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The Exeter Incident

Chapter Text

“Bridge to Captain.”

Francesca “Francis” Drake groaned. It seemed like only minutes since she'd laid down on her bunk after finishing reviewing performance evaluations, or evils as they were known in the service. She rolled out of her 'rack' and hit the button on the intercom.

“Captain here, this had better be good X.O.”
“Sorry to disturb your sleep Ma'am, but we got a weather flash from base. Storm Able Baker 12 has changed course and is heading our way.”

Captain Drake sighed, and glancing at the clock on the bulkhead thought about saying something unprofessional, it had only been thirty minutes since she put her head down.

“I'm on my way up X.O, put the kettle on.”
“Right away Ma'am.”

Francis pulled her uniform jacket on, and stopping long enough to pull a comb through her regulation bob-cut hair, exited the tiny cabin that was her personal space and out into the corridor. It was a short jog up the deck and climb up a ladder and she was in the cavernous ventral axial companion way that ran the entire length of the ship between the twin gas bags that made up 80% of the Exeter.

Captain 'Francis' Drake paused out of long habit, listening to the RNV Exeter around her. The thin high whistle of the wind over the rigid carbon composite skin of her told Francis that the wind outside was already picking up. The occasional twanging shudder that ran the length of the 1500ton 750ft long craft, as well as the subtle tingling vibration of hard driven rain rattling against the hull transmitted though the deck plating and felt though the soles of her soft uniform boots, told her everything she needed to know about the conditions outside.

Upon reaching the bridge her Executive officer, or X.O, Commander Edward Decclan handed Francis a cup of freshly brewed tea without a word. Francis' gaze swept the three deck high, bridge, looking around the stations at the same time as she assessed the sky seen though the hemispherical bridge window that dominated the forward view. Calmly she walked forward to the 'pulpit' or the command station, a 270 degree bank of command stations with the captain's chair at the centre of the three quarter circle, all perched on an armoured pillar containing the critical bridge systems, in the precise centre of the spherical space of the bridge.

Francis walked over to Navigation and looked over the crewman's shoulder at the plot, wisely enough it was already showing the chart of North Atlantic storm AB12, as well as the projected plot of it's course.

“X.O... maybe it's just me, but did that storm get worse from this morning?”
“Yes Captain. It's been upgraded to a Force 10.”
“Bloody hell..”

The RNV Exeter was supposed to avoid anything over Force 8. At 1500 tons and 750ft long, she was a minnow in comparison to the latest Excalibur class dirigible carriers. The Exeter had been built 20 years ago, at the tail-end of the cold war, intended to serve as a flying airfield to launch interceptor planes in case of circumpolar Soviet bomber attack, she was re-tasked as a North Atlantic patrol vessel. She was old, cramped and woefully under-powered for her displacement. And Francis wouldn't swap her for any other ship in the fleet.

“Helm, take us to heading 153 true, and see if you can crank her up a few more knots.”
“Aye,Aye Ma'am. Heading 153 true, and annoying the Chief!”

Francis snorted at the humour from the lieutenant. The Chief Engineers attitude was a thing of legend, and asking his precious child to go a bit faster than her already rapid speed would indeed, annoy him. She sat down in her chair as helm executed the course change.

The deck plating tilted as the ponderous mass of the dirige-craft turned to head at right-angles to the storms course, hoping to get around it. The thrumm of it's Rolls-Royce Electro-Ducted-Fan [EDF] turbines nudged up from barely noticeable in the background to teeth-gratingly present. Sure enough, her comms ear-bug whistled with an incoming private call.

“Engineering to the Captain.”
“Cap, go engineering.”
“Begging your pardon Ma'am, but do I need to be reminding you about the forward reactor that's cold?”
“No Chief. You don't. But if we can't get just a few more knots out of the old girl, we're all going to have lots more on our plates to worry about shortly.”

There was momentary pause, and Francis wondered if some of the worry had leaked through in her voice. Chief Engineer Scott was a decent man, for all that he was Irish, but he was prone to express his dissatisfaction volubly and within earshot of ratings at times, something that had earned him a rather spotty service record in the Royal navy.

“How soon before it all drops in the pot Ma'am?”

Francis' eyebrow raised a scant fraction of inch at that, but she ignored the idiom and answered the Chief.

“About an hour, Gods willing Chief.”
“Very well Ma'am, I can get you full combat speed in twenty, but I wouldn't recommend holding her there long.”
“How!? You don't have spare fusion reactor in your parts locker do you Chief?”
“No Ma'am...I wish... but I can hotwire the quench capacitors on the stellaroter to take a jump charge and restart her cold.”
“Gods man! Don't tell me that's by the book!”
“No Ma'am, it's not. But it will work. You have my oath on it.”
“Chief, your oath isn't going to do me much good if you blow off the bows of my ship. But since I don't doubt you'll be standing right next to it when you cold start the beast, I will take it. And I'll stand you and your crew a round when we get back to Firth.”
“Thank you Ma'am... we'll be ready for glory or damnation in ten minutes. Chief out.”

Captain Drake drummed her fingers on the armrest before snapping out an order.
“Radar, go active and see if you can get me a firm fix on that storm front”
“Aye-aye ma'am, going to active scan.”

Active scans weren't commonly used on patrol. True, shining massive radio-frequency 'searchlight' did make it easier to see things, unfortunately, it also applied in reverse. But, protocol be hanged at the moment, she wanted to see that monster out there.

“Ma'am, radar contact. 106 relative, range er.. looks to be between 120 and 140 nautical miles and closing. Doppler is picking up atmospheric returns at 100 mph Ma'am.”
“Radar, confirm heading please.”
“106..no.. wait …. 108 relative and turning. Ma'am, it's coming around to an intercept course!”

Captain 'Francis' Drake drew in a sharp breath.
“X.O?”
“Confirmed Ma'am” Edward was looking at the repeater screen at his station. “It's turning to match our course, now 112 relative. It'll be dead behind us in a few minutes. Estimate contact in thirty five minutes. Wind speed now at Force 12 and gusting higher, lateral velocity umm.. estimate 128 mph ma'am.”
“X.O...a word.”
“Ma'am”

Edward Decclan slid down the ladder to the command deck and came up along side where Francis was sitting. Lower her voice she addressed him.
“What the hell X.O?!”
“No clue Ma'am. But to state the obvious, that's not a natural storm.”
“Right, sound the alert and tell the crew to batten down the hatches, so to speak. The Chief should get the forward reactor up in a few minutes, as soon as he has and we have a stable power output, make best speed and put us in a 12 degree climb. We should just stay ahead of it and if we can grab enough altitude, we can get above this monster.”

The X.O nodded in salute and headed for his position, snapping orders into his comms-bug as he went. Turning her attention to the communication station, Francis asked.
“Alice, can we get a signal through this muck?”

NR Alice Seaward shook her head,
“No Ma'am, too much interference even for sat-comm to penetrate. Shall I ready a buoy?”

Message buoys were the last resort, a radio beacon with a pre-programmed message, attached to a helium balloon that when released would shoot up to the edge of atmosphere and start transmitting. They stayed aloft long enough to be assured of contacting a satellite, and then plummeted as the balloon burst. The Exeter had a full compliment of twelve.

“Aye comms, ready a buoy with our heading and speed. Message as follows; being persuade by storm Able Baker 12, now at Force 12. Suspect AB12 is being controlled by unknown hostile. Situation critical, attempting cold restart of forward reactor and will try to outrun and climb above weather front. Captain Drake out.”
“Message recorded and beacon is away Ma'am. Release is clean and beacon is climbing, estimate transmission in four minutes.”
“Good work comms, keep trying to get through as long as you can.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am.”

Captain Drake studied the radar plot on her repeater screen, then tapped the comms-bug in her right ear.
“Captain to Chief, are you about done there?”
“That I am Ma'am... you might notice the lights dimming in a moment.”
“Good work Chief.”
“Save it until after we light this candle! …. Ma'am.”

Francis chuckled, evidently things were going smoothly insofar as he'd remember the usual courtesies due her rank and hadn't cursed her for calling.
“All hands, this is the captain. Brace for reactor cold start. Expect power fluctuations. Damage control to stand-by.”

The bridge lights barely flickered as local back-ups came on line and buffered the loss, although red warning lights sprang up across every station as power flickered across the ship-wide grid.

The twin 2nd gen fusion reactors weren't meant to be restarted outside of a ship-yard, drawing as they did over four hundred megawatts on start up. However, a single reactor put out a little over 250 megawatts, and if a sizeable amount of that was stored in the super-capacitors meant to divert power from the main magnetic containment bottle in event of reactor fail-safe, then briefly, that power could be poured into the system and used to jump start a reactor.

The fly-wheels on the EDF turbines had barely enough time to engage, keeping the fans spinning, when power surged back into the engines, spinning them up to full combat speed. The Exeter sprang forward as lights came back on throughout the mighty dirigicraft carrier.

“Bridge to Engineering. Well done, first pints on me as soon as we're back in port!”

Francis could hear the cheering in the background as the Chief answered.
“Thank you Ma'am. We're not out of the woods yet, but at least we've got the path now. Forward reactor is stable at 97%, and the temperature is looking better than expected. Estimate we'll need to shut her down in four hours maximum... although I'd be happier if we do it sooner rather than later Ma'am.”
“Good news indeed Chief. Ok, button up the compartment, you can baby it from the command deck. I don't need you down with radiation sickness if that thing starts leaking.”
“I and my little tadpoles thank you Ma'am...”

Turning round Francis addressed the radar officer.
“What's the monster behind us doing radar?”
“Range is holding steady ma'am, bearing 180 relative, 153 true.”
“Can you get a estimate of how high it stretches?”
“Umm.. one moment Ma'am...hard to get a return off it due to lightning, but I'd estimate it tops out at 65,00ft.”

Captain Drake nodded, the Exeter had a maximum ceiling of 70,000ft, but could go as high as 80 for a short while.
“Helm, hold this heading, set trim planes to twelve degrees positive.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am, steady as she goes, 12 degrees positive climb.”
“Radar, report.”
“Speed steady, range decreasing by 2 miles per hour due to climb. Range ten miles, mark.”

Captain Drake sat back and calculated, the storm would be upon them, or under them, in five hours, they'd have to shut down the reactor in four at most.. and at the optimum rate of climb they'd be above it in three, provided nothing else changed. She nodded to herself, give it an hour and she'd order the crew to stand down from alert.

An hour after the leading edge of the storm had crept under the steadily climbing Exeter, and still running mostly south on a bearing of 153 degrees, the crew had been stood down and the mess hall opened. It was near breakfast time anyway.

Captain Drake was in the officer's mess, wiping the last of the fried egg off her plate with a slice of bread, when the intercom jangled. She sighed and tapped the receive button.

“X.O, one of these days I am going to be able to do something without interruptions.”
“Sorry captain, today's not that day. I think you need to step up to bridge Ma'am.”
“What is it?”
“Honestly Ma'am, I don't know... but I'm not sure I like the look of it.”

Stepping out onto the bridge Francis was stopped in her tracks by the sight. The nascent sunrise was just beginning to gild the edge of the horizon, and she could see the curvature of the earth. The sky over them was as black as space, and the earth below was lit by flickering lightning from the storm.

She allowed herself a moment, in all her career in the Royal Naval airforce, she'd seldom flown this high, and never at night before. In fact, she doubted there were many outside the Britannic Space Agency who could say they'd seen such a sight.

The Skylon surface-to-orbit shuttles flew higher, and faster, doing the Gatwick to Woomera run twice daily. But they were windowless cattle cars, the pilots flying using videoscreens. They didn't count.

Francis remembered back when she was young, she'd watched the televised rocket launches, and the early space walks of the Russian, American and Britannic pioneers. She'd hoped one day to become an astronaut, but the RAF weren't taking women at the time, so she'd signed on with the Navy and gone to their flight training school instead. Of course, it was different now, the lunar far-side observatory had a mixed crew for a start, and the Americans and Russians had had female flight crews since the eighties.

Still, she was content to be where she was, if it afforded her moments like this.

Strolling up to where the X.O was leaning on the brass handrail peering out the forward window she quietly asked him.

“What's so interesting X.O that it couldn't wait?”
“That's just it Ma'am, I don;t know what it is.. but.. just watch for a minute and you'll see it.”

Puzzled Francis stood and watched. Suddenly a jet of dimly glowing red gas or plasma erupted up from the clouds below, spreading out in a narrow fan to fade out into the blackness above, as it did so there was chirp form the alarm systems, as if something had started to sound off, and stopped almost as soon as it started.

“What the devil..?”
“My thoughts exactly ma'am. Chief says whatever it is, it emits a gamma ray flash at the same time.”
“Is that what that alarm was? Is it enough to be dangerous?”
“Only if we stay here for the next five years, according to the doc.”
“Hmm... it looks like upside down lightning...”

Captain Drake stopped talking and thought, there was something familiar about it....then she remembered. Commander Peke on the International Space Station had reported something similar, what was it called now..?

“Of course! Red sprites!”
“Beg pardon ma'am?”
“That's what they're called X.O... it's literally inverse lightning. Positrons not electrons, it jets up into space. Um.. I'd heard they produced gamma ray bursts, and antimatter particle tracks, although no-one quite knows how...Something to do with the static charges acting as a particle accelerator...”
“Hmm... is it dangerous Ma'am?”

Captain Drake considered the question, but in the end shrugged.
“No-one's ever tried it, but those things run to a few million volts, so I don't think we want to get hit by one...and that's not even thinking what a stream of anti-matter might do to the reactors.”
“Right ma'am, sounds like we need to find a safe spot to wait out the storm.”

Captain Drake studied the storm for a long few minutes. Then turning round to face the bridge she ordered: “Helm, heading 168 true, set trim plates to 15 degrees positive. Cut speed by one quarter”
“Aye-aye Ma'am. Heading 168 true, trim 15 positive. Reduce speed by 30knots”

The X.O looked at her worriedly.
“Ma'am, that heading and speed will put us right over it in minutes.”
“I know. If I am right, it will put us directly over the eye of the storm. It's the only place free of them.”
“First we have to run the gauntlet though..”
“Have faith X.O. Besides, if someone is controlling this storm, then that's the most likely place we'll find whatever soup did this.”

Her X.O grinned wolfishly,
“Right, let me send out a squadron of Falcons after them once we find them Ma'am.”

Chapter Text

“Easy does it Mr Harding; the Ex is a big girl but she prefers a light touch.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am.”

Captain Francesca 'Francis' Drake was standing behind the helm position as they threaded their way over Storm Able-Baker 12. She very consciously kept her hands clasped behind her back. Granted, it made her look the very model of modern naval officer, but that wasn't why she was doing it.

Her first bridge position as a raw midshipman had been at the helm... and she'd found reasons to keep taking a turn since then, often with the collusion of her senior officers, until she'd been tapped to be Captain. She had a rare talent for flying, one that a good senior officer recognised and used.

However, as captain, she felt it wasn't her right to abuse privilege. Besides, she'd had her fun; she felt it was time to let younger hands take the helm.

Except for times like this... threading through clear air turbulence above a deadly storm, with the added excitement of possibly getting a sudden high-energy enema from inverted lighting blasting upwards from the tops of the clouds.

Her palms itched, she wanted to take the helm so badly.

The massive airframe of RNV Exeter shuddered and seemed to drop a few feet and jerk sideways at the same time. Francis, feet braced on the deck plating, flexed her knees and rode the buck and drop motion. Some of the younger and greener ratings [in one case rapidly turning greener by the minute] eyed her rock-steady stance with envy.

“That's got her; we're in the eye. Well done Mr Harding, top-notch flying!”

RN Midshipman William Harding glowed at the praise. Everyone aboard knew of Captain Drake's record, holder of the inter-service cup five years in a row, and a string of commendations for flight excellence. They also knew of her reputation for finding even the tiniest flaw and mercilessly pointing it out. She was not known for meaningless praise.

Francis sat back down in her command chair, making a mental note to herself to keep an eye on Harding – he had it in him to be an excellent helm officer, but she'd have the Chief Petty Officer. sweat him through extra training exercises just in case there was any danger of him developing a swollen ego.

“Bridge to flight control, ready a recon flight.”
“Warrant officer Briggs Ma'am. We've got the birds hangered and strapped down for storm conditions. Am I to take it it's safe to release them?”

Francis sighed. Briggs was one of the banes of her life. He was meticulous, punctilious, and always insisted on everything being done by the book. If he had any people skills, then he kept them carefully hidden away. But he knew how to run a tight flight deck and he kept the airman on a tight leash, which given their propensity for playing fast and loose with regulations was just as well. So he was as useful as he was a pain in the posterior.

“Yes Briggs; I anticipate no more sudden moves. We're in the eye of the storm. You're clear to unstrap three Falcons and have them out on the flight deck. Captain out.”

The Exeter carried a squadron of 24 Falcons. The fast nimble craft were direct descendants of the earlier Harriers, the first V(s)TOL aircraft. The Falcons retained the ability to take off and land vertically thanks to their vectored thrust engines, but with a redesigned airframe to include advances in stealth technology as well as 4th gen Rolls-Royce Pegasus engines, they were faster than their predecessors by a considerable margin, able to fly at MACH 3, better armed, and harder to spot.

They were also a glorious sight as they dropped past the bridge and started to make a wide spiral around the inside of the storm wall. Captain Francis sat forward in her command chair, and, typing a short set of commands into the systems terminal inset into her chair's tac-display, listened into the direct radio feed from the pilots.

“Blue-1 to Flight: conditions choppy. Over.”
“Roger that Blue-1, tighten it in a bit. Doppler shows cloud wall at 1000ft mark, be advised of lightning hazard. Over.”
“Roger Flight. Confirm closing circle to 900 foot radius, beginning search and descent. No contacts.”

For long moments there was silence. Francis trusted her pilots, though she sometimes wished the Admiralty had adopted the video-feed system the Americans had... but she also had to agree that knowing that your commanding officer could be literally watching over your shoulder wouldn't do morale much good. She just wished the Powers That Be in Whitehall had also taken into account their Captains' morale.

Francis command chair rocked unexpectedly, as with a barely audible thump the ship's cat, Incus, landed on the chair back behind her head. Delicately, for a large black cat, he stepped onto her shoulder and briefly brushed his cheek against hers before flowing down into her lap.

“Oof, Incus, I swear you've put on weight. Have you been raiding the galley again?”

Incus raised his fluffy black head and regarded her, his eyes shining like twin emeralds set in a mask of vantablack stealth paint.

“Nooo.. 'onst.”
“Liar...I can smell the tuna.”

Francis smiled down at the cat, and scratched him behind the ears as he settled down, overflowing her lap. She'd found him years ago on a dockyard in Oslo, a filthy, scrawny, soaking-wet scrap of a half-grown kitten, more dead than alive. Without a moment's hesitation she'd tucked him inside her uniform jacket and smuggled him aboard the Sheffield, where she was serving as a junior Lt(FAA) [Lieutenant-Fleet Air Arm] at the time. Incus, as she'd named him, had set about charming the entire compartment she shared with five other woman officers within the day..and by evening of the next he'd been found by the Leading Rating, who reported it to the Warrant officer.

By the time they'd left port, three days later, Incus was officially sworn into the Royal Navy as an able seacat [cadet]... and had surprised everyone by placing his paw on the bible and answering 'yess' when asked if he understood and agreed with the oath by the captain.

Captain Tolliver, who until that point had been indulging his crew after a long, grey and boring patrol, had decided then and there that any being, regardless of species, that clearly understood the oath and wished to serve should be allowed to do so. After all, there was nothing in the regulations that specified what species a Naval rating should be. However, there was a short and rather pithy section regarding discrimination against soups, which could be summed up as 'Don't even think about trying it. Ever'. That more or less closed the matter, as Incus was clearly a soup, of sorts.

Incus now held the rank of Lieutenant himself, a source of some amusement on his part, and had travelled from ship to ship with Francis. His was no empty post either; rats and mice were still as much of a problem today as back in the days of sail. However, the consequences of nibbling on wiring instead of rope were potentially even more dire.

Francis smiled indulgently down at the fluffy, purring black hole of a cat, and then briefly looked around the bridge. Her crew were suddenly conspicuously busy and doing their best to look as if they'd been that way all along. There weren't too many aboard who weren't fond of him, even, unfortunately, the salty old Petty Officer that oversaw the ship's mess.

“Blue-3 to Blue-1. Possible contact.”

Francis' head snapped up as she called up the tactical plot, showing her the relative positions of the recon flight.

“Roger Blue-3. Can you describe it?”
“Blue-3 to Blue-1, Flight... visual contact intermittent starboard... it's skating the storm wall. Looks like an airship.”

Francis frowned, and looked over to her right.
“Radar, can you confirm that contact?”
“No Ma'am... all I'm seeing is ghosts. It might be there ma'am.”
“Switch to LIDAR; if Blue-3 can see it visually, so can we.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am. Going to LIDAR and lighting up the ghosts.”

Francis frowned; the LIDAR systems were a legacy, used as weapons targeting systems back when radar could be confused with electronic counter measures. They'd been rendered obsolete by the nearly zero-reflectivity vantablack paints used to coat military vessels nowadays. However, they were still used occasionally when docking at fields with no ground guidance control, and where ground clutter made radar ranging useless. The powerful infra-red lasers would penetrate the murk outside and as long as it wasn't a military craft, they'd get a return off its hull.

“Contact Ma'am, range 1050, altitude 2330, bearing 073 relative, bang on where Blue-3 put it.”
“Good work. Exeter to Blue leader, contact confirmed. Bearing 073 rel, alt 2330. It's just inside the stormwall; get as close as you can safely and eyeball it.”
“Blue-1. Roger that Exeter actual. Going vectored flight.”

Francis frowned as the Falcons closed on the unknown craft. Flying on vectored thrust in these conditions would take all the skill they had, but was probably safer than trying to fly past the craft blind. However, the fact that they had gotten a LIDAR return off it meant it probably was a civilian vessel, which meant, given the storm conditions, this was probably about to become a search and rescue operation. She stroked Incus' ears a little, trying not to worry, or at least not look as if she was worried.

“Blue-1 to Exeter. Contact confirmed. Panamanian registered cargo dirigicraft, “Andora May”. She's pretty banged up, drifting engines dead, control surfaces are gone mostly, hull damage that looks like a lightning strike and it's hard to tell, but she looks kind of twisted slightly, like her spine's bent. No sign of life, all her lights are dead. Her electrics and avionics are probably fried. Cargo hatch is open, looks like the crew may have tried to lighten her. There's a stable band of weather just inside the storm wall, she's drifting in that, just circling.”
“Roger Blue-1. Paint her with a beacon, and return to Flight. Exeter out.”
“Roger wilco Exeter.”

Moments later the beacon pinged on Francis' tac-plot, tracking the position of the derelict, for as long as the glue from the 'paintball' round stuck the RF tag to the hull anyway.

“Permission to speak freely Ma'am?”

Francis glanced to her left as her X.O spoke.
“As always Ed, what's on your mind?”
“I was about to ask you that Francis.”
“Oh... I would've thought our duty was clear. There's a craft in distress out there. We're going to render aid and assistance, as regs require us to.”
“There's also a force 12 storm, and it's in the middle of it. Besides, there's no sign of anyone still aboard her. They might've all jumped ship.”
“Wish it was literally in the middle...and they might not have. We won't know until we look, and since that means getting aboard, I think it might be safer if we towed that wreck out of the storm first, don't you think?”
“Safer than what exactly? Jumping? You're talking about taking the Ex down into that maelstrom, conducting a tricky bit of manoeuvring to match vectors with a dead ship, and then carefully towing a ship that might well break apart and drag us down with her out through a force 12 storm... one that I might add is probably being controlled by a hostile soup.”
“I think you might have that backwards Ed...”
“How so, Francis?”
“All we know is that the storm followed us. We're assuming hostile intent because we know it's a hazard to us. But what if whomever is pushing it around didn't know that? What if they're trapped aboard that craft, seeking help and pushing it along the only way they know how?”
“That's a lot of assumptions to take a risk on Francis...”
“I know Ed, and I know that the ship's safety is one of your main concerns. But there's a bigger picture at play here.”
“Oh?”
“Check AB12's back plot. It blew up out of Central America and the Gulf of Mexico. Plus that's a Panamanian registered craft.”
“I don't get it.”
“I'm betting that when we check where the Andora May's last port of call was, it'll be somewhere either inside Columbia or near the border.”

