After the Ashes - Part 1
Authors Note: I’m not a Marine nor was I in the Navy, the closest I got to either were a few years in the JROTC way back in high school. The only time I have flying is in different space and flight simulations, so if I miss something too obvious keep that in mind. This version is slightly different than the one that was published prior, I have changed a few minor bits and changed others to reflect my own growth in writing.
Chapter One: Decant
“The decanting of tank number twenty seven twenty will commence in five seconds.” Marge noted aloud as the pumps started to kick in, while she was sure the body in the clear-steel container was healthy she was not sure her mind would be. Shaking her head she tapped a few commands into the computer and motioned to the med techs to take their places. She wished that the Fed’s computer had not been wiped, as they never knew if the person they were awakening was a trained soldier or an officer. A few times it would have been nice to know if it was safe to salute or safer yet to duck.
The Marines had done their job in capturing the Federal Intelligence Services’ ‘Medical Ship’. She snorted and wished that she could scratch her scalp, but the clean-suit prevented that, as it was one long red hair had escaped the suit to tickle at her nose. While medicine was undoubtedly used on that ship, it was likely used for interrogation rather than healing. Even as the operation had been successful, out of spite the Fed’s had still vented a third of their un-tubed prisoners into space.
She was disturbed by the long rows of medical tubes that had found onboard, while the contents of such were largely healthy, only a few had been completely sane or unbowed by their ordeal. Though their apparently new gender bothered them emotionally. Some how the Fed’s had figured out how to reassign gender without what normally was major surgery. Not so much harming them, aside from turning every one of them into what could only be called amazons, eye-candy or models, if you were being gracious.
“Ok people lets get the subject out of the tube and where we can work, I want her prepped yesterday.” There was a chuckle from one or two from her team, as they were used to her habits.
“One net standing by,” Terrance announced waving an injector like it was a gun.
“Do remember to not inject yourself this time Terry,” she chided pointing to the nude girl as the conveyor belt eased her out of the tube and onto a recovery table that allowed the excess fluids to be drained away.
That comment provoked a bit of pained laughter, as evidently the Fed’s also had converted Marines as well as other officers into women. Admittedly it must have been a shock for the former two hundred and fifty pound male to wake up as a young lady not quite half that weight. Terrance had found out the hard way that Marine combat training was effective even if the user was a woman. He seemed to blush slightly, “Yes Ma’am, no napping on duty today.”
“She is exotic, I wonder what he did to deserve that?” That was Joan, who was not far from exotic in her own right. How she had escaped the Fed’s brothel and slave camp unscathed amazed her, though the chilly way she often greeted men frequently hinted at some of her own problems.
“Well either she is high ranking or was viewed as a prize, hard to say with the Feds.” Terry said with an appreciative sigh, “Can I hope she is at least friendly?”
“Her body temperature is coming up nicely, heart beat is a bit fast though in range.” Marge chuckled, “You should be happy if she doesn’t jump up and slap you.”
“EEG is clean, looks like we may have a person in there this time around.” Joan pressed a stimulant to the unconscious girl’s thigh, “Now if she is sane...”
“We could use a break,” Marge sighed.
“The Feds don’t care if their slaves are too sane, docile and functional is all they care about.” Joan commented bitterly, “But we can hope.”
Marge nodded as the girl stirred; looking at her she noted the perfection in which she had been reformed. Long black hair and a faint olive cast to her skin hinted at her originating from one of the Pan-Asian colony worlds or being a descendant of one. She used a light to check the girl’s pupils, bright green, making her all in all too cute and adorable for the life she had been slated to.
Shaking her head Marge took a step back, “Can you hear me?” When the girl moaned she frowned and took a quick survey of the monitors, “What is your name?”
“Lieutenant Caruthers, Mark A. Confederation ID 2297583, Assigned Darwin’s Hope, Manta 262,” the girl said with a frown filling her face. “If this is another round of torture wake me up later.”
“No, no more torture Lieutenant, you are on board the Confederation Hospital Cruiser Hermes, welcome home pilot.” Marge said in a soothing voice as the techs pulled a warm blanket up around her.
“I am safe?” she asked looking frantically around the recovery chamber.
“Yes,” Marge said in a calm tone of voice.
She coughed a few times looking slightly pale, “Ah, good. Though something is very wrong with me, I think.”
“Near as we can tell, you have been in hibernation for at least a few weeks, among other things.”
“Ah, yeah torture, so why is my voice screwy?”
“They um,” Marge quickly said with a pointed look at Terrance, “they experimented on you.”
When the girl sat up and not quite fell from the table and tried stand upright on the floor Marge was a bit amazed and worried, “What did they do to me, nothing feels right.”
“Honey they made you into a girl,” Joan said while helping to steady her.
She looked unsteadily around the room then said; “Well fuck me,” before flopping bonelessly downwards to the floor nearly dragging Joan to the floor with her.
Terry shook his head with a hint of amusement as he bent over to scoop the unconscious girl up and back onto the bed, “Well he didn’t try to kill me, so I guess that is a plus.”
“So much for breaking it to him gently Joan.” Marge seemed mildly irritated as she swept the medical recorder headset from her head.
“Well he was going to have to learn of it sooner or later, as much as the Psyche’s think a wait is better, I do not want to deal with telling someone like Sergeant Tompkins ever again.” She eased the girl into a more restful position, and then tucked the blanket around her.
“There is that,” acknowledged Marge.
I awoke to find myself in a medical berth, though in a private room, a faint vibration told me I was on a ship yet. Which seemed oddly calming, I did remember waking up and being told that I was a girl, then they either sedated me or I passed out. Frankly I would not be too surprised if it was the latter, considering everything felt odd. From the texture of the blanket to the fact that my feet were much farther from the end of the bed than I expected them to be.
Supposedly it is only natural to cry after trauma, though I was not entirely sure what I was crying about. Either it was because I was safe or I was mourning my fate, though it may have just been a reaction to the cold sleep. I traced a tear on my face back to my eyes and felt the odd fold that hinted at them being changed as well.
Part of me wished for a mirror handy and yet I was so very hesitant to ask for one. From what my hands told me I was indeed a girl or woman, that missing member was surely a strong clue in that department. I toyed with the bracelet on my wrist that had only my rank and last name inscribed on it, evidently they thought to exclude my first name and initial as not to further warp my mind. Personally I think it was a bit late for that, as the Fed’s interrogators had tried their damnedest to break me and failed.
Not that it mattered in the end; chemical interrogation strips you of all your control and self-restraint. If and when that fails, they try to damage your self worth by raping you, and then repeat the process; though in that bastard’s case, I think he did it for his own pleasure. I wished many times during those confusing days that I would just live long enough to kill him. Though I suspected he was long dead by now, which in some way made me feel both better and yet cheated.
A mirror on the far wall was placed at such an angle where I could only catch a hint of what I had become. Though I suspected I was the Fed Colonel’s image of female perfection, as he had boasted that I was to be his for a very long time. I suppressed a shudder and tried to banish that specter of evil from my mind, as a few more tears dropped freely to dampen the blanket further.
The soft chime of the door announced that I was to have company, “Come in.”
“So how are we today Lieutenant?” asked an oriental lady dressed in medical ship whites and a large white shirt that sported a few pockets, she was carrying a tray that hinted at a meal, the scent of bacon or something similar teased at my nose.
“Well I seem to be hungry.” I nodded at her smile, “Though I am a bit out of sorts.”
“Not unsurprising, you have had an ordeal not to mention waking up as someone else, yes?” she raised a tray that was stowed at the side of my berth and eased it in front of me before presenting me with the tray.
“I guess. So when do the Psyches invade?” I looked down as she lifted the lids to reveal a very small meal, “I trust there is there seconds?”
“We shall see, though if you can eat all of that I would be surprised. As cold sleep does starve the body some and shrink the stomach some, not to mention your um, capacity may have changed.” She pointed at my abdomen, “Among other things.”
“Thanks for reminding me of the obvious,” I said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
“No need to be bitter, though I might be a bit upset myself if I woke up male.” She smiled, “I am Joan, when you finish up just press the button here.” She paused to lift my arm and pointed at a recessed button on the bracelet.
“Fine,” I said giving the button a quick glance.
“If it is any consolation you are not the only changed person to come off that ship, though perhaps one of the saner ones.”
“In which way, in that I have not tried to kill myself or anyone else?” part of me was surprised that she considered me sane.
“That and your first reaction to your change was to pass out,” she laughed lightly and smiled, “I think you may be saner than you think, but then I am just a nurse.”
“Ah, well in any case I suppose being hungry is good?”
My afternoon was punctuated by a change to an exam room, and with various doctors coming in and running tests. Though the pelvic exam was odd, yet fortunately very brief. The female doctor who performed it seemed a bit uneasy when she left, and her exit was quickly followed by a series of very clinical examination of those parts by other doctors. Of which I only partially remembered, as they had given me a shot to make me calmer. The only disturbing thing I really remember was a series of flashes as if I were being recorded for prosperity in my state of semi undress.
My evening was punctuated with several trips to the bathroom, and a long session of screaming on my part. Technically I knew what a woman’s period was, and why they occurred. However, seeing clotted clumps of something and blood in the toilet bowl did nothing for my mental equilibrium. It might have seemed funny, if I were used to such things, though at the time I could only say I was extremely disturbed by it.
Joan seemed to expect it though, which made me wonder just how bad the others like me were. She calmly and patiently put up with my tantrum, and then she explained that it was not unusual considering the dose of medicines and hormones I had been given earlier in the afternoon. She then pointed to a bandage on my inner left bicep, and told me that I now had a contraceptive implant there.
I was at a bit of a loss when she explained that every woman in the fleet had one. “So is this my purple heart?” I asked feeling the odd shape that was under my skin through the bandage.
Joan smiled blandly, “That is one way of looking at it, it more or less means you don’t have to worry about getting pregnant any time soon.”
“Fat chance of that happening in any case,” the idea of sex turned my stomach, literally.
“Well your plumbing does work,” she pointed down to my groin. “Just remember what I told you and you should be fine, and you will get used to that in time. Every woman does, even if we do not like it.”
“More or less suck it up and get on with life?” I asked unhappily.
“Yes, as it seems unlikely we can change you back.”
“How did they?” I motioned to my body.
Joan asked with what seemed like expectation on her part, “Change you?”
I quickly shrugged, “Yes, I mean there were odd rumors, but you know how it is with rumors.”
“Rumors and gossip is the only thing faster than a jump ship.” With a smile she continued “Honestly I am not sure the higher ups have got it all sorted out, yet. Something about nanites, but that is only rough guess from my boss.”
“So when can I get back into space?” I quickly asked.
She smiled calmly and motioned for me to sit back in the bed, “Well the Psyches and Doctors have to clear you, though I expect you will have to put some muscle on if you expect to fly.”
Frowning I looked down at my thin wrists, “So when can I get to a gym?”
“You are one of those where flying is everything?” she asked with a smile.
“It is the only thing,” I countered.
She just shook her head with a knowing grin, “Pilots.”
“Hey I just want to get back in a Manta and blow up a few of the Fed’s ships,” I explained.
“And how many female Manta pilots do you know of?” she asked a bit critically.
That stumped me for a long minute before I could actually account for one, “One, my flight instructor at the Manta Pilots course.”
“How many female Manta combat pilots do you know?” she asked patiently.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I thought over that for a time, “None, but...”
“You are as female as they come Lieutenant, for the rest of your life. So you might think of what you can do, rather than what you can’t do.” She sighed and then continued; “Look, I’m a pilot myself, and it is sometimes better to hear it from a lady than a man. It always grated on me when a man said I could not do something. Even if they were right... at the time.”
“Oh, wonderful, so no more combat slots ever?” I asked as my world seemed to take another direct hit.
“I didn’t say that.”
Marge looked up from the row of monitors as they flickered from room to room. “Are you being a bit hard on Caruthers?”
“Possibly, though he seems to be handling that better, than say us telling him he was pregnant when we popped him out of his tube.” She shook her head sadly; “I do not think she would have taken that very well at all.”
“No and remember that little bit of news is not to be brought up or mentioned ever.” Marge shook her head, “It is bad enough they documented his, sorry, her condition for a war crimes tribunal, which may end up in the public’s eye.”
“What about her medical records?”
“The Commander thinks it would be best if that bit suffered a deletion.” Marge waved her hand in the air briefly, “No sense in giving him grief later on is there?”
“She, would likely have a problem with it yes. I hate to say it but his...” Joan frowned “Damn, her emotional cues are not right at all.”
Nodding Marge tapped a monitor, “It is hard to see her as female at times.”
“Well I know some women whom are very butch, and she does kind of push them into the pale. Though it is not unsurprising consider she hasn’t settled into her new body yet.”
“It may be best that we get her a uniform, though we may have to consult the Psyches first. Though putting that one in a skirt may either help or hinder his adaptation.” Marge sighed and rested her head on her hands, “Gah, you would think as female as she looks I could stop calling her a him.”
“Well we have a week or so to help soften that, I think she, is going to be a hellion though.” Joan chuckled and then smirked, “I expect sparks about the time someone tries to tell her she can’t fly well because she is a woman.”
“All pilots are full of themselves,” Marge pointed a finger at her, “case in point.”
“Correct. I did some digging, on this one,” Joan rolled her eyes and tapped the computer screen, “he was pretty special.”
“Have you pulled up his personal records?” she asked then continued at the others head shake, “He, err she, has enough awards and such that I doubt they would fit on her uniform.”
Marge shook her head and tapped at the monitor, “Well hero’s do fall. Shall we hope this one bounces?”
“It’d do wonders for my morale.”
“I hear you there.”
The official debriefing the next day took some time, though oddly enough they mostly skimmed over the mission itself. As it was, I spent several long hours mostly repeating names of those who interrogated me, what they wore, and if I could identify what was used on me. In some ways it seemed that they were skirting around an issue and it slowly dawned on me that they were deliberately avoiding my rapes by that bastard.
Finally in exasperation I asked the Members of the Board, “What about the bastard who raped me?”
One or two members of the board actually looked abashed, “We are handling that Lieutenant, you needn’t worry that justice will be served.” Stated the Commander of the Board, who then closed the proceedings and left hurriedly leading the other men out with him.
The only lady officer of the board stopped long enough to state that some visual evidence had been obtained from the enemy ship, and that the court would not distress me by showing it publicly.
I sat there for a long time afterwards trying to sort out how much they were not telling me. When the lights clicked off automatically I do not think I noticed, as I was a bit numbed by the whole of it. I had expected a court for loosing the Manta, though from what I could tell one was not going to be forth coming. I think that annoyed me more than anything, I mean you don’t just lose one of those birds and not have something said about it.
I can’t say I was too thrilled to have sat in bed rehashing what seemed like a month of torture and interrogation. At times I had to stop and cry which angered me greatly. I didn’t break down like this after the rounds of torture so why now? I didn’t even cry after the fucker sodomized me, so why now?
A few hours later, when a supply sergeant stopped by to measure me for my new uniforms I was almost happy to be disturbed. In some ways it hinted at a possible return to normality and I could hide this body that screamed female. Though that feeling of security quickly faded when she started fitting me for a skirt.
“You must be kidding, I am a fighter pilot not a desk jockey,” I protested holding up the skirt like it was infectious waste.
“Regulations Ma’am, all officers must have attire suitable for full dress meals, parades, courts, and not to mention the ever so popular night out.” She studied me for a moment, “I think you will look good in what ever you wear Ma’am, so you may as well accept fate.”
Sighing in protest I tried to stomp on my emotions, “As long as you also fit me for my duty uniforms and flight suits and other gear.” I took a breath, “I may not get a chance to fly a Manta again, but I will be damned if I am going to be stuck dirt side.”
“That’s the spirit Ma’am, so shall I go ahead and order you the full issue?”
“Well I suppose, I doubt any of my other stuff from Darwin’s Hope will fit me now, but I damned well better get my flight jacket back from there.” I doubted it would fit me, but it was mine, and while I didn’t have a favorite shirt, it was damned close.
“I will have a flight jacket for you in a day Ma’am.” she paused and then added, “I can have your effects shipped here in a few days, though the new Vacuum suit will have to be tailor fitted, like usual.”
“How soon can you set that up? I want to get back in space soon.”
“A few days, but...” she paused as there was a chime at the hatchway.
“That probably depends on the Flight Surgeon, which would be me.” Added a deep bass voice as a man in medical whites entered, “If you are up for a walk Lieutenant?”
I nodded and checked to see if he had any visible rank, “Sir,” I said, as it never helped to placate the man who sealed your fate in all things flying. “I am at your disposal.”
