Days Until Home – Chapter 03


Days Until Home: 43

Jeremy Thompkin swirled the caramel liquid in his middy. He regarded the dead soldiers stacked on the smooth wood surface. The quality of spirits and the mere existence of the wooden table in this bar spoke volumes to the money that flowed through the Kerwood Conglomerate. He drained the middy. The damn thing’s made of glass, he thought and scowled as he turned it over and nestled it on top of the pyramid.

“There are a lot of dead soldiers in that pile.”

Jeremy looked toward the feminine voice. “That used to mean something entirely different,” he replied.

“Only to servicemen,” the auburn haired woman started, and she let the sentence fade when she saw Jeremy’s face cloud. “War veteran?” she asked and smoothed the top of her pale blue dress. The color was like a cloudless spring day, and it matched her eyes as if the cloth were individually dyed to match.

Jeremy’s head bobbed, and he kicked the equally opulent wooden chair facing him out from the other side of the table. “Sapper Regiment,” he declared and motioned to the empty chair with one hand while waving the other to garner the attention of the wait staff.

“Fourth ADF Engineers?” the brunette in the blue dress asked.

Jeremy frowned. He cringed at the thought of the Australian Defense Force reduced to an acronym. “You obviously know, uh, miss?”

“Sullivan,” she replied, and extended a hand to Jeremy. He shook it, and internally acknowledged her firm grip. She didn’t flinch from his missing fingers. “Sapphire Sullivan,” she concluded as she withdrew her hand into her lap. “That means you saw action in your own backyard,” she said. “The Fall of Brisbane?”

Jeremy nodded. He could hear the capital letters when she spoke of the battle. “Anywhere they sent us.”

A server placed two new middies at the edge of the table. “Lone Pine?” Sapphire asked with a quiet reverence.

Jeremy flinched.

“Ah,” Sapphire said and held out her hand palm toward the fidgeting Sapper from the Fourth Australian Defense Engineering battalion. He had not only seen the worst humanity had to offer; not only the end of the war but had been there to witness the scorched glass that had at one time been the oldest animal refuge on the planet. “No need to elaborate, Lieutenant Thompkin, your reaction to the name even ten years later confirms my suspicion.” She reached for one of the middies. “To fallen comrades,” she declared and held her middy aloft.

Jeremy picked up the remaining middy, and echoed, “To fallen comrades.”

They clinked their glasses, and each took a small sip of the single cask. The bar wouldn’t breach a bottle unless the patron in question knew that it was his or her responsibility to purchase the entire bottle.

Jeremy and Sapphire did their duty, and each sipped the two fingers of whiskey until the middies were empty. Jeremy placed his middy beside the pyramid, starting another layer.

Sapphire clutched her middy to her breast, and declared, “Many veterans claim they were at Lone Pine.”

“They shouldn’t,” Jeremy replied, and raised his three-fingered hand to signal to the wait staff.

“Why not?” Sapphire asked, her voice rose an octave. “The end of the war. The single decisive moment Luna lost the war.” Sapphire leaned forward and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “The glorious end!” She squeezed her middy as if she wanted to toast again.

Jeremy Thompkin didn’t remember Lone Pine as glorious at all. He remembered day after day of boredom; day after day of frustration; day after day of attrition. Each side battled over a ruined landscape. Slow advances followed by hasty retreats and grueling entrenchments. Battalions and regiments were thrown away against an enemy that wasn’t even there. The Loonies controlled their infantry from almost a quarter of a million miles away. The fundamentalists allowed their exoskeletons and their superiors to make all the decisions. Many years after Lone Pine, during a night of the deepest black, Jeremy witnessed a dark, gouged moon rise over the Australian outback. He could still hear the cries of his comrades in their high undulating voices bellowing for their mothers and the gods of old.

A flash of lightning would remind him of the constant kinetic orbital strikes from satellites controlled by the lunar fanatics. And then… he thought. Tungsten rods weren’t enough for the Loonies. They added a nuclear warhead to one of the inert projectiles. Jeremy felt the ghosts of his missing fingers. Augmented by the exoskeleton, he had let loose a haymaker at one of the Loonies as the detonation happened over his shoulder. The resulting electromagnetic pulse rendered their exoskeletons worthless. A ballistic missile from an ADF silo launched, a dead man’s switch was all that was left of the ADF around Brisbane. The electronics that governed the missile defense system failed, and as Lieutenant Jeremy Thompkin lay immobilized, missile after missile launched. The Lunar soldier that landed on Jeremy when they were both disabled by the EMP crushed Jeremy’s fist by its sheer bulk. Ordinance control systems failed, and any combatants not murdered by the warhead watched helplessly as they burned alive in their own exoskeletons.

