Chapter Two

Four days and a series of course correction burns later, the FCS Gerard de Jen and its little battle group had now settled into a high orbit around Ceres. Admiral Suryawijaya had noted the rising stress among his crew, from the handful of men and women in the CIC to the over five hundred throughout the rest of the vessel. They knew the situation could get tense, even violent, in only a moment if only one person wasn’t on top of things.

Diplomatic relations with the United Earth League had been fairly contentious for as long as he could remember—it was still not Earth’s intention to give up the extremely lucrative trade with the Jovian colonies, not to mention commercial traffic in the Belt—but both fleets had respected the current stalemate for decades. Still, Suryawijaya knew his duty. FACET citizens had been killed out here, in contended but still League-administered space, and it was the responsibility of he and the men and women under his command to protect their citizens. He was not about to let a foreign bureaucrat, much less an enemy officer, decide what was in the best interest of his people.

Suryawijaya and Shan stood and watched with rapt attention as the main holo-projector and other displays showed Ceres looming in shadow up ahead, a mere crescent of reflected sunlight still visible on its left-hand hemisphere. Outward from the asteroid colony was the League carrier, about thirty thousand klicks from the wreckage of PRO-2715. Its bulk was impressive, but not overly intimidating for someone who understood its tactical limitations as well as Suryawijaya did.

Though the Fleet had never engaged League ships for as long as he’d been alive, the breadth of its intelligence capabilities would likely surprise even the Earth government’s planners in Genesis. Knowing that the latest intel stated that Bulwark-class carriers like the one before him were outdated and too difficult to maneuver to pose much of a threat to swifter vessels like the two Dodge-class frigates on his flanks made him feel confident enough, should any hostilities break out. As long as the commander on the other end wasn’t a complete idiot, Suryawijaya wouldn’t have to worry about it regardless.

Onscreen, a cluster of much smaller ships could be seen floating among the wreckage, some stationary while a few others made their way to and from the carrier.

“See here, Admiral?” said Miss Maren at Communications. “League search and rescue ships.”

“They have no right,” Suryawijaya replied with only a tinge of anger apparent in his voice, but there was much more of his characteristic temper under the surface. “Those are our citizens, not some science project for them to poke at. Captain Shan?”

“Sir?” the younger man responded.

“Put the Ark wing on alert; I want Squad One in their cockpits ASAP. Miss Maren, put me in contact with the League carrier.”

“Yes, sir,” they both said in succession. While Shan reached for another handset nearby, Maren could be seen working with her console to find a common frequency over which she could communicate with the enemy vessel. Though such contact with League Fleet ships was rare, it wasn’t without precedent and as such, both militaries enforced a small spectrum of audiovisual frequencies which the other side would always be listening to just in case.

“Come in, unidentified UEL vessel, this is the FACET Colonial Ship Gerard De Jen. I repeat, come in, unidentified UEL vessel, over.” There was only a short pause before a voice responded from nearly fifty thousand klicks away.

“This is the commander of the Earth Fleet Ship Bulwark. I’m going to have to ask you to leave immediately, Gerard De Jen. This is an official League investigation and as such, it’s out of your jurisdiction.” Suryawijaya wasn’t surprised by the other man’s flippancy, but he resented it regardless.

“Put him through on my handset, Miss Maren.” He moved over to his command seat and grabbed the handset out its holder on the armrest. “Bulwark, this is Admiral Haram Suryawijaya of the FACET Colonial Fleet. Kindly advise as to why your men have priority in this investigation when everyone killed in the attack was one of ours.”

“That’s what we’re trying to determine here, Admiral. Now do us all a favor and withdraw immediately.”

There had been plenty of rumors going around in the last week about who could’ve pulled off an attack like this one. Even some members of the Council had been quoted saying they heavily suspected League involvement, though always with the disclaimer that they weren’t at liberty to divulge their sources. Without FACET personnel in the area, it was anybody’s guess as to how much of the evidence from the blast remained intact and how much of it would ever be disclosed by the League once their “investigation” was complete. Suryawijaya hadn’t come all this way to be sent back home, and especially not when there was the possibility of outgunning this League ship should things escalate.

