Back | Next


Raeder, Sarah and their small company of mixed military jogged to the top of a hill, every eye on the smoke boiling up to the clouds.

Most people on Come By Chance lived in the cities, which was typical of this generation of colony planets. Twillingate was set in parkland, and rose from the land without the prelude of suburbs. There were isolated farms here and there, maybe an automated mine in the distance, but no towns or hamlets. The city was essentially all there was.

That distant smoke represented the destruction of an entire planet’s budding civilization.

Mile after mile they had walked after the mag-lev’s batteries had given out, then run—towards the fire. Peter’s lungs burned, and there was beginning to be a taste of copper in the back of his throat.

They’d encountered no moving traffic for miles, though many a small car or truck had been pulled to the roadside, sometimes surrounded by perplexed drivers and their families. The closer they got to the city, the more abandoned cars they passed.

They topped the hill and Raeder held up his hand to halt them. Twillingate had been a symphony of garden and flowerbed and soaring pastel towers. Now it was a sea of fire and rubble, twisted girders rising above flame and smoke.

“God,” someone said. “So that’s what a nuke impact looks like.”

“No,” Raeder said, shaking his head. “There’s no crater. That’s airbursts—defense missiles. But some of them got almighty close.”

At least we’re using clean bombs, Raeder thought, shaken. Not much radiation would fall onto the city, with its attendant horrors. Still, it was a vision of hell.

“Look!” Sarah said. Her arm flashed out to point at a pair of plasma plumes burning their way towards the moon.

Raeder felt a smile of profound relief tug at his lips as he watched the twin magenta flames pierce the sky.

“The military spaceport is still functioning,” he said.

“Thank God,” Sarah muttered. “But how do we get on one of the shuttles?”

“One thing at a time, Lieutenant Commander,” Peter advised. “First we’ve got to get to the spaceport.”

He waved his arm and they continued on their way. As they jogged along Peter thought about this attack. Come By Chance was well within the Commonwealth’s borders. It should have been impossible for the enemy to make this kind of strike.

Of course it’s probably a suicide raid, he thought. Still, it was something that made very little sense. This planet was primarily a vacation destination; it had no heavy industries, no irreplaceable minerals.

True, there’s going to be a psychological factor here. It’s upsetting in the extreme that they could get this close. Maybe that was the point. If they can get this close undetected, they can get to Earth undetected. But it’s not going to really hurt us.

Which didn’t seem like the Mollies. Oh, they were more than willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause, but what they really liked was taking hundreds of Welters with them.

“What’s your take on this, Lieutenant Commander?” Raeder asked, huffing slightly.

“They’re telling us they can reach us anywhere,” Sarah said. “Or they’re trying to soften us up.”

They came to a halt. The city street before them was blocked with burning rubble. Where the tops of buildings lay smashed the smoking heaps were spiked with daggers of glass and twisted metal.

Screams could be heard and weeping—voices calling for help, or names being shouted over and over.

“Somehow,” Peter said, his face grim, “I don’t feel very softened.”

Sarah glanced at him sideways and growled, “Me either.”


Raeder turned. It was Lieutenant Shelton who had spoken. He nodded his permission to continue.

“How do we walk away from this?” She gestured to the destruction before them. “These people need all the help they can get.” Tell us what to do, her eyes begged.

He looked around. The city services had been trashed along with everything else; probably most of the civil defense net as well. Civilian electronics would have been fried by the electromagnetic pulse of the exploding bombs, so their emergency teams and hospitals, assuming any had survived, were out of communication. Not to mention that the whole city was in ruins around them. His mouth hardened to a thin line.

“We’re military,” he told the people with him. “It’s our duty to report in. Some of us will undoubtedly be assigned planetside to aid with the wounded, to help clean this mess up. The rest of us are probably urgently needed on Marjorie Base.”

He gestured towards the moon with a jerk of his head, and there was a stir in the ranks. Damage there would be more dangerous, and much harder to deal with. That was why you put military installations on airless moons or planetoids when you could.

