Author's Note: Lyrics for The Ballad of Curtis Loew copyright Allen Collins - Ronnie VanZant
Encyclopedia Historical: Sol System - The Beginnings of Space Faring Culture. p 3522 AD
The Ballad of Corazon originated during the initial outward push of Humanity from the crowded home world into the then largely unexplored reaches of The Home System. That it holds a power that still calls to us as a species through the intervening centuries is not in doubt.
That haunting, heart wrenching melody and words have been carried with Humanity to the farthest reaches of our race’s explorations of space. The originator of the ballad is unknown, but gave the race an icon with such impact that it is likely Corazon will be remembered even when the home world has been forgotten by Humanity’s far ranging children.
The story of Corazon has been romanticized in vids, opera, and books since the time of the very real incident that inspired the writing of her ballad.
What is true in the growing legend, and what is pure fantasy inspired by our collective wish to have an icon that rises above hopelessness to achieve greatness through what she was, and with the price she paid for that greatness?
As to what is truth, and what is fabrication? That is open to interpretation in many ways, but the facts are available through ancient records, albeit those are sketchy and in ‘official’ form.
Corazon was undoubtedly a living person who did manage to accomplish something extraordinary enough to engender the rise of yet another almost mythic figure in Human folklore. That the feats attributed to her are real and not something added to in the telling and retelling of the tale is highly doubtful, though. Legends insist on growing, even in an age when the actual information is readily available to anyone with net access and a desire to know the truth. Humanity’s desire for Larger Than Life Heroes, it seems, will never die out. Though the legend and the tragic heroine are inextricable parts of Human folklore now, the real question here is ‘What grain of truth actually started this legend, and what is pure romantic addition as time has passed?’.
This writer leaves those kinds of interpretations to the poets, philosophers, and common folk who still shed tears at hearing her ballad.
The truth is there, but in some cases, it loses veracity in light of the cultural impact the legend takes on. Corazon is, and will be, a powerful figure in Humanity’s myth and legends as long as the race exists.
Augustus Minivel: Professor of Ancient History - Antares Prime University.
Corazon Isabella Maria Gutierrez watched her new posting grow in the view port with an almost jaded indifference. The Pride of Eire was a well made vessel, and new. She had studied the ship’s specs once the transfer had come through shortly after her last contract had finished up and her ship retired with the crew sent to other vessels. She had been a Ship Mother for a long time, so had learned the basics about her new posting. At least as far as engineering and statistics went.
Three hundred meters in length, with huge Pratt and Whitney engines that made Pride one of the fastest vessels in space at the time, and the huge steering, cooling vanes to dissipate the excess heat from those engines tipped with engines themselves large enough to give a significant addition to the boost capability already there, she was a beautiful thing to see. From an engineer’s standpoint, anyway.
Lumps and protrusions on her long, cylindrical hull were communications gear, boats and shuttles, gravitic lassoes, and Corazon noted with a slight frown, weapons emplacements. The necessity for those was something that grieved her, but she understood the reasoning for making them part of the beautiful piece of human engineering she was looking at.
War between an overcrowded and resource poor Earth and the growing Spacer culture was a fact even if it hadn’t been officially declared. There were rumors that Apollo Freight and the Mars military authorities actually had an ISP, International Space Police, vessel in their hands that had not only been designed to kill other ships, but had done so. It was not a rumor that ships had been going missing for quite awhile in and around the Belt, or that some had been found, holed, with dead crew, and no reason evident for the attacks. Pirates, and there were some out here, would have taken cargo, and some of the crew for slave labor. None of that had been done to the drifting hulks found recently.
Cabrones! She thought in sad anger. Merde! There is enough out here for dozens of worlds to use and not run out for an eternity. Why start a war to get all of it when sharing is the better way?
Pride of Eire would house 400 crew, who would be her responsibility to see remained happy and as free of stress as possible. The Caregivers Company took that responsibility seriously, probably more so than providing more than competent crew for the ships they contracted to. Mary Yotori, founder of the company had early on seen the need for female companions to accompany the men in space, and founded Caregivers in the Geisha traditions of Japan to provide that service. Caregivers were not ship’s whores, or just female companionship in space. The company made certain it’s employees were also well educated in the types of technology and skills needed in space. Corazon herself held advanced degrees in Environmental systems, Power systems, and Computer and Information Systems. Others were pilots, navigators, engineers, or specialists of other kinds that made them valuable as crew members aboard any ship in space.
Stroking the case of her ancient guitar, she thoughtfully stared into the reaches of space. More than competent crew, entertainers, friends, and sometimes lovers to the men out here; we have become much more than simply those things. Mary Yotori, I hope you can see that from where you are now, and can forgive us the foolishness of this damned war. I think you would be proud of your children overall. I know I am.
Her wandering gaze passed the area of space where Earth would be visible if not for the glare of the station and docking lights and recalled the skinny, smart kid who had applied to Caregivers in July 2030, nearly a century ago with a small shake of her head.
Aiie! Long way from El Barrio now, Chica. she thought with a half forlorn smile. Long time gone, too. Maybe too long, eh?
That scrawny kid’s name had been Eduardo Gutierrez, and he had signed on with Caregivers, who only hired female employees for space, knowing the he was also agreeing to undergo the newly devised DeCorvin process that would not only enhance his immune system, nervous system, and intelligence, and increase his life span, but would alter his body’s physical sex. His family had been against it, but even in that time, before women were to become a short commodity and bone of contention between Earth and Spacers, a rough edged boy from the barrios, no matter how bright, had very limited potentials for careers that would amount to something.
So he had gone in with open eyes, and emerged as Corazon, meaning Heart in his native Spanish, with her eyes turned to the heavens. And she never looked back.
Until recently. But now, going home, even for a visit, was out of the question. First the United States, then the U.N. had adopted The Protection of Women Act, which made it illegal for any female of child bearing age to work in space in any capacity. Oh it had been carefully worded to make it appear as if it was only to protect the dwindling number of precious females in the population from undertaking dangerous employment that could result in the loss of their lives. But anyone with enough sense to come in out of the rain, or vacuum, knew it was meant to deprive a new and vital spacer culture of females and the ability to reproduce. That alone would have been enough to ignite a war.
Too many postings, too many people gone in my life. Corazon morosely thought as she returned her attention to the nearing bulk of the Pride. How many must I say goodbye to in this overlong life? How many more must I come to love, just to leave them again? Can my own heart take that again without breaking?
Not really thinking about what she was doing, her hands opened the well used guitar case and removed the instrument it protected. The ancient wood, polished as much from her own body oils as by intent was comforting as she settled it into her lap and absently began tuning, then playing it.
Minor keys and chords. she mused while strumming the taut strings gently. All I can get out of her now. I used to make people laugh for the sheer joy of living, and dance that joy with this instrument. What has happened to me?
She realized she had been singing softly as she played when conversation around her halted and faces of her fellow passengers turned in her direction.
The song had been old when she was young, a lament for things lost and never found again. Too mournful for the occasion, but she couldn’t stop playing or singing until it reached its soft, heartbreaking finish.
“That was beautiful.” One of the attendants, a young Caregiver, told her with tears glinting in her lovely, young eyes. “What was it?”
“An old, old ballad from Spain, before the New World was even opened up to Europeans.” She answered with a slow smile. “It has been called by many different names, but none of them really seem to fit it quite right. An old woman‘s remembrance of things long past, and lost to her.”
“Oh. I hope she knew that things lost can be found again, or at least replaced.” The girl answered with more wisdom than her years should have allowed.
“I’m sure she did.” Corazon managed a smile that wasn’t a sad grimace and carefully wiped the strings then gently set her instrument back in its case. “But there is also a time when mourning is needed, before one looks ahead. It clears the soul for new things, and readies it for new experience.”
The boost warning sounded in the cabin as she stowed the precious guitar in its hard shell, energy resistant case then safely in a compartment, and settled back into her seat to strap in. The young attendant gave her a friendly nod, then moved off to check on the other passengers.
Now if only my soul can shake the weariness and look forward. she thought ruefully. Why do I dread this assignment so? Because Pride is obviously a ship made for war? Or is it the new intimacies I’ll have to forge once I’m aboard? All I know now is that I’m tired beyond mere weariness of the body, so very, very tired, God. Give me strength to give these people the attention they deserve. And keep us safe out there, I beg you. This war is a thing that frightens and saddens me, but it is not something I can stop. The ones who could have done that made their decisions years ago. So the rest of us must live, or die, with the events those decisions have brought about.
She closed her eyes, settled more deeply into her couch, and awaited the long familiar pressure the braking and steering boosts would bring while attempting to clear her mind of the doubts that plagued her so unmercifully.
Disembarking from the long range shuttle was something that had become routine long ago, and Corazon made certain her ceremonial kimonos in their special bag were being handled with the proper care, while seeing to her precious guitar herself. The rest of her luggage was the kind of thing that could take a direct blast from high explosives and survive, so she didn’t worry about that.
There was a small group waiting at the dock as she halted in the entry tube from the shuttle. She could tell most of those gathered were ship’s brass, and the woman was likely the senior Care Giver aboard. Giving them a smile, she spoke in her mellow contralto. “Ship Mother Corazon Isabella Maria Gutierrez requesting permission to come aboard.”
A tall, rather thin man with his short cut hair graying at the temples but otherwise a brilliant red, with Captain’s insignia on his shoulders moved forward and bowed formally before returning her smile. “Permission granted, with pleasure, Ship Mother. Welcome to Pride of Eire.”
“Thank you.” She returned with a formal bow of her own, then stepped into the docking area of the ship that was to be her home for some time to come.
“I’m Liam Hendrikson.” The Captain informed her with another smile and a twinkle in his eyes that showed a wicked sense of humor lurking close to the surface, then turned to introduce his companions in order.
“Larson Chen, my second officer.” Chen was a short, bulky man who looked out of place in the company he was with, but his grin and nod of acknowledgement was warm, while he radiated the confidence of one who knows his business well.
“Bing Chavez, our Chief Engineer.” That man was lanky like his captain, but lacked the other’s height. His answering grin at the introduction was a flash of white teeth and crinkling at the corner of his eyes that showed he was used to laughing a lot.
“Ricardo Van Bloom, Chief Nav officer.” Van Bloom was an ebony skinned man who was every bit as tall as his captain, but had the bulk to make that size more deceptive. His nod was quick, as he appraised the newcomer with the thorough intensity of an academy instructor judging the strengths and weaknesses of a new student.
“Maria Lang, Chief Pilot.” The woman was going gray, but was still trim, and lovely in her graceful aging. The insignia of XX Flight was on the breast of her uniform, but she gave Corazon a friendly smile and nod of welcome in spite of working for the only real competition for providing female crew that Care Givers had in space.
“Finally, we have Mai Mitterand, your own second here.” Mai was a mix of Asian and European that had always been prized for their beauty and grace. She gave her new Ship Mother a welcoming, encouraging smile, and bowed formally in response.
“Welcome aboard, Ship Mother, it is an honor to meet you, as I’m sure serving with you will be.” The Young woman, with her glossy black hair done in the semi-formal braid most Care Givers preferred on shipboard, looked up with her strong, but lovely featured face almost glowing. “If you will allow it, I would be pleased to show you to your quarters and assist in getting you settled in.”
“The honor is mine, Mai - San. Any help I can get just now will be most gladly accepted. Thank you.” Corazon returned the formal greeting, then let out a little sigh while turning to give the rest of the small gathering a smile. “Thank all of you for the welcome and the honor you do me here.”
“It would have been an insult to the ship, and an unforgivable one to you for us to do less, Mother Corazon.” Hendrikson responded with a grin before his expression turned serious again. “It’s 0945 ship time now, and I have a briefing for all senior staff scheduled at 1300. Sorry to rush you, Ship Mother, but we’ve taken on a cargo of medical supplies and foodstuffs that Ceres colony needs very badly just now. Since the Pride is the fastest ship in this part of space presently, we got the job whether we wanted it or not.”
“I understand, Captain.” Corazon nodded then shrugged. “As always, the needs of the many supercede the desires of the few. I’ll be there.”
“I’ll look forward to seeing you then.” He answered then waved the gathering away. “All right, we’ve done what we came to do. Pride boosts in five hours, and we all have jobs to do now. Let’s get on with it.”
Corazon watched them disperse, heading in different directions, then looked to Mai, who shrugged and grinned. “That’s our Captain for you. Sees to the formalities when there’s time, and is a good man to serve under, but you’d better have your own duties seen to or else.”
“That’s why he’s Captain.” Corazon grinned back at her own second, who also wore the insignia of a Mother. “So I suppose I’d better get to my own duties, which at present are getting settled and getting to know my second here. Oh, call me Cora if you like. Everyone else does.”
“All right, Cora.” Mai smiled while leading her new boss through the rather cramped companionways. “You’re quarters aren’t exactly palatial, but for a ship like this, they’re very good. Not even the Captain has better.”
“Right now I’d settle for a 3x4 cubicle with a cot and desk for my reader.” Corazon chuckled while following the other. “Give me a place to sleep, and a place to read or study in some kind of quiet, and I’m generally very happy.”
“I hear you’ve served on a lot of ships.” Mai answered with an almost question. “Even some of the really early Ford models.”
“Oh yes.” Corazon nodded with a slow smile spreading across her face. “I’m a fossil for sure. Was in the first class of Care Givers who had taken The DeCorvin Process back in 2030.”
“I’m sorry, didn’t mean for it to sound like that.” Mai winced as she ran what she had just said back through her mind.
“Not a problem, dear.” Corazon actually let out a short, musical laugh. “I’m used to it. And yes, I’ve had accommodations that were considered good ones aboard ship that made a 3x4 cubicle seem like a luxury suite.”
“I can imagine.” Mai recovered her own composure with a wan smile. “I’ve seen the vids from the interiors of some of those ships. Not much room to burp, let alone move around in any kind of comfort.”
“That’s the truth.”
“Well, here we are.” Mai stopped in front of a closed door and touched a palm to the access plate. “Your things should be here already. If they aren’t, they’ll arrive soon.”
“Good, and thank you for getting me here.”
“No problem, Cora.” Mai gestured to another closed door across the companionway. “That’s your office, by the way.”
“Close to home, then, isn’t it?”
“Easy commute, they used to say.” Mai nodded with a chuckle.
“It is that.” Corazon agreed, and then glanced in the direction they had been travelling. “Officer’s country up there?”
“Yes, and the bridge just beyond that curve there.”
“Good. I’ll need the computer codes for room and system access.”
“They’re inside.” Mai assured her. “It’s only a basic set, you’ll probably want to put in your own once you get things to accept your input, though.”
“That will do fine.” Entering the cabin, she noted that it was spacious, and with more than enough room to pace comfortably. A bed instead of a bunk, a large desk, and shelving were the first things that came to her attention. “Oh, now this is better than I’ve had since Yotori Station.”
“Yotori Station.” Mai nodded half sadly at mention of the destroyed headquarters of Care Givers that had orbited Earth. “May I ask you a rather personal question here, Ship Mother?”
“No, I wasn’t there when the IPS took it.” Corazon answered softly. “I was aboard a long hauler out among Saturn’s moons when that happened.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to ask so baldly.”
“Yes you did.” Corazon chuckled as she flopped almost bonelessly on the bed. “But that’s all right. Most of us lost friends and loved ones in that mess. Rei Yotori got all the Care Giver’s off in time, but I understand it wasn’t a comfortable trip out here to Mars.”
“I’ve talked to some of girls who were aboard that one.” Mai nodded with a grimace. “If Heinlein hadn’t been in position to catch them, it would have been a lot longer trip than it was, too.”
“Yes, it was a combination of luck and skill that got them all here safely.” Corazon nodded. “But that’s how things tend to work out here in emergencies, isn’t it?”
“True enough.” Mai glanced at the chronometer mounted on the wall and let out a long sigh. “I have some admin stuff to get to here, so you won’t be inundated when you walk into your office. If you’ll excuse me now?”
“Of course, dear.” Waving at the door with a slight twisting of her mouth into a rueful grin, the newly arrived ship mother nodded. “I think I’m going to have my hands full, literally, anyway. Once I get going. New ship, new crew, we all have to take time getting to know one another, won’t we?”
“That’s a sure bet.” Mai cheerfully responded, then headed for the door. “If you need anything my comm number is on the desk and already in your comp. Just key in my name and it will reach me.”
“Thanks again. I need a good cleaning up, and some time to get some of this stuff stowed.”
“I cold get some of the girls to come help if you’d like.”
“Thanks, but there isn’t really all that much here.” Corazon gestured to the hard shelled cases neatly stacked in the center of the cabin. “The crates are actually most of the bulk there. I’ll see you later, then?”
“Yes, at the briefing.” Mai smiled and closed the door once she was out, leaving the other to stare at the luggage and sigh.
“No, not all that much for over seventy years of life. A shame when you stop to think about it.”
Smells of fresh welds and paint on bulkheads accompanied her on the short trip to the bridge. Crew bustled past and around her on errands that were common to any ship, but especially a new one like Pride of Eire.
A crewman saluted at her entrance. “Welcome aboard, Ma’am. If you’ll follow me, I’ll get you to the briefing room.”
“Thank you, Ericson.” She replied, getting the young man’s name from his uniform without appearing to read it. A skill acquired from long practice.
So young. She thought almost mournfully. All of them are so damned young and eager. How am I supposed to keep them going through what is coming? Do any of them at all have the slightest conception of what war really is? Or how it twists and breaks the young of every generation it touches?
Such thoughts were not for the present, she knew, as the crewman halted beside a hatchway, pressed the access, and saluted again. Truthfully, such things were not good to think about at any time, let alone when she was settling into a new berth on an equally new ship.
Yet they lingered insolently as she thanked the young man and entered the somewhat cramped cabin it opened into.
“Welcome, Ship Mother.” Captain Hendrikson arose from his seat, as did the others gathered there. She recognized most of them from the previous introductions in the docking bay. “Please take a seat and make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you, Captain.” She replied with a formal bow even though she was clad in the snug pink ship suit that was a Care Giver’s usual uniform. “Forgive me for my lateness, and improper attire for a first formal meeting, but I was made to understand this involves something of importance?”
“It does, Ship Mother, it does.” Hendrikson answered with a sober look on his long face. “No forgiveness needed from us, indeed, I hope you can forgive me for rushing you.”
“I already have, Captain.” Came her answer with a smile that was far warmer than she felt inside. “Besides, you are the Captain of this vessel, and even ship mothers obey those. Most of the time.”
“Just so, Ship Mother.” Hendrikson chuckled as did the others grouped around a small table. “Though that most of the time promises some interesting times ahead for us. I’ll look forward to them.”
“I’m sure you will, Sir. Now, all of you, please return to your seats. I’ve held things up long enough as it is.” Corazon agreed, beginning to think she liked this gangly fellow in spite of her reservations with the posting she had been given.
Hendrikson remained standing to hold the thinly padded chair that was meant for her, and assisted her getting seated with an almost antique gallantry that she found strangely charming in the hard, new surroundings she had found herself in.
“All right, let’s get started. We don’t have a lot of time left before boost.”
Mai gave her an encouraging smile and subtle hand gesture as the briefing began, and Corazon returned it.
“To begin things here.” Hendrikson nodded to Corazon with a smile. “I would like to formally introduce our Ship Mother, Corazon Isabella Maria Gutierrez. She brings over seventy years of experience in space to us, along with advanced degrees in a number of specialties. She is expert with Environmental systems, Power Plants and distribution through a closed system, and Computer and Information Systems. Needless to say, she is an engineer, not bridge crew.”
That brought more than a few chuckles from around the table and Corazon grinned as she put in. “And I have the grease under my fingernails to prove it, too.”
Hendrikson returned the grin with a glint of real humor in his gray eyes before they turned serious again. “I’m sure all of us will both appreciate and benefit from our Ship Mother’s sense of humor. But now there are other matters at hand.”
“Pride is a new ship, and from the test runs done following her initial launch, she’s the fastest thing in space for now.” The Captain needlessly informed the command crew of his ship. “But we also have a new crew. Many of us have worked together before, but slightly less than half our number are relatively green. I know we can make not only a good crew, but an exemplary one in time. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time necessary for letting that jell.”
The others only nodded at that, making Corazon wonder what had happened.
“Our little milk run inwards to Earth orbit and back to shake things into place isn’t going to happen.” Hendrikson went on. “For a number of reasons. First, Ceres colony has had the beginnings of a virulent flu epidemic, a particularly lethal strain of the stuff, and they are running out of the vaccines they need to handle it.”
“Second, the colony has missed receiving shipments in the past months, and has a critical shortage of foodstuffs and algae cultures that will become disastrous within several months if their present stocks and cultures aren’t bolstered with a new shipment. We’re a new ship with empty holds and containers, and the capacity to handle the amount of goods Ceres needs so badly. So we’ve been handed the contract to deliver it. Within six weeks.
The good news there is that Ceres will not only pay for the delivery at urgent rates, the colony will add a bonus of fifty million in gold for delivery on schedule. I don’t need to tell you what the shares on that would mean for any of us, do I?”
There was a round of nods at that. Fifty million in gold, even after the company took it’s 50 percent share, would make every crewman at least very well off once it was divided up and distributed.
“And lastly, those shipments weren’t missed because of poor handling.” the Captain put in with a heavy note to his vibrant tenor voice. “As you know, ships have not been making it to port -- at all -- recently. Now one or two could be chalked up to unfortunate accident, but not the number of ships that have gone silent and missing within the past year. Something is interdicting those shipments, and not leaving witnesses.”
That brought a murmur of agreement from the gathering, and Corazon felt a thrill of something very like fear when she heard him say that.
“All of you have heard the rumors of ship killers lurking in the belt, I know. I have.” Hendrikson told them with a grimness that showed the rumors were more than that. “Well, they aren’t rumors any longer. Apollo Freight brought in a ship of heretofore unknown type that had committed an unprovoked attack on one of their long range shuttles. The shuttle had a mining laser, and the crew was both very good and very lucky. They managed to kill the thing through some miracle and Mars Command now has possession of a ship that is obviously designed expressly to destroy other ships. With a U.N. registry and listed as a long range exploration vessel.”
That brought on a round of curses and looks of unsurprised anger.
“Worse.” The Captain went on. “There were fifteen of these things built in Earth orbit and none of them are presently accounted for except the one that Mars has under wraps now.”
“Commerce raiders.” The exec spat out like it burned his tongue. “Built a long time before things between Grounders and Spacers went to Hell.”
