Space 2315, Chapter 20

Author’s Note: To those paying attention you may see a subtle nod to Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Admiral Nancy Moore rode in an aircar from Joint Base Wright-Richards, the primary Aerospace Force and Space Navy base outside the capital city of Parma on Altair to the Triangle. The Triangle was still not complete; its height rising higher and higher as the weeks went by. When it was finally completed it would be the central command hub of all the Allied Colonial Armed Forces. The ACF began work on the building in late 2314, soon after the Great Coup and already forty percent of it was completed. The massive structure would hold the many offices and chambers needed to run the military from it, much the same way the Pentagon and its annexes did back on Earth.

She glanced to port and starboard of the aircar, seeing the police cruisers escorting it. Not too far above the aircar were two Aerospace Force Arrowhead Fighters providing close-in support that the police units couldn’t. In low orbit above them sat the many defense platforms and orbital forts as well as the Altair Orbital Fleet. The “Heroine of the Revolution” found the security around her to be a bit much, but she wasn’t the one calling the shots today. The Department of the Space Navy was rather insistent on the level of security around her, not that she expected some crazed attacker to be lurking anywhere near.

The driver winged the aircar into one of the upper parking slots, “upper” being relative to the barely half-finished building. The gull winged hatch opened and she stepped out. Bosun’s pipes trilled, the side party snapped to attention and the armored hands of Marines slapped rifle butts in salute. The officer of the deck called out, “First Fleet Actual arriving!”

Admiral Moore strode up to the officer and returned the salute. Behind her Avery Brooks and Erana Trueblade did the same. The officer of the deck dropped the salute before announcing, “I’m Lieutenant Commander Fields and I’ve been instructed to escort you and your staff officers to the briefing chamber where the other admirals will meet you.”

“Lead the way,” Moore replied.

The lieutenant-commander did a smart about face and strode out of the hangar. Moore led her officers after the man as he guided her to the bank of lifts. Once inside he pressed the button for one of the lower, belowground levels. The lift car sped downward, its motion countered by the inertial compensator built into the car to provide its occupants the maximum comfort. Moore found the use of the compensator here to be wasteful; there was something to be said about experiencing the force of gravity while on a planetary surface. Altair had a gravity of 1.10 G, which really wasn’t that much more than Earth-standard. Why the designers of the Triangle decided to waste resources on compensators and grav plating while building the structure was beyond her.

Fields led her and her small party to one of the many briefing rooms located in the subbasement of the Triangle. Moore found the briefing room very similar, if not an exact copy of the many classrooms she’d taught in at the Naval Academy Etajima in Japan. Everything from the lectern at the center of the room on a raised platform, to the large holographic display shaped like a bowl next to the lectern, to the ring of raised seats before curved desks with datapad and datacard entry ports was almost the same as at the Academy.

Filling those seats weren’t eager students, but rather a few of her fellow admirals and their most senior aides. Not all were present as she was a few minutes early to the room. Admirals who couldn’t be physically present would attend the briefing using the same holographic imaging that flag officers used for fleet conferences.

She went to the lectern and placed her hands upon its smooth top after plugging her datapads into the lectern. The feel of it brought her back to her days at the Academy and she wistfully longed to be back there, or at the new naval academy that was being finished on Altair. She liked teaching far more than she did combat. She was good in combat, she wouldn’t deny that, and it was said that few could match her; however, she enjoyed developing the skills of cadets far more than battle. It would be those cadets who went on to become the future of the Space Navy, to guard whatever it was that the ACF became after the war was won.

She felt her right eyebrow rise as if by itself as that thought went through her mind. Not if the war was won but when the war was won. She had no doubt in her mind that the ACF would be victorious; that God would grant them victory in the end… with some help from the Fleet of course.

She was no religious fanatic, believing that God granted victory simply because one side prayed more than the other. No. Not at all. It didn’t work that way. Prayer was all well and good, it being something she didn’t have much time for nowadays. But all the time in the universe spent upon bended knee wouldn’t make up for good strategy and tactics. Some said that righteousness had only one allegiance and that was to the oppressed. However, righteousness was no substitute for armor and weapons.

The last few admirals came in and found seats. Breathing out a small breath she muttered a quick prayer, both for victory and that this briefing would go well. She knew that it would raise the ire of many admirals and more than a few would probably think her mad for trying such a strategy as the one she was going to propose.

Looking up she keyed the start of her briefing in the holographic bowl next to her. The briefing began with a message that the following was top secret, eyes only, not for foreign disclosure, and carried other security caveats. Subsequent briefings to junior officers in her fleet would carry the same classification. After stating the briefing classification aloud, she began, “Officers of the Admiralty, I will present to you the plan to take Earth.”

A few admirals around her gaped at that simple sentence, one or two covered their mouth as if to stifle something they might’ve said. A majority leaned in as if to hear her better despite the room’s audio systems that could amplify the faintest whisper.

Admiral Severin Henningsen left the briefing chamber almost an hour later with his chief of staff, a Captain Enise Aslan, as well as Admiral Xue Huang and his chief of staff, Captain Todor Boyadjiev. Henningsen quickly went for the lift along with the other admiral and the two captains. He pressed a button and the liftcar rocketed up out of the subbasement levels. The officers were silent as stone on the lift and were still silent as they walked to the officer’s lounge.

The lounge was on the small end; it being only for a hundred or so people. There was real wood paneling on the walls and the dim indirect lighting from the floor was modulated to encourage comfort. The flooring matched the paneling on the walls and was buffed and shined to a near gleaming appearance. There were free-standing tables arranged around the room at regular intervals. Some of were built to seat two or four or as many as eight comfortably. Around the perimeter of the lounge were booths set into alcoves that had physical drapes over them which could be drawn for privacy in addition to whatever privacy screening hardware was built into the booths themselves.

The bar was set against the northern wall and the top of it was buffed and shined to the point where one could see their reflection on its surface. An impressive assortment of liquors from all over Human Space was arranged behind the bar on shelves. The liquors were stacked from the lowest end to the top shelf stuff that was slowly disappearing as trade with Earth controlled space was cut off. Bottles of beer and wine sat in refrigeration units off to both sides of the bar and an equally impressive array of beers on draft showed with their handles behind the bar, just out of the reach of any patron.

The barkeeps stood behind it, both male civilians clothed in tuxedos with coattails. Neither were all that impressive looking and they were trained to serve the bar’s immediate patrons with almost the same smooth attentiveness and unobtrusiveness that was drilled into any Fleet steward. Behind them and above the shelves of liquor was a HD screen which showed rotating images of different females, all of them naked and lying in comfortable repose. The ladies in the display were shown for their aesthetic appeal rather than anything explicit.

Finding a table in the back corner as far from the entrance as possible they sat then engaged the privacy field around the booth. They left the drape over the alcove open, if only so they could look out at the lounge and its occupants.

Henningsen tapped a button on his belt and his personal privacy field sprang to life around the table as well, enveloping them in a double layer of security. Even if someone were to look right at the officers all they’d see was their outlines, no actual details, and certainly nothing they were going to say. A press of a button on another device on his belt scanned the immediate area for listening devices. He waited until the device let out a soft tone and showed a green light on it stating that the booth was clean.

After placing drink orders on a little panel installed into the tabletop Henningsen leaned back and blew out a breath. “That Admiral Moore’s plan is certainly…,” he trailed off, drawing a breath through his teeth.

“Mad? Insane? Liable to blow up in her face?” Huang finished for him. “Any of those?”

