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After the Ashes

By Renae

Chapter Three: Out of Hand

Princess Dana Francis Teresa Montana the Second, once you got past the extra baggage of her having an ‘extra’ name, her being ‘second’ to someone, and well the weight of having to refer to her as Princess or Highness; was not really that bad of a person. Or so I thought, once we got a few drinks under our collective belts. At least that is what I kept trying to say to myself, as I wobbled carefully past the unease that she generated in me. I was nowhere near drunk or even numb, which is where I really wanted to be.

Technically, drunk, is a state of being, not a place to be, yet I really wanted to be there. Rather than here, which was in the Officers Lounge on the Poseidon, being entirely too near her Most August Self, more brass than I could shake a cannon at. And last but not least: The Press. Of which wanted more time with me that I cared to share, much less wanted.

My least favorite of dinner companions, and member of said Press, Phillip Jansen, was present and much to my pleasure, distinctly avoiding me. I think that my proximity to the Princess was causing him no end of stress, which while it may have seemed a bit petty of me; it seemed to be the only real high spot of the evening. I was about to go walk up to his current target and dislodge him from them when Clarice interrupted me.

“Angela are you up to something?” she asked.

“Not really,” I was feeling slightly predatory when I said it though, and it must have shown. 

“Right, tell me another one,” she grabbed my left hand and gave it a tug, “Come on trooper, let’s find you a landing pad before you shoot him out of the sky.”

“But he’s needs to be shot, honest,” I protested as she lead me over to an empty booth, “he’s probably a fucking Fed spy, and deserves it.”

“How much have you had to drink?” she asked with an amused smile.

“Not nearly enough, I am supposed to be on good behavior and all that rot.” I motioned to the room, “This isn’t where I am supposed to be, I am supposed to be getting totally fu- damned sloshed with the Flight, telling; ‘No shit there I was,’  stories with Boojum, Slo-Hand, Griffin and Stacked. But noooooo I am here playing fucking dress up and trying not to scream.”

She regarded me for a long moment and then nodded sagely, before taking her seat across from me. “Part of the joys of command, Commander,” she stressed my new rank and continued, “trust me I would rather be at a spa or some beach and letting all this slide by.” 

I had no idea what one would do at a spa, but the beach sounded nice, “Well the beach would be nice, if there was something worth diving to see or waves worth the effort.”

“But laying around soaking up the rays doesn’t sound appealing?” she asked sounding a bit thoughtful.

“Not really, admittedly having some down time would be nice, on occasion.” I looked around watching the social birds of prey and such clamor around the Princess, “Now there is a job I would not want.”

“What, oh I see, yes being Royal has to be a drag.” She giggled which seemed slightly out of place, “They can’t threaten to duel someone without having ten people step up and volunteer to do it for them. Unlike a certain someone I know.”

I snorted and idly gestured at the reporters, “I only implied a duel.”

“Implied my ass,” she replied and pulled out a scrubber from her pocket and tossed it across the table to me, “bottoms up.”

I gave her a look, “If you were not in my chain of command I’d have a rude suggestion for you.”

She nodded, “I can guess what it would be too, but considering your currently inebriated state I’ll let it pass.”

“Crap, all that perfectly good alcohol, just wasted,” I protested before I pealed the protective plastic layer off and then wrapped the medicated side against my inner wrist. A few moments later it started to burn slightly, which meant the medicine was starting to work. “Happy?” I asked her

She slid a second sealed packet across the table at me, “At least I remembered to give you the pain killer, I could have let your suffer.”

I took the packet and opened it as the effects of the scrubber started to rush up into my head and started the drummer to pound on my temples. “Joy.” I dry swallowed the analgesic tablets and winced, “I get to have my hangover among the could be’s and want to be’s.”

“There’s enough weight in the room you could easily maneuver your way into a good slot,” she noted as she looked about the room.

“You might like all of this Clarice, but for me, I would rather have a target rich environment filled with easy Fed kills. As the other target rich environment I would have liked once, well that is now just another ruined memory.”

Clarice stiffened slightly and was about to say something when a familiar voice said, “I would have thought your hunger in the killing department would have been sated by your actions this afternoon.”

I turned slowly to look up into the face of Philip Jansen; my hand under the table twitched for the sidearm I normally would have been wearing, at that same time Clarice kicked me. I gave her a look that should have been hot enough to melt durasteel, but she quenched it with a barely perceptible shake of her head in warning. I affected a bored tone and turned to ease my legs out of her reach, “Oh, that.”

“Surely some thousands of lives, a goodly portion due to your own actions, should sate even your hunger for revenge?” he asked.

“Are you deliberately trying to be an ass or does it come naturally?” I asked in turn.

There was a thump under my seat and I looked to see Clarice wincing, evidently she had missed my legs, “Is some thing wrong?” he asked of her.

“Oh no, my leg spasmed, it’s these shoes,” she lied glibly, though she wasn’t quite directly glaring at me.

I suppressed my innermost desire of jumping up and ripping out his entrails, instead I smiled tightly. “Look Mr. Jansen, I don’t know what your goal here tonight is, but I want nothing more than to be left alone.”

“Nothing more than a story, the truth if you will,” he countered, his voice as smooth as clear-steel and as hard.

Clarice spoke before I could, as I was barely resisting the urge to kill him where he stood, “The truth is, Mr. Jansen, is that the Fed’s had set a trap, our forces countered that trap and in doing so killed some of them. Not to mention losing an number of our own people.” Clarice favored him with a look of distaste, “Or did you think we invited the Federation into our space with open arms and Olive Branches?”

“No, I suppose not,” he answered with a disdainful sniff. “However I find it odd that before the past few days ago, there was no one in the Confederation Fleet by the name of Angela Lin Caruthers.” He looked directly at me “And yet you are listed among the supposed victims who provided evidence in the Allegations of the Federations misconduct. How do you answer for that?”

“What is, is.” I stood up, feeling a scrape of a shoe on my skirt as I did so, “Mr. Jansen, I find you to be entirely too much of an impolite person to willingly suffer your company on my own time.” With that I strode past him and angled for the female head.

When he grasped painfully at my wrist, I turned to face him feeling what could only be called a hunger for his blood rise up in my chest. I am not sure why I slapped him, when I normally would have responded with a hard punch, yet the sound of it was like a gunshot in the suddenly stilled room. The sharp red imprint of my hand contrasted nicely with his red jacket, and I was tempted to add a second as I jerked my hand free of his. “If you ever touch me again, I will feed you that limb. Consider this your second and final warning.”

For a time the only sound of him breathing harshly, then there was the sound of bright and clear laughter. I turned to see the Princess hiding her face behind a fan, one face among an amused crowd and yet the laughter was obviously coming from her. He took half a step towards me, and I took a step backwards not quite ending up against the table, if he wanted a real fight I was going to give it to him.

At the table, Clarice was not exactly having a fit and at the firm shake of her head, I changed tactics. I lifted my wrist and pulled the jacket sleeve up to where the scrubber was visible, “Were you expecting a pliant and liquor plied woman to gush forth her innermost secrets; such that you might shame her?” I asked him scornfully.

“I was looking for the truth,” he answered defensively, “a commodity that seems to be missing around you.”

“It isn’t missing at all,” said the Princess as she glided out of the crowd that had momentarily, yet protectively surrounded her. “With Commander Caruthers, what you see is the truth. A woman who has undergone much, endured things hopefully neither I nor you will endure and has triumphed in the face of such.”

“But her entire existence is a fabrication!” He shook a finger in my direction, “She, is a made up person.”

The Princesses’ tone was mocking, “My dear man, we are all made up people. It is the events, people, trials and time itself that makes us such. To suggest that she isn’t real is to say that air is not real,” she countered with a hint of a winter in her smile. “… and you would be twice as foolish for saying such.”

As his face flushed a ruddy red in his anger, he replied arrogantly, “Your Highness may be wise in the matters of Physics, but you are a blind youth when it comes to the machinations that she represents.”

She took a step forwards and pointed her fan dagger-like at him, “You may be here in this Nation, for which you may be grateful.” She added with a hint of steel in her voice, “Do not forget what Nation you come from, lest you find yourself without that Nation to call home.”

“The Freedom of the Press…” he protested angrily.

“… Is a great and joyous Right,” She interrupted as if instructing a child, “of which our people of The Alliance share with those of The Confederation. However, there are limits, and without those limits you would find a nation much like that of the Federation.” She paused, “Surely you would not find such liberties there. Though if you think so, your transportation there could surely be arranged…”

“No that will not be necessary,” he replied hastily.

“Good, I would suggest that you take your leave of Us. Now. As you have cast a pall upon what should be a night of joyous celebration for these peoples and that, offends Us.” She pointed to the exit of the lounge with her fan, “Make haste lest We find some odious place for you to report freely, from.”

His hands were clenched into tight fists at his sides but he remained silent and stiffly marched from the room. The Princess visibly took a deep breath and smiled as if the past events had not occurred; “Now I do believe there was a celebration here?”

“Indeed,” tolled Admiral Peters as if from on high.

I sat back down at the table, one thought nagging at my mind. I looked over to Clarice and asked the question that was suddenly burning foremost in my mind. “How did he discover my existence is new?”

“I am not sure, though I think we may have to have that looked into. If you will behave for a bit, I need to make a few coms.” Her tone of voice said ‘it’s an order’, so I nodded.

“Yes Ma’am, I’ll try,” I sighed then half muttered, “I am far too sober and well, this isn’t my crowd.”

She nodded, “Give it time, these ‘Official’ gatherings tend to be forced on us, we just endure them as best we can.” She paused, “I’ll be back, try not to start a war while I am away,” she chuckled as she said the last bit before walking off.

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The Celebration, if you could laughingly call it that, lasted a few more hours after the Princess retired with her entourage. To me it felt artificial, as if I was a stranger looking in from the outside. I made the motions, I said the words, I toasted the Fallen once more: That, of everything, seemed to be real and painful. But I was regrettably sober when I returned to my berth. Sober, I was unable to escape my one last duty of the night, before I tried to sleep.

It was a task I could not fairly pass on to another; I sat there feeling a sharp jab of pain and anger with each name, as I worked down the list of the Fallen. I was filling in the letters of condolence; erasing some parent’s hope of their child returning alive. Each letter, suggesting to myself, that I had somehow failed the people I led. I told myself it wasn’t the case, that I had done my best; that Deity had granted them their full measure of life, before it was stolen from them. It was with those painful letters completed that I turned to my bunk and fought with the Keeper of Dreams for a measure of peace, and lost.   

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I was watching the Federation’s Medium Destroyer Pax II shake under the two Beaked Snake missiles that I had only launched moments ago. The explosions wracking the hard straight lines of the ship, tearing them asunder, as flames flushed out to be extinguished by the absence of oxygen. I wasn’t too happy at the time; I had fired off a several Yellow Snake EMP missiles way to close to the target. They had done the job, but I caught too much of the secondary wash to be a happy camper.

I usually flew with the cockpit vented, mostly because I liked it that way, and secondly the gaskets had gone a few weeks back; so there were no secondary electrical fires to worry about. The Manta was a tough bird, for which both I was thankful and hating as the indicator in my HUD flared back to life telling me that my gyros had given up the ghost. The gyros were part of the Relative Inertial Space Tracking System, which signified I was screwed six ways to Sunday, as they were tied into the jump calculator.   

