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Commander Peter Ernst Raeder gazed contentedly at the scenery flashing by, sipped his perfectly chilled champagne, stretched out his long legs and crossed them at the ankles.

The mag-lev train on which he was a passenger was an antique, a feature of travel on Come By Chance, and the most luxurious method of travel he’d ever sampled. The extra cost of first-class private accommodations was well worth the money. The seats were wide and comfy, the leg room ample, the windows enormous and the company . . . Raeder glanced at Lieutenant Commander Sarah James and caught her watching him instead of the lush mountains they traveled through.

He smiled, she smiled; warm, fuzzy, blissful, idiot happiness infused the air. Raeder could care less about anything just now but the rightness of things as they currently stood between him and Sarah James of the rich russet hair, the smooth lips, the . . . 

They clinked glasses and gave each other the conspiratorial grins of people in love. The glorious forest-meadow-mountain vistas of Come By Chance came in a poor second to the limitless horizons they saw in each other’s eyes. The scent of pine and spring flowers went by unnoticed.

Suddenly Peter began to chuckle.

“What?” Sarah asked.

“Oh, it’s just that this,” he gestured around him with his glass, ended by tipping it in her direction, “is a switch.”

Sarah gave him a look of smiling confusion.

“A switch from what?” Her eyes betrayed the flash of thought, Us?

“I’m not under suspicion, on suspension or awaiting trial.” He leaned in closer. “Or alone.” Her lips twitched in acknowledgement. “In fact,” Peter continued, leaning back with a slightly smug smile tugging at his lips, “everything is going incredibly smoo—”

There was a jerk, and the ear-torturing, inhuman screech of metal scraping against metal with phenomenal force. Raeder and Sarah were shaken and tossed like dice in a box, flung back and forth against each other and the sides of the compartment. The bellow of ripping steel struck the ear like a blow; so loud that Raeder couldn’t hear his own voice when he shouted Sarah’s name. . . . 

Things are back to normal, he thought. All screwed up. And here I thought the gods had relented.

Memory scrolled through his mind. He hoped it wasn’t the end-of-life flashback you were supposed to get; at least it wasn’t his whole life. Just the start of his latest planetside leave. . . . 

Raeder gripped his carryall a little tighter and squared his jaw. He exited the tiny shuttle to find himself at a landing area so small it barely existed, just a circle of cerement large enough to hold the shuttle and a few antennae. He walked towards the security shack, which was no more than a roofed cubicle for the soldier on duty, and handed over his ID and Dr. Pianca’s invitation. With a wordless salute the soldier took them and began inputting a query.

It had been a brief and uneventful trip from Marjorie Base, on Come By Chance’s lone moon, to Camp Seta, Star Command’s hospital/convalescent center on CBC itself. Raeder would have welcomed a delay somewhere along the line, but wheels had turned with miraculous smoothness and here he was in incredibly short order. Luckily, he was completely superfluous on the Invincible while the dockyard crews worked her back up—a fact that they’d made abundantly plain.

The guard in the security shack handed back Peter’s documents with another salute and Raeder walked out into the open. The warm, moist air held a delicate scent of spices and flowers, making it a pleasure just to breathe.

Peter gazed about himself. The camp was set in a verdant valley cupped between craggy, snow-capped mountains, under a clear sky full of wings—most too far away to show that they were scaly leather instead of feathers—and it had an aura of serenity about it. The buildings were sleek and modern with large windows and colorful native woods bright against the white stucco architecture. Each ward-complex had its own unique fountain and brightly flowered courtyard. The foothills beyond were lush with tropical vegetation; many of the trees were a species of giant bromeliad and the colors varied from a green so deep it was almost black to hot pink, deep red, rusty orange and good old Earth green. Beyond the buildings, just visible between two low, green hills, the hint of a lake sparkled, fed by a waterfall that leapt from stone to stone down a tall, narrow cliff in a glittering white cascade.

As though resisting the charm of this place a vague anxiety stirred within him concerning duties left unfinished on the severely damaged Invincible. Belay that, he ordered himself. You’ve left Main Deck in very competent hands. Now what did he do about his anxiety in regard to this visit?

Sarah James’ doctor, Regina Pianca, had called and invited him to visit her. “She says she misses your sparring matches,” the doctor explained with a smile.

The physical or the verbal ones? Raeder had wondered.

