Chapter THIRTEEN

 Did I happen to mention that the Uncorrected Proof paperbacks came in? I was shocked – lately Amazon/KDP has been pretty slow about getting them to me, even when I order them in advance. So I was pleasantly surprised by their arrival!

I’ve gone through and fixed a couple minor issues, which should make the REAL paperbacks look much better!

Anyways, I’m not sure you want to hear about that, but there you go.

Release Day on 12/20! AND – if you don’t already have it – you can get the Kindle version of The Cassidy Chronicles for FREE on the 18th, 19th, and 20th!

Order MEASURE by clicking HERE (or on the name, MEASURE) or click the image above!

And now, the next chapter in your Read For Free preview! (One of my favorite chapters, BTW)

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

HLC HQ, Houston, Republic of Texas

“Ready?”

“Would it be disrespectful to say, ‘Hell, no, ma’am, I’m about to puke my guts up’?”

Flashdance suppressed a grin.

“Probably,” she said instead. “But since I’ve known you longer than just about anyone else here, I’ll let it slide. Just don’t actually puke on the Admiral.”

“Oh, God,” groaned Daniela Garcia. By virtue of being the first person to be able to fly the new Direwolf space fighter, and fly it well, she’d been granted both a promotion and command of the squadron-to-be.

“Come on, Double Dip,” Fowler continued, checking over her dress uniform. “The Admiral’s not bad, even up close and personal.”

“How up close and personal?” Garcia was trying to imitate her friend and soon-to-be peer, hoping that the routine would help calm her. So far, not so much.

“She’s going to shake your hand and pin on your rank tab,” answered Fowler. “Don’t lock your knees together; you’ll pass out.”

“You’re not actually trying to tell me to relax, are you?”

“No, not relax, just maybe not think so much about what’s going on. Concentrate on the flight afterward?”

“Good idea. You know, I almost miss flying a Wolf. Almost.” Garcia had been part of the crew of the DaVinci, a Wolf assigned to the Enterprise, with her identical sisters, Briana and Justina. Unlike her sisters, she had been fully trained as both a coxswain and an engineer, the only such hybrid in the burgeoning fleet. As such, she had seemed the perfect candidate for lead test pilot on the new Direwolves. It turned out, she was, and she’d been intimately involved the past several months in the test flights, pushing the envelope on the entirely-new class of ship.

“But the Direwolf is so much hotter!”

“Hotter isn’t always better, Flashdance,” said Daniela.

“That’s not what you used to say.”

“That was before I strapped myself into a ship that could pull 500 g and only slap me with six.”

“Five hundred g? Holy Mother. How long does it take you to get to Njord, flat-out?”

“Well, I can get there in not quite seven minutes, but I’ll flash by at almost 2000 KPS.” She grinned. “On the other hand, it’d be a sight to see.”

Shannon finished fiddling with her uniform and turned to Daniela. “Hold on. Let me get that.”

As Shannon reached for the recalcitrant collar, Daniela muttered, “I don’t know why they even have collars on these things.”

“It’s the Admiral,” explained Shannon, patting it into place. “She’s some sort of history buff, and she pretty much designed the uniforms.”

“Oh, so I have her to blame when I look silly?”

“Yep. You can tell her that yourself in about five minutes. Come on.”

It may have been a formal ceremony, but at least there wasn’t a crowd. That was a small mercy, reflected Daniela. Her family was there, plus a few people from both the squadron and the Enterprise, but it was a remarkably small gathering.

“Honored guests,” started Kendra, then stopped. “Oh, no, I’m not going through with that felgercarb. Daniela, Shannon, come here.”

They walked to the podium, surprised as anyone else.

“Admiral?” asked Shannon.

“Change of plans. Lieutenant Fowler, will you assist me in the administration of the oath of office?”

“Aye-aye, Admiral.” Shannon turned, standing next to Kendra and facing Daniela. She stage-whispered, “Do what I do.”

“Raise your right hand,” directed Kendra, and Daniela did so, echoing Shannon. “Repeat after me. I, Daniela Garcia, do solemnly swear.”

“I, Daniela Garcia, do solemnly swear…”

“To support and defend the Terran Federation against all enemies…”

“Foreign and domestic; to bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”

“I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion…”

“And I will well and faithfully discharge the duties…”

“Of the office on which I am about to enter.”

“You may lower your hand. Congratulations, Lieutenant Garcia.” Kendra turned to face the audience, Shannon nudging Daniela to do the same. “Honored guests, I present Lieutenant Daniela Garcia, commanding officer of the Nymeria Squadron of Direwolves.”

