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“Yeah, thanks,” the teenager said, swiping his tangled mop of hair out of his eyes. “I’ll let you know.”

“Very good,” Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Travis Uriah Long said, giving the kid his best professional smile as they shook hands. “Feel free to come by if you have any questions.”

“Yeah, sure,” the kid said. “S’long.”

Travis held the smile until the recruiting office door swung closed behind the teen. Then, with a sigh, he sat back down at his desk. That was half an hour of his life he wouldn’t get back.

Because the kid wasn’t interested in joining the Royal Manticoran Navy. Not even close.

Oh, there were parts he’d liked. He had enough fashion sense to appreciate how snappy the black and gold RMN uniform looked. And the idea of heading out into space had definitely intrigued him.

But like a lot of kids his age, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. And it was for sure that he wouldn’t like the discipline and order that life in the Navy required of its people. The hair alone showed that much.

Still, the boy had sparked memories. Except for the hair and the probable lack of interest in order, that could have been Travis himself standing there ten T-years ago.

Ten years.

Absently, Travis pulled over his tablet and began updating the log of this latest interview, his fingers running on autopilot as his mind drifted back. Ten years. Jumping more or less on impulse into the Navy, going through boot camp and his first training, then assignments to Vanguard and Guardian, the completely unexpected but exciting offer of an officer track, a degree in astrophysics, Officer Candidate School, HMS Thorson and shore duty, and now post-grad work and recruitment-station duty.

Ten years.

Sometimes it seemed like the time had gone by in the blink of an eye. Other times it felt like those years had been a sizeable slice of eternity.

Across the room, the door opened. Travis looked up, automatically smiling his professional recruiter’s smile, wondering if this next visitor would be a little more serious.

And felt the smile collapse into open-mouthed astonishment.

“Hello, Lieutenant Long,” Lieutenant Commander Lisa Donnelly said, smiling an amazingly radiant smile as she walked toward him. “Lisa Donnelly, in case you’d forgotten.”

With an effort, Travis found his voice. “Not a chance, Ma’am,” he assured her, belatedly bounding to his feet as more memories flooded back. She’d served with him on both Vanguard and Guardian, and in the aftermath of the crisis in the Secour system he’d harbored vague and very secret thoughts that she might actually like him.

But then Guardian had returned to Manticore, and Travis had been dropped into the madness of college and OCS, and somehow in the past five years their paths had never crossed again.

And now, suddenly, here she was. In his recruitment office.

“I gather you’ve been busy,” she said as she finished her walk and stopped at the far side of his desk. “And an officer, too, obviously. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Travis managed. On impulse, he stuck out his hand. “How have you been?”

“Busy,” she said, taking the proffered hand easily and giving it a properly formal shake. “Not as busy as you, but I’ve managed to stave off boredom. What about you? How was Thorson, for starters? I hear Captain Billingsgate is something of a martinet.”

“Really?” Travis said, thinking back. Thorson had certainly been run by the book, but as far as he was concerned that was a plus, not a minus. “I didn’t have any problems with him myself, Ma’am.”

“No, I guess you wouldn’t,” she said. “Sorry—I forgot how well you and regulations get along.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Travis said, feeling his face warming.

“That’s not a criticism,” she said hastily. “I just meant that while some people find procedure burdensome, you actually thrive on it. That’s not bad, just different.”

“I suppose, Ma’am,” he said. “Though a lot of people think it’s…more than just different.”

“People think a lot of things,” she said. “Don’t worry about them. A strong dedication to duty is nothing to be concerned about. Certainly not to be ashamed of.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Travis said, feeling a little relieved.

And with the easing of tension came the sudden recognition of neglected manners. “Won’t you sit down?” he invited, gesturing to the chair the teenager had just vacated.

“Thank you,” she said, seating herself with the same grace he’d noticed aboard ship. “By the way, given that we’re both officers, I think you can drop the Ma’am in informal settings like this.” She cocked her head, as if studying his face. “In fact, given all we’ve been through together, I’m fine with making it Lisa and Travis. In private, of course. If you’re all right with that.”

“I—” Travis worked furiously to find his tongue, which had somehow gotten lost again. “That would be…very nice, Ma—Lisa,” he amended hastily. “So…uh…how have you been? I mean, what have you been doing?”

“The usual Navy round-robin stuff,” Lisa said. “After Secour I spent some time dirtside, picked up some more schooling so I’d be qualified for beam weapons as well as missiles, transferred to Damocles, and got promoted to lieutenant commander. Oh, and between school and Damocles I got married.”

“Oh,” Travis said, his heart plunging straight to his shoes.

“And then got divorced,” Lisa continued. “Big mistake. One I’m never making again.”

“Getting married was a mistake?” Travis asked timidly.

“Getting married to the wrong guy was the mistake,” she corrected. “But that’s a whole different story for a whole different day. For this particular day—” she hesitated “—aside from catching up with you, of course, I also came by to ask a favor.”

“Sure,” Travis said, most of his brain still back on the marriage, divorce, and marriage to the wrong guy thing. “What is it?”

“It’s a big one,” she warned. “I don’t know if you were aware of it, but Damocles is leaving next week for Casca.”

