Vekta Prime Orbital
Michi Aurelia Elizabeth Maganza gazed pensively out of the sleek little yacht’s sweeping windows, drinking in the view as they approached. Vekta Prime was an inferno of industry, a once-barren planet slowly being covered in the creeping metal tendrils of industrial blast furnaces, endless factory complexes and sprawling production lines, its face scarred by centuries of strip-mining and quarrying on an almost inconceivable scale. Even its atmosphere – thin and laden with exotic industrial pollutants from the never-ceasing foundries – bore human incursion; the spires of hypercorporation towers standing proudly above the clouds, the din, the noise and the hive-like drudgery of the lower levels.
The planetary orbits, too, were as cluttered and busy as the rest. There were satellites strung like pearls across a hundred different altitudes, networks of microgravity foundries and laboratories with a constant shuttle of small craft dancing between them, orbital warehouses and – the crucible of it all – the shipyards themselves, dominating the planetary view.
Stretching for miles, sprawling spiderwebs of gleaming metal burning in the light of the twin suns of Vekta-2 and Vekta-4, they were the pinnacle of industry in the system, where raw material from the asteroid smelters and the planetside factories was forged into everything from in-system cutters to the latest Union battleship.
UNSF Tevura had come from here, as in fact had her own runabout, the little indulgence she was currently using for her trip to Vekta Orbital, but whilst she was grateful to the system, and impressed by the industrial colossus, it wasn’t somewhere she’d ever wanted to live. Too much of a rat-race, drearily industrialized until that was the be-all and end-all.
“Coming in to dock, captain,” came the pilot’s soft, lilting voice, shaking her out of her reverie. Sure enough, the vast bulk of Vekta Orbital turned serenely close by, studded with a million points of light that grew and grew as they drew ever nearer.
“Very good, pilot,” Michi replied, her voice calm and unruffled. She ignored the stupendous sight in front of them with a spacer’s long ease, and focused on the task in hand. First impressions were important, after all, and the gravity of what lay ahead could scarcely be overstated. For that reason, she was in immaculate mess-dress, her skin just a shade or two lighter than the space-black of the perfectly-tailored uniform. Gold braid gleamed brightly against it, the three rings at her cuffs marking each of her commands, and her constellation of medals – the actual medals themselves, gleaming clusters of gems and precious metal rather than the more usual ribbons – shone like miniature suns in the night.
Docking was always a tricky manoeuvre, even with the most modern software and AI ship-handling routines, made even more so by the frenetic activity of Vekta Orbital, but Michi’s pilot was one of UNSF Tevura’s best, and he handled her sleek yacht with consummate skill, slotting them into the endless streams of traffic with barely a ripple and setting them down in their allocated bay – one of thousands, easily – without so much as a hum of protest from the gravitics.
“Nicely done, Mr. Quartermain,” she complimented as the doors hissed open and she disembarked, taking a breath of station air laden with grease and the tang of hot metal. “Enjoy your shore leave.” Everywhere there were people – teams of mechanics racing from one job to the next, counter-grav forklifts humming to and fro with pallet upon pallet of cargo, customs officials and the dock police looking busy and officious – and Michi let herself be swept away into the tide.
That was the trick – you didn’t fight it. Swim with it, ride it to your destination, move through the currents of people, always being in just the right place at the right time, as natural as a sunrise. Other people found it difficult or downright impossible – Michi had never understood why. Half of it was just patterns, seeing the greater whole in the lesser pattern, and the other half was knowing where you were. She had always known that, and the Captain slipped into the teeming mass of humanity that was Vekta Orbital easily.
Her credentials meant she skipped the Gordian knot of customs and immigration – there were perks to being in the military, after all – and she soon found herself at her destination. A quick once-over – uniform still perfect, dress shoes still glossy and bright, not a single braid of silvery hair out of place – and then in, striding forward with measured confidence, bracing to her white-gloved salute with the ease of long service.
“Captain Maganza, reporting for the selection process,” she stated smartly, offering a brief but courteous smile.
A young blonde receptionist smiled at her with a somewhat tired face, having most likely spent most of the day here without much of a break, directing the applicants to their designated interview rooms. “I bid you Welcome to Vekta Prime Orbital, Captain. I assume you are here because of you Section 1-24-C Application?” The question was purely rhetorical, since the Captain’s formal attire was a dead give away.
“May I please see your Citizen PassCard for confirmation?”
