This is Chapter 1 of a work-in-progress novel. Future updates, if I post them, will be on the DWE pages.
Fire Control Technician Second Class Reiley Stewart sat on his bunk, staring at the letter in his hand. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he was staring through the letter in his hand, since his eyes had long since ceased to focus on the plastic flimsy of the letter itself. The more he sat and stared, the more of a crease developed between his brows.
“Stewart,” a voice like a grizzly bear gargling concrete rubble intruded into Reiley’s private thoughts. Gunner’s Mate First Class Wolfram “Wolfie” Steig stared down at Reiley in concern. “You ok there, buddy? It’s not The Letter, is it?” The Letter was a tradition of Navy life: months, sometimes years spent drifting between the stars often proved too much for girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, and wives.
“What?” Reiley blinked his way back to the present, looking up at the short, stocky, bald Gunner’s Mate above him. “Oh, uh, no. I don’t have a girl. I got The Letter a year ago, and haven’t bothered to do more than hook up for a one-night during R&R since.” He waved the flimsy so the harsh actinic overhead lights glistened off the shiny plastic and cast ephemeral rainbows on the gunmetal bulkheads of the bunkroom. “This is from Peterson. You remember him? That Marine we used to go shore with?”
“Peterson, yeah,” Steig nodded thoughtfully. “He mustered out what, a year ago? Good man. Kept his wits about him even after a hard night of drinking.” Steig began to chuckle softly, a noise not unlike putting a handful of gravel in the tumble dryer with your laundry. “Remember that time on Beta Kentarus Five-A when those miners tried to pick a brawl with us?” The compact little man sighed happily, “Good times. Good times.”
Reiley’s lips twitched momentarily at the memory of that fight also. The four of them, Peterson, Steig, a junior rating they were drinking with, and himself had all barely made it out before the station’s Master-at-Arms and his crew showed up. Then they had to lay low for a few days until the more obvious cuts and bruises healed enough it wasn’t too obvious what had happened to them. He shook his head then, clearing it. “Yeah, that was fun. And yeah, that’s the guy. I’ve written him a few times since he got out. Just keeping in touch, you know? But, his letters back are odd.”
“Well, like this one,” Reiley again waved the flimsy and again rainbows existed for the briefest of moments in a place where no rainbows had any right to be. “In my letter, I was talking about that time we flew ’round the bulk of that gas giant in Contested Twelve. Remember, the one with the giant double rings? There were pics of it on the ship’s sphere for weeks. The thing is, Peterson and me, we were in Forward Missile Bay 7 doing some routine checks on the equipment. Well, I was, he was just keeping me company. And we saw it out the observation blister when we rounded the planet and came into sunlight. The pictures didn’t do it justice, seeing it like that. The light sparkled on the ring ice like a billion billion diamonds. It was incredible. The sort of thing you never forget, like c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.”
“Sounds impressive,” Steig nodded thoughtfully, trying to picture it in his head. “So, what’s the problem?”
“He claims we were never in Contested Twelve. He claims that was Saturn, in Home 1, near Earth.”
Steig frowned at this, shaking his head. “No, it was Contested 12. I remember clearly. The pictures everywhere on the sphere… yeah. Huh.” He shrugged helplessly. “Maybe Peterson forgot? Or…” he trailed off uncomfortably.
“Or what?” Reiley demanded.
“Well, it’s been said that sometimes, Navy men like us, when we finally muster out and ship home… we can’t deal with it. The banality of living in the Homeworlds, all nice and safe. They don’t understand what’s really going on out there, you know. They don’t realize the importance. To them the most important thing in the world is who is going to win the Cup this year, and whether or not the neighbor’s lemon tree is overhanging your fence by a few inches or not. Maybe he… maybe he cracked, just a little?”
“Bullshit,” Reiley dismissed the idea with a snarl and a wave of his hand. “Peterson wouldn’t crack over something that minor. Or if he did, he’d smash that neighbor’s head into the fence. You remember him, he never did anything small. Screwing up details of a mission like this, that’s just not his thing. If he was going to blow, there’d be bodies.”
Steig chewed on his lower lip for a moment as he pondered. With another powerful shrug, he said, “Well, you’re mustering out yourself when we get back to Ares, right? You could always look him up and ask him yourself what’s going on.”
