Tag Archives: Valentine Run

#FlashFictionFriday: Valentine Run (part 3 of 3)

Valentine Run Cover copySleep came slowly and was filled with vague and disturbing dreams. Waking half an hour before the alarm, Reina showered quickly, preparing for the run to Valentine system. In the mess, she stopped to chat with the crew who were all laughing at Cookie’s silly puns. Still chuckling, she entered the pilot’s ready room.

Ladeaux and Ryo had not yet arrived, but then she was always first. Ryo’s involvement with Ramona Flores meant he was always the last to arrive. The door opened, and she looked up, smiling as Brandon Ladeaux crossed to his locker.

“Here we go again.” His weathered, but still handsome features smiled back. “I hope we don’t have to do anything too spectacular to get this pile of rocks to Valentine Station.” He saw her look.  “Silly me. They’ll require spectacular measures, no matter what I wish. I’ve prepared accordingly.”

“Good,” she replied, fighting the feeling of finality, the fear it was the last time she’d see him. “Once we’re done rumbling with the Alzhaa, we should be well out of their space. Hopefully, they won’t follow us all the way to Valentine.” She finished closing her shipsuit and stamped her feet into her boots.

“If the Alzhaa strike the way they have up to now, they’ll expect the captain to stop running, to stand and fight. I wonder how adaptable they are. They’ve never shown any adaptability so far, but maybe they’re hiding it.” Brandon’s smile elevated him to handsome. He stood up, leaning against the wall, closing his shipsuit. “Are you in love with Cora?”

“Nope,” Reina’s laugh was unforced. “No chemistry in that way, right? Just a friendship between equals that was never meant to be anything more than it was. But now, I’m Captain Laine’s subordinate. I like her and respect her ability. She is a great leader and, believe me, I’ve worked with many who weren’t. She lacks experience in battle, but who’d have thought battle tactics would be required for captains of cargo ships? Besides, I wouldn’t jeopardize her career by taking advantage of our friendship if I did love her that way.”

“I’m proud of you.” Brandon pulled his boots on, stamping his feet down into them. “I like to think I would be able to be that noble.” He grinned at Reina, obviously liking what he saw. “I tend to take advantage of every situation that I can. Life is too short to let the good things pass you by. I’m not that decent a human being.”

“Yes, you are,” Reina grinned again, frankly admiring his charms. “You’re the most decent man I know. Not a real smart man since you’re still driving a sled, but quite decent!” They were still laughing when Ryo entered the ready room.

“Are you hoping for this to be over? I sure am.” Ryo bent over, burying his cheerful face in his locker, rooting around for something. Having apparently found what he was looking for, he dropped to the bench to begin suiting up. “So how are only three of us going to do a running firefight? When we practice in the simulator, we always start out as one of six.”

He had asked the question Reina had been asking herself all morning.

Ladeaux replied, “The formations are the same as when your sim squad gets whittled down to three. You’ll have your flight plans, well in advance, so you’ll know what formation.”

“I’ve always had a support role during our battle since the Captain conscripted me. La Fontaine, Morgan, and the others did all the dirty work. I’ve been training in the simulator for the last two weeks, but I have no idea what we’re getting into, how it differs from the sim. I was never in the service, right? I’m just a mech with a pilot’s ticket. I’ve seen the stuff you do, Jacobs, so you’ve got to be good enough. Same with you, Ladeaux. I’ve heard stories about you and seen the way you work too.”

“I’m still here.” Reina’s chuckle was wry. “I haven’t done an actual running firefight in years, though. Because of that, I too have spent time in the simulator these last few weeks. I’m going to do exactly what Ladeaux tells me to do. At this point, you just want to survive, and teamwork is the key to survival in this sort of a melee.”

Ladeaux said, “Don’t worry, Ryo. You have a finely tuned sense of survival. It won’t be much different than the simulator, which you’ve been acing. I set it up with every possible hindrance I could think of, so… but have you played Split Infinitum?”

Ryo turned red. “Um… yeah. I was quite the sim gamer, before Ramona. I guess I had too much free time.”

“The principal is the same, except when you lose… it’s more than merely game over. From what I could see, the game control panels are similar to these old gunsleds.”

“I did notice that. It’s probably why it’s been easier for me, both as a support sled in combat and in the simulator.”

Grinning at Ryo’s worried expression, Ladeaux walked over to his desk and sat. “With only three of us, we have to work together to make up in cleverness what we lack in strength, so I’ve come up with something new to spring on the enemy. We’re going to make them think they’ve taken the Saracen out.”

