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Massingill waited until the door had closed behind Long. Then, keying her outer-office monitor camera, she nodded to Funk.

“At ease, Gunner’s Mate,” she said. “Let’s hear your side of this.”

“My side, Ma’am?” Funk asked, frowning as he dropped into parade rest.

“As in why you don’t think Long stole the cookies,” Massingill said, watching the monitor out of the corner of her eye. There wasn’t anything valuable out there, nor was any confidential data readily accessible on any of the computers. But Long didn’t know that. And a habitual or even a semi-hardened thief ought to at least look around on general, reflexive principles, with the hope of nabbing a consolation prize on his way out.

But Long was doing nothing of the sort. He’d planted himself beside the office door in parade rest and was standing with his face and eyes pointed rigidly forward.

And those eyes looked like they were stifling back tears.

“I never said he didn’t steal the cookies, Ma’am,” Funk protested. “At this point I don’t know anything other than that he confessed to the crime.”

“I’m aware of that,” Massingill said. “I’m also aware that in describing the incident you went out of your way to use words like he stated and I was told. That doesn’t sound to me like someone who believes what he’s hearing.”

Funk’s lip twitched.

“No, Ma’am, I don’t,” he said reluctantly. “He spins a good yarn, but I doubt anyone could pull off something like that all by himself. And I know those cookies weren’t meant for Long.”

“A payoff for something?”

“More likely extra fodder for a Sphinxian gullet,” Funk said. “Recruit Charles Townsend. He’s been trying to scam himself extra food ever since he hit dirt here.”

Massingill felt her lip twist as the gunner’s mate’s tone registered. So Funk didn’t think too much of Training Command’s brainstorm either, did he?

“And someone thoughtfully stole a few cookies for him?” she asked.

“More than a few, Ma’am,” Funk said. “That memo from Mess Division two days ago pretty well shows the pilferage has been going on for at least a couple of weeks.”

“And you don’t think Long’s smart enough to pull off a long-term crime?”

“Oh, he’s smart enough,” Funk said. “But he’s also the ethical, rule-following type. If he’s involved at all, he’s on the fringe. More likely he just stumbled into it and went all heroic to cover for the real thieves.”

“Perhaps,” Massingill said. On the monitor, Long was still waiting at parade rest. Waiting for whatever fate the future had in store for him.

That fate wasn’t entirely in Massingill’s hands. Luckily for him, part of it was.

“Very well,” she said. “Return him to the barracks. The Provost Marshal is sending an air car to take him in for testimony tomorrow at oh-nine-hundred—make sure he’s ready. Assuming the King’s Prosecutor has the brains to see through Corcoran’s B.S. and sends him back, write him up for tonight’s incident and give him ten hours’ extra duty.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Funk sounded a bit . . . conflicted, Massingill noted. The standard book punishment for food theft was considerably stiffer than that, and the gunner’s mate wasn’t generally in favor of shorting his recruits on something like that. In this case, though . . .

“You can also confiscate the cookies if they’re still there,” Massingill went on. “Which I’m not really expecting. Dismissed.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Spinning around in an about-face that was twice as crisp as Long’s had been, Funk strode to the door and left the office. Massingill watched the monitor as he collected Long and the two of them left the office suite and headed out into the night.

And then, muttering an ancient French curse she’d once heard and memorized just because she liked the sound of it, she dug into her bottom desk drawer and pulled out a half-full bottle of scotch.

Damn them all, she thought sourly as she poured herself a tall drink. Damn the ineffectual nobles and careerists running the RMN. Damn the mid-rank officers, many of whom just seemed to be coasting along for the ride. And especially damn the particular set of idiots in Parliament—and the serving officers prepared to go along with them—who seemed to think the military’s job was to serve as a petri dish for their own pet social experiments.

Especially insane social experiments like this one.