Edward looked puzzled for moment, then his expression crunched down into a frown as the light dawned. “Huh? Oh! You're thinking refugees!”
Francis nodded. “At least one of whom is a soup, maybe a newbie. I'd bet my hat that they got caught up and mangled in a storm in the gulf, fleeing for the USA, and someone aboard was triggered by it.”

Columbia was listed by the U.N as in the top ten worst places for human rights, and soup rights in particular, with roving death squads either eliminating soups or rounding them up to use as living weapons. As result, soups, and 'naries alike tried to flee north to the USA, which was seen as being more welcoming. This led to some of the 'narco gangs also having a side line in human trafficking, either to order by selling soups into slavery, or smuggling refugees across the border.

Edward stared out the window for a short while, then nodded.
“Right... well, can't let them wander around out here. They'd be a hazard to shipping. Getting a line on her in that mess is going to be next to impossible though. What are your orders, Ma'am?”

Francis considered her answer... according to the Chief's best guess, they'd have another hour of full power before he'd have to shut the forward reactor down again, or risk plasma burning through the containment vessel. Regulations didn't exactly cover this situation, but normally they'd use a landing craft [LC] to attach a tow cable or two. The LC's were heavy haulers, meant to be used when there was no landing area available, and occasionally for dropping the Exeter's Marine contingent into combat zones. They were powered by a four Pegasus IV-b engines, two more than a Falcon; they had stubby wings and an armoured lifting body shape. They also manoeuvred like barges.

“I'm going to need the five Marines rated top on wingsuit's X.O. I'll also need my cold weather gear and a breather mask.”
“Ma'am?”
“The Marines will jump down into that, and put lines on her. And before you point it out, I know we don't have that much cable so we're taking the Exeter down into the storm. But I'll fly her myself from the weather deck. I need to be able to feel the storm, X.O.”
“Oh. Bloody. Hell ... Ma'am.”
“My sentiments exactly, X.O.”

The weather deck was a small spar that was suspended from the underside of the Exeter's bridge, jutting forward like an upside-down bowsprit on a sailing vessel. It had a single console position with repeater controls for all flight and navigation systems. It was meant to be used only during landing manoeuvres and was more of a hold-over from the days before automated landing assistance. The weather deck was designed to maximise the pilot's field of view, putting them far out into the open air so they could see as much as was possible without the bulk of the Exeter in the way.

It was also completely open to the elements.

Chapter Text

As Captain Francesca 'Francis' Drake sealed up her insulated parka her ears were filled with the muffled howling of the wind outside, echoing weirdly inside the narrow space of the companion way down to the weather deck. Eyeing the frost that had formed on the inside locking wheel of the hatch, she slipped on an extra set of gloves over her already gloved hands.

“Francis..” her Executive Officer, Commander Edward Decclan murmured as he stood waiting with the breather mask and oxygen tank, “... you don't have to do this, you know.”

Francis tilted her head back towards him. “Don't I? Name one person aboard that has a better pilot rating. Hell Ed, name one in the entire fleet!”
“Not what I meant Francis... we all know you're the best in service. Hell, Howard was bloody relieved he wasn't about to be asked to do such a damn fool thing as fly the Ex into the teeth of a Force 12 storm. No, I meant, you can fly her just as well from the bridge. It's over a hundred below out there, and the wind's strong enough to flay the skin off your bones. This is insanity.”
“Your objections are duly noted X.O.”
“Which is your way of telling me to naff off. I know. You're going to do this whatever I say, but why in the gods name? What do you have to prove by doing this?”
“Edward, believe it or not, this isn't about me. I'm flying the Exeter from the weather deck because from there I can actually, literally, feel the storm better... and that edge might make the difference between us surviving or getting torn to shreds.”

For a moment the cramped metal compartment was silent even the wind's howl seeming to abate. Then Decclan sighed, shaking his head.

“Are you sure you haven't got some sort of super-power?”
“You know what my medical records say... and I don't think I've spontaneously developed anything since my last medical.”
“I know... but you know as well as I do, they can only test for stuff they know about.”
“What? You think I've got some sort of soup talent for flying? I shall take that as a compliment Edward, but really, it's not. It's just ordinary talent, and maybe a little bit of genius for it.”
“Well, it might as well be Francis, but as you say... just remember what they say about the line between madness and genius.”
“Trust me Ed, I know what I'm doing. And I wouldn't be doing it unless I thought it necessary.”
“Still think you're bloody mad to be risking your neck like this.”

Francis sighed. Sometimes she regretted having Edward as her X.O.... Yes, he was the best she could hope for, and had the service record to prove it. But they'd been class-mates together, and at times that friendship led him to address her with far more familiarity than one would expect between captain and first officer.

“While you are entitled to your opinions about fellow officers X.O...”
“Sorry Captain. Won't happen again Ma'am.”
“Don't make promises you can't keep, just see that it doesn't where the other crew members might overhear us.”

Commander Edward touched his forehead in salute, acknowledging her point and implicitly promising to mind his manners.

“Well, if you're ready Ma'am?”
“As I'll ever be X.O.”

Edward passed her the face mask and oxygen bottle. The straps of the face mask went on over her head, and he cinched them securely in place before pulling the hood of her parka up and buckling that in place. Francis, in the meantime, slipped the oxygen bottle into the special front pocket for it, feeding the hose through the opening and double checking the seal. She didn't want the cold to get in and freeze the regulator valve. At this altitude, death would take only a few minutes and hypoxia had a way of sneaking up on you even if you knew what symptoms to look out for.

Edward took a head set off the rack by the hatch and tapped it.
“Comms check Ma'am...”
“Comms check green. Captain to Bridge, how's our contact doing?”
“Bridge. Contact is in a stable holding pattern; altitude and distance from storms centre unchanged, ma'am.”
“Ack. Captain to flight, what's the status of recon team?”
“Flight. Recon team is gearing up. Go for EVA in ten. Be advised, Recon team is one to six, Ma'am.”
“Flight, say again?”
“Recon team is six strong Captain. Extra man is Marine Sargent Gunnerson, designate Recon-1.”

Francis closed her eyes within the breather mask. Sgt. Gunnerson was without doubt qualified, as he was the Royal Marine commando instructor in wingsuit operations for the Exeter... but he was also supposed to be in the medical bay with a torn rotor cuff.

“Captain to Recon-1.”

Gunnerson's distinctive bass rumble of a voice seemed to set her ear-bones rattling even through the headset.
“Recon-1, go.”
“Gunnerson, just what the bloody hell do you think you're doing?”
“My job Captain. I was cleared for duty this morning.”
“Like hell you were! I know how long that takes to heal.”
“On my oath Ma'am. I'm fit for duty. Besides, you need the best.”

Francis sighed... there were times when she got the feeling that her entire crew were overachieving gung-ho school-children who were far too eager to please. But then, she wouldn't have it any other way...

“All right Gunnerson, on your own head be it. But if you rip your arm off I shall personally cut you loose to drown in the briny below.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am. Wouldn't have it any other way.”

Francis glanced over her shoulder at Edward.
“Wish me luck, X.O?”
“Good luck Ma'am... not that you'll need it.”

Francis' laughter died as she opened the hatch and the storm roared in, slamming into her face like an angry fist. Even through the breather mask and the Arctic cold weather gear, the thin, freezing cold air took her breath away.

Outside was a swirling panoply of clouds and dark, dark blue sky. The sunrise gilded the cloud tops below. Dawn was an hour old up here, but down below night still ruled. Francis clipped the travelling lines of her harness to the rails either side, and stepped out onto the narrow catwalk of the weather-deck. As soon as she was secure and a few steps down the narrow open ironwork walkway, Lt Cmdr Decclan closed the hatch behind her.

The walk to the pulpit console at the end of the walkway was probably the longest 20 yards she'd ever had to take, as she had to fight the wind for every step. Once inside the safety of the semi-enclosed space, Francis clipped all four safety lines to the ring-bolts and brought the console alive.

“Weather deck to bridge, Captain has the con.”
“Bridge, helm. Aye-aye Captain. Best of British to you Ma'am!”
“Thank you Lt Howard. Sorry to steal your chance at fame.”
“You are welcome to it Ma'am! Very welcome indeed. Be advised, radar says the storm seems to be worsening. Doppler side-scan shows wind speeds picking up on the edges and rippling inwards. She's tightening up. It's going to be very hairy in there in about three quarters of an hour.”
“Roger that bridge; keep me posted. Weather deck out.”

Francis set to work. Bringing the Exeter's nose around five degrees and pointing her down 12, she started the downward spiralling slide that would put her into the eye-wall of the storm.

The Exeter shuddered as she hit the shear layer at the top edge of the storm. Francis fought the controls and won, the deck trembling under her firmly planted feet. Without any real conscious thought she snapped out commands via the link to the auxiliary helm positions on the bridge, controlling trim and power distribution to the engines.

However, her full concentration was focused on the storm. It fought her like a living thing, howling and roaring defiance in her face as she snarled back at it, lips drawn back over bared teeth. Francis could feel the storm around her, sense the winds in the way the Exeter rode them. It was as if her senses extended over the entire 750 feet and 1500 tons of graphine aerogel and hydrogen/helium mix filled diamondine reinforced carbon-fibre composite hull.

Lightening flashed around her; the sky was a cloud walled, blue rimmed, black disk directly above her starboard tail fin as the Exeter nose dived down on a corkscrew path. She almost didn't need to see the tac-plot to tell where the other craft was; it sat in a relatively calm liminal space just within the eye-wall of the storm, and she felt the twisting and shuddering of the Exeter's airframe die down as they slipped into it, just above and forward of the broken-backed vessel.

Francis studied the clouds for moment, then ordered.
“Captain to Recon-1: go for EVA. Godspeed.”
“Recon-1. Aye-aye Ma'am.”

Switching to a rear-facing camera just above the flight deck, Francis watched her Marines dive out of the open hanger bay, thin lines spooling behind them like ballooning spiders as their bat-winged suits caught the air and they flew down to the dark bulk of the cargo carrier 'Andora May'.

The other vessel was a mono-hull design, unlike Exeter's catamaran configuration, almost as long as the Ex, and maybe half her weight. It was an older type of design, favoured by the Latin American countries that relied on dirigibles to shift bulk cargo where roads were non-exist or next to impossible for trucks.

As Francis watched the two forward Marines caught an up-draft that lofted them above the hump of the vessel, and then expertly sloughed air and dropped down at its tail. The next two repeated the procedure to land near the mid point, leaving Recon 1 and 2 to land on the forward section.

She couldn't see them in their dark suits against the dark hull, but she pictured them in her minds eye, using gecko-gloves to make their way across the hull surface looking for the attachment hard-points used to anchor the craft. They'd attach the thin spider-lines to those via pulleys and signal flight to begin paying out hawser lines. Once those were across the Marines would attach the hawsers using self-welding bolts that would fuse to the attachment points. If they had to cut line, the Exeter could do so remotely by sending a command down the thin fibre-optic thread at the core of the hawser to the explosive charge embedded in the ring that joined hawser and attachment bolt.

“Recon-1 to Flight: all lines attached. Ready to start infiltration and recon phase.”
“Flight to Weatherdeck. Lines secure. Ready to commence towing.”
“Ack Flight. Well done. Captain to recon team, get dug in and hang on while we get out of the storm.”
“Recon-1: Ack, making like bedbugs Ma'am.”

Francis chuckled and waited for few minutes, carefully holding the Ex at her relative position.
“Recon-1 to Captain. Recon team is secure inboard. Ready for manoeuvring.”
“Ack Recon-1. Captain to all hands, stand-by for towing operations. Batten down the hatches, my buckos, it's going to get bump...”

The world suddenly lit up an eye-searing blue-white and Francis was slammed against the forward edge of the pulpit console as something behind her exploded.

For moment, Francis couldn't see anything for the purple after-images. Her ears rang loud enough it made her dizzy and her heart froze at the sudden thought that her ship had suffered some sort of catastrophic reactor failure, and was plunging down through the sky in a flaming ball of death.

Francis shook her head trying to clear it, and started breathing again as she realised that at least they weren't falling. She could make out bits of the console around the giant purple splotch that smeared across most of her vision. Tilting her head one way and then the other, she could see most of the indicators read green still, so whatever had happened didn't seem to have damaged anything. Twisting around as much as the safety lines would allow she tried to use her peripheral vision to see behind her.

Her heart almost stopped when she saw a large chunk of the metal catwalk was missing. The weather deck had been struck by lightning!

Francis blinked furiously hoping to clear her vision. Turning her head, she could see the heavy carbon-fibre composite spar that ran under the catwalk seemed to be intact, blackened slightly, but still holding. With a rueful smile she realised she could have worked that out from the fact she wasn't plummeting to her death, and that the C&C links that ran though the centre of the spar were still working.

Looking up to the clouds she called out; “Ave Jupiter, you old bugger! You missed me!”

Francis shook her fist at the sky, and laughed to herself, fully aware that she was being ridiculous, but sheer relief at the narrow scrape had left her feeling a little giddy and she needed a way to let it go.

Sobering, she tapped the intercom..
“Weather deck to Bridge, status?”

There was silence. Francis frowned and tried again. “Captain to Chief Engineer, report.”
Still silence, not even the slight hiss of an open channel.

Using the edge of vision she tried to see the indicator lights for the comms system, but all she could see was a mass of red and orange. Sweeping the boards with the corner of her eyes, she could make out that all the flight controls with their triple redundant systems were up and running, as was her sensor suite.

Francis sighed. Evidently she was doing this by herself then. She patted the console. “Well, just you and me old girl...no-one else is listening. Just like the old days, intrepid girl-pilot and her trusty craft.”

Francis chuckled to herself and started to slowly throttle up the eight Rolls-Royce EDF engines. With no way of warning the Flight deck to take up the slack on the winches, she had to do it the hard way, and carefully pull ahead without putting a sudden strain on the hawsers. Hopefully, Flight would be on the ball, realise what she was doing and stand-by the winches even without commands.

The lines tightened and then the Andora May's head came around slightly as the Exeter tugged on her. Francis kept one eye on the reverse angle camera, but Flight was clearly paying attention as the hawsers played in and out, manipulating the vast cargo-lifter like a puppet on it's strings.

“Easy does it Flight.” Francis murmured to herself... “that's the way my boys... gentle her round. Good..good.. Ok make her fast... there!”

Satisfied that Flight had gotten the Andora lined up as best they could given its twisted spine, Francis applied power and set trim to incline the Exeter up and in. The easy part was over; now she had to tow the crippled cargo-lifter out of the maw of the storm!

Chapter Text

Captain 'Francis' Drake was fighting the storm with every ounce of skill and wit she had, and she feared she was losing. The intensifying winds had tightened around the Exeter and her charge like a fist, intent on crushing them. Francis was forced to jam her feet under the bottom edge of the console, because she was too busy with her hands to hang on.

The winds screamed past her like a banshee foretelling disaster; the massive airframe of the Exeter creaked and groaned as it twisted and writhed under the strain. All six of the hawsers connecting the Andora May to the Exeter hummed with the tension and the wind streaming past them. Had she the time to spare the Andora a backward glance she would have seen that it had a pronounced twist, like a cloth wrung out by some giant and cast aside.

Francis' hands darted over the controls, adjusting the verniers for the huge fans, playing them like a virtuoso organist. She knew she hadn't a hope in hell of fighting the storm, so she was riding the air current, running with the wind and hoping to build up enough speed to slingshot out of the maelstrom.

Lighting cracked around the Exeter, causing eerie blue/green coronal discharges to dance over the metal surfaces of the weather deck and making the displays stutter and freeze momentarily each time. Francis didn't need the read outs. She could feel what the Exeter was doing through her feet and her hands.

Her world narrowed down to the streaming torn clouds around her, signalling the winds they rode, to the thrumming juddering vibration of the deck under her feet and the high singing note of the wind in the tow lines.

Two displays only defined her future, as well as that of everyone aboard: airspeed and the maximum temperature of the forward reactor. The first determined their possible escape, the second their doom. If the temperature in the reactor spiked, it would signal a plasma burn through of the containment vessel, and imminent shut down to avoid catastrophe. Without full thrust, they'd be sucked down into the storm and destroyed.

As she fought the storm, spitting defiance and language enough to make a docker blush, Francis noticed her vision greying around the edge. For a heart stopping second she thought hypoxia was claiming her, having lost all sense of time and run her oxygen bottle down. Then she realised it was something almost as deadly... her face plate was icing over, despite the heaters.

A tiny detached segment of her mind considered the problem. If the face plate froze over completely, she wouldn't be able to see. The problem was that her breath was fogging the inside around the edges and the plate was cold enough, despite the conductive heater elements built in, to freeze.

There was only one possible logical solution.... she was out of time. She had to take her shot now, but she doubted they had the speed, so they had to go faster. Francis disengaged the safeties on the engines and ramped up the fans until the electric motors threatened to melt, changing course to dive even deeper into the storm wall.

The winds were stronger here, spiralling around the calm eye. Turbulence shook the 1500 tons of the Exeter like a rat in a terrier's jaws. One of the towing hawsers snapped with a screaming sound like an angel falling. Frantically Francis tried to compensate for the off-centre drag, swearing at the Andora... and miraculously someone in Flight played the winches like a concert harpist, compensating and bringing the cargo lifter back around in line, tucking the Andora into the Exeter's slip-stream.

Francis crooned praise unconsciously, tilting the Exeter's nose upwards, seeking the faster bands of wind, the ones that might spill out of the top of the storm.

Something moved off at the edge of her vision, blurred to obscurity by the build up of ice on the inside of her face plate. Francis turned her head fractionally, her eyes still fixed dead-ahead, trying to move the clearer part of the face-plate to reveal whatever was off to her port.

She caught a glimpse of something sinuous moving through the clouds, easily as long as the Exeter... Then lighting filled the sky, and she had the impression of something snake like, but frilled as if coated in feathers.

Without thinking about it, Francis nudged the controls, changing course to ride in the slipstream of the whatever-the-hell-that-was ahead of her. The airspeed indicator slipped up past 170. Francis bared her teeth in what might charitably be called a grin. She might be chasing phantasms brought on by an iced-up breathing regulator, but it was working.

Without warning sunlight burst over Francis like a soundless blast, dazzling her. Even as she blinked away the tears, frantic for clarity, Francis levelled off the Exeter's dizzying climb, throttling back the engines... and none too soon as the reactor monitor shrilled an alarm telling her a hot spot had formed. Somewhere on the bridge, the Chief had ordered the plasma dumped into a solid block of titanium the size of a van, quenching the reactor before it could burn through and send a spear of super-hot gas & vaporised metal through the Exeter's guts.

Taking several deep breaths, Francis pulled the face-plate away from her face enough to work her fingers into it, scrape away the ice and shake it out. Resealing, she checked the displays. She had sufficient power; she set course out over the top and down the trailing edge of the storm, heading for an altitude where the survivors aboard the undoubtedly pressure compromised Andora May would be able to breath.

Once she was below 10,000ft and a couple of miles from the storm's trailing edge, heading away from it, Francis checked her monitors. The towing hawsers had mostly held. Cable 6 had snapped; 5 was showing signs of being over stressed. But they were the only two that were any problem, and those mostly because of the way the Andora May was twisted. Its tail rode at an angle to the rest of it, putting extra stress on those lines as she tried to corkscrew.

The forward reactor had gone into emergency shut-down, dumping power into the capacitor bank and shunting plasma into the heat-sink. There was no sign of any actual leakage, although it was now officially dead, the magnetic solenoid cores melted by the over-voltage. The Exeter had orange warning indicators on half of her lateral struts, some minor hull damage, probably from when the hawser parted, and someone in Flight was red flagging the winches as over-heating, which was anything but a surprise.

Francis spared a glance in the rear-view for the object of their efforts. The Andora May was probably beyond even salvage. If her back wasn't broken, it was stressed to the point where only a complete rebuild would save her... and was probably more than she was worth. Francis wasn't even entirely sure how she was still afloat. Her gas compartment had to have been breached in several places by broken structural members. If she wasn't leaking it would be a bloody miracle.

With a practised flick of her fingers Francis brought up the side-scan Doppler radar, directing it through the space above the Andora. Sure enough, it showed the characteristic distortions caused by passing through a less dense gas column. She could even estimate the volume and rate of loss... causing her to frown. Even if they'd jettisoned every last bit of excess weight, and were running with a full displacement of gas, the Andora May didn't have much time left before she started to sink.

And Francis had no way of telling anyone.

Turning around, she eyed the catwalk to the weather-deck. There was a five foot length of metal decking missing from above the spar, along with the railings either side. Not an impossible chasm, but chancy.

Working rapidly she transferred command back to the main bridge, hoping Lt Howard was awake enough to realise he had control without being told. Francis grinned and muttered a word of praise for the young Lt far above as the Exeter minutely adjusted her heading under his hand, implicitly acknowledging transfer of control.

Francis clipped her travelling lines to the railing and undid the safety lines that anchored her to the pulpit of the weather-deck. She walked calmly up to the edge of the damaged section and kicked at it a bit, testing the integrity of the remaining metal grid-work. Satisfied it wasn't about to give way, she backed up as far as she could, unclipped the remaining travelling lines, and ran at the gap.

The wind caught at her as Francis threw herself through the air, and for a moment it looked to her as if she was going to miss the narrow catwalk... and then the Exeter shifted slightly and she landed, one foot on the deck and a hand clutching the twisted metal of the railing.

For split second she teetered there, poised between life and death... and the deck bucked, tossing her forward to sprawl onto the catwalk.

Francis lay for a moment, her fingers jammed into the metal grid-work, panting. Slowly, one hand holding on all the time, she stood up and reattached her travelling lines, then on rubber legs walked the remaining distance to the hatch.

Just as she reached safety, the hatch opened revealing Cmdr Decclan, her X.O., kitted out in cold weather gear and breather mask. Francis all but fell into the hatch, stripping off her face mask and useless headset as soon as the companion way was sealed and re-pressurised.

“Welcome back Ma'am... and that was damn fine flying!”
“Thank you X.O.... how long have you been down here?”
“Came down just in time to nearly die of a heart attack as you backed up to make that jump. Why the hell didn't you wait? Ma'am.”
“No time, comms are down on the weather deck and the Andora May is about to go down... wait... you were watching?”
“External camera above the hatch Ma'am. And... erm... the communications weren't quite dead. You couldn't hear us, but your mic was still live, and transmitting... shipwide.”
“Ohhh... crap!”
“Actually, it did rather help crew morale Ma'am... although I think you actually made the Chief blush, and we're going to have to scrub the log before we make port as some of that was... er... not the sort of language the Admiralty permits from a captain in Her Britannic Majesty's Navy.”
“I... see. X.O. Could you let the crew know that if anyone so much as mentions this bit... I shall take great delight in reviving the age old punishment of keel-hauling.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am...”

Francis grabbed a fresh and fully functional head set off the rack, and keyed it to her command.
“Captain to Bridge. Status?”
“Ave Captain! Ahem.. All systems green or as expected. Although we're going to have to blow the lines soon; the Andora will loose buoyancy in an hour or two.”
“Roger that, and one more mention of my little communication lapse and I'll send you out with an axe to do it.”
“Roger Wilco Ma'am!”

Francis smiled slightly to herself... she was sure that her admonishments wouldn't have that much effect, but there were worse reasons to be the butt of a joke and there had been as much affection as relief in that salutation.

“Captain to Recon-1. What's your status?”
“Recon-1. Recon team is all shook up, but otherwise green. Some a bit more than others, Recon-5 lost his lunch, but that's the only 'casualty'. Do we have a go for infil and recon?”
“Roger Recon-1, make it fast. If you're not back in twenty I'll have the mess serve you pickled roll-mop herring for a week.”
“Roger that Ma'am! Recon team is go. Recon to Flight, set a stop watch on my mark... Mark!”

By the time Francis had stripped off her cold weather gear and made her up to the bridge, and been greeted by a rating with a hot cup of tea, the recon team had mostly completed their sweep. Crew quarters were empty and cold. The bridge was a shambles, with ominous pools of blood on the decking and smearing the companion way outside.

