Chapter 19

Location: Outside Union Space
Date: Wed 14 Aug 121
Time: UST 0213

Lydia just couldn't get into the groove. When she was up against the Shellies, she could just cut loose and go wild. She never could quite remember how it all would go down, but her killboard count went up every time and that was all that mattered.
She hadn't actually gone up against the Shellies since she left the 208 back in '19. There had been a few encounters on this cruise, but she always missed out. Last month was her first real chance to do some damage, but they got to her first.
Instead of the Shellies, she had to deal with these whackjobs calling themselves the Empyrean. They didn't even send out real pilots, just drones that amounted to little more than a bunch of laser arrays bolted to a rocket. They could dust you if you weren't careful and they liked to swarm you, but even when she wasn't at her best, Lydia could handle them no problem.
The real problem, besides the fact that she couldn't give it 100%, was mission fatigue. The battle group was apparently on the right track hunting down these Empyrean guys because they kept on throwing more and more hardware their way. In little more than two weeks, she had already pulled twenty sorties. The Shellies liked to stick and move to keep the Union forces off their guard, but the Empyrean was just flat-out relentless.
Speaking of which, a thick cluster of contacts were coming into attack range. More drones.
"Madcaps, this Madcap One," Commander Figueroa said. "Prepare to engage bandits. Madcap Three, you and First stay with me. We take the middle, Second and Third take the flanks. Madcap Four, go left. Madcap Five, go right. Watch your crossfire. Weapons free."
"Roger that, Madcap One," Lydia replied with a sigh, not bothering to hide how bored she was. She then told the rest of er flight, "Madcap One-Seven and Madcap One-Nine, take your wingmen an' break off. Let's space it out a bit. Eyes open an' keep your distance."
The drones were so predictable, not even as good as the bandits you fly against in the simulator. They were easy pickings, but they made up for it in sheer numbers. They could dust you if you got sloppy, but any fit pilot shouldn't have too much trouble.
Commanders Figueroa and Alroon lead First Flight down the middle to break up the Empyrean formation. Lydia took her flight and broke right. Predictably, the Empyrean drones evenly split three ways to meet them. A heavy, three mediums and six lights were headed their way.
"Let's focus on the biggun first, Curly," Lydia told Trifkovic. "The hyokkos can handle the small fry."
"Roger that, Madcap Five," Trifkovic replied.
Empyrean heavy drones were about as big as a Shelly Cobra, but they didn't pack the same punch. A light fighter like a Hornet wouldn't last long if all four of its laser arrays concentrated on it, but that was why the Madcaps were flying with the Star Witches. The drones relied on communication with each other to coordinate their attacks and a Blackbat's ECM capabilities did a good job of interfering with that. It's what made these sorties so easy.
Because the Empyreans only seemed to use laser arrays, their ships had some kind of special plating that deflected lasers. You could burn through it with enough sustained, concentrated fire, but it was a waste of time and energy. A blast from particle cannons cut right through their comparatively thin skins.
Lasers weren't much good at finishing them off, but they did compliment the pulse cannon when it came to wearing down their shields. The Empyreans had better shield generators than the Shellies, maybe even better than the Gamma Series generators the Hornets were outfitted with. Still, with Lydia and Trifkovic both working on the heavy drone, it didn't take long to whittle down its shields and open it up for the kill shot.
"Biggun's down," Lydia said as a couple well-placed particle blasts made the heavy drone go critical. "Let's move on ta the mediums."
As soon as she said that, Lydia saw a medium flanked by a couple lights moving in to team up on Gul's six. She thought they weren't supposed to be able to work together like that, but she didn't worry about it. There were only two Blackbats with them, after all, and maybe they couldn't work their magic on all nine drones buzzing around at once.
Lydia targeted the medium in the lead and a little fire was all it took for it to break off its attack. Trifkovic actually managed to dust one of the lights before the three drones could get away. To one-up her wingmate, Lydia divided her two laser arrays between the remaining light and medium, trying to work down the shields of both simultaneously and then rack up two more kills.
"Come back, Madcap Two-Zero!"
It was Fogel. Lydia was barely able to process that much when a Hornet nearly clipped her nose. Right on the Hornet's tail was a drone. Shooting from the hip, Lydia fired off a missile and rolled out of the way, shouting to Trifkovic, "Curly, break right!"
