Space 2315, Chapter 1

Lieutenant Richard Smith sat in a velvet-lined chair in a Human Federation Space Force base theatre on some no-account planet he had 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 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. It was either that or doze off, and that was something you didn’t want to do for you would 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 women officer, said she was nearly killed in her past assignment. That struck a chord with Richard because he was in the same position with his last ship.

Richard thought back to that day in… what star system was it? His ship was part of a battlecruiser squadron near the system jumpgate 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 more often than not, harkening back to Earth’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 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. His ship took hit after hit after hit, thankfully by nothing bigger than enemy destroyers and frigates. 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 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 destroyer 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 four 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 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.

Richard flinched as he saw the replacement fingers. “Ouch. You on a waiting list for cloned implants? I thought hands where 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. He found it taken, 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 staring 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; and damn, she looked like someone he would want to remember. Just as he looked away from her, she looked at him. Immediately he looked at the floor trying to look as innocent as possible.

A few minutes later an ensign behind the desk up front called his name. 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, 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 “Excuse me” for she was trying to get past him to get to the desk where he himself picked up his envelope.

“Oh right,” he said as he stepped out of her way, “I’m sorry.” Rachel McFarland, he thought to himself. Well, at least I’ll remember her name. She’s worth looking up on Facebook or something like that when I have the time. Yeah, as if I’ll ever have the time to do that! Then again, her account might be locked down tight.

He looked down at the envelope and to say that he was nervous could’ve won the Understatement of the Year award. 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 digital 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. HFS Valiant. Being the tactical officer had to be the next best position to being the XO of a ship. The very safety of the ship depended upon his orders and it was his orders that determined whether or not they would all live or die onboard the ship in a firefight.

As he was reading his orders on the way out to the lobby once more Rachel was walking right beside him. He looked to her and asked, “Where did you get posted?” She shrugged her shoulders, “HFS Valiant,” and walked off. He stopped and stared at her back as she left and then it dawned on him, that was the same ship he was posted to.

Later that evening Richard walked into the officer’s club on the base. He shivered as cold rain found its way down his collar. He was walking for quite a while outside looking for something to do and with the rain just about anything sounded interesting. There really wasn’t that much to do on the base; it had the bare essentials and little else. Other than the gym and the officers’ club there wasn’t much else that captured his attention. The town outside the base was even smaller and looked just as depressing as the base itself.

The last ship he was posted on had a bar for officers but it was so small and so sparsely stocked, to call it a bar was being extremely generous. Occasionally he would talk to a guy in the galley that made hooch out of potato peels, brown sugar, and “spoiled” OJ but nights like that had been few and far between; because the stuff was the vilest rotgut Richard ever tasted. It’s only virtue, if it could be called that, was that it could get you drunk faster than anything.

Richard 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 him 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 if God was kind.

The singer could definitely use some lessons; when she hit the high notes it was enough to set your teeth on edge. She was a 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 terrible. The male drummer couldn’t keep a beat worth a damn and the guy playing the electric guitar had no business playing it. A couple 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 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 tobacco smoke made it 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 the smoke and their teeth were yellow from the cigarettes.

When the bartender came 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. 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?!

Despite that he put the glass down and asked for another. It might’ve been bad whiskey but if you drank enough you’d 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. “Hey,” already feeling the social lubricant start to relax him, “didn’t I see you earlier?” Richard mentally took note that perhaps drinking whiskey on an empty stomach probably wasn’t the best of ideas.

She looked at him, but at least this time he wasn’t regarded like something that crawled out of one of the more disreputable sewers of Bounty Moon. “Yeah,” she pointed at him while she took a sip of the glass of wine that she had. “I remember you. You were waiting in that hall along with the rest of us poor saps for our reassignments. I told you that I was posted to the Valiant, right?”

“Yep, that’s me,” he said as he downed the whiskey.

“Yeah, I thought I remembered you. I don’t forget people that easily.” The woman reached up and waved her hand to waft off some of the smoke. “What are you having?” the woman asked as she took another sip of her of wine.

“Whiskey,” Richard replied as he put the glass back down on the bar and waved for another. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had whiskey. It’s 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 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. “It’s not the best wine,” she said as she looked into the glass, “I’ve definitely had better.” 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 dump of a place.”

“Wait,” Richard replied. “You served aboard ship?” Every ship that he was on didn’t have women aboard. It didn’t help that he was only in the Space Force for five years and that he was aboard one ship prior. Before that ship he was stationed at the Olympus Mons Military Space Port on Mars. Now that was a fun assignment! Getting Mars was almost as good as getting posted to Earth or the Lunar Base. The one you didn’t want was the Pluto Station; now that was a dungeon.