Normally, you lock in your co-ordinates from the Tac, pre-select a few and use them as your travel or jump points. Normally, without the gyros’ feed into the RISTS all of my overly enthusiastic but necessary ‘flight/evasion’ patterns were so much wasted data. So all the data in my ‘Goose Egg’ or black box was useless for getting me home.

With that in mind, getting the rest of the boys home and safe came first, which meant no long goodbyes and get the fucking job done and over with. So that they could go home. “Ok folks I’ve got two more presents for the Fed’s, you best be running for jump.”

“Yo Snark need a hand?” asked Boojum as he slid under a Caesar and ruined its day. 

“No Booj, I got a pair of hot snakes and a easy target,” ok so I lied about the easy part.

“Well I’m black on missiles, hurry up as Rabbit’s whining about his hole getting crowded,” replied Boojum as he rolled away at full burn.

“No shit I’m getting crowded!” Briarly was making his ire known, “You’d be crowded to if you were running the EW bird this go round too!”

“Rodger that Briarly, give me ten seconds of hard noise then get out of Dodge. I’ll be on your six in twenty at the next jump,” yeah that’s me lying again. The only place I could be sure of was Hell, as blind jumps are not quite suicide.

“Hard and nasty noise on the way, get moving Snark or I’ll be gone and you’ll miss the beer,” Rabbit was sounding way to antsy.

“Decker, give him some cover will you?” I not quite ordered, “I have a date with the Light Carrier.”

“On it, you know if you would quit dating Feds you might find a real girl,” he laughed and added. “What’s with you and impossible women anyways, always trying to freeze in their icy embrace or being burned by them?”

“Well someone has to do the dirty work,” I replied, “get him safe, I’m on my run.” Well he was right I did have a problem there.

“On it,” was his reply.

I was caroming around the large chunks of debris and assorted flotsam some other, some human. Of which was the result of a mass attack of thirty Mantas on what was once a Light Task Force. Several of these small task forces had been dogging the Hope’s trail for the past few days, trying to catch us napping, but the Skipper kept us two to three jumps head of them. I had a good visual lock on the Light Carrier, which was the best as I was going to get, it seemed.

“Your noise is ready to leave now,” muttered Rabbit from the coms.

“Go, I’m two from launch and five from jump, stay for fireworks if you want…” I offered hoping he’d take the hint and go.  

“Jumping now,” then there was the burst of static that marked his departure from the net.

“Snark…” Slo-Hand was not quite on my nine, then he shot over me and popped a Pillion, “You really should not focus that much.”

“Ah, I knew you were there,” I sorta knew he was close, but hey I was focused on my target.

“Yeah right, I’m go for jump, catch you sidereal and minus some,” Palmer could have been a professor, if you could follow his thinking.

“Go, I’ve got a job here,” I wasn’t quite muttering into the coms as I fired off my second to last pair of Yellows, this time from further off.

“A bit raggedy looking there,” he commented, “your bird good?”

“… as fine as ever,” I abstractly replied, concentrating as the HUD focused in and out, I guessed that the warranty was up on it.

“Yeah I heard that, jumping in three,” he replied as I fired off the last Beaked Snake into the port side of the Light Carrier.

I watched it track inwards, and then I started my own mad set of burns that would clear me from the engagement zone. “Good kill, I’m out of here,” was Slo’s comment before the wash of static told me he was gone.

Then it was just me, the Fed’s and the Deep. I had plenty of fuel so that meant I would have O2 and power for a time. Nothing left but a few EMP missiles, and seriously edging to the red on guns, “Hell of a damned way to go out.” I pressed a key and opened up my coms, trying to sort out the noise from the aftermath that the signified the end of battle. Surrendering wasn’t really in my game plan, and going EVA didn’t suit me either.

After a short wash of static that usually signified a ship jumping in or out of the system washed through the coms I heard. “So vat do we have here?” asked a not so unfamiliar voice. Leftenant Ivan Covina, was more or less one of the better Fed pilots, at least he always seemed to come out alive, thus far.

“Hey, hey, hey it’s Ivan,” I smiled and started looking for him visually, “sorry Ivan this might be our last dance.”

“Why ist das?” he asked.

“Gryos’ tumbled, I’m looking at a blind jump it seems,” I saw a streak of light and burned a few G’s changing my reorientation towards it.

“Ah, you could surrender, we would treat you well,” he offered, “though I would advise against it myself.”

“I was thinking about taking one last pass for luck, then going for the blind jump.” I paused, “Ivan, much as you may be ok, I have my doubts about the Federation and company you keep in it.”

“Honor is only a commodity among the bold,” I heard him sigh, “I am at your three o’clock, sadly I cannot give you that pass.” I glanced that way to see his guns start to stutter and then my shield echoed those flashes.

“So much for the days of old,” I replied and I dropped my collective down and fought to bring my guns around as inertia carried me along its inviolate path. 

“Da ist so,” he sounded slightly regretful which was of itself odd, and then he sent another set of rounds my way.

My shields flared one last time, and then things came abruptly undone. I had a split second to note that my last two Yellow Snakes were detonating in the pod. Then my world was a wash of light and a crushing pressure from the ejection system. My only coherent thought was ‘well something worked right.’ Then there was blackness.

I sat up in my berth and tried not to gasp for air as the room’s lights stirred to life. “Just a fucking dream.” I sat there and cursed quietly for a time. I was trying to retrace the last few moments of the dream, trying to recall how I had missed seeing him the first time. I tossed the covers off and pushed my legs over the side and not quite dropped to the deck. Sleep, usually from that dream, would be a time long in returning.

According to the clock on my data pad, I still had about three hours until Ship’s day. With some resignation I forced my body to the deck and back into exercise or exorcism again. Part of my mind was on the count; the other part was lost to the memory of those last few moments of the fight. Time and time again I dissected each maneuver, trying to find one solid fault.

I know that I had fucked up on the EMP run, there wasn’t much I could have done about it; not with two Caesars trying to punch my ticket on the attack run. They had fared much worse as they caught both the wash from the Yellows and then fire from Boojum’s guns. Instinctively I had taken that shot, instinctively and by training I made the evasion, following up with the return attack. They say it’s that ability to focus completely and the instincts to make the bold, almost suicidal attacks, which make men the best candidates for piloting Mantas.

They also say that the average life span of a Manta Pilot was close to thirty missions. For some they are right, for others it was much sooner. For the twenty-nine that made it back out of the Fed’s back pocket only Deity can account for the luck there, possibly skill. If so my friends, those twenty-nine, were truly and well guarded by all the Deity, great and small.

Though in those long moments of hell, barring the moments of blissful unconsciousness, I had felt abandoned by them. Not my friends so much, but the various and sundry gods. Then there is some shame there too, as one should not count the Deities as unfair or cruel. My friends could not have saved me, so in those dark moments I absolved them, praying that they would be safe.

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“Lieutenant Commander Palmer sir?” asked a voice at his side and it sure as hell wasn’t female or from Tanzed.

He forced his eyes open wincing against the light, “Whaz-at?” he asked.

“Sir there is a problem,” insisted the voice and he forced his eyes to track onto the Marine Sergeant whose sleeve was marked with the letters SP on a leather cuff.

“Crap,” he pushed himself up to look about the mostly darkened room. “What time is it?”

“Zero-Five-Hundred sir, there is a problem sir,” the Sergeant.

“Yeah, yeah I got that,” He slid his legs over the side of the bunk and sighed, “What sort of problem?”

“One of the men under your command is dead sir,” the Sergeant reported in a grave tone.  

“Too much to drink?” Palmer asked thinking it likely, ‘some damned fool kid who didn’t know his limits.’

“No sir, evidently he has been murdered.”

Palmer blinked slowly, then he stood up grasping in the semi-darkness around his bunk for his flight suit. “Yes… I think that would be something of a problem,” he said dryly.

“Yes sir,” said the Sergeant in an equally dry tone.

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I was filling out yet another, and hopefully last letter of condolence for a pilot who had died during the night. She had been flying one of the Electric Eels, the ECW birds. They are not quite defenseless but are no match for a Caesar, which was what her wingman had said took her involuntarily EVA. I was really hoping she would have pulled through, but from what the surgeons had sent last night; it was a fifty-fifty shot she would have made it through the night.

When the door chimed I was frankly relieved. I made a brief check in the mirror of my appearance and keyed the door to unlock, as it slid open the Gunny entered briskly and was looking a bit agitated, “What’s up Gunny?”

“Ma’am,” she paused, “there has been a murder.”

I hopefully asked, “Was that asshole reporter?”

Her smile was only slightly grim, as she had witnessed last night’s activities, “Unfortunately no, one of your Flight’s members was found with his throat cut, among other things.”

I closed my eyes, ‘One more damned letter,’ “I take it there are some suspects and all that ties to such an event?”

“Not yet Ma’am, the only thing we know thus far is that it occurred roughly around Zero-Four-Thirty hours.”

“Which would have been while I was asleep,” ‘For a change,’ I added silently and then sighed. Then I pushed my hands through my hair for a moment in agitation, “I have the feeling that today is going to be a long one Gunny.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Gunny Marks said with a chuckle, “longer for others it seems, as Lieutenant Commander Palmer was the first one alerted in the chain, from what I gather he was not enjoying his hangover in the process.”

“I’ll bet, but he has a good head on his shoulders,” I walked back to the terminal and shut it down, and grabbed up my Beret, “Should I eat first or?”

“I’d advise against it Ma’am, it’s not pretty,” she said matter-of-factly.

I had seen enough of death lately that I expected it’s shadow to mar then entire day. So once again I was putting on a bland face and sealing my emotions away. Recovering my beret I made my inspection of its placement and said, “Ah, well then, let us be about it.”

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Gunny was right, it wasn’t pretty, from what little I could glimpse of the airlock from around the technicians that were recording the site. In death, violent or peaceful, the body betrays itself and that smell on top of that coppery odor of blood was unpleasant. Fortunately, someone had covered the body with a sheet, though from the amount of blood that was liberally splashed about the confines of the Station’s airlock, I didn’t want to look at it. Palmer was looking slightly drawn and pale yet his eyes and general posture said he was very, very angry.

I walked away from Gunny and over to him, “Anything to report?” I asked softly.

“Not yet, the only thing I know for certain it was some sort of bladed weapon, likely a vibro-blade of some sort. Nothing else can cut that swiftly through bone.” He paused, “It didn’t quite take his head off, though the limbs…” He trailed off. “It was not a easy death Ma’am.”

I tired to mentally picture what he intimated and my mind shied away from that image quickly. I thought for a moment, “Do you have a name?”

“Lieutenant James Douglas, he was the pilot with the failed gyros the other day.” He shrugged uncomfortably, “I am not sure what to think Ma’am it’s not like it was a fight, more like a warning.” He pointed to the air lock, “If it was just a murder they could have just cycled the lock and sent him out.”

I nodded then reached out and squeezed his shoulder in acknowledgement and partially to distract him from his own past. Palmer was from Rio Grande, not exactly the kinder gentlest of cities on Bon Travis. From what little he spoke of his pre-military life; his prior life was a fairly savage existence at times. His life had been brutal, if not hellishly hard, compared to where I was raised. I paused, “Do you know if they checked his bird yet?”

“No I don’t think they did, other than the usual dock it and tag it.” He frowned in thought, “Do you think he faked it?”

