Deployment 47, Day 1: Porter
Porter didn’t check in with Malleck before the Kestros IV left Unity station. They were ready and they both knew it. In retrospect, perhaps he should have. Her unannounced inspection of Engineering, three hours after departure, would not have been such a shock.
It had been thirteen months since Porter had been assigned to Kestros IV as chief engineer. At the time Porter had thought it was good luck. The promotion was at least a year early and, when he discovered that his favorite professor from the Academy was second-in-command, he had been delighted. It didn’t take him long to figure out that, when it came to Malleck, nothing happened by chance.
Within a week of his arrival on the Kestros IV, Malleck had come to him with a startling idea. She had taken it as far as she could on her own. She needed an engineer to make it a reality. It took thirteen months to work out the orbital mechanics, to figure out how to override the safeties on the warheads without the captain’s launch codes, and to convince themselves that a Spartan class ship could sustain a human population for the years that it would take for them to arrive at Bellerophon, even with the relativistic effects.
All that remained was carefully expanding their circle, recruiting enough people so that when they made their move, they’d have the help they needed. To complete the mutiny, Malleck needed two operators and a member of bridge security. Porter needed three engineers. They had argued about bringing others into the mix. Porter had thought that Kai would be worth sounding out. Malleck had said that he was letting his feelings cloud his judgment. One miss-step now and they’d be executed as Terran collaborators.
The problem with finding the engineers he needed was that good Space Force engineers just did not think about things like the future of humanity or far away stars. They did not question orders or dream of a different outcome. They thought about their ship. A good engineer had an encyclopedic knowledge of the ship and a level head. A good engineer was reliable, methodical and competent. A good engineer cultivated a deliberate lack of empathy, a refusal to see beyond the here and now, because the possibility of what could be, with the weapons on the ship that they maintained, was too horrendous to consider.
If Porter had never met Malleck, he could have been a great engineer.
Now he had to find three others on his staff that might be dreamers in disguise. He thought he had two. One was an old friend that he had asked Malleck to get for him two deployments ago. Back when they had been students, they had spent many hours mulling over the idea of an Orion drive for a class project, purely theoretically, of course. Another was a specialist in life support systems that Malleck had traded for on the last deployment. That left just one slot to fill.
One of the perks of being chief engineer was he had his own cabin. It wasn’t large - a bunk, a terminal, and some storage space – but it was private. He came back from the first shift of the deployment and collapsed in the chair. For a long time he stared at the ceiling, wondering if it was all a mistake. Malleck had not been gentle with her inspection, and if he still cared about the notes that command made in his personnel file, he’d have been angry. He’d have felt betrayed. The reason half the engineering staff was new, the reason they didn’t operate like the well-oiled machine they should, was because Malleck had been trading his people for the last three deployments, optimizing the genetic pool of the Kestros IV over experience. However, it did not take long for the engineering part of his brain to push aside the doubt. He realized that the inspection, like everything Malleck did, served a purpose. By putting his department on report, it made more inspections, and therefore more opportunities for the two of them to be seen together, an expected outcome.
Pushing aside the intrigue and plots, he turned to the portfolios of the new engineers, hoping he’d find his third recruit. Malleck had hand picked them, so it was likely that there was someone.
He was almost done with his first read through when the door to his cabin opened and Kai walked in. Porter causally shut the file.
“Thank God you are still awake,” Kai said.
“I was wondering if you were going to show up,” Porter said.
Kai put his hands on Porter’s shoulders and squeezed. Porter groaned and leaned forward as Kai massaged the tense muscles. “What’s got you so worked up?” Kai asked. “R&R was less than a day ago.”
Porter drooped his head and let Kai rub his shoulders. “Lt. Commander Malleck,” he said, “did a surprise inspection of engineering.”
“I heard about that,” Kai said.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Porter said.
“Okay,” Kai said.
