This novel is dedicated to Jack and Alice Newton, living the dream of astronomy buffs everywhere at their Observatory Bed and Breakfast in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada. Sigh. "I myself am deeply envious."


by Leo David Orionis


1.  A Matter of Philosophy
2.  Aftershocks
3.  Decisions To Make

To be continued!

Chapter 1
A Matter of Philosophy

Last year, as the 200th anniversary of the psychestar approached, I was asked to speak about the event, as one who was present, and took some small part. Many here tonight weren’t born at that time, and I believe there are fewer than a dozen alive today who saw the psychestar bloom.

It was a very different time back then. When my grandfather was born, and grew to a homme, the fall of the Second Galactic Empire was 500 years in the past. He had no expectation that the darkness of the Fall would lift in his children’s lifetime, let alone his own. Our world, Vannim, had lost the means to travel beyond our own star system, and were rarely visited by ships from outside it. One such ship, however, brought the news that a Parliament of Stars had arisen in the Second Galaxy, and was reaching out to us in the Third.

This was extraordinary news. Our quadrant of the galaxy represented the farthest limits of human expansion during the Second Empire, but things had gone downhill since the Fall, and most human systems were on their own, as we were. The nearest things to an organized human state was the Commonwealth of the Near Stars, a loose association of between 50 to 70 human worlds with a common calendar, a general framework of laws, some regulation of trade, and a general disposition to work together for the common good. It didn't have a capital, but Hanush, which had been the Imperial capital in our galaxy before the Fall, hosted many Commonwealth bureaus and functions.

In 4613, by the Imperial calendar we use today, I had sought and received a commission as a Third Officer on Seffor's Bride, a luxury cruise ship that could carry up to 3000 passengers comfortably, and was often 90% booked. This was a marvelous opportunity for a young homme of 30 years, newly arrived in civilization from his native, backwoods world. As a Third Officer, my position was temporary, subject to dismissal at any time, and my duties were whatever my superiors said they were. The height of my ambition was to secure a permanent position on Bride as a Second Officer, or on one of her sister ships.

Bride ran a regular circuit through some of the Near Stars; we flew from Seffor to Rimiani to Achech to Dariano; on to Oholorim, Mirandol, Lallor, and Hanush; thence to Magnian, Tiete, Bololo, and Firimini. Then, one circuit and two Near Stars years later, the crew took a vacation while the ship was cleaned, restocked, and refitted.

On 40 Ansor, 4613 (again, by today's reckoning), we were three days out of Oholorim, on the way to Mirandol, when my comm beeped. The use of the comm meant it was a matter not to be announced over the ship's speakers, and five beeps meant it was urgent.

"Dear ladies, pray excuse me," I said to Madame Farisen and her two daughters. Madame was a femme of 40 years, her daughters 20 and 21, and they had been stalking me since I had joined Seffor's Bride at Dariano. I won't pretend it wasn't pleasant to be pursued, and all three of them were attractive, educated, cultured, and rich, denizens of Hanush, that richest and longest-civilized world of the Near Stars. My own world was 100 light years closer to the center of the galaxy, and had only regained star flight in my father's time; so it was flattering, as well as pleasant, to have the attention of those noble ladies.

"Duty calls," I said, holding up my comm so they could see it was active. All three Farisens pouted, each in her own so-practiced style.

"Will we see you at dinner, Santandar?" asked Alanna, the youngest. Hanush was the next port of call after Lallor, and the ladies would be leaving us there, after making a full circuit on Bride.

"If duty permits," I said. I kissed each femme's hand, bowed to them all, then turned, and walked away.

"Third Officer Ellios," I said to the comm. The incoming-call pattern changed to the face of Second Officer Hatonsa, Mallulla to her friends, a status I'd not yet achieved. Her accent said she was from a world of the First Galactic Empire, which had fallen several thousand years ago, in the First Galaxy; but as ship's crew, and senior to me, her records weren't open to me, unlike those of the passengers. All I knew was that she was taller than I, stronger than anyone else I'd ever met, and slender as a reed. Her skin was the color of the hardwood trees we used for musical instruments on my world, and her eyes and hair a lustrous black. She was, quite simply, the most beautiful femme I'd ever seen.

"Ellios," she said now, "see the doctor in Lounge 140, starboard side, deck 450. Take charge and calm the passengers."

