I had been gone for two years. Things changed almost beyond recognition when I had been gone for six months. I was pleasantly surprised to see that things weren’t too much different. The factory was still humming. Although most of the ships parked there were English, German and Russian. Those governments had scraped together what was left of their home fleets for one last voyage to deal with remaining Drankmastarian forces.
After going through the requisite post deep space medical exams Linda came and picked me up in a new car. I was shocked, she hated cars. Now she was riding around in a Maybach town car with a chauffeur. I asked, “hey sis, uh, what’s with the car?”
“I know, I know, but it’s too difficult to carry all my stuff around on a motorbike. Can I take you home?”
“Not yet, I am waiting for someone.”
“Well, who? You don’t wait on anyone.”
Sasha came out of the exam facility a few seconds later. I took her hand and we got in the car. As I passed my sister I whispered in her ear, “please don’t go around blabbing to everyone about this.”
Linda got in the front seat while Sasha and I sat in the back. Linda awkwardly turned around and stared at the both of us. Her face was a kaleidoscope of emotions. Confusion, surprise, then she started giggling. She brayed, loudly. “My sister and the commander of the pirate fleet. Ah, ha ha, I can’t fucking believe it! I’m glad to see you finally found something to do other than mess around with spaceships.”
Sasha looked at me askance. I asked Linda, “so, how come you don’t seem all that surprised about this?”
“What, you think I never noticed that you never had a boyfriend for more than a couple weeks? I am just glad you aren’t frigid.”
I observed, “this is not going how I thought it would go.”
Linda asked, “oh, and how did you think it would go?”
“I don’t know, I expected you to be a bit more shocked. Perhaps get a bit angry.”
“Now why would I get angry? After all these years of prodding my sister finally has a bit of romance in her life. Who cares if it is with a girl. Have I ever struck you as a bigot? Hell, Im half alien cyborg on my mothers side, I beat up bigots in bar fights.”
“Well alright, but don’t tell dad and your mother please. I don’t want to freak them out.”
“No problem, you know I can keep a secret. And so can my French manservant here. Doesn’t speak a word of English. So, commodore Rockwell, you have been awfully quiet. Tell me all about yourself and don’t skimp on the details. It’s my day off I want to hear stories.”
So she told stories. Starting with the usual background information. When we got to my house I found that Linda had called a caterer in who had cooked all sorts of wonderful food. Hunters stew, roast wild boar. Fresh salad and my favorite food, lasagna. She had even picked up a couple bottles of pre invasion 1892 vintage brut.
The three of us just talked and drank and ate well into the night. Sasha was very guarded while talking to Linda at first. As the night wore on and the liquor did its thing they soon found out that they had a few things in common. Especially a love of motorcycles and jewelry. At around 2:00 at night Sasha started yawning and said that she really needed some sleep. Linda said she was headed back to her place but before she walked away she gave Sasha a big hug and welcomed her to the family. Once she left the room I led Sasha to bed and we both conked out for a very long sleep.
Sunlight was pouring into my bedroom. I reached around and felt for someone who wasn’t there anymore. I heard the sounds of breakfast being cobbled together downstairs so I grabbed a robe and sauntered down to the kitchen.
It was still a bit of a mess from last night. Sasha was rummaging around in the icebox. “Watcha looking for lover?” I asked.
“Oh, I suppose it was too much to expect. But I was hoping you had some of my favorite food. Strawberry yoghurt.”
I chuckled, “you, actually like that stuff?”
“Yeah, I don’t know why. Perhaps just because when you are in deep space the stuff they feed you is usually pastes and other gels. Yoghurt looks like another gel, but it can’t be synthesized convincingly yet. There is just something about it that drives me wild.”
“Well, I suppose we could go by a market and pick some up today. But first I have to ask. Sasha Rockwell, you have traveled further than most people can imagine. Bathed in the light of dozens of stars, destroyed thousands of evil aliens. What are you going to do next?”
She chuckled at my over the top summation of her career as she spread some jam on toast. “Well, I thought I would take some time off. Resign my commission in the AF. Draft a pardon proposal and spend some time in the south of France.”
“You are not going to help finding the source of the toxic web-way energy?”
“No, I have spent entirely too long trapped in tin cans. I need to be on Earth for awhile. I need to breathe air not tainted with lubricants and body odor. I need to feel the sand between my toes. I need to feel the chill of an autumn day. You have a backyard full of trees and grass and plants and bugs. I just want to go out there and dance in it!”
“Okay, but the neighbors might be a little upset at seeing a pirate dancing around out there wearing a nightgown. I think they are usually gone to work at this time of day though.”
She frowned, “come on, you know what I mean.”
“Yes I do, I understand what you mean, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. I have a job to finish once big blue is back together.”
“I know that you have responsibilities, but I have to stay. If I spend any more time in deep space I am going to snap.”
I signed and concluded, “well, the Montana is not going to be back in fighting trim for at least a few months. I wore that ship down to a nub. So we might as well enjoy the time we have together.”
She hastily ate her last few bites of toast and leaned in to kiss me. Then the doorbell rang. I dipped my head. “I specifically told everyone that I was not to be bothered. One moment.”
