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Chapter Thirty-Five

Aubrey Wanderman waited for his trip to the Captain's quarters, and a Marine corporal stood beside him, her face blank. Aubrey knew her well—he and Corporal Slattery had sparred often—but her official expression told him nothing at all about his fate. The only good news, aside from the fact that Ginger was coming back extremely well from her ordeal, was that what awaited him was "only" a Captain's Mast, not a formal court martial. The worst Captain's Mast could do to him was stick him in the brig for up to forty-five days per offense and bust him a maximum of three grades. Of course, that didn't count taking his acting petty officer's status away. The Captain could do that whenever she chose and start the busting process from his permanent rate.

She might just do it, too, Aubrey thought. Fighting aboard ship was a serious offense, but one the Navy had long since learned to handle "in house" without bringing up the heavy artillery. Crippling a fellow crewman was something else, and Randy Steilman's knee was going to require surgical reconstruction. That could very easily have turned it into a court martial offense, with heavy time in the stockade or even a dishonorable discharge attending a guilty verdict.

He was going to lose his petty officer's stripe, he thought gloomily. That was the very best he could hope for . . . but it had been worth it. Now that the charged emotions of the fight had passed, the remembered "crunch!" of Steilman's knee made Aubrey more than a little queasy. It shocked him, too. Despite all Senior Chief Harkness and Gunny Hallowell had taught him, his forebrain hadn't really caught up with the fact that he could do something like that. Yet shock and queasiness could do nothing to quell the cold satisfaction he also felt. He'd owed Steilman, and not just for what the rogue power tech had done to him.

But he still didn't look forward to facing the Skipper.

 

Honor Harrington sat square and straight behind her desk as the master at arms marched Randy Steilman up to face her. The power tech was in undress uniform, not his normal work-a-day shipsuit, but he looked terrible. His crippled leg was locked in a tractor cast, swinging wide from the hip with every awkward stride, and his eyes peered out through narrow, purple slits on either side of the blob of swollen flesh which had been his nose. Broken-off teeth showed between his equally swollen lips, and his broken cheek was a mass of livid, rainbow-hued bruises. Honor had seen the results of physical violence more than once, but she could seldom remember seeing someone who'd been as viciously beaten as this man, and she reminded her stony eyes not to show her satisfaction.

"Off caps!" Thomas barked, and Steilman reached up, dragged his beret off his head, and shuffled to what might have been called attention. He tried to look defiant, but Honor saw the fear in his face and the sag of his shoulders. He'd been beaten in more than one way, she thought, and swiveled her eyes to Sally MacBride.

"Charges?" she asked, and MacBride made a great show of consulting her memo pad.

"Prisoner is charged with violation of Article Thirty-Four," she said crisply, "violent, abusive, and threatening language to a fellow crewman; Article Thirty-Five, assaulting a fellow crewman; Article Nineteen," her voice turned colder, "conspiracy to desert in time of war; and Article Ninety, conspiracy to commit murder."

Steilman's eyes flickered at the third charge and turned suddenly very dark at the fourth, and Honor looked at Rafe Cardones.

"Have you investigated the charges, Mr. Cardones?"

"I have, Captain," the exec replied formally. "I've examined each witness to the incident in the mess compartment, and all the testimony supports the first two charges. Based on further testimony from Electronics Tech Showforth and Environmental Tech Stennis and corroborating evidence located in the prisoner's quarters and in Life Pod One-Eight-Four, I believe there is convincing evidence to support the latter two charges, as well."

"Recommendations?"

"Shipboard punishment for the first two, and return to the first available naval station for formal court martial on the last two," Cardones said, and Honor watched Steilman pale. He could be shot under Article Nineteen or Ninety, and he knew it. Honor judged it was unlikely, since he hadn't actually managed to desert or kill Ginger Lewis, but at the very least, Randy Steilman was going to be a very old man before he ever got out of prison.

It was customary to permit the accused to speak in his own defense, but there wasn't much point this time, and everyone in her day cabin knew it. Besides, she thought coldly, she didn't want this man's words polluting air she had to breathe.

