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“The Horvath Polity rejects this position as unimportant and contrary to their just liberation of the Terran system,” the Horvath envoy ground out through its horrible translator. “We further demand reparations for Horvath ships illegally attacked by Terran pirates and the unconditional surrender of the Terran system...”

“We’re going to have to go this one alone,” Horst commed Ve’Disuc.

“Apparently so,” the Rangora commed back.

“What’s the status of dropping the tribute?”

“Wait for our turn.”

“Rangoran Empire?” the Ogut referee said.

“The Rangoran Empire agrees to drop demand for tribute upon the Terran system with Terran agreement to do the same against the Rangoran Empire as well as a binding agreement prohibiting the use of weapons of mass destruction against purely civilian targets, specifically cities and towns, with the understanding that any basing of military forces in or around such cities and towns are not party to this agreement and are legitimate targets of war. Furthermore, legitimate targets of war shall include high government officials of all branches and specifically any persons in or related to the chain of command of their respective militaries.”

“The Terran delegation requests a short recess while this change in position is reviewed.”


* * *

“That wasn’t what we’d talked about,” Horst said, calmly.

“It was a late change,” Ve’Disuc said, his scales rippling. “We just present what we’re ordered, just like you.”

“We’re going to have to take part of it and leave the rest until we’ve gotten confirmation from Ministry.”


“Does the Junta realize they just put themselves squarely in our cross-hairs?”

“Terran forces are in the Terran system,” Ve’Disuc replied, dryly. “That is a very long way from Rangor.”

“American forces were in America at the beginning of World War Two, Ve’Disuc,” Horst said. “Which with our technology at the time was a very long way from Berlin. And the only reason the Russians took it was we let them.”

* * *

“Mother of God,” Sans said when she was gone.

“What?” Palencia said. “She didn’t seem that bad. And damned good looking.”

“Don’t, don’t, don’t say that to her,” Velasquez said. “She’s a real ball buster.”

“And you weren’t here for her little speech,” Vila said. “We’re going to be working on the boats at least six hours a day.”

“In suits?” Palencia asked. “Is she nuts? And when am I going to see Carmencita?”

“On your off-duty time,” Sans said. “If you make her conditions of training for the week. If not, forget it. And study is on our own time, now. Maximum of two hours per day on duty.”

“That is... Diaz is never going to go for that,” Palencia said.

“I think she has Diaz eating out of her hand,” Sans said. “And she’s a hard-ass like he is.”

“I’m going to complain,” Palencia said.

“I’m going to do what she said,” Sans said, waving at Velasquez. “We’d better get in our suits.”

* * *

“Sorry about this,” Dana said, walking out of the engineering office in her suit. She had her gloves and helmet off but was otherwise ready to space walk.

“That was fast,” Megdanoff said.

“What do you mean?” Dana asked.

“I mean...that was fast,” Megdanoff repeated. “Did you do your checks?”

“Yes,” Dana said. “And I examine my suit daily. I found this in a seal when I went to put it on,” she added, holding up what looked like a dust bunny. “They do seem to get everywhere. Well, time to go round up the posse.”

“Uhm...” the EM1 said, delicately. “Knock?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Dana said.

The quarters were not far and Dana knocked on Palencia and Vila’s hatch then commed.

“You decent?”

“No!” Vila shouted.

“Mental note,” Dana said, actually recording it to her to-do list. “First training cycle on task, condition and standard for suit donning.” She paused and thought about it. “Second training cycle on use of coms and implants. God almighty this is going to be a pain in the butt.”

* * *

Dana hung in the pencil corridor, one foot hooked into a rung by Twenty-Three to stabilize her, her helmet and gloves floating about a foot from her head in micro and her hands behind her head as she watched her division carefully working its way down the corridor to their boats. Just from their discomfort in micro she knew how much they’d been working on the boats.