Trifkovic wasn't quite fast enough to clear the blast radius. The drone's shields set off the missile before it could make impact, so it survived but with some damage. Lydia straightened herself in time to finish it off before it could recover.
"Curly, damage report!"
"Dammit, Nyx!" Trifkovic shouted.
"I'm sorry, Curly!" Lydia shouted back angrily. "Now what's your damn status!?"
"Shields at 24%. I--"
She was cut off by a pair of light drones opening up on her.
"Evasive maneuvers!" Lydia ordered. "Don't worry 'bout fightin' 'em! I'll take care of it!"
Trifkovic didn't need to be told twice at 24% shields with four laser arrays seeking to carve her up. Thankfully, her evasion was unpredictable enough to break drones' fix on her. That would buy her time while Lydia took them out.
Lydia didn't opt for any showboating tricks this time. She took each drone down one at a time, throwing everything she had into dusting them quickly.
Once they were gone, she said, "Alright, Curly, form back up. Shields chargin'?"
"At 32% now, Madcap Five."
As Trifkovic was forming on her wing, Lydia tried to replay what had just happened while still paying attention to the remaining threat.
"Madcaps, this is Starwitch Four! Mayday! Shields are at zero! Taking fire!"
That was one of the Blackbats with them. Lydia immediately rushed to its aid. A medium and a light were sticking doggedly to the Blackbat's tail. It might've even been the ones Lydia had been working on before that one Hornet nearly got her killed.
"Take the small fry, Curly," Lydia said. "I got the M-size."
The light went up fairly quickly, but the medium broke off its attack once it started to take fire, so Lydia gave chase. Judging from the readings she was getting, it was the medium she tried to shoot down earlier and it hadn't fully recovered from Lydia's previous attack. It didn't take long to run its shields down to zero and finish it off.
"Where the hell are you, Madcap Two-Zero!?"
It was Fogel again. He had picked up a medium and couldn't shake it.
"I got ya, Madcap One-Nine," Lydia said as she moved in to get behind the medium chasing Fogel. Seeing that his poor flying was going to get him killed, she barked, "Stop flyin' so damn straight! Mix it up! Confuse that robot fucker! Move like ya wanna live, dammit!"
Even with her shouting at him, Fogel still wasn't cutting loose as much as he needed to, but Lydia was already within range. She was able to pounce the medium from above as it was going by. It broke left, but now it was the drone's turn to have someone on its tail. Lydia thought it was going to be another easy kill, but instead of following the same pattern she'd seen dozens of times before, it made the surprise move of pulling a 180 and opening up with all three of its laser arrays right in Lydia's face.
She had to break away. The concentrated blast had pretty well taken out her front shields, so she reflexively angled some of the side projectors to make up for lost coverage. The shield adjustment had to be done on reflex because the drone's little surprise move had her pissed. She looped around and went at the drone head-on. Before it could reacquire the target, she kicked in the engines and buzzed past, loosing a missile at point-blank range. There was nothing for the drone to do but explode. It was a crazy move that would probably get her chewed out later, but it was also very satisfying.
That feeling of satisfaction didn't last for long, though.
"You got any more contacts?" Lieutenant Balakrishna of First Flight asked.
"Negative," his wingman, Lieutenant Kosor, replied. "Looks like we're in the clear."
The enemy had been taken care of, but that brought Lydia back to what she was trying to figure out earlier. Who was flying the Hornet that nearly crashed into her? She couldn't access her flight recordings, but replaying what happened in her head, it all became fairly clear to her. There were only six pilots in the flight and only one wasn't where he was supposed to be: Madcap Two-Zero. Ensign Iwata.
Lydia could already feel the anger simmering, even more so than when the medium drone decided to surprise her with three laser arrays to the face. Iwata left his wingman on his own, nearly getting him killed. He nearly got Lydia herself killed and because of the distraction, the two drones she was trying to take out nearly dusted Starwitch Four.
She was going to kill him. That was all there was to it. Every time she'd flown with him, he got on her nerves, but never had he so nearly gotten so many people killed as today. There was no excuse for it and Lydia wasn't going to show him any mercy.
Her burning desire to pour out her wrath on the rookie was going to have to wait, though.
"Madcaps, this is Madcap One," Commander Figueroa said. "Let's form up and finish our sweep. Flight leaders, I want reports on the way."
