A/N: This chapter reveals a bit about Traynor's total lack of unarmed combat skills before meeting Yuán Xiùlán.


There's no debt. There never has been. We are friends — Davis Bunn, Lion of Babylon


• ALLIANCE LUNA BASE · 10 JANUARY 2179 •

Yuán Xiùlán left her morning class with a headache centered at the back of her head, along with a knot between her shoulder blades. She guessed it was a result of late night studying and an empty stomach … her early morning tea and toast was but a distant memory. Once in her quarters, she relieved her bladder before downing a couple of aspirin with a portion of a bottle of water. She had been thinking about Samantha Traynor since their 'collision' on the day of her arrival here, their brief conversation yesterday, and off and on all morning. Remembering Sam's request that they get together for lunch or dinner prompted her to activate her omnitool; she looked for and found Traynor's extranet address, sent a text note asking Sam to join her for lunch and waited to see if she'd receive a response.

Xiùlán never had an interest in developing a relationship with anyone, male or female, since joining the Alliance, but especially not with a man. The few men she had dated in the past had always … always … seemed interested in nothing more than discovering how fast they could remove her shirt and bra before getting into her pants, as if there was not enough blood in their bodies to support their brains higher cognitive functions while simultaneously stiffening their cocks. She counted herself fortunate she'd never needed to say anything more than a firm 'NO!' when any of them had tried to unfasten her top … just what in hell was it with males and their never ending fascination with female breasts?

As there always seemed to be other things needing her attention, be it studies, physical training, or just quiet time to meditate alone, she had virtually quit saying 'yes' to the numerous invitations to dinner, lunch, breakfast, vids or drinks at the various clubs near whichever base at which she happened to be stationed, even when urged on by some of the friends in her unit. She had always found occasional masturbation to be all she needed to keep her body happy and her libido in check. And now, there was Samantha … Sam … Sammy. Funny. She had never envisioned becoming interested in a woman as anything but a friend. Certainly not a … what? … companion? … love interest? … nor had another woman ever expressed any interest in her. Thinking about Sam as something more gave her warm sensations … because she was lonely? A bit of an 'outsider'? Maybe both?

The tingling on Xiùlán's wrist indicated an incoming text. She opened her omnitool to find a reply from Sam: 'lookin fwrd to it! On my way …' Xiùlán closed the tool, grabbed her shoulder bag and headed for the mess hall.


• MESS HALL •

Xiùlán still had two and a half hours before her afternoon class in 'Advanced Omnitool Techniques', something that sounded like an easy 'ace'; she suspected it would be anything but easy, as she and her classmates would be receiving new state-of-the-art omnitools—highly classified new tech from Serrice Council that promised better functionality and security. There was even a rumor the damn things could be turned into weapons with little more than a thought! Probably just wishful thinking. She had an appointment at the AG's office before class, one reason she'd decided to have lunch early today. She gingerly touched her chest as she walked, wincing as she inadvertently pressed a bit too hard. Thanks to Joesiar, it still hurt like bloody hell to take a deep breath, though not as bad as last night; it even hurt to reach over her head to put on a sports bra or shirt.

The visible bruise had spread up and across her chest, so even the bottom edge of her bra was an irritant. She quickly put Joesiar out of her mind; her headache had virtually disappeared … no need for it to return because of that miserable little Hùn zhàng [混帳 - bastard].

She entered the student's mess hall, noting its layout and appearance looked all too reminiscent of her secondary school cafeteria back home. She spotted Sam, just taking a seat at a table in a quiet corner of the room. Picking up a tray and utensils, she moved down the food line; it had surprised her to discover Chinese dishes were a regular part of the cuisine here. Xiùlán was not one to waste an opportunity to eat food that reminded her of home … today she chose the Shanghai style stir-fried rice cake. It was made without the pork, but had plenty of cabbage, bamboo shoots, spinach, bean sprouts and carrots, all mixed with a dark soy sauce. She thought Zhè kàn shàngqù hào chī! [這看上去好吃!– It looks delicious!] as she added some thick sliced bread and a water bottle, then headed across the room to sit with Sam.

"Hi, Xiùlán! How are you?" Traynor gave Yuán a big smile as she sat down across from her, then asked, "Why not sit beside me?"

