Li Han woke unwillingly. There was something horrible, she thought in drowsy terror. Something waiting-
She opened her eyes to a pastel ceiling and brilliant sun patterns, dancing and leaping as the window curtains fluttered, and relief filled her.
It had been a bad dream. She raised a hand to her forehead. A nightmare. If it had been real, she'd be dead. And she wasn't even . . .
Her hand slid over her forehead, and her eyes widened in horror, for she had no eyebrows. Her hand moved higher, trembling with the tactile memory of long, sleek hair . . . but there was no hair.
The discovery slashed away her drowsiness, and ivory-knuckled fists clenched. It had happened, and tears burned as her broken heart railed at a universe cruel enough to spare her from her beautiful Longbow's destruction.
But long years of mental discipline chided the extravagance of her grief. The universe moved as it would; it was neither kind nor cruel, and all it asked of her was that she play her own part against its vast impartiality. Her pale lips murmured mind-focusing mnemonics, channeling grief in a technique which had served her well over the years, but this time it took over an hour to approach calm.
Yet calm came at last, and her eyes opened once more. She was in a hospital, she thought, turning to the window. On a planet with a small, warm sun that could be neither planetless Aklumar nor cool, barren Lassa and so must be Cimmaron. Which meant that the Republic had won . . . or lost. She smiled with a ghost of real humor as she pondered the question. Was she a victorious hero in a conquered hospital? Or a miserable POW, doctored by her captors? There was only one way to find out, and she reached for the call button, dismayed by the languid, weary weakness of her muscles.
Her door opened within seconds, and she turned her naked head slowly, blinking against tears and light dazzle, as a woman in nursing whites entered. It took endless seconds to clear her eyes enough to read the tiny letters etched across the nurse's medical branch caduceus. "TRN," they said.
So they'd won; no Rump commander would permit POWs to wear the Republic's insignia, and her eyes closed again as relief ate at her frail reserves. Then she felt cool fingers in the ages-old, feathery touch as her pulse was checked and forced her eyes back open, staring up into a plain, serene face.
"How-" Her throat was dry and she felt a sudden surge of nausea, but she tried again, grimly. "How long?" she husked, and the rusty croak which had replaced her soprano appalled her.
"A little over a week, Commodore," the nurse said calmly, and offered her a tumbler of half-melted ice. She held the plastic straw to Han's cracked lips, and Han sucked avidly, coughing as the water ran down her desiccated throat. It was only when the nurse finally removed the straw, gently disengaging Han's weak fingers from their almost petulant, childlike grip, that her words penetrated.
A week! Impossible! And yet . . .
"A week?" she repeated, cursing the haziness of her thoughts.
"Yes, Commodore," the nurse said serenely, and touched a switch. The bed rose under Han's shoulders, and she clutched suddenly at the side rails, eyes rounding in pure astonishment as vertigo flashed through her.
"Too much?" The nurse released the button quickly, but Han shook her head almost viciously. She was a naval officer, and no hospital bed was going to make her whoop her cookies! The nurse watched her a moment, then shrugged and held the button down until Han sat bolt upright, wondering dizzily if her pride was worth such physical distress.
But the vertigo slowly diminished. The bed still seemed to curtsy gently and nausea still rippled, but it was better. Perhaps if she told herself that often enough she would even believe it. She focused with some difficulty on the nurse's nameplate.
"Mirror?" Han husked. The lieutenant's eyes remained serene, but Han saw the doubt and forced her hurtful lips into a smile. "I-can handle it."
"All right." The nurse produced a small mirror. It seemed to weigh fifty kilos, but Han managed to raise it and peer at the stranger it held.
Her eyes were huge holes in a thin, gray-green face, sores covered her lips, and dark mottled patches disfigured her complexion. Her hairless skull seemed obscene and tiny on the bony column of her neck, and her collarbone was a sharp ridge at the neck of her hospital gown.
Rad poisoning. She'd seen it before, but, her detached, dizzy mind decided calmly, she'd never seen anyone look worse and live. Her brain went back to that final nightmare instant of consciousness, seeing her helmet polarize again. Close, she thought. Her impression of the fireball reaching out for her was all too close to the truth.
