Fanner Rigs hugged the visioner at his station, fascinated and horrified at once at the sight of the enemy fleet that faced them. The enormity of the task was overwhelming: how could they hope to challenge the Doxtap Fleet, in all the pride of the Jurisdiction’s might?
The Bench had left no choice for them.
They had to try.
Eild was their home-world, and the orbiting artillery platforms that defended it had to be protected from destruction by those mighty warships if Eild was to have any hope of remaining free.
“Our target.” It was his brother’s voice on inter-ship, Marder’s voice. On this little courier they almost didn’t need the inter-ship to hear each other — the ship was tiny, built for speed and maneuverability, both of which were crucial to its intended task. They had to get past their target’s own defenses, its Wolnadis, after all.
And the Wolnadi fighters were visible even now, clearing the maintenance atmosphere and coming toward them at frightening speed.
“Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Scylla,” Sonnu’s clear calm voice confirmed. It was useful to remember that Sonnu was there. Fanner had often fantasized about marrying with Sonnu, if he could catch her eye for long enough to make his case with her. This was his chance to show her his true mettle.
And still it was a desperate enterprise.
They all knew that.
His party had the most desperate part of it, for while the others in the attack on Scylla were to draw the Wolnadis off toward the carapace hull — the topmost shell of the warship — his party was to feint for the carapace, and slip at the last minute through the atmosphere barrier into Scylla’s maintenance atmosphere, beneath the ship.
They had the schematic firmly fixed in mind.
If they could only be quick and nimble enough about it, agile and canny enough about it, slip through the startled defenses of the maintenance atmosphere — Scylla could not fire upon itself, for fear of damage to the ship —
To fail meant death.
To succeed meant death as well, because if they won through to the main battle guns they could destroy Scylla, and everybody on it. Including them.
He would never marry with Sonnu now, but if he could be part of the freedom of port Eild it would not even matter.
“Initiate tactical plan,” Marder said; and Fanner engaged the overthrust boosters on the courier, and sent it leaping forward.
Toward Scylla, and their death.
If they could only take Scylla with them it was worth it.
Snatching a breath as best he could in the close quarters of Scylla’s maintenance corridors, Joslire Curran steeled himself for the next desperate sprint. He couldn’t stop for long enough to catch his breath. He couldn’t afford to. There were Nurail sappers in the corridors, they’d breached the maintenance hull and gotten in through the maintenance atmosphere and if Joslire and his team couldn’t stop them in time —
Kaydence Psimas came up on Joslire’s left and nudged Joslire’s shoulder with his elbow, wordlessly. Joslire nodded toward the access to the recirculation systems, and Kaydence grinned and went, dropping to a roll halfway across the corridor as he was fired on. Joslire checked the crossfire zone with a swift movement of his head: no blood on the deck. So maybe Kaydence was unharmed.
The Nurail would know where to watch for them now, though, and there was nothing they could do but get across as quickly as they could. The Nurail sappers had only left one man to try to slow them down. The rest of the party would be three corridors away by now.
The only thing that stood between Scylla and destruction was the fact that men who knew the ship’s architecture from living there could navigate more quickly than anyone else.
Kaydence fired back down the corridor at the Nurail who had pinned them there, as much to remind his fellows that he was waiting as to encourage the Nurail to go away. Erish Muat went across, stumbling on the decking and sliding to safety, Kaydence covering him with a shot. They couldn’t afford to use full charge on board ship for fear of starting a fire. The enemy didn’t care.
Toska Bederico brought up the rear, but there was no fire at all from the Nurail, so maybe Kaydence had shot him down. It didn’t really matter. All that mattered was getting through to the main battle guns before the Nurail sappers could get there.
The main battle guns — lateral cannons forward, in this case — could not be turned back toward Scylla’s interior. But they could be spiked. And the resulting explosion would destroy everything within a standard orbital.
Down the cross-corridors now to food-stores three. The sappers were taking the main access corridor, but the back wall of food-stores forward abutted a waste-chute that could be vented into armory two levels above. The sappers wouldn’t be able to use the lifts. The lifts had been shut down by Engineering as soon as they’d realized that the crew of the small Nurail scout ship that had cleared the maintenance atmosphere had shot its way in to the maintenance corridors.
It would take the Nurail time to break into the access hatch beside the lift nexus and squeeze through the narrow laddered way. Maybe it would take the sappers enough time for Joslire’s team to get through to the cannons before the Nurail did.
