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Over the shift we spent out in the void, making sure that nobody was sneaking up on the Merathorn and the Moneymaker, I was listening to the teams rotating in and out of the moneymaker. They had a lot to do, mostly to make sure that the malfunction that killed the original crew wouldn’t re-occur and kill the one volunteer that would be left on the ship. I wasn’t sure if I would be willing to volunteer to such a task, sure, it would get me a commendation, something quite rare in times of peace, and the radiation itself wasn’t bad enough to kill you, not in a few hours, but knowing that I was flying a ship that had killed its crew, that would give me the creeps.

Luckily, it only took them the first four-hour shift after which we started moving towards the jump-zone, the Starfighters still remaining outside, keeping watch. I doubted that the patrol was necessary but could understand the reasoning, if the Merathron was attacked, very unlikely but possible, normally she could just run, escaping long before a hostile force could catch up, unless they managed to drop out of hyperspace right on top of her. WIth the Moneymaker in turn, we wouldn’t be able to escape, not without retrieving our team first which would give a hostile force time to close in. Still, there were problems it that idea, starting with the simple question, who would attack a Federation Cruiser? The Merathorn was simply too big a target for pirates, unless they managed to spring the perfect ambush.

Still, it gave me flight-hours, time spent in the void, flying a real Starfighter, so I certainly wasn’t going to complain. Simulator-time was great and all but it simply wasn’t the real thing. There was a little something that the simulator just couldn’t replicate, which made flying a real Raptor into the treat it was for me.

 

Sadly, the Moneymaker had rather old hyperspace-jump-coils, so we had to travel quite a bit further than we would have to if it was only the Merathorn, increasing the time spent in system. After another two hours, the Commodore sent out Carmine Group 4 and commanded us to return to the Merathorn, once our replacement was outside. At that point, we had been in our fighters for almost seven hours, so I was welcoming the switch-off, just so I could walk around a bit, stretch myself and take care of those biological hassles that came with being human.

Returning to the Merathorn had become routine, to the point that I wondered if I’d get to land on manual again, something I had originally dreaded at the beginning of the cruise, now it sounded like it was just another task. As I felt the shudder of the retrieval-system going through my Starfighter, I realised that such thoughts were dangerous, that I needed to get rid of that hubris if I didn’t want to get in the long, long line of cocky pilots that hadn’t taken the dangers of spaceflight serious. And I didn’t want to wait in line.

 

By the time the retrieval-system had placed my Starfighter in its cradle, ready for the technicians, I had engraved that thought in my mind, “Don’t get cocky.”, a simple maxime but one I most likely would have to remind myself of from time to time. Maybe I should get it tattooed somewhere, maybe the back of my eyelids so I would see it every time I closed my eyes.

The thought made me smile, even as the idea of a tattoo was playing in my mind, not that I had any idea what to get. The old classic, a heart with the name of one’s lover, was out by virtue of me not having one. Likewise, skulls, playing-cards, various fantastical beasts or animals or religious symbols, they all didn’t appeal to me.

“Cadet Horn?” Commodore Ryker spoke up, having managed to catch me off guard, as I had been day-dreaming.

“Yes, Sir?” I asked, turning and saluting at the same time.

The Commodore looked around for a moment, before whispering in a soft, almost inaudible, voice. “Cadet Horn, could you keep an eye on your cabin-mate, Cadet Veltra, for the next couple of days? She was part of the first team going over to the Moneymaker. I’m quite sure you listened to the reports coming from them and know that they’ve seen some disturbing things and might need a few days to process the experience. Please, be there for her.” he explained.

“Yes, Sir, I will.” I promised, understanding where he was coming from. Only someone who was completely lacking in empathy would be left untouched after such a mission. I didn’t even want to imagine how the remains they had to process had looked like, let alone the task of using a shovel to place them into body-bags. Just the beginning of that line of thought was making me nauseous, so I gladly pushed it away.

On the other hand, having someone break down because of a mission was a black mark as well, the fleet was rather interested in the mental stability and strength of all officers. So, in this case, the superior officers gave us all a bit of space to deal with the problem, without officially taking notice.

“That was what Wildcat did for me, after the fighting, right?” I mentally connected the dots, realising that Wildcat had kept a close eye on me after the fight with the pirates, just to see how having to kill another human had affected me. The Commodore didn’t verbally answer but the wink and very slight nod was enough to understand. It wasn’t quite how the procedures said it was supposed to go but it seems that the Fleet had another of their fun, little traditions, bridging the divide between bureaucratic procedures and the reality of serving in the empty blackness of space.

“Good. I’ll let you get back to your Starfighter.” he told me and walked away while I checked with the technicians for a moment, to make sure everything was as it should be.

 

The rest of the shift passed without incidents, just before it was time to change shifts, we got far enough from any gravity-wells to have the Moneymaker jump into hyperspace. The Merathorn’s shuttle made one last trip between the Moneymaker, taking one of the Lieutenants normally serving on the bridge over to the freighter and getting everyone else back. Hopefully the shields would work as they should this time, or that Lieutenants would die a very sudden death.

Once the shuttle was back, Carmine-Group 4 came back in and, as soon as their Starfighters were in their cradles, the now familiar shudder of the Carmine jumping into hyperspace shook the deck.

 

Knowing that we were in hyperspace and that Commodore Ryker had scheduled no additional training-exercises, I decided to head back to the cabin, the words from Commodore Ryker still in my mind.

When I got there, Grace was already inside, sitting on her bunk and her eyes were distant, staring into space, undoubtedly remembering the horrors she had seen earlier. Not quite sure what to do or say, I decided to follow Wildcat’s lead on that one.

“Grace?” I asked, trying to get her attention. And I got it, in a more spectacular fashion than I had expected, her head snapping up and her eyes boring through me for a second, before focusing on me.

“Leo? Oh, it’s just you.” she said, her voice sounding a little hollow.

“Get up. We’ll go to the gym and make sure that you are tired enough to get some sleep. When I’m done with you, you won’t remember anything that you’ve seen today.” I told her, getting a slightly annoyed look in response.

“Just… Don’t. Please, just leave me alone.” she asked but I doubted it would be good to let her brood, so I reached out and took hold of her shoulder, pulling her up.

“No can do. You’ll need all the sleep you can get and if you try to sleep in the state you’re in, you won’t get any. And I doubt I’d get any either, not with you having nightmares a few meters away.” I prodded, causing her to glare at me. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing, but it was the only thing I could think off.

After a moment of quietly staring at each other, she relented and followed me out of the cabin, over to the gym. Luckily, nobody was there at this time and I was able to push her into doing a few exercises, while letting her talk.

What I heard made me glad that I had skipped food for a while or I might have lost it. She went into graphic details of her experience and I decided that I needed the exercise as well, or I wouldn’t sleep a wink as well. But it seemed that the combination of physical exhaustion and letting her talk helped, after about thirty minutes of hard work, she suddenly stopped talking, stopped moving and simply stood there. When I walked over, I was just in time to catch her as the emotional side broke out in a crying meltdown, the horror she had seen breaking out of her in a single outburst.

It took her almost five minutes of jagged, sobbing and crying after which she looked rather haggard but the strange hollowness had left her.

“Let’s get back to our cabin, we both need a shower.” she said, her voice sounding as it normally did. I was reasonably sure that processing her experience would take more time but she had taken the all-important first step. Now, we just had to keep walking.

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Tsaimath

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