The Old Man
The Old ManTara lay on her back, floating in the sea and staring up at the stars above her. She moved her arms and feet but just barely, the water was calm, she was calm. The stars rolled above and she tried to make out which constellation was which. Somewhere on the beach, Dawlan was getting the barbeque fired up, likely using too much fuel. There’d be a bottle of wine cooling and the dogs would be tired from running on the beach. Tara risked a glance at the shore and saw the flicker of fire and the occasional spark of crimson embers floating up to the sky. The peace was broken by a metallic chirping sound that got louder and more insistent by the moment. Tara closer her eyes and the then opened them, the stars were gone. She glanced over at her monitor which was flashing a pale-yellow colour, indicating that it was time to wake up. She sat up in bed and steadied her breathing, taking long, steady inhales and letting them out. She padded over to her locker, the room was small, only ten feet long but she was still greateful that her rank meant she did not have to hot bunk anymore. She took down her ODs and dressed. As she brushed her hair up into a tight, dark brown bun, she recited the specifications of the ship under her breath. She knew them off-by heart and whilst she’d been aboard “Vanquisher” for nearly ten years, she’d known these stats since the day she first came aboard. With her hair tied up, she took the gold pins of her rank and attached them to her uniform. She’d worked hard to achieve her rank and her place aboard the ship and was one of the few members of the “New Breed” who was respected across the ship. She believed she had earned that respect. She stepped out of her quarters and saw a busy corridor; it was a shift change and Alpha shift was heading back to their bunks and quarters. She passed ensign Cordaey, a young medical officer. “Ma’am” said the younger woman. Tara nodded and walked on through the narrow space and she frowned. There were too many people here and the noise was annoying her. “Clear the corridor, senior officer on deck” came the loud voice of Chief Anderson, “Cob” as he was referred to by literally everyone aboard the ship. The young officers scampered out of the way and the enlisted crew stood to one side. Tara approached Anderson, a bear of a man who stood a full head taller than her. He was broad-shouldered and his blonde hair had lots of silver in it now but he was still a powerful guy. “Thank you Cob” she said curtly. “Of course. See you on the bridge ma’am”. He replied, his usual even tone. Tara walked through another corridor, passing a two-person detail welding panels. Sparks flew and she thought about those red embers and stars, stars that were so far away. The bridge doors slid open with the faintest of metallic creaks. Chief Parrish, stood by the door, snapped to attention. “Officer on the deck”. “As you were” she replied, as a matter of course. The shift change was all but complete but she still needed to take the CON. “Lieutenant-Commander, punctual to a fault” said the XO. Commander Keegan was a lean man in his early forties with reddish brown hair and a hawkish face. He stood up and saluted. Tara returned the salute. “Nothing much to report, we’ve made solid time and will arrive at our jumping off point about five mikes ahead of the estimate.” “Understood commander” replied Tara. She took up the command console on the bridge and rotated around to look and see that everyone was at their posts. She felt strange, sat down. As bridge officer, she liked to patrol around and keep an eye on things but she was officer of the watch and so she’d need to sit here. “Six hours flying time and then the old-man will take over” the XO said breezily. “Roger that.” Replied Tara, somewhat coolly. The XO smirked briefly and sauntered off the bridge, getting a salute from Chief Parrish. Tara sat up straight in the chair and stared at the viewscreen, with familiar blue glow of “jump-space” filling the entire field. Not a star in sight, Tara had always found jump-space a strange place to be and she tried not to think about it too much. “Mr Laidlaw, approximate location?” she asked. The navigator, a reed thin young officer, looked up from his station and whilst there was the normal brief look of fear on his face, which always occurred when she spoke to a station officer, he had her answer instantly. “Computer estimates that we’re about two and a half light years out from the rendezvous point. Approximate travel time remaining of around seven point one hours.” “We’ve made good time”. She phrased it as a question. “Yes ma’am. Vanquisher can still make her top speeds. At least for a little while”. “The old girl is still a fine sea-bird” said Anderson from behind them. Tara smiled in spite of herself. Anderson loved all that old “wet” navy terminology and he stilled sailed when they were off-duty, though the frigid cold of a Martian Sea was not as welcoming as the Mediterranean or the seas on St Lawrence. “That she is COB,” she swiveled the chair around to the tactical officer. “Tactical, run a systems check please. Full spectrum, I want everything checked.” “Yes ma’am.” Said the tactical officer. Lieutenant Catesfield was still a boy to Tara, probably no more than twenty six but he had grown up a lot in the last two years and had really taken to his new rank. But the “old man” was still very hard on him and she knew that he struggled with it. Luckily the XO and Tara