10.2 – Aimee’s Support

Two days ago

Aimee wiggled her toes. It was a small gesture, but it made her entire leg ache as if she had just stretched for an hour. Despite the aching feeling she did it again, smiling at the small digits as they curled and uncurled. When she had woken up in the hospital bed it had been the first thing she’d done, and the fact that she couldn’t move them had terrified her more than anything else in her life. The doctors had entered the room to find her sobbing, shaking her head back and forth and unable to do anything else.

“Muscle suppressors,” they had told her, “to keep you from moving around too much in your sleep and exacerbating the damage.” Aimee still thought they could’ve left a note or something beforehand, rather than leaving her thinking she would be paralyzed for the rest of her life.

In the meantime, being stuck in the clean white sheets until her legs healed completely was almost as bad. It was like a temporary paralysis; being unable to leave for so long, her only company the squaddies when they could grab enough free time and felt like wasting it on visiting her. Jackson was the most frequent, and she could really see their relationship burgeoning into something like a close friendship. Aimee smiled as she pulled a screen from her bedside table.

Her father had been an Academy pilot before his injury had forced him into retirement, so Aimee had known what to expect from her squaddies. The Nesbit family had moved from deck A to deck H just so that he and his fellow squaddie Sara could be on the same floor, and her mother had simply seen it as the cost of marrying an Academy pilot. Sara was like a close aunt or an older sister to Aimee for most of her life, and when she had begun her Academy training Aimee had been excited to have that same relationship with someone.

Did we lose our chance at that, when we left Academy? Did we ruin our shot at any meaningful connections? Aimee stared through the screen without really reading anything. It wasn’t as if there was anything interesting to read anyways; trapped inside the core of Pivot and cut off from the outside world, the screen could only access Pivot’s network. A few kids were writing a story on one of the sites, but anyone old enough to write entertaining content would be spending most of their time working. Like I should be doing. Aimee shifted restlessly. She amused herself by playing yet another game of ShipMiner

Missy came by a few hours later, clearly on a break. Her uniform was smudged with charred carbon and grease, and her brown hair with its streak of blue was tied in a tight ponytail much like the ones Aimee liked to wear.

“They have you working on ship repair?” Aimee moved her legs aside to let her friend sit on the end of the bed, wincing at the motion. “Isn’t Pivot all about the building and tech, don’t they have enough mechanics?”

“What would we use ships for?” Missy had been carrying a small package beneath one arm, and she unwrapped it on the bedspread to reveal several meal cubes. She must’ve been working hard, since the cubes were being tightly rationed yet Missy had managed to grab flavored and textured food. Missy leaned back comfortably and popped a lavender cube in her mouth. “We’re completely land-locked.” She explained around the mouthful of cube. “As far as we can tell the Terrans own everything in a complete sphere around us; there’s no way we could safely launch a ship from the core and get it to the outside. No, I’ve been helping work on the generators.”

“You don’t know anything about power systems.” Aimee popped a tan in her mouth and took a moment to enjoy the savory, rich texture and taste. “At least with ships we squaddies kind of know what we’re doing.”

“Mostly they just have me cleaning parts and handing out tools.” Missy admitted with a smile. “But it sounded more impressive the way I said it.” Aimee chuckled, watching her friend with interest. The friendly and outgoing girl at the end of the bed was almost an entirely different person to the mousy girl she had known at the beginning of their tour. Of course the largest shift in her confidence had been after she started dating Preston. The two of them had really brought out the best in each other; he had somehow drawn her out of her shell, and she had miraculously made him less of an asshole and more pleasant to be around. Aimee frowned. Preston had even visited her in the hospital a few times, and they had chatted much more naturally than the single time her own boyfriend, Li, had visited.

Aimee’s thoughts were interrupted when Missy leaned forward and flicked her across the forehead.

“I’d say ‘chit for your thoughts’, but I spend my last luxury chit on the food.” Missy said. “What are you so caught up on in there?”

“I was just thinking about Li. Specifically how Preston is a much better boyfriend than him.” In another girl Aimee might have to worry that her words would be construed as jealousy, but Missy understood her bumbling attempts at communication by now. She ate a pink sphere thoughtfully, not replying until she’d finished the entire thing.

“You have a lot of interests in common with Preston, don’t you?”

“Sure. We both play Cribkers, we both like pre-separatist art, both enjoyed drones classes.”

“You both listen to that Popclick noise.”

“Hey, Popclick is a legitimate musical genre, snob.”

“Either way, you don’t really share many interests with Li, do you?” Missy lifted a tiny golden cube to her mouth and sniffed it before eating it as Aimee considered the question.

“I dunno…we sort of just each do our own thing when we’re not together.”

“And by ‘together’, you mean having sex. The only thing you have in common is liking old Synthetic Joe cartoons.”

“Li likes Synthetic Joe?” Aimee asked in surprise.

“Aimee Patricia Nesbit!” Missy glared, and Aimee winced at the use of her hated middle name.

“There’s no reason to be mean about it.” Aimee sulked, and Missy’s angry face softened.

“I’m sorry Aimes, I’m just cranky ‘cause of the heat.” Indeed, the other girl’s face was shining with sweat, her clothes clinging to her. For once Aimee was grateful to be in the hospital wing, where the patients only had to wear light medical gowns, and heatsoaker panels had been placed to absorb large portions of the ambient heat. She felt sorry for whoever had to share a room with the used heatsoakers that would begin expending all that collected heat.

“Look, I know okay? I know I should break up with him. Hell besides the sex, neither of us will even notice the difference anyways. It’s just hard, you know? I’ve never been the one to do the breaking up before. I have to steel myself up for it.”

“Oh, it gets easier to break up the longer you’ve been together? Is that how that works?” Missy asked innocently. Aimee opened her mouth to come up with a smartass answer, but they were interrupted by a small ping from the hand-sized screen on Missy’s belt. “I have to get back to work. Parts need cleaning, tools need fetching. Just think about what I said, okay?”

“I’ll break up with Li.” Aimee lifted her screen. “I’ll call him right now. I just…really hope we can still be friends afterwards.”

“Okay, good luck sweetie.” Missy leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “Eat the rest, I bought half of these for you. I have a date night with Preston tonight, but I’ll stop by tomorrow and see how it went. It’ll be hard, but I have faith in you.”

When did that change? Aimee thought idly as she watched her friend leave. When did I become the ‘sweetie’ that needed reassuring?

She activated her screen and went back to playing ShipMiner. She would call Li and break up with him. In just a little while…

Two hours ago

It was awkward sitting next to Li when she knew she should break up with him, but what could she do? It wasn’t as if she could turn to one side in the middle of the General’s debriefing and say “psst, by the way I’m breaking up with you.” Much better to wait for the perfect moment, and now definitely wasn’t it.

Her worries put off for the moment, Aimee focused on the General’s and the security Captain’s words. The mission seemed straightforward, although it wouldn’t be easy: open the shielding, pump out the heat, flood the core with cool air, then slam the shields closed again. Aimee wiped a bead of sweat from her neck and nodded. When she’d stepped out of the hospital she could actually feel the wall of hot, sticky air she was moving into, and for a moment she had briefly considered hamming her injury to spend a little more time inside the cool confines of the impromptu sick bay.

Not that she would, of course; being there when Tess and Captain Appet had emerged was too rewarding an experience to miss, even if it had been a little awkward with the girl who used to be their teammate but had no memory of them. Aimee shook her head and tried to focus again. It was too early in the morning for this, she needed a caffeine dose. Just a few minutes later they were moving to get ready, and Aimee was busy enough to forget about problems focusing.

Two seconds ago

Did sweet and doll-like Missy really just say ‘fuck them up’?


The crash of the room-wide section of shielding opening was muffled almost instantly by the whipping wind that blasted past them from behind, mixed with the startled sounds of all of the squaddies who hadn’t taken thermodynamics classes. The heat differential between the sweltering core and the cool air outside caused the air to shift with a huge gust of wind. Despite the possibility of enemy combatants, Aimee clamped her eyes shut as the blowing wind whipped against her face. The only place she had encountered wind before was on the rescue mission to the surface, and for a moment Aimee was back there, in between the trees and unnatural curves of the plants, biting back fear for her life, just waiting for a Terran to end her life.

Aimee opened her eyes, and the feeling didn’t go away. She wasn’t quite sure what she was expecting, but she was pretty sure it included some version of the sleek hallways of Orbital Pivot, the enclosed space of an Orbital, the metal and plasticine that was the hallmark of ordered, civilized life. What she didn’t expect was twisted trees, climbing plants, and the unnatural curves of vines and leaves.

“What the fuck.” She breathed, but her voice was swallowed up in the silence that followed. The metal of the hallway protruded a few feet past the line of shielding, but after that it was covered by the twisting roots of giant trees. The ceilings had been ripped away, and although the presence of oxygen told her that there had to be at least something between them and the void, she couldn’t see any metal above them, obscured by the heavy tree cover.

It was lucky that there were no Terrans waiting for them, because for a few moments Aimee and her squaddies were exposed and defenseless, staring at the changes with open mouths. The whole affair was lit with an eerie blue glow, similar to the reflective light the moon had cast on the surface during the night. It was bright enough to see by, but somehow made the looming trees and small bushes seem more grave and imposing.

“This is Blue, broadcasting to both parties.” Normally the disembodied voice of the station creeped Aimee out and made her jump, but it didn’t even register as strange next to the towering trees. “I’m looking over the camera feeds from your teams and…well, I can at least see why my instruments weren’t working.”

“Can you tell us anything beyond the obvious Blue?” Jackson asked. “Something we might not be noticing?”

Is there anything that phases him? Aimee wondered, noting Jackson’s stoic demeanor. He had even dropped into suppressive-combat position, and the stance reminded her that she should be doing the same. She hastily dropped to one knee as the robotic voice answered.

“Rookie Jackson is asking for any data not obvious, which is surprisingly not much. The fauna is legitimately organic, and drawing nutrient and power from some central location. They look like separate entities, as one might find on the surface, but the roots are interconnected and sharing a single power source.”

Aimee hadn’t heard much from Blue, but the voice of the station seemed almost uncertain. “I’m not the best source to make a guess, but it appears to me that these were placed and modified to both match the appearance of the surface flora and to exist in the confines of the Orbital. How they made those modifications to the cellular structure in such a short time is beyond me, let alone how they aged the cells to reach such growth in the space of less than a month. That kind of technological progress is…worrisome.”

There was a short pause, then the voice broke in again. “Captain Kreshler has remarked that this level of technological sophistication should be discussed with General Hunter, and I agree. I will be going silent until such time as I’m needed.”

“It’s magic. We told them the Terrans used magic, why is it such a shock?” Aimee grumbled, staring down her sights. The mottled shadows made it hard to determine shapes within the trees, and the constant wind at her back made the leaves and branches move in smooth and humanlike ways. Her trigger-finger itched.

“We know that the Terrans think it’s magic.” Alex corrected quietly. “I think we can be a little more intelligent about our guesses.”

“Alex you were there! You interacted with Terrans more than any of us, you can’t explain the things we’ve seen!” Aimee regretted her words almost immediately. The other girl hadn’t ever said what she did to get her fellow captured squaddies out of the jails and into more comfortable quarters, but Aimee had grim suspicions. Alex didn’t seem bothered by the implication.

“When I was five I didn’t know how a recyclergizer worked, and I believed my mother when she said pixies came and took our trash away.” She said. “And yet I could still use one. I’m not going to take the Terrans’ word for it just because they think they know what they’re doing.”

The group lapsed into silence again, marred only by the hum of whatever machines were pumping heated air out of the core. If every muscle hadn’t felt like a taut string, the breeze running past her would’ve felt quite good after days of building heat, but Aimee couldn’t enjoy it. The darkness and the blue light seemed to press down on them all, and the flickers in the forest played tricks on her eyes that had her almost pulling the trigger a few times.

