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StarTroopers – Episode Five

Written by shadar :: [Thursday, 29 March 2018 21:26] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 29 March 2018 22:08]

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StarTroopers Episode Five

by Shadar

Kedrik met up with me at lunch to say that Engineering had signed the ship off for atmospheric flight, but he wanted some more time to work on environmentals before we went into space.

I decided to take just the flight crew on our first attempt to fly, and I wasn’t going to let them assume their stations until Roci was a couple miles away from the hangar and out on the desert floor. I climbed on board as Carmen and her flight crew grabbed the outside of the saucer to lift her out of the construction cradle. The Roci weighed more than eight-hundred tons thanks to her heavy multi-layer hull, and that was a heavy lift for four Ubers, but they managed to balance the saucer with arms lifted over their heads, their amazing muscles flexing with full Uber power.

Everyone moved back, and then began applauding as they slowly carried Roci across the manufacturing floor and into the huge aircraft elevator. They held the ship over their heads as the elevator slowly rose up to disappear into the ceiling.

Once safely in the above-ground hangar, they carried Roci out to the middle of Groom Lake, their feet floating on thin air, legs flexing powerfully as they focused their strongest muscles isometrically on generating flight power. The ship rocked slightly on its rounded belly when they set it down on the hard-packed desert floor. They quickly climbed in to join me, taking their places.

Carmen began to put them through their paces, adjusting their yoke positions as she gave them commands regarding desired power levels, one at a time. Lift and fall, turn and spin. Over and over. Then she tried to put them all together, and that was chaos as first, with Roci spinning and and tilting to the side and skidding across the desert floor as the four of them tried to get into synchronization.

Carmen’s station was coupled to her body in ways to take advantage of her existing muscle-memory. Her toes controlled the rear flight station yoke Her extended arms each controlled a side station yokes, with her head orientation controlling her own yoke.

She moved her hands in mid-air to lift and lower each side of the saucer many times, and then tried to float just off the ground. Instead, the Roci tilted and spun as she over-controlled it.

Even worse, the other Ubers were imparting their own English to their yokes to help her, which only made things worse. They were supposed to fly straight forward into their yokes, applying just enough flight power to keep a line of red, yellow and green lights centered, based on feedback from strain gauges in the yokes and Carmen’s inputs. Carmen’s controls communicated how much power to use as well as yoke orientation, both elevation and yaw.

She finally managed to lift off steadily enough to spin the saucer left and then right, up and down before crashing back to the desert floor hard enough to wrench my back.

They took a break at that point to compare notes and to get their heads back together. The engineers came out and increased the gain on the yoke servos to keep up with Carmen’s inputs. Kedrick’s Flight Systems engineers stayed aboard as they tried again, tweaking the servo responses and feedback loops in real-time until she could manage both a smooth hover and a soft landing. Lifting the ship again, Carmen began spinning Roci around, rising and falling a dozen feet at a time, getting the feel for controlling the orientation and thrust of all four of her engines. She’d flown dozens of different types of aircraft, from 70hp Piper Cubs to the latest F-42 hypersonic fighter, but this was way harder than any of those.

“Servos are better now,” she reported. “I think I can do this.”

The engineers disembarked, leaving me as the only Normal on board.

“OK, Captain,” she said cheerfully. “Time to get into that fancy G-seat of yours. We’re going to do some flying.”

I strapped myself into the deeply-padded gel seat, feeling the automatic G-suit bladders pressing against my lower body. I swiveled the chair and raised and lowered the back to make sure everything was working, and then switched it to Auto. The idea was for the chair to use its solid-state gyros to automatically adjust so as to keep me functioning up to 9G’s, and to keep me conscious up to 12G’s. Beyond that we were in uncharted territory.

I wished I had the anti-G juice they’d used in that old SF show called Expanse, where the name Rocinate had come from, but this was only the year 2047, not 2300 or whatever.

“OK, I’m all strapped in, Carmen. Lets go have some fun.”

“Roger, Captain. Flight Crew ready?”

Bella, Caitlan and Kara checked in.

“OK, follow my lead.”

I was suddenly pushed back in my seat as Roci lifted off and accelerated, the displays in front of me spinning up as we rose several thousand feet in seconds, our speed rising to and then exceeding Mach 1. Once Carmen had some altitude, she slowed and began to spin the ship around like a top, then accelerated hard enough to gray me out as she cut huge, graceful arcs in the sky. Immersed in my VR display, I saw the sky darken to purple as she climbed like a homesick angel. I’d never imagined a ship having such power.

She dove back for the deck, and it wasn’t until she got over Mach 3 at low altitude that the ship began to buffet badly. She slowed to Mach 2 and focused on making tight turns and loops and all kinds of aerobatics. She was learning quickly.

She pulled more than 11G’s once on a pull-up, and rarely dropped blow 2G’s except when cruising. We hit Mach 5 briefly at 90,000 feet with only minor porpoising. Showing off, Carmen came to a complete stop with the bottom of the saucer barely touching the top of a half-mile tall TV broadcast tower. She was very good, and she was clearly having fun.

By the time she floated Roci soundlessly back into the big hangar, I was exhausted from hours of high G’s, my thighs and groin bruised and aching from the G-suit bladders. I poured myself out the hatch, barely able to stand as Alana looked at me worriedly. Carmen and her flight crew floated happily out the hatch behind me, laughing and hugging as they headed over to talk to the engineers about some further tweaks in the yoke controls. I had a few write-ups for the environmentals, which a crew was already on hand to work on.

