Chapter Ten

Kelly spent the next week inspecting the ship from bow to stern and running damage control drills. LCDR Timmons trusted the Blakes’ invention, but wanted to be sure that the crew could react to any emergency if something went wrong. Kelly traced every fluid pipe, electrical conduit, and data cable on the ship.

Everything was in top shape. The yard crew finished installing and testing the new larger electron guns. Chief Miller gave them his seal of approval and the captain authorized the ship to be moved from dry dock to a regular parking apron. The Vigilant sat down next to where the 68th fighters were parked. Angie came over immediately. The quarterdeck called Kelly and let him know she was waiting for him at the bottom of the ramp.

Kelly went out to meet her. As it was coming on lunchtime, he went to the dining facility with her.

As they walked, Angie said, “Do you have any plans for this weekend?”

“No, I’ve got duty on Sunday, but Saturday evening and Lunaday are free.”

“Great. I feel the need to cook something and you are invited over for dinner Lunaday evening.”

“What are we having?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m going over to the base commissary tonight and pick up some things. Why don’t you come over about 1800 on Saturday and bring some wine?”

“Great, I’ll bring red and white so I’ll be prepared no matter what you fix.”

They entered the dining facility, chose their food, and sat down.

Angie took a few bites and asked, “So, how is life in Scout Force? The scuttlebutt says you have done some pretty amazing stuff. I hear you’ve even done some space walks. What was that like?”

Well I can’t talk specifics, but it was pretty gruesome. The space walk part was fun, but what we were out there for wasn’t.”

I also heard about your combat in the Scutum sector. I understand you’re up for another Space Medal.”

“No, not the Space Medal. Something less I think. The captain is up for the Space Medal, though. Tell me about the 68th’s exploits after I left.”

“We continued to patrol along the frontier. We didn’t have any more action like when you ran afoul of Old Bugger Off. We could tell the K’Rang were shadowing us from across the frontier. The Bolivar’s escort ships’ sensors would sometimes pick up concentrations of capital ships at long range. Their frigate class ships would come in so close at times that even our fighter’s sensors could pick them up. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a K’Rang frigate show up on your scope. Those things are scary looking.”

“I can imagine. We ran into a torpedo ship in the Scutum engagement and it was bad enough.”

“A torpedo ship, what was that like?”

“It was a bit larger than the Vigilant and had a couple of pulse cannons. The bad thing were the torpedoes. They were a little larger than a fighter and employed active and passive homing. The passive homing system locks on the ion discharge from the engines. We were in dry dock earlier applying a fix to reduce the ion discharge to almost nothing.”

“Exhaust homing torpedoes, that sounds bad. What can be done about the larger ships’ emissions?”

“Admiral Craddock sent a technical report out to Fleet and the techies are looking at how to reduce the exhaust trail for the capital ships. Some will require a stop in a space dock. Some will merely need to tune their electron guns. I personally think the K’Rang screwed up by using the torpedo on us. They gave away a significant tactical advantage they could have used in a major space battle some day.”

“I’m glad you came through it okay.”

They finished lunch and Angie walked him back to the Vigilant. At the ramp she asked, “LTC Matthews asked me to offer you a chance to go up in a fighter. Would you be interested? We have an F-53B, trainer version with us. He can’t let you go up by yourself, but I could fly rear seat for you and let you have the controls.”

Kelly replied, “Tell LTC Matthews that I would like that a lot.”

“Okay, I’ll tell him. We can work out a time for you to go up.”

Kelly said goodbye and went up the ramp into the Vigilant. The thought of flying a fighter again put an extra bounce in his step. Maybe it would help him get through the next few days of running drills.

The captain met him at the top of the ramp. He motioned Kelly over.

“I just got word from Scout Force HQ. Our decorations have come through. The ship is getting a Fleet Meritorious commendation. You got a Silver Galaxy. I got a Gold Galaxy. The chiefs all got Space Medals. The crew will get a mix of Meritorious Service Medals and Galactic Republic Defense Medals. Not too shabby. There will be an awards ceremony on Friday. Chief Watson is already setting it up with HQ.”

“That’s great, sir. That’s a lot more than I expected. Has there been any word on when the test will take place?”

