Regular Space Service Training Command,
Copper Mountain Base

Halfway up the cliff, Brun realized that someone was trying to kill her. She had already shifted weight from her left foot to her right foot when the thought penetrated, and she completed the movement, ending with her left foot on the tiny ledge almost at her crotch, before she gave her brain a "message received" signal.

Instantly, her hands slicked with sweat, and she lost the grip of her weaker left hand on the little knob. She dipped it into her chalk, and reached for the knob again, then chalked her right hand and refound that hold. That much was mechanical, after these days in training . . . so someone was trying to kill you, you didn't have to help them by doing something stupid.

She argued with herself, while pushing up, releasing her right leg for the next move. Of course, in a general way, someone was trying to kill her, or any other trainee. She had known that coming in. Better to lose trainees here than half-trained personnel in the field, where their failure would endanger others. Her breath eased, as she talked herself into a sensible frame of mind. Right foot there, and then the arms moving, finding the next holds, and then the left leg . . . she had enjoyed climbing almost from the first day of training.

A roar in her ears and the sudden sting on her hand: she was falling before she had time to recognize the noise and the pain. A shot. Someone had shot at her . . . hit her? Not enough pain—must've been rock splinters—then she hit the end of her rope, and swung into the cliff face with a force that knocked the breath out of her. Reflexively, her hands and feet caught at the rock, sought grips, found them, took her weight off the climbing harness. Her head rang, still; she shook it and the halves of her climbing helmet slid down to hang from the straps like the wing cases of a crushed beetle.

Damn . . . she thought. Reason be damned, someone was trying to kill her—her in particular—and plastered to a cliff in plain sight was not her idea of a good place to be when someone was shooting at her. She glanced around quickly. Up—too far, too slow, too exposed. Down—150 feet of falling in a predictable vertical line, whether free or on the rope. To the right, nothing but open rock. To the left, a narrow vertical crack. They had been told not to use it this time, but she'd climbed in it before, learning about cracks and chimneys. If she could get there . . .

She pushed off, and the next shot hit the cliff where her head had been, between head and right hand. Splinters of rock sprayed her hand, the right side of her face. She did not fall. She lunged for the next hold, not in a panic but with the controlled speed of someone who knew just where each hold would be. Whoever it was had some reason not to fire on automatic, at full speed. But now they knew which way she was going. They could adjust their aim . . . she took a chance, and her foot slipped on one hold. For an instant, she hung from her arms, feet scrabbling . . . then she found the hold, and the next. The sheltering crevice was just ahead—this time it was her left hand that slipped, when she reached too far, and even as she cursed, the next shot shattered the hold for which she'd reached, loosing a shower of rock.

She didn't hesitate. The breakage offered new holds; in a second she was into the crevice, yanking hard on the rope for more, for enough to move into deeper cover. What she hoped the shooter didn't know was alignment of the crevice. Here, she was as vulnerable as on the cliff face, apparently held in a vertical groove. But the forces which had made the crevice had produced an almost spiral fracture. Not ten feet above she could be safely hidden from the shooter.

The rope from below dragged at her. No more slack. They hadn't understood . . . or were they part of the plot? She yanked again, unsuccessfully.

Our Texas, formerly Kurzawa-Yahr

Joint Investment Colony

Mitchell Langston Pardue, Ranger Bowie of the New Texas Godfearing Militia on Our Texas, sat in his heavy carved chair and waited for the Captain to finish reading his report. He stroked the carving on the right arm—supposed to resemble the Old Texas animal called a dilla, whatever that had been—and thought how he could imply that the Captain was an idiot without actually saying so.

"Mitch, you payin' attention?" Pete Robertson, Ranger Travis and Captain of Rangers, had a querulous waver in his voice that made Mitch want to slap him upside the head with something heavy. He was getting old, with a wattled neck like a turkey gobbler.

"You bet, Captain," he said. "You say we need about thirty more of them nukes from Familias Regnant's space fleet, in order to top up the first depot. Your timetable for hittin' the Guernesi is runnin' behind a little . . ."

