tagSci-Fi & FantasyDevil May Care Ch. 01

Devil May Care Ch. 01

byDragonCobolt©

Author's Note: Everyone is eighteen or older!

*****

"One."

"Hayden Christensen."

"Two."

"No fuckin' way, Hayden?"

Dey tossed one of her cards down on the table. "Tap for this card," she said, jerking her chin to catch the attention of the table. The smart tabletop whirred and three of the land tokens -- two island, one mountain -- turned on their side. The piezoelectric fabric that the card was printed on hummed to life with the impact and showed a flickering holographic outline of the Nesruden Destroyer. The magically powered automaton -- a 2/2 junk card she was mostly playing to bide for time -- stomped from side to side.

"Three."

"You know, Mark," Fong said, grinning as he looked at the fourth member of the cramped rookie room. "You don't need to count out loud."

Marcus DuPont grinned -- his smile a Cheshire frown, hanging as he was by his knees from a workout pole he had slung across the middle of the room. Sweat beaded along his exquisitely sculpted olive-brown chest, accentuating the fine lines of his musculature. Dey bit her lower lip and was once more thanked God for a fully integrated, properly postpuritan USAF.

Now try saying that again three times fast, she thought.

"If I don't count, then how can you, ah, know how great I am?" Mark asked.

Fong rolled his eyes. "As I was saying-"

"Four!"

Marcus curled up, his chin almost touching his thighs.

Fong scowled. He tapped against the top of the table. "Another land -- Wandering Falls. Comes into play tapped."

The table shimmered and showed the new card.

"Oh, a life land," Dey murmured.

"Don't try and distract me from your horrible, horrible decisions," Fong said. "You just said that Hayden Christenson, from the dreck that is the original Star Wars one-two-three, is the best Anakin Skywalker. You've got three remakes to pick from and you choose the original? What is wrong with you?"

Dey looked at her hand, mulling over her decisions. Fong was building up a hefty set of lands in his play space. She drew a card, then tapped her destroyer card. The image of the card swung at nothing and the table dinged as Fong's health started to whirr down. As they finished clicking into place, she smirked at him over her cards.

"Anakin is a whiny bitch," she said. "Whose inability to deal wiff his poor widdle feewings sets the stage for a purge that wipes out his entire religious order and kicks off three decades of warfare, strife and devastation that leaves literally billions dead. It takes a special kind of narcissistic baby to pull off that level of stupid, and Hayden acts the part perfect. Yeah, you hate Anakin. That's because you're supposed to hate him." She tapped her finger in the air. "Checkmate."

"Sixteen!"

"You are not at sixteen!" Fong said.

Marcus grinned and winked at them as he hung from the pole.

The door leading into the room didn't open -- regs said that doors were always open unless a cadet was sleeping or enjoying some consack time -- but it was suddenly filled by another one of the peppy, bushy tailed cadets of the United States Air Force. Muller was one of the only people in their class who had actually been born off world, at Hamilton. Fortunately, the last few months of actual sim-time and shared combat training maneuvers had sanded off (somewhat violently) his urge to preface everything with an excited smile and 'say, did you know I've been in space?'

But right now, the look on Muller's face was anything but peppy and excited.

"Guys," he said. "The Ruskies and the Reds have opened up!"

"Ah balls," Dey said. "I knew this was going to happen. Didn't I tell you?"

"DeShane," Fong said, grabbing his cards up, hastily jamming them into his pocket. "Every week you predict something bad's going to happen."

"And they usually do," Dey said, with well practiced fatalism.

Heading to the messhall -- and the centralized vid units there -- was tricky. In the grim, bitter days of the twenties and thirties, when it hadn't been entirely clear who would get the immense amounts of money and acclaim that would come with tackling the great depths of space, there had been people who had thought that the future of America's spaceflight program would be in the Annapolis Naval Academy. But the bitter debates and senatorial hearings and backroom deals had been shaken out and the simple fact had remained clear.

So long as humanity stubbornly stuck to its guns and refused to become a big happy peaceful United Federation of Hugs and Snuggles, there would need to be a wet navy and the nuclear quadrangle of surface installations, orbital silos, submarines and aerial bombardment. The idea was if every single superpower on Earth was ready to blow every single other superpower on Earth into a radioactive cinder at the drop of a hat, war would be limited. Restricted.

