Decelerated by a glowing sphere of plasma, a military ship armed with the irreproducible Earth-built weaponry settled onto a lock in the most vice-plagued, crime-ridden municipal unit in Columbia. Moments after the pressure-proof door of the outer lock swung ponderously open, a tall figure whose seamed face bore an old, distinctive, sword-cut scar strode into the corridor fronting the locks, backed by three members of his crew of five veteran spacer-fighters. Halting, he confronted the officer standing at the head of a squad of four men. Bleached blue eyes studied a Columbian captain of uncertain age, whose impeccably tailored black uniform accentuated both the slightness of his build and the natural paleness of his skin. Black hair framed an impassive face. Eyes hard as the stony core of a comet, and as cold, impaled those of the warrior whose identity the Columbian guessed, even before the newcomer spoke.
"Conor, Captain, Interworld Corps," the gray-uniformed veteran of seventeen Earthyears of war announced. Although he sensed latent hostility, his Gaean-accented voice conveyed absolutely no trace of reciprocal antagonism.
"Regan, Captain, Second Corps." Shifting his glance to the three crewmembers ranged behind their superior, the speaker managed to conceal any shock occasioned by the sight of a uniformed woman who wore on her collar the insignia proclaiming her rank to be that of second officer. Conor’s lieutenant met Regan’s eyes squarely, her handsome face as expressionless as his. Her two subordinates the Columbian saw to be packing military handweapons. The female second officer went armed with an eminently serviceable sword the carrier and sheath of which exhibited signs of long use.
Regan’s clipped Columbian inflection served to accentuate the glacial frigidity of his professional manner, in the perceptions of the two officers regarding him dispassionately. "My lieutenant’s holding Fallon and his surviving crewmembers-six men in all-in detention cells at the local office of the Docking Authority, Captain," he stated evenly. "We’ll accompany you there, and escort you and your charges back to this lock. Laver, Fallon’s brother, escaped capture. He’s a native of Crawford Unit: a hardened criminal chummy with the worst of its scum, and familiar with all their hangouts. I wouldn’t put an attempt at a rescue past him, and you’re a trifle undermanned."
"I appreciate your courtesy, Captain." Conor’s voice now bore the faintest overtone of irony. "Lead on."
Turning on his heel, Regan stalked off ahead of his men.
His erstwhile foe led his three crewmembers at a swinging stride, in the wake of the Columbian detail. No whit disconcerted by the Second Corpsman’s icy formality, Conor observed the supple grace of the man’s slim body.
Swordsman, this officer molded by a highly competitive, blatantly militaristic culture, the ex-Gaean accurately surmised. Veteran of long Earthyears of hunting outlaws across the deeps. Regan’s royally pissed by what he sees as our bloody nerve in usurping the traditional function of the Second Columbian Military Corps.
Well, I can’t blame him. He’s a careerist steeped in a mercenary-spacer tradition-a professional soldier severely limited in his opportunities for advancement, now, due to the turn history just took. Tough as steel rivets, this wiry swordsman, I’ve no doubt whatsoever, and far too conscientious to let his smoldering resentment goad him into insisting upon a legal but chancy transfer of custody at the site where he’s got the felons incarcerated. Regan knows that by so doing, he’d increase the likelihood that six murderous renegades might escape. He won’t run that risk, even though he’s well aware that the onus of such a disaster would fall on the Interworld Corps, rather than on himself. Admirable, that ability to put concern for the public welfare above personal feelings of antagonism!
Her eyes riveted to Regan’s back, Jess observed the same signs in the man’s carriage as did Conor. That Columbian swordsman’s no taller than I, nor is he any heftier in his build, she noted with wry disdain. But he simply can’t imagine a woman’s being fit to serve in a peacekeeping force, let alone visualize her hacking her way down a corridor awash in blood and choked with dead. Much less could he picture her clawing her way, sword in hand, up the side of a barricade manned by bastards fully as ruthless as this renegade former Third Corpsman we’re scheduled to haul to Wheeler.
Short shrift a tribunal of our captains will give Fallon, if the evidence secured by this Columbian officer holds up! she reflected in satisfaction. Murder committed during the pirating of another lawbreaker’s stolen vessel, theft of fuel committed prior to an unsuccessful attempt to lift his prize, not to mention offering armed resistance when the bastard found himself trapped between Regan’s crew outside the lock, and Brant’s Earth-armed ship aloft. I hope to hell that lead Brant’s following pans out, and he and his crew intercept the brother at Belmar Unit. From what I’ve gathered, Laver’s by far the worst of this pair of fraternal felons!
With Regan in the lead, the military contingent advanced four hundred meters down the long, smooth-walled corridor fronting the locks. Having descended two flights of stairs separated by a landing, they emerged into a corridor far narrower than the one above. On either side of the metal-decked passageway lined on both sides with the facades of sections of habitat, sliding metal doors allowed entry to dingy, windowed offices tenanted by minor bureaucrats whose names and titles, stenciled in black above the doors, vied for the attention of passers-by. Various windowless cabins located in between the offices also fronted on the corridor, their function designated by other signs of varying hues.
Proceeding at a smart pace, the squad of spacer-fighters passed storage areas, vacant cabins offered for rent, cubicles allowing access to various subdivisions of the life-support system to workers engaged in maintenance of the habitat, and an emergency facility designed for the use-free of charge-by licensed medical technicians whose official cards, when displayed to the sensor, provided entry.
One wide metal door bore a designation printed in bright red, indicating storage of fire-fighting equipment, and gear for combating chemical spills. Farther on, an oversized sign, emblazoned in garish orange, warned ominously, DANGER. Below that cautionary message, bilious green lettering attested to the specialized function of the facility: storage for tanks of compressed gases. AUTHORIZED ENTRY ONLY, the inscription further proclaimed.
Minutely observing their unlovely surroundings, Conor and Jess caught sight of spots of corrosion defacing wall-panels begrimed here and there by oily smears. Both officers noted the crescent-shaped, soiled patches surrounding most of the door-handles: accumulated filth left by countless sweaty hands.
I don’t think much of the efficiency of the Local Division of Habitat Construction and Maintenance, the innately fastidious Lieutenant reflected censoriously. Ugh! Well, Brant emphasized that this unit’s a hotbed of corruption-a notorious haunt of criminals.
Hard-featured men traversing the corridor passed the corpsmen singly, or in small groups. A few clad in spacer blue suits wore the distinctive silver armbands and prominent badges identifying them as officials of the Docking Authority. One burly pedestrian sported the even more conspicuous yellow and red armband denoting his status as a maintenance worker.
Other passers-by clad in drab, nondescript civil garb cast boldly appraising glances at the unfamiliar pearly gray uniform of the newly instituted Interworld Corps. An obvious readiness to retaliate upon the slightest hint of aggressiveness, evinced both by the scarred Captain and the stone-faced Second Corpsman, discouraged the leveling of any leering glances on the woman who projected an aura of glamour despite her military bearing. Narrowed, patently lustful eyes nonetheless followed her departing figure.
