Chapter 10
Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Fri 12 Apr 121
Time: UST 2118

Assembling a crew from the four corners of the Union was more troublesome than Supreme Command anticipated. The Ticonderoga was missing over ten percent of her assigned personnel when she launched. Most of that number came aboard while the battle group was delayed at Mars, but there were still some stragglers. A shuttle from Smythe carried two such stragglers to the holding sector for the Ticonderoga and her escorts.
For the newly pinned Corporal Johnathan Grisson, it was a sorry bit of luck. Only two more days and his new unit would be deployed. If only he was delayed two more days, he'd spend the next two months at Smythe. As it was a naval base, there was no real place for Army personnel, which meant the freedom to sham until he was tossed back into the mix again. So much for that.
The shuttle rocked a bit and Corporal Grisson felt a small hand grip his sleeve. He looked down at his partner, PFC Allison O'Connor. At a meter and a half, she was a little woman by normal standards, but when compared to the lanky Grisson, she looked like a proper midget.
She gripped his sleeve because she was nervous. She was always nervous. It was all the argument he needed against applying the draft to females, even if it already favored males three-to-one. Her number still came up.
"Jack, I can't do this," she said.
Those baby blue eyes of hers pleaded with him, as if he could do anything. He would love to just wave his hand and make it all go away. The Army, the war, all of it. A draftee himself, he didn't want to be there any more than she did. Still, he knew better than to run or fight it. No, that only made things worse. If you have to pick a prison, it might as well be the one that gives you a paycheck.
This wasn't the first time Ally had gotten cold feet, nor would it be the last. Under any other circumstances, it would have been okay to let her just give up. What the Army lacked in compassion, it made up for with pragmatism. It had no use for the unusable. She could be tucked away in some dark corner of an obscure post or quietly chaptered. That'd be the end of it. However, he couldn't let it go that easily.
When they were first paired up, she begged him in no uncertain terms to keep her from washing out. She knew she didn't have the willpower for what was being demanded of her and relied on him for support. He did his part. In fact, he was so preoccupied taking care of her that he barely noticed how hellish the experience was for him. He pushed himself far beyond anything he thought himself capable of. He couldn't afford to wash out himself, otherwise who would take care of her?
This was like all the other times Ally would lose her nerve and want to give up. He did what he always did when she got like this. He cracked a grin, ruffled up her straw-blonde hair, and proceeded to talk her down.
"Easy there, shorty," he said. "Remember why you're doin' it. We went through fifteen weeks a' hell an' we made it. Somehow, we made it. I know ya didn't have much time in service before they pushed ya inta this, but ya should know the real Army ain't half as bad as trainin'. It'll be cake from here."
Ally shook her head vigorously. "No, it won't," she insisted. She now clutched Jack's sleeve with both hands. "This is combat arms. Combat arms. We're actually going to be fighting."
"Not too damn likely," Jack said dismissively. "Think about it. What can the Army do on a spaceship? We can't do jack unless we touch down planetside an' Shellies don't have a habit of hangin' around when they hit a place. We're here because a' some imaginary scenario they thought up in Atlantis City, havin' a spaceborne detachment go down ta help out the boots on the ground. It hasn't happened and it'll probably never happen. Just think a' this as a nice two-year cruise."
Ally was hardly convinced. "Even if that's true, we're going into an infantry unit. I've heard they're like animals."
"It won't be any worse than what we saw in trainin'."
"That's exactly what I'm talking about!" Ally exclaimed, not comforted in the slightest. "I can't do it, Jack. I just can't do it."
Jack ruffled her hair again. "Hey, Ally, I'm gonna be there for ya," he said. "I'm not goin' anywhere. You'll be fine."
She was quiet after that. Jack knew this wasn't the end of it, but maybe the little pep talk would get her through another week. It was a damn cruel thing they were putting her through, but she had gone too far to give up now.
The shuttle rocked again, this time from the landing struts touching down on the deck. The seatbelt light blinked off with a muted beep. The two soldiers had been too busy talking to notice the final approach.
