Sunday, 12 February 2012 02:14

After the Ashes - Part 2

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After the Ashes

By Renae

Chapter Two : Two Percent

The delay caused by the Federation of Allied Worlds cowardly attack on the Confederation’s Medical Cruiser Hermes meant that I was stuck killing simulated Fed ships. Not to mention spending many hours in the gym under the watchful guidance and goading of one Marine Sergeant Bethany ‘Beth’ Millsap. I was working on my final set of pyramid training with the free weights and my arms were not quite dead, as the ship vibrated oddly, nearly causing me to falter on the lift.

The Hermes was currently in the ‘arms’ of a pair of Fleet Repair Tenders. They were hard docked to the Hermes by six sets of magnetically charged clamps each; making it appear as if The Hermes was slowly being devoured by two ravenous insects. The vibration was caused when one of the Tenders lifted away a whole section of damaged armor plating. Admittedly it was impressive to watch but damned annoying if you were trying to not drop a barbell that was loaded with forty kilos.

When the Ship lurched once again, Beth quickly stepped in and helped me to cradle the weights. “Damn, this is getting to be fucking old,” I sighed and slowly sat up. 

“No kidding, I can understand the Skipper wanting a solid hull between us and the Deep. But by Deity they could fucking warn us before pulling that sort of crap.” She motioned to the weights, “We better secure them before the morons decide to take the AG offline, yet again.”

I nodded, then moved to the opposite side of the bar and undid the stop. “I hear you. Joan had to have her arm set and fused after the AG flip-flopped while she was in the shower.”

Concerned she paused and looked at me, “Is she going to be ok?”

“Yes, though I hear the tech that fucked that up will be cleaning the heads for the next week.” I shook my head; “Joan was ready to clip his balls for that.”

I watched Beth wince in sympathy, “And they say I have angerissues, though I can’t say I’d blame her, but sheesh.” I nodded at her and worked at securing my side.

Privately I had to agree; Joan was the feminist from hell. Sometimes I felt my ‘hackles’ rise reflexively when she was on a role and ripping into men. Oh she worked well with a few men, most of which seemed to take her with a large grain of salt. Though from what I could tell she largely avoided men in general. Sure I looked and sounded like a woman, but mentally I was still trying to process the changes. More than once, some of her barbs at men stung a bit too deeply.

I had managed to get Joan a bit drunk, and talkative. Afterwards I could understand why she was so bitter. Joan for the most part was born and raised on Dolmar, one of the fringe worlds of the Federation. Her own father had sold her to one of the Fed’s brothels when she was sixteen. Which by the Federation’s law was legal, as females were largely considered ‘property’ within the Federation.

Somehow, she didn’t go into heavy details there, she managed to break out, and then steal her way onto a ship registered with The Alliance of Free States. The Alliance has a very matriarchal society, which while it grates on the Fed’s nerves; they also have the firepower to back up their sovereignty. So the Feds, for the most part, largely leave them alone. 

When Joan was ‘discovered’ on that ship and had related her story, she was given a berth until that Skipper set her loose on one of the League’s Refugee Worlds. Needless to say there is a large underground movement that exports ‘freed’ women out of the Fed’s Territories. Joan pretty much took to the Alliance’s doctrine and mindset, like an Alsatian Flex-cat to synthetic-alcohol.

Joan then ‘wandered’ over from the Alliance tovolunteer when the Fed’s started their religious war of ‘Rightful Expansion’ with the Confederation of Unified Systems. Part of me suspects if she had her way the Fed’s capital planet would be a dimly glowing orb of radioactive slag. Many folks agree with her in that regard, though the Accords were largely designed to keep such things from occurring again.

“What’s got you in a daze?” asked Beth.

“Oh just thinking through the Accord’s and wondering if the Signatories are actually going to do anything.”

Nodding she strip a weight from the bar and then secured it, “About?”

“The Fed’s mistreatment of us, the attack on the Hermes, you know. Stuff.” I motioned to the track and headed that way.

“Well if it’s like what happened with the Fed’s and the Riga Sevex Colony Worlds, they won’t do jack shit,” she started jogging and I moved to keep up with her.

“Yeah, but they ‘technically’ were a secessionist group that the Fed’s helped to found.” I frowned, “Even if by our standards they were a separate nation at the time. The Accord Signatories decided a handful of systems were not worth an all out war.”

“Like their sanctions did anything,” she snorted in disgust.

I agreed with her there, the sanctions did nothing to slow the Fed’s down, much less hurt them economically. “If it were not for the Federation sharing borders with us and several of the other Signatory Powers they would not have even signed the Accords.” 

“As if that helped us any,” she added bitterly.

“True, but considering that they border us and the Alliance, they might have stepped on their own dicks this time around. Personally I would have rather jumped in and kicked the Fed’s out then, even more so now. Politicians, well you know how that goes…”

“We can only hope, from what little has filtered down to me they are going to present our case on Bellius Prime. Evidently they want it deep in the heart of Alliance territory, when they present the case to the Signatories.”

“That’s a nice bit of political maneuvering, all the newsies there will hype up the Fed’s abuse,” Beth chuckled harshly, “and with no small amount of luck The Alliance will want in on the action.”      

A tone rang through the ship, “Null Gravity Warning, Ship wide AG shut down will commence in ten minutes.” The message and tone repeated twice as we slowed to a stop.

“Well at least they warned us this time,” I pointed out to Beth as we collected our towels and water jugs.

“Yeah, care to bet the chef’s are going to delay lunch?”

“No, but can you blame them, considering some poor middy nearly played G-Ball with a twenty liter carafe of boiling coffee yesterday?” I asked.

“Ouch no.”

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“So Joan, how is the arm?” asked Terrance with a chuckle.

Joan raised it, and then raised the index finger of that hand, “Seems to work fine Terry, how does it work for you?”

“I swear you two are as bad as some of my sister’s children,” commented Marge as she shook her head. “All six of them.”

“Your six sisters or their kids?” asked Joan.

“Yes,” smirked Marge as she slipped into a chair and fastened her restraining belt into place.

“At least they warned us this time,” said Joan as she took a belt from a cupboard and clipped it around herself. Then she took the free end and clipped it to a ring set in the corridor wall.

“You should count yourself lucky you didn’t drown,” commented Terry as he did the same. “If the showers had not kicked off automatically…”

“Hey I can swim, unlike a certain male I could mention,” she retorted with a point of her finger.

“On Trecas, water is used for drinking, and bathing. One does not ‘frolic’ much less cavort in it’s oceans or streams. Unless one wishes to feed the denizens of those previously foresaid watery places, with their own body.”

“He has you there Joan, and if you’d ever take time to read the xeno-biology reports on some of the Confed member world’s, you could plan your vacations better.” Joan wagged a finger to her own monitor, “I almost envy our charges, Bova’s a nice planet, aside from the polar extremes.”

“Some how I doubt Angela is going to be happy to be stuck dirt side for any stretch of time,” Joan paused as a triple chime announced the loss of gravity, “Even if they did give her a promotion out of the deal.”

“I did look up her hobbies, if it can go fast and induce a heightened state of adrenalin, he did it. I mean she did it.” Marge shook her head, “Talk about having serious thrill issues.”

“I resemble that remark,” said Joan as she flipped her feet ‘up’ to ease into a slow tumble at the end of her tether.

“Yes, but even you use an AG harness if you are going to do something radically insane.” She pointed to the berth where Angela was resting, “She is listed as being qualified in Old Tech aerial decent techniques, without an AG back up.”

“OK, I’ve seen some of the Old Tech Recreationists do some wild stuff, but if she uses a synth-cloth parasail and no AG… Are you sure she was sane before joining up?” asked Terry as he sat in a lotus several feet off the deck.

“As sane as any fighter pilot recruit ever is…” Marge replied with a smile, “even our own dear Joan was considered sane for that…”

“Just because I told the Chief Pilot’s Instructor where he could plant his evaluation…” Joan killed her slow spin with a sigh, “I mean really, just because men supposedly can focus better in a crunch in a Manta, it doesn’t mean they can fly better than me.”

“This is coming from the woman who used to own the top ranks in the recreational simulators,” jibbed Terry as his eyes half closed as he clasped his hands in his lap.

“Well considering Angela is almost living in them…” She shook her head slowly, “Though she did manage to get me to tie one on one night, other than that. It is sims, sims and more sims for her.”

“Ten to one says that instead of napping or reading something trivial, she’s reading tech manuals or studying flight data on every bird in the Fleet.” Offered Marge as she wiggled two fingers as if suggesting that easy money was in the offing.

“I don’t take sucker bets,” Joan unclipped and pushed off the wall to clip back in at the desk. She used her fingertips for traction and bent over to look at he terminal Marge was viewing, “Good gods she’s reading ‘Flight Controls and Checklists of the Marine Assault Tactical Support Fighter: Cat Shark.’” She pushed back and crossed her arms, “Care to bet it’s in the simulators?”

“No.”  Marge shook her head, “There is already talk about shutting her out of the simulators all together.”

“Ok, I’ll bite; why would any asshole be that stupid?” asked Terry as he opened his eyes fully.

“Morale or something, every time a fighter Jock on any of the other ships inches past her scores, she goes in and raises the bar another ten kilometers.” Marge snickered,

“Evidently there is a pool going on in the Hood as to who can keep her off top of the points chart by three positions for at least three days.”  

“So how many credits are you raking in?” asked Terry suspiciously.

“Well, I will not have to spend a single credit of my own money on leave, when I can go. The Manta Pilot’s are going ballistic, as she’s creaming them in kills alone.”

“So is it just the Manta jocks or?” asked Joan.

All of the various fighter jocks and wanna-be’s. Of course the Marines are egging her on, but even there, there is some serious betting and sim time going down.” Marge smirked, “Rumor has it that the Admiral is placing bets ahead of time for the upcoming gunnery trials, based on all the increased kill scores.”

“Oh I have no doubt he’s having a ball. I suspect that if the Commandant wasn’t ‘The Boss’ of all things Marine, he’d be doing the same thing,” commented Terrance as he rolled his eyes.

“So any word on when we loose the Tenders and can get back on the way to Ova-Loa?” asked Joan as the warning tone signaling the return to gravity sounded.

“Not soon enough for me,” Marge sighed. “But it is going to get worse, ship’s crew, baring already those EVA trained and outfitted, we are getting fitted for P-Suits and drills.”

“Oh wonderful, and we are doing this because?” Terrance asked while stowing the safety harness.

“New Fleet Regs, we were not the only Hospital Ship that got jumped in the past week. The Curie and The DeForest Kelly had better coverage than we did, but that didn’t help them much. The Curie is heading for the breakers and the Kelly is looking at more time in the Repair Yards than we are.”

“Looks like The Accords are so much wasted paper now.” Joan cursed for a moment, “They are not going to pull ships crew are they?”

“Not from us, but we are going to get a portion of the Curie’s crew as is the Kelly.” Marge pointed to her terminal, “The sad news is that the Fed’s either killed or captured The Imhotep.”

“Shit, no wonder we are stuck in a battle group,” said Terry with a look of disgust.

“And have the Tenders’ working nonstop,” Joan frowned, “um have the Fed’s started going after the MEDEVAC shuttles as well?”

Marge nodded slowly, “Yes.”

“Ah, well unless you have any pressing duties for me,” Joan was frowning thoughtfully, “I think I need to spend some time in a simulator myself.”      

“Combat sims?” asked Terry.

“Sort of,” Joan grimaced and explained, “combat level evasive maneuvers.”

Marge blinked then nodded, “Go, you might drag Caruthers with you. I am sure she knows tricks that haven’t filtered down to Fleet yet.”

“Now there is a thought,” Joan grinned, “besides she owes me for wiping me completely off of the tally boards, and getting me drunk.”

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“So Lieutenant back to massacre the current standings?” asked Ensign Flanders. Flanders was smirking as he punched a few keys bringing up the current Battle Group standings at his console. 

I laughed at his expression, “Has anyone pushed me down yet?”

“Well you still have a few ships that you don’t own the boards on, yet.” He cracked his knuckles and then scratched at his red hair, “So what shall we load up for you today, Stingrays, Manta’s, Tiger Sharks, Hammer Heads?”

“No of the above, do you have… Ah hell, Joan; what is the classification for the MEDEVAC Birds?”

“It’s the Fleet Medical Rescue Shuttle, also known as the Dolphin.” Joan said with a chuckle, “They were going to call them Nurse Sharks, but someone realized that they didn’t have teeth.”

I rolled my eyes at that, “Well in any case, Ensign Flanders if you will warm up one of them for us, ‘Ducky’ here wants a refresher course in evasion.”

“And the other bird?” he asked.

“The Marines’ Cat Shark, I have not flown one yet so Joan

here should have a fair chance of actually escaping me.” I laughed as she flipped me off, “Hey you wanted a real refresher.”

“Ok, so you want a typical planet to jump out, scenario?” he asked as he started entering commands.

“Yes, when she dies, reset us randomly so she has no idea where I am coming from.”

“When I die,” Joan scoffed, “more like if I die.”

I rolled my eyes at her, “Hey I am going to be giving you my best, and when I find all your weak spots we are going to switch to both of us in Dolphins. Then the real work will begin.” 

“Alright ladies, simulator six is the shuttle, and seven is the fighter. Do you want this recorded?” he asked.

“Not for the first sessions, though when we switch to shuttles only, yes. Though I think if anyone has priority on using it for training or otherwise, it’s the MEDEVAC pilots.” I motioned to Joan, “From what she’s told me they need it more than the combat pilots.”

“Aye Ma’am, open coded for MEDEVAC Pilots only.” He chuckled, “I expect folks will be screaming for it, what if the Skipper or higher wants it opened up?”

I shrugged, “This is a part of my own personal training file, as is Joan’s. Who we say they are open to, is up to us, apart from our commanders, and legitimate personnel from Training Doctrine and Operation Command. TRADOC is god after all.”

“Too true. Well those two simulators are yours for the next two hours, then I have a rash of others cued up.” He smiled, “Shall I book you for the same slots tomorrow?”

“Well if MEDEVAC pilots need the time, and only MEDEVAC Pilots, they can have my slot.” I shook my head, Joan had shown me recent Fleet losses in that department,

“We’re loosing too many of them to the Fed’s.”

He nodded slowly, “I had heard something about that.”

“The Fed’s evidently said screw the Accords, so we’ll have to do our damnedest to make sure they regret it.” I motioned Joan to the simulators, “Come on ‘Ducky’ let’s see if we can rewrite the book on evasion protocols.”

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Our training session nearly wasn’t, as some jack-off had locked me out of the simulator system somehow. Fortunately Joan got on the horn to one of her fellow EVAC Jockeys, and I was using his codes to fly ‘under.’ Of course I had to extract his oath and an offer swap the same ‘personal’ training time with him that I was giving Joan.

Evidently he didn’t like the odds of late either. I managed to lock down my anger, and get on with training Joan; but I think I must have killed a few hundred other fighters in the process.

As we flew the first few runs of the set, Joan had wondered what was up, as I wasted her ‘escort’ first and then turned on her ship. She didn’t like being told it was common Fed strategy; I wasn’t quite lying to her. After all only an idiot left ships with guns alive and on their tail.

The Feds, the smarter Feds anyways, worry about fighters and their escorts before picking off unarmed ships. Besides I was mad enough to chew depleted uranium and spit gun rounds, and by taking that out on the escorts, I could then stay focused enough to evaluate Joan’s flight performance.

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“So Joan, how in the Deep did you end up with the call sign ‘Ducky’?” I asked as I started the seventh set of her new evasion patterns. I was giving her the sets by the simple expedience of having her play follow the leader, every thing I did she had to copy. Since the computer was recording ‘my’ moves, she could return to the program time and time again.  

“Well, I had this attitude problem with some of the male instructors,” she said as she did her best to keep up with me. “One of the cocky bastards decided to rig my simulator with just about every failure he could, and still leave me with a ‘flying craft’.”

I nodded in my own simulator and dropped downwards relative to where she was than then used my attitude thrusters to pinwheel up and kicked my thrusters hard to change my vector so I was flying away ninety degrees off of her port side, and then I popped chaff and a flare. “Sounds familiar,” Alcady had done the same thing to me, on a regular basis.

“So anyway,” I heard her grunt as she did something in her simulator, “I managed to run the mission, but every time they asked if something was ‘wrong’, I kept saying: ‘Nope everything is ‘just’ Ducky.’” She paused and I saw that she was firmly on my tail, “How much chaff should I be popping in a real attack?”

I chuckled and thought for a second, “Every time I get a hard lock warning, when I was with the Hope, I’d kick two out and a flare. But Manta’s have better ECM and ECCM, so that made a difference too.” I checked my ‘gauges’ and they said I had used seven out of twenty chaff packs, “I’d say at least three maybe four and a flare.”

“All at once?” she asked as if taking an inventory in her head.

“No, you want to hit one just as you start, the next one a quarter or a third into the evasion. Hit the flare in the middle, then use the other ‘pops’ depending on when you roll or burn out.”

“I can see my chief tech going ape shit if I have to replace chaff at every recovery,” she commented adding in a rude noise.

“Better that than say, hosing out the crew compartment because you were taking hits or worse.” I shook my head, “I doubt we can get you a phalanx anti-missile tail pod, but we should try. It’d be legal in the Accords as its defensive only, like the chaff and flares.” The tail pod was a very small gatling gun, not a threat to an armored fighter. However, light missiles didn’t carry heavy enough plating protect against them. 

“How do you use them?” asked Joan as I started a new set of maneuvers.

“You just power them up, they’re tied into your threat detection unit. Mostly they sit idle until that goes off. But if you are being jammed they go active; and start looking for any laser or radar being directed at your bird. Once they trackthat, they look for a hot spot and open up for a few hundred rounds. They have a beehive round that they use fire off. A hundred round burst puts a cloud of ten thousand, six millimeter ball bearings between you and any missile.”

“Sounds nasty, can you use it on the ground?” asked Flanders over the com as Joan finished up her pattern.

“It only locks on laser and radar emitters and very hot thermal sources,” I shrugged unseen in the simulator. “There is a Tactical Version used by the Confederation Ground Forces, but that is mounted on a floater. They use a heavier round and it’s very effective against Infantry and the like, from what I hear.”

“I’ll bet,” commented Joan.

 There was a flicker then the signal for the end of the simulation flashed in the sim, and Flanders spoke over the coms. “Ok ladies your time is up. I have the flight data from the Cat Shark, should I just dump it?” he asked.

“Yeah, may as well, do me a favor and dig out who the hell put a block on my sim-access.” I started the shutdown cycle, and continued, “Who ever it is better have a good explanation for it, because if it’s some bullshit, I’m taking it up the chain.”

“Hoo boy, are you sure you want to do that Angela?” asked Joan as she leaned into my cockpit.