“Yes.” Hendrikson nodded. “But that isn’t the salient point here. There are still fourteen of those things on the loose, probably with support ships to keep them supplied, and they are working to interdict trade between Mars and the major colonies in the belt and outwards. Chances are good that they’re camping on the major trade routes waiting for the bigger haulers to come within their range. Which means we may run into one of them on the way out.”
“Shit.” Came from somewhere in the group.
“Yeah, that pretty well covers it.” Hendrikson agreed, gave them all a nasty grin. “But we have teeth and claws of our own, which should be a rather nasty surprise for them if they pick on us . We just need to be ready for when that confrontation is going to happen. So, in that vein, let’s have your individual status reports.”
Corazon closed her eyes and thought about things. She’d seen what appeared to be mass drivers mounted on the hull, and the clear domes that housed laser emplacements. No wonder Rei Yortori, CEO of Care Givers had posted someone with her experience on this ship. It was the single fighting ship the Spacers possessed at the time, apart from some pirates who acknowledged no authority but their own. But why her?
Haven’t I already given up, lost, enough? She thought in a flash of anger. Why was I chosen to watch children die in this undeclared war of fools? I have no comfort to give those who have watched friends and lovers gasp out the last of their lives on bloody decks. I have none of that left for myself.
“Mr. Ross?” The Captain questioned the Bos’n after the routine reports from the rest had been delivered.
“Weapons can go hot any time you need them, Sir.” The man, stocky, and round faced with his gray shot hair cut in a burr that showed his scalp, responded. “We have three TN’s aboard and secured as well.”
“Nukes?” Corazon spoke up at that. “Is that what you’re talking about here? Nuclear weapons aboard this ship?”
“Yes Ma’am.” The Bosun agreed uncomfortably at a quick nod from his Captain. “Low yield tactical nuclear weapons designed primarily to penetrate armor and deliver a crippling EMP to the target.”
“I see.” Corazon vented a soft sigh and let it go for the time being. It would serve no purpose to start an argument at this juncture. And would probably be detrimental to whatever influence she would have on these men and the other crewmen of Pride.
Nukes. She cringed inwardly. Once either side starts using those the other will retaliate in kind. I pray someone uses sense in this, but that is too much to ask given what seems to be happening already.
Also the memory of an older brother who had joined the military and been sent to a so-called brush-fire war somewhere in Africa returned to haunt her. Julian had never been the same once he returned from that and had continued having nightmares that he refused to talk about until Eduardo left to join Care givers and become Corazon. Doesn’t anyone understand there are no winners in a war? That someone only loses less?
Mai shot her a sympathetic, equally horrified glance, but said nothing.
There was nothing to say if things had reached the stage where ships were carrying weapons at all, let alone ones of that type. Nothing that would change things, anyway.
“All right people. Be ready for a lot of drills, otherwise, that’s all. ” Hendrikson gave a brisk nod. “We leave Mars orbit in one hour. Full boost in seventy-five minutes. Stations everyone.”
Corazon found herself in the unusual, and unfortunate, position of having nothing to do during the preparations for boost. It was certainly not the time for poking around or asking questions of anyone, she knew.
She busied herself with emptying the travel containers and getting her things stowed away or arranged as she wished them to be. The last of those were a few precious holos and photos. One frame held flat photos of what at first appeared to be a brother and sister. Actually, they were photographs of her before and after undergoing the DeCorvin process.
That girl looks so eager and happy. She thought while carefully setting the framed set within a recessed shelf. I still look like that, but the eyes are so tired now, so full of experience and time.
Ahh, Mama. she sighed internally while holding another framed photo, this one of a middle aged Hispanic woman who still retained the beauty of her youth, though there were the beginnings of gray streaking her long, midnight black hair. I miss you so much these days. What do you think, I wonder, of your little Duardo now? I hope you are proud, I’ve always done my best. Just as you always taught me.
Her old family photo, still glossy thanks to the plastex covering on it, was carefully put into place to one side of her mother’s photo, as the before and after of Corazon was on the other side, making the whole of that grouping. Staring almost absently at the family shot, she idly wondered how many of her siblings still lived. Along with what they had done with their lives since she had left them for the insistently beckoning heavens.
“Ah, Corazon, there is no profit in thoughts like that.” She chided herself gently. “You have children of your own now, fine daughters and a son making you very proud of them. That is the family that is important now, and the one you have here aboard this ship.”
Holos of those children, seven women every bit as lovely as their mother, and one strong featured man who now operated one of the largest and most successful mining companies in space, were almost reverently placed on another shelf. That cheered her some, thinking of those lives that had formed so close to her heart, and come into existence through her.
Ahhh, so many things to be proud of, you prideful old woman. She chuckled. So many accomplishments and the ones you treasure most are these eight lives you brought into existence and bullied, cajoled, and loved into becoming such worthwhile individuals. ’Duardo, you had not the least idea of what you were getting into when you applied to Care Givers, did you?
But you learned, through laughter, tears, and hard won experience.
“And now.” She told herself while activating the computer deck on her desk and working through the codes to access the files in the office she had not yet entered. “It is time to learn about the new children I must teach, and nurture here, along with the ones who will help me do it.”
By the time Pride of Eire boosted out of Mars orbit, she hardly noticed, she was so engrossed in the personnel files she had accessed.
Her first few days aboard were spent largely circulating among the crew and different sections of the Pride. Corazon had been aboard larger ships, but never one that was so new, or had so many technological advances incorporated into its design.
“Hello, mind if I watch for a while here?” She greeted and questioned the crew chief in the engine room while giving the massive Pratt & Whitney engines, at least the parts of them visible in the forward engineering section an appreciative looking over.
Bing Chavez glanced up from his desk, and the screen he had appeared to be nearly hypnotized by with a quick grin, then gave her a friendly wave. “Oh, hi Ship Mother. Admiring my babies are you?”
“Yes, they’re magnificent, Mr. Chavez.” She nodded, then noticed that work had nearly halted with her entrance. Shaking her head and giving the engineering personnel a wide smile, she introduced herself. “I’m Corazon, your new Ship Mother, please don‘t let me interrupt your duties. There will be time for more personal meetings another time, I promise you all.”
“A more softly couched ’Get your lazy butts back to work’ I’ve never had the privilege of hearing, Ship Mother.” Chavez chuckled as he moved to stand beside her while his ratings and officers returned to the jobs they had been doing. “Would you like the half Yen tour of engineering, Ma’am?”
“If I’m not taking you away from things you should be seeing to just now.” Corazon smiled then added. “My name is Cora, Mr. Chavez, please feel free to use it.”
“Well, just about everyone -- even these grease and power monkeys in here -- calls me Bing. And no, you aren‘t interrupting anything that can‘t wait for a while.” Chavez answered. “Well, come on then, Cora, and I’ll show you all the bells and whistles in this place. There are quite a few of those, actually. Be warned, and don’t hesitate to stop me if I get to spouting too much engineerese at you.”
“Oh I’d just throw it back to you.” Corazon laughed. “I speak that language very well.”
Lost in thought, and idly working the strings of her beloved, and ancient Martin through a soft, light melody and chord progression that was more an exercise of habit than real practice, Corazon mused at a more difficult exercise than mere guitar work.
They are all good people, the crew of this ship. she thought to herself with a small pang of guilt at her own reluctance to allow them any closer than the working relationships she had started making with those within her ranges of expertise. But so many of them are so damned young, like children to me in their energetic youth and unconscious verve for living. When, I wonder, did I lose that quality? And the capacity to enjoy it in others?
Still thoughtfully playing as her mind drifted to other memories, both happy and sad, she worried away at the most difficult problem she had ever been asked to deal with like a dog that has found a particularly annoying flea biting in a hard place to reach. Herself.
A soft chime indicated someone was outside her door and requesting entrance. With a long sigh, she keyed her intercom. “Come.”
Mai, wearing a concerned, but determined expression on her lovely Amer-Asian face entered, then stopped as her mouth formed a small O of wonder at the mellow, beautiful sounds filling the cabin. “My god, Cora, that’s a lovely instrument.”
“Thank you. It’s a Martin, made in 1969. It was my grandfather’s, he had it from his grandfather. My family has cared for this guitar like one of their children. I am no exception to that, either. We call her Imelda, my great, great, great grandmother‘s name.” Corazon gave a soft smile as she went through the guitar’s lineage, then held it out. “Would you like to take her for a spin?”
“Oh, I couldn’t.” Mai protested.
“Of course you can.” Corazon answered, gently pressing the ancient instrument into her visitor’s hands. “Guitars are made to be caressed, stroked, and loved, like a good woman, my Grandfather used to say. Most importantly, they are made to be shared. Go ahead.”
Mai held the warm, polished instrument almost reverently, then seated herself and carefully settled it in her lap before experimentally strumming a few chords. They didn’t sound nearly as beautiful as what Corazon had been getting out of the guitar when she had entered.
“Imelda is old, Mai, not decrepit.” Corazon laughed. “Make her sing, she’ll respond to someone who knows how to do that.”
The other woman nodded, letting herself simply play, and was soon lost in the bright, lively melody she pulled from the Martin.
“She sings very well, no?” Corazon questioned with a shine in her eyes while dropping back into the idiom of her youth.
“She is Magnificent!” Mai enthusiastically agreed while carefully handing the guitar back to Corazon. “I’ve never played a finer one in my life.”
“Imelda likes you, too.” The older woman grinned. “Otherwise you would not have been able to coax such lovely notes from her on your first time.”
“Thank you for letting me play her.”
“It was good for both of us, dear.” Corazon smiled, then sobered. “It has been awhile since such a happy sound came from that guitar. Hearing it again was very, very good. Thank you.”
“You could do even better, I’m sure.” Mai answered with a small hesitation in her voice. “I - I don’t want to pry, Ship Mother, but are you having a problem here? With us aboard Pride? You don’t have to answer, I know I’m being presumptious in asking, but you’ve been distant and cool since you arrived except for when you work with the crew. Do you not like us?”
“Ahhh, Mai, it is no such thing.” Cora answered slowly as she considered the problem yet again. “I am very old, you know. I knew Mary Yotori personally, and played with her daughter Rei, who now owns and operates the company we work for, before the child was out of primary school. I have known so many people in my life, loved so much, and lost enough to have become cautious, I fear.”
“There is no need for that, Mother.” Mai let out a long, unhappy sigh. “We would love you for the capacity to love that I know is in you. But you have to let us do that, you know.”
“I know, I know.” Corazon nodded while carefully putting her guitar back in its case, then looked up at the younger woman with a small, rueful smile on her lips that slowly spread to her eyes as she tapped first her head then her chest. “In here, but my heart refuses to believe that just yet. I have loved so many; nurtured them, held them when they were in pain, hugged them when they were happy, and said goodbye to all of them. It is -- difficult to make new connections with people after a time, something I hope you live long enough to understand but never find out.”
“All right, I can understand a time for adjustments to new people and surroundings, Mother.” Mai tilted her head and offered a smile to her new boss. “Just please remember that there are people here well worth knowing, and who would love to know you. Don’t miss out on something special that might come along simply because you don’t feel ready to make that effort.”
“I think I’ve already started that effort, if I may be bold enough to say that.” Corazon gave her subordinate a serious look. “I just need to take small steps to get there at first right now.”
“Small steps reach a destination, too.” Mai agreed while rising from her chair and bowing formally. “I am glad that I initiated the first one you have taken here, Mother. Please don’t wait too long to take the next one, for your own good in addition to the ship’s?”
Corazon stared at the door, not really seeing it, while allowing thoughts and emotions to settle into a clearer pattern following her subordinate’s visit.
The young ones. She smiled to herself at the idea. Are not necessarily lacking in wisdom, are they? Especially not that one.
There were 67 Care Givers aboard Pride of Eire, the 5:1 ratio was somewhat better than the 6:1the company insisted on as a minimum for contracts, but Pride was an important ship to the spacers and her builders could afford to pay extra to get the smaller ratio. With that number of Care Givers aboard it would be impossible to meet with each one individually for some time, she knew while wishing that were otherwise, but it was important for them to meet her.
So they gathered in the combination mess hall/recreation area in answer to her invitation -- or summons, depending upon how one looked at things while Corazon waited with the appearance of a serenity she hadn’t truly known in years. Arranging the folds of her best, and favorite formal Kimono, shimmering golden silk with intricate floral patterns in contrasting silver, she watched as ‘her’ girls entered, and got their first real look at their new ship mother in her official capacity.
At a nod from Mai that signified all were present, Corazon gracefully arose from the chair she had been seated in, offered a warm smile to the hall in general, and pitched her voice to carry throughout the place. “My greetings to all of you. It is my honor to have been posted to this ship and
with you in these uncertain times. I am Corazon Isabella Maria Gutierrez, but prefer shortening that to Cora in conversation. My own qualifications are open for all to see, which I am certain the majority of you have already taken at least some peeks at.”
That, along with her knowing, rueful expression brought a few chuckles and giggles from the group and she nodded. “To start, thank you all for coming, I know I have interrupted free time, and some duty time for this so will make it brief. Read my file, I am notorious for hating long winded speeches and meetings that go in useless circles.”
There actually were a few private reprimands in that file for her bringing that to someone else’s attention during such meetings, and she knew most of those gathered had already read all they could find about her. As she had with them. “I have introduced myself formally, which was necessary, but won’t delay you much more. I am smart enough not to tinker with a system that works, and all of you appear to have worked one out that does. So I will simply tell you that I will get to individual meetings in time, and that my door is always -- well almost always -- open.”
That last was accompanied with a shrug, a lift of one eyebrow and a subtle hand gesture that drew understanding laughs from the gathering.
“I will tell you now that I do not deal kindly with deliberate violations of what our charter says we are here to do. Other than that, I tend to be reasonably laissez faire when it comes to my own command role, though I do take my responsibilities very seriously. As should we all.”
“Well this is a busy time and I have kept all of you from your normal activities long enough for a first time.” She smiled, gave them a deep, formal bow, and finished. “It is a true honor to be among you. please return to what I interrupted now, ladies.”
Those who were on duty stations left while others milled around for awhile, talking and many approached Corazon to offer their own personal greetings before taking leave of the mess hall.
“Overall I don’t think that went too badly.” Corazon told Mai once the gathering had dispersed.
“No, actually it went very well.” The younger woman agreed. “They got a look at you, you got a look at them, and neither side of it appeared to be uncomfortable with the other.”
“But?” Corazon questioned with a small grin. “I know there is one of those in there from your tone of voice.”
“You’re as bad as my mother.” Mai chuckled.
“I am a mother, Mai. Now out with it, please.” Corazon widened her grin into a real smile then gave the other an expectant look.
“Well, I think most of us actually expected a more social type of gathering here, is all.” Mai shrugged. “You kept it too short for that to really get going, you know.”
“And socializing is an important part of being a Care Giver, I know, dear.”
Corazon nodded. “This is a new ship, with a new crew, and that will be very important in the coming weeks, I realize that. But just now it isn’t a good time to keep anyone from their duties for any longer than absolutely necessary, or from much needed rest. I will organize a social meeting for us, and the rest of the crew in the very near future, I promise. This was simply to let all of you know that I’m not hiding in my cabin or office with the intent of remaining there through the entire voyage.”
“All right, Ship Mother.” Mai nodded with a slow smile. “I’ll hold you to that promise, though. I can’t wait to actually hear you perform with that beautiful guitar.”
“Well, I can show you a bit of that in an hour or so.” Gesturing at her kimono with a chuckle Corazon added. “This comes off very quickly, but getting it properly hung and stored is a rather involved operation, as I’m sure you know.”
“Oh I do, I do.” Mai grimaced, then laughed. “Okay, I’ll call you in an hour to see if you’ve finished wrestling that lovely thing back into it’s proper storage mode, or if you’ve given up and want help with it.”
“Look at it this way, dear.” Corazon gave an evil little laugh then winked. “At least I’m not asking you to take care of that for me. Yet.”
“I get the hint, Cora.” Mai raised her hands in mock defense at that. “See you in an hour, then.”
Another good one, Mary, my old friend. Corazon thought as she watched Mai leave the room with a little hurry in her step, but not enough to show that she was actually trying to get away from her Ship Mother’s presence.
You must be so proud of them all, I am.
It actually took no more than ten minutes to get the kimono arranged on its special hanger and back in the storage area designed to hold things like that. The rest of the time, Pride’s Ship Mother worked her way through more personnel files then pulled up some music files she had always loved. When Mai entered her cabin she was playing along with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ballad of Curtis Loew.
Mai seated herself at the other’s nod and listened as Corazon’s fingers brought forth the rich bluesy lead patterns and chords of the old song.
Once she’d finished, the younger Care Giver clapped her hands and smiled. “You’re very good, you know, but do you ever play anything but sad songs?”
“Sad?” Corazon laughed, then shook her head. “The Ballad of Curtis Loew is anything but sad. It is a remembrance, a celebration of a man who spent his entire life doing what he loved most. From the perspective of a child he shared it with.”
“But the child bought that with the wine, didn’t he?”
“Sharing is not a one sided affair, Mai. Neither begrudged the other what was given, and appreciated what was received very much.”
“But no one else knew the man was so good.” Mai countered. “That’s sad, and he died with most people thinking of him as useless.”
“He knew, and so did the child.” Corazon put in. “So he was remembered along with what he did. That is not sad. Being forgotten would have been, but the child gave him a sort of immortality with the memories and telling of them in the song.”
“I suppose that could be true.”
“It is for the purposes of this discussion.” Corazon answered with a grin.
“Pulling rank on me here, are you?”
“Damned right I am.”
“My God, you are my Mother, in disguise and here to torment me even more.”
“Someone has to keep you young ones in line, and don’t disparage your Mother. It isn’t nice.”
“I surrender, I surrender!” Mai laughed back.
“Good sense prevails at last.” Corazon smiled. “I see that you brought your own guitar with you, by the way.”
“Of course I did. You said you’d show me a few things to do with it, didn’t you?”
“Why yes I did. Shall we get started then? I believe I have the next hour free.”
“Why do I think you had this planned all along?”
“Because you’re a bright young lady.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment and leave it at that.”
“It was. Now get that instrument out of it’s case and show me what you can do with it.”
Lt. Commander Stefan Ling read the printout his communications officer had just handed him and nodded, turning to his bridge crew with a grin. “We have another target.”
“What you got, Skipper?” His exec asked while watching the ongoing fueling from the gas hauler they had just taken and avoiding a close look at the floating debris near them.
“New freight hauler, Pride of Eire, left Mars orbit carrying pharmaceuticals, algae cultures, nano packs, and foodstuffs. Good haul for us and it would save another stop at the George Washington to resupply for a while.”
Mention of missing a stop at the Tender ship with its pseudo-women and other entertainments brought out a few groans, but those were short lived. Every kill their ship made meant more bonus money, and a longer stay on Earth when their tour was over with and each man of the crew knew that very well.
“Here’s her course.” He handed a small disk to the nav officer. “Plot us an intercept about a week out of Ceres.”
“Aye, sir.” The nav officer answered, inserting the disk into his comp and beginning to run the numbers. “Have it for you in about five minutes.”
Fifteen minutes later, the ISP Corvette Widow Maker left the ravaged hulk of an independent gas hauler she had destroyed, then looted, and turned her lean, bristling black shape towards another part of the Belt and another victim. She left no witnesses behind.
“Able Bodied Spacer Henry Livingston reporting as ordered Ma’am.” Corazon’s door speaker carried the young man’s voice and his nervousness through its circuits and speaker system quite well.
“Come.” She answered with a small internal sigh. Things like this were always coming up, and had to be taken care of, but she always hated laying down the law, so to speak, to the men she was charged with caring for aboard ship.
She glanced at the complaint again, then looked up from her desk as her office door opened and Livingstone entered. The man was young, around twenty or so, she judged, and was obviously very frightened at having been pulled from his own activities to see the Ship Mother. Perspiration was evident in his dark, short cut hair, and its sheen was on his face as well.
“ABS Livingstone.” She began with a smile meant to put him at ease. “I understand that your crewmates call you Hank, do you mind if I do that, too? This is an informal meeting after all.”
“Not at all, Ship Mother.” The man replied, still nervous in her presence, not so much because of her presence, or rank, but because he knew what this was about.
“Fine, Hank.” She tapped the file lightly, then waved to a chair on the other side of her desk. “Sit down. Can I get you something to drink before we start?”
“No, thank you Ma’am.” He replied, but taking the offered chair gingerly, as if he expected it to shock or grab him with some sort of restraints.
“You know why I called you in here, don’t you?”
“Want to tell me things from your side of it, then?”
“Will it make a difference, Ma’am?” He let out a long sigh as if the whole thing was a chore he really didn’t want to do at all.
“It could.” Corazon answered, then dropped her smile. “If you knock it off with the attitude here. I don’t have the time to waste on idiots, Hank, if you’re one of those, I’ll simply pass this complaint on to the Captain and let him handle it. I’d rather not if we can reach some kind of understanding. Clear?”
“Yes, Ma’am, sorry.” He looked up from staring at his lap and shrugged. “I just love her. Margie, I mean. I can’t really say anything else about it. Seeing her with other guys just drives me nuts.”
“I see.” Corazon rose from her chair and moved from behind her desk to stand beside the young man. “How old are you, Hank, and how many berths have you worked so far?”
“I’m twenty-two, Ma’am, and this is my first real berth since training runs at the Academy.”
“All right, now tell me what you know about Care Givers, please. Take your time, get it all told here.”
“You’re here to be companions for us, help-mates, ship mates in a lot of things, and to just generally ease things for the men working in space.”
“Ahh. You are aware that part of our jobs is sharing with more than one man at a time, aren’t you? That a Care Giver isn’t expected, or even allowed, to be exclusive to one man? That doing so is a violation of her contract with the company and could end up with her penalized a substantial sum of money on top of losing her job?”
“Margie explained that to me, Ma’am.” The boy nodded, then shook his head. “I understand it intellectually, but my gut just doesn’t agree here. I love her, and she returns that. Why can’t she be exclusive?”
“Could you afford to buy out her contract, Hank? It runs for five years and she makes something a little better than twice your pay rate, plus her contract has just started with this run. Buying her contract out would be about the only way you could lay any claim of exclusivity with her that would have a chance of sticking.”
“Uh, no way I could come up with that.” He answered with an angry look. “And she’s no Whore to be bought and sold!”
