Barghest III – Chapter 11

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Occupation

Year 2156, Day 134, Hour 1900

Kill Box. Noun. 1) A three-dimensional target area, defined to facilitate the integration of coordinated joint weapons fire. 2) Any position which can be fired upon from more than one combatant and generally having limited, or no, points of egress.

“I have Stankovich. She has fingers like knobby steel rods.” Rodriguez slid neatly between Bretavic and Maker where they were waiting for their physical therapy appointments. “Who’d you get?”

“Mind your own goddamn business,” Bretavic growled. He had been in a foul mood since Navi. Fouler than usual. It could be partially blamed on double shifts at the helm and partially on the muscle strain that had him hunching his shoulders in pain. “No one is trading you.”

“Dahl,” Maker responded, in hopes that it might stop another spat between the two men. Rodriguez was just as overworked as either of them, and his normal level of cheerful disregard had been in short supply. Thursday night poker had been canceled due to their usual storage bay having been converted to emergency evac bunks for civilians. Also, because roughly a quarter of the usual players were dead. It was depressing as hell.

“Maker,” Rodriguez turned big, brown eyes on her. His oft-used pleading pout was made more intense by a bruise on his forehead and a fat lip from some unknown injury. “Clara. You are a Lieutenant among mere privates. A goddess among weak mortal men. A paragon of wisdom and soft skin the color of sweet cream. My friend, my compatriot, love of my life-”

Kerry growled as he exited Auxiliary Medical, having clearly heard Rodriguez launching into a truly bloated round of flattery.

“Apple of my mouth, sugar in my-”

“It’s apple of my eye,” Maker interjected.

“That can’t be right.” Rodriguez brushed her off. “Crisp, succulent apple officer of my mouth, please, please have mercy and switch with me.”

“You’re lucky Auxiliary survived the battle, and that preventative appointments are even being held. So take what you got and shut the fuck up about it.” Bretavic checked his bracer again, as if looking would make the time until his appointment pass faster.

“How’s your hip?” Maker asked Kerry, noting that he seemed to be walking with less stiffness.

“Better. I have another appointment next week and a whole list of stretches. Said they would have prescribed something if we weren’t running low on supplies. Remember to ask about your back and-”

“Clara,” Rodriguez dropped to his knees in front of her, grabbing both her hands tightly in his, “if you will switch with me, I will give you whatever your heart desires. My firstborn. My unending love. Torrid physical union. Malt liquor. Riches beyond-”

“Hooy morzhovy,” Bretavic spat and punched violently at his bracer. “I’ll switch with you if you’ll just shut the fuck up!”

Maker raised her eyebrows at the language while Rodriguez frowned and slowly stood. “You don’t have to do that, Bretavic.” The sergeant glowered and muttered unintelligible Russian. “I was only joking around. And Maker doesn’t mind. She’s not even hurt.”

The door to Auxiliary Medical opened again and an orderly stepped out. “Bretavic, Petr?” She rattled off his service number and eyed the group with barely restrained impatience.

“I switched with Dan Rodriguez.” Bretavic gave the other man a shove toward the door. “I’ll take his slot.”

“That’s an hour wait,” the orderly warned even as she stepped aside so Rodriguez could enter.

“It’s fine.”

Rodriguez glanced over his shoulder once, his eyebrows drawn together, but he didn’t say anything else. Maker wasn’t sure how to soothe Bretavic’s obvious irritation. It was Kerry who broke the awkward silence in the waiting area.

“Weren’t you scheduled with Wilson?”

Maker turned on Bretavic with raised eyebrows. Wilson was easily the most avoided of all the therapists, doctors, and nurses on the Khalid. He had a serious thing for pressure points and didn’t think a patient was done until they cried. No one saw him if they could get out of it. The stress lines from overwork and the constant pain from his shoulder eased for a moment as Bretavic smirked.

“Yes, and Stankovich has been asking around about poker night. I think I might invite her to come next week.”

