Keepin’ it Real

by Rhembrandt

Jillian “Rhembrandt” Maddox had always prided herself on her unfailing pragmatism.  At least, that’d been the case before she’d graduated from Solrain academy.  Pragmatic, because sometimes one has to shovel some dirt to find the gold.  Unfailing, because until she’d answered that advertisement and met up with her new wingmen, she’d never had any problems doing what needed to get done in order to make it.  She was a woman with ambitions, and ambitions don’t leave any room for emotional debate.

She’d been a mediocre pilot in the academy.  Well, mediocre may be a bit strong, but certainly she wasn’t as good as she liked to tell herself she could be.  Or should be.  Either way, when she’d realized that her skills couldn’t keep up with her goals, Jill figured out a better way to get the grade.  Most of the teachers at SFA were male, and hey, it was a long way from the nearest recreational facilities.  A little smile and a show of leg got her farther than she otherwise would have gotten.

Being one of only a handful of female pilots helped with that.  At first, she’d been shocked to see that so few women were with her in her class.  Rhembrandt wasn’t one to put much stock on the whole 2.3-children-and-a-dog family scene, and the sterilization requirements suited her just fine.  A clean dance floor is a crowded dance floor.

And not many people ever said much. The stodgier types, maybe, but it’s not like they ever warranted interest.  When you’re Solrain, you just understand a few basic rules: You do what it takes.  It’s never anything personal.

It wasn’t, anyway.  With his black hair and eyes that sparkled with the kind of ambition Jill always had for herself, Colbourne  “Ghannodahn”  Foster was exactly the type of fly-boy she expected…and everything she didn’t expect.

Fortunately, he was also a smug, arrogant bastard, so for their first months of working together, Jill was able to stay mad at him most of the time, keeping her attentions focused on the bigger targets and the task at hand – making lots of money.  Grateful as she was for Colbourne introducing her to the Orion Faction and all the big-brass millionaires that comprised the squad, Jill kept no illusions that she ought to be that grateful.  She was, after all, accepted on her own merits, and Warlock was liking her just fine.  Just fine, indeed.

So why, when she was just leaving Thomas McPlowed’s quarters, did she feel so dirty?

“Heads up!”

Darts of purple ions smacks the Fortune’s Fool with the usual indifferent malice.  The sizzling sound that accompanied the impact of Conflux ion-particle energy with her Haven shield made Rhembrandt’s hair stand on end.  She pressed her thumb hard into the glowing yellow button on her throttle, kicking the afterburner’s to life, and got out of the C6 “Manta” ‘s line of sight just as her shield was failing.  Cursing loudly, the smell of charred metal filled her nostrils, making it all too plain that her armor was being sliced into like a cheap piece of syntha-beef.

“Goddamn that little bastard,” she snarled, moving through the twisting line of ammunition fired by the C5 “Snail” that had joined it’s faster partner for the hunt.  “McPlowed, I thought you were gonna – “
“Already on it, lass,” came the burred reply, the baritone voice lightly braised with concern.  Within a few second, the Manta was off her tail and giving chase to her chosen hunting party.

“I’m havin’ a bad day.”  Rhembrandt flipped off the throttle, slammed her flight stick hard to the left, and gunned hard at the reverse vector, skimming her own green contrails.  “I got you on target.  Keep it steady.  Alright, I can’t catch you…”

“I know.  Just keep it straight. I’ll be comin’ back.  You know how to do this?”

Jill almost sneered, but there was something about McPlowed’s voice that kept it away.  “Yeah, sugah, just come straight at me.  Damn snail’s gonna be a pain in my ass, though.”

“You want me to-“

“Nope, nope.  Y’all wouldn’t deny me the pleasure, would you?”  She smiles genuinely at the small blue hologram that floated some three inches tall from her right console.  McPlowed smiled back, giving a little wink that was nearly lost in the skip and static of the unsteady projection.

“I wouldn’t deny you any pleasures at all.”   Good, thought Rhembrandt.  Then we got one thing in common.  She would later consider the matter more deeply, and be nonplussed by the sincerity of that voice.

“That’s what I like to hear,” she replied just as McPlowed’s Quicksilver flashed past her cockpit window.  Faster than the Manta he was “towing,” the Conflux was still a good eight-thousand meters off of McPlowed’s tail, which was just far enough to ease into a perfect line-up before she squeezed the trigger.

