Oh look, we finished a chapter just in time to pretend it was deliberately timed as a holiday present to all our readers! ;) Have an excellent Christmas and a happy New Year, everyone, or whatever seasonally-appropriate celebration you prefer. (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti to any Mithras-worshippers, and happy Atheist Children Get Presents Too Day!)
The Handsome Hubby and I shall be buzzing off to visit my parents, putting the cats in boarding and leaving the yabbies to take over the house (they're just waiting for their chance, man, I tell ya), so I'll be back later... if the yabbies haven't cut off the internet. ;P
And we have changes the name to something more appropriate... considering we may never see Honor in the fic. If she shows up at all, it will be a cameo ;)
Silesian Wing, Chapter 2: Trans-shipment.
Duo walked into the Toolbox’s exercise room just as Cat tried to take Trowa’s head off with a flying kick, missed, and went spinning into the padded wall as he redirected her momentum with a hefty shove.
“Better,” Trowa said calmly, shaking his head to settle his ruffled hair back into its smooth fall over one eye. “You’re still telegraphing your moves, though.”
“Nobody else would spot it,” she argued, rolling back to her feet and working one shoulder, rubbing the joint with her other hand. “If I can take everyone by surprise except Audubon Ballroom action team members, what does it matter? I’m not going to be trying to kill them.”
“Duo would spot it,” he shrugged, and the Q-ship captain held up both hands in negation.
“Hey, whoa, don’t drag me into this! And I really hope Cat’s not going to be trying to kill me either, just saying,” Duo added hastily.
“I bet you he wouldn’t,” Cat sniffed, ignoring him.
“Bet you he would,” Trowa replied.
“I bet I don’t want to test this theory. Oh look, I win! We can stop speculating noWHOAH!”
“He ducked,” the Ballroom agent pointed out, voice and expression perfectly deadpan. “I win. You need to work on not telegraphing your moves.”
Cat sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Whatever.”
Crouched on the floor with one arm raised to block the kick that had been aimed at his head, Duo looked from one to the other with an exasperated expression. “Can we not try to maim the guy who walks in to give you good news, okay? In fact, can we not try to maim anybody who hasn’t agreed to be part of your training program? I’d appreciate it!” Behind him, Shinigami strolled into the room and made a huffing noise, glaring pointedly at Cat.
“I wasn’t going to maim you.”
“Sure looked like you were going to,” he grumbled, standing up and sidling away from her. “Do you actually want the news, or should I just plan to stay out of range and let you find out what’s up on your own?”
“News, please,” Trowa said politely, picking up a towel and starting to mop sweat off his face; that seemed to signal the end of the training session, and Cat blew her fringe out of her eyes with an annoyed huff of breath that sounded so much like Shinigami, Duo had to look to make sure it hadn’t been him again.
“We’ve gotten word back from Manticore,” he said, directing the sentence at Trowa but keeping a surreptitious eye on Cat to make sure she wasn’t going to have another try. “Long message with lots of flowery language, boils down to ‘we would be delighted to offer refugee status and eventual citizenship to any ex-slaves who want to move here, benefits, training, therapy, yadda yadda you name it, we’ll happily send a Navy ship to pick them up if it’s not convenient for you to come all the way here, aren’t you nice people’. They seem kinda enthusiastic about the idea,” he grinned.
“Better than the Havenites,” Cat sniffed.
“There was a definite flavour of ‘oh God, not more proles on the Dole’ to their response,” Trowa agreed. “It’s probably a good thing not many wanted to go there. Do we know how many are intending to go to Manticore, yet?”
“More than went to Haven, but still not a lot,” Duo shrugged. “About thirty-five, though more might put their hands up to go now that we’re going to be setting up a trip there. Most seem to want to stay with the Sweepers, actually, and about half a dozen have asked about joining the Deathscythe’s crew.” His grin turned sheepish, and he tugged awkwardly at his plaited hair. “Hilde says she’s got a bunch who want to serve on the Forsaken, same with Solo and Hellscream. I think we made an impression.”
“Of course you did,” Trowa said reasonably. “Have you got room for them?”
“Are you kidding me?! We could take ten times as many and still be technically short-handed in some departments!” He threw his arms out in an emphatic gesture and started to pace, gesturing enthusiastically. “I mean, we’ve got zero personnel redundancy. None. Zip. If we lose somebody, we’ve got no backups and people will have to cover for them while still performing their own roles, which I guarantee you is gonna cause problems. We’re doing as much as we can with computerisation and automation, plus consolidating controls so one person can run multiple stations instead of having fifteen people in each weapons bay or whatever to push buttons, but there’s reasons why honest-to-God military ships have huge crews and do tons of things by hand instead of our way. They’ve got a lot more ability to reallocate personnel and work around damage on the fly than we do. If something breaks it’s gonna be bad, and in combat it’s gonna break all right, seeing as how the whole point of combat is to break the other guy’s ship before he breaks yours. Talk to me about the time all our internal communications went out-- wait, no, don’t talk to me about it, talk to someone else, I still get way too pissed off remembering it to want to tell the story, but it was pretty epic levels of suck and nearly got us all dead. A’course, that was because the first Deathscythe was a converted freighter, pure civilian design built with no consideration for durability in battle, and the new three have been designed properly from the keel up so that particular system can’t FUBAR that way any more, but that doesn’t mean--”
Duo looked up in the middle of his rant and realised that Trowa and Cat were watching him, one with a faint smile and the other with a blatant scowl, and broke off, blushing. “Aheh. I may have some fairly strong opinions on the subject. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologise,” Trowa assured him, smile widening a hair. “They’re interesting opinions.”
