Long periods locked up in a ship could ware on a person both mentally and physically. It was important to keep one’s self in shape. At least that’s what Major Sands believed. Whenever possible, he started his day with a morning run. His morning was when he started his day. As a pilot, his day was dictated by the flight schedule. When in ex-space, or at a base, the day was usually filled with training and simulated missions, however a lot of time was left open. Other jobs on the ship had to be done around the clock. These were covered by rotating shifts, with a primary crew that was called in for a crisis.
There were a few gyms onboard, however no track. Sands found that the long central corridors of the Oronos served as a suitable substitute. Wearing his old sneakers from home, shorts and a light shirt with the unit insignia on it, Sands ran the length of the long passages. The corridors in the central mass of the ship ran from the forward most cells all the way back to the beginning of the propulsion section. From there it was up three levels (nine stories) to get to an open access tunnel that reached the rear observation dome. A bored crewman, with his feet up on a console, held up fingers indicating the numbers of times Sands had been there. He estimated the trip to be over three quarters of a mile, one way. It had become a regular ritual that Sands was going to miss if they did indeed leave the ship.
After he showered and changed, Sands packed a small bag and made his way to the hanger. He took a seat in the small passenger terminal, located in one of the forward corners of the busy hanger and waited for his shuttle to be announced. With his travel pass in hand, Sands sat staring out at the rows of sleek fighters on the other side of the glass wall, the ships of his squadron. He tried to clear his head of the war. With only a precious few days to spend with his friends and family, he didn’t want to waste them worrying.
Glancing around the terminal, he was distressed to see only a few members of his squadron. Morale had been a problem for some time. Many thought that it was foolhardy to fight on such weak ground. Even the Marshal’s decision to make a stand at Earth had been met with protests. To them, the idea of the New World was preferable. In some opinions it was inevitable. There were two big drawbacks to it, number one, it meant running and hiding, hoping they weren’t hunted down, and number two, seven billion people on Earth would be left to the mercy of the Krix.
He knew the cold reality of the situation all too well. There was no way they could hold off an all-out attack on Earth. Overhearing crewmembers talk about special cargo that was being brought aboard made his heart sink even further. Although the Marshal was assuring the people of Earth that they would not abandon them, preparations were being made to do so.
This had weighed heavily on Sands over the last year. The idea of defecting to the UESC, or even the US Navy, jumped back into his mind. No, he would stand by his oath, as long as possible anyway. If the fleet suddenly pulled out? Well he’d deal with that when the time came. Hopefully it wouldn’t. More wishful thinking.
Memories of the time he’d spent on Aultra filled his head, how different it had been. He recalled being uneasy at the fact that he had just about the darkest skin on the planet, then shocked at how warmly he was accepted. It tore at his heart, especially since he had begun seeing the signs of the divisions he had grown up with. Only now it was along the lines of planetary origin instead of race. Not that the old lines weren’t still clearly drawn back home. On ship, the crew all worked together against a common enemy. Off it, they went their separate ways.
As much as he didn’t want to see it, those lines were being drawn on the ship as well as in his very squadron. One of the people who would never speak to him on the streets of a city plopped himself down next to him.
“Headed to Boston?” Hammann asked with a smile.
“Ah, yeah, my brother’s place, in Dorchester,” Sands responded.
“New York for me,” Hammann announced. “I got a couple of women there.”
“Great,” Sands barely paid attention to him. He was still lost in his own thoughts.
“Still no word on orders?” Hammann asked in a hushed voice.
“No, not yet.”
“Well,” Hammann leaned back with his arms folded. “I’m startin’ to doubt this pig’s goin’ in the dock at all.”
Sands’ ears perked up. “How so?”
Hammann threw a nod at a group of people at the processing counter. They wore brown jumpsuits and either wore or carried hard hats among their gear. “The construction crews are shipping out. Shouldn’t they be getting this whore ready for docking?”
Sands glanced around the room. There were a lot of the construction workers there. The people that had been repairing the ship had their bags packed and were leaving. Not just travel cases, they had all of their gear.
Not wanting to feed into Hammann’s wild theories, Sands simply said, “Who knows, maybe they’re going to work on the Excalibur.”
“Not only that, none of the Op’s crews got orders either. Why would they keep them onboard if they weren’t planning to ship us out again?”
“How should I know? Why don’t you ask them? They’re not my responsibility.” Sands was becoming annoyed.