Michi nodded sharply. “Of course. A moment, if you please.” Quickly sliding her hand into her pocket, she tugged out the slim piece of elaborately-hologrammed and watermarked plastic, encoded with the very best in Union security and all her personal data besides - DNA, fingerprints and much else besides, every physical parameter and particular faithfully recorded. “Here you go, miss.” It gleamed brightly in the receptionist’s hands, and Michi kept an eye on it, more out of habit than anything, maintaining her perfect poise.
“Thank you.” The young woman took the card, and effortlessly passed it over the scanner that was behind the desk. A hologram appeared in between Michi and the receptionist, detailing the relevant identification information about the mess-dressed woman before her.
Satisfied, she handed the Captain’s PassCard back with the same smile as she greeted her with. “Here you are.” She said as she turned back to the hologram at large, the interface changing with the keystrokes of her slender fingers, checking a database of thousands upon thousand of appointments for the day, all of them, just to be on the Dreadnought.
“You are the 185th selected applicant for the Captain’s role, ma’am.” She glanced back at the Captain to read her expression at the note more than anything else. “Mr. Casvak will see you in Room 28 - 3rd Floor.” With a polite nod, she added. “Good Luck, Ma’am.”
“Much obliged.” Michi’s own smile was bright and white, there and gone in a flash. This would be the plum command in the entire Fleet; everyone wanted it. Hardly surprising that every captain - and probably every admiral worth their salt who wasn’t hopelessly superannuated - had thrown their cap into the ring. Such an opportunity came along once in most people’s lifetime, and even with life-extension it was a rare thing. Still, a hundred and eighty-four candidates before her, and heavens knew how many after...
Not the time to dwell on it. “And good luck to yourself, too, given that list.” She nodded towards the still-scrolling hologram and then wheeled smartly towards the stairs, her boots clicking at a measured pace on the polished floor. Three floors - definitely no need for a lift.
The third floor stretched off into anonymity when she arrived, a network of hallways and doors and discreet signage. Very bureaucratic. Third floor, room twenty-eight. Mr. Casvak. As often happened, the directions squirrelcaged around in her forebrain, even as her optical overlay helpfully drew a route on her vision, a gleaming turquoise line in midair.
‘Remember, Michi, you are good enough to be here. Jimmy Beaufort and Rear Admiral Akriti wouldn’t have supported you if they didn’t think so.’ There! Room Twenty-Eight, an anonymous rectangle of metal with a discreet number 28 lasered into its surface. She pressed her hand to the controls, waiting for its acknowledgement, and when it chirped cheerfully in acknowledgement she stepped forwards smartly.
Her eyes drank in the room revealed, gaze sweeping every detail even as her mouth murmured the expected courtesies. “Captain Maganza reporting. Mr. Casvak, I presume?”
“Ah…” The man stood from his seat. The place looked like an interrogation room, two chairs across from each other, and a simple table in between. It seemed like the room, as well as perhaps many of the others, were simply, and hastily assembled, solely for the purpose of these interviews.
The man himself was middle-aged, around the same age as Maganza, with the odd grey hair complimenting his sleek business haircut. He extended his hand in greeting for a shake. “The very same. Please, take a seat Captain.”
She shook his hand, briefly but firmly, trying to get a measure of the man. “Thank you, Mr. Casvak.” It was almost a certainty that there were others listening in; in this day and age it was laughably easy to observe and interact from afar. There were far too many power sources and cables humming with energy threaded through the fabric of the office for even Michi’s enhanced sight to identify any such devices, but she resolved to keep it in mind as best she could. Mr. Casvak was important, no doubt about that, but there were almost certainly others watching and listening in the shadows.
Obediently sat opposite the business-suited gentleman - not obviously military, maybe Intelligence, or possibly even a government official - she regarded him closely, looking for the flaws, the clues, the angles. People gave a lot away, often without meaning to, in the tone of their voice, the shift of their body, the shift and change of expressions across their face, and Michi’s neural lace helped her catalogue and identify each and every one.
“Right…” The man took his seat, and while the Captain had not noticed before, there was a folder on the table, a Paper folder, of all things. Paper was rarely used these days, if at all. The only thing that came to mind would be traditional art.
He opened the folder slowly, being careful with it as he was presented with the very first page of Captain Maganza’s entire life, on print. “With the pleasantries out of the way, let’s get started.” He gave her a long scanning gaze before he continued. “I assume you fully understand the seriousness of this application. Being the Captain of a Dreadnought is not by any means an easy task.”
