Admiral Nancy Moore looked over the mass of datapads on her desk and grimaced. Most of them contained requests from various news organizations asking, pleading in fact, for a press conference with her. The admiral’s grimace turned into a scowl as she swept the newsies’ requests off her desk with her right arm. She didn’t care if she broke the datapads or not for she was sick of their incessant requests for an interview, an expose, a news conference, or even a few words. She was an admiral for God’s sake, and she had a job to do!
Sure, her fleet might’ve finally brought the Human Federation to heel but she was by no means the superhuman demigod that some of the newsies made her out to be. She was sick to death of their fawning hero worship! They called her “the Heroine of the Revolution”, as if there weren’t any others. The news media acted as if she herself had won the war, as if she had gone up against the Human Federation’s champion and defeated them in a trial by combat with sword and pistol. What a load of crap!
Plenty of other people had fought, bled, and died for the Colonies’ freedom from a tyrannical Terra-based government, yet you wouldn’t know that if you watched the newsies all but fall over themselves to heap adulation upon her. Moore couldn’t help but think of other men and women who fought for the Colonies, people such as Valerie Sykes and countless others. Yet were they given the same media attention? Hell, no they weren’t!
The most Sykes had gotten was the week of attention in the news faxes for her “heroic stand” before leading her ship back to ACF space. The fact that Sykes was unconscious for most of the last of that fighting retreat was largely ignored. During the week or so Sykes was out of the hospital and before she reported to Moore’s fleet, she’d done one press conference. It had been an uncomfortable affair for Sykes, but she’d gotten her side of the story out. After that conference, the media attention had eased but hadn’t gone away entirely; at least not until the “next big thing” in news came along.
About the only peace Admiral Moore could get was aboard her flagship, parked in a repair slip within the primary shipyard over Altair. Her ship had been all but shot to hell during the Battle of Tau Ceti, but somehow, she and her flag staff had avoided any injury worse than a sprained wrist. A group of six super juggernauts and two juggernauts had broken past most of her fleet’s other sub-formations and poured fire into the sub-formation that her flagship was in. The HF ships had destroyed two other super juggernauts outright, pounded another two into scrap, and just about battered her flagship just as badly before they too were destroyed or disabled.
Hundreds of the crew of the ACS Dwight D. Eisenhower had died in that calamitic battle, every one of them were heroes, the blood of their sacrifice wouldn’t be forgotten by Moore, yet the media wanted to focus on her and her alone.
Her ship was the only place she could find refuge even while the yard dogs worked furiously, inside, and out to set the ship back to rights. Aboard ship she was shielded from the media feeding frenzy. The first time the media tried to get aboard the ship the Marine sentries at the personnel tubes to the ship had been polite enough. They’d held the newsies back with competent and respectful restraint. Same with the second time, the third time, and the fourth time.
Finally, in what seemed as inevitable, on the fifth time a corporal had had enough. He’d grabbed a newsie who tried to rush the personnel tube by the neck and did his level best to plant her into the deck like a vegetable. The Marine put his armored knee on the newsie’s chest, clearly not caring that the woman underneath him was shocked at such behavior. While the corporal’s actions may have been regrettable in hindsight, his words weren’t.
“Ma’am,” the corporal in question stated, “this is a restricted area. Please, don’t try to get past us.”
“My superiors will have your head for this!” the newswoman had cried.
“When they hear how you tried to illegally gain access to a warship, trying to rush past its Marine sentries, I very much doubt anything will happen. If you want to press charges, go ahead. I’m sure the courts will rule in our favor. The Dwight D. Eisenhower is a ship of war and its crew doesn’t want to be the subject of a media feeding frenzy,” the Marine’s staff sergeant said as he walked up to the two. “We have it all on vid, both from our power armor suits and from the security cameras in this section.”
The newsie in question looked to the other Marines at the personnel tube and none of them, including the staff sergeant there, made any move to help her. Behind the masks of their power armor, she couldn’t see their faces, but somehow knew they all viewed her with the same contempt as that of the corporal who still had his knee buried in her breasts. Only when the Marine lifted his knee and backed away from her did the newsie get up and back away from the personnel tube.