“I don’t know, but unless he had gambling debts from hell or…” I stalled out as he nodded slowly.

“Maybe he was a spy or something,” he pointed to a grim looking older man dressed in dark grays, the dark tabs on his collar hinted at his rank possibly being that of a Colonel in the Confederation Security Agency. “Colonel Maxell Heinz, is heading things up. He’s pretty tight.” Palmer’s way of telling me he was on the ball and not a flake.

I nodded, “If they don’t need you here, you should get cleaned up,” I gave him a smile, “you look like you need a bit of food and what not.”

“Aye Ma’am, this is not how I wanted to start the day,” he braced briefly to attention and at my nod he eased his way out of the milling throng.

I walked over to the Colonel who was seemingly lost in thought, “Sir, if I might be of assistance?”

“Ah,” he slipped from his thoughts briefly to glance at my rank, then my nametag. “Not as yet Commander, though it seems a trail of problems do follow in your wake.” I stiffened at that remark, but he made a dismissing gesture with one hand, “No offense meant Commander.”

I paused and studied him for a moment, he looked tired, “I take it events have not let you rest?”

“Mostly it is the rushed travel from Sentra Six to here, and I am not quite seven hours from my normal resting time.” He smiled slightly, “Good job the other day and prior, your Chief is to be commended.” 

“I think so too sir,” I motioned to the body “my Wing Leader said this pilot was the one who suffered a malfunction before the attack.”

“Hmmm, coincidence or not?” he asked as he entered a note into his datapad.

“Lately sir, I could not say. We were ready for possible betrayal on the way out…” I paused to notice him focusing intently on my face, “we were not sure if Colonel Orsen was the only traitor.”

He nodded, “Solid thinking, I will have that ship secured and checked, and my techs are crawling through your ship too, I would have informed you earlier but circumstances did not permit it.”

I nodded politely, “I would have expected as such sir. Though I am not sure what you may find that our people might have missed.”

“Maybe nothing,” he shrugged and then smiled, “its procedure, your own berth that was on station will be examined as well, and many others.”

“For devices?” I asked curiously.

“Yes and other things.” He looked at me critically, “There is some concern that some ranking Confederation personnel may have been replaced with doubles.” He shook his head, “From what I am given to understand, you look very much like the Princess that is in attendance here.”

I winced but nodded, “I look entirely too much like her sir, I am not sure either of us is comfortable with that.”

“Yes, I expect they will want to examine you and her to determine just how close you are to being her double. For diplomacy’s sake and our own securities peace of mind: You are ordered to undergo it.” He clasped his hands behind his back and sighed, “Your loyalty is not in question, though we have some concerns.”

“Such as?” I asked feeling a bit indignant and yet I was wondering about that myself.

He chuckled, “Are you really you? A clone with some sort of memory implants or someone all together different?” He shook his head with apparent amusement; “We tend to think in odd ways in Security, wheels within wheels and such. Don’t let it bother you overly much, it just comes with my job.”

“Ah, I’ll comply sir and if there is any way I or my people can help you?”

“We’ll be in touch, you should go about your business as normal, well normal as can be,” his eyes were a mix a mirth and seriousness. “You would do well to practice with your side arm Commander, I am not sure if this is not the edge of something unpleasant or the end of it.” 

“Sir?”

“In your own words Commander, ‘You look too much like the Princess’, an assassin might not care to be certain which of you is which.” He paused and added in a careful, “Or they may just seek to kill you because your death would be a blow to morale.”

“It would certainly put a damper on my day,” I said as my eyes dropped to study the floor around the body. An unconscious thought lead me to look closer, “With all this blood you would think their would be tracks of some sort.”

“Yes I have been puzzling over that too.” He pointed upwards, “Interesting place for a hand print isn’t it?”

I looked up to the ceiling of the airlock where a single bloody hand print resided, then I nodded thinking of Joan who’s AG had flip flopped while she was in the shower, “Someone cut the gravity for a time?”

“So it would seem,” he said.

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I was warily regarding the Princess who was pretty much giving me the same look. We were both in the less than casual medical gowns, the drafty type. Though she was more tanned than I was, I think the only evident difference in the two of us was the length of our hair and how it was worn. Mine was braided and coiled in a bun at the back of my head, where as hers was loose and didn’t quite reach her butt. I forced myself to relax and to avoid looking at her body.

“So Commander, what’s it like?” her voice held an odd note.

“What, is what like, your Highness?” I asked in turn.

“You know… the difference,” she was blushing slightly which clued me in to what she was asking about.

I sighed and shook my head, “I don’t know your Highness, the Fed’s did something, and well, even experimenting has been um…” I heard a faint rip and I looked down to see the paper that covered the medical berth ripping as my nails dug into it.

“I’m sorry, Commander, I should not have asked that.” She sighed, “I have to say seeing you sitting there, even sounding like me, is unnerving.”

I bit down on my tongue to avoid sarcastically saying ‘Try it from my side,’ instead I nodded. “It is unnerving, I have a Colonel friend from the same batch that I was with, who could be our twin, if her eyes were not a different color.”

“Which would possibly make her a twin for my cousin,” she shook her head and then motioned to her body, “our, um, my family tends to be fairly close in appearance. Fortunately we were able to keep the genetics straight or…” She smiled distantly, “Some of the traditions of Old Earth could have doomed us. But we pulled back from that brink.”

“We had more of a problem there.” I added carefully, “Genoa is still in the process of terra forming, so we’re in aquatic domes. We’re a bit too clannish at times.”

“Has your family been told?”

“Yes, though they are playing the game,” I sighed and pointed to my chest, “I am not sure how my father is really going to take this.”

“Just the opposite of my family, Patriarchal rather than Matriarchal.” She shrugged and waved across the gulf that separated us, “What works, works.”

“You’ve done some checking I see,” I said cautiously, trying to feel out where this conversation was going.

“Well, I was curious, that and your current state is pretty much a slap in the face, for me and for the Alliance as a whole.” She leaned back against the bulkhead, “A great many of your batch, those that were decanted with you, match up against the current ruling body.” She pointed a finger at me, “As closely as you match me.”

I sat silently for a time considering the ramifications, “Ouch.”

“So I was ordered here to be the Ruling Bodies eyes in this matter,” she shook her head, “Mother is quite livid, which is probably what the Federation wanted with this ploy. Not to mention my nearly ending up as a Prize for the Federation as well.”

“Did they find out who the traitor on your side was?” I asked quickly.

She shook her head, “No and we have techs coming in to work on sorting out that as well. I suspect We will be working closer with the Confederation, maybe not publicly at first, but in the fullness of time.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked a bit apprehensively.

“Well you are up to your eyebrows in all of this,” she motioned to me pointing up from my feet to my face, “literally and figuratively.”

I frowned as I tried to sort out my feelings, “I am no diplomat your Highness, I don’t think I’d be a good one either.”

“No, though you are rather a bit of a lightning rod for these events,” she winced slightly as I sat up sharply, “maybe not the best analogy.”

“Well the Colonel from Confederation Security this morning said pretty much the same thing.” I sighed, “I just want to do my job and try to sort all of this out,” I picked at my gown. “I have enough trouble just being me.”

“This morning, ah yes the murder,” she didn’t look happy as she acknowledged it.

“You know?” I asked, though I should have known she would know.

“Well our people are talking with your people,” she seemed a bit smug as she said it, “it sometimes helps to be Royal, though it makes both of our security peoples even more uneasy.”

“Don’t worry I don’t want your job,” I offered with a slight chuckle.

“There are times I could wish to let someone else have it,” she countered, “though I doubt I could match your piloting skills.”

“I suppose we will have to settle for each of us being ourselves, your Highness,” I said with a smile.

“Indeed Commander,” she replied with the same smile.

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 The medical side of my examination, and the Princesses, had lasted through the better part of the early afternoon. Though from the level of tension that seemed to arise as the hours passed, I cannot say either she or I were sitting calmly. She had the liberty of reading from a terminal, some sort of Physics Text. Of which I could lie and say I understood a fraction of, but it would be just that, a lie.

Instead, I was practicing the fine art of ‘doing nothing on command’. One of the inevitable laws of military life is ‘Hurry up and wait.’ From a bare recruit to even now as a Commander, I was finding it to be true. I was to my best efforts, not focusing on anything, much less how much time was passing.

“… Zen?” she asked and I blinked a few times.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Are you a Buddhist and practiced in Zen?” she was eying me from over the terminal she was using. “I noticed that you drift off, and you seem to lose expression when you do so.”

I considered that for a moment, “I am a Deist, and some of Buddha’s teachings I am slightly familiar with, but I cannot say I am a practitioner of Zen.”

She nodded, “So do you think of anything when you…” she looked confused for a moment as if searching for a polite phrase, “tune out?”

I shrugged, “Sometimes it is an effort not to think at all.” I took a breath and slowly let it out, “I can’t say I am unscarred by events.” I admitted while my finger touched my forehead and then my crossed legs. “Then there is doubt.”

“Doubt?”

“Am I who I am? Am I this new person? Am I really Angela Lin Caruthers or have I just gone mad?” I pointed to the mirror that was in the medical bay, “Is this ‘really’ me?”

She closed her eyes for a moment then nodded slowly, “I see the prior nights events have not left you undisturbed.”

“I can’t say I liked having my own doubts thrown in my face by the likes of that asshole.” I stood up and walked to where a port shown with the light of Ova-Loa’s sun. “Or to wake up and not be sure if what happened in my dreams, had happened in truth.”

“Have you really spoken with any of your people about what happened to you?”

I shook my head, “Not really, other than the official debrief.”

“The official debrief, was deliberately and to my opinion, mercifully brief,” I turned to see her attention on my face, “I am not a Psychologist, I unbend Physics, not minds.” She smiled slightly and then frowned, “But I can say that in time you will have to face some darker truths than your mind is evidently ready for.”

“Oh joy,” I turned and pressed my face against the clear-steel of the viewport, feeling the coolness of it. “So how much?”

“How much of what you dream is real?” I heard her rise up then the soft scuff of her feet on the carpeted deck, and I turned to see her looking at herself in the mirror with evident anger. “Part of me says that I, and that We, my family, owe you too much to be dishonest with you. To hide you from painful truths, not yet public truths, to lie to you and say ‘nothing of which you dream is true.’”

“But?” I asked as I fought the urge to bolt from the room.

She frowned in obvious reluctance and distaste, “I don’t wish to hurt you, but you should know what evidence was recovered. You need to know, before it un-does you completely or is aired publicly, not just in your dreams.”

“Know what?” I asked with a dry mouth.

She fretted for a moment with her hair, not quite looking at me, “I endured watching the evidence that was recovered. Some of which you were, as you were,” she said, her voice seeming a bit distant to my ears.

Not quite dreading the answer, I forced my self to ask the question, “And as I am now?”

She nodded harshly and her face was a visage of rage, “Yes. Are you familiar with the term ‘Whipping Boy?’”

I was feeling a bit distant or disconnected but I nodded numbly, “Yes.”

“That man made it quite clear that you were my ‘whipping boy,’ among other things.” She turned to look at the wall across the bay, her face not quite a frozen mask of anger, “In the audio portion of the evidence that was recovered, he used my name frequently as he raped you.”