She made the immediate decision that they were going to have to start at the very basics. It was unlikely that the boats had even had a proper daily PMCS much less the thirty, sixty and ninety day cycles.

Palencia wasn’t bad in micro, he seemed like he was probably naturally athletic and of course had more time in space. The ER was clearly a noob. The other two just were awful. It occurred to her that from the looks they didn’t even play null-ball. Then it occurred to her that five was a null-ball team and the training schedule didn’t specify what type of training.

She commed Twenty-Three open and wordlessly pointed at the hatch.

“I think I need to make one more thing clear,” Dana said as she flipped herself into gravity again. She was careful to do a perfect plant and caught her helmet as she landed. “I’m afraid you think I’m being a hard-ass just to be a hard-ass. I’m not. Or that I’m being a hard-ass because I’m a gringo. Last thing on my mind. I’m being a hard-ass for a bunch of reasons. The first, as I noted earlier, is that it’s our mission. The second is that it’s important. The third is because I was raised to believe that if you’re going to do something, you should do it to the very best of your ability. Since I’m now responsible for this division, I’m going to do my level best to make it the very best division in the squadron. I intend to excel. You can feel free to try to interfere with that intent. You can try to play games. You can try to prevent that standard. Feel free. I am a master of playing games. Let’s play.”

She toggled the hatch shut and put on her helmet and gloves, performing if not the world’s fastest check of seals then very damned close.

“You might want to put on your helmets and gloves,” she said as she commed the hatches shut.

“What are you doing?” Palencia asked, hooking on his helmet without a seal check.

“Preparing to pump down,” Dana commed.

“What?” Vila asked. He still didn’t have his helmet on and quickly donned it. The others just came out as a series of muffled shouts.

“First of all,” Dana commed. “Learn to use your coms. I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

We weren’t really prepared to deal with vacuum,” Palencia commed.

“The Tr... Thermopylae is a very big place and most of it’s pretty safe,” Dana commed. “But bad things happen. Especially to engineers who are working on their boats. There is no such thing as being unprepared for vacuum. If you are unprepared for vacuum in this job you might as well kill yourself right now. Because we are going to be in vacuum. A lot. If you came down here unprepared for vacuum that is a definitive statement that you haven’t been doing the job. Again, this isn’t a gringo thing or being a hard ass. I’m trying to keep you alive. You’re my people, now. I’m responsible for you. If one of you dies from a bad seal it reflects badly on me. If you can’t even bother to check your seals, if you can’t be bothered to maintain your suits, please go breathe vacuum under someone else. So, let’s play. Is everyone sealed?”

This is very unwise, EM,” Palencia commed.

“Why so?” Dana asked. “According to his record everyone is trained in suits and micro. You signed off ER Velasquez as trained in suits. And he’s signed off by you as micro trained when he can barely make it to the boats. He’s nearly completed all the conditions to be an Engineer’s Apprentice. Are you saying that some of the division are not sufficiently versed in suits or have not maintained them to a standard that they can survive vacuum?”

Dana waited a moment for a response then unsealed her helmet.

“Perhaps we should have a class on suit maintenance and task, condition and standard of donning same to start? What do you think?”

* * *

“Where’s the crowbar?” Dana asked. The suits hadn’t been in really bad condition. The design was pretty good and could take a certain amount of crud. But they also hadn’t been in great condition. She’d spent some time giving a class in how to properly maintain a suit, a class she suspected she’d have to repeat several times, then proper inspection and donning. When she was sure they were to condition she’d pumped down. Now she was trying, as subtly as possible, to determine their actual knowledge of the boats. She’d already figured out she couldn’t trust a damned thing the records said.

What crowbar?” Palencia commed. She’d kept the boat pumped down, just to make the point.

“You guys don’t mount a crowbar?” Dana asked, aghast.

