The corvette gears slammed on pad 39 harder than I intended. Rear legs were showing 218% stress, levelling to nominal as the pad clamps locked the ship down. Crew running underside were connecting power and life support supply, and the shields started to replenish faster with all the power flowing in. I removed my helmet and release the safety harness.
Extracting myself from Minotaur’s command chair with difficulty, I tapped Gustavo’s shoulder as I walked past his seat, with a weak grin: “Good job up there Gus. That’s quite a few more kill marks to put on the Condor’s paint scheme pattern. And good job handling Minotaur in the furball when I was running the fighter. You really ought to get yourself a Commander license one day. Just don’t do it right away. We need you in here!”
“It’s all good boss. With the two from today, that’s nine dead cutters since the war began. We’ll get through this, you’ll see.” How the big man could maintain such a positive outlook day after day, no matter the hardship, even with his troubled history was one of the wonder of this universe. He sure was well paid, with more than 100 Mil creds to his name up to now, but that wasn’t enough to explain it. Hell, I had a whole lot more than 100 Mil creds to my name, and I wasn’t sharing his level of optimism.
Still, the last two days had brought good news. Lots of sweat, oil, blood and death, as well, but getting the big ships out and everybody, - not only our squadron – pushing hard with no stops gave encouraging results. We had been able to control Kurtz outpost space for most of the day, enough to unload close to a dozen type-7 worth of weapons for the boys fighting inside. And they were maintaining control of three of the five hangars. The battle was still intense, but the initial imperial push had not been maintained at the same intensity and things were getting better.
Just as I was stepping out, looking forward to a quick shower and some z, however, Gustavo Hendricks went on: “Cmdr, There is this one thing however that I wanted to talk to you about. It’s… “
I completed: “Harleen.” Seeing the big man relieved expression, I knew I was right. It had not been a hard guess. The use of “Cmdr.” To address me within the ship rather than the usual “Boss”, “skipper” or just “Nick”, the fact that he waited until the moment I was about to leave ship, it all pointed to a conversation he was expecting to be disagreeable. And seeing the younger pilot seething on the ground during the last few days, it wasn’t exactly hard to line up the dots.
I waived it away before stepping out. “Gustavo, you know what I am going to tell you. Harleen’s still a novice. I know she wants to get in the furball, but this... This is above her level for now. You saw how it was today. For Pete’s sake, you got shot down twice. Harleen would just go through fighters as fast as Minotaur could print them. And it would endanger everybody. From me to Gaudrork to the boys’ pilots and the troops fighting in Kurtz.”
“Aye boss. I know you are right. But the kid, she’s learning fast. And she wants to help…”
“I know. But this is not the place and time for learning. Too much is at stake. And she is not a kid. She can understand. I’ll speak with her today. But for now, I need that 2 hours of rest while the deck crew ready up Minotaur for another sortie. And do the same. You’ll be in the black again in three-oh-oh.”
“Aye aye Cmdr.” The big man turned around in his seat and started unplugging his pilot suit from the console.
Two hours sleep, even with chems, had not been enough. My head was throbbing. The drugs-laced coffee wasn’t nearly enough to allow me to fully concentrate and stay on top of my game. Harleen Lynch was sitting on a chair in front of my desk, talking. I could not make out what she was saying. I needed to get a grip, the war required it, hell, my crew was requiring it right now. I focused on the young woman and gulped the black drought down.
“[noise and angry mumblings] … And I can do it. I can help. And Gustavo could actually sleep!”
Harleen was combative. Aggressive maybe. The woman was in her mid-twenties, a good pilot but brash and still at the dangerous stage where she thought she was a lot better than she actually was. I had hired her a few months ago, as I was starting to think about gearing up for the Thargoid war following a notice about possible call up from the federal navy reserve. My thinking at the moment was that she could grow into a Thargoid hunting specialist. She was getting pretty good with the Trident already. But the Guardian fighter wasn’t the most useful craft against imperial ships. Especially not with a novice pilot in the telepresence cockpit.
“Harleen, I understands the situation. I know that you don’t agree, but you are not ready. Your combat rank is still only halfway past novice. Do you know how many Novice pilots me and Gustavo killed this morning?”
She missed a beat, but recovered immediately: “I don’t care Skipper! I’m better than they were, and you will be at the helm of Minotaur, for God’s sake! None of us will die!”
Harleen stopped, surprised. I took the opportunity to continue.
“We killed no Novice pilots, because there were none. Because the Imps had the brain of not bringing any of thoses to the fight. And let me tell you one, even the Expert ones, they went down like flies. And you know very well that Expert is a full two ranks above what you have yet demonstrated or qualified for.”
She was crimson now, but still searching on how to counterattack. I went on.
“Harleen, you are a fine pilot but you still have to learn a lot. Experience. Type ratings. Plasma physics. Besides, you are still getting paid just the same. How many pilots get that kind of money while staying safe?”
That last line was a mistake. She jumped on it with a vengeance: “I don’t want to stay safe. I want go out out in the black and help. Fight! Qualify for that competent combat rating and the following ones! Gustavo just made his Deadly rating last night! We went to celebrate, remember? He’s paid more than the double of my salary! How will I ever get to get those ranks if you keep me in the hangar bay?”
“Skipper, remember when you hired me” She continued, a bit smoother, some of her anger spent, at last; “You said that you had lost many a crewmember, and that this jig would be very dangerous.. That you had more crew die on you than retire. And that you wanted to hire me specifically to hunt Thargoids, the most dangerous foe there is. And I still signed up. Now, after all that, you can’t keep me outside the ship because it is dangerous. I don’t care. And If I did I would not have hired on your crew. Now, Have I knew that you were planning on keeping me down here, I would not have either. I would have hired with someone willing to let me fly.”
Some of her anger was definitely making a comeback. My head was throbbing worse than ever, and I needed to shape up for the next sortie in less than an hour. This needed to end now.
“Harleen, we can have a longer discussion about this after the war. I took you on the security sweeps in Upaniklis on several occasions. You qualified up to that novice rank during those. This is war and you are not ready, I will not let you endanger needlessly yourself, myself, and everybody here counting on the squadron. You will not fly on Minotaur until this operation is complete. Now, you can either accept it and help in every way possible, that is on the hangar deck here – or… you can take your leave. I would much rather have you stay with this crew, you are a good, promising pilot, and I do intend on fighting Thargoids sometimes after all this is over. But I will understand if you can’t wait. There is probably a Cmdr. or free trader here in Arantilae that will hire you. Again, please - please don’t, but I will not make it difficult if you choose to.”
She looked at me disbelievingly and stormed out of the room. I took my aching head in my hands, elbows on the table for a second before getting up to the briefing area. That went pretty bad. We are turning this war around, destroying literally billions of credits worth of imperial shipping every day, but I can’t even keep my crew in shape. I f****d up.
I have no clue whether I still have 2 pilots on my crew.