The last time Sheila (and indirectly Ruth) appeared in the Rymellan Series was in the story Good-Byes. Sheila attended Mo’s birthday party and told everyone that Ruth had finally been transferred to the Falcon. Later in the story, Sheila invited Mo to have supper with them on the Falcon. Mo does mention Sheila in passing in Shattered Lives, but otherwise we haven’t seen or heard from them again…until now.
Excerpt Copyright © 2022 Sarah Ettritch. All Rights Reserved.
Ruth closed her eyes and focused on the hum generated by the energy cells, listening for the pulse that should occur every 1.25 seconds. Even though the maintenance bay was buzzing with activity, her trained ear was able to pick up the pulses over the voices of her colleagues and the hums of other fighters. There, and there, and there. She opened her eyes, read the figures on the panel in front of her, and shut down the fighter’s energy cells.
Yesterday David had jogged over to her after finishing his shift, complaining his flyer didn’t sound right. Mechanics and pilots developed an ear for such things, knew instantly when a fighter sounded off. It had taken Ruth less than five minutes to diagnose the problem. A faulty cell almost drained of energy. Healthy ones wouldn’t drain so quickly and could be charged. The one she’d replaced had been on its deathbed.
Ruth turned and pasted a smile on her face.
Her superior, Lieutenant Commander Addison, gestured at the fighter. “Leave that for now. I have to talk to you.”
She’d finished anyway. A minute later, she stood at attention in Addison’s office. Her previous two supervisors had never insisted on ceremony, but Addison was different. Unfortunately Ruth had taken an instant dislike to her, and the feeling was mutual. Neither of them had done anything to offend the other; it was just one of those things. Addison always seemed to be smirking and had a superior air about her that went beyond her rank and position. Her office walls were plastered with accolades going back to her Learning Academy days. The reward Ruth had received for tying her shoelaces had long since been recycled, but Addison apparently still cherished hers.
Addison plunked into her chair. Ruth had the feeling that if it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate, the woman would lean her chair back as far as it would go and put her feet on her desk.
“I have wonderful news for you, Lieutenant,” Addison said. “You’ve heard about the Harrier?
Who hadn’t? The Harrier was the Rymellan fleet’s newest ship, though inaccurately named, in Ruth’s opinion. It wasn’t a warship, but a research ship, powered by the latest and greatest energy cells and carrying state-of-the-art equipment.
“It will be taking its maiden voyage five weeks after the Falcon docks,” Addison said, not waiting for Ruth to answer. “Everyone wants a spot on board, of course. There are way more applicants than spaces.” A smile played on her lips. “Our best people are already on tour, so every ship was asked to sacrifice a few, maintenance included. I put your name forward, and it was accepted. Congratulations. You’ll report to the Harrier for its first voyage.”
Excitement made her stiffen, but it was quickly replaced with concern. What about Shay?
“Your orders will be dispatched to you shortly. Our loss will be the Harrier’s gain, of course. We’ll be sorry to see you go.”
Her peers would be sorry to see her go. Addison would dance a jig when the Falcon departed on its next tour without Ruth on it. She’d never interfered with Ruth’s career, though. Until now. To be fair, every mechanic would jump at this chance and would have felt the initial burst of excitement Ruth had experienced. But not every mechanic was in a long-term relationship with another Solitary. They wouldn’t be standing here desperately hoping their beloved would receive new orders, too.
Addison frowned. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
“I am.” Ruth wouldn’t ask if the orders were final until she talked to Shay. “Thank you for putting my name forward.”
“It was my pleasure. You’re an excellent mechanic, Lieutenant. The Harrier will be lucky to have you.” Addison flicked on her comm station. “You can return to your duties now.”
Ruth whirled and marched from the office. She wouldn’t meet Shay in the canteen for another two hours. Time would drag.
The moment she returned to her station to update the fighter’s maintenance log, Ian came over to talk to her. They were around the same age and had worked together in maintenance since she’d come aboard the Falcon.
“What was that all about?” he asked.
Addison hadn’t said she couldn’t tell anyone. “I’ve been transferred off the Falcon,” she said, loud enough so he would hear her over the ever-present hum of energy cells. Nobody whispered on the launch and maintenance deck. “I’ll be going out on the Harrier.”
His eyes widened. “Lucky you! Did she say if anyone else will be transferring?”
“No. But that doesn’t mean nobody else will be.”
“What about Sheila?”
That was the critical question. She did not want to be separated from Shay again. “I don’t know yet. I hope so.”
“I’d love to be on the Harrier. Next generation fighters, the new quad-yield cells.” His voice was filled with awe.
Ruth didn’t want to come across as ungrateful, and this could be fantastic news. It all depended on Shay. “They’ve been flying those fighters out of the stations for the past year.” Mo had told her the last time they’d lunched together on 72. “New models are always flown closer to home first.”