"Captain Tsing?" she asked hoarsely. "Lieutenant Kan?"
"Both alive, Commodore," Lieutenant Tinnamou said briskly, reclaiming the mirror. But she laid it conveniently on the bedside table, and Han felt pathetically grateful. The gesture seemed to imply confidence in her ability to endure what it had shown her.
"H-how bad?" She gestured weakly at herself.
"Not good, sir, but you'll make it. I'd rather let your doctor give you the whole picture."
"He's on his way now," the lieutenant said. "I expect-ah!"
The door hissed open and a small, cherub-faced man bounced in, smiling so hugely she wondered whether she was more amused by his antics or resentful of his abundant energy.
"Good morning, Commodore Li!" he said briskly, and her eyes widened at the harsh, sharp-edged vowels of his New Detroit accent. They dropped almost involuntarily to his uniform insignia.
"Yes," he grinned wryly, "I'm one of those damned loyalists, Commodore. But then-" his smile turned gently mocking "-uniforms don't matter much to us kindly healers. I can find you a good, honest rebel if you like, but I'm really quite a good doctor."
His ironic tone touched something inside her, and her cracked lips quivered.
"Much better!" he chuckled, crossing his arms and looking down at her. "I'm Captain Llewellyn, by the way. Pleased to meet you at last. I've been in and out for the last week or so, but you've only been out."
"How bad?" Han asked hoarsely.
"Could be worse," he said frankly, "but not a lot. It was all touch and near-as-damn-it-go, actually. At the moment, you weigh about eighteen kilos."
She flinched, but her eyes were steady, and he nodded approval.
"You were lucky it was only a nice, clean fighter missile," he went on. "On the other hand, you'd already have checked out of our little hotel if you'd had the shielding of an escape pod. I understand the bridge pods were buckled and your crew got you out just in time, as it were."
"H-how many?" she husked.
"From the bridge?" He looked at her compassionately. "Five-counting you." She winced, and he went on quickly. "But overall, you did much better. Over half your crew got out safely."
Her lips twisted. He was right, of course; fifty percent was a miraculous figure. But if over half had survived, almost half had not.
"As for you, you got an awful dose, but your chief of staff seems to have unusual rad tolerance. He got you and your lieutenant picked up and hooked to blood exchangers in time, but even so, it was a rough forty-eight hours. We've managed to scrub you out pretty well, and the cell count looks okay, but it was tight, ma'am. Really, really tight."
"Don't look much like I made it anyway," Han rasped.
"Ah." Llewellyn nodded. "You are a bit the worse for wear, Commodore. We doctors should, after all, be honest. But you'll improve quickly now we can get you off the IV's and put a little weight back on you." He examined her face critically and rose briskly. "But for now, I want you to go back to sleep. I know, I know-" he waved aside her half-voiced protests "-you just got here. Well, the planet isn't going anywhere, and neither are you. We've got you scrubbed out, but you have seven broken ribs, a cracked cheekbone, a fractured femur, and a skull fracture-just for starters. I'm afraid you're going to take a while healing up from that."
Han blinked at him, wondering where the pain was. They must have her loaded to the gills with painkillers, she decided, which helped explain her wooziness. His last words seemed to echo around a vast, dark cavern, and she realized dimly that the cavern was her own skull. She blinked again and let herself sink into the lightheadedness. The sun patterns on the ceiling danced above her, weaving the pattern of her dreams. . . .
The next few days were bad. Han was sick and dizzy, and she hated her surrounding forest of scrubbers and monitors. The instruments were silent, but she knew they were there-probing and peering for the first sign of uncorrected damage. They were part of the technology which kept her alive, and she hated them because they were part of what confined her to her bed.
It took long, hard effort to attain her normal calm, and it slipped away abruptly, without warning. She hated her loss of control almost as much as she did her weakness, and that loss showed when Lieutenant Tinnamou refused to let her visit Tsing Chang.
Han tried reason. It didn't work, so she pulled rank, only to find that medicos are remarkably impervious to intimidation. And finally, she resorted to a hell-raising tantrum which would have shocked anyone who knew her and, in fact, shocked her-but not as much as the flood of tears which followed.