“I don’t think so,” Aslan replied, leaning forward to prop her elbows on the table and steeple her joined hands under her nose. “As crazy as it sounds, she has a point. If her ops plan works, it’ll end the war in days rather than months or years. It’ll force the Earth government to sue for peace or at the very least a ceasefire. And I don’t need to remind you gentlemen that the ACF doesn’t have months to wait for victory, let alone years. Her plan has the highest chance of success that I can think of.”

Boyadjiev cleared his throat before starting, “Gentlemen, Captain Aslan’s right. Right now, we have a slight edge over the Human Federation in terms of ships. But if the war turns into a slugging match the Human Federation can and will win. That’s not being pessimistic or defeatist, that’s being realistic. The Human Federation can absorb more losses than us and can bounce back from a body blow faster than we can. Except for the Altair System and a half dozen others, we don’t have the industrial capacity to maintain a war of attrition against a bigger enemy.

“That’s not to say that the Human Federation is bigger than us,” he continued. “We control roughly the same amount of star systems as they do, but quality is a factor. Except for Altair and a few others, most of our star systems are still developing; their populations are smaller than a lot of the Middle Colonies, and that’s not mentioning the Inner Colonies or Core Worlds. We have most of the Outer Colonies and the Fringe Worlds and it shows in terms of our gross domestic product. If we win, we could probably convince the rest of the Outer Colonies and Fringe Worlds on our side of Human Space to join us.”

“In other words,” Aslan finished for him, “they can outlast us. A war of attrition will likely bankrupt the HF’s economy, deplete their manpower, and cost them thousands of ships and tens of thousands of lives; but in the end, they’d still win. Although there’s something to be said about Pyrrhic victories, and that’s not even factoring in the looming threat of the Vonosh Empire.”

Chen propped his right elbow on the table and ran his hand from his eye back along the curve of his skull to his ear and sighed. Then he chuckled a little, “My, my, such outspoken captains we have Severin.”

Henningsen laughed a little as he held up a Cuban cigar. “You got that right Xue. Although, I didn’t choose Aslan as my chief of staff because she’s meek and soft-spoken. I need a good sounding board and so far, she hasn’t let me down.” He made eye contact with each officer who nodded assent at him before he clipped off the end of the cigar and lit it with his Zippo® lighter. He puffed on it, making sure to angle the smoke up and toward an air return as not everyone appreciated cigar smoke like he did.

Chen leaned his head back to gaze up at the ceiling, “I just don’t like the idea of throwing just about everything at the Sol System in a do-or-die attempt to take the high orbitals of Earth.”

“That’s why she’s…,” Henningsen began but stopped when Boyadjiev pressed an index finger to his lips. A waitress wearing a suit complete with coattails, this was a high-end lounge after all, approached the table and set her tray down. “Your drinks gentlemen and lady,” the nameless waitress said as she leaned into the privacy field.

“Thank you,” Henningsen said as he handed over a credit card. The waitress took it and slid it into a slot next to the ordering panel on the tabletop. A holographic display appeared over the tabletop to show the price and Henningsen pressed his thumb to a scanner to apply his digital signature. No tip was required as humanity had long ago gotten rid of the idea of tipping a waiter/waitress. The staff at any establishment was paid whatever the normal rate was for anyone rather than relying on the oftentimes dubious graces of the patrons. Even so, it wasn’t unheard of for a patron to tip a server anyways, but it wasn’t required anymore.

Henningsen got his card back, slid it back into his pocket and fished a ten-credit gold coin out and handed it to the waitress. She palmed it and quickly made it disappear before bowing slightly to them before leaving with her tray.

Chen sipped his drink, a double of orange juice and soju before he motioned for Henningsen to finish what he’d been saying. Henningsen sipped his double of 18 Year Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky and picked up where he left off. “That’s why she’s planning to attack Earth the way she is. Dropping in from above the system’s ecliptic effectively means that they’ll only have to deal with the Earth Orbital Fleet and the Lunar Fleet. We’re only talking about thirty or so super juggernauts in each Orbital Fleet, plus another ten or twenty in the Lunar Fleet. That’s not even counting the fixed defenses or the Mars Fleet, or even their assault carriers or battleships.”

“But that’s still better than slogging through wave after wave of capital ships if she were to advance toward Earth from the outer solar system,” Chen replied, pointing an index finger at Henningsen.

“How many ships is she proposing to take?” Aslan asked, sipping on her mug of beer.

Henningsen leaned back, taking another slow sip of his scotch. “I can’t begin to say. She already has sixty super juggernauts and to assemble that kind of a force we had to all but deplete our reserves. I imagine that she’s going to scrape the bottom of the barrel, so-to-speak, in order to build the fleet she’ll need to tackle Sol’s  most potent defenses. My guess is she’ll borrow the assault carriers we have at Altair to cover for the super juggernauts we can’t give her from the Capital Fleet. Except for the Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Fleets, we don’t have any more super juggernauts and they need their squadrons to hold the line as does Capital Fleet.”

“I’d love to know something gentlemen,” Boyadjiev started. The admirals looked to him and nodded their heads. He sipped his own beer before going on. “What convinced us to build super juggernauts in the first place? Before the Great Coup and knowing about the alien threats out there we really had no reason to build ships of their caliber, so how is it that we had hundreds of them?”

The admirals looked at each other as if the question had never occurred to them. Aslan shrugged her shoulders saying, “Don’t look at me.”

“Maybe it was a pride issue,” Chen replied, “humanity’s been known to do things that don’t make sense. Sometimes it’s just because we want something bigger and better. At first, we only had battleships and that was enough. But somewhere along the line someone must’ve gotten it into their head to design the dreadnoughts. Then after that were the regular juggernauts, then of course we had to go bigger than that.”

Aslan stifled a giggle before it could escape. She covered her smile by sipping on her beer and hoped the three men hadn’t noticed. They hadn’t as Henningsen answered, “I don’t think that’s it, or not entirely it. We know the Zaltaens have been hiding among us since what? 1938 or so? Maybe during all this time they’d been secretly getting us ready to fight the Vonosh Empire without us knowing; that we’d need ships of that caliber to fight them. Even so, if half of what I’ve heard out of the spooks is true, we’re still facing some very long odds even with those ships.”

“With a mostly united Human Federation it was possible to build and maintain an armada of that size. Now? I’m not so sure,” Chen said. “Sirius could field two or three squadrons, Midas might be able to handle a squadron, but that’s about it. They’re too expensive for them to build and maintain more than that. The only reason Sirius can have more is they have four star systems as opposed to Midas’s two.”

“That’s assuming they ignore the Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 2275 that both star nations signed,” Aslan mentioned.

“That too,” Chen replied. The treaty was an agreement between the Human Federation and both Midas and Sirius that they wouldn’t build any juggernauts or super juggernauts. At the time of the signing neither independent star nation could afford to build even one division of the massive capital ships and had no need for them in the first place. The Human Federation had all but strong-armed each star nation into signing the treaty in exchange for very generous trade concessions.

However, according to Admiral Moore’s reports, it seemed as if Sirius had found a way around the treaty. The treaty forbade both star nations from building juggernauts or super juggernauts; the wording of the treaty was very specific on that. That of course didn’t stop Sirius from building dreadnoughts. Said Siriusian dreadnoughts were reportedly somewhere between the sizes of the two juggernaut type ships, thus permitting them to have juggernaut analogues that weren’t barred by the treaty. If that wasn’t a case of using the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of it, Aslan didn’t know what was.