"Easier to eat and chat when we're face-to-face," Xiùlán replied. "Salad and soup? Looks tasty."

"Yep. Not sure what you're having, but it smells wonderful. Is that soy sauce?"

"It is … Shanghai style stir-fried rice cake," she replied as she dug a pair of elaborately decorated black lacquered bamboo chop sticks from her shoulder pack.

"Custom chop sticks? Damn, Xiùlán … you came prepared to do battle," Traynor snarked.

Xiùlán returned the grin as she began eating. "Right tools for the job," she snarked right back.

They spent the next twenty-five minutes or so chatting about this and that, leisurely enjoying their food and each other's company in equal parts. Xiùlán finished her rice cake by wiping the plate with the last of her bread and popping it in her mouth. "Gāisi de, that was good. Think I can actually hold out until dinner now." Dampening her napkin with water from the bottle, she discretely wiped her chop sticks clean, then returned them to her pack as she continued, "It's nice to have someone to talk to without worrying about afterwards, Sammy. Haven't had any close friends since basic … stopped accepting invitations from guys for all the obvious reasons."

Traynor nodded as she replied, "I know what you mean. In their defense, if I were a guy, I would be hitting on you for sure, Xiùlán. You are exceptionally beautiful."

Xiùlán could feel herself blushing. "Haven't heard that from anyone 'cept my parents, Sam … certainly not from another woman."

"I'm serious, Xiùlán," Samantha said quietly. "I don't pass out complements casually … anyone unable to see your beauty is simply blind, in my opinion." And your body is to die for! came the unbidden thought. There I go again … she said she's still a virgin … loved the way she used her arm, pushing her boobs up to show me her bruised chest … oh, and those legs! … I know they end at her bum, but damn if they don't look like they go all the way to her neck! shit! shit! shit! … quit dreamin' 'bout her, Sam … you can't have her!

Sam's eyes were open but seemingly unfocused, although Xiùlán felt they were looking in the direction of her own chest. "Sam?"

Traynor blinked as her thoughts evaporated. "Huh?"

"I said we need to go. I have an appointment before my next class. Don't you have a class as well?

Samantha thought for a second before answering. "Yeah, I have a class in hacking alien comm systems. Got my new omnitool this morning. Damn thing is really amazing! Dinner later?"

"Of course. We can kick back, have a beer or two." Xiùlán grabbed tray and shoulder pack as she stood. "I'll text you when I'm done with class … ought to be about 1745 or so. Meet at your quarters?"

"Sounds good," Traynor said with a grin. Might be able to get to know you better in private, came the thought.


• OFFICE OF THE ADVOCATE GENERAL •

"Serviceman 1st Class Yuán Xiùlán. Please report to office twenty-two delta." Xiùlán thought, Guānyú tā mā de shíjiān! [關於他媽的時間!- about fucking time!] How much more time would I have had to wait without an appointment? as she grabbed her shoulder pack and strode down the hall to the indicated office. A balding man, wearing old-fashioned, gold-rimmed glasses, stood to greet her as she entered. "Serviceman Xiùlán," he said, extending his hand.

"Actually, family name is Yuán … Serviceman Yuán." She grabbed his hand, a pudgy mass of cold, squishy flesh with fat fingers, seemingly devoid of life. Wo xiànzài yào xi wo de shou! [我現在要洗我的手 - I now want to wash my hands] she thought silently.

"Sorry, Ma'am. My mistake." Looking at one of a number of datapads on his desk, he said, "So, you're here to file a complaint about …" he adjusted his glasses as he studied the datapad, "Serviceman 2nd Class Jason Joesiar, is that correct?"

"Yes Sir. Actually, several complaints."

"All are related to an incident or incidents on live-fire range Charlie-Seven, are they not? I know what the report says, Yuán. Why don't you tell me what happened."

Xiùlán spent the next ten minutes relating Joesiar's racist and misogynist comments and her reactions.

"These are some fairly serious allegations, Serviceman. What proof do have to substantiate these charges?"

She pulled an OSD from a thigh pocket and set it on the desk. Keeping a fingertip in the middle of the disk, she leaned forward as she said, "This is an audio/vid of the live-fire exercise. It's a copy. There are others, ready to be shipped in unmarked packages, should this one go missing."

