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Old Soldiers: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, June 13, 2005 19:02 EDT



    "Stand by to execute," Lieutenant Hawthorne said.

    "Standing by, aye, aye, sir," Lieutenant Jackson Lewis, his executive officer acknowledged crisply.

    "Execute," Hawthorne said.

    "Aye, aye, sir," Lewis said, and looked courteously at the visual pickup of Thermopylae's AI. "Execute the maneuver, Iona," he said.

    "Executing maneuver, aye, sir," the AI's pleasant contralto said almost musically, with the Navy's odd fetish for archaic formality, and Maneka sat quietly in the assistant astrogator's bridge chair, watching as Thermopylae swung suddenly but smoothly about to retrace her course.

    The timing for the maneuver had been randomly generated by Lazarus, and she felt confident that no one could have predicted the moment at which it would be executed. If, as had become increasingly unlikely, there truly were a surviving Melconian starship anywhere in the vicinity, it would be as surprised as any other unit of the colony fleet by Thermopylae's abrupt course change.

    In many ways, it was very tempting to execute the maneuver herself through Lazarus' control of Thermopylae's maneuvering systems. That, however, would have come under the heading of a Bad Idea, she thought with a slight, crooked smile as she watched the repeater plot in front of her. Edmund Hawthorne had proven even more flexible than she'd hoped, but stepping all over any commanding officer's prerogatives was bound to generate friction, or at least resentment. Either of which was something she could do without forever.

    Besides, she'd discovered she actually enjoyed watching Thermopylae's human crew in action. It didn't give her that sense of near-godhood she got from linking with Lazarus, but there was a sense of companionship, of inclusion with the rest of the human race, which had become unspeakably precious to her since the full burden of command had settled onto her shoulders.

    Thermopylae settled on her new heading, and Lazarus' sensors reached out to sweep the convoy's back trail. If there were, in fact, anyone following, he would almost certainly be trailing from somewhere astern. That would put him in the best position to observe course changes . . . and to evade any sensor sweeps like this one.



    "Sensor sweep!"

    Captain Na-Tharla's head jerked up at the announcement. He climbed out of his briefing room chair and headed for the hatch between the briefing room and the bridge proper.

    "Execute Evasion One!" Lieutenant Hasak Ha-Shathar, Death Descending's executive officer barked. Ha-Shathar had the watch, and Na-Tharla's ears rose in approval at his immediate response to the warning. It was far from the first time one of the Humans' Bolo transports had doubled back, and he wished the accursed things would at least operate on some sort of predictable schedule. Death Descending's sensor section and Ha-Shathar's reaction speed had probably been sufficient again—this time. But if the Humans kept this up long enough, sooner or later they were entirely too likely to get lucky.

    Na-Tharla stepped through the hatch and crossed briskly to his own command station. Ha-Shathar glanced up at him, one ear half-cocked, but Na-Tharla flattened his own ears briefly in answer to the unvoiced question. Ha-Shathar was doing everything right, and Na-Tharla was confident he would continue to do so.

    Death Descending altered course as Ha-Shathar had ordered. The Melconian transport was larger than the Human ship sweeping back towards it, and less maneuverable under its main drive. But the Human ship was at least as detectable, and Death Descending's sensors had been tracking it literally for weeks now. They knew exactly what to look for, and they had picked up its course change almost instantly. That was sufficient warning to allow Ha-Shathar to change heading, sweeping away from the oncoming Human transport and its accursed Bolo at an acute angle without ever quite exposing Death Descending's own vulnerable after aspect to the enemy's sensors. Na-Tharla watched narrowly as the gap between the two vessels first narrowed, then began gradually to open once again with no indication that the Humans had detected his ship . . . this time.

    "It would appear we have once again evaded them, Hasak," the captain observed dryly.

    "Yes, sir. It would," Ha-Shathar replied in the same voice of studied calm, watching the bridge crew from the corner of his eye.

    "Well done," Na-Tharla said, and looked at the sensor officer of the watch. "Well done, everyone. Especially sensors," he added, letting his ears rise in an expression of amused confidence. "If that's the best they can do, this is this is going to be far simpler than I told General Ka-Frahkan it would!"

    Something akin to a quiet chuckle ran around the bridge, and Na-Tharla nodded in approval and returned to the reports on the briefing room computer terminal.

    He didn't allow his ears to droop in worry until the hatch had slid quietly shut once more behind him.