“Either way, to be put to most effective use, they’ll need to know who we are and what skills we have to offer. Not to mention the fact that our families will be interested in whether we’ve survived. So our ultimate goal must be to reach the spaceport.” He looked at the somber faces around him. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to totally ignore something that throws itself in front of us. It just means we can’t help everyone in the city all at once.”

He turned and scanned the street before him. Impassable, he judged.

“All right,” he said, turning back. “The spaceport is outside the city to the northeast. We’re going around.” Peter started off at a jog, Sarah at his side and, after the briefest hesitation, the others joined them.

It was hard to keep moving towards their goal. From the distance tormented cries cut into their souls as they sped past. Peter kept his eyes resolutely ahead and behind him his followers did too.


Peter’s head jerked around; the call seemed to have come from just beside him. Less than ten feet away and dangling twenty feet above the ground a child clung to a pipe, small legs kicking furiously.

“Stop kicking,” Raeder shouted. “Hold on, we’re coming.”

Nobody else seemed to be around here. All the voices they heard were muted by distance.

Raeder paused and studied the structure, his eyes following a path up to the terrified child. Hands and feet followed the route his eyes had found and in moments he was beside the weeping youngster.

“Gotcha,” Peter said, grabbing the child, a girl, by her waist.

Without being told she clutched him around the neck, short legs clamped around his middle. He could feel the little body gasping for air, then suddenly the kid broke out with a wail like an air-raid siren. There goes the other ear, he thought.

When he reached the ground Shelton took the child, softly saying “Sssh,” and bouncing her soothingly.

“Another little girl,” Sarah said, smiling at Peter.

“Moo-kie!” the little one said, pointing upward with a chubby hand. “I want my Mookie!”

There was a small avalanche from the building and they stepped backward, Lieutenant Shelton shielding the girl with her body. When the dust cleared the kid was still demanding, “Mookie!”

“What the heck is mookie?” Raeder mumbled to Sarah.

Sarah shrugged, put her hand up to protect her eyes and looked where the child was pointing.

“Oh! Some kind of airfish,” she said.

It was a little pale purple blimp, trailing fins gracefully waving, black button eyes staring at nothing.

“Mookie!” The little girl reached out for her pet with both hands.

“I’m not going back for that thing,” Peter said.

Mookie was tied to a hook by a long golden ribbon; it bounced gently in a light breeze.

“It’s a bladder on a string, Sarah!”

“I didn’t say anything,” she spluttered.

“Mommy!” the child shouted.

Sarah and Raeder looked up to see a woman’s hand dangle over the edge of what had recently been the floor of her apartment.

“Now that I’ll go back for,” Peter said.

“So would I,” Sarah agreed. She handed him a coil of the thin wire rope she’d lifted from the train. “While you’re up there, don’t forget to bring down Mookie.”

The woman was alive, but unconscious. Just as well, Peter had thought. One of her arms was badly broken. If she’d been awake getting her down would have been a nightmare, for all of them.

They’d rigged up a stretcher from parts of a doorframe and a blanket and they’d resumed their trek to the spaceport.

The only one among them who was at peace was the little girl. With both Mookie and Mommy beside her the world was basically complete, though it would be better if Mommy were awake. The rest was just details.

There was the flash of a plasma weapon.

“Sir!” someone called.

But Peter had caught it out of the corner of his eye. Off to his left was another blocked road, the rubble piled three meters high. Buildings on either side of the street still had several intact stories and it was obvious from the remains that this had been a very wealthy neighborhood.

Those country views, Peter thought, they must cost the planet.

There was a flicker of light beyond the barrier, and screams and shouts sprang up. Okay, we’re gonna have to do something about that, he thought. He looked up and down the debris in front of him. I guess it was too much to hope that we’d get all the way to the spaceport without something like this coming up.

There was a flurry of shots, and the screams reached a new pitch of hysteria. Raeder turned and pointed out three soldiers; he signaled for the rest of them to continue on their way. Sarah gave him a look, but nodded. She waved the others onward, looked one last time at Raeder and moved off.