“Did you see what that grunt did to me?!” she pleaded with the other newsies assembled there with her.
None of the others came to her defense. Instead, most of them wouldn’t meet her eyes and a few had shaken their heads at her. One of her colleagues put his arm over her shoulders and led her away toward the nearest lift, saying, “Honestly, you brought that upon yourself. You shouldn’t have done that.”
“You’re kidding me?! You’re siding with them?” she blurted out.
“Just drop it, alright,” the man told her as he pressed a button to summon a lift car. “Like the Marine said, if you want to press charges, go ahead. But I don’t think you should do anything so stupid.” Before the woman could blurt out something else the man continued, “If you press charges the vid of how you tried to rush the tube will be used against you. You won’t win and you’ll only make yourself look even stupider. Now…, I suggest you go get a drink or two and forget any of this happened.”
She gaped at him as he gently pushed her into the lift car. Numbly she pressed the stud for the central axis of the station and was gone.
Even though he’d been right to do so, Admiral Moore couldn’t let something like that slide. She put in word to Marines’ platoon leader and their first lieutenant led the whole squad to her office. Normally this would’ve been handled by her flag ship’s captain but seeing as how the media focus was on her, she wanted this to come from her. As well as the press release stating that some adverse action had been taken against the Marines in question.
She looked at said Marines standing in her office now dressed in regular duty uniforms and shook her head. “While I agree with what you did, I can’t condone how you did it. I have to notice this. The newsie in question isn’t going to press charges, but if I don’t reprimand you lot in some way, the Admiralty will come after me, and rightly so.
“To that end, all of you are confined to quarters for three standard days,” she ignored the slight groans coming from the Marines there. She turned to the corporal who had dropped the newsie, “and you will be confined to quarters for an additional three standard days,” she continued. She ignored the pained expression on his face. Six standard days confined to quarters wasn’t going to be fun for a Marine. Well, it could’ve been worse. It could be the brig instead.
“When you require meals other Marines not from your platoon will lead you to the mess hall and watch you until you’re to go back to your quarters. Your time in the mess hall will be measured and you’re not to talk to anyone concerning this incident. The only places you’ll be authorized to go to will be the mess hall and the gym for your unit’s physical fitness training. Your communications will be monitored as well,” she finished, not really needing to add that last part. Every computer station aboard ship, including those in crew quarters were subject to monitoring. There was no expectation of privacy.
That done she rapped out, “Attention!”
The Marines came to attention before her. “Dismissed!” she commanded. Once they were gone, she sat at her desk and opened a drawer. A bottle of good Altairian bourbon-style whiskey was in the drawer. Purely for medicinal purposes she told herself. She took a shot glass from the drawer and poured herself a quarter of a shot. Just enough to wash the taste of that meeting out of her mouth.
She eyed the bottle once more before she put it back in the drawer and shut it. A little nip here or there wasn’t bad and nobody would say nay, but anything more than a little nip could lead to problems. She’d known some officers who hit the bottle a little more than they should’ve. Some of them were good officers despite that, most weren’t. Fortunately, most of the time the ones that weren’t eventually got posted somewhere harmless before they could cause something unfortunate to happen. Others were simply relieved for cause.
Moore thought about turning on the HD screen in her day cabin’s office and thought the better of it. All she’d see is more newsies gushing over how great she was. Ugh. She was so sick of it already! After setting her face in her hands for a few seconds she gratefully went back to the electronic paperwork that never seemed to end.
Captain Valerie Sykes looked up when the young, perky, altogether way too beautiful raven-haired secretary for Andrew Saunders, one of the hiring managers for Stellar Frontiers, Ltd., called her name. Sykes gave a sigh and tucked her datapad into a pocket in the functional bag she carried instead of a lady’s purse. The bag was big enough for her to carry several datapads, datacards, small personal hygiene items, snacks, a loaded 9mm pistol, and other assorted small items she might need.