“If you’ve got such a bad personnel shortage, why did you go from one ship to three instead of two?” Cat asked. “Two would have made better sense.”
“Eh, it was a tradeoff,” Duo told her, answering the question while ignoring her scornful tone of voice. “When you’re dealing with small fleets - like, anything under fifteen or twenty ships at a time - adding one more ship doesn’t increase your strength linearly. It’s exponential. The difference between two and three ships isn’t a fifty percent increase in capability; it’s more like two hundred percent. We ran the numbers a few different ways, and, well… we decided to take the slight hit in efficiency, jump straight to a fleet of three, and recruit up to strength as fast as we could, instead of going with two ships that might be more efficiently run but had a way higher chance of getting blown out of space before we could finance our next expansion. Plus, if we hadn’t given Hilde her own ship, Solo and I were gonna have to decide who got her as XO through gladiatorial combat or something, since we couldn’t share her any more.”
“Oh. I suppose that’s reasonable, then.”
Duo bit back a snarky retort with an effort - So glad it meets with your approval, Madam Tactician! - and Trowa eyed him thoughtfully for a moment, then turned to Cat.
“That’s something else you’re going to have to work on,” he said, and she blinked, visibly surprised.
“What? We’ve stopped sparring - what do you mean?”
“It’s generally considered a good idea to be polite to people who can help you,” he said in an uncharacteristically hard voice. Cat blushed angrily, opening her mouth to retort, but he cut her off with an upraised hand and went on. “Since you can’t always tell in advance who may or may not be able to help you in the future, it’s a good idea to be polite to everyone - and being rude to someone who’s already helped you is frankly uncivilised. You’re C-line, so you would have been given the full suite of etiquette training; you know how to behave well in society. You’re choosing not to, and that’s a major tactical error if you want to be even minimally useful to the Audubon Ballroom.”
“Slavers wanted me to act that way!” she raged, fists clenched. “Mesa wanted me to act that way! Are you telling me to roll over and be a, a good slave for the normals?!”
“Mesa trained you to act that way because it’s how everyone is expected to behave,” Trowa said sternly. “No, I’m not telling you to follow the bits about subservience, or the training about how to behave in front of your owner in private! The full suite has public modules too, about how to act when nobody is supposed to know you’re a slave. That’s what I’m talking about. It’s your choice as to whether you want to use it or not, but don’t discard it just because it came from Mesa. Right now, everything you know came from Mesa, right down to how to use cutlery and put on your own clothes. Mesan nurses taught you how to walk and talk. Are you going to discard it all and start over as a blank slate?”
She didn’t answer, shaking with anger and embarrassment, and he went on in a gentler voice.
“Manners and polite behaviour affect how other people see you. How they react to you. Whether or not they think of you favourably, whether or not they like you, whether or not they’re inclined to do things for you. It’s a tool, Cat, think of it that way. If you’re nice to people when you’re out on a mission, you’ll get let into places you wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to go, invited to parties where you can get closer to your targets, that sort of thing. And when something goes wrong, people who like you won’t think of you of a suspect - or if they do, they might even cover up evidence to protect you. From a purely pragmatic point of view, being polite and nice gets you benefits out of all proportion to the amount of effort expended.”
“Uh… he’s right,” Duo said apologetically, and shrugged when she turned towards him with wide, accusing eyes. “I don’t wanna dogpile on you or anything, Cat, I figure you’re a decent person and everyone’s been cutting you a lot of slack because if anyone deserves it you do, but… well, the day you said you’d be heading to Earth to join the Audubon Ballroom cells there, there were enough sighs of relief to change the air pressure. Nobody hates you or anything, but nobody wants you to stick around either, ’cause you haven’t exactly been making friends.”
She whirled and stalked off without another word, snatching up her own towel from the bench as she passed, and Duo winced as she stamped out the door. “Maybe I shoulda kept my mouth shut,” he muttered.
Trowa shook his head. “No; she needed to hear it.” He patted Duo’s shoulder comfortingly, then slung his towel around his neck and stretched. “Oof!”
“Mmm. She hit me harder than I admitted a few times,” he said ruefully, feeling at a tender spot over his ribs. “In some ways she’s a good student - she learns amazingly fast, and the C-line physical mods are well suited to some styles of combat - and in other ways she’s the worst student I’ve ever taught. She won’t take correction, and she’s got far too high an opinion of her own abilities.”
“She’s good, but not that good?” Duo asked.
“Exactly. I think she’s spent most of her life working around the Mesans, playing the perfect demure slave while plotting and scheming and teaching herself the skills she thought she needed to know to escape, and she got away with so much… she thinks she’ll always get away with everything. I need to get it into her head that she’s not all that now, instead of letting her find out that things really can go wrong when she’s out on her first mission,” he finished, mouth twisting. “By the way, thanks for helping with that. I think it’s finally sinking in.”
“I’d be happier about it if you’d warned me I was going to be used as a training dummy first, but you’re welcome,” Duo said wryly.
Trowa eyed him sideways from under his hair. “…I knew you’d dodge,” he said eventually. “You see things, and what you don’t see you feel… and what you don’t pick up on, Shinigami tells you about.”
Duo’s expression turned wary, then blank. “I’ve got good reflexes, dude, but that’s about it. Hand-to-hand isn’t my thing.”
The Ballroom agent shrugged, almost visibly dropping the subject. “Fair enough, given that you don’t need it much. So, are you taking the Manticorans up on their offer to pick up their new immigrants? And do you have an ETD yet?”
