Author’s Notes: If you see text in italics and the text isn’t inside quotations, think of it like internal dialog; a glimpse into the mind of the person where you can read the thoughts that are going on inside the mind of the character. We are writing this story from the third-person omniscient (meaning “all knowing”) point of view. This is where the narrator and/or reader knows what every character is thinking.
Lieutenant Richard Smith sat in a velvet-lined chair in a Human Federation Space Force base theatre on some no-account planet he had absolutely no interest in knowing the name of. Other officers and enlisted personnel sat in other chairs; some of them were close together in small groups and some sat by themselves. They were all awaiting reassignment to warships either in orbit or elsewhere. He himself mostly kept to himself, he didn’t know anyone in the crowd and that didn’t bother him. He was content to just wait like everyone else and dread what was going to be their next assignment.
He, like everyone else that was in that theater, hated waiting for reassignment. The most you could do was relax in the chair and peruse the Galactic Internet on your personal datapad but even that could get boring. There were only so many cat videos you could watch on YouTube or shows on NetFlix until even that was boring. You could doze off but that was something you didn’t want to do for you could miss your name being called. Richard watched that happen with one or two guys here and each one was thumped or shaken awake by his buddies. He didn’t want that sort of indignity to happen to him.
Richard turned to one of the officers near him. “How long have you been here?” he asked the person. The other man shrugged his shoulders but didn’t reply. That told Richard all he needed to know. Too damn long, would be the answer. He checked the chronometer on his datapad, displaying both local time and GMT and he rolled his eyes. Was it two hours already?
He stood up and stretched and felt something pop in his back as he did so. He winced only once but sighed in relief as the tension relieved itself. He excused himself past other officers waiting on their orders, including one that fell asleep. Richard almost woke him but decided not to. Maybe the guy was waiting longer than he was. In that case, if the guy didn’t have orders yet, why wake him?
As he made his way to the lobby he heard people grousing about where they were previously posted. One complained about his last commanding officer and another complained about his old executive officer. Richard chuckled to himself, remembering his days as the XO of the frigate he was on. Another, a female officer, said she was nearly killed in her last assignment. That struck a chord with Richard because that very same thing nearly happened to him. To have him be reminded of just how close he came to death’s doorstep was unnerving.
Richard thought back to that day in… what star system was it? He couldn’t remember but it didn’t matter. His ship was part of a battlecruiser squadron near the system jump gate after the local patrol got punched out by what was thought to be space pirates. His ship and some twenty-five others went searching for those pirates whom they were fully expecting to stomp flat. Pirates, being what they were, used aging hand-me-down warships or other heavily modified ships for their purposes. An armed merchant cruiser was a name used often, harkening back to Terra’s oceangoing ships.
It wasn’t pirates that his squadron found but rather two squadrons of ACF battleships. The bastards were hiding behind an outer system’s moon and jumped his squadron by using the moon’s gravity as a slingshot. While battleships had no hope in hell of catching battlecruisers in a stern chase they held the acceleration advantage from coming around the moon at the Human Federation ships. His squadron’s commander ordered braking maneuvers to get the hell out of there but by then it was too late. The ACF ships must’ve been watching for whatever they could find with sensor buoys and or probes.
Those battleships and their escorts, which outnumbered his own squadron two-to-one in ships and nearly four-to-one in firepower, rolled right over his squadron like they were mere scout ships. His ship took hit after hit, thankfully by nothing bigger than enemy light cruisers. His former captain and less than half of his crewmates survived and were able to be saved by the other ships in the fleet. He still remembered when Lieutenant Commander James “Jim” Treudore gave the abandon ship order.
Richard nearly dragged his captain onto the shuttle to take them away from the crippled ship. Jim was of the “old school” that believed that a captain should go down with his ship. Richard wouldn’t hear any of that crap. His captain argued with him the whole way to the shuttle. Shortly after getting clear of the ship an enemy light cruiser put a laser into the frigate’s fusion reactor which blew the ship apart in the heart of a miniature sun.
He took a long drink of water from the fountain in the lobby then moved aside to let the guy behind him get his turn. Richard noticed the petty officer had metal prosthetic fingers. They were developed in the 22nd century and they were certainly a whole lot better than 21st-century prosthetics. They gave a full range of motion and the strength in them was superb, but they were always cold, and the touch sensors were somewhat imperfect. The look and feel of that type gave it an almost universal nickname of “automail” named after a similar technology from a 21st-century anime.
The nanomachine treatments that humanity used to slow aging and give you a much longer life could only go so far. Sure, it could heal things like nothing else could but if a whole-body part was missing there was nothing that could be done about it; you had to have something there to heal.
Richard flinched as he saw the replacement fingers. “Ouch. You on a waiting list for cloned implants? I thought hands were critical to duty and you got bumped up the list?”
The man grinned in reply, “It’s not my whole hand. At least I still have a hand to use. Luckily it was my left hand and not my right and that my thumb was unhurt.”
“How’d that happen to you?” Richard asked. “If you don’t mind me asking?”
“I was in an engineering section when the hull blew in. Fragments caught all the other fingers. My vacsuit sealed itself when it noticed the wound and the decompression in the section.”
Richard shook his head. “That’s the job, isn’t it? No love, no glory.”
“You don’t join the Space Force for the glory, or the pay either. I’m an ‘army brat,’ born into it I guess. Why’d you join sir?”
Richard shook his head. “I wanted to see new places and meet interesting people. I wanted to get ahead in life too. Look where all that got us huh?”
The noncom chuckled in reply, “Yeah, I hear you, sir. We’re right the fuck here and I got me these and a Purple Heart. Big deal.”
They shook hands and Richard went back to his seat only to find that it was taken, he muttered to himself, and soon found another. He looked to his right and saw a female officer sitting two seats over from him. He saw her looking at her datapad and he quickly looked away while trying to not look like he was looking at her. He got a good look at her in profile so that if he ever met her again, unlikely as that was, he would have an idea of what she looked like. Just as he looked away from her, she looked at him. Immediately he looked at the floor trying to look as innocent as possible.