Having progressed for two hundred meters, Regan strode by a recessed entry to a stairwell, and stopped before the door of the section opposite the elevator flanking the stairs.
Above the entry to the facade featuring only one small window, Conor read the legend: Docking Authority. Below that designation, smaller print announced the branch of government of which this subsidiary agency formed a part: Columbian Ministry of Interior Resources. Before the door stood an ebony giant: a uniformed warrior of ferocious aspect, whose unprepossessing face sported three parallel sword-cut scars down its right side. A new slash, barely healed, laterally bisected those reminders of old wounds.
As the gray-clad corpsmembers watched, the officer snapped Regan a salute, and spoke in clipped, cultured accents startlingly at variance with his fearsome appearance. "No trouble thus far, sir. I don’t place any especial faith in Seward or his crew of docking officers, but I posted Archer and Gennady in front of the cells, and Thomas and Riordan outside the rear entrance."
"If trouble starts, it’ll commence after we exit these premises," Regan predicted grimly. Turning to the gray-clad figure, who had advanced to stand at his side, he inclined his head towards his subordinate. "Captain, this is Samson, Lieutenant. Samson, meet Conor, Captain, Interworld Corps."
The brawny Second Corpsman snapped the former foe whose legendary fame as a warrior he unqualifiedly admired, a salute. He then favored the ex-Gaean with a grin that rendered his scarred black face suddenly and surprisingly engaging. "My pleasure, Captain."
That sentiment Conor perceived to be absolutely genuine. "Gentlemen, meet Jess, my second officer." he stated blandly.
The giant’s eyes widened momentarily, but he swiftly mastered the shock engendered not only by his beholding a woman, but his learning her rank. "Glad to meet you, ma’am," he averred in a tone that in no way rang false.
Regan, thin-lipped, added evenly, but civilly, "As am I, Lieutenant."
Maintaining her accustomed air of professional detachment, Jess responded to the introductions crisply and courteously.
Ten minutes after the arrival of the detail, Regan’s spacers herded six felons into the corridor. Their hands fastened behind their backs with metal wrist-restraints, their ankles hobbled by similar devices separated by a strand of metal links, their waists encircled by belts of metal chain featuring stout rings from which a short length of the same chain tethered each miscreant to the one in front of him, the prisoners shuffled sullenly along between Jess and her subordinates. The two Interworld corpsmen armed with cumbersome electronic weapons bore the devices, warmed and ready, in slings at their waists. The Captain taking custody advanced ahead of his crew, his eyes sweeping both sides of the route followed earlier.
Backed by four spacers armed with swords, Regan preceded the expedition. Samson, flanked on two sides by four other Columbians also armed with warmed handweapons, brought up the rear.
A few minutes later, an obstacle obtruded into the view of the military personnel. In front of the wide-open door to the tank-storage facility, two men wearing gaudy red and yellow armbands struggled to push through the aperture a wheeled, flat-bedded conveyance on which reposed six tall cylinders lying on their sides.
Blue, Conor noted automatically. Nitrogen. Neither explosive nor toxic. Could that scruffy pair form part of a gang bent on ambush? They’re unarmed, but they seem to be stalling…waiting for us to pass their vehicle. Just glad of an excuse to stop their work to gawk at an unusual sight?
Regan halted the advance. "Get those outfits where they belong, and shut the door!" he barked at the civilian workers.
"Can’t, sir. This wheel’s jammed. It won’t turn," one of the twain whined. "We’ll unload the cylinders by hand, after you pass on by."
"Back off, then-five meters!" the Captain commanded in a peremptory tone.
"Yes, sir." The two men obediently retreated a bit farther than the stated distance, to stand with their backs against the door of an office.
Warily, Regan stalked through the narrow space between the vehicle and the opposite wall. Just as the first of the spacers bearing handweapons drew abreast of the obstacle, a grating noise assaulted their ears. Six nozzles, opened by remote control, simultaneously turned of themselves. An ominous hissing steadily increased in intensity, as the compressed contents escaped in a concerted rush from six large cylinders. The expanding gas dropped precipitately in temperature, instantly chilling the ambient air. Fog formed, as moisture condensed out of the atmosphere plunging towards the freezing point.
Lurid epithets escaped the spacers, as the frigid air swiftly cooled the generators of the electronic devices, rendering them incapable of being activated.
The sound of doors clanging open before and behind the military contingent confirmed that the release of gas presaged an ambush. As a horde of sword-wielding ruffians burst forth from both sites, legitimate pedestrians fled the scene. The two cart-pushers vanished in haste through the entry to which they had retreated.
At the moment the affray began, warriors possessed of war-honed reflexes drew their swords. Those burdened with now-useless handweapons ripped off goggles equipped with imagers, and slipped the cumbersome weapons out of the slings, casting away both slings and devices with inordinate rapidity. Gleaming blades whipped out of long, leather-like sheaths. Swiftly fanning across the corridor, Regan and his four swordsmen held off the renegades attacking the contingent from the front.
Displaying his customary presence of mind, Conor withdrew a spring-capsule of sleep inducer from his pocket, and injected the contents into the arm of the burliest of the chained felons. That man, second in line, collapsed to the deck, pulling the two miscreants chained before and behind him down as well. Even as they fell, the warrior darted between the cursing corpsmen shedding their handweapons amid swirling, icy mist, to take up a position to the right of the ebony giant. At that moment, a wave of sword-wielding renegades charged towards the rear of the force of spacer-fighters.
No whit less quick to react, Jess repeated Conor’s maneuver on the next-to-the-last man in the line, causing all the felons still awake to sprawl helplessly on the deck. Within seconds, she appeared with bared sword in hand, on Samson’s left. Two gray-clad Interworld Corpsmen, freed of their slings, took up positions to the left of the three officers now engaged in swordplay. Two of Samson’s four Columbians obeyed his thunderous command to back Regan. Two others ranged themselves beside Conor. That disciplined line of seven seasoned veterans effectively stopped the advance of the first wave of renegades attacking from the rear.
Conor ran his adversary through. Jerking out crimson steel, he pivoted, and parried on the forte of his blade a downward slash intended for the ebony giant, just as Samson drove a wicked thrust into the midriff of a husky antagonist. Shrill screams rang in his ears as the Second Corpsman pulled his blade free. Upon engaging a new foe, the supremely agile warrior made short work of him.
Fencing with consummate skill, Jess spied an opening. Lunging, she breached her adversary’s guard to pierce a vital organ. A single high-pitched shriek shivered the still-misty air, as the outlaw collapsed to sprawl on the blood-smeared deck. Coolly, the woman leaped across the crumpled body of her foe to engage a new opponent. Him she drove back, thereby giving herself room to maneuver.
Conor advanced simultaneously, fighting with controlled ferocity. Perceiving both flanks to be well guarded, Samson fought with savage elation, his full lips curled back over perfect white teeth in a feral snarl.