As applause rippled around the assembled officers and crew, Shannon said, “Nymeria?”

Daniela shrugged. “Surprise to me, too.”

When the applause died away, Kendra said, “Ladies. I know this is a bit impromptu, but would you be willing to give us a demonstration of what a Direwolf can do?”

Daniela looked at Shannon. “It would be best if there’s a Wolf for comparison,” she said.

“Oh, thank you very much. You get the flashy fighter and I get to look like I’m driving the bus.”

“No, that’s not –“

Shannon laughed. “I’m teasing you. Of course. Let’s go suit up.”

Twenty minutes later, after a quick break for refreshments, the various attendees gathered outside.

“You planned this,” whispered Cass, nodding at the huge display behind them.

“Maybe,” said Kendra. “There’s been so much nothing going on, so much routine. Patrol, patrol, patrol. Monitor Luna. Training. There’s only so much of that they can take. I thought it would be important to show them some progress, something new and different.”

“Uh-huh,” said Cass. “When did Alley tell you to set this up?”

“Last week,” Kendra admitted.

“You’ve got a good head on her shoulders. Okay, so what’s the plan?”

“Plan? We don’t need no stinkin’ plan.” To Cass’s reaction, Kendra hurriedly added, “Shannon’s not going to let Double Dip do anything stupid. Besides, you think they weren’t in on this? They knew about the demonstration, just not the ditching of the speech. Zeus’ lyre, I hate speeches. I was happy to lose that.”

A similar conversation was occurring between Shannon and Daniela at that moment.

“Just like flying in a regular formation, Double Dip,” Shannon commed from the Alexander. “Plenty of space and keep the comms open.”

“How are they going to see us?” replied Daniela, putting her helmet on. She was wearing her skinsuit, which had an integral helmet, but the Direwolves had more robust acceleration than the Wolves. That had forced not only the addition of a flight suit but also a modified helmet to be added to the gear, one which enclosed the head and neck to provide the necessary support against the g-forces.

“That’s the Admiral’s problem. Ready?” She spoke to both Menace and Daniela, and her engineer nodded.

“Going through systems checks.” Daniela keyed the ship’s AI to life. “Boomer, how are we looking?”

A deep bass voice replied. “Reactor at power. Fuel at 94 percent. Do you anticipate needing the lasers?”

The Direwolves were equipped with a pair of 700 kW lasers, which drew their power from a capacitor. The capacitor, in turn, was charged from the reactor when the engines didn’t demand all the output. By not charging the capacitor, a Direwolf could extend its flight time considerably.

“No, Boomer. Simulation only. Current charge?”

“The capacitor is at 20 percent charge, Lieutenant. Congratulations on your promotion.” Boomer was the integral Epsilon-class AI, and the nuances of human interaction were something that he occasionally struggled with; that led to odd touches of humanity during otherwise routine moments.

“Thank you? HLC tower, Nymeria Actual, requesting clearance to take off.”

“Nymeria Actual, you are clear for launch at your discretion.”

“HLC tower, roger, out. Alexander, Nymeria Actual.”

“Oh, that sounds so ridiculous,” said Menace. “Go ahead, Double Dip.”

“Cleared for launch.” She triggered her implant to comm to Shannon. You might want to get Menace to take this seriously; I’ll bet the brass has our comms tapped.

“Ouch!” she heard over the radio. “Dammit, Flashdance, what was that for?” Then the channel closed.

Nothing a quick slap upside his head can’t fix, answered Shannon. Go ahead; we’ll follow your lead.

With a deep inhale, Daniela flipped the last switches to bring her bird to life. Most of the systems were fly-by-wire or virtual, but the most critical systems had an additional physical layer to ensure intent. Behind her, she could feel, more than hear, the engines come to life. She reached her hands out, one to the throttle, one to the joystick, placed her feet on the pedals, and connected to the ship with her ‘plant.

Flying a Direwolf was more art than science, a matter of training your body to echo what your mind was commanding the ship to do. While her hands and feet moved physical controls, they were merely confirming what her mind had already communicated to the AI. If she thought, Bring engines to fifty percent, the AI started to comply even as her hand moved the throttle. It was the system that they’d eventually settled upon after weeks of simulators and trials. Direct brain-to-AI control was necessary for the Direwolf’s role as a space fighter, but they’d learned that unfocused thoughts could, and did, cause unintended flight aspect changes. Human reaction time, though, was too slow for the capabilities the Direwolf possessed. Hence the two-layer system: the pilot thought the command, the AI began to execute, and the physical action confirmed the command.

