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Chapter Fifteen

There were no remote order terminals in Dempsey's Bar. Patrons were served by real, live waiters and waitresses—a factor, given civilian labor costs on the Navy's busiest orbital shipyard, which explained much about Dempsey's price levels. It also helped explain why Dempsey's patrons were willing to pay those prices, but it wasn't the entire story.


The bar and its adjoining restaurant were the gathering place of choice for virtually all off-duty personnel for many reasons. One was familiarity. Dempsey's Restaurants, Inc., had been the original flagship corporation of the Dempsey Cartel, second only to the Hauptman Cartel in wealth and power, and virtually every city in the Kingdom boasted at least one Dempsey's of its own. They were everywhere, and everyone knew them, and if the chain couldn't match the eminence of one-of-a-kind establishments like Cosmo's, or emulate the frenetic activity of "cutting edge" night spots, that was fine with its managers, because they didn't want those things. What they did want was visibility and familiarity coupled with a level of service, comfort, and quality guaranteed to attract and hold the loyalty of their patrons (even at Dempsey's prices), and that was precisely what they had achieved.


This particular Dempsey's lay at the very hub of HMSS Hephaestus's core, yet its designers had gone to great lengths to create a ground-side environment. They couldn't avoid the legally mandated color codings for emergency life support and other disaster-related access and service points, but they'd paid through the nose for permits to build double-high compartments, then used the extra height to accommodate dropped ceilings that hid the snake nests of pipes and power conduits which covered deckheads elsewhere. Sophisticated holo projections outside the casement "windows" displayed ever-changing planetary panoramas, and it was Monday, which meant the bar was "on" Sphinx. The cold, blue skies of autumn soared over the spires of Yawata Crossing, Sphinx's second largest city, and traffic and pedestrian noises drifted in through open windows on artfully cool breezes that smelled of live greenery and sidewalk-cafe cooking. Dempsey's holos never repeated themselves, either. Unlike the constructs less discerning owners might have used, they were broadcast from or recorded at other units of the chain on Manticore, Sphinx, and Gryphon, which gave them specific locations and complete spontaneity. Diners could—and did—sit for hours watching ground-side places they often knew well, and Manticore and Sphinx were close enough to Hephaestus to allow near real-time transmission.


Background holos, however nice, might have seemed a relatively minor element in producing the near-fanatic loyalty of Dempsey's Hephaestus-based regulars when Manticore itself was barely twenty minutes away by shuttle. But for more than a single person, that twenty-minute trip demanded coordination of duty schedules which was often difficult and frequently worse. A spur of the moment evening ground-side with a lover or a few close friends was a near impossibility . . . except at Dempsey's, where they brought ground-side to you.


Colonel Tomas Santiago Ramirez discovered his glass was empty and paused in conversation with Paul Tankersley to raise a summoning hand. His chair creaked with his movement, and he grimaced wryly at its complaint. He was used to such sounds of strain, and it was hard to blame the furniture. It hadn't been designed with him in mind.


Paul saw his grimace and hid a smile of sympathy. He and Ramirez had taken to one another almost from the first, and acquaintance had turned quickly into friendship. The colonel was a voracious reader and a man of catholic tastes, with a dry, understated sense of humor he took great pains to hide. His guard tended to come down once he got to know someone, and he and Paul had fallen into the habit of getting together for wide-ranging conversations, liberally fueled by excellent beer. Ramirez's émigré origins gave him a different, often subtly provocative viewpoint on things native Manticorans took for granted, and Paul enjoyed their discussions immensely. It didn't hurt that the colonel was devoted to Honor, but Paul suspected they'd have become friends even if he hadn't been.


Ramirez was also just as tough as his physique suggested, yet he was simultaneously one of the gentlest men Paul had ever met . . . except where the People's Republic of Haven was concerned. No one could have called the colonel soft, but it was as if all his hostility had been distilled and directed toward a single goal: the destruction of the People's Republic and all its works. It might have been inaccurate to call his hatred for the Peeps obsessive, but not by very much.


His exec was another matter. Susan Hibson didn't share her boss's implacable vindictiveness toward Haven, but only an idiot would ever take liberties with her . . . and no one would take them twice. She was no martinet, and her people were devoted to her, but they feared her, as well. It wasn't that she didn't suffer fools gladly; she didn't suffer them at all, and God help anyone who dared to suggest there was anything, however impossible, her Marines couldn't do.


Perhaps, Paul thought, the difference between Hibson and Ramirez had something to do with their sizes. The major was thirty-five centimeters shorter than her superior, barely squeaking past the Corps' minimum height requirement, and she was built for speed, not power. Her colonel could afford his gentleness because someone built like a suit of battle armor never needed an attack-dog mentality, but Susan Hibson looked too small and delicate for a "proper" warrior. The Marines, unlike the Navy, were expected to get down in the mud and the blood, and Paul had no doubt Hibson had been forced to prove herself in her chosen profession—not simply to others, but to herself—for years.