Bringing the conversation back to the original topic Henningsen asked, “Do you think Admiral Moore’s plan has a chance of working?”

Chen sipped his drink before nodding. “As crazy as it sounds, I think she has the right idea. Captain Aslan’s right, if we don’t win now, we’ll lose later; there’s no doubt in my mind about that one. How much later? I’ve no idea; but probably long enough that both sides batter each other so badly that all the Vonosh will have to do is sweep in and pick up the pieces. We need to do this now or we’re done for. For the good of all humanity, we have to take Earth and win the war.”

Richard Smith’s hands hovered over his controls at tactical in auxiliary control as the Second Fleet was about to leave hyperspace in route to the Merpon System on the other side of the unofficial ACF-HF border. The border system wasn’t as impressive a target as some of the ones that Admiral Moore had targeted in her campaign to take out the Persepolis System, but it was a start. After Vice Admiral Turner’s taskforce had beaten back an ACF raid Fleet Command had suggested that following up with a full strike on Merpon, not just a hit-and-fade operation, was in order. After Merpon the Second Fleet would go onto their next target, the Tryos System. Tryos was too far away from the Ares System to make in one hyperspace jump so the Second Fleet would pound whatever the ACF had left in Merpon first.

After the losses the Human Federation had experienced since the civil war began the HF desperately needed a morale boost. Having the newsfaxes cover nothing but defeats was grinding down the public’s will and their confidence in the Fleet.

He glanced over to the EW section at Kerstin Herbertsson and not for the first time he wondered what she looked like under her shapeless uniform. Once he caught a glimpse of her in the gym in PTs while she ran on the treadmill. Despite the PT uniform’s ability to hide almost all features he did get a somewhat decent look at her, and what he could see was rather impressive.

Herbertsson caught his glance and her frown of disapproval and slight sniff of derision made him focus back on his terminal and his crew. Damn, I must be getting rusty if I’m being noticed! Then again, she’s probably had more than one guy look her way, so she probably knows when it’s happening!

She had the grace not to push it any further than that, bringing her own attention back to her duties. Richard sighed in relief. At least she didn’t say anything, and he didn’t think that she’d go through channels. As long as he didn’t act on it, only looked at her, she’d probably go right on ignoring it. He glanced at the chronometer on his station to watch the seconds crawl down until the ship entered hyperspace. After that it would be three or four days in hyper before they hit their target. If all went well, they’d give the ACF the black eye they so richly deserved after what Admiral Moore had been doing.

Valerie Sykes smiled in satisfaction when the nurse left the room, datapad in-hand after having given Valerie her discharge paperwork. She started pulling on her uniform, pausing only to admire the stylized eagle on the lapels of her Space Navy Working Uniform (SNWU). She felt her smile widen with pride as she put the jacket on and sealed it. She had the new rank and a battlecruiser command waiting for her!

She’d already signed out on personal leave for a week starting that morning and her friend, Ainsley Mitchell, should already be at the hospital’s lobby. Valerie tucked her uniform cap under her new arm and picked up her duffle bags, about the only pieces of luggage she had on her; her beret was tucked nice and safe in the duffle bag with her clothes while the other one carried her vacsuit and helmet and other gear.

She barely felt the weight of her gear in her “automail” arm. Normally she would’ve grunted slightly with the effort of lifting the heavy bag–the vacsuit and her gear wasn’t what anybody would call light–but the new arm worked as the doctors told her it would.

She looked down at the metal hand, marveling in the thing’s simplistic styling and the mechanical sophistication that made it. The artificial nerves throughout it conveyed every feeling of her old, biological arm; everything from the feel of the bag’s carrying handle against the palm of the hand to air upon the metal skin. The arm, an impressive piece of various metals including aluminum and chrome along with carbon fiber, was truly a wonder of modern technology and machining.

Once out the door she asked a nurse where the lifts were and took one down to the hospital lobby. She walked into the expansive waiting room which was lined with armchairs, couches, and potted plants both large and small. All of it was suffused with sunlight streaming through the transparent aluminum windows and doors and the soft lights overhead.

She didn’t have to look for Ainsley very long. The redhead cast all sense of propriety to the wind as she ran up to Valerie and threw her arms around her. Valerie dropped her bags and returned the hug, taking care not to flex the new arm too hard around her friend. Ainsley winced a little in the embrace, which only told Valerie that she had a lot to learn about the new arm.

Ainsley was a perfect beauty, almost painfully so. The woman was roughly 1.93 meters tall, most of it from her very shapely legs, before putting on the seven-point-six-two-centimeter heels she had on her feet. She wore a short, backless light blue sundress that was a scant few shades from translucent. And she wore it well, earning her looks from just about everyone in the lobby. The dress was well suited to Altair’s warm climate, especially near the equator where the capital city was.

Her face was perfectly shaped and sized, and her body was proportioned in ways that women everywhere envied and men lusted after; her legs, hips and breasts were almost perfectly matched to the rest of her. Her copper colored hair flowed down to the middle of her back and her skin had that perfect Scottish complexion. It was as if someone had taken the most beautiful features of a stereotypical Scottish woman, threw them together in a computer–most likely literally–and produced Ainsley Mitchell out of a 3D printer.

That wasn’t to say that Ainsley didn’t need to work to maintain her looks! Her natural good looks didn’t stay that way on their own. She needed to put work in at the gym or a track somewhere. The fact that her cardiovascular and muscular systems were enhanced for a heavy gravity world like Midas only helped her to maintain her figure.

The cost of those modifications was a voracious appetite; she ate like she was stoking a furnace, which essentially was what Ainsley was doing. Her metabolism, as with most heavy gravity worlders, was in high gear to fuel the modifications. On more than one occasion Valerie had watched Ainsley put away a stack of pancakes, complete with butter and coconut syrup, twice the size of her own with a gusto Valerie envied.

They relaxed from the embrace and Ainsley stepped back to hold Valerie at arm’s length. Her emerald green eyes ran up and down Valerie’s uniform before she saw the new rank insignia. “They promoted you?”

Valerie nodded her head. “Yes they did my friend, something about how I managed to get my ship and crew out of the fire a month ago.”

Ainsley smiled at her before she noticed Valerie’s metal hand. Her voice faltered a bit as she said, “Uh… you… you never said anything in your emails about that.”

“Sorry. I really am. I didn’t want you to worry over something like this. Not when they were able to fix me back up,” Valerie said, suddenly feeling admonished. “It happened in the last battle I was in.”

“How far up does it go?” Ainsley asked.

Valerie bent her metal arm and tapped her shoulder. “All the way to here.”

“Oh my God,” Ainsley breathed. She suddenly was at a loss for words. Valerie suppressed a smile as this was maybe the second or third time she’d seen her friend speechless. Normally the other woman could go on and on, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing most of the time. Ainsley let Valerie’s shoulders go and breathed out a short, sharp sigh. “You’re… you’re otherwise okay? Right?” She looked at her and she nearly teared up.

“Yeah,” Valerie answered with a confident smile, hoping it would cheer her friend up take the tears away from her oh so beautiful face. “I’m fine, really.” She leaned in and the two embraced again. “I’m fine, really. Trust me,” she nodded, “I’m fine. I knew that something like this could happen to me when I put on the uniform and I’m okay with it. Alright?” Ainsley sniffled and nodded. “Alright?”