Ryo smiled nervously and glanced at Reina, who was curious to see what that plan would be.

Ladeaux inserted his notebook in the com-dock and flipped it on, paging back and forth until he stopped at a screen with diagrams. “So, this is my plan for dealing with the first wave.” He tapped the desk, and the holoscreen sprang up, fully lit, displaying the diagram from his notebook. “You’ll get phase two uploaded to your sled if this works. We shouldn’t need a phase three.” Ladeaux’s briefing lasted for fifteen minutes, then they went on out to the deck and the waiting gunsleds.

>>><<<

Promptly, one hour after the Saracen began the run, the first four Alzhaa cruisers showed up. They followed the usual pattern of assaulting the Saracen en masse. Ryo and Ladeaux converged on them from the ten and two o’clock positions, and Reina came up from under the Saracen at the six.

The first three cruisers were sitting ducks. The fourth was a little more work, but they too finally went down. “Looks like they’re running out of pilots too,” Ryo quipped. In a short time, the Alzhaa cruisers were debris, and the Saracen was still traveling as fast as she could.

“Four down, God knows how many to go,” Ladeaux’s voice crackled over the comsender. “Judging by how long it normally takes their ships to arrive, we should see the next action as we near the edge of Alzhaa space. That’s when the fun begins. Rest up while you can.”

“I don’t think they knew what to do, with us not stopping to fight like we usually do,” Reina commented. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe they aren’t as adaptable as they should be. So what about the plan for the next wave?”

“I’m loading it now,” Ladeaux’s voice was calm.

“Got it,” Reina looked at the diagram. “I can do this. You been reading old adventure novels again?”

Ladeaux laughed, as she hoped he would.

There would be absolutely no margin for error. If Reina was off by even a hair, the special delivery wouldn’t detonate the Alzhaa shipdrive. If she did manage to drop it on the sweet-spot, even running like hell might not save her. There was no time to calculate what would happen when they briefly turned the enemy ship into a mini-nova. The resulting wave could manifest as a disc or sphere. Either way, no matter how fast she ran, she would be caught in the backlash.

“Are you okay with it?” Ladeaux asked, concern coloring his voice.

“Well, someone’s gotta do it, and I’m the one with the experience and the death wish, so yeah,” Reina replied. Her tone was wry as she said, “I did promise to go easy on the fuelcels as much as possible though.”

“You’ve enough juice to do this and make your getaway. Either way, the fuelcel situation won’t matter after we’re done here,” replied Ladeaux. “If this works, you’ll be retired again. If not—still no worries, right? Even if you manage to deliver the goods, who knows what’s going to happen? There’s a first time for everything, and this is definitely a first.”

“Well, they won’t be expecting this.” Ryo’s muttered comment sounded worried. “Won’t they know the difference?”

“Don’t worry,” Reina replied. “Physics are physics. Some things are bound by certain laws whether you’re breathing methane or oxygen. If they choose to investigate, this battle will be long over, and little will remain for them to examine.”

Ladeaux’s voice sounded as sure and confident as ever. “Jacobs is right. The burst will happen in every spectrum, and should hide our movements for several days. If they don’t send a third group after us immediately, we’ll know we’ve been successful at concealing our escape. We’ll be long gone, and all they’ll have are unanswered questions. I think they will choose not to investigate.”

Two more hours had passed when four Alzhaa cruisers appeared. The three Mirandan gunsleds detached from trailing the Saracen, turned, and engaged the battle, leaving the Saracen to continue making a run for it.

Dropping into a wedge, the three sleds strafed the enemy bloc of cruisers with their lighter weight torpedoes, and then peeling apart from each other, they swung back. Ladeaux took out the rear cruiser using heavy armaments. Letting their shields pulse the debris away, Ryo took out the next one in line.

Immediately Ryo and Ladeaux made themselves into the visible targets, encouraging the two remaining cruisers to converge on them as they pretended to turn back toward Alzhaa space. The Mirandan defenders continued following the usual pattern they always had except for one thing: the Saracen continued fleeing toward Valentine at its top speed. Only the gunsleds were heading back to Alzhaa space.

