Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Okay, y'all. This is the first chapter of the other book I've been working on. If you've already read the other first chapter, then you'll know what's going on here. Anyway, give it a read, and hopefully you'll like what you see. If you do, please feel free to send anyone here that you think might like this story.

Chapter is after the jump; click away, kids.

By Steven Lacey

Chapter One: Life In Shadow

“The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.” ― Bruce Feirstein

THE BRIDGE OF OPMA Retribution was as silent as a tomb.

Retribution (SSF-0019) was a Heisenberg-class, Fusion-powered Stealth Ship, one of the class of vessels that had the ability to disappear completely from enemy scans using what was called a nanoscreen, a series of miniature combination cameras and screens that both projected and recorded an image from the opposite direction of each side, so that anyone who looked in her direction would simply see empty space. That, coupled with a state-of-the-art dampening system made her near impossible to detect. She also had the triple crown of attributes: speed, maneuverability, and firepower. The latter was especially impressive; she was armed with eight launch bays, not to mention a wide and deadly variety of torpedoes at her disposal. She was designed to act as a one-shot, one-kill vessel; because of the size of the powerplant, the complexity of the dampening device, and that triple crown, her armor rating was ridiculously low. A direct hit from even a relatively underpowered vessel and she had a good chance of folding like a Chinese fan. She wasn’t the kind of ship you used to charge headlong into a battle; she skulked in the darkness, stalking her prey, then taking them out with a well-timed attack.
Colonel Henry LaFours of the OPMA – the Outer Planetary Military Alliance – leaned forward, one hand over his head, gripping the exposed piping that hung above where he stood, the other rolled into a fist and thrust down at his side. He stared at the screen in the front of the cramped room, eyes drawn into the white noise pattern that was the standard indication a warship was currently in transit between SlingShots – the series of gates that were spread throughout the solar system and facilitated high speed travel between sectors, planets, and bases – and thought idly about the task that lay before them. He had slight concerns about the mission, to be sure: he hadn’t gotten the reputation for ruthless efficiency that he had by ever being reckless with his ship. This didn’t stop a number of thoughts tumbling through his head, the pulse in his neck starting to jump as he got the same buzz of excitement every time he and his crew were about to enter what they eloquently referred to as ‘the shit’. Echoing from all around where he was standing, the sounds of fingers on keyboards, switches being flipped, the hum of computers and machinery were prevalent, almost overwhelming. He took a moment, as he often did, to study the confines of the bridge.
The room itself was long and thin, with the main viewscreen – where ninety percent of the information relevant to their ship could appear and be disseminated to the rest of the crew – on the far wall, with a slight alcove to the left of the screen that went back several feet, with a door that opened in the wall to the right, behind the screen. Facing the screen were two stations, on the left, Helm and on the right, Weapons, where each officer sat behind complicated looking consoles, with small screens set into each position. Along the wall to the right was the Communications position, and next to that, the Tactics officer station. On the left, Navigation sat next to the PRAXIS[1] station, and against the rear wall, in the corner, was the Engineering position. Against the wall in the other corner was the Ship Resources Management console, where the auxiliary officer sat. Extending off to the right of that station was a small hallway that led to bathrooms, sleeping quarters, and Henry’s ridiculously cramped office; in the center of the room was his Command station, a comfortable chair with touch pads built into the armrests and a small, free-standing console to one side of it. On the other side was the station for the Executive Officer (XO), who served as second in command of the ship and was also equipped with a console, one that specifically had control over the nanoscreen of Retribution.
Henry shook his head, suddenly, shaking off the reverie he’d fallen into, bringing himself back to the here and now. Despite the fact that this was something they had done what felt like a million times over the last six years, despite that fearsome reputation he and Retribution had built up among both the crews and generals of the OPMA, as well as their adversaries in the USEC – the United Solar Enforcement Command – it was always a thrilling moment in the build-up to the hyper-instant before entering a potential clash. He took a deep breath to calm himself, unconsciously slipping his hand into the front flap of his light uniform jacket and checking the antique-looking pocket watch there before he even realized he was doing it. Sheepishly, he slipped it back into the compartment, the noise of the rattling chain drawing a few quick glances from the others, and then looked around, his gaze taking in everyone else in the room. Finally, he spoke, in a low voice, one that carried to every corner of the space.
“Major Hart, how long until we finish transit back to sector 1849?”
Sitting at the helm controls, Major Renée Hart – a pretty, curvy young woman in her late twenties – glanced at her readouts before calling over her shoulder. “We exit the slingshot in exactly three minutes on my mark, Colonel. And… Mark.”
She – like the rest of the crew – was wearing the standard summer uniform of the OPMA – a black, short-sleeve military style button-up shirt with red piping on the arms, the last name and first initial over the right breast, and the letters OPMA over the left. The trousers were dark grey and black, with a wide, red bloodstripe down the outside of either pant leg, black deck shoes or boots, and two pins in the shape of the neutron symbol on each collar, signifying they were members of the Stealth Ship fleet. A couple of the crew wore baseball caps, but most did not; standard issue, the caps were a two-toned black and grey, with red highlights along the front edge of the bill and running up into the crown. The front panel had a patch that said “0019 Retribution”. Colonel LaFours, unlike the others, wore a light, short-waisted jacket, that was mainly black, with a wide, grey stripe running down each arm and across the shoulders in the back, along with more red piping around the collar of the jacket and between the black and grey portions of the jacket. He was worrying with his hat, which was in the military style and called a combination cap, with a round, flat top and a small plastic bill in the front. Unlike his XO, who wore one that was gray, while the bill was black, the OPMA logo displayed in the front in red, and red piping lines around the top and bottom edge of it, his was unusual looking: it, too, had the OPMA logo in red on the front, but the color of it was a light, khaki brown, the bill a rich, dark blue, with gold piping around the top and bottom edges. It was also worn and sweat-stained, the inside ragged and frayed, a hat that had seen a lot of use. He sighed and hung it on the hook set into the side of his chair.
“Roger that, Mark,” Henry said, nodding, before pulling the watch out again and adjusting it to reflect the time. He turned to look over at his XO, Lt. Colonel Lucy Foster. She was the youngest member present, with medium length brown hair and bright blue eyes the color of the summer sky. She was already looking in his direction, fingers idly drumming on the console in front of her. “Colonel Foster, is the nanoscreen ready to engage?”
She nodded. “Yes sir. I’ve already run the calculations; it should be engaging exactly point three nanoseconds after we exit the gate. If anyone is paying attention, they should just think it’s a computer glitch and ignore us. Even if they start looking, however, we’ll be invisible and heading away from there quick enough, and then they’ll never find us... until it’s too late, anyway.” There was a certain amount of confidence and arrogance to her delivery, but everyone on the bridge knew the rule: it wasn’t considered bragging if it happened to be true.
Henry gave a tight smile at that. “Excellent.” He started to turn away, but a question plainly written on her face kept him from doing so. “Something on your mind, Colonel?”
“Well, it just seems like…” Lucy shrugged. “We were just in this sector earlier tonight for the fleet briefing, Colonel. It was deader than my love life then, so why are we coming back now? And, more specifically, why turn the screens on right away?”
Henry gave a smile and a shrug. “You know how it goes, Lucy. Orders is orders. We got told to come back here on the sly, so that’s what we do. Charon Base and General Potenzial seems to think we’re going to have some big-fish company here, so we hide in the shadows and hope something tasty shows up.” He shrugged, then turned to look at the PRAXIS Operator and Navigator, who sat side-by-side. “Captain Hawkins, Captain Hawkins-Brown, I have a job for you two.” They looked over at him, expectation written all over their faces, mirror images of each other. “Katherine, as soon as we blow the gate, I want you to run the white noise protocol and disguise a PRAXIS ping within that ‘computer glitch.’ Tiffany, as soon as your sister does that, set a course forty-five degrees by sixty-eight degrees off of the nearest enemy vessel, if there is one. Renée, be ready to follow Tiffany’s heading. Got that?”