As the distance reader counted down the space between herself and her target, Rhembrandt’s excitement grew.  Watching the Manta’s shield turn into a lightening-laden halo of purple was even more exciting.  At last, as the confused, wobbling biomechanoid drone blew into a cloud of atomized particles rigned by a halo of fire, Jill felt the familiar, pleasant tingle below her belly.  Licking her lips, she turns her sparkling eyes to McPlowed’s smirking visage.

“Nice work, lass,” he praised.  Thomas knew she enjoyed being called pet names like “lass”, “babe”, and – more recently from Colbourne – “whore.”  Jill grinned her best girly-giddy smile and chirped a thanks as she pulled back her throttle, swung the FF  180 degress, and punched her burners along a reverse vector, skimming her own green contrails.  The C5 was closing in as well, already six-thousand meters off.  As Rhembrandt accelerated to the minimum snail-fighting speed of 150 mps, she curled her index finger, sending her ship into a negative-g right-ways spin.  As she twisted through the arching lines of ammunition the snail was throwing at her, Jill centered her “Duelist” targeting eye where it was supposed to go, and let loose a hail-storm of bullets right back at it.

Ratatatatatatatatat.  Leaving the two sets of guns faster than her ears could register, the Snail was reduced to half it’s shield strength within the span of 3500 meters.  Still, even while she glowed inwardly about the pass, Rhembrandt didn’t fool herself about her own skills.  It was a lucky pass.  Sometimes it took ten or eleven passes to kill off a snail if she couldn’t keep her vectors in line.  She had a habit of turning too wide in these snail-jousts.

McPlowed’s holoprojected com image continued to grin as she turned herself for the second pass.  Not as lucky, she only managed to chip the snail down to the shield strength of the previous pass.
“Damn, these things re-gen fast,” she complained, already reducing her speed to make a faster turn into the next pass.  “Just give me a minute, hon, I won’t be long. “  I’d better not be, she told herself.  Gnashing her teeth, her knuckles nearly white from the strain of forcing the ship to turn against it’s own momentum, Jillian punched the afterburn, twisting her ship once again to line up her “Duelist” targeting eye.

The problem, Jillian has discovered, is not that Conflux are sometimes unpredictable, but that they always try to match your current vector.  That made the snail’s bulls-eye unhappily elusive.  It was four passes before Rhembrandt could fly through the dust and dissipating flame of the ex-Conflux.  A tougher battle than it ought to have been, and she let McPlowed know just that.

“I usually do better,” she assured the man.  Thomas only nodded with an understanding smile.  Rhembrandt’s first instinct was that it was a condescending one, but when he turned his full smile on her the next moment, the feeling faded.

This is getting bad, she decided, though she kept her own smile for his sake.  Over 15 million dollars in credits and another 7 in equipment had been gifted to her from him, making her his wingman for this hunt.  But it’d been her flirting that had got his attention, and it was her body that kept it.  At least, that’s what she thought. Looking into his quietly earnest face gave her seconds thoughts.

“Well then, lass,” he continued.  “We got a choice.  Want t’try Four Fingers?”  Rhembrandt checked her radar map and saw that the Four Fingers sector of unregulated space was indeed an option for their next hunt destination, but she snapped out of her contemplative reverie the instant her reply left her lips.
“Aw, honey, I don’t think I can handle four fingers.”  She grinned, but Thomas wasn’t looking.

“Let’s try Light Lost, then.”

Jillian’s smile altered a moment.  Hadn’t he got the joke?  Hadn’t the little innuendo triggered any kind of carnal response at all? She wanted – needed – to get this relationship back on understandable terms.  He pays, she thanks him with favors of her own.

“Light Lost?  Your crazier’n I thought.  I soloed a C7 once – once, mind you – but I ‘aint about to try on some kraken, even with y’all on my wing.  No offense.”

“Not to worry.  I’ll tow, just like before. “

“Un-hunh,” Jillian grunted, pausing to snap off a piece of carbohydrasene bar and swallowed the tasteless taffy quickly before the texture made her vomit.  The stuff was cheap and serviceable, and kept the bladder under control.  Jillian was not about to die with soiled pants.

“You gonna be at my re-gen bed at Depot Med-Lab when they finally reconstruct my charred remains?”

“Of course.”

Of course. Nothing else. Not even a smile. Just matter-of-fact.  This was getting worse and worse.  Rhembrandt smiled and nodded in a “yeah right” kind of way.  Not even Colbourne ever greeted her on her return to life.

