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Partnership of Equals
Book Three
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-430-8
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 404 Pages
Published: March 2007

From inside the flap

Signe and Arlen found the Interworld Corps: a body of spacer-fighters, half Gaean and half Columbian, dedicated to keeping the peace newly forged between Gaea and Columbia. The former archenemies marry, having fallen in love after achieving the accord described in the second book, Master of Intrigue. They lift the Flagship into its last flight, and land Johannís mobile stronghold on Wheeler, intending to found a new colony: a third world.

Immediately, the Co-Commanders begin conducting a rigorous training program for their twelve captains. That intensive course, intended to defuse lingering feelings of enmity, stresses all the participants. When a major conflict arises owing to a violent clash between two men having far different cultural mores, Arlen handles the situation brilliantly. The resolution of the clash serves as a bonding experience for all the men.

Twelve captains who now think of their peers as brothers prepare to patrol a vast volume of space with crews of six, rather than the usual twelve spacers. Each of the six Columbian captains now finds that the crew assigned to him includes a Gaean female veteran. Striving to conceal reactions that include shock, dismay, anger, and outrage, the captains set out on their first mission.
Having persuaded Arlen at the start to accept seven female Gaean spacer-fighters, Signe now discovers, to her intense dismay, that Arlen jumps the gun. Instead of waiting until the seven women prove their worth, he demands that he and Signe immediately settle the question of how they will employ the sixty-odd women they intend to recruit, so that the men can all marry. Signe manages to score a huge victory over Arlenís culturally programmed gender-bias.

A dire situation arises. A vicious Columbian renegade takes Amin hostage along with nineteen civilians on a remote Gaean station. Signe and Arlen, and captains operating with integrated crews, take part in the operation designed to rescue the hostages and prevent the escape of the miscreants: escapees from a Columbian penal work force. The ensuing exceedingly dangerous mission, which produces radical changes in Dannerís life, also results in Signeís achieving a disquieting accession of new self-knowledge, and in Arlenís facing and accepting the consequences to his emotional balance of risking the fall in battle of a warrior-wife who fights in the forefront of any action.

This action-filled narrative forms the third novel in a series of nine works portraying an ongoing saga of futuristic action, adventure and romance.

Partnership of Equals (Excerpt)

Chapter One

Seated alone on a bridge normally occupied by four spacer-fighters, a statuesque female athlete stared into screens depicting star-strewn infinitude. Short, competently styled, silvery hair framed a still-youthful face indelibly marked by personal sorrow. Faint lines etched by the heavy burden of command borne by the warrior-woman during a bitter, sanguine, seemingly interminable war--a conflict only recently ended--rendered the her aspect all the more intriguing. Even though Signe looked older than her thirty-seven Earthyears, on this momentous day an inner excitement lent her always-vibrant expression a special, magnetically appealing warmth.

Eyes blue as the fabled sky of a lost paradise gazed into star-emblazoned blackness. An enormous turquoise planet dominated the view, hanging in majestic splendor just above the womanís seeming horizon. Dyson, a rocky satellite shrouded in an obscuring reflective veil of noxious atmosphere, appeared to the right of the huge planet it orbited. In the perception of the watcher, the pale, faintly mottled disc of that uninhabitable moon formed a bland contrast to the magnificence of the massive gaseous body holding it in thrall. A brown spherical planetoid stood out sharply against Dysonís creamy brightness. Barren, airless Wheeler contrasted markedly with its cloud-wrapped primary. Unwinking stars bedecked the black deeps, lighting with ghostly radiance the panoramic sprawl of the wheeling galaxy.

One of those stars, invisible to the naked eye owing to its distance from the sun ruling this star-system, counted among its satellites the body which long ago spawned the spacefaring race from which the viewer sprang: a race indigenous to a water-rich planet so far removed in space and time as to seem mythical as Eden in the mind of this hardy descendant of Earth-born pioneers.

A dark object loomed in the foreground of the warriorís view: the potato-shaped rock within the Glaser Group, on which Johann landed the Flagship well over an Earthcentury ago. Beholding the huge vessel capable of interplanetary flight--the antique artifact that now constituted her home, and would shortly form the nucleus of a new colony--Signe sighed aloud. Ruminatively, she reviewed all that she so impetuously agreed to give up when she succumbed to the irresistible appeal of the radical proposal hatched during a Eureka flash of inspiration by her erstwhile archenemy. Itís working closely with old and immeasurably dear friends that Iíll miss, not the dictatorial power I wielded in Gaea, she acknowledged a shade bleakly.

The memorable face of her well-loved foster brother, who she knew still ardently desired to wed her, shimmered in her interior vision, producing sharp emotional pain. That image swiftly faded as another likeness rose unsummoned to set her heart fibrillating. An aristocratic visage more striking than handsome--an arresting countenance projecting vibrancy as intense as hers, while radiating an aura of command as powerful as her own--displaced that of Terence.

Vivid memories of pivotal events experienced by the Columbian leader swirled out of a mind recently subjected to a most unnerving experiment. For the brief span in which she dwelled on those, Signe became the man she loved: thought his thoughts, and lived a slice of his life. Involuntarily, the warrior shivered. Exerting all her power of will, she banished those disturbing recollections of the mind-merge.

As always when she recalled the interim between her capture by Arlen and this day set for her marriage with that erstwhile foe, she plunged into a phantasmagoric whirl of images: some traumatic, some intensely pleasurable, some poignantly bittersweet. Still-profound astonishment suffused the peerless warrior as she reviewed her first meeting with the formidable antagonist whom she had fought to a draw over the seven Earthyears of the war in space.

Chills coursed down her spine as she remembered the shock, outrage, and savage anger flaying her woefully stressed psyche during her unwilling participation in a unique experiment: a process whereby Arlen used a device of his own invention to merge her mind with his. In retrospect, she again struggled vainly against the power of an irresistible compulsion to bring to the forefront of her consciousness any memory her captor demanded that she recall. The near-despair produced when Arlen wrested from her the coordinates giving the location of Johannís mobile stronghold resurfaced with haunting clarity.

Grimly, Signe focused once again on the most traumatic experience of her entire life: the savage gang rape she endured seventeen Earthyears earlier at the hands of three Columbian Third Corpsmen. Arlenís final command precipitated me into reliving that vicious assault exactly as it originally happened! she raged, momentarily succumbing to the same white-hot wrath that had consumed her as she emerged from the mind-merge. That upsurge of hot ire swiftly faded as the beneficial consequences of a surpassingly ghastly experience replaced the soul-searing visualization. Arlen lived my agony even as he forced me to relive it, she reminded herself. He suffered mental pain equaling mine. We achieved so complete an understanding, each of the other, during that eerie fusion of our minds, that we ended by falling in love!

A welter of conflicting emotions relentlessly assaulted the former Commander of the Gaean rebel force. Without conscious thought, she thrust a hand through the short, abundant hair turned permanently silver by the dual trauma of the gang rape and the nearly fatal illness deliberately caused by her chief assailant: one Javis. Impotent anger at the sole surviving perpetrator of the atrocity flared redly, as Signe dwelled on a tragic consequence of the brutal attack. I lack the ability to bear my husband a child! she railed. Heíll never sire another. I canít give the man I love--the partner Iím about to marry--a son to replace the boy who died during my raid on Arlenís headquarters!

