Wednesday, August 31, 2016

To Save My Enemy 13

Impatiently, she waved to the extra staff to go about their business, and sent two of the servants waiting in the hall away.  It did not do to give a courtesan an inflated idea of her importance.  In the end Alama waited with only four other servants to receive the new arrival.
Finally the tall doors were pulled open and the guest was lead into the hall.  Neath Sath made his bow to the Alama and turned to give a puzzled look to his passenger. The woman ignored the servants who approached to collect the cloak that she held wrapped so tightly about her body,  and stood quiet and hooded in the doorway.  The staff were too well trained to whisper, but they shifted in their places, impatient and confused. Until she gave up the cloak they could not continue with the greetings.
In the end the Alama surrendered a small part of her dignity and walked across to the small figure.  “Welcome to the Clan Ranualt.  I am the Alama here.”
There was no response.  A few faint comments came from deep in the side halls where the dismissed servants loitered.  The Alama flashed a glance toward them and waved at hand. They ran. Later she would discipline them. For now, she had a mystery to address.
The Alama turned to Neath Sath.  “What is this?”
Neath Sath repeated his bow. “I was instructed to bring her here, to you, without speech.  Then, after greeting my parents, I was to return to the Ninerthal. Those are my orders.”
“Then go and greet your parents,” said the Alama, waving a dismissal.  She waited until Neath Sath had left the hall and the doors were closed again before approaching the stranger, who was now visibly swaying.  The air around her was drenched with a spicy perfume, a cheap distillation that Alama despised, but underlying that was a cloying, sickly stench that was beginning to worry her.  She took hold of the hood and raised it slightly. 
Within the shelter of the hood a shadow-pale woman raised her eyes and smiled hesitantly. “Alllaaam?”
“Alama,” The Alama corrected absently, through her shock.
The woman fumbled under the cloak and produced a message tube.  The Alama took it, raising both eyebrows at the color of the swollen hands as well as from the fact that the skin was exposed to view while traveling. How degenerate was this courtesan?  Stepping away, the Alama read the message rapidly, then again, barely able to accept what was written.  The Alama’s command over her features was such that not a hint of her horror showed. Instead she turned to the waiting servants, as serene and confident as always.
“Elsia Ton. Elsia Ni. I require your service. Everyone else is dismissed.  As always, I remind you, do not talk of Clan matters with anyone! The presence of this woman within the walls is not a matter for discussion.”
The startled servants  bowed and vanished.
“Elsia Ni, go to the infirmary and bring me . . . oh. . . as much of everything that you can carry.  Bandages, cleansers. Bring them to. . .” she paused, considering what was in the note.  The Matriarch’s chambers were separate from the other rooms, down a corridor where a guard could be set, if necessary.  “Bring them to the Matriarch’s suite.”
Oh, if only the matriarch was still there to advise her.
Ignoring the twin gasps of astonishment Alama took one of the cloaked woman’s arms and started to guide her up the grand staircase.   The sudden movement almost took the woman to her knees.  Alama caught her as she fell and breathed in the foul stench barely covered by the cheep perfume.
“Elsia Ton!  Take her arm!” 
Elsia Ton took a firm grip, but quickly released it when the small woman cried out in pain and pulled her arm free.  After a moment of cross purpose maneuvering, the courtesan reached out with ice pale fingers and rested her hand on top of Elsia Ton’s offered arm then she took the Alama’s arm in the same grip. Balanced delicately between them the woman turned and slowly the three women climbed the staircase.
Elsia Ni watched them leave, unable to believe what she was seeing.  The courtesan's hand was ice white!  What illness took the skin's color so completely?  Was it contagious? If so, her sister and the Alama were in danger.  The Alama looked over her shoulder with a frown and Elsia Ni, remembering her task, ran through a side hall toward the kitchens and infirmary.
*
The Matriarch’s suite - solar, sitting room, and bedroom  - was situated on the third floor and was by far the most beautiful, well decorated and gracious of the family suites.  Ordinarily a mere courtesan would never cross the chamber’s threshold.
 The decorations were unchanged since the death of the Alama’s mentor, but as dust free and fresh as if its old occupant had stepped out only a moment ago.  To Elsia Ton’s surprise they bypassed couch, chair and bed in favor of the bathing room.  Seeing the younger woman’s expression the Alama smiled thinly. 
“The first thing any space traveler wants when they return home after years of chemical showers, is a good deep bath.” She hesitated, then added. “And Patriarch Ranualt wrote that this woman has been very badly hurt. The best way to assess her injuries will be here.”
They lowered their guest to a small stool in the bathing chamber and gently peeled away the layers of clothing that had adhered here and there to her wounds. At the first sight of Theresa’s torn back and arms Elsia Ton recoiled in horror.
“The Commander did this?”
The Alama’s eyes flashed, but, she remembered, the girl had ever met the Commander.
“Don’t be stupid, girl.  The Commander is a man of honor! He has not said how she was injured but I swear it was not at his hands. He has ordered us to care for this woman, and keep her alive if we can.” The Alama’s gaze traveled down the pale flesh again. “If we can.”
Elsia Ni rushed into the room, arms full and skidded to a halt staring at the woman’s pale hair and skin. “Gods above and below protect us!  What manner of creature is she?”
The Alama shook her head, unable to believe that the Commander would bring this disaster upon his own Clan but she said the words nevertheless.
“This is a Commonweal female. ”

Monday, August 29, 2016

To Save My Enemy 12

Stunned Theresa clutched at a table arm for support.
“When I took you from the pit,” continued Ranualt, “I assumed responsibility for you.  I could choose to let you die, to hand you over to become a prisioner of war, or I could arrange for you to live the remaining years of your life in safety.  The only way for you to have a life is with me . . .in my home .  . on Korum Dan.  Once you are there it would be too great an offense for them to try and claim you.  It is our only safety.  There are no other options.”
“Are you certain?” Theresa asked quietly, running her hand over her sweaty forehead.
“From the moment that you set foot upon the path that ended with your entry in that pit, your options ceased.  Your life, as it was, has ended.  The only life you have now is the one I choose to give you.  I have chosen to give you a life in my home, which is not a decision without cost to myself.”
He released his grip suddenly and turned to pick up the pile of bright silks.  Theresa twisted her hands in the thin sheet.
“I let you go home,” she said again, and Ranualt sighed, his high color faded and shoulders sank.
“I know. I am sorry I am not able to do the same.  You let me go home with honor and I thank you for it.  Injured as you are, there are no circumstances where I could do the same.”
“I got in a lot of trouble for letting you go.”
“Of that I am certain. But we are here and now and this is the only path.”
Before she could protest further Ranualt dropped a heavy, all concealing, all enveloping robe on the bed and took hold of the sheet Theresa clung to so desperately.  He pulled a little and suppressed a smile at her feeble resistance.
“We have already had the discussion about your body, Lt. Williams.  At the moment you are safe.  No one could find your body anything other than repulsive.”
Theresa blushed and loosened her grip. “Well, that was charming . . .”
“Enough.  Dress and listen. You have a long journey to take and must do it in complete silence.  At the end you will be at my home where you will receive care.”  Briskly Ranualt pulled the loose robes over Theresa’;s head and helped her balance as she climbed into the pantaloons.  The whole ensemble was covered by the cleaned and deodorized cloak he had wrapped her in only ten days before. The front of the cloak was still decorated with his family crest.
“Only someone who would dare offend the Clan Ranualt will ask to see your face,” he said, raising the hood.  “Keep your hands under the cloak.  I cannot give you gloves to wear,  there are none available that will fit your hands. Keep them out of sight.  Any who sees your naked fingers will think you are trying to entice them and the deception will be revealed.”  He pulled the cloak tight around her body and arranged the crest of his Clan so that it was clearly visible.
Theresa raised a corner of the hood, careful to keep a fold of fabric over her hands. “What else?”
Ranualt pulled the hood down until the hem was lower than her chin.  The fabric was thin enough to see through from the inside, but only barely.
“You will be taken from here by shuttle in the company of someone who does not know who you are.  Your silence in his presence will be taken as pride instead of lack of language.  Here,” He reached under the cloak and tucked a small message tube into her waistband. “The only person who will dare to look at your face will be the Alama of my Clan. The note contains her instructions.”
Ranualt pulled the cloak closed again and walked around her examining the disguise.  It was the only ruse he could think might work and yet the risks were great. He sighed deeply and that breath brought the stink of her still seeping wounds to his attention.
Cursing he searched his rooms, finally uncovering a heavy crystal bottle left by some now forgotten nights companion. Roughly he pushed back Theresa’s hood and poured the spicy scent over her hair and down the back of her cloak.
“What the hell,” cried Theresa, as the stinging liquid soaked through her bandages.
“You stink!” snapped Ranualt.  “I will not have this exercise fail for some putrid reason.”
Theresa felt as if she were blushing all the way to the souls of her feet.  Then the blush faded leaving her weak and light headed.  First repulsive, now putrid and stinking.  She restored the hood to it previous place. Under the cloak her hands clenched together.  She was a prisoner.  Her lips trembled as she tried to hold back tears.  Her life was over, she had nothing and no one and she could never go home. 
But she had known that for a long time. 
And she had thought the pit was bad.
Never underestimate the Universe’s ability to make your life worse.
*
The Alama of Clan Ranualt had been born on the estate and employed within the main house since her teenage years.  Her merit had been noted by the much mourned grandmother of the current patriarch.  Over the years she had been educated, at the Clan’s expense, and advanced by degrees until she achieved her current position, with ultimate authority over the Clan, Estates and Obligations in the continued absence of Sector Commander Ranualt.  It was a matter of great pride that she maintained the Clan ready to meet any demand that may be placed upon it.  The entire Praetorate, their consorts and sycophants could descend upon them at the tolling of the dinner bell, and be met with rooms ready and entertainment and food befitting their rank and tastes.  The Clan’s pride was her pride, and nothing would be found wanting while she served.
Therefore she reacted calmly to the tolling of the proximity alarm and awaited the report of the security officer in her small office. The young officer was not calm when he was admitted into her presence.
“The private Ident of Sector Commander Ranualt,” he gasped. “Not himself personally, but a guest comes under his sign.”
The Alama closed the record book she was writing in and sealed it before rising.  She had been preparing for Ranualt Ti’s return, knowing the date of his enlistment and his retirement as well as she knew the birth dates of her children.  Yet now, several months ahead of schedule, here was a guest traveling under his Ident.  She gathered her work log and rang a small bell to summon her assistant. When the flustered young woman arrived bright eyed and out of breath the Alama knew gossip was already spreading.  There was little to be done to stem gossip within the Clan itself, but the God’s would not protect anyone she found speaking of Clan matters outside the security barricades.
“Don’t run in the house, Elsia Ton,” said the Alama, mildly.  “Go and confirm the readiness of a guest room on each of the floors.  I will let you know which one will be used once we have greeted Patriarch Ranualt Ti’s guest.  Send Elsia Ni to prepare the hall for welcome.”
The girl hurried off while the Alama made her way slowly to the great hall, running a smoothing hand over her thick grey braids.  Each time she passed through the house she would walk down a different hall, trying to keep the cleaners off guard.  The flowers she passed were fresh, the stone walls dusted, hangings straight.  All was ready for the comfort of the family who no longer lived here.
Pausing at the top of the grand staircase she checked the preparations in the hall.  Her assistant was peering through a small window that overlooked the courtyard,  ready to announce who the guest was as soon as any crest was seen. In a straight line from the wide doors stood servants ready to take travel clothes and wash the visitor's hands.  In the small halls nearby servants waited in case a greater show was needed than those who currently waited. The Alama descended to take her place in the center of the Hall.
“Craft landing,” reported Elsia Ton, and everyone in the hall fell silent.  “One pilot, one guard. It’s Neith Ben’s son, Sath, who travels with the Commander.”
There was a brief flutter amongst the listeners and someone left to inform the cook of her son’s arrival.  The Alama bit the inside of her lip and forced herself to remain stationary.  The only time she regretting the dignity of her status was when visitors arrived, wishing with all her heart she could push aside the watcher and find out for herself who was there.
“One passenger.” Elsia Ton studied the visitors clothing, gasped and turned to her rapt audience. “It’s a courtesan wearing the Commanders own cloak,” she said in an awed voice. There was a ripple of sound through the room, quickly hushed when the Alama rapped her knuckles on her workbook.
“I thought the Commander would get married again when he came home,” said Elsia Ni, quietly.
“Silence,” snapped Alama, her own disappointment making her sharp. “We do not comment on the actions of the Patriarch.” 
The arrival was a more complex problem than she expected.  Was the woman a temporary or permanent attachment, and why was she here so far in advance of the Commanders arrival?  A temporary addition did not rank as high as permanent.  Where should she be placed, and what was a courtesan to do here without the Commander to entertain?

