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ISBN-10: 1-55404-445-6
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 313 Pages
Published: April 2007

Total Readers: 1

From inside the flap

At the headquarters of the Interworld Corps, the matching of couples continues. Theo instantly warms to his prospective bride, until she frankly makes a confession that scandalizes the morally upright Gaean. Managing to control the violent emotions unleashed by her candid admission, the Captain narrowly avoids disaster. Jassy falls in love at his first sight of his prospective wife, but fails to realize that she endures bitter disappointment owing to his inability to rouse her to passion. Arlen gives Dahl crucial insight into the thinking of the woman matched with him. Dahl makes an astoundingly gallant gesture that profoundly reassures the lonely widow he marries.

Having docked in Columbia on routine business, Evan, accompanied by Talley and two experienced spacer-fighters, negotiates with a demented hostage-taker levying demands the Interworld Corpsman knows he cannot grant. Utilizing techniques learned from Arlen, Evan resolves an incendiary crisis.

When the matching ends, Signe makes a stirring appeal to the newly recruited women, nerving them to endure the difficulties ahead. Claire, Amin’s willowy wife, finds the training in fitness a major challenge. Exhibiting admirable tact, Jason prevents the imminent public clash he feared might occur between the Captain refusing to lower his high standards, and the rebellious intellectual pushed to her physical limit. Meanwhile, enlightened by Dana, the warrior wife grown exceedingly dear to him, regarding a problem assailing one of his new crewmembers, Brant successfully handles an unexpected crisis. In the process, the proud aristocrat gains far deeper knowledge of his own self.

Having reluctantly allowed Juli to perform a dangerous feat during an exceedingly dramatic rescue of Gaean stationers trapped in an underground mine, Danner proves himself an able diplomat. Dahl and his crew dock in a Gaean municipal unit ravaged by a tragic explosion, and plunge into the traumatic task of aiding the survivors. Dahl undertakes a daring rescue, and finds his life changed in consequence. As newly married corpsmembers carry out dangerous duties, fragile new marital ties swiftly strengthen, and bonds of comradeship with fellow corpsmembers grow ever more binding.

Confronted by an enigmatic group of militant Gaean idealists demanding that Signe visit their rock, Signe and Arlen develop their first major disagreement as Co-Commanders. When Signe resolves to visit the brotherhood’s stronghold over Arlen’s objections, he belatedly discovers the magnitude of the danger facing her. He then mounts a strike in the hope of rescuing Signe, Morgan, and Brant from the worst danger ever to confront those three formidable swordsmen.

This stirring narrative, the second volume of the two-volume fourth novel of the series, completes the tale of the founding of the Interworld Corps. The ongoing saga of futuristic action, adventure and romance continues to unfold in succeeding books.


Chapter One

Aboard the great ship immobilized within a web of habitats on the jagged, barren, airless rock known as Wheeler-the body chosen to be the home world of the Interworld Corps-intensely focused activity continued to absorb the members of that fledgling force of peacekeepers. Three mediators still matched newly recruited women with the captains and crews who had joined the Corps at its inception. Rejoicing at the thought that half of that delicate chore now lay behind them, Signe, Arlen and Wong nonetheless continued to bring to each interview with a candidate for a match, and to each set of introductions of prospective mates to each other, the same exacting care they displayed at the beginning of the process.

Conor and Eric, the two legendary captains granted a dispensation from the rule stating that all Corpsmen must wed, still patrolled a vast area of space with undersized crews, as they had done since the matching process began.

A week flew by on mythical wings, in the minds of those on whose shoulders lay the formidable responsibility for mediating matches and conducting orientation sessions. Arlen and Signe, taxed to the utmost, gave of themselves unstintingly. Wong provided indispensable aid. Theo shouldered a formidable load of tedious clerical chores. With skill, tact, and dispatch, Dahl handled a daunting succession of administrative problems arising from the unique situation. Exhibiting bold initiative, he rendered crucial decisions without consulting his commanders, so as to leave them free to meet the arduous challenges facing them daily.

Towards the end of the first week, the administrative assistant strode into his office at 0600, to find Harold’s wife awaiting him. Waving the noncombatant auxiliary-food-chemist turned cook-into a chair, the swarthy spacer smiled at the woman whose brisk competence, unfailing courtesy, and cheery good nature he deeply admired. "Has a problem surfaced, Carmela?" he asked.