For a fleeting few seconds, surreally vivid fragments of the most harrowing experience of Arlenís life swirled up to constrict her heart. I know what he thought during that dual bereavement that I lived as if it were happening to me. I likewise know why he willingly endured the hellish suffering his forcing himself to relive the deaths of his wife and son provoked.

My captorís unique experiment freed two former foes of direly erroneous perceptions of past events. What we learned during the mind-merge enabled us to forge a mutually acceptable peace. Our historic accord ended a bitter war of seventeen Earthyearsí duration, and launched Arlen and myself into our present joint endeavor. Look to the future! the woman still woefully scarred in her psyche adjured herself fiercely as her heart hammered. Not on misfortunes that canít be remedied!

Peace with honor, the hard-muscled warrior exulted as she forcibly wrenched her thoughts off both Arlenís personal tragedy and her own. A new challenge awaits both of us, she reminded herself. Lines of strain smoothed out, and a smile transformed the handsome oval face.

Swordsman of legendary prowess, martial artist, expert strategist, military leader who wielded dictatorial power during the entire seventeen-Earthyear span the war had lasted, the silver-haired athlete wryly contemplated a most ironic circumstance. I owe my current status as a warrior world leader in large measure to the hatred I harbored for those three thrice-damned rapists, she acknowledged grimly. That hatred engendered my fanatical determination to hone my martial skills to perfection, so as to exact revenge. For seventeen Earthyears, Iíve lived certain that Iíd never be fit to marry. What prodigies of persuasive eloquence Arlen achieved that night he offered me his personal reparation for the damage those accursed predators caused!

Deliberately relaxing the guard that the archetypical Gaean habitually maintained over any impulse to indulge in erotic fantasizing, she grew aware that quivers spontaneously occurred within her feminine depth as the satisfying visualization of her first experience of physical intimacy spread across her interior vision. Smiling to herself, she admired anew the manner in which the brilliant Columbian physicist, inventor, physician, and psychologist circumvented the insidious psychological effects left by the heinous assault.

I still canít believe that Arlen succeeded in persuading me to engage in sexual intercourse with him, the bride-to-be marveled. My self-appointed therapistís taking me to bed cured me of my phobic impulse to strike out the instant a man touched me. My consciousness didnít dissolve in a red haze of blind anger. I didnít slay my first and only caring lover in an instinctive, reflexive action. That fear no longer haunts meÖno longer dooms me to a single life!

Shuddering as memories of the savage assault that had so traumatized her again intruded into her awareness, Signe drew a wholly accurate conclusion. If Arlen had dropped his full weight on me as I lay on my back, Iíd most assuredly have panicked. Iíd have killed him instantly, the highly trained martial artist acknowledged as inconceivably bitter hatred again suffused her. But having experienced all that those three bastards did to me when he lived my memories, he knew exactly what would trigger the phobia. He managed to avoid sparking any blind, reflexive response. Iím all but cured. At least, I am with him. Able to marryÖ

Resolutely, Signe forced the old, incomparably corrosive wrath out of her mind. Donít dwell on the origin of the phobia! she chided herself. Donít! Logan and Heath both died by your hand. Arlen agreed to deliver Javis your challenge. At some point in time, youíll get to drive your blade in that thrice-damned instigator of the assault. Stay focused on the marvelous notion that your lifeís beginning anew. Rejoice that our once mutually hostile worlds lie at peace, and that today, two former enemies begin a new life together!

Signeís reflections shifted to her initial rejection of Arlenís proposal of marriage on the basis of her unyielding insistence that any union she entered must of necessity be a partnership of equals. Her pulse quickened as she recalled his intense mental struggle to find satisfying work in which two military dictators could share. Fierce satisfaction gripped her as she remembered the moment when Arlen conceived the stunning idea of founding the Interworld Corps with themselves as co-commanders, of neutralizing Johannís magnificent vessel by employing it as the immobilized nucleus of a new colony independent of both Columbia and Gaea, and of training an integrated force of veterans to keep the peace between two worlds incorrigibly distrustful of each other.

Savoring the unwonted glow of happiness which had enveloped her during the past fourweek, the soon-to-be-married warrior smiled to herself even as she scanned her screens with practiced eyes, and watchfully monitored the data displayed on the complex panel forming the command center of the military ship armed with the irreproducible, Earth-built weaponry.

The mind running on a dual track strayed to the memory of summoning Conor, Morgan and Wong, and infusing all three of those veteran captains with enthusiastic devotion to a new goal equal in importance to that achieved at such a high cost in lives. Bittersweet joy accompanied her recalling the conference in which she informed Terence that the power she wielded over their world, she now conferred on him, and that henceforth Gaea would be governed by a fully independent First Minister. She remembered thinking as she observed her associateís shock, that if she had not endured that ghastly violation which so changed her, she would now be Terenceís wholly Gaean wife.

That reflection inevitably summoned the image of Arlenís tall, commanding person striding towards her on the screen of her interior awareness. That memory provoked a clamorous mental exclamation: How unconventional a life Iíve led! How far Iíve risen, to reach out and hack history into a new shape with my sword-hand, my stolen ships, and my vision! And the most challenging task ever to face me looms ahead. What a wondrous change that pivotal encounter with my archfoe wrought in my life!

Peace. Even as Signe savored the word, she sighed anew. Having attained peace, I suddenly realize Iím not fitted for it, she admitted, nowise afflicted by self-delusion. Iíd have found it soul-deadening to labor incessantly at an onerous administrative job: one offering no danger, no chance of seeing action, no comradeship with fighters. Leading a world at peace would equate with stagnation, for me. No need in that setting for my highly developed martial skills.

Our third world promises to channel the abilities of those like myself into wholesome new activities, and allow pursuit of lofty, unselfish goals. I see now why Arlen so readily relinquished his autocratic mastery of Columbia, and welcomed the opportunity to lead people with whom he personally chose to associate! Shared hazard will bond the best and bravest of Columbia and Gaea to both Arlen and me. What a relief heíll find that, after Earthyears of maneuvering to foil plots by power-hungry rivals, even as he battled our fledgling force of intrepid spacer-fighters. What a challenge two equal co-commanders now face! What farseeing insight into human nature Arlen displaysÖinto mine, and into his own!

Until the image of the Flagship actually rose into view on the screens of the four ships bearing herself and three of her captains to the remote rock in the Glaser Group where the mighty vessel rested, Signe failed to shake off that sense of living in a parallel universe: an ethereal dream-distortion of the realm she normally inhabited.

The tangible reality of her boots tramping the deck of the great warship steadied the warriorís mind. The hundred details vying for consideration in her seething brain wrested her attention firmly back to her present time and place. Striding into the concourse to find both of her hands gripped in Ericís eager clasp, she beamed on the three of her captains whom she and Arlen had left aboard Johannís mobile stronghold, and greeted them warmly.

The golden-haired swordsman the woman believed to be her uncle narrowly studied the vitally alive face of the warrior he had so unflinchingly followed into combat for the past seventeen Earthyears. Signeís happy! Eric exulted, savoring potent satisfaction. Sheís all but healed of the lingering effects of that dark legacy from the past, thanks to the skill, daring and decency of a man formerly her foremost enemy. What a joy to behold, this transfiguring aura of anticipation--of incipient desire. Itís about time you knew this sort of happiness, girl. About time!