She returned his gaze levelly, evenly, her own eyes wide and dark and utterly guileless. “Quite so. Nothing worthwhile ever is, in my experience - and a dreadnought is a rare experience indeed! I would like to think that my command experiences-” the constellation of medals at her breast gleamed in the dim light, and acres of densely-printed old-fashioned type detailed chapter and verse of her captaincies, from the fraught running battle that was her action in the Reach, acting as a Q-ship against armed merchant raiders, through to the triumphant Battle of Matapan, where UNSF Tevura had been the hammer-and-anvil against a bloody coup attempt “-will stand me in good stead, but I would be a fool not to admit that command of the Apollyon - should I be granted the honour, of course - will be new territory in many ways.” A brief smile, bright white against her dark skin. “For myself, for the crew, and for the Union.”
“Hmph, let’s skip the patriotic song and dance here, Captain. You aren’t here to sell me your loyalty. We already know who is loyal and who is seen as a threat to the project.” The man looked down at the folder in front of him and listed through a couple of pages. “While your list of accolades is quite impressive with your short Captaincy, I’m here to see if your experience will keep the UNSF Apollyon afloat. There are greater dangers than Rebels and a band of traffickers and pirates out there.”
“What I have in front of me is your whole life story. And as you are probably aware, these military documents are third hand reports of your actions by the Admiralty.” He paused as the quickly skimmed a few sections of text. “I’d like to hear from your perspective as to the events that transpired at the Reach, if you would be so kind. How you went about the whole scenario…”
Michi leaned forwards, eyes sharp. “Proving my loyalty wasn’t my intent, Mr. Casvak. We’ve built a dreadnought; that changes things. We’ve been building it for fifty years, but there’s a great deal of difference for our neighbours between a lump of metal in a shipyard and a fully-functional ship. Which will undoubtedly operate far beyond Union borders and Union oversight, and whoever ends up in command will end up, sooner or later, representing the Union. New frontiers - for all of us.” She nodded once, sharply.
“The Reach.” A wash of nebulae and stars boiling in their own stellar cradles - the birth-wails of newborn solar furnaces screaming across every frequency, the death throes of ancient titans hurling radiation and stellar ejecta across the entire region. It also happened to lie foursquare across two of the most lucrative trade-routes in the Union, and therefore served as a haven for pirates and malcontents the region over.
“Escort duty - it was my first command, the Carillon. Beautiful ship - one of the old Starlight-class. We were - as I’m sure you know - detailed to escort a merchant convoy. Terraformers, medical supplies, industrial polymers - a relief train, for Ajax IV. At the time, we were strapped for ships, so we were the only escort. Six megafreighters, one disguised frigate, and the Reach seething with pirates. My crew weren’t too happy about it - I don’t blame them. Neither was I, and I know the merchantmen weren’t pleased either - but you work with what you’ve got.”
Had it been an informal retelling, Michi would have balanced her head in her hands, a classical thinking posture she often adopted whilst her mind was occupied elsewhere, either in memory or with an interesting new problem. But it wasn’t, and so she remained ramrod-straight, eyes boring into Mr. Casvak’s own. “The crew hated me at first; we needed to be in three places at once to cover the convoy, and they saw only the problem instead of trying to find solutions. Oh, we were as green as Albion! It had to be done, though, and I was damned if I was going to let my first command fall to pieces. Orders weren’t working, though; people were stressed already - everyone knew the Reach was full of pirates, it wasn’t so much a case of if you were attacked so much as when, and how much they’d make off with. So I tried the indirect approach; if your full-frontal’s going to be a massacre, you pull away before you get shot to pieces, reassess and sneak in the back. Figured it was at least worth a try.”
“Some captains think they ought to be above everyone else. Unapproachable - God aboard the ship. Unless there’s an admiral’s flag aboard, of course. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Casvak, that’s a dangerous attitude to have - people bottle their problems, and it all festers away until something goes bang. Often the ship. So, since the direct approach was likely to get me hung, drawn and quartered by a very new and very stressed crew, I made a point of having drinks in the crew bar. Playing a hand of Perseid-Six for cocktail umbrellas. Talking. And people opened up. I went from having a crew who sat in silence when I asked for options to people volunteering. Suggesting things, improvements, ways to be better. Modified recon drones that burst-transmitted rather than continuous broadcast, so they’d cut through the background interference. Cargo containers modified into missile pods. And so on. By the time we actually hit the Reach itself, we thought we were ready.”
