CHAPTER ONE

R.S.S. Harrier, near Xavier

Esmay Suiza had done her best to clean up before reporting as ordered to the admiral aboard her flagship, but the mutiny and the following battle had left her little time. She had showered, and run her uniform through the cycler, but it wasn't her dress uniform—the fight aboard Despite had put holes through interior bulkheads and started innumerable small fires, including one in the junior officers' storage compartment. She herself, though clean, had not slept well in . . . however many days it had been. She knew her eyes were bloodshot and sticky with fatigue; her hands trembled. She had the stomach-clenching feeling that her best wasn't good enough.

Admiral Serrano looked like an older edition of Captain Serrano, the same compact trim frame, the same bronze skin. Here the dark hair was streaked silver, and a few lines marked the broad forehead, but she gave an impression of crackling energy held just in check.

"Lieutenant Junior Grade Suiza reporting, sir." At least her voice didn't shake. Those few days of command had ironed out the uneasy flutter she used to struggle against.

"Have a seat, Lieutenant." The admiral had no expression Esmay could read. She sat in the appointed chair, glad that her knees held and she made it a controlled descent. When she was down safely, the admiral nodded, and went on. "I have reviewed your summary of events aboard Despite . It seems to have been a very . . . difficult . . . time."

"Yes, sir." That was safe. In a world of danger, that was always safe; so she had been taught in the Academy and her first ship postings. But her memory reminded her that it wasn't always true, that a "Yes, sir," to Captain Hearne had been treason, and a "Yes, sir," to Major Dovir had been mutiny.

"You do understand, Lieutenant, that it is mandatory for all officers participating in a mutiny to stand before a court to justify their actions?" That in a voice almost gentle, as if she were a child. She would never be a child again.

"Yes, sir," she said, grateful for the gentleness even though she knew it would do her no lasting good. "We—I—have to take responsibility."

"That's right. And you, because you are the senior surviving officer, and the one who ended up in command of the ship, will bear the brunt of this investigation and the court." The admiral paused, looking at her with that quiet, expressionless face; Esmay felt cold inside. They had to have a scapegoat, is that what it meant? She would be to blame for the whole thing, even though she hadn't even known, at first—even though the senior officers—now dead—had tried to keep the youngsters out of it? Panic filled in a quick sketch of her future: dismissed, disgraced, thrown out of Fleet and forced to return home. She wanted to argue that it wasn't fair, but she knew better. Fairness wasn't the issue here. The survival of ships, which depended on the absolute obedience of all to the captain . . . that was the issue.

"I understand," she said finally. She almost understood.

"I won't tell you that such a court is merely a formality, even in a case like this," the admiral said. "A court is never a mere formality. Things always come out in courts to the detriment of everyone concerned—things that might not matter ordinarily. But in this case, I don't want you to panic. It is clear from your report, and that of other personnel—" Which, Esmay hoped, might mean the admiral's niece, "—that you did not instigate the mutiny, and that there is a reasonable probability that the mutiny will be held to be justified." The knot in Esmay's stomach loosened slightly. "Obviously, it is necessary to remove you from command of Despite ."

Esmay felt her face heating, more relief than embarrassment. She was so tired of having to figure out how to ask the senior NCOs what to do next without violating protocol. "Of course, sir," she said, with a little more enthusiasm than she meant to show. The admiral actually smiled now.

"Frankly, I'm surprised that a jig could take over Despite and handle her in battle—let alone get off the decisive shot. That was good work, Lieutenant."

"Thank you, sir." She felt herself going even redder, and embarrassment overcame reticence. "Actually, it was the crew—'specially Master Chief Vesec—they knew what to do."

"They always do," the admiral said. "But you had the sense to let them, and the guts to come back. You're young; you made mistakes of course—" Esmay thought of their first attempt to join the fight, the way she'd insisted on too high an insertion velocity and forced them to blow past. She hadn't known then about the glitch in the nav computer, but that was no excuse. The admiral went on, recapturing her attention. "But I believe you have the root of the matter in you. Stand your court, take your medicine, whatever it is, and—good luck to you, Lieutenant Suiza." The admiral stood; Esmay scrambled up to shake the hand extended to her. She was being dismissed; she didn't know where she was going or what would happen next, but—but she felt a warm glow where the cold knot had been.

