TTC: The Cygnus War, Part 20

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The Tessa Chronicles: The Cygnus War #20 (Eisen und Stein) By Earl S. Wynn

A tent flap stirred. Booted feet touched cold earth.

Outside the row of tents and beyond the still patch of weedspotted dirt that bordered them, a boulevard of smooth, black nanocrete stretched silently on into sprawling eternity, damp and dark with the leavings of a thin mist falling heavily through the crisp air of the night. Tiny droplets flared in sheets as they fell, painted pale yellow where the cold light of street lamps brushed across them. The temperature had already begun its steady drop into shivering lows, and the soft, frigid sheets of condensation that joined it in its earthward descent heralded the approach of a hazy midnight fog. There were no cars, no headlights– the night was silent, and the silence stayed unbroken.

In the darkness, there was only an old military crawler that looked like the bastard child of a tank and tricycle, crouched in silent repose at the edge of the line of olive green tents where the Von’s abandoned pilots huddled in blankets or around bottles of local booze. It was a vintage piece, something from the early days of interstellar colonization that had been retrofitted with more advanced strains of restoration nanotech and a handful of aftermarket tractor parts to allow it to serve as a sort of all purpose vehicle. It was set up to plow, mow, harvest, spray, and had enough armor and rifle mounts fitted and welded to its bulky frame to turn it into a formidable anti-personnel weapons platform in a pinch. It had been the old sheriff’s baby, something he’d left in the care of the town when he had passed away in the early days of the Tarsis 12 colony, but to most of the locals, it was worse than a tired old horse– it was a relic that cost good taxpayer money to maintain, money that only kept it running, kept it crawling along the streets during meager parades. They had been more than happy to push it off on the Navy the instant tents were raised for the Von’s pilots.

Brushing away the last of her drying tears and tying her hair back into a strong cord, Tessa forced her mind away from the last shreds of discomfort and doubt that clung to her like dark cobwebs in the shadowy corners of an otherwise placid room. The air helped, each breath in the damp darkness of Tarsis 12's cool and hazy night was cleansing, refreshing, so unlike the nanomachine-thick air of Earth or any of the core worlds she’d set foot on.

She stretched and pulled in a deep breath, then let it out again, pushing away thoughts of that solitary link in an endless chain of humanity’s blunders. The exhale came reluctantly, a little forced, slow and shaky. God... what am I doing walking out on her like that? Another deep breath, a quiet sigh pushed through her nose. Her eyes wandered steadily skyward, searching the undersides of moonlit clouds bleached by city lights. I should go back in there. I should face this, tell her the truth, tell her everything, every last–

“Glad to see you came through this alive too, Lieutenant Commander.”

Tessa’s eyes flicked earthward, slipped to a spot of darkness beside the canvas of the tent– the pale light played eerily off the starched white lines and golden flash of a Terran on-deck uniform as someone stepped out of the shadow and took a strong, confident step toward her, non-threatening, but still strong and purposeful, the stride of a soldier. One hand went absently through short and spiky hair like wild copper wire, while the other managed a tiny one-finger gesture from the white nanofoam surface of a cheap coffee cup. The traces of a smile slipped across Tessa’s lips as recognition kicked in.

“Lieutenant Stone.” She began, turning slowly. The Lieutenant managed a mild smile in response. “Athena Squadron, right?”

“Front-left wingman, yeah.” Stone nodded quickly. She was an attractive woman, more handsome, more masculine than most, with hard, whipcord muscles and sharp lines across every inch of her body. Even her face was all angles, her jaw as strong and resolute as a brick. Pretty seemed almost too effeminate a word to describe her looks– handsome fit her like a glove.

Tessa gave her a quick, apparent once-over. “Nice uniform.”

Stone’s smile sharpened slightly. Tessa’s gear was a perfect contrast to the Lieutenant’s stiff, white uniform– a loose black tanktop emblazoned with a stylized Egyptian eye and a pair of slacks the color of orange peel that Izzy had picked up at a local thrift store while Tessa slept and fought with her own inner demons in the darkness the doc’s old-tech nanobots had kept her locked in. “You keep a spare neatly folded in the cockpit?” Tessa asked. Thinking about the hospital made her chest hurt. She rubbed absently at the bruise, grimaced.

