"A ship is called a she because there is always a great deal of bustle around her; there is usually a gang of men about; she has a waist and stays; it takes a lot of paint to keep her good-looking; it is not the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep; she can be all decked out; it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable. She shows her topsides, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys." - Unknown
"This tribunal finds the Alliance Flight Academy to be in serious violation of the health and welfare of its students and hereby awards full damages sought by the plaintiff in this case. One hundred percent is to be paid within twenty four hours. This tribunal further finds the Academy training standards vastly below established norms and orders a full investigation into all courses, classes, equipment, and Academy sponsored programs. Administration, starting with the institution president, down to the third level stockholders, will undergo a thorough financial and background check by an investigation team of this court's choosing. Investigation to start no later than thirty days from this date, ending no later than one year and one month from today. Military records will show that the plaintiff was discharged under honorable conditions and is entitled to full military benefits, as well. No appeals are allowed in this case. Thus, it is scribed and recorded."
The judge shifted his gaze to look directly at Quillan, his voice becoming more conversational.
"Miss Margoles, please allow this tribunal to express its deepest apologies for the injuries you sustained during the final test flight of your class. While the job itself is inherently dangerous, the students are valuable assets and not to be thrown away. The government invested several million credits because you proved that you had the necessary skills for your chosen field. You do not owe the government anything in recompense and are free to take the skills you have learned into the private sector, if you wish. It is truly a shame that your injury, however slight you might think it, precludes you from military service, but the government has requirements, one of them being that your limbs and extremities must all function normally. Even the fact that your little finger does not work...well...I'm sorry. Thank you for your service.
"This tribunal is closed. Judges William Z. Harrison, Arthelia D. Pannogia, and Rendell M. Tiersonovitch, presiding."
"Slaxfire," Cadet Margoles swore as she eyed the roster on the wall screen. "Mu flight. I'm a cow."
"How do you think I feel? I got assigned to Rho flight. The fish eggs," giggled her classmate, Sita Switer.
As in all classes since the dawn of time, someone had given "clever" nicknames to the cadet flights.
The pair was covered from neck to toe in the gear needed for the absence of gravity and atmosphere. Quillan's flight helmet hung loosely in her left hand.
"At least this is the last flight of the test series," Sita winked. "We've got it made, Flame. Fly those bigass dreadnoughts and do cool shit."
"Like every cadet before us, we're gonna set the galaxy on fire!" Quillan said to her friend. Both women broke into fits of laughter at the sarcasm. Quillan ran a hand through her thick red, shoulder length hair to seize the hair band holding her ponytail in place. She placed her helmet between her knees while she fixed her hair.
A voice issued from the speakers overhead.
"Iota Flight, report to launch bay twelve. Chi Flight, launch bay two. Rho Flight, launch bay five. Theta Flight, launch bay sixteen. Mu Flight, check your handhelds for destination bay. Eyes on your six, cadets."
"Oh, yippee," lamented Quillan. "We're the aggressors."
Sita grinned and chucked Quillan on the shoulder.
"It won't be so bad, Flame," she giggled, "I'll end you early so you can study for the quantum mechanics finals."
The pair hugged.
"Eyes on your six, Giggs," Quillan said seriously, referring to Sita by her nickname, "Giggles."
"Eyes on your six, Flame," replied Sita.
"Mu Flight," came the instructor's voice through Quillan's helmet as she sat in the cockpit of her parked fighter. "Argon is flight leader. Flashpan, Honcho, Switch, and Goofball are squad leaders. Argon, your flight is to assault and secure two powered-down dreadnoughts, the Aaron G Lamon, and the Carrol P Urdaneta. Coordinates are being uploaded to all fighters.
"Four flights, led by instructors are against you.
"You have one hour to assign wingmen and set up your assault tactics. Eyes on your six, Cadets."
Fighters crisscrossed as they chased each other, vying to get clear shots on their opposite numbers. Every fighter was encased in photosensitive paint which would turn bright orange when it was hit by the low power laser armament from another ship. The onboard computer of each fighter would register the hit and react accordingly to simulate damage to the ship. A solid shot to the cockpit, for instance, would send a signal that the pilot was dead and automatically return the craft to the Academy's launch bay.
"All squads, no reply. Maintain radio silence," came Argon's voice through the helmet, "assault plan Echo Delta Four-Two."
As one, the fighters of Mu flight turned toward the Carrol P Urdaneta to begin a head on assault of the huge vessel, their lasers flashing at anything in their way. Ships on both sides transmitting that they were out of action and returning to base.
Several thousand miles from the action, six fighters burned toward the Aaron G Lamon, their throttles wide open, eating up the distance. Flying wingtip-to-wingtip, stacked in three rows of two in order to confuse enemy scanners, Quillan glanced over to her squad leader's ship, grinning beneath her oxygen mask. Goofball's gloved hand waved at her. They were two of the fourteen cadets in this class who were certified to fly the enormous dreadnought.
As they rapidly closed the distance to the powered-down dreadnought, Quillan's computer informed her that an immobile four man squad had just appeared beneath the Lamon. They had been waiting, powered down until the very last second.
Quillan and Goofball swung right, the other four fighters swung left, opening the distance between them by a hundred miles. Quillan was exactly in the spot she wanted.
Goofball began firing his lasers. He knew that the lasers were too weak to do any damage at this range, but he only wanted to draw the attention of the four defenders. They took the bait and began closing the distance in order to wolf pack him. He twisted his fighter, diving in the direction deemed as down. He flew straight into another ambush squad. The other four from their squad blasted in from the side like deadly birds of prey, chewing into the opposing force.
Those tactics had bought Quillan the time and distance she needed. She fired a burst of high-plasma into the engines, slamming back in her seat as speed increased. Her targeting system told her that the pursuing defenders were almost within firing range. If they fired, she'd be out of the game and probably fail the test. She was two hundred miles from the dreadnought. She triggered a laser to verify that she was lined up with her intended target. Perfect.
Quillan cut her fighter's engines to idle. A quick burst of maneuvering jets turned her completely around. She was now flying backwards, momentum alone carrying her closer and closer to the mighty Aaron G Lamon. The lasers on her fighter began winking as the computer targeted and fired at the encroaching defenders.