"Just what the hell are you suggesting, Serviceman?" The man was getting a bit red in the face.

Xiùlán slipped on her best 'innocent me' look as she replied, "Nothing. I'm suggesting nothing, Sir. However," her voice took on an edge as the innocent mask slipped just a bit; it would have frightened most anyone possessing any common sense. "Serviceman Joesiar has an uncle—highly placed in the chain of command—Major General Bradley Joesiar. It seems the Major General always finds out what trouble his nephew has gotten up to and gets him cleared of whatever charges are brought against him." The tone of Xiùlán's voice went cold as the 'innocent' mask was instantly exchanged for a chiseled 'takes no fucking prisoners' look. "I intend to see that changed. I don't like racists, or misogynists. Joesiar is both. He's also a xenophobe. The Alliance doesn't need his brand of white human supremacy." Xiùlán produced a datapad of her own. "I need your name and a thumb print on this receipt."

"Now listen here, Serviceman Yuán. I'm not sure I care for your attitude."

"My goddamned attitude is the least of your worries right now, mister. Did I mention I don't like cover-ups? Name and thumb print, or I'm taking this right on up the chain."

'Balding glasses' took a long, hard look at her over the rims of his spectacles. Her dark eyes were intent … mouth set in a tight line. He could feel danger radiating from this woman, as if she didn't suffer fools gladly. He sighed as he concluded acceding to her 'request' cost him nothing. Nodding once, he initialed … "Legibly, please," she said; printed and signed his name, placed his thumb on the device and handed it back as he retrieved the OSD and inserted it in the datapad containing the report.

She looked at her own datapad, nodded, said, "Thank you for your time. I'll be in touch," then turned and left. She had just enough time to make her afternoon class.


• OMNITOOL ORIENTATION CLASS •

Xiùlán looked in wonder at the new omnitool she'd just received from the class instructor, an asari tech specialist and Serrice Council representative named Mallene Calis, who spent a good deal of time custom fitting each device to its new owner's arm. Once this task had been completed, Calis cautioned everyone to be sure all the data from their old tools had been backed up on their extranet accounts before activating their new devices; any specialized applications could be done once they were all back in their personal quarters, as new pass codes would need to be generated for each program. Most amazing to Xiùlán was the glow the device gave off when activated … it was virtually invisible in any kind of ambient light. Its true colors, deep purple and ultraviolet, could be seen in a darkened area; controls needing input, text generators for instance, were delineated in glowing reds and orange.

The unique characteristic of these new omnitools was their ability to be personalized to each individual's biometrics … once this was done, the tool was part of its users identity and could not be used by anyone else; the identity lock became a permanent, unchangeable part of the tool's programming, making it truly the only one of its kind. When not in use, it was a thin, elaborately designed platinum bracelet, sporting a small cabochon of bio-sensitive, red banded onyx used for activation. The new tool would perform all the tasks of a standard omnitool and could perform a few tasks that would not only make it illegal for a civilian to possess but also make it of questionable value to a soldier. They were strongly cautioned by the asari specialist that it must be worn at all times, during bathing, sleeping … even lovemaking, if it came down to it.

Wo rènwéi méiyou shíjiān zuò'ài! [我認為沒有時間做愛!– I don't think there is time to make love!] came the snarky thought.

The remainder of their class time was spent learning how to employ its more esoteric functions, including its use as a stealth hacker for initiating remote computer attacks that couldn't be traced back to the tool's location. It seemed they had barely begun to experiment with its hacking ability when their class time came to an end. Mallene Calis thanked everyone for their attention and wished them well.

Yuán approached the asari as she was gathering her equipment. "Matron Calis, a question, if I may. You did not tell us how these tools compare to commercially available omnitools."

Calis looked at Xiùlán with an expression of surprise before responding. "There was a student in the morning class that asked me the same question. Anyway, yes, if you are familiar with the Savant line of omnitools manufactured by my company, these are a step up … a huge step up. Shield bonus is increased by 10, tech cool down is enhanced by 25. I think you'll be quite pleased with these and its other enhanced performance features. Here, let me show you one defensive move I did not share with the group."

