Chapter 16
Boy Meets Girl

Location: Epstein Starbase, Jovian Sphere
Date: Sun 10 Apr 114
Time: UST 2256

Matt stood in line outside the DFAC. Midnight chow would start in a few minutes. Time was largely an abstraction out in space, but Matt was still hard-wired to terrestrial patterns. On Epstein's so-called 'Dragon Shift', this was technically an early lunch, but it still felt like raiding the fridge in the middle of an all-nighter.
Just before the doors opened, a voice on the intercom said, "38th Rescue Wing, all pilots report to the briefing room on the double. I say again, 38th Rescue Wing, all pilots report to the briefing room on the double."
So much for chow.
By the time Matt got to the briefing room, most of the wing was already assembled. He headed to the section for his squadron, the 48th, where Funnyman was waiting. Funnyman was his co-pilot, still considered a rookie with less than a year in 'the real Air Force'. As his callsign suggested, he was a wisecracker but prone to being a little high-strung when the heat was on.
"Saved a seat for ya, boss," Funnyman said, patting the seat next to him.
"Wing, attention!" the vice commander bellowed just as Matt was about to sit down.
Everyone quickly sprang up and stood at attention as the wing commander entered the room.
As he was walking, the wing commander said, "Take your seats, gentlemen. We need to get right down to business." He eyed the assembly to make sure everyone was paying his attention. His expression was severe, leaving no doubt that this was a serious matter. "We've just received a priority signal from Oakes. Carrier Battle Group Five is currently engaged with a Sheolite Dreadnought out in Sector Oh-Nine Twenty-Four. They've managed to beat it back, but they've sustained too much damage to pursue. Oakes is sending backup, but Epstein is closer and they've requested our support.
"Two destroyers and three patrollers need help with crew evacuations. 19th, 88th, and 102nd, that'll be your job. The docking bays have been damaged on all these crafts, so you're authorized to make emergency hull breaches if directed by the ships' commanders.
"48th, you'll be picking up downed pilots. I hear there's a lot of them. We're talking up to fifty percent of the combined aviation element out of commission. We're hoping at least a quarter of them managed to eject.
"While the Dreadnought and its escorts are supposed to be withdrawing, there may still be hostiles in the area when we arrive. The 114th and 187th will be flying escort for us. Let them deal with any bandits that show up and you focus on your assignments. Are we tracking?"
The assembly shouted in unison, "Tracking, sir!"
"Good," the wing commander said, immediately heading for the door. "Let's move out."
The pilots filed out with the smooth efficiency of a well-oiled machine. SAR had to roll out just as quickly as combat pilots when the situation called for it, but Matt had gotten used to the process. Suiting up was as natural as breathing and he could go through the launch sequence in his sleep. There was nothing special about it, though. That much was expected of all of them.
Once Matt and Funnyman had suited up and headed for their Pelican, they found that their crew was already waiting on board. All that remained was to take off. The launch bays quickly emptied as the six squadrons requisitioned for this operation comprised nearly half of Epstein's compliment of spacecraft. In no time they were blazing ahead full-speed to their destination.
Sector 09-24 was a ways off and it took nearly forty minutes to reach the battlezone. The crippled cap ships of Carrier Battle Group Five drifted amidst a sea of wreckage, pieces of the ships themselves and the remains of various other craft, both Union and Sheolite. The Sheolite debris was still in the process of cannibalizing itself, proof that the fighting had not ended too long ago.
"Holy shit," Funnyman muttered.
Although Matt would not put it in those exact words, he perfectly understood Funnyman's sentiments. He had never seen so much destruction in one place, but things had changed in recent years. It was no longer like the early days of the war, when whole colonies were razed by the invading Sheolites. This battle proved that in spite of the Union's vast improvement in both technology and tactics, the enemy could still deliver a hard blow.
The voice of Major Palenko, the squadron leader, came up over the radio. "Alright, Chariots, let's split up. Zero in on those life signs and let's bring some people home."
Matt was already toggling one of the VDUs to collate life signs with the emergency signal broadcast by the ejection seats. This would exclude personnel on board the capital ships and other spacecraft as well as anyone who did not survive ejection. He then adjusted the display to overlay the signals from the other four ships in the squadron so he would not be interfering with them. He was able to do all this before Major Palenko had even finished talking.