Shoot out the secures on food-stores forward door four, struggle through the half-opened door into the room. Joslire took refuge with Erish and Kaydence behind a shelf full of soup concentrate cartons. Toska piled up a hasty barricade of flour boxes to crouch behind and fired pointblank at the back wall.
There’d been no time to clear the shelves. Shattered bits of storage containers flew like a sandstorm in the little room as Toska fired. Joslire grabbed a chip of something that imbedded itself firmly in the storage shelves behind them: dried sindal, for the mess’s approximation of meat roast. Too bad. He had been hoping for a bite of dried fruit.
Toska was through the wall. Joslire joined Kaydence in clearing away the rubble till they could get at the smoking gap and through. If the Engineer fired the conversion furnaces to hasten the ship’s progress, they were done for. The vacuum that the huge furnace would create would pull them into the engines, and they would become propulsion — not protection — for Scylla.
Joslire put the thought out of his mind. If they didn’t stop these Nurail sappers, Scylla wouldn’t go anywhere, ever again, except perhaps out in a three-sixty orb in fragments not exceeding seven eighties in size and five eighties in weight.
The waste-chute hadn’t been cleaned for a while. The handholds were full of debris and particulate matter. There were three sets of handholds spaced out around the tubular waste-chute, and Joslire scooped and swept out each of them as he went, mindful of Kaydence waiting beneath him to follow him up the waste-chute.
It was easier going here than the mech-access at the lift nexus would be for the Nurail sappers, and they could only get one person up the mech-access at a time, while three could fit at once in the waste-chute.
The time it took to move up eighth by eighth was still maddening.
What would they find when they got there?
Toska popped the chute while Erish climbed up to hang opposite the opening, nursing his injured arm. When had Erish been injured? It didn’t matter. They couldn’t stop to think about it. They had to go on.
They were in corridor five, Kaydence running for the end of the corridor while Joslire was still helping Erish through from the waste-chute. Sprinting after Kaydence and Toska, Joslire heard the voices, but Kaydence’s voice was closer —
“We’re behind. They’re in third forward!”
They’d come too late. The enemy had already cleared the lift nexus. The voices they heard were Nurail sappers on the way to Cannon Three.
Corridor three wasn’t a straight shot through; none of the corridors ran more than a few eighths without turning. There was a Nurail at the first turn waiting for them, and the round she fired stopped Erish in his tracks before Joslire’s return shot separated the top half of her body from her legs.
The shower of gore and bits of flesh made it hard to keep their footing. But they had to catch up with the sappers before the sappers could get to the guns. There had only been eight Nurail to begin with, and they were down to three now — two once Kaydence killed the one waiting behind the next turn, taking him by surprise.
They didn’t have time to take the turn carefully, whether or not waiting Death should stand behind the next wall. They had to stop the sappers. There were only two turnings left.
They could see the sappers ahead of them in the corridor now, and the still-open door into Cannon Three’s loading chamber further on. Joslire checked his weapon’s charge one last time at a full run, steadied it as best he could — and fired. He didn’t have much hope of aim, not running all out as he was.
He didn’t need much aim.
It was a lucky shot, he got the furthest Nurail, and he fell against the wall to clear the field of fire for Kaydence and Toska behind him. Kaydence bolted past like a man in pursuit of his destiny, screaming, firing as he went — one shot, two shots going wild against the bulkhead at the far end of the corridor. The Nurail wasn’t looking back, and from what Joslire could see the Nurail was gaining on the open door —
At last the door started to close, the engineers beyond overriding the system safes that prevented the load-doors from closing when the cannon was active. Closing the door wouldn’t stop the sapper. But it would slow the sapper down.
Kaydence threw himself to his knees in a smooth skid and fired as the last of the Nurail sappers, turning, started to slide his body through the fast-closing door.
Joslire couldn’t see at first what had happened. The Nurail he’d shot was beginning to stir, raising a weapon, which was trained on the back of Kaydence’s head. Joslire had to shoot the man, and make sure he stayed shot this time, before he had any business trying to see through the mess of dust and smoke at the far end of the corridor.
It was quiet in the corridor now, no sound but for the subtle rain of pulverized metallic debris settling out of the air to the decking.
Picking himself up carefully, Joslire staggered over to where Kaydence sat slumped on his heels in the middle of the corridor. It was critically stupid to sit there like that. They’d be too easy a target to miss if there were any sappers left to shoot at them.
“Make the hit, Kay?”