Katherine Hawkins and Tiffany Hawkins-Brown – a pair of blonde haired, brown eyed, pretty twins – nodded and replied in unison. “Yes, Colonel.”
Renée answered half a beat later. “Yes, Colonel. Also, two minutes to exit on my mark. And…..mark.”
“Thank you, Renée.” LaFours turned to look at his Tactical Officer, who was leaning back in her chair, staring at the ceiling.  He took two steps closer and then leaned over to consult with her quietly. “Jill, thoughts on how we make this work?”
First Lieutenant Jill McDonald kept staring at the ceiling for a few moments, her brown and red-streaked hair hanging down her back, overhead lights reflecting off of her glasses, hazel eyes clouded in thought. “What exactly did the message say, Hank? ‘Hot target will be in this sector, be prepared for offensive action’. That’s a little….” She shrugged, “vague, isn’t it? I mean, that could be anything or anyone.” She shook her head. “I’m starting to think that our intelligence officers are a bunch of inbred, football-fucking monkeys. They’re not exactly going to win any awards for illuminating details, now are they?”
Henry gave a big grin, tipping his hand on his excitement. “What’s the old joke about Military Intelligence being an oxymoron? Apparently, that includes Psuedo-Military Intelligence.” He gave a brief laugh. “Maybe we should call it Psuedo-Military-Science, and then the initials would be PM…” he trailed off as Jill fixed him with a look that would have stopped a runaway train dead. He cleared his throat in the ensuing silence before speaking rapidly. “Anyway, I figure that this sector is remote enough that we’ll most likely be dealing with patrol vessels, maybe a frigate or two, unless our big fish is already here. Beyond that, I can’t see this place exactly becoming a hotbed of USEC activity in the last five hours.”
Unlike most other OPMA personnel, Henry usually pronounced the enemy acronym either the way it was spelled(i.e., ‘You Seck’) or by saying each letter,  as opposed to the more common and snarky pronunciation ‘You Suck’ that was ubiquitous among the other OPMA players. If he had been asked why, he would have told you that his feeling about that was, though they might be the enemy, and he and his crew were charged with cruising around the solar system and blowing them the fuck up whenever they could, there was no need to be a dick about it. Unfortunately, he was the exception rather than the rule when it came to that particular method of conduct.
Henry pointed at Jill’s screen. “Assume we’re dealing with the lower echelons of the ship class chart. Come up with three or four solutions before we leave the slingshot in ninety seconds. Got it?”
If this seemingly monumental task was a problem, she didn’t give any indication, simply nodding as she leaned forward and started typing quickly on the computer in front of her. He stepped away from her, moving a few yards away to where his communications officer, Captain Madelyn “Maddie” Andrews, was sitting, the display on her screen a series of flat lines. She turned her ice-blue eyes in his direction, her mouth quirking up into the ghost of a smile. “Ah, welcome to the useless corner of the room, Colonel. I hope you don’t have anything for me to do right now, because, well…” she gestured with an open hand at her screen, “I’m goddamned useless until we’re out of transit.”
He bit back a grin at the vaguely bitter cast of her tone, frowning slightly instead. “Language, Maddie,” he said, and then continued, not unkindly. “You’ll have plenty to do in just a minute or so. I want you to fire up the intercept program, get ready to start trying to decrypt any transmissions from whoever might be in the sector. I want it running as soon as we’re clear of the gate, okay?”
She gave him a casual salute. “Yes, Colonel.”
At that moment, Renée called out “Exit in one minute on my mark, Colonel. And….mark.”
Henry turned and walked over to First Lieutenant Taja Skybourne, his engineer. “Taj, I want the minimum amount of juice necessary for the nanoscreen. Whatever’s left, put a third of it into propulsion, a third into weapons, and the rest in reserve for wherever we end up needing it.”
She looked at him with her dark eyes, a typically hard to read expression on her handsome and sculpted tan face. “What about the bridge stations? Will we have enough power to run them?” Despite her Indian features, she had the barest hint of an accent from the American South. Looking at her, it was hard to determine her age, though Henry knew she was almost ten years older than himself.
Henry twisted his face wryly. “There’s enough in the batteries to keep everything going for at least an hour. We’ll be fine there, and as soon as it’s an issue, you can use the reserve power.”
Taja nodded at him. “Okay, you’re the boss.”
“Yes,” he said with a grin and a shrug, “I suppose I am.” He patted her on the shoulder as he walked back to the center of the room, checking his watch one final time as he hovered close to the command chair and looked around at the crew. “Okay, everyone who needs to be doing something right now should already be on it. Major Starr,” he said to plump, plain-looking Georgia Starr, the weapons officer. Despite her unremarkable appearance, he knew she possessed a near-mystical ability with the weapons systems, getting them to do things that they weren’t necessarily designed to do.
Now, she perked up at the mention of her name. “Yes, Colonel?”
“Just letting you know that you’ll have plenty of time to get ready with the weapons if we need them. Gears, as soon as we pop in, see if you can nail down who we’re dealing with, see if it’s an old friend, or a new one.”
First Lieutenant Grace Ellen Amanda Rowan, AKA ‘Gears’, cranked up her ever-present incandescent grin a few more notches and gave him an insouciant wink. “Ready and willing, Colonel.” She was a tall and athletic woman in her mid to late thirties and the oldest person on the crew, with dirty blonde hair in a messy pixie cut.
Gears was the auxiliary officer and, despite her officer rank, Chief Of the Boat. Her primary role was issuing necessary orders to the enlisted crew and shuffling them around Retribution to carry out various tasks, a task that took some doing. Beyond that, however, was the catch-all job that included keeping records of all known enemy and friendly ships, maintaining crew morale, administering first aid, and occasionally relieving other crew members when they needed to take a break. Of course, this group had been working together for so long that everyone was at least partially qualified to do everybody else’s job, a provision that Henry had insisted upon.
Now, Henry rolled his eyes at her. “You’re a spitfire, Gears,” he said, once again, pulling out his watch and flipping it open. “Exiting in thirty seconds on my mark. And, MARK. Lucy, switch us to combat lighting.” The dim overhead lights  - tinted blue and white – switched over to red. He looked around the room, his eyes stopping on Renee. “Renee! What are we?”
She replied immediately with a grin. “We’re a burning candle!”
“And what can you do with a burning candle?” His question had the singsong delivery that comes with long practice.
“Light the fuse,” everyone on the bridge said in unison.
“Louder,” Henry ordered.
“Light the fuse!” They raised their voices.
“Burning candle!”
“LIGHT THE FUSE!” They were shouting it, now.
Henry grinned. “Good deal. All stations, prepare for slingshot exit. When we’re in the sector, switch to combat protocols. Here we go, ladies. Let’s get it done. And…EXIT.”
All at once, the screen flashed twice, the white noise replaced with a star-field. As soon as they were out, he heard the furious typing and clicking at the various consoles as his crew endeavored to carry out the instructions he had issued in the moments before. He closed his eyes, counted to five in his head, then opened them to look at his XO. “Okay. XO, Conn, status report.”
Lucy stared at her screen, but aimed a thumbs up in his direction. “Conn, XO, Nanoscreen is up and running, Colonel.” 
“Perfect. Helm, Conn, status report?”
“Conn, Helm, I have received the coordinates from navigation, Colonel. We have safely arrived back in sector 1849 and are in the pipe, five by five.”
