Andrei stretched his neck and rolled his shoulders beneath his stiff, starched dress uniform. He and Ogrufina didn’t usually spar quite as long as they had last night, and he was feeling it today. He was pretty sure, though, that the twinges in his hips and lower back were less from boxing and more from that second wind they’d both had right about the time they’d gone to bed.
Leaning against the podium at the front of the briefing room, he took a long swallow of coffee before looking over the new pilots and gunners with tired eyes. Only three pairs of new arrivals this time. Epsilon needed more, damn it. Fortunately, they’d been on stand-down ever since he and Ogrufina had discussed the new strategies with the admiral, which meant they’d been conserving—and accumulating, thanks to the supply ships—fuel and ordnance. They just needed more manpower, and soon.
Rumor had it there was another ship on its way with more crews after this one. Damn good thing, too. One of the squadrons needed at least four more pairs before they could fly in any kind of formation. Andrei’s squadron needed two of these three new pairs to make up for their lost birds, though he’d only be able to snag one from this group.
At least he got first pick from the new arrivals since he’d been assigned to give this briefing. Only one pair would be his, so he might as well get his hands on the best. The other squadron leaders could fight over the other two.
The newcomers’ files were on his tablet, which was beside the podium under a stack of briefing materials. He’d look them over once he’d dismissed everyone. He liked to size them up cold, without any preexisting notions about their simulator scores or flight records. If they’d been deemed good enough to join the Elite Squadron, then they obviously knew how to fly and shoot worth a damn. Well, unless the Fleet was getting really desperate, but at the very least, the crews in front of him had managed to avoid getting killed so far. These days, that was better than nothing.
What he really wanted to know was their personality types. How well would they mesh with his already hand-selected squadron? Pilots were naturally arrogant, and gunners could be even worse, so he expected a certain amount of head-butting and ego clashing. They had to rely on each other to stay alive out there, though, and Andrei was damned good at figuring out who’d throw the whole squadron into chaos and who wouldn’t.
So he went by his instincts first, and the contents of those files later.
He scanned the gathered newcomers.
The lieutenant commander sitting off to the left side immediately caught his eye. Good-looking, that one. Still bleary-eyed from the journey, but alert. Freshly shaved. Familiar too, and after a moment of watching him surreptitiously, Andrei figured out this was the same man who’d been watching him and Ogrufina spar in the gym last night. He also decided his initial assessment—that the man was incredibly easy on the eyes—still stood.
He hadn’t taken a good look at the man’s uniform last night, but now he surreptitiously inspected it from a distance. Over his left breast was a set of gold wings—as opposed to the gold marksman insignia that Andrei himself wore—noting he was a pilot. Still only a lieutenant commander, though. Not unheard of for an elite pilot, but if he was a good enough flyer to be here, then his lack of rank probably meant he’d either been denied promotions or he’d been demoted. Likely for his conduct.
The edge of his collar had a slim blue stripe with three white stars, which meant he was American, and Andrei mused to himself that the blue stripe and the lieutenant commander rank added up to someone who probably didn’t like authority. The men under Andrei’s command insisted that the Elite Squadron didn’t need any more Americans and their cocky attitudes or reckless piloting. Of course, the American higher-ups disagreed; if they’d had it their way, the whole damned squadron would have blue stripes. Arrogant pricks. Andrei wasn’t fond of having a mostly-American squadron, but he didn’t complain when he saw new ones on the incoming roster. Reckless piloting was sometimes the only thing that kept Menarian missiles from knocking them out of the sky.
And while he’d never admit it to anyone except Ogrufina, he rather liked their accents. Especially in bed.
No. Not going there again. No pilots, no gunners. No one but Ogrufina.
He banished the thoughts of Murari and, with them, the grief that still simmered beneath the surface. Tugging at his stiff collar, he shifted his weight and pulled his mind back to the briefing he was about to give. With a more professional eye, he sized up the rest of the half dozen new crew members.
In the middle: two male Japanese fighters, their collars lined with red and white. On the far right: a male American gunner with a female French pilot. Interesting. He’d heard that pilot/gunner pairs’ nationalities were becoming increasingly mixed as the Fleet became more integrated, but few of those crews had come to Epsilon.
His gaze drifted back to the pair of Americans on the left, and this time he noticed they were obviously a couple. Her hand rested on his knee, his arm was across the back of her chair, and each wore a simple gold band. So much for any thoughts he might have had about an American accent in the bedroom—most of those people were rigidly monogamous.
He glanced at the clock on the wall: 0701. Time to get started. With only six chairs in front of him filled, this threatened to become just an informal gathering, but Andrei preferred formality until the new guys had found their places within the squadrons.
Standing front and center, he cleared his throat. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am Commander Andrei Dezhnyov. My pilot, who will be here shortly, is the unrivaled Captain Ogrufina Teterev.”
The gunner on the far right raised a hand. “Sir?”
The gunner smirked. “Are you really the best gunner the Elite Squadron’s ever seen?” His southern American accent drew out every syllable. “Or is that just bullshit recruiting propaganda?”
This again. Never fails.
At least that meant Andrei had learned to respond without rolling his eyes.
He smiled. “Yes, Lieutenant Commander. It is true.”
The man snorted. “For the time being, anyhow.”
One in every crowd. And always one of the damned Americans.
Andrei tapped the shooter medal on his chest, which had two silver and one gold star across the top. “When you have one of these with a gold star on there instead of”—he looked closer at the American’s own medal—“two bronzes and a silver, then we’ll talk about who’s the best gunner in the Elite Squadron.”
The American pilot on the other end, the one who’d caught Andrei’s eye last night—and again this morning—snickered.
Andrei glared at him. “Something you’d like to add, Lieutenant Commander?”
The pilot shook his head but pointed at his gunner.
She grinned and tapped the shooter medal on her uniform. One silver and two gleaming gold stars.
Andrei stepped a little closer, eyeing the medal. Then he shifted his gaze to her name tape, and his lips parted. Maybe he should have glanced over the files before the briefing.
Straightening, he looked her in the eye. “Commander Blaine. I should have known you’d be one of us sooner or later.” He extended his hand. “It’s quite an honor.”
She shook his hand. “The honor’s all mine, Commander Dezhnyov.”
He turned to the pilot sitting beside her. “You must be Lieutenant Commander West.”
The American blinked. “You . . . know who I am?”
Andrei laughed. “You don’t think I’ve heard the brass complaining for the last year and a half that they haven’t been able to recruit you?” He extended his hand again. “Pleased to finally meet you.”
West shook his hand firmly. “Likewise.”
Though Andrei might have been imagining it, West seemed a little dazed by the exchange. He’d never in a million years let it show, but truth be told, Andrei was a little off-balance himself, and damned if he knew why.
You know exactly why, you fucking fool.
Lori A. Witt is the fourth corner of the Gallagher-Witt quad, and prefers to play in the genres of science fiction and fantasy over all that romance nonsense. Okay, so romance does show up sometimes, but these are the books she writes when she needs a change of pace. Sword and sorcery, spaceships, and just general weird nerdy goodness—Lori writes it all. Like the other members of the quad (L.A. Witt, Lauren Gallagher, and Ann Gallagher), Lori is in the process of relocating from Omahabad, Nebraskastan to the southwestern coast of Spain. In her spare time, she tries to stay out of the middle of L.A.’s and Lauren’s ongoing rivalry, while never missing a chance to trip Ann when she’s not paying attention.
Connect with Lori
Facebook • Website •
Blog • Twitter: