“Been trying to avoid us, mate?”
Blair shot a quizzical look at Hunter, then started toward a seat at the far end of the Tiger Claw’s bar. In a flurry of movement, the captain whirled on his chair, blocked Blair with his arm, then removed the cigar stub from his lips.
“Not so fast, mate.”
“Just want to get a drink,” Blair said, wearing the sweat and fatigue of his recent patrol of Netheranya’s no-fly zone. He rolled his eyes and took a seat beside the burly Australian. Other than Shotglass, who stood behind the bar and raised his bushy brow over the adult magazine he was “reading,” they were alone.
“Like flying for Gunner, do you?” Hunter asked, then popped the cigar into his mouth.
Hunter nodded. “Maniac says you ain’t talking to him, either.”
Shotglass arrived with Blair’s usual, a greyhound, set down the drink, then left without a word.
“See? Even old Shot knows you’re not talking,” Hunter observed. “I thought you’d be happy. Didn’t they tag those guys who whacked you?”
Blair traced the rim of his glass with an index finger. “Yeah, I guess they did.” He abruptly downed half the glass, then leaned back. “It’s all over now.”
Lifting a crooked grin, Hunter leaned forward and dropped his voice. “Bullshit, mate. We know exactly what’s going on. Angel and Obutu are trying to catch the guys who jumped you--but they won’t because they’re wrong about who did it.”
“Really,” Blair said, smirking. “So who do they think did it?”
“Three of Gunner’s people. You already flew with two of them: Mango and Loaf. Third one’s a female, callsign R.”
“But Obutu told me that they had first thought Gunner’s people were responsible. I think now they’re focusing on another group.”
“No, they’re not. Obutu’s lying. He and Angel think it was Gunner’s people. They don’t want you to do anything out of the ordinary. And Obutu coming out as a Pilgrim? Surprised the hell out of me, but it won’t help.”
“Great. Now I’m really confused. And maybe that’s the plan, huh? Angel and Obutu ask me to transfer. Why? If they believed that Gunner and his people beat me, then why would they throw me to the wolves?”
Hunter folded his arms over his chest. “They didn’t do that. You’re being watched very closely. You think me being here is a coincidence?”
After a heavy sigh that nearly came out as growl, Blair tossed back the last of his drink. “Whatever. I just want to know who did this to me, and what we’re going to do about it. You talking? Or are you like them: Full of bullshit and secrets?”
“The only thing Angel and Obutu did right is keep quiet. Probably what we should’ve done.”
“You contact Commander Jhinda?”
Hunter cocked a brow. “I already gave ‘em to Jhinda, but we didn’t have enough evidence to indite them.”
“How did you find out who did it in the first place? And what if you’re wrong? I mean it’s strange that a Lieutenant Commander trained in this kind of work came up with nothing, and a fighter pilot who doesn’t know jack about criminal investigations suddenly solves the mystery. Are we talking right place and right time, or what?”
“That’s good, Lieutenant. Actually, I wasn’t the one with the timing. Your buddy Maniac overheard a conversation or two and put it together. But it was his word against theirs because we still have no hard evidence. Jhinda presumes that it was jettisoned during the standard dump.”
“Maniac,” Blair said darkly. “My buddy. He never told me a thing.”
“Which wasn’t easy for him, trust me. But now we got a problem.” Hunter pushed his empty glass forward and stood. “C’mon. I’m going to show you something. Unfortunately, it’ll answer all of your questions.”
The door to the space marshal’s temporary field office slid open, and Commodore Richard Bellegarde stepped cautiously inside. Though the space marshal had admitted him, the bitch failed to look up from her desk. Surprised? He wasn’t. They wouldn’t be getting married any time soon. Be nice to get through a simple conversation without him wanting to choke her blue. “Ma’am?”
“Just a second,” she snapped, then switched off a data screen. “Well, they’ve arrested him, as I assured you they would. They’ve also asked me to place you under arrest and have you transported to Earth, where you and the good admiral will stand trial for the bombing of the great hall. I guess you didn’t care how many people you killed. You planned on destroying the Pilgrim systems and enclaves, so a couple hundred senators meant nothing. Oh, you stirred up anti-Pilgrim sentiment, all right. They’ve even voted to go ahead with the attack despite Tolwyn’s arrest. My god, what a mess you two have created.”
