chapter two
Part Two

Fiche was on the comm, he nodded Topper to enter, motioning him to take a seat.  Not the nearest seat, but one farther along as though Fiche was expecting someone else to join them.

Topper forced a smile.   This happened a lot.   The other person never showed and Topper was forced to lean forward and speak louder than he felt was necessary.

He wondered sometimes if Fiche just had a pecking order and Topper simply didn't rate being in the closer seat.   It was a petty thought, but the idea of taking a literal 'back seat' again was becoming a peeve of his.

Fiche continued his conversation.   "I don't care what he thinks, we need to make sure this goes through."   A pause.   "Make sure he does it.   Yes!   Before the end of this thing!"

Topper tried to figure out what this was about.   He was cleared for code word operations but Fiche's reluctance to use proper nouns was an indication it was something he wasn't in the loop for.   Then again, if he wasn't suppose to know anything about it then Fiche really should not be continuing the conversation with him in the room.

Fiche finally wrapped up and cradled the Comm, all without revealing anything useful or relevant.   He turned to Topper expectantly.  "Yes?"

Topper suddenly realized Fiche wasn't expecting him and didn't know he'd been upping himself on the Buffalo Commons file.   He cleared his throat feeling once again like a teenager being called on his Dad's carpet.   How he wished he could get therapy for that, but it would immediately invalidate his clearance.

"I thought you might need some help on the crisis brewing in Buffalo Commons."

Fiche paused.   Vipond was out front, Ticinovic was on assignment, and Coombs was down there with him.   That meant he had none of the usual assets for this threat zone were available.   An oversight on his part, but Topper was sharp, Fiche had to admit that, and knew enough about everything involved that Fiche knew it would be wrong not to include him.

"How much do you know on this?"

Topper nodded, "I just upped on the file.   It's a mess down there."

"Any ideas how to fix it?"

Topper hesitated, glancing self-consciously at the seat directly opposite Fiche, in a flash wishing he was sitting there.   Fiche caught it.   He leaned back and motioned Topper to move up.

Topper felt silly being happy about this.   It was a very small gesture.   He took the seat and brought his portable display up.

"I could theorize, but I'm not sanguine about doing so."

Fiche was starting to regret bringing him in on this.   It was a problem that required a strategy session between people who could approve the actions decided on, not just talk.   Still, it would be nice to have something to recommend to them, Fiche was, after all, in charge of Information.

He blinked realizing that Topper had been continuing without him.   "I'm sorry?   What did you say?"

"We need input from someone who knows the area."

Fiche looked down at the display Topper was offering him.   The young analyst had done a search of everyone in the Network, looking for anyone who'd been in the region.   What he found was someone who had been born and raised in Buffalo Commons.   Someone pretty high up, which was good.   The feedback would have credibility, which was in short supply right now.

Fiche looked at the display again.   One name.   "Get her on the line."

* * *

Fleet Commander Crystal Tass wasn't happy.   She strode across the upper deck of her ship with a scowl that nearly everyone recognized as warning to stay away.

Tass had led her Fleet Team, a mix of various combat pilots who were supposed to be good shots in a Rifle competition against the resident sharpshooters of the on board Astral contingent.   They'd had their butts handed to them.

She supposed that's how it should be.   If a bunch of Fleet Weenies could beat the Astrals at firing rifles that probably would be a bad thing, particularly on their own turf.   Problem was Tass hated to lose, even when the odds were stacked against her.

Not that she herself had done poorly.   Her score came near the top of the total points, as it should've.   She'd been firing small arms since childhood, first on the homestead with her Grand-Pa's supervision and then later with the hunting parties out on the plains.

Tass smiled at that, here she was, Commander of a Fleet Supercarrier, the most powerful craft ever built, and yet few of her peers had any inclination that her upbringing had more in common with the 19th Century than the 23rd.

She crossed into the second bay, one of five upper deck spaces that were easily larger than any internal space on any one her ship's predecessor namesakes.

She glanced up, taking in the spectacular, almost cathedral-like view that never failed to impress her.   On either side were the racks where dozens of craft of various lethalities were parked, awaiting Armageddon.   She loved her ship, the way someone loved a spouse, which was appropriate considering the level of commitment that commanding it required.

She crossed the seventy meters to the next bulkhead, imagining that each click of her hells on the deck was being heard in the sleeping quarters of the Astrals below.   It was silly and she knew it, but she enjoyed the thought anyway.   Maybe she could find some ringers on her crew, people who could shoot, at least better than her senior officers.

As she passed two Combat Pilots gearing up for their recon patrol she wondered if they'd do better at firing a rifle than others on her team.   She crossed over to them and their flight crew, who snapped to attention the moment one of them saw who was approaching.

"Skipper on deck!"

Tass waved them to relax and turned to Captain Aragon, Flight Leader of this patrol.   "You ever fired a Rifle, Captain?"

Aragon was stunned.   Six hours a day, four days a week he ran the finest fighter craft known through it's paces, frequently running full speed firing drills on small targets tossed out by one of the perimeter ships.   Rifles had no place in his existence.   All he could muster in response was a confused, "Sir?"

"Rifles.   Small arms.   Do they bother teaching jockeys how to do that, or are you guys still waiting for the gold plated editions?"

Tass had never had much patience for the aristocratic attitude of combat jocks, even when she was one.   Fortunately her current position afforded her the luxury of sarcasm.   A smile didn't hurt to blur the line between comment and humour.

Aragon looked at his wing-mate while his confusion still reigned.   The wing shook his head.

"No sir.   Never have."

Tass looked at the two of them.   It was a serious, appraising sort of look that made both wonder if there was some special mission that required a pilot who could fire small arms.   Such a thing would be covert, the sort of thing you could only smile about and never mention, something that would add more swagger to your step, and neither one of them felt that would ever hurt.

Rutherford, the wing-mate, caught the twinkle in Aragon's eyes and made the same leap in logic.   Eagerly he offered, "We could learn."

Tass looked at Rutherford and then glanced at Aragon.   Both were willing.   They regularly practiced their aim.   She'd have to instruct them but it could work.

"We'll have to keep this between us," she added in hushed tones.

"Absolutely sir!"

Tass smiled broadly now.   "I'll give you special training."

"You shoot, sir?"   The surprise registered on Aragon's face.   These boys would be miserable at Poker.   She'd have to keep that in mind too.

"I can take the Comm-Badge off a grunt at two hundred metres."   It wasn't an idle boast though she'd never done it.   "Without augments!"   She added.

Aragon looked at Rutherford.   Quality time with the Skipper could mean fast-tracking, particularly if they excelled.   Both nodded, it was a rifle, of course they'd be able to shoot it.   Once they figured out the damn thing.

"You can count on us sir."   Ah, that confident smirk.   Tass hated that too.   The Astrals had it each time they took her challenge, but this time it belonged to her side.

"Good flight then, gentles.   Hurry back."   Tass turned continuing her walk in a much better mood.

* * *