Kris Longknife’s Replacement
Grand Admiral Sandy Santiago is a woman with a very big problem. How does a mere mortal fill the shoes of one of those damn Longknifes? Worse, the shoes she has to fill are Kris Longknife’s. She’s got birds, and cats, oh, and the occasion murderous alien. How does a girl get this lucky?
Grand Admiral Sandy Santiago paused at the top of the gangplank of the USS Wasp to take a deep breath. It came in tasting of the usual mixtures she’d come to expect on a space station: machine oil, plastics, and human sweat with undertones of other, less savory scents we humans gave the air. This breath, however, was loaded with a whole lot more. Sand had come face to face with just how big a challenge she faced.
She was taking over a command from Admiral, Her Royal Highness, Kris Longknife.
Of course, there was also the added spice to her life of very likely getting killed. As a Santiago she well knew how many of her family had bled and died for the Longknife legend.
Still, a command on the far side of the galaxy had to be about as independent as an admiral could ask for. That challenge had grabbed her and propelled her all the way out here.
And now that she’d gotten her first briefing from Kris Longknife herself, she felt a little bit poleaxed.
I didn’t see any of that coming.
Sandy rendered proper honors and crossed the brow. As she strode along, she began organizing all that had been thrown at her: an admiral pregnant, suicide missions fought off, every single one of them. Five, no six huge alien mother ships fought and destroyed in three different battles, the last one involving thousands of ships on their side against all that we humans had managed to scrape up, a little over two hundred. Oh, and one hundred and sixty of that huge human battle fleet had burned their reaction tanks dry and were drifting in orbit hundreds of light years from their base in desperate need of a refueling mission.
Kris had had a busy couple of months. Fortunately, Sandy was well past that baby thing and looking foreword to spoiling grandkids and returning them to her sons and daughters when they became troublesome. She chuckled to herself. She’d started longevity at thirty. While she could still do PT with the Marines on the USS Victory, there was no way this admiral was going to get pregnant.
No way, no how.
Which still left a whole lot on Sandy’s plate.
She was so lost in her thoughts about all she needed to do that she hardly noticed when a three star admiral, tall, chiseled and graying, along with a petite, young, female civilian that looked ready to explode, crossed her path.
When their presence impinged on Sandy’s notice, she fixed them with a jaundice eye and cleared her throat.
The two of them eyed one another, then, evidently experienced with each other enough to read the other’s mind, the young woman said, “You go first, Admiral Benson.”
“Benson?” Sandy echoed, “I thought the king sent you out here for a civilian post. Dockyards or something.”
“Out on Alwa Station, Admiral, we repair them, we build more, and then, when the time comes, we fight them as well. I commanded the Reserve Fleet under the admiral, here,” he said with a nod toward the Wasp where said admiral was busy gestating – and recovering from one hell of a battle.
“Reserve Fleet?” Sandy said, frowning as her mind raced through the skimpy debriefing she’d just gotten from Kris Longknife. “Didn’t you just hold the last jump into Alwa against the final push by the bug-eyed monsters?”
The man’s face lit up with pure, one hundred percent pride. “That we did, ma’am. Me, and most of my yard birds along with any of Pipra’s factory workers willing to volunteer, or Granny Rita’s Colonials or the odd and sod Rooster or Ostrich that we could train up to stand a watch. We may have been a very mixed bag and nowhere near Navy squared away, but we fought the damn bug-eyed monsters and we got’em good.”
“Well done, Admiral. Now, would you mind following me back to my flag? I think there’s some odds and ends that need tidying up.”
“That’s what we need to talk about, ma’am. Those odds, and the next set of ins. Grand Admiral, may I present Pipra Strongarm, Kris’s right arm gal running the industrial side of the show out here. She oversees the independent operators out in the asteroids that mine the stuff that’s shipped down to the moon fabricators that Pipra also bosses. A lot of the stuff that comes out of them gets shipped up here. Then me and my yard birds use it to patch together ships that the Navy dings, dents and busts up. With what’s left over, we spin together brand spanking new ships. You wouldn’t believe what comes out of my yard and the three or four other dockyards that nice folks back home have been kind enough to ship out here. Besides me and defense gobbling stuff up, her fabs also make the goodies that the Colonials like and the Alwans demand.”
