It therefore came as an unpleasant surprise that instead of being ushered off the docking ring to the station’s quarterdeck to start intake proceedings, she and the sack were hustled to a different dock and onto a utility shuttle. Her companion shifted the heavy sack into the arms of a senior specialist.
“I got everything. We can launch,” Gail announced.
The pilot and copilot turned to give Apama a slow once-over. The pilot drawled, “You’re the whole reason we’ve been sitting on our asses at anchor for three days waiting to leave?”
“I’m transferring in for duty,” she said, glancing at Gail for help.
“We are full up on utility pilots,” remarked the copilot, lips curling, “so I don’t know where you think you’re headed. And you don’t look one bit like a triple-A fast-track heritage seed, do you? In fact, are you a—”
“I said we can go now,” Gail broke in, “and you know who gave me my orders.”
“Nails gave the order, yes, we know. This shell is a lancer pilot?” the pilot asked with a sneering curl of the lips.
“I earned my place through hard work and high scores, just as you did,” Apama said in a coolly neutral tone.
“Nah, his scores weren’t that good, which is why he’s a utility pilot and not a lancer like us, Apama. I can call you Apama, right?” Gail turned his back on the sour-faced pilots and headed for the passenger benches set against a bulkhead away from the cockpit. “Come sit by me. There’ll be a good view out of the porthole.”
They strapped in side by side. The senior specialist stowed the sack in a locker, gave Apama a cursory nod of acknowledgment, and exited into the cargo hold.
A comforting exchange with the station control tower initiated. The shuttle disengaged, withdrew from the station, and slotted into a departure lane. Once clear, the shuttle accelerated around the magnificent curve of the striped gas giant, soon leaving the station and the planet-sized moon behind.
Gail talked the whole time, for which Apama was grateful as it became clear he was flooding the silence on purpose. So it was that Gail was telling a long story in a deliberately comic fashion about how he had crashed his first lancer into a shiverpeak wilderness and spent a month hiking to safety with a broken arm and the lover he had just had a nasty breakup with when Apama saw the fleet.
The ships in their tight ready formation were tucked behind a rare triple confluence of three of the gas giant’s moons. There were hundreds: assault cruisers, light cruisers on the wings, and an astounding ten dreadnoughts, the jewels of the fleet.
“What are all these doing here?” she asked, shocked into speech. “There’s nowhere to go from here except into the Gap.”
“We are all destined for death,” said Gail cheerfully.
The pilot hailed one of the dreadnoughts. “Bravo Charlie six seven, this is six seven Unicorn three on your nine two niner four mark eight four six one. Checking in with a full tank of mass and five souls on board.”
“Six seven Unicorn three, copy your contact on my nine two niner four mark eight four six one with five souls and a full tank. We’ve got you cleared for hangar five. You’re clear to kick to tower. Welcome back. You’re the last ones in.”
“The last ones in for what? Why no heavy frigates? Where are we going with this boss fleet?”
“Those are the questions we’re all asking, aren’t they?” Gail replied. “We don’t know.”
It turns out you won’t ever read this letter because we are allowed no mail privileges on this mission. I’m going to keep writing anyway and pretend you’ll read it.
I never expected to end up on a high-level assignment like this so soon out of flight school. If you ask me it’s a bit strange. I asked my sponsor, a nice lieutenant senior grade whose name I can’t share, if the fleet is short of lancer pilots after our recent losses to Chaonia’s military at Na Iri and Tarsa. But he said the Strong Bull has their pick of experienced people. So the mystery of why and how I’m here, and why the fleet waited at anchor for three days until I got here, hasn’t been answered. Yet.
Meanwhile I was shown to my rack, a tiny cabin sleeping four in two stacked bunks, which is the luxurious accommodations junior officers get. My new friend hustled away because he’s adjutant to the lancer squadron commander and has other duties. Now I’m just waiting.