“Hell damned yes, I schedule my time, just like everyone else.” I pointed a finger at the cockpit controls, “Just because I may be a woman now, doesn’t mean I can’t fly or fight. I didn’t take any crap in basic flight and I sure the fuck will not take it now.”

“I hear you sister, though you may want to cool off and plan your attack, just in case.” Joan smirked, “We definitely need to get you a new call sign soon.”

“Just nothing cutesy or else,” I pointed a finger at her and frowned warningly, “I know where you sleep.”

“I hear you, now let’s get out of the way before the mob arrives,” she said and jerked a thumb to the control room

I wasn’t too sure what to make out of the odd gleam in her eyes, but it didn’t make me very comfortable. 

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Ensign Flanders had left a message on my terminal saying that something was very wrong with my ID code or something. I wasn’t too thrilled to hear that; as it basically said someone in personnel had screwed up. Or someone with rank was fucking with me. In either case I was doing my best to think of vicious and cruel methods of retributions, to use when I found the bastard responsible. 

One of my instructor’s at flight school was fond of quoting and Old Earth author by the name of George Bernard Shaw. One of his favorite quotes was: “Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety-five percent of the people would rather die than think.” He would then ask; “What the hell was I thinking?” Usually right after I did something totally assed up.

Needless to say I heard that quote often enough, and only rarely do I get to use it myself; so I savor the times when it fits the occasion. Unfortunately, those times were far and few between. I glared down at ‘new’ flight jacket. My old, familiar, jacket was covered by patches for the different birds I had qualified on. The crowning marks of that jacket were the patches for the Manta and the one for the Darwin’s Hope, not to mention all of my kill tags. This one was naked and that pissed me off royally.

Oh it had my nametag, and of all things a Tiger Shark patch with a Gold combat stud in its eye. So it wasn’t quite naked, but it felt that way to me. Every single patch, tag and marker on my old jacket; had been paid for. Paid for in pain, tears and the blood of both my friends and myself. I walked over to my berth’s desk and punched up my records on the terminal; specifically my flight and training records. I was going to make a print out of all my kills and such and take it down to supply later.

Rather I tried to call up my files, and failed. I sat down and punched in my Fleet ID, and my new name. When that failed I just entered my ID, it seemed to think about it for a moment then pulled up the Fleet’s KIA roster. I stared at the flashing line of text for a time.

Lieutenant Caruthers, Mark A. 2297583, Deceased 05NOV3066.

I closed my eyes, and then opened them, yes I was still listed as dead, “Funny, but I don’t feel dead,” I commented to the air. I then called typed in my new name and looked for myself in the Hermes’ database, I was there but listed under a different ID number. I punched in the request for those records and hit a wall, figuratively and literally.

As I sucked at the scraped knuckle I had acquired when I had punched the bulkhead in frustration, I glared at the records. It listed me, my blood type, and set my age a few years younger than what I was and my new statistics. I pulled up my awards and then dug out my cheat card from the awards ceremony, they were correct, apart from the line of text in each that read: Restricted Access, redirect enquiries to Confederation Security, followed by a slew of routing numbers.

Frowning I printed that screen, and then pulled up my flight data records. Every bird I had ever flown was listed, and in the certifications block was the same restricted access routing number. The block that should have been overflowing with kills, and other such information was not quite empty. It said, all data prior 17DEC3066 is Restricted, and then it listed my kills and such from the attack on the Hermes. At least it gave me credit for those kills and listed me as the Flight Leader.

I sat silently for a moment then punched up the routing code that the records gave me. I sat there glaring at the terminal for a long time, just when I was about to reenter the data again the screen blanked and it said to report to the Poseidon, section TA-31, then it listed a time stamp, which I supposed was when I was supposed to be there. A clock in the corner of the screen said I had about an hour to make it over there.

I frowned as the door chimed, “Enter at your own risk!” I yelled back at it. When it chimed again I fairly flew out of my chair and went to the door, “What?” I asked loudly as the door opened, startling a pair of Marines in dress blacks with side arms; they blinked and then slowly saluted me. I returned the salute and repeated the question in the same tone as before.

“Ma’am, we are here to escort you to the Poseidon,” said an uncomfortable looking corporal whose nametag read Gutherson, C., he then swallowed visibly.

“Am I under arrest?” I asked feeling a slow burn start to rise in my chest.

“No Ma’am,” said the private whose tag read Parks, T.

“Can you tell me what the hell this is about?”

“No Ma’am, our orders just said to fetch you to the Poseidon, then to TA-31.”

“Fine.” I walked back in and grabbled my flight jacket, the red beret with the bogus unit flash on it and my Female Tactical Pouch, in other words my fucking purse. Back at the door I stepped out and placed the beret on my head, “Ok let’s go and get this bullshit over with.” No, I was not in a good mood.

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The flight over to the Poseidon was via the Captain’s Gig; it wasn’t as fancy as the Admiral’s but I suppose I should have been happy about having a comfortable ride. Unfortunately I was not in the mood to even look out at the Deep, my Marine escorts were looking a bit skittish every time my eyes locked with theirs. They had spent most of the time trying not to look at me, nor were they communicative beyond ‘Yes man, no Ma’am, and I can’t say Ma’am.’ Which did nothing to help my already soured mood. 

Once docked in the Poseidon, we picked up another pair of Marines, who then lead us deeper into the bowels of the ship. Section TA-31, was mostly unremarkable aside from the fact that there were more Marines stationed in and about it. Those were in battle dress uniforms complete with assault rifles, they all had the same placid expression of alertness mixed with boredom. It was amusing in some ways as they seemed to be instantly more alert as I walked past them. Though it pissed me off even more, first they ‘killed me’, and now I get to be eye candy.

My escort led me to a mostly empty room that while carpeted, and furnished with an assortment of equipment, was empty. The plaque beside the door, read ‘Processing’ and was designated TA-1, I scowled as evidently any answers were going to be delayed further. A female ensign came in and handed me a set of forms, “Please read and sign Ma’am.”

I looked at them; they were basically the same forms I had filled out ages ago, when I applied to flight school and other security clearances I had filled out over my time in the Fleet. “Why am I filling out forms I have already filled out once before?”

“Those are um, out dated Ma’am,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. Then she handed me a pen, “Its regulations Ma’am,” she offered as if that was the answer for everything.

I glanced though all the forms, all of them had been filled out and the only thing they needed was my signature. I paused at one block where it read next of kin, that block was marked ‘none’.

“There is an error here,” I pointed that block out to the ensign, “I definitely have next of kin.”

“Ah, Ma’am, I think you should sign the form anyways, it’s normal in these sort of updates,” she said with a perfectly blank face.

I was really starting to wonder what the fuck was going on, but I signed it and kept working my way through the stack. The final form was a newer one; evidently my security rating was getting bumpedway the hell up. That gave me a moment’s pause, and then I signed that paper and pressed my thumbs on the specially treated boxes that would hold their prints.    

That done she collected all the forms and quickly left the room, a minute or so later I was escorted to a briefing room that held the Confederation, Fleet and Marine flags. I gazed at the long table and empty chairs and tried not to let the anger, confusion and frustration that was piling up, keep me from thinking.

The phrase, ‘Only two percent of the people think,’ kept rolling around in my head as I paced the room looking at the various pictures and stills on the walls of the conference room, trying to lock down those emotions. I noted the pictures of the Confederation’s ruling Triad, and the assembled Council that filled one frame. Then I walked my way down the Mandatory ‘Chain of Command’ pictures; I picked out a few faces that were new to me, and the ones I recently had met. By the time I had reached the flags again I was somewhat calmer.

I almost didn’t hear the door open, though I was mildly surprised to see the Commandant walk in followed by the Admiral, the Major from the other night, they were followed by a handful of other people, one of which was carrying in a camera. I braced to attention where I was and saluted, “Sir, Lieutenant Caruthers reporting asdirected, sir.”

The Admiral’s brow rose slightly as he returned my salute, “Stand easy Lieutenant, you are not in trouble.”

I relaxed to something not quite parade rest and stood there waiting for the other bomb to drop. “I suppose you are curious as too your status?” the Admiral asked.

“You could say that sir, I just recently found out I wasdead.” I wasn’t able to keep a hint of anger out of my voice.

The Admiral nodded, “We didn’t expect that either, Lieutenant. However we all must bow to a higher authority from time to time.” He glanced around, “If everyone is ready?” He paused for a moment, and then nodded to his adjutant.

“Attention to Orders,” the Adjutant announced in a clear voice, and everyone in the room came to attention. “The Ruling Triad of the Confederation of Unified Systems, the Council and Confederation Fleet reposes special confidence and trust in the fidelity of Lieutenant Caruthers, Angela Lin.

In accordance with Fleet Regulation Seventeen Seven dash Six Bravo, by such we do promote her to the Rank of Commander. With all the attendant responsibilities and duties of such rank as conferred upon her this, the Fifteenth day of December, Three Thousand and Sixty-four.”      

I stood there in mute shock as both the Admiral and the Commandant approached and took turns swapping my old rank insignias out for the new ones. Then after exchanging salutes and handshakes, the obligatory photo was taken with me holding the orders and standing with the witnesses.

Once we were allowed to relax I finally worked up the gumption to ask the first obvious question that popped into my head, “Why?”

That question produced a few chuckles though the Admirals face was slightly grim, “The Fed’s produced a body stating that you were dead, just a few days after you saved the Hope.” He shook his head, “We know you are not, but the politicians are drafting you into a double headed axe. Two heroes for the price of one.”

Indignantly I glanced at both the Commandant and then the Admiral, “Begging the Admiral’s pardon, but that sounds pretty messed up to me, what of my family?”

“They have been carefully briefed and are ‘willing to put up with it,’” He made a small shrug with his shoulders and smiled gently, “as long as you can come home sometime.” That bit of phrasing had sounded a lot like my father.

“Your parents understand the need to have the Signatories firmly in our pocket,” added the Commandant with a tight smile,” considering the Federation has blatantly violated the Accords.”

“You would have been promoted to Lieutenant Commander, about six months ago, had Darwin’s Hope not been running operations where it was. Technically you would not have been eligible for promotion to full Commander for another year or so, but the recent circumstances did merit it.” Added the Admiral, “And you did earn it Angela, it’s not a bribe for you to keep your mouth shut.”

“However, you will only be able to say you were related to your other self, that, is an order. Unfortunately almost all of your records are now classified and damned few people have full access to them. Most people will make the assumption that you worked for a time in Confederation Intelligence and your new security clearance will help in that aspect.” He shrugged slightly, “It’s real enough, just try not to use it without a damned good reason. Understood?”

“Yes sir, but what of my flight status?” I tapped the Tiger Shark and the stud in its eye, “This is only a fraction of what I am entitled to wear, what of the rest?”

He chuckled for a moment, “Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of flight time in your next assignment.” He sighed and shook his head; “You are technically authorized to wear the other patches, including the Manta, with the combat studs and tags. However in keeping with your new life and by order of The Grand Admiral, you are ordered not to.”  

I stood there fuming for a few minutes trying to think of something polite to say in rebuttal, and I could feel my nails biting deeply into my palms.

“I can see you are upset about something Commander,” noted the Commandant.

I took a breath and slowly let it out, “I am trying to find a way to express my displeasure with the Grand Admiral’s Orders, and not end up in the brig or demoted. Sir.”

Among the tense laughter the Admiral nodded, “In that case it is often best to say nothing.” He sighed, “If it were up to me Caruthers, considering you saved The Hermes, and all the things you and your fellow pilots on Darwin’s Hope did, I would have let you wear them. But for the good of the Confederation, we both have our orders.”

“However, I do have something that might lessen that sting some what,” offered the Commandant and he held out his hand to the Major. “While it is not as ‘flashy’ as the Manta patch, very damned few people are authorized to wear this, in the Navy that is.” He opened a box and carefully removed two items from it, “This patch is worn by only the best in the Marines, and it can only be awarded for extreme heroism under fire, and then only by the Commandant Himself. That would be me.” He said with a chuckle as he passed the large patch to me.

It was fairly stunning in its own right, a large blue giant, with a white beard and with a vivid Gold crown. In one hand was a silvery trident and in the other he held the reins to some sort of aquatic beast that breathed red fire. Bordering the circle were the words, ‘For Honor, Duty, and Commitment’ on the top half and on the bottom was ‘Semper Fidelis!’ 

“When you climbed into that Tiger Shark and led my two ruffians into combat, you technically fell under my command. As such you are entitled and instructed to wear this patch as well. Though you will have to wear it on the left shoulder, which by Marine tradition declares that you served in combat with that unit.” He chuckled, “Those patches and the ribbons they come with, will give you no end of grief from your fellow Navy pilots, but they cannot deny you your right to wear them.”

I took that patch, noting it was the same Hammer and Trident that had been painted on the tail fin of the Tiger Sharks. Though it was done in Gold and red and along with the words ‘Semper Fidelis,’ and ‘The Commandant’s Own,’ worked in black around the border. “Thank you sir, it does help.”

“Being the Commandant, does have it’s perks,” he grinned at me, “those are officially yours to wear until you die, and not even the Fleet can say otherwise. Though you may have a hell of a time figuring out who to cheer for in the Marines versus the Fleet Games.” 

The Admiral laughed but he nodded, “Those patches are ‘legal’ for use on all your uniforms, one of theodder Fleet regulations. But considering what you can’t wear…”

“Yes sir, I understand, though this new life is more than slightly galling,” I admitted with a mixed set of emotions in me..

He nodded slowly and his voice took on a empathetic tone, “And unfair, but the ‘goal’ of it is the important part, your supposed death. The data recovered of your torture at the Fed’s hands, and the other evidence we recovered, will hurt them.”  

“I just hope it is enough sir, I am not sure what else I can give up and keep my sanity,” I said with a sigh.

“You’ll endure Commander, you’ll endure,” he motioned to the door where a clerk was waiting and waved her in.

An Ensign came in with a small stack of papers and a chip, “Your copies of the awards and the additions from the Marines have been annotated into the public portion of your records Ma’am.” She handed me the papers and then handed me a ‘new’ ID card with my name, rank and new Confederation ID number. “I took the liberty of correcting the error in the Standings Board, Ma’am and the simulator access as well, your new ID is now linked to them.” She smiled, “Give them hell Ma’am.”

“I think there is a party we are late for, and since it’s the New Commander’s responsibility for the first round.” I glanced over to see Clarice smiling as she added, “We should go and see what the bar will bear.”

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“So how was your night Joan?” asked Terrence as he parked an empty floating stretcher in its slot before locking it in place for charging.

“Well I got more than a bit drunk, again.” She sighed and smiled wickedly, “At Commander Caruthers’ expense this time.”

Marge looked over from where she was running an inventory on instruments and meds, “I did hear something about that, but I was stuck in meetings. Evidently the Charge Nurse had to steer her into her berth, and then slapped her with a pair of Scrubbers while she was passed out.”

“Ouch, well I hope she’s in a better mood than earlier yesterday.” Joan shook her head, “Talk about a relentless bitch, my ego was pretty flat by the time she got doneevaluating my performance.”

“Was she deliberately mean?” asked Terrance with a frown.

“Not really, though she was angry at something the powers that be did. My programmed escorts were so much vapor before I could even start an evasion. Eventually Flanders had to set the escorts atgod level, just to give me a chance at starting an escape. And she still fried my ass ninety-nine percent of the times.”

Marge chuckled, “Well she is one of the best, if not the best pilot in the current Battle Group. Did you learn anything from it?”

“Oh yeah, she set me up with about sixteen different evasions that are not even in the books yet, and some other advice.” Joan flexed her wrists and groaned, “My crew chief wasn’t happy with her suggestions, but he changed his tune when I showed him the current MEDEVAC losses Fleet wide.”

“Terry, please do a quick scan on Joan’s arm, just in case she came unglued.” Marge smiled impishly, “Physically that is.”

Joan made a rude noise then walked over to a berth and then Terrance moved a scanner down her arm, “She’s got some inflammation, but the bones are still set.” He then motioned to her head with the scanner, “I don’t get any readings from her head.”

Joan batted at the scanner with a mock growl, “I’ll get you later.”

Terrance laughed and moved out of reach, “Promises, promises.”

“Easy you two, scanners cost credits you know,” Marge chided as she laughed at them.

“Ok Boss, any word on when we jump?” asked Terry as he stowed the scanner.

“Well it should be about nine hundred hours, if all goes well. The scan team is walking the hull now, so once they give the green light on the armor…” She paused,

“However long that takes, then we’ll be a few short hops to Ova-Loa. Have you checked the discharge papers on our patients?”

“Well the ambulatory ones are mostly completed, I think the only one left is Angela’s and that’s mostly due to her new rank and ID numbers.” Joan sighed and added, “Too bad we can’t keep her longer.”

“I will miss our guardian hellcat, but she’d be wasted if she was stuck with us,” Marge walked over to point to a monitor that displayed the Deep as seen from the bow of the Cruiser, “We need her out there, not stuck on some planet.”

“Her orders came in?” asked Terrance as he looked over from a bin that held fresh linens.

“Yes she’s off to the Fleet Officers Command Course on Bova.” Marge chuckled, “If I read her orders correctly she’s going to be putting a world of hurt on new pilots for a time as a Pilot Instructor.”

“Damn, I’d kill to be in that class, if she can tighten down my evasions, just think what she could do for my attacks.”

“Joan, as much as you hate the Feds, do you really want to face the same odds she does every time she goes out to fight?”

Joan was silent for a long moment, “Some days, yes.”

“And the other days?” asked Terry with a look to the monitor that showed the Deep and a clock that was counting down to Jump.

“The other days I thank god I’m the best fucking EVAC pilot in the Fleet, and not the hand of Death.” She looked at the other two, “Most nights I can sleep without nightmares, Angela can’t or doesn’t.”

“Yeah, she’s definitely paying for it, especially after…” Terry shook his head and walked over to tap a key changing the monitor so it showed Angela asleep. “Who guards the dreams of the warriors?”

“I don’t know, but I wish they would do a better job of guarding hers,” said Marge with a sigh, “I offered her some meds, but she turned them down, she said she had to beready, if the call came down to fight.”

“I think the only reason she will allow herself to relax and get drunk is because of the Scrubbers.” Joan shook her head, “Ever so fucking vigilant, if she wasn’t so sane I’d swear she has been running the knife’s edge of PTSD.”

“Who say’s she isn’t?” asked Marge. “The Psyche’s have only seen her for the briefest of times and then I think she had them fooled.”

“Unlike some of the other’s, Angela is ‘together’, most of the times,” Terrence paused briefly, “and when it counts the most, she’s at her strongest.”

“It’s afterwards, when she’s all alone, she lets it out.” Marge shook her head sadly, “The duty nurses at night, keep finding her awake, doing exercises or trying to broil herself in the showers.”