Sandy nodded at the young woman, not sure how this all fit together . . . or mattered to her.
“Fine, I’d be glad to talk to both of you later, but I’ve got the wreckage of a battle to police up. I understand from Kris that she’s got much of a Battle Fleet out there to hell and gone, running on fumes and I need to get some reaction mass out to them soonest,” Sandy said, quick marching for her flag.
Both the Navy officer and the civilian quick marched right along beside her. “Yes, Admiral, that’s why we think you need to talk to both of us now, and maybe Granny Rita and the Colonial’s First Minister Ada, too.”
Sandy gave him a gimlet eye, but didn’t quite give him the line that demanded, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t there more stripes on your coat than mine?”
“Begging your pardon, ma’am,” Admiral Benson went on, if a bit uncomfortably, “it’s likely not safe for you to send the ships you just brought in out there. Leastwise, you’re more likely to loose more of yours than I’d lose of mine.”
Now Sandy did give him the Look. “You want to explain yourself, admiral?”
And be fast about it, went unsaid.
“Are you aware of something called crystal armor that they’ve developed on Earth?”
“I’m aware of it. None of it has gotten out to the rim yet. Why?”
“Well, ma’am, a couple of squadrons of Earth battlecruisers showed up out here a while back. Between the scientists and engineers we had on station, Pipra’s industries and my yard hands, we kind of reverse engineered the stuff and managed to coat every ship in our fleet with it before this last dust up.”
Sandy came to a halt. The look she now gave him was full on surprise. With maybe a bit of awe tossed in.
“You put that weird armor on your entire fleet?”
“Yes, Admiral,” Benson said with a proud grin. “And there are a lot fewer dead Sailors out there because we did, ma’am.”
“And you got all of that stuff out of your moon fabricators?” she said, glancing at the civilian.
“You’re damn right we did, ma’am. You ever try to tell a Longknife you couldn’t give her what she wanted?”
“Not recently,” Sandy muttered, then, remembering she needed to be on her flag bridge, kept walking, but slower, so the woman wouldn’t have to run so much to keep up.
“Okay, Admiral Benson, tell me what you think I need to know about operations on Alwa Station.”
“You got a week?”
She glared at him.
“He’s not joking, ma’am,” Pipra put in, defending the Navy man. “The way Kris Longknife has been running things, it doesn’t fit any book, and frankly, if she hadn’t, I don’t think any of us would still be alive.”
“Okay, give me the short form. You can give me the long one later.”
Again, the two locals exchanged glances. This time, the young woman took over the conversation. “I’m assuming that you don’t want to be running your ships around here without a coating of crystal armor.”
“How long will it take you to glue or whatever you do with the crystal to get it wrapped around my ships? I brought in sixty-four of what Kris is calling battlecruisers.”
The business woman rubbed her eyes, then looked off toward the distant end of the space station, when she started speaking, it was slowly. “That all depends on how fast we can get production up and running again. Ben, can you stand down some of my workers?”
“BatRon 13 is first on my decommissioning list,” Admiral Benson answered. “Furious, Enterprise, Audacious, Resolute, Proud Unicorn, Lucky Leprechaun, Kikukei and Temptress are crewed pretty much by my dockyard workers with some of your people added on and a few Roosters and Ostriches tossed in for good measure. We’ll get the most labor out of those ships. If I shake out the V class, Valiant, Vanguard, Vindictive and Victorious, I should have enough to handle our damaged ships as well as up armor at least sixteen of your ships, Admiral.”
“Assuming I can get the crystal growing again,” Pipra growled.
“Assuming?” Sandy demanded.
“You know, Granny Rita’s going to be screaming for farming equipment and the Alwans will be hooting for their trade goods.”
Admiral Santiago was not following this conversation. Grand Admirals do not appreciate having to listen to conversations that meant nothing to them.
Grand admirals did not have to put up with this kind of noise, either.
“Explain yourselves,” she demanded.
Again, the young woman took the lead. “My fabricators knock out what the admiral here needs for his yards, but they also have to meet the demands of the human Colonials and the Alwan birds. As you may have heard a moment ago, we’ve got Colonials and Alwans standing watch side by side with your Sailors. I’ve got Colonials and Alwans doing shifts in my fabs. We’re getting pretty mixed up and matched, but you got to feed the cow’s front end before you can milk guns and butter out her back end. You following me?”