Deployment 47, Day 3: Kai
It was dog watch and the bridge was quiet. Kai stood at the command station and looked over the readouts. They had been deployed for three days and all was humming along the way it should. They were in Jovian orbit, station keeping with the rest of the Kestros fleet, ready for whatever orders came.
There were no drills scheduled and no reports due. On the one hand, it was an honor to be given bridge watch, to keep the ship safe while the commander and mate slept. On the other hand, dog watch was dull. Nothing ever happened.
He flipped through the reports that had come in during the day. There was a report from the commander of the Marines. There was the engineering report from Porter. He didn’t understand most of it, but Porter wrote it, so he spent a few minutes looking at it, pretending to understand. When he realized what he was doing, he shut the report and looked at the next item. It was the duty roster, submitted by the First Mate, Lt. Commander Malleck. He scanned down it and found the names of the Operators who were on the bridge with him. A man named Hale sat at the conn. A woman named Tam sat at C&S.
Kai looked at them. He could not help but disapprove. Operators were Space Service. Space Service was soft. Weak. They didn’t fight. Not for real. They just sat at consoles and pushed buttons. Kai was proud to be a Marine, like his father had been. He turned back to the reports and decided to read about the water filtration system, filed by some junior engineer he did not know.
An hour later, the lift doors opened and First Mate Lt. Commander Malleck stepped on the bridge. He started to straighten to attention, but she waved a hand. “As you were,” she said, walking over to the navigational controls, barely glancing at him. Kai watched her for a moment, wondering if she ever slept. The captain stood bridge watch on the first shift and he was usually around half of second. As first mate, Malleck stood second watch. It was only Kai’s second day standing third watch, but she had shown up in the middle of the night last night too. After she had left the bridge, she had done another surprise inspection of Engineering. Porter had told him she was there for half of first watch. She was running Porter ragged, but she showed no signs of slowing down.
Kai stood awkwardly watching her for nearly a minute before he said, “Can I help you, Lt. Commander?”
She glanced over at him, looking him up and down. She seemed about to say something, but then she turned back to whatever it was she was doing. “I’m fine, lieutenant.”
“Understood,” he replied. Even though he was doing what he was supposed to be doing, with her on the bridge, he felt like he should be doing more. “Operator,” he said. “How about we run a diagnostic on the communications array?”
The operators both looked up at him. The man glanced at Lt. Commander Malleck. The woman, sitting at the communications and sensor station said, “Yes lieutenant.”
Kai entered the access codes to start the diagnostic on the comm array. With any luck, maybe they’d actually catch the end of the Outer System Championship by accident, while the diagnostic cycled through the non-military bands.
Deployment 47, Day 4: Hale
Operator Hale found a seat at a table in the mess. He was just getting off shift, so this was his dinner, but for just about everyone else it would be breakfast. He had a stack of pancakes with sweet syrup, sausages, eggs and a fruit cup. The fruit had been vacuum-sealed and the sausages and eggs were probably synthetic vegetable protein, but he was looking forward to his meal. His coffee was lightened with a sweet concoction that claimed to be flavored with “hazelnuts”. He had no idea what a hazelnut was, but it was his favorite lightener.
As far as Hale was concerned, the food was one of the best parts about Space Force. There was plenty to eat. The chow was always tasty. He had definitely put on a few pounds over the last few years and he tried not to think too much about the people back home on the Amalthea colony. Amalthea’s irregular rotation meant that the asteroid’s farms never quite broke even and the colony was dependent on expensive off-world imports. The calories in front of him right now could be an entire day’s rations for his sister.
With a sigh, he dug his fork in. There was nothing else he could do for her. She had made the choices she had made. The Terrans were not going to change its stance on the outer Belt any time soon.
The mess hall emptied as the first shift filtered off to duty stations. He found himself sitting alone at the table. Around the room, a few other third watch-standers were scattered, wearily eating their breakfast-dinner. The first mate came in. She was the lone second watch-stander in the room. Most of second watch was asleep. She got a cup of coffee and then came over towards him. He started to stand but she waved for him to sit. “Good morning, Operator,” she said pleasantly. “May I join you?”
