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Chapter Seventeen

MacGuiness stacked the dessert dishes on his tray and poured fresh coffee for Honor's guests, then refilled her own cocoa cup.

"Will there be anything else, Milady?" he asked, and she shook her head.

"We can manage, Mac. Just leave the coffee pot where these barbarians can get at it."

"Yes, Milady," the steward's voice was respectful as ever, but he shot his captain a moderately reproving glance, then disappeared into his pantry.

"'Barbarian' may be just a bit strong, Ma'am," Rafe Cardones protested with a grin.

"Nonsense," Honor replied briskly. "Any truly cultivated palate realizes how completely cocoa outclasses coffee as a beverage of choice. Anyone but a barbarian knows that."

"I see." Cardones glanced at his fellow diners, then smiled sweetly. "Tell me, Ma'am, did you see that article in the Landing Times about Her Majesty's favorite coffee blend?"

Honor spluttered into her cocoa, and a soft chorus of laughter went up around the table. She set down her cup and mopped her lips with her napkin, then beetled her eyebrows at her exec.

"Officers who score on their COs have short and grisly careers, Mr. Cardones," she informed him.

"That's all right, Ma'am. At least cocoa drinking isn't as revolting as chewing gum."

"You really are riding for a fall, aren't you?" Susan Hibson observed. The exec grinned, and she reached into a tunic pocket to extract a pack of gum. She carefully unwrapped a stick, put it in her mouth, and chewed slowly, sea-green eyes gleaming challengingly. Cardones shuddered but forbore to take up the challenge, and another laugh circled the table.

Honor leaned back and crossed her legs. Tonight's dinner was by way of a celebration of their first victory, and she was glad to see the relaxed atmosphere. With the exception of Harold Tschu and John Kanehama, all her senior officers had assembled in the comfortable dining cabin Wayfarer's civilian designers had provided for her captain. Kanehama had the bridge watch, but Tschu had planned to attend until a last minute problem with Fusion One prevented him from being present. It didn't sound serious, but Tschu, like Honor, believed in getting the jump on problems while they were still minor.

"How did it go dirtside, Ma'am?" Jennifer Hughes asked, and Honor frowned.

"Smoothly enough—on the surface, anyway."

"'On the surface', Ma'am?" Hughes repeated, and Honor shrugged.

"Governor Hagen took the lot of them into custody with thanks, but he seemed just a little eager to see the last of us." Honor toyed with her cocoa cup and glanced at Major Hibson. She and the Marine had delivered their prisoners to the system governor in chains, and she knew Hibson shared her own suspicions. Of course, Susan didn't have the advantage of a treecat. She couldn't have sensed the pirate captain's enormous relief at seeing the governor . . . which wasn't exactly what might have been expected of a man who anticipated being punished.

"He was certainly that, Ma'am," Hibson agreed now. She grimaced. "He seemed a bit put out with your decision to blow up their ship, too. Did you notice?"

"I did, indeed," Honor replied. Governor Hagen had made noises about commissioning the pirate vessel as a customs patrol ship, and "a bit put out" considerably understated his reaction to her refusal to turn it over. She contemplated her cup a moment longer, then shrugged. "Well, it's not the first time, now is it? I'm afraid I can live with the good governor's unhappiness. And at least we're certain we won't see their ship again."

"Will you really let me shoot them if we pick them up again, Ma'am?" Honor nodded, her expression momentarily bleak. "Good," the major said quietly.

At less than a hundred sixty centimeters, Susan Hibson was a petite woman, but there was nothing soft in her eyes or finely chiseled features. She was a Marine to her toenails, and Marines didn't like pirates. Honor suspected that had something to do with the fact that Marine boarding parties were so often first to witness the human wreckage raiders left behind.

"Personally," she said after a moment, "I'd just as soon not shoot anyone, Susan. But if it's the only way to really take them out of circulation, I don't see what choice we have. At least we can be sure they have a fair trial before they're executed. And from a pragmatic perspective, it may convince the next batch we pick up that we mean it."

"Like a vaccination, Milady," Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Angela Ryder put in from her place at the foot of the table. Ryder was as dark-haired as Hibson, with a thin, studious face. She was also a bit absentminded and tended to prefer a white smock to proper uniform, but she was a first-class physician. "I don't like killing people, either," she went on, "but if the lesson takes, we may actually have to kill less of them in the long run."

