Silent Service


Captain Kate Landay literally died for duty's sake...and that was only the beginning of her story.

It's a time of many changes, but Explorer ship Captain Kate Landay is about to have more than she expects. On her way home from what should be her final mission, she becomes caught up in a sector-wide coup. She's accused first of insubordination, and then of treason, for refusing to sacrifice her ship and her crew to cover up a superior officer's ...

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Silent Service

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Captain Kate Landay literally died for duty's sake...and that was only the beginning of her story.

It's a time of many changes, but Explorer ship Captain Kate Landay is about to have more than she expects. On her way home from what should be her final mission, she becomes caught up in a sector-wide coup. She's accused first of insubordination, and then of treason, for refusing to sacrifice her ship and her crew to cover up a superior officer's actions.

In the harsh regime of the Sovereignty, "Questioning" is a euphemism for torture. Afterward Landay's clinically dead body is transferred, in stasis, from the penal facility at New Brixton through an interplanetary Gateway to a world reserved for exiled criminals. Her closest friend and long-time ship's surgeon accompanies her, and once on the other side Dr. Amy Salter restores Landay to life and health.

Restoring her spirit may be a larger task. But Landay has little time for post-traumatic adjustments, because the world on the Gateway's other side harbors two earlier exiles she never expected to see again.

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Editorial Reviews

Astrid Kinn
Silent Service is a meticulously written science fiction thriller that contains all the elements of a rip-roaring adventure - thrills, chills, and a little romance on the side.
Romance Reviews Today
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780595205615
  • Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/6/2001
  • Pages: 255
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 0.66 (d)

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Chapter 1

It was so quiet now. Kate Landay lay still, and listened to the blessed silence after the relentless questions, and savored the absence of pain.

Was she conscious, or was this a dream? Or was she dead, and this her first moment of after-life? Right now she didn't care. Later, if there was to be a "later," the curiosity that had been landing her in difficult situations all her life would no doubt kick in; but for the moment she wanted nothing except to be left as she was.

That, of course, was too much to ask. She felt a touch that was human, or at least flesh against her flesh; she heard a voice speaking, that of another female. A voice that was familiar, that she'd never expected or even hoped she might hear again.

"Kate. Kate, don't try to answer me. I'm monitoring you, I'm watching how you react when you hear me. You can go back to sleep in a just a minute, but I need you conscious for a few scans. Unless you're in pain--and you shouldn't be--just relax, just rest. You're safe now, and they didn't do anything to you that I can't fix."

Amy's voice. Amy who had been at her side since Kate Landay was a plebe, a whole career and considerably more than half a lifetime ago.

It really was all right, then; the lack of tactile sensation below her neck must be due to her body's being immersed in regenerative gel. Somehow she had survived, although she couldn't imagine how or why.

"Dr. Salter?" Landay heard a second voice, this one masculine but also familiar. Familiar, yet so long absent from her life that for a moment she couldn't place it--or perhaps just didn't want to place it. And since she couldn't turn her head toward the sound, performingthe incredibly difficult task of opening her eyes seemed pointless. "How is she?"

"Conscious, which means you shouldn't be here," Salter answered, with acid in her tone. But it sounded like forced disapproval, as if she said what a physician was supposed to say from habit rather than from real inclination. "But by now she's recognized your voice; see there?"

Salter would of course be indicating the changes in her patient's brain activity, and the man who'd come into the room (or compartment? were they on a ship, or still on the Gateway planet, or somehow back on Earth?) would be looking at the monitor and understanding the readouts and nodding almost absently. His eyes would be on Landay's nude body as she lay suspended in the regen tank, and what he must be seeing would be disturbing even to a person who'd once served as a Ranger in the Sovereignty's defense forces.

Would he be revolted, not just distressed? Landay wondered that almost idly. It had been so long, and her damaged body still had such a dim and tiny spark of life within it, that although she'd clearly just reacted to his presence she couldn't claim to be feeling excited about it. She wasn't feeling much of anything, physically or emotionally, because right now she simply wasn't capable of doing so.

