Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Lost Calling - Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Sixteen Years Ago
Republic Station - Talanovia
Krontomera System, Inner Ghanan Arm

Rebecca Calrose always wanted to be a pilot. To see the stars and travel the infinite worlds between them. But life had a habit of getting in the way. Her thoughts wandered back to her youth and how she went from a small station brat to finally graduating from the Academy of Republic Forces. She hoped her parents would be proud if they were still alive to see her now. Decked from head to foot in the finest uniform given to cadets. It would become her dress uniform worn as an entrance cadet on whatever ship or station she found employment on.
Waiting with her peers, the commencement speeches began, but her excitement could hardly let her pay attention. A squat blue-skinned figure stood on the platform. It was Commander Rota, one of her favorite teachers at the Academy. But even though the short statured Bantonian was speaking Kheprilictic, the most common tongue in the Republic, to Calrose, at that moment, it was all just noise.
It had been generations since her family left the Earth-controlled regions of space. The Mynaterra Arm of the galaxy was mostly controlled by a number of xenophobic human zealots, often putting them at odds with the Republic and its goals of peace among sentient species. Worst of these human factions was the Heritage League, which Calrose refused to admit that her own lineage had ties to.  She was more proud of her great great grandmother who fled human controlled space for the more civil worlds of the Republic.

Calrose couldn't imagine living an entire lifetime without contact with the eleven other species that made up the Republic of Sentient Species. Founded nearly a quarter of a million years ago, the Republic is more than just another governing body, just with added diversity. In fact, the Republic shied away from control at all. They weren't an interstellar power, but more a collective of ideas. All individuals of the twelve member species are considered part of the Republic. But they are also a part of their local governing powers, cultures and traditions. Even the alien hating bigots of the Church of the First Sun, as horrendous as their ideas may be, are still welcome members of the Republic, merely for being human.
The one thing that made someone a part of the Republic, was the one desire that had brought Calrose to that great hall in the Academy. It was a desire to leave your homeworld behind and travel among the stars. The human species had made that decision ten thousand years before she was even born, but Calrose was still thankful.
A spry looking Khepriloi stepped up onto the platform, gracefully propelling itself across the stage on two stilt-like legs. The creature was clothed in a cape-like uniform common among respected Khepriloi, their long torsos and four arms making most humanoid dress quite awkward. The grey-green figure shuffled three datapads between its limbs. Finding what it was looking for, it passed the two unused devices to the shorter set of arms that curled up close from where they sprouted on the alien's hips.
The creature spoke elegantly, the common tongue of the galaxy developed by the Khepriloi and perfected by their large fish-like lips. As it spoke, the tendrils around its mouth jiggled like excited worms. These facial growths made it more apparent that the speaking Khepriloi was a male, though it wasn't always so easy to tell on some individuals. After a brief speech, he began calling out the names of graduating cadets, ushering them onto the stage. It was the sudden shuffling of the cadets around her that broke Calrose from her reverie.
As the line shuffled closer to the stage, she felt a nervous excitement. All her hard work would finally pay off. She would receive her official title and soon after be notified of her assignment. Unlike a standard military, the Republic Forces were more like a diplomatic and peace keeping organization. She would receive requests for assignment, but she was permitted to turn them down in hopes for a better one. She could even interview with commanding officers to be posted within their ranks. Many cadets graduating with her, would actually go back to their home systems to find employment in other military and private sectors. But Calrose had her sights on flying for the Republic Protectorate, an elite organization of peace-keeping operatives often sent into hostile regions to administer aid, oversee peace talks, or in the rare case, back up local forces in a fight. The latter was rare for Republic Forces crews because it required them to pick a side in a fight. Without a real political power pulling their strings, it was nearly impossible to justify battle.
Calrose stood at the steps of the stage, her weight shifting back and forth from one leg to the other with excitement, and still she almost missed hearing her name.
"Lieutenant Rebecca Calrose of Chi'narra," the Khepriloi said, pausing to look up from his datapad as she rose onto the stage.
Calrose stepped forward towards Commander Rota. She made a fist with her right hand and placed it across her chest before bowing. Returning the salute in a far more subtle manner, the meter-tall Bantonian stepped toward her with an outreached hand. She shook it, smiling. Shaking hands was a rather uncommon custom, even among humans. But she knew that the little creature had expressed such a love of ancient human culture, that the gesture was really for his own pleasure. She suppressed a giggle remembering his odd outbursts in class, his infectious enthusiasm over some new cultural discovery. She would miss him. She would miss a lot about this place. Arriving as a teenager, the quick three years she spent in these halls still felt like a major portion of her lifetime.
Calrose stood as the ceremonies drew to a close. She couldn't wipe the smile off of her face. Finally, she thought, a lieutenant. All those sleepless nights studying. The hundreds of hours in simulators and on dummyrunners flying around the station. She had done it. She was going to be a pilot. And not some run of the mill flyer on some backwater planet either. It took nothing to run skimmers from city to city. You didn't even need training or even a license to fly cargo haulers within a system in most regions. But to be something more. Fly the amazing new tech being developed. To fly capital class ships through the Nexus and across the galaxy. That is what she had been working so hard for.
- - -

