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The Devil and Deep Space

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The Devil and Deep Space

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Author: Susan R. Matthews
Publisher: Baen, 2014
Roc, 2002
Series: Jurisdiction: Book 5
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Andrej Koscuisko, the Ragnarok's Ship's Inquisitor, is going home on leave. His ship of assignment is participating in training exercises, and when an observer station unexpectedly explodes -- killing the Ragnarok's captain -- Pesadie Training Command has to come up with a cover story in a hurry or risk exposure of its black-market profiteering.


Chapter One

An Unfortunate Combination of Circumstances

"I have your report from Burkhayden, Specialist Ivers," the First Secretary said, looking out the great clear-wall window over the tops of the fan-leaf trees in the park below. "I apologize for taking so long to get to it. I find it rather strongly worded in places."

Rather strongly felt, Jils told herself, wryly. But Burkhayden and everything that had happened there were months behind her now; except one thing. "Yes."

The First Secretary looked tired, even from behind. Jils didn't think she'd ever seen him lean against anything in all of her years of working with him. She could understand his fatigue, though; with the recent and unexpected death of the First Judge, Sindha Verlaine was at the defining moment of his entire career.

If the Second Judge at Chilleau -- Verlaine's Judge -- became First Judge, Verlaine would become the most powerful civil servant under Jurisdiction; Chambers here at Chilleau, with their beautiful gardens and their tall whitewashed walls, would become the center of known Space, since whatever might be in Gonebeyond was not worth consideration.

If the Second Judge failed to negotiate the Judicial support that she needed in order for her claim to prevail, however, it would be all over. Second Judge Sem Porr Har would remain one among eight equally powerful Judges for the rest of her life, and First Secretary Verlaine would still be nothing more than the senior administrative officer at Chilleau Judiciary.

Good enough for most men.

Not good enough for Sindha Verlaine, who had been working toward this moment for his entire adult life -- twenty-plus years by the Jurisdiction standard, in service to the Judicial order.

Verlaine turned from the window, his expression open and candid. In the bright morning light his normally pale complexion was an unflattering claylike color, and it was clear from the drawn contours of his face that he had not been getting enough rest for some time. "Please. Sit down, if you will, Bench specialist. I mean to be very frank with you."

He almost always had been. The relationship between a Bench intelligence specialist and the administrative staff of any given Judiciary could become adversarial, because men like Verlaine weren't accustomed to being told no -- and only Bench specialists and Judges could do it. Bench intelligence specialists answered to no single Judge, but to the Bench itself.

Some Secretaries that Jils had coordinated with had tried to wheedle, threaten, influence. Verlaine had never stooped to subterfuge; she respected that in him. So she sat down in one of the several chairs that were arrayed to one side of the window, in front of his desk.

Verlaine nodded his thanks for her cooperation and picked up a flat-form docket from his active file, backing up against the forward edge of the brilliantly polished wooden desktop until he was sitting on it, file in hand.

"Chilleau Judiciary got off on the wrong foot with Andrej Koscuisko from the very start," the First Secretary observed, mildly. "It's past time I faced up to my responsibility for what's gone wrong there, Specialist."

There were reasons Verlaine might have for taking time out of what had to be a hellishly grueling schedule of political coordination to talk about a single individual.

Koscuisko was the Ship's Surgeon assigned to the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok -- Ship's Inquisitor. Several months ago Verlaine had sent her to Burkhayden to obtain Koscuisko's services for Chilleau by fiat, and Koscuisko had reacted by doing the one thing no one could have anticipated -- reenlisting in Fleet, when no other offered inducement had moved him from an apparently single-minded determination to be done with the practice of Judicial torture and go home.

Koscuisko was just one man, though his public profile was higher than most due to the personal notoriety he had won at the Domitt Prison: but Koscuisko also had family, and his family was very influential within the Combine.

When the Dolgorukij Combine spoke Sant-Dasidar Judiciary and its Sixth Judge were obliged to listen, or risk expensive and awkward civil challenges. The support of the Koscuisko familial corporation could be the key to the Combine's endorsement of a chosen candidate, and the Sixth Judge had to defer to the Combine's wishes if she meant to keep the peace. That meant that the Sixth Judge's support for Chilleau's bid lay with the Dolgorukij Combine to grant or to withhold.

Nor was Koscuisko simply one among a powerful family, but the inheriting son of the Koscuisko prince, and would be master of the entire familial corporation in time. That made him the man with whom Sant-Dasidar Judiciary would expect to have to deal during much of the tenure of the new First Judge. It was in the Sixth Judge's best interest to cultivate Koscuisko's goodwill accordingly, and pay careful attention to his feelings.

"I have read your report, Specialist Ivers, and I have decided. Chilleau Judiciary has wronged Koscuisko, and it is my responsibility because it was my doing. But the timing is awkward."

Funneled special assignments in Koscuisko's direction to keep the pressure on, assigned him to the Ragnarok even knowing that three out of three of the Ragnarok's previous Inquisitors had been unable to tolerate the work to which Fleet Captain Lowden had put them. Verlaine was right; he had wronged Koscuisko.