The 'tween-decks shuttle took me to S450-L140 in only a few minutes, though it was on the other side of the ship, a hundred decks higher, and two hundred decks aft of where I started. I probably wasn't the nearest officer to the problem; but as a Third Officer, I was used to being thrown at whatever little affairs should need attention.

When I opened the door to the lounge, I was met with a most appalling sight. The normally gay, laughing, not to say smug and supercilious passengers of the Bride were huddled in corners, some of them actually weeping. Others showed frightened faces around the edges of doorways to sublounges, or clutched at each other behind ornamental pillars. And not in passion or gestures of flirtation, mind you, but in anxiety. This would never do! I could practically see shaken passengers departing the ship in droves at Mirandol, and warning all their rich friends of the perils of interstellar cruises.

In the foreground, lying on his back with his expensive clothes awry, was a portly middle-aged man, apparently unconscious but twitching in a disturbing way. A lady his own age, in an equally expensive dress, was kneeling next to him, her hands fluttering uselessly over him in agitation. But where was the doctor I was to see?

Ah, there he was, sitting in a chair near the patient he should have been attending to. He was holding a napkin (cloth, of course) to one temple, which was oozing blood. Two security officers lay near his feet, both out cold. One, lying on his right side, was bleeding from his nose onto the costly carpeting of the lounge; the other, lying flat on her face, was bleeding from her mouth. I spoke to the doctor, as I had been ordered to do.

"But, my dear Sir, what can be the matter here?"

"It's a question of philosophy, I'm told," said the good doctor, looking behind me. I turned.

One of our passengers, that trip, was an Ylhäinen from some backwards world, like my own. He'd told me that ylhäinen, generally, signified a nobleman in his planet's feudal society. But with a capital Y, it meant a follower of some philosophical sect who preached that abstract Truths were important, whereas the gross phyical Universe was not. They sought constantly to convince others of this view; but their form of argument, as I had already learned, involved martial arts, rather than syllogisms.

My friend Juho stood smiling as I turned to find him behind me. How he'd accomplished that, in the space between the door and where the doctor sat, I had no idea. At times I thought he had powers of invisibility! For now, I was grateful that he had not attacked me when I entered. I could only suppose I had earned some respect from him, in the time we had spent together in one of the ship's gymnasiums.

"My dear Juho," I said, "what is this? You would come between a physician and his patient? For what reason?"

"I am not convinced that he is, in fact, a doctor," said the Ylhäinen. "When I addressed him, he couldn't answer the simplest question of Medical Philosophy. If he's false, then it's my plain duty to stand between him and those he's not qualified to treat."

"But he's a ship's doctor. The chief physician, in fact."

"That only means that he's persuaded the ship's officers of his professional standing," Juho said. "But he hasn't satisfied me."

"And the security officers?" I asked.

He waved a hand in dismissal. "I found their arguments weak and lacking in rigor."

I smiled. "Come, my friend, let us reason together. I am sure that with a wide-ranging, frank discussion of the matter, we can come to a happy conclusion that will satisfy all concerned." I held out my hand.

He smiled, and took it.

Then he tried to throw me across the lounge!

But of course I cannot recall the details of a fight that occurred two hundred years ago! That is plain, is it not? I can tell you that my philosopher friend's methods involved a lot of hip and back throws, using his opponent's momentum against him. Once off balance—and a person rushing forward is necessarily off balance, compared to a person standing still—he had numerous ways to convert that rush into an enthusiastic impact with a wall, or the floor. The guards, used to the suasion of their authority, with the further backing of such grasps and holds as their training encompassed, had been no match for him. In addition, he was a passenger, and passengers mattered to the company far more than any employee did.

Fortunately, my own people had long recognized that one's legs have a longer reach than one's arms, and contain much more muscle. Put plainly, a kick will reach one's opposite number before his punch can reach you, and will strike harder than any blow from his arms. We had perfected the art of striking with the feet, with the hands and arms relegated to blocking blows; or grasping objects, as bars or poles, and using them to swing the whole body around, feet first.

After a certain number of fistic arguments were advanced, and met with pedestrian rebuttals, and some other ballistic theorems were countered by my skill in tumbling, so as to land on my feet, the peroration came to an end. I do recall there were no oral arguments—Juho was a nobleman, after all, and did not resort to biting. Neither did we attempt any scratching or gouging, but kept the debate on a lofty plane. My concluding argument began when I achieved a choke hold on my friend, and ended when he passed out. The security officers, having regained consciousness during our deliberation, promptly secured his acquiescence to their jurisdiction.

