Chapter Two

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Reza considered their situation as he and Eustus followed Ortiz through the narrow passageways that led to her cabin. He had engaged in a very similar contest with his friend Washington Hawthorne just before graduating from their Marine training. Hawthorne's motive for challenging Reza was to test his own strength and skill, not because he had anything against Reza. To the contrary, Reza considered him a friend.

This "Stalin," on the other hand, clearly harbored ill will toward everyone around him, relying on his strength and size to intimidate and cow his comrades and, Reza gathered, Lieutenant Ortiz. The staff sergeant had a great deal in common with the enemy Reza and Eustus had faced during their training, Captain Markus Thorella. The main difference, Reza worried, was that Stalin had a much freer hand here than Thorella had enjoyed at the academy. He was not concerned for his own safety, but for that of Eustus...and for his commander.

What strange beings the humans are, he thought for the thousandth time since returning to the Confederation from his home, from his love, in the Empire. Even when faced with the threat of annihilation, the humans still found energy and excuse to quarrel among themselves. Reza was bound to them by virtue of the blood and honor that had cost him everything that he had come to hold dear, but he doubted he would ever understand them. And he knew for certain that, beyond a handful of souls like Eustus, Nicole Carré, and Jodi Mackenzie, they would never understand or truly accept him. He would forever be an alien in their eyes. The thought brought a momentary pang of sadness that he quickly banished from his mind.

"In here." Ortiz pushed open the hatch to a small compartment that served as the auxiliary sickbay. It was the only space in Marine country outside of the galley where more than two people could discuss something in privacy. "Close the hatch," she snapped after Reza and Eustus had followed her in.

Eustus turned and did as she asked, dogging it shut, then spun around and stood at attention with Reza.

With a scowl, Ortiz said, "At ease." She looked at them for a moment, her gaze shifting between them. "Do you idiots have any idea what you've done?"

Reza glanced at Eustus, then said, "I saved a fellow Marine from potentially serious injury in an unlawful assault by the unit's senior NCO. Eustus will not press charges, I am sure."

Eustus nodded agreement.

Ortiz buried her face in her hands and burst out laughing. "Lord of All, please save me," she said. Dropping her hands to her sides, she went on. "Sure, that's pure genius: you won't bring charges against Stalin for an assault he didn't quite have the chance to commit, then you went and broke every finger on his trigger hand. I'm going to save wondering how the hell you did that for another time. And you," she jabbed a finger at Eustus, "you're an even bigger idiot for wagering a month's pay with those cutthroats out there. A month's pay at a hundred to one? You bankrupted the lot of them for who knows how long. And you knew that Private Long Hair here would win, didn't you? It was basically a rigged bet, even though you didn't start it. Am I right?"

"Yes, ma'am," Eustus said. "But I didn't take their money."

"Castle was the oddsmaker you gave your pay chit to. He's a scumbag, but when it comes to honoring wagers he's solid as a rock. He gave you the damn money."

Eustus shook his head. "I locked the chit. He could add money to it from the others in local mode, but the transactions will dump the next time I use mine or they use theirs to buy anything or transfer money. They haven't lost a single credit, and the only thing I took from among their personal items were a couple bars of chocolate. And those weren't for me." He shot a sidelong look at Reza.

She stared at him, an incredulous expression on her face. "Why would you do that? You don't even know these clowns, let alone owe them anything."

"I don't steal from people, and I'd never take anything from a fellow Marine."

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