Civilized.

That had meant that the navy kept their subs and their aircraft carriers and the USAF got the stars. But after a disastrous string of flight errors caused by systemic doctrine faults, the USAF had moved their academy from Colorado to the biggest chunk of near Earth real estate that they'd grabbed back in the 50s: Ceres.

So, getting from the rookie bunks to the messhall required navigating tunnels that had originally been cut for a science and mineralogical research mission, before the belt had been uniformly abandoned to military installations and isolationist nutjobs in favor of resource rich planets with atmospheres and gravity and other useful things like that. The tunnels were cramped and jagged, cutting through the weakest part of the dwarf planet's skin. Some were partially exposed to space, protected only by a hardened carbon composite tube with interwoven magnetic shielding.

They were all a pain in the ass.

"You know, the last time the Earth had a multipolar geopolitical situation," Dey said as she turned to the side to squeeze through an exceptionally narrow bit. "It kicked off the first Big War."

"That's a real comforting thought to share, Dey, thank you," Fong said, his voice tight.

"Multipolar?" Marcus asked, bringing up the rear.

Muller -- who had was leading the group -- looked over his shoulder. "Do you pay attention to any of the classes, Marcus?"

"Nope," Marcus said, cheerily.

Dey sighed. "Multipolar as in multiple superpowers. So, after the second Big War, there were the Russkies and us." She said, nodding. Marcus nodded, to show he followed. "But after the DV Drive was invented, anyone with silicon, carbon and laser etching above a certain level of fineness could shit out an starship capable of hitting Alpha Centauri within the week." She snorted. "Hence why now, we've got us, the Russkies, the Chinese, the Brazilians-"

"Don't forget the EU," Muller said.

"I already said us," Dey said, grinning.

They emerged from the narrow corridor into the mess hall. They came just as the PA crackled to life and the stern voice of the station commander started echoing from the walls.

"All cadets, report to the mess hall-"

"What amazing timing," Dey muttered.

The cadets on Ceres were a motley mixture. The United States Air Force tended to skew towards female and slightly lower on the poverty line. Not so poor they didn't get an education, but not so rich that they wouldn't rather take a safer job somewhere else. Women tended to handle microgravity and radiation better than men -- plus, being smaller and taking up less mass mattered when every kilogram you had to move around cost the taxpayer money, even in an era with cheap antigravity and faster than light engines.

The main vid units were slaved together within a few moments and showed a situation map of what the USAF computers still stubbornly tried to refer to as Ya'ii. It meant 'sun' in one of the native languages of the Americas.

Everyone else called it the same thing that the first explorer called it -- and logged it at the United Nations Stellar Exploration Bureau, in one of the shockingly few times that global civilization actually recognized the ailing UN's authority.

"It's A Trap was amazingly well named," Dey said as she looked at the red and green dots representing the sighted ships and their trajectories. Thanks to the fact that space was incredibly cold and even the coldest ship was considerably hotter than nothing, even passive sensors could pick up fleet movements.

"As you can see," Commander Martinez said, sounding as if he was reading reports while he spoke. "The PLAF and the IRAF have both mobilized several of their heavy strike cruisers and most of their fighters in the Ya'ii system. It looks like the Tzarina wants to grab Ya'ii A and isn't listening when Chairwoman Zhong says no." He sighed. "As of this moment, we are at a state of high alert. Cadets, you will be ready to report to evacuation shuttles the instant the alarm sounds. It is unlikely that the fighting in Ya'ii will spread to SOL or any of the other systems, but we need to be vigilant."

"Shit," Fong whispered.

Dey looked at him -- jostled to the side by another rookie. "What?"

"If they fight over Trap-A, then there's half a dozen American colonies that might get scragged," he said, quietly. "My aunt lives on Trap-A."

"Shiiiiiiiiit," Dey hissed. "I, fuck, I'm sorry, man."

Dey put her hand on Fong's shoulder, squeezing.

"That is all. You are dismissed." The commander's voice rang out.

###

Dey looked at her handheld, her thumb tapping through the feeds as Fong wrote a letter in the corner of the room. He had fully unfolded his handheld to use the keyboard, and paused every few moments to delete half of his letter, then start it again.

