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It's a formality, Commander Peter Raeder thought. The fix is in. It's not a real Board of Inquiry any more, much less a court martial. I'm the hero, not the goat. He supressed an urge to rub his midriff. Then why does my stomach still hurt? 

Of course, there was the previous visit to this self-same courtroom not so very long ago. Then his second in command, Second Lieutenant Cynthia Robbins, had been suspected of sabotage and murder, and he, too, was looked on with a gimlet eye. The look of the polished dark teak of the high table at the other end of the room, the scent of wax, and the ever-so-slight rustle of the crossed Commonwealth and Navy banners behind the senior officers spelled danger to his subconscious now. In fact, the sensation wasn't altogether different from the way he'd felt in a Speed when the compensator started going collywobble and the lock-on alert said a Mollie interceptor was targeting him. . . .

Back before I lost the hand, he thought. Though there had been a lot more in the way of combat stress than he'd anticipated, when they made him a flight enginner. Raeder shifted in his seat.

Just a few weeks later the room still boasted the same lustrous mahogany paneling, the same painting of a space battle on the back wall, flanked by the starred flag of the Commonwealth and the blue and black flag of Space Command. The row of stern senior officers seated behind the sturdy teak table in their comfortable leather chairs still faced the smaller table with its single unpadded seat. All too reminiscent of that previous occasion.

Well, some of the faces have changed.

And this time he had a personal reason for anxiety. After all, he had left his post in the middle of a battle with the Mollies and their alien Fibian allies.

And you can never be too sure that the powers that be won't decide to make an example of someone, despite things turning out right in the end, Raeder mused. Someone like me, for instance. It wasn't that he didn't want to obey orders. It was just that he kept being the one on the spot who knew what his commanders didn't. . . .

The fact that he looked a little like a recruiting poster—square chin, blue eyes that the newsvids insisted on calling "volcanic," black hair, pale complexion-didn't help either. He looked like a self-centered hotshot, you had to admit that.

He'd left his post for the best of reasons, naturally; risking his life to save a precious five-month supply of enemy antihydrogen that would certainly have been lost without his interference. It was an open secret that the Commonwealth's supply of A-H was running perilously low. And without antihydrogen fuel, the Commonwealth couldn't continue to exist and the war with the Mollies would be over. And he'd saved what remained of the Dauntless, the ship transporting it, and the life of a very fine engineer.

Which made him a hero.


The captain had recommended him for a Stellar Cross.

A corner of his mouth twitched up.

Y'know Raeder, sometimes you worry too much.

On the other hand, there was a nasty undercurrent here that kept him shifting in his seat no matter how he reassured himself. Someone in this room was going to be damn lucky to walk out of it with nothing worse than a reprimand. Of that he was perfectly sure.

Because just now Admiral Einar Grettirson, the presiding officer, was grilling Captain Jill Montoya of the Dauntless with an attitude that raised the hairs along the back of Peter's neck.

"Cap-tain Montoya," Grettirson drawled, thick gray eyebrows drawn down over ice blue eyes, "you lost a total of one thou-sand seven hundred and ten of your people, as well as twenty-five Speeds in this action. Did you not?"

"Yes, Admiral," she answered stiffly.

And no one could have tried harder to save them, Peter thought resentfully. Captain Montoya had actually carried one wounded crew-woman to the lifeboats on her back.

But Grettirson was a well-known martinet, and a slave to the book; it was rumored that he slept with a copy of the Commonwealth Standard Manual of Operations under his pillow.

Montoya had managed to get her crippled ship to the edge of Ontario Base's defensive perimeter, and with the antihydrogen.

To me, Peter thought, that kind of a save says, "Wow! What a leader!" 

"And just how do you explain such cat-a-strophic losses?" Grettirson asked, his thin, ascetic face as cold as space.

Clearly the admiral doesn't agree with my assessment. Peter shifted in his chair again, drawing Grettirson's glittering eye. He froze instantly, like a buck under the eye of a hungry mountain lion. Oops. 

Not that the admiral was a total monster; he was simply convinced that today's subordinates emerged from a very inferior mold to the one that had shaped him.

Peter examined the other members of the board, trying to read reactions in their impenetrable expressions. Vice-Admiral Paula Anderson he knew from Cynthia's hearing, and he felt her to be intrinsically fair. Commodore Wayne Gretsky and Commodore Margaret Trudeau of the Intelligence Corps were complete unknowns. But Marine General Kemal Scaragoglu was a power, if not truly a known factor. Conspiracy, rumor and paranoia followed him around like besotted puppies.

Scaragoglu was so Machiavellian that he even looked like an African copy of the sixteenth-century statesman. He had the same tight-lipped, sharp-eyed intensity, coupled with a high-bridged nose and sharp chin; some said it was biosculp. Raeder didn't think so; he figured the Marine general was more likely a reincarnation of some extremely successful condottiere. 