I pulled one of the engineers aside to ask him to weld some struts for a couple of 40’ shipping containers unto the top of the hull. Not permanently, but just for one special mission. I asked him to keep my request to himself and his crew, and to wait until they were ready to qualify us for space flight before they attached the containers. I wanted our first space flight to be a bit of a surprise for the team.

Alana didn’t look happy when I caught up to her. “I’ve been working with Ariel all day. She’s pretty pissed at you, but she’s a trooper. I think she’s going to work out for my Med crew. She finally opened up about her healing power, which I agree seems to be fantastic. That opened the door to talk about you. If I were you, I’d give her some space for a few days.”

“Can’t do that, Alana. I want the whole crew on board for our next flight. We’re going to the Moon. What’s going on with Ivanka?”

“She burned some welders last night. Some kind of weird sex thing. We had an animated discussion this morning, and she was arrogant and abusive as usual, but she hasn’t hurt anyone else since then. I think we have an understanding, and I believe she’ll follow orders, more or less. Has Carmen reviewed the other two torpedo Ubers with you?”

“Not yet.”

I punched Carmen’s code on the internal Comm system.

“Yes, Captain?”

“I need the names of your other tactical team members ASAP, Carmen. I also want a tactical team workout this afternoon.”

“Sure thing, Cap. Soon as I finish here with Engineering. Got a few flight control bugs to sort out.”

Carmen picked me up at 2:30 to fly me out into the desert. It was a very odd but uniquely pleasurable to fly with her, soaring like a bird with my XO’s arm around my waist, her red hair whipping my face. Her tight curves felt very nice pressing against me, steel muscles working gently to adjust her flight. It was enough to bring my thoughts back to Ariel. I angrily pushed those feelings away. Ariel was a crew member now. Carmen was my XO. There was no room for romantic thoughts at this point.

When Carmen descended to land in front of three other women, I was pleased to see Rhian, standing nearly as tall as Ivanka, but very blonde. Shockingly, there was also a tall raven-haired woman in a black leather outfit, her hands covering her bared breasts.

“Captain, you already know Rhian and obviously Ivanka. This is Ulyana, she’s our highest ranking Uber when it comes to invulnerability, and well into the 90’s for strength, although a bit lower in flight. A crazy-ass Ukrainian who happens to be a nuclear weapons technician.”

Ulyana

Ulyana smiled as if “crazy-ass” was a compliment. She lowered one hand to shake mine in the usual Uber greeting, and then buried my hand against the warmth of her bared breast. She was nearly as tall as Ivanka, which said she towered over me. “Glad meet you, Captain,” she said in her Ukrainian accent.

“Wardrobe malfunction?” I asked.

Ulyana started to shake her head before Carmen explained. “Since she’s gone Uber, she refuses to cover her chest. Says that’s where her power is.”

Ivanka rolled her eyes as she stood slightly apart from the others. “Her power in pussy, like all Ukrainians.”

Ulyana beamed a blast of heat vision at Ivanka, making her long red hair rise and swirl as it blazed like fire. Ivanka didn’t seem to notice.

“Save the fight for the bugs,” Carmen said angrily.

“So you worked on nukes?” I asked Ulyana. “In which way? Which kind?”

“All kinds. Technician. Dismantling mostly, some repair, rebuild, pit replacements, control system. On ones didn’t go back to Russia in the 90’s.”

“I thought they all did?”

She shrugged. “People think many things.”

I was thrilled. I already knew Rhian was scary tough and immensely powerful. Ivanka was a known quantity as well, I’d never forget the way she stopped that train, but Ulyana looked downright scary. But I needed someone who could deal with the hacked control and permissive link systems on the nukes we were getting.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better tactical team. You look magnificent.”

A long line of practice torpedoes sat behind them. Empty sections of 36” diameter steel oil pipe that had been crimped off on one end.

“We’re going to do some torpedo attack training,” Carmen said. “Just to get everyone on the same basic page. We’ll do the real training on tactics once we get into space. Not to mention getting Alana and Ariel some torpedo experience as backups once we get out there. Do we have your permission, Captain?”

“Be my guest,” I grinned. This was going to be good.

“OK,” Carmen said. “Ladies, see that outcrop of rock behind Ulyana? It’s a quarter mile long and two hundred feet high. I want you to hit it at very high speed, coming in simultaneously from different angles, and I want that entire outcrop torn apart as if it was a bug ship.”

“Is that all?” Ivanka said with another roll of her eyes. “Why we need others? Easy for me.”

“Just show me what you’ve got. All of you. And if it makes you feel better, Ivanka, consider this a warmup exercise.”

“I warm Russian ass,” Ulyana growled, sending another blast of heat vision that lifted Ivanka’s skirt.

I already knew about the animosity between Rhian and Ivanka, but the hatred between Russians and Ukrainians was well known. The trick was going to be to keep these three from fighting each other until we got to the bugs.

I watched as they walked over to each pick up a section of heavy pipe, which probably weighed a quarter ton, but might as well been made of paper for the way they handled it. They lowered it over themselves until the steel casing dug into the sand at their feet. They then lifted off, flying off in different directions, using their penetrating vision to look through the steel to see where they were going.

“Might want to stand behind me, Captain,” Carmen said. “This might get a little dramatic.”

A minute passed. Then two. Suddenly I saw three blazing meteors heading for the outcrop. They were flying so fast that the steel pipe was melting, leaving a trail of sparks and molten metal their wake. They hit with a tremendous explosion that sent house-sized chunks of rock flying. Once down, they went crazy, kicking, punching, throwing, smashing, tearing until the quarter-mile long outcrop collapsed into rubble. I stared in amazement, trying to imagine this was a bug ship they were attacking. My heart raced excitedly. The bugs wouldn’t stand a chance if we could get through their shields.

