The tall, auburn-haired woman turned from her reverie at the porthole of her day cabin. She nodded. "All right." Stepping to the mirror over the sink, she checked her tie, her decorations, her brass, her sword, all for the last time. She took a deep breath and tugged at the hem of her dress coat. "Let's go."
The slender, blond commander stood aside so that she could precede him out, then reached in and closed the door behind them.
"Captain," he said, coming up behind her as they headed aft, "if I may say so, I'll miss you. All of us will."
She stopped and turned to look at him, and he marveled again at the clarity of her piercing blue-gray eyes. They were the eyes of a teenager still, not those of a twenty-year veteran sailor. "Thank you, Richard. I'll miss you, too. And the crew. And this ship." She patted the rail and he saw the sudden brightness in her eyes, and suddenly wished he had kept his peace. There was a slight quaver in her low, melodious voice and he felt genuine regret.
Then she straightened and seemed to pull herself together. "All the same, it's time for something new." And she turned and strode purposefully toward the flight deck to turn over her command to the new captain, and to retire from the Coast Guard, and to set sail again, however figuratively, into her future.
Arriving at the flight deck, where the band was tuning amid the ceremonial bunting and a sea of folding chairs, Kris noted the admiral had yet to arrive, which was only proper. It wouldn't do to keep him waiting. She nodded to Richard, releasing him to attend to his other duties, and seated herself, holding a copy of the program. She smiled and chatted briefly with the dignitaries and guests nearest her, then settled herself and let her mind drift back to three years ago, the day she had assumed command of the Reno. She was one of the Coast Guard's finest ships, a High Endurance Cutter of over 3000 tons and a crew of nearly 170. The only larger ships in the flotilla were the Polar Icebreakers. The Reno was the largest ship ever commanded by a woman, and she had been the first, and was still the only one, to carry that responsibility. It was the pinnacle of her career, and she really hated to give it up, even after three years in the North Atlantic, but she knew she had to be realistic. Unlike James T. Kirk of the Enterprise, she couldn't stay a captain on active duty until she died. If she had accepted a promotion to rear admiral, she still would have lost her command for a desk job.
Three years ago. It had been the most peculiar of times for a woman to take command of a large, high-profile vessel. Things were far worse now, of course but even then, the professional and political picture for women in America had begun to go wrong. Very wrong.
* * * *
It was June, 2003. Kris Nordstrom was nervous, and she felt foolish. She had been a captain before, but this was different. She hadn't been the first female captain of a buoy tender or a patrol boat, but the Reno was big; seriously big. So big that she had her own chopper. So big that if she were naval, she'd be called a frigate. And this time, Kris was a real captain, too, an O-6, a four-striper. She would always be called "Captain" now, everywhere, by everyone, not just aboard her own ship.
As soon as her promotion to captain had been announced, she was offered the command of the Reno. She had expected it, hoped for it, believed she deserved it for years, but it was exciting nonetheless. Every previous assignment since she was a junior officer had been education for command, preparation for command, or command itself. She was born to lead, and she knew it, and so did everyone else, ever since she had been first in her class at the Academy. Three early promotions, to lieutenant commander, commander and captain had merely reinforced her belief in herself. Her only concern had been that, instead of the big cutter, they might offer her one of the Polar Ice Breakers, and she really didn't want to spend years freezing her ass off thousands of miles from civilization. She had served as Exec on a cutter for two years, and that was enough.
She had taken command of the Reno on a cloudless day under a cobalt sky, self-conscious and proud as hell. She had invited what little family she had, and although her brother Harry had pleaded work as an excuse not to come, her nieces Danielle and Carol had nagged their mother, Cindy, into the drive from Dayton to Boston. Kris had met them at the gangplank that morning, just before the ceremony.
"Request permission to come aboard, Captain," thirteen year-old Danielle had recited solemnly, as her adored Aunt Kris had taught them to do aboard her own boats as they were growing up. Wide-eyed Carol, two years younger, stood silently behind her big sister, clearly awed by the decorations, the band, the dress uniforms and above all, their imposing aunt.
