Chapter 22: Warhorse Part 4—The Fourth Year
Date Point: 8y 1m AV
Huntsville Alabama, USA, Earth
Major Owen Powell
“Arright, SOR OPLAN session five. Before we get started, does anybody have any insight or new thoughts that they’d like to add to our existing OPLANs?”
The lads shook their heads. Planning sessions were a moment for Powell to pick his men’s brains, and he relished them. The lads knew their own capabilities best, and they were all intelligent men. If they didn’t have any concerns to raise after last week, then that was good.
“Right.” Powell checked his notes. OPLAN sessions were also a relaxed affair—the were done round a table, more-or-less as equals. Another reason to enjoy them. “So today we’re planning for a Cameron White scenario.”
“A who what now?” Akiyama asked.
Powell clicked the control for the slideshow he’d prepared. “This evil fooker. Cameron White, serial killer, sadist and generally charming bloke. Corti abducted him right out of the prison yard during an exercise break. Sparked quite the fookin’ manhunt and an inquiry…nothing came of ‘em of course because at the time nobody knew we needed to be thinking about alien abductions.”
A list of White’s crimes filled the whole slide, and the two after it. “Dead, nowadays, but not before he terrorized the orbital shipyards at Irbzrk and killed dozens of ETs. Obviously, we can’t allow scenarios like this in the future, if for no other reason than it makes the rest of us look bad.”
The lads nodded. “So, the scenario is: a psychotic human is loose on a space station, killing ETs. We can assume that by the time we go in, Intel have figured out who they are, what they look like, et cetera. Our job will be to preferably capture him. Subdue if possible, kill if necessary, avoid or minimize nonhuman casualties. “
“Fast and hard’s our best bet, then.” Price suggested.
Vandenberg nodded. “I’m inclined to agree. Longer we delay in that situation, the more time our ‘Mr. White’ has to do his thing.”
“Aye,” Powell agreed “but my concern there’s that if we’ve got a corridor full of lots of panicking ETs, so our Aggressor’s going to have his work cut out for him getting down it at speed without splattering them.”
“Guess you’ve never played Rugby, sir.” Legsy commented.
“Running forward really fast and dodging everything’s a Winger’s job.”
“That was your job, was it?”
“Nope, I was a Lock.”
“Or in football, that job would go to a Wide Receiver or a Tight End.” Blaczynski added. “I used to play Tight End for my school team.”
The four Brits—even Powell—gave him an amused look. “We don’t wish to know about your tight end, Starfall.” the major deadpanned.
Blaczynski just rolled his eyes at the chuckle that shimmered round the table, though he joined in. “Understood, sir. Point is, I used to do something like that all the time, so it should be do-able. Might be something we should factor into training.”
“Aye, good shout.” Powell made a note. “So the spearhead is an Aggressor who’s trained on agility in motion…Burgess, figure out how we can fit that training into the routine.”
“I’m going to say we want at least two spearheads, hit our Mr. White from multiple directions, preferably three.” Powell added.
“What’s everyone else do while the spearhead’s charging in?” Firth asked, as BASEBALL nodded and scribbled out some changes to the training regime.
“Minimising ET loss of life and limb.” Stevenson replied.
“Right.” Powell nodded. “That’s the Defenders job—get in the way, screen them from harm, and distract Mr. White so the Aggressors can get up on him. Engineer some cover and clear the exits. Protectors meanwhile will be clearing the civilians out, tending to any wounded. All of that should be covered by your existing training and jobs.”
“Engineering cover would go quick and smooth if we could get our hands on some of those Gaoian shield stick things, sir.” Akiyama said.
“I reckon we can do better.” Sikes commented. “Them things’re small and light enough for ETs. I reckon we could rig up a deployable shield generator of our own.”
“Heck, get me the emitter and capacitors, I could build one, sure.” Akiyama agreed. “I’ve got the rest of what I need on my bench in the workshop.”
“Who’s going to carry it?” Vandenberg asked.
“Humpin’ stuff’s usually WARHORSE’s job.” Sikes drawled.
Adam looked up—he’d been looking through the training plan Burgess was writing, rather than at it. “Hmm?”
Powell frowned at him. “You paying attention, Arés?”
“Uh, yes sir. Humping the shield generator.” Adam sat up. “So, who’s carrying the big stretcher for the Guvnurag patients?”
“Ah, yeah. We’re gonna need that, aren’t we?” Sikes rubbed his jaw. “Burgess?”
BASEBALL didn’t look up. “Sure. Who’s carrying the stasis bags?”
Akiyama chuckled. “You want it so much, looks like you’re carrying it yourself, Calvin.” he said, using Sikes’ first name.
Powell jotted another note. “Right. We’ll break it up for a few minutes. You lot go get some light PT in, restore your focus and we’ll keep planning the scenario after. Akiyama, draw me up a plan for this shield generator.”
There was a muttered circle of ‘yes sir’ and everyone stood to go. As they did so, Legsy caught Powell’s eye and aimed a small nod towards Arés, asking an unspoken question.
There was a subtlety to military etiquette in such situations. Being the CO carried weight, and the more he applied that weight the more heavily it bore down on the men lower on the chain, so Powell just feigned disinterest and turned his attention to his paperwork, not wanting to step in where he wasn’t needed. They had both noticed the problem, and he’d worked with Legsy long enough to know that the matter would be dealt with competently.
He paid oblique attention though, as Legsy tapped Arés on the shoulder on their way out, and their ensuing conversation was perfectly audible through the door.
“Looked like your attention was flagging there, mate.” he heard.
”…Yeah, sorry. Just…“
“Just nothing, mate.” Legsy replied. “We need to stay on top of it when we’re off our game, and that means you stay on top of it too. Understand? I know you just saw Ava again, you miss her, but you gotta deal with it at the proper time, aye? Not on the old man’s.”
“Yeah. You’re right. Sorry.”
“Come on, let’s get that PT done.”
Powell nodded a little satisfied smile and sat back, allowing himself the luxury of putting his boots up on the table.
It was mildly worrying that Arés had showed any kind of distraction like that. The lad was usually so dependable that he might as well have been nicknamed “workhorse”, but then again romantic troubles could throw anybody off.
Legsy had handled him well, though, and would doubtless continue to do so. There was no real cause for concern from a professional point of view.
From a personal one…
Date Point: 8y 2m AV
London, England, Earth
It was Ava’s turn.
“Okay, so the black card is…” she drew one and read it. “’My hobby: Introducing unsuspecting aliens to the joys of’ blank.”
The table rattled as three white cards were slammed down on it, and Ben cursed. According to one of Sean’s house rules, whoever got their card down last had to take a drink.
Given that they’d now been playing for more than an hour, all four of them were pretty well drunk by now. Ben sipped his beer while Ava shuffled the white cards they’d played.
“Okay, so, my hobby is…Introducing unsuspecting aliens to the joys of…a big black dick!”
Charlotte giggled. She was probably the drunkest, and her poker face wasn’t exactly impenetrable at the best of times.
“Introducing aliens to the joys of…Fatal sex adventures!”
Everyone cringed aloud, giving little outraged laughs.
“And introducing aliens to the joys of…The clitoris!” She put the last card down. “What is WITH you guys and sex cards?”
“Oh come on, you’re the one who played ‘fucking in zero gravity’ last round!” Ben told her.”
“Come on, choose.”
Ava laughed and swigged her drink. “Well I mean, hey, how can I pass up the joys of the clitoris?”
Ben cheered and raised his hand, but Charlotte giggled again as the black card was handed to him.
“Darling, I never knew you went that way!” she exclaimed, pantomiming shock.
“Oh, the truth is out…” Ava turned in her seat and looked Charlotte in the eyes with a barely-restrained laugh threatening to burst out of her. “It’s true, I’m a raging dyke for you my love.”
Shaking with mirth, Charlotte reached over and put a delicate hand on her cheek. “All this time, we’ve been denying the obvious…”
Ava reached up and took Charlotte’s hand in her own, affecting a mournful of expression. “We can’t, darling. What if your boyfriend finds out? He’d never approve.”
Ben put his hand up. “Uh, yes he would!”
“No, no, if we’re doing that then to keep it fair you’d have to make out with Sean.” Charlotte said.
“Oi, I’m a twenty-first century man, I’m cool with that.” Sean shrugged.
“Yeah? Dare you.” Ava said.
“I thought we were playing Cards Against Humanity, not Truth or Dare!”
“Right, that fucking does it. Come on, Ben.”
Ben glanced sideways at his girlfriend, who just grinned at him. “Go on!”
“What’s in it for us?!” Ben demanded.
Charlotte just waggled her eyebrows across the table. “Ava?”
Ava hesitated, and Sean was just about to turn the idea down when she surprised all of them by nodding.
To Sean, that sounded like alcohol-fuelled bravado rather than actual enthusiasm. “You sure?” he asked.
He should have known better. Ava gave him her best glare, and he could see her summon her determination. “Are you?”
“Hah!” Sean rolled his eyes, then, to Ben: “Come on then, mate.”
Ben laughed rigidly, then steeled himself, downed the last of his beer, and shuffled round the table. There was an awkward moment of hesitation, and then they just went for it.
Sean had never kissed a dude before but had been idly curious about it for a while. Actually doing it turned out to be…just a kiss. There was a little bit of scratchy stubble involved, but lips were lips. No tongue involved, no big deal in the end. One to scratch off his list of life experiences.
Charlotte had clearly enjoyed it, and fanned herself with her hand. “Whew!”
Ava nodded, having gone decidedly red around the nose and cheeks herself, then shot a nervous glance at Charlotte. “So, uh…”
“Our turn!” Charlotte seemed happy about it at least.
“And keep it fair.” Ben added, having surreptitiously wiped his mouth. “You owe us the same as you got.”
Ava nodded. She looked Charlotte in the eye again, swigged her drink, laughed nervously, and then squeaked a little when Charlotte rolled her eyes and hauled Ava towards her by the front of her shirt.
A few aesthetically pleasing seconds later, Ava just made a stunned little “huh” noise as they parted.
Sean chuckled. “Not as big a deal as you thought it would be?”
“I…guess not.” Ava agreed, then cleared her throat. “Can we, uh…whose go is it?”
Ben seemed to come to his senses a little. “Huh?”
“Your black card, mate.”
“Oh, uh…’In space, only two things are constant: Corti abductions and’ blank.”
Three white cards slapped the table, and this time Ava had to take a drink, which seemed to help her a bit.
They made it through another three black cards after that when only two white cards hit the table, and when they looked at Charlotte she turned out to have fallen asleep.
“Guess that’s game over then.” Ben commented. “We okay to stay here tonight, Sean?”
“Sure, spare bed’s made.”
“Cheers.” Ben gently extracted Charlotte from behind the table and helped her towards the stairs. She made sleepy little protest noises the whole way.
“Who won?” Ava asked.
“You did.” Sean grinned at her. “Turns out our innocent country girl’s got the dirtiest mind of all of us.”
She laughed, and stretched. “Am I okay to stay here tonight too?”
“Sure, if you don’t mind the couch.”
“Thanks…” She stood up, leaned back with her hands on her hips and sighed at the ripple of little pops that shot up her spine, before sitting down on the couch with the rest of her drink in hand. She brushed some hair out of her face and stared at the wall opposite, thoughtfully.
Sean sat beside her and studied her expression for a second. She didn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah, I just…” her frown didn’t vanish, but she made eye contact. “Was that weird?”
“Just a bit of harmless fun.” Sean reassured her. “I dunno, a kiss is just a kiss. I didn’t think it was that big a deal.”
He chuckled “Besides, what was that you said at New Years about fucking nudity not being a big deal? Something like ‘A body is just a body’?”
“Huh? Oh. Yeah, I guess you’re right.” she conceded, and tucked her feet up underneath herself, resting an arm on the back of the couch so she could comfortably face towards him a little bit. “So, what, you remember that whole conversation?”
“Kind of hard not to. You were kind of naked at the time.”
Ava scoffed. “No more than I am right now!”
“You weren’t wearing clothes, though.”
“Yeah, but you couldn’t see anything. Hell, you could see less than you can see right now.” she gestured to her chest, and the little bit of décolletage that she had on show.
“I guess, but…” Sean thought about how to phrase his thoughts.
“I could have…you were only behind the curtain.”
“So, what if I’d, I dunno, pulled the curtain aside?”
Ava adjusted her posture a bit, turning to face him even more. “You wouldn’t, though.”
“Well…no. You’re right, I wouldn’t.” Sean agreed.
“Wh- well, I…” he thought about it some more, sipping his beer to cover the delay. “I guess…well, it’d be…Well, for the same reason I’m not going to just try and rip your clothes off you right now.”
“Exactly!” Ava said. “If you’d done something like that I’d have punched you in the face, left the house, and you’d have lost me as a friend, and probably Charlotte and Ben, too.”
Sean finished his beer and resolved that it was his last—the whole world was more than a little fuzzy and swirly, and even in his drink-addled condition he knew that if he had one more it’d be too many and result in vomit. Besides he felt certain there was some kind of a valid counterargument to what Ava was saying, but it was impossible to think what that might be, past the drunk. “But the shower curtain thing would have been easier.” he ventured.
“Yeah, but it’s not about what’s easy, is it?” Ava swigged the last of her own drink. “It’s about that that’d be wrong. And…I like you Sean, and I trust you. I’m trusting you right now, just by being here with you.”
“I guess I never thought of it that way.” Sean admitted.
“Girls have to think of it that way.” Ava shrugged. “I mean, I’m lucky, I’m fitter than you are, and maybe a bit stronger even, so I’ve got that to back me up. But everything’s, like…you have to try and judge how safe you are.”
“So you trust me enough to take a shower while I’m in the room.”
“Yeah! You’re a good guy, and like I said: I like you. I hadn’t seen you for a couple of weeks, I wanted to catch up.”
“Well…fair enough.” Sean gave up on his search for a counter-argument, and instead raised his empty bottle. “To being comfortable.”
“Damn right!” She tapped her own bottle to his, then leaned shakily forward to set it down on his coffee table with the exaggerated care of the thoroughly intoxicated.
As she did so, the thought crept into Sean’s inebriated brain that maybe he’d said the wrong thing there. “I’ve not…hurt that trust, have I?”
“By thinking of the curtain thing.”
