“Commodores aren’t supposed to get themselves into trouble, you know. That’s why they made you one,” Karen McMaster’s words came with their usual smooth elegance, and I smiled and glanced at her as she spoke.
Of course she was right – Commodores were supposed to stay out of the messy bits of Naval duty, and instead take care of squadron command and paperwork. My particular job description probably had ‘stay out of trouble’ written right into it.
But since when had a job description actually described what any Defense Command officer really did?
Seriously, I don’t mean that in an arrogant way… for me it’s just a question of my style when it comes to dealing with the Belt frontier. Generally, my approach with that rough side of space didn’t fit the template of the academy playbooks. That’s why I got my job done.
But thinking about such things at that moment was irrelevant, and besides, Karen was smiling at me. One of her trademark smiles. If you don’t know what I mean by that… well, you will soon enough.
Containing a contented sigh, I managed to grin in response to her words, “You know, they really should know better than to think an extra rank bar’s going to keep me from being stupid.”
“Those were my very words to Admiral Noyce. He wasn’t holding out much hope,” her eyebrows rose playfully as she said it, and I chuckled.
“Yeah, so I’ll take that as de facto authorization for this then.”
Karen’s smile stretched wider still, and I stared at it for a second as she looked down at her mag and slapped a fresh power cell into the pistol.
The way she could make anything look elegant never fails to amaze me. Even loading a pistol – how can that be elegant and still serious? Karen. That’s how.
Sorry, I got distracted then; I get distracted now just thinking about it.
Oh and in case you’re wondering, this was still early days of us being together all the time on the same ship. She’d only transferred over from Lion a week or two before this, I do believe. So cut me some slack for allowing my mind to wander.
Prying my eyes slowly away from Karen’s smile, I slid my electromagnetic disrupter (mag) pistol from its holster on my hip, then tabbed the power cell release and quickly examined the conduit heads to make sure they were clean and free to send energy into the blast emitter. Satisfied, I pushed the cell back into the pistol and tabbed it online, then set its output to moderate.
The goal here was to take Jones alive, after all. Hopefully he’d go along with that plan…
“Matt’s going to kill us both when we get back to the ship,” Karen looked back up, satisfied with her own gun’s state of readiness.
My eyebrows went up and I met her eyes, my grin remaining, “A Commodore and his Flag Captain are about to storm a notorious pirate’s hideout with only sidearms and no immediate backup… and you think he’s going to kill us? Our dear friend Matt is the least of my worries.”
Somehow, Karen’s smile brightened a little more. Let me tell you, she needed an overload switch on that thing. I was always sure that one day I’d just be staring and get hit by a bus or something.
Anyway, moving on.
She was referring of course to Commander Matt Baxter, First Officer (but until his promotion the previous week, head of security) of DCNS Wolf, my… well, now our frigate. He never liked it when we did stupid stuff. He actually called it ‘stupid stuff’ to our faces.
It was remarkable he hadn’t given up on us already…
“Alright, ready?” Karen purposefully took the smile off her face. Her heart rate was still up, and so was mine. This was the exciting part – the moment that promised action and maybe even a shoot out, but which came before the mind-numbing terror of being caught in a crossfire. It only goes downhill from here.
“Yep,” I raised my mag and settled my upper body into a good firing posture.
Karen did the same, turning her torso to get a good sightline down the barrel of her pistol, holding that weapon in both hands and shifting her balance to make sure she could move steadily.
She did that really well – with that elegance I keep blubbering about. She sells that gracefulness magnificently. Like a praying mantis; beautiful and so very lethal. Not that I’m saying Karen’s like a bug… guess I should have thought that one through a bit better…
Sorry. Keep getting sidetracked.
“Here we go…” Karen’s smile was gone entirely and her leg suddenly flashed forward in a blurred kick. Jones’ old front door flew off its hinges and thudded into the room inside.
A stale, hot stench hit us both as Karen led the way in with quick, even steps, “Defense Command officers, everybody on the ground!” Her words go from smooth to steel in a flash.
I covered left and she covered right. The room was dark – there’d clearly been no lights on inside, and now we had to wait just a moment for our vision to adjust from the simulated daylight outside to the blackness of–
“Down!” I threw myself to the ground before I actually realized what I was doing; I’d seen the shape of a man taking aim with a shoulder-laser and just reacted.
