A/N: The Hanyu Pinyin translations below do not transfer correctly from my original docs. As an example, the accent marks for the following statement print to the side of the letters that should be modified, affecting the a, i, and o and u. I have corrected this by deleting the accents and bold-facing the affected letters, which may make the pronunciations inaccurate. My apologies. In this example, I used bold-faced letters to illustrate the errors — Nǐ kàn qǐlái yǒudiǎn niánqīngle, hē píjiǔThe Chinese/English translations appear in brackets immediately after the Chinese words—these are non-spoken words and are generally in italics for translations of spoken Chinese, or non-italic for translations of thoughts in Chinese. There are a few words (generally curse words) that don't have translations. Non-verbal thoughts are in italics without quote marks; incoming "comms" speech is italicized within double quotes. If you enjoyed this chapter, please continue on.


• CITY of SHANGHAI, CHINA · EARTH •
◦ DECEMBER, 2178-CE ◦

Twenty-one year old Alliance Serviceman 1st Class Yuán Xiùlán entered a small, dimly-lit restaurant just a short walk from the old Royal International Hotel on Xiuchuan Road in Shanghai. She had a few hours to kill until she needed to board the Alliance shuttle headed for Earth orbit; from orbit it would make a short, near-light speed jump to Luna Base, where she would begin an intense eighteen-month training program.

Taking a seat at the counter, she ordered shredded fish with snow cabbage in noodle soup and a glass of Xinjiang Black Beer to wash it all down. She hoped she wouldn't regret her choice of cuisine during the upcoming short trip, but dammit, she was going to have one last meal from her homeland before she left, particularly since she didn't have a clue when she'd be able to return.

A waitress brought the glass of beer, telling her the soup would be right out as she set the glass down. "Ni kàn qilái youdian niánqīngle, hē píjiu," [你看起來有點年輕了,喝啤酒 – You look a bit young to be drinking beer] she commented. "Méishénme dàbùliao de," waving a hand at her freshly cleaned and pressed uniform. "Ni shì lao dé zúyi fúwù yú haijūn, ni kěyi xiangshòu yībēi píjiu." [沒什麼大不了的。你是老得足以服務於海軍, 你可以享受一杯啤酒 – No big deal. You're old enough to serve in the Navy, you can enjoy a [one] glass of beer.]

"Xièxiè," Xiùlán replied with a smile. "Wo yào qù yuèqiú. Wo bù zhīdào duōjiu. Wo zhishì xiang cóng wo de guójiā yì xiē shíwù zài wo líkāi zhīqián." [謝謝。我要去月球。 我不知道多久。我只是想從我的國家一些食物在我離開之前。– Thank you. I am going to the moon. I do not know for how long. I just wanted some food from my country before I leave.]

She took a long pull from the glass, savoring its full-bodied taste as it rolled over her tongue and down her throat. Leaving Shanghai was going to be tough. It was the only home she had ever known until enlisting in the Alliance Navy on her eighteenth birthday. Her goal since going through basic training in Vancouver was to become captain of an Alliance warship; the intervening two years had been filled with classes learning everything she could about starship operation, including piloting, navigation, propulsion theory, personnel and resource management, along with practical demonstrations of her knowledge and skills. She had also spent three miserably grueling months undergoing hostile environment assault training at Fort Charles Upham on Titan, where she had been proficient enough to earn a ribbon for unarmed hand-to-hand combat and one for excellence as a sniper.

She had her mother to thank for her hand-to-hand skills; Mom was a master instructor in Chinese martial arts, having been her daughter's instructor since she was four or five years old.

The waitress brought her soup, set it down in front of her with a small bow and left so she could enjoy her meal. She hadn't realized how hungry she really was until the steaming bowl was sitting in front of her. She began eating, pausing only long enough after several bites of most excellent fish and cabbage to take a sip of beer or a bite from the sweet roll on the side.

The waitress returned as she was finishing the last bite of fish. "Rúhé wèi ni de tāng?" she asked. [如何為你的湯?- How was your soup?]

"Most excellent," was Xiùlán's enthusiastic response. "Zuì yōuxiù de! Duōshao qián wo qiàn de fàn ma?" [最優秀的!多少錢我欠的飯嗎?- Most excellent! How much money do I owe for the meal?]

"Èrshí xuéfēn, qing. Píjiu shì yīgè liwù," came the cheery response. [二十學分,請。 啤酒是一個禮物。- Twenty credits, please. The beer is a gift.]

Xiùlán smiled as she activated her omnitool, entered the restaurant's ID code, the waitress's name and the credit amount—including a generous tip—then used her thumbprint to authenticate the transaction and closed her tool.