The squadron was out there another couple hours without further incident, but Lydia's anger stuck with her all the way back to the Ticonderoga. As soon as her Hornet was taxied to its place, she stormed down the ladder and quickly looked back and forth in agitation.
"Where're they taxiin' Iwata!?" she demanded of a nearby crewman.
"Back of the line, same as always, ma'am," the crewman replied.
The crew chief stepped in and said, "Ma'am, we need to go through the checklist."
"Later!" she snapped.
She went over to where they were supposed to taxi Iwata's Hornet. She tapped her foot impatiently as they brought it in and rolled the ladder up to his cockpit. Lydia moved to the bottom of ladder so she would be ready and waiting for him.
The second Iwata dismounted from his Hornet, Lydia grabbed him by the collar and dragged him into the locker room. He was so taken by surprise that she was able to cover quite a bit of the distance with hardly any resistance. Trifkovic followed closeby. She was shouting something, but it was muffled by her helmet and Lydia wasn't paying attention anyway.
As soon as they cleared the airlock, Lydia tore off her helmet and spiked it on the deck, sending it bouncing off somewhere.
Getting right up in Iwata's face, she shouted, "Just what in the hell was your problem out there, Chuchu!?"
With surprising calm and composure, Iwata unsealed his helmet and lifted it off his head. As he tucked his helmet under his arm, the rookie pilot glared at her defiantly.
"Don't call me Chuchu," he said sharply. "It's Tenchuu."
Not even tackling his borderline insubordination, she scoffed, "Tenchuu my ass. You're a fuckin' chuchu nezumi motherfuckin' nonhackin' piece a' greased owl shit who nearly got me an' half the damn flight killed because you fly like some ninety-year-old granny with cataracts."
Iwata glowered at her, but didn't say anything in reply. Lydia could easily heap more abuse on him, but some half-developed sense of responsibility reined her in. She wasn't going to get anywhere just by yelling at him all day, so she opted to make the problem go away for now.
"Get the fuck outta here an' hit the damn simulator," she growled. "It ain't no substitute for the real thing, but I don't I want ya stinkin' up one a' my birds again until you've logged eighty hours. I swear to God, I'd be better off stickin' one a' the grease monkeys behind the stick."
Still looking mighty pissed, Iwata gave her a surly, "Aye-aye, ma'am," and stalked off.
Lydia found her helmet and went to her locker. She punched the inside wall good measure. If their lockers were made of any flimsier stuff, she'd probably have quite a few dents by now.
Trifkovic, who had followed her and was standing right next to her, said, "Damn, Nyx. I know you're you, but don't you think you went a bit overboard there?"
Already doffing her gear, Lydia shot Trifkovic a mean look.
"Would ya be sayin' that if we came back three birds short? Ain't no damn excuse for that shit an' you know it. You're no ace, Curly, but you'll do in a pinch, same with everyone else in the flight. Chuchu had high scores in the Academy an' he let that shit go ta his head. He's in the shit now an' he gets brain-lock or somethin'. We can't afford that shit an' you know it. I can't be runnin' 'round behind him wipin' his damn ass, now can I?
"No," Trifkovic said, "but I still think you went too far."
"Well, keep thinkin' it then," Lydia replied.
She leaned head-first into the locker door and let out a long, exasperated sigh.
"God, I'm beat."
She stayed there for a moment balancing on her forehead before straightening up to finish doffing her gear. Once it was all stowed, she told Trifkovic, "I'm hittin' the showers. I ain't lookin' for company neither, so you can jus' sit yourself there."
Trifkovic was busy doffing her own gear, but made a point to flip her off. Lydia couldn't help grinning. Trifkovic was becoming more and more assertive around her, sticking up for herself and not taking the shit Lydia would give her. It was almost evening the terms between them.
The only other person to have accomplished this was Matt. The way they went about it was different, though. Matt hid his firm hand under a thick layer of pity for her, but he had always been her senior. Trying to guide her was part of his job description when they were first paired up. Trifkovic, on the other hand, was under her, so it was more like she was digging in her heels to stand her ground. Matt tried to carve canals, but Trifkovic had built a dam. Either way, the two of them were trying to keep the wild River Lydia from flooding the place.