Regan, wielding his sword with lethal if delicate precision, recognized his adversary as Laver. Exquisitely conscious that no Columbian backup force hastened to reinforce his squad, the Captain mentally estimated the number of attackers, coming up with a dozen in front, and space knew how many to the rear. Twenty-four to our fourteen, he estimated on one level, as the balance of his mind concentrated on out-guessing the renegade he now chided himself for having vastly underestimated as a threat.
His acute consciousness of fighting outnumbered in no way flustered the veteran of countless such affrays. The unsettling thought did cross his mind that if these attacking bravos prevailed, that female member of the Interworld Corps would find herself in ghastly peril, but neither consideration adversely affected either his will, or his ability, to fence with maximum effectiveness. Maneuvering with laudable grace on a deck running blood, Regan impaled the instigator of the ambush with thirty centimeters of a Rainier-forged blade. Exerting astonishing strength, the slightly built swordsman jerked his steel free, and fought on.
A hoarse groan escaped a gray-clad crewman battling on Jess’s left, as he sustained a slashing cut down the arm. The woman heard her comrade’s gasping cry just as she scored on her adversary. Pivoting, she took on the forte of her own blade the thrust intended to finish her subordinate.
Swiftly extracting his steel from dying flesh, Samson did the same for Jess, marveling both at the female officer’s degree of skill, and her cool exertion of it during this pitched battle against the worst sort of criminal. A cry close at hand assaulted his ears. In his peripheral vision he beheld a black-clad corpsman crumple with a groan to the deck, run through the thigh, but that unsettling cognizance nowise caused him to allow himself to be distracted from the swordplay engaging him.
A few seconds later, the fallen man’s comrade avenged him. Stooping, the crewman dragged the swooning casualty to a safer resting place, and darted back into the fray. Side by side, the unwounded Columbian crewmen, the likewise unscathed Interworld Corpsman, the woman, her captain, and the brawny giant fought on: killed, and killed again. New assailants seemed in endless supply in the perceptions of the five warriors bucking ever-increasing odds.
Shouts rose to the rear, simultaneously with others that rang out from far in front. During the few moments that elapsed between his delivering a savage thrust through the abdomen of a man who collapsed to writhe, screaming in agony, on the deck, and his engaging a new foe, Regan caught sight of three gray-clad warriors bursting from the distant stairwell. As the reinforcements raced towards the melee, he recognized the tall blonde athlete at their head. That welcome sight generated profound relief, which in no way lessened the deadly force of his seemingly tireless sword-arm.
Caught between two belligerent, highly competent forces, the renegades milled confusedly, hemmed in by a ring of gleaming blades. Losing heart, those surviving the arrival of the reinforcements dropped their weapons, and raised their hands.
Samson, Conor, Jess, and two unwounded spacers, hard-pressed by the onslaught of new, non-fatigued opponents, grew aware of a blur of movement to the rear of the attackers on whom they kept their full attention focused. A wounded outlaw huddled on the deck shouted a warning to his fellows as two gray-uniformed rescuers charged out of the recessed stairwell opposite the Docking Authority. A compactly built, dark-haired lieutenant armed with a handweapon, flanked by a muscular, carrot-haired, sword-wielding female Amazon, fell on the attackers from the rear.
Having disposed of a rattled renegade who let the commotion at his back divert his attention from the menace in front, Samson watched in patent disbelief as this new feminine prodigy landed a slashing cut, which all but dismembered the arm of one opponent. Seconds later, she ran a second renegade through the body. An attacker targeted by a lethal pulse from the handweapon wielded by the Lieutenant, died before his body crashed to the deck. The surviving outlaws, perceiving the glowing red dot of the newly arrived officer’s tracer illuminate the chest of one of their number, surrendered with no further ado.
The din of battle died away. Samson turned to stare at the woman standing at his side, her sword-arm splashed with crimson, her eyes hard as a Gaeanite blade.
Conor laid a hand in comradely fashion not over his lieutenant’s shoulders, but over Samson’s. "Lively little fracas, that, eh, Lieutenant?" he observed in a masterpiece of understatement. "Not a patch on Norman’s bastards, these scum, though. May I say that my respect for the men of Second Corps just took a quantum leap?"
Laughter erupted from the brawny, blood-spattered warrior. "Damned if I ever thought I’d see the day when I fought Columbian renegades on our home ground side-by-side with Conor," he admitted with rueful candor. "Much less beside a woman! Blast me if you’re not a swordsman, little lady!"
Sweeping a frankly admiring glance from Jess to the husky redhead kneeling now beside the wounded Second Corpsman, he beheld the homely Amazon staunch a copious flow of blood with the fabric of the sleeve she deftly cut away from the man’s tunic. Having squeezed his ally’s corded shoulder in comradely fashion, Conor hastened to apply pressure to the unconscious renegade’s all but severed arm: a wound from which bright arterial blood gushed.
"Thomas, take Riordan’s card, and fetch medical kits from that station up ahead," Samson barked. A black-clad crewman distinguished by the bright red arm-patch proclaiming him a medical technician, kneeling on the deck beside the wounded Interworld Corpsman, handed the recipient of the order a square of stiff laminate, before turning back to his task. Thomas headed for the medical station on a dead run.
"Samson, I owe you one," Jess acknowledged with a vivid smile, when the carnage ceased, and those who had battled so tenaciously could at last catch their collective breaths.
"To my mind, we’re more than even," the giant demurred, flashing the woman a broad grin.
Regan strode up, accompanied by Brant. "Samson, look who came to our rescue," he called out. Catching sight of Jess’s gore-soaked arm and blood-splattered face, he stopped dead in his tracks for the two seconds it took her to wipe her crimson sword on the tunic of a dead renegade, and slide the gleaming blade back into the well-worn sheath. "Suffering shades of the uneasy dead!" he muttered under his breath.
Suppressing an onslaught of hilarity, Brant unbent so far as to wink at Jess: an act so out of character for the haughty aristocrat Samson remembered, that witnessing it shocked that brawny observer more than did the handsome woman’s prowess as a fighter. Regan missed the wink, but caught the gleam of sardonic humor animating the eyes of his former compatriot-amusement he knew to be generated at his expense. Mastering his shock, he turned to front the scarred warrior preserving a perfectly straight face even as he observed the reactions of all four protagonists in the drama.
Focusing on the newcomer, Conor scanned the blood-streaked black sleeve and red-flecked right hand of the Columbian officer whose mastery of swordsmanship he had unerringly deduced earlier. "Ah, Regan," he greeted his escort blandly. "I’d say we both turned out to be a trifle undermanned, eh? I stand in debt to you, damned if I don’t. Where in hell did this insurgent army drop from?"
