No Easy Road

By Greg Camp

Sci-Fi

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1462
19 mins

Chapter I

Tom gripped the railing of the inspection platform and clenched his jaws to keep himself from throwing his mobile comm against the hull. In the expanse aft, the cylindrical main cascades glowed blue and hummed a steady bass note as they released dark energy from expanding space and pumped it into the transformers that then distributed power to the ship’s systems. All was well in the engineering section, or it would have been, but for that message.
The fore hatch opened. Tom stuffed his hand into his coat pocket to feel the tablet there, then relaxed the muscles of his face and turned around to see the Excalibur’s first officer come in. He drew himself to attention. “Commander Shelley.”
“L’tenant Thomas Cochrane, status report.” Shelley held a tablet of his own in front of him and tapped its edge with his finger.
“We’re holding the fifth interval—”
“I’m aware of that.” The smirk on the commander’s face demanded to be insufferable, but Tom would have to suffer it.
“Current power flow is four point five percent. All systems are nominal, and—”
“And how would you know, L’tenant? You can feel our status in your little toe?”
Tom’s fingers twitched, but he was not about to give Shelley the pleasure of seeing him make fists. “Our status remains the same as it was five minutes ago, sir.”
“When I last checked on you, you were in the engineer’s office and could speak with certainty. Now, I find you wandering the ship.”
Shelley’s father, the Lord Groombridge, was on the verge of dying, and his son more and more took on the foppish attitude and accent of aristocrats.
“I’m doing a visual inspection, sir.”
“You having been blessed with diagnostic sensors for eyes?” The commander's eyes narrowed, and the anger in his voice compressed his tone. “Walk with me, L’tenant.”
Shelley stepped forward and through the open door. He strolled out, leaving Tom to follow and pull the hatch shut.
“Step lively, if you please.” The commander led Tom down the companionway onto D deck. “Speaking of the gifts of birth, your father is some kind of clerk, am I right?”
“No, sir.” The specter of Archibald Phillip Cochrane rose in Tom’s mind, shaking a disapproving finger at his errant son. “He’s a senior accountant in the Ministry of Colonial Affairs.”
“Ah, of course.” Shelley sniffed. “A civil servant.”
“We all play our part—free subjects of a free king.” Tom stared ahead at the textured grey of the deck under his feet, unwilling to catch Shelley’s eye. The man was his superior officer, no matter how much Tom wanted to knock him flat.
The commander cleared his throat, and Tom looked up to see the main computer compartment. He came to attention, casting sidelong glances, determined to wait until given an order.
“Open it, if you please,” Shelley commented to the deck above.
Tom stepped forward and turned the wheel. The bolts retracted, and he pulled the hatch back. “After you, sir.”
Inside, a row of status monitors on the forward bulkhead displayed graphs of power flows and internal temperatures, while other screens listed programs currently running. It was an engineer’s playground, line by line the brain of the ship. Tom wanted to be elsewhere, putting the machinery to good use in battle against Marauders.
But Shelley moved forward to lean against the center console. “L’tenant, Captain Hyerson, for reasons best known to himself, tolerates you, but that doesn’t have to continue.”
On the second screen from the larboard end, a monitor declared that the environmental systems server had just finished defragmenting. Fascinating, that.
“L’tenant, I am dissatisfied with your performance.”
Tom seethed, hoping that Shelley would give him grounds for a different kind of satisfaction. Shelley was known for having little skill with a blade, and crossing swords with this pompous ass promised—
“Are you listening to me, L’tenant?”
“Every word, sir.” Tom held his gaze on the monitors.
“Is that so? Then perhaps you can explain to me how this has come to be.”
“Your dissatisfaction, sir? I have no idea.”
Stomping around the console, Shelley came to stand a foot in front of Tom, his teeth grinding behind curled lips. “I won’t tolerate your insubordination.”
Tom stared straight at the other man and dug his fingertips into his legs. “If the commander could be specific—”
Shelley raised his open hand into the air and flexed his fingers, then dropped it back down to rest his palm on the console.
“L’tenant, you have this last chance—this one last chance, do you understand me?”
The honest answer was no, but Tom said nothing.
“There’s something wrong with this computer.”
Of course there was. Tom was in charge of it, so something had to be wrong.
“The power flow has been fluctuating for days. I put you in charge of the engineering section, but you’ve done nothing about it. I want it resolved.”
With that, the commander strode out and flung the hatch shut.
“Dismissed,” Tom muttered to the monitors. He pulled the tablet from his pocket and turned it on.
The image of the frigate H. M. S. Endeavour appeared in holographic projection above the surface. She was in the ordinary yard at present, ready to be broken up, but he was sure that she could be made whole again. If only he could find the time away from the Excalibur and out from under Shelley, that is.
He sighed and turned off the tablet, then reached for the comm panel on the console.
“Chief Mendez.”
After a moment, the engineer’s voice responded. “Here, sir.”
“Chief, the Commander has ordered me to find a power fluctuation in the main computer.”
Mendez coughed, probably to choke back an admission of the obvious, but he was a good spacer and said nothing.
“We’d best get to it. Join me, if you please.”
“Aye, sir.”
Tom closed the channel. He felt sorry for dragging Mendez into Shelley’s pettiness, but there was nothing to be done about that.