She shook her head. “No, you’re…asking what the rules are, right?” When he nodded, she nodded too. “Well that’s fine. It shows you, like, respect boundaries and stuff. That you respect me. ¿Tú entiendes?”
Sean nodded, and they sat in silence for a bit.
Maybe it was the booze doing the thinking, but he had a few questions he’d been itching to answer for a while, and now seemed like as good an opportunity as any to ask them.
“So…Let’s say we went swimming…” he said.
“In a lake or something.”
“You’re telling me that’d be less of a problem for you than, say, kissing Charlotte?”
“Well…” Ava fidgeted. “I shouldn’t have done that. I mean, I know it wasn’t… anything… but I…I don’t know.” She rubbed her face and got some hair out of the way. “It’s like…if you’re swimming then really a swimsuit is just, like, this nasty lump of wet cloth you have to take home with you when you’re done. And it turns out they’re pretty nasty bacteria traps, too. And, you know, people take their clothes off for showers and baths all the time, or, or the doctor or something, so…You know?”
“Like, that’s what a kiss is for is…it’s for love, or sex. Nudity doesn’t have to be.”
“Right. Erotic. Kisses are automatically erotic. Nudity isn’t.”
“You feeling guilty about that, then?”
“I’m feeling like I should feel guilty.” Ava sighed. “I don’t know. I had fun tonight! Going outside my comfort zone a bit, it’s…thrilling, you know? And it really was just fun and nothing else, so, maybe I’m over-thinking it.”
“Maybe.” Sean agreed.
“Yeah, I think I am.” Ava said. “I mean…it’s not like I kissed you.”
Sean paused, his mind suddenly splitting into three parts. One was imagining exactly that scenario and desperately trying to figure out how to make it happen. Another was wondering exactly what she’d meant by that, and the third was detachedly watching the panic in the other two and the way his pulse had kicked up a notch.
“True…” he agreed, cautiously.
Ava was blushing. “I didn’t mean it like-” she began. “I mean…I just know how you feel about me.”
“Yeah but that’s…that’s out there. We’ve established those boundaries…haven’t we?”
“Right. We’re good.” Ava nodded. “I’m comfortable with that.”
“You’re comfortable with knowing I-”
She interrupted him. “Yeah.”
She laughed a little nervously, then cleared her throat and unnecessarily tidied some hair away again. “…I do too.”
“We’d, we’d, uh. We’d better go to sleep.”
“No, come on, you can’t just drop that one on me and expect-”
“Sean.” She cut him off. After he just stared at her patiently for a few seconds, she sighed. “Okay, you want more? Fine. If I was single, we’d have hooked up months ago. Okay? But I’m not.”
“So why even tell me?”
“Because I’m drunk and that was probably a bad idea.” She unfolded her legs and stood up. “Just…forget I said it.”
“Right.” Sean drew the word out. “Got to save the world by making yourself miserable.”
”…Did you mean to sound so bitter just then?”
“Well how am I supposed to sound?!” He demanded. “The girl I’m crazy about just told me she’s into me too, but she’s still loyal to the guy she never sees? How am I supposed to not be bitter about that?”
“Because it’s not so simple as ‘I never see him’!” Ava retorted. “Even if I DIDN’T have all those letters telling me how much the thought of me keeps him going, we went through…everything together! I’m not just going to throw that away!”
“I know, I know…” Sean sighed. “You’re not a quitter. That’s one of the things I like about you.”
“But you’re still asking me to-”
“No!” Sean stood up this time. “Where have I even ONCE suggested in this conversation you should quit on him? That’s your choice!”
“So you’re saying I should choose?”
“I…” Sean sagged, and sat down again. “I don’t know what I’m saying. I just want you to be happy, that’s all.”
Ava blinked at him, then leaned over and gave him a hug. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too. I don’t want things to be complicated here.” he said. “It just…I care about you.”
“I know. And…You know.”
She gave him a squeeze again then sat back. “We should sleep.”
Sean nodded, stood and opened the big sea chest that had once been his great-grandfather’s, which lived in the bay window and was where he kept the blankets and pillows for anyone sleeping on the couch.
“You gonna be okay?”
“If I’m lucky, I won’t remember making a fool of myself in the morning.” she said, laughing a little desperately.
“You didn’t.” He promised her. “Who knows, maybe clearing the air like that’ll help us…figure things out. You know?”
He handed her the blankets. “G’night, Ava.”
He nodded, turned off the light for her, trudged upstairs, and threw himself onto the bed where he lay and stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars and planets that his grandfather had stuck to the ceiling to turn it into a little boy’s bedroom.
When he woke in the morning, it came as a surprise to him that he’d managed to fall asleep at all.
Date point: 8y 4m AV
Huntsville Alabama, USA, Earth
Tuesdays were acclimation days. On paper, they looked like the easiest day on the schedule—the SOR had a little light PT first thing in the morning to limber them up and wake them, then breakfast, and then…nothing. A day full of “free self-improvement” time, where they were encouraged to pursue whatever creative or educational pursuits they liked.
Rebar spent it playing around in the workshop, making little metal sculptures or structures. Sikes was always nearby, working on his “pets”, a small flotilla of drones of various sizes, from the little buzzy one the size of a quarter right up to “Dronezilla” which he’d originally assembled from scratch using four electric chainsaw motors but which nowadays flew under the unreliable power of four temperamental home-made kinetic thrusters, the tuning and troubleshooting of which seemed to give him no end of fun.
BASEBALL read trauma journals and medical textbooks, working towards a full nursing qualification. Legsy, Murray and Price had all taken to collecting little miniature fantasy armies and painting them, practising their fine dexterity by competing to see who could paint theirs most realistically.
He had figured out early on that the Odyssean gains he was going to make in terms of muscle during his training would, sooner or later, make it hard to find clothing that would fit. And, seeing as he’d learnt to sew in his medic training, it had only made sense to him to translate those skills into modifying his clothes so that he wouldn’t have to wear huge douchebaggy wifebeaters and shorts day in day out.
He would have cut a comical sight anyway, he knew. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was getting legitimately huge nowadays, and the sight of somebody so big sewing would have been odd anyway.
The fact that he was doing it while wearing a twenty million dollar armoured spacesuit just completed the picture.
That was acclimation day: light self-improvement activities while wearing the spacesuit. On the face of it, simple. In practice, merely wearing the suit was exhausting, and acclimation days were about the hardest thing on the schedule. They had to wear EV-MASS for twelve hours straight and try to behave otherwise normally.
Whether they were eating, reading, welding, painting little miniatures or operating a sewing machine, they had to do it ALL while wearing a pressure suit that was designed to use mechanical counterpressure rather than atmosphere to guard them from decompression.
The first few times had been agonising. Nowadays, they were merely tiring, and the worst part was boredom. After years of consuming and burning per day more calories than most people went through in a week, just sitting around was torturous. Every so often, one of the guys HAD to get up and do something physical for a bit.
The result was usually wrestling, or a race round the building, or a “who can throw the medicine ball further” competition, or just beating the shit out of a punching bag. They didn’t last long. With the suit on, such bursts of activity were concentrated and rapidly burned off the pent-up energies, driving them back to their gentler pursuits.
The impressive part was how well Major Powell had adjusted. He almost looked the most comfortable of all of them, though how much of that was an act so as to project the appearance of invulnerability was a subject of constant barracks speculation. Certainly, he strolled around in the suit, rather than thumping gracelessly about like most of the rest of the Operators did, which all by itself suggested that his apparent ease with EV-MASS was more than just acting.
He’d told them to stop leaping to attention when he entered the dormitory, though. Merely standing was sufficient, which they all did the second the door opened and he sauntered in.
He nodded around at them. “Afternoon lads. Fall in.”
Everyone did so, each wondering what the break from routine was about.
“So, I’ve got some news.” Powell told them. “You might like this, Arés – HMS Sharman on Cimbrean has just been selected as the permanent home of the SOR.”
Adam grinned and made a little “success” fist-pull.
“Now for the other half.” Powell continued. “We’ve got a C5 coming down from Maine to take us up to Scotch Creek. It’s scheduled to fly day after tomorrow, and we need every scrap of our equipment, gear and personal effects packed up and ready to load onto that thing as soon as it’s on the tarmac. Acclimation day is therefore cancelled immediately. We’re all getting out of these suits right now and returning them for cleaning and transport. You lot are the strongest here, so PT for the next couple of days is going to consist of doing all the heavy lifting.”
Everyone nodded their understanding—it made sense, there was no point in missing valuable training time during the move when the move itself could pull double-duty.
The team hustled out, Adam among them.
“While I’m really happy to be heading back there, sir, why Cimbrean?” he asked.
“Funny thing about Cimbrean.” Powell told him. “You know we’ve actually got better strategic control over that system than we do over Sol?”
“Aye. ‘We’ meaning the Treaty nations, for a start. Cimbrean’s…legally it’s still a bit dodgy where the colony sits, if it’s its own nation or a British colony, or an Overseas Territory or whatever…but it’s definitely allied. No Russians, no Chinese or what-have-you, no other humans trying to fly in our sky. It’s either ours, or it’s alien.”
“Second,” he added. “Less hidin’ places. Sol’s packed full of fookin’ nooks and crannies. Asteroids, Saturn’s rings, more fookin’ moons than we could count if I ordered every man here to go barefoot. We don’t know what’s lurkin’ around our own home system. Hell, you know the Dominion had a research station around Saturn for years wi’out us noticing?”
“Cimbrean’s more open?”
“Aye. No asteroid belt. One gas giant, and a bloody gigantic one at that, but it’s only got the five moons and no ring. And the other planets are all…they’re not exactly your holiday resort destination. No way to build a listening post there without us noticing.”
Adam held the door for him as they entered the suit maintenance building. “Then there’s the citizens.” Powell continued. “Nobody works on Cimbrean who has any implants in their brain. We’ve got total control over who gets onto that planet—everyone’s accounted for, and everyone’s clean. Zero Hierarchy, guaranteed, and so long as the system shield’s up—and we have no reason to drop it—none are getting down there either.”
“Plus, Cimbrean’s where the ships are.” Legsy commented.
“True, aye.” Powell shrugged. “But that’s politics and OPSEC more’n anything else. Their reaction time to Earth orbit is pretty much the same as for Cimbrean, so they’re posted at Cimbrean A: because it keeps the Russians and China happy, and B: because our intelligence is more secure there.”
Doyle and Hargreaves were waiting at Adam’s station with The Hose.
The Hose was always capitalized, because The Hose was Important. Its job was to pump ice-cold water through the EV-MASS undersuit, cooling the wearer to the point that the heat-activated inner layer of the Midsuit stopped squeezing and the suit could be removed. A few months of experiments with alcohol and antifreeze had allowed them to actually pump in water that was below zero Celcius, securing a fairly quick release.
From the perspective of the suit’s wearer, this was initially a blessing. The water in the suit’s system was invariably lukewarm, burdened as it was with transporting the body heat of a big, muscular, active man. The cold water felt, at first, only pleasantly cool. Then it got cold. Then freezing. The worst part was when it got into the plumbing around the groin, though by that point the operator was invariably shivering and hissing through his teeth anyway.
All things considered, removing the EV-MASS managed the wonderful trick of being even less fun than squeezing into it, and was the reason why the suiting-up room had a rack of hot showers on standby. Staff Sergeant Lazarenko had installed a clothes dryer for good measure, in which the towels were kept hot until ready for use; an act that had earned him the immediate and undying gratitude of all the Operators and a “bloody good thinking, that man” from Powell.
“Speaking of the ships.” the Major continued, probably so as to distract himself from the chill, “We’ve got ourselves a ride to go with the new digs. After the freighter rescue, the Admiralty decided that HMS Caledonia and HMS Myrmidon needed refitting and that those fancy ET-tech cloaking devices of theirs could be put to better use.”
“So, they’re our ride now?” Firth asked.
“Caledonia is.” Powell gritted his teeth as the water really started to get cold, and forged ahead. “They converted those big flight decks of hers—sealed one of them up entirely, compartmentalized it, now it’s a hospital, good for humans and aliens. The other deck’s for us lot to use as a forward operating base.”
“And Myrmidon?” Adam asked.
“Her flight decks have been completely sealed up and filled with capacitor banks.” Powell said. “The idea is for her to serve as a flying battery for the Type Twos, give ‘em…” Adam knew exactly why he hesitated. The cold was biting now, they were nearly at suits off. “some…actual staying power: Rather than having to jump out every few minutes to recharge off a nearby star, now Myrmidon can, uh…” he swallowed, and shivered. “Waaurrr. Can, uh, can keep ‘em topped up.”
“Suit off, Major.” Powell’s lead tech said. Powell nodded and fumbled at the touchscreen mounted on the inside of his wrist, entering the suit release code with shaking fingers.
“Suit off, WARHORSE.” Hargreaves echoed, and Adam nodded, glad to follow Powell’s example. He entered the code, the pelvic seal disengaged and he leant forward and thrust his arms over his head. Doyle reached up from behind to disconnect the hoses, then moved round to the front and wriggled his fingers down either side of Adam’s head to protect his ears. Hargreaves braced a foot on his desk and heaved, Adam pulled backwards, and in an instant of relief that was almost orgasmic, the suit’s torso popped off of him in a rush.
After that, getting out of the suit legs was easy. Adam had only to lie down—a yoga mat had been brought in for exactly that purpose, thrust his legs in the air, let the techs take his ankles, lift his butt off the floor and then point his toes as Doyle and Hargreaves hauled on the suit, which again slithered off him to his profound relief.
As Doyle muscled the two suit halves back into place on their rack, Hargreaves hooked up the waste water hose and activated the suction, draining the Undersuit’s water conduits in about twenty seconds, which Adam used to remove his neck brace, and that was it. The hard part was over.
The Undersuit, sadly, was single-use. It may have been by far the cheapest part of the whole rig, but it still felt kind of wrong to have to destroy something that cost as much as a television in order to get out of it, which he did with the help of the techs and their safety blades, which hooked over the suit’s material and sliced easily through it from the collar to the wrist, and then back up from wrist to armpit and then down to the waist.
Adam had salvaged some of the discarded undersuit fabric for what the guys constantly referred to as his ‘dressmaking’.
The rest of the disrobing process fell to Adam, who wasted no time in getting out of the constricting and freezing cold garment as quickly as he could.