He went to work recovering the surviving pilots one by one. It was tricky work. Even with the tractor beam to dampen inertia and the arresting gear inside the bay, the speed of the ship had to be precisely aligned to avoid plastering the hapless rescuee on the walls of the ship. It was an unpleasant tragedy that had happened on more than one occasion, thankfully never when Matt was behind the stick.
Truth be told, there were not many pilots to recover. By the time Matt had rescued seven, no more life signs showed up on the display. Still, something nagged at him, as if he might be overlooking something. He toggled the display again to show all life signs and filtered through the data. First the cap ships, then the birds of the 38th, then any other small craft that were transmitting radio. There was one life sign from a source that was sending no other signal.
"Let's get that one," Matt said, tapping the screen.
"You sure?" Funnyman asked, looking at the more detailed readout Matt brought up.
"Life signs are weak," Matt replied, "but the pilot's still alive."
They headed over to the source of the life sign, bringing it up on one of the video feeds. It was essentially the severed head of a Wasp. The pod did not fully disengage, and the pilot had not ejected. How it managed to be separated from the main body of the craft was a mystery, but now was not the time to wonder about such things.
"How we gonna extract him?" Funnyman asked.
"We'll just have to reel in the whole thing," Matt said. "The hold's big enough. We can jettison it once we secure the pilot."
The crew in the bay had to be informed of the incoming load. Matt hit the intercom.
"Velasquez, this Harold."
"What is it, sir?" a voice asked.
"Take down the Type 1 nets and put up the Type 4."
"The Type 4?"
"We're taking in a whole pod. The pilot didn't eject. I'm guessing he's critical, so get as many medics out there as you can spare."
"Roger that, sir."
A couple minutes later, Velasquez came back on and said, "Alright, sir, nets are up."
"I copy that," Matt said. "I'm bringing it in."
As Pelicans served elsewhere as cargo ships, the bay was more than large enough to accommodate a whole Wasp, so the front part of one was no problem. The maneuver was no trickier than recovering ejection seats, but Matt had to be extra careful given the delicate condition of the pilot. Once the pod was secure, Matt called up their fighter escort.
"Jackrabbit One-One, this is Sweet Seven. Do you copy?"
"I copy, Sweet Seven."
"You getting any enemy contacts?"
"Negative, Sweet Seven."
"I'm transferring over to Sweet Eight. Keep us posted."
"Roger that."
Matt unstrapped himself and rose up out of his seat.
Confused, Funnyman looked at him and asked, "Where you goin', boss?"
"I'm going to go help with that pilot we just picked up," Matt said. "I haven't picked up any more life signs, but keep looking."
"But, boss," Funnyman said hesitantly, "I'm just the co-pilot. If they guys in the back need some help, I can go."
They had been flying together for nine months, but Funnyman still did not have much confidence in his abilities. He put up a front of being carefree, but he was really a lot more insecure than he wanted people to believe. Matt was not without sympathy for him, but the only way for him to get better was to face his fear and uncertainty. Of course, Matt did not have to word it that way.
"I like to make myself useful every now and then, too, you know," he said. "Besides, you could use the extra stick time. You'll do just fine. Call me if you have any trouble."
The vote of confidence seemed to do the trick. Funnyman smiled and replied in a goofy voice, "Rahjah dahjah, bawss."
Matt left the cockpit and headed down into the bay. When he got there, the crew had just finished clearing the pod from the nets. Much to his surprise, the bay had been pressurized. He quickly realized why when he got a better look at the pod. The canopy of the cockpit had several holes in it. The emergency sealants had deployed, but there was a high probability that the pilot's suit was damaged. Exposure to an airless, low-pressure environment was the last thing he needed.
As Matt approached the crewmen, Velasquez asked, "Lieutenant, what are you doing here?"
"I figured I'd give you a hand," Matt said. "I thought you might have some trouble with this one."
Velasquez was known for not liking any interference with his crew, but he was apparently willing to accept the ship commander's assistance, saying, "I guess we'll take what we can get, sir. This pod's all shot to shit. If the pilot's still alive, he doesn't have much time. Me and the boys will go at it with the cutters and you can pull the pilot out once we get the canopy open."