"It's stopped in its tracks like a mule in a swamp," the Captain said. "An' if we wait too long, they won't make the connection we want." The Guernesi had reacted with vigor to the theft of a shipload of tourists, and had gotten them back, though with casualties. Then they'd imposed a trade embargo, and blown up a couple of ships to make their point that they held a grudge about the ones who had died. "We've gotta get more weapons. And there's somethin' wrong with our main agent at their space fleet headquarters—the last signal we got from him makes no sense."

"He's gettin' old, though," Sam Dubois, Ranger Austin said. "He's had one of them proscribed procedures . . ."

"He was rejuvenated," Mitch said, using the correct term. "They started rejuvenating their most senior NCOs about ten, fifteen years ago, and he's one of 'em. If they hadn't, likely we wouldn't have got anythin' from him."

"But it's an abomination," Sam said. Stubborn as rock, Sam was, and tighter than a tick to Parson Wells.

"Yes, it's an abomination," Mitch said. "I'm not sayin' it's right. But the devil takes care of his own, sometimes, and them rejuvenations have been working awhile now. The man's only eighty; his mind should be fine even if he hadn't had the drugs."

"But it's not," the Captain said, with a triumphant look at Mitch. "Look at this here." He passed down a sheet of paper.

Mitch looked at it. "Gobbledegook," he said after a glance. "Did he change ciphers or something?"

"No. I think he's taken to some heathen practice—or that rejuvenation is eating his brain. I've heard about that." His next glance at Mitch was calculating.

"Could be," Mitch said. Everyone knew he had read more widely in the dangerous literature of biomodification than was strictly approved by the parsons. The Captain was trying to trap him into a discussion that would prove his contamination, but Mitch was smarter than that. Instead, he had his own plan.

"Well?" Sam said.

"Captain," Mitch said formally. "I'd like to make a proposal."

"Sure," the Captain said. His gaze didn't waver. Mitch could have laughed; the idiot still thought Mitch would incriminate himself.

"You know you gave me permission 'way last year to do some work in the Familias myself—"


"Well, sir, I cast bread on the waters and let me tell you, there are hungry souls out there all athirst for the true word of God." Now the others all nodded, leaning forward. "I found us some agents here and there—in big trading firms, and one in a regional weapons depot, an assistant station master—and we've been getting a nice little flow of illicits in here for about six months."

Mitch pulled out his own report and passed it around. "More'n that, gentlemen, any time we want an entire cargo hold loaded with nukes or anything else, I've got just the person to do it. What I thought was, I'd go on and tell 'em to load up, and then go get us a transport as well as the weapons. There's this ship that takes a shortcut through a deserted system—a fine place for an ambush."

"Ah—and you want our help, Ranger Bowie?"

"No sir, I don't. With all respect, sir, there's too much goin' on to pull resources from the rest of our people. What I thought was, I'd take all of the Bowies, and take care of this little chore—and that should put us back on track for knocking the Guernesi flat on their tails."

Silence, during which the others digested this, and looked for ways to profit from it. Mitch made himself sit still, and observed.

"What about the crew?" the Captain asked finally.

Mitch shrugged. "Our usual rules. We still need more females, if we can find some that aren't too badly contaminated."

"You know, we've had to mute damn near every foreign female we've brought in," Sam said. "And I worry about their effect on our women."

Mitch smiled. "We're real men; we can control our women." The others quickly nodded; nobody wanted to admit to having a problem in that area. "Besides, we know God approves, because the imported women have strong, healthy babies, fewer of 'em born with defects." That, too, was unarguable. A child's defects reflected parental sin; if healthy children came from women brought up in sin, then it must be because God celebrated their release from the abominations of the ungodly.

"If Parson Wells will bless your mission, Ranger Bowie, you have my approval," the Captain said formally.

Just wait until he, Ranger Bowie, was Captain of Rangers, and then see if he rolled over like that for anyone. Mitch nodded, and when the parson came in he explained the proposed mission again. Parson Wells pursed his lips, but finally nodded. "Just be sure to avoid contamination, Ranger Bowie."

