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Authors: Alex Stewart

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ORIGINAL TRADE PAPERBACK. Space opera with a bang, as a young castout is caught up in an interstellar war.


Cast out by his family and exiled from the Rimward Commonwealth, Simon Forrester must make a new life for himself as an apprentice to the powerful Commerce Guild. But others aboard the merchant vessel Stacked Deck have a hidden agenda that might lead directly to interstellar war. Now with rising tensions between the Commonwealth and the neighboring League of Democracies threatening to erupt into open war, Simon finds himself forced to choose between old and new loyalties, with the fate of an empire at stake!


This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 by Alex Stewart

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

P.O. Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

ISBN: 978-1-4767-8118-1

Cover art by Stephan Martinière

First Baen printing, April 2016

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: TK

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


In which a familial disagreement leads to an impulsive decision.

“I’m extremely disappointed, Simon.” My mother paused for emphasis. When I was a lot younger, I’d assumed she did that to underline the gravity of whatever offence I was supposed to have committed—but these days I had a state-of-the-art neural interface entwined around my synapses, and could easily sense the datacloud surrounding her. Less than half her attention was actually on her wayward son, the rest devoted to the fluctuating datastreams connecting her to her ship.

So I stared past her shoulder, through the window of the dockyard office she’d borrowed from Aunt Jenny, wondering which of the drifting stars beyond was the
Queen Kylie’s Revenge.
Typically, I’d been dragged all the way up to the main orbital for this exhibition of parental displeasure, while Mother just hopped a few dozen miles from the outer moorings in the Captain’s gig.

Idly, I dipped a probe into the datacurrent, testing its speed and direction. Her ship must be one of those pinpricks of light drifting above the luminescent limb of the night face of Avalon, where the hidden sun was just beginning to catch the edge of the atmosphere. Directly below us the planet of my birth—technically, at least, since I actually entered the universe a few dozen miles above its surface, in the sickbay of HMS
mother having left things a little too late to catch the shuttle home once the contractions started—was speckled with the warmly glowing lights of cities and towns. Knowing my mother, I couldn’t help wondering if she’d been just as deeply meshed into the
’s datasphere that morning, more concerned with making a good impression as the new Second Officer than the business of giving birth to me. But that was unfair. Probably.

Before I could fix the
’s position any more precisely, Mother’s outgoing datastream threw my probe off with a white-hot sting of heavy encryption, far more toxic than the protection I’d breached so easily at the university. If she was aware of my brief attempt to mesh, however, she gave no sign of it, just frowning as she continued the well-worn mantra of her disapproval. Which meant dragging Dad into it, of course. “And so’s your father. Aren’t you, Harold?”

“Yes, dear. Extremely disappointed.” My father nodded, trying to look as though he cared, but a quick dip into his datacloud (civilian neurosuite, blocked as thoroughly as my own from anything up here that might be interesting) showed most of his attention was on a multiway link with his fishing cronies, finalizing the arrangements for a trip they were planning the following weekend. Noticing my presence, he kicked me a virtual of the lodge. Old style, rustic furnishings and a wood-burning stove, which would never be needed with the modern environmental system, but a fire always made a room look cozy.
There’s a spare bunk if you want to disappear for a few days.

Not this time,
I sent back. I could hardly think of anything more boring than failing to catch fish with a group of middle-aged fleet widowers. Besides, if Mother found out, she’d give him a hard time for “indulging” me when I was supposed to be in disgrace.

Dad nodded, almost imperceptibly, picking up on subtext. He was good at that. But then we’d had a lot of practice. Warship captains don’t make a habit of taking their families with them on deployment, so he’d brought up my sister and I pretty much single-handed, while mother was off defending the Commonwealth. If he’d ever had any ambitions or dreams of his own he’d never mentioned the fact to me, abandoning them in favor of marriage and fatherhood as dutifully and uncomplainingly as men of his class were supposed to. Mine too, come to think of it, but I’d always wanted something more out of life.