The missiles reached their targets two days later. Kinetic assistance satellites realigned and reinforced each missile’s payload of death. The destruction to Luna Three was absolute. In the span of fifty hours, the Australian Defense Force and the Lunar Three Conglomerate were utterly destroyed. Jeremy lay on his back, trapped in his exoskeleton, staring up at the full moon for almost three days. The new gash in the moon had changed a lunar landscape that had been unblemished and unchanged for four and a half billion years. The moon that his grandparents had gazed at would be forever different from the moon his grandchildren saw if he ever had any.

Jeremy wanted to correct the young brunette. Lone Pine hadn’t been a victory, glorious or otherwise. It was the death knell of hostilities by two sides that had committed mutual massacres against each other so profound that no one could stomach further conflict. The destruction was so extensive that an entire continent was laid to waste. To do anything other than entreaty would so foul the memories of the millions lost, that peace was the only thing left between the planet Earth and the insurrection birthed a quarter century ago and a quarter million miles away.

“Why are you here, Miss Sullivan?” Jeremy asked with a sigh.

Sapphire smiled, oblivious to the roiling thoughts behind the stoic mask of a drunkard ADF veteran. Two more middies seemed to materialize on the edge of the table. Sapphire picked one up and passed the glass under her nose. To Jeremy, she replied. “The Kerwood Conglomerate needs a chief engineer for one of our boats, Mister Thompkin, and I know you’re just the man for the job.”

Jeremy sputtered, and nearly dropped his middy of whiskey. “You’ve got an odd sense of humor, Miss Sullivan.” Jeremy cleared his throat and emptied his middy.

Sapphire smiled behind her glass but did not sip from it. “Have I?” she purred.

Jeremy leaned across the wooden table and snatched the middy from her hand. “I’m gonna need more of this, then,” he declared before he drained the caramel liquid in a single gulp.

Sapphire smiled. “Why the hell is Pooh Bear wasting our time?”

Jeremy blinked once; twice, and tried to decipher what he had just heard.

“If you’re gonna sleep, at least, lock your door, so y’know, the snipes don’t see you doing it.”

Jeremy felt odd. It was as if he were watching one of those old martial arts movies, and the dialogue had been dubbed into English. The Kerwood Conglomerate recruiter faded, and Jeremy eyes snapped open. The broad face of his MPA, or Main Propulsion Assistant, leaned across his desk. It had been almost a decade since that meeting with the Kerwood Conglomerate representative.

Once Jeremy made eye contact, the MPA settled into the chair opposite Jeremy’s desk. “I’m telling you, ChEng; Winnie The Pooh has flipped his lid.” She cracked her knuckles. “He had Book running scans for voices.” She splayed her fingers and moved them back and forth next to her ear. “I’m thinking space sickness.” Her eyes went wide with mock concern.

Jeremy sighed. “Come on, Bähr, at least, pretend to respect Captain Hayes.” He narrowed his eyes. “Besides, you know that-” Jeremy made air-quotes with his fingers. “-space sickness isn’t even a real thing.”

Adelaide Bähr scoffed. “Next thing you know; you’ll tell me that there aren’t any aliens.”

Jeremy’s lip quirked slightly. “Nope, I keep my aliens hidden in the two egg rolls that make us go.” Jeremy blew a raspberry. “Ions as propulsion? Now there’s some made-up shit.”

Adelaide frowned. “You’re no fun, ChEng.”

Jeremy leaned forward. “So what did you really do for those four years of engineering school?”

Adelaide’s frown deepened. “You dare besmirch my training?” She rolled up her dungaree sleeves and held her arms up. “These hands have touched every part of those egg rolls.” She heaped as much scorn as she could on those last words. “Besides, nothing ever happens to those things.”

Jeremy held up his hands to placate the odd engineer.

