A blast from the past
Warrant Officer Vivian Ashe. Busy Adjutant getting stuff done on New Mir Station.
Old friend Admiral Queenie Baley. Ferrying diplomats on the FFC Argonaut.
In a past versus future clash of cultures, who will be the last woman standing?
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It was a shock when Queenie Baley’s face came up on her news feed.
Decades had passed and Vivian’d more or less forgotten the woman existed, let alone that she’d flagged Queenie as a person to stay up to date with.
Warrant Officer Vivian Ashe sat neatly at her slim view screen, and it was like one of those old vids – Queenie’s face got bigger and bigger, and the tired, worn-out room she sat in got smaller and smaller until there were only her memories of Queenie.
It was a distraction she could’ve done without.
Busy preparing the day’s papers for the Brigadier, with pretty much twelve hours of back-to-back meetings. Not to mention she was running late and still had to stack his worn and much-repaired chestnut coloured, real leather folio with the collated papers and a couple of his favourite pens.
Typical she should be in the last dinosaur’s office on New Mir Station, while Queenie was flying through space on the cutting edge of technology. But that’s infantry life for you.
Queenie’s long, dark hair was now perfectly white, secured in a simple and elegant style at the back of her head. And by comparison, her face was young and fresh. Perhaps even as young as the last time Vivian saw her, however many decades ago that was.
In her sleek, black, compression ship suit, Queenie was the stunning epitome of capability and efficiency.
Looking at her, you had no trouble imagining her standing serenely at the prow of Fleet’s flagship FFC Argonaut, ready for anything. You couldn’t help feeling the future of the Federation was secure in her expert hands.
Vivian looked down at her rumpled, khaki, old-style Earth standard uniform that did nothing for her complexion and sighed. Then looked through Queenie’s radiant face at her blurry reflection on the terminal screen and smoothed a hand over her dry, wrinkled face, and before running her hands over her short, unattractive buzz cut.
Her appearance hadn’t bothered her until that moment.
But that was infantry too – when you’re busy getting stuff done on the ground, it’s all about the practicality.
She looked around her at the tired and worn executive office that could’ve been anywhere – station, asteroid, planet.
Scuffed, stained and dented once-white walls, worn plastic floors with remnant patterns, and shabby, well-used furniture.
Once up on a time, her shitty, but real, rectangular wooden desk of indeterminate species would’ve been a status symbol. Now, one of its legs was shorter than the others and chocked up with a plastic chit. The surface scarred by cup rings, deep scratches and spills.
Battle-hardened as Vivian was, the desk was battle-harder than her.
Year after year, the chain of command threatened to renovate the offices, yet it never happened.
As she sat facing the door, a large pin-up board held layers of largely ignored notices and orders provided a relaxing place to let her eyes rest while her mind wandered.
On the desk on her left, an enormous stack of files and papers to be dealt with, on her right completed files stacked, ready for return to central records.
In the middle of the desk, there was a small open space to work in, covered by an old-fashioned paper blotter to smooth out the lumps and bumps on the surface.
She’d crammed the gap between the view screen and blotter with pens, multi-coloured sticky notes and clunky old stamps that, right until that moment, Vivian had enjoyed thumping on the pages she was working on.
Lord knew why in that day and age, there was still so much ink and paper in the paperwork.
Presumably that was just infantry as well.
Vivian looked at Queenie’s heroic presence once more and felt small and overly officious.
But adjutant or not, her bureaucratic purpose was to be overly officious. To be the last and biggest barricade between you and the Brigadier.
And until that moment, she’d enjoyed that too.
Did the air on Queenie’s ship taste better than the air on the station?
Was the coffee better from her weighted metal beaker than Vivian’s chipped plastic mug that had been recycled so many times it was as fragile as porcelain?
Their relationship should never have happened.
Queenie was full-blood and Vivian half.
That was three-quarters of the reason Queenie was out there, and Vivian was in here.
Really, if her parents and staff been on their game, the pair would never have met.
But Queenie had a way of slipping through the cracks, and once she’d found Vivian, it didn’t matter what they did, she wouldn’t let go.