“It’s one way to hide the tears, and to temporarily forget the pain,” said Joan softly, “I know it all too well.”

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I was looking at my orders with a bit of confusion, the chipped version was tucked away in my jacket pocket, but the orders invariably came in both the chip and hard copy, you have got to love tradition. Once I stripped out the usual cross codes and extraneous routers I was left with the following assignment information and a weight allowance and transport data.

CDR. Caruthers, Angela Lin, Confederation ID 58324296,

Assigned –Classified-       11-05-3064 : 07:30

Reassigned CMHC 2099 Hermes 12-17-3066 : 17:25

Transferred to FMCS Bova 912, FOCC AFO.

Effective : 12-27-3066 : 00:00

Though I think I wasn’t the only confused person in the room, as they had pretty much handed the orders out in the galley as a prelude to some sort of briefing. Sergeant Bethany Millsap, my personal trainer and motivational ass kicker was looking as bewildered as I felt. “Where in the Deep, is Bova Nine Twelve?” she asked with a hint of unease. 

“Actually Beth, it may be more of a what, than a where. It vaguely sounds like a station or a rock if you ask me.” I shrugged and pointed to the personnel roster that was appended to my orders, “Where ever it is, we all seem to be headed there. Now if I knew what the hell FOCC was I might be happier.”

“Fleet Officer Command Course,” offered a voice from behind me and I looked back, to see that Colonel Hitachi was looking grumpy too. Well grumpier than usual, she wasn’t handling the transition well. From what little she alluded to, her life before the Fed’s was pretty much a security black hole. Confederation Intelligence and Recon Specialist, one of those ever so fun peoples you drop onto a planet and expect bad things to happen to the enemy in short order. 

“Joy, I suppose AFO means either Assistant Flight Officer or in cruder terms Another Fucked Officer. Why do I get the feeling I am going to going to teaching Jig’s and Middy’s how to fly?” I asked feeling more than a bit angry.

She chuckled and waved her own orders about, “I feel your pain; evidently I am going to be teaching Basic Recon or something, what a fucked up deal.”

I looked over to Beth, “What did you get for an assignment?”

“Officers Candidate School,” she said with a frown, “I really didn’t want to be an officer.”

“Why not?” I asked with a smile, “The money is good.”

She shook her head, “Don’t take this wrong, but I work for a living. Officers don’t.”

The Colonel snickered and then she said, “Oh you’ll work alright, though you may have to pretend that you don’t.”

I smiled and pointed at her, “I suppose it’s the Commandant’s way of showing his faith in you. Now if I knew what the blazes I did wrong…” I sighed, “I should be heading back to the front or at least a carrier. I’m a fighter pilot not a gods be damned nursemaid.”

“What I don’t get is why we didn’t get any down time, my orders didn’t include any leave time, did yours?” asked Beth as she frowned unhappily.

“No,” I shrugged and scanned my own orders again, “I am not sure my family is ready for this.”  I paused and suppressed a queasy tremor in my emotions, “Can you picture the look on their faces when I say, ‘Hi Mom, and Dad I’m your son.’”

“Put yourself in my shoes,” I looked back to see the Colonel studying the deck with a dark look, “my fiancée, no let me rephrase that; the Federation pretty much wrecked our lives.”    

That bit of information pretty much explained why she was so down all the time. I’d made a discrete inquiry or two into the odd chances of whether we’d be able to get surgically changedback to male. Unfortunately the Fed’s did something with our genome that even if we could tolerate the implants, the shift in hormones would likely blind us, if not outright kill us slowly in time.

“Ah Deity,” I wanted to say something comforting, but the year the Hope was at the fringe of the Fed territories I had been ‘Dear Johned’ myself. That news had nearly ended me on one flight, though Boojum had saved my ass, kicked it completely and then got me blind drunk afterwards.      

“Yeah, so much for that happy ending,” she sniffed and I dug in my purse to hand her a tissue, “Thanks, damned hormones.”

We both nodded, it was more polite to blame it on the hormones rather than our emotions, at least in public. It likely didn’t help in that that the Colonel and I could have been twins, aside from the eye color; as hers were more hazel to my emerald green.

“Admiral on the deck!” called a Marine Corporal who was stationed at a hatch at the fore of the galley, bringing us to attention and stilled the various mutterings.

“At-ease and take seats please, I’ll try to keep this short.” He walked to a lectern and then took a moment to look at us. “As most of you have already gathered, you are all heading to roughly the same duty station for a time.” He nodded slightly, “And from the expressions on some of your faces most if not all, of you are not happy with those orders.”

He took off his jacket and set it on a chair, “Normally I’d let some other poor bastard be the one to explain the Fleet’s actions.” That produced a mild stir and I was wondering just how bad, the bad news was. “However, we do owe you more than that.”

“I suppose I should start off by apologizing for your lack of leave time, regrettably it is necessary.” He held up a hand, “Not so much because we are at war, but because the doctors feel that you need more time to become more adjusted to your new life.”

I stood up, “Begging the Admiral’s pardon, but why?”

“Ah Commander, that is a good question and a fair one,” he motioned that I should sit, so I did. “You are not the first batch of changed prisoners that we recovered from the Federation.” He let that sink in for a moment.

“Normally, we would have given you some therapy and leave time before sending you back to duty. Unfortunately when we did just that, it had rather disastrous results.”

He sighed, and then waved a hand to indicate us all, “While many of you have done well thus far, of the first fifty we had freed, only fifteen have survived reentry into our society. And of those fifteen, a handful are less than sane.” He shook his head and held up both hands to ease the sudden murmurs, “Needless to say it was a definite failure on our part to look after our own. One of which we have no intention of repeating. Further information is available from the ships terminals or will be available to you at your duty stations.”

From the expressions around me, everyone pretty much looked like they had their first Wormhole Transit. Though no one was puking his or her guts out, so I suppose that was a plus. Personally I was not quite sure what to make of it all, fifteen out of fifty was a pretty screwy survival ratio; so I could see some of the need for the precautions. Though I had a distinct feeling my next duty station was going to suck.

“Now I understand some of you are less than enthused by your duty assignments.” There were more than a few not quite suppressed murmurs of agreement there, mine included. Which earned me a not so subtle nudge in the ribs from Beth.

“Fleet and other commands feel it would be better if you were all in the same place, seeing familiar faces and dealing with familiar issues. On a daily basis.” He looked around then continued, “Bova Nine Twelve is one of the Combined Forces major training planets. Its various schools encompass all aspects of the Confederation Military from Fleet, Confederation Ground Forces, Special Ops and last but not least the Marines.”

“Some of you may be asked to travel to Bellius Prime in The Alliance Territories, to give testimony to the Signatories of the Accords.” He held up a hand as the angry undertone picked up again, “Though that will be voluntary.”

“In the mean time, while on Bova, you will be either teaching, learning new skills or with luck, relaxing.” He smiled, “In either case we are not just dumping you there and forgetting you. It is our hope that in that environment you will eventually be able to return to your old duties or take on new ones. There are three hundred more of you who have yet to be awoken, and they will need as much support as you got or more. They will be joining you there and once released from medical they will likely be placed amongst you.”

“I am not volunteering for punching bag duty again,” I hissed softly to Beth who tried not to laugh.

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Packing down my gear didn’t take much time, of which was depressing in its own right. Ship’s Supply had seen to adding my new rank and patches to all my uniforms other then the Dress Whites, but even that one sported the ‘Commandant’s Own’ patch. My combat flight gear had been stowed in its protective crate, once again by the Ship’s Crew. Admittedly I didn’t own much, on Darwin’s Hope, but some of that stuff was of a sentimental nature. With luck I could get some of it back from my parents later on.

The last bit to be stowed away was a plaque from the Skipper of The Hermes, a touch of the button and it would light up showing The Hermes in space from all angles, after which a list of ships crew and patients would scroll up. He apologized for not having me up to dinner at the Captain’s Table. From what I gathered he had spent most of his time lately keeping the ship going, and doing the necessary paperwork and so forth after the attack. Considering how well the Ship’s Crew had been taking care of me I could not complain.

That stowed I returned to my bunk and picked up my latest ‘gear’, a navy issue ten millimeter sidearm, with extra clips and belt. Evidently my jump in security level required that I carry one when traveling in uniform, and to have it handy when not in uniform. I had spent some time on the Marine’s Cruiser using the range there, getting comfortable with it. I wasn’t the best shot with it, compared to the range instructor, but I could hit what I was aiming at.

I belted that on and picked up my new beret; its color was canary yellow, signifying I was an instructor. The flash on it was for the Second Confederation Fleet Command Doctrine Division. It was a plain blue disk with a horizontal white segment with those initials on it. If you asked me the combination of the flash and the beret was a bit hard to look at, but it did catch the eye, making me easily identifiable.

Which was likely the intention. In Fleet slang, I was ‘Gold,’ basically it meant I was the deliverer of certain doom and wrath if I caught you fucking up. Not to mention I was likely the bane of your existence if you were under my command. In some ways it was rewarding, the other side of it was annoying that I had to be ‘Perfect’ in appearance at all times. After all, if I was going to bust on some poor sob’s appearance I had better be looking pretty damned ‘strack’ myself.

The door chimes bleeped and Joan walked in, one of the perks of being on the medical staff; your privacy was only yours if they felt like it. “So all packed up?” she asked.

“Yes, there wasn’t much to pack,” I shrugged and put on the beret, “so how do I look?”

“Very scary, and damned cute.” With a mild frown she added, “You are going to have a hell of a time of it unless you bust balls from the get go.”

“Wonderful,” I groaned at aggravation that was surely going to arise in time. “Why fucking me? I mean it’s sort of flattering, if you go for that sort of thing. Which I do not.”

“Well consider it another reward for a job well done, they only select the best of the Fleet to teach,” she grinned and added, “besides you’ll be certified on all the birds by the time you are done.”

Oh joy, I’d rather be on a carrier heading back out,” I said with evident sarcasm.

“Look at it this way, you’ll have most nights and some weekends off. Which is more than some of us will get,” she took a small tool from her pocket. “One last medical duty and you are free to go.”

I looked at her suspiciously, “Oh?”

She motioned to my left wrist, “Yep, unless you really want to walk around with a medical transponder on your wrist?”

I glanced down and then held that arm out to her, “I’ve gotten used to it being there.”

“Well it’s only suitable for duty uniforms; if you are a patient.” She turned my wrist over and touched the tip of the tool to a silver spot, and with a click it fell open.

I eased it off and handed it to her, “Thanks Joan, for everything.”

She pulled out a small box from her pocket after stowing the tool and the monitor, “Oh I am amply repaid and then some.” She handed the small box to me, “I know you got something from the Skipper and Crew, but this is from Terry, Marge, the other EVAC Pilots and me.”

I opened the box to find an expensive watch inside, “You all didn’t have to.” I pulled it out and studied it for a time, “This is nice.”

“Well considering you’re all ‘Gold’ now, we can’t have you being late. Check out the back side,” she pointed to the watch.

I turned it over to see where is was inscribed with, “To our Guardian Angel, may your wings never get clipped.” I blinked a few times and smiled, “Thanks Joan.” I spent a moment putting it on and looked up to see her frowning slightly.

“I am going to miss having you around,” she said and then her tone was a bit more serious. “Look, we know you are having a time of it, at night, even if the Psyches’ don’t. Promise me if shit gets too bad you’ll get help.”

I blinked and nodded, “I’ll keep it locked down.” At her frown I continued, “I don’t want a medical down check.”

She nodded, “I understand, but you don’t have to fight every battle alone.”

“I’ve got your Fleet ID, if things get too rough I’ll write,” then I grinned, “who knows maybe we can find some planet to blow a month’s leave on.”

“I’ll hold you to that Angela, now I better scoot before I get all mushy.” She chuckled and explained, “I never was good at good byes.”

“I can relate, just make sure you practice those evasions,” I said though my throat was tight.

She braced to attention and saluted, “Yes Ma’am.”

I returned her salute, “Now get out of here before I get all mushy myself.”  

She grinned, “Give them hell Angela.”

“Oh I will, believe me I will.”

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The Four Orbital Stations at Ova-Loa were called Leeloo, Korbin, Dallas and Mupass. I was of course, was waiting on a hop over to the Dallas, and then to the transport that would take us to Bova. Typical military, hurry up and then wait, though I was not the only one waiting.    

Colonel Hitachi and I were sitting in the in the same lounge, I had learned her first name was now Kimi, though it was pronounced Kee-mee. She smirked as she explained that it meant ‘Upright’, and that her last name roughly translated out as ‘The dauntless man standing before the sunrise.’ When she added a crude gesture after saying that, I suddenly understood why she was smirking.

“Your nurse friend is right, you know?”


“Having to bust balls from the get go.” Kimi pointed to a gaggle of young men who were sporting maroon and black berets, “They will only see the pretty girl, if you don’t show them your claws from the first instant you have control over them. Smack them down hard, otherwise you will never have any respect from them. Even if you out rank them, can out fly them or out drink them.” 

I nodded in resignation, “Give them the Alcady treatment, no slack, no breaks and pile the crap on higher.”

Kimi looked at me then asked, “Alcady being?”

“One of my old flight instructors, now she was a right bitch.”

“Sounds like a good role model for you to emulate, just remember; there is a limit before it becomes abuse.” She pointed out with a chuckle, “But don’t worry your senior instructor will let you know if you get too close to it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said and pointed to the boarding lock, “I just want to get it over with, and get back to what I am supposed to be doing.”

She nodded and glanced down to my waist, “What’s with the side arm?”

“Regulations, my security clearance is just a few stops below God’s.” I shrugged uneasily, “I dunno, it sort of feels good to be armed.”

She whistled softly, “I have a decent clearance myself but I don’t need a side arm at all times.” She shook her head, “I will bet you’ll have extra duties because of it.”

I groaned at her pronouncement, “You are probably correct.”

“Ah well look at it this way, if the Fed’s try something you have an extra weapon,” she paused as a group of what were obviously recruits was herded into the lounge. “Care to bet some of those will be yours?”

I shook my head, “I did not sign up to be a fucking nursemaid.”

“Well you may get enough time to bone up on few subjects at the Command Course. You would end up there on your next promotion anyways, so if you can kill some of the course work now…”

“I could get back to flying that much sooner,” I said with a smile.

“Or commanding something bigger that a fighter,” she countered.

“That would suck hard vacuum. The last thing I want or need is to be stuck commanding a ship that stays in some damned battle group most of the time.” 

“How many officers above the rank of Colonel have you seen flying a fighter?” Kimi asked with a tap to her own collar.

That stopped my mental gears for a moment, “Well there was the Admiral at Flight School.”

“But that is a training unit, not a combat unit.”

“Shit,” I said and then I groaned silently into my hands.

“Well you have a few more years of freedom in fighters before they move you to something heavy,” she offered in consolation.

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I had managed to doze off in the short hop between stations, only to be awoken by an Ensign, “Ma’am, are you Commander Angela Caruthers?”

“Yes she is,” chimed in Kimi for me as I forced myself into alertness.

“What can I do for you Ensign?” I asked once I was tracking things.

“The Skipper requests that you come forwards to Operations, Ma’am.”

I unbelted from the seat with a sigh and made sure my beret was tucked into my pistol belt, “Lead on Ensign.”

He walked down the aisle and I followed carefully as a few feet stuck partially into the aisle as well. I surely didn’t enjoy having my nap disturbed, so I was careful not to bother them as well. The Grouper Class transport was your typical commercial transport reworked to be a military craft, though the food was worse and they rarely served drinks.

“Through here Ma’am,” he pointed to an open bay and to a Midshipman, who was looking a bit perplexed.

I walked over to him and stood there for a moment, “You wished to see me Skipper?” It felt odd calling someone I out ranked, ‘Skipper’ but he was in command of his own ship.

“Yes Ma’am, you have an encoded message,” he motioned to a chair and a terminal with a palm scanner, “if you will swipe your ID and place your palm there, I will get out of your way.”

   I did has he asked and he nodded politely before departing. I sat and punched in the confirmation code I had to memorize just recently. The terminal blinked once and displayed its message.

CDR. Caruthers, Angela Lin, Confederation ID 58324296
Assigned TDY Transport Flight 2106 from Ova-Loa,
Mupass Station to Bova 912, FOCC Station Webber.
Details to follow:
Accept and transport replacement vessels as requisitioned
by FOCC. Assume command of transport flight 2016
and deliver to FOCC Station Webber at best speed.
Weapons load out as authorized by FREG-2077.
Personal Baggage to Accompany Original Transport, minus Mission Critical EVA/Combat Gear. 
As ordered by FLTCOM-FOCC-AGN
Message ends.

The printer next to me spat out and identical set of instructions in hard copy. I looked back to see the Skipper waiting at the entryway. “Nothing earth shaking Skipper, are you headed to Mupass next?”

“Yes Ma’am, I have been instructed to deliver you there after offloading the current horde.” He paused, “Do you need something brought up from the hold?”

“Just my flight bag, and my EVA Gear. Everything else will continue on to Bova 912 ahead of me.”

“Yes Ma’am, I’ll have it brought up and secured here with a floater, will you need to change?”

“Not here, its just a ferry job,” I motioned to my orders, “evidently I am starting my new job early.”

“Well at least you will miss the media circus.” He rolled his eyes, “We expect to be delayed as evidently some big wig is going to hit Dallas and every Newsie is there poking about.”

“I take it I am to stay aboard until we hit Mupass?” I asked quickly.

“Yes Ma’am, we should be arrive at Dallas Station in ten minutes. You can stay here or return to your seat, if you like. If you will excuse me I have to get back to the bridge?”

“Thank you for your time Skipper,” I nodded thanks to him and said, “I better go back and tell folks I am off to work, then I’ll return here.”

“No problem Commander, enjoy the flight,” he nodded to me before he walked forwards to a set of stairs and up.

I had my suspicions about the media circus and sudden change in orders but I wasn’t going to fret things. I walked back and let Kimi know what was up before taking up residence in Operations again and closed my eyes. You learned to sleep where ever and whenever you could, so I did.

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The never-ending card game was back in session in the pilots wardroom. As usual the quadruple team of Lieutenant Commanders’ Tommy ‘Boojum’ Jennings, Paul ‘Griffin’ Griffith, Jeremy ‘Stacked’ Decker and Luke ‘Slo-Hand’ Palmer, were taking turns lightening the pockets of the transport flight pool’s newest pilots. 

They could have been quadruplets, if you merely looked at their flight jackets that were covered with kill tags and ship patches. Centered predominantly on the jacket backs was the largish patch that was the Manta. In the eyes of each of the patches was the gold combat stud, signifying that had flown that particular bird in combat. Around the Manta patch the kill studs and tags were thick and seemed to threaten the other patches on the jackets. Directly below the Manta, almost recently applied was the patch for the Darin’s Hope. That patch was neatly bordered with gold kill tags making sure the eye was drawn there.