“I’m,” she sniffled, “I’m happy. I’m happy to have you back.” She paused, she loved having Valerie in her embrace. She often looked at Valerie and saw her as more than just a friend, but it was something that she kept secret; she didn’t want to scare her away. Little did she know that Valerie also saw her the same way but like Ainsley, she was too afraid to say anything.

“Does it hurt at all?”

“I’m not going to lie,” Valerie said as she held onto her friend for a lot longer than she had any intention of doing so. She stood back from her and rubbed her shoulder. “At first, I was in agony; you have no idea how much it hurt when they first connected everything to my nerves. I was on some of the strongest pain killers they have but soon the pain went away.”

“Does it hurt now?”

Valerie shook her head. “No, I’ve gotten used to it. That and they put pain blocks in my shoulder.”

“But you said you were in agony,” Ainsley frowned.

“Yeah well,” Valerie reached up to rub the back of her neck with her artificial arm. “They can’t activate the pain blocks until after all of the nerve tissue regenerated and connected to all of the circuitry of the arm. So right now, thanks to the pain blocks, I feel no pain at all.”

“Pain blocks?”

“Yeah,” Valerie said as she pointed to the back of her shoulder. “There’s a device that’s inline with my nerves back there that intercepts any and all pain signals and effectively kills them before they hit my spinal cord. I have no idea how it works but it’s some amazing tech. I can still feel hot and cold through my artificial arm as well as have a sense of touch but that’s it. You could shove a hot needle into the remainder of my shoulder, and I wouldn’t feel thing.”

Ainsley looked to her and smiled with a sort of crooked smile. She wondered how she could be just so blasé about the fact that she nearly had her entire side cut off. Valerie, however, knew that this could happen to her and took it in stride. The way that she looked at it is that at least she still had an arm, ten years ago she wouldn’t have had one to replace it.

Ainsley looked down at the floor. “Can I get one of your bags for you?”

“Thank you,” Valerie said, picking up the duffle with the clothes in it and handing it to Ainsley. “I’ll handle my gear. It’s a bit heavy.”

“You say that as if I don’t come from a heavy gravity world,” Ainsley said with a small smirk.

“Midas did a hell of a job with you,” Valerie said, with a slight chuckle to take any sting out of the words.

“Sure, sure, whatever,” Ainsley said, waving a hand dismissively. “Honestly I think we Midasians go overboard with trying to outdo everyone else. It’s a part of the reason I had to get away from Midas. That talk of ‘Human 2.0’ or ‘Coordinators,’ or whatever the fuck we want to call ourselves these days gets old. The appalling climate doesn’t help, nor does our political system.”

That the redhead hailed from the Genetic State of Midas argued for that. It turned out that almost everyone from Midas had stunning good looks, as if the leaders went out of their way to prove that they were better than the “Naturals” they looked down upon. If most of the people of the Genetic State were in the top ninety percent of beautiful people in Human Space, then their leaders were in the top ten percent and had the wealth to match.

The Corporate Republic of Sirius, by comparison prided itself on the wealth of its citizens and their corporate and government leaders (the lines of which blurred more and more everyday), but even they were only modestly well off when compared to Midas’s leaders.

Midas’s top export was genetic modification; with services ranging from curing disease and fixing congenital disorders, to genetic resequencing to adapt people to different planetary environments, all the way to full-blown modification of the human genome as evidenced by its citizens. Rumors abounded that Midas was delving into human cloning, a practice that the Human Federation had banned outright in the late 2000s. Their second greatest resource was their scientific output; their laboratories and universities were regarded as the best in Human Space.

One of the reasons the leaders of what became the Genetic State left the Sol System in the late 2100s was that they felt that human research into the human genome, our very birthright, was being held back by government and religious leaders. Some religious groups said that the modified humans were Man’s creations and not God’s and were profane creatures. The modified humans could largely pass themselves off as “Naturals” but true “Naturals” had found the identities of the augmented humans. Envy of the them eventually grew into fear, then fear into anger and hate.

This went on for decades as more Human 2.0s were created by the Midas Corporation. The leaders made the final decision to leave the Sol System when several of their kind were attacked and killed by a violent mob somewhere on Mars. That had been the last straw for Midas Corp., and they appealed to the government for a colony ship. At the time, the leaders of the Human Federation were all too willing to let the so-called “Golden Touched” leave. It was deemed better to let them leave the solar system than to risk outright civil war.

The Midasian leaders pooled the resources of their ten million or so people to purchase an FTL capable colony ship and four old frigates for escort. Automating the ships’ systems to find a habitable star system far away from the rest of humanity, they went into cold sleep and left the Human Federation, never to return. After almost six years of travel their ships’ hyper drives and life support systems began to fail. By that time dozens, if not hundreds of star systems had been rejected by the computers’ programming; the worlds were too hot, too cold, or otherwise not viable for human habitation, modified or not. The automated systems woke the crews and the leaders. Upon realizing that their systems were failing they chose the nearest habitable star system.

The first thing they did upon entering their new star system was run a detailed analysis of it. They found that the star system was quite poor in the heavy metals necessary for much of a spacefaring industry. Midas II, the only habitable world, was a mostly arid planet much bigger than Earth, with only forty percent surface water contained in what other planets would call inland seas rather than true oceans, a gravity field of 1.5 G, and two moons. Its axial tilt was minimal, much like Sirius One, but Midas II was a much warmer and dryer world than the tropical resort paradise that the Sirius Corporation founded.

However, the planet was habitable and showed promise. In time the Midasians would terraform the world into whatever they desired it to be, even something rivaling Sirius. They had the technology and the highly skilled manpower to do it. All they needed was time. The first thing they did was modify their entire population to survive at the bottom of a stronger gravity well. That took a lot of time sitting in orbit while robots built their new homes. It was either that or have their people suffer the debilitating effects of the planet’s stronger gravity while their bodies adjusted.

Since the star system was poor in the minerals needed to jumpstart a spacefaring society, they deployed the jumpgate the colony ship had carried with it, keying it to retain the Human Federation’s IFF transponder codes. They had no true desire to reestablish contact with the “Naturals” they left behind, but the pragmatic needs of their colony dictated it. Open to the galaxy once again, foreign aid poured into the colony and within a few Earth-years Midas was exporting their genetic services for much needed resources and hard currency.

Midas didn’t even pretend to be a democratic society. Their government was based upon genetics. Its leaders were descended from the original founders of the Genetic State, their personal genomes enhanced to the nth degree to produce some of the best and brightest individuals in the state. The citizens lived under the benevolent rule of their oligarchs, with the right to live how they wanted but with almost no voice in the central government. Only in local government did the people have any say at all, mostly because the local governments and its people knew what was best for a locale.

Which brought Valerie back to her friend. The first day Valerie saw Ainsley back in 2308 she immediately gave the redhead a wide berth. Someone that gorgeous had to have an ego the size of a small moon. Then Lieutenant-Commander Sykes, on leave from the Human Federation Space Force and still in uniform, tried to mind her business on the hover train as it wound its way through Altair’s capital city. Ainsley waved from where she was standing in the aisle and Valerie had nodded back before the redhead got up and politely asked if she could have the seat next to Valerie.

Little did either women know that from that day forward they would be fast friends. Ainsley didn’t let her good looks or her Midasian upbringing go to her head; in fact, she was always modest about both, almost being embarrassed by them. It was her humility and modesty about what her parents had done in the Genetic State to make Ainsley, and her generally friendly and perky attitude, that made her such a likable person. It didn’t hurt that Valerie found her to be drop dead gorgeous, she was after all bisexual. Valerie had been with both men and women in her past but she often found that her relationships with other women were more rewarding.