Jack looked to Ally. "Looks like we're here," he said. "Come on, shorty, let's get ta steppin'."
As they were the only passengers, there was no need to wait to get off the shuttle. A crewman was already unloading their baggage when they got outside. Jack helped Ally with her duffel bag before slinging his own on his shoulder.
"Hey, you have any idea where the hell we're supposed ta go?" he asked the crewman.
He had to say it rather loudly to be heard over all the ambient noise. Apparently deck crew picked up a habit of using pantomime to communicate, because the crewman simply pointed in the direction they needed to go.
"Okay, thanks a lot."
The shuttle didn't go very far into the hangar when it landed, so they had a fair walk ahead of them to get to the opposite end. They went through a door labeled 'Quarterdeck', only to find another door. An airlock. Although they could get annoying at times, Jack figured all the redundant safety measures were a good thing.
Once the second door opened up, they walked into what was apparently the quarterdeck. There wasn't much to see. Some sort of terminal to their left, a flagpole above it. That was about it.
Jack looked around for any clue as to where to go next. There were some floor panels that didn't quite match with the rest, possibly freight elevators. There was another airlock further down on their left and one more on the opposite wall. Then Jack saw what was most likely the personnel lifts. Now, the only question was whether to go up or down. He didn't have the slightest idea which way to go.
"You there," a voice shouted, "stop!"
Jack turned to see a rather irate-looking Naval officer. He went to attention. This counted as indoors, didn't it? You don't salute, right? Should he take off his cover? Two silvers. That was a major in the Army, but the Navy had another name for it. What was it again?
Before Jack could remember, the officer growled, "Did no one tell you what to do when you come aboard a ship?"
"No, sir," Jack said plainly.
The officer sighed. He didn't seem to be too intent on busting their balls. That was a welcome relief.
"I suppose it can't be helped," the officer said. "I'm only going to tell you this once, so pay attention. When you come up on the quarterdeck, you hold up your military ID in your left hand, salute the officer of the deck--that'd be yours truly--, state your name and say, 'Sir, request permission to come aboard.' I return the salute, you march yourself over here and swipe your card for the record, and then you go about your merry little way. Let's try it, shall we?"
Jack pulled out his wallet and saluted the officer.
"Corporal Grisson, sir, requestin' permission ta come aboard."
The officer returned the salute and said, "Permission granted."
Ally just stood there like a deer in headlights. The officer showed surprising patience and didn't resort to yelling.
"Well?" he asked. "Don't just stand there, soldier."
Ally snapped out of it and began to fumble for her wallet. She held up the wrong side and fumbled some more to get it right before delivering her salute.
She stammered, "Uh, I, ah... PFC O'Connor, sir, re-, ah, requesting permission to come aboard."
The officer gave her a pitying look as he returned the salute. "Permission granted, PFC O'Connor."
While they were swiping their cards, the officer leaned in closer to get a better look at Ally's uniform.
"Are those infantry rifles?" he asked, referring to the branch insignia at her throat.
"Ye-yes, sir."
The officer gave her an incredulous look. "And what's the story behind that?"
"It's a long one, sir," Jack said.
The officer didn't seem interested enough to inquire further. "Well, I'll take your word for it," he said. "You Army folk are down on Deck 7."
Whether it was the right protocol or not, Jack saluted again. "Roger that, sir."
The officer returned the salute and added, "Be sure to doff those covers once you get in the lifts."
"Yes, sir."
The lift wasn't too far away and it offered them a straight shot to Deck 7. When they arrived, they were greeted by blank walls and narrow corridors.
Jack furrowed his brow. "Looks like they ain't brought no one ta meet us," he said, "so I guess we're just gonna hafta go report ta CQ."
That was easier said than done. On any Army post, you could just ask the MPs at the gate for directions, but this wasn't any Army post. Neither of the two soldiers had ever been on a warship before, and they had no idea what was what. Maybe if they went back to the quarterdeck and asked that officer...
Jack didn't like dealing with officers, so he opted to wander around a bit in hopes of finding some clue as to where they were supposed to go. They lucked out early on, meeting a couple privates on fire guard doing a roving patrol. Jack waved to get their attention.