Henry nodded, satisfied. “Good job, both of you. PRAXIS, Conn, how crowded is it here?”
“Conn, PRAXIS, uh…” Tiffany paused briefly while she scanned the sector. “We’ve got a single enemy ship in here, a fusion frigate, but it’s pretty far outside the zone and, behind the slingshot?” She looked at Henry in confusion. “How can that have happened?”
“My guess,” Henry said evenly, “is it probably has something to do with that.” He pointed at the main screen.
The ship had just begun a slow, lazy turn after exiting the slingshot, revealing mostly empty space, a few scattered asteroids, and then, in colors so blue and so white that it lit up the whole bridge, a large, icy comet appeared, moving slowly across the screen.
“Oh, that’s right,” Tiffany said, mostly to herself, then turned to look at Henry. “It was in the weekly briefing. That’s comet 421-Lucas, which is a new feature swinging through the part of the Solar System between Mars and Jupiter for the next few weeks. It’s currently going through this sector.”
“Well, yeah, whenever features like that appear, they have a tendency to affect the borders of the sector,” Henry replied, rubbing his smooth chin. “So, my guess is, when that ship was on the way in, something, or someone, passed behind the slingshot, and….”
“…And hit a jumpshadow,” Tiffany finished, nodding her agreement. “So, they were in transit, the sensors detected an obstruction, and that dropped them out of slingshot mode way the hell away.” Her forehead scrunched up, suddenly deep in thought. “That can’t have been us, which means that maybe a...?” She trailed off as she leaned forward to study her screen, cocking her head slightly before she seemed to shake off whatever it was she thought she had noticed. “No, nevermind.” She shook her head and started entering something into the keyboard. “I’m going to need a few moments while I run this down, Colonel. Aside from that ship, a few scattered asteroids, and the comet, sector seems to be clear.”
Henry’s face suddenly became a study in pleased surprise. “Oh, I just had a wonderful idea.” He leaned  closer to the Tactical Officer. “Jill, are you thinking what I’m…?”
“Way ahead of you, Hank,” she said, punching a series of commands into her keyboard. “Helm, XO.”
“XO, Helm, go ahead.”
“Renée, you should have a new set of coordinates to follow that will bring you right up to that big bastard. Got ‘em?”
There was a pause before Renée spoke. “Yeah, they’re in. Redirecting us now.”
Henry turned to look at his comm officer. “Communications, Conn.”
“Conn, communications, go ahead.”
“Any luck cracking their radio yet, Maddie?”
She shook her head. “Not yet, no.”
“Keep at it. COB, Conn.”
“Go for the COB.”
“Gears, have we met this guy before?” She paused, typing into her keyboard, the looked up at him, her ever-present smile having slipped away for a rare moment.
“We have, Colonel. It’s Tombstone.”
“Huh. Well.” As it happened, he was intensely familiar with the ship and its crew. The captain of Tombstone was a guy named Commander Chris Michaels, who, based on all the intelligence passed on to Henry and his crew from the spooks at Charon Base, seemed to pretty much be a “No Talent Ass Clown”, achieving his rank based more on his connections and the skills of his crew than any actual ability of his own. The problem, as it were, was that his crew was comprised of some of the sharpest players in the game, especially his XO, Lt. Commander Cooper Freeman. He constantly used outside-the-box thinking to outfox his enemies, his moves unorthodox and daring, almost always giving him the edge, and the victory. In public, outside the confines of the bridge of Retribution, Henry LaFours and his crew were known to fear no ship, no player, and no crew. In here, however, there was a short list of people that Henry LaFours and his crew were wary of. Cooper Freeman was near the top of that list.  Henry sighed. “XO, Conn; Lucy, what’s their local time right now?”
She called up the information on her screen, then looked at him. “It’s about a quarter past eleven there, Colonel.”
He thought quickly. “COB, Conn; Gears, run Freeman through the stat-list, tell me how often he’s active at eleven fifteen local.” He didn’t have to clarify who he meant; everyone on the crew knew more about Freeman than they really wanted to.
Gears nodded, entering the information and reading before she turned back to him. “The system is coming back that he is known to be active in making ship decisions roughly eight percent of the time between the hours of eleven and midnight. Between ten and eleven, fifteen percent, and between midnight and one…” she inhaled sharply. “Oh, fuck. Ninety-seven percent, with a steady decline through the next four hours to about forty-eight percent by four AM. Guess he’s a night owl.” She gave a shrug as she said that.
Henry rubbed his hands on his short, nappy hair, exhaling slowly. “Well, damn. Okay, ladies, what do you think? If this were any other situation, I would say to hell with it and just take these guys out, no problem. With Freeman, though, it looks like – if we’re lucky – we’ll have about thirty, forty-five minutes before he comes on duty. That’s forty-five minutes to track, target, and take out our prey while they’ll still be acting within standard USEC parameters. This is assuming that he doesn’t get called to the bridge as soon as they know we’re attacking. We’d have to take them out fast, inside of ninety seconds, which is close to our single engagement record. So, I’m leaving it up to you. Do we act now, or do we sit back and play the wait-and-see game?”
After a pause, Jill broke the silence that had settled after his question. “Man….Fuck Cooper Freeman, and fuck Tombstone. I say we take that fucking ship out. Asleep, awake, aiming a missile up our tailpipe – we’re better than him and his jackass captain and their pussy-ass crew. Let’s fucking gang-rape these bitches!”
Henry stared at her, jaw agape. “Good grief, Jill, take a deep breath and relax, alright? No need to get so angry… a simple ‘let’s do it’ would have sufficed.”
“Oh, right. Yeah, let’s do it,” she said, her voice taking on a demure tone that was as pleasant as it was false.
“That’s better,” he said with a smile. He looked at his PRAXIS operator. “PRAXIS, Conn; Katherine, what is the heading of Tombstone, currently?”
“Conn, PRAXIS, it’s bearing straight for the comet at standard cruising speed,” she responded immediately. “ETA, forty-three minutes.”
There was a long pause. “Well, that just throws a monkey wrench right into the engine, don’t it? Fuck me running,” Henry swore morosely.
Jill spoke up again, gently this time. “Hank….Freeman is just a man. A talented guy, sure, but he’s just like us, part of a crew. And as part of a crew, he’s not the one calling the shots. Besides,” and here she pointed vaguely at the screen, “his ship dropped out of the slingshot almost an hour out of the actual sector. Even if he was inactive before this, he probably got called up the bridge anyway, which is a standard procedure in a case like that. So, we’re going to be dealing with him now, either way, but….again, we can beat him. Him, and his crew.”
Uh huh. Still, we should…”
“Conn, Communications!” Maddie looked up at him suddenly.
“Go ahead, Communications,” Henry said, looking at her curiously.
“We have an incoming transmission from Charon Base.” She hit a button, listening for a few seconds, and then recoiled suddenly. “Jesus, that’s loud!”
“Language,” Henry said absently. “can you run it for us?”
She hit a button. “Retribution, this is Charon Base. Please be advised of following message, forwarded from resource six-niner-eight-four-three, regarding current possible target.” Suddenly, the bridge speakers were echoing loudly with what sounded like a buzzsaw at full volume, loud enough to cause everyone to flinch, a few of them covering their ears. “Charon Base, this is resource 69843, will make sure Freeman is out of play.”
The transmission ended, and Maddie looked up. “That’s it.”
