its fate. Lost—one sunbuster. That's your emergency, Captain.”
“That knowledge is restricted to the Admiralty—”
“And to the captain of this destroyer since you happen to be nearest the scene,” she interrupted.
“How can you possibly know anything about—”
“It's my job to know,” countered York. She smiled coldly at him, enjoying the look of mixed suspicion and alarm on his square-jawed face. Despite the crucial stakes at hand, this sort of discourse with Hull was the sort of cat-and-mouse game she liked, at least as long as she was the cat. “Now do you believe me?”
The captain took a deep breath. At this point, they both knew there was no way he could permit her to leave the ship. “I suppose I do,” he admitted.