Chapter 9
Thank Your Recruiter

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Tue 09 Apr 121
Time: UST 1638

Lydia's legs were beginning to ache. It felt like she'd been standing at attention forever, but she didn't budge. She was in enough trouble as it was and didn't want to make things any worse. This ass-chewing session had gone on long enough. It would end sooner if she played along and the sooner it was over, the better.
"Oi, Commander!" the CAG shouted. "Are you even listening?"
"Yes, sir," Lydia replied. It was a bald-faced lie, of course.
Captain Nagashima didn't impress her much. She'd checked his killboard stats. He was an okay pilot, but not a great one. Only a great pilot could earn her respect. Rank didn't mean anything to her. Only confirmed kills, the number of Sheolites sent to Hell. That was all that mattered and he hadn't done enough of it.
Lydia absently tuned back into the lecture as the CAG was saying, "And you should think about the position you put me in when you do stuff like this. This JAD business has me out of my depth. Any other ship in the Fleet and the CAG runs the show. If there was a problem, it would be between you and me, but that's not how it works here. You've got some beef with General Pfeiffer and I'm stuck in the middle."
Was he ever going to stop talking? She got the point already. Stand up straight, no talking back, be home by 2100, eat your vegetables, brush your teeth, and so on and so forth. These things didn't change much over the years. Why not get to the point where she has to say she'll never do it again? That would at least settle things until next time.
"I don't want to have this conversation again, Commander."
Finally. Lydia had no idea what all she missed, but that didn't matter much. Just tell them what they want to hear and the heat will be off for a while.
"Aye-aye, sir," she said.
Captain Nagashima was no fool. She could tell he knew she hadn't been listening, but he didn't seem to be enjoying the lecture any more than she was.
"Alright then. Dismissed."
Lydia did an about-face and walked out of the CAG's office. If she believed in God, she'd have thanked Him for it being over. Maybe she'd thank Him anyway. Just in case.
Much to her surprise, Matt was there standing in the hallway. It looked like he'd been waiting on her.
"Aw, that's real sweet, Cav," she said. "You waited 'til detention was out so you could walk me home. I might just take ya ta the prom after all."
"Knock it off, Nyx," Matt said. "I was worried about you. You can't keep on antagonizing General Pfeiffer. You won't get off easy if she ever decides to charge you for insubordination."
Lydia rolled her eyes. "Thanks, Dad, I'll remember that."
Matt gave her a pleading look, the kind he would always give her when she was about to get into trouble. "Come on, I mean it," he said. He sighed and shook his head. "Between you and Captain McCormick, I swear I'm going to have an aneurysm."
"Who?"
"It's a long story."
The look on his face was enough to convince her. Content to leave it at that, Lydia patted him on the shoulder.
"Ya can tell me later." Remembering what she had to do, she rolled her eyes again. "I guess I hafta go get the Madcaps together and tell 'em all 'bout this bullshit exercise."
Out of nowhere, a voice said, "That won't be necessary, Commander Han."
A young man approached them. He was dressed in ratty civilian clothes, grease-stained dungarees and a beat-up old bomber jacket. With his mussed-up hair, he looked like he'd just gotten out of bed and had a good two weeks' growth of a beard to complete the look of your typical space rat.
"Who the hell are you?" Lydia asked.
"I've got a job for you," the man said.
"Answer the fuckin' question. Who the fuck are ya?"
The man pulled an ID card out of his jacket pocket and held it up for the two pilots to see. "Here."
It was a Navy ID. The picture showed a much more clean-cut version of the man. The usual details followed. Name: Joachim, Aaron M. Date of Birth: 19 Sep 096. Rank/Pay Grade: CDR/O-5.
Lydia had to do a double take when she saw the rank. "What? A commander?" She looked incredulously at 'Commander' Joachim. "But you're just a fuckin' kid."
The Commander didn't seem to appreciate this. "I'm not even two years younger than you, Foxkit," he said.
A chill ran down Lydia's spine. That was a name she hadn't heard in nearly six years.
"What'd you just call me?"
Commander Joachim smiled. "You heard me. I've read your file. I know all about you."
"I'd love ta know exactly how the hell ya got the clearance ta be snoopin' in my goddamned file."
"Watch that profanity, if you would, Commander." There was a sharp edge to his words.