“Maybe I should transfer back to 68.”
Ian had been stationed there before getting a tour. Ruth had spent her first few years on 72.
“Congrats are in order.” Ian scratched his cheek. “I’d be lying if I said I’m not jealous. Put in a good word for me with your new supervisor.”
She cocked her head. “I’ll think about it.”
He grinned and went back to his station.
For the rest of her shift, Ruth did her best to concentrate on her work but couldn’t help wondering what she’d do if Shay didn’t receive orders to report to the Harrier next tour. They’d survived their last separation, savouring the handful of weeks they had together whenever the Falcon was docked. Ruth hoped they’d survive another one, especially when the two ships’ docking schedules didn’t coincide. Unless one or both of them received a transfer, it could be years before they saw each other again. Even the strongest relationships would wither under those conditions. Including theirs.
* * *
When Ruth entered the canteen on Deck 9, Shay was already at their usual table tucked away in a corner away from the windows. Nobody ever wanted that table, but it suited them fine. They both had plenty of opportunity at other times to gaze into the almost perfect vacuum of space, especially Shay, who flew most days. When they ate here together, they preferred to be as alone as they could be in public.
Ruth pecked her on the cheek and sat down across from her. Within a minute, she knew Shay hadn’t received orders. Shay wasn’t one to hold anything back. Orders to transfer to the Harrier would have had her almost dancing on the table—once she knew Ruth had them too. But nothing. Just the normal “How was your day?” and all that.
She waited until they were almost finished eating to suggest a change of plan. “I know we said we’d hang out on the observation deck for a while and then see whether there’s a game of cards going anywhere, but can we go back to our quarters instead?”
Shay waggled her brows. “Sure,” she said, in a way that conveyed she expected a romantic evening in. “Sounds great.”
Maybe they would spend a romantic evening together. It would depend on how Shay reacted when Ruth told her the news. She wished she’d had the presence of mind to go to their quarters first and put away anything breakable.
As soon as they entered their quarters and the door had slid shut behind them, Shay slipped her arms around Ruth’s waist. “We haven’t spent an entire evening together like this in a while,” she said, moving in to nuzzle Ruth’s neck.
Ruth pressed her hands against Shay’s shoulders and gently pushed her back. “I need to talk to you first, the reason I wanted to come here. But,” she said, when Shay’s face fell, “after we’ve talked, I’m game for staying in.”
Shay grinned. “Nothing bad, then.”
“It depends.” Ruth swallowed. “I received new orders today. I’m being transferred off the Falcon, onto the Harrier.”
Shay stared at her. Her fists clenched.
“You didn’t get new orders,” Ruth said slowly.
“No, I flaming-well didn’t.” Shay stomped over to the sofa, grabbed a cushion, and flung it against the wall.
Ruth eyed the glass sculpture of 72 they both adored. It was sitting on the small round table next to the sofa. She darted over to it, in case she needed to save it from being shattered into pieces. “Maybe pilots will be getting their orders later.”
“Or maybe I’m not being transferred,” Shay snarled. Her eyes were wild. She marched to the door, then back to Ruth. “I’m going to see Baker.”
“Yes, now. I want to find out what he knows.” She stomped back to the door and punched the Open button.
Ruth reached for her, even though Shay was too far away to touch. “Shay don’t—”
Shay disappeared through the doorway.
“—say anything stupid.”
Ruth blew out a long sigh. She wanted to go after her, but it would only aggravate Shay further, who would not see it as being supportive. Hopefully Baker would overlook any insubordination. He’d know what a blow it would be if they were separated again.
She sank onto the sofa. Separated again. She couldn’t bear the thought, let alone the reality.
* * *
Sheila wanted to roar with frustration as she rode the elevator up to Baker’s deck and marched along the corridor to his quarters. How dare they? How dare they do it to them again? Four flaming years last time, four flaming years that had felt like an eternity, with dispatches the only thing keeping their relationship alive. Finally, finally, Ruth had been transferred to the Falcon, and now she was being transferred off again? Hadn’t one person who’d handled the transfer orders—and there would be a few on the Falcon—stopped and thought, “You know, Sheila and Ruth have been in a serious relationship for years. Maybe we should keep them together.”
No, probably not. Because they weren’t flaming Chosens, so their relationship didn’t count. She wanted to scream and knock the flaming stupid portrait of some former officer to the floor, which would be difficult because it was bolted to the corridor’s wall.
She stopped outside Baker’s door and took a moment to calm herself. Normally she wouldn’t disturb him off-duty, but she needed to know, and she needed to know now. She pressed the door chime. The door slid open. Baker peered down at her.
Sheila clasped her hands behind her back. “I’m sorry for disturbing you, Commander, but I need to ask you something urgent.”
