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Chapter Twenty

"My God, Aubrey! What happened to you?"

Aubrey opened his eyes and peered up at Ginger Lewis. His first wandering thought was to wonder what she was doing in the cabin he shared with three other junior petty officers. His second was to wonder what she seemed so worried about. It was only when he got to number three that he realized he was still in sickbay under observation because of a concussion.

"I fell," he said. The words came out a bit slurred and breathy thanks to his puffy lips and a nose which still refused to admit much air, and he closed his eyes again against a fresh wave of pain. Surgeon Lieutenant Holmes promised quick heal would take care of his more spectacular bruises and contusions within the next couple of days. Unfortunately, it hadn't taken hold just yet, and even when it did, his broken nose and cracked ribs were going to take a bit longer.

"The hell you say," Ginger said flatly, and he opened his eyes once more. "Don't bullshit me, Wonder Boy. Somebody beat the crap out of you."

Aubrey blinked at her murderous expression. He felt oddly detached, and he wondered why Ginger was so pissed. She wasn't the one who'd been beaten up, after all.

"I fell," he said again. Even in his disoriented condition, he knew he had to stick to his story. It was important, though he had moments when he couldn't remember precisely why. Then he did remember, and his eyes darkened. "I fell," he repeated a third time. "Just tripped over my own feet. Landed on my face, and—" He shrugged, and winced as the movement sent a fresh, hot stab through him.

"No way," Ginger contradicted in that same flat, tight voice. "You've got two cracked ribs, and Lieutenant Holmes says your head hit something at least three times, Wonder Boy. Now tell me who did it. I want his ass."

Aubrey blinked again. How strange. Ginger was angry because of what had happened to him. He'd always liked her, and even through the icy fear which flowed through him every time he thought of Steilman, he felt warmed by her concern. But he couldn't tell her. If he did, she'd do something about it. That would get her into the middle of it, and he couldn't do that to a friend.

"Forget it, Ginger." He tried, without much success, to make his voice come out stronger and more confident. "It's not your problem."

"Oh, yes it is," she said through gritted teeth. "First, you're a friend. Second, according to Tatsumi, it happened in Engineering, and that's my bailiwick now. Third, bastards who go around pounding on people need their assholes reamed out. And, fourth, I'm a senior chief now, and I feel like doing a little reaming. So tell me who did this to you!"

"No." He shook his head weakly. "I can't. Stay out of it, Ginger."

"Goddamn it, I am ordering you to tell me!" she snapped, but he only shook his head again. She glared at him, eyes crackling, and started to speak again when Lieutenant Holmes turned up.

"That's enough, Senior Chief," the physician said firmly. "He needs to rest. Come back in ten or twelve hours, and you'll probably be able to get more sense out of him."

Ginger looked at the surgeon for a moment, then drew a deep breath and nodded.

"All right, Sir," she said grudgingly, and gave Aubrey another searing glare. "As for you, Wonder Boy, you get your head straightened out. Whether you tell me or not, I'm going to find whoever did this, and when I do, he can kiss his ass good-bye."

She turned and stalked out of the sickbay, and Holmes shook his head as he watched her go. Then the doctor looked down at Aubrey and quirked an eyebrow.

"I've seen some ticked off people in my time," he said mildly, "but I don't believe I can recall anyone recently who was quite that ticked. I'd advise you to remember the name of whoever you fell over, because I imagine the Senior Chief's going to make your life pure hell until you do." Aubrey looked up without speaking, and Holmes smiled. "Suit yourself, Wanderman . . . but don't say I didn't warn you.


Ginger stalked down the passage from sickbay, then stopped. She stood for a moment, rubbing one eyebrow, then nodded sharply, turned around, and went back the way she'd come. She found the man she wanted in the dispensary. His back was to her as he ran an inventory, but he turned quickly when she cleared her throat. A worried expression chased itself across his face, and then he put his hand comp on hold and cocked his head at her.

"Can I help you, Senior Chief?"

"I believe you can," she told him. "You're the one who found Wanderman, right?"

"Yes, Senior Chief," he said a bit too carefully, and she gave him a thin smile.

"Good. Then maybe you can tell me what I want to know, Tatsumi."

"What would that be, Senior Chief?" he asked warily.

"You know damned well what it is," she said in a voice of steel. "He won't tell me who it was, but you know, don't you?"

"I—" Tatsumi hesitated. "I'm not sure what you're getting at, Senior Chief."

"Then let me spell it out," Ginger said softly, stepping closer to him. "He says he fell, you say you think he fell, and all three of us know that's bullshit. I want a name, Tatsumi. I want to know who did that to him, and I want to know now."

