Chapter Three

“You sure changed your mind quick, didn’t you?”

It had been only a few days since their last visit to Liberty Square, and now they were back again. Just as Valeca’s mind had indeed changed, so had the feeling between her and Aeje. She could sense that he was confused, irritated, maybe even feeling betrayed, yet he tried hard to hide it all behind his typically humorous demeanor. Though she hated to admit it, he had a right to feel that way. After all, just a few days ago, he’d been struggling with himself to explain that Valeca was one of the people he didn’t want to lose, and now she’d gone and enlisted in the Fleet. As much as she’d tried to explain to him what Colonel Rice had said about openings all over the colonies, not even she was confident enough in her ability to stay out of the front lines to try and convince Aeje of the same. Maybe all that beer sitting next to them in a little cooler he’d brought wasn’t so much for the two of them as it was for him.

“You should’ve heard what I wanted to sign up for first, though. I said I’d make a great construction worker or something, but no… Colonel Rice took one look at me and said ‘You know what? Let’s put this one in the Fleet. She looks like a big enough hardass to teach the UEL a lesson or two.’”

“Oh really?” Aeje chuckled. “I thought maybe they just wanted to see if you’d be able to make it out of Basic with your big head still attached to your neck.” He saw Valeca getting ready to punch him in the arm and exaggerated protecting himself with his hands. “I kid, I kid! I think you’ll do great, Val. Just remember not to give your MTI too much shit or there won’t even be enough left of you to send home in a box.”

“Ha ha, very funny… Who knows, Aeje. Maybe they’ll even take a liking to your lily-white behind, if this thing lasts long enough for Derak to get that desperate. How would you like that?”

“Eh, could be fun.” He laid back on the grass with his hands behind his head, staring up into the reflected light above him as dreams of glory began to race around his head. “You know, they were saying on the news this morning that this war probably won’t even get started and if it does, chances are it’ll be over before I can even get a flight suit on. The rest of our ships are still a few days out from Ceres. What if they get there and the Earth fleet’s nowhere to be found? Everyone gets a little vacation in the Belt, plus all the booze they can drink, then they all get to head home again and march around like war heroes. Sounds like my kind of war.”

“You know, that does a certain appeal to it. Fly around a little, get drunk, come home. You know, if I hadn’t already enlisted, maybe I’d even sign up for something like that.” Propping himself on an elbow, he turned to look at her.

“Just do me one favor, Val: don’t let me get all sappy when you board the transport on your way to Basic. You wouldn’t want to see me cry anyways. My eyes get all puffy and a little thing of snot starts to come out right here…”

“Don’t worry,” she said, laughing. “If it looks like you’re about to cry, I’ll just give you something to cry about. How’s that?”

“Sounds good,” he replied. “And hey… If I ever do find myself up there, do another favor.”

“And what’s that?”

“Leave me some leftovers, okay? Don’t go winning the war all on your own.”

“Guess I’ll have to do my best to not do my best, then.”

“That’s the spirit! Now how about you pass me a beer? All this thinking about war’s getting me too excited.”

“Sure thing. Man, I’m gonna miss this.”

“Not for long, hopefully.”

“I’ll drink to that,” she said. Aeje grabbed the can and cracked it open, then turned back to lie down on the grass.

Taking a cue from her friend, Valeca leaned back to look at the “sky” above them, which today was filled with puffy, white clouds at the center of the colony cylinder and terminated in a large window on the other side. All those years ago when she’d first arrived here in FACET, she’d laid like this constantly, gazing at the opposite wall of the colony as if she were floating in the air and looking down at the ground beneath her.

Only someone born and raised in an O’Neill cylinder like Destiny could ever really adjust fully to the crazy perspective and direction changes forces on the mind by living inside of one. Perhaps to someone born in the colonies, she had thought, the Earth itself would be just as taxing on the brain to understand how the sky above could really be infinite, with no reassurance of solid walls and plasma shields protecting you from everything that lay beyond it. To imagine a plane so large that it actually curved away from you on all sides while appearing flat must be confusing, if not terrifying. It had taken Valeca a few years to get used to the sight of the colony’s interior, to the point where it was no longer strange to her by the time she was a teenager.