*

Feeling chilled, Bertrand buttoned his coat. The air in the domes was supposed to be uniform throughout the whole city, but the dim light of the Epsilon Annex made his body believe he was cold. The illumination in this dome was always low, its inhabitants and customers preferring not to be seen by those who did not pay for the pleasure.
Examples of this stood at a street corner across from him—three women and one man gathered by the stone wall of a hotel—scraps of food wrappers and the shards of broken bottles lying about their feet. All were dressed suggestively, the man’s shirt opened in a V that pointed below his flat stomach. The tallest woman, her hair dyed red and spiked alive, winked at Bertrand. He had not turned toward her—he only stole sidelong glances—but she must have perceived his attention. Were any of them a threat? Likely not—for the moment, anyway.
This was the right place.
Ignoring any more suggestions from the merchandise on the other side of the street, Bertrand crossed at an angle and headed for the hotel’s entrance. The establishment took no pains to hide its purpose. A sign over the door announced in harshly lighted red letters, “The Hotel Rendezvous.”
Inside, wall panels at wide intervals glowed, also red, and the atmosphere was thick with the smoke of incense. More people for sale lounged on chairs older and more used than their current occupants. A few potted plants sat by the door, struggling to survive. At the far end, a portcullis blocked off the hallway into the interior.
Behind a transparent screen in the middle of the right-hand wall, an elderly clerk perched on a stool, watching the flickering light of a screen. Row after row of room numbers lined up above, some shining green, but most dark. Bertrand stepped over and pressed the buzzer.
“I’m here to meet someone.”
The old fellow ignored him. He pressed the button again. This time, the clerk waved a hand at a slot.
Tiny type above the opening called for two shillings from visitors. Bertrand fished in his pocket for the coins and shoved them in. Whoever he was meeting had better have a good reason for this. The portcullis rattled up into the ceiling, and he headed down the hallway toward the lifts at the end.
Alone in the car on the slow ride up to the seventeenth floor, he checked his mobile again. The message was clear—three asterisks and an address—but there was no information about the sender. Whoever was in trouble must be in dire need. Correction, had better be in dire need to drag him to this wretched place.
The door slid open. He took a step forward from the back rail to exit, then shifted sideways to flatten against the wall. Outside, uniformed constabulary swarmed the hall.
But one of them had seen the lift arrive. Bertrand stepped out. A tall officer confronted him, a man with close-cropped hair and a neat mustache that looked drawn with a ruler.
“What’s your business here?” the officer demanded.
“I’m meeting a friend.”
Straightedge sneered at him. “Which room?”
Bertrand searched his memory of the room numbers in the clerk’s alcove for an empty. “Fifteen.”
He had been summoned to number five, but that was the room at the center of all the activity.“That right?” The man held out his hand. “I’ll need to see your ID.”
Naturally. Bertrand pulled out a card.
The officer took it and ran a scanner over it. The machine flashed a blue light.
“All right, Mr. Robert Smith, you get yourself on to number fifteen, and don’t get curious on the way.”
Bertrand collected his card and dropped it into his pocket. He would sell it to someone in need at his next opportunity, perhaps the man on the street corner far below.
As he passed the third door on the left, he glanced at the goings on with as idle a curiosity as he could manage. Closed black bags rested on two gurneys. A detective wrote notes on a tablet. A technician pointed at the floor, commenting in a voice that Bertrand could not make out.
That was all he could gather while appearing to follow the officer’s direction. Five more doors down, he leaned against the wall to hide his omnikey as it sought the code to open the lock.
The latch clicked, and he slipped in and checked his mobile. Nothing. The setup felt more and more like a trap.
Where are you? he typed.
The screen remained blank. Bertrand stared at it, the lighted keys adding only a little illumination to the room. The rest came in from the dim street lamps through the grungy window.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness, only to be dazzled by the reply.
Rm. 5.
Was one of the constables communicating with him? If so, why had he been allowed to pass by?
Do not toy with me, he answered.
Are you here?
The darkness of the room felt all too bright. Someone had used an emergency signal to lure him here. Was that person nearby? Or was someone trying to get him tied up in a murder investigation from a distance?
Enough of this. You called me. Explain.
O.K., Rm. 7. Where are you?
I said explain.
The screen stayed dark for a moment before flashing the response. Was its light enough to be seen from outside?
Came to 5, saw bodies, ran to 7 before L.E. showed up.
Bertrand sighed. Patrick, what have you done?
How did you guess?
Did he really have to explain that the tedious games and willful vagueness was enough to know? Stay where you are, and be quiet.
But when are you coming?
Stay where you are, and be quiet—last chance.
The keys of the mobile cast enough light for Bertrand to see a chair next to the wall. He moved slowly over to it and sat. Whatever was going on, he was in for a long wait.