A reflection which sparked an all too familiar flare of resentment. Maybe if I’d held it in until Mother had finished chewing me out, like I usually did, my life would have resumed its even tenor of suffocating tedium, and I’d have avoided the inconvenience of so many people trying to kill me in the months to come; but I could feel the pressure of innumerable petty slights building into a tidal wave of bile, overriding any attempt at caution and restraint. All those years of my mother’s withheld approval, her eloquently unexpressed disappointment that her first-born hadn’t been a girl. All the encouragement and support my sister had been given, even after ruffling everyone’s feathers by bucking the family tradition and opting for a career in the Marines instead of the Navy, while my own interests had been patronized and ignored. All those times I’d been labeled a problem for showing a bit of initiative, even if I hadn’t quite thought through the consequences of acting on it.

“Well perhaps I’m disappointed too,” I snapped back without thinking. Mother’s eyes focused on me as though her targeting ‘ware had just got a positive lock on a fleeing commerce raider, and I suddenly remembered why getting her undivided attention had always been an uncomfortable experience for both of us. Dad shifted uneasily in his chair, and I didn’t need his
Bad idea
to tell me he wasn’t happy with the way the conversation was going either.

If anything, Mother seemed surprised. I suppose ship captains expect people to just shut up and do as they’re told, a principle she’d generally extended to her nearest and dearest, and my flash of defiance had wrong-footed her.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, in a voice that should have left Aunt Jenny’s desk, with its scattering of manifests and requisition forms, coated with ice.

“Exactly what it sounds like,” I volleyed back, while Dad tried to become invisible in the corner. “Nothing I’ve ever done has been good enough for you, has it? When I won silver in the district games, you told me I should have tried harder for gold. I got a college place entirely on my own, without you having to call in any favors like you did for Tinkie, and you just said men don’t need to be smart. And the only way you’d let me go at all was if I settled for a course a wife would find useful if I ever get one.”

“Of course you’ll get a wife,” she said dismissively, as though the issue was already settled. Knowing her, she’d have a short list of potential candidates on file somewhere. Then an expression of acute constipation flitted across her face, which was what usually happened on the rare occasion an idea occurred to her. “Good God and all Her angels! You don’t prefer men, do you?”

“No.” I had to fight the urge to laugh at that point, and I could see Dad trying not to smile too visibly as well. But then he’d seen a great deal more of my social life than Mother ever had.

“Good.” Heaven help me, she actually looked relieved for a moment. Then thoughtful again. “Although if you do, Admiral Jollife’s got this nephew. Good looking, very poised. Quite a catch.”

Which was the real point, of course. Finding a suitable spouse for me wasn’t just about continuing the Forrester tradition of supplying generation after generation of cannon fodder to the Royal Navy, I was supposed to marry into the family of someone who could give Mother’s career and social status a leg up as well.

“If I ever change my mind, you can introduce us,” I said. “But you’re missing the point.” Which wasn’t exactly a surprise; why should she break the habit of a lifetime? “How can you honestly expect me not to resent it when you won’t even allow me to pick the college course I want?”

If I’d been able to study something I was actually interested in, like neuroware design or gravitic engineering, instead of a subject my family deemed “suitable for a man” (estate management, in case you were wondering—but I can hear you yawning from here), I might not have been so bored that setting up a lucrative sideline in information brokerage—all right, meshing into the admin system and filching test answers—had been just about the only thing keeping my brain from liquefying and trickling out of my ears. A hobby which had also boosted the meager allowance I got from my family more than enough to let me attend all the right parties, with the cream of campus society: by which, of course, I mean the rich and thick, all of whom were profitably delighted to be in my circle of acquaintances, despite a social gulf so wide I would have been barely visible waving across it in the normal course of events.

Then it all went sour, for which, if I’m honest, I had no one to blame but myself. If I hadn’t got overconfident, and sold Rosamund Kearney enough to ace her mid-terms, I’d probably have got away with my little avocation indefinitely. I could have landed a Dame or a Viscountess at some soiree a semester or two before graduating—maybe even Rosamund herself, who was nice enough in an amiably dim-witted sort of way—and settled into a comfortable life as the pampered husband of an aristo. (Or kept man, anyway—I had no illusions about the sort of welcome I’d get from Rosamund’s family if she ever took me home to meet her mother.) The trouble was, Rosamund was one of those students whose acceptance is tacitly understood to be more about funding than academic ability, and her sudden jump from a steady stream of D-minuses to potential valedictorian raised more than a few suspicions.