"That's the idea, Angie," Honor replied, "but I'm afraid my own observation is that the sort of people who turn pirate in the first place don't really think it could happen to them. They're convinced they're too good, or too smart—or too lucky—to end up dead. And I'm sorry to say a lot of them are right about the luck. The Confederacy's roughly a hundred and five light-years across, with a volume of something like six hundred thousand cubic light-years. Without an effective—and honest—government to run them out of town, raiders can always find someplace to hole up, and most of them are only hired hands, anyway."

"I've never really understood that, Ma'am," Ryder said.

"Historically, piracy's always been subsidized by 'honest merchants,'" Honor explained. "Even back on pre-space Old Earth, 'respectable' business people fronted for pirates, slave traders, drug smugglers, you name it. There's a lot of money in operations like that, and the front people are always harder to get at than their foot soldiers. They go to considerable lengths to be pillars of the community—quite a few of them have been major philanthropists—because that's their first line of defense. It places them above suspicion and lets them pretend they were dupes if an illegal operation does blow up in their faces. Besides, they never get their own hands bloody, and the courts tend to be more lenient with them if they do get caught." She shrugged. "It's disgusting, but that's the way it is. And when the situation's as confused and chaotic as it normally is in Silesia, the opportunities are just too tempting. There's actually a sort of outlaw glamor to piracy out here in many people's eyes, so why shouldn't someone like Governor Hagen take the money as long as someone else does the actual murdering?"

"You're right, Ma'am; that is disgusting," the doctor said after a moment.

"Disgust doesn't invalidate the analysis, though," Hughes put in, "and it's not going to change unless someone makes it change. Sort of makes you wish we could just go ahead and turn the Andies loose on them, doesn't it?"

"In the short term, at any rate." Honor sipped cocoa, then lowered her cup with a wry smile. "Of course, in the long term an Empire that controlled the entire Confederacy might be an even worse neighbor than pirates. I have a feeling Duke Cromarty would think so, at any rate."

"Hard to blame him," Fred Cousins observed. "We've got enough trouble just dealing with the Peeps."

Honor nodded and started to reply, only to pause as Nimitz rose in his highchair to stretch luxuriously. A lazy yawn bared his needle-sharp fangs, then he looked into her eyes, and she gazed back. They remained incapable of exchanging actual thoughts, but they'd gotten steadily better at sending images to one another, and now she smiled as he sent her a view of the hydroponics section and followed it with another one of Samantha. The female treecat sat primly under one of the tomato trellises used to provide the crew with fresh food, but Honor smiled as she sensed the invitation in Samantha's bright eyes.

"All right, Stinker," she said, but she also raised an admonishing finger in his direction. "Just don't get underfoot—and don't get lost, either!"

Nimitz bleeked cheerfully and hopped to the decksole. Although he normally stuck close to Honor, he'd learned how to open powered doors while she was still a child and how to operate lifts while he and his person were still at the Academy. He couldn't use the lift com to ask central routing for directions, but he was quite capable of punching in memorized destination codes. Now he gave her another laughing look, flirted his tail at her, and flowed out of the cabin, and she looked up to see Cardones regarding her speculatively.

"He wants to stretch his legs a bit."

"I see." Cardones' expression was admirably grave, but Honor didn't need Nimitz to sense his amusement.

"At any rate," she said more briskly, "now that we've got one pirate under our belts, I'd like to go over what Susan and Jenny managed to pull out of their computers. We didn't get much on anyone they might have been coordinating operations with or where they were based, but we know where they've been . . . and where they planned to go next, which also happens to be our own next scheduled stop. The question is whether or not we should spend another few days here or go straight on to Schiller. Comments?"

* * *

Aubrey Wanderman stepped out of the lift and checked the passage marker on the facing bulkhead.

Wayfarer's civilian designers had provided far too little personnel space for her present, over-sized military crew, and the yard dogs had sliced a huge chunk of her Number Two Hold into a rabbit warren of berthing decks which still confused him. The need to sandwich in enough life support for three thousand people hadn't helped, and passages that looked like they ought to go to one place had a maddening habit of ending up someplace else. For most of Wayfarer's crew, that was merely irritating, but Aubrey enjoyed exploring the labyrinth—which earned quite a bit of ribbing from the old sweats. Despite their amusement, however, he was finally beginning to learn his way around, thanks to the inboard hull plans he'd loaded into his memo pad. Yet the only way to be sure he had a new route down correctly was to try it out, which was the point of this evening's exercise.

He punched the marker code into his memo pad and studied the display for a moment. So far, so good. If he followed this passage to the next junction forward, he could cut up from Engineering to Number Two LAC Hold and pick up the cross lift to the gym—assuming, of course, that he'd plotted his course correctly to begin with.