“Yes, I’d heard that,” Travis said. Though if he remembered correctly she was supposed to have left last week, not next. Still, such scheduling changes weren’t exactly trumpeted from the parapets.

Nor were the patrols themselves, for that matter. Five years ago, in the wake of the attack at Secour, First Lord of the Admiralty Cazenestro had made an art form of playing up the various out-system trips, citing them as the Royal Manticoran Navy’s commitment to protecting the people of the Star Kingdom.

Now, though, with every pirate-hunt having come up dry, and with the anti-Navy forces in Parliament starting to crawl back out from under their rocks, Cazenestro was keeping such missions a bit quieter. “Is this another pirate hunt?” he asked.

“More a show-the-flag trip,” Lisa said. “A good-will visit to Casca to show the Star Kingdom’s commitment to stand by our neighbors.” She frowned. “Speaking of hunts, didn’t Thorson go on one a year or so ago?”

“Closer to two,” Travis said. “I’d just been transferred to post-grad school and I missed it.”

“Just as well she didn’t find anything, then,” Lisa said. “With you not there, they’d have been in big trouble.”

“Uh…I guess,” Travis said uncertainly, trying to figure out whether she was being serious or mocking. “Well…”

“Actually, Damocles will be doing triple duty on this one,” she continued, saving him from the problem of trying to figure out how to respond. “We’re showing the flag, but we’re also picking up Casca’s latest batch of data for pirate footprint analysis and handing off ours. There’s supposed to be a freighter from Haven coming in about the same time we are, and if we can make contact we can also get their data instead of having to wait for the Cascans to sift it and send it on. And if that wasn’t enough to justify our existence, we’re also providing freighter escort.”

“One of Haven’s?” Travis asked. The entire Star Kingdom had exactly three commercial cargo ships in service at the moment, and the last he’d heard all three of them were out doing their great-circle trade routes.

“One of ours, actually,” Lisa said. “One of Countess Acton’s anyway. Goldenrod’s ready for her maiden voyage.”

“Already?” Travis asked, frowning. “Has she even had her builder’s trials yet?”

“Last month,” Lisa said. “Manticore to Gryphon and back again. Had a couple of small glitches, but Acton’s apparently decided she’s ready to go out and play with the big boys.”

“And Cazenestro tweaked your departure so you could escort her?” Travis asked, hearing his voice drop a couple of tones with reflexive disapproval. Escort duty was important, of course, despite the fact that in five years none of the escorts had ever actually run into a pirate. But the thought of the Admiralty doing scheduling somersaults for a mere civilian bothered him.

“You disapprove?” Lisa asked mildly.

This was hardly the time or place for such a discussion, and for a fraction of a second he was tempted to deny it. But as he looked into Lisa’s eyes— “A little,” he conceded. “From what I’ve heard, the routes and schedules Haven freighters run these days are pretty fixed. If you push your departure too much, you won’t be able to pick up the Havenite data you mentioned.”

“Which wouldn’t be the end of the Kingdom,” Lisa pointed out. “I also assume Cazenestro has taken that into account.” She paused. “And there are other factors involved than just simple efficiency. I take it you don’t follow Parliamentary politics?”

Travis felt his lip twitch. “Not really.”

Lisa winced. “Oh, right—your brother. I’d forgotten.”

Half-brother,” Travis corrected automatically. “Not that that makes much difference, I suppose.”

“What makes the difference is that he’s a separate, individual person, not you,” Lisa said, a hint of severity creeping into her voice. “He’s responsible for what he says or does, not you.”

“I know,” Travis said. He’d heard that tone from her before, and it usually meant he’d said something stupid. “Sorry.”

“That’s all right,” she said. “That being said, there is a tendency on the part of some people to link people by blood instead of by personality, values, and goals.”

“I’ve noticed,” Travis murmured, thinking about the citation he hadn’t been awarded after Secour.

“It’s a laziness thing, really,” Lisa said. “Saves on having to actually think and evaluate. It also manifests as people rating other people solely by their money or position.” She waved a hand. “Countess Acton, for example. You seemed to think she was the one who’d shifted the Navy’s schedule. In fact, from what Captain Marcello said, it’s as much her doing us a favor as the other way around. Possibly even skewed a bit to her side. She ravaged her rear making sure Goldenrod was ready to fly so that Cazenestro could argue to Parliament that Damocles would be running triple duty.”

“And she probably has sympathetic friends there,” Travis murmured.

“Quite a few,” Lisa confirmed. “She and that new managing director of hers, Heinrich Hauptman, are quite well connected, especially after all of Hauptman’s work on the Casey refit. No, it’s going to be hard for even Breakwater to squawk on this one.”

“I’m sure he’ll find a way.”

“More likely he’ll just ignore it,” Lisa said. “He has enough axes to grind with the rest of the Navy without opening himself to unnecessary criticism.”

“I suppose,” Travis said, scowling to himself. Chancellor of the Exchequer Anderson L’Estrange, Earl Breakwater, had been sniping at the RMN for at least the past ten years. Probably longer.