He chuckled, “You may want to put on something more than a medical gown, I’ll wait outside.”
I had helped a few ladies out of their clothing so I had a good idea what went where, though the bra was a bitch.
When Joan wandered in seemingly suppressing a chuckle I was both relieved and embarrassed, “Want some help?” she asked.
“Well I will say I am flying into uncharted space here...” I held up the bra and sighed, “You all make it look so easy.”
“Well I do cheat, watch.” She took the bra and placed it wrong way out and upside down on her stomach then deftly eased it round so the clasps were in front. Once she snapped it together she turned it back around and pulled it upwards so that the cups were nearly in place and eased her arms through the loops. “If you are limber enough, you can put them on over the shoulders, like your were trying to do. We are close enough in size that I can get you a few exercise bras, those are nice if you are top heavy as I am.”
I nodded quickly, “If it is no trouble?”
“No trouble, besides you have not been unbearable the past few days, compared to a few of my other newly female patients.” She grinned and rolled her eyes in evident exaggeration, “I have this Marine sergeant who refuses to adapt.”
“I know the type, so how many people like me are there?”
“We only decanted a hundred, we were not expecting so many um, trauma victims though.” She sighed and looked at me critically, “We still have over three hundred left to decant once we get back to Ova-Loa, our home port.”
“Decanted, what are we a fine wine?”
“Only if you are a beverage over a hundred years old and well you are not that old Lieutenant.” She chuckled and waved her hands theatrically, “Though some of you do whine, and frequently.” She eased out of the bra and tossed it to me, “Ok your turn.”
With only a few false starts I succeeded in putting on the bra, even then I could tell it would require practice. I picked up a coverall, only to have it removed from my hands. “What now?”
When she tossed me a pair of track shorts and shirt I gathered my day was in for a turn, “I expect the Doctor will have you on a treadmill and such, so, get to it Missy.” On her way by she gave my bra a snap, “Now you are officially part of the sister hood.”
I turned to glare indignantly at her, “What?”
“Can you say you have never done that to anyone?”
I paused, “No. I did have an older sister, if that says anything.”
“Well like I said, welcome to the sisterhood, you now know exactly what it feels like.” She snickered and pointed at my face, “You are definitely cute when outraged, you had better keep that attitude of yours under control or else all the boys will be lining up.”
The room took an abrupt climb in the thermal gradient and I think my face wanted to melt off, “Oh wonderful.”
“You’ll be fine, most men will back off if you break their arm.” She snickered, “but then again, any man who needed that would be destined for an airlock shortly thereafter if the other men did not beat him to a pulp.”
I nodded slowly recalling a few bar fights, “I see.”
“You may have lost something that defined you Lieutenant, but you will find that being a woman is just as good.” She smiled impishly, “As is you will put half the woman on ship to shame, without extra adornment.”
I puzzled over that bit of information, “Ah makeup.” I sat and put on the thin-soled ship shoes, feeling further and further from the escape pod.
“Don’t worry, you won’t need much.” She licked her lips, “Consider it as icing on the cake.” With that she stepped near enough to the door to cause it to open, “I know I do.” I looked up to see her wink at me before she all but danced out the door.
“Oh joy, not only am I evidently cute, I’m attractive… I am so fucked.”
“So Lieutenant Caruthers, how do you feel?” The Flight Surgeon looked to be about thirty, though he acted much older. He was wearing medical ship whites, more of a long loose shirt that covered a white and gray body suit. It was flattering on some of the nurses, but not so much on him, I expected that he needed a few more hours a week on the treadmill but I kept my mouth shut regarding that.
After a moment I said, “I am fine sir.”
“I expect you would say so even if you were half dead, correct?” he asked with a dry smile.
“You do have me there sir,” I shrugged, “All in all I don’t think I have any real problems, medically that is sir.”
“Ah, thus begs the million credit question, what about mentally?” He motioned to a table and I hopped up on it or tried to a few times, until I broke down used the step to get there.
“The change in my height has bothered me some,” I acknowledged to his intense gaze.
“And being a woman?”
“Well I wish I could turn the clock back to where I was male, but I can’t.”
He nodded slowly, “So you are adapting?”
“Well I can’t say I am happy with the prospect, but as they say: Want in one hand, shit in the other and sell which ever fills up first.”
“Tut tut, such language from a female officer, if I didn’t know better I would swear you were a Marine. Not a Naval Officer,” He chided sternly and I felt my face flush.
He shook his head, “Currently some things about you scream male but all in all I think you will adapt fully in time, as to flying.” He paused, “We shall see. Now let us see if your ticker works properly.”
“So Joan how is your favorite patient?” asked Marge with a bemused smile.
“She’ll get there in time Doctor, if I have to prod her every inch of the way.” Joan answered with a grin, “She may even be happy after a time.”
“You are not getting too close are you?” Marge asked carefully.
“Well, I will admit she is cute, though she likely has enough cobwebs inside her head that only time will heal or she will explode.” She shook her head, “I think she will do ok, as long as she stays in the Fleet, kicking her out would probably break her.”
“And flying?” Marge prompted.
“Well you know how I feel about the Manta program, they find one niche where being a male is actually good for something and then they hype it up beyond reason.”
“Ah, so you still are annoyed with them?” Marge asked with a hint of amusement.
“Hell yes I am still annoyed, it took forever to get into preflight for them. Only to find out I don’t have the ‘Mental Makeup’ for flying one.” She snorted paused to curse softly.
“I am quite happy to have you here though, I am not sure I would want a Manta Jockey flying wounded here and there. They are so insanely focused that if their ship falls apart around them they would scarcely notice; as long as they got a solid target and a kill ahead of them.”
“Thus speaks the wife of a Manta Jockey,” chimed in Terrance as he eased out from under a panel, “Now, I think she’ll be fine, as long as she can fly.”
“There is that, so any word about her status from Doc Michaels?” asked Joan.
“Light duty, gym time and sim time are the order of the week. Though he specifically said she needed more time in the gym than seated in a simulator for hours on end.” Marge said with a chuckle, “Doc Michaels thinks she’d sleep there if we let her, so lets call it an even split, two hours gym time, for two hours sim time. If she goes overboard I can always have her fill out forms.”
“Cruel, but I doubt she will argue too much. I almost wish Sergeant Millsap was a pilot, thus far the only thing I can think of to break her out of her funk is to get her drunk and into a fight.”
“Now, now Terry, just because she nearly broke your arm when she was decanted, does not mean you can return the favor.” Marge smiled as he nodded, “Now if you can get a little healthy rivalry going in the gym, say with our aspiring pilot, that may help.”
“Oh great, I can see it now, Barbie versus the Amazon, can I sell tickets?” asked Joan with a thoughtful expression.
“No but you may have to lock shipboard security out for a time, unless they get too wild.” She chuckled, “I think some sparring would be safe though.”
“Should I make sure they know about using the chest protectors?” asked Terry with a chuckle.
“What and deny them another step further into the fraternity of womanhood?” asked Joan with a sniggering laugh.
“You are evil Joan, truly evil.”
“Thank you, I try.”
The next day Joan drug me reluctantly from the weights to the boxing ring, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” I looked across the ring at the other lady who had a good five inches on me.
“Sure, martial arts is good to get those soft muscles of yours back into shape. Besides this wimp won’t even wear a bra. I mean really, all that machismo and testosterone poisoning over the years is due for a serious clean out. Just think, when was the last time you mixed it up with a Jarhead without being interrupted by Shore Patrol?” Joan’s tone was slightly mocking and slightly goading.
I almost wondered if she had ulterior motives, though hitting something, anything had a certain appeal. “Ok just a few rounds though.”
“Right tiger, here is your mouth piece. Now go and make me proud.”
“Rarrr,” I mock growled at her and allowed it to be placed into my mouth.
“Ok ladies, I want a good clean fight, nothing below the belt and no broken bones.” Terrance announced to us as we stared across our gloves, “Now touch gloves and back to your corners for the bell.”
“You are gonna pay you pansy, talk crap about the Corps and you eat the floor.”
Something clicked as I walked back to my corner, “What the blazes did you tell her?”
“I think I might have mentioned that you thought the Corps was a good place for wimps...” she said innocently.
I had time for an outraged shriek before the bell rang and the fight was on. When my opponent stepped into a wide horse stance and let off a loud Ki-I, I figured that someone had set me up for a fall. Well one way to counter all that was to even the odds, “Oh please my sister sounds off better than that, I thought Marines had a pair of balls issued to them.”
When she flushed from her padded boots up to her face I figured that she was a few palates short of a load, “Oh come on. No wait, that’s right she is sober, we all know Marines can’t fight sober, get the woman drunk, then I might have a fair fight.”
When that added a few more hues of red to her face I stepped up to what I thought her flat-footed kicking range was and went for one more insult, hey I had get the verbal blows in first. “Is that the Marine Corps Banner I see before me or just where they check the dye job on their cheap assed flags.”
I may have underestimated her reach, kicking wise, was the first thought I had once I sat up. Surprisingly I didn’t really hurt that much so either the pads worked or her equilibrium was as off as mine felt. I did start to laugh as she stood fuming from across the ring, “Ok, that was cute, but I thought you would know how to fight.”
When she charged at me, I pivoted and planted a size six into her backside propelling her a few good inches further. At her furious screech I faded back under a fusillade of roundhouse kicks that might have been a hazard, if her balance was not so crappy. On the fourth such kick I intercepted her leg and led her hopping around the ring on one foot.
It may have been a fun bit to watch, though a bit demeaning. At the time I was more worried with keeping her mentally and literally off balance. “Awe poor little girl can’t hit her mark,” I then pulled her way off balance so that she would fall, “Poor snookum’s can’t keep her feet.”
I was rather impressed with her blood-curdling shriek that she finally released and then I danced back brushing kicks and punches aside, that really should have done more that sting some. Though when she landed a blow to my left breast I about fell to the floor in shock. Jesus H. Christ, I thought getting nailed in the balls was a bad thing. I mean really, I wanted to check to make sure my chest was intact, ‘right then’, but the bell rung ending that round.
“So how it the initiation into womanhood going L-T?” asked Joan with a snicker, “Tits hurt when they get banged around don’t they?”
I nodded and would have shaken a finger at her if they were not in gloves. “You set me up!” I whispered loudly in protest at here as I rubbed my chest.
“Some,” she admitted. “Actually this is more for her than you, she needs to get some of that poison out of her system before she decides to end it.”
“And I get to be the punching bag?” I asked incredulously.
“Just think of it has another mission for the Confederation, Fly-Girl.”
I scowled at her and took a quick sip of water before slipping the mouth guard back in. “Either way you owe me.”
“We shall see,” she said as a taunt.
I turned to look at my opponent for a moment; she would be pretty if she weren’t so damned angry. Not to mention that she moved like someone who was twice that size, and was male. Her blond hair was tied back out of her face and looked as if it had been chopped at with a knife. Blue eyes glared at me as we circled and I could see her sanity slipping in and out of her eyes. I figured that Tit for Tat was in order and I closed to just close enough to zing her hard in the breast with the flat of my glove.
When she looked at me in outrage for a second I leaned forwards and used Joan’s seemingly favorite quote on her, “Welcome to Womanhood. Now is there a person or a just a lazy whore inside of that cute body?”
“Don’t say that!” she bellowed at me, coming at me as a wild flailing dervish.
I kept out of her reach and tried to use every single derogatory slur I could ever remember hearing on her, and for every missed blow I rewarded her with a taunt or a slap. The mood in the room chilled slightly but I was more focused on snapping the young woman out of her wrong mode of thinking. “Come on and hit me!” I shouted brashly, “or have you forgotten how to fight Marine?”
I spent most of my time staying just out of reach of her hands and yet close enough that I could cuff her when she flagged. I noted that the gym had filled slightly with women who could have been her sister or were definitely exotic enough to have been remade like I was. Spotting more than a few of them in Marine uniform I changed tactics and did my best to subdue her for a moment.
I landed a solid blow into her stomach and followed up with a few quick jabs to her jaw, not too hard, just hard enough where I could tie her arms up with mine and force her to look at the crowd that watched her. Half astraddle of her, using my arms and legs I turned her head to look out the ring, “Are you a Confederation Marine or not bitch?”
When she tried to cry I shook her and pointed a glove at the Marines at the edge of the ring, “Where is your pride woman? Are you just going to let your fellow Marines down?”
“No,” she said softly.
“I can’t hear you bitch, are you just going to lay there and take it Marine or are you going to fight smart, Marine?” I shouted at her trying to use my beast Red Week Drill Instructor voice on her. “What sort of Marine lets a light weight Nav pilot kick her ass?”
“No Marine,” she protested and tried to wiggle free.
“What was that little girl? A whimper?” I shook her a few times, “Look at them, are you just going to wimp out or are you fucking Marine enough to kick my Navy ass?”
“I am a Marine damn you!” she fought harder to break free but I wanted her really mean it.
“Don’t tell me who you are you silly bitch, tell them, who the fuck are you?” I shouted at her.
I was a bit surprised when she finally shouted to everyone, “I AM A FUCKING MARINE!” and she then kicked out of my hold. Though I think the Marines in the crowd helped her attitude in that department. Nothing is more hardcore than a Marine with fellow Marines around them and counting on them to fight to their utmost.
Which she finally did, much to my chagrin. I wasn’t much of a fighter dirt-side, and it showed as I could barely keep my guard up enough to keep from getting pounded too flat. Though a few punches and kicks later I was on the mat and doing my damnedest to get back up. Unfortunately the room was spinning entirely too much for me to do more than groan and tap out.
I did my best to ignore the odd tumult of boisterous Marines as they shouted in her triumph, though I have to admit that it was hard to not smile as they carried her off.
For the most part I was happy to be done with it, as she had a nasty left hook. I felt a pair of hands check my pulse then raised a hand to ward off the smelling salts before the ammonia burned holes into my sinuses. “I think someone owes me a drink.”
Joan blinked then slugged me in the arm, “Faker!” She hissed at me, and then she blinked as my eyes crossed involuntarily.
“Not quite faking,” I said softly, “the bitch can hit, when she is in her head.” I eased the head guard off and looked around for my mouthpiece, and noted it was a half the mat away.
“She just about took your head off,” added a familiar male voice and she looked over my shoulder. I turned to see the flight surgeon not quite frowning at us. “I think I said something light duty, not starting a war with the Marines.” He shook his head and knelt down to shine a light in my eyes, “Well you might have a light concussion, drag her down to the med bay once the angry mob has left,” he pointedly told Joan.
“Yes sir,” she responded sounding a tiny bit ashamed of herself.
“Sir?” I asked a bit warily.
“Nice job,” he chuckled deeply, “I never thought I would be cheering for a Marine, but I suppose under the circumstances they all needed a victory.”
As I held my jaw gingerly I said, “I am not volunteering to do it again sir.”
“No I suppose not, still it was well done.” He paused, “Though I suppose you may have to apologize to the Commandant over there, once you get your head on right.”
I groaned and turn to look at a very large man in Marine Battle Fatigues. I took a breath and stood up slowly, noting his smile I felt slightly better, though a bit off yet. I braced to attention and saluted him as best I could in the gloves. “Sir!”
He returned the salute and nodded, “Semper Fi!” He barked out with a chuckle, and walked to the ring and held out his hand.
I took an uneasy step and offered my own gloved hand, he clenched it for a moment the eased it over to undo the laces, “Sorry sir, I didn’t mean...”
“I think the Corps can handle some slurs if it heals one of our finest.” He chuckled, “Though I think you may have suffered enough for them, as it were.”
“You may be right sir.” I used my freed hand to rub at my jaw. “She can hit, that is for sure.”
“Are you going to be all right Lieutenant Caruthers?” he asked as I grayed out slightly.
“I think I might need a nap sir,” I admitted as a pair of dark skinned arms reached around me to hold me upright. I looked up to see Terrance frowning slightly, “Oh you are strong,” I dimly heard myself say as the ship shifted into jump without me.
“Well that went well, almost,” commented Marge as she looked at Terry as he floated the Lieutenant into the medical bay.
Joan flushed slightly, “I didn’t think it would go that far.”
“But you where hoping the Sergeant would get enough of a kick in the pants to actually want to live though?”
Joan sighed and looked down at the deck, “Yes, though I didn’t mean for the Lieutenant to get knocked loopy either.”
“Is she going to be alright?” asked the Marine Commandant with a frown.
“I expect so, though she may not agree when she wakes up and the headache kicks in.” Marge motioned to the machine that was scanning Caruthers, “So far it just looks like a simple concussion, a few shots, a dose of stimulant and she may feel human in a day or so.”
