The Hornet pitched as the main engine rolled downward into the VTOL configuration. Sophine made the required correction so as to not slam in to the ceiling of the Scipio's fight deck as she came screaming through the rear blast shield doors. The Hornet slowed as she braked with forward thrusters and caught a glimpse of her ground guide. The technician was waving his orange batons and directing her, with a twisting elbow, to rotate counter clockwise. She complied and her head rotated as she maintained eye contact with the ground guide while the Hornet spun. The next command was to lower slowly, followed by a signal meaning the ground was clear. With a slight thud, she felt the landing gear touch down on the deck. The ground guide's swinging arms confirmed this, and she began to power down the systems. Sighing, she listened to the APU whine down from a high squeal as she took the nav map print out from the transparent pocket on her thigh. The Hornet had plenty of navigation features, but in the worst of cases, a pilot was sometimes left with nothing but a paper map and the stars outside the canopy. The shut down procedure was coming to a close when her flight leader, Logan “Hotrod” Arpei, took his turn to get parked by the ground guides.
Sophine hit the canopy release lever and listened to the hiss of the equalizing pressure. The canopy drew forward on its uni-rail system and stopped softly under hydraulic control. She stood up, stepped over the lip of the cockpit and on to the ladder's edge.
Sophine turned; someone had yelled her callsign.
“Hey, nice to see you!”
The person was not speaking to her. Instead, she stood there, half way down her ladder, watching a group of Marines that had been shuttled over from the Vivid as they grouped around one of her squadron mates. It was Jim “Ender” Black, the ex Marine from Delta flight. Curiosity tickled at the back of her mind; how did he know these marines? Had they been on operation together in ground battles? She shrugged, pushing the mundane thoughts to the back of her mind and continued down the ladder.
“Sophine, come here,” said Logan as he walked across the deck, helmet under his arm. “Can you file the flight log?” He looked down at his watch. “I've got a very small window to get a vid call back to Terra. I'd really appreciate the help.”
“No problem Logan.” She saw his cheek bones wrinkle above the breathing apparatus that functioned as his diaphragm and knew he was smiling.
“Thank you so much. I owe you one.”
Sophine smiled, “You owe me two, don't you forget that bet we made.”
Logan chuckled as he was walking away, and turned toward her again. “Yeah, you win. It was just a relay beacon.”
“Paranoid Logan, you're paranoid,” she said shaking her head mockingly as he walked away.
“Hey! If you'd grown up where I did, you'd be paranoid too,” referring to the harsh life he'd endured surviving on his home planet after it was devastated by a Vanduul war horde. Some say his correspondence with UEE Advocacy helped save many of the survivors. Not, however, before they had accidentally targeted him as a terrorist while he fought marauders and some of the deadliest indigenous wildlife that had taken residence in the ruined cities and dank sewers of the wasteland planet. Many of the conversations he had were said to still exist on file; used now as reference footage for the aftermath of the Vanduul assault. They were brief messages, static laden and overexposed footage of a bleak existence narrated by a gas masked Logan Arpei, known then as Logante. All the while, backdropped by the smoldering remains that he once called home; or more often the dark and dangerous hideaways that were only marginally safer than the surface.
Sophine did not, for one second, envy his past or wish it upon anyone. Nevertheless, if anyone was strong enough of will to survive such an experience intact, it was Logan. She often wondered why he didn't bother requesting to see the medical staff on the mercy ship Grace to undergo the procedure required to replace his diaphragm. She'd come to the realization that, perhaps wearing the mask gave him some kind of familiarity or made him feel at home, like those years he spent hiding behind one in the shadows as he hunted, and was hunted.
Shaking the thoughts away, her mind returned to business as she made her way up a catwalk to get to the control office where the flight report would be filed. There had been no action on their patrol, only a few traveling merchants and a dubious looking radio relay beacon that had gotten Logan's panties in a bunch. She walked into the office, turned toward the Eighty Second Fighter Wing doorway and nodded to Jonathan “Teacher” Flemming who was on duty at the desk. Perhaps he'd stepped on someone's toes, or his name had simply come up on the list for the duty.
“Good morning,” said Jon. “How was the patrol?”
“Nondescript,” she replied, putting her helmet down and taking the Glas he'd handed her. She slid her finger down the side to scroll to her Patrol number and tapped the heading to enter the folder.
