The Laredo II approached the warp point which would carry it out of the Zahn system. Behind the point defense frigate ship the Mon'kra, a xenophobic race at war with the humans, finished destroying the surface of Zahn and the hundred and twenty million people who had lived there. Included among the hundred and twenty million were every single person Antono "Ant" DaWeir was related to by blood. His history could be traced back six generations to the original founders of the planet. Currently Ant was stuck in Flak Cannon point defense station one with his commanding officer, Randall 'Chief' Worth. The Laredo had been badly damaged during the exchange with the aliens, and if they had not been intent upon destroying the human world Ant knew he would not be alive. Damage control was working on getting the old air scrubber back online, the new one had been picked up at space station Yuego, where Ant himself had boarded the ship for the first time as a replacement crew member.
The ninety year war with the aliens had been hard on the humans, exacting a high cost in materials and manpower. A third alien race, mechanical beings known as the Qucree, had told the humans that they knew of many alien races and wars were known to go on for thousands of years without victory. That the humans were fighting so well against a more experienced, elder race was encouraging to their species survival. The Qucree traded with both sides on the conflict, but as a policy stayed out of the conflict directly. The machines were not a hive mind however, and individuals of that race had joined on both sides of the Human-Mon'kra conflict in small numbers.
The Qucree also hinted that they also traded with other races unknown to the humans, others that might not like them any better than the Mon'kra. The humans were fleeing the destruction of Ant's home world and the dozen or so battleships the Mon'kra had brought in system to destroy the planet. The fight with the Fleet ships had been drawn out over several hours, but the outcome had never been in doubt. The Fleet only had a handful of frigates and a converted battleship to fight off the intruders, this was a major incursion into Fleet space by the aliens and Randall had assured Ant it would not go unanswered. The battle was over by several hours now, they were stuck in the station because of the damage to the ship had turned the main shaft that connected the ship together into a vacuum, venting into space.
The Laredo was built around a massive Hades class gun that ran from aft to stern and was aimed by turning the ship towards the enemy. The armament was minimal compared to some of the larger ships that Fleet had, a mighty dreadnought, for instance, had several batteries of the same gun mounted on it. However, the Laredo II had a much higher thrust to mass ratio. Still, it was primarily a support ship. The skin of the ship bristled with anti-missile cannon of all stripes, which was where Ant was station. Tt was ships like the Laredo’s job to shoot down incoming missiles, torpedoes and fighters. Their point defense weapons could also be turned on satellites if they needed to however they were not strong enough to be used on the heavy armor and shields of most other vessels.
Today was Ant’s first day of Fleet service; he had been picked up hours earlier as a ‘Space Recruit’, the lowest rank possible. He was trained to run the most modern of point defense cannon, although before today he had only practiced with simulators. Along with him three others from his home planet had come aboard; Sam Hussein, an engineer, Sui Len, who had taken a berth as a Marine and Ami Garcia who accepted a position working in the commissary. Sui was confirmed dead, Ami was still listed as missing in action and Sam's own boss the Master Engineer of the vessel had been severely wounded, leaving the engineering team in chaos and his fate unknown.
Each of the men and women on board had a 'palmo' a small, sophisticated computer that handled everything from conveying orders, to entertainment, to controlling the nannites within their own bodies. Without the palmos communication range would have barely extended the length of the ship, with the devices they could speak to anyone in system and even send out rudimentary communication, like a distress signal, to outside the system. The palmo Ant had been given replaced the one he had earlier in the day, it was a special ship issued device that could only communicate ship wide unless the officer's on board approved the outside contact. Ant had been told that this was to specifically keep the fact that the Laredo was undergoing an upgrade to equip it with one of the newest Artificial Intelligences that Fleet possessed.
Now Ant was using the device to keep track of the progress that was being made to get the ship out of the system and restore it vital systems, like the air scrubber, which had been offline when they left the Yuego many hours ago. The remaining engineers were projected to have the system jury rigged, again, in a few minutes. During the battle they had gotten the equipment working briefly only to have it knocked out when the Laredo was struck by some missile debris. Fortunately the core equipment was not damaged, just disconnected and isolated in a section of the ship with no atmosphere, which engineers were equipped to deal with.
Along with the other damage the individual palmos were acting up, some not connecting at all. This was a hindrance to the search and rescue teams, who were now forced to go compartment by compartment to search for survivors.
"Not much longer now." Randall said, "Looks like we will have air. Well, enough to survive anyway."
Ant said nothing in response, their current pocket of air should last for another hour or so before it became so laden with filth that the men went unconscious and suffocated. Randall looked over his newest, and now only, Point Defense Spaceman. His command was divided into quadrants; the other three had depressurized when the ship was damaged were hit. The nanites could actually keep a human alive in a vacuum for short periods of time, but short depended on the individual, the available processing power of the local computers, and the other damage that went along with being in a vacuum. In ideal conditions ‘short’ meant twelve minutes before irrevocable brain damage set in. It had been many times longer than that already.
