Morning sunlight flicked wavering patterns through the scuttles to dance on the overhead and glint on the tableware, and Ludmilla Leonovna, late of the Terran Marines, gripped her coffee cup two-handed, propped her elbows on the galley table, and sipped luxuriantly. Her chestnut hair was tousled, falling over the shoulders of another of Aston's tee-shirts. This one carried the Harley-Davidson eagle on its front—it had been a gift from his last XO, whose sense of humor had always been peculiar—and he had to admit it looked far better on her than it ever had on him. Besides, she seemed fascinated by its gaudiness, and she took an almost childlike delight in its bright colors.
It was odd, he thought, regarding her across the table. Despite her revelations, he hadn't really expected her to invite him into her bunk last night. Nor had he been prepared for the skill and passion she'd exhibited. No doubt he should have; anyone who looked like that and had enjoyed eighty years of practice must have had ample opportunity to get the basics down. Yet there'd been a curious vulnerability to her, as well. Almost a shyness—a sense that she was deliberately lowering some inner, secret barrier.
She was, he reflected, an incredibly complex individual. Her openness and readiness to cope with her bizarre situation masked it, but the complexity was there, hidden behind a multilayered defense, and he wondered if all "Methuselahs" were like that. Did dealing with shorter-lived "Normals" for decade after decade—watching friends age and fade while they themselves stayed endlessly young—create that sense of a guarded, utterly private core in all of them? And could a "Normal" truly be a "Thuselah's" friend? Even if she opened up with them, allowed them past her guard, could they accept the true depth of the differences between her and them? Intellectually, he could believe she truly was the age she claimed, but his emotions were still catching up with the information. It was an extraordinary sensation to realize that the superb young body sitting across his table from him belonged to a woman—no, he told himself, a lady—even older than he.
"Ummm." Another thought came to him, and he opened a locker and pulled out a rolled bundle. "I guess I better give this stuff back to you," he said, and extended her blood-stained flight suit.
"Messy," she said dispassionately, regarding the gory smears of her own dried blood, and her calm expression reminded him anew that this was a warrior. Then she unrolled the bundle, and the iron-nerved professional vanished in a gasp of anguish.
"Oh . . . my . . . God! What did you use?! A cleaver?"
This was his own first good look at it since he'd bundled the slashed garment into the locker on The Night, and he had to admit his surgery had been radical. It gaped raggedly open from neck to crotch, and she shook her head sadly as she traced the edge of the cut with a finger.
"Well, I had to get it off you some way," he said a bit defensively, "and I certainly didn't see any zippers."
"Zippers?" She flipped the flight suit over and touched a spot on the right shoulder. A razor-sharp seam opened down the back, and she looked up with a chiding expression. "Barbarian!" she snorted, and he felt an edge of relief at the laughter in her voice.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but it really seemed like the only way."
"I know, I know," she sighed. She touched something near the left cuff, and his eyes widened as a narrow section of fabric slid back to reveal a wafer-thin instrument panel reaching from cuff to elbow. It was covered with tiny lights and readouts, and very few of the lights were green. "Lordy," she murmured, bending over it. "You don't believe in fractionals."
"Just what did I do?" he asked curiously, craning his own neck for a better view.
"Oh, I'd say a megacred or so of damage," she replied. She touched a series of tiny switches, and about half the red lights turned amber. "Could be worse, though."
"What are you doing?"
"Running a diagnostic. Hmm. . . ." She fell silent, absorbed in her task, and he possessed his soul in as much patience as he could while she concentrated. It was several minutes before she straightened with a sigh.
"It may not be too bad, after all," she said. "The com networks're shot to hell, but you missed the sensies."
"I what?" He looked at her in astonishment. "Just what the hell is that thing, anyway?"
"My flight suit," she said in surprise, then grinned slyly at his baffled expression. "Oho! Revenge is in my grasp, I see. Maybe I just shouldn't tell you about it."
"Try it and I'll toss you over the side," he growled.
"You and what army?" she said saucily, then held up a hand in laughing surrender as he started to rise. "Mercy! I'll talk—I'll talk!"
