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The Way to Glory: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Friday, February 18, 2005 12:36 EST



Harbor Three on Cinnabar

    The steam had dissipated, but Slip 17Y was still muggy from the blast that tested the Hermes' twenty plasma thrusters, and their iridium throats radiated heat. Daniel was crawling beneath the vessel with Chief Engineer Pasternak--who'd come with him from the Sissie--and the five midshipmen assigned to the tender as they viewed the thrusters through their goggles.

    Because Harbor Three was a major port, the slips had gratings that extended to cover the water on which vessels floated. That way work on and inspection of a vessel's underside didn't require use of a boat. The lower curve of the Hermes' hull floated only four feet above the surface, however, and nobody'd call the conditions comfortable. They were more comfortable than many of the things an RCN officer was expected to do, however.

    "Sir?" said Midshipman Bragg, a slender, blond youth who thus far had impressed Daniel as being earnest but slow. He was the most senior of the three midshipmen who'd come from the Bainbridge, but--fortunately, to Daniel's way of thinking--he was nonetheless junior to Dorst and Vesey. They'd passed their exams and were waiting for appointments as lieutenants if all went well.

    "Yes, Bragg?" Daniel said, looking over his shoulder. Bragg was staring at the stern section.

    "The hull plating's discolored here, sir," the midshipman said, pointing. "Is that the way it's supposed to be?"

    "The eight stern thrusters have to be placed closer together than the twelve in the bow, Bragg," Daniel said patiently. "There's more discoloration as a result--or rather, it occurs more quickly; after six months' service you won't be able to tell the difference. But if you'd switched your goggles to infrared as you were directed to do, you wouldn't be seeing that anyway."

    "Oh!" said Bragg. "Sorry, sir!"

    "Bloody farmer!" muttered Midshipman Blantyre, a stocky woman who seemed competent but a little too sure of herself. Daniel turned and looked at her. He didn't speak, but she felt the implied criticism and said, "Sorry," under her breath with a quick nod.

    Daniel smiled slightly. Blantyre and Cory had been with Bragg for at least the past six months aboard the Bainbridge. Given how wearing Daniel found the fellow after less than a week, he had a degree of sympathy for Blantyre.

    "Mister Leary!" Commander Slidell called from the quay. "Come out from under there and join me, if you will. And bring the midshipmen with you."

    Slidell was the sort of man who probably sounded severe when he was making love, but he certainly wasn't making love now. "After me, Hermies," Daniel said, scrambling on all fours toward the narrow part of the hull where he'd have room to stand up. "And hop it!"

    The six cutters were in their davits, clamped firmly to the spine so that they wouldn't swing about during the violence of liftoff. Unlike the Hermes herself, the cutters were well-used vessels. There was probably twenty years difference between the oldest and newest, but Daniel suspected all of them had been built before he was born.

    The saving grace was that the cutters had been given new spars and rigging before they were assigned to the Hermes. Leaks in an older hull weren't especially serious: at worst the crew could wear atmosphere suits, uncomfortable but not dangerous. A cutter had only eight antennas, though. Losing one or more made it very difficult to maneuver in the Matrix.

    A ladder up from the grating to the port outrigger and a catwalk from there would bring Daniel and his covey of midshipmen to the quay. Pasternak followed at the end of the line. They'd completed their work and, though it was still several hours to scheduled liftoff, tugs were already maneuvering to draw the Hermes from her slip to the center of the pool.

    The inspection had been real, but Daniel was more interested in training the midshipmen than he'd been concerned about the newly installed thrusters failing. On infrared pits and cracks in heated nozzles would show up brighter than the surrounding iridium because they radiated over a greater surface area. Eroded nozzles could be replaced--if spares were available--or favored if that was the only option. The habit of checking after every landing could save ships and lives.

    Slidell waited at the end of the catwalk, his hands crossed behind his back. He wore a utility uniform like everyone else as the Hermes prepared to lift off, but his was apparently brand new. Daniel had dressed to crawl under the ship on a grate that was certain to be wet and probably oily besides; he'd have looked grubby even if he hadn't been right to expect oil.