Blinking, I saw a large chunk of rock flying my way. Carmen leaped up to blunt the truck-sized chunk away, showering me painfully with small chunks. She flew back down to land in front of me, half of her clothing torn away from the impact.

“That probably wasn’t a fluke, boss. Likely Ivanka’s way of fucking with us.”

“Your list of jobs as XO keep growing, Carmen. Saving me from Ivanka included. But I’m damn sure glad you have the job.”

“Hopefully Rhian and Ulyana can get her under control.”

“Don’t pull too many of her teeth. Ivanka’s arrogance and anger might save our asses some day.”

I decided to have a crew meeting that night. Carmen along with Kara, Bella and Caitlan of her Flight Team, Alana and Ariel from Medical and Ivanka, Rhian and Ulyana from Tactical. I’d reserved a meeting room down the corridor from the bar, and had drinks catered in. I was good for a few shots of Scotch myself, but I needed gallons of hard liquor for the crew.

It was amazing and more than a little intimidating standing before such a powerful bunch of superwomen, not the least for the way Ariel was glaring at me. I had hoped she’d be the one truly friendly face on my crew, but I’d blown that.

I cleared my throat, and everyone quieted down.

“OK, this is the first meeting of the full Rocinate crew. I’ve met you all, but I want you to use tonight to get to know each other better. Drinks and food are from the bar, and if you need something that isn’t here, ask the bar staff, who’ll be in and out all evening.

“We’re a barely formed crew tonight. Rough around the edges. All of us. You don’t know each other well, you haven’t worked or fought together. Some of you don’t like each other. Some of you don’t like me. But none of that matters. We stand tonight for the freedom of Earth, and we have a job to do that eclipses any for which humans have fought before. If we fail, it’s likely that everyone you know, everyone living on this planet, will become bug food.”

I let that sink in a bit. Whatever thoughts or plans they’d had coming in here, this was the bottom line.

“Now, as many of you know, Captain Kira Matthews is pulling together a large combat crew for the Enterprise. Most of them are arriving tonight, so there are going to be a lot of new faces around tomorrow. They start their first flights next week and she’ll be working up their crew after that.

“But we’re going out there first. We’re going to find where the bugs are hiding, we’re going to take out their scouts, we’re going to lead the Enterprise to their heavy ships. And after the Enterprise engages them, we’re going to pick up anyone who can’t get back to the Enterprise, or their whole crew if Enterprise itself is destroyed. Space will be damn tight in here with their crew on board, but we can bring them home if that’s what it takes.

“One thing you may be concerned about is my fragility. You shouldn’t be. I’ve been in a lot of unconventional fights, ex-SEAL and all, but my job is to get you ready and to help you figure out how the bugs fight and develop our countermeasures. Once we’ve got that figured out, I’m expendable. Carmen’s orders are to not back off if the G’s required to guarantee safety exceed my tolerance, or if we take more punishment than I can handle, or more rads, whatever. She’s Captain if I go down.

“And in that vein, I want everyone training for at least two positions on the ship. Carmen, Alana and I will assess your abilities over the next days and we’ll make those assignments. If you have strong preferences or skills, some of which I already know, then we’ll consider them.

“I’m not sure when we’ll fight our first bugs. Could be tomorrow. Could be a month from now. But we need to be ready.

“As we sit here, some large containers are being welded temporarily onto our hull. We’re going to the Moon tomorrow morning, people, and we’re going to collect a bunch of Apollo gear up and bring it back as mementos for the ground crew which built our ship. Tomorrow is the day that Homo Sapiens, Normals and Ubers, become a truly spacefaring race. I’m looking for all of you to spend time on the Moon and in space along the way, adjusting to being in vacuum, calibrating your personal limits on exposure. Alana will brief you during the flight on the safety parameters she expects.

“This should be a milk run unless we finds bugs hiding on the Moon, but just in case, we’re leaving fully loaded, including two dozen nuke warheads that arrived today from the US Navy. They used to be submarine ballistic missile warheads. So if the bugs are there, we’ll hit them.

“Tonight is your last chance to party. There won’t be any booze on the Roci, so enjoy yourselves before we go out there into the black. Get to know each other, don’t hurt anyone, and be at the Roci at 0700 tomorrow for the ride of your lives. Thank you.”

There was the expected applause as I finished, and then everyone went about the important business of getting drunk. I wasn’t sure where that was going to go with this wild bunch of personalities, but it didn’t matter. Carmen and I would be down on the Roci running through the final checks with Engineering until bedtime.

I was headed out the door when I found Alice waiting for me, dressed as usual in a little bit of nothing, her ridiculously long legs and her strange affection for high heels making her taller than me.

“I’ve got the shuttle ready to attach over Airlock #2, Captain. I’ve checked out the docking ring and fittings and everything seems to fit. Do you want it mated up?”

“Please. We’re leaving in the morning. And by the way, Alice, the shuttle isn’t an “it”, it’s a “her”, and her name is Alice. Thanks to you.”

She beamed. “You know, Captain, I’ve never been good at anything except carrying on in front of a camera, if you know what I mean. But this business of building shuttles is a lot of fun. Thanks for giving me the job. Nobody else around here wanted anything to do with me.”

“I’m glad you’re here, Alice. Please keep on building those shuttles. I’m hoping every ship will have an Alice on board.”