Far from responding to the Corpsman’s initial sly thrust with heightened iciness, Regan burst into hearty laughter. "Touché," he acknowledged gallantly, his admiration serving to override the chronic resentment he forced out of mind at this juncture. "You owe me no debt, Conor," he demurred. "That bastard I skewered is Laver. As for the army-rot me if I know where the thrice-damned brute raised so formidable a force, but I’ll find out in a hurry. We’ll interrogate the least damaged of his cronies, right now. Samson, clear this corridor. Press into service that craven lot of docking officers who refused to show their faces. I’ll wring some answers out of one of these sods."
"Yes, sir." Obeying with alacrity, Samson issued brisk orders to his men.
Struck by an unsettling notion, Conor withdrew a small transceiver from a pocket, and contacted the crewmen aboard his vessel. Seamed face intent, he listened. At length, he spoke in a tone breathing manifest satisfaction. "Well done, Benedict. We’ll be delayed for a time."
Turning to his ally, he drawled, "I can supply part of the answer, Regan. Eight outlaws tried to board our ship, which they mistakenly assumed to be unguarded, given that no squad of guards manned the inner lock. The two men on duty left the hatch unfastened, and deliberately allowed one attacker to gain the bridge. They then subdued him. Clement immediately targeted with the tracer of a handweapon the foremost of the brutes crowding the elevator, and informed the attackers that if they moved so much as an eyelash, he’d slam down the hatch and withdraw the air.
"Clement proceeded to keep those seven men inactivated in the docking module, while Benedict interrogated the eighth attacker under truth compeller. Those would-be pirates still held immobile by my crewmen constitute the remainder of Laver’s force. The leader they determined to be named Sherman, which bears a familiar ring. Renegade spacer, is he not?"
"Sherman!" Regan spat out the name. "He and a motley horde he recruited here in Crawford Unit stole a cargo vessel an Earthyear ago, and vanished in it. The bastard must have descended surreptitiously just prior to your arrival, thereby blundering into a situation dangerous enough to rattle him badly. He evidently let Laver con him into participating in a chancy attempt to exterminate a force in possession of an Earth-armed ship!"
"Gambled and lost," Conor added with grim satisfaction. "Brant, if you’ll be so accommodating as to reinforce Benedict and Clement, and incarcerate those eight men taken red-handed in an act of attempted piracy, I’ll help Regan mop up here." The renowned warrior-captain’s request came couched in a tone conveying comradely courtesy to a respected peer.
Clapping his fellow captain on the back, Brant assented with equal politeness, before collecting his four subordinates, and departing at a brisk trot.
Conor turned to the Captain patently intrigued by that astonishing evidence of easy camaraderie between former foes: one an arrogant, career-conscious Columbian duelist notorious for possessing an abundance of touchy pride, and the other a warrior notable for having shed a literal flood of Columbian blood during the surface war on Main World of Gaea. "Doesn’t this unit possess a Local Division of Internal Security?" the ex-Gaean inquired, frowning in perplexity.
"Nominally," Regan growled. "They tend to be busy elsewhere when skirmishes like this break out. The overwhelming majority of the bastards are on the take. Well. Let’s see to clearing the corridor."
Thirty minutes later, the wounded-friend and foe alike-had been tended. Thirteen corpses, encased in body bags, lay in a row along the wall. The six felons whom the attackers failed to rescue lay securely bound, harnessed into bunks aboard Conor’s ship. Eight would-be pirates found themselves incarcerated in far less comfortable circumstances, aboard Brant’s.
Five seriously wounded renegades remained under guard in the medical facility, awaiting the descent of one of Second Corps’ second-class vessels. Six other prisoners-men either unhurt or suffering only minor wounds-sat dispiritedly along the wall, secured by the chains formerly worn by their associates. Two Second Corpsmen stood guard over them.
Striding over to Regan’s side, Conor addressed the man whose manner bore no trace of his initial icy formality. "We’ll serve as reinforcements until your backup force arrives, Regan," he declared. "For all we know, our efforts haven’t totally wiped Crawford’s supply of rogues."
"Damned if we didn’t thin the ranks considerably, today," Regan shot back with a grin that made his unlined pale face seem almost youthful. "Your lieutenant’s fighting skill impressed Samson-and he’s not what you’d call impressionable."
"Warrior, Samson. As are you, Regan. I’m glad to have met you both. At some future point, when I’m relieved of my duty of patrolling the perimeter of your world, two weeks from now, perhaps you’d both join us aboard my ship for a friendly drink?"
"It would be our pleasure." Two strong hands met in an iron grip.
The realization crossed Conor’s mind as he boarded his vessel following a final transfer of prisoners, that this tough veteran whose unqualified admiration of warriors not only willing, but supremely well able to fight to the death in the line of duty, let that admiration extinguish-at least temporarily-deep-seated resentment of a fancied wrong. Regan undoubtedly served the bastard who murdered Sean and Yuri, he reminded himself.
A brief onslaught of ire ebbed as soon as it ignited. This career-minded officer’s tough as spring-steel, but he’s a man of honor, the ex-Gaean judged with perfect accuracy. Galt evidently commanded the unswerving loyalty of all of his captains, but none of them were implicated in his heinous plot. Well. Look ahead, not back, spacer-captain. Jess distinguished herself, today. I’ll note that in my report.
A face rose unsummoned on the screen of Conor’s inner vision: a well-loved visage no whit dimmed by the passage of time. Ione…you’d have fit in so perfectly, he mourned even as he consciously drove the distracting portrait from mind. Succeeding, the surviving partner in a memorable marriage stepped onto his bridge, and applied his mind to the tasks awaiting him.
Having transferred his vessel into a high orbit around Columbia, Conor prepared to spend two weeks keeping a visible presence in the volume of space surrounding the populous planetoid. After reviewing the recent action, he reflected that the world he orbited spawned the bulk of the renegades who unerringly gravitated to distant O’Neill.
Those predators return periodically from ramshackle, temporary bases on that forbidding body to prey on their compatriots, he reflected disdainfully. The bastards make furtive contacts with the criminal element on the surface, and barter loot for supplies. That high incidence of criminal activity never ceases to amaze those of us who recall life in Gaea before the invasion. Gaea’s tightly knit clans mercilessly ostracize any member who disgraces them by committing an act of theft, or violence, or other dereliction.
Strong deterrent, that age-old custom. I imagine, though, that Gaean success at indoctrinating children with a stern code, and teaching them to practice the virtues universally prized in a peace-loving society-teaching by example, mostly, within highly structured family settings-forms the main reason why the crime-rate remains so low across thirty-nine sparsely inhabited planetoids. Cohesive, Gaean culture. Rigid, sexually repressive, stubbornly resistant to change, that culture, but in many respects it’s admirable.
Three days passed uneventfully. Seizing on the opportunity offered by a period of routine watchfulness uninterrupted by any crisis demanding action, Conor laid on Jess the task of assessing the present state of physical fitness displayed by the crew: three Columbian veterans, and one Gaean, all of them male, and all only recently assigned to serve under the two officers.