When he brought his head up to look around, he found that that same woman was looking at him again. He began to wonder why this woman was looking at him but that thought quickly faded away as he heard his name called to the front desk. Richard approached the guy with the thought… Why aren’t you aboard a ship like the rest of us? He stepped forward and gave his name, rank, serial number, CAC, and finally a fingerprint and retinal scan for final verification. He was surprised that they didn’t want a sample of his blood too. He thought, don’t give them any ideas.
The ensign tapped a few keys on his keyboard and the printer behind him popped out a secured envelope that he was quickly handed. Richard wondered how the printer printed a piece of paper, stuffed it into the envelope and then sealed it too. He heard of multi-function printers before but that one took the cake. He then heard the name “McFarland, Rachel.”
Richard stared at the envelope and was irrationally afraid of what was inside. The woman who he was looking at a few minutes earlier came up and said “Would you move it already? There are others that need to get to the desk!”
“Oh right,” he said as he stepped out of her way, “I’m sorry.” Rachel McFarland, he thought to himself. Well, at least I know her name. He mentally shook his head. Like that even matters, I’ll probably never meet her again.
He looked down at the envelope and to say that he was nervous would’ve been the Understatement of the Year. His hands shook as he tore the envelope open. He quickly pulled the piece of paper out of the envelope and began to read it.
“From Admiral Matthew Heston, Admiral of the Sol Defense Fleet, Human Federation Space Force, to Lieutenant Commander Richard Smith, Human Federation Space Force, Fifth Day, Fifth Month, Year Two Thousand Three Hundred and Fifteen,” it read at the top of the paper. He re-read that line again for he could’ve sworn that he had read that line wrong. Wait, he thought, did I get promoted? He went on reading the paper.
“Lieutenant Commander: You are hereby ordered to proceed aboard the Human Federation Ship Valiant, there to take upon yourself the duties and responsibilities of Tactical Officer in the service of the Human Federation and her Constitution. Fail not at your duties. By order of Admiral of the Fleet, William Seacrest, Human Federation Space Force, for the President of the Human Federation.” Below that was the admiral’s signature along with where and when Richard had to report. He had to read the letter again just to make sure that he was reading it right.
“Holy shit!” he whispered under his breath. Being the tactical officer had to be the next best position to the XO of a ship. The very safety of the ship depended upon his orders and it was his orders that determined whether they would all live or die aboard the ship in a firefight.
Later that evening Richard walked into the officer’s club on the base after stopping by the temporary lodging that they had been assigned while dirt-side. He had gone to get his orders while in uniform like any good officer should but going into the club while in uniform wasn’t something he had wanted to do. He didn’t want to get his uniform dirty so he changed into civilian clothing or at least something that could pass as civilian clothing before he went to the club.
He remembered that upon arriving on the planet that they had been told by the base command that many of the people who lived in the settlement near the base didn’t exactly like the military and that to take precautions and to always have a “battle buddy” when venturing off-post. He had to question why since they were after all the ones that were protecting them from an ACF attack. Whatever he said to himself. It didn’t really matter much to Richard, he would be off this rock in a couple of hours.
He shivered as the cold rain found its way down the collar of his sweatshirt while on his walk. Damn, maybe going out to have a walk wasn’t the best of ideas. I feel like I’m going to catch a cold out here! He wasn’t about to go back to his lodging so he just kept on walking regardless of the cold rain. Even though he did have an umbrella it was raining so hard that some of the rain found its way down his neck. There really wasn’t that much to do on the base; it had the essentials and little else. Other than the gym, the post exchange, the commissary, a diner which was nothing more than a glorified mess hall, and the officers’ club there wasn’t much that captured his attention. If you asked Richard, the town outside the base was even smaller and looked just as depressing as the base itself. He didn’t feel like working out so off to the officers’ club it was.
After walking into the officers’ club, he found a place at the bar and plunked himself down on the stool. He yelled for the bartender but got no response. He didn’t fault the barkeep for it since he could barely hear himself over the combination of loud talking and loud music; that is if you could call it music. The night’s “entertainment” consisted of some obscure local band that would stay obscure (and local) if God was kind.
The singer could use some lessons; when she hit the high notes, it was enough to set your teeth on edge. She was a small, beautiful brunette who looked like she was about to fall out of her tight, strapless midnight blue dress that only came down a few bare centimeters of her thighs. By some of the looks she was getting, plenty of the guys wanted just that. She might’ve been not too bad by herself but the other two up there with her were truly terrible. If you asked Richard, the male drummer couldn’t keep a beat worth a damn and the guy playing the electric guitar had no business playing it.
He shook his head and muttered to himself, “I’ve heard screeching cats that sounded better.” A couple of shouts of “Get off the stage!” rang out from the crowd. Intermixed with the booing, hissing, and catcalls were some of the male officers calling out to the singer, “Come over here, baby. I’ll show you a good time.”
He sat down at the bar on one of the few barstools that were unoccupied and motioned for the bartender and coughed as he breathed in a cloud of smoke. In the past five years, smoking tobacco came back into high fashion. The nanomachine treatments that humanity invented knocked cancer for a loop long ago, so smoking was now seen as “safe.” The cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke that hung in the air was thick and acrid, some of it good and flavorful and some that smelled like dried cow flops. Just seeing in the bar was difficult for a fog bank rested near the ceiling and every puff of smoke made it that much bigger.
“How the fuck did this smoking crap get popular again?” he mumbled to himself. He himself couldn’t stand being around people who smoked. Their clothing stank of it and their teeth were yellow. Of all the bad habits that he picked up in high school, he was glad that smoking wasn’t one of them.
