Collyns, the white-coated steward in the dim wardroom of the GTD Dreadnought, knew instinctively that he had better be quick serving the scowling officer stood on the other side of the bar. His highly developed instinct, honed by years of serving beverages and food on warships and installations across the inhabited systems, was telling him this pilot moodily waiting for a double whisky was not in the mood for cheery banter or even perfunctory pleasantries. So Collyns poured the drink, accepted the payment and got back to polishing glasses with a cloth.
He definitely wasn't going to ask for a tip.
Sundown took his drink back to a badly-lit booth in the far corner of the wardroom, where his wing leaders were also sat nursing one strong drink apiece. He took a seat next to the burly figure of Bear, appeared to contemplate his drink for a second, then knocked half of it back in one furious slug. He grimaced; the mass-produced whisky from Wolf 359's biggest - and only - distillery wasn't exactly what you would call smooth. The stuff was made to only one standard - its cheapness. Frontier citizens of the GTVA weren't all that concerned with quality, all they were interested in was something to numb the endless monotony of living and working in the backside of the galaxy.
The four pilots were varying right now between glumness and surliness. After last month's bitter blow of the announcement of their new squadron leader, and the series of simulated exercises culminating in this morning's disaster and shameful dressing down, they were suffering from a toxic mixture of humiliation and rage, not helped by the many measures of execrable liquor they were consuming at an ill-conceived pace.
The atmosphere was thick as the four officers struggled to put into words what they were all feeling. Sundown watched the other three, all of them were glaring at their drinks, studiously avoiding eye-contact with their soon to be ex-commanding officer.
"Okay," he began. "I'll say it."
"Say what?" Bear growled.
"This whole thing stinks. I mean, absolutely stinks." Frustration welled up inside of him, a sensation he hadn't really felt since he had climbed into his first training kite and found out he wasn't utterly perfect at flying. He remembered it had taken him a week to grasp the basics of manoeuvring, and every minute had been a battle to stop the bile rising at his own perceived incompetence. That same feeling now rendered him at a loss for words.
His trainer had always said his temper would get him trouble. That and three and a half whiskies.
"We've all got it bad Jimmy," Bear countered, trying and failing to sound anything but livid.
"They don't give a shit about us, stuck at the far end of the fucking galaxy, treat us like fucking dirt. I mean, Goddammit, have you heard about the guy they've sent in?"
He received three grunts in the negative.
"LMF. I mean jus' 'cos we're shoved out here they think it's okay to give us a fuckin' coward for a CO. They don't care. They jus' don't care." He knocked back the last of his drink and slammed the glass back down on the table, then looked up at one of the junior officers sat opposite him. "Your round Buckeye."
Lieutenant Junior Grade Hanna 'Buckeye' Tomovski stood up and strode off to the bar. The remaining JG made a badly-concealed attempt to catch a glimpse at her firm backside, before returning his focus to his fuming commanders.
"Well hell, skipper, at least you still get command of a wing. Me and Buckeye don't even get that. Bumped down to the fuckin' ranks," concluded Lee 'Longshot' Woodely with a grumble. "I've only had Gamma six weeks."
"Big deal," Sundown sneered. "You lose a wing, I've lost a fuckin' squadron."
"Aye, sir," Longshot offered, biting his tongue. He could wait.
Buckeye finished paying for her drinks and was about to take them back over to her fellow pilots when the doors opened and a female pilot walked in. This was obviously not unusual, but what was unusual was the squadron patch on her left arm. The design was a fairly blunt one: a flaming fist crushing a Shivan ship into oblivion against a backdrop of the Dreadnought in battle. Beneath that aggressive image was the motto 'Oderint Dum Metuant XXXIX'. So this new arrival was the other replacement in the Tyrants, and by extension the one who had taken Buckeye's wing from her.
The nametag read Marin.
Hanna was not inclined to be friendly to this new pilot, who ignored Buckeye and hopped onto a barstool, ordering a pint of Luyten's from the steward. After a few awkward moments she became aware of the junior officer staring at her. Marin turned her head slowly to meet the gaze, spent half a second to take in the pip and a half designating Lieutenant J.G., and another half second to register that the look was one of alcohol-fuelled hostility.
"Anything I can help you with, Lef-tenant?" she asked, her clipped Aquilae accent pronouncing the rank in that peculiar manner and asserting her seniority.
"Carry on, pilot."
"Ma'am," Buckeye nodded curtly, and navigated the tray back to her squad mates. Three pairs of eyes had fixed on her little conversation with the new flygirl.
"Who was that?" Longshot asked once Buckeye had distributed the drinks and sat down.