The transaction screen behind the counter illuminated for the waitress to inspect; her smile grew wider as she said, "Fēicháng ganxiè. Qing chóngxīn dēnglù, dāng ni zài zhège chéngshì!" [非常感謝。請重新登陸,當你在這個城市!– Thank you very much. Please re-visit when you are in this city!]

Xiùlán nodded as she said, "Xièxiè," then got up and went out into the cool, drizzling night. She still had a bit of time left, but decided to summon a taxi for the short trip to Pudong Airport, which had added a shuttle terminal fifteen years ago. The aircar arrived within a few minutes; grateful to be out of the rain, she entered her destination in the trip computer, paid the bill and settled in the back, alone with her thoughts. Her personal effects had been sent direct from the hotel and should already be in the Alliance holding area.

She was about to enter an experimental Alliance program, one that promised to transform her into a skilled operative in what had only been referred to as 'Black Ops'.

It sounded interesting, and she hoped the knowledge and experience gained would be a 'plus' in her service record. She had committed to the whole program … eighteen months split between two Alliance marine bases. She hoped to also make some new friends during her time in the program.

Her father had been against this from the beginning. He had always expected her to follow in his footsteps, into a life on Earth as an accountant. There will always be a need for someone good with spreadsheets, he would tell her, even if all that meant these days was setting up the formulas in the boxes and watching the computer make all the calculations—no need for an abacus anymore. Xiùlán's mother was not totally thrilled about her traveling around in space, but realized her daughter was her own person. She had learned all her lessons, excelled in every school she entered, and she could defend herself against attack. Still, her mom always had some fear in the back of her mind the Alliance military would not take good care of her.

Her musings were interrupted as the aircar slowed and descended in a curving approach to the Alliance dominated shuttle area; it came to a halt a quarter-meter from the pavement and waited for Xiùlán to leave. Once she was clear, the access panels closed; the vehicle spun on its axis and flew back out on the same path it had used to enter, as Xiùlán strode past several parked shuttles towards what appeared to be the terminal building; entering through the main doors, she moved to the information kiosk, coming to attention as she stopped in front of the operations chief behind the counter. "Serviceman 1st Class Yuán Xiùlán reporting for transport."

The chief looked up at her with the jaded gaze of a man who'd been in the military so long there was nothing he had not seen. "Travel orders?" he asked.

Xiùlán had a copy of the original papers, which she handed to the bored operations chief. Glancing up at the chronometer on the wall behind her, he grabbed a datapad and scrolled through several 'pages' until he found the confirmation code that matched her orders. "Date of birth?" he asked.

"57/08/15," she answered, enunciating each number individually, then added before he could prompt her, "Service number 8257-Papa-Victor-Golf-09186."

He set the datapad over the blank corner of her paper and keyed in his own ID; this resulted in the datapad 'stamping' the paper, actually laser engraving it, with that code.

"Okay, flight is ready for liftoff," he said. Using his thumb to indicate a door behind and to his left, he continued, "Flight line is through there. Your gear's already on board. Good luck, Serviceman. Safe flight."

"Thanks, Chief." Xiùlán grabbed her papers then turned and strode quickly through the indicated door and made her way to the waiting shuttle. Two other people had just entered ahead of her when she reached the hatch. Handing her travel orders to the lieutenant standing beside the UT-47, she waited for him to look them over; as he handed them back, she came to attention and saluted.

Returning her salute, he asked, "First time off world, Yuán?"

'Jīngrén! He actually knows my family name comes before my given name!' she thought, then replied, "No Sir. Spent time on Titan after basic. Thought I'd been transferred to hell, actually."

He chuckled, nodding his head as he responded with, "You have my deepest sympathies. I went through that hell myself. Major Violitiran still in charge?"

"Major Sathegz Violitiran … I expect he is still there, Lieutenant. I haven't met that many turians, but he certainly is not the best example of turian friendliness and good will I've encountered. He always felt the Council betrayed the turians by intervening in the Relay 314 Incident, and spent every waking hour taking it out on every human within talons reach."

"Sounds like time hasn't mellowed him. Real shame. He has a hellova lot of knowledge regarding survival under brutal environmental conditions. Hope you at least managed a passing grade."

"I did," Xiùlán said, then smiled at the memory. "Surprised the old bird … he couldn't think of a valid excuse not to pass me. Told me so himself."

"Good for you," the lieutenant responded with a grin. "Hope you do as well in whatever program you're headed for."