“Thanks, Captain. And good luck out there. I joined up to fight bugs, and I will if they come there, but it sure would be nice if you were able to keep them away.”

“That’s the plan. One that you’ve helped achieve.”

She hesitated for a moment, and then gave me a quick kiss before flying away.

I was whistling to myself as I continued toward the hangar bay. Alice had lightened my mood.

“That girl likes you, Captain,” Carmen said from behind me.

“Not exactly my type, beside the obvious problems.”

Carmen caught up to slip her arm through mine. “At least she’s not crew, what with your rules and all. She also knows her way around a man, that’s for sure. You should enjoy yourself tonight too.”

I laughed. “I think I’ve gotten myself in enough such trouble already today.”

“Don’t worry. Ariel won’t stay mad at you. It doesn’t take a genius to see that she’s in love with you.”

And with that, Carmen flew off ahead of me.

I sighed. Complications. That should be my middle name.

I made it back to my room just past 1AM. Roci had passed all her tests. We were ready to go in the morning. Even the nukes were on board, along with lockers full of food and other supplies. Now my problem was sleeping. I’m always wired up before going into combat.

I drank some milk and ate a bowl of cereal, and that started to make me sleepy. Turning out the lights, I got undressed as I headed into the bedroom, only to be startled to see a blonde head on my pillow and a bare back facing me in the dim light.

My heart leaped. “Ariel?”

The woman rolled over to face me. “No, silly, it’s Alice.”

“Ah, Alice, this isn’t really a good…” I started to say.

“I heard Carmen talking to you. I like her idea.”

She rose from the bed to float over to wrap her long legs around me, the same legs that had been shaping armor plates all week. “I want to thank you for having faith in me when nobody else did. I’d like to send you on your way with fond memories. Maybe a little super-sex if we can figure it out. I heard a rumor today that some Ubers actually can do it. But if not, I know many ways.”

Her hair was silky and fragrant as it fell over me, her arms resting on my shoulders as she kissed me. I tried to gently undo her arms, with felt soft and feminine at first touch, but I might as well have been trying to bend steel bars.

“You know, some men find it very sexy, knowing how unhurtable I am. How super strong I am. It turns them on to feel such power under their hands. Knowing they can do things with me now… things they could never do with another woman.”

“Alice, I think its lovely that you want to repay me for my kindness, but all I did was to put you to work on a project that lacked a manpower allocation. And you did a great job. That’s all the thanks I need.”

“But no one else wanted me.”

“Alice, I’m sure most of the men down there on the manufacturing floor want you. I’ve heard them talk.”

I tried to guide her toward the door, but she floated off the floor, wrapping herself tighter around me, lifting me up to hovering with her in mid-air.

“They want me to do porn. Super-porn even, which is kind of a thing now. But now that I know what it’s like to really make something, to do something important with my own hands, to be respected, I won’t do that again. I want to be appreciated by men like you. Important people.”

My heart sank. Getting her out of my bedroom without hurting her feelings was going to be hard. A part of me started to play with the idea that maybe indulging her wouldn’t be so bad. She was gorgeous, and she wanted so much to be respected, even loved. I could make her feel better for a night. And after last night, I really didn’t want to sleep alone.

I made one more half-hearted attempt to convince her to leave, only to be interrupted when a loud klaxon suddenly split the air. Red lights began to flash. The speakers in the hallway began to blare:

“This is an attack warning. All personnel to your duty stations. This is an attack warning.”

Alice dropped me to the floor as I dove out the bedroom doorway, searching for my Comm. I punched Jacobs number. “John Phillips here.”

“We got three bug ships deorbiting over the western Pacific. Looks like we’re the target. We got ten, maybe fifteen minutes before they’ll be close enough to launch on us. Get your crew to the Roci and get the hell out of here, John.”

“Roger.”

I pulled on my clothes while running for the door to jerk it open. Carmen went flying down the hallway in front of me, wearing a night gown. “Get everyone into the Roci, Carmen,” I called after her. “We got bug ships coming in and we have to fly. Ten minutes to get clear of the place. Don’t wait for me if I’m not there.”

I hoped to hell all the rest of the crew were headed toward the Roci as well. Most of them were probably still drunk.

Carmen disappeared around the end of the long corridor, moving at several times my speed. I pounded along as more and more people came out of their rooms, filling the corridor to slow me down. I tried to push through, but I clearly wasn’t going to make it. People were panicking. That’s when Alice’s arms and legs wrapped around me again, hugging me tightly to her slender body as she flew along the ceiling over everyone’s heads, her back scraping the rough stone as she flew so fast the corridor blurred. We raced to the end and bounced around the corner, her body protecting me as she tore part of the corner off. She continued flying at fantastic speed until we zoomed into the hangar bay. The boarding stairs on the Roci were retracting as Alice threw me up through the hatch, holding it open with one hand against the motor as she climbed in behind me. She jerked the door closed to lock it securely.

I didn’t have time to worry about having an extra crewman on-board as I climbed through the engineering spaces until I entered the center gimbal to run toward my seat. “Who’s here, Carmen?”

“Everyone made it, Captain.”

“Then get us the fuck out of here. Don’t wait for the elevator. Blow through the floor if you have to.”

The Roci jerked upward and then accelerated, the hangar bay full of panicked workmen flashing by beneath us. The elevator was up at the surface as usual. She paused the Roci directly under it and then blasted upward, smashing through the elevator floor and into the ground-level hangar, and then through its roof into the night sky.

“Keep us low, Carmen, and fly fast. We need to get some terrain between us and the site. Don’t know how the bugs knew what we were up to, but they’re damn well going to nuke the place.”