"Congratulations Lieutenant," a deep voice spoke behind her as she nursed a celebratory drink offered after the ceremony.
She turned to see the Khepriloi that called her name on stage. "Thank you, sir," she said, saluting.
"I hear you have been offered an assignment on the Erebus for your first post." The Khepriloi's large eyes squinted as he tilted his head upward slightly, the natural way the species smiled. She recognized it easily, but it always reminded her of the times she had seen a Khepriloi attempt a more humanoid smile. The parting of such full aquatic lips was almost comically disturbing.
"Yes, sir. I mean, an offer has been made, sir." She visibly tried to relax, but the habits of a cadet are hard to break.
"It is a good ship, should you choose it. Good luck." The Khepriloi made another Khep-smile and then turned his attention elsewhere, ensuring he did the rounds and congratulated as many of the two thousand cadets as he could manage.
Calrose watched the strange creature go. She once again thought about how boring it would be to be stuck in human-only space. She looked around the room at the cadets and officers. Almost every species of the Republic was represented. Even some rarer subspecies were in her own class.
"Well," a kind voice she immediately recognized, "we finally did it, eh Bec?"
"David!" she nearly screamed with excitement, embracing her best friend.
David Lerallen smiled as he returned the hug, wrapping his impossibly long wiry arms around her. Calrose stepped back to look at him, all cleaned up in a tailor made uniform. David was the only numan that Calrose knew. They had bonded over Calrose's awkward and slightly insensitive questions about numans. She was overly curious, but David was impressively patient.
Numans still stand as a controversial topic among many in the Republic. To some they represented a burgeoning new subspecies of humans, While to others they were merely self-altered humans, artificially adapted to thrive on new worlds. The argument was hotly debated even among numans trying to define their own identity. Though the term itself was originally derogatory, after a few centuries it had become accepted as the proper term for enhanced humans.
"You did good kid. I told you if you worked your ass off you would make it!" David said with a wry smile.
Calrose shifted her weight onto one leg, her hand on her hip. "As I recall, you were the one packing up in the middle of the night to quit."
David shrugged comically. He was born to a family of low-g techs who worked mining the belts in Hal System. They were all numans with enhanced physiology built to handle the rigors of low gravity life. His limbs were longer than most humans, making him tall and thin. His skin was almost as dark as hers, though his artificial pigmentation left him with a slightly bluish pallor. She understood why the less tactful cadets referred to him as a stringy corpse.
"Okay, okay," he relented. "So we both hit a few rough patches along the way. That just makes the victory so much sweeter." He took a big gulp of his drink, trying his best to let his smile fade long enough to not spill the drink all over his new uniform.
"So have you been offered an assignment yet?" Calrose asked as David finished the last of his drink.
"No," he shrugged his lanky shoulders, "but I'm not worried. My uncle said I can always come work for him. It wouldn't be as fun as some cool Republic station job, but the mining industry needs techs too."
"I am sure something will come along," she reassured him. "We have only been graduates for an hour."
"How about you? No doubt holding out for that dream piloting position."
"I was offered a spot," her eyes shifted away from him. "It isn't quite what I was hoping for, but it might at least be a foot in the door."
"What's the position?" he inquired, his voice dropping an octave as the conversation left the jovial congratulations behind.
"Flying autopods on the Erebus," she smirked in a failed attempt to hide her own disappointment.
"That's not too bad! And the Erebus, eh? That's a Nolan-Class cruiser. You will at least get to go places and see a lot. You hate sitting still."
David was right, she thought. It wasn't a bad post. It wasn't exactly piloting her own ship, but she would still be flying something. Well a lot of somethings actually. And the Erebus was a big well-known ship. Being a part of its crew would at least open up opportunity to do something bigger and better later. What was she expecting, to get to pilot a capital-class ship right out of the Academy? No one did that.

