There are times that every pilot cherishes, when you became one with your ship, controls are adjusted without conscious thought, and everything seems right with the universe.
Now was not one of those times.
Veron swore and struggled to correct her ship's course as one of her front thrusters was knocked out.
"Status," she requested of her navigator.
"Detector shield out. Rear shields failing. Front port thruster out. Rear port thruster failing intermittently. Three pursuit ships approaching on attack vector." Without looking at him, Veron knew that Bek would be hunched over his controls, his mouth pressed into a thin line, his unruly hair falling unchecked into his eyes. She also knew, implicitly, that there was no reading concerning this ship or the ones pursuing them that would escape his notice.
"Speed of pursuit ships?"
"Standard by four. They'll gain on us in 30 seconds."
Veron knew they didn't have much time left. They only had one chance left, and she was going to take it.
"Reversing course. Ready neutron blasters."
"Neutron blasters cleared. Intersection in fifteen seconds." Bek's response was so smooth that she was certain he'd anticipated her actions. She'd have been tempted to smile if her face hadn't been frozen into a grim mask.
She headed towards the pursuit ship formation. Playing chicken with FSA trained pilots was not the way she would have chosen to end this assignment, but she would rather stand and face her enemy than have them harry her to death in retreat.
"Target lead ship. Starboard ship as secondary target."
"Let's take this ship down their throats."
Bek started a countdown as they approached their prey. At five seconds, Veron called for launch at primary target. At three seconds the first ship was destroyed. At two seconds, they launched at secondary target. At one second to intercept, bolts from the remaining pursuit ships struck them. The rebel ship's hull ruptured, the main drive blew, and the blast spread the component parts of the scout across the cold, black of space.
Or would have done, had any of it been real.
"Nice going, Veron. I quite enjoy being dead. Again."
Veron turned a glare on her navigator, and friend, as the flight simulator was opened, letting in the light of the training area.
"Hey, Jenna. Are you going to keep letting this maniac fly one of these things?" Bek aimed his remark at their instructor as she appeared at the door of the simulator.
"I thought she did brilliantly, Bek." Jenna smiled. "She pushed the limits of the ship as far as they would go, and then some." Jenna put her arm around Veron as the young woman left the simulator.
"Pushed the limits until she killed us, you mean."
"You only know how far you can go if you know how far you can't go. And you can only learn that in the simulator."
"Bloody pilots," Bek grumbled, as both women flashed him grins.
"Stop complaining, boyo. You both did well, and you know it. Let's go back to the debriefing room and go over this mess, shall we."
They spent several hours going over the training exercise, analyzing in excruciating detail what could have been done better, what the different outcomes could have been. It was tough, exacting work, and Veron enjoyed every moment of it, as she knew Bek did.
When they were all satisfied they had covered every alternative, Jenna called a halt and shooed Bek away. She asked Veron to stay.
Veron raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as Bek disappeared, after extracting her promise to meet for dinner.
As soon as the door closed behind Bek, Veron turned her full attention to Jenna.
"Well? What's going on?"
"I won't beat around the bush. We've decided to give you both a real assignment."
"Really?" Veron wanted to leap up and hug Jenna, but she reminded herself that was not the mature responsible thing to do.
In the two months since she'd rescued Bek from a Terra Nostra trap on Space City, she'd been training with him non-stop. They'd even done several low-risk cargo runs. They had not, however, been classified as a truly operational team, however. Until now.
This would be the opportunity that they had both been waiting for. Bek would get to prove himself, and she would finally get to show the rest of the base what an effective team they could make. Effective, hell, they were going to be the best.
Jenna gave her a look that told her the older woman knew exactly how much this meant to her.
"I take it you approve."
"That's an understatement." Veron's smile was as wide as it could get.
"Well, don't celebrate too much. It's not a glamour run. You'll be taking out a communications relay on a low security base."
"I don't care what the mission is. I'm just glad they trust us enough to give us the chance."
"About that . . ."
"They do trust us, don't they?"
"A few members of the council wanted to hold back a bit longer, but I convinced them otherwise."
"So that's not the problem."
"No, but . . ."
"You trust Bek."
"I do, at least I do the way you mean. I know he's one of us."
"Then there's no problem."