Both Captain and Lieutenant knew that once the Corps recruited women and made good on the promise of arranging marriages so as to avoid the generation of sexual tensions in the force integrated both on the basis of nationality and of gender, the task of training inexperienced female recruits would allow those in command no time to spend on improving the fitness of their veteran crewmen. That realization prompted both officers to exert themselves to the utmost to address any minor deficiencies exhibited by their subordinates before tackling that new, unprecedented challenge. Experienced, highly competent, utterly fair-minded, the woman threw herself into the assignment with her accustomed vigor.
Five minutes away from coming off her watch on the fourth day in orbit, Jess owned to harboring not the slightest appetite for a standard meal. Access that book you slipped into the ship’s memory, she adjured herself sternly. Keep your mind off the problem you can’t do anything about. Shore up the self-control you’ve let slip, lately. Eat later. Concentrate on a master commentator’s radical arguments that Gaea’s political heritage breeds conflicts that cause the national psyche to display reactions bearing eerie resemblances to paranoia in the individual.
Damned if Robinson’s arguments have convinced me yet. Narrow-minded, he seems to me. There’s nothing paranoid about Signe: a woman able to rise above the hatred bred throughout a war of seventeen Earthyears’ duration, and marry her worst enemy. Especially since Signe essentially constituted the government in Gaea during the fourteen Earthyears prior to her marriage.
Well…I’m forced to concede that Gaeans are insular, but delusions of persecution? Norman’s damned corpsmen’s landing on our rock, weapons in hand, was no delusion. Irrationally suspicious? Old injuries will be hard to forget, peace or no peace. Robinson argues that the Gaean citizenry needs to alter its philosophy sufficiently to insure that Gaeans help shape the emerging restructured balance of power as much according to their way of thinking as of Columbia’s. He cautions that the Gaean penchant for harboring irrational suspicions, combined with a traditional resistance to sudden change, will place Gaea at a disadvantage over the coming decades.
Well, he’s undoubtedly right on that score. After you absorb the chapter documenting political decisions made over the last Earthcentury and the consequences that flowed from those, perhaps you’ll grow less irrationally suspicious of Robinson’s theories. At least your mind will be fully occupied with something other than your own selfish interests.
Rising from her place at the board, the veteran warrior briskly greeted the two crewmen arriving to take over. Solicitously, she inquired of the man wounded in the recent affray how he fared, and passed a cordial remark to the watchmate going off with her, before striding towards the corridor leading from the bridge.
Conor emerged from the door of his cabin to intercept his second officer. "Step in here, Jess," he commanded.
The warrior-captain’s habitual, unflappable calm reflected in his voice, and his seamed face offered his subordinate no clue as to what weighed on her captain’s mind. Rapidly reviewing the events of the day, Jess could recall no problem the superior gesturing her into a seat on a bunk might feel obliged to discuss. "Care for a dose of coffee?" he inquired. "New pot-Columbian. Extra stout. A man raised on the Gaean brew finds that his nerves require a double jolt of this tame sort. It tastes better, though, I have to admit."
Chuckling, Jess accepted a cup.
Having dropped with graceful ease into the lone chair, Conor remained silent for a time, as he debated with himself how to approach the topic he intended to discuss. There’s no tactful way, he decided. Just jump in the middle of it. She’s no hand at verbal fencing, either. "Jess, something has been worrying you badly, lately. Not that the problem has interfered with your work-don’t get me wrong. Likely no one noticed but me. You hide your feelings almost to perfection, but I know you too well to fail to pick up a few clues. Spill what’s preying on your mind, girl. If I can’t help, I can listen."
That blunt request, couched in the same tone with which Conor would have issued an order, caught the recipient by surprise. Meeting the Captain’s eyes squarely, she saw the concern in them. A surge of affection for the scarred warrior washed over the self-assured, eminently independent-minded woman. Damned if I can hide anything from you, she acknowledged in rueful amusement. You always have read me like a book, but you can’t help, Conor.
The keen observer sensed the woman’s reluctance to discuss her dilemma. "I expect I could hazard a fairly accurate guess, Jess," he remarked. "And I know what you’re thinking. My personal life’s my own affair. As long as I do my job, my captain’s got no business prying. Nosy old bastard-no way could he help. I don’t need advice from an antiquated relic. Handle my own problems, I do. Except I suspect you can’t resolve this one, girl. You know I’ll bury whatever you talk over with me. Spill it, Jess."
He has guessed! Am I that easy to see through? Or does he read minds? Well, he will bury it. And maybe… "My personal life’s no longer my own affair, Conor-not since I agreed to accept the husband with whom the Corps decides to match me. I guess the method shouldn’t bother a Gaean raised to believe that her family-head possesses the right to select her husband.
"I balked, though. I exercised my right to refuse to marry, and stayed free to live my life the way I wanted. I only consented to accept a match now so that I’d get picked as one of the seven veteran female spacer-fighters Signe persuaded Arlen to include among the first enlistees. I wanted desperately to continue pursuing a career that developed out of bitter necessity. You held out for an exemption to the requirement to marry, but you could dictate your terms. I’m not as vital an asset as either you or Eric, so I made the concession.
"Well, for me, there’s a complication. The minute I marry, I lose my rank as lieutenant. So I start out in a lifelong relationship nursing a galling resentment…one I’ll hide, but one that’ll fester. The alternative’s worse: marry a crewman who’ll serve under my authority. No man would agree to land himself in that situation. Especially not a former Columbian!"
Bitterness infused the suddenly passionate voice. "Our women ought to enjoy opportunity equal to that of their male associates, to rise in rank," the veteran grated. "And marriage damned well ought to be a partnership of equals-not a relationship featuring dominance and submission. But no man would see marriage with the lieutenant under whom he’d serve as that sort of union!
"All right, so I luck out, and get paired with a captain. Well, he’s got a lieutenant-an old comrade with whom he’s worked for Earthyears. A man he values. He’s not about to demote his second officer, nor would I want him to behave in so grossly unfair a fashion. So I become a crewman serving under the authority of a man who, for two fourweeks at least, was my peer. Hard on him. Damned hard on me. Hard on the captain. If I’d been thinking, I’d have resigned my commission before we came, but it’s too late for that now. Besides, your choosing me as your second officer five and a half Earthyears ago made me prouder than any accomplishment I’ve ever managed. I guess I should have risked asking to be exempt. But…"
Jess’s voice died away into an uncomfortable silence.
Thoughtfully, Conor regarded the subordinate confiding deep-seated resentment the intensity of which he sensed. Patiently, he allowed her time in which to phrase her next thought, but words failed the woman normally adept in debate. Mute, uncomfortable, she sat ramrod straight, and forced herself to meet eyes that betrayed no hint of how their owner perceived her dilemma.
Conor broke the painful silence. "That ’but’ was all you could manage towards stating the real difficulty, wasn’t it, Jess? If you’d obtained an exemption, you’d likely never have married, and you want a husband-a partnership of equals-badly. Don’t you?"