At the door was the mailman. I asked what he wanted and he said that he had quite a bit of held mail for me. “Oh, bring it back in a couple days.” I harrumphed.
“Sorry ma’am but we can’t keep it at the office anymore. You have to take it now.”
“Alright, bring it in.”
Three trucks full of letters, packages, gifts, medals, honors, prizes, thank you notes and marriage proposals. Half the governments on Earth had awarded me their highest civilian honor and the other half had sent at least one medal. Thousands of letters from children talking about how I was their role model. Tens of thousands of letters from people all over the globe and even colonists on Mars and Venus congratulating me on victory in this battle or another.
It was a bit of fun to go through some of them. I had offers to accept keys to cities all across the United States and free meals for life in several restaurant chains. After awhile I realized that I couldn’t hope to reply to all of these. It was going to take me three days just to write back to all the government messages. And some of the praise crossed the boundary between fawning and disturbing. So I had Trevor take over managing the pile of mail and found other things to enjoy on my time off.
For five months Big Blue was in for repair and refit. Dozens of battles, hundreds of debris strikes and crashing into Durga Prime had really done a number on her. So while she was being fixed up Sasha and I traveled all over the world. I figured that if we were going to be parting company once my battleship was fixed then I might as well enjoy our time together. First stop was the IEC main assembly facility. After years of back and forth there was finally a replacement for the Heron line of fighter-racers.
Somehow the engineers had created something even more gorgeous than the original Heron. Or even the latest models of Bugatti fighter in my opinion. The project had originally been known as the Heron mark 7. However since it was a completely different aircraft it soon gained a new name. The Blue Heron, the new bird still had a delta wing like the old Herons. Though this one had a stylish new smooth double delta profile. It had canards for improved low speed performance. The engines were massively upgraded, as was the control system with a much improved energy vectoring system complimented with a reaction control system. It wasn’t all that hard to make someone that could go fast nowadays. Nowadays the challenge for small craft designers was making something capable of precision at slow speeds that would allow the kind of maneuvering that permits operation near asteroids and easier landing back on a mothership.
The internal structure was 3D printed out of new composites that provided incredible hull strength. The skin was the latest version of Singer armor which provided near invulnerability to plasma weapons. I had requested that a two seat model of this plane be set aside for testing and evaluation. When I first saw it I had to spend twenty minutes just staring at it. It looked like a gemstone, polished and faceted into the shape of a fighter. My chemists had gotten to the point that they were starting to replicate some of the Singers other abilities with matter including deflecting other energies. The surface was nearly frictionless, lasers would be deflected harmlessly away.
The Fourth of July was coming up. The IEC usually put on an air show that day, but it had been canceled for the last couple of years for obvious reasons. This fourth was going to be the biggest celebration in the IECs history. I debuted the Blue Heron at that event in the craziest bit of aerobatics I could manage.
Taking off nearly vertically I started climbing. Through lovely puffy clouds, then punching all the way up into the upper atmosphere. Soon I could see the curvature of the Earth. Then the blackness of space. Once I saw that I flipped the nose down and put on full power.
Had to carefully throttle back all the way down to keep under the sound barrier once I was below 30,000 feet. I dove her vertically, once I was at 5,000 feet I pushed it up just a bit and started forming a nice shock cone for the crowd. I continued pushing down until I was at 1,000 feet, then I started rolling. Giving the illusion of being out of control. The rolls got wider and wider until I was just above the ground when I pulled up and away. Giving the crowd a transonic low pass. At one point I was traveling at 610 mph at an altitude of 80 feet! Then I pulled up into a loop, bleeding off just enough speed to send the bird backflipping across the sky.
It was amazing, the power of the engines was incomparable. But the precision of the controls allowed me to do maneuvers that would have been impossible in a Heron and would have been awfully dangerous in a Scimitar. The refinement of antigravity drives had been carried to a point that I could make the laws of aerodynamics my bitch! I called down to the ground and requested that Sasha come out on the runway holding the rim of a bicycle tire. She held it up and I could maneuver the Blue Heron so precisely that I could snag it out of her hands with the nose of the plane.
After I was done with the demo flight I landed amidst some of the engineers responsible for the project, and a few of the board of directors of the IEC. The lead engineer on the project, a heavyset, borderline mad genius named Kaplan enthusiastically asked.
“So what do you think of my Blue Heron?”
“It’s simply the finest single seat aircraft I have ever flown. But though it bears a slight passing resemblance to the Heron line. This is something completely different, a departure, a completely new envelope of performance. It needs a new name.”
Kaplan looked stunned and a bit angry. In an incredulous tone he asked. “Oh, really boss lady! Than what would you suggest we call it?”
I looked squarely at him and I was half tempted to blurt out something moronic like the elephant bird. Then I looked at Sasha.
“Let’s call it the Corsair.”
That demo flight sold three hundred Corsairs. Shortly after I was told about that I was off on a whirlwind tour with Sasha. Down to Mexico, then over to New Zealand and Australia. There was a whole world of warm sandy beaches and beautiful landscapes that she wanted to see. She hadn’t been outside the United States before her father took her off the planet so I decided to show her around. I would take her everywhere I could. But not to the south of France. I did not want to lose her to that region just yet.
