Taz waited until everyone had clambered aboard the gnarly-looking vehicle before straddling the tailgate and knocking her heel against the dented steel. The truck spun in the mud for a few seconds before lurching ahead, her troops groaned.
"Salt baths take the edge off of aching muscles," said Taz to the ranger sitting closest to her. His badge said Mikkins.
He nodded at her, wide eyed, "Thanks Captain. Do we get to train with you again tomorrow?"
Taz almost laughed at the soppy expression, "No. You have that much fun today?"
"Uh well, no. Just…. You know…" Mikkins' looked even more moon struck, "You."
"Yeah, yeah," Taz grinned widely, "I'm sure it'll wear off soon, Mikkins. If not now, next month."
The road back to the barracks was bumpy, and by the time she swung down, ants and bugs were crawling up and down her legs. She tried to rub the sensation out. "Make sure to follow your schedules," barked Taz as her troops dragged themselves out of the truck bed after her.
Tsionawit followed the troops and made sure that everyone got to their assigned place before backtracking to find Taz in the office building.
"I can't believe that little toad Mikkins," Tsionawit slammed herself into a chair, "Can you believe the way he looked at you? You'd think we didn't run him into the ground hard enough! I hate him." She spit into the trash can. Taz chuckled.
"I like when they have a crush on me, because of their reaction when I tell them they have to run ten miles in one go. They're crushed." Taz was swiping files across her computer, and grinning at Tsionawit.
Tsionawit shook her head, "If they actually start flirting with you-"
"Who's flirting?" Up's face appeared on the computer.
"Ugh, you." Tsionawit wrinkled her nose at Up, "I'll see you at the meeting tonight, Vasquez. Don't forget." Tsionawit shook her braid out and left.
"The recruits, they're all star struck by me," Taz rummaged in her desk for some food she stashed away, "You wouldn't believe how many recruits we have signing up."
"Is this part of your training?" Up, "Seems unusual."
"Right? I tried telling Fathia that if I wanted to train some greenies, I could have stayed home."
Up's expression darkened for a second. "Anyway, when's the next step?"
Taz pretended not to notice and thoughtfully chewed on the dried fruit she had found, "Mm, No idea, maybe a couple of weeks."
"What?! No idea?" sais Up, eyeing Taz.
"Oh no, I've got the whole schedule for the next year memorized. I just can't tell you, security protocols." Taz flicked the fruit pit into the trash, "How's things with you? When's the surgery."
Up's face creased with worry, he almost looked scared. "Uh yeah, Th' doctors are having a hecking field day telling me about everything that could go wrong."
Taz managed to kick one of her boots off, her swollen ankle looked worse than it felt, "So?"
"So?! So what if something goes wrong. What if- What if-"
Taz slammed her other boot onto her desk, startling Up out of his spiral. " Up! As if you have another choice! Stop bitching and moaning about this surgery that has to happen anyway!"
"I didn't realize I was being pathetic." He looked away from the screen, his jaw working furiously to contain something he wanted to say.
Taz sighed and rubbed her eyes, "All of your negativity and- and the 'poor me' attitude is really getting on my nerves. It's not like you," Taz's face softened marginally, "I'm worried too, but what other options are there?"
"None," said Up, he clenched his fist under the desk so Taz wouldn't see it on the computer screen, "I just wanted-"
"Some sympathy?" Taz said it gently, but Up still flinched. "Have they scheduled the surgery yet?"
"A month from now, if nothing changes," Up looked down and suppressed a shuddering sigh.
"You'll be fine," Taz crowded the computer screen, grabbing the screen as if she could break it and out would tumble Up, "I've seen you do dumber shit than have some surgery."
Up snorted and rubbed his cheeks, "I guess I have, huh?"
"You guess so? Don't be a fucking idiot! You've risked your life for less! Don't laugh! Admit it! You're nervous about this because you won't have a gun in your hand."
Up tipped his head back and laughed, "Maybe I should ask the medics to staple a gun on my hand, so I'll feel better."
Taz grinned back at him, "Maybe you should. Then they'll know there'll be trouble if they fuck up anything."
"Hah," Up quickly rubbed his eyes dry and Taz pretended not to notice, "So uh, what can you tell me about what you're doing."
Taz threw her hands in the air and leaned back in her chair, "That when I'm not up to my eyeballs in moonstruck yokels, I'm getting the shit kicked out of me? Is that what you want to hear? That my ass is perpetually rashy from how much I'm scooting around on it?" Up laughed so hard he turned red.
"S-stop," gasped Up, still giggling.
"And the rest of the rangers here are basically all hard-asses, so you can imagine how hard it is to get some liquor."
"I'll ship you some of your favorite," said Up, smiling broadly, "And some ass cream."
Taz snorted. "Don't bother, the pigs on customs here take bites out of everything that gets sent."
Six months later:
Taz listened to the message Up left with a smile lingering on her face, but when she tried to call back there was no answer. With a sigh she left a message and then slung her helmet over her head.
"You coming Vasquez? Breakfast's almost over." Tsionawit tapped on the door sill impatiently. Taz followed her out into the hallway, wondering why Up wouldn't answer her call. Did he forget she was leaving today?