Mallene activated her own tool; Xiùlán did likewise. "Hold your arm like this," she demonstrated, bending her arm 90 degrees and bringing her forearm up to chest level, parallel to the floor. With a slight twitch of her hand, the tool generated a slimmer and longer version of the newly developed omniblade, extending backwards from her wrist and out at a 10 degree angle away from her arm. "This can be used for a forehand slash, when an attacker is immediately in front of you," she explained. "Move your forearm in a slicing motion, upper right to lower left." She demonstrated the move in the air in front of her.

Xiùlán tried the move several times, pleased to discover it fit right in with her martial arts knowledge.

"Very nice. You appear to be a natural, Yuán. There are a few other additional 'blade' mods that can be used with this tool," Mallene said as she entered several commands into her tool; this resulted in Xiùlán's tool emitting a soft 'trill' as it received data and stored it for later activation. "which I just sent to you. The mods are available on the extranet, if any of your classmates are interested." Mallene looked intently at Xiùlán. "You appear to be a warrior, Yuán … I don't believe you would be out of place in an asari huntress unit."

Xiùlán could not hide her surprise. "Perhaps, if my skin were blue. But I don't think your huntress units would be prepared for human hair, or the appearance of my face," this last said with a hint of pride mixed with a touch of defiance. "Besides, I have no biotic abilities. That's one of the reasons I chose to enroll in this program."

"If I may? …" she brought he left hand up, placing her open palm beside Xiùlán's face without touching her. "By the goddess, Yuán! Your … aura … is exceptionally strong. I would be surprised if it were detectable by other humans, but asari are more attuned to the mental functions of others, especially the human race. You have a great future ahead of you, Yuán Xiùlán, as a warrior … and a leader. Go in peace, with the blessing of the Goddess." Mallene put her hands together under her chin, palm-to-palm, fingertips up, and bowed slightly in Yuán's direction.

Yuán mirrored the asari's actions and whispered, "Go in peace, Mallene Calis."


• SAMANTHA TRAYNOR'S QUARTERS, 1715 HOURS •

Xiùlán walked up to the entry to Traynor's quarters and touched the red-glowing lock in its center, effectively ringing the doorbell. She waited for several seconds before repeating the request. After what seemed like forever, the lock was released, changing from red to green.

Xiùlán touched the green circle, opening the door to Samantha's room. With the exception of the illumination cast by the dim overhead light just inside the door, the compartment was dark. "Samantha? Are you in here?"

Traynor responded in a weak voice, "Come in, Xiùlán." A faint light appeared further in the room, about where Yuán imagined a bed side table would be located.

Xiùlán stepped in far enough so the door would auto-close and lock behind her. As her eyes adjusted to the lack of illumination, she could make out the bed, sitting next to the table and lamp; someone … Traynor, she guessed … was curled up atop the covers on the bed with her head resting on one hand … knees drawn up towards her chin, other arm and hand hugging her shins. Xiùlán couldn't keep concern from coloring her voice as she asked, "Samantha? … Sam? What's the matter? Are you okay?"

"No." The one word response to the latter question was voiced quietly, sadly. She whispered, "Why are people so mean, Xiùlán? What the hell is wrong with me? I go out of my way to not draw attention to myself. There may as well be a big sign on my back saying 'KICK ME' and one on my front saying 'INSULT ME'. I've done nothing …" her voice hitched as she fought back the tears.

Xiùlán knelt on the floor beside the bed and reached for her hand, only to have it quickly pulled away. "Sammy …"

Traynor found her voice. "Please don't, Xiùlán. I'm worthless. I should go back to Horizon. Nobody there cared … about … my skin color. Here, I'm just a miserable little kuthi" [Hindi for female doga bitch]

"Samantha Traynor!" I need to get this tā mā de chědàn [他媽的扯淡 – Fucking crap] under control fast. "I can guess the name of the miserable little sack of hóuzi jiānguo [猴子堅果 – monkey nuts] that called you that! Come here, Sammy." Xiùlán wasn't sure what to do, how to proceed. She never had to provide comfort to anyone, having always been the recipient of such in the past.

