About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Battered, weary to the bone, and profoundly baffled, Min Donner joined Punisher shortly after Warden Dios returned to UMCPHQ from Holt Fasner’s Home Office. She hadn’t slept since the day before her visit to Sixten Vertigus, hadn’t eaten since her ride back to UMCPHQ from Suka Bator. A headache like a threat of concussion throbbed in her forehead. Occasionally her hearing buzzed like neural feedback.
She felt that her whole life was being rewritten around her; reinterpreted to mean something she hadn’t chosen and couldn’t understand.
Why was she here?
In some sense, Warden had answered that question. The last time she’d spoken to him, he’d told her, to her utter astonishment, I have reason to think Morn Hyland may survive—Even though he’d convinced her long ago that Morn was being abandoned, that he’d sold her body and soul, he’d said, If she does, I want someone to make sure she stays alive, someone I can trust. That means you. For that reason—apparently—he was sending Min away from her duties at UMCPHQ.
Nevertheless his reply explained nothing. All she really knew was that she was here now because he’d lied to her earlier; lied to her systematically and incessantly for months.
What in God’s name was going on?
His signal of farewell reached her as she rode her personal shuttle out toward the gap range where Punisher had already turned and started preparations for an outbound acceleration; but she didn’t answer it. She had nothing more to say to him. Instead of returning some vacant acknowledgment or salute, she replied to the questions of her crew by shaking her head. Let Warden Dios take her on faith, as she was required to take him. He’d left her no other way to express her galling confusion—or her blind, baffled hope.
With as much of her accustomed grim determination as she could muster, she put kazes and assassinations, treachery and intrigue behind her, and concentrated instead on the job ahead.
Her orders were superficially simple. She was instructed to take command of the first available UMCP warship—in this case, Punisher—and go immediately to the Com-Mine asteroid belt. Under cover of the belt, she was supposed to “watch for and respond to developments” from the direction of Thanatos Minor. In other words, to observe and presumably deal with the outcome of Angus Thermopyle’s covert attack on Billingate.
That was plain enough. But why was it necessary? After all, at Fasner’s orders human space along the Amnion frontier—especially in the broad vicinity of Com-Mine Station and the belt—was being webbed with the most intensive communications network ever deployed. Any decipherable information from the direction of Thanatos Minor would reach UMCPHQ in a matter of hours, whether she was present in the belt or not.
What kind of “developments” did Warden expect? Angus Thermopyle—Joshua—would either succeed or not. If he succeeded, Nick Succorso and the danger he represented would be finished. Min’s suspicions of Milos Taverner would come to nothing. And Morn might—conceivably—survive. On the other hand, if Angus failed, everyone and everything would be lost. Morn would be just one more casualty.
Either way, there would be nothing for Min to do, except possibly pick up survivors—or warn off an Amnion pursuit. Com-Mine Station could have done that. Punisher herself, despite her battle-worn and depleted condition, could have done it. Min Donner was the UMCP Enforcement Division director: she belonged elsewhere. Back at UMCPHQ, rooting out kazes and traitors. Or even down on Suka Bator, helping Captain Vertigus prepare and present his Bill of Severance. She had no reason to be here.
No reason, that is, apart from Warden’s desire to get her out of the way—to dissociate her from the fatal game he played with or against Holt Fasner. And his unexpected assertion that Morn might get away alive.
If she does, I want someone to make sure she stays alive—
Was that the truth? Or had Warden said it simply to ensure that she obeyed him?
She didn’t know; couldn’t know. But in the end, his orders were enough. She obeyed because she had sworn that she would.
Nevertheless she couldn’t shake the dark feeling that she was doomed; that between them Warden Dios and Holt Fasner were about to cost her everything she had ever believed in or trusted.
At last her shuttle thunked against the docking port in Punisher’s side; grapples jerked home. Min nodded to her crew and stepped into the shuttle’s airlock as if she didn’t care whether she ever returned.
