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Ashes of Wrath [Master of My Fate Volume 1] [NOOK Book]

Overview

Four Earthyears before Signe drives Norman's force of invaders off Gaea, Michael, Captain of a six-man Columbian military scientific team, docks a crippled ship on an isolated Gaean space station occupied by a team of civilian researchers. The Columbians capture a female Gaean life-support engineer, but fail to force her to reveal the location of the sole escape vehicle, before her comrades lift. Cleo's feat provokes bitter anger in three of the six men now marooned on the isolated outpost, but most of all in ...
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Ashes of Wrath [Master of My Fate Volume 1]

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Overview

Four Earthyears before Signe drives Norman's force of invaders off Gaea, Michael, Captain of a six-man Columbian military scientific team, docks a crippled ship on an isolated Gaean space station occupied by a team of civilian researchers. The Columbians capture a female Gaean life-support engineer, but fail to force her to reveal the location of the sole escape vehicle, before her comrades lift. Cleo's feat provokes bitter anger in three of the six men now marooned on the isolated outpost, but most of all in Nigel, the dangerous and sometimes cruel second officer. Determined to retain control of his men, Michael makes Cleo part of his crew, and shares her sexually with his five crewmen. Mastering her outrage, Cleo agrees, in order to avoid worse consequences. She endures a harrowing week working under Nigel and spending a night with each man in succession. She defuses Conrad's anger, befriends Leonard, puzzles over Marvin's behavior, finds a refuge in Justin, and lives in dread of the final night she must spend with Nigel. Faced with that actuality, she musters courage enough to win the Lieutenant's grudging admiration. Products of a society that denies women entry to the professions, the Columbians grow to admire Cleo's professional capability. By nature affectionate and outgoing, saddened by tragic personal loss, Cleo grows to care deeply for Leonard, the youngest crewman, Conrad, a hard-bitten spacer, and Justin, a compassionate medic. She develops sympathy for Marvin, a social misfit. Intuitively, she senses the distance from his men Michael's position as leader requires him to maintain, and the loneliness that parallels that need. Her cognizance of his motives coupled with herrespect for his obvious talent for leadership overcomes her initial resentment of his treatment of her. The labor of constructing a self-regenerative life-support system into Section Eleven becomes especially demanding. The pressures take a heavy toll on Marvin. When Michael sharply reprimands Marvin in the presence of the others, Cleo contends with the social misfit's utter despair. Having confided how she learned long ago to vanquish her own lapses into violent anger, she helps him cope. Nigel's jealousy of Michael's higher rank and ability to dominate becomes reinforced by jealousy of what he perceives as Michael's ability to secure Cleo's full regard. Cleo fears that Nigel, a notorious duelist, will challenge and kill Michael. The cumulative strains wreak serious damage on Cleo's emotional balance. When an incendiary crisis occurs, irremediable disaster gets narrowly averted in a wholly astonishing manner. This action-filled narrative forms the first volume of the ninth novel in a series of nine books portraying an ongoing saga of futuristic action, adventure and romance.
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Product Details

  • BN ID: 2940000128763
  • Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing
  • Publication date: 1/8/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 2 MB

Read an Excerpt

INVICTUS

(The Soliloquy of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor marooned for five years on an island off the coast of Chile)

Out of the night that covers me

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced or cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley, "Invictus" Echoes, 1888

* * * *

THE NINE WORKS OF SCIENCE FICTION

IN MARY ANN STEELE'S SERIES

Listed in the order in which they should be read:

Warrior-Woman: The Forging of the Legend

Master of Intrigue

Partnership of Equals

Birth of a New Breed: Genesis

Birth of a New Breed: Attainment

Trial By Fire: Survival

Trial By Fire: Final Reckoning

Dangerous Adversaries: Battle Joined

Dangerous Adversaries: No Turning Back

Dark Bargain

To Find, and Not To Yield: Calculated Risk

To Find, and Not To Yield: Daring Rewarded

Master of My Fate: Ashes of Wrath

Master of My Fate: A Ship Takes Shape

Master of My Fate: The Phoenix Rises

* * * *
WEEK ONE: MONDAY

The crippled Columbian military shipdropped out of the black vault emblazoned with unwinking stars, to drift purposefully, menacingly, towards the despun lock integral to the axis of a rotating space station. Within that artificial satellite of a giant gaseous planet, five members of a Gaean scientific team worked furiously to detach the module in which they had arrived six weeks earlier, from its place among forty outwardly identical spheroidal hulls moored around a toroidal rim. The lives of Gaeans and Columbians alike hung by a wisp of glass-silk, in pawn to the skill of the helmsman daring that perilous approach.

In the fevered perceptions of the men manning the board in the mortally stricken vessel, the improbable artifact resembled a tiara spinning in the void: a ring inset with fragile bubbles, holding out hope of life. The awesome sight filling their screens dispelled an idea previously harbored: doubt that such a structure could be engineered. At that same moment, aboard the magnificent facility coveted by the attackers, a contingent of noncombatant Gaean researchers--men and women who took their station's sturdy reality for granted--worked desperately to escape from a trap about to snap shut.