“No, she isn’t.” Corazon smiled gently while seating herself in a chair beside the young man. “She is a Care Giver, though and that’s a job, Hank, even if she does come to love some of her companions. How would you react if someone interfered with you performing your duties? Especially if that lack of performance would not only get you dismissed, but heavily fined?”
“I’d be upset, and probably get in a fight over it.”
“Good answer.” Corazon chuckled. “Now Margie could knock you on your ass and sit on you, she has the training to do that, but won’t. Unless you keep interfering in her relations with other crewmen. She doesn’t want to do that, and was even hesitant to file this complaint with me, but knew she had to do that much. Margie doesn’t want to see you hurt, Hank. But she also can’t afford the interference you’re causing with her duties here.”
“So now what?” He questioned.
“So now I can either order her to avoid you, or pass this along to the captain, or…” Smiling, she gave him a soft pat on the shoulder. “Convince you that there are other women out here too who are worthy of that love. I’d really hate to see you with something like harassing a Care Giver on your record, Hank. We need to do something to prevent that one way or another here, don’t you think?”
“How do we do that?”
“Have you been with any other of the girls aboard?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, that says something for you if you’re willing to be monogamous while demanding that a woman be so for you.” Corazon chuckled. “All right, come with me. I’m going to show you a few things that I’m sure Margie, good as she is, hasn’t learned as of yet.”
“Do you mean… Sleep with you?” He almost looked outraged by the thought.
“Only if you’re one of those guys who shoots and turns over right away.” She laughed while pulling him carefully to his feet. “Now come on. Mama Corazon is going to show you a few things that I think you’ll really enjoy.”
“Bu -- but this isn’t right.” He started to protest.
“In space.” Corazon placed a light finger to his lips to stop the protest. “Monogamy is not practical or healthy. I’m going to show you that it’s better to have variety, anyway. Coming?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“You always have a choice, dear one.” Corazon laughed as she led him across the companionway to her cabin door. “But trust me, this one is going to much more fun than doing detention or getting dressed down by the Captain.”
She pulled him into her cabin, then pressed the ’Do not disturb’ tab beside the door.
There was a pretty good sized gathering in the mess hall area, though the evening meal was over an hour gone. Most of the people were simply socializing, playing one form of game or another, or hanging around just to be somewhere with other people.
Corazon gave those she passed a smile while carrying her guitar case towards the slightly raised area in the forward section of the mess hall that was used for a stage when one was needed, pulled an unoccupied chair up with her as she stepped onto it, and began getting the ancient Martin out and tuning it.
People were stopping their own activities to watch these preparations and she gave them a brilliant smile while continuing to get her instrument tuned properly. “Please go on with what you were doing everyone. I just thought a little background music might be nice this evening, and Imelda here was getting tired of only being played in my cabin.”
Some few did as she had advised, but most kept watching with a halfway expectant air. Shaking her head, she nodded to the gathering. “All right then, since I seem to have attracted all this attention I’ll introduce myself informally to all of you. I’m your Ship Mother Corazon Isabella Maria Gutierrez, but usually go by Cora. I’m very pleased to see all of you, and hope my small contribution to the evening will be appreciated. This song is and old one by a late twentieth and early twenty-first century musical group named Lynyrd Skynyrd. It‘s called The Ballad of Curtis Loew.”
With that, she began with a few wavering, bluesy notes, that slowly swelled into the music for the song she had chosen to play that evening.
As the guitar’s sound filled the area, her rich contralto voice joined in.
Well I used to wake the morning before the rooster crowed
Searching for soda bottles to get myself some dough
Brought 'em down to the corner, down to the country store
Cash 'em in and give my money to a man named Curtis Loew
Old Curt was a black man with white curly hair
When he had a fifth of wine he did not have a care
He used to own an old dobro, used to play it across his knee
I'd give old Curt my money, he'd play all day for me
Play me a song Curtis Loew, Curtis Loew
I got your drinking money, tune up your dobro
People said it was useless, them people are the fools
'Cause Curtis Loew was the finest picker to ever play the blues
He looked to be sixty, and maybe I was ten
Mama used to whip me but I'd go see him again
I'd clap my hands, stomp my feet, try to stay in time
He'd play me a song or two
Then he'd take another drink of wine
On the day old Curtis died, nobody came to pray
Ol' preacher said some words, and they chunked him in the clay
But he lived a lifetime playin' the black man's blues
And on the day he lost his life, that's all he had to lose
Play me a song Curtis Loew, Hey Curtis Loew
I wish that you was here so everyone would know
People said he was useless, them people all are fools
'Cause Curtis Loew you're the finest picker to ever play the blues
She finished the song with the lead notes and a small flourish with her eyes closed and a soft smile on her face. When she opened them it was to see everyone in the mess hall raptly watching. The silence was unnerving.
Then the applause began.
Someone joined her on the stage, and she turned to see a smiling Mai with her own instrument out, and several other girls with theirs as well. “We don’t want to steal your show, but how about some accompaniment with the next one?”
Noting that one girl was getting a standing bass out of a case nearly as tall as she was, and another was setting up a small set of drums, while the last was putting a keyboard up, she nodded with a grin. “Why not? We may as well have some fun here.”
Once the setting up and obligatory tuning was finished, Corazon looked at the others, grinned a wicked ’follow me’ kind of smirk and launched into Sweet Home Alabama.
Requests started trickling in, asked for hesitantly at first, then with more confidence as the musicians managed to handle each one without seeming to mind at all. Tables were folded into their recesses, and some couples began to dance. The warmth, and happiness in the room enfolded everyone, including Corazon.
Ahh, to hear the sweet joyful sounds Imelda is capable of again. She thought happily as she played, and sang for the gathering. I had feared that I would never be able to get them to come back. I’m so glad I was wrong.
Just as the warmth of the gathering reached her, the music reached out to the others. Letting out a laugh of sheer joy, she felt the beginnings of the connection with those others that she had feared would never happen finally forming. Ohhh, this feels wonderful, to be happy again, to make others feel that too. How could I have ever forgotten this feeling? Or avoided it like I was trying to do?
She was not all that surprised to find that hours had passed by the time they stopped.
Mai hugged her almost fiercely once the instruments had been put away. “It was so good to see you laugh like that, Cora.”
“In the simple joy of doing something for only its own sake.” The younger woman answered. “You are so much more beautiful when you’re happy, do you know that?”
“All women are that way, dear.” Corazon returned the hug. “But it did feel really, really good tonight. I hadn’t done anything like this for too long.”
“Then I am honored to have been a part of your reawakening, Mother.”
“The honor, in this case, I think.” Corazon replied thoughtfully. “Is that one so wise for her years chose to do this thing for me. I had meant to play one or two songs, make sure all present knew who I was, then leave. I’m glad I didn’t now, though I’m sure to be sleepy tomorrow.”
“What’s a little sleep lost compared to finding something precious again?” Mai questioned with that unsettling wisdom she was always showing.
“Nothing, dear.” Corazon chuckled. “Nothing at all. Thank you.”
Turning to the others, who were still gathered around on the stage, she bowed. “Thank you all, from an old woman who had forgotten a few very important things. You helped me remember.”
“Ahh, you aren’t old, Mother Corazon.” The small one, Sheila, who had played the standup bass countered. “”You wouldn’t be that hard to keep up with if you were.”
Over the next few days, she simply circulated when her duties allowed that, and worked at making the more personal connections a working Ship Mother needed to do her job properly.
Three days following the rather gratifyingly popular concert, her office door was buzzed and Captain Hendrikson’s voice came over through the pickup. “Would you have a few minutes to spare, Ship Mother?”
“Of course, Captain.” Corazon answered. “Come in.”
Once Hendrikson had settled his lean, lanky form into a seat and appeared comfortable, he gave her a quick grin. “I always like to check and see how my section heads are doing off and on in their own bailiwicks. Gives me a better feel for how things actually are running.”
“A good policy, Captain.” She nodded, beginning to respect this man and his command abilities even more. “May I offer you some refreshment while we talk?”
“Coffee if you’ve got it, would be good just now.”
“Well, given the number of crewmen usually coming through an office like mine I’d better have some on hand, even if I didn’t drink it myself.” She chuckled while rising to open a sliding panel behind her desk that revealed a coffee maker, a small fridge, and an elaborate tea set. “I do, however, make use of it quite frequently, so not only do I have it available, it’s ready.”
“Ahh.” He nodded with another quick grin as she poured mugs of the steaming brew for him and herself, then passed one to him. After a cautious sip, he widened his eyes, gave an appreciative smile, and took a longer, but still slow drink. “This is not from the galley stores, is it?”
“No, it’s from my personal stuff.” Cora smiled. “Blue Jamaican exported from Earth. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to get it though, with the way things are going politically now.”
“Well, there are still Pro-Spacer and Free Trade factions alive and well down there.” Hendrikson answered quietly. “Japan, Brazil, and South Africa pulled out of the UN and haven’t been talked, cajoled, or bullied into rejoining since the Protection of Women Act was passed worldwide.”
“Yes, I know.” Corazon let out a sigh. “It seems that business will go on, even in a war, doesn’t it?”
“Always does, Ship Mother.” Hendrikson nodded then shrugged. “If not officially, then through other channels. Nothing to be done about either thing at this stage, I’m afraid.”
“So am I, Captain, afraid, I mean.” Cora nodded then brightened. “And my name is Corazon, Cora for short, Sir.”
“All right, Cora.” Hendrikson agreed. “You may as well call me Liam when we’re in private, too. I think you and I are going to be working very closely during this voyage.”
“I would imagine so, with a new crew and ship there would be a lot of details needing smoothed out and firmed up with everyone, wouldn’t there?”
“Yes there would, one of which I’d come to discuss with you in particular, though things that have gone on recently make that less of a worry for me now.”
“Well, at first it appeared as if you having trouble adjusting to being with us here, and that you were purposefully keeping your distance from just about everyone aboard. I was getting more than a little concerned over that, Cora. We both know a Ship Mother needs to be more ’hands on’ in her duties and you just weren’t managing to get that part done in my opinion.”
“I have to agree with you on that point, Sir. Liam.” Corazon quietly responded. “I was having some difficulties when I came aboard. None of them your, or anyone’s here fault. I’m afraid I carried them with me when I came.”
“I know, I read your file.” Hendrikson nodded. “You lost a husband just before coming here, didn’t’ you? Forgive my bluntness there, but it is something that could, and was, coloring your entire outlook aboard Pride.”
“Yes, Samuel Xiang, the father of my son, Geraldo.” Corazon’s expression turned mournful for a few moments as she recalled the man. “He was CEO of Outer Planets Mining and Gas. They had developed a new type of gas scoop making use of charged ions to draw the gas in. It was supposed to be a real advantage over just skimming the giants. The system was planned to take in more gas, faster, thereby making the whole thing more efficient and profitable. It was fitted to one of Apollo Freight’s gas haulers in a partnership sort of deal. Sam was aboard that ship to make certain his system did work properly. The ship’s name was Halcyon.”
“Yeah, I know.” Hendrikson nodded soberly. “I’m sorry, but had to wonder why you were posted here so soon after that happened?”
“My posting here had been confirmed long before the Halcyon and Glory Road incident, Liam.” She gave a small shrug and a wan smile. “I loved Sam, but we had not seen much of each other for a long time. My other husbands and son were there to handle the details, and I did get to the memorial service. At least I know what became of him, unlike so many others who have lost loved ones out here. It seemed rather pointless to just sit and stew over something that was done, and Rei Yotori was nearly adamant about my taking this particular posting even after that.”
“Why was that?”
“My experience and areas of expertise in the tech fields.” She answered. “We all knew that Pride of Eire was a very special, a very different type of ship from any built by spacers before.”
“Then you know what Pride really is.” It was a statement more than a question.
“How could I not?” Corazon answered softly. “Pride of Eire is bait, a warship very thinly disguised as a trader. Anyone with eyes, and a little time to look could tell that much, given all the armaments that were visible on her hull when I first saw her.”
“They really aren’t that obvious.” Hendrikson countered. “To a trained eye, yes the signs are there, and the ones we hunt are trained, but they’re also used to hitting defenseless victims. We’re going to be a nasty surprise for some of them. Is that why you came, for revenge?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Captain.” Corazon actually appeared shocked at that concept. “War of any kind is often cruelest to those left behind to wonder. The men aboard those UN ships may not deserve mercy or any other such considerations from us, but they do have families back on Earth, I know it. No, Captain, revenge is not my motive for being here at all. That would leave a very bad taste in my mouth, one I would never get rid of, I think.”
“Then why are you here?”
“To keep your crew, and you, sane once the fighting does start.” She answered with a shudder. “You didn’t see the crew of the shuttle that killed the UN ship Halcyon ran into. I did. Those three were in near shock, and clearly required a lot of tender loving care, and counseling after what they had to do. I only hope they’re getting it.”
“I see. Will you be up that?”
“Is anyone ever up to something like that, Captain?” Corazon shook her head and let out a long sigh. “I honestly don’t have an answer to that one. Anyone who did would be lying to you. All I know is I will do my best, and that best is considerable with the experiences I have behind me. I’m afraid that will have to do for now on that subject.”
“It’s good enough for me, Cora.” Hendrikson smiled as he shook his head. “Fred Hastings told me you were a very remarkable woman. I took his word on it, but now I’m beginning to believe it myself. By the way, I wanted to let you know that I really appreciated the way you handled that problem with Livingstone a few days ago.”
“He’s not much more than a boy, really.” Cora smiled a bit. “Who is still fighting the concepts an upbringing on Earth instilled in him. He is learning. I’ve made him one of my regulars just to help that along some.”
“Good, I didn’t want to put a reprimand like that on his record, he’s really a good kid.”
“I know that.” Cora nodded. “Otherwise I would have sent him straight to you instead of working to untangle all those misconceptions he was carrying around with him.”
“Good for you, Ship Mother.” Hendrikson chuckled. “I see that you are finally getting yourself settled in, then. That’s good to know.”
“My mother was a wonderful cook, Liam.” Corazon told him, holding up a hand to forestall the question he was about to raise. “She always told me that it takes a little time for a truly fine pudding or sauce to become what it was meant to be. I’ve learned through the years that she was talking about more than simply working in the kitchen.”
“I see.” Understanding showed in his eyes. “Are you as good a cook as your mother was?”
“Maybe.” She chuckled. “Why don’t you be the judge of that later on?”
“Oh, I’m sure you are, Cora.”
“I really can cook as well, you know. It’s one of the prerequisites in Care Giver training after all.”
“Is that an invitation?”
“Of course it is, Captain.” she laughed, then gave him a questioning look. “Have you ever had Fideo?”
“Can’t say that I have. Isn’t it something like spaghetti?”
“Pfft! It has pasta, thin pasta, and sauce.” Corazon waved as she grinned. “But no Italian has ever done the combination justice as Fideo can.”
“Then I’ll look forward to making the comparison for myself, Cora.”
“Good. Would tomorrow evening be a good time?”
“I can make it a good time. I’m the Captain, after all.”
“So you are, so you are.” Corazon agreed. “Then make it around 1700 hours? That will give me time to get everything ready to serve. In my cabin if that isn’t too uncomfortable for you?”
“That will be fine, Cora.”
“I’ll expect you then.” She smiled. “Bring your appetite and some bicarbonate, I use a lot of spices.”
“I consider myself duly warned, Ma’am.” Hendrikson nodded. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“So will I, Liam.”
“Hello.” Corazon smiled as the cooks turned to look at her as she entered the immaculate galley. “Might I trouble you gentlemen for a small corner to work in for a while?”
“No trouble at all, Ship Mother.” A slight, short man with thinning blond hair hidden under a chef’s cap answered while gesturing to an unused part of the galley. “I’m Herman Brock, Chief Cook here, and this is my assistant Kelly Jones.”
The other man, larger than his boss, though Corazon thought she might be larger than that one, with thick dark hair and a beard that refused to stay shaven nodded with a grin that could be infectious given the chance. “Hiya.”
“The rest of my crew won’t be in for another hour or so.” Brock told her while Jones looked over the ingredients she had brought along. “And we have the next meal pretty well ready to go, it just needs to be cooked, heated, and or mixed. So Have at it. I hope you don’t mind if we kind of kibbitz while you do, though.”
“Ahh, not at all, Mr. Brock.” Cora chuckled. “One cook will always want to see what another is doing. Especially when it’s in their kitchen. Feel free, and ask any questions you like, though I really doubt I could improve on the things you do already. I rarely see leftovers in the mess hall after mealtimes.”
“Thank you, Ship Mother.” Brock nodded and beamed. “My name is Herman, by the way.”
“All right.” Corazon smiled back. “I’m Cora, and it ’s good to meet you both.”
“Call me Kelly.” Jones told her then asked. “What are you going to make here?”
“Fideo.” Corazon answered while getting her spices, chilies, and powders arranged.
“Had it before.” Kelly nodded. “It’s good.”
“Heard of it.” Herman nodded. “Mexican spaghetti, right?”
“Yes.” Corazon nodded while starting to brown chicken breasts in a skillet she had poured a film of oil into while they talked. “But if all you’ve had is the Italian kind, you’re really missing something. Italians never made spaghetti like this, I promise you.”
“Well, I guess we’ll at least see how it’s done here, won’t we?” Herman smiled as she removed the browned chicken breasts from the skillet and added more oil.
“If you two are good.” Cora grinned back while putting the thin strings of pasta in the oil to brown. “I might even let you each try some when it’s ready.”
After draining the excess oil from the skillet, she diced tomato, the chicken, onion and peppers, then added cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper, and the cubed chicken. Stirring that mixture, she added water and covered the skillet.
“Smells wonderful already.” Herman sniffed the air with obvious appreciation.
“It will be about ten minutes before it’s ready.” Corazon chuckled while giving the pair a quick look. “Be patient.”
“We can wait.” Kelly nodded but was obviously getting very interested in what was in the covered skillet. “Would you have a recipe for that, by any chance?”
“Yes, I would.” Cora answered.
“Well what?” She answered innocently.
“Could we maybe, you know, persuade you to share it?” Herman put in before Kelly was able to say anything else.
“If you still want it after tasting, yes.” The woman chuckled. “I warn you, it is quite spicy, but if you still wish to have the recipe after that, of course, I would be happy to share it with you.”
While the mix was simmering, she put a stack of tortillas into a warmer. “You’ll probably want one of these to go with it, by the way. The tortilla will help soak up the spices on your tongues.”
“Oh, bread would work fine for that.” Kelly answered, while reaching into a cupboard to get a loaf out.
“Not with my Fideo it won’t.” Cora laughed, reaching a hand to stop him. Humor me and use the tortillas, I‘m a traditionalist with my meals you know.”
Making sure there was enough water remaining in the skillet, she set the cover back on with a grin. “Almost ready now.”
After giving each of them a bowl filled with the Fideo topped with grated cheddar cheese, and a couple of tortillas, she placed the rest into warmers, and set those on a small cart. “Thank you for the use of your galley, gentlemen.”
“Ship Mother, Cora,” Herman answered after swallowing. “You’re welcome in this galley anytime at all.”
“Yes you are.” Kelly agreed as Corazon began cleaning up the little mess she had left behind. “You can leave that, we’ll get it.”
“Thanks, but no you won’t” She answered firmly. “One never leaves a kitchen in a mess after cooking. Especially not someone else’s kitchen.”
Both men knew better than to argue with someone using that tone of voice.
Once she had cleaned up after herself, leaving the galley as immaculate as she had found it, she gave the two a cheerful wave and rolled the cart out, heading for her own quarters and the preparations she needed to make there.
After showering, and dressing in her best formal Kimono, she carefully set two places on the small foldout table provided in her cabin, and positioned chairs at each place setting. Then she put on coffee, and made sure her small fridge was stocked with a variety of drinks. The Fideo was filling the cabin with wonderful smells, and she removed the frozen desert she had made the day before from the cold storage compartment and set it out to begin thawing. It only needed to be partially thawed, since the thin wafers coated in cinnamon and brown sugar layered between custard was best served nearly frozen.
Once those preparations were finished, she completed her makeup, and put her long dark hair up in the traditional Geisha style, held with a pair long jade pins.
All things in readiness, she checked the chronometer just as her door chime announced someone outside. Carefully kneeling in the humble, yet proud posture used by so many others through centuries of such meetings, she softly answered. “Come.”
Liam Hendrikson, carrying a wrapped bottle answered that invitation, and stopped at the threshold with an almost dumbfounded expression on his face that became a slow, appreciative smile.
“Be welcome in my home, Hendrikson-San.” Corazon bowed, then smoothly rose to her feet with a warm smile. “You honor me and these poor surroundings with your presence this evening.”
“The honor, Guiterriez-San, is mine entirely.” Liam answered with a formal bow of his own. “Thank you for inviting me this evening.”
“I trust you brought your appetite, Captain?” She responded with a twinkle in her brown eyes as she gracefully rose to her feet.
“Of course.” Liam patted a pocket in his uniform and grinned. “Plus some bicarbonate, just in case. As you advised me yesterday.”
“Good.” Corazon let out a throaty chuckle. “I like a man who can take and follow advice. Especially when it is good advice.”
“I hope you don’t mind, I brought along a little something from my own private stores for the evening.” He offered the cloth bag to her and watched as she opened it.
“Thank you.” she nodded while moving to set the bottle of very old California Zinfandel into a chilling receptacle after reading the label. “2010, from the Napa Valley. I’m impressed, sir. I only hope my efforts at cooking are equal to this.”
“From the wonderful things I’m smelling in here I’d say my offering would come in a poor second, Ship Mother.”
“We’ll see if you keep that opinion in the morning.” She chuckled and gestured him to a chair at the small table. “Sit down and I’ll serve dinner.”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
“Men, always concerned for their poor stomachs.”
“We have to keep our strength up just to keep up with our women.”
“Touche, Captain.” Corazon let out a rich, musically belling laugh. “Ah, at last I believe I’ve met my match in wordplay.”
“Thank you for having me here, Cora.” Hendrikson told her with a smile, knowing the opening formalites had been seen to and moving into a more comfortable style of interaction.
“Thank you for coming, Liam.” She grinned. “It has been a while since I cooked for a man. It is a pleasure. Now, to business. Fideo.”
“About time, too.” Liam grumbled with good humor. “I had to skip lunch today.”
“Ahh, the drill.” Corazon nodded while spooning the mix into bowls and sprinkling the grated cheese over it. She set one bowl in front of him, and the other at her place, then got out the tortillas and set them in the center of the table. “That makes how many in the past month?”
