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StarTroopers – Episode Three

Written by shadar :: [Sunday, 25 March 2018 00:58] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 25 March 2018 11:33]

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StarTroopers Episode Three

by Shadar

I was eager to talk about my new job, but I didn’t get the chance during the chopper ride to the old K I Sawyer airbase. Jacobs was on his phone the whole way. My headset was on the crew inter-channel, which was professionally silent. The pilots were busy talking to each other and ATC, but I couldn’t hear that either. Just the whine of the engines and whirr of the rotors, and the racing of my own thoughts.

I spent the quiet time thinking about Ariel, wondering what our relationship really was after yesterday. Definitely more than work friends now. But was this just a day of fun and games for her, a hookup, or did she really want to be in a relationship? She’d said something about the “easily dented egos” of men her age.Also that she was glad she didn’t have to play games with me. Didn’t have to worry that I’d do something crazy to prove myself. Obviously echoes of her last relationship still haunted her, but I wasn’t sure if she was running away or running toward something. The only thing I knew for sure was that I missed her company already, and I hadn’t missed anyone for a very long time.

We landed next to the ridiculously long B-52 runway. K I Sawyer had once been a SAC dispersal base, with cruise-missile armed nuclear bombers always cocked and loaded, sitting at the south end of this runway that pointed due north like a gun barrel, straight at the Soviet Union. Now it was just a regional airport that struggled to stay afloat in a land without jobs.

An Air Force Gulfstream was waiting, one engine already spun up as we exited the chopper. Jacobs doubled-timed across the ramp and up the stairs into the plane. I hustled to keep up with him.

“Kedrik Smith, this is John Phillips,” he said as he introduced me to only other person in the cabin. “Kedrik’s on loan from SpaceX as our lead engineer. He’ll fill you in on our current work and where we need your help.”

With that, Jacobs left us to enter a small room in the back that was lined with video screens, and closed the door.

“It’s good to be working with you, John,” Kedrik said. “I’ve reviewed your earlier work on small underwater attack craft and think you may have some useful ideas for our ships.”

“Ships? As in multiple?”

“Yeah, we have two designs already under construction. Just Gen-1 series, but I think you’ll be impressed.”

He sat down beside me at one of the tables to open his laptop. “First we have what I call the Dreadnaught. Big, heavy, saucer-shaped craft designed for Uber crew only. Extremely heavy construction and designed to take a hell of a pounding, just like old-school Navy battleships. The saucer is 120 meters in diameter and about 30 meters thick at the center. Outer hull is recycled battleship armor with a variety of vented armored layers beneath to soak up and then dissipate punishment. We’re assuming its going to have survive multiple nuke hits, which will breach the outer hull.”

“Multiple? Jesus! And still fight?”

“The idea is to let the nukes burn off layers while keeping the core intact. Forces inside will be incredible, but Ubers can take a lot of punishment. Radiation is worse in space, nothing to absorb it, but shockwaves are far less than in an atmosphere. And Ubers can take a lot of rads.”

“I’ve always thought of nukes as game end.”

“Yeah. But as we saw last year, the bugs throw little one’s around like grenades. They mount them on small missiles.”

“But they can’t survive really big ones. Are we going to have any of those?”

“I’ll get to that. The whole saucer is going to be coated in a meter-thick layer of radar and laser absorbing material, which should make us extremely stealthy. Designed to absorb all energy in the frequency bands that we we’ve observed them using. It’s sacrificial once the shooting starts, but if we can get close enough, we’ve got 60 torpedo tubes circling the edge of the saucer.”

“Torpedoes in space? We must read the same science fiction.”

Kedrik smiled. “Not as complicated as you might think. As you probably know, Ubers are effective for about two hours in vacuum before they start to fade from lack of oxygen. At three hours they pass out, with brain damage due to lack of O2 starting soon after that.”

“Yeah, I’ve read the same.”