"There might be. Veron, I want you to be careful. Bek doesn't have the experience you do. Keep an eye on him; make sure he's okay."
"Jenna, we've been working together for weeks now. Two months, really. We're perfect together. I've never had a partner whom I could count on more."
"In simulations. And on milk runs where the chance of engaging the enemy was smaller than that of an asteroid strike. This time you'll be using live weapons on real Fed troops."
"We've both faced that before."
"Yeah, and remember what happened to Bek the last time he was involved in a big operation. He lost his entire group. He may not have gotten over that."
"He'll be fine, Jenna. I know it."
"I'm sure he will, or I wouldn't have pushed for this. But still, watch out for him. That's what a partner is for."
"I'm still the toughest pilot on this base, and don't you forget it."
"Only until I get older. Then that place is mine."
"Maybe. So tell me about this assignment."
Their assignment, as Jenna had described it, was to destroy a relay station on a small Federation base on a tiny planet in the middle of nowhere. The base was unimportant enough to warrant only minimal troop placement, but it relayed Federation communications to an entire sector. Knock it out, and there would be chaos for weeks. Long enough that the rebellion could make significant gains on at least four worlds before repairs were made.
Bek and Veron had been given a small, fast scout ship, with a detector shield. The shield was something Blake had constructed, based, so he claimed, on the work of Kerr Avon. Veron didn't care who took the credit for it, so long as it worked. And it did.
Their target--on a miserable rock so insignificant that it only bore the name GC 897--used only minimal external scans, so with the help of their shield they were able to land their craft within a kilometer of the base without being detected. They waited till sundown, then a short hike took them to the perimeter of the base.
The base had been constructed deep underground in a heavily forested area. It was meant to be invulnerable when it had been built, but that had been twenty years ago. Time and lack of discipline had taken their toll. Deva's intelligence networks had discovered several ventilation shafts that were virtually forgotten and never guarded. The security precautions were negligible and the two of them made it into the base without breaking a sweat.
Once inside, they stopped for a breather in an unused storage lockup. That gave Veron a chance to see how Bek was doing. She had dismissed Jenna's warnings, but she wasn't stupid. If she had seen any signs that Bek was in trouble, she'd have halted the mission now, and damned the consequences.
Instead, she found Bek returning her look with a cunning grin.
"What's on you mind, girl."
"Just hoping it all goes according to plan."
He laughed, and his laughter had just enough edge that she knew he wasn't oblivious to the danger they were in, but easy enough that she knew he wouldn't let it get to him.
"Trust me. And yourself. It's all going fine."
"You're right, of course." She laughed herself, feeling absolutely confident in both of them.
They separated. Bek was to take out the security monitoring area, while Veron dealt with the communications relay.
The corridors got brighter as Veron moved towards the centre of the base. She felt increasingly vulnerable, but didn't encounter anyone, not even a stray technician on night shift. Still, she didn't relax her guard until she reached her destination.
The room containing the relay equipment was, thankfully, where they had been told it would be. She entered the room, having made sure it was empty, and closed the door quietly behind her. She examined the banks of machines, determining the most effective place to set the charges. That done, she pulled out her rucksack and began assembling the detonators.
She was working so intently that she didn't hear the footsteps outside the door until it was too late. She whirled to face the door as a trooper walked into the room.
The trooper was coming off duty, his helmet slung under one arm, his rifle held loosely in the opposite hand. Veron glanced across the room to the console where she had placed her blaster. She calculated how long it would take to reach it: too long. She looked up again as the trooper's helmet clattered to the floor and his rifle came up, firmly trained on her.
"Don't move." Veron thought his voice shook, just slightly. He was a slightly built man, with sandy brown hair and what was probably a pleasant face, when he wasn't confronting terrorists. He was also, Veron realized, not much older than she was. Christ.
She held both hands out to her side and slowly stood up.
"Listen," Veron tried to appear as unthreatening as possible," I'm not . . ."
"I said don't move. And shut up." His eyes flicked around the room.
Come on, Bek, get down here now, Veron thought. I know I'm supposed to be keeping an eye on you, but you can check up on me. I won't mind.
Across the room, the trooper's eyes lit on the comm panel.
"Stand over there."