Slowly, inexorably, the invader crept nearer. Ship impacted station. Clamps sprang out from the base of the vessel, anchoring it to the lock, thereby exerting a death-grip on the refuge the Columbian spacers intended to wrest from its defenders.

Victorious in her emotionally charged debate with the team leader from whom she wrung an agonized accession to her demand that he leave her behind to act as rear guard, a lone Gaean--one of a team of six scientists--took up a strategic position. Midway between the exit from the elevator housed in a tubular shaft connecting the lock in the axis to the spaceward end of Section One, and the door located at that module's opposite end, which led to the corridor in the rim affording access to thirty-nine other oblate spheroids identical in outward appearance to Section One, Cleo prepared to strand a body of desperate armed men on the isolated outpost.

Kneeling on the deck of the narrow corridor while entrenched behind a makeshift barrier of aluminum canisters erected solely to shield her from the view of the enemy, the woman as desperate as her foes harbored no illusion that her puny wall would either reflect away, or totally absorb, a pulse of ionizing radiation delivered from close range by a military handweapon.

I can take comfort in one thought, she acknowledged as she sighted down the generator of the ice-cutting tool pressed into service as a roughly comparable weapon. I don't risk sustaining a crippling wound. Anywhere a pulse strikes me, it'll send deadly impulses flashing along my nerves: impulses that'll wreak incredible havoc on the delicate organization of my brain. I'll never know what hit me.

Having wedged her bulky device between two tiers of canisters, Cleo gauged how high up the far wall a tall man's head would reach. Purposefully, she held the highly visible, glowing red dot of the tracer-ray steady on a point above head-height. Reflecting that the invaders must face her to fire on her, she steeled herself to inflict a fatal, hideous, full-body burn, should one of them round the right-angled bend in the passage affording the only route through the section. Hoping frantically that the sight of illumination indistinguishable from that emitted by the tracer of a military handweapon would deter them from stepping into view, she resolved not to reveal her gender by shouting a warning.

Sweat trickled down the face set in lines of grim determination. Certain that the intruders possessed no clue as to which section doubled as a shuttle-carrier capable of free flight, she intensified her determination to hold the Columbians at bay until 1810: the earliest time at which Wallace and his crew could possibly lift off the station. Reflecting that the Columbians would locate her comrades if they proceeded in the direction of the rotation, the rear guard shuddered. Convulsively, she gripped the device more tightly.

Needing no reminder that the disabled Columbian vessel moored to the axis carried a crew of twelve well-armed spacer-fighters, the woman bucking appalling odds weighed the chances that the disaster necessitating this attack might have resulted in the deaths some of those aboard. Cheered by that thought, she assured herself that the enemy possessed no inkling of how many defenders they faced, or how heavily those foes might be armed. Believing that they would refrain from splitting into small groups to search, she conjectured that even if she failed to stop their advance, Wallace would still stand a chance of lifting.

But they're not going to get past me, she assured herself gamely. And once I'm sure that Wallace lifted...

Thrusting a hand into a pocket, Cleo fingered the tablet Leroy had so reluctantly given her. I've never once ... even after Rollin died ... even after Max fell in battle ... ever contemplated killing myself, she acknowledged, fighting abhorrence. But irate as this crew will be at having been stranded here by a civilian ... a female civilian ... I've got no choice, now.

Chilling tales of brutal sexual assaults perpetrated by the men of the Third Columbian Military Corps--the invaders who, seven Earthyears ago, had conquered and occupied Gaea--scrolled unbidden through the mind of the rear guard. No choice at all, she drove home to her alter ego.

Nerves quivering, the fine-boned, fragile-seeming woman riveted a searching glance on the wall ahead. When the arm and shoulder of a black-uniformed enemy spacer could just be spied as the man stole a look around the right-angled bend in the passageway, she mastered the fear assaulting her mind. Her forefinger pressed down on the activator, sending a single pulse flashing along the path limned by the tracer-ray. Eyes dilated, she watched the dot of illumination expand into a red-hot circle almost a meter in diameter, as metal plates absorbed the bulk of a tight, coherent beam of invisible radiant energy lethal to human beings. A minor portion of the impinging light reflected and re-reflected instantaneously off target, walls, deck, inner plates of the hull overhead, and canisters.

The short-lived glare of the expanded tracer-beam--a lurid red glow that momentarily marked the trajectory of lethal wavelengths the human eye lacked the power to detect--died away. The sharp crack accompanying the burst--sound that traveled almost a million times slower than the light--echoed in ears thankfully cataloguing it as the only sound. No charred, smoking corpse sprawled in the space below the point of aim. The corridor remained empty, silent.

Unutterably relieved to be spared the need to kill in so ghastly a fashion, Cleo refocused on the same point on the wall, distinguished now by a rapidly fading blotch of dull red. Prior to settling her body into a state of acute action-readiness, she stole a glance at the wristwatch propped on a level with her eyes. The time registered on a mind grown surreally calm: 1740.

I've got seventy minutes more to live, before passing into oblivion--or some plane of non-corporeal existence we can't imagine, she reminded herself bleakly.

Succumbing to a habit that had grown on her of late, she communed silently with her deceased husband.