“Well, then.” Henry paced back and forth for a moment, head bowed in thought, then nodded to himself. “Okay, right,” he mumbled, then looked up at the others. “Here we go. Forty-five minutes; gives us plenty of time. Helm, Conn; I want you to match our speed exactly with that of the comet. Any attempts to scan for our boat should get lost in the haze of the background radiation that Lucas-421 is emitting. While I agree that, if we have the opportunity, we should reduce Tombstone to microscopic dust particles, I don’t think she’s the big fish that Intelligence was talking about. So we’re going to play it cool and see how things play out, got it?”
Renée nodded briskly. “Conn, Helm; got it, Colonel.”
“Navigation, Conn; Katherine, put up a forty-five minute countdown clock on the screen, so we know about how long before we need to get primed.”
A moment later, a timer popped up on the main-screen, scrolling steadily backwards from forty-five. “Conn, Navigation; Done and done, Colonel.”
“Thanks. Okay, everybody, now: once we’re in position, I want you all to take a bathroom break, two at a time. It’s going to be a long stretch of waiting before we engage, I don’t want anyone unable to concentrate because they have to tinkle.” A titter passed through the crew, reflected in the wide grin on Henry’s face. “When we’ve done that, we’ll see what this engagement brings us next.” His smile slipped away and he shook his head quickly, finally sitting down in the command chair with a heavy sigh. “Goodness knows, it’s already gone face down in the plough mud on us.” He stared into space for a moment, waiting for Renée’s signal. A moment later, he got it.
“Conn, Helm.”
“Helm, Conn, go ahead.”
“We’ve matched speed with Lucas-421, sir. We should be just another PRAXIS anomaly.”
“Thank you, Major Hart,” he said, then gestured behind him. “You know where the facilities are, ladies. Make use of them.” He waved his hand vaguely at the room. “I don’t care what order.”
After a quick discussion amongst themselves, Lucy and Georgia got to their feet, making their way to the rear of the bridge and disappearing into the passageway that led to the pair of restrooms behind the bridge. Once they returned, Katherine and Tiffany went next, and then Maddie and Renée, Lucy taking over the helm while Renée was absent. Taja and Grace went next, both of them taking much longer than the others had. Henry was about to joke that they send a search party to look for them when they returned at almost the exact same time, at which point he and Jill got up and headed for the facilities. As they walked down the narrow hallway, Henry glanced at the walls on either side; they were decorated with row after row of hash marks, four upright lines with a fifth crossing them diagonally. Henry ran his hand along the right side wall as he passed by it, humming to himself. As they approached the bathrooms, Jill looked up at him. “You okay, Hank? You look a little…uneasy.”
He returned her look as evenly as possible. “Oh, yeah, sure, I’m fine. It’s just…” he waved his hand back toward the bridge. “You know how I feel about you ladies. You’re my crew, my responsibility. Every time we get into a scrap, I’m always conscious of trying to make sure that I take good care of you.”
She made a face at this. “Hank, you say this all the time, and, dammit, we’re not shrinking little violets, here.”
Henry held up his hands in protest. “I know, but that’s not in some kind of a male-dominated hierarchal sort of way, Jill, and you know that. You know my momma; I was raised by my mother to be a good southern gentleman, and sometimes that means worrying about the ladies in your care. We’ve faced big odds, and always come through like champs, but dealing with someone like Freeman, good as he is…” he gave a helpless shrug. “It’s the X-Factor. Makes me nervous.”
She smiled. “Oh, don’t be such a pussy, Hank.” She then punched him on the arm, hard.
“Hey! Ow!” He rubbed his shoulder vigorously. “What the fuck was that for?”
“For being ever-so-slightly chauvinistic, ya douchebag.” “Oh, right, this from the woman who was talking about gang-raping people a few minutes ago.”
 She shook her head, “I’m a complicated girl, Hank.” She then removed his hand, still rubbing his arm, and started kneading along where she had punched him in an effort to be comforting. “This, on the other hand, is because it’s nice to have someone who cares. You’re a good man, Hank, and a good Colonel. Even more importantly, you’ve trained a good crew. You’ve got to stop worrying, because, you, me, and those hell-bitches in there who make up your loyal crew? We’ve got this.” She winked at him, then gestured over her shoulder. “Okay, I gotta poop. I’ll see you up front in a little bit.” With that, she turned and walked into the bathroom behind her. Shaking his head, Henry turned around and did the same.

Once everyone was settled back into their positions and ready for action, Henry marched to the command chair, plopped down into it, then started reviewing all the data that he could. Glancing at the screen, he saw that the counter was just passing the ten minute mark, then chuckled to himself.
Lucy, sitting next to him, pulled her gaze away from her console and looked over curiously, leaning in and dropping her voice. “Something amusing, Colonel?”
He pointed at the main screen with his chin. “You ever notice how much of our time is spent watching and waiting on countdown clocks, Lucy? I mean, it seems like we spend night after night, week after week, tucked away in our little corner, gazing at digital clocks whose numbers are drizzling down to zero, the end result usually being the possibility of the destruction of our ship, or the probability of the destruction of someone else. Doesn’t that just seem kind of…” he shrugged helplessly, “patently absurd?”
Lucy stared at him for a long, long moment. “Henry, have you been smoking Gabe’s weed again? I’ve warned you about this, it’s medical grade stuff and it will fuck you up.”
He gave her a dirty look. “You know I don’t do that, Lucy.”
She returned his gaze levelly. “Anymore, Hank. You don’t do that anymore.” The barest hint of a smile played at the corners of her mouth. “Stop trying to get all deep and philosophical on us, Colonel. Just watch the clock and then make your move.” With a shake of her head, she returned her focus to the screen in front of her.
Suddenly, across the room, Maddie perked up as if she had been goosed. “Oh, my!” She turned to look over at Henry. “Conn, Communications!”
“Communications, go for Conn.”
“Colonel, I just got a priority transmission from command. They just let us know who our big fish target is, sir. It’s BCF-0109, Rorkes Drift.”
The whole bridge went silent for a moment. “Rorkes Drift?” Henry echoed incredulously, eyes blinking slowly in total surprise. “I thought they were tied up in that thing closer to Saturn. What are they doing this far sunward?”
“I don’t know any of that, Colonel,” Maddie said, eyes wide. “All I know is that we’ve been told there is a ninety-nine perfect chance we can expect her in this sector in the next twenty minutes.”
Jill and Lucy, sitting on either side of him, both turned toward him eagerly. “Holy balls, both Tombstone and Rorkes Drift?!?” Jill got out first, excitedly. “This shit is about to turn into a good-old-fashioned blanket party!”

Lucy spoke half a second later. “We’re going to turn them all into space-going tomato paste!”
“Maintain discipline, please,” Henry stated, holding up a hand to quiet them, then turned to Grace. “COB, Conn; Gears, give me some numbers and stats on Rorkes Drift. Does she normally travel alone?”
“Just a moment, Colonel.” Gears typed rapidly into her keyboard. “No, sir. She normally travels with a complement of at least five other vessels, and normally closer to nine. She’s the command vessel of fleet 0087, Henry, and one of those other ships is almost always a Schrodinger-Class.” This was the USEC version of a Fusion Stealth Ship, with practically identical stats as the Heisenberg-Class. She gave him a look full of concern, smile completely gone, now. “Wait, they want us to take her out? With no backup, in a deserted sector, while she has at least six other friendly vessels within attack distance? Is it just me, or does this have ‘suicide mission’ written all over it?”
Henry was about to dismiss her question as being remarkably stupid when he had a sudden insight, and with total clarity of the situation blossoming in his mind, realized that she was absolutely right.
“Okay, protocol break for a moment, let’s all speak freely.” The women all relaxed. “That’s the only thing that makes sense, huh? Except….that makes no sense. Why would Pluto Command want to sacrifice one of their best crews?” Henry asked no one in particular.