“Well, the torpedoes, which I need you to work on, need to provide environmental support sufficient to get the Ubers to their targets. Propulsion is by the occupants. The only weapons on these Gen-1 ships are Ubers. We want two women per torpedo, on the big ships anyway, inline configuration. Idea is to get them in very close to the bug ships before the torps open and the Ubers attack the ship with bare hands and heat vision.”

“What about the shields around their ships? They stopped everything but the largest nukes last time.”

“We think we can defeat those, John. Data from earlier battles suggest that while no ship or weapon can penetrate their energy fields, we’ve seen the bugs move through their own shields, seemingly without difficulty and without any suits or other inorganic material.”

“Interesting. Tuned to stop weapons but not biologicals.”

Kedrik shrugged. “That’s what we think. They are very aware of the fragility of humans in vacuum, which the bugs can clearly handle for some time, so likely they won’t have a defense against an Uber. In fact, our whole strategy is based around that one premise.”

“And if they do have a defense?”

“Probably game over. But we do have a few nukes that we’re adapting to be installed in the front station of the torps with an Uber doing the pushing. Manual detonation. Kamikazes, basically.”

“Ouch. Hope we don’t get there.”

“The whole idea of the Dreadnaught is to be sacrificial if need be. They fly fast on an intercept course with the bug ships, get close before detection and then absorb whatever the bugs throw at them until they can launch all their tubes. The Ubers then move through their shields and breach their ships to take out the bugs in hand-to-hand combat. After the battle is over, we come in with the Rocinate-class vessels to pick up the surviving Ubers and get them back into pressure. If the Dreadnaught survives, we can also transfer them back to it. If not, then we give them a ride home.”

“Are the Rocinate-class armored too?”

“Yes, but not as heavily, but they can still take some hits. But with a mixed crew, the idea is for them to stay well out of the fight until its over. Speed and maneuverability are key. Each Rocinate-class can support a crew of eight plus forty passengers. We figure a four Uber crew along with a very experienced Captain and XO with extensive tactical field experience in unconventional environments. Which at this point implies someone like you or related Special Forces. That and a Medical Officer and some medics trained to work on Ubers. But the Dreadnaughts and their crews of Ubers are our only real weapons.”

“You said Gen-1?”

“Yeah. That’s our job. Quick and dirty. We want ships in the air next month. To do that we rely entirely on the Ubers, both for construction, for propulsion and weaponry. But every aerospace and weapons design outfit on the planet, including Los Alamos for nuke design, are working on a Gen-2. But that’s going to take years, designing guidance systems, specialized nukes, propulsion, etc. Until then, all we’ve got are Ubers.”

“That’s all, huh?” I chuckled. “You should see what one of those Ubers did to a coal train the other day.”

“Well, given you’ve been working with them and understand Ubers better than most people, you’re in charge of recruiting crew for both of the initial ships as well as giving us input on the torpedo designs.”

I swallowed hard. This was a bigger job than I thought I was getting into. I was even more intimidated by the size of the project after Kedrick took me through the engineering drawings on his laptop. SpaceX and Lockheed’s Skunk Works, along with Boeing and a few steel fabrication and shipbuilding firms had already done a lot of work on the designs and were supervising the building of prototypes.

He handed me a high-security laptop loaded with data on the designs. “You need to create a thirty-two-character password, plus retinal scan and facial recognition. I can help you set that up. You don’t want to screw up after its activated. Three failed login attempts or any attempt to open the case and it self-destructs. There’s a thin sheet of C4 attached above and below the motherboard. You don’t want to be in the same room if that goes off.”

By the time I’d set the laptop up with a passphrase I could remember, and I’d reviewed the top-level drawings for the two ships, I heard the clunk of the landing gear going down. A glance out the window showed empty desert.

“Groom Lake,” Kedrik said. “Otherwise known as Area 51. Lots of underground work space and no unwelcome eyeballs.”

“Flying saucer central,” I grinned. “According to the UFO nuts anyway.”