"Thank you, Sir." She saluted, then turned and entered the darkened shuttle. There was one empty seat on the back row, left center. She nodded to the young marine on one side and the woman in blues on the other as she took the empty seat. Other than slightly repositioning themselves as she sat down, they did not acknowledge her presence, which was completely fine with her—she didn't feel like making small-talk on this trip. Placing her hands palms up on top of her legs, she touched second finger to thumb on each and closed her eyes, intending to meditate for the next hour or so.

She heard the pilot enter, close the hatch and sit in the forward control area. She could hear him talking as he began powering up systems: navicomputers, inertial dampeners, turbo-fuel pumps, environmental pumps and impellers, and ME generator. "Alliance control, shuttle flight golf sierra zero niner two five, ready for departure."

"Sierra two-five, Alliance control: cleared for departure per flight plan. Squawk four-six-eight-two-two. Contact departure control at flight level three two zero four zero to confirm vector and velocity for orbital insertion."

The pilot read back the instructions word for word as he completed his pre-flight checks. Xiùlán felt the decrease in the shuttle's mass as she heard and felt the four ventral thrusters light up, easily pushing the shuttle up from the pad to hover a meter high. The pilot rotated the forward engine pods downwards, firing them to tip the nose up as he lit the stern thrusters to maintain their relative position. Increasing the ME field, he brought the nose up further, pushed the stern-mounted thrusters to full power and sent the shuttle skywards.


• CITY of VANCOUVER, B.C. · NORTH AMERICA, EARTH •

Twenty-year old Alliance Serviceman Third Class Samantha Traynor opened the door and stepped into the vestibule of 'The Farmer's Market' bar and grille. She had a few hours to kill until needing to catch the Alliance shuttle headed for Earth orbit; from orbit it would make a short, near-light-speed jump to Luna Base, where she would begin an intense eighteen-month training program. She removed her shouldered pack and took her overcoat off, which she shook a bit in order to remove some of the water droplets deposited by the light, steady drizzle falling from the mottled grey overcast. The weather outside reminded her of Oxford, where she'd spent the past four years studying physics, mathematics and computer science.

She had picked this tiny place because it was within walking distance of the Sunshine Inn—an ironic name to be sure, or maybe the original proprietor had been indulging in wishful thinking—where she had spent the past evening. Observing a sign reading, 'PLEASE BE SEATED', she grabbed her pack and ventured into the small dining area, easing past the few people having an early breakfast, to an empty table in the rear corner of the room. A young man, thin face scarred by acne, approached with a menu, which he laid on the table as he asked, "Would you like some water?"

"Actually, I'd like a cup of tea, please." He nodded and left her to peruse the menu.

While she waited she opened her omnitool and browsed the extranet. There was some news regarding Alliance efforts to eliminate the pirates based on the moon of Torfan. One of the articles ran under the headline, 'Butcher of Torfan or Alliance Hero?', being an account of a young Navy lieutenant's actions on that moon and her single-minded efforts to eliminate every batarian there; there were interviews of Alliance personnel and from the very few batarian survivors.

The young man returned within five minutes and set a cup in a saucer on the table, along with a small porcelain teapot emitting a tantalizing scent of freshly brewed tea. "Ready to order?" he asked.

"Yes. I'd like a three-egg cheddar cheese omelet with hash browns and toast, plus a side of bacon," she replied as she poured the steaming beverage into her cup.

He smiled as he retrieved the menu and said, "Be back shortly."

Returning to the news article, she could see that the batarians were predictably united in their condemnation of the young lieutenant's actions, claiming she had even killed people that had surrendered. The few Alliance personnel interviewed all expressed skepticism at the batarian's allegations of wholesale slaughter by one person, and also noted that the lieutenant's entire unit had been almost entirely wiped out. One of the Alliance brass mentioned the young lieutenant's family had been murdered by pirates during a raid on her home colony of Mindoir. The only interview Samantha did not see was from the subject of the article. Apparently, asking her opinion might have lent some balance to an article totally biased in favor of the batarian 'victims', even though every last one of them had been a pirate.

The young man brought her breakfast and carefully set a large platter in front of her as she closed her omni with a sigh. "Would you like me to bring anything else, ma'am?"

"A bottle of ketchup?" she asked. The omelet looked and smelled wonderful. She slathered butter on one piece of toast, took a bite and followed it with a forkful of eggs and cheese. Delicious! Her waiter brought the ketchup, which she applied generously to the perfectly done, golden and crispy hash browns. She hadn't realized how hungry she was until the food was sitting in front of her. Taking a sip of tea from her cup, she continued to transfer the food from her plate to her stomach, until there was only a few crumbs left.

The young man reappeared as she was finishing the last of her tea. "Was everything okay?"