"I’m afraid so, Dahl. As you know, I set up a storage center for rough-processed waste in part of the area designed for storage of food. When our personnel numbered half of the Flagship’s capacity, we got by just fine. Each time a captain set out on patrol, I’d slip him a load of waste to haul to whichever world formed his destination.

"Well, as I reminded you ten days ago, once our numbers doubled, we’d need to haul a large load periodically aboard one of the black ships. I hoped we could wait until the end of all this matching, distribute a good part of the waste among the ten captains lifting, and then see about sending a black ship when the pile threatened to inundate us once again. I contacted the Captain of the Gaean passenger vessel right after he contracted to give passage to the recruits, and asked if he’d haul a large load of waste back to Gaea on his return transit, given that he’d be running empty. He said he would, unless some unforeseen problem arose.

"Well, one did. Cormac received orders to head for the far end of the Group, to evacuate the entire population of a small isolated station ravaged by an epidemic. So that left us with an overload. My storage capacity’s exhausted. I hate the thought of stacking bags of compacted waste in the corridors, or in any of the facilities, especially when all of those are being used so heavily. Could we store the excess-or better yet, all the waste-aboard a black ship, against the day when some captain’s free to haul the load? Harold and Monroe and I will carry the bags aboard, and Mai offered to help."

Absently running a hand through his hair as he debated that question, Dahl shook his head. "I hate to do that, Carmela," he replied. "Those ships stand ready to lift at a moment’s notice, should some dire emergency arise somewhere. We’ve two unassigned vessels, but they’re both all but empty of fuel.

"Tell you what. We’ve got four newly married veterans. Evan could lift in his own ship, with Talley, Nelson and Lupe as crew. They could make the transit to Columbia. Evan could dispose of every smidgeon of waste that has accumulated, and haul back a load of food before any of the crews ashore go to space again. We could stock not only your freezers, but also the galleys both in the ships and the quarters on the Flagship, while we’ve got spacers aplenty to do the legwork. Then we can bask in the knowledge that we’ve got a comforting reserve of food on hand, should some unforeseen crisis materialize. I’ll talk to Evan right now, and arrange the business. Signe will only need to say, "Carry on."

"Oh, that would be marvelous, Dahl! We’ll still help load the bags."

"The hell you will," the Captain retorted adamantly. "You’ve got enough to do, feeding the mob three times a day. We’ll utilize a large squad of starry-eyed newlyweds, and wrench their minds off their…new circumstances," Dahl finished lamely, having hastily amended the graphic expression that almost popped out before he recalled to whom he was speaking.

The sturdily open-minded Gaean mother of two strapping sons caught the near-slip, and chuckled with infectious warmth, liking this hard-featured captain so willing to go out of his way to accommodate her. "I thank you, Dahl."

"No sweat, woman. You’ve done a superb job of feeding the horde."

Twenty-four hours later, Evan made an ascent, and began the transit to Columbia.

The Captain unused to filling a wealth of leisure time leaped at the chance to sit the board with only his wife for company. Mindful that he would be shortly training four new women, Evan welcomed the opportunity to assess Talley’s skill privately. Having assigned Nelson and Lupe to a split twelve-hour shift-eight hours of sleep-shift followed by four on the board, four off, then eight more on the board, with Talley and himself following an identical split during the intervening periods-he proceeded to enjoy the unexpected transit across the void.

The weeklong span of time refreshingly free of the burden of command had afforded husband and wife the chance to fit themselves into their new relationship with no external strains operating to complicate the process. Each now felt supremely easy in the other’s company, that ease accentuated by mutual frank enjoyment of nights spent satisfying the earthy passion each so readily generated.

His eyes on the screens, Evan laughed softly to himself, recalling his awakening. Talley had opened her eyes well before the alarm went off. Dropping on her husband’s recumbent, supine body to kiss him on the mouth while he still slept, she had found herself within seconds flat on her back, as the lightflash reflexes of a highly trained martial expert operated before Evan fully woke. Having barely escaped a lethal slash to the larynx, Talley had employed a flight of imaginative, colorful invective as instinctively as Evan had launched the blow he managed to stop before it connected.

"Are you still finding my egregious error of this morning highly humorous?" the veteran demanded, eyeing her husband and captain reproachfully. "You damned nearly killed me!"

