[I know, it's been a looong while! Sorry.]
When Francis arrived at the improvised campsite the Wastelanders had set up around the water tanks, Mack had a bench table set up and was field-stripping one of the big 50cal gauss guns. She hefted one of the twin magnetic projector coils single-handed despite its weight, while wielding a micro-inspection tool with the other. Not far away Palomia lounged in a tub of water, like an exotic looking mermaid and equally naked. Francis ignored the sight and stopped on the other side of the bench to Mack.
After studying the big woman carefully examining the coil’s internal windings for moment, she quietly asked, “Anything we can help with?”
“Not unless you’ve got a spare Mark IV Remington driver coil or something else that’ll fit this?”
“Don’t think that’s part of our inventory, but we do have a Master Gunner and a well stocked machine shop.”
“Tempting, but we probably don’t have the time for that.”
“I’d rather we didn’t go off half-cocked here, better take the time to make sure everything works.”
Mack carefully put the heavy coil down and looked up at the smaller, trimly uniformed woman opposite her. Francis almost backed down a half step from the sheer force of her gaze.
“You might have all the time in the world. The men being held by those scum-sucking wastes of water don’t.”
Francis nodded, and sighed.
“I understand, but it won’t help them if we cock this up either. Better if we take a little time now to get it right, rather than get ourselves killed trying.”
Mack glared at her, then snorted and chuckled like a truck changing gears.
“You’re right... ok. Tell your Master Gunner to get on it. I didn’t really want to get into a fight with a gun that’d maybe work, but would just as likely go up in a shower of sparks. Now, anything else you want? Because if I’m not fixing this bastard coil, I’m for cold beers and a hot woman!”
Mack leered over in Palomia’s direction, who smiled at her. Francis kept her gaze firmly on Mack’s oil-smudged face and nodded slightly.
“We need to discuss the extent of our cooperation and plans for the raid.”
“Thought I covered that with your man? You lend us some guns, in exchange we kick up enough of a ruckus to cover what you’re doing. End of story, right?”
“Not... quite... Navy regs don’t allow me to just hand over heavy weaponry to civilians.”
“Screw the rules.”
“Easy for you to say. It’s my head on the block.”
“Well then screw you if you’re not helping!”
“I didn’t say we wouldn’t help, just we can’t give you guns. What I can do is send along a platoon of Marines in combat suits, who’ll be carrying said guns... and using them assisting you.”
Mack glanced over towards the three-man team guarding the perimeter, who in their exo-armour resembled monstrous bipedal mechs more then men. Each one carried with ease a rifle as massive as the turret-mounted .50-cal magnetic-propelled projectile weapon, or ‘gauss gun’.
“Huh... well, I can’t say they wouldn’t be welcome. Although those boys scream ‘Navy’ and I’m sure the pirates will be wondering where they came from.”
“True enough. I was hoping you might help... ah... customise their appearance somewhat. Make them blend in with your people a little.”
Mack looked sceptically at the armoured suits, and then back at her.
“That’s going to be hard to do. Why are you concerned about anyone knowing who you’re helping anyway, or are you ashamed to be seen with us?”
Francis hastily shook her head.
“No, not that. It’s... well, complicated...”
Mack sighed, and wiped her hands on a rag.
“Ok, Captain, I think you’d best explain this to me if we’re going to be working together. Oy! Palomia, haul that sweet ass of yours out of the water and get us a couple of beers please.”
“I hear and obey, oh mistress mine.”
“Knock it off girl! No need for the act with this one, you couldn’t shock her if you tried.”
“Bet I could...”
“Palomia... Don’t. Forgive her, Captain, she was raised by ferals and loves to tease.”
Francis glanced at the exotic looking girl as she lithely stepped across the hot sands, water sparkling on her naked golden skin.
“I’m sure she does. But my heart belongs to another... and her name is Exeter.”
Mack laughed seismically, shaking her head.
“You hear that, my love? Your charms mean nothing to the Captain here.”
Palomia smiled as she handed Mack and Francis a bottle each.
“Then I will not tease you, Captain. I know better than to get in the way of true love.”
As Mack led Francis over to a pair of ancient lawn chairs in the shade, Francis reflected that perhaps it wasn’t stretching the truth, really, to say the Exeter was her true love. Certainly, it had felt like falling in love at first sight that day when she’d first seen her new command floating so proud above Plymouth’s docks. From where she sat she could look at the Exeter, and she couldn’t help but think that there wasn’t much she wouldn’t do for the sake of her ship and crew.
Francis sighed after taking a sip of her beer, just enough to be hospitable because she was on duty still, and wondered how to explain. Mack startled her though, by saying “So, this all about your ship, isn’t it?”
Francis glanced sideways at the muscular woman in surprise, wondering what had given her away. Mack grinned at her surprised look, and raised her own beer in a toast.
“To the things we love, and the things we do for them. I know that look you were just giving your ship.”
Francis glanced between Mack and the huge truck alongside them, then raised her own bottle in salute, looking at Mack.