“Where are you staying?” Ainsley asked.

Valerie shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe an MWR hotel or in BOQ at the nearest military spaceport. That or my parents’ place.”

“Oh, hell no! I’m not having my best friend do that! You’re staying with me,” Ainsley declared, throwing her arm around Valerie’s shoulders. “Come on, let’s get your things stowed in my air car.”

“I wouldn’t want to impose,” Valerie said.

“It’s not imposing if I’m inviting you, now come on.”

Valerie watched the surface of Altair speed past below her as Ainsley drove to Turson’s Landing about 80 kilometers south of Parma. The Midasian woman drove the air car well above the planetary speed limit which amused Valerie to no end. For a woman who was used to cruising through space at 0.3 light the sight of a planetary surface speeding past was exciting. The cityscape of the capital city soon gave way to suburbs then virgin land with forests, lakes and gently rolling hills leading up to the snowcapped Marani Mountain Range.

“How much time do you have before the Space Navy calls you back?” Ainsley asked as she maneuvered the air car around a slower driver in front of them.

“I took a standard week of personal leave,” Valerie answered, watching as Ainsley passed another car.

“A week?” the redhead asked, glancing at Valerie for a second or two before returning her gaze back to the traffic in front of them. “That’s barely enough time for you to enjoy yourself.”

“Hey, it’s all I could afford to take,” Valerie explained, knowing that any answer she gave her friend wouldn’t please her. “After being laid up for a month on medical leave I couldn’t expect the Space Navy to look with great favor upon my wanting much in the way of personal leave.”

“As if the medical leave was by choice,” Ainsley muttered as she glanced at Valerie’s metal hand.

The blonde covered her “automail” hand with her flesh and blood one. She was about to say something about how duty called but realized that that would’ve been a glib answer. Instead she said, “When the war’s over, I promise I’ll take a lot more leave back here. You have my word.”

Ainsley looked at her saying. “You better. I haven’t seen you in over a year. The only way I got to see you is that you almost got yourself killed.”

“It wasn’t quite that bad,” Valerie retorted.

“Oh, yeah?” the Midasian woman questioned her. “I think nearly getting your ship shot out from under you constitutes as ‘bad as it can get.’ And not only that but losing your whole arm too!”

“How’d you hear about that?!” Valerie demanded.

Ainsley made a derisive “humph” sound. “You doubt the power of the mainstream media, and no, I’m not talking about ours. The Human Federation’s newsies blasted it all over the Net, saying how they repelled a raid. That, and I saw the casualty lists.”

“Well, fuck. I didn’t think they’d go that far,” Valerie said, rolling her eyes.

“You have to understand their point of view,” Ainsley answered, “Admiral Moore and her First Fleet has been handing every HF battlegroup its head. Of course, they’d latch onto the first real victory they’ve had in months. It’s all propaganda to try and boost their flagging domestic morale.”

“When did you become an expert on such matters?” Valerie asked, genuinely interested.

“Since I moved to public relations. You’re looking at Ainsley Mitchell, Junior Executive for the Department of the Space Navy’s Public Relations,” she answered with a wide smile.

“Wonderful,” Valerie said with a wry chuckle. “I’m friends with a PR person.”

“It could be worse; I could be a newsie.” Ainsley said as she brought the air car into Turson’s Landing. The city didn’t look that much different from Parma. One skyscraper filled city looked much like another; but Turson’s Landing was right up against the Crystal Bay, a large semicircular stretch of beachfront property that connected to the Crystal Sea, the largest ocean on Altair. Ainsley looked at the blonde and saw how pale she was, probably from being aboard ship for so long. Somehow, she’d talk Valerie into going to the beach for some much-needed sun.

“Oh, please,” Valerie lamented. “God save me from reporters!”

Valerie had other ideas of course. Almost as soon as she got settled into Ainsley’s place Valerie collapsed on her friend’s sinfully comfortable faux-leather couch. Breathing a sigh of relief to not be in a hospital bed, it didn’t take long for the couch to lull her to sleep. Ainsley came back from the shop at the base of her residential tower to find the blonde asleep, still in uniform minus the uniform blouse and boots which were neatly set aside and decided that if anyone deserved a nap, it was Valerie. She dug around in a closet for a quilt and gently laid it over her sleeping friend.

Ainsley was looking for things on a website for them to do when Valerie awoke three standard hours later. “I needed that,” the blonde officer said. “I don’t care how comfortable they try to make hospital beds I can never get any good sleep there.”

“That couch will get you,” Ainsley commented. “I can’t even count how many times I fell asleep on it.”

Valerie pushed a hand into the couch’s cushions. “Yeah, it just, I don’t even know… something about it makes you sleepy. I was fine and only after a few minutes of laying on it I was out.”

“Preaching to the choir,” Ainsley said with a laugh. Then she turned to her friend. “What do you want to do first?”

“I want to experience real gravity beneath my feet for a change,” Valerie began, “and I know just the way. Where’s the nearest horse ranch?”

“About ten clicks outside the city, why?”

“Call them up and request me a horse,” Valerie said as she stood up, looking around for her bags. “It’s been too long since I’ve gone riding and I hope I’ve not lost my touch.”

“Got ya, oh and, look that way.” Ainsley pointed to a closet and Valerie went over to it, finding both duffel bags stacked neatly side-by-side inside it. She opened one and dug around inside for a few seconds before finding her prized riding clothes; shirt, pants, jacket, helmet, boots, and all. When the blonde came back Ainsley said, “At some point I’m taking you to the beach.”

“Why?”

“Have you seen yourself?” the redhead asked, gesturing at her friend.

Valerie looked down at her exposed flesh-and-blood arm and saw just how pale it had gotten after several months of being in space. “I guess, but you know I’ve never been one to sit around and be lazy. I need to do something; especially after being laid up for 30 standard days.”

“Who said anything about being lazy?” Ainsley asked as she went into her bedroom, pausing to touch a button on the door controls to keep it open. “You can always swim in the ocean… uh, that is if,” she frowned as she looked at her artificial arm, “can you? What with that… arm?”

“The arm and its connection to my body is quite waterproof,” Valerie called back. “And before you ask, it weighs the same as my old arm, so I don’t have to worry about it dragging me down. But if that’s what you’re suggesting, I could use the exercise.”

“That’s the spirit!” the redhead said as she came out of the bedroom with what only the most charitable would call a swimsuit draped on a hanger. “What do you think?”

Valerie took one look at the garment on the hanger and said with a slight flush as she imagined herself wearing it. It’d leave much of her body exposed, just barely covering what needed to be covered for her to remain decent. “It’s um… brief, I’ll give it that.”

“It’s yours if you want it,” Ainsley said with a sly grin.

“Thanks, but no thanks. I… I couldn’t,” Valerie said with a wave of a hand. She only noticed after that it was the metal hand; her right arm was still her dominant arm after the surgery. She also noticed how little noise the thing made. Looking at it one would think it would clink and clank with the sound of metal-on-metal, but the arm was remarkably silent with all of its movements.

Ainsley just barely hid the frown before shaking herself. “I’m sorry,” Ainsley said with a flush of her own. “It’s just going to take some getting used to seeing, that’s all.”

“I’m not planning to lose this artificial arm any time soon, so you better get used to it fast!” Valerie said with a grin to take away the sting of the words. “But as I just said, I’ll pass on that… thing.” she said, pointing with her left index finger at the brief “garment.”