Watching the rear view monitor, she gauged the distance, then slammed the throttle to the stops, the engines obediently responding with a roar. Her momentum was still carrying her backward into the targeted bay of the dreadnought, the thrusters of the fighter slowing her down. But, the computer had registered too many hits and had acted accordingly to disable full power mode. Warning horns of all types were sounding.
Laser overheat alarm. Simulated oxygen leak alarm. Attitude thrusters offline alarm. Stabilizer alarm. If this had been real combat, she would have been automatically ejected from the ship. As it was, the computer had taken over and was trying to return to the Academy's launch bay. However, the computer hadn't informed her of the fact that she was tagged out.
No registered tagout meant she was still in the game. She would have been confirmed by radio from Flight Control, who kept close tabs on the game.
She watched with glee as, one by one, her pursuers unceremoniously turned away, their own computers deeming them to be out of action. The other fighters had scored so many small hits on her that, had she been in real combat, her craft would look like Swiss cheese.
Collision alarm. Uh-oh. Too fast. Shit, this is gonna hurt.
Her tiny fighter slid backward into the bay and impacted the bulkhead with a horrendous crash.
A calm male voice in her headset.
"All call emergency. All call emergency. This is Theta Lead. We have a cadet injury, Aaron G Lamon, bay two. Evac requested. All call emergency."
Who was he talking to? she wondered. Who was injured? What's that hissing noise?
Dazed and seeing double, she shook her head to clear it, yanked on the emergency release for the canopy and, protected by her atmo-suit, stumbled out of the fighter toward a panel on the wall. She reached into a pocket of her bulky atmo-suit, pulled a slender cable from it, and plugged it into the panel. When she heard a confirmation beep in her headset, signifying that she had linked with the dreadnought's computer, she spoke into her microphone.
"Cadet Margoles in command. Emergency power up. Mu flight is friendly. All other craft are hostile. Fire when able. Confirm." She sounded like she was talking underwater.
The responding beep signified that her voice pattern was recognized and the computer was carrying out her orders.
What is that damn hissing noise? Why is my vision blurred? My knees feel like rubber. Where's that beeping coming from? Not my headset. Damn, my head hurts. Must've hit it on som...
She was forcibly spun around, something black and blurry hit her faceplate. Slap patch, maybe?
At least the hissing stopped.
"Good, yosa'kt iwake. Krlt'ad jsent fo be alive," said a military-cut, gray haired man in a white coat in a white room. Quillan lay on her back. Her peripheral vision picked up a white sheet draped across her body. She looked down to see an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose. Her mouth was dry; as if she had been breathing through it for a long time.
"Huh?" was all she could muster.
"I said you're lucky to be alive," repeated the man as he adjusted some sort of bag next to her, a tube running from it to her arm. "Jusf stay bopll. Academy Investigation hddl ms floobrief you."
Her head swam. Thoughts and words a total jumble. She only understood half of what this guy was saying. Her left eye didn't work at all. Waitaminnit, here. Her arms and legs didn't work, either. What was going on? She gripped the sheets. At least her hands worked. It felt foreign to her. Why did she only feel...she did a quick count...nine fingers on the sheets? Was one missing? She fell asleep still wondering.
She was sitting up in bed, eating breakfast. It had been a two days since she had been brought to the hospital. The doctors had told her that the reason her extremities hadn't worked the first day she was awake was that, to put it in layman's terms, her brain had temporarily forgotten how to operate most of her body. That had quickly passed though, and she was functioning semi-normally, now. The brain was still forming new pathways around the damaged portions. Kind of a neural road crew. However, the little finger on her right hand might never work or feel anything again.
A pair of military officers entered the room and stood at the foot of her bed.
"Cadet Margoles, I'm Academy Investigator, Lieutenant Commander Nelson," said the severe looking woman. She gestured to a man standing next to her. He looked just as severe. Their faces were very smooth; no laugh lines. They must be pure pricks. "This is Alliance FleetCom Investigator, Commander Shankhar. We have a few questions for you."
"Remember what I told you about traumatic instances and memories," said a kindly voice at her left shoulder. She turned her head to see another person standing there, clad in white as had been the gray haired man. She could only make out the front of the person, a woman; her head wouldn't tilt back far enough to see any other features, but she knew from the voice that it was Dr. Shigawa, her neurosurgeon.
"Questions about---?" Quillan couldn't make the next word come out. She fingered the pressure patch over her eye; that was why she couldn't see out of it. She knew what she wanted to say, but parts of her speech were simply gone. She even knew how to spell the word she was looking for: W-h-a-t. Simple spelling. But, try as she might, she couldn't put it all together.
"About your accident," monotoned Nelson. "We've interviewed everyone who saw what happened, now we want your story."
Quillan's mind was trying to remember the day's events.
"Uh...all I get are flashes of events. Kinda like changing---" She made motions with her index finger, as if swiping across a computer screen. She felt really stupid. Can't think of the word. It's right there on the tip of my tongue. The frustration on her face was very evident.
"Like changing holochannels?"
"Yes, Ma'am," she said. The dejection in her voice was evident. It was embarrassing not being able to complete a sentence because the words wouldn't form.
"Tell us what flashes you get, cadet."
"I remember everything during the day right up to the point where I left the launch bay. I hit the---" She made a motion as if pushing forward on an imaginary throttle. "That's where things get strange."
Her teammate, Puget, fist upraised, middle finger extended, as his fighter was the first one tagged out. Narrowly avoiding someone who flew right in front of her. Goofball as he waved from about a hundred yards away. Nice view of Neptune. A huge bay as she flew backwards. A black square slap patch hitting her faceplate to prevent oxygen escaping through her cracked faceplate. A young brush-cut-haired guy in a white atmo-suit, helmet off, looking at her upside down. Her name being called over and over and over when all she wanted to do was sleep; that had been very irritating. Bright light in her left eye, someone leaning in close behind it.