"Hey, man, you know where the CQ is?" he asked.
"You overshot it," one of the privates said. "HHD's over in 98-dash-1."
Jack looked around in bewilderment. "An' how in the hell do I get there? I can't make heads or tails a' this shit."
"Didn't you read the orientation packet?" the other private asked.
"Nope."
The first private rolled his eyes. "Geez. You are one slacktastical motherfucker, you know that?"
Jack grinned. "I like ta think so."
"Okay, let me break it down for you," the private said. "The ship's made up of these subdivisions called frames. They count up from fore to aft. A room, or compartment as they call it, gets numbered by the frame ahead of it. That's the first part of it.
"Down the middle you got what they call the centerline. That's how you figure the second part. If a compartment straddles the centerline, it's zero. Evens if you're port of the centerline and odds if you're starboard. Do I need to tell you what port and starboard are?"
"No, I've seen enough pirate movies. Port is right, right?"
The private gave him a look.
"I was kiddin', dude," Jack said. "We got from here. Thanks for the help, man."
Jack beckoned for Ally to follow him. Now that he new how the rooms were numbered, it didn't take him long to find 98-1, which was helpfully labeled 'HHD, 78th Combined Arms Det.' On the other side of the door was a series of offices with a large reception desk in the center. A slightly pudgy E-7 was sitting at the desk, watching vids on his PersCom.
Unslinging his duffel, Jack leaned on the desk as if he were ordering a drink at a bar. "Hey, Sarge, can ya help us out? We just got here an' it looks like our sponsors are shammin'."
The E-7 looked a little annoyed at the interruption, tapping the screen of his PersCom to pause the vid.
"Let me see your orders there, Corporal," he said.
Jack pulled out his own PersCom and projected his orders onto the desk's surface. Like a lot of people, he didn't like to use the holoprojection function for documents. Without the right background, it was hard to read. It was a common complaint. Supposedly the new L series would increase the opacity of the projections to compensate, but most customers were skeptical. Even if it worked as well as they claimed, it would probably be twice as expensive and have half the battery life, and that was if they were lucky.
While Jack was mulling over the limitations of PersCom technology, the E-7 scanned through his orders. When he was done, he glanced at Ally.
"Yours too, PFC."
Ally, who hadn't thought to put her duffel down, fumbled around a bit before pulling out her PersCom. She tapped a few buttons and then held it up to projects her orders. Nothing showed up. Jack took the PersCom out of her hand and punched in the correct key sequence.
The E-7 was skimming over it casually when something caught his eye and forced him to take a closer look. Of course.
"There some kind of mistake here?" the E-7 asked. "What's a female doing being assigned to Second Platoon, Charlie Company?"
"Those're our orders," Jack said.
The E-7 frowned. "Looks like S-1 needs to straighten out that shit." He shook his head. "Well, whatever." He then turned to the desk's terminal, clacked away at the keys a bit before saying, "Corporal, you're in 82-dash-7, Rack 29. And, PFC, you're in 79-dash-7, Rack 4." He tapped a few more keys and added, "You've got an accountability formay at oh-six. ACUs, cover when you get in the assembly area." The E-7 paused, looking at Ally. "They ain't gonna like what they see."

* * *

Date: Sat 13 Apr 121
Time: UST 0557

The assembly area was a bare room just large enough to accommodate a company in open ranks. It could be used for either PT or ordinary formations. Thankfully, today was the latter rather than the former.
After his extended bout of training, Jack was hoping to return to a less intensive schedule. Just his luck to arrive right before a big deployment. No hope of inprocessing delaying them either. It seemed that he and Ally were being put on the fast track and everything would be settled before the day was out. Great.
Jack hung back from the main clusters of people in the room. Usually he would make a point to get to know the people in the unit, but Ally was too shy for that and he didn't want to leave her alone, particularly since she was about the only female in the whole room.
An LT--the platoon leader most likely--stood front and center and called out, "Fall in!"
