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<Perhaps not, but that will not save you in the end, little brother. I am the one who is supposed to play jokes on others; you and the world are not supposed to play jokes on me! And do not tell me that you are not already gloating over how you will describe this entire afternoon to Songstress!>

Sharp Nose bleeked a soft, pain-shadowed laugh and reached out to caress his brother's mind-glow gently. Laughs Brightly's mind-glow had always been strong; now it was brighter than sunlight on water, and it was growing stronger still by the moment.

<I am sorry your plans have been upset, elder brother,> he said softly, <but I also think you were right about Dances on Clouds. She is Death Fang's Bane's daughter . . . and you are Climbs Quickly's son. They flew high, Laughs Brightly, but you—you will fly higher yet.>

<I think you are right,> Laughs Brightly replied, ears twitching as he heard the whine of a rapidly approaching two-leg flying thing. He knew, without knowing exactly how he knew, that it was a healer, summoned by his person, yet that was unimportant, and he drew the bright, welcoming joy of her about him like a still softer and endlessly warmer blanket on a day of ice and snow.

<I think you are right,> he repeated, <for there are many worlds, and Dances on Clouds means to see them all. That may take a long, long time, but she will do it, for this is a two-leg who does not know how to fail. So she will see them, and I will see them with her, and ours will be a memory song the People will never forget.>

OBLIGATED

SERVICE

Joelle Presby

Grayson Midshipwoman Claire Bedlam Lecroix palm locked the entrance to the GNS Ephraim's third auxiliary repair bay behind her and stormed around her machinery looking for something to punch. The hard surfaces mocked her. She had to settle for nestling her just delivered package on a counter and mashing her fists into the soft bundle several times.

The punches didn't give her anything like the satisfaction of beating the surface of the lap pool at Saganami Island. No one ever swam in Grayson's toxic oceans, but the Manties with their clean, safe planets had no such aversions. Claire had thrived in Manticore's upside-down society starting with a mental pretend game where she was an actress playing a male officer, and while she was in the role she'd even believed it didn't matter. In the reality of the Ephraim, Claire muttered to herself, “Yes, Aunt Jezzy, I know I should have known better. Yes, Lucy, dreams are catching. You warned me it would be hard to come back to reality.”

She checked the door one more time, not wanting to have someone walk in while she talked herself down from the latest frustration. Then she smacked the bundle with a few more solid punches.

For the required physical training, Claire had avoided actual swimming classes lest Steadholder Burdette or, worse, Aunt Jezzy, hear of the indecently skintight swimsuits. Instead, taking Lucy's strong encouragement to heart she had signed up for one self-defense course after another. Those classes had taught her to fight back, and in the water, Claire had stayed afloat only by sheer violence, slapping and kicking against its unchangeable surface.

The Ephraim had no pool, and returning to her own culture was significantly less of a relief than Claire had imagined it would be just a year ago, when her Saganami Island class graduated. The Manticoran middies had started their first cruises, with plans for the ensign promotion parties at the end; she had reported to the Ephraim and managed maintenance projects while the ship failed inspection after inspection. Now she smashed the ensign uniforms that she might never get to wear. Then she drew a deep breath, shook herself, and undid the bundle again to check for telltale wrinkling in the uniform fabric.

The Grayson Space Navy uniforms, a gift of the Lady Wives of Steadholder Burdette in three complete skirted sets, hung smooth from Claire's shaking fists. Of course they did. The steadholder's ladies wouldn't know how to find a store that sold anything less than luxury clothing. And of course the gift assumed she'd be able to afford a tailor for the final bespoke finishes. The uniform board might have allowed the new skirt option in deference to the dignity of the female service member, but they weren't fools. The skirts were split for full freedom of movement and decency in a zero-grav environment, and the tail ends belled up to cuff into the tops of the uniform boots just like the trouser uniform variant. They were supposed to cuff that is. These unhemmed skirt ends would fill a boot top and leave no room for the foot.