They were all roughly the same height, not quite five foot six inches tall. Jennings hair was a sandy brown, and he had a small scar just below his eye that had come from particularly nasty bar fight. His eyes were hooded yet the green in them sparkled as he looked over the cards he held. Griffith’s hair was an odd mix of bronze and brown that one might discretely call auburn, if you were into hair. His eyes were a placid brown and he seemed lost in thought though occasionally he would blink as if the smoke bothered his eyes.

Decker the picture of stoicism, with his red hair close cropped to his head and the cigar he was merrily puffing away on was occasionally hiding his gray eyes. Palmer was sitting back in his chair, holding his cards invisibly behind his large hands, he was a dusky tan and while his head was bald, he sported a tidy mustache that was a light gray. His eyes were closed and he seemed lost in thought, when he opened then he tossed his cards out onto the table, “Fold.”

“Coward,” taunted Decker, “I raise five.”

“I’ll see your five and raise you another ten,” responded Jennings with a smirk.

“That’s it I’m out,” said Griffith with a groan.

Decker tossed in the ante and smiled, “Let’s see you top this, aces and eights, he said and laid out his hand.

“I bailed on a crappy two pair?” asked Palmer with a frown.

“Well you’ll just have to be happy you got out before I dropped this on you, “Royal flush, and that kills your hand Decker, you must be loosing your touch.”

“Crap, it must be the hangover,” Decker said with a groan.

“Yeah, someone must be trying to fuck with our heads, ghost mail. What sort of fucker sends hard booze on the behalf of a dead man?” asked Luke with a frown.

“Damned if I know, but shit, they at least sent us good stuff,” Griffith said with a smile.

“And what is a real kicker, it was Snark’s favorite brand too,” Jennings was frowning darkly, “I have to wonder if he had a will or something.”

“Could be,” said Decker, “if he hadn’t been so fucking heroic…”

“Yeah, but he pulled off the kill, the little fucker could fly.” Jennings stood up, “I’m heading over to Operations, maybe we’ll finally get the fucking hell off of this shit detail.”

“Amen,” chorused the rest as the cards were collected and reshuffled.    

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Mupass Station was the second of two military stations orbiting Ova-Loa, and it was more geared towards military operations than Medical. I was welcomed aboard by an Ensign who then directed me towards Fleet Replacement Depot Six, where in theory I would find a fresh group of birds ready for my inspection, and acceptance. Part of me expected to find a handful of fighters, what I found would almost equip a Light Carrier and then some.

Row after row of everything from Hammer Heads, Archer Fish and Mantas greeted my eyes. I took a long moment to admire the lines of a few of the newer looking vessels, then I went to find the Depot Office and figure out what was mine. After a few minutes of searching I looked around then flagged down a Middy.

“Pardon me Midshipman,” I asked with a smile, “where would I find the Depot Office?”

She looked up from her data pad with a start and snapped to attention, “Sorry Ma’am, I was doing a check, the D-O is portside aft. Look for the orange and yellow hash-marks on the deck, and the hatch is covered with red hash-marks.”

I thanked her and towed my float palate in that direction; the bay was several hundred of meters wide and long. I kept getting odd looks and every time I passed a group of techs or other personnel, I kept finding myself repeating “Carry on.” Oh the joys of being promoted and ‘Gold.’ “Joy,” I muttered as I found the hatch that was marked both by the red hash-marks and labeled with Depot Office and a second bar that read, CWO7 McClain, W.T.  Underneath that in very small script was the words ‘God works here.’ Smirking slightly I opened the hatch to the sound of one very loud gentleman’s complaint of “Where the fuck did you put it?”

Suppressing a smile I walked in and stood at the counter and listened to what was a fairly blistering set of instructions that were only partially profane. I had to give the Chief credit for not repeating himself once, though a few of his euphemisms were unique to me. I coughed once politely, figuring it would slow him down, as his back was turned to me. Instead he continued his diatribe and added a few more invectives.

His staff on the other hand noticed and immediately sharpened up from their slouches, which only gave him a moments pause, “… And finally when Commander Caruthers arrives I want the paper and chips on my desk and ready for him.”

I rolled my eyes and interrupted, “Pardon me Chief.”

“What?” he half bellowed as he turned to see me standing at the counter. It took him a less than a moment to notice my rank and my beret. “Ah, pardon me Ma’am.”

“Commander Angela Caruthers at your service, Chief. I hear you have some new birds for me?” I deliberately stressed my new first name and watched his ears turn a ruddy red. He was about six foot tall and was slightly heavy set though he did not appear to be soft. His hair was close cropped and a speckled black and gray.

He looked me up and down and then nodded once, “Aye Ma’am, though the papers for them are nowhere ready it seems.”

I shrugged indifferently, “If you were as surprised as I was by the suddenness of my orders, it cannot be helped Chief.” Hell I could be gracious, as it seemed his day was as fucked up as mine was thus far.

“No kidding Ma’am, in any case we’ll get them sorted out,” he said and waved to his staff, which quickly startedlooking busy.

“So how many of those out there are heading to Bova?”

“All of them, though not all to one unit.”

“All of them?” I asked feeling a bit confused by the concept of having command of over a hundred and more ships.

I could see a twinkle in his eye as he answered, “Yes Ma’am.”

“Crap,” I said and let out a sigh, “Fleet just loves it’s little surprises doesn’t it?”

He chuckled, “It’s not that bad Commander, you’ll have plenty of pilots to fly them there. He walked over to what I presumed was his desk and picked up a data pad, and returned to me. “This is yours to keep, I’ll dig out the forms for it later. It has your pilot’s roster and a map of the station. You will likely have to stop by Operations and Fleet Intel so you can brief your pilots later on.”

I took it and nodded, “What about armament?”

“As per Regs Ma’am, we’ll be moving them to the munitions bay once the papers here are settled.” He motioned to the bay, “Is the Flight School at Bova is getting set up again?”

“I suppose Chief, I barely got assigned to there, barley get on a transport and then I am here.” I motioned to the deck, “Are there any surprises I should be aware of?”

“One, well maybe two.” He stepped out from around his counter, “If you’ll follow me Ma’am, just park your floater off to the side of the hatch, no one will bother it.”

I did as he asked and he lead me through a maze of ships, “We have been tending some thing totally brand new while the other ships arrived for transport. If I read though all the black-outs in your records correctly, you may be the only one rated to fly it.” He walked a ways further to where a pair of Marines patrolled around a tarp covered aircraft.

They stopped just in front of us and requested my FID, of which I fished out and handed over. He slid it through his data-pad then he and his partner braced to attention, “Ma’am.”

“Time for the wrapper to come off boys,” said the Chief pointing to the tarp.

When they stood frozen, I sighed and looked at one specifically, “If it’s not too much trouble Marines,” I turned slightly so that my new red patch was visible to them. “I would like to see what I am going to be signing for and flying.”

“No Ma’am its no trouble at all,” they quickly said and set about removing the tarp from the bird, I smiled, maybe the ‘C-O’s’ Patch was good for something after all.

“From what I am given to understand Ma’am, mass production of these has just started.” The Chief hitched his thumb over his shoulder to the row of Electric Eels, “Those will be moved back to Planetary Defense Fleets, and then phased out in a few years, if I read things correctly.”

I nodded and studied the bird, “What’s the classification?”

“It is called the Goblin Shark.” He pointed to the strange nose on it, “It’s got enough electronics packed into it that is a Fed farts in the head, from three parsecs out you’ll know what he ate for dinner.”

“So it’s what just a ramped up Eel?” I asked cautiously.

He laughed and motioned for me to examine the bird, “Take a walk around the bird and study it for a moment, its got enough hard points to make a Whale shark nervous.”

I did as he suggested and walked the length of it noting the odd positioning of the cockpit, as it seemed to sit back under a flat sword like blade that was parallel to the wings. The Chief was right it had quite a few points to attach pods and the engines and maneuvering jets were huge. In that respect it was similar to the heavy ordinance and dedicated role Whale Shark, if not it being sleeker and much smaller. The wing lay out was equally strange as a tri-level canard sat in the front, though staggered a meter apart. The main wings could have come from a Manta, if you made them nearly three times the normal size.

I wasn’t sure if I was pleased about the gun placements or not, as the nose gun looked more like a scaled down version of a turret on a frigate. Topside was a gunner’s turret equipped with a duel Gatling gun system that looked to be twenty millimeter. Internally I was betting the nose gun was at least thirty millimeter.

“Well it looks like it has teeth,” I finally commented to the Chief after my circuit of the bird.

“Well Ma’am if I read things correctly it’s supposedly the Fleets answer to the to the Fed’s Arbalest. Just a lot meaner and quicker on the draw.”

“So she’s a ship killer?” I asked critically.

He shook his head for a moment, “I think you are the first female pilot to call a fighter a ‘she.’” He chuckled,

“In either case it does look that way Ma’am.”

Inwardly I tucked that bit of information into my head, I had always referred to ships in the female gender, unless it was distinctly named after a man, like Darwin.

“Is there a simulator set up for this bird?”

“Yes Ma’am, one has been prepared for you, your crew has been training on them for a few days.”

“Crew?” I asked blankly.

“Yes Ma’am, a Gunner, an EW Tech, and last but not least an Intelligence Officer,” he motioned to the data pad in my hand, “That has a list of your crew ‘Skipper.’”

I blinked at that, my first coherent thought was ‘You have got to be shitting me.’ My second thought I put into words, “Is this supposed to be an independent command?” 

“Yes and no,” offered another voice.

I turned to look then braced to attention, “Sir.”

“Carry on, Commander, Chief,” he nodded to us, the Colonel’s nametag read Orson K. T., “It has the legs for it, but it’s not practical. Yet.”

“Ah Colonel, who commands the bird?” I asked cautiously.

He pointed a finger at me, “You do in this case. While the Intelligence Officer might out rank the pilot, decisions in a fight can only made by one person, the pilot.”

“I can see one problem sir,” I motioned to him.

“And that is Commander?” he asked slowly.

“What happens with the crew when they are not on board, and the senior officer is not the pilot and things get cross-ways?”     

He chuckled, “Well in that case things could be difficult. However, SOP states the minimal rank of the pilot is Lieutenant Commander.” He smiled, “I don’t think you or I will bump heads in that department, as I can’t fly a kite.” He took out a Tac package, “This is current as of today, I can spare you the trip to Fleet Intel, but you are the Commander of the Flight. So between a visit to Operations, plotting your routes, sim time and briefing the pilots, and a briefing with me, you have a busy few days ahead of you.”

“Aye sir,” I said as I took the Tac from him and tucked it a pocket. “Where is my berth for the next few days sir?”

He chuckled, “We’ll find something.”

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“Well we got a Flight Officer,” announced Jennings as he opened the hatch and kicked the room’s blowers a bit higher before walking in. The smoke was not quite thick enough to cut with a blade. 

“Oh?” asked Slo-Hand from the card table, he had a predatory smile that invariably hinted at a deadly hand.

“Yeah, ready for a real shit kicker?” asked Jennings as he pulled up a chair and spun it around to sit on it backwards.

“Hit me,” said Decker, then he picked up the card and winced. “Jeeze, you can tell I didn’t shuffle. So what’s the word?”

“It’s a Caruthers,” He shook his head looking just a bit bemused, “Snark never said anything about his kin did he?”

“No, but then he was a deep one at times,” offered Griffin, “a relation or?”

“Damned if I know, she outranks us though…” Jennings was frowning, “not to mention she’s the Alternate Flight Leader for some school on Bova, which means she’s another fucking ‘Gold’ assed bitch.”

“Hey it could be worse it could be Colonel Alcady as the CFO, now there was a bitch,” said Palmer which elicited a set of cursing and moans.

“No shit, ah well she can’t be all that if she’s an AFO,” commented Decker, “I bet she’s dog assed ugly.”

“With our luck, yeah,” Jennings groaned, “can you tell me why the fuck we are doing nothing but milk runs again?”

“You know, thirty fucking missions and its break time, in our case it’s a long fucking break time. Fucking Regs,” Decker threw his hand to the table.

“Yeah, talk about bullshit,” added Palmer with a sigh, “I’ve put in transfer request so many times in the past few weeks that they just hit copy when I walk in. Go fucking figure.”

The next few days were a fucking pain, from going down the pilot’s roster and assigning them to birds. Planning for every possible jump point in a three-parsec tube around my designated flight path, to scrabbling around the various birds and signing for them and their payloads. The briefing with Colonel Keith Orson was actually pleasant and as nearly interesting as the sim time. Nearly.

Then there were the invariable complaints from the pilots who wanted to be flying a different bird, that I had put a clamp on hard and fast. I put them all in the same room and read them the riot act, while they were in the push-up position. As I was sure that they would have good understanding of things from that angle, that trick I had endured from Alcady time and again.

“One, I am the Flight Commander,” I paused, “Is that under stood?” I asked loudly.

“Ma’am, yes Ma’am!” they responded.

“Two, I put you in birds you are combat rated in, not ones you merely know how to fly, is that understood?” 

“Ma’am, yes Ma’am!” they responded.

“Three, I am the fucking Deity of this Flight, you fuck up on my Flight you will wish you were not conceived, do you understand me?”

“Ma’am, yes Ma’am!” they responded.

“Four, there are only four pilots in my flight even close tomy skill level. They will be the voice of Deity as they are your Wing’s Leader’s, if they tell you to do something; you had better fucking do it on the double and twice as fucking high. Do you hear me?”

“Ma’am, yes Ma’am!” they responded.

“Fifth, do you see the beret on my head?”

“Ma’am, yes Ma’am!” they responded.

“Good, because if you piss me off any further you will be polishing every fucking bird assigned to this Flight, until I am satisfied that they pass muster. And I guaran-damn-tee you will be flying a trash hauler if you fuck that up. Are we clear?”

“Ma’am, yes Ma’am!” they responded.

“On your feet!” I commanded, “Wing Leader’s take charge of your Wings, P-suit inspection and Tac dump in one hour, no bull shit, no fuck ups, no kidding. Dis-missed!” I barked at them and walked out of the room.

The Colonel nodded to me and walked down the corridor a ways before speaking, “That was neatly done Commander.”

“Thanks sir, I will admit I was a bit pissed.”

“I think they understand that,” he said drolly, “I take it the four pilots you singled out were those from Darwin’s Hope?”

“Yes sir, I have no doubts of their ability and which way they will react if the fecal material hits the impeller,” I smiled tightly as I said that.

“I see, have any of them approached you?”

“Only one sir,” I sighed, “Lieutenant Commander Jennings, my old wingman.”

He paused for a long moment studying me for a time, “I see, and did you say anything about?”

“No sir, he just asked if I was related to his wingman, and then offered his condolences,” I had felt like crap lying to him and it must have shown.

“Ah, in time the truth may be known Commander, but until then do keep your distance, socially.” His tone was soft but his implied order was not easy to take.

“Yes sir, but for a year he was as close as a brother,” I shrugged helplessly. “This, officially sucks sir.”

“One of the burdens of command is separating ourselves from our men, emotionally. And yet we have to have some measure of trust in them and them in us, otherwise when the shit does indeed hit the fan we would be fucked.” He chuckled, “Though by including them in your ‘discussion,’ you have already set a boundary. They know it, and subconsciously so do you.”

I considered that for a few moments, “Yes sir I can see that.”  

“What do you think of your crew?” he asked.

“Well they are sharp, a bit high strung perhaps but they should loosen up once we get some real flying in.” I motioned to him, “You are the only one who’s not had their P-suit checked, sir.”

He chuckled, “I’ll wander down to the inspection and have it checked by Jennings, as you have some sim time slotted then correct?”

“Crap I had forgotten about that,” I frowned, “Sir if you would inform the Wing Leaders that I will be spot checking their inspections?”

He laughed but nodded, “Aye Skipper, I think I can do that.”

I stopped and turned to face him slightly, “Does this feel as weird to you as it does to me?”

“A little bit, but then my usual slot is still answering to aSkipper; just on a larger ship.” He stopped and indicated the two of us, “Your little crew is a bit over ranked for their assignments, but we’ll be writing the book, for others to follow. Everything we do, everything we get right or screw up goes into making the Fleet and the crews that follow us that much better.”

“Hell of a damned job sir,” I finally commented after a breath.

“But one we can handle, now scoot Skipper.” He grinned and did a neat about-face; “I’ll break the news to the boys and girls.”

“Yes sir,” I smirked, “If Jennings gives you any crap, which I doubt, ask him what a Pink Floret is not good for. And then ask if he wants to have ‘that’ bit of information spread about the Fleet.”

He paused then started laugh loudly, “I had read something about that from the Commander of Darwin’s Hope’s logs. Very entertaining.”

That made me turn about to look at him, I could feel my eyebrow rise as he said, “I’m in Fleet Intelligence, we knoweverything.”

I blinked and carefully did my own about-face, ‘Only two percent think…’ twirled around in my mind as I walked the corridors leading to the simulators reserved for my crew.

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“Well she sure the fuck isn’t Snark,” Cursed Decker as he strode into the ward room. “Even if she is good looking, I want to shove that fucking beret up her ass.”

“Tell me about it, how the hell can there be a Alcady clone?” asked Palmer. “One was fucking bad enough, now we have another, and shit she’s barely a baby combat wise.”

Jennings was sitting at the terminal typing furiously, he sat up slowly from his slump when the terminal lit up with a red boarder and a screen full of text. “Ut oh,” he groaned.

Palmer got up and walked over to look at what caused such a sound of concern, “Shit that’s a security flag, what were you trying to do, hack the Base computer?”

“No, just trying to get some intel on our boss,” He scrolled down the screen to where the ratings for her certifications were. “It says she’s combat rated in Manta’s if you can believe that.”

As the others crowded around he tapped the screen, “She has as many certs as we do and there’s that,” I ran his finger along one line of text that was repeated over and over again, “Insufficient Security Authorization, which means she is Fleet Intelligence or something…”

“I thought you were cleared for some deep shit?” asked Decker with a frown.

“So did I, evidently or boss does or is something so Black Op’s.” He looked back over his shoulder, “We don’t want to piss her off or flying a trash hauler might seem nice by comparison.”

As they nodded he added, “Though she said she was a cousin of Snark’s, so she can’t be that bad of a pilot. I mean look here, what’s not under the black is very odd, ‘Combat Rated’, not just merely certed.”

“So what the fucking rock did she crawl out from under to get all of that?” asked Griffith.

“I don’t know, but she’s flying that bird they had tarped down and guarded, so she has to be something hot,” Jennings looked back, “And she tapped us out as Wing Leaders, so she either has read up on us or knows something we don’t.”