Stone’s smile cracked a little wider. “Oh, I’m not that anal, Lieutenant Commander.”

“Tessa, please.” Tessa gave her another smile. “The LC stuff gets old when I’m off-duty.”

“Are we ever really off-duty?” Stone chided.

Tessa’s smile spread, softened. “I guess we’re like Doctors that way, or nurses... always on call.”

“Except we’re always ready to die for our cause.” Stone added dismally, her attitude taking a sudden downturn. Tessa looked up, considered her features carefully.

“It’s a part of the job.” The traces of a sour grimace seemed to flicker across Stone’s face in the pause– it might just have been the light, Tessa couldn’t tell, didn’t want to think about it. “Luckily, only a few of us actually bite it out there in battle.”

Stone spared her an ironic chuckle. “Yeah, tell that to the Assault Squadrons. They lost seven rigs and seven pilots to the blueskins out there in the black this time.” Her eyes lifted, touched Tessa’s– they were golden brown, almost yellow, like autumn leaves or twin discs of burnished brass. The smile was gone. “Even Athena Squadron wasn’t as lucky as your people were. I lost my LC and a young guy we’d just brought onto the team.”

“What was the young guy’s name?” Tessa asked, more out of force of habit and sentimentality than actual curiosity. Athena was Minerva’s sister Squadron, five non-specialized rigs with brilliant pilots behind the stick. It could just have easily have been us out there, slaughtered during the fighting. She closed her eyes. We could have lost Davidson... or Cordova... Jeez.

“Boehler.” Stone managed, staring off into the darkness. “Rod Boehler. He was a good kid, less than a month out of Earthside training.” She took an absent sip of her coffee. “I barely knew the guy.”

“And Giller too, huh?”

Stone nodded silently. “Yeah... but at least she went out the way she always said that she wanted to– kicking blueskin ass.” Stone’s eyes dropped to the ground, seemed to study the dirt. “I plan on torching a couple of Coralate rigs for her next time we get airborne and get a chance to go head to head with the fuckers again.”

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.”

“It’s the least I can do.” A tiny, ironic laugh cracked from Stone’s lips. “Getting slagged by plas-flechettes in the middle of a warship crossfire doesn’t exactly leave enough of a corpse behind for a proper send-off.” Tessa shivered. Could have been you. Her mind was only too happy to remind her. A lot of good people caught the wrong end of the knife up there, and any one of them could have just as easily been you... or Phoebe... or– even Izzy... She swallowed uneasily. Dark thoughts brewed, simmered. If she lost Izzy...

It was something she didn’t want to think about.

Tessa closed her eyes against the pain she could feel brewing in her chest, fighting to be heard, recognized. “Were you two...were you and Giller close?”

“We were just friends, if that’s what you mean.” Stone gave Tessa a tired glance. “Giller... Susan... she was... she was really an incredible woman.”

The pause was deafening. Tessa licked her lips apprehensively, then nonchalantly changed the subject. Stone smiled at the effort. “So where’d you get the uniform?”

“There’s a nanoreplication unit in the costume shop four or five blocks down.” She pulled absently at the fabric. “It’s not quite the same as what we wear on the Von, but it’s damn close.” She looked up again. “I figured it would be good practice to at least try to look official while we’re trapped on this rock waiting for rescue or certain death, whichever happens to show up first.”

Tessa looked away again. “Happy thoughts, Lieutenant. Happy thoughts.” The noise Stone made in response was unnecessarily harsh.

The edge of a smile slipped across Tessa’s lips. Yeah, I feel that way too. Stone glanced at her coffee, seemed to study it in the silence.