“Alright, sugah. No one lives forever. Let’s go, then.”  With a deep inhale, Jillian flipped through her targets to find the jump gate to Light Lost sector, turned her ship about, and reburst her engines.  McPlowed was courteous and kept less than five thousand in front of her until the jump.

“I’ll just see what we got to look forward to.”

The next moment, McPlowed’s ship was gone, vanishing in a blur of de-accelerated particles through the jumpgate’s singularity halo.  She stared at the blue-white glow, distracted despite herself by the beauty that technology can capture.

I wonder what this was all like before the Collapse, she though briefly.  Must have been gorgeous.

“I got a C7 and a C10,” McPlowed interrupted, his image wavering and dancing with the uncertain transmission.  “Bit of a storm.  Not too serious.  Check that…I got two c10’s…”

Jillian’s throat clenched.  “You alright with that, hon?”  The concern in her voice was genuine.

“Oh yeah,” came back the cool, confident reply.  “No problem. I can out run these things all day.  You close?”

“Three thousand out.  Two thousand.  One.  Jumping.”  Pulling back hard on her throttle, Jillian forced herself to keep her eyes open as she entered the jump gate’s event horizon.  The sensation of dislocation…of slowage…of re-invention and suspension…calm and endless…

An eye-blink later, Jillian was looking at a pinkish-white haze, cloudy and thin.  Shit, she thought as she eased the FF out from the exit gate and into the sector.  “All right, I got ya on radar, sug.  An’…shit, I got a C9.  I don’t think I can do this,” she murmured, her voice as hazy and uncertain as she view before her.  It wasn’t as though she couldn’t see.  It was only that what she could see was so alien it didn’t want to register in her mind, properly. A second blip of purple suddenly sparked onto her radar screen.  “Oh fuck, I got two!”

“Keep it calm, lass, I’m on my way. “

“Calm?  Calm?!”  Rhembrandt punched her burners and dove into a reverse spin, scraping through the first Kraken’s stream of heavy ammunition.  She winced as her shields were knicked, and despaired as she saw her shield output reduced to 73% with a single hit.

“Oh…kiss my ass, you flyin’ purple zit!” she muttered angrily, reaching forward with her left index finger and gently tapping a small button.  The sudden speed brought on by the “Flash-fire” burst made Jill’s head want to ache, but she fought it off.  Once she was about 20K away, Rhembrandt yanked back hard on her throttle, spun, and loosed one of the three Morningstars that McPlowed had given her when they first launched.  Immediately turning back to her original vector, she headed out.

“Lass, where are ya?  You got another one coming in.”  McPlowed’s voice was concerned, but Jill thought she detected a hint of impatience.  Clearly he was expecting her to run toward him to initiate the “tow.”

“Where am I?  Darlin’, I’m out of my head, that’s where I am.  Get over here and save my ass!”   She glanced down at her console text-read screen, and groaned as the damage to the Kraken was relayed on the targeting display.  One Morningstar – four simultaneously fired Screwdrivers – had reduced the beast to 78% shields.

At least I landed a missile.  First time in a while.  “All right, you sonsabitches. I’m taking one of you with me.”

“Lass?  Lass come straight toward me.   Jill!  You’re headed off my radar.”

“Sorry, Tom!  I don’t have time to find you right now.”   Rhembrandt’s teeth ground harshly, leaving a chalky taste on her tongue as she burned straight for the first Kraken in a full-on charge.  “I’m sorry ‘bout this.”

“Jill?  What are you talking about?  Jill!”

Rhembrandt switched off her sector com and put McPlowed out of her mind.  Staring in grim determination at the purple, alien beast-ship before her, she knew she was dead before the first alarms ever started to flash.  The Kraken’s range had to be twice what hers was, for she had already been reduced to armor by the time she even got within firing range.  As a second twist of ammunition raked across the FF’s body, she knew the second Kraken would finish off the jopb the first had started.
I hate this part, she thought defeatedly as she watched her armor rating drop quickly.  She sat back, strangely calm at the last as she counted down with the ship’s computer.  34.  19.  3.

“Lass!  Ah Christ,” McPlowed cursed, streaking his Quicklsilver toward the offending Conflux.  The battle was a long one, and after killing one Kraken, he eventually conceded defeat to the second and headed back toward Sol space.

