What has gone before: Part 1 of Valentine Run can be found by clicking on this link.
Ten hours later, Reina slowly woke up in her quarters, pondering how she’d gotten there. Finally, she gave up thinking about it and staggered the two steps to the hygiene unit. Covered in goose bumps, she stood under the lukewarm stream, lathering and rinsing as quickly as possible. Toweling herself dry, she hurried into a clean jumpsuit and fluffed her damp hair with her fingers, then brushed her teeth.
Quickly straightening her quarters, she exited. Image, Reina. Image is everything, she cautioned herself. Portraying herself as a vibrant, well-rested woman, she smiled and greeted everyone. Her manner proclaimed that today was just another day and nothing to worry about. The crew knew as well as she did who hadn’t come back, but they needed to know she was not worried about the situation, that she believed the captain had it under control.
She stopped in the mess hall, grabbing a nutri-bar and a cup of coffee, chatting with the staff there. Then she continued on to the science lab—a closet one meter by one meter on the same corridor as the captain’s ready room. Since the death of the science officer when they first entered Alzhaa space, the room had become her domain. Laying her palm on the key-pad, she entered, so preoccupied she didn’t even hear the door as it whisked shut behind her. The bank of holoscreens sprang up around her immediately, seemingly eager to serve.
Rotating the stool out from under the console, she began accessing her random notes, enjoying the sound of her antique-style keyboard rattling as she moved information from screen to screen. She loved her keyboard and its familiar clatter. It had been trendy to own one when she was in college, and she’d grown attached to hers. Keying on the holoboards just didn’t have the same feel.
Actually, like so many things in space, they had no feel to speak of. Having spent so much of her life in space, Reina Jacobs needed to feel things. The quest for feeling, the desire to truly experience things drove her, more than anything else.
She sat looking at the screens, seeing nothing, still thinking about the situation. Finally, she pulled her thoughts together, formulated her conclusions and recommendations, and uploaded the information to the captain, along with her final summation. She signed it “Professor R. Jacobs, Acting Science Officer.”
She did this instead of chasing Ladeaux’s very charming ass, much as she would have liked to, or hanging out, getting drunk, and talking girl stuff with Cora, whom she’d grown to love like a sister. Instead, she avoided them both in her off-hours except for meals. Ladeaux, damn his warm blue eyes and warmer lips, understood quite well. Cora didn’t, but she had never been in the military.
And her lack of military training was the crux of the current problem.
As long as they were flying, she and Ladeaux would not cross the line by allowing themselves to fall into an affair while they were working together. For pilots, it was an error that could be fatal.
The blurring of the line between friendship and professional behavior was the problem Reina now had regarding the captain. During the first part of the voyage, she’d been a bored passenger and was drawn into an instant friendship with the charismatic Captain Cora Laine. They drank together, played poker, worked out, and joked the way equals with a lot in common often do. They had become—God forbid—friends the way normal women did.
Unfortunately, they weren’t normal women and weren’t equals any longer. Cora was still the captain, but now Reina was a sled-jockey doubling as science officer and was under Cora’s command. If this miserable journey had gone as planned, Professor Reina Jacobs would have been long gone, safely in her new job with both feet on the ground. She never would have served as her best friend’s subordinate when she was so unfit to be anyone’s subordinate.
Cora was smart and savvy, but she had no combat experience and simply did not see the situation and the solution the way a battle hardened tactician did. She saw her pilots as people, not as the tools they were.
When the Alzhaa had finally whittled the able-bodied sled-jockeys down to twelve, five less than it took to fully man the Saracen’s gunsleds, Captain Laine had been forced to conscript her and two other crew members who were former pilots.
Reina’s gut-instincts in the cockpit were still as sharp as ever, and her prosthetic leg was as good as anyone’s natural leg, maybe even better. It was fortunate they were older sleds, much like the ones she’d spent so much time piloting while in the service, and she’d fallen back into the old routine easily.
Cursing the futility of her thoughts, she switched the screens to show the notes on her main research project. Immediately focusing on the problem, Reina began right where she’d left off two days earlier to go and shoot at the Alzhaa. That was how she preferred to spend her waking moments, writing the justifications and preparing her paper on bioengineering common human food crops to adapt to a terraformed environment. If she ever arrived on Valentine, she intended to present it to the scientific community at large.
