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Chapter Three

"Got a minute, Mr. Sinclair?"

Paul looked up from his stateroom desk at Sheriff Sharpe. "What's up?"

"One of your and my favorite sailors, sir." Sharpe extended a small medicinal sample package toward Paul.

Paul took it and peered inside where a couple of objects resembling poppy seeds were floating in the container. "What is it?"

"Joy-Buzz dots. Found inside the locker of one Seaman Fastow."

"Joy-Buzz." Paul eyed the objects again with distaste. The drug wasn't physically dangerous to someone using it, but it seriously impaired judgment and was banned on ships as a result. "Just these two?"

"Yes, sir. Request authorization to acquire Seaman Fastow's butt and run her down to sickbay for a drug test."

"Permission granted. Let me know what the results are."

Sharpe grinned. "Of course, sir."

"There's a Captain's Mast scheduled for just before we get back to Franklin."

"Yes, sir. I believe Ms. Fastow is going to participate in that little evolution."

* * *

Captain's Mast had its origins in ancient navies, where a ship's captain would render justice quite literally in front of the mast on the ship. Spaceships like the Michaelson had no actual masts, of course, but the non-judicial legal proceedings represented by Captain's Mast had been enshrined in the law governing military legal affairs known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Paul braced himself against one side of the compartment where Captain's Mast would be held. As the collateral duty legal officer, he was required to be present for every Captain's Mast. Floating next to him was Senior Chief Kowalski, the senior enlisted crewmember. Standing at the hatch was Master-at-Arms Sharpe. "Attention on deck!" Sharpe called out.

Captain Hayes pulled himself into the compartment, nodded to Paul and the Senior Chief, then took up position near a podium fastened to the deck. He pulled out his data pad, placed it on the podium, called up the first case record, then gestured to Sharpe. "Let's go. First case."

Sharpe leaned out into the passageway. "Seaman Fastow. Front and center."

Fastow entered, her eyes darting about nervously. Sharpe pointed her to a position directly in front of the captain. Behind her came Chief Imari, who also nodded to Paul.

Hayes read over the information on his data unit, then looked sharply at Fastow. "Seaman Fastow, you are charged with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 112a, Wrongful Possession of Controlled Substances." Hayes glanced at Sharpe. "What was it?"

Sharpe cleared his throat. "Joy-Buzz dots, sir."

The captain focused back on Fastow. "What do you have to say?"

Fastow licked her lips before replying. "Captain, Sharpe there went rummaging through my locker—"

"Seaman Fastow, Petty Officer Sharpe conducted a search of an area onboard this ship. Onboard my ship."

"But, he didn't have any warrant—"

"Mr. Sinclair?"

Paul looked steadily at Fastow. "Lockers, desks and all other areas onboard the ship are government property, not personal areas. There's no right of privacy for them and no warrant is required for them to be searched."

Hayes narrowed his eyes at Fastow. "That's the law. Now, what about this stuff found in your locker?"

Fastow's eyes looked to the side, then back at the captain. "Sir, I don't know how it got there."

"You're claiming it's not yours?"

"No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. It's not mine. I don't know how it got in my locker."

Hayes glanced at Sharpe again. "Was a drug test run?"

"Yes, sir." Sharpe couldn't hide a flash of disappointment. "Negative results."

"Hmmm. How long does Joy-Buzz stay in the system?"

"About seventy-two hours after use, sir."

"I see." Hayes speared Fastow with a demanding look. "You claim those drugs weren't yours."

"That's right, sir. They're just those little specks."

"Where did they come from, then?"

"I . . . I don't know, sir. Maybe when I was on liberty last somebody spilled some on my clothes."

Hayes kept a hard look on Fastow but she didn't flinch. Finally, he looked over at Paul. "You're Seaman Fastow's division officer. What kind of sailor is she?"

Paul kept his own face unyielding. "Marginal, Captain. Fastow requires a great deal of supervision."

"Have you seen any signs of drug usage by her?"

Paul thought, looking over at Chief Imari, who reluctantly shook her head. "Sir, I cannot say I have."