She got up, smoothed out the blouse and pants that her friend Ainsley helped her pick out for the interview, and strode past the decorous secretary in the outer office. Ainsley had suggested that Valerie dress as a civilian, rather than wearing her Space Navy dress uniform. There was a time and place for said uniform, and Valerie agreed with Ainsley that a job interview wasn’t.
Valerie kept a professional smile on her face as she walked up to Andrew’s desk to reach across it and shake his hand. She idly noticed the wedding band on his finger; but with a secretary like that outside, she wouldn’t have been too surprised if Mrs. Saunders didn’t know about any infidelity on her husband’s part. If Mr. Saunders fucked his secretary who was easily fifteen Terran years younger than him in his office chair then that was his business. It wasn’t like it was unheard of in corporate or political circles to have a quiet mistress.
She sat down, sitting at attention as if before a formal board. Saunders sat down as well and picked up a datapad from his desk, “Captain Sykes,” he began, “according to the resume you sent you were a battlecruiser captain during the last few months of the war and participated in the Battle of Tau Ceti. Decorated with the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and had your brevet promotion made permanent before the battle. I contacted the navy and Admiral Moore’s staff spoke highly of you as a ship captain with recommendations for eventual squadron-level command once you have more time-in-grade.”
Sykes found herself nodding in reply. Everything he said could be found in her resume and her unclassified personnel jacket. Andrew sat for a brief moment or two before he leaned forward onto his desk. “Forgive me for being a bit rude in asking, but why are you here? A decorated combatant commander wants to sign on with a megacorporation, for the purpose of essentially taking command of a scout ship. And not even a military-grade one at that.”
Sykes had been expecting this answer. The blonde woman looked him square in the eyes, and if the military-style formality she used put Saunders off his stride he certainly didn’t let on. “Call it a want to fulfill a passion of mine.”
“Oh?” Saunders asked. “Please explain.”
“I want to be out their Mister Saunders,” she stated, glancing only with her eyes up at the ceiling at some undefined point “out there” as she put it. Returning her gaze back to him, “There’s just something about the great empty that calls to me. I want to be out there, going places no human has ever gone. I want to set foot on an alien world that perhaps hasn’t been touched by anyone in thousands of years, or ever.”
Saunders smiled at her with a chuckle and leaned back in his chair. “Couldn’t you do that in the Space Navy? The whole alien world thing I mean. With the Zaltaens talking about our people being let into their space, to see their worlds from the surface, you would be going where no Man has gone before,” he said, inadvertently quoting “Star Trek.”
The corners of Sykes’s mouth twitched upward ever so slightly at the quote, whether Saunders had intended to use it or not. “That may be true, but the Space Navy is only sending a few to Zaltaen space. Most of them are going to be high ranking officers, not a recently promoted captain. I don’t have the time-in-grade or service to be given a serious consideration. The Space Navy’s policy for now is to send their best and brightest, and even if the ships they send get the chance to send down their crews, it’ll likely be for short state visits.
“I, on the other hand, want to see everything. To go places that maybe even the Zaltaens haven’t been to. Between them and the Vonosh and their respective allied–or in the case of the Vonosh, subjugated–peoples, neither controls the whole galaxy,” she continued with. “There’s vast tracks of space that hasn’t been touched by either alien power. The Zaltaens have been expanding toward and around the Vonosh, wars tend to do that, but they’ve invested little time and resources into exploring and expanding into the far side of their space. Whether this is because there’s little of note there, or because they’ve been fighting against the Vonosh for so long that their resources are strained that badly, I can’t say.
“By everything I’ve heard and read from unclassified reports,” Valerie kept on speaking, “The Zaltaens are pretty much on a total war footing. Nearly their entire economy is a war economy. Just about everything that can be made goes toward the war effort; and for good reason when they’re facing a war of annihilation. Little is spent on anything else and their people don’t enjoy as many fruits of their economy as I think they’d like us to believe.
“So, to finish my little speech, and I beg your pardon for having done so,” Valerie said with another twitch of her lips. When she heard Saunders chuckle at that she knew she was fine. “I want to see what’s out there, what’s beyond that next star. To go where even the Zaltaens haven’t.”