"Gladly, but I'm not sure where to start." She thought for a moment. "I know more maintenance and field service than design theory, and I doubt your tech base'd be up to the details, even if I had more of them myself, but basically, this is what you'd call my space suit. It's a lot more capable than any suit your space program's come up with yet, though. You can think of it as a computer, and you won't be far wrong."
"Cert. It's lousy with molycircs—molecular circuitry, that is. It has to be, because every square millimeter of the inner skin is fitted with sensors to monitor internal conditions. The outer skin's set up to reflect harmful radiation and absorb energy to power the internal circuits. The whole suit's designed to absorb and recycle body wastes, too—you can live in the thing for weeks, if you have to. Well, I guess I proved that on the flight here."
"But if it's a space suit, where's the oxygen?" he demanded, his eyes bright with fascination.
"Right here." She touched the fabric. "Oh, the older suits were a lot thicker—as much as a centimeter in places—but the technology's a lot better these days. The middle layer between the two boundary skins is one big mass of micro-vacuoles. You can think of them as millions of tiny little air and water and nutrient tanks, if that works better." She saw his incredulous expression and grinned. "It may not sound like much, but they're under something like twenty thousand atmospheres. As a matter of fact, the consumables ought to be just about full right now, since I didn't use any suit resources on the way in."
"No wonder it was so hard to cut," he said softly.
"Hard?" She snorted. "Dick, if the designer hadn't put some thought into it, you couldn't have cut it. I don't know whether you noticed, but this—" she traced the cut with her finger "—is almost exactly where anyone would cut it, assuming that they had to. They deliberately put most of the consumable storage around back and to the sides. All you cut through was about a quarter of the electronics." She grinned. "You managed to disconnect almost all my com channels, but you missed the sensies."
"Active and passive sensors. Visual, sonar, what you might think of as radar—all built in."
"My God. But your helmet went down with your ship, didn't it?"
"A helmet went down, but that was the neural feed to the flight controls. It'll serve as a helmet if you lose cabin pressure in combat, but you don't really need it. Look." She touched another apparently blank spot, and the suit's sleeves obediently extruded thin, tough gloves while a spherical shimmer danced above the shoulders. "One-way force field," she explained casually, sliding a hand through the shimmer. "The sensies run on direct neural feeds, so you don't even need readouts."
"I'm . . . impressed," he said finally, and she chuckled again.
"You should be. The damned thing's price tag is about ten percent that of an interceptor."
"I'm sorry I ruined it," he said almost humbly.
"Oh, it's not ruined," she assured him. "The nanotech features are off-line right now, and this level of repair would be a big enough energy hog that I'm not about to bring them up while it's running on stored power. But if I can plug into the right feed for a few hours, the self-repair systems'll take care of most of it."
He gawked at her. Somehow that impressed him even more than all the rest. He was almost glad her attention remained on her ravaged suit while he got his expression under control.
"Does it do any other tricks?" he asked finally.
"That's about it," she said with a shrug, and he shook his head slowly. He shouldn't be so surprised, he reminded himself. One of Christopher Columbus's seamen would be just as amazed by a Nimitz-class carrier or a Seawolf attack sub.
"I'm impressed," he said again, and she gave him a sympathetic smile, as if her thoughts had been paralleling his own. "But at least I figured out that this—" he tapped her holstered side arm "—is a weapon. In fact, this thing—" he touched the necklet he'd removed from her throat "—is what had puzzled me most. Before you showed me Rex the Wonder Suit, that is."
The reference clearly eluded her, but she understood the context and gave him a gamine grin as she picked up the metal band.
"This? It's what you'd call my . . . dog tags?" She produced the term cautiously, and he nodded in sudden understanding. "It's a bit more than just who I am, though," she went on. "It's another little computer—only a terabyte or so of memory—with my whole life history. Medical records, service record, next of kin." She shrugged, toying with it. "I'm afraid it's useless now, though."
"Computer language has changed a bit in the last few centuries," she said dryly. "Besides, it's a plug-in, not a stand-alone, and it's as full of molycircs as the suit. I doubt there's any way to interface. Once we kill the Troll—" he noticed that she didn't allow herself to use the word if "—I guess I'll turn it over to your techies, but I doubt they'll be able to make much out of it for quite a few years."
