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Bassingford Medical Center

City of Landing

Planet Manticore

Manticore Binary System

March 20, 1905

“got a visitor, Lieutenant!”

Brandy Bolgeo looked up from her book reader as Chief Petty Officer Jason Bates poked his head in through her hospital room’s open door.

“It wouldn’t happen to be a surly, disreputable-looking, overweight fellow going bald on top, who was once a guest in your establishment himself, would it?” she asked the senior floor nurse in a suspicious tone, and Bates chuckled.

“Actually, it is. But he’s got a really nice lady with him. She might be able to make him behave.”

“Not if it’s who I’m pretty sure it is,” Brandy said mournfully, setting the reader on her bedside table. “Still, I’m braced now, so I guess you’d better let him come in.”

“You really are brave, Lieutenant,” Bates said in suitably awed tones, then stepped aside.

“‘Disreputable,’ is it?” the round-faced, bearded man demanded as he walked into the room. “Disreputable. That’s the best you could come up with after I spent an entire lifetime racking up black marks?”

“You did not spend ‘an entire lifetime’ racking up black marks,” the dark-haired woman beside him said severely. “You didn’t even join the Navy until you were twenty-three, Timmy! I realize you spent most of those years getting into trouble as a civilian, but the Navy didn’t get a chance to whack you until you put the uniform on.”

“I started as soon as I could,” Senior Chief Petty Officer (retired) Timothy Bolgeo pointed out in an affronted tone. “And I certainly did my best to make up for all that lost civilian time! I think I collected close enough to a lifetime’s worth to be entitled to a little poetic license!”

“Ha! That’s about the only poetic thing about you,” Linda Bolgeo shot back. “Although,” she added with a judicious air, “they seemed to feel obligated to make up for all that lost time, too, once they did get a chance to start whacking you.”

“I rest my case,” Tim said triumphantly as they crossed to the bed. Then he leaned in to hug Brandy, and she opened her arms wide. His own arms squeezed tight—tightly enough to belie the humor in his voice—and he held her close for several seconds before he inhaled deeply and stood back. He stood there, still looking down at her, until Linda gave him a pointed, none-too-gentle elbow jab. Then he twitched and moved aside with an apologetic chuckle. Linda snorted and leaned over to hug their daughter, as well, and Brandy’s eyes burned as they embraced tightly.

“Sit. Sit!” she commanded then, waving at the hospital room’s chairs with the lightweight splint which had replaced the cast on her right hand while her left hand swiped as unobtrusively as possible (which wasn’t very) at her tears.

“So bossy!” her father replied, smiling at her as he took his wife’s hand and the two of them settled obediently.

“How are you feeling, honey?” Linda asked, her expression serious, and Brandy shrugged.

“Honestly, I don’t feel all that bad, Mom. I’d a lot rather not be here, of course, but aside from a little discomfort in the wrist from the quick-heal”—she waved her splint again—“nothing’s actively hurting at the moment. My leg stump’s starting to itch from the prep treatments, but I knew that was going to happen. Somebody”—she looked pointedly at her father—“spent an awful lot of time complaining about itching when he was checked in here.”

“I have no idea who you could possibly be talking about,” Tim said.

“You could try to look at least a little sincere when you lie, Timmy,” Linda said.

“Ah, but that’s part of my devious plan,” he told her. “If I lie badly most of the time, it’s a lot easier to sneak a lie through by lying well when I really need to.”

“Yeah, sure.” Brandy smiled at her father, and he smiled back, but she recognized the pain behind that smile. It didn’t matter that she was almost thirty T-years old. What mattered was that he saw his little girl in that hospital bed.

“So, the docs all told us you really are doing well,” Linda said now. “But you know you’re going to be sidelined for quite a while, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Brandy sighed. “The quick-heal’s already taken care of most of the soft tissue injuries, except for the cut in my side. Even that’s a lot better than it was, though. Of course, it’s slower on bone repairs. Which is why I’m still stuck with this.” She tapped the splint with her left index finger. “Which wouldn’t be such a pain if I weren’t so right-handed.” She rolled her eyes. “And they only started regen prep a couple of days ago. They say my profile’s good, but it looks like I’m not going to respond quite as well as you did, Dad. And there’s the minor fact that they have to grow me almost an entire new leg instead of just a hand I left lying around somewhere. They’re talking about two months here in Bassingford—maybe even three. And then probably out-patient regen for at least another couple of months. So I’m afraid it looks like ‘sidelined quite a while’ is putting it mildly.”