Clearly Verlaine meant to send her to Koscuisko now with concessions. Jils didn't see where timing could really affect Koscuisko's reception of whatever Verlaine had to say one way or the other; she knew Koscuisko's feelings about Chilleau Judiciary. And Bench Specialists didn't run personal errands with political motivations behind them. "What would you like to tell me, First Secretary?"

"It goes deeper than just Koscuisko. Though he must be admitted to be the most visible symbol of the entire system."

Of what? Of Inquisition?

Verlaine set down his flat-form docket and cast off from the desk, starting to pace. He was a very thin man, not tall, but very quick in his movements; he frequently gave Jils the impression that the energy of his mind could not be contained within his body. "The Second Judge has agreed to issue a statement of intent. Her proposed agenda."

It would be the formal announcement of her desire to step into the First Judge's position. No one had issued such a statement to date; it had only been twenty days since the death of the First Judge had been reported. It had been a surprise. People were scrambling.

"When she does she will challenge the rules of Evidence as in the best interest of the rule of Law and the Judicial order. It will be controversial. I must have Koscuisko on her side."

Jils was startled into a question. "Rules of Evidence, First Secretary? Does she really mean to question the Protocols?" Because the Second Judge was a brave woman if she did mean to do that.

The Bench had come to rely more and more on Inquisition as its instrument of state over recent years; that was why there were Ship's Inquisitors, Judicial torturers. And still civil unrest continued to increase, regardless of -- or even possibly as a result of -- the increasingly savage methods to which the Bench resorted to contain it.

"It costs too much," Verlaine said, simply. "In more than just money. But more than that, it's just not working, Specialist Ivers. The more the Bench leans on confession extracted under torture for validation, the less credibility the rule of Law can hope to retain. She will need all of the help in this she can get. She will need Koscuisko's support."

For a Judge to question the usefulness of her own Inquisition was a genuinely stunning development. If the Second Judge spoke out against the Protocols, she challenged the most useful weapon in her own inventory. There would seem to be little political capital to be made with such a slap in the face of the status quo; was it possible Verlaine meant exactly what he said, that torture did not help keep order in the long term, and cost too much besides?

"I know better than to accuse you of trying to deploy me on a partisan political mission." It wasn't done. "So where do I fit into all this, First Secretary?"

Pivoting in mid-pace Verlaine turned back to his desk and the flat-form docket, which he picked up and held out to her. "Except that that's just what I'd like you to do, Specialist Ivers. Complete a personal errand, in a sense." The note in Verlaine's deep voice was ambiguous; nerves -- or self-deprecating humor? "I can't deny my partisan interest in the potential payoff, here. I can only ask that you believe me when I assure you that at least part of my motive is genuine and disinterested."

There was something odd in the First Secretary's demeanor; he seemed almost embarrassed. Jils opened the docket and reached out to leaf through its stacked pages; then stopped where she was, page one, paragraph one, In the circumstance of the recently renewed engagement of service, Andrej Ulexeievitch Koscuisko, Ship's Surgeon and Inquisitor, it is the judgment of this Court...

Verlaine meant to cancel Koscuisko's Writ.

Without prejudice. Having been extended under and as a result of inappropriate duress contrary to the rule of Law and the Bench's responsibility to protect its citizens from unreasonable and unlawful imposition.

There was more. There was an advance copy of the Second Judge's proposed statement of intent, and Jils could pick out the pertinent titles with ease. Regrettable vulnerability of the system to abuse. Multiple instances of failure, not excepting Chilleau Judiciary's own shameful failure to protect the rights of displaced Nurail souls at the Domitt Prison. Immediate moratorium on imposition of the Bond and granting of any new Writs to Inquire.

There it was, in plain text; and that meant that this was not a flat-form docket but an incendiary device capable of destroying Chilleau Judiciary at one blow in the wrong hands.

"Are you sure about this, First Secretary?" She had to ask; she had to hear it from him. If Koscuisko was minded to be vengeful he could create a very great deal of trouble for the Second Judge by leaking this to her anticipated opponents before she had a chance to make her case. The Fifth Judge at Cintaro in particular would pay a very great deal of money for the document in Jils's hands.

"It's the only way I have any hope of convincing Koscuisko that I'm serious. I was wrong; he's suffered for it. I need his help. But I mean to try to make things right whether or not he's willing to support the Second Judge, Specialist Ivers."

Because the Bench judgment was to be executed at Koscuisko's will and pleasure. It was already fully endorsed. All it needed was his seal to make it official. All he had to do was sign, and he was clear of Fleet and Inquiry forever.

No quid-pro-quo for Chilleau Judiciary; no if then, else. Jils thought about it. As Verlaine had warned her, the errand he proposed had clear political overtones; and yet she was a Bench intelligence specialist, she was expected to make up her own mind about whether to accept or reject any given assignment. That included taking her own counsel about whether the immediate partisan impact of her mission was outweighed by the greater good of the Judicial order.