    "Sir!" said Daniel, saluting. He couldn't step onto the quay while Slidell stood where he did. "I've been showing the middies how to examine hot thrusters."

    "Very commendable, Leary," Slidell said, "but the present danger is that one of the cutters will come adrift in the atmosphere. I've decided I want them manned on liftoff so that they can separate safely if that happens. The crews can come back aboard when we're in orbit. You and the midshipmen will captain them. I've assigned Mister Ganse to your post in the BDC."

    "Aye aye, sir," Daniel said. He'd never heard of such a proceeding, but it wasn't flatly foolish. Paired davits held each cutter. If one fractured on liftoff, the smaller vessel would flail itself and probably the tender as well to junk unless it were cast away instantly. Dropping a two-hundred ton cutter onto an inhabited area wasn't a good practice either.

    Daniel turned to the midshipmen stopped along the catwalk behind him. "Bragg, you'll take six-one-oh," he said. "Blantyre, one-one; Cory, one-two. Vesey and Dorst take one-four and one-five, and I'll be in one-three."

    That put the three former Bridgies in the cutters on the dorsal side of the Hermes. It would be much easier to successfully eject from there during liftoff than it would from the tender's underside while the thrusters were at full output. Cutter 613 in the bow ventral position would be a bitch and no mistake, so Daniel took it for himself.

    He faced Slidell again and said, "Sir, we'll take our assigned stations now if you like."

    And if you'll get out of our bloody way.

    "Yes, all right," the commander said, stepping back and away. His grace and erect, military posture were impressive even in so small a thing. "And Leary? We're on an operational deployment now. Salutes are improper, even if you didn't look like a clown when you attempt it."

    "Yessir," Daniel said, striding toward the boarding bridge with an apologetic nod. He'd been told by people who liked him a good deal more than Slidell did that military courtesy would never be his strong suit. That barred Daniel from a place on an admiral's staff--which made his inept saluting rather a benefit, he felt.

    The midshipmen had sprinted ahead, eager to get to their stations. Daniel knew it'd be an hour before Slidell even closed up the ship, so he walked only as briskly as he thought the captain's eyes boring into his back required. Pasternak caught up with him at the entry hatch on E Deck.

    "Sir, I know what regulations say," Pasternak said in a low-voiced growl, "two power techs and wipers to each cutter's crew. But please, that's for cruising at 1g and nothing for the Power Room crew to do but try not to fall asleep in front of the gauges. Can you get along with short crews on the cutters while we lift this girl the first time for real?"

    Bloody Hell, why is he asking me instead of the Captain? Daniel thought. Though the answer was obvious enough: Daniel Leary was the Captain in the Chief Engineer's mind.

    Pasternak had been a very senior man for a corvette like the Princess Cecile; the larger Hermes was a more proper berth for him. He'd shipped with Daniel before because he'd needed money and Mister Leary had the reputation of being a lucky officer who made his crews rich from prize money. That was very well, but for Pasternak to act behind the back of a man like Captain Slidell could have no good results for any of the parties involved.

    Daniel raised a finger to halt the engineer in the tender's main entry compartment. Armored companionways to left and right led to the four higher decks and to the bulk storage holds on F Deck below. There were four airlocks in the bow section and two in the stern for the riggers who adjusted the sails in the void, but this large chamber--not an airlock, though any compartment of a warship could be sealed off from the remainder of the vessel--was the normal means of access while on a habitable planet.

    Keying his commo helmet, Daniel said, "Captain? May I request that we reduce the cutter crews to a single power technician each? If something goes badly wrong, I'd prefer to lose a cutter than have the whole ship go down because there weren't enough eyes on the gauges of a new vessel. Even if I'm on that cutter. Over."

    There was a brief pause. "Yes, all right, Leary," Slidell said. "Captain out."

    "The Captain approves, Chief," Daniel said. Grudgingly from the sound of his voice, but the words were all that mattered. "Make it so."

