Chapter 2

"Okay, Anzin, what's the word?" I'iakramen grinned. "Do I pass this year?"

"Of course you pass, just like you do every year," the flight surgeon grinned back. "You're so healthy, it's disgusting. How do you do it, with all that stress?"

"Just lucky, I guess."

"So, when are you going to let me schedule you for upgrade surgery? I can only keep jimmying the records so long before they catch on, you know."

"I'll retire first," I'iakramen said flatly.

"You do that, and you'll be giving them exactly what they want."

"Not really. I'll just go underground. I'm going to have to do it soon, anyway. I've already had to take out his psi assassins twice. One of these days, they're going to catch me when I'm too exhausted to shield myself, and they'll find me dead of unknown causes. 'His hearts just stopped.' Fat lot of good I'll do anybody then." He shook his head. "Workaholic image notwithstanding, I'll retire before I let you or anybody else put those wires in my head, and I'll let them put that on my record."

"And how will that look to Isi? You know he's coming in for Raptors."

"I'm trying real hard not to think about that. I've even tried to talk him out of it, but, if seeing the way people talk about pilots hasn't changed his mind, nothing I can say is going to do it." He sighed. "You don't know how tempted I was to have his application rejected again."

"Why didn't you?"

"Because it would have destroyed him. He's lived his whole life dreaming of wearing this uniform. It was one thing when he was the rotten kid they tried to throw off base, but he's done so well for the past two years, I just couldn't do that to him." He sighed. "Maybe you can talk sense into him. God knows you've been closer to him than I've been."

And whose fault is that? Anzin wisely didn't say aloud. "You must be joking. Even if he did understand what all the gossip is about—which I seriously doubt—they're invincible at that age, and nothing anybody tells them can convince them otherwise. Besides, I'd come across too much like Arrakentos if I did that."

"Oh? And what's he been doing?"

"Nothing anybody can prove, but he's got a reputation for putting the screws to anybody who threatens his academic standing. Oh, that reminds me. The Jevik's due in tomorrow morning."

The admiral's features suddenly took on a sour expression. "And You-Know-Who has me taking ship tonight for Raddik to sooth some ruffled feathers."

"I thought that was the Diplo Corps' job."

"When you're the Commander-in-Chief of the whole damned Fleet, your job description consists of one word: Everything."

"Well, it's awfully funny that 'everything' always seems to happen every time you might get to see your family. I'm telling you, 'Kramen, it stinks. I'd swear Kerume knows something."

"Of course he knows, and more than just something. You're the one who nearly had a fit when Mylber and I enrolled, because it meant His High-And-Mightiness would have access to our genetic profiles."

"Yeah, and now your kids'. One of these days, he's actually going to take a look; when that happens, you'll all be dead."

I'iakramen shook his head. "He doesn't dare. He can't take the risk. Quatzet-Har may know about us."

"Right. Look, make sure you send Isi some kind of letter, will you? Even if it's just a line or two. And don't let anything distract you this time, or, so help me, I'll—"

"You'll kick my butt all the way to the Great Barrier and back, I know," I'iakramen grinned. "You just keep me posted on how he's doing 'til I get back. Arrakentos, too, though you'd better send those reports to the Starbelt. I don't want Kerume to know I'm keeping tabs on him."

"What is your interest in that kid?"

"Anzin, there are things about the Project that even you don't know."