I turned back to rest my forehead against the port, it’s coolness a thousand times warmer than the sinking sensation in my guts. I tried to breath as several sensations warred for my attention. The sensations pushed and twisted at me as if I was falling into a long jump; then I was wondering if I had jumped rather than ejected… and if this was hell. Darkness closed on me, the jump dragging me under to stand at that baleful eye once more.

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“Well she is resting comfortably,” the Doctor said after a check of her instruments, “though if she wasn’t with all the sedation that has been pumped into her I’d be amazed.” The colorful robes obscured the elderly physician’s name badge as she moved around the sleeping woman, “Dana child, you really should not have sprung that on her.”

“Aunt Geraldine, part of her problem has been the lack of truth.” The Princess studied her not quite twin with a frown, “Too damned stubborn and proud by half.”

Geraldine laughed filling the room with less than melodious tones that were mostly mocking in flavor, “Pot calling the kettle black, if ever there was such?”     

Dana looked over, one eyebrow rising in evident rueful acknowledgement, “You know me best of all, you sat with me through those files. Could you have lied to her?”

The older woman shook her head and then moved a stray gray hair from in front of her eyes as if batting at a fly, “No, perhaps not. If it were not for her memories and skills, I would swear she was cloned of you.”

“Is she a clone?” Dana asked with evident curiosity in her voice.

“They certainly tried to make her your clone.” The older woman walked around the room to hug her niece, “Every where we, as humans live or lived, has marked us in one fashion or another.”

“Oh?”

“Her body has different heavy metals in it than yours does,” she stepped over to her workstation. “In the air we breath, the water we drink, and the very land that nourishes us, are trace amount of metals and minerals.” With an almost mystical intonation she added, “The Land itself protected us, in this case.

“So is Genoa so radically different than Bellius Prime, in that respect?”

“Well maybe not in a few hundred years, but for now, yes.” Geraldine smiled, “The Fed’s process evidently is not refined enough to where it filters out those traces.”

“So there is a way to shake the chaff from the wheat.” Dana smiled, “So we are doubly indebted to my not quite sister.”

“What are you thinking ‘Oh Daughter of my Sister?’” Geraldine sat briefly at the terminal and punched in a few commands.

She shook her head, “Mother would have a conniption fit if I were to drag her home and have her made part of our family.”

The older woman rolled her eyes, “Not to mention the Assembly, and a few other Houses. Though the Synod might approve.”

Dana shook her head, “It would be an apt reward for her saving me, and the information she provided to us in these tests. But we now also have the problems of avoiding a possible civil war as well. If the Federation has planted additional agents among us.”

“The war with the Federation more or less being a given?” asked the older woman with a resigned sigh.

For a moment the Princess was more in evidence than the niece, “I don’t see how we can not stand by and do nothing.” Dana motioned to the sleeping woman, “Recordings and tests not withstanding, this could have be me. The Men’s Synod I expect will not tolerate this affront.”

“They have been vocal on the Federation’s prior actions,” the older woman snorted “Half of them have been funding the Exodus, if not publicly, then in private.”

“And the other half have been funding spies within the Federation, I know.” She shook her head, “and then leaking what they find to the various ears that need to know of it.”

“Did you think they would do nothing when they found her and her sisters?” Geraldine walked over to where the woman slept unawares.

“No, thankfully no, even if it brings the war to our systems early,” Dana said angrily as she paced.

“It’s not like the war was not coming to us,” the older woman countered with a softening gesture.

“True, they made that quite clear.” Her body shook in revulsion,  “He said, ‘I’ll have the real thing in my bed soon enough.’” Dana’s face took on a slightly feral cast, “I think he pretty much cast the ‘Fated Die’, in his boasting.”

“There is that, your Mother was not quite spitting mad,” Geraldine’s face was not empty of anger herself.

“I gathered that, still before we gird ourselves to war we have a smaller, equally important battle to fight first.” The Princess studied her ‘twin’ protectively.

“How to best waken an abused mind so that it is whole?” asked Geraldine as she walked to the opposite side of the bunk.

“Yes to awaken our sleeping, not quite sister.” Dana sighed, “It is truly a shame there are no magical cures, no courtly kisses to restore her to her previous life.”

“No close kin, either,” Geraldine pointed out with a cutting motion of her hand.

“There are other forms of Family, some you are born with…”

“… The other you make for yourself. Her friends?”

“Yes, specifically one, I think. Someone she fought with, relied on and likely trusts beyond most any other.” Dana paused with a faint smile, “One who might almost be her brother.”

“The Confederation may not like your meddling,” the older lady shook her head, “but what good is it in being Royal if you can’t use it to a good end on occasion?”

“True, ‘Sister of my Mother,’ tarry a bit with my not quite sister, I beg of you. I have some errands that need a Royal touch.”

“As the ‘Daughter of my Sister’ wishes, so I shall obey.” Geraldine’s face was only partially hidden by her bow, though her eyes held amusement.

Dana stopped hesitantly, just shy of the door, “Am I doing the right thing Geraldine?”

“What does your heart say Dana?”

“My heart,” she paused, “my heart is torn. I would give her ease from it all if I could.”

Geraldine nodded, “And your head?”

“That we cannot leave her as such, she is very much a weapon, one we cannot let lie unused.”

“So when the heart and mind are of accord, is there really a choice?”

“No.” She sighed, “We need her where she is at her best, even if I think she needs peace. We need her for war.”

“Would that we had a thousand of her, ‘Daughter of my Sister.’ For some, peace never really is an choice, they fight because there is a need, they draw the line, they say ‘This far, no further.’” Geraldine paused, “And sometimes they say, ‘Never again.’”

The Princess bowed her head for a moment, “I have set my life upon a cast, and I will stand the hazard of a die,” then she shook it. “Shakespeare, right in mood, but not what I would wish for her.”

“Five too many Richmonds?”

“And I just wish her to slay the One.”

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“What’s with the Whites?” asked Decker as he entered the berth that he shared with the other three men.

“It seems the Princess has taken a fancy to our ‘dashing’ young Lieutenant Commander Jennings.” Palmer was sitting at the room’s terminal working on reports, “How is it I get stuck playing fetch and carry for Security and he gets to dine with fancy ladies?”

“I’m just lucky I guess,” said Jennings with a smile as he checked the spacing of the ribbons with a metal ruler. “Still, it beats hanging about here all day, waiting for Security to clear everyone for flight again.”

“So Boojum, think she’ll fall for your charms?” asked Griffith with a leer.

“There is not a woman in the whole quadrant that could resist our boy when he turns on the charm,” quipped Decker.

“Now Snark…” he paused and then shook his head, “shit.”

Jennings nodded and slipped the jacket on, “Yeah, if there was woman trouble he’d find it.”

“Yeah,” Decker shook his head and sighed, “I just wish I knew what happened to him.” The others paused and nodded after a moment.

“He’s dead,” Jennings wasn’t looking at any one place in particular, “he did his job, he got us out of there intact, and then he died.” He slipped the jacket on, and started buttoning it up, “We all know how it can happen, junk metal, the golden round, just dumb fucking luck. Knowing Snark, he tried to make the Fed’s pay for his last meal when he went out.”

“The bastard never could lie decently,” muttered Palmer as he glared at the terminal. “We all wanted to go home, you know it, I know it. He knew somehow that he wasn’t coming back so…”

“So he gave the order, and we carried it out. End of fucking story,” Jennings wasn’t quite glaring as he tied his tie.

 “Sorry,” said Palmer as he rubbed his eyes, “I’m not thinking and I’m damned tired.”

“With luck I’ll get laid, if not we’ll get drunk or something later on,” Jennings tiredly said to the mirror. “Damned ghosts.”

“I sent a note to his family,” said Griffith.

“That’s nice,” muttered Palmer as he plucked dutifully at the keyboard.

“It’s just that the note they sent back was odd,” added Griffith.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I don’t think they’re handling the loss well, they said he isn’t really gone, just changed,” Griffith lay back on his bunk with a frown.

“Caruthers was a Deist, maybe his family is heavy that way too,” Decker picked up a deck of cards from the table and began shuffling them, “Deity works in strange ways and all of that.”

“Yeah, well I am off, wish me luck,” said Jennings as he picked up his beret.

“Hell you don’t need luck, you just need to smile pretty boy,” commented Decker as he started laying the cards out randomly.

“Yeah, well considering the Admiral’s Adjutant, Major Milsworth was giving me dirty looks when he relayed the request. I can only hope I don’t make a total ass of myself,” Jennings shook his head, “evidently it’s politics too.”

“Better you, than me then,” said Decker as he pulled out a metal tube and extracted a cigar from it.

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“Well, I will be dipped…” Jennings paused, “sorry your Highness, its just a bit much to take at face value.”

Her smile was not exactly rueful, “I know, still the evidence is quite clear, if not slightly obscene.”

“Obscene,” he paused as if tasting the word, “if you had not shown me the first set of tapes with Mark.”

“The context would have been confusing otherwise.” Dana sighed, “Trust me. I don’t willingly subject myself to this, as light entertainment.”

Maxwell Heinz, the Colonel from Confederation Security, had stoically sat through the first go round of videos, taking notes. Though he was noticeably grimmer by the end of the second set. “No I would not either. However, the needs of the State will no doubt require that I go over all of recordings frame by frame.”

“Thus far my people assure me that the recordings are genuine.” The Princess bowed her head slightly towards him, “I do regret my part in her current trials. Though I think, think mind you, that this was destined to occur, considering her nature.”

“Mark used to keep this sort of crap all bottled up. His um, game face, is very hard to read.” Jennings said with a sigh then rubbed at his eyes, “His girlfriend had ‘Dear Johned’ him not too long after we had joined up with Darwin’s Hope. I had to shake him out of it, and it wasn’t exactly pretty then.”

“We’re hoping that she still trusts you,” the Princess shook her head, “I am not sure at times if the separation between the Commander and the Commanded is always a good thing.”

Admiral Spottedhorse nodded slowly, “Non-fraternization, has always been problematical among elite units.” He pointed to Jennings, “Your old Flight from the Hope certainly qualified in that regard. How did you pick Caruthers out to be the Flight Leader?”

Jennings flushed and squirmed slightly in his seat, “Well ah, sir, he drank us under the table. Of course he cheated… but, well… that’s how it went.”

The Admiral blinked as a puzzled frown creased his face, “He cheated?”

Jennings paused, “You have to understand, rank wise and age wise we were all so close that the Chain of Command was murky. We were fine until the Flight Leader bought it. But afterwards we had to wing it until the Skipper put his foot down and demanded we pick out the new Flight Leader.”

The Colonel nodded, “You said he cheated?”

Jennings ducked his head seemingly embarrassed, “You have to understand; Mark barely weighed in at seventy-two kilos, where as the bunch of us had him by at least ten or more kilos each. So we all bellied up to the bar and started downing shots of whisky.”

The Princess not quite muttered something about men aloud, then caught herself and hid behind her fan for a moment as she regained her composure.

“Do go on,” said the Admiral with a bland smile.

“So here we were, downing shots like there is no tomorrow, and slowly loosing pilots to either the Head or the Deck.” Jennings paused to take a sip from his tumbler, “Until finally there are only three of us left: Me, Caruthers and Phillips.”

“Why am I sensing a set up?” asked Colonel Heinz as he studied his own glass critically.