Karen threw herself to the ground on the other side of the room, and just in time, too, as the frame of the front door and the wall surrounding it were disintegrated by a geyser of red energy.
That’s right, Jones was defending his house with an anti-tank weapon. Hey, I guess it never hurts to think big.
Rolling across the floor away from the hot beam, I waited until an alloy table got between me and the line of sight of the shooter, then came to a stop and rolled up on one knee, leveling my hands with firing-range style and a good line of–
“Yikes!” I dove flat as the red geyser swung right for my head and evaporated the front of this old dump of a house. At this rate that shooter was going to bring the house right down on top of us… that’s what Jones would get for thinking big, then.
“Will you stop that you idiot, you’re going to collapse the house on all of us!” I bellowed. Of course he shouldn’t answer…
“Says you Defcom!”
I covered the back of my head with my free hand and tried to keep my face off the filthy floor as chips of plaster from the ceiling dropped on me. Karen would be getting ready to drop him in just a few seconds, so I needed to distract him again. Swinging my hands under me, I pushed myself into a sideways roll, extended my mag and squeezed the trigger twice as I rocked up onto one knee.
The shots were close but not quite on target, and he turned a bit further towards me, the red geyser still spewing.
Then the energy abruptly stopped, the shoulder-wielded laser dropping to the filthy floor with a thud. The shooter was on the ground with his hands meekly up, and in fine form, Karen’s boot was on his chest and her mag leveled at his face.
Smiling with no small measure of relief, I pushed myself to my feet and let my mag hand fall to my side as I crossed the floor, “That’s better. What took you so long?”
Karen looked up and flashed her smile, “Dunno. Went shopping. New shoes.”
I laughed – Karen wasn’t a shopper. Because you clearly needed to know that fact in order to get the joke.
“Oh God, it’s McMaster and Barron, right? Why don’t you two just get a friggin’ room already…” the shooter, still on his back, suddenly seemed to get a surge of guts.
“Chatty one,” I frowned. Karen nodded and put on a ‘scolding parent’ expression, looking back to him and pulling the trigger.
He ‘eeped’ as the bolt of electromagnetic energy split the floorboards next to his head, singing his hair in the process, “Quiet now, that’s hardly polite talk.”
The shooter lost his nerve – and command of his voice – and I nodded approvingly, then looked him over once. If this was Jones, he sure didn’t look like his picture.
Fair skin, blond hair, freckles… yeah, the pictures of Jones I’d seen didn’t quite match that. For one thing, Jones was black. In the academy, they teach us to look for such details.
“So where is he?” my question was friendly-sounding enough… I let Karen’s boot on his chest do the menacing.
The shooter opened his mouth, then closed it and shook his head.
“Great,” my tone shifted to slightly disappointed, and I dialed the setting on my mag down to low. “Well, I guess you’re going to be loyal.”
Karen pulled her boot away and the shooter tried to lunge upward for one of us, but I shot him square in the chest. On the low setting, my mag overloaded his nervous system and sent him into a hell of a coma.
“Upstairs maybe?” Karen shrugged and pulled her ponytail over her left shoulder, playing with it as she thought things over.
The house made a crunching sound – the sort of sound a house makes when it’s starting to collapse on you. Ridiculous as it might seem, I’d heard that particular sound a number of times in my career… and so had Karen.
“Guess we get out of here,” she said, looking at the ceiling and pursing her lips.
“Yeah,” I sighed, dragging my eyes from her to the shooter. “Guess I should drag him out too…”
Karen started to nod, and then the ceiling over the front door… or more precisely, over the gap in the wall where the front door had been… collapsed.
And then with a rather distinguished screech, Jones dropped through the collapsing ceiling and landed with a satisfying thud on the ground next to the door.
He looked pretty stunned by his abrupt fall, but I’d seen that before. Yes, I’d had people I needed to capture drop through ceilings into my presence in the old days…
Anyway, he’d stand up and start running any second. So I shot him before he realized I was ten feet away.
“Okay, you get him and I’ll get the shooter,” Karen’s tone was casual, and she holstered her mag and bent down to grab the shooter by his boot.
Stepping over falling bits of ceiling, I grabbed Jones by one arm and dragged him out the front door. Karen was right behind me, and so as the building folded in on itself, we stood outside over the comatose bodies of two notorious pirates and dusted ourselves off.