The directive that had come down from Captain Alexander Caldecott two months ago had been as explicit as it had been top secret, and Massingill wondered exactly how top-secret it actually was. Caldecott was a staff weenie of the worst possible variety: someone who’d never held a line commission, never exercised executive authority over an actual operational unit, but who figured he knew exactly how those Neanderthal line officers ought to be doing their jobs. Worse, he had the sort of exalted family connections—in his case, to the Baron of Yellow Oak—which made him dangerous to cross. Worse still, his cousin the Baron—and Caldecott himself, for that matter—had a touching, childlike faith in academic analyses formed by men and women with even less experience with a real military than he possessed himself. And, worst of all, his current slot in the Bureau of Personnel was that of Recruit Training Syllabus Officer, which put him in a position to display the truly profound depths of his idiocy.

Allow all the boots the exact same amount of food. That was the order. Even for the Sphinxians, and never mind that their heavier musculature—not to mention the enhanced metabolisms of so many of the more recent immigrants—demanded more than the average number of calories. You didn’t reduce a recruit’s caloric intake below the level of sustainability, which was what it amounted to in the Sphinxians’ case, at the same time that you deliberately stressed that recruit’s body to the point of exhaustion. You just didn’t, and Massingill had protested the order when it came down.

Without success. It was possible that Caldecott, whose family had settled on Manticore, not Sphinx, and who therefore had less personal experience with genies in general, had been unaware of the consequences of the heavy-grav genetic modifications. Not that his ignorance made it any better. He damned well should have realized, and if he’d been a quarter as smart as he clearly thought he was, he would have done at least a little research before he imposed his brilliance on Massingill’s hapless recruits.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t. Or perhaps he had, and if that was the case, the colonel wanted a few moments alone with him in a suitably dark alley.

The theory behind the aforesaid brilliance was that each platoon would notice the problem and rally around its members, those with fewer needs voluntarily giving up food to those who needed more. The directive had waxed eloquent about how this would be an ideal way to cement each unit, and how this would be so much better than the traditional approach of grinding the boots into the dirt and creating unity from a universal hatred of their platoon commanders and drill instructors. Some no doubt ivory-tower type—Massingill hadn’t bothered to link through to the referenced study so she didn’t know for sure—had concluded that this would create better cohesion and be less damaging to the boots’ tender psyches, and Caldecott had bought into it.

Unfortunately, the geniuses had failed to appreciate three minor points. One, no one in boot camp felt like he or she was getting enough to eat, especially under such a grueling physical regimen, which left them disinclined to share the nourishment their weary bodies craved. Two, the Sphinxians—and especially the genetically modified ones—genuinely weren’t getting enough to eat. And three, the other obvious approach to hunger was to simply steal the damn food.

On one level, Massingill had to admit the scheme had worked like a champ. Travis Uriah Long, an apparently staunch and ethical rule-follower, had either stolen food for a hungry mate by himself, or else had lied about it to protect the true thieves in his platoon. Unit cohesion, all right, in spades.

The Uniform Code of Conduct listed the required punishment for Long’s crime. But Massingill had final say in enforcement, and there was no way she was going to throw the full book at the kid for this. Not when Caldecott had effectively undercut the whole basis for the punishment with this lunatic social experiment. Not when the crime’s motivation had been to aid a starving comrade in the most effective way the idiot behind that experiment had allowed him. Especially not when there was no way to prove Long had even committed the crime, and every indication that he was merely protecting more of his comrades.

They were cohesive, all right. They were a cohesive band of thieves.

Massingill sipped broodingly at her scotch. Ten T-years ago, when she and her husband Alvis had been lured away from the Solarian League to help train the Star Kingdom’s recently formed Royal Manticoran Marine Corps, the recruiters had been all aglow with praise and promises.