Peter and his squad climbed the barrier, finding it narrower than expected once they got to the top. Below them was a small group of men, some of them uniformed like security people, behind a barrier of rubble, weapons at the ready. They were concentrating on a building to the right of the squad. From their height Raeder and his people could look through one of the broken windows to see another group of men handling some very illegal weaponry.

“Anybody got glasses?” Raeder asked.

Somebody put a pair into his hand. So far every time they’d needed something one of them had been able to provide it. I’ve seen well planned campaigns that weren’t as appropriately supplied, Peter thought. He brought the glasses to his eyes. The men in the building leapt into view. That’s Skelly Briggs!

This put a different complexion on things. Skelly Briggs was connected to every sleazy enterprise on Come By Chance. Actually, sleazy might be far too complimentary; loathsome, or criminal, or better yet both would be a more fitting description of old Skelly’s business practices.

“Skelly Briggs,” he said aloud.

“You’re kidding! Sir,” said one of the ratings.

Raeder handed him the glasses.

“Wow.” The kid lowered the glasses and looked at the commander. “What are we gonna do, sir?”

“Hmm,” said Raeder. “One of the biggest thugs on the planet and his torpedoes are shooting at each other. Is this Space Command’s business?” He looked thoughtful, shrugged and looked at the young rating beside him. “No.” He began to back down the pile of debris. He looked up at his team, who stared back down at him, puzzled. “Well, c’mon,” he said.

They looked down at the fighting, looked at each other and began backing down to follow Raeder.

“They’re citizens,” one of the soldiers said to Peter, his voice troubled. “Evil citizens, it’s true, but citizens nonetheless.”

“We’re not planetary police,” the commander answered him. “This isn’t our affair.”

“We helped the little girl and her mother,” another said.

“A much less complicated situation,” Peter told them. “Neither of them were shooting for one thing. For another they were not well-known scum of the worst sort. I’m not putting my life, or yours for that matter, on the line for a bunch of sociopaths and psychotics. Those guys could stop fighting any time they wanted to. The only thing our interference would accomplish is to temporarily unite them in firing on us. End of discussion.”

Put your breath to better use getting us to the spaceport, he thought.

“What was happening?” Sarah asked when he caught up to her.

“Skelly Briggs and some of his boys were duking it out.”

She stumbled, turning wide eyes on him.

“Are you sure?” she panted.

“Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve seen him before.” He grinned mirthlessly.

“You ever know a station that could really get rid of cockroaches?” Raeder asked rhetorically. Of course not. They’re the Skelly Briggs of the insect world. They can take hard vacuum and radiation that would fry even a rat. That’s why we’ve taken them with us to every planet and habitat we’ve settled.

He’d seen Briggs before the war, actually. And before Briggs was a celebrity, when Space Command mainly battled pirates and smugglers. They’d all spent a lot of time studying up on these creeps and Skelly Briggs was one of the worst. Since the war started he’d become very patriotic, of course—meaning that making money off Space Command personnel on leave was more profitable than more grandiose illegalities.

“Wow,” she said. “Of all the people to survive the bombing.” Sarah shook her head. Why did things always seem to work out that way?

Before them a crowd of people scurried away from the city, then turned back. A building seemed to shimmy, then almost majestically, it slid towards the countryside, veiled in a plume of dust.

“Hey!” one of the women in the crowd shouted at them. “Where are you going?”

“We’re headed toward the spaceport,” Raeder said, jogging up to her. “We’re military, we’re going to report in.”

“You’re just going to ignore what’s happening here?” the woman shouted, her broad face going red with fury. “People here need help and you’re just going to breeze on by like nothing’s happened?”

“Once we’ve reported in we’ll be assigned where we’ll do the most good,” Peter told her. “But we can’t go where we’re needed most until we know where that is.”

“Bull!” she screamed. “You people are never where you’re needed. Why the hell didn’t you prevent this?” She thrust her hands at the ruined city, tears running down her cheeks. “Whole families are buried in there! You can’t just leave us.”