But she heard him when he spoke again, of course, and his voice held neither revulsion nor the pity that would have been worse. He said in a deceptively calm tone that she remembered well even after the passing of two decades in Terran time, "Looks like it was close, Doctor. I guess I almost wasted all those favors I called in."

"Close? Close doesn't count, Joe." Amy Salter uttered a gusty sigh. "She still looks like hell, but she's going to be fine. Kate, you can go back to sleep now. Everything checks out."

"Pleasant dreams," Joseph Costigan added softly, and Landay could have sworn that his fingertips brushed against her cheek as she drifted away into comfortable darkness.

* * * *

"What happens now, Doctor Salter?" Costigan waited until he was certain that the woman in the regen tank could no longer hear him before he asked that question. Kate Landay was still now, with peace on her face, and that was an improvement over the way she'd looked yesterday when she'd been brought through the Gate. Then her face had been lined with agony she'd no longer been capable of feeling, but that had distorted her features for so long before it ended that her muscles remembered and held their positions even after clinical death had given her release.

She still looked awful, there was no denying that, but already she was healing. The body he'd once known so intimately was twenty years older now, even if she hadn't been savaged inside and out by the Questioners' procedures she would still have been changed by time's passing alone--but he could see that she'd remained very much the athletic woman he remembered. Still slender from rigorous physical training, not from vain self-starvation, he thought now as he noted the contours of muscle that were redefining themselves as the regenerative gel caused her body to remember what its tissues had been like before the Questioners began with her. In this far-off place beyond the Gate he hadn't seen even her image, not once in the twenty years since he had come through that portal himself as refugee and exile; but every line of the form in that tank was familiar to him nonetheless, she had matured but she hadn't truly changed.

Not physically, anyway. Nor emotionally either, he suspected, or she wouldn't be here now in this condition. But would the ordeal from which she was now recovering alter her in anything like the ways that his own experience with Sovereignty justice had changed him?

He could only wonder, because her new life hadn't yet begun. Wouldn't begin until Salter took her out of that tank, until Landay stood again on her own legs (weak and uncertain as those of a Terran horse's foal, if all the post-regen tales he'd heard were true) and let the healing gel be washed from her re-grown skin. Coming out of the tank and showering away the last glistening coating was often compared to the rebirth of ancient legend, and while Costigan was thankful he'd never had that experience himself he suspected the comparison might be an apt one.

The life Kate had known was over, yes. The body in which she had lived her first forty-three years was to all intents and purposes gone, destroyed as punishment for the offense she'd been accused of committing against the Sovereignty and in hopes of gaining the Questioners information about her suspected cohorts. The body Costigan saw now was a new one, growing from the pattern of the other but sharing only the most basic of its structures.

Brain, spinal cord, skeleton, major internal organs. Even the latter group of items would of course have been damaged by the energies to which the Questioners had subjected her, but they never harmed a victim's brain. They had wanted her to know, because without knowing there could be no true punishment; and they had wanted her to be able to communicate, even to the last moment.

Amy Salter was straightening at last from the regen tank's control pad, and she was working her shoulders and sighing with relief. She asked acerbically, "Since when am I 'Doctor Salter' to you, Joe? We never liked each other much, I realize; but we've known each other forever, for gods' sake!"

"I didn't dislike you, Amy." Costigan looked his old rival over, and he made no attempt to conceal the fact that he was doing so. "Kate hasn't changed much in twenty years, but you certainly have."

"If you mean that I've learned how to open my mouth and say what's on my mind, you're right. I had to learn that, I found out fairly early in my first shipboard assignment that if I didn't kick ass when it needed kicking I'd never be able to get Explorer ship crews or Rangers or anyone else I had to take care of to take me seriously. And you sure as hell can't treat a patient who doesn't accept that you're a real doctor, so I just bit the bullet as the old saying goes and started playing the role. And after awhile it started to come naturally." Salter had regen gel on her forehead, a glop that had landed there at some point when she'd found it necessary to touch her patient and had then inadvertently touched her own face. It was harmless, of course; it didn't act on any organism that didn't need its help, but it was messy and she fastidiously wiped it away.

