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When Walker sounded her "drowning goose" general quarters alarm for predawn battle stations, Matt was surprised to hear the thunder of drums on the ships nearby, sending their own crews to action stations. He remembered that Jenks had expressed interest in the practice several times. Evidently, Matt's explanation that they did it because dawn was a dangerous time of day when enemy ships—and in their "old" war, submarines in particular—might see their silhouette before they saw the enemy, had made eminent sense to the Imperial commodore. It looked like Jenks was beginning to institute the practice among all the ships of his command. That was certainly for the good—if they all became true allies someday. Matt realized, however, that he might have given away a serious advantage if the Empire and Alliance ever found themselves on opposite sides. Oh, well, it couldn't be helped. Right now, they had the same cause and they needed their friends to be prepared
That morning, instead of standing down into a morning routine, Matt gave the order to "make all preparations for getting underway." Sparks began to rise from nearby stacks, and black and gray smoke curled into the air as Walker and the "squadron," consisting of Achilles, Icarus, and Ulysses, raised steam and prepared to pull their hooks. Their immediate destination was an old Imperial outpost—probably the first. Jenks said the island, called Respite, was the first hospitable place his ancestors had encountered on their voyage to the East, and it was there they'd rested, victualed, and taken on fresh water before continuing in search of the most remote place they could find. Some few had stayed, tired of the seemingly endless journey, and Respite had been almost constantly inhabited ever since. Over time, it became the regional capital of all the surrounding islands and until recently, the western frontier of the Empire. It had been to one of the newer, slightly more northwestern outposts under Respite's jurisdiction that Rebecca's one-armed protector, Sean O'Casey, had been fleeing the Imperial hangman after an unsuccessful rebellion against Company usurpation of Imperial authority. It had been only wild coincidence that Princess Rebecca Anne McDonald had been dispatched aboard the same doomed ship by her father, the Governor-Emperor himself. In his effort to provide for her safety from increasingly dark Company machinations, he'd set the wheels in motion that left her marooned and presumed dead these two long years. In the end, the Company had snatched her anyway.
The best thing, from the perspectives of Matt and Jenks, was that Respite's inhabitants had become increasingly dissatisfied with the arbitrary policies enacted by the distant Imperial government—particularly as the Courts of Directors and Proprietors fell increasingly into the hands of the Company. The "Respitans" had always been a self-sufficient, individualistic lot, and Jenks suspected they would have supported O'Casey's rebellion if they'd caught wind of it in time. He was sure that when USS Walker and her consorts arrived with news of the fight that Walker and Achilles had had with Company and pressed Imperial warships bent on murdering the princess, they would find themselves among a sympathetic population and territorial governor. A perfect place for the Allied supply ships and tankers to head for.
Icarus flew her Imperial flag once more, and Matt noticed with interest that Ulysses' new Imperial flag flew above her old Company flag. He wondered what the next Company ship or official they encountered would think of that. Bosun's pipes twittered similar or familiar calls on every ship, and the special sea and anchor detail on Walker's fo'c'sle sprayed the anchor chain with hoses as the steam capstan sent it dripping and clattering into the locker below. Finally, the anchor was aweigh and the little crane forward hoisted it into its cut-out storage space forward. Matt watched while the other ships' anchors were raised and secured, and was struck by how primitive his own ship was in many ways. The stocks on Imperial anchors were wood and Walker's was iron, but the overall shape was virtually identical. His ship was probably the last class in the U.S. Navy to use the old-style anchors, a design completely unchanged for a hundred years, but the Imperial model was even older.
He shook his head and strode from the bridgewing to the chart table. No one aboard was really sure where they were headed anymore. Somewhere in what they remembered as the Carolines, he supposed. It seemed the farther east they steamed, the less relevant their charts of the "old world" became. Courtney Bradford took the disparity between their charts and the actual locations of the various islands of the "Eastern Sea" as a matter of course. He still insisted that the larger, exposed surface area of the atolls was consistent with his Ice Age theory, and Matt had to agree there might be something to that. The fact that, according to the charts Jenks had loaned them, these Carolines were larger and more substantial than Matt remembered, or the old charts indicated, seemed to follow. What didn't make any sense to Matt and many others was why the atolls, or actual islands, had been so shifted around. They'd discovered quite a few islands in—call them the Marshalls for lack of anything better—where there shouldn't be anything at all. The island where they'd made their emergency repairs was one example. According to Jenks's charts, other substantial atolls such as Kwajalein didn't even exist. Bradford maintained that it was all perfectly understandable. Matt only wished Courtney would find some way to make it just as easily explainable. In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, he would have to trust Imperial charts of the region.