“Not ‘one of’, Henry. ‘The best.’ Period.” Lucy’s eyes had taken on a dangerous cast.
“Well, is there anyone we can call in for backup on this?” Taja asked from her station. “There must be someone within a sector or two of here that we can ask for help.”
It was Maddie’s turn to shake her head. “No such luck, hun. If the sector were deserted, we could maybe send out a query. With the nanoscreen engaged and Tombstone closing in on us, any transmissions from this vessel will light up their threat board like a touchdown at the Palmetto Bowl.”
Katherine nodded. “She’s right. Not only that, but the…” her voice trailed off and she stared intently at her screen. “Colonel, I think….” She tapped a few buttons. “Is it just me, or are they…?” She pointed at her screen.
“What my sister is trying to say,” Tiffany broke in quickly,  “is that it appears as if Tombstone has been running a series of scans of varying frequencies and classifications directed almost exactly at our location.”
Henry looked at the twins, then shifted his glance to Jill. “Lieutenant MacDonald, what are the chances that they could detect our signature, even hidden against the comet?”
Before Jill could speak, it was Taja who answered him. “Actually, if I recall correctly from that report, there was something about the ionic makeup of a comet that creates a weird trace effect on any nearby vessels, ‘screened or otherwise,” she said calmly. “If they suspect we’re here, and they run the right reductions through their system…” her eyes widened. “They could probably get a missile lock on us.”
At that moment, as if Taja had, in fact, predicted the future, a steady, high-pitched beeping emerged from Katherine’s console.
“Conn, PRAXIS, we have a missile lock, repeat, we have a missile lock,” she said urgently, returning to the standard military protocol they used when they were in a potentially hostile sector.
Henry wasted no time. “Helm, Conn, initiate evasive maneuvers immediately. Bring us around behind the comet. I repeat, put the comet between us and Tombstone.”
“Roger that, Colonel,” Renée said calmly, executing a series of quick, deft motions that took Retribution out of the line of sight of Tombstone within seconds and before the enemy vessel had a chance to fire. Henry leaned back in his seat, thinking, rubbing his chin with his left hand before he waved it first at Tiffany, then at the main screen. “Navigation, Conn; please put the sector map on screen, with the position of the comet, us relative to it, and the last known position and heading of Tombstone, please.”
After a moment, the requested information appeared at the front of the room. Henry studied it for a few seconds, mumbling to himself, making weird gestures with his hands, like he was skimming them through water. He looked up after a second at Georgia, who was staring at him evenly. “Weapons Conn; prepare to fire forward tubes one, three, and five. Navigation, Conn; I want you to plot a course that will slingshot us around the front of the comet and right onto the flight path of Tombstone. Tactics, Conn; be prepared for any counter-attacks they may throw our way and take the Conn yourself  if you need to and you think they will work. Go, do it now. Go!” At the urgency with which he spoke the last word, the crewmembers sprang into action.
Within seconds, the course had been plotted. Henry ordered Taja to direct all of the reserve power they’d been marshalling into the engines, then sat back and steepled his fingers as he waited for them to finish their turn. As Retribution swung into position and leveled out, they could see Tombstone ahead and slightly to port, showing that someone knew what they were doing – having anticipated Retribution’s tactic, Tombstone had already started evasive action. It didn’t really matter, though, because Henry knew they had a pretty clean shot.
“Weapons, Conn, ready to fire on my mark.”
“Conn, weapons, bays are loaded and ready to fire.”
Henry took a breath, held it, then nodded at her. “Weapons, Conn; fire bays one, three, five,” Henry said quietly.
“Conn, Weapons, roger that, firing weapon bay one, weapon bay three, weapon bay five.” With deliberate, almost slow movements, Georgia pressed three buttons in succession, and on the main screen, three matching white blips started augering in toward the enemy frigate.  “Fish in the water, sir; range to target, five klicks.” With a practiced motion, she brought the rangefinder up onto the main screen, the rapidly decreasing distance between the target and the missiles displayed as yet another countdown number in the corner.
Henry gave a slightly silly grin and pointed up at the clock even as he looked over at Lucy. “See what I mean? It’s like a…”  Lucy just stared at him and then slowly shook her head. He rolled his eyes, then turned back to the main screen. “Okay, sharks, you smell the blood, now get the prey,” he muttered to himself. Moments later, he had to suppress the urge to moan when all three missiles were destroyed by counter-measures. A moment after that, he was too busy with other things to think about how their attack had missed, because Tombstone had turned the tide right back on him. The steady high-pitched beeping from Katherine’s console had started up again, only to become a solid tone seconds later.
“Conn, PRAXIS, enemy missiles have been launched! I repeat, enemy missiles have been launched,” Katherine yelped, her voice cracking slightly as she did. “Impact in ten seconds.”
Henry responded without pause. “Helm, Conn, execute immediate turn, heading three-four-three by zero-one-five, mark! Engineering, all reserve power to engines, NOW!”
“Aye aye, Colonel,” Renée answered even as she was doing the maneuver, Taja’s acknowledgment of the order echoing a half-second behind the helmswoman. On the main-screen, the image was suddenly filled with comet Lucas-421, growing steadily larger. There was tense silence on the bridge for a long moment, as everyone waited for the impact.
After something closer to twenty seconds had passed since Katherine’s warning, Henry looked over at her. “PRAXIS, Conn; time to impact from missiles?”
“Conn, PRAXIS, holding steady at about four seconds, sir,” she replied tersely.
“Okay, and time to impact with Lucas-421?” He sounded remarkably calm for the current situation.
“We will impact the comet in nineteen seconds, Colonel,” Katherine said, her tone of voice clearly conveying an additional so why don’t you have Renée move the ship someplace else, dickhead? He nodded once, pulling out his pocket watch and opening it. After what seemed like an eternity – but was, in reality, only about ten seconds – he snapped out,  “Helm, Conn, rotate ninety degrees and hard to starboard, now now now!”
Again, Renée acted as she acknowledged the order, and once more the screen shifted crazily as she carried it out. After a few moments, Katherine uttered a surprised sigh of relief. “Conn, PRAXIS; Colonel, the missiles have struck the comet. I say again, the missiles have bypassed us and impacted against comet Lucas-421.”
Henry sighed in relief. “Good job, y’all.” He smiled tightly. “I got to hand it to them; they’re good. Now, while we could do this all night,” and here his smile shifted slightly, his voice getting the same southern twang Taja had shown earlier and taking on a menacing aspect, “I think it’s time to shut the door on this engagement. Tiffany, if we were traveling at flank speed, how far are we time-wise from the two SlingShots in the sector?”
“We could reach the nearest portal – we’ll call that gate one, the same that Tombstone would have arrived through – in about six minutes. For gate two, it would be closer to twelve.” She looked up at him. “Should I plot courses for both, Henry?”
“Yes, although I have a feeling we’re going to probably want the farther one.” He took a deep breath, then looked first at Lucy, then Jill, then Gears. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to get the regular drop on Tombstone, y’all. Therefore, I’m authorizing a triumvirate decision, ladies. I would like to activate Starfish Prime.”
Utter silence fell on the room like a shrouded wet blanket. Everyone stopped what they were doing to gape at Henry in a mixture of amazement and horror.
It was Lucy who spoke first, her voice unconsciously pitched to a stage whisper. “Holy fuck, Colonel, are you sure about that? If we do, we won’t be able to use it again for seven weeks!”