Reina pulled back, arcing over the top of Ladeaux and Ryo. The three gunsleds formed a triangle, with Reina trailing. Suddenly, one of the Alzhaa began peeling away, apparently realizing the Saracen was getting away. Reina was on it, firing and dodging as her volley caught the enemy’s bridge, herding them back toward their companion. Just as Ladeaux had hoped, the other cruiser had caught on that the Saracen was still running and slowed down to turn back.

Reina rotated under and came up nearly on top of the stern of the fore cruiser and delivered her bundle dead center. The instant she launched the package, landing it squarely in the vent. Reina pulled up and fled in the opposite direction, heading at full throttle for Valentine.

Several seconds passed, and then the cruiser flared, shining too brilliantly for human eyes.

Bracing herself for the worst, Reina gritted her teeth. Her gunsled bucked and shuddered as the leading edge of the shockwave overtook her, but somehow her shields held together as, briefly, she rode the wave, gaining a little speed as it passed her. Relief nearly overwhelmed her. “Ladeaux! It worked. Good plan.” Tears of relief stung her eyes, and her headset crackled with hoots of joy as Ladeaux and Ryo celebrated her survival.

Her joy abruptly turned to disbelief. “No….” Reina groaned as the display showed the shockwave catching Ryo’s shields. She watched as, almost in slow motion, his shields buckled and failed under the onslaught. The pieces of Ryo’s gunsled joined the cloud of debris that rode the silent tsunami traveling back toward Alzhaa.

Ladeaux’s gunsled pulled into formation alongside her. With the destruction of the Alzhaa ship, the implants for head-to-head communication were working again, and she removed the headset with a small sense of relief. “I guess it’s just you and me, now.” Ladeaux’s mental voice didn’t betray his emotions, but Reina knew he felt the same sense of incredulity and depression she did. Her heart ached for Ryo and the loss of his future with Ramona Flores.

The rest of the day was uneventful. Reina and Ladeaux landed their gunsleds on the flight deck of the Saracen. In the captain’s ready room, there wasn’t much to say. “Thank you, both, for everything. You two need to get some rest. If anything comes up, I will let you know, but it looks like we’re home free now. We’ll be watching to be sure. In the meantime, Acting Science Officer Jacobs, you’re no longer flying. I’ll see you both tomorrow at the regular staff meeting, but you two are off until then.” It was a dismissal if ever Reina had heard one, but given Cora’s wounded pride, she’d expected it.

As they walked back to the pilots’ ready-room, Ladeaux flashed Reina the cheeky smile that captivated her. “How’s about we get together sometime and have a drink to Ryo and all the others who should be here but aren’t?”

Reina looked at him, standing there looking as sweaty and exhausted as she felt.  “Let me get a shower, and I’ll see what Cookie’s got that’s fit to drink. Half an hour, in my quarters?”

Ladeaux’s eyes lit up. “I’ll be there.”

Reina smiled, feeling the weight she hadn’t realized she carried leaving her shoulders.


To Read Valentine Run  Part 1 click here

To Read Valentine Run Part 2 click here

Valentine Run, Part Three, © 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

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#FlashFictionFriday: Valentine Run (part 2 of 3 Parts)

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

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#FlashFictionFriday: Valentine Run #serial (part 1 of 3)

The enemy, a crippled Alzhaa cruiser, now at two hundred units distant and closing fast, appeared to be preparing to ram the Saracen.

“No….” Feeling almost as if she were dreaming, Reina Jacobs watched as Baker deliberately intercepted the enemy’s volley meant for the Saracen, inserting his sled in the path of the enemy’s bombardments. The rainbow sparkles as his sled disintegrated mesmerized her for a moment.

Reina  was perfectly lined up for what had to be done but was too close to do it safely.

Whatever safely meant any more.

Hopefully, her shields could take what she planned, or she’d be joining Baker. Gauging the charge left in her fuelcels, she closed on the enemy’s stern. They’d proven unable to see sleds as small as hers coming in so close to their cruisers, one of the few advantages the Mirandan fighters had. The little shimmy as her shields brushed theirs had surprised her. Hopefully, if they felt it, the Alzhaa would assume it was debris from Baker’s sled.

Now traveling as fast as her sled would go, Reina was directly behind the Alzhaa ship, on their tail and closing. As soon as she was lined up, she pressed the firing button, launching her torpedo into the odd-shaped opening that seemed to be a vent of some kind for the craft’s propulsion system.