“And another thing, I hear we’re getting a new Flight Op’s officer. Real hard ass, the guy they threw off the Excalibur. Why would they be transferring people in if we were standing down? Especially a guy like that.”
“I don’t know,” Sands snapped. “Maybe the Operations Crew’s goin’ to the Es-star as a whole.”
“Maybe,” Hammann smiled. “Ya know I’ve been doing some reading.”
“Really? You read?”
“Yeah, In Aultrian too. Early in the war, they used to rotate these squadrons, to give everybody a chance at a glorious death. Now you got some pull with Sterett, right?”
“They’re not going to rotate this squadron. We’re too valuable, to experienced.”
“Well,” Hammann became defensive, “I’m not asking for a vacation. I’m just saying that maybe we should give some other units a chance out here. We should be defending Earth.”
“By launching counterattacks, we are defending Earth.”
“Until they get tired of us and dump us for the so called New World,” quipped Hammann.
Sands was slapped in the face with it. He tried to control his anger.
“That’s not gonna happen,” he said in an even tone. “We are all in this together, we’re all human here.”
“What’s this? You’re startin’ to sound like one of them, Sands.”
The old words of hate, ‘us and them’, how they burned at him.
“Listen man, I’m goin’ home to be with my family, where you going?” Before the man could answer he spouted, “You’re going to see your wife and boys. Those people, their families, most everyone they know’s been blown away. Most of them won’t even leave the ship. Not ’cause they don’t like it here, they got no-where to go. The last thing anyone needs is to hear from is the likes of you. And if you think we’d of had a rat’s ass chance without them, then you’re a bigger fool than I think you are.”
Hammann had no response. He sat there in wide-eyed shock.
“So why don’t you just shut the fuck up, all right?”
Sands grabbed his bag and moved to a seat on the other side of the room. Once he was out of earshot, the man mocked his dialect by mumbling, “Yes sir, Major, sir.”
Vice-General Yanex reported to the Marshal’s office as soon as he got the message through his hand-held communicator. The secretary granted him immediate access when he arrived. With head held high, Yanex marched in ready to face the music. He came to attention in front of the large desk and announced, “Vice-General Yanex, reporting as ordered, sir.” Right by the book.
Reen returned the salute, sat back, and calmly said, “Sit down, Yanex.”
Still keeping his guard up, Yanex cautiously settled into one of the chairs in front of the desk.
“I had to kiss a lot of ass today on account of you,” Reen said while rubbing the side of his face. “It left a very bitter taste in my mouth.”
He was tired, tired and frustrated. Fighting the war had never been so complicated.
There was an awkward silence while Yanex came up with a response. “You, want me to apologize?”
“You would? You’d apologize to him?”
Yanex clenched his jaw and stiffened his spine.
“I didn’t think so,” Reen said. “No, I think it’s better that you stay clear of the Professor. I’ve smoothed things over for the time being. We can’t afford to lose him now. The Vortex Weapon is far too valuable.”
Yanex shook his head, “Don’t let him fool you sir, he is not going anywhere. He’s just trying to jerk us around.”
“Maybe so, but I really can’t take that chance. Besides, we’re here to talk about you, not him.
“Now I know how much you love politics, and that you have a naturally abrasive personality, but I gave you that ship because I knew you could handle her. And you’ve done a fine job with her. Plus you’re one of the best seat-of-the-pants guys in the fleet. But that’s not enough in this job. You have to be tactful sometimes.”
“Kiss ass you mean.”
“Same thing. Believe me, these lips have been on some of the nastiest rumps in the ’vers. I do what I have to keep on fighting. We’re talking extinction here. Nothing else matters.
“Look, if we were working under any other circumstances there’s no way I could keep you in that slot, not like this. I need you too badly to lose you to something stupid like this. I need everyone at their best for this next operation.”
“The Es-star?” Yanex said hopefully.
“She won’t be ready in time. I’m keeping you and your crew on the Oronos.”
“You’re going ahead with the offensive then?”
“If we can get the prototype working.” Reen didn’t understand Yanex’s reluctance. He’d always known him to be aggressive, sometimes overly.
“What is it? I thought you of all people would have a hard-on for this.”
“Oh, I’m all for killing those bastards. I just don’t trust that thing. If it had cut-out any sooner at Aultra, they’d of been all over us. We would have never been able to make it out of there. Even if it does work, an explosion of that magnitude is bound to rip across the dimensional barrier. We could get hit just as hard in ex-space.”
