Starfishers Volume 2: Starfishers
own.”
    “Hey! Don’t get that way. How long you known me?”
    “Since Academy.”
    “I ever take your girl?”
    “I never caught you.” He mixed another drink.
    “What’s that supposed to mean?”
    “Jupp did.”
    Mouse flashed him a black look. “Who?” He shook his head, indicated his ear. The room might be bugged. “Carlotta, you mean? She came after me, remember? And he didn’t give a damn.”
    Jupp von Drachau had given a damn.
    Their mutual acquaintance and Academy classmate had been crushed. He had hidden it from his wife and Mouse, though. Niven had been the receptacle into which he had poured all his pain.
    Niven had never told Mouse that he was the reason that von Drachau had abandoned wife and son and had thrown himself into his work so wholeheartedly that he had been promoted ahead of men far senior. Navy was the one institution that von Drachau trusted implicitly.
    He was not alone in that trust.
    The Services were the Foreign Legion of the age. Their people shared a hardy camaraderie based on their conviction that they had to stand together against the rest of the universe. Service was a place to belong. For people like yon Drachau it became a cult.
    Niven never would tell Mouse.
    The evil had been done. Let the pain fade away.
    It was not what Carlotta had done. Faithful, till-death-do-us-part marriage was an Archaicist fantasy. It was the way the hurt had been done. Carlotta had made a public execution of it, flaying Jupp with a dull emotional flensing knife, with clear intent to injure and humiliate.
    She had paid the price in Coventry. She was still one of the social outcasts of Luna Command. Even her son hated her.
    Niven still did not understand what had moved the woman. She had seemed, suddenly, to become psychotic, to collapse completely under the weight of her aristocratic resentment of her nouveau-riche husband.
    Von Drachau, like Niven, was Old Earther. Even before the collapse of his marriage he had been climbing meteorically, surpassing his wife’s old-line, fourth-generation Navy relatives. That seemed to have been what had cracked her.
    “Well, don’t get in too deep,” Mouse warned, interrupting Niven’s brooding. “We might not hang around long.”
     
    Later, as he drifted on the edge of sleep, trying to forget the trials of life in Luna Command, Niven wondered why Mouse had discussed their mission openly, yet had stifled any mention of von Drachau.
    Protecting their second-level cover? Associates of the Starduster certainly should not be personal friends of a Navy Line Captain.
    Or maybe Mouse knew something that Admiral Beckhart had not mentioned to his partner, Niven thought. The Old Man liked working that way.
    The bastard.
    “Probably both,” he muttered.
    “What?”
    “Talking to myself. Go to sleep.”
    Beckhart always used him as the stalking horse. Or moving target. He blundered around, stirring things up for Mouse.
    Or vice versa, as Mouse claimed.
    He wondered if anybody had been listening. They had found only one bug in their sweeps. It had been inactive. It had been one of those things hotel managers used to keep track of towel thieves. But it was good tradecraft to assume that they had missed something live.
    Niven was not in love with his profession.
    It never allowed him a moment to relax. He did not perceive himself as being fast on his mental feet, so tended to overpress himself pre-plotting his situational reactions. He could not, like Mouse, just fly easy, rolling with the blows of fate like some samurai of destiny.
    For him every venture out of Luna Command was an incursion into enemy territory. He wanted to go out thoroughly forewarned and forearmed.
    Life had not been so complicated in his consular residency days. Back then friend and foe alike had known who and what he was, and there had been a complex set of rituals for playing the game. Seldom had anyone done anything more strenuous than watch to see who visited him and who else was watching. On

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