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Beginnings


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* * *

“There seems to be more to your friend Lieutenant Harrington than meets the eye, Franz,” Allison said with more than a slight edge of gentle malice. The Manticoran looked at her, and she smiled. “Hadn't you heard? Dr. Mwo-chi's chosen him as one of her research assistants.”

Illescu's expression tightened. He started to shoot something back—something short and sharp, she suspected—then stopped himself. Instead, he inhaled deeply and then shrugged.

“Dr. Mwo-chi's entitled to choose anyone she wants,” he said. “You may be right—there may be more to him than I think. I'm certainly not going to accuse Dr. Mwo-chi of picking anyone as an assistant if she didn't think he was qualified! That doesn't change my opinion about quota systems, though. It doesn't mean he deserved to get here in the first place, and it doesn't mean he didn't bounce someone who did deserve it. As for myself,” he shrugged again, “I'm just as happy we're going to be an entirely different fields. ISU's big enough I won't have to run into him unless I'm just plain unlucky.”

“You're right about that,” she replied. “The university is big enough you can usually avoid people who tick you off. Oh, my! Look at the time! I'm going to be late to class if I don't hurry.”

She turned and walked away, wondering what it was she'd thought she'd seen in Franz Illescu when he first arrived on campus. He'd seemed personable enough then, and quite charming in his own way. He'd clearly fancied himself as a ladies' man, but he was prepared to take no for an answer with remarkably good grace when his interest wasn't reciprocated. And, in fairness, he was well informed, had good taste in music, and had proved a pleasant bed companion, as well.

Yet under all of those undeniable good points, there was a sharp-edged personality. The sort that tended to leave relationships bleeding in the end. It wasn't that he wasn't a very good student who, someday, was going to turn into a very good doctor . . . as a technician, at any rate. She didn't understand why he'd chosen obstetrics, given what she'd seen of him so far, but he was certainly smart enough if he could just get outside those preconceptions and that prickly personality of his.

She'd almost opted for maternal-fetal medicine herself, but she'd decided in the end that the focus was too narrow. A wonderful focus, yes, but more . . . limited than what she wanted to do with her life. Instead, she'd chosen gene therapy and surgery, despite the fact that it had been a family specialization for generations. She suspected sometimes that was why she'd been so inclined to choose against it, because she knew she had a naturally contrary streak. In fact, it was about a kilometer wide, and it had turned her into the closest thing to a rebel the family had experienced since her Great Aunt Jacqueline had dropped out of college, changed her name, and emigrated to Old Earth. She didn't really mean to be “difficult,” as her mother was wont to put it, but neither did she intend to just roll over and accept the dictates of tradition and other people's expectations. It was her life, when it came down to it. She had to be the one to decide what she did with it, whether the rest of Beowulf approved or not. And besides that, it was so boring, so limiting, to allow herself to be hammered into someone else's role just because that was what was expected of someone in her family. In fact, she'd almost followed her brother's example and avoided medicine entirely. Now that would have caused her parents to suffer a good old-fashioned fit of appoplexy!

In the end, she hadn't been able to do it, though. Maybe there really was something to her mother's insistence that it was “in the blood,” although that always seemed particularly unscientific from someone who was herself one of Beowulf's dozen leading geneticists. But when it came down to it, Allison simply hadn't been able to turn away. The wonders of the human body, and especially of the marvelous, unending complexity and splendor of its genetic blueprint, had been too much. The lure of giving her life to their study had overcome her frustration at being shoved into a predictable niche. It struck her as especially unfair that she should find the human genome so fascinating that she couldn't resist giving in to her mother's endless gentle (and not so gentle) pushing and prodding. But that interest of hers in maternal and fetal might be part of what had initially attracted her to Iliescu. She was going to spend a lot of time working with expectant parents, after all, and whatever she thought of him as a person, he was clearly going to be a superior obstetric technician. Surely they should have had something in common!

Whatever had drawn her originally, however, it was wearing off quickly, and she found herself wondering about the towering Manticoran naval lieutenant he'd taken in such profound dislike. Anyone he disliked was probably worth knowing more about, after all. And there was something about Harrington. He certainly stood out on campus, and not just because of the uniform he habitually wore. He was much, much taller than the vast majority of Beowulfers, whereas Allison was shorter than most of them. In fact, he was a good half-meter taller than she was! No one would ever call him handsome, either, although he was at least passably good-looking.

Perhaps it was the way he moved? Someone that large shouldn't move . . . gracefully, yet he did. Part of that might be the difference in gravities, yet that couldn't be all of it, and she found herself wondering about his genetic profile. The Star Kingdom of Manticore had acquired more than its share of genies, after all. All of its planets boasted gravities heavier than Beowulf's, but Sphinx's was heaviest of all, and Harrington didn't have the stocky, over-muscled build of an unmodified human growing up in a gravity field thirty-five percent heavier than the one in which humanity had evolved. So clearly there was some modification in his family history, and she wondered which one it had been? Not Quellhollow; he didn't have the coloration for that. Meyerdahl was a possibility, of course, but so were the Kismet and Cantrell modifications. Not that it mattered, except that it piqued her professional curiosity.