"Kate always told me I didn't really know you," Costigan acknowledged. "And that was true, you were in medical school most of the time that she and I were together; but I've got to admit, I never thought you'd last a year on active duty. Not from what I did see of you then."

"And you still didn't like me very much. But that's old news, Joe." Salter gave him a tired smile. "Now we both get out of here and let her sleep, if that's what you meant when you asked me what happens next. She's perfectly safe, if there are any problems at all the tank will alarm and I'll be back in here inside of a minute. She's progressing beautifully--I expect to have her out of there in a week at the most, possibly in as little as four days. But you know as well as I do that regen's a completely individual process, my job's to monitor and make sure that nothing interferes. Her body and the gel interacting are doing all the real work, she only needed me to set up the protocol correctly and get it started."

"I mean after the regen's completed, Amy." Costigan's gray eyes met Salter's dark ones, and although his tone was matter of fact his gaze was a demand. "I know something else about people who come back from injuries severe enough to cause clinical death, I know that I may not have done her a favor by pulling her out of there and that you may not be doing her a favor by giving her back a healthy body. It's bad enough when the person who's regenned got hurt in an accident, or was injured in a battle ... I never heard of bringing anyone back from a torture death before. Do you think she's going to make it?" He paused, and swallowed so hard that his throat moved visibly. "I don't mean is her body going to recover, I mean is she going to make it?"

Salter turned away from him then, and looked at her patient. She studied Kate Landay carefully, as if this woman were simply an intriguing case and not the closest friend of her entire adult life. At last she sighed, looked up at Costigan again, and grinned a small and rather crooked grin. She said softly, "That's up to her, Joe. And in a way it's just as much up to both of us, don't you think? We're all she has now, there's nothing left of her old life here."

"Or of yours," Costigan said, realizing that fact for the first time even though it should have been plain to him from the moment when he'd asked Amy Salter if she would be willing to do this. "You could have stayed on the other side, Amy. You weren't convicted of any crime, you came through that Gate voluntarily--but you left everything familiar behind, too, and now you can no more go back than Kate can."

"Or than you can." Their eyes met again, and this time they locked in a moment of complete understanding. "We're stuck with each other, Joe. You, and me, and Kate. But then that's nothing new, is it?"

* * * *

If the Gate had been predictable, Amy Salter reflected as she scanned Kate Landay's body for the hundredth or more time since she'd come through that portal with her friend's stasis tube five days earlier, this haven would not have been available to them or to any of the thousands of other humans who lived here. Some scientists believed it was the far past or distant future of the barren Class M planet from which it periodically opened to a topographically similar, but far more hospitable, world; some theorized it was the same planet in a parallel universe, in another dimension; while others said it was simply very far away, perhaps in another galaxy within the same universe and the same time period inhabited by present-day Earth and its allies and its enemies. In any case the Gate opened without regularity, usually several times during each Terran-reckoned year but not in any predictable pattern; and it had been known to go dormant for months at a time, in fact its longest dormant period since its discovery had lasted a worrisome fifteen months. That was why instead of using the Gate for commercial travel between--dimensions? time epochs? galaxies?--whatever, after an initial period of exploration the Diet had decided that no one would be sent through whom society might actually want to get back.

There was precedent for this sort of thing, plenty of it. Salter had studied human history as had any educated citizen, she knew about Australia--about the first colonies on the moons of Saturn--about the mines of New Siberia. And putting a prison colony, or sociological garbage dump to be more accurate in this case, beyond some kind of energy barrier or time portal wasn't a new idea either; she had read the fiction of Heinlein and other early speculative writers, she knew that such a "coventry" wasn't a brand new concept. It had been especially useful five years after the Gate's discovery, though, when the Diet had been obliged to figure out what to do with the remnants of a defeated rebel fighting force and that force's associated civilians. Dumping them through the Gate and figuring that they had a reasonable chance of staying alive in the world beyond it had been a way to treat such survivors of the Alba Five civil war as Joseph Costigan with some semblance of compassion; and of course before and since then many other undesirables had been similarly dumped. Once on the other side they weren't coming back, the high security installation on the Gateway world made sure of that; and it was beneficial to society to have a means of getting rid of people who couldn't or wouldn't be rehabilitated after having committed crimes, since now it was no longer legal to execute miscreants of any kind.