Friday, August 26, 2016

To Save My Enemy 11

The officer dove to comply and Halla Timmon stuttered into silence.
Ranualt turned and stalked from the command center.  Pausing at the door he considered.  Having the crew assassinate the Captain would be a momentary pleasure. . .but it would be much talked about, and only cause future problems.
Glancing back Ranualt drew down his brows into the most ferocious of his practiced expressions.  Halla Timmon visibly shrank.
“It does not give you joy, does it? The prospects of no leave, no rest or planet fall for three years?”
“N . . . no, Sector Commander.”
“I do not imagine it pleases anyone else either, do you?”
“No. No, Sector Commander.”
Ranualt waited.  Gods! The idiot was so self-centered it was possible he would never consider another beings interest in the whole of his life, and he appeared unable to pick up a hint placed before him, lit with solar flares.  Impatiently, Ranualt turned to the second officer.
“Your opinion, Adjutant Ment Tai?”
“All disciplinary restriction to ship will be rescinded,” gasped out the Adjunct in relief.
“Do you agree, Captain?” Ranualt chose to accept stunned silence as assent. “Very good. . . and I do not think we need a survey of the border at this time.”
The relieved sighs of the crew was enough to ruffle his hair. Smiling, Ranualt left the command center aware that Halla Timmon might live through this night, but he would not live through many more.  The crew could not risk it. The man was simply too stupid.  Ranualt wondered how much longer Timmon had left to live and who would take him out?
At best speed the journey to Korum would take just over ten days.  If he prepared a fake message tonight, included just enough complaints, just enough truth, they could make it to Korum Dan without anyone being the wiser, until they reached the outer defenses.  That just left the actual journey down to the surface.  How could he arrange that with Lt. Wiliams too weak to walk?
Back in his suite it appeared Lt. Williams had barely moved. She drank water when he held a cup to her lips, but aside from that and her slow breathing, there was little sign of life.  Her skin burned with fever and the room still stank from her infected wounds.  Ranualt lifted the sweat soaked sheet and examined the dressings.  Stained with the seepage, they needed to be changed.  Ranualt dropped the sheet and knelt beside the bed.  He lifted a few of the dirty strands of hair from her pale face; it was barely possible to tell the original color.
Oh, and she had been so beautiful.
It the Gods were just the pit master who damaged her would be one of those who died in the explosion and fire. Damaging a work of art such as she was a criminal offense.
“Are you going to be worth all this work?” His lips quirked and he pulled a knife from his boot, holding it before her closed eyes. “You asked to die; I insisted that you should live. Now, I ask myself. Should you live?”  He pressed the knife tip to her neck, resting lightly on the thin pulse.  “If I destroy you now, no one shall know my act, except myself. Ah, Lieutenant, what is the answer? What will I risk to see you live?  Are you going to be worth the effort?”
Lt. Williams slept on, and he knelt beside her, watching her breathe. 
*
It was not until they were on final approach to the Korum Dan system that Ranualt made a serious effort to wake Lt. Williams from her abnormal sleep.  She had barely stirred the last ten days, waking briefly when he held water or thin soup to her lips, drinking a little, then sinking back again to wherever she was hiding from the pain.  She had not reacted in any way when he changed the dressings on her wounds and there was, as yet, no sign of healing.  He feared that lack of nutrition and dehydration would kill her but she continued breathing lightly, slowly.
Captain Halla Timmon had made the expected attempt to discover who Sector Commander Ranualt was entertaining in his quarters and been politely deflected.  It was likely that he only made the attempt because some member of his crew reminded him of the mysterious arrival.  Timmon, himself, had been busy with more important matters.  He had survived two assassination attempts in the last few days and was feeling paranoid and hurt. One attempt had been turned aside by Timmon’s courtesan, a well-trained woman probably provided by his grandfather for that purpose.  The other, by Ranualt himself, who wanted no trouble while Lt. Williams was on board.
Now the time had come to send Lt. Williams away, and for the transfer to work, it required her cooperation. Her conscious cooperation.  After a few minutes of gentle shaking Ranualt  was cursing in frustration. He should not have left her to sleep so deep. Or perhaps this is what her species did when they were dying?  How was he to know?  He considered slapping her awake but her neck still bore bruises from his hands and he didn't want to weaken her further.
“Gods take it all,” Ranualt cursed viciously for a moment. “Lieutenant Williams, wake up!”
Theresa blinked and tried to sit up, her name reaching through the levels of self hypnosis to call her back.  Immediately the barely healed wounds and abused muscles, that had stiffened while she slept, lined up to scream.
Stifling a groan she sank back on the bed and blinked sticky eyes open.
“Wher. . .” Theresa stared around the cabin; there was not much to see from her position on the bed. “It’s traditional question, I suppose,” she croaked, “Where am I?”
“The Battle Cruiser  Ninerthal is currently approaching Korum Dan,” Ranualt handed her a small glass of fresh water and watched as she gulped it, her hands shaking so much she spilled almost as much as she drank.  “We will be going into orbit by the end of today’s shift.”
“Korum Dan?  That cesspit was on Korum Dan?”  Her jerk of surprise pulled all the muscles of her back and she lay panting until the pain subsided.
“Never!  That obscenity would never be permitted on Korum Dan.  I found you on Tallis,  one of the dumping ground colonies near the border.”
“When are we going back to the border?”
“We are not.  I will be transferring you to a shuttle as soon as I can get you up and dressed I…”
“Why!  Where am I going?” Her voice was panicked, anger and confusion making her head swim. 
“I am sending you to my home. You will be safe there,” began Ranualt.
“I’d be safe in Commonweal space too.  When will I be going home?”
Ignoring the pains, Theresa pulled herself upright in the bed, clasping the sheet to her chest and gasped as her vision fogged.  Hanging her head she waited for her vision to clear.
Ranualt scowled.  After all his work these last few days he expected a little gratitude, maybe even thanks. Instead her voice is strident and she had the nerve to be angry.
“You cannot go home!  Your life in the Commonweal has ended, or have you forgotten - there are no prisoner exchanges.”
“Only because your people won’t talk about it,” Theresa pulled the thin sheet closer. “But you didn’t have to do an exchange.  I let you go, you could have done the same for me.  You could have put me in a shuttle or something near the border.  A short range signal would have been enough. The nearest ship would have come for me.”
Eyes burning, Ranualt crossed the room and seized her by the shoulders, pulling her to her feet.
“I could have done that. Then I would be called upon to explain why I had done so.  There is no way I could have done anything like that without witnesses.  Witnesses who would have told the Praetorate that you had been on board. Or would you have me slaughter everyone who knew of your existence?”
Her fevered eyes closed and she shook her head. “No! No, of course not, but you. . .”
“The only reason you are alive, the only reason you have not been harmed any further, is that no one in Command knows of your existence.  My guards have not and will never speak of it.  If  Command knew, you would be taken. I would be taken, and everything that I am and own, all of my family, all who owe me obligation, would suffer as a consequence!  I must get you to my home estate before any discover your existence.  Once you are there matters change.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