“For once they’re right. Except the saucers are ours. That shape is very robust when it comes to deflecting attack. Some of the engineers here at Groom have been working on advanced tech for decades. A very weird but brilliant bunch. The military runs a private airline to shuttle them to Vegas, where most of them live, but about a quarter of the staff stay here all the time. There’s nothing in Vegas they want. They might as well be in the Antarctic for all they care. Good men, just a bit socially stunted.”

“A bit?” I laughed as the wheels touched down.

Fifteen minutes later, we were descending in an elevator.

“They built this place without hauling any soil or rock to the surface where it could be seen, thanks to finding a very large cave system they could dump it all into. Not many people get down here. Top Secret and all. Beyond a few personnel elevators like this one, the floor of the big surface hanger is essentially a massive elevator to carry planes or whatever to the underground hangar. All out of sight of SATS or eyeballs.”

“Lets hope the bugs don’t know what we’re doing. A nuke could ruin the whole show.”

“Yeah,” Kedrik said, his jawline rigid.

The small elevator suddenly emerged from the ceiling of a gigantic hangar bay where it descended inside a clear plastic tube. Kedrik stopped the elevator a hundred feet or so above the floor. I stared in awe at a hangar so big that the sides tapered toward the far end. Two of the large saucers were located half way down the hangar, with three smaller saucers nearly beneath us, one of them looking nearly complete. Manufacturing equipment filled the far end of the hangar.

“Rocinate will be the first of her class. Jacobs wants it to be your ship. He’s been sniffing around your background for weeks, talking to everyone who has ever worked with you. Mostly guys you’ve lead into combat.”

All stuff that I was working to forget about. PTSD was a cruel bitch. I’d lost too many good men over the years.

I stared off into the distance as dozens of Ubers worked on the ships. A cute blonde was lifting what had to be a ten ton slab of armor. She flew it up to place it carefully on one of the saucers and then held it there as four remotely-controlled plasma welders went to work, her body disappearing inside the blaze of sparks. Which explained the metallic bikini she wore.

Looking further down the hangar, I was startled to see two very muscular Ubers manning a forming station where they were bending massively thick steel plates into precise curves across a form, using their hands, their backs and legs, their whatever, to bend and shape the steel. Given the titanic forces involved, it wasn’t surprising they were nude. No clothing would survive the friction. They were one hell of an eye-full.

“We don’t have any heavy machinery down here, just Ubers,” Kedrik said proudly. “They can work at amazing speed once they learn the ropes. They started with a couple of old Navy battleships that they dragged up on dry land and took apart. A second group flies the armor plates here, some of it is more than a foot thick, and then the pieces are measured and inventoried by some automation we built at SpaceX. Every plate on the saucers is unique, either by its shape or its precise curvature. No sharp edges on a saucer. All curves, yet also with a designed in irregularity that helps dissipate radar beams. You can’t see that from here, but up close, they’ll surprise you.”

“Impressive…” I breathed, fascinated that the ships were being built by Ubers, starting with the old battleships they were tearing apart.

“Once here, a laser cutter rough cuts each piece, and then it’s shaped on that long series of forms you see stretched to the end of the hangar. As you can see, the shaping into the forms is also all manual.”

I watched the two nude Ubers using their backs to distribute the force as they bent the massively thick plating to fit the forms. The amount of power they were using was incredible, even for an Uber.

“From there the pieces are precision trimmed by laser cutter and then carried up and fitted and welded as you just saw. After that, a final crew comes by to use their heat vision to soften the edges of the welds and polish the softened steel out until you can’t even see the weld lines.”

“You’re hand-building armored space warships,” I gushed. “I mean, literally by hand.”

“Amazing isn’t it. After so many decades of increasingly sophisticated rocket science, 3D printing, computerized NC machining, you name it, we’re using recycled armor from naval ships and bare hands to build ships that can travel out to Jupiter and beyond. Who’d have guessed?”

“Not me. Hopefully not the bugs either.”

“Want to meet the first members of your crew?”

“Absolutely,” I said eagerly.

