Tanya Huff is a best-selling Canadian science fiction and fantasy author. Following three years in the Canadian Naval Reserve, a year studying forestry, a winter hanging around Universal Studios backlot, studies for a degree in radio and television arts and some time selling sunglasses off a pushcart after budget cuts led to a staff reduction at the CBC, she turned to writing in the mid-1980s.

Beginning with the Novels of Crystal duology, Huff has written a diverse array of series including the highly popular Blood series, which was adapted into the Lifetime television series, Blood Ties. Other series by Huff include the Confederation of Valor military science-fiction novels, the Quarters novels, and humorous fantasies, The Keeper Chronicles.

Tanya's life-long US publisher is DAW books, which moved her into hardcover in 2004 for her new "Smoke" series, a stand-alone spin-off from the "Blood" series. Besides her DAW books, Tanya has written SCHOLAR OF DECAY, a novel set in TSR's Ravenloft universe which was reissued in Fall 2007, and the short story collections, WHAT HO MAGIC, RELATIVE MAGIC, and STEALING MAGIC as well as other numerous eCollections. Huff currently resides in rural Ontario with her partner, fellow author Fiona Patton.

The Better Part of Valor by Tanya Huff

In the thrilling sequel to Valor's Choice, Torin Kerr is separated from her platoon as punishment for telling off a two-star general and tagged to lead the escort for a top-secret mission investigating an unknown, derelict spaceship.

What should be a simple exploratory mission is complicated by the fact that Kerr is saddled with a vainglorious Confederate officer, a ragtag group of Marines, a salvage expert eager to make a profit off of the ship, and a pushy reporter who invited herself along the expedition.

Kerr does her best to keep control of her crew and her charges, but as soon as they enter the ship, the unit becomes trapped inside with few supplies and without any outside communications. As Kerr leads the group to find an exit, she discovers that there is another group trapped in the ship with them: the Others, the Confederation's sworn enemies.

Is this a trap laid by the Others? Or is there an unknown alien species that is a danger to them all? Kerr must use all of her intelligence and bravery to solve the mystery and save her crew.



  • "This sequel to Valor's Choice, featuring a gutsy, fast-thinking female space-marine protagonist, establishes veteran fantasy author Huff as an acoomplished spinner of high-tech military-sf adventure. For most sf collections."

    – Library Journal
  • "Sure to appeal to David Drake readers and to Huff's legion of fans … Huff mixes grit and black humor with grace. The action doesn't stop once it starts, but it's peppered with laugh-out-loud observations … Huff wins the battle handily. She kicks boredom's butt."

    – Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
  • "Huff's characterization and knowledge of military subculture bring the book to a suspense-filled and rousing finale once again allowing Torin Kerr to shine in her role as the touch, resourceful and supremely competent leader."

    – Locus




"And the moral of the story: never call a two star general a bastard to his face."

Stretching out his regenerated leg, Captain Rose leaned away from his desk and drummed his fingers against the inert plastic trim. "I'm a little surprised you didn't already know that."

"You and me both, sir." Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr stared down at the general's orders on her slate. "You and me both."

"Still, I suppose you could consider it a compliment that General Morris wants you on this reconnaissance mission."

"Yes, sir, but somehow when I think of 'an unidentified alien vessel drifting dead in space,' the word that tends to stick is dead. And I've barely recovered from the last time the general took a personal interest." Before looking up, she cleared her screen with more emphasis than was strictly necessary. "Considering how the diplomatic part of the last mission got redefined as getting our asses kicked, I just hope I can survive what he considers recon."

The captain smiled, pale skin creasing at the corners of both eyes. "You kicked some ass yourself, Staff."

"Yes, sir, I did. Although I admit I had help from a platoon of Marines and Lieutenant Jarret. Both of which," she added, "I wouldn't mind having with me this time."

"Should I authorize an armored unit as well?"

