Chapter 3

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Armstrong ONB, Earth Sphere
Date: Wed 28 Mar 121
Time: UST 0930

Because the ship had not launched yet, only personnel required for the maintenance and upkeep of the ship were given an assigned schedule. Matt took the happy opportunity to sleep in, a luxury he did not often enjoy. Combat duty offered uncertain hours at best, especially for pilots, so he wanted to get as much sleep as he could while he still had the liberty to do so.
Even though he was given the assignment of squadron leader, the limited space of the ship required all officers graded O-4 and O-5 to share a room with another officer of similar rank. Only officers ranked O-6 and above, enlisted personnel E-9 and above, and civilian dignitaries were privileged with a one-man room. He did not complain. After all, the lower enlisted were crowded into berths of as many as seventy men.
He was woken up by the faint ringing of the doorbell. Rolling out of bed, he slipped into his flight suit before answering the door. The door slid open to reveal a major in his long-sleeved dress uniform who Matt recognized as his operations officer. The major saluted him but dropped his arm before Matt could return it.
"Sir," the Double-O said, "the designated commander of Delta Flight is currently en route. He is scheduled to arrive by ten hundred. General Pfeiffer wants you to be there to receive him personally."
"Give me just a minute," Matt said.
Although he felt a little underdressed, he did not feel like changing. He only hoped General Pfeiffer would not be there. After last night, she would surely give him a far more thorough brow-beating. He was too tired to put out the extra effort and resolved himself to take the risk of whatever lay in store for him. All he had to do was put on his boots and jacket and he was ready to go.
The walk to the elevator was not a very long one and they were in the lower flight deck within a few minutes. The lower flight deck belonged to the Air Force wing and the designers of the Ticonderoga had been kind enough to give it a similar layout to the launching bays of the starbases they were accustomed to. Under normal circumstances, they would not be able to walk out on the flight deck without a suit, but such precautions were unnecessary as long as the ship remained docked at the base.
Flashing lights near the bay doors signaled the approach of a ship. The ponderous doors slowly slid open to admit a standard Sparrow-class shuttle. Matt and the Double-O approached the shuttle as its landing gear touched down on the surface of the deck. Within moments, the ramp extended from the main exit hatch and locked into its stairway configuration before the hatch slid open.
Following standard military protocol, the most senior personnel disembarked first. There were not many officers, so they would not have to wait long. When a pair of senior lieutenants passed by, Matt knew they were getting close to the person they were supposed to meet. A captain in his service dress began to descend the steps and raised his hand to salute the two majors, but stopped about halfway. Both he and Matt stared at each other in stunned silence.
"No fuckin' way..." the captain muttered.
Matt could not believe his eyes. "Captain McCormick?"
The captain suddenly became remarkably animated. He bounded down the steps, grabbed Matt by both arms and shook him vigorously. His green eyes sparkled in giddy delight.
"Ain't no way in hell I'm salutin' you, Cav!" he exclaimed in good-natured humor. "I'll be damned. A major... They're just givin' the promotions away these days, ain't they? Damn, it's good to see ya, boy."
Matt did not know what to say. Captain Sean 'Kodiak' McCormick had been Matt's flight leader at his first duty station. As his callsign implied, Sean was a tall and brawny man who seemed better suited for professional cyberball than flying. Actually, Matt heard that Sean had played in college, but a knee injury ruined his chances at making a career of it and also took away his secondary goal of joining the service in the Marine Corps' Mobile Armor Division. The moment of reminiscing brought the biggest question in Matt's mind to the forefront.
"I thought you were dead..." he said in a low voice.
Eight years ago, the Sheolites attacked the starbase near Titania and his squadron fought them off, taking heavy losses in the process. Among those losses was Sean himself. At least, that was what Matt had thought until he saw the man standing before him in the flesh at that very moment.
"Damn near, Cav," Sean replied with a shake of his head. "Damn near... Yeah, I know they put me on the KIA list and everything, but you've gotta hear what happened. Those fuckers shot the hell outta my Datch and I sure as hell thought I was dead. Somehow, I managed ta eject before the reactor blew. Only thing is that I was so damn close ta ol' Tita that I smashed inta the surface. Fucked me up real bad...
"I tell ya, the docs were at it a whole year patchin' me up. It took three years a' physical therapy just so I could move around again like normal. Then I spent the rest a' the time fightin' the brass ta get reinstated. It was hell for sure, but by God, I'm back in action."