“We have just as much an interest in this as you do. Either we combine forces to move the investigation along more efficiently, or you give us equal access to all your findings so we can report back to the families affected without having to wait on a signature from some Earth bureaucrat.”

“I’m afraid I can’t allow that, Admiral. Our findings will be classified until the investigation is complete, and that goes for League personnel as well. I can’t justify sharing classified information with a foreign military; surely, you can understand that.”

“What I don’t understand,” Suryawijaya said tersely, “is how you could have the balls to act like you don’t already know who did this.”

“What are you suggesting? That my men would attack a civilian ship?”

“It seems to be a logical conclusion. Name any Belter group who’d dare to do the same in League-protected space.”

“This is your last warning, Admiral: withdraw at once or I give the order to fire.”

“We don’t want a fight, and I’m fairly certain you don’t either. Just don’t interfere with our personnel and you won’t get one.” Suryawijaya turned to Shan next after muting the receiver on his handset. “Give the order, Captain: Lieutenant Wahila and her squad are to proceed to within two klicks of the debris field and wait for further instructions.” He could see the nervousness on his XO’s face. It was clear now that things were getting worse and even though Admiral Suryawijaya had told the truth in saying he didn’t want a fight, something about all this felt inexorable.

“Are you sure, Admiral? What if the Earth vessel fires on them?”

“Give the order, Captain.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied reluctantly. Going back to his handset, he put the pilots’ ready room on the line. “Lieutenant Wahila, this is the XO. You and your squad are to proceed to within two klicks of the freighter debris field. Should you encounter UEL search and rescue ships, do not engage. I repeat, do not engage.” A single bead of sweat ran down the captain’s left side, causing him to shiver involuntarily as he put the handset up again.

 

***

 

Lieutenant Cam Wahila had been waiting for this order ever since the Gerard de Jen’s task force had left Ganymede. Despite a prior full tour in the Trojan Asteroid Node, she hadn’t seen more action than routine patrols. Now was her chance to prove herself, possibly even in combat with UEL Peregrine fighters. It was something she and many other Ark pilots not-so-secretly looked forward to, even while their Fleet’s commanders sought ways to avoid it. She’d always suspected that an Ark would be more than a match for the small, lightly armed space superiority fighters in use by the League for almost thirty years, and the thought that she might finally get to test her hypothesis pleased her.

“Copy that, XO,” she said over her own handset in the pilots’ ready room. Placing it back in its wall-mounted holder, she turned to her four squadmates who stood around in their flight suits. “You hear that? ‘Do not engage’, he said. I guarantee you it’s not one of us who shoots first, just you watch. Alright, let’s move out!” The group made their way down the corridor to the launch deck, a massive space that housed repair and arming facilities for all fifteen of the Gerard de Jen’s combat-model Arkitects, also known by their present Fleet designation as the Wasp.

As ordered, five of them stood ready on massive elevators which led to the ship’s linear catapults. Each was a humanoid robot around fifteen meters tall, painted in standard dark purple and black, which made for effective camouflage in space while also being distinctive in contrast to the League’s customary blue-and-white. Though based around the flight systems of predecessors to the League’s own fighters, the Ark’s frame and compliment of RCS thrusters gave it not only much more maneuverability than a Peregrine, but also much more armaments: a railgun assault rifle which fired bursts of 100 mm slugs at six times the speed of sound, several arrays of autocannons, and two batteries of anti-vehicle micro-missiles for anything the other two weapons systems can’t take out.

After years of combat against separatist groups and smugglers in the Belt and Exterior Colonies, the Colonial Fleet’s combat variant Arkitects had undergone more testing than many of the battleships that carried them.