“We were actually planning on doing a run through the Saginaw sector for a proper shakedown cruise, seeing as how we had to cut the first one short after we picked everyone up,” Duo told him, relaxing slightly. “If we loop around into Manticoran territory first, that lets us come into the sector from an unexpected angle, and we can meet up with their Navy taxi at Reevesport or something.”
“Do you need to come into the sector from an unexpected angle?” Trowa asked curiously.
The Q-ship captain grinned, showing far too many teeth for it to look harmless. “Oh, we’re getting to that point,” he said, almost purring in satisfaction. “We’ve already given this sector a rep for being somewhere you do not want to fuck with merchanters, and some little birds have told us that pirates in the neighbouring sectors are starting to think twice about jacking any ship that comes out of here, especially if it’s flying alone. Three ships coming in from Manticoran space, though… we’ll have a good chance of getting some bites.”
Trowa felt his eyebrows going up in surprise, and let it show. “You’ve given a whole sector a reputation for being bad for pirates? With one ship?!”
“Hey, the Deathscythe Mark 1 was special, man,” Duo said, still-sharp grin contrasting oddly with his nostalgic tone. “Civilian conversion or not, we stuffed that baby with as many mods as we could invent and fit in the hull, and we regularly outshot two- and three-ship pirate groups. And you gotta consider the sector itself. There’s a grand total of four inhabited systems here in the Hillman sector, and three of ’em are Sweepers bases. We don’t have an actual planet - don’t want one, either - and our total population is about one-tenth of the numbers living in the sector capital, but all of us are spacers, so our influence in the sector outside of that one planet’s atmosphere is way out of proportion to our numbers. About forty percent of the sector’s trade is to or through us. Anyway, there used to be a normal amount of pirate activity around here, and we felt it pretty bad--”
“There’s a ‘normal’ amount for pirate activity?” Trowa couldn’t resist asking, and Duo snorted.
“There is in Silesia,” he said darkly, and Trowa shrugged reluctant agreement. “So when we started out, of course we started out right here - it was close to the Toolbox and the other stations for resupply and so on, and every pirate we took out was one less ship picking on our friends and harassing our trade routes. We cleaned up like nobody’s business before they got the word around that there was a Q-ship patrolling the area, but eventually most of ’em moved out and we had to go a bit further to find anyone who was willing to take the bait any more.”
“With one ship?” Trowa repeated, still incredulous.
“Dude, you spent how long undercover on pirate ships again?”
“Then you know how heavily armed most pirate ships aren’t,” Duo pointed out. “They don’t need more than one or two missile tubes to handle an unarmed merchie. Anything that can actually fight back, they don’t attack in the first place. There are a few that started out as diverted navy surplus, those have something worth calling a broadside, but they’ve almost never got enough missiles to reload more than once or twice. If we could handle a couple of broadsides - and we could! - after that we just had to stay out of laser range and pound ’em until they either blew up or surrendered. The Pretty Pretty Prick had a decent broadside, sure, what was it? Five missile tubes and two lasers per side, plus a chase tube? How many missiles did you actually have in the magazines?”
“…Twenty-six,” Trowa admitted.
“Yeah, and they were crap, too,” Duo grinned. “Way obsolete, and when we checked them out to see if they were worth using it turned out three of ’em probably wouldn’t’ve gone off if you’d fired ’em. Red lights all over the diagnostics. Your maintenance crews musta been pretty useless.”
“Blame Lopez, not me! If I’d been in charge, we would have been in much better shape. And on a different side,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
“Heh. True. Well, the first Deathscythe didn’t have any lasers - we spent that part of the energy budget on souped-up sidewalls - but it had ten tubes in each broadside, and we had magazine space for over three hundred missiles. Never could afford to carry more than two hundred, though.”
“Oh.” Trowa blinked once or twice, mentally revising his estimate of the relevant force levels. “Now I understand. …And the new ships are better?”
“Wellllll,” Duo drawled, eyes glittering, “let’s just say that we have a way bigger energy budget than before. And enough cash to fill the magazines.”
“And a shakedown cruise coming up.”
“Yeah! It’s gonna be awesome! Are you coming?”
“Hey, I said you could come along pirate-punching if you wanted to, and I meant it. You can help us deliver some new citizens to Manticore - they’re generally cool with Ballroom agents, I think, but it’s probably best if we don’t introduce you--”
“We try not to strain the limits of their tolerance,” Trowa agreed, smirking. “I’m sure they’d prefer not to know.”
“--then have a nice slow three-week cruise through Saginaw, passing through all the best places to get ambushed on our way to Lutrell, where there’s an eatery Howard swears is the best place he’s ever found to get genuine dirtside food without actually going dirtside. I dunno about that, but what I do know is that their manapua and jalebi are worth going that far for, and they brew their own beer. My treat. Plus, it gives Cat about a month to simmer down,” Duo added, eyeing the door she’d left by warily.
“Oh, twist my arm,” Trowa said, not quite deadpan. “I haven’t had jalebi for years, and I haven’t had good jalebi since before I went undercover. That plus time to let Cat think things through equals yes, please, I would love to come pirate-punching. When do we leave?”
“Day after tomorrow, if everybody’s ready,” Duo grinned. “I’ll take care of getting the ships good to go; d’you mind making sure all the ex-slaves who want to head to Manticore are packed and so on? Plus there’s a bunch who’ve been making noises about maybe going to Manticore, they’re going to need to make up their minds in kind of a hurry.”