*

Crouching on the deck, Chief Mendez pulled off the panel underneath the status monitors in the main computer compartment. Tom knelt and stared at the processor modules, hoping the problem was not in the programming. No wires hung loose, and all the parts fitted properly in their slots.
“Chief, do you have any idea what the Commander is talking about?”
Mendez grimaced. “Ah, sir, you’re asking a difficult question.”
Whenever Shelley was the topic of conversation, Tom’s fellow spacers grew tense.
“Explain.”
The chief glanced around the compartment. “Sir, I can tell you exactly what’s wrong, if you want to know.”
“I’m listening.”
“L’tenant, are you ordering me to tell you?”
Tom stood. “On your feet, Chief.”
Mendez came to attention.
“If you know something, tell me.” Tom hated playing the martinet, but he had no time to dawdle about in getting an answer.
“I could tell you, sir, but it’d be better to show you.”
Tom nodded.
“The thing is, the answer’s not in here. We’ll have to go among the conduits.”
The temperature in the enclosed crawl spaces around the power lines topped a hundred twenty degrees, despite the best efforts of the environmental systems. Tom took off his uniform jacket and draped it on the console. Many officers would accept just a report, but he liked to see things with his own eyes, even if that meant getting dirty. To understand the thing, he had to get inside it.
“Lead the way.”
The chief lifted a deck plate and set it aside. A wave of heat rose from the opening. Mendez lowered himself into the space and crawled aft. Tom followed. The skin of his face and hands warmed in the hot and dry air.
“It’s just up here, sir.”
Thirty feet ahead of Mendez, the passage opened into a pit filled mostly by a black box, a transformer. Pipes exited from it forward to the computer.
Tom worked his way behind the engineer to the pit and climbed down to stand beside the box. Something about it was wrong. The connections looked good, and the dials gave the correct readings, but something was off. The fitting of the casing's panels was ragged, and as he stared at the dials, the readouts repeated the same numbers over and over.
“You’re seeing it, sir?”
“I can tell it’s wrong, but why?” Tom took out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. The power could be fluctuating just as Shelley said, but still give a normal reading in engineering.
“It’s a cheap knock-off, sir.”
The engineer’s face went rigid, as if he were embarrassed by his admission. What else must be going on in his mind did not show.
“Explain.”
“Aye, sir. It’s a bad copy. We got it installed at our last refit.” Mendez turned away to gaze at the regulator.
“Who ordered that?”
No answer came.
“Chief, I asked you a question.”
“We were discussing him earlier, sir.”
“What happened to the old one?”
“It got sold to a merchant ship, sir.”
Shelley had a reputation for caring more about commerce than the interests of the Navy, but Tom had not known that the man would go this far.
“What do we do, then?”
“The best we can manage, sir, without replacing the unit, is to rewrite the software.”
Programming, again. Engineering problems inevitably came back to programming—slogging line by bloody line to tell the stiff-necked machines what to do.
“It’s back to your office, then.”
“Yes, sir, although I can handle it myself, if you wish.”
“No, this got dumped on me as much as you, and you have more important work to do.”
Tom turned to crawl back out.