Lieutenant Wahila’s squad disengaged the magnetic soles on their boots and jumped off the flight deck in zero-gravity, landing with practiced precision on a gantry at the mech’s chest level. They each swung into the open cockpit of one of the robots, then began start-up procedures. It was a fairly simplified process due to full computer network integration with the Gerard de Jen’s Flight Control, and often the most complicated part was just adjusting the chest restraints on the pilot seat. Too tight and your pressurised flight suit wouldn’t be able to compensate adequately for the g-forces involved in even simple maneuvers; too loose and a hard retro-burn would leave you with welts on your shoulders for two weeks, if not a pair of broken clavicles.

As she reached down to buckle her chest restraints, the cockpit’s panoramic display came alive with readouts and an image of the flight deck.

“Flight, this is One Leader standing by for launch,” she said over her helmet’s intercom.

“Copy that, One Leader,” came the reply from the Flight Control Officer. “Engaging elevator.”

A metallic groaning sound resonated through the cockpit as the elevator descended into the launch tubes below the flight deck. Once it had descended fully, five large conveyor belts began pulling the Wasps into their respective launch tubes. Each was illuminated by a row of lights which terminated in darkness and opened onto space beyond. A moment later, Wahila and her squadmates were secured inside the launch tubes with a set of massive hatches secured behind them.

“Stand by for linear catapult,” said the voice from Flight Control. “Good hunting.”

With the steady push and pull of magnetic acceleration, the squad’s mechs launched out from the heavy cruiser and towards the debris field at high speed before engaging their thrusters, taking them even faster towards their target.

“Squad One, form up on me!” called Wahila over her team intercom. Moving at over six hundred per hour, the four other Wasps in Squad One fell in behind Lieutenant Wahila in a modified phalanx: squad leader taking point, with escorts to the above, below, right and left rear. It was the most basic space combat formation for covering as many angles as possible on approach. There was no need to show off all the Fleet’s tricks in the first encounter; only one.

***

On the bridge of the Earth Fleet Ship Bulwark, Admiral Nicolas Hunter was incredulous. His carrier’s sensor arrays had picked up the FACET battle group the day before, but that wasn’t in and of itself out of the ordinary. As CO of the United Earth League’s Asteroid Belt Fleet, his standing orders had always been to not engage at all costs; so far, he and the men and women under his command had enjoyed a reciprocal relationship in that regard. And yet here were three colonial ships with more combat vessels on approach, and a commander who had apparently thrown custom aside in favor of pointless bravado.

“Arkitects?” he asked rhetorically. “What’s he think he’s doing, sending out construction equipment?” The admiral turned to his Executive Officer, Major Lennart, a blond in her thirties who’d always struck him as more the Marine sergeant type than a Fleet officer. “Put the point-defense gunners on stand-by and bring the alert fighters in closer to the wreckage.” He took up the handset on his console again and addressed the colonial admiral opposite him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Tell your Arkitects to withdraw or I will give the order to fire!” There was no response from the enemy battle group.

Crackling with interference, a voice came over the intercom from one of the Bulwark‘s search and rescue craft out in the debris.

Bulwark, this is Foxtrot Eight. We have five enemy contacts inbound at high speed. Please advise, over.”  Another crewman aboard the search and rescue ship could be heard cursing in the background over the intercom. Admiral Hunter picked up another handset from the Communication Officer’s station.

“Foxtrot Eight, this is Bulwark CIC. Maintain present course and do not engage hostiles. Repeat, maintain present course and do not engage hostiles, over.”

You just had to do it, didn’t you? he thought.

 

***

 

Gerard de Jen, One Leader: Squad One now in position, awaiting instructions, over,” Lieutenant Wahila called over her intercom.

“Copy that, One Leader,” came the reply from the Flight Officer. “Maintain position and do not engage, over.” Another face appeared on the lieutenant’s panoramic display: Ensign Ceram, who was currently taking up her rear left.

“What do you say we have some fun, Lieutenant?” He’d always been an impatient one.

“Like what, Ensign?” she asked.