Her blue-gray eyes bored into his, and he swallowed. Tension crackled in the dispensary, twisting his nerves, and it took all his strength to wrench his gaze away from hers.

"Look," he said finally, the edges of his voice hoarse, "he says he fell, right? Well, I can't tell you any different. I already did all I can do."

"No, you haven't," she said flatly.

"Yes, I have!" He turned back to her, his expression tight. "I came along in time to save his butt, Senior Chief, and I stuck my own neck out to do it, but I'll be damned if I stick my head straight into a meat grinder! I like the kid, but I've got problems of my own. You want to know who did it, you get him to tell you."

"I can have you in front of the Bosun or the Exec in five minutes, Tatsumi," she said in that same, flat tone. "With your record, I don't think that's a place you want to be. Especially not when silence could be viewed as complicity."

The SBA glared at her, then squared his shoulders.

"You do whatever you want, Senior Chief," he said, "but as far as I'm concerned, this conversation never happened. You get him to tell you, and maybe—maybe—I can back him up, but there is no way I'm gonna start naming any names on my own. I try that, and I'm just likely to turn up dead, you understand? You want to send me back to the stockade, fine. Good. You do that. You do anything you think you have to do. But I am not naming names on my own—not to you, not to the Bosun or the Exec, or even to the Captain." His eyes flitted away from hers again, and he shrugged. "I'm sorry," he said in a lower voice. "I really am. But that's the way it is."

Ginger rocked back on her heels. Her initial suspicion that Tatsumi been part of Aubrey's beating had been blown out the lock by the depth of the SBA's obvious fear, and that same fear sent an icy wind through her bones. Something even uglier than she'd first guessed must be going on here, and she bit her lip. Aubrey didn't want her involved, and Tatsumi seemed genuinely frightened for his very life. Somehow she felt certain the SBA would have told her if only one person was involved. After all, if Tatsumi and Aubrey both testified against him, Navy discipline would come down on whoever it was like a hammer. They wouldn't have to worry about him again . . . which meant they were worrying about someone else. And that suggested . . . .

"All right," she said very softly. "You keep your secrets—for now. But I'm going to get to the bottom of this, and don't think I'm going to be the only one looking. You and Aubrey can say whatever you like, but Lieutenant Holmes knows he didn't fall, and you can bet he's going to write up a full report. That's going to get the Bosun and the Master at Arms involved, at the very least, and somehow I don't think the Exec's just going to sit this one out, either. With all that weight looking into it from above, someone's going to figure it out, and if you were involved, you better pray someone else finds out about it before I do. Is that clear?"

"Clear, Senior Chief," the SBA half-whispered, and she stalked out of the sickbay.


". . . so that's the story, Bosun. Neither one of them will tell me a thing, but I know it wasn't any simple fall."

Sally MacBride tipped back her chair and surveyed the furious young senior chief with level brown eyes. Ginger Lewis had been admitted to the close knit fraternity of Wayfarer's senior petty officers less than a month earlier, but MacBride liked what she'd seen of her so far. Lewis was conscientious, hardworking, and firm with her people, but she'd managed to avoid turning into a little tin god to hide any sense of insecurity in her new position. That was the one thing MacBride had most feared when the Old Lady announced Maxwell's and Lewis' promotions. Now she wondered if she should have worried about something else, for she recognized the outrage in the younger woman's eyes. A petty officer who didn't care what happened to her people was useless, but one who let fury govern her actions was almost worse.

"Sit," she said finally, pointing at the only other chair in her cubbyhole office. She waited until her visitor obeyed, then let her own chair rock back upright. "All right," she said crisply, "you've told me what you think happened." Ginger opened her mouth, but a raised hand stopped her before she could speak. "I didn't say you were wrong, I only said that so far it's a case of what you think happened. Is there anything inaccurate about that statement?"

Ginger clamped her teeth together, then inhaled sharply and shook her head.

"That's what I thought. Now, it just happens that Lieutenant Holmes has already spoken to me," MacBride went on, "and that I've already spoken to Master at Arms Thomas. My own theory—and the Lieutenant's—is the same as yours. Unfortunately, the evidence isn't conclusive. Lieutenant Holmes can tell us that, in his expert opinion, Wanderman's injuries aren't the result of a fall, but he can't prove it. If Wanderman himself won't tell us they aren't, there isn't anything official that we can do."

"But he's scared, Bosun," Ginger protested. Her voice was softer, with an edge of pain in it, and she looked at MacBride appealingly. "He's a kid on his first deployment, and he's scared to death of whoever did this. That's why he won't tell me anything."

