Chapter 21
Congratulations, You're Fired
Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Thu 30 May 121
Time: UST 0912

"You, what day is it?" Lydia demanded.
The young sailor stood nervously at attention and replied, "It's Thursday, ma'am."
"The date."
"May 30th, ma'am."
Either this kid was in on the conspiracy or the docs were telling her the truth. One minute she was walking in this dive of a starport, answering Commander Joachim's call to meet up with their new partners in crime. The next thing she knew, she was lying in a hospital bed on the Tico. A whole month and she couldn't remember a damn thing.
Not bothering to dismiss the sailor, she continued to walk down the passageway. She was still a little wobbly. The docs hadn't been too keen on releasing her, but she wasn't going to spend another minute in Sickbay. They probably could've made things difficult for her, but she got a call to meet General Pfeiffer. She never thought she'd actually be happy to see the old bat, but today was the day.
The General's office was up in Aught Two. Once she got there, Lydia tapped the monitor outside the door. Almost immediately, General Pfeiffer's face appeared on the screen.
"You wanted to see me, BoS?" Lydia asked.
While it sounded like she said 'boss', she was actually sounding out the initials for 'Bun of Steel'. If she could get it past the General, it'd be a small but treasured victory. After all, just because this little powwow got her out of Sickbay didn't change the fact that she really didn't like the woman on top.
Apparently General Pfeiffer didn't notice, because all she said was, "Lieutenant Han, come in." Almost friendly-like, too. The door opened and as Lydia was walking in, the General then asked her, "How are you feeling?"
To describe their relationship as less than amicable would be an understatement on the scale of saying a hull breach is somewhat problematic. That was why Lydia was taken so off-guard by the General acting so pleasant with her.
"Uh, fine, I guess," Lydia mumbled, not quite sure what to say. In her confusion, it was just then that she realized something else that was wrong with her invitation to come inside. "Hey, wait... Did you just call me 'Lieutenant'?"
"Yes," General Pfeiffer said, "I've been meaning to tell you. In fact, that's why I called you. You see, we've discovered a clerical error. It turns out that you weren't authorized for promotion after all."
Not authorized for promotion. In other words, she was getting busted down. Her response was entirely reflexive, ignoring the fact that she was addressing a general officer.
"What the fuck? That's bullshit. This is 'cause a' what happened, isn't it?"
She knew that had to be it. All the docs told her is that there was an 'incident' and whatever happened, there was a big month-long blank in her memory. Whatever the hell this 'incident' was, they were trying to bury it and her with it.
Unfazed, General Pfeiffer repeated, "Like I said, it was a clerical error. These things happen. As of 13 April, you have been reduced in rank to senior lieutenant."
"Bullshit. You backdated it ta cover it up."
"Lieutenant Han," the General said with ever so fine a point on the 'Lieutenant' part, "if such a thing was done, you should be thankful. A clerical error doesn't leave a black mark on your record."
"An' you expect me ta just take it?"
"There's nothing you can do about it. It was a clerical error. It's uncontestable. I suggest you get over it. Since you have been overpaid for the last four months, you will be expected to reimburse the Navy for that amount, but I'll see that you get your uniform readjusted free of charge."
Oh, that did it.
"Fuck you," Lydia growled.
She had gone too far. There were times and places where talking to your superior like that could get you shot. General Pfeiffer did not shoot her, but she did roll out that voice of hers, that tightly controlled voice that just barely kept her from exploding all over the place like Mount Vesuvius.
"Lieutenant Han, it is only out of the kindness of my heart that I'm considering your behavior to be the after-effects of your medication. Otherwise I wouldn't tolerate such gross insubordination. Do you want to go to prison, Lieutenant? Get drummed out of the service? You wouldn't get to kill many Shellies that way. It'd fuck you up real nice."
Whoa. Lydia had never heard the General talk like that before. It made it all too clear how serious she was. As impulsive and temperamental as Lydia was, all it took was a big enough stick to put her in line.
"From now on," the General continued, "I expect you to address me as 'ma'am'. Is that clear?"
"Yes, ma'am."
The display of obedience was apparently enough to satisfy General Pfeiffer. Releasing the tension from her voice, she picked up the subject at hand as if nothing had happened.