“You want help?” he said. “Okay, I’ll help. HEY!” he shouted. “Listen up! Has anybody here got something to write with?”

One man held up a small tablet and stylus.

“Great. You start taking names here. When he’s finished,” Raeder told them, “I want you to break up into squads of five or six and go back into the city. First squad is to find someplace stable and safe for you all to spend the night. If possible. If not, you can camp out here for the night. Second squad is to find foodstuffs and water and bring them back here. Third squad is to find blankets and medical supplies, and bring them back here. The rest are to look for survivors and to try when possible to make contact with emergency services. Whenever you find emergency services tell them your names and the names of the people with you. You will all rendezvous back here in three hours. Any questions?”

No one answered. They all looked at him, then at each other. “You, with the stylus,” Peter said. “What’s your name?”

“Harry Pond.” He was a small, older man who looked terrified that everyone was going to be relying on him.

“Gather round Harry, here, and tell him your name. Then form up into squads of five or six. Got that?”

People began milling around, slowly making their way towards Harry. Peter touched the arm of the woman who’d been yelling at him.

“You’re in charge, here. Can you remember what else it is you all have to do?” he asked.

She took a deep breath, wiped her eyes and nodded.

“Thanks,” she muttered.

“Good luck,” he said.

She nodded, and Peter waved his people on.

Sarah looked back over her shoulder and watched people breaking into groups. One of them started moving back towards the city.

“I guess people just need someone to tell them what to do,” she said to Peter. “I mean, they know what they should be doing, but they just really need someone to take charge. Y’know?”

“Yup.” He looked back once. “Finally, something’s going right.”

Just outside the city, near the spaceport, they came upon a massive field hospital. What looked like thousands of people, most of them wounded in some way, milled around, their faces exhausted and shocked.

Peter looked it over briefly, then turned to the people he’d led here.

“This looks like a civilian operation,” he said. “We’ll leave the woman and the little girl with them. The stretcher crew, Shelton and I will get them settled. Lieutenant Commander, you people carry on to the spaceport.”

Sarah nodded briefly and jogged off with the remaining military personnel falling in behind her. Raeder watched them go, then turned back to his small party.

“Let’s try over this way,” he said, pointing to a large tent visible over the heads of the crowd.

He went ahead of them, gently breaking a path.

“Excuse me,” he said over and over. “Wounded coming through.”

People slowly moved aside, their faces dull with shock, their skin and clothes gray with dust. They were mostly quiet. Sometimes the children cried, which caused their little girl to whimper. It felt ominous, like a calm before a storm.

In a little while they were at the entrance to the tent, where a middle-aged man in a dusty, navy blue coverall sat at a card table, noteboard and stylus before him.

“Uh, we have a lady here that needs medical help,” Peter said.

“Name?” the man asked.

“We don’t know, she was unconscious when we found her.”

“May I see her ID?” He held out a hand, not looking directly at Raeder.

“We don’t have an ID. Her building was collapsing around her. Frankly it didn’t occur to me that she’d need an ID under the circumstances.” Peter was beginning to be a bit annoyed. I must be a little in shock myself not to instantly recognize a bureaucrat. “Look.” You jerk. “This lady,” he pointed to the figure on the stretcher with both hands, “needs help.”

The man looked bored.

“Is she a citizen?”

Raeder choked for a moment, though his face didn’t show it. Is this guy for real? he wondered.

“Of?” he said aloud.

“Of Come By Chance, of course,” the man said officiously. “With our resources so strained it’s citizens first.”

“Well we found her on the second floor of a building on the edge of the city. So I think it’s safe to presume that she is not only a citizen, but a fairly affluent citizen as well.”

The official looked down his nose.

“But . . . you can’t prove it,” he said. His voice suggested that Peter wasn’t going to put one over on him.

Raeder put his hands on his slim hips and took a stance.

“Is there someone else we could talk to? Someone with a normal amount of human compassion, perhaps?” he asked.