“We had inspiration.” He smiled broadly. “I guess you’ll be taking charge of the Fourteenth Fleet now?”
“That’s right,” she said, then tapped her watchphone. “Come in.”
In exactly four seconds two Marines were standing at Bellegarde’s side. “We won’t need them,” he said. “I suspect you’ll go peacefully.”
“You heard me, ma’am.”
She stood and bore her teeth. “Maybe you didn’t hear me. You’re under arrest, mister.”
“And you’re standing in an office on board the Concordia, the admiral’s flagship, lest you forget that you’re a guest here and that there isn’t a person on board who wouldn’t give his life for that man.”
The Marines shifted away from Bellegarde and closed in on Gregarov.
“This is amusing.” She tapped her watchphone once more. “Simon? Come in here immediately.” Her aide did not reply. “Simon?”
“He’s busy,” Bellegarde said.
“Commodore, I relieve you of command.”
“You’re not up to commanding this fleet. The Kilrathi could attack at any time since the no-fly zones have put such a strain on us. They’ll probably come in through Robert’s Quadrant, and it’s been a long time since you’ve been in combat. Maybe you should calm down, sleep it off in the brig. And that’ll give Confed Intell more time to gather the evidence they need against you, evidence that will be handed over to President Vasura. Yes, it’s kind of absurd for me to tip our hand, but it’s worth the expression on your face--you goddamned bitch.”
Gregarov abruptly demonstrated five examples of conduct unbecoming an officer, examples that included her charging at Bellegarde, with her fingers extended like talons. The Marines neutralized her efforts and led her away. Bellegarde massaged his weary eyes, then quickly assumed a place at her desk.
“Oh, shit,” he muttered. I’ve just arrested the space marshal. Then again, if the admiral and I don’t succeed, we’ll probably be sentenced to hang--so in the grand scheme of things, this infraction hardly matters. And it felt awfully good.
He switched on the space marshal’s tactical display, patched into the datanet, then skimmed through reports from vessels of the Fourteenth. Pilgrims continued to violate the no-fly zones, especially the one in place over the planet Faith. Marines on McDaniel had found the troopship that had violated the Concordia’s own zone, and a platoon continued to search for its passengers. Since then, only two more violations had earned Bellegarde’s attention. Otherwise, he kept a close watch on Robert’s Quadrant, on the Kilrathi, and waited for a report from those destroyers sent out from Naval Station Thor to investigate that disturbance. They would reach their destination in about three days, and two days after, if Aristee did not surrender the Olympus, the Pilgrim holocaust would begin--no matter how many civilians still occupied the systems and enclaves.
Or maybe the holocaust would never come. He didn’t want his descendants to find his name next to Hitler’s or ZeTam’s in the history books and datanets. With Tolwyn out of the loop, the responsibility fell on him. Could he give the order?
He shuddered off the thought and considered the admiral, who probably sat in a cell or in an interrogation room and listened to incessant questions from JAG lawyers. In an attempt to spare the admiral some of that, Bellegarde had sent off an encrypted message to the president: WE KNOW ABOUT HD DEAL WITH SMG. BOMB MEANT FOR YOU. FREE TOLWYN. WE WON’T TALK.
Trouble was, Vasura wouldn’t receive the message for another three days--if Bellegarde was lucky. And he wondered how Gregarov’s people would react once they had lost contact with her. Sure, he could have the XO make up some story about Gregarov being ill, but those who knew what was going would read through that or any other excuse. Better to just tell the truth. He activated his watchphone. “Bellegarde to con.”
“Geranata here, sir.”
“Route all incoming communications for the space marshal to my office please. The space marshal is presently incapacitated.”
“Aye, sir. And sir, we picked up a Kilrathi Concom for a few minutes after she jumped into the sector. She probed us before she jumped back out. I’m sorry, sir, but we couldn’t jam her in time.”
“That’s all right, XO. I’d be more worried if the cats weren’t probing us. Bellegarde out.” He tugged a hip flask from his pocket, opened it, cursed, then took a long pull of Scotch. This is good excuse to drink, he assured himself.