“Yeah,” the woman 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 Richard at the bar. Richard looked at her as she walked away wondering if he had done something or said something wrong that made her leave. She looked back and motioned for him to follow her. He quickly downed the whiskey and motioned for a refill. 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 three shots he was more than happy to follow her wherever she wanted to go, including her bed.

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 women on stage and her so-called singing. He found himself darting a look at the woman on stage. She might’ve been a terrible singer but she possessed an amazing body that her dress barely hid.

Thankfully whoever this women officer was 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 Richard to sit across from her. Richard sat and took another sip of the whiskey. Richard looked to her as she reached up and wiped her eye. “Sorry, that smoke was getting to me.” Richard nodded his head in agreement. “So, what’s your name?”

“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.”

“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.

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 standards but she wasn’t overweight either. She had curves that filled out the female officer’s service uniform standard-issue skirt that fell to about two inches above the knee but he could’ve sworn that her uniform skirt was shorter than regs allowed for. His eyes dropped to below her skirt and found that her legs had the signs of a woman that worked out. The standard-issue black high-heeled shoes made her look even taller than she already was; which by Richard’s estimations was almost 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) tall.

Rachel was at the door before him and stood waiting for him to catch up. Both of them 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. The both of them 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, spilling garbage. 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 seen. 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 to 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 the 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 pretty high. I wonder what happened to this place to have it be in such 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 get 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 barracks.”

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 diner the both of them 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. The other patrons there watched as the two walked by. Richard didn’t really see why the people were looking at them with such hostile looks. This was a military town. If it wasn’t for the base the town would blow away in the high tropical winds of the waterlogged planet.

Making their way to a table someone from across the diner gave them the dirtiest look of everyone there. Richard turned to Rachel. “I don’t like the way that man,” he pointed to him while trying to remain as inconspicuous as he could, “is looking at the both of us.” Rachel quickly darted her eyes over to where Richard pointed and nodded. “Yeah, I don’t like it either.”

Then the man stood up and sauntered over to where the two of them were sitting. The man was dragging his left leg behind him and put most of his weight on what also seemed like a bad right leg. He looked at the two of them with a look that made Richard wonder why he held such hostility. “Take yourself and that fuckin’ base of yours off this planet,” the man said, breathing whiskey fumes in their faces. “While you’re at it, tell the fuckin’ president to stop fuckin’ us in the ass. He and the rest of those assholes in the govenmt can go to fuckin’ hell. You two can fuckin’ go to hell too.” The man spat on the tile floor next to their table and slowly made his way out the door.

“Wow,” Richard said as soon as the guy was gone. “He sounds like he thinks that we’re personally responsible for what happened to this place.”

“Some of the Outer Colonies blame us for what’s happened out here. It’s like they believe that the military might be used against them.”

“But that’s not our job, our job is protect people; not rob them of their money,” Richard replied as he went to unbutton his uniform jacket.

Rachel shook her head sadly, “When you see the people here it’s not surprising to think they think the government is taxing the clothes off their backs just so we can have a new warship.”

By then Richard was out of his all-weather coat and uniform jacket and set it up on a hook by the booth. Rachel did the same and when he looked back at her he was in for a big surprise. If there was one thing that the uniform jacket was very good at it was that it covered up everything; especially the female jacket. The female officer’s jacket was meant to flatten the look of the uniform and present a very professional appearance. It was infamously referred to as the “washboard coat” among the men because it made all but the most endowed woman look flat as a washboard, women called it “the tent” on account that it felt like you were wearing a tent. If Richard thought that Rachel looked good with the jacket on, she looked a hell of a lot better with it off. It made him wish he could see a lot more.

The uniform blouse clung to all the right places and defined her curves very nicely. Her chest was viewable now and Richard’s face reddened as he drank in her looks. It suddenly dawned on him how long it was since he was around a woman. Rachel knew what he was doing; she’d seen a few looks like that before.

“Um… Richard?” she asked. “Are you going to take a seat?”

“Uh… sorry,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

Rachel laughed. “Not a problem and I don’t blame you one bit. You get stuck on a ship long enough and you feel like part of the machinery.” Richard’s face turned red at the thought that she noticed him undressing her with his eyes. He was now wishing he hadn’t imbibed so much whiskey. “Anyways, now that we are somewhere quiet we can talk more.”

“Ok,” Richard said as he tried to compose himself. “What would you like to know about?”

“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.

For the first time in a long time, a woman was genuinely interested in getting to know him and not just for a one night stand. It was almost three years since Richard had an honest-to-God girlfriend so the thought of having one was a very satisfying idea. Being in the service made it hard to have a steady relationship for you really didn’t have any idea where you could be and relationships over light years were hard to keep, even with FTL communications. The fact that the regulations tended to frown deeply upon fraternizing with officers of the opposite gender made it even harder to have a serious relationship.

