Jack's eyes opened slowly the next morning to see the dull white ceiling of the small room his pay as a Barlon Security Pilot barely paid for. Coupled with the "free" training he'd have to pay for if he left, he could see why pilots like Cat and the rest of his squadron couldn't find other jobs if they wanted to.
A dull gray paint on the walls matched the ceiling that screamed of "maximum benefit" building, Barlon's euphemism for building as cheap as possible. Larger than most barracks because of his "marriage" to Vanessa whom they still hadn't figured out was an AI, it was still incredibly tiny compared to what he was accustomed to. Sure his hyperboat was smaller, barely large enough to mount a generator that could ride the gravity wells of wormholes or hyperspace, but at least it had a good excuse for its size.
This was permanent housing on a largely unsettled world and it was extremely odd to see anyone so space conscious, even on the more heavily settled eastern seaboard. Though he doubted that space had anything to do with the size. It was money. And Barlon had always been good at pinching pennies.
One of the reasons he couldn't understand why they treated their Barlon Security Pilots so badly. Surely training them better, providing better housing, and keeping squadron leaders from abusing them would save money in the long run wouldn't it? But it seemed as if they did not agree with him.
Jack jerked at the unexpected voice and turned to look across the room to the figure sitting in one of the two chairs he owned under Lucky’s name. Behind her the small table that split the smaller "kitchen" from the rest of the living quarters rested one foot on a book to keep it from rocking back and forth. Another quality item provided courtesy of Barlon. "What do you want?" Jack asked in a surly tone.
"To silence the auditory emanations of your body during sleep indicating sub optimal respiratory status," Vanessa responded in a flat tone of voice that suggested a software module not yet fully integrated into her main programming as she cocked her head to the side. "It frags up my ability to do what you want me to." Jack raised one eyebrow at the suggestive ending and shook his head. That was back to normal.
“You mean my snoring?"
"Cry me a river," Jack growled and swung his feet off the bed to sit up and groaned as the world spun around him. He shouldn’t have stayed so late at the bar last night but he’d wanted to forget that last run. He grabbed his uniform pants and shirt off the end table he’d picked up at a local thrift store, stood up, and walked into the only other room in his living quarters. It was a small bathroom, with almost enough room to turn around without knocking his elbows on anything, and the shower was nearly as roomy as the rest of it.
With another scowl, he dropped his clothes, stripped off his boxers, and stepped into the shower. Five minutes later, after a low pressure, look warm shower that was a logical continuation of Barlon’s minimal cost emphasis, Jack stood before the mirror, looking at a face he was only beginning to recognize. Well-groomed black hair topped eyes slightly larger than normal with yellow-irises, high pale-skinned cheekbones suggested possible Peloran parentage, and a shadow of whiskers covered his chin and lower cheeks. He shook his head and began to shave carefully, nicking himself in a few places and wishing for the hundredth time that he’d not had the bright idea to have his facial hair start growing again. Sure it made it look like he had less money to burn, but he was starting to wonder if the extra bit of cover was worth it. Actually, he was way past starting to wonder. Shaving hurt! He couldn’t understand how anyone could stand such a self-mutilating process. After he finished torturing himself, Jack pulled his uniform on and walked back into the main room of his quarters feeling reasonably refreshed and reasonably clean.
And very itchy. “You starched my uniform,” he growled as he looked at Vanessa balefully while holding his hand on the nastiest of the nicks. He didn’t want to bleed on his uniform after all.
“Barlon Security Force regulations require it.”
“Some regulations are meant to be broken,” Jack returned with a scowl, then shook his head, fussing with his tie to keep it from strangling him.
“Perhaps you could tell me which ones?” Vanessa smiled back and Jack’s scowl deepened, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
“This one for starters,” he finally growled and she cocked her head to the size quizzically.
“How many others are there?”
“I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I find them,” he retorted and turned to leave. “The replacement pilot arrives today,” he continued in a subdued tone. “I need to make sure the squadron is ready.”
“When will you be back?” the AI asked and Jack shrugged noncommittally
“I don’t know. It could take a while to show whoever it is how things work.”