“Will do.” Trowa waved two fingers in a mock salute and bent to pick up a few scattered items as Duo bounced out. When he straightened up, hands full of blunt practice knives, Shinigami was sitting quietly between him and the door, watching him.
“…Yes?” he asked after a moment, resisting the urge to either start a staring contest or look away from the treecat’s intense yellow gaze.
Shinigami’s eyes narrowed slightly, and his ears tilted backwards. His tail lashed, once, then returned to stillness.
“If this is about me noticing that you and Duo communicate a lot more than can be accounted for verbally or by body language--”
Yellow eyes narrowed further.
“--I don’t intend to tell anyone.”
The ’cat held his gaze for a moment longer, then blinked and flicked his tail - a relaxed motion, this time, and accompanied by an innocent-sounding chirrup - before turning and walking out.
Trowa let out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding, feeling a cold drop of sweat trickle down his spine. I think it’s a very good thing that I was telling the truth…
* * * * *
When the small fleet of Q-ships left orbit heading for Manticoran territory, there were thirty-nine ex-slaves and one Audubon Ballroom not-currently-undercover agent on board, tucked away into various rooms in the crowded internal spaces. Most of the ex-slaves were hot-bunking with crew members who were on the small third watch and therefore wouldn’t be in their beds during ship’s night; Trowa found himself down the hall from Duo’s cabin on the Deathscythe, in one of the few genuinely vacant rooms.
“Isn’t the captain’s cabin traditionally supposed to be larger than everyone else’s quarters?” Trowa asked in a mild voice, leaning on the door and looking around the cramped room. It was almost pathologically neat in the way people who’d been raised in space often were, with every single loose item clipped into a rack or tidied away into a storage compartment, and yet still managed to look chaotic and messy. It was the completely uncoordinated colours, he thought, and the fact that everything that wasn’t part of the ship or a piece of safety equipment seemed to be second-hand and very well used.
Duo snorted, spitting the cutting tool he’d been holding in his mouth out into one hand and making a final adjustment to the cables he was splicing. “It’s not like I need anything bigger!”
“Whether you need it or not, I think you’re supposed to have the space anyway, in case you want to entertain important guests or something. More to the point, my cabin is bigger. Why aren’t you in there? You’d at least have room for more book chips,” he suggested, gesturing to a rack that was crammed full of what seemed to be three quarters technical publications and one quarter novels.
“For one thing, we don’t get visitors much,” Duo grinned. “People either don’t know we’re a Q-ship, in which case there’s no way we’re inviting them on board, or else they do know we’re a Q-ship, and know not to expect anything fancy. For another thing, in the extremely unlikely event that we do end up with important guests on board, your cabin is where they’re going to stay.”
Trowa blinked. “I’m flattered, then. It does have a very comfortable bed.”
“Good to know!” There was a brief smell of hot glass and plastic as Duo fused the cables together, and the newly-installed screen blinked to life with ‘RECEIVING SIGNAL… PLEASE WAIT’. “C’mon c’mon c’mon, be a good little gadget, this is the third time I’ve tried to get you working, don’t make me have to get Grant to fix you…”
“It didn’t even get this far last time,” Trowa pointed out, hiding a smile. “Why didn’t Hauptmann Yards get it working before you left?”
“Ah, we put in a bunch of private mods once we got the ships home to the Toolbox,” Duo said absent-mindedly, drumming his fingers on the wall and watching the progress bar. “Stuff we weren’t about to give the Yards the plans for. This is one of ’em. The last one, if I can just get it to work--!”
A scaled-down copy of the main bridge display popped briefly into view before being obscured with pink and purple static and warping sideways. After a few more seconds it started to scroll vertically, then disappeared and was replaced by ‘SIGNAL LOST’.
“I don’t think it’s the screen,” Trowa said. “It’s displaying its own diagnostics just fine.”
“Yeah, but the server checks out fine, and we haven’t been able to find anything wrong with the cabling between here and there, so I was hoping that redoing the connection would fix it,” Duo sighed. “Crap, and other such comments.” Leaning sideways, he punched in a code on the bedside communicator and waited for the call to go through, staring up at the ceiling and drumming his fingers again.
“Hey, Grant, it’s Duo. I give up,” he said flatly.
//Told you your first two connections were fine, boy! It’s something in the server communication protocols.//
“Well if you could just find something wrong in the comms protocols, I wouldn’t be grasping at straws here,” Duo explained with exaggerated patience. “Fine, you win, I can’t fix it. Now would you please kick whatever bit of tech is refusing to play nice into behaving?”
//Working on it.// *click*
“Yeah, I’d appreciate-- did he seriously just disconnect on me?!”
“I think he did.”
“I would kick his ass if he wasn’t like three hundred years old,” Duo huffed, unconvincingly. “Seriously though, he can disconnect on me all he likes if he just fixes the damn tac screen repeater so I don’t have to bolt up to the bridge in my skivvies if we get an emergency in the middle of my night cycle. Whatever. Did you want anything in particular, or were you just sticking your head in to tell me my cabin isn’t captain-ish?” he continued, grinning at Trowa.
“Lexie sent me to tell you that you’re about to miss dinner. Again,” the taller man informed him, grinning back.
“What? There’s no way that took long enough for-- aw, crap!” Duo swore, checking the time. On cue, his stomach gurgled loudly. “Damnit, Shini, why didn’t you remind me?! …Shini?”
Trowa cleared his throat. “Probably because Shinigami is not missing dinner. He’s in the mess hall with a giant plate of rabbit and celery.”