She thought about it as she sauntered towards the class whose immediacy she had somewhat mendaciously exaggerated to Illescu, then grinned. Her brother had teased her more than once over her curiosity. He had a passion for ancient literature, especially pre-space, Old Earth writers. One of his favorite authors was a fellow named Kipling, and he'd called her “Ricky” when she was a child. When she'd asked him why, she'd told him that he reminded her of two of his favorite Kipling characters, someone called “the Elephant Child” with his “'satiable curiosity” and someone else called “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” whose motto had been “Run and find out.” She hadn't known whether to be amused or insulted, so he'd given her copies of the original stories, and she'd decided in the end that he had a point. A very good point, as it happened.

* * *

Alfred Harrington moved quickly across the quadrangle. He'd always been good at memorizing maps and knowing exactly where he was, and that talent had served him well here on ISU's huge campus. Despite which, he was probably going to be late to his appointment with Dr. Patterson. He and Dr. Mwo-chi had run over on their scheduled lab, partly because they were still in the familiarization phase, and she'd promised to protect him if Dr. Patterson turned ugly. Given that Patterson had a reputation for being one of the kindliest, most cheerful professors on campus, he was unlikely to stand in too much need of protection, but he really liked Patterson. And—

“Ohhh!”

Alfred threw out one arm for balance as the small, black-haired, unreasonably good-looking young woman appeared out of nowhere. She seemed to literally materialize from behind a carefully shaped bank of flowering bushes, directly into his path. His reflexes were much quicker than those of an unmodified human who'd grown up in a single gravity, but they weren't fast enough to stop him in time, and he ran into her hard enough to send her bouncing backward with the impact.

* * *

Allison found herself stumbling back with a squawk of dismay that was completely genuine. She hadn't realized how quickly he was moving, and she hadn't allowed for the sheer size and physical power of him. He was a third again her own height, with the dense muscle, heavy bone, and solid gristle of his home wo

rld. He must have weighed more than twice as much as she did, and it dawned on her as she felt her balance going that it might have been wiser to find a different way to “accidentally” encounter him.

Then his hand darted out. She'd never seen anyone move that quickly before, and the fingers that closed on her shoulder could have been forged of iron. They were gentle, but they were also completely unyielding, and she felt her incipient tumble being braked to a halt without any apparent effort at all.

“Excuse me,” he said, so earnestly she felt a pang—brief, but a pang—of guilt over having arranged the collision. “I usually watch where I'm going better than that!”

“Don't be silly.” She gave herself a shake and used her right hand to rake hair out of her eyes as he released her shoulder. “It was more my fault than yours,” she went on with complete honesty. “I know how that butterfly bush blocks the sightlines for anyone headed for Priestly Hall. If I didn't want someone to run into me, I should've stopped and looked both ways before I stepped into the open around it.”

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I think I'm fine, Lieutenant . . . Harrington.” She was careful to read the name off the plate on the front of his uniform tunic and smiled at him. “Obviously, you're from Manticore. How do you do?” She held out her hand. “I'm Allison Chou.”

It wasn't her full name, but he didn't have to know that . . . yet, at any rate. And it was the one on her admission file here at the university. It had irritated her parents, and especially her mother, no end when she decided on that, but names were personal things here on Beowulf. No one could really object, and while she suspected she wasn't fooling very many of her classmates, she could at least pretend Chou was her complete surname.

“Pleased to meet you Ms. Chou.” He took her hand, and once again she realized he was deliberately restricting the power of his grip. It was just as strong as she'd thought it was, but it was also gentle, and a strange sort of tingle seemed to flow into her own hand out of it. “Alfred Harrington. And, yes, I am from the Star Kingdom—from Sphinx, as a matter of fact.”

“I thought I recognized the accent,” she said, trying to understand that sensation. She'd never felt anything quite like it. “You're a student here?”

“Yes.” He nodded. He released her hand, and she took it back almost reluctantly. “Neurosurgery. And you?”

“Genetics.” She shrugged, wiggling her fingers unobtrusively. “Something of a tradition here on Beowulf, I'm afraid.”

“Sounds interesting to me,” he replied. “Of course,” he smiled a bit crookedly, “a lot of us Manticorans, especially the ones from Sphinx, have a certain . . . vested interest in that field, you might say.”

“I suppose you do,” she agreed.

She gazed up at him, wondering why his voice seemed to carry a peculiar overtone. She couldn't quite put her finger on what it was, but it was almost . . . furry feeling. Like something silky soft stroking over her skin. It clearly wasn't anything he was doing on purpose, yet there was something . . . intimate about it, as if the tingle her hand had felt was spreading to other portions of her anatomy. Whatever it was, it wasn't anything she'd expected to feel. And there was something else with it. Something . . . darker, sadder. It was ridiculous, of course, and she knew it, and yet what she felt at that moment was a simultaneous need to purr and to burst into tears.

“So you'll be here on Beowulf for a while?” she heard herself say, and he nodded.

