General Darrell stabbed with a laser pointer at the hologram of Rhylanor. "No," he said. "It's too hot in there. I won't risk any more of my soldiers."
Captain Moak croaked, "I tell you, it's of vital importance that we-"
"There are at least two squads of Zhodani between here and Central Life Support! We've already confirmed that some of them are nobles! What's so all-blessed important about that section?"
Moak sighed wearily. He rubbed his right shoulder with his left hand; his other arm was in a sling. "All right, I suppose you do need to know." He glanced around the crowded rec room. "But not here. Let's go to the lounge."
Darrell nodded and followed Moak into the next room, signaling two Marines to stand guard by the door as he cycled it shut behind him. He remained standing in the center of the room as Moak sank into a padded chair beneath a viewport. Jasmine hung placidly in the sky behind him.
"There's a very capable officer in Life Support whose services are vital to any effort to retake the ship," Moak began.
"What's his name?"
"An ensign?" Darrell said. He began to laugh, a little harshly. "Now Moak, Academy fight songs to the contrary, no ensign has ever been worth the lives of eight Marines-"
"Please let me continue."
Darrell studied his friend. He was ashen-faced and obviously exhausted. Although his shoulder wound hadn't been particularly threatening, he had waited too long to get it treated.
"All right. What's so vital about this ensign?"
"Well, to start with, he isn't an ensign." Moak closed his eyes and leaned back into the cushions. "Anton, what I'm about to tell you can't leave this room. This is a Class Five Imperial Secret, understand?"
Darrell nodded silently. Class Five was the highest military classification.
"Ensign Olivetti is actually Lieutenant Commander Pavel Arkadian of Naval Intelligence."
"I see," said Darrell. "Still, I can't justify the manpower necessary to rescue one man, even if he is an intelligence officer."
"There's more. Commander Arkadian was stationed at Wypoc. Does that mean anything to you?"
"No. Should it?"
"Wypoc is the location of the Imperial Navy's psionic institute."
"What! Moak, psionics are illegal in the Imperium."
"So is murder and the destruction of starships-yet here we both are."
"Is it? Surely a state is justified in taking actions it forbids to its citizens."
"I'm not going to argue political theory with you. Anyway, this is vastly different. A nation has a right to defend itself. But psionics-invading another man's mind! That's disgusting."
"The Zhodani don't think so."
"The Zhodani! They're degenerates."
"I won't argue sociology with you, Anton. They have a stable and efficient society."
"Stable, but at the cost of freedom! If you're unhappy, discontented with the regime, just upset for no reason-why, they'll swoop down and reprogram you! Reach right into your mind and change your basic emotions. They rob a man of anything that makes him unique!"
"You may be right, Anton. But their ability to do all those things means that we must defend ourselves against them. You said so yourself."
"I don't like it."
"I dare say almost all of the crew would agree with you. Why do you think you were kept in the dark? They didn't even tell me until we arrived at Jasmine."
Darrell turned away from the viewport and began to pace. "How can we be sure of his loyalty? How do we know he won't defect to the Zhodani the first chance he gets?"
"I doubt he will. He's an Imperial officer, after all. For that matter, how do any of us know that we won't defect? If your psi shield fails, a Noble could order you to do almost anything."
The door began to chime. Moak got up and opened it. A Marine handed him a computer pad and a rounded object. Moak sat back down and read the pad. Then he looked up at Darrell. "It's a message from the Zhodani commander."
"What does he want?"
"What else? He offers us terms for our surrender."
"He also sends a message to you."
"I think so. It's addressed to the 'Marine Commander.' He asks if the child in the holo is yours-and there's a word here I don't think I've ever seen before."
"The message says, 'You have a noble looking son, Zirkuniashav.' Does that mean anything to you?"
Darrell snatched the hologram and computer pad from Moak. His face grew grim as he read the pad.
"The hologram is of Shinoko and Alexei, isn't it?"
"Yes." Darrell grimaced. "I know that word, Moak."
"What does it mean?"
"Me. That is, Anton Darrell." He laughed bitterly. "Looks like it's my turn to tell you something that can't leave this room. Do you remember the rebellion on Efate, just before the war began?"
Moak nodded. "There was Zhodani influence there, right? That's why they sent in Imperial troops."
"There was Zhodani influence, all right. But it had been there for years. I know. I was there." He paused to finger the hologram. "This was back in 1096 or so. There had been rumors of rebels in the outback for some time. Nothing definite, but enough to worry the Imperial officials there. They needed to find out what was happening without tipping their hand."
"Yes. Why not? I was in the Commandos, had plenty of black ops experience. So I took a platoon of commandos down to Efate, as 'advisors' to the local army. But the real mission was to find out who was backing the rebels."
"And you thought it was the Zhodani."
"We knew it was. There were all kinds of clues. Their intelligence was too good; they kept avoiding our ambushes. We didn't have any leaks, at least not after I took over. And when we started to use psi shields, our ambushes started to work again. Had to be telepathy, right?
"They were too disciplined for mercenaries. Oh, sure, the better merc companies are almost as good as regular Army; most of them used to be Army, after all. But mercs don't fight to the death; there's no money in it. These guys did. But not like fanatics would; they fought well and hard, always covering themselves.
"Then there was Zirkuniashav."
"I don't understand."
"I knew it had to be a Zhodani word. Every one of the prisoners we picked up used it for me. Even some of the locals picked it up."
"What does it mean?"
"We ran it through the computer and it kicked out 'nocturnal person of Consular rank.' But that's not the real gist of it. I myself didn't figure it out until years later. I was on Regina, and decided to run it through the University's data bank.
"Moak, did you know that they have a database of every published Zhodani work? Or at least the ones that come over the border. They even have a database of fairy tales. That's why they were able to give me the real translation.
"'Prince of Darkness.'
"It was because of all the nocturnal raids I was leading, see? It helped me get to know their commander, in a funny sort of way."
"You don't mean you met him?"
"Oh, no. But he was good, Moak, very good. Cunning and clever. Caught us in as many ambushes as we caught him-more, maybe. Obviously a noble, strong psionic capabilities-you could see the mark he left on his men. And they never revealed any information-I mean never. His control over them was that good.
"We finally managed to hit one of their command posts. Hard, maybe too hard-some civilians got killed, and that helped cook my goose. And the Zhos cleared out the minute the fighting started. But we got some of their computers before they could be erased. I had all the evidence I needed-I even told my commanders the name of the Zhodani commander. Tlienjpraviashav. But HQ wasn't interested. They didn't want to have to start a war. So they buried me, kept me from getting any other commands, at least until the war finally did start."
"I see. And now he's onboard Rhylanor."
"Yes." Darrell put down the hologram. "I've changed my mind. We need your ensign."
"Agreed. Who will lead the mission."
"I will," Anton said. Nobody else would have a chance.