The last thing you did before certifying a new boat for use was weld brackets over the starboard tool locker and mount a crowbar. Knowing the true significance of the crowbar was sort of an ad hoc proof of having been “made” as an engineer. Generally, you were informed of The Significance of the Crowbar around the time you were about to make EM3, similar to an Army or Marine Corps corporal.

“There’s one in the kit bag,” Palencia commed.

“Well, sure,” Dana said, opening up the tool locker. There wasn’t a kit bag. “Where’s the bag?”

Uh, in my quarters, Miss,” Velasquez commed.

“EM or, if I’m in a good mood, Parker,” Dana replied. “And why is it in your quarters, ER? Standard regulation Six-One-Four-Three-Eight-Seven-Alpha states that the shuttle’s tool bag, with all listed tools, will be maintained in the starboard storage locker unless it is in use.”

So the tools don’t get stolen,” Palencia commed on a private channel.

“The boats lock, EM,” Dana commed back. “Quarters don’t lock.”

You can get around the locks,” Palencia said. “If you just leave the tools lying around they disappear. So we keep them with us.”

“Which means they’re disappearing as we speak?” Dana asked.


“Deal with that if we have to,” Dana said. “Okay, enough chit chat. ER, you’re going to remain on this boat. We’re going to restart with the daily checks on each boat. I’m going to be doing secondary check on each boat as you complete. But to do some of those we need tools. So first I’ll be going back to check on your tool boxes. And see if they’ve disappeared.”

* * *

Which they had. Or there were simply tools missing from earlier. No real way to tell. What was immediately apparent was that the tool kits were incomplete.

“Leonidas, sorry to bother you again,” Dana commed.

Not busy at the moment, EM Parker,” the AI commed back. “What is your request?”

“Did any personnel enter the quarters of my division after we left here at 1037?”

Yes,” Leonidas replied.

“And you can’t tell me who because they’re not my subordinates,” Dana said.

“Correct,” Leonidas replied. “But if you’re wondering where the tools went, you might ask EM1 Megdanoff to repeat the query. However, the bifurcate assembly tool was missing before the latest disappearance. I think EN Vila left it in the number fourteen portside inspection panel of his boat.”

“Roger. Thank you.”

“One query, EM Parker?”

“Go, Leonidas?” Dana said.

Is it permissible to use your handle of ‘Comet’?”

“Roger, Leonidas,” Dana commed.

“Based upon the quizzical nature of the response gestalt, you would like to know why. I am named after one of history’s most famous warriors. It is in the nature of a salute, the proper address of a noted warrior.”

“I am not a ‘noted warrior,’ Leonidas,” Dana said uncomfortably.

“I am sure my namesake would have said the same, Comet. Leonidas out.”

* * *

“Parker, could you meet me up at the head of the corridor?” Megdanoff commed.

“Be there in a sec, EM,” Dana said. “Palencia, this relay isn’t tightened.”

“I thought it was,” the EM3 said.

“Since it wiggles when you push it,” Dana said, smiling, “it’s pretty apparent that you never even put your hand on it, EM. Repeat the task, condition and standard for checking the four-one-six-eight starboard upper grapnel power relay.”

“Visually and manually check the relay for cracks, dents, corrosion or other signs of gross damage,” Palencia said, clearly reading off his plants. “Press on the relay and twist to ensure that it is in good physical contact. Connect the...”

“Okay, now when you read it actually do it,” Dana said, straightening up. “Start the check again. I hit that on my first spot check. I don’t want to know what else is wrong. And note that the starboard upper grapnel is deadline until this is fixed.”

“EM...” Palencia said.

Do it,” Dana said. “I’ve got to go talk to the EM1.”

* * *

“Your tools,” Megdanoff said, handing her a cloth bag.

“Except the split installer which was in the port fourteen,” Dana said, looking in the bag. It looked complete.

“Parker,” Megdanoff said. “I don’t want you to think that this in any way a reflection on your sex...”

Dana stood there looking at him quizzically for a moment. He was clearly marshalling his thoughts. Or maybe consulting his plants.