“Lt. Commander,” he replied. “I’d be honored.”
She looked at him and he wondered if he had said something wrong. “It’s a cup of coffee,” she said levelly. She sat across from him.
“This was Hale’s second deployment with Lt. Commander Malleck, but he had never spoken to her personally before. All of their interactions had been professional, on the bridge.
“Where are you from, Operator?” she asked.
“Amalthea colony,” he replied.
“That’s in the outer belt?”
Hale nodded, taking a sip of his own coffee. “Most people haven’t heard of it,” he said.
“What’s it like, living on the border?”
Hale thought it over. It had been a good enough place when he was a kid, but since the cold war with the Terrans had escalated, trade with the inner planets had been stifled and things had become so much worse. “It used to be pretty nice,” he said. “Great flying chambers,” he said. “And there is a mineral we mine that is found no where else in the solar system. The downsiders love the stuff. My parents were miners.”
“Are they still there?”
“No, they died a few years back in a drilling accident.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Hale nodded in acknowledgement as he chewed. Mining accidents were not uncommon, and at least it had been fast. They hadn’t been trapped in a tunnel for days. “Thank you,” he said.
“You have a sister, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Hale said. “She’s one year, uh, that’s about four Earth years, younger than me.”
“Is she’s a miner?”
Hale shook his head. “My parents’ mine is dug out and we didn’t have the money to buy another claim. That’s why I joined Space Force, originally, to save up for a new claim.”
“But not any more?” Malleck asked.
Hale looked at her. “Why are you asking me all of this, commander?”
Malleck shrugged and leaned back. “I like to get to know my crew,” she said. “I requested you, you know, from the Kestros III.”
Hale blinked. The commander on the Kestros III had not liked him. “You requested me?” he asked.
“I did,” she said. “And frankly, I can’t understand why Commander HaeSung would have recommended to not renew your contract. You did an excellent job on the last deployment.”
Hale put his fork down. He had not realized that he had almost been non-renewed. After a long moment he said, “My sister didn’t finish school. She never got her mining license. Now she is too old.”
Malleck looked at her cup. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Hale shrugged. “It was her choice,” he said with less conviction than he wished.
Malleck looked back up at him and met his eyes. “It is a hard thing,” she said. “When you can’t save those you care about.”
Hale looked down at his plate. He had not finished his dinner, but he was not hungry any more. Just looking at the leftover pancakes, now soaked in sweet syrup, made him feel queasy.
“What if,” she said, “there was a chance to make something better?”
Hale shook his head. “There is nothing I can do,” he said.
She reached across the table and laid her hand on his. Her hand was warm and dry. “There, Operator Hale, you are wrong.”
Hale looked up and met Malleck’s eyes.
Deployment 47, Day 6: Malleck
Malleck tapped on the door but didn’t pause before opening it. The captain was already at the conference table with the crew files open. “Malleck,” he said. “Nice of you to join me.”
“There was an issue with the duty roster.” Malleck said as she sat down and tapped her access code into the table.
“You weren’t down in engineering torturing Porter again?”
Malleck smiled tightly, her lips disappearing as she pressed them together. Then she said, “Private Singer reported sick.
“Singer…Singer,” said the captain. “He seems to be sick a lot.”
“Three times last deployment,” Malleck said without inflection. “Somehow, every time he is scheduled to be on Lister duty, he takes ill.”
The captain looked at her. “You have it under control?”
“We had a talk,” Malleck said.
The captain chuckled and flicked his finger across the table to share the file he was looking at with Malleck. “I take it that he is healthy again?”
Malleck looked at the file the captain had pulled up. Bosun Gjermund Lingas. “Let’s just say he is on the mend.”
