Unconsciousness was a relief, I realized in retrospect. When light invaded via a slit between my eyelids, I found that I hurt all over. I discovered I was in a room with gray walls, gray ceiling and, largely, gray instruments. There was no mistaking an industrial infirmary. A wild pattern of color intruded itself. I recognized it as the tattoos belonging to Doc Fedder, full-time bartender and part-time neurosurgeon. He held a hypospray to my neck. After the hiss, much of my pain abated.
My eyes flew open the rest of the way. The brightness made my eyes hurt, too, but I was glad to see a familiar visage.
“Parsons!” That dignitary was looking down at me, the usual inscrutable expression upon his face. I scanned it for any signs of concern. “Am I all right?”
“A good deal of bruising, sir. The burn on your upper arm took a trifle of intensive regenerative therapy, but it was facilitated by the coma induced by the gas. Doctor Fedder is a fine surgeon.”
“I’ve seen plenty worse,” Doc said, with a self-deprecating grin. “You’re gonna be fine, young man. Don’t wrestle any more Solinians.”
I felt for my ribs, and found them all present and accounted for. “That big fellow knocked all the air out of me.”
“That is why you are awake before most of the others. You inhaled less of the gas.”
“How long have I been out?”
“Four days, sir.”
“Yes, sir. The Wedjet has arrived. The admiral wishes to see you on board immediately, sir.”
The entire battle came back to me, including the faces of every being in the militia who had been injured in my service, but the last face I saw was that of the Croctoid pirate captain. “Did we get them, Parsons?”
“We did, sir.”
“Is everyone else all right? Did we lose anyone?”
“They’ll recover,” Doc said. “Some of ’em want to keep their war wounds. Badges of honor, hooey.” But he winked at me.
“They earned them,” I said, fumbling for the edge of the thermal cover. “Where are my boots? I want to look my best for the admiral. He’s bound to want to congratulate us.”
Parsons favored me with his best blank expression. “No doubt, sir.”
* * *
“Destruction spread across the colony? A restaurant left awash in its own comestibles? Armed felons left tied up in the service corridors for innocent civilians to come upon unawares? Commandeering and destroying valuable room-dividing equipment in the most elegant hotel in the sector?” Admiral Podesta paced back and forth across my line of sight, his hands clasped behind his back.
“We had no choice, sir,” I said, patiently, for the ninth time. I stood in his study in precisely the same spot and position in which I had been ticked off by him before. Parsons stood at attention at the side of the room, no help to me. I was left on my own to deliver my sitrep. In the stilted language of the military bureaucrat, I am afraid it had not come out sounding as heroic as I believed it had been. Podesta had not received it well, either. He looked more furious than I had ever seen him, even after I had invaded his mess hall in admiral’s trousers. I fully expected to be court-martialed this time, but it would be for the very best of reasons. “They were dangerous criminals. I could not let them depart from Smithereen unhindered. They would only have gone off and robbed another train of cargo ships. And none of the ones we left tied up were armed. We took their guns. Besides, we didn’t do any of the damage to the ballroom. That was all done by the pirates. Er, suspects. Alleged suspects.” Curse it, but it was hard to spout the appropriate jargon. It was so dry.
Podesta swung to a halt and met me nose to nose. His narrow face was red. “That is not the point. It was not your job to apprehend them. It was your job to inform me, and let me decide what action to take.”
“But we were incommunicado, sir. Magnetite, you know.” I shrugged modestly. “I had to do something in the absence of your advice.”
“You didn’t need my advice. You were there to observe, nothing more.”
My emotions got the better of me. “Admiral, they might have gotten away!”
“That would have been correct procedure. You were unprepared for this mission. In fact, it was not your mission. You were to review the local militia, that is all.”
“I did that, sir. They prove to be loyal, effective soldiers.”
“Hmph. They were brave, that’s certain. Having to put up with you, I would also give them commendations for patience. You could have gotten them all killed, and yourself along with them!”
“I would be proud to die for my Emperor,” I said, striking a pose. Swiftly, I resumed my rigid posture of attention.
Podesta opened his mouth, snapped it shut, then closed his eyes and shook his head, undoubtedly overcome by my patriotism. Whatever words of praise he had planned to say were lost to posterity. But I understood them nevertheless.
“There were other authorities within reach.”
