Chapter 63

Katie could have gone to the sheriff station to be questioned, but she didn't like the idea of leaving Splendor. Everyone was safely aboard and many were nursing wounds, including her. But there was a good chance that the sheriff-judge would want to talk to Wendy next, and possibly, if Wendy felt it prudent and necessary to reveal the truth, then she'd probably want to talk to O'Neill too. Besides, if they conducted their interviews on Splendor, they'd be ready to leave the moment the sheriff gave them clearance.

When the sheriff arrived, she asked Wendy to join the interrogation straightaway because she had some medical questions. Gianna was claiming that she didn't intend to kill anyone. She said she only wanted to knock Katie out long enough to be declared the winner.

Wendy looked over a printed analysis of the toxin. She explained it in layman's terms as best she could. "Her so-called 'knockout drug' was cyanide-based with a piggyback atomizing agent that delivered it as a gas. Unlike chloroform, which would have required much more prolonged contact inhaling it, cyanide had no medicinal purpose. It's classified along with nerve agents as an illegal weapon almost everywhere in the world."

The sheriff frowned and shook her head gravely. Katie suspected that an underwater colony would be particularly strict about airborne toxins, since the dome was a closed system. "Gianna already squealed on the companion who acquired and applied the drug to her hands in an attempt to look cooperative. But how did you know?" The sheriff looked pointedly at Katie.

Wendy headed her off. "I'm empathic. I discovered Gianna's intent during the time-out and I told her immediately."

"Empathic?" The sheriff looked alarmed. "You mean you read minds?"

"No. I have the ability to read emotions. But an environment like the arena is very taxing on my ability to block everything. If you were watching Rocky and Tiger's match, you know that Katerina had to watch for me because the hostility was just too much."

"Yes, I remember that you looked the other way. I thought you just didn't want to see Tiger get mangled. What is he, a black belt?"

"I never asked."

"Okay, so you caught wind of Gianna's plan through psychic powers and you told Katerina?"


Katie nodded assent. This wasn't a lie. Wendy did find out through psychic senses, just not the ones they'd discussed. Tim could have told them who put the poison on her hands, but since Gianna had already done that, there was no need for him to be involved.

"Lady Katerina, would you please respond verbally, for the record?" No doubt she had been recording everything since they sat down at the table in the galley.

"Yes, that's what happened. Lynx told me just before the gong."

"Why didn't you try to report it?"

"I did! I told the referee. It's a little hard for her to confirm that now and everyone else was screaming so loud, no one would have heard it but us."

"Gianna says you threatened to kill her."

Katie harrumphed. "No. I threatened to give her a couple of black eyes and put her in the hospital. But that was just hype."

"Would you have killed her if you had the chance?"

She paused to consider this. "I don't think so. All I wanted was Lucas. If she would have sold him when we got here, all of this could have been avoided."

"What is it about him? I mean, for someone like Rocky, I could understand. But he's just a kid. Why did she go to such lengths?"

Katie shook her head. "I have no idea what her motivation was. I tried to make her rich. I tried to play by her rules. She didn't even seem to have firm plans for him. One minute she was going to put him up for auction, the next minute she was keeping him herself. I think she was just trying to get a rise out of me."

"She does seem to hold a grudge."

Katie wasn't about to let that slide. "She came to my country, kidnapped my personal houseguest by force, coerced him to sign away all his rights, abused him when he'd done nothing to deserve it, and then she refused every polite and lucrative offer I made to remedy the situation. And she's holding a grudge?"

The sheriff chuckled. "She has some sort of weird persecution complex, doesn't she?"

"Don't tell me that she's going to plead mental instability." Wouldn't that just be the icing on the cake of irony? Punish men for fun, but women get away with murder.

Wendy cleared her throat. "I'm a psychologist. I can testify that she was perfectly sane and knew what she was doing. Maybe she didn't intend to kill the referee, but she didn't care one way or the other if she killed Katie—uh, Katerina."

The sheriff waved her off. "Thank you, Doctor, but it's not necessary. She knew the drug was lethal. I was there, remember? I heard Katerina offer her a free punch if she just touched her own face. If she really thought it was so innocuous, she'd have taken that challenge and just held her breath. She knew."

Katie felt satisfaction surge within. The sheriff had been hard on Ben, but she was fair and she was smart. "So is there going to be a trial? Do we have to come back to testify?"

"We don't waste time with juries here. I've listened to her side and I've questioned all the witnesses. If she doesn't like my decision, she can appeal to the governor, but Ms. Nelson has taken way too much flak from the families of men Gianna has acquired over the years. She'd have to be monumentally stupid to think she'd get a better outcome that way."

"When will you have a decision?" Wendy asked.

"I've made it. She's guilty of second degree murder as well as attempted first degree."

