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Dempsey’s Bar

HMSS Hephaestus

Manticore Planetary Orbit

Manticore Binary System

September 22, 1905 PD

“let me guess. You’re looking for a certain lieutenant who just came up from Bassingford,” the smiling hostess said.

“You really know me that well, Frederica?” Tim Bolgeo asked with an answering smile, and she shook her head.

“Well enough I probably could have guessed, if I’d had to. I didn’t, though. Come on, she’s waiting for you!”

Bolgeo chuckled and followed her through the crowded restaurant’s cheerful conversation rumble and the clink of cutlery and flatware. Delicious smells teased his nostrils, and the man on the bar waved an equally cheerful greeting as he passed.

The hostess led the way to one of the smaller dining rooms off the main floor, and Brandy looked up with a sparkling grin as he entered. She came to her feet—plural—and held out her arms.

“So, you finally made it, Daddy!” she said. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t waiting to tell you anything important.”

“Don’t you go giving me a hard time, little girl,” he replied as he hugged her firmly. “Just remember who’s in charge of putting your ship back together.”

“You mean my ex-ship.” Brandy squeezed him tightly. “As it happens, I’ve got a new one.”

“You do?” Bolgeo stood back and looked at her.

“Yep! I aced my physical, which means I’m cleared for duty again. And there was an email waiting in my inbox until Bassingford signed off. You are looking at the new chief engineer of Her Majesty’s destroyer Timberwolf.”

“I am? Outstanding! Of course, there’s that little survivor’s leave of yours, first.”

“There is, and the clock starts ticking on it now. But that’s okay. Timberwolf’s currently deployed with Commodore McIlhenny’s squadron out at Grendelsbane. She’s not due to rotate home for another couple of months. Then she’ll be in yard hands for a while. She was three months overdue for a three-year overhaul before it all hit the fan at Hancock.” Brandy shrugged, her expression slightly less cheerful. “She won’t get that overhaul, not the way things are looking right now, but according to Commander Seseri—he’s her CO—she’s going to need at least a few months to deal with her most pressing issues. Assuming we can find the yard space and the budget to get them done.”

“Yeah, there is that,” Bolgeo sighed. “And I gotta tell you, Brandy, I don’t think it’s getting better anytime soon.”

“Well, what can you expect when you leave the Navy in charge of something important?” a voice said from behind him, and he turned quickly to see the red-haired woman who’d just walked into the dining room.

“Iris!” He beamed. “What are you doing here?”

“Your daughter ran into me on her way from Bassingford,” Sergeant Major Iris Babcock said, crossing the room and holding out her hand. “She said something about having lunch with a lowlife deadbeat and needing someone stalwart—like myself—along for moral support.”

“Somehow, I don’t think that’s exactly the way she phrased it,” Bolgeo replied with a grin, and Babcock shrugged.

“Close enough. Especially when I knew she was talking about you.” She shook her head. “I cannot believe that you’re still not in jail!”

“That’s because you consistently underestimate my ability to evade arrest.” Bolgeo squeezed her hand. “Not too surprising, I suppose, given the poor Marine brain you have to use to do the estimating.”

“Stop that, both of you!” Brandy shook her head and did her best to bestow a stern glower on both of them. “There’s nobody here but us three, so why don’t the two of you stop pretending you aren’t really good friends so we can sit down and eat.”

“Give up the opportunity to tweak your dad’s tail? Brandy!” Babcock shook her head. “Surely you know both of us better than that!”

“You’re right.” Brandy nodded. “Which is why I’m standing here trying to remember why I thought inviting you to join this convivial little gathering was a good idea.”

“Touché!” Babcock said with a laugh, and looked back at her father. “It really is good to see you, Timmy. It’s been too long.”

“Same here . . . although, I’ll deny it in front of witnesses, you understand.”

“Of course.”

Brandy shook her head with a resigned expression and waved at the table where she’d been waiting.

“That’s probably the best I’m going to get out of you two, so why don’t we go ahead and sit down and order. How much time do you have, Dad?”

“I’ve got to be back at the office in about two hours,” he replied. “Iris?”

“I’ve got until eighteen hundred.” Babcock shrugged. “It’s not like there’s any big rush to get back aboard. They’re not going to let us do anything, anyway.”

“Yeah,” Bolgeo said sourly. Then he shook himself and turned back to Brandy as he and Babcock settled into a pair of waiting chairs.

“So, Timberwolf! One of the Noblesses, isn’t she?” he continued in a more cheerful tone while Babcock punched up the menu on the tabletop.

“Yeah, she’s no spring chicken.” Brandy nodded. “Of course, she’s from near the end of the production run, and she got all the final-phase upgrades. If the Peeps hadn’t decided to go for broke, she’d still be in Silesia suppressing piracy. One of the things that was supposed to happen in that general overhaul was an upgrade to the Mod 6 launchers. Not gonna happen, so we won’t be able to handle the latest generations of missile.” She grimaced. “Probably means we’ll be riding herd on the fleet train.”