“You got that right, baby girl,” Tim told her, seriously. “And when they do let you out, you’re coming straight home to Liberty Crossing.”

“They want me to rehab here in Bassingford’s PT center, Dad, and—”

“‘They’ can want whatever they want,” he said flatly. “What matters is what your mother and I want. We did all that work on the house while I rehabbed; Doc Whalen got all trained up working with me; and on top of that, your survivor’s leave doesn’t officially start until they certify your recovery and rehab.” He raised his eyebrows. “I hope you weren’t thinking you’d spend all that time anywhere except back home?”

Brandy looked at him, then shook her head.

“You do remember, Daddy, that I’m a commissioned Queen’s officer? Which means I get to make at least a few decisions?”

“You can make all the decisions you want in the Service,” he said. “But I’m not in the Service anymore, am I?” He grinned wickedly.

“No. No, you’re not,” Brandy acknowledged with a smile of her own. But it was a bittersweet smile, because she fully recognized the regret hiding behind her father’s grin. Just as she knew exactly why he felt it . . . and why he’d left the Navy, anyway.

Senior Chief Bolgeo’s twenty-seven-T-year Navy career had been a thing of legend, at least among his fellow noncoms. His extraordinary competence had been matched only by the occasionally epic occasions upon which he’d irritated officers who didn’t measure up to his own standards. Those had made his career . . . interesting. Well, those and the ample collection of black marks, reprimands, and occasional demotions produced by his proclivity for hosting and participating in games of chance, especially those which revolved around playing cards. His passion was for Spades, but as long as cards were involved somewhere . . . 

He’d been the sort of noncom any engineering officer would have killed to get, and his demotions had never lasted long. They had not, alas, been quite as infrequent as they might have been, however, because he’d also possessed an unequaled talent for pissing off supply officers, members of the shore patrol, and anyone else unfortunate enough to get in his way when he was locked in on a given project. But he’d loved his job, he’d loved the Navy, and as a little girl she’d known he would be a lifer.

That had been before the explosion aboard Her Majesty’s Space Station Vulcan almost ten T-years ago, though. Brandy had been in her final year of high school when that happened, and she still remembered her mother’s face when Tim’s CO screened personally to tell her what had happened. And how bad it was.

Only two other members of SCPO Bolgeo’s fifteen-man work party had survived, and although the disaster hadn’t been his fault—the propellant explosion in the boat bay fueling system hadn’t had a single thing to do with the power system his people were working on—he’d taken it hard. Hard enough that he’d sent in his papers when they finally let him out of the hospital after they finished regenerating the left hand he’d lost dragging one of those survivors out of the wreckage.

He hadn’t actually left the Navy, though. As he was fond of pointing out, Bolgeos had served the Royal Manticoran Navy, one way or another, for over three hundred T-years, and he’d become a civilian—and far better paid—“double-dipper” with the Hauptman Cartel. He was currently a senior project manager for Hauptman’s Naval Services Division, and while Brandy knew he missed his own Navy career (although he would have died before admitting it), she also knew he took intense satisfaction from his current employment.

And the Navy had let him put the uniform back on long enough to give his new-minted ensign daughter her first hand salute when she graduated from Saganami Island.

“So,” he said now, “since I am no longer a slave of the Service, bound to abject obedience to every petty commissioned tyrant, you can’t give me orders, even if you were to be so drunk with power you made the attempt.”

“I’m not so sure you can give me orders anymore, either, Daddy.”

“Oh, I won’t have to. I will shamelessly enlist your mother in my cause. And then you’re toast.”

“Dirty pool, Daddy!”

“That’s because I was a sneaky, devious old senior chief rather than a guileless and innocent junior officer such as yourself.”

