The ascent of House Malhedron was never as inevitable as later House hagiographers made it appear. Indeed, had Hadrus Haut-Trajan not been so insecure as to reward his most successful admiral's victory at Epsilon Eridani with a court martial, it is entirely credible to imagine that House Trajan would have gone down in galactic history as the ruling House of Man.
—from “A History of Man's First House” by Donatella Lisini
VISIONS. LIGHTS. Voices. Confusion. Darkness. Silence. A scream strangled in her throat.
Daniela York awoke in a panic, short of breath and panting.
She lay on the narrow cabin bunk, catching her breath, feeling the perspiration run and her heart thump as she fought to collect her thoughts. Oh, God, where was she? Then she heard it, a low, whispering rumble that came through the bulkheads, a throbbing, humming vibration that was not quite a vibration. Draco! She was on ATSV Draco, speeding toward Subsector Zero Seven Zero Two, in search of a missing ship. A murdered ship.
She slumped back, feeling the cabin walls close around her, drawing something of comfort from the distant rumble of powerful nucleonic engines that pushed Draco faster, ever faster, pushed it toward that fantastic moment when it would enter hypertransition and the universe would collapse. Or at least it would seem so. At that instant, the stars would disappear, whole galaxies would vanish. Space itself would fold in upon itself and the universe would be blotted out. Darkness. Nothing but the dark. Transit had something to do with twisting the space-time coordinates, but how it worked, she couldn't possibly understand. Few men could. But it didn't matter. At the end of the hypertransit she would find herself deep in uninhabited space.
No, not uninhabited. Somewhere out there was the Shiva-class cruiser Rigel.
She let her thoughts flow back to before she boarded the destroyer. She'd been on Kurzweil, the most populous of the cyborg worlds, when Ascendancy Intelligence had caught wind of Prince Li-Hu's latest plan to steal the sunbuster. The source, an Ascendancy loyalist high in the Dai Zhani military, had known only the bare details. The attempt was to occur while the cruiser was in the Kantillon sector. How? When? He hadn't known.
York stirred restlessly. The source had been shot. His controller too. Apparently House Dai Zhan's counterintelligence operatives were as effective as their own.
Pulled off her mission and assigned to the case immediately, she concocted a daring plan to expose House Dai Zhan's treachery while simultaneously protecting the Shiva technology. Now it was in operation. As an operative active on an enemy planet, constantly under the scrutiny of the cyborgs and their god-machines, she'd managed to mask her own movements right up until the moment she'd been extricated. Now the three-dimensional chess game was being played. House Dai Zhan wanted the sunbuster, the cyborgs wanted the sunbuster, and the vast machinery of the Greater Terran Ascendancy was being used to prevent either from getting it.
But contra the religion of the cyborgs, machinery wasn't the answer. In the end it was a deadly contest of the minds and will belonging to three men: August Karsh of the Directorate, Prince Li-Hu of House Dai Zhan, and Golem Gregor of Integration Intelligence. And the game's primary pieces were herself, Dr. G's chief operative Myranda Flare, and X and X and X. The X's were the Dai Zhani, the men who had somehow managed to seize one of the Empire's most powerful warships. But she couldn't write them off as mere X's. Each man was a trained agent, the best House Dai Zhan had to offer. She had scant doubt of that. And they were men. She had no doubt of that at all.
Smiling at the thought of Li-Hu's face if that haughty Kangan princeling ever realized that his two chief adversaries in the field were women, she slipped from the bunk and removed some toilet articles from a small kit she'd brought aboard. Applying a revival cream to her face, she washed in the cabin's small basin, eyeing her reflection in the small mirror. She looked gaunt and strained, with the first hints of wrinkles under her sleep-heavy eyes. To her, the familiar face looked closer to forty than her actual thirty-two years. Despite her best efforts to preserve it, her skin, like the captain's, showed the effects of seeing the light of many strange suns.
Once she'd dressed, she peered into her kit. The small pen that in reality was a pneumatic gas disperser lay in plain sight. Touching a spring button in the lining, she removed a palm-sized plastic mini-blaster from a concealed compartment and slipped it into her pocket. Then she slapped the panel near the door frame and saw her door open silently onto a passageway.
She wasn't surprised to find a guard standing at ease just outside. The man, a deckhand, she guessed, whirled around as she stepped out, one hand smoothly dropping to the weapon at his side.
York smiled at him. “Don't shoot, please. I'm a passenger, not a prisoner.”
The guard grinned and let his hand dangle awkwardly. “Hope I don't have to, miss. It's nice to have a lady aboard for a change.”
“I hope so, too. I really do.” York studied the young man. His face was boyish, but he had the powerful, over-muscled body of a heavy worlder. He could probably throw her clear down the hallway with one arm. His blue eyes, clear and watchful, showed a spark of genuine intelligence. “As long as we're going to be shipmates for a while, we should know each other's name. I'm Daniela York.”
“Les Osborn, miss. Deckhand first.” He didn't ask her any questions, she observed, although her presence on board would have certainly raised a few. That was interesting. It told her Hull's discipline was tight, as she suspected it might be.
“I'm delighted to meet you, Osborn.” York glanced down the passageway. “Would you be so kind as to escort me to the wardroom?”
“It's that way,” he pointed helpfully. “Please lead the way and I'll follow.” York sashayed a little bit more than was strictly necessary as she walked down the corridor. She could feel his eyes focused intently upon her. She grinned to herself. A girl never knew when she might need a favor from a fan.