She shook her head. “We weren’t. Oh, we’d done what we could, but the operational theatre had changed and we didn’t have a blind clue. The pirates had been stepping up their attacks, and a lot of the carrying trade had dried up. Six megas and an aux freighter - which was our disguise - was far too big a prize to pass up. The first attack was easy, a converted Mercury-class with its holds stuffed full of shuttles. They crossed our T, pretty as you like, and a broadside at close range when they demanded to board wiped them out to a man.” She smiled at the memory, but it was a smile tinged with a certain amount of foreshadowed regret. “Gunny - Gunnery Sergeant Larssen - bragged we’d get from one side of the Reach to the other without a scratch on the paintwork.” That grin again, without amusement, knowing what price had been paid down the line. “Overconfidence. We were still in the shallows of the Reach, way off the Screaming Sisters or the Cauldron or any of the other big hazards, but we’d crushed a slaver like a bug and we were riding high on that - me included. Turned out, though, they were just a splinter group, scavengers at the very edges of the main horde, eking out a hardscrabble existence on the fringes of the pirate warlords’ territories.” Michi sighed. “We did damned well for the next six days, though - and all praise to the troopers and lancers, too. I thought - we all thought - it would be plain sailing. We’d smashed our way into the shadow of one of the Screaming Sisters - I think it was A - without much in the way of damage; one of the merchies had a breach in a depressurised empty hold from a lucky shot, I think, and we’d lost a sensor cluster on the port side, but that was about it.”
“They came at us out of the sun.” Another ghostly smile. “Hard not to, in the Reach, but the recon drones my engineer had cooked up did a good job of cutting through the interference. The Sisters are pulsars, though - or something similar - and the pirates came right out of one of the radiation beams, right when it blinded us. Didn’t even know we were under attack until the first shots hit the shields. I had us put hard over and got Comms to focus in the recon shell we’d been using; I figured enough burst transmitters with enough power would get something through, and it was better than flying blind. Cost us a hell of a lot of platforms, and two of my crew when a lucky shot smashed into the prow, but it worked.” A pause. “Frigate versus heavy cruiser - I have no idea what it started out as, and I still don’t, they made that many changes to it - should be a foregone conclusion. But I figured we were in a bit of what you might call a special situation - deep in the Reach, the gas thicker than an Old Earth pea-souper, the Screaming Sisters on one side and the Cauldron a couple of light-years on the other. We could go forward and fight, or we could surrender. Both bad options - terrible, really - but those were the choices I could see. Fight and have a chance of winning and seeing the convoy through to Ajax, or surrendering and having no chance at all. We were both half-blinded by the Sisters - the pirates definitely knew the nebula a hell of a lot better than we ever did, but there’s only so far local knowledge takes you when a pulsar or three are screaming in your ear. I told the merchants to make a run for it - there was an outside chance they’d make it, even if we didn’t - and had Gunny get their attention.” A vicious smile, at remembered carnage inflicted on the enemy.
“I don’t think they expected it; we did more damage than we had any right to expect in that first salvo. Whole bridge was cheering - me as well, I don’t mind saying. Saw her acceleration drop right off; I actually thought we’d hit her engines or compensator. But no.” An ugly expression flashed across her face for a moment, and then cleared. “They suckered us in nice and close, then opened up once we were in energy range. It practically gutted us, but m’helmsman had the reactions of a cat and rolled us just before they fired. Bad enough what we did take; hundreds of men dead and most of our broadside out of commission, fires everywhere, but if that full broadside had hit square-on we’d have had our back broken in an instant and I wouldn’t be sitting here today.” Michi shrugged. “After that, it was a long slogging match. Two lame ducks battering at one another, whilst with every second our convoy was getting closer to safety. They shot off all but two of our kinetics, the entire starboard beam array was so much slag and I think we had about six missile launchers left by the end, but every member of my crew stayed at their posts and kept firing. They did their duty, Mr. Casvak, and I am damned proud to have known and served with each and every one of them.” Another deep, lingering breath. “Just before that cruiser went down, though, they managed to get off a signal to their friends.” Michi all-but spat the word, her lips curling in disdain. “And so my wreck of a frigate spent the next week limping with our convoy and throwing what felt like everything but the kitchen sink at a stream of pursuers until the Thunderchild heard our distress calls and intercepted in the shallows on the other side of the Reach. We were exhausted, we had next to no fuel left, life support was shot to pieces and we were living out of our suits…” Michi shook her head. “Finest crew I could ever have asked for. And they still followed me, even after we’d lost half our complement to battle damage, and another quarter to boarding action. I had five troopers left at the end, but they’d made the pirates pay richly in blood for every inch of my ship they tried to take.” Michi sighed. “You want to know what makes me tick, Mr. Casvak? Down in the dark? All my dead, and how to be better next time.”