“Yeah,” Reiley nodded, still not happy about the situation. “I guess that’s just what I’ll have to do.” He glanced up at the big digital clock on the ceiling of the bunkroom. “Two weeks, one day, five hours and some,” he grinned suddenly. “I tell you what I’m not going to miss: sleeping four to a room with you guys. Don’t know if I ever told you this, Gunny, but you snore.”
“Like a drunken water buffalo.”
“Stewart,” the Senior Chief’s voice cut through the cacophony in Starboard Gun Bay 2. Stewart pulled the soldering iron away from the chipboard he was repairing, cradled the hot tool, and only then did he look over at the Senior Chief. Safety first: not just a rule of shipboard life, it was practically a religion.
The Senior Chief was only a few months older than Reiley himself, but through a dedicated campaign of well planned out ass kissing, he was several pay grades higher. His sandy blonde hair was immaculately swept back, his uniform crisp and sharp as if it had just come from the press. Needless to say, the S.C. didn’t have solder burns on his fingers. As Reiley looked at him, his superior tapped the chronograph on his wrist. “Time, Stewart. Put your tools away, gather up your gear, and head up to Medical for your Exit Interview.”
The fifteen days, five hours, and some had flown past since the incident with the letter. Reiley found it hard to believe this was his last day in the Navy. He would go to his Exit Interview with the Ship’s Counselor, then head back to his bunkroom to collect his already packed bags. He would say ‘good-bye’ to his bunkmates and anyone else who managed to coincidentally ‘happen’ to have business in the hallways between his bunk and the aft docking seal, and then he would be on Ares, officially a civilian. The Navy would comp his last space voyage then: a ride to any of the fifteen major Homeworlds that Ares Station serviced, but he would travel as a citizen, not a sailor. After twelve years in the service, it seemed a bit anti-climactic, but then there would be a few dozen others mustering out at the same time, and that was just from the Manticore. Only senior officers got real going-away parties on the day of: Reiley and a half dozen other ratings from “below decks” had had an impromptu party at a Navy approved bar their last shore leave, several weeks ago.
“Aye aye, Sir,” Reiley snapped a quick salute. The other guys in SGB2 looked up from their work to smile, wave, or clap him on the back as he passed, depending on personality and proximity.
His tools stowed away safely, Reiley slipped out of the noisy Bay and turned aft, heading for the elevator up to Deck 6, the mid-deck of the Manticore. Navy tradition had the medical deck being the mid-point of every ship so that it was, depending on how you looked at it, equally accessible or equally inconvenient for all duty stations. The midship lift took up up the two decks to 6, and from there he trudged towards the fore until he reached the Counselor’s Office, otherwise known in below-decks terminology as the Bat-House. The door was partly open, and Reiley almost entered when he caught voices. If someone was already inside, it might be a counseling session and he should wait outside until whatever poor soul was finished. Reiley leaned against the bulkhead next to the door to wait.
He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop. Besides, it was probably just some first tour, lonely for his girl back home. After a moment, Reiley realized he was actually hearing the Counselor and the Captain, talking via speaker phone. As that startling realization dawned, the call wrapped up with the Counselor saying “Aye aye sir, no problem. He should be here any minute. I”ll let you know when it’s done.”
Even bigger than the shock of realizing he’d inadvertently listened in on a private call to the Captain was the shock of realizing that they were talking about Stewart himself. As far as Reiley knew, the Captain didn’t even know his name, and yet here he was talking to the ship’s Counselor about him, right before his Exit Interview. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Something wasn’t right.
The sound of the phone clicking off drew him out of his daze. Reiley took a half-score quiet steps back up the hallway, then turned and walked back to the Bat-House whistling a falsely cheerful tune. He wasn’t sure why the Captain was talking about him, but it wouldn’t do to have them realize he’d accidentally spied on part of their conversation. Arriving at the door, he pounded it with his fist. “Sir? FCT2 Stewart here,” he called through the partly-open hatch.