"I should have warned you, I guess," Evan admitted apologetically, even as his grin lingered. "I’m not used to sleeping next to anyone, let alone having her kiss me awake. Nice thought, though. Next time, shout in my ear before you drop on me, so I know it’s you."

"I’ll shout in your ear from across the damned cabin!"

"I’ll wager Arlen has chalked up some narrow escapes."

"Shades of the ancients! Now that I think about it, I’ll bet he has! Signe sports war-honed reflexes!"

Secure in the knowledge that his crewmembers slept at this hour, Evan asked the question generating acute puzzlement. "Talley, whatever made you so utterly certain you’d be a dud, in bed?"

"I most surely would have been, if I’d drawn a husband as ignorant as I was a week ago!" his wife retorted vehemently. "Pat yourself on the back, spacer-captain. You’re a superb instructor. That gratifying circumstance makes me think our first run will pose scarcely a problem-especially since one of your crewmen got matched with Darlene.

"She’s a veteran of the surface war. She never fought from the black ships, given that she sustained an all but fatal wound when we stormed Norman’s headquarters. That nasty thrust resulted in her being out of action for eighteen fourweeks. She still limps rather noticeably, but she trained under Jassy as a spacer-fighter. You’ll only face coaching three inexperienced girls, Evan. You lucked out-you and Nelson both."

Heaving a sigh, Evan shared a concern. "You know something, Talley? I’ve been dreading that run all along-as much or more than I did trying to find something to say to a woman with whom I had nothing in common. Well, you cured that major worry-permanently. And I agree that I lucked out in drawing three veterans. But putting inexperienced women through spacer training was only part of the worry. Less than half of it."

"Evan, talk it out. Good opportunity, this. Maybe I can relieve your mind."

"If I say what’s been bothering me, you’ll likely break the chair over my head before I wake up on my next sleep-shift."

"I doubt that. I fully realize that your culture programmed you differently from the men under whom I’ve served. Just spit it out. I’ll listen-and watch my mouth."

A grin overspread the Columbian’s rugged face, as he again recalled the start of his day. Slowly, his grin faded. "All right, I’ll talk it out. Military spacer-fighter: no easy life in the best of circumstances. One of the benefits is close comradeship. Men bond into a tightly knit unit, if their officers exert a high quality of leadership. Even so, the confinement, the long stretches of routine work between bouts of action, the sameness to each day: all those factors strain those bonds. Every little irritating habit a man has developed magnifies under those conditions. Men who’d willingly risk their lives for their comrades rub on those same comrades’ nerves, at times.

"Well…now the crew will be half women. Let’s assume that all the matches work out fully as well as yours and mine, and eliminate the idea that sexual tensions could develop. I’m still faced with the task of welding twelve spacers into a tightly knit unit-of fostering those bonds I mentioned, and of forestalling any sort of outbreak of overt hostility. Six women cooped up together will tend to be quarrelsome…jealous…maybe even spiteful. I can’t really envision a Columbian man’s being able to think of Columbian women as comrades-bonding to them the way they do to each other. I’ll end up with two factions, one of which can’t even operate as a unit by itself. Won’t I?"

Bestowing on his wife a sidelong, wary look, Evan braced himself to face a torrent of wrath.

Her lean frame relaxed, Talley said not a word for two full minutes. Frowning, she pondered that grim assessment. At length, the frown smoothed out, and the angular face reflected a blend of amused tolerance and faint reproach.

"Let me tell you something, Evan. Lupe and I have fought back to back, charged barricades side by side, and hacked our way through locks beside men and women with whom we’d formed extraordinarily close bonds. We’ve taken thrusts aimed at each other-or at male comrades-on the forte of our sword, and lived because other comrades did the same for us. Granted, that was all-out war. And granted, we fought not because we pursued a career, but because a sifted set of vicious bastards landed on our rock weapons in hand.

"So. We emerged from those experiences with skills we couldn’t use at home, once the war ended. Now we’re embarked on careers as military spacer-fighters. Those bonds will hold, never doubt that. And never doubt that we’ll form new ones, to your male crewmen."

"Sure you will! I wouldn’t be the least bit uneasy, if the two of you were the only women aboard! I’m worrying about the others! Columbian women!"

"I’m acquainted with only one Columbian woman, Evan, and that’s Rachel. She’s obviously not typical. You know what? Your culture rigorously discourages women from entering the professions-from becoming physicians, business owners, advocates, cargo spacers, ministry officials-you name it. Only one option lies open to them, if they wish to live a life other than one of hard menial labor. Housewife.