Perhaps the ladies assumed she had magically achieved Admiral Alexander-Harrington's height between this gift and their last present of her midshipman uniforms? They had little understanding of steaders' lives and even less knowledge of life in the Bedlam family. It wasn't actually unreasonable for them to expect a midshipwoman who was possibly almost an ensign to pay for hemming. Even Claire had expected herself to be an ensign by now—nearly a year and a half after Saganami Island class of 1920 graduation.

She took deep breaths again, trying to swallow her fury at her overdrawn bank account. Thank the Tester, she had checked the balance from her station-side bachelor officer quarters room instead of bouncing a payment at a seamstress shop's checkout line. She knew the shopkeepers saw the mottled skin from roughly treated childhood skin cancers and marked her immediately as unlikely to be able to repay any credit that might be extended to someone who wasn't a grasper.

The shop owners themselves could easily feature in Burdette street preacher sermons that warned good people against grasping after the false god of riches and rumors of prosperity, but people rarely considered that such insults could also be stuck to them. Graspers ended up alone and vulnerable in someplace like Birdies, not running a successful orbital-based business. And didn't graspers deserve it, since they'd hidden from their life's Test instead of facing it—unless, as Claire hoped, you could sometimes beg forgiveness to choose your own Test?

She briefly considered asking for a loan from one of her cousins at Birdies and crushed the thought. There would be no certainty she could pay them back any time soon. Besides, the rest of the family might realize she knew that the working girls were holding back on the family. Lucy could be counted on. She still held tight to the anger that had inspired her to leave Burdette Steading, but their mutual cousin Mary occasionally broke down and went back home.

Worse, Mary repented with disturbing regularity and confessed everyone else's sins along with her own. Everyone else usually meant just Lucy, but Claire didn't want to be looped in for those inevitable follow-on rounds of family recrimination.

If Aunt Jezzy had cause to entirely empty Claire's account like the transactions showed, there would be a reason, and it would be neither a cheap reason nor an entirely paid for reason. At least not yet. Of course, her cousin Noah might have found the account and debited it directly himself. Claire gritted her teeth and tried to remind herself that the teenage head-of-household was due his privileges.

Noah had approved her authorization to work outside the home and signed all the renewals without a fuss. Who was she to hold his age against him?

Claire gently laid the uniforms out on the cleaner portions of the work counters and looked for a way to do the hemming herself. An industrial cutter made for materials far tougher than smart fabric made short work of the long tubes, and she gathered up the scraps.

The cut bits had quite a lot of stretch to them; she smiled at the idea of offering them to Lucy to use as a costume in one of her dance routines just to see the laughter in her eyes when she refused them. But Mary would miss the joke and want to do a team routine with Lucy, each with one well-covered ankle. The Birdies Club would bill it as a midshipwoman's uniform, and those boys in the audience would love it.

Claire stuffed the scraps firmly in the waste bin.

* * *

Claire arrived breathless at the XO's wood paneled outer office, answering the summons before the other two officers named in the page. The assistant tactical officer jogged in moments later. He glanced at her and away with a slight pinch to his lips.

“Have you done something wrong recently, I shou

ld know about?”

She tried not to clench her teeth as she answered the real question. “I don't know what this is about, Sir.”

Ambling in from the passageway, the Auxiliaries Officer shook out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead. His tailored gray-green suit matched his eyes and the fabric's undertone brought out the gleam of the silver sprinkling his dark hair. He had definitely been on his way off the ship, dressed in civilian clothes and looking to impress someone. Ephraim held the dubious honor of an extra engineering department billet, the AuxO, created by the Office of Personnel to repair if not prevent the ship's frequent maintenance issues. The AuxO winked at her and playfully punched the ATO on the shoulder.

“Claire's too straight-laced to cause trouble. I bet you the XO just needs something fixed.”