“Not yet. The ring won’t be here for another week and then there is the calibration and testing to be done. It will be a while yet. I want to test the new engine modification while we wait. We’ll go up next Tuesday, measure the engine signature, run some drills for a couple of days and be back in time for the weekend.”

“Sounds good to me, Captain. I’ll get our requisitions ready for the flight. Oh, by the way, sir, LTC Matthews has offered up an opportunity for me to take their trainer up for a flight. If that’s all right with you, of course.”

”Once a fighter pilot, always a fighter pilot. Of course it’s all right. Just work it out with the duty roster.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The captain returned to his paperwork and Kelly got back to tracing circuits. Damage control drill was set for 1400 and he had a few more circuits to trace before then. He thought about his Silver Galaxy. Between what he already had, the New Amsterdam awards, and this he was up to two full rows of ribbons. His dress uniform would look pretty impressive. His dress mess uniform would look even more so, especially with the gaudy New Amsterdam medals.

The rest of the week passed uneventfully. The awards ceremony on Friday went like clockwork, thanks to Chief Watson’s organizational skills. On Saturday evening, Kelly bought some wine, and went to Angie’s quarters at the BOQ. He arrived exactly at 1800 and she wasn’t in. He waited a bit, was about to leave and check with her unit, when she arrived wearing her flight suit. She was a little flushed as she opened the door and ushered him in. He was met with the smell of something cooking with a bit of garlic and some spices he didn’t recognize.

As she unzipped and shucked out of her flight suit down to her skivvies, she said, “I forgot something and had to run to the commissary to get it. Give me a minute to change and get freshened up. I’m running a bit behind schedule. Sit. Relax.”

Kelly watched her walk into the bedroom and admired the view from the rear. He walked over to the kitchen to see what was cooking.

A voice came from the back, saying not to mess with the food.

Kelly looked over the pots and pans simmering on the stove. One pan had what looked to be steaks simmering in a golden sauce. One pot had fresh green beans in a cream sauce, of some kind. The last pot was potatoes in a butter sauce. Kelly never knew Angie could cook, but everything looked and smelled marvelous. He looked through the window of the oven and saw rolls browning up.

He heard the door open behind him, he turned around, and his jaw dropped. Angie was standing there in a body hugging black minidress. It was cut low in front, showing off wonderful cleavage. Her hair was done up on her head. She wore black stockings and high-heel pumps. She was beautiful. She walked over into his arms and he leaned down to kiss her. She smelled like tropical flowers.

“Why, Miss Shappelle, you are gorgeous.”

“Thank you, sir. I felt like being a woman tonight, not just an officer.”

“Woman is a good look for you. It looks really nice on you, much nicer than it would on me.”

“I should hope so,” she said laughing, twisting out of his arms, “Hand me that apron over there.”

She tied a chef’s apron around her neck and waist and tended to the stove.

‘What type of wine did you bring?”

“I brought three local wines. I brought a Vidal Blanc, a Cabernet Franc, and a Rose.”

“Yummy, open up the Cab Franc and let it breathe. Put the other two in the cooler.”

Kelly popped the cork on the red and put the other two away. He searched the cabinets for wine glasses and found two mismatched cocktail glasses. They would do. Angie handed him plates and silverware and told him to set the table. He cleared off the small table and set it up for dinner.

Angie looked at the table, looked at the stove, and said, “I’ve changed my mind. That table is too small for all the dishes. Bring the plates over here and we’ll eat buffet style.”

Kelly picked up the plates and set one on the countertop and one on the empty burner on the stove. Angie pulled the rolls out of the oven, put one each on the plates, and then handed a plate to Kelly.

She picked up a steak from the pan and put it on Kelly’s plate, put another on her plate, then ladled out sauce onto each steak. Next came a serving of green beans and sauce. Finally, she put half the potatoes on each plate. Kelly put both plates on the table and poured two glasses of wine. Kelly then helped Angie off with her apron and they sat down.

The meal was even better than his earlier recon had suggested. The steak was tender, the herbal mushroom sauce expertly setting off the flavor. The green beans and potatoes were equally delicious.

Kelly smacked his lips and said, “Angie, I never had any idea you were such a good cook. This is magnificent.”

