Iron Gray Sea
War has engulfed the other earth, the parallel universe that Lt Commander Matt Reddy and the crew of the USS Walker now call home. With every hard-won victory and painful defeat, Reddy and the Allies encounter more friends—and even more diabolical enemies.
Cutting short his “honeymoon,” Reddy sails off in pursuit of Hidoiame, a rogue Japanese destroyer that is wreaking havoc in Allied seas. Now that Walker is armed with the “latest” technology, he hopes the four-stacker can handle a straight-up fight against the bigger ship.
Elsewhere, the long-awaited invasion of Grik “Indiaa” has begun, and the Human-Lemurian Alliance is pushing back against the twisted might of the Dominion, even as political machinations threaten the Alliance from within. But the savage Grik have also mastered “new” technologies. And their fleet of monstrous ironclads and a bloodthirsty army are finally massing to strike...
February 22, 1944
The sea was brisk beneath a bright blue sky, marred only by cottoncandy streamers of white. No land was visible in any direction, and the one thing that might catch the eye of some farranging, broadwinged lizard bird was a lonely wake that stretched behind a battered, rust gray shape pitching tiredly across the long, deep swells. Such a creature might turn to join several others of its kind, seemingly effortlessly coasting along, pacing the strange ship. The flyers stayed off either beam, avoiding the hint of foulsmelling smoke blurring the tops of two of the four funnels standing high above the narrow hull. Occasionally, one of the lizard birds dropped back and snatched a morsel from the foaming wake, but most maintained almost unerring stations as if shepherding the exhausted ship along.
It had been a tough couple of wars for the old U.S. Asiatic Fleet fourstacker destroyer USS Walker (DD163). The first one nearly killed her. This one, a far different war on a wildly different earth, had destroyed herfor all intents and purposesonce already. Refloated and rebuilt after the desperate Battle of Baalkpan, where she defended the Lemurians against the hated, semireptilian Grik and the mighty Japanese battle cruiser Amagi in a place that should have been Borneo, Walker had steamed straight back into action against new enemies across the vast Pacific, or Eastern Sea. Again, she and her mixed human and LemurianAmericancrew had accomplished more than anyone had a right to expect, but it had cost her dearly in bruises and blood. Now she was nearing the Imperial island appropriately called Respite, where she’d lick her wounds and catch her breath before heading “home” to Baalkpan and a muchneeded overhaul.
“TenSHUN!” rumbled the hulking Chief Gunner’s Mate Dennis Silva, practically guarding the fancy Lemurianembroidered curtain that separated the passageway from the wardroom. Chairs and stools squeaked and clattered against the . . . lesspleasant shade of cracked green linoleum on the deck, as those in the crowded wardroom stood. (Stools still seemed out of place, but chairs were uncomfortable for Lemurian tails).
“As you were,” Lieutenant Commander (Captain) Matthew Reddy responded mildly, escorting several others into the compartment. He was tall, with premature gray threading his brown hair at the temples. The pace of operations had also cost him considerable weight, giving his finely tailored Lemurianmade khakis a slightly disheveled appearance. His intense green eyes and quick smile undermined any possible impression that he was overwhelmed by his responsibility, however. Captain Reddy commanded Walker, but he also bore a great many other burdens on this strange world. Not only was he “High Chief” of the “Americaan clan,” which now encompassed virtually all Lemurian Marine and Naval personnel, but he was also Commander in Chief of All Allied Forces (CINCAF), by acclamation, of all the powers united beneath (or beside) the Banner of the Trees. The wars had been as hard on him as they’d been on his ship, but, like her, like nearly everyone, he’d risen to the challenge.
Those gathered in the wardroom quickly resumed their seats, making way for Matt, Nurse Lieutenant Sandra Tucker, and His Excellency Lord Bolton Forester, the new ambassador from the Empire of the New Britain Isles, to find theirs at the battered table in the center of the compartment.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen . . . and ladies,” Matt amended for Sandra’s benefit, and for that of Lieutenant TabAt, or Tabby, the newly appointed engineering officer. Tabby was modestly dressed in a Tshirt and kilt (wearing a top was something she did more often now that she was an officer), but the clothing did little to hide the fact that she was female. The silky gray fur on her arms and face was still blotchy in places where it hadn’t quite covered all her steam scars, and Sandra winced slightly at the sight. Her expression turned into a satisfied smile at the thought that Mattand every other human in the Navywas going to have to start getting used to the idea of female officers of all sorts. She almost laughed out loud when Matt frowned at her.