Henry nodded. “I know, but it’s our best chance to end this engagement decisively. They are alone in this sector, without backup. So far, they’ve done better than alright against us. Without using the Starfish, we run the risk of Tombstone maybe getting a shot of a better advantage. I think this is the only way, but y’all know the rules – it can only be activated if three out of the four of us – the Chief Of the Boat, The Tactical Officer, the Executive Officer, and the Commanding Officer – agree to it. Hence, why I bring it up.” He glanced at his pocket watch yet again. “Not to be an asshole, but we’re running out of time, here. What will it be? Lucy?”
The XO looked pained, then nodded. “I say aye.”
Henry looked at the COB. “What say you, Gears?”
Gears hesitated, then shook her head. “We might need it for something more important that this particular white whale, Ahab,” she said with her customary wry grin,  though it slipped away after a moment. “Sorry, sir. No.”
Henry’s face remained expressionless as he turned to his tactical officer. “You’re the make-or-break, Jill. What’s your call?”
Jill gave a grin that was an echo of the slightly malevolent one Henry had exhibited earlier. “Like I said earlier, Hank, let’s gang-rape these jackholes. I say yes!”
“Jill, there’s that gang-rape thing again, not cool,” Henry complained. He sighed, somewhere between satisfaction and resignation. “Anyway, the vote is passed, the order is given.” He got up and walked over to a panel on the right side of the bridge, flipping open a covered red button, even as Lucy turned to her console and did the same.  “XO, Conn; Executive Officer Foster, on my mark, activate Starfish Prime. PRAXIS, Conn; do we still have line of sight on Tombstone?”
Katherine responded immediately, her tone of voice showing that she was still slightly shocked at this latest turn of events. “Conn, PRAXIS; Yes sir, distance is just over fifteen kilometers.”
“Acknowledged. Engineering, Conn; institute emergency shutdown of all systems aboard Retribution on my mark.”
Taja’s response was couched in a passive-aggressive form of hostility, showing that she seemed to be siding with Grace on this decision. “Conn, Engineering; Roger that, Colonel.”
Henry chose to ignore her tone for the moment. “And, Instituting emergency shutdown….mark.” All at once, every screen and light on the bridge went dim.
“Emergency shutdown complete, Colonel,” Taja’s voice echoed from the near-total darkness.
“XO, Conn; activate Starfish Prime on my mark.”
“Conn, XO; roger that.”
 “Three, two, one, mark.” Simultaneously, Henry and Lucy pressed their respective red buttons. There was a sound like a thousand sheets of paper being ripped in half all at once, causing several members of the crew to wince. Henry, however, didn’t even skip a beat. “Engineering, institute emergency power-up sequence, on my mark, and, mark.” As quickly as they had gone out, the lights and consoles came back on. He turned to Katherine. “PRAXIS, Conn; situation report on Tombstone asap, please.” He shifted to look at Lucy. “XO, time to reactivate the nanoscreen?”
“Colonel, the nanoscreen will be operational again in nine minutes,” Lucy reported.
Katherine spoke as soon as Lucy was done. “Conn, PRAXIS!”
“PRAXIS, Conn, go ahead.”
“Colonel, Tombstone is dead in the water, sir. The Starfish managed a one hundred percent shutdown of the enemy vessel; all systems are offline. Estimated time to restoration of their power is approximately one hundred and ten seconds.”
Jill gave a fist pump at that news. “Fuck yeah, it worked!” Everyone stared at her for a moment. Sheepishly, she lowered her hand. “I mean, not that we didn’t think it would, just that...” she shrugged, embarrassed to be the center of attention suddenly. “…hey, this is the first time I’ve actually been here when you guys used the EMP weapon. I got excited.”
Henry rolled his eyes and shook his head, although secretly he too was pleased. This was only the fifth time in his OPMA career he had activated the Starfish Prime – a weapon named after the first atmospheric nuclear test specifically investigating the effects of an Electro-Magnetic Pulse – and it had only definitively worked once before. He pointed at Renée. “Helm, Conn; bring us around to bear amidships of Tombstone.” He turned his attention to Georgia. “Weapons, Conn; spool up and load all eight missile tubes, because we’re going to open fire with everything we have.” Georgia started activating all of the weapon systems.
As Renée reoriented Retribution, Henry looked at Jill. “Tactics, Conn,” he said, and as she looked at him, he gave her a smile. “Why don’t you take command on this? I’ll take a backseat and let you get the kill, since you’re so scarily focused on the gang-rape thing.”
“Oh, shit yes!” Jill exulted. “I mean, yes, Colonel, gladly.”
“Very well. You have the Conn.” He stood up and circled around to stand behind Jill, who plopped down into the command chair.
 “Conn, Engineering,” Taja called to Jill from her station, “how do you want the power distribution, Lieutenant?”
Jill looked over at her, slightly annoyed. “The standard for an engagement, Taj. One third for propulsion, one third for weapons, one third for the nanoscreen.”
The look she gave him was slightly provocative. “You mean, the nanoscreen that won’t be operational for another eight and a half minutes, ma’am?”
With an effort, Henry swallowed his amusement at Jill’s obvious displeasure with the Engineering officer. She mustered an apologetic smile. “Right, Taj, sorry. Okay, make it fifty for propulsion, forty percent for weapons, and keep the other ten in reserve for when the stupid screen comes back online.”
Rather than give a verbal response, Taja nodded, turning her attention to the keyboard in front of her. The main screen showed a star field wheeling about as Renée reoriented the ship, and then Tombstone slid into view, sitting quietly in space like an inert lump of metal. Henry admired the view for a moment.
Jill then smiled suddenly. “Oh, haha! Weapons, Conn; set the torpedoes to magnetic lock. With no counter-measures, the fish should swim right into her.”
“Aye aye, Lieutenant; switching missiles to magnetic homing.” Georgia’s drawl was smooth and relaxed, her posture that of a lazy teenager sitting through a boring math class. As Renée straightened up the boat and Tombstone began to grow larger on the screen, the bridge echoed with the sound of the targeting computer trying to find a lock. After a few seconds, the warble became a steady tone. Unable to help herself, Georgia grinned. “Lieutenant, we have a lock for all eight tubes.”
Henry nodded, pleased; in front of him, Jill’s eyes bored into the screen as she watched the enemy ship’s size steadily increase. She took a deep breath, held it, let it out. “Fire on my mark.” She brought a hand up to her face, made a fist, slowly lowered it back down again. Once it reached the armrest, she closed her eyes, then opened them, seemingly dizzy with power. “Mark.”
The sound of eight torpedoes leaving their tubes rattled through the room. “Fish are in the water, Lieutenant,” Georgia said.
Silently, the crew watched as eight twinkling lights converged from all sides of the screen and hove in toward the vessel they were silently approaching. Henry frowned at Jill, who was enraptured with the departing rockets. He waited a few seconds, then stepped around the command chair and up to the weapons console. “Georgia, why don’t you go ahead and ready another spread, and bring up the time-to-target counter onscreen, please,” Henry murmured gently. A second later, a countdown appeared in the corner, showing that the missiles were forty-five seconds from impacting against Tombstone.
“Yeah, we got this,” Jill whispered under her breath, and, as he stepped back behind Jill, Henry was aware that they were about to add another kill to the list. Even if the enemy ship restored power in the next half minute, he was sure at least half the projectiles would detonate against the frigate.
“Conn, weapons; Lieutenant, weapons are ready to fire again,” Georgia announced.
Jill was still mesmerized. Henry smiled and looked wryly at Georgia. “Roger that. Standby to fire again….assuming we need to, that is.”
“Are you kidding, Hank? We totally got this! Fuck YES!!” Jill exclaimed from her chair.
At that point, almost as if they were one entity, the other nine people on the bridge whirled to stare at her.