Jennings nodded, “So Mark pulls out three bottles of some rot gut he picked up on the last liberty. They all had the seals on them so they were technically safe, no Mickey’s and so on.”

“And then?” prompted the Princess.

“Well, here it gets sort of fuzzy for me; we sat down and started a game of Three-man,” at the Princess’s look of incomprehension he added. “It’s a drinking game you play with dice. The rules are not too complex, some combinations you take a drink, other combinations other people take a drink and so forth.”

She nodded quickly, “I think I know that game.”

“Well anyways, I’m not quite three sheets to the wind, and making some good rolls. Making the others drink up and occasionally taking a few hits as well.” He paused to take a small sip from his tumbler, “About that time I notice that Mark is cold dead sober and that Phillips is not quite sliding to the deck from his chair.”

“He was sober?” asked the Colonel as if checking the facts.

“Absolutely one hundred percent sober. So here I am, not quite seeing three of him as he steered me to my bunk, and trying to sort out why he was sober. Finally, once I was not quite sitting upright in my bunk I asked him how the fu- um hell he was sober.”

Admiral Spottedhorse rolled his eyes, “And?”

“He laughed and pulled up his shirt, the little bugger had a row of Scrubbers on under it,” Jennings shook his head. “Then he tapped me on the head like I was a puppy and then said, ‘If you can’t out drink them, out think them.’”

The Colonel snorted, “And the rest of the Flight put up with it?”

“Yes and no. He did catch some hell for it, but the thing is he caught every single one of us flatfooted with that stunt. That and well, no one really wanted the job that badly.” He held up his hand a moment as the others tried to all speak at once, “We’d lost nearly two hundred and some odd pilots by that time, and I think most of us were hitting the limit. Hell even I had a bad case of the Thousand-Kay-Stare at times.”

“Thousand-Kay-Stare?” asked the Princess.

“It’s common in soldiers that have been in combat too long, it’s a symptom of Battle Fatigue, pure mental or physical exhaustion. It generally expresses itself where the person seems to be staring at something way far out in the distance.” The Colonel paused, “They literally blank the world out, even though they can snap right back to full alertness.”

“I see,” the Princess frowned, “she exhibited something like that while we were waiting on test results. Yet now it seems as if she is blanking everything out, deliberately.”

Jennings nodded slowly, “I am not surprised, it took me about a month to get some sort grip on it; once we were back.” He paused and pointed to the screen, “And I was not abused…”

Admiral Peters sighed, “So she goes from combat, to tortured prisoner, decanted, then right back to combat again.” He took a deep drink from his glass, “I am an idiot.”

“Sir, I don’t think you could have known. He was a master at keeping his emotions locked down and tight. Even I had a hard time of reading him and I was his wingman most of the time.”

“Most of the time?” asked the Admiral.

“He was the Flight Leader, some times he moved people around to cover holes. Or to make sure someone came back from a mission, as we were getting more than a bit frayed.” He looked down into his glass, “Then there were times like the last mission where he took the hardest part for himself.”

“What was his role in that mission?” asked the Colonel.

“We were working our way out of the Fed’s territories and things were getting dicey. The Hope was down to thirty Mantas and a few other birds that were support only, about that time the Feds decided to send three light task force groups out to hunt us down.” 

Jennings sighed angrily as his emotions and thoughts warred, “Evidently we ticked them off enough that they had to kill us. So after several close calls and a dozen or so jumps, the Skipper is seeing that we were being herded towards a point in space. The Skipper calls down for a recon and Mark takes off in the EW bird for a few hours.”

“Just himself?” asked the Princess.

“Yes Ma’am. The Electronics Warfare version of the Manta has almost no signature with the right person at the stick. As much as I hate to admit it, Mark was the best pilot we had at the time; so off he goes. When he comes back he’s a bit tired but very pissed about something.”

“If I read the mission briefing correctly the Feds had tied up the wormhole that would have put you three jumps from home, rather than the twenty jump trip you ended up taking?” asked the Admiral.

“Yes sir, so rather than having the Feds dog us all the way home, the Skipper decided to attack their ambush. It was a good plan, we’d either hurt them bad or flatten them enough so the Hope could jump in and glide through the next wormhole.”

“Which brings us back to the last mission,” commented the Colonel.

“Yes sir, that Light Task Force had several Frigates, a Light Carrier, a Medium Destroyer, and half a dozen Arbalests working in conjunction with a Tender. More than enough punch to put the Hope out of action.”

“So Mark sets up the mission and the payload for each bird, it seemed screwy at the time. Afterwards it made sense.”

“What did?” asked the Princess.

“The payloads for each bird; Mark had picked them out so that they reflected the pilots who flew them individual style of combat.” He shook his head, “I know it sounds odd, but he evidently knew us that well. So when it comes to the mission, it’s a run and gun attack.”

“Run and gun?” asked the Princess blankly.

“You jump in make your kills and get out, only you do it two or three times or more from different vectors. One of the main reason Mantas are crewed by men largely stems from how fast they recover from jump.” Jennings explained, “That and how we focus in combat.”

“Ah, I had wondered,” commented the Princess, nodding as if marking something off on a list in her mind.

“In any case Mark’s got nothing but ship killer missiles on his bird, EMP Yellow Snakes and Beaked Snake missiles. So when the mission kicks off, he’s flying heavy and out of sync with the rest of us. Fairly nasty plan, the twenty nine of us jumped in, hit hard, hop out and he’d pop in on top of them; twenty seconds after we left.”

“Using the chaos of the attack to cover him attacking the Medium destroyer?” asked the Admiral.

“And the Tender, and on the last run, the Light Carrier. He’d targeted one third of the Flight on each of the Frigates, though they had a lighter load, the rest of us were basically given the order of, ‘If it moves, kill it.’ I was black on my missiles after helping to take down a Frigate, though by then he’d already crippled the Medium Destroyer using two Beaked Snakes and some of his Yellows, the Tender he knocked out of commission with a single Yellow Snake and Palmer polished it off on his second run back in.”

“So what happened with the Light Carrier?” asked the Colonel.

“Well Palmer had covered him on that run. He said the launch of the Yellows looked a bit off, but the Beaked Snake that followed them was dead on. After that we don’t know what happened.” Jennings shrugged sadly, “He’d ordered us out, so we went.”

“Just like that, you just left him?” the Princess asked in disbelief.

“Ma’am you don’t argue with the Flight Leader when the mission is running, it was his call. The mission protocols required us to be back on The Hope at a certain time or they would jump without us.” There was some real pain in Jennings voice, “Believe me Ma’am, we wanted to go back.”

“Tactically it would have been unwise,” commented Admiral Peters, “The Darwin’s Hope carries nearly a thousand personnel, just to support the Mantas. When you add on the other two and a half thousand crewmembers who crewed the Hope, one man’s life is not worth the gamble.”

Jennings reluctantly nodded, “So we left the Fed’s with the process of rescuing their own personnel while we retreated and took the long road home.”

“And some months later we get some intelligence that the Fed’s so called Medical Cruiser is really a prisoner transport and interrogation ship.” The Colonel tipped his head to the Princess, “We are indebted to The Synod for that bit of information.”

“The Synod?” asked Jennings in the silence that followed.

“Lets just say there are things our friends in the Alliance don’t advertise, Lieutenant Commander, this being one of them. The Synod is an Opposition Party; one of the political checks and balances among the Alliance. Aside from the political front; they act unofficially as the Alliance’s Secret Service, among other things.” The Colonel pointed to him, “We are trying to keep the fact that Mark is now Angela quiet. As it is rumors already exist about the process she under went.”

“We’ve been hearing rumors about the Fed’s doing something to our POW’s.” Jennings motioned to the view screen, “This is a bit wilder than some of the rumors though.” He shook his head, “Among ourselves, her Wing Leader’s, we suspected something was off about her.”

“How so?” asked the Admiral as he stared at the younger man.

“Her mannerisms for one and well, she flew like Mark did, or rather does.” He smiled ruefully, “If you live with someone long enough, you can pretty much predict how they will act or fly, and Angela acts exactly like Mark did… Which makes sense now.”

“We had originally planned for Angela to be on Bova Nine-Twelve with the others by now.” Admiral Peters finished his drink and set it off to one side, “I am not quite sure the orders that diverted her to Mupass Station were intentional or just The Fleet trying to be efficient.”

“We are investigating that as well,” Colonel Heinz turned to look at the darkened view screen, “there are too many coincidences.” He shrugged, “Well I have to return to my investigation station side.” He stood tiredly, “With luck I’ll get some rest too.”

“Do you have any leads on the murder?” asked the Princess.

“A few,” he chuckled grimly, “a few.” He inclined his head and bowed formally to the Princess, “An educational evening your Highness, however let us hope we can meet again under better auspices in a few days or sooner.”

She bowed from her cushion, “I regret that this evening was marred by past events, yet there is hope the night will yet prove productive.”

The Admirals stood as one, “We should be about our duties as well,” said Admiral Spotted-horse.

“With luck we should have some good news for you soon Admiral,” the Princess indicated Jennings with her hand. “We may have to barrow him for a few hours, if you don’t mind?”

Admiral Peters chuckled, “If you can get my Commander back on her feet, I think the Fleet can afford to loan him to you.”

The Princess eyed Jennings speculatively, but nodded, “I’ll try not to return him any worse for wear.”

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“Are you sure this is a good idea?” asked the Princess as she indicated the Olympic-sized swimming pool dubiously.     

“Well talking to her hasn’t produced more than a glimmer or recognition at times.” Jennings’ smile was slightly off kilter, “And something similar I’ve tried before worked on h-her. I think that between your lifeguards and myself we can get her out if it doesn’t work.”

“I can’t say I am entirely too pleased with this plan,” Geraldine regarded her niece with a frown.

“Mark’s errr, Angela was from Genoa,” Jennings explained as he motioned to the two men holding the stretcher. “H-she swims like a fish, and well the little bugger has a survival instinct that you would not believe. You did say that they didn’t use water at all in his torture.”

“Other than denying it to him, no.” Dana looked down at the floor, “I forced myself to watch all the data that was recovered she is super human.”

“Oh she is human, so I expect a very human response if she snaps out of it when you dunk her,” said Geraldine with a wan expression that hardened. “This is not exactly a valid treatment for emotional shock.”

“It worked before… I think it may again.” He shook himself,  “I am staying out of the pool unless it is an emergency.” Jennings motioned to the blue trunks he was sporting, “While I do appreciate the loan, if she is as aquatic as Mark, I expect she’d try and drown me for this if it works.”

“We can hope,” Dana looked over to the awake but not aware lady in question, then she motioned to the gentlemen with the stretcher, “Gentlemen if you please?”

The two men rolled their eyes then they counted aloud, “On three. One, two and three!” With an abrupt heave they sent the semi-aware woman out into the air and into the pool.

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The familiar but intruding voices had died down to a low murmur for a time. I wasn’t really aware of time passing, other that being jostled now and again. I was almost asleep and dreaming of flying as cool moist air tickled at my nose. For a long moment, I was comforted by the presence of the warm damp air, though the murmuring voices seemed to echo for a short time. I was almost lost to sleep again when I could feel myself falling.

There was a cold wet splash at the end of my flight, and then I felt my backside come to rest on an oddly tiled surface. I tried to protest the change from dry and warm, to cold and wet, but the water filled my mouth before I could say any thing.