“Jillian Maddox, female, age 20.  Mass: 54 kilos.  Biochronic deterioration at .005%.  Least she doesn’t die as often as some.”  The nurse technician assigned to this most recent incoming pod read off the data schematics kept on file in JOSSH’s central computer, reducing Rhembrandt to simple numbers, formulae, ratios, and statistics.  He did so with the same monotonous scrutiny that he did for every podded pilot, double-checking each bit of data with the last recorded routine bio-scan for Rhembrandt.  “Jillian Maddox.  Hunh.  A female.  Never worked on a female pilot before.”  It was never a man or woman, just male and female. Very scientific, very precise. The technician opened the pod and looked blandly at the disfigured, burned remains of the nearly unidentifiable corpse.  The skull had fractured and split in five places, dislocating the jaw from the skull entirely.  Not that it mattered, because there wasn’t much skull left.  The body was a ghoulish artistic statement on the grisly mortality of men, become an amorphous blob of melted flesh, fat, and charred organs.  The remains of Rhembrandt’s specially tailored flight suit still shone in some places in the usual black-blue fabrisilk sheen.  The stuff was resilient.   “All right, take her to regeneration tank six.  And, Reg, can you get me, uh, an SC-114 at 500 milliliters and an aerospray of dihydroglucose proteins at 300 cc’s.  Thanks.”

The carbon stretcher sealed Jillian’s remains in a perfect vacuum as it floated casually down the hall toward the medical facilities, leaving the dock behind.  The technician waved to a previous patient as he passed the recuperation lounge, pleased that the young pilot had gotten through his first death without much psychological impact.

Sometimes, the pilots didn’t revive as quite the same people they were when they died.  Error of any degree was rare, and the technician certainly wasn’t the religious sort, like some of the Quantar pilots he treated, but still…sometimes he had questions…

As the stretcher was eased into place at the foot of the re-gen tank, the nurse and the accompanying interns moved to a small room on the right side of the wall.  The doorway gave a little suction noise as the hermetic seal was broken, then sounded off once again as the doors closed.  Leaving only the carbon stretcher with it’s gruesome contents with the stretcher, the technician sat down to the console control and activated the sterilization sequence.

“Any special requests in the data?”

“Ahh…nothing that isn’t already recorded into the permanent record.”  The nurse technician nodded dismissively as she initiated the retrieval sequence.  It wasn’t uncommon for pilots to request a special addition or change on their next regen.  Usually it was hair- or eye-color, even genital enhancement, but most often pilots didn’t have the rank or credits to cover the optional rider on their medical insurance.  Rhembrandt did, so he’d asked.

The tehnician’s sat back as the medidroids began their work removing the remains from the stretcher and sampling the encoded DNA and RNA sequences.  Mostly all the technicians were for was to make sure that the medidroids read-outs matched JOSSH’s data as exactly as possible.  Anything from a .0 to a .0003% mismatch was acceptable.  Still, this nurse was something of a perfectionist, so as the druids failed to fill in a few strings of nucleic acids, he cross-referenced the datafale in JOSSH and filled in the gaps.

The hardest part was next, and the technician had the intern closest to the wall – a small, black-haired woman with excellent credentials – dim the lights so that he could read the monitor better.  All watched in the usual thrilled anxiety as the now complete sequences of Jillian’s genetic make-up were processed into the regeneration tank itself.  Within moments, a serious of small arm-like pinchers inside the tank extended.  The power in the med-lab waivered a moment, and nearly caused the entire team a coronary, but the brief flux did nothing to halt the process of particle deceleration already occurring inside the tank.

Between the small arms arched filament-thin tendrils of slightly-greasy strange quarks toward the hyperstring receptors on the bottom of the tank.  As the particle deceleration increased, JOSSH’s medi-lab terminal it’s calculations for the manipulations of the particle beam energy into matter.  Specifically, mono-nucleic acids.  Those would then be bonded to form specific genetic patterns, which would then be sequenced to form Jillian’s own unique pattern of RNA and DNA.  After that, everything was easy.  It was cloning on a quantum scale that made death irrelevant, but none-the-less mysterious.

Six hours later, Jillian’s green eyes flickered open to a white blur, and for a moment, she though that she was caught in the storm again.  I got Kraken, I got Kraken, help…help…

            “Ahhh min…kkrr(*choke*)” was all that came out, her untried throat and tongue tangled in itself as she tried to articulate her thoughts.  As her vision cleared, she became aware of a pink blob hovering slightly to her left.  A few moments after that and facial features began to shimmer into focus, clarifying and congealing into a recognizable person.

