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Chapter Seventeen

Paul Tankersley finished the day's final report and tossed the backup record chip into his out-basket with a groan of relief. Life seemed much duller with Honor off in Yeltsin, but Admiral Cheviot was clearly determined to keep HMSS Hephaestus's newest deputy constructor from mooning over his lady love.


Paul grinned at the thought and made one more pass through his work files, double-checking to confirm that he'd caught everything. As the executive officer of Hancock Base, he'd been charged with managing all the details so smoothly his CO never noticed anyone had to manage them, and, in his own mind, he'd believed that would prove more than adequate preparation for his present duties.


He'd been wrong. He was only one of nineteen deputy constructors, yet his workload dwarfed the one he'd carried as Hancock Station's exec. He had direct supervisory responsibility for the construction of no less than three dreadnoughts and a superdreadnought—which didn't even count the host of refits underway in "his" quadrant of the mammoth space station. For the first time in his career, he was really aware, not just intellectually conscious, of the sheer scale of the Royal Navy's building and maintenance programs.


His terminal beeped confirmation that he'd dealt with every "Immediate Attention" flag, and he sighed in satisfaction as he shut it down. He logged his schedule for the evening in case something his own exec couldn't handle came up, then rose, stretched, and consulted his chrono. He'd run forty minutes over his watch, but that was less than he'd expected when he arranged to meet Tomas Ramirez for beer and darts at Dempsey's, and he had a good hour to kill before the colonel turned up. He rubbed an eyebrow, then shrugged and grinned. He might as well spend it getting a head start on the beer part of the evening; it wasn't as if abstaining would help against Ramirez's deadly accuracy.


* * *


It was a Wednesday, which put Dempsey's "on" Gryphon for the day. And since it was winter in Gryphon's southern hemisphere, a howling blizzard raged beyond the closed windows. The exterior temperature controls had been adjusted to match, edging the windowpanes with frost, and an impressively realistic holographic fire crackled and seethed in the bar's central fireplace.


Conversation murmured in the background, hushed and companionable with the sense of people sharing an oasis against the storm, whether it was real or not, and Paul felt relaxation creep through him as he ordered his second beer. He was drinking Old Tilman, a Sphinxian brew Honor had introduced him to, and he savored its rich, clean taste. If he nursed this stein just right, he should be just finishing it when the colonel walked in.


He took another sip, then turned his head in mild surprise as a stranger slid up onto the barstool beside him. Most of Dempsey's patrons were scattered about the booths and tables, which left the gleaming hardwood bar lightly tenanted. There were enough unoccupied stools to provide privacy, or at least solitude, and he wondered idly why the newcomer hadn't taken one of them.


"Double T-whiskey sour," the stranger told the barkeep, and Paul's eyebrow quirked. Most Manticorans preferred one of the native whiskeys from the viewpoint of familiarity and cost alike. Terran whiskey was expensive enough, even in the Star Kingdom, to make it an affectation of the very rich, and if the slim, fair-haired man beside him was well-dressed, neither the cut nor the fabric of his clothing suggested the kind of money that went with T-whiskey.


The bartender produced the required drink, and the stranger took a sip, then turned his stool to survey his surroundings. He rested one elbow on the polished bar, holding his drink with a sort of negligent grace, and there was an almost arrogant confidence in the way he scanned his fellow patrons.


Something about him bothered Paul. There was nothing concrete or overt, yet invisible hackles tried to rise on the back of his neck. He wanted to get up and move away, but the gesture would have been too pointed, too rude, and he concentrated on his beer, scolding himself for the hyper-sensitivity that made him wish he could do it without offending.


A minute passed, then two, before the stranger abruptly drained his glass and set the empty on the bar. His movements had a curious deliberation, almost a finality, and Paul expected him to leave. But he didn't.


"Captain Tankersley, isn't it?" The voice was cool, with an aristocratic accent which certainly matched a taste for Terran whiskey. It was also courteous, yet there was something else under the courtesy.


"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," Paul said slowly, and the stranger smiled.


"I'm not surprised, Sir. After all, you've been turning up on HD and in the 'faxes since Hancock Station, while I—" He shrugged, as if to emphasize his own lack of importance, and Paul frowned. He'd been trapped into interviews a couple of times, especially after the newsies learned of his relationship with Honor, but he wouldn't have thought he'd gotten enough coverage for strangers to recognize him in bars.