Oh, Max ... with you gone ... with Rollin dead ... I don't find my life all that fulfilling. Hanging onto existence certainly isn't worth the price of enduring gang rape. If I could be certain that these spacers would kill me with a pulse from their own electronic weapons, I'd welcome that outcome, but capture I simply have to regard as unthinkable. I'll join you and Rollin, Max. Once I'm sure that Wallace managed to lift.

The digital dial of the watch seemed frozen in time. The silence began to appear ominous. Why haven't they called out a warning, or a demand? the Gaean fretted. They must know exactly what Wallace will be doing ... must know exactly how much time they'll have in which to stop him. They can't have just given up! Could they be trying to find a way around me?

Nervously, she stole a glance over her shoulder. The corridor to her rear stretched away empty. They're wearing Columbian military black, she reminded herself. And even if they chance to be a team of researchers--our counterparts--would they be able to calculate with precision which of the ventilating ducts must lead to this exact spot? Or to the deck below, and from there to here? Hardly likely. Surely I'd hear anyone's trying to open a grill or unbolt a plate!

Unnerved by the silence, the woman cast a second hasty glance behind her. Swiveling around, she peered anxiously at the bend in front. No glimpse of a black elbow or knee of a spacer glued to the edge of the turn in the wall met her straining eyes. A span of five minutes mimicked infinity.

A shriek tore from Cleo's throat as two strong hands, thrust forward from behind her, exerted a paralyzing grip on her upper arms, jerked those arms backwards, and wrenched the ice-cutter out of her hand. No slightest sound had served to warn her of the attacker's approach. Yanked forcefully to her feet, she stared over her shoulder into a coppery face of an ugliness so startling that her fright lent that unprepossessing visage the aspect of evil incarnate.

For a few pregnant seconds, the black-clad officer stared back. His sibilant voice dripping contempt, he drawled, "Your captain doesn't mind buying time with a woman's life, hm?"

A tart denial tore from a fear-constricted throat. "I volunteered!"

Disdaining to answer, the Columbian demolished the barrier of canisters with a few well-placed kicks. Propelling his captive ahead of him, he strode towards the bend. "Michael!" he called. "The corridor's clear!"

A stocky man of average height, bearing a massive electronic handweapon in a sling, rounded the corner. Pulling off the goggles equipped with an imager for aiming the weapon, he swept a raking glance over the captive, his shock at beholding a woman manifest to the Gaean.

"Suffering shades of the hordes of Earth, Nigel, she formed the entire rear guard?"

"Evidently so."

Watching the enemy leader's shock melt into dismay, Cleo saw both emotions transmute into an ominous purposefulness. Two silver bars on his collar proclaimed his rank as that of captain. Four spacers armed with handweapons emerged to range themselves in a row at his rear.

Slipping out of the sling, Michael laid the burdensome weapon on the deck, and advanced to a position fronting the Gaean. Eyes hard as the core of a comet, and as cold, bored into those of the woman conscious that her captor's chances for preventing the lift narrowed with every passing second.

"Which section is equipped for the flight back?" he grated.

No reply passed lips clamped tightly shut.

Grasping the front of the captive's grayish-green uniform in both hands, the Captain as exquisitely aware of the headlong flight of seconds as was she, jerked open the bands of her tunic. Roughly, he stripped off the garment, baring her body to the waist. His hands shot to her wrists, and pulled her arms outwards while turning them. His eyes instantly gravitated to the puncture wound testifying to a recent injection. A half-stifled obscenity slid past a wide slash of a mouth. Closing iron fingers on her arm, he snarled, "So you're dosed with the antidote to truth compeller!"

No sound issued from the captive. Fanatically bent on telling this enemy nothing, Cleo scanned his rugged features, striving to ascertain whether he might employ violence in a desperate attempt to learn what he sought to know. Only half conscious of her partial nudity, she focused her undivided attention on the man in whom she detected exasperation. She gave no heed whatsoever to the four sets of eyes riveted to her bare breasts, and the fifth pair glued to her set, defiant face.

Sensing the woman's fear, perceiving her as ultrafeminine, and therefore wholly vulnerable to coercion, Michael decided to pursue a harsh course that he nonetheless judged to comprise his best option. Having glanced at his watch, he barked, "Conrad. Fetch the neurostimulator from the ship, on the double."

As a lean spacer sped down the corridor at a dead run, the Captain turned to another crewman. "Marvin, you and Leonard man the board in this section: the main one. We haven't time to search more than five kilometers of rim, and thirty-nine modules equal in size to this one. The enemy will have wiped some functions, but maybe not all. Try to pinpoint which section they're trying to detach. Sudden changes will occur in the stabilizing system if they lift, so you'll be able to tell by the monitors if they succeed in doing so. Send Conrad to brief me, the instant you learn anything definite. Justin, you and Nigel come with me."

Two spacers vanished around the bend. Throwing open the nearest door--a panel identified by stenciled lettering as the infirmary--the Captain marched his captive inside. Lifting her bodily, he laid her supine on the examining table. As Justin and Nigel held her immobilized, Michael bound her wrists and ankles to the end-frames of the table, employing strips cut from a roll of stout, narrow webbing taken from a cupboard. Gazing with merciless eyes at the half-nude captive stretched helplessly on the improvised interrogation-table, he accurately gauged the magnitude of the terror produced by his order to Conrad.

