A click and a hiss of air warned Apama that the hatch into the cabin was about to open. She was seated cross-legged on the bottom left rack with her tablet, lowers holding and uppers typing. As the door slid aside she closed the tablet, set it on the mattress, and swung her legs out to stand and face three strangers. They wore gold lieutenant senior grade bars on their flight suits, sleeves studded with combat stars. As they stepped into the cabin the door shut behind them. At once the space felt crowded and intimidating.
Apama interlaced her lower hands and cupped her right upper hand over her left upper fist as she gave the arrivals a nod. They echoed the gesture.
“Our fourth was transferred out very suddenly three days ago,” said the one with short, curly black hair. She crossed her upper arms and set her lower right hand on her hip. “So you’re her replacement?”
“Apama At Sabao. Lieutenant junior grade.”
The three exchanged glances again, then looked at the photo projection Apama had fixed to the locker end of her rack: an image of her and her mom on the vacation they’d taken to the Grove after Mom finally qualified for her medic’s license. They were standing on one of the landings of the Great Helix, the vista behind them blurred by the camera angle. Mom had her arms around little Apama, her only child; there was nothing that felt safer than being encircled by her mother’s arms.
Apama had learned to get the obvious out of the way immediately when she was going to have to deal with people over a long period of time, rather than let their curiosity fester. “My mom’s a shell. I am too, technically, but my caul was removed after birth so there’s nothing to harden into an exoskeleton.”
“That’s lovely and thank you for sharing, but what we’re really interested in is if you passed your lancer training like everyone else in this squadron,” said curly black hair.
“I did. Surely command doesn’t assign unqualified people to fly combat?”
“I just wanted to hear you say it. I’m Delfina Ba Hill.” Her shoulders relaxed as she uncrossed her uppers. “My call sign is Splash. You need to remember it, starting now.”
“Okay.” Apama tried not to ask many questions because in her experience people would answer what they wanted you to ask, not what you wanted to know.
The svelte blonde said, “I’m Ana Ir Corsária. Call me Cricket when we go out.”
“Go out where?”
“I’m Renay Ar Helm,” said the one whose hair was styled in a rakish pink-and-purple wedge cut.
“Our own Deadstick,” said Ana with an evil grin, elbowing Renay.
“Where’s your flight suit?” Delfina gestured to her locker. “We launch in sixteen.”
“Launch?” Apama blinked about five times, but she couldn’t orient herself to the abrupt shift.
“Our last live field exercises before we leave Phene imperial space for the Gap,” explained Delfina. “You do have a flight suit, don’t you?”
“Uh, yeah. It’s ready to go.”
“No time to waste! You’ll be my double.”
Apama stripped without hesitation, knowing they would notice the nubs at her joints and the unusual glistening of her skin. In such close quarters, they’d see her naked sooner or later so they might as well get an eyeful now. But they politely looked elsewhere.
Delfina tapped a foot like she was the kind of person who got bored easily. “The squadron commanders decided we’re going to use the time while the vanguard gets moving to practice maneuvers. It’ll take a while to get this boss fleet going.”
“Are all the ships in this fleet equipped with knnu drives?”
“That’s right. You ready?”
They absorbed her smoothly into their group as they strode along the passageway. She swallowed an adrenaline pulse to keep a bland façade.
Knnu drives on military ships.
A secret mission on the edge of the Gap.
None of this was normal procedure. The situation was so disorienting she didn’t try to memorize their route, not yet. Instead, she cooled her mind the way she’d learned to do when young, working through a calming routine like a puzzle falling into place that allowed her to block distractions and just focus.
“A bunch of targets have been laid down out by the dead beacon’s control node,” Delfina explained. “We launch in our pods and do high-speed runs at them, paint them, and simulate weapon launches. Should be just like combat training back in flight school, basic skirmish tactics stuff. Some kind of mission prep.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Renay, “but make sure you nail every shot.”
“We’ve got a tally running against the Steadfast Lion, and it’s neck and neck,” added Ana.
“Do you know what the mission is?” Apama asked.
“Only the shadow knows,” said Delfina cryptically, “which means no one knows.”
“Someone has to know,” said Apama.
“You have too high an opinion of the high command,” said Renay, and Ana said, “For all we know, we’re just hunting smugglers.”
“With this size of a fleet?” Apama objected. “That seems unlikely.”
They reached the flight deck to find the hum and bustle of a well-trained crew making ready for launch. A heavy cruiser like the Strong Bull had a complement of sixty-four lancers divided into four flights of sixteen lancers. Each flight was further divided into four pods of four, and of course each lancer carried two pilots in the back-to-back configuration that gave lancers exceptional maneuverability.
“We’re the tailenders,” said Renay in an undertone, kindly filling her in. “Lancers fifteen and sixteen in the fourth flight.”
“Gale Force is our flight leader,” added Ana. “Our flight call sign is Mace. Nails is our squadron commander. Her flight’s call sign is Hammer.”
“Obviously,” said Delfina.
“Second flight is Club,” said Renay, and Ana finished, “And third flight is Gurz.”
Delfina pushed past pilots toward their assembly position at the port tube. “Let me take the lead, Apama. I don’t want you to be the spanner in the works since I’m guessing you’ve never launched from a heavy cruiser.”
“Only in simulation.”
“Dyusme,” muttered Delfina.