“You sly son of a bitch,” Maker blurted. Then laughed. And laughed. Bretavic and Kerry joined in and they were loud enough that another group waiting for treatment yelled at them to keep it down. She had to wipe tears off of her cheeks. “You realize that now we’re going to have to hold that party he’s been asking about.”

Bretavic shrugged, then winced at the movement. “You were going to agree to that anyway. This makes it less annoying.”

As her own name was called, Maker supposed he was right.

Two hours later and she was ready to get back to work. Dahl, who leaned more toward Swedish massage than intense trigger point pressure or dry needling, had eased the tension from her muscles and drained away the near constant ache in her skull. No reason for the lingering twitches and tenderness along her spine was found. Maker had followed up physical therapy with her first hot shower in days. She was only allotted five minutes of water, but it had been sheer bliss after a week of water shortages and frigid temperatures. By the time she strolled into C&E to review the workload before her shift on the bridge she felt better than she had since the attack. Walking into the Chief’s office, she had only one thought,

Of fucking course.

Commander Soon was seated at the desk she had been using since the Chief’s injuries removed him from duty. He did not look up when she entered, but continued looking through the C&E files he had pulled up on the desk display. The door closing behind her sounded like the shut of a coffin.

“Considering you have the department with the least casualties, I expected your workload to be better managed.”

It wasn’t a question, but Maker had to bite down on her a rebuttal. It was true that only five percent of the C&E personnel had died at Navi, but it was also true that she had assigned her people to run extra shifts relieving Engineering techs all over the ship in addition to the massive workload of managing data packets and comms in the wake of the battle. It was also true that they were more efficient than they had ever been under the Chief – in or out of battle conditions. Every muscle that Dahl had relaxed coiled up with renewed tension.

“Is there something I can do for you, sir?”

“Unfortunately, it seems like I have to do something for you, Lieutenant.” He finally looked up, and Clara was struck by how blank his face was. She had come to expect either disappointed irritation or malicious amusement from Soon.

“Sir?”

“Your little stunt with the Cullers has caused quite a stir. It seems there is concern that the enemy might have taken your conversation personally. What was it you said to them again?”

Maker flinched. Soon knew exactly what she had said. She had provided a transcript – correcting what the James had translated – to Captain Jones. Soon was only trying to remind her that he didn’t speak the language – and that he found it disgusting that she did.

“Well,” he drew out the word, “whatever it was, Command seems to think that you drew a lot of attention from the Cullers. Apparently the decision has come down that translators with your…proclivities may be at an increased risk for targeting by the enemy. The Brass has concerns for the safety of communication officers like you.” He sat up straight, smoothing his jacket. “Until further notice, all Comms translators rated Culler-three or higher will be accompanied by security outside of their quarters.”

Maker was stunned. Disregarding the fact that the number of translators in the fleet with a rating of three or more for the Culler language was probably in the low double digits, it was a tremendous commitment of Coalition resources. An unnecessary commitment, as there was no possible way for the Cullers to identify her or anyone else unless she spoke to them face-to-face. It would also be a tremendous invasion of her privacy. An annoyance that would make her stand out negatively among the crew – just when she felt she had overcome the handicap of her own genetics.

“Sir,”

“Do not interrupt a superior officer, Lieutenant. As I was saying, although the Brass have never had the particular experience of meeting you, they have determined that you are worth diverting valuable soldiers from their essential duties. As XO, it fell to me to select a minimum of three lucky individuals to trail after you during each shift and make certain you don’t shut your finger in a door or trip over your own feet. I hope you appreciate how difficult the decision was for me to choose the right talent for the job.”

Maker swallowed. Whatever Soon had done, she was certain it was worse than she could imagine. He stood, brushing his hands against his pants as if touching her desk had made them dirty.

“Third shift begins in three hours. The first hapless soldier on your detail will meet you on the bridge. Endeavor to display some semblance of respect for those you are pulling from imperative duties and try to be on time.”

