I stared at Kirkwood like she’d gone insane. “Me and Red? We could never become a couple in the first place!”
That confused my XO. She shook her head. “Why not? Red’s an attractive girl, isn’t she?”
“I’m why not,” I told her. “Of course Red’s attractive. She’s the homecoming queen. I’m the loner that girls won’t have anything to do with. You ever see a couple like that?”
“A homecoming queen is like a beauty queen of some kind, right?” she asked, thinking carefully. “You mean that literally?”
As a Brit, I guess she didn’t have a strong definition of the term.
I nodded. “She was literally our homecoming queen. She was runner-up for Miss Teen Calvin County last year, too. She acts like a tomboy in the service, but she turns into a completely different person among Espees. She’s the rich girl with the great looks. She doesn’t associate with a social nonentity like me.”
“But being crew mates makes it different, you know…”
It’s a long-standing rumor in the Aviation Corps that the brass plays matchmaker with their two-person crew selections. They don’t seem to have any inhibition against mixing genders, anyway. And whether they do it on purpose or not though, it’s a fact that it isn’t uncommon for two-person crews to wind up married.
But I shook my head. “At school, I stay away from her, at her request. It would embarrass her if she was seen with me too much. On the rare occasions that we’re seen talking together, she tells her friends that I work for her father and he wanted me for something.”
Kirkwood shook her head, a perplexed frown creasing her brow. “You don’t seem like someone who would be unpopular, Captain.”
“It’s my own fault. I don’t have any free time for a social life. If I’m not studying for school, I’m studying for flag officer track.”
“Seriously? You think you have a shot?” She wore a slightly wry smile, but her disbelief was understandable. It’s weird for a goblin driver to take the exams seriously.
“It’s not my choice,” I explained. “I’m on the mandatory list.”
Her smile vanished with the shock of hearing that. The Mandatory Examinees List is for the line officers on the big ships of Battle Fleet and the sports car drivers of Scout Fleet.
But it didn’t throw her off topic. “The way you two are acting, I was certain you used to be a thing.”
I snorted. “Trust me, she would never have me. And I’ve lived through two of her romances already as her shipmate. I’ve been forced to listen to her bragging about them, bitching about them, moaning about having to be away from them… and crying when she broke up with them. But this is the first time her love life affected our teamwork. I can’t figure out how to deal with it.”
She scratched behind her ear. “You think that bloke is doing it on purpose?”
“Farley? Hell, I know he is. She defended me the first time he met me. He thinks he needs to separate her from me to have a chance with her.”
But I had a different thought worrying me. Martins had mentioned about projecting his existing problem on me. It made me wonder about what had happened with his last captain.
# # #
We approached the Sebka/A[hika system while receiving nothing but bad news on the Low Data Rate communicator. By the way, I had no idea how one pronounced ‘A[hika’. The planets in the system were named by the Rphuk, who have an audio language which produces sounds our ears can approximate to human language. In most cases. We have to use characters like ‘[‘ and ‘>’ to stand in for sounds that have no human equivalent. (Although there’s a ‘!’ sound that I understand sounds like a sound in some African languages that use the same character.)
I already had a good overview of the situation from my briefing. The Rphuk general population were already evacuated. In the panic after the Incursion (some people were calling it the ‘Bulge’ and others were loudly objecting to using that term, for some reason), all of their supply lines had been cut, and the ESDF and Gr’ts’ck had wound up with the job of trying to extract the Rphuk rear guard from Sebka B and replace them as defenders. Thanks to the Enemy now largely controlling orbital space around the ‘super-Earth’ Sebka A, getting into its Earth-sized moon Sebka B was now dicey. It would remain so until the arrival of a large Ai’iin battle group that was on its way from a great distance away in response to the Bulge.