“Poker or the bars?” Vanessa asked and Jack looked back at her, his mouth hanging open. “I think they should be pretty good in them by now,” the AI continued and Jack shook his head slowly. It was bad enough that his cover said they were married. She didn’t have to start nagging like it was true.
“It’s just a cover,” he explained quickly. “We don’t have to act like we’re married.”
“But if we don’t, the cover won’t be believed,” she responded and his jaw dropped again. “If you spend all your time at work or in the bars, who’ll believe we’re married?”
“You’d be surprised,” he muttered slowly. “Plenty of guys escape being nagged to death by doing just that.”
“And those would be the marriages that don’t work out,” Vanessa considered thoughtfully. “Are we going to do the whole divorce thing to keep up the act?” she asked and Jack’s shoulders slumped.
“Don’t tempt me. Now, I need to go to work to maintain my cover.”
“Ok. I’ll attempt to maintain our cover here while your gone,” the AI responded with a wink and Jack moved to open the door. “There’s a really nice looking gardener across the street,” she added and he stopped for a second, shook his head ruefully, and opened the door to walk out onto the pavement in front of the row of “houses” set aside for the married officers to rent. He paused for a moment, wondering if she was serious, and then shook his head. Better not to know. He had work to do.
The door to his office chimed with in an off tune manner that grated on Jack’s ears and he gritted his teeth as he put the paper and pen down on the desk. One of these centuries, maybe the fabled paperless society of ancient Terran fiction would come to be, but in the real world, armies and ships still crossed the stars on paper. He stood up, pulled the uniform jacket off the chair back, and put it on before standing stiffly behind the desk. Not a hard task considering how starched the jacket was.
“Open,” he ordered and the door slid open. At least some things didn’t need paperwork in triplicate to do what he wanted. His jaw twitched as the man walked in and for once he was glad he was already standing at attention. It took him almost three seconds to unlock his muscles as the pilot walked up to his desk crisply and then saluted perfectly. Jack returned his salute and the pilot dropped his hand down. His suspicions had been right. Barlon was sending a spy to make sure he was loyal. They’d only made one mistake.
“Lieutenant Vihon at your service,” the pilot announced crisply and brought his gaze around to Jack as he nodded in response. It looked like the gaze of a hunting animal sizing up its prey. It always had.
“Be seated,” Jack noted simply as he waved his hand at the only other chair in the room. Memories flashed through his mind, pictures of him and Vihon fighting side by side against their enemies. Years of fighting and hundreds of battles flickered through his mind in a second and he took a deep breath as he sat down as well. He was suddenly very glad for the facial restructuring. “And you can call me Lucky. Your squadron mates will designate you with your call sign so make a good impression. You probably don’t want to be known as Wheezy or Pincher,” he noted with a wink, generating a rare chuckle from Vihon. “It’s good to have you here by the way. We need all the good pilots we can get. The other Corporations have been raiding our lines heavily lately.”
“I’ve read the reports, sir,” Vihon responded calmly and Jack couldn’t help but compare his sitting posture to that of a snake waiting to strike. Vihon never relaxed. Never had.
“What did I say you could call me?”
“Ah…Lucky.” But sometimes he could be made uncomfortable, which was about as good as could be expected. After all, a little discomfort from time to time was good for the soul. At least that’s what he tried to tell himself. He didn’t want to think he did it just for the pure fun of it after all.
“Excellent. May I see your paperwork?”
“How do you know I’m a good pilot?” Vihon asked as he handed the paperwork.
“Easy,” Jack muttered jokingly. “Who else would they send to a Level One squadron?” he asked mockingly and put his hand out to receive it.
“Of course,” Vihon returned slowly as Jack dropped it on his desk and flipped through it, glancing at each page. At the pilot training checklist, he raised his eyebrows in surprise. Either Vihon had held back or he’d lost his touch. Jack was willing to bet on the first case.
“You really do have good piloting marks,” he noted in a surprised voice. The marks there were good, just not as good as Vihon should be able to do.
“Thank you…Lucky.” Jack smiled at Vihon’s obvious discomfort. Even in the old days he’d been very picky about following correct protocol. It had gotten them into more than one argument back then. But they’d been friends then, and now Jack was an unknown entity. Vihon wouldn’t argue. Still flipping through the sheets, he noted Vihon’s history file with interest. He didn’t think it would say where Vihon had worked before coming here, but he hadn’t expected the files to say he’d been working for Barlon Security back then either.
