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David Weber

Heirs of Empire

Chapter One

Sean MacIntyre skittered out of the transit shaft and adjusted his hearing as he dashed down the passage. He shouldn’t need to listen until he was on the other side of the hatch, but he still had more trouble with his ears’ bio-enhancement than with his eyes for some reason, and he preferred to get set early.

He covered the last hundred meters, slid to a halt, and pressed his back against the bulkhead. The wide, silent passage vanished into a gleaming dot in either direction, and he raked a hand through sweaty black hair as his enhanced ears picked the pulsing sounds of environmental equipment and the soft hum of the now-distant transit shaft from the slowing thunder of his pulse. He’d been chasing them for over an hour, and he’d half-expected to be ambushed by now. He certainly would have tried it, he thought, and sniffed disdainfully.

He drew his holstered pistol and turned to the hatch. It slid open—quietly to unenhanced ears, but thunderous to his—and bright sunlight spilled out.

He slipped through the hatch and selected telescopic vision for his left eye. He kept his right adjusted to normal ranges (he did lots better with his eyes than with his ears) and peered into the dappled shadows of the whispering leaves.

Oaks and hickories drowsed under the “sun” as he slithered across the picnic area into the gloss-green rhododendrons that ran down to the lake. He moved quietly, holding the pistol against his chest two-handed, ready to whirl, point, and fire with all the snakelike quickness of his enhanced reflexes, but search as he might, he heard and saw nothing except wind, birds, and the slop of small waves.

He worked his way clear to the lake without finding a target, then paused in thought. The park deck, one of many aboard the starship Dahak, was twenty-odd kilometers across. That was a big hiding place, but Harriet was impatient, and she hated running away. She’d be lurking somewhere within a few hundred meters, hoping to ambush him, and that meant—

Motion flickered, and he froze, vision zooming in on whatever had attracted it. He smiled as he saw a flash of long, black hair duck back behind an oak, but he didn’t scoot out after her. Now that he’d found Harry, there was no way she could sneak away from her tree without his seeing her, and he swept his eyes back and forth, searching for her ally. She’d be part of the ambush, too, so she had to be pretty close. In fact, she should be…

A hand-sized patch of blue caught his eye, just visible between two laurels. Unlike Harry, it was patiently and absolutely still, but he had them both now, and he grinned and began a slow, stealthy move to his left. A few more meters and—

Zaaaaaaaaaaa-ting!

Sean jerked in disbelief, then punched the ground and used a word his mother would not have approved. The chime gave way to a raucous buzzing that ripped at his augmented hearing, and he snatched his ears back to normal and stood resignedly.

The buzz from the laser-sensing units on his harness stopped at his admission of defeat, and he turned, wondering how Harry had slipped around behind him. But it wasn’t Harry, and he ground his teeth as a diminutive figure splashed ashore. She’d shed her bright blue jacket (Sean knew exactly where), and she was soaking wet, but her brown eyes blazed with delight.

“I got you!” she shrieked. “Sean’s dead! Sean’s dead, Harry!”

He managed not to use any more of his forbidden vocabulary when the eight-year-old ninja began an impromptu war dance, but it was hard, especially when his twin threw herself into the dance with her half-pint ally. Bad enough to lose to girls, but to be ambushed by Sandy MacMahan was insupportable. She was two years younger than he, this was the first time she’d even been allowed to play, and she’d killed him with her first shot!

“Your elation at Sean’s death is scarcely becoming, Sandra.” The deep, mellow voice coming from empty air surprised none of them. They’d known Dahak all their lives, and the self-aware computer’s starship body was one of their favorite playgrounds.

“Who cares?” Sandy demanded gleefully. “I got him! Zap!” She pointed her pistol at Sean and collapsed with a wail of laughter at his expression.

“Luck!” he shot back, holstering his own pistol with dignity he knew was threadbare. “You were just lucky, Sandy!”

“That is incorrect, Sean,” Dahak observed with the dispassionate fairness Sean hated when it was on someone else’s side. ” ‘Luck’ implies the fortuitous working of chance, and Sandra’s decision to conceal herself in the lake—which, I observed, you did not check once—was an ingenious maneuver. And as she has cogently if unkindly observed, she ‘got’ you.”

“So there!” Sandy stuck out her tongue, and Sean turned away with an injured air. It didn’t get any better when Harriet grinned at him.

“I told you Sandy was old enough, didn’t I?” she demanded.

He longed to disagree—violently—but he was an honest boy, and so he nodded begrudgingly, and tried to hide his shudder as a vision of the future unrolled before him. Sandy was Harry’s best friend, despite her youth, and now the little creep was going to be underfoot everywhere. He’d managed to fend that off for over a year by claiming she was too little. Until today. She was already two course units ahead of him in calculus, and now this!

The universe, Sean Horus MacIntyre concluded grumpily, wasn’t exactly running over with justice.

* * *

Amanda Tsien and her husband stepped out of the transit shaft outside Dahak’s command deck. Her son, Tamman, followed them down the passage, but he was almost squirming in impatience, and Amanda glanced up at her towering husband with a twinkle. Most described Tsien Tao-ling’s face as grim, but a smile flickered as he watched Tamman. The boy might not be “his” in any biological sense, yet that didn’t mean he wasn’t Tamman’s father, and he nodded when Amanda quirked an eyebrow.

“All right, Tamman,” she said. “You can go.”

“Thanks, Mom!” He turned in his tracks with the curiously catlike awkwardness of his age and dashed back towards the transit shaft. “Where’s Sean, Dahak?” he demanded as he ran.

“He is on Park Deck Nine, Tamman,” a mellow voice responded.

“Thanks! See you later, Mom, Dad!” Tamman ran sideways for a moment to wave, then dove into the shaft with a whoop.

“You’d think they hadn’t seen each other in months,” Amanda sighed.

“I do not believe children live on the same time scale as adults,” Tsien observed in his deep, soft voice as she tucked a hand through his elbow.

“You can say that again!”

They turned the final bend to confront the command deck hatch. Dahak’s crest coiled across the bronze-gold battle steel: a three-headed dragon, poised for flight, clawed forefeet raised to cradle the emblem of the Fifth Imperium. The crowned starburst of the Fourth Empire had been retained, but now a Phoenix of rebirth erupted from the starburst, and the diadem of empire rested on its crested head. The twenty- centimeter-thick hatch—the first of many, each fit to withstand a kiloton-range warhead—slid soundlessly open.

“Hello, Dahak,” Amanda said as they walked forward and other hatches parted before them.

“Good evening, Amanda. Welcome aboard, Star Marshal.”

“Thank you,” Tsien replied. “Have the others arrived?”

“Admiral Hatcher is en route, but the MacMahans and Duke Horus have already joined Their Majesties.”

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