That is to say, they trussed him like a hog.

Order thus being restored to starboard deck 450, lounge 140, I began circulating among the other passengers, soothing shaken nerves and reassuring them that there would be no further unpleasantness. To the younger ones, who told me it had been fun to watch, I merely returned a brief grin. The door to the shuttle level opened again, and three more security officers arrived, and the other two Third Officers we had at that time. They began righting overturned furniture, picking up items knocked to the floor, cleaning up spills, and joining me in making the all-important passengers feel better. Second Officer Hatonsa was leading them, but I didn't see her until she tapped my shoulder with a peremptory finger.

"Report," she said.

"Certainly, sir! As soon as I received your order to come here—"

She cut me off with a shake of her head. "Not to me, newbie. Report to the Captain at once!"

"Ah. Very well, sir." I turned to depart. "At once" meant now, or better still, ten minutes ago, on the Bride.

"Wait!" she said, surprising me. "You can't go to the Captain's cabin looking like that. Doctor," she called, "your services are required here."

"Indeed?" said Doctor Muhanian. "Then it's fortunate that I've just finished with the original injury. One moment…" He called two other physicians to the lounge, then turned to me. "Are you hurt, young man? Any broken bones?"

"I think a have a loose tooth," I said, "but it will likely tighten up. I have quite a few bruises, and my nose was bleeding, but I pinched it until it stopped."

"He has to see the Captain," Hatonsa told the doctor. "Make him presentable; you can check him over later."

"I see," said the doctor. "Yes, I'd call that a medical emergency, all right." He looked me up and down. "Well, that uniform's seen better days, but I don't see any tears in it." He dug out a bottle from his kit, poured a little of its contents onto a pad, and wiped my uniform in a couple of places; the swab turned brown. "That takes care of the blood spots on your front."

"What about his eye?" Hatonsa asked.

"Hmmm," Muhanian said. He took an injector out of his kit. "Close both eyes, and hold very still," he told me, and used it a few times around my right eye, which I had neglected to remove from the path of Juho's fist. All I felt from the injector was a puff of air when it drove some liquid into the tissues around my eye, and the soreness began to depart at once. "Thank you," I said.

"No, thank you," he said. "This is no substitute for healing, but at least you'll be able to face the Captain without a shiner. He should be less likely to throw you off the ship without a pressure suit, that way."

"But I don't understand!" I answered, as he began brushing the front and back of my uniform, to make it appear less harshly used. "Why would he do that?"

The Doctor and the Second Officer stared at me, amazed. "Fighting with a passenger, newbie?" Hatonsa said. "Just pray that the Captain's in a good mood, that's all."

"If he asks my opinion," the doctor promised, "I'll tell him that you did the right thing. But he doesn't have to listen to anyone. He's the Captain!"

Chapter 2

The ships that plied the starways varied widely, not to say wildly. They could be as small as single-hulled vessels with a crew of three or four, that carried no passengers, only mail and very small, very valuable packages between worlds and habitats of a system, or between stars. At the other extreme, they could be flying cities, with a population of tens of thousands, and their own industries and cultures. None of those latter creatures operated in the Third Galaxy, to the best of my knowledge, but they weren't unknown in the Second, and they were common in the First.

The Bride was one of the larger ships in the Third Galaxy at that time, with her four hulls, and the capacity to sustain several thousand people. She also carried mail and small valuables, and one of her hulls was outfitted for large cargo. In addition, she mounted weapons for self-defense, though this was generally unknown, and denied. whenever the occasion arose, by her owners.

The ownership of starfaring vessels also varied considerably. The very smallest ships were generally owned by the crew who ran them, or by a company consisting of the crew plus financial backers on their home world. Very large vessels were incorporated as businesses on their planet of origin, often with the Captain and some of the officers being partial owners or investors in the ship. Truly large corporations might operate on more than one planet, with an office on each, and manage and fund several ships.

In 4613, Bride Cruises had offices in each of the Near Star systems that Bride visited, and maintained six identical vessels: Seffor's Bride herself, the first ship of the fleet, Lallor's Bride, Hanush's Queen, Magnian's Glory, Dariano's Bride, and Oholorim's Miracle. Except for Hanush's Queen, formerly Hanush's King, each of these vessels was built by Bride Cruises. To win a position on any of these great ladies was a proud thing.