Now, however, she felt as if recent events were pushing on her a new sense of wonder in her home. Space lay all around her, kept out by almost a quarter-kilometer of metal and anti-radiation shielding, yet here she was in a little bubble of life, laying on the grass and talking to her best friend with no fear of what lay outside. The thought came into her mind that perhaps she now felt this way because deep inside her, she feared she would never get to do this again.

If there was anything more for the two of them to say, they didn’t find it before they’d already finished their drinks and the colony’s myriad stars had come out once again.

 

***

 

Onboard the EFS Terranova in its orbit above Mars, it was far too early for Commander Amira Bennett to report for bridge duty. Since Fleet Standard Time dictated that the incoming caller knew this as well, it must’ve been urgent to call directly to the CO’s quarters and not hail the CIC first. Beeping from the terminal near her bed roused the commander quickly from an unsuspecting sleep, and she instinctively reached for her jacket to receive the video message. Checking the caller’s credentials onscreen, she confirmed her suspicions: it was Admiral Moleschenkova, commander of the Mars Defense Fleet. Whatever this was about, it was big.

“Accept call,” Amira said as she reached the last button of her jacket and pulled her cap over unkempt hair. She knew the admiral had high dress standards but considering the nature of the call, she hoped there would be some slack given this time. Moleschenkova’s face appeared on-screen, only more tense than usual.

“Good morning, ma’am. What can I do for you?”

“We have a situation at Ceres,” the admiral replied. “I assume you’ve heard the news.”

“No, ma’am, I’m afraid I haven’t been informed of this yet. What happened?”

“A civilian transport coming in from Progress colony in the Jovian Trojans was destroyed; around two hundred people were killed.” Last time something like this had happened, Amira had been only a lieutenant. She wasn’t involved in the investigation but from what she heard of its findings, the reports of terrorist activity turned out to be rumors. A faulty reactor had breached its containment field and taken the ship with it. Tragic, but it was no time for overreaction.

“I assume we’re going out on another peace-keeping patrol, then?” she replied.

“Ordinarily no, but this one gets worse. President Derak’s been on the news all day, calling it an attack on their sovereignty, whatever the hell that means.” She swallowed at the news, her hands gripping the blanket next to her a little tighter.

“So what’s the plan, Admiral?”

“You’re to rendezvous with Task Force Omega in three hours at coordinates to be disclosed. Once you arrive at your first waypoint, you’ll then report to Commander Sengupta on the cruiser Guardian and await further orders before proceeding to Ceres.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Amira was about to throw up a salute when a look of concern came over her face. She tried to hide it but the admiral must’ve seen it.

“What is it, Commander?” she inquired.

“Actually, ma’am, I wonder… Do you think FACET will even send a fleet all? What if this is just another bluff?”

“I wish I could tell you. Just have your ship ready by the time I give the signal. Dismissed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Shit, she thought. Shit, shit, shit. Amira reached around in the dark with her feet until she found her shoes by the side of her bed. The moment it took her to tie up the laces gave her time to mull over the news. FACET ships most likely en route to Ceres, civilians dead, and at least one League battle group moving to intervene. Things had never been this tense with the rebels in her lifetime, maybe not even since her father had had his own command rather than an office back in Genesis. But there was no point trying to ask herself what he would do in this situation; it was her ship, her crew, her responsibility if things went wrong. Shit.

The CIC was just around the corner from her quarters. A pair of marines saluted as she approached the doors, which slid open to admit her.

“Commander on deck!” one of the guards shouted. Officers shuffled all over the CIC to salute as well.

“As you were,” Amira said. “How’s my ship?” Major Stephen Chandler dropped his salute and stepped away from the holo projector console at the center of the room. Only three hours into his eight-hour watch, he didn’t look haggard yet, but Amira knew he would by the time this was all sorted out. If, she thought, correcting herself.

“A little early, aren’t you, Commander?” he replied.

