The Confederation had dropped shift several hours ago, and was now moving at sublight speeds parallel to the Pomerium Line. The McLuhan rode off its starboard quarter, matching speed, and visible from where Imbrahim sat if he turned his head and looked out the briefing room viewports. Visible, but barely. There were no ports from which light could spill out into the deep night of space, nor navigation beacons blinking on and off to signal its presence. The hull was jet black, looking like some sort of articulated sea urchin with the huge bulb of a Pearson FTL and a cluster of a half-dozen sublight engines fastened to its stern. Sensor and scanning antennae bristled from it in all directions, rather threatening in appearance, but lethal only for the information they could gather for use against the enemy. Imbrahim shuddered, remembering.
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.