"I wish you could, sir." Hooking her slate onto her belt, Torin drew in a deep breath and accepted the inevitable. She'd made herself memorable to the top brass and would have to live with the consequences—although the little information she had made survive the consequences seem more accurate. "He wants me on the next coreward shuttle. There'll be transportation arranged once I reach MidSector, but he doesn't actually say where I'm going."

"He's a general, Staff. He doesn't have to say. Ours is not to question why."

"Yes, sir. The next shuttle leaves in just under two hours. Unless the general's arranged for me to skip decontamination, I'll have to hurry."

The captain nodded, agreement and dismissal combined. "See that you hurry back, Staff Sergeant. I've got a new First, and he's got a shitload of new recruits he could use your help with. This is a lousy time for you to go gallivanting around the galaxy."

"I'll be sure to mention that to the general, sir." "I'm hoping you're smarter than that, Staff."

"Yes, sir."

"Staff?" She paused, just outside the door's proximity sensor.

"General Morris' parentage aside, it's entirely possible he recommended you for this mission because you're the best person for the job." "General Morris' parentage aside, sir, I never doubted that."

* * *

And it started out as such a good day, Torin growled silently as she walked to the nearest vertical. Admin had finally cleared the files sending Binti Mashona to sniper school, Corporal Hollice was getting a well-deserved promotion to sergeant, a number of the new recruits actually seemed to have arrived with half their brains functioning, and, thanks to the situation on Silsviss, Sh'quo Company was so far down on the rotation that the Others would have to overrun the entire sector before they were sent back out. I should have known something would happen to fuck it up.

*Report to shuttle bay twelve for decontamination in forty-six minutes.*

Years of practice kept her from visibly reacting to her implant's sudden announcement. It hadn't taken Captain Rose long to post her orders to the station system.

A quick glance up and down the vertical showed a cluster of people descending but a clear fall below them all the way to C deck. With every intention of using General Morris' name not only in vain but in any way possible should the necessity arise, Torin dove headfirst down the shaft. The turn in mid-fall slowed her slightly, but she was still moving fast enough to set off the safety protocols when she grabbed the strap and swung out onto the deck.

*Please exercise more caution in the verticals. This is a level one warning.*

Torin tongued in an acknowledgment without breaking stride. She could live with a level one. It took three in a Tenday before the station reported them and she'd be gone long enough that this particular warning would be wiped by the time she returned.

Unhooking her slate, she began locking down her desk as she walked—sealing her personal folders and encrypting the rest to Sergeant Chou's access codes. Anne Chou would be senior noncom for the platoon while she was gone and would at least give Lieutenant Jarret someone he'd already…

"Is it true, Staff?"

She looked down at the Krai private who'd suddenly appeared beside her. Given their difference in height, all she could see was the mottled top of his hairless head which gave no clue at all to the meaning of his question. "Is what true, Ressk?"

"That instead of a promotion and comfy tour at Ventris Station teaching diritics how to survive, General Morris has detoured you to a Recon mission."

"I'm impressed; those orders have been on system for less than ten minutes."

Ressk lengthened his stride to keep up, bare feet slapping against the floor. "I guess once you pull somebody's brass out of the fire they expect you to keep doing it."

"That is the way the universe tends to function." At the lock leading to SRQ, she paused. "You got a reason to be on this level, Ressk?"

"Sergeant Aman wants to see me, Staff. And when I saw you, I thought I'd say…"

The pause lengthened.


His nose ridges flushed. "Could you talk to the general, Staff? Exploring an unidentified alien vessel floating dead in space—that's always been my dream!"

Torin blinked. "You're kidding?"

"No, Staff, I'm not. You know there isn't a sys-op I can't get into. I could be useful on this kind of a mission."

"I don't doubt that, but I'm sure there'll be specialists…"

"I'm faster. If it's a matter of life and death, you're not going to want some specialist…" The word emerged somewhere between an insult and profanity. "…taking their time, doing everything by the book."