Interpreting that reaction as fright generated by her cognizance of the agony she knew to be imminent, the man concealing his reluctance to subject a woman to neurostimulation consoled himself with the thought that the interrogation would take but a short time.

"What's your name?" he asked in a peremptory tone.

"Cleo."

The Gaean perceiving no reason to conceal her name failed to divine that her captor regarded the eliciting of any admission, however trivial, as driving a wedge into her defenses. Having lowered the table as close to the deck as it would go, he drew up a chair, and sat down at her side. Impaling her with a pitiless glance, he yet spoke in a calculatedly reasoned tone.

"Cleo, the agony you're about to endure will inevitably force you to spill what you know. Why not avoid needless suffering? Tell me which section your people are working to detach."

Through a haze of fear--not of pain, nor of the other eventualities she had dreaded, but of the possibility that she might lack the fortitude to endure the torment now imminent--Cleo stared mutely into the implacable face of her enemy. He'll do what he must, she concluded unerringly, fighting panic. You've got to do the same!

The door slid open with a clang that jarred on several sets of nerves. Conrad strode in, bearing the neurostimulator: a squat, cumbersome metal box. As Justin pushed a metal cart into a position next to the table, his shipmate placed the device thereon. Rising to his feet, Michael snapped out an order to Conrad to join Marvin.

When the door closed behind the blonde spacer, the Captain addressed his two subordinates, his chin jutting, his tone that of a challenger throwing a gauntlet at the mailed feet of a foe.

"Justin, you're here in your capacity as medic. Nigel, you're going to bear witness to the others that despite my personal reservations about using this method, I didn't flinch from going all the way with it." Eyes hard as blue diamonds stabbed into those of the Lieutenant whose ugly face ephemerally mirrored strong emotion before freezing into a mask of impassivity. "Justin, get her ready."

Seating himself, the Captain waited while the medical technician pulled a series of long tentacles from within the machine, and attached the tips over specific nerve centers on the woman's arms, chest and forehead. That contact, the victim well knew, would shortly allow impulses generated by the machine to course down her nerves: impulses her mind would interpret as severe pain. Enveloped in a fog of dread, she nonetheless divined that the technician obeyed the order with keen reluctance.

Michael now addressed his captive in a voice of cold menace. "Cleo, once I activate this outfit, the pain will increase steadily. You won't pass out. The device keeps you fully conscious. You can't lie to me, either. It'll detect a lie, while it's delivering the stimulus. The process doesn't cause physical injury, but beyond a certain point, the agony will damage your mind. That point differs for different people, so I won't know when I've passed it. Not that it's likely you can hold out that long, but I'm warning you. Now then. Which section is the free-flying vehicle?"

Cleo fought to relax her rigid body. Think of Max, she commanded herself. Block out what you're about to feel. Riveting her glance to the clock on the side wall, she read 1835. Twenty-five minutes at the most, she advised her alter ego. You can hold out. You've got to! Her eyes met those of her captor, but her lips remained clamped over clenched teeth.

Shrugging, the interrogator activated the device, steeling his mind to ignore screams.

Silence surrounded the woman now subjected to slowly intensifying agony. Three pairs of eyes converged on the meter recording the level of pain-producing stimulation, and watched the needle begin a steady creep around the dial. Cleo, her eyes closed, her shapely body taut, lay still. No cry shattered the silence. No groan wrung any heartstrings.

Gazing in disbelief at the woman obviously suffering the torment delivered by a fully functional device, Michael all but ground his teeth as he observed the time emblazoned in luminous green numerals on the wall-clock. Justin's seamed brown face testified to unqualified admiration. Nigel alone remained unmoved, his lithe body still as if carven of stone.

Cleo gazed inwardly at the well-remembered image of the husband cut down an Earthyear ago as he fought the invaders occupying a major portion of his world. Having deliberately resurrected a vivid memory of happiness shared with Max, she focused her mind on reliving the past. Used to achieving a state of intense concentration, she succeeded in blocking out a fraction of the pain for a short interval.

When the level increased to the point where that tactic no longer worked, the captive bit her lip, but stubbornly refused to allow a sound to escape her. Certain that if a man possessed any decency at all, he would find a woman's outcries unnerving no matter how determinedly he tried to ignore them, Cleo suspected that Michael might grow unnerved. Pride kept her silent.

He might wince, but he won't quit until I break, she admonished herself bitterly as her desperation mounted. And I won't give that ugly bastard the satisfaction! No doubt he enjoys inflicting pain. Damn him! Damn them all!

As the agony intensified, Cleo lost the power to force herself to lie still. Even as she continued to concentrate on mental images--and those changed more rapidly, now--her muscles took on a will of their own. Her body writhed involuntarily, pitting the considerable strength of her arms against the webbing. Struggling to withstand the steadily worsening torment inexorably eroding her ability to block out any fraction of it, she failed to notice the added sensation of the skin of wrists and ankles rubbing raw.

Abandoning the effort to raise scenes out of her memories, she issued stern exhortations to her alter ego. Don't give in! Every second you hold out gives Wallace a better chance. Don't quit! You can take a minute more. You can. You will!