"Oh boy! I can just see myself trying to explain any of this stuff." He shook his head. "The suit's busted and the computer can't be tapped . . . they won't even slow down on the way to the rubber room, Milla." She raised an eyebrow. "Rubber room—as in a padded cell in a home for the mentally unbalanced."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry." She picked up her gunbelt and headed for the companion. "I think we can convince them. Come on."
He followed her up on deck a bit slowly, his head spinning from the casual miracles she'd been describing. She was waiting for him, and he noticed that she'd strapped the weapon belt around her waist and drawn the gun. She examined it minutely.
"Did you play around with this?"
"Do I look like I'm stupid?" he demanded. "Don't answer that," he added hastily, and she shut her mouth with a grin. "In answer to your question, no. I couldn't figure out the controls."
"Wouldn't've helped if you had," she said. "It's persona-locked." He raised a resigned eyebrow, and she touched his shoulder. "Hang in, Dick," she said sympathetically. "Just remember that showing off my gadgets gives me a sense of security, okay? I mean, your whole world is as different for me as these things are for you."
"But at least you know roughly what happened, historically speaking."
"True. Anyway, persona-locked means it's keyed to me. I'm the only person who can fire it."
"Ever?" The possibility intrigued him.
"Yep. When I zerch out, they'll have to slag the thing, because it can't be rekeyed. Which, I might add, makes Fleet a bit touchy when we lose one—they aren't cheap and they can't be reissued. But at least it means there's no such thing as a black market in military small arms."
"I can see how that would follow."
"Okay." She touched two of the small side controls he'd noticed. "I'm setting it for single-shot at the lowest power setting—no point getting too dramatic." She raised the weapon, bringing it no higher than her rib cage and pointing it as easily as her finger. He recognized either a highly experienced shooter's stance or the position of a gross novice, and he rather suspected which it was.
"Watch," she said, and squeezed the firing stud.
Absolutely nothing happened as far as the weapon itself was concerned. There was no recoil, no noise, no muzzle flash—not even a click—but things were different elsewhere. A tremendous, hissing roar smashed his ears, and a furiously steaming hole suddenly appeared in the ocean about fifty yards from Amanda. A large, perfect hemisphere of a hole, at least ten feet deep.
He stared at it in awe, and it vanished as magically as it had appeared.
"Gaaah," he said quietly as the steam condensed in a fine rain, then shook himself. "That was the lowest power setting?" he asked faintly.
"Um-hum." She holstered the weapon nonchalantly, but the gleam in her eye was wicked.
"On single-shot. . . . That means you can fire bursts?"
"Cert. It's wasteful, though. At full power, I'd empty the magazine with twelve pulses."
"What the hell is that thing?" he demanded. "What d'you call it?"
"I'm afraid we call it a `blaster,' " she said apologetically, and he closed his eyes. He should have known, he told himself. "As for what it is, that's a bit hard to explain—inevitably." She met his long-suffering gaze understandingly. "Think of it this way, Dick: it's a capacitor-fed energy weapon which projects a pulse of plasma at the target. On full auto at full power, it delivers approximately one-point-eight k-tons of energy per second, or just over twenty-one and a half kilotons for the magazine, since it cycles at a pulse a second. Of course," she added thoughtfully, "if you pump the full mag that fast, you'll burn out every time."
"Jesus!" he said, remembering the extra magazines in the back of the holster. "You're a walking tactical nuke! Isn't that a mite excessive?"
"Not really," she said. "We don't use these things on each other, Dick. They're to kill Trolls, and they take a lot of killing." She shrugged. "I don't know much about your metallurgy, but I suspect your best armorers couldn't begin to understand how tough those bastards are. And their reflexes are so damned fast our people have to be able to take them out with a single hit. But you're right; it is a lot of firepower, and that's the real reason for the persona-lock programs."
"I can understand that," he said fervently. The thought that so much destruction was riding on her hip was enough to make him feel faintly ill. He shook himself, sloughing off the sensation with an act of will.
"Well!" he said finally. "Remind me to be very polite to you."
"I will," she agreed with another of her lurking grins. "But, tell me," she went on, her suddenly anxious tone belied by the gleam in her eyes, "would a demonstration of this make up for my inoperative space suit?"
"Oh, I think it might," he said slowly. "Yes, I think it might just do that, Milla."