However, I never had an opportunity to sell the Sky Boss on Alexander on the idea. As long as Mo was Aviation Corps equipment in the battle group, he had a say on where she went. And he had already decided to send us home.
The dispatch came in an hour after we adjourned. I was still drawing up the mission proposal to submit to him. The words “TV-803 Morris Higgins shall proceed to home port and await orders” sat there in my text interface, and I was unable to tear it up. Nor could I crumble it or take any other traditional means to vent my frustration on it, because it wasn’t on the piece of paper that stuff like that needs to be on, to allow such a release. I could only read it with my nerveware and grind my teeth.
I forwarded it to Martins and Joss. Then I called Red to the control room. She listened to the news quietly, then deflated slightly. “They’re abandoning them.”
I would have expected her to say ‘him’ rather than ‘them’, but I didn’t comment on it. I said, “They claim they are continuing to explore options.”
She glared up at me and I nodded.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think the same thing.”
“So we can’t do anything about it, right?”
I was quiet, because every bone in my body was screaming at me to point our bow toward Sebka B and go, right that instant. I had never lost a single person on Mo and I couldn’t stomach the idea that I would now lose six.
“Captain…” she said, a hint of worry in her voice. “You can’t…”
She cut off and I knew why. She’d been about to say, “You can’t fly Mo down there and pick them up yourself!”
She couldn’t say it, because it would be like daring me to do it. She knew that.
I’m not that big of an idiot, Red, I complained at her in my mind, even though I was afraid that I might in fact be that big of an idiot after all.
But something occurred to me at that moment. Something very important. And it was something that was just enough for me to work with. I flipped over to the private channel I had been keeping with Martins.
“Mo to Tapper.”
“Go ahead, Psycho.”
It was right away, like she’d been expecting the call. Maybe she was.
“Before we depart, I would like to have a pre-flight meeting. Face to face. Is that okay?”
“I’ll rendezvous in about ten.”
I cut the call and turned back toward Red. Her eyes were narrow.
“You can’t fly Mo down to the surface.”
You went and said it after all, I thought with a mental grin, but I nodded and began my swim out of the control room to reach the bottomside secondary airlock. “I agree. We’d would be too clumsy to dodge with the pod loaded.”
“Even without it!” she snapped, following me. “You can’t drop the pod and fly down either!”
“I’m not doing that, either, Red,” I said, clearly and deliberately.
“Really?” the interrogation continued.
“Really. I’m not taking my crew into that kind of danger when I have a better choice available to me.”
I texted Joss and Kirkwood to join us, then began filling Red in on the idea we had been planning to propose to the battle group. She listened quietly and made no protest.
“The only thing is,” I added at the end, by which time the other two had joined the meeting, “We have to send you down. Can you repair the lander with what you can carry in one passenger’s worth of space?”
“I just need a standard hull patch kit and my portable welder,” she answered. “I’ll bring an extra kit and my normal toolbox as well. That should all fit.
Red was being incredibly docile about this. I frowned. She should have been fussing, or griping, or something.
“Are you alright with it?”
“With going down there? There’s nobody else you can send, right?”
“Well, a deckhand can do a patch job.”
“We don’t know that the only damage is the hole. You need an engineer, not a deckhand.”
Joss chimed in at this point. “Is it correct that the captain is intending to ignore orders?”
“The Higgins is under orders to proceed home,” she reminded me.
I nodded. “An ideal launch point comes up in roughly two hundred minutes, and I’ve already indicated I will be taking it. I’ve filed a flight plan for A[hika C to put on propellant for the journey home.”
Kirkwood and Joss both looked puzzled. Red had her brows bunched up in a worried arch again.
“You okay, Red?” I asked. But that was when I got a call on the private channel with Martins, so I held up my hand to tell her to hold her answer.
“Permission to come aboard?” came Martins’ voice.
“Permission granted,” I said out loud instead of using synth voice, so the others would hear. “Cycling airlock for outer door access.”
I flipped the lock on the inner door and the system began pumping the air out. The light on the outside would turn green when it was safe for her to open. It took about five minutes for her to come inside.
Her first words were, “You realized it, didn’t you?”
“That the Road Kings weren’t mentioned in that order? Yeah.”
Martins grew a wry grin as the others became puzzled. She mused, “He probably considers us as part of the package. I can fail to see it that way if you wish to do likewise.”
I stuck my hand out, “You have a deal.”
We shook, then she looked to the others. “We’ve got a little over two hours until the best launch window. I need to do the personnel transfer in an hour and a half. Call it Sebka mean time oh-five-twenty. Can you two be ready?”