Mitch smiled. "Yes, sir, Parson. I got no intention of going heathen." He had every intention of coming back with weapons, women, wealth—and every intention of making it to the captaincy before he was many years older.

* * ** * *

R.S.S. Training Command, Copper Mountain

Lieutenant Esmay Suiza arrived at Training Command's Copper Mountain Base with high hopes only to find herself waiting her turn for security clearance in a big echoing reception hall with two of the ugliest murals she'd ever seen. On the right, over the com booths, a scene of ships in combat in space. They looked nothing like ships as Esmay had seen them from the outside. Realism would have been dull at best, but she couldn't help an internal smirk at the astronomical decorations . . . stars, comets, spiral galaxies. On the left, over the luggage dumps, a scene depicting ground combat, which looked even less realistic than the space one . . . for one thing, nobody's uniform ever stayed that clean. For another, the artist had only a shaky grasp of anatomy and perspective; all the figures looked squashed sideways.

Esmay tried to get her mind back to her own high hopes. A change in track, from technical to command, and she was finally pursuing her destiny, using her best talents. Certainly her commanders thought so. She had made friends, including Barin Serrano who was—if she was honest with herself—much more than a friend. In his admiration, she felt herself more capable; in his concern, she felt herself loved. That still made her uncomfortable: she had never really thought about love, about being loved, and she could hardly believe it had happened, or that it might last. But she still felt the touch of his hands on her face—she pulled herself back from that memory and made herself consider what came next.

She glanced at the space combat scene again and could not help shaking her head.

"Gruesome, aren't they, sir?" asked the sergeant at the first security station. "Supposed to be very old and valuable, but really—it looks like something done by a half-gifted amateur."

"That's probably what they got," Esmay said, grinning. She presented her orders and identification.

"New rules, Lieutenant, require a full med-ID scan before you receive station tags. If you'll follow the yellow line to the next station, they'll get started."

Security had been tighter all the way across Familias Space, a natural result of all that had happened in the past quarter year. Still, she hadn't expected the level of confirmation required here, at a training base whose only access was through a Fleet-controlled orbital station. Where were intruders supposed to be coming from?

An hour later she was waiting outside yet another security checkpoint. It was ridiculous. How long did it take to do a retinal check, even a full neuroscan? Her stomach growled, reminding her that she'd broken one of the great rules of military life—eat whenever you get a chance. She could have grabbed a snack before leaving the transport, but (her memory mocked her) it was only supposed to be a couple of hours down to Copper Mountain.

In for the retinal check at last. "Just follow the yellow line, Lieutenant . . ." said the voice behind the screen.

"But can't you just—"

"Follow the yellow line."

Which ended in another bench to wait on until her name was called. Ahead of her was a whole squad of neuro-enhanced combat troops . . . she'd heard of these but never seen any up close. They looked like anyone else who happened to be carrying about twice the muscle and half the fat of anyone else. They had been chatting, but fell silent as she came up to the bench. She felt fragile beside them.

"Excuse me, Lieutenant—" She looked up to see that they had reshuffled themselves to put one of the women next to her.


"Are you the Lieutenant Suiza who was on Despite and then Koskiusko?"

Esmay nodded.

"Lieutenant, I'm really glad to meet you. I—we've always wondered what it's like outside during FTL flight. Would you mind telling us about it? They tell us the debriefing sims won't be out for another six months."

"It's . . . really odd," Esmay said. "First, the starfield disappears—" She was about to go on when the clerk called her name.

"If we don't take you now, you'll be here for hours," the clerk said. "These neuro-enhanced jobs take forever."

Esmay felt a wave of cold dislike rise from the seated squad, and hoped they were aiming it at the clerk, and not her. "Excuse me," she said to them all.

"Of course, Lieutenant," said the woman who had asked her the question. She had green eyes, startling in her dark face. Then she looked beyond Esmay to the clerk, and Esmay was not surprised to hear the clerk's breath catch.