“We’ve got new orders,” Amira said. “The admiral just informed me that we’re to meet up with the Guardian and make our way to Ceres. There’s been an attack on a FACET civilian ship and they may have sent a fleet out to respond.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“I want this ship ready to depart in two hours. Our orders will come in three.”

“Alright, everyone,” Chandler said, “you heard the commander! Get on the horn with your sections!”

“I’ll make the general announcement, Major.” Her mouth was dry when she picked up the handset for the ship-wide intercom.

 

***

 

Valeca would be leaving home in just a few minutes and it still hadn’t sunk in yet. Her bag were almost all packed. According to the forms Colonel Rice had given her at the recruiting office, she wouldn’t be allowed to take much anyways, so she stuffed what little she could in an old duffel bag she’d found: a pair of socks, a little tablet filled with family photos, a few t-shirts. All she hoped for was that they’d let her keep it all. Without a single tie remaining to home, who would she be anymore but just another name on a roster?

The soft knocking of her stepmother’s hand sounded on the bedroom door behind her. She stuffed the tablet down under her shirts even though she knew she shouldn’t feel embarrassed.

“Can I come in?” she asked.

“Sure,” Valeca answered. It’d been hard in the last few days to talk to her parents about anything, especially about her sudden decision to enlist. Even if they didn’t understand why, at least they knew she understood. Small comforts like that one were all Valeca had anymore.

“I know it’s hard for you, sweetie, but both of us know you’re going to do well in training. You’ve always been a smart girl, you know.” Valeca was still too uncomfortable to respond to her mother’s words, just to her presence.

“I’m not sure what to take,” she said. “Most everything I’d need’ll just be given to me at training.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Jessa put an arm around Valeca, who even shocked herself that she almost recoiled at the touch. “Whatever you need there, we’ll send it to you. The same goes if you bring something you don’t need; just send it back and your father and I will pay for shipping.”  She still couldn’t find it within herself to try and keep a conversation with her mother. It was as if there was not too little to say but too much in such a short amount of time. How could she tell her all about the way it had made her feel to know that she could follow after her brother? Or how much it terrified her that she might actually do it? How many hours would she need to explain to her father that despite the fact that he could’ve arranged a cushy civil service position for her or even an exemption from the newly initiated draft, she still chose to put herself in harm’s way?

“I’m just… Not scared, really. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain…” She found herself in a firm hug. It surprised her more than anything, yet it felt oddly comforting.

“Your brother felt the same way when he left, honey.”

“Yeah, and look where that got him,” she said as her fingers, still buried in shirts, started stroking the edge of the tablet gently. Another one stood on her nightstand, projecting pictures of herself as a child. Her heart felt like it was being crushed as the next picture to appear on its screen was one of her and Carriuss.

She remembered this picture: she was twelve years old then, making him eighteen. Her whole family had gone to a museum that displayed reconstructions of old spaceships. Valeca had just started taking an interest in aerospace engineering at the time and had begged her father to let her go. Finally, they’d all had a day when her father wasn’t busy with Council business and Carriuss wasn’t off at school. To this day, she looked back on that as an almost singular happy day in between so many horrible ones.

It had been before her brother had enlisted in the Fleet as a pilot, just as she herself had done a few days ago without fully comprehending why. Before he’d been pulled into operations in the Belt which he couldn’t talk about without security clearance. Before he’d been declared killed in action against a separatist group whose members couldn’t even stop fighting long enough to decide what to call themselves. And now here she was, preparing to jump into the same situation that had taken him, when he was still a burned-out and bitter young refugee who’d fought so hard and failed to fit in with his new upper-class colonial life. Instead, the disconnect had eaten at him continually until he couldn’t stand it anymore; until he believed that his only place was in the peace-keeping fleet, complete with all its discipline and supposed love of justice.

It felt like ages that Valeca took in that picture and all the memories that flowed through her mind with it, but it had really been gone in an instant, replaced with another: Carriuss’ graduation with honors from the Fleet Academy. She hated that her mother would be here when tears threatened to overwhelm her now. For her part, Jessa Florn must’ve had enough intuition about her stepdaughter’s mindset to know where her thoughts were taking her.