“Oh…,” Ainsley said with a sudden sly grin that made red flags go up in Valerie’s mind. She was proven right when the redhead finished. “You’re not going to bother with one at all? Bold I must say, very bold. I didn’t think you’d have it in you to bare it all on the beach.”

Valerie rolled her eyes and let out the briefest of sighs. This little game between them had been going on for as long as the two had known each other. It was just that, a game. There was no malice or hard feelings. Ainsley just liked to poke gently at Valerie’s sensibilities, and often Valerie gave as good as she got. “What I’m saying is that,” she cast around in her mind for a good way of putting it, “um… less is more.”

Ainsley looked at the swimwear on the hanger and said, “This is less.”

“Not what I mean!” she rolled her eyes. “I mean the less shown the better sometimes,” Valerie said with an exasperated chuckle. “A few Earth-years back, before I joined the service and we broke away from Earth, I did a little… let’s call it a sociology experiment.”

“Do tell,” Ainsley said as she sat down next to Valerie on the couch. Valerie was a little surprised that she sat down as close to her as she had.

“Well, one week I went to a nightclub, a dance club, it doesn’t matter exactly what it was, and I dressed in a really flashy manner that’s not at all typical of me,” Valerie explained. “It was a brief dress, very tight so it hugged my frame very closely and not only that, it was rather short. Hell,” she paused as she thought back to when she wore it. “To call it short would be generous.” Meanwhile Ainsley smiled on the inside as she thought about how she may have looked in it; oh, how she wanted Valerie to wear that dress again, for her. “Anyways, I wasn’t very comfortable in it at first, let me tell you! But I did get looks from guys and was approached by a few. The next week however, I went to the same club dressed more casually; something more flowing and looser and more comfortable, and I found that more guys were willing to flirt with me.”

“I see, although there is a little flaw in that experiment,” Ainsley said.

“What’s that?”

“You said you weren’t comfortable the first week. It probably showed in your demeanor so that’s probably why many guys didn’t try anything,” Ainsley explained. “If you didn’t look comfortable being there like that, which I’m assuming you weren’t, it probably showed in your body language. As dumb as some guys can be, some do pick up on subtle hints like body language.”

“Maybe,” Valerie admitted. “Try it yourself though. You may find that my theory was correct. There is something to be said about leaving something to the imagination.” She paused for a second. “Besides, even when I did relax into my experiment the first week, I didn’t get nearly the same response as the next week. I know, I know, there’s little empirical evidence and my data is probably skewed like all hell, but it’s what happened.”

“I’ll have to try and replicate your experiment,” Ainsley answered. “But, what do you have?”

“I have something to wear that suits me,” Valerie said, as she leaned back against the sinfully comfortable couch and crossed her arms over her breasts.

“Tell me it isn’t some anachronistic, prudish one-piece getup. If it is, I might smack you!” she said with a grin.

“Calm down, it isn’t. I’m not that old fashioned!”

“Oh, whew!” Ainsley said with a giggle.

“Although, I might just pack a datapad with a book reading app on it,” Valerie said. “I wouldn’t need anything more than a shirt and shorts for that.”

“Don’t… you… dare!” Ainsley answered with an amused glare, emphasizing each word. “If you do, I swear to God I’ll bury the datapad in the sand somewhere and then I’ll tear said shirt and shorts off! And I wouldn’t care if you had nothing on underneath! Go ahead, try me!”

“Okay, okay!” Valerie said, throwing her hands up in front of her in defense. “I’ll leave them here! Sheesh.”

“You better.”

“But for now, I better get a shower in and then I’ll buy you a drink.”

“Now we’re talking!” Ainsley exclaimed. “But the second round is on me.”

“Suit yourself,” Valerie said with a shrug as she started toward the head, pulling at the belt around her waist and starting to undo her uniform pants just before she closed the door. Ainsley chuckled to herself and leaned back, her eyes catching on the brief thing on the hanger. She held it up and muttered, “Yeah, she’s likely right; it is too little…,” she let a grin spread across her face, “but not for me.”

Valerie, now dressed in a modest, yet still formfitting deep green sundress that covered her back, stared at the drink before the two women. They were seated at a middle-class bar just off the beach, complete with wicker bar chairs situated around small wooden tables, watching the sun recede beneath the horizon, enjoying the warm breeze coming off the sea. The drink was served in a glass that must’ve started life as a fishbowl and it smoked with the dry ice in it. Valerie sniffed at it and could smell the amount of rum in it. “What did you say this was again?”

Ainsley grinned at her and answered. “It’s called a warp core breach. It’s a drink from ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s’ Quark’s Bar. Share one of these puppies with me and you’ll be relaxed for the next three days.”

“I don’t need to be quite that relaxed,” Valerie answered while eyeing the drink dubiously.

“You’ll be fine,” Ainsley said, “besides, if we get fucked up from this the barkeep will call us a cab.”

“Well…, okay,” Valerie said.

“After you,” Ainsley said and watched as the blond picked up the large globular glass with her artificial right arm and took a healthy swig. Almost as quickly she set it down and started coughing. “What the fuck is in this?” she demanded when she could finally speak.

“You’re supposed to drink your alcohol, not breathe it,” Ainsley laughed as she leaned her shoulders back, her head tilted skyward, with a hand over her ample chest while she laughed. When she leaned back, she slapped the table lightly and kept laughing. Valerie gave her a very dark look and waited while her friend had a grand ol’ time at her expense.

Ainsley calmed down a few seconds later and with the largest, silliest grin on her face. “Damn! Oh my God! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that before! That’s 10 ounces of rum in there, not including the 151-proof stuff.”

“You could’ve warned me!”

“And miss out on the hilarity?” Valerie asked. “Not a chance!”

Valerie narrowed her eyes at the redhead and reached up with her artificial right hand to lightly smack her friend on the top of the head.

“Ow!” the redhead cried as she jerked back. “Did you have to use your metal hand?” she asked as she rubbed the top of her head. She winced as she touched where she was slapped.

“Yes, I did!” Valerie said with a silly grin and a small laugh of her own. “That ought to learn ya’ not to pull something like that again. On anyone!” She looked around the patio seating area and noticed that most of the male patrons here paid no mind to her artificial arm. They took it well in stride while checking her and Ainsley out; and with Valerie wearing the dress, as opposed to her uniform, there was much to check out. At first, she thought the artificial arm would be off-putting, but by the flattering glances she was getting she had nothing to worry about. She looked around once more and offered a sweet smile to some of the guys looking at her and more than a few turned away, blushing in mild embarrassment at being caught looking at her.

After being aboard ship for months it felt good to be out among normal people, and for her to be noticed instead of her rank. On her last ship she was the XO, the person who was the hard-ass so the captain didn’t have to be. The uniform didn’t flatter anyone, it being rather baggy and shapeless. Even if it weren’t, nobody would dare to look at her that way, at least not where she could see it. Fleet regulations frowned upon anyone having a relationship with someone within the same chain of command. It wasn’t unheard of, of course, but usually when it was found out someone, usually the XO, would come down on the offenders hard.

Away from the Fleet and the demands of duty, she could relax, or at least as much as she allowed herself to relax. She couldn’t imagine an officer or sailor doing what she was doing now, taking her ease and enjoying a sunset whilst dressed in a thin, though still modest sundress.