To Save my Enemy 10

There was little he could do for her beyond cleaning. The fever that raged behind her eyes, the swelling of her hands, worried him. One of the puncture wounds on her arm was very deep and he had no knowledge of the animal that inflicted it.  He had no medications, no real knowledge of her species.  After washing off the worst of the muck he covered the wounds in clean dressings, wrapped her in a bed sheet and lowered her face down on the room's one bed.
“I would offer you wine to ease your pain . . .if you have changed your mind.”  He poured a small amount into a heavy glass but bringing it to his lips brought a waft of cleansing chemicals mixed with blood to his nose and he set the wine down un-tasted.
She smiled slightly, teeth chattering.  “I haven’t changed my mind. . . but I can  . . .hide from the pain for a few hours.”
“Then do so. . .”  He watched as she closed her eyes.  Of all the times he had dreamt of her in his bed, infected wounds had not been part of his fantasy.  How the Gods must be laughing!
Ranualt bathed himself quickly and cleaned the hygiene unit as thoroughly as he could.  His mood was darker than he could remember and the orders he transmitted to his adjutant were stated with greater than usual force.  Consequently, it was barely ten minutes later that his subordinates delivered camping equipment from stores. The  folding bed and extra blankets took up most of the spare room in his chamber but he was content with the crowding. He had somewhere to sleep and Lt. Williams was still alive. 
He crossed the room twice to check on her breathing before extinguishing the room lights and reclining on his uncomfortably thin bed.
Since the recent abortive peace conference with the Commonweal, Sector Commander Ranualt had been treated with suspicion.  His retirement after thirty years of service should have been accompanied by honors, acknowledgments, celebrations and public fetes.  Instead there had been silence from his Senator, from the Praetors and, after a long delay, the offer of a false promotion. 
The Pastorate’s representatives had notified him he was being considered for the governorship of one of the latest colonies - a fertile, minerally well-endowed planet with an intelligent educated population that had voluntarily joined the Praetorate Third Sector.  Since the Korum imbibe suspicion with their mother’s milk and, while responding to the news with the rejoicing his superiors expected, Ranualt doubted he was receiving any great gift.
It was fortunate he had decided to investigate the offered promotion while he still had access to Battle Cruisers since the planet upon which they intended he should live out his retirement upon was a sewer.
Being aware of the barbarous practices of the rim colonies was one thing, seeing them in practice was quite another.  The governorship they offered was not of a recent acquisition, but of a planet that was a long term dumping ground for intractable species, incorrigible criminals, the worst of degenerates and scum.  Ranualt had allowed himself a bitter smile acknowledging how Korum Command regarded him:  a high ranked problem inconveniently equipped with pride and honor who had risen through the ranks through merit instead of political alliances, treated his enemies and his crews with respect and who publicly stated that continued war with the Commonweal did not serve the best interests of the people of the Korum. 
His honor gave him no choice, he was going to publicly refuse the only reward he was being offered for his years of service.  Honor had prevented him from profiting as other officers had, by theft, abuse of power and the selling of promotions.  The best he could hope for now was that the Praetors would graciously grant him leave to return to his estates and private life, while proclaiming their sorrow that he was depriving the Praetorate of his wisdom and experience.
The hypocrites.
If they did not he could find himself imprisoned on such a world instead of Governor over it.  His visit to that sewer had two benefits.  He saw clearly how he was regarded and he had finally balanced the obligation of honor owed to Lt. Williams.
He rose several times in the night to try to offer her water, but she did not stir.  Whatever she had done to hide from the pain had taken her far.  He would have to wait until her mind returned.  Leaving the cup near her small naked hand he attempted to sleep.
*
Late the next day, ships time, Sector Commander Ranualt stood, hands clasped behind his back, staring across the immaculate command chamber at the sweating Captain Halla Timmon.  Every few minutes Ranualt would permit his gaze to linger on some console, or junior officer, and his expression would register pain. 
Poor Halla Timmon, he was not well designed for this game.  Immediately he noticed Ranualts attention had be captured he would try to work out what the Sector Commander had seen, what was wrong with the working of his bridge?  Having been promoted far beyond his competence and knowledge, Halla coped by focusing on something he could control.  He cleaned . . or his crew did, constantly.
“Salcia Krik! There is food . . food stains on your console!”  Captain Halla Timmon shrieked.
The unfortunate assistant navigator jumped, then cringed.  Eyes down, hands working on the complex math, she endured the tirade. That it was the third time someone had been accused of this failing, this shift, did not comfort her. With each outburst Halla Timmon had levied increasing punishments and demerits and she had heard the scope of the last.  She would be lucky if she received leave to visit her family before retirement.
Ranualt watched with carefully concealed amusement.  Salcia Krik had sold her loyalty to the Halla clan, who has he to deprive her of the benefits of that loyalty.
While the tirade continued Ranualt permitted his thoughts to wander to his quarters and the problem of Lt. Williams.  This was his final cruise.  His farewell to the sector he had guarded for decades. If he waited . . . keeping Lt. Williams on board for the months that yet remained of his tour of duty, the risk of her being discovered would increase. If High Command were informed Ranualt had an officer of the Commonweal in his hands . . . they could accuse him of treason, as he had not reported it. . .they could take her and compel her to reveal what little she knew of Star Command. Weakened as she was, they would, undoubtedly, kill her.  Her presence on board was a danger to Ranualt, to his estates, his family reputation and the safety of everyone who had ever been connected to him. When the Praetorate were angry, they spread their animosity thick, deep and wide.
But was there a way for him to leave early, with honor? His options were few. It would inconvenience his superiors if he were to retire a few months earlier than they had expected. The fight over who would succeed to his position had not yet been resolved. 
Good! 
Sector Commander Ranualt smiled, and half the bridge crew cringed and looked away, uncertain what that expression portended. 
Let the carrion feeders come and fight over the Sector, Ranualt no longer cared for the outcome.  If he were to take Lt. Williams to Korum, send her down in a shuttle protected by a few of his personal guard, then she would be home and under his protection before they even knew of her existence.  If they found out about her then, how could they prove that she had not been there for years?  No one on the estates would deny Ranualt’s story.   As soon as Ranualt could free himself from his responsibilities he would act to ensure her continued safety.
So far Halla Timmon had not made any serious attempt to find out who was brought on board during seclusion.  Ranualt’s bodyguards turned away the spies serving the second officer and the chief of engineering, but no one attached to Halla.  That situation could not be expected to continue.  When Halla Benk received his grandsons’ weekly report he will issue orders to investigate.  So. . .what to do?
Ranualt’s attention strayed to the communication console.  There were no planned drops from hyper drive to pick up messages scheduled this shift, therefore the junior officers gloating attention was entirely on the lecture on cleanliness still being delivered by an increasingly rabid Captain. 
It would endanger the overweight slugs’ health to induce another rage today, but tomorrow, he would.   Ranualt could access the communications computer's memory, and find previous messages Timmon had sent to his grandsire. With a little creative editing Ranualt could place a false report ready to overwrite Timmon’s true message and automatically send Ranualt’s in its place.   That would postpone the elder Halla’s curiosity.  Decision made Ranault considered the best way to implement his own early retirement. If the plan was to work Ranualt must arrive at the Capital unexpectedly.
“Respected Captain Halla Timmon!”
Timmon choked at being directly addressed and spent several minutes stammering apologies before falling silent.
“Perhaps now that the consoles are all adequately cleansed . . .”
Timmon flashed a brilliant smile and Ranualt bit his own lip.  The fool thought he had correctly identified the cause of Ranualt’s interest.  Ranualt schooled his expression to impassivity; he could indulge his humor later, when all was safe. “Would you be prepared to entertain a course change?”
“Awaiting your direction, Honored Sector Commander Ranualt.”   Posture correct and quivering with eagerness Halla Timmon positively beamed at his superior.  Ranualt swallowed a sigh. If he had known the fool was so pathetically willing to follow direction years ago he would have ordered him to walk out an airlock!  How could the Praetor bear the shame of such a grandson?  The pang that accompanied the memory of his own son’s death bit deep.  Perhaps a pathetic son was better than none at all.
“Korum Dan, at best speed.”  Every crew member turned at his words, Halla Timmon actually staggered in shock.
“Korum Dan?” stammered Halla Timmon, clutching an chair back for support.
Dan, home to few of the crew, planet of origin of the Korum, home of the central government and the dream destination of those raised on the colonies.  Most of this crew were unlikely to be granted so much as a shore leave on this fabled planet.
It was Ranualt’s home and Lt. Williams best hope for safety.
“You have an objection to Korum Dan? asked Ranualt, mildly.
Halla Timmon shook his head.  “We are scheduled for another three months guarding the far border.”
“If you are so fond of long tours on the far borders, Captain Halla Timmon,  I will be certain to sign orders for you to be issued a three year assignment to  circumnavigate all Korum’s sectors, and place it in force before I retire.”
The crew drew breath together and Halla Timmon’s life hung in the balance as they waited.
“No. No, Sector Commander. That is, it would be my greatest honor, but my family . . .” Halla Timmon paused, remembering the long enmity between Clan Ranualt and Clan Halla.  “That is. . .I. . .my ship is not designed. . .my crew. . . we.”
Ranualt turned to the navigation officer. “Korum Dan!  Best speed!”