"I haven't even read the book!"

*Report to shuttle bay twelve for decontamination in thirty minutes.*

"If I can, I'll talk to Captain Rose before I go."

"Thanks, Staff. You're a real chirtric."

It wasn't every day she was called a delicacy, Torin reflected as she continued toward her quarters, but even if she managed to talk to Captain Rose he'd have no time to speak to the general before the shuttle left the station.

* * *

The captain's Admin clerk agreed to pass the message along. "You do know that captains aren't in the habit of paging two star generals and suggesting they should make use of personnel with what amounts to illegal computing skills, don't you, Staff?"

"Not my problem." Torin thumbed her kit bag closed. "I told him I'd try to talk to Captain Rose. The captain was unavailable, I spoke to you. My conscience is clear." Her slate made a noise somewhere between a snort and a snicker. "You have something to add, Corporal?"

"Just my best wishes for a successful mission and a safe return, Staff Sergeant." "Thank you. Kerr out."

The double tone closing the connection sounded as she glanced one last time around the room, noted both living and sleeping areas would pass at least a cursory inspection, and crossed to the door. The empty sockets of the Silsviss skull on the shelf over her entertainment unit seemed to follow her every move. A couple of the more politically correct Battalion NCOs had objected to having the skull of a sentient species mounted in the Senior Ranks' Mess, so rather than stuff it into a recycler, she'd brought it home.

"Don't look so concerned," she told it. "I'll be back."

*Report to shuttle bay twelve for decontamination in twenty minutes.*

In spite of a crowd on the lower beltway, she made it with seven minutes to spare and could walk across the lounge to the shuttle bay without challenging the belief, widely held by the lower ranks, that sergeants and above controlled time and therefore never had to hurry.

"Staff Sergeant Kerr!"

Torin checked her watch, then turned. His lilac eyes a couple of shades darker than his hair, Second Lieutenant di'Ka Jarret, her platoon commander, rushed around the end of an ugly gray plastic bench and hurried toward her. As incapable of looking awkward as any of his species, he didn't look happy. "Sir?"

"You were just going to leave?" He didn't sound happy either. "The general's orders were specific, sir. I had forty-six minutes to get to decon and you were at Battalion. Captain Rose sent you a copy of the orders."

"I received the captain's transfer, Staff Sergeant," the di'Taykan informed her, drawing himself up to his full height. Torin stared at the pheromone masker prominently displayed at his throat and just barely resisted the urge to crank it up a notch. A small indiscretion some months prior had left her more susceptible to the lieutenant's chemical invitation than she should have been. One night he's a pretty young di'Taykan—one of the most enthusiastically undiscriminating species in the galaxy—and next morning he's her new second lieutenant. There were times Torin thought the universe had a piss poor sense of humor.

Had her time been her own, she could—and would—have waited indefinitely for him to continue. His last declaration had exhibited an indignation junior officers needed to be trained out of—the greater portion of the universe, not to mention the Marine Corps, ticked along just fine without them ever being consulted.

However, as she was currently on General Morris' clock…

"I sent a message as well, sir. Wrote it on the beltway. Station should have downloaded it to your slate by now."

She half expected him to check his inbox. When he didn't, she allowed herself a small smile. "I appreciate the chance to say good-bye, sir. You must have really hauled ass to make it all the way down from Battalion in time."

"Well, I…"

"Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr, report to decontamination at shuttle bay twelve."

"Tell the whole station," Torin muttered, as her name, rank, and destination bounced off the dull green metal walls of the lounge.

"I think they did." The lieutenant's hair and ears both had clamped tight to his skull. "You'll, uh…" When Torin lifted an eyebrow in his general direction, a skill that had been well worth the price of the program, he finished in a rush. "…you'll be coming back?"

"I always plan on coming back, sir." She took a step closer to the decontamination lock. "Every time I go out."

