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Over six years ago, John Pitte had stormed onto the bridge of the Kodiak with blood on his hands and fury in his eyes.
“Captain on bridge!” Provost Millar announced.
“As you were,” John said, brushing past the duty prov.
He tried not to limp, but every step he took felt as if his knee were stabbing itself from within. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he continued across the deck, making a beeline for the command dais, where General Jessup Rand had stationed himself.
Likely, John thought, because the dais allowed Rand, who was not a tall man, the rare opportunity to look down on those around him, as if height could engender respect.
He stood there now, with his hands clasped behind his back and his attention fixed on the Nasa Escarpment, looming ever larger through the forward windows as the Kodiak made her approach.
Jaw tight, John came to a halt at the foot of the dais. At last Rand took notice of his presence and turned. Eyebrows rising, he stepped away from the forward rail and crossed to the aft steps.
“Captain,” he greeted the junior officer.
“General.” John offered a salute.
Rand’s dark face tipped down, then up. “You appear to be injured.”
“Down ladder!” John warned, more out of habit than necessity. No other crew was making use of the bay ladder, and just as well, for in his urgency to reach the cargo bay John bypassed the last few steps and jumped the rest of the way to the bay deck.
The bone-jarring thud of his landing reverberated from boots to skull, a tympanic underscore to the silent shriek of his left knee, where a sliver of shrapnel he’d picked up aboard the Enehduanna reminded him it did not care for such maneuvers.
That carelessness cost him precious seconds as he clung to the ladder rail, sweat darkening his light brown hair and beading on his forehead while his breath sounded harsh in his ears.
Those few seconds might have stretched to more but for the short, sharp crack that split the air, followed by a soft, pained grunt that mocked John’s weakness and had him pushing off the rail and lurching towards the aft bay, from which the sounds had come.
“Bad turn on the ladder,” John said, looking up at Rand. As he did, he noticed a shadow emerging from the far side of the dais.
A shadow which resolved itself into Sergeant Jihan, General Rand’s aide-de-camp.
As the sergeant made his way around the circular observation post, John felt the bridge’s silence pressing on him in a way that felt utterly unfamiliar.
Possibly because it was no longer his bridge, not in any way that mattered. Not with Rand in control of the Kodiak, and not with the helm, elevator, and nav all being operated by Rand’s officers.
Even the duty prov who’d called John’s presence had come aboard with the general, who was currently studying John’s uniform with obvious distaste.
Perhaps Rand objected to the sight of blood.
He weaved his uneven way through stacked crates of dry goods, sealed cases of crystal, and hanging nets of perishables— necessaries of a fighting airship—but the further aft he went, the more the cool, dry air of the bay became saturated by the slick, bittersweet tang of blood and sweat.
Another ear-splitting crack sounded in the moment he burst from the maze and into an open circle where the pallets of allusteel sheeting once set mid-deck now crowded against the bulkhead.
Presumably they’d been moved to make enough room for the length of cargo rope now looped from one of the overhead crossbeams.
John’s eyes tracked from the beam and down to where a man hung suspended, arms above his head, by that rope. Then he looked left to where Sergeant Jihan was drawing the draco tails back for the next blow.
A blow which never landed, because the sergeant’s forearm came to a shuddering halt mid-cast, caught in the unyielding grip of John’s left hand.
“Drop it,” John ordered.
Jihan, his arm held fast, looked from the steel in John’s eyes to the sword in John’s right hand.
He dropped the whip.
“You are out of uniform, Captain,” Rand said, looking away from the bloodstains, his nostrils tightening.
“And your man is out of order, General,” John replied, his eyes darting to where Jihan stood at the foot of the dais. “Provost Millar,” he called over his shoulder, “please place Sergeant Jihan under warrant for assault and conduct unbecoming a member of the Corps.”
“Belay that, Millar,” Rand called over John’s shoulder. “Captain.” He stepped forward but remained on the dais. “As I am certain Jihan would have told you, he was acting on my orders. It was your man, McCabe, whose behavior called for punishment.”
“Help me cut him down,” John ordered, turning from the sergeant’s dark, perspiring face to where Gunner’s Mate McCabe hung from the lines, his head slack to his chest. If John hadn’t seen the shudder of his breathing, he might have thought the youth dead.
At the captain’s order Jihan, whose precise and prim behavior stood at odds with his bulk, looked from the captain to the bloody ribbons of McCabe’s back. “Are you certain you wish to do that, sir? I only ask as my orders were to administer fifty-six lashes, and have only reached twenty-nine.”
John’s response to this was to flip the sword up to rest under the sergeant’s chin.
“Right you are, sir.” Jihan smiled (precisely) and stepped (also precisely) around the sword to McCabe’s side, so he could take the slim youth’s weight while John cut him down.
“Punishment,” John repeated.
“For dereliction of duty,” Sgt. Jihan inserted at the general’s nod.
John didn’t look at the sergeant. “Assuming I believe that, which I don’t, since when did the Colonial Corps adopt the Coalition’s use of the lash for a D&D?” Or ever, he thought.
“Since the dereliction in question endangered an entire ‘ship,” Rand countered.
“Gunner’s Mate McCabe failed to report a faulty containment cell in one of his cannons,” Sergeant Jihan picked up so promptly it struck John as rehearsed. “If Airman Vu hadn’t noticed the damage, the Kodiak might have been lost with all hands.”
