“I had heard about Senator Constantine’s daughter but until I actually met her in person I didn’t quite know what to expect. Turns out she was tougher and wilder than I imagined. To look at her refined and dignified mother, you would not expect Devon to be such a physical and easy going leader.”

- Excerpt from the personal journal of Captain Rik Raider, SS Sokol

 

Chapter 10

 

Devon awoke in her bed beside Seth’s sleeping form. She was physically exhausted but her mind was alert and hyper-aware of her surroundings. A warm morning breeze filtered through the sheer curtains and cooled the perspiration that covered her naked body. Seth’s breathing was heavy but not labored. They had spent the entire night in each other’s arms, alternating between talking and making love. How they could have gone so long without connecting was unbelievable to them both. Now that they had found each other it was becoming clear to Devon that they might once again find themselves apart.

She pulled herself up from bed and rummaged around on the floor until she found some rags to wear. A dingy, white tank top with holes in it and a loose fitting pair of knee pants were hastily put on as she made her way to the window. She had to get away from the bedroom and do some thinking on her own. She slipped on some canvas shoes and climbed out onto the fire escape, careful not to awaken Seth. Sliding down the railing, she shuffled along the dusty street heading toward the maintenance hangar. Her normal gait only slightly impaired by her leg wound.

Devon had been doing more than just drinking since Hap’s death. She had been spending a lot of time studying the alien starfighter. It was up on blocks in the hangar where the maintenance crews worked on the Scramblers. She spent many hours trying to figure out how it worked and what made it so hard of a target to bring down. She wasn’t much of a mechanically inclined person, but she knew enough engineering to understand how her own ship worked. Near as she could figure, the alien ship was not too far advanced from what she flew.

Its skin was made of similar metallic composite material and its instruments presumably worked on the same mechanical laws known to humans. The biggest advantage seemed to be its engines and its weaponry. The maintenance chief had surmised that the ship had two kinds of drives, each intended for a specific use. It had a plasma funnel drive for steady, high speed travel over long distances and it had some kind of turbo drive for quick bursts of speed and complex maneuvering. The characteristic figure eight-shaped wings were honeycombed with fuel cells and coolants for the two types of drives. They had a slight camber to give them lifting capabilities while in atmospheric flight. Ailerons along the entire back side of the wings afforded them excellent atmospheric maneuverability. Clearly this was a dual role fighter intended for not only interplanetary flight but also atmospheric flight.

Devon had spent many hours sitting in the cockpit of the alien fighter, trying to imagine what it was like to fly it. The seat was racked back so far that the pilot was almost lying on his back. She wondered if it was that way for physiological reasons or if the pilot was somehow an afterthought. She couldn’t imagine that anyone actually enjoyed flying in the ship. But then again, it was obvious that this was a ship of war and not peace.

The weapons and shielding were somehow related and worked together in mutual defense of the ship. High energy maser canons were located on the wing tips and there were grid wires running in an X shape across the cutouts in the wings that somehow activated the electromagnetic shielding. She wasn’t sure just exactly how it all worked, but she knew it was better than anything the Rangers had or even the Starforce.

Devon sat in the Eight-fighter’s cramped cockpit, toying with the flight controls. They twisted with subtle wrist movement on smooth gimbals. On an operational fighter, the movement would be stiffer but she imagined that it would still have been tricky to master. Movement captured her attention as several figures entered the hangar’s open side. Early morning sunlight cast long shadows across the hanger’s dirt floor as two figures walked deeper into the hangar: A man and a woman dressed in Starforce uniforms.

They stopped a few feet short of the Eight-fighter and seemed to take in all the details of the damaged plane. The man’s face was bearded with a strong jaw line. He wore his brown hair long and tied into a single tail in the fashion of the day. She found him quite attractive in his dark blue uniform with a dashing waist cape.

“Good morning, I’m Captain Rik Raider. I’m looking for Sheriff Devon Ardel,” he said to Devon.

Devon started to climb out of the cockpit. “You’ve found her, Captain.”

Raider stepped forward to shake her hand as she turned around to face him. His hand was large and his shake firm without being aggressively tight. She felt slightly under dressed wearing a skimpy tank top and pants that hung loosely around her hips.

“Pleasure to meet you, Sheriff. This is my First Officer, Commander Trimble.”

The dark haired woman extended her hand for Devon to shake. Devon could tell she was in excellent physical shape. Her cold grip was nearly as firm as the Captain’s.

“A pleasure, ma’am,” Trimble said politely.

There was an air of detachment in her voice. It was obvious that she was not impressed with Devon as they let go of each other’s hand. Devon returned the indifference.

“What can I do for you, Captain?” Devon asked as she moved away from the Eight-fighter.

“We’re here to take possession of this fighter and do a little recruiting for new Starforger pilots. I understand you were the one who shot this thing down?”