- - -
Saying goodbye was bitter sweet. The nervous excitement of a new adventure was rattling her stomach. In her final week at the Academy, clearing out her quarters, saying goodbye to her friends and teachers, it had been a lot to take in. The standard week flew by and the end was finally upon her.
Bags in hand, she made her final goodbyes to David. He had finally been offered a lucrative contract at a Turagonian Tech Firm. The weight of not having to return to the mines had visibly lifted off of his tall shoulders. He was looking forward to the relief of the Class 2 gravity on Turagonia's moon, Encel, where he would be stationed. Three years in the standard gravity range of Talanovia's Class 3 artificial gravity, had been a huge adjustment for him. He worked twice as hard as most humans, building up long corded muscles on his stretched out frame. It was that literal weight off of his shoulders that he looked forward to the most.
Calrose gave David one last hug, making him swear that no matter how busy they got, they would remain friends and try to stay in touch. But once again life got in the way. They corresponded for a number of standard months after graduation, but the sheer distance between them, the adjustments to a new time system and schedule. Like most friendships, it didn't end abruptly, it just faded into the blackness surrounding the stars. Occasionally something would remind Calrose of her time in the Academy and her friendship with David, but before should find herself with opportunity to call or write, it was once again forgotten. Replaced by the stresses of her new post.
Flying auto-pods wasn't normally too stressful. They were called auto-pods for a reason. The spherical constructs were like small ships, if all considerations for a living pilot had been removed. The sphere was the most condensed form a ship could take. It had no open interior, but instead was completely filled with components. Without a living pilot inside, there was no need for a cockpit, an artificial gravity, or even high end inertial dampeners. The only measures taken were to keep it within the limits of what the components could handle.
Calrose 'piloted' these ships from a small terminal on the bridge of the Erebus. Much of the systems were automated, hence the name, but occasionally Calrose did have to do more than issue commands to the pods computer system. If needed, she could take full control of one of the pods and fly it as if she were inside it. A complex artificial intelligence system would adapt the maneuvers of the other pods to follow her lead. It was like flying a flock of birds through space.
In the year that Calrose had been aboard the Erebus, she had done little with the pods. They exercised them like any system on the ship. Making sure they were in working order and functioning properly before tucking the birds back into their roost in the belly of the cruiser. Occasionally, Calrose would join the servicing techs in the pod-bay to physically look over the two meter tall ships, going over maintenance and upgrade reports.
On less occasions than Calrose could count on one hand, she had been able to use the pods for their intended purpose. The pods were developed by a Bantonian tech as a means to observe and investigate without putting crew members at risk. By opting for a pilot monitored system, rather than a system fully controlled by artificial intelligence, they could use the pods in ways it wasn't originally intended. An organic brain often proved more creative in a tight spot. It was also a lot cheaper.
Calrose was paid well for what her position was, but her salary was far less than the cost of purchase and maintenance of a synth capable of doing the same thing. Synths were useful but not universally loved across the galaxy, they often lost out to organics. Bigotry came in all shapes and sizes amongst the stars.
After eighteen standard months on the Erebus, Calrose had moved on. She put her pod-flying skills to use on similar systems. First on a gate sentry post that sat near a contested region of space that was only beginning to recover from a civil war. The boredom of that position eventually got to her. She remembered David telling her that she could never sit still for long. She really did mean to call him. Perhaps once she settled into her new position as a gunnery pilot, operating the pod-like weapons systems on an Auruch-class Carrier.
Each new post came with a rise in the ranks, but each position seemed to be pulling her farther and farther away from piloting.

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