Saunders tipped his chair back and tapped his datapad against his chest for a second or two. Then, letting the chair tip back forward he tapped a few keys on the datapad. “Our company has heard much the same out of Human Federation space; except they’re talking about going rearward toward the Rim. We just happen to be in a better position, astrographically speaking, to explore toward the core where the Vonosh and Zaltaens and their allies are.”
“Well,” Sykes began, “while going rim ward sounds just as interesting, I doubt the Human Federation and their own mega corporations, are going to allow us to go through their territory like that. The wounds from the war are too fresh and it’s going to take time for the peoples of our two nations to decide that we’re not foreign invaders to one another. Not when we have the rest of the galaxy to explore.”
“True, true,” Saunders replied, tapping a few keys on his datapad. “But, before we can hire you on, you’re going to have to leave Active service.”
“I have a few months left on Active Duty,” Sykes said in reply. “I’m just taking personal leave in order to meet with you about the job. After my Active time is up, I’ll be heading into the Reserves. The way the Space Navy is doing it is if an officer or enlisted Sailor wants to take a Reserve posting so as to go into things like this or the Merchant Marine, they can put forth the paperwork for approval. But the stipulation is that in the event of another shooting war they’d be recalled to Active Service as soon as feasibly possible.”
Saunders nodded, already very much aware of those stipulations. His respect for Sykes went up a notch or two for her having mentioned it. She wasn’t trying to hide anything in order to secure a job with the corporation. Even if she had, it would’ve been too easy for him to catch her in a lie and use that to keep her from the job. He tilted his chair back once more to think for a few moments.
Sykes still sat there at attention, waiting for him to say something. After a few moments he did lean back forward and stood behind his desk. Sykes took that as her cue to stand as well. Saunders extended his hand to her, “Well Captain Sykes, I think you’ll do just nicely for us. I like your attitude and enthusiasm. I wish all our captains were like that.”
Sykes shook the proffered hand and together they went to the door to the outer office. “When your Active Service commitment is up, shoot us an email. We’ll have a scout ship waiting for you.”
“Scout ship?” Sykes asked, surprised that she’d only get that much.
He must’ve sensed her surprise and confusion, “I know that you’re used to commanding a battlecruiser, but everyone who starts with us has to start somewhere. An explorer ship is very different from a warship. They’re bigger, as I’m certain that you’re aware. They mass something closer to a battleship. Explorer ships tend to carry and service anywhere between five and eight scout ships that can act as independent explorers, as well as a number of auxiliary craft and small craft. In that sense they’re closer to what the aging assault carriers were like back in the days when we still had starfighters.
“Each scout ship is fully self-contained but lack any hyperspace capabilities. They rely on the mothership for transit between planets and stars, maintenance, repairs, and resupply. The scout ships land on a planet or moon and from there the teams disembark to conduct their analysis missions. This can be one scout ship on an asteroid or all of an explorer ship’s scouts for all-up planets. Once on the surface they’ll collect their data and any samples and bring them back to the explorer vessel for more detailed analysis.”
“Yes, I was aware of this,” Sykes replied, “but I don’t see how that means I’d start as a scout ship captain. As you said, I’m used to commanding a battlecruiser. Surely that’d count for something.”
“Indeed, it does Captain Sykes,” Saunders explains to her, “but, like I said, an explorer is very different from a warship. You have to learn how things are done aboard them before you can hope to command one, especially out there with little to no support for lightyears in any direction. And despite the military ranks that our people carry aboard ship, they’re civilians, not military. You can’t treat them like you would Sailors and Marines. Thus, the culture aboard the ship will also be different than what you’re used to. I’m not saying there’s discipline problems, everyone is an adult and understands the risks of being out there beyond the edge of known space, but you have to take a softer line with them. Again, they’re not military, so you can’t just throw the UCMJ at them.
“Lastly, everyone starts on a scout ship, but not everyone starts out commanding a scout ship, do you hear what I’m saying?”
“Yes sir,” Sykes said.