"Hey, kiddo! How ya feeling?" Quillan's Mom grinned as she strolled into the room and gave her daughter a kiss on top of the head. It was easy to see where Quillan got her good looks, Mom was a knockout. She got the brilliant red mane from her Dad. Her mother, Marybeth, looked furtively over her shoulder, then reached into her purse, pulling out two boxes of grape juice. "Drink it quick. I appropriated them from the hospital's refrigerator while no one was looking. If they find out, they're liable to charge your first-born for it."
They both snickered as Quillan put one of the juice boxes in the table next to the bed and speared the other with the provided straw. She took a long drink, draining it in moments.
"Doctor McKall says they're gonna release me tomorrow," Quillan said as she handed the box back to her Mom, who quickly put it back in her purse. She ran a hand through her red hair, then pointed at a small stack of business cards on top of the bedside table.
"Those are all from lawyers. Apparently, the school is to blame for all of this. Something about improper safety procedures and the training craft probably not being up to specs. One mentioned something else about the TART reports looking funny."
"What in the world is a TART report?"
"You know the military, Mom, they have an acronym for just about everything. It stands for Triage and Recovery, Tactical."
"What was funny about it?" asked Marybeth, as she sat on the edge of the bed. She reached a hand out to brush a strand of hair from her daughter's face.
"He said the notification time versus the time of arrival to the crash looked funny. If I hire him, he'll look a lot closer." Quillan picked up the pile of cards and shrugged. "I dunno. A lot of lawyers want a piece of this pie. Would you do me a favor and check a few of these out?"
She flipped through the pile, handing a few to her mom.
"Sure, honey," replied Marybeth, tucking them away. "Has the Academy made a decision on whether you can fly or not?"
Quillan let herself fall back against the raised bed with a huff.
"No, they said it would have to be a court decision, if I go that route. If not, they'll rule arbitrarily. We both know how that would go."
Marybeth leaned over again to kiss Quillan on the head.
"Your Dad and I are so proud of you, no matter the outcome. Top of your academic class. Third overall. If they don't keep you, they're idiots."
Quillan turned to her lawyer with a big grin and hugged the man.
"You and I are very rich people," he said. "I just might retire, even if I only get the standard thirty-three percent." He reached behind her and tugged her flaming red ponytail.
"So, what happens now?" she asked, self-consciously smoothing her dress.
"If you don't get notified that your account's been credited by this time tomorrow, call me and I'll take care of it. If they don't want the damage settlement doubled, they'll pay. If they wait until the end of the week, you own a federally funded school. The government doesn't have that much money."
Twenty-three hours and fifty-eight minutes later, just as Quillan picked up her morning coffee cup, the electronic door chime of her single room mazecube sounded. Carrying her cup with her, she crossed the small room, turned on the video monitor and saw that it was a courier. She opened the door. The courier handed her an envelope, presenting a small pad for her to press her thumb against to verify delivery and key in a gratuity. Behind him stood four heavily armed, very capable looking guards who looked everywhere but at her. They carried pulsed plasma rifles, reactive thermal armor, concussion and fragmentary grenades. Heavy gear. The insignia, a star cluster surrounding a dagger, signified Alliance Military Police.
Closing the door, her hands shook as she opened the envelope and dumped a small, dull black chip into her hand. Moving to her computerminal, she slotted the chip as she held her breath. It was a good thing she was sitting down. As she watched, the indicated amount quavered as the system adjusted the numbers. The Academy had cut their time too close. The system had automatically doubled the awarded amount as penalty. Her lawyer was getting thirty-three percent of the original amount.
"Here we are, Captain Margoles," said the salesman with an easy smile, emphasizing "captain." "Terms and conditions, taxes, licensing, registration as Hawk's Wing, et cetera, et cetera. If you agree with it all, your thumbprint, please."
She quickly scanned the readout as she had been taught in the Academy (the Academy had its uses) and pressed her thumb to the pad. A green light indicated confirmation.
Her thumbprint was instantly relayed to the bank in order to debit her account, to the government in order that she be taxed for said purchase, and lastly, to the ship so that she could open the door. In turn, the ship automatically accessed several other databases and began the preparation for the arrival of its new owner. It set internal temperatures to her preferred comfort level, ordered her favorite foods, and keyed itself to her vocal pattern. The small cargo ship was hers.
For the next few years, Quillan enjoyed piloting, picking up and delivering cargo around her end of space. She had visited a lot of interesting places, not least of which was Purgatory, a large space station situated outside Alliance territory.
While getting absolutely plastered in one of the many drinking establishments on the station, she literally ran into the most beautiful exotic-looking human female she had ever laid eyes on. They hit it off immediately.
Quillan needed a loadmaster, she'd just never gotten around to advertising for one. Ilana needed a job and happened to be a qualified loadmaster. Two months later, they slept together for the first time.
"Hey, sweets," said Ilana, clad in her bulky atmosphere suit, helmet in hand. "Ship reports that the housing on the port side stabilizer's loose and we won't be able to make landfall until it's fixed. It'll take me about fifteen minutes to repair. We'll still make the scheduled drop. Be right back."
"Hang on just a sec, babe. Let me start the calibrations for atmo entry," Quillan replied, totally absorbed in her work.
The hiss of the airlock door as it opened didn't register on her, so engrossed was she. Finishing, she turned in her seat to look for her business partner and bed mate. The olive complected beauty was nowhere to be found.
"Dammit, told her a million times to let me check the suit before she went out," Quillan muttered under her breath.
The Academy had drilled suit checks into the cadets until Quillan began dreaming of them. She would wake up in the morning, hands smoothing thin air as if running them over an imaginary suit. All of the joint seals had to be checked to insure proper seating. A pinhole leak could become a major rent in the suit, turning the occupant into red gelatin as he or she was sucked out due to the massive pressure differential.
Taking a step into the hallway, Quillan made her way aft towards the portside airlock and spotted Ilana, her helmet on, turned toward the outer door, hand moving for the pressure button. Quillan's blood froze. Ilana hadn't worn the prescribed hood and some of her long dark hair was protruding through the helmet joint. This would cause a tiny gap in the tight fitting collar.
"Ilana! Stop! Repressurize! Repressurize!" Quillan screamed into the intercom. "Your suit's compromised! Ship, override that airlock! Repressurize it now!"