Just as ships differed, so did their captains. Bride Cruises' management set the route their ships followed, and their schedules, so that none of "their" systems were visited too often, or too rarely. They were also responsible for the profit of the corporation. They were good managers, and didn't press the captains to squeeze out every millicredit they could. Indeed, as long as the ships kept moving, it was nearly impossible for any of them not to make a fortune on every trip. If it didn't, it was largely because the corporation hadn't booked enough passengers, or had skipped on ship's maintenance and repair. That hadn't happened since the corporation had just two ships, Seffor's Bride and Lallor's Bride. If it should happen again, the corporation was now large enough to absorb the temporary loss of income, and fix the problem.

All of which is by way of saying that the Captain's main responsibility was to manage the ship and its crew, and keep the passengers happy so they'd book another cruise on his ship, or one of her sisters. How he did that was up to him or her. Some captains spent most of their time socializing with the passengers, and dumped most of the paperwork on their First Officers. Others were more remote figures, rarely seen by the guests; these left the socializing to the First Officers. On many ships, the Captain and the First Officer were a team, with the paperwork done by officers not part of the command team, with titles like Purser, Bursar, or Ship's Finance Officer.

The Captain to whom I had to report was Kamuzu Chilembwe, a slim, bald man with skin the color of fine glove leather. The guests (as he invariably called them) were free to call him by either of his names; the ship's crew addressed him only as "Captain" or "Sir", though once I chanced to overhear the First Officer call him "Kamuzu", and another time I heard the Second Officer address him as "Chilembwe". He was a dignified man, who invited no liberties. Still, I'd never imagined he might "space" me, as the expression went, if I failed his expectations!

As soon as the shuttle let me out in the corridor outside the captain's cabin, I took a few steps and knocked on his door. "Enter," said the captain's voice, with an accent I've never heard from anyone else.

I didn't brace to attention; Bride was a civilian ship, and employed no mock-military ceremony. I simply bowed, in the manner of my people, and said, "Sir, I was directed to report to you." I assumed he knew who I was, since I was one of his officers. Better for me if he didn't, perhaps!

He didn't frown at me, but neither did he tell me to sit in one of the chairs in his cabin. Seated himself, behind a desk covered with papers, the Captain said, "Very well, mister. Report, then."

I gave him an honest report, even a blow-by-blow account of my debate with Juho; it was fresh in my mind, then. In truth, it never occurred to me to "shade" the truth, or "slant" it in my favor. "Tell the truth, and shame the Devil" is a saying on my world. Even if I'd thought of telling him what he wanted to hear, I had no idea what that might be; and there were too many witnesses, passengers and officers and cameras, to tell anything but the facts as I knew them.

"Can you give me any reason why I shouldn't dismiss you at Mirandol, Third Officer Ellios?"

At least he wasn't threatening to kick me off the ship here and now! The relief must have shown on my face, for one corner of his mouth twitched, ever so slightly.

"Sir, I know of no reason why you should. Have I not faithfully performed all my duties, not only those in the Articles I signed as Third Officer, but every other duty assigned me by a superior officer? Have I not been cheerful, diligent, pleasant to all, hard-working, and well-mannered?"

"And kind to children and small animals, too, I make no doubt. But fighting with a guest is a major failure on your part."

"Sir, may I beg leave to say that the guest himself would not agree with you? By his lights, we did not fight; we engaged in a discussion of philosophic principles, in the manner of his order. He would have been upset only if I'd refused to engage with him, or had deliberately let him win."

"What about the other guests in the lounge, Third Officer?"

"Sir, I don't doubt many of them were upset; I talked to them myself, and soothed them and their fears. But the ones I talked to weren't upset with me, but with their fellow guest, and his violence towards the doctor and the security officers."

"And what if I told you that I have a complaint against you from Security, mister? What do you say to charges that you should have left security to them?"

I spread my hands. "You amaze me, Sir. When I arrived, the only security officers present were lying on the floor, out cold, and Juho was keeping the doctor from attending a patient who looked to be stricken by some illness. How is he, by the way?"

"That's the doctor's concern, mister! How do you reply to Security?"

"I can only say there was no security present and conscious, so I stepped in and did what I could. The security officers in the lounge didn't seem angry with me, when they woke up, but grateful. Indeed, I had the impression that one of them, the lady, might be interested in me personally."