Until she did.
As she reached her majority, Queenie was gently forced into the soft, silken network of social obligations those of the Command Class lived by. Like all the other younglings, she didn’t notice until she was so thoroughly enmeshed there was no escaping.
In a different universe, this might seem to suck the life out of them, but it was just the way things were.
The network of familial relationships stringing from ship, to station, to planet and back was what kept it all in motion.
Maybe that universe had different rites of passage. Something involving tea dances, hair going up and skirts going down, but no doubt the hierarchy would be just as rigid and the expectations as high.
So Queenie took up her commission on the family battle cruiser and sailed away into the stars while Vivian enlisted in the Infantry.
For a while, they kept in touch, but the gap between Queenie’s messages got longer and longer, and eventually, they just stopped coming.
Vivian followed her meteoric rise for a while as her medal tally and promotions racked up, but soon enough she was trapped by her own non-commissioned obligations, and they lost touch for good.
Or so it seemed at the time.
Yet here Queenie was on Vivian’s news feed, bringing diplomats to Vivian’s station, New Mir, for a peace treaty.
Was Queenie happy about that? Or would she have preferred to be out there fighting?
The sound of the Brigadier roaring echoed down the corridors, so Vivian shoved his papers together, poured him a rotgut coffee to go, and stood by her desk waiting.
He paused at the door for a fraction of a second as she saluted and nodded in reply.
As he marched across the office, she grabbed his folio and coffee from her desk and held them out, ready for him to collect on his way through.
With his folio in one hand and coffee in the other, he waited for Vivian to collect her gear and took a sip of coffee. Lips twitching, said “aahhh.”
She smiled at their daily joke.
He about-faced, she fell in behind, tablet and stylus at the ready as he barked orders for her to attend to in the gaps between his meetings.
Queenie was forgotten, buried under a layer of more urgent concerns.
Any temptation Vivian might have felt to follow up with Queenie was long gone by the end of the day.
She staggered, exhausted, into the Officers’ Mess too late for a decent meal, and joined the table of tired adjutants at the back of the room near the kitchens.
They nodded and grunted at each other, rolling eyes and scratching heads, the usual non-verbals that spoke volumes about the state of New Mir and its personnel.
When the Steward brought her a big bowl of soup and a chunk of bread, she smiled and nodded her thanks. Just like her colleagues, she undid her collar button and almost imperceptibly loosened the knot of her tie.
After satisfying her initial hunger, she tapped away on her tablet, peeling off orders for this one and that, sending thumb printed records off for storage, and queueing print runs for the Brigadier’s meetings the following day.
Now and again an adjutant would join or leave the group, triggering another round of grunts and gestures, and soon Vivian was grunting her leave-taking and heading off to get some kip.
More of the same predicted the next day.
By week’s end, scheduling combat training, shooting and tactical recertifications, and planning joint field exercises with Prism, their closest station neighbour had submerged her.
Queenie was as good as forgotten.
At least until the Argonaut docked several weeks later, anyway.
Though Vivian was on manoeuvres at Prism at the time, returning a few days later. She’d been tempted to extend her stay, but no one had taken her fancy, so she didn’t see an opportunity for exercises of a more personal nature.
On her return, she was technically on leave with a day or two to recover, barring station emergencies.
But being the good soldier she was, hoped to snatch a leap on her duties by checking and processing some of her messages before she went back on duty.
She’d intended to sleep that first day away and activated the Do Not Disturb function before closing her eyes.
So, when the comms chimed, her first reaction was to roll over and pull the bedcovers over her head.
It chimed again, so this time, she shouted, “decline.”
It chimed again and again. She pulled the covers down around her waist, “decline, goddamn it, decline!”
The calm, synthesised computer voice replied. “It is an emergency,” and immediately Vivan was fighting her way out from under the covers and reaching for clean fatigues.
“Situation?” she struggled with her buttons.
Not for the first time, she wondered why infantry posted on space stations weren’t issued with Fleet style jumpsuits.