"Maybe you're right. For that matter, maybe I've got a few suspicions of my own about who might have done this." Ginger's eyes sharpened, but MacBride went on levelly. " Mr. Thomas and I will talk to Wanderman in the morning. We'll try to get him to open up. But if he won't, and if Tatsumi won't, then our hands are tied. And if our hands are tied, so are yours."

"What do you mean?" Ginger's question came out just a bit too sharply.

"I mean, Senior Chief Lewis, that you are not going to play vigilante or masked avenger in my ship," MacBride said flatly. "I know you and Wanderman trained together. For that matter, I know you think of him as a kid brother. Well, he's not. He's an acting petty officer, and you're a senior chief. You're not children, and this isn't a game. It's his duty to tell us what happened, and he's a good kid. It may take a while, but I think, eventually, he will tell us. In the meantime, however, you aren't his older sister—or his nurse—and you will refrain from taking any action outside official channels."

"But—" Ginger began, only to choke herself off as MacBride glared at her.

"I'm not in the habit of repeating myself, Senior Chief," she said coldly. "I approve of your concern and sense of responsibility. Those are good things, and they go with your grade. But there's a time to push, and a time not to push. There's also a time to step outside channels and a time to make damned sure you don't. You've brought it to my attention, exactly as you're supposed to. If you can convince Wanderman to tell us something more, good. But aside from that, you will leave this matter in my hands. Is that clear, Senior Chief Lewis?"

"Yes, Bosun," Ginger said stiffly.

"Good. Then you'd better be going. I believe you go on watch in forty minutes."

Sally MacBride watched the younger woman stalk out of her office and sighed. As she'd hinted to Ginger, she had a very strong suspicion as to what had happened, and she blamed herself for it. Not that it was all her fault, but she should have run Steilman out of Wayfarer's company the instant she saw his name on the roster. She hadn't, and she wondered how much of that had been pride. She'd kicked him into line once, after all, and she'd been certain she could do it again. For that matter, she was still certain of it . . . she just hadn't counted on what it was likely to cost someone else, and she should have, especially after his original run-in with Wanderman.

She frowned at her blank terminal. She'd kept an eye on Steilman, but he seemed to have developed a greater degree of animal cunning since their previous cruise together. Of course, he was ten T-years older, as well, and somehow he'd managed to survive all those years without landing in the stockade. That should have told her something right there, yet she still couldn't understand how he'd gotten to Wanderman without her knowing about it. Unless Ginger Lewis' suspicions were correct, that was. Most of Wayfarer's company was as good as any MacBride had ever served with, but there was a small group of genuine troublemakers. So far, she and Master at Arms Thomas had managed to keep them in check—or thought they had. Now she had her doubts, and she pursed her lips as she shuffled through her mental index of names and faces.

Coulter, she thought. He was in on it. He and Steilman were both in Engineering. She and Lieutenant Commander Tschu had split them up as best they could, but they were still on the same watch in different sections. That gave them too much time to get their heads together off duty, and it was probable they'd managed to bring in a few more like-minded souls. Elizabeth Showforth, for example. She was running with Steilman, and she was just as bad, in her own way. Then there were Stennis and Illyushin.

MacBride growled to herself. People like Steilman and Showforth sickened her, but they knew how to generate fear, and the inexperience of most of their crewmates would give them more scope for their efforts. Too many of Wayfarer's company were too damned young, without the grit to stand up for themselves. She'd already been picking up rumors of petty thefts and intimidation, but she'd thought it was being held in check and expected the situation to improve as the newbies found their feet. Given the escalation of what had happened to Wanderman, however, it seemed she'd been wrong. And if the youngster wouldn't come forward and admit what had happened, she couldn't take any official action—which would only increase Steilman's stature with his cronies and make the situation still worse.

Sally MacBride didn't like her own conclusions. She knew she could squash Steilman and his bunch like bugs if she had to, but that would mean a full scale investigation. It would include a crew-wide crackdown, and the consequences for morale and the sense of solidarity she'd been nurturing might be extreme. Yet if something wasn't done, the canker coming up from below would have the same effect.

She pondered for another few moments, then nodded. As she'd told Lewis, there was a time not to push . . . but there was also a time to push. Lewis was too new in her grade to do that sort of thing, and MacBride couldn't do it herself without making it too obvious that she was doing so. But there were other people who could make their presence felt.

She punched a code into her com.

"Com Center," a voice said, and she smiled thinly.

"This is the Bosun. I need to see Senior Chief Harkness. Find him and ask him to come to my office, would you?"


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