The recon team had just started the final sweep of the cargo decks, saving the most difficult part to last, as Francis settled into the command chair, Incus settling like a fluffy black anvil into her lap.

“Recon-1 to bridge. We have survivors, captain.”
“Ack recon-1. Details?”
“Thirteen..maybe fifteen. Three known adults, the rest teens to children, youngest eight years old. Ten casualties, mostly broken bones from being flung around. One adult GSW to upper thigh, condition stable but bad, looks to be a through and through but infected. General dehydration and starvation, looks like supplies ran out. All Latin American, no passports and no hablo inglés... gonna need a translator Ma'am. I think they're speaking Spanish with a lot of Native American Indian mixed in because it doesn't sound like any Spanish I know.”
“Ack Recon-1. Stand by.”

Francis considered the problem. They needed to get people off and fast, but casualties with broken limbs, probably weakened by thirst and starvation, were not going to be using a rope harness and line to get across the Exeter. There was no way a landing craft could fit aboard the cargo lifter safely. On the other hand – maybe they didn't need one....

Francis glanced up and across to the chief over at the engineering station, and gestured him over. The wiry red-haired Chief slid down the ladder to the command deck and walked over with the rolling swagger characteristic of all fleet air-arm service men of long standing.

“Yes Ma'am?”
“Tell me, chief. You used to work the docks back before you took the queen's shilling. Do you think you can get one of that cargo lifter's cranes running again, quickly?”
“Ma'am?”
“There's injured aboard, and not much time. It'd be helpful if we could get them all off in a cargo container. Put them down on the upper deck say...”
“Oh..” the Chief engineer looked thoughtful a moment as Francis waited, knowing better than to joggle his elbow, so to speak. “Aye-aye Ma'am... permission to lead a boarding party Ma'am. Also, we'll need to string cable from the Ex to that... craft.. ma'am.”

Francis did her best to hide a smile as the Chief evidently omitted a few choice words of profanity regarding the Andora May.

“Better make it two parties chief, one to patch what they can of that rust-bucket's gas compartments and at least slow its rate of loss.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am... I'll get some riggers on it right away.”
“Make sure we can cut line if she shows signs of going down though. I do not want the Ex dragged down by that heap of junk.”
“From your lips to god's ears Ma'am!”
“Carry on Chief.”
“Aye-aye!”

The Chief sketched a salute, and took off a brisk walk that turned into a run as he cleared the bridge... regulations forbidding running in the command deck. In Francis' lap Incus yawned, stretched, and rolled over to look up at her.

“Kids?” he said in his heavily accented English.
“Yes Incus, children. Hurt and scared ones.”

The big fluffy black tom cat stretched and flowed down off Captain Drake's lap, paused a moment to clean his paws, and then started to saunter off.

“Just a moment Lieutenant. Where do you think you're going?” Francis asked, although she had a strong suspicion she knew. Incus paused and looked back over his shoulder at her, an inscrutable expression in his eyes. Francis was reminded once again that no matter how smart he was, easily intelligent enough to have learnt and mastered a language his entire body and brain hadn't evolved for, he was still very much a cat. As such, he didn't entirely hold with orders.

“Ch'ldren need comfort, yes?”

Francis considered the matter, unpacking the freight of meaning Incus had as per usual put into as few words as possible. She nodded at him.

“Carry on. But don't get distracted; that craft's a wreck and I'll not risk someone to go look for you.”

The bit tom-cat resumed his saunter, a flick of his tail-tip dismissing the notion that he might need some human to find him with a gesture not unlike flipping someone the middle finger. Francis watched him go. This was something they'd done many times before. Incus probably knew more languages than anyone else aboard. He'd board, ingratiate himself with the survivors and see what he could learn from their unguarded speech. Mainly, though, he'd offer emotional comfort to traumatised individuals the best way he could, using that rumbling purr of his.

Francis turned her attention back to the primary duty stations in front of the command chair. Studying the back of the young lieutenant's head, she struggled for a moment to recall her name. She'd transferred in from the Dartmouth, the Exeter's sister ship, as far as Francis could recall... and recalling that fact gave her the name of the young green haired lieutenant.

“Lieutenant Estelle, what's our position?”
“One moment Ma'am, GPS is still coming back on line.”
“After that storm, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find the Emerald City off our bow...”
“Ah... well, we are 30 miles south-south west of the Deadly Desert, Ma'am.”

There was momentary silence, as the lieutenant swivelled around in her seat to peer over her shoulder at her commanding officer with an apologetic look.
“That's what the name translates to in Arabic... it's part of the West Sahara region of North Africa. We're lying off the coast a short ways. I..er.. could give you the exact coordinates Ma'am.”
“Thank you. No... that won't be necessary, Lt. Estelle. Perhaps you could chart us a course to the nearest airport suitable for the Exeter.”
“Aye-aye ma'am!”

The lieutenant swiftly turned around and set to work, unaware, perhaps, of her captain's gaze. Inwardly Francis was thinking she really ought to know better by now than to give the universe a straight line like that... Francis shook her head minutely, and turned her attention to the next order of business.

“Comms, do we have contact with North Atlantic Command?”
“Ah... sorry, Ma'am. Comms sytems suffered rather. Long range and satellite communication is out for now, estimate repair time four to six hours. Strictly short range FM only at the moment. We still have message buoys though.”
“Very well, update one with logs, append it with that repair estimate and inform them of our intent to put in at …..”

Francis looked pointedly at Lt. Estelle who rather self-consciously supplied
“The nearest airport able to handle a vessel our size is at Laâyoune or 'El Ayun' as it's known locally. It's in the Western Sahara region Ma'am. The next nearest is Tenerife South Ma'am. At 78 and 122 miles respectively Ma'am.”

Captain Drake frowned and glanced over to her X.O., who came in close. Quietly she asked him “Opinion X.O?”
“Western Sahara is still a hot potato politically, Ma'am. Everyone locally has a claim in for it. Morocco is on friendly terms with us and has nominal control, but the locals, The Polisario Front, have been sucking up to some Latin American organisations lately. They're not violent, but given circumstances, that's a concern... I'd recommend Tenerife if it wasn't so far. Best speed we can make is 60, and I think the Chief would be happier if we held it down to 40.”

Francis nodded and straightened up.
“Lt. Estelle, make course for Laâyoune. Comms, append the buoy with our course and release it once we've finished operations here.”

The two lieutenants said “Aye-aye ma'am” in unison, as Francis turned to her X.O.
“Commander Decclan, you have the bridge. I'm heading down to Flight to over-see rescue operations. Get us underway as soon as we've cut the Andora May loose.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am, I have the conn. Good luck.”
“We make our own luck X.O.”

Chapter Text

By the time Francis reached the upper flight deck, helm had repositioned the Exeter so she crossed the T with the Andora May, putting the crippled cargo lifter just above their tail. Middeck flight hanger, where the winches were, was playing the Andora on the lines alone to keep her steady relative to the Exeter.

Francis frowned at the configuration; it meant that the Exeter had to drift with the Andora since they couldn't tow her with her broadside on, but as she glanced over the side, she saw that the Chief had taken advantage of this lull to order out repair teams to the main engine pods. Still, she felt uncomfortable with all eight pairs of the massive EDF engines offline. Granted, this way they could just goose the Exeter forward on manoeuvring thrusters alone and be out from under her should the Andora start sinking, .. but it didn't feel right to be just drifting like this.

Francis squinted up at the sun and studied the clouds for a moment, then smiled. On the other hand, Lt Howard had evidently managed to find them a wind that was at least carrying them more or less in the direction they wanted to go, which explained the drop in altitude she'd felt as she'd made her way up through the ship. So that would save them some time.

Francis climbed the short flight of stairs up to the Flight Deck command tower and nodded to the Deck officer, not wanting to interrupt. Normally the upper deck handled landings, while mid-deck handled launches, but in this instance Mid was handling both for the patrols that were standard ops while the upper deck was strewn with cables and ropes, over which medical and engineering teams scrambled to and fro.

The engineering Chief had already gotten two of the four big power cables strung between the two ships, and they were preparing to hoist the last pair. Francis frowned as she saw that the chief was running the power cables from the dockside couplings, normally used to provide power to the Exeter in port when her own reactors were cold. She hadn't known it was possible to run power back out through them to another ship like that, and rather suspected that it shouldn't be. Evidently the Chief would be penning another update to the sys-ops manual again, once X.O cleared it for safety... and she didn't doubt she'd hear Decclan grumbling about the way the chief abused the Exe's systems at dinner in her cabin tonight.

“Master-at-Arms to the Captain.”

The rank structure of the Royal Marines was more like that of the army. As such the commander assigned to Royal Naval Vessels usually held the commissioned rank of Captain, but while aboard ship was referred to as Master-at-Arms and given an honorary bump in rank to Major to avoid confusion. A ship, whether wet navy or Fleet Air Arm, could only have one Captain.

Francis tapped her head-set to activate the mic and responded.
“Captain, go for Master-at-arms.”
“Captain, the boarding party has hit a snag with the refugees. Seems they don't want to leave the wreck Ma'am.”

Francis sighed... evidently it was tempting the fates too much to hope this would go without a hitch.

“Who's in charge of the boarding party Hodge?”
“Lt Jenkins Ma'am.”

Francis raised an eyebrow, even though there wasn't anyone to see it. Lt Jenkins was a likeable officer with a decent command of Mexican, which would explain why the Master-at-arms had put her in charge of the boarding party. It was hard to imagine what had gone wrong.

“Hodge, did Jenkins say what their specific problem is?”
“No Ma'am... I gather they're being stubborn in more ways than one. She said they evidently understand her, and were happy to accept food and water... but that's as far as they're going. They're sitting on the deck refusing to move, and won't say a blessed word that isn't in their patois. Lt Jenkins says she can't make out more than half of it, but she thinks it's some Andean dialect Ma'am.”
“The devil you say..! Hmm.. is Incus over there yet?”
“Yes Ma'am, the furry devil cadged a carry-across ten minutes ago... seems he's a hit with the kids already.”
“Very well, if the mountain won't move... Inform Lt Jenkins I'll be aboard directly.”
“Ma'am? Not that it's my place to question orders...”
“But you're about to venture your opinion I take it? Carry on.”
“Thank you Ma'am, I'd imagine the X.O might have a word or two to say on the inadvisability of leaving the ship at present. I can't say that I'd disagree with him.”
“Yes, I rather imagine he will... thank you Major. Your opinion is noted.”
“Roger that Ma'am... I'll alert the boarding party. Master-at-arms out.”

Francis sighed... sometimes, the problem with having stalwart competent officers was that they were right, and wrong, both at the same time. Technically she ought not to leave the ship under present circumstances. Certainly Hodge and Decclan had the regulations on their side. But they were also wrong, insofar as her presence wasn't needed aboard ship, as her officers were quite capable of carrying out their duties without her. But if she was to win the trust of the refugees, she had to talk to them herself.

Hopefully Incus would have at least had time enough to identify who was in charge over there.

In deference to her X.O's nerves, and more-or-less proper protocols, she tapped her headset and spoke.
“Captain to X.O... Decclan I need a small party of armsmen, no more than three, light-arms only. I'm going across to talk to the refugees.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am... Ma'am, for the record, I must object.”
“I know X.O... your objection is already noted. But the risk is minimal, and I hope to expedite the evac. We can't expect them to trust us just on our say so, not after what they've probably experienced.”
“Very well Ma'am … I'll have an away party ready to go in a moment. Be careful Captain. Recon hasn't finished sweeping the ship yet; there could be others holding out.”

Francis stopped and considered the matter for a second. It was highly unlikely that any of the crew remained aboard... but if they did then telling the refugees to act the way they were would be a good way to draw out a senior officer to use as a hostage. She didn't think it likely it was an ambush, but Decclan was right that the possibility couldn't be entirely dismissed.

“Noted X.O … Would you be so kind as to request Lt Sher Gurunang to join the away party please, and ask him to bring his knife.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am.”

Francis was almost certain she could hear the grin in Decclan's voice as he acknowledged her order.

Lt Sher Thaman Gurunang was a Gurkha. Having risen to rank of Jemadar (the equivalent rank to that of Master Sargent in the Army's Gurkhar regiments), he'd retired to Nepal and the family business of sherpa for mountaineer tourists – a retirement that lasted all of four months before a devastating earthquake killed his newly-wed wife and half of his extended family. Since then the tourist business had unfortunately dried up, and Sher Gurunang had decided to re-enlist, not with the Army, but with the Fleet Air Arm. The Navy had snapped him up in a trice. Gurkhas, and high altitude mountain dwellers in particular, were in great demand, and as such were awarded a higher-than-average pay grade, most of which Sher Gurung sent back home to support his surviving family.

He'd been serving aboard as a rigger for all of four months when the Exeter had encountered a particularly well armed cabal of pirates off the coast of Hong Kong. In subsequent actions a pirate landing craft had rammed the Exe's bridge, and the pirates had swarmed the bridge. Gurunang, armed only with his traditional khukuri knife had swung down on a freehand line from the upper flight deck and boarded the pirate cruiser from behind. Francis' action report had credited his one-man boarding action with turning the tide of battle and thus saving the ship, although it had been her methodically precise sniper fire that saved his life when the few remaining desperate pirates had tried to roll over him.

Francis had visited him in the sick-bay afterwards. Upon learning his story she offered to take him on as her personal Armsman, a rank that carried the responsibility for protecting her ashore and came with a hefty pay-raise. Sher Gurunang had solemnly accepted the duty, and since then had proven his worth on more than a few occasions, so much so that Francis could almost feel sorry for anyone that tried to get past him to her... and couldn't think of any better way to calm her X.O's understandable concerns.

Some short time later, Francis had to admit to herself that frankly, the remote possibility of the Andora May harbouring a few left-over narco-gang members and would-be slavers was a long way down on her list of things to be worried about. Her primary concern was that entire ship seemed to be ready to fall apart at any minute and spill them all out into the unforgiving thin air.

The Andora May groaned and creaked like she was still battling the storm, despite the air being relatively still. Francis could feel the twisting and judder-stick of broken structural members grinding against one another transmitted through the thin soles of her non-regulation soft boots. Every now and again, the deck plating would visibly rattle, sending the dirt and broken bits of metal lying around jittering across the buckled plating like cockroaches scurrying for safety.

Even the rats seemed to have had enough sense to jump for it.

And yet, despite the engineering crew working to jerry-rig power to one of the four big cranes that straddled the interior of the cargo-lifters cavernous hold, the small group of refugees huddled together well away from the open well of the access hatch. Francis couldn't help wondering if perhaps the Andora May's no-doubt crew of criminals had threatened to throw them out of it?

A patch of shadow detached itself and slunk over to her, winding around her ankles. Francis bent down, and cupping the back of Incus' head in the palm of her hand, only just, she rubbed him behind the ears, murmuring.

“So, what have you found out, big ears?”
“An'ean 'lect. Harr' to un'erstan'.”
“But...?”
“One of them a sou' maybe more. Not surre who. Gang not know, they not tell. All 'art of family, not same litter, 'iffernt 'arents.”
“So... the gang just snatched them all?”
“Noo... 'ay to leave... gang 'ouble-crosss. Not going where they say. Gang get 'aid twice.”
“Right...I see. Explains why it's mostly kids. They paid to get the kids out first.”
“Yess... chil'ern, ex'ectant mother, father.”
“Oh hell, the oldest girl is pregnant?”
“Yes... can smell it. Father's one with bad leg. He won't leave her behind to go first, sshe won't leave hiss si'e. Neither won't leave chil'ren.”
“But we're loading them all into a cargo container and lowering them all in one go.”
“They 'on't know that. Sscare' to go in the box.”

Incus paused to groom a paw, giving her a significant look. Francis had tried, only once, to put him in a cat carrier. He never lost an opportunity to remind her of it.

“Right. I don't suppose you can explain to them?”
“Nooo... un'erstan' language, but speak it worsse than Miss bright-eye' an' bushy-tail over there. To many soun's I cannot say.”

Francis glanced over at the young ensign who was serving as translator... bright-eyed and bushy-tailed was an apt description for her really... since she was dressed in a riggers service uniform and managed to convey a certain degree of 'squirrel-like' enthusiasm even at this distance.

“Right. Anything else to report?”
“Crew stink. Shi's stinks. Even rats have left.”

Francis had to pause a moment to work out what he was saying, aside from the obvious literal meaning.

“Ok, what else were they hauling?”
“Rum, tabacco, wee', chemicals, coffee. An' bananas.”
“Bananas?”
“Yessss... what I say.”
“Huh... those last two must have been to cover the scent.”
“Maybe. Ca'tains cabin had fire.”
“Let me guess, burning records.”
“Yesss.”
“Idiot. Risking his ship like that when he could just chuck them over the side.”
“Bad job of it too. Burnt, But not broken. Can still rea' it. books charre' on outsi'e only.”
“The devil you say! Hang on.”

Francis pointed at one of the security ensigns that were standing around looking alert, and waved him over.

“Mr Ortis, I have a little job for you. Radio down to the Exeter, present my compliments to Chief Petty Officer McAlister, and ask him to send up a spray can of the strongest hair spray he has in stock, and a ream of heavy paper, as quick as he can.”
“Ma'am?” I mean, aye-aye ma'am!”
“As you were Ortis, I'm not done. Once it arrives, you and two other ensigns will proceed to the captain's cabin of this benighted wreck, where you will find a metal trash can full of the ships papers, which some damn fool tried to burn, and did a piss-poor job of it. You will carefully remove these papers, slowly, one at a time, and intact as possible, place them on the individual sheets, and spray them with hair-spray fixing them in place and making them safe for transport. The log books you will not open, but spray them as is....and one of you will pick up every other little scrap of charred paper there is to find. Once you have done this, and before the ship sinks, you will transport them safely back aboard the Exeter to the X.O's safe keeping. And be quick about it Mr Ortis if you please. Do you understand?”
“Ma'am! Yes Ma'am! Order up hair spray, locate and secure papers for transport, remove to X.O's safe keeping. Double quick time. Ma'am!”
“Good, carry on then.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am!”

Ortis snapped off a crisp salute, and took off at not-quite a run, button-holing two of his fellow ratings before he was out of sight.

“He'ss going far that one...”
“Maybe, once he looses a bit of that parade ground starch.”
“You are being watche'...”

Francis glanced down at Incus who was unconcernedly washing an ear with his paw, and then glanced across at the huddle of wretched humanity that occupied one corner of the hold. One of the young teens was watching her but glanced down as soon as Francis looked her way.

“So... who's really in charge over there? Not the adults, I'll wager.”
“Smart question Francis... young girl who preten's not to be looking at you. Otherss all almost-look at her.”
“Right... so it's kippers to kibble that she's the soup yes?”
“Yesss... maybe. Not seen her 'oo anything yet.”
“Any chance we might have more than one? It's a big group just to transport one soup.”
“Maybe... 'owers can run in families. 'haps they think maybe one of the others might show as they grow?”
“Could be... ok. I think I'd better go earn my pay and see if I can get them moving.”
“Be gentle. They reek of fear... have been too scared for too long. Wrong move, an' they might choose not to be afrai' anymore.”
“Point noted. Watch my back.”
“Always.”
“You too Armsman... but hang back, and try not to look too menacing.”

Sher Gurunang flashed a grin at her, a single steel tooth winking in the gloom of the hold, but he twitched the sash that he was allowed to wear as part of his traditional garb over the hilt of his khukuri, hiding it more or less.

Francis considered what to do as she walked over to the group. The small children were clinging to the sides of the older ones, little ones on the inside of the group, older children on the outside. The exception to that was the pair of adults who were the very centre of the huddle. And the single lone older woman who stood slightly outside the group, at the forefront between her family and the crew.

Francis was struck by a memory, something she'd seen on one of their Arctic patrols. They'd been patrolling over an uninhabited island somewhere off the coast of Greenland, and below she'd seen a single lone wolf snarling up at the invader growling its way towards it. Curious as to why it hadn't run, she'd trained her glasses on the grey wolf, which on close inspection was thin and moth-eaten looking with age... and seen three tiny fuzzy faces peering out of the hole behind her. Francis had touched the brim of her cap out of respect and ordered the Exeter to gain altitude and sent her onto a new heading away from the island, leaving the grand-mother wolf to guard her pack's cubs in peace.

Approaching the older woman. she studied her carefully. She wasn't that much older than Francis. A little grey in among her glossy black hair. Maybe had been running to the plump side of things before all this, judging by the way her skin seemed a bit loose. A few wrinkles around the corners of eyes. She'd probably laughed and smiled a lot until sorrow had intruded into her life, Francis thought, going on the way her face sort of seemed to be smiling even though she wasn't.
Right now, she had a determined set to her chin, and her dark eyes flashed, tracking everyone that came near. Which meant Francis herself at the moment.

> Francis asked in what she hoped was understandable Spanish.

The woman gave her measuring look...wary but open. Her accent when she replied was heavy, but at least it was a form of Spanish that Francis could follow.

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The woman stared at her in surprise. Francis herself was rather glad that Spanish wasn't one of the languages that her Armsman spoke at that point.

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The woman turned slightly, gazing over at her family, although Francis noted that her gaze perhaps maybe rested a bit longer on one of them in particular.

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The woman glanced behind her again, and this time Francis spotted the younger girl give a slight decisive nod.

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The woman smiled a quick flash of a grin, despite her stern expression, and nodded.
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Chapter Text

The transfer from the Andora May to the upper deck of Exeter had taken less time than persuading Lt Sher Gurung to leave his traditional knife in the hands of one of the security ensigns – who frankly looked faintly terrified at the prospect, no doubt imagining Gurung's reaction should anything untoward happen to it in the brief interim.

Not that Francis thought that was what was making her armsman rather out of sorts, but he could do nothing about the pair of them being briefly alone in among the refugees. At least she had her side arm, and Lt Gurung hardly needed a weapon to defend her against the frightened adolescents. It was mostly the principle of the thing, she supposed.

Thankfully for everyone, the transfer had gone off without a hitch, and she'd personally escorted the wary, weary, refugees down to the medical bay and left them to ministrations of Dr Cartwright, the Exeter's chief medical officer.

Incus had gone with them, and remained behind in the medical bay. Between him and the cheerful bedside manner of Dr Cartwright, who, it had to be said, bore more than a passing resemblance to St Nick, they were rapidly settling in when Francis slipped away.

Incus eventually settled in the lap of the older girl he suspected of being a soup. She was sitting on the bed set corner-wise to the medical bay, which he noted with approval not only gave her a commanding view of the room, and equally importantly the door, but also meant she was nearest the other door out.

He butted his head imperiously against the underside of her arm, and as she lifted it, Incus settled into the young woman's lap... and felt a prickle of power up his spine, and a tingle in his whiskers. Purring, he started to knead at her thigh, as she rubbed behind his ears.

She bent down, one long black braid swinging past his nose, forcing Incus to stifle the urge to bat at it like the kitten he no longer was, and whispered into his ear in perfectly clear English.

“You might think you're fooling us, but I know you're not just a cat.”

Incus paused, carefully cleaning a paw while considering the matter, and then answered.

“An' you might thin' you 'ave us fooled.. 'ut we know who iss in ch'rrge rr'ally.”

Incus lifted his head to stare at her, and unblinking green met enigmatic brown for a long moment. Eyes watering, the young teenager eventually looked away, and Incus went back to purring and kneading at her thigh, having won that point.

“You 'ave nothin' to fe'rr frrom us. My Ca'tain is a 'ood woman.”
“Perhaps, but we have been told that before and been betrayed.”
“Maybe, but not all humans arre the ssame. You have to trust ss'me.”
“Why should I trust you at your word?”
“Because I tell you the truth.”
“So you say.”
“Sso I choose... just as I choose not to use my claws to open the big arrtery in your leg and watch you bleed to death.”

Incus pointedly dug his claws in a bit harder in her thigh, making the girl look at him wide eyed.
“It iss 'ot wise to inssult an officer's honour. It is what makes us different frr'm animals.”

The young woman stared at Incus for a moment, giving him a considering look. Perhaps realising that distinction was more than a philosophical point for him, she slowly nodded.

“I apologise.. sir? I meant no insult.”
“Apology accepted. You may call me Incus, or Lieutenant in frr'nt of others.”
“My name is Ixchel... although you can call me Chel.”