"What the hell? You're just now getting ta that? I say 'fuck' an' ya don't bat an eye, but 'goddamned' sends ya inta Mother Superior mode?"
Commander Joachim repeated himself, this time more forcibly. "I said to watch that profanity, Commander. It annoys me."
Matt put his hand on Lydia's shoulder, as if to restrain her. "Nyx..."
Not being in the mood for a fight, Lydia shrugged. "Okay, fine, but ya better start tellin' me what the hell's goin' on here. Whaddya mean you've got a job for me?"
"You remember the briefing, the part about the so-called Seven Deadly Sins?"
"Yeah. I don't remember seeing you there, though."
"I was watching."
Creepy.
"What are ya," Lydia asked, "some kinda spook?"
Commander Joachim shook his head. "Not quite. Let's just say I tend to operate with a little more liberty than the rank and file."
"A Special?"
"You said it, not me."
Matt fidgeted uncomfortably. "Excuse me, sir," he said, "but should I leave?"
"No, Major, you stay right there. I'll get to you in a minute."
"Okay," Lydia said, "so what's this job and why me?"
"These Seven Deadly Sins have been a problem for the regional government for a long time now. Like you heard, the OG and local law can't hack it and Seventh can't spare the resources to hunt these bastards down."
"Ain't we watchin' our profanity?" Lydia asked.
Giving her an annoyed look for the interruption, the Commander replied, "Only when talking about Hashem."
"Ha-what?"
"He means God," Matt said. "Don't, don't curse with God's name." He made a slight apologetic bow to the Commander. "If you'll excuse me, sir."
Commander Joachim gave him a dismissive wave of his hand. "It's okay," he said. "You're a goy. You can get away with it."
"A what?" Lydia asked.
The Commander was growing visibly irritable, but his voice showed only the faintest hint of annoyance. "We're on short time, Commander. I'd love to give you the 101 course, but let's stick to subject at hand, shall we?"
Lydia defiantly put her hands on her hips. "You're the one who brought up the Ha-somethin' and the goyabobber."
"Nyx," Matt whispered harshly.
She held up her hands in surrender. "Alright, alright." She then gestured to the Commander. "Continue."
Commander Joachim picked up his story as if nothing had happened. "Seventh can't spare any manpower and there's about a snowball's chance in hell our people are going to pick them up at random during the exercise. That's why I've been ordered to go undercover and ferret them out. That's why I look like this. I'm supposed to make contact with them, infiltrate their group and report the location of their base."
"That's a tall order," Lydia said. "How d'ya plan on doin' it?"
"I'll be posing as a small-time pirate looking to join up with the big boys. I've got a ship and crew. All I need is a first mate."
"An' you want me?"
"That's right."
"Why?"
The Commander raised his index finger as he began to count off the reasons. "First off, I need a damn good pilot. You fit the bill." Moving along, he raised another finger. "Second, I need someone they won't ID as military." He gave Lydia a critical look. "I can't see anyone thinking that about you."
"Fuck you."
With questionable sincerity, he took up a vaguely conciliatory tone. "It's a compliment, Commander. Means you're perfect for this job. Over six hundred pilots in JAD-9 and I've only got eyes for you."
"You hittin' on me?" Lydia asked.
"Not quite. Shiksas aren't my type."
"What?"
Commander Joachim closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why do I even bother?"
"You're the one makin' up words," Lydia argued.
"Focus, Commander."
"Okay, so you want me ta be the first mate on your boat and go hunt pirates?"
"In short, yes."
Lydia crossed her arms. "And why would I agree ta this?"
She thought she could play a little hardball with the Commander. If he needed her so much, the least she could do was make him beg a bit. Take that big-shot attitude of his down a peg or two. She didn't realize that two could play at that game.
Commander Joachim grinned. "I didn't know you had your heart set on the exercise," he said. He started to turn, as if he was going to walk away, but looked back at her and added, "I'm sure General Pfeiffer will be watching your progress with great interest."
"Whoa, wait a minute," Lydia said hastily, knowing he had her beat. "I hadn't said no yet. What exactly is it you're expectin' me to do?"
"Be a loose cannon, have a problem with authority... You know, be yourself."
"Ha ha."
Commander Joachim glanced over at Matt. "I'm going to be requisitioning your boyfriend, too."