*

Bertrand checked his watch. 2:30 a.m. He had waited since a little after nine. The sounds down the hallway died down an hour ago, but he was not in a believing mood. Not a word came from Patrick May. Sometimes, we get the blessings we desire.
His scanner weighed heavily in his pocket, reminding him of its presence. The constables would have their own that would light up if he used his. But he had wasted enough time on what had looked like a fool’s errand.
He stood and, holding his hands out, crept over to the light switch. The single bulb in the ceiling came on, casting a dim glow about the room. The place looked better in the dark. A thin blanket covered the one twin bed. A screen made up the right-hand wall. Its remote control sat on a nightstand by the bed, ready to offer probably unlimited channels all showing the same thing. The place smelled of cleaning chemicals. He hoped they were strong enough to eliminate biological samples.
On the far side of the bed stood what Bertrand was looking for—a wardrobe. He walked around, careful not to rub against the stained blanket, and opened the door. Three bathrobes hung on the rack.
Taking the one that was closest to white, he wrapped it around himself and tied the belt loosely at his waist. With his plasma cutter, he opened a hole in the robe’s pocket so his hand could reach his pistol. He then came back around the bed to get the ice bucket.
Time to leave. He turned off the light and stood by the door, waiting for his eyes to adjust. His skin tingled at the thought of going out into the hall. What if the constables waited on the other side?
But that made little sense. He had no reason to believe that they had connected him to the events in Room Five. Unless his communications were being monitored. May was far too sloppy about security.
Enough of that. Whatever happened down the hall was over. If he had been wanted, the officers would have collected him before leaving. They had no reason to play games.
He pushed his hand through the hole in the robe and wrapped his fingers around the grip of the sidearm in his pocket. Still holding the bucket in his right hand, he opened the door with his index finger.
The light in the hallway glared in brilliant white after the darkness of the filthy room. Squinting, he poked his head out and glanced down toward where May was hiding. His breath caught, but nothing of consequence showed. Of course not, no matter what his reflexes told him.
He strolled down the hallway, wanting with each step to wring May’s neck. There had been no emergency, at least none worth this much trouble. He gripped the bucket tightly enough that the dark skin of his fingers blanched.
But he had to rein in his emotions. At Room Seven, he stopped and took a deep breath. Punching the fool would accomplish nothing, and he did need May, despite these occasional indiscretions. He tapped on the door.
After a moment, it swung open.
“Bear-trawn,” May said. He always gave too much stress to the pronunciation of Bertrand’s name.
He glowered till May turned a deep shade of red and stumbled backward.
“You have explaining to do,” Bertrand said and stepped inside to shut the door.

*

Tom sank into a chair next to Chief Mendez in the engineer’s office and gripped the arms before flipping on the comm panel. The screen activated.
Voice or text?
He tapped voice.
“Conn, engineering.”
“Engineering, conn,” the voice of Lt. Adams, the signals officer, answered. “Go ahead.”
“We need permission to lock the main computer into safe mode so we can debug the software in the transformer.”
“One moment, engineering.”
The channel went quiet. Tom glared at the speaker, wondering what new burden Shelley would place on his work. The man took special pleasure in coming up with ever more busywork to punish Tom. What was the source of his hatred? Shelley could not stand being made to look foolish, but Tom had never learned the gift of ignoring the truth.
“L’tenant,” the commander’s voice said, “why do you need to shut down the main computer?”
Tom balled his fists. “Not shut down, sir, just safe mode. You did order me to find the power flow problem.”
“We’re on patrol, Mr. Cochrane. What if we have an emergency?”
“We’re not scheduled to rendezvous with the convey for three days, and there are no vessels in scanning range.”
Shelley’s sigh was audible through the speaker. “Very well, L’tenant. You have permission. Inform the conn as soon as you’re finished, and be quick about it.”
“Aye, sir,” Tom said to the blank screen. He had better find the answer in short order, or Shelley would be nasty. More so than usual.
He turned in his chair toward the engineer.
“Chief, nothing creative here—we follow the manual.”
Mendez rubbed his forehead. “Sir, may I make an observation?”
“Of course.”
“I know exactly what’s wrong. It’s the—”
“You don’t have to say it.” Tom held his hands out. “It’s the equipment, not the software.”
“Yes, sir.” The chief held his gaze.
“What’s wrong with it specifically?”
“The manufacturer skimped on costs, so the circuits aren’t insulated properly. They each throw off an EM field that builds up interference until the static disrupts the whole system and the flow goes back to normal.”
Tom nodded. They were looking at several hours of analyzing lines of programming for nothing, but the procedure recommended checking code before pulling parts. It was tempting to jump ahead to solve the problem, though doing so would mean yet more trouble from his superior officer.
“In the report that I’ll give to Shelley, I have to show that I followed the book. Unlock the command menu, if you please.”
Mendez turned to his keyboard and entered his password.
The screen in front of Tom came on. He selected safe mode for the computer, then locked the power flow at minimal. Next came the debugging tool.
He sat back and let his eyes go out of focus. A red status bar crept across a window on the screen. Above, the names of files being scanned scrolled in a box, looking like columns of ants going after leaves. It might as well have been random characters for all the sense he could make of it at the speed it flowed by.
An alarm rang at the engineer’s desk.
“Sir, there are harmonics building in the power lines.”
Tom stared at the gauge. New frequencies appeared at powers of two above the base. He cursed and turned back to his own keyboard.
“Chief, I can’t shut off the debugger.”
“It’s the minimal power frequency. This damned out-of-spec equipment doesn’t follow the manual. It’s got the system locked up.
Knowing he was in for trouble, Tom tapped the comm panel.
“Conn, engineering.”
“Engineering, conn. Go ahead.”
“We need to restart the system.”
There was no response for a moment, then Shelley came on.
“L’tenant, what have you done?”
“Sir, we have a runaway surge in the lines—”
More alarms sounded.
Tom turned to Mendez. “On my authority, shut it down.”
The engineer reached for his console, but the ship lurched forward and up, pressing Tom and the chief into their seats. The bulkhead and deck shook from a blast. Every screen flashed warnings.
The driver monitor showed the ship dropping through the intervals to come to a halt. She was dead in space.
“Sir,” Mendez shouted, “we’re on fire.”