"Very well," she said, and nodded to Thomas.

"Prisoner, 'ten-shun!" the warrant officer snapped, and Steilman tried to square his shoulders.

"For violation of Article Thirty-Four, forty-five days close confinement on basic rations," she said coldly. "For violation of Article Thirty-Five, forty-five days close confinement on basic rations, sentences to run consecutively. On the charges of violation of Articles Nineteen and Ninety, prisoner will be kept in close confinement until remanded into the custody of the first available naval station for formal court martial. See to it, Master at Arms."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!"

Steilman sagged and started to open his mouth, but he never got the chance to speak.

"Prisoner, on caps!" Thomas barked. Steilman jerked, then placed his beret back on his head with hands that shook visibly. "About face!" Thomas snapped, and the power tech turned and shuffled awkwardly out of the cabin without a word.

 

The hatch slid open, and Aubrey looked up anxiously as Master at Arms Thomas appeared in the opening. Hiss face was as expressionless as Corporal Slattery's, but he twitched his head commandingly, and Aubrey rose. He followed Thomas out into the passage and drew a deep breath as the hatch to the Captain's quarters came into sight. The green-uniformed armsman guarding it turned his head to regard them levelly, then pressed the switch to open the hatch, and Aubrey marched up to stand before the Captain's desk.

"Caps off!" Thomas commanded, and Aubrey removed his beret, tucked it under his left arm, and snapped to parade ground attention.

"Charges?" Lady Harrington asked the Bosun in crisp, official tones.

"Prisoner is charged with violation of Article Thirty-Six, fighting with a fellow crewman, with aggravated circumstances," the Bosun said, equally crisply.

"I see." The Captain regarded Aubrey with cold brown eyes. "That's a very serious offense," she said, and turned to look at Commander Cardones.

"Have you investigated the charge, Mr. Cardones?"

"I have, Captain. I've examined all witnesses to the incident. All of them agree that the prisoner intentionally sought a confrontation with Power Tech Third Steilman, in the course of which they had words and the prisoner accused him of attempting to murder Senior Chief Petty Officer Lewis. A fight then ensued, in which Steilman attempted to strike the first blow. Acting Petty Officer Wanderman defended himself, and in the fight which followed, systematically beat Power Tech Steilman, breaking his nose, cheekbone, several teeth—snapped at the gum line—and his kneecap, requiring reconstructive surgery."

"I take it those are the 'aggravated circumstances'?" the Captain asked.

"Yes, Ma'am. Particularly the knee. All witnesses agree Power Tech Steilman had already been effectively incapacitated, and that the kick to the knee was deliberately intended to have the effect it did."

"I see." The Captain returned that basilisk gaze to Aubrey and leaned back in her chair. The treecat on the perch above her desk also examined him, green eyes very intent and ears pricked, and the Captain lifted a finger at Aubrey.

"Did you in fact seek a confrontation with Power Tech Steilman?"

"Yes, Ma'am, I did," Aubrey replied as clearly as he could.

"Did you at any time use abusive or threatening language to him?"

"No, Ma'am," Aubrey said, then paused. "Uh, except at the end, Ma'am. I did call him an 'asshole' then," he admitted, flushing darkly. The Captain's lips seemed to quiver for just a moment, but he told himself that had to have been his imagination.

"I see. And did you intentionally break his nose, cheek, teeth, and knee?"

"Most of it just happened, Ma'am. Except the knee." Aubrey stood very straight, gazing at a point five centimeters above her head. "I guess I did do that on purpose, Ma'am," he said quietly.

"I see," she said again, then glanced at the Exec. "Recommendations, Mr. Cardones?"

"That's a very serious admission, Captain," the Commander said. "We can't have our people going around breaking one another's bones deliberately. On the other hand, this is the first time the prisoner has ever been in trouble, so I suppose some leniency might be in order."

The Captain nodded thoughtfully and gazed at Aubrey for sixty awful seconds of silence. He made himself stand very still, waiting for her to pronounce his fate.