“Good, I would hate to owe the Admiral a bottle of scotch for maiming one of his hotshot pilots.” He smiled and pointed to the unconscious woman, “I always wondered how Caruthers’ streak would break.”
“Streak sir?” asked Terry as he eased the girl to rest on a medical bed.
“Hmm, well the average life span of a Manta pilot, if they are not pulled to some other role for a time, is thirty missions. Caruthers and many of the others in his flight had nearly a hundred missions if you don’t count the Combat Air Patrols.”
“So, begging the question sir; why wasn’t she pulled?” Marge asked as she tapped a button on a terminal.
“Darwin’s Hope was caught deep behind lines, and her skipper used the Manta’s to chew up the Feds.” He shook his head, “I can’t fault the Skipper there, good tactics but hard on men and machines. Darwin’s Hope got safely away because she and a few others tied into the destroyer group that was after her. Care to guess who lead that flight?”
“Caruthers,” Joan sighed, “and in return he was changed and raped for his efforts.”
“Is she going to be ok?” the Commandant asked as she studied the sleeping woman.
“In time, so far the Psyches are expecting her to do ok, though if she can’t get back into harness I expect that might change.” Marge pressed an injector to the Lieutenants arm and sighed, “I think she’s fixated on Manta’s though.
“Well I think we can get her into space again, though I doubt she’ll sit in a Manta again, damn shame too. In any case I have to see to my Marines and congratulate one in particular.”
“Yes sir, a small victory.”
“But not unremarked.” He shook his head, “Damn I do hope Caruthers flies again.”
“Oh I think she’ll find a way, even if she has to steal a ship to do it,” Joan said with a chuckle, “I should recode my access wand just in case.”
“Not planning any unannounced joyrides?” Marge teased.
“Not with my baby,” Joan replied as she studied the sleeping woman.
After I awoke and a few hours of observation they kicked me out of sickbay and into my own room again. I was only suffering from a headache worthy of a three-day drunk, though they had given me a mild painkiller. Fortunately the only thing on my calendar for the rest of the night was sleep. I was glad to be out of the bra as it itched something fierce, not to mention the straps dug in oddly, well oddly for me anyways.
I sat at the desk that was adjacent the head and worked through several emails of consolation and one offering me lessons so that I did not embarrass myself again. I chuckled at that one and considered it seriously for a few moments, and then carefully worded a polite letter of thanks to that person. The last message I worked through was from the Marine Commandant; which congratulated me on a mission ‘well flown’ if a bit hard of ‘landing’. That provoked a chuckle from me and I located Joan’s ship address and forwarded a copy to her as well.
With not much else to do, I tapped into the Fleet Net and spent some time looking through the lists of dead, living and MIA. I did find myself, but only turned up a few hits when it came to the crew and pilots from Darwin’s Hope. Inwardly I was happy to be the only one from my nearly last flight listed as wounded. Which meant I owed ‘Scruffy’ McGree, who was my planes chief tech something for losing ‘his bird’, and the others of my flight a case of something seriously alcoholic in nature. Fortunately that was only a few clicks away, though delivery would take some time depending on fleet movements.
A trip through the KIA and MIA list was by its very nature depressing, Darwin’s Hope was a carrier; mostly it carried Mantas and other support craft. It started with three hundred fighters and eventually returned with twenty-nine, if I read the reports correctly. I suppose part us, part of me was numbed to the losses, the past year had seemed a blur of missions, jumps, worm hole transits to hell and some precious rack time.
I am not sure where my brother pilots were headed, but I took the time to send Skipper a note saying I was alive and well. I smirked for a moment then added a line about the Hope’s great escape costing a bit more than my balls. Hell I had to joke about something or the Skipper would likely show up on my door wondering if hell had frozen over. I think the Skipper both loved and hated us at times, as we were his errant children who both made him happy and frequently melancholy.
Hell I didn’t envy him his choice, though I think he made the right call. Though I occasionally had to get my ass kicked, to get the point across to some of my brothers. Yes I was very good at giving people grief and was not above using guilt on people. I think Doc Simes had taped me up more than a few times so I could fly the next day. I didn’t mind coming out the bottom of a fight so much when the result was a pilot with his head on tight. Though I had made a promise to myself that when some serious down time came I was going to learn how to not get hit so much.
I clicked through half a dozen menus offering ships services and various amusements until I found the ships directory. A few more clicks and I found the patients lounge and entertainment center. Typically a ships arcade would have a few simulators rigged out for points and high scores rather than flight performance in them. With some luck I would find a sim with something close to a Manta in it.
Heartened I forced myself to put on a bra and the jumpsuit from earlier. I was not ready to traipse around in a skirt just yet, no matter how cute the supply sergeant thought I might be in it. Though there was no denying I was a woman even in the jumpsuit. Every damned reflection in the mirror proclaimed I was woman, and even to my confused perspective I was good looking.
My departure to the patients lounge was only remarked by the duty nurse; whom after a moments check to my light duty status waved me on. She did comment that I was monitored and that nothing alcoholic was permitted yet. Of which was no real surprise to me, yet a beer might have tasted very good.
The patient’s lounge was largely deserted and the attendant who was setting behind a counter seemed more interested in his files than my presence. I was largely relieved to be left alone, though the hum of electronics and flashing lights drew me like a moth into the darker arcade. I smiled and walked between the machine and consoles for a time, sorting out what was available until I found a simulator with a very generic flight console in it.
Easing myself into the seat, it took me a few moments to sort out the adjustments that would place my feet in reach of the axial thrusters. I gave them an experimental push, and then worked them a few times trying to get a feel for them. The collective was off to my left and seemed a bit stiff and a bit larger than I was used to. The multi-function controller was not too dissimilar than the one on a Manta, yet it too seemed a bit stiff and larger. I sat back and took a serious look at myself size wise.
There was no real sense in denying that I was smaller by at least a good third. Ok, maybe even petite or dainty, that in itself should have been apparent to me. I closed my eyes and moved my hands to where I knew the placement of the controls should have sat; only to open my eyes and find I was several inches away from them. Sighing I resigned myself to starting from scratch again, and selected basic flight instruction as the Sims difficulty level and then flitted through and assortment of HUDs and flight characteristics until I found the Manta.
Once the hologram field fired up and wrapped me in what looked to be a close approximation of what I was used to. Though a few of the consoles that were classified for Manta pilots and techs only, were missing. I ignored them, as they largely were for ECM and the Jump Systems, not too important for preset missions. Once the systems seemed stable and my own ritualized preflight had gone by I twisted the collective and stowed the gear.
“Ah so you dream of flying a real plane?” asked a voice from behind me.
My heart thudded for a moment and I turned to look up though the holo-field to see a strange man smirking at me.
Frowning I looked out of the simulator at him, “Buddy you have no idea.”
“Do you want some pointers?” he asked and I could almost drink the smarmy attitude that laced his words.
“No,” I responded angrily, I turned back to swing my virtual Manta up and into the air. There was a small presser field in the simulator, not enough to give you real G’s but enough you could forget it was a simulator.
“Neatly done,” he seemed to grudgingly admit.
“Just so I know whose ass to kick later, who are you?” I asked out of annoyance.
“Second Lieutenant Mitchell at your service.”
“And you fly what?” I asked sending the Manta through a few easy turns and into a few standard evasions.
“Tiger Sharks and Hammer Heads mostly, though I have been accepted into the Manta Program,” that last bit held a bit of pride.
“Geeze, they must be getting desperate for Manta pilots.” I chuckled and whipped the Manta up into space and waited for the graphics to change over.
“Ouch I hear a bit of venom there.” He chuckled and added, “They don’t let women fly Manta’s.”
“Tell that to Flight Ops Officer Alcady, she would love to hear that from you when you get there.” I chuckled as I envisioned him trying to do so. “She was Chief Pilot Instructor for the Manta’s last I heard.” The flight menu offered basic gunnery so I selected that as was rewarded with several clicks and thumps that simulated the payload doors opening.
“Now why would the Chief of Staff have a female pilot teaching men how to fly the Manta?” he asked snidely.
“Probably because she can, and does it very well.” I hated her guts, but credit where due. I picked out several slow movers and set up an easy strafing run, I did take the time to place my shots into the cockpits and engines of the Feds ships and took a lazy victory roll.
“You are supposed to use more than a few rounds per target, you do know this?” he asked in a tone of voice that really grated on my nerves.
“Only if you are a crappy pilot and loose with your ammo counts,” I snapped at him, technically he may have been right but the last few months we had gotten very careful with what shot went where. Resupply was not possible as deep as we were in Fed territory, so we had to ration each shot and missile for solid kills only.
“I see, and you would be?”
“First Lieutenant Caruthers,” I smiled and aimed for a Fed light destroyer, I waited for a reply and shrugged at the silence. I tightened down my focus and started tagging turrets with missiles then switching back to kinetic rounds when the screens failed.
“You do fly better than you fight,” commented a new voice as I dropped into an evasion we had adopted out in the big deep.
Once free of the engagement zone I looked back to see the Marine’s Commandant looking over my shoulder, “Ah, thank you sir.”
“You seem to do well enough in play time Caruthers. I may stick around to see how you handle the real simulators.” He chuckled thoughtfully, “Though you may want to try a different bird or two to get the feel for them, they don’t have a real Manta simulator on board. In fact I think the closest thing to a Manta, in simulation may be one of our Tiger Sharks.”
I frowned slightly, then changed the HUD back and forth to compare the two, “Well the payload is close sir, though I would be surprised if it flew like one.”
“Well give it a few goes Caruthers, it cannot hurt. Don’t worry about further interruptions in your ‘playtime.’ I sent the youngster off to polish his boots,” he commented with a chuckle.
Absently I nodded and took his suggestion to heart. I think he moved off after the third or forth engagement I worked through. The Shark was slightly close to the Manta in some aspects but it seemed dogged slow in others. I had racked up a decent rack of kills, and I had worked out some of the odd kinks in the Tigers performance envelope, when the power to the sim died suddenly.”
At a giggle I turned to see Joan pointing a finger at me and she said, “Bang,” when she could see that she had my attention.
“Um, I was working here,” I stated in a calm yet annoyed tone of voice.
“Precisely, you were working when you should be resting or more to the point, sleeping.” She hitched her thumb over her shoulder, “Out, bed time.”
I sighed and gave in reluctantly, very reluctantly, “Yes mommy.”
“Besides these toys are just that, compared to the real Sims elsewhere.”
“True, but I needed this,” I said as I rose up and stepped out of the simulator.
“Yes, which is why the boss sent me a few hours after you should have been in your rack sleeping.” She placed her hand on my arm and led me out of the arcade to see the darkened lounge, “See ship’s night, everyone go to bed.”
I yawned as the time seemed to catch up to me suddenly, “I guess I lost track of time.”
“Don’t feel bad I do that too, though mostly I only come here to kill things. I fly one of the cruisers medical transports, not quite as glamorous as a Manta, but still I get my share of adrenalin.”
“No doubt, so are they jump capable or?”
“They have a small jump engine in them, not as much reach as a Manta, but hey. Manta’s don’t usually hop back and forth twenty times in one day.”
I nodded as we entered the lift, “True, I think the worst run was a six hop flight. We were not quite on fumes when we were recovered.”
Her eyes widened slightly as she said, “That sounds hairy.”
“Well we did give the Feds mobile base a good thumping. Though we only manage to cripple it.”
“Only crippled it,” she chuckled and shook her head as she walked along with me, “I bet there were some pissed off Admirals there.”
“Yep, I think we annoyed them.” I chuckled and looked at my door, “Well this is my stop, have a good night.”
“Get some rest Caruthers, tomorrow will come soon enough. Though if you need a thought to dwell on, you will need a new first name sooner or later.” She paused and pointed to my wristband, “Caruthers is a bit formal, and Mark Anthony hardly fits you now.”
I sighed and nodded, “I’ll think about it.”
I dreamt of half remembered episodes of being stuck helpless in that damned chair, ghostly hands that pinched or hit me as I was unable to strike back. The eerie sensations of things sucking at my chest, hands clawing at my groin and buttocks. Of choking and being choked with the odd salty taste of something being forced into my mouth. Odd memories of animalistic grunts and pain as I tried to resist what was happening, and shame as I could do nothing to prevent it.
Sitting up in the darkness of the room, I was dripping with cold sweat and no few tears as I tried to burry that nightmare again. Some of it I could attribute to the being sodomized as part of my torture. While I couldn’t forget or forgive that, at least it made sense and I knew where it came from. The other parts worried me, as I could not even place when and if they had happened.
Forcing myself up and out of bed and then to the floor to start several sets of exercises.
I had some rough times in the last year and some times the only solution for bad dreams was to exercise until you were too tired to do anything but sleep. So I bent to them with a vengeance, trading emotional pain for muscle fatigue. Maybe not the best cure, but I wasn’t going to be allowed a three-day drunk any time soon it seemed. I had been fairly ripped by my last flight; I think that had helped some during the torture sessions. I could ignore the pain, well some of it anyways, treating it as a work out, the final lift or curl of a set.
Though I could tell I was going to have to start completely from scratch there as well, I was able to hit muscle fatigue, though much sooner than I expected. But then I was frequently at a loss when my mind said I should be this strong, and my body fell much shorter of my minds perceptions. Reluctantly I told myself this is now, that was then, and walked into the head and warmed up the shower.
Showering had brought yet another reminder that things had changed as well. I was used to taking super hot almost scalding showers that nearly would peal the paint from the hull, but this new body of mine quickly disabused me of that urge. Some places were more sensitive and even the level of heat I could take had shifted downwards. The few times I had explored my new body had left me disquieted as it seemed to stir memories of being abused. Slowly I raised the temperature up and knelt in the shower trying not to cry, feeling more ashamed at my loss of control than anything else.
The duty nurse, who didn’t quite barge into the shower with me, interrupted my sulk in the shower. She seemed relieved to find me mostly pink rather than what she evidently expected. When she asked what was wrong I simply told her bad dreams, she nodded and helped me to stand and then handed me a towel. She said it was to be expected, and if it got too bad to ask for something to help me sleep. I nodded and she gave me a worried frown when I protested that I was fine.
She left me with a pensive look on her face, but she smiled when I announced that I was heading back to sleep. Though sleep was a long time coming, as I poured through old missions and the procedures needed to preflight a Manta. Drilling the steps and checks had become its own ritual against nightmares, fill your head with the mundane and with luck the dreams would be bland. It must have worked as I passed into sleep somewhere after the third set of radio com procedures and protocols.
The sound of a prejump klaxon that dumped me from my dream of yet another CAP briefing and back to awareness. I had not expected a jump any time soon, so I quickly moved to the desk and tapped in a quick request for instructions. I snorted as my duty position was evidently in my berth, though I did note the positions of null G restraints. I returned to my bunk and found them slightly relieved to find two types; one was a mesh that would have covered most of the berth. The other was a simple torso harness, pretty much common to all ships.
Joan briskly walked in and she pointed to the bed, “You, back in bed now.”
“I was heading there,” I held up one side of the restraints, “See?”
She nodded and once I was in bed she helped to adjust them, “We are going to have a slight delay in getting you home. We are off on a Search and Rescue, it seems the Feds have been bold.”
“Wonderful, is there anything I can do?” I asked quickly.
“Not yet, you are still on light duty L-T, remember?”
Indignantly I folded my arms across my chest, “I am not a baby to be coddled.”
“Yes but can you honestly say you are up to a combat sortie?”
I nodded curtly, “I could do it, I have been in worse shape and have flown.”
“Not my choice, but the Doc’s, so settle in and enjoy the ride or we’ll sedate you, clear?” she asked with a firm tone that said there was no arguing it.
“Clear,” I grumbled at her as she left with a wave.
“So how is Caruthers today?” Marge asked as she reviewed a few documents in between jumps.
“She is a bit sulky, but following instructions, which is more than I can say for a few others.” Joan shook her head, “The Sergeant handled the Marines, and I read the riot act to the others.”
“So she’s going to get better.” Marge smiled, “Amazing what the right motivation can do isn’t it?”
“True, I better get down to my baby,” Joan lifted one hand in a semi-salute, “see you after bit Chief.”
Marge nodded and pointed a finger at her, “Fly safe Joan, you don’t want a berth with Caruthers do you?”
“Hell no, not with her strange sleeping habits, even if she is cute,” Joan said with a smirk.
“Yes… the duty nurse was happy to find her intact.”
“Well we expected nightmares, though much earlier.” She shrugged, “If things are not to bad can we get her into the simulators today? The last thing we need is for her to hover around feeling useless.”
“That would work for today, and Supply needs to drag her down for her suit fitting tomorrow, so we shall see. Now scoot.”