“Rookies.” This time Blue’s voice was quiet, almost too quiet to hear. “The team on the opposite end has been engaged by Terrans. We are assuming a corresponding attack will be launched against you as soon as they make the connection of our purposes. Please standby at the ready.”

The squadmates were already in position, spread out along the walls of the hallway just inside the shielding area, but there was a subtle shift as each of them mentally prepared. Aimee strained, watching the edge of the forest as if she could see through the thick trees. She would be damned if one of her squaddies fell because she missed a Terran in the dark.

“Rookies, note has been made that the Terrans do not have low-light visibility. I will be dropping light coverage to your hallway in an attempt to provide an advantage; please put on your helmets and prepare to activate either heat or night VI modes.”

Aimee’s helmet was already on, as were the majority of the squads’. Only Marcus fumbled for a moment, slipping his into place. When the lights cut out, suddenly and silently, Aimee already had her finger on the switch. She preferred night-Vi, taking advantage of the higher definition and detail it provided. She wasn’t even sure what heat-Vi would show, given the currents she could feel swirling around her, but Preston, Alex, and Missy used heat-Vi and didn’t seem to be having problems.

Aimee was surprised to find that she was much less nervous there in the dark, peering through the night-Vi. Before the blue light had seemed ominous, the flickering shadows dangerous, and the lurking threat of Terrans terrifying. Now there was no distinction of color, and she could see into the trees as clearly as if it had been appropriately lit. The Terrans were coming, and knowing that for a fact seemed somehow less frightening.

She didn’t even jump when she caught sight of the creature moving towards the edge of the forest at a slow, cautious pace. It looked exactly like a waist-high version of a Drake; reptilian scales layered in intricate patterns across its back, a long snout and four stubby legs with dexterous looking clawed toes at the end of each. Even through the night-Vi Aimee thought she could see the intelligent gleam in its eyes. The fluttering in her stomach settled and hardened into a manageable ball as soon as she saw the creature, and instead of fear she felt only a grim resolve.

According to the squad tactics Captain Appet had taught them, if there was no time to plan hen whoever happened to be in front would give the group signals, and without hesitation Preston lifted a closed fist in the air. The squad waited obediently, as the little Drakeling shuffled to the edge of the forest and peered down the dark hallway. The creature’s gaze passed by her, unseeing, but Aimee still shuddered. It took a few hesitant, suspicious steps forward, stopping to look around it, taste the air with its tongue, and tilt its head to one side as if listening, before taking a few more steps.

The tension that was growing in her stomach was enough to make her want to scream, but Aimee trusted Preston’s judgement, and he let the beast approach until it was almost at the mouth of the hallway before his closed fist dropped.

The hallway erupted in sound as the squad emptied laser and slugfire into the beast. Even being caught off-guard and unable to see them, the Drakeling was frighteningly tough and frighteningly fast. It turned and lunged back towards the protective cover of the trees, even though Aimee could see the slugs ripping into its protective scales, and was blinded by the blinding blurs of light that were her squaddies’ laser weapons. The creature almost made it to the edge of the forest before it slumped to the ground with a roar, and the hallway and forest was quiet save for the echo of the brief but roaring volley.

Aimee blinked away the tears that the laser flashes had caused. She considered turning her night-Vi off, but she would rather be momentarily blinded than stumble into the laserfire that heat-Vi wouldn’t show her.

“Even if that was just a scout, the Terrans will have heard that.” Li noted.

“Should we move forward, spread out a little bit?” Aimee asked the group as a whole. “They won’t be able to put the shield back up, but we can have a wider range of fire.”

“And we won’t be in as much danger of whatever their version of a grenade is.” Missy remarked. Aimee looked at her sharply. The words were simple enough, but Missy said them almost lightly, as if with a shrug.

“Missy are you…enjoying this?” Aimee asked. This was the same Missy who struggled with tears in her eyes to meet the PT requirements, the same Missy who had screamed and dropped her gun their first time they went to the firing range. She stood there now completely at ease; there was even a half smile playing at the corner of her lips. Aimee frowned. Her friend’s confidence was encouraging before, now it was…creepy.

“It does get the blood flowing a little bit, doesn’t it?” Missy asked. “Makes you a little tingly? Like you can take on anything?”

“Don’t let the adrenaline make any stupid choices.” Preston warned, and Aimee felt a little better that she wasn’t the only one who had noticed the difference.

“I agree with the girls though, we should get out of the hallway.” Marcus offered. After a brief exchange of glances, the squaddies moved slowly into the great expanse of the forest beyond.

“I will not compromise the integrity of the Orbital, rookies.” Blue warned. “If I must trap you out there to prevent the Terrans from moving in, I will.” Whether it was due to her warning or simply the safety of the unknown, the squadmates pressed against the ruined wall on the either side of the hallway. The metal had somehow been corroded and eaten down, as if decades of age had set on it.

Did they do that with their magic or technology or whatever? The back of Aimee’s neck tingled. What would that do to a human?

“Our team on the other side has two security forces down,” Blue reported, “but my scans are showing they’re unconscious, not dead. The General has ordered you to switch to non-lethal rounds.”

“For all we know, they’re resistant to non-lethal.” Missy grumbled, but she joined the rest in switching. The energy weapons were easy enough to swap, but all of the squadmates with slug-based weaponry had to switch magazines, and there were a tense few moments when half of the squad were effectively defenseless until they changed over.

The first shot was bright and sudden, arcing out of the forest and towards Jackson. Aimee watched in horror as the searing bright blue orb passed within inches of her squadmate’s face, but despite the near miss he didn’t react at all.

“Terran!” Aimee screamed, all thoughts of subtlety behind her, and she spun to locate the source of the attack, resisting the urge to start firing wildly. A small motion of fabric moving behind a tree was enough to indicate a direction, and she narrowed her eyes and squeezed out a small burst of fire. The helmet adjusted to the light of her lasers within moments, but it was almost too slow; the second she could see again another bright light was moving towards her.

The other squaddies were firing as she dove low behind one of the bushes, and in the half-second it took for her helmet to adjust she felt more helpless than she’d ever felt. The Terrans’ attacks looked evil, but they were far, far slower than laser weapons. Slow enough to dodge. Blue’s comment about their lack of ability in this low light was proving accurate; even though there were several of them flinging orbs of light at the rookies, none of them were contacting or seemed deliberate.

They’re literally taking shots in the dark. She realized. They can only even see us by the light of their attacks. Jackson’s lack of reaction stuck in her head, even though there were lights and danger that screamed for her attention. It suddenly hit her as the helmet took another half-second to adjust.

“Their spells…bullet…things give off light!” She called. “They won’t show up on heat-Vi!” At her words, the squaddies who had been using the heat-Vi switched, and skirmish between the two forces, already surprisingly evenly matched, began to shift even further.

It began with the first Terran to fall. To her surprise, Aimee was the one to dispatch him, catching the burly man in the side with a laser. The man collapsed without a sound, but a Terran standing a little ways behind him began screaming, loudly and incoherently. To her right, Alex slipped behind the bush with Aimee, pulling another non-lethal clip from her belt and reloading.

“Why’s he screaming? The other one should still be breathing.” Aimee checked her gun’s settings to make sure it was non-lethal.

“Haven’t you read the histories?” Alex rose and fired a few shots, and the screaming was suddenly cut off. “First time they’ve seen Orbitans who can actually hit one of them.” With the end of the screaming, the forest was suddenly plunged into an eerie silence. Aimee peaked over the edge of the bush, and caught sight of a handful of Terrans running for more distant trees, moving away from the forest’s edge.

“They’re running!” She cried, pumping off a few more rounds at the Terrans’ backs.

“The Terrans on the other end are retreating as well.” The voice of Blue called from the hallway. “General Hunter is ordering a retreat as well. Our core temperature has cooled even lower than the outside, and he’s muttering some paranoid garbage about things being ‘too easy’ and ‘filthy Terran traps’.” Aimee grinned, and turned back to the hallway, clapping Alex on the shoulder.

“Rookies, attention and alert! From the hallways!” Blue’s voice was sharp, and the smile died on Alex’s face as they all turned to the darkened halls they had come from. Even after the several weeks in which the squad had been broken up, Aimee was so used to working as a team with her squadmates that the sight confused her. The first thought that occurred to her was to wonder why she couldn’t see whatever enemy Terran was chasing Tess towards them.

The girl’s strides were long and determined, and her fingers were moving as she ran. It was only a split-second of hesitation that made Aimee pause, but the split-second was all her former squadmate needed. Light flashed so bright that the night-Vi helmet simply shut down, its protective hardware choosing to protect her eyesight rather than blast the image into her head. She heard Tess running passed them, and she fired a few non-lethal shots in their general direction. The helmet booted back up, but Tess had already disappeared.

“God damn it, I knew we shouldn’t have trusted her-” Preston began to complain, but it was at that moment Aimee saw the spell.

It was through a combination of luck, the night-Vi helmet, and peripheral vision that she even noticed it. The spell was so subtle and so dimly lit that she might’ve walked right by it if the blur hadn’t been magnified, but her eyes widened as she watched the small orb rolling across the ground, bouncing like a ball, heading straight for where one of her squaddies stood.

“Grenade!” She screamed, and the squaddie turned in horror.

Aimee didn’t think or reason, didn’t hesitate for a moment. Throwing her gun to one side she lunged forward, throwing herself on the magical grenade at Li’s feet.

She felt the impact rattle her bones and shake her teeth. She had no idea what a physical grenade would feel like, but she could actually feel the pieces of magic whipping through her body. Her blood seemed to warm, her muscles shaking as if she’d had too much caffeine. Bile rose in her throat, then was slammed back into her stomach. One eye was staring at Li’s feet, the other somehow looking into his face. He was saying something, but all she could hear was a jumble of ten or twenty voices, all of them his, all of them saying something different.

It didn’t even make a noise. The ludicrous thought occurred to her, just as the feelings stopped as suddenly as they began. Aimee’s vision refocused, and she realized that she hung a few feet in the air, facing a group of concerned squadmates, frozen stiff. She tried to blink or speak, but it was as if her muscles weren’t even connected to her brain anymore. On the plus side, she seemed to be able to breath, and she could at least hear everyone.

“You’re sure she’s alright?” Li was asking worriedly.

“I’ve been scanning since the moment the device went off; she’s alive and conscious. Judging by the spike in brain activity she can even hear you now.” Blue sounded exasperated. “Now will you please pull her in before the Terrans come back?” Aimee’s squadmates approached and gingerly pulled her towards the hallway. It felt as if she was being pulled through a thick syrup instead of the air, but Aimee wasn’t complaining.

“What if it doesn’t wear off? What if she stuck like this forever?”

“One member of the other team was hit by this device at the beginning of the attack on the other side.” Blue reassured, as the squadmates pulled Aimee into the hallway. The group visibly relaxed when the silver shielding slammed shut again behind them as Blue continued. “He ‘thawed out’ about ten minutes ago, a half hour after the effect started. It was clearly just supposed to incapacitate you while your Terran friend escaped, not hurt or kill you.”

It could’ve killed me. Aimee realized belatedly. I could’ve died.

“She took that for me.” Li seemed similarly shocked, gently guiding her frozen body between himself and Missy as the squadmates followed in a bizarre procession. “Holy shit Aimes you had no clue what that thing did and you took it for me.”

“I’m really glad.” Missy smiled at Li from the other side of Aimee. “See how much she cares for you, even after breaking up? That’s the kind of friendship squaddies have.”

It’s the kind of friendship Dad and Sara have. Aimee would’ve smiled if she could.

Li stopped in the middle of the hallway.

“…Breaking up?” He asked.