His throat was rough and strained from running too hard, too fast, for too long. Manning the Wolnadi fighters was nothing like this. On the Wolnadis at least you sat down while you either chased down or ran from your enemy. Just their luck to have been on Ship’s Security duty when the Scylla joined the Doxtap Fleet to help reduce the artillery platforms at Eild.
“Hard to say,” Kaydence replied, hopelessly, staring at the ceiling with his head well back on his broad solid shoulders. “But we’ll know in a bit. The ship will blow up. Or it won’t. Then we’ll know.”
There was no help for it but to go and see, then.
Joslire limped forward — funny, he was bleeding, when had that happened? — toward the door at the end of the corridor, half-open, dimly visible now through the clearing dust. There was the door. There was the body on its belly facing toward the door, limp and ungraceful in abandonment — but what about beyond?
Stepping over the prone body of his enemy, Joslire Curran leaned into the doorway to find out.
He couldn’t see the cannon for the face or Erling Miroah, standing in the doorway with a clearing-lever in his hand. As if you could stop a Nurail sapper with a clearing-lever. As if anything could stop a Nurail sapper within sight of his goal; these people were demented. And their insanity made them all but superhuman in what they had proved capable of doing . . .
“The cannon?” Joslire rasped.
Erling wasn’t moving, calling back over his shoulder into the room beyond.
“No, it’s Curran from Security. Send damage control. Send a med-team.”
“The cannon,” Joslire insisted, beginning to get annoyed. Why wouldn’t they answer his question?
Erling moved to one side, working at the controls for the door. Joslire saw the cannon at the same instant that he realized why Erling hadn’t bothered to answer his question. If the cannon had been hit, they wouldn’t be here for him to ask. That was why. It must have seemed too obvious to Erling.
Joslire sat down between the bulkhead and the body of the Nurail sapper. It had been a fine effort. First Officer was going to have things to say about the fact that sappers had breached the maintenance hull in the first place. Kaydence came reeling drunkenly across the littered decking to sit down heavily at Joslire’s side; together they watched Toska help Erish come up to join them. Erish’s face was wet with tears of pain — or perhaps simply rage, and sheer frustration. Erish hated to be left out of the shooting. It was just Erish’s bad luck to have been shot, but since he was walking it hadn’t been too bad.
Joslire closed his eyes, exhausted.
Too much excitement.
At least things were quiet now.
He could hear ship’s braid as if at a considerable remove, the Engineer dispatching damage control teams, First Officer reporting status to the Captain. He could hear ship’s ventilators struggling to process all the chipped bulkhead and metal dust they’d just blown into suspension.
He could hear Kaydence’s shaky breathing beside him, Toska catching his breath, Erish grunting softly with reluctant pain. He didn’t hear the med-team coming up, even though they had probably been running. Well. Maybe he had had a short nap, then.
“Joslire, what’s your status, here?”
“Sitting by, team leader.” He couldn’t rightly say “standing” by, could he? “It’s Erish to go first. He’s had the worst of it, I think.”
“Right, move this one out to triage. Gala, Marms, on Erish. Joslire. You’re hit. Robert, see what you can do about this, we’ll have the next team up as soon as we can.”
Joslire met Robert’s level gaze and grinned. It was Robert’s fifth-week in Infirmary, and he was working harder than any of them. They were all sitting down resting, after all.
“Oh, you’re going to be in trouble,” Robert warned. Joslire knew the joke. The officer didn’t like them to let themselves be injured. The officer took it personally. “Extra duty for at least a month, Jos.”
He’d worry about it when he faced the officer.
For now he thought that he’d just close his eyes.
Robert St. Clare wheeled the mover with Joslire on it into the next slot in the triage line. Infirmary was strange to look at on battle status; the clinic walls, the office dividers, the treatment room partitions were all pulled up into the ceiling or dropped down into the decking underfoot to clear as much space as possible.
The triage officer had already sent Erish on to Station Four. Their officer was at Station Four, though Robert couldn’t see him, Infirmary being crowded, and the officer short.
One of the techs at the triage station cut open the fabric across Joslire’s thigh, and the triage officer — Doctor Bokomoro, Degenerative Bone and Muscle — raised her eyebrows at the wound. “Five eighths’ span of bulkhead, Joslire,” she said, sounding impressed. “How did that happen?”
Like the rest of Infirmary staff, she called Joslire by his personal name. Joslire didn’t care to be reminded of the Curran Detention Facility, where Joslire had been Bonded and given his Fleet name. Robert didn’t care. He’d been assigned a name at random, like other Nurail bond-involuntaries, to destroy even so small a bit of information that they might have had about one another.
