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Chapter Thirty-Four

"Christ, Randy! Are you outa your friggin' mind?" Ed Illyushin leaned close, voice low enough no one else in the big, half-empty mess compartment could hear.

"Me?" Randy Steilman smiled lazily. "I don't have the least idea what you're talking about."

"I'm talking about what happened to Lewis!" Illyushin hissed. "Damn it, they've already grabbed Showforth and Coulter—you think one of them isn't gonna roll over on us?"

Al Stennis nodded nervously, eyes flitting about to be certain no one was close enough to overhear. Not that anyone was likely to be. Steilman and his cronies weren't exactly popular with their fellows.

"Showforth doesn't know shit about it," Steilman said. "All she's gotta do is say so. As for Jackson—hell, it was his suggestion." That wasn't precisely true, but it was close. Steilman had simply decided the general euphoria over Wayfarer's recent victories had brought everyone's guard down, which made it the time to deal with Lewis. It was Coulter who'd suggested the perfect way to do it and planted the necessary files in Lewis' SUT. "And unlike you maggots, Jackson's got guts. Even if he didn't, you think he could turn us in without confessing to attempted murder?"

"But if they sweat them hard enough, they might tell 'em about—" Stennis began anxiously, only to shut his mouth with a click as Steilman glared at him.

"We don't talk about that outside the compartment," the burly power tech said softly. "And no one's gonna ask them about it, because no one knows about it. And as far as 'sweating' them goes, they've both been around the block. They've seen the inside of the brig before, and they ain't gonna cave in just because someone locked the door on 'em. And how the hell is anyone gonna sweat them when they haven't got any evidence?"

"What makes you so sure they don't?" Illyushin asked in a marginally calmer voice. "Why grab them—and only them—if there's no evidence?"

"Hell, the fact they hauled both of 'em in is the best proof they haven't got any evidence!" Steilman snorted. "Look, they know the two of 'em berth with us, right? And they know I had words with Lewis, right?" The other two men nodded, and he shrugged. "All right, that's why they're being questioned, you assholes. All they've got is a possible motive. If they had enough evidence to prove who did it, it would've told 'em which of them to grab, right? Which means all Showforth and Jackson have to do is hang tough and they can't do squat to us."

"I don't know," Stennis began dubiously. "It looks to me like—"

The environmental tech broke off in astonishment as someone slid a tray onto the table beside Steilman. The power tech turned his head, mouth already twisting up in a snarl to order the interloper away, but then his eyes widened. He stared for one incredulous second, and then his face flushed dark as Aubrey Wanderman smiled mockingly at him.

"What the fuck d'you want, Snotnose?" he grated, and Aubrey smiled more mockingly still. It was hard, but not as hard as he'd expected it to be.

"I just thought I'd grab a bite to eat," he said. "My watch schedule's sort of up in the air—they gave me a couple of days off to spend some time in sickbay with a friend—so I've got to eat whenever I can squeeze it in."

Steilman's eyes narrowed. There was something wrong here. The irony in Wanderman's voice cut like a knife, and his eyes were too steady. There might have been a flicker of nervousness deep inside them, but there was no fear, and there should have been. It took the power tech a moment longer to realize there was something else in those eyes, something he was accustomed to seeing only in his own, and a wave of pure disbelief washed over him. Why, the little prick was actually looking for a confrontation!

"Yeah?" he sneered. "Well why don't you go feed your miserable face somewhere else? I may puke if I hafta look at you too long."

"Go ahead," Aubrey said, picking up his fork. "Just try not to splash any on my tray."

Steilman quivered in rage at the derisive contempt in the younger man's voice, and his fist clenched on the table top. Stennis looked confused, but Illyushin was watching intently. He'd managed to avoid official action far more effectively than Steilman and frequently sided with the more cautious Stennis in discussions, but—like Coulter—he shared Steilman's vicious streak. He and Coulter were more hyenas to the other's rogue elephant, but his lip curled in an ugly smile. He didn't know what Wanderman thought he was doing, but he knew the stupid kid was about to get his butt kicked royally. He looked forward to watching . . . and his concentration on Aubrey meant neither he nor either of his fellows noticed when Horace Harkness and Sally MacBride walked quietly into the compartment.