I was slammed back in my seat, my vision narrowing to two tunnels as the G-bladders squeezed my lower body, the seat tilting automatically to the best position to keep me alive. I saw the display show 12G’s, and somehow I was still conscious. Squinting as my vision narrowed to pinpoints, I saw the desert flashing by just beneath us. Ahead, a black ridge rose into the sky, blocking the stars.

“Missile launches,” Carmen shouted. “I count six. None are tracking us. All going toward the base.”

I saw the ridge race toward us — we had to be doing Mach 3 — and the world tilted as she stood the saucer on its side and shot through a narrow gap in the ridge. Once on the other side, she flattened out and stayed low, accelerating even faster.

“Shut all systems down,” she called out. “EMP bursts coming.” My display and all the camera feeds from outside went dark. The interior was in total darkness as Carmen flew with her eyes now, looking through the hull along with everyone else but me as we raced away.

They all had a view of the end of Area 51. I heard some gasps and a couple of screams, and knew the nukes had detonated.

The Roci started to shake as Carmen’s flight team continued to accelerate faster than we had tested, my back feeling as if it was going to break despite the gel seat, my narrowed vision turning to darkness. I saw 13G’s on the meter, and then no more.

I awoke to find the lights back on, displays working normally. The screens showed an inky blackness with no signs of lights or stars. We didn’t seem to be moving. It wasn’t until I looked closer at the display with my bloodshot eyes that I saw that we were four hundred feet underwater.

“He’s awake, Carmen.” It was Alice’s voice.

“What… what’s our status?” I blurted out.

“We’re at the bottom of Lake Mead, Captain. They hit Groom hard. Very hard. I saw six detonations. Big ones, I estimate multiple megatons each. Ground bursts. It’s gone, John. It’s all gone. Jacobs. Everyone. Everything we were building.”

I struggled to get out of my seat, only to have Alice help me to my feet. She seemed attached to me now.

“Some Ubers must have gotten out, Carmen.”

“Maybe. Probably not many. The crew for the Enterprise had just arrived. They were headed to their work stations, not trying to fly away. We didn’t have an evacuation plan for this kind of attack.”

“The Ubers would have survived. Some of them.”

“Not after getting hit that hard, Captain. The bugs have never come at us with weapons that big before. Crater’s probably a mile deep and ten miles wide. Everyone’s vaporized.”

“Thankfully we were fully stocked and mission ready, Carmen. We got all our crew, did I hear that right?”

“Yeah. Plus Alice here. She saved your life.”

I looked up at Alice as she beamed down at me, warmth in her eyes. She didn’t seem to notice or care that she was naked. Looking around, I didn’t see anyone wearing a flight suit, just whatever bits and pieces they’d been sleeping in.

“Well, I doubt the bugs can find us down here. On the other hand, we can’t see them either.”

“We haven’t felt any other shocks,” Carmen said, “so my guess is they didn’t hit anything near here but Groom Lake. Somehow they knew what we were doing and just the right time to hit us. Which means they had bugs on the ground, dug in, watching us.”

“Question now is whether then saw us get away,” I added. “If they pulled their scouts out before the attack, then they probably didn’t see us fly. Given our stealth, the bug ships wouldn’t have picked us up during their attack. But if the scouts were sacrificed, they could have beamed a message out before they went up in the blast. They’ll be hunting us in that case.”

“Then we hunt first,” Ivanka said from behind me. “Kill bugs first who kill us. That what we do.”

“That’s a good point,” I said. “We know one thing for sure — there are at least three bugs ships near Earth. If those ships disappear, they’ll be cautious before bringing any more ships near Earth until they understand what is going on.”

“Or they’ll bring everything they’ve got,” Alana countered.

“Both are possibilities,” I said. “But if they were mounting a large attack, our space radar would have seen more targets. We need to contact NORAD to understand if this was a precision strike on Groom, or the start of something bigger.”

“Either way, we go bug hunting, right, Captain?” I turned to see Rhian standing beside me.

“Damn right. They aren’t going to get away with killing our friends.” I looked over at Carmen. “Or our families.”

I sat back down in my chair. “It’s still night. Bring us up, Carmen, but just enough to get a SAT antenna above the water. We’ve got current codes. We can talk to NORAD.”

“Flight crew to your stations,” Carmen said as she exited the gimbal to head back to her pilot’s station.

“Alana, can you detail someone to find some clothing for Alice and assign her some place to call home. She’s crew now.”

Alana turned to Ariel. “Do you mind, Ariel?”

Alice reached down to hug me so tightly she nearly broke my ribs yet again. She turned and walked off with Ariel.

“I’m not even going to ask what she was doing naked in your room, John,” Alana said.

“Not what you’re thinking. But lets just leave it at that.”

“I’ll take her on my team, John. I can always use another medic, and she obviously knows something about anatomy.”

I felt the ship lurch slightly as we came off the bottom. “Thanks, Alana. Carmen, I want you to hover ten feet below the surface. We’ll crank an antenna up and listen first before we try to call NORAD. Standard broadcast stuff. Bella, can you tie us into some SAT feeds without emitting anything?”

“I’m flying at the moment, Captain.”

“Carmen, can you stabilize without her.”

“Let me try. Bella, disconnect.”

The Roci wobbled a bit before it stabilized.

“OK, I’m on the Comms now,” Bella announced.

“Just record what you get off the news feeds. Then we’ll set Roci back down and look at what we’ve got together.”

A half hour later, we were back on the bottom of the reservoir, with everyone gathered in the center galley. Rhian was cooking something up that smelled delicious, a job she’d assumed as her second role.

