“Move it backward,” said Lieutenant Pierce, pointing to the holographic globe at the center of the deck. “Stop! forward slightly. Whoa! Stop there and magnify sector Oscar Two Zero by a factor of sixty five. There it is.”
Admiral Jameson took a step closer. A blue hue shimmered off the sharp edges of his face as he looked up at the sphere. His brow wrinkled as he scowled at the flickering image. “Are you sure Lieutenant?”
The Lieutenant nodded to the Admiral, “Sir, I am one hundred percent positive.” He looked up at the magnified three dimensional image as it hovered above them. A dark blotch filled the sphere; a blurred cigar shaped silhouette.
“How?” The Admiral said in a harsh voice, pointing violently at the hologram. “How did our sensors miss this?”
“Well.” Pierce turned to the hologram, his hands waving around as though he was conducting a silent orchestra. “Although the debris field consists mainly of man made refuse, it's still a naturally occurring cluster of any objects with enough velocity to escape the local planetary gravity wells while simultaneously lacking the velocity to travel past the system's -”
“Pierce.” The Captain interrupted. “Wrap it up.”
“Right,” said the young Lieutenant, peering over his shoulder to the Admiral who was glaring at him impatiently. “Well, basically the debris field is hiding ship signatures; but as you can see …” Pierce pointed to the blurred holographic image “... they can't hide from our optics.”
Captain Anderson took in a deep breath. “This is an interesting turn of events. How did your angry farmers get their hands on an Idris Frigate? It's bad enough we have a Retaliator to contend with. Who knows what else they have in that garbage heap?”
Admiral Jameson, still glaring furiously at the image, ground his teeth as he spoke, “Send a pigeon to Higher.” He turned and marched toward the stairs to the upper bridge, not once looking at Michael as he stormed past, yelling. “I want to know who was responsible for the intelligence on this operation!”
Lieutenant Pierce came to the Captain's side with a Glas in hand. “There's something else Sir. It just came in this morning.”
“What is it?” Asked the Captain, taking the Glas that Pierce was offering. His eyes scanned the information. “What?”
“I'm not sure what to say Sir. It's just ...”
“Gone.” The Captain said, finishing the young Lieutenant's sentence. “It's gone,” he said again, in a murmur staring beyond the Glas and into infinity.
Lieutenant Pierce could see moisture brewing in the Captain's eyes. “Sir, the anomaly may have disappeared, but that doesn't mean we have to lose hope for the two pilots who went through. They could very well still be alive.”
“Your data would suggest otherwise Lieutenant, though I'm thankful for the reassurance; in the end I'm a realist and the reality of the situation is that navigating an unstable wormhole and surviving is improbable to say the least. To top it off, we will never be able to send something through to get closure. Now that it's collapsed, hope of rescuing them is truly lost.”
“You're right Sir, we may never be able travel to their destination to discover their fate. Nevertheless, it doesn't mean they're dead.”
“That may be the case Pierce, but the UEE will want us to provide closure.” The Captain sighed, handed back the Glas, and turned about before climbing the steep and narrow stairway to the upper bridge in silence.
The Wolf Pack's common area was quiet, with periodic interruptions from the corridor as other crew members walked by or carried out loud conversations from one doorway to another. Ivar sat at the sofa, reading from a small Glas he had purchased during his short time on Terra before continuing to the Scipio. With a furrowed brow, he impatiently flipped through the pages of a fiction novel with the complete absence of interest. When a body came through the door, his gaze popped up.
Sophine walked in, sitting on the sofa opposite Ivar.
“Hey, I wanted to say sorry about earlier.”
Sophine looked across the room and smiled. “Don't worry about it.”
“If you ever need to talk I'm a good listener.”
Sophine sat there for a moment, looking at him as though she were searching for something. “Okay.”
Ivar nodded, “Okay, well ... anytime,” he said as he got up.
“No, I mean let's talk.”
Ivar's eyes widened. “You mean right now?”
“Yeah. I think you're right. I've been internalizing things too long and I need to let them out.”
Ivar swallowed the lump that had grown in his throat and straightened himself as he sat back down. “Alright, well, go ahead. I'm listening.”
There was a moment of silence before she started. “Hector.” She said, her eyes watering as she stopped and cleared her throat. “Wow, off to a good start.” She laughed nervously, wiping the beginning of tears from her eyes as she took in a deep breath. “Hector and I were together at the academy. You just came from there, so you know very well that the school on MacArthur has a strict policy against romantic relationships between students.”
Ivar nodded, and saw very well where this was going.
“We spent a lot of time together during those years, but never once did he make it clear to me if he felt the same way I did about him. To be fair, I guess he may not have known what I felt either; for the same reasons. We couldn't risk our careers for what could have been just a fleeting romance. We had our whole lives ahead of us after all.”
