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.”
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