That stopped her dead. She fell back on her pillows, exhausted by the expenditure of emotion, and her emaciated form shook with the force of her sobs. She turned her face away from the nurse's compassionate eyes, and the lieutenant frowned down at her for a moment, then stepped out into the hall.
Han heard the door close with gratitude, for her reactions both shamed and frightened her. How could she exercise command over others if she could no longer command herself?
But then the door opened again and someone cleared his throat. Her head snapped back over, and Captain Llewellyn looked down at her, his cherub's face incongruously stern.
"I suppose, Commodore, that we could call this 'conduct unbecoming an officer'-but I'm old-fashioned. Let's just call it childish."
"I know," she husked and turned her head away again. "I'm sorry. Just-just go away. I-I'll be all right. . . ."
"Will you, now?" His voice was sternly compassionate. "I think not. Not, at least, until you accept that you're merely human and entitled as such to moments of weakness."
"It's not that," she protested, scrubbing her eyes with balled fists like a child. "I . . . I mean . . ."
"Yes, it is," he said gently. "I've checked your record, Commodore. Sword of honor. Youngest captain in Battle Fleet. Stellar Cross. Headed for the War College, but for the current . . . unpleasantness. And that's only the official record. There's also your crew."
"My-crew?" It popped out involuntarily, and she bit her tongue, cursing her crumbling self-control.
"The survivors have had our visitors' desk under siege ever since your arrival. If I hadn't put my foot down, you'd've been buried under well-wishers-which, since I don't want you plain buried, I'm not about to permit! But my point is simple: amassing that record and winning that loyalty says a lot about your personality." His voice grew suddenly gentle. "You're not used to being helpless, are you?"
Han turned away, horribly embarrassed, but his question demanded an answer. And she owed him one for keeping her alive, she supposed fretfully.
"No," she said shortly.
"I thought not. Which explains exactly why you're reacting this way," he said simply, and Han turned back towards him.
"Perhaps," she said levelly, "but it doesn't help that you haven't told me everything, either, Doctor."
Llewellyn's face stilled at the accusation, and his eyes narrowed.
"Why do you think that, Commodore?" he asked finally, his tone neutral.
"I don't know," she confessed bitterly, "but you haven't, have you?"
"No." His simple response surprised her, for she'd expected him to waffle. But she'd done the little Corporate Worlder an injustice, he was as utterly incapable of evading a direct question as she herself.
"And what haven't you told me?"
"I think you know already," he said quietly. "You just haven't let yourself face it. I'd hoped you wouldn't for a while, but you're more bloody-minded than I thought," he added, and a door opened in her mind-a door she had been holding shut with all her strength even as she hammered against it.
He was right, she thought distantly. She did know. Her hand crept over the blankets across her belly, and he nodded.
"Yes," he said gently, and her teeth drew blood from her lip.
"How bad is it?" she asked finally, her hoarse voice level.
"Not good," he said honestly. "A high percentage of your ova are sterile; others are badly damaged. On the other hand, some are perfectly normal, Commodore. You can still bear healthy children."
"At what odds?" she asked bitterly.
"Not good ones," he met her eyes squarely, his voice unflinching, "but you know about the problem. It wouldn't be difficult to check the embryos and abort defectives at a very early stage."
She looked away, and Llewellyn started to reach out, then stopped as he recognized the nature of her withdrawal. She wasn't dropping deeper into depression; she was merely digesting what she had been told.
He stared down at her helplessly, tasting her anguish and longing with all his heart to comfort her. Yet he sensed something more than anguish under her sick, weakened surface, something pure and almost childlike in its innocent strength, like spring steel at her core. This was a woman who knew herself, however imperfect her self-knowledge seemed to her.
He sank into a chair, knowing she would turn back to him shortly, that his departure would shame her, watching the taut, bony shoulders relax. And as he watched the wasted body unknot, he felt himself in the presence of a great peacefulness, as if she were but the last link in an endless chain, able to draw on the strength of all who had gone before her. He'd already recognized the years of self-discipline behind her serenity, yet now his empathy went deeper, sensing the gift of freedom her parents had given her so long before, and he wished desperately that more of his patients could be so.
Her head moved finally, the delicate skull under the fine, dark fuzz shifting on the pillow, and she spoke quietly.