"All ahead one-third," Matt said. "Make your course one, one, five."
"Ahead one-third," Staas-Fin, or "Finny," replied. "One, one, five, ay!" The blower rumbled contentedly and Walker gathered way. Juan arrived with his battered carafe and a tray of cups and Matt accepted one with thanks. Juan's coffee was terrible, even using the ersatz beans of this world, but it was coffee of a sort and that's all that matters sometimes.
"Thanks, Juan," Captain Reddy murmured as he brought the green foam-rimmed brew to his lips.
"My pleasure, Cap-tan! Would you like breakfast? A haircut perhaps? A hot towel and a shave would do wonders for you," he hinted. Matt's razor had about given up the ghost, and he'd finally relented and begun growing a beard like the rest of the men under his command. "I traded a case of rusty cans of 'scum weenies' for a new Imperial razor!" he declared in triumph. "It is quite sharp!"
Matt scratched his itchy chin and winced. He'd love a shave—but he had never let Juan shave him despite the Filipino's incessant attempts. Now… he had the only razor. Matt was convinced that if he ever relented, Juan would be shaving him for the rest of his life. On the other hand, he'd always believed that keeping himself well-groomed was important. It was just his little way of showing defiance in the face of the odds against them. "No matter how bad it gets, the Skipper always shaves." Something like that.
He sighed. "Well, can we do it right here? I mean, can I just sit here in my chair?"
Juan beamed. "Of course, Cap-tan! In fact, it would be best, I believe. The chair is just the right height! I will return in a moment!" With that, Juan darted away and Matt looked around the bridge. Finny was trying to suppress a grin and the lookouts diligently studied the horizon. Norman Kutas glanced at the chart and stepped around the chart house—probably so Matt wouldn't see him crack up. True to his word, Juan returned quickly. He had two 'Cat mess attendants in tow, one with a basin of hot water, the other holding some damp, steaming towels. Juan immediately removed Matt's hat and draped a towel over his face.
"Oh, for God's sake, Juan! I thought you were just going to shave me!" he muttered under the towel. "I can't conn the ship like this!"
The shipwide comm suddenly blared. "Now hear this!" It was Chief Bosun's Mate Fitzhugh Gray's voice. He was in on it too! Gray was around sixty, barely shorter than his captain, but the man who'd once grown flabby and jaded on the China station of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet had transformed into a lean, powerful pillar of moral authority within the Alliance. He was no longer a "mere" chief bosun's mate; there were plenty of those in the rapidly expanding American Navy. He'd become something much more, still ill-defined. Officially, he commanded Matt's personal security detail, the "Captain's Guard," and was "chief armsman of the supreme Allied Commander." Unofficially, he was often referred to as "The S.B." (Super Bosun), but most, even Chief Bosun's Mate Bashear, still just called him "the Bosun." To Matt, and probably Matt alone, he was still just "Boats."
"Now hear this!" Gray repeated. "Lieutenant Steele to the bridge! The exec will take the conn while the captain endures his mornin' toy-letty!" A roar of laughter echoed through the ship, amid the stamping of Lemurian feet.
"Oh my God, Boats!" Matt groaned, but he couldn't help laughing. "Put yourself on report! And… whoever else is responsible for this stunt!"
"Aye, aye, Skipper," Gray said, "but beggin' the Skipper's pardon, your beard is startin' to look a little scruffy." He lowered his voice. "That, and with all the stuff that's been goin' on, the fight, the chase for the girls… me and a few of the fellas figured you could use a laugh. Besides, you've always stayed shaved through a lot worse scrapes than this. Don't want the fellas to think you're lettin' yourself go."
For just an instant Matt tensed. Gray couldn't see his face under the towel, but it might actually be best. Suddenly, Matt reached out and grabbed Gray's sleeve, pulling him down closer.
"They don't call you Super Bosun for nothing, do they?" Matt whispered huskily. "You're right. I need a laugh, and so does this crew. Let's make the most of it."