As if I asked for this, she thought wildly. Then, with more indignation, As if I have ever been late for a shift. She said only, “Yes, sir.”

Once the door had closed behind him, Maker sat heavily in her chair and let out a desperate chuckle. She had thought she had escaped the worst possible consequences of her actions when Jones supported the decision to ram the Red Class with nothing more than a stern glare. She was already living with the knowledge that her actions had gotten her cousin killed. Now all the respect she had earned would be overshadowed by the special – ridiculous – treatment as if she were some precious resource to be guarded rather than a volunteer that had worked her ass off for the position she was in. And Soon had chosen her guards.

He might have picked the most annoying, most poor performing people on the Khalid.

Or the biggest bigots.

Or possibly some other poor souls that he hated as much as he did Maker.

Just seven more years, she reminded herself. Seven more years until her tour was up. On the bright side, statistically you have a thirty-seven percent chance of dying before you serve the full tour.Maker dropped her head onto the desk with a groan.

* * *

Year 2156, Day 138, Hour 2100

“Hey, stop apologizing. This is the best assignment I’ve ever had on-ship.”

Maker poked her head out of her bathroom, toothpaste foam gathering on her lips, to scowl at Gonzales. The other woman was lounging on Maker’s bed, flicking her fingers over a tablet as she skimmed articles.

“Usually ground troops end up cleaning weapons and doing grunt work for Engineering – or, best case, swinging security patrols on third shift. It’s all boring as hell, heavy labor, or heavy labor and boring as hell. Guarding you,” she made air quotes with one hand, “on second shift? I’d think Soon was trying to get into my pants by giving me this assignment, but I don’t screw assholes and I’m not sure he has the requisite parts anyhow.”

Maker spat and rinsed her mouth. “What about that med tech from Titan Station last year? Sammy? Susan?”

Gonzales snorted. “Serena. Yeah, she was an outlier. Real piece of work. But an absolute doll between the sheets. Forget about that. In fact,” she sat up, stretching her neck. The bones popped in a way that made Maker wince. “Forget about Soon. He thinks he’s screwing us both over, but the only way this would suck was if anyone gave two shits that Command wants to protect lobster mo- er, translators. Which they don’t. No one we want to talk to anyhow. C&E all know you are the only thing keeping that place running. I heard the Chief is looking at disability discharge and your cowardly buddy on second shift asked for a psych eval – angling for emotional distress. Rodriguez says Engineering is ready to kiss your feet for volunteering your people to provide relief support, and that Raider you’ve been banging put out the word that his whole crew backs you – no questions asked.”

Maker blinked at that and leaned against the sink, her fingers slowing as she braided her hair. She had only seen Gorm in passing since the attack, just enough to verify that his whole unit made it through – not without injuries, and that they were on the Khalid until new orders came down. She liked his team. She had felt, after her assignment with them was over, that she had earned some credit from them. For him to pass word around the ship that the Raiders trusted her was a big deal. It said a lot more about how the rest of the Special Forces group felt about her than it did about how much Gorm liked that thing she did with her tongue. She probably owed him a thank you. Maybe owed his whole unit a thank you. She wondered absently what it would cost to have her dad ship steaks to an entire platoon.

“No one who you give a shit about thinks this is anything more than stupid bureaucratic bullshit thought up by desk jockeys that have never been out-system,” Gonzales continued. “So what if you have Soon’s butt monkey outside your door while you sleep? You have me and Kerry while you’re awake, and we are the – the – what did your dad call that wine Rodriguez sent for Christmas?”

“The cat’s pajamas.”

“Yeah. That. We are the fucking cat’s pajamas, so to hell with Soon’s butt monkey and to hell with a-holes who think you have any goddamn say in what Command does or doesn’t do and to hell with fucking Soon, for that matter. You are a good soldier, Clara. And a good friend.” She made a face, “For an officer.” Maker laughed and pinned her braid up onto the back of her head. Gonzales continued, “So could you at least be happy for me in my excellent duty assignment?”