"I know. I mean…"

"I know what you mean, sir." One of the most important functions staff sergeants performed was the supporting of brand new second lieutenants while they learned how to handle themselves in front of actual—as opposed to theoretical—Marines. The realization that this relationship wasn't necessarily permanent, that said support could be pulled out from under them at the whim of those higher up the chain of command, always came as a bit of a shock to the young officers. "During the time I'm temporarily detached from the company, you can have complete faith in Sergeant Chou's ability to handle the platoon."

"I do." He opened his mouth to continue, then closed it again. After a moment's thought, he squared his shoulders, held out his hand, and said only, "Good luck, Staff." "Thank you, sir." When, like any di'Taykan, he tried to extend the physical contact, she pulled her hand free and moved into the decontamination lock's proximate zone.


A half-turn as she stepped over the lip and into the outer chamber. The lieutenant was smiling, his eyes as light as she'd ever seen them.

"Is it true you called General Morris a bastard?"

* * *

Torin stowed her bag in the enclosure over her seat and took a look around the military compartment. Forward, a pair of officers sat on opposite sides of the aisle. The Human artillery captain had already slid his slate into the shuttle's system and, from the corner of screen Torin could see, had accessed the hospitality file—although it wouldn't dispense his drink until they were in Susumi space. Her seat on full recline, it appeared that the di'Taykan major had gone to sleep. Torin wondered if she'd already made the captain an offer and was resting up. And if that's why the captain was drinking.

In the aft end of the compartment, half a dozen privates and a corporal were settling in. According to their travel docs—available to sergeants and above from the shuttle's manifest—the corporal from Crayzk Company's engineering platoon was heading Coreward on course and the six privates were on their way back to Ventris Station to be mustered out.

She had the NCO compartment to herself.

As the shuttle pulled away from the station, the walls separating the sections opaqued. Although the center aisle remained open along the length of the compartment, it was easy enough to maintain the illusion of privacy between the ranks—an illusion Torin was all in favor of. She as little wanted to be responsible to the officers as she wanted to be responsible for the junior ranks.

Half an hour later, the shuttle folded into Susumi space. Since little changed from trip to trip, they'd be spending only eight to fourteen hours inside, emerging four light-years away at MidSector at the same time they left. Torin pulled a pouch of beer from her alcohol allotment and settled back to watch the last three episodes of StarCops, one of the few Human-produced vids she hated to miss.

But neither Detective Berton's attempt to find the smugglers bringing the highly addictive di'Taykan vritran into Human space nor Detective Canter's search to find the murderer of a Krai diplomat could hold her attention. She might as well have been watching H'san opera. When the third episode featured a government official throwing his weight around, she thumbed it off and glared at her reflection on the screen.

If General Morris wanted a recon team to investigate an unknown alien spacecraft, the Corps had plenty of teams he could choose from. Torin didn't know whether he wanted her to replace the staff sergeant from an established unit or to be a part of a team he'd built from scratch, but either way she didn't much care for the idea. It was inefficient. And bordered on stupid.

She could do the job. She understood that as a member of the Corps, she was expected to pick up and move on as the Corps saw fit. And she took full responsibility for the actions that had lodged her in the memory of a two star general.

But stupidity at high levels really pissed her off.

Because stupidity at high levels was the sort of thing that got people killed.

A Krai territorial cry sounded from the rear compartment, closely followed by a stream of happy Human profanity. Jerked out of her mood, Torin was startled to see she'd been brooding for almost an hour.

The profanity got a little less happy.

Not her problem.

She heard the corporal's voice rise and fall and then the unmistakable sequence of flesh to flesh to floor.

Now it was her problem.