However, it was known throughout the Fleet that some captains and XOs looked the other way, just as long as the relationship didn’t interfere with your duties. If it was one thing that Richard had hoped for, it was that the captain and XO of his new ship would look the other way and he was damn sure that he would keep their relationship (if it were to become one) from interfering with their duties. It helped that she was in one line of service and he was of another and they were of the same rank.

“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 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 understaffed too. The keel plate must’ve been from the mid-2250s. We often depended upon the rest of the fleet for services.” Rachel looked at him questioningly. “What do you want for a ship that’s half a century old?” he asked with a shrug, “We didn’t have enough room for the officers let alone the crew onboard.” He shrugged his shoulders. “The ship sucked, I knew it, but it was my ship and that’s all that mattered.”

Rachel nodded her head. “Alright, makes sense. Anyways, you know that all of the computer systems onboard are maintained by a specific department, right?” Richard nodded his head. That he knew but he just didn’t know who or what department was in charge of that. “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 and his face turned red, “how does a woman as beautiful as you are 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. 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. You could blow out the airlock and your character would float out there unharmed while your enemies died. Ever since then I was into hacking things and trying to find out how and why computer programs did the things they did.” 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 in engineering the new encryption protocols that the Fleet uses to communicate with.”

“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 had an inclination 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.”

“Well, it always did seem to chase people away, intimidate them even.”

“Hey,” he shrugged his shoulders. “Their loss,” he pointed to himself, “my gain. That is…” he paused for a moment to gauge her reaction. He may have had whiskey running through his head but he still wondered if he should continue further. For all he knew he was misinterpreting her signals and it certainly wasn’t the first time that he misinterpreted a woman’s signals.

“Yeah,” Rachel nodded her head and raised one hand in the air, “I don’t see why not. You’re a nice enough person; sure you’ve tried on multiple occasions to undress me with your eyes.” She loved how he turned red at her calling him out and couldn’t help but laugh a little. “But I can forgive you for that. You’re a guy after all, so I can’t blame you.”

“Yeah,” Richard said as he let out a sigh of relief. “Sorry about that.” He shook his head. “It’s… been too long time since I’ve seen an attractive woman, let alone sit and talk with one.”

“You didn’t have any on your ship?”

“Nope,” Richard shook his head, “remember, my old ship was small and over-cramped. Sometimes even officers had to bunk up. The captain and I were the only ones to have private quarters.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen a woman? Up close, even like this, I mean?” she asked.

Richard put his head back and thought for a moment. Has it really been that long? Three years? He asked himself. Yeah, it really has been. He put his head back down and looked to her, “Three years.”

“Damn,” Rachel whistled. “That’s a hellva dry spell.”

Richard nearly spit his iced tea out his mouth. “Oh my God, I never imagined…”

“What?” Rachel exclaimed with her full set of pearly whites showing. “Never imagined that something that perverted sounding would come out of a woman’s mouth?”

“Yes!” Richard exclaimed loud enough for the whole diner to hear. “Yes,” he said, lowering his voice, “And I thought guys had dirty minds.”

Rachel laughed, “Listen, women have just as much of a dirty mind as guys do. We just tend to keep those dirty thoughts inside whereas guys seem to just blurt them out with no regard to who’s around them.”

“Good point,” Richard said as he coughed again, still trying to get the iced tea out of his lungs. “Guys certainly do open their mouths only to insert their foot. God knows I’ve done that on multiple occasions. Anyways, you don’t see a problem with the two of us?”

“Nope,” she shook her head, “I don’t see a problem. Like I said, you’re a nice guy. In a good way, not the other way, the way that guys normally hear those words.” Richard relaxed as she reached across the table and touched his hand. “We’ll keep it hush-hush, if you know what I mean. We don’t know the kind of command team we’ll have on the new ship. And if you’re at all interested, it’s been a little over three years myself.”

“Very true,” Richard said just as 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 my first good meal in a long time. The cooks I had aboard my last ship were bad; some of the things were either underdone or all but cremated.”

Rachel 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 the 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. My ass. I’m surprised the whole crew on my old ship didn’t die of food poisoning.”

Richard couldn’t help but to 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.”

“They couldn’t even get mashed potatoes right!” Rachel exclaimed. “Just how the fuck does one fuck up mashed potatoes? That’s what I want to fucking know. God almighty damn, they were horrible. I swear they were from a box, one that went bad that is.”