"In fact," the other man went on, "I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate the job you did in Hancock."


"You don't want to believe all you read in the 'faxes," Paul replied. "All I did was sit on the repair base and hope Admiral Sarnow and Captain Harrington could keep the Peeps from blowing it out from under me."


"Ah, yes. Of course." The stranger nodded and raised his glass at the bartender to signal for a refill. Then he looked back at Paul.


"Your modesty is commendable, Captain Tankersley. And, of course, we've all read of Lady Harrington's exploits."


The way he said "exploits" brought Paul's eyebrows down in a quick frown. The word carried a slight but unmistakable derision, and he felt his temper stir. He called it sternly to heel and took a deeper pull at his beer, suddenly eager to finish the stein and be off. He was beginning to suspect the stranger was another newsie—and not one friendly to Honor—which lent added urgency to escaping without running away too obviously.


"To tell the truth," the man said, "I was surprised—awed, even—when I heard about the odds against her. It must've taken guts to stand and fight against that much opposition instead of pulling out to save her command."


"I'm just as glad she did. If she hadn't, I probably wouldn't be here," Paul said shortly, and instantly bit his tongue. Surely he should know by now that the only way (short of homicide) to deal with a newsie, especially a hostile one, was to keep your mouth shut and ignore him! Anything else only encouraged him—and what you actually said mattered considerably less than what he could make it seem you'd meant to say.


"I suppose that's true," the stranger said. "Of course, quite a few of her own people aren't here, are they? Perhaps if she'd scattered sooner more of them would have survived. Still, I suppose no officer can do his duty—or earn the medals Lady Harrington has—without sacrificing a few lives along the way."


Paul's temper surged again, and he felt himself flush. The other's tone was losing its pretense of disinterested urbanity. There was an edge to it, too pointed to be an accident, and he gave the stranger a repressive frown.


"I've never known Captain Harrington to 'sacrifice' a single life she could save," he said coldly. "If you're suggesting she risked her people's lives to go glory-hunting, I find the idea as ridiculous as it is offensive."


"Really?" The other man's eyes glinted with a strange satisfaction, and he shrugged. "I didn't intend to offend you, Captain Tankersley. And, actually, I don't believe I ever thought Lady Harrington might have sacrificed anyone for glory." He shook his head. "No, no. I never meant to imply that. But it still seems a . . . curious . . . decision to risk an entire task group's destruction to defend a single repair base. One might almost call it questionable, whatever the outcome, and I can't help wondering if perhaps she didn't have some other reason—besides her sense of duty, of course—for matching her command against such a heavy weight of metal. She pulled it off, of course, but why did she try it—and get so many people killed—when she already knew Admiral Danislav had arrived in-system to relieve her?"


Alarms jangled in Paul's brain, for the stranger's tone had shifted yet again. The earlier edge of scorn was no longer veiled; it glittered with scalpel sharpness, a cold cat-and-mouse cruelty. Paul had never heard a voice that could imply so much, put such a sneer of contempt into such outwardly dispassionate words, and the cultured undertone of nastiness was too open for most of the newsies who'd dogged Honor's every move. This man had a personal axe to grind, and common sense shouted for Paul to break off the conversation quickly. But he'd heard too much veiled innuendo about Honor from too many others, and his frown grew cold-eyed and dangerous as he gazed at the stranger.


"Captain Harrington," he said icily, "acted in accordance with her understanding of the situation and her own duty, and her actions led to the capture or destruction of the entire Peep force engaged against her. Given that outcome, I fail to see anything 'curious' or 'questionable' about her conduct."


"Ah, but you wouldn't, would you?" the other man murmured. Paul stiffened, and the stranger smiled with an air of false apology. "I mean, you're right about the outcome, of course. And she did save the repair base and its personnel. Including you."


"What exactly are you implying?" Paul snapped. He felt a wave of stillness rippling out from them, lapping at Dempsey's other patrons. He could hardly believe the effortless speed with which the confrontation had sprung up, the ease and skill with which the other man had provoked him. It couldn't have been an accident. He knew that, but he no longer cared.


"Why, only that her feelings for you—well known feelings, I might add, for anyone who can read a 'fax—may have influenced her." The stranger's voice was an ice-cold sneer. "No doubt it was all dreadfully romantic, but, still, one can't help wondering if the willingness to sacrifice several thousand lives simply to save someone she cared about is really a desirable quality in a military officer. Do you think it is, Captain?"