She hadn't had a full neuroscan since she entered the Academy, and it was still as boring as ever, being stuck in the dark maw of the machine following orders to think of this, or that, or imagine moving her left little finger . . .

Finally it was done, and the last yellow line led her back to the desk where her duffel lay waiting for her, along with a handful of ID tags she would need for the facilities she was authorized to enter.

"Junior officers' quarters and mess that way, sir," the sergeant said, and gave a crisp salute as he passed her through. Esmay returned it and stepped onto the indicated walkway. She had missed out on command training, once she'd chosen technical track, so now she would be taking back-to-back courses—more school! Her own fault, she reminded herself, and yet not a fault to spend much time on. Her Altiplano conscience worried about the quickness with which her retrained neurons pushed away that momentary pang of guilt, and she grinned mentally at it. Her Altiplano conscience, like her Altiplano family, could stay where it belonged . . . on Altiplano.

She signed into the officers' quarters and the officers' mess, showing her clearance tags each time, picked up a duty roster, then a class schedule. She slung her gear into 235-H, one anonymous cubicle in a row of anonymous cubicles, and then headed for the mess. Even if it was between mealtimes for the school, they should have something for officers arriving from different time zones.

The dining room was almost empty; when she walked in, a mess steward peered out from the galleys and then came toward her.


"I just came in," Esmay said. "Our ship was on . . ."

"Fleet Standard. I understand Lieutenant . . . you're overdue for . . . midday, right? Do you want a full meal or a snack?"

"Just a snack." She would get herself on the planet's schedule faster this way, but she felt hollow as a new-built hull at the moment.

He seated her at a table a discreet distance from the two that were occupied, and left to bring the food. Esmay glanced casually at the others, wondering if they would be in her class. A young woman in fatigues without insignia, her curly blonde hair cropped short, sat hunched over what looked like a bowl of soup. Beside her, an older man in a lieutenant commander's uniform who, from his posture, was laying down the law about something.

Esmay looked away. Unusual to chew someone out while they were eating, but it would be rude to observe. Could this be father and daughter? At the other table, three young men wearing exercise clothes who were, she realized, watching her. She met their gaze coolly, and they looked away, not as if they were embarrassed, but as if they had seen all they wanted. Their gaze wandered the room steadily; they ignored the litter of plates and cups before them.

The steward brought out a platter of sandwiches, pastries, and raw vegetable slices arranged in a fan-shaped pattern. Esmay ate a sandwich of thinly sliced cattleope spread with horseradish sauce, several carrot sticks, and was considering one of the curly pastry things which smelled so deliciously of cinnamon and hot apples when the blonde woman erupted.

"I'm not quitting!" she said, loudly enough that Esmay could not fail to hear. She was sitting upright now, her face flushed slightly. With that flush Esmay could spot the irregular patches of fresh healing . . . she had been in a regen tank to repair some kind of injury to her face and—Esmay could not help looking—hands and arms.

The older man, with a cautionary glance at Esmay, rumbled something she could not hear.

"No!" the blonde said. "It's something else—something important. I know—" Then she too looked around, met Esmay's eyes, and fell silent for a moment.

Some instinct prompted Esmay to look not merely down, but—under lowered lids—across at the other table. The three men there now made sense . . . their dismissive assessment of her, their constant surveillance of the room. These were the bodyguards of someone who hired the best—or to whom the best were, by custom, assigned.

Whom were they guarding? Surely not the young woman . . . if they had been, they had failed in some way or she would not have been hurt. A lieutenant commander? Hardly . . . unless he were not a lieutenant commander at all.

She glanced back at the young woman, and surprised by an expression on both faces so alike that it had to imply a relationship. Her eye, trained on a planet where families mattered, and where she had been expected to recognize even the most distant Suiza cousin, picked out now the similarities of bone and proportion, as well as behavioral quirks like the sudden lift of eyebrow that both older man and younger woman showed at that moment.