Joss simply gave a sharp nod. Red frowned, but said, “Yeah.”
After they departed, I had Kirkwood join me in the control room to talk about the flight.
# # #
An hour later, I helped Red load her tool cases and patch kits into the airlock. Joss waited in the corridor along with her gear and one of the gunners, who would help her load. They would head outside on the next cycle. Red was barely speaking, but she was working efficiently, so I didn’t mind it.
She might have commented on the thermies and breather mask I was wearing, if it weren’t regulations, for working in the airlock. In fact, when she noticed, she went ahead and put her own mask on. She did frown a bit when I clipped on a tether and stayed in the lock during the cycle instead of getting out, but perhaps she assumed I intended to help her load up. She just did the buddy drill with me, checking each other’s gear to make sure we were two vac-skinned people who could survive vacuum, and didn’t say anything. When we were ready, she clipped her own tether on.
When we opened the outer door, we saw Martins’ Luna Moth standing about five meters away with one of its ‘gull wing’ entry hatches standing open, and a lanky blond man with sharp blue eyes waiting, holding onto one of the handgrips next to our hatch. He saluted.
“Lieutenant Junior Grade Anders Lundgren,” he stated over the crew comm frequency. I had already looped him in before we entered the lock. “Permission to come aboard?”
“Permission granted, Ivan,” I answered, recognizing the voice of Martins’ second seater. I returned the salute while Red was looking between him and me with confusion. We traded tethers; his was tied to the Luna Moth. He handed a second tether to Red.
“What’s going on?” she asked as she switched from her tie to the Mo over to the new tether. Actually, ‘challenged’ might be a better word. I couldn’t see her mouth through the breather mask clearly, but I could imagined the slight purse to her lips that went with that tone.
“I’m flying second seat, Red,” I answered.
“You’ve never flown a Luna Moth in your life!”
I’m not sure how she would know that for a fact. It was reasonable as a guess, but the first time she met me was after she returned to Berenice from flight engineer school. I had already been a pilot for quite a while at that point.
“I’ve simmed them,” I informed her. “And the weapon systems are very similar to a Banshee’s. Martins is flying. She needs me to handle the fire control, not the flight controls.”
“Why can’t he?” she demanded, pointing at ‘Ivan’.
I was already floating the first case across to the Moth as Ivan answered, “Because the captain wants me to back up Lieutenant Kirkwood while she’s flying the Mo to A[hika C.”
“And she has to fly it because the captain’s busy flying second seater, right?”
“You catch on quick, Red,” I answered with a grin as I caught the edge of the Moth’s hatch and steered the case inside. I think it was Red’s welder. I was growing a little impatient. “We don’t have time for this. Get to work.”
She’s a disciplined spacer, so she stopped talking and took care of business, but when we were done at last, and the Moth’s hatch was closed, she again protested, “You don’t need to be here! There’s no reason for you to risk your life on this!”
“It’s not your decision, young lady,” snapped Martins, a bit annoyed with her. She then said, “Take hold. I need to move off and let Sharktooth get in position.”
Once we had slid away from Mo so that the PTO’s ride could pick her and her gear up, Red glared forward at me from her spot behind Martins. “You don’t need to come along!”
“When he offered, I accepted for Ivan’s sake,” Martins answered before I could say anything. “The lieutenant’s a new father and hasn’t seen the kid yet.”
“That’s not a good enough reason for the captain to risk this!” she retorted. The pressure was coming up, so the vac-skin seals on things like tear glands were letting go. To my surprise, I could see tears in her eyes.
I answered, “I think it’s a plenty good reason, but it’s not why I’m going, Red.”
“Then why do you have to go?” she demanded. “I don’t want this!”
Now, I was getting a little perplexed at this. Why was she so opposed to the idea? But I wasn’t going to ask. We didn’t need to start this thing on an argument.
“I have to go because that’s what my job is, Red,” I said. “You worry about getting that lander working. The rest of it is on my shoulders. That’s how it works when you’re the captain, you know?”
Red kept fussing at me, but she gave up after not much longer, since I refused to be baited into the fight. Besides, she already knew she wasn’t going to change my mind.
Martins never asked why I wanted to be along, and I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to tell Red either. But it was pretty simple.
I couldn’t send Red down there on her own while I stayed behind, safe and secure on Mo.
Two years ago, I promised I would keep her alive, if she kept my ship in one piece. For the last two years, she had held up her end of the bargain.
Therefore, I would keep mine.