'He is so young', he thought. An outside observer would have had the same thoughts looking at both of them. Randall was all of twenty in standard years and Ant was just over fourteen. Each planet protected by Fleet set the age of their recruits and if they passed their tests they were accepted, no matter what their age. Pulling up the information on Zahn, Randall found that boys and girls like Ant had started training when they were eight. The testing was mentally rigorous and could be physically demanding as well, if the candidate wanted to serve with the Marines, for example. The four people brought on board at Yuego all had stellar marks of achievement, Randall noted that Ant actually scored higher on his entrance exams than he had.
"We make you better, stronger and churn you out faster these days then even four years ago." he said out loud, with his hands he opted to store a copy of all the information on Zahn locally on his palmo.
"You. Me. I came into Fleet at sixteen and was thought of as one of the youngest ever to serve. Now here you are, here two years younger and I have to wonder when it will end."
Ant's brow furrowed in thought, "I don't think any younger than twelve, perhaps eleven, if the person has started their adolescent growth spurt, otherwise the uniforms and other equipment would be unsuited for us."
"What? You've thought about this?"
"It was required in our ethics class, we discussed the pros and cons about young recruits. The overwhelming majority of us agreed that while giving our youth a chance to stay younger longer and mature more slowly was a good goal, we also thought that course of action would not work for meeting our species survival needs. We fight now so we can have the good things later. We favored growth acceleration by a three to two margin as well."
"Sounds like someone aced their government political science class." Randall muttered.
Ant looked at Randall for a moment trying to determine if this was a joke of some sort, then said, "Yes. I did, all of us scored in the top percentile of all of our normal school work. That left the physical part of the job to weed out the best of the group who would go into space."
"There is more than good grades and fast reflexes to surviving."
"I know. I have been sitting here thinking about the part that luck played in my own survival. Sui didn't have the luck I had. Ami might be dead. I haven’t been able to ping Sam since we were damaged. How can we harness luck?"
"I think someone is working on that. You have konojo luck. Had. You are not green anymore. Twelve deaths, thirteen injured that is half our crew and five out of six of my people. And I was short handed to begin with! It looks like three of the four of you recruits are on the casualty list too. You know what that means?" ‘Konojo’ meant ‘green recruit’, most of who were considered lucky by tradition in Fleet.
"No." said Ant shaking his head.
"It means of the four of you, you are the luckiest. Not a scratch on you."
Ant smiled, his red eyes and somber manner lightening for a moment, "So you will keep me close to you then? So it will rub off?"
"Ant, Ant, Ant" said Randall shaking his head, "I was on the Laredo I when it got blown to pieces, two survivors, me and Sergeant Killert. In fact, you may only have survived because you were close to me."
"Where is Killert?"
"He was with the first section of marines. The one that died an hour ago when they lost compression in their ready station."
"Oh. I am sorry for your loss." Ant said.
"Don't be, I wasn't that close to the man, me and marines don't get along too well."
"Have you been on the Laredo II since she was commissioned?"
"We walked out of the survival pod onto the deck of the Laredo II. Seriously, it was ready to depart as soon as we got back to Malfordor Station. The old Laredo was going to be converted into a fast freighter, it was too old to be reliably upgraded, but not old enough to scrap. The crew was given the choice of staying with it when it was re-fitted as a freighter or going onto the new namesake. My boss had chosen to stay with the freighter, which left me in the top job here if I took this berth. It was an easy choice. I didn't get on well with my old boss. That doesn’t mean I wanted him dead though."
"Do you get along well with anyone?"
"Well, yes, you and I seem to be doing just fine. You will get a promotion out of this; pretty much anytime half the crew is wounded or killed you are guaranteed to get a promotion, unless it’s your fault that they died." Randall told him.
"Well I expected to make Space Apprentice fairly quickly. Space Recruit is almost not even a rank."
"True, but I bet you get bumped up to Spacer third Class. I will put in for Spacer First Class and see what the Lieutenant says. I give you twenty to one odds against that. And ten to one against Spacer Second Class, you don’t have the experience for either position."
"Then why recommend me for it? Why not just put in to bump me up to Apprentice?"
"That is just the way it works. If I put you in for less of a promotion, the bells will go off in my superior's heads, they will think less of you, as will all your future officers. This way they see what I recommended and can bump you up to where you should be anyway while denying my full request, it makes them feel important and you end up where you deserve, so everyone wins."
“I don’t really have the experienced demanded of STC either.” Ant said, defaulting to the common acronym of a Spacer Third Class.
“Ah, but combat trumps experience.”
"It still seems strange to do it that way. I didn't even do anything abnormal, just my job."
