(Sick bay, TDSS Ronald Reagan, 21 July 2175:1600)

It was safe here in the dark, far away from the doctors and the nurses and the technicians who kept trying to get her attention. They fluttered around the edges of the vast, dark ballroom, afraid to come out in the middle of the floor where Julie lay curled up, waiting to die.

She could hear them faintly, talking about comas and severe injuries and regen limits, wishing she would wake up and show some sign of conscious life so they'd know it was worth the time and effort to put her shattered body back together. Sometimes she thought it would be a good idea to get up and leave the floor and join them, but then she remembered that Reiko was dead, vaporized, gone, never to dance or love or argue with again. When she remembered that, she curled up tighter in her burned, tattered flight suit and wished Death would hurry up and get on with it.

Sometimes she slept, but when she woke up she was still there in the ballroom. One morning she woke up to find General Wayland standing over her. "You can't be here," she told him, still curled up like a wary armadillo. "There's nobody here but me."

He laughed as if that was funny. "I'm here too, though, Major. So I guess you're wrong about that. I won't stay long. I just came to remind you that you can't die yet."

"Yes, I can. Just watch me."

"You have something very important to do first, Major. Tetsuko needs you. She's waiting for you on Earth. You have to go to her."

Julie began to shake. "No. No, I won't. Somebody else can go."

"Reiko would have wanted you to, Major. You know that. You're running away from your duty."

"Damn you!"

His voice was gentle, sympathetic. "You have to do it, Julie. There's nobody else to tell Tetsuko what happened. Nobody else to look out for her and make sure she gets her wings."

Julie uncurled and lay face down on the floor, sobbing helplessly. "No. I can't. Not her sister."

"You can. You must. You know you have to.” His voice softened, and for just a moment Julie thought she heard a touch of weary sadness in his voice. “Please get up, Julie."

She got to her knees and painfully rose to her feet. The General took her by the hand and led her to the edges of the ballroom. The lights came up, and the room was empty. Outside the windows, there was only the black of deep space, with a few stars scattered in the endless night. "How can you be here, with me? Inside my head?"

He looked at her with no expression on his face. "Maybe I'm not here at all, Major. Maybe I'm just your subconscious using a convenient mask to tell you what you already know. You're a smart girl. You'll think of something."

Abruptly, the General vanished, but the lights remained on as the ballroom faded away and was replaced by the dimly lit sickbay. A nurse leaned over her. "Don't try to talk, Major. You've been comatose for three weeks now."

"G-General Wayland?" The name came out as a hoarse, barely intelligible whisper.

"He's not here, Major. I'll tell him you asked, though."

"No...'s okay. Just a dream."

In his office several decks away, General Wayland's eyes refocused, and he smiled sadly. It might have been kinder to let her die, he thought, but he wasn't being paid to be kind.

Major Lorena Kim felt unspeakably awkward in her dress blues. It wasn't that the fit was wrong; the uniform was just loose enough so that it didn't look sprayed-on. It wasn't that she didn't look good in it; she was in peak physical condition, so there were no unsightly bulges anywhere on her body to make her self-conscious. No, what bothered her was her position in the 5901st Attack Squadron's formation: twelve steps in front of the flight leaders, one step ahead and to the right of the squadron sergeant major. The commander's position. The position that really belonged to the scarred redhead in the wheelchair, who she could see watching the ceremony from one of the observation points in the repair bay's bulkhead.

Kim had been acting leader of Blue Flight, the "awkward squad" that held the Starfighter pilots not considered good enough to mix it up with the starships of the Imperial Rim Sector Fleet. Blue Flight was generally used as escort for the Marines' assault shuttles, orbital artillery for the marines once they were on-planet, and very occasionally to smack down whatever system defense forces were fanatic (and stupid) enough to get in the way while Commander Honjou took Red and White Flights out to the jump point to do the real fighting.
After the last battle, Blue Flight was all that was left. Commander Honjou had died saving Major O'Meara, who had remained in a coma for months afterward, and that left her the ranking pilot. Technically, Captain Watanabe of the Headquarters & Service Flight had outranked her, but there had never been any question of his actually assuming command. That was a pilot's prerogative. So it was that she found herself summoned to General Wayland's office one day not too long after Honjou had gotten herself killed, and received her promotion to major along with the responsibility for the squadron. What with the cease-fire, which had initially been offered by the Imperials so that O'Meara could be recovered, the post of group commander was largely administrative. Which seemed to be just fine with everyone concerned, from the General on down to Kim herself.