The bosun commanding the honor guard which greeted her inside the ship’s personnel bay looked as worn out and abused as she felt. Min winced inwardly at the sight: she hated seeing her people in such bad shape. However, she kept her chagrin and anger to herself while she returned the bosun’s salute.
“Captain’s apologies, Director Donner,” he said. He sounded even worse than he looked—a young officer who had been under too much pressure for far too long. “He can’t leave the bridge. We weren’t expecting to head out—he hasn’t had time to get ready—” The bosun caught himself, flushed like a boy. “You already know that. I’m sorry.
“Captain will see you whenever you want. I can take you to your quarters first.”
Min had scanned Punisher’s reports before leaving UMCPHQ. The cruiser had just come home from a bitter struggle with fifteen or twenty illegal ships which had turned Valdor Industrial’s distant binary solar system into a virtual war zone.
Because of the kind of mining, processing, and heavy manufacturing carried on by the station, Valdor and the traffic it serviced were rich with prizes. And like most binary systems this one was a maze of orbits—masses of rock revolving around each other in patterns so complex that they defied mapping by anything less than a megaCPU. The pirates were entrenched among the almost innumerable planets, planetoids, and moons cycling around the twinned stars called Greater and Lesser Massif-5.
Over a period of six months, the Scalpel-class cruiser had engaged in dozens of pitched battles, weeks of pursuit. And all to little avail. Two pirates had been destroyed, one captured. The rest had fought back with such concerted ferocity, or had fled with such intimate knowledge of the system’s hiding places, that no mere cruiser could have hoped to deal with them all.
No wonder the bosun was exhausted. No wonder the faces of the honor guard ached with despair at the prospect of another mission. Punisher needed rest, deserved rest. The UMCP were spread too thin; would always be spread too thin, simply because the gap drive made available more space than any police force could control. Not for the first time, Min thought that as long as the threat of the Amnion endured—as long as forbidden space offered wealth in exchange for stolen resources—her people were doomed to fail.
As usual, she kept that idea to herself. Instead she told the bosun, “I’ll go to the bridge.” Then, before he could give any orders himself, she dismissed the honor guard. In general she disliked the formalities of her position; and in this particular case she actively hated wasting the energy of these weary men and women on ceremonial duties.
Momentarily flustered, the bosun began, “Director, Captain ordered—” But an instant later he swallowed his discomfiture. With a salute, he let the guard go. “This way, Director.”
Min knew the way. On any ship the UMCP had commissioned, she could have found the bridge blindfolded. She let the bosun guide her, however. She’d already undercut him enough by dismissing his honor guard.
By the time she left the first lift and headed forward through the ship’s core, she knew Punisher was in trouble. Because of the recent damage to her eardrums, she still couldn’t hear clearly enough to pick up the cruiser’s characteristic hums and whines. But she could feel centrifugal g through the soles of her boots; she could sense vibrations with the nerves of her skin. Subtle stresses reached her like undamped harmonics.
“You’ve got internal spin displacement,” she commented to the bosun. “Bearings are grinding somewhere.”
He gaped at her sidelong. “How—?” She was the ED director, however: he wasn’t supposed to question her. With an effort, he mastered himself. “Forward,” he answered. “We took a hit that knocked the whole core off true. But that’s not all. We’ve got micro-leaks in some of the hydraulic systems. Several doors stick until the pressure rectifies. Half a dozen bulkheads don’t quite seal. And we’ve been holed twice. We’ve kept integrity, but we lost the conduit to one of the sensor banks. Captain has men outside right now, trying to jury-rig leads before we go into tach. For the rest—
“Director, we haven’t had time to trace those leaks or patch those holes. We’ve been at battle-stations for most of the past six months. And only a shipyard can fix internal spin.”
The young officer sounded so raw that Min frowned to herself. “No criticism intended, bosun,” she told him quietly. “It was just an observation.”
He swallowed hard. “Thank you, Director.” Until he blinked them clear, his eyes were perilously moist.
Punisher was desperate for rest.
Full of outraged protectiveness toward her people, Min thought harshly, Fuck you, Warden Dios, and the horse you rode in on. You had goddamn better know what you’re doing.