Pain blended with unselfish, uncritical relief, as this oldest and closest of Signeís associates dwelled on his secret sorrow: shame carried like an incurable abscess afflicting a generous, affectionate heart. That burden Eric had borne in absolute secrecy for over half of the seventy-three Earthyears the staunch patriot counted to his age.

Youíre my daughter, girl, he cried in his mind as pain gnawed anew at his permanently lacerated psyche. Youíre the product of my shameful affair with my brotherís wife. Youíre the gift I gave Ingrid, so as to stabilize the fragile mental balance of the lonely, neglected wife of a man totally engrossed by lofty visions of statecraft. The woman I loved craved affection, and needed fulfillment--so desperately! I forfeited my honor beyond all retrieval, but if I had my life to live over, Iíd do no differently. IngridÖ

"Well, gentlemen, our new endeavor begins at this juncture. Itíll take us considerable time to unload the supplies. No sign, yet, that Arlenís ships approach, I take it?" As she posed that question, the bride-to-be glanced inquiringly from face to face.

"None yet, Signe," Theo replied, flashing her a most engaging smile. "But weíll know. You should see all this board can do! Weíve set it to scan space automatically. Itíll detect any approaching ship, and inform us over the intercom. ItísÖ"

"Itís amazing, Signe, the systems installed in this vessel. I canít believe the complexity of this ship." Enthusiasm fleetingly rendered Jassyís middle-aged, bulldog face almost boyish. "Do you realizeÖ"

"Theo, round up our work detail, and weíll set them to carrying," Eric demanded, interrupting Jassy, as Jassy had Theo.

A peal of laughter warmed the three Captains brimful of excitement so heady, so exhilarating, as to override even their ingrained regard for courtesy. "You staunch volunteers marooned here for so long a time emerged from isolation wound up like antique clocks. Letís at least wait until the others dock, before we start working!" Signe exhorted.

At that juncture, Morgan strode into the concourse, bearing a wide-eyed small boy on a brawny arm. An eager little girl held fast to the auburn-haired master swordsmanís other hand. A breathless noncombatant couple followed in the warriorís wake.

All of the new arrivals stopped dead in their tracks. Tipping back their heads, they stared in stupefaction at the panoramic view of the vault of space, visible on the huge single screen formed by the domed upper reaches of the concourse.

Overwhelmed, Jordan, the physician, froze into immobility, his glance riveted to the splendor looming overhead. The duffel bags he bore in each hand dropped with simultaneous thuds to the deck. Although equally awed, his wife at length tore her eyes from the giant gaseous planet dominating the arching vault of star-dimpled deeps. Shifting the baby she bore in her arms to her hip, she freed a hand that she held out to the woman smiling a greeting. "Signe, how magnificent!" she exclaimed.

"That it is. Weíll give our noncombatant auxiliaries a tour of the ship shortly, Mai. Right now, Theo will show you to your quarters. Jordan, Iíd appreciate your helping us to unload the equipment destined for the infirmary. Morgan, you look stunned! Marvelous sight, isnít it?"

"Itís awesome!" A man normally adept in expressing himself volubly and concisely in graphic Earth-Standard fought an onslaught of speechlessness. "Hard to find wordsÖ"

"This is the first time Iíve ever seen you at a loss for words." That remark Theo punctuated with a broad grin, even as he clapped a hand on the shoulder of the comrade he had not seen in weeks.

"Damned if Iím not." Tearing his eyes from the grandeur overhead, Morgan shot his fellow captain a wide, welcoming smile as he exerted crushing force on Theoís hand.

Letting go of the limber swordsmanís other hand, Jordanís daughter narrowly studied the gray-eyed, curly-haired, scholarly officer who now turned his attention to her. "Whatís your name, young lady?" the object of her interest inquired in a tone no different than that which he had used with the adults.

"Alix." Gravely, the dark-eyed girl of perhaps five--the image of her father--appraised a new acquaintance. Juvenile features melted into a limpid smile as the child intuitively recognized one of the rare breed of adults who possessed the innate ability effortlessly to co-inhabit the mental world of a precocious, nimble-minded, highly imaginative, intensely curious small girl.

"Iím Theo, Alix. Morgan, pass me your friend." Having swung the boy onto his own shoulder, the scholar who so short a time ago deduced where Johann hid his fabulous Flagship picked up both of Jordanís duffel bags with one hand. "Youíll help me pack these, wonít you?" he asked of the little girl, his tone conveying his expectation of an affirmative answer. As the child eagerly grabbed the strap of a bag, he directed, "Come along, Mai. Alix, youíll grow to like living aboard an historic treasure."

"I already do!"

Laughing, Theo bore his assorted burdens away.

Wong arrived, laden with duffel. The cook and the life-support engineer, who both evinced all the symptoms of motion sickness, followed in his wake. The warrior-woman noted that the two tall youths flanking the couple--lads eighteen and twenty Earthyears of age--failed to exhibit the faintest sigh of internal distress. Both boys eagerly drank in the spectacular sight overhead, their eyes glowing with unconcealed excitement.

As soon as Signe finished offering the newcomers a warm greeting, Eric escorted the two noncombatant auxiliary corpsmembers and their sons to the quarters assigned the family, leaving the diminutive martial expert and the redhead who stood thirty centimeters taller than his peer, gazing raptly at the breathtaking view of the void.

Jassy, who had vanished into the depths of the vessel, now returned with a pair of patently subdued renegades in tow. Two fourweeks of hard physical labor overseen by armed veterans sternly imposing rigorous discipline had bred both healthy fear and grudging respect in the outlaws undergoing rehabilitation.

As Signe noted with prideful amusement the change in Fordís henchmen, her mind harked back to her first glimpse of Arlen. Again she witnessed through pain-dimmed eyes his summary execution of the traitorous subordinate guilty of desertion during wartime in a stolen Earth-armed ship. My archfoeís timely capture of Ford saved me from being driven insane, she admitted as chills coursed down her spine.

Accompanied by Jordan, and followed by the two chastened outlaws, Jassy led the way to the corridor fronting the locks, where he offered enthusiastic greetings to Conor, whose bleached eyes betrayed a most uncharacteristic depth of amazement. On being urged to report to Signe by the pair intending to haul supplies, the legendary survivor of countless bloody hand-to-hand battles joined Morgan and Wong in the huge domed concourse. The latter Captain, flanked now by two tall warriors staring upwards, breathed, "I think Iím intoxicated on cosmic grandeur!"

Hearty laughter greeted that remark. Gripping Conorís hand, the Commander greeted him cordially. "You three new arrivals take a tour," she urged. "You wonít be able to focus your minds on supplies until you do. Take your time. Iíll help the others." She nonetheless stood raptly ignoring her brisk self-directive, her own eyes riveted to the sight mesmerizing the newcomers: a spectacle with which familiarity would forever fail to breed indifference.

Three labor-filled hours passed with remarkable swiftness. Having seen the supplies stowed away, Signe soundly complimented Eric, Jassy and Theo on the manner in which they had carried out the duty of readying the vessel for occupancy. Summoning all six of her captains, she distributed two new uniforms to each man.