As the escort outside made clear, where she was going was a quarantined section of officers' country on the flagship. Peli and the few other junior officers were already there, stowing their duffels in the lockers and looking glum.

"Well, she didn't eat you alive," Peli said. "I suppose my turn's coming. What's she like?"

"A Serrano," Esmay said. That should be enough; she wasn't about to discuss an admiral's character on board a ship. "There's a court coming—but you know that." They had not so much talked about it, as touched the subject and flinched away.

"At the moment," Peli said, "I'm just as glad you had the seniority and not me. Though we're all in trouble."

She had been glad to lay down command, but just for a moment she wanted it back, so she could tell Peli to be quiet. And so she would have something to do. It took only a minute or two to stow her own meager duffel in the compartment she'd been assigned, and only another to wonder how much the officer evicted from it would resent having to double up with someone else. Then she was faced with blank walls—or an empty passage—or the cluster of fellow mutineers in the tiny wardroom which was all the common space they would have until the admiral decreed otherwise. Esmay lay back on her bunk and wished she could turn off the relentless playback in her head, that kept showing her the same gruesome scenes over and over and over. Why did they seem worse each time?

* * *

"Of course they're listening," Peli said. Esmay paused in the wardroom entrance; four of the others were there, listening to Peli. He looked up, his glance including her in the conversation. "We have to assume they're monitoring everything we say and do."

"That's standard," Esmay said. "Even in normal situations." One of her own stomach-clenching fears was that the forensic teams sent to Despite would find out that she talked in her sleep. She didn't know, but if she had, and if she had talked during those nightmares . . .

"Yes, but now they're paying attention," Peli said.

"Well, we didn't do anything wrong." That was Arphan, a mere ensign. "We weren't traitors, and we didn't lead the mutiny either. So I don't see where they can do anything to us."

"Not to you, no," Peli said, with an edge of contempt. "From this, if from nothing else, ensigns are safe. Although you could die of fright facing the court."

"Why should I face a court?" Arphan, like Esmay, had come to the Academy from a non-Service family. Unlike Esmay, he had come from an influential non-Service Family, with friends who held Seats in Council, and expected family clout to get him out of things.

"Regulations," Peli said crisply. "You were a commissioned officer serving aboard a vessel on which a mutiny occurred: you will stand before a court." Esmay didn't mind Peli's brutal directness so much when it was aimed at someone else, but she knew he'd be at her soon enough. "But don't worry," Peli went on. "You're unlikely to spend very long at hard labor. Esmay and I, on the other hand—" he looked up at her and smiled, a tight unhappy smile. "Esmay and I are the senior surviving officers. Questions will be asked. If they decide to make an example, we are the ones to be made an example of. Jigs are an eminently expendable class."

Arphan looked at both of them, and then, without another word, squeezed past two of the others, and Esmay at the door.

"Avoiding contamination," Liam said cheerfully. He was another jig, junior to Peli but part of Peli's "expendable class."

"Just as well," Peli said. "I don't like whiners. D'you know, he wanted me to press the admiral for damage payments to replace a ruined uniform?"

Esmay could not help thinking what the necessary replacements were going to do to her small savings.

"And he's rich," Liam said. Liam Livadhi, Service to the core and for many generations, on both sides of the family. He could afford to sound cheerful; he probably had a dozen cousins who had just outgrown whatever uniforms he needed.

"Speaking of the court," Esmay made herself say. "What are the uniform protocols?"

"Uniforms!" Peli glared at her. "You too?"

"For the court, Peli, not for display!" It came out sharper than she intended, and he blinked in surprise.

"Oh. Right." She could practically see the little wheels flickering behind his eyes, calculating, remembering. "I don't really know; the only things I've seen were those cubes back in the Academy, in military law classes. And that was usually just the last day, the verdict. I don't know if they wore dress the whole time."