She was too close behind them and traveling too fast, with nowhere to escape. The enemy boat fragmented around her, and she put everything she had into driving through the debris. A sudden, loud clanking noise and a slight shudder of the craft indicated something had gotten through the shields, which flared as most of the bits of flotsam and jetsam that had once comprised a fully crewed Alzhaa cruiser pulsed away from her now partially crippled bird.

The gunsleds were normally quiet, with little ambient sounds to speak of, so noise of any kind when you were in space was bad. A red light appeared on the holodash of the console and Reina noticed it was growing warm in the cockpit. The tang of ozone flavored the air being vented into her suit. The air cleared, and the red light stopped flashing as the backup system came online.

She was alive and would make it back to the Saracen, which surprised her. The chatter on the comsender continued, pilots verifying positions, and Ladeaux answering, “meet at the rendezvous,” and then “Damn, Jacobs… good one.”

“Yeah. Made it, alright. I got winged though. It took out my ventilator, but the backup is still functioning.”

Something about the Alzhaa ships inhibited their implants, making normal head-to-head communications impossible, so Baker and Ladeaux had cobbled together old-time communication gear, which worked well enough over short distances. The headsets with an earpiece and a small microphone were awkward, and you had to listen hard sometimes, to discern who was speaking.

Sitting in the pilot’s bucket, Reina usually felt nothing. Other than the brush with the underbelly of the Alzhaa cruiser and the impact of the debris, the ride had been as smooth as if she’d been sitting in her berth.

Her headset made a hissing noise, followed by the voice of the Captain, Cora Laine. She rattled off an unintelligible string of epithets, the gist of which meant the Saracen was still waiting for Reina.

“Gunsled 12 returning to base,” Reina responded. “La Fontaine… did she make it back?”

“Yes.” Cora sounded angry. “Your concern is duly noted, Jacobs. My ready room—immediately upon your return.”

“Aye, Captain.” As she prepared to return to the Saracen, she listened to the chatter, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she heard La Fontaine had arrived back but was not expected to survive her injuries.

Her headset crackled again, this time with the voice of Lt. Ryo. “Baker… La Fontaine… they got Morgan too. We’re in trouble now.”

As if they hadn’t been in trouble all along. The pilots had just spent twenty-two hours periodically fighting off suicidal Alzhaa with no progress, but at least the Saracen had not been forced to retreat this time. Still, they hung there, staring at the edge of safety, regularly being hammered to death.

The Alzhaa cruisers were much larger than the little Mirandan gunsleds, more like giant in-system liners. Their cruisers were all-out war machines with highly advanced armaments the Mirandans didn’t have, but they were lumbering space-tubs compared to the nimble little gunsled.

The advantage the Alzhaa had was in their superior armaments. Compared to a Mirandan torpedo, their magnetic-field bombards were ship destroyers. The little Mirandan gunsled made up for that lack with speed, maneuverability, and human adaptability. The Alzhaa never altered their strategy no matter what, so the Mirandan defenders had capitalized on those advantages as much as they could. Nevertheless, the Alzhaa weaponry was gradually whittling them away.

Reina maneuvered her gunsled into the open slot on the Saracen’s maintenance deck and ran through the shutdown protocol. She could see so far only she, Ladeaux, and Ryo had made it back in one piece and that worried her because as far as she knew, she was the last to return.  Ladeaux is back, she thought with a peculiar sense of relief. She felt more than just professional admiration when she thought about Ladeaux.

God help them if Ladeaux failed to return from one of these little jaunts because he was the only person left that the captain would listen to. She desperately didn’t want to think about the others who didn’t make it. Nine pilots left this place this morning. Now we’re down to three.

The canopy snapped open, and she disconnected from lifesup. Reina stood reeling with exhaustion as the mechs swarmed the gunsled, shouting instructions and opening up the guts of the beast before she was even fully out of it. She took a moment to pull herself together before she jumped down, thanking the men and women who tended her gunsled. Forcing herself to appear confident and full of energy, she walked to the lift, the image of the iconic sled-jock.

What the crew saw and admired was the retired colonel, full of life and, despite the fact she was worth six of anyone else, forced into an early retirement over an artificial leg.

Maintaining the image was as much for the crew, who desperately needed to see it, as it was for her own vanity. “No one wants to see a tired, bitter, old woman” was her motto, and after a lifetime of habit, she never appeared anywhere public without her veneer of pleasant self-assurance. She refused, however, to answer to Colonel, preferring to live in the present. Reina was now a leading researcher and professor and proud of what she’d accomplished over the last ten years of immersing herself in her chosen field of plant biosymetry, a branch of terraforming.