Ah shit…

Previous Chapter (SFW): Missy’s Emergence
Final Chapter: Jane’s Honor

10.1 – Missy’s Emergence

Author’s NoteThe End of Orbital Academy

Missy shifted her weight from one foot to another, unsure of where she should be looking. The weight of the gun at her hip seemed to be pulling her towards the ground, and the ten men and women in the commando vests of Orbital Pivot’s security forces kept shooting her glances as if reproaching her for not drawing it. Their own firearms were held loosely in their hands, but the tension they carried in their shoulders made it clear just how willing they would be to use them.

A small electrical hiss in the wall made three of the security forces jump, levelling their guns at the harmless metal. Missy’s brow furrowed.

“The-the General said they shouldn’t be harmed,” she stammered, “you should be careful with your firearms.” It was barely loud enough for the assembled security and her squadmates to hear, but six months ago she wouldn’t have had the courage to say anything at all.

“The General said not to harm them unless in self defence. An Academy Captain and a Terran are going to be on the other side when that shield comes down, I think it’s okay to be on the safe side.” Their leader responded. Unlike his forces, he never took his eyes from the strangely reflectionless wall, holding his gun firmly aimed at the midpoint.

“What’s taking them so long? Didn’t the General give the order a while ago?” Missy wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead with one arm, while on the other side Preston squeezed her hand reassuringly.

“They’re getting alternating power systems up and running, clearing escape routes, closing off intersections with blockades, that kind of thing.”

“Isn’t that a bit much?” Preston broke in. “It’s Cap App and Tess, they’re not going to be a military threat.”

“He’s pulling down the only thing separating us from a Terran, Rookie. Tacksman down in conveyance says you escaped from a Terran prison camp, you of all people should know what just one is capable of.”

The anxiety in Missy’s stomach was making it cramp up, and she briefly wondered if the other squaddies were feeling the same way. Jackson’s face was impassive, as usual, but Missy noticed that Alex looked the same way, standing just behind him with her arms folded across her chest.

I wonder if they’re together. She thought. It had been so long since the rookies had all been together in the same room, they could be dating and she wouldn’t know a thing about it. The idea was so strange that she set it aside, returning her attention to the silver wall in front of them.

“Walls coming down in T-minus sixty.” The security captain’s voice was even, but everyone in the room suddenly tensed; the security forces raising sidearms and rifles to point at various points in the wall, the rookies simply stiffening.

“This is Blue, your friendly artificial intelligence.” Missy squeaked when the speaker to their right crackled to life. “Passing on the message to all non-essential personnel, aka the group of children standing around, that in the event of hostile engagement, you will almost certainly be in the danger radius. I don’t suppose I can convince any of you to move back just a few rooms, so you’ll have time to run if things turn sour?”

Missy shook her head, but most of her squadmates didn’t even respond. Preston flipped the speakerbox off until Missy grabbed his other hand in hers.

“T-minus thirty.” The captain said. Preston’s hand was sweaty, but Missy didn’t know if that was because he was as nervous as she was or because of the heat that was making her uniform cling to her body.

“Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five.” The captain didn’t count the final seconds off, and Missy jumped when the silver walls snapped down with such force that they rattled the ground beneath their feet. A rush of cold air slammed into her, yanking her almost off of her feet. To her left Marcus actually did stumbled, but he caught himself before falling.

Captain Appet and Tess stood in the middle of the room beyond, arms at their sides. The room had been torn apart, scorch marks and huge shears and gouges spread across the floors and walls, but the women themselves looked fine. Missy held her breath along with everyone else as the Captain and Tess slowly and carefully picked their way across the debris in the room, their hands always in sight. Captain Appet leaned down and murmured something to the green-haired girl at her side, and Tess looked past the guards at her squaddies.

Despite what they’d told her, Missy had hoped for a glimmer of recognition from her former squadmate.

Maybe if Julia had been here… The unbidden thought felt like a knife in the gut. They had left the two girls behind, and look at where it had brought them? If Julia was alive, who knows what the Terrans had done to her. As Tess’ gaze slid along the faces of her friends, unknowing and uncaring, Missy sighed in frustration. She hadn’t realized how much she had been holding out hope, but the sight of her teammates’ faces should’ve been enough for Tess damnit.

Tess’ gaze rested on Missy, and her eyebrows shot up in surprise.

“You- ” She said, lifting a finger to point.

There was screaming, so much screaming that Missy wasn’t sure what had even happened.

“Get on your knees!”

“Hands on your head!”

“Don’t move!”

“Lower your hands!”

Clearly trying to follow as many of the conflicting instructions as she could, Tess placed her hands behind her head and sunk to her knees.

“She didn’t do anything! What are you doing?” Missy screamed.

“Stop yelling.” The security force captain snapped out orders, first to his troops, then to Tess. “You can stand up Terran, but please don’t point. As I understand it, you’re able to attack without use of a visible weapon.”

“I didn’t mean to be threatening, I am sorry.” Tess replied. The sound of the familiar voice made the knot in Missy’s stomach loosen a little bit, as did the very familiar smile on her friend’s face. “I was just surprised,” the girl continued, nodded towards Missy, “I didn’t know there was another Terran on the Exiles’ Moon.”

It would’ve been the perfect time for Tess to show some treachery, since for a moment every eye had turned to search Missy.

“I’m not a Terran.” Missy shook her head, not sure if she was correcting Tess or defending herself to the security forces. “There was an accident early, with a crystal, it turned my hair this way.” Missy had been self-conscious about the streak of blue that ran through her hair ever since the accident, but she was even more aware of it now, standing out from her brown ringlets like a beacon. Hair dyes had proven ineffective in changing the colour back, and now that the station was on emergency power, she couldn’t requisition luxuries like hair dye even if she had the chits for it.

Tess hadn’t said anything about her explanation, just nodding and following Captain Appet into the room where her squadmates stood. Missy hadn’t noticed how nice the cool breeze had felt until the silver shield slammed back into place, cutting off the pleasant breeze with a loud slam.

With the security forces loosely ringing them, Captain Appet and the squadmates looked at one another awkwardly. Missy wasn’t quite sure what to do, but she opened her mouth to say something when Jackson stepped forward and threw his arms around Tess in a bear hug.

“Even if you can’t remember us, it’s good to have you back Tess.” He said. “We were friends once, I’m sure you’ll learn to put up with us again.”

“Please let go of me.” Tess was standing ramrod stiff, clearly fighting to keep a horrified look from her face. Jackson stepped back quickly, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly.

“Sorry…I just-”

“No it is I who should apologize.” Tess said hastily. “I just…I don’t like being touched, and I don’t know you….”

“Didn’t mind it before…” Jackson mumbled, but trailed off. Missy offered a hand instead, even though Preston tugged on her to keep her by his side.

“I’m Missy.” She said. “Would you like us to call you by your Terran name? Or is your old name alright?”

“They’re both pronounced the same.” Tess seemed a little relieved as she shook Missy’s hand. “I suppose you can spell it in your head whichever way you like.”

“Right then. Rooks, I don’t want to tell you your business,” Captain Appet said suddenly, breaking the silence before it started to stretch, “but as a courtesy I’m going to let you know they’re waking you up at 0500 tomorrow.”

“What? Why?” Missy was startled enough to turn her attention away from their awkward reunion.

“They didn’t say. Some security bitch.” Jane shrugged, and the captain of security cleared his throat loudly.

“You still here? How long are you going to be hovering around us? We’ve got things to do.” Jane asked.

“Until the General is satisfied she’s not going to kill us all. So probably for a while.”

“How’d we get so lucky.”

Missy was woken by a hand firmly grasping her big toe and giving it a gentle tug. It took a few such tugs for her to wake completely up, blinking sleep from her eyes.

“There’s no way it’s five hun’rd,” Missy slurred, “too tired to be five hun’red.”

“It’s not, it’s two hundred, but keep it down!” It took Missy a few blurry moments to piece together who’s voice hissed in her ear in the pitch black. It was like Aimee’s, but a little lower, and the words a little less clipped…more like…

“Tess?” Missy was suddenly as wide awake as she’d ever been, her eyes straining to make out the figure in the dark.

“Yes, but please hush, you’ll wake your lover.” Tess’ voice sounded amused, but for all Missy knew Terrans enjoyed quieting their night-time victims before slaughtering them in bed. Preston was asleep next to her; a swift kick would wake him up, but would he be able to get his bearings fast enough to make it worth the effort?

Missy could always try to fight Tess off herself…a buzzing feeling, like pins and needles, spread slowly through her wrists and her fingertips, and for some reason she felt almost sure she could take the girl. Of course Tess had always been ahead of Missy in physical activities rankings, but Missy could perhaps use the other girl’s underestimation of her.

Except, she doesn’t remember me enough to underestimate me. Missy suddenly realized. The buzzing pins and needles were in every joint now, pounding at her head. She had been sweating in her sleep, and the thin blanket she had been sharing with Preston was now in a tangled knot around her ankles. Could she kick it off fast enough to spring to her feet?

“I wanted to talk to you for a bit, is that alright?” Tess whispered, and Missy let out a gasp as the prickling pressure drained out of her body, leaving her a little shaky. She rose from the bed almost in a trance, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Preston was still asleep.

The hallways were lit with the same half-lights that had been on ever since the station went to emergency power, bright enough to illuminate their way, but dim enough to cast shadows on the walls as they walked. Missy looked over her shoulder, her skin prickling at the sight of the empty hallways around them. It was early morning, after all, so it took her a few moments to realize what made her so unnerved.

“Aren’t…aren’t there supposed to be guards watching you?” She asked carefully. Tess looked over her shoulder at Missy with a look that could only be described as ‘mischievous’.

“They left two guards outside my door. They are asleep now.”

“They just ‘fell asleep’?” Missy slowed to a stop, her stomach turning to ice. Interpreting her horrified expression, Tess shook her head.

“I made them fall asleep. They will wake up in the morning. I wanted to talk to you.”

“Why me?”

Tess didn’t answer, she simply glanced up at the streak of blue in Missy’s hair, before ducking into an open doorway. Missy shivered, hesitated for a few moments, and followed. The room was taken up mostly with a huge conference table, and with the lights out it was dark enough that someone walking by wouldn’t see the two girls that sat across from each other. Missy squinted to even see Tess’ face, but it looked as if the other girl was fixing her with a searching stare.

“I’m really not a Terran.” Missy broke the silence.

“You used a Coricia, and your hair begins to take the tint of a blue triber. That is as close to Terrans as I’m going to get, I think.”

“But I’m not-”

“I know you’re not.” Tess brushed Missy’s objections aside with an impatient hand. “But you have a friendly air, and you seem…honest.” Missy wondered what word Tess had been considering before settling on that one. “Tell me about this girl you knew. The one who I used to be.”

Missy blinked.

“I…it’s not that easy. I mean we were squadmates, and I like to think friends, but…”

“If she was such a good friend, why did you leave her to be captured by the Terrans?”

Missy recoiled as if Tess had slapped her. The way she said it so casually took Missy’s breath away for a moment, but on closer inspection it was clearly a casual question to Tess. There was no anger in her good eye, the other covered with a small white cloth patch. No bitterness, no accusation, only curiosity.

“You told us to leave you. Your leg was broken, shattered actually, and you couldn’t have run as fast as us. The rest of the Terrans were coming and we…we had to get away.” Even without judgement in the other girl’s eyes, Missy avoided her gaze.

“Aah, shattered.” Tess breathed, as if to herself. “That’s why my leg hurts when it rains.”

“What’s rain?”

“No matter. What manner of girl was she, your squadmate?”

“She was…you were…” Missy tried to keep the pronouns straight, “…strong, and brave. You were always really quiet, but we could just tell that you would go to the wire to save us. You risked your life for Julia when we fought the Drake.”