The Captain snorted at that, which took me aback; it seemed inconsistent with his dignity. But it encouraged me to say, "If I hadn't stepped in, Sir, and the distressed passenger had gone on untreated, he, or his heirs, might well have sued the ship and the company."

"Suppose you let me worry about the ship and the corporation, mister!" He drummed the fingers of one hand on his desk. He had six, I noticed for the first time. That's not common, but not extremely uncommon, either. I'd seen the same mutation on my own world.

"I've had other complaints about you," he said at length.

I was astounded. "Truly, Sir? I had no idea. Might I ask, from whom?"

"From another officer, who says you embarass the Second Officer by behaving improperly towards her."

"No, Sir!" I said. "I have not behaved improperly towards the Second Officer, at any time!" Struck by a sudden thought, I asked, "Is the complaint from the First Officer? I've noticed that he seems very interested in her."

"You impugn his motives?" the Captain asked. "I'll speak plainly. She isn't interested in either one of you."

That was hard to hear, but I stayed silent. It wasn't a subject I wanted to discuss with the Captain. He continued, “I've also had several complaints from a guest who says you're bothering Madame Farisen and her daughters."

"I've treated them as the great ladies and honored guests that they are," I said. "I deny any improper behavior towards them. What have they to say?"

"I haven't asked them," the Captain said. He studied me for a moment, as if trying to determine what kind of man dwelt behind my face.

"Very well," he said. "Let me be clear. My ship is not a cattery, where practiced Lotharios may prey on guests for their own pleasure, or even mutual pleasure. Furthermore, romances between crew and guests, or crew and crew, are not permitted on board."

"Yes, Captain, that's clear."

"As for your continued employment aboard Seffor's Bride, I'll let you know my decision before the ship departs from Mirandol. I advise you to do nothing rash while awaiting that decision."

"No Sir, I won't."

"You are dismissed, Third Officer Ellios. See Doctor Muhanian, and have him check you over. Then put on a fresh uniform, and return to your duties."

"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir."

"And tell the Doctor he did a good job. I almost couldn't see that black eye he tried to hide."

"Yes, Sir, I'll tell him," I answered.

"Dismissed," the Captain repeated. I bowed respectfully, and departed.

Doctor Muhanian looked me up and down. "Well, since you're still with us, I suppose I ought to check you for damage," he said. "Sit on that bench and take off your blouse, please."

The military of the Commonwealth of the Near Stars referred to their uniform coats as "blouses", and the lighter garment underneath as "shirts". Bride Corporation, though not military, wore similar uniforms and had adopted the same terms. All of Bride's crew wore short black dress boots, black dress pants, cuffless short-sleeved shirts, and long-sleeved blouses with buttoned cuffs, buttoned collar, and a round patch in the upper left of the chest, featuring the emblem of the Bride Corporation encircled by the words "Seffor's Bride • 4560 • ", that being the year she first took flight.

The blouse I took off and laid aside was white, leaving me in a plain blue shirt. All command crew wore the same, differenced by the braid around our sleeves, just above our cuffs: three stripes for Third Officers, two for Second Officers, one for the First Officer, and none for the Captain.

The Doctor said "hmmm" a few times, and poked me in a few painful places. I ignored it all, unless he asked me a question, as "Does that hurt?" I already knew that there was nothing wrong with me that a few days' healing wouldn't cure.

Since he wasn't part of Command, the Doctor's blouse was blue, with a gray shirt underneath. As the Ship's Physician, his arms were as free of braid as the Captain's. The other physicians on the ship wore one, two, or three rows of braid above their cuffs, and all medical personnel wore the sign of a physician on their collars, the staff of an ancient itinerant doctor. Other specialties, such as Engineering and Finance, had their own collar symbols.

"How are your other recent patients, Doctor?" I asked him.

"They're both doing fine, and they wanted me to convey their thanks to you, since I can do so without their boss making their lives miserable. Open your mouth, please, I want to look at that tooth."

It took me a moment to understand that he was referring to the two security officers. I'd completely forgotten about them. That was quite the feat, with their red, attention-getting blouses, but somehow I had accomplished it. Not only did their blouses distinguish security from both command staff and specialist crew, but the colors were practical for disguising injuries. Their blouses were the sanguine of fresh blood, while the shirts beneath were the brown of dried blood.