Bella motioned me to the side. “This isn’t going to go well, Captain. I saw some of the feed. Things are way worse than any of us imagine.”

“Tks, Bella. I’ll give them a heads up.”

I waited for everyone to settle in. Being they were Ubers, some sat, some floated, some were glued to the ceiling upside down. I walked forward to stand before the OLED screen that curved across one wall.

“Bella tells me that this is going to be shocking. Far worse than any of us expect. So get a grip.”

Twenty overly bright pale blue eyes stared at me in the dim light.

“Ok, show it Bella.”

It was far worse than anything I’d imagined. Groom Lake was a fifteen mile wide crater nearly two miles deep. So was the Uber lab in northern Nevada. Even worse, Paris was gone. Completely, even the suburbs. Blast effects had damaged half of France, Belgium and parts of Germany. Even Britain. Moscow was a twenty-mile wide crater. As was Beijing. Instantaneous casualties estimated at several hundred million, with an equally large number dying. Even worse, the ground bursts had thrown so much dust into the upper atmosphere that nuclear winter was a certainty. Scientists thought two billion more might die due to starvation, mostly in the northern hemisphere.

The only good news was that while the instantaneous radiation of the burst had been 100% lethal out to fifty miles, there was no evidence of residual radiation. Whatever they hit us with, it wasn’t nuclear. Scientists guessed it was anti-matter.

The bugs didn’t want to contaminate their meat supply.

Bella turned off the playback, and we all sat in silence. Some people cried. Eyes flashed angrily, heating the air.

I stood back up. I had to say something.

“OK, they hit us hard. Very, very hard. Not just the casualties, but where they hit us. The Uber labs plus our complex. They knew exactly what they were doing and their timing was almost perfect. We are the only glitch in their execution.”

No one else said anything, other than some sniffles and chokes. What could anyone say.

I forced myself to continue.

“For all we know, they destroyed all of the meteor fragments. I don’t know if pieces were hidden elsewhere, and frankly, that’s not our concern. There are lots of Ubers out there still, many of them fully trained. We’re not helpless, we’re just hurt. Bad.”

“Captain, may I say something?” It was Rhian.

“Go ahead.”

“We have to think of next steps, Captain. Consider for a moment that Earth’s a feed lot for the bugs. My parents were ranchers. What would any rancher do if they knew they weren’t going to have anything to feed a large portion of their stock?”

“They’d slaughter them now, and take the meat as it was,” Alana said.

“Exactly. Why should the bugs stay out there and watch billions more people die. Waste of meat. They’ll move up their timetable. They’ll come in and harvest now while they can. The lack of radiation alone says they were thinking of preserving their food supply.”

“A very good point,” I added. “They also think they’ve pulled our teeth. Taken out the offensive capability that we were building at Groom Lake and disrupted the Uber program, possibly ending any new enhancements. They’ll come down and take on the remaining Ubers before they can get organized. Before any additional offense capability can be developed.”

“How can we stop them?” Kara asked. “We’re one little ship.”

“Look around this room,” I said. “The amount of power here is staggering. Ten of you. We have an interplanetary capable ship. We can fight in space and on Mars and on most of the moons. Caitlan, what kind of shape is our stealth coating in?”

“It took a beating, Captain, what with the low level hypersonic dash to avoid the blasts. The outermost layer burned away, and that was mainly to soak up lasers. Our anti-radar stealth capability is still intact, except for the shuttle, which has no coating. We’ll have to keep it pointed away from the bug ships. Otherwise, we’re 100% in every area.”

“OK, then I’m thinking we get out there,” I said. “We let the first wave of their warships pass us. Earth is going to have to handle them. And then we start hitting them from behind. Taking down command ships and cargo vessels and so forth. If they’re planning on harvesting a few billion people, not to mention animals, their cargo capacity must be enormous. We take some of that out and they’ll turn their warships around to protect the heart of their colony fleet.”

Carmen jumped in. “And then we fight a cat and mouse game with their warships in the asteroid belt or Jupiter’s moons or wherever they’ve concentrated their non-military ships. We keep taking out transports. We go after their population. Command and Control. We only engage warships when we can’t avoid them.”

“As I see it,” Ariel added, “we’d be buying Earth time. Time to replicate what we were doing in more locations. Time to put together a defense force to protect them. Based on what I know about this program, the way you built it with your bare hands, we’re not talking years. We’re talking months to start building more ships.”

“All good ideas,” I said. “We buy time. But one thing, we don’t talk to anyone on Earth about this. The bugs are plugged in somehow. They knew about the labs. They knew about Groom. We have no idea where they are sucking off their intel. For all we know, they’ve got humans working for them.”

Everyone started talking at once now. I held up my hand. “I know that seems crazy, but we all know people who’d turn on their own species if it meant they’d be guaranteed a place in the new scheme of things. The bugs aren’t stupid. Far from it. No reason to think they haven’t found a way to communicate to and recruit people.

“Right now, no one on Earth knows we’re alive. Presumably the bugs don’t either or they would have hit us. We keep it that way until we get out there and start fighting.”

“But even then,” Kara said, “nobody on Earth will know what we’re doing out there. They won’t have hope.”

I shook my head. “One ship isn’t going to give Earth that much hope, even if they knew. But people are good at making their hope when things are on the line. They’ll rally and continue on and the bugs will try to stop them and things will be bad. Right up to the point where we start killing the core of their fleet. Their leadership. Whatever soft spots behind their warships we can find where they think it’s impossible for us to be. Then the bugs will be afraid.”