"Theo, youíll encounter a problem in supplying the Columbians," she cautioned before explaining the difficulty.

"Iíll manage," the Captain functioning as administrative assistant assured the Commander. "Donít worry." A most engaging chuckle further warmed the woman fully as excited as her subordinates.

Dismissing all six men to don their uniforms in their quarters, Signe withdrew to the cabin Theo had designated as hers and Arlenís, to dress in her own new garments. Standing before the narrow mirror set into the back of the door of the bathcabin, she admired her reflection. My co-commander will never know what pains I took to achieve this feat, she ruminated, savoring justifiable pride. Gaeaís tailors rank below even her coffee-chemists in skill. If Terence hadnít ferreted out that spectacular exception that proves the rule, I simply couldnít have faced Arlen! The aristocratic elegance conferred by those sleek black uniforms he wears sets a standard in his own world, Iíll wager--a world far more style-conscious than mine.

The mind-boggling realization flashed up from where it smoldered, buoying Signeís spirits, and sparking an incandescent fireball of gladness. Todayís my wedding day! I canít really believe Iím experiencing this superabundance of bliss. I canít fully comprehend the magnitude of the changes in my life! Joy suffused the warrior who had endured so much personal pain for so long, in single-minded pursuit of one paramount goal: insuring freedom in perpetuity for Gaea. The staunch patriot, whose ingrained disdain for her personal safety originated in that early trauma that so scarred her psyche, savored the novelty of experiencing transcendent happiness.

Reflectively, Signe studied the image opposite, scanning an oval countenance defined by a straight nose, a high, faintly lined forehead, and smooth, finely sculpted cheeks. Dark lashes shaded eyes of purest blue: eyes wide-set beneath arching brows. Full, delicately bowed lips, their corners upturned during this moment of pensiveness, hid flawless white teeth. A strong jaw completed the overall impression of a face handsome rather than beautiful. Tiny lines clawing out from the corners of mouth and eyes testified to harsh experience. An imperious cast to the features resulted from the habitual exercise of autocratic authority. The silvery hair formed the single most striking characteristic: an effect induced by physical and mental trauma. Given that hair of that hue normally graced only the heads of centenarians, the still-youthful warrior thus uniquely distinguished stood out in any company, Columbian or Gaean.

Used to the aberration, Signe smiled radiantly at the woman in the mirror: a tall, assured figure smartly clad in pearly gray. The new uniform, expertly tailored from costly fabric boasting a soft, flexible richness, fit to perfection--almost too perfectly, for an archetypical Gaean culturally programmed to exhibit a high degree of modesty. The peerless athleteís muscles rippled under fabric that hid nothing of the swell of ample breasts, or the flare of shapely hips. Iron strength and sinuous suppleness only served to enhance an overwhelming femininity. No hint of coarseness, no trace of abrasive hardness showed on the features of the legendary swordsman. When in repose, as now, her oval face projected serene self-possession.

I look downright elegant, the woman normally indifferent to tailoring admitted. Amused to find herself delighting in matching her aristocratic co-commander in stylishness, proud of her achievement, she gazed with satisfaction on the slate-blue-and-black emblem--one combining the military colors of two worlds into a new design--cloth-welded into place high over her right breast. Her glance shifted to the three beautifully crafted silver bars forming the insignia denoting her rank, pinned to her collar.

Nice feeling, this sense of looking my best--though Iíve never in my life flaunted my shape the way this outfit does!she reflected. I hope Arlenís satisfied. He never betrayed a glimmer of apprehension when I sprang my offer on him to supply the Corps with uniforms. Although now that I think back, Iíll wager he was gritting his teeth, mentally! A peal of hearty laughter echoed off the walls of the small bathcabin. What a gentleman he is! He never so much as blinked an eye. I love him so!

An insistent buzzing issuing raucously from the intercommunication panel produced a startled frown, followed by an instant judgment that the sound must signify the imminent arrival of a ship. I hope itís that, and not evidence of a boilerís bursting somewhere, the Commander fretted as she headed towards the bridge.

Theo intercepted her. "Itís a pair of ships, Signe, not a catastrophic failure of equipment," he assured his superior, smiling. "Two of Arlenís."

"Thank all the Powers! Iíll greet his captains, Theo." Proceeding with haste down a long, curving corridor, Signe weighed the implications of the order of arrival. I wonder why Arlen let this pair precede him? Iíd prefer his engineering his prickly subordinatesí meeting with their former enemies, even though we Gaeans outnumber the two newcomers just at present. Daunting for these men walking in to face all of us, that circumstance will prove.

Reentering the concourse, she beheld a trim figure emerge from the entry: one she instantly recognized.

"Dahl!" she exclaimed as she flashed the officer an irresistibly appealing smile. "What a marvelous surprise!" Striding forward, she grasped the outstretched hand of the spacer-fighter whose entire person fleetingly registered shock before mirroring the transparent joy emanating from the warrior-woman. "Iím so glad to see you!"

"No gladder than I am to see you again, Signe." Patent sincerity freighted the voice husky with emotion, as both of the Columbianís hands enfolded that of the woman spontaneously offering so hearty a greeting.

"I told you Iíd value you, Dahl," Signe reminded the compactly built veteran, smiling radiantly into eyes still wide with astonishment.

An unforced, singularly engaging smile split the lean, brown, tough face that lacked handsomeness, but mirrored intelligence and strongly suggested competence. What a welcome! the newcomer touched to the core silently acknowledged. "I remember," Dahl smilingly assured this architect of a galling if temporary setback to his cherished career. "Iíll be serving under the best leaders of two worlds, now."

The details of her encounter with this man seven Earthyears earlier rose vividly in Signeís memory, as fresh as if that momentous incident had occurred yesterday. "I often recall my first flight," she mischievously assured the Captain whom she had captured, immobilized, and forced on that occasion to act as her instructor.

"You think I donít? You aged me ten Earthyears!" Dahl shot back. Two erstwhile foes dissolved into ringing laughter, holding each other at armís length by both hands.

Turning to regard a tall Columbian of aristocratic bearing who strode up to stand opposite them, the Gaean studied the newest arrivalís aspect, as Dahl introduced his companion. "Commander, this is Amin," she heard him announce as she scanned a personage as unknown to her as his name was familiar. Extending a hand, she greeted the officer who formerly commanded Arlenís Special Force.

A pair of keen dark eyes deeply set in a lean, hawk-profiled, ebony face raked the warrior-woman under whom their owner had agreed to serve. The observer rendering a penetrating analysis flashed a magnetic smile hinting at a wealth of charm. "I can see right now that our commanderís a fortunate devil," he drawled in clipped, cultured accents that uncannily reminded the Gaean of Arlenís. With courtly grace, the Columbian Senior Captain clasped the legendary warriorís hand with no less force than he would have exerted on that extended by a male comrade.

Liking the man instantly, Signe returned the pressure. "Iím no less fortunate, Amin. Iím delighted to make your acquaintance. Dahl and I already know each other."

Wholly infectious laughter fell with beguiling force on the Commanderís ear, warming the woman unconsciously responding to this virile warriorís potent masculine appeal. "So he told us. Dahlís lively description of that encounter meshed seamlessly with all the legend promised, Signe, and made me wish I could meet you Earthyears ago. Iím delighted finally to find that wish granted."