Standing, she shrugged into her tunic and started down the aisle. No point in letting a bad mood go to waste…

The corporal was flat on his back. One of the Krai privates—probably the female given relative sizes—sat on his chest, holding his arms down with her feet. He wasn't struggling, so Torin assumed he'd taken some damage hitting the floor. The smaller Krai had a pouch of beer in the foot Torin could see and was banging both fists against the seat in front of him, nose ridges so dark they were almost purple. The di'Taykan were nowhere to be seen—all three of them had probably crammed themselves into the tiny communal chamber the moment the shuttle had entered Susumi space—which left, of the original six privates, only a Human who seemed to find the whole thing very funny.

He spotted Torin first. By the time she'd covered half the distance, his eyes had widened as the chevrons on her sleeves penetrated past the beer. By the time she'd covered the other half of the distance, he'd stopped laughing and had managed to gasp out something that could have been a warning.

Too late.

Transferring forward momentum, Torin wrapped her fist in the female Krai's uniform, lifted her off the corporal, and threw her back into a seat.

The sudden silence was deafening. She reached down and helped the corporal to his feet. Someone cleared his or her throat. "Staff, we…"

Her lip curled. "Shut up."

The silence continued.

"If I hear one word from any of you while Corporal Barteau…"

No one seemed at all surprised she knew the corporal's name.

"…is telling me what the hell is going on back here, I will override your seat controls and you will spend the rest of the trip strapped in." Eyes narrowed, she swept the silent trio with a flat, unfriendly stare. "Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Staff Sergeant."

"Good. Corporal."

They walked back to the wall dividing the lower ranks from the NCOs. Torin pitched her voice for the corporal's ears alone. "You all right?"

"Just a little winded, Staff. I didn't expect her to jump me. They'd been drinking, and I think she was showing off for Private Karsk. I was studying." He nodded toward the schematics spread out over the last two seats. "I asked them to keep it down. Next thing I knew…"

An unidentifiable sound from the back of the compartment pulled Torin's head around. All three privates, sitting exactly where she'd left them, froze, wide-eyed like they'd been caught in a searchlight. She held them there for a moment—half hoping they were drunk enough to cause more trouble—then turned slowly back to Corporal Barteau.

He shrugged. "They're on their way home, Staff."

"I know."

"Privates Karsk and Visilli were at Beconreaks and Private Chrac, she was aircrew, Black Star Evac. They flew at…"

"I know, Corporal, I was there. Your point?"

"I don't think they deserve to be put on report. Not for celebrating the fact that they're going home."

"I agree." He looked surprised.

"You do?" Torin exhaled slowly and forced the muscles in her jaw to relax. From the corporal's reaction, she suspected she'd looked like she was chewing glass. "Yes. I do. I'll have a word with them and, if we get to MidSector without any more trouble, that'll be the end of it." "You've already scared the piss out of them," the corporal acknowledged.

"Yeah, well, I'd say that was my intent except the shuttle service would make me pay for having the seats cleaned."

* * *

Feeling considerably more clearheaded, Torin accessed the hospitality screen and a moment later pulled the tab on a pouch of beer. Ours is not to question why.

I'll do, she said silently, with a sarcastic toast to absent brass, but I'll be damned if I'll die.

* * *

The detoxicant Torin had taken when they folded out of Susumi space had done its job by the time the shuttle docked at MidSector. Although the military and civilian passengers had been kept separate during the trip, exit ramps emerged into the same crowded Arrivals' Lounge.

There were a lot fewer uniforms in the crowd than Torin was used to.

"Excuse me." Torin had a choice. She could stop, or she could walk right over the di'Taykan standing in front of her. She stopped. But it was a close decision.

The di'Taykan had lime green hair and eyes, the former spread out from her head in a six-inch aureole, the latter so pale Torin wondered how she could see since none of the light receptors seemed to be open. Her matching clothing was unusually subdued—in spite of the color—and the combined effect was one of studied innocence.

Torin didn't believe it for a moment. Anyone studying that hard had to be working against type.

