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“What sort of shocks?”

“Hmm. You ever serve on a ship with a contingent of Gatoi auxiliaries?”

“No. I’ve never even seen one in the flesh. Just heard stories.”

The technician indicated the healing scar running from the corner of her left eye to down below the left ear, and the braces wrapped around her upper-right elbow and lower-right wrist. “Don’t mess with them. Or even talk to them. They’re touchy about their honor.”

“That looks painful.”

The technician had a cocky grin. “I gave worse than I got.”

“I didn’t know Gatoi could be beaten in a straight-on fight.”

“They can’t. But I didn’t rely on strength and speed. I’m not a technician first class for nothing.”

Apama laughed appreciatively, wanting to ask for details but aware of time passing with her orders still at a dead end.

“So I guess you’re wanting the quarterdeck?” the technician added, watching her closely.

“I am. Thanks.”

She plugged a map overlay into the scrip. A floating screen popped up in front of Apama’s left eye, generated by her imbed, and marked a path.

The post wasn’t large, but command hadn’t stinted on its construction. For example, it had covered walkways to mitigate the blast of the sun, each support post molded to depict one of the mythical beasts of the long-lost Celestial Empire. The eaves and roofs of the walkways and the building entrances were elaborated with curlicues in a joyful floral style that set her at ease. The building that housed the quarterdeck boasted sliding entrance doors framed by an augmented-reality waterfall on each side. Crossing the threshold prickled her face with a cool breeze like crossing through a guild portal.

The main room of the quarterdeck’s service lounge was silent and dim except for a figure seated at the welcome desk, reading a book while snacking on pistachio nuts. When the soldier did not look up, Apama gave a cough.

The soldier startled up, spilling half the container of nuts. “Dyusme! What in the saints-forgiven hells are you doing sneaking in like … Oh. Sorry, Lieutenant.” They leaped to their feet and saluted quite unnecessarily.

“I’m reporting in. Here’s my scrip.”

“We don’t get transfers down here.”

“And yet here I am.”

The soldier—a specialist by rank—reluctantly accepted the scrip and slotted it into the security cube with their lower-right hand.

“This place seems quiet,” Apama said, just to say something.

“It usually is,” remarked the specialist in a morose tone, gaze flicking toward the doors through which Apama had so untimely entered. “I usually get a lot of studying done. Hoping to make senior specialist this go-round.”

They waited in awkward silence until the specialist frowned, opened a virtual keyboard, and tapped into it. “No orders in our queue for you, Lieutenant.”

“There’s no orders for me?”

“No. Transfers always go straight to the station. This post is for local liaison and cargo routings. Are you sure you’re at the right place?”

She wasn’t sure at all. Nothing made sense to her about the cursory nature of the orders or the way they’d been sprung on her after she’d thought she was headed to a ship squadron like everyone else in her cohort. It had been arbitrary and sudden.

The doors whisked aside. A person hustled in wearing the insignia of a lieutenant senior grade, the swagger of a lancer pilot, and the welcoming smile of a jolly happy soul.

“Ei! You must be Apama At Sabao. Sorry I’m late. Meant to be here before but I got hung up running errands. Saints alive! Have you ever tried to buy malted barley in a slack-jawed town like this one?” He halted in front of Apama and stuck out his lower right hand. “I’m Abigail Ca Konadu, adjutant to strike squadron leader Commander Ir Charpentier, who you’ll come to know by her call sign, Nails. Sorry I’m late. Oh, wait, I said that already. Come with me, Lieutenant.”

Apama grabbed her kit bag and followed him out. Ca Konadu trotted instead of walked, so Apama trotted alongside, kit bag thumping on her back.

“There’s a gunship waiting for us. You can call me Gail, by the way. Gale Force is my call sign because I talk a lot. Never mind. Here we are.”

They passed into the support zone for a landing pad where a gunship sat in vertical lift position. The mighty rim of the gas giant around which the moon orbited was nudging up over the horizon, an astonishing sight Apama had no leisure to savor.

A senior chief gestured impatiently. “Move! Our lift window is closing.”

They pounded up the ramp. Gunships weren’t troop transports, and yet a bewildering number of passengers and crew were crammed on board. Apama got split away from her companion and stuck on a bench between the fragrant sack of malt and a rather handsome young Gatoi auxiliary. Even having only two arms he had a lean, powerful symmetry and grace of form. The striking appeal of his facial features was emphasized by the almost indiscernible pattern gleaming beneath his skin. When he caught her checking him out he blushed and turned toward the Gatoi sitting on his other side. He spoke in a language she could not understand, and the other Gatoi glanced at her and laughed. A moment’s scrutiny of the hold counted eleven of the savage fighters, who were generally assigned out in eleven-person units called an arrow. After what the technician had told her it seemed rude and also dangerous to try to talk to any of them, much less attempt to examine the fascinating neural patterns all Gatoi had. So she didn’t.

Lieutenant Ca Konadu was strapped in across the hold next to the senior chief, the two chatting up a storm as if they were old acquaintances. For Apama, the sack of malt and the auxiliary were equally silent companions as the gunship launched for its five-hour journey to the orbital station. She popped in earplugs and dozed, thankful to be headed at long last for her final destination.

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