“Twelve.” Liam sighed. “With more to come, I fear. We need to be ready for trouble if it comes, much as I hate that idea.”
“All of us do, Liam.” With a soft sigh, she seated herself and gestured to the steaming bowl of Fideo. “But for this evening, we leave that worry to others, and simply enjoy ourselves. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” Liam nodded, then glanced towards the wine in its cooling recess. “If you’ll pass that bottle here, I’ll get it open and let it breathe for a while.”
“Done.” Watching him expertly use a small corkscrew to unstopper the bottle, then carefully set the opened wine on the table, Corazon smiled and gestured to the food. “Please. Eat.”
“I don’t have to be asked twice.” Liam answered, picking up a fork and large spoon then starting to twirl the sauce soaked pasta onto the utensils.
His first bite was a bit tentative, and he slowly worked the mix around in his mouth as he chewed. Once he’d swallowed he grinned, and nodded. “This is great.”
“Thank you.” Corazon began eating as well, in a more delicate manner, but with just as much gusto as her guest was showing.
With the wine, and small talk, the main course lasted over an hour, with seconds for both, and a third helping for the Captain. Both were enjoying the company and relaxation and it showed in the easy way they bantered across the table.
“I so like a man who enjoys his food.” Corazon grinned, then pointed discretely to the other’s uniform. “But you left some behind there.”
“Damn, guess I did at that, didn’t I?” Liam chuckled as he plucked the piece of pasta off his jacket then examined the stain it had left. “I like a woman who can cook and isn’t ashamed to show it.”
“Good for you.”
“That’s all you have to say when I’ve complimented you?”
“Oh, that’s what that was. Then thank you.”
“Are you always this difficult, Cora?”
“Oh, only when I like someone, or hate them.”
“I see.” Liam lifted a questioning eybrow. “Which category do I fit into?”
“Here, have some coffee and think about that for a few minutes. Do you really want an answer?”
“Well, if I don’t drop dead after the coffee,” Liam chuckled, then sipped at the hot, black brew. “I’ll go with the first option there.”
“I knew you were a smart man.”
“My mother always used to tell me that.” He sighed a bit too loudly. “Just before she handed me some kind of whammy.”
“Ahh. And just what kind of ‘Whammy’ do you expect me to hand you?”
“Ummm. Uhhh.” He only stared in almost rapt fascination as the woman pulled the pins from her hair and shook it loose like a sudden torrent of night dark, shining glory, then pulled at a fastening on her kimono to have it slither down her body and pool at her feet. “Mom never did that with me.”
“Probably just as well.” with a smile, she moved around the table to stand beside him, filling his senses with her presence and spicy scent. “So are you just going to sit there and stare, sir?”
“Fine, beautiful things should be enjoyed fully, and looking at them is part of that, you know.”
“I see.” lifting his chin gently with one hand while the other reached to his shoulder, she whispered. “I hope you’ve spent enough time looking.”
“Not near enough, Cora.” He answered, reaching to pull her into his lap. “But I’ve done enough looking for one time around, I think.”
“Good.” She kissed him, softly at first, then with growing passion as he responded. Once they broke that, she pulled him to his feet. “Now it’s my turn to have a look, hmm?”
“I never argue with a lady.” His husky response was accompanied with the thump of his jacket hitting the floor.
“See?” Cora grinned up at with with a flash of mischief in her eyes. “I told you that you’re a bright fellow.”
“Forty hours to intercept, Captain.” Higgins, the nav officer told Ling as Widow Maker continued to accelerate towards her violent rendevous.
“Good.” Ling answered, as he hit the battle stations key on his console. “Another kill will make us rich, Higgins. Especially one like this.”
The drill went as expected, with each man in his proper place and doing the proper thing. They had all been through the real thing enough times to know what was expected of them.
Ling watched the computer plot of their own course and that of their target with a tight grin. “Enjoy your last few days of life, you Spacer bastards. We’re going to put an end to that in less than two days.”
“Another drill.” Mai sighed while grabbing her pressure suit from the locker in the hall near the bridge as Corazon emerged from her office already in hers. “The crew is starting to go stale from all of them, you know.”
“I’ve mentioned that to the Captain.” Cora let out a long sigh. “He tells me he wishes he could let up on all of us for a while.”
“Then why doesn’t he?”
“Forty-three dead or missing ships in the past three years.” The Ship Mother responded heavily. “He doesn’t want us to become number forty-four.”
Corazon opened the console that allowed her to monitor both Environment and Engineering plus the power allocations for different ship systems, and keyed in the code that brought the information up. “Better get yourself to sick bay now.”
“Yeah, see you later, and please, try and talk some sense into the Captain, would you?”
“I’ll do what I can, dear. Now go! Get to your station.”
“Captain.” Corazon approached him on the bridge, feeling the tension there as a palpable force, with all her official, and professional dignity showing once the drill had ended. “I need a few minutes of your time, please.”
“Can it wait a few hours, Ship Mother?” Liam questioned a bit shortly while still going over the performance figures from the recently finished drill.
“No, I’m afraid not, Sir.”
“All right.” Rising from his command couch, Liam gestured towards his own office off the bridge. “Do you need privacy for this one?”
“It would probably be best, yes.” Corazon nodded.
“Come on then.” With a sigh, he moved towards the cubicle he used for office space and waited for her to proceed him inside.
“I suppose you want to tell me I’m pushing the crew too hard.” Liam started out while waving her to a chair and taking one himself.
“If you know that, I don’t need to tell you, do I?” Corazon answered without a trace of a smile on her face. “Would you care to tell me why you feel it’s necessary?”
“You know why, Corazon.” His response was tight, and he closed his eyes briefly while running a hand across his forehead. “You of all people aboard this ship should be able to understand that.”
“Pride is neither slow or defenseless, like Halcyon was.” She replied while tilting her head as she watched him. “What happened to that ship won‘t be repeated with us. You know this as well as I do.”
“They, we, have to be ready.” Was his answer.
“We’re all as ready as any crew could be for something like that, Liam.” She answered softly. “Pride of Eire is probably the finest ship ever turned out of the Yards orbiting Mars, and she carries a crew that does that potential justice. But all of us, you too, need a little rest from these constant drills. There comes a point where practice becomes unproductive, even counter productive. You’re a fine commander, Liam. So you know that as well as I do.”
“The welfare of this ship is my responsibility, Cora.”
“Yes it is, but the welfare of this crew is mine. That includes you.” Corazon shook her head. “It’s a specification in the CGC contracts, and gives me much more responsibility than I really desire, but I have it. Now I need to use the clout that contract gives me. I don’t want to do that, Liam.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Page 12, paragraph 7, sub paragraph B.” She answered, while bringing a copy of the page up on her personal comp and passing it to him. “Please read it if you need to refresh your memory.”
“I know the section you’re talking about.” Liam gave her an almost bruised look. “You wouldn’t go that far would you?”
“If I feel it necessary, I would.” Corazon flatly answered. “If I determine that a practice aboard the ship I am contracted to is detrimental to the crew, and the women under my suzerain, I am authorized, no, make that obligated to take whatever steps I deem necessary to remedy the situation. As of now, Captain Hendrikson, you are relieved of duty for ten hours.”
“Cora! You know I can’t take ten hours off now!”
“You can and you will, sir.” Corazon told him then shrugged. “If you refuse to comply with that special order then you will be relieved for ten days. Either way, you will get some badly needed rest, as will your crew.”
“You are a very stubborn woman, do you know that, Ship Mother?” Liam gave her an almost exasperated look.
“I know.” She smiled and tilted her head slightly to the left and even let out a chuckle at a thought. “Trade notes with Fred Hastings regarding what I did when he was driving the crew of Prince Albert to distraction while trying to set an idiot record for speed on a run from Earth to Mars.”
“Are you talking about THE FRED?” Liam swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment. “Fred Hastings, the owner of Apollo Freight?”
“That’s the one.” Corazon nodded with a twinkle of amusement in her eyes. “Oh, he was furious when I pulled command out from under him. But Sally was very happy about it.”
“You stared down THE FRED, aboard his own ship? And got away with it? With his wife aboard?”
“Close your mouth, dear. There are no flies to catch aboard Pride and I am certain you’re eating well enough not to need the extra protein even if there were. Fred Hastings respects strength and someone with the sense to use it properly.” She shrugged, then gave him that slightly mischievous quirk of her mouth again. “Of course, I do think Sally had something to do with softening his attitude over those ten days. She was more than a little pleased to finally have Fred to herself for a while. Their son, Michael was born almost nine months to the day after I did that, you know.”
“Well I didn’t, until now.” Liam shook his head. “You and The FRED, glaring at each other until he backed down. That is a picture, you know.”
“It was, and we laugh over it now.” Cora nodded with a small grin. “It is also probably the reason I’m Mike’s God Mother, though Fred won’t admit it. But we’re wandering off the real subject here.”
“About me standing down for a while.” Liam let out a ragged sigh then gave her another almost disbelieving look.
“I was right then, like I am now.” Corazon shrugged. “He knew it, I knew it, and you know it, Liam. Now I really need an answer from you here.”
“I don’t believe this.” Liam gave his Ship Mother a long, speculative look and shook his head. “On second thought, yes I do. I still don’t think I can afford to take time off here.”
“Well, I could order all Care Givers aboard Pride to disembark at the next port of call if I had to.” She grimaced. “Please don’t make me do that. Ceres is not exactly a vacation paradise you know. The girls would be furious with you if I did.”
“God, Cora, please don’t do this to me.” Liam’s nearly exhausted eyes pleaded with her as much as his voice and posture did.
“It isn’t being done to you, Liam.” She responded tiredly. “If you don’t see reason here, and at least give this crew a break from the tension of constant battle drills, it will be done because of you. And that would grieve me more than anything I’ve ever had to do, or had happen to me, including losing a husband, or when I was there while Sally Hastings died. Please think about it for a while, and understand that I’m doing this as much for you as for anyone else. You’re driving yourself harder than any of your crew, and they know this. Which is why they haven’t complained before now. Why they‘re driving themselves to near exhaustion. This crew loves you, Liam. But there is only so much love will buffer.”
“Have I been that bad?” He questioned with a half startled expression on his angular face.
“No.” Corazon gave him a tight little smile and reached over to place a soft hand on his cheek. “You’ve been worse. Just give everyone a day off, Liam. Throw a party for the crew, let them blow off a little steam and frustration. The rotations to make sure that everyone gets a chance to relax a bit are in the file I handed you too, or you can work one out yourself. We can get this settled in private without a lot of fuss as I am trying to do here, or I can make it an official issue and file all kinds of paperwork with both CGC and Garner-Haikasu. You already know how much I hate paperwork, Liam. Work with me here, please.”
“As you wish, Ship Mother.” Liam winced at mention of the company that had built Pride of Eire being pulled into things, though there was still hesitation in his reply. “But that could put us at risk if we do get jumped while it’s going on.”
“Liam, we are at risk here and have been since we left Mars orbit. All of us know that. Your crew simply needs to be allowed to relax for a while. That’s all.”
“Well, you do have that big club aimed right at my head…” Liam sighed, then spread his hands with a grin. “And if THE FRED couldn’t overawe or get around you on something like this, I don’t suppose I can really piss and moan too much over it, can I? All right, I surrender. General in-ship leave for everyone in rotating shifts, starting as soon as I can get out there and give the order. Satisfied?”
“Only if you include yourself in that group.” Corazon smiled, this time more warmly. “If not I’ll club you for real and take over.”
“No, it’s a little known clause in my contract.” She chuckled. “A sure fire way of getting you to relax and sleep.”
“Okay, I’ll get some rest of my own, too.”
“Good.” Corazon grinned. “I’ll expect you in my cabin within the hour, Captain.”
“I thought you wanted me to rest, woman.” Liam let out a shaky laugh but his expression had softened.
“Relaxation is a prime ingredient of rest, and recuperation, Sir.” The Ship Mother grinned back. “You know of a better way to relieve your tensions, not to mention mine, off hand?”
“Well, now that you mention it…”
“See you in an hour, luv.” Corazon arose and gave him a quick hug and peck on the cheek, then raised her eyebrows. “Or else I’ll get my club and come looking for you.”
“Now that would be a sight worth paying money for.” He chuckled, showing that his sense of humor was returning. “But I’ll avoid the embarrassment for both of us and be there as ordered, Ma’am.”
“Good.” Standing at the door leading back to the bridge, she gave him a smile filled with fondness and something more, much more.
“Just one more thing, Cora?” Liam asked as she nodded. “Did you really do that to Fred Hastings?”
“Ask him next time you see him, dear.” She chuckled, then winked and left before anything else could be said.
“How is the Captain?” Mai questioned as a slightly mussed Corazon emerged into the companionway.
“Very good.” The older woman smirked, then added. “Sleeping like a two year old after a very serious day of playing.”
“Looks as if you were playing just as hard to me.” Mai chuckled.
“Oh trust me, I was.” Corazon grinned. “How is everyone else doing now?”
“Much happier, and glad their Captain is finally letting himself relax a bit, thereby giving them the same chance.”
“Good. Who is in command just now?” Corazon smoothed her hair and patted an errant lock back into place as she asked.
“Mr. Chen has the watch, Ship Mother.” Mai responded with a glance towards the bridge. “He’s keeping the on duty crew alert, but is stepping rather lightly in doing so today.”
“He’s a good man and second officer, Mai.” Corazon nodded with some relief showing in her face and posture. “And this ship does need to remain alert.”
“Not to worry on that score, Mother Cora.” Mai showed a small smile. “You really threw the fear of God, the Company, and irate Ship Mothers into him, too. I think the Captain must have told him about your -- umm -- discussion earlier.”
“Oh probably.” With a chuckle and twinkle in her brown eyes, Corazon gently turned Mai in the direction of the mess hall and gave a little push. “Now that I’m back on duty, you go have some fun. I’ll be in my office for a while if anything else comes up.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice, Cora.” Mai giggled as she headed down the companionway and called back over her shoulder. “I for one, don’t need to be clubbed into submission to take an order like that.”
“Brat.” Corazon laughed. “Show some respect for your elders.”
Mai simply waved and grinned before turning off the main passage.
Having finished repairing her appearance, and in the process of going through more files and doing the always dreaded paperwork a Ship Mother was expected to keep up with, Corazon lost herself in work as hours passed.
As she was reaching for yet another cup of coffee, her intercom buzzed.
“Ship Mother.” Mai’s voice came over the communicator. “Something’s come up in the mess hall. We need you here now.”
“Could you give me at least a rough idea of what the problem is?” Cora questioned while closing the files she had been working on.
“Weeeelll.” Mai’s voice held a note of hesitation it rarely did. “It’s kind of hard to explain. You’d have to see it for yourself, I’m afraid. Please hurry.”
“On my way.” Corazon left her office, glanced at the still closed access to her cabin displaying the ‘Do Not Disturb’ icon, and shook her head. Merde! What now?
Her eyes narrowed as she entered the mess/rec area. The generally spacious -- for being aboard a ship -- place was packed with people, it appeared that every off duty crew member of Pride had crammed themselves into the available space.
“What in the…?” She started to question when Liam moved beside her to give her a hug and a grinning Mai took a position on her other side while gesturing to the gathering.
“Just a little something for you, Ship Mother.” Mai beamed as a banner appeared above the center of the gathered crew members. It read simply, Thank You, we love you, Corazon!
“Oh!” Her vision began to blur as tears filled her eyes and Liam tightened his arm around her shoulders. “I…”
“Don’t say anything, dear.” He advised. “Just accept.”
“Now don’t be difficult here, Ship Mother.” He gently but firmly guided her into the crowd. “We all needed to do this for you, and you needed to see it. Thank you.”
“I… I. Ahh Dios!” She tried responding as the knowledge that she had yet another family, albeit a very large one, that was telling her in no uncertain terms that it was hers filtered into her stunned mind.
“Now go mingle.” He told her with a smile. “Laugh, cry, have a few drinks, whatever. But enjoy yourself. That’s an order, Ship Mother.”
She did, and felt the connections she had once truly feared would never again happen firm up and become solid as the decking she stood on.
“Intercept in one hour, Captain.” The nav officer announced as Widow Maker threaded her way through a concentration of asteroids that would also cover her approach to the big hauler she was stalking.
“Good.” Ling nodded and hit the alert toggle on his command couch. As the claxon’s almost shrill sound reverberated through the ship, he made certain his pressure suit was ready to fully seal, then leaned thoughtfully back into his command couch. “Con, give me a twenty gee approach from her Nadir. We’ll come up underneath her and finish this before it really starts.”
“Weapons board green, sir.” His exec announced.
“Good, good.” Ling answered without any real excitement other than that of anticipation for another strike at an enemy still blissfully unaware they were truly at war. After all, it was business as usual for him and his crew.
“Captain, I’ve got traces of a drive coming in on an intercept with our course from six O‘clock.” The scan operator announced, then added. “They just lit it up, sir. Coming in Hard and fast now.”
“Right.” Hendrikson hit the alert while speaking into the all- ship comm. “Battle stations, repeat, battle stations. This is NOT a drill.”
“Get me some numbers up here, Van.” He ordered as a pair of glowing lines on a map of the area they were in came up on his screen, blue for Pride‘s course and red for the intruder. “Flight, take whatever evasive actions you deem necessary, but be ready to pass con to me on command.”
“Roger that, Command.” Maria Lang answered, already making adjustments to her own boards. “Got it.”
“So now it really begins.” Liam Hendrikson felt a pang of real sadness at the realization that war was now up close and pushing it’s ugly face into his, and all Spacer’s own. “Weapons, you have a green light. Interdict that approach please.”
“On it, Captain.” The Bos’n responded quietly. “That bastard is going to get a real surprise in another few seconds here.”
“Get your tail into sickbay!” Corazon commanded as Mai stared at the screen showing the plots of both ships to Corazon. “This one’s for real, girl.”
“On the way now.” Mai responded, almost running to her duty station.
“Madre de Dios.” She breathed while watching the power curves of Pride suddenly rise in response to the needs of imminent battle and watched the vectors and V of both ships involved for a moment. “That cabron is fast.”
“She’s going into evasive maneuvers, skipper.”
“Let them try.” Ling answered, unperturbed. “Got a real time view of her yet?”
“Working now, sir.” Scan answered, then a dim, fuzzy image appeared on his screen that began to clear. Something about her shape, size and configuration nagged at him as he watched it clear.
“Fire primary weapons.” He commanded as the image of their target sharpened and Widow Maker shivered as if in anticipation of another kill as her mass drivers hurled lethal slugs of nickel/iron at their victim.
“Incoming, Captain!” Scan almost shouted as Liam watched the suddenly complex pattern of plots on his command screen with more outward calm than he felt internally. “I Have four, no six discharges consistent with mass drivers firing there.”
“Concur scan.” Liam quietly responded. “Helm, come about at 180 degrees relative. Let’s give them a smaller target. Weapons, return fire.”
Hitting the maneuvering warning while praying that everyone and everything was secured, Liam found himself almost gleeful. “Crossed your T there and we’ve got you dead to rights. Let’s see how you like that you son-of-a-bitch.”
One of Pride’s design innovations kicked in while he thought that, as powerful engines in place of the lesser attitude adjusting jets kicked in at bow and stern, causing her to turn her nose far faster than a ship her size should be capable of doing.
“Christ!” Scan screamed as the image Ling was watching performed an impossible attitude change and the unmistakable twinkling of mass drivers firing projectiles covered her flanks. “They’re returning fire, Captain!”
Widow Maker was just coming into the top of the arc that would bring her full broadsides to bear on what had been the underside of the larger ship, and Ling realized that this victim not only had claws of it’s own, her nose was squarely pointed at his amidships.
“Crossed our T, damn him, then turned to present a smaller cross section to us.” Ling nodded in admiration as he spat out commands. “Evade! Initiate ECM and get the data we have on this new bird off to HQ, Comm.”
“Good enough.” Ling bleakly watched the plots of incoming slugs and made his own calculations with a sigh. “Well, the spacers woke up and noticed they’re at war. It was bound to happen.”
“Orders, skipper?” His exec questioned as Widow Maker slewed in her turn, working to dodge the deadly response of her one time target.
“Fire everything we have that will come to bear on her.” Ling answered, then added. “Helm, get us the hell out of here. We’re no match for that thing.”
His exec checked the plots on his own command screen and shot a thoughtful, almost fearful look to his Captain.
“I know.” Ling nodded. “It’s war, Lieutenant. Bound to be casualties on both sides aren’t there?”
Their first shots began glancing off the larger ship’s hull with only one decent impact among them. Most missed completely. Ling nodded almost calmly and checked the incoming plots. “Brace for impact, gentlemen.”
The first slug took one of Widow Maker’s steering/cooling vanes. The second penetrated the hull in engineering and ripped through the engines.
The remaining ones either flashed past, or impacted on an already dead ship.
Pride’s hull rang, and shuddered at two glancing impacts, and another solid one that caused her to scream as atmosphere and plating rushed into space.
Corazon felt sick as damage control reports filled the comm, but continued monitoring her station and reported. “Engineering and Environment are secure. Repeat, Engineering and Environment undamaged.”
Damage reports began to be less frantic as information became more readily available to everyone. The two glancing blows had taken out a mass driver and laser emplacement, but the double hulled design of Pride had kept those from doing really serious damage. The one solid impact, it turned out, had been into cargo bay D, which had lost the little atmosphere it had maintained following that, and a lot of cargo that had been stored there was gone, but again the double hull design, and the cargo had caused the slug to spend its velocity on them, not the interior of the ship.
“Gracias, Dios!” She whispered as that information came through to her screen and patted the side of the cubicle she was in. “You are one lucky ship, Pride of Eire.”
Liam grimly watched the attacking vessel breaking up and shook his head. “Won’t be any survivors from that. As if to punctuate his assessment, his screen darkened as a flash bright enough to make him blink filled it.
“Her engines blew.” Chen quietly, and unnecessarily informed everyone.
“Damage reports please. By Sections!” Liam forced his own voice over the babble of reports flooding the comm. Once that had been sorted, he passed the order. Get someone to cargo bay D and see what, if anything down there is salvageable, Chen.”
“Aye, sir.” The Second officer answered, picking some of the non-essential bridge crew and waving them to follow him. “On it myself.”
“Casualty reports coming in now.” Comm quietly informed him, then let out a long shaky sigh. “No dead. Mostly broken bones, sprains, bruises and a couple of concussions so far.”