"Wonderful," she replied. "I probably won't need anything to eat until dinnertime. How much do I owe you?"

She was handed a tablet with the itemized bill displayed and totaled; she opened her omnitool, entered a secure transfer of credits to the restaurant, along with a gratuity for the young server, then closed her omni and returned the tablet. "Thank you. Stay dry … it's supposed to be like this all day," he said as he waved in the general direction of the front door.

Traynor shrugged her overcoat on and shouldered her pack; she pulled the hood over her head as she stepped into the misty drizzle of a Vancouver morning. The Alliance flight field, itself on the site of an old hovercraft base, was just south of the old international airport on Sea Island. Her personal effects had been sent direct from the hotel and should already be in the Alliance holding area.

The field was too far to walk from her current location; she opened her omnitool and summoned an air taxi, which arrived within five minutes. Once she entered her destination and payment, the vehicle lifted and began moving as soon as she was inside with the hatch closed.

As the air taxi arced up and over the Fraser River delta on its northward trajectory, Samantha thought about the weeks she had spent in Alliance basic training. The physical conditioning had not been as tough as many had led her to believe, but neither was it a 'walk in the park'. During her fitness training, her instructors discovered she possessed a real talent for close in hand-to-hand combat … she just needed an instructor willing to mold her into a human weapon. She'd impressed another instructor on the gunnery range with her skills for accurately firing high-powered sniper rifles and heavy pistols.

There was also time spent learning the basics of quantum communications, with much more to learn … hell, she'd barely scratched the surface of what she needed to know to be a competent … no, more than competent … communications, intelligence and operations specialist. The ever so slight jolt through the chassis as the air car touched down interrupted her reverie. Grabbing her pack, she stepped out into the cool, damp Vancouver morning.

A Marine corporal greeted her at the gate as the air taxi lifted, pivoted and climbed away from the field. "I.D., please," he requested.

Traynor held her Alliance issued badge out for his inspection, which he scanned through his omnitool; it trilled once, indicating approval. "Okay Ma'am, you're good to go. Follow the orange paint line into the building and check in with the chief. She'll direct you to your departure gate."

"Thanks Corporal." She retrieved her badge and walked the orange line past several parked shuttlecraft into the squat, featureless building. Entering through the main door, she walked up to the service chief behind the counter and held out her badge and travel orders. "Serviceman Third Class Samantha Traynor reporting for transport."

Service Chief Jaclyn Walsh looked up from her terminal and held out her hand. "How's it going, Traynor?" Walsh took the orders and badge; placing the badge under the optical reader beside her terminal, she compared the results with the info she'd called up on the terminal. "Service number and DOB?"

"8256-DH-7968, 58/03/21, Ma'am," Traynor responded.

Chief Walsh made several additional entries to the information form displayed in front of her; she paused for a moment, then continued after a prompting tone from the terminal. "Okay," She held up her paperwork and badge. "Here's your ID and travel orders. Your ride is through that passage …" indicating a hallway to her left. "Lift off in seventy-three minutes. The rest of your gear is already loaded. Good luck, Serviceman Traynor. Have a safe flight"

"Thanks, Chief," Traynor replied as she took her travel orders and badge. Reshouldering her pack, she turned to her right and entered the short hallway leading to the flight line. Taking a quick look outside when she reached the end of the passageway. Thinking, umph. Still drizzling, she peeked through the door beside her and discovered what appeared to be a rather small lounge area, devoid of life. She decided to stay dry by waiting in there for half-an-hour or so.


• ALLIANCE LUNA BASE · ARRIVAL AREA •

Xiùlán claimed her gear bags in the reception area as she looked up at the status display. She found her name near the bottom of the list of incoming trainees, along with her room assignment. Entering the information into her omnitool resulted in a displayed schematic of the facility with a highlighted path to her assigned quarters. She looked around behind her and found the entrance to the hallway; picking up her gear, she started to turn, only to collide with another trainee walking in the opposite direction while looking over her shoulder.

"I am so sorry," Xiùlán stammered as she helped the woman to her feet. "Did I hurt you? Are you okay?"

"Totally my fault, Serviceman? …" the trainee started to explain. "Sorry, my name is Traynor … Serviceman Third Class Samantha Traynor."

"Yuán Xiùlán, Serviceman First Class," Xiùlán said, offering her hand and smiling.

"Xiùlán? Chinese? Then that's your given name, right? … family name Yuán?" Samantha asked.

"Most occidental people are not aware of that, Samantha; fewer still can correctly pronounce my name. You honor me," Xiùlán replied with a small bow.