There’d been female ’Cats aboard ever since Walker started supplementing her dwindling human crew with Lemurian cadets. That was the Lemurian way, and if Matt wanted sailors, he had to take both genders. All were “Americans” now, having sworn the same enlistment oath as Walker’s original crew. The Marines and the Lemurian Armies were also entirely integrated. Many of Walker’s losses in the recent campaign had been made up with former Imperial women, however, and incorporating human females into the Navy and Marines made almost everyone uncomfortable except said femalesand the Lemurians, of course, who didn’t know what the big deal was.
Sandra had initiated the integration aboard the new Lemurian purposebuilt carrier USS MaakaKakja (CV4), originally recruiting women from Respite who were escaping the thenallpervasive institution of indentured servitude that most women in the empire endured. Matt was furious when he found out, but by then it was a fait accompli. The Imperials were (publicly) furious too over the equality the move implied, not to mention the almost unavoidable precedent it set for their own navy.
When his rage passed, Matt secretly suspected Sandra’s move was a stroke of genius that had solved a lot of problems, both for him and for GovernorEmperor Gerald McDonald, who was doing his best to eliminate the ageold “Company”inspired institution of virtual female slavery throughout the Empire. Having uncorked it, Sandra had made it practically impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.
Regardless, there were now human females, sea . . . women running around Walker, to the amusement of half the crewand horror of the rest. Matt understood it, accepted it, even welcomed it for various reasons, but he didn’t like it.
“I’m sure you’ve all met His Excellency, Ambassador Lord Forester,” he began, looking across the table at the tall, somewhat heavyset man. Matt didn’t know Forester well, but the man was a personal friend of the GovernorEmperor and that spoke well for him. He waited briefly while most politely nodded. “Good.” Matt smiled. “Try to be nice to him. It’s in all our interests, his people’s and ours, that we get along.” There were chuckles, and even Forester’s face broke into a smile. There had been, and doubtless would continue to be, tensions between the Western allies and the Empire. The Empire had spawned the criminal Billingsley, after all, who’d managed to cause so much trouble. Even now, in its death throes, the legacy of the Honorable New Britain Company was still cause for concern. The societies were very different, and some enmity remained.
“I will do my part,” Forester said, absently twisting the graying ends of his massive, stereotypical Imperial mustache. “I’m rather new at this; the Empire has had no diplomatic department, per se, and no real tradition of negotiation. And though we allowed the Dominion to maintain an embassy in the New Britain Isleswhich they apparently used primarily to intrigue against usthere has been no ambassador to the Doms for a decade.” He grimaced. “Hopefully, there won’t be one until the evil that rules there is destroyed.” He spread his hands with a small smile at Matt. “Then, of course, we had no one else to talk to until you came along.”
Matt refrained from pointing out that the Lemurians had always been thereand the Empire knew it.
The ambassador straightened. “It is no secret that I feel inadequate and wholly unprepared for my new, consequential post, but though I may not be a polished envoy, I understand that I must learn all I can about the military and political structure of your elements of our Alliance. Just watching and listening helps me with that.” He smiled more broadly. “I assure you, even listening to the . . . EnglishLemurian patois you have developed is most helpful.”
There was more laughter. “I think we’re even, then, Your Excellency,” Matt said. “Courtney Bradford is the best we can come up with for your counterpart, and he’s not very polished either.” Bradford was an amazingly valuable but . . . odd individual. He’d been an Australian petroleum engineer in the East Indies, but considered himself first and foremost a naturalist. Sometimes Matt wondered if everything that had happened to them since they passed though the Squall that brought Walker and her people to this world wasn’t some divine attempt to overwhelm Courtney’s curiosity. “I think the GovernorEmperor knew our people would react better to someone like you than to someone more ’polished.’ As for listening to the gab, knock yourself out. I don’t think we have, or should have, any secrets you shouldn’t hear. Make yourself comfortable . . .” He grinned, considering the lively gyrations of his ship. Walker rolled horribly in any kind of sea, and was currently pitching rather briskly as well. “If you can.”