Ainsley took a much smaller sip of the concoction between them before swallowing and reaching for the basket of oversized pretzels, snagging one of the large, chewy things and dipping a corner in honey mustard. She’d already eaten more than half the bowl and Valerie wasn’t about to complain. She looked out to the sea beyond the bar and the twin moonrise as the system primary set to the east.

She allowed a smile to spread across her face as she contemplated what her friend Ainsley was planning for her to enjoy herself. Maybe, just maybe, some lazy time on a beach soaking up the bright sunlight of Altair was in order. That would be tomorrow or the day after or even the day after that. For now, she had time, something she hadn’t had for a while; she could relax and be herself and pretend that God was in His heaven and all was right with the world.

Later that night the two walked into Ainsley’s apartment. Though they both drank rather heavily that evening, Ainsley was still very much alert; sober in fact. Sometimes she cursed her Midasian genetic makeup for part of her genetic makeup made it so that it took a whole lot more alcohol to get her drunk. It often took nearly four times as much alcohol to get her drunk. Sometimes she forgot about that, especially when it came to drinking with her friend Valerie. She looked over at Valerie on her couch, she was very much buzzed for Ainsley drank most of the drink that the two had shared at the beachside bar. She wasn’t at all so drunk to make her sick but buzzed enough that she didn’t have any business driving a car let alone command a warship.

Valerie however was enjoying the feeling of being buzzed. For the first time in a little over a year, she threw caution to the wind and drank. She had been able to let the cares of being in the Space Navy be nothing more than a distant thought which considering how close of a brush with death she experienced, it was rather therapeutic in nature for her.

She sat back on the couch and looked to Ainsley across the room with a weird smile on her face. “Ainsley?” she called out to her. Ainsley came over to the couch and Valerie looked up at her. The alcohol was loosening up some of her cares and fears, so she figured why not just go ahead and ask her. “Ainsley? Do you like me?”

Ainsley looked down at her. “Of course, I do!” she exclaimed. “You wouldn’t be my friend if I didn’t like you.”

“No,” Valerie shook her head. “You misunderstood me.” She grinned. “Do you like me like me?” She had to laugh on the inside at that question, it sounded so much like something she’d ask back in high school.

Ainsley was floored by her question but with how buzzed Valerie was she figured that her inhibitions were very much relaxed. She sat down on the couch next to her and looked to her friend who asked a rather pointed question, she deserved to know.

“Well Ainsley, spill it already.” She said as she looked to Ainsley and smiled. “I want to know!”

“Well,” Ainsley thought as she looked down at her hands. “Yes,” she looked to her friend Valerie. “Yes, I do. I like you perhaps more than I should.” She looked away and her cheeks turned red in embarrassment. “I’m a little embarrassed by this but I suppose that you deserve to know.” She turned back to her friend. “If you’re asking me if I love you, the answer is yes. Yes, I do love you. That’s why I was so horrified by what happened to you.”

Ainsley looked down at her hands and she let a few tears slip down her face. “When I saw that artificial arm on you earlier today, I was… I was scared for your life. I knew that the only reason you had that… that arm,” she gulped, “was because you came very damn close to dying.” She looked to Valerie. “I don’t know what I’d do in life without you. When I saw you on that hover train so many years ago, I knew I would love you.”

Valerie was stunned as she sat there next to her. Somehow, she knew what her friend really thought about her but just hearing it was amazing. “You have no idea how close to death I really was. It was touch and go there for a while after they cut the vacsuit off me after the injury; I began bleeding like a stuck pig. The only thing that held all the blood inside me was the vacsuit, but you need to cut it off if you’re going to treat injuries. I could feel myself losing consciousness as blood quickly rushed out of the gaping holes in my shoulder where what seemed like thousands of pieces of my shattered bones were protruding through what remained of my skin.” Ainsley looked to her friend with a look of horror and tears on her face. “So yes, you have absolutely no idea how close to death’s doorstep I came. Now that I look back on that situation, I swore that I could have felt myself drift away. The navy surgeons and medics didn’t say anything but their looks on their faces were enough to tell me that they almost lost me. I’m pretty sure that if weren’t for those little nanomachines that I have in my body I would probably be very much dead right now.”

Ainsley looked to her; her face was covered in tears as she looked back at her ‘friend’. “Now that you know how I really feel about you,” she reached up and tried to wipe her face of what seemed like overflowing tears. “Now what? What do you think of me? Do you have a problem with me loving you like that?”

Valerie smiled as she took hold of her friend Ainsley and pulled her down to look her directly in her face. Their noses were but mere inches away from each other. “If I had a problem with all of that, do you think I’d do this?” Valerie reached up, put her hands gently behind Ainsley’s head and kissed her passionately. At first Ainsley was shocked that Valerie felt even remotely close to how she felt about her but that shock quickly melted away as she just simply let herself go in the passion of the kiss and returned it with an equal amount of passion and emotion. Ainsley thought that it might have been wrong, but it felt so right.

The kiss lasted for what seemed like forever but like all good things, it too came to an end. Ainsley looked to Valerie and wrapped her arms around her like she was her only lifeline. She sobbed into her left shoulder, her real shoulder, as she repeatedly proclaimed her love for her. Valerie felt like she was on Cloud 9 as she returned Ainsley’s embrace; careful not to squeeze too hard with her artificial arm. Like Ainsley, Valerie didn’t care what the rest of the universe would think about them from this point on; for if you asked them, it felt right.

Later that night the two of them found each other, once again, in a shared embrace while sharing a bed with one another.

Valerie leaned back against the sinfully comfortable couch, aware that it was her last morning on Altair before she assumed her new command. She’d been engrossed with reading up on the unclassified information about her new command, the ACS Archmage, until late last night. The Archmage was one of the Magician Class Battlecruisers that were fielded by the Human Federation just before the Great Coup. It had the latest technology aboard her and an impressive amount of firepower for a ship of its size. Although, like all battlecruisers, she traded armor and other defensive capabilities for her heavy firepower and the speed to quickly close with the enemy.

The Human Federation BuShips had opted to go with a heavier missile capacity, as noted by the increased number of launchers, counter-missile launchers and bigger magazines for both. Ideally the ship would carry the mark ten capital missiles but the ACF’s stockpile of the newest missiles was dwindling at a steady rate and the factories were struggling to tool up to make more of them. Luckily the mark nine missiles weren’t that far behind in performance. The Archmage also carried the latest in EW platforms and stealthed recon drones that the Human Federation had created, at least until before the Great Coup.

It wasn’t just the missiles that were lagging in production. The shipyards were struggling to build and repair the ships the ACF already had as well as captured in battle. All of the ACF’s shipyards were expanding at breakneck speeds to try and match the Human Federation’s larger, more established yards. The Altair Drive Yards were already three times their pre-war size and capacity but, even so they were struggling to keep up with demand even as they built up.

Between the armor and hulls necessary to build warships, the weapons and various other systems that made starships living breathing things, the small craft necessary for them, the military needs were biting into the civilian sector and its capacity. As more and more civilians were going into the military workforce, either as defense contractors or civilians, or as officers and enlisted, the purely civilian sectors of the ACF economy were starting to feel the pinch.

Already there were price increases on goods and services as supply dwindled. New companies had to pick up the slack of not having trade from Earth controlled space to draw upon. Luckily, basic commodities such as clothing and food weren’t affected by the retooling of the economy. A lot of the ACF’s planets and moons were geared toward agricultural production so there wasn’t the threat of food shortages and the riots those could spawn; but heavy industrial goods were going to be a problem soon. Three or four of their worlds were so far behind in industrial development that they needed imports from other worlds to build their industrial base. That was an expensive proposition for any star nation, let alone one with a developing economy like the ACF when no human power in space would trade with them.

