Partnership of Equals [Science Fiction Series Book Three]

Partnership of Equals [Science Fiction Series Book Three]

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by Mary Ann Steele
Signe and Arlen found the Interworld Corps: a body of spacer-fighters, half Gaean and half Columbian, dedicated to keeping the peace newly forged between Gaea and Columbia. The former archenemies marry, having fallen in love after achieving the accord described in the second book, Master of Intrigue. They lift the Flagship into its last flight, and land Johann's


Signe and Arlen found the Interworld Corps: a body of spacer-fighters, half Gaean and half Columbian, dedicated to keeping the peace newly forged between Gaea and Columbia. The former archenemies marry, having fallen in love after achieving the accord described in the second book, Master of Intrigue. They lift the Flagship into its last flight, and land Johann's mobile stronghold on Wheeler, intending to found a new colony: a third world. Immediately, the Co-Commanders begin conducting a rigorous training program for their twelve captains. That intensive course, intended to defuse lingering feelings of enmity, stresses all the participants. When a major conflict arises owing to a violent clash between two men having far different cultural mores, Arlen handles the situation brilliantly. The resolution of the clash serves as a bonding experience for all the men. Twelve captains who now think of their peers as brothers prepare to patrol a vast volume of space with crews of six, rather than the usual twelve spacers. Each of the six Columbian captains now finds that the crew assigned to him includes a Gaean female veteran. Striving to conceal reactions that include shock, dismay, anger, and outrage, the captains set out on their first mission. Having persuaded Arlen at the start to accept seven female Gaean spacer-fighters, Signe now discovers, to her intense dismay, that Arlen jumps the gun. Instead of waiting until the seven women prove their worth, he demands that he and Signe immediately settle the question of how they will employ the sixty-odd women they intend to recruit, so that the men can all marry. Signe manages to score a huge victory over Arlen's culturally programmedgender-bias. A dire situation arises. A vicious Columbian renegade takes Amin hostage along with nineteen civilians on a remote Gaean station. Signe and Arlen, and captains operating with integrated crews, take part in the operation designed to rescue the hostages and prevent the escape of the miscreants: escapees from a Columbian penal work force. The ensuing exceedingly dangerous mission, which produces radical changes in Danner's life, also results in Signe's achieving a disquieting accession of new self-knowledge, and in Arlen's facing and accepting the consequences to his emotional balance of risking the fall in battle of a warrior-wife who fights in the forefront of any action. This action-filled narrative forms the third novel in a series of nine works portraying an ongoing saga of futuristic action, adventure and romance.

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Chapter One

Seated alone on a bridge normally occupied by four spacer-fighters, a statuesque female athlete stared into screens depicting star-strewn infinitude. Short, competently styled, silvery hair framed a still-youthful face indelibly marked by personal sorrow. Faint lines etched by the heavy burden of command borne by the warrior-woman during a bitter, sanguine, seemingly interminable war--a conflict only recently ended--rendered the her aspect all the more intriguing. Even though Signe looked older than her thirty-seven Earthyears, on this momentous day an inner excitement lent her always-vibrant expression a special, magnetically appealing warmth.

Eyes blue as the fabled sky of a lost paradise gazed into star-emblazoned blackness. An enormous turquoise planet dominated the view, hanging in majestic splendor just above the woman's seeming horizon. Dyson, a rocky satellite shrouded in an obscuring reflective veil of noxious atmosphere, appeared to the right of the huge planet it orbited. In the perception of the watcher, the pale, faintly mottled disc of that uninhabitable moon formed a bland contrast to the magnificence of the massive gaseous body holding it in thrall. A brown spherical planetoid stood out sharply against Dyson's creamy brightness. Barren, airless Wheeler contrasted markedly with its cloud-wrapped primary. Unwinking stars bedecked the black deeps, lighting with ghostly radiance the panoramic sprawl of the wheeling galaxy.

One of those stars, invisible to the naked eye owing to its distance from the sun ruling this star-system, counted among its satellites the body which long ago spawned the spacefaring race from which the viewersprang: a race indigenous to a water-rich planet so far removed in space and time as to seem mythical as Eden in the mind of this hardy descendant of Earth-born pioneers.