She hoped his prediction was right. She ran through the mental list of potential Navy sins that might warrant XO-level censure: a few sign-offs behind on her qualification studies for ensign (okay, a lot behind), the package in her arms, and the drunk who had mistaken her for Lucy.

The inebriate had apologized to the duty officer yesterday once he'd sobered up, and her cousins carefully kept their blood relationship to her a secret, even from the AuxO who was one of their better tippers.

The sign-offs? Why would the XO start to care about that now?

It had to be the ensign uniforms. Claire risked a glance down that might draw attention to the officer insignia she hadn't earned yet and maybe never would. Could the XO blame her just for having received the package?

Actually, yes, she was pretty sure he could. They would treat it just like Midshipman Harris's care package from old schoolmates with the images of women undoubtedly in the same profession as Lucy and Mary.

The two male officers exchanged banter, oblivious to Claire's unease. The ATO even let himself smile, and if it faded a bit when his eyes tripped over her, he didn't let the opportunity pass to quiz the AuxO on the dress up. Their back and forth revealed that he was to meet the mothers of a possible fiancée to show them around Blackbird Yard. He flashed a quick smile at Claire, and she returned it even though he was clearly just practicing for the upcoming visit.

The ATO's frown deepened, and Claire dropped the smile. Ever since his wives had made public their unhappiness at sharing a junior lieutenant's pay and objections spreading the income with a third wife, his curt interactions with the single midshipwoman in the bevy of middies nominally under his training guidance had grown decidedly strained.

At the last wardroom officers and wives function, Claire had tried to make clear that she was only in the service to learn some skills to transfer to a job on Blackbird Yard just as soon as her obligation was met. A few comments from the XO's wives about Claire's looks not being good enough to attract an officer anyway, might have helped, even if they had set her teeth on edge. If the ATO had had a touch less to drink he might not have responded that all women look the same in the dark or his whisper might have been pitched lower so the fully drunk Midshipman Harris could not have repeated it at full volume. The invitation to the next function had specified officers and wives, ensigns and above only. Exclusion was almost a relief.

For Claire's part, working surrounded by the men was almost restful compared to growing up on Burdette Steading with Grayson's toxic birthrate of three girls to every live boy. Dr. Allison Harrington, the famous Admiral Alexander-Harrington's lady mother had found a cure, but that would be the salvation of the next generation. Nothing could bring Claire's many stillborn brothers back to life.

Grayson men might still expect Claire to be continually hunting for a husband, but they weren't constantly measuring and evaluating the way women did. Well, they were, Claire amended to herself, but that was different. A midshipman, midshipwoman, whatever was supposed to be forever polishing up military knowledge and skills, after all.

Lucy and Mary, dancing at Birdies, were very nearly cut off from the family, yet they meticulously braided their hair and made up their faces before leaving the club in street clothes on their days off. Strangers on the street would chastise any woman who didn't care for her appearance. At least a woman had the one time Claire had gone without makeup.

She automatically shifted back against the bulkhead and tucked her chin down, coming to attention as the door to the XO's office opened. The laughing crinkles normally lingering at the corners of the XO's eyes were displaced today by a flat twitch on just the left side; both full officers straightened in response.

She tried a bright smile. It felt like showing her teeth. She licked her lips ready to attempt an opening bit of chitchat but clamped her mouth shut at an eye bulge and miniscule headshake from AuxO.

“What's that, Middy?” The XO said, pointing at her bundle.

She stumbled through a tortured explanation of the Burdette ladies sending uniforms from time to time. With the new uniform regulations for officers they had wanted to send her skirt sets, but, she admitted, they had ensign insignia.

The XO cut her off with a curt gesture. The ATO sucked in air ready to lay into her, but his eyes flittered back and forth between Claire and the XO waiting for his cue.

The XO pointed at his private bathroom and said, “Go put them on.”

The ATO deflated with a stunned series of blinks.

Claire returned with the two remaining new skirt sets folded inside a bundled midshipwoman uniform.

The lieutenants were hunched at the XO's desk signing forms with matching expressions of unhappiness while the XO paced.