"Brun . . ." That carried, in part because the tone was so like the pleading tone her own father had used. Her mind caught on the unusual word. Brun. Wasn't that—? She clamped her mouth shut on the apple tart. If that was the blonde girl who had been involved in the Xavier affair, then her father was the present Speaker of the Grand Council . . . the most powerful man in the Familias Regnant. What could they be doing here?

Speculation having outrun data, she munched steadily through the tart, studiously ignoring the argument which continued, in lower voices, at the other table. She struggled to remember all the snippets of rumor she'd heard about Thornbuckle's wild youngest daughter . . . a spoiled beauty, a hotheaded fool who had plunged into the thick of intrigue with no training, an idiot who'd ended up dead drunk and naked in a rockhopper's pod in the aftermath of a battle. But also something about being, in some obscure way, Admiral Vida Serrano's protégé, because of her services to the Familias and—most particularly—to Admiral Serrano's niece Heris.

"Excuse me," someone said. Esmay swallowed the last bite of tart, and looked up. She had been concentrating so hard on not noticing what she shouldn't notice that she hadn't noticed anyone approaching her table.

It was one of the bodyguards. He had no rank insignia on his exercise clothes, but from his face he was older than she.


"You're Lieutenant Suiza, aren't you?"

Despite the therapy, her gut tightened. "Yes, that's right."

"Lieutenant Commander . . . Smith . . . would like to meet you."

"Lieutenant Commander Smith?"

He nodded his head toward the other table. "Smith," he said firmly. "And his daughter."

For a moment Esmay wished that she had just lived with her hunger until the next scheduled main meal. She had no desire to get involved in whatever was going on, whether it was a matter of father-daughter dissension or some plot against the Familias.

"Of course," she said, and rose from the table.

The older man and the young woman watched her approach with, Esmay thought, the wrong sort of interest. The older man had the sort of face which might have been pleasant, but presently had locked into a tight mask of concern. The young woman looked both annoyed and afraid.

"Commander Smith," Esmay said, "I'm Lieutenant Suiza."

"Have a seat," the man said. Although his uniform fitted his tall, lanky body perfectly, she was sure it did not fit his spirit . . . it would have needed stars on the shoulders, and plenty of them.

"This is an unexpected honor," the man went on. "I had heard about you, of course, from Admiral Serrano, after Xavier—and now this recent business—"

This, for instance, was not the way a real lieutenant commander would have brought it up. Esmay wondered whether to relieve him of the need for faking a military identity, and had her mouth open when the young woman spoke.

"Dad! Stop it!"

"Brun, I'm merely—"

Now almost whispering, but still angrily, the young woman continued. "You're not really a lieutenant commander and it's not fair." She turned to Esmay. "I'm Brun Meager, Lord Thornbuckle's daughter, and this is my father."

"I'm pleased to meet Commander Smith," Esmay said, "under the circumstances."

His face relaxed a bit, and his mouth quirked. "Well, one of you young ladies has a bit of discretion."

"I'm not being indiscreet," Brun said. "She could see you weren't really a Fleet officer, and I could see the wheels going around in her head as she tried to figure out how to handle it."

"One allows prominent people to introduce themselves as they choose," Esmay said. "One's private curiosity never intrudes."

Brun blinked. "Where are you from?"

"Altiplano," Esmay said. "Where, on occasion, senior officials may choose to appear in borrowed identities."

"And where good manners seem to have penetrated more than in some other places," Lord Thornbuckle said pointedly. Brun flushed again.

"I don't like deception."

"Oh, really? That's why you so carefully avoided using your own name when you were coming back to Rockhouse—"

"That was different," Brun said. "There was a good reason—"

"There's a good reason now, Brun, and if you can't see that I'll go back to calling you Bubbles with reason." For all his low, even voice and quiet face, Lord Thornbuckle was seriously angry. Esmay wished she were on the other side of the planet. Father-daughter conflict raised ghosts she wanted laid to rest. Brun subsided, but Esmay had the feeling she was not really subdued.

"Perhaps we could continue this in another location," Lord Thornbuckle said. Esmay could think of no polite way to refuse, and she wasn't sure where her duty lay, as an R.S.S. officer. But she would have to report to class at 0800 local time the next morning, and she had a lot to do in the meantime. Still . . . he was who he was, and even who he wasn't outranked her.