But just the idea of visiting Camp Seta, universally known in the service as Camp Stick ’Em Together Again, gave him the collywobbles.

Spent too much time getting repaired at one of these myself, he thought.

Which was true, but unreasonable in this case. He wouldn’t be visiting Sarah in the burn ward, covered with pink, regenerating goo. He wouldn’t see her in the reconstruction section, struggling to master a new electronic limb. He’d be visiting her in the psych unit.

Well . . . maybe that’s what really has me scared. The doctor hadn’t gone into detail regarding Sarah’s problems. But the fact that her physician was making the invitation seemed ominous to Raeder.

When she’d shipped out for Camp Seta Sarah was holding herself together by sheer willpower. The Mollies hadn’t had her in their hands long, but it had been more than long enough to torture her.

Raeder remembered the last time he’d seen her—she’d smiled at him, her voice had been controlled, her hand steady as she saluted the captain. But her eyes had told a different story; wide and shocked and wild. It made him glad that Star Command policy was to send anybody recovered from Mollie captivity for psych evaluation.

He looked forward to seeing her; he dreaded seeing her.

Dr. Pianca had told him that they’d taken Camp Seta over from a very exclusive spa. “No sense in trying to keep it open with the wartime travel restrictions in place,” she’d said. “The environment is wonderful for the patients, and the Commonwealth is paying the owners a pretty good rent.”

Raeder noticed that each building was so positioned that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to see into another’s windows.

Leave it to rich people to insure their privacy, he thought.

“Commander Raeder?”

Peter turned to find a young medic at his elbow.

“Warren Bourget,” he said and held out his hand. “Welcome to Camp Seta.”

Civilian, Raeder thought.

“Where’s Doctor Pianca?” Peter asked, shaking Bourget’s hand.

“Unfortunately she’s been delayed by an emergency, Commander. I’ll show you to your quarters and give you an escorted tour, if you’d like, while you’re waiting.”

Raeder struggled against imagining the type of emergency a psych specialist would have.

“When do I get to see Lieutenant Commander James?”

“Ah, well, Dr. Pianca would prefer to brief you before you actually see the patient,” Bourget said with a smile.

Raeder’s features hardened.

“Why, is there a problem?”

“No, no, Commander. I should more properly have said, debrief you, sir. Then, when you’ve spoken to the lieutenant commander, the doctor will want to interview you again. It’s standard procedure, nothing more, I assure you.”

Raeder gave him a look. Then smiled and nodded.

“If you’ll show me to my quarters,” he said affably, “I’ll just unpack and then maybe wander around for awhile. Then I’ll check back to my quarters to see if you’ve left me a message. How’s that sound?”

Bourget hesitated.

“Very well, Commander, that sounds fine. I’d just like to caution you that Doctor Pianca would like to speak to you before you see her patient.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Raeder murmured.

Sarah was bored and restless and getting fed up.

She’d been through an awful experience, she’d been ashamed of herself for getting caught, for being tortured, she’d had issues about being in control. But she’d talked it all out, understood the advice the doctor had given her and was trying to incorporate it into her behavior.

The fact was that what she really needed was to get back to work. Instinct told her that only time could help now, and useful work would help that time pass constructively.

If I could only convince Regina of that, Sarah thought glumly. She turned off the music, part of her therapy, and rose from her couch. I’ve got to move around, she thought. Slipping on her running shoes, she went out for a jog.

As she trotted down the manicured paths of Camp Seta bits of the music the doctor had assigned flitted though her mind and she found herself humming. The sun felt good, and the soft, warm air against her face, the racing of her blood, all felt wonderful. Realizing she was happy just to be alive, Sarah smiled. If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands, she thought and laughed.

She stopped and looked nervously around, pretending to take her pulse. Laughing without visible cause, what would my shrink say about that?


She spun on her heel and stared openmouthed at Commander Peter Raeder.

“Peter?” she said, unbelieving.

“Lieutenant Commander?” he responded with a lopsided grin.

“So they finally bagged you,” she said, laughing, reaching out her hands to him. “Don’t worry, when the doctors are finished with you you’ll be as sane as anybody in the military.”

He took her hands with pleasure, enjoying their smooth warmth.

“Oooh,” he said and winced. “That bad, huh? We’d better spring you from this place PDQ, then. I wouldn’t want you that sane.”