Sandy scowled. “The picture is disgusting, but you say Kris has been juggling all of this?”
“We’ve been juggling all this,” Pipra said, forcefully. “Kris, us, them, all, anyone handy. You following me?”
“I think so,” Sandy admitted. “I was briefed that some factories and yards had been flown out here to provide some sort of support force. I didn’t really expect, from the tone of voice of those who mentioned all this stuff, that you’d be running all of it at full bore.”
“Full bore and balls to the wall,” Admiral Benson said. “I’m not sure any of us thought we could do half of what we’ve done, but when you’ve got Kris Longknife giving you that Look, you don’t tell her you can’t, you tell her she’ll have it ahead of schedule and underprice.”
“Even if we haven’t figured out how to price anything in this crazy economy,” Pipra added, making a face like she’d been made to swallow a lemon.
They had reached Sandy’s flagship. The canvas stretched between the guardrails on either side of the brow was blue with the proud name Victory in bold white letters. Someone had added five stars in a circle as well.
“Please come aboard,” Admiral Santiago said, leading the way. “I know we’ve only scratched the surface of the mess you’re dropping in my lap. Remember, there are still those hungry ships out there, starving for reaction mass.
“If I may,” Admiral Benson noted, settling into a seat across from Sandy at the conference table in her day quarters, “you face three problems.”
Benson had waited to make his point while Sandy had coffee and sandwiches brought in. That also allowed time for Captain Van Velder, Sandy’s chief of staff, and Mondi Ashigara, her operations chief, to join them.
“Only three problems?” Mondi asked. The tall, thin woman was a stickler for details.
“No doubt, these three will spawn their own crop with more heads to lop off,” Pipra answered.
“Getting back to our three problems,” Benson said, going forward. “The alien wolf packs have designed two new classes of ships. One is fast, though lightly armed and armored. Some of them may be wandering around our flanks or rear areas. The other class is the opposite: huge things we call door knockers. They have thick rock armor and a massive number of lasers ready to fire in all directions. They weren’t included in the main battle Kris just fought. Those door knockers were seen to slip out one of the more distant jumps after we annihilated the main force. Admiral, it might behoove you to chase them down and destroy them before they report back to whatever wolf packs are still out there. We really don’t want them all in the know of how we demolished these last four.”
Mondi was taking furious notes, calling up reports on her reader and looked ready to come out of her chair. There was a lot to like about Mondi’s eagerness. Still, Sandy knew when to keep her leash tight.
“And the other two?” Sandy said.
We’ve got something like a hundred and sixty ships, minus loses, out there at what we call System X that are sucking the last fumes from their reaction mass tanks. They’ve got to be refueled, and the damaged ones convoyed back here for some serious repair work in the yards. There are also three massive and heavily damaged beam ships that are likewise in desperate need of a return escort. The worst damaged one was last seen limping out of the system in any direction that didn’t look to have any bug-eyed monsters. We used all three of them desperately hard. Likely we’ll need to completely rebuild them before we dare fire one of them again. Even after we do that, the good Lord only knows what kind of work we can expect to get out of them.”
“And lastly?” Sandy said, not happy about the length of this problem list, but not able to find fault with it, either.
“There’s the matter of whether or not your new arrivals are up to fighting by Alwa standards, ma’am.”
“We arrived ready for a fight,” Van put in, storm clouds forming in his bushy eyebrows.
“No, doubt, Captain, but did you arrive ready to fight the Kris Longknife and Alwa Defense Sector’s way? Begging the admiral’s pardon, but did Phil Taussig get a chance to pass along to the home fleet how Kris fights her battlecruisers?”
“You mean jinksing all over the place?” Sandy replied. “He mentioned something about that. Admiral, I was there when Lieutenant Kris Longknife took her fast attack boats in to get those six battleships someone sent out to blast Wardhaven back into the stone age. She and those boats did some wild jigs. She’s not trying to do something like that with a ship this big, is she?” Sandy said, glancing around at the bulkheads and overhead.