“Your squadmate fought off a Dracori for your rooks?” Tess looked impressed.

“Sort of…I mean kind of, sure. It was you, not some random squadmate.” Missy felt as if she was missing some part of the conversation, and Tess didn’t make things easier by making the dismissive motion with her hand again.

“She is different than me, a whole other person. Your Captain says I can live her life if I want, but I will never have the memories that she had.”

Missy wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, but the other girl seemed perfectly content to sit in silence in the darkened room. The heat that permeated the room seemed to smother any attempt that Missy made to continue the conversation, and the combination of the early hour and the warmth was making her nod off even as she tried to think of anything to say. She wasn’t sure exactly when she slipped into sleep.

“Get up Rooks! Rise and shine! Out of bed!”

At the familiar yet fresh sound of Captain Appet’s scoldings, Missy tumbled out of the wide bed. The nostalgia and sudden anxiety of being woken up by an angry Appet almost made her believe that the past few months had all been a part of her dream, and she wondered if that made her happy or sad. It was only when she finally pulled off the twisted blanket and blinked rapidly that her mind caught up, and judging from the swearing next to her, Preston had caught on as well.

“I thought you said it was Pivot people who were waking us up!” he growled. It was times like these that Missy was glad she was with Preston; he voiced the thoughts that she herself would never say aloud.

Captain Appet stood in the doorway, wreathed in light from the hallway. She looked exactly the same as she ever had. Of course it had only been a few months, Missy reminded herself.

“Nope,” the Captain corrected, “I said it would be a bitch, and as always, I’m true to my word. Conference room one, 0630.”

“Being awake hurts, why does it hurt?” Missy whined as the Captain vanished.

“We’ve had a few weeks off, gotten soft.” Preston grunted and began digging through their bags for their uniforms.

“Do we at least have time for a quickie before we go?” Missy glanced at the clock. The small red display read 0615. On the one hand, Captain Appet had let them sleep for an hour longer than she’d said. On the other, there wasn’t even enough time for a quickie before they left. Missy flopped backwards onto the bed with a groan.

It took them a little while to locate the right conference room, so when Missy and Preston stumbled in, rubbing their eyes, it was already almost full. The seats were divided into two sections, with an aisle down the middle leading to a podium. General Hunter and Captain Appet were both quietly conferring with a group of three other people on the podium, and when Appet saw them come in she pointed to the back of the left section where their squadmates sat. In the front of the same section, about twenty men and women in security force uniforms or pilot civs talked and joked among themselves. In the other section of seats, the bleary eyes and nodding heads told Missy that the men and women seated there were civilians.

Not that she could judge them too harshly. Missy was yawning when she sat down next Aimee, and she leaned her head against Preston’s shoulder. The only squadmate not with them was Tess, and Missy had begun to ask where their squaddie was when Captain Appet started talking from the podium.

“This is the entirety of our security forces.” Captain Appet barked, and the room immediately fell into shocked silence. Missy blinked. She had known that Pivot didn’t have much security normally, but did so many leave in the initial evacuation that this was all that was left?

“I notice that some of you are probably wondering why on earth we maintain a security force that’s so damned pitiful. I wonder the same thing myself.” Captain Appet shot a look at the other woman on stage behind her. “With the permission of General Hunter, I’m going to be training up another group of security fighters for Orbital Pivot, now that Orbital Pivot is essentially a warzone. Unfortunately, it seems that there’s a little hiccup that takes precedent. “

General Hunter rose heavily to his feet. “We’re burning the fuck up.” He said coarsely. The language and the unexpectedness of his statement was enough to wake most of them from their nodding. Hunter continued.

“As soon as they dug into the Orbital, the Terrans went straight for our power generators, knocking us down to two of the available four. We don’t know why they chose to spare us and leave the other two intact, but I wasn’t the only one who felt that we shouldn’t rely on the Terrans’ largesse. This morning, work has wrapped up on our replacement generators, safely within our protective shell. They’re all ready to turn on, and we could be back on full power within the next few days. I don’t have to tell you all what a boost to morale and productivity that would be, but we’re encountering the aforementioned problem; we’re burning the fuck up.”

As if to illustrate his point, General Hunter wiped his brow with a damp sleeve before he continued. “I don’t fully understand the science behind it, but heat transfer is one of the largest problems they had when the Orbitals were originally constructed. Left on its own, heat just doesn’t like to dissipate in space, and our normal method of removing heat via ‘heat packets’ can’t work unless we have access to the outside wall of Pivot. We’re not sure how the Terrans are keeping cool, since they’ve ripped half the damn Orbital apart, but the few instruments left intact out there suggest that they’ve come up with a way to manage it. We need to do the same if we’re going to get those generators running. In the meantime…we’re going to steal it.”

Missy had started to nod off, so she was sure she had misheard the General’s words. The muttering around her assured her that she had not.

“Air replicators can provide us with oxygen, but as long as we’re sealed in the airtight shell of senstone the ambient temperature is going to approach dangerous levels. So we’re opening a section of the wall on either end, and we’re blasting the inside of our little shell with Terran-cooled air before we close it up again.” Hunter seemed sceptical of the plan he was outlining, but his gaze was steady as he looked around the room. He gestured to one of the men on the podium, who stepped forward and addressed the men and women on the right.

“You scientists are here because we want this whole process to go as smoothly as possible. Some of you were no doubt already working on the cooling problem, but this morning we want you all on the ‘moving-air’ problem. You’ll have a window of time, a hot inner core and a cool outer core, and your job will be to lower the inner core’s temperature in that window. We’re going to move to the systems lab to talk this over, so please follow me.”

The captain of security stepped forward as the scientists filed out, addressing the remaining group.

“The rest of us are acting as backup to the nerds while they cool us down. The shields have been keeping us safe from the Terrans up until that point, but that means they’ll most likely be watching for any sign of them coming down. We know they definitely have troops, and both a full-sized and bite-sized Drakes among them. It gets worse.” He raised a hand to forestall the murmurs. “Although we don’t have our normal instruments, we’re told that there are more Terrans here now than there were in the initial raid. Personally I’m hoping that just means they’ve been having a lot of Terran babies out there, but the leading theory is that they’ve manufactured some way to bring more Terrans from the surface.”

“How is that even possible? If they can portal around, why not attack us inside the core?” One of the security forces in the front of the room asked.

“We don’t know, but again the leading theory is that they have some device they’re using. If that’s true, even one Terran slipping past us is as good as letting them all in. Maybe as good as letting the whole damn surface in. That’s one of the reasons both teams are going to have to be very, very careful when we defend the two openings.”

“One of the reasons? Not the most important one?” One of the pilots asked. The captain sighed, leaning on the podium as if it had already been a rough day.

“The most important reason to be careful is that in the history of the Orbitals, we’ve never gone head-to-head with the Terrans and won.” He answered flatly.

It was strange to Missy that she’d only been awake for a few hours. It felt like an entire day had passed, and a busy day at that. From the meeting hall they went to a small construction room which had been re-purposed as a fitting station, to get her measurements taken. From the fitting station to the armoury, where the wizened man had fixed her with a look when she had answered “preferred weapon” with “something small”. From the armory they were hustled to mess to eat a quick breakfast of ‘battle-rations’, a bland thick paste that contained large amounts of proteins and carbohydrates.

Her squadmates were with her, all but Tess and Julia. Even Aimee, who had been in the hospital wing just a few days ago. They were all just as sombre as Missy, quiet as they contemplated what could be in front of them.

“They might not even show up.” Missy said brightly, trying to lift her squaddies’ spirits. “I’ll bet we get super bored and have to resort to that stupid word game Alex came up with.”

“Genius word game, you mean.” Alex gave a half-smile, and Missy grinned back. She wasn’t naive enough to actually believe her own words, but it seemed to help her squadmates a little bit.

After breakfast the squaddies went back to the fitting station, where the heavy armour plating was waiting for them. Tailored to their measurements, the rough plasticine scales fit into place around their bodies perfectly. In theory they would reflect, refract, or absorb most of the damage from energy weapons.

What about magic? Missy couldn’t help thinking as they filed out of the fitting station, but she pushed the thought firmly to the back of her mind. The dimness of the hallways reminded her of the night before, and she vaguely wondered why Tess wasn’t with them. Of course, she was still a Terran. The General probably had her under guard somewhere to keep her from fighting on their side. Missy suddenly noticed that they had stopped, and she looked around her.

For the second time in two days, they stood in front of the silver sheen of the shield.

Missy’s stomach lurched, and her hand shook as she drew her sidearm. It suddenly felt too tiny in her hand. The oppressive heat seemed to ratchet up a few notches, and she moved a damp sting of hair that was plastered to her forehead.

“This is Blue, I’ll be keeping you updated on our progress.” The disembodied voice crackled from the wall. “Both teams are in place, so we’ll be dropping the shielding in T-minus thirty. There are no Terrans in sight, but I’m a little limited on what I can see. They destroyed my instruments out there.”

Terrans aren’t invincible or invulnerable. I knocked one out. I beat them when I rescued my squaddies from them. Missy focused on her breathing, leaning against Preston for a moment as if to reassure herself that he was still there. I beat them once, I can beat them again.

“T-Minus twenty.”

“Hey remember that time we kicked the Terran’s asses so we could have air-conditioning?” Alex joked weakly. The rest of them smiled, but Missy just knelt into firing position, pointing her gun at the wall. Around her, the squaddies did the same. The handful of security forces with them moved into position. Missy belated realized that her wrists and temples had started buzzing again, as if there were hornets in her blood that wanted nothing more than to be unleashed and ravage her enemies. In a sudden moment of clarity, the nervousness left Missy completely, and she smiled. Her back straightened, and she spoke with a voice full of confidence.

“Let’s fuck them up.”

Her startled squadmates didn’t have a chance to respond before the silver walls slammed open with a loud crash.

Previous Chapter (SFW): Grains of Sand
Next Chapter (SFW): Aimee’s Support

9.3 – Grains of Sand

Author’s Note: The End of Orbital Academy

He probably shouldn’t be embarrassing the Academy rookie like this, and she did look rather embarrassed, but General Hunter was too angry to care.

“Jesus Hunter, you don’t have to do this.” General Winchest looked at the Academy rookie sadly, as she glanced uncertainly back and forth between them.

“Rookie Nesbit, please inform the new General of Orbital Academy about the extent of your injuries.” Hunter pressed.

“Nothing too bad sir.” Aimee Nesbit shrugged, and the brief motion was apparently enough to shake her leg, and she winced. “I could’ve been messed up a lot worse, but I just took some incidental damage to my leg.”

“How would you rate the combat, Rookie Nesbit?”

“It…it wasn’t really a combat sir, speaking frankly. It was a bloodbath. There just weren’t enough ships, not with the Drake picking us off as easily as it was. Us Rookies hadn’t ever been on a Shrike mission before, and those energy weapons they were using were…intimidating, to say the least.”

“I get it, Hunter. I get your point.” The wizened General Winchest seemed even more worn down and aged than he normally did. “There’s no need to pester the poor girl any longer.”

“Thank you Rookie Nesbit.” General Hunter gave a fierce nod of approval before he realized that it would mean nothing to her. She was Academy trained, and raised god-knows-where, so she wouldn’t know how rare he gave out his approval.

It seemed strange to him, that he had known the Academy rooks for so short a time. Even with the separation that was typical between a General and an entry-level, he had interacted with them more than the majority of his pilots, and they’d been in his thoughts even when he wasn’t interacting with them. He mused as the two Generals made their way out of sick bay, jerking a nod of greeting to Rookie Rade as they left. Errisa liked Rade, something about ‘solidarity among synthetics’.

“That was a low blow Hunter.” General Winchest’s tired protests brought Hunter out of his reverie. “You could’ve just made your point without layering on the guilt.”