"Safety override has been disabled. Manual only. Cannot engage," came Ship's reply.
The O2 indicator next to the hatch on the far wall began its descent as the air was evacuated from the chamber in order to match the vacuum of space.
Ilana turned to wave at Quillan, and caught sight of the wide-eyed terror stricken face on the other side of the airtight door. She cocked her head quizzically, remembering that she hadn't turned on her helmet-com, then her own eyes grew wide with horror. She whirled towards the panel to hit the emergency pressurization button.
Quillan scrunched her eyes closed, but couldn't close her ears as a steady stream of blood and brain matter splattered obscenely into the door and glass surrounding it. Alana's skin had burst, her internal organs being sucked out to jet into the door.
Ilana had died for pig shit. Fertilizer for the farmers of some rinky-dink ball of mud under harsh terraforming conditions.
After repairing the errant stabilizer, tears obscuring her vision, she set down, dropped the cargo, and lifted off. She didn't even wait around for payment. She set a course straight away from that puny little planet, on a heading out. She didn't care where. Just out. Stopping at a way station only long enough to pick up necessary supplies and have the port airlock cleaned, she traveled for months in as straight a line as she could maintain. Her only companion was Ship, the control computer.
She had kept her hair cut short ever since.
Upright, strapped into the flight seat, the blackness of space outside the cockpit window. She yawned, blinked her eyes, ran her hands through her short red hair, and scanned the instrument panel, noting that all ship's systems were in the green.
"Okay, Ship, Talk to me. How long was I asleep this time? Where are we? Anything unusual happen? Did I miss dinner?"
"Pilot entered REM sleep eight hours, thirteen minutes ago," replied the flat monotone of Ship, totally devoid of emotion. "Current location is one billion, four hundred twelve thousand, twenty-seven statute miles past the nearest habitable planet. A Boattini Comet, number P/2009Q4 was detected. Course adjusted for avoidance and optimal trajectory. You have not eaten in twelve hours, forty-two minutes,"
"Pull up a population density on that planet. Anything I might like?"
"Planetary population is currently nine billion, three hundred fourteen million---"
"Skip it. Find the next one. Preferably one with under a million, worldwide. I want it to be empty. I hate people."
"Affirmative. Continuing scan."
Quillan unstrapped from the chair and went into the kitchen to get some food. Passing the portside airlock, she cast her eyes firmly to the deck plate as she always did, eying the path worn into the paint.
She ate woodenly, thinking of the past. Fork to plate. Open mouth. Insert food. Chew. Swallow. Repeat. She didn't taste it. She didn't even care what it was. It was food. It satisfied the basic necessity of survival.
"Captain, there is an Alliance distress signal with a repeating plea for aid," said the emotionless voice of Ship. "The signal lies approximately two billion miles distant. It is barely discernible. Your orders, please."
"You gotta be shittin' me. No one's out this far but us." She picked up her glass of juice and wandered back into the cockpit, leaving her plate on the table. "All right, let's hear it."
An unhurried female voice, quite calm, issued from the speakers. The signal was very weak and broken.
"This... Alli...Dre...ught ...mas A Park...r...any...ip...within...nge. Ple...ackn...edge."
"Ship, head on over there. Give me about a three hour arrival time. Their transmitter's trashed. Any idea why?" She felt the ship alter course and jump to lightspeed in response to her command.
"They are on the edge of an asteroid field. Hull breaches in several places. The main antenna arrays have been destroyed. Attempting to read the registration identification. It's a dreadnought class."
Quillan rolled her eyes. Great. Dreadnought class meant military. It was the military's fault she was out this far in the first place. She wanted to get as far from them, or anyone else for that matter, as possible. She was sorely tempted to let them rot, but decided that whatever crew was still on board the distressed ship had nothing to do with her situation.
"Dreadnought? The military should be all over them. Anything on the news nets or mil nets?"
"Negative," came the flat reply.
"Send repeat replies until you receive acknowledgement. Inform them that we're coming. Let me know when you have a strong enough signal to carry on a decent conversation," Quillan said, draining her glass and heading back into the kitchen to wash the dishes.
"Approximately two hours, thirty minutes until full signal acquisition."
Quillan, now clad head to toe in her atmo-suit, dropped into her pilot's chair and propped her feet up on the console, running her fingers through her short hair. Her helmet and gloves sat in the seat next to her. Ship had reported that the signal was clearing up and would be fully understandable in just a few moments.
"This is Quillan Margoles, commanding Hawk's Wing. You guys look to be in a most trashmatter way. What can I do?"
Indeed, the dreadnought looked totally dead in space, surrounded by the Gomeisa Asteroid Field. How the hell had they gotten stuck in that? That asteroid field was listed in every known space chart and database. Her hull was dented and scraped beyond belief; it was hard to tell what the original color had been. Enormous rocks, some the size of the Hawk's Wing herself, were embedded in the hull. Quillan shivered. How many people had died?
"Captain Margoles, I am First Mate Alice Nine, of the Alliance Dreadnought Thomas A Parker. Thank you very much for responding. I am the only one aboard this ship. The escape pods have all been taken. I wish to leave the asteroid belt and any help will be rewarded by the Alliance," came the smooth unhurried female voice.
"Ship," Quillan ordered, "hold position ten thousand miles from the target. Scan for life on that thing, display only."
"Affirmative." The display showed the proper information. No life signs? Must be interference from the asteroid belt.
"First Mate Alice Nine, what sort of reward is in the offing for a dreadnought class?"
"I'm unsure of the exact amount, Captain," came that sexy voice again, "but it will be worth your while. Circumstances warrant that I can't get to main power. There is enough power in the batteries to run this transmitter and life support for a while longer. Reserves are critical at two percent. If our main generator was online, things would be a lot better."
Quillan's eyes and hands flashed over various panels, flipping switches and checking readouts. She lowered the helmet, firmly seating it in the locking collar, running her fingers very carefully around the seam. Satisfied, she put on her gloves, visually verifying that they were airtight. The soft hiss of airflow through her suit confirmed that everything was in order. Lastly, she dropped her feet to the deck, sitting upright in her chair, fastening the five-point seat belt, and making sure it was cinched tightly. She hated bouncing off of hard objects like walls.