When the bartender came over, he ordered a glass of whiskey on the rocks. The bottle that flashed in the bartender’s hand had a label calling itself “Vernier Thruster Whiskey.” Trading credit coins for the drink he knocked it back, but he instantly regretted it as the vile liquid clawed its way down his throat. That shit wasn’t anything close to a good Kentucky or Tennessee Whiskey and had absolutely nothing in common with the Scotch Whiskies Richard preferred. Coughing, he gave the bartender a dirty look. Are you trying to poison me asshole?! he thought to himself.
Despite that, he put the glass down and asked for another. It might’ve been bad whiskey but if you drank enough of it you’d eventually stop caring about the taste. As he turned to the bartender to ask for another, he noticed the same woman that he saw at the depot sitting at the bar next to him. He didn’t want to scare her away so he paid her no attention, he figured that if she wanted to talk to him, she would initiate the conversation. It was after all in the regulations that if a social conversation between a man and a woman were to be initiated, it would have to be initiated by the woman. He couldn’t help but think that it was written by someone in some Human Resource department to prevent harassment incidents. Knowing how many of his past friends were drummed of the service for harassment charges, he now could see why.
He thought, section 200 sub-section 2 paragraph 5: Men of the Space Force are not allowed to socially interact with the opposite gender unless the woman initiates said social situation. Yep, that’s the regs alright; I plan on sticking to them.
He looked her way and then back at his drink as he shook his head. Damn, she’s freakin’ gorgeous! He shook his head to try and shake the thoughts of her out of his head. I’m so far out of her league that it’d take me years in hyperspace just to get halfway there. I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell with a woman like her. He shook his head again and knocked the whiskey back and winced as the stuff nearly made every taste bud in his mouth go numb. Best to leave her alone, I don’t want to be thought of as a creep.
“Hey,” someone from beside him said something but at first he didn’t pay it any mind for it could’ve been his buzzed mind playing tricks on him, someone telling him that he needed to vacate the seat, or move to one side to place an empty glass on the bar. He simply kept to himself until he felt someone touch him on his shoulder. “Hey,” he looked to the side of him where he was touched and found a hand on his shoulder; it was the woman’s hand. “Didn’t I see you in the depot where all of us were getting our new orders?”
“Yeah,” He nodded his head as the bartender filled his glass again. “I do remember you,” he nodded his head as he mentally took note that perhaps drinking whiskey on an empty stomach probably wasn’t the best of ideas since he already started to feel the booze going straight to his head.
“Sorry about being so rude to you like I was, I was just in a hurry and all that.” She took a sip from something, but he didn’t know what it was. “By the way, where were you posted? That is, if you don’t mind telling me.”
“Some ship called the Valiant,” he nodded his head, “yeah, the Valiant.” Her eyes widened as he said that but he had to wonder why.
“I’m posted on that ship as well.”
“I see,” he nodded his head slowly. “Maybe…” he paused, “we’ll run into each other while onboard.”
“Maybe we will. Anyways,” she paused and pointed to his now empty glass. “What are you having?”
“Whiskey, and not even the good kind,” he replied as he put the glass back down on the bar and waved for another. “This is some of the vilest stuff I’ve ever had the displeasure of drinking but I haven’t had whiskey in so long that I don’t really care. I figured that since I was here,” she shrugged his shoulders, “I’d have some.”
“Same goes for wine,” the woman replied. “I can’t get white Merlot aboard ship. White Merlot is one of the few wines that I like.” She shrugged her shoulders. “This isn’t the best wine,” she said as she looked into the glass, “I’ve definitely had better. If I had to rate this one, I’d give it maybe a five and a half.” She took another sip of it. “You’d think that for a bar they’d get some decent stuff here, it’s the least they could do for us in this depressing and dreary dump of a place.”
“You’d think that,” he looked at the glass. “I’d give this one a… a two,” she winced. “And that’s being generous.”
“Ouch,” she winced again. “That bad huh?”
“Well, it doesn’t so much as go down your throat but claw its way down.”
“Damn,” she laughed, “well then, that’s a good thing I avoided the whiskey then. Then again, I’m not one for hard liquors except for Scotch.”
“You like Scotch?”
“Yeah but it’s got to be a good one like Johnnie Walker or a single malt Scotch, but I figured that a place like this, what with being this far away from Terra, wouldn’t have a decent selection.”
“No,” he frowned as he looked into his glass, “no it sadly doesn’t have much choice. I’m a fan of the Belvanie myself. What with this place being the armpit of the galaxy you’d think that they’d try a little bit harder for us here.”
“Dream on!” she laughed as she took another sip of her wine. “This is the Space Force, after all, we can’t be pampered like the Air Force you know. We just can’t have that!”
“Not to change the subject but have you ever served aboard ship?” He’d only been on the one ship after his midshipman cruise. Before his assignment to his frigate, he was stationed at the Olympus Mons Military Space Port on Mars. Now that was a fun assignment! If you couldn’t find something to do in Olympus Mons City during your off time there was something wrong with you.
You could find food from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, a shopping center that made the old Mall of America look small, and a sports bar that had more television screens playing more sports games than Richard had ever seen in his life along with more beer taps and drink selections than anywhere else in the Sol system. Richard had remembered that he had blown a month’s pay sampling some of the best Scotch that Scotland had to offer during the first week he had been posted there. Oh, and they made a burger that had all the fixings. And the brothels, oh, many of those were amazing with some of the most beautiful girls in the entire star system willing to do just about anything a man could want if he had the credits to pay up. Not that Richard ever partook of the brothels, he only knew that because he had overheard other people talk about it. Richard, himself, found places like that to be quite distasteful. About the only place in the Sol System you didn’t want was the Pluto Station; now that was a dungeon where, by all accounts, the service sent the dregs to.
“Yeah,” she replied. “I’ve been serving aboard ships for the last two years.” She took another sip of her wine, got up from the bar, and walked away leaving him at the bar. He instantly looked at her as she walked away wondering if did something or said something wrong that made her leave. She paused while walking away and then looked back but saw that he was still sitting at the bar. She motioned for him to follow but he found himself pointing at himself and mouthing the word ‘Me?’ She emphatically nodded her head.