It was no longer legal, but at times it was done by de facto means. Amy Salter knew that for certain now, she had seen the evidence when Kate Landay's body had been released from the Questioners' section at the New Brixton Security Facility on Gateway. "Committed suicide during questioning by authorities," the death record had said; that was what Landay's family had been told, and even Salter would have been expected to believe it if she hadn't been summoned into the office of New Brixton's commander and if once there she hadn't been greeted by the sight of a stasis tube floating on antigrav pads in front of that officer's ornate desk.

Kate had been inside that tube, or what remained of Kate at least. In spite of her years of practice as a military physician, Amy Salter had looked through the transparent lid and had been obliged to swallow vigorously several times in order to keep herself from vomiting.

And yet at the same time she had wanted to shout with gladness, because there was still the potential for life in that tube. Clinical death, yes; but by definition that could be reversed, her friend hadn't yet gone to a place from which she could not be reclaimed. And then the commander of New Brixton had been speaking to Salter, had been telling her that if she wanted to accompany her patient and commanding officer's body into exile beyond the Gate she would be allowed to do so.

Someone over there wanted this woman badly. If Amy refused to go along, the prison commander continued, before she could leave here she would have to part with her memory of this conversation. The person who wanted Captain Landay was making it worthwhile for the Diet's appointees to accommodate his request; never mind how, never mind why. And that person said that Dr. Salter would recognize him if they were allowed to communicate with each other.

Amy had agreed, numbly because this was overwhelming news coming on top of her friend's arrest and torture and now temporary, but potentially permanent death. The New Brixton commander had ordered a commlink to be set up between his office and that of someone he called "my counterpart on the other side." And within seconds she'd found herself staring into the familiar face of Joseph Costigan, twenty years older than she remembered him but unmistakably Joe.

"Will you come with her?" was the only question he'd asked.

For Amy Salter to answer in the affirmative would mean the end of her career, the end of her life as she'd always known it. A story of some sort would be concocted, given out to the press, told to her few remaining distant relatives back on Terra and to her friends and Explorer colleagues ... a story that would have to tie in somehow with Kate Landay's supposed suicide.

Whether or not those who knew her would believe that tale wasn't Salter's problem. She did feel sorry for Kate Landay's family; Kate had such a thing, and while it was no storybook ideal her people cared about her and they would grieve for her. So, of course, would Kate's lover of the past ten and more years. But the only person who would really have grieved at losing Amy Salter lay dead in a stasis tube beside her, so giving Costigan an answer to his question hadn't been difficult at all.

She'd only asked, "Can you provide me with the facilities I'll need to restore her, Joe? If you can't then there's no point to this, I won't bring her through the Gate and then lose her anyway."

He had promised her the necessary medical technology, and he had delivered. And now Kate Landay, no longer Captain Landay of the Explorers although she might or might not realize that fact yet, was whole again in body and was carefully easing her weight onto her feet for the first time.

The structures that had supported her when she'd walked into New Brixton's interrogation unit almost a Terran month earlier were gone, destroyed. The flesh and bone she wore now was almost entirely new, yet it had the tactile memories of that which it had replaced. Landay was as weak as any human who'd been inactive for medical reasons over a lengthy period of time, but she wasn't going to have to learn to control her body all over again; she leaned on Salter's arm for support and for balance, but she did so with the air of a cadet gaining artificial gravity "sea legs" rather than with that of a toddler attempting to walk for the first time.

