Eric Florn hadn’t had a steak this good in a long time, certainly not back on Earth; there was only so much room for cows on a planet of thirteen and a half billion people. Furthermore, the interior of Ad Astra Lounge was much quieter than anywhere on Earth he’d been either. All around him in sound-proofed booths, some clear and others with their dividers fogged for privacy, sat the insiders and lobbyists that gave Destiny at least the illusion of democratic progress. He counted a few faces he knew at the bar as well, either drinking to newly brokered deals or to the failures of pet legislation. He hated it at times, and had run against a lot of it vocally, but it’s what got things done in an ad hoc government that oversaw six billion lives on the edges of human space.
It also made him even more suspicious of the man seated across from him, who’d hardly eaten a thing. Samel Jennar had taken a short road from Belt veteran all the way to Chief Counselor, and the word was already being passed around that he might run in three years as Derak’s chosen replacement. With things going as they were after that carrier attack, the man might actually win.
“Fleet Command says we should be about evenly matched with the Leaguers at Ceres,” Jennar said. “Which actually puts them at a disadvantage, according to our simulations.”
“The same ones we’ve been using since before I came in?” Florn asked.
“Better. We have a lot more data on their fleet capabilities after the Bishop incident, plus a little extra from the last two weeks.”
“I’d think going up against superior numbers would be inadvisable, especially since they know we’re coming. That’s two strikes right there.”
“Our intelligence gives us a pretty clear picture of what we’re going up against. The Mars Defense Fleet hasn’t seen any serious upgrades for around thirty years, since most of the newer hardware gets deployed out to the Inner Belt. Even then, they may have the manpower back on Earth but we have our own advantages.”
They did, and the briefings he’d read were at least clear on that.
“Much easier to fight down the gravity well than up it,” he replied.
“Exactly. And we’ve got something for free that they’re still trying to buy with bullets: unity.”
“Suppose so.” So this is the part where Jennar gets preachy, Eric thought. He figured it would be coming, only he hadn’t known when. He cut off another little bite of steak and stuck it in his mouth, relishing the taste of real beef after so many years of that lab-grown stuff they tried to pass for the real thing back home.
“It’s true. We never had a civil war out here, no nuclear bottleneck, no brain drain to the Exterior Colonies. We picked up decades of the Interior’s lost souls and forged them into something much more resilient. As much as we have our own disagreements, we all agree on one thing: it’s better to have a hell of our own design than a heaven of someone else’s. They used to call that pioneer spirit, and it’s something you know better than most, Eric.” He did know it more than most, just like he knew that Jennar’s talk of unity flew in the face of what the Florns had run into as freshly arrived asylum seekers eighteen years prior. But anything to bring people together in wartime was sure to be used, even if it only painted over scars that went unhealed.
Perhaps especially so.
“I thought me leaving had more to do with death threats than wanting to explore the Exterior,” Eric said.
“You know what I mean. All of us came here looking for a better life, a more perfect union, something Earth and its twenty-second century ways of operating couldn’t provide anymore. Whatever you want to call it, it’s what ultimately brings us together, even when we have our disagreements.” Eric wanted to laugh: this had to have been some of the highest-grade bullshit he’d ever heard. Instead, he just swallowed his mouthful of tender steak and reached for his water glass.
“Sounds like you’ve already got that stump speech written.”
“I’m serious. And after Ceres, we won’t need to prove ourselves any longer. Those fractured colonies all over the Belt and Interior? They’ll see that we can do more than just talk about a better future for them; we can back it up, too. Once Ceres and Pallas swing our way, League ships will start pulling back all over the system, leaving us to fill the void.”
“And how far do we intend to chase the Leaguers? All the way back to Earth?” The silence was a tangible thing as his words settled on Jennar, and as rhetorical as the question sounded, it wasn’t at all.
“All we in the CDC intend is to demonstrate that an attack on our citizens won’t go unpunished, even on our frontier. There should hardly be a frontier in the first place, if Belt colonies were really given a voice of their own without the threat of League intervention in internal politics.”
But that had always been the problem: any intervention at all was anathema to some of those groups. The People’s Vanguard wasn’t the only one by any means, nor were they the only ones armed with the latest League weaponry. If the reports he’d seen were to be believed, they weren’t the only one to be armed with new Alliance toys either.