But Kris had laughed and gathered both of them into her arms. "Permission granted, my loves," she mumbled into their sweet, shiny hair, able to forget everything else, just for a moment.
She couldn't have loved them more if they had been her own. Yet, if she had had children, she might not have become the brilliant, dashing officer Danielle and Carol hoped to follow to the sea, to maritime careers of their own. Clearly, they didn't wish to follow their mother into homemaking, or their father into grocery management.
Behind her daughters, Cindy Nordstrom had stood stiffly in her pleated paisley dress, with its little round, white collar, and a flat hat with a feather. She was well out of her element and obviously wishing she were anywhere else, preferably her kitchen, her church or K-Mart. But she knew that if she hadn't brought her daughters to their aunt's big event, they would have given her even more trouble about wanting more. More technical classes, more computer gear, more adventure camps, more things it was useless for girls to want with the changes, however belated but still welcome, that were being driven by the New Republican Nation, The Islamic National Coalition, and the Oath-Takers. They had promised that if she took them to Massachusetts, they would spend time with her learning to cook that summer. She was determined to keep her part of the bargain and hold them to theirs.
Kris released her adolescent admirers and gave Cindy a quick hug. She tried her best to be welcoming, always, for the girls' sake, but she was permanently on Cindy's shit list, not only for the adoration of her nieces, but for her career, her financial independence, her feminism, her personal freedom. They smiled thinly at one another and then Kris turned them over to a junior officer to escort them aft to the flight deck.
The ceremony had seemed brief, but it was impressive all the same. Even now Kris remembered how surprised she had been that day, whenever she brought her right arm up to salute, to see four gold stripes on her sea-blue sleeve. She usually didn't see her rank, as it was more often pinned to her collar or worn on small epaulets. She tried hard not to be smug, tried instead to be the contained, consummate professional she was, but it thrilled her every time. I am a Captain, she told herself. I am the Captain. I am the Captain of the Reno.
* * * *
Kris was brought back to the present as Vice Admiral Cuthbert was piped aboard and everyone rose. The ceremony, for her the reverse of her assumption of command three years ago, began with the playing of the National Anthem. When she presented arms, her gold stripes weren't as bright as before, but she was still, and would always be, a captain, even in retirement. Hell, she thought, I'm young! They may call me "the old lady," but there's still a lot of life in me.
Kris stood straight and tall, eyes to the front, as proud as she had been the day she was commissioned, and almost as teary-eyed. It was something she had learned to control, albeit not without difficulty, over the years. Her family wasn't there this time, and she didn't blame them. Not only were Danielle and Carol half-angry, half-disappointed, that she was retiring so young, without becoming an admiral, but this time there were added complications. Women travelling without a male escort were often harassed by conservative extremists and Kris wouldn't have put anyone she loved through that. The thought almost made her grimace, but she suppressed it. That complication was a symptom of a terrible disease that had been sweeping the country for nearly six years now. It was called the Hearth and Home Movement, but it was far worse than that. It was institutionalized misogyny. And it was that same complication that was driving Kris' relatively early retirement. She could theoretically have stayed another ten years, but it was her considered opinion, as a student of history and an observer of politics, that if she didn't retire while she could, she might conceivably lose all the retirement benefits that were her reward for having devoted her entire adult life to the Coast Guard and her country.
She looked around at the audience as they took their seats. Far fewer women were in attendance than had been there three years ago. Fewer than ten percent of the already insignificant number of women were in uniform. All of the female civilians wore mid-calf length skirts or dresses and were escorted by men. Kris was sure it was the beginning of a living nightmare. She had to get out; out of the Coast Guard and out of the country. She was very much afraid that if she didn't, one day soon it would be too late.
Once the crowd was settled, the admiral approached the podium and launched into his usual boring change of command speech. Kris had heard it so often she could practically lip-synch it, and now that she was leaving, it took all of her self-control not to fidget. Once again, her mind drifted back three years.