"My what!?"
"Her what!?"
Doing the verbal equivalent of falling down a flight of stairs, Lydia stammered, "He's, he's not my... I-I-I mean, we're not--"
Commander Joachim held up his hand to stop her. "Settle down there, Commander. I was kidding. Except for the part of about requisitioning Major Harold."
"Why d'ya need Cav?"
"You've got a reputation for being a handful. Somehow he managed to keep you more or less in line for four years. I could use that sort of expertise."
Lydia looked at Matt. "Even if I can pass for a pirate," she said, "there's no way in hell anyone's gonna think he's a pirate. No offense, Cav."
Matt nodded. "None taken."
"Don't worry," Commander Joachim said. "I already thought through that part."
"What about our squadrons?" Matt asked.
"The sub-leaders will be taking charge of our squadrons."
"What do you mean 'our squadrons'?" Lydia asked.
"I'm a squadron leader myself," the Commander said. "The VF-133."
Thinking too much as usual, Matt looked skeptical. "Is it really a good idea to send three squadron leaders out on a mission like this?"
"Don't worry. It's all taken care of. So, are you in?"
Lydia shrugged. "Why not?" She glanced over to her counterpart. "Cav?"
Matt sighed and adjusted his glasses. "I guess I don't have much choice."
"You always have a choice, Major," Commander Joachim said. "The question is whether you can live with the consequences or not."
The guilt trip, was it? Matt was a sucker for those. Lydia knew that all too well.
"I'll do it," he said.
Sure enough.
Commander Joachim seemed rather pleased with himself. "I knew you would," he said. "Now come with me."
The Commander led them to Hangar Three. As it belonged to the Marine detachment, Lydia wondered why they were there, but she didn't feel like asking any questions. Commander Joachim didn't seem to be in any mood to be answering questions either, because he wasted no time delivering brusque orders the moment they arrived.
"Go into the locker room and strip," he said. "Bring nothing with you. Nothing. I'll have a crewmember there for each of you to make sure you don't jack it up. You'll get your effects back once the mission is over."
No point in fighting it. The two pilots obediently went into the locker room as told. Because the hangar locker room was only used to don space suits, there were no separate rooms for males and females. Thankfully, though, they weren't subjected to the awkwardness of stripping down in front of each other. Two crewmembers in civilian clothes, one male and one female, led them in different directions, putting a couple rows of lockers between them.
Lydia took off her jacket, her boots, her watch and her flight suit. Her wallet was in her jacket and she didn't have any other personal effects she could think of. That should do it.
"Your StatSuit, ma'am," the crewwoman said.
The StatSuit was a skintight bodysuit worn by all personnel on space duty. The bulkier space suits were just an extra protection. All you needed was a full StatSuit and an oxygen mask to survive in space. It was modular in design, so no one had to wear the whole thing all the time. It also helped regulate the body's surface temperature, keeping the wearer reasonably comfortable in a wide range of environments. That brought Lydia to her immediate complaint.
"Dammit," she grumbled, "d'ya have any idea how cold it is in here?"
To reduce energy consumption, even the berthing spaces were rarely heated much above fifteen degrees centigrade and spaces as wide open as the locker rooms barely broke ten. Because everyone wore a StatSuit, it normally wasn't much of a problem. It gave people very little incentive to be without one, at any rate. However, that wasn't reason enough to budge the crewwoman.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but it's government issue. Wearing it would compromise the mission."
There was no helping it then. Running her thumb down the fastener in the back, she reluctantly peeled off the suit. Despite the tight fit, the inside was coated with a special polymer that made it easy to don and doff quickly. She could feel the goosebumps rise on her skin the moment it was exposed to the cold air of the hangar.
The crewwoman recoiled. Served her right. Lydia knew her body was nothing pleasant to look at. The Sheolites had seen to that.
As Lydia tossed her StatSuit on the floor, the crewwoman said, "Everything has to stay behind, ma'am. That means your dogtags, too."
Lydia hadn't noticed she still had her dogtags on. That would make it pretty easy for the bad guys to identify her, now wouldn't it? Winding the chain around her finger, she tucked them away in the same pocket she left her wallet in. As she straightened herself up, the crewwoman held up a bundle for her.
"Here are your clothes, ma'am" she said.