“Come in,” the Counselor’s voice called back, and Reiley pushed the hatch open all the way. Stepping inside, he snapped a smart salute, waited for it to be returned, and assumed parade rest. “Shut the door,” the Counselor, a husky man in his middle years with white at the temples of his otherwise glossy black hair, ordered.
Reiley shut the door and turned back to face the psychologist. The later smiled at him and gestured for Reiley to take a seat. “Fire Control Technician Second Class Reiley Stewart, right?” he asked, glancing at a folder in front of him.
Reiley nodded as he eased himself onto the edge of the seat offered. He was nervous still. Were they going to revoke his right to muster out? As far as Reiley knew, there were no increases in enemy activity that would justify ordering a stop-loss against him. So what was this all about?
The Counselor looked up from his perusal of Reiley’s file and smiled warmly. “You look nervous,” he said, “Would you like a drink?” He gestured to the side of the room where a small wooden table bore a decanter full of a dark amber liquid. Reiley’s eyebrows rose, but then he supposed the rules were different for officers. With a faux psychic ability born of hundreds of similar interviews, the Counselor smiled, “Surprised by the scotch? Well, in a few minutes you won’t BE in the Navy anymore, so we’re hardly going to hold one breach of the regs against you.”
Reiley relaxed slightly. That ‘in a few minutes’ bit sounded as if they were going to let his retirement go ahead as planned. “Uh, thank you Sir, but no thank you. I’m fine,” he shook his head and essayed a return smile. He was sure it came off sickly and weak, but the Counselor seemed to accept it at face value.
“As you know, we need to run these Exit Interviews with all departing personnel,” the Counselor began. “It’s a formality really, just to remind you that even after you leave active service you are still bound to keep any Classified information to yourself and never share it with anyone. I’m to tell you that if you feel you need someone to talk to, or if you are having trouble adjusting to civilian life, that the Navy has low-cost counseling available to veterans on most Homeworlds. And I should ask you how you feel about your time with us, do you think your time was well spent? Did you serve the Confederacy well?”
“Yes Sir, thank you Sir,” Reiley nodded in reply to the first parts of the officer’s speech. The question made him pause however. Just a formality, he said, but Reiley felt he needed to say something. “Sir, I think what we do here is very important, of course. I just wonder why we need to keep it from the civilians? I mean, they know we’re at war, why not drum up support for the war effort and for the Navy with more media coverage? There’s only the occasional clip of space battles, usually shot from such a distance that you can’t really see what’s going on other than flashes of light in the dark. It just seems to me that we could increase enlistment a hundredfold if the people knew how hard it is to hold off the Sorax. Maybe release that Eyes-Only footage of the ruins of Greenwood Point, that sort of thing?”
The Counselor nodded thoughtfully as Reiley began speaking. After a time, he stood and walked over to the table with the scotch and poured a small glass, which he drank himself. “That’s an interesting thought, Mr. Stewart. I’ll pass it along up the chain,” he promised. There was something in his voice that Reiley didn’t like; something that sounded like sorrow. That didn’t make any sense. The Counselor crossed behind Reiley’s seated form on his way back to his desk. Reiley watched his reflection in the glass on the desk.
Glass on the desk. Half-full of scotch. Then why did the Counselor need to get up to get another one? Something was very, very wrong. Reiley twisted around quickly, half rising from his seat. The Counselor had a hypospray in his hand, and his position made it clear he had been about to inject Reiley with whatever was in there. The Counselor’s eyes narrowed slightly and he snarled as Reiley dodged the first attack.
The worst part of the fight, Reiley decided a few minutes later, was the look of utter surprise on the Counselor’s face. He lay there, facing up, eyes staring sightlessly at the overhead lights, that look of shock on his face. Clearly, the officer had been surprised that Reiley, a lowly technician, knew how to handle himself in a melee. Another thing Reiley would have to thank Peterson for once he found him. Assuming I get off this ship alive.