He’d been amused at first how awkward some of the guys were over their resulting nudity. Sure, some of the techs were women, but in the SOR’s case the military’s innate pragmatism had won out over the military’s innate conservatism—the technicians needed to be, in academic and technical terms, every bit as highly trained and high-achieving as the operators themselves. That high bar to entry had forced them to take whoever was qualified without regard for gender.
As ever, the stress, uncertainty and review hearings had all turned out to be a waste of time: The enlisted personnel just got on with their jobs.
Besides the sheer joy and lightness of no longer being squeezed by upwards of a hundred pounds of spacesuit was too liberating for him to have cared, even if lake-swimming on Cimbrean hadn’t cured him of that particular obsolete taboo years ago. He was entirely unselfconscious nowadays, even if some of the others weren’t yet.
Doyle and Hargreaves returned his high-fives and then got on with cleaning and maintaining the suit as Adam hit the showers.
This bit was always luxury time. Not even Powell seemed to have the willpower to resist the hot water and warm towel, and in any case, it was probably good for the muscles to get some thorough massage and relaxation before moving on to anything else. None of the guys spoke as they soaked—they just basked, then dried off and padded one-by-one back through into the locker room to retrieve their working clothes.
“Right.” Powell said, as the last straggler—Stevenson, as always—was lacing up his boots. “You’ve got an hour to pack your personal effects, then Lunch, then we’re on to stowing all the gym equipment. I’ll see you there.”
The “yes sir” sounded enthusiastic and motivated, to Adam’s ears. He knew his own was.
After all: He was going home.
“Sean, I’m thinking of asking Charlotte to marry me, okay? I’m the wrong guy to ask on whether I think you should be encouraging Ava to break up with her fella.”
Sean could only shake his head vigorously. “That makes you perfect.” he countered. “You know what’s at stake.”
Ben exhaled at length through his nose, shaking his head. “I guess…” he paused to think, resting his thumb thoughtfully on the end of his nose before continuing.
”…Look, between you and me, I kind of hate this Adam bloke’s guts.” he confided. “I don’t know WHY she puts up with him, and I think it’s only a matter of time before he really hurts her.”
Sean nodded, listening.
“But…you know, this is Ava we’re talking about. She’s not stupid, man.” Ben shrugged. “You’ve said it yourself, you wish you had half her brain.”
“Yeah, but there’s a difference between smart and…smart isn’t there?” Sean pointed out.
“I’m just saying…maybe you should trust her to know what she’s about.”
Sean sipped his cup of tea. “Dude, if I asked her why she loves this Adam guy? I know exactly what she’d say.” he said, setting it down.
“She’d bang on about how he’s ‘doing something amazing’ and how they ‘went through a lot together’ and… you know, all that stuff we’ve heard before, right?”
“From what she’s told us…do you know ANYTHING about what this chap’s like as a person?”
Ben hesitated. “Well, he’s…She says he’s a nice guy, and that he’s…strong…” he suggested, lamely.
“Great. Nice. Wonderful! Is that all he is, do you think?”
“Well…no, there’s got to be more to him than that, hasn’t there?”
“If there is, she’s never breathed a word of it to me.” Sean shrugged. “I wonder if she even knows what he’s like any more?”
“Could be…I don’t know, does the military change people that much?”
“He went into it when they were seventeen, Ben. They were last really together—like, full-time together—when they were sixteen. Are you the same as you were back then?”
”…No, I guess I’m not.”
“Think he is?”
Ben didn’t answer until both their cups of tea were almost completely drained. “You know what?” he asked, finally. “I think you’re right. I think you need to go for it.”
“I’m shit-scared, Ben. She might never talk to me again.”
“You said you want her to be happy, though…?”
“Well, if she does that then I guess that’ll mean she IS happy, deep down. Won’t it?” Ben pointed out.
”…I’m still allowed to hate this Adam guy even if she does-” Sean paused. “Right?”
“Sean, you can be as envious of that son of a bitch as you want.” Ben patted him on the shoulder. “I’ve got your back.”
Sean nodded, and stood. Ben stood with him, and they parted ways on the doorstep as Sean locked up his house.
”…Wish me luck?” he requested, pocketing the keys.
Ben gave him a hug. “Go find out, man.”
Ava’s phone moved half an inch across her desk with a buzz and announced: “Message from Sean.”
The message was very simple. It was a selfie of Sean standing outside her front door, holding up a plastic bag with some bottles in it.
She laughed a little, set her tablet aside and got up to let him in.
“I got beer for me, some kind of Bacardi fruit…thing for you.” he said, by way of a hello, and held up the Bacardi fruit…thing delicately between thumb and index finger, as if it was a soiled diaper or something similarly unpleasant.
“What’s the occasion?” Ava asked, smiling nervously as she took it. Things had been a little awkward between them for nearly a month now, made all the worse by the nagging part of her brain that really, really missed being able to feel relaxed around him being at war with the part of her brain that really, really got all distracted and excited in his company.
“It’s called ‘hanging out,’ duck, maybe you’ve heard of it?”
“I’m used to hanging out involving at least two more people.” She said, letting him into the kitchen and selecting a glass for her drink.
“This is true.” Sean conceded. “But Ben’s working on his dissertation and Charlotte lives here.”
“She’s working on her dissertation.” Ava told him. “And I’m working on mine. Actually, shouldn’t you be working on yours?”
“It’s not due for another two months!” he protested.
“Great. That means you only have to write, like, three hundred words a day. Knowing you, you’ve typed more words than that on Facebook so far today.”
“Well, if people will insist on being wrong on the Internet…” he smirked, and tapped their drinks together.
“Really though,” he added “Is there that much difference between three hundred words today and five hundred tomorrow?”
“But it’s never just five hundred words tomorrow, is it?” Ava pointed out. “It’s no words tomorrow either and seven hundred on Thursday. And then you might as well call it two thousand on the weekend, and before you know it you’ll be trying to write the whole thing at four in the morning the day it’s due. My way, I get it done two weeks early, no stress and I can improve it as I go.”
“So responsible.” he teased.
“Somebody has to be.” she retorted. “Besides, ‘responsible’ is the easy way. I like the easy way.”
“I suppose I can see why.” Sean mused, after sipping his beer again. “You’ve had it quite hard, after all”
Ava made an incredulous little laugh. “Only somebody as…as English as you could call it ‘quite hard.‘”
“No, it’s fine. Yes, I’ve had it ‘quite hard.’ My home city was only blown up by aliens. My parents and school friends are only dead. I only witnessed my best friend’s murder. My boyfriend’s only gone away for years to become a space marine. I’ve definitely had it ‘quite hard,’ thank you for noticing!”
Sean was silent for a minute until she cooled off again, which took nearly a third of her glass. “And you’re still giving me advice on how to do my coursework properly.” he added.
“Somebody has to.” she repeated, though she offered him an apologetic little smile. “I’m sorry, I just…”
“No, I’m sorry.” Sean interrupted. He moved his chair a little closer to hers. “You’re right, I shouldn’t pretend like I know everything you’ve gone through.”
She paused, then smiled, a rare, real, sad smile with her walls down for just a few seconds. “Thanks, Sean.”
Sean toasted her with his beer again, then put it down abruptly and sat forward. “Hey, I know a joke you might like.” he said.
Ava paused in the middle of sipping her own drink. “Okay…?”
“So, a man goes to see the doctor, and he says ‘Doctor, I really need your help. I’ve been feeling so bleak and depressed lately, I don’t know what to do!” The doctor smiles and says. ‘I know just what you need. The Great Pagliacci is in town this week, the funniest clown who ever lived! Go see him, and you will see that everything is alright.’”
“A funny clown? Impossible.” Ava noted.
“Ahahaha.” Sean enunciated the dry laugh. “Anyway, the man just breaks down in tears right there in the office. ‘But doctor!’ he cries: ‘I AM the Great Pagliacci!’”
What Ava produced in reaction wasn’t really a laugh. It was too short, and the amusement behind it was the quiet humour of bitter recognition, but it seemed to please Sean nonetheless, who shuffled a little closer.
“That’s…not a great joke.” she said, unconsciously tucking a curl of hair behind her ear to look at him.
“I wasn’t telling it to be funny, duck.” Sean told her. “I’m making a point.”
“Right. You’re saying I need to look after myself, first?”
“You’ve made that point before.”
“Yeah but…I thought, maybe I should follow my own advice.”
He kissed her.
Five perfect seconds later, when their lips parted, she was too stunned to do more than raise a few disjointed objections.
“We- Uh, m-maybe that…”
She got no further as Sean kissed her again, and it was another several seconds before she finally worked up the presence of mind to put two hands on his chest and shove him right off his chair, leaping to her feet and turning away, too confused by the cluster bomb of emotions that had hit her to even look at him.
Behind her, she heard Sean’s breathing slow. Very, very carefully, he picked himself up off the floor and straightened his clothing. “I’m sorry” he said. “I just…I needed to know, one way or the other.”
She turned to face him, hunched over her folded arms. “You should…Probably go.” she told him.
He did as she suggested, turning and shuffling out of the kitchen without a backwards glance and with his fists balled. Ava waited until she heard the front door close and lock behind him before allowing herself the luxury of collapsing back into her seat, gripping two fistfuls of her hair, and beating herself up.
Some minutes later, Charlotte poked her head round the door, rushed to her side, and provided a much-needed shoulder for her to soak.
Scott Air Force Base, St. Clair County, Illinois, USA, Earth
Baby I know its your rest day today, call me when you can please xx
BASEBALL considered the text message for several seconds before offering his sage and experienced wisdom.
“Sounds serious, bro.”
“Yeah.” Adam nodded, and jerked his head toward the back of the plane. “I’ll be back there.”
They were on stopover at Scott AFB, after a full two days of loading every scrap of the SOR’s accumulated gear and personal effects onto the Galaxy. Huge as a C5’s lift and fuel capacities were, the gym gear alone accounted for several tonnes which, when coupled with the reinforced furniture, the armory, the lucky reinforced Gravball goal, not to mention the suits, protective and maintenance equipment for the suits, plus the techs and all THEIR stuff…
While a Galaxy had plenty of seating on the upper deck, the operators were all big enough to find the seats uncomfortably small, and they were prone to overheating anyway. Noisy as it was, the cargo deck was pleasantly cold, and so they’d set up a sort of nest in one of the few corners not completely given over to cargo, and were playing Texas Hold ‘em.
It had taken a whale-sized gulp of fuel just to get them aloft. Hence the stopover in Illinois and the hour of leisure time while the plane was checked, fuelled and took on a few items of cargo bound for HMS Sharman.
The hell with the cost of international calls. He could afford it, and she needed him.
He smiled. She sounded so cute when she was tired. “Ava? Did I wake you, babe?”
”…It’s three in the morning baby.” she griped, just a little. “I mean, I’m real glad to hear from you but why didn’t you call sooner?”
“I’m on a plane.” he explained. “We just landed in Illinois.”
“Oh…what are you doing on a plane in Illinois?”
“It’s refuelling. We’re on our way up to Scotch Creek.”
“Why are you–?” There was a sharp rustling of bedding on her end of the line. “Are you going back to Cimbrean?!”
“Yeah! The SOR’s going to be permanently posted there! Isn’t that cool?”
“Adam, when the hell were you planning on telling me this?!”
“First chance I got!” Adam said. “Which is now.”
“What about- what about your contract? What’s going on with that?” She asked, Adam frowned, wondering what was getting her so worked up.
“I re-enlisted. They offered us this amazing homesteading incentive seeing as Folctha’s going to be the SOR’s permanent home and, you know, it’s home, so–”
“Homesteading incentive?” Ava interrupted him.
“Yeah! It’s this big grant and maybe a low-interest loan for…you know, building a life out there. Buying a house or whatever. All they need from me is a few more years.”
”…How many years, Adam?”
“Uh…for the full grant, they want a career enlistment.”
“Which is…how long?”
“Uh…” he said sheepishly, “Well, I mean it’s…twenty years total commitment. But that includes–”
“TWENTY YEARS?!” Adam jerked the phone away from his ear and winced. He could still hear her anyway. “You re-enlisted for twenty years and you’re on a plane going back to Cimbrean where I won’t be able to call you or anything and you’re only telling me now?!”
“Baby,” he argued. “That includes what I’ve already done, so it’s only sixteen–”
There was a sharp sound and the line went dead. “Ava? Baby? Hello?”
Re-dialling sent him straight to her answerphone. He tried twice more just in case, then gave up and turned the phone off in disgust, and mooched back over to where the guys were lying around in one of the few clear spaces on the plane.
“You guys had a fight?” Stevenson asked.
“Yeah. Beats the fuck out of me why though.” Adam smashed down onto the deck, cross-legged. “I mean, Cimbrean’s home for us, I thought she’d be delighted!”
“Uh-huh.” Legsy muttered, in a noise that was equal parts agreement and scepticism. “And what did she actually want to talk to you about?”
Adam paused. “Well, uh…I mean, I, um…”
Every last one of his buddies pantomimed and voiced dismay. Legsy just pressed three fingers to his forehead and looked pained. “You fuckin’ tit.” he groaned.
Adam looked around at their reactions, then down at his knees. “…I really suck at this, huh?”
“Brother.” BASEBALL said, putting an arm round him. “She’s a goddamn saint for putting up with your stupid ass.”
‘Saint’ Ava had in fact thrown her phone at the wall hard enough to wreck it and was now patrolling furiously around the room, desperate to rant and scream and throw more things and sweep her possessions dramatically onto the floor, and she was only holding herself back because she didn’t want to wake Charlotte and Ben in the next room.
She settled for half an hour of angry tears as she spun snarling circles in the middle of the room, playing out sotto voce all of the vicious, hateful thoughts about Adam that she would have really, REALLY liked to say to his face.
She called him an idiot, a jackass, a fucking dickhead, an inconsiderate cocksucker, a selfish son of a fucking whore and worse. She described in vivid and scatological Spanish exactly what she would do with his guts once she’d finished extracting them, between bouts of sitting on her bed raking her scalp with her fingernails and wanting, wishing, NEEDING to punch him as hard as she possibly could right in his stupid sexy puppy-dog face.
In the end, she was so hoarse and exhausted from the outburst that she found herself waking up at a misty six am with no idea of where to go or what to do or who to talk to.
She sat up, blinked at the sad remains of her phone in the middle of the floor, and more out of hopelessness than anything else, held down the power button.