Freshly shaved, trimmed, and with his face tingling with whatever refreshing soap Juan had been able to create or procure, Matt sheepishly relieved a grinning Steele and resumed his watch. Cheerful voices and snatches of good-natured banter rose to his ears from the fo'c'sle forward, and the weather deck aft. It suddenly struck him that his crew was happy—not because they'd pulled a stunt on the Skipper, but because they'd managed to do something for him. He felt embarrassed and a little ashamed that he hadn't noticed a growing cheerfulness aboard the ship. He'd been too lost in his own duty, and his ongoing misery over Sandra's unknown fate. The rescue of the princess might be the primary diplomatic reason for the mission, but to him it was personal. He had to have Sandra back, for the very survival of his soul. He needed to rescue the young princess too. She'd trusted him, relied on him to keep her safe, and he loved her too, he supposed, much like a daughter. His recent mood must have been a terrible drag on the ship.
All the crew felt his anger and they'd do whatever was necessary to make things right, but these were extraordinary times as well. The humans under his command were almost giddy with the prospect that they were nearing lands where actual human women dwelt, and each of them harbored happy fantasies of how they'd ultimately break the "dame famine" that had plagued them ever since the Squall. The 'Cats were happy too. They'd steamed much farther into the vast Eastern Sea than they'd ever believed possible. They'd always known the world was round, but they also knew that the force humans referred to as "gravity" pulled down. It had simply followed that if one went too far from the "top" of the world, one would plummet off the side into the endless heavens. They'd believed the human Americans, hoped they were right that gravity pulled down wherever on the world one stood, but only now had it become a demonstrated fact. Matt knew this "fact" flew in the face of some very long-held religious dogma, and regretted that they'd upset their friends yet again in that respect, but the contradiction didn't seem that important to his Lemurian-American crew right now. Just the fact that they hadn't fallen off the world and were free to continue their important adventure satisfied them at present. Later, they might contemplate the religious implications. Matt knew from the messages relayed through Manila from Baalkpan that Adar already was, but right now, Walker was a happy ship and his own serious, intense mood had been like a… wet towel on the humor of the crew. He would have to try harder to conceal his anxiety and concern. He'd had a lot of practice at that—but then, of course, he'd always had Sandra to help him.
He glanced at his watch. Almost 0800 and time for the watch change, so this was as good a time as any. "Mr. Campeti," he said, addressing Walker's new gunnery officer, "I assume you've managed to standardize the drill on the number four gun?" The number four was a dual purpose, 4.7-inch gun they'd salvaged from Amagi to replace the 4"-50 that had been badly damaged in the Battle of Baalkpan. The respectable quantity of ammunition for it that they'd salvaged as well was still high-explosive, cordite propelled, as opposed to the black powder-loaded four-inch-fifty's they had for the other guns. Until they perfected their own cordite using the indigenous materials, they couldn't "regulate" the 4.7-inch with the others, and they'd decided to keep it in local control.
"Aye, aye, sir. The drill's mostly the same, and the fellows have it down pat."
"Very well. They no longer have any excuse to be late, then, I take it?"
"Good." Matt grinned. "With all this 'nervous energy' everyone seems to have today, we should be able to break some records!" He turned to the bridge talker. "Sound general quarters, if you please. The watch is ticking!"
The "drowning goose" began gasping for air, and Sonny Campeti raced up the ladder beside the chart house, to the fire control platform above. Other men and 'Cats quickly appeared, laden with belts of ammunition and shoving two heavy Browning .30-calibers up the ladder to waiting hands.
The Bosun paced the fo'c'sle, bellowing at the crew of the number one gun in his inimitable fashion, while Chief Gunner's Mate Paul Stites assembled his gun's crews atop the amidships gun platform.
Ensign Fred Reynolds and his copilot/observer Kari-Faask dumped their breakfast in the can under the amidships deckhouse, despite Earl Lanier's ranting, and raced toward where their Nancy's "deck crew" was clearing and securing its cover, and preparing the hoist davit that would put the plane down in the water alongside. The same "deck crew" would also serve as a "plane dump detail" if the aircraft was ever damaged in action or became a deck hazard in any way.
Chack's Marine drummer sounded a long roll, and the Marines not assigned to gun's crews abandoned their ordinary seagoing duties and scrambled to one of the old vegetable lockers aft of the number three stack, to grab their leather armor and bronze "tin hats." The company armorer issued their muskets from a new locker beside the galley, and they assembled on the weather deck, port and starboard of the numbers one and two funnels. First Sergeant Blas-Ma-Ar quickly called the roll over the racket.
On the rebuilt aft deckhouse, where the auxiliary conn was located, Frankie Steele took his post and Gunner's Mate Pack Rat and Chief Bashear roared at the crew of the number four gun, as well as the depth charge handlers on the fantail below.
