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Decelerated by a glowing sphere of plasma, a military ship armed with the irreproducible Earth-built weaponry settled onto a lock in the most vice-plagued, crime-ridden municipal unit in Columbia. Moments after the pressure-proof door of the outer lock swung ponderously open, a tall figure whose seamed face bore an old, distinctive, sword-cut scar strode into the corridor fronting the locks, backed by three members of his crew of five veteran spacer-fighters. Halting, he confronted the officer standing at the head of a squad of four men. Bleached blue eyes studied a Columbian captain of uncertain age, whose impeccably tailored black uniform accentuated both the slightness of his build and the natural paleness of his skin. Black hair framed an impassive face. Eyes hard as the stony core of a comet, and as cold, impaled those of the warrior whose identity the Columbian guessed, even before the newcomer spoke.
"Conor, Captain, Interworld Corps," the gray-uniformed veteran of seventeen Earthyears of war announced. Although he sensed latent hostility, his Gaean-accented voice conveyed absolutely no trace of reciprocal antagonism.
"Regan, Captain, Second Corps." Shifting his glance to the three crewmembers ranged behind their superior, the speaker managed to conceal any shock occasioned by the sight of a uniformed woman who wore on her collar the insignia proclaiming her rank to be that of second officer. Conor's lieutenant met Regan's eyes squarely, her handsome face as expressionless as his. Her two subordinates the Columbian saw to be packing military handweapons. The female second officer went armed with an eminently serviceable sword the carrierand sheath of which exhibited signs of long use.
Regan's clipped Columbian inflection served to accentuate the glacial frigidity of his professional manner, in the perceptions of the two officers regarding him dispassionately. "My lieutenant's holding Fallon and his surviving crewmembers-six men in all-in detention cells at the local office of the Docking Authority, Captain," he stated evenly. "We'll accompany you there, and escort you and your charges back to this lock. Laver, Fallon's brother, escaped capture. He's a native of Crawford Unit: a hardened criminal chummy with the worst of its scum, and familiar with all their hangouts. I wouldn't put an attempt at a rescue past him, and you're a trifle undermanned."
"I appreciate your courtesy, Captain." Conor's voice now bore the faintest overtone of irony. "Lead on."
Turning on his heel, Regan stalked off ahead of his men.
His erstwhile foe led his three crewmembers at a swinging stride, in the wake of the Columbian detail. No whit disconcerted by the Second Corpsman's icy formality, Conor observed the supple grace of the man's slim body.
Swordsman, this officer molded by a highly competitive, blatantly militaristic culture, the ex-Gaean accurately surmised. Veteran of long Earthyears of hunting outlaws across the deeps. Regan's royally pissed by what he sees as our bloody nerve in usurping the traditional function of the Second Columbian Military Corps.
Well, I can't blame him. He's a careerist steeped in a mercenary-spacer tradition-a professional soldier severely limited in his opportunities for advancement, now, due to the turn history just took. Tough as steel rivets, this wiry swordsman, I've no doubt whatsoever, and far too conscientious to let his smoldering resentment goad him into insisting upon a legal but chancy transfer of custody at the site where he's got the felons incarcerated. Regan knows that by so doing, he'd increase the likelihood that six murderous renegades might escape. He won't run that risk, even though he's well aware that the onus of such a disaster would fall on the Interworld Corps, rather than on himself. Admirable, that ability to put concern for the public welfare above personal feelings of antagonism!
Her eyes riveted to Regan's back, Jess observed the same signs in the man's carriage as did Conor. That Columbian swordsman's no taller than I, nor is he any heftier in his build, she noted with wry disdain. But he simply can't imagine a woman's being fit to serve in a peacekeeping force, let alone visualize her hacking her way down a corridor awash in blood and choked with dead. Much less could he picture her clawing her way, sword in hand, up the side of a barricade manned by bastards fully as ruthless as this renegade former Third Corpsman we're scheduled to haul to Wheeler.
Short shrift a tribunal of our captains will give Fallon, if the evidence secured by this Columbian officer holds up! she reflected in satisfaction. Murder committed during the pirating of another lawbreaker's stolen vessel, theft of fuel committed prior to an unsuccessful attempt to lift his prize, not to mention offering armed resistance when the bastard found himself trapped between Regan's crew outside the lock, and Brant's Earth-armed ship aloft. I hope to hell that lead Brant's following pans out, and he and his crew intercept the brother at Belmar Unit. From what I've gathered, Laver's by far the worst of this pair of fraternal felons!