“On the way.”
The next day after many hours of sim time I found myself down in Supply and feeling like I was actually getting somewhere. Though I wasn’t too sure about what exactly to do with my new plumbing. The object in question had me a bit uncomfortable in my mind, even if I could follow the instructions. I was looking at the clear bag, which read ‘Female EVA Relief Fitting’, disposable, sterile, one each. “You have to be kidding me?” I asked the suit tech after an awkward pause.
She shrugged indifferently and then grinned, “Its not that bad, you will not even notice them after a time.”
“It’s just,” I could feel my face curling up in distaste.
“Tell me about it, we all can’t be born with penises so-o.” She smiled, “Just don’t think of it as a speculum, you really don’t want to be tense when you attach it. Oh and be sure to shave down there with the razor… the seal has to be good or it gets icky.”
“Wonderful.” I studied at the anatomical drawing on the paper insert, and then I walked into the head and closed the door feeling more than a bit odd.
Dreading the inevitable I removed the thin EVA under suit and sighed before starting the required dilapidation, I had expected some changes in my EVA suit just not this. Fortunately, it did not even closely resemble anything one might find in an adult novelties store. Much less a penis, which I was thankful for. I took a breath and then another before squeezing one section and easing it in place. When part of it slid inside of me as I pressed the sticky parts in place; I was very tempted to jerk it right out, but I bit my lip for a moment and worked at breathing normally.
“How is it going L-T? Need any help?” I could here a hint of humor in her voice.
I muttered ‘Welcome to Womanhood’ under my breath and then managed to speak, “It’s not exactly comfortable.” The fecal waste collection undergarment was identical to the male version so some things had remained constant. I made a note to plan my eating habits around my flying schedule again, as sitting in you own feces for a few hours sucked no matter how old you were.
She laughed at that, “No Ma’am it isn’t, now if you are ready for stage two?”
“What? There is more?” I asked feeling very, very far from normal.
She opened the door and handed me a thin pad, similar to the one Joan had introduced me to for menstruation, though this one had a hole in the middle of it. “It’s not that bad, just incase of leaks around the edges of the seal. Once you get that in place we can fit you out for your lower half.”
“Joy. Just… peachy even.”
I was feeling slightly better about my new EVA suit, though I was slightly annoyed my by new ‘fittings’ as they seemed to chafe slightly whenever I took a step. “Is there any way to cut down on the chaffing?”
“Not really, there is a rather crude joke of how you can pick out who are the female fighter pilots in a shower...” She offered then stopped at my pained expression, “Sorry Ma’am.”
“I expect I will hear it later,” I said with a shrug, “so what is next?”
“Well you are lucky we have a few female SAR pilots and EVA Recovery crews as part of our compliment. Otherwise you would have to wait until we get to port for all of this.” She chuckled and patted the various packages, “Evidently the brass wants you outfitted ASAP, so...” She smiled and handed me a thick shrink-wrapped package, “We shall do so.”
“Well I do want to get back in the saddle.” I carefully opened the wrapping to pull out the g-suit fittings, “Well its better than hand me downs.”
She pointed to a table where a partially filled g-suit lay. “Nothing but the best here. I don’t see how you fighter pilots can tolerate all of this.”
“Well it beats graying out or red outs if your ship’s AG unit is squirrelly.” I shook my head, “The one in my last plane only work a good third of the time, and it drove my Chief nuts trying to keep it up.”
“So how many G’s did you pull on a regular basis?”
“The worst was a nine G burn I inadvertently pulled trying to avoid a very determined Pillion pilot.” I chuckled, “I got away, barely, but I hurt for a week afterwards.”
“Fun, this model is a bit different from your old one, evidently a year will make some changes. I think it’s about four kilos lighter, than your old Mark Twenty-six.”
I took a moment to think on that then I said, “Well that is a plus.”
“Well they made up for it with the changes in the hard suit,” she motioned to the upper torso that made up the rest of the pilots suit. “They improved the life support module and independent power supply.”
“Wonderful, are they going to lift us into the ships with cranes now?” I asked as I experimentally lifted it.
“Not quite, though you may think so, it’s not quite thirty kilos all in all.”
Blinking I said, “Lovely, that’s not quite half of what I weigh now.”
“Yep so you will end up either cursing it or living in the gym for a while.”
“Both more than likely.”
We were in the pressure lock and not quite decompressed when the radio crackled in my suit and announced evasive maneuvers and an emergency jump shortly there after. Janet unfolded a seat from the wall and motioned for me to do the same, “Come on L-T, get hooked down, if we are as hot as the Skipper thinks, it is going to get bumpy.”
“Right,” I plugged into the ship’s air and power supply and then locked the harness around me. “So what do we do if things go sour?”
“Well we are already vacuum, so we don’t have to worry about that, this lock connects to the auxiliary hanger bay.”
Unsure about her assessment I asked, “What’s kept there?”
“Not much, mostly the visiting brass use it for their transports and escorts.” She paused as the ship shuddered slightly and the lights switched to red, “What the hell?”
“We just took a hit to the shields.” I glanced around and sighed, as there was no data terminal in the lock.
“Well we should be safe,” she didn’t sound as confident as she was a moment a go, “but why would they attack a hospital ship?”
“It probably has to do with us capturing their mobile prison ship.” I tried to shrug in the suit and gave up as I only caused the shoulder padding to dig in slightly, “supposedly it was a medical ship, it wasn’t though.”
She nodded at me, “I had heard rumors about them changing men into women and worse.”
I lifted a hand up and pointed roughly at myself, “Not so much a rumor.”
“No shit, um how does it?” she asked motioning to her own suit.
“Well I don’t remember the process and aside from checking my new plumbing in the shower, I have no clue.”
“Ah, well orgasms are good for you.” She chuckled, “Or so they say.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I commented dryly.
“All hands prepare for emergency recovery and jump,” announced the Captain over the general frequency.
“Oh brother, that cannot be good.”
“I guess not, though it is not unusual for it to happen near the front.” I offered as the lights flickered again, “Though do they seem determined.”
“But we are not even at the front,” she protested. “Not much can get past the shields supposedly, it is galling that they are attacking us, as this ship is not even armed.”
“The Fed’s don’t care,” I frowned feeling more than a bit trapped. “Is there any way to patch into the battle freq.’s here?”
“Damn, I really would like to know what is going on.” I pointed at myself, “I am not used to just sitting in the dark information wise.”
“Well your suit is a bit better equipped than mine, open your data port and see if the tac-package is installed. Sometimes the new suits have them preinstalled. Talk about a bitch for inventory control.”
“No doubt,” I opened it and cursed internally, “no dice.” I motioned to the ship in general, “I guess we sit and wait for the Skipper to say something.”
“Yep, so what’s your name?”
I blushed slightly or so it felt, “I um, haven’t picked out a new one yet.”
“Picked out a new one?”
“I am one of the poor bastards the Feds changed, remember?” I asked slowly while trying to sound cheerful.
“Ah, so any thoughts on that yet?”
“None really, part of me doesn’t even want to go there.”
“So what was your name?” she asked after another shudder waffled though the ship.
“Mark Anthony Caruthers.”
“That definitely doesn’t fit you now,” she laughed lightly, “Sorry L-T, but I just can’t picture you with that name.”
“No, not now anyways,” I said ruefully.
“Jump in thirty seconds,” announced the Captain over the intercoms and I could hear various sirens and buzzers in the background.
When the ship lurched oddly and with the lights flickering out, I heard Janet’s shocked exhalation of protest. We held each others hands for a moment and waited for the ships lights to come back on, when they didn’t I clicked on my suits lights, “Janet, are you alright?”
“I’m ok, that was not good.”
“No, we likely took a hit the generators didn’t quite block.”
“But there are four separate fusion reactors feeding them, a nova shouldn’t even make them blink,” she protested and then cursed for a few moments.
I didn’t want to alarm her, but even with four reactors I could think of a few of the Fed’s anti-ship missiles that could do it. “It may have just been an evasive maneuver,” I lied calmly to her.
“But we are unarmed, it’s in the Accords!” she said angrily.
“The Fed’s only follow the Accords when it suits them,” I motioned to myself, “this is hardly fair and equitable treatment of prisoners, is it?”
“Just save your anger for later, you may need it then.”
“Jumping now,” stated a digitized voice.
“And here we go.” I held out my gloved hand to her and she clasped it tightly.
“See you on the other side,” Janet quipped as the translation started.
I was about to speak when it hit, and I sat frozen in that timeless moment watching as the stars shown through the hull. I counted softly in my head, watching the stars wink out as I floated in blackness, off in the distance I could pick out a single solitary light. For a time I hung motionless watching it grow larger then the ship reformed around me hiding that image from me.
I could hear Janet gasping and I squeezed her hand through the gloves, “I take it reentry is not easy for you?”
“No, and that was a long jump too.”
“Well we are safe for the time, shall we go and find out if things are bad or were merely bumpy?” I asked and smiled casually at her.
I unclipped and gave her a hand up, she smiled and went to the lock and spent a moment keying in the commands. “Oh great, looks like we are going for a walk.”
Frowning I looked at her suited back as she tried the controls again, “Oh?”
“Powers out on this side and we are depressurized, so-o...”
“Make the best of it, we have to do a walk anyways as part of my check right?”
“Right L-T,” she eased past me and spun the door locks, “Well that works as intended.”
“Small blessings, of which we are ever thankful for,” I intoned only to hear her laugh.
“Only when the shit hits the fan.”
“Ah, well this may qualify, it looks like we got more than just bumped.” She stepped out and paused, “Better power up your boots L-T, the gravity is definitely out in the hanger.”
I looked past her to see a scrap of metal float slowly by, “I see.” I lifted a cover on my suits gauntlet and held down two buttons and released them at the tone in my headset.
“Well this is going to put a damper on the Commandant’s day.” Janet said as I eased out to find her pointing at the front half of the demolished Lamprey Transport.
I kept my voice calm as I noticed a downed crewman, “Well we should check the other ships just in case.”
“Oh gods,” she turn abruptly away and I saw the cause for her dismay. A suited figure floated into view, it was fairly obvious to me that he was dead, as his helmet was clouded with blood.
“Stay put, I’ll see if he’s alive,” I pretty much knew he wasn’t going to be, but evidently she was not ready to handle that task. I ignored the frozen cloud of red droplets and grabbed a hold of his leg and then pressed his feet to the deck and was mildly happy to see them stick.
“Yes, I am going pull his tac-package and see if I can find out how bad things are, you take the aft half and I will take the fore, we should check for wounded.” I looked back to where she was gazing at the body, “Janet focus.”
“Yes Ma’am, search and recovery, aye.”
I sighed and wrestled with the other man’s suit, with a final tug the tac came free and I spent a few more moments cursing as it seemed to fight going into my data port, a moment of stupidity passed and I turned it right side up. Evidently I was not too emotionally distanced from the dead man either. Once it I tabbed the reset and waited for the system to wake up.
“What is this bay’s designation?” I asked Janet as she worked starboard.
“Twelve Ninety Two, port Auxiliary Hanger two.”
“This is EVA Charlie Two Six Two, to TACCOM, over.” I sent and hoped folks were halfway alert upstairs.
“TACCOM here, status?”
“Twelve Niner Two Aux Hanger has damage, The Commandant’s bird is bent, can you confirm location of Marine Actual?”
“Confirmed Mike Six is on board, Cee Two Six Two is not a ship suit, can you confirm ID?”
“This is Mata Pilot Two Six Two, late of Darwin’s Hope. I was in test of my suit when went things went bump.” I paused and then added, “I think the Commandant can vouch for me, over.”
“TACCOM, wait for instructions over.”
“Roger TACCOM, standing by.” I took a few bounding step over to the Lamprey and peered into the fuselage, it was largely intact and empty. I sent a thankful pray to whichever god was listening and moved over to check a damage control panel. A few flicks of the switch and it came to life. “Janet, I found a active Damage Control Station, care to see if you can get gravity back on?”
“Just a moment Ma’am, I have wounded here.”
I looked to where she was strapping down a suited figure, “Do you need help?”
“I’m good Ma’am, the two others I found were breeched,” she sounded a bit drained.
“Hang in there Janet, it is going to be a long day I think.” I bounded over and placed a hand on her shoulder when she stood up, “Take his tac and get on the air, you know your ship and who to call reports to.”
“TACCOM to Cee Two Six Two.”
“Charlie Two Six Two here.”
“Cee Two Six Two, your call sign now Tango One, confirm.”
“Roger, call sign Tango One, over.
“Tee One switch to TAC frequency seven one niner, Mike Actual has instructions, over.”
“Roger TACCOM, switching now,” I opened the panel on my gauntlet and spent a moment switching frequencies. I waited a moment for the readout to switch in my helmet then I keyed the channel, “This is Tango One over.”
“Mike Actual here, that you Caruthers?”
“What of my pilots?”
“One wounded, three others accounted for sir.”
“Damn, ok Caruthers, seems like you are going into harness faster than you expected.”
Felling a bit thick in the head I asked, “Sir?”
“I need you to get to Auxiliary Hanger One and report if the Tiger Sharks there are intact. It’s a priority, our CAP didn’t jump the way we did.”
“We have no CAP, sir?” I shook my head; out in the boonies with no Combat Air Patrol, can you say, in deep shit?
“None, so get moving, I have a few other pilots here working that way, but the ship took a hard one.” He sounded a bit annoyed, “Damned Feds. Ok Caruthers get moving and well send a med team your way.”
“Roger sir, Tango One out.”
“Mike Actual out.”
I looked at Janet, “Which way to bay one?”
“The fastest way is out and over the hull, if the magnetic shield is down you can just walk into it.”
“If it is up?” I asked as I walked over to her.
“There is a lock on either side, it’s only a bit slower.” She unclipped a box from her belt, “Clip in using this and you shouldn’t go sailing off.”
“Are you going to be ok?”
“I’m not the one going for a walk on the hull, with who knows what about to happen.” She smiled and pointed to a bit of debris that was floating, “Just watch out for flying scrap.”
“Right so out and walk that way?” I asked point upwards.
“You can’t miss it Ma’am, besides I am in contact with the med team and I should not be alone for long,” she offered with a smile.
“Carry on then,” I offered with a grin and turned to go.
“Watch that first step Ma’am, it is a doozy.”
I chuckled and bounded quicly to the opening in the hull, and then walking slowly I found a place used for tying down equipment and hook myself and the free end to it. EVA is not my favorite activity without a ship, so I made damned sure I was connected tightly. That done I took a hold of the rungs on the outside of the hull and pulled myself out.
Some wag on Old Earth way back when, wrote that ‘Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.’ Needless to say he was only slightly exaggerating, I took a moment to admire the Deep then turned to look for my route. Fortunately it was marked for me to follow, though I was not thrilled to be on the outside of ship.
The ship seemed mostly intact on my side of it, there were a few small impact marks about two thirds down the hull, but I didn’t see any out gassing or visible fires. So with luck the ships armor took it without too much in the way of secondary problems; I reported that information to TACCOM and kept climbing. When I got the bay the magnetic screen was up, though the lock was just to the left of the rungs.
I was happy to find the field up even if it meant a delay getting into the bay. I cycled the lock and stepped inside then uncliped from the safety spool and tied it off outside the lock, as surely either someone would use it or clean it up later. I closed the outer door then hooked up to ship air to top up my tanks. While the suit pack was good for six to eight hours depending on activity, I had no idea what to expect later. I punched the pressurize button and waited for the lock to cycle, waiting for that ever so important green light. Still I checked to see if there was pressure on the other side of the hatch, as while the safeties should keep the door shut, things can go wrong.
Satisfied I was not in for a huge rude vacuum surprise, I tapped the commands for the door to open. Then I stepped through and shut the lock behind me, I wasn’t sure if others would need the hatch or not, but better safe than sorry. Bay One was intact though deserted; I checked the gravity then switched my boots off, I was happy not to have to play moon rover with that damned fitting in me. Personally I suspected the man who designed the attachment was not a fan of women pilots.
The three Tiger Sharks looked intact, I walked around each of the birds noting the heavy armor and thick wings. The Confederation Marine Corps banner was painted on one tail fin, on the other was the hammer and trident of the Marines’ Fighter Corps. I found the crew chiefs access and opened it to see a keypad,
“Mike Actual, this is Tango One.”
“Mike Actual, report.”
“Three birds, visual says un-bent, I repeat un-bent.” Why the Confederation could not escape several hundred years tradition and say ‘functional’, is beyond me.
“Roger, command access for the birds is ten eleven seventeen seventy five.”
I tapped the numbers in and shook my head, tradition was alive and well in the Corps, “Confirmed green lights, do I key up all the birds or just go sir?”