"Thank you, Doctor. I wish you'd told me sooner-but maybe you were right. Maybe I needed to wait for a little while."
"No, I was wrong," he said humbly.
"Perhaps. At any rate, now I know, don't I? I'll have to think about it."
"Yes." He rose unwillingly, shocked to realize that he wanted to stay within the orbit of her strength, then shook himself and smiled faintly. "Should I send Lieutenant Tinnamou back in? I think she's a bit concerned you might have, er, exhausted your strength."
"Is she?" Han's weary face dimpled. "I hadn't realized I knew so much profanity, but I'd rather be alone for a bit, Doctor. Would you give her my apologies? I'll apologize in person later."
"If you like," he said, relieved to see her smile at last, "but we kindly healers know sick people aren't at their best, Commodore."
"Please, call me Han," she said, touching his wrist with skeletal fingers. "And I will apologize to her. But not just now."
"Certainly. I'll tell her-Han." He twinkled sadly at her and touched his nameplate. "And my name is Daffyd."
"Thank you, Daffyd." She smiled again and closed her eyes. He left.
It took hours to truly accept it. The actual fact was not surprising-not intellectually. Somehow Han had assumed it wouldn't happen to her, but she'd always known it could. It was unfair, but then so was biology.
She felt tears on her cheeks, and this time felt no shame. Her life had been so orderly. She'd faced her need to excel in her chosen field, known that pride required proof of her competence. And, as a woman, the pressure for early achievement had been great, for she was not just a Fringer; she was Hangchowese, born to a culture which thought as much in generations as individuals. So her schedule had been set; she would achieve her rank, and then take time for the children she wanted.
She rolled her head on the pillow, agonized by a loss even more poignant because she had never possessed what had been lost. The pain was terrible, but the awful moment of realization was past. All she must do now was face it. All she had to do was cope with the unbearable.
It would have been different if she were an Innerworlder, she thought sadly, for the crowded Innerworlds restricted access to longevity treatments. But Han had been born on a Fringe World blessed with adequate medical technology, one where the antigerone therapies were generally available. At thirty-nine, she looked-and was-the Innerworld equivalent of perhaps twenty, and the differential would grow as time passed. She had expected another fifty years of fertility . . . fifty years which had been snatched away. For a moment, she almost envied the Innerworlders' shorter spans. They would have had fewer lonely years, she thought in a surge of self-pity.
She frowned sadly. Llewellyn was a good man, despite his homeworld, but his every word of comfort only underscored their differences. There were too few people in the Fringe. Alien gravities and environments inhibited fertility-it took generations for the biological processes to readjust fully, and no woman of Hangchow would even consider conceiving a child with a potentially lethal genetic heritage. For them, babies were unutterably precious, the guarantee of the future, not burdens on a crowded world's resources. Intellectually, Han could accept Llewellyn's words; emotionally they were intolerable.
She shook her head slowly, feeling the pain recede as she faced the decision. There was only one she could make and be true to herself and her culture, she thought, and knowing that defeated the pain.
But nothing would ever dispel her sorrow.
Time passed slowly in a hospital. Seeing days slip past without activity to fill them was a new experience for Han, and she felt events leaving her behind. Her battlegroup was disbanded as Bayonet and Sawfly, the last surviving units, were repaired and transferred to other squadrons, and even her surviving staff was on the binnacle list. Tsing Chang would be returning to duty only shortly before Han herself, and Esther Kane had never cleared Longbow. Robert Tomanaga would live, but he would be busy learning to walk with one robotic leg for months to come.
Only David Reznick had survived unhurt.
He was the sole visitor she was allowed for two weeks, and meeting him again was perhaps the saddest of her few duties, for if he was physically unscathed, his coltish adolescence was gone. He'd been forced to mature in a particularly nasty fashion, and she was only grateful it had not embittered him. Indeed, she felt a certain subtle strength within him, the strength of a man who has been so afraid that he will never be that frightened again. She hoped she was right, that it was strength and not the final, fragile ice over a glaring weakness. She was in poor shape when he called on her, and the visit was so brief she could scarcely recall it later, yet she felt her judgment was sound.