“You deserve the guilt.” General Hunter snapped. “By all the covenants man, I’ve got fucking Terrans aboard my Orbital, and they’ve torn it apart from tip to tip. I’m at half-crew, our supplies are dwindling, and we’re down to two generators that will only last until the Terrans out there decide to rip them out. And all of this could’ve been avoided.”

“We don’t know that.” Winchest protested, but they both knew it was a weak argument.

“We know that we’d have had a shot at repelling them if the Academy ships had gotten here in time.”

“My ships got here in time to evacuate half of Pivot.”

“Not enough. You didn’t get here in time to help when it mattered. And why?”

“Because you refused to accept the very reasonable deal I offered.”

Hunter stopped and jabbed a finger into the other General’s chest.

“Because you decided that politics and posturing was more important than the lives and safety of my men and women. And now you want me to trust that you’ll take care of those same men and women? I should send you past the shield and let you talk to the Terrans.”

“The Terrans would probably be easier to talk to.” Winchest ran a hand through his hair, and at the small gesture Hunter almost forgave him. He was an old man, wise and experienced, but none of that experience meant he would make a good General. With General Poulay whispering her tripe into his ear, it was no wonder that he made bad calls so early in his career, and it was also no wonder that he was feeling overwhelmed at the moment.

“I’ve got too much to deal with to have this discussion twice Winchest, and I’m sure you plan on bringing it up at the meeting.”

“Whether or not I let you down, Hunter, we made a deal, and my ships came. We helped you, risked our resources to help you, and there are enough of us stuck here that we’re affected just like you.”

“Save it for the meeting.” Every cell of General Hunter was weary, he could feel the exhaustion seeping into his joints and bones, but there was still far too much to do to allow him to rest. “I understand you’re in a rough spot, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time to work it out with you.”

“At the meeting then.” General Winchest agreed. The two Generals shook hands briefly, a regretful understanding passing between them. General Hunter remained for some time after General Winchest left, staring at the wall. With a curse he spun on his heel.

I suppose there’s some things I can take care of that’ll reduce my stress a bit.

Even as he exited the elevator, General Hunter felt noticeably better. Technically the elevator used up their precious emergency power, but the lights in his office were dimmed, and the small amount of power used to take him there were probably balanced out by the effectiveness of the minds within.

“How are my girls holding up?” He asked, trying to affect a good-natured grin and only managing a tired grimace. At the desk, the two women he had come to think of as his only respite from the problems he was facing recently. Technically the third was also present, but he still wasn’t quite sure how he felt about her, even though he had apparently known her for five years. His office was small enough that the two extra physical bodies made it a tad crowded, but he gained comfort by their presence.

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that sir.” The woman who sat at his desk gave him a reproachful look before turning back to the screen built into the desk. Standing next to her, Hunter’s wife Errisa gave him a smile before returning back to the same screen.

“Right, I’m sorry Hannah.” Hunter winced. The small white-haired girl who had been intended as his wife was always so serious and grave that it was difficult to gauge what jokes would bother her, but Hunter was beginning to get the hang of it.

“No apologies necessary sir.”

“I like it.” Errisa’s smile was enough to be worth the small break all on its own.

“You are his wife, it’s alright for him to call you ‘his girl’.” Hannah explained.

“I have absolutely no preference what Hunt calls me, but I’m technically not a girl, so if we’re going for factual correctness…” Blue had taken to lowering the register of her voice, mostly so that Hunter could tell the difference between her and Errisa, and at this point he had gotten used to the disembodied voice. He still hated it when she called him “Hunt”, but there wasn’t much he could do about it now.

“How are you three holding up then, is that better?” Hunter half laughed, half growled.

“Quite well sir.” Hannah responded respectfully. “I think I should be able to start handling Chief Errisa’s duties within a few days, if I continue learning at this rate.”

“So fast?” Hunter’s eyebrows rose. “Are you sure we aren’t pushing that schedule a little hard? It took Errisa many years of experience to get to that point.”

“Many years of experience which I was able to transfer directly to her dear.” Errisa noted.

“You did? Are you two…er…compatible then?”

“The hardest part is isolating which memories to give her, really. Hannah has a ridiculously fast transfer rate, but we’re limited by how fast my old ports can transfer. She doesn’t need every job-related experience I’ve been through to get a firm grasp on the job…and she most certainly doesn’t need any of my personal experiences.”

Hannah was blushing so hard that her normally pale face was almost entirely red, and despite himself Hunter couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s not funny sir. There are some things I just don’t need to see.” Hannah muttered, and her blush was enough to make him chuckle even more.

“I’m sorry again, Hannah.”

“Shame on you.” Errisa made a face at him over the blushing girl’s head. “Making fun of poor Hannah’s embarrassment.”

“Can I help it that I find it funny to embarrass those around me?” Hunter chuckled. “Besides, I’m not the one who showed her…I shudder to think of what.”

“Oh my goodness, was it that one time he tried that trick with his fingers that he read about on the network?” Blue broke in. Her vaguely electronic laughter echoed across the room. “I must’ve mocked you for weeks after that one, Hunter, good times. I called you ‘The Reverse-”

“Anyways,” Hunter interrupted hastily, “I didn’t come up here to socialize. What can you ladies report.” Errisa grinned at his discomfort, but turned back to the console.

“The amount of coordination we’ve been able to achieve is amazing, for having so few workers.” She said, tossing him a handheld screen full of schematics. “We’ve got three generators under construction, and if all goes well we’ll have them ready to switch on in less than a week.”

“Good. And Blue, will our electric and gravaton systems be able to take the generators.”

“That’s where we’re a little lucky Hunt. Behind the shield we’re working with about a third of the space and a quarter of the humans, and you should see the cost in energy we’re saving. Makes a girl wonder how much she could save by ejecting another half of you.”

To his credit, Hunter had broken the habit of visibly cringing at Blue’s little jokes, even though all three women would be able to read his spike in heartrate and adrenaline. Sure enough, Blue’s laughter crackled across the room again.

“Blue, hon, you know how Hunter won’t give you access to the core systems? It’s because of little jokes like that.” Errisa said, exasperated.

“You humans and human-adjacents are such worrywarts, I could improve your core systems by at least seventy-five percent.” Even without a face Blue gave the impression of a pout.

“That’s kind of what I’m worried about.” Hunter growled. “So you’re saying the electric systems are almost back online?”

“And with human workers too, it’s practically a miracle.”

For the first time in as long as he could remember, Hunter felt the stress on his shoulders lessen just a bit.

“So you’re saying we can get our generators up and running soon? We won’t be at the constant risk of the Terrans cutting life support?” He asked.

“It might be a little premature to start releasing dopamine sir,” Hannah broke in quietly, “you see-”

“They can’t control chemical interactions Hann.” Errisa interrupted quietly. Hannah blinked, looking uncomfortable as if his chemical interactions offended her, before the reaction was quickly masked by her normal professional seriousness. Hunter’s brow furrowed. Perhaps his plan to have her take over Errisa’s Chief of Information position was moving too quickly.

“-pardon me. Your relief might be premature,” she continued, “since we still won’t be able to turn the generators on.”

“Why not? They’ll be built, they’ll run on the systems won’t they?”

“And they’ll generate heat sir. Normally we’d fire heat packets into space to vent the excess energy but…I’m afraid even synthetic systems would only last a few weeks. Organic material wouldn’t even last that long.”

“Can’t we just vent the heat out into the wrecked Orbital? Cook the Terrans instead of us?”

“That would only exacerbate the problem General. Heat packets aren’t as simple as typical heat transfer, or else they wouldn’t disperse so cleanly into space. At our current level of technology the packets would simply bounce and amplify, and we would…‘cook’…that much faster. We need a direct avenue to space.”

“I see.” General Hunter sighed. “Even with that being the case, I still want them hooked up and ready to turn on at a moment’s notice. If the Terrans cut our last generators out there I’ll take ‘frying in a week’ to ‘asphyxiating in two hours’.

“8.21 days and 1.389 hours, respectively.” Hannah corrected in a mumble.

“Humans tend to round.” Errisa said gently, laying a hand on the smaller woman’s shoulder.

“I think it’s because their brains can’t handle significant digits.” Blue snarked. “And Hunt, your meeting is in 6.1832941232222103 minutes as of right…now. At your glacial pace you’ll arrive right on time if you leave now.” Hunter rolled his eyes, but he grinned in spite of himself.

“Alright Hannah, you’re with me. It’s show time.” He said, rising heavily to his feet.

“Colloquialism?” Hannah asked over her shoulder as she followed Hunter to the elevator.

“You’ll get used to them.” Errisa smiled as they stepped inside. “If you don’t understand them, I find it helpful to adopt a thoughtful air and nod.”

Just as Blue had said, the doors to the impromptu meeting room slid closed behind Hunter just as the clock on the wall ticked over to 2200 hours.

“Chiefs, Captains.” He greeted the assembled ranks as he entered. The table was horseshoe-shaped rather than it’s normal circle, and it had been divided into two with a seat for him in the middle. On the left sat Kathryn, Mabel, Pepper, Adamsly, and an empty seat which Hannah sat in; his Chiefs. On the right sat General Winchest and his various Captains from Orbital Academy, most of which Hunter hadn’t bothered to learn the names of.

“Thank you for meeting with us General Hunter, we know there are pressing matters on your time.” One of the Academy captains said as he took his seat. Hunter merely nodded in acknowledgement. It felt disingenuous to accept their thanks given the bombshell he was about to drop on their heads.

“Right, we should get this meeting underway.” Hunter glanced at his Chief of Security, Kathryn, exchanging a look. She nodded, once, and he relaxed a little bit. Security was in place.

“I’ll start, shall I?” General Winchest asked. Without waiting for an answer he turned to the assembled Chiefs and Captains. “General Hunter and I made an agreement, just before the Terrans’ Shrike Team attacked. In exchange for Orbital Academy’s assistance in this threat, and as a measure to prevent the conflict our Orbitals had from ever breaking out again, Academy would act as overseeing Orbital to Pivot. General Hunter will be stepping down from his position of command, and taking a Chief role from here on out. Most of the normal day-to-day decisions will still be left up to him-”

“In case you hadn’t noticed General, there’s nothing ‘normal’ about Orbital Pivot right now.” Chief Pepper broke in with venom. “Thanks to the fact that you didn’t assist us in the threat. It’s unlikely that we’ll get back to ‘normal’ in the next decade.”

“Let him speak his piece.” General Hunter said calmly. “Let them all speak their piece. Speak them a little less pompously though Winchest, we all know the situation.” He glanced at the timepiece on the wall.

“Ah…well yes.” General Winchest looked surprised. “I suppose that’s it, actually. To be honest, given our conversation we had early I’d assumed…well, anyway. That’s really all I had to say. I’ll of course do whatever I can to help assist Pivot in its efforts. I know I’m not the most experienced General, but I have some ideas for dealing with this situation. That’s…that’s all.”

“Thank you General Winchest.” Hunter’s voice was flat, and on his side of the table his Chiefs remained impassive. “Now to fill you all in on the current plan.” A small holographic blueprint of the station appeared in the middle of the horseshoe as Hunter continued, ignoring the quizzical look Winchest was giving him. It would take the new General a few minutes to realize that Hunter had no plans on giving up control of the Orbital, he might as well use those moments to fill them all in on the situation.

“Currently Pivot has been reduced to a wrecked shell full of Terrans, with a quarter-size sphere still in our control protected by the shield. Our remaining two generators are in Terran controlled territory right now, but we’ve recently completed work on new generators to keep us kicking for eight-point-two-one days should they cut it. Our R&D will work on the heat dissipation problems that will make it last us longer, but right now they’re focused on a system of translating silver-plated senstone into an energy source. Once they get the system up and running, the tiny internal station that Orbital Pivot has become will be self-sufficient.”