“A tiny slip of a mosquito boat was one thing. A sixty or seventy thousand ton near capital ship? Even a Longknife couldn’t be that crazy.”
The two locals exchanged glances.
Damn, she is that crazy.
Admiral Benson chose his words carefully, as you’d expect from a Navy officer who had thirty plus years of explaining the facts to ignorant elephants. “Begging the admiral’s pardon, ma’am, but yes, the admiral won’t have any ship, picket or battlecruiser, stay on any set course for more than two, maybe three seconds. That’s how we fight, win, and stay alive on Alwa Station.”
“You can’t jump a ship this size around like a spit kit,” Van said, as absolute as any Navy captain ever had been.
“You’ll want to have your ships’ computers talk to Kris’s Nelly. It involves widening the piping between the reactor to the maneuvering jets, and doubling the number of those suckers, as well,” Benson said. When faced with the look of rejection, he didn’t wilt, but went on. “You’ll also likely want to upgrade your high gee stations. On Alwa Station, they not only have to accommodate acceleration along a single axis, but also right, left, up down, faster, slower, and maybe even a bit of torque. Kris Longknife is as rough on her crew as she is on her ships.”
“You’re serious,” Van said, playing devil’s advocate so his boss wouldn’t have to.
“Dead serious,” Benson answered. “That’s why I was suggesting that if you do decide to send out a squadron or two on a refueling mission, that you also take along a squadron and a half of mine to escort you. That way, on the way to System X, they can help you drill in some of the bobbing and weaving we do out here. You don’t want to be unprepared if you run into any stray monsters that didn’t get The Word they lost.”
“And I’m thinking of chasing myself some of those door knockers you mentioned,” Sandy said.
“Again, ma’am, I know I suggested we see if we can chase them down, but you might want to be very careful before you follow them through a jump point.”
Sandy raised an eyebrow. “Because?”
“We’ve been bushwhacking them as they come through the jumps.”
“You can guard jumps?” Mondi said, incredulously.
“You may have noticed some ships keeping guard back a bit from the jump you just came through,” Admiral Benson said.
“I thought that was some kind of space station,” Mondi answered.
“Nope. You were looking at three ships docking together using a Smart Metal hookup to anchor them in one place. They rotate. They get some down for the crew’s health and at least one of them is always in a position to shoot at anything that comes through that jump. We’ve been picking off suicide boats, fast little buggars. So far, we’ve been batting a thousand. We have to. We miss one and a whole lot of people and birds will die on the planet below.”
“Can the aliens do something like that?” Mondi asked.
“I don’t think they can, or have tried. Remember, we spin out a Smart Metal beam to anchor to. They’d need to carry some regular metal beam around with them. Still, getting back to those door knockers, Admiral. I wouldn’t put it past those aliens to leave a couple dozen of those things standing guard over a jump to buy time for the rest to get away. It might be pretty putrid in those ships, but they would have enough power to shoot you full of holes if you jumped through without looking first.”
“Looking first?” was again Mondi.
“We’ve got a periscope that lets us look through the jump. You have to kind of drift up to the jump, but you can see what’s on the other side.”
Sandy whipped at her eyes with the palms of both hands. “Is it always like this around Kris Longknife? Everything’s different?”
“That’s what I’ve found,” Benson answered. “But I’m not complaining, ma’am. We’re still alive. I don’t think when they dispatched us here that anyone was laying any kind of odds that we would be alive and still fighting after this long.”
“And winning,” Pipra put in. “Don’t forget the winning. I kind of like winning. It lets me keep breathing oxygen. I really like that habit.”
Sandy nodded. She did like being alive. It so beat not.
“Okay, Van, I’m leaving you behind to work with Ben, here. Get our ships moving into his yards as soon as docks are available and get that new, fancy armor added to the ships.”
“And you’re going to have all the fun,” Van grumbled.
“Yep. Mondi, prepare BatRon 1 and 2 to go to space. We’ll use them as tankers while the local ships escort us and show us how it’s done on Alwa Station.”
“We, ma’am?” Van asked cautiously,
“We, Van. I’ll be taking the task force out. I want to get a decent feel for what the situation is out here. I’m not going to get that feel sitting at a dock.”