“It must have been in food-stores three, as the doctor please. Because this troop can’t quite remember. With respect.”
Still Joslire was formal with her. Formality was safety, for bond-involuntaries. It was all a part of their conditioning. Doctor Bokomoro palpated the ragged edges of the wound in Joslire’s thigh with delicate care, frowning a bit. “Well. You’ll do for Station Four when it clears. You’re the last of it, are you?”
Her question was directed at Robert, who looked back over his shoulder down the length of the corridor, checking the triage line. They seemed to have hit a slack period.
“There aren’t many in queue just now, Doctor, no, ma’am.” So she could afford to set them aside, and let the officer perform what triage he liked. There would be time.
Doctor Bokomoro nodded. “Right. Take Joslire across, Robert, take these with you. Next?”
“These” were Toska and Kaydence and Code, the rest of Security 5.4. All of them weary. None apparently injured. When Station Four cleared, Robert took the lead to their assigned slot, pushing Joslire on the mover before him.
The officer was leaning on the treatment table with both arms braced stiff-elbowed to the surface, frowning in evident anxiety.
“I am becoming bored with bleeding people,” his Excellency was saying, his frustration clear in his tenor voice. “When is the Captain going to get to it, and take this ship out of harm’s way?”
Shaking off wordless offers of assistance, Joslire slid awkwardly from the end of the mover to sit on the edge of the treatment table, facing the officer. Koscuisko scowled thunderously when he saw the exposed gash in Joslire’s leg.
Sarse Duro, the senior medical technician teamed with Chief Medical, took one look and broke open a fresh gross-lacerations pack. “Shouldn’t be too much longer now, sir. They said three eights to close.” Noticing Robert, Sarse shut up to concentrate on Joslire’s wound. It was out of respect for his feelings, Robert knew. He appreciated Sarse’s delicacy.
Eild was Nurail.
He was Nurail, though he was from Marleborne.
“Erish is to be uncomfortable, but has not too seriously been injured. Joslire, you are bleeding, you had noticed.” His Excellency changed the subject without comment, putting a dose through at Joslire’s thigh. Joslire steadied himself against the surface of the table, and Koscuisko put one hand out to Joslire’s shoulder to help stop him from falling over. Muscle relaxant, maybe. Powerful pain medication, almost certainly.
“Kaydence. You are not moving as beautifully as usually you do.” Their officer talked as he worked, Sarse Duro content to keep supplies coming. “I should make you all sit down, but then I would not be able to see you. Metal coming out, Joslire.”
Along with a freshet of blood damped off almost immediately with a stop-cloth. “Talk to me, gentles all, how do you go? I have seen none of the others, at least so far.”
Well, he didn’t have to answer this question, Robert told himself. He could just stand here and listen. That way he would find out before the almost-inevitable embroideries began. That could be useful for later.
“Kaydence did it,” Joslire said, his head bent to watch Koscuisko clear the wound. “We were only there to wa — ouch.” Something seemed to twinge unpleasantly; Joslire raised his head to meet Koscuisko’s mirror-silver pale eyes, and Koscuisko smiled. Robert had always considered that Andrej Koscuisko had a very pretty smile, all those white teeth, and all of them in such an even line.
“You are a very great liar, Joslire, if I may hope to be forgiven for saying it. And you should be ashamed.”
Grin answered grin, now. Joslire had known the officer for even longer than Robert had, and they had known him longer than anyone else — since Fleet Orientation Station Medical, before they’d been assigned to Scylla. But that had been three years ago.
And almost the first thing they had learned about Koscuisko was that they were clear to make jokes with him. Not that the others had been easy to convince that it was really safe; and that had depressed Robert at the time, because of what it indicated about the usual treatment bond-involuntaries expected to receive in Fleet.
“But it’s true, your Excellency, I swear it by the officer’s chin-beard,” Joslire protested. There was no response from their officer to this impertinence; Andrej Koscuisko didn’t have a chin-beard, smooth-skinned as any unmarried man. Koscuisko concentrated on smoothing the edges of the wound in Joslire’s thigh flush with the layer of anaerobe that would protect the raw flesh while it healed.
After a moment Joslire spoke on. “Kaydence’s shot was the only one that really mattered, when it comes to that. All the other ones do us no good if the last one doesn’t go in.” Serious now, Joslire was giving his report, which meant that the others were free to contribute.