She was amazed how quickly those ten years had washed away over the last weeks with her abrupt return to active duty, washed away as if they had never been. She’d fallen into the role of sled-jockey as if she’d never fallen out of it.

Her boot heels rang on the metal deck as she headed toward the captain’s ready room. Pasting a smile on her face, she entered the room fully prepared to be dressed down and not feeling at all humble or contrite.

The captain sat surrounded by holoscreens, bloodshot eyes absorbing everything, fingers flying over the holoboard while snapping instructions. Her headset lay on the desk, as with the Alzhaa interference no longer in play, normal communications had resumed. She paused, turning her face to the door as Reina entered the room.

Loosening the collar of her shipsuit, Reina sprawled in the lone chair without being asked.

“What was that all about, Jacobs?” Cora’s harsh voice grated. “Just what the hell were you doing there in the first place? Your instructions were to clear the space and return to the Saracen.”

Reina was tired and didn’t give a damn about the niceties but they had to be maintained or all her work trying to impress the importance of the separation of rank upon her friend would be wasted. “Captain, I had no intention of disobeying your instructions. However, after the enemy took out Baker and La Fontaine, I was the only one positioned to run interference for you. Please, re-run your holos, sir, and watch the remaining cruiser.”

Cora murmured “Replay trace 67329aR,” and the holos sprang to life between the captain and Reina.

Standing, Reina pointed as she spoke. “As you can see here and here, Baker and Lafontaine’s joint attack crippled the remaining Alzhaa cruiser. Still, the enemy ship was running on momentum and travelling fast. Your ass was in their sights, and they weren’t going to let you go. Their captain made the only decision possible, at least the one I would have made, and used whatever power was available to gain even more speed.

“By my calculations, they were out of those magnetic-field bombards they use so well. From my vantage point, I could see the enemy setting up to ram you. I knew what had to be done. Where would you be now if I had stuck to the plan? I can assure you this ship was not built to stand up to those sorts of negotiations. If they’d managed to blow their drive on impact, even the mighty Saracen would have disintegrated. An asteroid-barge is a tough pile of rocks, but in the face of that kind of detonation—no. You and your crew would be nothing but dust and sparkly shit.”

Captain Laine glared at her but said nothing.

A wave of exhaustion caught Reina by surprise, and sitting, she leaned her elbows on the desk, resting her head in her shaking hands. She looked at Cora through her fingers, seeing her angry and uncertain of what to say. Aware of what she must look like, with her iron-gray hair plastered to her skull with sweat, Reina suppressed a sigh. Looking like a tired old woman wasn’t a confidence-inspiring way to appear if she wanted to sway the Captain.

Still, Reina had to tell Cora the truth, to try to get her to see reason. “You’re a good captain, but the Saracen is a cargo ship. You’ve never dealt with this kind of situation before. We’re losing this fight because we’re playing their game.” She was so tired she could barely control the trembling. She was running on adrenaline these days, but what choice did the pilots have? “You’ve got to make a run for it, Cora. It’s your only hope. I think we can cover you so you can get to Valentine safe-zone if you will just commit to running as hard and fast as the Saracen will go and letting us do what we do. Let Ladeaux draft you a plan since you doubt me, but please take my advice on this.”

Cora bristled, hearing only the implication she might be incompetent. Despite her indignation, she poured a synthjuice and handed it to Reina. “I expect compliance, even from you. You bloody well better follow orders like any other sled-jock, or you’ll sit it out in your freaking quarters.” She looked at Reina, shaking her head. “Get some rack time now, or I’ll have you confined to sickbay until you do. The doctor has a prescription for you, so stop by sickbay and pick it up. Then go to your quarters and swallow it like a good girl. Do you understand?”

Reina looked at the juice and then knocked it back. Her gaze met the captain’s, and she nodded. “Aye, sir. I do need the rack time. But I’m not a marine anymore—that part of my life is long over. I’m tired and re-tired, you know? And now that La Fontaine and Baker are out of it, we’re in a bit of a pickle. For my team, we had it set up so they did the dirty work. The other teams are also decimated—I counted only two other flyable ships besides mine in the hanger.”

Captain Laine sighed. “I hear what you’re telling me, Professor Jacobs. Ladeaux told me the same thing. Now get out of here and get some rack time.”


Valentine Run, Part One, © Connie J. Jasperson 2011-2017 All Rights Reserved – 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

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