Later at dinner, Reina sat in a quiet corner of the mess with Ryo and Ladeaux, eating the rather unusual meal the mess staff had put together for them. Their chef, Ludmila Borisova, commonly known as Cookie, still had rations, but she was going to have to be creative if they were going to stretch until they made it to Valentine.
By silent agreement, they talked about everything but the Captain’s intransigence in regard to their current situation. Ladeaux and Reina, both experienced military officers, had tacitly made it clear they would not participate in any sort of discussion that would undermine the captain’s authority. It would do no good to stir up the rest of the crew because at the very least, the way it was now they were all pulling together.
Brandon Ladeaux was tall, his hair was still mostly dark, and he was somewhere near her age. He exuded the same confidence as Reina, that of a lifetime spent successfully cheating death. Ladeaux was the last of the complement of pilots who’d originally left Miranda.
Ryo was a recent addition to the team and was only on his third run as a sled-jock. “I don’t get why they won’t let us leave. We’re transporting cargo, that’s all.”
“How they think is a complete mystery to me.” Ladeaux grinned. “That’s the dilemma though. The Alzhaa don’t understand us at all and don’t want to. They don’t care what our problem is. They just want us to stay the hell away from their systems.”
Finally, Ryo nodded. Ladeaux took a few bites, and Reina said, “The trouble is, the Alzhaa are so alien even the other methane breathers find them impossible to communicate with.”
“It sucks anyway,” said Ryo, his relative youth and inexperience showing. “We’re an asteroid-barge, for God’s sake. It’s easy to see the Saracen is a small planet, not a war-bird. We’re packed to the gills with cargo, not heavy weapons. The Saracen has never even transported weapons between our own systems.”
“I suspect they’re making a point, and we’re being targeted simply to drive it home to both Miranda and Earth,” said Ladeaux. “They don’t want our sort here, and they don’t want us to ever forget it. This is the last shipment of assistance Valentine will ever get.”
Reina nodded her agreement, idly admiring Ladeaux’s rugged profile. The man exuded animal magnetism.
Glancing slyly at Reina, Ladeaux said, “How is it going with Flores, Ryo? You two seem to spend all your free time together.” His eyes twinkled at Ryo’s sudden flush.
The younger man looked down at his cup. “I keep having these random daydreams about settling down with her and starting a family, maybe even on Valentine.”
Ladeaux nodded. “I think you should.”
“I’m going to spring a proposal on her when we’re done with this mess,” Ryo admitted. “I don’t really have anyone back on Miranda anymore, and she doesn’t either. It’s only been five years for me, but it’s time I spent in space between Earth and Miranda. My niece just became a grandmother.”
“None of us has anyone after we’ve been at this job for long. We outlive our planet-bound families and friends by several generations. At least I certainly have.” Reina pushed down a pang of grief for the loss of her friendship with the feisty captain. “I’m happy for you and Ramona. Relationships are hard to sustain when you’re never planetside.” She paused and then said, “If I may give you some advice: don’t let space separate you. Find a job planetside.”
“Yeah, that’s the trick though, isn’t it,” replied Ryo morosely. “My skills don’t really run to planetside occupations. I’m a good mech, and I’m learning how to be an adequate pilot, but I suspect the colonists have their choice of applicants.” He shrugged and added, “If I hadn’t been the only one left with a ticket to fly when they conscripted me, I wouldn’t even have this to put on my resume. I guess this farce has had one positive effect.” He laughed, but it was hollow. Ryo knew the only reason they had tapped him to be a sled-jockey was no one else was available.
“They’ll always need mechanics for the shuttles. I’ll help you find a job when we get there,” offered Ladeaux. “I’ll be staying on since I’m retiring after this run. I have a job lined up piloting shuttles from the moon base to planetside.” He looked out of the corner of his eye to see Reina’s reaction. “It’s my first planetside job in thirty-nine years.”
Reina had idly wondered if Ladeaux would retire and stay on Valentine after this trip was behind them, and he’d just made her day. Still, although her eyes betrayed her interest, she didn’t otherwise indicate anything she felt.