Not that she'd actually seen the General. He hadn't come out of his quarters since Honjou had died. The promotion had been at the hands of Commander Sanmartin, the wing's operations officer, who had remarked that it was high time somebody started taking care of the paperwork, since he already had enough to do as General Wayland’s aide and General Chang was getting tired of late reports.

So she found herself on the repair bay deck, acting commander of a skeletal squadron that consisted of the five remaining Blue Squadron pilots, the squadron's ground crews, and Watanabe's H&S people: ordnance techs, admin and logistics specialists. It felt wrong. Still, somebody had to be there, and for several good reasons it couldn't be Watanabe. The squadron stood at ease on the deck as the Marines and a detachment from the Reagan's crew filed in and took their places. The Marines, who could trace their unit lineage back to the Second World War, took the place of honor on the right. It made for a rather monochromatic display, actually; the deep blue of the Marines' dress uniforms wasn't all that different from the dark blue of the Aerospace Force that the 5901st and the carrier's crew wore, and even the stark black Security uniform of the General didn't stand out much.

The General stepped onto the hangar deck, followed by General Chang, the wing commander, and the Wing Sergeant-Major. Kim was shocked at how old General Wayland looked. Surely he hadn’t been that old when they had left Fortress Luna? Still, he managed to move along at the standard 120 per minute, and executed a left face in front of her. He cleared his throat slightly and began to speak.
“Major Kim, normally during this ceremony your predecessor would accept the colors from the Sergeant-Major and pass them to you, but obviously that isn’t possible. I therefore ask that you accept the colors directly from him as Colonel Honjou’s representative.”

After that, the change of command went smoothly. Neither of the generals wasted time on speeches; the ceremony spoke for itself, and it was over quickly in any case. Before he left the hangar deck, General Wayland gestured to her; when she approached, he handed her a datapad. "Major, this pad contains classified orders. You're free to delegate the duties described to one of your pilots, but I want them started before we get back to Fortress Luna. If you have questions, come and see me personally."

"Sir." Kim took the pad, saluted, and went back to her office to see what was so secret that it couldn't pass through the ship's internal message system.

She blanched as she read the orders. This was nothing she wanted any part of; the list of additional security clearances alone set off alarms in her head, and the terse orders guaranteed professional suicide for any officer who might have plans for a career in the peacetime Aerospace Force, which she had. No, best to find someone bright enough to get the job done but low enough on the chain of command not to be missed...

Major Kim was fairly informal with us most of the time, so when she summoned me to her office after the change of command ceremony it made me really uneasy to find her sitting stiffly at her desk in full dress Class A uniform. So I saluted instead of just slumping into the spare chair like I otherwise would have.
"Lieutenant Kawakami reporting as ordered, ma'am."

"At ease, Lieutenant. Have a seat. I have an assignment for you." She slid a datapad across the desk to me. I picked it up, and read it. The orders were fairly straightforward, but the implications were ugly. When I was done, I laid it back down on her desk.

"So how did I get to be the lucky sacrifice? Isn't this really Commander O'Meara's job?"

"She...she refused to write it, and the General sanctioned her refusal, since she's still on the sick list."

"Well, what about you? You're the squadron commander. You have access to all the records."

"I...can't do it. I'm delegating the job to you. The General thinks you'll do a good job."

"Oh, he does, does he? Is he going to bail me out when the Inquisition comes calling? The war's over, youknow, and even a dumbass like me can see this whole project skated along the edge of the Black Technology prohibitions from the beginning. What if some red-capped busybody at the Vatican decides it went over?"