Katie and Wendy both exhaled sighs of relief. "And the sentence?" Katie asked.

"Life in the lithium mines without chance of parole."

Katie was doubly glad she hadn't brought Tim into this. He'd been sitting with Rita when he saw the poisoning and Rita was going to be working at the mine where Gianna was to be incarcerated. The way Gianna held illogical grudges, there was no telling how much trouble that could have meant for Rita. "Is there anything else you need from us?"

"Not a thing. How is Bootlicker doing?"

Katie smirked. "He'll live."

"We do appreciate the suspended sentence though," Wendy added. Katie nodded agreement.

"Tell me, do you really own any of the guys you brought?" She looked back and forth between Wendy and Katie.

Wendy shook her head. "Not a single one."

"Bootlicker is my ex-husband," Katie said. "But we're reconciling."

"Well, you sure had us all fooled." Katie opened her mouth to counter the accusation but the sheriff put up a halting hand. "I know you didn't lie. And I'm not accusing you of breaking any laws. But you fit in so well here. I was just wishing there was more to it, so there was hope you'd visit again."

"If that law is ever changed, I'd consider it," Katie said, but mostly to be polite. She really had no intention of coming back.

"After that speech you gave, it just might happen." The sheriff stood. "Thank you both for your time. If I need to contact you, how would I do that?"

"Call seaQuest and ask for Dr. Smith," Wendy said.

"I'll either be on seaQuest or at Bridger Hitchcock SeaDesigns in Honolulu," Katie said. "And I'm sorry I haven't asked before, but what is your name?"

"Belinda Kowalski."

"And which honorific do you prefer?" Katie had called her 'your honor' once she found out she was a judge, but it was only a guess that it was the proper address.

"The men usually call me Sheriff Kowalski. The women, Lady Belinda."

Katie stood and offered her hand. "Juno Colony is lucky to have such a good sheriff and judge."

She smiled as she shook Katie's hand. "And the UEO Navy is lucky to have such a great fighter and loyal friend."

Wendy also stood, but didn't offer her hand. Katie had noticed she did that a lot. It probably had something to do with her empathy. She was lucky she was a woman and could get away with it so often.

"And such a good doctor, too," Belinda said to Wendy.

Wendy smiled and nodded. "Thank you."

"I'll tell the Docking Mistress you're free to leave. Smooth sailing."

They saw her out and locked the hatch after her. A half-dozen guys sat in the lounge area, silently waiting. Everyone but Tony, Matthew, and Kyle had changed into 'normal' civilian clothes. Katie gave them the thumb's up. "She says we're free to go." Cheers and applause rose to an almost deafening level. She found Lucas in the crowd. "Gianna was sentenced to life in the lithium mines. No parole."

"That fast? No trial?"

Katie shrugged. "Justice moves fast here. Ben was arrested, sentenced, caned, and sent home within ninety minutes. And that would have been faster if we hadn't had to wait for Dr. Westphalen."

Kristin emerged from one of the staterooms. The door had been open, so she no doubt heard the news. "Gianna is lucky the judge didn't ask me to cane her." Her voice was dark and serious.

"Would you have done it?" Lucas asked.

She shook her head and cracked a small smile. "No. I don't think I have enough self-control to keep myself from doing something I'd regret."

Katie heard several of the guys in the galley. She did a quick check to be sure Wendy wasn't with them. The woman was a good doctor and an excellent psychologist, but they were getting underway now and couldn't afford to ruin their air supply with burning food. Besides, it was Lucas's first real meal and it should be edible. With twelve people on board, surely there had to be one or two who could cook. Katie headed to the navigation compartment and donned a headset. "Juno Docking, this is Splendor of the Sea. We're sealed tight. Requesting release of the docking clamps."

"Roger, Splendor. Docking clamps releasing. Hope you enjoyed your stay. Please come again."

Katie had to wonder if there was a script somewhere this operator followed. Was she the only person on this colony who hadn't been watching her in the arena? Enjoyed the stay. What a joke. Tim poked his head in. "Do you need help, Commander?"

She beckoned him in. "Don't need it, but you're welcome. You can keep an eye on the proximity scope. Let me know when we're outside their sovereignty zone."

"Ten miles?"

"Try fifty."

He nodded. "Better safe than sorry. Aye, ma'am. Fifty miles."

"Oh, and put in a call to Captain Bridger as soon as we're outside of their jammer."

"Radio or telepathic?"

"Vid-link. I want him to be able to see Lucas."

"I think the jammer only works inside the dome." He flipped some switches and checked some controls. "We're clear now."

"Already? Hm. Give me a minute to check the mirror. I look like hell."

"Aye, ma'am. Uh, I mean, take all the time you need, ma'am." He looked like hell too with a purple, swollen nose and a bruise over one eye. But she could see his cheeks blushing under all the bruises and scratches. He thought he'd insulted her by agreeing she looked terrible.