"Spent a summer in Shanghai my second year of college … picked up a few words, learned my way around a bit. My friends call me 'Sam'," she replied with a smile and bow of her own.

"Shanghai's my home. Am I a friend then, Sam? Just like that?" Xiùlán asked.

"I like you, Yuán Xiùlán," Traynor replied with a shy smile. "Let's get together for … lunch? … dinner? See you soon." With that, she shouldered her pack, turned on her heel and headed for her quarters.

As Xiùlán watched Traynor stride away, she had a hunch the young woman would soon become an important part—an integral part—of her future in the Alliance. Picking up her own gear, she walked to her quarters as she thought about the seemingly random encounter.


• LIVE FIRE TRAINING COURSE CHARLIE-SEVEN · 0940—1305 •

Yuán didn't think her body could hurt any more after the previous day's training session. Her legs felt leaden, her lower back was on fire, her arms were numb. Yet here she was, running and dodging live-fire—low-impact ammo, to be sure, but still enough to cause injuries. Today's objective was to take out a sniper's nest somewhere in the area ahead. Complicating the exercise? Another recruit would also be attempting to neutralize the hidden sniper; whomever got there first would then have to defend themselves from the other recruit.

Moving from one bit of miserably insubstantial cover to the next, she continued to gain ground until she stopped behind an outcropping a bit larger than those she'd been previously ducking behind. Her back hard against the rough surface, she resorted to an ancient observation technique: pulling a small mirror mounted on a telescopic shaft from her pack, she used it to peek past her cover. She saw the laser targeting beam a split-second before the mirror was sent flying from her hand by a minute piece of metal traveling at a small fraction of light speed. Gou shi! Zhè shānghàile! she thought as she grabbed her wrist. Hao dōngxī, zhè bùshì wo de tóu zài nàli! [狗屎!這傷害了!- Shit! That hurts! 好東西,這不是我的頭在那裡! - Good thing that wasn't my head out there!]

A quick inspection confirmed her gauntlet had taken the hit. A puncture to her suit would be a potentially fatal error, not to mention a DNC for today's session. Reaching around to the belt over her shoulder, she grabbed one of her Mark 14 grenades, a high explosive device that she hoped would distract the unseen sniper long enough for her to gain a bit more ground. She armed it, then backed away from her cover and threw the device past the outcropping on its right side.

The lighter lunar gravity helped loft it several meters further than she could have otherwise achieved; she began moving towards her left as she remotely detonated the explosive.

The blast lit the terrain in an impressive manner, resulting in several shots fired just to the right of where she'd been hiding. Staying low, she ran to a larger outcropping sixteen or so meters distant.

From this new vantage point she had a clear view of the opening in the rocks from which the hidden sniper was firing. Yuán could not see the sniper or rifle from this location, but expected the unseen shooter was scanning the area around her with a motion detector. She armed another Mark 14, again setting it for remote detonation. Moving to her left to keep as much of the rock face as possible between herself and the shooter, she stood, stepped to her right and threw the grenade in one smooth movement, then stepped back to her left a split-second before the bullet whizzed past her right side.

The grenade flew in an arc towards the breach in the rock face; she detonated it just as it dropped into the opening. The explosion was accompanied by the high-pitched squeal of several hundred thousand credits worth of Alliance VI tech being shredded into scrap.

Xiùlán carefully moved towards the smoking aperture, crouching and staying in cover. Once under the opening, she rechecked that her hard suit computer was still recording everything she heard and saw, then raised her omnitool in camera mode to risk a quick look inside. Seeing nothing but smoke and scrap metal, she pulled her shotgun, set her camouflage generator to 100% and jumped into the recess. Visually confirming there were no other targets, Xiùlán turned back towards the opening only to be kicked backwards half a meter and to the ground by a bullet hitting her square in the center of her ceramic chest plate. Two more rounds zipped past overhead as she lay on her back, gasping for breath as she attempted to regain control of her diaphragm. 'Xī, Xiùlán, Xī!' She rolled over and got to her hands and knees as a mocking voice came over her comlink.

"Hey Chop Stick! How's yer chest feel? Ya gonna need me to massage yer tits?" followed by a braying laugh that sounded like a donkey.

Gou shi! Zhēn de ma? Zài 44 shìjì de wo bèihòu de wénmíng, zhè jiùshì wo? Yīgè tā mā de kuàizi!? [狗屎!真的嗎?在我身後的44世紀的文明,這是我嗎?一個他媽的筷子 - Dog feces! Really? In the 44 century civilization behind me, this is me? A fucking chopstick(s)!?] She replied over the comm, "In your dreams, asshole!" Xiùlán recognized the owner of the voice, a self-righteous, bigoted, alien hating human from the lower mid-west section of the North American continent. Joesiar went out of his way to put down and verbally abuse anyone that looked a bit different; female recruits were especially targeted for insults, belittling and sexual innuendo. Unfortunately for everyone on the receiving end, Joesiar never seemed to get caught. Rumor was he had an uncle high up in the chain of Alliance brass.