“You’ve been here for a while. Why don’t you have a higher rank?”
“I don’t have connections higher up,” Vihon noted simply and Jack nodding understandingly. It was a lie of course. Vihon always worked on connections. It was the first thing he did when entering a new situation. He’d always been better at playing politics than Jack, and without his connections they’d both probably be dead right now.
“I’m sorry,” Jack whispered. “Perhaps with us you can build a reputation worthy of your skills.”
“I hope so.”
“So, are you up for a tour of this fine ship? They’re almost done reloading the cargo bays with another shipment for New Mars and we’ll be launching tomorrow morning at the latest.”
“Of course. It is good to know your surroundings,” Vihon responded simply and Jack nodded slowly.
“And who you can trust,” Jack tacked on pointedly.
“And who you can trust,” Vihon repeated with a nod of his head as they stood up to leave the office.
“YEEEEHHAAAAAWWWW!” Benjamin screamed as he pulled the old Raven straight up into a climb, Elsie sitting in his lap the way every safety adviser ever born swore it was deadly to do. She echoed his excitement, throwing her head back onto his shoulder, her blonde hair flailing around madly. His arm wrapped around her, he leaned the throttle to the side, pulling the Raven into a spin of dizzying speeds as it continued to shoot straight up into the air.
Both of them laughing in delight at all the little toys they got to play with, Benjamin cut the engines and nosed the Raven over as it slowed down and then began to fall back towards the ground. The fighter shot down through the atmosphere like a knife, the speed ticking up a klick at a time as the altimeter dropped at a rate that would have terrified anyone less crazy. The ground grew in his view as Elsie giggled with delight, bracing against the inside of the cockpit with her feet and hands and pushing firmly into him. Not that that was a bad thing of course.
He smiled as the Barlon training grounds grew to fill his entire field of vision, waiting until well past the last moment to pull back the stick and reengage the engines. Gravity waves twisted as the engines powered up, and the fighter literally bounced off the ground, sending showers of pulverized rock flying hundreds of meters in every direction. “YEEEEEHHHAAAAAAAWWWWW” he screamed again, Elsie following suit as the fighter jumped like a bull in a bull riding contest, and felt tears coming to his eyes.
He blinked, pulled the fighter around, twisted the stick to spin it like a top, and fired flechettes and pulse lasers into the targets that somehow survived the hail of flying rocks as they slowed down. Then the fighter hung in the air for a moment, sitting on gravity like a surfer on a wave waiting for it to fling him forward, before shooting back over the trashed targeting range on the way back to Barlon’s maintenance yards.
“Oh wow,” Benjamin whispered as he checked the instruments to make sure everything was working.
“What a rush,” Elsie returned and leaned her head back on his shoulder. He surreptitiously took a sniff of her hair, considering that there were definitely worse positions to be in, and then got back to looking at the instruments.
“Look’s like this little bird passed her test,” he continued in a happy tone. “Let’s get back to the barn so we can finish up her paint job.”
The sun was setting as Jack walked into the repair hanger to see Elsie and Benjamin giggling as they put the final touches on his fighter. He scowled at the sight and shook his head. “Does it work?” he asked in an annoyed tone and they laughed back at him.
“Keep your shirt on,” Benjamin responded like usual. “You really ripped this poor girl up! But we just got done testing her and she works like a dream.”
“I hope the testing range survived,” Jack muttered and they giggled again in response. “You two are crazy,” he added and shrugged helplessly.
“Don’t worry,” Benjamin noted with a grin. “We’ll have the paint job ready by morning so you can look good flying out.”
“Great,” Jack muttered, rolling his eyes heavenward. “Now I get to go home and see if I’m still married.”
“You have no idea.”
“Actually,” Benjamin began with an urchin’s grin echoed on Elsie’s face. “I know exactly what you mean,” he finished and Jack sighed heavily before turning away. He ambled out of the hanger, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his uniform, and made a direct course for his “house”. No time for the bar tonight. Not that Vihon would have gone if he’d asked. That man never had liked the bars.