"Unfortunately for Columbian women, no custom exists in your world whereby family-heads arrange suitable marriages for girls. So the poor things find themselves acting on their own, in the scramble to marry well. I suppose they compete for husbands, just as men in your world compete with their associates to advance their careers. I guess, now that I think about that, that unmarried women would see each other as rivals, and likely would grow jealous, quarrelsome, and spiteful-like ten mythical cats in a bag.

"Well, our way’s different. Girls find themselves encouraged to enter a profession: to learn skills, and work alongside men. They don’t need to compete for husbands. It wouldn’t do them any good if they tried. Family-heads arrange marriages for both sons and daughters. That’s all taken care of. Our culture promotes civic cooperativeness, not competition. Girls grow up as friendly to each other as they are with the boys they meet in school.

"Granted, some of us grow up shy, being exquisitely aware that we’re not attractive to men. Not pretty, and not at ease in conversations with men when those men take on the aspect of prospective husbands. But once past the trauma of meeting-and wedding-a man, women in Gaea enjoy solid, comradely friendships with their husbands, their co-workers, and each other."

"Admirable, that, woman, I agree. But I’m still faced with the prospect of three cats in a bag! Three quarrelsome, jealous, spiteful Columbians!"

"Evan, when you get an idea in your head, the damned notion stays there. Look at it this way. Your three Columbians just got matched the way Gaeans routinely do, so no competition for the attention of eligible men faces them. Instead, they’re about to plunge into more work-harder work-than they ever dreamed of tackling up till now. They won’t have any time to spare for pettiness, or cattiness. They’ll need emotional support, and encouragement. Lupe and Darlene and I’ll give them that. We’ll demonstrate cooperativeness, not just mouth off about it. If your raw recruits grow jealous of anything, it’ll be of the ease we three women display with each other, and with our veteran comrades.

"So. The new girls will imitate our manner. Unconsciously, they’ll adopt new values, new habits of thought, and new ways of relating to each other, and to male crewmen. One day in the not-too-distant future, you’ll wake up to discover that your crew’s fully as tightly knit a unit as any you’ve ever captained. You might even find them less prone to sudden anger over small irritations, because they’re sexually satisfied. They’ll shake down into a family. You’ll see."

Frowning in his turn, Evan pondered that firm assertion. Tugging at his chin with his hand, he nodded. "That could be. You scored points, Talley, I’m forced to admit. I hope to hell you’re right. I’ll admit that men in an all-male crew do get horny, if they haven’t been ashore for fourweeks. Most men, anyway."

A stunning paradox lanced out of the black, as a notable exception struck the man whose crew formerly included Tilden and Warton. For the time being, however, Evan kept the implications of that novel idea to himself. Instead, he voiced a daunting worry. "Even if your prediction’s accurate, Talley, the well-knit family you feel sure will develop will come unglued, if ever one of the women dies in action right before her husband’s eyes, or a wife sees her man fall."

"I saw my brother die right in front of me, Evan. Lupe saw the man she would have married in a few weeks fall before her eyes. She stood over Seth’s body, and fought off three attackers in front of the locks at Dunn. Eric and his spacers dropped them…kept her from being cut down right beside the man she loved. She held Seth in her arms as he died. Eric and his spacers felt infinitely sad, but his crew didn’t come unglued.

"Conor saw Ione die in front of him, after ten Earthyears of an exceptionally successful marriage. Ryan lost Madelyn, and Daniel lost Janella. Midori lost Malcolm only a few fourweeks ago. She’s still suffering dreadfully, but she’s functioning as capably as always. I could go on for an hour, cataloging agony of that sort.

"Evan, any death’s dreadfully hard on morale. I could lose you, and don’t think that thought doesn’t devastate me. I’ll live in the shadow of that fear for the rest of my life, but that’s the price we’ll both pay for this sort of comradeship. Would you prefer a wife who stayed at home, worrying her heart out? One you saw every eight weeks or so? Or the peace of mind arising from your having no wife?"

"If I preferred that latter option, I’d have stayed single, woman! And after this past week-last night-I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving you in Columbia! You’d loathe the life you’d live there. No…we’ll both live in the shadow. So will every spacer aboard. I guess you’re right-we’ll all pay a price-but I hope to hell not in the near future. Or even in the far future. And I agree…talking it out did help. You just relieved my mind considerably, but you’d better realize that I’m damned lucky I’ve got three premier role models in my crew. I’d hate like hell to have drawn six Columbian catty types, one of whom I’d married!"