Which inevitably led to the Proctors finding the ripples my fumbling around had left in the campus datapool, and it was swiftly made clear to me that my presence in the groves of academe was no longer welcome. After a few empty threats of criminal charges had been waved in my direction, despite everyone, including me, being well aware that far too many influential families would be embarrassed by such a thing for the affair ever to be made public, my university education came to an abrupt and ignominious end.

“There’s more to life than doing what you want,” Mother said, clearly relieved to be able to shoulder-charge the conversation back to topics she understood, like Honor, Duty, and Doing the Right Thing. “And that doesn’t excuse you helping your friends to cheat.”

“I wasn’t helping my friends to cheat!” I protested, indignant at the unfairness of the accusation. “I was helping anyone who was willing to pay me!”

Dad groaned, and buried his head in his hands. Mother’s eyes narrowed, and I began to wonder if it was too late to switch places with the commerce raider.

“So, it’s come to this.” The words fell from her compressed lips like chunks of frozen helium. “Five generations of duty and sacrifice to produce a . . . a . . .” For the first time in my life I heard words fail her. If it hadn’t been so alarming, I might have savored the moment. Instead, I concentrated on not looking intimidated, which, considering her years of practice at making underlings squirm, wasn’t as easy as it sounds. “A common mountebank,” she concluded at last, having bought a few milliseconds to consult a thesaurus somewhere within her datacloud.

“That’s right,” I rejoined heatedly. “Five generations of Forresters, going back almost as far as the first Rimward settlements. All of them joining the Navy because their mothers and grandmothers did. Did you even think about doing something else with your life?”

“No.” Her voice was flat with the unshakable certainty of the imaginatively challenged. “I don’t expect you to understand, but it’s a proud tradition.” Then an unexpectedly wistful note momentarily softened her tone. “I had hoped Katinka would continue it, but she knows her own mind.”

“She’s her mother’s daughter, all right,” Dad said fondly, startling us both; locked in our duel of words, Mother and I had practically forgotten he was there. A skill he’d perfected over the years, and one which I strongly suspected contributed greatly to whatever marital harmony was to be found in the Forrester household. “But the Marines
technically part of the Naval Service, so—”

“Do you have an actual point to make, Harold?” Mother asked, returning her attention to me. I caught his eye.
Best keep out of it
, I sent, appreciative of his attempt at a diversion, however futile. “I’m the last Forrester in that unbroken line to wear this uniform. There’s no one else.”

For some reason, that casual aside stung me far more than anything else she’d said so far.

“Of course there isn’t,” I practically shouted back. “Because Tinkie’s the only child you ever had, and if she wants to bugger off and play soldiers instead, that’s the Forrester naval line sunk for good and all. It’s never even occurred to you that I could enlist instead, has it?” To be fair, it had never occurred to me either, but I didn’t see any reason to mention that at the time.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Simon.” For a moment, it seemed, Mother oscillated between erupting with anger or with laughter, before compromising with an explosive snort of derision. “An officer’s son among the enlisted ranks? The idea’s preposterous.”

“Who said I had to be a swabbie?” I retorted. “Men can be officers too, you know.”

“Not on my ship.” This time the snort held a note of incredulity. “I don’t care what the so-called modernizers in the Admiralty say, men aren’t temperamentally suited to positions of command and there’s an end of it. They’re too hot-headed to make sound tactical decisions.”

Which, I must admit, wasn’t just her own view; the numbers spoke for themselves. Fewer than ten per cent of the officers in the Royal Navy were men, and most of those were serving in administrative and support roles. None of the handful actually assigned to ships held positions higher than Third Officer. Strangely enough, though, the further down the chain of command you went the more men you were liable to find, until the bottom tier of enlisted personnel was pretty much a mirror image of the gender balance at the top.

“Are you seriously suggesting applying to the Naval Academy?” Dad asked, looking more surprised than Mother, if that were possible. I was about to laugh it off, admit I was only making a cheap debating point, when I noticed something else in his expression, almost hidden by his astonishment. Pride. And perhaps a little envy.

“Why not?” I said instead. “I got into Summerhall.” Which may not have been the most prestigious university on Avalon, but it was well up in the first rank, even attracting academics and research contracts from other worlds in the Rimward Commonwealth. “The entrance exams can’t be that much harder. And, as Mother never tires of reminding us, the Forrester name counts for a lot in Naval circles.”

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