“Nymeria Actual. Going wheels up.” Daniela wondered idly how that phrase clung to existence; her Direwolf landed on skids, not wheels, but she was already throttling up and aiming for the sky.

Seconds later, the Alexander followed her off the ground, falling into loose formation two hundred meters back and fifty meters above and to the right. They were barely crawling along, spiraling up over HLC’s campus at five gravities, putting the Direwolf through a planned series of rolls and maneuvers to show its agility.

“Ready for the next trick?”

“Ready when you are, Flashdance,” Daniela radioed back. With no more warning, she pushed the engines up to full military power, rocketing from five g to four hundred in a heartbeat, rolling vertical, and disappearing from view in seconds.

“Holy frak,” said Kendra, watching with the rest of the spectators. “Where did she go?”

The tech in charge of the display made an adjustment and the scale changed. “Current speed is 73 KPS, Admiral. Acceleration is dropping, she’s holding at 75 KPS and is coming around.”

“Where’s Alexander?”

“Looks like she’s taking a reciprocal course. Mock dogfight,” said Alley, who had come to stand next to them.

“She’s going to eat their lunch!” exclaimed Cass.

“That would be the point, yes.”

The display showed the two icons moving closer now, the Wolf cruising along at 30 KPS and still accelerating, the Direwolf holding onto 75 KPS, but rolling erratically around the base course.

“Is that intentional?” asked Cass.

“I hope so,” said Alley.

“She’s slewing around her course to make herself a more difficult target,” the tech answered. Suddenly she realized she’d spoken again and clapped a hand over her mouth.

“Thank you,” said Kendra, looking up to the slightly taller woman. “How do you know so much, um…I’m sorry, I know I’ve seen you before, but I’ve forgotten your name.”

“LJ Burg,” she said, removing her hand. “I’ve been working on the Direwolf project since the beginning.”

“What are you doing running the dog-and-pony here?”

LJ shrugged. “Seemed to be the right place. Besides, I get to see the show, and the rest of my team is back in the office. Speaking of which, you don’t want to miss this.” She gestured to the monitor and said, “It’s going to happen fast.”

The range between the two was dropping rapidly, and now a computerized voice started speaking.

“Target locked, firing, target destroyed. Reset. Target locked, firing, target destroyed. Reset. Target locked, target evading, lock broken, target locked, firing, target destroyed. Reset…” The recitation continued until the two icons passed each other and started to separate.

“Your pilot is treating the Wolf as multiple targets,” explained LJ. “Her lasers aren’t really firing, just simulating it.”

“And she’s still outside the range of the Wolf,” murmured Alley appreciatively.

“Yes, ma’am,” said LJ, with a hint of shyness. “Her lasers have an effective range of ten thousand kilometers.”

Cass tried to rescue LJ. “LJ, I think I remember you. You used to work on carrier design? Two, three years ago? Didn’t you come up with the new variable modular cargo system?”

“Yes, Ms. Cassidy, that was me, and my team of course.”

“What have you been doing on this project?”

“We were tasked with modularizing the systems for rapid replacement and ensuring cross-compatibility.”

“Jargon makes my head ache,” said Kendra.

Cass turned to Kendra. “It means that LJ and her team examined the systems, engineered them for ease of exchange, and checked that they worked.”

“See? That, I get.”

“Kendra, if LJ was part of the team on the Direwolf, then you got the right team for the job.” LJ shifted uncomfortably, but Cass ignored it. “In fact, I think we’re going to need her on Njord.”

“Why? Not that I’m arguing, but if she’s doing so much good down here won’t taking her away slow progress?”

“LJ? Where does your team stand?”

“We’re just about finished, actually. We get new assignments Monday.”

“See? Perfect timing.”

Kendra was silent as the two ships did another simulated attack. She noted that the Wolf did manage to get off one shot, which missed the wildly maneuvering Direwolf. When the separation started to open again, she faced LJ.

“Actually, I think that we need her on Endeavour.”

“Admiral?” said LJ.

“Huh?” said Cass.

“Why not Enterprise?” asked Alley.

Kendra answered Cass first. “Not Njord. We’re planning on having a full support crew there, plus they have Hecate in support. No, what we need is a systems expert where we don’t have much personnel flexibility.”

“You’re not getting any Direwolves,” Kendra said to Alley. “Your shuttlebay was designed for Wolves and Wolves alone.”

She grimaced. “It’s one of the things we got wrong. It might not be a major thing, but we, no, I, never anticipated needing to have anything other than shuttles. Hell, the Wolves are a compromise design, with the particle emitters added as an afterthought, not a fighter. Now, the shuttlebay on Endeavour can handle Wolves, yes, but it’s not a dedicated bay. So no, she can’t be on your crew.”