“I’ll bet he is. Tell me again why Cal got transferred?” the captain asked. Cal Randorf was their old bosun. He had been the longest serving member of the Kestros IV, serving on the ship continuously since she was first launched some fifteen years ago. He knew every inch, every nut, every quirk. He also was a carrier of Rankar’s inflammation, a genetic disease that inhibited his body’s ability to rid itself of excess copper. Randorf had been asymptomatic, but he would pass the defect on to his children and, given the limited gene pool of the ship, eventually it would become a problem for the colony.
“Command has a new design of the Spartan class ships in the works.”
“The Ballista?” the captain interrupted. “I heard about it.”
“They want him to be a part of the design team, given his extensive experience with the Kestros,” Malleck said, although it was not strictly true. There had been an opening for an engineer. Randorf, as bosun, was a practical engineer. He handled the ship’s maintenance – not the glamorous parts like the ship’s drive, but the tedious parts like the lights and the plumbing. He was a very good bosun and Malleck convinced Command that they needed someone like him on the Ballista design team. “He even got a promotion.”
“I didn’t know there was a higher rank than Master Boats,” the captain said.
“He’s going to be a Warrant Officer,” Malleck said.
The captain looked up at her. “Good for him,” he said. “But bad for us.” The captain looked back at the file in front of him. “This Lingas kid does not look very experienced.”
He wasn’t. Porter had been displeased with her decision. Cam Randorf had discretely helped Porter through some tough stretches when he had first taken on Chief Engineer and they had been friends. “Barely competent” had been Porter’s description of Lingas. However, Lingas had excellent genetics.
“Where’s the letter from his last commander?” the captain asked as he scrolled through the file.
It wasn’t there. Malleck had removed it. She had been looking to get rid of Randorf for months but bosuns were hard to trade for. Either you got a good one and kept him, or you had a bad one and you put them on double shifts until they quit. They needed one who could do the job, or, who was at least trainable. Malleck was banking on Lingas being trainable. “It didn’t come through with his file, captain.”
“Those clowns at command. It’s a wonder they can find their ass with the toilet paper.” The captain scrolled through the file one more time. “I guess I will hold my notes for now. I’m sure I’ll run into the guy some time.”
“That seems likely,” Malleck said. “Can we look at Operator Michelle Tracy?”
“She’s on first watch,” the captain commented. “She’s good. I like her.”
Malleck smiled. Tracy had been whom she had traded Randorf for. As an operator, she was competent. However, she was also young and attractive and the captain was willing to overlook a lot of defects in the pretty ones.
“She came from the Kestros II,” Malleck said.
“Why’d she transfer?”
Malleck shrugged. “I think she had an issue with Captain Quartto.”
“I have an issue with Captain Quartto,” the captain said. He went back to flipping through the file with quick swipes of his finger across the table, quickly scanning the pages. “Let’s see. Say’s she’s from Titan. Parents are academics at the university. What would possibly make a rich kid want to leave that life? Oh, how nice. She joined Space Force because she wanted to make a difference.”
“There are worse reasons,” Malleck said. “She got high marks at the Academy.”
“I’ll bet she did.” The captain rolled his eyes. “We’ll have to see how long that idealism lasts once she sees how the rest of the system lives. Probably won’t renew at the end of her tour.”
“As long as she does her job for now,” Malleck said, thinking that Tracy had no idea just how long of a tour she had signed up for. “The end of her tour is far away.”
The captain nodded, typing notes into the file. Malleck watched as the words appeared. Earnest, hard working. He wrote. Needs positive reinforcement for doing her job. “Captain Quartto doesn’t know how to handle her people. Her castoffs are usually come along nicely here. There was Herndon, and what’s his name? Kai. In the Marines.”
Malleck flipped through her list, and nodded. “And Lt. Gray,” she added.
“Who’s next?” he asked.
“The engineers,” she said. “But we can do them tomorrow. We have some issues with returning crew. You wanted to talk about Operator Tam and we have a case of fraternization.”