“What makes a great Captain, isn’t just the apathy, the idea of being God, or their strategies, but the ties to their crew. You received several accolades for bravery as well as many recommendations from the Admiralty, more specifically, from Admiral James Beaufort. He was highly impressed with your courage and fortitude in the line of duty, as he stated.” The man replied. His face utter stone, having heard many such tales today, and in the past during this interview process. “There were certain decisions that you made during your engagement with the heavy cruiser that cost the lives of your crew. More specifically how you dealt with the boarding assault unit. I’d like you to detail the situation for me, how you solved it, and how it felt…”
“I hate boarding actions,” Michi replied bluntly. “They never occur in isolation - in my experience, anyway - and I’m no lancer or trooper either. Ships are my bailiwick; they’re what I know. The combat courses at the Academy are all very good, but I know damn well I’m not a Marine or a mech pilot. I appreciate their skills, but I will be the first to admit I’m not an expert on our ground forces.” She raised one sardonic eyebrow. “Which is probably why I hate being boarded; dealing with it is not my forte and I know it. As a captain, I’m used to naval combat and I am the master of my ship. I know what she can do, how she’ll react, how to get the best out of every straining bulkhead and bolt. With a boarding action, I don’t. I have to cede control to the troopers and trust them to keep the butchers from my door, whilst I continue to orchestrate the naval battle itself. Much though I might like to exercise my combat training and vaporize the enemy, I know I’m more useful on the bridge directing things there.” Another smile, this one wry. “I know it here-” she tapped her head “-but here-” she tapped her heart “-is rather different. They’re my people, and I don’t like knowing they’re fighting and dying in the corridors of my ship whilst I watch.” She paused. “So, to answer what I did during the boarding assault? I fought my battered ship and the enemy cruiser, and coordinated with Major Petrov, and then Captains Relais, Baring-Gould and Aristides, and then their Lieutenants, and so on down the line as more and more of them died. I monitored the situation when I could spare the attention from the ship-to-ship battle. Brought the internal guns online when they could do the most damage, and blew out bits of the ship if the depressurisation would give us the advantage. We had to hold the reactor rooms and the bridge; those were our objectives. I knew it, the troopers knew it, the rest of the crew knew it; if we lost one of those then everything was lost - and we didn’t lose them. It was a terrible price to pay, but if I’d tried to take command? Overruled the commander of my troopers and lancers? We’d have lost our entire detachment in the first ten minutes when the pirates plasma-bombed the main companionway, and the pirate cruiser would have either taken us as a prize or blown us to stardust.”
A deep breath. “I think that was the hardest lesson, really. And probably one of the better ones. I’m not ever going to be the best at everything, and commanding the infantry isn’t what I know, but letting someone else fight that battle for me was harder than pretending I knew exactly what I was doing and that I had a brilliant master plan.”
“Hmph, I see…” The interviewer took a clean sheet of paper from the folder, and began taking notes, detailing the Captain’s responses, and her reactions to her own words. “For my next inquiry I’d like for you to detail the Battle of Matapan and your actions there.”
“Matapan. I was commanding the Tevura, then, as part of the Sixth Fleet. Not even out on wargames, just showing the flag and doing a pirate sweep, all fairly routine – although the Cluster had become a little tenser than usual at the time. The Albion Ripple, you know – although at the time, everyone feared it’d be an Albion Crash instead. A shock to food prices, bulk haulage fees rising, questions over the viability of the farms and so on. Rear Admiral Chandra had her flag aboard Tevura, too, so we were serving as flagship. Everything all seemed so normal; there were agitators and protestors, of course, the usual anti-military, anti-Establishment rhetoric and propaganda on the news and the opinion shows, but nothing out of the ordinary.” A wry smile.
“The insurrectionists had the nous to wait until Sixth Fleet had gone out-system before they launched their attempt. Oh, they were clever people...up to a point. Captured the orbitals, Astro control, the SD grid…even if there was planetary resistance on Matapan, there wasn’t a lot the Cluster governor could do, with the rebels having orbital superiority with the platforms and the system defence force too.” Michi steepled her fingers and gazed pensively past Mr. Casvak.