When the Doctor had satisfied himself that the tooth that the Ylhäinen had loosened was tightening up again, and I probably wouldn't lose it, I said, "Actually, I was referring to the guest who'd had the seizure, or stroke, or whatever it was; and to Juho, too, of course."

"Your friend's about as bad off as you are," Doctor Muhanian said drily. "You win equal honors for the amount of non-permanent damage you managed to inflict on each other. Of course, he's confined to his cabin until we reach Oholorim, and then he'll be escorted off the ship. The Captain has cancelled his ticket."

"Is he allowed visitors?"

The Doctor looked at me in surprise. "If you're mad enough to visit him, at least don't ask the Captain or the First Officer for permission! I'd suggest the Second Officer. She might say yes or no, but she won't hold the request against you, anyway."

"But yes. Thank you, Doctor."

He looked at me for a second, then spoke. "You'd really be wiser to pursue Master Sergeant Berav, you know. You've made a good impression on her, and the Second Officer?" He shook his head. "That's just hopeless. Believe me, I've seen it tried again and again."

I was beginning to be annoyed. "Assuming I were interested in an onboard romance, why is the Second Officer so hopeless? Is she a non-human, passing as human? Or simply not interested in men?"

"No, not as… Look, I'm sorry I mentioned it. You seem like a decent fellow, and I just wanted to spare you some pain. But it's not my place to discuss the Second Officer's personal business."

"My dear Sir," I said trying to remove any hint of ill-feeling or stiffness from my voice, "let it be forgotten. I quite understand your position. What can you tell me about the stricken passenger? If anyone should ask about him, what am I to say?"

"Best to say nothing," the Doctor advised, as I put my shirt back on. "It's nothing in his medical history, and I found no physical problems. Mr. Hainault appears to be a typical wealthy Hanushman of 131. He's resting comfortably in his cabin, and remembers nothing."

"You are not saying there is a problem with the Bride's environment? No," I answered myself, stroking my chin, "or he would not have been the only guest affected."

"Quite so… Well, you seem like a healthy young man. If you have any unexpected pain, dizziness, or any trouble with that tooth, come see me again. For now, you can return to your regular duty."

"Thank you, Doctor." I shook his hand, resumed my blouse, and left as he was reporting me fit for duty.

Despite the best efforts of the Catering and Entertainment staffs, shipboard life can slide into a kind of routine between the stars. The idle rich are easily bored, and no amount of haute cuisine and professional entertainment could disguise forever that the guests were stuck inside what amounted to a hotel, without doors or windows to a living world. It was a very large hotel, with thousands of other people aboard, but after a time, the kind of superficial creatures who booked luxury cruises began to feel that they'd seen every lounge and facility, and met every other person—typically, when he or she had seen about 5 percent of each.

Things always grew more lively before a port. Some guests would be leaving, and new faces would be joining us. If there were multiple inhabited worlds in a given system, we'd spend a while in orbit around each, that passengers might enjoy shore leave. Dead worlds, with the ruins of alien civilizations, were also stopovers, if there was a breathable atmosphere. The very course taken by Seffor's Bride through the outer reaches of a system wasn’t determined by fuel or time; we steered to cruise past ringed worlds at ooh! and aah! distances, or giant planets with banded atmospheres or giant storms. If at present a comet was flaring and outgassing in the light of the local sun, we'd be sure to fly through the tail, to the delight of our guests.

But Mirandol was still three weeks away, and ennui was beginning to weigh heavily upon the passengers, who had few internal resources. One of their fellows being stricken mysteriously was a thrill—provided it didn't strike them! As for a fight, right in the midst of the guests, between two martial artists? Most of the passengers would have paid extra to see such a thing. One of the other Third Officers—I regret that I've forgotten her name, she left us shortly thereafter—said she'd received complaints that the “show” hadn't been broadcast on one of the entertainment channels. More than a few guests, it seemed, believed that Juho and I were entertainers!

"Let them believe what they wish, my dear," I told her, "especially if it amuses or entertains them. Our role is not to educate or correct them, but only to keep them safe and content."

"Muuu,” she said, and walked away, smiling at her jest. Or even baaa, I thought—for even those who don't eat sheep, still fleece them for their wool.

"Who's the blonde?" said a voice. I turned my eyes from their appreciation of the other Third Officer's shapely derriere, to look behind me.