“Now don’t go thinking about that,” she said, her voice reaching barely above a whisper. “He’s still right here with us… That reminds me, I’ve got something else you might want to take along.” Her stepmother left the room briefly and returned holding a thin chain with a little piece of metal dangling from it. It was dull gray and smoothed into a hexagon with a sort of rubber guard around the edges.

“What is it?” Valeca asked.

“It’s a little something your brother sent me when he was in training. He said it was a chunk of armor plating from an Arkitect. I think you should take it with you.”

“I’d be embarrassed, mom. What if someone saw it and asked about it?”

“Just wear it under your shirt, honey. I know you don’t want to, but it would mean a lot to me. And to your brother.”

Reluctantly, Valeca took the necklace from her stepmother and looked it over. The material appeared to be similar to the kind of carbon synthetics used in the Arkitect she piloted at work, only something about it looked finer and sturdier than what she was accustomed to seeing. Some kind of stealth material, perhaps? She didn’t know enough about the engineering side of things to know why she suspected that; maybe just because she knew it was military. Either way, her brother had sent it and that meant enough. The metal was cool against her skin as she slipped the chain over her neck and tucked the little medallion at its end into her shirt.

“Thank you,” Jessa said with a smile.

“You’re welcome.” Valeca could hardly get the words to come out as memories of her brother started to come back, sinking into her heart from that small token her stepmother had just given her.

“Now don’t be scared. Just remember who you’re fighting for: all of us, and so many other colonists who aren’t nearly as lucky as we are to be living here. They’re all people just like you and me who only want to govern themselves like we do. Remember that and you’ll do fine.”

The pair embraced tightly for a moment, both trying their best to fight back tears which threatened to undo all Valeca’s attempts at being stoic about leaving.

“Do you have everything?” her stepmother whispered into Valeca’s ear.

“I guess so. Like you said, you’ll send anything I don’t need.”

“Then I guess it’s time to go. I’ll take your things out-” Valeca held up a hand and shook her head.

“No, mom. I’ve got it.” She couldn’t help but feel that she had to look strong now even though she wasn’t, and even though she knew she didn’t have to impress anyone here. That would come later, once she’d started her training.

The two of them entered the living room, Valeca with a duffel bag on her shoulder and Jessa following behind to shut the door.

“All ready to go?” said her father. He was already standing near the door.

“Looks like it,” Valeca replied.

“Okay, then. Your ride’s waiting on the block roof, since there are so many other recruits to pick up from here. Something like thirty or forty, I think they said.” Their apartment was a fairly large unit near the top of one of Destiny’s many mass housing blocks. Not only could each one house upwards of thirty thousand people at a time, but the roof was large enough to accommodate all kinds of civilian traffic, including the various smaller troop carriers used by the Colonial Fleet. “Would you like to just say goodbye here, or should we follow up to the landing pad?”

“Here’s fine with me,” she said. “Doesn’t make much difference.”

“Alright. Well in that case, take care, honey.” He reached over and embraced her. It was unusual for them to hug at all, but these were unusual circumstances.

“Kick some Leaguer ass for me, will you?” he whispered with a grin.

“I’ll try my best, dad.”

“You’ll do better than try. See you again, and don’t forget to write.”

“I won’t.” Grabbing her duffel bag in one hand and placing it over her shoulder, she reached out the other towards the touchpad on the door. It opened onto the hallway, where an elevator waited at the opposite end.

“Hopefully the UEL doesn’t go too easy on us, otherwise this wouldn’t be fun at all.”

“Bye, sweetie!” Jessa called to her. “See you again soon!”

“Take care,” her father added.

With a final wave, Valeca was gone. The lift at the end of the hallway would take her up to the housing block’s roof. A fleet officer was waiting up there with the other volunteers from her housing block; she didn’t know how many but guessed there were plenty more like her who’d joined up in the wake of the attack. Eleven floors flew by before she’d had time to think. Two metal doors pulled back to reveal a crowd of people on the roof and what was a rare sight anywhere, but especially here in Destiny: a massive cruiser floated in the zero-G region along the colony’s lengthwise axis, itself dwarfed by the structure around it.