“So the question was, what do we do? We could have opened fire at extreme range, saturated Matapan orbit and then sent in the cruisers in hunter-killer packs to cut the defence force to pieces – but if we’d done that, stray ordnance would have turned Matapan from a garden world into a tomb. Not much of a chance of the local government being able to retake control on their own; any large concentrations of force, and a couple of areas that weren’t quite quick enough to declare their loyalty got hit with SD strikes. Best part of a quarter-million people in the stations around Matapan, too, and a nasty defence force giving the enemy teeth. And let’s not forget, Matapan was the lynchpin, but it wasn’t the only system that thought it’d be better off with someone else in charge. Hells, at the time Admiral Chandra and I thought the whole Cluster had gone up – which was at least part of the reasoning behind our plan to go for a decapitation strike; we couldn’t wait for the enemy to concentrate their forces.” Michi leaned back.
“I planned quite a bit of the battle, with the admiral. Who came up with what became a bit of a moot point somewhere down the line; we both made so many changes and improvements to the plan it didn’t really matter who’d had the idea first. Tevura and the battleship squadron stayed skulking around the very edges of the system; I sent in frigate and cruiser wolfpacks under the best emissions control they could manage to get us information, to keep the enemy on their toes, to draw them out of position.” A smile – no, a baring of the teeth, no humour at all. “Tired people make mistakes. They don’t look as hard for the clues, they’re easier to press to rash action. Sixth Fleet could afford to rotate its cruiser squadrons between tease duty and being back with the main fleet, whilst the op force couldn’t – or not to the same extent, anyway, so in fairly short order our opponents were overtired and overstressed commanders jumping at smoke and mirrors. We took a few potshots, of course – we’d have been hung for being a paper tiger otherwise – but we gave the order to conserve fire – we couldn’t risk hitting Matapan itself at those sorts of ranges.”
“Of course, it grated on us as well, playing cat and mouse – it was really a question of who would break first, and in the end that was us. Akriti – Admiral Chandra – and I were getting very concerned about the possibility of enemy reinforcements to break the deadlock, so we dug out an old bait-and-switch tactic, of a sort, to force the issue before the weight of fire fell in favour of the enemy. So we took Tevura and a half-strength cruiser squadron up out of the plane of the ecliptic, under as much emissions control as we could manage, and angled in on Matapan. Trying to make it look like we were attempting a stealth insertion whose cover got blown when Tevura had a reactor failure – we used one of the hundred-megaton fusion bombs as close as we dared, launched a few lifepods and brushed up on our acting over the comms, hoping their sensors wouldn’t be able to work out the difference. An educated guess and a calculated gamble, but it worked; a detachment came haring out of the inner system straight for us…and they ran right into our minefield. Missiles running on trickle power, passive sensors only, kicked out along the most likely intercept vectors. I figured we wouldn’t be bombing the planet with our hundreds, either, so I put them to a different use and salted the minefield with them for good measure. A hundred megaton fusion explosion, at what amounts to knife range? Most of the enemy force was vaporized outright, the rest were tumbling wrecks.”
“Whilst I was busy playing bait, we used the distraction to coast Sixth Fleet in closer, sliding them in behind the out-of-position defence force. Classical trick; divide and rule. We had the enemy force between us – Tevura and the squadron on one side, the rest of the fleet on the other. Hammer and anvil.” Michi’s grin was a sharply vicious thing as she put fist and palm together with a resounding smack. “By god, sir, they fought well, keeping their battered ships going even when they were pounded almost to scrap, but we were the superior tacticians that day and our guns brought them down in the outer system, out of range of the inner-system defence pods which were our next problem.” She shrugged. “For the big ships – Tevura, Majestic, Soliveil and the rest – it was an exercise in weathering the storm, whilst Majestic’s fighter wings hunted. Our sensors were good, but a missile pod or beam platform is a damned small target in a solar system. Not something for a battleship’s guns to try and shoot. Didn’t have it all our own way, either – Matapan had gotten some of the newest system-defence platforms a few months before the insurrection, and they were vicious. Beam cannon that could core a battleship, outsized missiles that came screaming in at velocities our counters could barely match, the works.” Her smile was faint. “They tell me I’m hard on my ships – I put Tevura and the rest of the squadron between Majestic and the worst of it; we needed her fighter bays to sweep the system and go near-atmosphere to deal with the SD platforms around the planet itself, as well as for the antimissile screen, and I wasn’t about to leave our boys and girls out in the black without a home base. Well,” she added after a moment, “That and I needed them refuelled and rearmed to complete the objectives, not drifting around like very expensive kites in Matapan orbit.”