“Right, got it.” Liam nodded while examining the report on his own screen. “Scan, any other incoming traces out there?”
“All right. Well done people.” Liam let a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding out. “Stand down from battle stations. Alert status yellow until further notice. Captain out.”
“Captain.” Comm interrupted his silent prayer of thanks. “That ship did get a communication off. A long series of coded blips into the heart of the belt.”
“Well, we aren’t a secret any longer, people.” Liam responded. “Now the Grounders know we know and have started fighting back. Nav, get us back on course for Ceres.”
“Aye Captain.” Van Bloom answered as his station passed course corrections and plots to flight’s. “Done.”
“Comm, get our telemetry and other information we have on that ship, and stand by to send out a Priority One message to Mars Control.”
“Ready when you are, Captain.”
Liam spent several minutes speaking into a recording device, then popped the disk and handed it to a waiting crewman to pass to the Comm officer. “There it is.”
“Incoming message from Mars Control, Captain.” Comm informed him. “Getting it now.”
Liam read over the message, thought for a few seconds, then opened his link to shipwide comm. “Attention all hands. This is the Captain. I just received a Priority One message from Mars Command, yes, Command, not control. Mars, the Belt, The International Spacer‘s Guild, Apollo Freight, Garner-Haikasu, and Outer Planets Mining and Gas to just name a few, have declared their independence from Earth. There is a constitutional convention happening on Mars right now, so what we just learned so graphically ourselves a short while ago is now official news to every Spacer and Grounder with access to a news service. We are at war with Earth. God help us all, Spacer and Grounder alike. Captain out. ”
Pride of Eire was a quiet ship on the remainder of the voyage to Ceres. After the initial jubilation at their victory faded, sober thought brought home to everyone aboard the realization of what it had cost. They had killed other human beings, something normally very much out of character for spacers in general, and had destroyed another ship to do it. Something that Spacers had always held to as a commandment of existence for themselves, the intrinsic value of human life and the need to preserve it, had been violated and taken from them in a way that would never really allow it to return with the certainty it had once possessed.
That the ship and crew they had killed were undoubtedly killers many times over, and had initiated an unprovoked attack on them mitigated the sorrow, and anger over what had been taken from them only a little.
“They’ve had their innocence torn out by the roots and thrown in their faces, Liam.” Corazon quietly informed the Captain while going over reports of individual outbursts and the general malaise that had settled over the entire crew since the encounter. “We all have, and it’s something that will take time to come to terms with, let alone be understood by many of the crew.”
“At least there haven’t been any violent incidents, or fights.” Liam ran a hand through his hair, then across his eyes. “You and your girls have been doing a remarkable job of holding things together over the past week.”
“Thank you, but that’s one of things we are here to do, Liam.” In her turn, Corazon let out a long, shuddering sigh and shook her head. “Though I do have to admit that all my girls, and I, have been putting in a lot of time on this. I’ve had to counsel at least of third of them too. But we’ll get through this. You have a good crew, Liam, with a fine command staff who all know their jobs and are doing them well. That includes you, by the way.”
“And you, Cora.” Liam favored her with a smile. “You’ve stood out as a shining beacon for the rest of us here, your strength and understanding are nothing short of awe inspiring, do you know that?”
“I have to be like that, Liam.” She quietly answered. “It’s my job. If I so much as falter here, I’ll collapse.”
“I don’t think so.” Liam moved to give her a tight hug and remained with his arms around her, noting that she was shaking. “You aren’t doing this alone, I’m here for you, Mai is, and a lot of others.”
“I appreciate that, I really do.” She moved deeper into his arms and simply let herself relax for the first time since the short, brutal battle and whispered. “Dios, I didn’t want this responsibility again, not yet, anyway, but I’ve got it, and overall it isn’t such a bad thing. Just hard right now I want to scream and rail at the idiotes who let things get this far without doing the smart things that would have settled our differences without violence. I want to go hide until this is over, but know there will be no hiding from any of it.”
“No, I’m afraid there won’t be.” Liam answered almost grimly as he tightened his arms around her, for his own comfort as much as hers. “All we can do is try to get it over with as quickly as possible with the least amount of losses for both sides. There’s nothing else we can do.”
“I know, I know.” Corazon shuddered one more time then wrapped her own arms around Liam. “Thank you.”
“For what? I should be thanking you, and was, if I recall.”
“Even a Care Giver needs to be taken care of off and on, you know.”
“Is that a hint?” He questioned with a slow smile spreading across his face.
“Then I would be honored to -- umm -- take care of you, Corazon.”
“You’re a lecher, Liam.” Corazon chuckled as she let him pull her to her feet and met his lips with her own. “But I think I love you, anyway.”
“Only with you, dear.” He responded with a low chuckle and a mock leer. “I’ll have you know I’m a perfect, well perfect as I can manage, gentleman with the other ladies aboard.”
“Quit talking about it and be a lecher with me here.” She gently poked his ribs and let out a small giggle. “We’ll discuss that ’gentleman’ thing later.”
Much later, it turned out.
The general mood aboard improved during the following days, with a lot of nearly exhausted Care Givers venting quiet sighs of relief, but knowing they had done their jobs and done them well.
“Ceres control.” Maria Lang spoke quietly into her comm. “HG 1097 Pride of Eire requesting approach vectors and docking clearance.”
“Ceres control, Pride.” Came back over the comm. “Roger that request and stand by for approach vectors. You are cleared for dock at bay 17C. Do you require repair crews or medical assist?”
That drew a grimace from Liam in his command chair. It was clear that word of their encounter had spread at least as rapidly as had that regarding the declaration of independence from New Atlanta on Mars. Repairs had been made en-route, and the injured were either recovered completely or well on their way to that status. Maria gave him a one shouldered shrug and quick grin before retuning her attention to business.
“Pride of Eire, Control. Negative on both there, but thanks.” Maria responded as the vectoring plots appeared on her screen. “Vectors received and on my screen now. Thank you. Proceeding to Dock as instructed.”
“Ceres Control. Roger that Pride. Welcome to Ceres. Control out.”
Maria Lang showed what a fine pilot she was then, making minute adjustments to vector and velocity while adjusting attitude to match Pride’s blunt nose to the docking collar. The actual docking was done so smoothly that it didn’t even cause ripples in the cup of coffee in it’s slot on her couch.
“We’ve arrived people.” She announced while flipping switches and keying in final commands for Pride’s computers and automatics. “Like the man said… Welcome to Ceres.”
The General Washington orbited an insignificant rock deep in the Belt while an almost steady stream of shuttles ran from her to six Corvettes and three larger ships in for refits and supplies. Those nine comprised not quite half the fleet the tender handled and it was a rarity to have that many in at once.
The staff meeting in a well guarded briefing room was not pleasant for any of those attending.
“Gentlemen.” Admiral Alexis Neustadt addressed the gathering. “We’ve lost a corvette and a destroyer in the past two months. Sword of Allah has been out of contact for nine weeks and we still don‘t know what happened to her, and now Widow Maker is gone. However, we know what happened to Widow Maker. She ran into this.
A very clear vid image came up on a large screen at one end of the conference room. It showed a ship of unknown type firing mass drivers at the POV. Neustadt went on. “We got a long burst of data from Widow Maker not long ago and this was what it contained. The ship you‘re seeing there is named Pride of Eire, and is listed in the registry as a freight hauler.”
“Freight hauler my ass. Sir.” Someone growled as the Spacer ship performed an impossible attitude change on the vid, swinging her nose right towards the POV to present a smaller target. Shots obviously fired from Widow Maker either glanced off her hull or missed entirely with one exception. And that impact seemed to have very little effect on the vessel. “That’s a warship.”
“Yes she is.” Neustadt answered, bringing up a window on the screen displaying the ship’s power curves. Curves that no merchanter would ever have need of. “Take note of these power signatures. They indicate an insanely huge power plant on that ship, and the steering/cooling vanes corroborate that by their sheer size.”
There was a mumur of voices as the gathering conferred with each other, or simply swore as they watched the Pride on the vid.
“This Pride of Eire is unconscionably fast, as you can all see, horrifyingly maneuverable in a combat situation and amazingly tough. Analysts estimate she would rate a designation of either heavy cruiser or light battle ship.”
“She would have to have a double hull to take that kind of punishment and not show a sign of slowing down.” One of the Captains pointed out. “And those layers have got to be pretty heavy. How in the hell can they move that mass so fast? I‘d sell my soul to get a look at her engines.”
“Many people would.” Neustadt answered. “But the problem we have facing us immediately is that we cannot allow that ship to live. She’s too dangerous to us at present. ISP can’t get anything to equal her out to us for another six months at least. So we have to figure out a way to kill her ourselves. The spacers have finally admitted that they are at war, as that ship testifies to quite eloquently, and are prepared to wage it. We need to show them it isn‘t that easy.”
“Nukes.” Came from somewhere around the table. “Only thing we’ve got that could reliably punch through that armor and do any real damage to her interior, systems and crew.”
“Yes, probably so.” Neustadt nodded with a tight grin. “But all our available nuclear weapons are attached to missiles which will be more easily targeted by any defensive systems they might have. I can and will authorize their use against Pride of Eire, but we need to come up with some alternatives. If we use nukes and the Spacers get wind of it, you can be sure they will reply in kind.”
“Well, we sure don’t have anything out here that could go head to head with her.” Another thoughtfully put in. “We’d have to ambush her and then it would need to be a multiple ship attack, coming in from different vectors, to have a prayer of succeeding.”
“What do we have in the way of available assets to do that with?” Neustadt questioned.
“Excalibur, Sting, and Anduril are just about finished with their refits.”
The supply officer answered. “They are all good sized, fast, and heavily armed.”
“Destroyers, all of them.” Neustadt let out a sigh. “The biggest, toughest things we have out here yet. All right. Give their refits priority, and load some nukes into their ordnance. We got any others available to support them?”
“Not anything with a chance in Hell of standing up to that ship.”
“Then those three will have to do it. Some of the others might be useful for quick hit and run strikes, maybe to slow her down. We’ll be looking at those tactical possibilities as well. I’ll cut the orders. Get me the intelligence on her course from Ceres.”
“We can have that once she files the flight plan, sir.”
“Good enough. That will be all for now, gentlemen.”
Once his staff had filed out of the briefing room, Neustadt sat for a few minutes while pondering the situation. He then spoke into his comm. “Higgs, Have Commander Riley, and Lt. Commanders Shu and Omar in my office in one hour.”
Closing the connection, the Admiral continued watching the vid and accompanying stills of the newest, and possibly deadliest ship in the belt.
While wondering if his small fleet was up to the challenge it presented.
Ceres did have a dome, a small one, just to comply with laws regarding the claiming of territory in space. The majority of the colony was burrowed right into the asteroid in an almost bewildering tangle of tunnels interspersed with spacious chambers, refining and smelting facilities, and of course living quarters. Those included more than one mall with shopping, restaurants, theaters, and other entertainments as good as any on New Atlanta of Mars, or Armstrong City on Luna.
Corazon, Mai, and Sheila DuMarest were enjoying one such mall, going through some of the shops looking, buying when something caught their eye, and generally having a wonderful time.
“Mother Cora!” A deep, resonant voice interrupted a lively discussion as to whether some of the lingerie in a nearby shop would be worth purchasing for the fun alone, or end up being useful as well.
“Frank!” Cora gave the man, with copper colored skin and brilliant white teeth showing in a smile, along with a build like a weight lifter on steroids a pleased smile and moved out of the group to give him a hug. “It’s so good to see you again.”
“And You, Cora.” He answered, returning the hug, though being careful not to exert too much of his obvious strength while doing so. “I’d heard you were posted to a brand new ship. When I found out it was the Pride I just about worried myself to death, and drove Aldo almost insane with it. He just told me you were good at what you did and not to worry.”
“And of course, you listened.” Cora laughed. “Right.”
“Oh a wise man always listens to the big boss.” Frank chuckled, then sobered. “Aldo is doing good, Cora. You and Sam did a good job with raising and teaching him.”
“Oh, forgive me, I’ve been very rude here.” Corazon waved her companions forward. “Ladies, allow me to introduce Franklin Deon Kerashu, VP in charge of R&D for Outer Planets Mining and Gas. Aldo is Geraldo Xiang-Gutierrez, my son.” She added.
“Pleased to meet all of you.” Frank bowed formally with a smooth, easy grace that denoted a more dangerous side to the charming fellow. “Lovely ladies are always a pleasure to meet. Especially when they’re friends of Mother Cora.”
“This is Mother Mai Mitterand.” Corazon pulled a grinning Mai forward and giggled with her when the man actually took her hand and lightly kissed the palm in greeting. “She is currently my second aboard the Pride.”
“A pleasure, Mother Mitterand.”
“For me too, Sir.” Mai gave him a thousand watt smile. “Please call me Mai.”
“And you call me Frank.” The big man returned with a booming chuckle. “Whenever someone calls me sir, I tend to look around for what they’ve screwed up this time in the lab.”
“I can’t imagine anyone not calling you sir.” Mai laughed, clearly liking the man as much as he seemed taken with her. “But if you insist, Frank it is.”
“This.” Cora interrupted that budding courting game by waving their other companion forward. “Is sister Sheila DuMarest. I should warn you that she plays an outstanding stand up bass.”
“Another pleasure,” Frank repeated his greeting with the smaller woman and beamed. “A real bass player? Without all the electronic bells and whistles?”
“I use a Fender stand up Jazz Bass.” Sheila answered with a serious nod, then grinned. “No frets to tangle fingers in, you know.”
“Frank plays the saxophone.” Corazon informed her.
“Really?” Sheila positively beamed. “The real thing?”
“Of course, no synthesized hybrids for me, either.” Frank answered quite seriously. “If you’re going to play an instrument, do it right is my feeling.”
“Why is it that I feel dinner and a show is something in our near future?” Mai questioned dryly, much to the other’s amusement.
“Probably because we aren’t going to be able to avoid either with Frank here.” Corazon chuckled.
“I’m really sorry about Sam, Cora.” Frank got a genuinely doleful expression on his face, and it didn’t seem like something that he did often. “I know I sent you my condolences, but I wanted to tell you that personally. And I had to stay here and hold the fort while Aldo went to the service so I couldn’t tell you there.”
“Thank you, Frank, he was a fine man, a wonderful father, and a better husband a woman couldn’t have asked for in her prayers.” Cora answered quietly. “I was, and will always be very proud of him, almost as much as I loved the big idiot.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, he taught Aldo the business so well the kid is scary. Did you know that he’s the one basically responsible for the alliance between OPMG, Apollo, and Garner-Haikasu?”
“He did mention something about that in the messages I got from him.” Cora nodded, then smirked. “Fred Hastings told me that he thinks highly of Aldo, by the way.”
“He should.” Frank grinned. “The kid has genes from you and Sam. That’s one potent combination, after all.”
“Right.” Cora chuckled while slapping playfully at his shoulder, though she had to reach up to do that. “Flattery will NOT buy you a chance to have some of my Fideo, Franklin Deon Kerashu, and don’t think it will, either, you have to earn that.”
“How would a personal message from your son, do, then?” Frank questioned innocently.
“Sold. On the condition that I get it within the next five seconds.”
“Here you go then.” The big man sweetly answered, holding out a message cube in the palm of one huge hand.
“By the way.” Mai gave her boss a questioning look. “Since your son is Frank’s boss… That make him the new CEO and president of OPMG wouldn‘t it?”
“No wonder you’re proud of your kids.”
“I’d be proud of Aldo, and my daughters, if they worked tramp freighters on the fringes.” Corazon informed her. “Just so long as they were doing what they wanted and were good at it.”
“Well, are you ladies still shopping, or could I interest you in some fine Ceres hospitality?” Frank questioned.
All three women looked at the bags they carried, at each other, then at the shops in the concourse and reached instant agreement. “Hospitality!”
“Then please allow me to show you to my car.” Frank made a gesture and two men every bit as burly as he was seemed to appear out of nowhere. Both had the look of very professional bodyguards, but quite happily relieved the women of their bags while leading the group to a Honda Electric Limo parked in the background.
“Where are we going?” Mai questioned as she allowed one of the men to help her into the vehicle.
“Well.” Frank shrugged as he gave Corazon a look. “Aldo always insists that his Mother uses the family homeplace when she’s here.”
“He always says ‘It’s humble but it’s home’, whenever I protest.” Corazon chuckled.
“And he’s right.” Frank answered.
While Corazon and the others were shopping, and meeting Frank, Liam had made sure the offloading of Pride’s cargo was going smoothly, then taking the manifests, with his own appended notes, he sought out the offices of Ceres Commodities and Pharmaceuticals, the company that had contracted Pride to deliver the stuff.
Once there, a pretty receptionist first greeted him, then led him down a carpeted hallway to a closed door that did more than a passable job of looking like the polished walnut it simulated. The girl led him inside without knocking, and announced. “Mr Longfellow, this is Captain Hendrikson of the Pride of Eire.”
The man rose from his chair to come around the desk with his hand extended, and instead of reaching for the disk Liam offered, shook the Captain’s hand with a firm, but not challenging grip. “Captain! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Donato Longfellow, Operations officer for CC&P. I would imagine that you’re here to get your payment?”
“I lost part of your cargo, sir.” Liam shook his head. “I can’t take the full payment, or the bonus in good conscience because of that.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Captain.” Donato Longfellow remonstrated, waving Liam to a chair while sliding the disk into his desk comp and bringing up the information on it. He skimmed the report, obviously catching all the salient points within a few seconds and looked up. “You were attacked. According to your revised manifest here the loss is fairly small , and clearly not from your negligence. I insist that you take full payment, and the agreed upon bonus. You got the medical supplies to us intact, the nano packs, and the cultures. Loss of some foodstuffs won’t be that detrimental to us given what else you’ve brought in. I should add in some danger pay for that, too.”
“No, sir.” Liam answered with a shrug. “Pride is a good ship, with a good crew. That raider constituted no real danger to us. We destroyed it in less time than it’s taking us to discuss the point.”
“A compromise, then, Captain.” Longfellow grinned. “I’ll deduct an amount for the lost foodstuffs. But throw in the bounty we’ve put out
on these damned raiders. And you still get the bonus. I won’t argue the point with you.”
“I give up.” Liam grinned. “You are just about as stiff necked and stubborn as our Ship Mother, and trust me, I have learned better than to argue with her.”
“Corazon Guiterriez.” Longfellow nodded with a chuckle. “Trust me, Captain, many of us here on Ceres learned that trick from her, while also learning not to argue with the lady.”
“You know.” Liam returned the man’s grin while accepting a tumbler containing three fingers of single malt scotch. “I’m not all that surprised to hear that. She is a very forceful woman when she wants to be.”
“That she is, Captain.” Longfellow agreed, while raising his glass. “That she is. To one damned stubborn and amazing woman, then.”
“That.” Liam laughed. “I can drink to with pleasure.”
“You call that humble?” Mai questioned as the limo approached a wooded estate with a huge, rambling house in its center. “That is the home Frank was talking about isn’t it?”
“Well.” Corazon shrugged. “Sam, my other husbands, Geoff and Lewis and I had to spend our money on something.”
“Geoff and Lewis?” Mai questioned. “Are they as high powered as Sam and Aldo?”
“The three of them chartered and built Outer Planets Mining and Gas.” Corazon answered. My Sam, Geoffrey Montmarte, and Lewis Billings. They started the company with one small prospecting ship each and built it from there.”
“Wow, Sheila shook her head. “You know Fred Hastings, are his son and heir’s godmother, and are married to three other Spacer legends. How did you manage to get anything else done?”
“It isn’t that big a deal, Shelia.” Cora laughed. “At least it wasn’t back then. Remember, I was out here when everything was just getting started up and moving. Fred was the only one of the bunch who had any real money or influence at all back then. I‘d been contracted to Sam‘s ship and things just kind of went from there.”
“I’ll say.” The petite blonde shook her head.
Fifty Thousand Troys in gold took up a lot of space, Liam noted while observing the loading with almost grim amusement as he watched the guards, armed with shotguns and nerve whips, impassively intimidate anyone approaching within fifty meters of the loading ramp.
“Those guys don’t play around, do they?” Corazon came up beside him with a shake of her head and crooked grin. “They hardly acknowledged me and the other girls heading back in. Just looked us over, checked the ship patches on our uniforms, and politely waved us on.”
“Lot of money there.” Liam shrugged. “Keep in mind it’s ours. That’s the bonus they’re loading, you know.”
“I figured.” Corazon chuckled. “The bearer bonds got loaded earlier this morning, and the iron and nickel ingots were loaded up last night.”
“Keeping track are you?” Liam questioned while putting an arm around her slim shoulders.
“Well, you were at the old homeplace.” She shrugged. “The communications there are tied into everything that happens on this rock, you know.”
“I’m not surprised.” Liam nodded with a chuckle. “Since your son’s company seems to have a finger into everything going on around here.”
“It isn’t that bad, really.” She grumbled quietly. “Sam and the others just provided a lot of seed money at one time or another is all. Once that was paid back they didn’t own anything but OPM&G.”
“But the present owners remember what was done for them.” Liam pointed out. “So keep your family informed about what’s going on. Simple. Having influence is nice if it isn’t abused, and your husbands and son are scrupulous about not abusing the privilege, I know.”
“They’re good guys, Liam, and I wish you could have met them. Aldo is on Mars, at the constitutional convention, Geoff is out towards Neptune supervising a new mining and smelting facility, and Lewis is on Luna and may not be able to get back now that we’re at war with Earth.”
“Oh, I think he’ll get out all right.” Liam grinned. “I can’t see your son, or that Frank character not coming up with a way to do that.”
“You’re right.” Corazon sighed unhappily. “I just hope they don’t go too cowboy doing it. Aldo and Frank tend to get a bit gung ho when there’s action in the air, if you know what I mean.”
“Most men do, hon.” Liam chuckled. “At least in the opinions of their women. Besides, Frank‘s a good guy and smart into the deal, he‘ll be careful. Your Aldo may have your fiery temperament, but he knows how to walk softly when it‘s necessary, too.”
“My fiery temperment?” Corazon raised her eyebrows and gave him a wicked little grin. “I could make you regret that slanderous comment, you know.”
“Thereby proving my point without another bit of argument from me needed.” Liam laughed while he pulled her in tighter.