“Prep and go Caruthers, the others are delayed by structural damage. We took a hit to sensors so you are going to be our eyes out there.”
“Roger sir, how is the Skipper?”
“Busy but whole, I have my lad and lasses working to secure the ship while he handles damage control. Though he’s currently my ‘boss’.”
“Roger that sir, I should have preflight in three.” Or so I hoped.
“Roger, do hurry if you can Caruthers, I hate being blind.”
“Tango One is on it sir.”
“Good girl, Mike Actual out.”
I keyed the open cockpit command and started up the ladder, I was damned if I was going to sit and wait for Marine pilots to show up and take over. I snorted, and dropped into the seat, suddenly wishing my new suits plumbing was a bit softer. Gods I hated that new twist in my life, I didn’t see stars but things were sensitive. I had to spend time moving the seat and adjusting the foot peddles before I could warm up the bird. I plugged the g-suit and other connections in and keyed a check of that system as I continued waking up the bird’s electronics.
When the power plant came online I was much happier that the Commandant had suggested that I fly the Tiger Sharks in simulation. Though I doubted that he had this in mind when he did it. In either, case as I belted in and closed the canopy I felt truly free for the first time in a few days. “Mike Actual this is Tango one, all lights green, request permission to launch.”
“Tango one this is Mike Flight, you are clear for launch,” announced a new voice.
I chuckled, as evidently he knew how to delegate, “Rodger Mike Flight, Tango One going for launch.”
“Good hunting Tango One.”
I smiled and sincerely hoped no hunting would be needed. I gripped the controls and cycled power into vernier engines via the collective and brought the fighter up into an anti-grav assisted hover I gave the controls a nudge and smiled as the nose dipped and the fighter eased out the hanger.
I was in space again and free.
I took a lazy pass over the cruiser and filmed the damage for relay to command, as having eyes outside might help them plan their damage control plan later on. In either case it was busy work for me as I got the feel of the Tiger Shark. It did not seem quite as doggy as the simulator felt but I wasn’t pushing any real G’s yet. The payload was much heavier than I was used to in the past few months; evidently the Corps resupply was not in question for these birds.
“Mike Flight this is Tango One, prepare for gun camera feed over.”
“Roger, send when able.” There was a pause, “Fleet suggests one thousand meter stand off over the deck and going active sensors.”
“Confirmed and sending hull over-flight films now.” After the signal flashed as completed I keyed the mic, “Tango One moving to one kay and stand off topside,” Joy, I got to sit over and above the Cruiser for who knew how long. Still it wasn’t hard duty, I kicked the boosters in and stood it on end relative to the cruiser for a few seconds then flipped end for end to kill the momentum when I was close to one thousand meters out.
The Cruiser was moving at roughly one gravity constant, so keeping up was more a matter of setting the throttle and not bumping the controls. Hell a Marine could do that in his or her sleep, I smiled and brought the sensors active. Nothing was on the radar other than the Cruiser. Someone once said the Confederation spent to much time taking their designs from Old Earth sea life, though if you ask me the Cruiser while sleek looked nothing like a octopus, though I could see some similarities in the fore of it.
“Tango One to Mike Flight, clear skies no bandits.” I reported with a smile.
“Mike Flight, clear skies roger. ETA of Tango Two and Three ten minutes.”
“Roger Mike Flight, it is lonely out here.” I used some of the dead time to check through the weapons and payload, the main gun was a twenty-millimeter tri-barrel automatic gun system, which tied into my suit, giving me optical tracking of my target. On each wing was a pod holding twenty, thirty-millimeter fire and forget missiles, largely used for attacks on heavier ships where you didn’t have to be too precise. The outboard pods were loaded with eight SLAMRAM radar guided heat seeking anti ship missiles each, for those days when the Fed’s deserve your very best.
I noted the arrival of the other two Tigers with a wing wave and watched them drop to take up stations port and starboard of the cruiser. “Welcome to the party folks,” I sent feeling slightly happier to have them there.
“Thank you Tango One, just another day in the Corps.”
“Any word on the Fleet?”
“Mike Actual said we had help coming but you now how that goes, the Navy can’t find their ass with both hands.”
“I resent that I think,” I said with a light chuckle, “Seems this Navy pilot was in the Deep before you two were today.”
“True enough, though for the day you may as well pretend to be a Marine. Considering you are in one of our birds.”
I affected a bored tone of voice, “So is this how the Marines plan to win the next game, by importing the Navy to do it’s scoring?”
“Well if you measure up we’ll consider it,” added the other pilot.
I shook my head as I grinned, “Gods it is so nice to be loved.”
“Mike Flight to Tango One, we hope you are much better in the Deep than in a boxing ring.”
“Roger Mike Fight, I think I have that covered.” I smiled and considered all the abuse I was likely to get over that fight, ‘Sheesh, no love today.’
I was killing time trying to sort out a new set of names when the sensors blipped and then started wailing in my helmet. “Mike Flight this is Tango One, Emergence Warning. I repeat Emergence Warning.”
“Mike Flight roger, Emergence Warning.”
“Ok Tango Two and Three go weapons hot,” I called to them as I brought my own on line.
“Tango One who died and made you god?” asked ‘Spanner’ with what sounded like disbelief.
“This is Mike Actual, and that would be me, now shut up an follow instructions Marine. Call the ball Caruthers.”
“Roger Mike Actual, I read four possible Pillions, an Arbalest, Two Toads, and last but not least a Turtle.” I flipped my ship end for end and kicked the thrusters to max, “Looks like a the Feds want the Cruiser, two troop carriers and a missile boat, expect jamming and a EMP missile.”
“Mike Actual, roger. Long odds, we may have to jump out.”
“Mike Actual, save the boat we’ll do our bit.”
“Give them Hell Marines, and you too Caruthers.”
As the other two pilots yelled ‘Semper Fi’ I smiled and waited for the ruckus to die down, “Roger that, Mike Actual.”
As the two other Tigers settled in port and starboard I set my guns to miser mode, I wasn’t sure if the was just the tip of the asteroid or not. “Ok gents, you two pair up and see if you can teach the Pillions that this was a bad idea. I’ll take the Arbalest.”
“Oh sure take the hard job,” quipped ‘Flat-Top’, “Shall we make it interesting?”
“Sure, what stakes?” I asked as their afterburners lit up briefly pushing them slightly ahead of me.
“Whoever finishes last buys the beer,” he said with a bored tone of voice.
“Least amount of shots fired for shots?” I asked with a grin.
“Done, care to dance Tango One?” Spanner asked eagerly.
“Show them the way to hell Marines,” I offered a quick prayer and dropped back a bit to give them the lead.
As they kicked in their afterburners fully, I counted to three then did the same. The Turtle was the Fed’s version of a wild weasel, mixed with a command and control ship. It had good armor and shields, though the electronics ate ship space normally used in guns. It has a singular twenty-millimeter gatling gun in the nose, giving it one hell of a bite. Fortunately it was slow and would likely jump as soon as it got to hot for it.
As the Marines tied up the Pillions, I got ahead of the Arbalest just in time to kill their first missile launched with one of my own, giving me hopefully another ten seconds before the next could be fired. The Arbalest was a nasty bit of work, they normally carried four heavy missiles in a central magazine, and enough missiles on the stubby wings to make anyone’s day bad. The two turrets over and under the tail make it just that much harder. It had decent shields and armor as well making it a day’s work in its own right, for a solo fighter.
The trick to killing one quickly was to get in its nose, and hammer at it until it fired, with your guns. Risky as hell, but marginally safer than going for the turrets first. I started what to others must look like one hell of a corkscrew and dived at the nose. The faster you spin that harder it is to get painted by targeting lasers, radar was it’s own problem. But with the Fed’s Turtle confusing just about everything and our own counter measures warring with theirs, it made hitting me nearly impossible.
“For that which we are about to receive, let us be grateful,” I intoned, and quickly stuttered the trigger with several times and then dumped a pair of thirty-millimeter rockets for luck at it. Its shield sparkled and as the turrets spat back at me I popped chaff a few times out of habit and bore in on it.
My own shields flashed several times in succession as the turrets tried to punch my ticket. Their grazing hits bounced me slightly and then I was close enough to feed them three pairs of the thirty-millimeters, bringing down the shields. As I whipped up and over the Arbalest I carved a line through its cockpit with the tri-barrel, as the cockpit out-gassed violently I jerked the collective down and used my inertia to sail behind it, and then I used the other thrusters to reorient my nose so I was now pointed at their tail.
Once I had tone and was about fifty meters back, I kicked loose two more thirty-millimeter rockets and fired into the holes they created with the tri-barrel. For a moment nothing seemed to happen, and then the Arbalest shook like a Denebian Water Bear in heat as the missiles detonated deep inside of it. As it broke up I pulled up on the collective kicking in my thrusters and spiraled outwards from it.
The Marines were fairing well though they had more playmates than I did. There were two less Pillions, and by the time I slid into the fray behind them, one more had been obliterated. “I got your six, pop it and let’s see who buy’s the shots.”
“Roger that, Tango One, ok Flattop it’s your shot, take the ball,” Spanner sounded happy, “do try to make it clean.”
There was a snort over the radio, “Say goodnight to the Fed.” I heard a warning tone sound and then saw a short track of light as the SLAMRAM fired off and plowed into the engine of the last Pillion sending it to hell.
“Nicely done. Flattop, Spanner, lets clean up the trash shall we?”
“Boo-yah! Tango One I hope you have a thick wallet.” I smiled as Spanner flipped out and over me heading to the now fleeing Turtle and Toads.
“Don’t do anything stupid, quick and clean kills.”
“Yes mother,” they chorused.
The two Marines made short work of the Toads, not quite popping them both at the same time. I was starting my own run on the Turtle as they jeered. I sent three pairs of the thirty-millimeter rockets into it before its shield flared out under the blasts, a few rounds into the engine pods canceled their ticket and afforded me time for a lazy victory roll.
“Ok gents, shall we get back to stations?”
“Ladies first,” offered Flattop with a chuckle.
“Right.” I smiled and called the boss, “Mike Flight, clear skies no bogies.”
“Mike Flight, nice job Tango CAP.”
“Mike Flight, Tango One at yellow fuel, green guns, amber pods and green SLAMs.” I waited for the other two to report, they were better off, though I edged them in rounds for the guns and SLAMs.
They eased up to port and starboard of me and pumped their fists at me, I waggled my wings and tried not to smile too much. We took the travel time back to the Cruiser to tally up gun rounds and missiles used, it looked like I was buying the shots, but that did not phase me any. After year in the Fed’s back pocket I had plenty of credits in the bank.
“Mike Actual to Tango CAP, Skipper says ‘good job and not to worry about the tab.’” I heard him chuckle and he continued, “You are stuck with being our eyes for the next hour or so. Sorry about that, but Fleet should have sensors up by then.”
“Roger that Mike Actual, beer on the Skipper, moving back to cover the Cruiser.”
“Nicely done you three, Mike Actual out.”
We were not quite back to boredom after a very hasty refuel, well I was. The Marines were evidently G-Ball fans and were chatting up the latest game. I knew the game, but having spent the last year in the Deep I didn’t know which teams were up, down or out. So I was dithering over names trying to pick something I halfway could think of as my own. Part of me was toying with Christa taken from Saint Christa: Who was a saint named from the Pre-Jump era of Old Earth where they used chemical rockets to lift shuttles.
The emergence alert sounded again and the chat dropped to silence as I started deciphering the readings. “Mike Flight, Emergence Warning, I repeat Emergence Warning.” I flipped my safeties off, “Go weapons hot gentlemen.”
“Mike Flight, Fleet confirms Emergence Warning.”
I frowned as the data on one ship didn’t want to drop into place, “Mike Flight this is Tango One, I read eight Pillions, and one unknown bogey.”
“Tango Two to Mike Flight, I think Tango One has an older tac, I have it as a Caesar Mark Two.”
“Mike Flight copies Tango Two, break, Tango CAP Weapons Free, good hunting.”
“Roger Mike Flight.” I rolled up and out, “Ok gents you two pair up and I’ll play free safety.”
“Roger Tango One, I have the lead,” called Spanner as he lit up his afterburners.
“The odds are a bit uneven,” commented Flattop with a chuckle.
“I suppose we could call the Feds and tell them to send more,” added Spanner as he popped a flare and a round of chaff.
My own lock warning went and I fired a SLAM off and then rolled up and over Flattop’s bird. Moments later the SLAM went off sending a Pillion to hell. I took a moment to scan the area visually then blinked as my radar showed an old but familiar pattern. “Those idiots,” I muttered then rolled out to my port.
“What’s got your panties in a twist Tango One?”
“Some moron is running last seasons G-Ball patterns for the Fed’s offense.”
“Well the Feds needed some help...” Spanner commented as he slipped into a quick evasion.
“Right, remember Gallium’s Triad from the Cup a year back?”
“He lost a hundred credits on it, so I can bet he remembers.”
“Ok, the Caesar is sitting in the Q-B position, shall we punch his playbook?”
“Call the play Tango One,” quipped Flattop with evident eagerness in his voice.
“Snatch reverse and pile drive the bastard, on three.”
“Roger,” they chorused.
I tapped my chaff, slammed my collective down and popped a flare, “One, two, and hit it!” As the Marines’ bolted through the Pillion’s line I stood my ship on it’s tail and went ‘high’ using the momentum from my initial direction to carry me along their path. I watched a pair of Pillions winked out as I was forced to break missile lock with the chaff again. Rolling over I lined up on the Caesar and sent four pairs of thirty-millimeter rockets into its path.
Smiling I watched the Caesar bank out of the path of my missiles, presenting its belly to the boys; “Sack’em!” I called out to the Marines.
Each of the Marines sent a SLAM into the shields of the Ceasar, causing them to flare out. I dropped behind them like an avenging angel, tying up two predatory Pillions as they clocked the Caesar with their guns. I used a SLAM of my own the trailing Pillion and looked port to send a trail of tracers into another with the nose gun.
“The Quarter Back is toast!” called Spanner with a rebel yell from Flattop making him almost unreadable.
A flash in my radar caught my eye, “Spanner break out now!” For a timeless moment I was sure the Pillion nearly had him, as it clipped his tail with a missile.
“God’s that was too close!” Spanned sounded a bit dazed, a moment later he added, “Well that bites.”
“Report Spanner!” I called as I fed that Pillion a SLAM for breakfast, “What’s the damage?”
“Portside engine at eighty percent and dropping.”
“Spanner, full burn as long as it holds, Flattop you cover him while I clean up.”
“But,” he started.
“Shut up and fly Marines!”
“Full burn aye,” Spanner sounded a bit resentful and a bit relieved as he punched his afterburners.
I took a deep breath and flipped into a full burn of my own, spiraling rapidly at the last few Pillions. My shields flashed hard and I nearly piled into a Pillion as it careened by me. Abruptly my shield winked out and I lost my starboard side missile pod with a jolt that nearly set my head to ringing in my helmet. I sent my last few thirty-millimeters from the other pod into the trailing Pillion and did my damnedest to ease by the sudden shrapnel cloud it produced as it exploded.
Moments later my port SLAMRAM weapon pod started winking then blacked out in my HUD as it died. “So much for the paint job...” I yanked up on the collective and banked to starboard tightly, the radar started screaming about the same time as my weapons lock did, “Eat me you bastards!” I used my second to last SLAM to cancel that Pillion and blinked a few times as the sensors flipped out and started screaming warning tones. “Mike Flight, Emergence Warning!”
The sensors cleared up for a moment showing another flight of Pillions inbound. I growled in frustration and glared at my HUD, one SLAM and a thousand rounds of ammo for the Tri-barrel were just not what I wanted. “All right you mothers. Bring it!” I very deliberately used my last SLAM on the final Pillion from the last flight and rolled hot and heavy for the Cruiser as a second emergence alarm sounded. “Gods damn it! I’ll take all you fuckers on!”
“Not exactly the greeting we expected,” commented a new voice as a pair of familiar black shapes rocketed by my bird on full military thrust, “Manta Leader at your service.”
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed in surprise.
“Yes Ma’am, now if you’ll break out we’ll sort these folks out for you.”
“Sure, be my guest...” I blathered as I cut my thrusters and went end for end before relighting them at full military burn.
“Reflex and Daffy, drop down to cover the other Marines and the Cruiser. Hondo the lady is without a dance partner, try not to step on her toes. Red and Black Wings, engage at will.”
I pushed my stick over and looked for a clear path away from the flock of Mantas as they burned for the Pillions. I saw a shadow drop over my cockpit causing me to look up at a smirking Manta pilot in his own cockpit. “Show off,” I muttered and focused on flying an even line.