To her utter astonishment, smashed screen or not, it turned on and booted up. She nearly dismissed the three missed calls from Adam, but instead she sat and stared at them for nearly twenty minutes before finally arriving at a decision. One that was, she considered, perfectly reasonable, and entirely fair and balanced.
She stood, took a shower, brushed her teeth, put on her clothes, grabbed her keys and the damaged device, and left the room.
Sean’s phone rang five times before he swiped the green control to answer. Three of those rings were him staring at the name on screen.
He answered cautiously. “Hey.”
“I uh…I was worried I wouldn’t hear from you again. After…”
“That was…” Ava sighed down the phone. ”…We need to talk about it.”
“I’ll come over.”
“Or you could just let me in. It’s…kinda cold out here.”
He frowned, leaned over and twitched the curtain aside. Ava gave him a sheepish wave through the glass. She was hovering outside his front door, bobbing, fidgeting and pacing.
He let her in. “You could have just knocked…”
“Yeah.” she agreed, but shrugged. “Didn’t, though.”
“What happened to your phone?”
”…Cup of tea?”
She sighed a sort of laugh. “Sure.”
By the time the tea was made, she’d warmed up a bit on the couch, using the chocolate-brown throw for a blanket.
“So, uh…look, I’m sorry-” he began.
“No, I understand.” Ava told him. “In fact…I think you were right. I think we needed that question answered.”
Sean sat back, feeling his pulse raise a good notch. “Are you saying…What are you saying?”
Ava stood up and paced the room, still draped in the throw. “Look…You’re right. I don’t…I’ve been lonely as fuck for a long time, and I’m tired of being jerked around and taken for granted.” she told him. “And you…you make all of that better. I’m not lonely around you, and I know you don’t take me for granted.”
She sighed. “But for all the shit he puts me through, I really do love Adam with all my heart, and he’s really doing something amazing. Okay? And I know that part of what keeps him going is…well, me.”
Sean just listened to her.
“But at the same time…You’re right. I’ve got to live for myself a bit, don’t I? I’ve got to…to be happy and fulfilled myself or else…I know I’m just going to take it out on him one day. I can’t afford to resent him, and I don’t want to. But right now I do.”
“I think I get you.” Sean said.
“Do you?” she asked. It was neither skeptical nor a challenge, nor even a plea for him to say what she wanted to hear. Just an honest query.
It was Sean’s turn to stand up, and he put his hands on her upper arms, rubbing gently. “Ava…You know bloody well how I feel about you. I’m not asking for forever, I just…I want you to feel loved. That’s all. There’s room for more love in your life, isn’t there?”
She looked down, then away, then up at his face again. There were a tense few seconds of thoughtful silence.
“Ground rules.” she announced, at last.
“This is going to end. I can put an exact date on it, okay? After I’ve graduated, and I go back to CImbrean, that’s it. If you can’t live with that, then we don’t do this and I guess we both get friendzoned.”
“That’s rule one.” Sean nodded.
“Rule two…” She continued. “We enjoy it. As much as we can, for as long as we’ve got.”
“Rule three.” Sean told her, nodding. “This is about you.”
Ava hesitated “Sean, I-” she began.
“No, shut up. Look, I…fuck it, I love you. Bit early maybe to tell you that, but it’s been, what…three years, hasn’t it? Since we met.”
“Ava. This is about you. End of discussion, okay? What I want from us is for you to not feel lonely and neglected any more. That’s all, I promise.”
“Just stop being the Great Pagliacci for once and let somebody do something for YOU, okay?! Let yourself be selfish fo-!”
She kissed him.
Several minutes later, hair and clothing thoroughly disrupted, they finally paused, breathing heavily. She gulped down a sigh, and settled her head onto his chest, wriggling down until they were a warm knot of limbs on the couch.
Sean just held her and played gently with her hair, until she fell asleep.
He knew how she felt. He hadn’t slept much last night either.
A few minutes after she fell asleep, he did as well.
Date point: 8y 4m AV
HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
John “BASEBALL” Burgess
Adam had been in a bad way the whole trip. Several more calls to Ava’s phone once they had landed in Scotch Creek had gone to messages, and they’d just been able to hear him sounding despondent and desperate as he finally gave up and left her a voicemail, begging her to email him.
It was heart-wrenching. The Spaceborne Operators were brothers nowadays, closer than, but Adam—being the youngest on the team and the only one in a permanent relationship—definitely inspired the strongest brotherly instincts. He was usually the composed and calm one too, always happy to join in with the rough-housing and free-flowing loving insults, but never going overboard.
Seeing him so distressed had killed all of that.
But that had to stop now. The long journey was over now, and BASEBALL had to get his best friend back into soldier mode. “You okay?”
“I dunno man.” Adam swallowed. Hell, his eyes were red around the edge. “I think I really fucked up this time. I think I fucked up bad.”
“Brother, you didn’t do shit.” BASEBALL grabbed Adam’s bag from him. “The old man says we’re coming to Cimbrean, we’re coming to Cimbrean. Not your fault we’re here.”
“I know, but…she’s right, I shoulda told her sooner.”
“When? We found out about this three days ago, we’ve been loading our shit the whole time since. You told her first chance you got, man.”
Adam didn’t say anything, he just nodded helplessly.
“Come on.” BASEBALL slapped him on the back. “We got shit to unload and get stowed and then it’s the weekend. Get your mind off it, huh?”
Hard work was always a good balm for a troubled mind, and nobody could work harder than Protectors. By the time all the pallets had been cleared out of the Jump Array and moved to their respective final destinations, by the time the Operators had been shown to their new barrack and had got their possessions tidied away, and by the time the SOR was finally ensconced and ready to get on with business, Adam had relaxed a little, even cracked a smile and a joke.
It wasn’t until they were squared away and he got a chance to sign into the barracks wifi that he finally truly settled, though, because there was an email waiting for him.
John read it over his shoulder, at Adam’s invitation—practically a request to have somebody holding his hand in case of the worst.
“I’m sorry baby. If that was your first chance to tell me then yeah, I shouldn’t have blown up like I did. I’m just really frustrated sometimes. I’ll try and find some way to keep on top of it. Love you – Ava.” he read.
Adam was sighing with relief. “She’s a saint, you’re right.”
Outwardly, John just nodded, and patted his buddy on the shoulder, leaving him to write his return.
Legsy was reclining on the new couch, which was already groaning under the weight. They’d all but destroyed the last couch through piling onto it en masse for movie night, and roughhousing, and this one looked to be rather less sturdy—Vandenberg was already talking about welding together something more appropriate out of a material that was up to spec, like steel I-beam.
“How is ‘e?”
“Got an email. She said sorry for getting mad, says she’s gonna try to keep on top of it…” John vaulted the back of the couch to sit down and ignored the way it creaked as he landed.
“Don’t know if I buy that.” Legsy grunted.
“Well, I mean…” John shrugged. “She’s pretty fucking dedicated to him.”
“Too fuckin’ dedicated.” Legsy agreed. “I dunno mate, she can’t just go on writing off their fights and saying it’s fine, can she?”
“When does she graduate? Year and a half?”
“Somethin’ like that.” Legsy agreed. “You think she’s going to tough on through then have it out with ‘im once she’s back here?”
“I hope so.”
“Difficult, if she’s struggling now…”
“You know, if you two worry about WARHORSE’s love life too much, we’re gonna wind up with THREE guys off their game.” Vandenberg commented, joining them.
“He’ll be okay for now.” BASEBALL said. “He just got a making up email.”
“Good, ‘cause I know the old man’s noticed.” Rebar joined them on the couch, which was already about at its limit. Something cracked deep inside it and it sagged under their combined weight. None of them paid any attention.
”‘E’s not gonna weigh in unless Adam actually fucks up, though.” Legsy said. “Anyway, all we can do is keep him on task, let it all sort itself out, one way or another.”
“Yyyep.” BASEBALL shifted his seat a bit, and the couch finally gave up,—with a crackle of disintegrating wood, it tilted to one side and folded up like a house of cards.
There was a long silence. “…Base?”
“You got a medkit?”
“Something sharp’s stabbed into my bum.” Legsy informed them. “I think it’s a screw.”
“Sounds serious, Base.” Rebar said, hauling himself to his feet.
“Yeah, can’t have the NCOIC getting screwed in the ass.” John agreed, standing up himself. This earned a groan from the two older men, and a middle finger from Legsy. “Alright, I’ll patch up your butt.”
Vandenberg contemplated the wreckage. “Guess I’ll get started on some actual furniture…Hey, Sikes!”
Snapshot’s voice floated out of his room. “Yeah?”
“Gimme a hand willya? The couch just gave and screwed Legsy in the ass!”
”…What?” Sikes’ head poked round the corner, as did everyone else’s with varying expressions of confusion and delight.
“You big bastards broke it already?” Murray grinned.
“Yeah, that’s right, laugh at the man with a bit of metal stickin’ out of his bum.” Legsy grumbled, wincing as he gingerly lifted himself out of the couch wreckage with his hand pressed to his left buttock.
BASEBALL just chuckled and went to fetch his medkit, while the Defenders put their heads together on designing a new couch. He passed Adam on the way, who was leaning against his door, smirking.
He gave his friend a slap on the shoulder and carried on.
Whatever was going on with Ava, Adam at least was okay. That was all they could ask for.
Date Point: 8y 5m AV
London, England, Earth
Ava had once told Sean that she had learned early on in practicing her photography that rain didn’t show up well on camera. It could be the wettest, most miserable day ever, but all you actually got in the picture was a general sense of grey dampness. Rain in movies and on TV had to be hugely exaggerated to even show up.
Today, the rain would have shown up without the exaggeration.
Which meant that even at a dead run, the hundred yards or so between the bus stop and Sean’s house was more than enough time for every inch of them both to get comprehensively drenched. Sean’s shaking hands didn’t help matter, as he fumbled and dropped the keys, and by the time they’d managed to barge through the door and into the hallway they were both spitting water and shivering.
Other than that, it had been a successful date. They’d gone to a movie, eaten at Frankie and Benny’s, and had been strolling round the park when the first roll of thunder had driven them underground.
Sean was the first to speak. Or pant. “Jesus…CHRIST!”
“I hear ya. We shoulda got a cab” Ava clutched at her elbows and hugged over. She wasn’t out of breath, but she had never coped well with the cold. “Yuuuurgh.”
“Yeah.” Sean looked at her and made a calculation about size “I’ve got some dry clothes upstairs if you want. I’ll just shove everything in the tumble dryer.”
“You mean that thing works?”
“Course it does!” Sean said.
“You never use it.”
“Using the washing line’s just cheaper though, innit?”
He kicked off his shoes, stripped sodden socks onto the hallway tiles, and grumbled his way into kitchen. “Cup of tea?” he asked.
“God yes. Please.” Ava called through. A few seconds later she added “Man, everything’s wet.”
“Yeah, give me a minute and I’ll go get you something to wear while the kettle’s on.” Sean told her, filling it.
“It’s okay, I’ll find something!” she called, and he heard her trot upstairs.
“Hey, what about your clothes!?” he called.
“They’re by the door!”
Sean frowned and leaned back to look out into the hallway. Sure enough, there was a sad little pile of wet cloth slapped down on the tiles by the door, and it wasn’t just the outers. There was a bra and underwear in there too.
He blinked, coughed, and considered what that meant.
Probably nothing, he decided. Ava wasn’t the type to drop hints that subtle—she was more of the “lean against the door frame wearing goosebumps and a smile” school of thought when it came to the subtle game of seduction. That lumbering meathead Adam had forced her to be refreshingly direct.
She came back down a few minutes later with her hair wrapped in a towel and wearing one of his T-shirts, a pair of his board-shorts, and a black hoodie he’d picked up at Reading Festival years ago.
“Warming up.” she replied, and took her mug of tea. “You’ve still not changed?”
“Well, if you’re okay with me wandering the house naked…”
“Why not? It’s your house.”
“Well, yeah, but-”
She leaned against the fridge. “But what?”
“Ah, never mind. It’s too cold round here. I’ma go get changed.”
She’d set up on the couch and was wrapped up in a throw with the TV on by the time he came downstairs again. When he sat next to her, she just snuggled up and put her head on his hip.
He put his arm around her. “You okay?”
“I put the heating on for a blast.”
They sat in silence for a while, watching the news.
”–criticized by some civil activists in India, where eighty million people still lack access to clean drinking water. However India’s minister of water resources, Suresh Gadkari, was supportive of the idea.”
“The greatest obstacle still bedevilling our efforts at universal access to sanitation and safe drinking water continues to be population. The declining cost of energy has helped us reach more people and improve their access to basic hygiene, but the fact is that our population is still growing, putting ever more strain on our already-overworked natural resources. If however we can encourage people to emigrate to an alien world where the water resources can be properly managed from the start, then that will take off the pressure here on Earth and allow us, for the first time ever, to seriously talk about reaching one hundred percent access to clean water. I’m personally very excited.”
“India and China aren’t the only nations interested in emulating the example set by Folctha, however. The USA and Russia have both also expressed interest in founding colonies of their own, and EU ministers in Brussels have also been considering proposals for a colony, despite some outspoken opposition.”
“Humanity has already spread to one world and killed it. Millions of unique alien species, extinct because of just one person. Now, this era of the Earth’s geological history is already known as the “anthropocene” and it’s defined by a mass extinction event. Wherever we go, we kill things! And until we get that basic problem sorted out, then I don’t care HOW many new antibiotics or whatever we find on these alien worlds, we’ve got no business going out there!”
French EU minister Noémie Perrin said that although such concerns were well-founded, there were still grounds for optimism.
“Bien sûr, nous devons être prudents, mais…<Of course we need to be cautious, but I don’t think that we will learn anything if we remain stuck on one planet. Already, contact with alien life promises to end our dependence on fossil fuels and has–”
Ava shifted against him. “Hey, Sean?”
He looked left, and she kissed him.
It was a gentle kiss, accompanied by a happy sigh, and it lasted for a good few warm and comfortable seconds. Ava didn’t kiss him all that often, but when she did…!
When it was over, he gave her a little squeeze. “Mmm. That was nice. What was it for?”
“You just make me feel loved.”
“By sitting here and watching the news with you?”
“By holding me, wafer-thin.” she smiled, then pulled herself up, put a hand on the back of his head and kissed him again.
