Chapter Two

HMS Wellington Orientation Room 0800 Zulu

When Air Commodore Coulthard entered the O-room the next morning he not only had done almost all of his paperwork beforehand, he had also been given a full report of what had led to the bar-room brawl in the tavern last night. He had grounded the Marines in the brigs for two weeks and put a reprimand into their files indefinitely. He had been angry at first but after he had seen the damage the Dark Knights had inflicted on the Marines, he had wondered again if the rumours about the anti-social behaviour of tanks were true.

"Attention!" Chambers called and the squadron snapped to attention.

"As you were," Coulthard waved his hand dismissively and took his stand on the lectern, eyeing each of the bruised pilots closely. "Well-well, you certainly made a spectacle of yourselves last night!"

Megan stepped forward

"Sir, this officer admits to have the sole responsibility for what happened, Sir," she said firmly. "The number 7-2 just came to the aid of this officer when she was attacked at her own instigation by the Marines."

"Is that so, Flight Lieutenant? From what I heard you not only instigated the bashing of the Marines, you deliberately floored their CO as well ..."

"Sir, I ... am sorry, Sir!" Megan replied, blushing deeply and Coulthard almost laughed out loud, but he caught himself and let out a stifled cough. Cpt. Jamieson had been a constant pain in the arse since he and his squadron had turned up on the Wellington and he had considered straightening him out.

"I got a full report of what happened just after reveille, squadron Leader. So don't you ever think you can fool me ..." Coulthard said. "I don't accept disgraceful behaviour, neither from those Marines nor from you." He watched the faces of the pilots and he shook his head slightly. Carter was sporting the blackest eye he had ever seen and the young flight officer held herself awkwardly. Chambers still wore a dressing on her temple and besides the blue-green swelling underneath it, she had also several scratches down her left cheek. Fuller looked as if he had tried to run into a wall head first for his face was black and blue as well. The only two who looked not as dishevelled as the others were Thurston and Woolfe but having read the infirmary report, he knew that Thurston had a fractured rib and Woolfe, beside his split lip, had got a sprained wrist.

God, they were so young. They shouldn't even be here, Coulthard thought. But nevertheless he had to teach them some manners.

"You are grounded to your quarters for two weeks, except for sorties and mealtimes and if something like this ever happens again, you are grounded for good, UNDERSTOOD?"

"SIR! YES, SIR!" the pilots replied in unison.

"Good, now that this is out of the way, can we commence, ladies and gentlemen?! You've an Op to execute!" Coulthard sighed as he watched the pilots take their seats and he switched on the holo-map.

"As you can see Fleet-Com plans to stage a counterattack on the Chigs here in the Procyon Sector. You have been assigned to a transport Op. You must ensure that supplies to the fleet will arrive. Your flight corridor will lead you between those two moons here," two blue globes appeared on the holo screen. "Acheron and Erinys both have breathable atmosphere and a gravity similar to Earth, so you have to fly on point to point co-ordinates to avoid the gravity pull from either ..." Coulthard's voice drawled on. The whole squadron felt fidgety and more than once Megan asked herself if the names of the moons were a sign of foreboding. Acheron and Erinys were Greek and from what she could remember from her godfather's poems, Acheron was a river in Hades and Erinys was the name of an avenging deity.

"Sir, it is very unlikely that one squadron of Spitties could cover such a big supply fleet, Sir," Andrew Fuller said and Megan forced her mind back onto the impending mission.

"Well, there will be three squadrons covering the supplies but you will be in one of the STCVs," Coulthard broke off when he heard the suppressed groan of the number 7-2. "I know you're fighter pilots, ladies and gentlemen, but you all have had training on the Space Transport Cargo Vehicles. And as you know these are old-fashioned spacecraft and they have to be flown by at least four pilots." He eyed each of the pilots closely. "Woolfe and Chambers you are the pilots while Fuller and Thurston are the board engineers and navigators. Carter, you will be operating the board sniper."

"Sir," Megan Chambers stood up and snapped to attention immediately. "May I speak candidly and off the record, Sir?"

The Commodore groaned inwardly, then he nodded.

"Yes, Flight Lieutenant, you may speak off the record and ... at ease ..."

"Sir, we're RAF not some Navy personnel. You know as well as I do that we'll be more than useful if we'd cover the supply fleet with our Spitties. Any Navy personnel can fly an STCV ..."

"Anyone who was in active service during the AI wars, Flight Lieutenant," Coulthard cut in. "Those vessels are rarely used today and I'd rather have you as cover but you're the only squadron on the 'Wellington' whose members had full STCV training back at boot camp."

"Understood, Sir," Chambers replied.

Back at their bunk room, the number 7-2 checked their gear and Fuller briefed them on what they should take special care of. The Op would be executed 0545 sharp the next morning and Megan felt edgy. It had been true what Coulthard had said. They all had STCV training for they had been recruited during peacetime. Back then the main job of the RAF had been to cover convoys and to transport essential supplies to the various British colonies throughout the solar system, having become little more than a better equipped mail service at that time.

The young woman groaned inwardly and watched her squadron as they sat at the table, bending their heads over some manuals Fuller had been able to dig up from the computer.

"And I had thought that I wouldn't even see the back of one of those STCVs again," Pat groaned and rubbed the skin beneath her black eye wearily. "You know what they were called back at boot camp, don't you?"

"Shit-tins cost velocity," all five people chimed in and they started laughing. The STCVs were known for their slow speed. Being RAF, real jet-jockeys, the outlook of riding such an old-fashioned vessel was depressing.