"Okay."
While four men with cutters assailed the pod, Matt rolled a ramp up alongside it to bring the pilot down with minimal trauma. The onboard gravity generator did not exceed a quarter G, but all due caution needed to be taken.
Once Velasquez and his men had made their way around, they pried off the canopy and Velasquez yelled to Matt, "Alright, she's open, sir! Get the pilot out!"
Matt wasted no time unstrapping the pilot, but even as he was doing so, he could not fail to notice how bad a shape the pilot was in. Ballistic cannons were almost never used in space because the rounds were simply too slow to hit modern spacecraft. It was not impossible, but it was hardly practical. Nevertheless, because ballistics could pass through energy shields, they were dangerous if they actually managed to connect. This poor pilot found out the hard way.
Whatever the ammunition used, it was fairly high caliber and strong enough to punch through the Wasp's relatively thin armor plating. The body armor worn over the pilot's spacesuit might as well have been tissue paper. The helmet was not much good either, it seemed. A large gash scored the front, shattering the visor. Matt pulled off the helmet, finding a similar gash underneath and the whole right side of the pilot's face covered in blood. He realized something then. The pilot was a woman.
A female pilot was not so rare, not even a female combat pilot, but the latter was not especially common either. Of course, the gender of the pilot had no bearing on how desperately she needed medical attention. Matt tried to lift her out of the seat, but her right hand continued to stubbornly grip the stick, even though she had long since gone unconscious. Once he got her hand loose, he started to pull her out of the cockpit. That was when it happened.
The pilot's left eye snapped open. Matt only had a split-second to register that look, that frenzied look. Completely ignoring her considerable injuries, the pilot grabbed Matt by the throat and sprang up, propelled by the low gravity. Matt landed on his back, but he was not thinking about that. The pilot was screaming and choking him with all her might, which was more than anyone in her condition ought to have.
The reflexes that served Matt so well in the cockpit did not avail him here. It was all so unexpected, so unreal. It felt like she was throttling him for minutes, but it was probably only a matter of seconds. In the end, blood loss won out over blood rage and the pilot went unconscious. Matt, too, began black out. The last thing he saw was a flight medic running up to him. It looked like he would not be much help after all.

* * *

Location: NSS Zhu Que, Jovian Sphere
Date: Tue 26 Feb 115
Time: UST 1014

It would not be accurate to say Matt forgot about the events of the previous year, but they were certainly not at the front of his mind when he received curious orders to report to the Commanding Officer of Naval Space Station Zhu Que. As relevant as those events would later prove to be, it would not have lessened the surprise of what was waiting for him.
Matt walked into the CO's office, noting a full commander standing by the CO's desk and a young female ensign standing off to the side near the wall. The ensign caught his eye not only for being incongruous with the other two officers in terms of age and rank, but also on account of her haircut. Her bangs were rather long, covering the right side of her face. Surely that was a violation of uniform regulations, but perhaps the Navy's standards were laxer than those of the Air Force.
That was not all either. There was something familiar about her. It was like they had met before, but where?
He did not let such stray thoughts to cause him to skip a beat. He promptly approached the CO's desk, saluted and said, "Lieutenant Harold, reporting as ordered, sir."
The CO returned the salute. Matt would later be informed that neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps saluted indoors under any circumstances, but he did not know that then and the CO did not correct him. He acted like it was entirely natural and simply nodded to the commander standing next to him.
"Commander Truong," he said, "if you'd do the honors..."
Commander Truong held up a sheet of digifilm and, taking up an official tone, declared, "Attention to orders." The CO rose from his desk and stood at attention. The ensign also stood at attention as the Commander continued, "The Chairman of the Earth Union, acting upon the recommendation of the Secretary of the Air Force, has placed special trust and confidence in the patriotism, integrity and abilities of First Lieutenant Matthias Harold. In view of these special qualities, and his demonstrated potential to serve in a higher grade, First Lieutenant Harold is promoted to the grade of Captain, Earth Union Aerospace Expeditionary Force, effective 26 February 115, by order of the Secretary of the Air Force."
The CO then walked up to Matt and pulled something out of his pocket. It was two gold bars. He affixed one to each of Matt's epaulets, upgrading his insignia to match the declared promotion.