Joseph Costigan watched them on a security monitor from his office elsewhere in Government House, and although he felt a few twinges of guilt at invading their privacy by doing so he didn't seriously consider delegating the task or dispensing with it altogether. Covertly observing new arrivals was a necessary protocol, it simply had to be done; and if anyone was going to watch Kate when she was this vulnerable, then at least he was going to do it himself.

He saw two human females of similar age, both in their early forties now. Amy Salter was an African woman of medium height; her black hair not yet graying, her face strong-featured with dark eyes that watched her friend with a familiar combination of affection and relief and professional concern. Kate Landay (how she had hated it when some self-appointed genius back at the Defense Academy had corrected her name on a class list once, making her into "Katherine Landry"! Costigan recalled with a smile) was of mixed European and Native American ancestry; a petite woman who didn't look as if she could possibly pick up a blaster rifle--let alone use it with appalling accuracy. Larger humans paired with her for the Academy's hand-to-hand combat courses had quickly learned just what a disadvantage overconfidence really could be, and Costigan himself had discovered when he'd been her training partner that she could compensate very well for her lack of reach. That small frame of hers carried steely muscles, she was a damned sneaky fighter, and her reflexes were swift.

Oh, yes, she could fight. Well enough to lead a Ranger unit, although he now knew that she'd switched service branches after....

No, he wasn't going to think about that right now. He was going to sit here instead and be glad that Amy Salter was the kind of physician who remembered that stimulating regrowth of a patient's lost hair was a very useful way to boost that patient's morale during recovery from devastating injuries such as those Kate Landay had endured. Kate's hair color was a warm brown, highlighted with hints of red or gold depending on the spectrum of light that happened to be playing on it at any given moment. Just now nothing like that was evident, of course, because the lights under which she moved were cold and unforgiving; but she looked much better with that crop of short hair than she'd looked with just frazzled wisps decorating her scarred scalp, a few days earlier when he'd seen her in the regen tank.

Kate's eyes were hazel, and her face was fair-skinned and heart-shaped and--what? Not beautiful, that was a conventional word and Kate's looks weren't conventionally pretty. Yet she had always attracted her full share of attention from those human males who came within her orbit (and from some females, too). She certainly had caught and kept Joe Costigan's interest, when he'd met her during the long-ago time while they were both midshipmen.

She had always looked so completely and confidently alive, that was it. But now she was tentative in a way he'd never seen her look before, except for one time only.

A time he didn't particularly want to remember, but he could do nothing now to squelch that memory. He watched while the woman he'd once regarded as the love of his life made her unsteady way from the regen tank to a hand-held shower nearby, studied her nude body almost dispassionately because not even Kate could be erotically interesting to him while that nauseating gel was still coating her skin ... and he thought of her as he'd first known her, and wondered whether she could remember him as he'd been then with anywhere near the same clarity.

* * * *

Landay's thoughts at the moment were not at all similar to Costigan's. She was biting her lip as her new/old, strange/familiar body protested at being asked to move for what was essentially the first time. It wasn't exactly painful, but it was decidedly not comfortable.

"Here, you're supposed to use the shower seat!" Amy scolded, her tone as acerbic as her supporting touch was gentle. "Sit, now. And let me handle the spray, your job's to just hold still."

"That's about all I can do," Kate answered in disgust. "I can't remember the last time someone had to give me a shower, this is ridiculous."

She wasn't, of course, equating showers shared with Yoshi with this mild humiliation.

Yoshi. Dear god, what had they told Yoshi?

The water was warm on her skin. Until now the gel had kept her from feeling any real sensation wherever it had touched her; and it had enclosed her to her chin, covering even her scalp so that only her face was exposed. She was aware now that this chamber was cool, that she would be comfortable without clothes here only for as long as the water was flowing over her body. The warmth was relaxing, though, and being able to feel anything at all was a pleasure.

Or she should have said, to be able to feel anything except pain. Those memories were still very close. She'd been roused a number of times while in the regen tank, and on each occasion the absence of torment had been less of a surprise than on the last; but she recalled little else about those awakenings. They had been necessary for Amy to configure her treatment correctly, and they'd lasted only as long as was required by that purpose.