"Where is the Ragnarok, First Secretary?"

All right. She'd go. She'd carry this liberating document to Andrej Koscuisko, and find out whether he would even see her, after what his last interview with her had cost him. But she'd wait to see whether she would trust Koscuisko with the full power Verlaine offered to put in his hands.

"In maneuvers at the Pesadie Training Grounds, Bench specialist. But Koscuisko's due home on leave. If you're willing to perform the errand, agents of the Malcontent will see to the necessary arrangements, on Azanry."

On Azanry, where Koscuisko's family was?

Verlaine certainly had the political angles tabled out as acutely as he could. A Bench intelligence specialist taking relief of Writ to the inheriting son of the Koscuisko familial corporation in the very heart of the Dolgorukij Combine... where every move a man like Andrej Koscuisko made would be seen, analyzed, interpreted, then acted on by an immense and arcane machinery of tradition and ethnic solidarity. Working toward the will of the Koscuisko prince... or of the man who would be the Koscuisko prince, and perhaps there was not even so very much difference at this point.

"I'll take your Brief to Azanry." What was owed Koscuisko was fairly owed. She'd been there when he had been forced to gnaw off his own leg to escape the trap that Chilleau Judiciary had set for him, the trap that she herself had sprung on him. She had a right to be there when Chilleau prised open the jaws of the trap and apologized and begged him to accept a replacement leg with the sincere compliments of First Secretary Verlaine. For the rest of it --

"Thank you, Specialist Ivers." Verlaine knew that he was asking her to intervene in a more-or-less personal relationship between Chilleau and Andrej Koscuisko, but that was all right. He'd read her report. He knew what she'd had to say about his attempt to co-opt Koscuisko in the first place. "I appreciate your cooperation. We'll alert the Malcontent to your expected arrival."

For the rest of it she'd review the docket, and if its contents conformed with the rule of Law she'd do what she could to enlist Koscuisko's cooperation in turn. And while she was there, on Azanry, maybe she'd ask the Malcontent for something on her own behalf.

Garol Vogel had dropped out of sight on an exit trajectory from Port Burkhayden months ago, and had not been heard from since. Maybe the Malcontent knew what might have happened to him. No other source of information Jils had consulted had been able to offer any help.

Bench specialists were supposed to be difficult to seek, locate, identify. But not by other Bench specialists. "Very good, First Secretary. I'll keep you informed." She couldn't shake the feeling that more had gone on in Port Burkhayden between Andrej Koscuisko and Garol Vogel than she'd realized.

If the key was on Azanry somewhere, Jils meant to find it.


The little Wolnadi -- one of the Ragnarok's complement of four-soul fighters -- careened past its target on a high oblique trajectory to plane; weaponer Smath screamed, from her post on the aft cannon, and Lek Kerenko grinned with pure delight to hear her curse. "Damn you, Lek, slow down!"

He would not slow down. It was just a training exercise; but Security 5.1 had the best kill-time on board the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok, and Lek did not mean to yield the honors to anyone.

"On target, Smish!" He didn't have to yell -- he had the inter-ship. She wouldn't let the team down. She was eight for eight out of the gate, perfect record, confirmed target kill on all vectors.

"Trajectory shift on proximal target," Murat warned. Lek frowned in deep focus on the new data Murat sent through and made a quick rephase calculation in his mind.

Fleet didn't mean for 5.1 to finish this target run with a perfect score. Pesadie Training Command wanted evidence of substandard performance on the Ragnarok's part, to support cancellation of the First Judge's research program; they weren't going to get it.

"Lateral eight point from directional?" Lek asked Taller on power flux, coding his approaches. Taller's post was right next to the navigation comps. The Wolnadi fighter was a small craft. Lek could see Taller shake his head, scowling.

"If we have to. If you're sure."

Yes, they'd pushed the propulsion systems hard from the moment they'd cleared the Ragnarok's maintenance atmosphere. But that was what the ship's engines were there for. Motive power. Maneuverability. Lek knew his ship. The Wolnadi would do it.

"If I take a sub on target minus-two, can you pick off target minus-three on the way?" Lek asked Smish, just to let the weaponer know what he was doing. Because he already knew that she could do it. If she couldn't do it, he wouldn't be asking.

"We're already good on time, Lek, why push it? Yes."

She was frustrated with him, because he was pushing her hard, as well. It was an unusual position to be in, a bond-involuntary telling un-bonded troops what to do; but the Ragnarok didn't have enough bond-involuntaries assigned to make up a second full team after 5.3, so there they were.

Security 5.1, Lek's team, did have an un-bonded navigator assigned; but Eady was on fifth-week rotation this cycle. And Lek was better than Eady was. "On target. Fire through."

If she couldn't make the target minus-two kill before they hit target minus-three, they'd lose points on execution. The flight sphere was set up to maximize the challenge, and the targets were to be taken in order. The targets -- the little remote decoys -- were moving; Lek just had to move faster. That was all.