He grinned at the thought and set off up the deserted passageway, whistling as he went. He wouldn't have traded his acting PO's grade for Ginger's mightier position on a bet, because his merely acting promotion had put him on the command deck when the Captain snapped up their first pirate, and he'd never felt so excited in his life. He supposed he'd actually gotten more excited than the occasion deserved, given that the raider had massed less than one percent of Wayfarer's seven-plus million tons, but he didn't much care. They were out here to catch pirates, and Lady Harrington had managed her first interception perfectly. More than that, he, Aubrey Wanderman, had been right there when she did it. He might have been only one teeny-tiny cog in a huge machine, but he'd been part of it, and he treasured the sense of accomplishment. Wayfarer might not be Bellerophon, yet he had nothing to be ashamed of in his assignment, and—

The deck came up and slammed him in the face with stunning force. The totally unexpected impact smashed the breath out of him in a gasping whoop of agony, and then something crunched brutally into his ribs.

The impact bounced him off the bulkhead, and instinct tried to curl his body in a protective ball, but he never got the chance. A knee drove into his spine, a powerful hand gripped his hair, and he cried out as it smashed his face into the decksole. He reached up desperately, fighting to grip the hand's wrist, and a cold, ugly laugh cut through his half-stunned brain.

"Well, well, Snotnose!" a voice gloated. "Looks like you did have an accident."

Steilman! Aubrey managed to get a hand on the power tech's wrist, but Steilman's free hand slashed it aside, and he drove the younger man's face into the decksole again.

"Gotta watch that running in the passages, Snotnose. Never can tell when a man's gonna trip on his own two feet and hurt himself."

Aubrey struck out weakly, and the power tech slammed his face into the deck yet again. He tasted blood and his right cheek felt broken, but he put his full, terrified strength into a single lunge and managed to jerk out of Steilman's grasp. He lurched back against the bulkhead, covering his face with his crossed arms, and the power tech's booted foot shoved his shoulder brutally. He went back down on his side, but his own feet lashed out frantically, and he heard Steilman curse in pain as his heel connected with a shin.

"Motherfucker!" the power tech hissed. "I'm gonna—"

"Hey, cool it!" a new voice said urgently, and Aubrey struggled up onto his knees. He blinked, trying to make his blurry vision focus, and recognized the short, stocky sick berth attendant from that first afternoon in the berthing bay aboard Vulcan. Tatsumi. That was his name. Yoshiro Tatsumi.

"Stay the fuck out of this, powder head!" Steilman snarled.

"Hey, hey! Calm down!" Tatsumi said with that same, low-voiced urgency. "What you do is up to you, but Commander Tschu's headed this way from Fusion One, man!"

"Shit!" Steilman whirled to look down the passage Tatsumi had just come up, then wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist and glared down at Aubrey. "We ain't done, Snotnose," he promised. "I'll finish your 'accident' later." Aubrey stared up at him in bloody-mouthed terror, and the power tech grinned viciously, then turned his glare on Tatsumi. "As for you, powder head, I got three people ready to swear I'm in my rack right now, and you didn't see nothing and you didn't hear nothing. This fucking snotnose just fell over his own clumsy feet, didn't he?"

"Whatever you say, man," Tatsumi agreed, holding up placating hands.

"And don't forget it," Steilman snarled, and headed down the passage at a trot. Seconds later, one of the maintenance hatchways clanged as he disappeared into the maze of crawl ways servicing the ship's internal systems, and Tatsumi bent over Aubrey with a worried expression.

"You don't look so good," the SBA muttered. He crouched beside the younger man, and Aubrey winced in anguish as gentle fingers touched his blood-streaming nose. "Crap. I think the bastard broke it," Tatsumi hissed. He looked up and down the passage, then slid an arm around his shoulders. "Come on, kid. Gotta get you down to sickbay."

"W-what about . . . Commander Tschu?" Aubrey got out. He had to breathe through his mouth, and his voice sounded thick and gluey, but somehow he managed to stagger to his feet with Tatsumi's assistance.

"What about him? Hell, he's still buried up to his elbows in Fusion One!"

"You mean—?" Aubrey got out, and Tatsumi shrugged.

"I had to tell him something, Wanderman. That man was gonna kill your ass."

"Yeah." Aubrey tried to wipe blood from his chin, but a fresh, sticky film replaced it instantly. "Yeah, I guess he was. Thanks."

"Don't thank me," Tatsumi said. "I don't like to see anybody hurt, but you're on your own with Steilman. That's one evil son-of-a-bitch, and I don't want anything to do with him."

