Fiction:The Retributors

The flight deck was brilliantly lit as second watch toiled away on their tasks. Running taccomp checks, servicing autoloaders, fuelling craft. Anything that meant they didn't have to stand idly around under the glare of a superior officer. Even if she didn't look like much; a youthful woman in Republic Navy dress reds, sitting on a bench by the wall, captain's stripes on her shoulders, a regulation-spec bob of her curly black hair, and flat blue eyes. The deck ratings hated looking her in the eyes. They saw craziness reflected in them that she couldn't hide. To her face, they called her Captain Maxwell; behind her back, she was Spook.

Captain Cynthia Maxwell couldn't have cared less about their fear. To her, it was just another luxury she couldn't afford to have.

"Attention, all flight personnel. Clear the retrieval deck. Repeat, clear the retrieval deck." The bright floodlights of the flight deck flashed out and were replaced by harsh amber perimeter lights that did little to dispel the gloom that settled into the bay. The empty air in the lofty space above them was suddenly filled with a translucent holoprojection of the landing strip below them, and the ten-odd lifts that brought strike craft up into the flight deck, once the recovery ramp was closed and the retrieval deck repressurized.

Captain Maxwell found herself transfixed by a spot halfway up the opposite wall - the holoprojection and some trick of the lights on the wall made it look as though a grinning face were cast in silhouette there. It fascinated her.

"Dingo Four-Seven, we are showing good alignment on beacon. Begin landing sequence," the ship's traffic controller commed out to the inbound shuttle, the conversation broadcast to the bay via pickups in the ceiling.

"Dingo Four-Seven copies, beginning our approach." Pale orange boxes popped up throughout the holoprojection. Maxwell ignored them, focusing on the grimacing face on the wall. It's not like she couldn't recite the information without looking, anyway - Haggard-class shuttle, 50 displacement tons, home vessel CSRS Munroe (of hull code CSNT3791), good fuel status, good nav alignment, no structural damage, pilot Sakoda, Lt. L.P., flight manif-

"This was a mistake," Maxwell told the face on the wall in a mumble. And again, she found herself wondering why she'd insisted on doing this. Madre had offered to meet Connolly, and she probably ought to have. She was more politic, more polite, the more senior of the two wingleaders of the 319th—

''Saner?" the grinning face asked her in the traffic controller's voice, turning to leer at her directly. "That what you think?" it continued. "You think your new boss will like you better if he gets Mother Hen to babysit him instead of Crazy Cynthia? Instead of Spook? Instead of Doomsday?" it asked with vindictive glee.

"Hush," she hissed, staring the grinning face down, the rest of the bay starting to fade out of her vision. She was too far gone to pretend that this wasn't real, and the docs and shrinks could go vacc themselves for saying otherwise - they didn't have to deal like she did, and to her it was deadly real.

"You know what they call him, don't you?" the face gloated.

Maxwell had to struggle to make her agape mouth work well enough to reply, blue eyes bulging. "He's Orphan," she managed.

"That's right. Orphan, see, because-"

"-Because every wingman he flies with dies," she interrupted, trying to take back control. "You hush now."

"That's right, that's right," the leering face crooned. "Who do you think he'll take on his wing first? Mother Hen? Or Fingers? Maybe Fireball! Or maybe… it'll be Doomsday first."

"Ughh," she made a strangled sound, head tossing back and forth but her eyes locked on the image on the wall.

"What do you think, Spook? You want to die gloriously in battle at the side of a war hero?" the face demanded of her, its expression changing as the shuttle's hull ghosted across the holoprojection. Now its eyes were tiny mouths, grinning with pearly white teeth at her, as black ichor weeped from its pores. "What do you think, hmm?" it asked, voice discordant and roaring now. "Why do you think they sent a war hero like him here? It's because you're expendable! Missile catchers! Cannon fodder!"

"Stop!" she begged with a miserable yelp of terror, cringing back into the wall, breath coming in labored gasps around the knuckles jammed into her teeth. "Stop, please!"

"Captain?" interrupted a blessedly ordinary voice, dispelling the hallucination in a flash. Maxwell blinked and tried to take stock. One of the ratings was standing by her bench, looking tentative about his decision to check on a clearly disturbed Spook. "Captain, are… you okay?"

"Nothing," she replied with a flat, panting sigh, letting her now-bleeding hand fall to her side. With the holoprojection off, and lights back to full, the leering phantasm was gone. "Just another nightmare."