"I have his assurance and the Chaplain-Major's that won't be the case. Shut up and soldier, Lieutenant."
There was really nothing more to say after that. I went back to my quarters in a foul mood, which wasn't improved when I opened my mail and saw that I'd been brevetted to Captain, as well as given a whole raft of special accesses for all manner of things I hadn't imagined were even vaguely related to what we were doing. There was nothing left to do but dig into it.

I wasn't expecting to see Commander O'Meara at all. Word was that she was still in regen therapy and would be until we were back at Fortress Luna, and in the meantime I was busy reading all the documentation there was on Project Starfighter. The General was unavailable, although he did release redacted portions of his journal to me. Also, there were portions of the project's records which wouldn't be accessible outside the Fleet Marshal's headquarters, no matter how good my new accesses were.

Still, there she was in the door of my brand-new office. "May I come in?" she asked.
I nodded. For all I knew, she had resumed command - and I couldn't tell her no, anyway.
She came into the office and sat down in the chair on the other side of the desk. Apparently she'd hit her regen limits - one side of her face was marred by burn scars, and some of her orange-red hair had been combed down over it. She was dressed simply, without her rank badges, in the pale blue jumpsuit that we wore in lieu of a fatigue uniform, and she didn't meet my eyes. "I understand you're working on the project history," she said. Her voice was barely louder than a whisper.

"Yes," I replied. "What can I do for you, ma'am?"

For a second, her mouth jerked into something that might have been mistaken for a smile, if you didn't see the lifeless eyes above the mouth. "Nothing, actually. But I do have something for you." She pushed a couple of data chips across the desk to me. "These are personal journals - mine and Colonel Honjou's. There's stuff in there that isn't in the official reports, and I thought it might help you to have our insight on some of...what happened."

"Your personal journals? Commander, I-"

"I trust you, Kawakami-san. I don't expect you to use everything you find, because some of it is personal and has no place in an official report. I think someone besides the General and I should know the whole story, though."

"Has he seen these?"

"No. He and Colonel Honjou were very close, though. I doubt there's anything in there that would surprise him."

I looked at the chips dubiously. On the one hand, having primary sources like this would be invaluable. On the other hand... "Why are you doing this?" I blurted out. "What would be in your personal journals that you wouldn't have put in the squadron files?"

The Commander avoided my eyes. "I think you know. It must have been all over the squadron...the General said that someone had reported us to the Chaplain-Major, though once...once she died, there was no point to continuing the investigation, and it was dropped."

"I don't have any idea..." As soon as the words were out of my mouth I realized what she was very carefully trying not to say, in case someone was snooping. "Oh. Actually, it wasn't. If people suspected anything...untoward...was happening, they didn't talk about it. Not to me, at any rate."

There was an awkward silence for a few geological eras while we both sat there. "Well," she said quietly, "it's all in the journals. I thought somebody besides myself and the General should know." She stood up slowly, like an old person, and as she turned to leave she stopped and looked directly at me for the first time. "I'm sorry that you were saddled with this, Kawakami-san. It's something that I should be dealing with myself, but the doctors seem to agree with the General that it would be very bad for me. So, thank you. I appreciate your doing this." She looked down again, but not quickly enough to keep me from seeing the tears in the one eye not concealed behind her hair. "Good luck."

"Thank you," I replied automatically, but she was already gone.

Despite having served with her for the better part of two years, I really didn't know Commander O'Meara very well. What little I had seen of her during the long months we'd been out had given me the impression of a standoffish loner, someone that didn't want you to get close. Of course, since she was deputy squadron commander and I was just a lowly Blue Flight loser, there was nothing much she would have had to say to me anyway.

It made me wonder why she would put something into my hands that was so obviously detrimental to her personally, and to her treasured memories of Colonel Honjou. Clearly they had been very close, in a way explicitly prohibited by the repressive Articles of War imposed on the Directorate Armed Forces by the Reunited Catholic Church, but at the same time of no great importance to most of the nihonjin who served in the Aerospace Force itself. Was that what made her think she could trust me, of all people?
I put Colonel Honjou's journal chip into the desk and began to read.

Last Chapter Of A Novel: An Everything Quest

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