“She is on the ball though, the last fuck up of a Flight Leader had to be hand held through getting the roster’s up,” Decker was shaking his head, “Not to mention putting greenies in Mantas, what a fuck wad.”

“‘I put you in birds you are combat rated in, not merely know how to fly…’ She’s going to be a fucking pain, but she seems to know her job,” Palmer said with tight smile, “And she’s not hard on the eyes either, once you get past that fucking beret.” 

“Yeah, she even walks like Alcady,” Griffith said, “you know, that ‘I’ve got more balls that you do’ walk.”

Palmer snorted, “Yeah, bull dyke from hell, so who wants to get her drunk and take one for the team?”

“Yeah right,” said Jennings, “I get the feeling she’d rip them off and feed them to you if you tried it. I mean, you see her nervous habit with the datapad yet? She raps that pistol of hers like she is just itching to use it.”

“Scuttlebutt says some newsie got in her shit and she just about challenged him to a duel, I have no doubt she’d do it too,” added Decker.    

“No shit, she is a hard ass, that is for sure.”

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The Goblin Shark, no matter how you loaded it up for combat, was scary. The shear amount of ordinance it could carry nearly set my teeth on edge. As even with the shields from hell, I could picture one damned huge bang, if the ammo went off all at once. Unlike the Fed’s Arbalest, our ship killing missiles would be external and would take but a flick of the switch from either my seat or the gunner’s go set them all off and running. Or I could take half and the gunner could take half, getting two kills for the price of one.

The front guns took some getting used to, as they fired one then the other, staggering the rounds as they fired. I looked up the feed mechanisms noting how the ammunition for them sat in two separate drums, both of them under my ass metaphorically in the ship. I can’t say I liked how fast they fired or rather didn’t fire like a Manta, but the rounds they used evidently made up for it in punch when they hit.

I was putting it though one of my favorite combat Sims, and getting decent scores, when Lieutenant Commander Pete ‘Tagger’ Walls came online.

“Gunner hot Ma’am, permission to engage?” he had a strange ‘drawl’ to his voice, but according to him everyone from New Texas had that.

“Go to work Tagger, see the Fed Cruiser portside and down thirty?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“You have control of portside missiles, ruin its day,” I said as I toggled that bank of missiles over to him.

“Aye Ma’am, one order of crispy crunchies on the way,” he commented, sounding somewhat distant as he focused on that task.

I ignored him and took on a pair Caesar’s, the Fed’s medium space superiority fighters, the Goblin ‘felt’ a very heavy to me, but there was no denying that she could keep up with the smaller ships. However the mass and inertia she carried, made her a real bitch in a full out furball.

I was clocking the second Caesar when a new voice chimed in, “What the?”

Suddenly concerned I challenged the speaker, “Who is this?” I also hit the suspend button on the simulator.

“Carry on Caruthers, I’ll deal with this,” that voice I recognized as the Colonel’s, so evidently he was ‘watching’.

Reassured, I woke up the simulator and continued to polish off the Caesar I had started on. There were two heavy pushes from the presser field in my simulator that represented the launches of two ship killer missiles, from the port side and I used the momentum they added to the Goblin to roll up and on a Federation Frigate. “Two starboard heavies away,” I called as I launched them at the Frigate.”

“I need an angle on the Cruiser for the finale’. Two were not good enough but its shields are down,” stated Tagger as a Pillion vaporized under his fire, “if you could oblige.”

I chuckled, “Ask and you shall receive.” I then angled our ship back to the Cruiser noting some flames and out gassing from it.

“Heavy away,” he commented and then he said, “portside heavies black.”

“Roger Tagger, feel free to lighten our load on that other Frigate,” I grinned wickedly and rolled the ship sharply so that he was angled on it.

“Good thing I don’t get vertigo,” was his only comment as I watch his bank of missiles flare off.

I was eyeing what the Fed’s called a Light Carrier, “Going for the Hail Mary on the Light in three, so work quick.”

“EW reports solid kills on Frigate one, Cruiser one, and shields, no correction, Frigate two is dead.” I smiled as the Colonel added in his report. Our EW Tech, Chief Warrant Officer Two Arlene ‘Boombox’ Lloyd, rarely chimed in on channel unless it was ‘dire’, in her own words, “I’m making the Fed’s ears bleed and other things, unless something is way off, I’d only get in the way if I was on channel all the time.”

The Colonel’s handle was ‘Haxxor’, as evidently he did some pretty strange stuff like ripping data out of the Fed’s computers as we flew by them. He and Boombox were a pair, as much as Tagger and I were. Between the two of them, no enemy ship was safe, data wise and I had a serious hunch we were damned near invisible emissions wise. I suspected that there were some interesting things going on in his simulator, and that much of it would be over my head, intellectually. 

My own handle was, to my surprise my handle was ‘Death’, as in ‘The Angel of Death.’ Joan had left me a note in my P-suit helmet saying that Guardian Angel would not suit me, “Especially if I had to hammer it into peoples head that I was one mean bitch.” I broke from my brief reverie and started the prep for the ‘Hail’ Mary, by switching the missiles completely to his control. “Ready Tagger?”

“Locked and cocked,” and I could hear the lock-on tones over the coms.

“One for the Money,” I called and Tagger sent every missile we had left on board at the Light Carrier.

“Two to get ready,” added the Colonel a moment or so later, as he and Boombox did their thing to the Fed’s sensors and what not.

“And three to go!” I called and started running several hard and nasty evasions before tagging the jump command in. For a moment the holograms swirled randomly emulating the jump out to safety. When the HUD stabilized I took a quick scan of my instruments all the missiles were black as expected and our guns were barely in the yellow, fuel was firmly into amber as this was supposedly a ‘deep’ raid. “Guns yellow, Missiles black, Fuel amber, I read the Bird as green, confirm.”

Three voices chimed in as confirmed I leaned back and stretched in my simulator. I waited or the kills and hits tally to come up and nodded slowly as we seemed to start to ‘click.’ “Looking good people, the ‘Hail’ took out the shields on the Light Carrier and did some minor damage, we smacked them hard but no biscuit. I think we’re going to have fun when we can use live ammo.”

“We’ll have to try a different mix,” suggested Tagger, “if this bird as half as hot in the Deep, as in sim, the Fed’s are gonna be so screwed,” opined Tagger. “Logging out for dinner.”

“Commander, you need to wander down and do some spot checks, my p-suit is green,” the Colonel reminded me that I had unfinished work.

“Roger that, nice work all around team, now I just have to go bust some heads,” I growled which evoked some laughter. Part of me wondered who the odd intrusion was, but I figured that if the Colonel didn’t think it was worth mention I could ignore it.

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My spot inspection was not quite uneventful, as I had caught a glimpse of something odd with one helmet. I wasn’t sure what to make of the slight refraction that was in the clear dome of that helmet, so I dropped it to the deck and the slight refraction became a spider-web of cracks. “Well that helmet is crap,” I calmly announced and left it lying on the floor as I focused on it’s owner. “How old is your suit?”

“About two years Ma’am,” he replied nervously.

I nodded slowly, “Any ejections?”

“Yes Ma’am,” he answered and fretted slightly under my gaze.

I let him stew for a moment, “Right, consider your suit down-checked by my authority. Evidently it was not recheckedproperly by your prior duty station,” I said in a dead pan, as I doubted he’d be negligent ‘there’ after being ejected. “You are dismissed for refit. Move out.”

“Yes Ma’am,” he quickly picked up the remains of his helmet and all but double-timed to escape from my possible wrath.

While the rest waited at attention, I punched up Fleet Regulations on Combat Certified EVA suits and noted I could order a new refit for a good third of the Wing or more if the age of the P-suit was greater than two years. Since we had at least two to three more days of paper work and checks, I felt it could not hurt. I cast a tight smile on my Wing Leaders and they wilted slightly as I motioned them over.

“Ok, we have a few more days before we move out. By regs, every suit older than two years has to have been properly inspected or replaced. If you are unsure of a suit newer than that I want to know about it. In the mean time, find the old suits, and get them replaced or refitted.” I tapped the pad to my sidearm, which made a distinctive clack, “Re-inspection of those suits will be in two days.”

 I pointed at them, “While you are at it I want you to re-inspect helmets, all of them. Am I clear?”

After a brief chorus of affirmations I held them with my eyes, “Make damned sure I don’t find another screwed up helmet. You have your orders.”

With that I left them to walk the ranks looking for obvious negligence and any other oddities. In general I was being a prick about things, I heard a faint mutter about my being Alcady’s ‘evil’ twin sister. I didn’t quite smile at that, though I did note ‘his’ gear was damned near perfect. Once I was past him I checked my data pad, and evidently he had just come from Manta School. I guess Alcady was still cracking the whip, and for some reason that pleased me.

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“Gods, just who did we piss off?” asked Palmer as they stripped down in their room.

“Oh lighten up, she did catch something we should have caught.” Jennings was looking at his helmet in his hands with a frown, “How the fuck did I miss that?”

“You know for someone that could be Alcady’s fucking sister, she acts a hell of a lot like Snark,” noted Griffith with a frown, “I mean just watch her body language, it’s way the hell off, even for a dyke.”

“I talked with a pilot from the Hood, they are pissed as hell at her, seems she set the score on the sims way the hell up there. Needless to say they hate her too, but they say she’s a shit hot pilot.” Palmer was working his way out of his suit and grunted, “She supposedly was down to bare min’s on ammo and looking at soloing against a half wing of Fed Pillions in a Tiger Shark that was half dead.”

“And?” asked Decker.

“Well from what she was doing in the sims, so they say, she might have been able to do it,” added Palmer as he glanced to the computer thoughtfully. “Evidently she’s into kills not ammo counts, just uses the bare mins on any kill. If I didn’t know better I would swear she was one of ours from the Hope.”

“Scary,” commented Jennings, “She sent ‘her’ Colonel down to have me check his suit. Nowhe is a spook, and not a bad guy, just not a pilot.”

“Well if he doesn’t fly…” said Palmer with a smirk.

“He isn’t shit,” finished the other in a mocking chorus.

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Sleep was as problematical as it had been on The Hermes, though mostly a session of exercise or time in the shower would allow me to get back to sleep. Dreams, gods how I could wish to not dream, rather I could live without the nightmares. As it was I found myself oddly comforted by the presence of the sidearm. Not that I was suicidal, but that it offered a level of protection to me that I controlled. It felt like there was so much in my life that was beyond my control, and that things were frequently sliding faster out of my grip than I could deal with. 

Occasionally the sidearm drew some odd looks, but every one of my crew carried one as well for security reasons. I was looking through the reports on my data pad, seven suits had failed muster including the one I had down-checked. No one was ill and it seemed that weapons load out would be proceeding as scheduled. My slot as Skipper was making me wonder if I was in fact going to be an instructor or it if was a convenient fiction.

The only thing to deny that supposition on my part was the sparseness of the pre and post flight checks lists for the bird. I kept adding to those daily as I worked in the simulator. The ‘notes’ from the test pilots who had put it originally though its paces had stated that the bird was ‘dodgy’ on reentry to atmosphere.

“The bird,” as he put it “drops through the near space reentry envelope like a bucking bronco with its ass on fire. Though once you get a solid ‘airflow’ the canards make stalling difficult.”

That was mildly comforting to know, though why a bird predominantly designed for killing Ships would need to go dirt side was beyond me. Theoretically it might mask emissions for ‘hiding’ from the enemy. I added a few lines of text to my one notes and continued my breakfast. 

“May I join you?” asked Chief Lloyd as she stood at my elbow.

“Be my guest, and unless I am in ‘conference’ don’t bother to ask next time.” I smiled at her indicating a chair, “We are crew, so we may as well be slightly comfortable around each other.”

“Yes Ma’am,” she placed her tray across from mine and sat, “should we stick to titles or?”

“Well I will admit I am getting Ma’amed to death, but for the sake of professionalism, we will have to figure out something Chief.” I chuckled, “I think Ship side, using Skipper, will be out, if only for conventions sake.”

“Yes Commander,” she said with a smile. Arlene was a decimeter shorter than I was, and her read hair was a close cut if not almost boyish. Her eyes I noticed were brown and that she had some slight bags under them, as spattering of freckles chased across her face and she seemed to for forego cosmetics. But then so did I.

“Are you getting enough rest?” I asked as she yawned.

“Oh I’m fine Commander, mornings and I never have agreed,” she said lifting a larger than usual cup of what I presumed was coffee in my direction. “This does help.”

“I can’t argue that, so have you any thoughts on what to call our bird?”

“Well with the nose such as it is, I was thinking something along the lines of The Knife or The Sword.” She lifted her own steak knife from her tray; “It looks like it could cut something with the point of it; if nothing else,” which she then demonstrated by stabbing her steak and eggs.

Nodding I took a bite of my own eggs before speaking, “I am just hoping we can find some good nose art. I worry that our ‘ground crew’ will put silly little ghosts on it.”

A tray joined ours and I noticed the Colonel was a fan of fruit and cereals, “I have a thought there, one that suits your handle,Death…” He paused and his blue eyes sparkled, “A ghostly Grim Reaper.”

I considered that, then nodded, “What would out say about calling it The Scythe?” I asked the two of them.

“Ah like it,” announced Tagger as he joined us. He was tall even compared to the Colonel, “We grow’em big on New Texas Ma’am”, was his of the cuff response when I first noted his size aloud upon meeting him for the first time. He was blond and deeply tanned, his eyes were hazel and his hands easily dwarfed mine.

Arlene nodded, as did the Colonel, “It’s a good name and considering what we plan to use it for… the Federation will come to fear them.”

“So when we get to Bova were going to be running her ragged and then some, putting her through her paces?” asked Tagger around a mouthful of eggs.

“And working up the instruction manuals, and figuring out the best way to teach the Instructors that follow us.” The Colonel motioned to us all, “Once we get that done and past Fleet trials, we four are scheduled to go out and hunt pirates for a time, and then going out with a battle group.”

That cheered me up immensely, though Arlene seemed a bit apprehensive. I tapped her tray with my fork to get her attention, “We have a ways to go before then, and I am confident we will do well.”

She blinked then nodded, “Yes Ma’am, I was expecting to be on a ship rather than The Scythe.”

“Well considering what I have read of our Skipper’s pilot’s log and records we are in good hands,” commented Tagger and my ears felt a bit warm.  

The Colonel fixed his gaze on Tagger, “Do you have any objections to our Skipper’s new status?” he asked both Arlene and Tagger.

“Oh no sir, she’s earned everything she has got, even if she was um, changed,” Tagger said with a slow smile. “I expect she will prove very effective as a Skipper.”

Arlene frowned slightly “Begging your pardon Commander, it does give me the willies a bit, but they did the right thing making you ‘All Gold.’”

“Oh?” I asked of her.

“Not meaning to sound disrespectful, but you walk like a man and act frequently seem like you are very ah, butch.” For a moment she looked down to her meal then turned a dark pink, “I hope I have not offended you Ma’am.”

I blinked then laughed softly, “No offense taken Chief, I have yet to ‘fit’ into this new me. If I remember correctly, Flight Officer Alcady at Manta School, seemed that way too.” I shrugged both shoulders quickly, “I am still learning the ways of things.”

She nodded and resumed eating, and the Colonel spoke, “If it is any consolation Skipper, only a handful of people will likely see that change in your status. We four have the clearance to peek under all the black, most of your commanders in the future will not.”

The Colonel frowned softly, “Though at Belius Prime they might inadvertently bring that to light.” The Colonel pointed a finger at me, “However, you will not be asked to go. Your duties preclude it, and there is enough evidence in your case it would be superfluous.”

I was relieved that I was not heading there for that, but I was not sure if I wanted everyone to know I was a changeling. “Yes sir, I will do my utmost to not let it affect my duties if it comes to light.”

A soft tone from my data pad chimed, I read it and smiled, “Well half the Flight is armed up, we are scheduled to go to be armed up at thirteen hundred hours, which makes us last.” I shrugged with a smile, “I have noticed the other pilots ogling our Scythe.” I pause to tap in a quick note to the Chief of the Depot about naming the our bird The Scythe, “Our bird will have it’s name painted on it by them.”

“I’ve been thinking about our payload Ma’am,” I nodded and he continued, “I think we should go with Six Beaked Sea Snakes for our heavy killer missiles, and two pods worth of Yellow Sea Snakes for our EMP load.”

I considered that and nodded, the pods would hold eight medium sized but super fast missiles each. Two would take down a shield quick enough on anything smaller than a Heavy Cruiser. Four would take down the shield of anything smaller than a Carrier and with eight, just about anything else would be dead in the water. “Ok, by me.”

The Colonel grunted, “If I might suggest the Barracuda’s instead of the Yellows, they have teeth along with the EMP.”

“We can run them in Sim this morning, if they play out I’ll go with them though we’d need to have four pods rather than two.”  I tapped my data pad, “I do like the Thirty Millimeter fire and forget missile pods, but I could be swayed for something more exotic.”

“Such as?” asked the Colonel.

“Ogrefish,” I smiled wickedly, we only had a handful on Darwin’s Hope, but I liked the shear devastation they could wreak. And they were ‘smart’ rockets with extra guidance jets making them hellishly hard to evade, the down side is that they needed a longer lock on time.

He nodded, “I think we can swing them for this bird, she is going to be a ship killer after all.”

“Plus they fit in the SLAMRAM pods which means we can carry sixteen of them, in two separate pods and round out with another two pods carrying sixteen SLAMRAMs for the small fry.”

“I think we should go for a Phalanx Tail Pod too maybe even two,” suggested Tagger. “I don’t like how our underside tail is uncovered Ma’am.”                     

I tapped up the details on the aft end of the Goblin, it had the space for them, I looked over to Arlene, “What is your take on them, would they make trouble for you?”

She blinked in surprise, I guess she wasn’t used to being asked for that sort of input, “They would ease my mind Ma’am, I can do wonders on my side, but even with the chaff and flares there is always the odd chance…”

I glanced to the Colonel and he nodded, “Ok then,” I said “I’ll make them SOP for the time being.”

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Munitions load up had gone smoothly, as had our runs with the suggested new payload, so I was feeling fairly pleased and happy about things. I was sitting in my room working through some new data on The Reaper, as its mass profile had changed some and I wanted to be sure the load was light enough to get the same maneuverability as in the simulator. A chime from the door of my barrowed quarters rang and I arose from my chair to discover Chief Lloyd at my hatch.

“What can I do for you Chief?” I asked as she entered and the hatch closed.

“I think we have a problem Ma’am,” she said and held up a small rectangle, “I need to sweep your room first.”

Curious, I nodded and she walked around the room and moved around, I presumed it was some sort of sensor, she paused and then produced a tool that allowed her to snap a panel away from the a wall. Deftly she jabbed the pointed end into something and there was a small spark. A few seconds of light cursing she produced a small object from the wall and then placed it on my terminals desk. She did this three times, causing my brows to rise each time.