Reen smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ve been running this by our people. We’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on the good Professor, even doing our own research. Not only is it do-able, but we don’t need to be there for the big show. All we have to do is start the chain reaction. We’ll be long gone by the time that star blows.”
Yanex still didn’t like it. “After all the good people that have been lost fighting this war, I hate the idea that Cromwell will be the one who turns it around.”
“Right now, I don’t care who takes credit for it. It’s more important that we succeed.”
“I know that, sir. It’s just that Cromwell is such an asshole.”
Reen chuckled, he couldn’t agree more. “Well, like our own assholes, as unpleasant as they are, we need them. We need him.”
Yanex smiled and leaned forward. “How about, when we no longer need him, you let me kill him?”
“There’ll be a long list for that job. Tell you what, I’ll put at the top.”
They both laughed. Then the smile dropped from Yanex’s face. “I’m serious.”
Reen kept his smile. “So am I”
The pre-Thanksgiving meal had been flawless, as usual. Major William Sands once again boasted that he too would be married if he could find a woman that cooked like his sister-in-law. The dinner conversation had awkwardly avoided the war. Early attempts to bring it up were put down by the combat weary officer. Instead the topics ranged from his brother’s hardware store, to how bad things were getting.
Much to the dismay of his wife, Sands’ brother Michael carried a gun on a regular basis. Private ownership of firearms had long since been banned; however the risk of being caught without it far outweighed the penalties of being caught with it. The police couldn’t be bothered with such a minor offense, that’s if you could find a cop in that neighborhood.
The growing panic often erupted into hysteria. Hiding and pretending it wasn’t real were no longer options. It was an accepted point that if the Krix didn’t do them in, the world would blow up on its own.
The crackle of gunfire was constant background noise as Sands and his older brother stepped out onto the terrace of the high-rise condominium to smoke cigars. Sixty stories up, they had a good view of the surrounding city.
As they stood in silence, looking out at the noisy congested city, a jagged bolt of lightning lit the sky between two nearby buildings.
“Storm comin’,” Mike commented with an exhale of smoke.
“You have no idea,” Sands said coldly.
Mike pulled the cigar from his mouth. “They’re lying to us, aren’t they?”
Sands didn’t respond at first, he’d been ordered not to talk about it. Not by his Aultrian commanders, by the people in the dark suits from the State Department.
“How bad is it?” Mike pushed.
“Sell the store, Mike. Get the hell out of here. Live life while you can.”
“Come on Will, we have the same gloom and doom speech every time you come back.”
After a pause Sands said, “If that thing we tested out there hadn’t worked, I probably wouldn’t be here now, they would.”
“Then there’s a chance?”
“It’s too little, too late.” Sands stared out at the city. “There’s just too many of them. We kill a hundred of ’em, and there’s two hundred to take their place. We don’t even know what the fuck they are. Shit, they could walk in here tomorrow and wipe us out.”
“So, there’s a chance, right?” Mike said as if he hadn’t heard a thing.
Sands had a short, halfhearted laugh. “Yeah man, there’s a chance.”
“I’m not going to sit here and wait to die, Will,” Mike said slowly. “If they’re coming, let ’em come, but it’s not going to change how I live my life. I’m gonna work hard and raise my kids the best I can, just in case there is a tomorrow.”
When he didn’t get a response, Mike added, “You know why? Because I know you and the rest of those crazy bastards are out there fighting for us.”
Sands gave an honest laugh at that. “It is a hell of a crew. Let’s face it, the best and the brightest are all dead, we’re what’s left over.”
“Why you always puttin’ yourself down? If they’re all dead and you’re alive, I think that makes you a little better, don’t you?”
“Pure luck. I hardly ever see what I’m shooting at. We’re talkin’ about flying a ship that’s moving thousands of miles a second towards another ship at the same speed.” Sands snapped his fingers then realized that it was not a good comparison. “It’s faster than that. It’s faster than an instant. All I do is try to put my sight in their path and pickle (enable) the guns, the computer makes the shot, or doesn’t. A battle can take place over millions of miles, and last only a minute. Shit, before last week, it’s been like two cycles since I’ve seen an enemy fighter, and I’ve killed dozens of ’em.”
“Cycle?” Mike asked.