*

“Patrick, you’re making no sense.”
Bertrand rubbed his forehead and looked about the hotel room. This one was no different from the one he had waited in, both dark holes.
May gave an infuriating grin. “I was just here to meet some friends.”
“Friends? The two bodies in bags? How long had you known them?”
“Well, uh, not long.”
“Be precise.”
May grabbed a pillow from beside him on the bed and twisted it.
“I expect an answer.”
“So? I was just here for a little fun.”
Bertrand seethed, but he gritted his teeth and waited.
“All right, I met them this afternoon.” May glanced at Bertrand. “I mean, yesterday afternoon.”
Naturally. The man made many friends, none of them any good, and none of them lasting.
“What do you care, anyway?” May held up the pillow as if to throw it at him, but then dropped it back on the bed.
“I have a report to make to Concordia.”
“Concordia? Do you have to?”
That little bit of panic was delicious to watch. Perhaps May was finally realizing the seriousness of things. “Yes, and the less you tell me, the more I’ll write.”
“Damn it, it was just for a little fun.”
“You should only repeat yourself when the statement is worth repeating.”
Bertrand stared at the nightstand where he had dropped the robe and ice bucket. If this conversation were over before the lights of the dome came up to simulate dawn, he would be surprised. How much would he tell his superiors about this incident? May was his agent, and that connection called his judgement into question.
“I met them in a bar.”
Indeed, where else?
“Don’t give me a sarcastic look. You know how busy we are. There’s no time for anything real.”
“Tell me everything you remember about this bar.”
“It was the kind where people work hard not to be remembered. Why does it matter?”
“To review—”
Bertrand held his hand up.
“You met two persons for the first time in a bar.”
He extended his index finger.
“You came here to meet them a second time.”
His middle finger joined the first.
“You discovered the two persons dead.”
Next came his ring finger.
“Then the constabulary shows up.”
His little finger stretched out.
“Do I have to explain to you why I want the details?”
“You’re being paranoid. There’s nothing to—”
“It’s our business to be paranoid, as you put it.” Bertrand dropped his hand into his lap. Explaining things would likely be a waste of time, but he had to try. “Few others care enough, so we have to care in ways that may be seen as too much. The bar, for example. You can’t recall who else was there?”
“No.” May gazed at the floor.
Bertrand glanced with him. The tiles were scratched and needed mopping, but not otherwise interesting to a clear conscience.
“What do you suspect?”
Bertrand sighed. “You were set up.”
“Set up?” May blanched. “But that means—”
“Yes, it means that you have drawn the attention of someone who is concerned enough about you to get you tied up in a murder.”
May jumped up and paced the room. “What do we do?”
“We do nothing. You sit down.”
“But—”
“Sit down.”
May sat on the bed.
“Good. The next step is for you to be discreet in the future while I look into this.”
“And your report?”
Bertrand pursed his lips. “You were here to meet contacts and found them dead. We’re investigating the matter. If you can trouble yourself to remember more details, it will make us look less foolish.”
He had wasted enough time on this. He stood, feeling the need for a shower at his home.
“So you’re covering for me?”
He stared at May. “Yes, once again, I’m covering for you.”
With that, he left and walked down the hallway to the lift. Why had he bothered with the man? He had brought May into this life, probably trying to fulfill the dangerous wish for company, but that left him with this lost puppy that made messes on the rug, but that he could not feel right about getting rid of.
He pressed the button and waited to leave the hotel, struggling to shove his irritation back down.