Baker glanced over his shoulder, making Sheila wonder if someone was there. He stepped into the corridor and waited until the door had shut behind him. “What’s on your mind?”
“The Harrier. I’m wondering if any pilots will be transferred over for its first tour.”
“I doubt it. Why?”
“Because Ruth has received transfer orders. If I don’t go over, we’ll be separated.” Her voice sounded shrill. She reminded herself it wasn’t Baker’s fault.
He made a calming motion with his hand. “When did this happen?”
“Today. If pilots from the Falcon aren’t going over, why are mechanics?”
“Let me look into it.” Baker grimaced. “But I’m fairly certain no pilots will be going. I’d be the first to know.”
“I thought there was some unwritten rule about keeping long-term Solitary couples together.”
He nodded, but his words dashed Sheila’s hopes. “I’ve heard that rumour. I’m afraid it’s not true.”
Then Ruth’s transfer to the Falcon, after they’d been separated for four years, had been luck. Dumb luck. They were at the whims of military bureaucrats.
“I’ll look into why mechanics are going over.” Baker smiled at her, a weak smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
She couldn’t muster one in return. “Thank you.” She strode away, not wanting to keep him from whoever was waiting for him in his quarters.
When she entered her own quarters, Ruth was sitting on the sofa. Her eyes searched Sheila’s face.
“He doesn’t know anything.” Sheila sat next to Ruth and took her hand. “He’ll poke around tomorrow, try to find out why you’re going over. But as far as he knows, no pilots are going.” A lump rose in her throat at the sight of Ruth’s glistening eyes. “That rule about not separating Solitary couples if they’ve lasted three years. It doesn’t exist.”
Anger yanked her hand from Ruth’s and forced her to her feet. “Any idiot bureaucrat working in personnel deployment can separate us,” she spat, placing her hands together and pulling them apart in one smooth motion.
“What can we do about it?” Ruth sounded tired.
“Nothing. That’s the whole flaming point.” She stared down at her. “Did you ask to be transferred?”
Ruth’s eyes widened. “No.”
“Are you sure? You weren’t down there in mechanics talking about how wonderful the Harrier must be and how you’d love to see it. You didn’t go on about how much you’d love to work on the new fighters.”
“No, I did not,” Ruth said evenly.
“Then why has this happened?” she shouted.
“I don’t know, but I do know it’s not my fault.”
“You’re the one going.”
Ruth shot to her feet. “And you’re staying. So what? Do you think I want to go without you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you asked for this transfer.”
“Why would I do that? Why?”
“Maybe you wanted a little freedom, like the last time we were separated.” The moment the words were out of her mouth, Sheila wanted to take them back.
Ruth’s face tightened. “Don’t do this.”
“What?” she asked, knowing full well what Ruth meant.
“Take it out on me. I know you’re angry. I get it. But it’s not my fault.”
Sheila walked away from her and took a moment to breathe. “I don’t know if I can go back to seeing you a few weeks a year.” She softly snorted. “No, I do know. I can’t do it again. I can’t.” She turned back to Ruth. “I can’t.”
“I don’t want to do it either, Shay. Let’s sit down and come up with a plan.”
“What plan? You’re going, I’m not.”
“I’ll have to go on the one tour. I can ask for a transfer after that.”
Her chest tightened. “Remember how long it took for you to get the Falcon last time? And transferring off the Harrier, back here? That won’t look good.”
“I don’t care how it looks. And maybe I won’t transfer to the Falcon. Maybe I’ll ask for a space station. You can do the same. Or you could try for the Harrier.”
Sheila vigorously shook her head. “The only way we’ll guarantee that we’ll see each other is if one of us doesn’t go on tour. We’d have to stall our careers, limit ourselves, to stay together. It’s not fair. If we were Chosens, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.”
“But we’re not.”
When Ruth reached for her, Sheila willingly let herself be hugged, but her anger still simmered. It wasn’t fair, wasn’t fair that Chosens were never separated, but two Solitaries in a long-term relationship could be torn apart without any consideration for how it would affect them. She and Ruth had given years of their lives to the military, had endured a four-year near total separation for it. In return, nothing. Their sacrifice hadn’t earned them a note in their personnel files, stating that every effort should be made to keep them together. To the military, they weren’t connected in any way. They were Lieutenant Commander Sheila Dorrington and Lieutenant Ruth Simms, to be toyed with in any way the military saw fit.
She wrapped her arms around Ruth and held her tight. “I can’t do this again, Ruthie. I can’t.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Ruth whispered.
Would they? How? Any plan they came up with would mean at least one of them asking for a transfer she didn’t want. Fourteen years, and where had it got them? Sheila thought back to when they’d gotten together, wondering if they would have pursued a relationship if they’d known what a struggle it would be to stay together.
Rymellan 4 – coming soon!