“Oh, is that what it is? I always wondered.”

“And now you don’t have to.”

“Would you two please stop it?” Linda Bolgeo asked. Brandy looked at her, and she shook her head. “They won’t let us stay forever. In fact, they told us you have a regen treatment scheduled in less than an hour, Brandy. So could you two stop teasing each other long enough for us to have an actual visit?”

“Oh, I imagine we could,” Brandy agreed.

“You’re right, Linda.”

Tim patted his wife on the knee. Then he looked back at his daughter, and his expression turned more serious.

“You wouldn’t know this yet, Brandy, but Hauptman Navy’s been clearing repair slips to handle some of the damaged units coming in. Cassandra’s one of them.”

Brandy’s eyes darkened, and he nodded.

“I’ve got the seniority, now, honey. I put in for supervision on her repairs, and they gave her to me.”

“I’m—” Brandy had to pause and clear her throat. “I’m glad she’s in such good hands.”

“Well, what kind of father doesn’t look after his daughter’s ride?” Tim flashed her a smile. It was brief. “I’ve walked the ship,” he continued then. “I’ve seen what happened to Damage Control.” For just a moment, his face might have been sculpted from iron. “Baby girl, I don’t know how in God’s name you got out of there alive. I really, truly don’t. But I’ve spent so much time on my knees since I saw that compartment—”

His voice cracked, broke, and the iron crumbled. Brandy felt her own eyes burn and opened her arms once more. He crossed to the bed in a single stride, and she wrapped her left arm around him while she held her right out to Linda. An instant later, her mother was burrowed into the same embrace, and she pressed her face into their shoulders.

“It’s okay, Daddy,” she whispered. “It’s okay. I’m gonna be fine!”

“I know that,” he said. He straightened and cleared his throat. “Really, I do. But I’m a dad and your mom’s a mom, and you’re our daughter, and we came way too close to losing you. And that’s why you’re damned well coming home to Liberty Crossing when they let you out of this healing palace! You’re not going back out to be shot at again before we have a chance to love on you properly.”

“Okay,” she said with a wavery smile. “Okay, you win.”

“Always knew you took after your mom where the smarts were concerned.”

“Mom, I’m not positive that’s a compliment to either of us.”

“The heck it isn’t!” Tim looked at her quizzically. “Why do you think I’ve always called her ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed in Liberty Crossing’?”

“Because you’re smarter than you look?” Brandy suggested with a more natural smile.

“And just how hard would that be?” her mother asked with a laugh, reaching out to lay one palm against the side of Tim’s face.

“Hey, I’m a Bolgeo, and Bolgeo males always face a . . . somewhat steeper intellectual challenge than other people. But we almost always rise to it. Why, the very first Manticoran Bolgeo was proof of that!”

“Oh, God!” Linda rolled her eyes. “You’re not going to trot that out again, Timmy?”

“It’s a critical piece of our family history!” Tim raised his nose with a sniff. Then he cocked his head. “And, actually, considering BatCruRon Five’s flag captain, it’s almost part of the same tradition!”

Brandy shook her head, but this time, she had to admit her father might have a point. Maybe only a tiny one, but a point.

The Bolgeo Clan was one of the Star Kingdom’s larger yeoman families. It boasted thriving branches on both Gryphon and Sphinx, it had contributed solidly, in its own modest way, to building the Star Kingdom’s prosperity, and—counting her—there were currently over a dozen Bolgeos, commissioned and enlisted, on active duty in Her Majesty’s Navy. But her very first Manticoran ancestor had come with what might have been conservatively described as a checkered past. When Dr. Tennessee Bolgeo immigrated to the Star Kingdom in 1521, almost four T-centuries ago, he hadn’t meant to stay at all. In fact, he’d come for the express purpose of capturing specimens of the newly discovered Sphinx treecats and then smuggling them off-planet for off-world exotic animal dealers when he left.

Like many who’d come after him, he’d discovered there were safer things to attempt to trap, and he’d very nearly ended up dead when the treecat clan whose members he’d been stalking goaded a hexapuma into attacking him. In fact, he would have been killed, if a fourteen-year-old girl hadn’t just happened to be present to shoot and kill the hexapuma, instead.