"And how is it," Admiral Grettirson was saying, "that neither you nor your chief engineer thought of Commander Raeder's rather simple fix for the damaged antihydrogen bottle?"

"I'm not an engineer by training, Admiral," Montoya answered quietly. "As for Chief Casey, I cannot say. Perhaps it was the heat of the moment. But, of course, the flight deck had taken a direct and catastrophic hit. It was a shunt from a Speed's engine that Commander Raeder used to empty the damaged bottle. Such an item would have been unavailable to Chief Casey, even if he had thought of using one."

"Have that checked," Grettirson said, and an aide in the audience spoke a reminder into a wrist filo.

The interrogation of Captain Montoya went on and on, and Raeder cringed mentally. If this is how he's handling people who behaved like a perfect textbook scenario of responsible and heroic behavior, what's he going to say to me?

As if he didn't know.

His own captain, Knott, had torn a nice long strip off Raeder for, as he had put it, "Going off to perform one of the most harebrained pieces of showboating I've ever seen in my entire career!"

At last the board was finished with Captain Montoya, which is to say that Admiral Grettirson had vented as much spleen as he possibly could on her innocent head.

Paddy Casey, the Dauntless's red-haired and, at the moment, furiously red-faced, engineering chief was called.

He lumbered up to the table, a solid six foot slab of heavy-world muscle, and sat, fixing the admiral with a glare that should have dissolved the strong, weak and electroweak forces maintaining the integrity of his atomic structure. He folded his big hands before him, the knuckles white from the pressure of his grip.

Grettirson glowered back, but without nearly the conviction, making the staring contest a hollow gesture. The Chief didn't remain on the stand long, perhaps because every one of his quiet, polite answers sounded threatening somehow. And it was well known that Paddy was an impulsive man with a long and sorry history of physically attacking senior officers.

Something to keep in mind, given that the admiral was far less fair to Montoya than he might have been, Peter thought.

Fortunately for Grettirson, Paddy was deeply in love with Lieutenant Cynthia Robbins and was determined to get into officers' school so as to pursue their relationship. Otherwise the rule-bound Robbins would be forever beyond his grasp.


"You—did—what?" Grettirson enunciated carefully.

"I jury-rigged a magnetic bleed from a Speed's acceleration system and brought it over to the Dauntless in one of her abandoned lifeboats," Peter said matter-of-factly.

"You abandoned your post in the middle of a battle?" the admiral asked slowly, in genuine horror.

"I made certain that I had people in position to take over for me," Raeder assured him.

"You are the senior officer in charge of the Main Deck, Commander! No one can cover for you!" A blood vessel in Grettirson's temple writhed. He glared over Peter's head at the audience behind him. "I shall have to ask Captain Knott why you were not put on report." He lowered his gaze to meet Peter's. "You may step down, Commander. But you haven't heard the last of this, I assure you."

Raeder nodded and rose, giving a quick glance over the other members of the board. Gretsky and Trudeau looked at him in disgusted disbelief, Anderson looked disappointed. But Scaragoglu . . . Scaragoglu looked interested.

Peter walked stiffly back to his seat, feeling the Marine general's eyes boring into his back. This is not a guy I want to take an interest in my career, he thought. Avert! Avert! 

Captain Knott came in for his own share of sharp questioning and blame, as did Squadron Leader Sutton and the captains of the Diefenbaker and the MacKenzie. But at last it was over and the board chairman made his summing-up speech. He ended it with remarks made directly to Commander Peter Raeder.

"Recommended for the Stellar Cross, indeed," he sneered, giving Captain Knott a dismissive glance. "If you had gotten yourself killed, we'd very likely have presented your family with some posthumous decoration. As it is, I shall recommend that you be given a reprimand for the record and be reassigned planetside to a desk. And consider yourself lucky that it's not worse. Because you, Commander, are a standing menace to discipline and order!"

With that he rose, banged the gavel on its plaque and led the rest of the board out of the room.

Aides rose from the audience and followed them, while Peter and the rest of the defendants, for that's what it had felt like, stood to attention.

"I need a drink," Paddy said, speaking for all of them, both high and low.

"Patton's?" Mai Ling Ju, the XO, suggested, receiving nods all around.

Peter glanced at Captain Knott out of the corner of his eye, wishing they could include the Old Man in the group. But protocol forbade. It jolted Peter for a moment. I never thought before about how alone you must be in the captain's chair. And then he thought, with a rush of surprising fierceness, But there are compensations to command. Deep in his heart he wondered if he would ever know them now.


"An interesting man, Commander Raeder," Scaragoglu remarked, his dark face placid. A violin concerto played softly in the background.

