Once fast and agile for her size, the mammoth ship lumbered as she maneuvered about to a new heading. The massive wound on her starboard side was a glaring indicator to her plight. The repairs were makeshift at best, but they worked. That was all that mattered. The many days of dangerous work had paid off. The Oronos was finally ready to get underway.
Slowly the form of the giant starship began to fade from view as the phase drive took effect. The Oronos didn’t vanish in a burst of energy as it usually did. Instead, it gradually became translucent until it was barely visible. Only after a string of maintenance checks did the ship complete the shift and begin to accelerate. The long journey back had begun.
Long days of repair work had kept the crew busy and focused. There had been work for even the most unskilled. That work continued, but with the ship underway there was only so much that could be done. The daily routine of ex-space began to set in.
With most of the ship’s operations automated, monitoring and maintaining equipment was the daily grind for the operations crew, the people whose job it was to actually staff the ship. Other units that were assigned to the ship, such as the troop compliment, logistics detachment, and fighter squadrons, had their own duties to perform and set their own schedules.
Different units would be assigned to a ship depending on the specific mission. Armies to invade some planet, scientists to explore and study, are examples of some other units that might use the ship as a base. Cargo and even whole colonies could also be moved. All together there were over twenty-one hundred people left onboard the Oronos.
As the days grew monotonous, tensions once again began to rise. Divisions in the crew were fueled by the stress of what awaited them. The burning uncertainty of what lay ahead. Those who prayed for the safety of their loved ones were greatly outnumbered by people who were convinced that only death and destruction would once again greet them.
Colonel Marcone dealt with the situation as best he could. Being Operations Officer, he was in charge of personnel matters. As he saw it, things were under control if the General was kept happy. This was accomplished by crushing problems before they got to him. Harsh punishments were handed down for minor offenses. With the brunt of this discipline going to Earth people, fuel was inadvertently added to the fires of division. Marcone had been looked upon with distrust when he came aboard and was soon openly criticized and even hated by some, usually his victims.
One evening he went to the officer’s mess and as he made his way along the serving line he found someone a little to close behind him. Looking back, he was greeted with a smiling young face.
“Hi!” Lazell chirped.
“Lieutenant.” He bothered to say before heading off to a table in a quiet corner. He didn’t even bother to give her a second thought. Coincidently, he chose the same corner that Aurora hid in. Lazell sat with her and was facing the Colonel a few tables away.
“He doesn’t like me,” Lazell said sounding disheartened.
“He doesn’t know who you are,” Aurora grunted. “He’s a complete ass. You probably should keep it that way.”
Lazell smiled devilishly. “I bet he’ll remember me if I lick my leg like a cat.”
“Go for it. I’d like to see that.”
Not one to be challenged, Lazell took off her boot and multicolored sock. She pulled her pants up her calve and laid her bare leg across the table towards Marcone. Then she began twisting foot around, almost seductively. With a little pout, she began running her hands up and down her calve.
After a moment, she sat back and smiled at Aurora, her leg still splayed across the table.
Colonel Marcone walked up. “Is there a problem, Lieutenant?”
“Oh yes, sir,” she said meekly. “I twisted my ankle the other day and the medics said I should massage it on regular basis.”
He gave her a strange look. Then looked at Aurora, who just shrugged.
After he walked away shaking his head, Lazell leaned over her knee and smiled her devilish smile.
“See, now he knows who I am.”
“Yeah, he knows you’re a complete lunatic. And you are by the way.”
When Lazell occasionally ran into Marcone in the corridors Lazell would bend down and rub her ankle with that little pout.
After one to many times he asked, “Hasn’t your ankle healed yet, Lieutenant?”
“No, I hurt it again,” she said in her little voice.
“Well, ah, I’m sorry to hear that, Lieutenant. How did you hurt it?”
“Oh, what did you say your name was?”
Lazell tormented Sands as a side project. One day she sat on his lap out of nowhere and wrapped her arms around his neck.
When his face went wide open in surprise, she got up and said, “Ops, thought you were someone else.”
He turned to Aurora. “Could you do something about her?”
“Not my responsibility, you’re squadron commander.”
“Yea, but you’re the one that wanted her.”
“You’d still be stuck with her.”
However Lazell’s primary victim was none other than Aurora. She was bound and determined to make the woman laugh. Lazell haunted her constantly, trying everything in the book. She had to become even more creative. When she spotted the opportunity to hit both of them at once, she jumped on it.
When she spotted Aurora and Sands were sitting opposite each other having a conversation in the dayroom Lazell walked up behind him and started doing a seductive little dance. Aurora was trying to keep a straight face. Her lips twisted as she tried not to smile.
“What’s wrong with your face?” Sands asked as Lazell lifted a breast and flicked her tongue at it.
“Nothing,” she said, trying to sound hard. Lazell was shaking her breasts just over his head and rubbing her nips.
Aurora had to fight not to smile, let alone laugh.
Sands held his hands out in question and shook his head slightly. “What? Are you...”