The platoon quickly formed up. Jack and Ally took up places at the end of the third rank. On any Army post, this would be the time for the flag to go off, but apparently things worked differently on a warship. Without the interruption of reveille, the LT got right down to business.
"Squad leaders, sound off!"
The report then cascaded down the line, starting with the squad leader in the first rank shouting, "Sir, First Squad, all men present and accounted for!"
"Sir, Second Squad, eight men present, one on sick call, one on guard duty!"
"Sir, Third Squad, five men present, one on sick call!"
Before the fourth squad leader could deliver his report, the LT interrupted. "Sergeant Rahim, have you suddenly lost the ability to count?"
Taken by surprise, Sergeant Rahim, the leader of Third Squad, could only ask, "Sir?"
"There are eight people in your squad, Sergeant," the LT said. "Care to explain?"
"Sir, they must be the two stragglers scheduled to come in last night."
The LT clearly didn't like that answer. "They must be?" he asked sharply. "Why don't you know, Sergeant?"
"No excuse, sir!"
The LT wasn't going to let him off that easy. "I wasn't asking for excuses, Sergeant. I want a reason. I want to know why one of my squad leaders isn't keeping track of his damn squad." He then took notice of Ally and called out to her. "You there, aren't you in the wrong formation?"
"No, sir!" Ally said reflexively, immediately losing confidence in her answer. "Uh, I mean, I don't think so, sir."
"Well, which is it?"
"Um, this is Second Platoon, isn't it, sir?"
"That it is. You got the right company?"
"Charlie Company, sir."
The LT turned his attention back to their embattled squad leader. "Sergeant Rahim, get this sorted out after formation."
"Yes, sir!"
Having done his leadership thing, the LT called for the report to continue. "Fourth Squad, sound off!"
"Sir, Fourth Squad, nine men present, two on sick call, one on recovery!"
"That's too many soldiers on sick call, Second Platoon," the LT said. "Follow up on it, squad leaders. There better not be any malingering in my platoon." He nodded to the platoon sergeant. "Sergeant Mendez, take over."
"Yes, sir," Sergeant Mendez replied.
The platoon sergeant approached the LT, saluted him and did an about-face as the LT walked off. The platoon was his now.
"At ease," he said. Apparently he planned on talking for a bit. "Alright, you heard LT. Follow up on those sick calls. Rahim, get your shit straight or I'll be lookin' for a new squad leader. Next formay's at 1700. Loddy-doddy ever'body. Firs' Sa'ant's gonna be inspectin' TA-50, so you better not be missin' nothin'. We trackin'?"
A chorus of out-of-synch hooahs followed. Jack was pleasantly surprised that the platoon sergeant didn't insist on a booming 'Tracking, Sergeant!' in perfect unison. Maybe this unit would be halfway bearable after all.
"P'a-toon, atten-shun."
The platoon snapped to attention with a roar of "WOLF PACK!"
"Dismissed."
The platoon started to disperse, but Jack and Ally barely moved a muscle when a loud voice shouted at them.
"You two! Don't you even think about moving!"
It was the squad leader, Sergeant Rahim, or 'Abdul-Rahim' as his nametape read. He was fairly intimidating to look at, built like a linebacker with a lantern jaw and one of those flimsy little moustaches that was all the facial hair the regs would permit. To say the least, he didn't look even remotely happy.
"You're gonna tell me what the fuck's goin' on right now," he demanded.
"CQ said formay at oh-six," Jack said.
"'Oh-six', what? Asshole, homeslice, motherfucker?"
Sergeant Rahim was an E-6 and from Jack's experience, all E-6s were assholes. As tempting as it was to roll with that, Jack got the distinct feeling he didn't want to be cute with the irate squad leader.
"Sergeant."
"And don't forget it either," Rahim warned. He gave Jack a once-over and glared at him. "Stand at parade rest, you. Those two stripes don't excuse you from military courtesy." Once Jack complied, he continued, "Now let me see those damn orders."
The pair had made a point to have digifilm hardcopies with them this time. Sergeant Rahim scanned through both of their orders, making faces while he read. Finally, in a mix of aggravation and disgust, he rolled up the two sheets of digifilm and stuck them in the cargo pocket on the side of his pantleg.