After dinner, Reina did her usual stint in the flight simulator, practicing battle maneuvers. Ladeaux’s tests were complicated, realistic, and in some cases, harrowing. Following that, she showered, then lay on her bunk in her quarters, drinking the brew of the week and reading her mail. It was all from her new staff, detailing the arrangements they were making for her arrival.
As she clicked through her missives, she realized she was stopped only a month away from Valentine if they were to light up the drive, but years away if they had to idle along as they were doing. The Saracen was a cargo ship and not set up to be self-sufficient so the crew and passengers would starve long before they got there. Now they were down to three fighter pilots, there was the distinct possibility Reina would never have the opportunity to meet her new staff or put her antique book collection on those lovely shelves in her new study.
The tap on her door made her look up. “Enter.”
The door whisked open, and Cora entered. She dropped into the desk chair. “I know what you’re doing. You’re separating yourself from me so when you get yourself killed, I’ll still be pissed as hell at you.”
“You still don’t understand. This isn’t about you or me. This is about expedience and what is best for the Saracen. Fraternization is an unduly familiar personal relationship, and it interferes with getting things done in the most advantageous manner. I have to do it.” She clicked her mail off, set the notebook aside and sat up. “You have no combat experience. Your attempt to protect your marines is compromising your mission. Friendship has no place here, Captain, though you are the best friend I ever had. I just know what has to be done, and you refuse to accept it.” Reina’s words felt harsh as she said them. “Since you’re here, you may as well at least drink the last of this week’s vintage. I’ve already had more than enough.”
“I thought you’d like to know I’ve come to a decision.” Cora poured a short shot into the glass Reina handed her. “Per your recommendation to Ladeaux and his complete agreement with your assessment of the situation, I’m taking the Saracen in to Valentine system tomorrow, no matter what. I’ll either berth her in orbit there until I get enough fuel and supplies to take her home the long way, or we’ll find another way home. You and Ladeaux both assure me I can get her away clear if I run like hell now.”
Reina nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
Cora swirled her glass, watching the amber moonshine as it eddied. “It’s the only choice. I can’t take the Saracen back to Miranda system through Alzhaa space right now, which is what the plan was. The Saracen never had the ability to go around the Alzhaa if she’s carrying a full payload. But now, thanks to all the delays, if I were to turn back to Miranda, we wouldn’t have enough food to make it even half the way home. Hell, we may not have enough to make it to Valentine on full rations, even though we have only half the crew left. It’s eighteen hours to the safe zone on a dead run and another month to Valentine. But since I can’t go back, I must go forward.”
The captain stood and walked to the door and then turned back. “La Fontaine died an hour ago.” Cora chuckled bitterly. “Here we are on an asteroid stuffed to the rafters with the most modern medicines and medical technology our civilization has to offer, and we still can’t figure out how to keep a woman alive when her guts are shredded.” She sighed, a gesture of resignation. “Only three of you pilots are left. I hope you’ll be enough. Ladeaux is putting together the final plan as we speak.”
Reina nodded as a feeling of relief swept over her.
Cora continued. “We’ve been idling along as fast as we can since yesterday, building up speed preparatory to slingshot out of here. Since the Saracen’s drive signature is what seems to attract the Alzhaa, we can’t really go until the sleds are all in place to cover our ass. Once we have your birds up and flying, we’ll light up the drive and run like hell, and won’t stop for anything.
“Maintenance tells me the fuelcels are failing to hold a complete recharge. There’s little room for horsing around. If you want to actually get to Valentine Station, stick to the plan.”
“The fuelcel issue has me worried too,” Reina agreed. “I’ll do my best, I promise, but what’s the point of all the lives that have been lost over this if we can’t protect the Saracen from some suicidal Alzhaa whacko?” Reina’s gaze was stone cold sober. “I spent thirty-three years in the service. Every single day I knew what I was there for. It was my job, my duty, and my privilege to protect our people in situations like this. Trust me, Captain. I am prepared to do what it takes to get you and your cargo to Valentine.”
Cora just nodded curtly, the door shutting behind her.
Valentine Run, Part Two, © Connie J. Jasperson 2011-2017 All Rights Reserved
Valentine Run is dedicated to my parents who loved nothing more than a good space opera, in memory of those hours we spent gathered around the flickering light of the TV, watching the original Star Trek.
Cover Art © Innovari | Dreamstime.com – Space Cruiser Spaceship Photo