"One of my thytrins was supposed to be on that shuttle, Sergeant di'Perit Dymone. I didn't see him get off so I was wondering if he, well, missed his flight again." Her hair flattened a little in embarrassment. "He missed the last flight he was supposed to be on."

Looking politely disinterested, Torin waited.

"I thought maybe, if he didn't miss this flight, he might still be on board."


"Are you sure…" She dipped her head and her eyes went a shade darker as she studied Torin's collar tabs. "…Staff Sergeant?"

"I'm sure."


"I was the only NCO of senior rank on board. Your thytrin missed another flight."

"Oh." Her hair flattened farther as she stepped out of the way, one long-fingered hand fiddling with her masker. "I'm sorry to bother you then."

Torin swung her bag back onto her shoulder. "No problem."

"Um, Staff Sergeant, would you like to…"

"No. Thank you." When a di'Taykan began a question with would you like to, there was only ever one ending. And that was probably why the girl's thytrin kept missing his flight.

By the time Torin reached the exit, she'd been delayed long enough for the lines to have gone down at the security scanners. Wondering why the Niln next to her was bothering to argue with the station sys-op—top of the pointless activity list—she slid her slate into the wall and faced the screen. In the instant before the scan snapped her pupils to full dilation, she saw a flash of reflected lime green. The di'Taykan? Scan completed, she turned.

On the other side of the lounge, now nearly empty of both the shuttle's passengers and those who'd come to meet them, the di'Taykan had crouched down to speak to a Katrien. Although conscious of being watched, they glanced up and smiled. For an omnivore, the Katrien had rather a lot of sharp-looking teeth in its narrow muzzle and although Torin couldn't see much of its face around an expensive-looking pair of dark glasses, something about its expression made her fairly certain she'd seen that particular Katrien before. She just couldn't put her finger on where.

*You have been cleared to enter the station. Proceed immediately to docking bay SD-31. Your pilot has been informed of your arrival.*

Torin tongued in an acknowledgment and stepped through the hatch, the Katrien's identity no longer relevant.

Facing the lounge exit was a large screen with a three-dimensional map of the station. As Torin stepped closer, a red light flashed over her corresponding place on the map and a long red arrow led to the legend: "You are here." Torin would have bet her pension that the graffiti scrawled next to it in a script she didn't recognize said, "And your luggage is in Antares," or a variation thereof.

Shuttle departures were down one level. Unfortunately, SD-31 was not a shuttle bay. All MidSector and OutSector stations had a squadron of two-person fighters for station defense plus a few extra bays in case of fighters arriving without their ships. As no MidSector station had ever been attacked, their squadrons were on short rotation. There were few things more disruptive to a sentient society than a squadron of bored vacuum jockeys.

"Docking bay SD-31."

The map rearranged itself. A second red light appeared. A green line joined them. Okay. That was going to take some time.

"Shortest route. Species neutral."

Not significantly shorter.

The MidSector stations had been in place longer than Humans had been part of the Confederation and over time they'd grown almost organically.

"Like a tumor," Torin muttered, heading for the nearest transit node. OutSector stations had been designed for the military after the start of the war and were a lot more efficient. She hoped that when informed of her arrival her pilot had kept right on with whatever it was a vj did when he wasn't flying or fighting with Marine pilots because they wouldn't be leaving any time soon.

At the node, she wasn't really surprised to find a link had just left. Given the way her day had been going, she wouldn't have been surprised to have found the links shut down for unscheduled maintenance and that she was supposed to cover roughly eight kilometers of station on foot.

Ours is not to question why.

A trite saying rapidly on its way to becoming a mantra.

By the time the next link arrived, the platform had become crowded. A trio of di'Taykan officers at the far end—pink, teal, and lavender hair—provided a visual aid for anyone who wondered why the Corps had switched to black uniforms and about forty civilians filled the space in between, including four representatives of a species Torin couldn't identify.

