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Chapter Twenty-Five

The rippling sound of shuffled cards hovered in the berthing compartment as Randy Steilman's thick fingers manipulated the deck. He'd shed his work uniform for shorts and a T-shirt, and the dense hair on his heavily muscled arms looked like dark fur under the lights. He offered the deck to Ed Illyushin to cut, but the environmental tech—a first-class, which made him the most senior person in the compartment—only rapped it with a knuckle, declining the cut, and coins thumped as the players anted up for the next hand.

"Seven card stud," he announced, and the deck whispered as he dealt the hole cards, then the first face up. "King of diamonds is high," he observed. "What'cha gonna do there, Jackson?"

"Um." Jackson Coulter scratched his jaw, then tossed a five-dollar coin out onto the table.

"Christ, what a big spender!" Steilman's laugh rumbled deep in his belly, and he glanced at Elizabeth Showforth. "How's about you, Sweet Cakes?"

"How'd you like a kick in the ass?" Showforth had the jack of spades showing and tossed out a five-spot of her own. Illyushin, with the ten of diamonds, matched her, and Steilman shook his head.

"Shit, what a bunch of wimps." He himself had an eight of clubs showing, and he tossed ten dollars out without even checking his hole card, then looked at Al Stennis, the fifth and final player. Stennis had a lowly two of hearts, and he scowled at Steilman.

"Why do you always hafta push so hard, Randy?" he demanded plaintively, but he matched the dealer's raise. Steilman eyed the other three challengingly, and, one by one, each of them tossed another five dollars into the pot.

"That's the spirit!" Steilman encouraged with another laugh. He dealt the next card and cocked an eyebrow as the queen of hearts landed in front of Coulter. "Looking good, there, Jackson! Let's see, possible royal straight to Jackson, nothing much to Sweet Cakes, a possible straight to Ed, jack shit to Al, and—" He dropped the nine of clubs onto his own hand and beamed. "Well, well!" he chortled. "Possible straight flush to the dealer!."

He tossed another ten dollars out, and the others groaned. But they also followed suit, and he started around the table again.

The poker games in Berthing Compartment 256 were its inhabitants' second most serious occupation—a point which many of their fellow crewmen, who speculated ribaldly on just who did what with whom, would have found difficult to believe.

Traditionally, berthing assignments aboard a Queen's ship were subject to adjustment by mutual consent. Initial assignments were made as personnel reported aboard, but as long as divisional officers were kept informed, the Navy's people were free to swap around as long as the division between ratings, petty officers, and officers was maintained. The Navy had come to that arrangement long ago, though the Marines remained far more formal about the whole thing and required officer approval of changes.

The Navy had also concluded that attempting to enforce celibacy on its mixed crews would not only be a Bad Idea but also doomed to fail, and BuPers had adopted a pragmatic policy over five hundred T-years previously. The only relationships which were absolutely banned were those covered by Article 119: those between officers and or noncoms and any of their own subordinates. Aside from that, personnel were free to make whatever arrangements they chose, and all female personnel received five-year contraceptive implants which could be deactivated upon request. In peacetime, such requests were granted automatically; in wartime, they were granted only if personnel were available to replace the woman making the request. More than that, women who chose to become pregnant were immediately pulled from shipboard duty and assigned to one of the space stations or ground bases, where they could be promptly replaced and transferred to duty without radiation hazards if they did become pregnant. It wasn't fair—women's procreation was more limited, though women could also use a decision to have children to avoid shipboard duty—but biology wasn't fair, either, and the practice of tubing children took a lot of the sting out of it. In fact, BuPers both provided free storage for sperm and ova to its personnel and covered seventy-five percent of the cost for tubed offspring in an effort to even the possibilities still further. Despite periodic complaints, the policy was understood—and, in the main, accepted—as the best compromise a military institution could come up with.

The policy also meant a wise captain and executive officer generally kept their noses out of who was sleeping with whom as long as no one violated Article 119. It was, however, unusual for a single member of one sex to bunk with four members of the other sex, which was precisely what Elizabeth Showforth had done. Her choice was all the more remarkable in that Showforth's sexual interests didn't include men . . . but, then, she wasn't bunking with Steilman, Coulter, Illyushin, and Stennis for that particular form of social intercourse. On the other hand, the tradition of not interfering provided a handy cover for the reason she had chosen to bunk here.

"I wish to hell you'd slow down a little, Randy," Stennis grumbled as Steilman dealt.

"What, the pot too rich for your blood?"

"I wasn't talking about poker," Stennis said much more quietly, and eyes lifted from cards to meet other eyes all around the table.

"Then what the fuck were you talking about, Al?" Steilman asked ominously. Stennis swallowed, but he didn't look away.

"You know what I'm talking about." He did look away then, gaze sweeping the others in an appeal for support. "I know Lewis pissed you off, but you're gonna queer the deal for all of us if you keep this shit up."

Randy Steilman set down the deck of cards and pushed his chair back a few centimeters, turning to face Stennis squarely, and his eyes were ugly.