“Got me there, I guess.” She chuckled while burrowing into his side a bit more. “Which brings me to another topic that needs to be worked through before we boost out of here, Bucko.”
“Did you have fun with that cute little barmaid the other night?” She asked with a wide grin.
“Well, Lissa does know how to make a man --- ummm --- happy.” He admitted.
“Good, and she should know how. She used to be a Care Giver. Retired about ten years ago and bought that little place for something to do.” Corazon grinned. “Bet she didn’t tell you she was the owner, did she?”
“Uh, it didn’t come up, no.”
“I’ll bet it didn’t.”
“No, happy for both of you.” She answered while looking him straight in the eyes. “You know I can’t be exclusive, and you shouldn’t try to stay that way with me. It isn’t healthy, and it’s a bad example. I’m glad you spent time with another woman, but you really should do that aboard ship, too, you know.”
“Like I’m not busy enough?” Liam shook his head and probed his cheek with his tongue for a moment. “But that’s true.”
“Mai is interested, if you hadn’t noticed.”
“Mai?” Liam pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “That would almost be like keeping it in the family as close as you two are.”
“Idiot.” Corazon laughed. “We are family. The whole crew of Pride is a big, raucous bunch of cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and whatever. At least in spirit. That’s what makes them such a good group.”
“Well, now that you mention it…” Liam grinned. “Mai ain’t bad lookin’, and is probably pretty good in the sack to boot.”
“She’s gorgeous and we both know it.” Corazon elbowed him. “And she better be good in the sack. She’s had more than enough practice, you know, especially on this trip.”
“Yeah, back to that.” Liam sobered. “I’ve already sent in an official commendation to CGC headquarters for you and your girls. You’ve all gone above and beyond for us this trip.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Cora smiled almost sadly as she thought of the reason for all that work. “I’ll let the girls know that. They’ll appreciate it.”
“Hell, Ship Mother, us non-CGC types appreciate it a lot more than you know.”
Activity was at a high level aboard and around General Washington as supplies, and ordnance was transferred to waiting corvettes and destroyers from the huge storage areas aboard the tender. Shuttles and individual scooters criss-crossed the area making travel between the huge ship and her satellite vessels something of an exercise in both spatial dynamics and hand/eye coordination for the pilots.
In a briefing room situated in a dome along the spine and amidships on the tender, a quiet group of men, all ship commanders and executive officers stared at an image on a large screen and listened to the man at the podium.
“This is Pride of Eire gentlemen, your target.” Admiral Neustadt told them unnecessarily. Rumors had been flying since Widow Maker’s transmission had been received days before and everyone in that briefing room knew at least that much.
“She is three-hundred and twelve meters from bow to stern, approximately one hundred meters in cross section at her widest point, Masses an unknown tonnage, but you can bet she carries a lot of armor around. She has engines that we are pretty certain could move a ship three times her mass easily to velocities none of ours can match.” Neustadt went on, pointing out the bulging stern and huge Steering/Cooling vanes.
“She is also heavily armed, how much so we aren’t all that sure of, intelligence on her is pretty sketchy as things stand now. But you can be sure that ship packs a helluva wallop in a fight. She most likely is carrying a limited number of nukes, too.”
“Those vanes are the most vulnerable points on her as near as we can tell, and should be targeted first. If they can’t keep that monster power plant cooled, they won’t be able to run it at full capacity, as all of you know. Our best chance of taking her is to slow her down, limit her maneuvering capabilities, and then start hitting her with everything we have.”
“If we can’t slow her down, she’ll outrun most of you, and eat the ones who do manage to keep up alive. Hit her at zenith, hit her at nadir, hit her in the flanks, but make sure you hit those vanes, or we won’t have a chance in Hell of taking her.”
“Is there any accurate idea of what she does carry for ordnance?” One of the corvette captains questioned.
“Besides mass drivers, we really don’t have much of an idea.” Neustadt answered. “As I said, our intelligence sources failed us badly in this instance. We do know that what they have aboard are both numerous and accurate. Our experts were able to count at least two solid hits on Widow Maker within seconds. Transmissions from that ship ceased immediately after that.”
“A blanket area attack could have done that.” Another put in. “But that would imply that this ship carries an incredibly large number of mass drivers. Agile and fast as a corvette is, not even a blanket area attack should have accounted for two impacts in that time span.”
“That would mean a fast in and out type of attack sweep would be needed.” The first captain added. “If this ship can put that many shots into an area that quickly, we need to not be there any longer than necessary.”
“Exactly.” Neustadt answered. “It would mean a rapid sweep by the corvettes, then having them get out of there once they had fired their weapons. Standing to fight this ship would be suicidal for even six corvettes. Pride would likely swat all of you into the next century and be ready for more fight once she’d done that.”
“We would need to do a fast sweep from the same direction, otherwise we’d risk hitting each other.” One pointed out. “Then we could scatter on the way out, making for a wider range of targets and giving us all a better chance of getting out intact.”
“That would be in the battle plan gentlemen.” The admiral nodded. “If the first sweep didn’t do enough damage, you would then regroup and make another. Once she’s slowed down, the heavier ships would move in to finish her off.”
“Yes, sir, I see how that is meant to work.” Another joined the conversation. “But once she is slowed down, she’ll still have her weapons largely intact, won’t she? We can’t count on taking many of those out in any rapid attacks if her armor is as good as you think it is.”
“No, you can’t.” Neustadt responded. “What you can be sure of is that without those vanes, she will not be able to maneuver so those weapons can be brought to bear more effectively. The job you corvette commanders have is making sure that happens. Once it does, we feel that three heavy destroyers will be up to doing the rest. Another group of six more corvettes and three light destroyers will be held in reserve, for any unplanned for contingencies.”
“Any other questions, gentlemen?” The admiral asked the assembled group of officers. None were forthcoming and he nodded. “All right then. You all have your orders and the battle plan. Go get that bitch.”
“We’re going to get hit on the trip back.” Corazon made that a statement rather than a question to Liam.
“I think that’s a foregone conclusion, Cora.” The Captain answered with a shrug. The pair were in her cabin talking over coffee and working towards moving things into the bed. “Pride was designed to be a trap and a killer for these raiders. I can’t see them allowing us to return to Mars without at least trying to hit us as hard as they can.”
“That assessment isn’t all that encouraging, you know.” Cora let out a long sigh.
“No, but it’s the practical one.” The Captain responded quietly. “And if we, any of us Spacers and Grounders, are going to get through this war even reasonably intact, it’s because we’ll have to be pragmatic about things.”
“I know, I know.” Closing her eyes, Cora nodded. “But if you don’t object, I think I’ll do some praying as well.”
“I think a lot of us will be doing that, hon.”
Excalibur, Sting, and Anduril drifted at minimum power, aimed for a rendevous with the Spacer ship they had been charged with destroying. Timing was more than a bit critical on this approach because of the planned softening up attack on The Pride being mounted by six corvettes coming in on her course from a different vector. It would be a useless sacrifice to have one of the bigger ships take a shot from one of the smaller ones because it had been too close in when things started.
Commander Hamish Riley, Commander, Battle Group 1, divided his attention between his own screen, which showed course and speed, along with intercept projections, and the low power, coded ship to ship communications between the three destroyers.
“Here they come.” He quietly announced as the tracks from the six corvettes under his command appeared, speeding towards the much larger, slower moving target. A target that began accelerating with frightening quickness once the smaller ships had appeared. “And our target has begun to react. Hold stations, Sting and Anduril. Repeat. Hold stations.”
“Look at that bitch move!” Lt. Commander Hugh Stevens breathed in mixed admiration and fear as Pride of Eire reacted to their sudden presence with a speed that nearly seemed supernatural. “All ships from Red Leader. Fire when ready then get the hell out of here.”
Six ISP corvettes, all unused to fighting an opponent that was both able and willing to fight back, sped towards their target.
“She’s firing on us, sir.” Scan reported to Riley and an almost bewildering array of plots began filling his screen.
“Fire and evade NOW!” He commanded on his inter-ship comm link.
Stillwell shook as her own mass drivers fired in near unison, and the power on the bridge dropped noticeably from the drain, then Riley braced himself in spite of being strapped in as his ship groaned with the stresses of violent evasive maneuvers.
Liam had let up on the constant drills, but still held one off and on just to keep his people sharp. He had just Initiated one when his scan tech excitedly reported. “Captain! I make three, four, no, six drives lighting up at our four O’clock! On intercept vectors with our present course.”
“Couldn’t have timed this any better if we’d asked, you bastards.” Liam muttered, then hit the acceleration and maneuvering alarms. “This is NOT A DRILL, repeat, THIS IS NOT A DRILL. We have hostiles incoming at our four O’clock.”
As the plots came up on his screen, he ordered. “Helm! Evasive maneuvers and light her up. Let’s move! Weapons, set for a forty-five degree spread and fire on my mark.”
“Ready sir.” The Bos’n in charge of the ship’s weapons systems announced.
“Starboard weapons, mass drivers only.” Liam watched the moving course plots and the numbers scrolling across his screen, then nodded. “Fire!”
Pride shuddered as her heavy weapons on the starboard side let loose simultaneously. Chen, from his station let out a humorless chuckle. “Bet that has them looking for clean pants.”
“Bogies are turning away.” Scan called out. “Firing their own weapons now.”
“Well, all we can do now is see who is the better shot.” Liam breathed while watching the oncoming plots of deadly slugs, and the arching ones of the ships that had fired them. “Brace for impact all.”
“Madre de Dios!” Commander Riley swore softly as he watched their target react almost instantly to what was supposed to be a surprise attack. “Are those Cabrones psychic? No one should be able to react that quickly unless they knew we were coming!”
“Target initiating fire, Sir.” Scan reported, then the tech shook his head in near disbelief. “I make it at least twenty-four shots she just got off. They appear to be moving out in a forty-five degree cone spread now.”
“Seeing it on a vid just doesn’t bring the reality home, does it?” Riley’s exec questioned quietly as they all watched the tracks of their opponent’s shots on the forward screen.
“Corvettes are firing and initiating turns and evade.” Came from scan as the six ship tracks changed vector more violently than any on that bridge thought they were capable of managing without breaking up under the stress.
“Not going to do some of them any good, though.” Riley murmured while tracking the speeding slugs from Pride of Eire and comparing those to projected positions of the Corvettes. “Let’s just hope Stevens and his boys manage to inflict the kind of damage we’re hoping for.”
Pride’s interior rang from impacts while those aboard felt the acceleration and change in vector. Corazon watched the screen for her own battle station with some concern. Environmental was intact, but the heat levels for engineering had risen to an almost alarming level.
From her monitoring station, she sent that information to the bridge then turned her attention to the corner of her screen that detailed other systems on the ship. None of which had seemed to take that much damage from the first attack.
“Number four vane is gone, Captain.” Bing Chavez’s voice came over the comm. “Number three is holed, but holding up. “I can keep us at full power for a while here, but can’t promise more than ten minutes at a time on that. Peak efficiency as of now would be around eight-five percent. Repeat, peak power output that won‘t blow us all to Hell and back is currently at 85%.”
“Keep giving us all you can, Bing.” Liam’s voice calmly came over the comm.
Damage reports filtered in and Corazon was relieved to find that none of the incoming shots had holed the ship. “Pride of Eire, she whispered while again patting the bulkhead. “You are a magnificent, lucky ship.
Back on the bridge, scan reported. “I make at least four impacts out there, with debris. Two of them were solid kills, their drives have blown.”
“Right.” Liam nodded. “Comm, you getting anything from them?”
“Just a lot of coded chatter for now. Got my comp crunching the codes, so I may have something for you on what they’re talking about later.”
“Do what you can.” Liam nodded,then added. “Get me a connection to Mars Command.”
“Very good.” Liam spoke into his own microphone. “HG 1097, Pride of Eire, Liam Hendrikson commanding, Mars Control. We are inbound from Ceres and under attack by multiple ships. Repeat, Pride of Eire, inbound from Ceres is under attack from mutliple hostiles. Our coordinates, present course and speed are included in this transmission. Pride of Eire, out.”
“Now, lets find out what else is out there.” He thoughtfully watched the tracks of the missed shots, then ordered. “Scan concentrate on our port side for a while there. I want to know about any anomalies, magnetic, nuclear, or otherwise you find.”
“What about those raiders, Skipper?” Chen questioned while watching his own screens.
“At the speeds they were making, it’s going to take them a while to slow down enough to turn back into the fight.” He answered. “The way those things came in, their approach arc, makes me think there are other ships waiting out there, too. This first flurry was to feel us out and maybe try to soften us up.”
“Got a slight reading on the magnetics.” Scan announced, passing the data to the captain’s screen. “Could be ships, could be no more than a couple of rocks with a high ore content. Can’t really tell just yet.”
“Any other odd readings?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“All right. Let’s see if something nasty is lurking out there, and try to scare it into showing us it’s there.” Liam nodded. “Weapons, put some shots into the general area that show those anomalies.”
“On it, Skipper.” The Bos’n answered. Pride shook herself as more mass drivers, on the port side fired.
“Now we wait and see who does what, next.” Liam sighed. “Helm, give us the best speed we can make without overheating the drives. If they want us they’re going to have to chase us, and that will show up like a red flag out here.”
“Aye, Captain.” Maria Lang answered quietly.”
Commander Riley watched the target take damage, then fire in the general direction of his three destroyers. “Damn, must have one good mag scan on that thing, and a smart Captain. He’s trying to flush us out before the Corvettes get back.”
“What orders, Sir?”
“Hold positions, all.” Riley swore again as Pride accelerated. “God in Heaven, even without one of her vanes, she’s still faster than we are. Scan, any indication of her heating up too much? Maybe they’re bluffing and trying to get out of range here.”
“Nothing showing on that, sir.” The tech responded, then added. “But she does seem to be operating at something less than before power-wise. The output isn’t so high on my detectors.”
“So Stevens did slow her down.” Riley nodded. “Any word from him yet?”
“Something coming in now, Sir.” Comm reported. “Stillwell and Pershing took solid hits, their drives blew. Harriston aboard Rommel has taken command of Red Group and is getting the four that are left back into attack formation. He wants to know if they have authorization to launch nukes.”
“That’s affirmative, Comm.” Riley answered. “Give me a channel to Hariston so I can give him the authorization codes to unlock the things.”
“Got four, five, no, eight incoming drive signatures, Skipper.” Scan reported. “Not ship drives, sir, those are missiles incoming.”
“Lasers targeting now.” The Bos’n reported.
“Fire lasers.” Liam ordered with more calm than he felt as the plots for the inbound deathbirds converged on Pride’s own.
His screen darkened as the lasers fired, then darkened even more to compensate for the explosions of the missiles. None of them reached to within two hundred kilometers of their target.
“Track that debris.” He ordered. “Those had to be carrying nukes, and they didn’t go off when the lasers hit them. Make sure we don’t run into one by accident here, gentlemen. Lasers, fire at targets of opportunity. If it’s out there and moving, consider it hostile.”
“Four drives lighting up at our One O’clock.” Scan added. “They’ve regrouped and are coming in for another pass.”
“Pick your targets, Bos’n.” Liam quietly ordered. “Don’t let them get away this time around.”
“Aye, skipper.” Pride shivered as her starboard side mass drivers all fired.
“Give me a full 180, helm. Port side drivers prepare to fire when you come to bear.” Liam gripped the arms of his couch as Pride performed another rapid change of atitude, then shuddered again as the starboard mass drivers fired.
“They’ve fired their weapons, sir.” Scan announced. “I don’t think we’re going to get out of the way this time, from the plots I’m making here.”
“Evasive maneuers, helm.” Liam ordered while watching the course plots and closing his eyes for a moment. “Brace for impact, all. Repeat, brace for impact.”
The attacking corvettes couldn’t evade the concentrated fire they found themselves running into. All their captains could do was continue forward and hope they ran the gamut Pride had set in their paths. Two of the four disintegrated from a number of impacts. Of the pair that made it through, one was trailing a vane and had been holed amidships. The other ran into one of the drifting nukes left when Pride had destroyed the missiles.
The bloom of light, though intense, didn’t destroy the small ship. The EMP did kill her systems to send her in a powerless drift out of the plane of the ecliptic.
The damaged Corvette managed to get off another broadside from her mass drivers before Pride’s lasers lanced out and literally cut her in two.
“Got them!” Chen slammed his fist on the arm of his own couch.
“Don’t celebrate yet…” Liam’s admonition was cut short as his ship shuddered and rang from impacts herself.
Riley watched as the remaining Corvettes swept forward in the wake of their failed missile attack for several moments before keying his Command Comm. “Sting, Anduril, move in, hold to my flanks until we’re closer in.
He continued watcing as Excalibur and her sister ships began accelerating towards the larger ship. He knew that the Pride wouldn’t come through that encounter unscathed.
“I have two solid impacts on her, skipper.” Scan reported. “One to another vane, one aft of the bridge. Also around six glancing blows. She’s slowing down, and I see atmosphere escaping from her hull.”
“Good.” Riley grimaced something that might have been taken for a smile as he watched the real time vid for a few moments. “The bitch isn’t invulnerable, gentelmen. Now we have work to do.”
Excalibur, Sting, and Anduril moved towards their crippled target in a slowly spreading formation.
Damage reports, along with frantic demands for damage control teams filled the comm as the last of the impacts glanced off Pride’s armored hull.
“Losing atmosphere in the galley.” One of the cooks reported. “We’re setting a temporary patch, but need a crew in here to make it more permanent.”
Corazon rechecked her own monitors, then sent. “Environment and engineering are intact. I’m reading a big heat buildup in engineering, though.”
“Vane number two is gone.” Chavez reported from engineering. “We’ve also got a mild atmosphere leak in here, but it’s under control. We’re in danger of overloading the heat sinks we have left, though. I’m going to have to cycle the drives down some soon, or we’ll blow, Captain.”
“Do what you have to in there, Bing.” Corazon heard Liam respond. “Just keep us under power, ok?”
“Roger that, Boss. Chavez out.”
“Scan, captain. Got three more drive signatures lit up and on an intercept with us now. Bigger ships. Estimate contact within three minutes at present speeds and vectors.”
“Merde!” Corazon whispered at that. Then returned to working at balancing the load needed by ship systems and what the engines could provide. “Bing, how much power can you give me to work with here?”
“Probably around sixty percent right now, Cora.” Chavez answered with a tired note in his voice. “My babies can still pump it out, but we can’t get rid of the excess heat fast enough to let them go full out.”
“I’m working to lighten that load now.” She told him, keying in commands to shut down all but the combat lighting everywhere but in sickbay where the full lights were needed. That was attested to by the trickling stream of wounded that had been working past her station. “Can you divert some of the heat to the hull? I know it’s inefficient, but it would give us a bit more to work with here.”
“Working on that now, Cora.” Chavez sighed over their connection. “That’s how we got back up to sixty percent.”
“Roger that, Bing.” Cora flipped her link to connect with the bridge. “Power monitoring here, Captain. I may have to shut down all but a few of the scrubbers here to maintain power to other systems. Bing has cobbled about all he can back in engineering, and I’ve shunted stuff everywhere I can think of. We’re out of options.”
“Do it, Cora.” Liam’s voice responded with a tightness she recognized as worry. “If we can’t fight we’re dead.”
“On it, Liam.” She answered, keying in the commands to do that. The low atmosphere alarms added their own din to the cacophony of sounds filling Pride.
Hamish Riley had watched their target perform a complete turnaround with the same stunning speed she had displayed in the vids from Widowmaker, and send enough shots and concentrated laser fire out to eliminate any chance of the Corvettes adding more to the battle but debris as his own group of three destroyers moved in.
“She’s lost another vane there.” He noted, then keyed in his command comm. “Riley here. Hit her with everything we’ve got, and keep hitting her until either she quits or we can’t do anymore.”
The three ISP ships spread out like sharks moving to finish off a wounded whale with attacks from different directions.
Anduril swung to angle towards the damaged vessel’s nose. Sting went towards the stern and the already damaged vanes and hampered engines.
Excalibur continued boring almost straight in, but headed for the larger ship’s belly.
All three ships jinked, slewed, and zig-zagged in their approaches, with ECM measures blasting out to confuse the enemy’s targeting computers. Even though they were sharks, they were all too well aware that the wounded whale they were encircling was still a killer.
“They’re splitting up, skipper!” Scan called out, needlessly, as the course plots for the incoming ships appeared on Liam’s own screen. “Also getting heavy interference now. They’ve initiated ECM.”
“Can our targeting computers work through that?” Liam questioned a frantically busy Chen who was working with his own console to compensate for the interference.
“They can now.” His exec esponded with an indrawn breath. He had been unconsciously holding it for what seemed like hours, but had really been under a minute.
“Then take advantage of the chance, Weapons.” Liam ordered. “Targets of opportunity as they come to bear, Mr. Ross.”
“On it, skipper.” The Bos’n nodded while keying commands to the crews in the weapons emplacements.
“One coming up on our nose.” Scan warned. “Firing her mass drivers.”
“One to the stern, also firing. Bogie to the center is moving to our nadir and firing as well.”
“Our weapons returning fire.” The Bos’n responded quietly.
“Evade!” Liam ordered. “Spread chaff and increase our own ECM. Ninety degrees to port, helm.”
Anduril and Sting were given the nasty surprise of finding the larger ship’s flanks suddenly coming to bear on them, and releasing a swarm of projectiles, laser fire, then cloudy puffs of shredded aluminum and powdered minerals -- the chaff. Their own shots did hit, but the angle of attack was such that most glanced off, though a few did get in solid hits.
Excalibur’s shots, spread to make contact in a wide, flattened pattern, mostly sped harmlessly past the now smaller target Pride offered, plus the smaller ship found herself facing the larger one’s nose and in danger of a catastrophic collision.
“Captain?” Maria Lang questioned.
“Hold your course, helm.” Liam answered. “Forward lasers, open fire.”
“Aye, sir.” Lang and Ross responded in near unison.
Unhindered by the still spreading chaff, the six forward mounted lasers, military grade and powered directly from the engines, sent lances of burning destruction towards the oncoming ship. With predictable results.
Excalibur took the hits full on her forward facing nose. Two penetrated the clear armor-glass forward view port to reduce the bridge to slag and ashes, then continued burning and clawing their way even deeper into the ship. Within seconds, Excalibur had been gutted and her engines exploded.
Pride shook like a dog under a hard downpour as she plowed through the debris left from Excalibur, and took the hits from the two remaining attackers. Her hull rang, groaned, creaked, and split in places, but the ship held together through all that.
