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Chapter no 28

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

As they left the hold, they passed by the Marines, and Kira greeted them as she had on the way in. The men started to reply, but then they saw Sparrow and their expressions grew cold.

Tatupoa jerked his chin toward her. His tattoos gleamed like sapphire wires amid the shadows cast by the storage racks. “Yeah, we looked you up. Just keep walking, gas-head. We don’t need your like around here.”

“Private!” barked Hawes. “That’s enough!” But he avoided looking at Sparrow, same as the others.

“Yessir.”

Sparrow kept walking and didn’t react, as if she hadn’t heard. Confused, Kira kept pace with her. Once out in the hall, she said, “What the hell was that about?”

To her surprise, Sparrow leaned with one hand against the wall. The shorter woman looked as if she were going to be sick. Somehow Kira doubted it had anything to do with cryo.

“Hey, are you okay?” said Kira.

Sparrow shivered. “Oh yeah. Blasting on full jets.” She ground the heel of her free hand against the corners of her eyes.

Not knowing what else to do, Kira said, “How did they figure out who you are?”

“Service records. Every ship in the fleet carries a full set of ’em, aside from the black bag, spec-ops grunts. Bet they ran my picture through the files. Wouldn’t be hard.” Sparrow sniffed and pushed herself off the wall. “You tell anyone about this and I’ll kill you.”

“The Jellies might get to me before then.… What’s gas-head mean?

Nothing good, I guess.”

A bitter smile twisted Sparrow’s mouth. “Gas-head is what you call someone you think deserves to be spaced. The blood boils off, turns to gas. Get it?”

Kira eyed her, trying to read between the lines. “So why you?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sparrow muttered, straightening up. She started to walk away, but Kira stepped in front of her.

“I think it does,” Kira said.

Sparrow stared her straight in the eyes, jaw muscles working. “Get out of my way, Navárez.”

“Not until you tell me, and there’s no way you can force me to move.” “Fine, then I’ll just sit here.” And Sparrow dropped into a cross-legged

position.

Kira crouched down beside her. “If you can’t work with the Marines, I need to know why.”

“You ain’t the captain.”

“No, but we’re all putting our lives on the line here.… What is it, Sparrow? It can’t be that bad.”

The woman snorted. “You have a seriously faulty imagination if that’s what you think. Fine. Screw it. You want the truth? I got kicked out of the UMCM for cowardice before the enemy. Spent seven months in lockup as a result. There, you happy?”

“I don’t believe you,” said Kira.

“The specific charges were abandonment of my post, cowardice in the face of the enemy, and striking a commanding officer.” Sparrow crossed her arms, defiant. “That’s why gas-head. No Marine wants to serve with a coward.”

“You’re not a coward,” said Kira, earnest. “I’ve seen you in combat.

Hell, you went right after that little girl like it was nothing.” Sparrow shook her head. “That was different.”

“Bullshit.… Why do I think the whole ‘striking a commanding officer’ is the real cause of this?”

With a sigh, Sparrow let her head fall back against the wall. The impact of skull with plating produced a thud that echoed up and down the hall. “Because you think too damn much, that’s why. His name was Lieutenant Eisner, and he was a real asshole. I got transferred to his unit during the middle of deployment. This was back during the border war with Shin-Zar, see. Eisner was a shit officer. He kept getting his unit into trouble in the field, and for whatever reason, he seemed to have it out for me personally. Kept riding me no matter what I did.” She shrugged. “After one of our ops went tits up, I’d had enough. Eisner was using some bullshit excuse to chew out my gunner, and I went over and told him off. Lost my temper and ended up popping him in the face. Gave him a real doozy of a shiner. Thing is, I’d been posted to guard duty and I’d left my watch, so Eisner had me brought up on cowardice before the enemy.”

Sparrow shrugged again. “Seven years of service down the drain, just like that. Only stuff I got to keep were my augments.” And she made a muscle with her arm before dropping it.

“Shit,” said Kira. “Couldn’t you fight the charges?”

“Nah. It happened out in the field during combat operations. The League wasn’t going to ship us back for an investigation. The footage showed me leaving my post and hitting Eisner. That was all that mattered.”

“So why don’t you go in there and explain?” said Kira, motioning toward the hold.

“Wouldn’t do any good,” said Sparrow. She stood. “Why should they believe me? Far as they’re concerned, I’m hardly better than a deserter.” She slapped Kira on the shoulder. “Doesn’t matter anyway. We don’t need to like each other in order to do our jobs.… Now, are you going to get out of my way or not?”

Kira moved aside, and Sparrow limped past, leaving her alone in the corridor.

After thinking for a long minute, Kira climbed up the center of the ship and made her way to Control. Falconi was there, as she expected, and Nielsen too—looking far better than she had the previous day.

She and the first officer exchanged companionable nods, and then Kira went over to the captain and said, “Any news?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Good.… I have a favor to ask.”

He looked at her, wary. “Is that so?” “Will you come with me to the planet?”

Falconi’s eyebrows rose fractionally. “Why?” Across the room, Nielsen paused reading something on a display to listen.

“Because,” said Kira, “I don’t want to be down there all alone with the UMC.”

“You don’t trust them?” said Nielsen.

Kira hesitated a second. “I trust you more.”

Falconi let her hang for a few seconds, and then he said, “Well, today’s your lucky day. I already arranged things with Akawe.”

“You’re going?” said Kira, not quite believing. “Not just me. Trig, Nielsen, and the Entropists too.”

The first officer sniffed. “Just what I wanted to do on a Sunday afternoon.”

Falconi grinned at Kira. “There’s no way I’m coming this far and not

getting out to see the sights.”

The knowledge eased Kira’s concern somewhat. “So Sparrow, Hwa-jung, and Vishal are going to stay on board?”

“Exactly. The UMC are bringing their own doc. Sparrow still isn’t cleared for duty, and Hwa-jung doesn’t fit in our exos. Besides, I want Hwa-jung on the ship in case anything goes wrong.”

That made sense. Kira said, “Who’s taking the exos then?” Falconi jerked his head toward Nielsen. “Her and Trig.”

“That’s not necessary,” said Nielsen. “I’m perfectly capable of—”

The captain didn’t give her the opportunity to finish. “Yes, you are, but I’d rather have my crew in armor for this trip. Besides, I’ve never cared for exos. Too restrictive. Give me a plain old skinsuit any day of the week.”

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