He was sure Sam didn’t want to hear that, though, and didn’t have time to argue even if he did. Best to cut to the chase now instead of follow the Chief Counselor’s circuitous jingoism to some illogical conclusion.
“I’ve heard all this before, Sam. I heard it back on Earth and I’ve sure as hell heard it in the Council chambers. Why try and sell me on it now?”
“Because there’s no telling where things might go from here. I don’t want you to think that we’re entering this without an exit strategy; far from it. We in the CDC Directorate and the Fleet have plans in place for any number of contingencies. What we can’t tell, and what no general ever could tell, is when this will all come to an end, even if we were to enter a military action with a perfect plan. Battles may be lost, resources may come up short, deployments may change. It’s nothing new, but that doesn’t mean we know it all.” Weasel words and excuses, he thought, ready to dismiss it all, until his brain caught on one possibility. He’d have to press harder.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I need you on the right side going forward. Not on the Fleet’s side, or on mine, or anyone else’s. What we need is voices who know what war is like; not just how it’s planned but what it does. To people, to societies, to the nation at large. To our families. We need someone with skin in the game.”
“Skin in the game,” Eric repeated. He certainly had that, with a war hero son and an enlistee daughter, but what else did he have that Sam could’ve wanted? “You know, I’m not opposed to war in general. A nation that doesn’t defend itself is hardly a nation at all. It’s empire that I don’t have any time for.”
“I know that, and that’s not what I want you to say. The important thing here is that the people understand that they have a voice in the government, in how we take the war going forward. That we’re not just looking for more colonies or resources or whatever they may assume, but that we’re in this solely to defend our rights and our citizens. If along the way other colonies see this as potentially beneficial to their interests and petition for Alliance membership, then we’d naturally accept that.”
“I don’t think I’ve made myself clear. There’s a wrong side to this just as surely as there’s a right one, and I can’t stress enough the need to make the correct choice. Whatever it takes, Counselor. Whatever it takes.”
“You’ve made your point.”
“Then I can count on you?” Jennar let the question hang in the air, though it was more than a question: it was a threat. Eric could see that clearly enough. Deployments may change, he’d said. Even considering the man’s pull with Fleet Command and with Derak, it seemed unlikely that Sam Jennar would be able to reposition an entire task unit to keep one counselor in line. Still, he could certainly threaten it. Seeing the carrot only reinforced the existence of the stick, one that someone with that amount of influence could wield almost without question.
Eric had to put down the urge to punch the Chief Counselor right in the mouth just as soon as it came up. What Jennar was asking was an affront to everything Eric Florn had run on, and ultimately what he’d run away from back in Brazil. Petty tyrants always popped up on the frontier, and as much as he’d wanted to believe differently during the long wait for refugee status approval, it wasn’t a thought he’d been able to entirely push away.
All he could think about then was that he was tired. Tired of running from death squads, pushers, hostile cops, and all the other small-timers who tried to fill the voids where the League peace-keeping patrols couldn’t go. So he ran as far away as he could, all the way to the edges of human space, and still couldn’t force himself out of the spotlight. It was as if he simply found himself running for office, putting himself back into the same bureaucratic grinder he’d fought in the non-governmental sector. If he’d known back then how easy it would be to push him over, would he have done it all again, or stayed back home with Crista and Carriuss? Maybe he’d be dead too, but at least they’d have been together.
But that was the past, and nothing he could do or dream about would ever change things back to the way they were, much the way he so much wished them to be. There was only one thing to do now, and that was to hold onto the one thing he knew he had; the one who he’d always hoped would never go away but was too much his and Crista’s own daughter to stay under wing for long.
He would do it. Whatever it took, evidently, whether that turned out to be speaking engagements or signing off on the new defense budget, it would have to come in exchange for whatever freedom he could buy Valeca. She may never know and if she ever found out, she may hate him for it, but he didn’t care. Rather, he couldn’t allow himself to care. Not when Jennar had him in his grip this tightly, knowing exactly where to hit him. But he couldn’t say yes now. Even the illusion of second thoughts could buy him some more time to set things right, or at least give Jennar the idea that he was doing this of his own free will. Eric had to face the fact that he could be just as weak as any other man, and Chief Counselor Samel Jennar knew how to get him there.
“I’ll have to take it under consideration,” Eric said.
“And I’ll be expecting your answer. In the meantime, I have a date with Rian.”
