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I

The S.R.S. Amaterasu had left Kunitsu Orbit Station 2 less than three hours earlier, and Flight Captain Ghenji Yamato was more than ready to eat when the junior officers wardroom opened at 1600 KMT. He wasnt the first enteringthat would have been most impolitebut he was far from the last when he took his seat halfway down the second table.

Hed barely seated himself when his eyes registered a flash of white, and he glanced up.

The officer who had just entered the mess caught his eyes immediately, not because she was full-figured, which she was not, boyish as her frame was, but because her short-cut hair was pure white, and her pale white face was almost unearthly in its beauty. He almost laughed at the thought. Unearthly? None of them would ever see Earthand probably not even Kunitsuagain for years. Objective years, not subjective, he reminded himself. He found himself still looking at her. For all the white hair, she was probably younger than he was. He couldnt help but stare before he looked down abruptly.

She was ships crewthat was certainand not one of the attack pilots for the mission ahead, because he knew most of them, except for the transfers and replacements, although her hair was cut every bit as short as that of the women pilots in his squadron. Yet...for all that he knew he had never seen her before; there was something about her. He just didnt know what it was. He ate almost mechanically, although he did enjoy the black tea, probably a variant from the Nintoku Islands.

As he left the mess after the meal, he glanced back, but he didnt see the white-haired captain. As he looked to the corridor ahead, leading to the attack operations spacesthere she was, waiting and looking at him. Her eyebrows were also white, as were her eyelashes, but she had deep black eyes and red lips.

Hello, he offered. Im Ghenji Yamato, Flight Captain.

I know. Your name, that is, and your reputation as the monk.

The monk? Ghenji knew the allusion, but wasnt about to admit it.

The flight captain utterly devoted to his duties once hes shipside. She smiled. Im Rokujo. Rokujo Yukionna. She smiled. Im in life-support.

He thought he ought to recognize her name, but he hadnt checked the roster of ships officers. Hed also never paid that much attention to names or where they came from. His educational background had been engineering, but hed been fortunate, if one could call it that, to have been accepted by the service for training as an attack needle pilot. The current tour was his fourth, and, afterwards, hed be eligible for promotion to majorand squadron commander, or the equivalent. With the time-dilation effect, even with military pay discounting, hed even be able to retire, not that hed ever considered that.

Ghenji glanced at her green skinsuitmedicaland the senior captains insignia on the collars of her shipvest. Doctor or technical?

Does it matter? She laughed ruefully. At least you asked. Most of the pilots just assume tech because I look so young.

Youre in charge of...? He thought hed recovered as gracefully as possible.

Very good. Im a recovery specialist, but Im chief of the suspension and support.

A most necessary specialty, especially for attack pilots, he said with a smile. He couldnt have met her before, but the sense of familiarity remained. You didnt study at Edo Institute, did you?

No. Fumitomo, then Heian for my residency.

Why did you decide on the service?

I like the specialty. It fits me, and where else would I get this kind of experience? All planetside suspension facilities are either geriatric wards for the wealthy or holding pens for clone-replacement therapy, and there arent many of the latter.

Ghenji nodded. In a way, its like attack flying. If you want to pilot anything outside the service, all you are is a tram driver...

All in all, they talked for close to two stans before he had to leave to stand an ops-watch, not that doing so meant more than watching the system indicators.

Ghenji didnt see Rokujo the next day, but when he woke the following morning and rolled out of his cubicle, he decided that he would make an effort to encounter her, while he had time to get to know her...even though that was unlike him. But she did fascinate him, perhaps because of the calm, almost unblinking, way she viewed him, as if she were focused on him and him alone.

Still, the Amaterasu would enter deep jump in three days, and in two Ghenji Yamato would climb into a cocoon and be hibernated until the ship re-entered normspace, not that he knew that destination, only that it was in the area disputed by the Mogulate and the Republic. After that, his real tasks would begin.

For all his engineering background, he still found it hard to understand a universe where instantaneousor near-instantaneousinterstellar communications were possible, but where interstellar travel was far slower. It did make for an interesting galaxyand one that required the space service...and one Ghenji Yamatoor other pilots like him.

Despite his interest in Rokujo, with his own duties and schedule, it was just before the evening meal when he saw her standing just outside the officers lounge adjoining the junior officers wardroom.

Good afternoon, Rokujo.

Good afternoon.

I was looking for you earlier, at lunch.

We were running tests, and I didnt get away...

Since seating was not strictly by rank except at the formal mess dinners, they sat together and talked.

You know your names are almost contradictions of who you are, she said, taking a quick mouthful of rice.

I hadnt thought about it. Im an engineer.

Yamato was an emperor, filled with courage, and willing to commit the most treacherous acts possible in search of honor. Ghenji was a schemer and a lover and the first non-divine Shinto romantic heroas depicted by a woman. You certainly have courage, but your honor is that of a monks, and I doubt you could betray anyone.

Thats a fault?

I didnt say that it was, so long as honor doesnt preclude love.

What about you?

Let us just say that I have two natures, hot and cold, and Im always seeking balance while believing in absolutes...

After spending the meal mainly listening and just watching her, Ghenji realized that it was one of the more enjoyable he had spent in a service wardroom in years, if ever.

Unfortunately, afterwards, Rokujo hurried off to deal with some sort of system glitch in the suspension diagnostics, but that, as Ghenji knew all too well, was more than typical for anyone who had to deal with systems. His turn would come once they entered the combat zone.

He turned, debating whether to stay and play speed-chess, when another pilot approached.

I saw you with Captain Yukionna, offered Hotaru, the flight captain in charge of Kama-three.

What about her? asked Ghenji cautiously.

Oh...nothing.

What youre not telling me isnt nothing, replied Ghenji with a grin.

Well...if you want to be with her...dont even think about being with anyone else.

Oh...? For Ghenji, the implications were appealing. Hed never liked it when women, especially officers, played off men against each other. Is that a return flight?

If youre hers, shes yours, and no one elses. Ill see you later.

Ghenji stood, watching. He thought he heard Hotaru murmur something else but he wasnt certain. What was certain was that Hotaru could have said more. There was also no doubt he had no intention of doing so.


LIFE-SUSPENSION L. E. MODESITT, JR. | Federations |