"You want your ass kicked up between your sorry ears, Snotnose?" Steilman growled.

"Nope." Aubrey speared some green beans and chewed slowly, then swallowed. "I'm just sitting here eating. Besides, I thought you might like to hear how Ginger Lewis is doing."

"Why should I give a fart in a vac suit about that jumped up bitch?" Steilman smiled thinly as fire flashed in Aubrey's eyes at last. "So she jumped my ass for something I didn't do—so what? Happens all the time. Sounds like the smartass fucked up her own SUT. Not but what I'd expect something that stupid from a 'senior chief' like her."

"Actually," Aubrey's voice was a shade less calm, but he kept it even and locked gazes with his enemy, "she's going to be just fine. Doc Ryder says she'll be out of sickbay in a week or so, once the quick heal takes hold."

"So fucking what?"

"So I thought you'd like to know you didn't manage to kill her after all," Aubrey said in a conversational tone loud enough to carry to every table, and heads turned incredulously towards him. Most of the men and women in that compartment had reached the same conclusion, but none of them had dreamed that anyone—especially Aubrey Wanderman!—would actually say it.

Steilman went pale. Not with fear, but with fury, and exploded to his feet. Aubrey dropped his fork and spun erect himself, stepping back from the older man but never breaking eye contact, and his smile was no longer cool and mocking. It was ugly and filled with hate, and Steilman shook himself like an enraged bull.

"You got a big goddamned mouth," he grated. "Maybe someone should shut it for you!"

"Only saying what I think, Steilman." Aubrey made himself speak coolly, watching the bigger man alertly. "Of course, it's what everyone else thinks, too, isn't it? And when Showforth or Coulter cracks—and they will crack, Steilman—everyone in this crew will know it was true. Just like they're going to know big, bad Randy Steilman didn't have the guts to go after a woman on his own. What's the matter, Steilman? Afraid she'd kick your ass like the Bosun did?"

Steilman was no longer pale. He was paper-white with rage, consumed with the need to smash this insufferable little bastard. He was too enraged to think, to realize there were dozens of witnesses. But even if he had realized, it might not have mattered. His fury was too deep, too explosive to remember how he'd planned to catch Aubrey alone once more. How he'd intended to take his time, make the little prick whimper and beg. Now all he wanted was to grind him into powder, and it never even occurred to him that he'd been deliberately goaded into it.

Al Stennis watched with horror. Unlike Steilman, he could still think, and he knew what would happen if Steilman took the first swing. Aubrey hadn't made a single threatening move, hadn't even uttered a threat. If Steilman attacked him in front of all these witnesses and after the warnings he'd already received, he'd go to the brig and stay there until deployment's end, and that could all too easily lead to the discovery of the entire plan to desert, especially with Showforth and Coulter already under suspicion. Stennis knew it, but there was nothing he could do about it. He could only sit there, jaw hanging, and see it all come apart.

Randy Steilman bellowed his fury and lunged with murder in his eyes. He reached for Aubrey's throat, fingers curled to rend and throttle—then whooped in agony as a perfectly timed snap kick exploded into his belly. He flew backward, crashing down over two empty chairs, and heaved himself back to his knees on the deck. He fought for breath, glaring at the slender acting petty officer, unable to believe what had just happened. And then he swung his arms, smashing the chairs away from him, and lunged again, this time from his knees.

Aubrey's flashing spin kick took Steilman square in the face before he was half-erect. The power tech went down again, with a scream of pain as his nose broke and two incisors snapped. He spat out broken teeth and blood, staring down at them in shock and fury, and Illyushin stepped towards Aubrey with a snarl of his own. But his movement stopped as suddenly as it had begun—stopped in a gasp of agony as a steel clamp closed on the back of his neck. One of his arms was snatched behind him and twisted till the back of his hand pressed his shoulder blades, a knee drove into his spine, and a deep, cold voice rumbled in his ear.