Well then, I might as well get another drink. He quickly downed the whiskey and motioned for a refill, a double. He got it and started after her with the drink in hand. He didn’t know where she was going but with his head buzzing already from the four shots of whiskey he was more than happy to follow her wherever she wanted to go.
As Richard followed her he got a better look at her. The farther he got away from the bar the better the air and visibility got. Getting away from the bar meant getting closer to the woman on stage and her so-called singing. Thankfully whoever this female officer was, she led him to a table in a far corner of the place which was as far away from the bar and the stage as you could get.
She sat down and motioned for him to sit across from her. He sat and took another sip of the whiskey and as he looked to her she reached up and wiped her eye. “Sorry, that smoke was getting to me.” he nodded his head in agreement. “So, what’s your name?” she asked.
“Richard Smith, Lieutenant,” he paused, “I mean lieutenant commander. I was recently promoted and the thought of being lieutenant commander hasn’t sunk in yet, like really recently; as in a couple of hours ago.”
“I have the same feeling myself,” the woman replied as she picked her wine glass up and let the wine swirl about in the glass before taking another sip. “I was recently promoted, myself. By the way, I’m Rachel, Lieutenant Commander Rachel McFarland. Pleased to meet you, Richard.”
“Rachel,” Richard said as he looked at her. “Pleased to meet you as well.”
Rachel smiled as she placed the wine glass back down on the table. “So, what’s your position on the ship? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Tac Officer,” Richard replied as he coughed. “Sorry, it’s the smoke.”
Rachel put her hand up to her mouth and coughed as she cocked her head to one side. “Yeah, me too.” She looked to him and then got up from the table. “You know, let’s get out of here. I’m sure that there’s got to be a better place where’s it’s much quieter and doesn’t have nearly as much smoke hanging about.”
“I’m up for that,” Richard stood up from the table and finished the whiskey in his glass. Best not to let even bad whiskey go to waste. He got up from the table and looked to her as she walked away. Wait a minute. Why is she doing this? I just met her and she already wants to take me somewhere quiet. Why me? She could have the pick of any guy she wanted in this bar and yet she seems to have chosen me. He shook his head and tried to not let his insecurities get the best of him.
As he caught up to her, Richard got a good look at her. She couldn’t have looked more than twenty-five years old and as far as Richard was concerned, she was beautiful. She wasn’t thin by any standard, but she wasn’t overweight either. She was wearing a pair of jeans that if you asked Richard in his half-drunk state they hugged her body in all right places along with what seemed like a simple black sweatshirt that was a bit baggy for her size.
Rachel was at the door before him and stood to wait for him to catch up. Both reached for the umbrella rack and got their all-weather coats from the cloakroom. He was thankful for the umbrella for somehow the rain had picked up while they were inside the bar. Richard didn’t think it could rain any harder, but this planet showed him a new definition of rainy. It was a veritable downpour out there.
“Damn,” Rachel breathed, “I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I could barely breathe.” Richard nodded his head in agreement. “So where to?” she asked as she stood under the awning above the door to the club. Richard shrugged his shoulders. “Alright then, I’ll choose.”
While walking on the base Richard noticed that things were very clean, kept up, and maintained just like a proper military installation. As soon as they left the post things took a turn for the worse. They both noticed that things were very off for a town such as this, what with the fact that the town had such a lively military base attached to it.
Everywhere they went it seemed like the townsfolk looked like they were depressed. As they walked by a garbage can that was beside a building fell over and spilled garbage on the sidewalk. The screech of a frightened cat rang out, piercing the sound of the relatively silent night. Richard looked over at the garbage can and he saw a person sleeping in what had to be the most torn-up set of clothing he ever saw. He looked at a building across the road and it looked like it hadn’t been maintained properly in years. The streets were little more than broken slabs being held together with crudely made patchwork. Some of the sewers didn’t have grates on them. Windows on many of the buildings were either boarded up or had iron bars on them. All in all, the town that existed around the base appeared to be in utter shambles.
Richard looked at Rachel. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this in my life.” Rachel nodded her head in agreement. “Yeah, I heard that some of the outer colonies were being neglected by the core worlds but I never thought I’d ever see it this bad. I know terraforming a world is the costliest thing humans have done since jumpgates and hyperdrives, but I never thought things could get this bad.”
“Terraforming debts are huge,” he continued. “They’re meant to be paid off over a long time with interest. I’m sure that the interest rates were damn high. I wonder what happened to this place to have it be in such a deplorable condition. Every other place I’ve been at that had a military base attached to it has been in good conditions. How did it get this bad?”
Rachel nodded her head in agreement. “I don’t know,” she shook her head again, “Maybe leaving post wasn’t a good idea after all. If I knew it was this bad out here we would’ve stayed at the bar or got something at the PX.”
“And continue to breathe smoke?” Richard asked. “No thank you! I can’t believe it came back in style. And besides,” he looked to his side, “I still have my sidearm.”
Rachel tapped the side of her and then looked to Richard, “me too. Guess it was a good idea that I grabbed my sidearm before I left my room. Not only that,” she looked down at herself, “it was a good idea that I got out of the uniform. Remember how they told us that the townsfolk didn’t like the military?” Richard nodded his head. “I’m glad I followed that advice.”
The two of them found themselves in a small diner about half a kilometer off the base. The planet was a marshy world known for raining most of the time, that and being hot and humid. Between the horrible weather and the absolute deplorable living conditions, Richard couldn’t for the life of him think how this place was a good place to live. But then again, there really weren’t that many good planets out there and most of the time you just took what you could find and settle with it. Mankind colonized worse, like Pluto; and it was a barren hunk of icy rock and methane. All Pluto had on it was a Space Force outpost for the patrol ships, a mining installation, and very little else.
