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Authors: David Drake,Roger MacBride Allen

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BOOK: The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III
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Tallen swallowed nervously.
This
captain seemed to have done his homework. “Yes, Sir.”

“And no doubt you’re short-handed in other ways. Probably you have the whole commissary section doing ship’s inventory, counting to see how many of the spoons Kerad and her entourage took with her.”

How the hell had he known that? “Sir?”

“Kerad’s brother was in the Guard, Commander,” Captain Spencer said. “Assigned to my section for a while. I know the family tendencies. My guess is that his kid sister and her toadies left carrying everything that wasn’t bolted down—and a few things that were, by the look of officer’s country. And you’ve been busy trying to deal with more pressing matters than repairing the wallpaper. Like quelling a mutiny.

“Relax, Tallen. I know none of this fiasco is your fault—even if it is technically your
responsibility.
I’ll lay odds that I could find discrepancies in every section of this ship that could get you court martialed for dereliction of duty if I looked right now. Fortunately, I haven’t seen a thing so far. It just so happens I wanted to see if I had the ship’s layout memorized and walked to this office with my eyes shut.”

Tallen opened his mouth as if to speak, but then thought better of it.

“So I’ll make a deal with you,” Spencer went on. “We are to boost and head for Daltgeld within forty hours. Concentrate between now and then on making sure the task force is ready for the jump. Once we’re on station orbiting Daltgeld, we can worry about setting the cosmetic things to rights. And the Daltgeld shipyards will be better able to help us get shipshape. Once we’re at Daltgeld, you’ve got one week to turn this flying casino back into a Pact cruiser. I’ll stay out of your hair while you do it. I’ll be busy enough in the meantime learning my own job. Bend and break whatever rules you need to bend getting this ship put back together.
Then
I’ll take that inspection, when you’ve had a fair chance to put things right. And if this ship isn’t in order by then there’ll be hell to pay.”

“Very good, Sir.”

“Excellent. Effective immediately, you will resume your duties as executive officer. You will continue to use this office until you have some semblance of control over the task force. You know this command and I don’t. I will leave the ship in your hands while I deal with the question of the unpleasantness aboard the
Banquo.
Settling that will be my first priority. Will you see to it that the appropriate logs and other documents are in my cabin within half an hour?”

“Yes, Sir, very good.”

“That will be all, then, Commander. I can find my own way to my cabin.” Spencer stood up to leave, and Tallen rose hurriedly. He saluted and watched the captain depart, very much confused. He didn’t know quite what to make of it, but it seemed that the
Duncan
might actually have a real commander for a change.

###

Allison Spencer closed the door on his new executive officer and breathed a sigh of relief. He had carried it off, at least so far. Eighteen hours after leaving the hospital, and here he was already, bluffing his way through the role of commanding his very own task force. He hadn’t even been prepared to change into his new uniform aboard the gig, let alone assume command today.

The next challenge was seeing if he really had memorized the ship’s layout. So where
was
his cabin? He tried to picture its location in his head, but didn’t feel confident about it. He could ask someone—but that wouldn’t exactly give the image of command. Should he just try and fake it, hope he remembered all the twists and turns properly? No, it wouldn’t do for the new captain to go blundering into the women’s showers, either. Well,
anything
would be better than standing aimlessly in a hall for fear of looking foolish. At least he couldn’t get embarrassed in front of machinery. “AID,” he said at last, “How do I get to my cabin?”

“I made a bet with Santu that you’d have to ask,” his AID replied with an excellent imitation of a chuckle. “Head back down the way you came, turn to port, go to the third intersection and turn—”

“Hold it. I was in the Guard until this morning, remember? So, uh—which way is port?”

The AID seemed to hesitate for a moment before replying. “Captain, I have the feeling this is going to be interesting for all of us. Turn
left,
go to the third intersection . . .”

Captain Spencer followed the AID’s instructions, beet red and quite thoroughly aware of how embarrassed he could be in front of machinery.

He located his cabin without any further ado, accepted the salute of the rather haggard-looking Marine on guard duty, and stepped through into his quarters.