Aubrey looked sideways at the older man as Tatsumi helped him back towards the lift. He recognized the fear in the SBA's face and voice, and he couldn't blame him.

"You mean you didn't see anything," he said after a moment.

"You got it. I just came along and found you lying there. I didn't see anything, and I didn't hear anything." Tatsumi looked away for a moment, then shook his head apologetically. "Hey, I'm sorry, okay? But I've got problems of my own, and if Steilman decides to put me on his shit list, too—" He shrugged, and Aubrey nodded.

"I understand." Tatsumi got him into the lift and punched the sickbay destination code, and Aubrey patted him weakly on the arm. "Don't blame you," he said muzzily. "Just wish I knew why he hates me so much."

"You made him look bad," Tatsumi explained. "I don't think he's right in the head, but the way he sees it, you got in his face in the berthing bay, and then the Bosun made him back down. Not your fault, but he figures he owes you for that. My guess is that the Exec's deciding to move you to the bridge is the only reason he hasn't gone for you already. Was I you, I'd stay away from Engineering, Wanderman. Far away."

"Can't hide from him forever." Aubrey sagged against Tatsumi's support. "Ship's not big enough. If he wants me, he can find me." He shook his head, then winced as the movement sent fresh stabs of pain through his skull. "I've got to talk to somebody. Figure out what to do."

"Wish I could help, but count me out," the SBA said in a low voice. "You heard what he called me?"

"'Powder head'?"

"Yeah. See, I got messed up with Sphinx green a few years back. Really fucked me up. I'm clean now, but I've got enough black marks on my record to keep me a second-class for the next fifty years. You heard the Bosun that first day, and I ain't got any friends in officer country, either. I get Steilman and his crowd on my neck as well, and I'm just likely to disappear out a refuse lock someday."

"How come they didn't bust you out?" Aubrey asked after a moment, and Tatsumi shrugged.

"'Cause whatever else I am, I'm good at my job, I guess. The Surgeon went to bat for me when they caught me sniffing. Didn't keep me out of hack for six months or save me from mandatory counseling, but it kept me in uniform."

Aubrey nodded in comprehension. He understood what Tatsumi was saying, and he didn't blame the SBA for wanting to stay out of his problems. How could he, when Tatsumi had just saved his life? But if Tatsumi wouldn't back up his own version of what had happened, it would be just his word against Steilman's. That might be enough, given the difference in their service records . . . but it might not, too. Besides, if Tatsumi was right and Steilman had a "crowd" to back him up—and the fact that Steilman had known where to ambush Aubrey suggested that he did—even getting the power tech in the brig might not be enough. Everyone on Aubrey's watch knew about his explorations, and he hadn't made any particular effort to keep this evening's plans a secret, but Steilman wasn't on his watch. The only way he could have known was if someone else had told him. Aubrey couldn't imagine why anyone would voluntarily associate with an animal like Steilman, but that didn't really matter. What mattered was that somebody apparently did . . . and that Aubrey had no idea who that somebody was.

He raised cupped hands to his battered face, trying to stop the bleeding, and panic throbbed deep inside. He had to find an answer, but how? He could speak privately to the Bosun, but Sally MacBride wasn't the sort to accept half measures. If she believed him, she'd take action, yet without some sort of proof, all she could really do at this point would be to warn Steilman, and she'd already done that. Obviously the power tech thought he could get away with "avenging himself" on Aubrey despite that warning, and Aubrey saw no reason to hope Steilman would change his mind now. Steilman was probably wrong about what he could get away with, but whatever the Bosun might do to the power tech afterward would be little comfort to Aubrey if Steilman put him into sickbay—or worse—first.

"Here we are," Tatsumi sighed relievedly as the lift stopped and the doors hissed open. He helped Aubrey down the short passage, and the younger man closed his eyes. He needed help. He needed to talk to someone who might have enough experience to tell him what to do, but he didn't know anyone with that kind of background!

"My God!" someone said. "What happened to him?"

"Don't know for sure," Tatsumi said. "I found him in the passage."

"Who is he?" the voice asked.

"Name's Wanderman," Tatsumi replied. "I think it's just his face."

"Let me see him." Hands pushed the SBA aside and cradled Aubrey's head gently, and he blinked as a surgeon lieutenant peered into his eyes. "What happened, Wanderman?" the man asked.

Tell him! an inner voice shouted. Tell him now! But if Aubrey told the officer . . .

"I fell," he said thickly.

 

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