Hayes nodded slowly, his eyes still fixed on Fastow. "It seems I may have to give you the benefit of the doubt. But I don't want to, because your chief and your division officer both tell me you haven't been doing well. When things like this happen, Seaman Fastow, you want them to be telling me you're a good sailor. Otherwise, I'll be inclined to think you deserve to be hammered. Do you understand me?"

"Uh, yes, sir."

"Because of some doubt as to your guilt in this matter, I will go lightly this time. But if it happens again, and your performance remains bad, then I won't regard it as a coincidence, and I will nail you to that bulkhead. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Fifteen days restriction to the ship. Reduction in rate to seaman apprentice, suspended for six months." Hayes leveled a forefinger at Fastow. "Any more nonsense and you'll only be a seaman apprentice again for about two seconds, because I'll use that next Captain's Mast to bust you down to seaman recruit. Get your act together, Seaman Fastow."

"Yes, sir."


Fastow saluted and left. Paul couldn't tell whether she was relieved or frightened, but he passed another nod to Chief Imari as she followed Fastow out of the compartment.

Captain Hayes shook his head and then looked around the compartment. "I want a close eye kept on her."

"Yes, sir," Paul and Sharpe answered together.

"Who's next?"

"Seaman Jacob, sir."

Jacob pulled himself inside the compartment as his name was called. The lanky seaman had sweat droplets visible on his forehead as he stopped before the Captain and came to rigid attention. Lieutenant Kilgary and Chief Petty Officer Meyer came in as well, taking up positions along the bulkhead opposite Paul. Captain Hayes gave Jacob a long look before consulting his data pad. "Seaman Jacob, it says here you are charged with violations of the Uniform Code Article 86, Absent Without Official Leave, and Article 87, Missing Movement. What do you have to say?"

Jacob licked his lips and took a deep breath before answering. "Sir, Captain, I, uh, yes, I didn't get back from leave on time. But it wasn't my fault, sir. No, sir. I never woulda done it on purpose."

Hayes glanced at Lieutenant Kilgary and Chief Meyer, who were maintaining poker faces. "Then how did it happen, Seaman Jacob?"

"Well, sir, it all started 'cause I took leave earthside to get married."

"Then I guess congratulations are in order."

"No, sir. No, I, uh, when I got back home, it turned out Justy was marryin' some other guy."


"My girl, sir. Or at least she was my girl when I left for the Navy. I was pretty sure we had 'a understandin'."

Hayes took another look around the compartment before focusing back on Jacob. "You knew she was getting married, but thought she was marrying you."

"That's right, captain."

"You got an invitation to this wedding?"

"Yes, sir! But I guess since Justy and I had that understandin' I alluded to I just figured it must be our wedding and didn't read the thing too close."

Paul managed to avoid smiling only by an heroic effort. Opposite him, Lieutenant Kilgary was clearly biting the inside of her cheek to avoid smiling herself.

Captain Hayes looked down at his data pad for a moment, hiding his expression, then back up at Jacob. "You arrived at the wedding and found out it wasn't your wedding."

"Yes, sir, Captain, and I got sorta ticked off, if you know what I mean. Justy and I had some words. But it wasn't nothin' violent. Not at first. No, sir. I didn't want to hurt anybody, just like I told the judge—"

"The judge? What judge?"

"The one what heard my case on the assault charges and he agreed with me that maybe me being in jail was a bit much—"

"You were in jail?"

"I said I'd been arrested, didn't I, Captain?" Hayes shook his head solemnly. "Oh. Well, yeah. I mean, yes, sir. And that Frank guy threw the first punch—"


"He's the one what was marrying my girl, sir."

"I see. I don't think she's 'your girl' anymore, Jacob."

"Uh, I guess not, Captain."

"So, you got into a fight."

"Yes, sir. And I was winnin' 'til Justy kicked me in the ankle and that Frank swung some big punch bowl at my head and then I didn't know nothin' more 'til I woke up in the hospital—"

"The hospital?"