“Good to see you’re awake, lass,” Thomas murmured, reaching forward to pat her gently on the hand.  Despite the fact that her brain was not surprised by the sensation of contact, she startled anyway.  It always felt new.  Everything always seemed new, despite it’s familiarity.

“Oh.  Shit.”  Jill sat up slowly, a chagrined snarl on her lips.  McPlowed chuckled in understanding as the neurons of Jillian’s hippocampus fired, and at least, Rhembrandt was back.  “Where am I?”

“Depot Station, as you predicted. “  Thomas’s smile faded to a concerned twist of lip as he whispered, “You got popped.  I uh, almost felt like I…”  Thomas stopped, and let the words die.  Jillian figured them out anyway.

Yeah, it had gotten out of hand.  The thing was, did she mind anymore?

“You’re here.”  The statement of fact carried with it a level of surprise Jill had hoped wouldn’t surface, but her voice cracked a bit anyway.  Thomas grinned, almost in self-satisfaction.

“Of course. Told you I would be, didn’t I?”

“Yeah,” Jillian grunted as she sat up slowly, her new muscles working with simple, slick ease.  Not even a bit of stiffness of pain.  “Yeah, you did. Let’s see the logs.”  She reached over to the bad’s console and entered her name and password, accessing the video recording taken from the sector beacon of her illustrious death.

“Damn. Two Krakens, hunh?  Wow.  I must have been snortin’ Abinanthian Mist to go in there with you.”  She said so gently, though, and looked up to McPlowed not with blame, but with an amused grin.  He returned it.

“Well, you got a missile off at one of them.  But I’m sorry I brought you in there.  I’ll cover your losses.”  He stood with her, and together, they walked around the recuperation lounge for a good fifteen minutes, talking and comparing notes.  Eventually, Jillian dressed and they left together for the docking bay.

“Ah, my baby!”  Rhembrandt ran to her ship, her beloved Fortune’s Fool, and kissed the hull loudly, petting and stroking the silver-and-blue metal with dramatic affection.  “Oh, I missed you!  Yes I did!  Let’s get those nasty-wasty TRI standard parts out of you, hmm?  Feel okay? “

McPlowed chuckled behind her, crossing his arms over his chest as he watched Rhembrandt greet her vessel.  “Cut it out, lass, you’re making me jealous of a hunk of junk.”

“Junk?  Oh no, don’t listen to that bad man, he didn’t mean it.  Tom, you take that back. You’ll hurt her feelings. “

McPlowed’s smile faltered a bit.  “What’d you call me?”

Jillian paused, a brief wince on her lips masked by a sudden smug grin.  “Tom. It is your name, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but that’s the first time you’ve called me by it.”  McPlowed closed the distance between himself and Jillian with casual grace, staring her down. It wasn’t until he was within a mere half-meter that he lowered his eyes, reaching for his personal data-pad.  “Here.  This is to cover your losses.”

Jillian’s brow furrowed a bit as she took the pad from him, and gawked at the amount entered on the pad’s trade screen.  Oh please let me retain a small amount of dignity!   “Aw, honey.  This is too much.”  She didn’t let go of the pad, though.  Seven million credits had a way of catching her eye.

“Let me decide how much you’re worth.”  Lifting a hand, McPlowed returned his eyes to Jill’s, and before she could reply, his fingers gently stroked her cheek.  Once.  Along the line of the jaw, punctuated with a small tap on the chin.    It was some moments before Rhembrandt could move, and when she did, all she did was hit “accept” on the data-pad, and handed it back to him to complete the transaction.

McPlowed matter-of-factly accepted the nothing she offered in return for the money, and slid the hand-help pad into the belt of his flight suit without another word.  Jill found herself still staring up at McPlowed, who returned her gaze without hesitation, as though the unwilling affection shown in her eyes was only his due.

It was, to be honest.  And Jill knew it.  Tit for tat, as they say.

“So how can I thank you?” she asked quietly, clambering for the familiar latch inside of her mind of distracted pragmatism; that fabled zen of feminine assets as a commodity; the necessary detachment of a heart that kept trying to be as sterile as her womb.

The utter bullshit.

Jillian accepted defeat for the second time that day as Thomas pressed his lips to hers in a firm, tender manner and lifted her against his chest.  And as he set her back against the wing of the oh-so-apply named Fortune’s Fool, Jillian let go her thoughts and ambitions beneath the cavernous ceiling of the Depot Station docking bay, and showed him her gratitude.

Or, perhaps, he showed his.

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