I could feel the mood change. People were nodding. Despair turning to determination.

“We are mighty, more than the bugs know. But we need to fly like a leaf on the wind in the middle of a dark night. Invisible and silent. But mighty when we sting.”

OK, it was a crappy analogy. But they got the point.

“Bella, what do we know about the frequencies they use for radar scanning?”

“I’ve got a list of frequencies that Jacobs’ office gave us. Supposedly everything anyone has monitored from their ships.”

“And we can monitor those?”

“I think so. We’ve got some pretty good interception and countermeasure gear that came off B-2 bombers when they were retired. Bug frequencies are in range of the gear. Most of the gear is automated, but I have to read up on how to set things up.”

“Then start reading. Once you think you can monitor their emissions and know where they are, then we’ll fly. Their ships will be orbiting if they’re still here. They’ll be emitting, searching for targets climbing to orbit because they aren’t afraid of any of our tech except nukes, which would be on missiles. We listen and we slip between them, using our stealth, and then we head for Mars, or maybe Jupiter. We’ll listen and try to figure out where their transports are gathered. Then we’ll hit them where they think they’re safe.”

There was a look of determination on every face now.

“I’m not sure anyone still has an appetite for whatever Rhian made us; if so, enjoy. But after that, I want everyone studying everything regarding your jobs that you can find on the ship. If you run out of stuff to learn, learn someone else’s job. And no matter what, we don’t emit anything. Stealth is the only thing that’s going to keep us alive until we can do some damage.”

People began filtering away, talking in small groups. To my surprise, Ivanka came up to me. She was still wearing her Supergirl kind of costume, cape and all.

“Sorry for past, Captain. I’m 100% now. No need worry about me.”

“I’ve always been counting on you, Ivanka. You’re our ace-in-the-hole. Our heavy hitter. But one of these days we’re going to have to sit down and talk about your shape twisting thing.”

She smiled. “Sure. Any time.” She floated away, heading back to her station.

I found myself standing alone in the galley. Despite my brave speech, I felt exhausted and small compared to the job ahead of me. How could I lead the attack on an interstellar race of aliens? I was crazy. We all were.

I headed for my small cabin, consisting of a bed, a chair, a desk and a tiny bathroom with a shower. It might be the largest cabin on the Roci, but I’ve had bigger closets in an apartment. I opened my door, only to be greeted by soft music and some kind of pleasant aromatherapy thing. The lights were dim and warm. April smiled at me as she lay on my bed, naked as usual.

“What are you doing here, April?” I wasn’t amused.

“This is my cabin too.”

“Like hell it is.”

“Ariel is assigning everyone to cabins. After I told her about us, how you’d made me feel important and respected for the first time and then how I saved your life, and that we have this special connection, she said it would be perfect for me to share a cabin with you.”

“Ariel said that?”

“Yes. She also said you were old fashioned when it came to crew relationships, whatever that means. Also something about being careful with my secrets. I didn’t understand. We have no secrets.”

I just sighed. Ariel’s revenge. She had more of a mean streak than I’d guessed.

I could throw April out, but then someone else would have to triple up. That wouldn’t be fair.

“If you’re going to share my cabin, April, there are rules. Rule one is that we always wear clothing covering our… you know, important parts. Rule two is that we’re sharing a cabin and nothing more.”

“But I’m most comfortable without clothing, especially around you. Besides, I didn’t bring any.”

“Well, I’m not, April. We’ve got flight suits and other ships clothing that you can wear.”

I saw her face fall. “Am I ugly to you?”

“No. Of course not. You’re as far as humanly possible from that. Further in fact, given you’re Uber. But I’m a man. What would the rest of the crew think if we were having sex?”

“That you’re lucky? I used to be very good at sex. Maybe I will be again, with practice. I just want to make you happy. To wipe away your stress and worries when needed.”

I shook my head. She was such an innocent, but she had such a good heart.

“It doesn’t work that way on warships, April. No one gets special treatment or special access to me. That could cause jealousies.”

She laughed. “On a ship of Uber women, all of whom are unfuckable? I don’t think so. Besides, they don’t like me as much as you do. They call me Dumb Bunny.”

“Look, April, you already have several jobs. Helping Alana. Also shuttle pilot and chief metal bender. You fix things that need bending or shaping or welding or whatever else you can do.”

“Ariel said I should be your companion and protector.”

“Ariel is out of line. I’ll talk with her. Those jobs don’t exist on my ship.”

She scooted over to lay against the outer wall of the bunk. “You’re tired, John. Come lay down with me and sleep. I’ll be good. I’ll look for some clothing tomorrow.”

I turned and walked into the bathroom to look at the tired, haggard face in the mirror. I barely recognized myself. One thing was very clear. I needed sleep. With or without April in my bed.

I took off my clothes and turned out the lights to feel my way to the bed. I’d barely laid down when April curled up to my back, her arms around me, one warm, slender leg slipping comfortable between mine. I knew it was dangerous to sleep this way. If she had a dream and started to thrash around, I could be crushed. But I was too tired to care.

“I’ll keep you warm and safe, my Captain,” she whispered. “Always. Forever.”

I woke hazily from a dream, my body aroused as it always is on first awakening. The soft hand holding my erection was still a part of my dream. My body responded in kind, my dream morphing as a hand that could crush steel was instead gently teasing me. I awakened fully just as my release came upon me, and suddenly realized it was April’s hand I felt, not Ariel’s as in my dream.

“What the fuck…!” I cried.