A dark object loomed in the foreground of the warrior's view: the potato-shaped rock within the Glaser Group, on which Johann landed the Flagship well over an Earthcentury ago. Beholding the huge vessel capable of interplanetary flight--the antique artifact that now constituted her home, and would shortly form the nucleus of a new colony--Signe sighed aloud. Ruminatively, she reviewed all that she so impetuously agreed to give up when she succumbed to the irresistible appeal of the radical proposal hatched during a Eureka flash of inspiration by her erstwhile archenemy. It's working closely with old and immeasurably dear friends that I'll miss, not the dictatorial power I wielded in Gaea, she acknowledged a shade bleakly.

The memorable face of her well-loved foster brother, who she knew still ardently desired to wed her, shimmered in her interior vision, producing sharp emotional pain. That image swiftly faded as another likeness rose unsummoned to set her heart fibrillating. An aristocratic visage more striking than handsome--an arresting countenance projecting vibrancy as intense as hers, while radiating an aura of command as powerful as her own--displaced that of Terence.

Vivid memories of pivotal events experienced by the Columbian leader swirled out of a mind recently subjected to a most unnerving experiment. For the brief span in which she dwelled on those, Signe became the man she loved: thought his thoughts, and lived a slice of his life. Involuntarily, the warrior shivered. Exerting all her power of will, she banished those disturbing recollections of the mind-merge.

As always when she recalled the interim between her capture by Arlen and this day set for her marriage with that erstwhile foe, she plunged into a phantasmagoric whirl of images: some traumatic, some intensely pleasurable, some poignantly bittersweet. Still-profound astonishment suffused the peerless warrior as she reviewed her first meeting with the formidable antagonist whom she had fought to a draw over the seven Earthyears of the war in space.

Chills coursed down her spine as she remembered the shock, outrage, and savage anger flaying her woefully stressed psyche during her unwilling participation in a unique experiment: a process whereby Arlen used a device of his own invention to merge her mind with his. In retrospect, she again struggled vainly against the power of an irresistible compulsion to bring to the forefront of her consciousness any memory her captor demanded that she recall. The near-despair produced when Arlen wrested from her the coordinates giving the location of Johann's mobile stronghold resurfaced with haunting clarity.

Grimly, Signe focused once again on the most traumatic experience of her entire life: the savage gang rape she endured seventeen Earthyears earlier at the hands of three Columbian Third Corpsmen. Arlen's final command precipitated me into reliving that vicious assault exactly as it originally happened! she raged, momentarily succumbing to the same white-hot wrath that had consumed her as she emerged from the mind-merge. That upsurge of hot ire swiftly faded as the beneficial consequences of a surpassingly ghastly experience replaced the soul-searing visualization. Arlen lived my agony even as he forced me to relive it, she reminded herself. He suffered mental pain equaling mine. We achieved so complete an understanding, each of the other, during that eerie fusion of our minds, that we ended by falling in love!

A welter of conflicting emotions relentlessly assaulted the former Commander of the Gaean rebel force. Without conscious thought, she thrust a hand through the short, abundant hair turned permanently silver by the dual trauma of the gang rape and the nearly fatal illness deliberately caused by her chief assailant: one Javis. Impotent anger at the sole surviving perpetrator of the atrocity flared redly, as Signe dwelled on a tragic consequence of the brutal attack. I lack the ability to bear my husband a child! she railed. He'll never sire another. I can't give the man I love--the partner I'm about to marry--a son to replace the boy who died during my raid on Arlen's headquarters!

For a fleeting few seconds, surreally vivid fragments of the most harrowing experience of Arlen's life swirled up to constrict her heart. I know what he thought during that dual bereavement that I lived as if it were happening to me. I likewise know why he willingly endured the hellish suffering his forcing himself to relive the deaths of his wife and son provoked.

My captor's unique experiment freed two former foes of direly erroneous perceptions of past events. What we learned during the mind-merge enabled us to forge a mutually acceptable peace. Our historic accord ended a bitter war of seventeen Earthyears' duration, and launched Arlen and myself into our present joint endeavor. Look to the future! the woman still woefully scarred in her psyche adjured herself fiercely as her heart hammered. Not on misfortunes that can't be remedied!

Peace with honor, the hard-muscled warrior exulted as she forcibly wrenched her thoughts off both Arlen's personal tragedy and her own. A new challenge awaits both of us, she reminded herself. Lines of strain smoothed out, and a smile transformed the handsome oval face.