Kendra looked at LJ just in time to see a curious mix of…what? Hope? Disappointment? It flashed past before Kendra could decide. “What do you think, LJ?”

“I, uh, well,” she stumbled.

“Let the woman work,” said Cass. “Ask her again after the demonstration’s over. It’s not over, is it?”

“No,” said Kendra. “I don’t think so.”

LJ confirmed, “No, they’re going to do one more pass, which should be starting any second now.”

The final pass was just as impressive as the first two. Daniela, in her Direwolf, could almost literally fly rings around the Alexander. She even continued the exercise after the fly-by, reversing her own course and chasing after Shannon’s Wolf. She hung back a few hundred kilometers, matching the larger and slower craft move-for-move. Finally, after several minutes, the two ships stopped the game of cat and mouse and headed for the ground.

The Alexander landed first, a few hundred meters away from the gathered spectators. The Direwolf came flashing over the group, swooped around in an arc, speed dropping off, and settled gently to the ground less than a hundred meters away. The engines could be heard powering down, a high whine that quickly fell off to nothing as the cockpit opened. A hatch in the side of the cockpit folded outward and down, revealing a set of stairs, which Daniela dropped gracefully down.

Hurry up, Flashdance! Everyone’s waiting for us!

Waiting for you, you mean. Almost done with checks. Why don’t you do a walkaround and look busy?

She did just that, making a show of inspecting the surfaces and vents built into her bird, until Shannon and Menace finally caught up with her. Together they walked over to the waiting VIPs, came to attention, and saluted Kendra smartly.

Kendra braced to attention and returned the salute, saying, “Very impressive flying, all of you.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” they more-or-less chorused.

“Double Dip, are you ready for this?”

“Admiral?”

“Running a squadron, training them up to your standards.”

“Ma’am, I’m ready to do whatever you and the Captain need me to do.”

“Shannon? Can you get her to relax?”

“No bullshit, Daniela. She wants a straight answer.”

Daniela looked from Kendra to her friend and back before answering again. “Ma’am, I meant what I said. I don’t know how well I’ll do, but I’m game to give it my best.”

“That’s a better answer,” Kendra said. “Okay. If you need anything, anything at all, comm me.”

“She means it,” affirmed Shannon. “She’s been there for me plenty of times this year.”

“Yes –“

“Don’t call me ‘ma’am’ again, Double Dip. Not after that sort of flying!”

“- Admiral,” finished Daniela with a smile and only the slightest hesitation.

“Marginally acceptable. Okay, go do what you need to do to put your birds away, then you’re off-duty the rest of the day. Go celebrate.” They quickly headed off, and Kendra had to call out, “Shannon!”

“Admiral?” she said, pausing.

“When you get wherever you’re going, have them contact me. I’ll pick up your tab.” Kendra saw a huge grin split Shannon’s face before she hustled to catch up with the other two.

“I might just regret that,” she muttered, then focused on LJ. “So what do you think? I need you on the Endeavour. You and maybe two more members of the engineering team.”

“I don’t know,” LJ temporized, thinking furiously. “It’s not that I’m not interested, but I didn’t expect, I mean, what about my cats? And won’t my supervisor need to sign off? It’s a lot to take in!”

Cass said, “Don’t worry about your supervisor. I think we have the juice to smooth that over.”

“Cats?”

“I can’t see why not,” said Alley. “We’re allowing dependents aboard, but never said they couldn’t have four legs.”

“Would I have to join, what did you call it, Starfleet?” asked LJ, taking a brief look at Alley, who looked back, crooking an eyebrow.

Kendra shook her head. “No. You could, of course, but you don’t have to join if you don’t want to. You’d be part of the Federation, but you already are by working for HLC, so I don’t think anything would have to change.”

LJ stood, silent, thinking, for a long minute. Finally, she nodded. “If you think I’ll do more good on the ship, then I guess I ought to be there.” She straightened and brought a hand up to her short-cropped dark hair in a reasonable approximation of a salute.

Alley laughed. “If Kendra says you don’t have to join Starfleet, you don’t have to salute. Relax.” When she did, Alley nodded.

“Admiral, I’ll stay with LJ for a bit, pick her brains about who she thinks should accompany her, then bring her to Njord.”

“Good enough. Cass, let’s go see how big a fire we can light under Kim. I want as many Direwolves as we can get our hands on, now.”

Published by gaffen620

Author of The Cassidy Chronicles. Lives in Colorado with many dogs, cats, and one very patient wife.

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