Vu, who was another of Rand’s officers. “If such negligence occurred,” John said, “it would call for a full investigation and the convening of a court martial,” he pointed out. “Not the draco’s tail in the cargo bay, with no witnesses.”
Rand’s eyebrows rose. “I’d suggest you calm yourself, Captain Pitte.”
“I believe myself to be quite calm,” John said, briefly taken aback. He’d not raised his voice once, except to get Millar’s attention.
“In that case you might, in your cool-headedness, recall that a commander has the right to enact field justice in a time of war.”
“And as I am McCabe’s commander, it was my right to make that determination,” John reminded the general…calmly. “Yet somehow neither these accusations nor this—field justice—came to my attention. Had my first officer not come across McCabe being dragged below decks, I’d still not have known.”
Even as he said this, John saw something flash in the general’s expression, something like satisfaction.
“And I remind you that, for the duration of this mission, the Kodiak and her crew are mine to command,” Rand said in his turn.
“But, with respect,” John said, “in all matters not relating to your mission, such as the day-to-day running of the Kodiak, the ‘ship and crew are my responsibility, and that includes all matters of crew performance.”
And there John spied it again, that flash of satisfaction in the other man’s expression.
“It pains me to admit, but you may be correct, Captain Pitte.” Rand glanced at Jihan, who nodded and stepped from his position to stand behind John. “Mr. McCabe is of your crew, which makes him your responsibility, and your failure. As such,” Rand continued as John stood, disbelieving, “I am compelled to order the surrender of your command until such time as a full inquiry determines the level of your complicity in your crew’s negligence.”
Already, Jihan was reaching for John’s sword—until John’s hand caught it by the wrist.
“Don’t make this difficult, sir,” Jihan said.
“Captain,” Moncivais called from the radio alcove, “I’m receiving word of groundside movement from the crow’s nest.”
John was already shoving Jihan’s arm away. “What kind—”
“What kind of movement?” Rand cut in. “Where on the ground?”
Moncivais looked at John, who gave a short nod and turned to Rand. “Sir, crow’s nest reports spying several individuals at the top of the Nasa escarpment. She can’t make a positive ID, as the suns are setting, but they are there, and armed.”
“The traitors. Just as I expected,” Rand said. “Alert the gunners,” he ordered Moncivais, “and radio Commander O’Bannion to have her jump teams standing by.”
“Belay that,” John said, by now wondering if Rand was entirely sane.
“Did I hear you correctly, Captain?” Rand’s eyes widened in an exaggeration of disbelief. “You are treading on dangerous ground.”
“Perhaps. But it strikes me odd that a company of alleged deserters would be standing in clear view of one their own airships. Airman,” John looked over his shoulder to the radio operator, “attempt contact with the party on the plateau. Request their identity and purpose in this region. And put them on speaker.”
“Sir, yes sir,” Moncivais nodded, flipping the channel open as she made the request.
There was a brief hesitation, followed by a crackle of static, followed by the transmission. “CAS Kodiak, this is Colonel Gideon Quinn, 12th Company, 63rd Regiment, currently engaged in a classified mission.”
“We have him.” Rand’s satisfaction was palpable.
“Request the colonel’s ident for verification,” John ordered. “And to specify the nature of his mission.”
“Enough of this,” Rand said, his voice rising in pitch. “Captain, for the last time, you are interfering in a sensitive operation.”
John looked at Moncivais. “Make the request.”
She nodded. John watched her turn to her board and make the connection.
“Jihan,” Rand said.
Just that—just Jihan—and before he could blink he felt it, the cold, slick and, yes, precise intrusion of steel into flesh. He looked down to see the point of Jihan’s sword emerging above his right hip.
“Huh,” he said, staring, oddly fascinated by the sight of the red-streaked silver.
“Consider yourself relieved of duty,” Jihan murmured in his ear, and yanked the sword out.
The force of the weapon’s removal caused John to jerk back, which caused his head to bounce up so he caught sight of Moncivais, already half risen from her chair. He had enough strength, and sense, to shake his head—no point—and then Millar joined the party, holding John by the right arm.
“Captain John Pitte,” the provost intoned, “you are hereby placed under warrant…”
Another voice crackled over the speaker, cutting Millar off.
“Gideon Quinn here, ident number Echo-seven-niner-four-delta-zero-zero-four, requesting you a)look up the term ‘classified’ and b) put Captain Pitte on the horn, over.”
I’m here, John said, or rather thought he said. He blinked and wondered if it was the sunsset making the bridge so red.
“Radio, do not respond to that query,” Rand ordered. “Open a channel to the gun deck, order them to target the traitors’ camp, and prepare to fire on my mark.”
Don’t, John thought as the warm wet spread from the wound and darkened his uniform.
Good thing he hadn’t bothered to change…
By now John was losing sensation in his legs, and he guessed Millar and Jihan had better things to do than hold the bleeding man upright, because the next thing he felt was the deck under his cheek. Lying there, his blood cooling under him, he heard the gunners responding their readiness, then he heard Colonel Quinn’s voice asking for Captain Pitte and then, last of all…
“Mark,” Rand’s voice, dark with triumph, followed John into the sanguine fog.