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8 of 20

The Dark Cruise


With the conclusion of matters at Sinope, the Jupiter Force faced a long cruise back to the inner planets of the Empire. Nursing many wounded ships and crews, the voyage was certain to be difficult, but when an apparently Martian-set trap caught Karen McMaster and the crew of Wolf, a deeper level of tragedy overtook the journey. The Dark Cruise remembers that trap — and the lives it so brutally cut short.

Available as part of the omnibus 2232: Chase Into Blackness.

Series The Martian War - 8

EISBN 978-1-926817-20-0
Published 2012-01-01 (ebook) 2007-12-01 (print)


In the first week of the cruise back towards the Empire, Karen and I had something to keep us occupied. Those prisoners aboard Wolf had useful information, of that we were sure, so it was time for our patented, brutal interrogation techniques.

“I have the fiery mutilator of doom and excruciating pain next door, and I’m not afraid to use it,” I offered my most terrifying ultimatum to Lieutenant (the Martians pronounce it Lieu-tenant instead of Left-tenant, by the way) Jason Rodney Fitzmonthenry.

Fitzmonthenry… damn that’s a long name – typical Martians. Since independence, many of the families of their lower classes (the ones who end up as junior officers and spacers, though not High Admirals like Garvey) have apparently been merging old Earth names to give them a unique Martian sound… they thus end up with long ones like Fitzmonthenry. Anyway, he just stared at me.

“Look, Mister… Fitz…” ha, I shortened it on him! Take that! “…we have a long flight back to the Empire. That gives you lots of time to think. Once DCI gets their hands on you, I can’t promise you’ll be given such an easy time.”

Fitz crossed his arms and shook his head, his mouth a narrow line, “Under the Ceres Accord, no torture can be carried out against a uniformed member of a recognized military force in wartime.”

Karen, I should say, was standing next to my chair with her arms folded. We were, of course, in Wolf’s interrogation room, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned since The Rogue Commodore. Fitz was sitting at the far end of the table in his overbearing and impractical-seeming Martian uniform, and he was sticking to his guns.

That determination to be loyal to his flag should have earned him my respect. Unfortunately, something about the man also irritated me, so the respect wasn’t exactly bubbling out of me.

“Under the Ceres Accord, Mars had no right to use pirates as combatants in a war,” Karen said smoothly, tilting her head from one side to the other and drawing Fitz’s attention.

Every time the young Martian officer looked at Karen, his face seemed to sour slightly. He hadn’t said anything, but she and I had both noticed his reaction. We were pretty sure we knew what was causing it – the subtle clue being that, of all the Martian prisoners we took, none of them were women – but he hadn’t been overt about it. Yet.

“Well then you can be petty, and use command decisions I wasn’t a part of as an excuse to mutilate me,” Fitz’s reply was stern.

At those words I frowned, “Wait, you think the fiery mutilator thing is real?”

I probably shouldn’t have blurted it out, but it didn’t matter, the Lieutenant shifted himself in his seat and puffed up his chest more, “I know what you Empire types are like. We hear all about it. Those black-clad Special Branchers of yours, your secret police, they take people in the night, silence them if they speak out against your Empire. And you torture and terrorize. It’s how you work.”

He said that with a lot of conviction, and not a lot of good grammar. I let out a sigh and my chin slumped. One thing about being an Empire: it’s really hard to get a good reputation among those outside your borders. Historically – and we don’t always realize this today – the word ‘Empire’ has been used as an insult by people who want to paint all Empires by the actions of a few. Or by people who just think we should keep our noses out of other people’s business.

But then who would we get to beat up and steal money from?

That was a JOKE, you ‘small-Empire’ people. A JOKE.

Anyway, Mister Fitz was showing off some of the Martian propaganda against us, and of course we know it’s laughable. But there are always people, Martians and Imperial citizens alike, who buy it. Well, they’re wrong.

Karen, by this time, was losing patience with our sport – and who could blame her? I should have mentioned this earlier, but we’d been working on Mister Fitz for over an hour. That in itself is probably an indication of how much time we had to kill on the cruise home.

But after all our work, he was still giving us the runaround.

“Look, who was your Admiral? Who was I tangling with?” I leaned forward and planted my elbows on the table, looking across it at Fitz again. The Lieutenant shook his head once more, and I groaned, “He’s dead, he’s not going to care.”

“I have my honor,” Fitz replied curtly.

Again, I should have respected that stalwart adherence to one’s duty.

Karen let out a long sigh, then rubbed her forehead and murmured, “Honor…”

She repeated the word in the way you repeat someone’s completely unbelievable answer to a question – you know, the kid burns down his house and you repeat his excuse, “It was my birthday.”

That may not make sense, but Fitz heard the single, uttered word, and that got his blood boiling a bit. Touchy fellow, this Fitzmonthenry. Might be because of the name…

“Yes honor, not that I’d expect you to know what honor is, concubine!”