There were also a number of Katrien. Hard to count because they were shorter than many of the other species but easy to spot since every single one of them appeared to be talking—sometimes to other Katrien, who were also talking. MidSector was close to their home system, which explained the numbers. Torin watched only the occasional broadcast coming out of the Core but she seemed to remember a Katrien news program announcing that their Trading Cartel had taken over a significant number of both X- and Y-axis routes.

When the link finally arrived, Torin took a center seat, plugged her slate into a data console, and ran "alien ship dead in space," then "ship of unknown origins," paying a little extra for a secure search. Nothing. Great, the one time I could use a little help from the media, General Morris managed to keep the lid on.

Impressive if only because the Marines had arrived in more than one contested system to find the media there first.

At her final node, Torin had her link to herself and at the end of the line stepped out onto an empty platform. Four Katrien bounced out of the link behind her and one out of the link behind that. Although she hadn't paid much attention to fur patterns, the dark glasses on the single Katrien, now hurrying to join the others, seemed familiar.

I'm in friendly territory, Torin reminded herself. No reason to assume I'm being followed. Two different people could easily be wearing the same expensive eyewear.

But she crossed the platform toward them anyway—paranoia and survival instinct were two sides of the same coin when the job description involved being targeted by projectile weapons. The single Katrien cut off a high-pitched and incomprehensible flow of sound as she reached the group, and all five turned toward her.

She scowled down at the source of her disquiet. "Do I know you?"

A heavyset individual—Torin didn't know enough about the Katrien to assume gender—spread hands that looked like black latex gloves extending from the sleeves of a fur coat, and replied in a friendly sounding torrent of its own language.

*Translation not available.*

"Do any of you speak Federate?"

A second torrent, even friendlier sounding than the first.

*Translation not available.*

All five were now smiling toothily, the Katrien who might or might not have been following her a little toothier than the rest. Torin knew better than to make cross-species generalizations, but it looked smug. If they were living on station, they spoke Federate; no question they were being deliberate pains in the ass. Maybe they disliked the military on principle. Many of the Elder Races were pacifists—to the point of extinction when the Others showed up which was, after all, why the Humans, di'Taykan, and Krai had been invited in.

Maybe the Katrien was the same Katrien she'd seen in the lounge. Maybe it told the others to play dumb for the soldier. Fuck it. It was a free station. She was not going to get involved in the game.

But this time, she noted the fur pattern. If she saw this particular smugly smiling Katrien again, she'd know it.

Her answering smile was less toothy but more sarcastic: "Thank you for your time."

They shouted something after her as she left the platform. Torin tongued off her implant before it could tell her once again that a translation was unavailable. Some things didn't need to be translated.

* * *

There was a vacuum jockey leaning against the orange metal bulkhead outside SD-31. Torin wondered how the Navy flier could look so boneless and still remain upright. He straightened as she approached.

"Staff Sergeant Kerr?"

"Yes, sir."

"Lieutenant Commander Sibley. I'm your ride." He palmed the lock and stood aside as the hatch opened.

Torin peered into the tiny suiting chamber and looked back at the pilot in time to see him slide a H'san stim into his chest pocket. Humans chewed the sticks as a mild stimulant. They were nonaddicting and completely harmless although they had a tendency to stain the user's teeth and, in extensive use, turn subcutaneous fat bright orange. Although the sticks were frowned on, they weren't actually illegal, and Navy pilots, operating in three dimensions at high speeds, often chewed to give themselves an edge. Navy flight commanders, who preferred their pilots alive, usually looked the other way.

Lieutenant Commander Sibley followed her gaze and grinned. "I know, Staff, it's a filthy habit. And I'm not trying to quit."

"Not my business, sir."

"True enough." He stepped into the chamber. Torin followed. "We've got a one-size-fits-most flight suit for you. I take it your suit certifications are up to date?"