“Thank you. I never had the opportunity to cook on the Bolivar. This is the first time since flight school that I’ve been able to really cook. I love to cook.”

“Good looks, great cook, what more could a person hope for? And a fighter pilot, too.”

Angie gave him a mock irritated look and said, “Kelly, shut up and eat.”

Kelly replied, “Yes, ma’am,” and finished his meal.

After dinner, Kelly helped Angie with the dishes. She washed. He dried. They put the dishes away and retired with the wine to the couch.

Kelly looked in Angie’s eyes, smiled, and said, “Angie, that is the best meal I have had in a long time. My folks have a gourmet chef and he doesn’t cook this well.”

“Thank you, sir. I’d love to meet your folks’ chef and trade recipes.”

“I can arrange for you to meet Arnold one of these days. I’ll call my folks and get us invited for dinner.”

“That would be nice. How about some more wine here?”

Kelly looked at the bottle and there wasn’t much left. “How about we switch to the Rose. This one is about done. Give me your glass and I’ll rinse it out while I get the other bottle.”

Angie handed him her glass and Kelly got up to open the Rose. He rinsed the glasses, dried them, and brought them back. He poured her glass and handed it to her. Then he filled his own and set the bottle aside.

He raised his glass and said, “To a wonderful meal and wonderful companionship.” He clinked her glass and took a sip.

Angie smiled, took another sip, set her glass down, and leaned forward to kiss him. Kelly put his glass down and received her into his arms. Kelly had seen Angie working out in the gym on the Bolivar. He knew her body was toned and hard, but she felt mighty soft in his arms. He kissed her again.

The next morning, Kelly woke up on his back with Angie’s right leg over his left leg. Her right hand held his left. When he stirred, she rolled over into him with her left leg over his right. Her head lay on his chest and her arm across his waist. It felt so good, he decided to lay there for a while before getting up. He had nowhere to go today and no schedule to meet. He dropped back off to sleep.

Angie got up first. Kelly woke up a little later, noticed she wasn’t there, and got up. He looked out of the bedroom and saw Angie wearing a short silk robe, gathering items from the refrigerator. He noted, from his angle, how short the robe was. He especially appreciated the view.

“What’s for breakfast?”

Angie looked around at him without straightening up. “How does eggs and sausage sound?”

“It sounds pretty good. Do you mind if I distract the cook first?”

Angie put the food over on the counter and came over into Kelly’s arms, “Oh, I wish you would.”

Kelly and Angie retreated into the bedroom and breakfast was delayed.

Later, Angie accompanied Kelly to the Vigilant for a change of clothes. Then they wandered around base, shopping, and sampling the offerings at the entertainment center. Kelly called his folks and asked Angie and him over for dinner. His parents were very gracious and looked forward to dining with Angie.

Dinner was preceded by several bottles of wine. The Blakes had acquired quite a cellar of local Armstrong wines. Arnold was outdoing himself by preparing vegetable soup, beef bourguignon, fresh asparagus, and a local green called moisache, similar to spinach in consistency, but tasting more like turnip greens. Angie helped him with the meal and the two chatted incessantly about recipes and cooking techniques. Kelly retired to the patio with his parents.

Andrew refilled his glass and said, “She’s nice. Arnold is having the time of his life. Your mother and I are hopeless in the kitchen. When we are working, we hardly ever think of food. Most of the time he has to chase us down to get us to eat something. It’s good for him to have someone to cook with.”

“Angie can hold her own in the kitchen. She had me over for dinner last night and she is a wizard with sauces. She could probably teach Arnold a thing or two.”

His dad took a sip of wine and said, “Tell me, son, how is your crew reacting to the upcoming test?”

“They are taking it well. There are a few that are a little worried. Most are looking forward to it. They see the potential for really expanding travel and commerce in GR space. We’ve got people from all over GR space in the Scout Force and they don’t get to see their families very often, if at all. Travel to even the closest planets can take more than a week. Some people haven’t seen their families since they joined the Fleet.”

Andrew beamed, “Well, that’s what we’ve been working for. We see the trade and travel potential, as well as the defensive advantage.”

“Dad, speaking of defensive potential, have you considered making mobile transporter rings?”

“What do you mean, son?”