“I thought you were using your senstone stores for the shield itself?” One of the Academy Captains objected.

“There are two layers of shielding, set up in a grid around each room, and we can snap them open and closed independently. Now that we know the Terrans can’t get through even one layer, we’re going to break down the innermost walls of shielding and use them as a fuel source.”

“Now hold on just a minute,” another Captain broke in, “isn’t there a fucking Terran trapped in between one of those grids?”

“Yes, which brings me to another good point. We don’t need a captive Terran that close to us, especially since she’s in the way of trying to solve this mess. We’re killing her.”

“This has gone far enough.” General Winchest slammed a hand down on the table. “Chief Hunter you don’t have the authority to be making these kinds of calls any more, remember.”

“Ah, that would bring us to the final point.” General Hunter’s voice was quiet, but he nodded to Kathryn, who entered a few strokes into the screen in front of her. “I am not giving over control of this Orbital to you, General Winchest.”

There was a pregnant pause, and General Winchest leaned back, obviously at a loss for what to say.

“I…if you break your word now-”

“I’m not breaking my word.” General Hunter cut the other man off. “Your part of the deal was to help, and you didn’t help a damn bit. I keep my promises Winchest, but I don’t give up something for nothing. Right now the situation is as dire as anyone in the Orbit has every seen it, and I don’t have the time or the patience to play the political games I’m normally forced to play.”

His gaze swept the room as Kathryn’s security forces entered through the small door. The Academy Captains were all staring at him, stunned. It was as if they simply didn’t know how to deal with a situation like this. He capitalized on their stunned silence.

“Here’s how it’s going to go. Until this situation is resolved, you are now either officers under my command or guests aboard my Orbital; either way you’re following my orders. If you’ll serve, I’ll welcome the skills you have. If you won’t, I’ll feed and shelter you, same as anyone else on my Orbital. If you want to fight me, I will order my men to shoot you.” He spread his hands. “Those are the only options available.”

“You do realize that even threatening to break the Marshall’s covenants hold stiff penalties.” One of the Captains finally stammered. “You could be in a world of trouble if you-”

“WE ARE IN A WORLD OF TROUBLE!” General Hunter’s calm shattered, and he slammed both fists on the table as he screamed. Even his typically un-rattleable Chief’s jumped, but it was as if Hunter had unleashed every pent up emotion he had gathered over the past month. “We are living in a refuge core, by the grace of fucking Terrans. Our food is limited, our energy is limited, the very motherfucking air we’re breathing right now is limited! The only thing that we have in abundance is the heat which is steadily climbing, and the assurance that if we set foot in the ruined wreckage that used to be my castle, we’ll be swarmed with the Terrans who will very happily slaughter us. So yes, I will break every god-damned one of the Marshal’s covenants. If the Marshal can reach us in here, in this tiny little precarious chip of metal flying through the void, then my punishment will be worth it to get help to the men and women I’ve given my life to protect.”

The silence in the room seemed to echo when he had finished, and Hunter panted slightly as his gaze shifted from face to face.

“So.” He finally snarled. “Are you a Pivot Captain…are you a Pivot civilian…or are you dead? Now is the time to choose.”

The room remained silence for a while longer, before one of the Captains raised her chin and spoke.

“You said you were a man of your word General? I’ll be a Pivot Captain.”

“What the hell, Appet?” Winchest didn’t seem angry, just dissapointed, but the woman continued.

“I can help you train up a security force, men and women to fight the Terrans and take back what’s left of the Orbital. But I’ll do it on one condition.”

Hunter raised an eyebrow, but otherwise didn’t answer.

“Let me have my squad back.” The woman finished. It took General Hunter a few seconds to make the connection; the Captain was the former leader of the Academy Rookies who had started the war between the Orbitals.

“Take whatever crew you need.” He said with a shrug. “If they’ll have you back, you can have them.”

“If that’s the case then I’m on board.” Captain Appet said with a brief nod, standing. “I think I’ll get a start on that then.”

“Keep an eye on her, let me know if she tries to raise hell.” Hunter muttered to Hannah, watching the Captain leave through narrowed eyes. The white haired girl nodded thoughtfully, and he turned his attention back to the rest of the assembled Captains. “I believe the rest of you have similar choices to make.” He growled.

The walk back to his quarters seemed much lighter than the walk down had been.

“Two Captains, four civilians, and no executions.” He remarked to Hannah. “That was about as well as that situation could’ve possibly turned out.”

“We could have had all of them agree to help us sir, wouldn’t that have been better?”

“If they had all said they were helping us, I would’ve been sure they were up to something. Now sullen acceptance, that I can buy.”

“There still remains the possibility of them being up to something.” Hannah narrowed her eyes, and General Hunter nodded approvingly.

“Paranoia is an excellent quality in a Chief, so keep it up. I’ll want them monitored, of course, but I think we can-”

“Sir, Blue and Errisa need you back at quarters as fast as you can.” Hannah interrupted. “It’s an emergency.”

A few minutes ago Hunter wouldn’t have thought he could muster a run, but he somehow managed to fly down the darkened hallways to the elevator.

“What is it, what’s wrong?” He burst into the quarters to find Errisa leaning over the desk screen, brow furrowed.

“You weren’t focused, didn’t think it through.” Errisa said shortly, indicating the screen in front of her. It was a feed from the camera, focused on the square of the shield grid in which the Terran girl was locked. In the corner of the room stood Captain Appet.

“What the fuck.” General Hunter breathed, falling into the desk chair.

“You gave her permission to collect all of her rookies.” Errisa stated flatly. “That Terran used to be one of her rookies, remember?”

“God damn it, I didn’t mean that one.” Hunter protested ineffectually. “What is she even doing? How did she even get in there?”

“Must’ve told the guards she had authorization from you, which she did. They lowered the shields, she stepped over, they slammed the shield back up, it took all of a few seconds.”

“That was so insanely dangerous! The Terran could’ve gotten free!”

“I don’t think she cares about danger sir, since she’s locked herself up in there.”

“Tell her to get out of there this instant!”

“The Terran destroyed the speakers, we’ve only got audio.”

“Then put the audio on!” Hunter ran a hand through his hair, the elation from earlier completely gone.

With a sharp click the room filled with sound, mid-conversation, and Hunter, Errisa, and Hannah were silent as they listened.

“-ink I’m stupid enough to fall for it.” The Terran was saying.

“I know you’re not stupid Tess, but it’s really not a trap.” Captain Appet’s voice was calm, as if she was talking with a student instead of a Terran.

“If it’s not a trap, then what’s to stop me from smearing you across your damned silver wall?”

“Nothing.” Appet sat down, a little ways from Tess, spreading her hands to show that she was unarmed.

“You think that I’ll recognize you.” Tess remained standing, her face surprisingly expressive despite the eyepatch. Her expression was halfway between annoyance and pity. “We had some kind of relationship in my past life and you think you’ll jog that memory.”

“No. They told us that whatever the Terrans did to you, it was pretty complete. We did have a relationship though, I was your instructor.”

“I don’t remember you, instructor. You’re just a stranger to me, I wouldn’t feel bad killing you.”

“I believe that you don’t remember me, but I don’t agree with the second part.” From the floor, Captain Appet leaned forward. “They can’t change you that much, not without turning you into an entirely different person.”

“Maybe they did.” Tess shrugged. “I couldn’t tell you one way or the other. Why risk it? What’s the point of this?”

“I let you down.” Captain Appet was giving the girl a steady gaze. “If I had stood up for you Rooks, back at the Academy, we would never have been sent to the surface in the first place. The Terrans wouldn’t have captured you. I fucked up, and you all have had to pay for that.”

“So what, you’re sacrificing yourself as some kind of penance?”

“No. I’m risking death to try to make things right.”

The Terran matched her gaze for what seemed like a long time. Finally, slowly, Tes sat on the ground across from her, folding her legs beneath her.

“That’s…strangely honorable, for an Exile.” She seemed to muse aloud. “What exactly does that entail, ‘making things right’?”

“Reuniting my squad. Training them up. Helping you regain your memories, if I can.”

“How do you know giving my memories of my old life will be a help? I have a pretty good life right now. Could be my old one sucked.”

“I know because you don’t have Julia.”

“Pretty name. Don’t know a thing about her.” Tess shrugged.

“Was that a lie? Does she know who Julia is?” Hunter asked the synthetics, watching with rapt attention.

“It’s hard to tell.” Errisa replied with a shrug. “If she does, it’s locked away. She certainly doesn’t think she knows Julia.”

“Your Terran life may be better. It might be worse. Wouldn’t you rather know about both before you make the decision?” Captain Appet was saying. “If you’re going to choose, shouldn’t you know what you’re choosing to give up?”

The Terran hugged her knees to her chest, staring into the corner of the room.

“You don’t know you can give those memories back anyways.”

“I know I can try. I know I can reintroduce you to people who care about you. Anyways, what’s your alternative? Stay stuck here until they decide to kill you?”

Tess stared at the Captain for a long moment, as if the girl was trying to read the truth in her eyes. Suddenly she lurched forward, and in her palm a pebble of green energy lit her hand with a gentle glow.

“Eat this and swear to me this isn’t a trap.” She said, her voice fierce.

“What is it?”

“If you eat it, you cannot lie.”

“Then you eat it first and swear you won’t harm us if we take you inside.”

Tess popped the green marble in her mouth without hesitation, chewing and then opening her mouth to show that she had swallowed.

“I plan on gathering as much information as I can about you, but I will not harm any of you while I’m inside.” She said. She held out her hand, forming another pebble and offering it to the Captain. Appet took it from the girl and swallowed it.

“I might be countermanded by those higher up than me, but I won’t try to harm or trap or trick you in any way. I just want what’s best for you.” She said.

The two looked at each other for another long moment, and it was as if something passed between them. Captain Appet turned toward the camera.

“Hunter, we’re ready. Let us back in.” She said.

“General Hunter, this is Kathryn.” The voice of Hunter’s Chief of Security buzzed in his ear. “I’ve got men in place, we can lower the shields and take them out. One or both. Your call.”

General Hunter looked down at the screen in front of him, face tight with stress, and made the call.


Previous Chapter (NSFW): Life in the Pearl
Next Chapter (SFW): Missy’s Emergence

9.2 – Life in the Pearl

An alarm pinged Jackson’s head, and he took a breath.

It was something he rarely thought about in his life, but he suspected that the familiarity was comforting to him on a subconscious level. Perhaps that’s why he seemed to be taking his move to Pivot and the corresponding changes better than his squadmates. Who knew, perhaps it wasn’t the ping, maybe it was just that the chip in his head kept him able to focus. Maybe he was just that inhuman, that the invasion of his second home by alien attackers didn’t seem to bother him quite as much as the rest.

I wonder if normal humans wonder about this stuff.

“You’ve left us again Jackson.” Samantha raised an eyebrow from where she sat at the console, looking at the doorway where Jackson stood. He shook himself and smiled at her. Samantha would probably be excellent for a normal man with attention issues, and although he was a lost cause he appreciated that she continued to try, even with how well she knew him.

>>Task 1432 shifted to short-term priority 1: Optimize Sam’s emotional state.

Jackson used to feel resentment as a teen towards the chip implanted in his head, constantly categorizing the details of his day-to-day life. Nowadays he saw it less as an overbearing taskmaster, and more as an advanced to-do list. Without it he would be useless, his attention drifting through a million actions every second. With it he tended to be able to do what he had to get done. At the very least, it forced him to concentrate on the task at hand.

“I’m sorry lovely.” Jackson said genuinely. “I came by to give you some attention, but for me that’s a tall order.”