"The Exec is correct, Wanderman," she said finally. "Defending yourself against attack is one thing; deliberately seeking a confrontation with a crewmate and then shattering his knee is something else again. Do you agree?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Aubrey said manfully.

"I'm glad you do, Wanderman. I hope this will be a lesson to you, and that you never again appear before me or any other captain on similar charges." She let that sink in, then fixed him with an unflinching gaze. "Are you prepared to accept the consequences?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Aubrey said again, and she nodded.

"Very well. For violation of Article Thirty-Five, with aggravated circumstances, the prisoner is confined to quarters for one day and fined one week's pay. Dismissed."

Aubrey blinked, and his eyes dropped to the Captain's face in disbelief. Her face didn't even move as muscle as she returned his goggle-eyed stare, but there was the ghost of a twinkle in the eyes which had been so cold. He wondered if he was supposed to say something, but the Master at Arms came to his rescue.

"Prisoner, on caps!" he barked, and Aubrey's spine stiffened automatically as he replaced his beret. "About, face!" Thomas snapped, and Aubrey turned and marched obediently out of the cabin to begin his confinement to quarters.

 

"Did you see the look on Wanderman's face?" Cardones asked when the bosun had departed, and Honor smiled.

"I think he expected a planet to fall on him," she replied.

"Well, one could have," Cardones pointed out, then grinned. "I'd say you put the fear of God—or someone—into him first, Skipper!"

"He had that much coming for not stepping forward in the first place. And that knee thing probably was a bit much. On the other hand, Steilman more than had it coming, and I'm glad Wanderman gave it to him. He needed to learn to stand up for himself."

"Indeed he did. Not that I expect him to have any more trouble after the way he took Steilman apart."

"True. And if he hadn't landed Steilman in the brig, Showforth and Stennis might not have cracked about the desertion thing—or about Coulter and Lewis' SUT," Honor said much more seriously. "All in all, I think he did quite well by us."

"Absolutely," Cardones said. "I just wish it hadn't taken as long as it did—and that Lewis hadn't almost gotten killed in the process."

Honor nodded slowly and tipped her chair far back, resting her heels on her desk while Nimitz swarmed down to curl in her lap. The 'cat's approval for the way she'd treated Steilman—and Aubrey—radiated into her, and she laughed softly as she brushed his ears.

"Well, with that out of the way, I suppose it's time to decide what to do next."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Honor rubbed the tip of her nose thoughtfully. There had not, in fact, been a timer on the nuclear demolitions, and the ground troops had crumbled when they learned of their leader's desertion—and of what had happened to all their erstwhile associates aboard the repair ship. When Wayfarer's pinnaces disembarked a full battalion of battle-armored Marines and then went back upstairs to provide air support, they'd fallen all over themselves to surrender.

Not, she thought grimly, that it was going to do them a great deal of good in the long run. Sidemore's planetary government—or what was left of it after the long, savage months of Warnecke's occupation—had come out of hiding when it realized the nightmare was over. The planetary president had been among the first hostages shot by Warnecke's troops, but the vice-president and two members of her cabinet had eluded capture. There'd still been a haunted, hunted look in their eyes when Honor went dirtside to greet them, but they constituted a functional government. Best of all, Sidemore had a death penalty.

She was still a bit shocked by the cold satisfaction she'd felt when she informed the ex-privateer leader he would be handed over to Sidemore for trial. Vice-President Gutierrez had promised Honor his trial would be scrupulously fair, but Honor could accept that. There was more than sufficient evidence, and she was certain he'd have an equally fair hanging. A lot of his men would be joining him, and the idea didn't bother her in the least.

What did bother her was that four of Warnecke's ships were still at large. One was a light cruiser, and the other three were only destroyers, but the Marsh System had nothing with which to defend itself against them. And since the privateers didn't know their base had been destroyed, they were certain to return eventually. According to records captured on the planet, they were cruising individually, so they could be expected to return in singletons, but any one of them could destroy every town and city on the planet if its captain chose to take vengeance on Sidemore, and it would be some weeks yet before Commodore Blohm's promised IAN squadron could get here.

"I think we're going to have to detach some of the LACs," she said finally.