"Of course, sir," Esmay said.

Thornbuckle nodded to the men at the other table, who stood up. "I'm afraid we will have an escort."

That didn't bother Esmay; what bothered her was landing in the middle of whatever mess this was. She noticed that the escort split up, two going ahead and one trailing behind. Were they Fleet? She couldn't tell. She felt she should be able to tell; the civilians aboard Kos had been obvious enough. These didn't look like civilians, but they didn't quite fit Fleet, either. Private guards?

The conference room they finally entered was small, centered with a table large enough for only eight or so to surround. It had a display console at one end, but Lord Thornbuckle ignored that. He waited until his escort nodded, then sat at one end of the table. Habit, Esmay supposed.

"Sit down, and I'll make this as brief as possible. You haven't been here long, have you?"

"Just got off the shuttle, sir," Esmay said. "I'm here for the command courses I missed earlier, and then the standard junior officers' course." The one that would qualify her to command a ship in combat, according to the Board of Inquiry which had recommended it. Of course, not being qualified hadn't stopped her yet—but she put that out of mind and prepared to focus on whatever Lord Thornbuckle had to say.

"My daughter wanted to take some training with Fleet experts," Thornbuckle said. "I agreed, in part because she'd gotten herself in so much trouble without training . . . it seemed the risk-taking genes had all come together in her."

"And the lucky genes," Brun said. "I know they're not enough, but they're also not negligible. That's what Captain—Commander—Serrano said. And her aunt admiral."

The thought of anyone calling Vida Serrano "aunt admiral"—even a niece—shocked Esmay. For this girl—for Brun was clearly younger than she was—to do so would have been unthinkable except that Brun had just done it.

"But there've been incidents," Thornbuckle went on, ignoring what Brun had just said. "I thought she'd be safer here, on a Fleet training facility—"

"I am safer," Brun said.

"Brun, face the facts: someone shot at you. Tried to kill you."

Esmay managed not to say what she was thinking, that a Fleet training facility was not, in the nature of things, the safest place in the universe. Live fire exercises, for instance. Was this what the girl had gotten into?

"It wasn't anywhere near a live fire exercise," Thornbuckle went on. "That was my first thought, of course. Military training is dangerous; it has to be. But we—and by `we' I mean not only myself, but others who've seen Brun in action—thought it would be less dangerous than turning her loose on the universe untrained." He spread his hands. "No—this has been different. I suppose we were just careless. We knew there were traitors in Fleet; that mess with Xavier proved it. But it didn't dawn on me that there might be traitors here, in a training base, until Admiral Serrano pointed it out. We knew that Brun might be at special risk, but we didn't react fast enough."

"I'm alive," Brun said.

"You survived with your usual flair," her father said. "But you also had to spend a day in the regen tank, which is not what I call coming out unscathed. Too close for comfort is my analysis. You have to have more protection, or you have to leave."

Brun's shoulders twitched. "I'll be careful," she said.

"Not good enough. You have to sleep sometime."

"Have you identified the nature of the threat?" Esmay asked, to forestall another round of useless argument.

"No. Not . . . precisely. And the worst of it is that I can see a variety of threats. The Benignity's not happy with their loss at Xavier, and we are sure they have other agents in Fleet. Some have been identified, others haven't. They consider assassination a political tool. The Bloodhorde . . . well, you can imagine how they would like to have my daughter in their control. Then there are my personal enemies among the Familias. A few years ago, I would not have believed any of the Families would make war on personal relations, but now—things have changed."

"And you—or your advisors—think your daughter should leave this facility?"

"It would be easier to protect her at home, or even on Castle Rock."

"I would go crazy," Brun muttered. "I'm not a child, and I can't just sit around doing nothing."

"Do you want to join Fleet?" Esmay asked. She couldn't really imagine this obvious rebel wanting to join anything with discipline, but if she hadn't understood . . .

"I did at one time," Brun said, eyeing her father. "Now—I'm not sure."