“Ok Ma’am, we’re clear now,” she said with evident relief.

“Ah Chief, with out meaning to sound crass, what the fuck is up?” I asked as I walked to my berth and picked up my side arm and belted it on.

She looked very apprehensive, “I found a virus in our Tacs Ma’am.”

“Spill it,” I commanded in a calm tone as my stomach clenched tightly.

“Yes Ma’am, I was doing some recreational sim time, in a different simulator from the ones we use.”

I nodded for her to continue, “And?”

“I used our Tac to make a test flight from here to Bova in a Stingray, when I made the fourth Jump. The sim died, total lock out.” She held up the Tac, “I was a bit annoyed but not too alarmed, as things do happen; so I hopped over to a second sim and did it again.”

I felt an odd sinking in the pit of my stomach, “And you found the virus how?”

“Well Ma’am I am an EW Tech, so I took it to the shop and ran it through an isolated substation, as per regulations.” She smiled with a shrug of one shoulder, “Well EW Regs anyway. I found the virus after an hours worth of digging. Then I compared it to one of the Tacs we kept in the EW Shop on station, that one was clean, so I found one of your Wings Leader’s and performed the same check. His Tac had the virus as well.”

“Whom else have you talked about this with?” I asked as I paced the room, occasionally glancing at the removed objects on my desk.

“Just you Ma’am, proper chain of command and all,” I frowned as I remember getting my Tac from Colonel Orsen.

“Technically I am outranked by the Colonel, why didn’t you take this to him? He is the I-O after all,” I asked cautiously.

“Ma’am you are the Skipper, and this is a matter for your call, and secondly, you don’t have the skills needed to do this sort of thing.”

“I see, well we must assume that the base’s Fleet Intel Shop is compromised,” at which she nodded, “So we take this to an Intel side that has not likely been corrupted.” I pointed to my comm. Terminal, “Can you check if that is secure?”

“Yes Ma’am but Fleet Intel could crack it,” she said with a frown.

I walked over and punched up the status of the Poseidon, then the Commandant’s ship, The San Martin, I knew I could trust them. The Commandant was listed as on the Poseidon. I motioned her to stand off to one side, as I requested a channel to the Poseidon and the Commandant. I got his Aide, Clarice and my heart lightened.  

“Ahh, Commander what can I do for you?” she asked once the channel opened to show her in Battle Dress rather than Blacks.

I snatched a form and flipped it over, and quickly wrote a message and held it up, “Hi Clarice I was calling about that bottle youowe me. I have a friend who has never tried the Chocolate liquor you favor, could you steal a Gig and fetch us over for a tasting? I’m bored out of my skull.”

My ‘note’ read: Major, Fleet Intelligence suspected as bent. Need pick up and a ‘Clean’ Intelligence team, specifically ‘Marine’ as possible contagion is high.’ The last word I made sure was darkened.

She blinked then smiled brightly with a nod, “I’ll have a Gig over shortly at dock thirty one, don’t forget your scrubbers.”

“Thanks Clarice, I was getting really bored,” I replied and held up my pistol, “My scrubbers are handy.”

“See you in twenty Angela,” she said and held up her hand and opened it three times, signifying fifteen minutes, if I read it correctly.

“Right-o, be prepared for a pleasant surprise,” I joyfully said and then broke the connection.

I grabbed my flight bag and dumped it, “Put all the stuff you found in here,” I said and dumped my data pad and my Tac in it, and held it open for her. Once done I handed the bag to her and walked to the mini galley; from there I grabbed a few bottles of booze and a box of chocolates. I added a spare flight suit to the bag and then dumped those items on top.

“Ok Chief let’s go carousing, big smiles as its ‘girl’s night out.’” ‘What ever girl’s night out meant…’ I motioned to the door and placed my beret on my head.

Once out in the corridor we passed a few idle crewmen and I started giggling as we walked passed and she laughed as I pointed to their boots that needed a shine. As they braced I told them to carry on and to work on their appearance. Being ‘Gold’ was proving to be handy, as I could use that to deflect attention.

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The Commandant’s Gig was there shortly after we arrived, and had a squad of Marines and the Major in it. Se motioned us aboard and I felt that odd itch in my back fade. “Glad to see you Major.”

“You too, Commander, and this is?” she pointed to the Chief.

“Chief Warrant Officer Two, Arlene Lloyd: My EW Tech. She brought the matter to my attention, but we should discuss this else where,” I motioned to the Gig and then pointed out into the Deep.  

“Come then,” said Clarice with a frown.

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“Hey Boojum, what’s got your tail in a twist?” asked Decker as he was playing a hand of solitaire.

“You know that cute Warrant that runs around with the FL?”

“Yeah, she has a nice ass,” Decker grinned. “She looking for a date?”

“No, she is some sort of EW Tech, she collected my Tac for a ‘routine’ check.” Jennings turned on his elbow, “She looked spooked.”

“Hmm, wonder what that means?” asked Decker with a frown, “EW geeks only get edged when their equipment goes up in smoke.”

“Yeah, that is what bothers me,” Jennings said with a frown.   

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Major Clarice Kenton was frowning, as we got under way, “You may be jumping outside the Chain of Command, Commander.”

“Yes Ma’am, however I know I can trust you and the Commandant, and since Marine Intelligence is separate from Fleet’s; where better to go.” I said as I motioned to Arlene, “Once we get some place more secure she can fill you in and I can add my bombshell.”

“I took the liberty of informing the Commandant that something was up and suggested he bring the Admiral over for a tasting of something new.” Clarice winked,

“Considering he out ranks the Station’s Admiral we may as well shake the nest. You do realize this could bring you some heat?”

“Better I get scalded than we loose something very important.” I countered, “Specifically the Goblin Shark.”

She blinked and her mouth opened with a silent ‘O’, “I see.” She turned and looked at a sergeant who was in Battle Dress, “Detachment, Ready arms.”

As they did so she turned to me, “So you are its Skipper?” she asked with a grin, “I had hoped you would be that lucky.”

“Yeah, though I have a hunch it’s going to be a busy time,” I took the bag from Arlene, “this worries me.”

“As it should,” said Clarice.

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The briefing of events and such had taken some time, though at the end of it no one around the table was smiling. The Station’s Commander, Rear Admiral Spotted-horse, initially was pissed at me, though once the details were presented and confirmed; his mood changed to that of concern. He wore his hair long, as per his religious beliefs allowed under Regs, though it was neatly braided and graying. It contrasted with his stern visage and his brown eyes were stormy.

“And you were given that Tac, which everyone in your Flight has a copy of now, from Colonel Orsen?” he asked in an angry baritone.

“Yes sir,” I frowned feeling a bit angry and defensive.

“And you jumped outside of the Chain of Command completely because you were not sure who to trust, is that correct?” he asked in what only be a betrayed or angry tone.

“Yes sir, that and I cold not be sure that your F-I department was as bent as the Tac, sir,” I paused, “If I was not a stranger to your station, I might have gone directly to you sir. As it is I only know a handful of my pilots personally.”

He grunted, “I can’t say I am pleased, but you did use your head, which will help once the Boards sit; “ he paused and added, “when this mess is over.”

I quailed slightly at that, but if there were traitors in our midst, they would have to be tried. “Yes sir.”

“Well we should have all the Intelligence Team on station rounded up along with your Colonel Orsen in the next hour. I have locked the station down and the Battle Group’s Marines and the Station’s Marines are securing the F-I section and equipment, not to mention your bird. Your Flight’s Tacs as well,” said the Commandant with a thin smile, “We’ll have it sorted out soon I hope.”

Admiral Peterson chuckled darkly, “I think we should use the black out point as a trap, surely someone or some ship would be popping in to scoop you up Commander.”

I smiled wickedly, “More evidence and so forth.”

“And who knows we may find out a few more things,” He looked at the two of us, “Your gunner isn’t here but we’ll give him a shake down too and move him over here as well. He’s likely clean, considering where he would be locked in during the jumps.”

I nodded as the turret and his ‘seat’ would be damned hard to get out of and into the ship in a mutiny. As it was watching him get into and out of it was amusing. He was big and the access wasn’t made for a person of his stature, on the inside. He could get in from the outside fortunately when it came down to emergency launches.

“Part of me says to screw trying to catch the people doing the scoop up, but…” Admiral Spottedhorse looked around the table, “if there are Feds this deep in our space I want them found. Your time table for moving to Bova was?”

I thought quickly and answered, “We had two more days to ensure all ships are set and the P-suits are cleared, so I had my flight plan filed for three days,” I glanced at my watch, “Correction two days from now, at nine hundred hours for pre-flights and ten hundred for the first jump.”

“Can your crew function with out the I-O? If he is dirty?” asked Admiral Peterson.

I looked to Arlene and she nodded, “I believe so sir, we won’t have the data gathering ability but we’d be able to fight,” I paused and added, “I had not loaded the Tac into the Scythe, but it should be checked as well.”

“We’ll handle checking for that, it is late and will be later yet once we have everyone rounded up. Consider yourselves our guests for the night and we’ll start working up a trap tomorrow Commander, if you are up for it?” asked Admiral Peterson.

“Yes sir, part of me is worried about how deep this rot goes,” I stated with a sick feeling in my stomach.

“It is disturbing, but consider it out of your hands for now and get some rest Commander,” Admiral Spottedhorse pointed to my Chief, “Well done Chief. If you were not needed by the Commander I would consider stealing you.”

The Commandant Mason chuckled, “I may have to see where you Fleet People are finding these youngsters and do some poaching.”

“I thought you did that somewhat already?” said Admiral Peterson as he pointed towards my shoulder.

“Ah yes…” He frowned darkly, “You know if F-I is too dirty we may have to move her and her crew to my Branch for the duration of trials and testing. Not to mention the Boards.”

Both Fleet Admirals winced but nodded, “Well your voice does carry a bit more weight with the Grand Admiral than mine. But for now let’s get down to bass tacks.” Admiral Peterson looked over to the Commandant, “I think we can send the youngsters out while we chew over the details.”

Major Kenton stood, “Ladies if you will come with me I’ll settle you to quarters.”

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“Ok I am officially weirded out,” said Palmer was the Marine in full battle armor walked out after collecting up all the Tacs.

Jennings was sitting on his berth and frowning, “Something sure the hell is up, I got orders just a few minutes before that. All pilots are on stand by, and there are enough Marines on the station that you couldn’t spit without hitting one.”

“No kidding, I tried to go down to Operations and was ‘instructed’ to clear out and report here,” Decker was toying with a casino chit, making it walk his knuckles over and over again. “I mean if I didn’t know better I would swear we’re going to go hot at any minute.”

“It certainly feels that way,” said Slo-Hand with a measured breath added, “Everyone on the Station seems edged and if they know what is up they are angry, if they don’t they are spooked.”

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Tagger was clean, and grumpy, though once things were explained to him he was only slightly happier. “I can’t believe that no good, yeller bellied, scum suckin’ bastard was a fucking Fed.” He pounded his hand into his palm, “and to think Ah was starting to like him.”

I nodded to him from across the room, “He had us all fooled,” I said while I was typing up a commendation for the Chief. She was off to the station showing which sims she worked with that caused her to become suspicious. “I am just glad Arlene is on the ball.”

“What-cha working on Skipper?” he asked.

“I’m putting in a commendation for Boombox, she deserves it I think.” I paused and looked up her promotion records, “That and a nudge to the Promotion Boards, I think.”

“Good, she’s a good egg and should get something for it,” he walked over and took a seat not far from me. “Are we really going after the bastards?”

I smiled, “That’s the plan,” I handed him my data pad, “check that. I changed our payload a bit as we want to capture what ever we can, so give it a once over and make suggestions as needed Tagger.” 

He spent a moment and grunted, “I see you dropped the SLAMRAMs for the two more Beaked Snakes.”

“We will have an entire Flight of angry pilots in our pocket and then a whole Battle Group once the ball goes up.” I paused to study him, “Are you comfortable with a change of Branch for the duration of testing and trials?”

“Ah reckon I can tolerate it if you can Ma’am.” He grinned, “‘Sides some of dem Jar-heads is good scrappers. Is that going to be a problem for you considering you are ‘Gold’?”

I shrugged, “Well considering my duties are tied to the Bird first, then probably teaching it, no. You may end up ‘Gold’ yourself you know?”

He smiled, “Oh that’d my folks proud, though I might hate it after too long.” He paused, “Think I can wrangle a bit of flight instruction, Ma’am? It seems kinda odd that we have a bird that could almost be piloted from my seat, in a pinch, and I’m not even rated.”

I paused, “That’s a good idea Tagger, we may have to see if we can pilot from your seat, the controls seem similar, and well if I should get popped…”

“God fer-bid it,” he said with a grin.

“We’ll have to see what the techs say about it,” I smiled, “odder things have happened in combat.”

Arlene walked in and tossed her beret to the couch and went into the galley for a moment and then emerged with a large cup of coffee. “Damn, it is a mess Skipper.”

“Hit me with it,” I said as I closed down her personnel files, I wanted it to be a surprise.

“Well we now know how the Fed’s found the Medical ships. The rot is narrow but deep, from what I picked up from the Marine’s Intelligence Team, the Fed’s had us in some painful places, but no more,” she motioned to the ship we were in, “And I gather we are going to be attached to the Marines, under that Major you called.”

I blinked at that bit of news but nodded, “I expected that, she’d be there to ensure we get taken care of. She’s good people, and she knows about ‘me.’ So we can count on her, in a pinch.”

The door chimed and a Marine in blacks entered once Tagger checked the door. “The Admirals and Commandant send their regards, and sent me to fetch you to a briefing, Commander,” she said with smile. “Also the Commandant said to say, “Welcome to the Corps, to your crew. Supply will be around with unit patches and such shortly.” She then turned to me, “Ma’am I am Gunnery Sergeant Billie Marks, your personal Marine guard force commander and liaison, my unit is attached to you for the duration.”

I stood up and held out my hand, “Glad to have you with us.”

She shook it and her cobalt blue eyes sparkled, “The Boss wants us to take good care of you. An’ since you saved his bacon the Corps owes you that much as it is.” 

I placed my beret on my head and made sure the safety was on, on my sidearm. I looked to the other two, “Rest if you can, I have no idea when I’ll be back.”

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As part of my duties on Darwin’s Hope I was frequently in battle planning meetings, though not on one of such scale. I was there with my Wing Leaders and their seconds, who were looking a bit confused and worried. “Relax gent’s your boss is here and things are going to be interesting so pay attention, take notes as you will be briefing your wings later. Though I’ll give the overview again before then. Check?”

At their nods we took a row of seats marked for us and waited for the room to fill up. Boojum looked over to me, “Say Commander, what was with the Tacs?”

“All will be explained,” I smiled. “Let’s just say your delivery flight is going to be a lot more interesting.”

“Oh good,” he said with a predatory grin, “action?”

“I expect so,” then I motioned for him to sit.

“Good, these milk runs have been making me nuts,” he said and the other three from Darwin’s Hope nodded in agreement.

Inwardly, I was moping about not being male and able to remain friends with them, Lieutenant Commanders Tommy ‘Boojum’ Jennings, Paul ‘Griffin’ Griffith, Jeremy ‘Stacked’ Decker and lastly Luke ‘Slow Hand’ Palmer; had been my best buds for a long time.  That sense of camaraderie was definitely missing and I had to choke back on the sadness its loss had effected on me.

“Something wrong Commander?” asked Boojum as he glances around.

“Nothing blowing up a few Feds won’t cure,” I lied with a lazy smile.

“I hear you, was the Colonel really a Fed spy?” asked Palmer.

“So I have been told,” I said with a bland expression, “evidently it was also tied to the Hospital ships too.”

“Fuck, I hope they hang him,” Decker said with a growl, “I had a cousin on the Imhotep.”

“Maybe if we are lucky we’ll find out where it went, if it wasn’t destroyed,” I offered and he nodded.

“God’s I hope so Ma’am, my family is on the edge over it,” Decker smiled harshly, “If it’s possible Ma’am, if there is a rescue going down I’d like to be on it.”

“We will know when Fleet tells us, for now concentrate on the job at hand,” I paused, “but if word reaches me, I will see if I can tell you.”

He nodded looking calmer, which is what I wanted, “Thank you Ma’am.”

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The briefing took place without much ceremony; I noted a few faces from the ‘awards dinner’ that I recognized and the Manta’s Flight Leader from the Hood. He stooped by long enough to mock growl at me for leaving the Tally Board so skewed, then he pointed to my Wing Leaders and told them to watch out for me or I’d have them buried in the standings.

The operation was called Foxglove, evidently Admiral Peters was a fan of obscure Old Earth literature. It consisted of three parts. My Flight and the Scythe would jump as planned and after we had reached the fail point, every ship would play dead. The next part involved Arlene sending the code that was stripped out of the Colonels computer out on the specified frequency, and we’d play ‘dead’. Once whoever showed up, we’d arise from the dead and depending on the forces that showed up, either kill or capture them.

If it were fighters we’d try to make one or two surrender, while frying the rest, as it was likely they’d only be there to kill us. If it was a freighter or such like, we’d go for the disable and capture. Anything else we’d play by ear.

The last part involved having the Battle Group jump in and then we’d conduct Fleet Scale Maneuvers, scouring the entire quadrant ‘cube’ for surprises and what not. Fleet had reassessed some of the signal data and upgraded the local threat level, thinking some low level pirate activity was much more significant than it was originally thought to be. It was suspected that the might be a hidden Federation Base in one particularly odd portion of space among a nebula.

Considering the force multiplier we added to the Battle Group with my Flight, the Admirals decided we should take advantage of it. Even if it delayed our delivery. As the Commandant put it, “We’re going to shake some snakes out of their nest and squash them.”    

The last bit from the briefing was heartening for Decker; as a plea bargain for his life, the Colonel confirmed that the Imhotep was captured and her crew was ‘mostly’ intact. The Admirals gravely announced operations were being planned and that a follow on mission was being planned for the entire force. I smiled tightly at the news and squeezed Decker’s shoulder as he nearly shouted his joy.

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After the briefing I sent my Wing Leaders off with instructions to the rest of the Flight to rest up and I handed them each clean Tacs. “I’ll be over for Preflight briefing as scheduled, you have your part to lay out for your Wings this evening and I’ll have last minute stuff for you all, half an hour before the preflight briefing.”

Boojum looked at me oddly but nodded, “Aye Ma’am, one question if I may?”

“Ask it,” I said.

“I tried to look at your record, are you a spook? I ask that because only a few people I know have as many combat fighters certs as you do,” he asked while studying my face intently.

“Jennings, there are questions best not asked or answers best not found, clear?” I asked him with a scowl.

He braced to attention and nodded, “Clear Ma’am.”