    "Well done, Captain Hawthorne," Maneka said as Thermopylae came back around to her original course and loped off in pursuit of the rest of the convoy.

    "Thank you, ma'am," Hawthorne replied. "We strive to please."

    "So I've noticed," she said, and smiled at him.

    He smiled back, and wondered if she realized how that smile transfigured her face. Or just how attractive the face in question actually was. When she'd first come aboard, if anyone had asked him, he would have said that the possibility that she might ever have smiled in her entire life was absurd. He'd been tempted, at first, to think it was arrogance, or the snobbish belief that an officer of the Dinochrome Brigade was infinitely superior any mere Navy puke assigned to play chauffeur for her and her Bolo. And when she finally did begin to unbend a bit after the commodore's death, he'd suspected for a while that it was a false display, no more than a role she'd assumed when she suddenly found herself alone in command.

    But he'd been wrong about that. He still hadn't figured out why she'd been so standoffish, so stiff and wooden. And it still seemed . . . odd that she'd become so much more human only after the expedition suffered so much loss and so many deaths. It wasn't because she was happy to have inherited Commodore Lakshmaniah's command. That much had been almost painfully evident from her first command conference. Her determination to do the job had been obvious, but the fact that she found the weight of responsibility crushing, whether she was prepared to admit it or not, had been equally obvious. But the fact that something had changed had been glaringly apparent, and Edmund Hawthorne was determined to eventually figure out what that something was.

    And not, he admitted to himself, simply because she was his superior officer.

    "How likely is it really, do you think, that there's a Puppy back there, ma'am?" he asked after a moment.

    "Likely?" She gazed at him for a couple of heartbeats, her deep blue eyes thoughtful in her sandalwood face, then shrugged slightly. "Honestly, I don't think it's likely at all," she said. "I do think it's possible, though. And the consequences if it turns out there is someone back there and we don't spot them could be disastrous."

    He nodded, but his frown was equally thoughtful, and she cocked her head at him.

    "Should I assume from your expression that you think this is wasted effort, Captain Hawthorne?" she asked.

    "No, ma'am. Certainly not," he said quickly, shaking his head at the undeniable edge of chill which had crept into her throaty, almost smoky soprano voice. "I was just thinking about the logistics equation anyone following us would face."

    "Ah." Maneka tipped back in her borrowed bridge chair. "That's something I hadn't really considered," she continued after a moment, and smiled again. "Bolos have an enormous amount of information storage, but I suppose there are limits in everything. Lazarus has a huge amount of detail about things like firepower and battle screen strength for Dog Boy warships, but I guess the people who loaded his memory didn't see any reason he'd need information about their endurance."

    "Don't make the mistake of assuming that I know that much about it, either, ma'am," Hawthorne told her with a lopsided grin. "I don't. But I do know what sorts of constraints we're facing, and we knew what sort of voyage we were committing to. I don't see any way the Puppies we ran into could have been stored or provisioned for a trip anywhere near as long as the one we're making. Which means that if there is anyone back there, they're going to be facing some pretty serious problems over the next several months."

    "Which, presumably, they would realize even better than you do," Maneka mused aloud.

    "Exactly," Hawthorne agreed.

    "But would that necessarily mean they wouldn't try it, anyway?"

    "That would depend on so many variables I doubt even your Bolo could make a meaningful projection," he said. "And I suppose a lot would also depend on exactly what sort of ship they've got. Assuming, of course, that they're back there at all."

    "Give me a for instance," she said, watching his expression closely, and he shrugged and angled his own chair back.

    "Their cybernetics aren't anywhere near as good as ours, according to the Intelligence estimates I've seen," he said. "I don't know anything about their planetary combat equipment, but on the Navy side, their AI is an awful lot less capable than ours is. If Intelligence is right, Thermopylae's AI is probably as good as anything most of their cruisers or destroyers mount, and, frankly, Iona isn't actually all that bright. Not much more than a standard civilian vessel with a few more-or-less military applications added as strap-ons, really. And in addition to the limitations on the computer support, their onboard systems are a lot more manpower intensive than ours. That means even their warships have big crews compared to a similar Navy ship, and on a trip this long, that's got to cost them in terms of life support endurance. Then there's the question of spare parts and maintenance and the fact that their maintenance cycles are supposed to be shorter than ours."

    "So you think they're likely to start suffering equipment malfunctions?"

