Need to Know
By Jan Lindner

Acting Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower came to his senses slowly, swimming
up through troubling dreams that tugged at his memory even as they
dissolved. He kept his eyes shut a moment longer, habitual caution
warning him to take note of his surroundings before revealing himself.

All was quiet. The cold, drenching rain had given way to a penetrating
damp chill, and his neck ached, sitting slumped as he was in a wooden
chair in the Spanish prison infirmary. It felt late, probably three or
four in the morning, landsman's time. The air held the hushed, expectant
feeling of approaching dawn.

Hornblower straightened, stretching, and was only half-surprised to see
that Archie Kennedy's eyes were open, watching him in the gloom of
guttering candles. Kennedy's face had lost the ghastly sunken look he'd
had when Hornblower had hauled him in here, but he certainly looked worse
than when Le Reve's ill-fated prize crew had joined him here at El
Ferrol. Still, he had awakened quietly, rather than panicking out of a
nightmare as he had earlier.

Hornblower smiled at him. "Archie. How do you feel?"

Kennedy shrugged, his head falling listlessly to one side.

"Let's get more water into you, then." Hornblower reached for the
pitcher. "I squeezed a lemon into this, we can't have you getting
scurvy." He slipped a hand beneath Kennedy's head to steady him, felt
and refused to accept the momentary resistance. Kennedy might still have
second thoughts about living, but his starved body wanted that water, and
he drank greedily until the cup was empty.

"Very good, Archie!" The encouragement sounded falsely hearty in his own
ears; he hoped Kennedy was too sick to be as critical. "D'you think you
could eat something?" Along with the water, the guards had brought a
bowl of thin gruel and some ripe fruit. The gruel was cold now, of
course, but Hornblower wanted to at least get him started on real food
again.

Kennedy grimaced. "Horatio..." He swallowed, his head moving feebly
side-to-side. "It's no good. I know you mean well, but you've only made
it harder. I'll have to start all over."

Oh, no. Back to that again. "Archie--"

"No. I--" Kennedy slid down, as though he wanted to pull the blankets
over his head like a child afraid of the dark. "Hunter's right," he said
tonelessly. "I'm a coward. You'd do better to leave me behind."

"That's ridiculous. You tried to escape, didn't you? Five
times--Archie, most men would stop at two or three. I probably would. A
coward wouldn't even try!"

Kennedy's eyes blazed. "I cannot go back to the Indy. I can not. I
really would rather die, can't you understand that? It would be easier."
He fell back, exhausted by the outburst.

Hornblower sat stunned at his intensity. What in the world was wrong
with him? Kennedy had been bursting with enthusiasm when they were first
assigned to the Indy. Why would he not want to go back--how could anyone
who was serious about his naval career not want to serve on His Majesty's
Frigate Indefatigable under Captain Sir Edward Pellew? Pellew was the
kind of captain most men only read about in stories: strong, courageous,
stern, but scrupulously fair. He pushed his junior officers, yes, to
their limits--and by doing it showed them they could grow beyond those
limits. It was a midshipman's dream come true.

And then a bit of his more recent dream returned. A memory, rather, of
when he'd gone to fetch Kennedy to prepare for what turned out to be
their last sortie together. Mr. Simpson, who had made both their lives
miserable aboard Justinian, had apparently cornered the younger
midshipman in their quarters. Hornblower had been struck by Simpson's
posture, menace in the very line of it, and the look of frozen dread on
Kennedy's face as he stood with his back to the lantern, pinned like a
moth between his tormentor and the flame.

An ugly suspicion presented itself in Hornblower's mind. He shied away
from naming it, but it was there nonetheless, with other memories
crowding in to support it. Clayton's advice: "That beating he gave
you--that was nothing." Simpson's body mashing his own against the table
in that grim parody of the Inquisition: "What's your secret? A fancier
of other boys, perhaps?"

In retrospect, what an odd question that was, and how absurd. Painfully
shy, he probably wouldn't have had any friends at all if it weren't for
Clayton's kindness and Kennedy's ebullience. Sex was a closed book; his
physician father had given him a lecture before he left home, mostly
comprised of warnings about loose women and disease, that put a strong
damper on his natural curiosity. And once on board he'd always been kept
too busy to fancy anything more than a meal now and then and a little
time to himself. Apparently Simpson had realized he was on the wrong
tack and switched to what Hornblower, with three years' worth of nautical
profanity enriching his vocabulary, could now recognize as a rather trite
suggestion that his mother was a whore.