With a smile, the CO said, "We'll forego having you say your oath again. At ease, Captain."
He offered Matt his hand and Matt shook it, not knowing quite what to think of all this.
"Permission to speak, sir?" he asked.
The CO nodded. "Go right ahead."
"Sir, I'm not supposed to go to the promotion board until August."
"We're in the middle of a war, Captain. We can't afford the luxury of all the usual red tape. Besides, the pull of your new rank will probably come in handy for your new assignment."
"Sir?"
The CO looked back to the Commander and asked, "Truong, you have those orders?"
The Commander, who Matt figured was some sort of adjutant, delivered a sheet of digifilm to the CO, saying, "Right here, sir."
The CO took the digifilm. "Thanks," he said, and then handed the digifilm to Matt. "Here you go. Go on, read it."
Matt did so. According to the orders printed on the digifilm, he was being transferred to the VF-208 here at Zhu Que. A number of issues immediately sprang to mind. Awkwardly, Matt attempted to protest.
"But, sir, I--"
The CO quickly interrupted. "You're Air Force? What? Haven't you ever heard of joint operations?"
"It's not just that, sir," Matt replied. "This is a fighter squadron. I'm not a fighter pilot."
Unfortunately for Matt, the CO had done his homework. "It's what you trained for in the Academy," he said. "You racked up twenty-two kills in less than year. That's some slick shit. I don't know why you cross-rated, but the Union needs your skills as a combat pilot."
Matt was not ready to back down so easily, but he had to be tactful about it. "Sir, I don't--"
Before he could say anything, the CO interrupted him again. Gesturing to the ensign, he said, "Captain, I want you to meet Ensign Han. She's going to be your new wingmate."
"Uh, hello," Matt said.
The ensign did not reply, but it did not matter much as the CO went right back to talking. "You see, Captain, the Ensign here is very important to the war effort. You've faced the Shellies in the field, so you know how they fight. Pure aggression. Damn near suicidal. Offensive tactics honed to a needle point.
"Over the past several years, we've developed a training regimen to beat the Shellies at their own game. Ensign Han is one of the graduates of this program. In combat, she's perfectly capable of going head to head with any Shelly, but there's one drawback. I'm sure you can guess what that is. With all the attention paid to offense, she's weak on defense and evasion. This is where you come in.
"We've analyzed your flying style. While you're perfectly capable of holding your own in a fight, you expend an inordinate amount of energy into protecting your wingmates and other friendlies, even at great personal risk, as the incident of 15 July 113 proves."
Matt tried not to show it, but he was pretty sure he winced visibly at the mention of the incident in question. He felt that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Even more so than the attack on Fahrenholz, it was a day that haunted him and nearly ruined him.
The CO did not let him dwell on his guilt, though. "Now I'm not attacking you for that," he assured Matt. "You were rightfully exonerated of the charges then. That impulse that made you do what you did, that's exactly what we're looking for."
Matt was not going to let himself be put in this position. Nothing good could come of him returning to combat flying. It would only leave more comrades dead. But then, a nagging little voice told him, running away to SAR didn't stop you from getting people killed either, now did it?
Pushing that voice aside, Matt made his stand and said, "Begging your pardon, sir, but you've got the wrong guy."
The CO was not so easily convinced. "Do I?" he asked. Real friendly-like, he put his arm around Matt's shoulder, like a father or maybe an uncle. "Look, Captain, anyone else might just tell you 'Execute' and leave it at that, but I'm not going to force you to accept this assignment. I'll personally see that these orders are changed so that you go back to the 48th and even keep that silver and gold." He paused. "That being said, we'll have to find someone else to partner up with Ensign Han. Think about it. Out of all the pilots in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, you're the one best suited for this assignment. I'm not going to tell you how much difference there is between you and the next guy on the list, but do you really want to hand over the Ensign's life to the number two guy?"
It was a cheap trick and proof that the CO had studied him well. It was no understatement to say that Matt was obsessed with helping people, protecting them. In this obsession, concrete factors counted for more than abstractions. While he could tell himself that more lives would be saved by staying out of combat flying, there was one life right in front of him that supposedly could be saved by him becoming a combat pilot again. That one tangible life carried more weight than any million he could imagine.