The betrayed expression on Duo’s face before he catapulted himself out of his seat and ran down the corridor was hilarious.
- - - - -
“I’m still pissed at you, y’know.”
Shinigami rolled over and eyed Duo with an unmistakeably smug expression, then burped.
“Oh, that was classy! Seriously, by the time I got there they were out of all the good stuff. I guess Lexie was serious when she told me she wasn’t going to save anything for me any more,” Duo said grumpily. “It’s not like anyone else eats raw rabbit, so sticking around to remind me wouldn’t have lost you your dinner.”
The treecat blinked lazily at him, and Duo received a series of images; Shini scolding him the last time he’d had to be reminded about a meal, a definite feeling of ‘no more, not again’, and a clear picture of Lexie eating celery.
“As if she’d take it all! Half the time she picks her own share out of her salad and gives it to you!”
A picture of Cheng-yi eating celery. A picture of Grant eating celery. A picture of Angus--
Duo flopped backwards in his chair and let his arms dangle, groaning in defeat. “Okay. Okay! Somebody among the many heinous celery-eating members of my crew might have eaten some of your serving of celery, despite knowing that you would have been very upset with them and probably taken lessons from Loki on how to get them back. The mere possibility of losing a piece of celery is sufficient to justify your abandonment of me to, y’know, actual hunger. All the celery is belong to you!” He cut himself off, grimacing, and reached out without looking to rub his partner behind the ears. “It’s not like extra celery is going to extend your range far enough to reach them, dude.”
Shinigami flattened his ears and looked away, not sending anything in return, and Duo sighed.
“I miss them too, buddy.”
He could still feel Solo and Loki, but it was just a vague awareness of their existence, a faint glow on the edge of his mind that he couldn’t even pin down to a direction; not the clear presence that had been part of his life since the day of their adoptions. Not enough to be a comfort. They’d known it was going to happen once they were in different ships, of course - for safety’s sake, even flying in ‘close formation’ meant keeping hundreds of kilometres away from the other ships in their little fleet. There was no possible way to stay within the five or so kilometres that was the absolute maximum range over which treecats could communicate. And they’d gone out of range of each other before, of course they had, plenty of times, but--
--but it had always been with the knowledge that they would be back in range within hours. Days, at most. This time it was going to be for weeks.
Duo sighed again, looking sideways at Shinigami, who was curling up into a grumpy ball on his bed. His single, lonely, empty bed.
“Man, this is going to suck.”
* * * * *
“…and we will be rendezvousing with the Sweepers Q-ships Deathscythe, Forsaken, and Hellscream in the Reevesport system in four days time. They will probably be using aliases,” the XO continued in his slightly nasal voice, “so in order to avoid breaking their cover those names are to be considered classified and we will wait for them to make the first contact. Our schedule then requires us to--”
One of the civilian officials seated at the briefing table snorted derisively, leaning back in his chair as if to separate himself from the discussion. “I sincerely doubt we’ll be keeping to schedule,” he drawled, rolling his eyes. “It’ll be a frank miracle if those Q-ships arrive on time, much less manage to transship the slaves efficiently. Excuse me, ex-slaves,” he corrected himself pointedly.
The XO stared expressionlessly at him for just slightly longer than was comfortable, then blinked. “What are you basing that evaluation on, sir?”
“Well, I mean, it’s obvious they can’t be serious,” the man scoffed, gesturing towards the infopad in front of him. “What with names like that, and all.”
“Mister Hamilton-Price,” the captain interjected, in a cool drawl that was the same high-class accent as the civilian’s but seemed somehow less grating, “you are currently on board Her Majesty’s Ship Tallgeese, a name that seems silly to many but nevertheless has been placed on the List of Honor due to the courageous deeds performed by this ship’s predecessors. I can assure you--”
“Well, yes, but I mean, that’s different!” Hamilton-Price blustered, and one white-blond eyebrow lifted at the interruption.
“I can assure you,” the captain began again as the civilian stuttered into silence, “that while Forsaken and Hellscream are newly built, the Deathscythe has amassed sufficient honours of its own for its record to stand proud against this or any other Manticoran ship’s. More to the point, Mr Hamilton-Price, I believe you were provided with a full briefing pack before this meeting. Did you read it?”
“Well-- I-- uh-- the important parts, certainly--”
“Generally speaking, Mr Hamilton-Price, information in a briefing pack is there because it is all important. At least, that holds true for briefing packs prepared by my officers,” the captain murmured with an amused look sideways at the XO, and a few quiet chuckles rose. “Right now, you might want to have a look at the section devoted to the Sweepers and their allied Q-ships. I suggest you jump straight to the tab marked ‘Bounties’,” he said, voice polite but implacably firm.
There was an uncomfortable pause as the immigration official picked up his infopad and stabbed angrily at the icons. Reaching the right section, he scanned down the length of the pad, then scrolled down… scrolled down again… and again…
“Preposterous!” he snorted, tossing the pad back onto the table and crossing his arms. “That can’t possibly be accurate!”
“Actually, all those bounties were confirmed by the ship captains and base commanders to whom they delivered pirate crews,” the captain noted cheerfully. “We have rather stringent requirements for proof, not wanting to disburse Her Majesty’s funds without proper documentation. I might also note that this list is incomplete, containing as it does only the bounties that have been paid by Manticore. The Deathscythe’s co-captains do have a stated preference for delivering their captives to us, rather than to Silesian governments, but we share that honour with the Andermani Empire. Any bounties paid by them won’t appear in our records. So yes, Mr Hamilton-Price, these are deathly serious people we are dealing with,” he finished, mouth curling into a grim smile at the pun, “and I fully expect them to arrive on schedule unless they stop off on the way to catch a few more. Silly names notwithstanding.”