Oh it was fun. More fun than blowing up enemy battleships. I didn’t think anything could be more fun than that. The only problem was that time seemed to go by awfully fast when I was with her. We traveled all over the Earth, the planet had changed so much while I had been gone. National borders had been getting fuzzy since before the Martian invasion. Now the last remaining divisions were dissolving. With the main belligerents off fighting in parts unknown the festering military stand offs that had defined much of the last couple of decades were irrelevant. People went where they wanted to go and they lived how they wanted to live. There was boundless enthusiasm and a veritable sea of optimism everywhere and of course wherever I went I had to wear various disguises in order to avoid being mobbed by fans. What an odd world had emerged. Where a corporate leader was regarded as one of humanities greatest heroes.
Auckland, Sydney, Kyoto, Saigon, Bombay, Dar es Salam, Rome, Bonn, Madrid, New York. They and the environs around them just kind of faded into a pool of pleasure as we went around the planet. Finally we landed back in Billings. The first time I had ever come home and not wanted to do so.
As my time off was coming to an end I took Sasha to see something at the factory. A little project I had bubbling on the back burner since just before the war began. I took her up into the rafters of a large hangar and showed her an almost completed ship. She whistled in amazement. It was 177 feet six inches long and 116 feet nine inches wide. Some technicians were completing some final checks on the sensors and skin. If this was a movie it would have been showered in very dramatic, but very nonsensical sparks.
I explained, “I have had this project rattling around for awhile. It was somewhat inspired by the AFS Hustler. Maximum firepower and horsepower in a minimal frame. The prototype for a new class of corvette. Currently it’s called project 160, but it needs a better name. Can you think of a good one?”
She smiled at me then looked at it for a good long minute.
“It’s so smooth and fast, yet it still looks recognizable as one of your companies ships. Advanced, yet familiar. How about the Semblance? It looks a bit… big for a corvette.”
“Size shift, while most technologies get smaller and smaller, ships seem to get bigger as time goes by. You should see some of the sketches for new battleships. Those things are ridiculously big. For now we have a corvette that could fit an original electrical ship in its bomb bay. It’s simply the finest ship that the IEC has built yet.”
I stood behind her, holding her close and whispered in her ear. “And it’s all yours if you want it.”
She gasped for a moment, she hung her head and said. “I love it, it’s the most beautiful ship I have ever seen. But you know I can’t.”
“Come on baby, why not?”
With a slight growl she replied.
“You know why not.”
“Well you can’t blame me for trying. Like I said I am going to miss you out there.”
“I am going to miss you too, but…”
Someone was coming up the catwalk. Sasha bolted from my arms and vanished into a poorly lit part of the hangar. I looked down to see Greg coming up the stairs, slowly and carefully. He was still walking with a cane.
“Ah, Greg, what a lovely bit of coincidenirony. Good to see you are out of the clinic. Did you get a new pistol?”
“No, this is my old one. I sent it to the factory for refinishing after you gave it back. It arrived on a cargo ship from Perugia today so I came down here to pick it up. Then I figured while I was here I would have a look at project 160. Looking forward to seeing it fly.”
“Come on Greg that name sounds boring as all get out, it is called the Semblance. You should know that, it’s going to be your ship after all.”
“Really! Why though?” He looked down at his still healing body and observed.
“I can’t help but think I was not the first choice for the job.”
“No, I offered the captain seat to Udet. But he doesn’t want to leave his precious Ophir or the quote, unquote freedom of the Auxiliary Fleet. Don’t think you haven’t earned it though. I can’t pay you back for the half an inch of height you lost when you ejected. Once you are back to normal this ship is all yours.”
He smiled and shook my hand. Thanking me profusely. I faked a smile back at him and he looked back at the ship. From a pile of notes in my files this project had been bounced around, tinkered, refined, redone and once the design was finalized she had gone from a bunch of drawings to a state of the art warship within six months. This was what we did at the IEC. We took ideas and made them into masterpieces of metal, composites, ceramics and electronics. Though for the first time in my life I wasn’t satisfied with one of these achievements. Earth was calling me. I realized that I really did not want to leave Sasha. But I had to. So I said goodbye to Greg and started walking back to my car.
Sasha was waiting for me outside the hangar. Behind the wheel of my car. It was comforting to see her sitting there. That she hadn’t dissolved into the dark to avoid potential embarrassment. I was trying to do the math, in my clumsy, human way of what would happen if I stayed on Earth. As I got in the car I realized that this wasn’t about math. This wasn’t even about what I wanted. I had a duty to myself, my species, heck to the universe itself. To see the end of this madness.
The next day Montana and her new crew were presented for my inspection. On the outside she was a bit different. Bulkier, boxier, with a few more bumps and protrusions than she used to have. It was on the inside where the most of the work had been done. Dozens of systems had been upgraded, the railguns and even the turret assemblies had been completely replaced along with the sensor suite and a vast diversity of new missiles had been loaded. Donations to the war effort were running low though. People had gotten war weary. I understood completely, though we were winning I still wanted to see the end of this, and damn soon.