He turned just in time to see Lazell walk away whistling. He looked back at Aurora accusingly.
“What?” she spat indignantly.
“You bitchs fuckin’ with me?”
She pushed herself up and said, “Like you’re really worth fucking with.”
Aurora walked quickly toward the hall, practically holding her breath. Once out in the corridor and making sure it was clear, a brief and loud laugh burst out of her. When that was over she shook head with a broad smile.
“Huh!” Lazell jumped from nowhere and pointed at her accusingly.
“You little bitch!”
“You laughed, and I’m gonna tell everyone.”
“You do and I’ll feed you to the sharks,” Aurora snarled.
“Sharks? There’s no sharks on this ship.”
Aurora got in her face. “I’ll clone some, flood the landing bay, and slowly lower you in. Then who’ll be laughing?”
“You will. Again!” Lazell burst out laughing and danced her way down the corridor.
Aurora went back into the dayroom and ran into Marcus.
“You know where I can get some shark DNA?”
Having made her laugh once didn’t satisfy the domineering imp in Lazell. She had to make Aurora laugh in front of others. To that end she hunted her pray. Aurora could hardly step outside the barracks without her annoying shadow. Ditching the girl had become a battle of wits.
One morning she almost made it to the transport and freedom when the familiar clamor of boots raced up behind her.
“You almost made it this time,” Lazell said merrily.
“Look, I’m going to do something really boring.”
“Can I come?” Lazell said, excitedly. “I can help. It’ll be fun. I make everything fun.”
“Not this,” Aurora stated as the transport opened up. “Trust me.”
In the combined squadrons’ parts department, the inventory was checked and crossed checked. An officer was supposed to periodically sign off on it. Not ten minutes along Lazell was crying.
“This is booorrring,” she whined, with her copy of the eternal checklist in hand.
“I told you,” Aurora said as she made her way down an endless row of ship parts, counting and checking them off.
“This sucks. Why not just pencil whip it and we can go have some fun. Maybe we can go fuck with Sands?”
Aurora shoved the list at her and said, “If you want to sign your name and be responsible for a missing engine, go right ahead. Please.”
Lazell frowned and looked off at row upon row of stock.
“I gotta go pee,” she spouted and handed over her list. Hardly anything was marked off on it.
Aurora snatched it from her. “Make it quick.”
Continuing down the row, Aurora marked nothing off on her own list. Nothing at all was marked. After a few moments she walked back to the office where Sergeant Sullivan sat with his feet on the desk.
“Ran screaming down the hall,” he mumbled.
Aurora smiled and nodded.
She reached inside her jacket and handed him a pint bottle of her infamous Scotch that had originally contained Tequila.
“No problem, Captain,” he responded as she left. “Anytime you want to bore the shit out of someone just bring ’em down here to do my boring assed job.”
He spun off the top and took a big swig. “Don’t worry, I’ll be here. Doing my boring assed job.
“It’s okay,” he called after her, thinking she was well down the hall. “I still want to have sex with you.”
She swung back into the doorway with hands planted on her hips and a glare that rivaled a snake about to strike.
“You better be careful, Sergeant. Real careful. I might just take you up on that.”
Actually heading down the hall, she growled back over her shoulder, “And woo to you if you don’t satisfy me.”
Sergeant Sullivan sat quietly thinking for a bit.
“Shit,” he mumbled and took an even bigger swig. “What’s the worst that could happen?
“Okay! I’m up for it!”
Then there was Bogan. Lazell genuinely detested him. She did actual cruel things to him.
One day Marcus walked out of the unisex bathroom with a towel wrapped around him after taking a shower. He rounded the corner into the dayroom and found Lazell standing by the entrance.
“Is anyone else in there?” she smiled.
“Um, just Bogan in the shower.”
She gave him a broad smile and reached over to open a panel on the wall. Inside were two pipes with shutoff valves, one marked hot and one cold. She slammed off the hot one.
After turning the valve back on, she did a little curtsy and walked off to the laughing of everyone there. The laughing increased when Bogan walked out like nothing happened.
“I smell a twerp,” he growled.
He was ready the next time. When she turned off the hot water he raced out, naked and wet.
“I got ya this time!”
She just stood there a moment and closed the panel while he gave his most intimidating pose.
“What are you gonna do about it?” she snapped. “Huh, big man? You gonna hit the little girl?”
The rest of the people in the dayroom looked on as she became louder. “Go ahead big man, hit the little girl.”
Bogan felt all the eyes upon him and glanced around. He could’ve knocked her clean out right then and there, but then knew what kind of a beating he’d get for it.
“Alright,” he said angrily, “It’s on now.”
“Oh bullshit. That’s like the third time you’ve said that. When are you actually going to do something?”
He just stood there, confounded and naked.
“Shut up and grow a dick.”
She walked off as the entire dayroom started laughing.
Travel in ex-space didn’t allow flight operations and therefore grounded what was left of the ship’s two fighter squadrons. Plagued by his own self-doubt, Vice-Colonel Sands made the mistake of giving his people entirely too much free time. At first he setup a rigid training schedule of mock battles in the simulators, however that quickly dropped off at the complaining of certain members. Hardened combat officers were allowed to get soft and lazy as the days dragged by.