"Confirmed," Murat said approvingly, from his post on observation scan. Lek didn't have time to congratulate Smish on her marksmanship, though, because she had mere fractions of an eighth to refocus her considerable prey instinct on the next target.

"Minus-two on monitor. Please confirm target acquisition."

Lek shoved the linear propulsion feeds to the maximum, firing his laterals as he went to spin the ship and finesse its trajectory. The next target was well below the arena's theoretical floor axis, and fast approaching the boundary, but he could fly through the center of the arena, and that saved time. Nothing to go around.

"Target minus-one within six degrees of escape," Murat warned. Lek checked his stats. Fleet really did want them to fail the exercise. There was no way to get from one target to the other in time. Was there?

He could do a fly-through, maybe, if Taller could give him a pulse to shield their forward path, and clear the debris from the target so that he could take a direct line on the next without fear of hulling out on some piece of scrap metal --

"I confirm target minus-two. Targeting. Firing."

Smish was too busy concentrating on her own task to yell at him. Lek was just as glad. He knew what he was doing, and they knew that he knew what he was doing, but his governor would not let him take chances with the ship if he made the mistake of letting himself become nervous about his margins. So he had to avoid getting nervous; or else his governor would conclude that he had destruction of Jurisdiction property in mind, and shut him down.

The sensor screen lit up with the impact report from the target's remains. The kill was good. "Blow me a hole, Taller," Lek suggested. "We can still catch the last one."

Taller sent a plasma burst out ahead of the fighter's path, shaking his head as he did so. "Whatever you say. But we're already ahead, Lek, you don't have to prove anything."

Lek threaded the Wolnadi through the narrow passageway that the plasma bolt cleared through the debris of target minus-two. "Ahead isn't good enough. We're maximizing. Smish. Target acquisition?"

Nobody flattened the line. Nobody had hit all the targets in sequence and on time in the weeks they'd been here. He had a chance. With Smish's eye for her targets and his feel for his navs, they could do it.

The last target was on-screen. Lek could see it; they were heading straight on, and the subtle blue sheen of the flight sphere's containment field glowed dimly against the backdrop of black Space and distant star-fields. It was going to be close; their quarry was doing everything it could to escape.

"Targeting," Smish said.

Lek eased the propulsion up just a hair, one eye to his return trajectory. He needed power in reserve to return to base. "Firing. Confirm kill on three. Two. One."

The forward display screens blossomed, then blanked as ship's on-board display recalibrated itself. Explosion; good. That was it for the last of the targets, then.

Lek heeled the ship into its return arc and brought its speed up as quickly as he dared. All he had to do now was get back to the Ragnarok on time, and they would have beaten Pesadie for good and all. After years of being mocked by their Fleet counterparts as idle vacationers on an experimental test bed -- if not worse -- the crew of the Ragnarok had shown Fleet that they could obtain and execute with the best of them.

Pesadie Training Command had done everything it could to discredit the technical and fighting abilities of the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok, under cover of capability evaluation. But the Ragnarok had accomplished every task, exceeded every benchmark Pesadie had set against them; and defended its honor, to the last.


Jennet ap Rhiannon stood on the observation deck of the Engineering bridge with her arms braced stiff against the waist-high railing, looking down through the soundproof clear-wall into the well of Engineering's command and control center, where the Ragnarok's last battle exercise was displayed on ship's primary screens.

It was a pleasure to watch the Wolnadi fight. None of the crews had embarrassed the ship, but this one seemed to be particularly aggressive, and Jennet sent a question back over her shoulder to Ralph Mendez while she watched. "Security 5.1, First Officer?"

The Wolnadi took its target on a high hard oblique roll, clearly planning on blasting through its own debris field on its way to the end of the set. She could see the final target start to move toward the perimeter; someone in Pesadie Training Command had noticed the Wolnadi's successful attack as well, and was taking measures to challenge their final approach -- to make it as difficult as possible to get the final kill.

"That's them, Lieutenant," Mendez replied, Santone dialect still flavoring his syntax even after all of his years in Fleet. "Look at him go. Would you have thought a bond-involuntary could show so much ginger, and get away with it?"

No, she wouldn't. Bond-involuntaries were much more likely to be characterized by an aggressively -- or defensively -- conservative approach to life, for their own protection.

"Kerenko, I think," Lieutenant Seascape said, from the shadows behind Jennet. "I thought Koscuisko was taking his Bonds home?"

"Andrej's taking Security 5.3, Lieutenant," Mendez corrected. "Kerenko's on 5.1. He wanted to take all six of them home, but he can't take St. Clare anyway, no new governor yet. And Fleet would only authorize one Security team."

That was right. There were only six bond-involuntary troops assigned to the Ragnarok right now, well short of the hypothetical full complement of twenty-five. Nor were bond-involuntaries the only troops the Ragnarok was shorted; there were only three Command Branch officers left on board, since murder in Burkhayden had removed both Captain Lowden and Lieutenant Wyrlann from the chain of command several months ago. Acting Captain Brem, acting First Lieutenant ap Rhiannon, acting Second Lieutenant Seascape, and that was it.