The CO, seeing the scales begin to tip in his favor, continued to push. "Captain," he said, "I'm sure you know the meaning of your callsign, don't you?"
"Cavalier," Matt replied, "from the French 'chevalier', meaning 'knight'."
The CO nodded. "That's right. 'Knight'." He looked Matt square in the eyes. "I want you to be Ensign Han's knight. Can you do that, Captain?"
Matt knew he had been beat and said resignedly, "If those are my orders, sir."
"Not good enough," the CO said and then asked the question again. "Can you do this?"
A little more resolutely, Matt replied, "Yes, sir."
The CO smiled broadly. "That's what I wanted to hear." He clapped his hands. "Okay, Ensign Han is going to take you down and introduce you to your new squadron leader. Your personal effects should arrive by the end of the day, tomorrow at the latest. If you need anything to hold you over until then, the Ensign can show you how to get to the NEX. Are there any questions?"
"No, sir."
"Alright then. Dismissed."
Matt returned to the position of attention and saluted the CO. After the CO returned the salute, Matt turned and left. This would be the last time for him to salute Naval personnel in accordance with Air Force protocols. In fact, he had a lot of new procedures to learn, but for now he was simply following Ensign Han to go see the squadron leader.
The Ensign was not the most sociable person. She did not bother to look at him or acknowledge his presence in any way. Instead she marched down the hall sulkily, grumbling to herself.
"Un-fuckin'-believable. Knight my ass. I don't need no goddamned knight, 'specially not no goddamned Airhead."
Attempting to get a word in edgewise, Matt said, "Excuse me, but I--"
Ensign Han whirled around and cut him off. "Look, man, I don't care who or what you're s'pposed ta be. It looks like I'm stuck with you babysittin' me, but I don't hafta like it none." She pointed to her one exposed eye, saying, "I've got my eye on you, Airhead. Just stay the fuck outta my way an' we'll get through this bullshit assignment."
Drawing attention to her eye made Matt pause for a moment. It finally came to him. He knew where he had seen her before. She was the pilot he rescued last year, the one who nearly strangled him. It was certainly different not seeing her all covered in blood. However, it certainly seemed like she could throttle him again at a moment's notice.
As stand-offish as she was, Ensign Han was still slated to be Matt's new wingmate, so he made some effort to make her acquaintance. "Will you at least give me your handle?" he asked. "I'm sure you don't want me calling you 'Ensign Han' all the time."
Reluctantly, as if he were asking her for a kidney, she said, "Fine. It's Nyx."
"'Nix?' As in the fairy?"
"No, motherfucker," she growled. "Nyx as in Mother Night, Queen a' the Fuckin' Dark. Space is dark an' I fuckin' rule it. Can you dig that, homeslice?"
"Yeah."
The Ensign turned from him and started walking again. No words were exchanged between them for a few minutes. Matt was wondering how they were actually going to work as wingmates if they did not talk to each other when she spoke up again.
"Is it true what the Captain said, 'bout you waxin' twenty-two Shellies in under a year?"
Her tone was different. It was an honest question and she sounded genuinely curious. It was a different side to her, perhaps closer to her real personality, on the other side of that thick wall she hid behind, which was all her offensive persona really was. Matt was not a liar in any circumstances, but he felt particularly moved to meet her honesty measure for measure.
"Yes," Matt said plainly. Most other pilots would boast, but he was not most other pilots.
Reverting to her old ways, she snapped, "Bullshit. I don't buy it." When Matt did not reply, she held up her hands, as if she was inviting him to take a swing at her. "What? You ain't gonna stick up for yourself?"
Not looking for a fight, Matt simply shrugged. "If you don't believe it, nothing I can say will change that."
The Ensign was hardly impressed with his answer. "Fuckin' pussy. And you're s'pposed ta cover my ass? That's a fuckin' laugh an' a half."
'A laugh and a half,' she said. Matt did not find much humor in it. Bright neon signs warned of hard times ahead, but he had not signed up looking for a picnic. There was more to Ensign Han than what he was seeing. Someone thought she was in need of protecting and that Matt was best person to do that. He would protect her, as much for her sake as his own.