"Listen, you little fuck," he said softly. "'The deal' you're talkin' about was my idea. I'm the one who set it up, and I'm the one who's gonna say when we do it. And what I do in the meantime is none of your goddamned business, now is it?"

The sudden silence in the compartment was profound, and sweat beaded Stennis' forehead. He glanced nervously at the closed hatch before he leaned even closer to Steilman, and he chose his words very carefully, but there was a stubborn edge to his tone.

"I'm not trying to say any different. You thought of it and you set it up, and as far as I'm concerned, you're in charge. But, Jesus, Randy! If you keep going after Wanderman or picking fights with POs, you're gonna land us all in the crapper. And then what happens to the whole deal? All I'm saying is that we're all in this together, and if anybody finds out what we're planning, we're all gonna go away for a long, long time. If we're lucky."

Steilman's mouth twisted and his eyes smoldered, but he sensed a certain agreement from the others. They were all more than a little afraid of him—a state which afforded him considerable pleasure—but he needed each of them to make his plan work. And, he conceded, if any of them got scared enough, he—or she—might just blow the whistle on all of them in an effort to buy a little clemency from the court martial.

But that didn't mean he was going to put up with anyone telling him what he could and couldn't do, and that little prick Wanderman and his girlfriend were going to get everything they had coming. Randy Steilman was used to captain's masts and to being busted. He was no stranger to brig time, for that matter, and, by and large, he accepted it as a condition of his life. But nobody got in his face and enjoyed the consequences. That was his one inflexible rule, the mainstay of his existence. He was a man who throve on his own brutality and the fear it evoked in others. It was that fear which gave him his sense of power, and without it he was forced to see himself as he truly was. He'd never reasoned it out, yet that made it no less true, and he could no more have allowed Wanderman and Lewis to get away with not being afraid of him than he could have flown without a counter-grav collar.

A part of him knew he'd pushed too far with the business in Impeller One. He'd learned years ago—courtesy of the beating then Chief Petty Officer MacBride had given him one night—that there were limits, even for him. But he'd been bored, and the efficiency Maxwell had been getting out of his people had irritated him, not to mention making him work harder himself. Besides, he'd heard how Lewis was pushing Wanderman . . . and whatever else the incident had produced, he knew he owed the bitch something special for the tongue lashing her high and mightiness Lady Harrington had given him.

Somewhere deep inside, he felt a shiver of fear as he remembered the Captain's icy voice and colder eyes. She hadn't screamed, hadn't ranted like some officers he'd pissed off over the years. She hadn't even sworn at him. She'd simply looked at him with frigid, disdainful loathing, and her tongue had been a precision instrument as she flayed him with her contempt. The shiver of fear grew stronger, and he suppressed it quickly, trying to deny its existence, but it was there, and he hated it. The only other person who'd ever put that fear into him was Sally MacBride, which had been a factor in why he'd finally taken the step from thinking about his plan to putting it into action. He wanted to be as far away from her as he could get, but he knew now that MacBride had been right. Harrington was more dangerous than any bosun. There was a limit to the crap she would put up with, and Steilman felt ominously certain that if it got deep enough, she might choose to forget about procedures and proof. And if she did, he wanted to be even further away from her than from MacBride when the consequences came down.

But Randy Steilman was also convinced he could get away with whatever he chose to do. Perhaps he shouldn't have been, given the number of times he'd been busted or brigged, yet he was. And the reason was simple enough, actually. None of the punishments he'd ever received even approached what he liked to do to others, and so some elemental part of him assumed they never would. It wasn't an intellectual assumption. It was deeper than that, where it was never questioned because it was never even considered, and that was what made him so dangerous. He'd never killed anyone yet, but he was convinced he could . . . and this time he intended to.

In point of fact, he looked forward to it. It would be the ultimate proof of his power—and it would also be his valedictory, his final "gift" to the Navy he'd come to hate. He was only four years into his current enlistment, and he would never have reupped if he'd thought a shooting war might actually break out. He wasn't really certain why he'd signed up again, anyway, except that it was the only life he knew, and he hadn't stopped to wonder why the Navy had even allowed him to reenlist. His discipline record had gotten worse, not better, in the preceding ten years, and under normal conditions, the Navy would have declined his services with alacrity. But Steilman didn't think about things like that, and so it had never occurred to him that the only reason he'd squeaked through was that, unlike him, the Navy had known war was coming and lowered its screening standards where experienced personnel were concerned because it knew how badly it would soon need them.

What had occurred to him, was that he might get himself killed. The RMN's casualty lists were far shorter than the Peeps', but they were getting steadily longer, and Randy Steilman saw no reason to get his ass shot off for Queen and Kingdom.