And a third time, just below his ear, a move which he answered by putting a thumb on her chin, gently pushing her to tilt her head up, and kissing her throat, then a little lower on her throat, and a little lower still…
She grabbed his hand, worrying him that he’d gone too far, but instead she guided it up onto her chest and…oh, yeah. She wasn’t wearing a bra, was she? He could feel something small and hard press against his palm, through the cloth. Fuck that cloth. He lowered his hand, unzipped the hoodie, grabbed the bottom of her t-shirt and pulled it up, awarding himself a mental medal at the noise she made when he put his lips and tongue to work on her nipple instead.
Her hands weren’t idle, either. They roamed his back, curled in his hair, hauled up on his own clothing until he finally had to pull back and let her pull his shirt off.
She made a little laugh, and he was still trying to figure out if it was a mocking sound or a happy one when one of those roaming hands traced down his centre-line, from his chest, to his tummy, to his belt buckle, then just a little lower where she stopped, and pressed down, stopping his breath for an instant.
They paused, both breathing heavily, and then there was a new expression in her eye, a witchy one that he’d never seen there before.
She leaned forward, and kissed his throat. Then his chest. Then a little lower…and a little lower…
And a little lower.
Date Point: 8y 6m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches.
Major Rylee Jackson
“Jeez! Powell, you got pretty!”
The advantage to having been promoted at about the same time as the SOR’s commanding officer was that Rylee could still crack a joke like that on seeing him for the first time in years.
That said, it wasn’t truly a joke. The SOR’s Crue-D regime had clearly agreed with Powell who, in addition to packing on the muscle, had shed a few apparent years. Several of the deep stress lines in his face were smoothed out, his hairline had advanced back down into territory it had once abandoned, and his nose was transformed– the old crooked break was now fine, strong and straight.
“Fookin’ everybody’s sayin’ that nowadays.” He’d been working on some of the endless pile of paperwork that was any commander’s lot, and stood up to greet her. “I didn’t exactly sign up for the fountain of youth, mind.”
“Got any for me?”
“You don’t need it.”
Surprise caused Rylee to shift her weight onto her back foot, and her smile widened a notch. “My God, are you being charming too? That stuff really IS a miracle drug!”
He actually chuckled. “Good to see you, Jackson. Congratulations on the oak leaf.”
“Good to see you. Congratulations on the crown.”
Powell gestured to a seat, inviting her to sit. “Cup of tea? Coffee?”
“Coffee’d be nice, thankyou.” She settled onto the offered seat. “Straight black.”
Powell nodded, and hit the kettle’s switch.
“So you’re on a PR tour.” he said, rummaging through the cupboard beneath it to retrieve a sturdy cafetiere and a bag of decent-looking coffee. “The generals finally decided to shove you back into the limelight?”
“Eh, it’s a promotion fitness thing.” Rylee sighed. “Gotta keep climbing the ladder or else they kick you off it.”
“And I’m the one who flew FTL first, so of course I get to dick around in front of the cameras for a few months rather than do something useful. You know they want me to do a fucking documentary?”
“Dreadful.” Powell deadpanned.
“End of the world!” Rylee rolled her eyes skywards, though she smiled. “Anyway, I figured if I took on a unit that’s currently all classified and stuff then by the time the footage is de-classified I won’t have to answer stupid questions about it.”
“Hence why you’ve come to us.”
“I’d take it as a favor.” she said, a little less animatedly.
“Aye, I don’t see why not.” Powell agreed, spooning a generous measure of coffee grounds into the cafetiere. “Never know when I might need some clout with your mob.”
“That’s the spirit!”
Powell returned to his desk as the water boiled. “You must have known you’d wind up in the public eye after flying Pandora, though.” He pointed out. “Why do it if you’re not comfortable with the fame?”
“Well there’s the funny thing. People are like ‘Rylee who?’ nowadays. A lot of folks have no idea who I am, y’know? I was thinking I’d be dodging paparazzi and the military would protect me, but it turns out the paparazzi don’t give a fuck because I’m always wearing the same clothes, and they can’t comment when I put on a pound or two ‘cause I’m not on the French Riviera in a bikini every weekend. They can’t make any money off me, so the actual vultures are Public Relations. How’s that for bullshit?”
“Thought you were up there with Armstrong and Gagarin?”
“How many people actually know those names, though?” Rylee asked. “I heard one time that only 40% of the American public recognized Neil Armstrong and…Hell, something like ten percent of Americans think the Apollo missions were faked!”
“Aye, I heard that one too. I have my doubts.” Powell shrugged. “People are interested in space again. When colonising an alien planet’s on the cards…”
“True. And things have changed fast.” Rylee agreed with him. “Hell, you know the total tonnage of private space vehicles launched into orbit now beats the combined lifetime tonnage of both NASA and the Russians? And most of that is Hephaestus, which spent less doing it than the Gemini program cost.”
“Which means that you’re probably better known than you think.” Powell shrugged. “They’d have to be pretty fookin’ stupid not to want to get the best out of you, wouldn’t they?”
The kettle clicked off and he stood to pour the coffee.
“I know, I know…” Rylee conceded. “I just like to bitch about it, you know? I’d rather be flying.”
“You know, you are allowed to enjoy other things besides flying.” Powell told her.
“You ever met a pilot who wanted to admit to that, though?”
He chuckled. “Nope.”
The cafetiere rattled when he set it down on his desk alongside two scuffed but sturdy mugs. “But I’d wager there are worse duties. You’ll like my lads, I promise you that.”
“Tell me about them.”
“Getting the interviews started already?”
“Hey, I’m going to take this job seriously.” She insisted. “I want to do them justice.”
Powell nodded as he filtered the coffee and poured it before answering.
“I have never worked with a unit that had a higher background rate of pranks, hijinks and general shenanigans.” He said, fondly. “They’re completely fookin’ nuts, the lot of ‘em, and I totally sympathize. We’re all eating well above our energy needs to try and get some reserves up, and all the PT in the world won’t cut it nowadays. Every man jack of us is a fizzing ball of energy in the morning, and a half-trashed wreck come bedtime. And yet, discipline is not a problem here—they’re all mature, sensible lads one an’ all. It’s just…bonkers in their dorm when they’re letting off steam. But never once has it crossed the line, and I’m quite confident it never will.”
“You make them sound like a puppy farm.” Rylee observed.
“They fookin’ are a puppy farm.” Powell laughed. “In fact, hell wi’ it, that’s what I’m calling their dorm from now on. ‘The Puppy Farm’. They’ll love it.”
Rylee laughed. “Okay, yeah. It sounds like I’m going to have fun with these guys.”
“Oh, you are: They’ll love you. Hope you’re ready to take part in a boatload of selfies.”
“Eh, I think I can put up with that.”
Powell sipped his drink. “I take it you’re going to want me in front of the camera too?”
“I’d take it as a favor.”
“A few ground rules then: I’d rather we used callsigns rather than actual names. These lads have family, friends, and we’re doin’ summat pretty extreme here with the Crue-D and the training. Fair?”
“Fair enough. What’s yours?”
Powell hesitated. “Um…STAINLESS.”
“The lads gave it me. It’s a damnsight better than the one I used to have.”
“I’d rather not say.” Powell scratched his nose awkwardly. “Just say it harked back to a stupider and, er…more racist time in my life and leave it at that.”
Rylee blinked at him. “You don’t seem racist.” she said.
“I’m not, now. Once upon a time, though…You wouldn’t have liked me, and for good fookin’ reason. I’d rather not say more than that.”
“Hey, I’m not interviewing you right now, Powell.”
“Yeah but…Look, I don’t have a lot of mates. I’m not about to alienate one of the few I’ve got by sharing exactly what I’d have thought when I was an idiot fookin’ kid, arright?”
“I think I can guess, anyway.” she commented, drily.
“Rylee…” Powell cleared his throat. “Look, if you’re gonna go with an angle for the SOR, the best one you can go with is self-improvement. We’re not just aiming for better, we’re aiming for best.”
“Owen.” She interrupted. “Relax. I’m just surprised, not upset.” Where he was sipping his coffee, she took a decent-sized gulp of it. “Hell, I guess I was the same, you don’t grow up black in Arkansas without…What I’m saying is, we’re all allowed to grow older and wiser.”
“Ah, to hell wi’ the older part, just so long as I keep getting’ wiser.” Powell chuckled. “I tell you what, I DON’T miss all the aches and pains I was havin’. My knees haven’t felt so good in years!”
Rylee’s smile returned. “…So. You’re okay with me doing this.”
“And you want the whole angle to be self-improvement.”
“Well…” Powell looked to his right and slightly downwards as he marshalled his thoughts. “We both know at least some of this material is going to end up as a recruiting video, most likely.” He said. “Right now, the SOR has one operational unit, which isn’t even active yet. Now, we might be able to keep the training up just fine, but missions? One mission and we’ll be knocked on our backsides and have to build up again. Sure, we’ve got guys coming up the pipeline behind us, but the full unit MTOE calls for, uh…”
He rolled his head back and frowned at the ceiling, searching his memory. “Thirty six, seventy-two…About a hundred and eleven operators all told, plus three times as many specialists in support roles. All of those operators have got to meet some already high standards and then clear a rigorous elimination round before they so much as see a vial of Crue-D, let alone their spacesuit. And by the time they’re ready for active duty…” he gestured a hand down the mid-line of his own body. “Permanent physical and psychological changes.”
“You want me to stress that?”
“We’re only going to want people who can hack the idea of never being the same again. Go talk to WARHORSE sometime—Staff Sergeant Arés. I used to work closely with his old man, who’s a slim, small, little guy. Not unfit or anything, just…small. Four years ago, the lad was just, like, a younger version of ‘is dad, but now he’s fookin’ huge! And he’ll still be huge when he’s in his eighties.”
Rylee nodded, thoughtfully. “I mean…I’m just going to be narrating and interviewing on this thing, it’s up to the director in the end.” she said. “But I’ll pass that along.”
“That’s all I can ask for.”
They finished their coffee, and Powell indicated his paperwork. “I could do with some time to finish this. Why don’t you go meet the lads, form an impression of them? We’ll have a drink later.”
Rylee smiled as she stood up. “I look forward to it.”
Powell had been right. The SOR operators were a puppy farm—eleven enormous, intelligent, hyper-competent puppies who practically fell over each other to “tidy up” a dormitory that was already spotless to the point that only a training instructor in full Motivation Mode could have found something to comment on.
He’d been right about how well-known she was too: They recognised her without her having to introduce herself, and fought to get photos and, in Stevenson’s case, her autograph in a little book alongside assorted athletes, actors and celebrities.
Once they calmed down a bit and got used to the idea that she was there, though, she was invited to take part in “Bad Movie Morning”, which was apparently their weekly Saturday ritual. They watched ‘Night of the Lepus’, a golden-age classic from the age of fedoras and dames in which an assortment of ordinary bunny rabbits filmed close-up lolloped and flopped around in a completely unthreatening way, composited behind footage of people screaming and running away.
Oddly, though, Sergeant Arés gave her an unambiguously frosty reception. It wasn’t anything overt—she doubted the young man even knew he was doing it—but his attitude with her, while perfectly polite and respectful, was nevertheless decidedly cooler than those of his squadmates, and she noticed a few little frowns among the guys which suggested they were asking each other ‘what’s up with WARHORSE?’.
Which was why, when he went to cook between movies, she engineered an excuse that she needed a glass of water and joined him in the kitchen.
He stood aside to let her get at the faucet. “Ma’am.”
“Y’know, if you’ve got a problem with me, I’d like to hear it.” Rylee told him, putting it straight out there. “I’m going to be interviewing you in a couple months, after all.”
Arés blinked. “Problem, ma’am?”
“You’ve been kind of giving me the ‘I don’t like you much’ thing this whole time, and I’m curious why.”
”…I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-” He stopped himself, but that sentence had revealed the nice guy underneath the chilly attitude. “…You never called the Tisdales, is all.”
He frowned. “Mark and Hayley?”
Memory stirred. “Oh! I, uh…I never learned their…wait shit, Tisdale? As in Sara Tisdale?”
“She was their daughter?”
Rylee dragged a chair out from under the table—a huge, metal, heavy one built by Rebar to SOR standards—and collapsed onto it. “Jeez, no wonder you- God damn!”
“You didn’t know their surnames?”
“We had fun together, that’s all!” Rylee told him. “We’re not friends or anything. We just…yeah.”
She frowned at him. “Actually, how did you even know about that?”
“My, uh…my girlfriend saw you with them. Ma’am.”
“Huh…” She went still and silent for a second, and then rubbed her face. “Christ.”
Arés scratched the back of his head. “I…Guess I owe you an apology.”
“No, no.” Rylee shook her head. “If I’d known I’d have called them. But, I didn’t and I guess that’s…Jesus, their little girl.”
“And my friend.”
”…I’m sorry, Arés.”
“Was that an apology or condolences, ma’am?”
“Bit of both…” She sighed, and ran a hand over her head. Realising that her hair was out of its bun, she let it out and re-did it. “Thanks for being straight with me though.”
She sat awkwardly silent as he studied a chart stuck to the refrigerator, and then he seemed to thaw out entirely. “So, hey. I’ve actually been kinda curious…”
“What’s FTL like?”
Rylee almost laughed. No wonder she’d detected the chilly attitude instantly, the question had been so guileless and honest that it was clear that disliking anybody just wasn’t in Arés’ nature.
“You know what’s weird about it? No special effects.” she said. “Like, none. It’s really undramatic, y’know?”
He pulled a bowl of soaked beans out of the fridge. “None at all?”
“Nope. It’s one of those weird quirks of how it all works, right? You’d think you’d see Lorentz contraction and blue-shifting and whatever, but in fact you’re not moving at lightspeed, technically.” She held one hand up like a spaceship and orbited it with the other to illustrate the point. “As far as your own inertial frame of reference goes, you’re moving normally and it’s just that everywhere’s closer so you don’t have to travel as far. It’s only from the outside that you appear to be going faster than light. So, anyway, everything moves around, just way faster than usual. It’s all so far away that it’s just points of light, anyway.”
“Man, that sounds kind of disappointing.”
“It is!” Rylee agreed. “I jumped these two huge space stations into Earth orbit a few years back and that was just like-” she stuck a finger in her mouth and flicked it out again to create a popping sound. “And there’s a station there. Warp most of the way to the moon?” she snapped her fingers. “It just gets bigger. FTL’s actually kinda dull.”