Paul couldn't prevent an involuntary spasm of his lips as he fought down a laugh. Lieutenant Kilgary and the two chiefs in the compartment faked brief coughing spells, while Captain Hayes somehow maintained a serious countenance.

"Yes, sir. That's where the sheriff arrested me." Jacob jerked and glanced over toward Sharpe. "Not our sheriff, sir. The one back home."

Hayes leaned forward, resting his arms on the podium even though the gesture was unnecessary in zero gravity. "So, after you went to someone else's wedding you thought was yours and got into a fight with the bride and groom and got sent to the hospital and got arrested and sent to jail, then you saw this judge."

"Yes, sir." Jacob nodded quickly. "And the judge, he agreed that life had treated me pretty damn, uh, pardon me, sir, pretty darn unfair and that maybe I just oughta go back to my ship."

"Well, Seaman Jacob, based on your story so far I have to admit I'd have been inclined to get you out of my town as soon as possible, too. So that's why you were late getting back from leave?"

"No, sir."

Paul clenched his teeth as hard as he could to stifle a laugh, even as he heard a strangled sound from Senior Chief Kowalski.

Captain Hayes ducked his head again, then looked up sternly. "All of that didn't make you late getting back from leave?"

"No, sir. Not directly, sir. You see, I'd taken enough leave for a little honeymoon, but now I didn't need that much time 'cause Justy and I wasn't goin' on a honeymoon." Jacob' face looked troubled. "Well, I guess Justy was."

"But not with you."

"No, sir. Not with me. Anyway, I cashed in my ticket back to base so I could pay my fine."

"The judge fined you?"

"Yes, Captain. I didn't mention that? He was gonna make it more money than that but when he found out that was all I had he was willing to settle for it as long as I left."

Out of Jacob's sight, Sheriff Sharpe seemed to be fighting off convulsions. Captain Hayes nodded, his expression exaggeratedly intent. "How'd you get back to base, then, Jacob?"

"That's what I been tryin' to explain, Captain! One o' Justy's cousins offered me a ride out of town, and damned, uh, darned if he didn't dump me in the middle of nowhere. I started walkin', 'cause I didn't want to be late getting back, but this guy stopped to give me a ride. Then the cops started givin' me a hard time—"

"Cops? What cops?"

"The ones that stopped the guy givin' me the ride, sir. They found all this stuff in the back o' the car and started waving guns around and pushing me onto the ground and searching me all over and I gotta say, Captain, that Master-at-Arms Sharpe there he does searches just like that, too, sometimes and it ain't pleasant at all."

Jacob stopped, looking earnestly at Captain Hayes, who stared back. "Okay, Jacob. The car you hitched a ride in turned out to be carrying drugs. Is that right?"

"Yes, sir."

"You got arrested, again, along with the guy who'd picked you up."

"Yes, sir. And when they found some o' that stuff on my clothes—"

"How'd some of the drugs get on your clothes?"

Jacob flushed and looked toward the deck. "Uh, the guy who picked me up, she wasn't actually a guy. And she was pretty nice and I was kinda . . . well, I'd been expecting to be with Justy on our honeymoon so I was sorta ramped up, you know."

Captain Hayes stopped to rub his temples. "You got arrested for running drugs."

"Yes, sir. And that was on a Friday afternoon and what with the weekend and runnin' lab tests on me to prove I didn't have none of the stuff in me and straightenin' stuff out and all, it was the middle of next week before they let me go."

"Why didn't they tell the Navy you'd been arrested? That way we'd have known where you were."

"Sir, I didn't want to embarrass the Navy by admittin' I was a sailor!"

"Thank you for thinking of that, Jacob."

"You're welcome, sir." Jacob smiled briefly but quickly turned gloomy. "They found out, anyway. Then there was this, that and some other stuff, and the upshot was the cops there gave me a ride back to the base."

"That was nice of them."

"Well, yes, Captain, but they said the judge – this was a different judge, sir."

"I understand."

"She kinda ordered them to take me back."

"Did she also kinda order you to go with them?"

"Yes, sir. But by the time I got back, I'd missed my ride back to Franklin. The transportation people were pretty unhappy with me, Captain, even when I tried to explain what'd happened."