both were happy to support and, where necessary, stand up for him. “All systems showing green. Pre-plotted strike packages alpha, bravo and delta are on the board. Shield frequency has been modified according to task force doctrine.” “Excellent. Thank you Lieutenant.” She rotated the chair back to its forward position. “Ma’am, permission to speak freely.” Came the question from behind her. She turned back around, seeing that a couple of the other station officers were looking up too. So, they had planned to ask this and the Lieutenant was their spokesman. “What’s the question Lieutenant?” she said, her tone crisp. “With all due respect, do you think we’re really ready for this. I mean, really ready?” he asked. His face flushed very slightly and his tone wavered. From the way his jaw clenched, she could tell this wasn’t the real question. “Of course, we are. The Imperial Navy is the best that the Terrans have to offer”. She said it with pride and she both meant what she said and believed it. She was too young to really remember the Empire but the Imperial Navy’s standard for professionalism and skill was beyond compare to the other “regional navies”. “I mean, Vanquisher is ready. We’re ready, I think.” He replied, a question floated out of view behind his statement. Tara thought of that tranquil sea again and remained calm. “Speak freely lieutenant but let’s get to the point shall we? This is a ship of war on a combat assignment, not a pleasure cruise” Catesfield didn’t bristle and she was proud of him again. He was a professional. She caught a glimpse of Berry, the helm officer, frown. Berry, like many pilots, thought the rules didn’t apply to him. “Speaking frankly ma’am, we’re all wondering if the Old Man is up to it?” he asked. The quick downward cast of his eyes, the quickness of the way he spoke, he was not comfortable asking this. Tara thought about the sea, the beach, the dogs, her man. She thought about their home on the beach, her home she had helped to build. She thought about the waterfront and the posts that Dawland had hammered in himself, rather than getting help. She thought about those wooden boards she had carried from the transport to the skeleton of their home. She thought about the sea, warm and calm. Lieutenant Commander Tara Willard stood up. She was of average height and had a slim build. But she could be an intimidating presence when she wanted to be and she felt the air grow tense on the bridge. “All of you listen to me. This ship is the ISS Vanquisher. This is our ship; this is our home. While we are aboard this ship, we are a family. Each of you must put your lives into the hands of the other and trust in them. The ship, our ship, has never let us down and will not start now. This crew is as well trained and well disciplined as its is possible to be. The captain, who I will not hear referred to as ‘old man’ again by any of you, has earned the right to this command. He has been in service of the Imperial Navy since before most of you were born. He has commendations from Admiral Staunton and was promoted to Captain by Admiral Harrirmorr in person. The captain of this ship, your captain, will look after you, will guide you and teach you and he is the best weapon we have against the damn buzzards.” There was a chuckle and she glanced at the culprit who fell silent. “This ship is our ship, this ship is our home. The captain is our captain, our leader and he is the best chance we have. I will gladly give my service and, if necessary, my life to serve the mission and my captain. I expect the same of all of you. Otherwise, you do not deserve to wear that uniform.” There was a murmur and she saw Catesfield nod and sit back down. But Berry spoke up. “We all respect you. And the XO. But the old…the captain is just too old, too fussy for this. He’s not cut out for combat, he’s not got the instinct for it. You do, he doesn’t.” Tara turned slowly to look at the helm officer. Tall, handsome, sandy blonde hair falling into his face. Tara’s blue eyes narrowed as she looked at him. “The Captain qualified from the Imperial Naval academy in the year 2495. He was due to join the crew of the ISS Providence but was reassigned at the last minute. He has spent every day since Vanheim waiting to get revenge on the Kays and put things right. He has the instinct, he has the skill and he has more than earned your respect Mr Berry.” Berry looked like he might say something but it was Cob that spoke up. “You all owe the captain for what he has done for you, for this crew. Yes he’s hard and yes he’s old fashioned and yes the regs drive you mad. But its discipline that’ll win the day, not bravado. The Kays are deadly, skilled and cool under fire. The captain will see you through this and you owe him your respect and your loyalty. The Lieutenant-Commander has the right of it.” Tara took a deep breath and let it out. “Anyone else want to say their piece?” There was a silence across the bridge. “Good. We’re going to the rendezvous point, we’re going to link up with the others. We’re going to sneak up on those Kay ships in orbit around Whitworth and then we’re going to smoke them all. Roger that?” There was a cry of “Roger that ma’am” from the gathered crew. “Get back to your posts. I meant what I said, I hear ‘old man’ one more time and there will be trouble. And if you don’t fear me, you should fear the Chief of the Boat.” Anderson nodded and chuckled to himself. “And to be fair’ said Anderson ‘I am five