Veron thought about arguing, but he seemed nervous enough without her arguing. She had to find an opening before he tried to contact his superior. She eased down the knife she kept in a sleeve sheath, thankful that this boy was too nervous to have thought of patting her down for other weapons.
What happened next could only have taken seconds, but afterwards it seemed to Veron as if it had gone on forever.
The trooper walked to the panel, and reached for the control. At the same time, the door opened to, thankfully, miraculously, reveal Bek. The trooper swung toward the second intruder, bringing his gun around. Veron realized that the trooper would be ready to fire before Bek could begin to react. The knife was launched from her hand, burying itself in the young man's throat. He turned to her in surprise, before falling to the ground. It seemed to her that he took an awfully long time to die.
Then it was over, and time resumed its normal course. Amazingly, the whole scene had played out without any of them making a sound. Bek was the first to break the silence, as he walked over to the dead man.
"Bloody hell, he's younger 'n me."
"I know," Veron said, grimly. She retrieved the knife--she had been long trained not to waste anything useful--and wiped it off. "Help me set these charges will you."
They finished their job quickly, both of them avoiding looking at the dead man on the floor. The trooper's appearance had forced Veron to remember what she had almost forgotten in the pleasure of having Bek at her side: this was not a game, and people were going to die. On both sides.
They left the base swiftly, and returned to the ship. Bek still seemed confident, but, like her, his face had become grim, bent on his work and nothing else.
Efficiently, they started up the ship's systems. Bek manned the nav and sensor station, tying in to the base communications to make sure their work had not been discovered. He turned further in on himself as she prepared to take off. She had to be certain he was still functioning.
"Bek, are you okay?"
"Yeah, it just . . ." He cut himself off.
"Go on, I'm listening." She tried to look as understanding as possible, but it was wasted on Bek, who had his sight firmly fixed on the console in front of him, and nothing else.
"That kid back there was so young. Near your age. Near my age." He shook his head. "I've never really killed before. Been part of it. I've seen people die, but that's different."
"Bek," she reached over under his chin and raised his head, His eyes met hers. "You know who my mother was?"
"I know she was a soldier. One of the leaders of the rebellion."
"She always told me I should try to avoid killing, but that if I had to kill, I should do so as well and swiftly as possible." Bek's face flushed a little. "It's not clean, what we're doing. But if you believe in it enough, it should be worth getting your hands dirty."
"Yeah, I know. It's just tough to remember." He nodded his head firmly. "I'll be fine.
"Then, let's get out of here."
They were both silent as they took off, but Veron felt that some of the unbearable tension had dissipated. She found she was almost relaxing as the ship left the system. Then Bek spoke from his station.
"Two pursuit ships closing behind us. Their origin point is the planet."
"They can't know we're here. There hasn't been any indication from the base that they know we were there?"
"Not unless they're using frequencies we don't know about. That's possible."
"It has to be coincidence. They shouldn't be able to track us. Not if the detector shield is working."
"It's an awfully big coincidence. Their course is steady. And they'll have us in visual range soon. Once they can see us, the detector shield won't matter."
"Damn. Hang on." Veron swerved their course 180 degrees, accelerating at the same time. "What are they doing now?"
"Holding course. Maybe they haven't seen us. Bollocks. They've just swerved to match our vector."
"So, they can see through the shield, or it's been damaged somehow. We're going to have to lose them some other way." She looked up at the viewscreen, then back down at the controls. "What kind of ships are they?"
"Long range pursuit craft. Even with the hour lead we've got, they'll catch us in thirty minutes."
"Hmm." Veron was playing through the possibilities as she moved the craft to a new vector. If they were captured here, she didn't want them pointing straight at Monako when it happened, even this far away. As she performed the correction, she came up with an answer that might get them out of this. It was an answer Bek wouldn't like. Come to that, she didn't much like it either."
"Hold on. I've got an idea." She swung the craft around again. Now they were facing the pursuit craft head on.
"This is going to be one of those moves Jenna would love, isn't it?"
"Fuckin' hell." She could see Bek turn an even paler shade than usual, then settle deliberately in his chair. "Right, then. Let's make sure we get back to tell her about it."