I think my first real conscious thought was, ‘What the fuck?’ The next was ‘Shit! I’m under water!’ I pushed off the bottom with my hands and then used my legs to kick up off and to what I though was up. As I broke the surface I started coughing trying to get the water out of my mouth and sinuses, ignoring the chlorine burn and taste of the water. I treaded water for a moment trying to get my hair out of my face and to figure out where the fuck I was.

At the sound of my name I turned to see Boojum standing at the edge of the pool. The last clear thought I had was about my being raped… I stopped for a moment and let myself sink down to the bottom of the pool. I needed that moment to think, and then I realized I was not quite nude, as the gown I was in was mostly off. I think between the two events, being comfortable, then not, and then realizing I was not quite naked, royally pissed me off.

So when I came back up to the surface I was screaming, and I think I used every dirty word in my lexicon and a few invented ones to do it. In which I described Boojum’s parentage, my apparent lack of proper clothing, and the fact that every one in the room seemed to be amused by my condition. I think I even used a few choice words the Princess had evidently never heard used in that particular order or sequence, as she blushed deeply and turned to face the wall.

“So Snark, feeling better?” asked Boojum from the edge of the pool.

“Was this your fucking bright idea?” I asked while splashing water angrily at him.

“Guilty as charged, so are you back from Never, Never Land, or do we throw you into a bath of ice water next?” he asked a bit smugly.

“You son of a bitch! I could have fucking drowned!” I shouted at him while gliding back further from view as the gown had slipped off and had sunk to the bottom of the pool.

“Not likely,” he pointed to the four gentlemen who were holding a variety of rescue gear, and evidently had some sense of decorum; as they avoided looking in my direction. Though they seemed very amused.

“And you,” I pointed an accusing finger at the Princess. “You could have at least made sure I had a fucking swimsuit on!”  

She looked slightly abashed, though not by much, “So sorry, we were sort of pressed for time and considering the hour; well my handmaiden’s are asleep.”  She shrugged as if that explained everything.

“If you will swim over to the stairs I’ll give you a towel and a robe,” said an older woman whom I vaguely remembered as being one of the doctors who had performed tests on me.

I looked to where she pointed and started swimming in that direction. I heard the Princess ordering Tom out along with the other men. That alone, made me feel a bit less self conscious though I was still more than a bit pissed off. By the time I reached the stairs leading up from the water the Princess and the Doctor were waiting for me with the towels.

“So who are you?” asked the Doctor as I toweled off.

I sighed and looked at her angrily, “Who I was or who I have to be?”

“Well that’s promising,” stated the Princess with a smile.

I wanted to throw her into the pool but settled for just giving her a dirty look. “I was Mark, and now I am stuck being Angela, happy?” I asked the Doctor a bit heatedly.

“No need to be snappish Angela, you had a breakdown of sorts and I wanted to be sure you were not on automatic pilot.” She stepped back and took the robe from the Princess and handed it to me, “Not to mention your being on the verge of physical collapse from not sleeping properly. Much less not resting, nor eating enough.”

I wrapped the robe around myself and tied it shut with the belt and sighed feeling suddenly tired, “I had nightmares, and I don’t like taking drugs.”

“Well if I have my way, and I likely will, you will be on medical leave for the next few weeks or a few days at the very least.” She had one hand at her hip and the other was pointed at me as if I was an errant child, “Did you know you are currently underweight? Your body fat index is not quite at three percent; when you should be closer to fifteen.”

“Aunt Geraldine, I don’t think that now is the proper time for scolding her, for her not eating properly that is.” The Princess rolled her eyes, then she walked over and hugged me, “My not quite sister is turning blue while you ramble on.”

Uncertainly I hugged her back, then took a step out of her embrace, “That may be Dana child, that may be.” Geraldine pointed a finger at me and in a voice that brooked no argument commanded, “You will come with us back to medical and we’ll see about getting you warmed up, fed, and then some real sleep.”

 “Just no drugs,” I protested.

“Who is the Doctor here?” she asked while tapping her foot loudly on the poolroom tile.

     “You are,” I said with some resignation.

“And if need be I can wake up your Admiral Spottedhorse or the Commandant, I am sure they would agree that I had the rank and authority to do so.” She paused and then spoke a bit gently, “Come child, Aunt Geraldine knows best, and since I don’t have to share my medical notes unless I want to, your ‘collapse’ will not be of record.” She paused and added in a conspiring tone, “We’re just keeping you for additional testing for a few days or so.”

The Princess looped her arm through mine a bit firmly, “Besides, since this is all my fault I have to make proper amends.” She smiled and gave my arm a gentle tug as she steered me to the doors, “So come, my not quite sister and let us help you get better.”

“I’m not your sister,” I protested angrily in my frustration, “at times I am not even sure I am me.”

“Oh you are definitely you all right, I don’t have your grasp of profanity or the vernacular for it,” she blushed slightly. “And when we are not in public will you please call me Dana?” she asked and went on to explain, “I get so tired of being your Highness this, Princess that.”

   I nodded feeling drained of emotion, “Just don’t call me Mark, since I can’t be that person anymore,” then I added a bit sadly. “Or Snark for that matter, as much as I could wish… It hurts a bit too much.”

Dana nodded and then nodded, “I’ll pass that last bit on to Lieutenant Commander Jennings, if you like.”

“No, I should do that, if only…” I clenched my hands into fists, “I think the one thing I am maddest at the Fed’s for is that.”

“For what?” asked Geraldine as we walked down the corridor in silence after a time.

“Making it impossible for me just to be Snark and a real friend to Boojum. You know, wingman and best buddies,” I felt a tear rolling down my face, “No more good times where we could just kick back and relax.”

“You can still be friends,” Dana offered as we turned at an intersection.

“Yeah but the loose camaraderie will be gone,” I used the sleeve of my free arm to wipe the tears from my face, “Fraternization and all that crap.”

“You were his Flight Leader on Darwin’s Hope, correct?” asked Geraldine from behind us, and I turned to look at her.

“Yes, but that was then, and now,” I looked her and then Dana, “and now I have this huge gulf of time and well….” I stopped and motioned to my body.

“Time heals all wounds or at least eases the pain of them,” said Geraldine with a voice that had the sound of previous experience.

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“Well Lieutenant Commander, I have heard of more unorthodox things,” said Admiral Spottedhorse after a moment of silence.

“I’ll second that, but I won’t argue results,” said the Commandant with a chuckle, “I think you should count yourself fortunate to be out of her reach for the next few days though.”

“Aye, sir,” Jennings said and smiled, “frankly sir if she didn’t try to deck me in the next few days I would be shocked.”

“We’ll try and dissuade her of that notion for you,” the Major said with her own smile, “Though you may wish to stay just out of arms reach, just in case.”

“There is that Ma’am,” Jennings said as he nodded in agreement. “Hell of damned thing to have to keep quiet.”

“The matter may become moot in the next week,” added the Colonel as he tapped at his data pad. “The formal presentation of evidence should start in the next few days. Then,” Colonel Hienz sighed, “then it might get messy.”

“It’s already messy,” countered Admiral Peters and then he studied Jennings carefully, “Do you think your fellow pilots will have a problem with her status?”  

“If they do, they better keep their mouths shut,” Jennings said in a quiet but firm voice, “otherwise I can think of three others who will break them of it.”

“Well for the interim, the least that said is likely for the better,” Colonel Hienz motioned to a set of neatly stacked and signed forms, “your new security rating carries its own onus.”

“Though it may help your promotion standings, in the long run,” noted Admiral Spottedhorse with a chuckle.

“I’d much rather have the carrot than the stick sir,” Jennings said with a tight expression.

“We are not above some casual prodding, should the candidate prove worthy.” Admiral Peters grinned as he tapped his desk, “Understood?”

“Aye sir, loud and clear,” Jennings said as he braced formally to attention.

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“So Booj, any luck with the Princess?” asked Decker quietly from his own berth.

“No, not really,” Jennings said with a sigh that masked his feeling, “it was politics.”

“In other words, smile, nod and eat neatly?” Decker squinted in the semi darkness, “What’s with the sidearm?”

“Our FL is going to be tied up with bureaucratic BS, so guess who ends up holding the reins and polishing her bird?” Jennings asked in return, though he had to fight to keep from laughing aloud.

“Wonderful, I suppose this means you get to peek under the hood too?”

“Actually, yes,” Jennings did smile at that thought, “it has to be one hell of ride.”

“Lucky bastard, now shut up so the rest of us poor fucks can get some sleep,” groaned Palmer from the darkest corner of the room.

“You’re just jealous,” Jennings countered.

“Nope, guess who has to fill out the loss forms if the FL is not around to do it?” muttered Decker with a snicker.

“Shit,” commented Jennings with a frown as the thought of paper work descend upon him like an avalanche.

“Rolls down hill, don’t forget your rubber booties,” added Decker as he turned over in his bunk.

“Gee, thanks,” Jennings said to a point in the room which would be the approximate direction of the Princesses’ ship.

“Ever glad to be of service.”

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“I don’t like drugs,” I found myself repeating.

“I have recorded coms from Admiral Peterson, Admiral Spottedhorse and the Commandant that essentially say, you will be in my care until I get sick of you or you get better… Want me to play them for you?”

I sighed in protest, “No, its just….”

“Just what?” asked Dana.

“I’ve not had a real say in what happens with me since I was captured,” I looked over to the medical bays mirror and frowned. “Much less time to just be me.”

“Fortunes of war, Commander,” I sat up straight in the bunk as the Commandant made his presence known, how he managed to slip in unnoticed bothered me on some level.

“Aye sir,” I said less than cheerfully.

“I just wanted you to know your Flight Leader duties will be handled by Lieutenant Commander Jennings for the time being.” He looked at me thoughtfully, “That way you can relax and not have to worry about paperwork for a time.”

“Oh crud I have not even started on the Ten-Sixty-Sixes,” I blinked at the resounding chuckles and giggles.

“See?” asked the Commandant to Geraldine with a smile, then he looked at me directly. “Commander, you are hear-by ordered to comply with the medical regimen as put forth to you by the Medical Command of this vessel, is that clear?”  

“That would be me,” said Geraldine with a devious grin.

“Aye sir, I will comply as directed,” I said with little enthusiasm.

“Angela, the General Staff and I know we have pushed you too hard and too soon.” He shrugged, “If it were up to me I would put you on enforced leave for several months, unfortunately we don’t have that sort of luxury.”

“It’s alright sir,” I protested.

“No, its not ‘alright’ Commander, but it’s the best we can do for the time being.” He shook his head with apparent annoyance, “You will rest and recover or I’ll find a way to put you on sick leave for a few months, even if I have to jam the idea into the Grand Admirals’ ear.”

“That won’t be necessary sir,” I protested quickly.

“We’ll see, now I am off to my own berth.” He chuckled then relaxed from his semi-tense stance, “Can’t have me falling on my own face due to lack of sleep.”

Geraldine chuckled, “Setting a good example?”

“An example, in any case,” he shook his head, “don’t rush your recovery Commander, the war is not going away any time soon.”

“In other words…” Dana said with a smile, “Relax.”

I considered several rude suggestions and swallowed them down with some effort, “Ok, you win.”

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“…thirty one, thirty two, thirty three,” I was on the deck doing push ups in the semi-darkness. When I heard the doors open and I had to blink away the tears that the sudden light brought from me.