"That ship sure doesn't move like a failed technology," Jennet said, though she knew there was no sense in being bitter about it. The Ragnarok was shorted Command Branch and bond-involuntaries alike because everybody expected the ship to be scrapped as soon as the new First Judge was seated. Such was the future that awaited the pet research projects of dead First Judges. "Whoever gets that team will get quality."

"Son of a bitch," Wheatfields growled from his post in the pit of the Engineering bridge below, his voice projected into the observation deck from the station's pickups. "Be careful with those vectors, damn it, that's an expensive piece of machinery."

The Wolnadi's weaponer hit the target solid and true, and the starburst blossom on-screen was familiar and beautiful in its way. A pulse from the Wolnadi's forward jets cored the debris field and the Wolnadi dove through close behind it, only just trailing the newly emptied space. Jennet could appreciate Wheatfields's nervousness: if the navigator misjudged his speed, he could hull the fighter. But it was all part of the age-old conflict between Engineers and pilots, after all.

"He'll be careful, Serge," Mendez assured Wheatfields. Wheatfields looked up toward them resentfully -- so he was on return feed, listening as well as sending. "Or you can take it out of his hide. If there's any hide left." After Mendez himself was finished with Kerenko, should Kerenko make a mistake. Wheatfields did not seem to be impressed, turning back to watch the screens without comment.

The last target was running for the perimeter of the exercise field as fast as it could; if the target escaped from the containment field, the kill wouldn't count. Pesadie didn't expect them to perform well. Pesadie had made that perfectly clear, and it wasn't supposed to be easy -- but Pesadie's aggressive tests had gone well past fair challenge.

Jennet knew that Pesadie had expected them to play along, and queer their own performance. She wanted the kill all the more badly for that. The fighter gained on the target moment by moment; there was the shot, but was the kill good?

Explosion. Dead target. Jennet tightened her grip on the railing with satisfaction, tracking the fighter's progress on-screen. Beautiful.

It had been close, though, so close that the containment field itself showed signs of reaction to the impact. The faintly glowing blue sphere that delineated the flight sphere was distorted, wavering, pulsing from dim to bright and back to dim again as it absorbed the kinetic energy from the particles of debris that the explosion had sent right up against its borders.

The containment field's boundary belled outward for a moment or two, just touching the tiny blip of an observation station hung clear of the flight sphere to track the execution of the exercise. Jennet shook her head.

"Anybody on that watch-ball's going to get vertigo." Because the containment field's energy had set the station into a perturbation wobble. In her student days it'd been a standard prank -- getting as close to the containment field as she could, in order to destabilize the containment barrier and rattle any rank that was observing in the backwash.

There was another explosion. Jennet stared. The observation station? But how? The fighter was well on its way back to base, there had been no round fired... and if she was right -- she hoped she was wrong --

Jennet turned her back on the Engineering bridge to face Ship's Intelligence Officer, who was hanging from the ceiling at the back of the dimly lit observation deck with her great leathery wings folded demurely around her. "Two?"

First Officer was staring at the screen as well. So he had the same concern. "Yes, your Excellency," Two said, her mechanically translated voice calm and cheerful, as it was programmed to be.

Jennet sank back against the railing, stunned. She wasn't an Excellency. The only Command Branch officer who rated "Excellency" was the senior officer assigned, and that was the acting Captain, Cowil Brem. So Brem had been on that observation station. And he was dead. What had gone wrong?

"They're going to want to interrogate the crew." Mendez had straightened up to his full height, folding his arms across his chest. He didn't sound happy; she didn't blame him, because he was right. Fleet would want to talk to the crew of the Wolnadi to explain their role in the explosion.

The Wolnadi's crew had no possible role in the explosion that she'd seen -- they'd been heading back to the Ragnarok before it had happened -- but they'd been closest, and it was the obvious explanation, wasn't it? Training exercise, live fire, death of the commanding officer. Worse than that, this was the third Command Branch officer assigned to the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok to die by violence within the past few months.

Someone was sure to see conspiracy at work. There were two problems that faced them, then, and the fact that no one deserved to be threatened with the penalty for killing a Command Branch officer when it had been an accident was only the first. The second problem was that once Fleet started asking questions, it almost never stopped with only three or four confessions.

"Seascape. Go and get Koscuisko. Tell him he's leaving now, right now, Captain's orders." She knew what she had to do. Fleet would want to test for Free Government plots, or maybe even mutiny. They'd start with the crew of the Wolnadi and go on from there.

Mendez was looking at her, somewhat skeptically, and Seascape hadn't moved yet, waiting for a cue. Jennet didn't blame her. But she didn't have time to stop and give a speech about how unsuited she was for Command, unexpected responsibility, the help she'd need from more experienced officers if she was to hope to avoid discrediting her Command. Brem was dead; she was the senior Command Branch officer on site, and that made her the acting Captain of the Ragnarok.

"First Officer, please go and get that crew to the courier as soon as they dock. I'll meet you there. I'll explain to 5.3. I want those people out of here."