Monday, August 22, 2016

To Save My Enemy 9

She began to sag toward the deck. Ranualt crossed the small chamber in two steps and caught her by the arms.  Half lifting and half dragging her unresisting form he pulled her into a smaller chamber and pushed her up against the wall. Despite his efforts Lt. Williams slid down, landing in a tangled pile of fabric and abused limbs.
“Not yet!” he commanded, his sharp voicing ringing in the sealed room. “You must be cleansed, your wounds attended to and it will be easier if you would stand . . up!” He hauled her to her feet and pushed her hands toward the zero-G emergency grips. “Hold onto these.  It is time to get you clean.” He wrapped her hands around the cold metal and kept his fingers pressed on hers until he felt her grip tighten.  She pressed her hot face against the cool metal walls.
“Fine,” she mumbled. “Show me how to turn on the unit and I’ll do it myself,”
Ranualt laughed, brushed the hood back off her flushed face and lifted an eyelid to look into her fever bright eyes. 
“You cannot stand without aid,” said Ranualt, starting to unwrap the heavy cloak.
Lt. Williams released the zero-G strap and gripped his hand.
“Wait.”  Leaning against the wall she stared up at him. 
The Commander watched her impassively, clutching handfuls of soiled cloth to keep her upright..
“Why?” was the whispered question.
“Why?” he repeated and considered the question for a moment. “Why what?”
“Why . . .” She struggled to find a way to phrase it. “Why save me? There was no reason ... it would cause trouble for you.”
“There are a number of reasons.  One, that I owed you a debt of life.”  His half bow was not graceful, but he was hampered by the close quarters and the necessity of holding her. “That debt is now paid.”
Her head fell forward, her body suddenly limp.  Ranualt’s heart missed several beats while he lowered her to the floor and searched for some sign of life.  Tearing apart the cloak he saw the slow, but reassuring rise and fall of her soft breasts.  He poured a small amount of precious un-recycled water into a cup and sprinkled it over her face and lips.
After a moment she stirred. “Give me a knife. . .”
For an instant Ranualt was confused by her request then, gazing down at her, he understood.  Her spirit had brought her this far and she could go no further. “Do you want to live?” he asked.
Lt. Williams shook her head slowly. “Not anymore.  I just didn’t want to die in the pit. . .not like that. . .not an animal.”
Ranualt dragged her into his lap and forced a little water into her mouth. “Do you want to die?” he demanded as she allowed it to trickle out again.
“Yes.  Give me a knife...I’ll do it.”
“Not necessary,” he said his voice deepening. He placed both hands about her throat, feeling her trembling pulse beneath his fingers.  Slowly tightening his grip he said. “You do not need a knife. I can take care of it.”
A first she did not notice, or choose not to, but as the crushing pressure on her throat increased she began to struggle.  Her swollen fingers clutched at his arms, broken, dirty nails clawing his skin.  Her body thrashed as she tried to kick some part of his body.
“Do you want to live?” He demanded, as she continued to fight. “Do you want to live?” His pulled his hands from her throat and she curled on the floor gasping for air. “Do you want to live?”
‎‎”Yes . . . yes!”
Ranualt grabbed a handful of saturated hair and filthy fabric, “Then get up.” He ordered. 
There had been many dirty and disgusting tasks he had undertaken in his years.  Both at his father’s farm and later on the orders of the Praetorate, but none of them compared to cleaning Lt. Williams’s torn body.
When he had first seen her, years ago, she had been vibrantly healthy. Palely glowing as a star with her ice blonde hair, green eyes and milky skin. The Commonweal had even clothed her in a stark white formal uniform the better to display her pure beauty.  If they thought to hide her by placing her at the rear of the hall they were mistaken.  Her silence as much as her coloring had drawn all eyes.  Her presence had been the only high point of the fruitless peace conference.  Ranualt was not alone in lusting after her exotic beauty.    Speculation on her body had occupied hours of debate between the Korum of all ranks, and her image lived on in Ranualt’s thoughts and daydreams in the years since.  He had never expected to have the object of his lust delivered to him, and certainly not naked, torn and bleeding on the floor of his hygiene unit.
He pulled the cloak away revealing several days worth of untreated battle wounds.  Three sets of parallel gouges marked her back and again on her flanks, crossed with bite marks and slashes exposing the flesh beneath.  The wounds seeped yellow fluid, scabs barely formed. The skin surrounding the cuts was reddened and thick, green grey drainage seeping over the edges.  The jagged stripes marking her back and legs, Ranualt recognized as stone whip marks.  Someone with a heavy hand had wielded the whip – damn them.  Multiple scratches marked her belly. Shallow, fortunately.  While the lieutenant clung to the supports he adjusted the flexible head of the chemical shower, narrowed the flow of the liquid and started loosening the knots that held together the last remnants of her uniform. The thick secretions, sweat and sand clogging the knot eventually defeated him and he was forced to use a knife to cut her free from her clothing.  Dragging her feet free of her boots brought her to the floor in a faint again.  He revived her quickly and pulled her to her feet.
Taking double handfuls of soap he ran his hand first over what remainder of the intact skin before cleansing the damaged.  Lt. Williams cringed away, trying to conceal her body from him,  pushing at his arm as he ran a soapy hand over her breasts.
“Be still!” he ordered impatiently.
“I can wash myself.  Please. . .please leave.”
“Be still,” he repeated, stepping back.  Her soft flanks and thighs were bruised and cut, the skin dull and encrusted with dirt. “At this moment you are far from being the object of anyone’s lust.”
His voice was harsh.
She turned her face to the wall, tears mixing with the chemical spray.
“Be assured woman. When I make love to you, and I will, it will be when we are both in heath.  At the moment you are repulsive,” He found a small medical kit and ran a medical abrader over the half scabbed wounds freeing the trapped purification beneath..  Lt. Williams clung to the safely straps and wept silently as blood and worse ran down her back and legs.

Friday, August 19, 2016

To SAve My Enemy 8

Her back screamed at the movement, but the plain cleared her graying vision.
She risked a glance around the smoke filled chamber.  One corner of the pit was shattered and flames raged through the recliners and chairs.  A few injured gamblers were dragging themselves across the floor, abandoned by their fleeing friends. 
The burned remains of two feathered creatures lay near the broken stone and the reptile Theresa was to have fought, was chewing on a scrap of half cooked flesh.  It snarled and snapped at the fire as it approached him, guarding its prey.
One of the Korum officers turned from the now empty doorway and shouted a phrase Theresa couldn’t understand.
The Sector Commander grabbed Theresa’s arm, uncaring of the broken skin hidden beneath the fabric, and pulled the hood up and over her head. 
“The patrol is coming in investigate the explosion,” the Commander translated. “Stay upright, follow closely and you may yet live.”
At the door he took the lead, closely followed by Theresa and his three attendants.
Theresa did not care to remember the journey across the unnamed town on that unknown planet.  All  she knew was it lasted too long. With the hood up and cloak wrapped tight around her battered body, she concentrated all her will on putting one foot in front of the other and following a tall straight back.  She was dimly aware of the three figures who flanked and followed her, but they became less and less important as time passed.  Hunger and pain dragged at her, but she would not stop.  Would not. Would not. 
Finally they left the streets and entered a brightly lit chamber.   Theresa blinked, momentarily blinded even through the protection of her hood. The footsteps of her Korum guards echoed as they marched her past unidentifiable  machines with their busy clusters of attendants.
One of the figures working there barked a command and Theresa’s party halted.  A rapid-fire exchange followed.  The Sector Commander snarled at the individual who dared to interfere with him. She didn’t need to know the language to understand the abject groveling that came as in reply.  Whoever had affronted the Sector Commander apologized at length before escorting the party to another chamber and up a short ramp.
As she entered the room filled with familiar scents of boiled metal and stressed oil, Theresa relaxed slightly.  A space craft!  She had lived so long with that smell teasing the outer edges of her consciousness that it, more than the smell of earth and flowers, meant safety to her.  The slight movement of the floor when the others entered told her that it was a small vessel.  A shuttle probably.  Their escort retreated and Theresa raised a hand to her hood.  Instantly the guard behind her seized her hand and forced it down.  Brisk words were exchanged and Theresa was hustled to the back of the shuttle and pushed into the last chair.  She gasped as her abused back hit the rigid surface.  A face came briefly into view and a hand covered her mouth, briefly, but firmly. Safety belts were secured tightly across her, locking her arms against her sides.  Theresa closed her eyes and lips, pushing down the pain, struggling to remain conscious.  She heard the guard moving into chairs behind her.  Another conversation started behind her. From the quality of one of the voices she assumed it was via communicators.  Perhaps clearance for take off. 
Shortly after she felt the engine vibrations start. A change in the quality of the sound and air pressure told her they had launched.
Everyone in the shuttle ignored her for the duration of their brief flight.  Theresa was not accustomed to being ignored or helpless and at any other time would have protested vigorously.  But now, she closed her eyes again and listened to her own breathing. 
She was alive.  Alive!  And not in the pit.
***
Sector Commander Ranualt was required to spend some time on each of the vessels serving the Third Sector, directly supervising his commanding officers.  Now, after ten years of service the Battle Cruiser Ninerthal was to have the honor of escorting him home.  It was captained, barely, by Halla Timmon, grandson of Halla Benk, the Praetor of Second Sector.   There were rumors that Halla Timmon would succeed Ranualt as Sector Commander upon his  retirement. If that were so, then may the Gods protect the Third Sector.  It was doubtful that even Halla Benk’s status and political alliances could win that promotion for the flaccid Timmon, but the fates had been unkind to those who served in the past.
Ordering the corridors cleared for the arrival of a top-secret visitor was not an unusual event on any Korum Battle Cruiser. No one wanted to see slaves transported, drugs imported or any other illegal act which might cause the premature death of the observer.
Seclusion was announced and everybody fled. It was the first time Sector Commander Ranualt had used seclusion without valid orders, using his rank to transport someone illegally.  Many of his fellow officers transported courtesans, slaves, political prisoners and victims of many types using the seclusion rule.  The abuse sat uneasily on Ranualt’s conscience but not his honor. 
Despite the risk of bringing her aboard, with a little skill and misdirection, Ranualt was confident he would be able to take Lt. Williams safely to his home. 
If she survived. 
Once in his cabin he dismissed his bodyguard to cleanse the shuttle of all traces of Lt. Williams from the minds of the transporter crew as well as the chair she’d used.  His guard were all born on the estates controlled by the Ranualt family.  He had no doubts about their loyalty or their silence.  Now, for the moment. . . the first moments with Lt. Williams in his hands, he wanted privacy.  The heavy fabric concealed her form and features, but there was no hiding from the odor of putrefaction. It had been almost overpowering on the shuttle.  No doubt his guard was wondering why he had bothered to bring her this far.  Surely she would die despite any and all efforts to preserve her life. The extent of her injures had been easily visible through the tattered remains of her clothes when she huddled on the sand of the pit.
Finding her had been a shock, a most disgusting surprise. If he’d thought of her, and he had over the years, he had assumed that the only reason he did not hear of her on a spy’s report was that she had retreated to research. Been sent to some distant world far from contact with the Korum.
Instead he found her near death in a fight pit. 
He had almost refused when the planetary governor had invited Ranualt to accompany him to the pit thinking to offer Ranualt some entertainment.  Only that degenerates description of the pit’s current star fighter caused Ranualt to accept. 
“They have captured an officer of the Commonweal,” declared the Governer, his eyes dilated with an excitement that was almost sexual. “ After years of war, Honored Sector Commander, would you not like to see a hated enemy shamed, dishonored and torn to pieces by the pit animals?”
The contempt with which Ranualt had regarded the governor and the practice of pit fights was not enough to keep him from attending.  Sector Commander Ranualt’s only reason for attending was to shoot the poor fellow and grant an honorable enemy the release of a painless death.
And then he had seen who was in the pit and his plan changed to a different form of release.
When the shuttle had arrived at the Ninerthal he thought she’d died during the trip. Her body hung limp in the safely straps and it had taken some persistence to revive her enough to walk the final distance to his quarters.
Lt. Williams shifted uneasily, her covered hand lifted toward the hood.  When no one moved to stop her she lifted one corner of the fabric and looked around the room.  Her sweaty and icy pale face shocked the Commander to his core.  Seeing no one but Ranualt, she whispered, “Request permission to fall down now.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

To Save My Enemy 7

Three years later. . .