“Let’s buzz those search and rescue ships a little. Nothing too close, just to wake ’em up.”

“We have our orders.” She could see the anxious look on his face, like a dog straining to be set loose.

It was a tempting proposition. For as long as she’d been alive, the Colonial Fleet had been collectively itching for a fight with the Leaguers. Now might be their chance to finally see some action and not entirely without provocation, either.

“Just keep your finger off that trigger,” Wahila replied. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t want to give the League ships a scare too. Her feet depressed the Wasp’s acceleration pedals and like that, she was off in a thrill of g-forces. As her seat back receded slightly to accommodate the pressure, she could see that the rest of her squad was picking up speed as well but struggling to keep pace with her modified command unit. She brought the pedals back a bit to fall into position at the point of their formation. After an initial burn, her squad was fast approaching the group of search and rescue craft stationed near the freighter debris. They would be nearing five kilometers out soon, and then it would be time for the trick.

“Prepare split on my mark,” Wahila announced over the squad frequency. “Three, two, one, mark!” With that, all five Arks peeled off in different directions at high speed, their forward momentum carrying them forward as maneuvering thrusters pushed them hard perpendicular to their initial approach vector. Once forward velocity was overcome by perpendicular thrust, the Arks would set off on a large curve back towards their target. It was a basic formation for overwhelming and surrounding a much slower enemy, in this case the small and unwieldy League ships.

The first pass was close. It took an experienced eye to tell when another ship’s pilot was getting skittish, and Wahila could see the tell-tale signs of it in more than a few of the small craft now below and behind her: little jets of RCS gases pushed them away from their position and closer to the debris. She could tell she wasn’t exactly dealing with idiots here. It was a smart move to bring themselves into the debris field, where it would be just as dangerous to the Arks as it was to them, forcing the Colonial pilots to find another intimidation tactic that didn’t involve high speed maneuvers through floating chunks of metal and ore. The only problem with this plan was that Wahila and her squadmates hadn’t come all this way to take no for answer.

“Prepare for second pass and split on my mark,” she called to the other four Arks. By now, they were already in line for another coordinated attack run. “Three, two, one, mark!” They broke off again just like before, only a muted thud over Wahila’s earpiece told her that something had gone wrong this time.

“Dammit!” Ceram exclaimed.

“Ceram! What happened?”

“I just clipped it! I didn’t mean to, I swear!” As her Ark pulled around into its turn high above the search and rescue ships, she could see combusting gases streaming away from one of them as it spiraled helplessly through the debris. Panic crept up on her as the realization sunk in that her plan had backfired.

“You’ve done it now, you stupid bastard!” she shouted, but she knew it was her own pride that had led them to this.

It would now be a fight for all their lives.

 

***

 

The explosion of Foxtrot Eight’s right rear engine could be seen clearly on the Bulwark’s displays.

“Foxtrot Eight, do you read me?” said the Communications Officer. “Come in, Foxtrot Eight, it looks like you’re venting gas, over.” The voice on the other end sounded strained and was slightly garbled by interference.

Bulwark, we’ve been hit! It must’ve been that enemy Ark!”

“Foxtrot Eight, did the enemy vessel fire on you?”

“Can’t tell for sure, but we’ve been hit pretty bad.” Admiral Hunter had had enough. He stepped away from the communications console and took up his customary position near the CIC’s central holo-projector. It was a large platform in the middle of the room,  featuring a large spherical projection surrounded above by monitors and tactical readouts. In the center of the projection was a tiny image of the Bulwark, encased in a sphere representing the ship’s sensor range, large enough in diameter to include both Ceres at the ship’s rear and the FACET battle group to the fore. Around the image of the carrier was a smaller red sphere and a series of lines, representing lines of effective fire from all the ship’s various weapons batteries. Surely, the colonial commanders realized what they were going up against in challenging an Arbiter-class carrier, not to mention its impressive compliment of Peregrine fighters. Or perhaps this Admiral Suryawijaya really did have that much faith in his ships’ capabilities. Either way, Admiral Hunter intended to finish this before it escalated further.

“This is getting out of hand, Major,” he said to Lennart. “Pull back the search and rescue craft and prepare to fire a warning shot on the lead FACET ship.” Over the CIC’s intercom, the voices of the Bulwark’s alert fighter pilots could be heard as well, observing the incident from their defensive perimeter a few klicks away from the debris field.

“What the hell was that?” shouted one.

“It was Foxtrot Eight!” came the reply from another. “They fired on ‘em!”

“Stay calm, boys,” said a more experienced voice: it was Captain Marcus, commander of the carrier’s air group. “We don’t know-”

The first pilot’s words were lost as his mic overloaded and cut out. Captain Marcus could be heard shouting, trying to interject, but his voice was swallowed up too in the rattle of railgun fire as it reverberated through the first pilot’s airframe. A heat indicator on the CIC’s main holo-projector signalled an explosion; in its wake, one of the enemy FOF tags disappeared.

Hunter’s hands both tightened into fists where they rested on the edges of the holo-projector. As a few gasps arose from the other officers around the deck, Captain Marcus’ voice could be heard over the radio.

“You’ve killed us all!” he yelled desperately. “You’ve killed us all!” The CIC speakers automatically reduced their output volume to compensate for the bursts of railgun fire that came across all the ship’s Peregrine frequencies.

“Battle stations,” snapped Hunter. “Launch all Peregrine wings and get me the first available firing solution on those main cannons.”

***

Wahila’s voice was frantic on the radio.

Gerard De Jen, hostiles have opened fire! We just lost Ceram!”

Miss Maren turned to a display at her left which monitored all ID tags in range of the heavy cruiser’s sensor arrays. It was as she’d feared: the tag for Ceram’s Wasp was greyed out, marking it as unresponsive. Could he possibly have just collided with debris? Among a slew of horrible options, at least it hopefully wouldn’t provoke a war.

“Are you sure, Lieutenant?” she called back to Wahila. “Are you absolutely sure the Earth pilots fired?”

“Affirmative! I saw it all!”

This is it, Maren thought as she turned to face her commanding officer.

“You heard her, Admiral. What do you advise?” His temper was at the surface now, but not out of control. If anything, from what Maren had observed before on their last tour together, the adrenaline made him even more focused; it made a hard man into a harder one, quicker on his feet when tough calls needed to be made. Good thing too, because this was the toughest call a FACET officer had faced in decades. Sharp eyes narrowed as he surveyed the interior of the CIC. Everyone was in position; the time for action was now.

“Give the order for weapons free. I want all our pilots in the air, and have all point-defense batteries prepare to fire on enemy fighters. And get the Warrine and Ricol on the horn: they’re to take up flanking positions on the enemy carrier.” He reached for his handset and switched it to broadcast his message throughout the whole ship. “This is the admiral. All hands to battlestations. I repeat, all hands to battlestations. Prepare for incoming fire.”

 

***

 

“Good work, people,” said the voice over the intercom. “Let’s bring it in.”

“Roger that,” Valeca replied. She let out a big breath and sat back as much as her pilot seat’s chest restraints would allow. It had been another day of construction out at Longevity colony cylinders. The massive structure still looked like a half-clothed skeleton as it gleamed dully in the light of the distant Sun; almost as bright on its surface was the reflected light from Jupiter on the opposite side of the cylinder.

Using an array of joysticks and pedals, Valeca steered her Arkitect toward the transport ship that would take her and the other workers back to Destiny. It was a refurbished Fleet surplus carrier from back when the Alliance had first begun using mechs for space combat. Accordingly, the transport was much smaller than anything the Fleet used now, but it met the needs of a ten-person construction detail just fine.

The docking procedure was entirely automated: too much could go wrong with a human pilot trying to guide a seventeen-meter-high machine into a nineteen-meter-high receiving bay. Valeca sat back as the computer onboard her Arkitect went through its RCS maneuvers in conjunction with its companion computer on the transport ship. A dull thud told her that the magnetic clamps on the mech’s back were now sealed. Shortly thereafter, a set of thick doors closed in front of her and secured the machine into the docking bay.

“Florn, confirm docking, over,” came the voice on the intercom again.

“Roger that, Florn, docking confirmed, over,” she replied; another day done.

Valeca unbuckled her seat restraints and powered down the Arkitect for travel back to Destiny. As the panoramic displays inside the cockpit faded and turned off, the mech’s main hatch popped open. She scanned the cockpit one more time before pulling herself out of the seat, into the weightless docking bay and over her mech’s head towards a door that led back into the transport’s interior. Once there, she’d finally be able to take off her helmet again and get some much-needed rest on the hour-long flight back to her home colony.

The airlock was a simple affair with two hatches and a pressurizing vent for breathable air. All she had to do was open the first hatch, secure it, then wait for the ship’s computer to verify hard seal and begin pumping in air. When that was completed, the second door would be unlocked and free to open. Valeca tried to do this as quickly as she could, though the pressurization still took about twenty seconds and door seal confirmation added another ten.

Soon, it was over and she was back inside the transport again. Already she could hear the chatter from the few other pilots who’d already docked again with their transport, who were now gathered in the rec room. It wasn’t much—just a few holo-screens, a row of vending machines, and some scattered tables and chairs—but it was all they had to keep themselves occupied on the flights to and from the job site, especially on the occasional long hauls out to L2 and beyond.

As usual, the holo-screens were all showing the latest news from Ceres. The last anyone had heard, the League had initiated an investigation of the attack; meanwhile, FACET’s own fleet had ships inbound to conduct their own. Many people had feared the worst in the last four days, while a vocal but growing minority took the possibility of conflict with the UEL as a way to assert their rights of self-government against Earth encroachment. It all made Valeca sick.

As she was taking off her helmet and flight suit, she could hear shouting from the rec room, urging the other pilots to quiet down; it must be another announcement. She made it into the room just as she was pulling off her boots.

“…live to President Derak in Destiny,” said a female news anchor as Valeca stumbled in to see the others gathered around the holo-screens in silence. For the second time this week, the President stood before the nation with terrible news.

“Citizens of the Free Alliance, it pains me to have to address you like this at this time. As you know, the Colonial Fleet dispatched several ships to the Cererean Belt sector shortly after the attack on PRO-2175. I have just been informed that this task force has come under attack from an Earth military vessel, resulting in the destruction of the frigate Warrine, along with several of our Arkitects. While the Fleet is still in the process of determining the number of casualties suffered, there is no question in any mind that this attack was clearly initiated by the United Earth League in order to prevent our own investigation of PRO-2175’s wreckage. Such an act cannot and should not be tolerated by a sovereign state. That is why I urge the Council to approve unanimously a declaration of war against the United Earth League and all her allies. Make no mistake: this kind of unprovoked attack on our forces may be called an attack on all of us colonists, whether in the Exterior Territories or the Interior, and the sooner the UEL understands that we are not only autonomous entities but also human beings like themselves, the sooner we will experience peace in this system. For such colonies whose citizens would prefer to abstain from fighting, they may do so, provided they cut off all correspondence with UEL agents, either military or civil, and do not offer resistance to our own forces. All those who fail to do so will be regarded as enemy sympathizers and will be dealt with accordingly. This is not an easy decision, but I make it as your president and hope for your continued support in the defense of our freedoms. Thank you and goodnight.”

As soon the speech ended, the rec room was engulfed once more in loud conversations.

“I always figured the UEL’d get us in this sort of bullshit!”

“The CDC’s been talking about this for years and now it finally happens!”

“Yeah, and who says the CDC wasn’t pushing for it? You know they’ve been looking for an excu-”

“You think this was some sort of inside job? Are you kidding me?”

“The League’s already been pushing too hard on the Belt and now they try it on us.”

“Of course they’d come after us next!”

“Damn cowards, that’s what they are.”

It all made Valeca want to scream. Throwing her boots aside, she walked as quickly as she could to the bathroom; thankfully, it was empty when she got there. Her hands were shaking as she grabbed hold of the sink and stared at her reflection in the mirror. The face that looked back was her own, but there was something different about it. The appearance was the same, yet behind it was a feeling she hadn’t encountered in her whole life. A different emotion that urged her on to something she’d never had any will to do, and in fact had denied not four days ago. It was as if the Valeca Florn she thought she’d known had suddenly fallen away to be replaced by one new and unanticipated, yet she somehow recognized it as herself. This new Valeca was determined, yet nervous; enraged, yet controlled. She didn’t know exactly how things would work out for her in the future, only that she had made up her mind.

She also knew exactly where to go first thing when she got off this transport.

 

***

 

The familiar office near Liberty Plaza was surprisingly empty when she walked in. This time, Colonel Rice was seated behind his desk, looking over holo-projected images of enlistees and their respective applications. He sat up straight upon seeing Valeca enter, then rose to shake her hand.

“Good to see you again,” the colonel said. “Valeca, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied firmly.

“Here to tell me again how you want nothing to do with me?”

“No, sir; I’m here to enlist.” The man’s eyebrows cocked up a bit at her response.

“Well, what changed your mind? Here; take a seat.” The colonel shuffled back to his own chair while Valeca took the one in front of the desk.

“I want to feel like I’m doing my part in all this, no matter what happens out there. If it’s alright with you, sir, I’d like to request placement in a construction division.”

“And what makes you think you’d be best suited for that? Why not Flight School?”

“I’ve piloted Arkitects in colony construction for the last four years now. I can get you all the references you need, if it’ll help my application.”

“Relax,” the colonel said with a smile. “It’s not like I’d send you off to dig ditches in the Belt or something. You think I’d put someone like you in the Infantry?” Valeca’s relief was only tempered by her confusion. He couldn’t be referring to her father. What would his being a member of the Executive Council have to do with her piloting skills? Unless he meant Carriuss…

“Someone like me, sir?” she asked, puzzled.

“Well, you’re Carriuss Florn’s sister, aren’t you?” Her eyes widened with shock.

“You know… Knew him?”

“We served on the Madova together after he graduated from Flight School. He was a good pilot; I guess I assumed you’d have that in common.” As much as she hated to admit it, Valeca knew she was good, though she tried to be modest about it. Not the best, perhaps, but good. There would be no hiding that from the colonel when he got access to her work history. But how much could she really apply from working with a colony construction Ark to piloting a highly specialized model like a Wasp, especially in combat? Besides, the ideal job in her mind would be one far away from any potential fighting, but still useful to the overall war effort.

“Well, sir, if I don’t have to worry about going into the Infantry, then I’d like to go with my first request.”

“Don’t you think construction is a little… Well… Beneath you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that you could do so much more good as a combat pilot than as a grease monkey in some shipyard. The Fleet can never have too many pilots, especially ones with your skills. Besides, taking the easy way out just doesn’t seem to be the Florn way; it certainly wasn’t for your brother.”

“How likely is it that I’d end up on the front lines if things get worse with the League?”

“There are openings all over the colonies, including quite a few in the Home Defense Fleet. All I can do is send in your application and make my recommendations, but it’s up to Fleet Command to decide where you end up. There are even positions open for test pilot programs, though I can’t guarantee that you’ll qualify. Only you can do that for yourself, once you start training.” She’d seen schematics before—at least what details weren’t classified—but had never been able to try a simulator, much less the real thing. And as much as she wanted avoid combat if she could, the thought of taking a Wasp out thrilled her more than anything else she could imagine. “But one thing I can guarantee is that you won’t regret it. No matter what happens, no matter where you end up, you’ll know that you’re making a difference.”

“I’ll do it.”

“That’s what I thought,” the colonel said.

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