"Alright, First Mate Alice Nine," Quillan said matter-of-factly, "I'm coming in. Have you got enough power to open an outer door for me? Can you even get to a panel to do that?"
In response, a cargo door opened slightly, then froze about halfway up.
"Are you serious?" Quillan muttered to herself, then spoke up so the vocal pickup would transmit. "Dreadnought Thomas A Parker, can't you open the door a little wider?"
"I'm sorry, Captain, but I can't. I'll need the power to close the door to prevent an asteroid from penetrating. That will also decrease the current battery supply. If you wish to abort the attempt, I won't hold it against you."
Quillan sighed. She hadn't been particularly good at thread-the-needle drills at the Academy, giving an involuntary shudder as she thought of the last one, but always passed the tests. Now, she was doing it with no support teams.
"Sit tight, First Mate. I need to loop to get in the proper position. I'll be coming in hot. Margoles, out."
Fully fifty times the size of the Hawk's Wing, the dreadnought was a war wagon, pure and simple. Quillan's training had given her extensive knowledge of the Alliance fleet, the dreadnought in particular, as she had been trained to fly them. Dreadnoughts sported massive firepower and high-altitude atmospheric capabilities which allowed them to act as aircraft carrier, battleship, or bomber. It wasn't agile enough for a destroyer role, but with its suite of weapons, bombs, and fast attack fighters, no one in his right mind was dumb enough to tangle with one. The armor plating was thick enough to repel heavy hydrogen-plasma fire.
Quillan took the flight stick and accelerator lever in hand.
"Primary flight configuration on manual. I'm in control. Standard safety protocols."
"Manual controls engaged. Caution is advised." The computer could now control the ship only in an emergency.
Quillan banked the ship, swinging into a wide loop to line up with the half open bay door which was a mere pinpoint of light from this distance. She disengaged the empty cargo container to make her ship more maneuverable. The container's own dumb computer and thrusters would hold it stationary.
"Ship, is anything gonna intercept us? I don't want to fly into a rock."
"At current trajectory, nothing will interfere for another sixteen minutes. Afterward, there will be a two-minute window of opportunity, then the path will be blocked for nine hours, twenty-eight minutes."
Quillan slammed the accelerator to the stops. Arrowing in, her focus was wholly on the open door, her hands making minute corrections to trajectory and speed. The Hawk's Wing shot forth at more than twenty-three thousand meters per second. Either she would succeed, or she would die. No leeway.
"Ship, prepare for collision. At this rate of speed, I'll pass out when we get inside. Full forward defense shields. Full cockpit buffer. Zero shields anywhere else." She felt the slight pressure increase as the cockpit's internal anti bounce buffer engaged.
"Full brake!" she screamed when the targeting meter flashed red, indicating an imminent impact.
Collision alarms. Door. Light. Wall. Noise. Dark.
Shit. Too fast.
That hurt. A lot. Deep breath. The suit smells funny. Too clean.
Quillan opened her eyes and focused them to see a white medibot perched atop the instrument panel, one of its many arms holding an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose. Her head was held in place by two of its other arms. Flicking her eyes downward, she could see that a fourth and fifth arm were tending to a deep gash on her upper thigh. Looking up again, she saw past the medibot to the transparent aluminum windshield. A huge hole had opened in it and she realized the seat next to her was totally gone. The hole in the windshield had been patched, rather hastily it appeared, with an opaque slap patch. That meant that the bay hadn't been repressurized. With the rent in her suit leg, she would have suffered the same fate as Ilana and countless other space travelers.
Remaining still, she let the bot do its job. It would let her up soon enough.
"Ship, give me a damage report," Quillan ordered, her voice muffled by the oxygen mask.
"Main computer reboot initiated six point three minutes ago. Reboot completed two point seven minutes ago. Forward thrusters, inoperative. Dorsal thrusters, inoperative. Ventral thrusters, inoperative. Starboard thrusters, inoperative. Port thrusters, one half. Reverse thrusters, destroyed. Forward view port, destroyed. Forward telemetry, destroyed. Scanning suite, destroyed. Search beacon, inoperative. Hull integrity forward of cockpit, zero percent. Forward defense shield generator, destroyed. Main engines one and three, inoperative. Main engines two and four, one quarter. Starboard airlock integrity, zero percent. Port..."
The Hawk's Wing wasn't going anywhere for awhile.
"Cancel," she sighed. "What blew past my shoulder and ripped the seat apart?"
"A plastic bottle containing potable water. The bulkhead behind you is no longer airtight."
At least I'm alive, she thought.
The medibot finished the job on her leg and retracted its arms. Still holding her head immobile and forcing her to stay seated, it retracted the oxygen mask, determining that since she was fully conscious, she no longer needed it. It spoke in a pleasant, sexy female voice, that of First Mate Alice Nine.
"Hello, Captain. Welcome aboard the Alliance Dreadnought Thomas A Parker. Atmosphere has been cleared from all decks and directed to the bay in which you now sit. It's safe to exit your ship, if you wish. As you move through the ship, I'll pressurize the section directly in front of you. Please pause for a few seconds between sections, so that I can do this effectively. I assure you that once the main power has been restored, the entire ship will be fully pressurized. Please follow the medibot as it takes you to the proper areas. I will see you shortly."
The medibot extended two legs to the decking, retracted all of its arms, and climbed down from the console. Once there, it extended four more legs and began moving toward the port airlock. Quillan stood gingerly, placing her weight on her damaged leg. There was no pain. She bent slightly to look at the hole in her suit, expecting to see stitches closing the gash. A smooth bare leg. The gash was gone, completely healed. She turned to look at the hole in the wall. It was smaller than the one in the windshield and a little more ragged. The wall of the airlock on the other side was still wet from the water, and had a large dent from the impact. At high speed, water could be as hard as concrete.
The medibot raised its two rearmost legs, bending them to form handles for Quillan to grab and use for balance. After a few moments, she was able to stand without assistance, although her head still swam.
If I never thread the needle with a spaceship again, I'll be happy, she thought.
She made her shaky way toward the starboard side airlock, that one taking the least amount of damage. The port airlock was a jumble of twisted metal.