All that meant that what the average civilian on the street once saw as basic things to live with, never mind luxury products, had rising costs as supplies steadily ran out.

The ACF needed to win the war, and quickly, if it wanted to maintain its economy. Trade with other star systems was essential to any spacefaring society and the Allied Colonies was no exception. No planet or moon could produce all the goods and services that its populace demanded. If, for example, there was a mostly agricultural world it would require the importation of industrial products to fuel its local economy and to work the farms; the same held true for mostly industrial worlds, just in the opposite direction.

If and when they won the war, the government, once legitimized by the rest of Human Space, would have to work out new trade treaties, customs rules and regulations, exchange rates for currency, and a host of other things that made intergalactic trade possible. And that was just with the human powers in space, not to mention the Zaltaens! To think about it was almost daunting, but at least Valerie didn’t have to think about it. She was a naval officer with no desire to be involved in politics.

She understood politics, having studied it at the academy as part of her training, but she didn’t like it. She despised the patronage games that were almost part and parcel in the Human Federation Armed Forces and were probably going to crop up in the Allied Colonial Armed Forces as well. Too often she’d seen more competent officers passed over for promotion simply because they didn’t know the right people. Too often a word whispered here or there could see an officer, no matter how effective–or ineffective for that matter–promoted faster or slower than their peers. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, but it was how the game was played.

Valerie prided herself on the fact that she’d managed to get as far as she did without relying on some highfalutin fat cat or politico to push her career along and she didn’t at all believe in kissing ass. She came from a modest working-class family who moved to Altair from Earth in her grandparents’ generation and she was the first in her family since then to go into the military. Her grandfather on her mom’s side had served in the Human Federation Air Force, but neither of her parents had.

She managed to get into the Naval Academy Etajima on Earth based on her merits in high school. A school counselor had recognized something in her and pointed the younger Valerie toward things that would make her prospective naval academy material. Was it really sixteen Earth-years ago that she graduated high school? She supposed it was; yet the thirty-four-year-old barely looked a day over twenty-two thanks to the nanomachines in her body.

Pulling herself from her thoughts she focused them back on the datapad in her hand. The Archmage was sitting in a docking slip at the Altair Drive Yards undergoing final refit and resupply. Tomorrow Ainsley would drive her to one of the three the orbital elevators and from there she’d take a magtrain to the upper orbital station and from there she’d take a Fleet shuttle to the nearest small craft docking port to her ship. The fact that she didn’t know many of the officers or senior chiefs aboard her new command worried her a bit, however she knew her XO and the company commander of the ship’s Marines.

Commander Jessica McNair was someone she’d known for years, having gotten to know the younger woman during Valerie’s third form at the academy. During their third form, midshipmen were assigned a first form midshipman for a month to mentor and help adjust to academy life, along with their other myriad and sundry duties that just about ran them ragged. The academy instructors told the midshipmen that this extra duty was to prepare them for the weight of responsibility of command; that if the midshipmen entertained the slightest dream of standing on their own command deck as a captain, they’d have to get used to juggling competing demands.

Valerie was fortunate enough to be assigned Jessica, who turned out to be a very competent and resourceful woman. Jessica had almost no trouble adjusting to the academy’s lifestyle, for which Valerie was infinitely grateful. She’d heard some of her fellow third form middies grouse about how their first form middies were lazy, incompetent fuck-ups who had no business aboard a freighter, let alone a warship. Even so, by the end of the month most of the ones who thought so grudgingly admitted that maybe, just maybe, the newbies would pass muster… eventually. The ones who didn’t get even that much of a nod usually didn’t make it.

Jessica and Valerie had kept in contact on and off over the years, what with the demands of the Space Force upon them making it rather hard. Valerie was glad the younger woman had made commander and was one step closer to her own command of a capital ship. Valerie did a quick search and found that Jessica had served as a captain of a destroyer when she’d been a junior lieutenant-commander and had performed ably in that role until the Great Coup where she brought her ship and most of its crew over to the ACF. Then she’d spent some time ground-side as a staff officer until BuPers decided that she needed to be aboard a ship again.

Valerie’s Marine commander was Captain Alexander Denton, a good friend of hers since high school. They’d dated off-and-on through high school, but it never went anywhere, and she didn’t expect it to be any trouble for them.

Whereas she’d gone straight to the academy after high school Denton had waited until a year after college to go, joining up and making officer rank through OCS. When they finally reported aboard, he would gain a brevet promotion to major, if only to prevent any confusion someone might have about which captain they were referring to.

She was just about finished going through the information when Ainsley appeared, naked, in the doorway of her bedroom. Valerie looked up at the redhead and not for the first time did she look with envy at that perfect body her friend had. Ainsley flashed a smile at Valerie who at least wore shorts. Ainsley plopped herself down next to Valerie and threw an arm around the naval officer and kissed her passionately. “Your last day, huh?”

“Yeah. I know,” Valerie replied, not the least put off by her friend’s lack of decorum. If anything, she’d had plenty of time to get to know Ainsley all over again, giving her even more reasons to love her. Even more reasons to come back to her alive.

“When tomorrow?” the beautiful Midasian asked.

“My orders don’t specifically say,” Valerie began, tapping the datapad a few times to bring up the orders on them, including the formal words that she’d say to assume command of the battlecruiser. “But I figure the earlier the better.”

“So, when?” Ainsley pressed. “Enough time for us to have one more night out on the town or do you plan to be in space before the near-pigeons wake up?”

Valerie let out a somewhat happy sigh. She’d regret leaving Altair, hell… she’d regret leaving Ainsley. It was home after all, but she liked being in the “Howling Dark.” There was something to be said about being out there, staring into Infinity. And it truly was Infinity. The observable universe stretched on for tens of trillions of light years in any direction. To be in space was to stare into God’s jewelry box. To see the stars spread out before you using sensors, to simply marvel at His creation without a planetary atmosphere to impede the view, was a truly breathtaking and mystifying thing to do.

One would think that after staring into Infinity mankind would realize that silly little things like creeds, national origin, lines on a map, and the other things that humanity kept trying to use to separate one from another would be meaningless; that the universe didn’t care about such things. Even if mankind exterminated itself tomorrow the universe would carry on without so much as a thought.

In the meantime, there was something new and exciting out there in every direction. Humanity had discovered the existence of the Vonosh and the Zaltaens, but what else was out there beyond those races? What other new races were there? What other mind-blowing treasures were just waiting to be found by humans? There was a whole galaxy to explore and humanity was still confined to a small part of a galactic arm. A part of her wanted to be on an explorer vessel, as the often-used quote from “Star Trek” went, “To explore strange, new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Was that idealistic? You bet it was! But that didn’t stop Valerie from hoping that maybe, just maybe, she’d be the one to set foot on a world that no human had ever visited before; to be the one to go down in the history books as the one who discovered said wonders. Maybe after the war she’d resign her active commission, go into the Reserves and hire on with one of the megacorporations that funded such expeditions. They were always looking for competent ship captains to lead their interplanetary expeditions. She looked to Ainsley and smiled, if she were to do that Ainsley would be by her side.

“I think I’ll have time for one of your famous breakfasts,” Valerie finally said after woolgathering for a few moments.

“Alright!” Ainsley said with a broad grin. “I’ll send you off with a meal that not even some fancy pants Fleet steward could do!”