But her staff's losses reflected her people's casualties as a whole, and she grieved for them. There were over four hundred dead from Longbow alone, and it had taken all her will to remind herself that almost five hundred of her people had escaped.
Yet no one at all survived from Bardiche or Yellowjacket, and only twelve from Falchion. She supposed historians would call the operation a brilliant success, but twenty-eight hundred of her people had died, and it was hard to feel triumphant as she brooded over her dead in the long, lonely hours.
Yet endless though the days seemed, she was improving, and she received concrete proof of that in her third week of convalescence. A chime sounded, her door opened, and her thin face blossomed in an involuntary smile as she looked up from her bookviewer and saw Commodore Magda Petrovna.
Magda reached out to grip her hand, and her concerned eyes surveyed the ravages of Han's illness. But they were also calm, and Han recognized a kindred soul in the lack of effusive, meaningless pleasantries.
"Come to view the nearly departed, Magda?"
"Of course not. Sit down and tell me what's happening. It's like pulling teeth to get them to tell me anything in this place!"
Magda scaled her cap onto an empty table and brushed back her hair. The white streaks flashed in the window's sunlight like true silver, and for just a moment Han was bitterly envious of her healthy vitality.
"Not too surprising," Magda grinned. "It's a Rump hospital, and they wouldn't like to talk about a lot of what's happening."
"I think you're doing Captain Llewellyn an injustice," Han said gently from her pillows. "I don't think he worries about his patients' uniforms. He certainly couldn't have been kinder to me."
"Then he's an exception," Magda said tartly. "Most of 'em look like they smell something bad when we walk into a room. Hard to blame them, really. Their defense wasn't anything to be particularly proud of."
"No?" Han's mouth turned down. "They did well enough against me, Magda. They destroyed my entire battlegroup."
"No they didn't, Han. Oh, they hurt you, I don't deny that, but Bayonet and Sawfly came through practically untouched. And my God, what you did to them! All my group had to do was clean up the wreckage, Han-you and your people won the battle."
Han shook her head stubbornly and said nothing.
"You did," Magda insisted. "The poor Rump pilots were so green they never stood a chance once Kellerman got his fighters launched, and the local population was with us. Some of the planetary garrison tried to hold out, and there was some pretty ugly ground fighting with the holdouts. But they never had a chance, with us controlling the orbitals, and it was over in less than a day. But if you and your people hadn't smashed those forts up before they came fully on line-" She shivered elaborately.
"They did well enough against me," Han repeated with quiet bitterness.
"No argument. But they were the only vets Skywatch had, and their only Fleet units-one battlecruiser and a half-dozen tincans-hauled ass as soon as they realized we were in force." She grinned suddenly, her humor so bubbling it reached through even Han's depression. "You should hear what old Pritzcowitski has to say about them! They'd better pray he never writes an efficiency report on them!"
"I can imagine," Han agreed, and amazed herself by laughing for the first time since the battle. It felt so good she tried it again, feeling Magda's approving eyes upon her. "You're good for me, Magda."
"Fair's fair," Magda said, shaking her head. "If you hadn't done your job, I wouldn't be here. They went for Snaphaunce with everything they had as soon as they saw her-fortunately, you hadn't left them much."
"So was I. Oh, by the way, I checked on your Captain Tsing on the way up here. He's madder than hell the doctors won't let him come see you, but he's doing fine. In fact, he even kept some hair."
"Thank God!" Han said quietly. "And Lieutenant Kan?"
"A little worse than Tsing, but he'll be fine, Han."
"Thank you for telling me."
"Well, I hope someone would tell me if the position were reversed!"
"So the rest of the Fleet got off light," Han mused.
"Yep. In fact, Admiral Ashigara's already headed for Zephrain, and Kellerman's carriers are off to join our monitors and move on Gastenhowe."
"Then why aren't you gone?" Han asked.
"I, my dear, am senior officer commanding Cimmaron-at least for now. They added a cruiser and light carrier group to my battlecruisers, then uncrated those fighters . . . and most of Skywatch surrendered intact when they saw what you did to one detachment."
"I see." Han pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Not bad for a lowly commodore, Magda. I'm glad for you."