Matt looked at the others in the wardroom and the grin disappeared. Time to get down to business. “Okay, here’s the deal. As you’re all aware, Walker needs a major refit and she’s on the binnacle list for now. For some time, particularly since we turned for home, it’s been bugging me that a fair percentage of the personnel most needed to accomplish various projects have been cooped up here aboard Walker. In the past, I’d have swallowed that frustration, of necessity. But the wonders of this modern world we’re building are throwing changes at us so fast that they’re hard to keep up with.” He shook his head. “Sometimes I feel like the guy living in the house with oil lamps, who never twisted the light switch because he knew there was no electricity and all the bulbs were burned outthen somebody just waltzes in and turns on the lights.” He grinned sheepishly.
“The point is, before departing New Scotland, I sent a message asking the guys back home to put their heads together and figure out a way to get some of you malingerers off this ship and back to work. In retrospectI don’t know why; I didn’t expect much. I knew we could fly you out of Manila, but by then you’d only have a few days on us.” He nodded at Ed Palmer, the communications officer. “We just received, via Respite Station, confirmation that two fourengine seaplanes the Air Corps cobbled upI think they’re calling them ’Manila Clippers’should arrive at Respite at about the same time we do. They’re supposed to be bigger, more powerful versions of the threeengine ’Buzzards,’ and I’ve been assured they’re reasonably safe and reliable.” He paused. “A number of you will board those planes and proceed ahead of us to Maanila. Some of you will continue on to Baalkpan, via other appropriate fueling stops. Once you reach your respective destinations, you’ll commence a variety of assignments that you are, in some cases, uniquely qualified for.”
“What kind of assignments?” blurted Silva. The big, heavily tanned, oneeyed man still stood, leaning against the aft bulkhead. His mighty arms were crossed, and the spray of scars on his face testified further that Walker’s people had suffered as much as she had. Beside him, much shorter, stood an orangish, tigerstriped creature named Lawrence, or Larry the Lizard. Lawrence’s physical similarity to the Grik, with his furryfeathery reptilian form, sharp teeth, and wicked claws, was still a little disconcerting to some, but all knew he was fiercely loyal.
“What kind of assignment, SIR, damn your insubordinate soul!” growled Chief Bosun Fitzhugh Gray. Gray was more than twice Silva’s age but nearly as big. His decadesold China Station flab was long gone, and if he might not quite be a physical match for Silva, he had infinitely greater moral authority.
“Sir,” Silva amended agreeably, and Gray rolled his eyes.
“Let’s hear what the Skipper has to say before flapping our gums,” Brad “Spanky” McFarlane commanded. Spanky was a skinny little guy, and had once been Walker’s engineering officer. Somehow, despite his size, people always remembered him as much bigger than he actually was, and now he was Matt’s exec.
“Please,” agreed Sandra Tucker. She was even smaller than Spanky, but her new job in the Alliance was Minister of Medicine, and petite and pretty as she was, she had a will of iron and couldn’t be lightly ignored (or resisted) by anyone. She was also, incidentally, Captain Reddy’s fiancée. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence. No one resented her hardearned authority, but some inevitably reflected on the most recent result of it.
Juan Marcos, Matt’s selfappointed personal steward to the CINCAF, appeared with a carafe and noisily stomped through the suddenly quiet wardroom on a remarkably complicated peg fashioned for him on New Scotland. He’d lost his left leg during a sneak attack by the Holy Dominion. No one spoke while the little Filipino filled cups with an air of supreme satisfaction. Well, at least the “monkey joe” is back to normal, Captain Reddy reflected, staring bleakly at the notquitegreen foam rimming the brew in his captain’s cup. Juan had finally returned to duty, relieving TaarbaKar (Tabasco), his Lemurian replacement. The first thing he’d done was insist on making the local, ersatz coffee the way Matt “liked” it, and since Mattor anyonehad never summoned the courage to tell the Filipino they hated his coffee, they were back to drinking what some described as “bilgewater and boiler soot” in the wardroom. At least they had Imperial tea now, and Juan was content to let Tabasco handle that.
Matt felt his square jaw while Juan finished his rounds. Juan was much better at shaving him than Tabasco had ever been. After finally relenting and letting the Filipino perform that delicate duty, he couldn’t very well prevent Tabasco from doing the same after Juan was wounded, and the young ’Cat’s hand wasn’t nearly as steady. Matt shuddered.