"Alright," he said, "I don't know what's goin' on, but I intend to get it unfucked right quick. You damn well better keep those PersComs on, 'cause when I say 'jump', I expect some fuckin' leapin'. We clear on that?"
"Yes, Sergeant," the two soldiers replied.
Dissatisfied with their level of enthusiasm, Sergeant Rahim snapped, "Sound off like you got a pair, goddammit!"
"Yes, Sergeant!" they shouted.
Sergeant Rahim then stormed off, sure to give some poor schmuck in S-1 all kinds of hell. Jack sighed. It looked like they were in for all sorts of fun. His comment about this tour being like a two-year cruise was looking dumber by the second.

* * *

Date: Sat 13 Apr 121
Time: UST 0913

Staff Sergeant Mohammed Abdul-Rahim was, to say the least, pissed. In fact, he was pissed to the highest level of pissivity. Or was it 'pissidity'? The question only made him all the more pissed off.
He went to S-1 to check on the two new soldiers supposedly assigned to his squad. They checked and double-checked, and it checked out. How in the hell it checked out was another story. Rahim wanted answers, and short of going to the Colonel himself, there was only one person who ought to know.
Seeing the person in question, Rahim began to shout angrily, "Robles! Robles! I want to know what the hell's goin' on around here!"
Captain Robles, the commander of Charlie Company, gave him a severe look.
In a deadpan voice, the Captain said, "Sergeant, I want you to take a close look at this uniform and tell me what this silver and gold stand for."
Realizing that he had forgotten his place, Sergeant Rahim stood at attention.
"That's more like it," Captain Robles said. He glanced at the other officers nearby and looked back to Sergeant Rahim. "Let's take a walk, Sergeant."
They started walking down the corridor. Once they were adequately removed from anyone else sporting shiny stuff on their collar, Captain Robles' demeanor changed dramatically.
"Damn, man," he said. "Rahim, buddy, you gotta be more careful. The other officers see you talk to me like we're on the block and they'll be all over my ass. Cut me some slack, man."
Although Robles had reverted to the days before he went to OCS, Rahim took the earlier rebuke to heart and kept the necessary distance between them.
"No excuse, sir," he said. "It's just that there's been a development that I'd really love a fuckin' explanation for."
"What's that, Rahim?"
Rahim glared at the Captain. "If you don't know, you goddamned well should. I want to know why there's a fuckin' girl on my squad. Not just a female, a girl."
Robles had to think about it a moment before it came to him. "Oh, yeah, that O'Connor chick." He shrugged. "You know how it is, Rahim. If a female can meet the same physical standards and not be disruptive to unit cohesion, there's nothing to keep her from entering combat arms."
That answer was hardly satisfactory.
"This ain't the usual dyke bitch that thinks she can play with the boys," Rahim growled. "This is a 100% girl. You get me, sir?"
Robles nodded. "I think I do." He paused, giving his next words special emphasis. "Now let me be blunt with you, Rahim. I don't like it any more than you do, but I got my orders. Put up with it for five days. Just five days."
"Why five days?"
"In five days, your squad's got a course to go through. Each sniper team takes a turn. The second your team is done, I want you to meet me at the command tent. I think you might be in for a surprise."
Rahim wasn't the kind of person who liked games or surprises, so he was less than pleased with the Captain's answer.
"Why don't you cut the shit and tell me now, sir?"
"'Cause I ain't sure of it myself yet," Robles said. "Come on, Rahim. Five days. Surely you can put up with a girl for five days."
Sergeant Rahim didn't like it, any of it, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. He had no choice but to play Robles' game.
Reluctantly, he replied, "Yes, sir."
Five days, he thought. Just five days.

* * *

Location: Stanowicz Training Grounds, Titan, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Thu 18 Apr 121
Time: UST 1119

Although Solid Rock officially started on the 14th, the actual exercise didn't begin until the next day. Under the umbrella of a mock stabilization operation, the various sections of the detachment went through special courses to test the skills that would be needed in the field. The snipers were no exception, having eight specialized courses over the three weeks of the exercise in addition to the simulated patrols and other joint maneuvers.