“I could not persuade the station manager to believe me. I did try, sir. I had proof.” I felt for my camera, restored to my pocket. I held it up. It floated between us. “I believe it will hold up at any trial, sir.”
Podesta waved a hand of dismissal, and the Optique retreated timidly to hover behind me. “I have seen the images. Commander Parsons sent them to me. I have also received bills for damage to that dining establishment, to the hotel and all the other station facilities through which your riot progressed. Almost nine hundred thousand credits’ worth of damage! The Wedjet itself had to abort its patrol and divert back to arrive as quickly as possible. I had to take my ship into that asteroid field instead of avoiding it. Forward scanners are still being recalibrated.”
I was abashed. It had been rather glorious while it lasted, but the admiral was correct. All that had taken place on my watch. It was my responsibility. I could take the punishment. I straightened my posture and stared out over his right shoulder. “I cannot express to you how very sorry I am, sir.”
The admiral let out a heavy sigh. “So am I, Ensign. Especially when you leave me no choice but to . . . commend you.”
I swallowed to clear my ears. Then I checked my memory to see if possibly I had misheard him. My memory insisted that my conscious mind had retained the word correctly. I dared ask for a clarification.
Podesta glared. If his eyes had been lasers, he would have been looking through the back of my head. “I said, you will be commended. It is not my first impulse, but the results must and do speak for themselves.”
“They do, sir?” I said. My voice squeaked into high registers. I shot a glance at Parsons who must have something to do with Podesta’s amazing change of direction. Parsons’s face was a blank slate. I returned my eyes to the admiral.
“Yes, confound it,” Podesta said, the words forced out between gritted teeth. “It turned out that the ship that landed on Smithereen to take on fuel was the flagship of the pirate fleet. On board that vessel, we found contraband cargo and information that will lead us to the other ships and more valuables that they have stolen. It could possibly be the undoing of a gang that has escaped Imperium justice for some time.”
“Oh!” A broad grin was doing its best to break out on my face, but I fought it bravely. “Then I am a hero?”
Podesta looked positively peevish. “If you absolutely must resort to a hackneyed phrase, yes.”
The grin overcame all obstacles and adorned my visage from ear to ear. “It was my duty to you and the Emperor, sir,” I assured him.
“If only that were so,” he said, with a sigh.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, with a crashing salute that reminded me I had a bruise on my forehead, among other places. Podesta returned it half-heartedly. I had to go back and update my Infogrid page. A commendation for heroism! Wait until my friends and relatives read about this! “Until then, do I return to my task in the records section, sir?”
“You have no further duties on this ship from now until we return to the Core Worlds,” he snapped. “Dismiss.”
“But, sir! I could do so much good in Lieutenant Wotun’s department. I have a marvelous idea for databases that will save pentabytes of memory . . .”
Podesta frowned thoughtfully, as if my suggestion had given him pause. “I have never had anyone who volunteered to be returned to Records.”
“I will wager that you have never had anyone of my caliber, Admiral,” I said.
Behind me, I could hear a very slight “Hem!” from Parsons. I chided myself for braggadocio.
Admiral Podesta sighed, the choleric hue fading from his complexion. “I would wager that you are right, Kinago. You will not return to Records. You may amuse yourself as you see fit over the coming weeks. I expect you to deport yourself as an officer and a gentlebeing. Do not let me see you at any time except for meals, and then I would prefer not to remark upon you in any way. Do I make myself clear?”
“As crystal, Admiral,” I said. Mother was going to be so angry. “I . . . I look forward to long and happy service with you, sir.”
The admiral did not seem to share my enthusiasm.
“Dismiss, Ensign!” Podesta snapped. He pointed at the Optique, which was hovering over my shoulder. I had had to capture the moment. “And take that thing with you!”
Hastily, I saluted and removed myself from his aegis. Parsons followed me.
We stepped into a lift. The doors slid shut, cutting off the remote possibility of anyone overhearing me. I appealed to Parsons.
“Parsons, find me some way to get back into the records department,” I said. “Once the admiral sees what I can do—he already knows I am capable of organizing a complex objective. I achieved a successful mission. I can do more. The servers would speed up enormously if only he allows me the chance! Doesn’t my commendation give him any cause to trust me?”