Theresa sank to her knees in the filthy sand.  Her hands, coated with layers of sticky, drying blood, still clutched small bone knives.  Strands of sweat soaked hair had been wrenched free of her braid during the last fight and now clung to her face.   She could not yet summon the strength to brush them away.  For the moment she did not have the strength, or will, to do anything but breathe.
Overhead she could hear the shouts of the gamblers – losers and winners quarreling about the outcome of the last fight and placing bets for the next bout. At least that was her suspicion.  She could not understand any of the screeches, yips, yowls and coughs from the creatures crowded several deep at the top of the stone lined pit.  Clawed and hairy hands waved bright metallic currency notes under the feathered faces of the pit masters.  Slender, vaguely avian creatures wove through the crowd vending drinks.  Theresa stared at the blood soaked sand before her and waited.  She had not looked at the crowd between matches since the first day.  That day she had tried to identify species, tried to find someone who was horrified or even slightly affected by her situation.    Those who stared back at her were only trying to judge how long she would last in her matches.  In disgust, Theresa had turned her attention away.  It was useless to feel frustration or anger at her captors and the gamblers.  In the pit she ceased to exist as a person and that thought gave her more pain than those first wounds. 
No one would know when and where she died, and no one would mourn.
Her matches initially were with other sentient and near intelligent creatures. It was during one of these matches that she had acquired the knives, wrenching them out of the eight-fingered hands of a bear- like creature whose larynx she had crushed with a kick.  Was it really be only three . . .four days ago?  More?  It was getting harder to remember. Fever was making it harder to think. . . to plan . . . to move.  Pain was the only constant in her life.  The skin of her right hand was mottled and pale, her arm swollen.    Deep gouges ran down her back and sides, slashes and bruises covered her trunk and legs.  Maybe yesterdays cat-like creatures claws had some poison or maybe the stripes on her back inflicted by the stone studded whip used to drive her into the pit had become infected.
Now they brought in animals, huge and hairy, small and vicious. and she had fought them all, screaming inside at being lowered to the level of animal herself.  Fighting for the entertainment of cowards. . . beasts. . . gamblers!
Her world had contracted down to this moment and this place.   Her mind, grey with fatigue and fever.
Yesterday no longer mattered.
Whether she lived or died no longer mattered.
Now all she knew was that she did not want to die, clawed to death for someone’s entertainment.
Gulping down air she focused on her deep personal truth.
She did not want to die at all!
She was not concerned with modesty any more, only with what protection the fabric could provide from the chill night and from fangs and claws.  She had tied what remained of her shirt halter style around her chest and tore strips from the trousers to stop the bleeding on the worst of the cuts.  It had been days since she dared remove her ankle boots.  Maybe she should and see if the smell from her sweaty feet would stun her next attacker. Above her head the cacophony increased in volume as a panel in the stone wall shifted aside and a heavy cage advanced into the pit.  Theresa tried not to sigh, ruthlessly pushing down feelings of terror . . . exhaustion.
She raised her head a little when she her the grumble of the gate mechanisms.    Another animal was being brought in and they weren’t taking her from the pit.  That could only mean she was going stay here until some animal or other killed her.  She could not permit herself to wish for rest or feel self-pity.  Anything but total focus on the danger before her was a wasted effort.
Oh, but it was hard not to cry.
The mechanism carrying the cage groaned and shuddered across the uneven ground.  Simple machines had already collected the torn remains of the previous animal.  They only cleaned up the blood once a day to give the audience the pleasure of seeing the first splatter across clean sand, across the bare stone walls. 
Inside the cage a meter long creature with eight legs twisted frantically within it’s chains.  It was flashing from one set of bars to another so fast that Theresa could barely track his movements.  Shrill cries grated on her ears. 
She watched, assessing its characteristics.  No longer the intellectual exercise of a Star Command officer.  Now it was preparation to fight, to survive.
Reptile.  Another one.  The brown goo flaking from his teeth might be a hygiene problem or it might be venom.  The way that thing slithered across the bars looking for escape, it is as flexible as a snake and probably as boneless.
Hell and damn it all.
The gamblers shouts became frantic as bets were laid, odds offered and accepted.  Already Theresa had confounded the pundits.  They had not expected the small, thin, unarmed female to survive her first bout, especially against an animal three times her height and weight.  Not realizing her opponent was sentient, Theresa had taken him out within a few seconds with a combinations of kicks and punches to his surprisingly fragile ribs.  She had  watched him scratch symbols on the sand as he died.  A prayer perhaps.  Or some attempt to be recognized as more than an animal.  She was past praying for herself. The guilt for his murder had quickly faded to a vague tug on her conscience, buried under the weight of more deaths.   After the first fight she had been brought out for two or three fights a day.  Every time she appeared the noise at the edge of the pit increased.  They were waiting, no doubt, to see her fall. 
Any sensible businessman would want to keep a valuable resource around, Theresa thought dully, not taking her eyes off the reptile.  But the pit owner didn’t think that way.  Back in the cages she knew there were dozens of new victims, waiting their turn to bleed and die.
Today was her turn.
“Lieutenant.”
Theresa twitched slightly at the sound.  Strange how many different species had a similar sounding word.  Hadn’t her linguistics teacher found four races that used the sound ‘beetroot’?  What a strange and silly word to be duplicated that way. She shook her head, struggling to think clearly despite the fever fog that threatened to overwhelm her mind.
“Lieutenant!”
Blinking rapidly, Theresa refocused on the cage.  Soon that thing would be released. Fast and poisonous  . . . if it didn’t kill her quickly . . . she’d . .
“Lieutenant Williams!”
Something black flickered across the pale stone, high near the rim.  Distracted Theresa followed the movement.  It was difficult for her to see clearly in the orange light the feathered creatures preferred.  The movement came again and she looked up to the pit’s rim and cursed.  Directly before her were four Korum Officers.  One of them dipped his arm down again, resting it palm against the stone wall.  Too tired to look away, Theresa stared at the elaborately embroidered glove. 
“Great screaming balls of fire,” she swore softly, surprising herself with the cracking of her own voice. 
On the black glove was the crest of Sector Commander Ranualt.  Even after all she’d been through the last few years, few days, she recognized the crest of the man responsible for the disaster her life had become.
The gloved hand was withdrawn and Theresa raised her eyes. There he was, with two of his attendants, still tall, still broad and still with skin that glowed bronze in the dim light. 
She blinked and brushed her hair away trying to focus on the three Korum.
Hadn’t there been four of them a minute ago?
The thought was too complicated for her to process and Theresa sank back on her heels. The Sector Commander was still there.  It was too far away for her to see his midnight eyes, but without a doubt he was the one who was calling to her.  Strange.  She would not have thought this was his kind of entertainment.  But how could she judge?  It wasn’t as if they had ever spoken more than twenty words together.
 The screeching voices had reached a crescendo. Theresa turned her eyes back to the cage. The gate was slowly rising.  Inside the creatures movements became frantic as it sensed release.
“Lieutenant!”
“What the hell . . ?”  Despite being unwilling to divide her attention, Theresa looked up again. The hand was back, resting against the stone but now . . .now only four fingers. The hand shifted and now three fingers.
The gate had continued to rise, the animal was pushing at the bars, braced to fall out the moment there was enough room.
“Lieutenant … prepare!”
Now there were only two fingers.  Barely daring to hope that she understood his message Theresa rose to her feet, tensing.  One finger!  She started running at the same instant the creature slid free.  Startled to see her rushing toward it, the creature skidded, briefly landing on its back.  Behind her, Theresa heard a thunderous crack followed by the whoosh of displaced air.  The pit was suddenly much brighter ... hotter.  Above her the yelps of excitement became howls of fear and pain. Ignoring everything she ran on.  With a yell, she leapt  onto the top of the cage then thrust herself up, slamming high and hard on the stone wall but still far below the rim.  One of her precious knives shattered on impact, the other fell as she scrabbled franticly for a handhold. As she started to slide down gloved hands grabbed her wrists and she shrieked as pain tore through her abused body.  Hands dragged her up and over the lip of the stone wall and dropping her, near fainting, onto the floor.  Crusted wounds reopened and bled anew as waves of nausea ripped through her body and it was all she could to do to clench her teeth against the rising bile.  With a thud, a heavy cloak settled over her torn back, then strong hands hauled her back to her feet.  Theresa swayed as the room darkened and her knees gave way.  She was lifted again, her head snapping back as a gloved hand slapped her hard across the mouth.
Midnight dark eyes set deep in a sharply planed bronze face swam before her.     “Perhaps Lieutenant, you will accept a glass of wine from me now?”  A faint smile crossed Ranualt’s face, quickly suppressed.
“So kind of you to invite me to join your party, sir,” Theresa whispered, inclining her head.