After which she’d held him at gunpoint until the Sphinx Forestry Service arrived to take him into custody.

That moment had been something of an epiphany for Dr Bolgeo, and when the Crown indicted him for poaching and conspiracy to smuggle exotic animals off-planet (the ’cats’ sentience hadn’t yet been acknowledged, so at least they hadn’t charged him with kidnapping), he pled guilty without a whimper and asked for community service. They’d still given him a couple of T-years of jail time, but then he’d had another eight T-years of supervised probation during which he had, indeed, done community service. In fact, he’d put his genuine, not inconsiderable skills as a xenobiologist to good use and become a consultant to the Sphinx Forestry Service, working specifically (at his own request) with treecats. The ’cats had forgiven him. In fact, he’d become a frequent visitor with Bright Water Clan, and an elderly Tennessee Bolgeo had emerged from his well-earned retirement as one of the expert witnesses who’d testified in support of the Ninth Amendment when it was finally drafted forty T-years later.

And he’d also become a close personal friend of that fourteen-year-old girl . . . whose name had been Stephanie Harrington.

Brandy hadn’t really thought about that when Cassandra was assigned to BatCruRon 5, but she’d thought about it since. And she’d come to the conclusion that the near-pine-cone didn’t fall far from the tree where Harringtons were concerned.

Which might just be true where Bolgeos are concerned, too, now that I think about it, she reflected, gazing at her father. He even looked like the handful of old-style holopics of Tennessee Bolgeo.

“You know, I have to say I think Dame Stephanie would’ve been pretty darned proud of Dame Honor,” she said, speaking her thoughts out loud.

“Damn straight.” Tim Bolgeo’s expression was sober and he nodded sharply. “You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I’m hearing about that battle.”

“What kind of stuff?”

Brandy looked at him intently. Her father might have retired from the Navy, but he’d been a member in good standing of the senior chiefs’ mess, and he still had better sources in the Service than anyone else she knew.

“Well, the official report’s not out yet,” he said. “Won’t be for a while. But if a couple of people who screened me when they heard about how hard you’d been hit at Hancock are right, it’s gonna be a shitstorm when it hits the ’faxes.”

“Language, Tim,” Linda said. But she said it in a resigned I-know-it’s-futile-but-I-won’t-give-up-the-fight sort of tone, and Brandy’s lips twitched despite her father’s expression.

“Why?” she asked. “We did exactly what we were there to do. Oh, we were supposed to scatter and run for it if the Peeps kept coming, but Captain Quinlan briefed all of his officers on the ops plan. The main thing was to draw them away from the station and over the minefield, not give them a stand-up fight, of course. No way we could’ve gone toe-to-toe with wallers! And I’ll admit I expected the order to go ahead and scatter when the mines didn’t stop them. But as soon as Captain Quinlan came up on the com to tell us Admiral Danislav had dropped out of hyper, I knew Admiral Sarnow wouldn’t give it. All of us knew he wouldn’t. Not when he realized he could lead them into a trap if he didn’t scatter!”

“Really?” Tim looked at her. “You know Nike got hit? That Sarnow’s two floors up from your room?”

“Yeah.” Brandy nodded. “That happened . . . maybe a minute or two before the Cassie got clobbered.”

“It also happened before you reached the scatter point.”

“Wait.” Brandy’s eyes narrowed. “You’re saying Admiral Sarnow didn’t make the call for us to stay concentrated? Keep sucking the Peeps in?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, honey.” Tim nodded. “And according to my sources, neither did Captain Rubenstein, the only battlecruiser division CO still on his feet. It was Harrington.”

“Dame Honor?” Brandy’s eyebrows rose.

“Yep. The most junior battlecruiser captain left. She’s the one who decided not to break and run. And I have to say I’ve got mixed feelings about that. She’s the reason the battle was such a disaster for the Peeps, but she’s also the one who kept you guys concentrated until my one and only daughter damned near got herself killed. On balance, I approve. I’m not so sure everybody else will. In fact, from what I’m hearing, some people are already bitching that she should’ve passed command to Rubenstein when Sarnow went down. That it wasn’t her job to make that decision.”