“In your demonstration the other day, it dawned on me that if you could construct a ship that was, essentially, a flying transporter ring, we could significantly reduce our fleet patrol requirements. Imagine a patrol craft that could open up to be a full-sized transporter ring. It would give us mobile rings that could serve as the entry point for battle groups into trouble spots. We could use smaller patrol groups to watch the frontier and only bring the capital ships in when really needed.”

“I think I see what you mean. You mean a patrol-size ship that could open up into a full-size transporter ring if it needed reinforcement. Something the size of the Vigilant would be too small. We might could do it with something the size of a frigate. I’ll look into that. How do you think the Fleet will react to the idea?”

Kelly put his wine glass down and said, “It costs a fortune to keep battle groups out on the frontier. Something like this would allow them to maintain a presence for a fraction of the cost. Besides, once the K’Rang catch onto the fact that we can be strong almost anywhere along the frontier, it should calm them down a bit. It will give us an operational and strategic advantage they can’t overcome.”

Moira said, “It would be an odd looking ship, but it could be done. It would need escorts for protection, because the ring mechanism would take up most of the ship. Why don’t we talk to Tom on Monday and see what he thinks?”

A small gong sounded, signifying that dinner was served. The Blakes went into the dining room. Arnold was gushing with excitement over Angie’s assistance in the kitchen. With a special flourish, he held her chair for her as she sat down.

Arnold chastised Kelly, “You didn’t tell me your lady friend was a saucier. A fighter pilot and a gourmet cook-who would have imagined?”

Angie blushed at the attention. She said, “Oh Arnold, I’m not that good.”

“Oh, yes, you are. If you ever get tired of being a fighter pilot, you could have a position at a major restaurant.”

“It’s good to know I have something to fall back on if I ever lose my edge.”

Arnold brought out the soup course. It was marvelous. Angie had contributed the hollandaise sauce for the asparagus and an almond cream sauce for the moisache. They made a great meal even better.

When all had their fill, Arnold shooed them out of the dining room and cleaned up. Kelly escorted Angie out to the patio for after dinner wine.

Angie sipped her wine and said, “It was so good of you to have me over for dinner.”

“Nonsense, it was worth it just to see Arnold enjoy himself as much as he did.”

“He really is a fabulous chef. I helped a bit, but it was a joy just to have a fully-equipped kitchen to putter around in.”

Andrew sidled over and asked, “ Angie, how are the folks in your squadron reacting to the test?”

“There are a few that are cautious, but none that have any real second thoughts about it. We’re all fighter pilots, danger is just part of the job description. If you need ideas for other uses for your invention though, there are a number of folks with some good ones. If they could be fitted inside ships, it would greatly lengthen the time a ship could remain on station. Supplies and replacements would be as close as a supply base on the other side of the ring. The possibilities are almost endless. Troops could visit home in seconds versus the weeks it takes now.”

“Kelly gave us a similar idea for self-propelled ring ships that could reduce the number of ships required to be on station along the frontier. I can see we will be quite busy for years to come.”

The conversation went on quite late, but Kelly had duty early the next morning and they had to say their goodbyes. Angie gave Arnold a kiss on the cheek, which had him blushing crimson. Andrew and Moira each gave Angie a hug and invited her to come back anytime.

The shuttle was waiting for Kelly and Angie and they rode back to the spaceport. Angie lay in Kelly’s arms all the way back to the Vigilant. She kissed him goodbye in the shuttle and took it back to the Q, while Kelly went up the ramp into his ship.

As he dropped off to sleep, he pondered how lucky he was to have three beautiful and charming women interested in him.

The time for the test arrived. Dr. Moira Kelly came on board the Vigilant, along with several Fleet observers, for lift off and travel to the transporter ring. Chief Watson gave up his position for her. The terminal screen contained strange readings, probably from the transporter ring. LCDR Timmons gave the order to lift off. Kelly watched as the Fighting 68th took off behind them.

They reached orbit quickly and proceeded to the ring. Admiral Craddock came on the communicator and gave permission for the Vigilant to proceed upon the Blakes’ okay. A week of tests with drones was about to move to its human stage.

Andrew’s face came on the communicator screen, “Moira, are you ready?”

Moira looked at the captain. “Captain, are you ready? If so, I’m ready.”

The captain replied that the Vigilant was ready.