“And what am I doing wrong, EM?” Dana asked.

“Why is Twenty-Two deadline?”

“Four one six eight is marginal,” Dana said. “Mis-mounted and it looks as if it’s been that way for a while. Which means it’s probably not going to pass the full power test. So far the way it’s looking, all the birds are going to be going down for a couple of days, maybe only a day. They’re all behind on maintenance cycle for one thing which sort of automatically deadlines them. I’m surprised they weren’t deadlined already.”

“Parker, we’re trying very hard to maintain an up condition, here,” Megdanoff said, carefully.

“EM, with all due respect, the bird is either right or it’s not,” Dana said, just as carefully. “These are my people. They have to fly in those birds. With respect, again, I neither want to deal with the accident review nor the memorial service if one of my guys buys it because the bird isn’t good.”

“Neither do I, Parker, but...” Megdanoff pulled at his short hair for a moment. “Parker, there’s more to this than I think you’re looking at.”

“I am always interested in new information, EM,” Dana said, her eyes wide. She even blinked them.

“You can quit that, right now,” Megdanoff said, flexing his jaw. “There’s a lot more than you understand about this unit. You’re looking at us and going ‘this place is so screwed up no wonder it couldn’t find it’s butt with both hands.’ ”

“The fact that two of my people were playing video games, one was asleep and the other was off post getting laid did sort of make an interesting first impression, EM.”

“And now you’re saying they’re lazy,” Megdanoff said.

“Not at all, EM,” Dana said. “Leave it at developed bad habits.”

“Which is a reflection on me,” Megdanoff snapped.

“Not really,” Dana said. “I’d say it’s a reflection on Diaz but I don’t really have a handle on him, yet. He flew off the handle at the two juniors for playing games but at least they were awake. He more or less ignored that Vila was asleep. And I’m pretty sure he knew where Palencia spent his time.”

“Okay, I’ll try to lay out the problems, that I know about, of going at it as ‘Me Hard-Ass Space-Bitch,’ ” Megdanoff said. “And that’s not intended as an EEOC thing, I hope you...”

“Don’t have a problem with the B word in that context, EM,” Dana said. “I’m going to try to get my guys to quit calling me ‘senorita,’ though. Better than puta I suppose.”

“Here’s the problem,” Megdanoff said. “Problems. First of all, they’re going to do absolutely everything possible to shove a knife in your back. And they’ve got ways you can’t even imagine. For one thing, you may not realize it but most of the people in this unit are politically connected at home. Even Velasquez comes from what they refer to as ‘good family.’ And every one of the countries they come from seem to have an absolute stream of bureaucrats that exist to do nothing but complain about their treatment. And those complaints don’t come to the squadron. They go to the American State Department who then sends ‘reply by endorsement’ forms to Department of the Navy. So each and every time you bust somebody’s chops, the Secretary of the God Damned Navy is going to have to ‘reply by endorsement’ as to why you told Sans if you ever caught him listening to music in his quarters on duty he’d be up for a court martial.”

“Which was not what I said,” Dana said, blanching slightly.

I know that, you know that, the Secretary of the Damned Navy knows that!” Megdanoff said, pulling his hair again. “Did you record?”

“Yes,” Dana said.

“Then we’ll send the recording,” Megdanoff said. “When we get the reply by endorsement. Which will take about a week. And it will dutifully be sent back. And then there will be another query asking if we’re accusing their precious people of lying. And that will have to be replied to. All of it going through Department of the Navy. Eventually, they’ll get so tired of having to push paper because of one low-rate EM that they’ll find somewhere that low-rate EM isn’t going to cause them so much trouble.”

“Even if that low-rate EM is right?” Dana asked.