Incus huffed in what for him was snort of laughter.
“Chel I can ssay... so you are named 'fter full moon goddess, an' make storms?”
“I don't mean to! Just...I was scared and worried and... it happened.”
“Sstorm hunted us like I hunt mice...”
“That was.. I mean, umm...”
“You do 'ot 'ave to tell me... your 'ower is yours, 'rrivate, like other things. Who you sshare it with is your choice.”
“Oh... thank you.”
“Is Britannic law.”

Silence lay between them as Ixchel considered this and reappraised her assumptions. Her gaze lingered on her family as she slowly stroked Incus. Coming to a decision, she looked down at him.

“Your Captain said that we might stay in your country?”
“Yess.”
“Even though we don't have much to offer?”
“Does 'ot matterr... could have 'othing at all an' sstill would be welcome. We arre a ssafe haven, for everyone. All you 'ave to want is to be a citizen.”
“You let anyone in?”
“Anyone who is 'ot a crimi'al, by ourr laws, yes. If you want to join us, why would we ssay no?”
“Even if I have... even if I'm not like other people?”
“We treat soups no different. We make no laws that say you are different, either way. Sso, yes. You are welcome all the same. I was not born British, I joined.”
“Oh... I will need to talk to the others, but I think perhaps we will accept your captain's offer.”
“I will tell herr ... later.”

Incus stretched and rolled over, looking up at Chel beseechingly.
“There are otherr more im'ortant matters that 'eed yourr attention 'ow.”

Ixchel laughed, shaking her head so her braids bounced, her brown eyes sparkling.
“Not just a cat, but still a cat.”
“Why would I want to be anythin' elsse?”

 

Later that evening, Capt. Drake was dressing for dinner in her cabin. In truth she didn't really feel like company, but it was a Sunday. Tradition maintained that she, as Captain, had formal dinner with her senior officers and a few selected junior officers invited up from the junior wardroom, or Gunroom, in the Officer's Wardroom on a Sunday. Weekdays, a ship's commanding officer dined alone in her (or his) cabin or in the mess like regular ratings. But on Sunday, in every ship of the fleet, the Captain was invited to join their fellow officers in the Officers Wardroom, or mess.

It was said that the Royal Navy ran on tradition and rum... and rum was prohibited except for special occasions such as the sovereign's birthday nowadays. That left the weight of over 1200 years of tradition, the only exception to the unvarying order of their social microcosm being if the ship was in the midst of action, and that was at the Captain's discretion. There had been examples of Captains still attending the formal dinner, even while shot flew around their ears.

Francis almost wished that some pirates, or something, would turn up to excuse her, but as she inspected her dress uniform that didn't seem very likely.

She knew why she was somewhat out of sorts, not that it made a difference. In the end they'd had to put several rounds from the Exeter's point defence rail guns through the Andora May to hasten the process of her going down. She'd been a plucky ship, surviving far longer than anyone could have expected her to, but they couldn't salvage her, and they couldn't leave her to drift around as a hazard to shipping.

So, reluctantly, Francis had ordered her tagged with a locator beacon, had several crash bags tacked to her structure which would keep her afloat once she hit the briny, and given to order to have the Andora May put down.

It defied rational explanation, but Francis firmly believed that every ship had a soul or spirit...or something... and she'd silently thanked the Andora May for her valiant effort to survive and apologised that she couldn't be saved. She stood to attention on the bridge, along with the entire crew, saluting as she felt the Exeter's vast frame tremble under the double tap of the guns.

The mood on the bridge had been sombre and subdued after that, as they'd limped their way north north-east. She'd entered a notation in the ships log commending Lt. Howard for her skill at finding winds to assist the crippled Exeter, cutting the time until they made port. She'd also made a note of the coordinates where the Andora May went down, which was somewhere in HMS Forrester's patrol sector.

Once signals was back up, she'd call the Forrester and speak to her captain. Which was another thing that irked her... inter-service rivalry being what it was, she expected a certain amount of good natured ribbing over asking one of the 'wet' navy to clean up after her.

Francis sighed, and giving in to the inexorable tide of tradition, got changed into her dress greys, with its long flowing skirt and jacket.

Later on in the Wardroom, as Francis was pouring herself another measure of port, she reflected that perhaps tradition wasn't such a bad thing. By long standing tradition, all 'shop talk', along with politics, religions and sex, was a forbidden topic. Dinner had been excellent, as always, and she'd called Petty officer Fletcher through to tender the table's compliments.

Cmdr. Declann, as the president of the wardroom, had tendered a vote of thanks as well, which was unanimously approved by the officers of the wardroom – a vote that Francis wholeheartedly concurred with as she realised she'd needed a break from duty, and to reconnect with her fellow officers as people outside of that duty.

The decanter of port having made its way around the table once, Edward tapped his glass and announced to the wardroom that the sun was officially set, and that 'the fourth forbidden' was now relaxed... meaning that they could talk about ship's business informally.

Francis leaned back in her chair, loosening the collar of her dress uniform slightly, and sighed.

“Ed, there's a matter that's perilously close to being politics we need to discuss.”
“You want a ruling on it in my capacity as wardroom president?”
“Not really want, but yes... I need to pick everyone's brains regarding our making port in Laâyoune.”

Declann shrugged, and looked around the table. There were several low voiced discussions going on, but nothing of import.

“I'd say it's ships business really, Francis. So go ahead, table the subject and let's see what we can brainstorm, shall we?”

Francis smiled, and reached for the small gravel that sat in the centre of the table. Rapping that against the plank it sat on, she waited until the hum of conversation died down.

“Gentleman, thank you for the dinner, but there's matter I'd like to open for general discussion. You all know where we're headed is a 'hot' port politically, and I was hoping for further input on that, as well as suggestions as to how we might avoid, shall we say, 'complications' ... with our guests and the locals.”

Everyone around the table sat up a bit straighter, and Junior Lt. Greene, who was among the ratings invited up from the Gunroom, slowly raised a hand with a somewhat puzzled expression on thon's face. There was small ripple of laughter at thon's reversion to schoolroom habits, but Francis quelled that with a frown.

“Yes Thorne? You have a question?”

Lt. Greene looked a bit startled to be addressed by thon's first name and blushed, but asked “Yes Ma'am... er..”
“It's Drake, or Francis in the wardroom, Greene.”
“Sorry M.. er Drake. Just, I'm not really sure what the problem is... Morocco is a Britannic ally, isn't it?”
“Ed, you want to answer that? Politics you know...and I'm only a guest here.”
“Actually Francis, it's not unlike that. Morocco is our ally, but Morocco doesn't entirely run the Western Sahara any more. Okay, this bit's history, so I think it's acceptable to talk about it, if no-one objects?”

There was a murmur of general assent around the table as people agreed with Declann skirting around the iron-clad conventions that way.

“Okay, to recap then for junior officers present. Rebels in the region argued for independence back in '89, backed by Algeria. It's generally thought that it was ploy to wheedle more out of the Moroccan government, who'd been supporting the region financially since the mines closed. However, Morocco called their bluff, told them they could have it, and pretty much packed up their bags and went home leaving them to their own devices. It didn't take long for the locals to realise that they needed them back. So a counter revolution started, backed by Mauritania, which has an ancestral claim on the region of a sort. Morocco evidently didn't much like the idea of anyone else having the region either, so they reluctantly agreed to administer the region until a local government could be elected... and that's more or less where things got stuck.”

Lt Greene frowned as thon asked. “So... Morocco is running it reluctantly, because no-one actually wants to? Why is that?”

“The place doesn't have anything to offer. The mines are uneconomic, and there's nothing else worth having there. The region is also heavily dependent upon the desalination plants for its water, which cost more to keep running than the region produces. So it's basically nothing more than a drain on resources and not worth spit. People might make a fuss about historical claims, and a few hotheads might even make noises about turning violent over it.. but saner minds prevail and no-one wants the place really, they just don't want anyone else to have it either.”

Francis spoke up, coming in on the tail of Declann's explanation. “Which brings us to our problem. If the Exeter makes port in Laâyoune, it'll be seen by some as doing so at the behest of the Moroccan government, Britannia leading an ally some muscle. People are bound to makes noises about that, which will probably inflame the situation. This won't endear us to our Masters in the Admiralty. So, how do we avoid that? Without admitting that our refit design is the root cause of our troubles, as I'm sure Admiralty House wouldn't like that either!”

Lt. Thorne Greene tilted thon's head sideways a moment, looking thoughtful, not noticing Francis watching thon with interest. Greene was one of the brightest of thon's class, according to the test scores, but lacked confidence according to thon's evaluational sheet. Francis was interested to see what thon would come up with.

“Excuse me Ma'am.. er Francis.. but could we claim we need to put in because of storm damage? I could be wrong... and the Chief would probably know better... but when I was revising the Exeter's uprated specs before coming aboard, I'm sure I read something about a civilian raising concerns that a lightning strike could cause a reactor spike, triggering a quench... and we do have some lightning damage near the forward reactor room.”

Francis rather dryly remarked.
“Yes, I seem to remember reading a report about a lighting strike... but I thought that possibility had been dismissed by Rolls-Royce?”
“More or less – there was a memo discounting it, but government types out here wouldn't know that, would they?”
“No, by George, they wouldn't! Good thinking Greene”

Declann looked thoughtful for moment, then spoke up. “You know.. I have an idea that's probably going to make me very unpopular with the Chief.. but we could send out some riggers with torches to make the damage look worse than it is, add some more scorch marks perhaps.”
“Gilding the lilly a bit, Ed?”
“Maybe not Francis... we want it to be obvious even to civilians, at long range because we don't want them too close.”

Francis looked a question at Ed, but it was the signals officer Estelle who provided her with the answer to her unspoken question. “Oh! Because we can then put the refugees in undress blues, and at a distance even if the locals saw them, they wouldn't realise they weren't part of the crew, is that right?”
“Exactly! Well spotted, Star.”

Francis looked at Edward, “Star?”
“Family joke Francis. Estelle's a distant cousin, from the north, so she's our Pole Star.”
“Huh... well, it's good idea of yours Ed, even if it does offend me slightly to deliberately damage the Ex..”
“Think of it as make up, Francis. Not to mention the nasty surprise anyone will get if we do need to act.”
“Hmm...we could hoist sails as well, make it look like we're running on battery power and conserving it?”

The junior officers at the foot of the table, as one, looked puzzled. They were clearly baffled by Francis terminology, but unwilling to admit to it... at least until Lt. Greene spoke up with dawning realisation on thon's face.

“Oh! Sails. You mean the folding flexible solar panels that can be run out on transoms...er, ma'am?”
“Correct Greene. Us old timers remember the days when sails meant actual canvas, designed to catch the wind and provide more control surfaces for unpowered manoeuvring; the solar panels look a lot like them.”
“Umm... the old Gallant class frigates can mount canvas, and I think they're still in service, so it's not exactly...old.. really.”
“Bless you Greene... but I'm well aware of my seniority here. Although, technically, the Exeter could use the extra joules... so perhaps it's not as much a ruse as 'gilding the lilly' slightly. Hmm, I think we'll need to run the crew through drills with them. I want us to be able to get the things in as fast as possible in case we need to drop the act and make like a hare, and one thing I do recollect is that they ruin a ships aerodynamic profile.”

Declann nodded, and then looked at Francis. “Um... have you ever actually used the sails? Drills with them aren't standard protocol.”
“Ah... no, now that you mention it. We were run though the drill for them at Dartmouth collage... do they even drill cadets nowadays in their use?”
“I...don't think so.”

The senior officers at the table looked towards the cadre of junior officers at the foot, who glanced between themselves, and then looked towards Greene, who swallowed and looked up the table at the senior officers present.

“Umm, no... I only know about them because I studied the Exeter's technical specs. I don't think a ship has ever actually needed to use them... they've only been fitted as standard in the last ten years, and since then multiple redundant power systems are standard too...so...”

Francis smiled and shook her head ruefully.
“So, no then... none of us here know a blessed thing about them. Oh well, at least we'll all be learning something new. And you middies won't be any more out of your depth than the rest of us seasoned old salts.”

Dryly Declann remarked, “You know Francis, I don't think that's actually all that reassuring, really. Captains are supposed to be all-knowing along with omnipotent you know...”

Faking surprise Francis turned to Declann and remarked melodramatically,
“What, you mean no ones realised I'm making this up as I go along?!”
“You are? I thought I was the only one doing that... I say, anyone else here faking it?”

A ripple of laughter ran around the table as one by one the officers denied all knowledge of any expertise on their part... the Chief going so far as to claim he was actually just a grease-monkey from a garage in Dublin and that his twenty years of service was all just one huge case of mistaken identity.

Chapter Text

At 0740 hours the next morning Francis strode onto the bridge and immediately winced. The sun was already bright enough to give pause even reflected off the ground below. The Exeter was slowly making her way across the alien landscape of red rock, buff yellow sands and glaring white salt flats, at less than a few hundred feet altitude.

Francis patted at the pockets of her ordinary blues, the unisex routine uniform of light blue shirt and dark blue trousers. Having located her mirror shades, she slipped them on and looked around the bridge. The smart glass of the bubble window occupying most of the forward bulkhead was darkened as far as it would go, and it still wasn't enough. Most of the bridge crew sported sunglasses of one sort or another.

Idly, Francis wondered if the ships stores even had tropical uniforms in stock. Their patrol sector was supposed to be the North Atlantic, not North Africa. Settling herself in the command chair she glanced at the helm and frowned. “Lt Howard, any particular reason why we're heading south west, and nearly scraping the tops of the sand dunes?”

“Unavoidable overshoot Ma'am... the winds at higher altitude are blowing something fierce. The duty officer at 0400 noted we'd overshot our intended destination thanks to a 40 knot tailwind, so we're ducking under it and tacking back. We should be there within an hour of ETA Ma'am.”

“Ah, the glories of running under sail. Ha! The sooner we get full engine power, the better. Carry on Helm.”

“Yes Ma'am, agreed whole-heartedly Ma'am!”

After a moment staring out the window Francis was struck by a thought.
“Bridge to flight, what's the temperature on the upper deck?”
“Flight to bridge, 33 and rising. In the shade. We can expect it to peak at 48 to fifty.”
“Bridge ack flight. Break. Bridge to engineering, liaison with medical and check how long our people can safely be out in this heat. Outside crews will have to work short shifts.”
“Engineering, Ensign Roth, to bridge... thanks Ma'am. Wind chill's enough to keep us all cool when we're moving, but the air is like a blow torch and the sun's enough to peel paint.”
“Engineering, don't forget your sunscreen then. And see if you can find some spare welding goggles – I suspect outside crews are going to need them.”
“Yes ma'am. Chief wants to know if he should rig some sun shades on deck for the flight crews?”
“Tell him to get a team onto it... and what is he up to? I see the No.2 reactor is cold now. Is there a reason we're running on aux. power alone?”
“Yes Ma'am, the same reason the Chief isn't talking to you directly. He and most of the power gang are up to their elbows in the coolant system. The Chief said to tell you when you noticed that it's preventative maintenance, Ma'am. The sails are generating enough watts that we don't need the reactor for minimum headway, Ma'am, and he said we should have three quarters full at noon from them.”
“I see, ensign. Very well, carry on.”
“Aye Ma'am.”

Francis sat back for a moment, drumming her fingers on the chair arm, and then, reaching a decision, nodded at the duty officer.
“I'm heading down to engineering, reactor 2 compartment. You have the bridge.”
“Aye Ma'am. I have the bridge.”

Francis spent most of the walk along the spine of the Exeter thinking of reasons why she shouldn't chew out the chief. Or rather, trying to think of reasons. Without the No.2 reactor the Exeter was effectively crippled, barely limping along and with insufficient power to fire point defence rail guns. Not an ideal situation at the best of times, and this was far from being the best time and place for it.

Francis remembered the engineering deck from when she had taken a look at it during refit, before the fusion reactors had been installed replacing the mini CANDU pebble-bed fission reactors. The space had seemed cavernous. Now, it was cramped, filled with the monstrous fusion bottle, shaped like a doughnut twisted around itself. The chief was just visible, his work boots and lower legs poking out of an inspection port on what looked like the primary coolant line. There were a number of junior engineers clustered around the port, one of whom was making notations on a tablet computer.

“Chief, a word with you...when you have moment.”
“....”

Francis blinked. The volume in the compartment was lower than normal, but it was hardly what one could call quiet...and between that and the acoustics of the pipe the Chief was in, she couldn't make out a word of what he said.

“CHIEF!”
“Bugger off!”

She'd heard that well enough! She glanced at the junior engineer, who was already backing away nervously, and selected a large spanner from the tool roll on the floor. Hefting it she brought it down with considerable force on the pipe.

The resounding clang was loud enough to momentarily drown out all other sounds.

The chief resembled a rather irate badger as he shot out from the inspection port...only to stop as he laid eyes on just who had disturbed him.

“Morning Chief. Would you mind terribly telling me why you felt the need to cripple the Exeter over unfriendly territory, without so much as a 'by your leave'... Hmmm?”
“Oh.. mornin' Ma'am. Sorry Captain, for just now. Didn't know it was you.”
“I gathered; normally it's at least 'Bugger off, Ma'am'... so what in Judas' name are you doing to my ship?”
“I'm sure I told Roth to tell you it was preventative maintenance. Ma'am.”
“And she did... which explains nothing about why you felt it so urgent that it couldn't wait until we were somewhere less likely to get shot at.”
“Ah... well, it would make more sense if I started at the beginning Ma'am...”
“I...see. Very well. Proceed with your excuse – sorry, explanation, Chief.”
“See, some of the boys and me got to talking over the table last night.”
“Chief, I would appreciate a degree of succinctness.”
“Yes ma'am, um.. well long and short of it is, we wondered why No.1 was the bane of our existence since the day we shipped out, while No.2 was no trouble at all, when they're both exactly the same.”
“So... you dismantled the working reactor?”
“Oh no Ma'am. We took apart what we could of No.1 first – at least, what was left or wasn't too radioactive.”
“Chief... have your slept at all yet?”
“Um...”
“I'll take that as a no. Very well then, I take it you found something that required you to shut No.2 down?”
“Like bloody heck I did Ma'am! Look you here.”

The Chief strode over to nearby work table and picked up a stainless steel fitting, roughly the same size and shape as the butt-end of fifty gallon oil drum. He flipped it onto it's edge to show Francis the inside. The ring was filled with a stainless steel plate, perforated with holes. Inside the holes were some sort of fittings, like a collar. Francis couldn't make out what they were supposed to be, though, because they were badly corroded with a greenish rust.

“I don't suppose you'd mind telling me what I'm looking at, Chief?”
“It's part of the intermix system Ma'am, where the primary and secondary coolant systems meet. This is the mounting plate for the secondary coolant tubes. There's ten in each of the primary and back-up intermixers on each reactor. Those mounting collars take the secondary tubes, and they're supposed to be titanium phosphor bronze. Good stuff that, very resistant to corrosion, which is important because the primary coolant is as corrosive as hell. This however, is cheap brass, and it started rotting almost as soon as we left port.”

Francis drew in a steadying breath, striving for control.
“Chief... are you telling me someone sabotaged our reactor?”
“Yes and no Ma'am. It wasn't done deliberately to cause damage. See, these are identical, mostly, to the old intermixer parts. They have to be, to fit. I think someone decided to cut corners and use up old inventory.”
“I see. What I don't see is why you felt it so urgent to shut down No.2 reactor, which as you say, hasn't been a problem.”
“Ahh. Didn't I say? Well, see No.1 reactor was used to power the Ex in port, so it has nearly twice the hours as No.2 – and once I saw what the problem was, I knew I had to shut it down. You see, these collars are brass, with a titanium layer plasma coated on it. They'd be okay for a bit, right until the titanium layer wears away....”
“Oh. Bloody hell.”
“You see it now ma'am. If we'd gone another couple of days, No.2 would have started failing exactly the same way.”
“Well caught Chief. I think I'll chalk up any lack of spit and polish discipline to worry and lack of sleep, assuming you actually take a break now you know what the problem is. How long until repairs can be effected?”

The chief smiled apologetically and shook his head, looking for all the world like schoolboy who knows the teacher isn't going to like his answer.

“Ah... that's kind of a problem Ma'am...”
“You do have spares?”
“Yes Ma'am, full inventory. First thing I checked – which is why I think we've been fucked over by a bean-counter, because the spares are all the same. The boxes are old Ma'am, for all they've got new labels slapped on them.”
“Well... shit!”
“Ma'am!”
“Sorry chief... there are times...”
“and this would be one of them, Ma'am. Quite understand. My language got a bit...salty... when I found out.”
“How long will it take you to machine replacements?”
“About 100 hours, if we had the material – which we don't.”

Francis stood there for moment, her mouth agape, trying to find words and failing.

“The problem is Ma'am, titanium phosphor bronze isn't a standard material. Off the top of my head I can't think of anything else on the Ex that uses it. So we don't have any bar stock of it, and I don't dare bodge something to replace it with because we don't have plasma deposition equipment so I couldn't give it a titanium coating like these.”

“Let me get this straight, Chief. You're saying the reactor coolant system, as it is, will start failing soon.”
“Yes Ma'am... I'm slightly surprised it hasn't already.”
“So we'll get a minimum of what, 90 days use before it goes the way of Reactor 1?”
“Less Ma'am. Much less, because we'd have to red line it in order to take up the slack.”
“How long, Chief?”
“Umm.... three, four days before we started to notice reduced coolant flow – maybe a day or three after that before it dies. Ten days at the maximum, if I coddled it every step of the way.”
“Bloody hell Chief!”
“Well, we did coddle No.1 as it limped, so it lasted longer than it really ought to have.”
“Right. So in effect, we're stuck on emergency power for the duration.”
“Yes Ma'am. I'd recommend we power up the reactor and hold it at minimum. Start ups and power downs put the most stress on the intermixer.”
“Okay, so we'll have minimum power from it for a few days then...and then nothing. That about the size of it, Chief?”
“Yes Ma'am. Sorry Ma'am.”
“Not your fault, Chief. Get some rest and leave the power up to your gang. You've done sterling work, and I want you rested so you can baby it in case I need to demand more than minimum power. As soon as we make port I will see if we can at least get you something to make replacement parts out of, but given the fact we're in the arse end of nowhere... I wouldn't hold my breath.”
“Yes Ma'am... and I'm not holding any hope out for that.”
“Right Chief...oh, and you get first crack at the bean-counter responsible when we find them.”
“Thank you, ma'am! I've got just the tool for that job!”

The chief gave the self-same wrench Francis had used to ring the pipe a significant look, causing her a short chuckle of dry laughter.

Francis was was still smiling slightly on her way back to the bridge when Incus ghosted out of a dark corner and rubbed up against her ankle.

“Good morning. Been busy about your duties already?”
“Yess. No more m'ce, only crunchy lissards left.”
“Thank you for that action report Lieutenant, although you could have left out the 'crunchy' bit.”
“Better than bringing heads.”

Francis chuckled again. Early on in Incus' career, Tolliver, their former captain, had unwisely queried if he was performing his duty as a ship's cat, since he seemed to spend his days asleep. The next morning had found a half dozen rat heads neatly arrayed outside the captain's cabin, impaled on meat skewers as if on pikes. To serve as a warning to the others, Incus had explained to the faintly green looking captain. Incus had been informed that a verbal report was quite adequate and that Britannic naval officers did not display the heads of their fallen enemies, not any more.

“Anything else to report, Lt. Incus?”
“The grrl called Chel is the refu'ees leader and a sou'. They're thinking of becoming citissens.”
“Oh now that is good news! Any idea which way they'll decide?”
“I think for it. Chel likes the idea. The others look to her.”
“Excellent... at least some good's come out of this mess.”
“A new sou' and several maybe ones, yes.”
“Wouldn't matter if none of them were, not to me anyway. But I dare say a powerful new soup and a collection of potentials might mitigate the wrath of Admiralty House a touch at getting their ship dinged up somewhat. Well done Incus, because I'm sure you had something to do with it.”

Incus snorted in what passed for laughter with him, and slowly blinked his eyes at her before continuing. “I ma'ay have made a sugges'stion or two.”
“I bet. Well, either way, I doubt the Admiral will suggest docking my pay to cover repairs.”
“Not after last time...”