Two shrewd judges of character appraised each other even as they exchanged smiles. Aristocrat, the Gaean Commander deduced. Gallant. Cultured. Supremely well educated, Iíd judge. Highly intelligent. Sensitive. Premier warrior, Iíve no shadow of doubt. A man of sterling honor. Thinker. Leader. A most welcome addition!

Iíll wager the legend doesnít exaggerate one iota, Amin conjectured before remarking ruminatively, "Iíll never forget my first sight of this magnificent warship: Johannís pride, his undoing, and his tomb. I hope the Corps we form pleases his shade. Iíll feel that Iím carrying out my duties under his eagle eye."

"I sense his presence, watching," Signe admitted, nodding. "A comradely presence, itís come to be--a guardian spirit, benign and hopeful."

"That awareness canít help but spur us to achieve prodigies," the Senior Captain affirmed vehemently. Arlenís oldest friend smiled approvingly upon a war-leader whose exploits Amin had long admired.

"Is Arlen in transit?" That query, couched in a tone kept admirably noncommittal, yet betrayed a nuance of an underlying intensity which neither Columbian missed.

"He and the others should dock within thirty minutes," Dahl informed his new commander blandly, well used to keeping his reactions off his face. "Theyíll arrive in two fuel ships, and three first class vessels."

"Once weíve all been introduced, Iíll arrange for a grand tour," Signe assured the pair as Theo strode out from the bridge. Every whit as skilled an observer as Amin, she made the introductions, glad to sense that no tension flared into being among the three men. Arlen knew exactly what he was doing, she chided herself. He kept the prickly ones with him.

Commanded to show the Columbians to their quarters, Theo obeyed, exhibiting the courtesy habitual to him. Amin vanished into his cabin, eager to assess the fit of his uniforms, even as daunting doubts born of his observations of Gaean tailoring escalated sharply in force.

Gauging by Signeís choice of words that this scholarly-appearing officer must have been charged with assigning quarters, Dahl addressed his new comrade. "Theo, I routinely served as Arlenís aide even while commanding a ship in the Special Force. He has employed me again in that capacity during these past fourweeks. Could I trouble you to show me to his quarters? Iíll be leaving him some datapads shortly."

Having courteously acceded to the request, the Gaean officer led the way to the standard cabin destined to serve as living quarters for the Co-Commanders. Intensely conscious of the ephemeral evidence of shock his new peer quickly hid, he threw open the door, thereby confirming the misgivings that had rapidly escalated as the Columbian read the names affixed to the jambs.

Exerting himself to be diplomatic, Dahl voiced a cautious feeler. "I see that youíve made no distinction between the quarters our commanders will occupy, and those of captains and crewmen. Are these the only sort available?"

Sensing the depth of his new comradeís uneasiness, Theo hastened to justify his action. "I guess you could say Iím Signeís aide," he prefaced his remarks, inwardly conceding that Dahl had avoided any censorious overtone to his question. "Let me explain. Signe holds us to a set of unwritten rules governing matters she considers of fundamental importance. Ordinary regulations--or even commands issued prior to a military operation--she expects us to disregard at our own discretion, should some unforeseen complication arise. No one, however, breaks a standing order: one of the unwritten ones."

What in bloody hell does he mean? Dahl asked himself.

Divining that his words only deepened the hearerís puzzlement, the Gaean steeped in cultural values foreign to the understanding of a Columbian military careerist declared firmly, "One of those unwritten rules forbids an officer to assume a privilege of food, clothing, quarters, entertainment, or anything similar, that his or her crewmen canít share. And any rule Signe lays on us, she keeps herself."

"AhhÖI see." Dahl managed to keep his voice utterly expressionless even as he developed daunting qualms as to how Arlen would regard the arrangement. A ship this magnificent undoubtedly sports officersí quarters far fancier than this! he fumed inwardly. Not to mention the luxurious accommodation Johann would have reserved to himself. The dictator who high-handedly appropriated a first-class military ship for his exclusive use will most assuredly expect to lay claim to Johannís personal suite for himself and his bride. Arlenís not in the least backward about indulging his aristocratic tastes for elegance and luxury--witness the furnishings gracing his office in Ministry Main Habitat!

My aching sword-cut scars, will he and Signe clash before they even sign the marriage contract? Even as his gut tightened convulsively, Dahl shrugged. This complication I see as Arlenís problem, not mine, he admonished himself stoutly, but Iíd better break the news, and pass on the reason--prevent his suffering any embarrassment.

Having thus assessed the difficulty about to afflict the former military dictator, the man facing a fundamental change in the conditions of his own service reviewed the matter from the perspective of his new female commander. Admiration succeeded that initial perturbation. Imagine a leader instituting such a rule, let alone abiding by it herself! he marveled. Iíve never heard the like. No wonder that woman arouses such passionate devotion!

Theo sought with only partial success to interpret the minor changes in expression animating the swarthy face his new peer out of old habit guarded without conscious thought. Frowning quizzically, the Gaean succumbed to an overmastering curiosity. "How would you rate Arlen as a commander?" he asked, warming to this hard-featured veteran he unerringly judged to be tough as five-ply laminate.

Dahl paused to gather his thoughts before answering, but spoke the unvarnished truth. "The Commander-in-Chiefís eminently fair, thoughtful, and courteous. Heís by far the most competent leader Iíve known, military or otherwise. Heís also a masterful judge of men. His courage Iíve personally seen to be phenomenal. Heís renowned for his cool daring, and universally acknowledged to be a man of stainless honor.

"Let me warn you candidly, though, Theo--donít ever try to intrigue against him. In that kind of struggle, Arlenís got no equal. Heís utterly ruthless to any subordinate guilty of seeking to undermine his authority. He seems able, at times, to read menís minds, and his persuasiveness defies belief. After serving under this dictator who rose to power during a superbly-executed, relatively bloodless military coup--an autocrat who wielded supreme power over my world for nine Earthyears--I heartily like the Commander, respect him, and admire him. Iím thrilled that he made me this offer."

Intrigue against a commander! What in hell makes this man think Iíd ever dream of committing so gross an offense? Belatedly recalling Arlenís references to the ruthless rivals who did exactly that, Theo wondered uneasily whether his new associates might contemplate emulating those offenders. No, he decided. Arlen wouldnít pick officers harboring those propensities. Himself no mean judge of men, the Gaean patriot weighed that patently sincere commendation against the impression the autocratic world leader had thus far generated in himself, Jassy, and Eric. Silently, he owned to developing increased respect for his Columbian superior.

Judging this scholarly-appearing Gaean to harbor unusual sensitivity, Dahl took advantage of the opening his counterpartís question provided. A trifle warily, he inquired in his turn, "Whatís it like to serve under Signe?"

Theo answered with no shade of hesitation. "Sheíll get more out of you than you ever knew you had in you, and make you want to give it," he replied equably. As Dahl pondered that cryptic commendation, the Gaean added with a mischievous smile, "Our co-commanders promise to make a decidedly interesting combination." At that juncture, the raucous buzzer assaulted both menís ears, galvanizing them into hastening side by side to the bridge.