But it wasn't the insult to his dead mother that had prompted
Hornblower's violent outburst, the fighting back that had earned him the
beating. It was what Simpson had been doing, grinding against him with
the rocking of the ship, imposing his dominance, his leer daring
Hornblower to protest or even to call attention to what was happening.
Revulsion had thrown him beyond reason or physical fear into sheer
reaction.

The memory of that forced intimacy made his face burn in mortification
now. At the time, it had simply been too much to bear. He had somehow
put it completely out of his mind.

Clayton--before Simpson killed him--had warned Hornblower, obliquely:
"You don't know half what he's capable of."

*Oh yes I do.* Thank God he'd been transferred off Justinian; if he'd
been trapped there much longer.... Wait. How long had Kennedy said he'd
been on board? Six months?

Dear God.

And the damnable part of it was, there was absolutely nothing Kennedy
could have done to defend himself. Nothing short of killing would've
stopped Simpson, and it could be death to so much as strike a superior
officer. Simpson was an accomplished liar; bringing a charge would do
nothing but call down a crushing burden of shame--on Kennedy, for making
such an unthinkable accusation without a witness. Simpson always made
sure there were no witnesses.

No wonder Archie had gone from the cheerful, gregarious soul who'd
welcomed Hornblower to Justinian to a silent, haunted fugitive below
decks. He'd been living in Hell. And when Simpson had bobbed up out of
the sea like a poisonous jellyfish, Kennedy's anxiety must have been a
hundred times Hornblower's own. Oh, he'd controlled it, carried on, done
his duty. Hardly a coward. Hardly surprising, either, that he wouldn't
want to go back if he expected to find Simpson waiting for him.

It was a reasonable hypothesis, based on an abominable premise. But he
couldn't just say, "Look, Archie, I've realized that Simpson was--" No.
He couldn't even imagine saying it. Putting it in words would make it
real again, compounding the cruelty.

To cover his confusion, he busied himself rebuilding the dwindling fire.
Tact. However he did it, he had to let his friend know the danger was
past without making it too obvious that he understood what the danger
was. As the bright flames took the edge off the room's chill, he
returned to his chair, giving Kennedy a little distance.

"Archie," he began, tentatively, "I know both you and I had our troubles
with Mr. Simpson."

Yes. That was it. Kennedy's face froze, his body deathly still under
the covers. He even stopped breathing.

"I don't know what he was deviling you with," Hornblower rattled on, "I
don't even want to know, it doesn't matter. He's dead, now, and--"

"What?" Hope flared in Kennedy's eyes as he met Hornblower's for the
first time.

The look that passed between them said it all--and said nothing that
either could ever regret. Better, safer, to let it all remain unspoken.
Hornblower let his breath out in a whoosh. "Yes. He's dead, Archie.
Dead, gone, buried at sea. The Indy's clean again."

He hadn't expected to see tears. Then he realized Kennedy was weeping
with joy--or possibly relief. He hadn't a shred of strength left,
physical or emotional, to stop himself. His chest rose in one slow, deep
breath, the tension flowing out of him almost visibly as he exhaled.
"How?" he whispered, blinking, and cleared his throat. "Did you finally
have that duel?"

"In a manner of speaking. My part was not heroic, believe me." He
really didn't want to go into all that right now; describing his own luck
would sound too much like bragging. "It's too long a story, Archie, you
need to rest--"

"Please." Kennedy's mouth quirked up in an ironic half-smile. "It's not
as though we have any more pressing engagements, Horatio. And it
would... help, I think. To know everything. What happened after we left
for the cutting-out? I remember being in the boat, then waking up in
irons in a French prison barge."

Hornblower's heart leapt. His father's favorite theory held that in any
illness there was a point where the patient started taking an interest in
life again--and that once the choice to live was made, there was hope.
Until now, Archie had never once asked how he came to be separated from
his shipmates.