“What are you doing?” asked Geraldine who was scowling at me as she stood there in her bathrobe and pink fluffy slippers.

“Exercising,” I replied as I continued to do push ups.

“Wrong answer. The correct answer is, ‘Getting my butt back into bed and sleeping,’” she gave me a stern look as she tapped a fuzzy foot on the deck.

“Can’t sleep,” I said moving out of the pushup position into crouch and then stood up.

“Hmmph, I have just the thing for that,” she walked over to the medical cabinets and typed in a code. A moment later she was back with an injector, “Arm or buttocks?”

I sighed and turned to present her with a shoulder, “Arm, I really, really hate this.”

“Tough cookies,” she said and then pressed the injector to my shoulder firmly. “There, eight to ten hours of forced sleep, now get in bed or I’ll have the intern strap you in.”

“You are enjoying this entirely too much,” I said as I pulled myself back into the medical berth.

She shook her head, “Not really, I just can’t have the hero of two nations fall apart and disgrace herself in the process.”

“I’m not a hero, I am just a very good pilot,” I said a bit fuzzily as the medicine rushed through me, “heroes end up dead.”

I blinked at the flash of pain and stinging sensation on my cheek; stunned I looked over to see Geraldine glowering at me, “You will not repeat that crap ever again, you will not.” She took a breath, “Angela, you are too good a person to let yourself get drug down by that sort of thinking, and if I have to paddle your backside to drive that sort of nonsense from your head I will.”

I touched my face where the stinging was fading away into a heated blush, “I am not a child.”

“No you are only human,” she raised the rails on the berth with a touch of a button. “Now, the only time I want to see your butt out of that bed for the next day or so is to visit the head or I will dose you so you stay put.”

“I hate drugs,” I murmured tiredly at her.

“So sorry, but who is the doctor here?”

“You are,” I said fighting back a yawn.

“Correct, now go to sleep.” I dimly heard her say with a laugh as my world faded into a quiet darkness.

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I looked blurrily at my doctor then sneezed several times into a tissue, “You did what!”

“I merely updated your immunizations,” Geraldine regarded me with a chuckle, “you were due for them any ways, according to your Fleet Records.”

“But all fourteen at once?” I asked in outrage.

“It’s not my fault you let your body get in such an exhausted condition,” she countered with a faint smile. “At least you seem to be immune to the Ithallan flu, not that I tried to infect you with that.”

“Small wonders that,” I muttered at her as I tossed the tissue in the direction of the bin.

“Oh don’t be such a baby,” she scolded me, “a sensible person would welcome a respite from all you have been doing.”

“Who said I was sensible?” I pointed to the view port, “There is a war going on, wars are hardly sensible, nor do they wait on convenient times.”  

Dana laughed at Geraldine’s scowl, “I think she has you on that point my aunt.”

“True, it does seem your mind is clear if your head is not,” she said before sinking gracefully into a chair at the side of a desk.

“If I were of a suspicious mind I would say that you planned this,” I pointed at Geraldine while trying to suppress a sniffle.

“No child, but I will admit to taking full advantage of it,” she said smugly. “It’s a pity that no Flight Surgeon worth his salt would let a hot shot pilot like you fly in such a state.”

I bit down on several words of choice, most of which were profane, finally I settled on giving her a dirty look. “I am so glad you are not related to me.”

“Oh but you are, a large part of your DNA says so,” she countered deftly.

“Gods, how do I explain this mess to my father, much less my mother,” I pointed to the two of them. “I’ve not even had a chance to discuss these,” I pointed to my breasts, “and now I have to explain your Highnesses’ as well.”  

“Well biology is easy, politics is well,” she trailed of and looked at her niece, “politics.”

Dana covered her mouth and seemed to be vastly amused at both Geraldine’s and my discomfort, “That about sums it up.”

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“So Chief, do you have a spare terminal I can check these serial numbers against?” Jennings asked in the brief silence of what could only be called the quiet of a storm.

“And you would be sir?” Chief McClain asked cautiously.

“Acting Flight Leader Jennings, for Commander Caruthers, evidently my boss caught a bug,” he shrugged with a smile. “So I get to play catch up for her.”

“Ah the joys of command,” he scratched his head and sighed, “I’ll give you a terminal, though you may have to share off and on.” He rolled his eyes, “Security’s been running back and forth all morning.”

“Ah, well I don’t think I will need too much time, I just need the chassis numbers for the lost birds,” Jennings sighed, “We took a pounding in some ways.”

“And gave one much heavier,” commented Colonel Heinz a thoughtful voice, “Still… I seem to have a quandary, do you have a master list of your Flight’s birds?”

“Yes sir,” Jennings held out the datapad.

The Colonel waved it off then walked over to the Chief’s desk, “Chief if you could call up the routing manifest on X-ray Tango seventy-six-seven-niner-niner?”

“I am at your service,” he said with a deft motion at his fingers on the keyboard, “it’ll take a moment, routing is a maze at times.”

Jenning glanced down at his datapad then tabbed in the same number then frowned slowly, “Odd I don’t have that chassis listed as in the flight.”

“Indeed, now if what I am sure will prove the case, we have a problem or four,” Colonel Heinz said with a grim look.

“You can say that again,” the Chief was giving his computer terminal a dark look, “it says here that particular bird was lost in combat, six months lost.”

“Now the question I think I want to know the answer to next: Is what bird was supposed to be here?” asked the Colonel as he looked around the room thoughtfully.

“Um, actually sir, shouldn’t that be several questions?” asked Jennings at he thought quickly. “Like where did the switch get made, and what happened to that bird, much less its pilot?” 

“Well I am fairly sure we won’t like the answers to those questions either, will we?” asked Colonel Heinz.

The Chief was scowling as he punched buttons rapidly, “No sir, I am sure we won’t.”

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I had awoken from my own personal hell and sat up entirely too fast for my congested condition, forcing me to groan aloud, “Just shoot me now.”

“Sinus pain?” asked the attendant.

“And then some,” I groped for the tissues and tried to ease some of the congestion, “urgh.”

“Sounds like you have a case of the crud alright,” he said with a shrug.

“Ya think?” I asked sarcastically.

“Ah one of those type of patients,” he smiled and pointed to the head, “feel up to a trip?”

“Not really, but my bladder says otherwise,” I pressed the button on the control pad that would allow me to escape my berth. I gave him the once over as the rails recessed, tall, not to skinny and yet solid, not the type you would want to play rough with. His black hair was short cropped and reminded me more of the Marines I had run into of late. The side arm puzzled me for a moment then a look to his eyes made me slightly suspicious. “Security?” I asked

“Yes, of a sort,” he shrugged casually, “let’s just say things got bumpy in the past few hours while you napped.”

I slowly eased myself to the floor and paused while my ears fought for a semblance of equilibrium, “How bumpy?”

“Well the ship didn’t self destruct,” he not quite dead-panned.

As my sense of balance and stomach warred I paused and asked him, “Are you shitting me?”

“A bit, though I expect some places will need a mop,” he motioned to the head, “is your sense of balance ok?”

“More or less,” I sighed at his lack of useful information and proceeded to enter and use the facilities. A few queasy moments and several acidic mouthfuls later I was aware of the slight tapping of the door.

“Is it safe to come in?” I heard through the door.

“Ugh yeah,” I spat a few times into the toilet then flushed.

I felt a warm but solid pair of hands ease me to a more upright position, “Yup, you are sick.” I glanced down to his name badge where it calmly stated: Williams, Craig, 2MOFS.

“Really Craig, and what is a 2MOFS?”

“Second Medical Officer, Flight Services, fancy name for the guy who does everything when the boss is out.” He paused then produced a medical wand and let it rest against my inner ear for a moment until it chimed at him, “Yup fever too, you are officially sick.”

“Ah humor,” I pointed at the head, “I could have told you that by the fact I was puking my guts out.”

“Yes, but you are not a doctor,” he grinned, “feel like standing up or do you need a hand?”

Looking up I complained at him, “If I say yes I need a hand and you start clapping, I’ll hit you.”

“Perish the thought that I should make fun of a sick lady,” he said then eased his hands firmly under my armpits and eased me to a semi-standing position.

“I don’t know, considering the last medical type that had their way with me,” I sighed grumpily.

“Ah yes, Auntie G. does have her um habits,” he chuckled and helped me to shuffle back to my berth.

“Auntie G? Are you related to Geraldine and the Princess?”

“Distantly, but yes.”

I gracelessly reentered my berth and pulled the covers up and over the thin gown, “So are you part of her conspiracy to keep me in bed and relaxed?”

“Not really, though I do have orders to dose you for sleep and what not as needed.”

“Wonderful,” I sighed then sneezed while frantically trying to relocate the box of tissues that had been moved in my trip to the head.

“Here,” he handed me the box with a shake of his head, “Doc Geraldine is down in surgery trying to keep the saboteur alive.”

“Saboteur? I thought you were joking?”

“Yes and no. Ship’s Security caught them in the act and it turned into a right mess.”

Feeling a hint of anxiety I asked, “The Princess?”

“Is safe and sequestered behind several very thick walls and is with some annoyance, sitting in her designated place.”

“Her designated place?” I asked feeling a bit stupid.

“Strapped into protective armor and inside an escape pod, with several heavily armed men and women to ensure she stays unharmed.” He paused to chuckle softly, “She is not amused, but the Captain was insistent.”

“Oh, should I be worried?”

“Oh no, there is a small army camped out in the hallway and this room is almost an escape pod in its own right.”

“It was that bad?” I asked after a quiet moment.

“It was, now I think you should likely have something for that congestion and maybe some more sleep?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

He chuckled and then nodded, “A bit of both.”

“Then yes, I would like the congestion to go away and to not dream.”

“Can’t guarantee anything about the dreams, but I can do something with the congestion.”

“Give it your best shot.”

“What the doctor ordered, more or less.” He walked over to a counter where a set of hypos sat awaiting him, “See all nice and prepared, isn’t that nice of Auntie G.?”

I groaned in disgust, “How is it I end up with the cheerful types when I feel like shit?”

“You are just lucky that way I suppose. Now Auntie did say you had a preference for the upper arm,” he said as he motioned to me.

“Yes,” I said and melodramatically lifted the sleeve of the gown for him. After two brief moments of pain I had a odd taste in my mouth, “Yuck, am I supposed to taste the shots?”

“It happens, now if you turn an odd shade of puce, then we have a problem.”

“Huh?”

“Anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction where your body would dilate the blood vessels to the point where your skin takes on a charming pink hue, and other nastiness occurs.”

“Oh joy.”

He smiled and patted my hand, “Not to worry you have been tested for that and a few other bits while you napped.”

“Ah, so what other bits?”

“Well we took some blood and ran it by the various allergen tests on the odd hunch that you might be allergic to the same things that the Princess is.”

Feeling a bit overwhelmed I asked, “And?”

“I would suggest avoiding anything that was sulfa based, medicine wise. As for foods, Bananas and Kiwi-like fruits are dead out.” He tapped my bed controls so that the rails came up, “As in you might make it to the infirmary if you are unlucky enough to eat any.”

“Might?”

“Yup, it could very easily kill you in less than a few minutes.”

Blinking I groaned in resignation, “Oh you are so much fun to talk with.”