If we could hold places like Sebka until the eldest members of the Alliance arrived to back us up, this bulge could go as badly for the Enemy as the original Bulge went for the Germans. If not, the Enemy could do enough damage to do real harm to Earth and our closest allies, the Gr’ts’ck and Zindavoor. Our allies were targets for extermination; we humans were targets to become the next Slave species.
In other words, Sebka B could be the beginning of a fight for our own survival, not just an attempt to redeem an ally’s colony. My Gob’s little piece of the fight was only a drop in the sea, but that knowledge amped the pressure up by that much more.
That’s what we knew when we left Earth.
I stared at the sitrep that came across the Low Data Rate communicator with no less dismay then when I first watched it coming through. It was now a printout for the benefit of those not tied into the ship systems via nerveware, namely PTO Joss and Chief Farley.
They would receive the printout when I was done, but I was leading the meeting, so I had to read it out.
“Ground losses on the inner hemisphere of Sebka B have rendered Sebka B orbit untenable. due to Enemy control of Sebka A, resulting in combined attacks from ground held by Enemy coordinating with attacks from Sebka A.”
“Meaning, whenever the battle group was over Sebka B territory controlled by the Enemy, they would be attacked from both above and below?” Kirkwood asked.
I nodded confirmation. I didn’t know how much the non-ship-command types, Joss and Farley, got it, but Martins, listening in on the comm, understood.
“What does ‘inner hemisphere’ mean?” Farley wondered, causing me to nod in my mind. It’s a term that only strategists use. Pilots don’t look at planets that way.
“The primary is about a hundred forty times the size of the satellite,” I said. “That’s a ratio nearly double that of the Earth and Moon. So just like the Moon, Sebka B is tidally locked. The inner hemisphere is the side facing Sebka A. Like how the nearside of the Moon faces the Earth. Formerly we held all the territory on that side, so the Enemy couldn’t catch us between their surface-based anti-space weaponry and weapons from the big ships around Sebka A.”
I looked down at the dispatch and read, “Battle group engaged Sebka A orbital space en masse, achieving control of a 200 degree sector with a 195.5 minute period– I’ll skip the sync data they’re giving– with all assets relocating. Sebka B space was abandoned, and is currently no-man’s-land.”
Joss seemed to understand, but Chief Farley looked puzzled, so I translated, “Their only choice was to take the entire battle group into Sebka B orbit and take over part of it. Now the two groups share low orbital space, each maintaining about half the pie. We have a slightly larger slice. Any time you have a contest for a planet, you generally end up with each side controlling complementary fractions of equal altitude low orbits at some point. The physics push you into it. We and the Enemy have reached that point with respect to Sebka A.”
“Battles for orbital control are a headache to explain, Captain,” Martins said over the speakerbox. “Farley, suffice it to say, they’re battling over control of both planets now.”
I nodded. “It’s strictly a battle at space around Sebka A. The primary is a supersized rock with a venusian type atmosphere, so there’s no possibility of surface control. Sebka B is a living atmosphere world fully invested by both sides on the ground, including a Tabir water fleet holding some of the seas for our side. So we have a battle for the ground there, and neither side controls the sky.”
Farley looked dissatisfied. “Battle Fleet had orbital control and they gave it up? You think those guys would have hung in there for the guys on the ground.”
I sighed. I understood that it was hard to picture. Battle Fleet had probably held on as long as they dared, but that is how stellar system battles are. The planets are constantly turning, you can’t hold one spot with respect to them because of orbital mechanics, the orbits constantly change how everything is in relation to everything else, the relationships of major satellites to primary planets matter, and there’s nothing you can do about any of it but fight while you try to keep track of where everything is and not accidentally find yourself on a trajectory into a lethal spot.
“For them it would have been like going to battle stations every hundred minutes. You just can’t keep that up. So, now we need to slide into the Allied fraction of Sebka A orbit, and you will have to run the gauntlet between A orbit and B surface on each run.”
Farley’s face showed the process as understanding set in. I felt like I could see the moment that understanding hit his gut.
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