“You know it. See you back at the office, Eric.”
“Have a good one, Sam.” Jennar rose from his seat and pushed open the clear door at the side of their table. With that, he was gone as quickly as Eric’s appetite.
Selling out had once seemed to him such a momentous step, something for weak men that built up over years to a gradual acceptance and then vigorous recommendation of the status quo. In his own case, it all came down to twenty minutes and a bit of leverage in the right spot. And as much as he hated the thought, he could always tell himself he was doing the right thing, even when he wasn’t. The only other thing apart from Valeca stood out in his mind right now: eventually, he’d have to tell Geoff Marquis himself. Jessa, on the other hand, would never have to know.
The klaxon wouldn’t end until Captain Jaen shut it off. That’s what she’d said before leaving Valeca and nine of the other trainees—Training Flight 4, 14th Training Squadron—in a depressurizing airlock with moments to set up their emergency oxygen, and there was every reason in the universe to trust the captain’s word. The apparatus Valeca now wore wasn’t too dissimilar from what she’d trained on before, the last word standing out in her mind as if it was lit up. Before. Before she’d enlisted, when she was still a civilian, before she was drilling with the Fleet to be a Wasp pilot to go take on the League Peace-keeping Fleet in combat.
In the time between affixing her oxygen mask and waiting for the captain to repressurize the chamber and tell them that half or more would’ve been dead if it hadn’t been for her, Valeca wondered how long she’d need to be in the Fleet before all this started to feel more normal than her old life. Weeks? Months? Maybe the newness never went away, or only lingered like an itch when everything else about her had already accepted the reality of her new routine.
Most of the other trainees had already gotten their masks on as well, but only after they’d screwed up the connection points and vented half their oxygen supply into the room. Into the vacuum that would’ve killed them if this hadn’t been a simulation. One still fumbled with his tank, but the captain’s instructions had been clear: worry about your own first. Only after you could locate an emergency breather and assemble it with your eyes closed, half drowsy from hypoxia, could you be trusted to help someone else. Better one die because another saved himself than two die by stepping all over each other on accident, she’d said. It was a different kind of pragmatism than what Valeca was used to; that much was certain.
She couldn’t remember the other trainee’s name. It wasn’t Herrick, who’d gotten his mask on after only twenty seconds of fumbling. Wallis? Tiren? There were too many names to put with all forty faces yet. Valeca would worry about the ones who mattered for now, who were—aside from Olivia—already listed in her chain of command. After a few more hours of whispering it to herself in the head, the shower, and occasionally in the mess hall line, she finally had it down, backward and forward. Had she felt brave enough, she might even dare Jaen to test her on it, but the thought weighed on her still that if the captain knew Valeca had beaten her in one thing, the MTI would find something new and unusual to torment Trainee Florn with for the next few weeks.
By now, the air pressure had dropped to the point that the airlock was silent, with all ready but the single trainee off in the corner feebly attempting to finish assembly on his breather. Only red lights cycled around on the walls for a few more seconds, until they finally shut off and sound returned gradually with the influx of breathable air. Valeca couldn’t stop herself from opening her mouth a few times to pop her ears as Captain Jaen entered, looking just as displeased as usual. Those who could snapped to attention, while Valeca spotted Olivia next to her falling back over from the effort of standing too fast. As much as she wanted to help her back up, that wasn’t the point of the exercise.
“One, two, three, four, maybe five,” Jaen shouted, pointing out people around the interior of the airlock with a straight-out hand, starting with the one in the back whose name Valeca still couldn’t remember and ending with Jason Herrick. “That’s how many of you would’ve been dead if this had been a real decompression instead of a drill. And this was one you knew was coming. Unacceptable! If I just called you out, enjoy cleaning the latrines for the next week. As for the rest of you, you passed this time.”
Most of them were too out of breath to cheer, so a few trainees pumped their fists. Jaen noticed it and acted fast.
“Don’t start slapping each other’s asses just yet, trainees! You will assemble for chow and proceed immediately afterward to PT. Dismissed!”
Valeca had to work to suppress a sour look on her face. PT was a joke, and would be until the end of her training. If they really wanted to weed out the ones who couldn’t hack it, they should just put them all in the onboard simulators and run them through combat exercises. What would it matter to Commander la Ganah if she couldn’t do fifteen pull-ups yet? She’d get there, if not necessarily on Captain Jaen’s time.