"On second thought, just do it. We're all battle scarred and I'm not ashamed of a single one of us."

"Aye." Even though her communications system was nothing like seaQuest's, Tim pressed buttons so fast she would have sworn he could do it in his sleep. He had a connection before she could have figured out which controls to use. She'd be remedying her lack of acquaintance with this sub very soon. She liked to know her vessels intimately and she was definitely keeping the Splendor. Kristin had won enough money to reimburse her for everything else, plus pad the account for Project Calypso, so why not? She'd have to let Ben drive it home to Hawaii while she flew Gazelle One out of Cape Town. But assuming he could sit in the driver's seat, he could handle it. She could probably coax Helga into keeping him company and he could regale her with tales of their mission.

"Pipe it into the lounge, would you, Lieutenant?" She stood to take the call in the larger room where everyone could be in on it.

"Aye, ma'am."

Miguel's face appeared on the large screen on the wall and it was obvious he noticed how bad she looked, but he didn't say anything.

"Is the captain available, Mr. Ortiz?" Katie asked.

"I just sent someone to get him out of bed, Commander. Anything I can do for you in the meanwhile?"

Kristin muttered, "Sleeping at a time like this!"

Katie smiled. "You can say hello to someone who's been off the grid for a while. Lucas?"

He stood up next to her and waved. "Hey, Miguel, you missed all the fun."

The sensor chief grinned. "I wanted to go, but the cap needed me here to track crocodiles."

"How's that going?"

Miguel rolled his eyes. "Haven't seen hide nor scale in two weeks. I'm thinking I should apply to watch hulls rust to see more action."

"You want action, I can always put you on KP, Chief," Bridger's voice said as he moved into visual range from behind Ortiz. Watching the captain's face as he caught sight of Lucas was worth the whole trip, bruises and all. Recognition and joy mingled briefly, then he hid it behind his official military visage. "Mr. Wolenczak, you missed at least three science section meetings. What do you have to say for yourself?"

Katie turned ever so slightly to look at Lucas. The teen put on a face so serious that Katie would have bought it as genuine. "Sorry, sir. I was a little tied up."

Silence descended on both sides of the vid-link. Lucas and Bridger conducted the most epic game of stare-down she'd ever seen. No one on seaQuest or Splendor breathed.

Finally, Bridger broke the standoff with a warm smile. "I guess you're excused then." The tension broken, everyone on Splendor laughed while the seaQuest crew exhaled. Katie had forgotten that none of those on the bridge except the captain and Ortiz knew where Lucas had been. They probably thought he'd been in Pearl all this time.

"We can meet you at the rendezvous point in two hours, Commander," Bridger said.

"If it's all the same to you, sir, may I suggest you stay on course and let us come to you?" She wanted the navy guys to have time to heal a little before going back to work. Fewer bruises might possibly keep the questions and rumors at bay as well.

Bridger nodded to Ortiz, who, without any verbal command, routed a visual to another screen, showing their relative positions, courses and speeds. Bridger glanced at it for less than two seconds and then looked back at Katie. "Unless you've been souping up your LS909 on company time, you'll never catch up unless we stop or alter course." That knowing gleam entered his eyes. "So how wide of a holding pattern would you like us to maintain?"

Katie looked over at Kristin. Both doctors had collaborated and shared notes about all the crew, so they both knew about everyone's injuries, but Kristin was a little more suited to weigh the injuries against the homesickness, especially Lucas's. She went into full CMO mode and answered the question directly to the screen. "We need at least twenty-four hours, Captain."

"Captain?" Wendy cut in. "Have you been informed of our two guests?"

"Matthew and Kyle? Yes, Special Agent Watkins filled me in."

Special Agent Watkins? Who the heck…? Wendy nodded without any sign she didn't understand. Then it dawned on Katie. That must be the code name they gave to Mary.

"I assume Lady Helga will be giving up her guest quarters when you arrive, so Matthew can have them. He's the larger man, right?"

"Yes. Kyle is much smaller and right around Lucas's age."

"Cap," Tony said, "if you wanna put him in with Lucas, I can crash on Seaman Young's old bunk for a while."

Katie didn't recognize the name, nor did she understand why anyone would have an "old bunk" that wasn't being used unless he was very recently dead, transferred, or stuck in Medbay.

Bridger looked surprised at the offer. "That's very generous, Piccolo, but I think we have another guest room somewhere on this boat."

"Captain," Wendy said in his defense, "Piccolo's idea might be prudent for a night or two. Kyle has been seriously abused and Lucas is the only one he trusts right now."

"All right, Doctor. Mr. Piccolo, I'm putting you in the guest room instead of the bunk you mentioned." He wagged his index at the petty officer. "Don't make me regret giving you private quarters."