“Aye, aye, Admiral,” Mondi said. “BatRon 1 and 2 to sortie in as soon as possible.”
“In two hours,” Sandy amended the order.
“And if a captain can’t get his boat to answer all bells, get a replacement from one of the other squadrons. No doubt, you’ll have plenty of volunteers. Admiral,” Sandy said, turning to Benson, “will your twelve ships be able to get up steam in two hours?”
“I suspect I’d better go tell them.”
“Are we done here?” Sandy said, starting to rise.
“May I have a moment of your time?” Pipra said, staying solidly in her seat.
“Who are you, again,” Sandy said. She’d wondered why Benson had had a civilian shadow. She was not all that pleased with talking about Navy operations with someone not in uniform in the room.
Admiral Benson was halfway to the door, but he turned to put in, “As I mentioned before, ma’am, she’s been Kris Longknife’s right arm where production is concerned. She’s been a life saver from my perspective. Instead of bitching and moaning about her profit margin, she’s seen to it that we got what we needed when we needed it. She’s good people, Admiral.”
Sandy would decide that for herself.
“You’ve got one minute, talk,” Sandy said.
“I need your help, Admiral.”
Sandy’s eyes grew wide. “My help?”
“Admiral, Kris Longknife made the point abundantly clear that we all either pulled together or we’d all die in one big heap. I haven’t always liked what she did to me and mine, but I had to respect her. As Admiral Benson said we’ve all pulled together. My problem is that Alex Longknife has just dumped a whole new management team on top of me and they’ve already ripped me up one side and down the other for not showing a profit.”
Sandy had thirty-seven years in this gal’s Navy. Commanding ships and Sailors was her forte. Suffering contractors was something she did her best to avoid. Her first thought was to tell this woman thank you for the heads up and send her on her way.
Sandy held her tongue and, instead, turned to Ben, now standing at the door.
“You need this industrial base?”
She turned back to the woman. “Why would Alex Longknife send a new management team out here?”
The woman actually looked embarrassed. “I was a junior vice president when I arrived here. There was a CEO and a senior vice president who were supposed to run the show. Instead, once Kris Longknife pointed out the hazards of our position and her demand that the Navy be the center of our efforts, those two wandered off and drank themselves to death. Since I was with the Longknife group, and I had Kris Longknife’s attention, I ended up running the whole shebang.”
Pipra paused to take a deep breath. “However, the truth was, I was the Junior Vice President for Human Resources, ma’am. I was supposed to hold coats, not take over and run things. I suspect when Commodore Taussig went back to Wardhaven, my status may have come up in some fashion. Anyway, Alex sent an entire new team out here.”
Again, the woman paused. “I also think they saw a chance to make a killing, even if it drove a plant on Alwa to extinction and strained our relationships with the locals. Are you aware of the unique plant we shipped back and its very unusual aspects?”
“Do you mean am I aware that there’s a plant out here that might revolutionize microminiatures, if not nano activity, by jacking up their power by several orders of magnitude? Yes, I know of the thing.”
“Alex thinks that in three, maybe five years, his labs will develop artificial versions of the plant’s mitochondria. Right now, though, they can make a killing in the market by bringing bushels of the plant back to human space and selling an ounce of it for a million bucks or more. They’re ready to send teams down into the Ostrich section of the planet below and scour up every leaf they can find.”
The woman fell silent, leaving it to Sandy to grasp the full impact of her bosses’ plans.
Sandy turned to Admiral Benson who still hadn’t made it out the door. He was just finishing up saying something into his comlink, though. “Ben, how would this impact our relations with the what-ever-they-are? Sometimes you call them Roosters, other times Ostriches. Which are they?”
Admiral Benson cleared his throat. “The Roosters and Ostriches are about as different as say Old Earth’s Europeans, Africans and Asians. The thing you need to know is that the Ostriches are fighters and very territorial. Kris Longknife had to walk pretty careful around those Ostriches feet, and even she got shot at once. While she got some land grants from the Ostriches, she was careful to leave them the rivers and large streams. If someone starts mucking around without permission, they could get their head kicked off their shoulders. And I mean literally, not figuratively. Those suckers can kick.”