Lt. Commander Brandon Shu, aboard Sting, clung to his command couch while watching Excalibur literally disintegrate under the larger ship‘s attack as the enemy shots began to tear his ship to pieces . “Weps, Get a nuke off. NOW! I don’t care if you have to open an airlock and throw the damned thing. Get it moving towards that bitch.”
“The blast, this close in would kill us, too, Captain.” His exec answered, but passed the command along.
“We’re dead anyway.” Shu grimly answered. “I just want to take them with us.
They managed to get one nuclear tipped missile off before Sting came apart at the seams. The missile didn’t fire its engine, simply drifted on a course to intersect with the aft section of Pride.
Lt. Commander Derrik Omar of Anduril was a bit quicker in response than his counterpart or commander had been. “Come about helm! Full gees. Get us away from here.”
Anduril shook, her hull ringing as speeding nickel/iron projectiles impacted, but managed to turn and begin her retreat.
“Engineering reports that engine number one is out, two and three are out of line, this acceleration could tear us apart, Captain.” His exec announced. “We’re holed in four places and losing atmosphere too fast to recover it.”
“The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” Omar muttered, then looked up at his exec’s questioning expression. “We’re caught, first. One or the other. That ship will kill us if we don’t get some distance between us and her. The misaligned engines might kill us. Not really great odds either way, but I‘m taking the one with a chance of survival.”
Some seconds later a briliant flare on the other side of the larger ship, which immediately slewed in their direction, blacked out the view screens on Anduril momentarily. Omar had no time to cheer the successful strike from one of their sister ships, though. Under acceleration, with the remaining two engines out of line by a mere six degrees, Anduril tore herself apart.
The last of the three U.N. ships was withdrawing in evident haste, limping while trailing a vane and holed in at least two places, it was clear that the last of Pride’s antagonists was out of the fight and running.
Clamoring alarms, warning lights, and demands for damage control parties made the atmosphere aboard more than a little surreal. The crew was just beginning to realize that they had survived when a heavy impact and explosion slewed the ship almost ninety degrees around, shook her like a rat in a terrier’s jaws, and the lights blinked out.
Dim, flickering emergency lights returned, along with the rising and falling wail of the radiation alarm and clanging of the lost pressure alert.
“Damn!” Hendrikson swore while staring into a blank, dark screen at his station comp. The rest of the bridge was equally dark, no equipment was running and his suit rad counter was showing dangerously high levels.
“That was a nuke. Sections report, NOW!”
“Helm not responding, Captain.” Maria Lang reported. “We’re drifting.”
“Nav is down, Sir.” Van Bloom added quietly through the suit comms.
“Communications down, Sir.” The comm tech reported. “Long range, short range, and intraship. We’re silent. Not even the emergency beacon is functioning.”
“Comp is fried.” A tech reported from underneath a console with the access panel already opened.
Other reports, all equally disastrous came in, but Engineering and Environment were ominously silent.
“Chavez! Weldon! Report your status please.” Hendrikson requested.
“Captain.” Corazon’s voice came over the channel, calm but strained. “The nuke hit us right between Environment and Engineering. Holed both of them. I haven’t found survivors yet or been able to ascertain the damage to engineering. Environment is slagged, I can see that from where I’m sitting. They took a lot of the blast directly. Recommend immediate evacuation to the boats, Sir.”
“Isn’t that a little drastic?”
“No sir.” Corazon quietly answered and her shuddering sigh could be heard through the comm. Radiation levels are dangerously high in here, and the scrubbers are all down, even if they start up again soon, they’ll be passing contaminated air to the rest of the ship.”
“Get back to me soonest, Cora.” Hendrikson ordered, then added. “All hands, all hands. Non essential crew Abandon ship, repeat, non essential crew abandon ship. Get to the boats.”
“No, Liam.” Came over his private channel. “Get everyone off. My metabolism will handle it, you non-enhanced people will die if you don’t get into a shielded area with clean air.”
“Cora!” Liam almost shouted back. “If it’s that bad, it could kill you, too if you stay aboard much longer.”
“Liam, please listen to me on this.” Her voice was quiet, caressing his ears as she had done with his body on other occasions. “The air, even if it starts circulating again, is bad. The radiation is at levels that send my external meters off the scale. The EMP toasted every electronic system aboard. Environmental is gone, even if the hole in the hull can be patched; the cultures are all vaporized, even the spares. God alone knows if the frozen replacements in cargo are still okay, but even if they are, I don‘t have anywhere to start them. I can get the power back up if anything at all is left in the engine room, I can get comp back up eventually so we can get a fix on where we are and where we need to go. I can get the engines going again, and at least exchange the blown nanos for new ones in the scrubbers, and have clean, safe air circulating in Pride again. These are all things I can do. Let me do my job, Liam. And you do yours. Keep your crew alive and get your ship home.”
“Don’t argue, Liam, please.” Corazon interrupted. “Every person in engineering was on station when that nuke hit us. I’m the only living engineer that you have left and for every second I spend convincing you, I’m losing ten. I can get us home. But it will be for nothing if everyone aboard is dead from bad air or radiation poisoning. LET me DO my damned JOB, Liam! Please.”
“Your job is…”
“To take care of this ship’s crew.” She answered quietly, the passion she had shown a moment ago put aside. “Your’s is to make sure they hold together and do whatever is needed for them to survive. Now get yourself and the others into the boats. That’s an order from the senior Care Giver aboard regarding welfare of the crew, and you know that not even the Captain can supercede that.”
“Cora! Don‘t do this.”
“Do what I‘ve asked, Liam.” Her tired answer came back in a voice filled with compassion and understanding. “Keep your crew alive, and together. Keep them all focused, my love. That will keep you focused. It‘s the only way any of us are going to survive this.”
“But what about you?” He questioned almost plaintively.
“If it comes to that, I never asked to live forever, Liam.” Her gentle answer came back. “I wish things were different, but they aren’t. I’ve had a long, full life, with children I am very proud of to carry my genes, and attitudes on. This crew are my children, too, luv. Let me give them the chance to live like I did. Is that too much to ask?”
“I know.” She answered, wishing she could touch him for even an instant. “I love you, too. Let me make sure you and the others live through this. I‘m pretty sure I‘ll be all right if I can get things started back up soon enough. There are decontamination chambers all over the ship I can and will use.”
“You think your system can handle all this?” He asked, more for reassurance than anything else.
“With the decontamination, if I can’t, no one can.” Corazon chuckled. “Now get your ass off this ship and into one of the boats, and seal the hatchway once you do. Make sure everyone else does that too. They’ll die if they don’t and we’ve already lost too many.”
“Oh, God, Cora…”
“Do it, Laim. And don’t launch the boats. They don’t have the range to get people to safety. Leave that part to me, just get everyone to the boats and cut their systems off the ship’s mains. I’ll reroute power to them once I get it up and running. Just get off for now.”
“All right.” Hendrikson switched back to broadcasting on the general channel. “All hands, get to the boats, repeat, ALL HANDS get to the boats. Initiate internal systems but do not launch, repeat, initiate internal systems but do not launch. Captain out.”
“Now go, my love.” Corazon softly urged. “I’ll have more than enough air to do these things. Please. Go.”
“Doing that, Cora.” Liam answered with a heaviness that mirrored what his soul was feeling. “Get us home.”
Environmental was a total loss, as she had feared. Nothing was left but the basic plating, and even those heavy bulkheads had melted to nearly deadly thinness in spots. She worked her way through the desolation and cycled the lock to gain access to her next destination.
Engineering was heart breaking. Ruptured suits to go with the ruptured hull left bodies that weren’t at all pretty. The blast had destroyed control consoles, piping, and most of the externally operated systems of the engines that provided power to the rest of the ship.
Patching the gaping hole that had killed Engineering was hopeless, she knew, so instead she used more of her precious time to cobble together a morass of piping, cables, and mostly intact laptops that had been shielded in their lead lined storage compartments and had miraculously escaped the blast effects to access the somnolent engines.
And was rewarded with the thrum of real power coming from the crippled behemoths that had moved and powered Pride.
“Well, all or nothing.” She whispered to herself as she rechecked the connections to general ship power, then tapped the key that opened the fragile circuits she had built to get power to the rest of the ship.
They held. But the power curve showing on her own laptop stubbornly refused to climb with any speed at all. Once things stabilized, she calculated roughly in her head, Pride might manage as much as thirty percent power, but would probably only reach twenty-five percent at best. Even so, the lights and heat returned to the main body of Pride once she had done that.
A check of her suit’s rad indicator only told her what she had known when talking with Liam. She didn’t know whether or not she had taken enough from the initial blast to kill her, and hoped she hadn’t. But the chance was there, which made her the best one for the work needing done. At least she would be the only one at risk. The extra rads she was taking would lessen her chances of personal survival, but telling other people who knew next to nothing about what they would be doing in engineering how to put things back together would take longer than if she did it alone.
Once sure that the power was holding, she carefully routed power to the lifeboats and launches to maintain their internal systems without draining now priceless batteries on those smaller ships hanging to Pride’s Hull like an animal’s young to her breasts. Then climbed into a decontamination booth and activated the foam sprays and followed that with a long shower. Stripping out of the suit to get in one herself would have to wait until she was in part of the ship with atmosphere.
“Liam.” She keyed in the private frequency that she shared with the Captain. “I have power to the boats. Tell everyone they can shift from batteries to external power now.”
“That’s good news.” He answered with a falsness to his happiness she could read as if he was standing in front of her.
“I have power to the bridge, too. Though it will take a few hours for the power curves to reach a level where it’s feasible to risk getting the comps back up. If I try before the power holds and it fails they may not come up again.” She told him without inflection. “Besides, there’s something else I need to do before I go to the bridge and try that.”
“Get the scrubbers running first.” He ordered.
“Won’t do us any good, Liam.” Corazon answered. “The cultures and nanos those need to run are gone, destroyed in the blast. Until I check the frozen cultures and spares down in storage for contamination, it would be useless to even try doing it anyway. Besides, I need power to get those back up and running, which I don‘t have to spare for it right now. The drain would blow the jerry rigged mess I have set up to get power out at all. It will just have to wait for the time being.”
“Then what can you do?”
“Priorities, Liam, priorities.” Corazon almost chided. “There is something very important that I need to get taken care of now. Once that’s done we need to know where we are with the power, and then how to get home from wherever that is.”
“No arguments, please my love.” She answered imperturbably. “I’ll get back to you in a while here. Going to be kind of busy for the next few hours at least.”
With her comm microphone turned off, Cora began the second most important task in her priorities list, even if it was heartbreaking. The dead needed seen to, and since she appeared to be the only living crew member left aboard, she assigned that difficult task to herself. She located a powered cart in the cargo bays access, and though maneuvering it through Pride’s cramped companionways was awkward at times it meant that she didn’t have to fight the mass of each body all the way back to her improvised morgue in cargo bay C.
The bags meant to hold bodies were impossible to use in a lot of cases given the postures many of her charges were in, and even if they had been usable, there just weren’t enough of them to go around.
Hours later, exhausted, and with a list of names that even glancing at brought tears to her eyes, she gave the dead crewmembers one last sorrowful look.
“I was sent to this ship to take care of you, all of you.” She whispered hoarsely. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t do more for you, but at least now you’ll have the dignity of not being stepped over, or walked around and stared at when someone does reach us. I know there are words I should say here…”
“But those seem rather empty and meaningless to me now.” She finished once the catch in her voice passed. “I’ve done all I can for you. Except to tell all of you to go with your gods, and be at peace.”
“I have a list of the dead here.” She quietly informed Hendrikson once she’d composed herself and turned the comm from receive only to send/receive. “Seventy-four of them.”
“Cora, I’ve been trying to call you for hours!” Hendrikson almost shouted into the comm, but his relief was clear.
“I know, I heard, but there just wasn’t anything to say at the time.” Her answer was filled with the sound of barely repressed tears. “And I didn’t have the heart to talk while I was doing what needed to be done.”
“What did you do?”
“Moved them into cargo bay C, so they wouldn’t be on -- you know -- display like some ugly diorama in a museum or a war games sim.” Corazon quietly told him. “They deserved that much dignity, at least.”
“The living are more important, hard as that is to say.” The Captain sighed. “But it’s done now. And I’m actually glad you took the time for them.”
“Yes, I agree on the living being a priority, but that would have still waited until the power levels started to climb before I could do anything else. The generators had stopped completely and we were lucky that the fusion reactions in the engines didn’t die or go critical there.” She told him, then let out a choked off sob. “I would have waited the same amount of time, and just looking at them lying there hurt too much to bear.”
“I understand.” Liam gently answered. “Can you get the list to me so I can compare it with the survivors aboard the boats?”
“Once I get comp back up, yes. But please don’t ask me to read their names off now. I don’t think I could take that at the moment.”
“Neither could I, to be honest.” Liam answered heavily. “Damn, I wish I was out there with you. This sitting is driving me nuts.”
“Just catch up on your reading and sleep.” Her response was a bit lighter at that. “And get used to it for at least a while. The radiation levels in here aren’t dropping yet.”
“How are you holding up, physically?”
“Well enough.” Corazon dismissed that question by changing the subject. “I think there’s enough power in the ship’s grid now to get something besides heat and light going in here.”
“Be careful in there, Cora.”
“Always, Liam, sometimes too much so.” The regret in her voice faded as it turned brisk and was clear that she was moving from her breathing. “I need to get us oriented and headed back towards traveled space. That battle sent us way out of the plane of the ecliptic. Even if the distress beacon starts and could reach someone, they’d spend years, even centuries, finding us out here.”
On the way to the bridge, she stopped at a storage area and took two extra oxygen tanks that registered as full. Her own suit air was getting low, and though suffocation might be faster than potential radiation poisoning, there were things she needed to do. She would just have to risk the radiation levels.
Getting out of her suit, shivering in the still chill air of the companionway,
Corazon stepped into another decontamination unit and let the warm foam and water soothe her chaffing flesh. Some of the redness showing there wasn’t from the heated foam or water, but there was nothing to do but spread some burn salve on it. It was no worse than a mild sunburn so far, not really uncomfortable at all. Yet.
Once that task was finished she knew for certain she was dying but didn’t want to do it alone, so entering the Captain’s Launch where Liam was would be possible only if she got rid of the radiation she had already taken. Or at least the majority of it. She exchanged her nearly exhausted air tank for a fresh one but didn’t put her suit back on and moved to the bridge carrying it with her.
Replacement components for the crippled nav comp were in shielded lockers. She only hoped the shielding had been good enough as she gathered the parts needed to get the comps up and running again.
Shaking sweat soaked hair from her forehead and eyes as well as she could, then smoothing it back with a shaking hand, Corazon almost felt like cheering out loud when the Nav Comp console came slowly back to life.
The results of a position check were less than encouraging.
Pride had drifted to a position several hundred-thousand miles north of the plane of the ecliptic after the battle and during her efforts to reestablish power, see to the dead, and get the computers back up. The distance to any traveled space lane was daunting, even to her own iron hard determination.
As the nav sections powered up, and she set them to working on the problem of reaching at least Mars orbit a clattering bang echoing down the companionway attracted her attention.
Letting the comp finish its scan of her list and send it to the boat Hendrikson was in, she moved back out of the bridge to investigate. At least there was no rush of air that would indicate another breach in the hull, she thought with relief while thinking of her suit still laying across a dead console on the bridge.
What she found both lifted her heart and gave her a pang of grief. Two figures were struggling along the companionway, the smaller of the pair supporting the other with more than a bit of difficulty.
“Thank God.” The smaller one, Sheila she recognized from the name stenciled on the woman’s suit breathed when Corazon reached them and lent her own strength to the struggle. “I’d thought we were the only ones left following that last blast.”
“No, quite a few of us are left alive, the rest are in the boats now, where the air and shielding are better than in here.” Corazon told her, noting from the way she walked that the young woman had sustained some serious injuries. “I stayed to get the power back up and some of the systems on line again.”
“Can we get to the boats, then?” Sheila questioned, with a small gasp as her companion, lurched into her a bit more heavily.
“No, I’m afraid not, dear. Not yet, anyway.” Corazon answered slowly, with regret and pain in her voice. “They’re sealed to keep out the radiation and contaminated air. Having one open up to take us aboard would probably just end up killing the people inside until things cool down a bit and the internal decontamination procedures can be activated.”
“So what happens to us?”
“I don’t know yet.” Corazon responded honestly. “That depends on which systems I can get running and how much of a power drain they would represent. Though getting the scrubbers running again doesn’t look like a good prospect just now.”
“Nano’s are shot, I know.” The other nodded. “I work Environment. The spare cultures are ruined, too. How much air do you think we have left?”
“Enough. I need to get you two into sick bay now though.” She knew the answer was vague, and probably a lie, but there was no need to tell the young woman that she and her companion were likely going to die too.
The man, Charles Scott, Corazon remembered him as well, had taken a heavy blow to the head. That he had managed to walk at all, even with help, was amazing. Corazon managed to get him onto one of the exam tables before his eyes -- with uneven pupils -- rolled back and his rattling breath came to a shuddering stop.
There was nothing she could do but lower her head and whisper a short prayer. Turning away from the dead man, she gave her attention to the young woman.
Sheila DuMarest, had been a vivacious little thing always ready to laugh and enjoy a moment when it came. She had also been the girl with the stand up base during that impromptu first concert that had helped Cora open up to the crew. Once out of the pressure suit, she presented as bedraggled and weary an appearance as Corazon herself had. But there was worse than that to see.
Removing the semi rigid suit had been a mistake, Corazon could see that the moment it came free and slid to the floor with a soft thud. The ugly bruising on the young woman’s side was clearly shown through the thin shirt she was wearing. At least the suit had held things together, without it, ribs could be seen moving and grinding together with each breath Sheila took.
“Ribs.” Sheila grimaced and coughed while confirming that lay diagnosis, wiping a trace of blood from her mouth when she did. “I was checking on the forward scrubbers when the Nuke went off. One fell and got me a glancing blow. Been kind of hard to breathe since.”
“Yeah, I see that.” Corazon helped her sit on one of the examination tables and cranked the head of it up so the girl could recline without lowering her upper body in relation to her legs. Lying flat would make the obviously punctured lung bleed even more. It was all she could do to make the other comfortable at the time, aside from covering her with a blanket.
“I’m not a medic, I’m sorry.” She told the other while giving a pain killer and beginning to wrap the abused ribs with tape as gently as possible. “This is about all I know to do, and just hope it’s right.”
Sheila nodded, her face a mask of pain that gradually smoothed out as the pain killer took effect. “What about Charlie? How’s he doing?”
“Sleeping.” Corazon lied as the girl began slipping into unconsciousness. “You rest now, I have a few things to do, then I’ll come back and check on you in a little while.”
Covering the dead man’s form just as gently, she turned away from his shrouded form, then thought of something else. Going through the cabinets and drawers soon turned up what she was looking for and with several of them in her hand, she left the sickbay and slowly made her way back to the bridge, and the problem she had first set out to solve.
“Okay, Liam, I’m not an expert with nav, so I’ll need someone to walk me through setting up our course back to Mars.” She spoke into the comm unit she still had strapped to her head. “Can you do it, or should I check with someone else?”
“Van must have been one of the dead.” Liam softly replied, and she recalled, with an internal pang, moving the Nav officer’s body as he did.
“Yeah, he was. Sorry, I’m getting a little tired here.”
“You need to rest a while, Cora?”
“No, I’ll be fine.” She told him while injecting one of the stims she had taken from sickbay. “Just give me a second to catch my breath here. I found a survivor a few minutes ago. Sheila DuMarest, but she’s in bad shape. Got her to sickbay and did what I could. Let’s get this part of things finished up. I need to get back and check on her as soon as I can.”
“Okay.” Liam slowly replied. “I can walk you through what you need to do, it’s pretty simple once the nav-comp spits out the figures. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“All right.” Cora, more awake and feeling better than she had in hours, though it was a false sense of well being, spoke again after a few minutes. “Comp has the figures and a screen has come up with some plots on it. One is Mars orbit, another the present position of Mars, and the other one’s us, I think. Dios! We’ve drifted a long ways out.”
“Don’t worry about that right now, we’re doing all we can about it.” Liam soothed, though his own voice held strain. “Now how far out are we from Mars orbit and what is our relative position in relation to that orbit?”
“It looks as if we’re a good Two-hundred K miles out of the plane of the ecliptic, to the North of it, above it. Seven degrees out of the plane now and drifting further as I watch. That nuke must have really given us a push when it went off.”
“All right, now Key in the command to compute orbit and trajectory to Mars. Then use the touch controls on the screen, find the cross hairs and get them to cover the icon for mars, it’ll be the red one that’s flashing.”
“Got it.” She answered, after getting that far. Though orienting on Mars orbit was even more disheartening. The lateral jets were still not functioning, and taking the time to get those up would doom the people crammed into the boats as surely as if she opened them to vacuum from the master console.
Might be kinder in the long run. She thought while searching for alternatives that wouldn’t take more time than the survivors had to spend.
“Liam, we’re out of true on the alignment. I don’t have the lateral jets up, and it would take too much time for me to get that done.”
“Which laterals do you need to fire?”
“Running the numbers now, Liam.” She answered distractedly, then muttered aloud. “Wait a minute, here. What I’m seeing is a long shot but it might work. I think I could use a pair of boats for lateral jets!”
“That would work.” Liam replied. “Got the figures yet on which ones?”
Corazon ran the numbers and allowed herself to relax slightly as the comp worked them out.
“Yes.” She spoke into the now functioning Intraship comm to the shuttles and boats. “I’m going to need a thirty second burn at two gees from shuttle number six, then from the Captain’s launch on my command.”
Thank God we aren’t in a tumble. She breathed while feeding the nav comp the data and watching the balefully blinking red light that indicated an intersect vector with Mars.
“On my mark, shuttle number six.” She commanded, without confirmation from the shuttle. “Commence burn in… Ten, nine….
The X indicating Pride’s orientation began to move towards the welcoming light that was Mars orbit.
“On my mark, Captain’s launch. Commence burn in… Ten, nine…
When that burn came on schedule, the brightly lit white X representing Pride’s vector intersected the now pulsing green glow of Mars.
“Oriented, shuttle six and Captain’s launch, nice job.” Corazon informed the crew. “Initiating burn now.”
If what I jerry rigged in Engineering works. She thought with a small prayer.