The woman standing there had chestnut-colored hair. which complemented the arterial blood color of her Security blouse. Her complexion was fair, though darker from sun and the outdoors than the ladies Farisen, who went to extreme lengths to protect their skin from radiation and rough weather. A collection of stripes and curves on each sleeve told me that she wasn't an officer of Security, but one of their non-commissioned officers, a concept I've never understood, then or now.

"Master Sergeant Berav, I presume."

"That's right," she said. "And you're Third Officer Ellios. My Chief really disapproves of you, Third Officer Ellios."

"I've heard that, but no one has said why, and I can scarcely ask the man."

"That's your mistake," she said. "Because you don't ask him, he thinks you're afraid of him. He thinks you're avoiding him, and hoping his displeasure will just fade away."

"Truth to tell, I never give him a thought at all," I said.

"Worse than that," she continued, as if I hadn't spoken, "because of your 'mincing manners', and your 'affected speech', he thinks you must be homosexual. And there's nothing Security Chief Salafinu hates worse than a 'fag'. His words, not mine," she concluded.

"Salafinu? That sounds like a Firimini name."

"It is," Master Sergeant Berav said. "But he wasn't born on that planet. He was born and raised on the Firimini colony planet during the reign of the First Tyrant, Sulla."

The reign of the tyrant Sulla was 250 years ago and halfway around the galaxy, so let me interject here that not only did he practice the usual monetary corruption and abuses of power, but he was omnisexual and preyed relentlessly on the women, men, children,, dogs, cats, goats, and ponies of the population. Eventually he was dragged out of his Palace and torn to pieces in the street by some of his victims, but not until he'd done permanent harm to hundreds of people directly, and the entire populace of the planet less directly. Small wonder then, that the Security Chief aboard Seffor's Bride was a homophobe, if he came of age during Sulla's misrule.

"So, if your Chief thinks I'm so despicable, why are you talking to me?" I asked her.

She uncrossed her arms and walked right up to me, closing in from casual-acquaintance distance to a more intimate proximity. Her eyes, I discovered, were bright blue. a color I'd never seen before with red hair.

"The Chief's problems are his own," she said. "I come from a Near Star world you've never heard of, south of here. I don't have a problem with men who speak politely, or who have graceful manners, even if they should turn out to be homosexual. Is that clear?"

"I'm not homosexual, my dear," I said. She was standing so close, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to reach out, and take her into my arms. Unlike the Farisen ladies, who were all three shorter than I by differing degrees, and Second Officer Hatonsa, who was considerably taller, the Master Sergeant seemed about the same height as I was, plus or minus an inch.

"Good!" she said, and smiled. "But the reason I approached you is, I want you to teach me."

"Teach you what?" I asked, though I suspected I knew the answer to my question.

"When Sergeant Namado and I attempted to detain your friend," she told me, "he showed us moves we'd never seen before, and shortly knocked us both cold. Then you came along, and did the same to him. So I'd like you to show us whatever martial arts you know. Would you do that, Third Officer Ellios?"

"Yes, I can do that," I said. "You, and anyone else who wishes to learn. But there's a price for that, Master Sergeant Berav."

She raised her eyebrows, and I went on. "You'll have to stop calling me Third Officer Ellios. My personal name is Santandar."

It was the first time I heard her laugh. "Done! And you can call me Amina, instead of Master Sergeant Berav."

"I should be most happy to do so, Amina."

"Can you come to the Security Gymnasium, tomorrow at 1500?"

"I can," I said. "Will I be admitted, if I do?"

"Don't worry about that," she said, tapping the insignia on her left sleeve with two fingers of her right hand.

I bowed. "Then I am at my lady's service," I said.

"Great, Santandar! It's a date, then!" Amina said, and walked away smiling.

Of a certainty, not all the changes due to my new fame, or notoriety if you please, could be expected to be happy ones. When I spoke to the ladies Farisen at dinner, there was a distinct chill in the air. Madame herself looked down her nose at me, and did not extend the usual invitation to sit and eat with them. After some pleasantries, I prepared to circulate around the dining room, or perhaps some other dining room where the temperature was warmer.

Before I did so, however, I asked Marian—that is to say, Madame herself—if I had said or done anything to offend. "You?" she said. "Offend a guest of the ship? I'm sure that the thought would never cross your mind. We have found you to be the very model of courtesy and gentility, haven't we, girls?"