Maker did not tell Gonzales how Booi – Soon’s butt monkey – had made it a point every night to override her door lock for armed checks of her room at least twice while she was sleeping. She did not repeat the slurs Booi had used regarding her genetics, her Culler language abilities, and – in a form of misogyny that was so archaic it was almost impressive – how her gender must surely prevent her from thinking about anything other than penises. She did not express her fervent desire that, should Cullers attack, it would be while she was sleeping and that she would wake with enough time to watch the aliens slice open his gullet before she was killed. It had recently become one of her fondest dreams.

She did not mention that he had insisted she have daily time on the range and that she start carrying her Klim outside of her quarters. If he told one more crew member to maintain a two meter distance from her, she was going to shoot him herself.

She pulled on her uniform jacket and waved Gonzales toward the bathroom.

“You still want to use mine?”

“Hell yes.” Gonzales swung her feet to the floor and grabbed the bag she had stashed by the door earlier. “If I had even half the brains for it, I would try the officer’s entrance exams just to get a private bunk.”

“I tried to leave you some hot water, but there’s probably only a couple of minutes left – five if you go lukewarm.”

Gonzales snorted. “I already get to shower, by myself, and on duty too. Lukewarm water is a gift. I’ll be out in a jiff.”

“Take you time. I don’t need to be anywhere for another hour or so.”

Maker went through her mail and packed up her laundry before Gonzales was ready to leave. Once they were in the corridor, Gonzales dropped her friendly demeanor and followed behind and to the left of Maker, her side arm exposed on her hip and her attention on their surroundings. Maker had to give her credit; it was a bullshit assignment, but Gonzales took it seriously. At least when they were in public. The staff in C&E mostly ignored her new shadow, and presented work orders and problems that needed a supervisor – despite the fact that the second shift supervisor was sitting in his office. Maker spoke with everyone on duty and helped out on a few difficult translations and one encryption that was confusing the software.

“No. You’re right,” she told the ensign assigned to the data packet. “It’s definitely a civilian signal. The extra garbage in there may be interference from a quasar, or their own internal systems malfunction, or…” she checked the star maps for the general area of origin and pointed it out to the rookie officer. “Yeah, they’re probably in this emission nebula cluster. It’s a bear to navigate through, but cuts some serious time off of the trade lane to Shichang. Run it through cleaner Theta-one, then the usual scrubbers. It should help.” She listened again for a second. “And you’ll want the James – unless you speak French?”

Ensign Chakrabarti shook her head. “Will it be accurate enough?”

“Oh, definitely. The James knows French like you know racquetball, Ensign.” The younger woman smiled, but still looked worried. Maker concentrated on the signal for a second, closing her eyes to block out the garbled static. “-mauvais fonctionnement. Veuillez noter que nous nous occupons des réparations, mais ne vous approchez pas. Sounds like they had to stop to make minor repairs, but they are warning other ships away because…they’ve had a flu outbreak. Shouldn’t be anything we need to worry about, but once you have it cleaned up, send it on up to the CIO’s office for assessment.”

“He’s got a backlog,” Chakrabarti warned, “it’ll take him a week to get to this.”

Maker handed back the headphones and winked. “You think he reads his own mail? Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it will be flagged non-interest.”

Two others requested that she review their work before Maker left for the mess. She was starving, and with the new duty schedule, she would be working third shift with a green recruit on their rotation through comms. M’Benga had been moved to first shift due to deaths and injuries.

“You’re really good at that,” Gonzales noted as she stood beside Maker.

Maker paused in her meal, trying not to feel self-conscious about dunking her DME bar in hot coffee while her friend loomed over her. “It already tastes like nail clippings and stale cardboard, soaking it at least makes it go down quicker.”

“No, I meant with the radioheads. You’re really good at that.”

She shrugged uncomfortably. “I took a couple of languages when I was a kid. Studies say that makes it easier to learn more.”