    "Thank you, sir!" Pasternak said as he bolted down the right-hand corridor toward the Power Room. He was calling names over the ship-side intercom channel, reassigning personnel who were already going to cutters according to their previous orders.



    Daniel entered the right-hand--upward--companionway. The helical stairs were broader than the Sissie's, capable of serving two spacers abreast even if they wore bulky rigging suits. The hatches were open for the time being--they'd be dogged shut at liftoff. They echoed with the racket of boots on the steel treads and last-minute preparations on all the Hermes' decks.

    He stepped out on D Deck, reflexively sticking his head around the hatch coaming first to make sure nobody was coming the other way. Yermakova was trotting down the corridor through the central portion of the tender.

    "Sir!" she called to Daniel as she swung herself into the downward companionway. Behind her were five Power Room techs from the Bainbridge--one named Schmidt, but Daniel with a jolt of shame realized he couldn't identify the others except to group them by rating.

    The six were the cutter personnel whom Pasternak had recalled to the Power Room. Normally a single tech kept track of four or more drive units--plasma thrusters on liftoff and landing, or High Drive motors when the vessel was out of the atmosphere and could use the much more efficient matter/anti-matter conversion process. With a vessel whose thrusters had never been run simultaneously at full output, the Chief Engineer was right to have as many trained eyes as possible looking for anomalies before they ballooned into catastrophic failure.

    The six hatches at intervals off the corridor were open. The midshipmen had boarded their commands, but the last of the riggers were still entering the cutters when Daniel arrived.

    Normally both rigging watches would've been waiting in the airlock foyers to exit onto the hull to raise the antennas as soon as the Hermes reached orbit. Shifting from there to the cutters meant going up or down three decks and then along the passageway. They'd done just that in the time it'd taken for Daniel to saunter aboard even though they were wearing rigging suits which put ruggedness over flexibility.

    The riggers' helmets were hinged down against their backplates; they'd swing up and latch them to seal the suits, but there was no need of that yet. Dasi, a senior rigger from the Sissie, was the last to enter Cutter 613. He looked over his shoulder as Daniel boarded behind him and cycled the airlock closed.

    "Hey Barnes!" he called in delight to the friend just ahead of him. "It's Mister Leary what's our captain!"

    "Hey, three cheers for Mister Leary!" called Sentino, seated in front of the Power Board. She was a small blond, a Sissie whom Daniel knew was the most senior tech on the Hermes. Pasternak had withdrawn Bridgies whom he didn't know well and Yermakova who'd just gotten her rating, leaving the cutters with experienced people in case they were needed to nurse the thrusters.

    "Belay that, Sentino!" Daniel said sharply. "Anyway, there's nothing to cheer about. We're just passengers while the folks aboard the Hermes do all the work of getting us to orbit."

    He squeezed to the command console forward but didn't sit down yet. On larger vessels the console swivelled, but in the cutter's tight interior everything had to be fixed in place. No starship had much room, but a cutter with a full crew was significantly more crowded than even a sloop or corvette.

    613's interior was a single chamber without internal barriers. The fusion bottle and anti-matter converter were in the far bow, disconcertingly obvious to riggers--and to Daniel as well--who were used to having an armored bulkhead between their living quarters and the Power Room. The single airlock was in the stern, on the long axis because the cutter was too narrow to build it into the side of the hull.

    Sentino was to Daniel's left; the muscular youth beside her must be her wiper, useful for carrying out physical repairs on the power plant once somebody else had diagnosed them but unable to read the gauges himself. At the attack console on the right was Rocker. He'd been striker to Sun, the gunner's mate on the Princess Cecile and now the Hermes.

    Cutters were armed with a cluster of twelve chemically-fueled rockets with explosive warheads. The rockets followed ballistic courses, so they were aimed by gunnery specialists rather than the missileers who programmed the main armament of larger warships. A missile was a multi-ton starship with a High Drive and anti-matter converter, capable of accelerating to a significant fraction of light speed. Missiles weren't fitted with warheads because at their velocities even a nuclear blast couldn't add to the effect of their kinetic energy.