"Now, your reduction in rank renders you ineligible to continue serving as squadron leader for the VF-313. I can transfer you to another unit in the battle group, maybe give you command of the aviation element on the Halsey."
The Halsey. A destroyer, in other words. Lydia could feel her skin crawl.
"I'm never goin' on one a' those flying coffins again," she said bluntly. She then remembered that she was supposed to be minding her p's and q's. Taking a more conciliatory but still resolute tone, she added, "I'm a Madcap now, ma'am, and I'd like ta stay that way."
The General was more obliging than Lydia was expecting. Without any discussion, argument or haggling, she said, "Very well then. I can make you flight leader of Third Flight. Do you have any objections?"
"No, ma'am."
"You do realize there could be problems with you going from squadron leader down to flight leader."
"I'll deal with it."
"You'll have to move to a four-man berth."
"Didn't know what ta do with all that room anyway."
"You seem to have adopted a more pragmatic attitude about the situation."
"Can't fight it, can I?"
"No, you can't."
"Cav's always sayin' that knowing when ta give up is part a' bein' an adult."
General Pfeiffer gave a smile that was the very embodiment of 'condescending'. "Welcome to the world of grownups, Lieutenant."
Lydia bit her tongue. Figuratively, of course. If she had actually bitten her tongue, she would've bitten the damn thing off. If the General could see how close she was to popping off, she sure didn't show it.
"You're dismissed, Lieutenant Han. You'll get your new room assignment later today."
As tempting as it was to give the General the trusty left-handed salute, Lydia exercised the good judgment to about-face and march her tail out of the office before she really did find herself strung up on insubordination charges. She had said it herself. There was no fighting it. She was going to have to deal, one way or another.

* * *

"Commander Han? Commander Han?"
A voice was calling to her. Who was it?
"Commander Han, are you alright?"
Lydia blinked. Where was she? What was she doing?
"Commander Han?"
Lydia blinked again. There was a woman standing in front of her. She knew her. Junior Lieutenant Yudmila 'Big Red' Trifkovic. Third Flight. Sub-leader. Only about a year younger than her, but she looked even younger than that. A little freckle-faced cherub with curly red hair, so cute you wanted to just smash that face in. No, bad thoughts. Bad. Keep thinking like that and they'll drug you up till your brain turns to mush.
"Com--ah, I mean, Lieutenant Han, are you listening?"
It was annoying to be reminded of her recent demotion, but Lydia was still too out of it to get very angry. She was still trying to sort out her situation, but she was also getting tired of Lieutenant Trifkovic saying her name over and over again. Was she listening?
"Yeah," Lydia replied in a detached voice.
"It looks like I'll be your sub-leader from now on," Trifkovic said.
That was right, wasn't it? She was a flight leader now.
"What happened to Doughboy?"
"I hear he was transferred to the Halsey."
"And who's Madcap One now?"
"They haven't brought in your replacement yet."
"Huh..."
Lydia could feel her mind start to drift. What was going on?
"Lieutenant Han?"
Again Trifkovic's voice brought her back. Handy little trick, that. Only she wasn't going to put up with her sub calling her 'Lieutenant Han' all the time.
"Call me Nyx," Lydia said.
"Yes, ma'am."
There was that word. Lydia hated that word. She'd better set the record straight.
"An' none a' this 'ma'am' bullshit," she insisted. "I work for a livin'."
Trifkovic gave her a funny look. "Isn't that what enlisted men say?"
It was like Trifkovic's sole reason for being was to annoy her.
"I might as well be," Lydia grumbled.
"Um, if you don't mind my asking, what--"
It didn't end, did it?
"Clerical error, they say. Believe it if ya wanna. Let your imagination run wild. While you're doin' that, ya can lead me ta my new digs. That's what you're here for, right? Not just sayin' hi."
"Yes, ma--ah, Nyx. You'll be with me in 37-4."
"Rack buddies, eh? Don't be takin' advantage a' me while I'm asleep an' I'll return the favor."
Trifkovic seemed to get a little flustered at this. What? Did she actually take it seriously? Was she imagining it? Man, oh, man...