Once Lydia saw what she was supposed to wear, she made a face and then eyed the crewwoman.
"Did he pick these out or somethin'?"
The crewwoman didn't say. As it was too cold for her to be standing around naked, Lydia wasn't going to complain. For now.
Knee-high boots, sheer leggings, a skirt of black faux leather, a matching top that left her midriff exposed, and a long rain jacket. The little ensemble made her look like some kind of punk idol. Or a hooker. She couldn't decide which. Still, any clothes were better than none.
A heretofore unseen crewman appeared to gather up Lydia's uniform and effects as her observer led her to the hangar. Commander Joachim was waiting for them. About the same time, Matt and the crewman with him also emerged from the locker room.
"Are they clean?" the Commander asked the two crewmembers.
They replied in unison, "Yes, sir."
"Good."
Lydia noticed that Matt's new outfit was a stark contrast to hers. He was wearing a fairly nice, albeit cheap-looking, suit. It suited him well enough, but he looked more like a salaryman than a pirate.
"Hey, how come Cav's in a suit while I'm lookin' like this?" she asked.
Commander Joachim bowed theatrically. "Would milady prefer a nice evening gown?"
"That's not what I meant, smartass. I mean, he looks even less piratey now than before."
"All part of the plan," the Commander said. He then pulled out two ID cards and handed them out to his two new charges. "Here are your new IDs. Starting now, your actual records have been replaced with dummy files. Anyone does a print or DNA check and that's what they'll find. Keep in mind that you've got warrants out for your arrest now. If you get caught, I can't guarantee when the government will get around to springing you. Being the skilled criminals we are, we're operating under fake IDs. That's what these cards are for."
"The fake-true or the fake-fake?" Lydia asked, taking her card out of the Commander's hand.
"The fake-fake. Get used to using those names. If you use real names or callsigns, our cover is shot. My, as you put it, 'fake-fake' name is Moishe Barak. Make a point to either call me 'Moishe' or 'Captain'."
Performing a left-handed palm-up salute, Lydia did her best Long John Silver impersonation. "Aye-aye, Cap'n. Yarr."
Commander Joachim was not amused. "Now it's you who's being the smartass."
"Is that any way ta talk ta your first mate?" Lydia asked. "I might mutiny an' maroon ya on one a' the rocks out here. Serve ya right ta make ya live with the damn Arbies."
Matt used his warning tone. "Nyx."
"Watch it there, George," the Commander said quickly. "If we were on the outside right now, you would've just screwed the mission."
Lydia cocked her head curiously. "George?"
"George Sanders," Commander Joachim explained. "Who he is now. Get used to it." He looked to Matt. "So, George, are we clear? From now on, make sure you call her by her, by her 'fake-fake' name." He clearly didn't like using Lydia's term for it, but didn't have a better alternative.
Ready to oblige as ever, Matt asked, "Well, what is it?"
Commander Joachim made a gesture to Lydia, prompting her to read the card. Not believing what she saw, she held it up closer to her face.
"Hey, wait. 'Fa Ling'? 'Fa Ling'?" She glared at the Commander. "Is that supposed ta be some sorta joke? Fa Ling? It's fuckin' bad luck! And how exactly do I look like a Ling anyway?"
"What's your last name, your real one?"
"You already know it. It's Han. Why?"
"Well then, I'm pretty sure somewhere down the line, someone in your family looked like a Ling."
"What difference does that make ta me now?"
"Does it really matter? It's the fake of a fake. There are far worse names we could've given you, so don't complain."
Lydia crossed her arms. "I still say I don't look like no damned Ling."
"Moving along, how about I introduce you to the ship?"
Commander Joachim motioned to a stubby little shuttle less than half the size of the Sparrows used by the military.
"Hop aboard," he said.
"This is it?" Lydia asked dubiously.
"No, of course not. This is just the longboat. We use it for boarding. The ship's about a gim off. Don't want to risk anyone seeing it mixed in with the battle group."
Lydia didn't like the sound of that. "A gim? How long's that gonna take?" She pointed to the shuttle. "That aluminum tube you got over there looks like someone strapped a couple ion engines together and called it a propulsion system."
Commander Joachim nodded appreciatively. "Very perceptive of you. It can almost make one-fifty if you push it. Trip'll take about two hours."
"Shit."
"Stop whining and get in."