“Unknown,” the computer said.
She pulled on her boots and knotted the laces.
She wrapped her body armour around her torso, then added her helmet.
She checked her rebreather and tested the oxygen feed before clipping it onto her tool belt, thanking her earlier self for checking and restocking the belt before hitting her rack.
Then she pressed her eye to her gun cabinet’s reader and thumb to the lock, retrieved her sidearm, checked it was loaded and the safety on before holstering it in her tool belt.
Crouching low, she pulled on her gloves as she approached the door, straining to hear any indication of action over the door chime.
Hugging the wall, she toggled the view screen, expecting to see evidence of action.
Instead, Queenie, in civilian garb, was leaning back against the wall opposite.
Vivian hit the door release, saluting as it slid back. “Admiral.”
Queenie’s face broke into a huge smile seeming to bathe the corridor in a golden glow.
“Finally, I’ve found you.” She launched herself from the wall, clasping Vivian’s face in both hands and kissing her on the lips.
Vivian, taken by surprise, offered no resistance as Queenie pushed her back into the room, allowing the door to close behind them.
«« • »»
Sometime later, they sat next to each other at a down station bar, drinking whisky.
Vivian let Queenie talk while she tried to regain her equanimity and work out what exactly about Queenie it was that set her teeth on edge.
Perhaps it was that mentally, she didn’t seem to have aged a day.
Close up, without the propaganda glamour, you could see her age in the fine lines around her eyes and lips. But inside, her attitude was still that of a reckless teenager, untroubled by concern for anyone else.
The one who’d rewrite the rules whichever way she had to for the win.
Vivian imagined for an admiral, in charge of several ships in do or die scenarios, this lack of direct interest was a battlefield advantage. But for a Warrant Officer like herself, responsible for one hundred and twenty soldiers on the ground, not so much.
While she might never know all the names of the troops in her command, taking care of each individual took care of them all. In a bolt-hole situation, losing one could spell the death of the entire garrison.
As Queenie spoke, her whole body moved.
“I thought about you every time I passed a space station,” she said, leaning towards Vivian as if caught by her gravity.
And using her arm to mimic the flight of her ship past Vivian’s face.
Vivian, more accustomed to the lifesaving need for stillness, didn’t move as Queenie’s hand narrowly missed her.
Perhaps onboard starships, they switched gravity off, and all their movements were calculated for propulsion.
New Mir periodically had zero-grav drills, but more for survival exercises than standard operating procedure. Even in those it was often more important to go to ground, avoid detection and initiate guerrilla tactics aimed at reinstating gravity on the assumption it offered the crew a tactical advantage over the invaders.
Vivian observed Queenie, feeling like she’d come a long way since they were children.
It was more like she’d come back to visit Queenie than the other way around.
Queenie was off on some flight of remembered fancy Vivian had no recollection of. She was fully engrossed in herself, her movements dynamic and fluid as she ducked and weaved, recalling the action.
She seemed to almost float in the air.
If she’d paid any attention to Vivian, she might have thought Vivian was drumming her fingers on her thighs, but she was sending herself a coded page requiring her urgent attendance at the command post.
It came through the primary station address system moments later, and Vivian stood so suddenly her stool flipped over.
Queenie stopped mid-sentence and reached out a hand to hold Vivian in place.
Vivian escaped by saluting. “Sorry Admiral, it’s urgent. I must go,” and hastily left the bar.
Knowing Queenie was following her, she broke into a trot and escaped up a lift and away.
She practically ran back to barracks, quickly bathed, dressed in fatigues and headed into the office.
She had just relaxed into her worn chair, in the blessedly quiet and still office when her direct reports, also in fatigues, skidded in one by one, saluting.
“Sorry soldiers, false alarm.”
Not doubting her word, they relaxed but made no move to leave.
“All right then,” she said, “seeing as you’re all here, shall we review the recent Prism exercise?”
Strangely, they agreed, and soon they were in the briefing room discussing what went well, what went less well, lessons learned, and further training requirements.