“Carry on, and get My Flight up to speed Boojum,” I said with a hint of a smile.

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“When you call, it you call it,” said Decker with a frown, “She has got to be a fucking spook.”

“Or something, in any case looks like we’ll finally be doing something for a change,” added Palmer as he dropped onto his berth.

“Yeah, action.” Grifith was smiling wickedly, “I may have to take back most of the bad things I said about our FL.

“Anyhow, get out your Data Pads and lets work up the Op, Palmer you going to be able to crack the whip on all your greenies?” asked Jennings as he walked in.

“Yeah, but you know how the first shake always goes, they either make it or they don’t.” Palmer said with a frown, “Let’s just hope it goes smooth.”

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Sleep that night was a bitch, fortunately I only woke up once, screaming into my pillow. I had been developing that habit more frequently as of late, especially when the nightmares touched on the confusing dreams that were mixed with my old bodies rape, and the odd twists it took trying to filter over as happening in this body. I had experimented with my new equipment once or twice recently, hoping it’d give me some relief. But it kept giving me such weird flashes of emotion and rage, so much so that I ended up stopping short even if some bits had felt good.

I eventually took a hefty shot or three from one of the bottles I had brought over from the station; once I figured out that hard exercise was not going to settle my nerves. That, of itself bothered me, I suspected I would have to watch my self on my intake or it’d be a habit I did not want. Though I was sure I could keep a grip on it.

Breakfast was with my crew and the Gunny who had brought the rest of my ‘gear’ over from the station and had it checked over for surprises. We were all sporting ‘The Commandant’s Own’ unit patch on our right shoulders, which made Tagger slightly uneasy, but when I pointed out the bennies it might give him later on he settled out.

Gunny Marks left shortly after the breakfast as her suiting up and checks on her own group had to be done too. From what I gathered she was going to be with us; and her force would jump in just after the balloon went up for the capture detail.

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“Alright listen up!” I said once the briefing room for my flight was filled and the pilots were seated. “As you no doubt have heard from your Wing Leaders there has been a change of plans. Rather than your same old boring Transport flights, we’re going to go fuck up some Feds.”

That brought some laughter and sounds of approval, “We are going to follow our original flight plan and on the forth jump we play dead. From what the Marine Techs say, our coms would have worked somewhat, so I want a lot of jabber and every possible malfunction on our birds to be randomly spouted off, until the Wing Leader’s get grouchy and tell you to can it.” I smiled at the assembled Flight.

“Don’t go to fucking over board but some panicked bits won’t hurt, especially when the bad guys come calling.” 

I motioned to my four Wing Leaders, “You will pay damned close attention to their instructions, this should be a easy Op, if it’s fighters your Wing Leaders will select out four for disable, the rest you toast. Clear?”

“Clear Ma’am!” was their exuberant reply.

“If it’s a freighter or what not with fighter escorts, the escorts are toast and we capture freighter, don’t confuse the two.” I paused and there was some laughter.

“Now if things go way off the wall, it gets fun.” I looked at them for a moment before continuing. “We’ll have enough support jumping in at our beck and call, that even if a small Federation Task Force arrives, we will still come out clean. On that odd case, the mission will be as follows.”

“One, we flatten their fighter cover and take out any carriers first.” I looked to my Wing Leaders who nodded. “Second once a Command Class ship is identified we will go for the disable.” I pointed to myself and my crew, “As you know we have a new toy and the Fed’s want it, so we are going to give it to them, teeth first.”

That produced a lot of feral looks, “Try not to bump us if things go wild,” I chided the more rambunctious pilots. “Should things go south, Lieutenant Commander Jennings is my second in command, followed by the other Wing Leaders. Though I doubt we should have to worry too much in that department.”

“When we go for the disable, depending on how many there are, Alpha flight will clear the route, the Scythe will follow on it’s run, Bravo Flight will provide cover for out back side of ht e attack run.” I looked to the last two Wing leaders, “Charlie and Delta will work in tandem if it’s not a Command ship or Carrier and it looks like you can capture it do so, if not waste the bastards, clear?” I asked and they nodded grimly

“Remember fighters alone, we want four for discussion, other wise trash them. If it’s a freighters with fighters, trash the fighters; capture the freighter. If it’s a Carrier and Command group, kill the Carrier and light trash. Anything else we’ll call on the go. Clear?”

After they nodded I added one last bit, “The word from the Admiral is that there will be a wash down, once the Op is complete, so don’t fuck up and miss the party by being dead. Do youread me?”

“Ma’am yes Ma’am!” they shouted.

I lifted my hand to settle them for a moment, “Right, let’s get saddled up and kick some Fed ass. Dismissed.”  

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Suiting up was a pain in the crotch, plain and simple, though that my have been due to my being nervous. The relief fitting had to have been designed by an engineer who hated women. In any case getting suited up took some of the growing worry out of my head for a time. Under the watchful eye of a few female Marines in powered suits we made our final checks and met up with Tagger at the Scythe.

The Scythe was being guarded by eight marines, each in powered armored suits, and looking more than ready to shred anyone who did not belong there. I returned the salute of the guard commander, and then we started pulling pins and flags from the weapons, effectively setting the warheads to ready. Tagger was working topside checking his guns and I was checking the nose guns. “How are we looking folks?”

“Gun’s set Ma’am, topside is green,” Tagger answered over the comm.

“EW is warmed up, I show both pods as ready,” answered Boombox from inside.

I walked to the tail and pulled the last flag from the lower tail pod, “Tail pods arw green, now get set up Tagger; I’ll get our friends out from around the bird and we’ll do engine pre-flights and get the ball rolling.” At his acknowledgement I walked to the Marine’s commander.

“Sergeant we are preflighting the engines next, once I am aboard and set, I highly recommend that your people should beclear of the engines.”

“Aye Ma’am once you are locked in, we will be on our way back to the Dropship. We expect to be busy today,” he said with a smile.

“Good hunting Marines.”

“You too Ma’am,” he said and we exchanged salutes.

I walked to the front of the bird and climbed up using the handgrips and built in ladder. I carefully eased into the seat and checked the placement of hoses and clipped in before closing the canopy. “Everyone ready and plugged in?” I asked.

“Gunner set,” replied Tagger.

“EW set, I left the I-O’s board dead Ma’am,” added Boombox.

“No problem, I’m starting my engine preflight, carry on and report as needed,” I started flipping the toggles and watched the power plant light up and the converters go from amber to green. “Tagger spin backside and check for FOD.”

I waited and then he reported, “No Foreign Objects or Debris, the crunchies have moved off the flight deck.”

“Confirmed, spinning the engines up now.” I toggled the drivers that would suck in atmosphere and turn it to thrust as it was superheated by the reactor.

Once we left ‘atmosphere’, the vents would close and we’d use water. That would be blown into Hydrogen and Oxygen by the splitters and then that mix would be superheated into a plasma and used as reaction mass. If the Cold Fusion Plant took a hit, the worst we would have to fret was a blast of plasma, and well we might survive that, if the armor surrounding our stations held. Otherwise… well no one gets out alive in the end, as the saying goes.

“AG Lifters online now, retracting the gear.” I looked out to see a slow strobe light, that was our path of egress, light up, “I have strobe.”

“Confirmed Skipper, I have clearance on all sides,” he replied and I nodded unseen.

“Mupass Taccom, this is Transport Flight 2106: Leader, requesting permission to launch for link up with Flight,” I smiled and waited for the word.

“Tee-Eff 2106 Leader, your designation is now Tango One, confirm,” they called back, giving me a sense of déjà vu.

“Roger I am Tango One,” I replied.

“Bay Control reports your heat output is very high, you are authorized one meter per second thrust until in the Deep,” they stated.

Well I had expected we would be hot, “Rodger one em pee ess until space.”

“Tee-one you are go for launch and link up, have a safe trip,” was their offering and I smiled, as they evidently did not know what was up or were playing it close.

“Thank you Mupass Taccom, Tango One launching now,” I chuckled and eased the collective up just a touch to get us moving.

As we drifted slowly to the huge opening of the bay I heard Tagger chuckling. “What’s up Tagger?”

“Wasn’t that your call sign for the bit with the hospital ship?” he asked.

“Yes, consider it a good omen,” added Boombox for me.

As I eased us out of the bay I could ‘feel’ how heavy the bird was for the first time, “The Scythe feels ‘heavy’ to me so I am going to limber up some on the way to the link point, do stay strapped in.”

“Ah think Ah am jealous,” retorted Tagger with a laugh. 

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I took some liberties with Mupass Flight Control’s ‘airspace’, as I used the thrusters to weave and dance for a few moments, that is, until they chided me for it.

“Much as we enjoy the show Tango One, don’t you have some place to be?” asked the voice that could only be Admiral Spottedhorse.

“Roger that, Mupass Actual, Tango One going for link up,” I couldn’t quite keep the happiness in my voice out of the com. I pulled up hard on the collective giving us a kick in the pants and I used the thrusters to give us a nice easy victory roll.

“Show off,” commented a second voice that I was very familiar with and I looked around and spotted a trio of Tiger Sharks pacing us.

“Confirmed Spanner, out on a routine CAP?” I asked betting the answer would be yes even though they were likely playing angel to us.

“You know how it is oh Angel of Death, the Old Man likes his space clean,” he offered with laughter and I angled to the beacon where the rest of my Flight was arrayed in neat rows.

“Rodger that Spanner, have a easy day of it,” I said and eased the Scythe into the center of the formation.

“Be safe Death,” he called and I watched them roll off and back to their carrier at full burn.

I waited for a few moments, then announced to the flight, all one hundred and twenty some odd birds, “This is Tango One, we are go for the jump point. Alpha you have the lead, Bravo follows, I have the middle, Charlie and Delta trail at your discretion. Confirm, over.” 

As they sounded off I made a few checks of my own then paused, “Transport Flight 2106, you are go for jump point, nine one eight, lets fly.” I waited for Bravo Wing to light up and move then I brought our own speed up to one gravity and held it there. “How’s traffic Boombox?”

“Nothing out of norms, Skipper,” she replied and I heard some soft over chatter from her station.

“Break in if there is anything odd,” I instructed, “Ok Tagger, I know you are all comfy up there, don’t go napping on me.”

He laughed, “Ah am just enjoying the ride, she does handle smooth from up here.”

“She does at that,” I agreed as we slid along.

“Alpha jumping in three seconds,” called Boojum, then “Three, two, jump!” and a faint hiss of static followed.

I waited for Bravo to echo that and gave a few seconds before I called out onto the Flight Channel, “Tango One, jumping in three, two. Jumping!” I tagged the jump button hard and the Universe turned inside out.

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We were hanging in a violet pool of light, I could hear the others faintly breathing from behind me. A pair of stars one bright blue the other white flashed to the front of us and we fell towards them for what seemed like a bare second and then we stalled and space unfolded around us. I glanced to look for the preceding flights and made sure my thrust was at one G.

“Alpha reports all green,” called Boombox as I focused on checking systems, “Bravo reports the same Skipper.”

“I read us as green, crew confirm,” I spoke calmly yet I could feel that precombat vibe warming up.

“Green guns, Skipper,” added Tagger.

“EW green, Skipper, Charlie reports green,” she added.

“Tango One to Flight, I am green, awaiting Delta,” I smiled waiting for things to sort out.

Delta took a few moments longer to emerge, though that was expected as most of the greenies were in that Wing. I had set them up with a good mix of veterans though, so with luck they’d sort out. At least I hoped so, I was hoping we would not have anything too risky for that Wing to do. When they reported as ‘Green’, I gave a small sigh of relief.

“Nice of you to join us Delta, do try to keep up.”

“This is Delta Leader, we had to send one back to base, as his gyro’s tumbled moments before the jump,” defended Slowhand with a chuckle. “I think he’s disappointed in not being able to join the party.”

“Rodger Delta, all flights proceed at one ‘G’ to jump point and we do it all again, hopefully with no more surprises,” I ordered and said a small hopeful prayer.

As we cruised along Tagger broke in on my train of thought, “Ah am concerned Ma’am.”

“About what Tagger?” I asked hearing the frown in my own voice.

“What if the only snake in the flight wasn’t the Colonel?” he asked and I could hear the concern in his voice.

“Well if anyone squawks other than ordered I think Boombox can squelch him or her, and then I’ll pop him with a Ogrefish, that should solve that problem. Can you handle that Boombox?” I asked her.

“Yes Ma’am, if anyone uses a freq other than our channels I’m burn out his system and we can collect the bastard at our leisure.” Her tone of voice was dead certain so I let it go.

“Just be ready,” I cautioned.

“And there they go,” she replied, and I noted Alpha winking out from my radar.”

“Confirmed just three more jumps and we’ll know,” I sighed and tried to unkink from the tension that was building up in my neck and back.

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We were moments from our last jump and everyone in the flight was gearing up and going hot, just in case. Boombox was running a scan in depth before we jumped. We wanted a good idea if we were jumping into a fight or if the jump sector would be clean. I was listening to the various Wings gearing up and some idle banter that sounded more like nerves than anything else.

“Skipper I am picking up a heavy trace to our six, that should be the Bee-Gee. I have a faint trace in the destination sector thatmight be civilian traffic,” Boombox advised and her voice spoke volumes as to how worried she was.

“Go hot on it and tell me what she is, I do not want any surprises,” I commanded and waited.

“Oh crap!” she said frantically then seemed to go coldly professional.” It’s an Alliance Diplomatic Cruiser and they are sending a Mayday, very low powered, they report no functional systems other than that and life support.”

I swallowed hard thinking of various ruses and possible traps, “Can you confirm that?”

“I’m powering up the I-O side and checking the database, wait one,” she announced in that same cool tone of voice.

“All Wings stand-by, for Frag Order,” I called and waited for Boombox’s report.

After what felt like a long pause, Arlene reported, “It’sLegit Skipper, and it’s got one of their Princess-Cum-Ambassadors listed as on it. That is not good.”

“Crap is right, put a scrambled burst to the Battle Group through now with that info, I’ll handle the Flight’s orders,” I said and left her to handle that task. “Flight this is Tango One, Frag-O follows.” I paused and waited for the Wing Leaders to report in, once they had I continued.

“An Alliance Diplomatic Cruiser is in our Area of Operations, they report the same conditions we would have had on entry.  We are not, I say again, not going ‘dead’ once we jump in.”

     “Alpha Flight, you will make best speed to the Alliance Cruiser and provide cover in depth. Bravo Flight, you will go active and hot, same mission: You are now as lead to the Scythe when the enemy force arrives. Charlie, you are now taking Bravo’s mission as trail to Scythe. Delta you areactive reserve, if you see an opening take it. Break. All Electric Eels are to go to active jamming once enemy forces jump in, no delays just do it. All Wings to move parallel and below Alpha; we will all jump in at once, acknowledge.”

I listened to the Flight Leader’s report and I eased us below Bravo Flight, once every one was in position; I gave the order to Jump and I locked down on the anger I felt brewing. I was betting we were going to see a lot of Fed’s or something.

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They say no plan stays intact once you encounter the enemy, well so far that was holding true and we had not even seen the enemy. Arlene was picking up some faint emergence readings at the edges of her detection ability, which only heightened my anticipation, I guesstimated we had only a few moments to minutes before things were going to go hot and ugly.

Depending on what they were sending at us and where, we had several options. If we were lucky they would come in and the emergence disorientation would give us enough time to ruin their day. If we were unlucky they would pop in behind us with a wall of fighters coming in to screen them. I any case we would only have a few moments to react deliver a punishing blow.

The good news was that the B-G was only one very small jump behind us and they were massing all their fighters to come in hot. The other good news was that I was feeling really alive for the first time in several weeks. I was calm, almost detached as I watched Alpha swarm to cover the Alliance Cruiser Andante.

The Skipper of the Andante was not thrilled to find out he was likely a victim of a Federation trap, but considering we were here to wreck that trap, he was marginally cheerful. Though he gave me an earful about that I was now responsible for the Princess, whomever the hell she was, safety. After the third repletion of that injunction I turned his channel off and kept an uneasy watch on the Deep and my instruments.

“Emergence Warning!” called Boombox and I about broke my neck to see what and where it was coming from, “I read four Heavy signatures. A Paladin Destroyer, a Rampart Heavy Carrier, an Emperor Class Dreadnaught and a Viking Heavy Cruiser, shit seven morelighter craft coming in, it’s a Fucking Federation Battle Group Ma’am!”

I was already making a burn towards the Dreadnaught, “Beta break for the Carrier and kill it before it launches, Charlie back him up, Delta hit the Rampart as hard as you can. Boombox yell for the Calvary!”

Even with the AG field fighting the G’s I felt every hard burn and turn I was making, pull at my body. “Alpha as much as you can spare the help, I’d love to have you in the party, but I still want that Alliance Cruiser covered!” I shouted into the comm.

I ignored the coms after that; I was praying fast and furious, as I lined up for my initial shots, this was going to be one damned huge test. “Tagger! Starboard side missiles at your discretion. Engage at will, we are gonna hurt the Dread.”

“An lo the Angle of Death was at his right hand and the lake of fire to his right!” he yelled into the com and I could feel the slight vibrations as the entire load of Barracuda’s fired from one pod. I watched them splatter on the shields then fired off my own pod of Barracudas as I went spiraling towards the large bump that should be over the bridge if I remembered correctly.

Under those two massive salvos I saw the EMP corona buckle about one side of the shields at the topside of the ship, “Two Beaked Sea Snakes each!” I called and dropped our thrust to nil, using the inertia we carried to keep us angled on our missiles path, as I used the maneuvering thrusters to keep the nose on target. “Port side away!” I shouted as I lit off two of the heavies from my side.

“Starboard side away!” he yelled a moment after my own cry, I pulled up hard and heavy on the collective and felt another massive surge of gravity as the AG compensator was not holding up to the load I was placing on the bird. My G-suit was crushing my legs and I was damned near close to graying out from the G’s as four flares of light flashed from behind us. I tagged the flares and chaff several times as I maneuvered; praying we were not soon to be dead.

Ignoring the heaviness of my eyelids I focused on the easing back from the gray out by ‘chuffing’ my lungs to help fight out the ‘gray’s’. I wasn’t hearing anything from my crew so I hoped they were at least semi-conscious, a cold sensation in my gut reminded me that I didn’t recall either of them having had any heavy G training. I slaved the turret to my controls for safety sake and set an intercept course for a Light Carrier that was starting to spit out Pillions the Fed’s Lighter Space Superiority Fighter.

I pointed the nose of the Scythe to the open bays of the Light Carrier and fed it half a pod of Ogrefish, sending four of them into the partially unshielded fighter bay. Once inside they flared brightly, and seemed to cause a series of secondary flashes as well. I dumped one of the wing mounted Beaked Sea Snakes after them for good measure.