* * * *
Once she had assumed command that bright June day, and the official ceremonies were over, Kris took her nieces and best friend, Andrea Santiago, on a tour of the Reno. Cindy returned to Kris' motor yacht, Athena, to sulk until it was time for dinner at the Officers' Club.
"These are the best turbine engines, absolutely the most fuel-efficient and environmentally the least polluting," Andrea was explaining to Danielle and Carol down in the engineering spaces. She went into technical detail which they absorbed like little sponges. Kris grinned, half-proud but half-concerned that they would have little use for such information in what might prove to be an extremely limited future. She kept her thoughts to herself, resolved to enjoy her nieces' company for as long as they were there, willing to tolerate Cindy's tight-lipped disapproval for the sake of harmony on such a festive occasion, and determined to return to the lounge of the club with Andy once her family was safely back aboard Athena. She couldn't stay ashore and they couldn't stay on the Reno, so they had to compromise but it was better than no visit at all.
Finally she and Andy were free to discuss whatever they wanted, and Kris immediately said, "Andy, I almost wonder why they gave me a command again at all, when you think about the way things are going in Congress, and at the state and local levels." She sipped her beer pensively.
"Relax, Kris, and enjoy it. I personally think it's all hype, rhetoric and politics, not real-world. The liberals will take Congress back in '04, now that they've had the fear of God put in them," she predicted. She was a wiry, fiery Latina, one of the best engineers the Academy had ever produced, but she wasn't in the Coast Guard anymore. She and Kris had never discussed why, in order to protect Kris and her career, but Kris knew Andy was a lesbian, and that she had resigned in order to avoid being caught and thrown out. She lived in Oakland now, working on the Bay Area ferries.
"Look," Andy went on, "for better or worse, the New Republican Nation is concentrating on homosexuals and pro-choicers right now. They're not going to get around to women in the military for a while, and with any luck they'll be out of power before they can anyway."
"But what if they stay in power? What if they do start looking at military women?" Kris leaned forward, the power of her intense gaze focused on Andy. "What's that going to mean, not just for me, but my nieces? I'm afraid for them."
"Yeah. Your brother's an Oaf, isn't he?"
"In more ways than one," Kris had to smile. Her brother Harry belonged to the Oath-Takers, derisively referred to as Oafs. They were a conservative, religious men's group that had taken on the state of what they perceived as the nation's moral depravity as a holy cause. Their posters, ads, rallies and marches were so numerous as to be unremarkable any more, and that was scary. As the Jews in Germany got used to the Hitler Youth, so the women of the United States seemed to be accepting the presence and ranting of the Oafs, and that was even scarier than the Oafs themselves.
"Well, it's mostly a social problem right now, not a legal one," Andy said, leaning over to reassure Kris with a pat on the knee. "We'll get it stopped before it comes to that."
"I sincerely hope you're right," Kris had replied, and then the conversation turned to less weighty matters. But Kris remained alert and wary.
* * * *
Admiral Cuthbert finally stopped talking and at his invitation, Kris and her successor rose. He was a burly man with dark hair, slicked back, and unreadable eyes. She didn't like him, especially what he symbolized to her, and so she had practiced in her quarters, and rehearsed it mentally, and so she managed to smoothly recite, "I relinquish command," handing over her unit colors without shedding a tear or permitting a snarl to escape her lips. Then she remained at attention while Richard read the citation to accompany the award of the Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal, the highest peacetime decoration a retiring captain could hope to receive. At the same time, however, Kris took great satisfaction in remembering how she had earned hers, with Search and Rescue missions, interdiction of drug smuggling operations, two tours of Gulf War escort duty, freezing Arctic and North Atlantic patrols, and representing the Coast Guard in joint assignments. She had done more than most.