Twitter from the American colonies came in at a serious time lag -- even the tech wizards of Mariner Valley couldn't completely negate lightlag and even modern computers couldn't compensate for the amount of data coming in and heading out at the speeds that Dey's grandfather used to talk about when reminiscing about the Culture Wars. She wanted information now, not in three hours. The only tweets she had seen were all boring mundane shit. She scrolled past a few of the people she followed, then turned her handheld off.

"You wish we were out there?" Muller asked from where he was lounging -- his arm dangling over the side of the bunk.

"Fuck no," Dey said. "You think I want to get my ass shot off so the America can hold onto some real estate?"

There was a longish pause.

"Dey, why the fuck are you on Ceres?"

Dey held her arm out and curled her hand into most of a fist. Muller shot her the same gesture right back without even moving. Grinning, Dey shrugged.

"Would you believe I just wanted to go into space?"

"You can buy a new ship from Ford or Honda for less money than it takes to go to college, dude," Muller said.

Dey sighed, closing her eyes. "Fine. I wanted to go into space and fly ships that are worth a fuck."

"I wouldn't fuck a starfury," Marcus said from where he was doing stretches -- voice faintly muffled by the fact he was almost kissing his thighs.

"You know what I mean," Dey said. "Jesus, seventy five girls and forty two guys and I get crammed into a room with the three fucking worst."

"I was born a girl, does that help?" Marcus suggested.

"Your neural architecture was male, doesn't count," Dey said, closing her eyes.

"Will you guys shut the fuck up?" Fong asked -- his voice edged. Dey bit her lip, feeling a stab of guilt surge through her body. She sat up and opened her eyes at the same time. When she looked at Fong, she saw he was hunched over his deployed handheld. She walked over and knelt down behind him, squeezing his shoulders.

"It's okay," she said.

"What?" Fong asked -- his shoulders tight enough to serve as steel cables.

"It'll be okay," she said. "Planets are big. Cruisers are only, uh, a hundred, two hundred meters long. So, even if one of the heavies gets shot down and smashes into the planet, there's a huge chance it won't land anywhere near where your aunt lives."

Fong squirmed out from under her, turning around. "That is not actually helping, Dey!" he shouted, then turned and stormed out of the room. Dey fell back onto her palms. She shook her head slowly.

"Try and be optimistic for a guy," she said, quietly.

"Holy shit, Dey!" Muller said, sitting up. "They've got some of the shooting on twitter."

Dey was at her bed and on her handheld at the drop of a hat. She unfolded the screen, stretching it to maximum size, pushing it far enough that the edges fuzzed slightly. She curled up on the bed, craning her head forward as she tapped the play button on the uploaded video. It showed the scene above a local homestead. A farmdrone was trundling around, planting fresh crops -- the only hint that it wasn't somewhere on Earth being the two moons overhead and the fact the grass surrounding the homestead was bright, lurid purple. Then, streaking through the sky, three purple lines that looked as straight as if they were drawn by a ruler.

"That's definitely heavy weapons -- X-ray laser, maybe?" Dey asked.

"Can you see an X-ray laser?" Muller asked.

"The camera might," Marcus chimed in.

More streaks -- then a trio of bright white circles. Their shockwaves interlocked together, rippling and expanding outwards. Tiny flecks of static appeared on the screen. Dey sucked on her lower lip.

"Someone just got nuked."

Five more nukes went off.

Then, shaking, the camera swung down to look at the horizon. A burning red streak -- slow and roiling, marked with a bright white point at the very front -- cut its way across the sky. The multiple sonic booms that rang out later overloaded the handheld's audio pick up. The image shook, shuddered. The last thing Dey saw before it went black was a massive, stately mushroom cloud of dirt and ash rising above the horizon.

"Jayyyyyy-us," Dey whispered, her voice reverent.

The three rookies were quiet.

"Who should talk to Fong?" Dey asked.

The two others looked at her.

"What?" Dey asked.

"Well, I mean, emotional intelligence-" Marcus started.

"I don't want to get out of bed." Muller didn't even bother.

"You two are fucking assholes," Dey said, her hands on her hips, scowling slightly. "And I say that as a professional dipshit. You guys are major assholes." She stepped over, grabbing onto Muller's arm. Being raised on a planet with gravity about 0.2 less than Earth's didn't exactly make him as light as a feather. But it helped that Dey had leverage and motivation. Muller scrambled to keep up with her dragging, landing on his feet with a thud. Dey glared at Marcus -- getting him to his feet. The three of them walked out into the main barracks corridor and started to search around for Fong.