“Uh, thanks,” he managed when Juan triumphantly and with surprising agility, swooped back by and topped off his cup, replacing the single, obligatory sip he’d taken. Matt set the cup on the green linoleumtopped table and gazed at the others in the compartment, almost daring them to grin or snicker. Suddenly, he was reminded of other, often desperate, times when he and Walker’s officers had met like this. There was a more relaxed atmosphere today, but there were important matters to discuss; matters that would affect the prosecution of the war on its various fronts, and that would require scattering these peoplehis friendsto remote places once again.
He looked at Marine Major (or Bosun’s Mate, if he was at sea) ChackSabAt and smiled. The young Lemurian had become one of the rocks of the Alliance, and his brindled tail was swishing slightly in anticipation. They’d discussed his assignment before, and not only was he excited by it, but he also knew that ultimately it would take him nearer his beloved Safir Maraan, GeneralQueen Protector of B’mbaado. The stunning Safir was a corps commander now in the First Fleet Expeditionary Element.
“Chack, you’ll be stopping in Manila, where you’ll be joined by Major Jindal and his regiment of Imperial Marines aboard those Dom steam transports captured at New Ireland. They sailed before we did, and took a straighter shot. They should arrive there shortly, and this way, maybe you’ll be there to meet them.”
“Aye, aye, Capitaan,” Chack said.
“There’s more. Twenty of the fortyodd POW survivors of Mizuki MaruArmy, some China Marines, others too, I’m toldare fit enough and willing to join the cause.” He frowned. “Not much else for ’em, poor guys. They’re in the same boat we are now.”
“Still better than the boat they were in, from what I hear,” Spanky practically snarled. “Goddamn Japs!”
“Maybe so,” Matt agreed.
“What about the others?” Sandra asked.
“Some are nuts,” Matt said simply. “No wonder. Others are physical wrecks.” He shrugged. “Some say their war’s over, and I can’t say I blame them.” His jaw worked. “Much as we may need their expertise, we all have to do our best to make sure nobody blames them if they choose to sit this one out. Those guys fought like hell, and now we know they were ordered to surrender. After that . . . My God, the Japs treated ’em more like you’d expect the Grik would have than . . . people ever would.” He glanced at Sandra, then stared back at his cup.
“What will they do?” Sandra asked softly.
“With all the war industry in Baalkpan, Maanila, and, well, just about everywhere, I bet they can write their own ticket. There’s no shortage of work. Even if they can’t fight anymore, they can still help. Hey, let’s skip it for now . . . But don’t forget it!” Matt looked back at Chack. “That leaves the others who do want to join us. Somebody, one of them, probably, talked High Chief SaanKakja into forming some kind of Britstyle commando outfit.” He arched his brows bemusedly. “Maybe they can use some more of Chinakru’s lizards for advisors or an opposition force to train against. Anyway, there’s that. Ultimately, you’ll take those forces and a new Manila regiment and go to Baalkpan, where you’ll incorporate a regiment of ’Cat Marines your sister Risa is raising into a division.” Matt paused. “You’ll command.”
Chack blinked and bowed. “Thank you, Capitaan Reddy.”
“Who’s going straight to Baalkpan, sir?” Lieutenant Irvin Laumer asked politely but intently. He had a very personal reason to be curious. Like most submariners, Laumer wasn’t tall or physically remarkable in any way, but Matt had learned he had an extra helping of guts. He’d successfully led the effort to salvage his old submarine, S19, off a Talaud Island beacha beach that no longer existed, since the whole island had blown itself apart in a volcanic fit reminiscent of Krakatoa on the “old earth.” More recently, he’d been acting exec of MaakaKakja, a prestigious post, but one he’d relinquished so he could go back to his old sub. He seemed to feel, despite all he’d accomplished, that he still had something to prove, and he could only really do that with S19.
Matt reflected that Laumer’s fixation on the old boat could be good . . . or bad . . . and he had no idea which it would ultimately be. He’d been advised that S19 could never be a submarine again. Most wanted to just scrap herbut that wasn’t right either. Not only would Laumer and all the men and ’Cats who’d worked so hard to save her be crushed, but the boat did float and had two running (or repairable) diesels and a fourinchfifty gun. Matt decided to give the determined submariner his head and ordered Laumer to rebuild S19 into . . . something else. Even if nobody really knew what that would be yet, Laumer didn’t care. Whatever S19 was fated to become, she would still be his.