Raeder watched as a weariness came over her and took the sparkle from her eyes. Though she still smiled and stood proudly erect he could see it was an effort.

“So,” she asked, elaborately casual, “what brings you to Camp Stick ’Em Together Again?”

“Your doctor. She wanted to talk to me, presumably about you. But now that you mention it . . .”

Sarah grinned. “It’s good to see you, Peter. Let me show you around.”

Peter glanced around them, looking a bit furtive.

“Um . . . The good doctor wanted to talk to me before I saw you,” he said. “Maybe we could go somewhere private and you can fill me in on your adventures in psychiatry.”

“How about here?” She sat down on the grass, long tanned legs out before her.

Peter looked around. They were in a little fold in the path, surrounded by foliage. No one was visible and there were no sounds that indicated people were nearby. So he followed suit and they sat awhile in silence until he began to feel awkward.

“It’s beautiful here,” he said at last.

“Umm.” Sarah shook back her hair and closed her eyes as the breeze caressed her face. “It is that. I’d love to vacation here someday.” Then she turned to look at Peter. “But right now I’d like to leave.”

“The doctor disagrees?”

“She does.” Sarah grimaced and shook her head. “I honestly don’t understand what else she thinks she can do for me. I want to work, I want to contribute. I’ve always been like that, but she thinks it’s some sort of manifestation of guilt. I’m willing to concede that in some small way there might be a little truth in that. What I don’t understand is, what good is it going to do anybody, especially me, keeping me here bored out of my skull and frustrated? I know I could be useful on the Invincible, and I sure as hell don’t want to lose my berth on her.” She turned to Raeder. “Think you can help me?”

“Well, I was gonna tell her what a wild woman you were, and that you’d managed to keep it out of your official record through a combination of blackmail and bribery. But I guess I could tell her the truth instead.”

She punched him in the arm, then laughed.

Raeder looked serious. “Violent behavior and inappropriate laughing. What would the good doctor say about this?”

Sarah’s mouth and eyes widened in dismay and she gasped.

“Whoa,” he said, frowning. “You’re really worried, here, aren’t you?”

Her shoulders slumped, then she shrugged.

“It’s just that it’s all so subjective,” she said in near despair. “I’m not well until Pianca clears me, no matter how I feel about it. And frankly she seems to me to be dragging her feet.” Flopping back on the grass she grumbled, “She’s one of the owners of this place, y’know. Maybe she’s trying to keep it full for the government pay.”

“She mentioned that the Commonwealth was paying a good rent.”

“The government also pays a pretty penny per patient as well,” Sarah told him. Then she sat up, waving her hands as though to erase what she’d just been saying. “Pianca’s a good doctor! She really has helped me and I’m grateful. I just feel she’s holding on a little longer than she needs to.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Raeder promised.

Sarah smiled, her eyes warm. “I know you will.”

At that moment Raeder’s stomach expressed itself loudly and they both laughed.

“Let me show you to the restaurant,” Sarah said, rising and brushing off her bottom. “It’s much too elegant to be called a mess.”

Doctor Regina Pianca was a short, dark woman with an aura of capable efficiency about her. The gray in her hair placed her around sixty—early middle age—as did the lines on her face that indicated humor. She eyed Raeder quietly; her direct gaze seemed to encourage him to speak.

They’d already talked a great deal, about him, about Sarah and the Invincible.

At last the doctor said, “Well, it’s obvious you’ve already spoken to the lieutenant commander. I’m sorry you didn’t give me a chance to speak to you beforehand. But no harm done.” She gave him a gentle smile. “It’s also obvious that she means a great deal to you. Personally.”

“She’s a fine officer,” Raeder said sternly.

The doctor laughed out loud and Peter felt a blush rising, which annoyed and embarrassed him both.

“I’m sorry, Commander,” Pianca said. “Yes, she is a fine officer. Your captain called me to tell me so, and to indicate that he wanted her cleared for duty before he left Come By Chance. She’s getting pretty twitchy, too.” The doctor looked at him sidelong, with a crooked smile on her full lips. “So what do you think, Commander?”

“She seems fine to me, Doctor,” Raeder answered instantly. “And the Invincible can certainly use her abilities.”