    "I think it's something they have to be concerned about. On the other hand, an awful lot would depend on where they were in their current maintenance cycle when they ran into us. If they were only a few months into the current cycle, then they probably have at least a year, maybe as much as eighteen months, or even two years, before things got really dicey on them. Of course, if they did have some sort of major engineering casualty or system malfunction, they'd be one hell of a long way from home or any spares they needed. On balance, though, unless we hit them fairly late in the cycle, they're probably good for at least a year and a half before they start having problems from that perspective."

    "What about endurance on their power plants?"

    "That shouldn't be any problem for them. Well, as long as they're bigger than a destroyer, anyway. I don't have exact figures, but with the antimatter plants they use, any one of their cruisers ought to have at least a couple of years worth of fuel endurance on board, even under drive in hyper. No, ma'am." He shook his head. "The Achilles' heel would be life support. Food, especially. Their warships don't have the hydroponics sections our personnel transports or agro ships do, so they're limited solely to whatever food they loaded before they left port, and there's no way they could possibly have 'just happened' to have packed the better part of two years worth of food aboard ships that weren't specifically intended for the same sort of long-range cruising we were."

    "What about cryo sleep?" she asked.

    "Their warships don't begin to have that sort of cryo capacity," he said confidently. "At best, they might be able to put as much as ten or fifteen percent of their total personnel into cryo, and that wouldn't be anywhere near enough to have any significant impact on their food demands over a voyage that long."

    "And their transports?"

    "I honestly don't know," he said frankly. "I know they have at least some cryo capacity built into almost all their troop transports, but my understanding is that it's intended primarily for emergency use."

    "Which these circumstances would certainly constitute," she pointed out.

    "Oh, no question," he agreed. " The point I was making wasn't that they wouldn't use it, just that because it's intended for emergency use only, it's not as sophisticated—or reliable—as the cryo even our agro transports are using. They'd take losses, probably significant ones, if they used it. Given the stakes, I'd probably go ahead and risk that, if I were the skipper of a naval transport in this situation. But even if I wanted to, I couldn't do that if I were the skipper of one of their cruisers, because I wouldn't have the facilities in the first place."

    "So the bottom line," she said slowly, "is that, from what you're saying, if Commodore Lakshmaniah really did detect a stealthed logistics ship, it could still be back there, and depending on what sort of cryogenic capability it has—and the percentage of losses its CO is willing to accept—it might very well be able to stay with us all the way. But if there's a warship still following us, it almost certainly won't have the endurance to stay with us."

    "Pretty much." He nodded. "Which isn't a lot of help, I know. I mean, if there really was another ship out there, the commodore was probably right that it was a logistics ship. So all this kicking the possibilities around doesn't really change the parameters very much."

    "Don't sell your contribution too short," Maneka disagreed, regarding him speculatively. "I doubt that there's a cruiser back there. If there were, it would almost certainly have gone for a missile engagement by now. It could pick off the merchies one at a time from beyond any range at which Lazarus or Mickey could engage it in return. And given what you've said about its probable endurance limitations, it wouldn't have waited this long, either. Not unless it was entirely out of missiles, and I can't conceive of any reason for that."

    "Unless they're trying to lull us—you—into a sense of overconfidence before they actually do attack," Hawthorne countered in the best devil's advocate fashion.

    "A possibility," she conceded, smiling at him again. "The Dog Boys are great advocates of the KISS principle, though, so that's probably a bit too devious for their thinking in a situation like this one. I'll bear it in mind, of course, but I don't really think it's likely. And even if it is, from what you've said, they'd probably still launch their attack sometime in the next few months. Well short of our planned arrival time, anyway."

    "Probably," he agreed after a moment.

    "But if it's a transport, then the parameters change, assuming that they're willing to risk the sorts of cryo casualties you were estimating."

    "Yes, ma'am."

    "Of course, all of that becomes a moot point if we manage to detect them on one of our sweeps."

    "Yes, ma'am," he agreed yet again. "And, frankly, I think that the fact that they haven't even tried to mousetrap one of the transports by ambushing her at long range when she doubled back on one of the sweeps, is pretty convincing additional proof that whatever might be behind us, it isn't a cruiser."