The captain rolled his eyes. “We just got off R&R!”
“Apparently, that’s where it started. Second Lt. Fukizaki and Third Lt. Oshins. They were discovered by Fukizaki’s bunkmate, who reported it.”
The captain shook his head. “This is the first offense for each of them?”
Malleck checked the files with a quick series of taps on the table. “Yes.”
“A reprimand, then?” he asked.
“That seem appropriate,” Malleck replied.
“Good. Put them on my schedule for the end of shift.”
“Done,” Malleck said, modifying the duty roster. “What’s going on with Operator Tam?”
“Ah,” the captain said.
Malleck pulled up the file. An image of Operator Tam looked up at them from the table. Compared to the bright, smiling face of Operator Tracy, Tam’s expressionless stare into the camera was jarring. “She’s on second watch?”
“Third,” Malleck said. “For now. With Operator Hale.”
The captain murmured a line from a drinking song, “In the darkest of hours, when the misfits hold the lines…” Then he went on in a normal voice. “Hale seems to have settled down. I was talking to HaeSung when we were at Unity Station and he seemed surprised that we had taken on Hale. He always seems a bit standoffish to me. But he’s got a level head and about the highest rating an Operator can have. Lord knows we need some level heads on the bridge.”
“What’s the issue with Operator Tam?” Malleck asked.
The captain shook his head. “Nothing yet. I’ve just been hearing things, from the department leaders. Marine Commander Rickles said she was in the firing range during the Marines’ practice time and she tried to challenge Ensign Merritt.”
Malleck looked down at the file. Tam’s ardor for the mutiny was both heartening and a little frightening at times. Malleck had warned her that the welders would not really be like a gun, but Tam could hardly practice on the welders. The captain continued, “And there was an incident with the doc on the last deployment.” Malleck remembered. Tam had gone to see the doc in an intoxicated state, and then she had spent fifteen minutes grilling the doc about what explosive decompression felt like. Eventually, the doc had called security when Tam had gotten out of hand. Malleck, herself, had written the reprimand for being intoxicated during a deployment.
“Her brother was a Marine on the Makhaira II,” Malleck said.
“Ah,” said the captain. “Well, I guess that explains that incident.” The Makhaira II had lost contact with Jovian command some eight months before. Two months ago, during the last deployment, the Terrans had returned it, claiming to have found it drifting near Apophis. Apophis was an inner system asteroid that was known to contain a training base for Terran troops. The Makhaira had suffered a complete loss of atmosphere when the hull had failed in multiple places, apparently simultaneously.
“Have their been other incidents?”
The captain shrugged. “Nothing in particular. It’s just a feeling.”
“I’ll speak with her,” Malleck said.
The captain nodded. “Very good. Anything else?”
Deployment 47, Day 7: The Captain
It was near the end of third watch and the ship was shifting gears. When the captain had started strolling through the darkened hallways, a cup of bitter Callistan tea in his hand, all there had been to hear was the quiet hum of the ventilation and the deep throb of the gravgens. Now he could hear movement behind the bulkhead doors as the first watch-standers readied themselves for the day.
Behind him came the rhythmic thud of jogging feet. He stepped to the side to let a platoon of Marines pass. He continued his walk, making his way towards the center of the ship where the bridge was. The halls became increasingly crowded as crew emerged from their cabins and headed off to their duty shifts. He arrived on the bridge about five minutes before the end of third watch. The bridge was crowded, filled with twice the crew that it usually held, as third watch handed off to first. Kai was standing at the command station, completing the shift log. Operator Tracy slipped into the seat that Hale vacated. Tam was leaning over and pointing at something on the console as her replacement, Trumbull, took position.
As Tam straightened, she caught the Captain’s eye. She met his gaze and the captain felt the antagonism that he had heard about from his officers. He did not think she was going to make it in Space Force. Living in close quarters on a ship, you had to get along.