"The thing is," Esmay said, "if we need new uniforms made, we have to have time for it." Officers' dress uniforms, unlike regular duty uniforms, were handmade by licensed tailors. She did not want to appear before a court in something non-regulation.

"Good point. There wasn't much left of the stuff in that compartment, so we have to assume that all our dress uniforms were damaged." He looked up at her. "You'll have to ask about it, Esmay; you're still the senior."

"Not any more." Even as she said it, she knew she was, for this purpose. Peli didn't quite sneer, but he didn't offer to help out, either.

"On this, you are the one. Sorry, Es', but you have to."

Asking about the uniforms brought her to the notice of the paper-pushers again. As captain—even for those few days—she had the responsibility to sign off on all the innumerable forms required.

"Not the death letters," Lieutenant Commander Hosri said. "The admiral felt that the families would prefer to have those signed by a more senior officer who could better explain the circumstances." Esmay had completely forgotten that duty: the captain must write to the family of any crew members who died while assigned to the ship. She felt herself blushing. "And there are other major reports which the admiral feels should be deferred until Forensics has completed its examination. But you left a lot of routine stuff undone, Suiza."

"Yes, sir," Esmay said, her heart sinking again. When could she have done it? How could she have known? The excuses raced through her mind and out again: no excuses were enough.

"Have your officers fill out these forms—" he handed her a sheaf of them. "Turn them in, completed and countersigned by you, within forty-eight hours, and I'll forward them to the admiral's staff for approval. If approved, that will authorize officers to arrange for replacements of uniforms—and yes, that will include Fleet authorization to forward measurements to registered tailors, so they can get started. Now, we need to deal with the basic reports that should have been filed, or ready to file, at the time when you were relieved of command of Despite ."

The junior officers were not delighted with the forms; some of them procrastinated, and Esmay found herself having to nag them to finish the paperwork by the deadline. "None too early," grunted Hosri's senior clerk, when Esmay brought the reports in. He glanced at the clock. "What'd you do, wait until the last minute?"

She said nothing; she didn't like this clerk, and she had had to work with him for two straight shifts on the incomplete reports Hosri thought she should do. Just let it be over with, she told herself, even though she knew that the reports were the least of her problems. While she worked on those, the other young officers faced daily sessions with investigators determined to find out exactly how it was that a R.S.S. patrol ship had been captained by a traitor, and then embroiled in mutiny. Her turn would come next.

* * *

Forensics had swarmed over the Despite , stripping the records from the automatic surveillance equipment, searching every compartment, questioning every survivor, examining all the bodies in the ship's morgue. Esmay could only imagine that search, from the questions they asked each day. First with no visual cues at all, when they asked her to explain, moment by moment, where she had been and what she had seen, heard, and done when Captain Hearne took the ship away from Xavier. Later, with a 3-D display of the ship, they led her through it again. Exactly where had she been? Facing which way? When she said she saw Captain Hearne the last time, where was Hearne, and what had she been doing?

Esmay had never been good at this sort of thing. She found out quickly that she had apparently perjured herself already: she could not, from where she remembered she'd been sitting, have seen Lt. Commander Forrester come out of the cross-corridor the way she'd said. It was, the interrogator pointed out, physically impossible to see around corners without special instruments. Had she had any? No. But her specialty had been scan. Was she sure she had not rigged something up? And again here—lines of her earlier testimony moved down the monitor alongside the image of the ship. Could she explain how she had gotten from her own quarters back here all the way forward and down two decks in only fifteen seconds? Because there was a clear picture of her—she recognized herself with familiar distaste—in the access corridor to the forward portside battery at 18:30:15, when she had insisted she was in her own quarters for the 18:30 duty report.

Esmay had no idea, and said so. She had made a habit of being in her quarters for that duty report; it had meant that she didn't have to linger in the junior officers' wardroom and join the day's gossip, or make her report with the others. Surely she would have done so even more readily with the rumors then sweeping the ship. She didn't like rumors; rumors got you in trouble. People fought over rumors and then were in more trouble. She hadn't known that Captain Hearne was a traitor—of course she hadn't—but she had had an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she had tried not to think about it.