Embarrassed and angry and disoriented by the juxtaposition of dream and reality, I pushed April’s hand away. She floated up and over me to go into the bathroom to wash her hand. She was smiling.

“April, what did I say about this?” I shouted after her. “That kind of thing is not appropriate on a warship. I’m the Captain, damn it.”

She came out of the bathroom to stand naked by the door. “Captain, I may be the Dumb Bunny of this ship as the other’s say, but I know one thing. This isn’t the old Navy. We’re on a spaceship. We’re going out into space to fight alien bugs. Everyone on this ship except you is a superwoman. I don’t think the old rules exactly apply.” She turned to open the door, and then paused to look back at me. “And sometimes, your body knows what it needs more than your brain does.”

And then she was gone.

I rose from the bed, surprised to find that I felt completely refreshed. Wonderful even. Walking into the bathroom, the face in the mirror looked years younger compared to last night, the lines faded, my exhaustion and worries erased. I knew this feeling. It was how I felt every morning after sleeping with Ariel.

That was too weird to even think about right now. Instead, I took a long shower — our water is fully recyclable, and we were underwater for Christ’s sake — and then got dressed in one of the ship’s flight suits.

I decided to start a new morning ritual that involved a walkabout of the entire ship before breakfast. That was especially useful today given so many things had been going on the last couple of days that I wasn’t sure what supplies Carmen and the crew had put on board.

Given the ship was the better part of two hundred feet in width and nearly seventy feet in height, narrowing to five feet in height at the edges, there were a lot of compartments that were outside of the circular gimbal in the center. I started to squeeze through the maze of beams and narrow corridors only to have Caitlan join me, her red hair tied off in a thick braid. She was dressed in a ship’s flight suit like me. She said she’d been up all night studying schematics and specs and was now going around to find everything she’d identified on the prints.

I left my Chief Engineer to her business to work my way over to the torpedo workshop, which I discovered was half filled with heavy scrap steel from the Enterprise’s construction. Someone had tack-welded tons of it into a huge pile against one wall. Ulyana and April were there, both dressed in the same outfits, despite Ulyana’s earlier claim that she wasn’t about to cover the sources of her power. I gathered that Carmen had given an order to wear clothing.

“What’s with all the scrap?” I asked Ulyana, ignoring April.

“We only have a dozen spare torpedoes, Captain, which isn’t going to take us far in a fight. April says she can extrude and flatten this scrap into sheets that she can weld up into tubes. If she makes it thin enough, we can make hundreds of tubes out of this stuff. She can crimp and eye-weld one end, and then do the same to the other end after someone gets in, and we’ll be air tight.”

“Impressive.”

“I also took the liberty of loading a couple of large crates of cigar-sized oxygen generator capsules and small CO2 absorbers that you ordered. I figure we toss one of each of those into each of April’s torpedoes before launch. Probably let us breathe for a few hours. April has also been talking about using her shuttle to pick us up if we can’t get back to the ship.”

April looked at me as if to say,“I’m not as dumb as you think.”

“Carry on, ladies. I see that you’ve got things well in hand here.”

I made a quick pass through the other compartments to find that everyone was similarly engaged, and then headed for the galley. Rhian was cooking breakfast. I reached over to key the intercom. “Crew meeting in the galley in five minutes.”

Everyone was wearing identical flight suits as they gathered. Given the way they fit and all that long hair of various colors floating around, they didn’t look very military.

“Well, now we actually look like a crew. I was impressed on my walkabout this morning. I’m seeing lots of initiative and forward thinking. That’s what’s going to keep us alive.”

Heads nodded.

“As someone reminded me this morning, we’re not a Navy ship. We’re something that has never existed before. We get to make our own rules. The ten of you and this ship are something the Universe has never seen, so we’re not going to run this ship the usual way. I’ll handle strategy to start with, and I can be a resource if you’ve got a problem. I’ll try to keep us organized and I’ll settle disputes. Carmen has tactics and flight and the day-to-day. But otherwise, you run your own departments, you have your own jobs, which I hope you cross train on as much as possible. Unless you need to do something that could endanger the ship, you don’t need my permission before you do it.”

I saw some eyebrows lift. April was grinning. Ariel was looking at me oddly. Carmen looked impressed.

Rhian placed some large pans on the table. Eggs, toast, cereal and milk. Also lots of coffee.

“Lets make it a tradition to start each day here, 0700 ship’s time. I’d like everyone to make a brief report on their work and any problems, and we’ll make whatever decisions we need to make together. Then we go do our jobs. Any questions?”

There weren’t any.

“OK, now are there any critical shortages that we need to alleviate before we leave Earth?”

“Food’s going to be an issue, Captain,” Rhian said. “I’ve got fresh stuff for a few weeks or so, but after that, it’s going to be freeze-dried. We’ve got a year’s worth of that crap. But if we can stop somewhere and fill up all the nooks and crannies, we might be able to eat well for a lot longer.”

“Landing in a Costco parking lot might get us noticed, Rhian. Besides, given the attacks, I doubt there’s anything on any shelf in any grocery store on the planet right now. Earth is going to be starving soon as it is. We’ve got food to live on, even if it will get old.”

“Right,” she said.

“Anything else? Anything we have absolutely need before going out into the void?”

There wasn’t.

Everyone dug in to eat, chatting happily. I even heard a few jokes and some laughs, which was more than I’d expected after yesterday. They were behaving like a submarine crew right after submerging to begin a long underwater tour. They were focusing on each other and their ship. The outside world was there, mostly anyway, but on hold. The entirety of their world was now the inside of our steel walls.

It was a good start.

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