Ivar nodded, listening intently.
“Now he's gone, and as much as I hate to let him go; I've realized that I have no choice. When you got here, I found out, more than ever, that I couldn't just keep wishing he'd pop up out of the blue. He's gone.” She wiped at another tear as it ran down her cheek. “Heh,” she laughed that same nervous laugh. “Your first week here and you're having a therapy session with your wingman.”
“It makes some sense though. I'm the new guy. In some way it's probably easier to speak with me about this than it is with people who would have known you at the academy, or could have perhaps judged you for your closeness to Hector.”
“You make a good point.”
“I'm green.” Ivar said, his arms wide in confession. “I've never been in real combat and I've surely not lost a friend. That being said, I can tell you that I have people in my life that I hold more dear than existence; and I would do anything to keep them safe, and do twice that to keep their memories safe if they were to pass from this world. Hector might be gone, but as cliché as it sounds, a part of him survives with you. It's our responsibility as friends and family, to keep our loved ones memories alive. Now, all you have to do is decide which is the best way to accomplish that.”
Sophine nodded. “Thank you, for listening. I think I have something to do.” She got up and walked out of the common area.
Ivar watched her go, wondering what his words had translated to in her own mind; and what they'd prompted her to do.
The Captain turned to the door as it chimed. “Come in,” he said, wondering who it was this late in the evening.
Sophine entered, stood to attention and saluted. “Sir.”
Michael saluted in return and got up from his chair. “How can I help you?”
“Sir, I know I'm probably out of line, but I'd like to suggest we hold ceremonies for Pistol and Subtext. I know they're still only listed as missing, but the truth is, they're gone from us. I've spoken to the Padre and some of the other pilots that were at the academy with them. We'd like permission to say goodbye in our own way.”
The Captain nodded. “Sit down Blackwood.”
Sophine sat at the chair across from the Captain's desk.
“I agree with you, and I promise I'll make the appropriate arrangements. I can't say exactly when I'll be able to put the whole thing together, but I can promise you that it will be a proper procession befitting of a UEE citizen who's performed the ultimate sacrifice for the future of the Empire.” The Captain sat, and straightened his tunic. “Now that the textbooks bullshit is out of the way,” he looked up at Sophine and saw her discomfort. “I have one thing to ask of you, and this might be hard, but it's important for me.”
“Call me Michael, we're officially off the record.” He said, pulling two glasses from a cabinet beneath the desk and producing a decanter. He nodded toward the glass.
Sophine smiled and took it in her hand as he poured the aged amber liquor.
“Now.” He sat back in his chair and sipped the bitter drink. “This one thing I am requesting is that you tell me about these two young men. I want to know about their lives and what drove them to come out here and risk everything.”
Sophine sighed and took a gulp. “You're right, this isn't going to be easy.”
In the low lit office, she began telling their story as best she could. The night went on and it seemed as though whole galaxies passed by the Captain's ready room window as he learned of Hector Curshaw and Norman Farnell's lives from Sophine's encounters with them.
Years had passed like water on a river, fast and unnoticed; and for Sophine, recalling their first meeting and indoctrination into the school felt like she was reaching back into another life. At the same time, nostalgia sometimes swept over her and made her words feel like the events could have happened yesterday. Together they laughed loudly, and in turn became silent with reverence; just to break into smiles moments later. She eventually told Michael that her friendship with Hector, for her at least, was a temporary fixation forged by the rules of the academy; she confessed her love for the man that would now never know it fully, and wept for the loss of a life she could never have.
In the early morning, footsteps outside the door told them that silent hours had come to an end. They had spent all night, reminiscing on the two pilots. Michael too, had stories of his own to tell. Even though they had not been on the Scipio for very long, he'd had his fair share of encounters with the two young men; a few of which made for good stories.
With her eyes swollen from weeping, and her head numb with Whiskey. Sophine got up from the leather chair she'd spent the night talking from. “I could just imagine what the officers at the academy would say if they heard that I'd spent the whole night getting drunk with my commanding officer.”
“They'd probably bring it up to Higher and I'd get reprimanded for fraternizing with subordinates.”
“Michael,” he reminded her.
“Well, technically Sir we're on duty again,” she said; pointing toward the door; the bustle of morning traffic could be heard as everyone got to their posts.
“I just want to thank you.”
“No, Sophine, it's my place to thank you. Without you I wouldn't have had the chance to get to know them.” He shook his head. “I lost so many that I never had the chance to know.”
“Maybe someday, when this is over, you can go and meet their families and ask them to talk about their lost loved ones.”
“I don't think that would be appropriate.”