Not until she'd been dragged through it again did she remember that someone had paged her and told her to come initial the daily scan log of the warhead lockers. Checking the automatic scans had been part of her daily routine. She'd insisted that she had done it, and whoever it was had insisted she hadn't, and finally she'd gone down to see. Who had called her? She didn't remember. And what had she found when she got there?

"I'd made an error entering the scan code," Esmay said. "At least—I guess that's what it was."

"What do you mean?" This interrogator had the most neutral voice Esmay had ever heard; it made her nervous for reasons she could not define.

"Well . . . the number was wrong. Sometimes that happened. But usually it wouldn't enter; it would signal a conflict."

"Explain, please."

Esmay struggled on, caught between the social desire not to bore the listener, and the innocent's need to explain fully why she wasn't guilty. She had entered, during her rotation, thousands of scan log codes. Sometimes she made mistakes; everyone did. She did not say, what she had long thought, which was how silly it was to have officers entering codes by hand, when there were perfectly decent, inexpensive code readers which could enter them directly. When she made a mistake, the coder usually locked up, refusing entry. But occasionally, it would accept the error code, only to hang up when the next shift compared its code to hers.

"Then they'd call me, and I'd have to come myself and reset the code, and initial the change. That must be what happened."

"I see." A pause during which she could feel the sweat springing out on her neck. "And from what station did you make the 1830 report, then?"

She had no idea. Going from her quarters—she could see the route clearly in her mind, but she could not remember calling in. Yet if she hadn't, someone would have logged it . . . except that was when, up on the bridge, the mutineers made their move against Captain Hearne. Sometime around then, anyway.

"I don't know that I did," she said. "I don't remember that I didn't. I got to the weapons bay, reset the codes, initialed them, and came back to my quarters, and then—" By then the mutiny had spread beyond the bridge, and the senior mutineers had sent someone down to keep the juniors out of it if they could. That hadn't worked; there had been more traitors than that.

The investigator nodded shortly, and went on to something else. To a series of somethings else. Finally, over many sessions, they worked their way up to the time when she herself was in charge.

Could she explain her decision to return to Xavier system and try to fight a battle against odds, with no senior officers and substantial casualties?

Only briefly, and obliquely, had she allowed herself to think of her decision as heroic. Reality wouldn't let her dwell on it. She hadn't known what she was doing; her inexperience had caused too many deaths. Even though it came out all right in the end, in one way, it was not all right for those who had died.

If it wasn't heroic, what was it? It looked stupid now, foolhardy. Yet . . . her crew, despite her inexperience, had blown away the enemy flagship.

"I . . . remembered Commander Serrano," she said. "I had to come back. After sending a message, so in case—"

"Gallant, but hardly practical," said this interrogator, whose voice had a twang she associated with central Familias planets. "You are a protégée of Commander Serrano?"

"No." She dared not claim that; they had served on the same ship only once, and had not been friends. She explained, to someone who surely knew better than she, how wide the gap between a raw ensign of provincial background, and a major rising on the twin plumes of ability and family.

"Not a . . . er . . . particular friend?" This with a meaningful smirk.

Esmay barely kept herself from snorting. What did he think she was, some prude off a back-country planet that didn't know one sex from the other? That could not call things by their right names? She put out of mind her aunt, who certainly would never use the terms common in the Fleet.

"No. We were not lovers. We were not friends. She was a major, command track; I was an ensign, technical track. It's just that she was polite—"

"Others weren't?" In the same tone.

"Not always," Esmay said, before she could stop herself. Too late now; she might as well complete the portrait of a provincial idiot. "I'm not from a Fleet family. I'm from Altiplano—the first person from Altiplano to attend the Academy. Some people thought it was a hoot." Too late again, she remembered that expression's Fleet meaning. "A regrettably laughable imposition," she added, to the raised eyebrows. "In our slang." Which was no stranger than Fleet slang, just someone else's. Which was the point: Heris Serrano had never laughed at it. But she wouldn't say that to those eyebrows, which right now made her wonder which great Fleet family she had just insulted.