He glanced at Pipra. “Also, the Ostriches have been the most eager to get jobs up here at my yards, at Pipra’s fabrication facilities and aboard our battlecruisers. If someone pisses them off, we could loose a whole lot of goodwill and good workers. May I make a recommendation, Admiral?”
“Please do. I don’t much care for this bucket of snakes.”
“Kris Longknife is still the senior officer of Nuu Enterprises in the Alwa System. If she’s got anything like the temper my wife had during the last month or so of her pregnancies, I’d have Pipra trot over to the Wasp and see how Kris likes her grandpa’s latest dump on her. My guess would be that the ship that’s supposed to go back loaded with water plants might instead just be carrying a few damn fool business types.”
“Why didn’t you take it to her in the first place?” Sandy said, scowling at the industrialist.
The woman accepted the scowl, and quickly said her peace. “I was headed to see Kris, when I ran into you coming off the Wasp, Admiral. Everyone knows that you’ve replaced her. It’s not at all clear who’s the boss of anything now.”
Sandy found she had to agree with the woman. “I just found out how many hats that woman wears. Admiral commanding Alwa’s defenses, Viceroy of the King on Alwa and CEO of Nuu Enterprises and pretty much straw boss of all the industrial base operating here. Who in God’s name dumped all that on one poor woman?”
“Ray Longknife, I believe,” Benson provided dryly.
“There’s a reason why we Santiagos hate Longknifes, and he’s a huge part of it. Okay, Pipra, it’s been great meeting you. Please get off my ship before we pull up the gangplank. Do have fun talking this over with Kris and feel free to darken my door anytime you need to. I suspect I’ll be seeing a lot of you. Ben, just exactly what is your part in this crime scene? I hear you giving orders to a reserve fleet, but also running yards.”
“I’m Commander, Base Forces for Kris, what little we’ve managed to patch together of a base force,” the admiral said. “If it don’t sail, it’s mine. That is until all hell breaks loose. Then we down tools and jump on things that do move and go out to fight for our lives.”
“Alwa Station,” Sandy said, but didn’t quite spit. “You do everything different.”
“We do everything different, ma’am. You’re one of us now, Grand Admiral,” Benson said.
“And may God help us all. Now, I’ve got a fleet to get away from the pier.”
“Good luck and Godspeed,” Admiral Benson said, then quickly led the civilian from Sandy’s day quarters.
“God help us all,” Sandy whispered as they closed the door. “Ray Longknife, what have you gotten me into this time?”
Grand Admiral Sandy Santiago’s flagship, Victory, led her ad hoc task force through the final jump into System X. Even at 45,000 kilometers per hour, her usually sleek ships waddled like ducks; each battlecruiser bulged with three times its normal reaction mass.
“Admiral,” Comm reported, “the emergency frequencies are saturated.”
Sandy was quickly behind Comm, looking over his shoulder. Hundreds of emergency beepers demanded their attention. Some showed yellow to orange on the board. Way too many glowed red. Many of the red were flashing. Whoever was in that survival pod did not have long to live unless rescue came real soon.
“Admiral Hart,” she said, raising the admiral who had led his twelve battlecruisers through the jump first. Benson lent her Hart not only as an escort for her lumbering elephants but to also demonstrate on the way out, to their embarrassing edification, that big battlecruisers could jitterbug like nobodies business.
“You are detached to render all assistance.”
“We’re already on our way. Three minutes ago I ordered my ships to accelerate. We’ll be at four gees in about two minutes,” he answered
Sandy glanced a the regional scan on the main screen. His ships were already pulling away from hers.
Gladly, Sandy would have followed him, but a survey of the system showed a battle fleet in orbit around a burned out husk of a planet orbiting a neutron star. “Comm, send to task fleet, ‘Accelerate to two gees smoothly, set course for the neutron star.”
Acknowledgments came back quickly and the two squadron commanders did their job of getting their battlecruisers into acceleration mode. This force would take a full fifteen minutes to put on just two gees.
While the fleet moved out, the sensor team on the Victory completed its assessment of the system. It was brutal.
It would be half a day before any communications arrived from Admiral Kitano and the survivors of her battle fleet. In the meantime, the visual and electromagnetic analysis of the system showed one hell of a battle had been fought here. The humans had won. The aliens had lost. That didn’t mean that one hell of a butcher’s bill hadn’t been paid.