"For system security?"

"Yes." She rubbed her nose some more. "We'll detach Jackie Harmon as senior officer and give her LAC One. Six LACs should be able to deal with all of Warnecke's remaining ships, especially taking them by surprise and with Jackie in command."

"That's half our parasite complement, Skip," Cardones pointed out. "And they're not hyper-capable. They'll be stuck here until we can get back and collect them."

"I know, but we'll only be gone long enough for the hop back to New Berlin, and we can't leave Marsh unprotected." She considered some more, then nodded. "I think we'll leave them a few dozen missile pods, as well. We can modify the fire control to let each LAC handle a couple of them at a time and then put them in Sidemore orbit. If any of Warnecke's orphans want to tangle with that kind of firepower, they won't be leaving again."

"I like it," Cardones said after a moment, then grinned. "Of course, the people we had reloading all those pods may be just a bit put out when we turn right around and off-load them."

"They'll get over it," Honor replied with a matching smile. "Besides, I'll explain it's all in a good cause." She gave her nose a final rub, then nodded. "Another thing. I think I'll leave Jackie written orders to turn their ships over to Vice-President Gutierrez if she can take them intact. They're not much, but these people are totally on their own, and they ought to be enough to scare off any normal pirate."

"Do they have the people to crew them?" Cardones asked dubiously, and Honor shrugged.

"They've got a few hundred experienced spacers of their own, and the ones Warnecke was using for slave labor will still be here until someone with enough life support can arrange to repatriate them. Jackie and her people can give them a quicky course on weapon systems. Besides, I'm going to recommend that the Admiralty put a fleet station in here."

"You are?" Cardones eyebrows rose, and she shrugged again.

"It makes sense, actually. The Confederacy's always hated giving us basing rights in their space. It's stupid, since we're the ones who've traditionally kept piracy in check, but I think part of it's resentment at having to admit they need us for that in the first place. Then too, some of their governors hate having us around because we're bad for their business arrangements. But Marsh has every reason in the world to be grateful to us, and they've just had a pretty gruesome experience with the consequences of not being able to defend themselves. They're also only fifteen light-years from Sachsen. We don't have a station there but the Andies do, and if we put in a base here and kept a few cruisers or battlecruisers on station, we'd have a place to turn convoy escorts around . . . and to keep an eye on the Andies in Sachsen."

"The IAN's being very helpful to us at the moment, Skip."

"Yes, they are. And I hope it stays that way. But it may not, and neither they nor the Confeds can object to our signing a basing agreement with an independent system outside their borders. It'd also be something we could upgrade in a hurry if we had to, and if it ever does hit the fan between us and the Andies, having a fleet base between them and Silesia might not be such a bad thing."

"Hm." Cardones rubbed his own nose for a moment. She sounded more like an admiral than a captain, he reflected. But then, she'd been an admiral for the last two years, hadn't she? And even before that, she'd never been shy about accepting additional responsibilities. "You may have a point," he said finally. "Is that one of the things they teach in the Senior Officer's Course?"

"Sure. It's listed as Constructive Paranoia One-Oh-One in the catalog," Honor said deadpan, and Cardones chuckled. Then she took her feet from her desk and let her chair come back upright. "Okay. I'll float the basing idea by Gutierrez before we leave—no commitment, just sounding her out. Assuming we detach LAC One and the pods, how soon can we pull out?"

"Take about a day, I guess," Cardones replied thoughtfully. "We'll need to provide Jackie with at least some spares, and we've still got Marines scattered all over the planet."

"A day's fine; we're not in that big a rush."

"You know we're going to lose a fair piece of prize money if Jackie does manage to take those ships intact and hand them over, Skipper," Cardones said.

"A point. On the other hand, if the Admiralty signs off on the idea of a station out here, they may decide to go ahead and pay up anyway. I don't need the money, but I certainly intend to recommend they do right by the rest of our people. They deserve it."

"Yes, they do," Cardones agreed.

"All right, then!" Honor rose, carrying Nimitz in her arms, and headed for the hatch. "Let's go see about getting all this in motion."

 

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