“That’s kind of a shame.” Arés said. He’d produced some celery and a knife and cutting board and set about combining them with bewildering speed. It seemed impossible that he wouldn’t slice off a fingertip, but in fact he didn’t inflict so much a scratch on himself.
“Eh. I can live with shitty special effects.” Rylee said. “It’s still an exciting time to be alive, y’know?”
“Speaking of shitty special effects…” BASEBALL stuck his head in the kitchen. “We’re watching the Power Rangers movie next, if you’re interested Major?”
“Oh man, I’ve not watched that since I was a kid!” Rylee stood up. “See you through there, Arés?”
“I’ll be a few minutes.” he said. “But sure.”
Rylee gave him her best smile and followed Burgess back through into the living area, pleased to have cleaned matters up. It would make the documentary so much easier.
Date Point: 8y 7m 3w AV
London, England, Earth.
“You know what’s funny?”
“I was fucking terrified of losing my virginity.”
Sean gritted his teeth and curled his fingers into the pillowcase She had both of her hands on his wrists, gently trapping him. “How…things have changed.” he commented.
Ava giggled and paused to grind her hips deep down onto him, a motion which sent a delicious shiver of pleasure right through her, so that her eyelashes fluttered and she bit her lower lip so hard that it hurt. Apparently it worked for Sean too, because his expression of furious concentration became desperate.
“It’s okay, lover…” she leant right forward and whispered into his ear. “Come for me.”
She kissed his jaw and stroked his hair as he came down from whatever star she’d just sent him into orbit around, until he found his voice again and said something characteristically witty between great gulping breaths: “Fuuuuuck. Whoa-oh my…whew.”
She grinned down at him. “Good one?”
“Jesus.” He opened his eyes and swallowed, expression equal parts worshipful and concerned. “Did…are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” she promised, and carefully dismounted to roll down beside him. Neither of them moved very much for a few minutes until his breathing and pulse had returned to something resembling normal, at which point he cleared his throat and discreetly tied and disposed of the contraceptive he was still wearing.
“You’re sure?” He asked. “I mean, you didn’t-”
“I don’t have to, nibble.” she chided him, gently.
“Yeah, but this is supposed to be about-”
“Adam I’m fine, really!”
It took her a few seconds to interpret the change in his expression. “Sean. Shit.” She buried her face in the pillow, covered the back of her head with her hands and repeated herself, feeling a full-body cringe come on. “Shit.”
“Really?” He asked.
“God fucking dammit that’s…I’m so sorry.”
Sean sighed, stood up and went to the bathroom, which left her to sit up as well and blush violently by herself for a few minutes, hoping that the bed might maybe come alive and devour her before his return or something equally implausible to spare her a moment’s more shame.
When he came back in, he just sat next to her and rubbed her back. “You twit.” he said, lovingly.
“Sean, I am so sorry.”
“Well, better this than the other way around.” he joked, with a slightly awkward laugh.
”…You’re not mad?”
”…Well, I’m a bit jealous…” he confessed. “…but not mad. I get it, I’m the ‘other guy’ here. I suppose I should be glad this is the first time it’s happened.”
A laugh exploded out of her and brought embarrassed tears with it, which just made him laugh and kiss her below the ear. “It’s okay.” he promised.
“You’ve got to be the only guy in the world who’s okay with hearing somebody else’s name in bed!” She told him.
“Well, if you’re having sex with me and it makes you think of a big strong soldier, maybe I should take it as a compliment.”
“Don’t go too far.” Ava said, deflating again. “God, I really am sorry, you know that?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve done it too.” He reassured her. “Broke up with Gwen in the morning, spent the afternoon with Ayesha consoling me, and just as she was blowing me that evening I called her Gwen. That was awkward!”
“Jeez, how many girls have you—actually, I don’t want to know.”
The wall clock uncomfortably counted out twenty seconds before she finally sighed. “Okay, okay. How many girls have you been with?”
”…Do blowjobs count?”
She gave him a light backhand in the upper arm. “Sean!”
“Okay, okay!” He laughed. “You’re my sixth.”
“Oh thank fuck. I was worried you’d say something crazy like twenty.”
“Twenty?” he asked. “Jesus.”
“It’s good to know you’re not that much of a slut.” she told him.
“No it’s not that.” Sean waved a hand. “It’s just…Twenty is your definition for a slut? I went to school with a guy who claimed a hundred when he was eighteen, and I’m quite sure it was the truth.”
“Bullshit!” Ava protested. “How do you even…?”
“A different girl every week for two years?” Sean suggested. “Apparently it’s not that hard if you know how.”
“What’s he up to now?”
“He volunteers with a HIV awareness program.”
After a silent moment, she leaned into him and made a sighing sound. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
“Ayesha, I’m fine! OW!”
She’d smacked him in the upper arm again, with a laugh. He joined in and tried to tickle her, she fought back, and it wasn’t long before the tickle-wrestling had them both ready to go a second round.
This time, she got his name right.
Date Point: 8y 9m AV
HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Major Owen Powell
Being a minute later than he’d planned heading for today’s training session meant that Powell was just late enough to run into Technical Sergeant Kovač coming down the hall the other way, struggling under a cardboard box that she could have fit inside. “Uh…Delivery for you, Major.”
Powell stood and brought his hands together in a single eager clap. “Outstanding.” he declared. “I ordered those a month ago.”
“Yes, sir.” Kovač agreed, blandly neither assuming responsibility for the delay, nor assigning it.
Powell chuckled. “For cryin’ out loud, leave them there and grab a trolley. We’ll hand them out after today’s scenario.” he declared. “Assuming there’s enough for everyone?”
“Yes sir.” Kovač put the box down, gratefully. “I inventoried it all myself, everything’s as ordered.”
“Well done. We already planned how this was going to go, get them set up and ready for presentation once the scenario’s done. Don’t be late.”
Scenario days were Powell’s favourite part of the SOR training regime. Gravball was fun, and the academic lessons were fascinating, but nothing quite matched the simple, mildly sadistic joy of seeing the lads tackle simulated missions in the warehouse.
The warehouse had been his personal request to HMS Sharman in the weeks before they’d come back here, and it had been the base’s willingness to accommodate his request that had finalized the decision. It was the size of an aircraft hangar and full of the very latest in gravity plating and holographic emitters, backed up by a dedicated staff of scenario planners and fresh-faced young specialists with the skills necessary to create, animate and deploy simulated hostiles via those emitters.
They had been given three simple instructions—the scenarios must be unpredictable, they must simulate the sorts of conditions and situations the SOR might find themselves in on actual missions, and they must be slightly beyond the lads’ abilities. Enough so that for them to actually complete the scenario and win would be unlikely, but not so much as to render the task actually impossible.
They had re-run one of the old scenarios last week, by way of a demonstration, along the lines of ‘look how far you’ve come’. Not only had the lads completed it, they’d done so without suffering so much as a simulated scratch, even in the sections that they hadn’t reached first time through.
It had been an education for Powell too, seeing just what they were capable of. Arés climbing a rope up the kind of falling hallway trap that Kaminsky had once described, with his legs wrapped around Vandenberg, who was no lightweight himself, both in their suits and with a full combat load. Akiyama overriding the electronic lock on a door panel in seconds, though that was doubtless down to the fact that he’d ordered a gross of the most common makes of door lock in the Dominion and spent his spare time for most of a month tinkering with them.
All of the lads were like that now, though. They’d become addicted to self-improvement, to the point where if a day went past where they weren’t challenged, weren’t learning something new or advancing an existing skill, they got listless and boisterous. Keeping them stocked with books, tools and material to further their lust for personal perfection wasn’t just a training expense, it was a morale and discipline one.
Not that Powell himself was any different, of course. His personal quarters had gone from containing only three books—’The Art of War’, ‘The Complete SAS Survival Manual’, and ‘Masters of Command – Hannibal, Caesar and the Genius of Leadership‘—to containing two overworked bookshelves that each held dozens, covering the military history of the last three hundred years, and including Machiavelli, Plato, the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita, some of the better introductory volumes in the fields of psychology, the history and design of games, physics and communications, plus several classic science fiction authors: Niven, Pournelle, Banks, Simmons, Clarke and Asimov. And, because he’d been left squinting at the literary references in the Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos and Ilium, that had led to him buying Homer, Proust, Shakespeare and Keats into the bargain.
His old man would have looked at a room full of that many books and promptly declared that it could only belong to a ‘poof’, and the reality of his son’s command, condition and intellect would have made not a jot of difference. Powell senior had been a deeply anti-intellectual man to cover for his own illiteracy, and quick to pin anything he didn’t like on ‘poofs’.
Just one of the many reasons Major Powell so valued his own education. Not that he’d appreciated it when young, of course.
The physical effects of Crue-D were obvious, there for anyone to see. But now he cast his memory back a few years, and could see Jen Delaney, mastering marksmanship in a single lesson. Or Saunders, building a working starship out of scraps and salvage in a mere two weeks.
He was beginning to become seriously worried that the Corti might have badly miscalculated.
He set aside his worries about having created a monster when he realised that he’d easily loped the distance from the office complex to the training centre in hardly any time at all, at speeds that most people would consider a dead run, and without so much as a spare gasp of breath to show for it, even though that itself was pauseworthy. He was here to run a training operation: Cogitation could wait, for now.
For all its high-tech contents, the warehouse was controlled from what was basically a shed, fully half of which was computers, between which the team of four young men who organised and oversaw the exercises sat in a square, facing away from one another. There literally wasn’t room for more than one of them to stand up at a time, and Powell had given them special dispensation to not react to his entering except by straightening in their seats and looking toward him.
“All set up?” He asked.
“Yes sir.” Corporal Jenkins was the senior NCO in the shed, and the scenario team leader—he’d once been heard to describe himself as the “dungeon master”.
“Good, I look forward to it. Change of plan for the end of session today, though: report to the end zone once you’ve saved the footage and turned everything off.”
“Right. As you were.”
He jogged the last hundred yards the Warehouse door. The lads were all suited up and ready to go, waiting for him in their EV-MASS systems and practically creaking under the weight of all the gear they carried for training.
“Arright lads, about that time again. Fall in.”
They did so, eager to get going.
“The scenario we’re gaming today is an assault on a Hierarchy space station, populated by traps and active defences under the direct control of a Hierarchy operator.” he explained. “Your mission is to reach the computer core, pull the data, then get that data off the station and into intel’s hands by whatever means are possible. We’re simulating that you’ve breached in from EVA. You’re going in blind, that means no hints about what threats you might face or what you might find. Any questions?”
They all shook their heads. “Right. Systems check on your suits, give us the thumbs up when you’re ready.”
He left them to it and climbed the ladder up into the observation gantry, a cabin that ran along the ceiling on rails from which the occupants were able to look down into the training area.
“Ready?” He asked, pulling the ladder up behind him.
“Right. Wait for the thumbs up and let’s see how we do.”
He watched the men below go through a last round of confirming each others’ suits—a lesson that had been drilled into them by Drew Cavendish from day one—before they gathered round Legsy in a huddle to talk plan.
By agreement, the game controllers did not get to hear that plan. Powell did, because he wasn’t the one giving the orders—he was there to watch, observe, think about how he’d have approached things, and so far, he agreed with every decision Legsy was making, including the one about leaving the two Protectors behind, much to their dismay.
The huddle broke up, everyone headed for their respective loadout station to grab the equipment they’d decided they needed and Powell tuned in on Legsy again as he patted Arés’ upper arm.
“Eh, you know me. I hate being left in the back.”
“Yeah pal. I would too, but trust me, right? We don’t put our best at risk until we have to.”
Arés’ silence spoke volumes on what he thought of that assessment. “Legs…”
“Nah mate. Said that for a reason. I’d rather have one of you bored and a jump away than fifty other medics right next to me in the fight, and you’d better bloody believe I mean that.”
The younger man didn’t say anything, just nodded, then grabbed Legsy’s gauntlet and drew him into the kind of body-slamming hug that would have pulverized bricks.
“You get through this without needing us, I’m buying the drinks.”
“Fuck aye. See you after.”
Powell didn’t need to be listening on the radio to hear Legsy calling for the safety officer, who performed a final round of checks to make sure that every last weapon, round and grenade they had on them were training versions—blank rounds, dummy grenades, and the laser-based MILES training equipment. The lads formed up, gave each other a round of slaps in the head, fist-bumps, and other suitably violent masculine gestures, and Legsy aimed a raised thumb at the control box.
The simulated violence below unfolded. Knowing what they did about the Hierarchy, every simulated mission worked off the assumption that the mind in question knew they were coming, detected the intrusion within seconds, and that it would bring out its best and most potentially effective gambits first, but not unwisely.
What, exactly, those gambits would be was always an exercise in the games designers’ imaginations, informed by the sort of things they had learned from Delaney, Saunders, and Six, and their own sadistic machinations.
Cloaked assault robots with fusion blades for limbs. Several varieties of small flying drone, from the ones that stopped and deployed a plasma weapon, to a kind that the games techs had invented that were basically just a flying fusion blade, designed to flash at speed straight down a corridor and halve every man in it at the waist. Gravity traps, various kinds of turret, rooms full of hair-trigger explosives, rooms where the power cables had been wired like the grid on a bug zapper, even simulated human biodrone soldiers.
There had even once been a room full of sex slaves sporting the faces of a number of actresses and singers, an encounter so absurd that the simulation had been abandoned, and the two men responsible had been “motivated” to remember their responsibilities by means of having them train with Staff Sergeant Arés, under orders that he was not to be friendly about it.
Given how uncomfortable and time-consuming it was to both don and remove the suit, Arés had obliged with relish, though he had quite kindly carried the two broken perpetrators back to their rooms once he was done. There had been no such lapses of professionalism since.
Each simulation was designed to take a few hours. There was a lot of room in the warehouse, and the simulation techs worked all week to configure the next scenario ahead of training day. Beating the crap out of those two with WARHORSE had probably spared them the wrath of their fellows. Or at least, the worst of it.
Today, there were no such shenanigans. The Aggressors were a blur, emptying each room of anything that even resembled a threat almost before they’d finished entering it. That was doctrine—it had to be assumed that nobody and nothing encountered in a scenario where the Hierarchy were involved was a friendly unless it was clearly and obviously not a threat and could not possibly become so, and even then was to be treated as suspicious until proven otherwise.