Once inside the restaurant they both closed their umbrellas and set them beside the door. The fact that it had a Space Force insignia on it Richard thought it would be safe from somebody taking it; it was Space Force property after all. Although, that never stopped Space Force issue gear from showing up in markets on almost every planet.
The two of them walked to a table towards the back of the diner as soon as he reached the table he took off his all-weather coat and hung it up on the hook beside the seat.
“What?” Rachel asked as she sat down across from him.
“Um,” Richard coughed, “Nothing, nothing at all.” He looked to the ground meanwhile he could feel his face flush. He wished to God that he didn’t feel even half a creepy as he felt like he was. He was in unknown territory with this woman, he couldn’t recall a time when anyone showed the level of interest that she was showing towards him. The fact that he found her quite attractive made him feel that much more nervous. He kept thinking of all the many ways that this could go wrong.
Rachel looked at him. “That look was not a look of nothing Richard.”
“Alright,” he paused. “This may be the whiskey talking so please don’t take this the wrong way but you’re stunning, beautiful really. Please don’t report me for that comment though, it’s just…”
“Don’t worry, I won’t report you or anything like that. But thank you, thank you for the compliment.”
“Whew,” Richard breathed a sigh of relief. “Good,” he laughed. “I’ve heard of people being put on report for less.”
“I know, I’ve heard that all too often but I’m not like that.” She paused. “Anyways, now that we are somewhere quiet we can talk more.”
“Ok,” Richard said as he tried to compose himself and sat down across the table from her. “What would you like to talk about?” He didn’t know how to begin, he was still trying to get over the shock of her initiating the social situation; he wasn’t used to that kind of thing happening to him.
“You know… where you were born, what your new post is, where you grew up, what you majored in at Naval Academy Etajima, what your last post was? That kind of stuff.” Rachel folded her hands on the table.
“Well, my last posting was the executive officer aboard the HFS Montrose. As I told you before, I’m the new Tac Officer onboard the HFS Valiant. I was born and raised in the Alpha Centauri Colony Cluster, specifically cluster B. I graduated at the top of my class from Etajima. I must say, my time there showed me that Japan is a beautiful place.”
Rachel smiled, “So you’re a ‘Spacer’ huh?” As she said that she instantly wished she hadn’t. It was too late to take it back now. Richard cringed, he really hated that word. The term was primarily a derogatory term used to describe people who lived and grew up in space habitats as versus a planet. People who lived in space tended to stick together and only other “Spacers” really had any right calling him that.
Richard replied feeling really annoyed, “Hey, that wasn’t nice. That’s just as bad as me calling you a dago or a mick.”
“Ouch!” She knew she was wrong in calling him that, but she thought that he would’ve taken that in jest. She hadn’t meant to offend him, but it was apparent that he took offense to that. “Sorry, I should’ve probably thought about it before I just blurted it out.” A second later she exclaimed, “Hey, you just called me a mick! What the hell?!”
Richard shrugged his shoulders. “Hey, one for one.” Rachel thought about it for a moment and she too shrugged her shoulders. “Alright, you got me on that one. It’s only fair that since I called you something that you call me something in return.”
“So, what about you?” Richard asked. “Mind telling me a little about yourself? That is if you don’t mind. What position do you hold onboard the HFS Valiant?”
Just as Richard asked that the waitress showed up at the table to take their order. “What will you two have?” Richard spoke up first. “I’ll have the chicken parmesan with pasta and I’ll have an unsweetened iced tea to drink.” Next was Rachel’s turn. “I’ll have the chicken stir-fry and unsweetened iced tea as well.” The waitress nodded her head and walked off.
“Anyways,” Richard looked to Rachel, “to get back to what we were talking about. What position are you going to have onboard ship?”
“I’ll be the Chief Cyber-Security Officer.”
Richard looked at her for a moment and thought. He never heard of the position before, but then again, he wasn’t well versed on every department in the Space Force. He doubted his last ship even had a cyber-security officer. “Chief Cyber Security Officer? I’m afraid I don’t know what that position does.”
“Really?” Rachel asked. “You’ve never heard of the position and you were an XO?”
“My last ship was a small frigate. It was old, small, underpowered, and well beyond obsolete even with modernization upgrades. The keel must’ve been laid in the mid-2250s. We often depended upon the rest of the fleet for services.” He shrugged his shoulders, “But what do you want for a ship half a century old? The ship sucked, I knew it, but it was our ship and that’s all that mattered.”
Rachel nodded her head. “Alright, makes sense. Anyways, you know that all the computer systems aboard are maintained by a specific department, right?” Richard nodded his head. “Well, that department is known as Cyber Security and Maintenance.”
“And,” he said as he looked her over, “You’re the Chief Cyber Security Officer?” Richard asked. “Please don’t take this the wrong way but how does a woman as…,” he paused and looked about, his face turned red, “how does a woman as beautiful as you end up being such a geek? And where were you when I was in high school?”
“As far back as I can remember I was always taking something apart and trying to put it back together,” she started to explain. “I remember back when I was an early teen, I got into video games and I found an exploit in ‘Call of Duty: Space Warfare’ that allowed you to have god mode in the game. Ever since then I was into hacking things and trying to find out how and why computer programs did the things they did. I’ve even submitted a number of exploits to Microsoft for them to patch.” She looked to Richard half expecting him to have his eyes glazed over but they were looking at her wanting more.
“I’ve got a master’s degree in computer science and an associate’s in artificial intelligence theory. I’ve been involved in some of the computer system upgrades that are being deployed throughout the Fleet. I was directly involved with engineering the new encryption protocols that the Fleet uses to communicate with after the coup.”
“Very impressive,” Richard nodded his head. “I’ve got to hand it to you for one thing; you definitely seem to know more about the ship systems than I do. I know enough to do my job and that’s about it. I never was inclined to learn anything more about the systems.” Rachel looked down at the table. “Rachel, that’s not to say that’s a bad thing. We need people to maintain the ship systems, if it weren’t for those people we wouldn’t have a ship to be on. Right?”
