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Aboard the great ship immobilized within a web of habitats on the jagged, barren, airless rock known as Wheeler-the body chosen to be the home world of the Interworld Corps-intensely focused activity continued to absorb the members of that fledgling force of peacekeepers. Three mediators still matched newly recruited women with the captains and crews who had joined the Corps at its inception. Rejoicing at the thought that half of that delicate chore now lay behind them, Signe, Arlen and Wong nonetheless continued to bring to each interview with a candidate for a match, and to each set of introductions of prospective mates to each other, the same exacting care they displayed at the beginning of the process.
Conor and Eric, the two legendary captains granted a dispensation from the rule stating that all Corpsmen must wed, still patrolled a vast area of space with undersized crews, as they had done since the matching process began.
A week flew by on mythical wings, in the minds of those on whose shoulders lay the formidable responsibility for mediating matches and conducting orientation sessions. Arlen and Signe, taxed to the utmost, gave of themselves unstintingly. Wong provided indispensable aid. Theo shouldered a formidable load of tedious clerical chores. With skill, tact, and dispatch, Dahl handled a daunting succession of administrative problems arising from the unique situation. Exhibiting bold initiative, he rendered crucial decisions without consulting his commanders, so as to leave them free to meet the arduous challenges facing them daily.
Towards the end of the first week, the administrative assistant strode into his office at0600, to find Harold's wife awaiting him. Waving the noncombatant auxiliary-food-chemist turned cook-into a chair, the swarthy spacer smiled at the woman whose brisk competence, unfailing courtesy, and cheery good nature he deeply admired. "Has a problem surfaced, Carmela?" he asked.
"I'm afraid so, Dahl. As you know, I set up a storage center for rough-processed waste in part of the area designed for storage of food. When our personnel numbered half of the Flagship's capacity, we got by just fine. Each time a captain set out on patrol, I'd slip him a load of waste to haul to whichever world formed his destination.
"Well, as I reminded you ten days ago, once our numbers doubled, we'd need to haul a large load periodically aboard one of the black ships. I hoped we could wait until the end of all this matching, distribute a good part of the waste among the ten captains lifting, and then see about sending a black ship when the pile threatened to inundate us once again. I contacted the Captain of the Gaean passenger vessel right after he contracted to give passage to the recruits, and asked if he'd haul a large load of waste back to Gaea on his return transit, given that he'd be running empty. He said he would, unless some unforeseen problem arose.
"Well, one did. Cormac received orders to head for the far end of the Group, to evacuate the entire population of a small isolated station ravaged by an epidemic. So that left us with an overload. My storage capacity's exhausted. I hate the thought of stacking bags of compacted waste in the corridors, or in any of the facilities, especially when all of those are being used so heavily. Could we store the excess-or better yet, all the waste-aboard a black ship, against the day when some captain's free to haul the load? Harold and Monroe and I will carry the bags aboard, and Mai offered to help."
Absently running a hand through his hair as he debated that question, Dahl shook his head. "I hate to do that, Carmela," he replied. "Those ships stand ready to lift at a moment's notice, should some dire emergency arise somewhere. We've two unassigned vessels, but they're both all but empty of fuel.
"Tell you what. We've got four newly married veterans. Evan could lift in his own ship, with Talley, Nelson and Lupe as crew. They could make the transit to Columbia. Evan could dispose of every smidgeon of waste that has accumulated, and haul back a load of food before any of the crews ashore go to space again. We could stock not only your freezers, but also the galleys both in the ships and the quarters on the Flagship , while we've got spacers aplenty to do the legwork. Then we can bask in the knowledge that we've got a comforting reserve of food on hand, should some unforeseen crisis materialize. I'll talk to Evan right now, and arrange the business. Signe will only need to say, "Carry on."
"Oh, that would be marvelous, Dahl! We'll still help load the bags."
"The hell you will," the Captain retorted adamantly. "You've got enough to do, feeding the mob three times a day. We'll utilize a large squad of starry-eyed newlyweds, and wrench their minds off their…new circumstances," Dahl finished lamely, having hastily amended the graphic expression that almost popped out before he recalled to whom he was speaking.
The sturdily open-minded Gaean mother of two strapping sons caught the near-slip, and chuckled with infectious warmth, liking this hard-featured captain so willing to go out of his way to accommodate her. "I thank you, Dahl."
"No sweat, woman. You've done a superb job of feeding the horde."
Twenty-four hours later, Evan made an ascent, and began the transit to Columbia.
The Captain unused to filling a wealth of leisure time leaped at the chance to sit the board with only his wife for company. Mindful that he would be shortly training four new women, Evan welcomed the opportunity to assess Talley's skill privately. Having assigned Nelson and Lupe to a split twelve-hour shift-eight hours of sleep-shift followed by four on the board, four off, then eight more on the board, with Talley and himself following an identical split during the intervening periods-he proceeded to enjoy the unexpected transit across the void.
The weeklong span of time refreshingly free of the burden of command had afforded husband and wife the chance to fit themselves into their new relationship with no external strains operating to complicate the process. Each now felt supremely easy in the other's company, that ease accentuated by mutual frank enjoyment of nights spent satisfying the earthy passion each so readily generated.
His eyes on the screens, Evan laughed softly to himself, recalling his awakening. Talley had opened her eyes well before the alarm went off. Dropping on her husband's recumbent, supine body to kiss him on the mouth while he still slept, she had found herself within seconds flat on her back, as the lightflash reflexes of a highly trained martial expert operated before Evan fully woke. Having barely escaped a lethal slash to the larynx, Talley had employed a flight of imaginative, colorful invective as instinctively as Evan had launched the blow he managed to stop before it connected.
"Are you still finding my egregious error of this morning highly humorous?" the veteran demanded, eyeing her husband and captain reproachfully. "You damned nearly killed me!"
"I should have warned you, I guess," Evan admitted apologetically, even as his grin lingered. "I'm not used to sleeping next to anyone, let alone having her kiss me awake. Nice thought, though. Next time, shout in my ear before you drop on me, so I know it's you."
"I'll shout in your ear from across the damned cabin!"
"I'll wager Arlen has chalked up some narrow escapes."
"Shades of the ancients! Now that I think about it, I'll bet he has! Signe sports war-honed reflexes!"
Secure in the knowledge that his crewmembers slept at this hour, Evan asked the question generating acute puzzlement. "Talley, whatever made you so utterly certain you'd be a dud, in bed?"
Copyright © 2007 Mary Ann Steele.