It was Lucy who recovered her wits enough to speak first; even Henry was stunned into silence. “What the fuck are you doing?!?!” She practically screamed, half rising from her chair like she was going to lean over to where Jill sat and punch her in the face.
Jill’s elation was replaced with a look of total confusion. “Whoah, now, what the hell is wrong with you? All I said was – ”
“NO!!!!” everyone screamed in unison, but not before Jill finished her sentence.
“ – we totally got this.”
Almost as if it were pre-ordained by a higher power, a noise started emanating from Katherine’s console. She looked at it, and then fixed Jill with a dismayed stare as she spoke. “Conn, PRAXIS, we’ve just picked up one, two, three, four contacts at SlingShot gate one.” She looked away from Jill to read the screen. “I have two destroyers, fusion and guided missile-fusion, a nuclear cruiser, and…” she gave an angry sigh, “A fusion BattleCarrier. It’s Rorkes Drift, Lieutenant.”
Gears now turned her own disgusted stare at Jill. “For fuck’s sake…” she leaned down to rub her face in her hands. “You’re a goddamned jinx, McDonald.”
“Hey, now,” Henry said, though he was also feeling dismayed. “No need for name calling.” He looked at Jill. “You still got this, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir, I can handle it. I just…”
“Jill!” Lucy was pointing at the screen. “Tombstone has power again! She’s attempting to evade the missiles!” Looking up, Henry saw that his XO was telling the truth; Tombstone had restored power and was trying to twist out of the incoming barrage. He held his breath as he watched and saw almost immediately that her effort were in vain. Moments later, he watched with grim satisfaction as she managed to avoid two missiles, only to get plastered by the other six.
“Colonel, multiple hits on Tombstone!” Georgia called out unnecessarily. One of the missiles had impacted against the engines, and they saw debris fly out in a random spray, gases spewing from the hull. Even as they watched this, Retribution passed Tombstone, the enemy ship disappearing from view on the port side.
“Oh, I think she’s hurt,” Gears pointed out, watching with eyes sparkling like diamonds.
Henry nodded agreement. “She’s down, but not out.”
Jill held up a hand to silence him. “Hush! Renée, bring us around. Georgia, prepare to fire again.”
Again, the screen showed the stars spinning about. “Conn, communications, we’re detecting emergency traffic between Tombstone and Rorkes Drift,” Maddie sang out. “Rorke’s Drift is attempting to open a radio channel with us. Should I respond?” Everyone looked at Henry.
“Negative, Maddie. Maintain radio silence,” Jill ordered as the star field straightened out and the frigate was in their sights again. “PRAXIS, range to new contacts?”
“They’re about four minutes away and heading toward us at flank speed, Lieutenant,” Katherine said calmly. “They’ll be within range in about ninety seconds.”
Jill was bouncing up and down in her seat like a kid on a sugar-high. “Sweet! Georgia, fire on my mark, girl! And, mark!” Again, eight missiles flew in toward the enemy ship. This time, all eight of them hit their target.
“Conn, Weapons, we have gained a full monty,” Georgia said, giving the code for one hundred percent accuracy with a missile strike. “Ship is critically damaged…” her voice trailed off. “…shit, but still operational, barely.”
“Very well,” Jill said imperiously, waving her hand. “Georgia, ready another strike. Renée, bring us around one more time. Oh, and Tiffany? Plot a course from our current location to slingshot two at top speed.”
The three women all muttered acknowledgement as they bent to the task at hand. Lucy considered for a moment, then leaned over toward Jill. “Hey, L.T.?” Jill looked at her quizzically. “They’re pretty much done, Jill. Do we really need to administer a coup-de-grace?”
Jill’s eyes narrowed and her voice went ice-cold. “Do I need to remind you, Lucy, that this is war? We do not show mercy to our opponent. We do not show weakness. We do not offer a free pass. In case you have forgotten, Lieutenant Colonel Foster, the name of our ship is Retribution. It is not the White Dove, the Peace Pipe, or the Good Ship fucking Lollipop. They are our enemy. They have engaged us in combat.  Therefore, they are about to be blown into fucking space dust.” Her voice had risen steadily during this, until it was ringing through the room. On the screen, the heavily damaged Tombstone was spinning through space, completely out of control. She wheeled suddenly, fixing Georgia with a savage glare. “Major Starr, do you have a firing solution locked in yet?”
Her response was oddly subdued, like a puppy afraid it would get kicked for no real reason. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
Jill snapped her fingers. “Then fire. Now.” Dutifully, Georgia sent the third wave of missiles at the stricken vessel. The crew watched in silence as they augured in at Tombstone, all of them finding their mark.
“Yeah, okay, Jill, back to tactics, please,” Henry said evenly, tapping her on the shoulder. Eyes locked on the screen, she acknowledged his request with the barest nod. He sat. “I have the Conn.”
“Conn, Weapons; Colonel, we have another full monty,” she reported, the elation in her voice absent from when she had given the same answer a few moments before. Even before she finished speaking, Tombstone gave a final shudder and then exploded brilliantly, bits of her leaving in various directions at extremely high rates of speed. “That’s a kill,” she said quietly, then got up and started to walk to the back of the room. Henry stopped her and very deliberately shook her hand, and the tension that had entered her posture before eased somewhat.
“Good job, Major Starr,” he said, and she smiled at him, then continued to the back hallway, where she leaned down and adding another hash mark on the back wall, creating another group of five.
She looked at Henry, nodding. “That makes five hundred twenty five confirmed kills, Colonel LaFours.” Without another word, she turned and walked back to her station, sitting down again, consciously avoiding looking at Jill.
Henry looked at Jill and sighed, suddenly tired. He nodded slowly, suddenly deciding to break protocol. “Good job, everyone. Okay, Tiffany, is that course locked in?”
“Yes, Colonel,” she replied. She, along with everyone else, kept glancing at Jill like she was about to grab a chainsaw and start carving everyone up with it.  
“Very well. Send it to the helm. Renée, follow that course – flank speed, please. Taj, divert the power from weapons into the engines.” He grimaced. “Looks like we won’t get a chance at Rorke’s Drift tonight; our tasty target will have to wait for another day. I guess we’ll just have to…” he trailed off, a radical plan forming in his mind. He looked at Tiffany. “This SlingShot gate is also offset, right? There’s space behind it?”
“You know there is, Hank,” Jill chimed in, looking annoyed.
“I asked the Navigation officer, Jill. Please allow her to respond.” Henry’s voice was level.
“Yes, Colonel, it is,” Tiffany said.
“Okay, thanks.” It was risky, to be sure, but the rewards… Deep in thought, he barely noticed that the ensuing silence grew heavy, oppressive, and stretched out over the course of several minutes.
It was Lucy who finally broke it, a soft chime from her console giving her cue. “Colonel, the nanoscreen is back online and ready to be engaged. Shall I do so?”
Henry shook his head. “Negative. Tiffany, distance to the gate?”
“We’ll be arriving in ninety seconds, Colonel. Should I prepare for a slingshot?”
He shook his head again. “Not just yet. Do you still have the course to gate one plotted in?”
She turned to look at him questioningly, her curiosity outweighing whatever emotions Jill yelling at Lucy had created. “Yes sir, but why do you…?”
He held up a hand. “Not just yet. Katherine, how far away are Rorke’s Drift and the others?”
Rorke’s Drift is staying near the wreckage of Tombstone, sir. The other three have given pursuit, but they’re out of range and losing ground – we’re faster than they are, Colonel.” Katherine kept glaring at Jill, and her voice was tinged with something that Henry belatedly realized was anger.