“Years, it’s the same thing. The days are about an hour longer, but their year is the same as ours.”
Mike nodded. “Well, sounds to me like there’s a lot of skill involved in it.”
“I guess there is,” Sands conceded. Deep down, despite all of the self-doubt, he knew that he was actually good at it, really good.
“It’s a good ship, the Oronos. The Commander’s got his shit together.”
“What’s he like?”
Sands smiled in admiration. “The guy’s a rock. You could take a straightedge to puppies in front of him and he wouldn’t bat an eye.”
“Oh man,” Mike shook his head at the image. Sands had a chuckle at having grossed out his brother.
“I don’t feel I belong out there,” Sands admitted.
“Maybe he thinks you can handle it. If this guy’s as tough as you say he is, I doubt he needs a token Black.”
“Nah,” Sands responded. “These people don’t give a shit about color; they got lizards and bugs to hate. I’m thinking token Earther.”
“There you go again.” Mike sounded irritated. “That’s the kind of thinking that’s gonna get you killed. If you weren’t the best, you wouldn’t be where you are. Do you have any idea how many people would love to be doing what you do? They’re all over TV looking for people to take the test.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“You guess so? Careful my brother, don’t go getting too cocky on me now.”
They laughed long and loud, their echoes carried out into the night.
A lot of the Aultrian crews did in fact take shore leave when they could. Bars and restaurants in port cities such as New York, London, and Hong Kong, were flooded with the crews of the fleet trying to get away from reality. Most of the major alien enclaves were located near the space ports, Hong Kong being the largest. That’s where Captain Aurora usually spent her time. This time she went to New York and spent all of two hours on the ground.
In uniform and armed she entered a cab at the airport and gave the driver her destination.
“Yes mame.” he said.
“Madame,” she corrected him.
“An Aultrian lady is addressed as madame.”
“Okay,” he said sarcastically, “Madame.”
Aurora leaned toward the plastic shield between them. “And you best watch your tone, lest I decided to rip your tongue out.”
“Yes madame,” he said more respectfully.
After concluding her business she returned to the off world portion of JFK. As an officer she was able to go to the head of the line of people waiting to go through the security check point. There they would be searched for contraband.
Near the head of the line she spotted a familiar face and cut in front of them.
“Good afternoon, Captain.”
Sergeant Sullivan and his two comrades had rented a cart to carry their luggage to the checkpoint where it would be checked in for their flight after inspection. Aurora put her package on top of their luggage and waited with them to go through. She was carrying a clearly marked case of single malt Scotch Whisky.
“Hate to break it to you, madame, I don’t think you’re gonna be able to sneak that through security.”
“I was thinking of keastering it, but.”
“Yeah, I guess that would be kinda uncomfortable.”
“And why bother. I’m just gonna walk through with it.”
“Good luck with that, madame.”
The checkpoint was actually manned by civilian contractors, something that would never happen back on Aultra. They followed very specific instructions given them. Therefore, when she plopped the case down in front of the officer that fed baggage into the scanning machine on a conveyer belt, he did his job as customary.
He looked at the case, then up at her and professionally asked, “Anything to declare, madame?”
“Yeah, I got crouch rot. Anything else you wanna know?”
She threw her shoulder bag on the belt and walked through the scanner portal next to the belt. She set off the entire spectrum of alarms as she was in uniform and openly carrying her sidearm as well as various other weapons. The officer manning the portal checked her ID and waved her on.
At the outlet for the baggage scanner a screening officer and supervisor waited with her case and bag.
“And what do we have here, Captain?” asked the supervisor.
“Booze.” She opened the box and pulled out a bottle. “Want some?”
The man paused a moment and looked at his comrades. To refuse could be construed as an insult and seeing that this was a Tyramma officer and he wasn’t allowed to arrest her, he said “Sure, thank you.”
“That could be seen as taking a bribe, sir.”
“It’s a gift,” said Aurora. “Share it with your crew, except for her.”
As she picked up her stuff the officer said. “Are you just going to let her through with that? It’s contraband.”
“What are we gonna do? We can’t arrest her.”
“We can report her to her commander. At least confiscate it.”
“I think her commander already knows.”
Sergeant Sullivan stepped up laughing. “Man I love her. She’s such a ballsy bitch.”
Actually, when Colonel Sterett learned what she’d done he showed up at her door with a glass of ice.