“Captain, at your discretion, you may proceed into the ring and good luck.”

The captain looked around the bridge and said, “Chief Watson, activate the monitors. Helm, at maximum maneuver speed, take us to Tau Ceti.”

The helmsman repeated the command and applied power. The Vigilant lined up with the ring. Kelly looked around. There was tension on many faces on the bridge. Chief Blankenship moved forward and stood behind Kelly’s position. The leading edge of the Vigilant touched the shimmering plane at the front of the ring. Kelly watched as the shimmer made its way through the bridge and behind him. He felt the gripping cold and then was looking out the bridge at the twin moons of Gagarin. He looked behind him and saw the shimmer progress through the ship. He punched up the rear view and saw Antares space until the shimmer appeared behind them.

The captain keyed his intercom and said, “All sections report status.”

One by one the sections reported everything normal. The captain sent a message to Scout Force HQ that the Vigilant had made it through successfully. He looked over at Moira and asked if she had all the readings she needed.

“Yes, Captain. When you’re ready, take us back through the gate, please.”

“Helm, turn us around and take us back through again.”

The helmsman brought the Vigilant around, lined up with the ring, and brought the ship through.

When they appeared back in Antares space a message from Admiral Craddock came through. “Welcome back, Vigilant.”

The Vigilant moved aside for the remainder of the tests. They watched as a single fighter was sent through the ring and returned. It was the squadron commander’s fighter. Then, two fighters in formation went through and came back. These were followed by a flight of four that made the same trip. Finally, the entire 12 fighter complement flew through in formation. When they returned, the Vigilant lined up with the ring and the 68th took up formation around them. They proceeded through the gate as one and reached Tau Ceti Space again. The formation made a wide turn and returned to Antares space.

Admiral Craddock’s voice came over the communicator, “Congratulations all, and thank you. Vigilant dock at space dock to pick up passengers. All others return to base.”

The 68th returned to Antares Base. The Vigilant docked with the space dock, picked up Dr. Andrew Blake and assistants, several additional fleet observers, Admiral Craddock and his staff, and returned to Antares Base.

Upon landing, side boys were positioned on the quarterdeck and Chief Pennypacker piped the admiral and his party off the ship. The Blakes followed close behind. Once the ship was clear of passengers, the captain called all the crew into the Vigilant’s central corridor.

“I want all of you to know how proud I am of you for what we accomplished today. The crew is authorized two days liberty over the next four days on a fifty percent manning basis.”

A cheer erupted from the crew. The crew had worked some long hard days and nights, preparing the Vigilant for the test. The Vigilant was probably closer to specifications than any ship in Scout Force. The crew deserved the time off.

The captain came over to Kelly and said, “Exec, if you want to fly that fighter you’d better get it arranged. The 68th will be leaving for Tau Ceti in a very few days. I appreciate that you have devoted yourself to the test. Now take some time for yourself.”

Kelly thanked the captain and went out to find LTC Matthews. He found his old squadron commander on the flight line.

He saw Kelly coming and broke into a grin. “I wondered when you’d come around for your fighter ride. Hey, Aaron, come over here. There’s someone here that wants to go for a ride with you.”

Major Brown, the 68th’s executive officer, came over. “Come on, Kelly. We’ve probably still got your flight gear around here somewhere.”

Kelly went into the equipment room and was issued a helmet, flightsuit, gloves, and survival vest. It was even Kelly’s old helmet. It hadn’t been refurbished and repainted.

He put his gear on and walked out to the flightline. Several of his old squadron mates were waiting for him, including Angie. He was bombarded with questions, like did he still remember how to wear his helmet and did he need a barf bag. Kelly took the good-natured ribbing in stride. After all, he was about to climb back into the cockpit of a fighter again.

Major Brown’s crew chief helped them both into the cockpit and checked that all was secure and as it should be. Major Brown fired up the F-53B and took a salute from his crew chief. He moved the fighter from its parking space and onto the taxiway. He lined it up on the runway and turned the controls over to Kelly.

“Kelly, I’m signed for this thing. Just don’t break it.”

Kelly did a quick instrument scan, pushed his head back against the headrest and kicked the throttle to the stop. He pulled straight back on the stick and aimed for space. In just a few minutes, he was back in outer space behind the controls of a fighter.