The Defenders were no less deadly, but their deadliness was more methodical. Laying sensors and mines behind them, carrying spare ammo for the Aggressors, watching the Aggressors’ backs, disarming traps and overcoming engineering and technical challenges. When the team had to climb “up” a long hallway that had had its gravity rotated by ninety degrees, the Defenders were the ones who deployed the ropes.
There were firefights against an entrenched squad of simulated Chehnasho troops, easily brushed aside. There was a desperate battle against a pack of flying blades, one of which only narrowly failed to “kill” Firth. There was a holographic Vulza—Price dodged a snap of its jaws, wrapped his arms around its snout and held on while Blaczynski bayoneted it in the eye. It took nearly twenty minutes for Vandenberg and Akiyama to disarm a particularly nasty electrical discharge trap, while the rest of the men dug in and warded off probing attacks by an increasingly desperate Hierarchy force…
Which turned out to be a distraction. No sooner was the trap disarmed and the squad retreating into the room than a gunship—an illusion, projected on the huge “window” that ran the length of the room – decloaked and began to fire indiscriminately through the glass. A quick jerk of the gravity approximated the room decompressing. They all grabbed handholds and so none of them were “spaced” by the simulated blowout, but finally, three of the lads were forced to obey the rules of the simulation and lie down inactive as their MILES systems reported incapacitating hits.
Powell leaned forward to watch, eagerly. Their performance while things had been going well had been exemplary—now he was interested in seeing how they performed when the shit hit the fan. Those were the moments that a unit truly showed its quality.
They didn’t disappoint.
One of the functions of the midsuit’s active padding was to close any breaches in the pressure hull, but still a penetrating wounding shot while wearing EV-MASS in vacuum was a deadly matter, demanding immediate extraction to a pressurised environment, before all else.
That was the Protectors’ job. Everyone in that room knew it. They also knew that the Protectors weren’t there, and that the lives of their comrades (simulation be damned, they were all too motivated to care about the difference) depended on getting them into that room ASAP, and clearing the way for them to do their job.
Legsy didn’t waste a second, and fired a grenade out of his gun’s M203 at the gunship, supported by a hail of rapid-fire from the others. The simulation decided that he scored a hit, which combined with the bullets did enough to badly damage the vehicle’s canopy and spoil its pilot’s view, causing the projected gunship to sway crazily and spray the exterior hull of the station with wasted shots.
Had the fight been real, the room would have been in vacuum which would have allowed Arés and Burgess to jump straight in to their buddy’s beacons. In reality, it was of course flooded with air. Fortunately, they’d planned for that, which was why the two Protectors had been walking along above their comrades a few rooms back, ready to drop in through hatches in the ceiling when summoned.
This they now did, arriving in the room just as alacritously as if they had displaced in, and Powell grunted in satisfaction as Burgess took immediate stock of the situation, grabbed the downed Vandenberg, hoisted him up onto his shoulders, and retreated toward the door into the next room that the Defenders were working on breaching, covered by the Aggressors as they continued to suppress the pursuing Hierarchy forces.
Arés got cocky. He tried to lift the remaining two fallen men simultaneously, rather than extracting the one who was in the more immediate danger.
There was no doubting that the young man was the strongest on the team, scoring over even Burgess by a fair margin, and that fact had been going to his head lately. Not in any overt, swaggering way, but just in his growing assurance that he was capable of anything. Powell tutted outwardly, but inwardly he was pleased, knowing that the kid was about to get the ego-check he needed.
There was some muttered astonishment in the control room at the fact that he actually managed it, getting Murray and Sikes off the ground and carried just fine, but Powell had done the maths. Arés may have been strong, but the simple physics of the situation—his mass relative to the combined weight of the two men he was lifting—simply didn’t work out in his favour. He was off-balance from the moment he teetered upright, and when he tried to haul them to the exit, he just couldn’t manage any real speed or momentum.
It cost him. The Gunship’s wild spraying hadn’t entirely ceased to be a threat, and its MILES laser strobed through the room for a second, scoring a hit on the kid’s left leg, and Powell smiled grimly as he heard a vigorous Spanish curse at the report that, although the suit’s impressive armour plating hadn’t been breached, the impact HAD broken a bone.
The honour system was important. They’d all been drilled from early on that “cheating” the wound results just meant doing themselves out of proper training and experience. Arés dutifully fell over and stopped using his left leg.
Sitting on the ground, he had far less leverage. With a groan of exertion he hauled Firth into cover that protected him from more stray firepower from the gunship, then began to drag Murray toward the exit door. He made good time despite having only one leg to work with, too.
Burgess deposited his patient with the Defenders as they got the door open, then dashed back across the room, grabbed Firth and returned him to the door with the same kind of ease that Powell might have hefted a box of printer paper.
Then he was back for Murray, and finally Arés.
The kid was smart enough to notice that, Powell knew. Doing one man at a time had allowed Burgess to clear four men out of the room faster than Arés had handled two. That wouldn’t be missed.
The simulation ended practically the moment the Aggressors retreated through the door. Legsy barked orders, and within seconds they had all activated their jump beacons—for training purposes, replaced with a red light—and the simulation shut down as the last one lit.
A siren hooted, the lights came up, and the lads all stood up, dusted themselves off, and made wobbly-handed, wobbly-headed gestures of mixed feeling at one another as they discussed the outcome, took off their helmets, bumped fists and commiserated with each other.
Powell took his time down the ladder and strolled thoughtfully across the concrete with his hands in the small of his back, giving the lads plenty of time to leave the course, sort their gear out and get lined up.
“Master sergeant.” he said quietly, greeting Legsy. “I’d like to hear your reasons for aborting the raid and pulling out, please.”
“Sir. The longer we took, the more likely the Hierarchy mind was to have just deleted the data. With all the lads up and running I was happy to take that chance, but after we got stuck on that trap and took casualties…”
“You deemed it prudent to preserve assets?”
Powell nodded pensively and made a show of mulling over Legsy’s explanation.
“I agree.” he declared after some few seconds, and he knew Legsy well enough to spot the invisibly subtle cues of relief in his friend’s face.
He tucked his thumbs into his belt and looked up and down the line. “What we know of the Hierarchy says that they’re rigid thinkers, as suggested by the name.” He said. “They come up with good plans, but they rely on those plans too much. They don’t adapt well if their plan fails. They like to go away, think about it, seek the advice of a senior mind, and form a new plan.”
“With that in mind,” he continued “The way to fight them is through unrelenting aggression. Break their first gambit and keep the pressure on. Don’t give them time to think, don’t allow them a moment’s breathing room. So long as the situation is unfolding quickly, they’ll be panicking and caught on the back foot, and anything they put in your way is going to be only half-thought-out.”
“This is something that EVERY man on the team must take part in. You must appear to be unstoppable, so you must never stop. Never stop moving, never stop doing, even if it’s just handing out the ammo or swapping out your juice cartridge, and above all keep the pressure on. You cannot afford to be bogged down dealing with a trap that’s going to take twenty minutes to disarm. Find an alternate route, cut a hole in the wall, fookin’ go EVA if you have to. But do not ever stop moving. You understand?”
“Yes sir.” They nodded, seeing and understanding what he was saying.
“Right. This isn’t the result we were hoping for today.” he said, and saw them all nodding and thinking. “…But it was good enough. Kovač!”
The sergeant and a handful of other NCOs entered with parade precision, having been waiting as ordered, and the operators all straightened up as they saw the berets being carried on trays towards them, knowing what it meant.
Powell started with BASEBALL. “Burgess. You did good work today.” he said. “Efficient, fast, bold. Don’t stress about not carrying as much as the Incredible Hulk there. Don’t doubt for a second that your speed is the unique skill you bring to this team—don’t lose sight of that.”
Burgess accepted the beret. It was black, with two pins on it—the Vitruvian Man emblem of the SOR, and a small circular pin adorned with a pair of green feet that Powell could tell he wanted to burst into a wide grin upon seeing. “Yes, we kept your bloody green feet.” he smiled, and stepped back, waiting. Burgess saluted eagerly, a gesture which Powell returned with rather more composure than he felt.
“Arés. You’re clearly strong enough to carry two men in EV-MASS, but you’ve got no control over the momentum. Just remember that one man saved is better than three dead. You’d have got them all without even tiring yourself if you’d taken it steady.” He handed over the second beret with the green-feet pin, and returned the younger man’s salute, keeping his immense pride in the lad to himself. It wouldn’t do to seem to have a favourite.
“For our Defenders…I know it’s not an emblem of your original training, but for you we’ve selected the castle. You’ve wonderfully fallen into your roles as the finest combat engineers ever, and something tells me you won’t mind, am I right?”
“Essayons, sir.” Sikes commented.
“Well said.” Powell handed him the beret. “Just don’t become so focussed on working on the challenge directly in front of you, that you forget the bigger challenge of the whole mission.”
He shared similar words of wisdom and gestures of respect with the remaining Defenders, then turned to the last and largest group. “And for my fellow Aggressors—the dagger, the symbolism of which should hopefully need no explaining. You are the swift, the deadly, and the skilful. Attack from all angles, show no quarter or hesitation, and there is nothing you cannot slay.”
He stepped back. “This is a moment to take pride in yourselves, but it’s also a moment for humility. We’ve chosen the black beret for a good reason. Yes, the black of space obviously, but more important is that the black beret is the colour worn by many an ordinary infantryman and marine the world over. It is critical that we all remain grounded, and conscious of the fact that we are all just servicemen, fighting for the same reasons as any other.”
“You have done what many hundreds of thousands in our home nations’ armed services could not…” he continued, but then gestured to Kovač and the men beside her. “…but you would not be SOR without our technicians and support staff. Which is why I want you to help me hand out berets and insignia to everyone else in this regiment. We are the tip of the spear—but without the wood behind it, a speartip alone is a poor weapon.”
“Yes sir.” they seemed eager to do as he had said, and he allowed himself to smile at the fierce pride shining in their faces.
“Congratulations, gentlemen. This unit is now active.”
Date Point: 8y 10m AV
London, England, Earth
Being tall and slim meant that Charlotte had always suffered in the cold, and there was just no substitute on dark frozen evenings for pajamas, loungewear, two blankets, a hot chocolate…and a nice warm boyfriend on the couch.
For once, they were actually hanging out at home, rather than Sean’s house. Their place was a student flat that she, Ben and Ava could just afford on their combined housing allowance. Two bedrooms, a tiny bathroom, and a small shared space that did the work of kitchen, dining room and living room all in one.
At least…She and Ben were hanging out. Ava was busy getting ready, and Sean was busy Ava-watching. If Charlotte had been forced to pick a word to describe his expression, it might have been “guarded”. Sean usually had the light of intellectual good humour in his eyes and a slight smile around his mouth, as if he’d got the joke on life and was just waiting for everybody else to get it so they could laugh together.
Seeing him look tense, stressed and serious was a new one on her, even though only somebody who knew him well would have noticed.
Something similar went for Ava, who was usually the very picture of composure and confidence, but today was a bundle of jittery happiness, flitting restlessly from minor adjustment to insignificant chore, allegedly to make sure everything was perfect, more likely to try and retain what little equilibrium she had left.
“He’s just got off the tube!” She announced, waving her phone at them.
Sean stood up and headed for the door.
Sean cleared his throat. “We’re…out of milk.” he grunted.
To her credit, Ava’s happy buzzing ceased, and she rushed up to him and gave him a reassuring kiss. “Okay.” she said. “You go get milk.”
“I may be some time.” Sean replied, some of that humour returning, weakly, to his face.
“It’s okay.” She promised. “I’d like for you to meet him, though.”
”…I’ll try.” Sean promised unconvincingly, and let himself out.
Ava’s shoulders dropped as the door closed, but she picked herself up again after a second and turned around. “How do I look?”
“You know damn well you look amazing.” Ben told her, causing Charlotte to roll her eyes a little but nod vigorously alongside him. Ava smiled a little at the compliment, and went back to her restless bumbling around the flat.
“Have you ever seen her so nervous?” Charlotte whispered, once she judged Ava to be safely out of earshot.
They let her bustle some more until she suddenly laughed aloud. “Hah! Message from Sean: ‘just passed a side of beef getting out of a taxi. Take it that’s your fella?’” She waved her phone again and giggled.
“Good to know he’s able to laugh about this.” Ben commented.
”…I know it’s hard on him.” Ava replied. “But…well, we talked about this before we started. What more can I do?”
The creaking of the stairs up to their door stopped Charlotte from answering. She just shrugged and smiled weakly.
Ever since Sean and Ava had opened up to her about their affair, she’d had serious doubts about it. Being in a committed relationship herself, it was hard to see how anything good could come out of cheating.
The instant change in Ava’s attitude dispelled most of those doubts. She practically flew to the door, glanced through the peephole, and then flung it open with a delighted noise.
It was like watching the dawn break on the first clear day of the new year after a long and dismal winter. Everything about Ava’s behaviour calmed and perked up, to a startling degree—in half a second she changed so utterly that it made Charlotte wonder if she’d every actually seen her friend relaxed before.
Adam was surprising. He was actually a little shorter than Ava and well-dressed in charcoal utility trousers and a light jacket over an NFL jersey, clothing calculated to make him look a little smaller than he really was.
This was largely futile, considering that after he’d finally been able to weaken Ava’s stranglehold hug on him, he had to turn slightly to fit through the door. He gave Charlotte and Ben a shy smile as he did so.
Ava made the introductions. “Adam: Ben, Charlotte.”
There was a round of “nice to meet you”s and “Hi”s with matching handshakes and it dawned on Charlotte that Adam was actually…rather dorky. He geeked out hugely over Ben’s tattoos when the Koi carp Ben was sporting today decided to swim up his sleeve and down the other arm just as they were shaking hands.
“Oh my God where do I get those?!” He demanded. “Can you turn them off so they don’t show?”
“Yep.” Ben replied, answering the second question first. “Mind you, these cost me a couple of thousand quid, and…” he extended a forearm alongside Adam’s own: The contrast was like comparing a shot glass to a pint mug. “You’re a bit of a bigger canvas, mate.”
“Yeah, but think about what I could have on there!” Adam chuckled. “I could watch movies!”
He was…likeable. Nice! And when Charlotte made eye contact with Ava as Ben slapped his forehead and bemoaned never thinking of that, the look she got back had an undeniable “told-you-so” element to it.