Paul Tankersley went white. He rose from his barstool with the slow, over-controlled movements of a man hovering on the brink of violence. The stranger was taller than he was, and he looked fit, despite his slim, wiry build, but Paul never doubted he could smash the other into pulp, and he wanted nothing more than to do just that. But the alarm bells were louder and more insistent, even through the red haze of his fury. It had happened too quickly, come at him with too little warning, for him to think clearly, yet not too quickly for him to realize it was deliberate. He had no idea why this man had set out to provoke him, but he sensed the danger in allowing him to succeed.


He drew a deep breath, longing to erase the smiling sneer from that handsome face and leave it far less handsome in the process. He stood for one tense moment, and then, deliberately, turned his back to walk away. But the stranger wasn't done yet. He only stood himself, laughing at Paul's back, and his raised voice carried clearly through the hushed bar.


"Tell me, Captain Tankersley—are you really that good a fuck? Are you so good she was willing to throw away her entire command to save you? Or was it just that she was that desperate to have someone—anyone—between her legs?"


The sudden crudity was too much. It snapped Paul's control, and he whipped back around with death in his face. The other man's sneer slipped for just an instant, and two iron-hard fists caught him before he could even move.


Paul Tankersley held a black belt in coup de vitesse. He managed to pull the lethality of those blows, but only by a hair's breadth and just barely in time. The first fist sank deep into the stranger's belly. He doubled up with a whoop of agony, and the second fist came up from below and snapped his head back like a cracking whip.


The stranger hurtled away from Paul. Barstools flew in all directions as he bounced back, arms flailing, and somehow, without really knowing how, Tankersley stopped himself from following through and finishing him off.


He stood back, breathing heavily, shocked by his own actions and quivering with the need to smash that hateful face yet again, as the other man slid down the front of the bar with a sobbing scream. His hands cupped his face, and blood from pulped lips and a smashed nose oozed between his fingers as he rocked on his knees. The entire restaurant was frozen, shocked into utter immobility by the explosion of violence, and then, slowly, the kneeling man lowered his hands and glared up at his assailant.


He spat a broken tooth onto the floor in a gob of blood and phlegm, then dragged the back of his hand across his gory chin, and his eyes, no longer polished and mocking, glittered with madness.


"You struck me." His voice was thick, slurred with the pain of his smashed mouth and choked with hatred. "You struck me!"


Paul took a half-step towards him, eyes hot, before he could stop himself, but the other man never even flinched. He only stared up from his knees, his face a mask of blood and hate that bordered on outright insanity.


"How dare you lay hands on me?!" he breathed. Paul snarled in contempt and turned away, but that thick, hating voice wasn't finished.


"No one lays hands on me, Tankersley! You'll meet me for this—I demand satisfaction!"


Paul stopped dead. The silence was no longer shocked; it was deadly, and he suddenly realized what he'd done. He should have seen it sooner—would have seen it if he'd been even the tiniest bit less enraged. He hadn't, but now he knew. The man hadn't anticipated that Paul would actually attack him, yet he'd set out from the beginning to goad him into a rage for just one purpose: to provoke the challenge he'd just issued.


And Paul Tankersley, who'd never fought a duel in his life, knew he had no choice but to accept it.


"Very well," he grated, glaring down at his unknown enemy. "If you insist, I'll give you satisfaction."


Another man blended magically out of the crowd and assisted the stranger to his feet.


"This is Mr. Livitnikov," the bloody-faced man snarled, leaning on the other for support. "I'm sure he'll be happy to act for me."


Livitnikov nodded curtly and reached into a tunic pocket with his left hand, supporting the other man with his right, and extended something to Paul.


"My card, Captain Tankersley." The correct, chilly outrage in his hard voice was just a little too practiced, a bit too rehearsed. "I shall expect your friends to call upon me within twenty-four hours."


"Certainly," Paul said in an equally frozen voice. Livitnikov's sudden appearance was all the confirmation he'd needed that he'd been set up, and he gave the other man a contemptuous look as he took the card. He shoved it in his pocket, turned his back, and started for the door, then stopped.


Tomas Ramirez stood just inside the entrance, his face frozen, but he wasn't even looking at Paul. His eyes were locked in shocked understanding on the man his friend had assaulted—the man he'd never thought to mention to Paul—and he watched in numb horror as Livitnikov assisted a stumbling, bloody-faced Denver Summervale away through the crowd.


 



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