The chill silence following his speech was broken by one of Hamilton-Price’s colleagues, who raised a hand tentatively. “Er… Captain Merquise, do you know why they prefer to deliver pirates to us, rather than Silesians? Er, us and the Andermani, that is?”
“As a matter of fact, I do, Mr Spencer. While I haven’t met the gentlemen myself, other captains have reported that they say they don’t like turning pirates over to Silesian officials because they have a nasty tendency to turn around and let them go, occasionally selling them a new ship on their way out. Pirates given to us or the Andermani, however, are far more likely to stay locked up.”
“That’s a rather slanderous statement!” Hamilton-Price huffed.
“I’m merely repeating their words, Mr Hamilton-Price, but I have to say that observed fact does accord with their prejudices. Many Silesian officials do have efficient little deals going on with the local pirates, often including literal escape clauses.” He coolly stared him into silence again, then turned back to Spencer with a slight smile. “Apparently they also avoid turning bounties over to Havenite ships, because the money doesn’t always show up in return, and when it does it’s often credit notes only redeemable in Havenite space.”
Possibly stupid, uncrushable, or both, Hamilton-Price muttered something about “unprincipled mercenaries”, loud enough to be heard.
“Well, yes, they are mercenaries in a way,” Captain Merquise replied, aristocratic drawl thickening as he got more annoyed. “That would be the whole point of bounties, after all; finance the people who are good enough to take care of some of the problems the Navy would dearly love to clean up, but can’t always catch, don’t’cher know. It’d be a trifle hypocritical to offer bounties and then look down on the people who accept ’em, them not having the benefit of a governmental payroll an’ all - and even those of us privileged to be paid a nice salary by Her Majesty get prize money, essentially bounties under a different name. I take issue with the ‘unprincipled’ part, though. If they were indeed unprincipled, they’d be pirates, not be huntin’ ’em, and I have no reservations about statin’ that I personally would not be happy to find myself and my crew on the other end of a fight involvin’ these people!”
Half an hour later, at the end of the briefing (which hadn’t gotten any better as it went along), the XO ushered the last civilians politely out of the room and then dropped back into his chair next to the captain with an exasperated noise.
“How the hell do you manage to stay polite with those idiots, Zechs?”
“Was I polite?” Captain Merquise asked mildly. “Damn. I rather hoped I was getting fairly rude there at the end.”
“‘Rude’ and ‘coldly contemptuous’ are not synonyms. You were doing the second one rather well.”
“Ah, well, that’s all right then. And at least only one of them is really an idiot. God help those poor people who are going to have him as their liaison to the Department of Immigration, though.”
“They’ll be fine,” the XO snorted. “As long as they don’t mind him treating them as fragile symbols of man’s oppression of man who need to be sheltered from the brutish myrmidons running this ship, he’ll fall over himself to get them everything they need.”
“Here’s hoping none of them burst his bubble by stating a desire to join the brutish myrmidons before he’s finished their paperwork, then,” Zechs said meaningfully.
His XO smirked. “Oh, I think I can drop a few hints and get them to keep any such violent desires under wraps until then,” he murmured, and stuck out a barcoded tongue.
“Put that away, Yui, or I’ll have you up on charges of conduct unbecoming an officer.”
“Would you really? It would be an excellent excuse for refusing your sister’s latest invitation.”
Zechs dropped his head into his hands in a gesture expressing utter despair, one long strand of platinum-blond hair that had escaped his neat queue falling decoratively over his fingers. “Oh, God,” he moaned, voice muffled. “Not again. What’s the occasion this time?”
“One of her fiance’s sisters’ birthdays. I forget which one. Irene, maybe? Is there an Irene in the girlpack? I think the name started with I, anyway.”
“No Irene, no,” Zechs said thoughtfully, emerging from the shelter of his hands. “There’s an Iria, though. I’m pretty sure she’s the only one whose name starts with I, and she’s one of the sane ones.” A hopeful note crept into his voice. “I don’t suppose you’d consider accepting the invitation? It’d take the pressure off me for a while, at least, and Relena knows you’re already taken so she won’t really be expecting you to date her.”
“She might be sane, but the others will all be there too,” his XO said firmly, shaking his head. “No.”
“I’d be willing to bribe you.”
“You haven’t enough money to pay me to get within reach of those harpies.”
“Oh come on, Heero, I know all the entailed properties went to Relena when I took myself out of the line of succession, but I kept all my personal inheritances--”
“You haven’t enough,” Heero repeated firmly, blue eyes amused above his serious expression. “Relena hasn’t got enough. Winner hasn’t got enough.”
Zechs sighed, propping his chin on one fist and gazing at his officer with an expression that was almost a pout. “Don’t suppose you’d obey if I ordered you to go, either.”
“Zechs - sir - if being convicted on charges of conduct unbecoming an officer and locked in a stockade is the only way for me to get out of this or any similar invitation, I will cheerfully lick you to bring those charges on.”
“Eugh! Not necessary!” the captain assured him hastily. “Damnation, you really are serious, aren’t you?”
Heero grinned. “My fiancé would be deeply offended if I got myself in trouble with the Winner girlpack.”
“Can’t say I blame-- wait, fiancé? You two finally made it official? Congratulations!”