Francis chuckled. The expression on the Admiral's face had been quite worth nearly bankrupting herself, when she'd called his bluff with a bankers draft to cover the repair bill.

Luckily for her, and the Admiral, his aide had pointed out the possible implication that the Navy was having difficulty with it's funding, should the papers get a hold of the story. But then, right from the start of the board of enquiry she'd felt the young commander had been on her side secretly, just as it had been obvious that the whole charade had been an attempt to discredit the Navy's youngest female captain by certain 'Old Guard' reactionary elements within Admiralty House.

She didn't doubt they hadn't finished with her; if nothing else it had now become a personal matter between her and Admiral Selton after embarrassing him. But Francis didn't think they'd find much in this affair to go after her with. At least, not so far.

It was then that a thought struck her, one that wiped the smile off her face, and caused her look aft towards the rector room and scowl.

“Speaking of the Admiral – isn't his area of duty nowadays procurement and supply?”

Incus didn't replay verbally, instead sitting down to wash his ears in the feline equivalent of a dismissive shrug.

“Hmm. I wonder...”

She was interrupted by the intercom: “All hands alert status! Captain to the bridge.”

Francis tapped her headset and spoke as she strode. “Captain to bridge. Report!”
“Duty officer, Ma'am. Overwatch flight reports possible enemy contact, bearing 208 relative, range 59 speed 275.”

Francis raised an eyebrow. At that speed and range the Exeter's radar should have seen any approaching craft already.

“Very well bridge, patch me though to Overwatch.”
“Aye, Ma'am.”

Overwatch was a modified Albatross class long-range reconnaissance craft. Its duty was to fly high above the Exeter and provide tactical oversight using downward and sidescan radar as well as other sensors. Exeter carried three such 'birds', and one was on duty at all times. Currently communication was being maintained with Overwatch using a modified LIDAR array.

“Captain to Overwatch flight: report.”
“Overwatch. Possible contact. They're too low for radar, and the ground is too hot for thermal imaging, but we have a dust plume. Estimate three birds flying nap of the land, Ma'am. ETA twelve minutes.”

Francis nodded as she strode onto the quietly bustling bridge.
“Ack Overwatch, out. Break. Captain to flight, scramble intercept flight. Recon but do not engage unless ordered otherwise.”
“Flight, Ack. Intercept in eight minutes.”

Francis walked over to the sensor array station and nodded at the ensign manning it. She didn't say anything, but was watching the screen that displayed data from the Exeter's perimeter drones, a curtain of sensor laden semi-autonomous quad-copters that patrolled an imaginary line 50 miles out from the Exeter.

What she saw as the contacts crossed the line made her eyebrows try to meet her cap.
“Good lord.... Well I'd like to meet those pilots and shake their hands!”
“Ma'am?”

Francis glanced at the ensign and shrugged.
“See here... they're flying low enough they're actually flying between the dunes, and I highly doubt those are vectored thrust jets. That takes some skill to do. But it is an excellent way to loose yourself in ground return clutter on radar.”
“Yes Ma'am...”
“Meaning there's no way except visual from above we'd have seen those coming. So it's not your fault you didn't pick them up.”
“Oh! Thank you, Ma'am.”

“Intercept One to bridge. Have visual contact.”

Francis looked up at the large tactical plot in the centre of the bridge forward bulkhead above the bubble window.

“Captain to intercept-1, go.”
“Ma'am... three F-86c Sabre jets. Fully armed. Not responding to hails. Permission to engage.”

Francis considered a moment. Sabres were French designed, Canadian made jets, about 15 years old if they were the last ones to roll off the production line. They could be Moroccan, or a number of other alternatives. Ordinarily the Exeter's point defences would've made short work of them, but they were wide open now. Except they couldn't know that, so as far as the pilots were concerned this was probably a suicide mission, and a futile one. To her mind that spoke more of desperation than foolhardiness. Also, given their heading, and probable short range, they had to have come from El Ayun or nearby.

In the space between one breath and the next, Francis had considered all this and made her decision.

“Intercept-1. Switch to manual guidance on your Stingers and put a missile into the sand just ahead of them on my Mark.”
“Ma'am?”
“You heard me, put a shot across their bows on my order.”
“Yes Ma'am. Missiles hot, switching to manual and awaiting command.”

Francis looked across to the point defence console.
“Guns, do we have enough juice to power tracking?”
“Yes ma'am.”
“Good, when those Sabres pop up, get a lock on them, full power. I want them to know we see them.”
“Aye-aye ma'am!”
“Signals, can we talk to them?”
“Yes ma'am, at this range I could probably transmit through their fillings if I had to. I can piggy back a signal on the targeting radar. It'll override their internal com. It's up to them to answer though.”
“Noted. Very well, patch me through as soon as we get a target lock then.”

“Ma'am, range twenty one miles, ETA to their weapons range, twelve seconds.”

Francis glanced down at the ensign seated at the sensor console next to her, and smiled.
“Thank you. Captain to Interceptor-1. Fire!”
“Missile away.”

The dust plume from the missile impact was visible through the forward window, and squinting, Francis though she could make out the silvery specks of the Sabre jets, forced to violently swerve upwards to avoid ingesting sand into their engines.

“Ma'am, target lock. All three.”
“Mic hot Ma'am.”

“This is Captain Drake of the Her Britannic Majesty's Naval Carrier Exeter to the three unknown craft. We are no threat to you or your city. Break course or we will consider you hostile and open fire in self-defence. ”

For a moment nothing happened, and then all three jets altered course, swerving around the Exeter, making a wide circle until they were heading away back from where they had come.

Francis studied them for a moment, then sighed.
“Hmm, not a talkative lot. Signals, is there any way we can talk to someone in the city up ahead?”
“Aye-aye Ma'am... umm... with the antenna damage we have regular comms is out, but I think I can use the targeting radar to push a signal and patch internal comms into the cellular network out here, if I can modify the radar to drop the frequency a bit and locate a cell tower.”
“Signals, I don't even care if it's bloody smoke signals at this point. Just get me through somehow.”
“Yes Ma'am. I'll have to retask the aux targeting radar though. Permission to take it offline, Ma'am?”
“Carry on Signals... it's not like we have much use for it right now.”

For several long minutes the bridge was silent except the steady soft chatter of people going about their duty. Francis went and sat in her command chair, concentrating on projecting an air of calm assurance she didn't at first feel, although after a few minutes reading status reports, she found the edgy buzz of adrenaline wearing off.

“Ma'am?”
Francis looked up at the young rating.
“Yes?”
“I've patched us into the local phone network. I took the liberty of running their index through the ships computer and translating it, so we can call whomever you want now.”
“Good work, Signals..”
“Thank you Ma'am. Although if it hadn't worked I'd have been lighting a fire on the flight deck next.”
“I'll keep that in mind for next time. Carry on.”
“Aye Ma'am.”

Francis turned her attention to the tac display inset into the command chair and quickly found the index. She narrowed her search to government officials and military officers, of whom there was actually very few, and quickly scrolled through the list considering whom to call.

Deciding upon the military commander of the small Local Defence brigade stationed at the airport, she punched in the number.

“Tahiati lik. hadha hu maqarr quwwat alddifae almahalli, kayf ymkn 'an tawjih mukalamatik ?”
“I need to speak to the Commanding Officer please.”
“Je ne vous comprends pas, parlez-vous français ?"
“Oui, je dois parler à l'officier commandant tout à fait de toute urgence!"
"Un moment alors que je rediriger votre appel."

Francis waited while some jingly Arabic pop song played, and then a heavily accented male voice spoke.
“Hello, how may I be helping you?”
“Are you the commanding officer who ordered a flight of F-86 Sabres out?”
“Who is this? I cannot be discussing operations to you.”
“This is Captain Francesca Drake, commanding officer of the Royal Naval Vessel Exeter, and I'd bloody well like to know what you're doing sending brave pilots out on suicide runs in museum pieces against my ship!”
“A ship! In the desert?! This is no time for jokes.”
“RNV Exeter is a dirigible in the fleet air arm. I would very much like to put in at your airport, without being shot at. Last time I checked our countries were on friendly terms, and I'm sure our superior officers would like it to remain that way.”
“One minute...”

There was some more jingly music as Francis counted to ten, first in Greek and then Russian – backwards – and inwardly seethed.
“Hello, yes.. you are there lady?”
“The correct term of address is Captain.”
“Ah, yes. Lady Captain.. you have permission to land at the airport now. We will not stop you.”
“Thank. You. Good day.”

Francis lifted her finger off the intercom, muttering to herself, “As if you could bloody well stop us you unwashed son of ….”

At that point her X.O., Declaan, stepped up behind her command chair.
“Ah X.O. Please tell me something is going right?”
“Well... we've finished gilding the lily, Captain.”
“Why do I sense a 'but' there...?”
“No 'but' Francis. Other than that, that's about as much good news as I've got.”
“How much bad news?”
“Chief tells me you know about the reactor?”
“Yes, and I as good as promised him five minutes alone with the bean counter responsible, although I have a bad feeling it goes higher than that.”
“Admiral Selton, Ma'am?”
“I see we were thinking alike again. Yes, my own personal nemesis.”
“You think he'd go so far as to sabotage a Royal navy vessel just to get back at you, ma'am?”
“Perhaps not, but make sure I got any dodgy supplies without thinking of the consequences? Yes, definitely. That said, I do seem to recollect Selton was one of the supporters for the new County Class medium carriers that were supposed to replace us. So him helping to arrange for the Exeter's refit to fail spectacularly? Yes, I could see him decide to try for a 'two for one' sort of deal. Get back at me and arrange for the Exeter and her sister ships to be retired earlier than planned.”
“Sad to say Ma'am, so could I. It's a bad day when we can't trust our own commanding officers, so it is.”
“Come now X.O. I'm sure there's a few good apples left in the barrel.”
“As you say Ma'am...”

Francis looked at Declaan's lugubrious expression, and burst out laughing. Lt commander Declaan flashed his brilliant smile at her, seeing her tension evaporate.
“You are a clown X.O.”
“Whatever you need me to be, captain.”
“Seriously though, we'll deal with Selton when we get home. If it proves he's overstepped the mark, I'm sure a board of enquiry will find out and deal with him.”
“Three officers of good standing and true.. Yes, I dare say Ma'am.”
“More like three officers who couldn't come up with a good excuse to avoid the duty, but yes. I'm sure they'll do their best for Queen and country, as the saying goes.”
“As would we all Ma'am.”
“This crew? Of that I'm sure!”

Declaan nodded in agreement of her assessment. It wasn't overstating the case to say that he was proud to serve with his fellow officers, and that he'd trust each and every one of them with his life – although possibly not his beer in a few cases – but such was the nature of the service. Much like any family of brothers and sisters, including the good natured ribbing and occasional only half-serious fight. He allowed himself a small smile at the warm feeling, and then continued.

“Speaking of good news, bad news...”
“Oh-ho, here it comes. What is it X.O?”
“The Andora May's logs. I've managed to stabilise them, but it's going to take a better man than I to make anything of most of them.”
“Oh well, you did your best with what we have. No blame there.”
“I did make out one interesting thing though. She's Panama registered, but you were wrong about her ports of call. She took on cargo in Jamaica and Port Au Prince... and she was bound for Cape Verde and Dakar.”
“The Devil you say! Well, that puts a different light on matters. We can't have people trafficking through our Territorial waters! Although, that does raise the question of just how were they able to avoid HM Customs and Excise, not to mention the naval patrols?”
“Indeed Ma'am. I took the liberty of making backup copies of the images of those portions and securing them in the Exeter's encrypted memory, as well as a physical transcript for your personal safe Ma'am.”
“Probably unnecessarily paranoid X.O., but better safe than sunk. Well done.”
“Yes Ma'am. Thank you Ma'am.”

The helm officer spoke up at that point, recalling both their attention to more immediate duty.
“Ma'am, coming up on El Ayun. Something is not quite right Ma'am.”
“A little more specific, if you please.”
“There's no ground guidance online Ma'am. The mooring mast is down, and there seems to be a smoke column over the airport.”
“Sensors?”
“Smoke confirmed, thermal indicates a good sized fire right where the jet fuel storage should be. Drones are showing a number of other smoke plumes on the city perimeter, and vehicle activity consistent with troop deployment, oddly enough, away from us.”
“Signals, anything?”
“At this range Ma'am, yes. Almost all of it encrypted, although not the best. Do you want me to break though the encryption Ma'am?”
“No..we're supposed to be friends here. Hmm...you're tapped into the local internet, can you use the ships computer to do a search of local social media. People talk after all, lets see what they're saying.”
“Aye-aye Ma'am... first time I've been ordered to access social sites while on duty.”
“I note Signals, you didn't say it was the first time while on duty.”
“A good officer has to anticipate orders Ma'am... and I've been waiting for this one for a long time.”
“Quite. Anything, Signals?”
“Briefly – rebels, Ma'am. They've been anticipating an attack for several days already. They thought we were it. Civilians were ordered into shelters and troops deployed. They're standing down now, but preparations for an attack are still ongoing it seems. I'll know more in a few minutes. I can read only so fast Ma'am.”

Francis looked thoughtfully out through the forward window, where the smoke was now just visible rising up above the sand dunes and rocky hillsides.
“Now why would they burn their fuel storage if they haven't already been attacked.”
“Scorched earth perhaps, Ma'am?”

Francis turned to look at Declaan standing by her elbow.
“You think so? Why not sabotage the planes instead?”
“Maybe the rebels need the fuel, but not the planes Ma'am?”

Francis stared at the small city appearing out of the shimmering heat haze.
“I wonder what on Earth is going on out here? And just what are we getting ourselves into now?”

Chapter Text

Lt. Cmdr. Declaan gratefully took the iced tea from the steward as he stepped into the airport lounge, which was quickly becoming known as the ‘Officer’s Ashore Mess’. The 400-yard walk across the concrete apron had been like a brief stroll through a kiln, the heat drying out his skin almost as fast he could sweat.

 

They’d been grounded for three days now, the city officials allowing them to land at the underused airport reluctantly at first. Captain Drake had instigated power conservation measures aboard the Ex, freeing up enough power for the forward missile batteries at least, pledging to defend the city’s civilians while they remained there. As well as that, the Exeter’s Falcons flew regular patrols out to 50 miles. After that, the local government had been more than happy to have them as guests.

 

Which was perhaps just as well. Living conditions aboard had become hellish once environmental controls to most of the decks were shut down. Duty stations received air conditioning, but that was it. Most of the crew decamped to one of the several empty hangars, cooled by semi-portable A/C units running off the airport’s power grid. Inside the large empty space, the riggers made use of available resources, to wit, a large amount of canvas stored there for unknown reasons, to build a sort of barracks.

 

The airport lounge, built in the late 70’s in anticipation of international travellers that had never come, had been taken over by the senior ranks, mostly because it had an A/C system that cooled it down to a positively frigid 17 Celsius even in the face of outside air temperatures of 42 degrees. And a bar... possibly it was the bar that swayed the choice.

 

Communications had been re-established with Admiralty House and NAC, North Atlantic Command, albeit by a circuitous route using an internet link at the control tower. Standing orders forbade any direct link between the Ex’s computers and unsecured foreign ground systems, so dispatches were encrypted aboard ship, then manually walked across to the tower and sent on their way. Orders and dispatches from the admiralty were downloaded to a secure USB stick the same way, and walked back to the Ex to be decrypted on a firewalled and air-gapped computer.

 

Which essentially meant that Declaan had a long walk there and back, and then back across to where Francis was sitting in a 70’s ‘space-age’ egg-shaped chair. He wished he could hand off the duty to some ordinary rating, or even a midshipman, but duty regs forbade the handling of unencrypted dispatches by anyone other than him, the duty officer, and the Captain.

 

“Morning, Ma’am.”

“Morning, X.O. How was the walk though hell today?”

“Hot, as usual. No sign of that weather front the Met-office promised yesterday.”

“It’ll get here today. Petty Officer Warren’s knee is twinging, he says.”

“Frankly, I think I trust his knee more than some ‘expert’ in London right now. So far he has the better track record.”

“No doubt.... So, anything of interest in local gossip?”

“Ma’am, I’m shocked that you’d suggest I’d waste time on duty with gossiping...”

“Call it gathering local intel, Ed.”

“Oh well, in that case! Seems the locals are settling down a bit after the shock our arrival gave them.”

“Any word on the whereabouts of the rebels they thought we were?”

“Sunia, that’s the gal in charge of comms here, says that the latest word from those fleeing them is that they’re still somewhere out by Smara... that’s roughly 100 miles a shade south of west of here.”

“Good to see you’re cultivating local intel sources, X.O.”

“Sunia’s a good sort, but she’s got a single daughter about marriageable age she says... so I had to invent a wife back home.”

“Noted... I’m sure your fictional wife’s the possessive sort too.”

“Terribly so, Ma’am. Always checking up on me.”

 

Francis chuckled and waved Declaan away in the direction of the breakfast buffet table, while she started to read the day’s dispatches.

 

By the time Declaan returned, his tray laden with a plate of scrambled eggs and beans, with a side of toast and cup of coffee, Francis was scowling at the papers with an expression that would’ve sent a lesser man running for cover. Declaan sat himself down opposite her and started to tuck in with no outward sign of concern.

 

Several minutes passed in thunderous silence. The steward started to come up behind Francis with a fresh pot of coffee, but Declaan caught his eye and with a faint shake of his head, hardly enough to disturb his curls, warned the steward off.

 

“So...”

“God damn them all to hell, X.O.! It’s enough to make me want to say Curse the lot of them and hoist the black flag!

“Not good news, then.”

 

The look Francis shot him was not one iota less blistering than the defensive lasers at point blank range.

 

“No, by George, it’s not. Looks like Admiral Selton is going to be as happy as a clam.”

“Bloody hell! They’re never scrapping the Ex, are they?!”

“Might as well have. The Admiralty have in their infinite wisdom decided it would be too provocative to send a tug into the area. We’re ordered to proceed to Marrakesh at best speed. If possible. If not then we’re to make provision for transport of crew, except for a salvage team, who are to strip the Exeter of all sensitive materials and arrange its transport to the port of Boujour to be picked up by one of the wet navy’s ships, and then scuttle the Ex.”

 

Declann chewed thoughtfully in silence for a few moments. Francis, having thrown the papers down onto the table in disgust, gulped her coffee and sat watching him, her expression slowly turning from wrathful to thoughtful as well.

 

“Forgive me for asking, Ma’am...”

“What are you...”

 

They stopped, having both broken the silence at the same time. Francis waved Declaan on, indicating he should continue.

 

“I was going to ask, Ma’am... did they say how long we have or how we’re supposed to get there?”

“Only that we’re to meet the Hood at Marrakesh on the 21st. That’s not enough time at our present ‘best’ speed... And I know that look, X.O., what are thinking?”

“Well, we need a tow then... and this bunch of rebels have gotten themselves an armed and armoured dirigicraft from somewhere. I was thinking— strictly off the record, Francis— perhaps we could kill two birds with one stone and take it off them?”

“We’ve not supposed to be interfering in local politics Ed...”

“True, and if they were really a bunch of rebels that would be. But word is that they’re just a bunch of desert-dwelling land pirates who’ve gotten an obsolete gunship from somewhere. Up until recently they’d never been anything but a minor nuisance, but with the ship and a whole lot of guns and new recruits, they’ve taken to calling themselves rebels and are actually becoming a problem.”

“Do I want to know where you got all this intel from?”

“Sunia gossips... and she has a network of daughters and nieces who are married to influential men in power, among others. Plus I had a quiet word with some of the crew yesterday about keeping their ears open while out on shore leave.”

“One would almost think you prescient, Edward...”

“Just doing my duty as a good X.O and anticipating possibilities, Ma’am. Besides, I know you and this crew. Three more days, four at the outside, of doing nothing and you’d be looking for an excuse to go haring off after them. And gods help us, we’d be right behind you.”

“Right... Well, I can’t argue with that. But it’s not a bad idea, and we both know we have standing orders to aid local law enforcement as circumstances allow, as well as put down pirates where we encounter them... but if they’re styling themselves as rebels that’s going to be hard to sell to the Powers That Be.”

 

There was silence for a moment as they both considered their options. Finally Francis spoke. “I don’t suppose you know of any way to talking to the other rebel faction? The real one? The POLISARIO?”

“Ma’am?”

“I was thinking... If we could get both the local government and the independents to say that this bunch are not actually rebels...”

“I see where you’re going. The Polisario and the local law agreeing that they’re nothing more than jumped-up pirates, that would be another thing entirely. It’s a thin fig leaf legally, but we could say we’re impounding their ship.”

“Except we couldn’t let on why we want them on record as saying that, in case someone puts two and two together, and then gives the pirates a heads up.”

“It might be an idea, Ma’am, if this entire business was off the books... Easier to beg forgiveness than seek permission. I highly doubt the Powers That Be back home would approve of any such plan.”

“Good point, X.O., you might be right. Well, no need to ask questions you already know the answer to. We’ll keep it strictly hush-hush then. So, any thoughts as to how we... ahh... ‘impound’ this craft from them?”

“A couple of ideas, Ma’am... How do you feel about turning pirate?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Well, they have all these new recruits, and I doubt they all know each other on sight...”

“Oh! I get your gist. We just dress and act accordingly and stroll right on up the gangplank. Bold, but fortune does favour the bold. How are we to get there first, though?”

“That part I haven’t figured out yet, Ma’am... but I’m sure by the time you’ve gotten done being the diplomat and talking to the local government and the Polisario, I’m sure to have something.”

“Yes, and just how do you propose I talk to the real rebels then?”

“Well, you take a taxi into town and visit their offices, Ma’am.”

 

Francis blinked at Declaan, who looked back at her, completely serious.

“They have offices in town?”

“They are a peaceful, law-abiding political party now, Ma’am, why wouldn’t they?”

“Ah... Umm. Quite.”

“They even sent an invite to the local mayor last time they invaded the local parliament on the 32nd anniversary of the uprising.”

“Now you’re just making that up, Declaan... aren’t you?”

“God’s honest truth, Ma’am. They sent out written invites to everyone.”

“Umm... What did the interim government do when they heard of the impending... er, ‘invasion’ ?”

“Took the day off and held a party in the grounds in their honour. From what I gather, the Polisario people turned up, found Government House shut for business, went around the back to the gardens and joined in. They won the camel race apparently... seems they came prepared.”

“What the...?”

“I swear Ma’am, I’m not making it up! You have to remember, nobody really wants this place. Morocco don’t send their brightest and best here, or the most ambitious. And the Polisario are more philosophical intellectuals than rabid fanatics nowadays. Actually, I’d imagine the only ones really hell-bent on seizing power are the pirates. I doubt anybody else wants them running things though. Other than that, it’s the world’s least violent or effective revolution ever. If the Polisario and the government ever resumed shooting at each other, they’d probably aim to miss. Deliberately.”

“I... see... A very civil war then. Right. So I’ll talk to the ‘official’ rebels and the local government people. By the sound of it, it shouldn’t be too hard to get them to condemn this bunch of jokers as pirates.”

“Word of advice, Ma’am: Whatever one lot agrees to, the others automatically oppose. Don’t let on what they said to each other. In fact, I have it on good authority it’s wisest not to even mention to either side that you’ve talked to the other.”

“I think I begin to see why this state of affairs has persisted so long now. Reason and good sense are sorely lacking in these parts, it seems. Very well, X.O., advice duly noted... Well, let’s get cracking. I have a feeling that this might take all day. You can line up some civilian transport for us, X.O., I’ll go play diplomat... and I think you have the better part of that deal.”

“Yes, Ma’am, indeed I do.”

 

It was early evening by the time Edward Declaan trudged into what was probably the worst dive in town. He was tired, dusty, foot-sore and seriously beginning to wonder if he was on a wild goose chase. It wasn’t that there was a lack of people willing to take on passengers— just about anybody with access to a vehicle of any description had gone into the taxi business recently— but there was a distinct lack of people willing to even go in the direction of Smara, much less to the city itself. Everybody was heading away from the pirates, it seemed, and charging exorbitant prices for anyone else wishing to be not-here when, or if, the pirates came.