“Well that should be enough noise to get us some backup,” Karen finished straight-ening her uniform and stood with her hands on her hips, staring at the pile of rubble.
My uniform jacket was sticky from being face down on the floor, so I’d be washing it… er… getting my steward to wash it, when I got back to the ship. But ignoring that fact, I nodded at Karen’s words and smiled, “We do tend to have this effect on buildings, don’t we?”
“Pirate ones, anyway,” Karen nodded and then folded her arms.
We stood there for about a minute, just thinking about what we’d done. This was our pirate-beating style – over-the-top and absurdly dangerous. Many officers I’ve talked to later in life can barely believe we were actually this… well… irresponsible, and I don’t blame them. All I can tell you is we got a lot more serious during the war… hell, by the end of this book you’ll see our attitudes changing.
You’ll think I’m nuts to say it, but during the war I’d sometimes wish for this kind of work against the pirates. Enjoy it while it lasts…
But anyway, after that minute of standing, we heard the telltale drone of a hovervan approaching.
“Ten bucks says it’s the media.”
Karen blinked and looked at me, “I thought it was my turn to bet first.”
Shaking my head, I grinned, “You called it at the promotion ceremony, remember.”
“Oh right. Yeah, I’ll say it’s Matt because you took my bet,” she frowned thoughtfully.
The news van pulled up a minute later, and while the camera crew threw itself out of the floating vehicle we waved and continued our inane conversation.
Defense Command Security Forces and Special Branch turned up two minutes later to take the pirates into custody.
Then we went to get some burgers.
“Mmm, Gold-Arch Burger never fails to deliver…” I managed to get the words out before biting into the bacon-and-cheese ‘Belt Burger’ that I’d just ordered.
I felt very Commodorial (I know it’s not a word, thanks) as I chewed. We’d done what we were famous for: taken down a building, then sauntered into the nearest fast-food joint looking filthy and disreputable, and demanding cheap, relatively unhealthy food.
Now we sat at a small, sticky table in a busy burger joint, with just about everybody gaping at us.
“Yeah, but it was more fun when everybody didn’t know who we were,” Karen spoke between chews, her eyes scanning all the other diners who sat and stared.
One guy was literally sitting there frozen, staring at us with his mouth clearly open to bite his burger, and the thing right there in biting range. As I met his eyes he looked away hurriedly. I bobbed my eyebrows and kept chewing. Again, this was how we got things done in the Belt – look and act larger than life, subtlety and old-school professionalism out there just doesn’t work. You want information, you want cooperation, you have to have presence. And you don’t get it just because of the uniform.
Proving that point, the six vidscreens in the restaurant all stopped their regular broadcasts and flashed up the ‘Breaking News’ graphic.
A news lady appeared on the screen, “This just in: the east end of Belt Nine Dome Six today saw an exciting shoot out between the infamous pirate Danfield Jones and Commodore Ken Barron and Captain Karen McMaster. With more, let’s join Trisha Phi in the field. Trisha?”
I tuned it out after that, eating curly fries instead.
You know, curly fries are a very traditional food – they’ve lasted the centuries quite well. Most people never realize they pre-date the Empire… but now you know they do.
I heard my own voice on the vidscreen and looked up. Karen and I had done the required, friendly, after-action interview, with all the self-effacing grace and humor we could muster… which was a lot.
Then the reporter asked Karen who she was wearing, and who’d done her hair.
I chewed and shook my head, wondering how I’d kept a straight face as Karen had explained that there aren’t actually designer uniforms, and that she did her hair herself. With a regulation hair clip and a brush.
“I think we’re disappointments as celebrities,” Karen said before sipping some of her soda through a straw.
I shrugged, “Yeah, well, at least it’s not in the job description.”
Karen frowned – and the way she frowns really doesn’t have the unappealing look a frown should – then waved at me with her cup of soda, “Didn’t we say something back there about not really following job descriptions.”
I frowned in reply – and my frown is a real unpleasant frown, I’m sure – and thoughtfully chewed a couple of fries, “Guess you need to order some designer uniforms, then. I can’t wait!”
Karen smiled. And you know what that’s like.
Copyright © 2006 Kenneth Tam