The engines fired with the right amount of thrust and she let herself slump into the command chair in relief.
“On our way home, people.” She breathed with as much relief in that as those riding the shuttles and launches felt.
“Cora?” Liam’s voice roused her from a daze and she shook her head to further clear it, thinking it was time for another stim shot. “I have this figured out. We can use Pride as a booster, get up to the velocity we need, then launch the boats and add their boost to what she’s already given us. It’ll get us home a lot faster and more safely that way.”
“Good enough.” Corazon let out a ragged breath, fighting waves of exhaustion and sickness in an attempt to sound as if she was still healthy. “I need to go check on Sheila now. I’ll get back to you in a few minutes here.”
“All right, but before you go, what is the time-line on our return trip without launching the boats?”
“Best I could do is two months.” Corazon replied with a weary smile. “Even then, it’ll be depedent on whether or not someone hears the beacon and comes to rescue us. Oh, I got that running, too.”
“I know.” Liam told her with a worried note to his voice. “We can hear it broadcasting now. Are you sure you’re okay in there, Cora?”
“I’m fine, Liam.” She lied. “Just tired. I’m heading to sick bay now. Be back in a while.”
“Get yourself, and her, to the Captain’s Launch, Cora.” His order came through as sounding harsh, but that was from concern. “You’ve done all you can in there.”
“Gotta decontaminate the both of us first, Chico, or we’d contaminate all of you. That’ll take a while.”
“Just do it, Cora.”
“Yes, sir.” Her response was slow, but held a hint of her familiar, gentle humor in the tone. “I’ll get there as soon as I can. Now stop distracting me so I can finish up here.”
The short walk to sickbay nearly winded her. Briefly stopping to lean against the bulkhead she mildly berated herself. Merde! You aren’t dead yet, Chica. Move! Things still to do here you know.
Sheila was awake and greeted her return with a relieved smile, but the young woman was obviously breathing with a great deal of difficulty.
“Heya.” She managed to get out in a strained voice. “Get the comp fixed, did you? I felt the drive kick on just now, didn’t I?”
“Yes, we’re on our way home.” Cora smiled despite the twisting of her insides from the radiation poisoning and her friend’s waxy appearance. “Now we need to get ourselves decontaminated so we can get to the Captain’s Launch. Orders from Himself, there.”
“We aren’t going to make it, you and I, are we?” The younger woman’s voice remained steady but the expression in her eyes was one of resignation.
“Probably not.” Cora acknowledged. “At least I won’t. I’d hoped differently at first, but guess I took too much radiation from that initial blast. My station was just too close to it for anything else to have come of it once it didn‘t kill me outright now that I think about it.”
“Does the Captain know that?”
“I imagine he suspects as much.” Cora let out a ragged sigh and seated herself on a stool next to the exam table her friend was on. “Though I don’t think he’s admitting that to himself yet.”
“I’m afraid, Cora.” Sheila whispered, reaching out a hand for the other.
Corazon took it in her own, giving a gentle squeeze once she did. “So am I, little one, but every new adventure begins with a little fear, no?”
“Is that what it is? A new adventure?”
“So I’ve been told all my life.” Cora smiled softly. “A new beginning, not an ending.”
“I hope that’s true.”
“I think it is, dear one.” Both remained silent for a few minutes as the younger woman’s breathing became more labored.
“I’m so cold, mama.” Sheila broke the silence with the whispered complaint in a little girl voice. “And it’s so dark in here. It scares me.”
“Hush, little one.” Cora moved off the stool to give the other a hug, and held it. “It will be all right. Don’t be afraid, just go to sleep now. Mama’s here to watch over you, and things will be better when you wake up.”
“Yes, I promise.”
The younger woman closed her eyes with a breath that never quite finished as her painful breathing stopped. But her face was calm as Corazon gently disengaged herself, tears flowing freely, and bent to lightly kiss Sheila’s forehead. “Sleep well, little one. Nothing can hurt you any more.”
She moved the exam couches themselves, slowly and painfully, until the last two dead aboard Pride were resting with their compatriots. Pausing to catch her own breath at the lock, she turned and waved a final farewell to all of them. Then without a word, left them to the silence only the dead can endure.
A quick stop in her own cabin, with some rapid message leaving on her personal comp, which had been in a shielded compartment, and gathering up her precious Imelda protected inside its lead foil lined case, was all she had left to do, other than going through the decontamination procedures once again. With the cased guitar at her side.
“Nearly finished, now, Chica.” She whispered while slowly moving towards the door leading to the companionway. “All that is left to do is saying a few goodbyes.”
“Cora?” Liam’s voice crackled over her comm.
“On my way, Liam.” She answered and forced herself to continue moving though even that simple act was physical agony. “I’ll be there in a few minutes. Had to see to Sheila before I came.”
“Then she didn’t…”
“No, Liam. She went comfortably, though. Without pain at the end.”
“I’m sorry, Cora.”
“So am I.” She replied softly as she neared the access to the Captain’s Launch. “So am I.”
Liam and Mai were both waiting at the lock as it cycled open and the Pride of Eire’s Ship Mother slowly came through it.
“Cora! Thank God you…” Liam didn’t get the chance to finish as the woman let out a low moaning sigh and crumpled slowly to her knees. Both he had Mai reached to support her, and finally the captain carried her into the Launch proper.
“Move!” He harshly commanded the small crowd that had gathered just inside the launch’s lock. “Clear a path here! I’ve got to get her to sickbay now!”
The limp form in his arms was recognizably their Ship Mother, but there were huge dark circles under her closed eyes, and the angry red of burns showed in patches on exposed flesh. Without a word, they made room, and their captain, with his gently held burden hurried aft while Mai was close behind, carrying a guitar case everyone recognized.
Mai assisted the med tech who was the closest thing they had to a doctor aboard with the examination of the quiet, but still breathing woman on the operating table. The two gave each other a glance filled with hopeless loss once the exam was finished.
“Well?” Liam questioned.
“I’m sorry Liam.” Mai barely held in a sob, but steeled herself to deliver the news. “Radiation poisoning, too many stims, and exhaustion have taken their toll here.”
“What does that mean?” The man asked with a dangerous quiet while moving to sit beside the somnolent Corazon.
“She’s dying, Liam.” Mai answered just as quietly. “It looks like she took enough radiation in that first blast to be fatal.”
“Damn!” Shaking his head, Liam glared at her, but she refused to flinch from his angry regard. “I Knew I should have made her come with us at the first. We could have done something for her then.”
“No, Liam. Listen to me.” Mai stood unflinching as he glared at her. “She’d taken a high enough dose that she would have died anyway, even if she had come to safety with the rest of us. The subsequent exposure to more radiation, the exertion and… the stims she took to keep going have only made it faster for her. We don’t have the equipment to have saved her in the first place and she knew that.”
“We could have done something!” He shouted.
“No, we couldn’t have.” The young woman stood firm and didn’t raise her own voice though it carried through the small sickbay. “Corazon made her choice. It was either a long, painfully lingering death, and more of us joining her trying to make those repairs, or a quicker one that kept us out of danger.”
“If you two are going to start hitting each other, please go outside.” A weak voice interrupted them. “I don’t want either of you falling on me just now.”
“Cora!” Liam turned to face her and reached out to take her in his arms. “What did you do?”
“My job, Liam.” She answered with a slight wince as he hugged her. “Making sure the crew I’d been assigned to care for was taken care of to the best of my abilities.”
“You managed that.” Liam gave her a shaky smile, then muttered. “Crazy woman.”
“I’ve been called that before, you know.” Corazon chuckled, closing her eyes with a grimace once she had. “It’s good to see you too.”
“We would have helped you damnit.” Liam shook his head while giving her a wounded look. “It would have speeded things up, made them easier on you.”
“And more of you would have died.” Corazon gave him a serious look. “Too many have done that already. The radiation would have killed you a lot more quickly than it got to me. I was the logical one to do it, that’s all.”
“Logic be damned.”
“I really don’t have time for this, Liam.” Giving him a wan smile to take the sting out of the rebuke, she went on. “Now I need to talk with Mai for a minute. You stay right here, though. I’m not done with you yet.”
“I won’t leave.”
“I know you won’t. Just move aside so I can talk with her a few minutes, could you, please?”
With a nod, he reluctantly released his hold and moved back so the other Care Giver could move closer to her.
“Cora.” Mai quietly spoke as she sat beside the other woman. “You are a class one idiot, but I love you for it.”
“And you.” Corazon grinned. “Are still a brat with no respect for her elders. There wasn’t anything else I could do. You know that.”
“Yes, I know.” Mai let out a ragged sigh and took one of Corazon’s hands in her own. “You were magnificent.”
“I was just doing my job, dear.” The other shook her head. “But that isn’t what I wanted to say to you.”
“Well, get on with it then.” Mai tried to maintain a cheerful exterior, but failed as tears began running down her cheeks. “I know a certain Captain is about to bust a gut to get back to your side here.”
“I want you to take care of Imelda for me.” Corazon gave her a long, penetrating look. “She needs to be held by someone who knows how to handle her, and love her, properly.”
“What?” Mai gave her an incredulous look. “You told me that guitar has been in your family for generations. What about your own children?”
“Not one of them would even know how to hold her properly, let alone care for and play her as she should be.” Corazon shrugged, obviously a painful gesture from the slight grimace it brought to her face. “You would. And you’d see that she gave others the gifts that she was made to give. Music, joy, and a good dance or two.”
“All right.” Mai nodded, swallowing hard. “I’d be honored to do that.”
“That’s not all.” Corazon tightened her grip on the other’s hand. “You having Imelda will be a link to me. When the time comes, I want you to pass her along to someone else who deserves her, just as you do. That will make another link. And make that one promise you to do the same in her turn. That way, wherever Imelda goes, we all go with her, in a sense.”
“I understand.” Mai answered with a shaky smile. “I promise I’ll do that for you.”
“Good. Now I really hate goodbyes, you know that.” Cora gave her another smile. “Give me a kiss and leave me alone with Liam for a while, could you?”
“Of course, Ship Mother Corazon.” Mai leaned forward to place her lips against the other’s forehead, shocked at the heat in that flesh even though she knew it would be like that. “I’ll be seeing you.”
“One of these days.” Cora promised, then made weak shooing motions with her hands.
“Hey there.” Liam gingerly seated himself beside her and took her hands in his. “I’m here.”
“I’m not quite blind yet.” Corazon tried a grin that came out more as a grimace. “I have some things to tell you, too. Promise to listen and not interrupt me for a change, would you?”
“Okay. Promise.” He replied in a shaky voice.
“Good.” Cora shifted on the table and let out a little moan but hid her discomfort just as quickly as it came out. “Now you pay attention to Mother Corazon here, Captain. Really pay attention.”
“You need to move on now.” She told him. “There is no time for grief here at the moment, no matter how much you want to indulge in that, and I can’t blame you for that. But there is nothing to be done about what is and both of us know that. The point is that you have work to do so everyone can get home.”
“I… I know.”
“I’m very tired, Liam. I have been for awhile and you know that.” Corazon told him gently. “It’s time for me to go home, too. That isn’t a reason for grief.”
“I’m afraid I have to argue that one with you.” Liam gave her hand a light squeeze. “I don’t want you to leave me, and that leaving would be a cause for grief.”
“I won’t be leaving you, Liam.”
“Then what would you call it?” He questioned a bit plaintively.
“I’ll never leave you, my love.” She reached up to touch his forehead and then moved her hand to his chest, just over his heart. “I’ll be here, and here, so long as you remember me. And when your time comes, I’ll be waiting for you at the door to heaven with a big welcoming kiss.”
“Cora!” Liam almost begged as her eyes took on an inward look as if seeing things no one else could. “Stay with me here. Just for while.”
“Si, si, Mama. Uno momento.” She murmured, then returned her attention to Liam with a soft smile on her face. “It’s time for me to go home, Liam. Mama is calling me, and it’s been so long since I’ve seen her. It will be wonderful to be there again with everyone. She’s making Fideo just for me, you know.”
“Adios Liam, my love.” Corazon gave him a clear eyed stare and a real smile. “I’ll be waiting for you, I promise. But I have to go now. I’m so tired, I need to rest for a while before dinner. Goodbye, dear one.”
She didn’t hear him. Her face was turned in another direction and her free hand reached towards whatever she was seeing. “Mama! I’ve said my goodbyes, and I’m ready.”
She closed her eyes, let out a long, soft sigh, and settled back into the med couch. The lines of strain, and pain left her face, which had taken on an expression of pure joy, and most importantly, peace.
Liam, watched for a breath that didn’t come for a long minute, then hugged her to him with his face against her breast, weeping without either shame or fear of being thought weak.
“Liam.” A soft voice intruded on his grief as Mai carefully disengaged his now strengthless arms from his love. “She’s gone. She finally got what she wanted for so long, and went home.”
“Cora.” He looked at her again, longingly, but allowed himself to be pulled away. “Oh, God, my beautiful Cora.”
“We have the ones she saved to take care of for her.” Mai gently reminded him. “Her job is done. Ours isn’t. Let’s not disappoint her, all right?”
“We can’t do that.” He agreed, shaking himself visibly for some control.
“Disappoint her, I mean.”
“We won’t.” Mai assured him.
“Let’s get with it, then.”
“I got a cryo tank ready while she was saying goodbye to you.” Mai gestured at the metal and glass cylinder. “Help me get her into it, would you? “She’s suffered enough recently without the added indignity of being stared at, don’t you think?”
Washing her had nearly broken both their hearts, she had been burned in so many places, then they allowed the crew aboard the launch to say their own goodbyes to their Ship Mother. Some of those got emotional enough to start Liam and Mai’s tears flowing again. Once that was over they had gotten the Cryo tank going after sealing her inside, then Liam and Mai emerged from the small sickbay.
“Send a message to Mars Command with our position, vector, and velocity, Cham.” Liam quietly told the comm operator who was sitting at her station still wiping tears from her cheeks. “Then get me a private signal to Fred Hastings and Rei Yotori. They need to know about all of this.”
“Aye, sir.” Cham went to work, glad to have something to do other than sit and stare at others in as much shock as she was. Soon, too soon for Liam, she announced. “Private channels open and ready for you Captain.”
“Thank you.” Liam stared into the screen for a few moments, then drew in a breath and began. “Captain Liam Hendrikson, commander, Pride of Eire with a message for Fred Hastings, Apollo Freight, New Atlanta, Mars. And for Rei Yotori, Care Givers Company, New Atlanta, Mars.
By now Mars Command has probably passed the information that Pride was attacked while inbound from Ceres. The information on that is appended to this message and Mars Command has their own copy. This message is for the two of you.” Closing his eyes for a moment and visibly working to gain control of his emotions, Liam looked to the screen again. “I regret to inform both of you that Ship Mother Corazon Gutierrez died of radiation poisoning in the execution of her duties.
After taking a fatal dose of radiation from a nuclear tipped missile that hit us, she remained aboard Pride and brought essential systems back on line, while caring for our dead and some wounded who were trapped aboard. Her courage, and determination in the face of great obstacles and what had to be agonizing pain towards the end saved the rest of us and probably our ship.
Ship Mother Gutierrez was a shining example of what a Care Giver is and should be. One who cares so much that she will give everything to see the ones she loves, and even those she barely knows when under her care, safe. Her conduct was more than exemplary throughout these actions and her time aboard the Pride.” Liam swallowed to keep the sobs trying to get out from escaping, then finished with. “I can’t say any more just now, I’m sorry. Hendrikson out.”
Six hours later, Pride’s painfully slow acceleration reached the point That had been determined as the best launch speed for the boats. Liam, worn out from holding the grief he wanted to express inside, and coordinating the launching sequence so all the boats would disengage and fire their drives at the same time, finally leaned back in the copilot’s seat and let out a long shuddering sound that might have been a moan. Then went back to monitoring the countdown.
Once the boats had launched, and were on the vector needed, he left the command cabin and found a mostly empty area. Crew members who were close by, moved away, crowding themselves a bit more, to allow him some small privacy for his grief.
Once the boats had tied themselves together, for combined safety and sharing of power, there was yet another blow for them to endure.
As if the attack on Pride with all the losses on both sides hadn’t been enough for them, the UN was back.
“Captain.” The scan tech on duty closed his eyes and swore to himself. “I have seven hostiles on my screens. Three of the bigger ones, six of the smaller ones, same as hit us before. And one that seems to mass as much as the rest combined.”
“Vectors?” Liam questioned with a weariness that was mirrored by everyone else in that small refugee flotilla.
“Moving in on the Pride, sir.”
“Damn them.” Liam let out a shuddering sigh. “They won’t get their hands on my ship. Not after everything else they’ve done. Can you initiate the self destruct sequence from here?”
“I can access the command structure through the comps aboard her.” The scan tech answered, doing that and passing the access to his screen.
“I’ll hold it until they pull alongside.” Liam grimly spoke to anyone who was listening, but mostly to himself. “Maybe Pride can take a few more with her when she goes. The lady deserves better, but it’s all I have left to give her.”
“Two more drives coming in on my scan, Captain.”
“More of them?” Liam wearily shook his head. “How many damned warships do they have out here?”
“Negative on that sir.” Comm was almost jubilant. “These are the Robert A. Heinlein and Black Pearl! Heinlein is challenging the UN ships.”
Some time later, the comm tech announced. “The UN fleet is striking their colors, Captain. They’ve surrendered!”
“Thank God.” Liam let out a breath and stopped the self destruct sequence on Pride. At last, someone shows some sense in this mess.”
Later, Apollo Freight’s Robert A. Heinlein intercepted and picked up the boats. While their occupants were being taken aboard, The Black Pearl, commanded by Persephone Chartrand, latched onto Pride and started to take her home.
Mike Hastings, the son and heir of Fred Hastings, and Captain of Heinlein, oversaw the offloading of the cyro tank holding Corazon from the Launch and into a waiting bay aboard his ship with grief written across his face. A young Asian Care Giver who was beside him, and turned out to be his wife, Masako gave the tank a sad look while offering the information. “She was his Godmother. I understand that Ship Mother Gutierrez was like a mother to him after his own was killed.”
There was really nothing to say that would help. Liam and Mai only nodded in response and followed the small procession formed up behind the tank into Heinlein.
Pride was healed, all the damage repaired, systems up, and the air recycling system working better than it had when she was new. Though that had required a lot of time and work. Garner-Haikasu was not going to allow a ship that was already becoming a legend be scrapped, so had spent the resources necessary to repair her. Liam was glad that they had done so.
He was aimlessly walking through her companionways, checking work stations and bulkheads as he passed them when he neared what had been her quarters with a pang that nearly tore his heart in two.
And a ghost was there. The mellow tones of her ancient, and beloved Martin filled the corridor.
Laim followed the sound, rising from hesitant, to mournful, to joyous, and falling quietly back to melancholy, to the quarters Corazon had occupied for such a wonderful, tragically short time.
The notes continued to fill the air, vibrating as much in his soul as in his ears as he paused in front of her door, almost afraid to key the opening sequence. As he stood there in a morass of indecision and grief the music rose to a crescendo of triumphant fulfillment then slowly fell back to the original, almost mournfully soft notes that had first drawn him there. Taking a deep breath, and carefully gripping his galloping emotions, he keyed in the combination that would open the door.
Once he did, the ghost withdrew gracefully. Replaced by the intent form of the Pride’s new Ship Mother, Mai. She gently cradled the venerable Martin while picking notes and strumming chords that managed to sum up a life that had eventually given up everything for someone else.
Mai, her cheeks shining with tears, looked up at him and quietly told him. "Liam, I‘m using her guitar from now on, she did give it to me. Do you mind that? My playing Imelda for her now that she can‘t?”
"No, it‘s a good thing, Mai, though hearing it did give me a start there for a few seconds." He answered slowly. "Cora knew you would love it as much as she did."
"I'm writing a song about her." Mai quietly told him, never halting the hauntingly beautiful melody her nimble fingers seemed to unconsciously pull from the instrument.
"I heard it down the companionway." Liam nodded, choking and doing his best to hide it as the mellow, beautiful sounds kept coming from the guitar. "It's good."
"Someone has to remember her." Mai fiercely told him. "Remember what she did."
"Someone will, Mai." Liam answered, his own vision blurring as he remembered the woman who had so briefly lived in this place, and spent even less time in his heart as he told her, too.
“Oh, God, Liam.” She carefully set the guitar aside. “How is it possible to miss someone so badly when you only knew her for a few months?”
“Every once in a while,” Liam slowly replied while thinking it through. “Someone very special touches people’s lives and leaves marks they don’t even notice until that one is gone. Cora was one of those special ones.”
“What are we going to do without her?”
“Just what she asked us to do.” Liam let out a long sigh. “Live, and do it well.”
“I don’t know if I can yet.” Mai quietly told him, looking more vulnerable than he had ever seen her. “I’m not finished grieving.”
“Neither am I, hon.” Liam shrugged. “But she wouldn’t appreciate our moping around over her you know.”
“I know, but still.” Pride of Eire’s newly confirmed ship mother lowered her head and her shoulders shook with quiet sobs.
“Hey, it’ll be all right.” Without really thinking about what he was doing, Liam took her in his arms and gave her a light squeeze. “One step at a time gets you going on any journey, no matter how long or hard the trip is going to be. She showed us that. We can’t let her down now, can we?”
“No, I don’t think we could stand that.” Mai lifted her head and found herself looking into his tired, sad eyes and blushed, but made no move to get out of the circle of his arms. “Her memory wouldn’t let us, anyway. She set a pretty high standard, you know.”
“Yes she did.” Liam nodded, leaning forward to place a kiss on her forehead.
Mai raised her face just enough that their lips met instead, and tightened her grip on him as he did on her. Two people struggling to deal with a loss that had hit them both very hard, the shared experiences, the private memories, all worked together in a concert of emotion and response that seemed orchestrated even though its beginning was accidental.
“We shouldn’t be doing this, should we?” She questioned as he gently laid her on the bed.
“Do you want to stop?” Liam asked with a soft smile on his angular face. “Just say the word, and I will.”
“No, don’t stop.” Mai rested her head against the pillow and closed her eyes for a moment. “I need this, I really need this.”
“So do I.” Liam breathed as his hands began to slowly undress her.
Later, the entwined couple were holding one another in soft, companionable quiet when Mai glanced at the center shelf in the cabin. Corazon’s image, framed and smiling, watched as if in pleased benediction.
And the soft refrain of the song that generations would remember lilted from Mai almost without conscious volition.