“But it was Jos’s idea to get through the waste-chute behind food-stores forward. Or we wouldn’t have gotten there in time.” Toska Bederico, apparently no more than bruised and tired, was leaning against the stores table that would normally back against a wall that was now braced up in the bulkhead. “Can you get Jos to admit it, though? There’s the question.”
As a joke it was not a very fortunate one, in Robert’s mind. Andrej Koscuisko could make anybody admit to anything, once he but got them down into Secured Medical and got started. Toska was tired, or he wouldn’t have made so potentially ambiguous a remark. The officer didn’t seem to have noticed anything; Koscuisko was tired, too.
Of course Koscuisko had been hard at work since the first casualties had started to trickle in. For Robert’s own self he considered that he had the better part of the contract, since he only had to fetch and carry. That wasn’t really work.
“Was that my idea?” Joslire sounded genuinely startled. “I don’t remember it being my idea. I thought it was Erish. Are you sure? I’ll take full credit, of course, Robert, write that down.”
Joslire would do no such thing, needless to say. Joslire was scrupulous about credit where credit was due, sometimes too much so.
“Don’t think so,” Kaydence frowned. “I thought it was Toska. Whose idea was it? Because someone’s got to go clean that up.”
“Light duty, ten days.” Their officer tagged Joslire’s trouser-leg closed with a few strips of closing-tape to spare his blushes till he could change his trousers. Joslire blushed differently from people Robert had grown up with; he didn’t pink from pale, he toasted from tan.
Of course there was the fact that Joslire was simply the color of meal-cake to begin with. The officer put his hand to Joslire’s shoulder for emphasis. “And keep your weight off your leg, you may walk if you must but no further than two turnings at a time. Now you must go to rest.”
Joslire was subdued enough to let himself be moved by Robert and Code in tandem. Off of the treatment table. Back onto the mover. Koscuisko raised his voice and called for Kaydence, who was doing what he could to disappear; but there weren’t any walls to hide behind just now.
“Kaydence, you are next. The shins of your boots look as though you had been using scour-skin for bootblack.” Koscuisko’s desire to lighten the atmosphere a bit was clearly evident in his bantering tone; and it worked, too. Quite apart from the fact that Koscuisko was their officer, he was a personable man, whose determined cheerfulness communicated itself to his Bonds almost immediately. “Tell me about it.”
Koscuisko was right, the front of Kaydence’s boots were scratched and abraded across the shins. Kaydence actually did blush, and since Kaydence was the same generally clay-colored sort as the rest of them, it made him go all feverish in the cheeks. Well, clay-colored like Robert, at least. Their officer was so pale he was nearly blue in the face. And Toska was a little butter-colored, but Salom hominids were supposed to be that shade of sun.
“Sat down to make my shot, sir. Didn’t stop moving. Probably just bruised, though, your Excellency — don’t make me take off my boots, sir, please, there’s a hole in my boot-sock — ”
As if Kay thought pleading would do him the least bit of good.
Andrej Koscuisko merely tilted his head fractionally to one side with one of his most killing “Oh, but you know better than that” looks, and snapped his fingers.
Toska and Robert knew what was expected, and moved in to implement their officer’s will and good pleasure.
There was no standing between Koscuisko and the welfare of his Security assigned, and whether or not said Security would rather not have an un-mended undergarment exposed before all Infirmary had nothing to do with it whatever.
It could be worse.
Security Chief Warrant Officer Caleigh Samons could be here.
Their officer was only interested in the well-being of the skin beneath the stocking, not the condition of the boot-stocking itself, but let Caleigh Samons once find out that the officer had seen one of her troops out of uniform and there would be the very Devil to pay.
Command and Ship’s Primes, Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Scylla, never met more informally than this — and in the Captain’s office, rather than in meal-hall. There were allowances to be made for the state of exhaustion the officers shared with the rest of ship’s assigned resources, but Andrej Koscuisko was too tired to make them, and he wished that his fellow Primes — and Ship’s Command Branch officers, as well — would just go away and let him sleep.
“ — carapace hull,” Ship’s Engineer was saying in between sips of hot shurla. “We lost most of the fiber-loads. Secured Medical as well. Significant damage to the maintenance hull, but the atmosphere hasn’t been compromised, we were lucky.”
Wait, wasn’t that good news, about Secured Medical being stove in? Andrej almost thought that meant something. Surely it would be significant once his brain started to function again, after he had slept perhaps five shifts. No, that was only forty hours. Perhaps six shifts, then.
