Authors: C. A. Hartman
Tags: #Science Fiction
Copyright © 2014 C.A. Hartman
All rights reserved.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher; exceptions are made for brief excerpts used in published reviews.
All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
Cover design by Chris Voeller (
I want to thank my friends at LittleSpec (Littleton Area Speculative Fiction Writers) for all their suggestions and encouragement in turning a tentative manuscript into a published novel. Kudos to Jeff Stover for creating such a supportive environment for science fiction and fantasy writers.
I especially want to thank Nick Stasnopolis and Ken Roberts for their critique and support. In your very different ways, you’ve helped me create a better book… and made me a better writer.
Choose carefully who you associate with during the first six months of a long-term space mission; these individuals will become your closest companions for the next three years… if not for the rest of your life.
– old Space Corps adage
Thursday, Catherine walked into the ship’s mess. As she stood in line, she tried to make a quick decision about what to eat. The mess usually served up a few options, including at least one alternative for those otherworld crewmembers who disliked human food. Catherine often wavered between the usual fare and the otherworld option. Today she chose otherworld—a bowl of sea vegetables with ornon, the white gooey flesh of the ubiquitous sea creature that swam in the waters of Derovia’s northern hemisphere.
She looked around for Tom and Snow. Crewpersons in black uniforms occupied the mess, eating and filling the large room with the din of conversation. Catherine spotted Tom’s curly blonde hair and headed in his direction.
It was Tom Kingston who’d convinced her to sign up for the longest mission the Space Corps allowed. Across from him sat Jebediah Snow, Tom’s childhood friend. But nobody who knew Jebediah called him by that name. He was known only as Snow. If someone referred to him otherwise, Snow would correct that person, even if that person were Admiral Scott. Tom loved to tell that story.
“What do you think, Finnegan?” Tom asked as she sat down. “You up for playing some poker tomorrow night?”
Catherine dug into her meal. She was starving. “Possibly,” she replied between bites. “I have a project to finish for Steele and it’s due tomorrow, so I’ll be working late. Are you playing for sure?”
Tom and Snow both nodded.
“Let’s start later, say twenty-one hundred,” Tom said. He turned to greet a couple of women who happened to walk by their table, briefly discussing their plans for that evening. Once the girls left, Tom turned his attention back to Catherine. “You should be finished by then. It’s Friday night. We’ll get a little…” he made a drinking gesture with his hands, “and make it a late morning.”
Catherine smiled. “Okay.”
Snow eyed her meal and made a face. “How can you eat that?”
“How can you eat the same thing every day?” she said, eyeing the beef and potatoes he’d almost finished. His serving of vegetables sat untouched.
“Because it’s good.”
Tom shook his head. “It’s the same shit we ate growing up in the service. And he hasn’t eaten veggies since his folks forced him to. I’d drop by his house after dinner and he’d still be sitting there at eight thirty with a pile of broccoli on his plate. I’d eat it when his mom left the room.”
Snow shrugged. Suddenly, he looked around him. “Whoa.”
“What?” Tom also looked around, but saw nothing to clue him in.
“We just dropped out of FTL.”
“How can you tell?” Catherine asked.
“I’m an engineer,” Snow replied with a crooked smile, gathering his dishes. “If the fuel ratio is off by even a tenth of a percent, I lie awake at night.”
Catherine started laughing.
“You’re so full of shit,” Tom said.
Snow stood up to leave. Duty called.
After eating, on the way back to her lab, Catherine passed a small window with several crewpersons crowded around it. She halted. They had no scheduled stops that day, or even that week. They weren’t close to any star system of significance or known phenomena. She searched for an opening among the others and found a tiny one, spotting what appeared to be the aft end of a small ship, the rest of which was out of view. Captain Ferguson would eventually send a bulletin to the crew; until then, they must satisfy themselves with speculation.
After her crew completed their duty shifts, Catherine worked alone in her lab and finished writing up the results from a project Commander Steele had assigned her. She forwarded the write-up to Steele, leaving her to one last odious task—the weekly progress report he required, detailing how she, and the two crewmen who reported to her, spent each hour of each shift. She slumped in her chair.
Where she came from, such progress reports were unheard of. Grants and publications were the hallmarks of a scientist’s progress—you either got them, or you were out of a job.
Catherine fabricated half of her progress report anyway. Once she learned what Steele expected, she would craft the report according to those parameters. She sent the report to Steele and walked back to her quarters.
Having her own quarters, as cramped as they were, was a key factor in Catherine’s decision to take the three-year mission. Those with the rank of lieutenant or higher got a window. She couldn’t see much more than dark space from her small window, but it still gave her a feeling of freedom. In her limited bulkhead space, Catherine had hung photographs: skiing with her friends, her parents, her and Tom when they graduated from the Academy, a trip she’d taken to the Himalayas. She left one bulkhead space empty, hoping to eventually fill it with some otherworld art or artifact, acquired during their mission.
She changed out of her uniform, grabbed her cup, and headed to Tom’s. She arrived a few minutes early, and often did so intentionally, hoping for the rare chance to chat with Tom without interruption.
Tom organized the poker games and they always took place in his quarters. Due to his rank, Tom’s larger quarters could accommodate a second table that, when combined with his table, fit ten people. He decorated his quarters with a series of weapons, most of which were antiques. Over many years in the Corps, Tom had assembled a nice collection of artifacts, only a sampling of which he brought on board with him. The remainder were stored back in Chicago with his other belongings.