Given all that, the decision to desert had come easily, but there was one enormous hitch. The sentence for desertion in peacetime was not less than thirty years in prison; in wartime it was the firing squad, and he didn't particularly want to face that either. Worse, wartime deployment patterns made jumping ship more difficult. Steilman wasn't the sort any captain wanted aboard a destroyer or light cruiser, whose smaller companies meant every individual had to pull his weight, but the heavier ships had been pulled from peacetime cruising patterns and concentrated into fleets and task forces. It was only the light combatants which could be spared for convoy escort or anti-piracy operations, which meant they were the only ones likely to touch at foreign ports where a man might manage to disappear into the local population.

Until now. He'd been horrified when he first learned he was being assigned to Honor Harrington's ship. The rest of his stupid crewmates could worship the deck "the Salamander" walked on and gas away about what a great combat commander she was. All Randy Steilman cared about was the casualty lists she'd compiled over the years, starting with Basilisk Station. Others could carry on all they liked about how no one else could have done better, about how much worse the casualties could have been. They could even point out the amount of prize money her crews—or their heirs—had amassed. Steilman liked money even more than most, but a dead man couldn't spend it, and learning MacBride was Wayfarer's bosun had only made a bad situation worse . . . until he'd learned where Task Group 1037 was to be deployed.

Of all the places in the galaxy, Silesia was the best for a man who wanted to disappear. Especially a trained spacer unburdened by anything resembling a scruple. Randy Steilman was on the wrong side of the war against the pirates. He looked forward to joining the one he belonged on, and sooner or later Wayfarer had to touch at a Silesian port.

Steilman had planned carefully for that moment. He'd kept his eyes and ears open to assemble all the information he could on Harrington's ships and their operational patterns. He knew far more about their strengths—and weaknesses—than even the people around this card table suspected. He'd also made bootleg copies of as many tech manuals as he could—it was strictly against regulations, but not that hard for someone with his training, and Showforth's slot in computer maintenance had helped—and he wondered how much a Peep naval attaché would pay him for some of that material. The chips were in his locker, and getting them dirtside when the time came shouldn't pose any problems. Or not, at least, compared to the problem of getting himself dirtside in the first place.

But he'd figured that out, too, and that was where Stennis and Illyushin came in. Them were in Environmental, and Environmental was responsible for maintaining Wayfarer's escape pods. The number of people who could expect to get out of a ship lost to battle damage would be low, but someone almost always made it—unless the damned ship blew up, of course—and ships could be lost to other causes. That was what the pods were for. In deep space, they were little more than life support bubbles fitted with transponders which both sides were supposedly duty bound to pick up after an engagement, but they were also designed to be capable of independent atmospheric entry if there should happen to be a habitable planet handy when disaster struck.

At Steilman's direction, Showforth had built and Stennis and Illyushin had installed an unobtrusive little box in the circuits which monitored Pod 184. When the time came, that box would be turned on, and it would continue to report that the ten-man pod was exactly where it was supposed to be, with every system at standby, when, in fact, it was somewhere else entirely. The trick would be to create conditions that produced enough confusion to keep everyone too preoccupied to notice any outbound radar traces, and Steilman had worked that out, as well. He and Coulter had already built the bomb for Impeller One. It wasn't a huge thing, but it would be enough to completely cripple two of the alpha node generators. The energy released when the generator capacitors blew would wreak additional havoc, both on the ship and on anyone unfortunate enough to be in Impeller One at the time, and in the ensuing confusion and panic, five people who all happened to be off duty would quietly descend on Pod 184 and depart for greener pastures.

It had taken Steilman weeks to identify the people he needed to make it all work, and the number was higher than he liked. The more people involved, the greater the chance of something going wrong, after all. Nor had he been able to get everything in place in time to put his plan into operation in Walther. But he was ready now. All they needed was to enter orbit around the proper planet—Schiller wouldn't do; its original colonists had come from Old Earth's continent of Africa, and all five of them would stand out like sore thumbs when Harrington demanded the local authorities help track them down—and they were off and free.

But before he left, he was going to square accounts with Wanderman and Lewis. It would be not only his parting gift to the Navy, but to that sanctimonious bitch MacBride, as well. Yes, and to Captain Honor Harrington, damn her!

"Look," he said finally. "I'm willing to lie low for a while. Let the Old Bitch think she's put the fear of God into me—hell, it's no skin off my nose! But don't any of you tell me what I can and can't do." He saw the fear in their eyes, and the ugliness at his core basked in its reflection. "I am going to fix Lewis's ass, and I'm gonna kill that fucker Wanderman with my own two hands, and there's nobody gonna stop me, least of all you." He bared his teeth and slammed one meaty fist down on the table for emphasis. "I don't want to hear any more shit about it, and if I decide I need one of you to help, then you'd better by God believe you're gonna give me that help. 'Cause if you don't, there's gonna be less people in that pod when it lands, you hear me?"

Stennis swallowed and his eyes fell. Then he nodded jerkily, the fear radiating off him in all but visible waves. Steilman let his eyes sweep the others, and, one by one, they nodded as well. All but Coulter, who simply looked back with a thin, cold smile of agreement.

"Good." The single word fell into the background silence like a stone, and then Randy Steilman picked up the deck and began to deal once more.

 

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