He realized he’d made an error in assuming the holos he’d seen of her were old recordings.
An understandable mistake, given that the woman seated at the desk in the office seemed far too
young to be the notorious Captain Jhordel. He stepped back a pace and re-examined the ID plate
beside the hatch, then looked again at the woman who was engrossed in the contents of a com-link
file. He would have believed her a junior officer but for the braid on each of her epaulettes: four
silver bands on each shoulder to mark her rank as ship’s master.
She was slight, to the point of almost seeming delicate, and looked as though she could not
have been more than thirty. But rejuv could make a woman of sixty look half those years. Often
there were telltale signs, but Jhordel had none of them. No faint discoloration to the whites of her
eyes. None of the unusual blush to the skin. And her face did not have that pasty, fleshy, baby-soft
look that some rejuvs acquired.
“Are you going to stand out there all day, Commander?”
He started, glanced up at her and blinked. She gave him a measured look in return, clearly
sizing him up with that one quick survey. He cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Commander
Nathan Imbrahim,” he said, snapping off a quick salute. “Naval Intelligence.”
He expected her to laugh and make the tired old joke about Naval Intelligence being an
oxymoron. But she merely frowned and examined him again, more closely, thoroughly, and then
seemed to dismiss him altogether. She turned back to the com-link.
“Sit,” she said gruffly, not looking up. There was steel in that order; and it was immediately
clear to him she was not the sort to countenance disobedience. So he sat.
Her voice, he noted, was thick, hoarse, like she had been inhaling smoke for a few hours. Or
shouting. Probably from the drugs, he thought as he settled into the lone seat across from her. He
knew the FS Confederation had just returned from a raiding mission deep inside Unity space. He’d
seen the scars when he’d come in from Earth orbit on board the flitter. Black blemishes, peppering
the surface of the white hull like some sort of fungal disease. Laser blasts, mostly, though there was
evidence the shields had had to absorb more than one hit from anti-matter torps.
Jhordel absently rubbed at her neck, revealing a red, perfectly symmetrical ‘hickey’ beneath
the high collar of her jacket. He had expected to see it, but still a chill ran through him. He found
himself probing self-consciously at the side of his own neck, running his fingertips over the bump
that was still there, where a few weeks earlier he’d borne his own such mark. For spacers it was
like a badge of honor, which they wore proudly wherever they went. It was the mark of the spacers.
And on those who did the deep runs, it was essentially permanent.
Jhordel’s was such a mark, showing signs of recent exposure to the bite of the ‘pumps.’ It
looked as though it might bleed; and that said much about the battle she and her crew had just been
through. A rough one, he ventured. They would have been hooked into the system for long cycles,
bound to those horrid metal leeches that attached to your neck as though they were part of your
flesh, sucking blood from you and pumping it back in. On the return the blood was rich with
oxygen and primed with a virtual pharmacopoeia. All necessary, if you wanted to stay alive while
the g-forces within the ship—despite the gravity dispensators—reached extremes that would render
the unprotected human lifeless in seconds.
He shuddered when he recalled what it felt like, and wondered how they could do it, time
and time again. He had never grown used to it, despite his many jumps; but men and women like
Jhordel went on doing it again and again, running the ship while being crushed into the cocoon of
bladders that surrounded each, and kept conscious by a battery of drugs and mechanisms that left