Ship’s Intelligence paused on his way to his lounger to offer Andrej a flask of rhyti, talking as he went. “Prelims from the rest of the Doxtap Fleet indicate that we actually did comparatively well. We only lost three flyers in action, Fleet’s quite pleased. Goes without saying Eild is a little depressed about the whole thing.”
Andrej accepted the flask of rhyti with a nod of thanks. Of course Eild was unhappy. The planetary population of Eild had lost its final bid to retain autonomy; and if recent history was anything to go by, they had only want, repression, and relocation to look forward to now. Relocation for selected portions of the population, at least, scattered, dispersed among sixty-four eights of Bench-integral worlds.
Not as though there was much left of the population of Eild by this time, and it had been an outpost world to start out with — like most Nurail worlds, with typically a hundred and twenty-eight grazing animals to every Nurail soul.
It was still a lot of people.
Even after starvation, plague, and war, there were surely sixteens of eighties of Eild Nurail to be moved. To be removed. To be raped from their native soil and abandoned in alien worlds where nobody would even speak their language.
“That’s as may be.” Captain Irshah Parmin’s voice was dry and uninflected, clear indication of how he felt about the use to which his Command had been put. Irshah Parmin was a professional Fleet Captain whom Andrej had grown to respect deeply over these three years of assignment to Scylla. Irshah Parmin never let feelings interfere with his duty.
He didn’t make too great a secret about the fact that he had feelings, all the same. “There’s a relocation fleet standing off at Formiffer to take over. We’ll go to admin refit, ourselves. Chief Medical, your report?”
The rhyti was very reviving; he was very tired. It didn’t usually have so strong a stimulating effect on him. “Apart from First Officer’s losses we have a mortality count of seventeen on wards, mostly due to the hit the carapace hull took at channel two. Of my other patients I list five as being in very uncertain condition, but upwards of ninety lacerations or wounds requiring bed-rest or light duty, while the number of bumps and scrapes cannot be calculated.”
There were seven hundred and thirty-five souls assigned to Scylla, and total fatalities rested at a mere twenty-nine so far. Even should they lose the five on close watch, they had gotten through this one with little scathe: though naturally enough the dead might think differently.
“Triage run the way you like it?”
That was delicately done. That was the Captain’s way of asking whether Fleet had failed any of Scylla’s crew by failing to have the resources on site that would have saved their lives. Strictly speaking, triage was Medical’s business; but Andrej could best honor his Captain’s concern by answering the question.
“By our Lady’s grace. Which is, I mean to say, yes, your Excellency, we have been fortunate. We have not lacked for the beds we needed when we needed them.”
He was more tired than he’d realized, but his lapse into idiom had amused — and not offended — his peers. Not as though he really was their peer, except for the formality of his rank. Irshah Parmin had in the past honored him by asserting that he might develop into a really top-class battle surgeon, some year. In Andrej Koscuisko’s considered opinion he had quite a distance yet to go.
“Good to hear, Doctor. Thank you. First Officer. About that Security five-point-four. Precedent?”
What about Security 5.4? Andrej frowned. Security 5.4 were his people, bond-involuntaries, though 5.4 had been on Ship’s Security during the engagement, rather than flying a Wolnadi. Precedent for what?
“I believe so, your Excellency. Bassin – ” the Intelligence Officer’s name was Bassin Emer – “has pulled the index cases. They call for evidence of innovative thinking in crisis making possible some success crucial to the survival of significant Fleet resources. Case is stronger the more significant the Fleet resources, and I think Scylla counts. I know Jik’s angry about the wall — ”
Now the Ship’s Engineer, Jik Polis, grinned and nodded her long perfect oval head in confirmation; Andrej was more lost by the moment.
“ — but I think we can document. That was clearheaded thinking under fire. It probably made the difference. And there’s no question about the performance under extreme circumstances. I will file the request for Revocation next shift.”
“Does the officer of assignment know what we’re talking about?” Irshah Parmin asked with evident amusement in his voice, clearly having noticed what Andrej could only assume was the transparent befuddlement on his face. “Never mind for now. We all need a rest-shift. Engineer, cut to minimum, administrative status in effect. We’ll tell you all about it at staff first-shift, gentles, the usual time and place.”
They were dismissed.
But Andrej didn’t move.
“Captain, with respect.” They were saying something about his people. He wanted to know what it was. “You were saying something about Security five-point-four.”