Major Brown came on the intercom, “Man, I didn’t think this heavy lady could do that. Now I know how those early astronauts felt being strapped on top of a rocket and blasted into space. That was some ride. What do you want to do now?”

“Turn your sensors on. I anticipate some company.”

Major Brown turned his sensors from collision avoidance to all around combat sweep. It was only a few minutes before the ship warned of approaching fighters. He checked the monitor and saw three ships in tight formation and one lagging behind. Janey, Angie, John, and Angie’s new wingman were coming up to play.

“You might want to tighten your straps, Major. It’s going to get a little bumpy. Activate the combat sim, if you would, sir.”

Major Brown was laughing when he keyed his intercom, “Okay, Kelly, combat sim is on and I’m strapped in securely. Let’s see if you still remember how to do this.”

Kelly punched the throttle to the stop again. He watched the reaction as Janey’s flight realized he was on to them. They split into two groups of two, accelerated, and attempted to come up on each side of them. That was their fatal mistake. Kelly frantically programmed the ship’s computer.

He waited until they were almost in firing range at max velocity and hit the execute key. The fighter spun on its axis, facing toward the pursuers and fired two notional mini-seekers at John Kanakis and Angie’s wingman. Then the ship’s engines fired, bringing them to a dead stop in space. The G-forces caused both Kelly and the Major to black out temporarily. When they came to, the ship had spun back and the four ships were in front of them. A quick flick on the control stick, a short burst from the guns, and Angie was out of the fight. Kelly turned on Janey’s fighter. She jinked left, right, up, and down, but Kelly stayed right on her tail. He finished her off with another mini-seeker.

His screen showed another healthy fighter coming up under him on an intercept course. Kelly pushed hard on the stick to line up with the fighter coming up from below. When he was lined up on a collision course, he pushed down on the stick again to look like he was chickening out. The other fighter changed angle to shoot him through the cockpit. Kelly let him come on a little bit more then then pulled up hard on the stick and fired the nose rockets to drop the nose down and fired off a burst from his guns as he blew past underneath.

LTC Matthews came up on the communicator laughing, “Okay all, Kelly is too good for us. Let’s head down to the base.”

The flight of four joined up on the squadron commander’s ship and Kelly lined up to the left of them. As they got within the pattern, they peeled off single file and made individual approaches to the spaceport. When the wheels hit the taxiway, Major Brown took over the controls and taxied the fighter into its place on the apron.

The crew chief came over with the personnel ladder and helped Kelly and Major Brown get unhooked from the fighter. They dropped down from the fighter and walked into the squadron equipment room. Janey and her flight were lined up inside the door on their knees and bowing for him, “Oh mighty ex-fighter pilot, we bow and scrape before you.”

Kelly helped them up off the floor and laughed with them, saying, “I guess some folks owe me a beer or four.”

LTC Matthews entered the room and said, “A beer or five, I believe.”

Major Brown piped up, “A beer or six, that was one hell of a ride I went on.”

LTC Matthews said, “Kelly, get your captain and meet us at the Officers Club tonight about 1900. We’ll celebrate the successful test and bid farewell to Antares. We’ll need to leave in two days for Tau Ceti if we are going to beat the Bolivar back. It’ll be good to knock back a few and swap space stories.”

Kelly looked around at the warmth in the faces and said he would ask the captain.

Kelly changed out of his flight gear and headed for the Vigilant. Angie caught up with him. “Hey guy, that was some fantastic flying today. If you could have stayed in the Fighter Force, I think you would have been a major force in fighter tactics. Your off-axis tactics are so hard to defend against. I recorded all your engagements and have been studying them. I’m not as good as you, but I’m practicing.”

“Tonight, don’t drink too much. I’d like you to come to my room again tonight so I can say goodbye properly.”

“Well, I have at least six beers to drink tonight. I’ll make sure to snack all night so I don’t disappoint you.”

Angie looked to make sure no one was around and gave Kelly a quick kiss. She turned and hurried off to the flight line. Kelly went back to the Vigilant and told the captain about the party. Janey had already invited him and he was looking forward to it.