He pointed down at two women who were approaching each other by the nearly completed small saucer. An attractive black woman, dressed in red, reached up to clasp hands with a stunning redhead dressed in a light blue outfit. They clasped hands silently as they stared into each other’s eyes.

“The redhead is your pilot. Carmen’s her name. She flew F16’s for the Air Force. A very hot stick in more than one way. The other woman, Alana, is your Medical Officer. A flight surgeon from the Canadian Forces. They’re both pretty new Ubers.”

carmen s 008

I nodded. “Figured that since neither of them have come through my portion of the program yet. Obviously still in training.”

“Not any more. We’re going operational and Jacobs has changed the training rules for those with critical skills.”

I watched as the two women continued to clasp hands, their bodies as rigid as steel.

“That’s the greeting that the Ubers have developed over the last few months, usually when first meeting, but sometimes other times. I’m told it’s a contest of strength and flight power as they take each other’s measure. I can’t tell from watching who wins these little contests, but they know.”

There was a quick flash of blue light that traveled between their eyes, and then they lowered their hands. I couldn’t tell who won or lost either. What I did know was that hundreds of tons of force had been involved on both their parts. Also that remaining motionless like that while exerting their full strength by matching flight power required a lot of concentration and control. They’d at least mastered that part of their training.

Kedrik hit the elevator button to continue down to the hangar floor. “Come on. I’ll introduce you.”

The women both turned to look at us as we approached, their sparkling eyes the usual sky-blue. That looked very exotic given Alana’s dark skin and hair. She looked mid-thirties compared to the redhead’s twentyish something.

“Carmen and Alana, I’d like to introduce you to your Captain. John Phillips. He’s been running a part of the training program you haven’t gotten to yet.”

“Captain?” Carmen said. “I thought that was my job.”

I held out my hand. “I’m Master Chief Petty Officer John Phillips, retired.”

Carmen glared at me, but Alana shook my hand firmly before turning to Kedrik. “I thought we were only going with Ubers on the saucers. So we can pull more G’s and take more of a pounding.”

“Talk to Jacobs. This is his call. He wants a couple of highly experienced special forces combat veterans honchoing each of the Rocinate-class. At first, anyway. As far as all Uber crew, you’re thinking the Dreadnaughts.”

“What makes you qualified to fight a battle in space?” Carmen asked me in a challenging tone.

“Nobody is qualified for that. But I fought some under the water. SEALS. And on land. Some unconventional places. Does that count?”

“I’ve flown air-to-air combat and a shitload of air-to-ground missions. That’s closer to space combat than paddling around in some rubber boat.”

I grinned. I liked her attitude. The best pilots were always cocky. “I think the rules are going to be very different out there. We’ll be making stuff up as we go. I’m good at that. Besides, you’re going to be busy both propelling and piloting the ship. You’re gonna need someone looking at the bigger picture while you fly.”

“Hope you like pulling G’s, Master Chief. I like to fly fast.”

“It’s just John. Don’t need titles on a ship this small. But if you do need one, it’s Captain. Our job isn’t to fight but rather to pick up those who have fought and get them in pressure under Alana’s care before their warranty expires.”

“I’m going to talk to the Old Man about this bullshit,” Carmen said, eyes blazing so hot I felt like I was staring into the sun. She turned on her heel and flew off in a gust of wind.

“That didn’t start off so well,” Alana said. “Sounds like we’ve got some team building to do.”

“To that point,” Kedrik said. “Jacobs wants you two to select the rest of your crew. Two more Ubers and whatever Med Techs you need. Plus your XO, John.”

I pointed toward the doorway that Carmen had flew through, and we began walking that way. “So, how long have you been Uber, Alana? You haven’t been through my part of the program yet.”

“Four months. I was at the end of Block 4 when they came and pulled me out. Barely had time to say goodbye to my husband and two kids.”

“How old?”

“Eight and six. Boy and a girl. They’re really stoked that I’m an Uber now. Super Mom and all that jazz.”

“Your husband?”