The tangy taste of blood issuing from a ravaged lip impinged momentarily on the woman's stressed consciousness, prompting her to shift the focus of the bite. Sweat soaked her writhing body. Mucus ran freely from both nostrils, as she resisted the now overwhelming compulsion to scream.

Absorbed by the sensation assailing her, Cleo grew dimly aware that the level of pain now seemed to be staying constant. Through the words she desperately addressed to herself in the innermost reaches of her being, she heard others couched in a soothing, insidiously persuasive tone. Beguiled into listening, she let her attention stray from those fevered self-adjurations.

"Cleo. You've suffered enough," Michael asserted in a solicitous tone. "Tell me which section, and I'll turn it off. Hear? Tell me. No one in Gaea could expect you to hold out past this point!"

You think so, do you, you rotten bastard? the Gaean expostulated inwardly as she again savaged her lip with her teeth. The contempt blazing from her eyes registered with the force of a blow on the man whose heart hammered, whose gut knotted into spasms, even as his hand moved.

An unbelievable wave of agony engulfed the sufferer. Her body arched violently upwards. Pain more excruciating than any she had ever experienced shattered her resolve. A high-pitched, bubbling, animal shriek tore out of her throat, followed by others.

The screams produced a new pause in the intensification. "Cleo. Which section?"

Her mind reeling on the edge not of unconsciousness, but of a terrifying fragmentation, the tortured Gaean clung to one central idea. Scream. Yell. But don't talk! Don't! Five lives hang on your silence. Don't spill what you know. Don't! Don't! A series of piercing shrieks reverberated off the metal walls of the cabin before the woman's teeth again savaged her lip, and she held her outcries to low, anguished moans.

Michael's voice rasping in her ear constituted a force geared to batter relentlessly at her determination. "Cleo. If I increase the stimulation, I'll increase the risk of damaging your mind. We're approaching that point. Say the number. Say it, and the pain will stop."

With the last vestiges of her will, the pain-racked captive bit down on her lip, on the number she had refused to name even in her thoughts, on the black, stark fear of what an increase in the now unbearable agony would do to mind, body, psyche. Mustering the fast-ebbing dregs of the desperate courage that had carried her to this point, she struggled to keep from shrieking out the numeral she beheld etched in figures of fire across the screen of her narrowed inner vision.

The agony intensified. The figures dissolved. Past being able to speak coherently, past screaming, past producing anything but a low, keening, infantile wail of anguish, Cleo never heard Conrad burst in to declare that the Gaeans just lifted.

Michael switched off the device, dropping the woman into a depth of unconsciousness resembling coma.

Four men silently contemplated the limp, soaked, dead-white, disturbingly still figure whose softly rounded contours so emphatically suggested frailty: an illusive disguise, that delicate femininity, for a spring-steel toughness none of the Columbians had ever seen surpassed by a male in like circumstances.

The observers stood motionless, their faces a study in contrast. Michael's, pale and strained, bleakly reflecting his bitter awareness that he had gambled and lost, betrayed more than a hint of the psychological cost of what he had forced himself to do. On Justin's, concern blended with profound admiration. Conrad's radiated shock. Nigel's revealed the simple, intense force of an overwhelming anger.

Inwardly shaken, the interrogator regarded the grim, hate-filled face of his lieutenant. "Who in hell would ever have thought a woman could withstand that degree of agony without breaking?" he breathed, more in stupefaction than in defensiveness.

Nigel's eyes smoldered as he hissed, "Damn her to hell!"

Justin interposed adamantly, "What courage she displayed!" As he studied the information revealed by the device still monitoring the woman's pulse and respiration, he smelled the evidence indicating that with the sudden cessation of the acute stress of her ordeal, Cleo's sphincters had relaxed, causing her to soil herself. "I'll tend her, Michael," the medical technician declared a shade combatively, having received no order to act in his professional capacity.

Flayed by his consciousness of having made an egregious error in judgment, Michael regained full mastery of himself. With no hint of desperation or despair evident in face or voice, he barked in a tone admitting of no argument, "I'll finish what I started, Justin. Do you detect any sign of physical damage?"

"No, but she needs the shot that will mitigate the stress." His brows knitted, the medical technician glaring irately at his superior managed to stifle the outraged objection trembling on his lips. His cognizance of the futility of uttering it, rather than fear of the reprisal he knew his questioning an order would produce, prompted that response.

"Tend to that," Michael snapped. With all of his accustomed decisiveness, he issued commands while Justin hastened to obey.

"Nigel, take Leonard, and make a thorough survey of the sections left on the rim. Estimate what water could be diverted from the life-support systems of the main section and the others--water that could serve as fuel. I want your assessment, in writing, seven hours from now, of the feasibility of our equipping a section for total self-regenerating life-support, and detaching it for prolonged voyaging in space. Figure on our using whatever we can salvage from our ship or the rest of this station."

Even as Nigel's lithe body stiffened, he spoke deliberately, choosing his words with care. "You're going to make a decision based on my six-hour survey, when a six-week, in-depth study might not assure us of a reasonable measure of safety if we leap off in a jerry-rigged section?"

Icy blue eyes impaled the man whose drawling voice stopped just short of conveying insolence. "That's right. If I decide to try, we'll spend six weeks doing it, not studying whether or not to do it. You're as skilled as any life-support expert I've ever encountered, and I'd trust your estimate over that of the men who built this place. Will trust it, with my life and everyone else's. So get busy."