“That’s why I am here. Now I’m going to dim the lights and put some notes in the computer while you sleep.” He paused, “Auntie G. will likely be busy for the next several hours, then she will be free for a ‘chat’ as she put it.”

“Great,” I muttered though a yawn.

“Pleasant dreams.”

“I can only wish,” I countered.

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The odd metallic tone and vibration that resonated down through the soles of his feet caused Jennings to frown, “What the?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think that was a good sign,” scowled Decker and he dropped his cards to the table as he stood up.

For an instant the room seemed to take a deep breath, then the sound of metal warping and crashing down echoed in the vents. A heavy ringing tone echoed a brief moment later as the pressure in the room seemed to double. The lights strobed violently for several long seconds before turning to a deep amber as the emergency lighting kicked in. An irrationally calm computer voice stated, “Hull breach detected. Hull breach detected. This is not a drill. All personnel should take emergency precautions.”

“Now I know the shit has hit the fan,” said Jennings as he rushed to the locker by his bed, “P-suits people!”

“And don’t stop for the plumbing!” shouted Palmer with a whoop that was part fear and part exultation.

Jennings jerked his suit out of the rack and kicked off his shoes frantically, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

“For what we are about to receive let us be grateful,” said Griffith as he worked his way into the upper half of his pressure suit.

“That’s Snark’s line asshole,” shouted Decker as he scrabbled around for a glove that had slipped under his berth.

“He’ll get over it or I’ll buy him a drink in hell!” shouted Griffith back, just before he dropped his helmet into place and rocked it left then right to seal it.

“Where’s my fucking glove! Fucking goddamned mother-fucking bitch of a glove!” shouted Decker furiously as he scrabbled under the berth only to nudge it out of reach again.

Jennings dropped to the floor and batted it back at Decker, “Get a grip man!” Then he fought to pull the upper half of his own pressure suit on and connected it.

“Thanks fucker!” Decker shouted back and raced to mate the lower half of his own suit with the top.

“You’re buying asshole!” shouted Palmer just before seating his own helmet.

“Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me!” cursed Decker as he snapped the lower half finally into place.

“Not in this life time Bi-atch!” shouted Jennings as he locked his helmet into place and worked on his own gloves.

Palmer snapped his gloves into place then sprawled over his bunk to shout at Decker, “Left, then right moron!”

“Seat you fucking piece of shit helmet, seat!” Decker shouted as he fought with his helmet. 

Griffith shuffled around to Jennings and started checking the seals as Jennings attached his last glove, “Green fucking green, gold, green, Booj Green!”

Jennings spun and repeated the same process on him, “Check, check, check, Slo Green!”

Griffith slapped Jennings on the shoulder then pressurized his suit, “Green lights!”

“Rodger pressurized,” Jennings charged his own suit, and watched the lights in his helmet come up green “Green lights!” He paused then shouted “Set, go to Palmer, I got Decker!”

“Golly green giant fucking green lights!” shouted Decker just as Jennings started checking the outside of his suit.

“Green lights!” shouted Palmer just after Griffith spun him around to check the front seals.

Jennings tabbed his coms open with a press to his gauntlet, “Coms check.”

“Five by five, Booj,” answered Griffith with a long exhale.

“Five by Five, Boojum,” called Palmer with a weak chuckle.

“Fucking five by mother fucking five, bastard glove,” said Decker as he knelt on the floor breathing rapidly.

Jennings chuckled, “I’ll take that this time around, not fast nor pretty. Ok the fun part is over, now get it under grips; we have to get the Flight checked out.”

“Right, shit,” said Decker forcing himself to slow his breathing down. “Can’t let the greenies see me all fucked up.”

“You got it,” Slo-hand walked to the door then checked the tell-tales on a panel to the right of it, “you had better grab your side arm, I don’t think this was a planned drill.”

“One step ahead of you,” Boojum said as he clipped the holster to the suit.

“Oh man,” said Stacked in a pained tone of voice, “this bites.”

“What?” asked Griffin hesitantly.

“I gotta pee…” Stacked replied in a morose tone of voice.

“Ah jeeze, tie a knot in it already,” said Slo-hand with a chuckle as the others laughed as well.

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“Your attention please, your attention please. Station Security Level Gamma is now in effect. I repeat Station Security Level Gamma is now in effect. All ships crew on liberty should remain in their quarters until further notice.” There was a pause, “All Flight Wings should assemble in their designated briefing rooms, immediately. Damage Control Parties Bravo Seventeen and Charlie Five should report to their EVA Structural Assessment Deployment Stations immediately.”

“I think things got bumpy,” commented Decker as they rounded a bend to see a squad of Marines in sealed power armor taking up defensive stations at the air locks.

“You don’t say,” replied Jennings as the Marines Sergeant approached them.

“Gentlemen, this area has been ordered sealed by the Station Commander,” the Sergeant said without preamble, “you should seek an alternate avenue to your duty stations.”

“Ah, I’m Acting Flight Leader for Transport Flight Two-Zero-Sixteen. If I am not mistaken, my briefing room is in that direction,” Jennings said with a frown.

“That might be a problem sir, two bulkheads further in that direction is vacuum.” The Sergeant chuckled slightly, “While you may be dressed for it, I think you may need to seek another briefing room, sir.”

“Things went more than bump,” said Palmer.

“Yes sir, you may need to co-ordinate with your pilots via Station TACCOM.” The Sergeant paused, “The galley in Bulkhead Thirty on this level should be open, if that will serve?”

“Yes, it will serve. Well it beats floating in space I suppose,” Jennings sighed, “back the way we came gents.”

“If your flight comes this way sir, we’ll send them on to you.” The Sergeant offered as he pointed to a group of suited pilots as they approached, “Part of yours I think?”

Jennings glanced at the group and chuckled, “Very likely, well Sergeant, carry on and thank you.”

“All part of the job sir,” he tapped his weapon in salute and moved back to his squad.

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Feeling almost feverish, I awoke, wishing I were hung over and that the sweat in my bed was from the berth as being too warm. Waking up, well waking up since my decanting, has been a trial for me. I would dream of doing things as myself, and then wake up and find myself in this self. For those first few seconds where I am not quite freed from sleep’s embrace, I am lost; trying to grasp those past fleeting sensations of rightness. Those memories of being whole and male.

Admittedly it is better than when I wake up screaming into my pillow, sometimes cursing, and yet always afraid. The fear that it’s not over, that I am still a prisoner, and that more torture and rape are coming. Then there is the desperation and hatred of what is, rather; what was and had happened to me. Fighting the urge to give in then, just a fraction, so that they would leave me alone. Though they never left me alone, very long.   

“Ah, you are awake? Yes?” asked an unfamiliar voice.

I looked around the darkened room, “Ah, I suppose. You are?”

“An interested party.”

“Um, sure.” I paused and peered deeper into the dark. “Care to turn on the lights?”

“As a mater of fact, I think this talk should remain shrouded,” he chuckled as I fumbled around for the nurse call box. “Have no fear, Miss Caruthers, if I had wanted to harm you, you would be harmed by now.”

“Some how I don’t find that comforting, should I scream now and just get it over with?”

“Well apart from alarming your guards unnecessarily, it’d only make me wish for ear plugs. So please let me put them in first before doing so, yes?”

I had the distinct feeling that I was being toyed with and it annoyed the hell out of me, “Ok, just who the fuck are you?”

He chuckled, “They did say you were feisty. If you must have a name, try Smith. Completely anonymous, yes?”

I sat quietly for a moment trying to decide if I should get up and kick his ass now or wait a bit and do it later. “And if I should decide to get up and kick your ass on general purposes?”

“Please, no. I detest unnecessary violence.” The was a slight edge of rough humor in his voice, “Though if you really think violence is necessary, please take it into consideration that I am quite good at it. But now, since the Doctor has issues with unmindful damage to her sick bay, let us precede apace. Yes?”

I coughed and fumbled around for a tissue, “Do you really need to end every sentence with a question?”

“Clear communications invariably resolve from the process of asking and answering questions. Perhaps the problem stems from the need to tell stories to establish a verbal history or position of rankings. I can assure you I am your senior in rankings, yet I am not of your armed forces. This is sufficient, yes?”

I frowned at the darkness, “In other words, you are not from around here?”

“Yes, this is correct.” He paused and seemed to tap something against plastic, “You are not well, this is correct, yes?”

“No, I just hang around in medical bays because I enjoy the atmosphere.”

“Defensive humor, implication of unsound thought processes on my part. An interesting social transition but completely unnecessary as I can assure you that my mental processes are unmarred and I am intelligent. However there is some supposition that your mental processes are damaged, yes?”

“That depends on whom you ask,” I paused and sunk back into the berth, “are you some kind of shrink?”

“Ah, you would like a confirmation of title. Yes I am in some vulgar parlances, a shrink. I prefer a non-derogatory title such as Healer.”

“Wonder-fucking-full,” I said clearly enunciating each word as I tried to find a way to not end up grounded due to a bad Psyche-Eval.

“Reproduction is not feasible, but thank you, no.”

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“She may hurt you, you know this. Yes?” asked Dana mimicking the phraseology of the ‘Healer’.

“What? It’s a harmless computer simulated therapist, surely you had to deal with a weird AI from time to time?” Geraldine replied mischievously.

“Physics computers are not allowed to be weird Auntie.”

“No heavens forbid that they play with your precious numbers.”

Dana gave a petulant sigh that was only a partial act, “But Auntie G, they make things work!”

“Yes Dear, though far be it from me to say that you should have a degree worth something.”

“But you do it so well,” she countered drolly.

“I’ve had practice.”

“True.” Dana sighed and studied the scene in the medical bay monitor, “I don’t think this is a quick fix sort of job, pool dunking aside, is she going to go semi-catatonic again?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no. Depends.”

“I think I prefer Quantum Mechanics, The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle should not apply to human hinds.”

“Heisenberg would have made a good Medical Doctor.”

“Well he was good for making my head hurt.” The younger woman sighed and waved her hands dramatically, “Self doubt is not healthy for a pilot, but then the opposite is not too healthy either.”

Geraldine snorted, “I have yet to meet a combat pilot who was not full of themselves.”

“I seem to recall my mother saying you liked a man in uniform…”

“Or better yet out of one…” Dana blushed slightly as her aunt studied her, “really Dana you should know by now. They make great pets as they are partially trained and house broken by the military mindset.”

“I don’t need some overly romantic puppy in my bed Auntie G.”

“No, I seem to recall you liked it rough.”

“Auntie!”

“What?”

“You, you, argh!” Dana sputtered frantically trying to shift gears mentally.

“Yes dear, now go play with your numbers, while I play the great miraculous healer,” Geraldine chided with a wicked smile. 

“Love you too, Auntie G.”

“Yes Dear, now scoot.”

Dana stopped by the door, “Should I send out for one of the Admirals? They should be well seasoned in the military mindset by now.”

“Out you street urchin!” replied Geraldine with a chuckle.

“I’m going, I’m going.”

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Comments   

+1 # Horrid 2016-08-01 01:17
The big problem with Internet fiction is a lot of it just ... ends without an actual ending. This isn't such a bad thing with a lot of the stuff but when it is good, you really wish the author hadn't just decided not to write the rest of the story. Make no mistake, IMHO "After the Ashes" was a great yarn by a great writer. :sad: ... as far as it went. I should add, hey, no one is properly compensating the author and so the author doesn't owe us anything. But still ... :sad:
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