She shrugged. “Usual story, it seems. I’m still working on strength control, so he feels neglected. Sleeping in separate beds and so forth. He’s intimidated and angry, but he’s trying. Same thing I hear from most Ubers with significant others. But he’s good with the kids, so that’s most important now.”

“That’s pretty candid.”

“It’s a new world, John. We’re all finding our way here and the more we know about each other the better. No time for games. And you?”

“Divorced. Been living on my own in the woods, running one of the remote training segments. Don’t do well around crowds.” I wasn’t ready to talk about Ariel. I didn’t know what to say about her yet in any case.

“This is a big change from the woods.”

“I was ready for it. Can’t get rid of all my demons out there. Best thing for my head is to get back into the fight. Kill some bugs before they come back. Maybe keep them from coming back.”

“OOH-RAH,” she said loudly.

I chuckled. “I’m a SEAL, not a Marine, Alana. SEALS don’t make noise. We’re in and out before the bad guys know we’re even there.”

“Hope that works with the bugs.”

We walked through the doorway that exited the hangar bay to see Carmen talking to Jacobs. She was waving her arms as she struggled to keep her feet politely on the ground. The discussion looked heated.

I paused just inside the door to let them work it out. To my surprise, he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her, which she returned, sighing. They walked off down the hallway, his arm wrapped possessively around her shoulder.

Alana laughed as she saw the look on my face. “You didn’t know? Hazard of not using last names around here. Carmen’s last name is Jacobs. She’s his daughter.”

“Shit! As if I wasn’t already feeling enough pressure. I gotta fly with the Old Man’s kid?”

“I’m told she’s the best pilot in the program. We’re lucky to have her.”

“Is there somewhere around here I can buy you a drink and talk, Alana? There’s a lot I have to learn and zero time to do it.”

The bar was decent given the location, and the bartender knew how to serve Ubers. Alana got ten shots for every one of mine. We did a lot of talking about what we knew and didn’t know about this place. She eventually showed me the way to the dormitory and then teetered off to her room. I stared at the closed office, wondering where I was going to sleep. That’s when I spotted an envelope at the at the far end of the counter. It was addressed to me and had a key and some blurb about dormitory rules, a facility map, etc. I found the room that matched the key number and fell into bed.

Morning came early when reveille sounded through the intercom system at 6:00am sharp. So much for ex-military. To my surprise, I found the drawers were full of clothes that fit me along with some flight suits in the closet. Like everything else here, only my first name was sewn onto them. The graphic on the back of each flight uniform showed a view of Earth from space with a hawk holding some crushed bugs in its talons. Not very subtle.

I got a quick shower and got dressed to head for breakfast, which turned out to be in the best military tradition. The cafeteria was run like a good Navy mess hall. Great food and lots of coffee. The place was full by 6:20, but I didn’t see anyone I knew. Most were workmen, all dressed in official coveralls, with different colors apparently denoting different jobs. The men filled most of the tables, many of them staring at the lovely young super girls.

The Ubers were gathered in a group in the corner opposite me, dressed in eclectic bits of whatever, shorts, miniskirts, leotards, all of them with legs bared, some not wearing much at all. Obviously no official coveralls for them. Most were blondes, a few redheads, a couple African-Americans and one stunner who was clearly Latino. They were slender, young and fit, yet none had come through my segment of training. Clearly Jacobs was dividing his troops. Those who were going to be detailed for home defense had to be fully trained to avoid collateral damage. The rest were going to be on the offense, or just building ships.

Some of the Ubers were sitting and eating, others hovered with legs crossed lotus style with a bowl in their lap, with one short-haired blonde standing on the ceiling as she chatted with a friend who was hovering over the table. They all made me think of Ariel.

At a few minutes to seven, the girls began sauntering through the tables of gawking men, flirting outrageously before they vanished like pretty birds, floating out the doorway. The men followed, making me wonder if this was how they kept the morale up down here. A few minutes later a buzzer went off to indicate the start of the day shift.