“Tango Flight, Mike Actual here, good job let the Merry Men of the Hood clean up.”
“Rodger that Mike Actual.” I took a visual survey of my bird, only to blink and swallow a few times hard. My port wing was not going to be useful for much other than decoration and the odd sparks that trailed from it did nothing for my calmness. In my other wing I absently noted about five fist-sized holes in it. “Mike Flight this is Tango One, my bird is bent. I repeat, bent. I am amber fuel, red guns, black pods, and black SLAMs. I have decent control, over.”
“And she was going to go for us all,” incredulously commented a voice out of the blue.
I looked over to see the Manta pilot saluting me, I returned it and shook my head a few times. If I was going down I was giving the Devil his due first, “Damned straight.”
“Hood Flight to Tango One, bay three port side will be happy to receive you.”
“Roger that, Hood Flight, Tango One moving to bay three portside.” I eased back on the collective cutting my speed sharply and took my time working that way.
I grinned as the Commandant made his presence know on the comms, “Mike Actual to Hood Flight, you can’t keep her, we have dibs.”
An hour later The Hermes and the Hood were once again in their normal fleet position and a few hours after that, I was trying to hide in my berth’s shower. I was coming down hard off of the post combat jitters and was facing an even more daunting task than defending the Hermes; a full dress dinner. I was crouched down under the hot spray and trying to wash out the shakes some. You would think I was a plebe about to make the ceremonial toast at dinner for all my sudden loss of nerves.
Abruptly ice-cold water washed over me and I all but knocked Joan over in my haste to get out of the shower. “Damn woman, take it easy,” she not quite laughed as I snatched the towel from her hands.
I growled at her and then wrapped the towel around me, “I wasn’t finished yet!”
“Yes you were, you have not quite an hour to get ready for the hop over to the Poseidon.”
“Plenty of time,” I countered.
“If you were a guy maybe.” She shook her head, “Dry off we have some work to do.”
“Oh come on, all I have to do is get dressed.”
“That and style your hair, do your nails and then make up,” she rolled her eyes, “you need to look perfect tonight.”
“Crap, you can’t be serious.”
“That and settle on a name.”
“Oh gods why now?” I complained at her.
“So you can be properly announced at dinner, the Admiral and the Commandant don’t invite just anybody to dinner on the flagship.” She smiled as my shoulders slumped, “Come on it’ll be fun.”
“I’d rather face the Feds in a lamed ship,” I said in disgust over the whole mess.
“So I heard, Spanner thinks you are his personal guardian angel.” She giggled, “Seriously, he was not quite about to profess his true love for you after today.”
“Gods just what I need, a lovesick pilot on my six,” I moaned and toweled off.
She giggled and handed me a hairdryer, “Get used to it girl, you are going to turn heads no matter what you are wearing.”
I used the mirror to watch her lay things out on my berth, and sighed under my breath, why the hell did I need all of that? I managed to get my hair mostly dry just before she handed me a pair of panties, scowling I handed her the hair dryer and put them on. “Why me?”
“Let’s see, you and two Jarheads vaporized how many ships this afternoon?”
“Four Pillions, two Toads, an Arbalest and a Turtle.” I counted on my fingers as she steered me into a chair in front of a mirrored table. “Followed by eight more Pillions and a Caesar,” I shrugged at her, “Eighteen ships, big whoop, I’ve help to kill more than that in one day, before this.”
“Honey, you went up against the odds and came out on top, don’t you think that’s something?” she asked while shaking her finger at me.
“Not really, we took on more than that I don’t know how many times.” I looked up at her, “It’s not that big of a deal.”
She shook her head and stepped behind me with a comb and a spray can of some type. “Manta pilots are nuts,” she said and I heard a hissing, “close your eyes.”
I did and tried not to inhale the fumes from what ever she was spaying on my head. Trying not to sneeze I asked, “What is that stuff?”
“Hairspray, I’m trying to get your unruly mop in some sort of shape, tomorrow I am dragging you to the salon for a full work over. We can’t have our heroine looking scruffy.”
“I am not a hero, I just did what had to be done.”
“Caruthers,” she paused and shook her head while pointing over to my dress uniform, “have you ever looked at your records?”
I shook my head, “There wasn’t much point.”
She pointed at me in mirror, “It took me a good hour to put your ribbons together with help from Supply. You may not think you are a hero, but Janet and most of the ship think you are.”
Sighing I looked up at the overhead, “I just did what had to be done.”
“For which the lot of us are ever so thankful for,” said Marge as she came into view, “I was looking through your flight records, aside from last night in the simulator, how many hours flight time have you had with the Tiger Shark.”
“Counting today?” I asked as I struggled into a bra.
“No, not counting today.”
I paused then sighed, “I had a check ride in one, maybe an hour at the most.” I shrugged, as a ship is just a ship after all.
“And today you helped to take out eighteen ships, and you were going to go into the maw of another sixteen, before the Mantas showed up; in a ship you hardly even knew.” She shook her head, “You don’t lack for courage girl, much less attitude. Most pilots would be strutting around like they owned the Deep if they had a tenth of your drive. So why not you?”
“Cocky gets you killed,” I explained. “I saw too many pilots get stupid because they hit some sort of milestone. Then they bought it.” I shook my head and pointed to the terminal, “We didn’t have many MIA’s.”
“Well for tonight, pretend you are worthy of your awards, even if you don’t think so yourself.” She walked over and poked me in the arm, “Doctors orders.”
Reluctantly I smiled, “Yes Ma’am.”
“There, much better. Now have you picked out a name? They need it for table settings.” Marge prodded me again, “So what are we calling you.”
“I have no idea, I was trying to sort that out in my dead time, but I had no good ideas.” I shrugged, “I got as far as Saint Christa, before all hell broke loose again.”
“Some how I don’t think you were ever saintly material.” Joan chuckled and started doing something with my hair.
“No but she makes a good guardian angel,” Marge paused then smiled, “How does Angela sound?”
I shrugged in resignation, “It works, I guess.”
“Angela Lin Caruthers, that has a nice ring,” said Joan as I heard something click as she pressed something against my head, then she spelled out Lin for us.
“And where does ‘Lin’ come from?” I asked.
“I made it up, you look more than a little Pan-Asian now, so...” Joan was smiling wickedly as she eased two fancy sticks into my hair. “If you got it, flaunt it.”
“Not exactly regulation, but I think they will ignore it for tonight,” Marge smiled touching the sticks lightly.
I looked in the mirror at the woman staring back at me, she was definitely Pan-Asian, “I guess it will work.”
“Fine, Angela Lin Caruthers it is, now I have to get that bit of news to the Admiral’s steward and update a few records.” She waved as she walked out looking immensely pleased with herself.
As she hurried out I looked up at Joan, “Why do I have this sudden feeling like I am now doomed?”
“That’s paranoia, everyone has that,” she said picking up a thick looking paint brush, “now hold still.”
I was not quite sure what to make of the Admiral’s Gig, it certainly seemed a bit gaudy compared to most shuttles I had been on. The bright work was a mix of silver and copper that looked as if someone had spent entirely too long polishing it. Thankfully it wasn’t me, but I did take care to not brush against it, as I was sure some poor sod had to keep it that way. Maroon carpet gave way to a disk of where the Confederation Seal was worked into a white panel. Twin suns rising over a stylized mountain that symbolized the Capital Planet, surrounded by a hundred silver stars representing the first hundred worlds that formed the Charter.
By tradition, no one stepped there but eased around it carefully, not even the Marines. I was flanked Lieutenants Robert ‘Flattop’ Wilkes and Benjamin ‘Spanner’ Franks, my fellow pilots from Tango CAP. They were in stark black uniforms with red piping, and looked to be suffering in collars that were high and stiff. I was slightly thankful that the slip I wore helped to conceal everything else I wore under it as their shoes were shined up to the point where had I been less tastefully dressed, my modesty would have been in question. Both sported a decent array of ribbons yet I appeared to outshine just about everyone in that regard.
I was wearing a tight white mess jacket with long sleeves; the piping was done in black piping that had a tracery of silver woven into it. I was blessed in that the Navy had opted for a simply white shirt with a soft collar, though the tie needed to jump a few hundred years to catch up with fashion if you asked me. It was a plain black tie, which required a few minutes of cursing to tie, and the edges of it barely crossed at the front in an inverted ‘Vee’. For all the trouble it caused Joan and me, it should have looked much better that it did, though Joan said it looked ‘sharp’. Then she hinted that I should get used to the damned thing.
The skirt was just below my knees and walking in it was a bother, as it forced me to take shorter, ‘more feminine steps’. Joan had tried to get me to wear heels, of which I tried and nearly ended up needing an icepack for my efforts. The flats, as she called them were still uncomfortable in the toe, of which she responded, ‘Welcome to Womanhood.’ Evidently I was making huge inroads compared to some of the other ‘new’ ladies, but most of the time I felt like I was swimming in vacuum without my suit.
My own ribbons, gods what a riot they produced in contrast to the stark white of the dress jacket. I didn’t know what half of them were, much less for; though I did have a ‘cheat card’ that listed them for me. That was in my handbag with half a dozen odd items of which I hoped not to need; makeup application was not in my MOS’s handbook. I think we ruined more than a few sets of pantyhose before Joan gave up and put me in light gray tights of a sturdy fiber. Evidently I was going to have to master that later.
After I sat down and belted in, the rest of the men took their own seats, of which seemed very odd to my perspective, though they seemed as if nothing was amiss. Flattop looked as uncomfortable as I felt, “Relax Wilkes, it is not as if you are in a dress,” I quipped at him.
“Right, I think you have it easier, these collars,” he smiled tightly and eased a finger around the top of it. “May be traditional, but I would rather be out on patrol.”
“Amen,” I added and pointed at my feet were they were forced into neat points. “These are murder.”
“They look like weapons too.” Franks leaned back into his seat, “I have a hunch we will be either standing a good long time trying to be polite. Or sitting and trying not to fall asleep.”
I nodded thinking back to a few ‘polite’ dinners where I did both, “I think I would rather be back on CAP.”
“True, so do you have a call sign yet?” asked Wilkes with a chuckle.
“I had one but it doesn’t fit anymore.”
“Oh, what was it?” asked Franks.
“Snark,” at their confused looks I added. “As in Snark and Boojum.” I sighed and quoted, “‘In the midst of the word he was trying to say, in the midst of his laughter and glee. He had softly and suddenly vanished away. For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.’ It’s from Lewis Caroll’s writings” I added as they still seemed lost. “Don’t two you read at all?”
“And you got tagged with it because?” Wilkes asked as if he was not sure what to expect.
“My old Skipper thought my Wingman was me and I was him, so-o, it fit.” I chuckled softly, “The old man never could keep us straight on the squawk.”
“Where is he now?” asked Franks.
“Well he should have been in port a while back, so with luck he’s recovering from a week long binge,” laughing lightly I said, “Like we should be doing.”
“No argument from me there,” said Wilkes, “though I may wish I was drunk before the night is over.”
The rest of the short flight passed without much conversation, I think all of us were a bit on edge. I was definitely missing the foot or so of height I had lost when the Fed’s changed me, as I sat in between the towering Marines. I expected that I was going to miss that for some time, not to mention my neck was starting to get a crick in it from having to look up all the time.
The Poseidon supposedly was one of the ocean deities back on Old Earth, which given the aquatic theme of the Fleet should seem appropriate. Considering the Behemoth class warship was the largest we possessed to date. I suppose the Deities might consider the naming of one for them, might be flattering. While you couldn’t park the Hermes in it’s largest hanger, it did give the impression that you could try.
“Oh great,” Wilkes was pointing out a view port. “Did anyone mention a parade to either of you?”
“No,” I quickly said trying to peer past him and failing.
“Just wonderful,” Franks grimaced, “they brought the press too.”
I sunk back into my seat dejectedly, “No wonder they were fussing so damned much.”
“The nurses and doctor over on the Hermes,” I motioned to my hair and uniform, “I think they were up to something.”
“Well you look dazzling, so with luck all the camera’s will be on you and we will simply look good.” Frank’s gave a long suffering sigh, “The things we do for the glory of the Confederation.”
For a moment I considered that and slumped, “Why me?”
“Did you piss off the Deities recently?” asked Wilkes with a grin.
“If surviving counts, yes.”
“And it is with great pleasure that I award you the Confederation Stellar Array for Bravery. Your actions in the defense of the Medical Cruiser Hermes are a tribute to your training, the Fleet and the Confederation as a whole.”
The Admiral carefully pinned the medal to my jacket and took a step back. I saluted neatly and waited for him to return it, and then he shook my hand,
“Thank you sir,” I dutifully replied feel a bit stunned as the CSA was just a notch shy of godhood, award wise and most of them tended to be awarded posthumously.
“No Lieutenant thank you, the Fleet owes you three a great deal, this is just window dressing,” he chuckled softly. “Sorry about all of this but considering the Federation’s actions of late, it can’t hurt to put our thumb in their eyes.” He winked at me, “Especially since a lady did most of the work.”
“I had help sir,” I protested as he simply nodded and stepped away from us to give the media a clear shot.
“Present arms!” commanded the Admiral’s adjutant, and we stood that way for the next few minutes as the band played the Fleet, the Marine Corps and Confederation songs. I just hoped my arm wasn’t trembling too much through the long minutes, and then hoped all the cameras would stop flashing.
Once the band stopped we did our best to march off the stage and then into the receiving line. Of which I did my best to smile and nod politely along with Wilkes and Franks, who had received the same award as me. Part of me was entirely too happy for the crowd of ship’s crew and assorted press to die down. From the amount of congratulations and praise that was heaped upon us, you would think we were Vid-Stars or something. The only coherent thought I had through it all, was that I really, really wanted out of these shoes.
Unfortunately that was out, as the Adjutant passed me off to a pair of ladies who then took me to a small room to ‘freshen’ me up. They did give me a moments grace to use the head, and to wiggle my toes before making sure I looked just right. I was not quite sure what they were doing but they kept checking the makeup with a bright light and some sort of meter. Then they eased the sticks carefully out of my hair and gently placed a red beret on my head and then fussed with the Unit Flash on the front of it. If anyone asked, I was to say that I was on detached duty from the Pilots Academy.
That annoyed me to some extent, when I tried to protest they calmly informed me it was for PR purposes, and that my new duty assignment was not set in stone yet. I didn’t quite scowl at that bit of news, though I bit back on my comments as the Admiral walked in, “Is she ready?”
“Ready for what sir?” I asked with some trepidation.
“The Publicity shoot, the Admiralty wants to stir up some patriotism and since you three are the heroes of the hour...” He laughed as I slumped. “It’s not that bad Lieutenant, just a few set shots today, one of which will go to your promotion packet.”
I nodded and stood up from my chair, “Yes sir.”
“As it is, you were already on the fast track, once we found out you were alive.” He smiled, “You and your lot from the Hope did a bang up job on the Feds this past year. Just about everyone on the Hope is in line for promotions. Your old Skipper is looking at his first star if I read the wind correctly.”
“He deserves it sir,” I waved back to where the hanger was and then down to my chest where the CSA rested, “this is a bit much though.”
“They did say you were a bit reluctant in that department,” He sighed, “It’s not so much for you Lieutenant but the people at home. They need to see us as people, put names to a few of our shining stars so they don’t see us as becoming like the Federation.”
“We are nothing like the Federation sir,” I said with some heat.
“True, we don’t conscript our troops.” He motioned broadly, “Which is why all of this, we must keep the peoples faith so they support us.”
“Now shall we get this over with so we can eat?” He asked as he stepped away, “I am starving.”
I was fairly ravenous myself, “Yes sir.”
Dinner wasn’t fast, as it took forever for all the press and other ship captains and officers from around the Fleet to be seated or chauffeured away from the bar. Technically the booze was on the Admiral, though I am sure he wasn’t paying for it. I was gently told to keep my indulgence light, as I was still recuperating. That bit of news caused the three of us to laugh as were guided to our seats. Once again I found the two Marines at my sides, sure they contrasted nicely with my dress whites, though they seemed mostly outnumbered at the Admiral’s Table.
Aside from the Commandant, who looked as uncomfortable as his troops, everyone one else as the table was either in Fleet whites or expensive suits. I was seated across from one gentleman who introduced himself as Phillip Jansen, Galactic Free Press. I could almost here the initials click when he announced that, I suspected my meal was going to be part veal and part questions.
“An impressive feat of flying today Lieutenant,” I looked over to where the Captain from the Hermes addressed me.
“Thank you sir, just part of the job,” I pointed to my right and left, “these gentlemen helped with a good deal of the fighting as well.”