Using her omnitool, she plotted the trajectories back to their source. Joesiar was still out there, probably in the same spot, waiting for her to show herself. Lazy little bastard had parked himself in good cover and waited for her to take out the sniper.

She had only a heavy pistol and a shotgun; neither would accurately reach him from here. Finally able to breathe normally, Xiùlán checked her chest plate … the round that hit her was a low-power non-enhanced alloy pellet. No damage to the plate, but she knew she'd have an ugly purple bruise in the middle of her chest by tonight. She glanced around at the wreckage caused by her grenade and spotted it … the sniper rifle being used by the VI she'd destroyed. She crawled over to it; thinking as she picked it up and inspected it, Gou niáng yang de zhòng dá yī dūn! [狗娘養的重達一噸 - Son of a bitch weighs a tonne!] Sighting down the barrel and checking the targeting computer in the receiver, she was thrilled to discover it appeared totally undamaged; it even had a good heat-sink.

Moving to the extreme left side of the opening, she risked a quick look around the protective rock wall. Her reward was a flash as Joesiar fired his rifle; the round whizzed past and smacked the wall behind her. It was going to take a bit of subterfuge to get out of this hole. She plotted the last round back to its source … all had originated from the same location, some 450 meters distant. She pulled the rifle's logic board and plugged it into her omnitool, reset the location for the rifle's auto-aim function, then replaced the board in its receptacle on the gun. Now for the tricky part. Staying below the opening, she carefully hefted the long gun up and rested the barrel on the edge of the opening, pointing it as close as she could guess towards the spot where Joesiar was hiding.

"Hey Chop Stick! Ya give up yet? I can keep yer yeller ass pinned in there rest of the day!" He emphasized his point with another round, which hit the back wall in virtually the same spot as all the rest.

The instant his round hit she fired the long gun, then moving smoothly, she whirled about, placed the cheek of her helmet hard against the receiver, sighted down the barrel, fired a second round and ducked all in one rapid motion. The resulting howl of pain in her comm sounded genuine, so she risked a quick look over the edge. Joesiar had broken cover and was dancing around—actually jumping about— in the low gravity, as he held his right shoulder with his left hand. Xiùlán decided to teach the bastard a real lesson; she sighted down the barrel of the long gun, exhaled softly and fired, hitting him in the calf of his right leg as he danced around; he hollered anew as he dropped like a stone. "Dammit, Chop Stick! Now yer jus' playen' dirty!"

Xiùlán leaped out of the hole in the rock wall; carrying the heavy long gun in her left hand, she pulled her heavy pistol while trotting the 450 meters to Joesiar's location. Despite the low gravity of the lunar surface, it took her close to a minute to reach him where he lay in the dirt. Sticking the pistol's barrel against his faceplate, she hissed, "Chop Stick? Really? For your information, my ass is not yellow … not that I'm going to prove it by showing it to the likes of you!"

"Com'on, You ann. 'Chop stick' is easier to pronounce than yer name," Joesiar whined. "Gimme a hand here, will ya? My suit's leaking. How in 'ell didja get your hands on a long gun, anyways?"

She pulled a repair kit from a utility pocket on her thigh. "It belonged to the VI that was firing at me. I didn't notice you taking any fire … hiding here until someone else got the job done for you, huh? Ni shì yīgè landuò de húndàn, Joesiar [你是一個懶惰的混蛋 – You are a lazy bastard Joesiar] … too lazy to learn how to pronounce my name correctly! Just say 'shoo-lan' … it's my given name. Yuán is my family name, gou shi yīyàng de tóunao." [狗屎一樣的頭腦 - dog feces for brains]

"Ya see, there y'all go again, speaking chinee on me," he complained. "What in 'ell did you just call me, Chop stick?"

"Gou shi yīyàng de tóunao? That's 'dog shit for brains'. Sounds meaner in Mandarin, don't it? Now hold still so I can fix this hole." Joesiar stopped moving about; more importantly, he shut his mouth. Yuán patched the puncture in the leg of his suit, then pushed him over to take a look at his shoulder. "No hole here … your lucky day. Bet that shoulder will need some therapy when you get back to the barracks."

