Chapter 18

Salabast was clearly uncomfortable with his disguise. He had dyed his unruly raven locks and beard a pale blond and traded his general’s tabard for the uniform of a petty officer second class. Agron had also cautioned him to change his commanding swagger to something more akin to the gait of a cringing giant. Michael doubted that Salabast could pull off such a transformation.

Michael’s own disguise was equally mortifying. He and Salabast were to travel together on new orders to a weapons collier stationed in the Piscium system. Salabast would come aboard as an ordnance man first class—a credible role, given that he had served aboard a destroyer in that capacity in his younger years. Michael was designated a shielding specialist recruit, which was code for space grunt. Shielding work aboard an ammunition ferry was almost never needed, so he was really just a basic spacer. My, how far I’ve fallen, he grimly reflected.

He couldn’t help but think Agron had it in for him. First, he had been reduced in rank to serve as Traci Ganner’s first officer. That had rankled bad enough. But now, he was even junior to Salabast!

But Salabast had argued for that minor command detail, and in a way it made sense. The former general would certainly have some knowledge on any assignment he was given, having come up through the Terran navy. And he had known how to secure their uniforms and make transits effectively. Furthermore, Michael needed to spend a lot of his transit time studying if he was to pass as even a mildly-convincing shielding tech. Fortunately, his ineptitude would help enhance his role as a recruit freshly minted from boot and specialization school.

Agron had moved quickly once he had the necessary computer access. The young threader, Lieutentant Benson, had come quickly to terms with his new duty after Salabast’s men had kidnapped him; Salabast could be a very effective motivator. The ex-general had let him know that he would tolerate nothing but complete access to the records they needed, and Benson did not disappoint. It was unfortunate that he was wasted on patrol duty when he would clearly have made a much better cryptographer, a fact that Salabast had commented on. As soon as he was restored to his former position as General Salabast, he instructed Lieutentant Benson to look for a quick promotion; if nothing else, Salabast wanted to keep a close eye on the crafty young lad. For now, Salabast left him under the watchful care of Captains Stark and Harjay.

Agron had insisted on perfecting every minute detail. He had quickly located two suitable matches for Salabast and Michael and modified their records. He modified everything from dental and medical profiles to where they went to school and what their previous assignments had been. He left nothing to chance. Of course, it was unfortunate that the former owners of those records would find themselves bereft of identity, but it had to be done. By the time they returned from active leave, the two victims would be stuck trying for days to untie the tangles in their records. And the bureau of personnel could be so very slow in these matters.

“Blast, I wish I could understand the difference between a shield klystron and M-space shielding. They seem the same to me,” Michael said under his breath. Salabast said nothing, but smiled. They were both seated in crew class aboard the transit shuttle that would take them to the Argonaut, a munitions collier that supported training exercises with live-fire weapons. Argonaut was an older ship, still used for logistics and repairs and occasionally some merchant trading.

Of late, its commander had fallen out with the upper echelon and had drawn exercise support duties, which had not made him a happy man. It was likely a grumpy CO would be in charge when Salabast and Michael made their change of duty. That tended to put the entire crew on edge, which would mean they would need to keep on their toes.

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