 

Declann sighed as he bought yet another glass of the sickly sweet iced mint tea that seemed to be the popular drink in these parts. He couldn’t help thinking he’d kill for a pint of cold Guinness about now... but this was a Muslim country, and alcohol was pretty much impossible to find. Although not entirely impossible, as evidenced by at least one rigger rolling back from shore-leave last night as drunk as a lord. Declaan had to put him in the brig more for his own sake than as punishment, as his shipmates had been rather keen to sober him up and find out where he’d gotten the booze from.

 

Still, he was on duty, even though not in uniform. Declaan had decided upon returning to the Exeter that it’d be wiser to trawl the seedier parts of the town in civilian garb. There was no getting around the fact that everyone would know where he was from, but they didn’t need to know what he was up to, and in civilian togs he was just another sailor on shore-leave.

 

Which is why he’d ended up borrowing a set of clothes, as he had a choice between his undress blues or clothing he’d brought along intending to wear on leave in Reykjavik, which probably would have meant he’d have died from heat stroke within minutes. Declaan had to admit, there was a kind of evil genius to the clothes he was wearing, insofar as nobody in their right mind would wear them if they were up to anything furtive. The only things he’d been able to beg had been a set of white cargo pants in a light cotton, and a retina-searing Hawaiian ‘jungle’ print shirt that looked like someone had used every fluorescent dye they could get hold of. His ensemble was topped off by a white bucket hat and pair of aviator style mirror shades he’d swiped from the Lost & Found box in the purser’s office.

 

He felt like a fool, and undoubtedly looked like one too. Which, as bruising to his ego as it was, was probably all to the good, as it meant no-one wondered why he was asking so many questions. Most of which he wasn’t interested in the answers to, but they served to camouflage his actual intent... which had led him here, a small hookah bar and coffee house at the edge of town, looking for someone who went by the name ‘Mack’... as in, apparently, “Mack truck”.

 

Declann was on his third egg-cup–sized glass of tea and giving a perfunctory amount of attention to the tired looking dancer and the mediocre musicians accompanying her, when he was startled out of reverie by a rangy, feral-looking woman scraping a chair over and sitting down opposite him. She was tall, towering over him by a head even sitting down, and made taller by the wild bleached white crest of a mohawk she sported, which trailed off forming a thin plait long enough to dangle down over her shoulder and between her breasts. She was wearing a leather jacket that had seen better days, probably long before the arms had been ripped off and it had been spray-painted silver. Under the paint it was a faded maroon colour, where it wasn’t oil-stained. The front of her jacket had rows and rows of what looked like short lengths of chrome and brass brake pipe threaded onto cable and sewn onto the tired battered leather in swags, to softly clink and rattle as she breathed. Her trousers were so oil-stained and begrimed Declaan couldn’t even guess as to their original colour, and apart from a black bikini top and a pair of beat-up combat boots that laced up almost to her knees, that was it.

 

Except for the weapons. Which made up a large part of her ensemble.

 

She had some kind of gun in a holster on her hip, it's grip swathed in duct tape, a Korean knock-off of a glock automatic in her belt on the other hip, and a wicked knife that was halfway between a machete and a sword stuck though her belt. It was long enough that its point was about knee-level on her, and its curved back was serrated like a saw blade. It had also clearly seen long usage, and recently, too, judging by the brown stains that didn’t look like rust. Declaan could tell from the way the coat hung that those were only the ones he could see. He suspected she had at least one more large handgun in an inside pocket, and probably a holdout somewhere else, and who knew how many knives. Plus, now that he looked, at least some of the shiny bits of metal strung in her braid along with the feathers and glass-beads were also rather on the sharp and pointy side.

 

“I hear you’re looking for me.”

 

Her voice was husky to the point of gravelly, and with a flat nasal accent that made Declaan think of the Western films he’d watched as kid. And like that, what had just looked scruffy and feral snapped into focus as a modern junkyard version of tribal Native American garb.

 

“You’re Mack?”

“Mackenzie, ’Trisha to my friends. Which you ain’t. So why you looking for me?”

 

Declaan blinked slowly. The slight tilt to her eyes and the terracotta tone of her skin under the dust was anything but European, despite the name. Still, they were both a long way from home and who was he to question another’s choices?

 

“I have a business proposition for you.”

“Yeah, no. Ain’t interested.”

“Hear me out. I need a lift for me and a few mates out of town, and we’re willing to pay well.”

“You and everyone else here. What’s it to me?”

“Well, we need to go off road maybe, and we’re heading the opposite direction to most. People say you’re the person to ask about that.”

“You are, are you? Ok... well, you’re not wrong so far. Go on, where exactly are you thinking of going?”

“Smara. But if that’s too far for you, near there will do.”

“Huh... Ok, maybe you are talking to the right person. Could be I might be heading that way, for sure the only one crazy enough to. It’s going to cost you, and not just money. There’s some parts I need I can’t buy in town. Maybe you and that fancy dirig’ of yours can do something about that?”

“Could be. We can negotiate... so what do you need?”

 

Mackenzie leaned back in her chair, and signalled the waiter. There was a brief exchange of words in a dialect that Declaan utterly failed to recognise, and when the scowling waiter returned a moment later, he plunked two small glasses of a syrupy-looking clear fluid down in front of both of them, and walked off muttering to himself.

 

“Ok, let’s talk business then, pretty boy... but first, drink!”

 

 

Chapter Text

Lt Commander Edward Decclan awoke to a cool breeze blowing over his chest, and a pounding headache that had him groaning even before he opened his eyes. He felt the bed shift slightly as someone moved, and a cool wet cloth was gently placed on his brow.

He opened his eyes, and through the bleariness he could make out what looked to be a golden rippling canopy above the bed, and an Asian woman’s concerned face looking down at him through blue/black hair that fell over her shoulders like a waterfall of silk.

He had no idea where he was, but it didn’t look like anywhere aboard the Ex...

“Do you feel able to drink some water?”

Her voice was soft, and slightly breathy and full of concern. Decclan nodded, and immediately regretted it as a small supernova of pain exploded inside his skull. Once he could see again he looked over towards where he could hear the woman padding across what appeared to be the tent they were in. For a moment what he saw made no sense.

Whoever she was, she was completely naked except for a thin metal collar and chain that dangled down to between her small conical breasts. Decclan felt his expression freeze for a moment, as he got a much better look at her than he was entirely comfortable with, then hastily averted his gaze. He heard her giggle, a soft musical sound and as she came over.

“It’s alright to look, I wouldn’t be undressed like this if I minded.”
“Ah...”
“Don’t sit up, you’ll make your head worse. Mack said she has never seen anyone drink as much Arrack as you and stay standing, and she is sorry she played a mean trick on you by not warning you of its strength. Here, let me help you drink..”

The woman— or possibly teenager, as Decclan mused— placed the pitcher of water on the ground next to the low bed and knelt alongside it. Pouring a glass, she held it up to Decclan’s lips. It was at that point, as he started to half sit up, that he realised that aside from the thin silk sheet over him he was entirely naked himself.

Just what had happened last night?! And for that matter, where was he?

The water was cool and tasted of mint and a little ginger, heading off the incipient nausea Ed was feeling before it could really get started. The ground seemed to sway slightly below him, although he could see sand between the numerous rugs that covered the floor, so they weren’t airborne despite what his sense of balance told him. In fact, they seemed to be in some kind of tent, one that was equal parts Arabian Nights fantasy and post-apocalyptic decadence.

A wave of nausea suddenly washed through and over him, doubling him over as the woman grabbed a bowl. He struggled to hang on the contents of his stomach for few moments as she held him, then sagged sideways against her as the feeling passed, leaving him spent.

“Thank you... ah...”
“Palomia. I’m Mack’s Kept.”
“Her what?”
“Kept... I’m her... well, it’s more than a girl friend, not exactly married, more consensual than being her slave. It’s my choice though, don’t worry! She looks after me, keeps me safe and in return I serve her. Although, for the moment, I serve you.”
“Oh... did we..?”
“Oh... no, you were very, very drunk last night. Mack thought it best you didn’t go back to your ship like that, so she brought you home. Although she was very drunk as well... so no, nothing happened. With me, or Mack....or between me and Mack, more’s the pity. We could though, if you like...”
“Umm... I don’t want to offend your hospitality but...”
“Pity... maybe later?”
“Yeah... maybe. So, where is home then?”
“Currently? We’re a few miles outside the city, by a small oasis that doesn’t have a name or appear on any maps. Mack doesn’t like leaving me alone too long, and they charge to park a truck in town. So Mack and the others made camp here.”
“Others?”
“Mack and her outriders. Then there’s Samuel in his van, and a few other tribesmen in their cars who came along to trade. It’s safer to travel in numbers, but not too many or it attracts attention.”
“Wait... tribesmen?”
“Men from our tribe. We’re all Wastelanders.”

Decclan had heard of the Wastelanders: people who’d left society, or been left behind by society for one reason or another, and who’d created their own tribe. One that owed a lot to various post-apocalypse movies for its anarchistic and anachronistic ethos and culture.

He’d also heard they’d set up somewhere in north Africa’s empty quarter, which was apparently here. Which made sense, given the lack of government and the wide-open and empty desert.

“That explains a lot. I suppose you still need to trade sometimes...”
“Oh yes. For example, Mack came to us on a trading mission several years ago. That’s when we met. I was born into the tribe just after my parents joined, so I’m a true born Wastelander. It’s just... well, a Wastelander is freer than anyone else. We recognise no authority but our own and believe in individual responsibility to go with our freedom. But I always found being that free was a struggle! Making choices, being responsible for my own life, protecting myself... it’s hard! Mack is a Twin-spirit and was looking for somewhere to belong. So when we hit it off, she stayed, and our relationship kind of grew into something permanent. So she eventually gave me my collar and joined the tribe. But I am not the only Kept among our tribe. We make up our own rules and customs, after all... and some people, like me, like being Kept. We’re free to choose not to be free if we want to after all.”

Decclan blinked, perhaps it was just his imagination, but Palomia sounded just a touch defensive... but then, he doubted he was the first to question her about it.

“Right, so the whole ‘naked except for a slave collar’ look, that’s a tribal custom now?”
“The collar, yes, it makes it easy to tell who’s Kept and by whom. The little steering wheel is Mack’s mark. You’ll see it on all her gear. Naked, no, that’s my choice. I’m a naturalist, I go naked when I can. It’s one of our few rules, that no-one can interfere in one’s personal choices...”
“Right... er... well then, could I have some clothes please? That’s my choice.”

Palomia nodded, laughing. “As you wish. I will see if your own clothes are dry yet. They needed to be washed when you arrived. Mack said you tripped and fell into a goat pen, but I’m sure there is more to that story! If they’re not, I’ll see if one of the others will share some clean clothes.”

Gracefully flowing up from where she was kneeling, Palomia stood and walked out of the tent into the bright sunlight. Decclan briefly wondered how she avoided burning in the sun... but then, it seemed to be early morning, and she did say she only went naked when she could, with the implication of meaning only when it was safe to do so.

It was sign of his distracted state of mind that only now, when he was alone, did it occur to him to wonder where Mack was, and what she was doing. The brief glimpse he had had of the camp site as Palomia had opened the tent flap had shown a desert oasis, with some semi-ruined buildings across the small pool of water from the camp. Aside from a lot of crumbling stony hillocks and a few low scrubby bushes, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of anything else around to occupy anyone.

* * *

Captain Francesca Drake was quietly fuming, sitting in her command chair surrounded by the muted hum of activity on the sparsely occupied bridge. Discussions with the various political leaders yesterday had gone, not well, but much as expected. She had a tentative agreement that the as-yet-unnamed group of would-be rebels who were in possession of an armed and armoured dirigicraft of unknown provenance were to be considered pirates. Which more or less gave her a fig-leaf of legality to cover her ‘impounding’ said craft.

They could be well on their way to ruining the pirates’ day, were not for the fact that her X.O. had gone missing. Lt Cmdr Decclan was supposed to have rounded up some civilian transport, but had vanished into the night.

Francis had a shore patrol out looking for him: one did not just ignore a missing officer of his rank. She had not as yet reported his absence to her chain of command, an omission that would have severe repercussions should her commanding officers learn of it.

She knew Decclan, though, they’d served together for a number of years. She doubted it was simple dereliction of duty. Decclan would probably kick open the doors of hell itself rather than be late for duty. Which left her with the uncomfortable conclusion that he was in trouble... possibly unable to extricate himself. But she had faith in his abilities. She was not about to set out with a full platoon of Royal Marines in order to rescue him, only to return empty-handed to base and find he’d rescued himself and they missed each other somehow... at least, not again.

Francis scrolled through the reports, not really reading them. Catching herself fussing with her uniform collar again, she firmly put her hand on the computer keyboard. The temperature on the bridge was already hotter than was really comfortable, despite the environmental controls’ best effort. The Chief was looking into building a power converter to allow them to draw from the airport’s main grid, but although it was possible in theory, so far in practice he was unable to jerry-rig from available resources something that could handle the load.

“Captain, WISKAS reports ground movement on the perimeter.”

Rather than order the camera feed transferred to her screen, Francis got up, slid down the short ladder to the bridge’s lower deck, and walked the short way to the sensor station. Leaning over the shoulder of the rating manning the station, she cued up the feed from the small quad-copter drone that made up part of their picket-line.

“What in the name of ….?!” Francis exclaimed, and then raised her head and looked up and to her left towards the gunnery position. “Guns! We have a possible assault force inbound, sector niner, range 5 miles... can you get a lock?”
“No Ma’am... civilians are downrange.”

Francis cursed under her breath. Duty regs forbade the use of railguns with civilian non-threats in or near to the projectiles’ flight path, as the shockwave from a 100-lb. projectile travelling at Mach 7 would turn their insides to chutney if they were too close.

Tapping her comm earpiece, Francis connected to the temporary barracks outside.
“Captain to Master-at-arms, roust the Marines. We have an inbound armed force, possibly hostile. Improvised armoured vehicle, truck, twin 50 cal railgun turrets, half dozen armed outriders on bikes, maybe same number cars behind. Intercept and halt but do not engage unless fired upon.”
“Aye Ma’am. On the bounce now.”

Francis crossed back to her command position and watched on the tactical plot as the Marine squad in their armoured suits deployed at the checkpoint, blocking the approach road at the airport fence, while the three snipers in the squad took up rear and flanking positions 150 yards out among the dunes, bracketing the checkpoint at the 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions.

Francis studied the approaching force. At first glance the home-brewed armour seemed more decorative than functional, but underneath the spikes, rusty blades and occasional skull there were solid slabs of steel. It would take a closer inspection, but she felt sure they were probably thick enough to stop most handguns and possibly rifle rounds. Plus at least some of the spikes appeared to be part of some form of shield generator. Which, if they were and it was fully functional, probably would turn aside even heavy rounds from a bolt gun or beam rifle... assuming it worked, and based on the size of the discharge points if that was what they were. ‘

The truck itself looked to be a large American-built model from the last century, a Peterbilt or something like it, with a long hood projecting out from the cab and ending in what looked like a bulldozer blade cut in half and angled backwards into a plough shape. It was hauling three trailers, each mounted with a 40ft cargo container, the front and rear ones sporting gun turrets crudely mounted up top.

At first Francis thought the whole thing was probably just for show, but as she zoomed in to examine it, she could make out pock-marks from weapons fire in the heavy steel slabs. The rear turret had burn marks, and there was a star-burst of shrapnel scouring in the skin of the container around it. It looked like someone had gotten a lucky shot in and the railgun’s capacitors had blown up. It was hard to tell, but the turret from the mount point upwards looked somewhat less sandblasted than its forward mate, suggesting it had been replaced entirely.

Francis sat back and mused on the fact that clearly this armoured vehicle had not only seen use, but had met something able to give it a mauling despite being victorious. Probably more than once, and not even recently. And yet, formidable as it was for an improvised tank, it would be no match for a well equipped military force, such as her Marines... or even the local government forces or maybe the Polisario. Which implied that what this ragamuffin rabble had fought off was a probably similarly improvised force of ill-equipped civilians.

Bandits, in other words, she thought.

A sudden thought made her key the intercom.
“Bridge to ground force. When they halt, keep an eye open for the X.O. I have a hunch he’s with them.”
“Roger Wilco Ma’am.”

Francis sat back and steepled her fingers, pensively watching events unfold on the screen.

Decclan kept his hands in plain sight as he slowly climbed down from the truck’s cab. He was painfully aware of standard operating procedure, and just how twitchy the Wastelanders were about being this close to people they regarded as government stooges (namely, about one step away from vermin to be shot on sight). The situation had all the potential of an open powder keg.

Carefully he pulled down the scarf that had inadequately kept the dust out of his mouth and nose, and removed the goggles. Hands up, he slowly walked forward to a point halfway between the big rigs plow and the Marine contingent. Decclan was sure he could feel the targeting lasers on him...

The Marine Sergeant’s powered armour exo-suit was near silent, except for a faint hum from the cooling fans and the crunch of gravel beneath the steel treads as he strode up. Contrary to regs, he popped the helmet’s visor and grinned at Decclan.

“Morning, X.O. Skipper’s been looking for you. She said you might have something to do with this convoy.”
“Thought as much. That’s why I brought friends. You got a spare comm link? I seem to have... misplaced mine somewhere last night.”

The marine popped a small hatch on his suit’s exterior storage locker, or ‘utility belt’ as it was invariably known, and removed a earpiece which he tossed across to Decclan. Decclan pressed and held the activation button as the small unit read his thumb print and DNA to verify his identity and loaded his stored profile. All of which took about as long as it took Decclan to insert the unit in his ear.

“X.O. to Captain. Apologies for being late reporting for duty, Ma’am. I come bearing allies, however.”
“You had better have a damn good explanation, X.O.... and your allies look like they belong in the brig.”
“All due respect, Ma’am, I don’t think we can do that. They’re Wastelanders. I could be wrong on the legal front, but I think that means they’re a recognised sovereign stateless nation... If I’m right, that would raise a hell of a diplomatic stink back home. Besides Ma’am, we need them. They’re our civilian transport and whole lot more... and they need our help.”
“I see. Well, they look like a scrappy bunch... tell them they’re welcome, although not too close. Stick to the quarter-mile marker and they are to keep their guns pointing away from the Ex... or so help me, I will turn them into smoking grease spots on the concrete.”
“Aye-aye Ma’am... I’ll debrief in 15. Trust me. You’ll want me to grab a shower and change first.”

Decclan could swear he heard a distinctly non-military snort of suppressed laughter from her before Francis replied.
“Make it ten, and I’ll have a cold one waiting for you in my wardroom. You can brief me as you recover from your ordeal. You might also want to tell that woman I see leaning out of the cab to put some damn clothes on before I let her loose anywhere near the crew.”

Decclan glanced back behind himself and sighed.
“That, Ma’am... is a long story, and I’d have better luck sweet-talking the Admiralty into letting me walk off with the flagship.”
“Right... Well, better make it the half-mile marker then, they can park out by the water tanks over in the southwest corner. You know the way, X.O., guide them in.”
“Yes Ma’am. Thank you.”
“No, thank you, Ed. If they’re as half as tough as they look, they will come in very handy.”
“Aye Ma’am, they are that, and more.”

By the time Decclan knocked on the captain’s wardroom door it was more like thirty minutes. But in that time he’d commandeered a bulldozer from the airport motor pool and cleared a roadway from a spot by the big balloon-like collapsible water tanks, giving the Wastelanders a clear exit and reassuring them they weren’t being held prisoner by the ring of Marine guards around them.

Free access to a few thousand gallons of pure distilled water churned out by the Ex’s systems went some way to convincing them of his good intentions as well. To the Wastelanders, like many desert nomadic cultures before them, water was wealth as well as life. Sharing it was a sign of hospitality.

Decclan had neglected to mention that the super-abundance of water was produced as a by-product of the Exeter’s reactor cooling systems, condensing out of the air even in this arid climate. But since they couldn’t dump it without disturbing the desert ecosystem, it was being stored for now in what were in effect giant water balloons to prevent it evaporating off and possibly causing environmental problems elsewhere by disturbing the hydrological cycle: to wit, making it rain.

His hair was still damp from the shower, but his uniform was crisp and fresh and his cap was tucked under his arm when Francis bid him enter. With a faint quirk to his lips he noticed that there was indeed a bottle of dandelion and burdock soda on the sideboard, condensation just beginning to form on it.

“Lt Commander Decclan, reporting as ordered, Ma’am.”
“Sit down Ed, help yourself to breakfast... and maybe you can explain just what the bloody hell you’ve been up to!”
“Ahh... off the record ma’am?”
“For now, Ed, yes. While I decide how much of this I want to know about officially.”

For a few moments Ed busied himself piling up a plate from the selection provided. The navy did not believe in stinting its crews when it came to rations, and expected them to burn every last calorie in the performance of their duty. He was about halfway though his full English breakfast and on his second bottle of cold pop when he paused and glanced up the table to where his commander and friend was patiently reading the daily reports.

“In case I forget... thank you, Francis. A lot of captains would have had me in irons before I could explain.”
“I imagine you have a good reason for it all. Generally you do. But you can thank my old skipper for setting the example I try to live up to. I trust you, Ed. That’s all.”
“You know, I forget how much of the service life you missed out on coming up through the ranks so quickly. Be thankful you’ve not served under some of the skippers in service.”
“I’ve heard the horror stories, Ed, don’t think I haven’t. And I’ve met some of those selfsame captains. Including one rather memorable incident which almost ended in a drumhead trial then and there.”
“I... don’t think I’ve heard that one, Francis?”
“Another time, Ed... Now, if you’re feeling more the thing, perhaps you’d like to unofficially and very much off the record tell me just what the bloody hell you’ve been up to this time?”

Decclan took a breath, and started recounting the events, or as much as he could recollect, of last night and earlier this morning. Roughly fifteen minutes and an empty plate later, he concluded with. “...and that’s when we arrived here.”

Francis had given up reading her dailies and was leaning her elbows on the table, listening to his story with evident amusement.

“Edward, you are very definitely going to have to be somewhat selective in what you put in your report. Gods know, I should have you charged as of this minute... except I did order you to procure us transport by any means short of theft.”
“You did, and I did need to maintain good will.”
“Yesss... I’m not sure proceeding to get falling down drunk counts, but, no harm done, I suppose. Still, this does present us with something of an interesting possibility. If these Wastelanders are willing to fight...”
“I’ll say they’re willing! I thought they were all going to go roaring off into the desert and leave me stranded when they got word on their short-wave about their people being captured. When I emerged from the tent they were tearing around camp gearing up, and it was only Mack pointing out we had bigger guns than they did that got them to slow down and consider joining us in a raid. I... may have... slightly helped by suggesting you might lend them some toys...”
“Ed! You know we can’t hand out navy equipment, especially weapons.”
“I know, Francis. But what if we salted some of our own people among them? If they hit the pirates’ base in Smara, it’d provide enough of a distraction we could board either pirate vessel without even being noticed, I bet.”
“Vessels, Ed, let’s not forget that point, they have two now apparently.”
“Well, we only need one... which should we go for? The cargo lifter would probably have enough power to tow the Ex at a reasonable clip, and we could sabotage the destroyer so we’re not leaving an armed foe behind us.”
“Why settle for half a cake, Ed, when we could steal both?”
“Somehow I’m not surprised you’d think that, Francis. Your ambition will be the death of us one day.”
“Not today, though. I’m loath to leave them with even a scuttled armed dirigicraft, just on the off chance they could repair it. Plus we will need an escort vessel to make Marrakesh safely. Being under tow means only the aft decks are available to launch interceptors, cutting our offensive and defensive capabilities. And who knows what else these pirates have tucked away some place? I’d rather not find out the hard way that they have more than one warship.”

Decclan sat back in his chair and looked thoughtfully at his commanding officer and friend. She was leaning forward in her chair, almost vibrating with barely restrained energy. Her eyes seemed brighter, and there was a subtle glow to her cheeks. Francis most reminded him of a painting he’d seen in the Tate, of some old knight’s charger hearing the call to battle again.

“Very well. We’re going to need more people, though. Two cutting-out crews, combat engineers, security, a few old hands with heavy weaponry among the Wastelanders, plus a smaller force to run recon ahead of us... we’re going to leave the Ex dangerously short-handed.”