"She doesn't want to get stuck doing boring things," Thornbuckle said. Brun flushed.

"It's not that—!"

"Isn't it? When Captain Serrano pointed out how much of her time was spent on boring routine, you said you didn't much like that prospect."

"I don't, but that's part of any life. I do understand that, just as I understand that the exciting bits are dangerous. You seem to think—"

Esmay jumped in again, as much for her own comfort as for the hope of getting useful information. "Perhaps you could tell me what you think I might do to help?"

"She needs a"—Thornbuckle paused, and Esmay was sure he was thinking of the word keeper—"Mentor," he said instead. "If she's going to stay here, I need to know that someone of her—" Another pause, during which Esmay could almost hear the unspoken, discarded choices: social standing, rank, type, ability . . . "Someone she might respect and listen to, anyway, will be near her. She's been chattering about you and your exploits—"

"I do not chatter," Brun said, through her teeth.

"So I thought maybe you—"

"She has her own responsibilities," Brun said. "And there are the . . . guards." In that gap was some epithet Esmay was glad the guards had not heard.

"Are you telling me now that you will accept the security procedures we talked about?"

"Rather than bother Lieutenant Suiza, yes." Brun gave Esmay a challenging look. "She will be busy with her own courses here; they don't exactly give officers time off to play nursemaid to rich girls."

Esmay interpreted this as having more to do with Brun's determination not to have a nursemaid than any consideration of her own convenience.

Thornbuckle looked from one to the other of them. "I have seen more cooperative senior ministers of state," he said. "Whatever gene sculpting we did on you, Brun, is not going to be repeated again."

"I didn't ask for it," Brun said. Again Esmay sensed old arguments lurking below the surface.

"No—but life gives you a lot you didn't ask for. Now—if you promise me that you will cooperate with the new security procedures—"

"All right," Brun said, not quite sulkily. "I'll cooperate."

"Then, Lieutenant Suiza, I'm very sorry to have wasted your time. And I must thank you for your recent actions; you well deserve your recent award." He nodded at the new ribbon on her uniform.

"Thank you," Esmay said, wondering if she was just supposed to leave and forget the conversation had ever happened. She turned to Brun and supressed an almost wistful expression on her face. "If we end up in the same class, I'll be glad to share notes with you. I'm glad to have met you."

Brun nodded; Esmay got up when Thornbuckle did, and he walked her to the door. "I'm officially still Smith," he said quietly.

"I understand, sir." She understood more than she wanted to, or than he expected. She was glad to get back to her own quarters, where she could deal with her memories of her father in privacy. There, she found a stack of study cubes in the delivery bin, and racked them into the cube reader's storage. Some looked much more promising than others; Leadership for Junior Officers made sense, but why did she have to study Administrative Procedures for Junior Staff? She didn't want anything to do with administration.

* * ** * *

Brun curled up on her bunk under her very non-regulation afghan and pretended to nap until her security detail had finished whatever it was doing and gone to stand outside. As if she were a prisoner. As if she were a naughty child. As if being shot at were her fault.

Her father had done it again. She would have been fine, if he had only been somewhere else, if only she had had time to get well before he showed up. But no. He had to come here, still unsure she should be doing things like this, and embarrass her in front of a roomful of professionals . . .

In front of Esmay Suiza.

She rolled over, and picked up her remote, then flicked on her cube reader, cycling through the selections until she found the one she wanted.

Back on Xavier, while she herself was drunk and incapable (as her father had mentioned more than once), Esmay Suiza had survived the treachery of her captain, the mutiny that followed, and then saved everyone—including Brun—by blowing up the enemy flagship. Brun had followed the court-martial of Despite's crew in the news; she had wondered over and over how that calm young woman with the flyaway hair managed to do it. She didn't look that special—but something in the expression, in the eyes that never wavered, caught at her.

And then the same young woman had been a hero again, in an adventure that seemed like something out of a storycube series . . . she had been outside a ship during FTL flight and survived; she had defeated another enemy. Once more her image filled the news viewers, and once more Brun had imagined meeting her . . . talking to her . . . becoming—she was sure they could become—friends.