A shrug, deliberately nonchalant. “After we killed the last of the in-system platforms, it was a case of mopping up. Ballistic insertions onto the major orbitals, so the enemy couldn’t deorbit them in some misguided attempt to stop us from retaking Matapan…and the little matter of the rebellion’s military leadership on the planet itself. By that point, we held orbital supremacy, but their nasty little ace-in-the-hole was a roundup of civilians – mostly business people and tourists from New Terra and Albion, they had enough decency-” Michi’s lips curled at the word, her tone making her feelings clear “-not to use their own people as a meatshield. I don’t have much patience for slaughter, and neither did the rest of the fleet. Admiral Chandra had a flight of attack shuttles and the ship’s company of troopers ready to drop and secure the hostages – they had thousands – and I used a little light megaton rainfall, followed up with a kinetic barrage, to signal the attack. And to eliminate rebellion command at a stroke, admittedly.”
“Except, a portion of the barrage missed… Can you tell me what the Marines found, Captain?” The man added.
Michi was silent for a long time, and when she spoke again her voice held the flat tones of someone with iron-hard self-control. “Craters, Mr. Casvak. Lots of craters. The shattered and burning hulks of seven eight-hundred-storey counter-gravity residential towers…and the remains of most of the city around them. The shadows of thousands of people blasted into ash by the plasma pulse of our orbital rounds, miles and miles of twisted air-car wreckage from the EMP discharges, and thousands of acres of drowned land from the shattered dams.”
“Upon that discovery, what happened next, Captain? The report that I have in my hands has failed to mention things. Despite all the glowing recommendations, everyone makes mistakes. And we know a few things that this document doesn’t state.” The man paused pensively. Reading the Captain’s eyes, seeing her pain at the mention of the findings despite maintaining a hard face.
“Perhaps I don’t really need you to tell me. Your eyes tell me enough.” Satisfied, he took some additional notes before continuing.
“That will be enough for the history recap. I’m going to present you with some possible scenarios, should you end up captaining the 4000 meter hulk out in orbit. I would like it if you answer honestly and to the best of your ability.”
Michi blinked at the sudden change in direction and fought to regain her equipoise, shaking her head as if to clear the lingering threads of memory from it. A few things the files don’t say? And if that’s not calculated to knock me off-guard I don’t know what is. “Go right ahead, sir.”
“For the first scenario, it may be a little personal.” He paused, thinking of potential possibilities before he started. “The Apollyon and a Dreadnought of the Galan Empire have been slugging at each other for several hours, damage to both ships is major, and both vessels are now in boarding range. One of the Marines that you send aboard, is a man you have grown affectionate to during your time on the Apollyon. A romance, if you will. Mind you, to answer this question, try to think in the moment, and imagine. Place yourself on the Bridge inside your mind” He continued after interrupting himself.
“During the boarding action, the Imperials mount a hard defence across multiple decks as your loved one’s team desperately push their way towards the Bridge. But as the Apollyon and the hostile Dreadnought continue to exchange blows, one of the Apollyon’s guns manages to hit the enemy’s reactor square on, sending it into critical meltdown. Knowing this, your order the Marines back on board, but they decline your orders, to prevent a desperate enemy's attempt to take down the Apollyon with a suicidal reactor meltdown at close-range.”
“Will you allow your marines this, on the basis of sound judgement? This, knowing this will directly cause loss of life of personnel involved, including his.”
Michi fought down a totally inappropriate grin at her interviewer’s mistake. Not an uncommon one, particularly since it wasn’t something the Navy needed to know, but amusing nonetheless.
“It would tear my heart to pieces, but yes,” she said eventually, endeavouring to reframe the interviewer’s question in her head. “They are a military officer, same as me. The risks are there for them just as they are for me every time we sail. I couldn’t stop them even if I tried, in your scenario, and I’d hope anyone I…entered into a relationship with…would do exactly what you’ve just said, with the information they have. Thousands of crew aboard the Apollyon…versus a marine team.” Her smile was bitter. “It’s the bitter algebra of survival, Mr. Casvak. A wretched equation I’m more familiar with than I’d like.”