Lydia cracked a grin. "This might just be fun after all," she said. "Oh, an' your new handle is 'Curly'."
"Wha--? W-why?"
"'Cause a' that mop ya got on top. That an' 'cause I said so. Come on, it ain't like ya like bein' called 'Big Red', am I right?"
"No, but I don't see how that's any better."
"Tough shit. Now lead the way."
Trifkovic hung her head a bit and went on her way. She really didn't have to personally show Lydia where to go. Officers' Country for the Air Wing was all together on Deck 3 and Lydia could read the plates herself. Then again, the way she'd been losing track of what she was doing, maybe it was best that she had a guide.
Turns out she was still on Aught Two, so she hadn't wandered too far since having her little chat with General Pfeiffer. It didn't take them too long to get to the lift and head down to Deck 3. After hoofing it a bit, they reached Officers' Country and stopped at the door to a four-man job right across from the fitness room.
"Here we are," Trifkovic said, motioning to the door, "37-4."
Trifkovic opened the door and Lydia got her first look at her new home. The four-man staterooms actually had less area than the two-man rooms, plus they shared a head with the adjoining room. Definitely a step down in the world. Lydia had to admit being a bit spoiled from her time as a flight instructor back at the Academy, but this was still leaps and bounds over the crummy situation on board the Kanai.
Thinking of the Kanai brought a sudden shock of pain to her head. Just what the hell happened to her? The harder she tried to remember, all it did was make her head hurt more.
"Lieu--ah, I mean, Nyx?"
Trifkovic again.
Lydia kinda waved her hand like it was nothing. She needed to get her head on straight or people were going to start taking notice, a headache she didn't need. Bad enough to get busted down to O-3. She didn't need to fall any farther.
The room. Yes, focus on the room. Racks lined up along one bulkhead with desks in between and wall lockers on the opposite side. Yeah, all nice and cozy.
Some Hindi chick was getting dressed and shot Trifkovic a mean look.
"Dammit, Trif," she grumbled. "You could hit the damn chime before barging in."
Trifkovic gestured to her and said, "Junior Lieutenant Bhakta of the VRC-88."
"What the hell's a Tweety doin' in our room?" Lydia asked.
Trifkovic only sighed and gestured to Lydia, saying, "Senior Lieutenant Han of the Three-One-Three. My new flight leader. Our new roommate."
Bhakta didn't look too impressed. Well, the feeling was mutual. Damn Tweety.
"Lieutenant Han, huh?" she said. "I can already tell this is going to be all kinds of fun."
"'Bollywood'," Lydia said.
"What?"
"It's your new handle."
"Don't ask," Trifkovic said.
Just then, some munchkin wearing only a towel came out of the head. Once again, Trifkovic provided the introductions.
"Ensign Lam of the VS-419."
Another damn Tweety. Only this one looked easier to tease. Lydia moved in and took hold of both of her cheeks. The ones on her face, that is. Lam was too preoccupied trying to keep her towel on to put up much resistance.
"Cute as a damn button," Lydia said. "Your new handle is 'Xiaoxiao'."
"Whaa?"
That was supposed to be a 'Why?' Kinda hard to get out when someone's pulling on your face like that. Lydia only grinned.
"Welcome ta my hell," she said. "Misery loves company, so fuckin' enjoy it."
The looks on the three other women's faces said they'd be doing anything but enjoying it. So they were all in the same boat. Sucks to be them. Of course, it sucked to be her, too.

* * *

Having driven off her new roommates, Lydia laid on her rack staring at the overhead. She didn't know how long she'd been laying there and she didn't really care either. She had given up trying to remember what happened to her and settled for tallying up all the ways it sucked to be her. She was up to a few thousand, she thought, or maybe she was just rehashing the same points over and over again.
She would have to go back to work eventually, which meant that she would catch the last week of that dumbass exercise. She wasn't quite sure if it was better or worse than just laying around doing nothing. Any second not spent killing Shellies was a second wasted, but there were lots of those. After all, you didn't go to the Shellies. The Shellies came to you and you never quite knew when or where that'd be. Man, how she wished 'taking the fight to the enemy' wasn't just a stupid slogan.