They approached the pursuit ships at top speed. It took nearly ten minutes to reach them, and they spent the whole time running different scenarios for the coming fight, calling readings back and forth.
At least there's only two of them," Veron said quietly, as she activated her tracking systems. Bek shot her a foul look, which she ignored.
"Target starboard ship as primary target and give me a count down to intercept."
Bek followed her directions.
Twenty seconds from intercept, the pursuit ships both fired a volley. Veron easily evaded it.
"Fire on starboard ship, my mark."
Ten seconds before intercept, Veron began to pull starboard, drawing that pursuit craft with her.
Bek's shot caught the ship firmly in its centre. The explosion was immediate and satisfying.
"Hold on." Veron said, as she pulled around to flank the remaining ship. The Federation craft fired on them, catching their side, but Veron managed to hold steady.
"Fire on second ship at will."
Veron could see Bek hunched over the controls as he sought the best firing solution. She heard him sigh as he found it.
A second later, the pursuit ship was a ball of fire. Veron eased off on the controls.
"That's done it."
"That's not all it's done." Bek's voice was still tense.
What's the matter?" Veron felt a twisting in her guts that she hadn't felt during the engagement.
“That last volley took out our atmospheric thrusters. As soon as you try to land, you’re going to have a hell of a time keeping her under control. And there’s damage to the hull, including the outer door of the airlock.”
“Fabulous. Anything we can do about it?”
“I don’t think so. We don’t have the equipment to fix the thrusters, and even if we did, with the airlock damaged, we can’t get near them anyway.”
“Even better. Well, let’s worry about getting back to Monako first. Then we’ll think about how to land.”
They both settled in for a tense journey back. Veron refused to even leave the flight deck for two days, until Bek pointed out that sleep deprivation wouldn’t help her land the ship. After that, they took regular shifts.
Miraculously, no more pursuit ships came after them. Veron would have found the trip back restful, except for the knowledge that their ship was crippled in an atmosphere.
In five and a half days, they reached the edge of the system of Monako’s sun. Veron thought this region of space had never looked lovelier, and almost forgot what she would have to face once they reached the planet.
She contacted the base before entering the system. Jenna was in the communications centre. Her response to their situation was immediate.
“Ditch the ship. You can’t risk a landing.” Her voice had a roughness that didn’t come entirely from the tinny speakers of the com system.
“We can’t. This is a scout. There are no escape pods.”
“Then we’ll send a ship up to dock with you.”
“We don’t know how badly damaged the airlock is, but I doubt it would hold.”
There was a deathly silence. Veron knew her teacher would be running through every possibility, checking the telemetry, hoping they’d all missed something. The silence stretched until Veron could take it no longer.
“Jenna, landing is our best option. You know it.”
“Hang on.” Another pause.
“Jenna . . .”
“Yes, Veron, I’m still here. What’s Bek’s opinion?”
Bek shrugged his shoulders at Veron before answering.
“I agree with Veron. She knows the ship best.”
“Fine. We’ll try a landing. You’ll be using the abandoned strip, away from the base. I want you to hold off for twenty minutes so we can get a ground crew to the area. And I’m going to take a ship up to escort you.”
“You don’t . . .”
“Don’t contradict a superior, girl, or didn’t I teach you anything. Maybe I won’t be able to do anything, but maybe I will. I’ve got a lot more flying time than you, and I might see something you’ve missed.”
There was a click as Jenna signed off. Veron turned to Bek.
“I wouldn’t want to be ground crew, with Jenna in that kind of mood.”
“I think I’d rather be down there than here.”
“Don’t remind me,” Veron said, her face twisting into a sour expression.
Eighteen minutes later, they made visual contact with Jenna’s ship, a single brilliant point of light against the background of stars. One minute after that, she contacted them on the com set.
“All right, children. Lead on in. Drop to orbital speed when we’re at 2 A.U.’s. I’ll follow your descent and call in any corrections.”
“I hate it when she call us children.” Bek muttered.
“She calls half the base that,” Veron replied, before responding to Jenna, and then taking the lead.
In minutes, they were above Monako. They cut their speed at the assigned point, and Veron tested the regular thrusters at the slower speeds. These thrusters were fine in space, at high speeds, but weren’t designed for landings. Veron knew she would have to fight the controls as soon as they got in the outer reaches of Monako’s atmosphere.