“Yes,” Pianca said dryly. “I’m sure it can.” She sat forward in her chair and folded her hands before her. “The thing is, Commander, with what she’s been through, and the tension and stress and all, the girl’s exhausted. She’s a great deal better rested than she was, but I think that the lieutenant commander requires at least another two weeks before she returns to duty.”

“The lieutenant commander is very concerned about losing her berth on the Invincible, ma’am.”

Pianca nodded judiciously. “I’m aware of that, Commander. Sarah has been very forthright with me.” The doctor looked off into the distance and seemed to be suppressing a smile.

“She has a way of expressing herself,” Raeder said, slowly, remembering a few choice examples.

Pianca grinned openly, her dark eyes sparkling.

“That she does, my boy, that she does. So,” the doctor slapped her hands down on the desk briskly, “I have requested your assistance from your captain, who most reluctantly agreed to spare you.”

“Ma’am,” Raeder protested, “that will leave the ship short two officers . . .”

“Yes it will, won’t it? I calculate that it will set things behind for at least two weeks.”

“Easily, ma’am,” Raeder agreed with a short, disapproving nod.

“Excellent,” Pianca said crisply. “I’m pleased to be able to tell you that for the next two weeks the lieutenant commander’s therapy will consist of vacationing with you at government expense. At the end of that time, which I’m instructing you to fill with fun and frolic, Commander, I will release her to return to her duties.” She gave him an evil grin. “By which time all necessary repairs should have been accomplished and you can all fly off to glory.”

Raeder sat as one poleaxed.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said numbly.

“You’re welcome, Commander,” Pianca said with a smile. Then more seriously she explained, “Exhaustion is a very real condition, Commander. My patient would recover all on her own in time. She’s young, and flexible, so there’s no doubt of that. But I’d prefer to send her back to her duties completely recovered. It will be easier on everyone that way.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Peter agreed.

“I’d keep her here for another two weeks anyway.” She raised a finger to forestall his protest. “But by then your ship would probably have left, the rate you’re accomplishing repairs. Not to mention the agonies of tension that would put Sarah through. However,” she pointed at him, “with you here things will be considerably slowed down on the Invincible. Your captain assures me of it. Knowing this, and with your, no doubt excellent, company to take her mind off things I expect the lieutenant commander to finally relax.” She laughed outright at his expression. “Go on,” Pianca waved a hand, “have some fun.”

Raeder stood and was halfway out the door before he remembered to say, “Thank you, ma’am!”

“You mean I’m cleared?” Sarah asked. Here eyes were wide and her voice told of her astonishment.

“Yep.” Raeder looked smug, heck, he felt smug. You’d think you’d arranged this instead of just passing along the news.

“But the Invincible . . .” she protested.

Raeder waved his hands, his expression that of a big spender with plenty of credits.

“Not our problem,” he said generously. “The doc says you’re suffering from exhaustion. Yeah, I know,” Raeder said in answer to her wry look. “I don’t get it either. But because of it, our assignment is to vacation for the next two weeks.”

“Whooo-HAA!” she shouted and threw herself into his arms. “Do you know how to water ski?”


“Can you ride?”

“Yeah . . . a little.”

“Do you like hiking? Do you play tennis? How about golf?”

“Whoa, whoa slow down. Yes, yes, not yet to that last bunch,” Raeder said, grinning.

“What do you want to do first?” Sarah asked, fairly buzzing with repressed energy.

“Lunch!” Peter said. “That’s too many decisions to make on an empty stomach. Besides, we have two full weeks to show Doctor Pianca what exhausted really looks like.”

“Hedonist,” she sneered.

“Jock,” he responded.

Clear moonlight silvered the falls and lake below. Peter and Sarah lay side by side on a verdant hillside, the remains of a sumptuous picnic beside them. The last ten days had been wonderful, fun, full of pleasure and good company.

Sarah lifted herself onto her elbows and leaned her head back to gaze at the stars. Raeder, lying beside her on the grass, gazed at her instead, admiring the graceful curve of her throat, the fall of her auburn hair on her bare shoulders. He took a deep, grateful breath and turned on his side.

“Smell that?” he asked.

She turned to look at him, her face going into eclipse, but he could see the sparkle of her eyes. Or imagined he did.

“Smell what?”

“Grass, trees, flowers, water, soil—life. I love it!”

She grinned.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said hastily. “I could never be a ground pounder. I love the Invincible. But sometimes . . .” He paused, gazing up at the stars. “Sometimes I miss this.”