“I know you’d prefer something more . . . energetic,” Bolgeo said, “but I hope you won’t take it wrongly if I say your mom and I would be just as happy if you could avoid any more ‘energetic’ experiences. At least for a while.”

“At the moment, it looks like the entire Navy’ll be avoiding them,” Brandy replied. “I dropped by Admiralty House while I was dirtside and had a word with Calvin McAbee. You remember him, Dad?”

“Sure.” Bolgeo nodded.

“Well, he’s over at BuShips now, so finding out what my new billet is gave me an excuse to bend his ear a little. And he told me we’re headed toward something an awful lot like a stand-down.” Brandy’s expression was worried now. “From what he’s saying, we’ve pretty much accomplished most of Riposte Gamma’s stipulated objectives. That means there’s not a lot more we can do—officially, anyway—without a declaration. Coupled with all the maintenance funds we’ve diverted to operations, Admiral Caparelli’ll have to pretty much revert to a defensive stance sometime real soon now.”

“I know.” Bolgeo’s expression wasn’t worried; it was disgusted.

“I know I’m just a Marine, and that Marines don’t understand the finer, more complex aspects of the political process,” Babcock said, looking up from the menu. “Having said that, I could venture an opinion on why that is, if anyone’s interested in hearing it.”

“I think Dempsey’s throws people out when they talk that way,” Bolgeo said, and the sergeant major snorted.

“Not that she isn’t right, Dad,” Brandy observed, and he nodded.

“I told you what North Hollow was going to do, didn’t I?” It was her turn to nod, and he shrugged. “Well, some things are easier to predict than others, and those people are about as easy as it comes.”

“I hear you, Timmy,” Babcock said. “I’ve got to say, though, that I didn’t expect even High Ridge to be quite this blatant about it.”

“He’s not—not for public consumption, anyway,” Bolgeo replied. “This is all a matter of high moral principle . . . for public consumption. And Cromarty can’t call him on it—for that ‘public consumption,’ again—without washing an awful lot of dirty linen in public at a really bad time.”

“I wish they’d just go ahead and get this over with.” Brandy’s tone was harsh. “They filed charges three weeks ago, Dad! Why haven’t they seated the court yet?”

“Because North Hollow’s brought in an entire gang of high-priced civilian lawyers,” Bolgeo said. “And they’ve been filing delaying motions from the moment he put them on payroll. First, they asked for an extension to examine the charges and the relevant portions of the Articles of War, since, after all, they’re civilians. What do they know about military law? And the JAG has to bend over backward, given the way the Conservative Association’s just looking for something it can use to sandbag the Government. So they got their extension. And now they’re filing every other delaying motion they can think of. Hell, they’re probably going to ask to subpoena Yuri Rollins as a character witness for the defense!”

Babcock snorted. Admiral Yuri Rollins had commanded the Havenite fleet that attacked Hancock, and he’d become a POW after Sir Yancey Parks took the Seaford System away from him.

“I’d actually pay good money to see that, Timmy,” the Marine said. “Especially when he agreed with the prosecution about what a miserable shit Young is!”

“But ultimately, they’re not going to accomplish anything by all this,” Brandy pointed out. “Either the evidence is there—and I’m pretty darn sure it is—or it’s not, and this is a military court. It’s not like they’ve got a jury full of civilians they can bamboozle or dazzle with their footwork.”

“They don’t think so either,” Bolgeo said, tapping the tabletop to scroll through the menu.

“Then why?” she asked.

“Because they’re playing for time.” Her father looked up from the menu. “You just said it yourself. Until we get a declaration, we can’t take the war to the Peeps. We’re burning time—lots of time, when we could be rolling them up like a rug. When we finally do resume operations, the price tag’ll be a lot steeper than it would be if we could go after them full-bore now, while they’re so screwed up. They know that as well as you and I do, and what they’re hoping is that the Admiralty—and Cromarty—will get desperate enough to cave and downgrade the charges in return for a declaration.”

“Not gonna happen in a million years,” Babcock said grimly. “Not this time. Too many people know what happened, and too many people are pissed, Timmy!”

“Of course it’s not going to happen. But they’ll get their money’s worth out of North Hollow before they admit it. And they don’t give any more of a damn what happens to the rest of the Star Kingdom while they’re doing it than he does.”

Bolgeo scowled, then shook himself.

“And that’s enough about that sorry SOB,” he declared. “My daughter’s just been cleared for duty again, she’s going to get her very own engineering department to run, and her mom and I have her home for another solid month of leave before we have to turn her loose. That being the case, I’m sure we can find something a lot more interesting and productive to talk about!”

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