"That," Sundown announced. "Is Lieutenant Jeni Marin, formerly of the 357th Hydras outta Aquilae, and the new leader of Gamma wing."
"My wing," Buckeye spat.
"Time to introduce myself," Sundown muttered. The other three gave him a look. Drunk and angry as they were, nobody thought that trying to be diplomatic was going to possible after five or six whiskies.
"You sure that's a good idea?" Bear asked.
"I'm jus' bein' friendly, like."
Sundown pushed himself to his feet, straightened his tan off-duty shirt and made his way to the bar with just a hint of unsteadiness. The three left behind felt themselves tense; they could see where this was going, and they all assumed positions that would enable them to spring into action at a moment's notice.
Jimmy Grant was not known for his even temperament.
Swordfish was lighting up a cigarette when she was aware of another pilot leaning on the bar next to her. Her eyes flickered sideways; otherwise she gave no outward sign that she even noticed her new friend. However her senses heightened instinctively when she caught the overpowering alcoholic fumes coming off the other pilot. Born and raised in a rich Aquilae family, and stationed in the Alliance's home system for most of her career she may have been, but that didn't mean she was totally naïve. Subtly she shifted her posture to send out the signal she really didn't want to be talking to a drunk after hours cooped up in a rusty transport.
However, the lieutenant stood next to her was far to drunk to pick up something so nuanced as body language. Instead, he grinned drunkenly and stuck out a hand in welcome.
"Hi there, Jimmy Grant, 39th Tyrants. You can call me Sundown."
The glaringly false bonhomie in Grant's voice and posture set Swordfish immediately on edge. This man stood next to her was the very man who had just lost command of his squadron, and that never made a pilot particularly happy. There was no telling how he would react. Although the discipline Fleet instilled died hard in all of them, she was unsure as to how much the lake of alcohol Grant must have been drinking from could have made him ignore all that.
On the other hand, she had read the personnel files before she had come out here, and she knew for a fact that she outranked Grant on the Navy List by exactly four months, so there was a certain amount of leeway there in what she was allowed to say.
She became aware that Grant had had his hand hanging in the air for several seconds. Since she felt compelled to keep the peace here - and there was no call to be a twat - she took it and shook firmly.
"Well, Sundown; Lef-tenant Jeni Marin," she offered, still careful to stress more than usual her pronunciation of the rank.
Silence hung awkwardly for a moment. In Swordfish's case it was because she was thinking how to keep the conversation on the rails; in Sundown's it was because he was apparently having difficulty synchronising his brain and his tongue all of a sudden.
More seconds passed.
"Sooo, Lef-tenant," Sundown tried, not quite keeping the sneer out of his voice. "Welcome to the 12th Fleet."
Swordfish had already received her official greeting from Commander Fryatt when she had boarded the Dreadnought several hours ago, this drunken ramble was slightly less than welcome.
"Thanks," she replied levelly.
"I know its not quite the core systems out here, but I'm sure you'll fit in just perfectly. We got culture, style, classy people. Maybe not what you're used to but I'm sure you won't mind slumming it with the backwater folk."
"Okay," Swordfish wasn't going to let this go any further; it was time to pull rank. "I think you've had enough Pilot. How about you hit the rack and we can talk some more on duty?"
It wasn't much of a slight, but it was enough to cause the colour to rise in Sundown's face. His body tensed and Swordfish slid off her seat, putting every ounce of authority into her stance that she could muster. Sundown had a full foot in height over her, but that had never been a problem before with her subordinates, and she wasn't about to start now. She glared upwards and dared Sundown to continue.
"Okay Jimmy, I think its time we left."
It took a lot to get Bear Gregan drunk. He was a big man, and it was a brave pilot indeed who tried to drink him under the table. He had watched his friend make a dick of himself, and he wasn't prepared to watch him wind up with a court-martial over this while he was still sober enough to intervene. He put one arm around Sundown's shoulders and tactfully began steering him away. Over the top of Jimmy's head he motioned to Buckeye and Longshot that it was time to make tracks.
"Sorry to bother you Ma'am," he said formally.
"No problem," Swordfish replied icily, not giving an inch.
"Right Jimmy," Bear announced. "Time we was going." Supporting Sundown more than his friend realised Bear led the group out of the wardroom, and just like that everything was back to normal.
Swordfish subsided, suddenly aware she was the centre of attention and that a lot of pilots and officers were focussing on that little scene. She wasn't embarrassed as such, but it did occur to her that this was not a fabulous first impression to make on a new posting. With that in mind she finished her drink in one swift go, placed the glass on the bar and walked out, doing her best not to look rattled, and succeeding nicely.
Collyns the steward took the empty glass.
Looks like this could be interesting.