“It’s okay, I’ll take some company. Even your kind of attention is better than sitting here all by myself.” Samantha gave him a smile, but it was clear from every motion how exhausted she was. A few feet away at another console a girl in a scrub uniform, the room’s other occupant, gave her a dirty look.

“How long have you been manning the throughput station Sam?” Jackson stepped over to her console, glancing at the monitor behind her. Normally this room would only be manned during standard hours, but with half the station closed off to protect from the invading Terrans, every control room was manned no matter how late.

“It says there’s been a throughput operator here since breakfast…when did you start this shift Sam? Who’d you take over from?” Samantha avoided Jackson’s gaze as she flipped a switch.

“This is Samantha, I’m back.” Her voice lilted as she slipped back into what Jackson called her ‘official mode’.

“Oh Sam, tell me you’ve not been here all day.”

“Hello sir, yes we can get you three electrician-specialists, but you’re going to have to wait for about…” Samantha consulted one of the several small screens on her desk, fastidiously avoiding Jackson’s glare. “…one to two hours. Yes sir. Yes, I’m sorry sir but there’s only so much we can…yes. Right. Of course sir. Sorry Jackson.” She turned her beautiful brown eyes towards him and reached out, pulling him by the front of his uniform to stand next to where she sat. “How has your day been, lover?”

“Wonderful, but you’re not changing the subject that easily.” Jackson folded his arms. “How many days in a row have you been pulling these kinds of eighteen-hour shifts?”

“Just today, Jackson I swear.” Samantha said innocently.

“Yesterday it was a twenty-hour.” From the console a few feet away the thin wisp of a girl in a scrub uniform noted.

“No one asked you to contribute Lacy.” Samantha snapped. “Look Jackson, I get that you’re worried about me, and it’s sweet and adorable and all that, but they need me here. There’s been so much damage out there that pretty much every single electrical connection, every single pipe and cord that passed through the outer core now has to be rewired through the inner.”

“I get that, and I understand that’s why it’s all hands on deck.” Jackson replied evenly. “What I don’t understand is why you’re pushing yourself to help if you’re falling asleep on your feet.”

“I’m sitting.” Samantha yawned.

“Falling asleep on your butt then.”

“I’ll take a break in an hour or so, and I’ll take a nap then, I swear. I’ll sleep for at least a few hours, then I’ll visit sick bay, then I’ll come back here.”

“No one can take over for you now?”

“No one trained in both mechanics and admin. I’m the only Basura-Pivot in the pearl.”

“The pearl?”

“It’s a small naturally-occurring gem. It’s a sphere and it shines like silver. It’s what we’ve started to call the station now that we’re…well we’re pretty much a sphere surrounded by silver who is stuck in the middle of a dead shell.”

“That’s a little morbid.”

“Yea, you get a little grim running on three hours of sleep.”

“Samantha, for god’s sake, what’s going to be so different in a few hours that you can’t take a break right now?”

“You won’t be around in a few hours.” The girl at the next console laughed. “So she’ll be able to keep going and tell you she napped.”

“Honestly, Lacy, no one asked you.” Samantha snapped again. Jackson smiled at the interaction.

“There’s nothing I can do to get you to go to sleep?” Jackson asked, and in answer, Samantha flicked the switch on again, answering another call.

>>Task 1432 complexity beyond threshold. Breaking into subtasks.

>>Task: Optimize Sam’s emotional state >> Subtask 1: Force Sam to sleep.

“Fine, if you’re not going to sleep, then scoot.” Jackson said in apparent defeat.

Without breaking the flow of her conversation Samantha stood from her desk, reading off from one of the screens.

“It’s going to be quite the task, but we’ve got three..four…no, it looks like five technicians already working on it. Yes, I understand that, but there’s only so much…yes? Yes I would be happy to explain to the General in person.” Jackson admired how professional she sounded, even as exhausted and on-edge as she was. He sat in her seat and pulled her down to sit on his lap, brushing his fingers across the nape of her neck.

“See?” Samantha disconnected the call and turned to Jackson. “If I had gone to sleep when you told me to, I would’ve missed that call, and I wouldn’t have known that General Hunter was going to be calling to ask about the progress of the new generator construction.”

“And not one of the people actually working on the new generators could fill him in because…?”

“Because they’re working on the generator. There’s not enough people available for me to sleep.” Samantha groaned the sentence as she rubbed her eyes. Jackson frowned. He couldn’t help but feel guilty; as a pilot there was very little he could do until the General decided to send them out on a fighting mission, but until that point the majority of his time was free.

Besides heavy lifting, what the fuck do I around here? I’m wandering around bullshitting and doing the occasional task when I can, while the admins and technicians are being worked to the point of exhaustion? The guilt gnawed at his stomach, and for a moment his brow furrowed.

The CPU took over, classifying the guilt as “unhelpful” and assigning it the lowest priority in the queue. Jackson knew that someday, if he worked through his entire list of tasks, he would have several years’ worth of guilt, worry, regret and pain waiting for him, but in the meantime his mind re-focused and brushed the guilt aside.

I can help by doing what I can to bolster the admins and techs who are doing the real work. In this case that means getting Sam to sleep.

“You have no idea how amazing that feels.” Sam murmured sleepily, resting her elbows on the console as Jackson continued to brush the back of her neck gently.

“Lucky.” The girl a few feet away muttered. “My boyfriend never comes to rub my neck.”

“Suck it Lacy.” Samantha grinned, and the girl smiled and good-naturedly flipped her off.

“Why don’t you rest your eyes for a little bit while you’re waiting for the General to call?” Jackson murmured the suggestion into the back her head.

“I think I might for just a- no no no.” Samantha sat bolt upright, and Jackson sighed. “You’re not tricking me Jackson. I’m staying awake and I’m staying up.”

>> Subtask 1: Force Sam to sleep. >> Subsubtask: Provide orgasm.

“What?” Jackson blinked. Occasionally his CPU would throw him a suggestion so unexpected that he had to take a moment to process it. When he did think about it it made some kind of sense. Samantha was the type of girl to instantly fall asleep right after she had been “worn out”, and given the circumstances it was probably one of the few ways he could actually get her to fall asleep in spite of herself. Jackson glanced at Lacy, just a few feet away from them. The wispy girl was staring into her screen, a grim look of frustration on her face. Jackson tried to estimate just how much she could see if she glanced over. Samantha sat on his lap with her back to the other woman, and as far as he could tell, the back and her console blocked the line of sight.

He placed his hand on her leg, rubbing the tense muscle. Samantha leaned against him with a smile. When his fingertips trailed higher, slipping under the hem of her skirt, Samantha glanced over her shoulder, probably gauging whether Lacy could see what he was doing, then fixed him with a look. Jackson grinned. She could easily slap or grab his hand if she wanted him to stop, but instead she just made a face at him, and he silently laughed.

The communicator pinged, in vaguely the same tone that Jackson’s breathing alarm did. Samantha jumped and answered it, piping the audio to her headset once more.

“Hello General Hunter. Yes sir, I’m the only admin in throughput. Thank you sir. Yessir, I did, I thought you would prefer it hearing it straight from me. I’ve been coordinating their efforts.” Jackson’s fingers moved in slow circles along the skin of her inner thigh, several inches inside her long skirt. Samantha’s professional voice didn’t falter for a second.

“Oh it was nothing really General, they’re the ones with the know-how, I’m just the one directing them where that knowhow is needed. Well that’s very kind of you to say so sir. Yes, let me pull up the schematics.”

Jackson waited until the pretty redhead on his lap had pulled up the blueprints of the orbital before he continued his onslaught, moving his fingers higher up her leg. As she continued to speak in her lilting voice, Jackson lightly brushed his fingertips against the fabric of her underwear, directly between her legs.

“For whatever reason, the Terrans left two of the four generators intact in their initial onslaught three days ago.” Jackson would’ve been disappointed at how even her voice was, but he noticed her gripping the edge of the console, and he smiled and continued rubbing a finger up and down. “No sir, I don’t think we can count on that. That’s why construction was begun on the emergency generators. Um…I’m not quite sure who, but it was definitely authorized. Yes, that name sounds familiar…”

His finger was slowly growing wet as he pressed the fabric of Samantha’s underwear into the wet heat beneath, and Jackson gently kissed the back of her neck. She stiffened without pausing, and Jackson continued to kiss.

“…I’m sure he’ll be happy to take responsibility sir, our only life support is out there with the Terrans. Yes sir I’ll hold.” She leaned back against him as soon as she disconnected. “Why can’t you ever behave yourself?”

“I can’t look at this problem anymore.” Lacy tossed her headset onto the console and stormed to her feet, and from the way Samantha jumped she had forgotten the other girl was there. “I’m going to try to get some sleep, you should try to do the same Samantha.” Lily was already halfway to the door when Jackson slid his hand out of Samantha’s skirt and rested it innocently on her knee, but he had the feeling that Lacy was so tired she wouldn’t have noticed even if he’d had his head under her skirt. “Try to make her sleep, Samantha’s boyfriend.” Lacy said from the doorway. “Good luck though.”

“Just to be clear, she didn’t mean to- oh!” Samantha gasped as Jackson’s hand suddenly cupped her sex. He smiled and gently squeezed, grinding the heel of his hand against her mound as his fingers stroked the now thoroughly soaked fabric. “I’m going to be getting the General calling back soon.” Samantha moaned.

“You think that’s going to stop me?” Jackson tugged at the hem of her underwear, slipping a finger inside the cloth and brushing it up and down across her bare mound.

“Oh god Jackson why are you-” The communications pinged, and Samantha flipped the switch without hesitation. “Hello General, were you able to get in touch with Chief Adamsly?” Jackson marvelled that the same girl who had been moaning so prettily a few moments ago could slip into her official tone so effortlessly. He was quite sure that he liked it.

He pulled on her underwear, slowly pulling them down in front and then reaching behind her to slip them off of the curve of her butt as well. Samantha continued to talk with the General, although she wiggled her backside against him at the motion of his fingers.

“Now the problem is that we’ll need to cut off our lines to the existing generators before we hook up the new ones. No sir, cut them off completely.” Jackson stroked up and down around her slit, his fingers slick with her juices. Whenever he saw her firm grip on the console loosen, he would change what he was doing and get her excited anew.

“I understand there’s a risk sir, but your teams are the best at what they do, and they are all saying it can be done. Yes, technically it will cut our life support, but only for a few seconds.”

Jackson pulled his hand away, concerned. This suddenly sounded like more that the average throughput call, and while keeping Sam in optimal emotional condition was his top priority, distracting her while she was making potentially life-threatening calls would probably threaten that emotional condition.

Sam gave him a small smile over her shoulder and rubbed her butt in small circles in his lap, her smile widening into a grin when she felt his member harden against her. She then turned back to the call. Jackson consoled himself with watching the way her red locks bounced when her official voice got more animated.

“I know that depending on the engineers is a risk General Hunter, but personally I find it more of a risk to trust the Terrans than to trust the engineers. I think so sir, yes. The fact of the matter is, if we wait for the Terrans to cut the last lines, we leave ourselves open to more damage. Yes sir I agree. Alright sir, Chief Adamsly will let me know how that discussion goes. Yes sir, you too.”

Samantha pulled her headset off with a sigh and leaned forward to rest her head on the console.

“You’re hot when you’re all professional, you know that?” Jackson teased

“I wouldn’t really call it professional to have you doing…that…while I’m trying to talk to the General.” Samantha murmured into the console.

“Sam, are you falling asleep with the console as a pillow?”

“No.” Sam yawned again, her nose smudging the console. “Not until you finish what you started.”

Jackson grinned. His fingers returned to their gentle sliding motions, and then without warning he slid a finger inside her. Samantha moaned and pushed her hips back, sliding his finger into her wet opening all the way down to his knuckle. She was surprisingly tight, and Jackson idly tried to remember when the last time he had penetrated her was.