The faint blush looked odd on Heero’s face as he nodded, smile turning almost shy. “We, uh, haven’t set a date yet, but--”
“Exigencies of Her Majesty’s service and so on,” Zechs said understandingly, waving off the explanation. “Remember, I was an interested ringside spectator for all the hoops you two had to jump through the last time you wanted to coordinate your leaves, and we still got called back to patrol early.”
“Waste of all those signatures,” Heero muttered, still blushing. “At least we got a week.”
“Well, tell Rafi that when you need time off for the wedding, I’m happy to pry some more signatures out of the Admiralty, and I have contacts in Fortress Command as well. Call it part of my wedding present to you both.”
* * * * *
“Duo, did-- ah. Excuse me, I was looking for Captain Maxwell.”
“Ain’t got one of those on board, boy,” the grey-haired man sitting at Duo’s desk replied without looking around, bent over a complicated bit of wiring with a magnifying loupe in one eye. “We’ve got an idealistic young fool named Duo in charge, though. Said he was going down to the mess hall for some coffee, should be back soon.”
“You must be Grant,” Trowa said dryly, recognising the voice, and the elderly man snorted.
“Good to know you can see the obvious, there. I can too, so you must be Barton. Anything in particular you wanted?”
“Nothing urgent. Duo said he was going to have a nap, but when I saw the door open I thought he must still be awake--”
“And you’d be right there as well,” Grant interrupted, reaching for another tool. “Should be napping and isn’t. Decided to work on the screen instead, called me to help, and is going to substitute coffee for rest. Again.” He shot one quick look over his shoulder to where Trowa was still leaning in the doorway; the Ballroom agent got a brief impression of a ridiculously pointed nose and sharp eyes, one magnified to disconcerting size through the loupe, before he turned back to his wiring. “Boy doesn’t sleep well without his brother near. Neither does Solo, but I gather he’s worked out better ways to deal with it than ignoring it and loading up on caffeine.”
“Hm.” Trowa scratched thoughtfully at his chin, and started to push away from the door jamb. “In that case, I should probably go.”
“Wrong. You won’t keep him up longer by being here, if that’s what you’re worried about; he’ll stay up until he falls over if he decides to, no matter who’s here or not. If you keep him talking, though, he’ll drink less coffee and won’t get in my way while I re-wire this, and if I get it working he might actually decide to have that nap after all.”
“…I guess I’m staying, then,” Trowa said, amused, and settled back against the wall to wait.
They heard Duo coming back before he came into view; the swish of a lift door opening further down the corridor, then an animated discussion moving closer. Animated, Trowa noted, but largely one-sided, mostly Duo’s fast patter with the occasional quiet chirp or ‘bleek’ noise in reply. Shinigami came into view first, strolling around the curve of the corridor and flirting his tail in greeting, and then Duo bounced after him and stopped short, the carafe of coffee in his hand sloshing dangerously.
“Oh, hey, Trowa!” he said, shooting a slightly annoyed glance at his treecat partner. “Wasn’t expecting you. Something up?”
“I wasn’t expecting to talk to you either, but the door was open and Grant told me to stick around,” Trowa said calmly, nodding towards the older man as he straightened up from his comfortable lean, then turning to smile at the treecat. “Hello, Shinigami. I wanted to give you both a heads-up,” he continued, looking back up at Duo. “Some of the younger ex-slaves are planning to ask you how they can get their own ‘pet fluffy kitties’.”
The quotation marks around ‘pet fluffy kitties’ were audible as Trowa’s voice turned dry, and Duo spluttered helplessly for a moment. Shinigami started making the half-sneeze, half-cough noise that was the treecat equivalent of raucous laughter, loud enough that Duo had to raise his voice when he got it back. “Seriously?! What the hell do they think Shini is, a stuffed toy?!”
“More like an Earth cat, I think,” Trowa shrugged. “One asked how much treecats cost in pet shops. I tried to explain that they’re sentient, but I think they’re stuck on the fact that they don’t talk.”
“Man,” Duo muttered, looking rather offended. “They are so not paying attention if they haven’t realised that treecats are not dumb cats! Talking or no talking!”
“Definitely,” Trowa agreed, meeting Shinigami’s eyes. He was still cough-sniggering, eyes bright with amusement, and walked unsteadily over to sit next to Trowa’s feet and pat him sympathetically on the knee. “Thanks. It was a bit frustrating.”
“If you couldn’t get it into their heads, I dunno how I’m going to manage,” Duo shrugged, carrying the coffee into his cabin and rummaging in a storage compartment for a pack of recyclable cups.
“Mighta been better if you hadn’t warned him,” Grant put in, still bent over the desk. “Duo’s better at being rude when he’s taken by surprise. Might be what it takes to drum it through their skulls.”
“True. If I’ve just sabotaged your future argument, I apologise,” Trowa said, accepting a cup from Duo and sitting down next to him on the bed. Shinigami jumped up between them and settled down, managing to drape himself across both their laps.
“If you do that when they’re around, you’re going to sabotage the argument,” Duo told the ’cat, half-heartedly shoving at him before giving up and scratching behind his ears. “Petting hog.” He swigged half his coffee, then paused, eyeing the distance between him and the carafe sitting on the small table. “And I bet you’re not going to move when I want a refill, either…”
Shinigami bleeked smugly and stretched, setting multiple sets of claws firmly into both Duo and Trowa’s shipknits, and Trowa shrugged helplessly as the long-haired captain turned towards him. “I think he’s comfortable. I also think that if we try to kick him off, we’re not going to be comfortable.”