Sitting alone in my corner, I fired up my laptop, suddenly very aware that this would be a very bad place for it to self-destruct. Wrecking the mess hall would be the worst kind of disaster. Fortunately, I got my passphrase right the first try and the biometrics worked as advertised to recognize me.

I began to study Rocinate’s design, working my way down into the guts, layer by layer. It was a fifty meter wide saucer with a twenty meter maximum thickness. In the center, a gimbaled globe-shaped crew module ensured that the floor would always be down no matter which way the saucer was accelerating. That was clever.

The flight positions for the four Ubers were outside the gimbal, and heavily reinforced with what looked like a massive yoke that their shoulders fit into. The yoke could be oriented in any direction, individually or together using electric motors and gears. The pilot could control her own yoke’s orientation along with all the others to provide direction control. It was a weird arrangement, human power and all, and it looked like it would take some time to learn how to fly it, but I saw nothing to say it wouldn’t work with the right pilot.

Life support was redundant with four different systems spaced around the saucer, each with a pair of fuel cells and large tanks for reagents. There were three airlocks big enough for four people each. I’d expected a small nuclear power plant, but you can’t exactly order those from Amazon Prime. Gen-1 was all about building it fast with whatever was available. Gen-2 ships could have all the fancy tech, as long as we lived long enough to build them.

My station along with the NavComp were inside the gimbal, as were the living quarters and a medical facility. A common area that was also the galley was at the very center, with an array of tube-style bunks surrounding that for the Ubers we recovered after combat. Closet-sized cabins were provided for the permanent crew. There were four torpedo tubes with singleton torpedoes that could provide life support for a single Uber. Given our combat team and our propulsion/piloting team were the same people, we could do one or the other. That was it for weapons. Clearly the Roci hadn’t been designed to engage in combat except as a last resort.

The overall impression was more mid-20th century Naval warship than Star Wars. The whole thing was based around Uber power. There were even heavy-duty cycling machines with attached generators located at each fuel cell station. If need be, the entire ship could run on muscle power.

Given that we wouldn’t give off a propulsion signature, plus all that radar absorbing material, hopefully the bugs would never see us coming.

I fired up the Personnel app and started by reviewing Carmen’s records. She’d been pulled out of training halfway through Block 6. My segment was Block 9. Which said that she’d learned how to maximize her powers. To fly, to fight, to handle immense weights and loads. She could do everything to project her personal power, but she hadn’t been through the Blocks where she learned to do that without collateral damage. She hadn’t yet been trained in the ways to use her powers to save lives, to be gentle, to fit in with ordinary people. She was all raw power without any controls. She wouldn’t know her limitations. She probably didn’t believe she had any.

Her previous job flying fighters was the same. She was a hotshot, flying faster and turning harder than anyone else, and that was before her enhancement. She had numerous write-ups for pushing the limits too far. She was the kind of pilot who’d hit a target no one else could. She was the tip of the spear, but a dangerous one. The kind of pilot who died in a blaze of glory.

I liked that. Her traits were exactly what we’d need in a really desperate fight, which was likely what we were going to be facing, but it wasn’t going to bring a crew together. To build teamwork. Jacobs had made a good call by bringing me in, despite Carmen’s obvious expectations about having her own ship. He’d been around enough to know how things worked.

To no surprise, Carmen had scored 96% percentile on strength and 98% on flight power. 95% on invulnerability. Her combined score was the highest of all the Ubers in my personnel database. Carmen Jacobs had been born to excel at everything she did. It had literally been baked into her DNA. Jacob’s wife must be a remarkable woman, given that the DNA sequence for an Uber was passed down on the maternal side.

I closed my laptop and then drained the last of coffee. It was time to go and have a talk with wonder girl.