*

“Fire suppressors not engaged,” Mendez called out over the blaring alarms.
Tom scanned the monitors. Every power system on the ship was in the red, and the building harmonics increased exponentially.
“Sir, if we can’t stop this, we’ll lose the ship.”
The comm panel was dead. Tom stabbed his finger on the screen, but nothing worked. Flames blazed in the computer compartment, and he had no way of finding out if anyone was alive in the conn—or anywhere else in the ship.
“What about the fires?”
“Sir, there’s nothing we can do. The breakers tripped, since the equipment can’t handle the frequencies.”
On the ship’s main power display, surges flowed around the system, amplifying each other when they crossed and drawing more and more power. In seconds, the energy returning through the circuits would fracture the baffles in the cascades, blasting the Excalibur apart.
“Shut it down, Chief.”
Mendez nodded. He pulled a key from his pocket and stepped out into the engineering compartment with Tom behind him. The main cascades flared in bluish-white brilliance. The chief unlocked a deck plate and lifted it.
“Sir, if you’ll help me.” He bent down and took hold of one side of a pull bar.
Bracing himself with his feet on the edge of the opening, Tom grabbed the other side of the bar. Together, he and the chief threw the switch, cutting the connection between the ship and primary power.
The lights failed, and the glowing of the cascades dimmed into nothingness. Tom pressed his hands into the deck. His ship was dead in space, and unless he and the chief could restore power, the cold of the vacuum would soon freeze the life inside.
The emergency lights came up, and Tom took a deep breath.
“Chief, how long till we can restart?”
“Five minutes, sir. The power lines have to cool down.”
Without the steady hum of the cascades and the pulsing of the driver, a whole new catalogue of sounds found their way into Tom’s hearing. An alert light high overhead flashed, clicking with each moment of illumination. A hatch opened. Feet slapped the deck.
But through all of that, crackling penetrated. Forward of him, the ship burned, acrid smoke swirling through the air. There was nothing he could do.
“Five minutes.”

*

Bertrand checked his mobile, looking for listening devices. Nothing. The café was clean—of surreptitious electronics and otherwise speaking in relative terms, that is. As dim as it was, he could not see if any dust lingered in the corners.
A waiter came by and stood without speaking, holding a tablet in his hand.
“Port, please,” Bertrand said. “Two glasses and the bottle.”
The man tapped the tablet with a stylus and left.
The front door opened, drawing Bertrand’s attention, but only a couple entered with the light streaming in through the opening. The woman glanced over her shoulder, a frown on her face—checking for her husband, perhaps? Bertrand pressed a button on his mobile, and numbers appeared on the screen. The Professor was due in a minute.
His gaze darted about the café. He had checked the place already, but it would not do to miss something.
The door opened again, and an old man with a mop of white hair down to his shoulders came inside. He spoke with the host a moment and stepped over to Bertrand’s table and sat. The waiter appeared out of a dark recess to leave the bottle and glasses, then returned once more to the shadows.
“Professor.” Bertrand poured the man a drink and one for himself.
The old man sipped from his glass. “I read your report on the incident. You left out some matters that are irrelevant to the main point, I take it.”
Bertrand stared at the reddish-brown liquid in his glass. The Professor’s moods were hard to read, and he was unsure how to respond.
“Don’t worry about it. Why Patrick May was there is probably not important—at least with regard to the conclusion you drew.”
There was a relief. Or was it? The Professor’s comment had implications hanging about it.
“I am interested in exploring your reasons for what you concluded. The two who died—you’re certain they weren’t in our business?”
“As certain as I can be.” Bertrand took a drink. “They were employed by a shipping insurance firm. I found nothing interesting or abnormally criminal about either of them. They appear to have known nothing about how they were being used.”
“How were they identified as a means of getting to May?”
“I have no definite answer to that, but I suspect that whoever was watching him saw his first meeting with those two. Tapping into their communications was easy.”
The Professor poured himself another glass. “Father May—doesn’t he know better?”
A twinge of embarrassment passed through Bertrand. “Or didn’t I instruct him better, you mean.”
“Not at all. I know what you and I both taught him. What he learned is another matter altogether.”
Indeed. Bertrand gave a thin smile.
“What is it that you see in the man?”
The smile vanished. How could he explain this? “Have you ever rescued a stray animal?”
“A cat, once.”
“Ah, they’re not like stray dogs. Make stray cats prosperous, and they accept you as their lifelong servant. May is more of a puppy.”
“Just so. Having brought him into our fold, you can’t feel right about abandoning him.”
Bertrand nodded.
“All right.” The Professor held his gaze. “Enough on that subject. What about the party or parties that are tracking him?”
“I’ve been investigating that, but have found nothing so far.”
“Keep at it. We have to know if this is merely a local crew looking for quick money or something larger.”
The Professor finished his glass and held it in front of him, contemplating.
“This is excellent port.” He stood. “I’m returning to the capital in a day. Send your reports through the usual channels.”
Bertrand watched the old man leave. There was never any time to rest, but someone had to do the work they were doing.