The captain asked how his flight went. Kelly told him, with sweeping hand gestures, about smoking his entire old flight and the squadron commander. LCDR Timmons laughed and mumbled as he walked off, “Once a fighter pilot, always a fighter pilot.”

As 1900 approached, the captain stuck his head in Kelly’s quarters and said it was time to go. Kelly closed down the terminal, where he was double-checking some personnel actions that were to go for the captain’s approval. They could wait until tomorrow.

They found the nearest waiting shuttle and rode over to the Officers Club. When they got there, the party was already going strong. Angie met Kelly at the door, handed him a beer, and gave him a kiss. Janey did the same for LCDR Timmons.

Major Brown came over with the ancient ceremonial red fuzzy high top hat of dubious origin. He indicated that LCDR Timmons should put it on and that he was being made an honorary member of the fighting 68th. Kelly started laughing, because he had been through this particular ceremony himself. Major Brown took LCDR Timmons’ beer, handed it off to someone, and stood on a chair to get everyone’s attention. Kelly and Angie stood back.

“We’d like to bring everyone’s attention to the presence of an outsider in our midst, begging entry into our august body. I present to the Fighting 68th an insecure Fleet officer incapable of going into space by himself, a so-so officer, and a miserable human being wishing to improve his lot in life by sharing the company of the finest, deadliest, craftiest, fighter pilots in the known universe.” A loud cheer erupted.

“I offer up, for your consideration, one LCDR Edgar Timmons. LCDR Timmons comes to us as a fellow warrior against the K’Rang. He is, unfortunately, burdened by having had to accept a former member of this august body into his crew and somehow turn him into a proper Fleet officer. Now we all know how ineffective this former member of the venerable 68th was and still is today, but it is a task that may make LCDR Timmons worthy to grace our presence. Pilots of the Fighting 68th, what say you?”

A resounding nay boomed through the club followed by gales of laughter.

“LCDR Timmons, the Fighting 68th has spoken. Even though we don’t want you, all the other squadrons in Fighter Force voted before us and they don’t want you either. I guess we’re stuck with you. Members of the Fighting 68th, fill your glasses. Thank providence that we are not currently subject to the damn Fleet regulations against alcohol on ships. Fill your glasses and toast our newest honorary squab, Edgar Timmons.”

At that point every glass in the room was raised in the air and the contents thrown at LCDR Timmons. The captain, dripping from all manner of drinks, had just been initiated into the Fighting 68th.

The soaking was followed by every 68th officer in the room passing by, shaking hands, and welcoming him. The executive officer came over last. He walked up to LCDR Timmons, shook his hand and slapped the 68th’s patch into his hand.

“Welcome, Ed. If the reports of your trials and tribulations dealing with Kelly are halfway true, you will make a fine addition to the squadron.”

LTC Matthews came over and took the hat back. He handed it to the petite brunette that was Angie’s wingman. “Ed, I hope you didn’t mind our initiation ceremony, but it’s our little way of saying welcome. You are now one of us. If you’re ever in a tight spot and the 68th is around, you’ve got a lot of friends that will come to your aid.”

Kelly found a towel and handed it to LCDR Timmons to dry off. Janey took it and got the spots he couldn’t see. Kelly handed him a new beer to replace his that had been misplaced during the ceremony.

He looked at Kelly and said, “You could have warned me.”

“Sorry, boss, I didn’t know this is what they intended, but I might not have warned you anyway.” Kelly and Timmons both broke out laughing. They grabbed their female companions and worked their way around the room.

Kelly drank all six beers for his exploits earlier in the day. Each smoked pilot brought him a beer in turn. The ladies gave him a kiss and the guys shook his hand. John Kanakis tried to kiss him, but Kelly ducked that one.

It was good to be back with his old squadron mates, but Kelly liked the Scout Force. Even though LTC Matthews offered to intercede with Fighter Force to rescind his dismissal, Kelly politely turned him down. Kelly was where he needed and wanted to be.

The party went on for hours. Angie patiently monitored his alcohol consumption and made sure he had plenty of food to help soak it up. When Kelly finished his sixth beer, she drug him off to her room to give him a proper goodbye.

Kelly woke up alone in her bed the next morning. He had barely roused himself when she crawled back in, “I just got up to get breakfast started. It will be ready in about 30 minutes. Can I just lay here in your arms until them?”