“Think about it,” Megdanoff said, tilting his head to the side. “How many reply by endorsements do you think the Secretary of the Navy is willing to reply to before he starts to recognize your name? And do you really think he’s going to care that you’re trying to just keep your boats in top shape when the first time he sees the replies it’s always from some high ranking member of the Argentinean government who has a perfectly justifiable complaint? Such as telling Sans he can’t listen to music while studying for his quals?”

“You’re serious,” Dana said, thinking about the scene in the boat with the suits which was, actually, sort of pushing the line. “The Secretary of the God Damned Navy?”

“As a heart attack,” Megdanoff replied. “And the Secretary of State. I had the same attitude when I got here. I was going to straighten their shit out. This is me, now, saying you need to tread a bit more lightly. That’s one reason. Second reason. I know what you want out of this division. You want it to be the best damned division in the squadron, which, by the way, would not be hard. I’ll freely admit that. Four birds that actually worked and weren’t just signed off as working would make you the best division in the squadron. But here’s the problem with ‘best division in the squadron.’ Do you know that top members of South American soccer teams live under pretty much continuous death threat and have to have body guards?”

“Why?” Dana asked, shaking her head. “I mean, are they into drugs or...”

“Because they’re good,” Megdanoff said. “Because they stand out. Because they can turn a game. Because if you want competitive, you haven’t seen competitive until you’ve seen Latin Americans. Get their competitive streak going and they have a simple answer. If it’s easier to make you fail then work to beat you, they’ll make you fail. You fail, they win, game over. One way or another. We tried the same thing when we first started and have barely gotten them to quit sabotaging each other’s boats! I think we lost a couple in Eridani because somebody had futzed with their nav controls.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dana said, shaking her head.

“So when Persing, who is, yes, an amiable moron, said that you need to respect their culture you took that as bullshit. Which at a certain level is true. Just respecting a culture for pure multi-culturalism is not about getting the mission done. Which is the only and always bottom line. But respecting the little niggling issues about their culture like not having your boat sabotaged to get you out of the way or not having your career sabotaged to get you out of the way is, actually, sort of important.”

“Engineer Mate,” Dana said, “I know all about ‘cheerful and willing obedience to orders’ but I’m not sure I’m willing to fly in these boats if that’s the standard under which they have to be maintained. I know way too much about how they can screw up in the best of conditions.”

“Which is why I have it arranged that I never go out in the boats,” Megdanoff said. “The only gringo in the unit who does is the CO. And we check his boat very carefully. Besides, the guys like and respect him. That is the key. If they like and respect you you can get them to do the job. They also just automatically respect rank. But at this point, you had that run-in with Benito, who’s sort of a leader among the junior enlisted in the squadron, you’re coming across as a hard-ass bitch, you’re playing the competitive game and, last but not least at all, you’re a girl. And while I come from the background that I don’t give a damn, they do. That tool bag is just another coffin nail. You used the entry and tracking system. By doing that you, essentially, broke the omerta. You dissed the honor of the guys who had successfully stolen those tools by using an underhanded trick.

“You’re hurting their feelings. You’re bruising their egos and wimping their machismo or whatever. ‘Women aren’t allowed to talk to our people that way’ is probably going to be the subtext of the first reply by endorsement.

“I’ve been working with these guys for a year and I still don’t really understand what positively motivates them. Negative motivation I know chapter and verse. The CO seems to get it but he’s just charismatic and friendly. Frankly, you probably should have played the ‘I’m just a poor pitiful little girl’ game from the beginning but it’s too late for that.”

“You got all that in, what, three hours?” Dana asked.

“They also back channel a lot,” Megdanoff replied. “That’s the one part I do seem to be tapped into.”

“So is this an official counseling statement on cultural interaction, EM?” Dana asked, thinking furiously.

“No,” Megdanoff said, sighing. “This is absolutely unofficial. From my official point of view we’re all best friends and the birds are great. Remember the bit where you talked about not wanting to go to the memorial service? This is about that. Or seeing a promising career just as shot to hell.”