And for a while things had gone reasonably well. There were other Marine vets who’d been drawn into the process, not all of them from the League, not all of them capable of finding their butts with a high-image satellite. The Manticorans who’d been in the original Fleet Marine Forces before the reorganization also had their own ideas of how to do things, most of which ranged from quaint to flat-out wrong. But the work had been interesting, the newer recruits had been sufficiently malleable, and the promotions had kept coming. Their Assisted Immigration debt had been paid off, and she and Alvis had settled in for what they’d expected to be the long haul.

But over the past couple of years their enthusiasm had been slowly but steadily fading. Alvis had been promised work on a pair of ambitious refitting projects, but both of those had now stalled out, and without them Alvis’s extensive engineering and yard-dog experience was being wasted. Massingill herself had been moved into the CO slot at Casey-Rosewood, only to find that the politics here were even worse than in the main fleet, thanks to the meddling of idiots like Caldecott whose political connections put them into position to do real damage.

Abruptly, she knocked back the rest of her drink. The social experiments, she knew, would continue as long as there were Caldecotts to conduct them. But this particular experiment was going to end. Right now.

She pulled out her uni-link and keyed it to all-base memo mode.

“To all mess personnel,” she said. “All previous restrictions on meal portions are hereby rescinded. Recruits, commanders, instructors, and officers can from this point on have as much food as they damn well want. Any questions on this order will be directed to me.”

She keyed off with a snort. That wouldn’t sit well with Caldecott or his fellow political upper-echelon officers. God only knew where the idiots who actually sat in Parliament were going to go in the end—there’d been pressure for years to turn the Navy into little more than an extension of Breakwater’s MPARS fleet, and in the meantime they were willing to allow idiocies like Caldecott’s scheme. They weren’t going to be very happy if someone called them on their idiocy, and young as the Star Kingdom’s aristocratic hierarchy was, its denizens had already learned how to game the system when somebody pissed them off.

Well, let them. Let First Lord Cazenestro kick her out of Casey-Rosewood, if he wanted. She and Alvis could find civilian jobs and leave this mess behind them.

Because a star nation could have a battle fleet, a system patrol-and-rescue force, or a stage for social experimentation. It couldn’t have all three.

There were dangerous people out there. Far more of them than the Manticorans seemed to realize. So far the Star Kingdom had escaped their notice, but that would change. Sooner or later, that would change.

She could only hope King Michael and his schizophrenic Parliament decided what they wanted from their Navy before that happened.

It had been close to lights-out when Travis was taken to see Colonel Massingill, and most of the rest of the boots were already in their racks by the time a glowering Funk dropped him off and stalked out again. Trying to ignore the eyes he could feel silently watching him through the darkness, Travis headed to his locker to begin his own nighttime prep.

There he discovered that Chomps had left him a cookie.

Possibly as a thank-you. More likely as a going-away present.

Because the most reasonable assumption was that Travis wouldn’t be coming back after the courtroom hearing Funk had said he would be attending in the morning. And even if the court let him go, there was no guarantee that RMN justice would follow suit. The regs said that food theft carried a penalty of up to three nights in the brig and fifty hours of extra duty, which was pretty bad all by itself.

But those same regs also gave the CO a lot of say in meting out that punishment. If Massingill decided to make an example of him, he could find himself dishonorably discharged by lunchtime.

His first indication that things might not be as bad as he feared came at breakfast. He and the others arrived in the mess hall to find a new sign informing the boots that there was no longer a limit on portion sizes.

That morning, Travis noted, Chomps went through the line three times.

The next surprise came when Funk pulled him out of class at oh-eight-thirty and took him to an unoccupied room in the HQ building. The boots hadn’t yet been issued dress uniforms, presumably on the sensible theory that it was still possible to wash out of training and the RMN didn’t want to bother passing out clothing that would never be worn. But sometime during the night, someone had apparently issued such a uniform for Travis. Funk glowered at the wall until Travis had finished changing, then escorted him to the landing area and waited with him until the Provost Marshal’s air car arrived to collect him.