Matt watched this activity with growing satisfaction. He knew Spanky, Miami Tindal, and Tabby would be sorting things out below. The drill was unorthodox by prewar standards, but it was efficient, and it worked well for their purposes under the circumstances.
Chief Signalman Lieutenant Ed Palmer was the talker at the moment, repeating the readiness reports as they came in. "Wireless comm gear is under continuous watch," he finished for his own division. "All stations manned and ready, Captain."
Matt glanced at his watch. "Not quite a record, but not bad," he remarked. "Not bad at all." He made himself grin at those around him. "All stations may secure from general quarters. Continue steaming as before under condition three alert. Chack's Marines may commence their morning exercises."
Courtney Bradford and Selass-Fris-Ar, Keje's daughter and currently Walker's medical officer, ascended to the bridge. As usual, Courtney wore his wide, battered "sombrero" and had to remove it before entering the pilothouse. It was a standing order for him alone. His red, balding pate was shiny with sweat when he snatched the thing off.
"Well, we're off again at last, I see." Courtney said, glancing aside at the atoll slipping away off the port quarter. "Just as well. Of all the mysterious lands we've encountered, that one had absolutely the least to recommend it!"
"You mean to tell me you didn't discover anything unusual?" Matt asked.
"Well, not as you would say 'unusual'… now. A few odd crabs, I suppose, but nothing astonishingly peculiar, if you know what I mean? Of course."
"You're getting spoiled, Mr. Bradford. When we first met, a strange twig would've kept you enthralled for days."
"I'm not spoiled, sir! I merely have… higher expectations now. With good reason!"
Matt looked at Selass. With his human preconceptions, it was always a little tough for him to accept that she was even related to Keje, much less that she was his daughter. She couldn't have looked less like him. She was sleek and thin where Keje was thick and muscled. Her fur was almost silver, while her father's was a reddish brown. Keje's eyes were about the same color as his coat, but Selass's were almost as startlingly green as Saan-Kakja's were… goldish—whatever. Lemurians had no photography of course, so Matt had never seen a picture of Keje's lost mate. He'd have been willing to bet anything that Selass took after her mother.
He also knew she and Chack had a "history." Given his understanding of what 'Cats considered attractive, he could understand it. Male Lemurians were drawn to physical beauty, just as men were, and Selass was stunning even to his eyes. Exotic rarity also seemed to enhance perceived attractiveness, and that was probably why Saan-Kakja, Safir Maraan, and even Selass were viewed almost as icons of Lemurian beauty. Saan-Kakja with her amazing eyes, Safir Maraan with her jet-black fur and silver eyes, Selass with her silver fur and green eyes… Shoot, maybe it was just the eyes. Matt mentally shrugged. There was no doubt about it, Lemurians were handsome creatures. He wouldn't dwell on the fact that some of his men, including Silva, apparently considered them more than just "handsome." He supposed the only thing 'Cat women got out of such hypothetical relationships was the exotic rarity of humans. He thought he felt something squirm down his back.
Chack's history with Selass. That's what he'd been thinking about. He'd almost refused to allow her on the mission because of that… but then, he really couldn't have refused, could he? With Sandra gone, Jamie Miller with the fleet, Karen pregnant, and Pam Cross a nervous wreck after Silva's abduction with the others, he couldn't have taken Kathy McCoy. For such an important mission, though, he did need a "high-profile" medic. Selass was it. She was good with human and 'Cat physiology, and she'd earned her "nurse lieutenant" status. She'd changed dramatically from the self-centered, spoiled brat teenager Matt first met, and she was utterly devoted to Sandra. She'd grown up. The war and the loss of her first mate, Saak-Faas, had finally made something of her. If Matt had refused to take her, it might have been seen as a slight by some of his very best Lemurian friends. The problem was, no matter how well she hid it, Matt and Sandra had long known that Selass was still hopelessly in love with Chack.
Chack was virtually mated to Safir Maraan, Queen Protector of B'mbaado. They'd planned to announce their betrothal and perform their nuptials after the liberation of Aryaal and B'mbaado, but after what they found there, the time just didn't seem right. Now Matt had dragged Chack thousands of miles from his beloved and he felt really bad about that, but damn it, he needed the kid! He was a veteran of vicious combat now and a steady leader. He'd earned his post, and Matt couldn't have taken anyone else. What he didn't need was Chack getting all a-twitter and confused around his old flame, though. So far, it didn't seem to be a problem, and Matt hoped it wouldn't be. Probably wouldn't. Chack was "engaged," and he and Selass had their duty. They'd both amply demonstrated how important that was to them.