“Yeah, I’m sure anyone could do it.” Gonzales rolled her eyes. “It’s not just that. You were good with the kid – the Indian kid. Friendly, but she still respects you. Not a lot of officers are like that.”

Maker finished off her coffee and rose, dumping the remains of the DME bar in the recycler. “Well, I’ve been around Soon enough,” she said in a low tone so they wouldn’t be overheard by anyone else in the corridor or lift, “I certainly have a great example of what not to do.”

Gonzales barked out a laugh, and was still grinning as she followed Maker onto the Bridge where Gonzales would be relieved by Kerry. They both reigned in their amusement when they saw Giradot waiting by the comm station for them. The recruit that Maker had been training for the past two nights was shifting his weight and looking like he might throw up from nerves. It wasn’t every day that the Chief of Intelligence dropped by to chat. Kerry hadn’t arrived yet.

“Sir?” At Maker’s polite inquiry he turned to face her fully and the private very nearly sagged in relief from being out of scrutiny. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Ah, Maker, just who I was looking for.”

Maker stiffened, and she sensed Gonzales tensing behind her. He continued,

“Your personnel record shows that you speak French. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.” She waited, ready for the unwelcome task she was certain was about to be assigned. Maybe Giradot needed his memoirs proofread. Please, let the Cullers take me before that happens.

“Excellent. We have received a recorded distress signal from a civilian ship that is having difficulty. They aren’t responding to requests for additional assurance, and they are only a few hours off of our trajectory, so I would like to send a team to offer assistance.”

“Sir?” Her question was weak, and all Maker could think about was how she had been the one to clean up that damn message. It was her own fault that she was getting the assignment.

“I’ve already sent a pilot assignment out. I’m sure this will turn out to be nothing, but it’s always best to have someone experienced you can rely on. I believe you have worked with Sergeant Bretavic before? I had to pull some strings to get him for you, what with our staffing situation.” Giradot smiled as if they were sharing a fun secret, “It pays to be CIO.”

And why the hell was Giradot up late on second shift reviewing his own low-priority comm contact alerts? He had an assistant for that. Multiple low level grunts in Intelligence were capable of, and certainly usually were assigned, handling those sorts of tasks. She was aware that Gonzales had stepped back into her post by the door, and wished she was closer. Maker wanted the moral support for the stupid thing she was about to say.

“Sir, doesn’t protocol state that as long as a civilian ship shows no sign of distress, the Coalition is under no obligation to respond?” Maker didn’t get it. Giradot was the last person – maybe second to last after Soon – that she expected to give a shit about the safety of civilian traders dumb enough to leave the verified shipping lanes. She also hadn’t forgotten the look in his eye when she contacted Malak on Navi – or the number of Culler ‘interrogation’ recordings she had translated directly for him.

“You do know your regs, don’t you?” He smiled again, but this time tighter. Less believably. The private had crammed himself into the corner of the comms station, hemmed in by his own console and the door to Bridge Medical. He might have been trying to activate a stealth mode, as still as he was holding himself. “I can’t divulge my reasons, of course, but Coalition intel integrity takes many forms. We’ll be best positioned for a Runa launch in,” he checked his bracer, “ninety-two minutes. You had better get moving if-”

The door the Bridge opened and Gonzales casually stepped closer to Maker, hand hovering over her service weapon, as Soon strode through. He was closely followed by Kerry. She turned to face them both, careful to keep Gonzales at her back rather than Giradot. The CIO made the skin on her scalp crawl.

“Lt. Commander,” Soon snapped. His uniform jacket was open at the collar as if he had put it on quickly and where his neck was exposed the skin was red with anger.

Maker breathed out softly. The rest of the bridge crew, parts of second and third shift, all suddenly found vital work they needed to keep their eyes on. Kerry took up a position opposite Gonzales but out of her line of fire. He didn’t put his hand on a weapon, but his stance widened as if he was preparing to attack. Soon continued.