Standing alone in the concourse, exquisitely conscious of the racing of her heart, Signe strove to master surging emotion, only to fail abysmally in that endeavor as a commanding, black-clad figure filled the entry.

On beholding the woman he loved, Arlen strode with manifest eagerness across the wide expanse of gleaming rock forming the surface of the deck, his mobile face wreathed in the smile Signe so vividly remembered. Acutely aware of Dahlís and Theoís arrival on the scene, the Gaean Commander met her partner of equal rank in the center of the space, to find herself enveloped in a crushing embrace.

As conscious of the presence of her captain and his as was the fiancťe returning his exuberant embrace--as cognizant of the differences in mores between his Gaean brideís culture and his own as was she--Arlen suppressed his overmastering urge to kiss his beloved soundly on the mouth. Instead, he contented himself with the satisfying sensation of pressing her lithe body against his chest. Holding her finally at armsí length, he exclaimed, "Woman, youíre the most welcome sight Iíve seen in a host of days!" A swift, penetrating glance assessed the fit of the uniform. By the teeming life of Earth, the aristocrat expostulated to his alter ego, would you cast an eye on that! "Signe, you look ravishing!"

That forceful declaration sent a flood of crimson surging into the brideís cheeks, and all but annihilated her resolve. "Arlen, Iím so glad to see you back," she breathed, struggling to regain her accustomed poise.

"Iím glad to beÖhome."

Drinking in every minute detail of her beloved ex-foeís well-remembered aspect with senses surreally sharpened by the ardent love she bore him, Signe grew aware of the lines around his mouth, the dark shadows like old bruises under his eyes, and the deep creases at he corners of those eyes. He looks utterly exhausted! she exclaimed inwardly, sympathy overriding that brief embarrassment. "I think of this ship as home, myself, now," she confided, reveling in the thought. "I can see you spent a draining span of time making your arrangements on Columbia."

"A busy span. I worked overtime--twenty hours a day, on average. Rewarding hours, I found them, though--every last one. Woman, you look stunning! Youíre a tonic to the spirit--like a shot of fine old brandy. Well! Iíve four captains you need to meet."

Hearing footsteps to her rear, Signe turned to behold a stocky, broad shouldered, square-faced man whose powerful body yet moved with sinuous grace. Some subtle clue offered by the manner in which the brawny warrior carried himself, or the way he gathered that body as he prepared to greet her, evoked recognition. Martial artist, she surmised accurately, as well as swordsman. Serious, pleasant face. Shy, in the presence of women. Good, solid, competent officer, Iíll wager--not one of the prickly sorts.

"Signe, this is Evan."

"Evan, Iím delighted to meet you," the Gaean replied with manifest warmth, returning the spacer-captainís powerful grip.

"Iím proud to meet you, Commander." Knowing eyes spied the same signs in the statuesque, hard-muscled woman that she detected in their owner. Signeís highly trained in martial arts! the Columbian expert deduced, shocked at beholding the womanís splendid athleticism. Well, sheís a legendary swordsman--undefeated in single combat by any champion among those ruthless bastards Norman selected primarily for that quality. But surely sheíd form no match for someone as skilled in my art as I am!

"Evan, Iíd like you to meet Theo." As the Gaean leader made the introduction, she noted the readiness with which the granite-featured warrior extended his hand to an erstwhile enemy. Simultaneously, she observed the approving look that flitted across her scholarly captainís open face.

"Dahl and I will show you to your cabin, Evan," the Gaean administrative assistant announced, displaying comradely ease with both Columbians. "Iíll issue you your uniforms." Inwardly almost as apprehensive regarding the styling as was Amin, Evan professed himself eager to make the change. Three new associates strode away, their body language assuring both intent observers that no latent animosity lurked beneath those facile, courteous remarks.

"Martial expert, Evan, is he not?" Signe inquired blandly, cocking her head at her co-commander.

"I admire your perceptiveness. Heís a master. Now whatís holding up the other three? AhhhÖthereís Brant."

An eminently prickly sort, this man, Signe judged instantly, observing the smooth flow of the muscles under the sleek black uniform as elegantly tailored as Arlenís own. I recognize that name. They say Brantís my equal with the sword. He well could be, from the look of him! Tall, blonde, fair, the Columbian moved with more than ordinarily supple grace. A pair of piercing eyes as blue as her own raked the Gaean Commander as Arlen made the introduction.

"Iím pleased to meet you, Brant," the legendary warrior responded pleasantly, extending her hand.

"I confess to having long wished to meet you," the Columbian replied, his high, clear voice conveying a hint of double meaning. To his considerable astonishment, he discovered the iron grip he exerted on the womanís outstretched member to be equaled in force.

Proud, Signe gauged unerringly. Touchy. Ambitious. Calculating. Dangerous. Youíd better watch how you handle this addition, woman. Duelist, Brant, I donít doubt for an instant! Exquisitely aware of the Columbianís making as penetrating a judgment on her own self as she had just passed on him, she remarked forthrightly, "Your reputation as one of the finest swordsmen ever to come out of Columbia is well known to me, Brant. That realization adds to my delight at seeing you here."

The serene warmth with which Normanís nemesis made that statement took the newcomer slightly aback--a reaction he was able to conceal from all but Arlen. "I appreciate your words, the more as they come from one whose skill with the sword is legendary," he surprised himself by stating.

That courteous rejoinder evoked a glorious smile: one that struck both Columbians as singularly entrancing. Her delicately modulated, Gaean-accented voice exhibiting no slightest sexual nuance, Signe spoke her thought. "Iím warmed by your gallantry, Brant." Turning to the Gaean officer who reappeared at this juncture, she added, "Itís my pleasure to introduce you to Theo." She caught the sharply appraising glance the newcomer turned on her captain as she made the introduction that he nonetheless acknowledged with impeccable politeness, before leaving with his escort.

Arlen, an amused spectator of the encounter, savored pride in his partner and equal. Signe will find it no trouble to handle Brant, he conceded ungrudgingly. My prickly captain came off second best in that encounter. Itís Brant whoíd better tread warily! "Signe, meet Danner."

Swiveling her eyes away from the premier swordsmanís departing back, Signe fixed them on a handsome, black-haired, compactly built man who lacked seven centimeters of her height. "Iím glad to meet you, Danner," she greeted the newest addition, grasping his outstretched hand. Her face creased into a faint frown as she strove to place the manís uncannily familiar face.

"I consider it a privilege finally to meet you!" Danner exclaimed with ingenuous honesty, even as Signe watched him make as calculated, as coolly appraising a judgment on her, as had Brant. "Weíve met, Commander, though you likely donít recall the incident. Across swords, at Briedd. And I frankly admit that I consider myself lucky to have survived our meeting." A wry smile accompanied that candid admission.

Recognition swept over the Gaean leader as she recalled acting as rear guard on a lightflash strike launched six Earthyears earlier. "I remember you! You sprinted forward with two other men! You crossed swords with me as the door to the lock closed!"

"Right in my face. I had trouble keeping my footing on the pile of our dead before the door. Two swordsmen flanked youÖ"

"Youíre about to meet one of them, Danner," Signe announced levelly, narrowly observing the veteran spacer-fighterís reaction to the news.

"The tall one with the scar--Conor? Or the other?"