Yet she was certain that the first time she had awakened in that tank, someone besides Amy had been with her. Someone dear to her ... a masculine presence.

"Was Yoshi here, earlier?" She knew, somehow, that wasn't the case; but who else could it have been? A male physician or other caregiver, some colleague of Amy's, wouldn't have left this resonance of emotional connection behind him in Landay's mind; and none of the other men with whom she'd felt such closeness could possibly be nearby.

Her adored grandfather was on Terra, and wherever this was it wasn't Earth. Her father had gone out of her life long ago. Her brother (half-brother actually, but all the sibling--and in a sense, all the child--she'd ever had, and therefore more precious to her than were most women's younger brothers) couldn't have been mistaken for anyone else, because if the El'kah'th/human hybrid Clifton Bradley had touched her there would have been nothing vague about the memory. And while it was possible that she, the criminal--the traitor, the cashiered Explorer captain--might have been sent into exile after somehow surviving her ordeal in the Questioners' hands, there was no way Amy Salter had done anything that would have caused the authorities to send her through the Gate too; so she couldn't have heard Joseph Costigan's voice or felt his fingertips brushing against her cheek. Assuming that Costigan was still alive beyond that Gate, of course, and this many years after he'd been sent through it to exile that was a very large and probably unwarranted assumption.

Oh, she was confused! And she hated confusion so much; she'd spent her whole adult life (and her adolescence, and most of her childhood) unraveling mysteries and solving puzzles because to know was her passion.

"There, that's the last of the glop," Amy was saying inelegantly. "There's no warm-air dryer here, I'm afraid; Joe's given us all the essentials but not many of the amenities. So we'll get you dried off the old-fashioned way, and then into some clothes."

"Joe?" Landay asked. Suddenly she was alert. She still couldn't remember much of what she so desperately needed to recall, but at least her perceptions of the present were clear now. She sat up straight, grasped the towel that Salter was about to wrap around her, and began to rub her wet body with as much vigor as she could muster. "Tell me what happened, Amy. I remember a hearing, not a legal court-martial but a closed debriefing. At the end of that I was told I had to be taken to the Questioners, and I expected it to be easy because they were going to use truth dope on me; and I knew as soon as they had the truth I'd be out of there and on my way home to Yoshi. But I woke up from the dope with someone telling me they couldn't get past the barrier in my mind, and that they were going to have to break down that barrier ... and after that.... "Landay shuddered, and for a moment she clutched the towel and closed her eyes.

"Shhh." Salter knelt at her friend's side, wrapped a second towel around her shoulders and put both arms around her. "Of course there wasn't any barrier for them to break down. You told them the truth with and without the serum, but they just didn't want to believe it. So they kept up the Questioning until you died. Clinically, anyway. And then they put your body into stasis, and thank all that's holy they did it soon enough."

"Why did they put me in stasis?" The shudders stilled after a moment, but Landay didn't try to disengage herself from the other woman's arms She leaned against her friend instead, and her eyes remained closed. "Were they going to regen me so they could start all over?"

Now, that was a thought so horrible it hadn't entered Amy Salter's mind. She said honestly, "No, Kate. That wasn't the idea, not at all."

"What, then? I know how far a full Questioning can go before the subject dies, there can't have been enough left for me to live again without the regen no matter what you or anyone else did for me." She put her head down onto Salter's shoulder. She must be getting her friend wet, but right now she didn't care; and Amy didn't seem to care, either. She put up a hand and smoothed Kate's hair instead of trying to move fastidiously away.

"The idea was to send you through the Gate to Joe Costigan," Salter said, and waited a moment when she felt the smaller woman's body stiffen in her embrace. "He's not only survived over here, Kate; he's acquired some kind of power, a lot of influence. Enough so that when he contacted people he knew on the other side--and I know that's supposed to be impossible, but it isn't because I saw him do it!--he was able to get your body released intact into exile instead of having your ashes sent home to your next-of-kin, and he asked me to come with you and do the regen. So of course I did, and now here we are. That was five days ago, you've always been a fast healer."