“You are,” Matt answered, “along with Lawrence, and”he arched an eyebrow at Silva’s looming form, expecting one of the man’s . . . imaginative arguments“Chief Silva.” To Matt’s surprise, Dennis Silva didn’t do anything other than arch his own eyebrows and form that disconcerting, gaptoothed grin of his. “You’ll resume command of S19,” he continued to Laumer, “and figure out what to do with her. You may consider that a reward for your efforts, if you like, but I think it’s going to be a bigger chore than you imagine. My only advice is not to get any fixed ideas before you start. Talk to your people who stayed aboard; get with Bernie Sandison, Perry Brister, anybody who might have a notion. Draw pictures. Whatever you do with her though, remember: we need practical warships, not pie in the sky.”
“Or a pigboat in a poke,” Silva murmured down at Lawrence, and Laumer fired a scathing look at him before replying; “Aye sir. Thank you, sir.”
“You ain’t gonna stick me on that big, leakin’ weenie, are you, Skipper?” Silva spoke up. It wasn’t really a question.
“No. That would be a waste of your few real talents, and you’d be much worse than useless to Lieutenant Laumer. That said, though you are going to Baalkpan, you’re not on the loose. When not directly involved in the assignment you’re about to receive, you belong to Bernie Sandison in Ordnance. As far as he’s concerned, you’re still AWOL. If you don’t do exactly what he says, he can hang you, for all I care.”
“I swear,” Silva mumbled, barely audible. “How come folks are always shakin’ ropes at me?”
“What was that?” Spanky demanded.
“Nothin’, sir,” Silva said, suddenly making a caricature of the position of attention. “Aye, aye, sir! I’ll stick to Bernie like malaria! Why, he won’t be able to scrape me off with assitonebut I’ll be back with Walker when her refit’s done . . . Won’t I?”
“We’ll see,” Matt said seriously, stifling a chuckle. “In the meantime, Adar still wants that expedition into the interior of Borno, to make contact with those ’jungle lizards’ you discovered. I think it’s past time myself, now that we know not everybody who looks Grik is Grik.” He grinned at Lawrence, then looked back at Dennis. “We also know for a fact that looking Grik doesn’t save them from the Grik either, so they have a stake in this war whether they want itor know itor not.” Matt’s eyebrows rose. “According to General Alden, we need jungle fighters, for scouts if nothing else, and we might use them as commandos too. Adar’s already begun accumulating supplies and personnel for the expedition. The ’Cat hunter, Moe, a couple of Chinakru’s Sa’aarans, and even some of the Grik we captured at Aryaal have committed to participate.”
There was a murmur in the wardroom over that. When they left Baalkpan, little progress had been made toward communicating with the creatures.
“So, I guess I’ve also committed to participate?” Silva asked, arousing chuckles.
“Yes, you have,” Matt replied seriously. “You and Lawrence will ensure the safety of the expedition, and do whatever you can to make it a success.”
“Who’s gonna be in charge?”
“Abel Cook has been commissioned an ensign, and he’ll be your superior officer. With Courtney in the east, Mr. Cook is the bestqualified man to lead this. . . .” Matt looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled. “This Corps of Discovery. I know he’s awful young, but as you know, he’s got a level headand I’m sure he’ll listen to you. I know he’s learned to value your . . . opinions . . . in dangerous situations.”
Cook had been one of a number of civilian refugees from Java, mostly children of diplomats and other big shots, aboard S19. Since his rescue, he’d been Courtney Bradford’s protégé in the natural sciences. He’d also been abducted and ultimately marooned along with Sandra, Silva, Princess Rebecca, Lawrence, Imperial Midshipman Stuart Brassey, LelaaTalCleraan, Sister Audry . . . and others not as lucky. He’d packed considerable adventure into his barely sixteen years, and the gangly teen had generally comported himself well by all accounts.
“Cook’s a good kid,” Silva said thoughtfully. “And he’s probably been livin’ in a igloo made outta Courtney’s books since he got back to Baalkpan. He’s a good choice.” He chuckled. “I figger his biggest problem’ll be givin’ me orders!”