He had some vague idea of what to expect, but his jaw dropped nonetheless. Ornate, opulent, decadent—none of them went quite far enough. It would seem that Kerad had not had the time to strip her own cabin of its furnishings. The place was done up like something out of the Arabian Nights. The compartment’s bulkheads were lost behind elaborate wall hangings and tapestries. The deck was covered in layers of thick carpet and animal skins. There were no chairs, merely heaps of gaudily covered pillows scattered about the carpets. A meter-tall hookah had pride of place in the center of the room. The lights were dim and the air was thick with incense. Slow, seductive music came from somewhere, a haunting refrain that teased at Al, as if it were a song he had always loved and not heard in a long time.

But Al scarcely noticed any of that. He was too busy staring at the bed—and the indecorously clad Suss, who was lounging luxuriously on it. The bed was circular, and at least five meters across. Covered in something that resembled angora bearskin, raised on a low dais in such a way that it reminded Al of a primitive sacrificial altar, it took up an entire corner of the huge compartment. Mirrors covered the two walls that formed the corner, and more mirrors covered the ceiling above it.

Suss was doing a very credible job of living up—or perhaps down—to her surroundings. She was dressed in a sheer black negligee that hid nothing, a rope of perfect white pearls draped around her neck, and a bright red rose between her teeth. She tried her best sultry stare on Spencer—but then exploded in laughter, dropping the rose from between her teeth. “I’m sorry, Al,” she said at last, when she had recovered enough to speak, “but there I was, being discreetly escorted to the captain’s cabin by a most matronly looking rating who saw right through my demure little business suit to the painted harlot of a captain’s courtesan underneath. She knew what
I
was, and no doubt about it. And then the door opens and I see
this
ridiculous place—and Santu tells me that straight-laced, perfect gentleman Captain Spencer, who wouldn’t dream of consorting with
that
sort of woman, is on his way—I just had to make your entrance memorable.”

She hopped down off the bed, looked at Spencer, and her face grew serious. “But you’re not laughing.” She reached over to pat him on the arm. “This hasn’t been an easy day, has it? Let me get out of my working clothes, and we’ll talk.”

She crossed to the side of the room, threw back one of the wall hangings, and vanished through the doorway behind it. Al Spencer found a pile of pillows at a comfortable height for sitting and collapsed down onto them. He unbuckled his AID and tossed it onto the next pile of pillows over. Suss reappeared, wearing a very practical-looking brown coverall. “I’m sorry,” she said, sitting close to him, but not too close. “Poor attempt at a joke.”

Spencer smiled, feeling as if he hadn’t smiled enough in a long time. “No, a very good attempt at a joke. It was funny—this place is funny—and you looked very lovely. But things have been moving too fast. Here I am, supposedly running this ship, this whole task force—and I don’t even know port from starboard.”

“So what did you do about it?”

“Backpedalled, left the XO to get on with patching the ship up. He’s got enough problems without holding my hand. I’ve decided to take on the investigation of the
Banquo
mess while I’m learning the ropes. I did a hitch at the Judge Advocate’s office. It’s something I know about.”

“So you delegated authority to the man best able to do the work and took on the responsibility for the nastiest assignment yourself,” Suss said. “That sounds like what a captain is supposed to do. Maybe you don’t know port and starboard yet, but it seems to me that you have enough common sense to fake it while you learn.”

“And meanwhile I intend to stall on the
Banquo
business until we’re en route to Daltgeld.”

Suss looked up, startled. “Why wait? You
can’t
wait. If the crew of the
Banquo
and the other ships don’t see justice done for what’s happened to them—”

“There’ll be an explosion to make the
Banquo
mutiny look like a day at the beach. I know. But there’s no Navy presence to speak of on Daltgeld. I’ll be the highest-ranking officer in system. If I had to convene a court martial here, the regs say I’d have to hand it off to the fatbottoms back on-planet. And no doubt some of them are chummy with the Kareds, or the Rocklers. The fix would be in. Once we’re out of system, it’s legal for us to try the case ourselves, make sure no one has a chance to cock up the works.”