Electric tension seemed to crackle in the space separating the Captain standing with chin jutting, and the Lieutenant glaring balefully at him. Nigel's eyes narrowed, and his hands clenched. Mastering the anger directed now at the Captain, he turned on his heel and left without a word.

Betraying no emotion, Michael addressed the medical technician whose eyes still raked the inert figure of the woman injected now with the necessary medication, but still lying in her feces.

"Justin, you'll take Conrad, and determine what, if any, supplies of food the Gaeans left. Collect what you find, and what's left on the ship, in this section. You'll then study the network of life-support systems to decide what excess organisms we can use for food. We'll hoard the standard meals--theirs and ours--after tomorrow's breakfast. You're in charge of feeding us. I'm confident that you'll manage to disguise whatever vile slop we'll have to live off, so we can face eating it. I still remember the tasty meals you dished up when we ran out of food on O'Neill, that time when the supply ship vanished."

His ire no whit assuaged by the compliment, Justin let that circumstance show nakedly. "I'll do my best," he affirmed evenly. His eyes strayed back to the utterly motionless form of the traumatized Gaean.

Michael's voice took on a brittle edge. "I'll clean her up, Justin. Before you go, strip off those electrodes and dose her with sleep inducer."

"Yes, sir." Managing to convey frigid disapproval by his use of the conventional response to the Captain who preferred academic informality to military rigidity in his dealings with his closely knit team of experts, Justin obeyed. Having found a spring-capsule of the drug that produced deep, natural sleep, he injected the contents into Cleo's arm, and removed the electrodes.

Piqued, Michael issued his next order in a voice unmistakably conveying displeasure. "On your way out, tell Marvin that he's to compute the orbit of this station around the gas giant, project where the station will be eight weeks from now, calculate a trajectory back to Columbia, and use whatever information he can glean from the station's bank to determine how much fuel one of these sections holds and how much propulsive power it's got. Tell him to calculate how long it'll take us to reach Columbia in a modified section. Emphasize that I want a written report seven hours from now. Add that he's to include any recommendations he can offer."

"Yes, sir." Still outraged, Justin compounded his offense by snapping the Captain a salute before turning on his heel, and departing.

Glaring after him, Michael stifled an obscenity. His mouth set in a tight line, he turned his attention to the Gaean. Unable to loosen the knots in the webbing pulled tight around her wrists by her struggles, he cut the restraints. Having freed her ankles, he drew off her pants. Efficiently, he completed the distasteful chore of scrubbing her free of the nasty mess produced by a relaxation akin to that produced by violent death. With equal care, he sponged her entire body, removing the salty residue of perspiration.

Exhibiting his usual thoroughness, the Captain positioned the unconscious woman so that her head hung downwards over the end of the table. Holding the basin so as to immerse the short, brown, wavy hair matted into sticky tufts, he ran his fingers through the submerged tangles, and then blotted the excess moisture from her dripping hair.

A search through the cabinets yielded a container of antiseptic, which he used to treat her skinned wrists and ankles. Picking up the soiled pants direly in need of the treatment that would restore the ability of the fabric to repel dirt and moisture, he proceeded into the corridor.

The Gaean's tunic lay on the deck where he had flung it. That sight evoked a resurgence of the anger produced by his discovery that she had dared to dose herself with the antidote for the drug producing an irresistible compulsion to answer questions truthfully.

I judged her a fool for inviting interrogation under neurostimulation, he mused dourly, but she evidently knew that she could hold out until that bastard who sacrificed her to save his own skin lifted. Fanatics, these Gaeans! he railed as his rage intensified.

Snatching the garment off the deck, Michael conducted a brief inspection of the other cabins along the corridor. Discovering quarters fitted with a double bed, he stood motionless for a time, meditating on the danger to discipline posed by the presence of the woman. Rendered unpleasantly aware of the need to rid himself of the reeking burden in his hands, he tossed the woman's befouled uniform into the adjuster in the bathcabin accessible both from this cabin and the one adjoining. A radical thought impinged: an idea born of the anger ebbing, but not yet extinguished. Frowning, he locked the door between the cabins, and turned back the bedcover on the double bed Wallace had fashioned from two single bunks.

Upon returning to the infirmary, the Captain lifted the unconscious woman, bore her nude body into the cabin, laid her supine in the double bed, and covered her to the chin with the bedcover. A glance at his watch apprised him of the time: 1820.

She'll regain consciousness at 2220, he reminded himself. Wincing at the thought that the ordeal might permanently have scarred his captive's mind, he resolved to be present at her awakening.

Anger blended with the fear knotting the man's gut. Damn her to hell! he raged. And damn that Gaean captain! He didn't hesitate to abandon an obviously noncombatant woman desperately improvising a means of holding us off. Why should he be so blasted sure that she'd die fighting?

An unnerving suspicion lanced out of nowhere to demand confirmation. Reaching into the adjuster, Michael retrieved Cleo's tunic. An inventory of the contents of the pockets revealed a comb, a folding knife, an electronic stylus chewed on the end, a set of keys, and an elongated gray tablet. Seizing that, the Columbian sniffed it, and frowned blackly as suspicion faded into certainty.