The admiral, shorter than Kris and with curly graying hair, pinned the gold medal, hanging from a ribbon of purple and light blue, to the front of her coat, over her heart. They smiled sadly, for he hadn't wanted her to retire, and shook hands, murmuring the meaningless platitudes customarily exchanged upon such occasions. She and the admiral faced the guests and stood at attention while Richard read her bio and her retirement orders. After another exchange of salutes, they left the platform to review the honor guard to the strains of "Semper Paratus." Finally they were dismissed, and there followed nearly another hour of hand-shaking and well-wishing until Kris was finally free to salute the Union Jack for the last time and proceed ashore, lugging a last armful of retirement paraphernalia.
Reaching her rental car, she removed her sword-belt, jacket and dress hat, loosened her tie and slid behind the wheel. It felt odd, another first, another symbol of the severing of her ties with the Coast Guard. As a ship's captain she had been entitled to a staff car in port, usually a late model American sedan. She had deliberately rented a European sports car for a sort of last fling, and it was with a sigh of relief that she drove across the installation with the top down, the wind whipping her thick, short hair and the sun glinting off a pair of dark glasses that made her look more glamorous than she realized. She probably exceeded the speed limit once or twice on her way to the tiny marina. More freedom.
As she swung into her space across from Athena's slip, she admired the sleek lines and glistening brightwork with the same immense satisfaction she had always felt, since the day twelve years ago that she had personally confiscated it from South American drug runners off Key West. She knew that instant, as soon as the yacht was available for bidding, she would own it, or it would own her, no matter how deeply she might have to mortgage herself to do it.
"Hello, sweetheart," she muttered under her breath. "Mommy's home."
As it turned out, she hadn't had to go into debt at all, just sell her sailboat of the moment plus the tiny winterized cottage she had owned on the Connecticut shore at the time. She still remembered with amusement how stunned her brother was when she casually mentioned she had sold her house. He had taken for granted his free summer vacations on the Sound every year. Of course she had immediately offered, "Come on and stay on the yacht! Plenty of room!"
He declined to take her up on her offer after their only stay on Athena. Usually when the family came to visit, Kris stayed on her boat at her dock, leaving the house for them. It was never long before her nieces were sneaking down to sleep there overnight, or to play "navy" or "pirate" or whatever idea took their fancies that moment. Their nocturnal disappearances terrified their parents and created a rift that widened every time they began a sentence with "Aunt Kris says."
Then there was the fact that even on her private boats, she was the captain, and that was a bit much for Harry, who was as traditional as their Dad had been, and he had disapproved of Kris' career until the day he died. Harry could do without the reminders of her position, her prestige, her success. There was no shame in managing a grocery store, but no fame or glory, either.
But the older the girls got, the more time they wanted to spend with their exciting young aunt, so Harry and Cindy either sent them on a plane or let Kris come and get them, as long as they called home every night. It was a small enough price for Kris to pay for the pleasure of their company and the enormous satisfaction she derived from influencing them, not only in their behavior and attitudes but their possible career preferences.
Still chuckling to herself, Kris gathered up the shadow box and other items she had had thrust upon her to mark her retirement and carried them aboard Athena. "Still Captain here, Nordstrom," she reminded herself as she descended from the wheelhouse to the luxurious yet austere lounge below. As was her habit, she stowed everything immediately, properly, in the places she had prepared for them. The shadow box with all her insignia, medals, unit patches and a folded flag went into a secure slot in her wall unit. Danielle and Carol would enjoy that, whenever they got to see it. Biting her lip, she took it out again. Those damnable Oafs! she thought. I'd better take it along and show them now. She put it with the smaller shadow boxes she had made for each niece, containing mementos of her career and pictures of the three of them on her various personal boats, and her Coast Guard ships. Kris honestly didn't know if or when they'd vacation together again after this. She wanted the memories to last a good long time.
Of course her bags were packed and ready in her stateroom. She changed quickly to a short-sleeved uniform shirt. She hated travelling in uniform, but it was like a suit of armor these days, and gave her a chance to actually wear her new ribbon before her retirement was effective in two months. She had saved her leave for just such an event as dealing with Oafs while travelling in the US. She made sure the yacht was secure, loaded the car and drove away again, heading west to Ohio.
She had been "retired" for two hours, and she was 42 years old.