    "Point taken." Maneka frowned thoughtfully, rocking her bridge chair back and forth. "All right, Captain," she said finally. "I think this has been a productive discussion. We probably need to have more like it. For the moment, I'm going to proceed on the worst-case assumption that we are being shadowed by a Dog Boy cruiser. And if that's the case, then we're most likely to see them launch an attack in the next two or three months, at the outside. We'll be on the alert, accordingly. And I think I might just have a little discussion with Governor Agnelli about the possibility of extending our own voyage time a bit further still. If it turns out we're being followed by a transport, I think the odds are pretty good that we'll eventually spot it on one of the sweeps. If we don't, though, let's see if we can't stretch its endurance out even further. Hopefully until it snaps on them."

    "Sounds good to me, ma'am," he said.

    "Good." She stood with the curiously catlike grace he'd come to associate with her, and he stood to face her. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention," she said.

    "You're welcome, ma'am," he said respectfully, and watched as she left the bridge and headed for her quarters.



    "So, you've evaded them yet again, Captain."

    "Actually, sir, it was Lieutenant Ha-Shathar," Na-Tharla observed.

    "As per your orders and previous planning."

    "Perhaps, sir." Na-Tharla gazed at General Ka-Frahkan for several seconds, then sighed. "The truth is, sir, that as well as Ha-Shathar performed, and as much as I'd like to accept the credit for his success, this is a dangerous game. We were lucky. We may not be the next time. And there will be a next time."

    Ka-Frahkan looked back at him, then flattened his ears slightly in unhappy agreement.

    "Perhaps if we can simply evade detection long, they'll decide there's nothing to detect," he said, after a moment.

    "With the utmost respect, General, you know we can't rely on that. Whoever is in command over there is taking no chances, and these random sensor sweeps of his are impossible to predict. I believe he'll continue them indefinitely, whether he detects anything or not."

    "May the Nameless Ones devour his soul," Ka-Frahkan muttered. He rubbed the bridge of his muzzle, glowering into invisible distances. "Can we drop back still farther and maintain contact with them?" he asked finally.

    "I can't guarantee that, sir," Na-Tharla said frankly. "We can detect and track them from much farther than they can detect us, but if we drop back far enough to give us a better chance against these unexpected sensor sweeps, we'll be at the very edge of our own sensor range. Under those circumstances, if we maneuver to evade what we're estimating as the Bolos' sensor reach against our stealth capabilities, it's very probable that the entire convoy will drop off of our sensors while we do so."

    "If they do, what are our chances of reacquiring them once more?"

    "General, that depends upon so many variables that any estimate I gave you would be no better than a guess," Na-Tharla said. "Assuming they maintain their base course while they sweep for us—or that any course change they adopt is relatively minor, at least—then our chances of regaining contact with them would be excellent. If, however, they execute a radical heading change after driving us out of sensor range, our chances would be very poor, at best."

    "I see." Ka-Frahkan sat silent for almost two full minutes, then inhaled sharply. "What do you recommend, Captain?" he asked, and his tone and expression were far more formal than they had been.

    Na-Tharla looked back at him. A part of the captain wanted to protest that the decision wasn't his. That it was Ka-Frahkan who had elected to pursue the Human convoy in first place, just as he was also Na-Tharla's superior officer. Yet the rest of him recognized that Ka-Frahkan lacked the specialized knowledge and experience to properly evaluate the risks himself . . . and that he was willing to admit it.

    "Sir," Na-Tharla said at last, "as I've already said, I believe we're up against a Human commander who intends to take no chances. I think it's entirely possible, even probable, that he doesn't truly believe anyone could be on his track, yet he's obviously taking precautions—intelligent and capable ones—against the possibility that someone is. It can't be much longer before he begins making occasional sweeps with both of the Bolo transports, which will be much more dangerous, especially if we're tracking the enemy from relatively short range. In my opinion, the chance of our being detected eventually under those circumstances approaches unity. Death Descending must maintain sufficient separation to give us the greatest possible flexibility of evasion courses if we hope to avoid the sensors of two Bolos."

    "So you recommend dropping further back."

    "I do, sir," Na-Tharla said unflinchingly. "At the same time, however, it's my duty to point out that if the other transports do execute a radical course change during such a sensor sweep, we could very well lose the rest of the convoy completely."

    "But not the Bolo transports?" Ka-Frahkan said thoughtfully.