"Do you still think that this Op is better than staying grounded, boss?" Fuller asked and shot his CO a questioning, somewhat ironic look.

"Uh-oh, you got a point there, Andy," Megan replied. "Perhaps it's not the best thing to do, but, yes, it's definitely better than staying grounded!"

The pilots laughed at that. Chambers was right. Over the passed days they had all been weary of being assigned to patrol flights only and a bit of action, even though minor, would liven their lives up a bit. And a point to point navigation on a STCV was a challenge, even for the number 7-2.

After Andy and Pat had, against Coulthard's order, retreated to some private corner on board the Wellington, Meg lay on her bunk and read a favourite book. McQueen had sent it back to her with some remarks scribbled at the edge of each page and she was curious about his thoughts. She had not read for long, when Woolfe stepped over to her bunk. The young IV ducked his head to be able to look into her lower bunk and when Megan looked up from her book, he smiled shyly.

"Can I ask you something?" he inquired and Megan nodded.

"Yes, shoot," Meg said and made room for him on the bunk.

Woolfe lowered his tall frame to the bed and rested his back against the wall. Megan waited patiently for she knew if Woolfe had something on his mind it took him a long time to get his words out.

"I ..., uh," he stammered and shrugged his shoulders. "Ah, never mind!" He wanted to stand up but Meg held him back.

"What's bothering you, James? Out with it!" Megan smirked when she noticed that she sounded just like a mother.

"I can't understand why the NBs always pick on you? You're one of them and yet," he shrugged his shoulders. "It's not that I'm not used to their jokes and stuff but why do they always say those things about you?"

Megan sighed softly and raised her knees to her chin.

"Mmh, it's difficult to explain, James. You know, people have this strange conception about In-Vitroes. They are afraid of you because you're quicker, stronger and more resistant to illnesses, even though they created you to be that way. NBs envy you and they envy people like me as well. IVs were never created to procreate and yet some of you are able to have children like my father ..."

"Yes, I know that but why are they always calling you names? You are our CO and they talk as if you, you know ..."

Anne's head appeared from above as she looked down on them.

"What he means is that they always make fun of you for being shagged by a tank dyke!" Anne said and wiggled her brows. "If only it were true!"

"Anne, cut it out!" Megan said and watched as the young woman got lithely down to the ground and squeezed herself in between Woolfe and the back wall of the bunk.

"But it's true, isn't it, Meg?" Anne asked. "The only thing they seem to think about is what we do after lights out! Every time we get into a bar fight it is because someone dropped some remarks about James' private parts or that you are being shagged by the both of us. It sucks!"

Megan nodded her head at that.

"NBs are like that. They heard rumours and most of them have a vivid imagination," Megan said and looked over to Woolfe. "You know, in former times Black people were in the same position as we're in now. It's just a human thing. After all those centuries of evolution it just comes down to ..."

"SEX!" Anne cut in and grinned when she saw Woolfe uncomfortably squirming at that. "As I said this whole thing sucks. Those jerks with the petri-dishes just thought to create willing toys for their perverse fantasies."

"Do me a favour and get laid, Thurston!" Woolfe growled angrily and Anne lowered her lids. She knew that this particular subject was a weak spot with Woolfe but try as she might she couldn't help bringing it up time and again.

"I'm sorry, Woolfe," she said. "That was stupid of me!" She shot Megan a glance and the young CO gave her approval with a nod.

"You see, James, it's human nature to make fun of others. Most people don't think, they just do and sometimes their words hurt ..."

"I don't like that," James answered. "When I was in indentured servitude ... those guys, they did ... things and I ... I couldn't understand why. Last night the Marines sounded just like them, I got so angry because they don't know you. They don't know any one of us and yet they treat us like we've just come out of a dustbin!"

"People always fear things they don't understand and they make fun of it, so no-one will know how scared they really are. In the last century, people like Jews and Blacks were made fun of. They were just like us, scapegoats and always on the receiving end of snide remarks and even pogroms. In the thirties of the last century, Nazis thought that Jews were second class citizens. They were rounded up and killed in specially designed camps. They had to work there until they died and then their bodies were used to make soap and other things ..." Meg broke off and Woolfe creased his nose.

"So they were like us tanks? They were in servitude?"

"Worse than that, James. They were free agents and yet they were put into these concentration camps, mothers were separated from their children, husbands from their wives and all those who were too young or too old to work were gassed ... I don't want to say that indentured servitude is a better treatment than that but those people had family, they knew who they were, they had a long family history. You have the chance to get off the contract after a few years but those people ... During the history of mankind things like that always happened. There were and always will be people who think they are better and more equal than others. Whites always thought they were superior to Blacks and all other races. Not a hundred years ago the Blacks in America had to fight for their rights to even be in the same room together with white people," Megan bent over and rummaged through the pocket beside her bed. Eventually she produced a small book, she opened it and began to read:

"Brother, come! And let us go unto our God. And when we stand before Him I shall say - 'Lord, I do not hate, I am hated. I scourge no one, I am scourged. I covet no lands, my lands are coveted. I mock no peoples, my people are mocked'. And, brother, what shall you say?"

All was silent for long moments after Megan had ended reading the poem aloud to James and Anne. Both In-Vitroes were deeply touched by the words and it was Woolfe who spoke first.

"Will it ever change?" he asked shyly. "Will the NBs ever accept us as their kind?"

"I don't know, James. It took them almost three hundred years to accept black people ..."

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