"I've never seen you skip breakfast," commented Tsionawit, "You that nervous, or just mooning over Up." Tsionawit straightened her own helmet and pulled her collar straight.
"Did you get the preliminary reports for the first mission?" Taz ignored Tsionawit's jab, "I hope you're ready to actually lead a squad. "
Tsionawit's face became stony, "I told you I wasn't going to fuck this up. I mean it"
The starship that waited for them crouched low, gangways lowered, allowing the rangers to board in groups. Her commanders clustered near the doors of the gangway, Taz dry swallowed.
"Seriously?" Tsionawit, tapped Taz's shoulder with the thick folder of orders. "You're not like this, shake it off."
Taz scoffed, but she still felt tremors run up and down her legs.
Tsionawit clicked her tongue in disbelief, "Well, for what it's worth. I think you'll do great as a captain."
"Thanks," said Taz, then she raised her voice for the three other commanders under her lead, "Morning."
"Morning captain!" They all, including Tsionawit, saluted her.
"Alright, let's get started. I expect each of you to act as you've done in the past. I hate surprises, got it? Make sure your squads get enough prep, we're going to be deploying in ten hours, and I don't want anyone sleep deprived."
"Yes ma'am," they murmured and Taz felt the clawing in her stomach ease a bit, she could trust these people, she's trusted them in the past as equals. They followed her into the starship, Taz thumbed the sheath of her knife, three weeks without communication outside of her own commanders and central command. No problem, no problem, her breath hitched as her thoughts strayed. Tsionawit glanced at her but didn't roll her eyes.
Within five minutes of deploying her commanders for her first mission as captain, Taz hated being a captain. She stood the whole time before the command screen, her knuckles white on the console. Two aides repeatedly tried to have her sit down, but she just kicked the chairs away. It was an improvement to not be slogging through sewer water like Bienvue currently was, and to not have a laser hole to the leg like one of the lieutenants down there. But with her heart beat slamming hard against her teeth, it was difficult not to be envious of the rangers who only had to worry about themselves and not an entire field of people. She had to keep reminding herself not to be on her commander's asses, and to let them do their job.
The top right of the screen started flashing, incoming small craft, enemy. The captain of the flyers sprung into action, Taz stared at her through the semi clear command screen. She looked up only once, to catch Taz's glare, then kept her eyes firmly on the screen.
Her commanders were all making good time back to the starship, Taz slowly counted down from thirty seconds before clicking her mic on.
"Get here now." After they all radioed in with confirmation, Taz had the medbay prep for the incoming injuries, and had the hydraulic hangar door unlock and prep for a quick boarding. It's going to be fine, she uncurled her hands from the console and stomped out of the room, an aide trailing her.
"You were really nervous, Captain." It wasn't a question from the aide.
"I don't even know your name," Taz looked the lanky woman down.
Unrepentant, she grinned, " Paula, ma'am. And you did really well today."
"Hmph," the reached the inner lock of the gangway, released the lock and waited for Tsionawit to call her to open the gangway.
"Oh, I can tell this is going to be a fun six months," Paula laughed at Taz's face.
"I'm awake! I'm awake!" snarled Taz, she slammed her knee into the bed frame, and opened the door swearing. Both Tsionawit and Paula were howling on the door with their fists.
"What is it?!" then Taz's stomach dropped, "Oh God, did something happen?" She left them standing at the door to jump into some pants and a shirt before they could respond.
Paula's eyes widened, "Oh wow, captain, you're-"
"Not now," hissed Tsionawit to Paula. "Taz, it's from central command, three colony ships that were supposed to land yesterday at some planet, refuse to do so, on account of their science officer going missing. The last ten seconds of recording from her helmet are disturbing, they're requesting...an investigation."
Taz didn't bother tightening the laces on her boots, instead opted for tucking her shirt in, and snagging her jacket from its hook on the wall while pushing Paula and Tsionawit out of her room.
"Well I'm not sending any of you," Taz held her hand out and Paula gave her the request summary. Tsionawit and Paula glanced at one another and then back to Taz who was dragging her fingers through her cropped hair as she read the summary report.
"You didn't say this was from Fathia," Taz glanced at Tsionawit curiously.
"Didn't think it was important," said Tsionawit with eyes lowered, "The Admiral, however, is insisting you go over there are investigate personally." Even as she said it, Tsionawit could see indignation and anger pinch Taz's face.
"Has she bounced her pips? Give me a moment alone with her." Taz went into a communications room by herself and dialed Fathia. She could see Paula and Tsionawit crowding the semi-opaque door, their shadows pressing together.
"Ah, Taz, I was hoping not to wake you." Fathia looked as polished as dark marble.
"What the hell kind of order is this?" Taz slapped the request summary onto the console.
"I'm aware that it's unusual," said Fathia slowly.
"Unusual?! Has some wild animal taken over as the Fleet Admiral?" seethed Taz.
Fathia's cheek twitched and she carefully considered Taz, "Captain. Until now, you've shown remarkable aptitude for your new rank. But if you can't play nice-"
By now, Taz had learned better than to snap at Fathia's bait. She lowered her head and took in a couple of deep breaths, filling her lungs until they hurt. Finally, Taz looked up to Fathia and asked, "Am I going to be demoted for refusing to abandon my people during an important mission?"