“Come on, meatstack.” Ava leaned forward and got Adam’s attention again. “We’re going into the city, remember?”
“Oh, yeah!” Adam stood up, then looked around. “I was kinda hoping to meet Sean, too, he sounds like a great guy. Isn’t he here?”
“He had to go home.” Ben lied for the three of them. “He wasn’t feeling well.”
“Aww, that sucks. Tell him I said hi, would you?”
“We will.” Charlotte promised.
And that was that. Ava gave them a grateful sort of shrug as she left, and they listened to him enthusing as she followed him down the stairs, about seeing Tower Bridge and the Eye and HMS Belfast and Buckingham Palace and…
“So.” Ben cleared his throat after the creaking stairs and litany of tourist traps had faded. “He’s…a really nice guy? How the fuck did that happen?”
Charlotte had to nod, watching the door a little warily, not quite sure what to make of this new information. “I don’t understand.” she agreed, and turned to frown her confusion at Ben. “He’s adorkable!”
“So why is she-? I mean, she’s gone from miserable to really happy these last few weeks!”
Charlotte thought about it. “Has she?” She asked eventually. “I mean, you saw how she lit up there, didn’t you you?”
”…Yeah.” Ben. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so animated.”
“Maybe she hasn’t been happy recently. Maybe she’s just been…”
Ben nodded. “…coping.”
Charlotte scratched at her bra strap, frowning at something only she could see in deep thought, until Ben slipped an arm around her waist. “Are we…okay with that?” he asked.
“I think…Yeah. Or at least, I am.” She replied. “I think if she’s doing it to cope, so she can get through and have more of that then, then…then I can understand.”
“Yeah but…What about Sean?”
“That’s where it falls apart, yeah…” she agreed.
Neither of them said anything for a little while, and after a bit, Ben turned on the TV.
They were in the middle of a report about the Iranian nuclear weapons program when Sean finally returned with a shopping bag and the expression of a condemned man.
Sean dropped his bag on the coffee table and himself into the chair next to it, rubbing at his forehead as if he was trying to iron out the frown, and watched the news with them.
Clearly, he had other things on his mind though. “…So what’s he like?”
“He’s…actually really nice.” Charlotte told him, keeping her tone of voice delicate and sympathetic.
“I already knew that.” Sean told her, dropping his hand into his lap and managing a weak smile.
”‘Course I bloody do. Ava’s told us that enough times, hasn’t she?”
Ben and Charlotte exchanged a glance. “I…didn’t really believe it before now.” Ben confessed.
“Why not?” Sean asked him.
“Well, he keeps hurting her!”
“Right. Because he’s a fucking idiot. A really nice fucking idiot that she loves so much that I’m fucking lucky just to be the fucking crutch for their relationship!”
Sean surged upright, stood there for a second with his face turned away from them, and then heaved a huge sigh and headed for the door. “I’ll see you Monday.”
Charlotte scrambled out of Ben’s lap to try and talk to him, putting a hand on his upper arm. “Sean…”
He turned and made fleeting, unconvincing eye contact. “I’m fine, fairy.” he lied, using the group’s pet nickname for Charlotte.
“You’re not, mate.” Ben pointed out.
“Well…better me than her then, isn’t it? She’s suffered enough.”
Charlotte’s hand dropped to her side, and he shrugged his jacket on. “I’ll see you Monday.” he repeated.
Charlotte didn’t stop him this time.
Date Point: Christmas Eve, 8y 11m AV
New York City, USA, Earth
“Well, we’d have preferred you wear a dress, but you ARE here in a military capacity…”
Rylee suppressed a sigh, and turned it into a smile. “Trust me, I wouldn’t be comfortable in a dress.”
The makeup artist grunted her acknowledgement and stood up. “Well, you look good!” she said.
“You’re on in three minutes, major!” one of the clipboarded production staff informed her.
“I’ll let you prepare yourself.” the makeup girl said, and excused herself.
Rylee had to fight not to fidget at her dress blues or adjust her ribbon bar. She HATED staff duty, but there were worse things in life than going on evening talk shows, she supposed. Public Relations was an easy gig, even if it did mean she was stuck at ground level for the duration.
The worst parts were always the personal questions. They were inevitable, if you were the woman who’d first officially travelled faster than light, but why should they be? Give her questions about the technology, about Modified Alcubierre Fields, about the dynamics of exoatmospheric navigation and piloting.
Too many newspapers wanted to know if she was dating somebody, or something like that, and even if the American public were ready to truly embrace an African-American woman being the modern answer to Neil Armstrong, they still probably weren’t ready for their cultural icon to be unabashedly and pansexually promiscuous.
Not that it would have been anybody’s business even if she’d been in a traditional marriage with two kids. She’d sooner do a nude photoshoot than talk about family in the presence of a microphone.
She forced aside those kinds of resentful thoughts as the one minute warning was called, and gritted her teeth against the urge to tend to some last-second grooming. She’d only undo all the hard work of the production crew.
The wait ended abruptly—she heard her name announced, rapturous cheering and applause, the band striking up a jazzed-up version of the theme from the old 1960s Star Trek, and she pretended to be delighted and amused by it as she stepped out onto the stage, waving and smiling and shaking hands with the host—David…somebody. She was solid on the David at least, but…oh, no, his full name was part of the show’s name, which filled the stage. David Royce.
Settling onto the couch as the applause finally began to fade was a solid relief.
“What a reception!” Royce declared over the hubbub, then repeated himself as it got quieter. “What a reception! Wow. So, Major Jackson – or can I call you Rylee?”
“Well, thank you so much for coming tonight, it’s a real pleasure to have you.”
“It’s a real change of pace!” Rylee said, having already planned ahead of time that this was an entirely truthful sentiment that would nevertheless sound misleadingly enthusiastic.
Royce was sharp though. “For the better, I hope!”
Rylee gave him her best sheepish smile. “Truthfully? I mean, I’m so in love with my job that they had to drag me down here.”
She was rewarded with a ripple of laughter that told her she’d kept her tone light enough.
“I can see why!” Royce agreed. “You did a tour in the Middle East-”
“I flew a handful of missions several thousand feet above the Middle East.” Rylee corrected him. She’d spent that entire conflict living comfortably in Germany, and was eager for there to be no confusion. ‘Did a tour’ made it sound like she’d been checking her boots in the desert every morning, and she didn’t want to overshadow the people who really had been putting up with the conditions down there.
Royce politely ignored the interruption. “-then you trained for and flew Pandora and now you’re a permanent fixture of the air force’s 946th Spaceflight wing. And I’m told you’re unusually devoted to your plane.”
“I think we all are in the 946th.” Rylee said. “Y’know, there’s an extra requirement there, that we might wind up adrift out in deep space or having to land on a station or planet a long way from Earth and have to maintain or repair our own plane in the field, so all of the pilots have got a habit of getting right in there with the ground staff and mechanics, and being part of the plane’s maintenance.”
“Well, I think it was that willingness to roll my sleeves up and get elbow-deep in the machinery that actually got me onto Pandora, because…y’know, she was a prototype, a testbed, there was always something on the verge of going wrong with her, you know?” Rylee said. “But nowadays it’s a point of pride in the wing, you look after your sled. You get to know her and love her and…”
“Oh yeah!” Rylee enthused. “Firebird’s like a ten thousand pound metal kitten to me! Every pilot in the wing could tell you about their sled’s little personality quirks.”
“Okay, go on.” Royce challenged and humoured her. “What are Firebird’s?”
“Uh…nothing major. Just…little things like the way her Field-Assisted Landing System is always the first thing to need recalibrating, or the way the hum of the gyroscope changes as we fly…That kind of thing.”
Royce smiled, and Rylee knew that smile. It was the one that came before the questions started to get more personal.
“So…” he began. “is Firebird the only love in your life, or…?”
“I’m very career focused.” Rylee said, dismissively.
“Your career can’t take up ALL your time though.”
“Military careers are…they’re not fair on any partner you might have, so I’ve preferred to not get drawn into anything long-term like that.”
Royce raised an eyebrow. “Surely there are people you care about?”
“Of course there are!” Rylee said. “Some of them aren’t even human! I just don’t think it’s fair to devote years of your life to the service and force your partner to take second place. I’ve got nothing but respect for the guys and girls who can make it work but…Heck, the ‘Dear John’ letter is named for something that happens to soldiers all the time. And what about the kids? You ever see that picture of this little boy being handed his daddy’s folded flag? And he’s trying not to cry?”
She shrugged, and deflated. “I cried when I saw it.” she confessed, glancing nervously at the camera, even as the audience erupted into sympathetic applause.
Royce clearly decided that he couldn’t press the privacy issue any further without making himself look like the bad guy, so he moved on, introducing the scheduled commercial break.
“You’re doing well.” he confided, the moment the microphones were off. “Sorry if I hit a raw nerve there.”
“It’s okay.” Rylee assured him, surprised and pleased, and warming to him a bit. The makeup artists were rushing out, and she and Royce both endured a quick touch-up before the end of the ad break was called and it was back into interview mood.
“Welcome back to Tonight, Tonight and we’ve got Major Rylee Jackson here with us today, are you enjoying yourself so far, Rylee?”
“So far.” Rylee agreed, smiling.
“So, we’ve heard a few rumours coming out of defence circles lately about a few projects, SOR and JETS?”
“Oh, yeah, so these are both really exciting!” Rylee nodded, enthused to be back on professional subjects.
“Why don’t you tell us about them?”
“Okay, so, SOR and JETS stand for Space-borne Operations Regiment and Joint Extra Terrestrial Special operations, respectively.” Rylee said.
“Those sound like they’re more or less the same thing?” Royce inclined his head.
“Far from it!” Rylee shook her head. “The SOR are specifically going to be about missions in space, wearing an armoured spacesuit, boarding ships and stations, that kind of thing. Now, the thing about spacesuits is that they’re heavy, I can attest to that personally. An armoured one?! Doubly so.”
“So these guys have got to be strong.”
“That’s right. Real strong. Crazy strong, and fit. Now, the problem there is that if they’re fighting in a heavy suit and being all big and strong, that means they’re going to run out of gas pretty quick, so they’re all about getting one specific job done, fast and hard. Right?”
“And JETS?” Royce mis-spoke the acronym, saying the word ‘jets’.
“J-E-T-S.” Rylee corrected him. “So, the SOR are a permanent, dedicated unit, while JETS is a qualification that any serving operator can obtain that’ll qualify them to go offworld, and they’ll fill the opposite role – operations on the surface of alien planets, specifically Temperate-type worlds. Earthlike worlds, with life and rain and all that stuff, right?”
“So, JETS is this mixed, international and kinda large initiative where we’ll be able to drop these guys in and they’ll be able to do things like, uh, patrol in hostile territory for months undetected, or all the other stuff that special forces might do. No special spacesuits or anything, to all intents and purposes it’s the same as operations here on Earth, just with having to account for alien environments.”
“So the SOR are the really science-fiction ones.” Royce observed.
“I guess.” Rylee laughed. “But they’re as nice a bunch of guys as you could meet, they’ve…I mean, they’re committed to saving lives and serving other people in a BIG way, they’ve gone through hell to make it happen, and, I’ve met them, they’re all really humble, sweet guys. Y’know, they met me and they just wanted to take some selfies, and I was like ‘who’s taking the selfie with who here?’ because…yeah, I’m in awe of them, I really am.”
“Did you hear the content of that leaked advisory?” Royce asked, referring to a minor scandal of a few months previously where a memo doing the rounds in the Pentagon had somehow found its way onto the Internet. Rylee was onto him now, and knew that he was only asking because that was his job, so she just nodded, calmly.
“Obviously, I mean, that’s a serious breach of national security, but in any case the content of that memo’s no more classified than anything I just told you.” she replied. “Which is to say that it’s not.”
“Doesn’t it concern you that we’re still using alien-made shuttlecraft?”
“I’ve seen those shuttles in action,” Rylee said “And…yeah, okay, as a pilot, they suck. They’re idiot-proof, unarmed, unarmored civilian models, so they just don’t perform to the kind of high standard that the military demands…but they work. And, right now, we don’t have a human-made alternative that does.”
“Well…okay, look, we got really lucky with Pandora and the TS/2, AND with some other projects like the V-class and the San Diego Class because people—real, qualified aerospace engineers—had already put serious thought into designing them as, like, a thought experiment right down to every rivet and solder. And then when all the alien technology came along, modifying those designs turned out to be pretty easy.”
“So nobody had designed an orbit-to-ground transport before now?” Royce asked, sounding sceptical.
“Transports aren’t like those other two.” Rylee pointed out. “You can make some assumptions about…how big and heavy the pilot of a strike craft is going to be, how many crew are going to fit onto a destroyer. But what about the transport? Until you know about how many people it’s going to need to carry and how much gear they’ve got with them and…”
She tailed off expressively, to indicate the long list of things that needed to be known before such a design could even be started. “Until you know all that, then you can’t progress beyond speculation. Then it comes down to compromises. A small ship’s harder to detect and intercept, but if it’s got enough engine and power on board to accelerate as hard as we’d like then there’s not much room for the cargo. ‘scuse me…”
She took a sip of water before continuing. “Anything capable of meeting our performance requirements is going to be huge, and then you can’t actually use the flight deck on any of the classes of ship we’ve got right now. Not even the big retrofitted alien ones. So, that means docking ports. Well, neither the V-class nor San Diego have got docking ports, because none of our existing docking port designs were meant to be used on an accelerating starship.”
She waved her hands expressively back and forth as she spoke, ending with a snapping motion to illustrate the problem.
Royce sat back. “So, do you have any idea when somebody will get it right?” he asked.
“I couldn’t say.” Rylee shook her head. “I’m not aware of any promising designs in the works, and if there were any I wouldn’t be at liberty to discuss them but…to be honest, I think we’re going to have to do without for a few years yet. It’s going to be a tough one to solve, I think.”
“But you’re confident it will be solved.” Royce observed.
“Oh yeah.” Rylee nodded. “Eventually. But designing any vehicle just doesn’t happen overnight, let alone something like a shuttle craft.”
“Rylee, it’s been great having you on the show…”
“It’s been great being here.”
“Well, I hope you’ll stick around for our next guest, Daniel Mayhew is here to talk about Sweet Dreams, and we’ve got South African comedian Raymond Mahlangu, coming up after the break, stay with us, we’ll be right back!”