"It's true, sir! They made me wait for an openin' to get back here and that took another coupla days and that's why I was late, sir."

Captain Hayes massaged his forehead again. "If I understand properly, Seaman Jacob, the Missing Movement charge pertains to being late for your ride back to Franklin, while the Absent Without Leave charge is because missing your ride meant you didn't get back to the ship before your leave expired."

"Uh, yes, sir. In a nutshell, sir."

"Seaman Jacob, have you learned anything from this?"

Jacob nodded sadly. "Have I learned anything? Sir, it'd take me a while to tell you everythin' I learned. Why—"

Hayes held up his hands. "That's all right. Lieutenant Kilgary, want kind of a sailor is Seaman Jacob?"

Kilgary cleared her throat but her voice still had a slightly strangled quality as she spoke. "Seaman Jacob is a decent performer, sir. This is the first time we've had trouble with him."

"Very well." Hayes focused on Jacob again. "I'm going to go easy on you Jacob, but next time you go on leave you might take a friend along to help with the decision-making. Understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Thirty days restriction. One-half one month's pay forfeit, suspended for six months. Dismissed."

Seaman Jacob grinned with gratitude, saluted, and pulled himself from the compartment. Silence reigned for a moment, until Sharpe closed the hatch again, then Senior Chief Kowalski finally erupted in laughter, followed by Lieutenant Kilgary, Paul, Chief Meyer and Sharpe.

Captain Hayes gave Senior Chief Kowalski a wounded look. "Senior Chief, why the hell'd you do that to me?"

"Sir, to be perfectly honest, sir, the XO and I knew there wasn't no way we could describe that story to you. We felt you deserved the full experience, sir."

"I'm not sure what I did to deserve the full experience. Lieutenant Kilgary, does that guy ever go near anything important?"

Kilgary stopped laughing and tried to respond in a serious tone. "Jacob is actually a very good mechanic, Captain. He's a wonder with machinery."

"You're kidding."

Chief Meyer shook his head. "No, sir, Captain. Jacob can fix damn near anything, even stuff we're not supposed to be able to fix. He's one great mechanic. Absolutely clueless about everything else in the universe, though."

"You don't say. Chief, try to give him plenty of work so he stays on the ship instead of wandering around bumping into police and nice drug-running female 'guys.' Are there any other cases?"

Sharpe shook his head. "No, sir."

Senior Chief Kowalski grinned. "The crew knew we were only going to be out for a few days, sir. Even the trouble-makers didn't want to risk being on restriction when we got back to Franklin."

"Good." Hayes headed toward the hatch, but paused his movement, hanging before the entry, to raise one arm and swing his extended finger across the whole group like he was aiming a weapon. "And don't you people ever do something like this to me again. I'm going down to sickbay to make sure I didn't get a hernia from trying not to laugh."

"Attention on deck!" Sharpe called out. After Hayes had left, Kowalski and Meyer started laughing again.

Paul waved to Sharpe as he left. Sharpe shrugged in response. "Better luck next time, Mr. Sinclair."

"Maybe this'll scare Fastow straight."

Sharpe didn't hide his skepticism. "I'll believe it when I see it, sir."

"I've always admired your faith in human nature, Sheriff."

"I'm a cop. If you want faith in human nature, call a chaplain."

* * *

Franklin station loomed not far away, looking like a hollow discus, its rotation seeming leisurely from this distance. Paul glanced over at Lieutenant Sindh. "I hear your relief will be waiting for us on the pier."

Sindh smiled. "So I understand."

"This might be the last time you bring the Merry Mike into Franklin."

"Ah, the grief overwhelms me." Her smiled widened. "Bosun mate of the watch, notify all hands to prepare for entering port. Paul please notify the captain and the XO that we're ready for final approach on Franklin." Her fingers ran over the controls in front of her. "Lots of traffic out here, as usual, but it's all keeping clear of our approach lane."

"Captain's on the bridge!"

Hayes settled into his chair and fastened the straps. "Going to take her in, Sonya?"