“I beg to differ Sir. If there's anything I've learned from this, it's that keeping someone you love alive in your heart is the most fulfilling way to remember them. I would be very surprised if they chose not to take part in that experience.”
The Captain nodded. “Maybe you're right.”
“Well, I suppose I have to get to work.”
“No, you're going to bed.” The Captain sat at his desk and tapped on it. The desk lit up, at which point he navigated through several menus before pulling up a roster and searching through it. “There, you have the day off. Go to sleep, that's an order.”
Sophine smiled softly. “Thank you Sir.” She walked through the doors and turned to salute. The Captain was returning the salute as the doors slid shut, punctuating the end of an odd but wonderful experience.
Michael took in a deep breath and poured another glass when the door chimed again. “Come in,” he said, hiding the glass and decanter beneath the desk.
“Who was that?” Asked Jameson as he walked in.
“That was Second Lieutenant Sophine Blackwood.” Michael said, lifting the decanter and glass back over the cusp of the desk.
“I see you're starting early this morning.”
“Rather I've been at it late.”
Jameson shook his head. “Please don't tell me you're losing it Michael. I don't want to have to get you in trouble.”
“It seems we keep having this discussion. For your information, the young girl is in love with one of our missing pilots. She came to mourn his loss, and I obliged. If I remember well, you too have come to me in times of suffering in your past.”
“Maybe, but I wasn't your subordinate.” Jameson said, pouring a conservative drink of his own, “I also wasn't a ten out of ten with a drop dead body and flowing golden locks.”
“She's a brunette.”
“Whatever, you know what I mean.”
“No, you're right. Still, I wanted to know them better and she was a vehicle for their stories.”
“Did it make you feel any better?”
Michael nodded. “Yes Richard. It did.”
Jameson was about to take a sip when he stopped, his glass hovering just in front of his mouth, making his words sound hollow. “I'd rather not know the men I put in harms way.”
“That's where you and I differ. Well, one place of many where we differ.”
Jameson shot the whiskey back and slammed the glass onto the Captain's desk. “Well that's not why I'm here anyway. We got a pigeon drone back from Higher on the subject of that Idirs Frigate.”
“What did the think tanks have to say?”
“We talked it over and there are two options.”
“There are always more than two options.” Michael said, shaking his head.
Jameson nodded, “Yes I agree, but someone up high is pulling strings.”
Michael squinted. “What do you mean?”
“They're sending a team.”
Michael got up from the chair. “We have plenty of personnel to take care of this. The Vivid even has a small Marine compliment that came along for training purposes.”
“Well, they're part of the team. The five Marines we have were testing a weapon, and needed a live combat scenario to see how it performed. This was a low key operation which gave them the right amount of variables to get the conclusions they needed for the program.”
“So that was the big picture you couldn't show me until now?”
“There's more to it than that, but yes, that's part of it.”
“Richard, if I weren't half drunk I would punch you in the face right now. You couldn't tell me about a stupid weapons test?”
“There are ethical considerations that I didn't want you to have to deal with Michael. Like it or not, you and I can both agree that you're sometimes a sensitive and opinionated person. I didn't want to have a winded philosophical debate to try and convince you as to why this was necessary. In the end I'd have to go over your head anyway because I know you, and you wouldn't let it rest until I pulled rank or put you in the brig.”
There was silence.
“Anyway.” Jameson said, breaking the quiet. “That's been postponed. The rest of the weapons det's platoon is on their way now.”
“How many?” Michael asked.
“According to the manifest, there will be twenty five more bodies on board. Twenty four marines and one listed as civilian.”
“Hmm.” Micheal rubbed his head. “Civilian.”
Jameson was nodding at him, his eyebrows raised.
Jameson shrugged and shook his head, “Who knows? All I know is that they're really interested in how an Idris and at least one Retaliator got into the hands of these radicals.”
Michael loosened his collar. “When do they get here?”
“That's the thing. They were nearby, on another operation that was obviously less important than what's come up. They'll be here tomorrow.”
Michael nodded. “Do we know who's in charge?”
“Yes, I didn't make note of it, but it should be on TacNet. You can check it out yourself.” He said, pointing to the desk.
Michael sat at his desk and logged in. He went through the manifest. Closing his eyes, Michael let his hand slide off the desktop. A muffled “Oh God,” came through his fingers as he wiped his face.
“What?” Jameson asked. “What's wrong?”
“Did you see who it is?”
“No, who is it?”
Michael highlighted the Platoon Commanders name and spun it around for Jameson to see.
The Admiral looked down at the screen and saw the name. He hung his head and began rubbing his brow between thumb and forefinger, "Ugh".
Michael sighed. “None other than Major Alera Kusanagi.”