The summoned waiter appeared at Ramirez's elbow, and the colonel smiled at his companions.


"The same again for everyone?" His voice was deep, but its curiously liquid consonants gave it an almost musical lilt. San Martin was one of the worlds whose ethno-preservationist colonists had managed to hang onto their native language, and Ramirez had never lost his accent.


Murmurs of agreement met his question, but Alistair McKeon shook his head with a smile.


"No more beer for Mr. Tremaine," he announced. Lieutenant (Senior Grade) Scotty Tremaine made an indignant sound, and McKeon chuckled. "We adults have to look after the infants among us. Besides, he's going on watch soon."


"With all due respect, Sir, that's a load of, um, unfounded prejudice. We younger, fitter types have the metabolism to handle alcohol without impairing our faculties. Unlike," the sandy-haired lieutenant added, "some old—I mean, certain distinguished senior officers."


"You, young man, spend entirely too much time with people like Senior Chief Harkness." McKeon's tone was austere, but his eyes twinkled, and Tankersley swallowed a laugh. He'd come to know the people around this table well and liked them all, not just Ramirez, but he'd been more than a little surprised by McKeon's and Tremaine's off-duty informality.


Most captains he'd known never socialized with their juniors, much less joked with them, but McKeon managed it without ever undermining his authority or suggesting that he played favorites. Paul wasn't certain how the captain managed that, and he was fairly sure he couldn't have done it himself, but Tremaine's own personality probably had something to do with it.


"Not guilty, Sir," the lieutenant said now. "I'm just reminding you of scientifically demonstrated facts."


"Of course you are." McKeon smiled again, then shrugged. "All right. One more beer for Mr. Tremaine. After that, he's on sodas."


His voice held a slight but unmistakable undertone of command, and Tremaine accepted it with a nod and a smile of his own. The waiter tapped their orders into his pad and departed, and Hibson drained the last swallow from her current stein and sighed.


"I have to say I'm glad things are finally settling down dirt-side," she said, picking up the thread of their earlier conversation, "but I can't help wishing Burgundy had pulled it off."


"Amen to that," Ramirez rumbled with an uncharacteristic frown, and McKeon nodded, but Tankersley shook his head.


"I don't think I do, Susan," he disagreed. The others looked at him in surprise, and he shrugged. "I don't give a good goddamn what happens to Pavel Young, as long as it's unpleasant, but refusing to admit him to the Lords would only have made the situation still worse."


"I hate to admit it, but you're probably right," McKeon said after a moment. He shook his head. "Who would have believed that little shit would actually support the declaration? I hate agreeing with him on anything, and I don't believe for a minute that he's really changed, but the son-of-a-bitch has been useful. And I imagine refusing to seat him would have made things worse for the Captain in the long run, too, now that you mention it."


Paul nodded seriously, but the corners of his mouth tried to smile. All of his companions knew he was Honor's lover, and all of them were unabashed partisans of hers, as well, but they all—every one of them, including McKeon, who commanded his own ship—referred to her only as "the Captain" or "the Skipper."


"I think you're right, too, Sir," Scotty Tremaine said with unwonted seriousness, "but I'm still not clear on exactly what happened or what it was all about. I mean, Young did inherit an earldom. Doesn't that automatically make him a member of the House of Lords?"


"Yes and no, Scotty." Paul gazed down into his empty glass, turning it slowly on the table before him, then looked up and relinquished the empty as the waiter returned. He took a sip of his fresh beer and pursed his lips.


"Young—or North Hollow, now—is, indeed, a peer of the realm," he continued. "Unless he'd been attainted for treason—which he would have been, had he been convicted of cowardice in the face of the enemy—he's legally his father's heir. But the Constitution gives the Lords the right to refuse to seat someone, peer or no, as unfit for membership. It hasn't been done in something like a hundred T-years, but the right to exclude is still there, and not even the Queen can override it if a two-thirds majority of the Lords chooses to exercise it. That's what Burgundy was after when he introduced his motion to consider North Hollow's 'demonstrated lack of character.' "


Tremaine nodded, and Tomas Ramirez used his own stein to hide his grimace of distaste. He was a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth, but he'd never quite accepted the notion of birth as an automatic guarantor of privilege. San Martin had enjoyed, if that was the word, its own hereditary elites before its conquest by the Peeps, but an explicit aristocracy had never been part of them.