"You stay out of it, sweetheart," Horace Harkness told him softly, almost lovingly, "or I'll break your fucking back myself."

Illyushin went pasty white, arched with the pain in his elbow and shoulder. Like Steilman, he was a bully and a sadist, but he wasn't a total fool . . . and he knew Harkness' reputation.

No one else paid any attention to Illyushin or Harkness. All eyes were on Steilman and Aubrey as the power tech staggered to his feet once more. He shook himself, face slimed with blood from his nose and pulped mouth, and dragged the back of one hand across his chin.

"You're gonna die, Snotnose!" he raged. "I'm gonna rip your head off and piss down your neck!"

"Sure you are," Aubrey said. He felt his heart pound madly, felt the sweat at his own hairline. He was frightened, for he knew how badly this could still end, but he was in command of his fear. He was using his fear, as Harkness and Gunny Hallowell had taught him. Letting it sharpen his reflexes, but not letting it drive him. He was focused, in a way Randy Steilman could never even begin to understand, and he watched the other man come.

Steilman came in more cautiously this time, right fist clenched low by his side, left arm spread to grab and drag Aubrey in close. But despite what had already happened, his caution was only a thin veneer over his rage. He didn't understand, had no concept of how much Aubrey had changed, and his intellect hadn't caught up with his emotions. He'd taken damage, but he was almost as tough physically as he thought he was, and he couldn't even conceive of the possibility that he might lose. It simply wasn't possible. The snotnose had gotten lucky, that was all, and Steilman remembered how he'd terrified Aubrey the first time they'd met, then beaten him savagely the only time he'd ever laid hands on him. He knew—didn't think; knew—he could tear this little bastard apart, and he growled deep in his throat as he prepared to do just that.

Aubrey let him come, no longer afraid, no longer uncertain. He remembered everything Gunny Hallowell had taught him, knew Steilman could still take him, despite what had already happened, if Aubrey let him. But he also remembered what Hallowell had told him to do about it, and his eyes were cold as he stepped right into the other man. His right arm brushed Steilman's grappling left arm wide like a parrying rapier even as the power tech's fist came up in a smashing blow. There was immense power in that punch, but Aubrey's left hand slapped his wrist, diverting the blow into empty air, and then his right hand continued forward from the parry of the older man's arm. His fingers cupped the back of Steilman's head and jerked, and the power tech's own forward momentum helped bring his face down just in time to meet Aubrey's driving kneecap.

Steilman staggered back with another scream of pain, both hands going to his face. Feet pounded as two Marines in the black brassards of the ship's police burst into the compartment, but Sally MacBride's raised hand stopped them. Neither Marine said a word, but they came to a complete halt, eyes dark with satisfaction, as they realized what was happening.

Steilman's hands were still covering his face, leaving him blind and vulnerable, when a rock-hard right fist slammed a vicious uppercut into his crotch. The punch started somewhere down around Aubrey's right calf, and the sound Steilman made wasn't a scream this time. It was an animal sound of agony, and he jackknifed forward. His hands dropped instantly from his face to his groin, and the edge of a bladed left hand broke his right cheekbone like a hammer. His head snapped sideways, his eyes stunned, wide with disbelief and terrible pain, and then he shrieked as a precisely placed kick exploded into his right knee.

The kneecap shattered instantly, and he went to the deck, his screams high and shrill as his leg bent impossibly backward. He'd never even touched the bastard. Even through his agony, that thought burned in his brain like poison. The snotnose hadn't just beaten him; he'd destroyed him, and he'd made it look so easy.

"That's for me and Ginger Lewis," Aubrey Wanderman said, stepping back from the man he'd once feared as MacBride waved the Marines forward at last. "I hope you enjoyed it, asshole," he finished coldly through the other man's sobbing pain. "I certainly did."


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