Valeca knew this ship. The Gerard de Jen-class was the Fleet’s new heavy cruiser, of which only a handful had been produced so far. If reports from the Belt were to be believed, one of them had been sent out to Ceres with the frigate that got destroyed. It made sense that this would be the case, since it would’ve been impossible for even two or three escort ships to take on a League carrier with any success. Everything she’d read about this ship class had left her increasingly impressed; now the real thing hung in the air above her, its 385-meter length looking from her perspective almost as small as the one in her room looked from her bed.

Further bringing home the sheer size of the battleship were the personnel carriers zipping between some of the surrounding housing blocks and the cruiser above. She’d never owned a model of a Lancet troop transport but she knew enough: room for around fifty people inside and plenty of equipment. It was her first time riding on real Fleet hardware; that decommissioned Ark carrier didn’t count.

Her pondering ended abruptly when she heard someone call her name.

“Alright, everyone, last call for Valeca Florn! Is Valeca Florn here?” The speaker was a tough-looking woman who couldn’t have been much older than Valeca was. It hadn’t occurred to her until now that she’d been late.

“Yes, ma’am!” she blurted out. Her bag had never left her shoulder so she was already prepared to board her ride. She began to push her way up from the back of the crowd.

“Good thing you’re here,” the officer said, “or you’d be spending the next few months in prison for desertion instead of the best ship in the whole fleet. Now get in there!” The Lancet’s interior was dark and cramped, with only a few seats left at the back. A soldier took her bag and tossed in behind a cargo net full of other memories from home. Buckling her safety harness in front of her, she took one last look out the cargo ramp at the nicest home she’d known, even since coming to Destiny. In spite of her attempts at optimism, she feared it would be a long time before she ever saw it again.

Some of the trainees were trying their best to make small talk around her but she wasn’t in the mood. She found herself thinking of Aeje again, how he’d tried so hard to put on a brave face when she left. A little indignation had crept into her mind then, wondering where he got off feeling the need to be braver than she was. It’s not like he was going to war. But that feeling had shocked her more than anything; he knew less than she did about what the next two years or more of her life would entail, and she reasoned that’s exactly what had scared him. His closest friend could end up over half a solar system away, where anything from enemy weapons to orbiting debris to radiation sickness made life itself cheaper than the hardware that protected it.

The possibility scared her too, but not enough to make her turn away. There was still no guarantee that she’d be deployed to the Belt and even if she was, the chances of running into League forces in an area that massive was probably slim to none. Besides, it wasn’t the League she was afraid of: it was herself. Failure out there would most likely mean death for people she didn’t even know yet. At worst, it could mean a Leaguer invasion of the Outer Colonies. Then everyone she’d ever known would be in danger. She wouldn’t let that happen as long as she was alive.

Valeca chuckled to herself at that thought. What could one pilot do in the face of so much destruction, especially now when actual fighting wasn’t even assured yet? She looked around briefly to see if anyone was staring at her, wondering what she was doing laughing at a time like this, but no one looked back. Then the inside of the Lancet’s hold darkened and she noticed that the officer from outside had taken her seat at the end of the row opposite her.

“Alright, trainees,” she yelled over growing engine noise, “prepare for lift-off! Anyone not buckled up in five seconds will have to get hosed off the cargo ramp.” Valeca knew the Lancet was built for rapid troop insertion but the kind of acceleration necessary for missions like that was something you really had to experience to believe. Construction Arks were one thing—built for easy maneuverability in zero-G but rarely needing to build up too much speed—but a transport with around fifty people, all their gear, and another twenty meters of length on an Ark was another. The Fleet had always gotten the best toys, and now she was on her way to one of the newest of these. There were no windows in the Lancet’s hold but that didn’t matter: the image of that cruiser floating above her in the center of the colony cylinder, its huge bulk dwarfed by the curved walls of her old home, stuck in her mind like a thorn.

That ship would be her home now, for better or worse. Valeca knew she’d have to give “better” her best shot if she planned to survive this, whatever it was.

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