The young woman — she was only twenty-two T-years old — had clearly never experienced anything like it. Denton had, on the other hand, although it had usually been from a Solarian merchant spacer, not someone from New Tuscany. Some Sollies went out of their way to attempt to provoke a Manticoran officer into providing a basis for complaints and allegations of harassment. It was something Astro Control back in the home system encountered with depressing frequency from Solarian ships passing through the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, as well. Some Sollies simply resented the hell out of the fact that a single little out-system star nation dominated such a huge percentage of the League’s total carrying trade. They went around with planet-sized chips on their shoulders where the Star Kingdom was concerned as a consequence.

But the Sollies who did that also knew they were representatives of the Solarian League. They were armed and armored with all of the arrogant Solly assurance that there was nothing any mere Manticoran could really do to punish them if they got out of line. That was one of the things Denton himself personally most hated about Solarians. And it was also what puzzled him about this incident, because New Tuscany was a single-system star nation, so poor it didn’t have a pot to piss in. So what could possibly possess a New Tuscan merchant skipper to risk deliberately antagonizing the Royal Manticoran Navy here in a star system which had just become Manticoran territory?
Denton shook himself back up out of his thoughts and looked back at Monahan.
“Sorry, Rachel.” He gave her a quick smile. “Wool gathering, I’m afraid. You had something else you wanted to add?”
“Yes, Sir.”
“Well, add away,” he encouraged.
“Sir, it’s just, well . . . .” She seemed a bit hesitant, then visibly steeled herself for the plunge.
“Sir, it’s just that I had this funny feeling that he wasn’t really saying any of it for my benefit.”
“What do you mean?” Denton’s eyes narrowed.
“It was more like he was talking about me than to me,” she said, sounding as if she were picking her words carefully, trying to find the ones to explain whatever it was she was groping towards. “Like . . . like somebody in one of the Academy’s training holos, almost.”
“Like he knew it was being recorded,” Denton said slowly. “Is that what it felt like?”
“Maybe, Sir.” Monahan looked more worried than ever. “And it wasn’t just me he was complaining about, either.”
“Meaning?” Denton tried to keep any note of tension out of his voice, but it was hard, given the mental alarm bells trying to ring somewhere deep down inside him.
“Meaning that he didn’t say just ‘you’ when he was complaining about what a hard time I’d been giving him. He said that, but he also said things like ‘you people,’ too. Like there were dozens of me, all trying to give him and his friends trouble.”
“I see.”
Denton sat in thought for several more seconds, not particularly liking the speculations chasing around the inside of his brain like hamsters in an exercise wheel, then returned his attention to the ensign sitting before him.
“Rachel, I want you to know that you did exactly the right thing reporting this. And that neither the XO nor I believe for a minute that you did a single thing wrong aboard that ship. I don’t know exactly what his problem was, but I’m sure you handled yourself just as well as you always have in the past.”
“I tried to, Sir,” she said, unable to hide her enormous relief at his firmly supportive tone. “The more it went on, though, the more I started wondering if I had done something to tick him off!”
“I doubt very much that you did anything at all,” Denton said in that same firm tone of voice. “Unfortunately, you may well encounter the same thing again. God knows most of us have run into it a time or two, although it’s usually from the Sollies, not from someone like the New Tuscans. I’m sorry it happened to you here, but it’s probably just as well to get the first dose out of the way early in your career.”
“Yes, Sir,” she said, and he flashed her a smile of approval.
“All right,” he said with an air of finality. “I think you’ve probably given me everything you’ve got, so there’s no point our sitting here chewing it over any more or wondering what kind of wild hair might have inspired him to go off that way. I would like you to go ahead and record a formal report on this, though. If he does actually decide to complain to someone, I want to have your version of the encounter already on the record to help shoot him down.”
“Yes, Sir,” she said again.
“In that case, why don’t you go ahead and get that taken care of right now, while events are still fresh in your mind?”
“Yes, Sir.”
Monahan obviously recognized her dismissal, and she rose, braced briefly to attention, and left. Denton gazed at the closed door for several moments, then punched a combination into his com terminal.
“Bridge, XO speaking,” a voice said. “What can I do for you, Skipper?”
“I’ve just finished talking with Rachel, Pete. I see why you sent her to see me.”
“She did seem more than a little upset,” Lieutenant Peter Koslov said. “But it was the nature of what that New Tuscan bastard said that really worried me.”
“Agreed. I don’t want to make a big thing out of this and worry her any more than she’d already is, especially not before she gets her formal report together for me. But, that said, I want you to have a word with the rest of her boarding party, especially Chief Fitzhugh. And have a quiet word with any of the other JOs who’ve been running the customs inspections. See if any of them may have heard some of the same kind of remarks and just not been as willing as Rachel to bring them to our attention. And if they have heard anything like that, I want details of time, place, and content.”
“Yes, Sir.”
Koslov sounded rather grimmer than he had a moment ago, Denton noticed.
“One other thing,” the CO continued. “I want every party that goes aboard anybody’s merchant shipping wired for sound and vision. I don’t especially want you to mention it to anyone aboard ship, either, because I don’t want anyone obviously playing to the camera from our side. So find someplace to put a parasite cam. I don’t want to give away any image quality unless we have to, but I’m less worried about picture than I am about sound.”
“Skipper, I don’t think I like what I think you’re thinking.”
“Well, if you hadn’t been thinking in the same direction yourself, you wouldn’t have gotten Rachel into see me quite this promptly, now would you?” Denton shot back.
“It was more an itch than any sort of full-blown suspicion, Sir.”
“In that case, your instincts may just have been serving you entirely too well, I’m afraid,” Denton said grimly. “I don’t have any idea why this might be going on, and it may be that you and I are both just imagining things. But it may be that we aren’t, either, and Admiral Khumalo made the point that he wanted us to keep our eyes and ears open when he sent us out. So go ahead and make those inquiries for me. And get those bugs planted. Maybe we can sneak them into the boarding officer’s memo boards or something. I don’t know, but I do know I want the best hard records we can get of every visit to a New Tuscan ship. And I want the same thing from our inspections of anyone else’s shipping, as well, to serve as a base for comparison. Clear?”
“Clear, Skipper,” Koslov replied. “I don’t like where we seem to be going with this, but it’s clear.”