It didn't take them long.

"Fong's busy," Gwen said, leaning against the door to her room.

"Busy!?" Dey spluttered.

"Yeah, talking to his boyfriend," Gwen said, rolling her eyes.

"Talking?" Dey narrowed one eye.

"Yes, it's a thing that people do when they're together and not currently having sex," Gwen said, shaking her head. "He also told me, specifically, that he didn't want any of his insane roommates bothering him."

"Bothering!" Dey threw up her hands. "I used the moral high ground on these assholes. Do you know how hard it is to get that?"

Gwen rolled her eyes.

Dey was about to open her mouth and educate the other cadet at the important bonds that were formed by being in the same room and the same trainee flight wing. They had killed simulated pirates with one another. That mattered. But then a cough sounded from behind her and Dey spun around, saluting. She recognized that cough, and she knew that it meant it was time to salute. That much had been drilled into her during her time back on Earthside Basic.

"Cadet Gallagher," Lt. Commander Trevon said, his voice as quiet and demure as any that Dey had ever heard. He saluted her, so she could put her hand down and behind her back. She didn't let that give her a mistaken idea about the slender black man -- he could bellow and rage and give punishments as exacting as any of the other training officers. "The Commander wishes to speak to you."

###

Dey sat, her back ramrod stiff inside of the commander's office, and tried to not look like she had done anything. Not that she had done anything...much. There had been a few late night visits to parts of the station she shouldn't have gone, at least one case of going EVA without a permit. But in her defense, Tasha was gorgeous and she had been right -- the crater on the far side of Ceres was romantic as hell. But the Commander didn't look particularly upset or censorious. Instead, the older, distinguished officer looked slightly pleased.

"Cadet DeShane Gallagher," he said. "I have some interesting news for you."

Dey blinked. "Sir?"

The Commander slid a small tablet over across his desk. Dey picked up and her brow furrowed as she read the first few words. It was the result of some test -- she had taken a test? She didn't remember any specific test within recent memory -- and said that she had an aptitude score in the high ninetieth percentile. She looked up and over the tablet at the Commander, her brow furrowed.

"Three months ago, you -- and most of the other cadets, took the Ay-Sack," he said.

Dey's eyes widened once she realized the acronym -- filtering it from the massive alphabet soup she had been eating since signing up with the USAF.

AI-PsyACT -- Artifical Intelligence Psychological Analysis, Comprehensive Test.

It hadn't been much of a test. Sit in a room, let a few highly paid DARPA shrinks put you under, scan your brain. Listen to a few sounds. The sounds had made Dey really sleepy, but nothing else. She had asked some of her friends and fellow cadets who had gone through the AI-PsyACT and heard that the sounds had given them splitting headaches, or (in Tracy's case) caused blood to dribble out of her nose. She had figured, since nothing amazing had happened to her, she had failed it like everyone else.

She bit back a reflexive holy shit and instead stammered out: "I-I passed?"

"In the ninetieth percentile," Commander Martinez said. "Now. I know you've wanted to be a fighter pilot since you arrived, Gallagher. But the simple truth is that we have a great deal of skilled fighter pilots. More so in this class, I'm proud to say." He smiled. "But the United States has only thirty seven D.V.E.I.L.S in operation. They've saved more lives and advanced the cause of the United States more than any other unit of their size."

Dey's throat worked. D.V.E.I.L.S. DeVilbiss Engine Integrated/Logarithmic Systems. Devil Troops. She looked down at her hands, then up at the Commander.

"How do I sign up, sir?"

###

Being in the military, Dey had always expected to say goodbye to the people she worked with and heading off to new postings. She had just never expected it to happen mid-training. She shook hands with her roomies, they slapped her on the back, and within fifteen minutes, she was on a shuttle heading for Earth. The shuttle was a LM-9x, an old clunker that had been shat out by Lockheed Martin pretty much the instant that the DeVilbiss Engine had been invented. That meant it skimped on comfort and skimped on space and skimped on armor and skimped on weapons -- leaving little but a thin skein of cheap metal and plastic wrapped around chairs and seats that were tolerable for an hour and agony for every hour afterward.

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