First Officer Saligrep Linelly, rising to her feet, stretched to the full height of her sinewy body and yawned before she saluted to leave. The other officers followed as Sali left; they were alone. Captain Irshah Parmin stood from behind his desk-table in turn, grinning as he twitched his left shoulder. The captain had never been quite right in his left shoulder. Something to do with an implosion round and some shelving, Andrej understood.
“What your people had to do to stop that sapper, Andrej. Those Nurail were so close to taking this entire ship out. First Officer thinks we have a case for revocation of Bond, if we can just get it through channels before they all die of old age.”
Revocation of Bond?
Bond-involuntaries were slaves to Jurisdiction, condemned for crimes against the Judicial order to thirty years of dangerous duty in Security with a semi-organic artificial intelligence implanted in their brains to help guarantee their good behavior. Revocation of Bond would mean freedom here and now, retirement with honors and pension and accumulated pay as though they had somehow managed to live out the term of their servitude and seen “the Day” dawn at last.
“Revocation of Bond can only be granted by the First Judge at Fontailloe Judiciary.” Andrej spoke slowly, thinking aloud. Trying to remember. “And endorsed by the majority of Judges Presiding on the Bench. That’s five. Getting five Judges to agree on anything — ”
Still, it was an administrative matter when all was written and read in. Not a point of Law or Judicial precedent. There was a chance. Captain Irshah Parmin nodded solemnly, then spoiled the effect by yawning in his own turn.
“Even so. That’s what we mean to try for. Needless to say, no word outside this room, premature release too painful if eventually refused, and all that.”
He should get up, Andrej knew. He should leave. He was going to fall asleep in the chair. And it wasn’t even so comfortable a chair. “Of course, Captain. Anything I can do, naturally. It would be a great thing, if.”
No, it was no good. He was hardly making sense even to himself. Captain Irshah Parmin waved off the incomprehensible jumble of words with an understanding gesture of his short square hand.
“Of course. We’ll talk again. Now get out of here. Go to sleep, Andrej.”
Turning the wonderful possibility of a Revocation of Bond over in his mind, Andrej went only semiconscious to find his quarters, and fall into bed, and sleep the still unmoving sleep of the exhausted.
There was someone coming through the open door to his office, and Andrej Koscuisko let his stylus sag to one side in a loosened left-handed grip as he glanced up to see who it was. One of the staff physicians, almost certainly. Nobody else would walk into a senior officer’s workspace without pausing to announce himself — not unless it was an officer even more senior, and the only officer senior to one of Ship’s Primes was the Captain himself.
It was the Captain, himself.
Andrej was almost too startled to remember to stand up. Three years on board of Scylla, and the number of times the Captain had come to Andrej’s office — rather than calling Andrej to come to his — could be knotted on a short string. There was an uncommonly serious look to Irshah Parmin’s otherwise quite pleasant round face; waving Andrej to sit back down, the Captain palmed the interlock on the desk surface to seal the office door before he sat down himself.
“As you were, Doctor. Only take an eighth. I’ve got good news, bad news, and news.”
Being behind closed doors with the Captain was a very uncomfortable sort of thing; it only happened when Irshah Parmin had things to say he didn’t mean to share, and in the past that had meant points on which Andrej’s own behavior had failed to conform to expectation.
“Rhyti, your Excellency? Cavene?”
Andrej thought he sounded too serious by half, even to himself. What could this visit signify? He hadn’t done anything he shouldn’t have done, not recently.
“Neither, thanks, not staying. Which news do you want first? Never mind, I’ll tell you. Good news, Secured Medical is out of order indefinitely, it won’t be operational again until after we refit.”
“Yes, Captain, good news. Bad news to follow?”
Something to do with the orders-packet that the Captain drew from the front of his uniform blouse, with a sigh of resignation. “This just in on courier. Since you’re surplus, in a sense, with Secured Medical off line. Chilleau Judiciary’s requisitioned you for the Domitt Prison until such time as we can demand you back to support the tactical mission as Scylla’s battle surgeon.”
The Domitt Prison? Had he heard of that? The orders the Captain carried would tell him all about it, Andrej knew from experience. He had been detailed on temporary assignment before: always over the Captain’s explicit objection.
“Prison duty, your Excellency. I don’t believe I’ve done a prison tour yet.” Prison duty didn’t have to be too bad, as long as it was a standard Judicial correctional center, and not a processing center. The only thing the Bench needed Inquisitors for at correctional centers was to provide legal sanction for the exercise of prison discipline, and handle the occasional Accused. Not like processing centers at all.