You fool. There’s no good excuse.
Time bothered Paladin the most. He could deal with the fact that the Kilrathi had probably drugged him, had transported him to that clear interrogation cage, and had probably sifted through his brain. But the time lost, the time he would never get back, that drove him up to the window for some indication of how long it had been since they had returned him here. He had had a similar problem when he had been captured the first time. But after a while, his body clock had sharpened, and he had been able to mark the passage of time by the duration of his sleeping periods, which lasted nearly eight hours each day. But on this occasion he felt far too disoriented. For all he knew, months could have passed, even years, though his hair felt the same length and his beard had only grown a bit more. Still, they could have trimmed his hair to trick him. And the first time he had been here, he had thought that Aristee and the protur were with him, but that, too, had been an illusion.NEXT
The cell door clanged open, and Paladin spun to confront two Kilrathi Marines who carried Aristee inside, then lowered her to the stone floor. She lay inert on her back, eyes closed. One of the cats snarled at Paladin, then lumbered after his comrade. The door banged shut after them, and Paladin gagged on the fumes of nutrient gas that swirled in their wake.
He knelt beside Aristee, put his ear to her nose, then sighed with relief as he heard her faint breath. He undid the sash on her robe and scanned her body for injuries. She looked all right. “Amity.” He touched her cheek. You’re real. You have to be. “Amity.”
She coughed, coughed again, and he pulled her up to sit. She swallowed, opened her eyes and squinted at him, then suddenly clutched her chest and screamed.
“It’s all right,” he said, grabbing her wrists. “You’re okay. There’s nothing wrong.”
Gasping and trembling, she looked down at her breast, then relaxed a little. “I remember dying.”
“Well, if you’re dead, then so am I, and I think I’d remember something like that.”
“I guess we gave them what they wanted,” she said, staring past the bars. “Between what we both know about the hopper drive, they might be able to engineer something similar. James, you were right about them. I’m--”
“Don’t say it. You don’t need to. Problem is that you and I have no luck.” He grinned wearily. “We’re paired yet polar opposites. The things we love most are at odds with each other.”
“Oh, no. You’re going to wax poetic.” She gripped the floor, as though bracing herself for incoming fire.
He slid a meter away until his back rested on the wall. “Actually, I was gong to wax prophetic. If this whole thing has taught me anything, it’s that you and I are forces that don’t belong together.”
She frowned then broke into a smile. “I told you that a long time ago.”
“I should’ve listened.” He pulled his knees into his chest, then a rumble from outside sent him to the window. “Damn,” he whispered as ten, maybe twelve score of military transports flew overhead, gaining altitude. “They’re mobilizing for a big one.”
“I still love you, James. Even after all of this.”
“There’s a pill you can take for that.”
“And you haven’t stopped loving me.”
He snorted. “Blame me for waxing poetic? Blame you for the melodrama. You’re thinking we’re going to die so we should, forgive the phrase, spill our guts to each other?”
She brought her lips together, thought a moment, then nodded. “You’re right. We have no luck.”
“Unless he wasn’t lying,” Paladin said, lifting his chin at the door, which now opened to expose the emperor and the protur. Old Carver Tsu the Third wore a look so bloated with self-satisfaction that Paladin swore the man’s head would topple from his shoulders. Contrarily, the emperor’s naturally pale face seemed even paler, and if Paladin didn’t know better, he’d swear that the cat looked scared.
“Amity? James? Let’s go,” the protur said in his little sing-song. He tucked a colorful leaf into his robe’s pocket, then explained, “The emperor has so graciously provided us with a shuttle that will whisk us back to Confederation space.”
“That’s correct,” the emperor said, and translator or no, there was no mistaking his anxiety. “We apologize for the misunderstanding.”
Aristee’s look said: What the hell?
Paladin’s shouted that.
Still tingling with shock, Paladin stood and helped Aristee to her feet. They shuffled out of the cell as the emperor trudged ahead of them.
“What do you tell them?” Paladin asked the protur.
Carver Tsu winked. “The truth, my dear James. Only the truth.”