They were talking through their recommendations for standard kit additions and subtractions when the lights flicked out, and gravity failed.
“False alarm, ma’am?” came a voice from near the ceiling.
Moments later, the breach warning sounded, and red warning lights flickered into action.
“Gentlemen,” Vivian said, “the command armoury.”
There was a chorus of “Ma’am” as her men half-swam half-bounded from the room towards the nearby command centre.
She opened the door, issuing armour and sub-machine guns. “Rally your troops and take your assigned positions,” she said. “God bless us all.”
While she still wasn’t sure of the threat’s exact nature, she felt it was planned to take advantage of the lull between crew changeovers, so it was just sheer luck that she and her Senior Operational Officers had been nearby.
At least having run a similar scenario on Prism, she was fairly confident they’d a head start on whoever the invaders were.
She tried to recall who it was that Queenie had brought on board, and who of those might have initiated armed action.
She put on her comms headset, and flipped to a secure channel. “Sound-off,” she said, listening as her guys checked in. Some were in place, some pinned down, and some were on their way.
No losses so far.
Unfortunately, the Brigadier did not indicate his presence, which was a severe blow. He’d a good strategic mind plus access to secure information about the treaty negotiations and participants she didn’t.
Shoulders tense, face pale, hands clammy, she swallowed.
Looked like she was making it up as she went along, but she comforted herself she’d worked this scenario before.
She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, aware of the irony that she, the half-blood of all people, was preparing to retake the station.
The Brigadier might turn up or not.
Vivian wasn’t sure if he was on station or not, but she retreated to the briefing room, pulled up the maps on the viewscreen, and prepared to run the operation as best she could until someone more senior turned up to take control.
As the troops called in their positions and actions, she marked them on the map and offered advice and the little intel she could.
There were several breaches, at strategic locations, that provided a good start to taking the station.
Alone in the briefing room, she studied the map.
Engineering had fallen, and the invaders had control of New Mir’s power supply and trajectory.
They had control of environmental and food production.
Main station communications were gone, suggesting the invaders were unaware of the secure infantry communication channels, or, hopefully, the separate, secure operational power supply.
She listened as one by one, her units were disabled, all bar one and her.
Quick, clean and precise.
The station had been conquered, with minimal casualties, before it knew it’d been hit.
And with next to no troops, somehow, she had to take the station back.
She was pacing around the command table, trying to decide her next steps, when Queenie came over the station address system. “Viv, where are you? I know you’re out there, and I know you’re up to mischief.”
Vivian paused mid-step and looked up at the ceiling.
Why was Queenie calling her over the station’s open system?
The one that had fallen to the invaders?
Was she behind the invasion?
Or was she working with, or for, whoever was behind the invasion?
What did she have to gain?
She was from one of the Federation’s ruling families. Surely she had more to lose than to gain?
Vivian had no idea.
All she knew for sure was that Queenie was now an enemy of New Mir and had to be dealt with accordingly.
“It was always you, you know,” said Queenie.
“Since they took you away from me, I’ve been planning my revenge,” she said.
Vivian retched as the implication of what Queenie was saying settled in.
Rather than lose her, Queenie was prepared to bring the Federation down.
That Queenie had spent more than three decades planning her revenge.
Queenie was a psycho bitch who had to be brought down.
The secure channel relayed a burst of static, “ah Ma’am? Is the Admiral talking about you, Ma’am?”
A reasonable question, but not one she really wanted to get into.
“Yes Private, she’s talking about me. But that changes nothing.”
“I know Private, but she’s a traitor holding New Mir to ransom. We need to get the gravity back on and disable her and her alien conspirators. In fact, we might be better to aim at one and a quarter gravity in case she’s been working out.”
“On it Ma’am.”
Vivian scrubbed her face as she thought about the soldiers she was sacrificing.
“I’ll try to keep her occupied, Private, but whatever happens, get the gravity back on and save the station.”
“You’re on your own soldier, Godspeed.”
“And you Ma’am.”
Vivian took a deep breath, dinging her fingers into her scalp before letting it out with a sigh.