"Yes sir. Thank you, sir."

"It's temporary, Tony," Wendy said. "Kyle just needs a little time to adjust."

Tony raised his hands. "Hey, I got private quarters. Let him take all the time he wants."

While Katie thought guest quarters were a bit too much to give a petty officer, Tony had taken the couch for the trip home and he had volunteered to take something obviously inferior before anyone even suggested Kyle needed the support. Heck, he'd volunteered for this crazy mission as the only non-officer they'd taken. And Bridger had been right about him understanding Juno women better than everyone else.

"Commander," Tim's voice came from the navigation compartment, "we're coming up on that sovereignty boundary you asked to be notified of."

She called over her shoulder. "Thank you, Lieutenant." Then she turned back to the vid-link screen. "Captain, we have some papers that need shredding."

He waved his hand dismissively. "Please. We'll keep in touch. SeaQuest out." His face irised out and the UEO trident displayed briefly before her virtual aquarium screensaver took over.

Each of the three women had a stack of papers to distribute. Katie had Jonathan's and Ben's, but also Lucas's and Kyle's. Kristin handed out documents to Piccolo, O'Neill, and Matthew. Wendy issued Shan's and Brody's. While burning their ownership documents might have felt more cathartic, it wasn't wise to start fires on a submarine. Ben hauled a paper shredder into the center of the room and hit the side of the catch-bin. "All ready. Who's first?"

Jonathan stepped eagerly to the machine and ran his documents through. Everyone cheered. Shan, Matthew, and Brody took the next three turns, followed by O'Neill and Piccolo. Lucas handed his papers back to Katie. "You earned these. You do it."

Katie smiled and slipped them into the buzzing machine. Great whoops and cheers went up when his papers were destroyed. Kyle emulated Lucas and handed his papers to Katie too, but he turned his head while she performed the 'ceremony'. He wasn't taking this in the same spirit as the others. He looked depressed, like maybe the act suggested he was garbage to be shredded up and discarded. Wendy put her arm around him and whispered in his ear. He nodded and brightened a little. Ben removed the shredding blades and stirred up the confetti left in the catch bin. Katie hadn't seen him shred his papers, but maybe she missed it when she was watching Kyle.

Ben opened both his hands in a welcoming gesture to the room. "Everyone come take a handful of the shreds. Take it with you and destroy it."

"I'm burning mine back on seaQuest," Brody announced.

"I'm flushing mine down the head," Piccolo said.

Everyone laughed at this. "You would," Jonathan said.

"What are you doing with your handful of shreds?" Shan asked Ford.

"I think I'll shoot them out of a torpedo tube."

"Nice." Several of the guys nodded approval.

"May I?" Kristin asked.

"Sure," they all told her.

The doctor took several large handfuls, placed the confetti in a plastic bag and sealed it up.

"What are you going to do with it?" O'Neill asked.

"I have a lab rat back on seaQuest that always needs nesting material. This should do very nicely."

"It's rat litter!" someone exclaimed to more laughter.

Pretty soon, everyone was chatting excitedly, reliving embarrassing moments, and talking about their Juno adventures. Ben, Will, Jonathan, and Kristin put the finishing touches on a delicious dinner and they all feasted heartily on some really good cooking. Katie couldn't believe how much food Kyle was able to put into that skinny body of his. Gianna probably hadn't fed him adequately for weeks. His mood lifted considerably after eating. Poor kid. They shouldn't have made him wait so long to eat, underfed and malnourished as he was.

After dinner, a few of the guys sat around and talked, but Katie was tired and sore, so she took her leave and headed to the stateroom. Ben gave her another foot massage, but she forced herself to stay awake this time. "I missed when you shredded your papers," she said apologetically.

"You didn't miss it. I wanted to keep mine."

"Keep them?" she gasped.

"Like a souvenir," he explained. "Okay, so this trip was no vacation, but it had its moments. I got to spend time with you and you got a free pass to yell at me and smack me with a crop as much as you felt like. What more could you want?"

"Well, no caning, to start with."

"Yeah, I could have lived without that, but it did win me a lot of sympathy." He flashed a charming smile. "And I got the best fighter on the colony to call me her boyfriend. I'd say, on the whole, it was a positive experience."

Beaten to a pulp and he thought her little declaration overshadowed that? She wrapped her arms around his neck and whispered in a sultry voice. "If you didn't shred your papers, that means I still own you."

"Uh huh."

"Your foot massage was wonderful. I think it deserves a reward."

"A reward?"

"Definitely." She drew him close, planted her lips on his, and turned out the light.

A/N: Well, that's the end of the weird tangent. Please join me back in the T-rated section for "Not on my Watch" as it continues from here. Thanks to everyone for your support.