Devon pushed a braided strand of blond hair out of her eyes and straightened her posture.

“I didn’t shoot it down. I crashed into it. This thing killed my best friend with about as much effort as you and I put into breathing. It’s faster and more deadly than anything we have. Its pilot never even acknowledged our existence until I engaged him in combat.”

Captain Raider’s pleasant demeanor changed to one of concern. He glanced quickly at Commander Trimble and then back to Devon. “Sheriff is there someplace secure we can go to talk?”

* * *

Devon led the two Starforce officers into Control and closed the hatch behind them. There were no off duty Rangers around as it was a weekend. She passed by Aven’s station and had him help her open the lock to the vault for them. Aven stood up and moved quickly to the secure vault room and used his password in conjunction with hers to open the thick vault door. He couldn’t keep his big eyes off Commander Trimble’s clean uniform and sharp figure.

“Thanks Aven. Can you recall everyone and have them meet out here?”

Aven nodded and watched the Starforger officers enter the vault. His lean face elongated by his mouth hanging open as he checked out the back side of Commander Trimble. Devon waved him off and followed the others into the tiny vault, shutting the door behind her.

The air inside the vault was musty and dry. There wasn’t much room to move around as it was being used primarily as a storage space. Crates of uniforms and wine and other valuable items lined the walls.

Devon motioned to the crates. “Sorry about the mess, we don’t really use this room. I’ll see if I can get some fresh air piped in.” She opened a panel on the wall and activated the air circulation. Cool air soon began to blow from the vent in the center of the low ceiling. “Okay, go ahead Captain,” Devon said, folding her arms in front of her chest.

“A few months ago a deep space exploration ship, the SS Bourke, exploded in orbit of the planet it was investigating. It wasn’t clear what happened to the ship but we did get a visual image of something engaging it.” Raider pulled a viewer pad from his leg pocket and handed it to Devon.

On the tiny screen was a blurred picture of an Eight-fighter. She looked up at him, her eyes glaring. “You mean you guys knew about this thing?”

Trimble interjected, “We didn’t know what it was. We certainly didn’t know it was heading into known space.”

Devon pointed the viewer pad at Raider. “How come you didn’t inform Ranger Command about this? We tell you guys about every suspicious ship that enters our system but you guys can’t do the same for us!”

Raider raised his hands defensively. “Look, I’m not in charge of the military, I’m only a Captain of a single starship. All I can tell you is that wreck you have in your hanger is vitally important to our defense. If it’s as advanced as you claim it is, then we’re going to need all the help we can get to stop it. Our deep space sensors are tracking several unknown ships now. We think their homing in on the Bourke’s transmissions home.”

Trimble jumped in. “If a starship that advanced were to reach the Core systems, we wouldn’t be able to prevent it from laying waste to our civilization.” She didn’t have to say more. Devon handed Raider back his data pad.

“How do you plan on stopping it then?”

Raider took a deep breath. “We have the newest starship in the fleet. It’s not fully functional yet, but it’s the best we can do right now. It has heavy fire power and a squadron of the latest starfighters. What we lack are the experienced pilots to fly them.”

Devon stepped away from the Starforger officers and ran her hands through her dirty hair. She hadn’t showered yet and she still smelled of last night’s carnal activity. It was getting cooler in the vault and her arms and legs were starting to get chilled. Things were becoming clearer to her now. She knew that she would definitely be going with Raider and Trimble. It was only a matter of who would go with her.

“My pilots are gathering outside. I can’t promise you anyone but myself.”

Raider nodded. “Your mother said you would volunteer.”

“You know my mother?”

Raider was a little taken by her question. “Of course I know Senator Constantine, she’s our principle sponsor in the senate. Without her tireless support, the Starforgers wouldn’t have the political backing we need to increase our defense budget.”

Devon shook her head. No matter how far away from her mother she tried to get, she still had her fingers in her life. “How is the Senator doing these days?”

Raider smiled. “She’s doing great things for us. I personally have great faith in her ability to be our next President. Oh, she sends her love.”

Devon nodded and turned to open the vault door. “Please don’t tell anyone who I am, Captain. I’ve worked hard to remain anonymous here.”

Raider nodded. “I understand.”

* * *

After a few minutes of waiting for the stragglers to arrive, everyone was gathered in the conference room. The Ranger pilots were dressed in worn uniforms with messy hair and relaxed attitudes. They kept the bitching and moaning down to a minimum despite being called in on a day off. Everyone knew why the two Starforger officers were here, most had already made their decision as to whether they would join up or stay behind.

Devon had sent Thirty-seven over to her room to get Seth. He showed up after everyone else, wearing his clothes from last night and a night’s growth of beard. She thought he looked rested and handsome. Devon had put on a leather jacket with her rank insignia on it. She would have preferred to be in uniform like most others, but she didn’t have time to change. She stood before the group with Captain Raider and Commander Trimble.

