The flight deck was quiet, all but for a few people running along its length for physical activity. No other place on the ship allowed for a straight kilometer that didn't have bulkheads blocking the way. Subtext was on his twelfth lap when McKeen walked out from the control office and waved him over.
Huffing, he jogged over and tried to catch his breath as he spoke. "Sir?"
"Didn't I tell you not to call me sir?"
Subtext nodded. "Yes, I think you did once."
"Well it still stands. In any case, there's a scheduling issue and I need someone to take a shift on vanguard."
Sophine saw the two speaking and jogged over as well. She stopped, hands on her knees, huffing with a pale face all but for the redness of her cheeks. "Sir? What's going on?"
McKeen slapped his open palm against his forehead. "Drop the formalities already, we're underway. My name's Thomas, or McKeen or Crossbow, not Sir. Got it?"
"Yes Sir." They said simultaneously, smiling to each other through labored breaths.
“So I heard vanguard.” Sophine said, standing up straight now to stretch her aching muscles. She'd been on her fifteenth kilometer, with intervals of rigorous calisthenics.
“Alpha Flight was scheduled to replace Delta on Vanguard about an hour ago. It's a duet tasking, just you and another pilot. You'll fly a set course as early warning for the Scipio, but don't expect anything, we're still in relatively safe space.”
The two nodded.
“Now the catch is, only one of you gets to go. Staffer got the shits so I had to pull him off the duty roster. You'll be winging with Farnell.”
“Shotgun.” said Sophine, raising her hand excitedly. Her sweat soaked shirt clung to her body and left little to the imagination as the color of her skin could be seen where contact was made. She noticed their eyes dropping, and suddenly felt exposed. “Hey now.” She said, dropping her arm and tugging the shirt away from her midriff. “What's going on?”
“Nothing.” McKeen said, turning to Subtext and clearing his throat. “Your call, I was going to give it to you but if she wants it.”
Subtext nodded. “Alright, she can have it.” He was about to turn around and continue running when a hand slapped down on his shoulder. He turned to see Sophine peering at him oddly. “What?”
“It's your birthday isn't it.”
McKeen's eyebrow raised.
“Yeah, how'd you know?”
“Come on Hector, I've known you long enough to know that. Besides after hearing only one of us can go, I'm not as excited. Consider the tasking a gift; Happy birthday.”
Subtext smiled. “Thanks Soph.” he said, as he continued running.
“You've got an hour.” McKeen said, his voice raised as Subtext gained distance. “Don't spend it running, you'd be surprised how tiring a long flight can be.”
Subtext waived, “I know.”
“And you.” McKeen looked to Sophine, his eyes straining not to pry at her small and fit frame. “You're hereby ordered not to wear those issued white undershirts for physical training from now on. You're going to give somebody a heart attack.”
“Yes sir.” She said, taking in a lungful before starting a hamstring stretch.
McKeen was half way down the hall to the control tower when she heard him yell again. “And those shorts are pretty short too.”
She looked back, through her knees as she stretched, her hair falling near her ankles in a tight braid. “Yes sir.” She said, trying not to laugh.
McKeen stopped in the hall turning back toward her as others past him with glas' and data pads.“If you say sir one more time I'll have you hold that position until you pass out.”
She was tempted, but figured he wasn't bluffing. She got up from the stretch, tossed her braid behind one shoulder and sighed. “Point taken.”
“Thank you.” McKeen said, his glare passing over her once more before disappearing into the control office.
Less than an hour later Subtext was sitting in his Hornet. The pre-flight checks were done and most of start up had been taken care of when the ground crew gave him a thumbs up that he was clear of fuel and arming booms or other crewmen. He returned the thumbs up and got on the horn. “Scipio, this is Wolf Charlie three, ready for launch. Over.”
The radio chirped. “Wolf Charlie three, your callsign for the remainder of this sortie is Vanguard two. You are clear for launch in two minutes. Over.”
“Roger Scipio. Vanguard two out.” Subtext thumbed the radio to squadron communications. “Pistol.”
“Sub.” came the reply.
“Nice to see you again.”
“Likewise. You did pretty good in that dogfight during the force on force training. I hope you're that good against the real deal.”
“As much as I'd love to see some action today Farnell, I really don't think we'll be seeing any.”
“So, your last name's Curshaw. Any relation?”
“You mean to Croshaw. I can see how it sounds similar but no. Not related, not even spelled the same way.”
“Huh, that's too bad, imagine how cool it would be to actually have the blood of the first human to survive a jump, flowing through your veins.”
“I suppose that would be pretty cool.”
Their radios chimed at the same time. “Vanguard, this is Scipio. Launch window is open. Good hunting.”
Subtext keyed in. “Roger Scipio, Vanguard out.” He maneuvered the Hornet with care, drifting only a foot off the deck as he translated laterally, sliding sideways into the area pilots referred to as “The Pipe.”
Farnell had done the same, and was ahead of Subtext in the order of launch. “Let's do a Simo.”
Subtext smiled. “Sounds good to me. Link up.” The commands came through and Subtext now saw a countdown to burn on his display, it was at five and dropping. He grabbed the throttle and watched the heads up display paint his vector node at danger close distance from Farnell's Hornet. The countdown dropped and Farnell's engines erupted. Subtext drove the throttle forward and the two fighters raced down the flight deck in unison.
On the bridge, Captain Anderson watched the two markers on the holographic display. His eyes dropped from the screen and locked on the mouth of the carrier below as the doors slowly opened. Two pin pricks of light screamed out of the Scipio's maw and accelerated into the deep black of space beyond.
“Sir, Vanguard two is away.”
“Thank you Major Jasper.” He turned from the window and walked back toward the chair, sitting in it with a slump. “Let me know when they make contact for their relief.”
“Will do sir.”
Anderson put his elbow on the arm rest and held his chin in his hand. He didn't expect anything in this sector, but something didn't feel quite right. He sighed, chalking it up to healthy paranoia and continued on with other tasks.