So. Their one-woman rear guard planned to kill herself after completing her mission. Damn!

An overwhelming sense of the utter futility of the long-term solution he contemplated rose to smite him. Bitterly, he gazed down at the still, pale face exhibiting no trace of the ordeal borne with such surpassing fortitude. With an effort, Michael banished his doubts. Striding resolutely into the corridor, he turned his attention to administrative tasks.

Cleo came slowly to her senses at 2220. Her mind sluggishly focused on the ordeal that had preceded her loss of consciousness. She lay for a time without moving or opening her eyes, sorting out a host of nightmarish recollections. No pain assailed her--at least, none matching in intensity that forming her last frightful memory. Her wrists hurt badly, judging by ordinary standards. Her ankles pained her to a lesser degree. She grew aware that under what felt like a bedcover, she lay naked. That realization jolted her into opening her eyes.

A swift glance at her surroundings apprised her of her whereabouts. It also revealed the stocky figure of Michael, who sat in the chair before Wallace's terminal, his chin propped on one hand. She noted that the Columbian appeared to be totally absorbed in the contents of a datapad.

An overmastering need to know that she had held out long enough to shield Wallace's escape contended with her dread of drawing her captor's attention to herself.

Would I remember finally spilling the number of the section? she wondered confusedly. Surely, even if I did, Michael lacked time enough to reach Sixteen. And if he did make it that far before they lifted ... he'd be...

Cleo retained no memory of having talked, but her final impressions consisted only of a confused blur of ever increasing agony. Gathering the remnants of the store of courage she had spent so lavishly earlier, she clutched the bedcover to her chest. Shakily, she rose to a sitting position.

Michael heard her move. Interrupted in his third reading of two starkly discouraging reports, he rose to impale the author of his present dilemma with a withering glance.

"Did they get away?"

"They did." His eyes cold as frozen methane, the officer added in a voice freighted with menace, "I ought to space you."

Still gripping the bedcover, Cleo sank back down. For a brief instant, she savored the vast relief generated by the news that her comrades had escaped. Her eyes met those of her captor squarely. "If you think that prospect comes as other than welcome, you're mistaken," she retorted evenly, and truthfully.

Venomously, Michael stared at his enemy. Fatigue, anxiety and anger contended for expression, combining to erode the veteran spacer-captain's wonted self-possession.

Meeting his glance, Cleo generated a most unaccountable pity for the enemy she had defeated by her stubborn passive resistance. He's not cruel by nature, she judged accurately. He did what he had to do, exactly as I did.

A thought impinged. "You didn't damage my mind," she observed, speaking her thought aloud. "At least ... I don't think you did."

The memory of what he had inflicted on this delicate-seeming woman sullied Michael's normally comfortable self-image without diminishing his anger in the least degree. "I could have," he acknowledged bluntly. "I approached perilously close to the point where that would inevitably have happened. You're tough--mentally as well as physically."

Sensing an undercurrent of shame, the Gaean intuitively sought to alleviate it. "I don't blame you for doing what you did," she asserted dispassionately, stating the truth.

Touched on the raw, the Columbian snarled, "I don't need or want your forgiveness!"

Accurately gauging the intensity of the man's emotions, Cleo divined the magnitude of the conflict they engendered. "Nonetheless, you have it," she countered levelly.

That calm rejoinder unexpectedly evoked an outburst of hot ire. "You thrice-damned Gaean bitch, you've stranded the six of us in the forsaken back of nowhere! You planned to swallow that slime-infested poison-pill, and leave us to rot here till we spaced ourselves. You owe us, blast your gall!"

The speaker's eyes glittered as they traced the contours of the shapely figure clearly outlined beneath the thin cover. The memory of a nude feminine body lying limp and helpless under his ministering hands surfaced in startlingly vivid detail on the screen of Michael's inner vision. Anger blended with a suddenly irresistible urge. His voice rasped as he declared meaningfully, "I've a mind to collect on that debt, woman."

With deliberate movements, the Columbian pulled apart the interlocking bands fastening his tunic, and shrugged out of its form-fitting clasp. Seating himself, he pulled off gleaming black boots. Rising, he fronted the startled occupant of the bed. The sound of interlocking bands ripping apart grated on her ears as he yanked open his pants and let them drop to the deck. Stepping free of the encumbrance, he stood for a few seconds stark naked, raking his intended victim with eyes mirroring raw lust. Jerking the bedcover off her, he dropped his full weight on her unresisting body.

Having guessed the man's intention from the words that preceded his actions, Cleo stifled an impulse to leap to her feet and attempt to fight him. Keenly aware of the disparity between his strength and hers, she foresaw the outcome. If I resist, he'll hurt me, not kill me, she conjectured, reasoning with lightflash swiftness. He'll turn cruel, even if he isn't by nature!

Staring through dilated eyes at the compact, muscular, yet supple body emerging from its uniform, the widowed Gaean mastered both fear and outrage.

He's a man, like any other--like Max! A man driven to the last barricade. What difference will his raping me make? My life's over! As soon as a chance offers, I'll space myself. Don't fight him! Don't risk goading him into injuring you! If he does, you'll forfeit all hope of staying able to end your life! Give the bastard what he wants!