A pair of bags sat just inside the cabin next to the entry hatch. The scuff of grease on the one side looked much like Claire's own bags. Her stomach dropped. The Ephraim was supposed to be leaving the yards tomorrow. Since a cabin hadn't been assigned to her yet, she'd brought her bags from the room on the station and put them in an empty locker in auxiliary repair bay three, and those, definitely her bags, had been brought to the XO office.

The two officers finished their work. The XO applied a stamp form of the CO's signature. Claire swallowed hard; something was very wrong here. The commanding officer, Captain Ayres, was just on leave, not incapacitated. The XO jabbed the send button and whatever it was transmitted without a chance of being called back for formal review by the CO.

Turning to Claire, the XO held out his hand. “Congratulations on your promotion, Ensign.”

That just sent transmission had to be Claire's unearned promotion package on its way to the Office of Personnel. The ATO glared at the wall, but the AuxO gave her a tentative smile. She managed some kind of thank you that probably wasn't quite the right military response, quivering internally. The last time someone on the ship had been promoted to ensign there had been a formal ceremony and reception in the wardroom, and Captain Ayres had given a little speech about how hard the man had worked to earn the ensign pips.

The XO coughed and said, “You'll be reporting to the Manasseh tomorrow.”

He added something very quickly about the CO's concerns about having a female officer onboard while in space. Captain Ayres had requested Claire be transferred to Blackbird Yard permanently, the XO explained. Since all such transfers required the officer be at least an ensign, the request was in now. The XO was sure it would be approved before that ship departed again, even with Commander Greentree over on the Manasseh not knowing how to relax and enjoy placing a ship in the yards from time to time.

An expression of pure envy passed over the ATO's face, and even the AuxO appeared faintly wistful. For a moment she wondered if they were jealous of her.

* * *

Ensign Claire Bedlam Lecroix left her first ship without ceremony.

She stood alone with her bags on the Arrival's Concourse aboard Blackbird Alpha, the central control and personnel platform of the widely dispersed Blackbird Yard. Off to her left, the regular shuttle to Blackbird Bravo filled with a cheerful mix of commercial and Navy spacers on their way to the mass of eateries and entertainment venues in the B sections. Lucy and Mary

shared a large enough place above Birdies in Section B3 to give Claire a bed, but she could be drummed out of the service if anyone saw and assumed the wrong thing.

Going back to the bachelor quarters probably wouldn't work since she'd checked out that morning and by now the payment would have bounced. The desk clerks didn't like the work of debiting future paychecks and could both refuse her a room and recommend the officer in charge consider placing a letter of instruction in her file for the failed payment. It was best to remain a number in their database to keep the clerks from thinking about her long enough to get angry. She lugged her bags down the corridor to the docking bay receiving shuttles from Manasseh and several others, praying that the ship would have an empty stateroom.

Claire waited for the shuttle and pressed moist hands against the heavy fabric of her skirts with nervous sweat trickling down her back. The industrially-cut and tape-hemmed ends of the billowous split skirts tucked into her uniform boots kept sticking and ripping at her ankles whenever she fidgeted. She admonished herself silently to stop dancing about like a waitress eager for tips and project presence like a Harrington.

She'd been an awful waitress for Aunt Jezzy's restaurant. This officer thing wasn't working out so well, either, but the pay was so much better. Claire repeated the mantra in her mind. Just one tour in the Navy. Do the payback for the cost of Saganami. Get out, and find some job in the space industries where they hired women. Today, all she had to do was find someplace to stay that wasn't a room over Birdies.

A reflection in the chrome bulkhead froze Claire's expression in a bug-eyed grimace. It wasn't. But yes, those were the pips of a full Captain, and that was Captain Matheson Ayres, Commanding Officer of the GNS Ephraim, standing beside and a bit behind her with his lips tilted in a bemused smile. Not for the first time, she wondered how he could be a full captain and only be commanding a destroyer.



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