"Not only be demoted, you will be booted from GLEE." Fathia's tone was so gentle that Taz could only gape at her, dumbstruck at Fathia's failure to deny Taz was going to be abandoning her rangers. The silence stretched on, Taz crunched the summary report under her fist.
"Am- Am I to understand that, while my rangers are in an extremely risky situation that requires my guidance, I'm s'ppose to be playing Beach Rescue? For some- some scientist?" Taz felt drained, she let herself fall into the chair, and stared at her hands.
Fathia remained stony, "Yes, and, if you've read the report summary, you know that you're suppose to leave in one hour."
Taz snapped her head up, "Did... Did I do something wrong?" The words felt slimy and slick in her mouth, but screaming at Fathia would get her nowhere.
Fathia's eyes fluttered, "No..."
"Then I have to put off the mission," said Taz, grazing her thumb on her teeth.
"No," Fathia's voice hardened again, "The mission must go on, he- The orders were very specific."
Taz felt the breath escaping from her faster than she could breathe in, the room swam and rippled, "They'll be alone. They'll die..."
Fathia finally looked uncomfortable. "They have their orders- Surely your people can follow orders and get in and out?"
Taz leapt to her feet, "And since when have things decided to go to plan?! Certainly not fucking today! Give me a captain to replace me, either here or there, or you can EAT MY SHIT!"
Fathia's mouth hung open, Taz was panting, and the acidic taste in her mouth receded, she took in a deep breath, "There has to be another starship nearby, the mission doesn't start until tonight. Get me a competent captain to direct things."
"Well, I never... Very well, I will see what I can do."
"No." Taz's voice had frozen over, "You are going to do this, or I'll have your fucking head, Fathia."
And to Taz's further astonishment, Fathia actually smiled, smiled at her! And just as quickly, the smile disappeared, replaced by the marble face, "Very well, captain. There actually is a dependable captain nearby who can lead the mission, Captain Osmos?"
Taz nodded, she knew Osmos; they were scrupulous, a brilliant tactician, and loved karaoke. "Thank you, Fathia." Taz said quietly. Fathia hesitated, as if she had to say something else, but she shook her head and disconnected the call.
Taz was trembling when she stepped out of the comms booth, Tsionawit stepped forward and slung an arm around Taz's waist. "What's the damage, Taz?"
It had been a long time since she had someone support her, for a moment, Taz wished she could have Tsionawit preside over the mission. Then she shook her head and the silly thought bounced out, she leaned further into Tsionawit. "I need a bottle of alcohol, something hard. Also, Osmos will be leading the mission tonight.
"I know," said Taz grimly, "Believe me, I know." She straightened, but Tsionawit kept her arm around her belt loops as if she was afraid Taz was going to swoon.
"Paula, send a bullet to Osmos, they should be nearby, within the sector. Tell them... Tell them that it's an emergency, and that I'll owe them a karaoke match when I get back. Osmos will know what I mean, send them all of the info that I have okay? They're in charge."
Paula had her hands clasped in front of her, nodding mournfully, "You're being sent away. Is it punishment?"
"It feels like someone wants me out of the way." Taz sighed, and then grinned ruefully, "Who knows what the Admirals are thinking?"
After Paula ran off to scramble a message to Osmos, Tsionawit walked with Taz to her room.
"When do you leave?"
Taz looked at the time on her phone, "Thirty minutes." She sagged against her doorway and closed her eyes, "I don't know why they're doing this... Maybe..."
"Yeah?" Tsionawit leaned in close, grasping Taz's arms.
"Maybe they want to off me so that you're eligible as interim-Captain." Taz cracked an eye open and grinned at Tsionawit.
"Oh fuck you, Vasquez!" Tsionawit strode into Taz's room and started shoving clothes and soap packets into Taz's duffel bag.
"I'm serious. It's only been eight months, but I was only commander for what... a year, not even that? If I don't come back...I want you to aim for captain."
Tsionawit made a horrified snort, "No! Absolutely not! If you get even a scratch on you I'll-!"
Taz burst out laughing, "I remember when you couldn't wait for me to die so you could become commander."
Tsionawit managed to blush only slightly, "Ah, that younger foolish self. Fuck her, you know?"
They finished packing amiably, Tsionawit followed Taz to starship's hangar where the small craft waited that was going to take her to the colony ships hanging over the soon-to-be-colonized planet. She turned towards Tsionawit, "Be careful, I don't want you to take stupid risks."
Tsionawit nodded, her jaw shut tight.
"And tell Paula that if she ever mentally undresses me again, that I'll have her thrown in a cell."
Tsionawit snorted. "Good luck Taz, good hunting."
"Good hunting," echoed Taz before boarding the small craft. An odd score of people were also crammed in there, being dropped off to different planets and ships, reassignments, discharges, promotions. Their curiosity was palpable and Taz could only manage to stiffly nod at them. She approached the pilot.
"Where to, Captain?"
"The colony ships stationed over Bug Planet."