“I suppose it’s foolish. But you’re not wrong, this is all about the Ex. My problem is, I have enemies back home. They’re trying to force me to scuttle her, and my career besides, then run for home with my crew. I’m told the situation here is too ‘politically delicate’ to send in another Navy vessel to tow her to safety.”
“Ok, that sucks... So what’s your plan then?”
“Ideally, we steal the pirates’ ships and tow her to safety ourselves.”
“I like. Especially the part about stealing their ships. What’s the need for subterfuge though? I mean, you don’t actually need us, do you. You’ve got enough firepower there to level a small city, without even using your main guns. So no tinpot wannabe pirates with their rusty old dirig’ is going to be much of a problem for your boys.”
Francis pulled a wry face. Mack wasn’t far off the truth, even if you didn’t count their inventory of cruise missiles, and more importantly, their warheads. True, they no longer carried fission nukes, but even a 250kg conventional warhead left a sizeable hole in the map, let alone an 8th generation variable yield clean fusion bomb. Which Francis had the triggers for three of in her safe. No, fire-power wasn’t the issue here.
“Succinctly: politics. I’ve managed to tentatively get both of the official parties to agree that the raiders are pirates, rather than legitimate rebels. But that could change in a moment. If I use too much force, too obviously, then Algeria— who back the official rebels— will think the Britannic Navy is acting on orders and getting involved in local politics. They’ll howl at Whitehall, who’ll have words with Admiralty House... and before you know it I’m cashiered and the Exeter is on her way to the breakers yard even if I manage to get her home.”
“They’d scrap a perfectly good ship, just to punish you?!”
“Well no... but the Exeter is thirty years old and her continued service is contingent upon this retrofit design working out. Personal enmities aside, there are those in the upper ranks of the service that want to see their pet medium-carrier project brought forward. Which Navy planning won’t do while the Exeter and the rest of her class are still fulfilling the role adequately.”
“Why do I have this feeling that you being stuck out here isn’t an accident, then?”
Francis glanced at Mack, wondering how much to tell. Inwardly she shrugged. It didn’t really matter if she knew, and she did need the big woman’s help.
“It would be near impossible to prove anything, but yes. Someone made sure the wrong parts were fitted, and that’s what broke stranding us here without main power and no replacement parts to be had. So long as their sabotage wasn’t discovered it would’ve looked like the design was flawed. Getting me drummed out of the service would’ve been a nice bonus for them too... if my Chief Engineer hadn’t discovered that what went wrong wasn’t a design flaw.”
“So, you caught it, and now if you go home they have to discredit you in order to cover it up?”
“Yes, and I’ve a pretty good idea who’s responsible as well. But I can’t do a damn thing about it without proof, which is sitting right over there inside the Ex’s reactor cores... and even then I couldn’t prove it was deliberate and not just a cockup in the paperwork.”
Mack nodded, more to herself than Francis.
“Ok, sounds like you’ve a hard road to travel. But we’ll help. We’ll dirty up those spit-shine boys and make them blend in as much as they can, and do what we can to keep the pirates looking the other way while you steal their toys. I hate petty bullshit like that, it’s one of the reasons I’m out here, so I’ll be damned if I’ll let it fuck you over as well.”
“Thanks Mack. It’s appreciated. I’ll do what I can to help your people out too.”
“Aw, it’s ok. We’re used to kicking bandit ass, and taking away the pirates’ big guns levels the playing field again. We’ll handle them just fine afterwards. Just promise me once we’re done, you’ll go kick the ass of the pencil-dicked desk jockey who screwed over your gal there. She’s a fine looking ship and deserves better than being done in by politics.”
Francis raised her beer bottle in acknowledgement and then nodded at the hulking truck and Palomia.
“I’ll make sure both your girls get the best protection too.”
Mack laughed and raised her own bottle.
“Appreciated, although Palomia has mad ninja skills and you’ve seen some of what Rosie’s packing, so you know my gals can look after themselves in a fight.”
Francis raised an eyebrow. “Rosie?”
Mack grinned at her. “Yeah, Rosie the Riveted... because she can do it!”
Francis groaned, though grinning still.
“Ok, on that note, I’ll get back to my work. Declaan will take care of the fine details of the raid, once we know who’s volunteering. Try not to break my X.O., please...”
Mack said nothing, but her grin and sidelong look at Palomia spoke volumes.
Francis was taking a break from talking to volunteers for the raid, when she noticed a short figure in undress blues approaching across the air-conditioned space of the converted hangar. It took Francis a moment to recognise her as Ixchel. The young girl looked different after a decent shower and clean clothes. Her black hair looked more a very dark brown with hints of reddish highlights under the hangars lights.
“Yat-ta hai-tah Ixchel.”
“Yatta hai’ta! Greetings to you too, Captain! I did not know you knew our language?!”
“I don’t, I’m still learning. That is literally almost all I can say in it, so far anyway. So, what can I do for you?”
“I... I wish to volunteer.”
Francis rocked back slightly on her heels, surprised.