As her ravisher dropped on her, her arms encircled his neck. Her hands drew his head towards hers. Glimpsing the shock that registered on his granite features before his mouth closed over her own, she molded herself to his muscular torso. A sharp stab of pain shot through her swollen, bitten lower lip, only to be forced to the back of her mind by sensations more intense.

Responding to her assailant's roughly questing tongue, Cleo experienced a most unaccountable quickening in her loins: a flood of warmth, of wetness. It was as if a lifetime of rigid social conditioning had never existed. Driven to the last barricade herself, the captive reacted with fierce abandonment, her behavior more wanton than any she had ever displayed to the husband she had so deeply loved. When Michael's knees forced her thighs apart, she wrapped her legs around him, arching upwards. Her actions clearly projected an active acceptance that robbed his determined penetration of her womanly depth of its potency as a symbol of aggressive dominance.

Her hands slid down his back, pressing him closer. Her breath coming in gasps, she moved in time with his thrusts. Recklessly, defiantly, she refused to experience his hard manhood as other than a fulfilling force. She forbade her alter ego to think of this rapist's act as a shameful invasion of her innermost self. Strong hands gripped her shoulders, as their owner repeatedly drove into her. When Michael achieved the ultimate release, so also did the Gaean, with an intensity that stunned her.

Utterly spent, Cleo sank back on the bed, bearing the weight of her assailant's sturdy frame.

Michael lay motionless for a time, enjoying the ebbing wash of carnal pleasure even as he fought an onslaught of scalding shame. At length, he sat up. Regarding his victim with bewilderment he took no pains to conceal, he spoke. "I'll be damned if I can figure out how you think!" he flung at her.

"You said I owed you," the captive reminded him acidly.

A flush flooded her captor's rugged face, even as her remark goaded him into retaliating. "I meant to force you," he informed her evenly, the dregs of his anger contending with a burgeoning sense of guilt.

"I fully realize that!" the captive retorted tartly. Passion rose to shake the woman stung anew by that bald admission. "I didn't do what I managed out of personal hatred for all of you!" she cried heatedly. "I wanted my comrades to be able to get home to their families, just as you used that damned device on me for the sake of your men!"

Stung to the quick, Michael felt his cheeks burn. "Do you have a husband ... and children ... waiting for you in Gaea, Cleo?" he asked, aghast at the implications to his honor.

"No. My son--five Earthyears old--died when Yancey annihilated Davis Station. So did my sister, my brother, my cousins, and my uncle. My husband fell while fighting Norman's corpsmen. I have no family left! That's why I volunteered to stay! That's why Wallace finally let me! All the others had family waiting!"

Cleo sensed the magnitude of the shock generated by that personal revelation. Pity fleetingly appeared in her adversary's eyes before dismay overrode it. Michael grated accusingly, "Could you get pregnant out of this?"

Now you think of that! the woman silently castigated her assailant. Keeping the bitterness out of her voice, she shook her head. "No. Wallace insisted that every woman on his team be rendered reversibly sterile."

The relief engendered by that admission showed nakedly on the Captain's rugged face, before the other worries assaulting the man's exhausted mind produced unmitigated bleakness. Suddenly weary to the point of numbness, he rose, and thrust a hand into a pocket. Withdrawing two strips of the same webbing with which he had bound the captive to the interrogation table, he grasped both of the woman's skinned wrists, drawing them back preparatory to binding them to the edge of the metal bedspring.

Outraged, Cleo glared up at him. "Have you a reason for doing this other than pure meanness?" she demanded, her voice dripping scorn.

Pain shot down her right arm as Michael drew the bond tight against the angry red abrasions circling her wrist.

"I'm bedding down in here tonight too, woman, for several reasons," he informed her, his eyes glacial. "If you think I intend to fall asleep next to a mobile enemy who just assured me that she doesn't care whether she lives or dies, you're crazy. As soon as I passed out, you'd hit me over the head with whatever came handiest, and try your damnedest to breach the station!"

Consumed by virulent anger, the noncombatant retorted shrilly, "I accomplished all I set out to do! I never tried to kill any of you! I aimed higher than your heads! You saw that!" Controlling hot wrath with a strenuous effort of will, the sorely tried captive succeeded in forcing all trace of emotion out of her voice. Plaintively, she asked, "Would you accept my word that all I'll do is fall asleep?"

Ceasing to knot the webbing, Michael weighed that appeal. No trace of guile could he detect in the woman's face or voice. Admiration of her self-mastery contended with the dregs of anger, and with mounting guilt. Wondering at himself even as he reversed his decision, he released her wrists. Watching as she drew her arms hastily across her chest, cradling her abraded right wrist in her left hand, he shrugged in sardonic self-deprecation.

"I don't know why I believe you'll keep your word, but I do," he conceded, the admission seeming to the woman to emerge against his will.

His action prompted Cleo to mutter "Thank you," in a tone equally grudging. Turning her back to her unwelcome bedfellow, she curled on her side, pulling the bedcover around her. Michael stretched out next to her, facing her. Overwhelmed by exhaustion, both captor and captive dropped precipitately into deep, dreamless sleep.

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