“Besides,” Adelaide insisted, “you know that ion engine failures are statistically impossible. The backups have backups. If something goes awry, another system takes over. It gets all incestuous up in the Kerwood’s innards. I’m telling you, Jeremy, for it all to go sideways an alarm on the bridge has to be out, and two more modules here and in Aux that do the same thing and get checked by the propulsion computer every thirty seconds to make sure they’re copacetic also have to fail. You and I both know the bridge is run by trained monkeys in their pretty baby blues, but even they would notice three different alarms. Other’n that, the software is self-healing. You could set off an EMP in the cargo hold, and a hundred and twenty seconds later, everything’s hunky-dory. There’s more of a chance for maneuvering or atmo thrusters to go tits up.” Adelaide narrowed her eyes. “The slaggers that pull the money out of this spud are more likely to kill us all with their…”

Her voice trailed off when she noticed a wide grin on Jeremy’s face. “Slag it, ChEng. You had me going for a minute there. You put Book up to it?”

Jeremy’s grin widened, and he shook his head. “Nope, that brand of crazy came from upstairs.” He pointed to the overhead and sighed. “I wish we had some sort of pool like the miners do. I’d’ve cashed out right now. Didja hear that Jimmy pulled a fast one on old Vicky?”

Adelaide pouted. “Jess and I had it in the bag. Our stunt with the hoses was golden. She didn’t take well to losing. Sharing a bed with her since has been a pain.”

Jeremy shook his head and covered his ears. “I heard nothing!” His faux-German accent was flawed at best. He tried mimicking Sergeant Hans Schultz from the old television series, Hogan’s Heroes. Jeremy knew that his MPA had the entire run of the old sitcom stored on the computers somewhere.

Adelaide scoffed. “First, it’s my training, and now my ancestry. I’m going to file a formal complaint.” Her mock indignation failed, and she burst out laughing. “Besides, she’s not in my chain-of-command. Now, Erika, she’s a fine piece of Swedish ass.”

Jeremy stared up at the overhead again and waved his hands in exasperation. “Erika is dating that guy from…” He paused to envision the crew manifest. “Ops?” he asked.

Adelaide stood and wiggled her fingers at her temple, and lowered her hand to encompass her face and torso. “She couldn’t possibly pass on all this,” she declared.

“Well, we’ll never know since she’s in your chain of command,” Jeremy insisted.

Before Adelaide could reply or pout, the 2MC or Second Main Circuit chirped. “Propulsion Plant to Main Propulsion Assistant,” a disembodied voice droned.

Adelaide leaned over Jeremy’s desk, and ran two fingers over the glass top, swiping the faux-wood surface off to one side. She tapped a newly-revealed icon. Her face went from jovial to serious in no time flat. “Bähr here, go ahead, Propulsion Plant.”

“Sir-” A square expanded from the icon, and a puzzled face appeared on the display. A woman in dungarees cocked her head to one side since her commanding officer looked upside down over the 2MC link.

“Spit it out, Ängström,” Adelaide, ordered the inverted image.

“Yes, Sir,” Erika Ängström replied.

Jeremy examined Erika’s image from his vantage point. She is an attractive woman, he thought. Like Adelaide, Erika wore engine grease as an accouterment. Very few things on the Kerwood required engine oil, but all his engineers managed to bathe in the stuff. He suspected it was a right of passage like the old nautical sailors had when crossing the equator, Arctic Circle, or Antarctic Circle. There were even traditions when crossing the Panama Canal, and one for a certain number of days at sea.

They all would’ve earned the equivalent of the NAVY’s sea service ribbon. The two-week mining mission required four weeks to get here, and even with the gravity assist from Jupiter, six weeks to get back to Luna. From Luna, their cargo and crew would be displaced to Luna Five, where the paymaster would distribute credits to all of the crew. The senior staff, Jeremy and Adelaide included, lived on the Kerwood. The rest of the crew were contract employees. Most of them re-upped, as it were, and renewed their contract for the next project. If someone didn’t pull their weight on one contract, it was unlikely that they would be renewed. Crew quarters were supposed to be pooled, and assigned randomly, but some of the long haul crew always managed to get their quarters back from contract to contract. Sometimes it was trading, at times, it wasn’t. Jeremy made sure that those latter situations were something he didn’t know about.

“…and we can’t seem to trace down the intermittent.”

Jeremy had missed part of the conversation and was vaguely aware that Adelaide was scrutinizing his lapse in attention. “You want me to spearhead this one, ChEng?” she asked.

Jeremy cleared his throat, and Erika stood a little taller as she waited for her supervisors to decide what course of action was pertinent. Jeremy nodded, and Adelaide gave the order. When Erika signed off, the square of live video feed collapsed back into its icon.

“You okay, ChEng?” Adelaide asked as Jeremy swiped the faux-wood back over the desk.