"Altiplano. Yes." The eyebrows had come down, but the tone of condescension hadn't. "That is a planet where the Ageist influence is particularly strong, isn't it?"

"Ageists?" Esmay scrambled through what she knew of politics at home—she had not been home since she was sixteen—and came up with nothing. "I don't think anyone in Altiplano hates old people."

"No, no," the man said. " Ageists —surely you know. They oppose rejuvenation."

Esmay stared at him, now thoroughly confused. "Oppose rejuvenation? Why?" Not her relatives, who would be only too happy if Papa Stefan lived forever; he was the only one who could keep Sanni and Berthol from each other's throats, and those two were essential.

"How closely do you follow events on Altiplano?" the man asked.

"I don't," Esmay said. She had left it behind gladly; she had discarded without watching the newscube subscription her family sent her. She had finally decided, in the bleak aftermath of a nightmare in which she was not only stripped of her commission but sentenced to a term of hard labor, that she would never go back to Altiplano, no matter what. They could throw her out of Fleet, but they couldn't make her go home. She had looked it up: no judicial action could force someone to return to their planet of origin for crimes committed somewhere else. "And I can't believe they really oppose rejuvenation . . . at least, I can't imagine anyone I know thinking that way."

"Oh?"

Since he seemed interested, the first person in years who had shown any interest at all, Esmay found herself telling him about Papa Stefan, Sanni, Berthol, and the rest, at least insofar as it bore on their likely attitude towards rejuv. When she slowed down, he interrupted.

"And is your family . . . er . . . prominent on Altiplano?"

Surely that was in her file. "My father's a regional commander in the militia," she said. "The ranks aren't equivalent, but there are only four regional commanders on Altiplano." It would be the height of bad manners to say more; if he couldn't figure out from that where she stood socially on her home planet, then he'd have to suffer in ignorance.

"And you chose to go into Fleet? Why?"

That again. She had dealt with that in her first application, and during the entrance interviews and the military psychology classes as well. She rattled off the explanation that had always seemed to go best, and it sank into the investigator's unresponsive gaze.

"Is that all?"

"Well . . . yes." The smart young officer did not talk about wish fulfillment, the hours she'd spent in the manor orchard staring up at the stars and promising herself she'd be there someday. Better to be matter-of-fact, practical, sensible. No one wanted wild-eyed dreamers, fanatics. Especially not from worlds that had only a couple of centuries of human colonization.

But his silence dragged another sentence out of her. "I loved the thought of going into space," she said. And felt herself flushing, the telltale heat on her face and neck. She hated her fair skin that always showed her emotions.

"Ah," he said, touching his stylus to his datapad. "Well, Lieutenant, that will be all." For now , his look said. It could not be the end of questioning; that wasn't how things worked. Esmay said nothing except the polite formula he expected, and went back to her temporary quarters.

She had not realized until the second or third shift aboard the flagship that only she, of the young mutineers, had a private compartment. She wasn't sure why, since there were three other women, all crammed into one compartment. She'd have been happy to share—well, not happy, but willing—but the admiral's orders left no room for argument, as Esmay found when she asked the officer assigned as their keeper if she could change the arrangement. He'd looked disgusted, and told her no so firmly that her eardrums rattled.

So she had privacy, if she wanted it. She could lie on her bunk (someone else's bunk, but hers for the duration), and remember. And try to think. She didn't really like either, not alone. She had the kind of mind that worked best alongside others, striking sparks from her own and others' intransigence. Alone, it whirred uselessly, recycling the same thoughts over and over.

But the others did not want to talk about what bothered her. No, that was not quite honest. She did not want to talk to them about those things either. She did not want to talk about how she felt when she saw the first casualties of the mutiny—how the smell of blood and scorched decking affected her, how it brought back memories she had hoped were gone forever.

War isn't clean anywhere, Esmay . Her father had said that, when she'd told him she wanted to go into space, wanted to become a Fleet officer. Human blood and human guts smell the same; human cries sound the same.

She had said she knew it; she had thought she knew it. But those hours in the orchard, looking up at the distant stars, clean light on clean darkness . . . she had hoped for something better. Not security, no: she was too much her father's child to wish for that. But something clean-edged, the danger sharpened by vacuum and weapons that vaporized . . .