Jon sighed. “Nothing out there yet. I'm surprised.”
“Why's that?” Sophine asked, typing her tombstone information into the top of the document; as if the Navy hadn't already filed it a million times since the beginning of her career.
“Well, historically the people in this region have little love for the Empire. There have been a good number of upheavals that the High Command doesn't seem to want to categorize as civil war. If you ask me, the second a bunch of farmers and miners get into their ships and shoot at us, it's civil war. You know, coming from a historian.”
“I'd be careful what you say outside of Colonel Collins' office. He's the Wing Commander after all, and he might take that as insubordination; God forbid, high treason!” She had said the last part in an exaggerated tone of impending doom. “Kidding,” she said smiling, as she finished the report and placed the Glas back on the desk. “Take care.”
“Yeah, see you later.”
Turning out of the offices, she went back down the same catwalk staircase she'd taken up. Her destination was a set of change rooms near the main deck. The doors hissed open. She noticed the lights were on, meaning someone else was already inside.
When Sophine rounded the corner to the lockers, Ismaly looked up from where she stood; bare all but for the flight suit bunched up below her knees.
“Morning,” said Sophine, walking past her to where her locker was, in the far corner of the long rectangular room.
Ismaly sighed, shaking her head. “Is stating the obvious really part of expected social interaction?”
“Yes, and not being a bitch is also part of expected social interaction. Something you fail at pretty much every time you attempt such a thing. Should I even ask why you're not wearing your liner?”
“It makes me itch.”
“It also provides thermal protection from flash fire.”
Ismaly locked her eyes onto Sophine's and stared at her with all the arrogance she could muster; which was quite a lot. “If there is an explosion large enough to rupture my suite and put the linings protective design to good use, I'll be in the midst of cabin decompression with no seal, which means I'll have less than a minute before the inert gases in my blood begin to boil. The lining is useless and uncomfortable.”
Sophine had unfastened the clasps around the collar and unzipped the outer flap of the flight suit. On the outside, she was calm and collected, pulling her arms out of the sleeves; while on the inside she was fuming. It burned that Ismaly was technically right. She couldn't help it, she couldn't hold it in for much longer. “You do know you're a bitch, right?”
“Again with the obvious Sophine? Must you really?” Ismaly looked over as Sophine pulled down the flight suit and began stripping off the liner. “On top of being useless, it makes you look like a fool. At least I have a shape that fits in it, you must have quite a lot of room in the chest when you're wearing that.”
Sophine remained silent, peeling the liner off her body.
Ismaly was watching her, hating that she was more fit. She wasn't stupid, she knew her vices, but had no way of controlling them, she had to be the best and if she wasn't, she'd find a way to at least make it seem as though she was. “Sophine, has anyone ever told you that you look like a twelve year old boy?”
The last straw snapped. Sophine spun, her flight suit hanging from her hips. “What's wrong with you?” She yelled. “Where you dropped as a child? Did your parents keep you locked up in the closet and feed you dogfood until you behaved? You are the most socially inept person I have ever met.” She put her hand out and began enumerating on the tips of her fingers. “You're a self-centered, lonely, sadistic, megalomaniac cunt that absolutely nobody can stand because every time you open your slut trap, you alienate everyone in earshot.” Sophine's eyes shot to the doorway.
Standing in the opening was Almitt, dressed and ready for patrol. His brow was a deep cleft between furious eyes. “What the hell is going on in here?” His voice was a booming echo in the locker room.
Sophine clasped her hands around her naked torso.
Ismaly stood, nude, her weight shifting to one hip as she glanced at him nonchalantly.
“Get yourselves together for Christ sake.” He turned to leave, his eyes locked on Ismaly. At the corner, he stopped and pointed at her with an accusatory index. “And you,” he yelled. “Put on your Goddamn liner, we're already late.”
Ismaly's eyes narrowed, she rested her hand on her hip and stood still in defiance.
Almitt's eyes widened, his pupils were pinpricks. “That's an order!” Spittle flew from his mouth.
Ismaly blinked, slightly surprised at the force of his voice. She straightened her stance. “Yes sir,” the words were hollow, but seemed enough for Almitt as he disappeared around the corner in thundering heavy footsteps.
Sophine and Ismaly looked at one another. The fury was gone; they turned to their own business and continued in silence.