If there’s one stereotype I’m oh-so-happy to highlight in these books, it’s that many bad guys (note there, ‘guys’) are idiots when it comes to women. We in the Empire are now more or less spoiled by the equalities that were won decades and centuries ago. It was written into the Articles of Empire that all races and genders of humanity would be treated as equal persons, and of course, as we spread the Empire, that policy went with us. There was the recursion for a few decades during Lord Hawke’s time, when women were ‘put back in their place’, but that obviously didn’t last. By and large, we had the equality thing pegged (despite what the neo-suffragists might scream at you).

But the Martians were different. Some anthropologists and sociologists suggest their treatment of women is rooted in the times when the colony of Mars was founded (when men were traveling space far more frequently than women), and that seems possible to me. Their society could have developed from core notions that suggest women didn’t leave their planet, or some other dumb thing.

Or, perhaps, there might have been a lower percentage of women in their population when they separated, and it could have been decided that they all had to stay at home, so the reproduction of Mars’ population could be assured. How very Pion of them.

Anyway, I digress (what a surprise). Fitz’s little snarl there had caused Karen to raise an eyebrow, in her charming way that says so much, and to move down the table.

I just sat back. This would be good.

Karen swung her hips a little as she walked, and then with her usual, incomparable grace she sat on the table, contorting her body to make it look like she was showing off. Well, she was showing off, but it was for effect. Not that I, being a shallow person, minded watching.

She then leaned down close to Mister Fitz, bringing her nose level with his, and speaking in a soft, intense voice – basically trying to do her best impersonation of a seductress (a weird motif for her, really), “Mister Fitz, I know you didn’t mean anything by that.”

Fitz – and this is brilliant – swallowed in a gulp. Keep in mind, the single-gender military meant the men of the Martian Navy didn’t see women much at all. For those who are attracted to women (as Fitz clearly was), that made any close encounter… uh… you know what I’m getting at. They didn’t see women much, but they wished they could see them more. They should have joined Defense Command – over half Wolf’s crew was female, and as I think has been mentioned, there were no regs against fraternization aboard ship.

But that sort of regulation just gets us branded as ‘decadent hedonists’ by the Martians. They think crews on eight-week hauls through the black should be monks. Yeah, tell that to the mag crews, the engineering teams or the flightdeck personnel. Not in this century, thanks.

Back to Karen, who had just thrown her hips around and was now talking all husky-like.

As she got her nose down close to Fitz’s, he actually held his breath. Can’t really blame him – you know Karen has the breathtaking skills – but it was amusing to watch the little bastard squirm.

“You know how I know you didn’t mean anything by that?” Karen followed her first words with that line.

Fitz, now slightly overwhelmed, shook his head hurriedly.

Karen reached slowly up to her neck, her fingers stopping briefly on the zipper on her ship fatigues. Fitz swallowed again, probably hoping that zipper was going to come down a little bit, so he could see more.

But Karen’s fingers kept going past the zipper, and then they gripped the side of her collar and pulled it sideways.

“Because,” her tone instantly became sharp, “those are Commodore’s bars I’m wearing, Mister. And you wouldn’t be fool enough, or dishonorable enough, to refer to a Commodore in any service as a concubine, would you?”

Fitz’s eyes widened slightly, and he didn’t reply. He was quite confused now – she was beautiful, but she was an officer… he was supposed to respect officers, whatever service they were in…

I could almost see the smoke pouring out of his ears.

“Now,” Karen let go of her own collar and reached out, her hand closing gently around his throat. “Who was your commanding officer?”

He started to shake his head again, but her fingers tightened around his neck very slightly.

“You can’t torture me,” he rasped as the grip started to interfere with his air flow.

Karen smiled and glanced back at me, then leaned down close to him again, “You going to try to convince your buddies in the brig that you were intimidated and tortured by a concubine, mister?”

See, as calm as Karen appeared, you could sorta tell she didn’t like that kind of disrespect.

About five minutes later, and without any bruises at all, Lieutenant Fitz had started talking. He revealed what Captain Clive had already told us – that the Martian Admiral we’d faced off against was named Benjamin Conflans – and had gone on to explain that Conflans was one of the best officers in the Martian Navy. I couldn’t disagree with that quality assessment. He’d made us pay to get Io back, and at the same time he’d taken good care of our people on Sinope.

Then he’d been killed when Andrea rammed his flagship, the battleship Utopia Planitia, with Dominator. A shame – I’d probably have enjoyed meeting him more than I did meeting Fitz.


Quick sidebar here: my editors were most panicked to discover that we’ve referred to the Ceres treaty as both the Accord (singular) and the Accords (plural). Which is right? We must be consistent!

Well, I commed around to some contacts in the Foreign Office, and in the Admiralty, and in the media, and depending on who I asked, I a got different answer. Some were sure it was the Accord, others that it was the Accords. Determined to get to the bottom of the question, I went to the actual signed treaty.

The title at the top is: “The Ceres Accord.”


Then the first line says: “These Ceres Accords represent a new era in solar relations…”

Oh. Kay. So… I guess both are right?

I blame the diplomats.

Anyway, I’m just going to keep using whichever one I remember people having said, or which one sounds better in the context. Please don’t lose any sleep over it… as some of my editors may have…