With Regan in the lead, the military contingent advanced four hundred meters down the long, smooth-walled corridor fronting the locks. Having descended two flights of stairs separated by a landing, they emerged into a corridor far narrower than the one above. On either side of the metal-decked passageway lined on both sides with the facades of sections of habitat, sliding metal doors allowed entry to dingy, windowed offices tenanted by minor bureaucrats whose names and titles, stenciled in black above the doors, vied for the attention of passers-by. Various windowless cabins located in between the offices also fronted on the corridor, their function designated by other signs of varying hues.
Proceeding at a smart pace, the squad of spacer-fighters passed storage areas, vacant cabins offered for rent, cubicles allowing access to various subdivisions of the life-support system to workers engaged in maintenance of the habitat, and an emergency facility designed for the use-free of charge-by licensed medical technicians whose official cards, when displayed to the sensor, provided entry.
One wide metal door bore a designation printed in bright red, indicating storage of fire-fighting equipment, and gear for combating chemical spills. Farther on, an oversized sign, emblazoned in garish orange, warned ominously, DANGER. Below that cautionary message, bilious green lettering attested to the specialized function of the facility: storage for tanks of compressed gases. AUTHORIZED ENTRY ONLY, the inscription further proclaimed.
Minutely observing their unlovely surroundings, Conor and Jess caught sight of spots of corrosion defacing wall-panels begrimed here and there by oily smears. Both officers noted the crescent-shaped, soiled patches surrounding most of the door-handles: accumulated filth left by countless sweaty hands.
I don't think much of the efficiency of the Local Division of Habitat Construction and Maintenance, the innately fastidious Lieutenant reflected censoriously. Ugh! Well, Brant emphasized that this unit's a hotbed of corruption-a notorious haunt of criminals.
Hard-featured men traversing the corridor passed the corpsmen singly, or in small groups. A few clad in spacer blue suits wore the distinctive silver armbands and prominent badges identifying them as officials of the Docking Authority. One burly pedestrian sported the even more conspicuous yellow and red armband denoting his status as a maintenance worker.
Other passers-by clad in drab, nondescript civil garb cast boldly appraising glances at the unfamiliar pearly gray uniform of the newly instituted Interworld Corps. An obvious readiness to retaliate upon the slightest hint of aggressiveness, evinced both by the scarred Captain and the stone-faced Second Corpsman, discouraged the leveling of any leering glances on the woman who projected an aura of glamour despite her military bearing. Narrowed, patently lustful eyes nonetheless followed her departing figure.
Having progressed for two hundred meters, Regan strode by a recessed entry to a stairwell, and stopped before the door of the section opposite the elevator flanking the stairs.
Above the entry to the facade featuring only one small window, Conor read the legend: Docking Authority. Below that designation, smaller print announced the branch of government of which this subsidiary agency formed a part: Columbian Ministry of Interior Resources. Before the door stood an ebony giant: a uniformed warrior of ferocious aspect, whose unprepossessing face sported three parallel sword-cut scars down its right side. A new slash, barely healed, laterally bisected those reminders of old wounds.
As the gray-clad corpsmembers watched, the officer snapped Regan a salute, and spoke in clipped, cultured accents startlingly at variance with his fearsome appearance. "No trouble thus far, sir. I don't place any especial faith in Seward or his crew of docking officers, but I posted Archer and Gennady in front of the cells, and Thomas and Riordan outside the rear entrance."
"If trouble starts, it'll commence after we exit these premises," Regan predicted grimly. Turning to the gray-clad figure, who had advanced to stand at his side, he inclined his head towards his subordinate. "Captain, this is Samson, Lieutenant. Samson, meet Conor, Captain, Interworld Corps."
The brawny Second Corpsman snapped the former foe whose legendary fame as a warrior he unqualifiedly admired, a salute. He then favored the ex-Gaean with a grin that rendered his scarred black face suddenly and surprisingly engaging. "My pleasure, Captain."
That sentiment Conor perceived to be absolutely genuine. "Gentlemen, meet Jess, my second officer." he stated blandly.
The giant's eyes widened momentarily, but he swiftly mastered the shock engendered not only by his beholding a woman, but his learning her rank. "Glad to meet you, ma'am," he averred in a tone that in no way rang false.
Regan, thin-lipped, added evenly, but civilly, "As am I, Lieutenant."
Copyright © 2007 Mary Ann Steele.