"Yes, I do." Those words seemed wrenched out of the handsome athlete struggling to maintain her accustomed equanimity.
His own composure no whit affected, Conor studied Jess’s bleak, hopeless face. Push it, he commanded himself. Better she gets it all out. "What you’ve told me is problem enough, but it isn’t all of yours, Jess. Is it?"
The woman’s eyes filled with pain, which quickly transmuted into a most uncharacteristic emotion: fear. Conor, you took a shot in the dark, and scored, the self-reliant careerist conceded in wonder. How could you have known? You don’t. You can’t! "What do you mean?" she asked evenly, doing her best to fence verbally.
"You don’t want…any husband, Jess. You know what partner would suit, but you’re too proud to admit it, let alone take any steps to let him know how you feel, or to initiate some other process. Isn’t that so?"
A crimson tide tinted cheeks gone hot with a combination of embarrassment and agitation. The habitually self-possessed officer stared in shock at the man who seemed to have divined her inmost secret thoughts. How can he have guessed? Have I… Flustered, she found herself unable to say a word.
Rising, Conor silently took the Lieutenant’s empty cup. Refilling both, he thrust hers into her hand, and lowered himself into the chair. Leaning back, he stretched out his legs, crossing one ankle over the other.
When he spoke, employing a casual, conversational tone, it was as if he had never asked that excruciatingly personal question. "You know, we’ve got a job cut out for us, welding two groups molded by vastly different philosophies into a new society: one that cherishes values alien to both former worlds. We founders of the Interworld Corps talked quite a bit about putting old enmities behind us, and respecting each other’s cultural values. Signe irrevocably imposed her ideals on our emerging society by convincing her partner and equal that all the women inducted into the Corps should enjoy equal opportunity with men to rise in rank. That’s a solid gain. We’re passing through a transitional period now: a time when former enemies strive to achieve harmonious integration, and create a new system of values based on a coherent philosophy. Not easy, that chore, but we’re succeeding."
Mystified by the sudden shift of emphasis, the woman striving to regain her aplomb listened intently.
"Well, there’s another area that needs change, Jess. New values require new customs-a new body of manners. Columbian couples arrange their own marriages. I suspect they’ve developed a marvelously subtle system for conducting a search, indicating a wish to pursue a friendship, and arriving at a mutual agreement. I mean, a man can’t simply stride up to some woman he’s met once, socially, and say, ’I really admire your nice shape, and I’m impressed by your ability to talk intelligently of things in which I’m interested. I need a wife. You’re a suitable candidate, so let’s get to know each other better.’"
Conor’s plaintive drawl-and the mental image of the stately warrior’s ever speaking such words to a woman socially-tickled Jess’s ready sense of humor, prompting an unforced laugh.
Straight-faced, but with a twinkle in his eye, the self-appointed counselor resumed his discourse. "We lack those skills, Jess. We’ve depended for over an Earthcentury on our family-heads to conduct the search, and do the negotiating. I’ve never met any Columbian women, but I’ll wager that when I do, I’ll notice a startling difference. They’ll be past masters at sending wordless signals conveying how they feel about eligible men.
"Of course, I’ll get a message that says, ’You’re not on my list, you worn-out old bastard.’ Now, Amin won’t get that one. It’ll be interesting to watch how the girl’s face and hands and body change, when she turns from delivering me her nonverbal communication, to send him his. The whole set of her posture, the tone of her voice, the way she holds her hands, will all convey meaning.
"It doesn’t take but a second to ascertain that a man you just met is poised to take you. His whole body signals his readiness to fight. If all these Earthyears I’d gone about in company with some assistant whose job it was to announce aloud to my opponent that Conor intends to take him on, likely I’d never have developed some of the facial expressions and changes in stance that are habitual now.
"Well, Gaean women have family-heads who announce their wish to settle down with a suitable mate. Our culture conditions the girls those families represent, not to let their feelings, let alone their preferences, to show. That conditioning cripples our women’s ability to communicate. So in our new society-one in which, hopefully, men and women will do their own negotiating, once this initial pairing’s past us-Wheelerite women are going to have to master a new language, and a new mode of expression. They’ll need to take lessons from their Columbian female elders-learn how to reveal their feelings in subtle ways.
"But you’re going to have to acquire that skill faster, Jess. You need to master it with precipitate haste, and use it on… Shall I say a name, or have you the guts to make a drastic beginning towards fighting your conditioning, and frankly admit to a man who’ll keep anything you tell him confidential, that you favor one comrade above the rest?"
As he talked, Conor observed the changes in expression flitting across the handsome face of his lieutenant. Amusement, frowning consideration, wonder, and finally, shock, reflected in Jess’s eyes as she found herself right back where they had started. His second onslaught shook her. "Conor…you’re right…I have to admit. But…it’ll never work out. If I could tell anyone, I could tell you. But…"
"If you don’t spill it, Jess, you’ll risk my having guessed wrong. That might lead me to take some unfortunate step, if I have to make a decision…say, regarding a lieutenant. Shall I venture a name?"
"Once you charge a barricade, there’s no turning you, is there? All right. If the choice were up to me, I’d ask Morgan to marry me, and relinquish my rank. If he were able to care, I’d get over my resentment. But if Morgan loves any woman, it isn’t me. It’s…Signe." No resentment, no accusatory venom tinged that final assertion. The unwontedly husky voice conveyed only one emotion: hopelessness.
Rendered exquisitely conscious of treading on a thread stretched over an abyss, Conor took time to phrase his response with extreme care. Setting his cup on the counter next to the terminal, he resettled himself in his chair.
"I think you’ve misinterpreted the clues, Jess," he observed judiciously. "Signe radiates a charismatic appeal. She’s a born leader, who inspires profound devotion, which she’s always sought to convert to dedication to the cause. She’s remained singularly unchanged by the heady power she’s wielded. I’ll agree that she has inspired deep devotion in Morgan, who’s a man capable of readily developing passionate attachments. Had he formed a personal attachment to Signe, that bond would have divided his allegiance-rendered him a less effective captain. It would also have impaired her single-minded pursuit of an acceptable resolution of the conflict.
"A while back, I talked about skill in sending wordless messages. Signe long ago developed a marvelous talent for doing that. She comes across to the men she leads as warm and caring, but caring of brothers. Fired by selfless zeal, she deflected our passion into the struggle. She consistently refuses to allow herself to become an embodiment of the state, or to form the focus of a cult of personality. She retains only the comradely friendship. Admirable, that.
"Power corrupts, Jess. It seems not to have corrupted Signe, nor Arlen, who stood in even greater danger. He engaged in a continuing power struggle. After he prevailed, he mustered the inestimable good sense to turn his back on that absolute dominance, and settle for a less autocratic position of eminence shared equally with his wife.