“I have a hard time believing they’d sabotage my bird because I...dissed their machismo or whatever,” Dana said, shaking her head.

“These cultures are all about...face if you will,” Megdanoff said. “It’s about their concept of honor. And I do mean all. There are some really strong cultural reasons for that in their home countries and that goes for all of them and all their countries. Like I said, these are all kids from ‘good families.’ Some nobody farm girl is not allowed to disrespect their kids because that is disrespect to the family. Rank has nothing to do with it, survival has nothing to do with it. Palencia. Take a closer look at his file. He’s got a bachelor’s in engineering from the University of La Paz. His primary hobby is listed as polo. You know how much money it takes to be a polo player even in Argentina? In his country a nobody farm girl is just a casual lay.”

“That explains the athleticism,” Dana said. “Hell, I’d probably like him if he wasn’t such a prick.”

“And he’s saying the same thing about you, I’m sure,” Megdanoff said.

“So what do I do?” Dana said.

“That’s the problem,” the EM replied. “I really don’t know. Like I said, if I’d caught it ahead of time I’d have suggested, up to you, playing the poor-poor-pitiful girl. Let them carry the tool bag and such. ‘Could you please check the relay again? I’m afraid something bad might happen if it goes bad!’ Bat your eyes. Too late for that.”

“I’d say that’s a hell of a way to run a railroad but it’s more like I’m not sure you can run a space navy that way,” Dana said, shaking her head. “I mean, seriously. These boats are not up to standard and up to standard is close enough to breathing vac.”

“They’d rather lose boats than honor,” Megdanoff said. “They’d rather lose lives than honor. Think of it that way. Know why there are only kids from good families working as, face it, wrench monkeys?”


“The 143rd is the combined contribution of all the countries. They’re paying for the boats, personnel and maintenance. Supposedly to, and I did not use this word, ‘our’ standard. But from their point of view, they are their boats. And they’re the most advanced weaponry any of those countries possess. This is the absolute top of their line. They’re trying to field a combined Constitution Class. Different name, mind you. But the same ship. It’s one hell of a lot of money to them. The US has fielded fourteen. So this is their best and their brightest. Seriously. They’re not stupid. And one more thing.”

“Go,” Dana said.

“They are, and I am not understating this, absolutely fearless,” Megdanoff said, shaking his head. “Various reasons but you guys had it relatively easy with Station One. And from what I heard, that was bad enough. But we had lots of problems with integrating with the support ships.”

Dana remembered what taking the station had been like. If they hadn’t had support from the Constitution and Independence class ships they probably could never have boarded it. The Troy could have blown it out of space easily enough, it had destroyed over thirty warships in the system, but taking it would have been another issue. On at least three occasions the support ships had blow away resistance that would have been a major issue to both the Marines and the boats.

Taking it without effective support? That would have been double tough.

“And that has been another point of contention,” Megdanoff said, sighing. “They feel like they were left in the lurch. That the Americans got better support because the ship crews were all American. Truth was, again between you and me, the chain of command simply didn’t get the way you did that sort of interaction. They were too hierarchical about it. By the time they requested the fire, because it had to be approved through a dozen layers, they’d already taken the casualties. It was cultural, again. But you can explain that until you’re blue in the face and they won’t listen. That would be...”

“A violation of honor?” Dana said, nodding. “Okay, I get it. I’m screwed, blued and tattooed. Which means there’s only one way forward. Changing course at this point would just make me look like, well, a pussy. So that means I have to play the same game just with some minor variations. Which means we have to discontinue this evolution and go to another one. Where can we keep the tools where they won’t get stolen?”

“Good luck,” Megdanoff said. “There are plenty of tools and parts. There’s no particular reason to steal them. It’s like a game to them.”

“Okay,” Dana said. “I’m good at those sort of games.”

“What are you going to do?” Megdanoff said, nervously.

“We’re going to play for the rest of the day,” Dana said. “Like I said, I’m good at games.”


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