Francis smiled, and leaned back sipping at her coffee. Decclan recognised that look, like a cat who knew where the cream was and how to get it.

“And you’ve already thought this through and have an answer... don’t you?”
“Who, me? Well... I did happen to spot an eyes-only update in this morning’s communications, which you’d know about if you had been here, rather than canoodling with naked women..”
“I protest! There was no canoodling involved! Really... well, there might have been a bit, but it was strictly one-sided and I was thinking of Queen and country the whole time!”
“Uh-huh... really...”
“Seriously though, Francis... what came down the wire that’s got you looking like Inky after shore leave?”
“Just a general push to all ships in the North Africa sector. There’s a Special Air Service team in the area, exact location classified, and we and half of the NorAtlantic command between here and the Azores are notified to be ready to lend support with extraction if needed.”
“Um... not sure how that helps us, Francis? It’s not like we could go lend a hand.”
“No, but we can provide them with a secure location nearby to regroup and rest up. And oh... if we happen to be up to something on the Q.T. at the same time... maybe they’d lend us a hand.”
“Francis... are you absolutely sure you’re no relation to that Drake? Because that’s as devious as hell.”
“None that any genealogy can prove... and if you’d like to go make that suggestion to SAS command, X.O., you have my permission. I think a report on last night can wait until ship operations permit you the time to write it up, maybe include it as a footnote to a successful after-action report when we’re done.”
“Very well Ma’am... and might I ask what you’ll be doing?”
“Asking for volunteers to go play at being pirates, and then winnowing down the numbers. I thought I’d start by eliminating anyone that so much as thinks of saying ‘Arr’...”
“Well, that’s me out then..”

Francis grinned at Decclan, who experienced a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, as if the Exeter had just shed a thousand feet of altitude in a few seconds.

“Ah... Francis... you’re doing that creepy smile thing again...”
“I was just thinking, Ed... what with your ‘special relationship’ with our civilian volunteers..”
“Oh no! Francis! You couldn’t! I swear Palomia keeps licking her lips every time she looks at me, and Mack glares at me like she’d like to leave me staked out in the desert!”
“I... think that’s her natural expression, isn’t it?”
“Who knows? Besides... she scares me!”
“Tsk Ed, now is that anyway for a Royal Naval Officer to act?”
“It is if they’ve got any sense!”
“All joking aside, X.O....”
“I can do it Ma’am... we have an understanding. I don’t insult them by accident, and they don’t murder me. I think Mack sort of likes me... well, hates me less than the rest of mankind anyway.”
“Emphasis on the ‘man’ part, maybe?”
“Perhaps, Ma’am... maybe it would help if you spoke to her yourself?”
“Very well X.O.... I should anyway out of general good manners.”
“Courtesy and custom are important with this bunch, yes.”
“Anything I should know in advance?”
“Other than if they offer you something to drink, be very careful how much you have? Umm... I didn’t really get much of a chance to observe. Just put on your best poker-face at what weirdness they throw at you.”
“Duly noted, X.O.... Well, if you’re feeling more the thing, let’s be about our duties then.”

Chapter Text

When Francis arrived at the improvised campsite the Wastelanders had set up around the water tanks, Mack had a bench table set up and was field-stripping one of the big 50cal gauss guns. She hefted one of the twin magnetic projector coils single-handed despite its weight, while wielding a micro-inspection tool with the other. Not far away Palomia lounged in a tub of water, like an exotic looking mermaid and equally naked. Francis ignored the sight and stopped on the other side of the bench to Mack.

After studying the big woman carefully examining the coil’s internal windings for moment, she quietly asked, “Anything we can help with?”
“Not unless you’ve got a spare Mark IV Remington driver coil or something else that’ll fit this?”
“Don’t think that’s part of our inventory, but we do have a Master Gunner and a well stocked machine shop.”
“Tempting, but we probably don’t have the time for that.”
“I’d rather we didn’t go off half-cocked here, better take the time to make sure everything works.”

Mack carefully put the heavy coil down and looked up at the smaller, trimly uniformed woman opposite her. Francis almost backed down a half step from the sheer force of her gaze.

“You might have all the time in the world. The men being held by those scum-sucking wastes of water don’t.”

Francis nodded, and sighed.
“I understand, but it won’t help them if we cock this up either. Better if we take a little time now to get it right, rather than get ourselves killed trying.”

Mack glared at her, then snorted and chuckled like a truck changing gears.

“You’re right... ok. Tell your Master Gunner to get on it. I didn’t really want to get into a fight with a gun that’d maybe work, but would just as likely go up in a shower of sparks. Now, anything else you want? Because if I’m not fixing this bastard coil, I’m for cold beers and a hot woman!”

Mack leered over in Palomia’s direction, who smiled at her. Francis kept her gaze firmly on Mack’s oil-smudged face and nodded slightly.

“We need to discuss the extent of our cooperation and plans for the raid.”
“Thought I covered that with your man? You lend us some guns, in exchange we kick up enough of a ruckus to cover what you’re doing. End of story, right?”
“Not... quite... Navy regs don’t allow me to just hand over heavy weaponry to civilians.”
“Screw the rules.”
“Easy for you to say. It’s my head on the block.”
“Well then screw you if you’re not helping!”
“I didn’t say we wouldn’t help, just we can’t give you guns. What I can do is send along a platoon of Marines in combat suits, who’ll be carrying said guns... and using them assisting you.”

Mack glanced over towards the three-man team guarding the perimeter, who in their exo-armour resembled monstrous bipedal mechs more then men. Each one carried with ease a rifle as massive as the turret-mounted .50-cal magnetic-propelled projectile weapon, or ‘gauss gun’.

“Huh... well, I can’t say they wouldn’t be welcome. Although those boys scream ‘Navy’ and I’m sure the pirates will be wondering where they came from.”
“True enough. I was hoping you might help... ah... customise their appearance somewhat. Make them blend in with your people a little.”

Mack looked sceptically at the armoured suits, and then back at her.
“That’s going to be hard to do. Why are you concerned about anyone knowing who you’re helping anyway, or are you ashamed to be seen with us?”

Francis hastily shook her head.
“No, not that. It’s... well, complicated...”

Mack sighed, and wiped her hands on a rag.
“Ok, Captain, I think you’d best explain this to me if we’re going to be working together. Oy! Palomia, haul that sweet ass of yours out of the water and get us a couple of beers please.”
“I hear and obey, oh mistress mine.”
“Knock it off girl! No need for the act with this one, you couldn’t shock her if you tried.”
“Bet I could...”
“Palomia... Don’t. Forgive her, Captain, she was raised by ferals and loves to tease.”

Francis glanced at the exotic looking girl as she lithely stepped across the hot sands, water sparkling on her naked golden skin.

“I’m sure she does. But my heart belongs to another... and her name is Exeter.”

Mack laughed seismically, shaking her head.
“You hear that, my love? Your charms mean nothing to the Captain here.”

Palomia smiled as she handed Mack and Francis a bottle each.
“Then I will not tease you, Captain. I know better than to get in the way of true love.”

As Mack led Francis over to a pair of ancient lawn chairs in the shade, Francis reflected that perhaps it wasn’t stretching the truth, really, to say the Exeter was her true love. Certainly, it had felt like falling in love at first sight that day when she’d first seen her new command floating so proud above Plymouth’s docks. From where she sat she could look at the Exeter, and she couldn’t help but think that there wasn’t much she wouldn’t do for the sake of her ship and crew.

Francis sighed after taking a sip of her beer, just enough to be hospitable because she was on duty still, and wondered how to explain. Mack startled her though, by saying “So, this all about your ship, isn’t it?”

Francis glanced sideways at the muscular woman in surprise, wondering what had given her away. Mack grinned at her surprised look, and raised her own beer in a toast.

“To the things we love, and the things we do for them. I know that look you were just giving your ship.”

Francis glanced between Mack and the huge truck alongside them, then raised her own bottle in salute, looking at Mack.

“I suppose it’s foolish. But you’re not wrong, this is all about the Ex. My problem is, I have enemies back home. They’re trying to force me to scuttle her, and my career besides, then run for home with my crew. I’m told the situation here is too ‘politically delicate’ to send in another Navy vessel to tow her to safety.”

“Ok, that sucks... So what’s your plan then?”

“Ideally, we steal the pirates’ ships and tow her to safety ourselves.”

“I like. Especially the part about stealing their ships. What’s the need for subterfuge though? I mean, you don’t actually need us, do you. You’ve got enough firepower there to level a small city, without even using your main guns. So no tinpot wannabe pirates with their rusty old dirig’ is going to be much of a problem for your boys.”

Francis pulled a wry face. Mack wasn’t far off the truth, even if you didn’t count their inventory of cruise missiles, and more importantly, their warheads. True, they no longer carried fission nukes, but even a 250kg conventional warhead left a sizeable hole in the map, let alone an 8th generation variable yield clean fusion bomb. Which Francis had the triggers for three of in her safe. No, fire-power wasn’t the issue here.

“Succinctly: politics. I’ve managed to tentatively get both of the official parties to agree that the raiders are pirates, rather than legitimate rebels. But that could change in a moment. If I use too much force, too obviously, then Algeria— who back the official rebels— will think the Britannic Navy is acting on orders and getting involved in local politics. They’ll howl at Whitehall, who’ll have words with Admiralty House... and before you know it I’m cashiered and the Exeter is on her way to the breakers yard even if I manage to get her home.”

“They’d scrap a perfectly good ship, just to punish you?!”

“Well no... but the Exeter is thirty years old and her continued service is contingent upon this retrofit design working out. Personal enmities aside, there are those in the upper ranks of the service that want to see their pet medium-carrier project brought forward. Which Navy planning won’t do while the Exeter and the rest of her class are still fulfilling the role adequately.”

“Why do I have this feeling that you being stuck out here isn’t an accident, then?”

Francis glanced at Mack, wondering how much to tell. Inwardly she shrugged. It didn’t really matter if she knew, and she did need the big woman’s help.

“It would be near impossible to prove anything, but yes. Someone made sure the wrong parts were fitted, and that’s what broke stranding us here without main power and no replacement parts to be had. So long as their sabotage wasn’t discovered it would’ve looked like the design was flawed. Getting me drummed out of the service would’ve been a nice bonus for them too... if my Chief Engineer hadn’t discovered that what went wrong wasn’t a design flaw.”

“So, you caught it, and now if you go home they have to discredit you in order to cover it up?”

“Yes, and I’ve a pretty good idea who’s responsible as well. But I can’t do a damn thing about it without proof, which is sitting right over there inside the Ex’s reactor cores... and even then I couldn’t prove it was deliberate and not just a cockup in the paperwork.”

Mack nodded, more to herself than Francis.
“Ok, sounds like you’ve a hard road to travel. But we’ll help. We’ll dirty up those spit-shine boys and make them blend in as much as they can, and do what we can to keep the pirates looking the other way while you steal their toys. I hate petty bullshit like that, it’s one of the reasons I’m out here, so I’ll be damned if I’ll let it fuck you over as well.”

“Thanks Mack. It’s appreciated. I’ll do what I can to help your people out too.”

“Aw, it’s ok. We’re used to kicking bandit ass, and taking away the pirates’ big guns levels the playing field again. We’ll handle them just fine afterwards. Just promise me once we’re done, you’ll go kick the ass of the pencil-dicked desk jockey who screwed over your gal there. She’s a fine looking ship and deserves better than being done in by politics.”

Francis raised her beer bottle in acknowledgement and then nodded at the hulking truck and Palomia.
“I’ll make sure both your girls get the best protection too.”

Mack laughed and raised her own bottle.
“Appreciated, although Palomia has mad ninja skills and you’ve seen some of what Rosie’s packing, so you know my gals can look after themselves in a fight.”

Francis raised an eyebrow. “Rosie?”

Mack grinned at her. “Yeah, Rosie the Riveted... because she can do it!”

Francis groaned, though grinning still.
“Ok, on that note, I’ll get back to my work. Declaan will take care of the fine details of the raid, once we know who’s volunteering. Try not to break my X.O., please...”

Mack said nothing, but her grin and sidelong look at Palomia spoke volumes.

 

Francis was taking a break from talking to volunteers for the raid, when she noticed a short figure in undress blues approaching across the air-conditioned space of the converted hangar. It took Francis a moment to recognise her as Ixchel. The young girl looked different after a decent shower and clean clothes. Her black hair looked more a very dark brown with hints of reddish highlights under the hangars lights.

“Yat-ta hai-tah Ixchel.”

“Yatta hai’ta! Greetings to you too, Captain! I did not know you knew our language?!”

“I don’t, I’m still learning. That is literally almost all I can say in it, so far anyway. So, what can I do for you?”

“I... I wish to volunteer.”

Francis rocked back slightly on her heels, surprised.
“I would have thought you and your family have had enough excitement for now!”

Ixchel lifted her chin slightly before answering, her mouth set in a stubborn line.
“You and your crew risked much because of us, of me. There is a debt that lies between us, which I will repay.”

Francis bit down on the urge to laugh. Ixchel barely came up to her collar, and yet her face was set in fierce determination, her brow furrowed in a scowl that would’ve not looked out of place on some Aztec priest, which contrasted sharply with her broad ruddy cheeks and dark brown eyes that danced with gold specks. Francis shook her head. Ixchel wasn’t even old enough to be a midshipman, much less the sort of old hand she wanted for a raid like this.

“I’m sorry, Ixchel, there’s three good reasons why you can’t go on this mission. Firstly, you’d stand out like a sore thumb, secondly you’re a civilian with no training, and thirdly, you don’t owe us anything.”

“But... you saved me, my family... We owe you our lives!”

“It was our job, and our duty. I literally am not allowed to accept repayment for that, nor would I want to. That includes you volunteering.”

“I would be useful to you... I... I have gifts.”

“I guessed as much, but gifted or not. No. Besides, how much skill do you have using your gift? Honest truth now.”

“Um... not as much as I would wish...”

“Uh-huh, and even if you did, there is no way we could disguise you, which is necessary for this mission.”

Ixchel’s shoulders sagged, some of the fire going out of her.
“I just wanted to repay you, to show that we were thankful.”

“I know, and believe me, that gratitude is repayment enough. Just... Look, it’s our duty to protect civilians like you and your family. That’s why the Navy exists in the first place. It would be a dereliction of my duty if I allowed you to put yourself in harm’s way alongside us. Now, do you see?”

“Yes, Captain Francis Ma’am... but... back home it is the duty of those who are gifted by the gods with power like mine, to protect their people. That doesn’t just mean my family, but those that are our friends too. And you and your crew have made yourselves our friends.”

Francis paused, considering what Ixchel had said. Francis knew full well how determined Chel was, which was no less so than she herself had been at Chel’s age, when she decided it was her duty to join the Navy, and so she knew simply saying no wouldn’t work. She had to give a good counter-reason and a goal. Redirect, not block, as her mother used to say.

“Alright, I understand, believe me. But your lack of skill would make you a liability now. Your presence on the mission would be the opposite of helping, you see. However, give it time. There will be other opportunities, once you’ve learnt how to control your gift. I’d also like you to consider the fact that rescuing your family is something that any serving officer would have done. I’m no different than any of my fellow officers, because we all adhere to the standards set by the Navy for us. So if you still feel you owe me a debt of gratitude for it, then you owe it to the Navy, King and Country for making me who I am.”

Ixchel’s eyes went wide, and then narrowed as she slowly nodded thoughtfully.
“I... had not thought like that. But you are right. I will think about it. But you’re busy, so I’ll leave you alone now.”

“Ok, but if you need to talk with me again, please do. While you’re aboard you and your family are just as much my responsibility as my crew, and I make a point of being available to them... as much as possible anyway. I know it’s not easy shouldering the responsibilities of leadership at any age, much less your age, and I’d like to help if you need it.”

“Thank you, again, Captain Francis Ma’am.”
“Call me Francis, please. Crew call me Captain or Ma’am.”
“Francis then, please call me Chel.”
“Ok. My accent is that bad?”
“What? No... oh I see, you are teasing me. No, it is... well, not bad.”
“I see... well, after this mission then perhaps you can help me with language lessons.”
“But, why? You do not need to know our language surely?”

“Well, I didn’t think I’d need it before either, and look how that worked out. Besides, then I’ll have some idea if Incus is swearing at me. I’m sure he keeps learning ever more obscure languages just so he can.”

Chel giggled at the notion and nodded at Francis, her cheeks dimpling with a smile that was broad enough to encompass her whole being.
“Ok, then. I will help you learn when you return. So then you will know what dreadful things the Cat of Thunder is saying!”

Francis smiled, and on impulse rested a hand briefly on Chel’s shoulder.
“Thank you, Chel. For understanding. Now... how do you say ‘until later’ in your language?”
“We say ‘Munha’taita’ which means, until next we speak”
“Mun-hai-tah-ita then!”
“Close. So, as you say, Cheerio?”
Francis laughed. “Closer!”

Ixchel laughed and left with a wave. As Francis watched her disappearing among the improvised partitions that divided up the floor space reserved for crew ‘quarters’ she wondered where Ixchel’s resolve to repay this ‘debt’ would take her. 'Gods know, perhaps in few years I’ll be seeing her in a passing-out parade at Dartmouth college', she mused to herself.

Then and there, Francis made a silent promise to herself that if that was the young girl’s wish, she’d sponsor her application herself, assuming she hadn’t been drummed out of the service by then. 'And may the gods take pity on the poor fools in Admiralty House if she makes captain!'

Chapter Text

Francis squirmed, trying to find a slightly less uncomfortable position against the sun-blackened pile of shale she was crouched against. Above her the stars glittered hard, merciless and cold, out of the deep night sky. The sun had set hours ago, and the only warmth came from the ancient weathered rocks underneath and behind her.

Across the open desert shone the warmer, yellow lights of Smara, but between her and the town lay a flat plain marked by the harsh white lights of the airfield. Above the airfield the dark bulk of the pirate dirigible hung like a gunmetal-grey steel cloud.

Francis sighed... the plan had seemed simple when they’d arrived in the crumbling piles of stone that were the high-ground to the west of Smara, out beyond the airfield at the edge of the town.

They’d had some idea of the layout prior to arriving, thanks to previous trading trips by Mack and the other Wastelanders. Francis had called an early halt to the long, dusty and uneventful journey that had taken most of the day, stopping at sunset just prior to the road’s curve around the broken hills before entering the city from the north west.

She’d divided their forces. Taking the cutting out crews, mounted mostly on small four-wheeler ATV’s, across country, they’d circled round the high ground to the west of Smara, using the stubby hills as cover. The Wastelanders with the heavy armoured exo-suits in Mack’s truck, took a spur road east and started to circle around the continuation of the weathered hills to the north of Smara. This would eventually lead to them coming at the city along the north-east road, putting them more or less at the 2 o’clock position relative to the centre of town, with Francis at the 9 o’clock.

Francis didn’t think any of the pirates would guard against someone coming at them across the open plain under the guns of the armed craft, and if anything once the distraction started, they would instinctively watch their six, off to Francis’ right.

Francis sighed, and carefully moved a rock from underneath herself, shooing off a small yellow scorpion that seemed inclined to object to having its home disturbed. Closing her eyes she reviewed what she’d seen in the slanting rays of the sunset when they’d first crested the hills.

The armed dirigible was old, but still sleek and deadly. With some incredulity she’d identified the dirigible as a Fliegen-Schloss class heavy-cruiser. The design had been first built in 1939, and discontinued after the second world war. As far as she knew, the only other intact craft of this sort was in a museum outside of Berlin, and that was no longer flight worthy.

Although, she did have some doubts as to this one’s flight worthiness too. The hull was patched and sand-blasted down to bare metal in places, with only traces of the original paintwork remaining. The craft originally had four dorsal turrets in staggered & stacked pairs, with each turret containing twin sixteen-inch projectile guns. However, the lower turret of each pair had been gutted, and the cordite burning projectile cannons had been replaced with what looked to be Soviet Russian made plasma lances in the fore-most turret and similar vintage anti-missile lasers in the aft-most.

The pirates had also tacked on a number of mismatched missile pods to the cruiser’s keel, as well as two ball turrets on the mid-line of either side, each containing what looked like quad .50 calibre gauss guns of indeterminate age and manufacture. Francis shuddered to think what the changes did to the venerable ship’s handling, but they made a kind of sense in terms of suppressing fire at ground targets.

The wrinkle in her plans had come when she’d located the second craft. They’d expected the unarmed cargo lifter to be somewhere close by the armed vessel. Instead, it was moored in the centre of the town near the flat-topped stylised mushroom shape of Smara’s municipal water tower. It looked for all the world like a bloated tick feeding on it’s victim.

At first Francis couldn’t work out why there, but as she watched through her binoculars a flat bed truck had driven up the broad boulevard until it was under the fat tail of the lifter. A cargo platform had dropped on cables invisible through the shimmering sunset heat haze, and tiny ant-like figures had started shifting crates from the truck to the platform.

Francis had sat down behind the crumbling wall of the hill-top ruin her small force was hiding in, and breathed deliberately in and out for a moment until her rage settled into something cooler and far more deadly. The pirates were systematically looting the town, and had moored their craft for easy access. Evidently convenience in moving their loot over-ruled safety for the pirates.

She didn’t want to imagine the scenes being repeated again and again across town, as the pirates turned up and started removing everything of value. She didn’t want to imagine what would happen to anyone that resisted, or even just caught the eye of one of them.

She knew what was happening across the sun blasted expanse of shale and sand all too well. It was the same thing she’d seen in the islands of the south China sea, and in Somalia.

But she had to wait...

Given the cramped conditions usually found aboard armed dirigi’s, the common practice when in port for any length of time was to decamp to barracks ashore. However, the pirates were clearly not using the actual local guard barracks near the stadium, judging by the blasted and burnt state of it’s many domed roofs.

Francis had reasoned they had to be housed somewhere equidistant between the cruiser and the cargo lifter. But the question was where? They could be spread out in the maze of narrow streets, in the low, flat roofed, dun coloured houses that spread out either side of and between the grid of broad roads imposed by the colonial French over a century ago. And that would mean in that case that the cutting out crew intended for the cargo vessel would have to walk though them.

Which was something she wanted to avoid.

Francis had had no choice; she needed more information. So, reluctantly, she’d turned to the one person who could stroll around town with impunity. Incus, being a cat, and thus protected under Islamic law and tradition, could go anywhere. A fact he’d pointed out when he’d met her in her cabin earlier and volunteered for the mission.

Francis had initially refused his offer... after all, aside from his natural weapons he’d have to be unarmed when he walked into the pirates’ den. But Incus had argued with her, and in the end she gave way to his logic... plus the threat of him peeing in her shoes when she least expected it. [Which he been only half joking about, she suspected. He was a cat after all.]

So now she sat in the deep of the night, trying to ignore the many small fires burning unchecked in town. With the barest twitch of a flinch at the occasional crack of gunfire that echoed through the night air, she waited for one lone black cat to make his way back to her.

Francis consoled herself that Incus’ colour and general outline defying fluffiness made him nearly impossible to see in the dark. Which was just as well as there was an indifferently manned picket line of guards between the airfield, with the heavy cruiser, and the town itself. That fact Francis took to mean that the pirates weren’t getting away with their pillage and rapine completely unresisted. Someone in town was still putting up a fight, and hopefully, could be counted upon to seize the opportunity to raise even more hell once their attack began.

Like a wraith summoned out of the night by her thoughts, Incus silently jumped down from the ruined wall above her, startling Francis.

“Bloody Hell Incus! You’re going to get yourself killed doing that one day, if the shock doesn’t get me first.”

Incus sat and commenced cleaning his paw without comment.

“Well...?”

“They ‘ave ssome verry tasty chicken.”

Francis sighed... this was going to be one of those conversations. She didn’t like to pull rank on him, cats being notoriously difficult about authority and Incus was no exception, but sometimes he needed to be reminded that she was the captain now.

“Lieutenant, I expect a proper report on your scouting mission. Not, ‘they have tasty chicken’!”

Incus huffed, and wrapping his tail neatly around his paws turned his lambent green eyes up to her.