“Can I have everyone’s attention please?” The chatter died down and everyone looked up at Devon. “Thanks. I’d like to formally introduce our guests. Captain Raider and Commander Trimble from the Starforgers.” She motioned for Raider to take over.

Raider stepped forward and took the floor. He was a relaxed and confident speaker and he seemed to put the room at ease.

“I think you all know why we’re here. Somebody told us the fishing was good.” There wasn’t a body of water larger than a puddle on the whole moon. Everyone laughed at the lame joke. Even Commander Trimble laughed; she had not anticipated he’d open with a joke.

“Seriously, we’re here because of a very deadly new threat to the Federation. An alien force has entered our space and we have reason to suspect that it could very quickly and easily destroy our home worlds. We believe the craft that engaged Sheriff Ardel a few weeks ago was actually a scout ship for a larger fleet.

“We’re tracking this alien fleet and currently it’s heading for Prahran and Negram. We’re working with merchant ship captains and local Ranger patrols in those areas to stop them from reaching the inner worlds. But we just don’t have the resources to fully engage a large fleet of alien starships. The military is a relatively small fleet and we are spread thin over many parsecs of space.

“What we need right now, right here, is fighter pilots. Congress has graciously approved a budgetary increase in our defense spending and the first thing we got our hands on were state of the art starfighters. The Vickers Series E fighter.”

This drew a few knowing whispers from the crowd. Every pilot worth his salt, even the ones stationed in the back waters of the galaxy, knew about the Vickers fighters. Designed by the legendary aircraft maker and flown by the famous test pilot Red Allen, the E Series fighters were thoroughbreds through and through.

Raider knew he had a few new recruits by just mentioning the fighters but he had to qualify his pitch by telling them what they were getting themselves into.

“If you decide to join us and help defend the Federation, you must be aware that the military is a different lifestyle than anything you may be accustomed to. You will be in space for months at a time in starships that were not designed with creature comforts. You will be expected to conform to our strict uniform and grooming standards and to participate in routine physical conditioning. Above all, you will be required to uphold the pledge of an officer’s commission. That means a commitment to the Federation and honor above all things.”

As many hearts as he had won with mentioning the starfighter he now lost to the strict military lifestyle. Commander Trimble stepped forward and smiled confidently. She was a picture of Starforce ideals. Tall, attractive without too much makeup, trim and fit with an impeccable uniform.

“Commander Trimble is my First Officer. She’ll answer any questions you may have.”

Trimble studied the Rangers with a critical eye. “Who among you has the courage and dedication to help us destroy our new found enemy?”

Several hands went up tentatively. Trimble nodded to the first pilot, a scrappy looking man with narrow slits for eyes. “What kind of pay would I make flying for your outfit?”

Trimble nodded. “A good question. Normally, very little. Less in fact than you are making now. However, part of the funding for this effort has been in the form of bonuses for any pilot who destroys an alien starfighter.” She looked back at the Captain. “I believe the reward was set at one thousand credits?”

Raider nodded.

The man whistled his approval. “Sign me up ma’am.”

Trimble smiled and nodded to the next question. A thin, pale faced woman with stringy brown hair spoke up. “Some of us are better shots with pistols than with flying. Are you accepting troops for ground forces?”

Trimble frowned. “No, unfortunately. We already have enough Surface Army troops and all shipboard billets are full right now. However, if this turns into a full scale war, we will be needing all types of personnel.”

Another man spoke up, his speech drawn out and slow. “How long of a commitment are we looking at?”

Trimble looked around at everyone as she answered. “The terms of your commitment are for one year’s service. Regardless of how long the fighting lasts, you’re ours for one year and one year only. After that if you decide to make the Starforgers a career, you’re more than welcome to stay on.”

There didn’t seem to be any more questions and Devon could sense that everyone wanted to know what she had to say. She moved out into the center of the room as Commander Trimble stepped back. Devon pulled a twisted braid of her blond hair away from her face. She put her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket and looked into the eyes of everyone sitting and standing around her.

She knew something about each and every one of them. She knew who could fly the best and she knew who was the most loyal. There were only about twelve pilots in the posse. Not everyone was current which left about eight or ten people who had to decide whether to go or not. She directed her speech to those that she thought needed to hear it the most.

“I’m not going to stop any of you from leaving. Chances like this don’t come around every day. For those of you who are looking to get off this rock and see some action, this could be your only shot. I suggest you take it while you can. For those of you who wish to stay and defend this rock against thieves and pirates, there will always be a need for you here. I respect your dedication and commitment to the Rangers.”

She bowed her head for a moment. “I’ll be one of those who are leaving.”

There was a shocked look on the faces of those who wanted her to stay. Devon was the sole reason the unit was as good as it was. She was the reason they had such good morale and such a good arrest record.