“Don’t look at me,” Grant growled, making another tiny adjustment. “Busy here.”
“That’d be mutineer, actually, and I don’t think sticking to my job instead of getting you a drink really qualifies.”
“You’re all against me,” Duo announced dramatically, slumping back on the mattress in a ‘woe is me’ pose, one hand draped across his forehead, the other carefully balancing his coffee on his stomach. “Except you. You’d get me coffee if you could get up, wouldn’t you?” he wheedled, making big eyes at Trowa.
“It’s kind of out of my hands,” he shrugged, sitting very still as Shinigami’s claws clenched a little harder… and not actually answering the question. “I seem to have been designated ‘Treecat Ass Support’, and I don’t think I’m allowed to resign from the post.”
Duo cracked up laughing, and Shinigami made a few more wet sneezing sounds. “I think you’re right there. Hey, I got it! I’ll loan Shini to the kids for the voyage, tell them it’s so they can get used to looking after a treecat, and by the time we get to Reevesport it won’t matter whether or not they think he’s intelligent because they won’t want one! It’s brilliant --OW! Claws!”
Twenty minutes later, Shinigami slid off Trowa’s lap as he carefully reached across and took the empty cup out of Duo’s slack hand. “Well, that worked,” he murmured, and Shinigami chirped quiet agreement as he curled up next to his sleeping partner.
“So did this,” Grant announced, leaning back in the chair and cracking his knuckles. On the screen in front of him was a modified copy of the bridge tactical display, with enlarged text and simplified symbols to be readable on the smaller scale. “About time, too.”
“What was the problem?”
“No idea,” Grant said bluntly as he shooed Trowa out of the room and shut the door behind them, dimming the lights to half on the way. “I just kept replacing components along the chain until it worked. Figure I’ve got until Duo wakes up to come up with some convincing bullshit explanation.”
* * * * *
Solo leaned back in his station chair to stretch, bumping against Loki and getting a sleepy grumble in return. “Sorry, Furball,” he said affectionately, rubbing the back of his head against the treecat’s furry side. “It’s nearly time for Hilde to come on duty, then we can go get something to eat and you can nap in comfort.”
Loki yawned, made a vaguely agreeing noise, and settled down on the back of Solo’s chair again. Solo stretched - more cautiously this time - and wiggled his feet in his boots, working out the kinks left by eight hours of near-constant sitting in a chair that, while comfortable, wasn’t exactly a good lounging spot.
The three ships were operating on staggered schedules, internal clocks set so that one was always in ‘day cycle’ with most of its personnel at their posts, one waking up from night shift, and one winding down towards sleep. Right now the Hellscream was reaching the end of its turn at full alert, most Forsaken personnel should be having breakfast, and Deathscythe was in the middle of its night cycle. In about half an hour, Hilde should be starting her shift on bridge and would be calling him to take over control--
His comms screen pinged with an external call and he slapped the ‘accept’ button without looking to see who it was. “Hey Hilde! You’re early-- what the hell are you doing up?”
Duo grinned at him out of the screen. //Jeez, I get no appreciation. Here I am calling you in the middle of my night cycle--//
“I noticed.” Solo took a closer look and frowned, lowering his voice. “You look like shit. Are you sleeping at all?”
//Fuck, I have Grant and Shini manipulating me into napping and now you have to mother-hen me? Yes, I’ve been sleeping.// Duo rolled his eyes, which had the unfortunate result of showing off just how bad the dark shadows under them were getting. //I’m fine. I’m just bored, so I figured I’d call.//
You might be sleeping a bit, but obviously not much… and if I push it you’ll just switch off and go sulk. With more coffee, Solo added, making a mental note of the obviously well-used mug in front of Duo. “Well, you have reasonable timing, since I’m bored too,” he admitted. “Anything interesting happening over there?”
//Finally got the tac repeater in my cabin running,// Duo told him, relaxing slightly as his brother made no further argument. //Grant says it was an interaction between a miswritten line of code in the server and the effects of slight overheating in an off-spec section of conduit, but I call bullshit.//
“Yeah, that sounds like technobabble all right. Plausible technobabble, but still.”
//He’s off his game if that’s the best he can come up with. Oh! I nearly forgot, Trowa warned me about something the younger kids we’re transporting came up with--// Duo broke off to snicker, smothering a yawn behind one hand, then gulped coffee. //Bleh, old and cold. I need to brew a new pot, gimme a minute--//
“Oh no you don’t! You can do that later, no way are you dropping a straight line like that and then leaving me hanging!” Solo objected, and Duo settled back into his chair. Phew.
//Okay, okay. See, they haven’t quite got the idea about treecats, so--//
Solo managed to sign off about twenty minutes later using the excuse that Hilde would be calling soon to end the conversation naturally, hopefully without reminding Duo that he’d been planning to get more coffee. After closing the connection (and double-checking that he’d done so), he leaned back and nudged Loki gently. “He’s not doing so great, is he?” he said softly, and was answered with a headshake.
“He’s always had worse nightmares than me,” Solo went on after a pause, frowning. “We can’t nudge him out of them from here, and I guess Shinigami can’t bump him out of one alone if he can’t bring me into the link… damn. We’ll hit Reevesport in two days, and Duo’s going to have to be functional. Think he can hang on?”
Another headshake, more emphatic than the first.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so either.”
ETD: Estimated Time of Departure
Manapua: Hawaiian-style steamed pork buns. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cha_siu_ba
Jalebi: Fried dough squiggles soaked in syrup. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jalebi
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