Fleet couldn't ask them questions if Fleet couldn't lay hands on them. Let Koscuisko take 5.1 home with him on leave, not 5.3. By the time Koscuisko was back Fleet would have straightened everything out, so long as she could ensure that they didn't just take the path of least resistance at the expense of the crew of the Ragnarok.

"Vector transit is logged, Lieutenant," Wheatfields said, his voice calm and matter-of-fact over the station pickup. Turning around, Jennet gave the Engineer a crisp nod that was equal portions of acknowledgment and thanks.

"Never mind explaining to 5.3," Mendez said. "Explaining to Andrej. That'll be the test, Lieutenant. I'll be waiting to see you do that. Coming, Seascape?" He would go along with it. He agreed with her. So he knew she was right about Fleet.

"I'll talk to Pesadie once Koscuisko is on vector," Jennet said to Two, who was just hanging there, taking it all in. "Did we even know where the observers were? I know the fighter didn't." Most observation stations were unmanned. But it wasn't because they were dangerous, in any way. What had caused that explosion?

"We had no idea." Two's translator was permanently set on "chipper," no matter the seriousness of the situation. "Were it not for the deviousness of your Intelligence Officer you still would not know. Please be careful, Captain. We have had very bad luck with our Command Branch lately."

Yes, Two was brilliant; but the joke was still in poor taste. If it had been a joke. Did Desmodontae joke? Was there a concept of humor in the Desmodontae worldview? Who knew? Two was a bat. Hominids were her natural prey. A much less intellectually sophisticated hominid species, perhaps, but Jennet knew quite well that on a certain level she looked like lunch to Ship's Intelligence.

"I'll keep it in mind. Keep Fleet off if you can, please."

She had to get out to the courier bay in the maintenance atmosphere, where Security 5.3 was only waiting for their officer of assignment to leave his going-away party before departing on home leave for Azanry in Koscuisko's system of origin, the Dolgorukij Combine. They had probably been looking forward to the vacation. And she was going to deny them the treat at the last possible moment.

It was ugly, but it had to be done. She had to get that fighter crew out of the way before Fleet could start talking about Protocols.


Surveying the scene in his office with satisfaction Andrej Koscuisko -- Ship's Surgeon, Chief Medical Officer, Ship's Inquisitor -- drained his cup and lofted it high over the heads of three intervening revelers to where his chief of dermatology sat tending the dispenser of punch. "How does this happen?" he called, with challenge and confusion in his voice. "There is a cup, and it is empty."

And only then did it occur to him to hope that Barille would not try to toss it back to him, once refilled. There was already enough of a mess on the floor: snack wrappers escaped from the waste container, bits of paper garlands.

Barille bowed cheerfully from his post. "The situation shall be speedily amended. Sir."

Andrej Koscuisko was not exactly drunk. But he was unquestionably in such a very good mood that not even the unexpected appearance of the Ship's Second Lieutenant -- Renata Seascape -- could perturb his genial humor. He was on holiday. He was going home. He was taking his people with him, or at least some of his people.

"Lieutenant. A surprise." She stood in the doorway to his office, which was full of people and decorated for the occasion with colorful garlands of fish tails and fins and cheerful smiling fish-faces. Andrej had at first tried to believe that they could have no idea how rude it all was; but there was no real use trying to pretend that Infirmary had not in all this time learned that Dolgorukij men customarily thought of their genitals in piscine terms, so it was a mark of affection, really. "Come in, sit down, have a drink. Have several. There's plenty."

And it all had to be gone before the next shift came on, because one really did not party in Infirmary, not even in the Ship's Surgeon's private office. Which Mahaffie would be sharing with Colloy and Hoff during his absence, and Andrej wished them all joy of the documentation, with a full heart.

Seascape smiled and bowed. "Thank you, your Excellency, no thank you." She had to raise her voice to make herself heard; Volens had started to sing. Something about a river, Andrej thought. "Sir. Your presence very urgently requested in courier bay. Time to go, sir. Please come with me."

Time to go? Rising from his desk Andrej squinted at his timepiece. Surely not. Someone threw a fish-fin at Seascape and it stuck in her hair, but she was otherwise unmoved. Well. Perhaps it was time. Because he was tipsy, and could have mistaken the schedule.

"If you say so, Lieutenant." It was a tricky business, making his way to the door; it meant getting past Aachil, and Aachil always got a little over-affectionate when he was drunk. Not like Haber. Andrej wouldn't have minded kissing Haber, but he rather drew the line at Aachil. "Gentles. Thank you for your good wishes, good-bye, I'll be back in three months. Please do not save any documentation for me. I grant it all to you, with all my heart."

The party was in full spate. It would do very well without him. Barille was in pursuit, with a full cup of punch; Andrej couldn't very well have Barille coming out into section with uncontained liquor, could he? "Yes. Thank you." Almost to the door. Andrej drank off half the cup before handing it back. "But really, I must go. The Lieutenant says so."

She was getting impatient, too. "If you please, your Excellency, we've got to get to courier bay."