"You put in the new firing solution before battle, that was a kojono trick, something only someone fresh out of training would even bother to try. That will circulate to all the other ships and end up saving lives, you deserve a promotion for finding a solution that no one else would have tried. Plus we need more 'Spacer First Class' personal anyway, better you than some kojono from Burke's world."
Burke's world was a well-known planet that frequently was the butt of many jokes around the Federation. Each world could set what laws it wanted on the surface, with no holds barred or oversight by the Federation authority, so long as the taxes were paid and recruits for the armed forces were given according to the population of each world. Burke's world barred most technology from all areas outside of the space station. The people there lived short, brutal lives and the recruits from the planet were typically so filled with wonder at the galaxy that they rarely worked out in Fleet. Most could not read or write when they came to serve and because of their lack of training they usually served in the supply corps, moving crates from point 'A' to point 'B'. The irony for the Federation was that Burke's world was a huge planet, approximately eight times standard and it was one of the earliest settled. The climate was mild and the resources were abundant, the world was well made for farming. As a result the population of the planet was over twenty billion people, making it a prime contributor of untrained Fleet personnel.
"Are the Burkers as bad as I have heard?" Ant asked.
"Some of them are not bad, Fleet started recruiting them at ten standard about seven years ago; we get them early and put them through training for four to six years. Before the Burkers can make them too useless. If they come to us after that all they are good for is fist fighting, fucking and drinking too much. They almost all have very serious prejudices too, about women, sex, food taboos, technology and alien species. At ten at least we can train them out of their ignorance."
"Do any of them ever go back?"
"They can't, Burke won't take 'em. Once we get them set up with implants and Palmos. Not that I ever heard of anyone who wanted to go back. Once they get a taste of technology I don’t think monthly barn dances as the highlight of their life appeals to them anymore, not to mention going back to outdoor plumbing. Supposedly there are good ‘virtuals’ of their lives available, if you really want a taste of it. The females Burkers we get would never go back."
The door to their station clanked and started to cycle open, it made it about halfway when a dirty helmet popped through and a mechanical voice asked, "Anyone alive in here?"
"Yes!" Ant and Randall shouted in unison. Ant started to cough.
"Hell there is more smoke out there than we have in here." Randall said.
"Probably true, the scrubbers are down and without the chief I don't know what progress they have made to get the system working again." said the helmeted man.
"Kermit? That you in there?" Randall asked.
"Yeah it’s me, Lucky."
"Kermit?" Ant asked.
"It is his nickname, like 'Ant' or 'Lucky'."
"Oh, you're called 'Lucky' because you survived the Laredo I's destruction?"
"Ah...something like that, yeah. Kermit, meet Ant. Ant, Kermit."
Kermit held out a dirty gloved hand, which Ant shook. "Don't mind Lucky there, Ant, he isn't half as bad as you might think."
"Bad? He’s not bad, I get along well with him."
"Say it isn't true, Luck! You've found a subordinate who you get along with?"
"I always liked kids, what can I say?" Randall said.
Ant didn't know how to respond to this so he said nothing, but Kermit laughed and said, "They are sending us to them younger and younger these days aren’t they? What do you think Luck, promotions all around?"
"Well I don't I know about you, but I know Ant and I deserve them, he came up with a firing solution to fix our little over-heating problem before the battle started. Something I could have done but was just too lazy to work on. So I know he is up for big promotion. Plus we should get combat badges, this will be my second Oakleaf, that isn't anything to sneeze at."
"Yeah, and with your entire command obliterated, Ant will be up as your highest ranking subordinate. We'll have a few crimson combat badges to go around too. Engineering got hit hard, but not as bad as it could have been. You know that second berth down there?"
"Yeah, yeah, they moved the AI into it didn't they?"
"Sure and the Mon'kra fighter tore right through it."
"The AI is dead?" Ant asked, his voice rising an octave.
"Completely offline, we don't know if any of it is recoverable or not." Kermit told him.
"We can still jump though? We aren't stuck here, are we?" asked Ant.
"We can jump, the navigation computers can lay in a course on their own and they are up in the bridge, which is fine..."
"Vru!? You done over there with that hatch?" came a voice from further down the main corridor.
"Just about Ma'am. Gotta go. You guys can get out and to quarters from here, suit up too, just in case. Watch yourself near the downside portal, it has been cycling open and closed at random." Then Kermit disappeared. A moment later their palmos alerted them to orders from the Laredo's commander, she brought them into an audio only conference.
"Ma'am." said Randall.
"Randall, how are your crew?"
"Only the new man survived Ma'am. Recruit Antono DaWeir."
"I was hoping for better news. Are you injured?"
"No ma'am. We are both healthy, tired, but ready to help."
"Good, that is what I like to hear." Commander Wei gave them permission to join the engineering search and rescue team to act as another set of hands and muscle. Kermit welcomed them a few meters down the main passageway and Ant's life became a blur of physical work that kept him from dwelling too much on the fact that his entire world had just been destroyed.