Monday, August 15, 2016

To SAve my Enemy 6

“What the hell. . . ?” Theresa didn’t wait for an answer, neither did any of the military personnel in the room.
Sector Commander Ranualt spun, dropping both glasses and pulling a weapon from within the loose cuff of his gloves and holding it close to his body.  Theresa dodged sideways, slithered along the floor and took up position beside one of the buffet tables.  She did not wait for the orders.  The shuddering could be an explosion somewhere on the station. A real bomb placed by the Korum. Sabotage automatically voided any further debate.  She plunged her hand into the highly suspicious potato salad that everyone ignored and pulled out the small stunner she had hidden earlier.  Around the room weapons were appearing from other hiding places including from under the voluminous cloaks of the Korum delegation.
Ioniz bolts were already fanning across the room as Theresa took up position near one of the exits and gave covering fire to the trapped civilians and diplomats in the center of the room.  Ranualt had sprinted to the side of Praetor Kim Path and was guiding him out.  Already blast doors were lowering, although she could not feel any movement of air suggesting that the air leak was near by.  The Korum guard disabled the mechanism at one door and hustled Praetor Halla Benk from the room while the Marines carried out a protesting Ambassador Lennon.   Lady Lennon’s Chihuahua charged past Theresa, yipping frantically. A Marine sergeant forced a temporary brace into position to stop the descent of another door and started pulling civilians from the room. Shouting orders, Admiral Oswald seized one lady guest and her escort and threw them toward the door.  Theresa gasped as one of the Korum delegation turned to drive a knife into the back of Praetor Kim Path.  Sector Commander Ranualt seized the man by the throat and threw him hard to the floor.  The guard bounced once and lay still, his head bent at an unnatural angle.  Theresa turned to stun a Korum  guard who reached for a motionless Commonweal delegate - who then shrieked and ran toward safety.  When she turned back, Sector Commander Ranualt and Praetor Kim Path were gone.
Admiral Oswald scanned the room.  “Okay. It’s clear.  Everyone out!  Secure corridors to lifeboats!  This is not a drill! Move it! Prepare for evacuation.”
Theresa’s linguistics team was already gone.  Since there was no one in the corridor for whom she was directly responsible Theresa clutched her half charged ionzer and trailed along after the Marines.  Corridor after corridor was declared ‘clear’. Wherever the Korum had vanished to was not on the direct path to the lifeboats.
Air and Station hull integrity klaxons still sounded but she had no idea how damaged the station was or what had caused it.  Policy was ‘Take no chances! Everyone to the lifeboats.’  Theresa’s team assignment was Boat 15.  When she arrived in the corridor leading to boats 12 through 20 she found crew, civilians and her team milling about, talking in rapid shrill voices.
“What the hell do you think you are doing? This isn’t the time for gossip,” she snapped, her voice echoing off the station walls. She ignored the questions thrown at her. “Everyone into the boats.  What do you think this is - an ice cream social? Go aboard now!!”
Immediately the corridor cleared. Theresa took up position near the entrance, watching and waiting.  Until a more senior officer arrived she was in charge of this part of the evacuation.  The launch signal had not yet been given.  She heard the scratch of a boot to her left and turned in time to see a figure pull back.  Theresa brought up her weapon again, focusing at stomach height on the wall. A hunched figure dressed in the bright silks of the Korum came into view bent double under the weight of his injured burden.  Unable to see their faces Theresa scanned the gloves . . . Sector Commander Ranualt, carrying  the Praetor Kim Path!  Hearing her gasp, Ranualt brought up his weapon.
For a timeless age Theresa and Ranualt stared at each other.  Theresa’s heart pounded in her throat.  She had never wanted to make command decisions.  Let someone who chose military life set policy and take the risks.  Breathing shallowly she waited, watching dark blood drip from the Praetor’s arm to the floor.
Damn.  The only members of the Korum delegation that actually wanted the peace – here, alone and injured.  What the hell was she supposed to do?  If they were taken prisoner they would never return to Korum space.  The Korum abandoned anyone foolish enough to be captured.  That would mean two fewer people working for peace on the other side of the boarder.  Why couldn’t there be someone else here to make the decisions?  She watched the blood pooling under the Praetors hand.  If he died while she waited, what would that mean to the Korum?
Theresa raised her hand, five fingers spread to Ranualt. Over her shoulder she called.  “Ahoy the lifeboats, sound off. How many aboard?”
From the boats came the replies. “Boat 10, fifteen . . . boat 11, ten . . .boat  12, eight. . .”
“Enough,” shouted Theresa.  “Clear the first three boats and fill the rest to capacity. . . starting with boat twenty. Prepare to launch.”
For a few moments there was only the sound of running feet, then silence. Theresa turned back to Ranualt and nodded.  She started backing away, beckoning to him and folded one finger down.  When she reached a turn in the corridor she saw him carry Praetor Kim Path through the entrance.  Theresa gestured toward lifeboat 10 with her gun and folded down another finger.  She glanced back over her shoulder.  There was no one in sight.  She folded down the remaining fingers and pointed to the open lifeboat hatch. With a very poor bow Ranualt acknowledged her gesture and carried his companion into the lifeboat.    Once they were both in Theresa closed and sealed the door, and pressed the emergency launch.
A babble of questions erupted from the remaining life boats when minutes passed and she did not launch the next boat.
Whatever happened to her career . .  whatever happened in the future  . . she would take the disciplinary action quietly.  Somewhere deep inside she believed these two really wanted the peace. Annoying as he had been, she had to give them a chance.  They, at least, of all the Korum delegation, had to survive.
She turned to see Admiral Oswald standing at the entrance of the corridor with a group of Marines, weapons at ready.
“What the hell did you do, Lieutenant?”
“Just remembering an old quote, sir. ‘Whenever possible leave room for your enemy to become your friend’.”
“I’m remembering another quote. From the Commonweal constitution,” replied the Admiral. “Treason is giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”
Preceded by two marines he stalked toward her.
“How do you feel about war, Lieutenant?” he asked.
“I prefer the alternative, Sir,” she said, reversing her weapon and handing it to the Marine sergeant.
Admiral Oswald crossed to the view port to watch as the launched lifeboat was retrieved by a Korum ship near the station.  Waited, while the familiar shimmer marked its descent into warpspace.
“So do I, Lieutenant.  But I think it is going to be a little hard to find for a while.”

Thursday, August 11, 2016

To Save My Enemy 5

“I do not mean to imply a lack of trust.” She stood rigidly at attention, commanding the blush she felt rising not to go further.  “It is a matter of personal choice what people drink.  As a matter of fact, many here are avoiding alcohol tonight.  I have made the personal decision not to drink wine on any occasion.  It has been my practice, lifelong.”
Ranualt took a deliberate step forward, closing from formal to personal conversation.  He was tall enough to look down on her even at a distance and broad enough across the shoulders that he now blocked her view of the rest of the room. Theresa considered taking a step back or to the side, but that might be an offense.  Her heart thudded heavily in her chest;  he didn’t have to do much to raise her blood pressure.
“This is wine from my family vineyard.” He held both glasses up again, the scarlet and gold embroidery of his family crest glowing against the smooth dark fabric of his gloves. The Korum never exposed their hands in general public. She wished for a way to ask without offering offense. She really did want to know the why of that custom. “Brought personally across the border and offered to none other present.  Will you not reconsider?” 
He smiled briefly as his glance traveled over her spotless uniform; from a shoulder free of any awards or medals, to her unmarked white gloves.
Determined to ignore his invasive gaze, she tilted her head to look up at him.      “Before I reconsider, I have a question.”
Sector Commander Ranualt inclined his head to grant permission.
“Do you remember the first time you drank anything alcoholic?”
“Easily,” said Sector Commander Ranualt without hesitation. “On my ninth birthday my father gave me a glass of wine that had been pressed especially on the day of my birth. I was deeply honored.”
“And what did you think of the taste?  Honestly?”
“Honestly . . .” This time he paused, one side of his mouth quirked, again, in a half smile, then lowered his voice and moved half a step forward – from private to intimate conversation distance. “I did not like it, but as it would have been bad luck for me to say so.  I, of course, praised it.  At that age I had an uneducated palate.”
“Then my next question would have to be, why did you ever have a second glass?”  Theresa’s voice rose and she frowned in honest confusion.   “I really don’t understand it. I’ve asked any number of people and they could never give me an reasonable answer.”
The Sector Commander laughed.
“Wine is an acquired taste.  Perhaps you should persevere.  . .In time you would come to enjoy it.”
“Why acquire it?  Why persevere? What would be my incentive to continue trying?  Learning to like something I already know I don’t like.  What would being able to drink wine bring me?”  All the irritations of the last few weeks, the damage to her professional image and the knowledge that tomorrows interview with the ‘Wizard’ would be unpleasant, to say the least, rose up and took over her tongue.   “Would it be the potential loss of decorum in my behavior if I drink to much? Or the loss of brain cells?  An abbreviated lifetime of ill health.”
The Sector Commander stared at her in stunned astonishment for a moment.
“I am impressed by your . .  I shall call it courage rather than effrontery.  My family has created some of the greatest wines of the Korum.  It has been our employment for centuries and you deride the results of our labor. . . to my face.”
“There is some good use for some forms of alcohol  . . .skin prep before surgery for example. . .”
A shrill cry interrupted Theresa’s summary of  her third year paper: Alcohol –Interstellar creation:  use and abuse - a multi species review.
She side stepped Sector Commander Ranualt to get a clear view of the room.  The Torma Delp were already quarreling with the Korum delegation.  From their mottled skin color and already unsheathed claws, Theresa easily read barely controlled rage.  Ambassador Lennon stepped between the two groups speaking quietly.
“I hope he can calm everyone down,” said Theresa, maneuvering for a better look.  She smiled up at Sector Commander Ranualt.  “Another one of the disadvantages of wine. . .it encourages excessive emotion.”
Sector Commander Ranualt shook his head. “I fear that the parties arrive already determined to disagree, a good negotiated outcome of any degree, is unlikely.”
A particularly sharp note from the Torma Delp had them both turning back to the argument.  The Torma Delp shrieked out sounds the translator hanging from Theresa’s shoulder, initially refused to render.  Everyone in the chamber turned to investigate the cries.
“You try to make slaves of us!” cried the leader of the Torma Delp.  “We will not submit!  We will destroy any Korum ship that approaches!  You have taken our brothers and sisters from us.  We demand you bring them home!”
Patriarch Benk sneered from behind the broad shoulders of his guard.
“The Torma Delp are Korum property.  They have always been Korum property.  Since the beginning of time the Torma Delp have enjoyed the protection of the Korum.  It is a fallacy to suggest that you have ever lived any other way. Why do you speak of freedom and breaking of a treaty when you know this to be true?”
Lightning fast, the tall lizard drew a small wooden-appearing weapon from under the drying vegetation around its waist and prepared to fire.  Before the trigger was squeezed, a bodyguard pulled a knife from his glove and plunged it deep into the lizards’? neck.  The Torma Delp Ambassador’s  mate cried out and dove, claws extended to slice open the guards’ chest and throat.  Blood fountained, covering all within range with thick blood.  Immediately the security klaxon sounded and Marines thundered into the chamber.  Ambassador Lennon started to speak but was ignored by Patriarch Benk.  The Korum Praetor snapped an order to his aide who reached inside his coat.  Before the fight could continue or be stopped the floor shook and the air leak alarms shrilled out.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