That was odd. What urgency was there, really? Everything was ready to go, his kit packed, his people cleared. But not understanding what was happening was something that a man grew to accept when he was drunk, or even when he was merely not exactly drunk. So rather than argue with her Andrej put his arm around her shoulders -- for support and stabilization only, of course, he was a little unsteady on his feet. "Yes, yes, Lieutenant, coming immediately. Tell me. Have you ever to Azanry been?"

He was going home. It had been nearly nine years. He was not going home to stay, to try to rebuild a life of some sort after eight years dedicated to the practice of atrocity as a professional torturer; no, that fantasy had died months ago, when Bench intelligence specialist Jils Ivers had brought him word from Chilleau Judiciary that had forced him to re-engage with Fleet, to save himself from the administration that had been responsible for the Domitt Prison.

But he was going home.

Bench intelligence specialist Garol Vogel had shown him a Bench warrant with his name on it, in Port Burkhayden. Someone wanted him dead. If someone with the power to obtain a Bench warrant truly meant that he should die, the odds were good that he did not have long to live. So he had to take care of some personal business before he could be free to concentrate on who and why and how he was to protect himself. He had to ensure that Marana would be all right if he was killed; Marana, and his young son Anton.

"Never had the pleasure, your Excellency, though I understand it's very beautiful," Seascape said. "Here's the lift, sir. It'll be this way."

What? Oh. That was right. He'd asked her a question.

"I suppose one's home is always beautiful." The half-cup of punch he'd downed on his way out of his office had fuddled him, but the walk did him some good. His head was just clear enough for him to realize what an inane thing that had been to say. Stildyne's home had never been beautiful to Stildyne, for instance, as far as Andrej had ever heard him talk about it.

Or perhaps Stildyne's had simply never been home at all in the sense that Azanry was Andrej's. That could be. Stildyne's childhood and upbringing had apparently been as ugly as Stildyne himself was, also through no fault of Stildyne's own.

The lift doors sealed behind them; they were alone. Andrej leaned up against the back wall of the nexus lift, waiting for the fog to clear from the forefront of his mind.

"Your Excellency, there's been a change of plan," Seascape said.

Andrej stared at her, wondering what she was talking about. "How do you mean, Lieutenant?"

Seascape seemed uncomfortable, but resolute. "Necessary to make a last-minute substitution, sir, Security 5.1 for 5.3. We're to be met by the First Lieutenant. She'll explain, but you should at least be forewarned."

Substitution? What nonsense. And yet it didn't seem to be a joke; Seascape seemed quite serious. Any number of things to say occurred to Andrej, but she was the most junior officer on board -- so whatever was going on was not likely to be her fault. A man had to take care how quickly he took offense, when liquor might be interfering with his perception.

The nexus lift stopped; it wasn't far to the courier bay from here. One turning, three turnings, straight on; First Officer stood in the corridor waiting for them, pointing them toward the ready-room with a gesture of the arm and hand before he followed them into the room to close the door behind them.

Through the observation window in the connecting door, Andrej could see his Security 5.3, drawn up in the muster room adjacent. What were they doing there? They were supposed to be waiting at the courier itself, not on standby.

The ship's acting First Lieutenant ap Rhiannon stood between Andrej and the door to the next room. She waited until Mendez had sealed the door, and then she spoke. That was a little forward of her; perhaps the impertinence could be excused on a formality, as her superior officer was not on board.

"Your Excellency. I regret that I must make an alteration to your travel plans, sir. It will be necessary for you to take Security 5.1 rather than your previously selected Security 5.3 home with you on leave. And it is critically important that you leave immediately."

Said who? Jennet ap Rhiannon? Andrej folded his arms across his chest and raised his eyebrows at her skeptically. She was shorter than he was. And he outranked her. Who did she think she was, to tell him what to do?

"I'm not inclined to make any such substitution, Lieutenant." He'd been through a great deal with 5.3, or rather they had been through a great deal with him. Because of him. On his behalf, for his sake. "I have clearance for 5.3. I'm taking them with me. What possible interest could you have in interfering with my holiday?"

And yet the First Officer was here, and he was not jumping down her throat for overreaching her position. First Officer rarely tolerated breaches of rank-protocol; Andrej therefore asked the question in a curious, rather than an overtly hostile, tone of voice. Oh. Perhaps a little hostile. Perhaps. He didn't like Command Branch interfering with his life. Captain Lowden had had altogether too much to do with Andrej's life, until someone had killed him at Port Burkhayden.

"In the recently completed exercise from which Security 5.1 has just returned, a target was destroyed near the containment perimeter." All right, she clearly seemed to feel that she was making an explanation. He would wait. "Shortly afterward, an observation station proximal to the final kill exploded. I don't know if 5.1 knows about the explosion. I'm quite sure they don't know where our own remote observation team was when the explosion occurred."

Andrej began to see where the argument was headed. He didn't like it. "Lieutenant, I have promised these people, and long anticipated this. Is it truly necessary?"