She had been wrong, and now she knew it in every reluctant cell of her body.

"Esmay?" Someone tapped on her door. Esmay glanced at the timer and sat up hurriedly. She must have dozed off.

"I'm coming," she said. A quick glance in the mirror; she had the flyaway sort of hair that always needed something done to it. If it had been acceptable, she'd have cut it a centimeter long and let it be. She swiped at it, both hands, and palmed the door control. Peli outside, looking worried.

"Are you all right? You weren't at lunch, and now—"

"Another interview," Esmay said quickly. "And I wasn't really hungry anyway. I'm coming." She wasn't hungry now, either, but skipping meals brought the psychnannies down on you, and she had no desire to be interviewed by yet another set of inquiring minds.

Supper sat uneasily in her stomach; she sat in the crowded little wardroom not really listening to the others talk. It was mostly guesses about where they were, and when they would arrive, and how long it would take to convene the court. Who would sit on it, who would represent them, how much trouble this would cause them in the future.

"Not as much as being under Captain Hearne if she'd gotten away with it," Esmay heard herself say. She hadn't meant to say anything, but she knew she was the only one really at risk in court. And here they were chattering away as if all that mattered was a possible black mark that might keep them from promotion ahead of their group.

They stared at her. "What do you mean?" Liam Livadhi asked. "Hearne couldn't have gotten away with it. Not unless she took the ship straight over to the Benignity—" He stopped, looking suddenly pale.

"Exactly," Esmay said. "She could have done that, if Dovir and the other loyalists hadn't stopped her. And we could all be Benignity prisoners." Dead, or worse than. The others looked at her as if she had suddenly sprouted a full suit of battle armor with weaponry. "Or she could have told Fleet that Heris Serrano was the traitor, that the accusations were false, and she had fled to save her ship and crew from a maniac. She could have assumed that no one could defeat a Benignity assault group with only two warships." And even Heris Serrano had not done so; Esmay had recognized the peril even as she ended it. Without her own decisive entry into battle, Serrano would have perished, and all witnesses to Hearne's treachery with her.

Peli and Liam looked at Esmay with more respect than she'd had from them yet, even in battle. "I never thought of all that," Peli said. "It never occurred to me that Hearne could have gotten away with it . . . but you're right. We might not even have known—only those on the bridge actually heard Captain Serrano's challenge. If one more bridge officer had been a Benignity agent—"

"We'd be dead." Liam rumpled his Livadhi-red hair. "Ouch. I don't like the thought that I might have disappeared that way."

Arphan scowled. "Surely they'd have ransomed us. I know my family—"

"Traders!" Liam said, in a tone that made it sound like a cognate of traitors. "I suppose your Family does business with them, eh?"

Arphan jumped up, eyes blazing. "I don't have to be insulted by people like you —"

"As a matter of fact, you do," Liam said, leaning back. "I outrank you, trade-born infant. You're still just an ensign, in case you hadn't noticed."

"No quarreling," Esmay said. This she could handle. "Livadhi, he can't help who his family is. Arphan, Livadhi is your senior; show respect."

"Whooo," murmured Peli. "The ex-captain remembers the feel of command." But his tone was more admiring than scornful. Esmay was able to grin at him.

"As a matter of fact, I do. And keeping you juniors from messing each other's uniforms is easier than fighting a battle. Shall we keep it that way?"

Expressions ranging from surprise to satisfaction met her gaze; she kept the smile on her face and eventually they all smiled back.

"Sure, Esmay," Livadhi said. "I'm sorry, Arphan—I shouldn't have chosen this time, if any, to slang your family. Lieutenant Suiza's right. Friends?" He held out his hand. Arphan, still scowling, finally shook it, muttering something about being sorry. It did not escape Esmay's notice that he had chosen a combination of address which claimed her as a friend, while emphasizing her authority to Arphan. She could do that sort of thing if she thought of it, but she had to think; Liam Livadhi, and the others born into Fleet families, seemed to do it as naturally as breathing.