“Well, it always did seem to chase people away, intimidate them even.”
“Hey,” he shrugged his shoulders. “Their loss,” he paused for a moment to gauge her reaction. “I know that the two of us have just met so if you… want to keep things slow at first then I’m fine with that.” He nodded his head. “Hell, I’ll put you at the helm of this relationship.” Her eyebrow raised as he said that. “I’m sort of in uncharted space here with you so I figure it would be best to have a more skilled person at the helm.”
“You haven’t had a relationship before?”
“As much as this is going to sound embarrassing,” he shook his head, “no, I’ve not. As you probably can imagine, being in the Space Force isn’t exactly conducive to having relationships.”
“No,” Rachel shook her head. “The Space Force really isn’t however I’ve heard of people who have made it work. It’s not easy,” she again shook her head, “long distance relationships even with faster than light communications is not an easy thing to deal with.”
“Nope,” he nodded his head in agreement.
“But didn’t you have any kind of relationship with anyone before you joined the Space Force?”
“Nope,” he looked to the ceiling again as he began to talk. “Oh God, where do I begin.” He laughed as he looked to her. “I wasn’t exactly the most popular of kids back in my school years, far from it. I can’t remember a day where people didn’t figuratively use me as their favorite punching bag.” Rachel winced as he said that, for she herself had been the focus of the same kind of treatment back during her school years as well. “As you can imagine that kind of kills your self-confidence in a hurry.” He then looked down at himself. “After graduating from high school, I was bound and determined to make a change in my life; that was when I joined the Space Force. The Space Force has done a lot of good for me, that’s for sure, but the academy doesn’t exactly have a class named ‘How To Talk To Women: 1010’. God, I wish that they did; I would have taken it in a heartbeat.” He heard her chuckle at that. “So no, I’ve not had any relationships.”
“You’re not doing too bad in the talking part.”
“I’m flying by the seat of my pants here,” he shook his head, “I really have no idea what I’m doing here.” He paused. “I didn’t have many friends in my childhood so to be perfectly honest with you I’d rather the two of us start off as friends first and by that, I mean actual friends.” He nodded his head slowly as he said that. “None of that stupid ‘friends with benefits’ shit that people often talk about.” Rachel’s eyebrow raised. “I simply want someone to be friends with, someone who I can count on being there when I need someone to talk with or hang out with. You know, much like what’s happening here. And then as time goes on maybe we can…” Rachel cut him off. “Have a relationship?”
Rachel nodded her head. “I’d like that,” she reached across the table and touched his hand. “I’d very much like that.” That’s interesting, here I would have thought he’d want to jump my bones but he’s doing the complete opposite of that. Am I really complaining about that? She mentally shook her head. No.
Richard breathed out as if he had been holding his breath. “Thank you,” he nodded his head. Just as he finished that sentence the waitress set their plates on the table. “Would you like a refill on your iced teas?” the waitress asked as she placed the plates on the table.
“Yes please,” Richard replied. With that, the waitress nodded her head and walked off to get something. A minute later she was back and refilling the drinks.
“Anyways,” Richard said as he looked down at his plate. He took the knife and cut into his chicken parmesan. “This may be the first good meal I’ve had in a long time. The cooks I had aboard my last ship were bad; some of the things were either underdone or all but turned to carbon. We may be carbon-based lifeforms, but I don’t want to be eating any carbon.”
Rachel laughed as she looked at her chicken stir-fry and took a bite of it. “You got that right.” She smiled as she swallowed her food. “Stir-fry, haven’t had this in a long time.” She pointed to Richard with her fork. “You can’t get this aboard ship, believe me, I’ve tried. They say it’s not,” she put her fingers up and made a gesture that looked like quotations, “healthy,” she took hold of her fork again. “They want us to eat healthy aboard ship. Besides, what’s not healthy about stir-fry? There are lots of vegetables here. What could possibly make a bunch of vegetables an unhealthy dish?”
“Maybe they don’t like the high salt content.” He pointed to her dish. “It does use soy sauce and that’s usually got a lot of salt in it.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Could be. Anyways, they said that they wanted us to eat healthy aboard ship. Healthy my ass! I’m surprised the whole crew on my old ship didn’t die of food poisoning.”
Richard couldn’t help but laugh. “It couldn’t have been that bad? Could it?” Rachel nodded her head. “Come on, we know those cooks aren’t the best in the universe, but I seriously doubt that they were that bad. There’s undercooking and overcooking but to outright try and cause food poisoning? I doubt it.”
“You’re probably right but they couldn’t even get mashed potatoes right!” Rachel exclaimed. “Just how does one mess up mashed potatoes? That’s what I want to know. They were horrible. I swear they were from a box and not only that but a box that went bad if that’s even possible.”
“They probably were from a box,” Richard took a bite of his chicken. “Remember,” he said as he swallowed, “keeping fresh anything aboard is going to take space and space is precious aboard ship. Could be worse, we could be messing on MREs while underway. They’re okay, but only a few are what anyone would call good. I think after a few weeks of them I’d be very upset. Oh well,” he looked to her plate, “I assume you’re enjoying your dinner.”
“Most definitely, it certainly helps when you have good company to eat with.”
The rest of the time that the two of them ate was spent in relative silence until the waitress came back to clear the plates away. As the waitress cleared the plates away Richard placed a rather large banknote on the table and told the waitress to keep the change. The waitress seemed very grateful for his generosity. The two of them then got up, walked out of the diner, and outside. Thankfully the rain finally stopped so the walk back to the barracks wouldn’t be completely miserable.
Richard stepped out onto the concrete and watched Rachel step down. He wanted to make sure that when she stepped down she wouldn’t trip because the steps were horribly broken. As she stepped down Richard got a whiff of something, something sweet. “What’s that smell?” Richard asked as she started to walk alongside him. “I smelled something before but I couldn’t place it. I thought it was the air freshener that they used in the restaurant.”