She rose from her kneeling position, leaned over the unhappy woman and quickly straightened her legs. Sam whimpered as Xiùlán laid down beside her and took her in her arms. "Sammy, you are not worthless to me," Xiùlán whispered in her ear. "You are a special person, Samantha Traynor … special, and unique." Xiùlán hugged her tightly, then began rubbing her back, stroking her from neck to waist.

Traynor's voice was uncertain. "No one wants me here … do they? You don't want …"

"Don't you even dare presume to know what I want, Samantha Traynor," Xiùlán replied in a harsh whisper. "Don't. You. Dare! I do not know yet what we … you and I … will eventually become, Sammy. I find I'm thinking about … well, you, more and more. I certainly will not commit to a relationship with a worthless individual. So, you are not worthless, are you?" Xiùlán brought a hand up to Sam's cheek, stroking the smooth skin with her fingertips for a few moments; she moved her head slightly so she could look at Sam in the dim light. Dark eyes studied dark eyes for several seconds before Xiùlán ever so slowly, tenderly, placed her lips on Sam's. The kiss was not planned, hadn't been thought out. It just … happened.

Sam was taken aback for a moment before hungrily returning the kiss, moving her own lips to better meet the pair she had been longing to kiss since their collision on arrival day. She tentatively touched the tip of her tongue to Xiùlán's lips, which parted slightly, seemingly to allow entry, only to find the way guarded by the tongue behind those lush, tasty lips. There was a slight battle between them before the stronger of the pair won out … Sam's capitulation was complete as she surrendered her mouth to this beautiful woman.

Xiùlán ended the kiss the same way she started … gently, grasping Sam's lips tenderly with her own, sucking on each before lovingly releasing them. "You are not worthless to me, Sam. I like you. I like you a lot. Come on. It's getting late … time to go have a bite to eat before we arouse each other any further."


• 2130 HOURS •

Having dinner together had improved Traynor's mood tremendously. They had talked at some length about Joesiar's attitude towards each of them, along with others in their class, particularly female students. Sam had agreed to talk to Heather, another woman that had become a target of the miserable donkey's racist attitude; he had somehow discovered each of her parents were from different racial backgrounds, and the litany of insults and sexually suggestive comments had reached new lows, even for Joesiar. Sam was going to accompany Heather to the AG's office tomorrow to add those complaints, along with more of her own, to his 'jacket'.

They had returned to Sam's apartment for beers and to chat some more before 'lights out' at 2300, where Xiùlán had shown Sam how to employ a mental defense to deal with comments by Joesiar and others of his ilk—of which there were very few on this base, thankfully; it was a lesson she happily embraced.

Xiùlán had finished her second beer and was seriously thinking about heading back to her own room so she could get to bed. Students spending the night with other students was not prohibited here, but neither was it encouraged. The focus was supposed to be on learning; developing friendships was also important, but within limits. "I should go, Sam. It looks to be a long day tomorrow, and I need some sleep. Don't need another headache like I had before lunch today."

Samantha took a sip from the bottle she'd been nursing since the pair had returned from dinner three hours ago. She had been enthralled as Xiùlán told of her first year as an Alliance recruit. "Awww, sounds as if you were just getting to some truly good stuff," Traynor complained. "You never said … did you have any close friends? Like … really close?"

Xiùlán took note of the mischievous light in Traynor's eyes as she answered in a snarky tone, "Lined up outside my door, every night!"

Traynor laughed as she said, "You know what I mean. Close friends. Boyfriends … girl friends? Friends?

Xiùlán's grin dissolved into a straight line as she thought back on her weeks in basic and the hell she went through on Titan. "Sammy, look at my face … what do you see?"

"Seriously?" Traynor grinned. "I see an exotically beautiful face, Xiùlán … gorgeous dark brown eyes, a sprinkling of freckles across your nose, lush lips, firm jaw line, a head full of lovely ebony hair that cascades down to your perfectly formed bum …"

Ignoring Sam's last comment, Xiùlán said sadly, "What I see, staring back at me from the mirror every morning of my life? The face of a woman that doesn't blend in anywhere I go, Sammy. In my home town? … Shanghai? A face with your features, never mind your permanent tan, is what looks different … what stands out in a crowd. In the Alliance, my features mark me as someone different. You say 'exotic'? What makes me exotic, Sam? 'Cause it's been my experience that 'exotic' is just a synonym for 'foreign'."