The bureaucrat narrowed his eyes, and pointed his stylus at the commander.

“You’re military, aren’t you?”

“I’m a citizen of the Commonwealth,” Raeder said, leaning towards him. “Like this lady here. Who, as a citizen of the Commonwealth, is entitled to any and all of its public services.”

“Not that we know of,” the man said, rising slowly to stand nose to nose with Raeder.

Peter recoiled.

“Are you suggesting she’s a Mollie?”

The bureaucrat smirked, straightened up and prepared to speak.

“Doctor!” Raeder shouted. He gestured his team into the tent. “We need a doctor here, this woman is unconscious.” He lifted the little girl from Shelton’s embrace and put her into a nurse’s arms. “Doctor!” he said again, and a woman in a white coat looked up.

He went over and, taking her arm, pointed to the woman on the stretcher.

“This lady has been unconscious since we found her about an hour ago. She’s also got a very badly broken arm. Would you take a look at her, please?”

The doctor nodded and headed for the stretcher.

“Where can we put her down, Doctor?” he asked.

“We don’t have any more beds, I’m afraid,” she said. The doctor looked around, then pointed to a row of cabinets. “Just set her down there.” She started examining the woman.

Raeder went up to the nurse who was trying to force the little girl back into Shelton’s unwilling custody.

“This little girl is that lady’s daughter,” he said pointing. “This is Mookie,” he said tugging the string. “We’re gone.” And before she could say a word he led his team away.

“Thank you, sir,” Shelton said. “I was beginning to get worried there.”

“So was I, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Commander,” Commander Trent said. He gave a judicious nod. “A very complete report.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Sarah sat looking at him in silence while he read something on his monitor. It made her very uneasy that he hadn’t yet made eye contact with her.

“I think the best thing I can do now,” she said firmly, “is report for duty to the Invincible.”

“Do you?” Trent murmured. His eyes slid in her direction, but in their brief glance rose no higher than her waist.

“Yes, sir,” she said. She gritted her teeth. Trent had a supercilious tone that got her back up.

He tapped a few keys and frowned at the information that came up.

“It says here,” he tapped a few more keys, “that you came to Come By Chance for psych evaluation.” He turned and looked her full in the face for the first time. His own expression spoke of disbelief that she would imagine him foolish enough to send a lunatic back to active duty.

“It was a mandatory evaluation because I was a Mollie prisoner. Briefly,” she amended as he raised his eyebrows. “Last week I was upgraded to rest leave. Since I obviously can’t continue to vacation here I should go where I’ll be of the most use.” She gave him a chilly smile.

Trent leaned back in his chair, his hands crossed on his lap and dipped his head toward the computer.

“I don’t find anything here that indicates an upgrade.”

“You could contact my doctor at Camp Seta,” Sarah told him. “Doctor Pianca. She’ll . . .”

He was shaking his head at her, a pitying smile playing on his thin lips.

“I’m afraid not, Lieutenant Commander. Civilian electronics are fried, EMP you know. And I can hardly clear a psych evaluation case for duty on my own.” He shrugged. “My hands are tied. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he turned back to his screen, “there are people I can send back to duty.”

Sarah rose to her feet, furious and trying not to show it.

“What do you suggest I do until you feel you can allow me to do my duty, Commander?”

His thin lips took on a curl of distaste.

“I suggest that you find a way to make yourself useful, Lieutenant Commander. Look around you, there’s plenty that needs to be done.”

She saluted him crisply, he acknowledged it with something closer to a wave. Sarah turned on her heel and marched out of his cubicle-sized office, humiliated and very angry. Was this what it was going to be like for the rest of her career? Whenever some deskbound bureaucrat saw the notation for a mandatory psych evaluation was she going to be treated like an unexploded bomb?

How am I supposed to live with it if I am? she wondered. Boy, there was a question she’d love to ask Pianca.

“Sarah!” Peter said, rushing up to her. “You’re cleared to go?”