Suss looked at Al with new respect. “And the file says you’re still a little disoriented, not quite back to your old self. Either the psych file is wrong, or you’re really going to be something once you get over—” Suss stopped and shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t talk so lightly about what they did to you and your wife, like it’s a summer cold you’ll shake off.” She thought for a second, and blushed. “And there I was, prancing around in my skivvies just for a laugh. I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean to mock you.”

Spencer shrugged. “It’s okay. I have to live with it. I’m used to people regarding that sort of thing very casually. Bethany and I had
our
marriage in a world where none of our peers, none of our acquaintances, had a
real
marriage. No one married because they loved each other and wanted to be together. I’m used to people assuming there was nothing real there between Bethany and myself.”

Suss reached out a hand—but then drew it back. This man didn’t want or need physical contact right now. “I’m sorry,” she said at last.

“Thank you,” Spencer said. “That counts for a lot.” He had known this woman for, what, twenty hours? Already she seemed an old friend. Was it just sheer chance that they got along, or had some KT psych computer calculated their personalities would mesh—or was Suss’ apparent kindness part of her act, a facet of the job she was doing? Never mind. None of that mattered. He
needed
someone he could talk to, someone who cared about him. Whatever the reasons, however false or genuine it was, he needed her understanding.

“You’re nice people,” Al said.

“You say that as if you were surprised,” Suss replied.

“I guess I am,” Spencer admitted. “I always thought KT operatives were supposed to be paranoi—” He stopped himself in mid-word. He realized he was about to put his foot in it. “Supposed to be, you know, dedicated, determined, humorless, driven,” he said, trying to recover as best he could.

“What you were about to say is that Kona Tatsu ops are supposed to be paranoid sociopaths,” Suss said easily. “Some of us are, of course. Comes with the territory.”

She stood up and selected another pile of pillows to slump down on. “It’s been a problem for intelligence agencies since the dawn of time. The personality-type best suited to fieldwork is also one of the most pathological, dangerous, and unstable personality types going.”

She picked up one of the smaller and gaudier pillows within reach and hugged it to her chest. After a moment’s silence, she spoke again, her eyes focused somewhere far beyond the walls of Luinda Kerad’s fantasy world of a stateroom.

“You need someone who can slip into a foreign society, blend in facelessly without being noticed, a loner willing to leave family and friends far behind, maybe leave them behind forever, someone with such absolute faith in himself that he can make life-or-death decisions instantly—and unfeeling enough that he can live with the consequences afterwards. It helps to be completely devoid of empathy, helps even more if you can’t really believe that other people have feelings—and the best way to manage that is to suppress your own feelings as well. It takes someone capable of getting up every morning and living a cover story—living a lie, trusting no one.

“Talk to a psychologist, describe someone who lives like that, can
function
in life like that—and the shrink will tell you that person is in serious trouble. That person is a sociopath, a paranoid afraid of everything and unable to experience any of the fear he’s keeping locked deep inside. He either winds up locked in a rubber room somewhere, or locked inside his cover story, never opening up, forever incapable of most normal human feelings.”

“You keep saying ‘he’,” Spencer said.

Suss looked up and smiled unhappily. “Do I? Probably because I’m still trying to pretend it can’t happen to me. Every once in a while, I feel it all closing in, feel myself walling off my feelings, treating people like so many chess pieces to be sacrificed.
That
scares the living daylights out of me. There’s part of me that knows, absolutely
knows
that I’m going to end up with all the life drained out of me, a Kona Tatsu killing machine. I have to fight that.”

She tossed her hug-pillow away, stood up, and shrugged broadly. “So I overcompensate, act as alive as I can—and dress up in filmy negligee for the sole purpose of shocking a perfect stranger, so he forms the wrong impression and assumes his operational partner is a complete slut and loon.” She crossed to the stateroom’s comm panel and switched on a view of the planet below, hanging silently alone in the emptiness of space. “We’re all crazy by now,” she half-whispered. “I wonder if there’s a completely sane person left in the Pact.

“And if there isn’t,” she asked, still staring at the stars, “what does that say about the Pact?”

Chapter Five
Trial

BOOK: The War Machine: Crisis of Empire III
3.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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