“You may have to teach him how,” Matt agreed, “and I feel a little guilty inflicting you on him, but he’ll need you. Tell him to feel free to accept a few more volunteers, if he wants.” Matt knew Abel’s friend, Midshipman Brassey, would be begging Ambassador Forester to let him go as soon as the meeting adjourned.
“Sounds like a hoot, and me and Larry’ll do our best for the kid . . .” Silva’s twisted grin spread. “I mean, for Mister Cook.” He poked Lawrence with his elbow. “Won’t we?”
“So, who else is leavin’ the ship?” Spanky grumbled. “Not too many more, I hope. We’ve got a lot of work to do when we make Respite, just so we can get the rest of the way home and get to work!” Walker’s machinery needed considerable attention after her long voyage and hard fighting; more than they’d been able to give her in the Imperial shipyards. Even more critical than that, however, she needed a dry dock, and the closest one was in Maanila. She had some damage below her waterline, but what had come to worry Spanky most were the rivets they’d rebuilt her with in Baalkpan. He considered that his fault. They’d formed her new plating from good steel salvaged from Amagi, but the rivets were local “iron.” It wasn’t really iron but some of the first steel they’d attempted, and Spanky had thought it would suffice and made the call. Unfortunately, the rivets had proven remarkably brittle. They resisted shearing, so they weren’t apt to fail with the normal working of the ship, but even some of the light roundshot strikes they’d taken had opened seams and launched shattered rivets like bullets. They’d repaired Walker’s worst topside damage with goodquality “Impie” rivets at Scapa Flow, but Spanky was increasingly worried they’d pop a bottom seam if they ran into another big storm, or Strakka, like the one they encountered on the voyage out. The ship survived that blow with no hull damage, but real or not, Spanky felt the growing stress on the bottom rivets as if the same ones had been used to hold his guts together.
In response to Spanky’s question, Matt glanced at the Bosun, indecisive. Carl Bashear was Walker’s Chief Bosun’s Mate now, and Chief Gray really was needed in Baalkpan. The Alliance had sprouted a lot of “chiefs,” but few had any real leadership experience, especially in combat. Matt envisioned at least a temporary school for Naval NCO’s, to deepen that pool of experience and knowledge, and Chief Gray, the Super Bosun, was the natural choice to supervise it. Chief Gunner’s Mate Paul Stites could handle the Captain’s Guard, and Bashear was fully capable of handling all the deck divisions. Matt really ought to send Gray home, but he was reluctant for several reasons. For one thing, he was Matt’s friend and primarydiscreetconfidant when it came to matters concerning the crew. Also, like Silva in one respect, Gray thrived under adversity. Despite occasionally proclaiming that he wouldn’t mind settling down for a while, he’d hinted that if Matt shuffled him off to be a “schoolmarm,” or put him out to pasture, he shouldn’t expect him to excel behind a desk or in the classroom. Matt thought the Bosun could and would do the job, but he also knew his heart wouldn’t be in it. Walker was his home. Whether or not he remained essential to the old destroyer’s daytoday operation, supervising and monitoring her wellbeing was critical to Gray. He needed her just as badly as she’d needed him in the past, and Matt couldn’t shake the feelingthe premonition, almostthat his ship might desperately need her Super Bosun again.
“No. That’s all, Mr. MacFarlane. Except the ambassador and his partyif they don’t mind flying.” Matt regarded Ambassador Forester. “SaanKakja, High Chief of All the Filpin Lands, and Chairman Adar are both anxious to meet you. In SaanKakja’s case, she wants to go back to Baalkpan, as she promised her troops she wouldbut now she’s got troops fighting Doms in the other direction, helping defend the Empire.” He paused. “Honestly, Ambassador Forester, SaanKakja doesn’t like the Empire very much, and you really need to make a good impression on her.”
“You think I should ride a . . . flying machine?” Forester asked, eyes widening. His aide, Lieutenant Bachman, began to form a protest, but Forester gently silenced him.
“Yes, Your Excellency. I do.”
“Well. Indeed . . .” Forester considered. “Tell me, Captain Reddy: has an Imperial citizen ever ridden one of your flying machines?”
“Not to my knowledge, Your Excellency. I believe you’d be the first.”