“Is it a good smell?” Rachel asked as she looked to him. He nodded his head. “It’s my perfume.” Richard looked at her. “I thought perfume, cologne, or any kind of additional scent was strictly forbidden according to Space Force uniform code section 230 sub-section 5 paragraph 2: No perfume and/or cologne are allowed to be worn by men or women with the uniform when on duty.” That was the regulation that handled the Wear and Appearance of the Uniform.
“Aboard ship, yes.” She looked at him. “And just how do you know the exact paragraph and sentence?”
“I was an XO you know. I had to know the regulations inside and out, forwards and backward.”
Rachel laughed. “Yeah, that you were.” She paused for a moment. “And besides, we aren’t in uniform. We’re just two civilians right now. The rule book doesn’t exactly apply to us right now.”
“Within reason,” Richard nodded his head, “I suppose that it doesn’t apply.”
“Yep, that’s why I figured that it would be alright for me to wear the perfume.” With that, she put an arm around him and pulled him closer. He was very much surprised that Rachel did such a thing, he himself would not have even thought about doing that what with his want to not do anything stupid. If it were up to him, they would have followed the uniform code of keeping no less than a half a meter between them. It didn’t bother him, but it certainly surprised him. “Since you mentioned it, do you like it?”
Richard breathed in deeply. “Yes. What’s it called?”
“The fragrance is called ‘Passion.’” Richard nodded his head. “You know that you can put your arm around me, right?”
“Uh,” Richard stammered, “I didn’t think it would be appropriate.”
“I’m giving you permission.”
“Um…” Richard paused, “I’m just not comfortable with doing that right now. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I don’t feel that it’s right to do that right now at this stage of us getting to know each other.”
“Alright,” she said as she looked down at his hand and took hold of it, as she did so he looked down. “Is this alright?” He nodded his head. “Alright, baby steps it is.”
The next morning Richard was sitting in a shuttle with Rachel destined to go to his new ship. He couldn’t stop yawning for he barely slept the night before. Then again, how could he sleep? He was nervous about how the first introduction to the captain of his new ship would go. He looked at Rachel who was sitting across from him and she too yawned. It didn’t look like she got much sleep either, so he didn’t feel like he was the only one.
He looked to the right of him and there were two other officers. One was a lieutenant and the other was an ensign who looked like she was straight out of the academy. She looked forward with that kind of look that reminded him of when he was assigned to his first ship after his midshipman tour. She couldn’t have been more than twenty years of age. With the nanomachine treatments, she looked even younger. He looked to Rachel and cocked his head towards the ensign. Rachel shrugged his shoulders but smiled a knowing smile.
As the shuttle reached the outer limits of the planet’s atmosphere Richard looked out the window and watched as the HFS Valiant came into view. Richard drank in the graceful and deadly lines of the battlecruiser as the pilot skimmed along the hull toward the fighter bay. There hadn’t been actual fighters carried aboard ships in well over a hundred years, but the name still stuck. Some people in the Fleet suggested changing the name to the shuttle bay or the boat bay but none of those motions ever carried.
“A battlecruiser,” Richard said to no one in particular. “Very nice, very nice indeed.”
“Did you say something Lieutenant Commander Smith?” Rachel asked when she noticed Richard speaking.
“Oh,” Richard looked to her, “I was just commenting on that the HFS Valiant is a battlecruiser.”
Battlecruisers were capital ships, but they weren’t a ship of the line. They were smaller and faster than battleships yet bigger than heavy cruisers. They traded the armor and weapons that bigger ships had to achieve that maneuverability. They carried smaller and fewer guns and missiles than a battleship and their decreased armor made them unable to stand toe-to-toe with bigger ships. They were, however, big enough to tackle anything up to another battlecruiser and fast enough to get away from anything that could kill them; thus, making them perfect for picket duty, escort duty, or anti-piracy operations.
Richard couldn’t wait until he was able to see first-hand what a graser could do. He also heard that the new Ulysses Class Battlecruisers, which the Valiant was one, carried a positron cannon and more missile launchers and better ECM than any class of ship before it. Being that he was one of the ship’s tactical officers he’d be getting firsthand knowledge of just how deadly those weapons were. He couldn’t help to be excited about seeing what that ship would bring to a firefight.
Rachel nodded her head. “Yes, that she is. The HFS Valiant is one of the newest to come off the assembly lines at the Utopia Planitia Drive Yards. She’s barely a year old.”
“How do you know so much about this ship?” a female ensign in front of them asked.
“I looked up her stats last night,” Rachel replied.
“And?” the ensign asked. “How many fights has she been in?”
“Six skirmishes with pirates in which she blew them away.” Rachel paused for a moment to think. “If I remember correctly she was in two engagements against the Rebels.”
“Is that all you call them Lieutenant Commander McFarland?” a male lieutenant, junior grade, asked. “I call them what they really are, a bunch of murderous bastards.”
“I was trying to remain polite,” Rachel stated as she looked to the JG. “That’s all.”
“I see,” he replied. “When it comes to those bastards, they don’t deserve to be called anything remotely close to polite. Those goddamn bastards need to pay for what they did, suckering us as they did.” He looked at Rachel. “Don’t you agree?”
Rachel nodded her head. “Yes, they do need to pay.”
“What I think she meant was,” Richard spoke up, “both McFarland and I are higher-ranking officers.” He pointed to the two of them. “We need to set a higher standard. We may hate them, we may want them to pay dearly for what they did, but that doesn’t at all mean that we stray from the realm of professionalism. The four of us are officers of the Human Federation Space Force, let us never forget that we represent Terra and we must do that with dignity, honor, and professionalism.” He looked to the JG. “And you of all people,” he looked at his nameplate, “Lieutenant Copeland, should know that.”
“I thought this was a candid conversation sir,” Lieutenant Copeland replied.