"Yes, sir."

"Try not to scratch the paint." Hayes grinned, looking over as Garcia and Kwan pulled themselves onto the bridge. The three senior officers huddled, Hayes' smile fading into annoyance.

Paul leaned toward Sindh. "That doesn't look good."

"No. But we can't worry about that now, Paul. Pay attention to the maneuvering situation."

"Right. Sorry."

The Michaelson eased in toward Franklin at an angle, her thrusters firing to match the station's rotation. On the maneuvering displays, curved lines showed exactly where the ship was and where she should be. Sindh ordered the thrusters fired each time the Michaelson drifted off the right vector, almost seeming to know when to fire the thrusters before the ship's automated maneuvering systems did. "Send across line six."

"Send across line six, aye," the bosun mate of the watch echoed, transmitting the order.

A line shot out of the Michaelson's hull, aimed right for the contact plate waiting at her berth. The magnetic grapnel hit and sealed itself to the station. The bosun sounded his pipe. "Moored! Shift colors!"

More lines went across, fixing the Michaelson's mass to Franklin station, then very gently bringing the ship in toward her berth. The ship settled in firmly as Paul tried to readjust to a feeling of constant gravity again.

"Quarterdeck access seals are extending," Paul announced. It was all very superfluous, but he'd quickly learned that saying things over and over again, and announcing things anyone could see on the displays, made certain everybody knew what they needed to know. "Seals matched. Pressurizing. Ready for quarterdeck opening."

"Very well," Lieutenant Sindh replied. "Open quarterdeck hatch and match the brow to Franklin."

"Open quarterdeck, aye. Quarterdeck hatch opening. Brow matching. Quarterdeck reports they are ready to assume the watch."

Sindh looked over at the Captain, who nodded. "Very well. Transfer the watch to the quarterdeck. Secure the bridge watch."

"The quarterdeck has the watch. Securing the bridge watch, aye."

Hayes unstrapped and stood up, slightly unsteady himself on his feet. "Good job, lieutenant. But you might get another chance to do this after all." He headed out.

"Captain's left the bridge!"

Paul unstrapped and stretched. "What do you suppose the captain meant by that?"

Sindh shrugged. "Apparently we may be going out again in the near future."

"Sorry about that."

"I'm still short, Paul. They can keep us in space every day until I'm scheduled to depart the ship as long as get to leave that day! Just be glad we don't have duty tonight."

"I am. I just hope Jen doesn't have duty, either."

"Good luck."

Paul was just leaving the bridge when Kris Denaldo appeared in the passageway and held up her data pad. "Got a brief transmission in comms on the back channel."

Paul read "P— Fogarty's – J." Jen wanted to meet him tonight at the bar where the officers usually hung out. "Thanks, Kris."

"Thanks, he says. Me, I've got duty. I pass romantic messages for people even though I'm stuck on the ship tonight while certain other officers go gallivanting off to suck face with certain other officers."

"Not that you envy Jen and me or anything."

"Not at all. Come back one second late from liberty and I'll make sure your butt's hung out to dry." She paused. "I think I'm joking. You probably shouldn't test it, though."

"Understood. Can I bring you back anything in the morning?"

"Not unless it's a male willing to devote his life to satisfying my every desire." Kris paused again. "A halfway decent-looking male. Of the human species."

"You shouldn't be so picky."

"I know. I should just settle for whatever comes along like Jen did."


"Kidding! Kidding! You two have fun tonight. Just don't tell me about it in the morning."

"Thanks, Kris." Of course, he couldn't just waltz off of the ship. Not until the ship's workday ended, and not until liberty call went down. I could ask Garcia for early liberty. . .nah. Who am I kidding? And I couldn't take off early anyway while my sailors have to stay aboard and work. But I don't feel like really working at the moment, not right after coming off watch. He headed for the wardroom, thinking of coffee and maybe conversation.

Lieutenant Mike Bristol, the assistant supply officer, was there along with another officer Paul didn't recognize. "Hey, Paul. Any word on when liberty's going down?"