By then Tagger was groaning so I yelled at him to wake up and clean off our tail as a pair of Pillions was making me work for my evasions. I un-tabbed his controls back to him and I ramped back around to check the Dreadnaught while kicking up my evasions another notch with some chaff,

“Boombox! Arlene! I really need you on the job now!”

A long vibration told me that Tagger was awake and using his guns, Arlene was still half groggy so I kept yammering at her until she yelled, “Enough goddamnit! I am on it!”

I chuckled and said, “Sorry crew I got a bit over zealous on the evasion from the kill zone on the Dread, I may have killed that Light Carrier or not, so tell me quick.”

“My head hurts,” complained Tagger as a third long vibration was felt in the bird.

“The Light is down but has drives, the Dread is out as far as I can tell,” she paused and excitedly added, “our Battle Group has arrived and is engaging.” 

“Thank god!” I yelled and started to make a check on my Flight, “Wing Leaders. Report!” I ordered as I aimed us towards a Frigate that was entirely too happy to be shooting at us. “Tagger, Port side is yours, clock the Frigate to Port!”

“Alpha is green on Alliance Cruiser, amber in the Fight, we’re down six,” was Boojum’s report.

“Bravo is amber in the Fight, down twelve,” answered Bravo leader.

“Bravo get in with the part of Alpha that is in the fight,” I quickly called, trying not to wince at the losses.

“Charlie is green but red on missiles,” he sang out as I watched his Wing careen around me.

“Delta is amber, hard amber, down sixteen,” I cringed at that.

“Delta, get over to help cover the Alliance Cruiser,” I angled slightly more to port to give Tagger his shots and I could hear the lock on warning kick in and out as a strange stuttering sensation vibrated me in my seat, “What was that?”

“The Phalanx Pods went off Skipper, we’re green still!” called Boombox.

“This is Manta Leader to Tango One, how can we help our favorite hand of Death?” he asked and I took a quick look at the radar, the Viking was still untouched, though Tagger had broken the Frigates backbone with a Beaked Snake.

“I need a screen for the Viking, I have a payload with its name on it!” I said and pulled up hard on the collective, causing some bitching to be heard in my headset. “Sorry guys but we’re in a shit storm!”    

“Poseidon Actual to Tango One, break out and collect up your Flight, move to cover the Alliance Cruiser,” that was Admiral Peterson.

“Aye Sir!” I called back and then put a serious burn on again eliciting another set of groans, “Hang in there, we’re almost clear.”

“Tango One to Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta: Break out to cover the Alliance Cruiser, Fleet is going to start pounding and we don’t want to be in that sandwich!”

I still had a hard lock on the Viking, so I flipped us over and fed it half a pod of Ogrefish from the Starboard side, and then lit off the last three Beaked Sea Snake heavy missiles a few moments later; once they cleared and were on track I flipped us back over to burn for the Cruiser. “Tagger keep our back side clean, Boombox start getting as much data as you can from the EW side of things and start feeding it to Fleet.”

I was focusing on keeping a clean route to the Cruiser as Tagger occasionally fired off his dual Gatling guns, presumably making small bits out of enemy birds. At least that was what I made of his cursing and occasional ‘Come get some!’ That filtered back to me over the internal coms as I tried to get a solid grasp on how bad my Flight was hurt.

Ammo wise we were down to half a pod of Ogrefish on each wing, my guns had barely been fired and Tagger was working deeper into amber. I wasn’t too worried about us, once I started counting out birds in my Flight, I sighed and moved into position next to Boojum on my portside. “Alright Wing Leaders give me the news.”

It took a few moments for the count to come down but I had managed to loose a good third of my Flight. Out of the one hundred and twenty six birds we went out to the trap with, we only had eighty-five left and some of them were ‘sparking’ slightly. “Transport Flight Twenty-sixteen this is Tango One, well done but at one hell of a cost. Bent birds fall back closer to the Cruiser, we’ll cover you.”

As they complied I kept a close eye on the Fleet’s actions as they slugged it out. Between my Flight and the runs we had made in those frantic few minutes, I blinked and looked at the chronometer again, the whole of our fight had barely covered fifteen minutes. I kept both hands ready for action but I really wanted to stretch out. “Crew report,” I ordered softly into our coms.”

“EW is green, busy,” Arlene sounded a bit cross but I ignored that.

“Guns are hard amber, ammo wise, Ah feel like shit, though other wise Ah am green,” Tagger drawled out slowly, “Y’all should warn a soul before beating them to death Skipper.”

I chuckled at that, “Sorry Tagger, Boombox I had thought you were G-rated. It’s my fault for not remembering to check.”

“Well Ah am, but not for what ever you did,” he groaned, “I was seeing gray and then black for a longish bit.”

“Some good news Skipper, the remnants of the Federation Fleet are surrendering. Though they didn’t have much left to surrenderwith,” Arlene was sounding very self-satisfied, and I looked out of my cockpit to watch the slowly moving masses of twisted metal drift off, some were just a few kilometers away from us.

“Think you can find out where our missing birds are, if they can be picked up?” I asked her slowly.

“Aye Ma’am, that’s why I was so busy, I am tracking twenty EVA pilots and four bent birds who barely have coms.” She sounded tired but happy, “And that is just our bunch, I have got tags on a ton of unhappy Fed’s in escape pods.”

“How is the rest of the Fleet?” I asked cautiously.

“Bruised, but from what I can tell mostly intact,” she said. “It was a stroke of genius having all the Eels tying up the Fed’s sensors.”

I sighed, “Beginner’s luck on my part, I had them so I used them.”

“Don’t sell yourself short Skipper, we sure as hell were not expecting a Fed Battle Group this deep in our territory.” He paused and cheerfully added, “Even with my headache and such, we kicked the Fed’s ass but good.”

I closed my eyes and gave a heartfelt prayer of thanks that I had not fucked up any worse than I had.

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Recovery took some time, as expected. I was very glad to receive the command to jump back to Mupass Station, though my lamed birds would be catching a ride with The Hood. The rest of us formed up as prior our battle, stacked parallel and below Alpha. “Gentlemen, Ladies, it’s is time to un-ass the A-O. Jump in three, two. Jump!”

I felt so very alone as space twisted around me. Floating in an eternal red sea, I cringed as I sailed past a baleful red eye. A cool white filled the space around me and a yellow orb grew closer, filling me with a blue note of sound. A deep cold note range through my head and then space unfolded again.

I gasped in relief for a moment, as my world was once again solid. “You ok Skipper?” asked Tagger quietly.

“Just a rough reentry that time,” I commented and started the process of making sure my Flight was where it should be.

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Fortunately the last three jumps were much smoother, as if we had appeased some god of war or Hades himself in our passage of fire. I watched with some satisfaction as we were welcomed by a riot of madly strobbing running lights, as the vessels in the port saluted us with their colors.  “Tango One to Mupass Tacom, my weary warriors need a nest for their birds and a bar to get washed in, over.”

“Tango One, this is Mupass Actual, your wish is our pleasure, damned fine job out there Warriors!” Admiral Spottedhorse sounded very pleased.

“Mupass Tacom to Aplha and Bravo Wings, your bay is Two One. Charlie and Delta Wings your bay is Two Two. Tango One, your bay is Three Zero, as Bay Control One reported you were too hot for a lighter bay.”

Some wag commented over the channels, “She’s too damned hot for the Fed’s too!”

I shook my head and tried to ignore the comment, “Alright Flight Leader’s, put them to bed and stand by for debrief once you have cleared the showers, confirm,” I waited for them to confirm then I added, “Flight Leader’s you are everything I have heard about and more from Darwin’s Hope, very well done. As for the rest of you, you made me very damned proud, now get busy, I am thirsty.”

After a moment of silence hung in the air, “It must be hard Skipper,” said Arlene on our coms.

I sighed around the knot in my throat, “Yes it is, we were like brothers for a very long time.”

“Well we know what it cost you, so don’t you fret that you might be forgotten. That ain’t gonna happen,” drawled Tagger as I felt a hint of moisture tease my eyes.

“I read you Tagger, let’s keep an eye on our Flight, once the last one is in, we’ll go.”

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“Well that was an Op,” said Palmer as her tossed his helmet onto his berth.

“No shit, here I am going with a full burn on for the Cruiser, and she asks for a bit of help, and she still wanted the Cruiser covered,” Jennings shook his head, “Gods.”

“Hey at least your Wingman had that covered, mine nearly fucking rabbited on me,” complained Palmer. “Some of my greenies made it through, though a few of them were EVA.”

“We all got it hard, who would have counted on a Fed B-G this fucking deep in our territories?” asked Decker as he skinned out of his under suit.

“Not me, though I will say our FL is hot on the ball,” Jennings was smiling slightly, “Who the hell was the loud mouth on the coms when we got back?”

“Um… “ Griffith chuckled in embarrassment, “it sort of slipped out.”

“OK, I am not sure if she knows us by ear, so you just cover the second round and we’ll call it over and out.” Jennings was smirking, “That will teach you not to do that again, we are not on the Hope, and if the Base CO is a hard ass you would have been so fucked.”

“Better hurry and get through the showers. If I read our FL right we’ll be due ASAP in briefing, though we may have a long night,” said Jennings with a sigh, “considering we saved the Alliance’s ass this go round.”

“Ah well, we can always get drunk later,” added Griffith.


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As much as I wanted to collapse under the hot shower, I had an audience of several female Marine troopers to guard me, and a few of my fellow female pilots who were also there. So breaking down and letting it go was not going to happen until I was in my own berth. I had that fucked up reputation of a hard assed bitch to maintain, and I wasn’t going to let that image slip; if I could avoid it.

I was informed the briefing was postponed until the Battle Group returned and had their moments of down time. Which meant there was a very long night ahead, I sent orders to my Wing Leaders to gather everyone in the briefing room. Then I pestered Admiral Spottedhorse for a floater and enough beers so that there was a beer for every member of the flight; as we’d have to wait a longer time until we could have a proper wash down.

I drafted a hapless Ensign in the corridor to drag it to the briefing room for me, then I gave him my spare beer and told him to sit and enjoy it. “Flight Leaders on me!” I shouted as the room braced to attention, “I know we don’t have ‘everyone’ here but it seems to me, one beer won’t kill us while we wait on the rest of the Fleet.” That statement from me produced some rough and joyful laughter.

Once the beer was passed out by the Wing Leader’s and everyone present had one, I walked to the fore of the room. I held up my hand and waited for the silence, “I know for some of you this was your first real fight, for others it was just another among many. And lastly for some small few of us it was their last one.” I waited and then lifted my beer, “Gentlemen, Ladies, a drink to the Fallen, may they give the Fed’s hell where ever they fly!”

“To the Fallen!” resounded loudly in the room and then after that required drink, there was enough noise to wake the dead.

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The ‘Official Debrief’ was held on the Poseidon in a larger room as we had more personnel from the Battle Group in attendance. Not to mention her most august self; Princess Dana Francis Teresa Montana the Second, of the Alliance, and her captain and guards. The spooky thing of the briefing was meeting her, and the both of us noting that we could be twins.

That, really pissed me off as I obliviously had been remade in her image as that bastards fuck toy. I kept that bit of information under a titanium collar and did my best to act very calmly whenever she was near or spoke to me. Frankly I was unnerved by the sickening thought of being used as a surrogate for her.

Fortunately she seemed to pick up on my unease and for the most part remained quiet as the events before, during and after the fight were laid out in detail. I stood before the assembled ships skippers and various other commanders and related events as they departed from our original intention. As the battle recordings were laid out and or played as the case was. I was careful to note how vastly we could have been out numbered; were it not for the effects of our EW birds and the fact that were came in ‘hot’ under the Frag Order.

Once I had split the flight up, I paused and I put my Wing Leaders on the hot seat. I had them recount their roles, successes and actions. I was pleased to hear them give clear and concise reports on how their elements performed and noted the special commendations they recommended of their personnel onto my data pad, after they finished I was called to the fore again.

Once there, the gun camera footage from The Scythe was slowed down and played. Occasionally the view would jump to a separate birds point of view as it showed the damage in better detail. It felt very strange discussing which targets I had chose and viewed the greatly slowed images of the swath of destruction we laid down, and then discussing it in detail. To me those short ten minutes of fight became an hour. At times I stood mutely as Fleet experts poured over the footage and marked out which salvo had been more effective.

The Princess and her Captain sat in what appeared to be mute shock at times. I didn’t really register how much the level of risks my Flight and I had undertaken to delay the Federation vessels until the Fleet Battle Group came in to flatten the Federation’s own Battle Group. But the Admiral and the other Commanders made no small point of pointing it out to every one present. Then they dropped the Intelligence Bombshell on the Princess and her personnel, that we knew that this was going to be a trap, and that they themselves had been set up for the same fate we would have shared, had circumstances had not been different.

Chief Lloyd was then brought forwards to explain her role and how the duplicity of the Colonel had been discovered. Then her actions as the EW Officer of The Scythe were critiqued and other experts explained the more technical aspects of the operations to all present. It slowly dawned on me that while this was an After Actions Review, it was also a Dog and Pony show too. I kept a thoughtful watch on the Princess who only seemed lost a few times, but her staff seemed to hang on the words of the experts.

I had the slowly dawning sensation of seeing a battle turned into a political hammer. Watching the various reactions of the Princess and her staff made it evident that this was out of the ordinary, and very disturbing. It also showed our trust in them, our allies. As the Goblin Shark was, to my understanding, still very secret. Tagger lucked out it seemed as no one wanted to rehash the kills he made with the turret, even as we had made our runs. He looked very relieved when the review moved on to the Heavy side of the coin, as our Battle Groups were then shown demolishing the Federation’s in fairly short order.

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It was with much relief and annoyance that the briefing broke up, I was relieved in that I could unwind, somewhat. The annoyance came from the fact that the ‘wash down’ my flight was going to enjoy was much different than mine. I was cursing a blue streak as I changed into a hastily procured set of dress Whites for a ‘Formal’ Party. No I was not happy, though the same ladies that helped me prepare for the publicity shots a week or so prior were amusedly helping me get ‘dolled up’ as they put it.

Fortunately Clarice was also present and suffering alongside of me, as was my Gunny, and her crew in their Dress Blacks. My sidearm was secured for the evening, as it wasn’t quite ‘proper’ attire for dinner. I felt it should be and when I asked Clarice about it she said, “Honey, that last formal party you nearly had a duel, we’re just making sure you can’t do something rash, in front of the Princess.”

That gave my guard force a chuckle and I scowled at the visage they had created of me, again, in the mirror. “I take it some one else is making sure my crew is all dressed up as I am?”

“Oh yes, if anything it makes it easier to keep you all under our watchful eye,” commented Gunny as she checked her ladies in an impromptu inspection.

“Any idea on how long this ‘eye’ is going to be on us?” I asked Clarice.

“None yet, I suspect it will ease up once the Goblin Sharks are in mass production as are the crews.” She smiled, “There is some ‘talk’ of reclassifying the Goblin Shark to the Reaper Shark or as Scythes.”

“That would be a break from tradition,” I commented as the two ladies clipped shiny dangling things to my ears. Great I had fucking earrings along with the twin hair spikes like the last time.

“Well I suspect it may happen. The powers that be are going to run this battle up the flagpole as well. From what I understand the Princess is taking a copy of the fight filmshome as well. You do understand this is one huge Political Coup for us?” she asked.

“I had gathered that from the dog and pony show,” I commented dryly, “yes, yes, once again ‘our bravefemale pilot’ saves the fucking day.”

“Oh don’t be that way,” she said and mock glowered at me.

“Be what way, bitter, angry, resentful? I just want to do my job and try to get used to this damned new life that was imposed upon me.” I almost took the earrings off to throw them, but I stopped at a hint of laughter.    

I turned to see that the Princess had entered the room with only a few of her ladies with her. She giggled slightly as the guards saluted her, I paused myself to salute along with the Major and relaxed once she nodded her recognition. “I see that my twin seems to share some of my own perturbances.”

“Oh?” I asked with some unease.

“Yes, I hate all of this,” she motioned to her gown and tiara. “I would much rather be back in my safe and sane academia working on my Masters Thesis.”

“Ah and your Masters would be in?” I asked figuring it was a safe topic.

“Phase Technology, shields and the like,” she offered with a smile, “but alas I am far from my lab and playing the ‘assigned role.’” She paused, “But that was nearly ended too. I and the Alliance are much in your debt, Commander.”

“Not my debt, I was only doing my job,” I paused and thought quickly, “if you would place credit on a single person, you might thank my EW Tech as she heard your ship’s cry for assistance.”

“You are much too modest for your own good Commander Caruthers. From what my own Intelligence Department tells me, you are among the victims in the case being brought forwards to the Signatories of the Accord, correct?” she asked bluntly.

“Yes your Highness,” I replied as my face warmed.

“We, have your measure, and Mark...” she paused to let that sink in and then she continued; “Commander Angela Lin Caruthers. We also have your measure, and think that you will surpass your old life.” She bowed slightly, “I dare say you may shine even brighter now.” With that she turned and walked out of the room, leaving both the Major and myself slightly stunned.

‘In all those old tales, wasn’t the hero supposed to be aguy that saved the princess?’ I asked myself as I watched her depart.

“So hero, feel better?” asked Clarice as she pressed on my shoulder to return me to the waiting hands of my own attendants.

“No, oh no, I definitely feel even more screwed up now,” my mind was somewhat fogged as I was thinking she’d would be fun in bed, and then a distinct feeling of loss and overall confusion.

Clarice was looking amused, thoughtful, but amused.

I just felt plain weird, ‘And what the hell was I thinking!’

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“What’s got you so mind fucked?” asked Decker as he took a pull from his cigar.

“I swear I am seeing fucking ghosts,” said Jennings as he tossed back a hi-ball.

Decker just looked at him oddly, “Where?”

“The flight films from the OP… Specifically Caruthers’ films and the ones that tracked her,” Jennings filled his glass angrily from the bottle on the table.

“Yeah that was fucking spooky,” Palmer nodded slowly, “That go to hell or stars evasion she pulled, that could have been Snark’s.”

“Yeah, not to mention they way she just eased up to your wing like she belonged there. Snark always had that habit of dipping the nose then jogging it port to starboard on his bird just before the final burn to stop,” Griffith added and slammed back his own drink.

“I think I am entirely to sober. If I am thinking that either that they might have the same DNA or some bastard cloned Snark and stuffed him in a female body,” said Jennings as he slammed back his drink and reached for the bottle again.

“Yeah you are way too sober, she’s too cute to be Snark.” Decker took a long pull from his cigar, “You’re definitely working your way into the three percent of people who think they think. Now shut up and get sensibly drunk.”

“No shit,” said Palmer, but he was looking a bit lost in thought as he said it. 

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End of Part Two

Read 10338 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 01:12

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