    "Mr. Leary?" Rocker said, turning around at his console. "Hogg says not to worry, he'll be watching things for you."

    Daniel frowned. Speaker Leary and now Hogg were determined to make a normal RCN appointment into a feud between noble families... and very possibly Captain Slidell viewed matters in the same light.

    Of course it wasn't really a normal RCN appointment.

    Aloud--loudly enough for everyone aboard to hear--Daniel said, "I don't think there's any reason to be concerned, Rocker. And if Hogg is determined to behave otherwise, he'll find himself back on Bantry mending fishing weirs."

    Chimes rang through the hull connection; an electronic equivalent beeped from Daniel's helmet and the command console: thirty minutes to liftoff, close up ship. Quicker than Daniel would've expected, though the sooner the better.

    "Begin cycling your systems, Sentino," Daniel said. He glanced at the motorman. As he expected, she was already throwing switches on her board.

    Daniel turned to his display and put a command lockout on thruster ignition. Pumping reaction mass through the feed pipes at once ensured that there wouldn't be air bubbles in the lines if it became necessary to light the thrusters. A blast of plasma from the nozzles while 613 was still coupled to the tender would be a disaster, however.

    Disastrous at least to Daniel's hopes of advancement in the RCN. He didn't imagine Sentino would make such a boneheaded mistake, but officers who operated on the assumption that people didn't screw up had short, unhappy careers.

    Dasi'd apparently been waiting for Daniel to look back into the compartment. "Sir?" he said. "Some a' the Bridgies, they think you got sent here to report on Cap'n Slidell. Is that so, sir?"

    Daniel grinned at the blunt effrontery of the question. Riggers tended to be a free-spoken lot, in part because their normal job was more dangerous and unpleasant than any punishment short of execution. Small ships didn't allow real separation of commissioned and enlisted personnel, and Daniel wouldn't have been one to insist on punctilio anyway. Even so....

    Aloud he said, "No, Dasi, that isn't the case. In fact I believe my assignment had more to do with impressing people with the fact that the Navy Office fully supports Captain Slidell. As it should, from what I've seen of the way the Captain has prepared the Hermes for deployment."

    A cutter normally carried eighteen to twenty personnel. Because cutters were little more than platforms to carry sails, their crews were biased heavily toward the rig. 613's present ship-side crew was Daniel, Sentino and her wiper, and Rocker; but she carried fourteen riggers. The latter, Daniel noted on a quick survey, were drawn equally from former Sissies and Bridgies. On full complement she'd have over thirty crew but in the same general proportions.

    A Bridgie caught Dasi's eye. "Go on, Terrel," Dasi said. "It's Mister Leary. You can talk to him."

    Daniel didn't know what Captain Slidell would want him to do at this point, nor was he sure what a court martial might say on the subject. His first thought was to tell the rigger to hold his tongue; but the truth was, Daniel himself couldn't help but be curious about what had really happened during the Bainbridge's most recent cruise.

    "If you have something to say, Terrel," Daniel said calmly, "say it. I won't take your words beyond the confines of this hull."

    "The Kearnes kid was talking all sorts of crazy schemes, sir," Terrel said, his face scrunched into a look of unhappiness. "Mutiny and turning pirate, sure; but sweeping down on Pleasaunce and blowing up the Guarantor's Palace too, all sorts of crazy stuff. He'd listen to Calahan blowing wind, making the kid feel good, you see; and the kid'd slip Calahan liquor from the officers' storeroom, you see."

    "Princhett's the other one Captain Slidell spaced," muttered a rigger far back in the stern. "He was a simple lad, but there wasn't no harm in him. He'd believe it if you said you could teach him to fly."

    Daniel looked at the double line of expectant faces, knowing that whatever he said now would be through the whole crew within an hour of the time the Hermes reached orbit. He could refuse to speak, but that'd get around also. If anything, Daniel's silence would be taken as a more damning indictment of Captain Slidell than any words he could say.

    Daniel smiled faintly. He'd made his reputation by acting in situations where none of the choices were good; this was just one more of them.