"You tell me. Supply always knocks off work the earliest."

Bristol grinned. "That's just a rumor we encourage to ensure a steady stream of new recruits. Have you met Lieutenant Isakov?"

"No." He extended his hand. "Paul Sinclair. CIC officer."

Her shake was firm enough. "Val Isakov. I'm Lieutenant Sindh's relief."

"Oh. She'll be very happy to see you."

"I bet." Isakov smiled, a very quick quirk of her lips, then focused back on Mike Bristol. "Right now I need to get check-in done."

"Sure." Paul got some coffee and left. Not the friendliest soul, but I've had my share of bad days, too.

Colleen Kilgary was outside her stateroom and flagged Paul down. "Hey, you seeing Jen tonight?"

"I'm planning on it."

"Good. The Maury had that SEERS thingee installed during their last overhaul. Can you ask Jen how it's working out? We're supposed to get it, too."


"Ships Engineering something something System. Some sort of unified power management gizmo."

"Uh, okay."

Paul entered his stateroom in the aptly nicknamed ensign locker and sat down at his desk. Sam Yarrow, the only other occupant at the moment, glanced over at him. "Garcia's looking for you."

Garcia's always looking for me. Garcia won't know what to do with his life when he can't look for me anymore. "What about?"

"Ask him yourself."

"Thanks, Sam." Paul tried to sound sincere, knowing that kind of reaction always threw Yarrow off. He stood up again and headed for Combat. Even if Garcia wasn't in Combat, Paul could catch up on paperwork at his console there.

* * *

Fogarty's tried to look like a comfortable neighborhood pub. The fact that it was located inside an orbiting naval facility made the illusion a bit hard to sustain, but the bar's wood-grain painted steel bulkheads were close enough to the real thing to be a welcome oasis for sailors tired of staring at gray steel bulkheads. Paul took a seat at one of the small tables just outside of the door, watching humanity stream past in one of the wide main "streets" on the station while he waited for Jen to show up.

"Hey, sailor, looking for a good time?"

Paul shook his head without looking behind where the voice had come from. "Nah. I've got a serious girlfriend. I'm not allowed to have a good time anymore." He felt a rap against the back of his head. "Ouch."

Lieutenant Junior Grade Jen Shen walked around and took the other seat, shaking her head. "Why do I put up with you, Paul Sinclair?"

"I've often wondered that myself. I guess I'm just really lucky."

"Maybe I just feel sorry for you."

"I can live with that."

She grinned. "How'd you like operating with the Maury?"

"Nerve-wracking, to tell the truth. All those big ships so close." He smiled at her. "But at least whenever things got boring I could imagine you were on watch at the same time I was."

"Boy, are you desperate."

"Hey, I like watching you."

"Watching my ship isn't exactly the same thing."

Paul smiled wider. "You're right. The Maury's stern can't compare to yours."

She laughed. "Are you saying my bow isn't better, too?"

"Not at all. But I'm a stern man."

"Whatever spins your gears." She leaned forward. "I want to hug you."

"We're in uniform."

"And in public." Jen gestured with both arms. "Considered yourself hugged."

"Any chance of considering myself kissed?"

"Maybe later. Did you see the Mahan out there?"


Her expression changed to exasperation at Paul's tone of voice. "Pardon me for being happy my father could see me operating my ship. That's pretty rare."

"It'd be pretty rare under any circumstances." Paul smiled ruefully. "Okay. Have you talked to your father?"

"Not really. I got a brief message from him. He thought the exercise went off okay."

"He must've really been impressed."

She stuck her tongue out at him. "He thought the Michaelson did okay, too."


"Really. What're your plans for tonight?"

"Well, let's see. I don't have duty on my ship. You don't have duty on your ship. We haven't seen each other for over two weeks. I don't know. What about you?"

"I was thinking about finding some sailor and shacking up for the night."

"Oh, well, I'm free."

"I guess you'll do, then." Jen grinned again. "Keep romancing me like this and I may have to marry you some day, Mr. Sinclair."

His heart literally seemed to skip a few beats. "Does that mean . . . ?"