Olivia had pulled off her mask by now and put her hand on Valeca’s shoulder.
“Found something you can teach me for a change,” she said, panting. Valeca peeled her own oxygen mask off and started disassembling it for transport with practiced efficiency.
“It’s all just muscle memory. You’ll get it.”
“Yeah, but it’s that one time you don’t that gets you.” That was true enough. She’d heard of plenty of ships getting holed by unexpected debris, usually either in the busiest lanes or the least-surveyed; anything in between had already been trawled or marked. Even a fingernail-sized chunk of meteoric iron or broken antenna could put itself straight through a warship’s reactive armor with the right velocity. Enemy action was a completely different beast, in the motives if not in the end results. At least then you had an idea that someone was shooting at you and what they might be shooting at you with. The irony didn’t make her feel much better.
“Let’s get going,” Valeca said. She could finish packing away the oxygen tubes as they walked. Olivia fell in beside her as they cut their way through the other trainees and made their way to the barracks.
A voice called to them from back inside the airlock.
“Where’d you learn to do that, Florn?” It was Herrick, sounding about as out-of-breath as Olivia. “Destiny brats don’t need fingers like that.” He came up to join them, then put his hand out to catch himself on the bulkhead.
“I didn’t see you beating me,” she fired back. Four days with this guy was enough to tell her that going blow-for-blow was the only way to keep him from thinking he could push you around. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen at work, and she wasn’t going to take it here.
He fell in behind Valeca and Olivia on the way back to the barracks.
“Been out of practice for a bit. So what do you think they’ve got for us at the chow hall today? Nice steak, maybe some real potatoes from Earth?”
“Not since they started shooting at us,” Olivia replied. “It’s probably the same old lab-grown crap we’ve had the last four days.”
“Crap? No need to denigrate such a fine dining establishment like that! Why, I’m sure it’s the finest lab-grown, protein-based meat substitute the Fleet has to offer.”
“You’re a growing boy, Herrick,” Valeca said. “Maybe they’ll give you seconds this time.”
“I’ll see what I can do in the five minutes Jaen gives us to choke it down before PT.”
“And that’s the problem,” Olivia interjected. “Five minutes to eat, then straight into push-ups and sprints. I’m surprised we’re not just throwing up all over the deck.”
They came to the stairs that would take them up to the mess hall and went up, Valeca and Olivia in front and Herrick trailing just behind. Sometimes she wondered why he hadn’t found someone else to bother, but couldn’t quite put her finger on why she hadn’t yet told him to do so. He was attractive, sure, but plenty of the other men she’d seen onboard were. And even when she told herself that his mouth would get him in trouble sooner rather than later, she couldn’t help but remember Aeje, who was just as likely to be written off by someone who didn’t know him well enough to see the sarcasm as a redeeming quality. Much like Aeje, Herrick may have been an asshole, but at least he was their asshole, if not now, then soon enough.
That must be it, then, Valeca thought as she settled into the chow line behind some familiar faces from Training Flight 3. Was this what her taste in men had come down to? Certainly not romantically, but socially, it was true enough.
They didn’t have to wait long for their tray of what looked like tofu curry and golden rice. In the right light, it could’ve looked appetizing, even like something she would’ve bought on a particularly long haul before she’d enlisted. This wasn’t the right light after all, but it would have to do. The three of them took an open bench near Flight 3 and started in on the food one scalding mouthful at a time. It burned all the way down but it’d only taken her once to learn that blowing on it expended valuable seconds she could be using instead on chewing.
Herrick, on the other hand, attempted to multitask.
“Heard we’re starting sims in a week or so,” he said, sending a grain of rice flying out of his mouth. He picked it up off the table and ate it again.
“About time,” Olivia replied. “Then Valeca can show us how it’s done.” Valeca laughed, but it sounded more like she was choking. She swallowed the first mouthful and primed the second on her spoon.
“Right. I’m sure it’s nothing like what I used to do.” Herrick shot her a cheeky smile.
“BS. You’re just being modest.” The thought came to her that her brother had told her enough to know that it was different, but that would’ve brought up too much that she had neither the time nor desire to talk about now. Or ever, really. She ignored it.
But for the rest of the little time they had left before PT, that possibility was all she could think about. It was part proving herself to Jaen, part to her own expectations. Carriuss was there too, just as he always would be, both disembodied ear to vent into and bar she just couldn’t quite clear.
