Chapter 2
Unnecessary Formality

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Armstrong ONB, Earth Sphere
Date: Wed 27 Mar 121
Time: UST 1800

The love of pomp and ceremony in the Union military knew few bounds, especially when such excesses could be enjoyed in the safety of the Earth Sphere, which remained miraculously untouched by the war. Only hours after the commissioning ceremony, a dining-in was held in the lower flight deck, filled with tables and chairs to accommodate the thousands of crew members.
After the opening ceremony, the senior staffers gave another round of speeches, thankfully shorter in length than those at the commissioning ceremony, but most of them still displayed the tedious and uninspiring quality such oratory was infamous for. Once the meals were served, the crew was free to socialize for a few hours before the ceremony's conclusion.
Many were content to stay at their tables and converse with those seated nearby. Others looked around for comrades from previous stations to reminisce about old times. Then there were the ambitious few sycophants who went out to curry favor with their superiors and the inverse case of senior officers and NCOs eagerly accosting their new subordinates. The remainder belonged to a variety less inclined to join in the society of others.
Counted among this last type was an Air Force pilot who found a place relatively free of anyone else. Major Matthias Harold stood uncomfortably, holding a glass in his hand but not taking a drink from it. The ribbons on his uniform pointed to a distinguished record, but one would not believe him to be a combat pilot by looking at him. A thin, bookish man of average height with silver-rimmed glasses on his aquiline nose, he looked more like an administrative clerk.
The shoes of his dress uniform were terribly uncomfortable and he shifted his weight from one leg to the other every few minutes in an attempt to relieve the pain. He was not fond of being around so many people and wanted to leave. Of course, the junior enlisted could sneak out of ceremonies like this with little consequence, but a mid-level officer did not have such a luxury. Beyond that, he was now the commanding officer of the 421st Fighter Squadron, part of an entire wing of Air Force personnel attached to the Ticonderoga. He was obliged to stay until the end. He just hoped he would be left alone until it was over.
"Hey there, sexy," a woman's voice whispered in his ear.
Matt jumped in surprise. Turning around quickly, he was even more surprised to see the owner of the voice.
"Nyx!" he exclaimed.
'Nyx' was the callsign of Senior Lieutenant Lydia Han, a Navy pilot who had been his wingman for four years. Looking closer at her uniform, he realized she was now a lieutenant commander, apparently a recent promotion that came as no small surprise. She did not have as much time in service as he did, after all. A combination of that and her rowdy nature left her with a few less awards to her credit, but apparently it was not doing much to slow her climb up the ladder. A testament to her skill as a pilot on the one hand and a sign of how desperate the times were on the other.
The first thing some would notice upon looking at her was the fact that her sandy blonde hair grew long in the front, covering the entire right side of her face. It was a defiance of standard regulations that had inexplicably remained uncontested for almost as long as he had known her.
"Who'd ya think it was?" she asked with a chuckle. "Are the chicks flockin' ta ya that much since ya became squadron leader?"
"You know about that?"
"I'm keepin' my eye on ya, Cav," she said, pointing to her exposed left eye, "and you know it."
'Cavalier' was Matt's own callsign, but Lydia and most of the other pilots he had flown with would shorten it to just 'Cav'. She was referring to something she had told him back when they were first assigned together. She had not been too keen on the idea of being paired with an Air Force pilot at the time, but experience had improved her opinion of him.
"I was a little surprised, actually," Matt admitted. "Squadron leader is usually a job for O-5s..."
"You and me both know that they don't have enough pilots that high up," Lydia replied. "Besides, this way SupCom can get someone ta do the same job for less pay, the cheap bastards..."
She made a good point. Neither the Air Force nor the Navy had seen the point in having fighters and bombers in space until the war began. Supreme Command thought that nothing smaller than a patrol ship would be necessary for operations in space, but then the Sheolites proved how gravely mistaken they were with swarms of smaller, faster and more maneuverable craft. Military contractors had scrambled to design the necessary counterparts, but the first generation proved barely capable of standing up to the enemy.
Matt and Lydia hailed from the second generation of the program, where better craft and better training kept more pilots alive and helped to stem the tide of destruction wreaked by the enemy. The war was now entering the third generation, of which the Ticonderoga was a significant factor. The two of them had spent the past two years at their respective academies, training the pilots who would embody this new wave and bring its goal of ultimate victory over the Sheolites to fruition.
"Hey," Lydia said, interrupting his thoughts, "they made me a squadron leader, too. The VF-313 Madcaps."