She only had real doubts that they would make it once, just after they’d entered the atmosphere. The ship had hit a pocket of turbulence and came close to flipping. She’d put too much into the correction and nearly put it into a flat spin. Instinct took over and she managed to straighten out. She’d been thankful that Jenna had trusted her enough the she hadn’t said a work during the whole maneuvre.
The landing was the bumpiest she’d ever made, but she had never been better pleased with one. They had come down in one piece, and that was what counted.
When they were down, she couldn’t find the strength to move. The fear that she’d been ignoring hit her full force, now that she no longer needed to fight it off. She didn’t even realize she was still gripping the controls until she felt Bek prying her fingers loose.
“I’m all right,” she said, looking up.
Veron could see concern in Bek’s eyes, but not the shattering fear she could feel racing through her own body. Somehow, she knew it was his faith in her that had kept him from being afraid. And because he had trusted her, she found she could begin to release the fear.
“I’m sure. Help me up, would you.”
Bek helped her stand, then held her in a strong hug. She stood like that, enjoying the feeling of his arms around her, and the sound of his heart pounding almost as fast as her own. She went to kiss him on the cheek, but he turned his face at the same time, and the innocent gesture became much more. Veron raised her eyebrows, but said nothing. They’d been coming to this point since she had picked him up on Space City, two months before. Now that it had happened, it seemed natural.
Finally, Bek broke off the kiss, and pulled back to look at her.
“Surprised?” he asked.
“Surprised that it took us this long, maybe.” She smiled. “I think it’s going to have been worth the wait, though.”
“No. Just confident. Of us both.” She reluctantly pulled free of his arms. “I suppose we should get out there and show everyone we’re still alive.”
Bek grimaced, but didn’t disagree.
They left the relative silence of the ship for the wild cheering of the landing strip. It seemed like the entire base had turned out to greet them. Blake and Avalon both made speeches welcoming Bek to active duty. Blake even promised to find Bek his own quarters.
Slowly the crowd trickled away, with each person taking the time to congratulate Bek and Veron on their return. When there were only a few people left, and Bek was talking earnestly with Avalon, Veron sought out Jenna. The older woman had remained in the background, letting her protege enjoy the glory. Now she slipped an arm around Veron.
“I’m proud of you, girl. You’re the best I’ve ever taught.”
“Thanks.” She squeezed Jenna’s shoulder. “I told you Bek and I would make a great team. I just didn’t think we’d have to damage a ship to show it.”
“I’m sure you’ll hear about the ship soon enough. For now, just enjoy the acclaim.” Jenna looked over at her partner, still talking to Avalon. “Bek did well. He’s a cool one. He deserves his own quarters after this.”
“Yeah, about that . . .”
“Yes?” Jenna looked at her, a smile forming at the corners of her mouth.
“Well, I was thinking . . .”
“That you and Bek would be sharing quarters soon?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact.”
“Thank you, Veron. You’ve just won me several hundred credits.”
Veron could feel a bright blush start in her ears and work its way across her face.
“You told other people? You set up a pool?” She had to work hard to keep her voice low.
“I didn’t tell a soul. Kalon set up the pool. She figured it out by herself. I think even Blake figured it out, and you know how dense he can be when he wants. He’s got a bet in the pool, anyway.”
Veron wasn’t sure if she should be angry or embarassed. In the end, she just laughed. After all, she did have a bet down on Kalon’s continuing pool on whether Blake and Jenna would ever get together, a fact which she never intended to tell her teacher.
“You’re not angry?”
“I suppose not. You just have to promise me one thing, Jenna.”
“And that is?”
“Make sure Bek doesn’t hear a word about this.”
“Not a syllable. Now if you’re through being offended, we should get back to base. Kalon and Deva are putting together a party. I’ll even buy you a drink with my ill-gotten gains.”
“You’d better.” Veron started laughing again as they went off to collect Bek and the others.
As Veron walked backed to the base, with Bek on one side, and Jenna on the other she couldn’t stop smiling. She knew something would come along to destroy her mood soon enough, be it a Federation attack or Bek going into a snit, but for the moment, she decided just to enjoy it.
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