Captain Irshah Parmin frowned. “It’ll be weeks at best before we can call for you, Andrej. I haven’t spoken to First Officer, but we’re going to want to keep that Nurail of yours here on board, the Domitt Prison being in the middle of a Nurail displacement camp. Well, in a sense.”
Oh, this was worse.
It was a processing center.
So what they wanted an Inquisitor for was to conduct Inquiry, exercise the Protocols, and perform his Judicial function exclusive of any other duties he might have had elsewhere; and for how long?
“I quite understand.” Andrej could hear the strain in his own voice. “Quite impossible. Who is to accompany me, then?” Bond-involuntaries, that went without saying. The Bench’s primary purpose for creating bond-involuntaries in the first place had been to provide Inquisitors with helping hands. The bond-involuntaries’ governors ensured that they couldn’t decline to inflict whatever tortures their officer required of them simply because it was grotesquely indecent to do so.
He had eleven bond-involuntaries assigned to him here on Scylla, but that only made up two five-teams, with Vance as the only Bonded member on Security 5.1. So it had to be either 5.3 or 5.4. With Robert — and 5.3, by extension — held back, 5.4 would be assigned: well, why not? If it was to be hard duty for them, there was at least the hope in Andrej’s heart that it would be their last assignment before the Bench revoked their Bonds.
“You’ll probably end up with 5.4. And Miss Samons hasn’t been told, First Officer wants to keep things to herself to avoid rumors. It could take months to get the petition through.”
Andrej could understand that. The possibility in itself was almost too much to keep to himself; it could only be worse for Chief Samons, who worked with Andrej’s people much more intimately. “That’s good news and bad news, then, your Excellency. What about news?”
“Ah. In quarters, actually, I didn’t hold it, none of my business.” Irshah Parmin’s raised eyebrows gave him the look of a man suddenly realizing that he’d misplaced something or another. “Came in with the courier, letters for you from home. There’s a packet of some sort. We’re to turn you over to the Dramissoi Relocation Fleet when it arrives, Andrej, that’s just three or four days out.”
The Captain stood up as he spoke, and rubbed his face with his hands as though just waking up. “All I can do is promise to try to get you back as soon as possible. My hands are tied. I’d rather have you here.”
Because his Captain felt that the Ship’s Surgeon should be with the ship, regardless of how young and inexperienced he might be. And would have spared Andrej the ordeal that awaited him, if he could have; and yet Andrej had learned years ago that once he got started with the Protocols he had no difficulty at all implementing them.
“Thank you, your Excellency.” The respect he owed his superior officer was offered freely, out of genuine appreciation. “I’ll tell someone to pack.”
Three or four days, well, he’d have plenty of prep time with as many as three days to reckon with. But what had the Captain said?
Letters from home?
From whom, at home?
From Marana, with pictures of his child, and news of how the son he’d yet to meet was growing?
Or from his father, grim and formal and imbued with decorous grief over the fact that Andrej — in violation of the very filial piety after whose Saint he had been named — refused to be reconciled to the duty his father had set him to, and still declined to beg forgiveness for having challenged his father’s desire that he go to Fleet to be Inquisitor?
His father had no more idea of what Andrej’s life was like in Secured Medical than Andrej himself had once had, before his training. Andrej had never tried to more than hint at the horrors that comprised Inquisition. His father would only take it as cowardice on his part, evidence of shameful reluctance to do his duty to the Bench and Jurisdiction.
“Security Chief Warrant Officer Caleigh Samons. For his Excellency, Chief Medical.”
The calm clear voice that sounded from the talk-alert provided a very welcome distraction for Andrej. Chief Samons. That was right. It was exercise period. She would be wondering where he was; or if not where he was, what excuse he might be thinking of to offer this time in his half-hearted but perpetual efforts to get out of the extra laps she would require of him.
“Coming directly, Chief. Koscuisko away, here.”
Nothing was going to change his father’s mind. Nothing was going to change the test to come, however many months at the Domitt Prison. Nothing could change the horror that he had of the hunger in his blood, but while he ran his laps he did not think about any of the things he could not change. He only thought of laps, while he was running.
That relief from mindfulness alone would have compelled him to seek exercise, were it not for the fact that Chief Samons put limits on his laps, to prevent injury.
Andrej went to join his Security and run his laps, and tried not to think too hard about the Domitt Prison.