“At least two or three T-years. It's not that far back to Sphinx through the Junction, though. I can grab one of the daytrips home to visit anytime I've got a couple of days free, so it's not exactly like being in exile.”

“No, I can see that.”

She was beginning to feel a little foolish. There was something so nice about just standing here, talking to him, and that was ridiculous. First, because she didn't even know him. Second, because to be brutally honest, she'd been energetically pursued (and, on occasion, caught) by men a lot better looking than he was. Third, because she had no idea where that edge of darkness was coming from, and it scared her. And fourth, because it was pretty obvious that whatever she might be feeling, he wasn't feeling it at all.

“Well,” she said, “you were clearly in a hurry before I ran into you, so I'd probably better let you get on to wherever it was you were going.”

She stepped back out of the way, and he looked down at her. He hesitated a moment, then nodded.

“You're right, I'd better get moving,” he said, and she had the strangest feeling that it wasn't what he'd started to say. “Maybe we'll run into each other again—a little less literally, next time.”

“Maybe we will,” she agreed, nodding back to him, then watched him walk away with that long, graceful stride.

Well, that was weird enough, she thought, watching him go, trying to remember anything like what had just happened. She'd met plenty of attractive men in her life, and been drawn to more than one of them. She was Beowulfan, after all, and she knew, without false modesty or conceit, far more attractive herself than most. But she'd never felt so . . . comfortable with someone so quickly.

She ambled across to one of the shaded benches and settled on it, her expression pensive. She didn't know Lieutenant Harrington from Adam's house cat, as her brother might have put it, and the entire experience had been more than a little disturbing. A lot of people thought of her as impulsive, and she was willing to admit there was some truth to that, yet she'd never encountered anything quite like this. It was as if there was some sort of link, some kind of connection, between the two of them despite the fact that they'd never even met, and that was just plain stupid. Things like that didn't happen outside really bad novels. Besides, that darkness . . . Now that the moment had passed, she tasted it far more clearly, like iron on her tongue, and she shivered. It was as if it hadn't been her darkness at all, as if it had been someone else's entirely, and that frightened her.

She blinked as she realized what she'd just thought. Frightened her? All right, it was strange, perhaps, but frightening? That was ludicrous. And, she decided, straightening her spine, she wasn't going to put up with it, either. Not that she knew exactly what she was going to do about it just yet. That was going to take some thinking, and it was obvious to her that there was rather more to Lieutenant Harrington than met the eye—where she was concerned, at any rate. And that meant she'd darned well better not be rushing into anything, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi or no Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. No, it was time to be subtle, to consider carefully . . . to be nosy. And what was the point in having family connections if you never used them?

* * *

“To what do I owe the honor?” Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou inquired as he pulled out his sister's chair. She settled into it, and he walked around the table to his own. He sat, eyebrows politely raised, and she smiled at him.

They looked very much alike, which was hardly surprising, given that they were fraternal twins. Of course, he was also five T-years—almost six, actually—older than she was, but that wasn't as rare on Beowulf as it was on some other worlds, where birth rates were less tightly regulated. He was slightly taller than she was, too, but no one who saw them together would ever have mistaken them for anything other than the twins they were.

“Why do you always assume I have an ulterior motive when I ask you to have lunch with me?” Allison inquired.

“Years and years of experience, mostly,” he replied dryly, and she grinned.

“I never could put anything over on you, could I, Jacques?”

“Not for lack of trying, though.”

“A girl has to practice on someone,” she pointed out.

“I'm so happy to have been of use to you,” he said with exquisite courtesy. “But you still haven't told me what this is about.” He waved one hand gently around the expensive restaurant. “Mind, I've always liked the food at Madoka's, but this was rather short notice even for you.”

“My schedule's tighter this semester.”

She shrugged. “I've got smaller holes to fit things into.”

“And my own superiors' desire that I might perhaps accommodate my schedule to theirs figures into your plans exactly how?”

“Oh, be serious, Jacques!” She shook her head. “You've been twisting your schedule into a pretzel any time it suited your purposes for as long as I can remember. Don't tell me your ‘superiors' think they're going to change that!”

He considered her thoughtfully. She had a point, although not as strong a one as she might have thought. A lot of that pretzel she was talking about was more apparent than real. It would please his superiors—and him—no end if they could convince someone with a working IQ that he was simply a child of one of Beowulf's elite families, amusing himself by dabbling with a military career and not taking it any more seriously along the way than he had to. He doubted they were going to fool too many of the people who really mattered, but it was always worth a try, and even people who knew better couldn't afford to ignore official appearances. If all the rest of the galaxy perceived him as a dilettante, they'd have to act as if they did, as well . . . or else explain why they didn't. Encouraging that perception was the reason he'd probably be leaving the military—officially, at least—in a very few more years, as well, and the thought didn't make him very happy. He'd seen and done some ugly things in the BSC, but he'd been part of some pretty damned satisfying things, too. He was going to miss going out with the teams, meeting the challenges they met in the field.

“Well, while I'm certainly not prepared to agree that there's any truth whatsoever in your aspersions upon my character,” he said now, “I am here, and you indicated you had something to talk about. So . . . ?”



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