The door chime sounded. Who could it be? She didn't really want to get up and find out. The chime sounded again. She looked at her watch and waited for the chime to sound one more time. It went again. Exactly ten seconds. She knew who it was.
Getting off her rack, she hit the button to open the door. Sure enough, it was Matt.
"So they dragged ya back here too, huh?" she said.
With his usual look of concern, Matt asked her, "How are you feeling?"
"I ain't dead."
"I hear you're going by 'Misery' these days."
"Heh. Ya been talkin' ta Curly or somethin'?"
"You mean Lieutenant Trifkovic?"
"Yeah. Curly."
"I heard you were discharged from Sickbay and I was trying to find out where you were. I was directed to Lieutenant Trifkovic and she told me you were probably here."
"An' here I am."
Awkwardly, Matt said, "I'm, um, I'm sorry about you getting busted down."
Lydia shrugged it off. "Not like ya signed off on it or nothin'. Besides, less responsibility this way. Just got five jack-offs ta keep track of instead a' nineteen. Maybe they should have another 'clerical error' or two an' I won't be responsible for anythin' 'cept my own bird."
"Don't talk like that. You don't want to throw away everything you've worked for."
"Only thing I work for is the chance ta kill Shellies."
"If you keep thinking that way, what are you going to do when the war's over?"
"Who says it's ever gonna be over? And even if does, who says I'm gonna live that long?"
There she went again, getting all dark. Matt just gave her this pitying look. Damn, she hated that look. It was the kind of look you give a puppy that's tearing out its own guts. Maybe that was a better description of her than she cared to admit.
Don't think about it. Shift gears.
"What happened at that dive of a starport?" she asked. "Yuhei or whatever."
"Yufang."
"What happened?"
"You, ah, you blacked out and the station security picked us up. A few days later, NIS got us and brought us back here. You were put in Sickbay until today. I only got to see you once and you were still out of it then, so that's about all I know."
Matt didn't quite look her in the eye. He wasn't lying--he wasn't the type for it--, but he wasn't telling the whole truth either.
"You're not tellin' me everything," she said.
No answer.
"Look, it's been a whole month an' I can't remember a damn thing. The docs won't tell me nothin'. You know somethin' an' you're not tellin' me."
Still no answer. This was starting to piss her off.
"Dammit, Cav, since when have you held out on me? We're wingmates, ain't we? Spill it."
"I, I can't tell you."
"Bullshit. You can tell me. You just won't an' I wanna know why."
"It's for your own good."
She couldn't believe what she was hearing. That did it. That was it.
"No you didn't. No you fucking didn't. Don't you dare give me that shit, Cav. Not even my old man gets ta play Daddy with me, so you sure as hell don't get to either. You've got about five seconds ta tell me just what the hell is goin' on or I swear I'm gonna--"
"Major Harold," a guy's voice said, "I need to speak with you."
It was an Air Force officer. Skinny punk wearing shades. Well, wasn't he Johnny Coolness?
"Piss off, Airhead," Lydia snapped. "I'm talkin' here."
"It's urgent, sir," the Airhead insisted. There was force to it, almost like he was giving an order.
Matt gave her an apologetic look. "Nyx, I really have to take this," he said. "I'm sorry."
Lydia only glared at him. "You ain't half as sorry as you're gonna be."
Once he saw Matt was coming his way, the Airhead kinda nodded to her, like he was being respectful, but not really. "By your leave, ma'am."
"Don't call me ma'am! I work for a livin', ya little pissant!"
And so Matt left with that little Airhead. Lydia couldn't believe it. Had the universe gone and turned itself inside-out while she was out of action? In the whole damn service, Matt was the one person she could fall back on, the one person she trusted farther than she could throw him. What the hell was she supposed to do if he wasn't watching her six?
She'd had it. She couldn't take it anymore. She just snapped, whaling away on the bulkhead and screaming every possible combination of every bit of foul language she knew, plus a few she made up along the way.
Once she'd thoroughly exhausted herself, she collapsed into her rack--or maybe it was someone else's--and passed out. They didn't want her to remember what happened? Fine by her. She could live with that. And while she was at it, she could forget about everything else, too. That was the ticket. Forget. Forget it all.