“No,” she told him. “Doctor Pianca didn’t upgrade me to rest leave.” Her lips narrowed to a thin line. “I’m still in the computer as being under psych evaluation and so Commander Trent will not let me leave.”

Raeder’s dark brows rose almost to his hairline. His eyes asked her if she was kidding.

“Well, that’s what he said.” She threw up her hands. “And there’s no way to get in touch with Pianca because civilian communications . . .” She sighed. “You know.”

“Leave it to me,” he told her. “Go wait for me in the concourse. At that bar, okay?”

She gave him a look. “He’s not going to change his mind, Peter.”

“O ye of little faith.” He leaned forward and gave her a quick peck on the cheek, then tipped his head in the direction of the concourse. “Go on, find us a table if you can. I’ll be right there.”

Sarah’s mouth twisted up at one corner and she shrugged.

“Sure,” she said. “Maybe when it’s commander to commander things will be different. I’d really like to be wrong, Peter.”

“You are,” he said cheerfully. “See you in a little bit.” And I hope I’m carrying your boarding pass. If there was one thing you couldn’t rely on in this universe it was men of the same rank being of the same mind.

Raeder had to wait, of course. It was almost an hour and a half later before he even got a look at Trent.

Raeder saluted him. “Commander Peter Ernst Raeder, reporting for duty,” he said.

Trent waved a salute in his general direction.

“Ah, yes,” he said, the very slightest sneer in his voice. “Commander Peter Ernst Raeder, I’ve heard of you. You’re something of a hotshot, or so your reputation says.”

“Reputations are always exaggerated,” Peter answered with a smile. Almost always, he amended mentally. I’ll bet it would be impossible to exaggerate yours, Trent. Especially if it happens to be for mean-spirited, hidebound, rule-obsessed spite.

“I gather you’ve had quite a few . . . adventures,” Trent said. He said adventures as though it meant enemas.

And jealous, Peter thought, did I mention jealous?

“Oh, I’ve seen a few things, been a few places,” he said with a deprecating laugh. “Don’t know if I’d call them adventures.” Those of us who have actually been to the front, don’t think that way, as a rule. “Adventure” is a word rear-echelon types use. “Bad luck” and “screwing up” are more appropriate.

Commander Trent studied him for a few cold moments, then sat forward and struck a few keys. He frowned, pursing his lips.

“You are to return to the Invincible immediately, emergency status. That means you jump to the head of the line, Commander.” He plugged a red disc into the computer, tapped a key, pulled the disc out and handed it to Raeder.

“I’d like to be sure to get all of my crew who might be down here,” Peter said, accepting it. “Any that are actually at the spaceport that is.”

“Of course, Commander. As they come forward we’ll send them up. Orders are, of course, for crew as well as officers.”

“Lieutenant Commander Sarah James is here,” Peter said. “I want her with me when I go up.”

From Trent’s expression Raeder had just proclaimed himself admiral of the fleet.

“Oh! I’m so sorry,” Trent said, looking positively grateful for the opportunity to throw a hurdle in Peter’s way. “That won’t be possible, I’m afraid. The lieutenant commander is here for, um, a mandatory psych evaluation,” he said, making air quotes around the word mandatory. “She hasn’t been cleared for duty, I’m afraid.”

“I, personally, have spoken with the lieutenant commander’s doctor, Commander Trent. She told me that Lieutenant Commander James was fine, just tired. She’s been on simple rest leave since last week.”

Trent was shaking his head, trying, and failing, to suppress his smile.

“I’m sorry, but that’s not in her records. My hands are tied.”

Raeder leaned forward. “This is an emergency situation.”

I know that, Commander,” Trent said, a trifle testily. “All the more reason why I can’t send a woman of unknown mental health back to duty. I’m not qualified to make that decision, and I’m not going to.”

“Perhaps you misunderstood,” Peter said. “Her doctor told me she was fine.”

“But it’s not in the records,” Trent insisted, gesturing at his computer.

“I need her,” Raeder said through clenched teeth. “She’s one of our best pilots.”