"Indeed we have!" said Delicia, the older of her daughters. "And conscientious in the performance of your duties, as well. In fact, I'm sure there is some duty you must be seeing to right now, Third Officer Ellios."

I took that with aplomb, but I believe I know when my face has been slapped. I bowed to the three of them, and murmured, "Until we meet again, dear ladies." Then, with a bright smile, I went in search of better climes. I ignored the laughter which pealed behind me.

Chapter 3
Decisions To Make

"Sit over there," she said, nodding towards a chair near the door.

Permanent officers each had a suite to himself, or in this case, herself: several rooms to use however they desited, equipped however they wished. If they wanted larger rooms, or more rooms; if they wanted their own bathroom, kitchen, swimming pool, shooting range, or aviary, they had but to order it. Seffor's Bride was huge, and her resources were not small. I suppose the Captain would draw the line at the First Officer keeping a space yacht in the cargo hull, or the Second Officer storing a battle tank there; but then again, he might not. As long as the ship made money for the corporation, such "perks" were solely up to him.

The Captain had shown me only his front room, which he maintained as an office. Second Officer Hatonsa was showing me no more, but her front room was made up as a luxury living room in one of the great cities on one of the richer of the Commonwealth's worlds.

Had there been windows, I might have expected to see a night sky outside, with artificial light shining from tall buildings all around, perhaps an atmospheric vehicle going past high above. Instead, I sat in a room large enough for a game of raceball, with chairs for a handful of spectators along the walls.

The walls themselves were covered with a light tan cloth, and weavings, about 3 or 4 feet wide, patterned in vivid colors, hung from ceiling to floor here and there, no two the same. In between some of these were pictures—paintings, reliefs, photos, other things harder to categorize.

Throw rugs and cushions were scattered randomly on the floor. Most of the left wall, from my point of view, was filled by a plain metal table, and on it, what I took to be an aquarium. A second look showed the tank contained air, not water, and the plants in it were ferns.

"You can sit and wait without chattering," Mallulla observed. "That's a rare quality."

"Thank you," I said. "I like this room."

"Look your fill, you'll probably never see it again."

I took her at her word, and studied the rug that covered the most of the floor. The room was wider than it was deep, and the rug filled all of it, leaving only a border of five feet from its edge to the wall behind me, the same from the wall to my right, the wall behind the Second Officer, and the table with the terrarium.

The sides of the rug were straight, but the ends were convex; perhaps that had suggested a raceball track to me. The rug was mostly a deep red, but it had signs and symbols on it in white and black and yellow, arrayed in a pattern unknown to me, but evidently meaningful. It was like a periodic table of a faerie chemistry, or a song in an alien musical notation—or a voice, chanting a holy verse, in a language I'd never heard before.

The "martial arts" are piteously misnamed. In the long history of mankind, on many planets in at least three galaxies, over thousands of years, I suppose it's possible that somewhere, somewhen, a war was fought with hands and feet alone. But mankind is a tool-using animal, and the oldest tools in the record are bits of bone sharpened for stabbing. Even a bone knife does more damage than any punch or kick. Even a wooden spear, with its end filed into a point by stroking it against a hard rock, and hardened by fire, has a longer reach than an arm or leg.

A disciplined body of troops has a great advantage over an undisciplined mob, however, whatever weapons the mob may carry. Surprise is a valuable factor in combat, as well. If you forbid the peasants or the priests to carry the weapons of the upper class, you don't make them helpless. A human being is always a dangerous animal, even if all he has to fight with are empty hands and bare feet. Teach a "harmless priest" or a "worthless peasant" how to fight with the weapons at the ends of his arms and legs, and the most elite warriors can go missing while carrying out the commands of their noble lords.

There's also the consideration that the most highly-trained and best-equipped soldier can have his weapons taken from him if his unit is captured, or his weapon may break or run out of ammunition. If he's trained in the "martial arts" as well as the weapons of his time and place, he can still fight. To make such a soldier hors de combat, you must kill him. Nothing less will make him stop.

It was in that spirit that I went to the Security gymnasium Amina had appointed, at 1500 the next day. I expected to find her, and some other Security personnel who were friends of hers. They would show me what they knew, I would show them what I'd been taught, and we'd practice our arts on each other. Bruises would be given and taken, bodies would fly through the air, sweat would run. Everyone would learn something, and some friendships would begin.

However, that isn't what happened.

To be continued!

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