Traynor's jaw dropped. "Xiùlán, 'foreign' is not a word I would use to describe you. To me your looks are quite striking. I love how your face looks!" The thought I love you came unbidden.

"I haven't made any close friends since I joined the Alliance, Sam. No friends of any kind, truth be told …

"Xiùlán, please." Traynor didn't like the way this conversation was going. She moved to sit next to her as she asked in an anxious tone, "Am I not a friend, then?"

Noting Sam's worried look, Xiùlán realized what she had just said. "Sorry, Sammy. I wasn't including you in the group of friends I do not have. You're the first person I've met that's taken more than a passing interest in me. I have never met a man that didn't think he was the galaxy's gift to any woman he took an interest in." She set her empty bottle down and rose from her chair. "So tell me, do you really want to be friends with someone like me? …" Xiùlán placed her hands on her hips, pulled her shoulders back to accentuate her bosom and grinned mischievously, "or are you only after my body?"

Traynor grinned as she rose and moved to stand close to Xiùlán. "You got me. Guilty as charged, your most stunning honor. I'm only interested in your body … those legs … that cute bum … those perfect boobs. Don't care about you whatsoever. And if you believe that? …" Sam had been drawing closer to Xiùlán while she was talking; Xiùlán had not stepped back and their mouths were so close Sam's lips brushed hers as she finished in a husky whisper, "I have a really neat little patch of swamp land on Horizon I feel certain you'd be interested in." Sam tilted her head as she placed her lips against those of her new friend.

Xiùlán responded by reaching around Sam, drawing her close so she could return her good night kiss. Traynor squirmed a bit when Yuán dropped her hands to grab her butt. "And here I thought you just wanted me for my mind," she whispered around Sam's lips. "I suppose you'd like me to take off all my clothes as well?"

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Sam thought to herself. "You don't have to do that, really," came the snarky response. "I'm perfectly capable of removing your clothes all by myself.

Xiùlán broke her kiss, grabbed Sam's upper arms and pushed her back just a bit. "The more I see you, the more I think about you … and want you. I'm just not quite ready, ya know? In my head, I can see us thrashing around in your bed together, right now, enjoying each other's … company? But the reality for me, Samantha Traynor, is I want to be sure of what I'm doing, what I'm committing to. I think I may be falling for you, falling hard! Honestly? That really scares the hell out of me. I want to make absolutely sure what I am feeling for you is more than simple lust. Can you see that, Sammy?" Xiùlán looked at her friend with worried concern. "I remember telling you I needed some time to think. I'm still thinking about … us. But I'm not interested in a yīyèqíng [一夜情], Sammy."

"Wait, what? yīyèqíng? I picked up a couple of phrases and words when I stayed in Shanghai, but that's a new one to me."

"Sorry, bad habit … I occasionally lapse into Mandarin out loud, although when I do I'm usually cursing a blue streak. Yīyèqíng means a one-night stand. Anyway, if I'm to commit myself to you, Samantha Traynor, I mean for it to last, at least until hell freezes over."

Samantha's face briefly showed disappointment; she began smiling again as she replied, "Xiùlán, I want you, so bad it hurts. That's lust. I have never met anyone like you. Truth is, I think about you any time I have a free moment. There's so much I need to learn here, so much to do. This shit with Joesiar is a major distraction … a problem I hope will go away soon. You are a major distraction as well, but one I do not want gone, unless it's into my arms. I'll wait for you to think this through, but you need to know I will continue to be a distraction for you until you make a decision."

"Fair enough, Sam. In the meantime, we need to plan how we're going to eliminate Joesiar from the Alliance. I need some sleep. Let's discuss it at lunch tomorrow."

Traynor grin grew wider. "Can't wait."


• 11 JANUARY 2179 •

Xiùlán's second day of non-physical classroom work was going well. The soreness in the middle of her chest had diminished greatly; the bruise was actually beginning to fade a bit, even if Joesiar's prophesy—unknown to him, of course—was beginning to come true … the bluish coloration was becoming a hideous shade of greenish-yellow as it started to fade. Initially, she had been rather upset about this, even if her skin color had less to do with the appearance than the physical process of healing. At least the soreness had lessened … good thing, since she was going back into physically demanding training in less than a week.