"Congratulations," Matt replied cordially.
"What're you talkin' about?" she scoffed. "It's a major pain in the ass. Why do I hafta keep track of a buncha jack-offs? All I need ta worry about is the Shelly bastard in my crosshairs."
"There's nothing we can do about it," Matt said with an indifferent shrug. "It's just like managing our aircrews, but on a bigger scale. We're going up in the ranks, after all, and they have a habit of strapping you with more responsibility in exchange for the bigger paychecks."
"I'd think putting my ass on the line day in an' day out is enough ta justify a measly 300 extra credits a month..."
"It's not good for morale for unit commanders to be complaining like this," a voice interrupted.
It was an Air Force woman clad in the highly formal mess uniform, much like a majority of the officers present. Matt quickly noticed the single star on her epaulet, the insignia of a brigadier general. She was about Lydia's height with long brown hair tied back in a bun and piercing blue eyes. She had all the bearing of an experienced leader and the medals on her uniform indicated she was a pilot of some distinction before she had attained the rank that prohibited her from flying.
"Good evening, ma'am," Matt said, straightening himself up and showing the standard courtesy toward a superior officer.
The General looked at the two of them critically for a brief moment before speaking.
"Major Harold and Commander Han, the prescribed uniform of officers for this function is the mess uniform. Why are you in your service dress?"
"I don't have a mess uniform, ma'am," Matt replied awkwardly. "I've never had the occasion where I would need it."
"Skirts aren't my thing," Lydia added, sounding like a rebellious teenager. "These monkey suits are enough of a pain as it is."
The mess uniform was the one of the few exceptions to the more egalitarian standards adopted by the Union military. With all other uniforms, males and females dressed alike, a move that was met with some contention at first but had become a non-issue in recent history. No other uniform was more universally loathed than the mess uniform, for none was more uncomfortable, frivolous, expensive or rarely used. Lydia's aversion to the uniform not only echoed these sentiments but her own tomboyish nature as well.
Needless to say, their answers did not impress the General, whose look became even more severe. Although both pilots had risked life and limb in countless engagements with the ruthless Sheolites, this woman in her late thirties could still pose an intimidating figure to them.
"You two aren't a couple of new jack flight jocks straight out of the Academy," she chided. "Both of you have more than enough time in service to know better. We may be in a war, but I expect my subordinates to play by the book, especially those in a position of leadership."
"And just who the hell are you supposed ta be anyway?" Lydia asked bluntly, paying no heed to her rank.
Ignoring Lydia's lack of military courtesy, the General replied, "Pfeiffer, Lorraine K., Brigadier General, Earth Union Aerospace Expeditionary Force, 9th Joint Air Division, Commanding Officer. Does that answer your question, Commander?"
Lydia arched her eyebrow, not looking particularly affected by the new information.
"So you're runnin' this circus?" she asked.
"I can see the two of us are going to have problems," Pfeiffer replied icily. "You of all people should appreciate the value of the Navy and Air Force cooperating on combat operations. You should have more respect for what we're doing here."
"Every second I'm not shootin' down Shellies is a second wasted," Lydia retorted. "I want ta be out there bringin' the fight ta the bad guys like the old man was sayin'."
"You'll get your chance, Commander," Pfeiffer replied. "In the meantime, I'll see that the two of you get squared away. I'll be talking with both of your wing commanders, so you can expect a counseling session in the near future."
Pfeiffer then turned and walked away, invariably to find their wing commanders. It was just the kind of trouble Matt would have rather avoided, but often his efforts to stay out of sight only made him a bigger target. Lydia only glared in the surly manner she would often adopt when getting chewed out by a superior officer.
"Bitch..." she grumbled.
"Knock it off," Matt said. "You've worked hard to get where you are. There's no point in ruining your career because of a little scolding."
"Who's bright idea was it ta put an Airhead in charge a' this outfit anyway?"
'Airhead' was a common epithet used by Navy pilots to insult their Air Force counterparts. Matt was not terribly happy to hear her use it, but chose not to say anything. In spite of this, Lydia seemed to sense his discontent and quickly amended what she had said.
"You know I ain't talkin' 'bout you," she said. "You'll always be Navy to me."
"Yeah..." Matt replied half-heartedly.
He had to keep her out of trouble the entire time they flew together and it seemed that it would be no different here. Fortunately, no other person assailed them for the remainder of the ceremony and they were able to relate some of the tales from their time spent training new pilots. The evening concluded without further event, sparing them any further problems until tomorrow at least.