“Splendid. In that case, I simply must, I suppose.”
With the meeting adjourned, the wardroom quickly emptied. It was hot in the compartment, even with the portholes open, and the wind direction prevented much air from coming in. The smell of sweat was so all pervasive, no one noticed it anymore. The mustysmelling ’Cats shed all the time, however, and Spanky rocketed up the companionway at the end of the short passage in the middle of a sneezing fit. Even Juan left, herding ahead of him a pair of mess attendants laden with trays of cups. All that remained were Matt and Sandra, smiling comfortably at one another across the wardroom table.
“We’re alone,” Sandra murmured.
“Scandalous,” Matt replied with a grin. “I left standing orders that we’re never to be left unsupervised, for the slightest instant.”
“I guess the whole gang’s on report now,” Sandra said, standing, and walking slowly around the table toward him.
“Trust me,” Matt warned, mock serious, “they’ll be severely punished.”
Sandra slid onto the chair beside him and gave him an only mildly inflammatory kiss as his arms went around her.
“We better get back to work,” he mumbled. “This is exactly why I said we should split up from now on. Can’t have us carrying on like a couple of teenagers all the time.”
Sandra giggled. “Hey, buster, this is my office!” The wardroom served as a surgery in battle.
“Then quick: throw me out, woman! Before the crew gets the wrong idea!”
Sandra giggled again, and Matt smiled. He knew she thought she sounded ridiculous when she did that, but he loved the sound. Finally, she sighed.
“Gets wise, you mean. Of course, in spite of us trying to fool them, they knew about us before we did.” She snuggled against him. “I feel like a teenager,” she admitted. “I guess you’re right, though,” she added wistfully. “Once we’re married, we’ll see even less of each other than we do now. Even if your silly regulations didn’t prevent mates from serving aboard the same ship, I don’t think that shoebox you call a stateroom would be big enough for both of us.” She kissed him again. “And after we are married, nothing will ever keep us apart again.”
“When we’re not apart,” Matt added glumly. She knew what he meant.
“I think you’ll have plenty to look forward to,” she whispered wickedly. “The sailor home from the sea will always be a happy man.”
He chuckled, but then looked at her. “I’m happy now. Only . . .”
“Well . . . are you absolutely sure you want to go through with it? I mean, it’ll be tough sometimes. Maybe . . . Maybe we should wait until the war’s over, you know.”
Sandra’s face grew stormy. “Now, you listen to me, Matthew Reddy! You may be king of the sea, but as soon as you asked me to marry you, and even said when, that put me in charge of the whole operation,see?” She smiled, but her eyes were moist. “If you wanted it different, a chance to weasel out later, you shouldn’t have asked me right in front of the GovernorEmperor, half our allies, and all the crew!”
“I don’t want to weasel out!” he protested.
“You’d better not. Not only would it make me soreit might wreck the alliance! The GovernorEmperor wanted to marry us in New Britain, in the cathedral, with more bells and whistles than any wedding I ever heard of! Even Adar was a little put out that we wouldn’t wait until we got back to Baalkpan. He wanted to throw a big party, even though ’Cats aren’t big on formal weddings. But you promised me a honeymoon! On Respite! The Governor there, Radcliff, is already gearing up for a pretty big deal, probably almost as big a wedding as His Majesty would have managed. You are not going to leave me at the altar like a dope. . . .” Tears threatened to spill, but she shook her head and dashed a sleeve across her eyes. “Not after all this time, after all we’ve been through!” Her voice took on a hint of bitterness.
“This war is never going to end, Matthew. Don’t you see? Someday, we’ll beat the Grik and the Doms and whatever else comes along. I don’t doubt that anymore. . . . But I know you. You’re not just fighting them. You’ll fight the whole damn world until it’s a safe place for the people you care about to live in peace and freedom!” She dried her eyes. “Okay. That’s the way it is. That’s who you are, and as much as I hate it sometimes, that’s also why I love you so much. I DO love you, but you’ve made me wait an awful long time. I’m thirty, now, Matthew,” she said, “and yes, maybe I want kids. Mainly though, I want you, for however often . . . or however long I can have you.”
“Okay!” Matt defended lightly, deliberately misunderstanding her mood. “It’s your operation, like you said. I wasn’t trying to weasel out.”
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