Operator Tam headed towards the door, but the Captain said, “Operator Tam? A word, please.”
Tam turned to him. “Captain?” she said.
The captain leaned back against the one of the workstations and studied Tam for a moment. She would not be bad looking, if she could only get that perpetual sneer off her face. “I hear your brother was on the Makhaira II,” he said.
She took a step back and frowned at him. “Sir?”
“I heard your brother was in the Makhaira II,” the captain repeated. “I just wanted to say I am sorry for your loss.”
“Oh,” Tam replied, her face softening in confusion.
The captain shook his head. “We lost a lot of good men on that ship,” he said. “Good women, too,” he added. “I suppose we’ll never find out what really happened.”
“No,” Tam said. She glanced at the lift that led off the bridge and then back at the Captain. The other third shift Operator was waiting for her.
“That’s all, Operator,” the captain said. “You are off duty, I just wanted to, you know.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Operator Tam said stiffly.
Deployment 47, Day 8: Tam
“Try it again,” Hale said. “You lost it at port-side auxiliary.”
Tam banged her hand against the console in frustration. She was on her second deployment of her first tour. Unlike Hale who had a lot more experience than she did, she had not yet done the advanced training. She was not certified on the conn, just on C&S. Malleck had decreed that she needed to be able to fill in for Hale at conn, just in case. The sheer number of fingerstrokes required to release the engine block made her want to scream. She had to go through fourteen different sub-systems and override somewhere between three and eight triggers in each. They all had to be done in the correct order and all within sixty-three seconds, or the first set reset to the safety position.
Releasing the engine block was, under normal circumstances, only intended for emergencies. In an actual emergency, the situation on the ship would flip most of the triggers automatically, so it was much easier to make the release happen. For this to work, they had to trick the ship into releasing a perfectly functional engine block while underway.
Tam took a deep breath and let it out. Then she reset the simulator and began again.
After another five failed attempts, Hale said, “Take a break. Give your fingers a rest.”
“No,” Tam said, resetting the simulator again. “I have got to get this right.”
Hale put his hands over hers. “It took me a week to learn this sequence. You are not going to get it in an hour.”
“I don’t have a week,” Tam replied, pulling her hands free. “Porter called Malleck when I was with her. We are going to go in a day. Two, tops.”
“A day?” Hale echoed, abruptly sitting down. He had been standing behind her, looking over her shoulder as she worked on the simulator.
She turned and looked at him. “Are you okay?”
He was staring across the room. After a moment he asked, “Are you leaving anyone behind?”
Tam stared at him. What kind of question was that? What did it matter? They were getting away from this cesspool of corruption and fear. They were going to start a new world. “No,” she said. After a moment it occurred to her to wonder why he asked. “Are you?”
He looked at her. His brown eyes seemed sad. “My sister,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, turning back to the console. She didn’t know what to say.
“I can’t even say goodbye,” Hale added.
She started hitting the keys to reset the simulation. After a moment she said, “Why not? Once we are underway, there’s no reason we can’t send a message back.”
Hale shook his head. “I can’t,” he said. “She won’t get my death buyout.”
Tam stopped abruptly and turned to face him. “Death buyout?” she said. “No one is supposed to die. She promised me. You can’t mean…”
Hale shook his head. “No, it’s not like that. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t understand,” Tam said.
“You know that message that Malleck recorded? The one you are supposed to broadcast?”
One of Tam’s responsibilities during the uprising was to send a message to command. She hadn’t heard the full text, but Malleck wanted to make it clear that the Kestros IV was on a mission of exploration, not the victim of Terran sabotage. They did not want to start a war. “Yes,” Tam said.
“Malleck will tell Command I died, fighting for the ship.”
“Oh,” Tam said. “So then your sister gets your buyout?”
“It will be enough for her to get off Amalthea. There’s nothing for her there.”
Tam turned back to the controls, her hands hovering over the simulator. “Let’s go again,” she said.