Thinking about the hell she gave everyone, Lydia wondered if she'd done the right thing earlier. Maybe she did go a little too far with Iwata, but he needed to pull his head out of his ass before he got anyone killed. If he didn't want her visiting her wrath on him again, he could straighten himself out. So long as he got the message, there was no point in worry too much about her methods.
She shook her head. She didn't want to think about it anymore. She didn't want to think about anything. She was so damn tired and who knew when this mission would end?
One day at a time, she told herself. One day at a time.
She got to the officers' section of the female showers. After peeling off her clothes, she stuffed them down the laundry chute and swiped her ID card so Amenities would get them back to her. She stowed her wallet and change of clothes in a nearby cubby and then went to one of the shower stalls. She fiddled around on the control panel, adjusting the water temperature, pressure and time settings. She decided to blow most of her amenity credits to go well beyond the standard limits. Fifteen minutes at fifty degrees and 600 kips sounded like a mighty good deal.
She stepped into the stall, the door closed, and she pushed the button to get things started. The immediate blast of hot water stung like all hell, but she was going to enjoy it for all its worth.
It's easy to get lost in thought in the shower, but Lydia did what she could to clear her mind. She didn't want to think about anything. She just wanted all her anger, exhaustion and frustration to melt away in the unrelenting cascades beating down on her.
The first five minutes were over way too soon. The water shut off and she had five minutes to lather up before the rinse sequence started. She didn't need any five minutes just to lather up, but the showers had it set so each segment was the same length.
It seemed like she spent a lot of time leaning head-first into the shower wall until the water turned back on again. She straightened herself up and started to rinse off. Then the water cut off. She knew it hadn't been five minutes yet.
The door to the stall opened.
"Dammit, Curly," Lydia groaned, "I told ya I wasn't lookin' for company."
She didn't really expect it to be Trifkovic, but who the hell could it be?
"Guess again, bitch," a deep, obviously modded voice replied.
Lydia looked over her shoulder. No one was there, or at least that's what she was supposed to think. She could see the faint distortions that marked off the outline of a person wearing optic camouflage. The lingering steam from the shower made it pretty easy to tell, actually.
The fact that someone in optic camouflage had just busted in on her while she was taking a shower was disturbing enough, but it wasn't the worst thing. No, the worst thing was a cloaked knife he was holding that was only visible because of the blood dripping off the blade. This was bad.
"Who the f--?"
Lydia didn't get to finish the question. The mystery man pushed her into the shower wall with his free hand and gave the back of her knee a sharp kick to drop her. Pinning the leg he had just taken out with his foot, the mystery man took hold of her by the chin, pulled her head back and moved in to slit her throat. She grabbed his wrist with one hand and yanked on his knee with the other, causing him to lose his balance. He couldn't topple over because of the tight quarters, but the loss of his balance was enough to get him down on one knee where Lydia could throw her weight into him, slamming him against the wall. She slammed him two more times and while it kept the mystery man off-balance, it didn't stop him. He slashed her side, right along her ribs. She was so hopped up on adrenaline that she barely noticed and didn't even shout out. Still, it was enough to bring her attention back to knife itself.
Lydia took hold of the mystery man's wrist with her left hand and snaked her right arm around his to act as the leverage for an arm bar. She gave his arm a swift jerk and he cried out in pain. She probably didn't manage to break his elbow, but it was enough to make him drop his weapon.
The two of them scrambled for the knife. Lydia almost got her hands on it when they mystery man punched her injured side. The paralyzing shock of pain gave him the opening he needed to grab the knife, but she snapped back just in time to catch his arm before he could stick the blade right in her heart.
Using both hands, Lydia had the advantage, but the mystery man wasn't giving up. Then it came to her. The way to end it. Twisting to the side, she was able to turn his momentum against him and drive the blade into his chest.
That's how it was supposed to work, but he apparently had an armor plate that deflected the blade. Before he could turn the knife back on her, Lydia worked to twist his arm where she wanted it to go.
She thrust the knife into the mystery man's neck (or at least what she thought was thought was his neck).
Blood gushed from the wound, spilling down the mystery man's chest. The optic camouflage was still active, but it wasn't doing him much good anymore. Neither was that knife in his neck, for that matter.