    "Well, fellow spacers," he said. "I don't have an opinion about the legality of any action Captain Slidell took aboard the Bainbridge. A court martial sat on those matters, and its findings are final."

    A rigger--Haughtry, a former Sissie--murmured an angry protest. Daniel locked the man with his eyes. "Sorry, sir," Haughtry mumbled, leaning sideways to put his face behind the bulk of the man ahead of him.

    "I'll say this about the life of a spacer, though," Daniel continued. "And a hard life it is, that we all know. You can make a little mistake, and you've lost a finger or lost your life; or the ship itself breaks up with you and all your fellows lost. Not so?"

    "Bloody well told it's so!" said Barnes forcefully. There was a chorus of grunted agreement.

    "Now the best thing you can say about these three fellows that went out the lock for mutiny," Daniel said, "is that they talked bloody foolishness; which is a mistake anywhere and assuredly a mistake in the RCN. If it cost them their lives, well, that's what mistakes do cost, spacers."

    He looked up and down the double row of enlisted spacers, meeting every pair of eyes that were willing to meet his. After a long moment he repeated, "Not so?"

    "Ach, it's done with," said Dasi, shrugging in his armored suit. "We just wanted to hear what you felt about it, sir."

    Daniel dropped into his seat, putting his back to the crew. They could all look at his image in their electronic goggles, but it wasn't the same as real face-to-face.

    "What I feel," said Daniel through the intercom circuit. "Is that we're about to lift off. Any of you lot who aren't strapped in tight are likely to bounce tail over teacup--which isn't half what Woetjans'll do to you when she hears about it. Prepare for liftoff, spacers!"

    Amid general laughter aboard Cutter 613, Lieutenant Ganse said over the general channel from the tender, "One minute to liftoff!"

    Daniel checked his display and waited, his left hand poised to remove the ignition lockout the instant something went wrong with the Hermes' thrusters or the davits. He smiled with satisfaction. Things had gone pretty well, considering how badly they might've gone.

    Or anyway, he thought they had.



    Adele's face didn't change when she heard Captain Slidell reassign Daniel; she simply opened video channels from all six cutters to her console. Bleak, violent possibilities seethed through her mind, but--she smiled wryly--that was a common enough experience for her.

    Tovera sat at a console that would otherwise have been empty; Hogg was in a jump seat folded down from the bulkhead. An engineer's mate from the Bainbridge, Peeker, was at one console; another was reserved for Lt. Ganse in place of Daniel.

    Sun, the gunner's mate from the Princess Cecile, was on the bridge controlling the Hermes' defensive armament: a single turret with a pair of 4-inch plasma cannon. Ordinarily Sun's striker would back him up in the Battle Direction Center, but every other crewman with gunnery training, let alone a rating, was aboard a cutter.

    As of course were the midshipmen who'd otherwise fill the remaining places. Their presence in the BDC was as much for training as for the real help they'd be if something happened to the tender's commissioned officers, though.

    Adele wondered whether the ship's computer could plot a course home by itself if all the Hermes' human astrogators were lost. She smiled again. That begs the question of where home is, she thought. If she had to answer the question, she'd say it was wherever the crew of the Princess Cecile, her RCN family, happened to be.

    Lt. Ganse entered the chamber hurriedly and set the armored hatch to cycle shut. Adele glanced at him past her the holographic display on which her console cascaded message traffic from across Harbor Three.

    "Sorry," he muttered as he seated himself at a console. "I was in my rigging suit when the Captain reassigned me. I, ah...."

    His voice trailed off in a frown. Ganse glanced at the engineer's mate, murmured, "Good to see you, Peeker," and paused at Tovera, who met his eyes with her usual lack of expression.

    "Tovera is my assistant," Adele said primly. Tovera had a great deal of technical training, but it was entirely hardware oriented; she could do little with a command console beyond using it for basic communications. "My striker, I suppose you'd say."

    Adele turned slightly and indicated Hogg with a nod. "And Hogg is Mister Leary's servant," she continued. "He has no action station, so this is a good place for him to keep out of the way."