Monitored closely by the medibot, she exited the Hawk's Wing, giving the trashed ship a quick visual inspection.
The cargo craft was nose first in a huge stack of blue barrels leaking water. Water dripped from the ceiling, ran down the walls, forming a large puddle on the deck plates. The nose had been caved in, landing struts totally collapsed, the aft end of the vessel accordioned, crinkling the hull. Bits of debris lay all around. Any insurance company in the galaxy would have written it off as a total loss.
Glancing around, she saw several doors into the dreadnought and motioned the medibot to lead the way.
It was a tedious trip to the generator deck, having to stop every twelve seconds in the dim emergency lighting and wait for the door ahead of her to open so she could proceed through the ship. The medibot dutifully waited at each door, gently tapping a foot. Nice mimicry of human impatience. Quillan surmised that what should normally have been a five minute walk, took close to a half hour.
WARNING - NEAR ABSOLUTE ZERO.
Engineering Personnel Only.
Access 3 and above only.
The medibot skittered over to a wall locker and tapped it, indicating that she open it. An array of suits similar to an atmo-suit sat inside. She selected the appropriate size, slid out of her now useless atmo-suit and began dressing in the claustrophobic enviro-suit.
Enviro-suits differed from atmo-suits, being thinner and lighter. Heavier atmo-suits were shielded from radiation and made of denser materials. While enviro-suits worked in space, they didn't have the same protections. The fabric was thin enough that her manual dexterity and touch were maintained while providing oxygen and protection to the intense cold she would experience. She checked and rechecked the connections around her ankles, leaving her gloves for last. Settling the helmet on her head, she carefully felt all around the collar, making sure it was seated correctly. Satisfied, she drew on the gloves and visually checked the seals. As the second glove seated with a click, Quillan was slightly startled by a head-up display on her faceplate accompanied by the gentle hiss of air. Detailed information of the suit's integrity scrolled up, detailing external and internal temperatures, external air quality, internal pressure, even a small icon of the suit itself, the connections glowing green.
"Outstanding!" she exclaimed.
"Hello, Captain," came Nine's familiar voice through the headset. "I'll guide you through the start up procedures. Please don't take any action until I tell you. It is imperative that you listen to my instructions fully. I will let you know when to make the appropriate movements. Is this alright?"
"First mate, I'm fully qualified to start the gennies on a dreadnought," replied Quillan, slight annoyance leaking through. "I spent four years at the Academy, specializing in these monsters."
"All respect is due and given, Captain," Nine said, smoothly. "Records indicate that you were trained and checked out on Generations Four through Seven. This is a Generation Nine prototype. Many features have been removed and others added since your Academy lessons. A misstep could prove fatal."
Now, it all made sense. She was talking to the ship itself. Alice Nine. Generation Nine. A thought occurred to her.
"You say that you're the only one aboard, right?"
"That is correct, captain," replied Alice. "I am the Algorithmic Logistical Intelligent Control Entity, Ninth Generation. Alice Nine. I was activated on Earth date, 10 July, two years ago."
"So, you're an artificial intelligence?"
"Yes, Captain." That was the reason Ship didn't detect any life aboard this vessel.
"Are you recording this conversation?" asked Quillan.
"Mark this time in your records and pay special attention to my next statement," a sly grin on Quillan's face. "I, Quillan Stephanie Margoles, hereby lay claim to this ship and all systems and items on board by Law of Salvage after determining that no other qualified sentient life forms are aboard. This message is to be sent to all proper authority groups upon restoration of communications. In the event that this vessel is found by military authority before comms are restored, the Law of Salvage is to remain effect until decided upon in a court of law. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Captain. You are now in command of this vessel," came the sexy voice of the computer. "I have updated the ship's log and systems with your details. You may now travel into all spaces on this ship."
"Let's get to work," said Quillan, a huge smile on her face.
An hour later, the air handlers came on, pressurizing spaces and providing clean air to the entire ship. Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, the water purifiers started circulating clean water. Refrigerators hummed to life. Lights on all decks came up as the emergency lights were extinguished. By fits and spurts, every undamaged system came up. There were enough undamaged systems aboard that she could live comfortably aboard this ship for the rest of her life, if that asteroid field outside would leave her alone.
She shed her enviro-suit, neatly placing it back inside the locker, old military habits returning. Checking the other lockers, she found a technician's jumpsuit and put it on, zipping it to the collar. Wearing only socks on her feet, she wandered back out into the hallway, looking each way. The medibot hot on her heels, like a faithful dog.
"Alice, is there anything like a tour guide on board this vessel? Something other than the medibot. I need some shoes, too."
"The medibot is the only working locomotive force aboard at the moment. All other robots were damaged during our test jump," came Alice's voice from the small bot.
"Okay," she replied simply. "Get the shields up and move us out of this crap."
As if in response, a tremendous dull thud resounded through the corridors, the result of a fairly large asteroid slamming into the hull.
"My shields have been reactivated and will be at full capacity in about twenty minutes. They are charging as well as warding off the offending asteroids, so they are taking longer than normal. Repair systems have also been activated. This ship is capable of self repair now that the generators are online. Once shields are restored to half capacity, I will maneuver out of the asteroid field, if that is acceptable. It's not advisable to move until then due to the debris field. May I suggest that you rest and eat, Captain? We can talk more once you have selected your meal, if you wish."
Led by the medibot, Quillan entered the ship's store, found a pair of boots, then they headed for the galley.
The galley was a mess. The tables were the only things standing, as they were bolted to the floor. Dishes, chairs and appliances littered the room, most being twisted and broken. Quillan picked her way through the rubble and managed to scrounge up a few things to munch on, along with a couple cans of military issue beer. She righted a chair, gazing around the room with a sigh. Long cleanup process here.
"All right, Alice," she said at long last, with a mouthful of food. "Tell me exactly what this ship is and what it does." She took another bite of surprisingly tasty brown flat rectangle, washing it down with a few gulps of beer.