In the next instant, a blade of light sliced through the night and caught their eyes, bouncing harsh yellow glimmers off storefront windows as it arced in toward them, accompanied by the high hornet whine of an old kit bike. Tessa knew the sound– it was one of those sport bikes that were pressed out of carbon nanotube on the cheap from any number of automated, AI run factories back near the more heavily populated Earthside worlds. They were popular with kids and jocks all across the rim, and rode smooth, if you knew how to put them together right and didn’t mind tweaking practically every part that came stock in the box. In that way, buying one and putting it together was almost seen as a coming-of-age ritual on frontier planets– it was all about personal pride, bonding, status, just another little part of the commonwealth dream. Too many of them were painted patriotic colors and covered in decals of the flags of Earthside nations or political groups, an emaciated bumper sticker on two spindly wheels.

But not this one– this one looked like something out of a premillennial Indiana Jones flick, sandblasted and wrapped in dirty cotton rags with knobby tires that looked more suited for churning coarse dirt than nanocrete roadways. The kid on it was no different– everything he wore was light or beige and long, all dirty desert gear, though every inch of skin showing was pale and waxy, a clear indicator that the gear wasn’t meant for much more than appearances. Apparently the sand-people look was back in style.

The instant before he reached them he swung wide, tires squealing, then dropped the bike. He hit the ground in a full-on sprint and the thing went skittering off across nanocrete, sputtering petrochemical protests– one dirty thumb came up, jammed his mud-rimmed riding goggles into his gritty hair, and revealed his eyes, so clear, so vivid, so frightened.

“Woah, hey, slow down there.” Tessa managed as he came running toward them– her tone was all tired bravado, stiff protocol softened by a casual edge, but it slowed him down almost instantly.

“Who’s– I need– I’ve got to!” He was out of breath, practically tripping over himself trying to get the words out. “I need to talk to your commanding officer right now!

“Good luck with that.” Stone snorted, taking an absent sip of her coffee. “He’s got to be a dozen light years away by now.”

The kid shot Stone a quizzical look. Tessa stepped forward, caught his attention with a quick gesture.

“I’m the ranking officer.” She gave him a quick, formal once-over. “What’s up?”

“Blueskin fighters!” His words came fast, blurted. “Everything we’ve got to monitor air and orbital traffic is going crazy! There’s a Fuckload of them, and they’re dropping through atmo at crazy speeds!”

Tessa’s eyes hardened, darkened, shoulders stiffening. Stone’s nanofoam cup hit the dirt, coffee splashing across hard earth and sprouts of blue-green grass in a scalding cascade of steaming black.“How soon before they’re on top of us?”

“Any time.” Came the immediate response.

A pause. Tessa’s eyes flicked away. “Shit.”

Never really off duty. Always on call.
Full title: The Tessa Chronicles: The Cygnus War #20 (Eisen und Stein)

Author Blurb: Eisen und Stein– Should be German for Iron and Stone, but it’s also a sort of play on words with the last names of Tessa and Lieutenant Stone of Athena Squadron. (Tessa’s last name is Eisenherz.) Anywho, fun fun fun. Regrets and the introduction of a new character, with an exciting, suspenseful ending. (I’m tired again.) *laugh* I need to update my journal.

Progress report:I managed to finish 22 and I’ve got a great start on 23 with a couple good solid lines into 24. The final fizz from the end of the year here is dying off, just two or three weeks until the end of the semester, but I’m 100% addicted to FFXII, which is something I never expected to happen, so that’s been eating into my free time. It’s a great game.

Anyway, this is the twentieth installment of TTC: The Cygnus War. You can find the previous episode here: [link] The next episode, “Murphy’s Law” is done and scheduled to be released first thing next Wednesday (November 29th, Pacific time.)
© 2006 - 2022 Durkee341
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M4dLeprechaun's avatar
"Bastard child of a tank and tricycle". Ahaha, I love it. Your metaphors never cease to amuse me.

Yay, desert! I like the turn this is all taking. Perhaps we'll get to see all the crazy 'blueskins' up close? Yes? Maybe?

..if I had a PS2 I'd be addicted to FFXII myself. I played it at a friend's and I'm sorry I never got into Final Fantasy earlier. Omg-zoids. That's a pretty game.