Scattered through the fields of survivor pods was fragmentary wreckage of destroyed ships and clouds of cooling gasses that showed where even more ships had vanished in thermonuclear annihilation.
Well beyond that battle field were strewn other bits of wreckage and cooling gas. A long line of that flotsam stretched from halfway across the system to the neutron star. Sharing the orbit of the burned out planet with the exhausted battle fleet was what appeared to be a bashed in demi-moon.
Every once in a while, a battlecruiser would make a minor adjustment to its orbit to stay clear of that thing.
“What the hell went on here?” her ops chief whispered.
“One hell of a brawl, Mondi, one hell of a brawl” Sandy said. Then, shaking herself, she turned to Comm.
“Send to Admiral Kitano. “Grand Admiral Santiago sends her complements on a battle well fought and very well won. I bring you reaction mass so you can get your cripples underway for Alwa and, if you please, your battle-worthy ships underway in pursuit of the fleeing aliens.’ Comm, append our likely arrival time and send.”
There was only a brief pause, before Comm answered, “It’s on its way, ma’am.”
“Very good. Now we wait.”
That was the main trouble with space travel. You spent most of it waiting. Waiting for ships to arrive. Waiting for communications to be exchanged. Waiting.
Sandy settled in to wait for her message to get to Kitano and her reply to get back. Meanwhile, desperate crew members, maybe injured, or maybe in survival pods that had suffered damage, waited, fearing any breath could be their last.
In the débris field, activity had already began. The thing about Smart MetalTM was that three or four survival pods didn’t have to stay separate. Moving about the field were ships’ longboats, collecting pods and merging them into themselves, growing as they went. As some of the pods flashing red were collected by their shipmates, the longboat’s beeper might switch it off. Other times, the rescue boat’s beeper would switch to red or even a flashing red.
There was only so much help that a longboat could provide a wounded Sailor.
Sandy watched the story of desperate need and succor play out, helpless to do anything.
Of course, Kris Longknife inevitably provided her with a distraction.
Mondi asked her for a quiet talk in her night quarters. Once the door was shut, her operations officer blurted out, “Have you heard about the Alwa Station’s Fraternization Policy?”
“It’s what policy?”
“I’ll take that as a no.”
“If it involves fraternization, take that as a hell no.”
Mandi took a deep breath. “Admiral, with Van left behind, the ship skippers have come to me as a stand in chief of staff, and they may or may not have a problem.”
“Mandi, you don’t normally beat around the bush. What is it?”
The Navy officer raised her wrist, were her commlink rode. “You know we can program this Smart Metal to make our bed more comfortable, chairs, and the like.”
“Supply makes entire walls disappear when they’re moving crates around.”
“Is there any content in all these words, Captain?”
“Our people weren’t ashore very long before we sailed out for here, Admiral, but it was long enough for some of our hands to talk with Alwa Sailors. On Kris’s fleet, ship’s personnel are making walls disappear between their quarters.”
“I’m not getting what you’re telling me, Captain.”
“Sailors who like each other are swapping their statesrooms around to get next door to each other, then they’re making the bulkhead between them go away. Doubling their living space.”
“That sounds like a fine idea.”
“They’re also swapping bunks for double beds, queen size, double king size, depending on how many bulkheads they’ve made vanish.”
Finally, the light dawned on Sandy. “Oh, shit. That Longknife girl hasn’t done that to my Navy.”
“It’s standard Alwa policy.”
Sandy rolled her eyes at the overhead, a silent prayer to any bureaucratic god listening.
“I was surprised to find her married. At least I hoped she was married, what with her bulging way pregger. Official policy, though?”
“One of our skippers actually messaged one of the Alwa ships that came out with us. I’ve got the official policy, if you want to see it.”
Sandy did, and words began to stream across her own commlink.
“Kris Longknife did this!”
“Not by herself, Admiral. Sailors figured out how to make bulkheads go away on their own. Faced with an app she couldn’t control and a fleet with no base force, she dumped the problem on the leading chiefs and XO’s. They knocked the policy together while pulling an all nighter. It’s been modified a few times.”
“But not changed.”