She regarded him intently for a moment, and her tone was suddenly rather lighter and more whimsical than it had been before. “I’ve also never found men attractive, Mr. Casvak, so that particular aspect of your scenario would represent something of a departure from the norm. Just to note, in case you have any further hypothetical romantic entanglements for me.”
“Like I said, it was hypothetical.” The man replied with a smile. “How would you deal with the grief after the engagement?”
Michi’s eyes were dark as she thought, weighing up what her head said and what bitter experience had taught her. She could put up a facade as well as any captain, but that wasn’t dealing with it, that was bottling and repressing things. In public and for the good of crew morale, of course, but that wasn’t what the interviewer had actually asked.
“In the immediate aftermath? Break open the Britannia Reserve, and anything else I feel like. Raise a lot of glasses to her memory, and when I can see straight again go to the shooting range and blast away as many enemies as I can stomach. Cry.” A weak smile. “Watch our holos. Speak to her other friends, when I can stomach it. Speak to the CMO - BuPers would have my head if I didn’t, and they do usually know what they’re talking about. And…” a sigh.
“Carry on as best I can. My XO could handle things for a few days here and there, but a captain has to lead, sooner or later; you can’t wallow forever. Revenge is a nice idea, Mr. Casvak, but it’s messy hell in reality. I grieved for a lot of my crew after the Reach, and swearing revenge - pursuing revenge - is a recipe for self-destruction. Oh - and I’d arrange the funeral - funerals are cathartic. Closure.”
“I see.” The man nodded to himself, yet again taking notes. “We are reaching the conclusion of this interview. I have one final question for you.”
“If you're successful, I imagine you understand that at some point down the line, you too may have to conduct an interview in a similar fashion” he paused for a moment to take note of her reaction. “-for your own replacement. I would like you to give me an assessment of what traits you would identify as desirable in that replacement.”
Michi pursed her lips in thought. It was a question she’d wrestled with on more than one occasion in the past, but it had a certain…intensity…now. Hmm. Was it decisiveness? No, no – charging into things had its place, but…it wasn’t essential.
“Initiative, Mr. Casvak. Flexibility. The ability to adapt to changing situations, and turn them to your advantage. I think that’s going to be the most important trait for any senior officer on the Apollyon, to tell you the truth, and nowhere is that going to be more important than in the captain’s chair. Potentially halfway across the galaxy, too. Everything else is – is – important, too…decisiveness, intellect, a certain amount of courage - loyalty, as you mentioned earlier, goes without saying - but adaptability is probably going to be paramount. Clearly, I’d prefer someone who’d cheerfully hare off after whoever – or whatever – killed me to exact revenge, but that’s probably not what the ship will need. I can’t predict everything that’ll happen on the tour of duty – I doubt anyone will be able to – but we need people who won’t be utterly thrown by the bizarre, who can change on the fly to make the best of the circumstances they find themselves in.”
Taking his final notes, the man closes the folder and asks. “Before we end this. Can you narrow down a quality that you would look for? One that you lack?”
“Something I lack?” Michi stared at him for a moment, her mind flicking back through each of her executive officers in rapid-fire succession, thinking furiously about the ways they worked with her, areas in which they shone and she struggled. Massingley, pinpoint-precise and a demon for efficiency. Edwards, the genial and expansive XO who’d taught her more about managing a crew without looking like you were managing them than her entire experience at the Academy, and Carrington, her current XO, discreetly diligent.
“I think…someone who can be reasonable. Straightforward? If that’s the word I’m looking for?” Michi gestured airily, trying to pluck the thoughts from her head, to put the notions of cogitation into words. “I plan things, I take advice, opinions, input when I can, but…once I’ve formulated that plan, well. Sometimes I can get a little too attached. I can get bogged down in the details, when what I really need is just a big hammer to solve a problem. Someone who can recognize that, in themselves and in others, and won’t be afraid to say so, to do something about it.” A half-shrug. “Plus, if I’m dead or incapacitated, then all my planning has failed and that’s the point everyone might just need someone with a big hammer.”
“Hmm.” The man seemed pensive for a moment before reopening his folder, to write down a single sentence. Upon it closing again he continued. “This concludes the interview, Captain. You will be informed of any news in regards to your future. You may see yourself out. I wish you luck with the selection process.”
Michi blinked at the suddenness, and then rose, bracing to attention and snapping off a parade-ground salute in farewell. “Good day, Mr. Casvak.”
Well. That was...intense. Faster than I’d thought, too. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad.