Last Flight of the Acheron
“Sandrine Hollande,” the Commandant intoned, the same affected pride in his voice that he’d had for every other surname from A through G.
I stepped briskly across the stage, the way we’d rehearsed it a dozen times, the brand new Space Fleet dress uniform tugging at my hips and armpits and too tight across my breasts. God willing, I’d never have to wear the damn thing again.
Commandant Burkhardt pressed the plaque into my hands, turning me towards the audience in the auditorium for just a moment before warmly shaking my hand and sending me on my way. With the lights in my eyes, they looked like faceless, formless ghosts. It had been a waste of time anyway; there was no one in the audience looking for me. The one person who should have been there was missing, just like always. I stalked away down the stairs and barely heard the plastic-faced moron announce “Roberto Hooten” before I was back at my seat a few rows from the front.
Ash was there beside me. I didn’t ask how Ashton Carpenter had managed to switch places with Melanie Hogan, even though the C’s were two rows in front of me; Ash always found a way. He looked like a recruiting poster, with his square jaw and honest, beaming smile, and he cradled his graduation certificate with all the pride and affection of a new parent. I looked down at mine and wondered when I’d get a chance to toss it in the recycler without being yelled at.
“My mother isn’t here, either,” he reminded me quietly.
I scowled at him, half because it was a bit tone-deaf under the circumstances, and half because he was right.
“It’s not the same,” I hissed in his ear. “Your family wouldn’t leave their housing block even if the Tahni aimed a nuke at it.” They’d also told him not to bother coming back when he left to attend the Academy, but that wouldn’t help make my point.
“Your mom would be here if she could,” he said, “and you know it.”
“All I know,” I shot back, getting a bit too loud but not caring, “is that I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t pushed me into it. The least she could do is pretend I mean a damn thing to her.”
I felt an irrational flare of anger and knew I had to get out of there before I said something to Ash that I’d regret. There were stares and embarrassed mumbles as I pushed my way to the end of the row of chairs and fast-walked down the aisle, past row after row of proud parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and family friends. Their faces blurred into one, then blurred more from the tears I had to blink away. I hated them. I hated them all.
When I could see clearly again, I realized I was standing out in the entrance hall to the auditorium. This building was new compared to the rest of the campus, built less than a century ago, but they’d tried to make its architecture fit in with the rest of what used to be the United States Air Force Academy, so the ceilings were high and majestic and what had passed for futuristic three centuries ago, and there was a lot of glass.
Through the three-meters-high windows that lined the front of the place, I could see the night sky above the Rockies. Back in the day, back when the men and women who’d left this place had flown atmospheric jets, the graduation ceremony had been conducted during the daytime, out in the athletic field. They’d shown us videos of it, of the blue and white uniforms and the newly-minted officers tossing their caps in the air.
There wasn’t a United States Air Force anymore, and there wasn’t really a United States in the sense there used to be, not since the Commonwealth government formed after the Sino-Russian War and the Crisis. And this school was for all branches of service: Space Fleet, Marines and Scouts. But I wished they’d kept things the way they used to be, with the cadets walking across the stage in the football stadium. If it had been on the field, everyone would have been farther away and I could have pretended she was in the stands.
I heard people beginning to file out of the exits to the auditorium, and I started looking around to see if there was someplace I could stand in a corner, in the shadows, out of the way. People wanted to make a big deal about thanking anyone in uniform since the war started midway through our junior year, and it irritated the shit out of me. It wasn’t like I wanted to die for them, or for the idea of the Commonwealth, and we hadn’t even been at war when I’d started here.
“Have you checked your ‘link?”
I nearly jumped out of my skin, and I didn’t know how Ash had managed to sneak up on me.
“Jeez, wear a damned bell or something,” I told him. “No, I haven’t checked it and I don’t give a damn if Mom has left a million messages, she shouldn’t be bothering you to…”
“Our assignments are up,” he interrupted, grinning.
I shut up and pulled my ‘link out of my back pocket. I’d had the notifications silenced and I hadn’t been wearing my ear bud during the ceremony, but the message was there, labelled “Commonwealth Space Fleet Military Personnel Center, Notice of Station.” My fingers were awkward on the screen as I pulled up the text and scrolled through the extraneous military bullshit till I got to the good part. The words stood out like they’d been handed down from on high by an archangel.
“Pilot, Assault Shuttle.”
“Holy crap,” I breathed, the first smile of the day passing over my face almost against my will. “I got it, Ash, I got the Jutland. I report to the Training and Indoctrination Center on Inferno in three weeks to get my ‘face jacks implanted and start flight training.”
I glanced up at him suspiciously, noticing his grin widening. Ash had a terrible poker-face. “What? What did you get?”
He didn’t say anything, just held up the display of his own ‘link, already zoomed in on the interesting part. It was identical to mine. All the misery and hate I’d been wallowing through was suddenly gone and I was laughing like an idiot as I hugged him, nearly knocking the ‘link out of his hand.
“I’m so glad you’re going to be there with me,” I said into his ear. I could suddenly feel his hands on my back and the warmth of his body against mine, and I slowly pulled away, smoothing down the front of my uniform.
“I, um…,” he stuttered and I tried not to laugh. We’d been friends since our freshman year and he still didn’t think I knew he was attracted to me. “By the time we’re done with training, the Jutland should be finished. I wonder if we’ll report to it at the Martian shipyards or it’ll come to us at Inferno?”
“You even think the war will still be going on by then?”
The voice had come from behind us and I didn’t have to turn to recognize the slight but ever-present plaintive whine.
“What, Warren?” I rounded on her, feeling the annoyance levels rising already. “Do you have some special line to the Office of the Joint Chiefs that the rest of us don’t?”
“Everyone knows this isn’t going to last,” Bethany Warren said, waving a hand dismissively. Her mouth had this permanent pinch to it that made her look like she’d bitten into something sour. “The Tahni don’t want another war any more than we do.”
“They have a funny way of showing it,” Ash told her, scowling. “They killed half a million people on the disputed colonies.”
“And we’ve launched a couple attacks on their outposts,” Warren said with a shrug. “And what else has happened? Nothing. It’s all going to blow over.”
“What did you draw, Bethany?” Ash asked her, with one of those surprising flares of perception that sometimes seemed to hit him out of the blue.
There was the slightest twitch, the barest hesitation before she answered.
“Third Brigade, Second Marine Drop Battalion,” she said, trying to sound proud but coming off as scared instead. Suddenly, I felt less annoyed at her and more sorry for her. She was going to be crammed into a battlesuit and dropped out of orbit onto enemy-occupied worlds.
“Maybe you’re right, Warren,” I conceded, lying easily, with years of practice. “Maybe it’ll all blow over before we even get out of training.”
* * *
Looking out from the Observation Bubble at Deimos Station six months later, staring at the twinkling lights that were the Martian shipyards, I remembered that conversation.
“How do you think 2nd Lt. Warren is doing?” I asked Ash, glancing over at him. He looked rakish with the sides of his head shaved for the ‘face jacks. I had them too, but I’d let the hair grow back over mine while he’d kept his bare.
“I checked on her status on the Mil-Web before we left Inferno,” he said, still watching Mars pass by beneath us. “She’s…adapting.”
I sniffed noncommittally, then checked the local time on my ‘link.
“The shuttle down to Lowell leaves in an hour,” I reminded him. “We should get to the port. We only have fifty hours of leave and I’d rather not waste it here when I could be hitting the clubs.”
“Sure, okay,” Ash said, stepping back from the window but still taking in the planet as Deimos raced towards the terminator.
We wore ship-boots with sticky plates, since the gravity on Deimos was light enough for a single, normal step to send you bounding off for the ceiling, and I felt ridiculous in them, having to pull up my foot purposefully and place it down again with each step, like a cat. We squeezed past a line of other military transients, mostly young Ensigns like us along with a few enlisted, all waiting their turn to look at Mars.
I felt my ‘link vibrate and checked the message, hoping it wasn’t orders to report to the Jutland early. I was eager to see the ship, but not at the expense of giving up my last leave planetside for the next six months. I read the words and swore loud enough for a passing Lieutenant to glare at me in disapproval.
“What?” Ash asked, stopping beside me.
“Read it,” I said, feeling the heat gathering under my scalp. I shoved the ‘link at him.
“’Report immediately to Admiral Gannett on the CSF Yorktown,’” he read off the screen, and I saw his wince. “Well crap. There goes Lowell.”
“You’ll come with me?” I asked him.
“Ah, shit,” he said, half a groan, squeezing his eyes shut. “I really don’t want to step into the middle of…”
“I don’t want to go alone,” I insisted, putting a pleading tone into my voice and a puppy-dog look into my eyes that I knew he wouldn’t be able to deny. Yeah, it wasn’t fair, but I was desperate.
“Okay,” he sighed. “Let’s go before I change my mind.”
There was a small, automated orbital transfer vehicle waiting for us at the port, programmed to leave the dock when it sensed my ID implant boarding. It didn’t object to Ash being there, and we didn’t wait more than two minutes for traffic control. I guess there were perks to being an Admiral…other than being a total shit to everyone with impunity.
The boat was small and didn’t seem like it could carry much fuel, but it didn’t spare the acceleration and it took us less than two hours to match orbits with the Midway. I could see her on the display screen in the shuttle’s cabin, a monolith a kilometer long, layered with armor and bristling with weaponry. She was a mountain floating in orbit, the newest and largest warship in the Commonwealth fleet, surrounded at the moment by the glowing spider-web of a temporary repair dock, loading her up with missiles, topping off reaction mass, recalibrating external sensors and putting the finishing touches on the Fleet Engineering Division’s latest masterpiece.
Her hangar bay swallowed up the orbital transfer vehicle like a bug, the loud and startling bangs of the maneuvering thrusters pushing us this way and that until a shuddering vibration signaled that we’d docked with one of the service airlocks. I flinched with each noise, each jolt, suddenly feeling like an abused animal waiting for the next kick, and I despised myself for it.
The docking bay was a flurry of activity, and I realized that the Midway must be about as close to deploying as the Jutland. The two of us dodged maintenance crews, cargo sleds and frantic technicians, flying by in the zero gravity with only a notional sense of who had the right of way. I followed the directions my ‘link was feeding me over my earbud and Ash followed me and, somehow, we still managed to find our way to the flag cabin by the required time.
Deep inside the administrative section of the ship, the flag cabin was past the Admiral’s office, and we had to pass through a gauntlet of functionaries and handlers along the way. The final gatekeeper was a clerk harnessed into a data station, scrolling through personnel files in a haptic hologram that surrounded him like a curtain. I saw a Lieutenant’s rank on his shoulder, and was surprised it wasn’t a job for an NCO. We cat-footed across the deck on our sticky-plates until we stood just the other side of the multicolored barrier of light.
“Ensign Hollande to see Admiral Gannett,” I said with sharp precision, both because it would be expected and because I wanted to get his attention. “And friend,” I added hastily, glancing at Ash.
The Lieutenant swiped the array of holograms downward out of the way with a wave of his hand, revealing a skeptically tilted eyebrow and a frown that was about to turn into a denial.
“Send them in, D’Agostino,” a clear and carrying voice seem to come from the air around us. I knew there was some sort of concealed public address system, but I had to admit that the effect was impressive.
The door slid aside and I could still feel Lt. D’Agostino’s eyes on my back as I moved through it. Inside was a combination apartment suite and command office that was probably three times as large as the quarters the rest of the ship’s officers were apportioned, with furniture designed for use in a variety of gravity conditions and upholstered with vat-grown leather. Hand-painted artwork was fastened to the bulkheads and the whole ambience of the place seemed more Corporate Council executive than Fleet flag officer.
Admiral Helene Gannett was tucked behind a sturdy-looking faux wood desk, belted into a swiveling chair with not a thing arrayed on the displays in front of her, as if she’d cleared her schedule in advance for this meeting. Her uniform was normal shipboard utilities, but she always seemed as if she’d be more at home in formal dress blues, with maybe an 18th-Century fore-and-aft European naval hat to compliment it.
She certainly had the face for European nobility; her nose was perfect patrician, her cheekbones high and sharp and her mouth downturned and disapproving. Her brown hair was cut just shorter than regulation and the eyes that matched it seemed to scan us both like a security sensor.
We both snapped to attention as the door shut behind us, hands bisecting our right eyebrows in matching salutes. Sometimes I think that’s the only reason the Fleet pays for the sticky plates in our ship boots is so we can come to attention in zero gravity.
“Ensign Hollande reports, ma’am!” I barked with my best parade-field voice, trying to use the military formality as a shield, as armor.
She returned the salute without rising, her eyes still dark and unreadable.
“At ease.” She looked us both up and down for a moment in silence as we relaxed, hands clasped behind our backs. Finally, her expression softened and she smiled thinly. “Hello, Sandi,” she said.
I wanted to say something smart back to her, but I thought of Ash and reconsidered. Instead, I settled on something more neutral.