A peal of hearty laughter greeted that final, relieved cry from the heart. "That’d form the worst-case scenario, damned if it wouldn’t!" the Gaean concurred. "Well, the odds don’t favor any captain’s drawing six women of a single nationality, I’ll wager."

"You know something, Talley? I’d never thought of it before-consciously, anyway-but I had two crewmen aboard for the last seven Earthyears who cared as deeply for each other as any husband-wife couple I’ll draw now. They still do. It never occurred to me to object to their presence because of their sexual orientation. But if one ever dies, the other would face exactly the same sort of devastating sorrow as I would if I lost you. I never held that circumstance against either man, or worried about possible harm to morale if one of the pair fell. I guess I oughtn’t to feel so uneasy about the danger married couples face."

"I fought beside several pairs of men, and one of women, who formed that sort of bond," Talley declared equably. "None of us thought any differently about their risk than we did about that faced by the husband-wife pairs aboard. Signe assigned same-sex lovers to serve aboard the same ship. They bunked together, exactly as did married couples, and ran the same dreadful risk of losing someone they loved. We accepted the risk, in whatever form. Some of us paid the ultimate price. No…all of us paid it. Signe took every death deeply to heart. She suffered with every bereaved survivor."

"I don’t doubt that. Arlen lost his wife and son. He kept on leading, working, and fighting, but he took that bereavement as hard as any man ever did, nonetheless. Seeing what he went through still haunts those of us who now risk wives."

"Well, policing space with crews the majority of whom are seasoned fighters oughtn’t to result in the carnage the war produced, Evan. Especially since the Corps possesses the entire complement of Earth-armed ships."

"That’s true, but we’re puny in numbers, and spread out over a huge volume of space."

"So are the renegades based on O’Neill."

"Columbia keeps spawning new additions to their ranks, unfortunately."

"Now that the war’s over, and Arlen has returned the rock-hopper fleet, I suppose even Gaea could produce a few outlaws-rare as that has been in our history."

"Well, you’re right about the chance of a crew’s seeing action being low. And on this jaunt, nil. Garbage run! Quite the come-down, this chore, for a captain formerly possessed of high seniority in Arlen’s Special Force!" A grin split Evan’s rugged face.

A chuckle escaped the woman giving way to newly aroused curiosity. "Where will we set down, on Columbia? In the capital?" Damned if I wouldn’t like to see their seat of government!

"Hell, no. In Lehigh Unit, which is the ass-end of nowhere. Lehigh adjoins Rochester, which is a mining area. The recycling facility straddles the boundary. The Ministry of Public Manufacturing operates a plant that produces food containers right in the heart of Lehigh Unit. Odd, that. Most of the manufacturing the Ministry handles centers in Bessemer and New London. I guess some essential raw material used in food containers must be mined in Rochester, or nearby. Whatever, we unload our waste there."

On beholding his wife’s face register faint disappointment, Evan added, "We’re in no great rush to return to Wheeler, Talley. We could activate the safety gear enabling us to leave the ship unmanned on a lock. The four of us could drop into the canteen in the parts outlet. Nelson and I might well run across some former comrades. Fifth Corps used to man a small base at Rochester. They might still."

"This ship’s got several functions integrated into the standard engineering that I’m not familiar with," Talley observed musingly. "Would you take this opportunity to show me how those work?"

"You bet I will. Arlen designed those. He taught the twelve of us how to integrate them, and others like them, into the standard gear. I installed three such functions, but felt I needed a consultant who’s an expert, to make sure I didn’t make some lethal error. Jassy willingly obliged, when we found ourselves with twelve hours of coincident leave aboard the Flagship, a fourweek back. Damned fine background in electronics, he’s got."

"That he does. You’ll find that Darlene’s exceptionally comfortable changing board components." Mischief flooded normally hard gray eyes.

"Woman, set your mind to programming an orbit around Columbia, and quit needling a man who just confided more to you of his professional worries than he ever has to any associate, prior to now!"

A strong, dark-hued hand closed over that of the man offering that crisp rebuttal. "I’m glad you did, Evan. I feel honored, knowing that you’re willing to confide in me."

Each veteran warrior turned his mind to calculations, savoring an inner glow of comradely warmth.