"You are?" Magda smiled warmly. "Thanks-but I'm only your deputy. You're still senior, so as soon as you're up, the command is yours. So get yourself well and relieve me, Commodore!"
"I'd say the job was in good hands," Han said.
"Thanks, but I'll be glad to turn it over to someone else, believe me. And in the meantime, if you don't mind too much, there's someone out in the hall who'd like to see you. My chief of staff."
"Then invite him in! I haven't been allowed any visitors, Magda, and I still haven't thanked him properly for saving my ship at Bigelow."
Magda smiled and stepped back out into the corridor to collect Captain Windrider. Han watched his gaze move over her hairless skull and wasted face and wondered if her appearance shocked him, but he only smiled.
"Good morning, Commodore. You're looking better than I'd expected."
"Better?" Han shook her head. "Were you expecting a corpse, Captain?"
"No, just someone who'd come a little closer to being one."
"Well, I suppose I came close enough, at that," Han agreed, and patted her bed. "There's only one chair, so one of you has to sit here."
She half-expected an awkward pause as Windrider took the chair and Magda perched on the bed, but these were fellow professionals; they knew the risks, and they could speak of them unself-consciously. But more than that, she realized, she was profiting from how comfortable they were with one another. She knew they'd never met before Windrider became Magda's chief of staff, yet they seemed far closer than the mere professionalism of a smooth command team could account for. It was a personal sort of closeness, one that carried them over any bumps in their conversation without a pause.
The more she listened to them, the more aware she became of the almost telepathic nature of their communication. They used a sort of shorthand, with single words replacing entire sentences, yet seemed totally unaware of it. But they reached out to her, as well, and she found herself opening up to others as she never had before. She wondered later if physical weakness had somehow eroded her normal reserve, but she suspected the answer was far simpler than that: Magda Petrovna.
Han watched Magda, feeling the way she drew both Windrider and herself towards her. Not since she'd been a little girl in the presence of her own mother had Han felt such an aura of peace, and at this moment in her life, she could feel only gratitude, for she well knew how desperately she needed it. She allowed herself to relax completely-so completely that she barely noticed when the conversation turned to her injuries.
She never could recall the exact words in which the information slipped out, but she never forgot Magda's expression. The brown eyes were soft, but they were also warm and supportive. Few people have the gift of offering complete sympathy without undermining the ability to deal with pain. Magda, Han realized, did.
"It's confirmed?" Magda asked gently.
"Yes." Han felt her mouth twist and straightened it, drawing her serenity about her once more. Magda's support offered her strength, and she nodded. "I have about one chance in sixty of conceiving a normal child."
"Shit." Windrider's single, bitter word might have undercut her self-control, but she saw the anger in his dark, lean face and eyes. Anger over her loss, utterly unencumbered by self-consciousness. In that moment, he became her brother.
"Have you decided what to do?" Magda's face was serene, and Han felt she would have reached down to smooth her hair, had she still had hair, as she asked the question.
"I've arranged to have my tubes tied." She shook her head wryly. "Daffyd took it worse than I did, though he tried to hide it."
"I imagine," Magda patted Han's sound thigh gently. "Funny how irrational we Fringers are, isn't it?" She smiled and patted her again, then glanced at her watch and rose. "Damn, look at the time! Your 'kindly healer'-" Han grinned at Llewellyn's favorite phrase "-muttered something about firing squads if we wore you out. And you're looking a little peaked to me, so we'd better clear out. But we'll be back, won't we, Jason?"
"Sure thing, Boss." Windrider patted one thin hand, squeezing it as he rose. "Don't worry, Han. We'll mind the store until you come back."
"I'm sure you will." She watched them head for the door and then raised her voice slightly. "Thank you for coming. And-" she found the words surprisingly comfortable for one normally so reserved "-thank you for being you. It . . . helped. It helped a lot."
"Tubewash!" Magda chuckled, tucking her cap under her arm as Windrider opened the door. "Just an excuse to get dirtside, Han!"
She sketched a casual salute and stepped through the door, followed by Windrider. It closed behind them, and Han stared at it thoughtfully. Then she let herself settle back into her pillows as the familiar drowsiness returned.
"I'm sure it was, Magda," she whispered softly, lips curving in a smile. "I'm sure it was."