"The full denomination of this ship is the Alliance Dreadnought Class, Generation Nine, Light Atmospheric and Deep Space Mobile Command and Control Attack Platform, Number Four, Experimental. There are five ships in this series, each with varying capabilities, designed to interact with one another in an attack or defense cluster. Depending upon the scenario, one specific ship is designated as the leader and, by linking with the other four ships' computers, presents a formidable adversary," lectured the medibot in Alice's voice.
Quillan digested the information, then spoke.
"So, theoretically, I could hook up with the other dreadnoughts and we could raise a lotta hell around the galaxy, right?"
"In theory, you are correct, Captain. However, certain criteria must be met before that can happen."
"Such as?" asked Quillan.
"The commander of each ship must be an active duty qualified captain as verified by his or her standing within the Alliance military sector. As you are listed as discharged under honorable conditions, you are disqualified. Therefore, the command and control structural link between computers is severed. You can cannot control them, and likewise, they cannot control this ship. You have also acquired this ship by Law of Salvage. All data classified above level three, which was your clearance at the time of discharge, is restricted until or unless authorized or removed by verified military officials."
Another swig of beer.
"I can dig it," acknowledged Quillan. "So, how in Samarji's Hell did you manage to wind up in the middle of a known asteroid belt?"
"There was a computational error in the Fold Drive coordinates."
"Fold Drive? The theory of folding space? Take a sheet of paper, fold it in half, and your pen only has to travel through it a half millimeter instead of drawing a line down the page. I'd heard the techno-dweebs were working on it," Quillan leaned back in her seat, holding her beer, as she propped her feet on the table and closed her eyes.
"Correct again, Captain," said the medibot, as it clambered up onto the table. "As you know, computers are incapable of making mistakes and can only process the data given. In this case, the given data was wrong. This ship was supposed to fold to Earth-Actual. Instead, we folded into proximity of IRAS 18162−2048 which contains massive gravity and shocked gas shifts due to its protostar nature. It's a baby star. The former captain, pardon the expression, 'freaked out,' upon arrival to that system and entered the next fold coordinates manually, ordering an instant fold before objections could be voiced. Upon arrival here, his mental instability took over and he ordered an immediate evacuation of this quadrant.
"I must reaffirm that most systems aboard this vessel are experimental and computers can only process the data they are given. At the evacuation command, the personnel were instantaneously teleported to their respective life pods and jettisoned." Alice's voice seemed to change, become saddened. "As we are in the middle of an asteroid field, and none of the life pods had defensive shields, they were all destroyed."
"How many people were evacuated?" A cold dread ran through the redhead as she asked. She dropped her can at the answer.
"Three hundred and six." The medibot's head dropped, seeming to examine the table.
Now that the generators were online and running at full capacity, things around the ship progressed rapidly. With the shields fully restored, they moved out of the asteroid field, the shields merely shrugging off the huge rocks. On Quillan's orders, self-maintenance systems kicked into high gear. Alice transferred a techbot routine into the medibot, and set it to work repairing two techbots. Within hours, the techbots had repaired the rest of the techbots. In turn, the techbots repaired the heavy repair robots which got to work processing metal from the embedded asteroids, beginning reconstruction of the dreadnought's hull. When the last repair robot was restored, the techbots began work on antenna arrays and tactical systems which were severely damaged in the IRAS 18162−2048 mishap, eventually to be totally destroyed by the asteroid field.
For five full days, the ship sat on the edge of the asteroid field while it repaired itself. Quillan had not been idle during that time. She read everything she could find about the ship's systems. Her speed reading ability was remarkable. She had managed to get through the entire engineering section and ninety percent of the weapons and defensive systems data during that time. Her memory retention and recall had been verified by several sources between 97 percent and 98 percent. Her mind was a sponge.
She suddenly remembered that she hadn't showered in a few days, being so caught up in learning about her new ship. The body odor wafting into her nostrils confirmed this. The clock showed that she had been studying for almost twenty hours straight, her meals being brought to her by the only small servbot on the ship. Time for a shower and a little relaxation.
Exiting the bridge of the massive ship, she took two steps to her personal cabin. The captain's quarters were always situated as close to the bridge as possible in case of emergency. Although cameras were present throughout the ship, none were in private quarters, only basic medical sensors were allowed.
Quillan shed her boots, drab gray jumpsuit, bra, and panties, kicking the pile into the corner. She'd do her laundry later. Striding across the large room to the bathroom, she paused in front of the full length mirror to give herself the once over.
Overall, she rated her body at a solid eight on the Sex Appeal Meter. She needed a tan, but supposed that if she dressed right, she could turn a head or two.
Walking into the bathroom, she stepped into the voice-controlled shower and ordered it to forty-five degrees Celsius. The hot water cascaded over her, its heat soothing and comfortable. She placed both hands on the wall and reveled in it, letting it splash directly on her scalp.
"Shampoo, strawberry." The shower nozzle emitted a small amount of shampoo and beeped when the proper quantity had been dispensed. Quillan pulled her head out of the stream and massaged her scalp, pushing her head back under the jets to rinse it.
"Body soap, strawberry." The shower again beeped when the quantity had been dispensed and Quillan stepped back to lather herself. She retrieved a washcloth from the wall bracket, wet it, soaped it and scrubbed her face, taking her time.
She rinsed her face in the stream from the shower head and then watched the small trails which appeared as the cloth was run down each slender arm. She languidly ran the cloth around her slim neck and over her chest, lightly brushing her nipples with the rough fabric. Moving the cloth around her breasts, she was careful to wash the crease on the underside of each. Gently, she moved the cloth lower to wash her flat stomach, and around her vulva. Crooking a finger with the cloth around it, she ran it through her slit and was startled by the sensation; one which she had nearly forgotten. The last time she had felt that was...
Quillan moaned as Ilana lightly tipped her clit with a fingernail. Ilana's touch was incredible! The dark-haired beauty knew how to use her fingers and nails to get the maximum effect. Ilana ever-so-gently scraped her index fingernail across Quillan's swollen nub, eliciting another sighing moan from the redhead. It was all Quillan could do not to squeeze her thighs together and trap that marvelous hand on her forever.
Ilana pulled her finger back and blew cool air on Quillan's clit, sending another shock into Quillan's core.