Sands didn’t quite notice the idleness of his unit as he was otherwise preoccupied. The General’s interest in him was again apparent when he was added to the duty officer rotation. It was not an unprecedented move to have a squadron commander fill that slot, however it was a surprise to Sands when he found himself sitting at the Command Station. And that’s all he did, sit. If anything happened, anything, he was to call the General. Sands repeatedly thanked God that he never had to make that call.
It did feel good though, sitting there, surrounded by all that power, even if it was only temporary. Long ago, he’d dreamed of commanding his own ship. Back when he joined up there was still a chance of it; there were still plenty of ships and opportunities. It had been quite some time since he’d had those thoughts. They’d long since been replaced by the higher goal of staying alive. His promotion to squadron commander had really taken him by surprise. Rather than be elated at the opportunity and honor, he’d been filled with a dread which continued to plague him.
Not only was he filled with self-doubt over his command, Sands had found himself consumed by the unbearable stress of what lay ahead. It was an ever-present knot in his stomach that grew tighter as the days passed and the unknown grew closer. At times it would burst into a storm of panic. His hands would start shaking uncontrollably. He’d shove them in his pockets to hide his fear from his fellows, they would never understand. He had to stay strong, even if it was only on the outside.
At times like that, he found himself turning to the one person he could trust with those feelings. He would remove his rank insignia as he entered Marcus’s quarters. A man of many trades, Marcus always had something to say that would put him at ease. They would spend many hours talking. Lessons of acceptance, dealing with situations when they arose, not before, and ultimately his powerlessness over what was to pass, helped, but more often than not Sands was left with the disturbing thought that even death might not be an escape to the nightmare. The Aultrian belief of reincarnation left little to be desired in their situation. The idea of living another life in that doomed world was not appealing.
As the tensions in the crew began to rise, Sands found himself butting heads more and more with some of his flight leaders, particularly Talya. As much as he tried to hold his ground, he was consumed with self-doubt. No sooner did he give an order than he wished he hadn’t spoken. On more than one occasion he was forced to stand behind something foolish he had said in fear of looking indecisive.
After one such incident he sought out Marcus.
“I just don’t feel I can live up to Sterett,” Sands said with his eyes cast toward the floor.
“Feel?” Marcus donned a strangely harsh tone. “Who said you were supposed to feel? You’re Tyramma. They don’t want you to have feelings.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, we’re supposed to be cold-blooded killing machines. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m still human, they can’t brainwash that out of me. I can’t shut off my emotions.”
“You don’t eliminate your feelings, you control them.”
“Well, I do,” Sands defended himself with. “I’m not some blubbering idiot out there.”
“No, you’re not. I think you’re doing a pretty good job, under the circumstances. However, one of us doesn’t agree with that.”
“I just feel that I’m constantly fuckin’ up,” Sands admitted. “Little shit, like the reports and stuff.”
“So you suck at administrative duties. Your job is to kill people and direct others in causing mass damage to the enemy. Put in for an assistant to handle the paper pushing.”
“Sure, lots of unit commanders have them. The old man has at least three. He needs someone to lay out his clothes for him.”
“Yeah, well, Sterett didn’t need any help.”
Marcus shook his head, “There’s one thing you need to admit right now, you are not Sterett. He’s gone on. I’m sure he’s concerned about our plight, however he won’t be helping out.”
Sands reluctantly nodded in agreement.
“Besides,” Marcus continued, “you couldn’t be him even if you truly wanted to.”
“Oh, I don’t. I just want some of the respect he had.”
“Good, because no one can realistically become someone else. It can’t be done without their life’s experiences. Did you know that Sterett was over a hundred cycles?”
That surprised Sands, he had no idea the man had been around so long.
“It’s true, he had so much time in the Tyramma that he should have been commanding this carrier, that’s if he hadn’t been busted so many times. Bet you didn’t know that.”
“Really? I thought he was so respected by everybody.”
“He was, because he’d been through so much shit. The upper ranks liked him because they all served with him. And, he truly was a great man.”
“That doesn’t do me any good.”
“Maybe I’m saying this the wrong way. You can’t be him, you can only be yourself. You can’t have his respect, you have your own.”
“Really? Ya could’ve fooled me.”
“Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
“Oh, it’s there.” Sands pulled at his rank insignia. “It’s right here.”
The original pin given to him by the General had been polished and paired with a new mate. He’d come to cherish that insignia as it represented the man’s faith in him. Faith he was desperately trying to live up to.
Marcus shook his head. “You know what your biggest problem is? It’s you. Just like me, you’re your own worst enemy. Who is your biggest critic? Who insults you the most?”
Sands didn’t respond. He sat staring at the floor.
“The sooner you make peace with yourself, the better off we’re all going to be. We can’t have a CO that second guesses himself.”
“You’re Tyramma, you don’t try, you do.”