“I can’t help you.” Trent offered his empty hands with a smug expression.

“It’s an emergency,” Raeder said tightly.

“It’s against regs,” Trent returned sharply.

Raeder gave him a hard look. “I guess that says everything, doesn’t it?” He stood and snapped off a salute that looked like he was flicking something nasty from his fingers.

“Look,” Trent said, standing, “without the regs it’s just chaos.”

Raeder gave him one last look of disgust, turned and walked away.

Peter entered the bar feeling like a thundercloud. He’d cursed that idiot Trent in as many languages as he knew and a few he really wasn’t sure of.

I hate officers like him, he grumbled to himself. He gave himself a mental shake. Okay, moving on.

Looking around the crowded, noisy room he didn’t spot Sarah but he did spot, “Sam!”

A balding, broad-shouldered pilot turned, a look of surprise on his homely face.

“Hey! Bad Boy!” He held out his hand. “Let me buy you a drink. C’mon over here, I don’t want to lose my place. Hey,” he called to the bartender, “a beer for my friend here.”

“What are you doing here?” Raeder asked.

“Oh, down for a little R and R. You know.” Sam Kazinski shrugged, a rueful expression on his face. “I’ve only been here about forty-eight hours. Then the roof fell in.”

“Thanks,” Peter said as the bartender handed over a beer. “You’re on the . . . Orion, right?” he asked Kazinski.

“Yup.” Sam patted his pocket. “Got my ticket back to work right here. I’m going up on the next shuttle.”

They chatted for awhile about their ships, what they’d been doing since last they’d seen each other.

“Oh, my,” Sam said and leaned close to Raeder. “Who’s that lady over there?”

Peter glanced over to where Kazinski was pointing. It was Sarah, looking very pensive, eyes on the table before her. He grinned.

“That’s no lady, that’s a lieutenant commander.”

His buddy gave him a look, then he shook his head.

“She looks to be just the type I like,” Sam muttered. “And here I am being blasted off planet.”

Raeder watched his friend watching Sarah. Hmm, he thought.

“I’ll make you a deal, buddy. I’ll introduce you.”

Sam turned to him, eyes wide.

“You know her?”

“Yep, she’s part of our squadron.”

“A pilot,” Kazinski said yearningly. “So introduce me.” He looked at Raeder, who was wearing a wolfish grin. “What?”

“Trent won’t let her leave with me, but I think Invincible is going to haul out as soon as I get there.” He held up a hand to forestall questions. “Just a gut feeling. She’s one of our best, I want her with us.”

Sam straightened, looking askance at Peter.

“Oh, no. You can’t be asking for what I think you’re asking . . . for.”

“Actually, I am.” Peter gave him a challenging look.

The PA announced the departure of the next shuttle and called for red boarding passes.

Sam looked over at Sarah, then back at Raeder.

“It’d have to be more than an introduction,” he said. “I mean, it’s a red pass. And all she’d have is a chance to shake my hand and then she’d be gone.”

Raeder nodded, looked thoughtful, then shrugged.

“That’s a reasonable observation. So what are you asking for?”

“At the very least, a date.”

Peter gave him a look of mock sternness. “Well, buddy, all I’m prepared to offer is the least. I mean, anything else would be up to the lieutenant commander.”

Sam looked at him, then at Sarah, then back at Raeder.

“You got a deal,” he said, thrusting out his hand. Peter gripped it. “So let’s get this show on the road.”


She looked up and at Raeder’s expression offered a tentative smile.

“This is my very good friend, Pilot Officer Sam Kazinski.”

Sarah blinked, then smiled warmly and offered Sam her hand.

“Any friend of the commander’s is a friend of mine,” she said.

Sam clung to her fingers, a boyish smile on his broad, friendly face.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Commander,” he said. “I only regret that it’s under such trying circumstances.”

“Trying,” she murmured. “Yes, indeed.” Sarah gave Raeder an oblique look, trying to determine the outcome of his interview with Trent from his too broad smile.