Sarah took a deep breath and let it out with a loud sigh.

“It is beautiful here, isn’t it?”

He answered with an “mmm,” and they lapsed into a comfortable silence. She lay back down, resting her head on her crossed arms and Peter looked at her through half-closed eyes. She was so much improved from the pale, nervous creature she’d been just four weeks ago. Camp Stick ’Em Together Again had certainly worked its magic on her. Sarah looked like she could take on the world again.

“Oh, look,” she said and sat up.

Raeder sat up and looked where she pointed. The moonlight glinted off the rainbow scales of a school of aircod, little organic blimps, as they floated over the surface of the lake.

“Yum,” he commented softly, then grunted when she nudged him with her elbow.

“Pig,” she muttered.

He chuckled, genuinely pleased at her spirit. But the little fishlike organisms were tasty. They were a delicacy and widely exported. He knew better than to say so, though.

Still, they did make a pretty and peaceful sight drifting along beside the waterfall. From a distant hillside came the sharp bep! of an airseal on the hunt. The little school of aircod broke apart, scattering like droplets.

“Oohhh,” Sarah said, sounding vaguely disappointed.

Impulsively Raeder leaned over to kiss her cheek. She turned to face him before his lips touched her and they looked at each other, breathing in one another’s breath. Sarah moved first and Raeder welcomed her.

“Well,” she said, smiling shyly, “that was a long time coming.”

“Worth the wait,” he told her and kissed her again.

After a long, sweet moment they broke apart. She rose to her feet, cleared her throat, then asked, “Um, wanna go for a swim?”

“I don’t have a suit.”

With a slow, mischievous grin Sarah turned on her heel and headed for the lake below. She glanced over her shoulder at him and waggled her brows.

“We need suits?”

* * *

Raeder sat before Doctor Pianca’s desk, feeling very uncomfortable. No matter how he twisted in the chair he still felt . . . compressed somehow.

“Do you think this was the right time to enter this new phase of your relationship?” the doctor was asking. Her expression was neutral, tending towards disapproving. But that could just be his interpretation.

“Yes,” Peter said. He spoke confidently, and he believed he was right. But he was uncomfortable with the doctor’s questions. In fact he was uncomfortable that the doctor knew about the intimacy between him and Sarah. How did she find out? he wondered. Did someone see us? There was genuine horror in back of the question. He really disliked the notion that they’d been spied on. But . . . we were out there in the open. . . . No, they’d done nothing wrong. And Sarah had made the first advance. Wasn’t that a good thing?

“Yes,” Pianca agreed as though she’d read his mind. “It is good that she made the first move. But,” the doctor reached out to him, “you must remember that she is upside down.”

“What?” Peter asked, thunderstruck.

“Can you hear me?” Pianca demanded.

“Yeah, I can hear you,” Peter muttered. It was surprisingly hard to say so, though.

“Can you move?” the doctor asked.

“Uh . . .”

“Peter, you’re stuck. I need you to help me get you free. Can you hear me? Answer me, Peter!”

He shook his head, opening his eyes slowly. He found himself looking down at Sarah’s anxious face. Her hair was wild and there was a spot of blood on her cheek. Slowly he reached down and touched it.

Sarah let out her breath in a weak laugh.

“That’s your blood, buddy. Can you move? Are you hurt?”

Raeder became aware that he was crammed upside down into a corner of what had been the ceiling of their train compartment. Sarah and someone whose feet he could see behind her had apparently just succeeded in dragging part of his seat off of him. He closed his eyes and took stock of himself. He tasted blood in his mouth; apparently he’d bitten himself, and his head hurt, but the rest of him seemed functional. Meanwhile, the position in which he had landed was becoming unbearable.

He shifted and squirmed and managed to extricate himself from the cage of metal around him. Suddenly he dropped and Sarah caught him, bearing him to the floor in a controlled fall.

“Looks like he’s okay,” said a voice from the doorway. “See ya.”

“Who was that?” Raeder asked.

“His name’s Lao,” Sarah said. “On leave, like us. Right now he and some of the others are trying to help.”

“What happened?” Raeder asked.

“We don’t know yet.”

Peter sat up, then cautiously got to his feet.

“Let’s go find out,” he suggested and staggered out of their compartment.

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