Field agent Nathaniel Firstborn Whaler of Accord's Ecolitan Institute, having just rescued colleague Sylvia Ferro-Maine from the Earth Empire, is ordered to produce a report detailing the ecological development and economic infrastructure of the terraformed colony world Artos. But hot, barren Artos lies within the Three System Bulge, a strategically important region over which the galaxy's major powers are squabbling. To complicate Nathaniel's mission, some factions want the report published, others don't; all the various empires have sent spies to scrutinize his every move; and, being a loner, he must learn to work in tandem with Sylvia. Minutes after they arrive on Artos, the Ecolitans' car explodes, killing the driver; they narrowly escape an explosion at a fuel- processing plant; then their plane crashes in the desert. Finally, having prepared their report, they leave for New Avalon--but their spaceship's been sabotaged, too! So Nathaniel and Sylvia must figure out who's responsible, and try to stop a galactic war from breaking out. An overcomplicated but mostly agreeable potboiler from the talented and versatile Modesitt (The Soprano Sorceress, 1997, etc.).