"Consciously or unconsciously, Signe sensed the magnitude of the danger-to herself, and to Gaea-had she allowed herself to become a focus of rivalry for her captains. Morgan might at one time or another have conceived himself to be in love with her, but a man would find it hard to nurture a perennial flaming passion for a woman who daily treats him exactly as she would a brother, sending absolutely no positive signals that she thinks of him, or could ever learn to think of him, in any other light.
"And now Signe’s married, Jess. To a man she loves deeply. To the one man in the system who was-and is-her peer. The peace of two worlds and the birth of a third depend directly on the strength of that bond. If Morgan entertained the faintest hope that the advent of peace might cause Signe to think of him differently, that hope’s dead now.
"Well…he doesn’t look tragically broken-hearted to me…devastated by despair. He looks a bit worried, the same as you do. He faces the same problem you do. His father’s even more tenacious of his rights as head of his family than is yours. Morgan’s as unused to the idea of acting for himself to secure a spouse as you are. If you could develop a bit of skill in sending him a message that you find him attractive, you’d likely reassure him considerably. If the notion of loving you hasn’t yet occurred to him, your sending such a message might start him thinking about it."
Shocked to her core, Jess exclaimed, "You’re telling me to develop into a brazen hussy!"
Bestowing on his disconcerted subordinate one of his rare, but profoundly engaging smiles, Conor observed ironically, "Jess, if you applied yourself twenty hours a day for an Earthyear to such an attempt, you couldn’t succeed. You’ll never be that, but you can unbend a bit, girl.
"Tell you what. As soon as we dock on Wheeler, I’ll host a get-together: you and I, and Eric and Morgan. I’ll rivet Eric’s attention. You monopolize Morgan’s. Smile at him. Listen breathlessly to whatever he’s saying. Look fascinated. Get him onto a topic he likes to talk about. Sit close enough to him that he can sniff your perfume. Wear a little more than you usually do. After our gathering breaks up-early-ask Morgan if he’d care to join you in your cabin for a drink. Make him a stout one, and you a light one. Lead him around to the topic of matching couples. Persuade him to confide his reservations. Send him the message at the end of the evening that you’d welcome a good-night kiss, and make it a memorable one, Jess."
Speechless with shock, scandalized beyond all belief, the recipient of that astounding advice stared wide-eyed at the man she had long realized entertained no compunction about violating the most rigid convention, if he felt his own judgment to be sounder than an outmoded custom. She owed her rank to his willingness to consider her purely on her merits.
"Shades of the ancients!" she breathed. "Conor, I don’t know whether I could behave that way."
"Well, I do. You’re an intelligent woman who’ll rise to the occasion you can rest assured I’ll arrange. If Morgan proves overly dense, or hopelessly crippled by his own conditioning, I’ll take him an offer for you, Jess. I’ll act in place of your father. We’re not Gaeans any longer, nor Wheelerites-yet. We need transitional manners, perhaps. I’d be glad to do that for you."
The shrewd observer watched expressive dark eyes flash, as their owner shook her head. "Conor, I care as deeply for you as I do for my father. I appreciate your offer, and I’ll try to follow your prescription for the evening you plan. But a formal offer-no. If you made it, and Morgan refused it-preferred to take his chances on a blind match-I’d die of shame. My self-respect would never recover. Besides, he might feel obligated-unwilling, but reluctant to hurt an old comrade’s feelings. He might let you talk him into something he didn’t really want. No! I’ll take your advice, as well as I’m able. I’ll accept your invitation to drop in for a drink, but I’ll send no formal offer."
That vehement refusal generated unqualified respect in the hearer. "We’ll leave matters as they stand, then, Jess," the Captain agreed serenely. "Suspend your brooding over the business for two more weeks. I’ve got a hunch that your problem will work out satisfactorily."
I heartily doubt that, but whether or no, I stand deeper in debt to you than ever, old friend. "Conor, I’m grateful for your concern. Talking over the problem did help me. I’ll shelve it for now. Thank you." Rising, Jess held out her hand.
Having clasped the proffered member in both of his, Conor opened the door for his second officer, and bid her goodnight.
Alone once more, he refilled his cup, and sank down in the chair. Eyes gone remote stared unseeing into the past, graven indelibly in memory. A familiar face rose again to view, as clearly as if its owner parted from him only yesterday. The woman who had inspired a deathless love, the beloved comrade whom the rebel leader had married at the start of the surface war, the seasoned fighter who had fought at his side, the soul mate who took a lethal pulse from a military handweapon to fall dead before his eyes, smiled at him again from the screen of his interior vision.
What pain our hearts cause us, the warrior reflected bleakly. What exquisite agony! Morgan’s finding the transition to peace…to a shift in focus: adapting to new customs and a new social setting…far more difficult than he’d anticipated. Jess would be a prime help to him. There’s passion under that cool exterior.
Well, I did what I could. Jess could be to Morgan what Ione was to me. Still is-I simply can’t think of her as nonexistent. She’s still a presence…part of me. Could it be that we’ll meet again? In some other sort of life? I wish I knew for certain. Well, it’ll be a while now before I find out. Damned if I don’t still wish I’d fallen alongside of Ione!
A heavy sigh escaped the bereaved survivor who absently sipped the coffee cooling in the cup he held. Put that unworthy thought aside, Conor, he sternly admonished his alter ego. You finished the fight. Now you need to work to preserve the peace all our dead died to gain, not quit before the job’s done.
You shocked Jess, tonight. Good therapy. She’s normally a radically independent thinker, politically and socially-in any realm but that of her own heart. She needs to develop daring there, too. She’d complement Morgan. No program would match them any better, and I frankly own to harboring grave reservations regarding the feasibility of what Arlen and Signe think they can accomplish in the match-making line. Well. Turn in, spacer.
Having tossed the two recyclable cups into the rough-processor, Conor retired. Resolutely, he composed his mind, and slid into sleep.
In the next cabin, Jess lay wide-awake, tossing, trying unsuccessfully to thrust her counselor’s words from mind. Having found that feat impossible, she dwelled on them.
Conor’s right, she admitted glumly. We’ve put old customs behind us, and haven’t developed any replacements. Am I able to change? Could I deliberately convey to Morgan how I feel? How I’ve always felt, about him? Hard as I’ve tried not to dwell on… Imagining him…
My self-control’s slipping. Restlessly, the troubled careerist turned over in the bunk. Vague longings assailed her. Vivid fantasies-brief, highly colored visualizations-shimmered on the fringes of her consciousness, tempting her to concentrate on them. Resolutely, she refused those illicit imaginings prominence. Failing in that endeavor, she tossed again, and strove to summon sleep.
Sleep eluded her.
Sitting up suddenly, she glanced at the clock. Seven hours from now, you’re going to need all your energy, and all your edge, she admonished herself tartly. Tire your brain. Force it to give up, and let you sleep. Ring Robinson’s fourth chapter on it. Give your mind something tough to chew.