“I would have thought you and your family have had enough excitement for now!”
Ixchel lifted her chin slightly before answering, her mouth set in a stubborn line.
“You and your crew risked much because of us, of me. There is a debt that lies between us, which I will repay.”
Francis bit down on the urge to laugh. Ixchel barely came up to her collar, and yet her face was set in fierce determination, her brow furrowed in a scowl that would’ve not looked out of place on some Aztec priest, which contrasted sharply with her broad ruddy cheeks and dark brown eyes that danced with gold specks. Francis shook her head. Ixchel wasn’t even old enough to be a midshipman, much less the sort of old hand she wanted for a raid like this.
“I’m sorry, Ixchel, there’s three good reasons why you can’t go on this mission. Firstly, you’d stand out like a sore thumb, secondly you’re a civilian with no training, and thirdly, you don’t owe us anything.”
“But... you saved me, my family... We owe you our lives!”
“It was our job, and our duty. I literally am not allowed to accept repayment for that, nor would I want to. That includes you volunteering.”
“I would be useful to you... I... I have gifts.”
“I guessed as much, but gifted or not. No. Besides, how much skill do you have using your gift? Honest truth now.”
“Um... not as much as I would wish...”
“Uh-huh, and even if you did, there is no way we could disguise you, which is necessary for this mission.”
Ixchel’s shoulders sagged, some of the fire going out of her.
“I just wanted to repay you, to show that we were thankful.”
“I know, and believe me, that gratitude is repayment enough. Just... Look, it’s our duty to protect civilians like you and your family. That’s why the Navy exists in the first place. It would be a dereliction of my duty if I allowed you to put yourself in harm’s way alongside us. Now, do you see?”
“Yes, Captain Francis Ma’am... but... back home it is the duty of those who are gifted by the gods with power like mine, to protect their people. That doesn’t just mean my family, but those that are our friends too. And you and your crew have made yourselves our friends.”
Francis paused, considering what Ixchel had said. Francis knew full well how determined Chel was, which was no less so than she herself had been at Chel’s age, when she decided it was her duty to join the Navy, and so she knew simply saying no wouldn’t work. She had to give a good counter-reason and a goal. Redirect, not block, as her mother used to say.
“Alright, I understand, believe me. But your lack of skill would make you a liability now. Your presence on the mission would be the opposite of helping, you see. However, give it time. There will be other opportunities, once you’ve learnt how to control your gift. I’d also like you to consider the fact that rescuing your family is something that any serving officer would have done. I’m no different than any of my fellow officers, because we all adhere to the standards set by the Navy for us. So if you still feel you owe me a debt of gratitude for it, then you owe it to the Navy, King and Country for making me who I am.”
Ixchel’s eyes went wide, and then narrowed as she slowly nodded thoughtfully.
“I... had not thought like that. But you are right. I will think about it. But you’re busy, so I’ll leave you alone now.”
“Ok, but if you need to talk with me again, please do. While you’re aboard you and your family are just as much my responsibility as my crew, and I make a point of being available to them... as much as possible anyway. I know it’s not easy shouldering the responsibilities of leadership at any age, much less your age, and I’d like to help if you need it.”
“Thank you, again, Captain Francis Ma’am.”
“Call me Francis, please. Crew call me Captain or Ma’am.”
“Francis then, please call me Chel.”
“Ok. My accent is that bad?”
“What? No... oh I see, you are teasing me. No, it is... well, not bad.”
“I see... well, after this mission then perhaps you can help me with language lessons.”
“But, why? You do not need to know our language surely?”
“Well, I didn’t think I’d need it before either, and look how that worked out. Besides, then I’ll have some idea if Incus is swearing at me. I’m sure he keeps learning ever more obscure languages just so he can.”
Chel giggled at the notion and nodded at Francis, her cheeks dimpling with a smile that was broad enough to encompass her whole being.
“Ok, then. I will help you learn when you return. So then you will know what dreadful things the Cat of Thunder is saying!”
Francis smiled, and on impulse rested a hand briefly on Chel’s shoulder.
“Thank you, Chel. For understanding. Now... how do you say ‘until later’ in your language?”
“We say ‘Munha’taita’ which means, until next we speak”
“Close. So, as you say, Cheerio?”
Francis laughed. “Closer!”
Ixchel laughed and left with a wave. As Francis watched her disappearing among the improvised partitions that divided up the floor space reserved for crew ‘quarters’ she wondered where Ixchel’s resolve to repay this ‘debt’ would take her. Gods know, perhaps in few years I’ll be seeing her in a passing-out parade at Dartmouth college, she mused to herself.
Then and there, Francis made a silent promise to herself that if that was the young girl’s wish, she’d sponsor her application herself, assuming she hadn’t been drummed out of the service by then. And may the gods take pity on the poor fools in Admiralty House if she makes captain!
The Exeter Incident at Wattpad
And on AO3
and on DreamWidth 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Crossposted from: http://siliconshaman.dreamwidth.org/1234
comments so far over there.