As the leader of Second Platoon's sniper detail, Sergeant Rahim and his observer were the first team to go through. It was a pretty basic course, moving under cover in a five-by-five field with about a thousand potential targets. The goal was to tag as many high-value targets as possible without being spotted and then move to a pre-determined extraction point.
Once Rahim was done, he dismissed his observer and headed for the command tent as Captain Robles had told him to. While he was waiting in the airlock, he took off his helmet and unhooked his mask the moment the green light came on. Although he was used to it by now, having served most of his tours offworld, Rahim hated getting his air from a can. He almost wished he could fight the Shellies on Earth just so he could breathe like God intended.
Inside the command tent, he saw Captain Robles watching over the shoulder of a technician. Robles caught him out of the corner of his eye and walked up to greet him.
"Ah, Rahim, good to see you," he said. He nodded to the console he was looking at earlier. "Damn fine job you did out there. Not that I expect anything less from you."
Not wanting to waste any time on chitchat, Rahim said, "Alright, sir, so what is it you were wantin' to show me?"
Robles walked back to the console. "You're just in time. The Grisson-O'Connor team is coming up right now."
So they were serious about this after all. Rahim had been hoping it was just some sort of sick joke, that they'd finally get around to the punchline so he could have a good laugh and be done with it, but no. This was real. What was worse, that O'Connor was supposed to be the sniper of the team. How the hell was that supposed to work?
Rahim turned his attention to the screen Robles was watching. As a video feed would be pretty much worthless for observing any sniper worth his salt, the display had a map with locators for the two soldiers and their targets, the vitals of the team members, and a block of stats for their weapons and targets.
Rahim wasn't expecting anything special. At best, those two weakbodies would tag two or three targets before getting spotted and iced. Hard as it was to believe, there must have been some funny business that got them through Sniper School. That wasn't going to happen here. This course would blow the lid off the whole dirty deal and Rahim wouldn't have to pay it a second thought.
He was so busy grousing to himself that he didn't even notice the three kills registered on the screen, all high-value targets. Grisson and O'Connor were on the move. Because the Union had technology that traced the trajectory of shots back to their source, snipers were trained to assume the Shellies had the same ability. Never take more than three shots from a single location. That was the rule.
The team took up a new position and O'Connor took out another three targets almost as quickly as her SG1 would eject the rounds. Once again, all high-value targets. They were on the move again and still they hadn't been picked up by the targets' sensors.
Rahim couldn't believe what he was seeing. "What the hell? Is that for real? Somethin's gotta be busted."
Robles grinned. "No, no, no, Rahim. This is the real deal."
"But it can't be," Rahim said. "There's no fuckin' way. Is Grisson coverin' for her or somethin'?"
Robles tapped on the screen. "We'd know if he was. He hasn't fired a damn shot. All he's doing is spotting targets, as if she needed any help."
Sergeant Rahim shook his head. "This is fuckin' impossible." He looked at Robles, who didn't seem the slightest bit surprised. "What the hell? You look like you were expectin' this."
"Sort of," Robles said. "I was warned that I'd be getting a female sniper, a real unconventional type. She has to be paired up with that Grisson and no one else. Other than that, they didn't tell me shit. Near as I can tell, the Colonel himself don't know much more about it.
"This O'Connor, she was put in our unit by some real big-time players. I haven't got a damn clue of who they are or why they've pushed her on us, but I got the distinct vibe that you do not want to fuck with these people." Robles leaned in closer to Rahim. "I know what you were thinking. You were wanting to get a complaint going about her being bad for cohesion. Get her out of the squad, out of the company. My advice, buddy, is to forget about that shit." He gestured to the screen, which now showed thirty-eight kills, and said, "Whoever can make a mouse like O'Connor shoot like that isn't someone you wanna tangle with. You got me?"
Rahim didn't want to admit it, but the Captain was right. All he could say was "Yes, sir."