Classes today were designed to enhance what they had learned yesterday regarding their new omnitools; instruction time was spent hacking non-networked computers set up for the class. It was delicate work, meant to teach them how to infiltrate software designed to resist the sort of attacks they were performing.

The object was to enter the system undetected, alter the programming in whatever way served the mission, then leave the system, all without a trace being left behind. There was a lot of good natured teasing aimed at the less technical minded students … those for whom the programs sounded obnoxious alarms when the intrusion was detected. As the class progressed, the intrusion sensitivity of the programs was ramped up accordingly; by lunch, few people could claim total success at hacking the programs. The class was told that only one recruit, in the other class, had been able to hack their way in undetected a hundred percent of the time, no matter how difficult the program appeared to be. Xiùlán would have bet a year's pay she knew the name of that person; hopefully, she'd be able to learn more from the master hacker in the coming weeks.


• SAMANTHA TRAYNOR'S QUARTERS, 2030 HOURS •

"Samantha … Sam, I …" Xiùlán hesitated before asking, "Have you ever slept with … I mean … had sex … with anyone?"

The question caught Traynor completely off guard. "Once, one night in a co-ed dorm at Oxford," she replied in a soft voice. "The women on my floor knew about … my sexual orientation, so took it upon themselves to 'turn' me. Five of them trapped me in the gym locker room … stripped me … pinned my arms and legs … held me down on a bench … had one of their boyfriends … use me, like a damned piece of meat," her voice hitched as tears began sliding down her cheeks. "I screamed, I cried … no one would help, no one came. They got done using me … left me there all alone … naked, bleeding, crying. They'd taken my clothes … I had to walk back to my dorm room with a towel wrapped around me. I had never … had sex before, Xiùlán! It's supposed to be magical, delightful, memorable. It's not supposed to hurt … not supposed to be scary or humiliating." Tears brought on by the suppressed memories continued to slide down her cheeks.

Xiùlán slid over next to Sam, reaching around her with one arm to hold her, grabbing a hand with her free hand as she said, "Sammy, I'm so sorry." Xiùlán pulled Sam tight to her side, holding her close, trying to sooth her.

Sam had regained some control over her emotions and whispered, "I'm sorry, Xiùlán. I didn't mean to just drop that on you. I've never talked about it, hadn't thought about that time since it happened. Blanked it out of my mind, I guess."

Xiùlán replied softly, "You don't need to feel sorry for anything, Sam. What you experienced … what those people did to you? That was not 'having sex', Samantha, understand me? You didn't agree to it, didn't choose to participate. You were raped, plain and simple. You reported this, correct? You did tell the authorities, didn't you?"

Sam looked down, embarrassed. "I didn't … I was afraid … afraid those people would hurt me worse. I went to the doctor, got a 'morning after' drug. She took samples, treated my injuries, told me I'd heal just fine physically … referred me to a counselor. None of those women were classmates. I moved out of that dorm, changed to a different building … never saw them again."

"Let me guess, Sam," Xiùlán placed a hand on Traynor's cheek. "You don't have any skills in unarmed combat, do you?"

"No." She sniffled, "was never able to take any classes … I was a math, tech and communications major, Xiùlán. I never expected I'd need to fight off an attacker, much less six at once."

Jīngrén! [驚人! – Amazing!] "Okay, here's what we're going to do. I will teach you how to defend yourself against any and all comers, Sammy. You will not need a gun for close-in work when I'm done with you. It's knowledge you're going to need."

"My god, Xiùlán, I can't let you do that," Traynor stood up as she protested. "I cannot pay you …"

"Fù gěi wo?" Xiulan was incredulous! "Pay … me? Sam, I would not dream of … I do not require any payment to train you. It will be a privilege to pass on my knowledge. Now, I have to get back to my quarters … lots of studying to do."

"Anything I can do to help you? Perhaps we can teach each other, Xiùlán. I can help you with technical, you can help me with unarmed combat. Deal?"

Xiùlán thought it over for a moment. "Why not? I can certainly use the help. Wan'ān hé tiánmì de mèng, Sammy. [晚安和甜蜜的夢 – Good night and sweet dreams, Sammy] See you tomorrow."