Captain Sjarhir, the general's aide, merely sipped Scaragoglu's excellent whiskey and said nothing. There was an idea in the works here, had been since Raeder had taken the stand, and he knew better than to interrupt the general's thought processes.

They were in the Marine general's private quarters, relaxing after a long and strenuous day. Even his rooms revealed little about Scaragoglu. All that one could really say of them was that they were appropriate. Appropriate to a man of his rank, and a man of his age. Totally, unnaturally appropriate—even to the still-holo pictures of various planets, most of them badly damaged. The planets, that was, not the holos.

Scaragoglu laughed dryly.

"That boy is in trouble, Captain. Grettirson meant what he said about a desk assignment for him."

"At least he'll be alive," Sjarhir said, meeting the African's eyes.

"Oh," Scaragoglu said, raising his brows in polite inquiry. "Is that what you'd call it?" He leaned forward, his dark eyes hardening. "For a man like Raeder you'd call that living?" The word was freighted with contempt. "That man is a warrior, Sjarhir, not a data twiddler. It would be a waste of his talents and a waste of the man. A year in a job pushing statistics around and he'll be as useless to himself as he'll be to us."

"Then it's pure altruism, sir?" the captain asked casually. "You'd rescue him by giving him an assignment that's likely to get him killed?"

Scaragoglu leaned back slowly, his eyes never leaving Sjarhir's face.

"Is that what you think I do, Captain? Choose people solely to get them killed?" His gaze sharpened, and though this was a game they'd played for years Sjarhir's mouth went dry. After a moment the Marine general spoke again, but he allowed Sjarhir to see that he was angry, though his voice was calm. "Dangerous, high-risk assignments are constantly coming our way," he said. "That is a fact of war, Captain. I choose the men and women least likely to get killed on those assignments. That is my particular gift and my curse. Fact," he said and leaned forward again. "Raeder can either be alive and at risk, or he can be a zombie in a dead-end cubicle job. I know which I'd choose." He tilted his head. "And I can guess which you'd choose for yourself. Are you going to help me or not?"

Sjarhir allowed himself to look surprised.

"Why do you need my help, sir? You pretty much have carte blanche when it comes to recruiting."

Scaragoglu laughed, this time with genuine amusement.

"Because I could see by the way he looked at me that Commander Raeder has heard all the nasty rumors about my puppet-master proclivities. All the really independent ones have trouble with that at first. If someone he can trust gives him the nod and tells him I'm okay—" Scaragoglu shrugged "—it'll smooth the way."

"But General, I don't trust you."

Scaragoglu raised his brows.

"You've been on assignments for me before this, Captain."

Sjarhir smiled. "That's why I don't trust you, sir."

The Marine general grinned.

"More to the point, sir, there's no reason for Raeder to trust me. He's never even met me."

"Well," Scaragoglu shrugged, "he soon will, and he'll like you too. You have a winning way about you, Sjarhir."

"Thank you, sir."

The general smiled benignly, then gazed into space for a moment, one hand gently beating time to the music.

Reminded by the gesture, Sjarhir said, "Raeder has a prosthetic hand, sir. He's not cleared to fly a Speed."

The general waved dismissively.

"That's hardly a real reason not to tap Raeder for a mission," he observed.

"No, sir."

"You're my devil's advocate, Sjarhir," the general remarked with a sardonic smile. "I'd think that the devil would win more arguments."

"I think he does, sir."

Scaragoglu barked a laugh. "You've been with me too long, son. I'm going to have to have you reassigned."

"Whenever you like, sir." But Sjarhir knew it wouldn't be soon.


Peter sat at the bar in Patton's; not drunk and not wanting to be, but nurturing a nice little buzz. It kept his mood just elevated enough that he wasn't crying in his beer. Or, in this case, actually, single-malt whiskey. The trick, he thought, is to stay just on the edge of euphoria, but not try to actually achieve it—because then I'd probably get maudlin and start to cry. 

The others had left him here alone at his request. "I've got some thinking to do," he'd said, cheerfully enough. And his thoughts had been running rings around each other ever since.

They're going to ground me. Just when I can fly again. They're going to ground me. It wasn't doing him any good, but he couldn't stop himself.

He glanced up at his glum face in the mirror behind the bar. The mirror was augmented to make the viewers look younger, handsomer, happier than they actually were.

It's having a hell of a time with me, Raeder thought. He looked extremely serious. But in a positive way, rather than reflecting the overdose-on-sleeping-pills-slit-your-wrists-and-jump-off-a-cliff mood he was actually enduring. Which means that in reality I must actually look like I feel. He forced himself to smile. You could almost hear the mirror sigh with relief.

Raeder looked around. I really like Patton's, he thought. It's a nice place. He wished Sarah James was with him. He doubted he'd feel the need to suck down liquid solace if he were in the lieutenant commander's excellent company. But he'd sent her away with the others and, to his dismay, she'd gone without argument. Ah, well. He sighed, and added that brick to his pile of misery.