    "Ah," said Ganse. "Yes, of course, Mundy. Hogg, you'll want to strap in for liftoff. That handgrip to your right pulls--"

    "I know what it does, master," Hogg said firmly. "I'll hang on to the seat bottom when we lift, like I done plenty times afore."

    Hogg wore his usual shapeless, ugly garments. They were bulkier than those of ordinary spacers and thus dangerous in the tight passages and whirling machinery of a starship. On the other hand, you could conceal a great deal beneath them without it showing: a covey of game birds, Daniel had said once; or enough weapons to outfit an infantry squad. Adele didn't suppose Hogg was hiding poached game this afternoon....

    "Ah," Ganse repeated, obviously more uncomfortable than either of the servants. "Well, you know what you're doing, then."

    He brought his console live, focusing on the engineering readouts. One quadrant of his display echoed the information from Captain Slidell's command console. Adele knew that because she checked Ganse's display just as she'd done with Slidell's earlier. A communications officer shouldn't have done, and shouldn't have been able to do, that.

    Adele's smile flickered again. Most communications officers wouldn't have be able to.

    Satisfied with what he saw, Ganse looked up and gave Adele an awkward smile. "Ah," he said, "we haven't had much contact, Mundy, though I'm sure we'll get to know one another better during the cruise. I've, ah... I've heard of you. You've shipped with Mister Leary before, I believe?"

    He ended the question on a bright note. He was honestly trying to be friendly, Adele decided, though he was nervous and possibly afraid. What has he heard about me?

    "Yes," she said, "I suppose you could say that Lt. Leary drafted me into the RCN during the business on Kostroma several years ago. I'm a librarian by training. There proved to be a great deal of overlap with the things a communications officer needs to know."

    Forcing a smile as a friendly response to Ganse's friendliness, she added, "Though I'm very weak on procedures and naval ceremony, I'm afraid."

    "Well, there won't be much call for that in the Gold Dust Cluster, I expect," Ganse said. He pursed his lips and added, "I shouldn't have thought a librarian would, well, be able to... well, you have a very high reputation, you know?"

    And what do you think a librarian does? Adele thought behind a tight, false smile. Do you think that data--enormous volumes of data--magically form themselves into the answers that the Captain wants?

    Or Mistress Sand wanted, of course; but that was no business for Lt. Ganse or Captain Slidell either one. Aloud Adele said, "Think of me as an information specialist, Lieutenant. Routing simple communications is one of the easier tasks that a librarian performs."

    Another chime rang through the ship. "Ship, ten minutes to liftoff," Slidell said on the intercom channel. "Mister Pasternak, light your thrusters but keep them at minimum. Out."

    The information went to the cutters also, because Adele relayed it over an input-only link. The cutters' internal communications weren't copied to the Hermes--except to Adele's own console.

    "Roger, Captain," Pasternak's voice replied. The ship gave a series of thumps as though heavy rubber balls had bounced from its underside.

    "Captain Slidell likes to preheat the thrusters thoroughly before putting power to them," Ganse said to Adele. "That's especially important with new nozzles like these, but he's a very careful officer."

    "I understand that care is a very necessary trait in captains who hope to survive," Adele said in a neutral voice and with a neutral smile. "Though of course I'm not qualified to judge the matter myself."

    The Hermes trembled softly. The thrusters buzzed, ejecting ions which vibrated at high frequency, but there was also the quiver of exhaust-hammered water rebounding from the walls of lagoon in which the vessel floated.

    Adele flashed a view from the sensors on the dorsal spine. She found, as she expected, only a wall of steam glowing with traces of plasma. She could import a signal from one of the half dozen other vessels sharing the lagoon with the Hermes, but she didn't need to. She'd seen vessels lifting off many times in the past.

    "Yes, that's quite right," Ganse said, though his tone wasn't so much one of agreement as of desperate pleading. It wasn't the way a commissioned officer should've been talking to a warrant officer, a mere technical specialist. He'd definitely heard rumors about Adele Mundy. "He's plotted the entire course to Nikitin even before we lift from Cinnabar. All seventeen days in the Matrix, with the interim returns to normal space to take star sightings."