“Thank you, Captain,” he said evenly. “Okay, all stations, button us up for a slingshot, standard operational procedure. Taj, divert that ten percent into the nanoscreen, but Lucy, do not activate it yet.” He looked over at Renée. “Helm, bring us around to line up with the gate. When I give the order, slow us down to one third speed.” He gestured at the front of the room. “Countdown clock to the gate onscreen, please.” In the corner, another clock appeared, showing they were less than thirty seconds away. He watched it silently, then, just as they reached the five second mark, he turned to Lucy again. “XO, activate the nanoscreen….” The counter reached zero, “…NOW”.
The ship speakers buzzed once to indicate the nanoscreen was now active, and then they were through the gate, but since they hadn’t engaged the slingshot software, they were in and out without having transited. Henry waited a moment, then looked at Tiffany, a smile on his face. “Tiffany, darling, please send the course to gate one to the helm. Renée, make your way there at one quarter speed, if you would.”
Lucy turned to look at him, respect evident in her eyes. “Oh, you cagey son-of-a-bitch!,” she breathed.
With a growing sense of satisfaction, Henry watched as the three ships that had been in pursuit reached the second gate and quickly disappeared through it, chasing after where they thought Retribution had gone. “Weapons, how many fish do we have left?” Henry asked, rubbing his hands together in glee. “Looks like ‘another day’ is actually going to be ‘about ten minutes from now,’ I think.”
Georgia called up the information, then shook her head and reluctantly turned to face him. “Or, it will actually be another day, Colonel. We’ve only got enough left for two full spreads, and a Battle Carrier is a much tougher nut to crack than a frigate. I recommend…” her voice trailed off, not wanting to say the next part. She sighed and got it out. “I recommend that we avoid Rorkes Drift and return to base for resupply, Colonel. Engaging them now would be…” She shrugged. “Suicide.”
Henry looked at her for a long moment, then nodded. “I agree, Major. Helm,Conn; make for portal one. We’re going home.”
A few moments later, they were through and in transit. “Conn, Helm; we’re away, Colonel.”
Around the bridge, the rest of the crew all gave sighs of relief. Henry leaned back in his chair, then looked over at Lucy, who gave him a half-smile. “Looks like only one confirmed kill this trip for the Great and Powerful LaFours,” she said wryly.
Henry rolled his eyes at her and laughed. “Please don’t ever call me that again, Lucy.”
“Okay, okay, sorry.” She looked over at Jill. “Okay, and the Power-Mad-Dictator-Of-The-Evening Award goes to Lieutenant Jill MacDonald, for proving that not everyone is suited to command.”
“What? I did fine!” Jill said defensively, a comment that was immediately met with boos and catcalls. “It’s not my fault you bitches are ill-suited to the idiosyncrasies of my command style!”
“Whatever, Lady Of The Flies,” Gears retorted. “You yelled at Georgia! You can’t do that! She’s delicate!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Gears, I’m sitting right here,” Georgia replied in annoyance.
“Well, I mean, she’s not wrong, Georgia; you are pretty delicate.” Georgia was now eyeing Maddie angrily. “Not that we don’t love you for that.”
“I’m not delicate, I’m pious. There’s a difference,” she said haughtily. “Just because y’all are too busy out catting around and….”
Now everyone was booing and catcalling her. “Please, Georgia, no sermons tonight,” Renée told her, wearily. “I don’t need to be reminded I’m going to hell for enjoying anal sex with one of my boyfriends.”
“Oh, God, here we go with the anal sex again,” Taja muttered.
“Hey, it feels awesome! The twins know what I’m talking about, don’t you?” Renée looked at Katherine and Tiffany, who were both turning very deep shades of red.
“Well, I most certainly wouldn’t know,” Gears said, sharing a significant look with Taja. “I prefer a different kind of….”
“Okay, enough about any kind of sex with anyone,” Henry said loudly, holding up his hands. “Why don’t we just….”
Suddenly, from behind the screen, there was a loud thump, followed by a series of steady clunking noises that grew louder with each repetition. A moment later, a bright beam of light shone from behind the screen, nearly blinding everyone on the bridge, a surprise reminder of how dim it they had become used to it being on the bridge. The door set in the wall behind the left side of the screen opened, and a black woman in late middle-age appeared, heavy ironwood cane in one hand, a large china plate in the other, piled high with chocolate chip cookies. She smiled into the room.
“Good lord Henry, it is darker than Hades in here!” She looked around for a place to deposit the cookies, even as she was looking for a light switch on the wall.
“Here, let me get that, Mrs. LaFours,” Maddie said, standing up and crossing quickly to take the plate from her. As she did so, Lucy flipped a switch, and the red combat lighting was replaced by the brighter blue and white of before.
“Thank you, Maddie,” Mrs. LaFours said kindly, then turned and smiled at Henry. “How are you, baby? Did you and your friends have fun down here with your little game again?”
The rest of the crew watched in unconcealed amusement as Henry blushed a deep, red crimson, something they never would have thought possible for a black man to do. “Yes, momma, we did,” he mumbled, fumbling to put on his glasses. “What are you doing down here? Are you okay?” He pointed at the cane in her hand.
“Oh, I’m fine.” Her accent was thick and southern, her and she waggled the stick in her hand. “With my busted hip, usually I’m alright, but sometimes, the humidity starts gettin’ into my bones, makes it so I cain’t hardly move around in the summertime! I’ll sure be glad when fall gets here in a little while.” She smiled and shook her head. “Anyways, I finished watchin’ that Saturday Night Live, and then I wasn’t real sleepy, so I thought you might like some cookies. They’re mint-chocolate chip, baby – your favorite!”
“Thanks, momma,” Henry said, getting up and crossing the room to where she stood. “I told you, though, you need to be careful, coming down the basement steps when your joints are flared up.” He took his mothers arm tenderly and started to steer her back to the staircase. “Here, let me get you back upstairs. Do you need me to do anything to help you before you go to bed?”
“Henry David LaFours,” his mother said sternly, pulling away from his grip. “I am a grown woman. I do not need your assistance climbin’ a piddly set o’ stairs. How many times have I told you, I once climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower all by myself!” There was a tone of prideful anger in her voice, but a teasing, gentle one, too.
Henry’s response was kind, yet insistent. “I know, momma. That was before your hip got shattered, though. That was before I was born, before Alexandra was born, before you even met Daddy. You can’t do everything on your own.”
“Oh, yes I can,” she replied tartly, turning and marching back up the stairs, one step at a time. “There ain’t nothin’ and no one inside or outside the town of Riggins Landin’ that can or will ever hold me back. Never has been, never will be.” Her words echoed down the stairwell and through the room as she continued to ascend the steps. “I will see you in the mornin’, young man. I’m remindin’ you now so you cain’t tell me you ‘forgot’ later, we have church at eleven.” Without another word, she slammed the door at the top of the stairs and an all-pervading, echoing silence filled the room once more.
Henry stared up at the door at the top landing, his back to the crew, somewhere between shock and amusement. Finally, he sighed. “Well, at least she didn’t walk down in the middle of y’all’s anal exposé,” he began as he turned to look at the rest of his crew. They all froze, deer-in-the-headlights style, as he caught them in the act of eating all the cookies but one. “Oh, come on, y’all, really?”
“What? These are, uhm, really good,” Lucy said around a mouthful of chocolate. “Your mom sure can bake.”
“Goddamn, I really hate you guys, sometimes,” Henry mumbled, taking the last cookie and shoving it in his mouth. His eyes lit up and he smiled. “But, yeah, you’re right, Lucy, she really can.”

[1] PRAXIS being an extremely abbreviated acronym for "Proximity/Distance, Range, and Heading/Bearing Detection of Electro-Magnetic Signatures on a Three Dimensional Axis." Basically, space RADAR.

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