years older than the captain anyway”. The crew went back to their posts, the tension had dropped and Tara thought about her beach, her home, her dogs. She thought about running on the beach with Dawland and tried not to think about bitter arguments, tried not to think about tears and sleeping alone on the beach. She tried not to wonder if he’d still be there when she got back. She tried not to think about if she’d ever come back to him. Time passed and the Vanquisher continued on her way, travelling through the pocket dimension that was referred to as jump-space. The frigate was old but study, an imperial design and made for war. Her crew worked at their stations, slept in their bunks or killed time in the galley or in the cargo hold. A group of enlisted crew played a game of baseball in a half empty cargo hold, Chief Ezokala was known to be the fastest pitcher on the ship. On the bridge, Tara turned to the tactical officer again. “Lieutenant, another systems check please.” Catesfield nodded and started tapping his panel. The doors to the bridge slid open with a faint creak. “Captain on the deck” said COB. Most of the bridge staff snapped to attention. The captain wandered onto the bridge and he looked old before his time, he always had to Tara. Grey thinning hair and sharp blue eyes, a gait that was careworn and spoke of back or shoulder pain. But he wore the gold pin of an Imperial Navy captain and three ten-year pins. The Captain walked over to the con, instinctively, Tara stood aside. “Lieutenant-Commander, do you mind if I take-over early?” “Of course I don’t. The CON is yours Captain”. “Thank you. Anything to report?” “The crew is raring to go, all system checks are green and we’re a few minutes ahead of time” “We’ve got the wind to our backs, at last.” He said quietly, almost a whisper. He lent back, looking natural in his chair. She turned to leave but he looked over at her. “Stay for a bit please.” “Of course.” She stood at her familiar station, between tactical and communications, able to get to any post on the bridge in four steps. She had practiced it. The captain said nothing for the longest time and she wondered, in her heart, whether she was right. Yes he had seniority and had been trained during the heyday of the Empire, when the Terrans had been respected by all the other races and the flag had flown high and the Navy had been hundreds of ships, rather than just forty. She wondered if he was truly up to it. “Did you know that my brother was aboard the Chicago?” asked the captain. His tone was even but a note of sadness floated there. “I didn’t sir.” She replied, her tone as even as his. The ISS Chicago, an Ardent Class cruiser, had been lost at Vanheim along with the entire fleet, a quarter of a million lives and the Terran Empire. “He was two years older than me. He was a cocky bastard, classic helm-officer. He was so proud to be steering a cruiser, thought he was going to be a war-hero.” There was a silence, interrupted only by the steady chime of the navigation panel. Tara looked over at the navigation officer who looked to her. Tara nodded, letting him know she was aware that they were coming up on the jumping off point, they were about to leave jump-space. “One more body in the wake of the Karkouri Regime, among all the others. Today we’re going to pay them back. No it won’t break them.” He said, his voice strong. “But it’s a starting point. And we’re going to get our share of it. Mr Catesfield, are you ready to light them up/” The tactical officer stood ram-rod straight. “Yes sir. Ready and eager captain”. “Good. I want that first missile strike, as planned, to strike our target in its engines. I want him off-line but still active. I want them to see what we’re going to do. I want them to know that the end has finally come for them.” Tara felt cold all over for a moment. Space was cold, very cold and the sea was warm. But she shrugged it off and looked over at her captain. “I want them to know that we’re not beaten. And I want them to know that we’re the ones that did it to them.” The Vanquisher dropped out of jump space and the stars returned. Frigates lined up on all sides of the Vanquisher, exactly as planned. Karkouri frigates, framed by the blue-green pearl of Whitworth, floated silently ahead of them. The Captain lent forward, a faint smile on his face. “Helm officer, bring us up smartly into weapons range on our target.” “Yes sir” replied Mr Berry. The Vanquisher moved like silk under his command. “Captain, task force commander has given the go-code. ‘Viking, all commands I say again, Viking;.” The Captain, old before his time, nodded. “Okay good. It’s our turn now. Tactical?” “We’re in range captain. Karkouri ships are powering up and starting to maneuver” “Too late for that’” said the Captain. “Open fire, pre-planned attack alpha.” Tara gripped the rail near her as the ship shook slightly as missiles launched from their tubes. Tara watched the faint glow in the view screen and saw the trail of missiles arcing towards their target. She looked over at ensign DeLancie, twenty-two years old and only four months out of the academy back on Mars. She put a hand on his should for just a moment. “Remember this day ensign. Remember it for the rest of your life.” She turned back to the view screen as the first missiles struck the Karkouri frigate. She remembered the beach, the sand, the sea, the stars wheeling above and a time where the water was warm and the war was far far away.