He and his escort had to wait outside the hearing room for nearly an hour before they were finally summoned inside. To Travis’s relief, it was a closed hearing, with only the attorneys and judge present. No need for the awkwardness of having to face Bassit or the others of his gang.

The questioning was as tough as Travis had expected, with the defense attorney doing everything she could to malign, intimidate, or undermine his story. But everything about that evening had been laser-etched onto Travis’s memory, and he answered each question truthfully and with the same stoic expressionlessness that he’d learned to present to Funk and Casey-Rosewood’s drill instructors.

He was just finishing up when an unexpected witness—unexpected to Travis, anyway—arrived: his RMN recruiter, Lieutenant Blackstone, resplendent in her gold-trimmed black officer’s uniform. Her cool, no-nonsense testimony seemed to deliver the final blow to the defense’s efforts to paint Travis as the gang’s criminal mastermind. When she was finished, the judge apparently decided he didn’t even need to review the testimony. He dismissed the pending charges against Travis, thanked him and Blackstone for their time, and ordered them back to their duties.

It added up to nothing more than a lost half-day of class, which Travis’s escort made very clear he would have to make up. But Travis didn’t care. He’d been cleared of all charges, and that unpleasant chapter in his life was now officially over.

As a bonus, he now knew that Lieutenant Blackstone’s first name was Anne.

His return to Casey-Rosewood was without fanfare. The staff sergeant who checked him in handed him his fatigues and pointed him to the head, accepting his dress uniform without comment after Travis had changed. He rejoined his platoon in the middle of a presentation on fusion bottle physics, and with that the morning’s adventure was over.

Later, in the barracks, Chomps asked about the meeting with Massingill and the morning in court, and thanked him for whatever he’d done that had gotten the mess hall’s food policy changed. Travis’s protestations that he’d done absolutely nothing were summarily brushed aside, and Chomps declared himself to be Travis’s friend for life.

Fortunately, no one else in the platoon seemed inclined to shower Travis with the embarrassment of undeserved praise. In fact, from all outward appearances, it seemed the rest of them had barely even noticed Travis’s two absences, let alone cared where he might have been.

And yet, over the next few days Travis noticed some subtle changes in the atmosphere around him. The half-sneering, half-sarcastic tone that had always accompanied Travis’s nickname Stickler faded away, with the nickname now sounding simply ironic or, occasionally, even friendly. The boots sometimes still got impatient at Travis’s insistence on following procedure without cutting corners, but there wasn’t nearly as much of the earlier contempt or under-the-breath derision. A few of them even tried, at least for a while, to follow procedure more closely themselves.

But even as Travis almost began to relax, he noticed that the word travesty was creeping into casual conversation.

He never figured out whether or not the word was aimed at him and his hated nickname. He never seriously tried to find out, either. If it was a dig at him, his best bet was to ignore it. If it was just a word the platoon had picked up by overhearing something Funk had said, then Travis likewise didn’t want to draw attention to himself.

Besides, right now all that mattered was that he was back on track to becoming part of the RMN. If the cost of that was some annoying wordplay, it was a price he was willing to pay.

Four weeks later, it was suddenly over.

The boots were run through the graduation drill and marches for the last time. They were issued their dress uniforms, and taught how to wear them.

And on a bright, crisp morning, in front of Colonel Massingill and a dozen other men and women Travis didn’t recognize, the boots were officially inducted into the Royal Manticoran Navy.

It was over. Or rather, it was just beginning.

The spacers—not boots anymore, but Spacers Third Class—scattered from the barracks and drill fields at the southern end of Casey-Rosewood to their new assignments in the equally unadorned barracks and more specialized training school classrooms of the base’s northern and western ends. Travis was assigned to Impeller Tech training, and there was soon a running gag among the new spacers that if a failed impeller node got stuck in place he could simply scold it into doing its job properly.

But somehow, the jokes no longer mattered. Travis had made it. He was in the Royal Manticoran Navy, and his future lay ahead of him.

Whatever that future was, he was determined to make the most of it.

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