Sandy continued scanning the policy, but her mind was already racing through the problem and its ramifications. Her crews were young, eager and far from home. Even her older officers were more than likely to be getting as far away from a domestic breakup as the galaxy allowed. Talk about foot loose, fancy free . . . and horny.
“Do any of the skippers think that some of our Sailors have begun applying this app and the policy in advance of my authorization?”
“They haven’t had any show up during quarters inspection, ma’am.”
“Scheduled quarters inspection.”
When Ray Longknife had ordered Sandy out to Alwa Station he’d said the place was critical to keeping the alien monsters busy away from human space. He’d said the situation would, no doubt, be difficult.
Ray, you don’t know the half of it.
“Computer, get me a chair. No, make that two,” she said, waving Mandi at the first one to emerge from the deck. She settled into the next one, then leaned back and stared hard at the overhead.
“I now command the fleet on Alwa Station, correct?”
“That is what you read in your orders when you took command, Admiral.”
Sandy saw where that would take her, and decided to avoid it for a few more minutes. “What other rumors did our talkative shore parties pick up in the short time they had to yak?”
Mandi took her time composing an answer. When it came, it was a whopper.
“The Sailors and Marines can get land grants down on the planet. They can go in with a few or a lot together and own a share of a farm, ranch or hunting shack. The Alwans are handing out land grants, or maybe not deeds, but land use permits. Kris Longknife is making sure we don’t steal the natives’ land.”
Sandy took that in and had a flash back to the bucket of snakes that the Pipra gal had dropped in her lap. No way would Kris let some money grabbing types strip plants from a river in native territory.
I’ve got to remember to be there when Kris gets her hooks into those dreamers.
As fun as that thought was, Sandy had this new hot potato to deal with. Call it a hot sweet potato.
Sandy had been a widow for a long time. She did have some old friends that she might occasionally go away with for a long weekend. She’d accepted that her command of a forlorn hope on the other side of the galaxy might very likely be on the celibate side.
She’d didn’t exactly expect the same from her subordinates, but she’d assumed that rules were rules. Maybe she hadn’t thought that through as far as she should have.
The preamble of Kris Longknife’s fraternization policy put it bluntly. “We are here and not likely to be going anyplace soon. We also lack any shore facilities that might allow for the normal separation of intimate others,” Sandy read aloud.
“Yes, ma’am,” Mondi said.
“Do they have much of a shore facility now?” Sandy asked herself.
“I did get a readout of the base force, Admiral, before we sailed.”
“Yards and docks has mostly a highly skilled civilian workforce. No slots for Sailors there. Supply need people. It’s growing as the fleet grows. But most of the workers are Colonial or Alwans, not a lot of slots for Sailors. The only real place with underused personnel is what passes for a penal colony shoveling bird shit.”
“Who’s shoveling bird shit?”
Mondi had a quick answer for that one. “The two folks that sabotaged Kris’s birth control implants resulting in her pregnancy. There are also some Sailors and Marines, including a few senior officers and chiefs that didn’t take no for a no from a subordinate.”
“So there are still a few teeth in this Longknife shacking up policy?” Sandy spat.
“There have been a lot of weddings,” Mondi answered. “Still, some of the larger combinations don’t seem to fit the usual requirements for a marriage licence.”
Sandy scowled at that, but Mondi didn’t flinch.
“You wouldn’t happen to know how this policy is working out, would you?”
“Admiral Hart said they’ve issued some warnings, admonishments and reprimands to those who have a problems with the word no that didn’t go so far as to earn a shovel. At least yet. He said they’d also had to shuffle a few folks around the fleet after breakups that got nasty. Apparently, they’ve also added an approval system for when Cupid’s arrow strikes too far up or down the chain of command. I’m told that Admiral Kitano herself has an ongoing relationship with the commander leading the engineering division of her flag, left over from when she was its skipper. Overall, the chiefs and the XO’s have managed to make it work.”
“Suddenly, you know a hell of a lot about this abomination.”
“I’m the one that contacted Admiral Hart, ma’am. We’ve shot a couple of messages back and forth.”
“Okay, Captain, do you have a recommendation?”
“Since you used the word abomination with reference to said policy, I take it that after thirty-seven years in the Navy, you have a strong opinion.”
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