    "Most probably not." Na-Tharla flicked his ears in a gesture of exasperated ignorance. "I command a transport, General. Our database contains very little information on the Humans' Bolos or the Bolos' transport vessels. As a result, I know virtually nothing about the stealth capabilities they might possess. According to what little data I do have, their transports normally don't incorporate a great deal of stealth ability. They have at least one smaller class of transport, often used to land infantry or very light mechanized units for special operations and surprise raids, which has extremely capable stealth, but the Bolo transports appear not to match that capability. If that's true, and they don't possess capabilities greater than they've so far displayed, and given that we're using only passive sensors, then we ought to be able to track them from beyond my current estimate of the range of which the Bolos would be likely to detect us."

    He bared his canines mirthlessly.

    "If I had been designing their vessels, they would have better stealth than they've shown so far, but I suppose the Humans may calculate that anything with a Bolo or two mounted on its hull has little need to hide."

    "No," Ka-Frahkan agreed, and showed just the tips of his own canines. "Their accursed Bolos are . . . capable. Very capable. The only time the 3172nd faced them directly—at our attack on their Heyward System—we were part of the General Ya-Thulahr's corps. He had three armored divisions under command against a single battalion of their Bolos." He snorted and more of his fangs showed. "We took the system in the end, and wiped out the Human population on the planet, but our casualties were over seventy percent."

    "I read the declassified reports on that campaign," Na-Tharla said. "I knew our losses were severe, but I'd never realized they were that heavy." He eyed the general with respect. "Nor had I realized your Brigade had been part of Ya-Thulahr's corps."

    "The 3172nd has seven campaign stars on its colors from this war, Captain," Ka-Frahkan said with bleak, iron pride, "and we've never been defeated. Heyward was the worst campaign we've faced, although our losses were 'only' fifty-two percent, far lighter than most of the other brigades. For the most part, though," he admitted, "we haven't found ourselves facing their Bolos head-on. Their Marines and militia can be nasty opponents even without that, of course—we took almost thirty percent losses against Tricia's World, for example—but we've been used more in the independent role, hitting their rear areas and smaller population centers instead of the sort of set-piece assaults going back and forth across the Line. Which," he snorted with sudden, harsh humor, "probably suits us particularly well for this campaign, now that I think about it. After all, how much further behind the Line could we be?"

    "You have a point, sir," Na-Tharla acknowledged with an ear-flick of bitter humor. "But that brings us back to our current problem. And whatever the Humans' design theories may be, these Bolo transports certainly don't appear particularly stealthy. So far, at any rate. Yet I must point out once again that I have absolutely no hard data upon which to base my estimates."

    "No," Ka-Frahkan agreed again. "Still, I think you're probably correct, Captain. And if you are, then we can afford to lose contact with the convoy as a whole, so long as we retain contact with its escorts. They will provide us with the signposts we require to find the other transports once again."

    "Unless they decide not to rejoin the convoy themselves," Na-Tharla said.

    "Unlikely." Ka-Frahkan flattened his ears decisively. "As you say, Captain, this Human who opposes us appears to be one who takes infinite precautions against even the most unlikely of threats. One who thinks that way would never separate his Bolos from the colony they were sent to protect, especially after his naval escort's total destruction. No. He'll take his responsibility to shield the convoy seriously. Even if he separates his transports temporarily from the rest of the ships, it will only be to rendezvous with it somewhere. And so, eventually, he will lead us back to the very thing he strives to protect, for he has no other option." The general bared his own fangs fully in a flash of ivory challenge. "It pleases me to use his own attention to detail against him."

    Na-Tharla half-slitted his eyes while he considered Ka-Frahkan's logic, and his ears rose slowly in agreement.

    "I believe you're correct, sir," he said. "And I confess that the idea pleases me, as well. But even though this should substantially improve our chances of successfully tracking the Humans to their destination without being detected, we must still destroy them when we've done so. And the fashion in which the Human commander is watching his back trail suggests to me that he'll maintain a similar degree of alertness and attention to detail even after his expedition reaches the end of its journey."

    "I think you're right," Ka-Frahkan said. "And if you are, our task will undeniably be more difficult than I'd originally hoped. But it won't be impossible, especially if we succeed in remaining completely undetected."

    And, he did not add aloud, if we don't lose too many of my troopers to your cryo tubes.

    He knew the sour edge to his thoughts was unfair. Na-Tharla had specifically warned him about the dangers of using the emergency system, after all. It was scarcely the captain's fault that his warnings appeared to have been so well taken. Almost three percent of Ka-Frahkan's personnel had already died, but at least it seemed probable that any of the tubes which were likely to fail had now done so. Which meant he shouldn't lose any more of his people . . . until it was time to awaken them and he discovered how many had simply died in their sleep.