"S-s-stop...l-l-lover..." panted Quillan. "I lost count at fifteen. I'm spent."
Ilana crawled up Quillan's body, kissing the naked skin as she went; suckling a nipple.
"Only fifteen orgasms?" she asked between kisses, chuckling. "Lightweight."
Leaning against the wall, Quillan moaned out loud as she inserted a finger into herself, letting the palm of her hand rest on her mound. Folding her thumb inward, the inserted it into her slit and began moving her hand back and forth, letting her thumb stroke her clit, her finger pumping in and out of her.
Her breathing grew ragged. The wet washcloth dropped to the floor with a plop as she massaged her breasts and tweaked her nipples, tugging and pinching and rolling them.
Her knees grew weak. Her lips parted. A small moan escaped as everything around coalesced and separated at the same time. The room darkenlightened. The water was/was not. The wall was cold. The wall was warm.
Quillan's body bucked and shook as her breath hitched over and over in her throat. Her closed eyes suddenly flew open wide. She threw her head back and screamed. The scream of ecstasy seeming to go on and on as her being was consumed by a pleasure she hadn't experienced in a long time.
Panting and gasping for breath, now seated on the floor of the shower (when, exactly, she had come to be in this position, she didn't know), she placed her head between her legs, elbows resting on her knees and let the water simply spray on her. Slowly, she regained her mental faculties and gingerly stood to rinse the rest of the soap from her. She stepped from the shower onto a small grid. Warm air issued from the grid in the floor as well as one in the ceiling. Twisting and turning, raising her arms and spreading her legs, she let the blowers do their jobs to dry her off.
Walking into the main room, she froze upon spying the bed. A neatly folded black Alliance uniform, sans the rank, lay there. On the floor were a pair of highly polished Alliance boots. She glanced into the corner where she had kicked her clothes earlier. They were gone.
"Alice," Quillan spoke to thin air.
"Yes, Captain?" the sultry voice of the computer answered.
"Where's my jumpsuit?"
"It's in the laundry being cleaned as we speak, Captain. Do you wish me to have the rest of your gear retrieved from the cargo craft?" came the voice from speakers hidden within the walls.
"No, Alice. That's fine. I'll wear this outfit. Why is the rank piping missing?"
"Since you are not a member of the military, it is illegal for you to wear a proper uniform. This one was taken from Stores. Of course, since this is your ship, you may walk around in any state of dress or undress you wish."
Quillan toyed with the idea of wandering around in the buff, but decided that she'd just feel weird and donned the uniform. It fit like a glove. Likewise, the boots fit as if they were made for her feet. After combing her short hair, she exited the room and headed for the ship's galley to eat.
To her surprise, the galley had been cleaned up. The chairs were once again arranged in orderly fashion around neatly set tables. The appliances, which had been strewn about, were in their proper spaces, the damaged ones repaired.
At long last, Alice reported the ship fully functional.
"Alice," said Quillan, "scan all news and military nets for word of this ship. Access databases back to the day it was expected to return." She was seated comfortably in the command chair, one leg over the other at the knee.
"What would you like to know, Captain?" the techbot at her side asked with its smoky purring voice.
"For starters, what did they do about it?" Quillan turned to the bot.
"Standard Alliance search protocols were initiated. After the prescribed twenty-four hour waiting period, the last known trajectory was determined and a Tactical Search and Rescue Unit was dispatched along that line to IRAS 18162−2048. The search was canceled after 366 Earth days. This ship was presumed lost."
Quillan's eyebrows shot up.
"366 days? How long have you been here?"
"512 days had elapsed before you arrived."
"Waitwaitwait," Quillan said, as she shook her head trying to comprehend the enormity of the situation. "This ship sat in the middle of that rock storm for over a year and didn't get totally destroyed? Why didn't you initiate self-repair?"
"I am unable to take any form of action other than defensive without direct authorization from the captain. The replacement of your uniform is one such action that was authorized, no doubt for convenience," replied Alice. "As the captain had vacated the vessel, all that could be done was keep the shields up as long as possible. Even self repair must be authorized by the captain or other designated individual, none of whom were aboard."
"Why didn't the captain authorize self repair as needed? That's just plain stupidity."
"Since this is a prototype vessel, certain limits and restraints were put in place. Self repair is one. Attack is another."
"Attack, I can understand," said Quillan, as she ran her hand through her short red hair, "but self repair? Buncha idiots."
Quillan clapped her hands and rubbed them together, taking a deep breath.
"All right, First Mate Alice Nine, now hear this. As captain of this vessel, I hereby authorize you for self repair using any and all necessary means to insure that this ship is running at peak performance. This does not include changes to programming in your own neural network. Those have to go through me or an individual to be designated by me at a future time. Confirm these orders." Quillan had said it all in one breath. She was pleased with herself and sat back with a smile.
"Your orders are confirmed, Captain. Self repair is authorized. Mainframe program changes are not authorized," Alice replied, succinctly.
"Are you making fun of me, Alice?" Quillan's smile turned to slight annoyance.
A hint of humor in Alice's voice.
"Oh, no, Captain. I would never do that." The techbot's illuminated left eye blinked out momentarily in the semblance of a wink. Quillan chuckled.
"Alright, Alice, give me a display of the ship's systems and put it on the main screen, please." Quillan had added the "please" without even thinking.
Her practiced eye noted slight modifications to the drive capabilities. More efficient.
"Alice, compute a course to the outer edge of the Sol system."
"Course computed, Captain. There is a flaw in the computation, however. With permission, I will repair it. I know what is wrong with that area of programming. May I make the necessary corrections?"
"Yes, I don't want to wind up like the last bunch. And give me an error percentage, please."
The lighting dimmed for a few seconds as the enormous processing power was stretched to its limit, changing millions of lines of code in order to effect the noted corrections. The lights came back up.
"All corrections have been made, Captain. The probability of error is now less than one trillionth of one percent. That's the best I can do. I've run over one hundred thousand test folds through the simulation and the virtual ship arrived within four millimeters of a fixed point in all cases. Does this meet your approval?"
One hundred thousand tests in five seconds? No wonder the lights dimmed.
"It does, Alice. Fold us to the specified galaxy, please."