*

Tom swung open the hatch to the conn and stepped in. The aft bulkheads were scorched from the fire, and an acrid odor hung in the air. The ship was on course for Barnard’s Star, limping along at the fourth interval.
Shelley stood next to the captain’s chair, snarling.
“L’tenant, you were summoned five minutes ago. Come forward.”
The commander must have some new bit of theater cooked up. This certainly was not part of the regulations. Tom walked over to stand next to Shelley.
“No, L’tenant. All the way forward.”
Just what did he have in mind? As Tom moved toward the main display, he glanced around at his fellow officers. Only Mendez, seated in the engineering station to Tom’s left, met his gaze.
“That’ll do, L’tenant.”
Tom came to attention.
“About face,” Shelley ordered.
Turning around, Tom stared at the commander who stood in front of the captain’s chair. Shelley moved to the left.
“L’tenant, this chair is empty. Explain that.”
“Captain Hyerson was killed in the explosion.” Captain Hyerson, the person who had taken a chance on Tom when no one else would. The man who felt like the father Tom had always wanted.
“The man that your incompetence killed.” Shelley pointed repeatedly at the chair. “This seat is empty because of you.”
“No, sir.”
Tom jerked his head to the right to see Mendez standing, his face twisted in rage.
“No, sir,” Mendez repeated. “The Captain’s dead because of a substandard part, a part that you, sir—”
“Enough, Chief,” Shelley snapped. “Your report is in the record. Be seated.”
The engineer sat. Tom did not expect him to remain standing. No point in destroying two careers this day. Mendez was right to blame the faulty equipment, but Tom could have protested more, could have refused to follow procedure blindly. He had said nothing.
Shelley’s hands shook for a moment. Was he struggling to restore his composure? Tom did not care. When the Excalibur reached Barnard’s Star, he would no longer have a posting. Depending on what else Shelley had in mind, he would possibly have a lot more to deal with.
“L’tenant,” the commander said finally, “you are relieved. You will remain in your quarters until we reach port. At that time, Admiral Sutherland will deal with you.”
Tom’s eyes turned toward Mendez, willing the engineer to say nothing.
“L’tenant,” Shelley said, “you are dismissed.”
Some new theater, indeed. It was, in fact, a ceremony of blackballing, as old as any group that understood itself in terms of same and other. Tom walked slowly aft.
“One more thing, L’tenant.”
Tom stopped and came to attention again, his eyes focused on the hatch wheel.
“I will see to it that you never serve on a Navy vessel again.”
Shelley stomped over to stand a foot from Tom’s left side.
“Do you hear me, L’tenant?”
“Commander, I was dismissed.”
Without glancing to his side, Tom opened the hatch and left the conn. The tablet with the details of the Endeavour reminded him of its presence by bumping into his leg as he strode down the corridor. Shelley’s threat had enough weight to it. If Tom were to find a posting in the Navy again, it would have to be one of his own making.



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