Swordsman of legendary prowess, martial artist, expert strategist, military leader who wielded dictatorial power during the entire seventeen-Earthyear span the war had lasted, the silver-haired athlete wryly contemplated a most ironic circumstance. I owe my current status as a warrior world leader in large measure to the hatred I harbored for those three thrice-damned rapists, she acknowledged grimly. That hatred engendered my fanatical determination to hone my martial skills to perfection, so as to exact revenge. For seventeen Earthyears, I've lived certain that I'd never be fit to marry. What prodigies of persuasive eloquence Arlen achieved that night he offered me his personal reparation for the damage those accursed predators caused!

Deliberately relaxing the guard that the archetypical Gaean habitually maintained over any impulse to indulge in erotic fantasizing, she grew aware that quivers spontaneously occurred within her feminine depth as the satisfying visualization of her first experience of physical intimacy spread across her interior vision. Smiling to herself, she admired anew the manner in which the brilliant Columbian physicist, inventor, physician, and psychologist circumvented the insidious psychological effects left by the heinous assault. I still can't believe that Arlen succeeded in persuading me to engage in sexual intercourse with him, the bride-to-be marveled. My self-appointed therapist's taking me to bed cured me of my phobic impulse to strike out the instant a man touched me. My consciousness didn't dissolve in a red haze of blind anger. I didn't slay my first and only caring lover in an instinctive, reflexive action. That fear no longer haunts meno longer dooms me to a single life!

Shuddering as memories of the savage assault that had so traumatized her again intruded into her awareness, Signe drew a wholly accurate conclusion. If Arlen had dropped his full weight on me as I lay on my back, I'd most assuredly have panicked. I'd have killed him instantly, the highly trained martial artist acknowledged as inconceivably bitter hatred again suffused her. But having experienced all that those three bastards did to me when he lived my memories, he knew exactly what would trigger the phobia. He managed to avoid sparking any blind, reflexive response. I'm all but cured. At least, I am with him. Able to marry

Resolutely, Signe forced the old, incomparably corrosive wrath out of her mind. Don't dwell on the origin of the phobia! she chided herself. Don't! Logan and Heath both died by your hand. Arlen agreed to deliver Javis your challenge. At some point in time, you'll get to drive your blade in that thrice-damned instigator of the assault. Stay focused on the marvelous notion that your life's beginning anew. Rejoice that our once mutually hostile worlds lie at peace, and that today, two former enemies begin a new life together!

Signe's reflections shifted to her initial rejection of Arlen's proposal of marriage on the basis of her unyielding insistence that any union she entered must of necessity be a partnership of equals. Her pulse quickened as she recalled his intense mental struggle to find satisfying work in which two military dictators could share. Fierce satisfaction gripped her as she remembered the moment when Arlen conceived the stunning idea of founding the Interworld Corps with themselves as co-commanders, of neutralizing Johann's magnificent vessel by employing it as the immobilized nucleus of a new colony independent of both Columbia and Gaea, and of training an integrated force of veterans to keep the peace between two worlds incorrigibly distrustful of each other.

Savoring the unwonted glow of happiness which had enveloped her during the past fourweek, the soon-to-be-married warrior smiled to herself even as she scanned her screens with practiced eyes, and watchfully monitored the data displayed on the complex panel forming the command center of the military ship armed with the irreproducible, Earth-built weaponry.

The mind running on a dual track strayed to the memory of summoning Conor, Morgan and Wong, and infusing all three of those veteran captains with enthusiastic devotion to a new goal equal in importance to that achieved at such a high cost in lives. Bittersweet joy accompanied her recalling the conference in which she informed Terence that the power she wielded over their world, she now conferred on him, and that henceforth Gaea would be governed by a fully independent First Minister. She remembered thinking as she observed her associate's shock, that if she had not endured that ghastly violation which so changed her, she would now be Terence's wholly Gaean wife.

That reflection inevitably summoned the image of Arlen's tall, commanding person striding towards her on the screen of her interior awareness. That memory provoked a clamorous mental exclamation: How unconventional a life I've led! How far I've risen, to reach out and hack history into a new shape with my sword-hand, my stolen ships, and my vision! And the most challenging task ever to face me looms ahead. What a wondrous change that pivotal encounter with my archfoe wrought in my life!

Peace. Even as Signe savored the word, she sighed anew. Having attained peace, I suddenly realize I'm not fitted for it, she admitted, nowise afflicted by self-delusion. I'd have found it soul-deadening to labor incessantly at an onerous administrative job: one offering no danger, no chance of seeing action, no comradeship with fighters. Leading a world at peace would equate with stagnation, for me. No need in that setting for my highly developed martial skills.

Copyright © 2007 Mary Ann Steele

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