Rising, she switched on the terminal, and accessed her book. Setting the screen so that the image appeared rotated at an angle, she set the text scrolling at her usual reading speed. Lying on her side, she absorbed political theory until her imagination gave up in disgust, and allowed her to drop off into oblivion.
Seated at the board next to the Columbian crewman with whom he shared the 0400-1200 watch, Conor dismissed the man at 0500 for Jess’s physical training session.
My three Columbians seem to have gotten over their initial shock at being assigned to serve under a female lieutenant, he mused. They seem not to resent her. She has driven herself as hard as she has them, and they’ve had to hustle to demonstrate that their endurance and ability doesn’t fall far below hers. My engaging her in our usual daily practice bouts across ship-space offered them proof that she’s more than a match for any of them with the sword, even before she demonstrated her superb fighting skill at Crawford Unit. Damned capable girl, that!
Why hasn’t Morgan ever tumbled to the notion that Jess would suit him as well-or perhaps better-than would Signe? Those two women display similar traits. Jess’s rank forms as big a problem for her as Signe’s was to a female commander. Certain a husband couldn’t serve under his lieutenant, Jess is. The idea never seems to have dawned on her that if Morgan did love his Commander, he wished himself in that position. Well, I lodged a few ideas in Jess’s head, last night. Hussy. Hardly! But she’s as capable of passionate attachments as Morgan is.
At that juncture, a call from the Flagship engaged the Captain’s full attention. When he switched off, he smiled contentedly, exhibiting a wholly uncharacteristic reaction. Well, now. You timed your delivery of unsought advice just right. What a happy coincidence! Or did Signe conceal an ulterior motive? I rather think not. The Commander just exhibited her usual practical good sense.
Bringing up a body of data on his screen, Conor completed certain calculations, and programmed an alteration in the flight path of the ship. Switching on the intercommunication system, he ordered all hands to harness for acceleration.
Jess hastened out of Cabin Four, followed by the man whose watch this was. Both crewmembers harnessed themselves into couches on the bridge. Having raised the board, Conor warned the others that three minutes remained, brought up the new program, and issued a final warning. After stopping the rotation of the torus, he initiated the new sequences. Six experienced spacers hardened to uncomfortable changes in motion stoically endured wicked sideways thrusts, deceleration, and the ensuing yawing motion followed by acceleration.
When the torus again rotated, Jess turned a questioning face to the man initiating the change in course.
"New orders," he announced succinctly. "Carry on with what you were doing. I’ll explain after you finish your physical training sessions."
At 1230, having turned the board over to the crewman on watch with him, the Captain summoned Jess to Cabin One, which doubled as his private office.
Seating herself at his order on a bunk, the Lieutenant listened, certain from his manner that no crisis loomed.
"Signe has called a group of captains back to the Flagship, Jess, to serve on a special committee," she heard him announce blandly. "She and Arlen plan to lay the task of developing the computer program that’ll match couples, on those selected. She estimates that the chore will take four or five days of concentrated work. She has asked you to serve. She admits regretting that there’ll be only two women, Signe and you, but she wishes to restrict participation to officers. We’re on our way home. This assignment will afford you the chance to offer valuable input into the process that’s been worrying you."
Sensible of the honor implicit in the Commander’s order, Jess digested the news. Candidly, she admitted, "Well, I ought to welcome the opportunity, I guess. Whom did she ask besides me?"
The seamed face changed no whit. "Amin, Levi, Wong, Theo, and Morgan, Jess. And of course Arlen."
Flushing, Jess sat mute, her agitation evident.
"Neat chance to try out new manners, right?" Conor observed serenely. "An official forum for your concerns, and no need to maneuver into the topic in any private discussion with Morgan."
"Five days…of concentrating on it…"
"Marvelous chance for both of you. We’ll dock on the Flagship at 0700. Signe set the first session for 0800. I know you’ll give the assignment your best shot, Jess. Now, summarize for me where our crewmen stand with regard to meeting the new standards for fitness."
Suppressing her inner turmoil, Jess reached for the datapad she had laid on the bed, and complied.
When she concluded her report, Conor nodded. "No worrisome deficiencies. I’ll take them through repairs while you’re gone-give them a far more comprehensive course than they’ve likely ever been offered. I’ll leave navigational math for the week after you return. Both of us will assess where they stand on that. Now, I’ll go over the tasks I’m delegating to you and those on your watch."
Out of necessity, Jess concentrated solely on the business at hand. Conor laid enough additional assignments on his second officer that she found no time in which to worry about the challenge facing the committee, throughout the eight hours of her watch. Coming off duty at 2000, she showered and dined with more haste than was her wont. Slumping into her chair, she gave herself up to reflecting upon the unexpected chance suddenly opening.
Conor’s right. You’ve been afforded a marvelous opportunity. Make the best of it! You can’t try out his notions of new manners in meetings, but if you spy a chance to do so privately…
How understanding Conor is! He still grieves at losing Ione. Poor man-his marriage certainly modeled a partnership of equals, though he ranked as a leader from the start. Why is it that I’d feel comfortable serving under a husband-lieutenant to a captain-but wouldn’t want my husband serving under me?
Because he’d balk at the notion of taking orders from his wife! Those Columbian crewmen we drew couldn’t hide their shock at meeting their lieutenant. They bitterly resented serving under a woman, at the start. I think they’ve come to accept me now, unless they’ve merely learned to do a better job of concealing their resentment. Our lone Gaean wasn’t upset, but he’s used to working with feminine peers, and obeying a female commander.
Well, maybe…if Morgan shows no interest in me…I might draw a Gaean possessed of a comfortable enough self-image that he’d consider marrying his lieutenant. He might figure he’d be serving under a warrior-captain-under a male as well as a female officer. He’d be a veteran, so he’d measure up without my having to put him through hell. But damn…
A startlingly clear image of Morgan’s limber, graceful body, of his handsome face smiling out from under a thatch of auburn hair, of green eyes dancing as their owner illustrated a story with fluid gestures of his hands, rose to tear at Jess’s heart. I want Morgan in my bed at night! she cried despairingly, if silently. No one else!
A flood of shame washed over the Spartan-souled veteran even as the enticing vision shimmered in her inner vision. You’ve let yourself think of that entirely too often of late! she admonished herself scathingly. Her alter ego shouted a vigorous rebuttal. It’s time to think of that! You’re about to find yourself doing it!
Rising abruptly, Jess brewed a cup of tea. Seating herself in the chair pulled from beneath the terminal, she sipped the contents absently. Setting aside certain ingrained habits of mind, she considered the act in which she would shortly be engaging. For a considerable time, she dwelled ruminatively on certain fantasies.
Is that how it would be? she wondered, frowning in perplexity. Damned if I know for certain. Will it be as enjoyable as I suspect? Or will I be disappointed? And if I’m impossibly lucky…will Morgan instinctively know how? We’ve no way to prepare for that first night…train for it! We’ve no means even of finding