    But we will do what we've come to accomplish, he told himself fiercely. We owe it to the People, and the Nameless Ones will see to it that we succeed, however capable this accursed Human commander may be. 



    "I think the Governor is getting more comfortable with the notion that you're in command," Hawthorne observed as Maneka cut the video link and terminated the conference with Agnelli, Berthier, and Jeffords.

    She and Hawthorne sat at the conference table in Thermopylae's briefing room. It was quite a large briefing room for a vessel with such a relatively small crew, but, then, it wasn't really intended for the transport's crew's use. It was configured and equipped to provide the commander of the assault forces embarked aboard the ship with everything he needed to brief his officers and personnel. Which meant the two of them rattled around in it like dried peas in a particularly large pod.

    "You do, do you?" Maneka tipped back her chair and cocked an eyebrow at him. That remark wasn't something she would have expected to hear out of him when she first came aboard Thermopylae, five and a half months earlier. Nor would she have expected to see the faint but undeniable twinkle in his brown eyes.

    "Well," the naval officer said, tipping his own chair back of the table, "I don't believe he would have threatened to 'come over there and spank you, young lady' a couple of months ago. Certainly not in front of anyone else, at any rate."

    "No, you probably have a point about that," she conceded with a slight smile.

    "You know I do," Hawthorne said, and his voice was suddenly much more serious. Serious enough that she looked at him sharply, eyebrows lowered.

    "Meaning what?" she asked just a bit crisply.

    "Meaning that right after the commodore was killed, he was just about as pissed off to be taking orders from someone in your age as someone as controlled as he is could ever be," Hawthorne said flatly. "He tried to keep it from showing, but he didn't quite pull it off."

    Maneka started to open her mouth, then closed it with an almost audible click before she automatically bit his head off. She wasn't certain why she'd stopped herself. There was a hardness, a sourness, in his voice, one at odds with Edmund Hawthorne's normal air of thoughtful calm. It also wasn't the way he or any of Maneka's officers should be talking about Governor Agnelli, and her first instinct was to jerk him up short. But something about not just the way he'd said it, but his expression . . .

    Why, he's angry about it, she realized. Now why . . . ? 

    "Actually," she said, "I've been quite pleased with my relationship with the Governor from the beginning. It wasn't easy for him to accept that someone only about a third of his age and as junior as a mere captain, even in the Dinochrome Brigade, was going to be giving the orders."

    "I know, but—" Hawthorne cut himself off with a sharp, chopping wave of his hand and grimaced. "Sorry, ma'am. I guess I was probably out of line."

    "Maybe." She regarded him thoughtfully. "On the other hand, I have to wonder if there's some reason this came up at this particular moment?"

    He met her eyes steadily for a second or two, then looked away.

    "There may be," he said, finally. "But if so, it's not a very good one. Or, at least, not one I ought to be paying any attention to, ma'am."

    "I see." She smiled again, even more slightly than before, as she digested his abrupt reversion to the formalities of military courtesy. Except in overtly official settings, there'd been very few "ma'ams" coming her way from him over the past few weeks. Odd that she hadn't really noticed that. I wonder if he has? she thought.

    "Captain Hawthorne," she said, making her own voice coolly formal and deliberately emphasizing his role as Thermopylae's commanding officer, "I suspect that you may be guilty of considering a violation of Article Seven-One-Niner-Three."

    His gaze snapped back to her, and her smile had vanished into a masklike expression.

    "I—" he began, then stopped, and Maneka managed not to giggle. It was hard, and even harder to hang onto her official superior officer's glower. After all, what was he going to say? "Nonsense, ma'am! I've never even contemplated making a pass at you!" wasn't exactly the most tactful possible response. But, then again, "Actually, ma'am, I've been thinking about jumping your bones for some time now," wasn't exactly the sort of thing one said to one's commanding officer, either.

    "That's . . . absurd," he said, finally. With a noticeable lack of conviction, she thought rather complacently. "You're not simply my superior officer; you're the senior officer of this entire force."

    "A point of which I am painfully well aware, I assure you," she told him. "Still, Captain Hawthorne," she cocked her chair back once again, "I continue to nourish the faint suspicion that certain . . . improper temptations, shall we say, have begun to cross your mind. Or, perhaps, other portions of your anatomy."

    His eyes widened, then narrowed in sudden suspicion as the grin she'd managed to suppress began to break free.