“Indeed, gentlemen it was truly well done.”
“Not one to blow your own horn Ms. Caruthers?” asked Phillip as he waved a fork in my direction.
I paused to finish the bite I was working on, “While I do have my own measure of pride Mr. Jansen, we were a team. Baring some rivalry, the Marines and Fleet are of one mind when it comes to the Federation.”
“And that is?” he asked quickly.
I simply said, “They must be stopped.”
“Ah, and the political side of things does not interest you?” he asked after slicing into what looked like raw steak to me.
“Well sir, given the Federations actions of late, I would say that we are firmly on the side of right.”
“Though the Federation might say otherwise. I am given to understand that Confederation forces attacked a Federation Medical Frigate just recently.”
I glanced down to where the Admiral sat and as he shook his head slightly I smiled and took a bite of fish from my own plate.
After a longish pause he asked, “No comments Lieutenant?”
I finished my bite rested my fork on the plate, “I am sorry was there a question in your previous statement?”
He blinked then smiled before lifting his glass to me in a mocking salute, “I see. Let me rephrase it then. Did the Confederation attack a Federation Medical Frigate?”
“I honestly don’t know sir, I am not up to date on everything the Fleet has or has not done.” I stated calmly and lifted my wine glass for a sip, “Frankly Mr. Jenson, I would not be surprised if the Federation made up some such incident.”
“So where have you been these past few weeks? If I may ask, seeming how the Confederation has been boasting of capturing a Federation Security Frigate which supposedly held Confederation Prisoners.”
“The Lieutenant was one of those prisoners Mr. Jansen. I am quite sure she could attest that that ship was not a hospital vessel,” stated the Admiral with an apologetic look towards me.
“So Lieutenant, where were you the past few weeks?” Mr. Jansen studied me critically as he waited on my reply.
“In a suspension tube, from what the Doctors told me. And then recovering.” I smiled tightly at him, “So in truth I have no way of knowing what occurred then.”
He frowned thoughtfully and I hoped that he would drop the subject so I returned to my meal. He studied me for a moment and then continued, “So if you were their prisoner, were you tortured?”
“Yes,” I answered and sliced savagely into my potato.
“In what fashion?” he asked intently, if not a bit rudely.
As conversation died around me I glared at him, “Sir, I do not find the topic of torture to be one suitable for polite company.”
“Surely, as everyone here are soldiers in on fashion or another, you could elaborate?”
“I think not,” I said feeling my stomach tighten and my mouth start to dry up.
“So were you raped by them? That is one of the charges supposedly leveled at those men.”
“That would be a matter best left for the lawyers sir,” I responded as I felt my face heat up, my stomach was suddenly weaving in time with the pulse in my temple.
“I see, so how long were you their prisoner?” He plodded on, poised like a snake.
“Long enough. Frankly this topic is not one I care to discuss any further,” I wasn’t hungry any more and it was all I could do not to jump up and punch that slimly look from his face.
Un daunted by my tone he continued, “The Federation is making the claims that the only women on that ship were courtesans or whores if you will.”
That did it, while my stomach wasn’t doing a full burn, my anger was. “Sir, if I were to reply to your implication, you would need a second,” I replied coldly, and then I paused and stood up. I took a breath and forced myself to remain civil, “Gentlemen, if you will pardon me, I need to freshen my make up.”
It was good to see the various glares that were directed at him as I strode away from the table. I wasn’t completely pissed off, though it may have sounded that way as my shoes cut a staccato beat on the tile. As it was, I focused on finding the ladies head before I broke down. A hand on my sleeve brought me up short and I allowed myself to be guided away by a female major in Marine dress blacks.
Once in the head I nodded thanks to her and went into a stall to sit and clear my head. I had not drunk enough wine to affect my judgment, though I was more than a bit uneasy. I closed my eyes, and tried to settle my nerves by reviewing a few flight protocols, but my stomach rebelled and I found myself vomiting into the toilet several times. A few tears escaped and I let them go without trying to fight it.
“Are you all right?” asked the Major.
“I, uh, will be, maybe.” I spat a few times and blew my nose while trying to fight the shakes down. “Damn him.”
“Man trouble?” she asked cautiously.
I laughed, “Not exactly, my dinner companion wanted to ask about my time as a Federation prisoner. With details.” I flushed and exited the stall.
“He’s just fucking news jockey looking for sensationalist crap to report.” She shook her head, “Do you think you can return to the meal?”
I took a look in the mirror and sighed, “With help perhaps.” I used a paper cup to wash out my mouth and then I dumped my small arsenal of cosmetics on the counter and frowned. Fortunately I wasn’t a total ruin makeup wise, though it was obvious that I had cried. “Fucking bastard.”
She nodded and picked up my compact, “Men are often asses, but occasionally one or two are worth keeping around.”
“I’ll try and remember that,” I said and held still as she tapped the pad from it lightly on my face and nose.
“Hang tough Lieutenant, you’ll be a master at this in time.” She handed me my lipstick, “I’m not good at putting this on others, can you manage?”
I glanced down at it and nodded, “Joan made sure I could before chasing me off.”
“My nurse back on the Hermes,” I pointed to my hair and the rest of me. “This all her work.”
“Ah, for someone who was only recently a woman, you seem to be doing well.” She smiled as I applied the lipstick carefully.
I blotted my lips and shrugged, “I am faking it, mostly.”
“We all do,” she patted my shoulder, “we just practice it until no one can tell the difference.”
“Joy, so how long can I escape the rest of dinner?” I asked as I put everything away.
“Not long, desert is due to be served shortly.” She rubbed her hands together greedily, “Three different chocolate delicacies to abuse. Alas my poor diet, I knew it well.”
I smiled at her since she did not seem to be mourning that hard, “Hopefully I can eat it without a return performance.”
“If we must, with luck someone will have recovered his manners.”
“It’s a man honey, the only way they remember them is if they are after something, never forget that.”
“My apologies gentlemen for the delay,” I said as Wilkes seated me, “I didn’t mean to delay the meal.”
“Think nothing of it,” said the Admiral with a smile. “We used the time well.”
I glanced at Mr. Jansen who seemed a bit uncomfortable now, “Ah, nothing too unpleasant I trust?” Considering his new demeanor it must have been some conversation.
“No, no. My apologies Ms. Caruthers if I caused you any distress.” He seemed to be honest in his apology, but I merely nodded coolly to him.
“So what is the next course?” I asked into the silence.
“Desert,” said the Admiral with a chuckle, “the Flambé has been postponed.”
Dinner had adjourned to the Poseidon’s Officers Lounge, where I was amused to see the different gun camera footage from our ships, playing in a continuous loop on a large Tri-Vid screen that devoured most of one wall. I tried to ignore the replay of our fight, that and tried not to wince as it became evident that I had taken some serious damage. Spanner was largely in the same boat I was there, though he seemed to take it better.
The Marine Major from earlier seemed to have adopted me as I frequently found her near by. I discovered her name was Clarice and we were both from the same home planet, though different domes. I think she was largely amused by my discomfort, though she did have an amusing take on the men as they strutted around.
Evidently she was into bird watching when planeside and was not about characterizing the men by their ‘displays’.
“And that one is obviously a peacock,” she pointed out one gentleman who had more colored bits on his uniform than I did.
“I’ll take your word for it,” I was slowly sipping from a class that held the chocolate liquor that the Clarice favored. After sampling the three chocolate deserts it seemed a bit much, though it did spark a warm feeling deep in my stomach.
“So the girl who would fly Mantas is a hot pilot after all.” I turned to see the same Second Lieutenant from the night before, he was also dressed in Marine blacks.
“Can I help you Lieutenant Mitchell?” I asked feeling both annoyed and amused for some reason.
“Though considering you neatly turned it to scrap, you can’t be that hot,” he stated and as I shrugged he took an unsteady step closer. “You bent my bird,” he half growled in an alcoholic cloud.
I glanced at Clarice and then shrugged, “Fortunes of war Lieutenant.” I studied his uniform and tried not to smile, as while he did have several ribbons; most seemed tied to his initial training.
“Is ‘Sparky’ here, bothering you Angela?” asked Wilkes as he walked up and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Not much, he seems a bit distraught about his ride,” I motioned to the wall that was showing the endless loop. “Though that may be envy.”
“I have nothing to be envious about,” he said stiffly and ducked out from under Wilkes hand. “I have never been shot out of the Deep, unlike this Navy pilot.”
I smiled cooly easing back into my seat, “Give it time, the odds will break against you sooner or later.”
“I doubt it,” he said.
I shook my head and took a sip from my drink, “I suppose there is only one way to salve your ego.” I looked over to Clarice, “Is there a pair of simulators open at his hour?”
“Tonight?” She asked eying the Second Lieutenant with amusement, “For you many doors might be opened.”
I looked over to ‘Sparky’, “If you are sure you are the hotter pilot, would your wallet be able to back up your ego?”
“He’s not exactly sober Angela,” Wilkes noted. “But I do have a spare Scrubber he can have.”
I nodded to Wilkes in thanks, “Never let it be said I took unfair advantage of a child.” I looked at my empty glass and set it aside.
“I am not a child,” he said as Wilkes handed him a small package.
“Ah, well in that case, shall we set the stakes at hmm, a thousand credits?” I asked feeling a predatory smile form.
“Isn’t that a bit much?” asked Clarice.
“Well a lesson that doesn’t have some sting is hardly a lesson.” I pointed to the Scrubber, “Go clear your head, then if you still think you are still a better pilot than I am, put your money where your mouth is.”
“We’ll see,” he said and fairly stalked off.
I dug in my purse for my new Fleet ID, “Clarice if you would be so kind as to point me to a terminal, I should get my side of the bet ready.”
She chuckled and pointed, “To the right of the bar, is this an open pool event?”
I paused and then shrugged, “Why not, the lesson will sink home that much easier if we have witnesses.”
The Scrubber’s were the Confederation’s answer to a hard nights drinking, largely issued to help keep the property damage down and have people fit to fight on demand. I didn’t like using them much, as while they made you sober, you had a headache after using them. Personally, I would rather just drink a liter of water and sleep off a night of drinking. I washed down a few aspirin after using mine, evidently the few drinks I had, had packed a punch.
Normally I would not let someone like Sparky get under my skin, but considering everyone was thinking I should act more like a pilot. That is, too full of myself and as if I had a pair of balls you could cart around in a hand truck. Considering that I was now female, I had a hunch I would have to carry a few thousand-credit chits around for a long time. I groaned softly and shook my head in annoyance, only to find Clarice watching me with some amusement.
“Trouble?” she asked as she tapped a small stack of credit chits
“Not really, but you would think I was exempt from ball-busting now that I am a woman.”
She laughed loudly at that, “Honey if anything it is worse. We always have to prove we got our rank on our feet.”
“Joy, so what is the point spread?” I asked wiggling my toes in my shoes.
“Four to one against you,” she paused to snicker. “Sparky has a decent sim rating and evidently they have no clue what they are up against do they?”
I handed her the two one thousand credit chips I had drawn, “One for up against Sparky’s, and one on me to win.”
She nodded with a smile, “If your performance is anywhere close to earlier today, people will feel the burn of it.”
“Some lessons have to hurt to be effective.” I waved to Franks, “So what is the set up?”
“Three runs in Stingrays, seeing as you both have time in them, followed by a best of three in which ever craft you feel best in.” He smiled gravely, “So shall I set you up with a Tiger Shark for the last bit?”
I grinned savagely, “No, a Manta.”
“Isn’t that giving him the edge?”
“Maybe, but it is a sweet bird,” I said calmly.
“You are up to something aren’t you,” he asked after a brief moment.
I heard the Major chuckle behind me and I just smiled, “Maybe.”
“Right, this may change the odds some,” he noted absently and walked off.
“You may be taking unfair advantage of the youth and everyone else betting against you,” Clarice said with a smile.
“Who me? I am just a clueless female pilot who dreams of flying a Manta...” I grinned and placed the headset and tracking halo on my head, “Go place your bets.”
She flashed a predatory smile at me and nodded, “Right, so are you going for a save of face or total burn?”
“Total burn, with luck it’ll teach him not to do something so stupid the next time around.”
She snorted, “He’s male.”
“Ok so it may take a few times,” I offered with a grin.
“I think the Feds have created a monster,” she walked off with a smirk and I turned to climb into the simulator.
After a few moments’ adjustments, I closed the cabin and plugged my headset into its port. I keyed in my ID, kicked off those damned shoes and then made sure I was set up for a Stingray.
The Stingray was very likely the forerunner of the Manta, though much lighter. It did share the same profile, hull wise as the Manta, and apart from being a few dozen tons lighter it mostly handled like one. It was slower than the Manta, but with the same flight envelope, which played heavily to my favor. It was armed with eight SLAMRAMS and two pods of ten twenty-five millimeter fire and forget missiles. In the nose was a pair of coaxial twenty-millimeter guns, somewhat slower than the tri-barrel in the Tiger Shark and the Manta’s guns, but just as effective.
“Control to Tango One, you have a warm up round then its show time.”
“Roger control Tango One is in play.”
“Good hunting Tango One.”
My ‘warm up flight’ to me seemed a bit anti-climatic compared to earlier in the day. I still treated it as a hot encounter, using only the minimal amount of ammunition needed to make the kill and making sure I had all my weapons keyed up correctly. I was fairly happy with my results and after a few lazy kills I keyed the radio. “Control this is Tango One, if my opponent is ready, I would like to get this over and done with.”
“Tango One, this is Control, are you sure you want the Manta in your final go?”
“Roger that Control, Sparky is overfull of himself and needs to have his wings trimmed some.”
“He may not be the only one,” I suppressed a chuckle at that bit, “OK Tango One, you are set for Manta on the one on one. Be advised your opponent has selected the same bird.”
I did snicker then, “Damn I wish I had more credits to bet.”
“Why am I suddenly wishing I was free to bet?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said as I was all but laughing into the mike.
“Roger, Tango One, you are thirty seconds to game, good luck.”
“Thirty seconds to game, Tango One ready.”
The next twenty or so minutes I think were some of my best as I seemed to glide through the missions without much stress. I wasn’t bored as the simulator had a few different twists that I had not seen in the Hope’s simulators. The only thing that seemed to be missing was music, as odd as that sounded. I made my final kill of the last set and took an easy victory loop.
“Control to Tango One, where has Fleet been hiding you?”
For a moment I nearly said Darwin’s Hope, though it did gall me to use the story they wanted me to use, “The Pilot’s Academy.”
“Right Tango One, I wasn’t born yesterday.”
“Sorry Control, you might ask the Admiral if you really want to find out,” I suggested as I stretched in the cockpit of the simulator.
“I may later. Ok Tango One, since you are the challenger you have one pick of environment, your opponent has two. Your selection will be the second one flown.”
I smiled wickedly, “Lets have something challenging, do you have the asteroid belt from the Tibor Seven region?”
There was a longish pause, “Yes, are you sure you want that and the Manta?”
“Yes Control I am very sure.”
“Ok, I have set it up. Challenge rules state guns only for kills, confirm.”
“Confirmed Control, guns only,” I cheerfully replied and waited for the simulator to reset.
“Your target is ten kilometers out, that should give you ample time to warm up, first set is based around a gas giant with particle field.”
“Roger Control, time for the lesson to start.”
“Weapons hot in ten seconds.”
Once the simulator clicked over to display the Manta HUD I tapped the control to the gun and checked to make sure it traversed as I moved my eyes and head. Once happy that it was set, I changed the feed rate for ten round bursts rather than a constant stream. I was not sure if our ammo carried over into the next fights, but we practiced it that way on the Hope.
I spent a few moments winding up the ECM and added a few twists from the real world fights with the Fed’s. I doubted Sparky would think of it, but I am only interested in a fight fair before and after a battle. I kicked my afterburners in and worked to insert myself into the partial field that orbited the gas giant.
The field was half in shadow and half illuminated by a blue and white binary pair. It was very pretty to look at, though I was paying more attention to my sensors. I expected that Sparky was going to try and lose himself among the ice like I was doing. A bright spark of light in the shadow of the giant caught my eye and I dropped my collective down and coasted along with the ice field.
The spark was likely caused by ice being bounced from his shield; you could negate that by powering down your shield. Though that left you open for rude surprises the Gods would send your way. Contrary to popular thought there are currents in the particle fields, and if you swam against them you would need your shield, as the balls of ice and rock were not moving slowly.
If I had an hour I could likely swim with the currents, but I was in a bit of a hurry. As my bladder was making itself known. I keyed my radio and smirked, “Look behind you Sparky.” I wasn’t behind him, but I wanted to know if I could spook him.