Anywhere he’d gone, she had to go too. Anyone he hung out with, she had to meet. It was a well-worn path that she perhaps should’ve gotten off in childhood, what with him being even then a shadow over her own ambitions. Her brother, all the way on Earth, so brave for looking after their mother while she and dad came to Jupiter to build a new life for the four of them. All that time away had planted the image of him so firmly in her head as so much stronger, so much wiser, that he must be someone to emulate.
Now here she was, following him down the very road he’d told her not to take, from his first letter to his last leave before he never came back. Was it the family curse, to go straight into exactly the same danger all reason told you to avoid? She didn’t know, but what she did know was that it didn’t matter how many times she had to burn her tongue or how many pull-ups the admiral wanted; all that mattered was that one way or another, Valeca Florn succeeded.
The high-impact plastic door to Nicola’s cell slid open with the hiss of compressed air, admitting Commander Bennett and a marine. Not the first thing he wanted to see with a splitting headache and other pains that were probably angry bruises by now, but it was all he got. He sat up in bed and took his hand away from shielding his eyes to salute and immediately regretted it.
“Wait outside, Private.”
“Sir,” the marine replied and closed the door behind the commander. She took in Nicola, puke and bruises and all, in just one glance.
“Sir,” he said. Bennett looked grave.
“This isn’t your first drunken disorderly. I even wish it was your second.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” He straightened himself and attempted to stand, then felt the nausea hit him and sat right back down. The commander would have to forgive him again.
“I should hope so. We’ve been called in to support Admiral Moleschenkova at Ceres. Present course puts us at three days out.”
“Ceres?” he said, assuming that he’d only thought it instead of saying it out loud. Bennett didn’t appear pleased, but then again, she rarely did.
“The exies have a fleet inbound. Must’ve missed the news while you were sleeping off your little misadventure in the enlisted barracks.”
Bridger, he remembered. That’s who’d gotten him into this mess. It was Ensign Bridger who’d been running his mouth, which meant it was his pal Private Errin who’d done all this to him. The man was an idiot but he could hit hard enough, and that’s what had counted in the end.
“I need you back on flight status as soon as possible, Lieutenant,” the commander continued. “A court martial will have to wait until the return trip to Mars, assuming you and Bridger can’t find a way to stop acting like children around each other. If not, then I may have to make special accommodations. Am I clear?”
The light wasn’t so bright now, bringing out the details of the commander’s face. Her stern features and bearing alone were enough to disprove the rumors that she’d gotten this command as a birthday present from daddy; those were just two things that couldn’t be bought. Dark brown hair fell to her shoulders under her service cap, and she might’ve been pretty had she not been threatening him with imminent discipline under the Uniform Code of Justice.
Nicola couldn’t figure out why that even mattered, especially now, so he pushed the thought away for another time. Maybe after this had all blown over, if he ever ran into her in a bar after their deployment, he could afford to worry about that. For now, though, he only had to obey. Whether he did so joyfully or not was his own problem.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“Good. Now let’s never have this conversation again.” She turned away after shooting him with one more glare and called for the marine guards to open the cell door. Nicola was left alone again.
It hadn’t always been like this. For a while, maybe, two or three months now, but not always. At least since his transfer to the Terranova. The Mars Fleet was only one step away from the Belt, and Nicola had every intention of staying out of that deathtrap. It was enough to make a man drink, apparently even to assault a fellow officer, but it was coming no matter what. The exies, colonials, whatever you wanted to call them, had done that on their own. No one knew who’d blown up that freighter out past Ceres and Nicola couldn’t be bothered either way; all he knew was that he wanted out of this place.
The only question now was whether or not he’d have to wind up in the brig again to do it or if FACET would retreat and open up the way for him. His thin pillow was calling to him again but he was too wound up to sleep now, after what the commander had told him. There was too much out there for him that brought him firmly into the present, where war came knocking harder than anything in his life had ever knocked on him in a long time. But if he had a choice, and it looked like the commander was fully willing to give him one, then he’d rather go out in the cockpit of his Peregrine than waiting patiently in the brig to get vented into space by an errant railgun slug.
And if Lieutenant Nicola Perigord wanted to avoid that, three months of skating and threats of demotion would have to end. He would have to sober up, and fast.