"Conor. The otherís dead." This man came off by far the worse for that raid, Signe recalled as her gut tightened. He could well harbor a grudge.

"Iím sorry to hear that," Danner unhesitatingly declared. "Iíve never forgotten the rear-guard action you three swordsmen fought. Damned if I have! For cool daring, Iíve never seen that whole assault you mounted at Briedd equaled. Ticked me off, the outcome." A rueful shake of the head accompanied that final masterpiece of understatement.

Heís sincere, Signe decided with relief. This blunt-spoken master swordsman evidently admires courage in friend or foe. He displayed an admirable, cool-headed bravery himself that day. If he harbors lingering enmity, his respect for a worthy adversary will likely counteract it. I hope so! This undoubtedly ambitious spacer-fighterís definitely prickly, and obviously calculating. He lacks deviousness, nonetheless, and definitely has depth to him.

With the unerring timing of an actor entering on cue, Conor made his appearance, accompanied by Morgan and Wong. Well, now weíll see, formed the single thought flashing through the mind of the warrior geared to handle a crisis.

Catching sight of a figure he recognized, Danner fixed eyes grown suddenly hard on a seamed face marred by an old sword-cut scar. Turning, he fronted a notorious enemy who five Earthyears earlier had delivered a telling thrust to a crewman Danner valued.

Advancing towards the black-clad officer whose subtle change in stance plainly signaled combat-readiness, Conor halted, impaling with gimlet eyes the Columbian who he perceived to be one of Arlenís captains. Recognition flashed over the Gaean spacer-fighterís scarred visage, followed by a smile that spread slowly, as he recalled the details of that encounter. Striding boldly up to a potential antagonist, Signeís battle-wise veteran extended his hand. "I think weíve met," he announced with perfect equanimity.

The feisty Columbian, his instinctive combativeness aborted by his acute awareness that this new service required a fundamental change in his perception of Gaeans, unhesitatingly gripped the outstretched hand, his handsome face melting into an engaging grin. "Iím flattered to see that you remember me, Conor," he declared with disarming frankness. "Iím Danner."

Arlen, whose hand had instinctively moved to rest on the butt of his stun-pistol, relaxed his taut body, his all but imperceptible reactions registering on the woman uncannily, intuitively able to sense such changes during a potentially dangerous moment. Evincing no sign that she noticed the brief appearance of tension, Signe launched into the necessary introductions.

Arlenís intent glance swept from face to face as he strove to form an impression of three men at once. Releasing Dannerís hand, Conor extended his own to the former archfoe under whom he had taken service on Signeís word. Bleached blue eyes bored searchingly into those raking the eminently worthy foe who had gained such renown during the surface war.

This scarred veteran survived ten Earthyears of bloody hand-to-hand fighting against Normanís Third Corpsmen--battles waged through corridors blocked by barricades and littered with dead, the Commander reflected, surprised to find himself generating a response akin to awe. Conorís name struck almost as much fear into those savage fighters whom Norman picked for their prowess with the sword, as did Signeís. Gripping the proffered hand, the ex-dictator spoke with courtly courtesy. "Your reputation precedes you, Conor. Iím proud to meet so legendary a warrior."

"As I am the leader who forged a peace Gaea could accept with honor."

Impressed by the bearing of a Gaean for whom he had always harbored respect, Arlen studied the seamed face framed by dark hair, and distinguished by an old, slanting, sword-cut scar reaching from hairline to jaw. He noted the surpassing grace of the swordsmanís carriage, and admired the stately manner in which the Gaean offered his hand. Conorís younger than Eric by a decade at least, he surmised accurately. Sorrow etched some of those furrows--emotional pain allied to harsh experience. Even so, this manís capable of compassion, as fierce a fighter as he is. Prime asset, this warrior/patriot.

Turning to a tall, handsome, auburn-haired athlete, he looked deeply into the green eyes of a younger man obviously taking the measure of his new Commander.

"Iím Morgan," the Gaean announced, thrusting out a hand.

So Morganís the redheaded swordsman who won such fame as a warrior! "Iím glad to meet you," Arlen replied graciously, even as he swept a raking glance over the personage exerting an iron grip on his hand.

"Iím proud to be here." That smoothly polite, perfectly truthful reply avoided expressing any pleasure at meeting a former archenemy.

A foe to be reckoned with, this veteran spacer-fighter, the autocrat cognizant of the omission instantly concluded. A younger version of Conor, this man--fearless, proud, wary of his former foes. Master swordsman. Not a trace of guile to him. A man who doesnít give his friendship lightly, but whose friendship Iíd be proud to gain. With a pair like Conor and Morgan, Signe possessed a host in itself!

Turning belatedly to the last of the Gaean captains, Arlen gazed into the round, golden, smiling, eager face of a small, slightly built, but wiry man the force of whose grip astonished him.

"Wong," the Gaean succinctly identified himself. "Iím pleased to meet you, Arlen." Respect lacking any admixture of lingering enmity freighted the undersized captainís clear, crisp, warm, heavily Gaean-accented voice. A wealth of kinesic evidence revealed that no wariness, no shyness, no antipathy for former foes troubled the mind inhabiting that body wholly lacking any martial appearance.

"Iím glad to meet you," Arlen responded heartily, glad to note that this man evinced none of Morganís unwillingness to voice such a sentiment before completing his assessment of his Columbian Commander. Wongís undoubtedly Signeís computer expert, the shrewd observer surmised. This diminutive officer most assuredly doesnít look like a spacer-fighter, but he has got to be. If youíll note, he seems right at home trotting along between Conor and Morgan. Likeable sort, Wong--sensitive and good-natured. Donít underestimate this seeming lightweight, Arlen. Your co-commander picked these six men with care.

His delicate sensors extended to the utmost, Arlen judged that no clash between any two of the former enemies meeting for the first time threatened to occur at the present juncture. Morgan and Brant will develop either close friendship or deadly enmity, he predicted uneasily, conscious of a painful constriction in his gut. Youíd better keep an eye out there. Well!

On seeing Theo approach, Signe sent Danner with her administrative assistant.

As the two men left, Eric and Jassy reappeared to greet Arlen with manifest, wholly unfeigned warmth. At the conclusion of that exchange, they collected the three comrades whom they had not seen for two fourweeks, and vanished, wishful for news.

Just as Signe prepared to remark that her tally indicated that not all of the Columbians had arrived, a tall, spare, dark-haired man emerged from the entry to the concourse, to advance, smiling, upon the woman whose startling silver hair proclaimed her identity. Spying the newcomer, Arlen waved his subordinate into the company of himself and his co-commander. "Signe, this is the last of my captains," he announced briskly. "Iíd like you to meet Levi."

Recognition, not of the face, but of the name, impacted the Gaeanís mind, leaving her stunned. "Levi!" she breathed. "The mathematician?"

The smile that overspread the open countenance of the newcomer warmed the woman to her depths. "That so famous a warrior recognizes my faint claim to fame astounds me, Signe. Iím proud to meet you," Levi responded, projecting transparently genuine regard.