"Not yet."

"It's been over six months since I asked you to marry me."

Jen put her hands over her ears. "Oh, pressure! Pressure! Somebody get me a survival suit!" She lowered the hands and smiled fondly at Paul. "I'll know when I know, Paul."

He nodded, smiling back to mask his feelings. I already know. I've known for a long time. But telling Jen I feel put off by her not being sure yet wouldn't make her any more likely to come to a decision. Kris was right. Jen's like a cat. If you push her, she pushes back instead of yielding. If that's what I want I have to live with it. "Dinner?"

"Real food? You certainly know how to make me feel loved."

About an hour later, fed with passable versions of real food from one of the private restaurants licensed on Franklin to make life there a bit more bearable, they checked into a rent-a-shack. Paul edged inside the small room, just big enough to hold a bed, a tiny toilet, and an entertainment display. "Tight quarters, as usual."

Jen rolled onto the bed. "You never complained about having to be close to me before."

"I'm not complaining now." He lay down as well, just resting for a moment. "This is one exhausting life, Jen."

"Tell me about it. You work in one of those easy-going Operations Department divisions. I'm a snipe, laboring in the bowels of engineering for days on end without rest."

"I've worked in Combat for days on end without rest."

"I've worked for weeks without rest."



They both laughed. Paul looked over at her, wondering again at whatever luck had brought them together. Well, it wasn't exactly luck. The Navy brought us together when it assigned us to the same ship. But if Jen hadn't been transferred off the Michaelson we never could've had any kind of relationship but friends, and I like this a whole lot better.

Jen propped herself on one elbow and looked back at him. "A dollar for your thoughts."

"Same as usual."

"I should've saved my dollar."

"Truth to tell, I was thinking how the Navy brought us together."

"And then separates us again as often as possible, if not more often." She lay back, staring up at the low ceiling of the rent-a-shack. "I heard a rumor we're heading out again real soon."

"Me, too."

"Both ships again?"

"Looks like it. But that's all I've heard."

"Another attempt to impress the SASALs, no doubt." She exhaled heavily. "Sometimes I just feel like kicking their butts out of space and getting it over with."

"It wouldn't be easy or pretty, Jen."

She rolled her head to glare at him. "Do you think I don't know that?"

"Sorry." She was on the Michaelson, too, when we blew away that unarmed SASAL research ship. And she's still got more time in space than me. "I hate to think of you facing combat. Not because I doubt how well you'll handle it, but, you know . . . "

Jen looked away. "I know. There's luck, good and bad. There's a lot of things. If shooting starts, either you or I might not come home for the victory parades."

"Or both of us."

"Yeah." She looked at him again. "In some ways, that'd be easier for me."

"Me, too. There's only one Jen out there."

"I bet. There's probably some rule against creating another one of me."

"You and Herdez."

"Do not mention her and me in the same breath!"

"Yes, ma'am." Even if you have a lot more in common with our old XO than you'll ever admit. "I don't know. I knew the risks I was signing on to face. I just never really thought about having to worry about my One and Only facing the same risks."

Jen snorted a brief laugh. "I never thought I wouldn't have to worry about that. Paul, both your parents were Navy. Why didn't you think you might get involved with another officer?"

"I don't know. Really. Maybe because by the time I was a teenager Mom was retired and Dad followed soon after. But now here we are and maybe next time we go out the SASALs will do something even more outrageous and someone on our side will shoot and this time it won't be an isolated incident that everyone just wants to sweep under the rug."

"Maybe. We're doing our jobs as best we can. We'll keep our ships and our shipmates and ourselves intact if we possibly can, no matter what. If we can't, well, hell, we're both doing this job because we believe it's important. Right?"

"So carpe diem and all that stuff." Jen yawned. "Are we going to talk political events and philosophy all night or do you want to get naked?"

"Uh, well . . ."

"Oh, please. Stop trying to pretend you have to think about it."

"I like your mind, too."

"As much as you like my stern?"

"Uh . . ."


"Would you rather I was a woman?"

She reached for him as she answered. "No way."


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