Kelly didn’t say anything, just pulled her up against his side, and hugged her. They lay there, luxuriating in each other’s warmth.

“Kelly, I’m leaving with the squadron tomorrow. We will be on Gagarin until our next deployment. We’ve been told the battle group will be going into the yards to have their engines adjusted to protect against those torpedoes. Of course, we won’t necessarily ship out with the Bolivar next time.”

“You know they are going to leave the gates between the two systems active. I heard they might run a shuttle between the two systems. I understand the local transport unit is getting S-660s and they are space capable. Maybe you could hop the shuttle and come visit or maybe I could come back and see you.”

“Angie, I’d love to have you come visit. I’d like to come visit you on Gagarin. I’ll have to see how my patrol schedule will work out.”

They lay in each other’s arms until breakfast was ready.

The next day, Kelly and Timmons were on hand to bid farewell to the 68th. They managed to get a few moments alone with their ladies amidst the orderly chaos of a squadron lift off.

“Kelly, I was serious about us seeing each other. If you can break free from those other ladies that are after you, come see me. The CO just told us that we will be on Gagarin for at least six months. As long as your folks’ transport gate is there, you might as well take advantage of it.”

“I’ll see what I can do. We’ve been held here on Armstrong for the test. We are past due to go out on patrol. When we do, it will be for at least a month. We’ll work something out.”

Kelly kissed Angie goodbye. He watched her walk over and fall into her Squadron formation. LTC Matthews called them all to formation, gave a safety speech and ordered all personnel to their ships. The crew chief and pilots walked to their fighters, the pilots mounted up, and taxied out. Angie and Janey waved as they moved out. When the fighters all took off in four-ship flight formation, the crew chiefs and the rest of the squadron boarded three transport craft and also took off. In 30 minutes they would be in the Tau Ceti system. Kelly and Timmons walked back to the Vigilant to prepare for their upcoming patrol.

That night, as he was about to turn in, Kelly checked his messages. The first message was from his bank. It showed an increase in his pay from the previous monthly statement. Kelly checked the calendar and realized he must have received a seniority pay increase. His next message, which was from the bureau of personnel, confirmed it. He could always use more credits.

The next message was from Tammy. The space-going dry dock carrying her and the new shuttles would be arriving on Tuesday. She asked if he knew anything about a shuttle service to Tau Ceti. Kelly laughed and replied to her message with information on the new transport gate.

She must have been sitting at a terminal, because her response came back almost instantly. In a few seconds an indicator on his screen told him that he had an incoming video conference request. It was from Tammy and he accepted. He had just come out of the shower and was wearing only a towel, but she would only be seeing him from the waist up anyway.

The video conference program became active and a window showing Tammy’s smiling face appeared on the screen, “Kelly, it’s so good to see you again.”

Kelly could see she was using a terminal in a public area of the ship. He reached behind him and pulled on a shirt.

“Hey, I’ll be back on Tuesday. They are going to use my ship for maintenance training for a few days. I’m being given a few days off. I’d like to go back out to the lake. Would you be able to take some time off?”

Kelly said, “I’m swamped at the moment. We’re preparing for patrol and I don’t know if I can take any time off. My evenings will be free by the time you get here, though.”

Tammy’s smile turned into a frown. “I was really hoping you could take some time off with me. I go back on flight status after the mechanics finish looking over my ship.”

“Sorry, but that’s how things are. How about we meet for drinks when you get in and we play it by ear. I might be able to get a day off this weekend. It will all depend on what the captain brings back in the form of orders from HQ today.”

“Okay, but drinks are on you. I’ve been on this slow, dry bucket of bolts for two weeks now. We would have been in days ago, if these idiots only knew how to maintain their engines properly. Can you imagine how excruciatingly slow power 2 is?”

Kelly laughed, “I’ll see you when you get in.”

Tammy put a pouting expression on her face. “See if you can get a couple of days off. It will be fun. I promise.”

“We’ll talk when you get in. I’ll check with the captain and see what I can come up with. No promises, though.”

“Oh, all right. See you when I get there. Bye.”

The window showing her face flicked off. Kelly read through the remainder of his messages and turned in for the night. It would be the last full night of sleep he would get for a while.

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