"Yes, sir. If either branch of the military uses it, I'm certified to wear it." The suits were designed to fit loosely everywhere but the collar ring and the faceplate so one size fit well enough. Exposure to vacuum caused a chemical reaction which stiffened the suit and filled the spaces between it and flesh with an insulating foam capable of maintaining a constant temperature of 15°C for thirty minutes. Since the suits came with only twenty minutes of independent air, pilots who found themselves free of their fighter's life-support pod didn't have to worry about freezing to death.

Among themselves, Torin knew the vacuum jockeys referred to the suits as buoys—markers to make it easier for the Navy to find the bodies.

Theoretically, pilots weren't supposed to come out of their pods even with their fighters shot to hell all around them. In Torin's experience, theory didn't stand a chance up against reality. Theoretically, species achieved interstellar space travel after they'd put war behind them, but apparently no one had told the Others.

They checked each other's seals and packs, then Lieutenant Commander Sibley opened the outer door. SD-31 held, as expected, a two-person Jade although for the moment all Torin could see of it was the access to the pod.

"Ever ridden in one these jewels, Staff Sergeant?"

Torin's stomach flipped as she stepped out into the docking bay and the gravity suddenly lessened. "No, sir."

His hazel eyes held a gleam of anticipation as he showed her where and how to stow her bag, then he waved at the tiny rear section. "We're point five gees in here, Staff, so just step in, feet about this far apart…" He held out white-gloved hands. "…and settle into place. Your pack fits into the back of the seat and, if you do it right, all hookups are made automatically."

And if I do it wrong? Torin wondered as her feet hit the deck and she sat down on a disconcertingly yielding surface. Apparently, she'd have to find out another time as straps slid down around her shoulders and disappeared into the seat between her legs. Great. We can fold space, but we can't improve on the seat belt my father uses on his tractor. The screens to either side of her remained dark, but on the curved screen in front, half a dozen green telltales lit up.

"You're in." The pilot leaned up out of her section and dropped into his own, considerably faster than she'd done it. "Probably best if you keep your hands in your lap, Staff Sergeant. None of your controls are live, but you're in my gunner's seat and I'd just as soon we didn't shoot off bits of the station. Navy frowns at that."

Every time it happens, Torin snorted, but all she said aloud was, "Hands are in my lap, sir."

Almost before he was strapped in, the pod sealed. An instant after that, they dropped out into space.

Zero gravity flipped her stomach again. Torin swallowed hard as acceleration pressed her first against the straps and then down into the seat. Lieutenant Commander Sibley had cleared launch on his implant, probably so he could hit space without giving her warning. Two diagonal moves later, they were upside down relative to the station.

"Be about an hour and a half before we reach the Berganitan. I hope you're not claustrophobic."

Well, sir, if I was, I'd have probably found out years ago crammed into the troop compartment of a sled with a couple of dozen muddy Marines while the enemy tried to blow us the hell up. At least you've got windows.

But all she said aloud was, "Not that I know of, sir."

She spared a moment wondering if there was any significance in General Morris' apparent fondness for the Berganitan. Maybe it was the only ship the Admiralty would let him play with.

The Jade suddenly dropped away from the station. About thirty meters out, it flipped over.

Shouldn't have told him I'd never been in a Jade before. She'd probably thought a lieutenant commander was a little old to play "let's see if we can get the Marine to puke." More fool her. All vjs were crazy, from raw ensigns right up to Wing Admiral di'Si Trin herself—something she should have remembered. Well, counting the ten hours and forty-seven minutes in Susumi space, it has been a long day.

* * *

Lieutenant Commander Sibley added a few final flourishes as he brought the Jade up to cruising speed. "If you have to hurl, Staff Sergeant, bite the black tab at the base of your faceplate. It'll open a pouch."

No answer. Not even the sound of a lost lunch.


Her telltales were green. She was conscious. Heart pumping at sixty/sixty. Respiration slow and steady. Then it dawned on him. While he'd been flying a pattern designed to test the limits of Human physiology, his passenger had gone to sleep.