"All right. But stop me if you get tired--as you say, we should have
plenty of time." So much had happened; where to begin? "You had a fit
in the boat--I'm afraid I had to hit you over the head to stop you or
we'd have been found out. I am sorry."

"So I have you to thank for that headache I woke up with." Kennedy
sighed. "Well, at least I woke up. So you left me in the boat?"

"Yes. Simpson cut you adrift. I saw him from the yardarm, just before
he shot me."

"He what?"

"Picked me off like a seagull on a spar. I landed in the water, luckily.
Finch fished me out. He hung onto the towline till dawn." He didn't
remember much of that, just being wet, freezing cold, and half-deafened
from Finch screaming in his ear as the old sailor tried to attract
somebody's attention.

"After that things got a bit complicated. We lost Lt. Eccleston, and Lt.
Chadd...." He tried to keep the story brief, and concluded, "I don't
know if Simpson shot me because he thought I saw what he did to you, or
if he just wanted to be rid of us both. When I made the charge to
Captain Pellew, the murdering bastard accused me of lying and challenged
me. The Captain let me answer him."

"Then you did--"

"No. Oh, there was a duel--of sorts--that was when Simpson told me he'd
killed you. To make me more nervous than I already was, I suppose."
Hornblower smiled. "Until Hunter sat on you, we all believed he was
telling the truth. Should've known better. At any rate, Simpson fired
before the order was given, but his aim wasn't good enough. I wish you'd
been there, Archie. He showed his true colors at last. Went to his
knees, begging me to spare him. He was pathetic--and he'd shown himself
for the coward he was. I didn't have to shoot. I knew my word would
stand at his court-martial. But when I turned my back, he came after me
with a knife--and Captain Pellew shot him."

"The Captain himself?"

"He'd been watching from up on the cliff. Amazing shot. Simpson would've
never got away with his little games on the Indy, even if he'd lived.
The Captain knows his ship far better than poor Captain Keene ever knew
the Justinian. But--our old nemesis sealed his own fate, and we're free
of him, at last."

"Free," Kennedy murmured. "It seems a dream."

"Well, half-free," Hornblower amended, waving a hand at the fortress
walls surrounding them. "As soon as you're up and about, we can deal
with these other trifling matters."

"Yes." Kennedy glanced around hopefully. "You did mention food?"

"I did." He helped Kennedy sit up, then mimicked a waiter in some
elegant establishment, whisking the dish from the table and presenting it
with a flourish. "A two-course dinner, Your Grandiosity. Some
less-than-edifying garbanzo gruel--specialty of the house, I'm
afraid--and peaches for dessert. The costermonger assured me they were
picked this very morning."

Weak as he was, Kennedy couldn't accept more than a few spoonfuls at a
time, but he ate with every evidence of enthusiasm. He would be all
right. Soon he'd be strong enough to keep up when they escaped. *I'll
wager the fits stop, too. We've exorcised that devil.*

It was a pity Hornblower couldn't share his certainty of that with
Hunter, but a man who could watch a shipmate starve himself to death--and
be glad of it--just wasn't trustworthy. That was not entirely Hunter's
fault, though; Kennedy had been driven to that extreme, caught between
Hunter's open scorn and Hornblower's insistence that they all escape
together.

Still, damn it, it was Hunter's duty to accept orders. It was his duty
to look out for his shipmates, too, though that was probably too much to
hope for. The belligerence that made Hunter so outstanding in battle
made him a serious liability when there were no acceptable targets; his
anger, confined and frustrated, was redirected at his own commander.
Technically, under the Articles of War, Hunter could be charged with
"behaving himself with contempt toward his superior officer." Contempt
was exactly the word for his attitude, and it was only one step short of
the captial offense of mutiny.

But an officer who couldn't command his men's respect wasn't doing his
duty, either. Rack his mind as he could, Hornblower had failed to reach
Hunter, who apparently believed that anything short of a suicidal charge
was rank cowardice. The man had no imagination, no comprehension of
timing or strategy.

*Well, Archie will be well enough to move soon, and there must be a way
out. We're not spending the rest of the war here. One way or another,
if I can stop Hunter getting us all killed, we're going home to the
Indy.*

The end