The Commander went in first, followed by Lydia and Matt. The crewmembers who were them didn't join them. The cramped interior of the longboat had seating for six. Unlike a normal passenger shuttle, the seats were fixed along the walls like a dropship. Lydia moved to the cockpit, where Commander Joachim was already starting the launch sequence.
Plopping down in the co-pilot's seat, she said, "You're at least gonna lemme co. It'll make the time go by quicker."
"Have it your way," he replied, probably the only time he would ever say that.
As she was memorizing the layout of the crude instrumentation, Lydia glanced out front and finally realized why they were in Hangar Three. There was no one to be seen, not a single crewman out doing this, that or the other. Because Hangar Three was smaller than One or Two, there were less people to flush out and because the Marine detachment wasn't using their equipment much at the moment, it could be sealed off for longer without raising much suspicion. They were really going all-out for this mission.
The shuttle shook as its cheap repulsors kicked in. None too confident in the machine's abilities, Lydia would much rather be towed to the flight deck, but it looked like the whole process was going to be done without the aid of any deck crew. It was one thing to cut corners with a bird you could trust, but she didn't trust this bird. It was enough for even her to want to play it safe.
She had to admit that Commander Joachim handled it well. He got them off the Ticonderoga without a hitch. It showed that he was a fair pilot, but how did he measure up in that most important of criteria? She'd have to check the killboard stats when this was over. Of course, being a Special, the greater part of his exploits was probably off the record. That didn't help any.
Like she expected, the time went by quicker being in the cockpit. Before she knew it, Commander Joachim tapped her on the shoulder and pointed out front to grey speck in the distance.
"We're coming up on her now," he said. "There she is."
The grey speck quickly took shape, giving Lydia a good look at her new home. She wasn't expecting anything special, but even then, she hadn't set the bar low enough. The ship looked like a forty-meter connex cobbled together from random bits of scrap metal.
"Damn," she said, almost impressed by how bad it was, "that's quite the hunk a' junk ya got there."
"It's just right for our merry little band," Commander Joachim said.
The hangar bay was on the underside of the ship. The bay doors barely opened wide enough to let the longboat in. There was little room for error, but the Commander made the tricky maneuver look as natural as breathing. Lydia wasn't nearly patient enough to pull off delicate stuff like that without grinding some metal.
Without landing struts, the longboat had to lock into braces on the overhead. Once the bay doors were shut and the pressure to the hangar bay restored, Commander Joachim began the power down sequence. While the systems were shutting down, he left the cockpit and opened up the hatch.
With a sweeping gesture, he said, "Welcome to the Kanai. You'd better learn to love her, because she's all you've got until this mission is over. First thing I'll do is introduce you to the crew and brief you on your new identities. I expect the third degree from the Seven Deadlies if we ever catch up to them, so you'd better know your shit by then."
Repeating her earlier performance, she did a left-handed salute and said, "Yarr, Cap'n. Yarr."
"Get out of the damn boat, Ling."
Lydia hopped through the hatch. It took her longer to land than it was supposed to. She thought she felt rather springy ever since they docked and this proved it. It seemed that the Kanai had a really weak gravity generator, giving them less than a third of a G by her reckoning. She hoped that the radiation shielding wasn't as bad.
While she was thinking about the gravity, she didn't notice that Matt was hesitating to disembark.
"There something wrong?" the Commander asked.
This caught Lydia's attention and she looked up into the longboat.
Matt shook his head. "No, ah, no, sir. It's just..."
Commander Joachim finished the thought for him. "You feel like you're abandoning your unit. Listen, you're doing something important here. They can take care of themselves. I'm going to need your help on this." He looked down at Lydia and then back to Matt. "Otherwise I might kill her."
"You're just lucky you've got Cav, I mean, George ta protect ya," Lydia retorted. She sprang back up to the hatch and grabbed Matt by the wrist. "Come on, George, let's see if this baby's got some inner beauty thing goin' for her or if she's just as ugly on the inside." She quickly added, "Dibs on top rack."
"And who said you get a rack to sleep in?" Commander Joachim asked.
"Just ta be safe. Dibs."
The Commander held his forehead, as if he was trying to contain a headache.
"This is going to be a long trip," he muttered to himself, just loud enough for Lydia to hear. "The General better appreciate this."