“Candid as it may be,” Richard replied, “but I’ll only allow it to go so far. Again, we’re officers, we are held to a higher standard.”
Lieutenant Copeland nodded his head. “It won’t happen again, sir.”
Richard nodded his head. “See that it doesn’t lieutenant.”
Just as the conversation ended the shuttle entered the fighter bay. The pilot expertly danced the shuttle around on maneuvering thrusters until finally settling into position in the docking collar. A personnel tube ran out to the shuttle to mate with the airlock. Once a good seal was confirmed by the flight engineer she opened the airlock.
Since both Richard and Rachel were the ranking officers aboard the shuttle, they were the first to disembark from the shuttle. Richard grabbed the bar just above the airlock and swung himself out into the tube.
Looking back he saw Rachel swing out too but not with his long-practiced grace. Being a “Spacer” gave Richard far more experience with zero-gee. It was quite commonplace in parts of a space habitat like the one he grew up on. He never touched any of the handholds along the way, whereas Rachel had to a time or two. Once on the other side he grabbed the bar at the top of the fighter bay’s airlock and swung down until his feet hit the deck and the ship’s artificial gravity kept him in place. A yellow-painted strip showed that past that point, you were officially aboard ship.
Both of them looked at the woman standing on the other side of the line and noticed that she wore a full captain’s insignia. The two other officers that were aboard the shuttle stepped up behind them. The four came to attention, saluted aft to where the flag would fly on a sailing vessel, and then saluted the captain and announced their rank and names. The captain also returned their salutes.
“Permission to come aboard ma’am?” the four asked.
“Granted,” the captain said and the four of them put their arms down and stepped across the dividing line, still at attention. “Welcome to the HFS Valiant, I’m Captain Julia Smith,” she turned to her right. Both of them hadn’t even noticed the person standing beside the captain. “And here is my XO and second in command, Commander Justin Ashland.” The four of them quickly snapped off a salute to him and he returned it.
“Parade… rest!” the XO snapped. The captain waited until they suited words to actions. “I wanted to welcome the newcomers to their new ship. I know a captain usually sends the officer of the deck to greet new personnel, but I’ve found in my career that if I get to know my fellow officers it tends to make things go more smoothly on board a ship.” The four of them all nodded their heads at once; it never hurt to agree with the captain. “Yes ma’am,” they said in unison. You could almost never go wrong saying that.
“Lieutenant Commander Smith, Richard,” the captain smirked. “Smith. No relation right?” Richard nervously shook his head. “Anyways, I see from your transfer records that you are to be one of my tac officers.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Richard replied quickly.
“From what I’ve read on your transfer records you are highly praised by many in Fleet Command. You graduated at the top of your class at the academy with honors and you’ve been honored with many awards in your time in the Space Force, including the Space Force Cross.”
“You’ve been hand-picked by the admiral from what it looks like.”
Richard coughed. “If I would be so bold to ask,” Julia nodded her head. “What do you mean by that?”
“When they assigned this position to you they failed to tell you that this ship is part of First Fleet; the pride of the Human Federation Space Force next to the Sol Defense Fleet. Fleet Admiral Megan Kimery is the admiral of the fleet and she wanted the best of the best officers that Fleet had to offer to man the ships in her fleet. She just about hand-picked every one of the officers that serve in this fleet. To be selected for this fleet is an honor bestowed upon only the best officers in the Fleet.”
The four of them nearly choked as they heard that. They had no idea that the Valiant was part of First Fleet. The fleets that the ships in the Human Federation Space Force were assigned to tended to be a highly kept secret for security reasons but it was kept even more secure for First Fleet. They had the most success in not only keeping piracy down to a minimum but also for delivering some of the most successful engagements against the Allied Colonies for Freedom so far. Only the best ships and the best officers were assigned to First Fleet and you weren’t assigned to First Fleet by being a slacker.
So far only four major engagements were all that was fought against the ACF after the war was declared by the ACF. Of those three the Sixth Fleet was mauled at the Indras System only two weeks ago.
Julia turned to Rachel. “Lieutenant Commander McFarland, Rachel. I see from your transfer records that you’re the ship’s new Chief Cyber-Security Officer. Intel believes that the ACF will attempt to take over the computer systems of the ships in the fleet in an effort to shut us down. That’s why all of the ships in our fleets have cyber-security officers assigned to them. You and your staff are to protect the critical computer systems aboard the ship from computer security intrusions.”
“As you might guess, having your computer systems hacked and having a virus planted would put a damper on anyone’s day.” Rachel nodded her head. “Your post will be on the bridge monitoring the ship’s computer systems continuously from your post on the bridge. You are to report to my XO any and all anomalies with the systems that we require the use of onboard, it doesn’t matter how small they are; report them to my XO. If he isn’t available and I am, report them to me. Is that understood?”
“You’ll have a team of people under you who’ll assist you in the effort to make sure that our systems stay online and remain secure.” Julia turned to Richard. “Your position is on the bridge as well. You’ll have your own staff too.”
The captain and the XO then continued onto the two other officers that they had come to the ship with and after doing so the captain then turned around and walked out of the fighter bay leaving the XO behind. The XO turned to the four of them. “We’ll be leaving port within the next forty-eight hours. We’re still taking on needed supplies and replenishing our reactor fuel. In the meantime, I suggest the four of you get to your departments and introduce yourselves.”
The four of them nodded their heads. It was a good idea to do that before plunging into a situation in which they were actually needed. Getting to know the people under you was not only a good idea for the commanding officer but good for the people under you. It tended to make things run much more smoothly in a department.
“Oh,” the XO held pulled out a datapad and started typing on it. “I have pushed your assignments for your quarters to your datapads. The two of you,” he pointed to Richard and Rachel, “have been assigned quarters on deck two, section four, sub-section C.” Both Richard and Rachel nodded their heads. “Dismissed!” the XO snapped off.
Continue to Chapter 2…