“Beer?” Tom said.
“Sure.” She gave him her metal cup. He filled it from a vessel stored in the large cooling bucket he routinely borrowed from Soren, a bartender they were chummy with. Tom turned his chair backward and sat down at the table.
“Did you finish it?” he asked, referring to her report.
Catherine scowled. “Yes.”
“Why that face?”
“I don’t like working for him.”
He waved a dismissive hand at her. “Long-term missions aren’t about work, Finnegan. They’re about adventure and seeing what’s around the corner. Work is just something you do because you have to.” He smiled, his blue eyes crinkling. “How many people back on the rock get to see what’s out there?” he said, gesturing out his window. “This is awesome.”
She smiled. Tom’s enthusiasm was hard to ignore.
“You should’ve become a soldier,” he admonished. “It’s better than sitting in that lab, staring into a microscope, surrounded by a bunch of whitecoats.”
“Come on, Tom, don’t start the soldier-scientist shit. I get so tired of that. And you’re starting to sound like my dad,” she added.
“You’d make a good soldier. How is Jimmy, by the way?” Tom had worked under Catherine’s father, Captain Jim Finnegan, on several brief missions.
“He’s good. We holo-chatted pretty regularly until we got out of range.” She shifted in the hard chair, trying to get comfortable. “How’s Weapons?”
He grinned. “We have a good time down there. The only problem is there are no women.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Did you know that Weapons is the only section on this damned ship with no women? Even Engineering has women. Even a cranky bastard like Snow gets more female proximity than I do. I’m telling you, it’s wrong.”
Catherine laughed. “You’re the boss now, Kingston. You couldn’t date them anyway.”
He shrugged. “I know. Life’s just better with girls around.” He rapped his hand on the table. “Speaking of which, how’d your date go with Kovsky?”
She shook her head.
“You don’t like him, either? Why not?”
“He talks too much.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, he’s kind of cocky, but he’s alright. Give him another chance.”
She shook her head again, tucking her auburn hair behind her ear.
“Stubborn. You’re running out of options, Finnegan. You’re stuck on this ship for three years. There’s only so much porn I can loan you.”
Before she could think of a good response to Tom’s crack, the door sounded.
They turned their attention to the display—it was Snow. Once Tom called for the door to open, Snow walked in. He wore a t-shirt, revealing arms covered in tattoos, and he’d put earrings back in both ears.
Following Snow was the remainder of the invite list, which included the other poker regulars, plus three newbies. The regulars included Private Javier Zander, the youngest of the bunch and part of Tom’s Weapons crew, Petty Officer Mackey Middleton—friend of Zander’s—and Petty Officer Shanti Patel, who worked in the communications center. All the players carried their own cups, and two of the three newbies carried beer under their arms.
“You forget something, newb?” Tom asked the empty-handed newbie.
“You didn’t tell me to bring beer, LC! I swear!” he said. “You started talkin’ to that blonde girl from Supply… and…” The newbie, a brand new Private Recruit, took a couple of steps back.
Hearing Snow snort in disapproval and seeing his glare, Tom relented. “Alright, alright,” he told the newbie. “Bring it next time.”
Snow and the others filled their cups with the brown murky beer and began chatting. It was, by some standards, an unusual mix of people. On a starship, social groups often formed in predictable ways. Many banded together based on the department they reported to. And those from Derovia—about twenty percent of the 507 crewmembers—often associated with their own kind. Soldiers and scientists typically socialized with their own. However, the most important social divider was rank—officers ate in a separate area from enlisted crew, and the two groups rarely fraternized.
But that night, their poker game represented several departments, ranks from Private Recruit to Lieutenant Commander, one scientist, and one Derovian newbie. Tom’s view was that once they were off duty and in his quarters, things like rank, department, and race no longer mattered. He didn’t allow his guests to wear uniforms, salute, or address by rank. If anyone didn’t like it, they weren’t invited back.
Everyone sat down and Tom dealt the first hand. The conversation began as mostly idle chatter about growing accustomed to life on a starship and estimating when they would arrive on Derovia, their first encampment.
“So what’s the story with those aliens we picked up yesterday?” Zander said, posing the question to anyone.
A few of them, Catherine included, looked up from their cards. That’s what she’d caught a glimpse of yesterday—an otherworld ship. The Captain still hadn’t sent out a bulletin, and they hadn’t yet resumed their course.
Everyone looked to Tom. Recently promoted to Lieutenant Commander, Tom was the highest-ranking officer in the group, and a well-informed one due to his wide acquaintance. If anything interesting happened, Tom usually knew before most people.
“Were they Calyyt?” Middleton said. “They had to be with that piece of shit little cruiser.”
“You didn’t hear?” Tom said, taking a peek at his cards.
Snow looked at Tom impatiently, tossing in his folded cards. “No, LC, we didn’t hear. We aren’t in the know, part of the privileged few.”
Tom grinned at Snow’s sarcasm and placed a large bet into the pot. “They weren’t Calyyt.” He paused. “They were Korvali.”
A silence fell over the table.
“Korvali?” Catherine said.
“Way the hell out here?” Snow said.
Tom nodded. “They were a group of ten or so. They’d been stranded in this region for weeks, and we were the first to pick up their SOS.”
“Where are they?” Catherine asked, looking around.