to save my enemy 4

One of the many problems facing the designers of Station 5 was the many, many uses to which it would be put. It would be a place of research, a long-range facility to demonstrate the scientific achievements of the Commonweal and, they were instructed to include some awe-inspiring space to be used for interspecies meetings and debates.  They had exceeded their budget, labored mightily for years more than scheduled and produced a spectacular example of form and function.  In the center of their snowflake  they placed a domed hall divided like an orange into species-specific sections.  The atmosphere, gravity and special needs of dozens of races could be replicated in close proximity permitting the illusion of face-to-face debate.  For the current meetings the races were similar enough in environmental needs to interface without technological support.
Ideally the station, its law and social studies library, scholars and ancillary personnel could be transported from place to place within the Commonweal, mediating treaties, providing a teaching center for new races about the established races and generally being helpful. 
In reality the Station and its staff spent most of its time listening to complaints, settling trade disputes, soothing xenophobic egos and hammering out the occasional legal and social misunderstandings.
Currently there were three groups gathered beneath the glowing silver and purple banners of the Commonweal.  The ongoing war between the Commonweal and the Korum had recently received new impetus.  The Torma Delp – a sentient lizard species  -  had requested help from the Commonweal.  They had signed a mutual interest contract with the Korum a decade ago but what the Torma Delp had regarded as a trade agreement, the Korum had treated as a declaration of submission to new ownership.  In desperation the Torma Delp had requested Commonweal mediation. The Commonweal, eager to bring the Korum to a peace negotiation on their own behalf, had agreed.  Getting the military government of the Korum to agree to come to the conference table had taken another two years.  It appeared to the psychologists and anthropologist that, as a society, the Korum enjoyed the ongoing conflict too much to seek any peaceful resolution.
Theresa entered the Grand Hall an hour late for the reception and gazed vaguely around the hall. Her crew of socio-linguists was hard at work working their way through the crowd loaded down with camera’s and recording devices.  Theresa permitted herself a moment of envy for Ensign Callahan, on duty in the surveillance room. She wished she could have that prized position.  A chance to observe without being observed, to study, to contemplate and think.  She enjoyed focusing her attention on the subtle facets of communication, the way people held their bodies, their drink glasses, that communicated so much about them.  Theresa was an expert at reading – at a distance.
 Tonight, though, her concentration was shattered.   Sometime in the next few days the translation she’d just completed would end up on Admiral Oswald’s desk.  No doubt she would know the actual moment he read it.  Walls would shake, and lightning would strike her dead! 
She had taken the time to translate what Sector Commander Ranualt has said into her microphone that morning.
Goddess protect her, he had said, “Excellently done!” 
So he, at least, knew it was her who created the booby trapped table.  How he knew, she had no idea.  The ‘Wizard’ Oswald would surely dock her pay from here to Doomsday once he read that.   Pausing at the room’s entrance she considered the issue, then she crooked her gloved finger at a nearby Marine Corporal.
When he leaned closer she whispered, “Please convey my respects to Sergeant Walters!  Investigate the activities of Sector Commander Ranualt and his immediate associates last night.  I need a report on his movements.”
The Corporal nodded and began sub-vocalizing into his throat mike.
Maybe, while she and her friends had been sabotaging the table the Sector Commander had been out and about engaged in his own projects and seen them. But why and what?
Theresa wandered further into the reception hall, grateful for the stiff concealment of her formal whites.  Thick unyielding fabric covered her neck to toe,  although the pale uniform tended to make her blushes more visible by contrast.  She had submitted the translation of the bodyguards conversation from this morning as well.  Her blush deepened.  The thought of teams of present and future linguists and psychologists analyzing every frame and second of the recording mortified her to her soul.  What did the Admiral say?  They were going to wring every atom of information from what was said?  Her team had fallen into shocked silence when the translation came out of the computer.
“What color are the shadow lieutenant’s nipples?”
She dreaded to think what information would be gained from an analysis of a fifteen minute speculation on whether her nipples were as pale as her face and did they blush as readily!  Did anyone really care what color her nipples were?  She could not understand what the Korum delegation, individually and as a group, found so fascinating about her body.  She was a small woman with nothing excessive about her curves.  Admittedly she was small and pale and the Korum were, no doubt, accustomed to tall dark metallic bronze women.  Maybe it just was the novelty of her complexion and green eyes.  Okay.  Different could be sexy, but couldn’t they find something else to talk about?  And she had sat there, unknowing, while they discussed her so intimately.  There were many other women on the base, women of all sorts of ages, builds and coloring, but, although they had all come in for a comment or two, Theresa was the only one that was talked about daily. . .hourly.  Unconsciously she ran her fingers over the neckline of her uniform, checking that all the clasps were firmly shut, wishing that the fabric of her uniform was thicker, that the design was looser – more baggy and  concealing instead of tailored to her form.
And the nick-name they’d given her – Shadow – what did that mean? Had she translated the world completely? After all, weren’t shadows dark? Were shadows something significant to the Korum? Was it good or bad? She had no one to ask and damn if it wasn't something she needed to understand for her damned translation program.
Once this peace conference was over she was going to request reassignment somewhere obscure.  There was no way she was going to get respect on Station 5 once the transcripts circulated and she knew, oh, she knew, nothing would keep them from circulating, no matter what security lock was put on them.
She did not care for one minute about her standing as a Lieutenant, her military reputation could go to hell, but her professional standing as a Doctor of Socio-Linguisitics was totally destroyed.  The gossip would be all that anyone would ever think about whenever her socio-linguistics’ papers were submitted.  No matter what other accomplishment she ever achieved, it would be the anatomical references of the Korum that would be forever associated with her name.
It wasn’t fair!
But who said the universe had to be fair?
Theresa sighed, she had her job to do and she would do it, no matter what distractions anyone put in her path.  And then. . . ? 
Leaning against the wall Theresa watched the dance of diplomacy and wondered  why there were such things as Ambassadorial Receptions.
Did it really make sense to bring people who have spent the whole day arguing with each other together under the illusion of a social event, and then provide them with alcohol?  Wasn’t that counter productive. . .potentially dangerous . . .damn stupid?
The faint odor of boiled metal, dried seaweed and overheated lubricants floating through the room could be ignored if you concentrated hard enough.   In her experience, all space stations stank of stressed metal and boiled oil.  High-ranking civilian visitors frequently complained of the smell and it was a point of honor among the military that everyone deny any olfactory offense. 
The representatives of Torma Delp were the source of the seaweed scent, although no one was quite sure why these sentient reptiles chose to wear their vegetarian lunch as a layered grass skirt for three days before eating.  Theresa’s team had yet to fully translate the reply.  The closest they came to so far was: ‘waste not, want not!’
The Commonweal non-military staff were dressed in formal suits that had not significantly changed in hundreds of years.  The men in tight fitting black suits and the women in dresses that consisted mostly of skirt and jewelry.  Theresa watched the movement of officers, civilians, delegates and hangers on.  They wandered from group to group, between the tables covered in food from dozens of worlds.  She hoped the recorder attached to her shoulder was working properly as she scanned the room.  There was information to be gathered from the way the people spoke, how they stood and who they traveled with, and she was the person responsible for its processing.  Mindful of ‘Wizard’ Oswald’s orders she scanned the crowd, trying to find someone that, according to transcripts, could possibly be more interested in her conversation than her body, naked.  Someone safe to talk to.
“May I offer you refreshment, Lieutenant Williams?” Sector Commander Ranualt paused a formal three steps away and bowed from the waist, carefully not breaking eye contact.  Theresa made the same formal bow, careful to go a few millimeters further down than he.  Korum proprieties were complex and it had been her duty to teach the Commonweal delegates what little that was known.  She refused to make any mistakes herself.  The Commander watched her maneuvers with mild approval then held out two glasses of dark green wine and spoke for some moments in Korum.  Theresa stared at him blankly.  After a pause the Commander frowned and swtiched languages to Commonweal.
“I was under the impression you spoke Korum.”
“No, actually, I don’t.”
“But you are a senior officer in the linguistics department.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you.  My principle degree is in the principles of socio-linguistics.  The unwritten rules of communications.  When to speak, how long a pause means it’s the other persons turn to talk. Things like that.” Theresa shrugged. “As for the actual words of language, I’m working on a computer program to assist people who either lack the time or the ability to learn other species languages.  I haven’t learnt Korum myself. I’m too busy teaching the computer.”
 “Astonishing and disappointing.”  The Commander shook his head at her. “I am informed by our diplomatic corps that it is acceptable practice here to bring a glass of wine to a person with whom you would speak.  Please permit me to offer you the choice of glass, Lt. Williams, to demonstrate my trustworthiness.”
Theresa bit the inside of her lip. She memorized every syllable that this man had said about her. He may not be the person who decided she was to be the victim of this gossip attack, but  here he was, standing in front of her being oh-so-polite and formal when she wished him burning in Hell.
“It is acceptable to bring the drink, and it is also acceptable for someone to decline without intending to offer offense.” She bowed slightly. “I thank you for the courtesy of the offer and the service, Commander, but I do not drink wine.”
Ranualt raised both black eyebrows drawing Theresa’s attention to his midnight eyes.  Not quite black, beyond dark blue.  They were iridescent purple-black with flashes of silver sparks.  Involuntarily, Theresa shivered, shaking free of the almost mesmerizing gaze.  She did not want to be drawn in by anyone here. It was safer - much safer - to regard the Korum as specimens in a lab experiment. (oh, for the good old days of the ether jar and the thin knife!)
“You do not?” He turned away from her to gesture around the room with one glass. “But all others do. Look, even now your Ambassador is enjoying a glass.  Our wine is safe for your species. Or is it that you do not trust me?”
Theresa breathed deep, trying to regain her balance and tilted her head.  In this light his skin glowed dark gold.   His expression was sleepy, and his wide mouth twisted in his habitual half smile.   She studied the smooth planes of his face wondering, idly, if the expression meant the same with Korum as it did with Humans.  Judging by the broadening of his grin he’d misinterpreted her examination of his face.