When she'd learned that Esmay Suiza was coming here, to Copper Mountain—that she might even be in the same classes—she had been so certain that her luck was running true. Here at last was the woman who could help her be like that, help her combine her uncooperative past experiences into the self she wanted to be.

And now her father had ruined it. He had treated Suiza as a professional, worthy of respect; he had made it clear he thought Brun was a headstrong child. What would Esmay Suiza think now—what could she think, when the Speaker of the Grand Council, her own father, had presented her that way? It was impossible that Suiza could see her as a competent adult.

She would not let it be impossible. She would not let this chance go by. There had to be some way to convince Suiza that she was more than a silly fluffhead. Fluffhead made her think of Suiza's hair, which could certainly use some attention . . . maybe Suiza would be approachable on a girl-to-girl level first, and then she could prove what else she could do. . . .

* * ** * *

At the next main meal, a few hours later, Esmay returned to the mess, and sat with a tableful of jigs and lieutenants who had arrived the day before. She remembered a few of them from the Academy, but had not served with any of them. They knew of her recent exploits and were eager to discuss them.

"What's it like to fly a Bloodhorde raider?" asked Vericour, another lieutenant. In the six years since their graduation, he had gained several kilos and now sported a crisp red mustache.

"Fun," said Esmay, knowing the expected response. "Goes like a bat, even if you don't redline it."


"None to speak of. And the weapons systems are amazing for its size. The interior's mostly weapons, very little crew space."

"They must have lousy shooting, if they missed you—"

"They didn't shoot at us first," Esmay said. "After all, I was in their ship. They let us get close, and—poof."

"Yeah . . . that's the way. What're you here for?"

"A whole string of things," Esmay said. "I'm changing to command track—"

"You mean you weren't?"

"No." How to explain this one?

Vericour shrugged. "That's Fleet Personnel for you. Take someone with a flair like yours and shove her into technical, just because they need more techs. They ought to recruit techs, if they want more."

Esmay opened her mouth to explain it hadn't been Fleet's fault, considered the difficulty of the subsequent explanations, and nodded instead. "Yup. So now they've let me into command track, and I have to play catch-up. All the stuff I missed—"

"They're not going to drag you through command psychology, and all that dorf?"

Esmay nodded.

"When you've actually commanded ships in battle? That's ridiculous."

In sardonic chorus, everyone else at the table said "No, that's regulations!" Vericour laughed, and Esmay along with him. She was enjoying herself, she realized, with people who were almost strangers, even without Barin. The discovery that she could enjoy herself like this was new enough that it still surprised her when it happened.

"You know, I heard the Speaker's daughter's here," Anton Livadhi said, in a lower tone.

"Well, she's run through the whole of the Royal Space Service," Vericour said. "I suppose she's looking for new blood."

Esmay said nothing; she could not say anything without revealing knowledge she wasn't supposed to have.

"Is it true she was floating around in a rockhopper's pod stark naked at Xavier?" Livadhi asked.

"Alone?" asked someone else Esmay didn't know.

"That's the story," Livadhi said. "My cousin—you know Liam, Esmay; he was on Despite—he said he heard from a buddy on the flagship that she got stewed and somehow ended up out there all alone. But Liam's a bit inventive; I figured Esmay would know if it really happened."

"Why?" asked Esmay, buying time.

"Because they'd have put a young female officer with her, afterwards," Livadhi said. "I figured that would be you."

"Not me," Esmay said. "I was busy doing scutwork on Despite. Never even saw her." Until now, but that was another thing she couldn't tell them.

When she left the table, she glanced around but did not see Brun. Did the girl have meals alone somewhere? She pushed aside the thought that the girl might be lonesome. Brun Meager was not her problem . . . this course was.


Title: Rules of Engagement
Author: Elizabeth Moon
ISBN: 0-671-57777-8 0-671-57841-3
Copyright: © 1998 by Elizabeth Moon
Publisher: Baen Books