My distress did not elicit even a flicker of sympathy from my aide-de-camp. “It might, sir, but it will not. He cannot return you to Lieutenant Wotun’s department.”
“But why not?” I wailed.
“Two reasons, sir. One is that your commendation has removed you from punishment duty. You are no longer consigned to Lieutenant Wotun because you are no longer being punished.”
“Oh,” I said. I had not thought of it that way. “I suppose not. And the second?
“Because you were enjoying yourself,” Parsons intoned. “Punishment detail is not meant to be enjoyable. It is meant to promote a sense of regret based upon tedious repetition of a task, removing you from a sense of useful function.”
“I could lie,” I offered hopefully. “I could tell the admiral I didn’t enjoy myself. I suffered countless hours of boredom and impatience.”
Parsons raised one eyebrow a precise centimeter. “You would lie to your admiral?”
“Without hesitation,” I said. “There are things that one should keep from the attention of an authority figure for its own good. Weren’t you ever a small boy?” I eyed him. “I suppose you never were a small boy. Or a teenager, who did not care to fully enlighten one of the parental units as to your day’s activities? In retrospect, most of which I refused to divulge was as banal and foolish as any of my official duties, but . . .”
“That is not the point, sir. As a result of your heroics, you are relieved of punishment. All the admiral wishes is for you to remain a neutral element until our return to port.”
“I could be useful,” I protested. “I had some valuable concepts on streamlining deletion and data storage! I wanted to propose a library database of anecdotes and humor. It would save countless bytes if all one had to do was refer a colleague to the appropriate file in a common repository.”
“You may propose it formally to the admiral, but it would almost certainly not be undertaken,” Parsons pointed out, “as such frivolities are not the purpose of a warship on assignment.”
“One can never dismiss the cheerful grease that oils the joints of social machinery, Parsons,” I said severely. “Living beings still staff these warships, and as I have seen, they have a remarkable collective sense of humor. If you had only read some of those stories . . . !”
“You will simply have to wait until your newfound friends begin to send them to you,” Parsons said. “I must surmise that after your mission, as it was remarkably successful, you will begin to acquire many admirers.”
“That’s true,” I mused, swaggering toward my cabin. “All I will have to do is wait for the bounty to roll in.”
And roll in it did. I was hard-pressed to keep up with it. When we made orbit around Keinolt, prime planet of the Imperium, my personal recorder was fit to explode with all the fantastic humor I had saved. I would be the envy of my peers.
Now that the mission was over, and my scout ship was no longer a secret, I led tours for my fellow ensigns when they were off duty. Naturally, they were envious.
“And what called?” Redius asked.
“You see, CK-M945B,” I said.
He gave me an odd, sideways look. “Unusual, that, attached to you. Name not given?”
“You are right,” I said with a sigh. “If it was mine I would have named it. But who knows if I shall have the privilege again of captaining her.”
I gave the CK-M945B a last, affectionate pat. I imagined that it rose up to meet my palm as if it was an affectionate cat. The small ship, looking as pristine as the moment I had first seen it, was taken in hand by the flight deck crew, and rolled into lockdown position to secure it when the Wedjet left ultra-drive. I wondered if it would still be waiting here for me when I embarked after our shore leave was ended. Parsons, naturally, had given no clue as to my future duties. I shed my suit, cleaned up and put on my dress uniform, and made my way back to my quarters to await debarkation orders.
As the admiral had commanded, I had no official functions, so I was free to disport myself as I saw fit. I organized a massive tri-tennis tournament that began among my fellow ensigns but had to be expanded to include dozens of other officers who heard about it and wanted to be included in the fun. I was delighted to oblige. I partnered with several shipmates, including a weapons specialist named Bek, whose name rang a bell I could not locate in my memory. He wasn’t much for clever badinage, but he could play incredibly well. We pipped Rous and the luscious Lt. Alianthus by one point, but ended up losing to a team from Life Support. It was incredible fun, and I was sorry to have it end. After shore leave, I would certainly be given another assignment, one that would not leave me with so much free time.
I left the suggestion for a common database with the dour Lt. Wotun, and hoped for the best. I gave her and my fellow ensigns my Infogrid information. I truly hoped that they would stay in touch during our break, and after I finished my deployment. If I had learned anything on board the Wedjet, it was that common folk weren’t.