Part of his motivation was obvious. The Star Kingdom’s home guard, the Manticore Patrol and Rescue Service, was under Breakwater’s authority. With a shortage of money and an even more critical shortage of trained personnel, the Chancellor had apparently decided that anything that decreased the RMN would increase MPARS, thereby adding to his own power and influence.

Why Travis’s half-brother, Gavin Vellacott, Baron Winterfall, had allied himself with the man in that crusade was less clear. What was even more of a mystery was why Breakwater and Winterfall thought that leaving the Star Kingdom open to external threats was a good idea.

Because there were threats out there, despite the denials that peppered Breakwater’s speeches. There were mercenaries, pirates, and other star nations, any of whom could suddenly decide that Manticore was a nice plum ripe for the plucking.

Never mind that there was nothing on any of the Star Kingdom’s three worlds worth the trouble of conquering. The distant planet Kuan Yin wasn’t worth a full-fledged damn, but that hadn’t stopped Gustav Anderman from moving in, taking over the whole planet, and renaming it Potsdam. And then, for good measure, taking over five more worlds for his newly named Andermani Empire.

Granted, some of those conquests had been in self-defense. And, granted again, Anderman had gained a lot of points with the original Kuan Yin colonists by rescuing them from starvation. But that didn’t mean he might not suddenly make a hard right-hand turn into full-bore despotism.

Certainly some of his other neighbors had concerns about possible future expansion. Travis had heard rumors that Haven had sent a team to the New Berlin system to open diplomatic talks, and probably to also assess the situation. Other, closer systems were reportedly scrambling to hammer out defense alliances, though the fact that the last such alliance had wound up being absorbed by the Empire was probably giving them pause.

Current wardroom opinion was that Potsdam was too far away for Anderman’s mercenaries to be a direct threat to Manticore. But that didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t take a page from his strategy and take a shot at the Star Kingdom.

If enemy warships settled into orbit over Landing, it was unlikely that any of Breakwater’s high-minded speeches would deter them.

“But that’s politics,” Lisa said into his thoughts, “and I try to avoid discussing politics with friends. To bring this conversation back to its launch point: my dog.”

“Your dog?” Travis said, consciously disengaging his mind from his frustrations with Parliamentary politics. “Oh, right—the favor. What about him?”

“Her,” Lisa corrected. “She’s a Scottish Terrier—tiny little thing. Anyway, with his usual exquisite timing, my ex asked me to take her while he goes off to Sphinx for some long-term research project.”

“Sounds kind of presumptive,” Travis commented disapprovingly.

“Not really,” Lisa said. “She was originally our dog, but he got her in the settlement, and I usually like taking her when I can. The problem is that the girl we used to hire to take care of Crumpets when we were both out has inconveniently decided to graduate high school and go to college—” she took a deep breath, huffed it out “—and I’m kind of up the creek. So. I know your mother has a business breeding dogs. Does she also board them?”

“That’s a good question,” Travis said. “I don’t know, but I can certainly ask.”

“Thanks—I’d appreciate it,” Lisa said. “There are a couple of other dog boarders in Landing, but I’d feel better if I had a connection with the people taking care of her. Even if it’s a second-hand connection.”

“I understand,” Travis said. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she—what was her name again?”

“Crumpets,” Lisa said. “As in tea and.” She shook her head. “Don’t ask.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Travis said. Actually, he had been planning to ask that very question. Now, of course, he couldn’t. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”

“Thank you,” she said. “You don’t know what this means to me.” She stood up. “And I’m sorry to chat and run, but I really have to be going.”

“No problem,” Travis said, scrambling awkwardly to his feet. “Let me know when and where I need to pick her up. You have my number?”

“I can get it,” Lisa said. “It’ll probably be the end of the week.” This time, she was the one who offered her hand. “Thanks, Travis. You’re a life-saver.”

“You’re welcome,” Travis said, taking her hand. “I’ll have everything arranged by the time you call.”

“Good. Thanks again.” With a final smile, she turned and left.

The door closed behind her. Slowly, Travis sat down again, his brain spinning. Lisa Donnelly, back in his life. Even if it was over something as small and temporary as boarding her dog.

He had no idea if his mother boarded dogs. In fact, he hadn’t spoken to her for months.

But he would find out. And if she didn’t, he would take the dog himself. The Damocles’s mission had a five-month timetable—two months each there and back, plus one at Casca—and Travis still had a short stint at BuShips once he finished his post-grad work. He would be in Landing and Casey-Rosewood for at least the next five months, and could easily handle a pet.

Meanwhile, there were a host of other matters to ponder.

Matters such as what had happened to Lisa’s marriage, whether he’d been a fellow officer, and what exactly constituted being the wrong guy. Matters such as whether Travis and Lisa were now truly friends, or if she’d just been saying that, or even whether they both meant the same thing by that word.

He had no idea what the answers were to those questions.

In five minutes Lisa had completely upended whatever their relationship had been before, and it was all just a little bit scary. Uncharted territory always was.

But he would get through it. He’d been walking uncharted territory for the past ten years, and he would get through this patch, too. Once he had, it wouldn’t be uncharted anymore.

And when all of that was finally settled, he would make it his business to find out why a sane and normal person would name a dog Crumpets.

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