"Least I won't have a big ol' purple bruise 'tween my tits in the morning," he smirked. "On you, it'll probably be closer to a hideous green, since blue and yeller make green, right?" The braying of a donkey back on Earth had nothing on the sounds coming out of Joesiar.

Xiùlán picked up his weapons and said, "We're done here, Joesiar. Head back to the barracks. And just so you know, I will be reporting you for your ethnic slurs and misogynistic attitude."

"It'll be yer word against mine, ChinkerBell," he sneered, "and I bet your fuckin' word ain't gonna buy you shit."

Xiùlán put a boot on his shoulder and added a bit of weight, prompting him to start thrashing and hollering in pain. "I have our conversations recorded, Joesiar, right down to your last comment about me," she said in a voice full of menace. "Your Alliance career is done. Brass has no tolerance for racial bigots. Neither do I." Lifting her foot, she finished with, "Now get your miserable little ass up and move while you're still capable of walking." She waited until he got to his feet and started limping towards the shelters before following after him. It was going to be a long walk, and she hurt all over.


• RECRUIT BARRACKS, FEMALE · 1645—1830 •

Xiùlán thanked the medic as she pulled a short-sleeved sweatshirt over her bare torso. He'd inspected the impact site on her chest and found nothing amiss under the skin - just some deep bruising right over the bottom of her sternum, which explained why she'd had the wind knocked out of her so badly. The visible bruise had become a real beauty, centered just below her breasts; it still hurt to take a deep breath. The medic had given her seven days off from physically demanding training; classroom time would give her a chance to heal.

She returned to her room, thinking nothing was more inviting than to lie down in her bed for a bit, but decided to hit the showers first, let some warm water wash away a bit of the aching tiredness she felt. She got undressed, put on a knee-length silk robe—a present from her mom—and slipped on a pair of 'shower sandals'.

After removing the leather tie keeping her long hair in a ponytail, she grabbed a wash cloth, a couple of large towels, shampoo and body wash, then left for the women's lav.

The lavatory was laid out in a standard pattern: an interior partition was mounted just inside the door, blocking the view straight into the dressing/shower area on the right and the toilets on the left. There were wire mesh lockers set just outside the showers, along with basins and mirrors and a low bench on which to sit for dressing or undressing. Xiùlán chose an empty locker, pulled off her robe and hung it and her towels within. Taking her washcloth, body wash and shampoo into the shower, she took no real notice of the tanned recruit with outstretched arms, palms on the wall in front of her as she stood motionless under a shower-head, doing exactly what Xiùlán had come here to do. Another recruit, just finishing her shower, told the tanned recruit she was leaving. "Bye, Heather," came the response. Heather nodded to Xiùlán as she walked out towards the locker area.

Turning on the water next to her unknown companion, she adjusted the temperature to 'very warm' and slipped into the stream cascading from the waterfall shower head. Ducking her head into the water, she allowed it to completely soak her hair. Grabbing the length right behind her neck, she pulled it around over her left shoulder and began applying shampoo as she enjoyed the spray of water on her back.

"Don't think I've ever seen anyone with hair that long," came a vaguely familiar voice. "Must take a lot of effort to keep it lookin' so pretty."

Xiùlán glanced to the right at the young woman as she continued working the shampoo into her hair. "Alliance doesn't require it to be short. Worn it long all my life," she responded, mentally preparing for the argument she felt sure was about to ensue.

"It's beautiful. I wouldn't cut it either," came the voice, then, "Xiùlán? Is that … it is you! Xiùlán! I'm so happy to see … well, you … um, all of you, as it turns out."

Xiùlán looked at the young woman again … really looked at her. Beautiful complexion, dark all over like a deep tan, only no light colored skin on her boobs or butt. It finally dawned on her where she'd seen this woman before. "Traynor? Samantha Traynor? Damn, I didn't recognize you … only seeing your face once, it never dawned on me you were so … so …"

"Brown all over?" Sam finished for her. "My mum's from India … Pop's a Brit … er, British. Got my mum's skin tone, my Pop's 'tude. Bad combination, I'm told." Sam ducked back under the shower to rinse her hair and torso of shampoo and soap.

"I wouldn't call it brown, really … more like a warm olive. As for me, I've been told I have a yellow ass." Twisting her backside towards Traynor, Xiùlán asked with a grin, "See any yellow back there?"

Damn! That is a really sweet ass! came the thought as she answered, "Nope. Lighter than mine, but certainly not yellow. Same color as the rest of you, actually. Who said you have a yellow ass? Wait, wouldn't be a sawed-off little bastard with pale-blue eyes, would it? Joesiar!?"