“Seth will be taking command of Company H by order of Ranger Command. Effective immediately.”

Heads turned to the back of the room where Seth was leaning against a wall. He nodded to Devon and everyone looking back at him, as if she had just nominated him to go get the beer for a party.

Devon got a lump in her throat right before continuing. She paused while she swallowed hard. It was not easy saying goodbye, especially under the circumstances. She looked down to collect herself.

“When I first came to this moon I was a different person. You guys took me in and made me feel like I belonged here. I will never forget that. But it’s time for me to move on.”

Several of the Rangers stood up and started slowly clapping. Devon looked up and smiled gratefully at the appreciation the others showed her.

* * *

Thirty-seven held up Devon’s duffel bag as she randomly stuffed it with clothes.

“I’m sorry Slim, but I can’t take you with me on a starship. You’re going to have to make arrangements to get back to Selene yourself.”

The android nodded, even though the very notion of an android traveling by itself was as absurd as coming to this moon had been. It was packed into a shipping container for the journey to Ocherva, but there was no way it could imagine traveling that way again. Since obtaining the upgrade to make it a Silicant, Thirty-seven rarely allowed itself to be completely shut down.  After all, how could it be sure it would ever be turned on again?

“I shall miss you, Miss Devon,” the android said.

Devon stopped what she was doing for a moment and looked at the sand colored android. Despite being just a machine, it had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember. It was like an old friend or more appropriately, a trusty pet. When she came to Ocherva and found that her mother had sent Thirty-seven, she was furious. It was like her mother sending a butler to keep an eye on her daughter. She’d got used to having it around and it had saved her drunken ass more times than she liked to admit. She couldn’t deny that it would be weird not having it in her life again.

“I’ll miss having you around too, Slim.”

She took the ties away from the android and cinched up her bag. She considered hefting it herself and then decided to let the android handle the load. Thirty-seven nodded curtly and easily lifted the bag to its shoulder. The two of them looked around the one room apartment one last time and then left.

Outside in the street several Rangers had gathered with their own duffel bags. Devon indicated for Thirty-seven to set hers down with the others. Commander Trimble was adding people to a manifest on her data pad. Devon walked up to her and waited her turn. There were five Rangers opting to leave with the Starforgers.

Seth was standing in the shadows of Control, watching the pilots who were leaving. His flat brimmed hat was tilted down over his eyes, casting a deep shadow over his unshaven face.

Devon watched him for a moment before going over to talk to him. She felt that she owed him a proper goodbye. “I guess this is it.”

He looked up at her and managed a grim smile. She put her Ranger badge in his big hand. He looked down at it wistfully. “I always wanted my own command. Now that I have it, I don’t really want it anymore.”

“Do you remember when I first got to this rock and everyone confessed their visions from smoking ocha?”

He nodded.

“I told you I saw my future here with you all. But I saw other things too. I saw blue faced people like the pilot of that crashed ship, and I saw myself fighting them in the military.”

Seth looked up at her under the brim of his hat. “I saw the blue faced people in my dream too.”

Devon’s heart ached. They had never spoken of their ocha dreams in all the time she had been on Ocherva.

“I saw them killing Rangers. I have to stay Dev, I can’t let my dream come true.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. He held her close with his big arms around her waist. “You’re the best man for the job. Make me proud.”

“You better get going. You don’t want to keep them waiting.”

They broke apart and Devon reached up to caress Seth’s cheek. She stood up on her toes and kissed him hard. “Goodbye, Seth,”

She wanted to add that she loved him, but the words didn’t come out. He nodded to her with a tip of his hat. She turned and walked back to where Commander Trimble was waiting.

“This all your stuff?” Trimble asked.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Trimble had seen her kiss the other Ranger and knew full well the pain of separation from loved ones leaving for space duty entailed. “You can stay in touch with him via Fleet dispatches if it’s any consolation.”

“Thanks,” Devon said, as she hoisted her bag over her shoulder.

Devon took one last look around the mostly deserted main street of Haven. She was really going to miss the frontier town, but it would always be a part of her. A feeling that she would never see this place again slipped into her head but she dismissed it. She waved at Seth one last time.

He threw her a halfhearted salute and stepped inside Control to take over Company H.

Devon followed Commander Trimble up the ramp of the Starforce shuttle thankful that nobody saw her wipe her eyes.

Author’s Comments:

This chapter is influenced by a very specific period of American military history. It was inspired by the dissolving of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), otherwise known as the Flying Tigers.

Pilots of the AVG were volunteers from America that flew with the Chinese Air Force against the Japanese. When war broke out between Japan and the US, these expatriates had to decide whether to stay on with the 14th Air Force in China or go back to the states to be drafted into the US military.

I’m somewhat of an aviation history buff and the story of the AVG is a favorite of mine.

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