Rising, I took my tray over to the cleaning station, sorting things into the right bins in Navy style. After leaving the mess hall, I realized I was lost. Corridors ran everywhere with only cryptic notations to mark the locations. I regretted leaving my facility map back in my room. There wasn’t anyone wandering around to ask. At this time of day, everyone was at work. I wound up following the most well-worn corridors, and eventually emerged into the massive hangar, where I stared in wonder at the beehive of activity. Ubers and men working together. Everyone was moving quickly and surely, but without a undo sense of haste. Everyone knew exactly what to do. Whoever ran the manufacturing operation was a genius. So much was going on that I couldn’t take it all in.

Working my way toward the Roci, I saw Carmen standing near one of the laser cutting stations talking to two men in white coveralls. Kedrik had worn white, so I assumed these were engineers too. She was waving her arms as she argued with them about something. The engineers eventually nodded and walked off toward the Roci. I headed toward her, very aware that Carmen was wearing nothing but a t-shirt that hung just long enough to be decent. A comic-book style “S” symbol was embossed between her breasts.

She turned to glare insolently at me as I approached, her back to the riveted aluminum wall of the laser cutter. The odd thought struck me that she might very well be the most attractive woman I’d ever laid eyes on.

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I nodded toward the emblem on her chest. “So, is that to remind me who you are?”

“You already know. You’ve seen my file.”

“Yes, I have. Everything in it says hotshot. Uber and before. So I guess the emblem works.”

“If you have to know, it’s a bit of hopefulness from my boyfriend. You know, the one who flies fighters and is likely to be first to die if the bugs come back? He says Supergirl always saves the day.”

“I most certainly hope your boyfriend is right.”

I turned to walk beside her as we headed toward the Roci.

“I’ve been thinking that maybe I don’t need to hire an XO for the Roci, Carmen. Given your combat experience, you’ll do just fine. That way we can carry another Uber. I’d like your help in making that selection. Idea is to have four propulsion stations and one torpedo able Uber ready to go all the time. Minimum. I’m also going to ask Alana to look for an Uber or two with medical skills, if we have any, to augment her staff instead of the planned medics.”

She tilted her head as she looked up at me. “You know that the crew definition was done by the Old Man himself? He kind of likes to have the last word around here.”

“That’s where I’m counting on you to help change his mind. Use your influence to soften him up to the idea a bit before I make my pitch. He’s got this idea that Roci isn’t getting into any fights, but I don’t think it’s going to go that way. Maybe he’s trying to protect you.”

She said nothing as we kept walking.

“The bugs are smart, Carmen. They’ll figure things out after we hit a few of their ships and realize that taking out the Roci is their best way to take down the the Dreadnaughts. Not during the current fight, but the next one. Crews are more important than ships. Roci has to be able to fight on her own to recover those crews. If we can double up the roles, we can have four torps active and still have three of you powering the ship for maneuvering, etc. Or whatever combo works.”

“Which would make you the only Normal on board.”

“Yeah, and if it comes down to the Roci surviving or me, whether that’s pulling more G’s than I can survive or taking more punishment than I can handle, then you know how that should play out. My first order to you is to make sure the Roci survives no matter what happens to me.”

“Is this a SEAL thing or something? Next man up and all that jazz?”

“Yeah, it is. The mission is all that matters, Carmen. Besides, my experience is only useful until you guys develop your own during the first few fights. We need to staff Roci with the idea that everyone has two jobs that they’re trained to for. Someone goes down, then its next man up. So to speak.”

She smiled for the first time since I’d met her. A beautiful, radiant smile. “I guess the Old Man choose you well after all.”

She paused to hold out her hand.

I stopped to face her as I took her slender hand in mine. But instead of the conventional handshake she offered, I shifted my grip until I was gripping hers at chest height, the same way I’d seen her greet Alana. Her skin was soft and warm, but I could sense the steel beneath. “So, what is the deal with this Uber to Uber handshake thing?”

She grinned as she applied just enough strength to meet my own. “It’s just a way of sorting out the hierarchy. Given strength and flight are our main powers.”

I put every ounce of strength I had into my hand, knowing I didn’t have a thousandth of her strength, but to my surprise, I felt her arm yield just the slightest.

She didn’t have to say more. I had my XO, and a helluva pilot.

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