Gripping the Columbian Captainís outstretched hand, the Gaean noted the sweetness--Thereís no other word, she marveled--of the manís disposition. Shades of the ancients, my partner recruited the leading theoretical mathematician of our time! A scholar of awesome intelligence, who enjoys a system-wide reputation! Keen blue eyes took in the dreamerís face set above the fighterís body. How could Arlen risk letting so original a thinker--one possessed of geniu--engage in combat? This uniquely gifted intellectualís obviously a swordsman. What a privilege, to gain an associate of his talent! "Levi, Iím overcome! Delighted to welcome you!"

"Iím proud to be offered the chance to work towards safeguarding the peace youíve both forged, Signe." This warrior world leaderís familiar with more than war, the theorist concluded in wonder. Or has she somehow learned of my unorthodox contribution to the war effort? If so, sheís extraordinarily broad-minded. Signeís likeable--not in the least hardened by Earthyears spent fighting. Rachel would find her a kindred spirit, but Arlenís co-commander will undoubtedly find herself far too engrossed in work to cultivate the friendship of a noncombatant wife. Damn, but I wishÖ

Thrusting from mind the painful thoughts sparked by the meeting, Levi greeted Theo with patently ingenuous friendliness, producing instant liking in that rather reserved, if wholly unprejudiced Gaean who graciously escorted the last of Arlenís captains to his quarters.

Two relieved Co-Commanders, well satisfied with their first impressions, exchanged eager glances. "For a few seconds there, womanÖ"

"I know. I felt you go tense. I wasnít sure what your man might do, but I knew how Conor would react."

"I think Iíd better dive into my uniform and observe as our captains meet former foes."

"Well, hereís Dahl. He can show you to our quarters. Iíd better see whether our cook recovered enough from her motion sickness to undertake the chore of feeding us at mid-day."

Having escorted his superior to the door of the cabin assigned him by Theo, Dahl turned to block Arlenís entry with his body. "Itís not what youíre expecting, sir," he declared in a tone of cautious appeasement. "But before you offer strenuous objections, I need to explain."

Raking the objector with eyes gone glacial, Arlen announced flatly, "Iíll take a look first."

Bracing himself as he awaited an outburst of icy wrath, Dahl stepped aside, allowing the ex-military dictator to stride inside, and stare with shock at his new quarters. By all theÖ Whose damned idea was this? Theoís? IíllÖ

Better simmer down, came the belated self-adjuration. Remember your resolve. Turning a perfectly expressionless face on his aide, the Commander inquired in a voice to match, "I assume you conducted your inquiry with all possible tact?"

No whit reassured, but knowing better than to seek to cushion the shock he knew Theoís explanation would produce in this former autocrat, Dahl replied bluntly, "Yes, sir. I questioned my counterpart with most delicate tact. It seems that Signe holds her men to certain unwritten rules that Theo calls her ístanding orders.í One states that no officer may take a privilege his men canít share. Since any rule she lays on them, Signe keeps herself, Theo assigned her--and you--a cabin exactly like those occupied by both captains and crewmen."

For a full thirty seconds, the hearer stood still as if carven of water ice, digesting that shocker. My perishing soul! he expostulated silently, if this doesnít beat anythingÖ What perfect, bare-bones logic. Talk about cultural differences! Signe lives her philosophy to the hilt. She doesnít lecture, she demonstrates. Marvelous! No wonderÖ Swallow the bitter dose without flinching, you lovesick excuse for a corps-founder, and learn from the woman you admired long before you ever met her, for the charismatic quality of her leadership. This lesson will test your resolve, all right!

Allowing no hint of his savage self-mockery to surface on his mobile countenance, the former autocrat remarked in a lazy drawl, "And her captains and crews would follow her through hell and back, wouldnít they, Dahl?"

"The ones I met following her certainly would." Relief washed through the officer used to treading warily in the presence of this superior. Arlenís in love, Dahl reminded himself. Love has mellowed him--drastically. I guessthat explains this uncharacteristic effort to accommodate to a situation that I know damned well just pissed him off royally!

"What about the uniform?"

"No problem there, sir."

"Surprised, Dahl?"

Well versed in sidestepping loaded questions, the aide replied phlegmatically, "No, sir. Quite satisfied."

Shedding his sleek black suit, Arlen donned the pearly gray uniform laid out on one bunk, amazed at both the quality of the fabric and the skill of the tailoring. Dust of my ancestors, how did she do it? What a woman! Surveying his reflection in the narrow mirror of polished metal, he opted for candor with the man whose body language betrayed the misgivings he successfully kept off his face. "Well, Iím not only surprised, Iím astonished. Entranced. Rendered almost--but not quite--speechless. Eager to face the challenges awaiting me. Letís stride out to face those, shall we?"

His patently reassured subordinate chanced a grin. Clapping him on the shoulder, Arlen advised, "Dahl, never underestimate your enemy, but most especially not a beloved former foe. Letís go. These quarters suit me if they suit Signe."

Serving under the best of both worlds is going to suit me right down to the deck, Dahl decided, savoring potent satisfaction.

Striding down the curving corridor, Arlen collected his captains, noting with delight that the fit of their uniforms equaled that of his own. Signe must have taken pains to get their measurements somehow! he surmised exultantly. Arriving back in the concourse to find his partner surrounded by her six men, he watched approvingly as she stepped forward and prepared to address the entire company, which included three smartly uniformed noncombatant auxiliaries standing in a group apart. One of those he saw to be a woman. Expecting the presence of a female teacher as well as a female cook, he experienced no shock.

Dahl had yet to meet five of his Gaean peers. Upon following Arlen into the concourse, he caught sight of a familiar figure: the ruddy-haired Gaean swordsman who had helped to hold him immobile while Signe made the imperious demand which had so nearly resulted in her impaling him on her sword. That threatening pressure the veteran officer could remember as if the incident had occurred yesterday. Mastering his dismay--he had suspected that he might encounter Signeís by now notorious redhead--the Columbian gave no sign that he recognized the captor whose readiness to skewer his charge had shown so nakedly. Let this damned fire-breather make the overture! the new arrival admonished himself acidly.

Morganís eyes narrowed ominously as they rested on the officer whose ship Signeís assault force had seized seven Earthyears earlier. What in hellÖ Thatís the Captain SigneÖ One of Normanís bastards! The rotter acts as if he doesnít remember me. Iíll be damned if I believe that! What possessed Arlen to invite him to enter this service? Outrage mounted as the impetuous veteran seethed.

At that moment, Signe began to speak, drawing both Morganís and Dahlís attention to herself. "Mai, and gentlemen," she greeted seventeen listeners in that clear voice she could pitch to carry above a battle. "Iíll ask each captain presently to introduce himself, so that Iím certain each of you knows at least the names of his new comrades. At that point, Eric, Theo, and Wong will conduct Brant, Dahl and Levi on a tour of the ship, and Conor, Jassy and Morgan will do the same for Danner, Amin and Evan. When the tour-groups return, weíll sit down together over lunch, in the dining hall. Weíve scheduled an hour of recreation afterwards, before Arlen sets our captains to work transferring fuel.

"At 1700 all of you will repair to the recreation hall. Both of us invite all twelve of the first captains to serve in the Interworld Corps to sign their names as witnesses to our marriage contract. At 1800, supper will be served to our core staff. Iíve asked Eric and Conor, the two of my officers whoíve been with me longest, to act as hosts, given that Arlen and I intend to retire early."

On making that final pronouncement, the bride-to-be flashed her memorable smile on the