Last month? Has it really been that long? He mused, as Samantha rocked her hips back and forth to slid his finger in and out of her warm sex. It was with Cynthia, so it would’ve been…what, back on Academy? There’s no way…

“Oh god Jackson.” Samantha breathed, snapping him back into the moment. He was yet again relieved that women couldn’t read his mind. Even with the chip to refocus him, it would’ve made for several awkward moments. Samantha suddenly clenched the edge of the console hard, and her snached quivered and clenched at his finger. Jackson let her ride at her own pace as she came, moaning into the console as her body trembled. When she finally came down from her high, Jackson kissed the back of her head again. She gasped as he slowly withdrew his finger.

“God I needed that.” She panted.

“Now I’m taking you to bed.” Jackson said firmly, hoisting her to her feet and tugging her wet underwear back up.

“Mmm cot in the corner.” She mumbled. Jackson noticed the small bed for the first time, and helped her walk to it unsteadily.

“I’m going to go stop by sick bay, will you promise to actually sleep?”

“Say hi to Cynthia for me.” Samantha had already collapsed into the cot, eyes half-shut.

“Oh I will.” Jackson winked, and popped his finger in his mouth, sucking her juices off of it.

“Ew. You know I hate it when you do that.” Samantha sighed.

“You love it almost as much as I do and we both know it.” Jackson teased. Samantha was already asleep by the time he reached the door, a tired and satisfied smile on her face. The bulge in his pants cried out for attention, but the surge of dopamine he got when the “Force Sam to sleep” subtask ticked “Completed” was even better than an orgasm.

Jackson was having a problem unique to him when he entered the sick bay a little while later; similar to a feedback loop but with a little more hesitation. A series of priorities was warring for dominance within his chip, flipping back and forth in quick succession. As far as he could tell, as soon as he gave a certain task his attention, he could see the path to take to achieve it, and thus it felt just a tiny bit less urgent, driving the other one up into first place.

It was up to him, in these situations, to decide which he should follow, but he was so used to being told what to do by the CPU that he found the analysis paralysis intimidating. Luckily for him, both priorities took him to the sick bay.

Even more fortunately, Cynthia was sleeping on her cot, so the first priority sulkily slunk lower in his list. He turned instead to the beds on the other side of the wide, gleaming room, where his squaddy would be.

>>Task 8223: Maintain squadmate relationships >> Subtask: increase perceived social connections by increasing connection with wounded teammate.

After the darkness of the corridor and the dimness of the other rooms, the sick bay seemed blinding, but Jackson supposed that if anywhere needed full power while other rooms were rationed, it was here. Jackson stepped past the brilliant white curtains that gave the patients their privacy until he reached the very end of the room.

“Wow, you look so horrible Aimee!” Jackson rushed over to the side of her bed. “They told me it was bad, they didn’t say your face had been so messed up in the crash! I…I’m sorry. It must be horrible for you, looking like that, you don’t need me bringing it up even further.” Tears built in his eyes, rather convincingly he thought.

“Sometimes you’re even worse than Preston for asshole jokes, has anyone ever told you that?” Aimee growled from her bed. Her words were angry, but she grinned nonetheless.

“Seriously though, you look great. Sorry about the teasing, you know I had to.” Jackson grinned back and sat at the foot of her bed, careful not to disturb her. Her leg would still be in pain, but she didn’t have permanent injuries, an unheard-of luck for a pilot actually caught by a lake Drake. The only damage had been due to shearing metal pinching her leg into vice-like grip. No one was sure why the Drake hadn’t destroyed the ships it caught, but given the damage that had occurred, Jackson wasn’t the only one who was glad of it.

“Don’t be sorry, I’d probably have made the same joke if I’d thought of it first. I don’t know how you did it, but you managed to make me smile more in two minutes that some of the others all day. Even though you are officially the last squaddie to come visit me.” Jackson wasn’t quite sure what other people found so complicated about social interaction. Most peoples’ buttons were so easy to find, and pushing them was just a matter of determining what buttons would lead to the result you wanted. In the space of a millisecond, Jackson expanded his priority’s tasks down to the last detail.

>> Subtask: increase connection with Aimee >> Subsub: lighten Aimee’s mood >> Subsubsub: Increase boundaries of relationship >> Subsubsubsub: Affect a mock-enmity to provide non-threatening competition.

“Eh, well, you know some of us are out there being useful with our lives, instead of laying in bed reading trashy romance novels.” Jackson joked in an easy manner. Aimee threw her head back and laughed.

“I’ll have you know these are the classiest of romance novels jackass.” She chuckled. “Believe me, I’d much rather be running around and helping out. I will too, soon as I can get up on this leg.”

“Well, I’ll be sure to save the worst jobs for you then.” Jackson glanced at the flowers on her bedside table. “I see Li has been here though, at least.”

“Huh? Oh, the flowers. Yea, you’d think wouldn’t you?”Aimee’s face darkened. “The flowers are from Cap App. Li came by once or twice, but he was his same fucking- his same old self.”

>> Subsubsub: Assess whether romantic relationship in need of repair.

“Trouble with your better half?” Jackson asked, concerned.

“I don’t know. It’s not like it was before, you know? I don’t think it ever was.”

“It was never the way it was huh? That’s real clear Squadpet.” Using her old hated callsign at least got a chuckle out of her, so Jackson counted it as a win.

“I just don’t think there was ever a point where I sat down and thought ‘I want Li to be my boyfriend’, you know? We just…we screwed, and then we happened to screw again, and then we sort of happened. If I had ever stopped to consider him as my boyfriend, would I have chosen to be with him?”

“You’re making the choice for him to be your boyfriend every second you’re still with him.” Jackson pointed out.

“Wow. I guess I didn’t really think of it that way.” Aimee frowned in thought. “That was really deep Jackson.” Jackson didn’t say anything, mostly because he hadn’t thought it was that deep.

It’s just common sense, isn’t it?

“So I suppose that’s the question, isn’t it? Knowing what I know now, is it worth all of the…bullshit. He acts like I’m a burden instead of fun to be with. Sometimes I feel like I’m less of a girl he’s into and more of just a hole he likes being inside, you know? Sometimes…” her voice lowered and she stared at the covers in front of her. “…sometimes I think maybe he’s just a pole I like in me, instead of a boy I actually like being with. Does that make me a shitty person? Or just a slut? Am I such a horrible hypocrite that I’m pissed off at him for treating me kinda-sorta the same way I might feel about him?”

Jackson spent a moment wondering if the question was rhetorical, when a silvery voice called from the other side of the hospital room.

“Are you hogging my man over there?” Cynthia yelled.

“Does he really count as ‘your’ man if you’ve got a timeshare on his cock?” Aimee yelled back, her pensive look replaced by a grin.

“Yelling that kind of language, really?” Jackson stood and rolled his eyes, relieved that the awkward track of conversation had been interrupted.

“Payback for the ‘messed up face’ thing earlier.” Aimee stuck her tongue out. “Jackson…thanks. As usual, you helped a lot. I mean that.”

>>Subsubsub: Transition from mock-enmity to gesture of friend-level intimacy. Replicated friend-level intimacy by stating redundancies.

“Yea, well, out of the nine of us it stands to reason one of us squaddies would be halfway helpful.” He said, then turned serious. “But really Aimes; you have to do what you have to do. If Li isn’t satisfying you, you won’t be happy until you find someone who does. And if you’re not happy, you won’t be the best girlfriend to him either.”

“God, when did you get all smart all of a sudden? Get out of here you fuckin’ wiseman.” Aimee threw a small pillow at him, and when he left Jackson could almost feel their relationship grow stronger.

That makes full close-friendship with the entire set, besides Tess and Julia. He thought, satisfied as the priorities ticked over in his head.

Cynthia was sitting up in her bed, something that the doctors told her not to do. He knew it was useless to argue with her about.

“Don’t even start.” She said, apparently interpreting his look. “I feel so cooped up in here I can barely stand it, I had to at least change my view from the ceiling tiles. I don’t know what the big deal is about it anyways.”

“You’ve been shot!” Jackson said, exasperated.

“Details.” Cynthia wrapped her arms around Jackson’s neck as he kissed her, deep and enthusiastically. “Oh god, you taste like her!” She broke away from the kiss and looked at him, her look halfway between accusation and desire. Jackson glanced around them, unsure of how much sound the curtains blocked out, and Cynthia lowered her voice obligingly.

“You were eating Samantha out before you came here you selfish jerk!” Cynthia licked her lips as if to collect every hint of the taste from them.

“How is that selfish? Sam’s got needs, she’s my girlfriend, I have to take care of her.” Jackson protested, though he kept his voice down.

“But she’s my girlfriend too! I want to ‘take care of her’! And I want to take care of my boyfriend too.” Cynthia pouted. “Why can’t you guys just come get me next time?”

“You’ve been shot!” Jackson repeated.

“This is so unfair, I hated being cooped up like this even before I knew you two were screwing around without me.”

“There’s not a lot of time to be screwing around, unfortunately.” Jackson remarked. “Not with everything going on recently.”

“Oh god! I’ve been trying to ask around but it seems like no one knows everything and everyone is too busy to explain what they do know! You have to tell me! Are there really Terrans on the Orbital?” Cynthia grabbed Jackson’s hand as if he would escape, her previous pout apparently forgotten.

“It’s not exactly something to be excited about.” Jackson pulled up a seat and sat down, a little surprised at how worn out he was. He was tempted to review how many hours of sleep he had tallied in the last few weeks, but his CPU kept him on track. “Have you heard of Shrike attacks before?”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of them, but I didn’t know they included Drakes, and I’ve never heard of them actually making it to the Orbital.”

“That’s because this is the first one of its kind. We call any attack of would-be invaders a ‘Shrike’, but there’s really three different kinds.” Jackson ticked them off on his fingers. “The first is a wave of little Drakes; we’re not sure if they’re babies or just smaller versions, but we do know that they’re a lot easier to put down. The second kind is a group of Terrans, alone without ships, just flying out of the fog towards the Orbital. I’ve seen the vids, and it’s completely terrifying, especially since they’re firing weapons the entire time. They’re also pretty easy to handle though; you don’t even have to hit them to take them out, just fire the munitions close enough and it knocks them off course and sends them flying off into space.”

“That’s horrible! What a nasty way to go!” Cynthia looked offended.

“They kind of ask for it for flying out towards us in the first place. But anyways, the third kind is full of these little bird things. We’re…well, we’re not entirely sure what the bird things do. We shoot them down just in case, but we’ve never seen them do anything.”

“So what kind was this Shrike?”

“It was Terrans riding on top of the baby Drakes, more than we’ve ever seen before, and joined by a full-sized lake Drake.”

“Holy shit!” Cynthia breathed.

“So they actually made it here. Landed on the surface and started digging, that’s probably when you heard about it.”

“I heard we were evacuating, they didn’t tell us why. They didn’t tell us how they decided who was leaving on ships and who was staying though.”

“I think it was just a mad dash.” Jackson said. “Anyone they could get on the ships, they got on ships and out. Anyone they couldn’t they moved in here.”

“’Here’ being?”

“The center of Pivot. We’ve got shielding system set up, so if the Terrans get too close we can slam it up. So far they haven’t been able to get through.”

“Wait so-” Cynthia was interrupted by the sound of the door opening, and Jackson turned to look at the curtain that lay behind them. There were several pairs of feet walking towards Aimee’s bed, and Jackson felt a knot in his stomach at the sound.

“H…hello there?” Aimee sounded as if she was asking a question rather than stammering a greeting.

“Look at this girl’s injuries.” The growl of General Hunter was full of so much hatred it was almost unrecognizable. “And tell me again how it’s not your fault.”

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