“Good,” Saunders replied as he extended his hand once more and thumbed the door controls with his other hand. “In that case, I look forward to having you with us.”
Valerie walked out onto the aircar pad and found her friend Ainsley Mitchell leaning back against her aircar. The dusky-skinned woman wore another of her almost translucent, sinfully short, sundresses that clung to her body like a glove. Not for the first time did Valerie wish she had the redhead’s figure. She was nicely shaped herself, but not like Ainsley. The redhead looked at her through her sunglasses and asked, “How’d it go?” while the two got into the car.
“Very good,” Valerie answered while she secured the safety belt across her body. “They want me to send them an email as soon as I leave active service so that I can sign on with them. They didn’t have me sign anything yet, but that’s likely because they’re awaiting my end of service.”
“So, now what?” Valerie asked.
“Now we go back to your place and then the beach, but only because you’ve been bugging me about it for so long!”
“Now you’re talking!” Ainsley exclaimed as she lifted the car off and merged with the Altair’s planetary capital’s aircar traffic. It wasn’t long before Ainsley was muttering dark things about the traffic and how much she hated driving in the capital. Her colorful language got harsher and more amusing by the minute, which only made Valerie chuckle despite being annoyed with the traffic as well.
Only when they left the capital in their rearview mirror did Ainsley put her foot down and accelerate the aircar to truly maddening speeds. The Midasian whooped a little as she watched the speedometer rise until the aircar was going as fast as its governor would allow. Valerie only gave her friend a bemused look and settled back in the passenger seat as she watched the terrain fly by under them.
Even though she drove like a madwoman, Ainsley got them safely back to her place in Turson’s Landing again. Once in the apartment she waited on the couch while Valerie went to go change into something more suited to the beach. Valerie went to the guest room she was staying in and, looking over her shoulder, she asked, “Aren’t you going to change too?”
“I’m fine in this,” Ainsley answered. “Once on the beach I can take it off and be ready to get some sun.”
“Oh, you already have your bikini on under it?” Valerie asked, even though she likely knew the answer already. She hadn’t seen a bra or a bikini top on her friend, but that didn’t prove anything one way or the other. Ainsley typically went without a bra whenever she could.
And Ainsley didn’t disappoint. “What bikini?”
Even though she’d been expecting it she couldn’t help but gape at her friend. “You’re naked under that dress?”
“Yep,” Ainsley said with a smile as she ran one hand sensually along one side. “You like?” she asked with a giggle.
Valerie rolled her eyes before saying, “Yeah, I do.”
“Oh?” Ainsley asked, jumping up from the couch and coming up to Valerie to pull her into a friendly hug. “This is a first, normally you’re so strait-laced about these things. No offense.”
“I’m just used to it by now,” Valerie answered, returning the hug, and let her metal hand drop to rest lightly on the redhead’s backside before giving it a playful tap.
Ainsley leapt a little in Valerie’s arms and giggled a little. “You’re being bad. I like it.”
“Yeah, well, don’t expect me to be like this all the time,” Valerie answered before she stepped back from the redhead. “Now, let me go change, okay?”
Ainsley nodded as she turned back to the couch. She liked seeing her friend being playful like this. It was good for her. If the two friends weren’t so thoroughly heterosexual Ainsley would have Valerie in bed in nothing flat. But neither were like that. They might play around a little, admire each other, but that was it. Just play; certainly, nothing even remotely serious.
A scant few minutes passed before Valerie came out of the guest room in shorts and a tee shirt on along with sunglasses. Ainsley chuckled to herself as she looked her friend up and down. Still strait-laced for sure. “You ready?” she asked.
Valerie made sure to grab the bag they’d packed earlier in the day with snacks, drinks and most importantly, sunblock. “Yeah, now I am. And I took a page from your book.”
“I too have nothing on under this,” Valerie said, gesturing to her shirt and shorts. “Being nude on the beach is one thing, but we still have to get there, right?”
“True enough,” Ainsley answered, grabbing two beach towels from her closet before the two left her apartment and went out to the aircar.
Continue to Chapter 6…