    "Other portions of my anatomy, is it?" he said slowly. "And which 'other portions' did the captain have in mind, if I might inquire?"

    "Oh, I imagine you can make a pretty shrewd guess," she replied, this time with a gurgle of mirth. He glared at her, and the gurgle became something suspiciously like outright laughter as she shook her head at him.

    His expression gave a remarkably good imitation of a man counting—slowly—to a thousand, and she shook her head at him again, this time almost penitently.

    "Sorry, Ed," she said contritely. "The idea just sort of . . . took me by surprise." Something flickered in his eyes, and she shook her head again, quickly. "Not in a bad way," she hastened to assure him. "In fact, the surprise was mostly that I hadn't realized that the same sort of extremely improper thoughts have been occurring to me."

    He'd opened his mouth. Now he closed it again and tilted his head to one side as he studied her expression.

    "They have?" he asked, finally.

    "Well," she said with painful honesty, "they would have been, if I hadn't been so busy suppressing them. I hope you won't take this wrongly, but now that I think about it, you're actually kind of on the attractive side."

    "I'm what?"

    "Oh, maybe not exactly handsome," she said pensively. "But cute—definitely cute. And, now that I think about it, you've got nice buns, too."

    "With the captain's permission," Hawthorne said through teeth which weren't—quite—gritted, "it occurs to me that I may have been just a bit too quick to dismiss the Governor's attitude towards the expedition's military commander. The thought of spankings has a certain definite appeal at this particular moment."

    "It does?" She considered his statement gravely. "Well, I've never actually tried it, you understand, but . . ."

    For a moment, he looked as if he might explode, and she laughed helplessly. It was the first time he'd ever heard her truly laugh. For that matter, she realized somewhere deep inside, even as it happened, it was probably the first time she'd laughed at all—really laughed—since Benjy's death. It felt astonishingly good.

    "My God," he said, softly, smiling at her, "you do know how to laugh."

    She sobered almost instantly, but it was only a case of stepping back a few paces from the bright bubble of mirth he'd touched to life inside her, and her huge blue eyes softened as she contemplated him.

    "Yes," she said finally. "Yes, I do. But I'd . . . forgotten. It's . . . been a while."

    "Is it something you want to talk about?" he asked gently, and she shook her head.

    "No. Not yet. Maybe—probably—later, but not just yet."

    She could tell that a part of him wanted to press, but he didn't. He only nodded, and she gave him another smile, this one with more than a touch of gratitude for his understanding and patience.

    "May I assume, however, that you aren't going to have me up on charges?" he inquired after a moment.

    "Well, it is most improper of you, and undoubtedly prejudicial to discipline and proper maintenance of the chain of command," she said thoughtfully. "On the other hand, since you're the senior Navy officer present, preferring charges might be just a bit awkward. Especially if your defense counsel put me on the stand and asked whether or not your feelings were reciprocated." She shook her head. "No, under the circumstances, I think we can probably deal with this situation short of a formal court-martial."

    "And just precisely how do you intend to 'deal' with it, if I might ask?"

    "Given the fact that neither one of us has had the good sense and gumption to say a single word about this to the other one, I propose that we approach the situation like mature adults," she told him, and the gravity of her tone was only slightly flawed by the twinkle in her eyes. "I rather doubt that anyone is going to complain to higher authority, under the circumstances, whatever we choose to do about it. Still, there are proprieties to observe, and a mature and adult woman such as myself prefers to test the waters first. To ascertain what she herself is feeling and thinking. To determine whether the possible object of her affections—or, at least, hormones—truly has the personal qualities she desires in a potential, um, significant other. To—"

    "All right, Captain Trevor, ma'am!" he interrupted. "I get the picture. And you're right; I'm an idiot for not having opened my mouth sooner, I suppose. So, Captain Trevor, might I have the pleasure of your company for dinner? I have a really excellent auto-chef in my palatial quarters, with a truly masterful touch with the delicious standard meal number seventeen scheduled for this evening. I promise, we'll almost be able to forget that it tastes like recycled boot soles. And," his voice got at least a little more serious, "I also have three bottles of a rather nice wine stashed away in my private mass allowance. I was saving them for our arrival at our destination."

    "If you brought them for that, then you should save them," she told him, but he shook his head.

    "At the time I brought them aboard, it hadn't occurred to me that anything equally worth celebrating might come along," he said, and this time his voice was much softer and warmer. "But, then, I hadn't met you yet, either, had I?"

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