“It’s been a long contract,” Jeremy replied. “Hell, it’s been a long life.” He folded his hands on the edge of his desk. “I wonder how many contracts I’ve got left.”

Adelaide narrowed her eyes. “So to get promoted to ChEng, all I have to do is push you out an airlock?”

“You could,” Jeremy grinned at his subordinate, “but you may only have to wait until we get back to Luna Five. I’ve put enough credits away to pick up some real estate on Luna Seven.

Adelaide clapped her hands. “I’ll throw you the biggest, loudest, raunchiest retirement party that rock has ever seen.”

“I’m not retiring,” Jeremy insisted, “I just think I may want to stay in-system for a while.”

Adelaide shook her head in disbelief. “A salty dog like you? You’ll miss it. I give you nine months tops before you’re slinking around Luna Five begging for a contract. And you know what? I’ll even give you one, as long as you’ve no problems working for Chief Engineer Adelaide Bähr.” She winked. “I might even get you one of the better crew quarters.”

Jeremy nodded and shooed Adelaide from his office. When the door was sealed, he leaned back and imagined being a real engineer, instead of an administrator. He knew that if Adelaide were the ChEng, and he was a fresh engineering recruit with too many decades behind him, he’d get a berth far from the ion engines. Everyone knew that those things were safe, but still… He had no proof, but he suspected that the crew who quartered closest to the engines usually seemed to be the oddest.

When Adelaide was new to the Kerwood, she managed to wrangle a berth smack dab in between the engines. After a few contracts, those around her didn’t renew or didn’t meet the ship during light off. You could catch a ship lighting off the electrostatic ion thrusters, but that wasn’t without risk, and it was expensive. Your skiff was at station keeping, and the egg rolls would puke out another ion, doubling the velocity of the Kerwood. It wasn’t too long after launch that the docking maneuver was impossible.

Of course, the Kerwood had a hotshot engineering crew that liked to burn the atmospheric thrusters and give the boat a nudge while the computer was pissing out ions. The Kerwood Conglomerate’s paymaster always docked the ship for the extra resources used, but it sure beat the hell out of the slow build to a decent cruising speed. When they burned the extra fuel, the tub was lighter, and they could get an extra crate or two into the hold. The additional cut from the ore yield would always overcome the reduction in pay.

But still, Jeremy thought, I’d almost be afraid to be on a ship with Crazy Ade running things.

* * *

Days Until Home: 43

Adelaide felt it in her ears more than she heard the Chief Engineer’s door click shut. The atmosphere displaced when the door sealed caused a sharp pain in her inner ear. A few oscillations of her jaw caused an audible pop, and her hearing returned to normal. She leaned against the bulkhead and took stock of what she had just learned. Chief Engineer, she thought and nodded to a crewmember that sidled past her. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t do the job, but as MPA, there was a buffer between her and the executive staff. That buffer had an advantage that she readily seized.

It had taken her nine contracts to get to the position she was at. Not all of them were quick jaunts to the belt, either. Before she had made MPA, they chased a comet for almost two months. The ion engines were worthless, and they had to maneuver with atmospheric thrusters. The Kerwood’s hold held the liquid fuel to run the atmo and station keeping thrusters. Getting those damn things to work in the black was a pain, but the ChEng and the Skipper noticed the hard work she put in. The next contract, she was offered the MPA position. Somehow, the old MPA had a bout of intestinal distress. Adelaide smiled. It was the sharp, carbon fiber type of intestinal distress, she thought, her smile subsuming into a leer.

It had taken the last six contracts to get all her people into position. She had fun with Jessica and Erika, but they were just warm bodies for her to lie with. God, I miss Sapphire, she thought. When Sapphire came to her with the plan, Adelaide thought it madness. Their parents had been colleagues, and they were all on-planet when the war ended. Sapphire and Adelaide were both too young to fully grasp what had happened in a world too big for them to understand.

The outcry over the Lunar Church’s use of atomic weapons against the Australian Defense Force didn’t end with the utter destruction of Luna Three. Oh, no. The people of the Earth tracked down all the lunar church missionaries. Their wrath was swift, and the punishments final. Sapphire and Adelaide were considered by the Earthers to be too young to be proper members of the extremist church. Whispers of brainwashing and indoctrination were bandied about. The people of the Earth took pity on the two young girls, and they were remanded to the state.