Even through the liquor and the partying, however, Andrej's mind could track the logic. Command Branch officer dead. Explosion proximate to fighter manned by Security 5.1. Interrogate the crew for any potential evidence of conspiracy to commit a mutinous act. Aggressively investigate all implied or explicit disaffection among the crew.

"Your Excellency, through the death of acting Captain Cowil Brem I have assumed command of the Ragnarok. In the legal capacity of your commanding officer, I direct you to take Security 5.1 and clear this ship with all expedient speed."

How dare she use such language with him? She had the technical authority, but it was just that, a mere technicality. And yet she was right. She was the senior Command Branch officer, and that made her acting Captain.

That didn't mean he had to like any of this a bit. "First Officer. What have they been told?" It was capitulation on his part, and she would recognize it as such. But he dared not leave without understanding exactly what Lek Kerenko knew, and what supposed; Lek was bond-involuntary, and vulnerable.

"I told 'em that Fleet would try to pick the team apart, to cover for the embarrassment of being blown out of the water by an experimental ship. So they were going on assignment. Captain's direct and explicit orders."

Well, it would do, and it was all he had. Very well. "I will say good-bye to my Security," Andrej said firmly, and not very respectfully either. "And then I will leave straightaway. By your leave, of course, Lieutenant."

He didn't wait for leave. He went through the intervening door into the muster room, where Security 5.3 stood in formal array, waiting for him. There was to be no chance to explain; what the Lieutenant proposed was to willfully evade normal Judicial procedure by removing persons potentially of interest from their immediate environment, and that might create trouble in the hearts and minds of bond-involuntary troops.

Bond-involuntaries had been carefully schooled in the performance of their duty. Emotional conflict was the signal for the governor that each had implanted in their brains to punish what was clearly either a transgression or intent to transgress. So he could say nothing to his people except that he was sorry, that he would miss them, that they would be sure to come with him next time.

She was overreacting. Surely. Yet he had seen too much during his term of duty to be able to believe that there was no chance of her worst fears becoming reality.


Stildyne could see Koscuisko in the next room, talking to 5.3. He wished Koscuisko would hurry up. The sooner they got clear of this the easier it was going to be to manage; and starting this exercise with Koscuisko already in a filthy mood was not what he had anticipated -- but a man could only deal with what he had to work with. Not what he wished he had.

Koscuisko stepped through the door into the courier bay, and Security 5.1 came to attention smartly, lined up beneath the belly of the craft and waiting only for Koscuisko's word to be away. It was a nice courier; a Combine national, the property of the Koscuisko familial corporation in fact. One of the things that still amazed Stildyne after four years and more with Andrej Koscuisko was how inconceivably rich the man was -- at least so far as disposition of material goods was concerned.

"Thank you, gentles, and we must leave very soon, but I want a moment. Stand down. Stildyne. Kits on board?"

Stildyne knew what urgency First Officer had concealed behind his calm demeanor and his careful drawl. If First Officer was worried Stildyne was near frantic; but Koscuisko would not be hurried.

"Cleared and ready for departure, your Excellency, immediately. As the officer please."

Koscuisko frowned at him a little over that. He didn't usually resort to formal language with Koscuisko; it was almost a form of bullying. It was the only way Stildyne could come up with to express the urgency he felt. First Officer wanted 5.1 clear of the Ragnarok. Stildyne didn't know why -- exactly -- but that didn't concern him. First Officer knew what he was about.

"These people have just come off exercise, Chief." There was a touch of admonition in Koscuisko's voice, a hint of reproach. "And in particular the navigator has been worked hard. Not that the entire crew has been less fully challenged, but do we demand that Lek perform a vector transit now? This moment? Lek. Should truly we be asking such effort, from you?"

All right, maybe Koscuisko was not simply being difficult because he was angry and frustrated. It was possible that Koscuisko was checking to be sure that Lek was centered, clear, and well within the tolerances imposed by his governor. "It's just a vector transit, your Excellency." Lek didn't quite shrug, but the idea was there. "Not a problem, sir. And Godsalt has already done the calculations."

There was no halt or hesitation in Lek's voice. If Lek had any apprehension, he would let them know by using more formal and submissive language -- "as it please the officer." For Lek to use "your Excellency" and "sir" in direct address meant that there were no issues with his governor for Koscuisko to confront. Koscuisko nodded, and made an effort to clear the trouble from his face. "Well, then, let us be off, there is no time like the present. Chief."

Stildyne didn't need to say anything. Koscuisko went up the ramp into the courier. Stildyne nodded, and 5.1 broke out to man the stations -- finalize the checks, close the ports and portals, seal the courier for launch.

Stildyne himself followed Koscuisko up the ramp, slowly. Thinking. Wondering. Why was First Officer in such an apparent hurry to get these people away from the ship? What did Koscuisko know? And what would Koscuisko tell him?

It was an unfortunate complication to the start of a man's holiday. But maybe once they'd passed this rocky bit the track would be smooth and level for the duration of Koscuisko's home leave.

Copyright © 2002 by Susan R. Matthews


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