“But she was his flag captain,” Brandy said. “If anybody in the entire task group knew what the Admiral was thinking, it was her!”

“I didn’t say she was wrong,” Tim said, cocking his head at her as he heard the sharp edge in her voice.

“Sorry, Dad.” Brandy shook her head quickly. “It’s just—I didn’t get to actually meet her, but Janet did,” she said, and Tim nodded in understanding. Lieutenant Janet Briscoe had been one of her closest friends since Saganami Island, and she’d also been HMS Cassandra’s assistant tactical officer during the battle. “You know Janet’s not the kind to impress easily, but Dame Honor pulled it off!”

“Can’t say that surprises me, given Harrington’s reputation. I served on Basilisk Station before she moved in and straightened out that rolling cluster—”

He glanced at his wife from the corner of one eye.

“Before she restored order, there, I mean,” he said instead, after only the briefest pause. “And Petros Gianakis was an electronics tech in Fearless when she went up against a battlecruiser with a heavy cruiser at Yeltsin. Far as he’s concerned, the only reason she doesn’t walk across the Tannerman Ocean for light exercise is that she doesn’t like wet feet!”

Brandy chuckled at her father’s expression, but she also nodded.

“I’d say that sums up Janet’s opinion of her, too.”

“Well, there’ll still be hell to pay, if what I’m hearing is accurate,” Tim said much more seriously. “You know the real reason you got hit so hard? The real reason your mother and I damned near lost you?”

“Dad, it could’ve happened to anybody, and—”

“The reason it happened to you, sweetheart, is because a fucking coward panicked and ran.”

Brandy stiffened in astonishment. But then she realized her mother hadn’t even tried to correct her father’s language this time. In fact, Linda Bolgeo’s expression was a mirror of her husband’s.

“What are you talking about?” she asked slowly.

“Your primary screening unit was CruRon Seventeen, right?” Tim raised an eyebrow, and Brandy nodded. “Well, Commodore Van Slyke was already dead by the time Danislav arrived. So command devolved on Captain Young. Captain Lord Pavel Young. And his ship took a hit—one fucking hit. And he ordered his squadron to scatter without orders from the Flag. They pulled out, Brandy. They pulled out; they opened a hole for the missiles that damned near killed your entire ship. And when Captain Harrington ordered him back into formation, the worthless piece of shit went right on running. The rest of his ships returned, which is probably the only reason Cassandra wasn’t destroyed outright, but he and Warlock just kept running. And the Peeps’ fire ignored him, because one heavy cruiser with a coward for a captain was worth a whole lot less than the rest of your task group.”

Brandy’s good hand rose to her lips, covering her mouth, and her tears blurred her vision as her parents looked unflinchingly back at her.

“Like I say,” Tim continued after a moment, “the official after-action report hasn’t been issued yet, and I doubt it will be for a while. Given what I’m hearing, Admiral Parks is going to have to convene a formal board of inquiry into what happened before he can issue one, and he won’t be able to do that till he gets back to Hancock from Seaford and gets a chance to assemble all the witnesses. That’s gonna take a lot longer than anybody likes, and even after he can, they are for damned sure gonna take the time to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s on this one, because I know the Navy. If they don’t hammer that worthless SOB for this, the Service will never forgive the Admiralty. And if they don’t have an airtight case, with every single thing nailed down, there’s gonna be a lot of pressure for a whitewash instead.”

“What?!” Brandy looked at him incredulously, and he snorted harshly.

“Young’s the son—and heir—of an earl, Brandy. You’re from Gryphon. What do you think’ll happen if his ‘noble’ father finds out the JAG intends to file charges?”

“A ‘shitstorm,’ I think you said,” Brandy replied after a moment. “And you’re right; they’ll pull out all the stops to save him. But if that is what happened, they have to try him. I don’t care whose son he is. And if they convict him, they damned well have to shoot him!”

She heard the raw fury in her own voice, and her father nodded again.

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