Ray walked from the hold into the common area of the ship, where the crew sat assembled for the mission.
“Gentlemen,” said Ray, looking around the compartment. His eyes settled on Second Lieutenant Ada Bennett, “and lady.”
She gave Ray a slight nod.
“Lieutenant Commander Hastings is my second-in-command,” Ray continued, gesturing at Anjali.
He noted the three other officers in his crew, two commissioned and one not. There were only four non-commissioned grunts. It was an incongruous amount of command experience.
He began calling roll.
First Lieutenant A’arilon Daedalus looked up when Ray called his name.
The two correns had never served together in the Confederation. Daedalus had defected first, and Ray followed independently. The humans assumed a bond akin to actual brotherhood existed between Ray and Daedalus. But the men were born in different batches and they barely associated. No matter how close they might become, Daedalus’ always undermined it.
Streaks of black scar tissue mottled the hulking, chalk-colored corren’s face. “Hey, brother.” He said, looking at Ray.
“What did you name this tub?” Ray asked.
Daedalus cracked a slight smile. “Don’t talk about her like that, Raymond. This is Filomena. She’s a lady. Treat her with respect.”
Ray cocked his head to the side and raised an eye-ridge in response.
“I heard a lot of shouting out there,” said Daedalus.
“Pay it no mind,” Ray said.
Private Adams raised his hand. “With all respect, Sir, why are we doing this?”
Ray opened his mouth to dress down Adams, but Daedalus beat him to it.
“Shut up, Private.”
“Hey!” Ray barked. “Stow it! All of you! None of us are here to speculate. You’ve all been fully briefed. You’ve been told what you need to know. We have a mission to accomplish, and its success is the only thing that concerns you. Am I clear?”
The crew responded in unison. “Sir!”
All except Daedalus, who crossed his arms and scowled.
Ada answered when called. The light-skinned human woman stood out among the brown crew. She acknowledged Ray with a nod and a “Sir.”
“Sergeant Major Vasily Rozhenko,” Ray called next. He worked his way down in order of seniority.
In a thick Slavic accent, a seven-foot-two-inch cyborg answered. But for the metal surrounding his one synthetic eye, his face was mostly flesh. Half of his bald head was capped with the same durable alloy. An epicanthic fold hid the upper lid of his natural eye. He extended his mechanical right hand, which dwarfed Ray’s sizable appendage. The corren accepted the gesture, both amused and discomfited to feel diminutive.
“Hello, Commander,” said Rozhenko. “I am hearing of you. It is pleasure finally we are meeting.”
“Oh yeah, he’s just so renowned,” Daedalus muttered. He gazed out the porthole at the activity on the hangar floor.
Rozhenko ignored him and leaned over to speak into Ray’s ear. “That corren. You are working before, with him? I am knowing him just one hour. Already, is quite unpleasant.”
“Imagine how I must feel,” Ray answered with a smile. “I’ve known him much longer than you.”
Rozhenko replied with a beleaguered smile. Daedalus made a face and pantomimed speaking in a bitchy manner.
“Sergeant, excuse me,” Ray said, turning his attention back to the entire crew. He called out “Corporal Gehsan Patrick ibn Malcolm.”
Patrick replied with a perfunctory “Sir” at the sound of his name.
He studied Ray, fascinated to be in the presence of both correns. Their existence in the Allied Nations bordered on myth. He’d never before seen a corren, except in pictures. In the flesh, he found them similar to humans but much taller and more muscular. Denser. And with such grotesque, bony facial features. Patrick heard the rumor that Hastings and Ray were lovers. He couldn’t understand how she found that attractive.
Corporal Smythe had similar thoughts. The past hour in Daedalus’ company had made the human’s flesh crawl. That ugly, scarred face; the surly demeanor. The sheer power of the alien intimidated everyone. And something existed between Daedalus and Lieutenant Bennett. It seemed to Smythe like bitterness that existed only between acrimonious ex-lovers. But he refused to believe that someone as pretty as Ada would ever have slept with such a repellent beast.
Smythe answered his name when called, his voice tinged with resentment.
Private Adams ran his hand over his bald head and answered when called. His assignment to the mission had left him confused, ignorant, and distraught. Yet, despite his penchant for being vocal, he followed his orders.
Private Norris was the last to be called. Ray knew that the man was toxic, further evidenced by the way everyone avoided him.
How did I get saddled with this mess of rejects? Ray asked himself.
“Commander Hastings and I’ll take the bridge,” he said aloud. “As you were.”
Rozhenko sat opposite Daedalus, nearest the four fellow non-coms. Stretching out his over-large body the Sergeant muttered to Adams.
“This corren reptile has personality of snake.”
“But this ’corren reptile’ has great hearing, Sergeant,” Daedalus replied without looking up.
Rozhenko shifted uncomfortably. Adams opened his mouth to speak but Rozhenko intercepted him.
“Shut up, Private.”
Adams closed his mouth. He moved to the most solitary seat in the room.
Ray’s voice came over the comm, counting down to takeoff. The engines of the ship roared to life. The landing struts withdrew, causing the ship to levitate above the hangar floor. Ray looked out the window. He noticed the General running for the safety of the airlock. Heston looked over his shoulder at the ship. Ray gave him the finger.
Once all personnel were clear, the bay doors opened. Ray fired the aft thrusters. He guided the Allied Naval Vessel Filomena into the atmosphere. Running his long, deft fingers over controls, the vessel cut upward. He had to hand it to Daedalus; the simulator had been a perfect representation.
For the ways the Allied military fell short, the training to use the cutter had been so comprehensive. But such clinical, technically superb training revived Ray’s doubts.
The cutter transmitted an Allied transponder signal to fool the Confederate satellites. Sensor-camouflage spoofed the dimensions of an Allied cargo ship. Ray hoped the ruse went over as well in reality as in theory.
He waited. His shoulders tensed. He expected a swarm of speeder- or stinger-class vessels to appear and shoot them down. But no Confederate craft appeared.
Ray refused to consider it good fortune. His doubts nagged at him like a distant tolling bell. He punched in the necessary coordinates and the Filomena accelerated beyond escape velocity. Her prow pushed through the upper atmosphere and into vacuum of space. At top speed, the Allies headed toward Overground. They had approximately two hours until arrival at the Confederation space station.
Ray laid his hand out, palm up on the space between his and Anjali’s consoles. She clasped his hand. They intertwined their fingers.
She looked at him and flashed a wan smile.
He sighed and looked at the viewscreen, considering the vast darkness ahead.