He was willing, if pressed, to admit that Manticore's nobility had done well by the Star Kingdom over the centuries. And, certainly, any political system had its own built-in faults. After all, it was designed to govern humans, and humanity could be counted upon to screw anything up periodically. But ever since he'd become aware of the hatred between Pavel Young and the Captain, and especially since he'd learned how it had all started, he'd been even more skeptical than ever about this notion of inherited political power. Like McKeon, he had no faith in Young's apparent conversion, either. The bastard was up to something. The thought that he might get away with whatever he was after was nauseating, and the way some of the other Lords were still trying to prevent effective operations against the Peeps hadn't done a thing to change Ramirez's mind about the institution itself, either.


Of course, the Captain herself was a noble now, he reminded himself, and there were others who'd earned their titles the hard way—or proven they deserved them, however they'd gotten them. People like the Dukes of Cromarty and New Texas, or Earl White Haven and Baroness Morncreek. And there were others who at least recognized their responsibilities and did their best to meet them, like the Duke of Burgundy and the five other peers who'd joined his motion to exclude North Hollow. But the combination of stupidity and self-interest which was making it so hard for Cromarty to obtain his declaration—and so easy for Young to play statesman—sickened the colonel.


"—and the Government couldn't support Burgundy," Tankersley was going on to Tremaine. "I'm pretty sure they would have loved to do just that, at least until North Hollow started pushing support for the declaration. But with the Opposition ready to scream partisan politics, supporting Burgundy and the other nonaligned peers would have—"


Ramirez tuned it out and looked around the bar. He couldn't disagree with Tankersley, but that didn't mean he had to like it. And hearing someone who loved the Captain being forced to explain why the Government had no choice but to support the admission to the highest legislative body in the Kingdom of a piece of garbage who hated her did bad things to his digestion.


His eyes swept the patrons about him, and a tiny flaw in his surroundings caught at his attention. He couldn't put his finger on exactly what it was, but something drew his gaze back to a fair-haired civilian standing with one elbow on the bar nursing a frosted glass. The colonel's eyes narrowed, something like a ghost of elusive memory plucking at the corner of his mind, but he couldn't quite lay hands on it and pin it down. Perhaps it was nothing at all. Or, more likely, it was simply the way the man was standing. There was an almost theatrical gracefulness to his pose, and he was gazing more or less towards Ramirez's table as he, too, surveyed the crowd. Their eyes met for just a moment, the stranger's bland and incurious; then he turned back to the bartender to order a refill, and the colonel shrugged and returned his attention to his companions.


"—why Burgundy never had a chance, really," Tankersley was finishing up. "It's too bad. They don't call him 'the conscience of the Lords' for nothing, but once North Hollow actually made himself valuable to the Government, there were too many factors against him."


"I see." Tremaine sipped his own beer, making it last since he wasn't going to be getting another one, then shrugged. "I see, but I still don't like it, Sir. And I'm with the Skipper—he's up to something dirty. D'you think this pro-war talk of his was just to force the Government to support seating him?"


"That's certainly one explanation that makes sense, but—"


Tankersley broke off and looked up. Ramirez turned his head to follow the direction of his gaze, and smile wrinkles crinkled about the colonel's eyes as he recognized the sturdy-looking red-haired woman approaching their table. She wore the uniform of a Marine sergeant-major, and the streaks of gray in her hair proclaimed that she was old enough to have received one of the earlier generations of the prolong treatment.


"Well, well! If it isn't Gunny Babcock," Ramirez said, and the woman smiled at him. The Royal Manticoran Marines no longer used the official rank of gunnery sergeant. They'd lost it when they merged with the Royal Army three hundred T-years before and hadn't reinstated it when they split back off a hundred years after that. But the senior Marine noncom aboard any ship was still referred to as "gunny," and Iris Babcock had been the battalion sergeant-major attached to HMS Fearless with Ramirez and Hibson.


"Good evening, Colonel. Captain. Major." Babcock nodded respectfully to the senior officers around the table, and her smile turned into something like a grin as Scotty Tremaine flipped her an impudent salute. The Navy was less punctilious about military protocol in off-duty situations, and the Corps had learned to put up with them. Besides, only a convinced misanthrope could have produced an appropriate glower at Tremaine.


"To what do we owe the honor, Gunny?" Ramirez asked, and the sergeant-major nodded at McKeon once more.


"I'm sergeant-major to Major Yestachenko in Captain McKeon's Marine detachment now, Colonel. I was just on my way back to Prince Adrian when I noticed all of you over here. I haven't seen you or Major Hibson since your promotions, and I thought I'd pay my respects in passing."


Ramirez nodded. Dempsey's was a civilian establishment. It wasn't uncommon for officers and noncoms, or even enlisted personnel, from the same commands to run into one another here, and there was an unofficial protocol for what happened when they did. He started to reply when Tankersley's chrono chirped, and the naval officer looked down at it with a grimace.