“They probably were,” Richard took a bite of his chicken. “Remember,” he said as he swallowed, “keeping fresh anything aboard is going to take room and room 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 bank note 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 along side of 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 and placed her arm around him. He nodded his head. “It’s my perfume.” Richard looked to her. “I thought perfume, cologne, or any kind of additional scent was strictly forbidden according to SFR 230-5.” That was the regulation that handled Wear and Appearance of the Uniform.

“Aboard ship, yes,” Rachel said as she put her arm around him and pulled him closer. He was surprised that Rachel would’ve done such a thing; he figured that he would’ve been the one to engage in more “closeness” but here she was doing it herself. Not that it bothered him any; he was just surprised by her openness to more “intimate” contact, even if it was something as simple as pulling him closer to her. “But who said you couldn’t wear any when you weren’t on official business. Since you mentioned it, do you like it?”

“Yes,” Richard breathed in deeply. “What’s it called?”

“The fragrance is called ‘Passion.’”  Richard nodded his head in agreement as he too put an arm around her and pulled her closer to him. “I like it,” he said as she put her head on his shoulders allowing him to get a better smell of it. “Speaking about that… If I remember correctly, SFR 230-5 also states something about the…”

“If you’re asking me if I’m wearing a shorter skirt… the answer is yes.” Rachel laughed. “I can’t stand that thing. It’s way too long if you ask me. What was it made by? A nun? The one I’m wearing now isn’t anything close to being indecent; it’s just two inches shorter than the standard skirt. Don’t think I didn’t catch you checking me out as we were walking out of the bar. I knew what you were looking at. I’ve caught many men looking at me down there before.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t mind.”

Richard’s coughed. “What about uniform inspections?” Richard asked.

“What about them?” Rachel asked. “When uniform inspections are called for I simply wear the standard issue skirt. I’m not the only woman officer who feels this way. I know a lot of women who wear a shorter skirt with the uniform. Even commanders back when I was in the academy wore shorter skirts with the uniform. Uniform changes are coming soon and if the rumors are true they’re going to do away with the infamous washboard coat,” Rachel jabbed Richard in the side, “if you know what I mean.” She looked down and tugged at her uniform coat. “I hate this thing; it’s way too big on me. It looks stupid if you ask me, as if they took the male jacket, turned to us females, and said, ‘Make it work.’ Rumor has it they may also change the color too.”

“You mean they’re going to change it from white? You’re serious?” Rachel nodded her head. “About damn time! I hate this white uniform. It’s so damn hard keeping it clean. I remember,” Richard laughed, “I got ketchup on this thing.”

“Ouch!” Rachel exclaimed.

“Yeah ouch,” Richard replied. “I ran the thing to the drycleaner aboard ship as soon as I could. Nothing they did could get the stain out. Had to drop 150 credits to get a new uniform coat because of that ketchup mistake.”

He paused for a moment and then looked to her. “What about the mess dress uniform?” Richard asked. “You know the one with that useless, dull sword.”

“Don’t get me started on that fashion disaster.” She rolled her eyes. “I could complain about that thing for the next hour.” She laughed. “Whoever designed that needs to be dragged out into the street and shot.” Richard laughed. “You got that right; I hate it as well. Especially the wool! Like seriously, who makes something with that many layers out of wool? I remember wearing it for some stupid admiralty function I was required to attend and by the end of the day I lost 2.2 kilos (4.85 lbs.) in sweat alone.”

“Oh yeah… the wool.” She laughed. “I remember that, I had to have my dress uniform made out of something else other than wool.” Richard looked to her. “Whenever I wear wool I break out in a rash, my medical record states that so the dress uniform has to be made of something else for me.”

“You’re lucky; I seriously hate wearing that thing because of the wool.” He laughed again as he continued walking along side of her. “This has got to be the most enjoyable evening I’ve had in ages.” Rachel nodded her head in agreement. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” she said as they continued walking towards the base the two of them continued to nitpick the uniform and all of the annoyances. When they got closer to the base they were sure to resume a proper distance between them. There was no need to let the shore patrol suspect anything.

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. At least he was wearing the Space Duty Uniform instead of that damnable dress uniform.

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 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. Battlecruisers were smaller and faster than battleships yet bigger than heavy cruisers. They traded the armor and weapons that bigger ships had in order 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 1.4 meter graser could do. He also heard that the new Ulysses Class Battlecruisers, like the Valiant was one, carried 1.05 meter positron cannons 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 that he was 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 of 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 all, 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 like they did.” He looked to 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 and 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 Earth and we must do that with dignity, honor, and professionalism.” He looked to the J.G. “And you of all people,” he looked at his name plate, “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’re 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 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 women 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 onboard 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.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“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. 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 were fought against the ACF after 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 ship from computer security intrusions.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“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?”

“Yes ma’am!”

“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…