"What did they tell my family? What did they tell Yoshi?" There was a measurable interval before Landay asked those questions, and when she did so her voice was hushed and reluctant. Whatever the answers were they couldn't be good ones, she already knew that; but still she must ask, and still Salter must tell her.

"They said that you committed suicide to avoid giving the Questioners the information they were seeking." Salter tightened her arms, almost fiercely tucked her friend's head closer into the sheltering curve of her shoulder. "That's what Yoshi's been told, what your family's been told. I'm not sure how they explained not having your body or your ashes to send home, but after Joe contacted me I stopped caring about that because I was busy taking care of you. But I'm sure the bastards thought of something, they always do."

"Yes. They always do." Landay swallowed what sounded like a sob, and one more powerful shudder rocked her body. Then she deliberately lifted her head, pulled back against Salter's arms and waited to be released.

After which she put up her hands and began toweling her hair, nonchalant in her physical nakedness now that she'd successfully covered her painfully exposed emotions. She said, "I remember thinking I heard Joe's voice once, I think it was the first time I woke up in the regen tank. I even thought he touched me, on my cheek because that was about the only place I had available to touch right then. When I woke up later I was sure it must have been a dream ... but he really was there, wasn't he?"

"Yes. I think he had to see you and touch you to make sure he'd really got you away, and that you really were going to live and get well. He hasn't been back since then, but he's called me often." Amy smiled her relief. This was the Kate Landay that she knew, and the one everyone else knew too. She was glad her friend could trust her enough to let her see that other Kate, the vulnerable one who'd rested quivering against her body just a few moments earlier; but getting this woman back had been the whole point of the past five days' efforts.

* * * *

"She's small," a voice said quietly at Joseph Costigan's shoulder. "You realize you haven't told me a damned thing about her, really? But I did expect someone physically larger. I don't see how that little thing ever got through Ranger Basic."

Costigan didn't start, because he had been aware of it when his life partner had entered the room that he fondly referred to as his office. This world beyond the Gate had been occupied by humans for a full generation, so although it was still very much a frontier it now had some fair-sized settlements; and the woman who stood behind his chair was his partner in the leadership of this particular settlement, the oldest and largest one on this planet.

He wouldn't tell Hanna Leone that actually she reminded him of Kate Landay, that their similarities as he perceived the two women were why he'd been attracted to Hanna two decades ago when he had been thrust through the Gate along with 796 other people. That sounded like a huge group, of course; it was enough to populate a village, enough to crew the largest of starships. But it was a pitiful remnant, to be all that remained of the human element of a once-thriving colony.

He'd become that remnant's leader by default, because though the Sovereignty had characterized them as a "rebel force" most were civilians; and although he was only in his early twenties then, he was an experienced military officer. A Ranger, which meant that he was used to small units and dangerous but short-term assignments--he hadn't had the training of a starship command officer or Explorer, and he really didn't know much about organizing a group like that one and getting its members settled into life on a new world. But what else could he do, when they were looking to him and to the several former enlisted men and women among their number for guidance and protection?

And how in bloody hell was he or anyone else supposed to protect them, anyway, when the world to which they'd been so unwillingly sent was already occupied?

The Gate had been open on that day at its widest possible expansion, which was serendipitous because its functions were in no way controllable by the New Brixton staff--and the opening's unusual breadth had at least allowed Costigan's people the doubtful protection of being able to keep together, instead of being forced to form a column whose individuals could be picked off. He'd thought they might be attacked like that immediately, because they had been allowed to bring along food supplies and his notion of what lay beyond was one of deprivation and anarchy. And they had been met at the Gate; met by an armed band, one that had held them there while he and the other former military people had battled their own urges to resist and had firmly controlled those among their civilian charges who had seemed close to panic.

Then Hanna had appeared. She'd been little more than a girl, in those days her much older (and by then reclusive and dying) lover had been the leader of a settlement that had coalesced out of those who had been dumped during the five years since the Gate's discovery.