Exactly how nuts was Queenie, and what did she have to do to disarm her?
Could she make Queenie believe she’d been overcome by her self-absorbed fascination?
Could she do it without throwing up?
She had to try.
She was asking her last unit to sacrifice their lives.
The least she could do was buy them some time, whatever the personal cost.
New Mir and her civilian population had to come first.
Vivian started up her terminal, disabled the secure channel, set up a record and broadcast loop.
If nothing else, a coded recording would be on its way to Prism, and maybe reinforcements sent in return.
Though it might be days before it arrived, if at all.
She toggled the station address system, “it’s been more than thirty years Queenie.”
“They had no right.”
“You never contacted me.”
“They hid you from me.”
Vivian struggled with what she’d want to hear next if she were an obsessive psycho bitch.
“I wanted you with me,” Queenie said.
“I wanted to be with you.”
“It’s not too late.”
A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Vivian’s face.
Queenie seemed to buy it.
Vivian clicked the system, but said nothing for a long moment before she clicked it off.
“Come to me,” Queenie said, “and I’ll set the station free.”
“What about your allies? Will they set the station free?”
“The Angrol have no quarrel with New Mir, they will ransom it for ongoing negotiations.”
For a moment, Vivian almost believed her.
“Do you remember Shep?”
“Shep. Your pet addux.”
“Ah, Shep. Of course,” Queenie laughed. “He was a cutie.”
“Do you remember how Shep died?”
There was a long silence.
Queenie didn’t seem keen to let anyone know she’d killed him in a fit of jealousy.
As the silence lengthened, Vivian realised that in this scenario, she was Shep.
The only way to save the station was to sacrifice herself.
“Where are you?” she asked.
There was no response.
She called up the station map on her screen. Queenie could be in Traffic Control or the Command Centre. Traffic Control was logical for a ship’s captain, but an Admiral would probably seek the Command Centre.
There was an amount of vanity to the choice, but also that all Command Centres shared the same layout to enable quick and easy command swaps.
She double-checked her armour and machine gun before leaving her office and heading towards the Command Centre.
Quietly, step by step, she was within one hundred metres of the door before they got her.
The Angrol only beat her up a little before bringing her up before Queenie.
“That wasn’t exactly fair,” she said. “I miss Shep almost as much as I missed you.”
Vivian said nothing.
Queenie launched herself into the air, landing fist first on Vivian’s face.
“I’m getting the impression you didn’t miss me as much as I missed you,” she said.
“It’s been a long time.”
“And I suppose you slept your way to the top.”
“Was that your approach?”
Queenie punched her again.
“I should’ve known you were bad news, half-blood.”
Queenie sprang into the air, twisting to kick Vivian, and when the gravity kicked in, landed on the floor with a scream, and a crack as the bones in her leg broke on impact.
Vivian staggered under her own weight but remained upright and snag a weapon as her Angrol captors staggered and fell.
First, she fired at Queenie, then spun as fast as she could to disable the Angrol, before she realised their weapons did not have a stun function.
She froze for a moment, but as the others started firing at her, recovered her senses and ducked behind a workstation to return fire.
Taking their courage from her lead, some of the other captives did likewise, and soon the Command Centre was back under Federation control.
As the Senior Officer on hand, Vivian toggled the secure comms system to dispatch and coordinate teams to liberate the infantry and critical control systems.
It seemed an instant, and it seemed forever, but she had retaken the station.
«« • »»
The sound of the Brigadier roaring echoed down the corridors. Vivian was waiting by her desk with his leather folio stuffed full of meeting papers, and a rotgut coffee ready to go.
He paused at the door for a fraction of a second to receive her salute, nodding in reply.
He limped across the office, took a sip of his coffee, and, lips twitching, said “aahhh.”
“Well done Chief,” he said.
He about-faced, she fell in behind, tablet and stylus at the ready as he barked orders for her to attend to in the gaps between his meetings.
Copyright © 2022 Alexandria Blaelock. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. Neither this story, nor parts thereof, may be reproduced in any form without permission.
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