"Good morning, Selass," he said, nodding at her.
"Good morning, Cap-i-taan," she replied. She'd begun accompanying Bradford to the bridge after the two of them prepared her "battle station"—the wardroom—which would become a surgery in the event of battle. It certainly wasn't due to any policy or anything; she just did it—like Sandra always had before. It probably even made sense in a way that the medical officer would want to come to the bridge and see for herself what was happening, so she'd have some idea what she might be about to face in the way of casualties. Matt hadn't liked it when Sandra did it—at first—but as time went on, he couldn't change it and didn't really want to. She'd always known when it was time to leave. Now… to chase Selass off when there wasn't any need would be hypocritical.
"Coffee?" Matt offered. Selass blinked distaste. Most Lemurians hated coffee, or "monkey joe," as the destroyermen had dubbed the local equivalent. They considered it a medical stimulant, not a staple of daily life.
"Don't mind if I do," Bradford said.
Juan had returned with another carafe and he happily poured a steaming cup. "At least someone appreciates the labor necessary to render the strange seeds I get into something almost as good as the coffee I used to make!" he proclaimed piously.
Matt was glad he hadn't been taking a sip just then, or he'd have spewed it out his nose. "Trust me, Juan, everyone appreciates it," he interjected truthfully.
"That vile, bloated cook, Lanier—he just incinerates the beans and grinds them up! Sometimes he will even waste an egg!"
Matt's brows furrowed. That explained a lot. Vile and bloated as Lanier certainly was, his monkey joe was actually better than Juan's. And it didn't have green foam on top.
"You know, I always kind of liked an egg in my coffee, Juan," Matt experimented delicately.
"Nonsense, Cap-tan! If you want lizard-bird eggs, I will cook them for you, any way you like! Why eat disgusting green eggs, full of grounds?"
Matt sighed. "Oh, never mind." Maybe he could drop another hint later. Juan was good to him, to all the officers. To come right out and tell him Walker's greasy cook made better coffee was out of the question. "Maybe I'll have an egg sandwich, then, after all."
"Good!" Juan approved. "You did not eat before GQ. You need to eat! You get too skinny!" The little Filipino—who probably didn't weigh ninety pounds—scampered down the stairs behind them.
"That was close!" Bradford said. "For a moment I feared you might have gone too far! If Juan ever got his feelings hurt and went on strike, I know I would starve." He shuddered. "Has Lanier ever actually bathed?" he asked. "Or even washed his hands, perhaps?"
Matt grinned sheepishly. "I had to try." He turned back to Selass. "How's everything in your department?"
"None are sick, oddly enough. I think they are too excited about our next landfall to malinger. All the injured have returned to duty but one, and he will recover."
Matt remembered a striped, mustard-colored machinist striker who'd taken a rivet in the chest like a bullet when one of the thirty-pounders punched through the engine room. It had looked bad. Again, he was amazed by the curative properties of the Lemurian polta paste. "Glad he'll be okay," he said sincerely, then winced. "No, ah, screamers?" He asked, using Silva's universally accepted term for diarrhea.
"None, Cap-i-taan. We seem to have arrived at a proper mix."
The reason for Matt's wince was that in spite of his best efforts to maintain Navy traditions and regulations, the U.S. Navy on this world was no longer exactly "dry." One of Sandra's longest-held concerns was that some bug in the water might annihilate the crew. This concern was not without foundation. For the longest time she'd insisted that the crew drink only ship's water that had been either boiled or manufactured by the condensers. With personnel now spread so far apart, that was no longer always practicable. They'd consumed the various nectars and spirits produced by the Lemurians with no ill effects, but every time somebody even accidentally drank a little "local" water, they wound up with a bad case of Montezuma's revenge. Even the various 'Cat clans had a few problems along those lines. The massive, lumbering seagoing Homes collected sufficient fresh water to keep them independent, but they almost always got a little sick when they visited the Homes of land folk. Before the destroyermen had arrived, they'd had no idea what germs were, but they'd settled on the simple expedient of making a sort of grog by mixing water with highly alcoholic "seep."
Seep was a spirit made by fermenting the ubiquitous polta fruit that gave the Lemurians food, juice, and the fascinating curative paste. When seep was further refined and distilled, it produced a high-grade alcohol. Alcohol could be made from other things, such as certain grains the 'Cats used in the production of their excellent beer. A beetlike tuber worked well, and their efforts to boost the octane of their gasoline had resulted in the discovery of other things that could be used to produce ethanol. Seep, or its distilled version, still remained the preferred ingredient in Lemurian grog. Matt didn't know if they'd come up with the idea on their own or if Jenks's ancestors let it slip, but under the circumstances, necessity dictated that some form of grog—the weakest effective mixture—be reintroduced aboard U.S. Navy ships.