“I’d like to speak to you in the briefing room. Now.”

No please. No explanation. Soon outranked Giradot, but Bridge officers didn’t usually give each other orders. Or ever. Instead of taking offense, Giradot smiled wider and gestured toward the door.

“After you, Commander.” His smile turned back on Maker and her stomach flipped in a way she had never experienced before outside of combat. “I’ll be just a moment, Lieutenant, and then we can discuss those orders.” If anything, his comment made Soon more furious. His jaw clenched hard enough that even the tech making repairs down at the helm station could hear his teeth grind.

As he walked past, Maker moved to lean on the console. Her fingers accidentally brushed against his bare hand as he swung his arms in a brisk walk. He was pleased with himself. She recoiled as if bitten, nearly falling into the sweating private.

He hates me, she thought, desperately trying not to rub her fingers on her pants to get rid of the sensation of his skin against hers. Then, with a shaking huff, Giradot hates everyone. Especially Soon. This is probably nothing more than a pissing contest. Still, she couldn’t shake the sensation that she was in a crosshairs.

The door to the briefing room closed behind the two men and the private slid sideways, his hot breath on Maker’s hair suddenly welcome against the chill that was overtaking her.

“What the fuck,” he murmured.

“Ship politics, fuzz,” Gonzales snapped. Her hand was firm on Maker’s elbow as she lead her closer to Kerry. “Shift detail report, Kerry,” she said loudly, then lowered her voice. “What. The. Fuck.”

“Soon was coming toward the lift as I was on my way here,” Kerry said quietly. “Before he thought I would be able to hear him, he finished up a conversation over his comm. Sounded like Giradot overrode the personnel roster with his security clearance.”

With justifiable cause, Giradot had the authority, but Maker didn’t think a civilian ship that wasn’t asking for help and showed no indication of distress was justifiable.

Gonzales let out a whistle, “Bet the XO just loves having his toes stepped on. God, I hate Soon, but if there was ever anyone to put that smarmy asshole Giradot in his place…”

Maker had to agree. And while a simple run out to a stranded human ship wasn’t a big deal, certainly it was low-threat and would almost be a vacation after the constant repairs and overtime on the Khalid, she didn’t trust Giradot. Giving in to the instinct, she tucked the fingers of her right hand under the hem of her jacket, twisting them against the material almost hard enough to rub off the top layer of skin. A couple of second shift officers finished their detail reports for their replacements and cleared off the Bridge with mutters about avoiding the splash damage that was sure to be coming. Maker wished she could follow them out.

“Private,” she called out to her trainee. Maker was proud her voice didn’t betray the sharp worry pricking at her neck. “Pull up the repair check list and begin sorting the comm line traffic the way I showed you yesterday.” When he didn’t move right away, she raised her eyebrows, “There something more interesting you’d rather be doing?”

“No. No, ma’am.” He looked almost relieved to have work to concentrate on, which had been the point.

The old veteran at tactical, the one who had countered both Giradot and Soon during combat, spoke from the corner of his mouth, just loud enough for her to hear and in his native German,

“Watch out for that kill box.”

She didn’t have time to respond or translate for the confused Gonzales and Kerry. Soon stalked out of the briefing room, followed by a languidly moving Giradot.

“Someone ate the canary,” Gonzales muttered before straightening and nodding to Kerry. “She’s all yours, Private.”

Soon barked at her before she could leave. “New orders. Travel security detail. You. Kerry.” Their bracers pinged simultaneously. “Maker. Get your station straightened away and I want a replacement up here and briefed in the next ten minutes. Your new assignment will be waiting for you.” He did not turn to watch Giradot leave, but kept his narrowed eyes on Maker as she returned to comms and begin checking the personnel lists.

“Lieutenant,” Soon continued.

She looked up, but did not know what to say when confronted by the overwhelming and barely repressed rage on his face.

“Try to do your job without killing anyone this time.”

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