Every one of his badly jangled nerves told Reiley to run, but his brain held the power of veto. He had to think, to plan. Just running away wasn’t an option, he was on a ship. Also, running would draw attention. No, he needed to walk, calmly, as if nothing was wrong. He would head aft like he was supposed to and…
And what? He’d trade a small, confined trap for a slightly larger, confined trap. Ares Station was pure Navy, and once someone realized what happened here, they could track him down on Ares just as easily as they could on the Manticore. What he needed was a distraction, something to keep attention off him and off the Counselor until he was safely away, off Ares and on the very first flight to any world. Reiley’s eyes widened as he had a thought. It was terrible. It would never work. And yet, it might be his only chance. He dragged the Counselor’s body into the attached, private head, and shut the door. He straightened the chair knocked aside in the fight, then slipped out and shut the hatch behind him. That might buy him a few minutes, if people thought the Counselor was still in a private session.
He moved quickly, retracing his steps to the elevator which he took down to Deck 9. Heading Aft, he nodded in greeting to a few passers-by here and there until he reached Aft Missile Bay 4. The CPO on duty looked up in surprise as he hustled in. “What are you doing here,” he asked, “I thought you were off this tub.”
“Yeah,” Reiley showed his teeth in a sheepish grin, “I think I forgot my… ahem… my Confidential File Transfer Device in here, last time I was here. I’m just gonna pop in and look for it ok?” he jerked a thumb at the door to the Missile Firing Control room.
The CPO chuckled and nodded, “Yeah yeah, go find your music player.” He returned to reading the girly magazine Reiley’s arrival had interrupted.
Reiley slipped into the control room and set to work swiftly. Commands were issued, programs initialized but not activated yet, timers were set. Then he closed down the console so no one could see the count-down on the screen. Departing the room again, he shrugged to the CPO. “Not in there. Must have left it in SGB2. I’ll just go grab it.” The CPO nodded, disinterestedly, and Reiley slipped out.
Walking swiftly but without apparent panic, just a man on a mission, Reiley stopped by his bunkroom and said his goodbyes. Each handshake and backslap ate away precious seconds, but he couldn’t draw attention to himself now. The walk to the aft docking seal was interminable. Somehow, he got through it, said his last good-bye, and walked through the double airlocks joining the Manticore to Ares Station.
He made it to the central concourse where he scanned the displays for the next departing ship going anywhere. The Flashing Darter, a small 40 man cargo hauler grotesquely mis-named, was heading to Mars in half an hour. Close enough. He found the right dock and showed the bored Mid-Shipman his discharge papers. The Middy nodded and waved him aboard. No sooner had he set foot on the Darter than station alarms started going off. Perfect timing.
The entire station jolted as the Manticore performed an emergency separation, trying to get as much distance from the station as it could before the missiles in AMB4 exploded. Of course, they weren’t really going to explode, but it would take the better part of 15 minutes for them to figure that out. And then they would have to find another place to dock with Ares, since they just destroyed the one they were at. With any luck, the Darter would be gone before anyone came looking for lowly old FCT2 Stewart. The only risk was that CPO. If he remembered Reiley’s arrival and swift departure and thought to mention it to someone in a command position, and that person radioed Ares… Well, it wasn’t worth worrying about. It was all out of Reiley’s hands now.
“Sit down,” the no-longer bored looking Middy snapped at Reiley, pointing to a row of six safety-harnessed seats lining the walls fore of the empty main cargo section. “Strap in,” he ordered, hastening to do likewise.
“What’s going on?” Reiley asked, keeping up his cover of ignorance.
“Not sure,” the Middy replied with a shrug. “Some ship’s going critical, gonna explode. Commander’s launching early, in case whatever it is rips the station apart.
“But that,” Reiley bit his tongue. He couldn’t very well explain that it wasn’t the entire ship that was going to not-actually-explode, only one missile magazine. But that would be telling. Instead, he shrugged and strapped himself in quickly. Besides, this was good. The panicked response of the Darter’s Commander meant they would be gone and away long before the false alarm was realized.
“I’ve never been to Mars,” he informed the Middy as the cargo hauler pulled away from the station and began the run to minimum safe jump distance. “What’s it like?” Reiley sat back and let himself smile as the Middy began to relate some anecdote about life on the red planet. So far, so good. Soon, he would be lost on a world with millions of inhabitants. From there, he would find a way to get to Poseidon, where Peterson lived. He was sure that the attempt to drug or kill him on the Manticore was somehow tied into the oddness of Peterson’s letter. Visiting his old friend was no longer just a fun thing to do.
It was a matter of life and death.