"Damn," he said mildly. "Looks like I have to be going, folks. Places to be and people to see, I'm afraid." He finished off his drink and rose, smiling at the others. "It's been fun, and I'll see you all later."


He nodded to Babcock, who came to a sort of parade rest in reply, then turned toward the exit. The others watched him go, and Ramirez saw Babcock smile at his back. So, the colonel thought. The sergeant-major was another of the Captain's well-wishers.


But then Babcock's smile vanished. It didn't fade; it disappeared into a sudden, bleak expression Ramirez had seen on her face only once before, when they broke into the cell blocks of Blackbird Base and discovered what the Masadans had done to their Manticoran POWs. It happened like magic, in a single beat of the heart, and the raw hatred in her eyes stunned the colonel with its abrupt, brutal impact.


"Gunny?" The single word came out softly, questioningly, before he could stop himself, and Babcock shook herself. Her eyes dropped down to meet his for a moment, then rose once more, and he turned to look over his own shoulder. She was staring at the man at the bar, the one who'd looked elusively familiar, and Ramirez's brows lowered in a frown.


"What is it, Gunny?" His voice was firmer and more authoritative. "Do you know that man?"


"Yes, Sir, I do," Babcock's reply was grim and stark.


"Well, who is he?" Ramirez felt the others looking at them both in surprise. Surprise both at Babcock's reaction and his own tone as that nagging sense of almost recognition tugged at him again.


"Denver Summervale, Sir," Babcock said flatly, and air hissed between Ramirez's teeth as the pieces suddenly clicked. He felt Hibson tense beside him, and McKeon frowned at him across the table.


"What's going on, Tomas?" the captain asked. "Who is that guy?"


"You wouldn't know, Sir," Ramirez replied. He forced his fists to unclench and turned his back deliberately upon Summervale's presence. "He wasn't one of yours; he was ours."


"Not for a long time now, Sir," Susan Hibson said quietly.


"He was ours for too damned long, Ma'am," Babcock grated, then shook herself. "Excuse me, Ma'am."


"Don't apologize, Gunny. Not for that."


"Would one of you please explain what's going on?" McKeon asked, and Ramirez smiled without humor.


"Captain The Honorable Denver Summervale was once a Marine officer, Sir," he said. "He's also some sort of cousin of Duke Cromarty. Thirty-odd years ago, he was court-martialed and dismissed from the Queen's Service after he killed a brother officer in a duel."


"In a duel?" McKeon looked back toward the bar, and Babcock made a grating sound of disgust.


"If you can call it that, Captain," she said flatly. "The officer he killed was a lieutenant—my lieutenant. I was his platoon sergeant. Mr. Tremaine here reminds me a lot of him, only he was even younger." McKeon's eyes snapped back to the sergeant-major, and she met his gaze levelly. "He was just a kid. A nice kid, but so new he squeaked. Only it turned out his family had enemies, and Captain Summervale goaded him into a duel. It was a farce, a put-up job, and I couldn't get Mr. Thurston to realize it."


The sergeant-major's bleak face was cold with almost as much self-hatred as loathing for Summervale. It was the face of someone who'd failed a junior officer she was supposed to look after.


"It wasn't your fault, Gunny," Ramirez said. "I've heard the stories, and everyone knew Summervale's reputation. Lieutenant Thurston should have realized what was going on."


"But he didn't, Sir. He actually believed he'd accidentally impugned Summervale's honor, and that made him hesitate. That bastard was a good second faster off the mark, and he put that bullet exactly where he'd been damned well paid to put it."


"That was never proven," Ramirez said quietly, and Babcock's snort was just short of insubordinate. The colonel ignored it. "It wasn't proven," he went on in that same quiet voice, "but I think you're right. And so did the Corps when they cashiered him."


"Too late for Mr. Thurston," Babcock half-whispered, then shook herself again. "I'm sorry, Sir. I shouldn't have spoken that way. It just . . . sort of took me by surprise after all these years."


"Like Major Hibson says, don't apologize. I knew about Summervale, but I didn't know you'd been in Thurston's platoon at the time." Ramirez turned to glance over his shoulder again just as Summervale paid his bill and left, and the colonel's eyes narrowed in speculation.


"I haven't heard anything much about him or what he's been up to for the last several years," he mused aloud. "Have you Susan? Gunny?"


"No, Sir," Babcock replied, and Hibson shook her head silently.


"Odd." Ramirez rubbed an eyebrow, frowning down into his drink, and made a mental note to report Summervale's presence to Marine Intelligence. They liked to keep track of their own bad apples, even after they were officially "theirs" no longer. "It's probably just a coincidence," he went on thoughtfully, "but I wonder what a paid duelist, who has to know how any Marine who recognizes him is going to react, is doing aboard Hephaestus?"


 



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