A bright flare of thrusters told me he was more than a bit jumpy, I rolled over and pointed my nose in his direction before jerking the collective up to fly after him. In some ways it was nearly too easy as I slid up under his belly where he could not see me. I pushed the collective down and floated along with inertia as my nose lined up with his belly.
As a dark shadow hinted at a large chunk of ice or rock in his path I fired my guns a few times. He reacted or rather over reacted to my attack and nearly collided with the rock. I stayed put and used my thrusters and my eye to keep laying burst after burst on his underside. After my third volley his shield winked out under the onslaught of my guns and the ice. With a few more bursts his ship erupted in a ball of light.
“And that is the first lesson: Always respect your environment,” I commented over the com.
“Control to Tango One, the score is one to zero in your favor.” I eased up and out of the ice before making a tight victory roll.
“Roger Control, ready for the next set.”
Admittedly I stacked to odds heavily in my favor for the second set. Darwin’s Hope was based a few hops from this belt when it was not chasing deep into the Fed’s backside. We ‘lived’ in it a few months working on a defense for that system, as it contained a wormhole frequently used by traders and smugglers. Occasionally we had the dubious joy of hunting the privateers the Fed’s hired to make shipping difficult.
Once the simulator switched over I opened the sensors wide for a quick look before shutting them mostly down. I wasn’t too worried that Sparky would see me, I was looking for a rock heading smoothly along the belt, one with a high metal concentration. I located a suitable rock and coasted into weapons range of it.
I dropped my landing gear and warmed up the magnetic pads on them, while the unrefined metal would not give me a hard grip it would serve. I eased my belly up against the rock and made a soft contact landing. I then chopped most of my power, sitting not quite dead on the rock.
With my sensors on passive I largely relied on my eyes to pick out my foe. As the asteroid slowly pivoted along its path, I kept one eye on the sensors and the other out on the Deep. While I doubted Sparky would fall for the same trick twice, I had no doubt he would try for stealth this time.
A faint blip from the sensors sent my eyes to the rocks as I sailed over them. I did have to give him credit for trying to be sneaky as he ‘sat’ naked in the middle of a gap. I released my magnetic grapple and used a few small puffs from the stabilizers to put my nose in his direction, a light touch of the collective slowed my speed until I was nearly motionless about fifty meters above and to the starboard side of him.
With a moments pause to tip my nose slightly so he was in my eye-zone of the gun, I opened up on him. When he inadvertently fired off his guns in apparent surprise, I sighed and then used my eyes to guide the gun. He tried to roll out but given where he ‘parked’, he basically took his shields down for me by ‘bumping’ an asteroid. He did get a few shots off in my direction causing my shield to flicker, though not enough to do me any real harm, and he died shortly there after.
I called over the com, “The second lesson is knowing what your bird can do.”
There was a chuckle over the com, “I think I am happy not to be betting this time around, Tango One the score is two to zero, shall I see if he wishes to concede?”
“Tango Two confirms, two to zero. I would like to wrap this up as I don’t have a relief tube, over.”
“Roger, checking with the youngster.”
I waited for a bit and checked my ammo count; it was good and not quite into the deep yellow. Guns are nice for follow up but a bit ‘expensive’ for dog fighting time wise. I was expecting the final round, if it went to that, to be wide-open space or have a simple environment, like a planet.
“Tango One, the youngster has conceded. Though he is a making noises about you cheating.”
I shook my head in disgust, “Figures, some people have a hard time loosing to a woman, even if she is better than them.” Hell I know I hated loosing to Flight Instructor Alcady, but I never made the mistake of saying it was because she cheated. “I think if the youngster gets to Manta school and Alcady is there still he’ll either get his head on right quickly or he’ll be orbiting the mess hall for weeks.”
“That may be. So you were one of Alcady’s Brats?”
“That explains much. So are you heading back there?”
“I have no idea control, I expect I won’t be on the front for a time.” I added silently, ‘Unfortunately.’
“Ok, come on up so I can shut things down.”
“Roger Control, Tango One going off line.” I opened the cockpit and then unplugged from it, my bladder was making all sorts of protests as I all but jogged into the ladies head.
After a time I emerged to find Clarice not quite gloating as she touched up her own makeup. “So I see you are even better in a ship you are comfortable with.”
I checked my skirt to make sure it and the slip were in harmony after I had not quite hiked them up to my chest in the simulator, “Yes, though I think Sparky should have stuck with the Tiger Shark. He gave me way too much of an edge by taking a Manta without having really trained on it.”
“He did well in the Stingray, points wise, but he fell way back in the kills department.” She handed me a fistful of credit sticks, “You cleaned up, though only a few wanted to play.”
I put them in my purse, “Well there is a sucker born every minute, as the saying does warn.”
“True, now shall we go gloat?”
I chuckled, “If only to keep up appearances.”
She led me into the ‘stadium’ where the briefings for the simulators sessions were held. It was slightly daunting to walk into a largely silent room, where most of the people in it seemed to outrank me. If it were not for a few happy expressions in the crowd, you would have think I shot the Confederation Flag or something.
I took a breath and smiled wickedly, “Thus ends the lesson.” I then bowed theatrically to the mute crowd. Now it that didn’t scream ‘hot shot pilot,’ I might as well pack it in.
At the sound of one person clapping I froze then smiled as I noted that it was the Marines’ own Commandant, followed by the Admiral. Shortly after that the only one not clapping was my opponent and myself. I bowed carefully and walked over to the Second Lieutenant and offered my hand. For a long moment he hesitated then he shook it once and let go quickly as if I would infect him with something.
I walked away from him and over to where the Major was, “So is the party over?”
“Well for some of us yes, your Doctor thinks you should be back in your berth and resting. Rather than gallivanting around.” Clarice smirked, “Evidently you are supposed to be on light duty yet.”
“Well things happened,” I offered with a shrug.
“I don’t think the other pilots will let our boy wonder live this down,” said the Commandant with a smile. “He is used to being the hottest thing in the Deep.”
“Ah well, he may be good, and if he can get past Alcady, he may even become great.” I smiled, “Maybe then he’ll be up for a rematch.”
“Time will tell.”
“Well our hero is tucked away,” said Joan as she dropped into the other side of the booth across from Terrence and Marge. It wasn’t quite ship’s night in the lounge and yet it was still mostly full.
Marge held up her glass tiredly and smiled tiredly, “Yay.”
Terry chuckled and stretched, “Did you ding your bird on the recovery or was that before?”
“After actually,” Joan paused to flag down a passing steward and then placed a quick order. “That last ‘bump’ popped Transport Three loose from the deck and while the shield blocked most of it.” She paused and slammed a fist into her hand, “Its wing put a nasty cut in the fuselage.”
“Ouch, I didn’t see any of Three’s crew, was anyone hurt?” asked Marge with a frown.
“Mostly bruises, I think Donald was more pissed than anything though, as it broke his perfect safety record.” She shook her head, “Both birds are out of commission though, with luck they can fix mine over the next few days. Three is going to need much more work before it’ll be able to go atmospheric any time soon.”
“Well the Skipper says we’re heading for the cue at the repair yard, now you want to talk about a man who is pissed.” Terrance motioned to the whole of the ship as the steward placed a drink in front of Joan, “Our CAP’s Leader was relayed the wrong jump data, and they missed more than decimal place when they did so. Rumor says that one is looking at having a few feathers plucked.”
“Fuck, they are so damned lucky they didn’t end up in a sun.” Joan downed a third of her glass, “There are times I thank god I am a Deist.”
“Well thank whatever being, deity, power or what have you, that is looking out for us, as they must like us.” Marge smiled as the Fleet Repeater replayed the days ‘activities.’ “You did good work on our own angel.”
“She did shine next to the Marines,” Joan grinned, “did you hear that she nearly challenged one of the newsies for being rude?”
“And where did you get this bit of gossip from?” asked Terry while shaking his head.
“Cassie, she was there with the stray Marine pilot, and she’s is royally pissed at him.”
“Well instead of going dancing, he got a few drinks in him and harassed Angela about his bird.” Joan smirked, and rubbed her hands together. “Then he made the mistake of pissing Angela off enough where she told him to put up or shut up.”
“Oh dear,” Marge laughed and saluted Joan with her glass, “is he intact?”
“Well physically, he’s a thousand credits poorer and is evidently getting some shit for it.” Joan shook her head, “Angela is a shit hot pilot outside of a Manta.”
“I had noticed that.”
“Well Junior Birdman thought he was hot shit in a Manta, so when the final showdown hit, both of them were in Mantas. You can guess the result.”
Marge snorted indelicately, “Did he even hit her?”
“Tagged her shields only,” Joan smiled lazily, “Then she told him that lesson was about knowing what your bird can do.”
“Ouch,” commented Terry as he sat back.
“Needless to say his ego has been surgically removed,” she shook her head,
“Cassie on the other hand made a bundle betting against him.”
“Nothing like a woman scorned is there?” asked Terry with a grin.
“Fortunately the Commandant moved back to the Poseidon and took his lot with him. So we won’t have to deal with him moping about.” Joan shrugged, “So how was your day?”
“Well we were busy, we had to put sixteen of the ships crew into suspension until we get to port. The ward is a bit too full, so we doubled up the non-com Marines and the enlisted that were not physically injured.”
“Any of our staff end up?” Joan asked quietly.
“Starboard Theater Seven is gone. Doc McAlester and three techs were burned when the O2 in the theater was ignited and the Halon tripped. Unfortunately the crewman from the Dante’ didn’t make it off the table.”
“Poetic yet tragic, I really hate the Goddamned Feds,” Joan took a long swallow from her drink, “I shudder to think what they had in mind for us.”
“What I want to know is how the Feds even found us,” said Terry angrily as he watched the screen across the room.
“Environmental found a tracking package on one of the tubes we have yet to decant.” Marge shook her head, “They are going back over everyone of them just in case there were more.”
“So with luck the Feds will not bother us again?”
“Well Skipper thinks the face of the war has shifted, considering the political types are protesting to the League of Free States.” Marge sighed, “It may not come to much, but that recording and the medical data from Angela may pay off there.”
“Well the League is a bit outspoken about woman’s rights,” Joan chuckled. “Some of them make me seem tame in that area.”
“What, giving up your title of Reining Militant Feminist?” asked Marge causing Joan to snort loudly.
“No, where do you think I got it from?”
The Flight Surgeon gave me some minor guff about how I was supposed to be on light duty yet. Though in the space of a few moments he then shook my hand and chased me out of his office so he could do some real work. So I don’t think he was too upset, though he did say I would be officially cleared for flying when I could lift fifty kilos without straining, ten times.
Which is why I was back in the gym doing reps, the prior days fights had informed me that my body was definitely out of shape. So I was back in the school of pain trying to build that up. I could lift fifty kilos but I was a long way from doing it ten times, hell I could barely get it off the bar and back up. That annoyed me to no end, as before all of this I was pressing twice that with ease.
Not quite dripping with sweat I sat up and looked around the gym, it was odd in perspective as the women in it outnumbered the men ten times over. I chuckled as the Sergeant from the fight was pushing the other Marine ladies through their work out; evidently she was in a good mood. I picked up my water bottle and moved up to the track for some laps.
Assuredly I wasn’t making any real speed around the course, but it felt good to get everything moving. Mostly. My front side passengers were giving me no end of grief as I tried to get my speed up. All jokes aside, I wasn’t knocking myself out with them, but they did protest and throw what I thought my gait should be, off. While the sports bra seemed to help some in that department; it frequently seemed like all the male eyes in the gym were on me. I did my damnedest to ignore them, but I nearly went basaltic when some jerk gave a whistle as I jogged past him.
After I locked him up at attention and read him the riot act, one of which I had received a time or so myself, I fairly stalked out of the gym. Part of me was saying I was being hypocritical and the other part of me was furious, as I was not a piece of meat for a man’s pleasure. I ducked into the woman’s head and hid in a stall for a time, trying to get a grip on my emotions. Trying to sort out what was so wrong with me. I never used to be so damned touchy that I’d blow up on someone like that.
I think I sat there for about ten minutes before I started laughing at the absurdity of my situation. That and crying, generally I felt confused by the rapid flip-flops of my emotions. Which did nothing for my peace of mind; I think I used a good portion of the paper in my stall trying to stop my nose from dripping and to blot tears.
“Lieutenant, feel like talking?” asked a voice that wasn’t quite familiar.
“No, yes, I don’t know.” I sighed, and opened the door to see the Marine Sergeant from the other day.
“Ah having one of those kind of days?” she asked with a nod.
“More like that kind of week.” I walked out of the stall and to a sink; I didn’t pay any attention to the mirror, other than to note it was pretty damned obvious I had been crying.
“You did the right thing, with that man.” She wet a towel slightly and handed it to me, “Cover your face for a bit, it should help some with the blotches.”
“Thanks,” I did as she suggested and sighed, “I feel like such a fucking hypocrite though.”
“For what, telling him off?”
“Yes, I used to be as bad or as worse as him,” I shrugged, “I didn’t quite quote it from memory...”
“Tell me about it,” she placed a hand on my back, “I used to blow my pay in bars and brothels, and now.”
“And now you feel way out of place?” I asked as I had spent some time doing just that myself.
“And then some. PT used to be easy and now I have to look at the other side of the scorecard. What makes it worse is that I am glad I don’t have to be scored the same as the men do.”
“No kidding,” I motioned to my chest, “I barely got up to a half assed pace before these things reminded me of my new lot in life.”
“How do you do it Lieutenant?” she asked quietly.
“Do what?” I asked pulling the towel down from my face to look at her.
“Everything, I mean the nurses keep holding you up to us and asking why can’t we try as hard as you do.” She shook her head, “And then yesterday you go out and save everyone’s ass and then act like it was business as usual.”
“Well I can’t say I am really working at it that hard,” I said pointing at my chest, “mostly I get up and try to go with the flow, you could say I am getting really good at faking it. Half the time I am scared shitless.”
“And the other half?”
“I’m am trying to adapt,” I shrugged, “I’m not doing very well at times in that department. I lost my lunch the other evening when some fucked up reporter wanted the details of my time in the Fed’s care.” Then I added bitterly, “All the fucking details.”
She nodded as her face tightened in anger, “I heard some scuttlebutt about that, that you nearly went off on him at the Admiral’s table.”
“Well I thought he was being a prick, and yet afterwards I broke down in the head for a while. Some hero huh?” I asked looking at her expectantly.
“If the talk around ship is any indication, yes you are.” She shook her head, “The other day you seemed more than perfect, unbreakable in fact.”
“Sorry, just another performance on my part,” I smiled though it felt very weak to me.
“You heard me, bullshit. You are not some dainty fucking flower who sat around waiting for help.” She crossed her arms and pointed a finger at me, “You didn’t have to have your ass kicked to figure out you were alive. You picked up from when they let you out and drove on.”
“But what? You are a hero, sure you have a bad moment or two, big fucking deal. Do you think the other ladies are not looking at you, trying to measure up to what you have put out on their behalf?”
“No I,” I sighed, “I am just trying to get by.”
“And you are doing a damned better job of it than I am, and a hell of a lot better than they are. Sure you’ve been out of the can about two weeks now, but none of them nor I have gotten as far as you have.” She shook her head, “Look Lieutenant, as long as you keep trying, folks are going to be watching and hoping you’ll succeed. The other ladies need that, hell I need it, and if you don’t keep trying I’ll kick your ass until you start trying. And you know I can do it.”
I held up my hands in surrender, “I read you Sergeant, I’ll do my best, if only to keep my ass out of your hands.”
“Good, I’d feel bad if I had to kick you ass considering the Commandant wants to make you an Honorary Marine.” She chuckled and said, “Try and not disappoint the Corps, that is if you are up to it.”
“Well I’d have to lower my stands some, but I suppose I could do it,” I said nonchalantly.
She rolled her eyes, “You’ll do. Now that that is settled, I am hungry, shall we find out if this barge has decent food?”
“Ship,” I corrected as she rolled her eyes again, “but I suppose we should find out if the chow in the galley is better than the stuff they give us in the sick bay.”
“Shall we drag the others along?” she asked pointedly.
“Sure, if anything we’ll brighten someone’s day. Though we should change if only to keep appearances up.” I motioned to my tracksuit, “This isn’t exactly a duty uniform.”
“There is one thing I don’t mind from the change.”
“I don’t stink nearly as bad after a work out, at least I don’t think I do.” She shrugged, “Its something.”
“That it is,” I smiled and reached out my hand to shake hers, “Shall we show them how it is done?”
She shook it and nodded, “And make the Feds pay.”
End of Part One