Matt was certainly no Puritan, and he'd considered prohibition a useless, stupid, harmful political stunt, but as far as his Navy was concerned, he'd done his absolute best to maintain its traditions and regulations. He wouldn't have a bunch of drunks running his ships. Fortunately, the mixture required to purify water could barely be tasted, much less felt, and the condensers still provided enough fresh water to dilute the mixture even further. At least on Walker. She utilized an open-feed-water system, with seawater going straight to the boilers. This hadn't worked as well on some of the new boilers they'd made. Corrosion and sediment in the steam lines were already becoming a concern on USS Nakja-Mur and USS Dowden. The closed systems they were using on some of the newer steam frigates about to join the fleet when Walker left Baalkpan were fresh-water hogs. They'd have to keep fuel and water tenders trailing behind them wherever they went. Big Sal's massive engines were open systems, so maybe they could replenish from her. He shook his head. Ultimately, he wasn't bothered nearly as much by the result of the policy as he was by the principle of the thing.
"How long until we reach this 'Respite' Island, Captain?" Bradford asked. "We'll be there for a while, I take it?"
Matt refocused and shifted uncomfortably in his elevated chair. "A week and a half at this pace. Maybe more," he said grudgingly, glancing out to port, where Achilles steamed. She'd set her fore course, topsails and topgallants, as well as her fore staysails. Soon, she would draw her fires and proceed under sail alone. She'd be just as fast, and didn't have the fuel to keep her boiler lit for the entire passage.
"I say," Bradford said, "couldn't we just go on ahead without her? We could be there in a matter of days! If we dawdle along awaiting Mr. Jenks and his prizes, our oilers and other ships will most likely beat us there!"
"Oh, Courtney, come on. You know that's ridiculous. I wish it were true, but our supply convoy from the Fi-lpin Lands must travel under sail alone, and I'm afraid our stay at Respite will be longer than even you would like." He didn't say that he was far more anxious than Bradford to reach their destination and then be on their way. Billingsley, Ajax—and Sandra—drew ever farther from his grasp with each passing day.
"Well… but surely there will be some emergency that will prevent me from properly studying the biology there! No doubt something will derail my first opportunity to gaze upon the wonders of an utterly isolated land! It happens all the time, as you well know. Poke, poke along, and then 'Do hurry up, Mr. Bradford! We must get underway!'"
Matt almost chuckled. In a way, he envied Bradford's ability to set aside their primary objective, even for a while. At the same time, he kind of resented it too. A lot of people were counting on them, not only to rescue Sandra and the princess but to forge an alliance with a powerful seagoing nation. All in the midst of a cataclysmic war. To even contemplate other priorities at a time like this struck him as at least mildly selfish. He knew Bradford well enough by now to understand that the man just couldn't help it though. It was just the way he was. What he was.
"We can't go any faster," he said, with a trace of lingering bitterness. "We don't know these seas like we used to, and it might not be a good idea if we arrived at our first Imperial outpost without Commodore Jenks to smooth the way. Besides, if we don't wait for our resupply, we won't have the fuel to reach New Britain with any reserve."
"Well… then I do have your word that I may spend at least some time exploring?"
"As far as it's in my power to let you. The local authorities might not want you running wild. They're not the most trusting folks with strangers, if you'll recall. At least not until you get to know them." Matt reflected on the real, growing friendship between Jenks and himself. They hadn't liked one another at all when they first met. Jenks and the Bosun had probably actually hated each other. But the exigencies of war, a shared battle, and a common cause had erased their earlier animosity.
"Perhaps they are not all quite so standoffish and paranoid," Courtney speculated.
"Hard to say. Our sample of their society's been pretty small. All of Jenks's people were—some more than others—and before that, all we had to go on was O'Casey and the princess. Even they seemed awful protective of their nation's whereabouts."
The pilothouse was quiet for some time after that, except for the rumble of the blower. Juan appeared with an egg sandwich and Matt wolfed it down under the Filipino's satisfied gaze. Eventually, possibly sensing that Matt wanted to be alone with his thoughts, everyone not actually on watch in the pilothouse filtered away. The sea to the east stretched wide and empty, and the sky was clear except for a lonely squall, possibly lashing yet another unseen, uncharted atoll.