There hadn't been as many previous arrivals as he had expected there would be, and that was probably why they were far better organized than he'd anticipated. There was a main group, a settled village where families who'd been exiled together had set up rude homes and where couples who'd joined themselves after being exiled had done likewise. There were other, smaller groups--some settled, some nomadic--of people who couldn't or wouldn't fit into the main village. From time to time the more violent of these raided the more peaceful, and that was why (as Hanna Leone had explained to the newly-arrived Joseph Costigan) it had been not only possible but absolutely necessary for those in the main settlement to establish leadership and to create defenses and especially to monitor who or what came through the Gate whenever the damnable thing self-activated. Usually it brought them just a few new citizens-to-be, people who'd done something the societies on the other side of that portal couldn't tolerate and that they themselves couldn't repent of ... but sometimes it brought psychopaths, and while weapons were never officially allowed through they did make it occasionally in spite of all supposed safeguards.

The refugees from the disbanded colony on Alba Five created a major problem for the Gateway world's existing population, because they numbered more than half as many as its main settlement's residents and because they were a cohesive group. Assimilating them quickly was vital, that Hanna Leone had been able to see immediately and that she had recommended to the community's leader. And of course the best way to assimilate them promptly was to combine authorities, for her to bring Joseph Costigan and his comrades together with their local counterparts. The alternative would have been to help them establish their own separate community, and to do that as quickly as possible so that competition for resources couldn't spark conflict between the two groups.

They had chosen to meld their people into one settlement. It hadn't been easy, there had been countless conflicts and arguments for the leaders to mediate or arbitrate. But it had worked, and when the original community's leader had died part way through the process Hanna Leone had settled the succession issue by assuming her dead partner's role and then taking Joseph Costigan as her new mate.

If she hadn't been attractive to him then, Costigan thought now as he turned in his chair and looked up at her after almost two decades of life at her side, he would have been in deep trouble. But although she wasn't like Kate physically--she was taller and more generously built, fuller of breast and broader of hip--she had the same air of being in control of her surroundings, and the same vitality shining in her eyes.

Brown eyes, much darker than Kate's eyes. Black hair, as black as Joe's own. No, she didn't look a blessed thing like Kate Landay except that both were adult human females; but she had the right spark, he had been able to want her and take her and make a life with her all those years ago. And he still cared for her now, if only with the affection of a long-time friend ... and she'd never attached much importance to the physical part of their relationship anyway. When they were younger she had expected him to want her from time to time and probably would have been insulted if he hadn't, but now he no longer touched her in that way and she had never thought it necessary to initiate such contact.

That was one way in which life with Hanna Leone was completely unlike life with Kate Landay. Kate, Joe Costigan recalled with an inward smile, had been the initiator just as often as he had during the long-ago time when they'd been mated. And she had been a tender and enthusiastic lover, although too often distracted even during intimate moments by the demands (both real and perceived) of duty.

Old married couple, or just friends and allies who'd at one time also been lovers? Costigan wondered that briefly about himself and his current partner, as he left his chair and gave her an embrace that was warm and tender but not the least bit sensual. He said, "Kate's little, but don't put your money on that if you ever have to fight her. A lot of people have made that mistake, and not all of them are still around to talk about it."

"I'll bet!" Hanna said, and she kissed his cheek and she laughed. "Be careful, Joe. I don't mind that she's here, I'm glad you got her out. From what you told me, no one's ever had a worse exit from the other side than she did! But now that she is here, she and that friend of hers have got to fit in and make themselves part of what we've built. Either that or they'll have to do what the misfits always have to do, and find a place in one of the villages or among the nomads. If she's a threat to our people here, I'll handle her the same way I've handled all the others. I'll expect you to do the same, and what she was to you twenty years ago had better not make a difference."

Leone drew back with that statement, and looked into Costigan's face without having to look up at him as Kate Landay had always been obliged to do when they stood like this. They measured each other, brown eyes meeting gray eyes in what wasn't quite challenge but had never been full harmony either; and after a time both heads nodded in agreement.

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