“Verry ‘ell, if we’re ‘eing forrmaal... Lieu’enant Incus rreporting Ma’am.”
“Better... did you ascertain the location of the bulk of the enemy forces?”
“I t’ink sso Ma’am... they’re in the ol’ mosque at the centrre of ‘own.”
“Good. Well done.”
“There is a com’lication. They ‘ave prissonerrs there. Ssome women, a few men and a room full of chil’ren. All in rooms below grroun’. Only way in frrom outsi’e is a narrow win’ow too ssmall for me, or thrrough mosque.”
“Damn! That makes it a priority target. We can’t leave them in their hands. Declaan will have to rescue them.”
“Would ‘ave to anyway. The men are Wastelan’ers. Hear them talking. They think they’rre bait in a trap.”
“If it hadn’t been for us, they probably would be. Very well, anything nasty waiting for us down there?”
“Noo... not as ba’ as you expected. Most of the pirates arre in the mosque. Little looting, ssome townsfolk killed. Looks like their comman’er ‘idn’t want to loose more men, so they pulled back to the mosque, an’ left the town to it’s people.”
“Hmm, smart. That place is a maze of back alleyways and flat roofs, all with sniper positions once you get off the main streets. Anything else?”
“They’re lo’ing the jet fuel into the cruiser...”
“Odd. Fliegen-Schloss class Zeppelins were diesel-electrics.”
“Not now it’s not. Ex’aust vents on the ssides ssmell of burrnt jet fuel.”
“Blast, that’ll complicate refuelling. Evidently they’ve modified the old gal beyond tacking on new weapons. I wonder what that does to it’s performance?”

Incus refrained from answering, recognising her rhetorical musing as a sign of her thinking out-loud.

After a half seconds thought, staring thoughtfully up into the air, Francis glanced back down at Incus. “Did you get a chance to see what they were loading onto the cargo lifter?”

“Yess... mostly boxes of ol’ paper, books not money. Smell musty, an’ slightly of chemicals. Some boxes of money an’ jewellery I t’ink. Strong blood smell on those. Lifter has locked room with humans in it, women. Hold smells of guns though, new ones. T’ink that was previous cargo.”

Francis frowned.
“Books? Odd kind of loot for pirates... Hmm... Well I seem to remember my father saying Smara has one of the largest collections of pre-islamic literature outside of Egypt. I suppose that would be worth quite a bit to the right collector. I guess they’re stealing to order, in exchange for the guns. Damn their eyes though, that’ll mean the books will disappear, sold on the black market and never to be seen again. The rest is probably just bonus loot for them. Odds are the women are meant either for personal use by the crew, or to be sold into slavery. Not much we can do for them immediately, so we’ll set them free once we’re safely back at the Exeter and see if their families can be located.”

Incus started cleaning his claws again, a subtle threat in feline body language. Francis rather felt like doing the same herself, actually. She wasn’t sure which made her blood boil the most however, the casual destruction and looting of a priceless collection of cultural heritage or the prospective fate of the women treated as objects. She knew which way her father would lean though, but he was head conservator at the Bodlian Library.

With a slight shake of her head, Francis cleared her thoughts of unproductive anger. Tapping the ear piece, she called her Executive Officer, Declaan. Confident that the navy issue quantum encrypted radio would be undetectable against the natural background.

“Captain to X.O.”
“X.O. Incus returned then?”
“That he has, X.O... The pirates are quartered in the central mosque, along with the captives in the cellars underneath it. No intel on the inside, worst luck. There are also civilians in the cargo lifter, which is by the central water tower.”

“Damn, that complicates matters Ma’am. That makes three primary targets not two.”

“Not a totally unexpected complication, X.O. Alpha and Bravo teams have the same objectives as before. Our allies serve as more than a distraction now. Their objective is the mosque where they can both soak up enemy forces and liberate their people. We just need to get our timing right.”

“Getting Bravo team into position to rush the lifter is going to be tricky, Ma’am, I suggest we make use of the pirates routine, if we can liberate a truck. Also, if there isn’t a sniper nest already on top of the water tower, we should set one up to cover Bravo on approach.”

“Excellent suggestion, X.O, do that. Alpha and Bravo teams will hold under cover near their targets until the Wastelanders light up the mosque. Tell them to make it fast and furious once they start their run. We don’t want the pirates to kill the captives.”

“Won’t be a problem, Ma’am. Mack says Palomia will go in ahead of their assault and secure the captives in place. Something about ‘mad ninja skills’... Ma’am.”

“Understood. I almost feel sorry for the poor bastards caught between those two. Okay, lets be about business X.O. Signal when you reach your hold point, three pips. Radio silence until then.”

“Roger wilco Ma’am. Best of luck.”

Francis turned from where she’d been staring out across the dark desert, and found a pair of lambent green eyes regarding her unblinkingly from the depths of the shadows.

“I’m ‘oing too.”

“Incus...”

“You need me on the ‘ridge of the cruiserr, in case they think to firre on Mack’s team. End of ‘cussion.”

“Dammit Incus!”

“Would you hess’tate to orderr any one elsse to ‘oo this? Am I a sserving officerr orr jusst a pet!?”

Incus spat out the hated word ‘pet’ at the end of his sibilant sentence, making it as much a challenge as it was an insult in feline terms. Shocked, Francis stopped and thought. He had a point, as much as she might want to protect him, she had no right to order him to stay behind safely out of the way. For much the same reason that the Royal Navy, unlike other military organisations, did not prevent their senior officers from leading from the front. They’d all signed up for this life, and the risks involved. To protect one’s self, or another, above all others was a dangerously divisive and demoralising sort of favouritism, injurious to both crew and the person being protected.

“No Incus. You’re not a pet. You are my oldest and best friend, and dammit, I hate this... but you’re right. We can’t chance the pirates bringing their big guns into play, and you’re the logical choice to get in there ahead of us. But I want you in full combat rig, no sense chancing fate.”

Incus came forward from where he was sitting in the shadows, and rubbed his head against her legs.

“I know. In trruth, I want to ‘ee at yourr sside, watching your ssix insstead, ‘ut we have our ‘uty, yesss?”

Francis sighed, and lent forward to touch her forehead against his.

“Sometimes Incus, I think you’d make the better Captain.”

“Trru’... ‘ut my paws can’t rreach the controls. Have to ssettle for making you the ‘etter captain instead.”

Francis chuckled, partly because Incus wasn’t exaggerating all that much. She was much his protégée as he was hers. She might have taught him military discipline, but Incus had shown the lonely, awkwardly non-social junior lieutenant she’d been, how to be human and the kind of leader others would want to follow.

“Alright Lieutenant, gear up. We move out in ten. Take care, please Incus.”

“Youu too Frranciss...”

The run, or rather, short runs and lots of slowly creeping or freezing in place, across the open desert between the low hills and the airport had been nerve wrecking. But eventually her team was deployed behind cover in a loose semi-circle at the edge of the patrolled area. One advantage to the terrain, and the one she’d relied upon, was the desert here wasn’t just sand. Beyond the perimeter of the airfield, it was rocky, with small bushes and lager accumulations or piles of stones forming man height heaps scattered randomly across the area.

The lights of the airfield lit up the area like day, but turned anything beyond that into an eye confusing maze of shadows. Even infra-red would be confused by the piles of stones re-radiating the days warmth.

Francis held her breath as she watched Incus’ small black shape slip across the well-lit airfield ahead of her force. He made no attempt to disguise himself, his combat gear lost among the fur for the most part. She didn’t think the risk of some bored pirate taking a pop-shot at him was very high, but it was a possibility.

Francis didn’t breathe again until Incus disappeared into the shadow cast by the bulk of cruiser. In a way, getting aboard, was more of risk than being aboard. On the one hand, at close quarters Incus wouldn’t pass for an ordinary cat. But on the other, he had an entire ship’s worth of ducting to hide in, plus anyone attacking him now would be close enough he could reach them also.

Francis was beginning to think of breaking radio silence and calling Incus when her comms unit pulsed with a silent vibration twice in quick succession, making her ear tingle. She let go of a breath she hadn’t even realised she’d been holding, in a quiet huff. Incus had secured the bridge.

Francis keyed her comms unit, tapping it in three pairs in quick succession to send the ‘in position’ signal to Decclan. Almost on the tail of that, she received three double taps back, causing her to smile. She hadn’t been competing with her X.O to see who could get into position first... not seriously anyway. But he owed her a drink afterwards, and really, there was nothing wrong with a good natured bet or two between friends.

Then all that was left to do was wait. Wait until the action started, wait to see who would live and who would die. Wait with nerves screaming and muscles quivering in tension, while the mind was filled with a paradoxical calm and preternatural clarity that allowed her to observe every detail of what could be her last moments, to savour the cool air, perfumed with the dusty dry spice of desert sands, and the fruity tang of aviation fuel, to feel the polished smoothness of the rock spire she hugged, and realise with wonder that it had been shaped and sculpted by the tiny grains of sand carried by the winds for thousands of years, and likely would be so for thousands more before it was worn down. And in all that vast span, this moment, this one singular moment, she and everything else was just another speck of wind-blown grit.

Then the silence was torn apart by the steel throated bellow of an over-powered air horn, and the bandsaw-through-sheet-metal sound of rapid fire gauss-guns. The sky-line was thrown in actinic edged relief by an explosion, and Francis found herself running forward with her team alongside her, and there were no more moments.

Chapter Text

Francis, along with her team, silently ran towards the pirates’ airship, her faithful personal armsman Lt. Sher Gurunang shadowing her no more than a pace behind. Just as they reached the edge of the area lit by the dirigible’s flood lights, she shrugged off her Navy issue camouflage poncho.

This was the tricky part, that uncertain few minutes where they were no longer disguised by the poncho’s adaptive camo-cloth, and were relying on their ‘pirate outfits’ cobbled together from local supplies and based on the descriptions of refugees who had fled from the pirates.

There was a single guardman standing at the base of the pylon. He was staring off in the direction of the town as Francis and her cutting out crew came up behind him. Ensign Daniels, their fastest runner, was taking point, with the next two fastest runners close behind. As Daniels came up behind the man, he must have made some slight noise because the man started to turn, bringing his junky, battered looking beam rifle down to bear.

Daniels came in close, and swiftly, silently, opened the man’s carotid artery with his combat knife. The man grabbed at his neck, softly gurgling his last breath, his life-blood spurting out onto the dusty ground. Daniels caught the beam rifle as the guard dropped to his knees, and then swept the man’s peaked cap off his head as the pirate collapsed forwards and died face down in the sand.

The next two of the point team were a pace or two behind Daniels and without really breaking stride, scooped the body off the ground and heaved it into the shadow cast by the pylon. Daniels took the dead guard’s position, shouldered his rifle and pulled the man’s hat down so the brim’s shadow obscured his face.

From the top of the pylon came a shout, as the deceased guard’s counterpart called down.

“Madha kan hudha?” (What was that?)

Daniels stepped forward slightly into view from above, as the other two of the three man point team flattened themselves out of sight against the base of the pylon.

“kan ealayh shay'a, alththaealub ealaa ma 'aetaqid.” (It was nothing, a fox I think.)

Daniels waved a hand and the upper guard retreated out of sight. Stepping back into the shadow cast by the pylon, Daniels waved the rest of the cutting out crew onwards, out of the desert.

Francis slowed as she passed Daniels, the rest of the crew streaming silently past her.
“Well, done, Daniels. Quick thinking.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. I’m enough like the fellow that with your permission, I’ll grab his jacket and and stay on guard here just in case, Ma’am.”

“Granted. Don’t be a hero though. You know the drill.”

“Yes Ma’am. If it looks like my cover’s compromised, I’m to make like a hare.”

“Carry on then Daniels.”
“Aye-aye Ma’am. Good luck.”

By the time Francis and Lt. Sher Gurunang reached the top of the pylon, there was no sign of the upper guard. One of the cutting out crew was there instead. He had an AK-47 with a beadwork sling over one shoulder, and a cap that matched the one Daniels had appropriated. Francis paused momentarily at the hatch into the heavy cruiser itself; the name ‘Schloss Wolfenberg’ was just legible still, painted above the hatch. Castle Wolf Mountain, Francis silently translated, wondering at the craft’s history and how it came to be here.

Inside the hatch her five person bridge team was waiting. The rest of the cutting out crew had divided. Two engineers and three guards to the power room, a gunner and four guards to the fire control compartment and then to sweep the turrets, which were unlikely to be manned, but it paid to be careful. And the rest of the crew to sweep the ship, rounding up and neutralising the pirates aboard.

Without a word Francis headed forward, her team around her. They encountered no one as they headed up the axial ‘spine’ companion way. There were a few signs that the sweep teams had already passed this way, securing a clear corridor for her. A lone discarded hat and a few spots of blood on the deck plating was all there was to show for the pirate crew, until they got to the armoured bulkhead door that lead to the bridge.

The hatch was ajar, and Francis could see a man’s hand hanging out over the sill. It was still dripping blood onto the deck.

Stepping over the corpse, Francis could see what fate had befallen the skeleton bridge crew left on watch by the pirates.

Of the three-man crew, one was dead, bled out from a single slash to the neck that had opened his jugular. One was curled up in a ball, wedged in the corner between the chart table and the maps locker. He was moaning softly, his face in his hands and blood seeping out between his fingers.

The third man, and what had probably been the watch officer, was lying face down on the deck, spread eagled in a pool of his own urine and very still. Incus sat on his back, licking the blood off his gleaming steel claw sheaths. The man shifted slightly at the sound of boots on deck plating, and Incus stopped long enough to growl, a low menacing sound that spoke directly to the simian hind-brain, of teeth in the darkness of primal forests and sudden, unseen death. The man froze, whimpering.

“I see you took it upon yourself to secure the bridge, Lieutenant.”

Francis’ tone was as dry as the ground outside. Unrepentant, Incus squinted his eyes slightly at her, in the cat equivalent of a smile.

“You were tak’ing too loong. And this wass the ‘uickesst wayy to ssecure gunss.”

“Well, one cannot argue with results. Well done, Incus. Security, two of you escort the deck officer to the brig and the injured man to the medical bay. Mr. Ortega, let us see what we have, shall we?”

The dapper young man sat himself at the engineer’s station and started checking the old style analogue gauges and dials. After a brief scan of the control board, he looked up.

“Ma’am, we’ve full tanks and the capacitor bank is fully charged. She’s got neutral buoyancy at 34 tons and the helium reserves are at ¾ of max, which at her posted rate of loss should be good for 128 hours. Or at least, so the log says.”

“Log, Mr. Ortega?”

“More of a post-it note on the control board Ma’am.”

Francis nodded, as she’d been distracted by the chart table. The map laid out was for the border with Algeria, and there was a plotted course leading to what looked like a small oasis in the middle of nowhere. Francis shook her head and tapped her comms unit.

“Power team, report.”
“Power room secure, Ma’am. The Chief is promising murder to whomever butchered the generators down here, but he says he can get her up and running whenever you need to.”
“Acknowledged, Power Room. Security team, report.”
“All clear, Ma’am. Gun turrets checked and secured. Flushed a few pirates, but they’re in their own brig now. The ship’s ours...”
“Captain to all hands. Good work people. Stay sharp now.”

Francis paused and considered. There had only been the barest minimum crew aboard. True, the pirates probably were relying on their picket between the town and the airfield to keep trouble away, but still. It did imply the bulk of the crew was elsewhere.

Tapping the comms unit again, she broke radio silence.

“Captain to X.O. Report.”
“Sorry Ma’am. Bit busy right now.”
“Do you require assistance?”
“Umm.. no.. ma’am. Best you didn’t come here.”
“Declaan, just what is going on?”
“Ma’am... it’s messy. The pirates have a room full of women and girls, and it looks like they’ve been... well, it’s bad.”
“Declaan... pull back. You’ve a couple of female marines in your team?”
“Yes Ma’am.”
“Ok, everyone else fall back out of sight of the room, use them to bring the women necessary supplies. Then leave them there, guarding the door.”
“Aye-aye, ma’am.”
“What about the pirate crew?”
“They resisted arrest. Ma’am.”
“I... see... any survivors?”
“Oh, no casualties. It might be bit before any of them feel like talking much though. They had some sort of tripod mounted infra-sonic weapon set up on the rear cargo hatch. When they looked like they were going to dig in, we turned it around and let them have a dose of their own medicine. They’ll stop puking their guts up fairly soon, and the uncontrollable shits will stop at the same time as the vertigo. Doc says it hit them hard because it was a confined space. Meantime, I’ve secured them in a cargo container, Ma’am. We can always use a pressure hose on it and them afterwards. Or you know, just leave it out in the sun for a bit and let nature do the job.”
“Lt. Cmdr. Declaan, you can be creatively evil at times.”
“Yes Ma’am. Thank you, Ma’am.”
“Carry on, X.O.”

Francis paused. So, the main force of the pirates wasn’t with either ship, which left only the barracks. Which was idiotic because any attacking force could then cut them off from retreat. Francis entertained the notion that it was ruse, and the real force was somewhere waiting to spring a nasty surprise on her. Then she tapped the comms unit again.

“Captain Drake to Mack, report your situation please.”
“Balls deep in a hornet nest, can’t talk now, too busy.”

Francis blinked... okay, it was probably safe to assume the pirates were idiots after all, and had indeed left their main force in the barracks. On the other hand, it sounded like Mack could do with some back-up.

“Mr. Ortega, signal power room to spin her generators up, and stand-by to make way.”
“Aye-aye, Ma’am.”
“Drake to all security personnel, cast off lines and secure the ship. Gun captain to the fire control, and prep for action.”
“Power room reports ready to make way, Ma’am.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ortega. All hands, stand-by for action.”
“Fire control, Ma’am, guns are loaded and cleared for action.”

Francis crossed to helm control, and took the master yoke in hand, sweeping her gaze around her bridge crew. Mr. Ortega manning the engineers position controlling ballast, next to Lt. Estelle on navigation, with Incus keeping watch on radar and Ensign Young, one of the security team, on damage control. Finally Lt. Sher Gurunang was standing alertly by the bridge hatch.

“Alright people, we’ll take this nice and easy. This isn’t the Exeter, there’s no computer to prevent a mistake here and we’ve no idea what shape this old girl’s airframe is in. Stand by for ascent, upward pitch 15 degrees.”
“Aye-aye Ma’am, positive 15.”
“Mr. Ortega, keep an eye on the balance, remember you’ll need to control her manually. Shift balance aft 15.”
“Aye Ma’am, pumping ballast from forward to aft tanks. Nose is coming up, 10, 12, 14, 15... Ceasing pumping. Nose upward angle confirmed 15.”

Francis nodded, automatically checked the engine position, only to remember that a ship of this vintage didn’t have swivel mounted engine pods, but used fixed mounts and thrust deflector planes. Chagrined, she adjusted the plane angle to negative 15 degrees, and eased the master throttle forward to ¼ full. Under her feet the deck plating vibrated as the Wolfenberg began to silently float forwards and up, clearing the mooring pylon, and then curving around as Francis brought the helm over.

Silently the heavy cruiser slipped through the air, like a grizzled, battle-scarred veteran wolf, scenting the blood-spoor of its prey on the air.

 

Palomia sat cross-legged, waiting patiently for her moment to begin. She’d slipped away from Wastelander’s temporary camp behind the hills to the north of the town at sunset, carefully making her way to the edge of town, wrapped in an enveloping sand-coloured gilli-suit of gauze strips. Once night had fallen she’d shimmied out of the stuffy baggy suit, revealing the skin-tight black capery body-shell underneath. Slipping from one shadow to another, every nerve alert, she’d made her way across the roof-tops until she was near her destination of the old mosque near the centre of town.

There, she’d found a quiet corner of a rooftop and sat down to wait behind the parapet.

Mack had been utterly truthful when she said her Kept had ‘mad ninja skills’. Palomia’s parents had been members of Japan’s elite intelligence agency, the Imperial Garden-Keepers or oniwaban. They had also been Shinobi, ninjas as the west called them. Her mother was from Iga Province, and her father from Kōga. Their clans were bitter and traditional rivals, despite being part of the same service.

So, when they had fallen in love, and her mother had found herself with a new life growing inside her, they went renegade and ran away together. Far, far away from any possibility of being tracked, until they were in the Western Sahara, and started a new life there. Although they had embraced the Wastelander’s way, her parents had still secretly taught her their birth culture, along with their skills. In case their clans, or former employers, sent someone to erase the dishonour in a wash of blood.

Although Palomia respected her parents, and understood why they thought she would need to know what they did, she found the prospect of using her deadly arts appalling. Her gentle spirit repulsed by the idea of dealing death swiftly and silently. At least, most of the time.

Today was not one of those days.

On the horizon the star that Palomia was using to mark time, peeked above the ridge-line of the low hills to the east, signalling it was time to begin. She rose and stretched, and out of life-long habit checked her weapons. The titanium tanto blade Mack had forged for her as an anniversary gift was snug at the small of her back. The ceramic throwing stars were fastened securely to her belt and the needle daggers or cut down sai were strapped to her wrists.

Slowly, Palomia unwound the capery body-suit, stripping down to just her weapons belt, a tube top and bikini bottom and her soft black toe-shoes. She kept the hood and face-concealing mask as well. For what she had planned, every gram counted, but she dared not inhale any dust either.

Taking a deep breath, she focused, and slipped out of phase with the world around her.

It was an ironic fate, or perhaps fitting, that when she’d turned 13 she had manifested the ability to partly phase out of reality and become insubstantial herself.

In her insubstantial state, the world seemed to be composed out of mist and fog. Solid objects became translucent, as if fashioned from layers of sheer gauze, even solid stone being no harder to see through than frosted glass.

Palomia herself became wraith-like, a wisp of black shadow, hard enough to see in full daylight and invisible in darkness.

It was always hard for her to describe exactly how she moved. It was less than walking, somewhat like swimming and partly akin to simply willing herself to move... but she could move through objects as if they were no more solid than they appeared to be to her.

Most of the time Palomia didn’t even practice with her power; it was easier to keep it a secret that only Mack knew about. She had no secrets from Mack, despite her parents’ insistence otherwise. But, as she moved down and towards the mosque, Palomia found herself wishing she had practised and was a bit better at using her unwanted gift.

The mosque had been built at a time when invading crusaders were a real possibility, and serving as a stronghold was a necessity. Although it had suffered over the years, it was still essentially solid, rather more so than Palomia was happy with.

Every gram she carried with her was an effort to hold phased out, dragging at her as she moved through things. The more substantial the obstacle, the greater the resistance to her passage. Although she had stripped down as much as she could, the metres-thick walls of stone would still be too much even if was completely naked and unarmed. Two things she had no intention of being while anywhere near the mangy curs of pirates that infested the old mosque.

Palomia made a fast circle around the mosque, looking for thin patches in its walls. Minutes later she found what she was looking for. At some point not quite so long ago as the rest of its construction, a larger arched doorway had been partly bricked up in order to fit a smaller ordinary wooden door into it.

That was her best way in, and even there, the dried clay bricks were several feet thick. There was also a guard leaning against the wall on the inside. Palomia sighed inwardly. She didn’t have the time, nor could she afford the extra effort it would take, to find a better entrance point. It was even close to the entrance to the crypt.

However, the guard was a problem. Granted, she could just walk straight through him. But the plan was to slip into the place unnoticed, and people certainly noticed her when she phased though them. Mack had said it gave her the cold shudders, and the few times she done it always produced the same result in everyone. The guard might not raise the alarm; it wouldn’t be the first time someone had thought she was a ghost, but then again he might and either way running away screaming in terror was just as bad.

Repressing a sense of revulsion at what she had to do, Palomia drifted forwards, through the wooden planks of the door beside the guard. He must have noticed the uncanny black mist seeping through the door, because, eyes bugging out as he stared at her, he opened his mouth to yell. Palomia panicked as she became solid.

Pressing her hand against his chest, she willed the guard and her arm alone into a phased state, and shoved him back into the wall before he could do more than draw breath. Letting go of him, she withdrew her arm, leaving him merged with and entombed inside the brick wall.

For what seemed like minutes, Palomia stared at the innocent looking wall, all too aware of what horror the crumbling plaster and bare sun-baked clay concealed. She had to clamp her jaw tight to keep her stomach from casting up the scant rations she’d eaten earlier.

Shuddering convulsively, Palomia tore her gaze away from the wall, turned around, and phased out. Very carefully not looking behind her, she made her way toward the cells. She hoped there would be no more guards in her way.