Monday, August 8, 2016

To Save My Enemy 3

One of the many problems facing the designers of Station 5 was the many, many uses to which it would be put. It would be a place of research, a long-range facility to demonstrate the scientific achievements of the Commonweal and, they were instructed to include some awe-inspiring space to be used for interspecies meetings and debates.  They had exceeded their budget, labored mightily for years more than scheduled and produced a spectacular example of form and function.  In the center of their snowflake  they placed a domed hall divided like an orange into species-specific sections.  The atmosphere, gravity and special needs of dozens of races could be replicated in close proximity permitting the illusion of face-to-face debate.  For the current meetings the races were similar enough in environmental needs to interface without technological support.
Ideally the station, its law and social studies library, scholars and ancillary personnel could be transported from place to place within the Commonweal, mediating treaties, providing a teaching center for new races about the established races and generally being helpful. 
In reality the Station and its staff spent most of its time listening to complaints, settling trade disputes, soothing xenophobic egos and hammering out the occasional legal and social misunderstandings.
Currently there were three groups gathered beneath the glowing silver and purple banners of the Commonweal.  The ongoing war between the Commonweal and the Korum had recently received new impetus.  The Torma Delp – a sentient lizard species  -  had requested help from the Commonweal.  They had signed a mutual interest contract with the Korum a decade ago but what the Torma Delp had regarded as a trade agreement, the Korum had treated as a declaration of submission to new ownership.  In desperation the Torma Delp had requested Commonweal mediation. The Commonweal, eager to bring the Korum to a peace negotiation on their own behalf, had agreed.  Getting the military government of the Korum to agree to come to the conference table had taken another two years.  It appeared to the psychologists and anthropologist that, as a society, the Korum enjoyed the ongoing conflict too much to seek any peaceful resolution.
Theresa entered the Grand Hall an hour late for the reception and gazed vaguely around the hall. Her crew of socio-linguists was hard at work working their way through the crowd loaded down with camera’s and recording devices.  Theresa permitted herself a moment of envy for Ensign Callahan, on duty in the surveillance room. She wished she could have that prized position.  A chance to observe without being observed, to study, to contemplate and think.  She enjoyed focusing her attention on the subtle facets of communication, the way people held their bodies, their drink glasses, that communicated so much about them.  Theresa was an expert at reading – at a distance.
 Tonight, though, her concentration was shattered.   Sometime in the next few days the translation she’d just completed would end up on Admiral Oswald’s desk.  No doubt she would know the actual moment he read it.  Walls would shake, and lightning would strike her dead! 
She had taken the time to translate what Sector Commander Ranualt has said into her microphone that morning.
Goddess protect her, he had said, “Excellently done!” 
So he, at least, knew it was her who created the booby trapped table.  How he knew, she had no idea.  The ‘Wizard’ Oswald would surely dock her pay from here to Doomsday once he read that.   Pausing at the room’s entrance she considered the issue, then she crooked her gloved finger at a nearby Marine Corporal.
When he leaned closer she whispered, “Please convey my respects to Sergeant Walters!  Investigate the activities of Sector Commander Ranualt and his immediate associates last night.  I need a report on his movements.”
The Corporal nodded and began sub-vocalizing into his throat mike.
Maybe, while she and her friends had been sabotaging the table the Sector Commander had been out and about engaged in his own projects and seen them. But why and what?
Theresa wandered further into the reception hall, grateful for the stiff concealment of her formal whites.  Thick unyielding fabric covered her neck to toe,  although the pale uniform tended to make her blushes more visible by contrast.  She had submitted the translation of the bodyguards conversation from this morning as well.  Her blush deepened.  The thought of teams of present and future linguists and psychologists analyzing every frame and second of the recording mortified her to her soul.  What did the Admiral say?  They were going to wring every atom of information from what was said?  Her team had fallen into shocked silence when the translation came out of the computer.
“What color are the shadow lieutenant’s nipples?”
She dreaded to think what information would be gained from an analysis of a fifteen minute speculation on whether her nipples were as pale as her face and did they blush as readily!  Did anyone really care what color her nipples were?  She could not understand what the Korum delegation, individually and as a group, found so fascinating about her body.  She was a small woman with nothing excessive about her curves.  Admittedly she was small and pale and the Korum were, no doubt, accustomed to tall dark metallic bronze women.  Maybe it just was the novelty of her complexion and green eyes.  Okay.  Different could be sexy, but couldn’t they find something else to talk about?  And she had sat there, unknowing, while they discussed her so intimately.  There were many other women on the base, women of all sorts of ages, builds and coloring, but, although they had all come in for a comment or two, Theresa was the only one that was talked about daily. . .hourly.  Unconsciously she ran her fingers over the neckline of her uniform, checking that all the clasps were firmly shut, wishing that the fabric of her uniform was thicker, that the design was looser – more baggy and  concealing instead of tailored to her form.
And the nick-name they’d given her – Shadow – what did that mean? Had she translated the world completely? After all, weren’t shadows dark? Were shadows something significant to the Korum? Was it good or bad? She had no one to ask and damn if it wasn't something she needed to understand for her damned translation program.
Once this peace conference was over she was going to request reassignment somewhere obscure.  There was no way she was going to get respect on Station 5 once the transcripts circulated and she knew, oh, she knew, nothing would keep them from circulating, no matter what security lock was put on them.
She did not care for one minute about her standing as a Lieutenant, her military reputation could go to hell, but her professional standing as a Doctor of Socio-Linguisitics was totally destroyed.  The gossip would be all that anyone would ever think about whenever her socio-linguistics’ papers were submitted.  No matter what other accomplishment she ever achieved, it would be the anatomical references of the Korum that would be forever associated with her name.
It wasn’t fair!
But who said the universe had to be fair?
Theresa sighed, she had her job to do and she would do it, no matter what distractions anyone put in her path.
Leaning against the wall Theresa watched the dance of diplomacy and wondered  why there were such things as Ambassadorial Receptions.
Did it really make sense to bring people who have spent the whole day arguing with each other together under the illusion of a social event, and then provide them with alcohol?  Wasn’t that counter productive. . .potentially dangerous . . .damn stupid?
The faint odor of boiled metal, dried seaweed and overheated lubricants floating through the room could be ignored if you concentrated hard enough.   In her experience, all space stations stank of stressed metal and boiled oil.  High-ranking civilian visitors frequently complained of the smell and it was a point of honor among the military that everyone deny any olfactory offense. 
The representatives of Torma Delp were the source of the seaweed scent, although no one was quite sure why these sentient reptiles chose to wear their vegetarian lunch as a layered grass skirt for three days before eating.  Theresa’s team had yet to fully translate the reply.  The closest they came to so far was: ‘waste not, want not!’
The Commonweal non-military staff were dressed in formal suits that had not significantly changed in hundreds of years.  The men in tight fitting black suits and the women in dresses that consisted mostly of skirt and jewelry.  Theresa watched the movement of officers, civilians, delegates and hangers on.  They wandered from group to group, between the tables covered in food from dozens of worlds.  She hoped the recorder attached to her shoulder was working properly as she scanned the room.  There was information to be gathered from the way the people spoke, how they stood and who they traveled with, and she was the person responsible for its processing.  Mindful of ‘Wizard’ Oswald’s orders she scanned the crowd, trying to find someone that, according to transcripts, could possibly be more interested in her conversation than her body, naked.  Someone safe to talk to.
“May I offer you refreshment, Lieutenant Williams?” Sector Commander Ranualt paused a formal three steps away and bowed from the waist, carefully not breaking eye contact.  Theresa made the same formal bow, careful to go a few millimeters further down than he.  Korum proprieties were complex and it had been her duty to teach the Commonweal delegates what little that was known.  She refused to make any mistakes herself.  The Commander watched her maneuvers with mild approval then held out two glasses of dark green wine and spoke for some moments in Korum.  Theresa stared at him blankly.  After a pause the Commander frowned and switched languages to Commonweal.
“I was under the impression you spoke Korum.”
“No, actually, I don’t.”
“But you are a senior officer in the linguistics department.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you.  My principle degree is in the principles of socio-linguistics.  The unwritten rules of communications.  When to speak, how long a pause means it’s the other persons turn to talk. Things like that.” Theresa shrugged. “As for the actual words of language, I’m working on a computer program to assist people who either lack the time or the ability to learn other species languages.  I haven’t learnt Korum myself. I’m too busy teaching the computer.”
 “Astonishing and disappointing.”  The Commander shook his head at her. “I am informed by our diplomatic corps that it is acceptable practice here to bring a glass of wine to a person with whom you would speak.  Please permit me to offer you the choice of glass, Lt. Williams, to demonstrate my trustworthiness.”
Theresa bit the inside of her lip. She memorized every syllable that this man had said about her. He may not be the person who decided she was to be the victim of this gossip attack, but  here he was, standing in front of her being oh-so-polite and formal when she wished him burning in Hell.
“It is acceptable to bring the drink, and it is also acceptable for someone to decline without intending to offer offense.” She bowed slightly. “I thank you for the courtesy of the offer and the service, Commander, but I do not drink wine.”
Ranualt raised both black eyebrows drawing Theresa’s attention to his midnight eyes.  Not quite black, beyond dark blue.  They were iridescent purple-black with flashes of silver sparks.  Involuntarily, Theresa shivered, shaking free of the almost mesmerizing gaze.  She did not want to be drawn in by anyone here. It was safer - much safer - to regard the Korum as specimens in a lab experiment. (oh, for the good old days of the ether jar, the long pin and the thin knife!)