Lydia winced from the pain in her side. It was bleeding pretty bad, but she didn't think it'd kill her. Pressing down on the gash with her hand, she stood up. She kneed the mystery man in the face for good measure and left him there to bleed out.
She needed to get to Sickbay, but she didn't plan on going there naked. Actually, because StatSuits apply mechanical counterpressure, hers would probably do a better job of stopping or at least slowing the bleeding than her hand. She went to the cubby where she left her stuff and pulled out her StatSuit. It was a royal pain trying to get it on without stretching or twisting her side any. She couldn't keep her torso entirely immobile, though, and any movement on her left side hurt like all hell. In spite of all the pain, she almost entertained the notion of getting fully dressed, but the pain in her side told her that was a dumb idea. She grabbed her wallet, dogtags and PersCom, leaving her flight suit and boots behind to pick up later.
She dialed the operator to get in touch with the MAs and while she was connecting, she noticed something just a little ways from the door to the shower room. It was Trifkovic, lying face-down on the deck in a pool of blood.
"Curly?" she asked, the realization not quite hitting her at first.
It only took a second. When it did sink in, Lydia rushed over to Trifkovic, shouting, "Oh shit! Curly! Curly! Hang in there, Curly!"
She turned Trifkovic over to see a long, nasty gash across her neck. A little spurt of bright red arterial spray got Lydia right in the face. Reflexively, Lydia clamped down both hands on Trifkovic's neck, pressing down with what she hoped was just the right amount of force. She didn't want to strangle her, but she didn't want her to bleed out either. Trifkovic was already deathly pale. It might be too late.
"Dammit..." Lydia mumbled under her breath.
While she was busy trying to stop the bleeding and worrying that she might only be making things worse, Lydia just barely caught the sound of a voice coming from her PersCom lying on the deck.
"Hello? Hello?" the operator kept on saying, having been on the line for who knows how long.
Glancing over to her PersCom, Lydia shouted, "This is an emergency! Get me Sickbay now!"
"Transferring you now," the operator said.
In the time it took for a single beep to sound, she was connected to Sickbay.
"This is Sickbay," the Sickbay emergency operator said. "What is your emergency?"
"Sickbay! This is the Hangar 2 shower room, female section. We need a casevac ASAP!"
"We have Corpsmen en route now," the emergency operator replied. "I am speaking to Lieutenant Han, correct?"
"Yeah, it's me!"
"Biometrics indicate that you are wounded as well. Please describe your injuries."
"Forget about me!" Lydia snapped. "Curly's in trouble here! She's got her damn throat cut. I'm puttin' pressure on it. That's not gonna choke her out, is it?"
"Do not compress the airway. Staunch the bleeding as best you can. As for your own injuries..."
"I said forget about me, goddammit!" she snapped again. She then told Trifkovic, "Come on, stay with me, Curly!" Back to the emergency operator, she demanded, "How much longer till the damn Corpsmen get here!?"
"Approximately 30 seconds."
Thirty seconds. Trifkovic could hold out until then, couldn't she?
"You're gonna make it, Curly," Lydia said, trying to reassure herself as much as the barely conscious Trifkovic. "Just hang in there."
Hearing the sounds of boots, rushing into the locker room, Lydia shouted, "In here! Hurry the hell up!"
Four Corpsmen busted in on the scene. Two of them immediately took a knee and started getting stuff out of their aid kits.
The one crouched right next to Lydia told her, "Ma'am, let me take over."
Lydia backed off and let them get to work stabilizing Trifkovic.
"What can I do?" she asked.
"Let us do our job, ma'am," one of the standing Corpsmen said. Looking her up and down, he then said, "You're hurt. Let me take a look."
"I'm fine," Lydia insisted. "I'll walk to Sickbay myself."
"Ma'am, you really shouldn't--"
"I said I'm fine, dammit. Take care of Curly."
"They are," the Corpsman said. "Now, ma'am, I really need to check your injuries."
"Don't worry about me," Lydia said. "I don't bleed out easy. Now let me go."
The Corpsman continued to try to get her to stay put and let him check her out. The fourth Corpsman, who had just finished helping the two working on Trifkovic get her on a stretched, stood up to join in to make her cooperate.
About that time, a couple MAs showed up. That'd save her the trouble of calling in. She was just about to tell them where they could find the mystery man when she was started to feel lightheaded and dizzy. She didn't remember what happened after that.