Matt could not help being awestruck by Sean's story. More than half of the squadron had been lost in that battle. It had driven Matt away from combat flying for several years until he was forced to pick it up again. To see his old flight leader alive after all these years...
"Cat got your tongue, Cav?" Sean asked. "Hell, I can't say I blame you. If I saw one a' my wing buddies back from the dead, I guess I'd be the same way." He patted Matt on the shoulder as if to snap him out of his daze. "So you're my new squadron leader, eh? I dunno what it's gonna feel like takin' orders from you." He took a moment to appraise the subordinate turned superior. "Well, ya came in your flight suit, so I guess this ain't gonna be some tight-assed operation. Nothin' I can't stand more than a buncha regulation-thumpin' space cadets breathin' down my neck."
"I don't know who you think you are, but is that any way to address your commanding officer?"
The interposition by the Double-O was ill-timed to say the least. Sean loomed over the man, looking down on him contemptuously.
"This is the shit I'm talkin' 'bout," he grumbled. "Who the hell is this little pissant?"
"It's the operations officer," Matt explained, "Major... ah, Cespedes."
Although he should have been more familiar with the people in his unit, Matt had yet to study the roster and had to steal a quick glance at the Double-O's nametag as he was answering Sean. As for the Double-O, he was showing no sign of being intimidated and continued his criticism.
"You weren't here for it," the Double-O said, "but the General wants the Joint Air Division to go by the book. If you don't set the example as flight leader and the squadron leader doesn't do anything about it, I can always go up the chain of command to see that corrective action gets taken."
Major Cespedes was clearly the type who had been making the rounds last night to get in the good graces of the higher-ups. He had just threatened to go over Matt's head and undermine his authority. Though Matt was not used to being in position of command, he did not like the Double-O's maneuvering. Sean seemed to take even greater offense and grabbed the Double-O by the shirt.
"Ain't you somethin' else?" Sean said scornfully. "Listen here, you little piece a' shit, I've been out there in the thick of it while you were still hittin' the books at the Academy. I ain't gonna take this shit, 'specially not from some punk who ain't even on the flight roster. You got a problem, you better face me like a man. If I catch you sneakin' around ta get at me, I'll beat the shit outta ya."
"Let him go," Matt insisted. Once Sean complied, he looked to the Double-O. "You're dismissed, Major."
"I said you're dismissed," Matt said sharply. "I want a preliminary schedule for the unit's patrol runs by 1400."
"Yes, sir," the Double-O replied.
He saluted, but like before, he dropped his arm before Matt could return it and walked off. Sean watched him as he left, the contempt in his eyes still quite plain.
"I hate kiss-ass bastards like that..." he growled. "Really pisses me off..."
Matt could not help sighing.
"Try not to cause too much trouble, Captain McCormick," Matt said. "I'm not all that comfortable with being in command, but I'd rather not blow it."
Sean turned to Matt with a grin, his previous displeasure completely vanished.
"What's with this 'Captain McCormick' stuff?" he asked. "I ain't your CO no more and you ain't some new jack neither. Call me 'Sean' or 'Kodiak' or don't call me nothin'."
"Alright then, Kodiak, are you going to try to stay out of trouble?"
"Don't worry," Sean replied. "I ain't gonna make any problems for ya. What was with that schedule stuff anyway? Don't those things come down from Wing?"
"Yeah," Matt replied, "but I wanted to keep him busy for a while. It'll give you some time to settle in before you have to deal with him again."
Sean got a hearty laugh out of it. "Good work, good work." Quickly switching gears, he asked, "Hey, is it true that O-3s an' below get stuck in four-man rooms on this tub?"
"I'm afraid so," Matt replied. "The fit's a lot tighter than the starbases we're used to. I hope it isn't too much trouble for you."
"Ah, I'll live," Sean said casually, brushing away any concern. "Cav, you're gonna hafta let me in on what you've been doin' these past few years. It won't be as interestin' or anythin' like that, but I'll tell ya some of the crazy shit that went on at the med center."
Matt nodded. He did not tell Sean the whole story, for he was not quite willing to share that much with anybody. Still, he told him a lot of the things that had happened since that fateful day eight years ago. In return, he was treated to a number of anecdotes of varying degrees of humor that lessened his confidence in the military medical system and made him more than a little thankful he had never suffered any serious injury so far. He did not expect any more surprises from his past to show up on board the Ticonderoga, but this was only the beginning.