“Perhaps, ma’am,” Kazinski went on, placing his hand over her still captive one, “in some future time you’ll permit me the honor of furthering our acquaintance.”

Astonished, Sarah looked into his earnest blue eyes and couldn’t help but be flattered by the admiration she saw there.

With genuine pleasure she said, “I hope so too, Pilot Officer.”

“Sam, please,” he said. Raising her hand to his lips, never taking his eyes from hers, he kissed it. “Until we meet again.”

She grinned, she couldn’t help it. A woman didn’t meet with this degree of courtliness every day. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze and nodded.

The PA made a second call for red boarding passes.

With a sigh, and rueful look, Kazinski took his pass from his breast pocket and handed it over to Raeder. Sarah looked from one to the other, then reached out and gave Sam a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Thank you,” she said.

He blushed, all the way up to the balding crown of his head.

“You have a good trip, ma’am,” he said.


“Sarah,” he said with a grin.

“Don’t let Trent give you too hard a time,” Peter said, gripping his hand.

“Never!” Sam assured him. He leaned in and whispered, “Worth it.” Then, with a wink at both of them, he turned and walked away, his short, sturdy form vanishing in the crowd.

Peter turned to find Sarah’s inquiring eyes upon him. He ignored the question he knew she was asking him and took her arm.

“We’d better hurry,” he said.

Sarah frowned, but held her peace, allowing Peter to rush her to the gate without further ado. Once they were aloft, though, she turned to him.

“Why did Sam give up his pass for me?” she asked.

Raeder looked at her innocently, and she could almost feel her hackles rise.

“I explained the situation to him and he wanted to help,” he said.

“Really?” she said in a flat voice that should have warned him she was suspicious.

“He’s a great guy,” Peter said. Then he launched into an anecdote about an Academy prank they’d been involved with.

She listened without cracking a smile. Now Raeder began to get worried. That was one of his best stories; it always got at least a chuckle, and he knew he’d never told it to her.

“Do you think I’m stupid?” she asked mildly.

Oh, boy, he thought, I’m in for it now.

He shook his head, wide-eyed.

“Oh, good.” Sarah leaned her chin on her upraised hand. “Then we have a choice of options here. Either you misunderstood the question.” She stopped and looked at him. Raeder stared back blankly. “Or, we’re talking about two different people.” She paused, then continued, “Or you’re trying to hold something back from me.” She shifted in her seat so that she faced him more squarely. “Now, you’re not so stupid that you would misunderstand such a direct and simple question. And I know we’re not talking about two different people.” Sarah leaned towards him. “Which means you’re holding out on me.”

He blinked and opened his mouth to speak.

“The next words out of your mouth had better be the full story, Commander,” Sarah warned. “I will not settle for anything less.”

He looked at her for a full minute, weighing his options. She means it, he thought. Might as well come clean. If she ever meets Sam again the truth will come out anyway. He took a very deep breath and then he told her.

“You promised him a date with me?” Sarah asked, her voice chocked with disbelief.

“Nnn-no,” he said. “I implied that he might have a date with you.”

She sat staring at him, seeming to actually swell with rage.

“What are you, a pimp?”

“Hey!” he said, genuinely wounded.

“How dare you make such a bargain about me in the first place?” she demanded. Sarah drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. “But after . . .” She looked at him and in her eyes was a world of hurt. “I’ve misjudged things,” she said firmly, her voice belying her eyes. “I must have, or you wouldn’t have offered me up in a bargain like that.”

“Sarah . . .” Raeder began.

She held up her hand.

“Let’s forget it,” she said. “We have bigger issues to think of right now.” Then she settled back and closed her eyes, a good soldier, getting rest while it was available.

Peter looked at her and groaned inwardly. Man, I’ve got a lot of ground to make up here, he thought. Raeder, that was a major mistake. Then, like Sarah, he settled back to rest. I’m not giving you up without a fight, he thought at Sarah. You just wait and see.

Sarah opened one eye, saw Raeder wasn’t looking, and smiled.

Back | Next