"The very same," came the reply. Xiùlán had finished lathering her hair; flipping it around behind her, she turned back around to face Traynor as she applied her jasmine-scented body wash and began soaping herself. She gingerly washed her chest and said, 'This is a present … " she lifted her breasts upwards with her forearm while gently washing the spreading bruise, "from the miserable little díkè tóu. [迪克頭 - dickhead] Hit my ceramic plate with a sniper round during live-fire … knocked the wind outta me, put me on my back for a few. Offered to massage my tits for me … as if!" she finished with a smirk.

Traynor whistled in appreciation. "That's a serious bruise, Xiùlán. Must be sore." I'd be happy to massage your chest anytime, came the unbidden thought. Shit, Traynor. Quit thinking about that! She's probably straight! "Have you seen the doc?"

Xiùlán was bent over; she washed her legs and feet before finishing by gently washing up between her legs. "Just a while ago," came the answer. "He says there's no hidden damage, but I'll be doing classroom work for the next week or so. It'll give me time to file a complaint with the AG's office." She stood and rinsed her body front and back, then grabbed her hair and rinsed it thoroughly by encircling it with her fingers and running them down the length of it several times. When all the soap was gone, she turned the water off with a sigh, grabbed her stuff and walked over to her locker for a towel.

Traynor followed suit, drying herself while standing beside Xiùlán, who was also busy toweling herself off.

"You seriously think you can win against Joesiar?" Traynor asked. "He has protection … friends in high places. I know … I've complained about him myself. He's a damned little racist. 'If it ain't white, it ain't right' is his motto. Thinks I should be back on my colony world, working in the fields, milking cows, making babies for some farmer." Her expression had changed to one of intense unhappiness, her dark eyes smoldering with barely contained hatred.

Xiùlán studied Traynor for a minute as she finished toweling off and began using the second towel for her hair. "Where are you from, Samantha?"

"Horizon, Iera System. And it's Sam to you … or maybe …" she added with that shy smile Xiùlán had seen when they first met, "Sammy. Anyway, Horizon … beautiful world. Parents used to live in London back on Earth, but prefer life on a colony world … fewer restrictions. That's where I was born." She wrapped the towel around her shoulders and sat on the bench.

"Sounds like you don't want to get married, or have any children? …" Xiùlán stood, grabbed her robe, shrugged into its embrace then pulled her hair out from under, spreading it with her hands to fall across the back of the silken surface.

"Children? Not interested, at least, not in the traditional way. Marriage? I'd like that, I think, if I could find the right … " she looked straight into Xiùlán's eyes, as if challenging her, "woman. I'm a lesbian, Xiùlán. Not something I share with just anyone … only people I trust … people I'm comfortable with … like you." Shit! You're in for the whole shootin' match now, Traynor! Her eyes anxiously searched Xiùlán's face for … what? Disgust? Rejection?

Xiùlán looked at Sam as if seeing her for the first time. "Samantha … Sam. Just so I understand, you …" she paused as she sat on the bench next to Traynor. "are you saying you're interested in … me … as a partner?"

"I'm sorry, Xiùlán. I did not mean to make you uncomfortable, to …" fingertips gently touched her lips, interrupting her apologies.

"I am … flattered, Sam. I hadn't thought of you in … that way." Xiùlán stood and grabbed Sam's robe from her locker. Motioning for her to stand, Xiùlán reached around Sammy to slide the robe onto her arms and pulled it up to cover her shoulders. Sam met her eyes, her expression neutral, waiting to see what Xiùlán would do next.

Xiùlán grabbed the collar of Sam's robe with a hand on either side of her neck. "I need to think about this, Ms Traynor. Give me …" she paused as she slid her hands down the collar, gently pulling the terrycloth together as her hands brushed Sam's breasts and stopped at her navel. "a bit of time to think. I have never given myself to anyone, Sam. I'm a virgin …" She reached around Sam's waist and brought the ends of her sash together in front, which she gently tied after overlapping the edges of her robe. "I certainly never expected anything like this. Give me a bit of time to think." She pulled Sam towards her; after placing a soft kiss on her forehead, she grabbed her towels and bath supplies and left.


A/N: This story is being told mainly from Yuán Xiùlán's point of view; in TRANSFORMATION: Part II, the Cartagena Station adventure was told from Samantha Traynor's viewpoint (in dream sequence/flashback form) starting with Chapter 20 of that story. My hope is that, once you have read this first chapter, you will continue on to read subsequent chapters. Traynor's schooling in hand-to-hand combat, along with her training in covert intrusion, will be a major part of the narrative, as will the telling of her growing love for Xiùlán. I hope you will enjoy the ride, as much as I have enjoyed creating it!