    Daniel had said he thought the Hermes could make the run in twelve days; that the tender mightn't be as clumsy as folk thought, not if the captain stayed out on the hull and watched the ghostly shimmering of universes beyond the bubble that enclosed his own ship. It was possible that Slidell could reach the Gold Dust Cluster as quickly or nearly so: from his record, Slidell was a highly skilled astrogator himself.

    Adele smiled as she completed her analysis: the difference was that Slidell saw no present need to press the ship and its crew to the limit, whereas Daniel would see no reason not to. No doubt the RCN needed both types of officer, but there was a reason Lt. Leary wearing full medals could be mistaken for an admiral.

    Ganse looked as though he were about to say more, but the five-minute signal rang. The Hermes used an electronic chime quite different from the Sissie's solid brass bell. Though this was a perfectly good signal in its own right, Adele's face froze with irritation every time she heard it.

    She smiled in reaction. On the other hand, she'd gotten used to greater changes in the past.

    "Mister Pasternak, bring the thrusters to sixty-percent flow but keep them open," Slidell ordered. "Ship, this is the Captain. Close all hatches, repeat, close all hatches. Captain out."

    Ganse stared at his display, his left hand dancing across the number pad by practiced reflex. "Ship, all hatches are closed," he announced. Adele heard the words in her helmet earphones a heartbeat before they reached her through the air. "Battle Center out."

    The thrusters roared into the pool, buoying the tender on a pillow of steam. Because the nozzles were flared, the plasma dissipated instead of trying to lift the ship into the air as the present flow might do if concentrated.

    By now Adele knew that it was better to close the nozzles with the thrusters already at high output than to lift on rising output, since the nozzle petals were more uniform than the feed pipes might be. She knew quite a lot about how an RCN warship should operate, because she'd spent years aboard one of the best....

    Ganse looked toward her again. "Ah...," he said. "I suppose you've heard about the mutiny on the Bainbridge? Well, of course you have. Everybody has."

    "Yes, but gossip doesn't interest me, Lieutenant," Adele said with a frown. She returned her eyes to her own display. Unless my duties require me to be interested, of course.

    Adele monitored traffic throughout Harbor Three. Since the ionized exhaust washed across the radio frequency bands, that meant tapping the harbor's modulated laser transponders and decoding the downloads... which she and her equipment did very handily. The results were of no significance, but the practice would stand her in good stead at future, more dangerous, times.

    "It isn't what people are saying!" Ganse blurted. "The Captain was being careful and he had a right to be careful. The Bainbridge is a very small ship. There was no way to be sure other plotters wouldn't have freed the three we had in irons and taken over the ship still."

    "Cutter crews, prepare for liftoff," Captain Slidell said. The cutters were fully prepared, of course, because Adele had chosen to pipe the tender's general communications to them from the first. Insets across the top of her display gave her miniature panoramas of the interior of the six small vessels.

    "You understand that, don't you?" Ganse begged.

    Adele looked at him. That was a direct question, so she couldn't ignore it. She'd give a good deal to know who Ganse thought he was talking to, though. Lt. Leary's friend? Mistress Sand's agent? Or some third thing his mind and his despair had invented? He certainly wouldn't have been talking this way to the warrant officer in charge of the Hermes' communications.

    "Lieutenant Ganse," she said, "I understand that you believe...."

    Her voice trailed off. Because she was Adele Mundy, she wouldn't speak a near truth that was a lie. She looked Ganse in the eye and said, rephrasing the statement, "I understand that you believed the executions were necessary at the time they occurred. I don't know what you believe now, nor do I care."

    "Ship, this is the Captain," Slidell said. "We are lifting off. Out!"

    The roar of the thrusters redoubled; Adele felt acceleration begin to weigh her body.

    "Next stop, Nikitin!" Hogg called cheerfully.

    Adele wasn't quite sure, but she thought that despite the thunder she heard Tovera's cool voice reply, "For some of us, anyway."

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