He took another sip of his whiskey and forced himself to contemplate the type of desk job a man of his experience and training might be given. And sighed more deeply still.

"Whoa. That sounds like the weight of the world being shifted."

Reader glanced to his right. A Marine captain was taking the seat beside him. The man had a pleasant grin and the gold complexion and jet-black hair of an Indonesian.

"Not quite that bad," Raeder said with an easygoing smile.

"Jason Sjarhir," the Indonesian said, offering his hand.

Peter took it. "Peter Raeder."

Sjarhir shook a finger at Raeder.

"Aren't you the guy . . . yeah, you are. You're the guy who brought in the Dauntless, aren't you?"

"No. Montoya brought in the Dauntless. I'm a glorified mechanic, is what I am. Nothing happens to me. I just did a little repair work. . . ."

"The hell you did!" Sjarhir exclaimed. He grabbed Peter's hand and started shaking it vigorously. "I'd like to shake your hand."

You are, Peter thought in bemusement.

"Can I buy you a drink?" The captain raised his hand to attract the bartender. "I insist," he insisted.

"I'm not saying no," Raeder said. Free booze sounds good to me. When the drink came he raised his glass and said, "To Captain Montoya. A truly gallant officer."

Sjarhir raised his brows. "And gallant of you to salute her, Commander." He lifted his glass. "Captain Montoya." And took a sip. Over the rim of his glass he assessed Peter's condition and resolved that this would be the commander's last drink. He didn't want to be accused of taking advantage of a man in his cups.

The Captain looked around and leaned closer to Raeder.

"Word is that Grettirson wants to censure Montoya."

Peter's jaw dropped. "Censure?" he said in disbelief. "He can't do that! She did everything humanly possible to save that ship."

Sjarhir shrugged and grimaced. "Grettirson's always been a fanatical disciplinarian. But he's gotten measurably worse since his son was killed."

Raeder frowned. He liked a commanding officer who hated to see his people killed. It was by far preferable to the alternative, an officer who treated his troopers like inanimate game pieces, fungible goods to be expended like ammunition.

"Still . . ." Peter murmured, shaking his head.

"I don't think he'll get away with it though," Sjarhir said. "I heard that Anderson practically pulled him out of his chair by the lapels when he suggested it." He laughed. "She is one officer I wouldn't like to get on the dark side of."

"What can she do? She's only a vice admiral," Raeder pointed out.

"Yeah. She's his junior, but she's got a lot more respect than he has." Sjarhir nodded wisely. "He'll pay attention to what she says, even if it makes him break out in boils."

"How do you know all this?" Raeder asked. How was a lowly captain of Marines aware of the intimate details of relationships in the upper echelons of Star Command?

"I've got a bud on the vice admiral's staff," the captain said easily. He leaned towards Raeder confidentially. "It's what the old man wants to do to you that worries me."

Peter hunched down over his drink with a scowl and didn't answer. There was nothing to say.

"Y'know what you oughta do," Sjarhir said.

Raeder looked at him. "No," he answered. "What?"

"You ought to volunteer for some spectacular mission. When you come back they'd never dare to send you to a desk job."

Peter snorted and grinned. He held up a hand as featureless as a rubber glove. "First, this is the sort of thing that gets you rejected when you try for that kind of mission. Second, where am I going to find this mission, volunteer, and be accepted in time to overrule Grettirson's ardent desire to make a scapegoat out of me tomorrow morning?"

The captain smiled slowly and in a way that filled Raeder's stomach with ice. He could almost hear the Indonesian thinking, "Gotcha!"

I should not have serious conversations with strangers after the third Glenlivet, he thought.

"If it's convenient," Sjarhir suggested, "I could take you to someone who can help you right now."

"Who?" Raeder asked, suspecting with dawning horror who it had to be.

"Marine General Scaragoglu." Sjarhir's dark eyes were inscrutable and his face was as bland as dry toast.

Even expecting to hear that name, a cold ball of panic flashed into being in Raeder's stomach. Get a grip, he ordered himself. You've only got two choices. One: let Grettirson ship you back to Earth in disgrace. Two: go have a look at whatever rattlesnake Scaragoglu is passing around. I mean, how bad can it be? I can always turn it down. 

"C'mon," Sjarhir urged, "what have you got to lose just by listening? Besides, the general's whiskey is better than this slop."

"Then by all means," Peter said, rising, "lead the way, Captain."


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Title: The Privateer: The Flight Engineer, Volume II
Author: James Doohan & S.M. Stirling
ISBN: 0-671-57832-4 0-671-31949-3
Copyright: © 1999 by James Doohan & S.M. Stirling
Publisher: Baen Books