Colonel Horace Connolly swayed with the shuttle in his seat as the grav arrestors brought their inertia to nothing. He didn't wait for the craft to finish its transition to the flight deck before undoing his crash harness and reaching up for his duffel.

Three weeks on Reading and a month in transit; that was all the time the Core Systems Republic Navy was prepared to give him to compose himself.

"Exterior gravity one-point-oh gees, atmosphere 80-20 nitrox," the shuttle pilot announced, the craft making one final, upwards jerk as it came to rest. "Safe and sound."

"Thanks for the ride, elltee," Connolly called up to the front, waiting only for Sakoda's thumbs-up from the cockpit before cracking the personnel hatch and pushing it out. The shuttle's ramp was already down once he opened the hatch, revealing the flight deck of CSRS Sentinel, alive with active maintenance work. The colonel was quick to notice the empty berth that once held an F3 Hotspur - one which didn't come back one day.

Connolly caught himself thinking of the funeral again and forced himself to stop, to focus on the young lady with the captain's stripes approaching him, to return her crisp salute with a casual one.

"Captain Maxwell, sir, Alpha-Two of the 319th Interceptor Squadron. Welcome aboard, sir," she rapped off promptly.

"At ease, Maxwell," he replied. "I'd like to get my office sorted first before I address any squadron business. I would appreciate it if you could show me the way."

"Of course, sir," she nodded, turning to lead the way.

Connolly had served on Antonin-class carriers before, of course, but he wanted to talk with Maxwell, first and foremost. "Forgive my bluntness, Captain, but you look like hell," he noted quietly. Hell was putting it mildly; her eyelids were baggy, she had a blanched pallor above and beyond most spacers' skin tone, and her face was lined with stress.

"With all due respect, sir, you know the answer already," she deferred as politely as she could manage.

"Yes, I do, Captain Maxwell, but I want to hear you say it." The attempted evasion wasn't going to work with Connolly, but he didn't hold it against her; she must have said it a hundred times already.

She sighed and turned to face him. "No, sir, I am not sleeping poorly," she intoned as though by rote. "As an Innsmouth disease sufferer, my sleep schedule is a matter of record and can be accessed by my sup-"

"I read your file, Captain," Connolly interrupted politely. "Born Innsmouth Colony, Catskills System, 2472. Diagnosed with CID at six months, but with no history of violent or self-injury. Probationary admission into the Reading Naval Flight Academy, class of '90, top of the class. Fought at Second and Third Lethe, Second Strymon… You made captain in '94, five medals, two with repeat clusters, including the Meritorious Conduct Medal and the Honor Star, not to mention twenty kills."

"Twenty-three kills, sir," she corrected blankly. "Faulty guncam in one engagement."

Connolly processed that and, after a beat, asked her the question. "Why are you here, in the 319th? I've known twenty-year veterans who don't have half of your honors."

"Permission to speak freely, sir," she asked stiffly.

"Aboard ship, always," he replied easily.

"Nobody wants to fly with a spook on their wing," she replied bluntly. "Everyone's afraid I'll mistake a Hotspur for a Hoplite and blow the wrong person away."

"Are visual hallucinations a symptom of Innsmouth disease?" Connolly probed.

"No, sir."

"Are you suffering from any other-"

"No, sir," she interrupted impatiently, putting her hands on her hips. "Why are you asking me these questions?"

"Because I want to let you keep flying, Captain Maxwell, and it sounds like you're trying to give me a reason not to," Connolly answered plainly. "If you think you're going to make that mistake, or there's a chance you might make that mistake, tell me now. If not, then I don't intend to ground you because of something you can't help."

Maxwell swallowed, silent at his unexpected answer. Instead she turned back around, continued another ten meters down the passage and opened the hatch on the left. "Your office, Colonel," she murmured.

Connolly stepped inside, depositing his duffel on one of the shelves, looking around. "Thank you, Captain. You are dismissed," he told Maxwell, looking over at her as he crossed behind his new desk.

"Sir," she saluted, heading back to the hatch - halting in the threshold. "Permission to ask a personal question, sir."

"Granted," he answered, sitting down and threading his fingers together.

"Why are you here?" she asked, turning back to face him and leaning against the hatch frame.

"Navy brass gave me a squadron leader post after Third Lethe. This came up first," Connolly murmured, starting to bring up his military link.

"What if I say I don't believe that's the whole story?" she challenged.

Connolly looked up at her with an unamused stare. "Your saying that won't change my answer."

"Thank you, sir," Maxwell saluted again before departing.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License