It was a pair of nine-year-olds against the world. The church may have died twenty years prior, but Adelaide’s scars of bitterness at government overreach and the destruction of her home hadn’t faded in time like the psychologists had promised they would. She and Sapphire parroted what they wanted them to say, and bided their time until they reached maturation. They were scrutinized more so than other children their own age, and when they both joined a conglomerate’s citizenship program, their lunar origins were called into question. Sapphire joined the administrative program, and Adelaide joined the engineering fast track. Everyone expected them to fall behind the physical rigors of the training, but their lunar births had been tempered by their ‘new’ lives in Earth’s gravity. Adelaide and her ‘sister’ had lived longer on the Earth than they had on the Moon.

This could be my last contract as an MPA, Adelaide thought. She shoved off from the bulkhead and strode purposefully down the passageway toward the Propulsion Plant.

Scenarios kept forming and disbanding in her mind as she made her way aft. Sapphire clearly had the advantage over her when making plans and adjusting them as they unfolded, but Sapphire was a hundred and ten million miles away. Adelaide was on her own. Her plan was always to smash through opposition, and to win by sheer force. Be it a hammer, or a smile, Adelaide did what needed to be done.

Our timetable may have been accelerated, she typed into a point-to-point comm device. It bypassed the ship’s mainframe and used a microwave signal to link the devices to a secure peer-to-peer network. We should spend the night together.

Your place? came the response a few minutes later.

No, Adelaide replied, Jessica will be off shift tonight. Let’s use your quarters.

I’ve got a roomie.

I’ll take care of that, don’t you worry, Erika. Adelaide powered down the device without waiting for a response. The corridor had more bodies since she was getting closer to crew quarters. Walkers, gawkers, and talkers, the ChEng would’ve called them. Eyes were averted when she passed crewmembers. The veterans of the Kerwood knew she kept her quarters nestled between the bi-directional electrostatic xenon ion engines. She smiled. Rank doth have its privileges, she thought as she keyed her entry code into the panel beside the door to her berth.

Adelaide unzipped her coveralls and bunched the top around her waist. She pressed on a panel on the bulkhead, and a mirror swung out. From another recess, she pulled off a panel and extracted several feet of stiff copper mesh. She attached a device to one end and pressed a button. The copper mesh instantly went limp. Adelaide was careful not to disturb the electrical contact. She began wrapping the limp mesh over her shoulders, around her breasts, and across her back.

Each crewmember had a subcutaneous positioning device embedded between their shoulder blades. All the tech on the ship ran with proximity sensors. The computer knew where everyone was at all times. Technically, she didn’t even need a passcode to her quarters; the doors were keyed to only open to a fixed list of proximity signatures. Adelaide had long ago modified that list to include more than the official tally.

Satisfied that the copper mesh was in the correct position, she tugged the device off the end. The mesh went from flaccid to turgid in three seconds. She pinwheeled her arms, and did a few squats, followed by bending and stretching. She was satisfied that she had full movement and tugged at the regulation tee shirt that kept the mesh from chaffing her skin.

She walked to the door, and it appeared that the ship was oblivious to her presence. Smiling, she returned to the hidden panel and pulled out a velvet-lined box. She snapped it open and gazed at the sapphire ring inside. She pinched the foam and pulled it out with the ring. A folded inch of copper mesh was revealed. She touched the mesh to the device from before, and the mesh slackened.

She unfolded the now soft mesh with the precision of both practice and practical application. The positioning device hidden within was about a quarter of an inch long, and about an eighth of an inch around. She procured a length of single-sided adhesive and secured the new positioning device to the surface of her copper wrap. She reshouldered her coveralls, zipped them up, and examined herself in the mirror.

Once satisfied, she replaced the hidden panels and strode with confidence to the door. A light on the panel beside it emanated a soft glow when her pirated signature was in range. She waved her palm over the lit panel, and the door unlatched, recessing into the bulkhead.

She stepped through the door in time to hear the 1MC chirp. “Main Propulsion Assistant, please report to Propulsion Plant.”

She pulled a device out of her coverall pocket that looked similar to the clandestine device she had used earlier and spoke into it. “This is Bähr, ETA, three minutes.” Adelaide pocketed her communicator and strode purposefully toward the Propulsion Plant, no one the wiser to her plans.

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Next: Chapter 04

About Mark Gardner

Mark Gardner lives in northern Arizona with his wife, three children and a pair of spoiled dogs. Mark holds a degrees in Computer Systems and Applications and Applied Human Behavior. View all posts by Mark Gardner

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