Barghest II – Chapter 12

Previous Chapter

Character Assassination

 

Year 2152, Day 327, Hour 0300

 Vindloo Factor. Noun. Score, between 1 and 100, on a standardized test evaluating the subject’s ability to cope with stressful situations and decisions which may harm others or the subject.  Lower scores indicate aptitude for compartmentalization and suitability for front line or high-tension assignments. Higher scores indicate a tendency towards emotionally charged responses to stress and development of post-traumatic stress disorder.

 Ex. Jane has a low Vindloo Factor. She pilots her ship into a Culler destroyer, killing all aliens and two thousand Coalition soldiers. Good job Jane. Dick has a high Vindloo Factor. Dick works in the engine room and keeps the ship in top shape. Good job Dick.

It was so close. Maker inhaled the hot, wet air around its body. Compost, new and fresh and just rotted enough that it no longer smelled like vegetable peels and grass clippings but not enough to give it the clean scent of dirt. Hard bone dug into her biceps, pressing her to the ground. Its knees were on her arms, its weight over her chest, constricting her lungs and pinning her in place. Fear gripped her. Her heart was beating with enough force to be painful, struggling to get out of her ribcage and escape the black eyes and sharp talons so close to her face. She couldn’t move.

Listen.

The shriek of its voice sent a shiver down her spine. The involuntary reaction was stunted, stopped short of becoming a full body tremble by her immobility. The narrow slits above its jaw gaped and closed like tiny mouths. Air passed through thin skin there, making noise like wind screaming across a glacier.

You can hear the humans.

Suddenly, Maker could hear something else. More screaming. But not the shrill, grating sound of Culler speech. The sound of pain. The sound of life being torn from soft flesh. Cracking bone and the wet splatter of blood. Desperate cries.

You will all be killed.

Black eyes expanded from the centers outward. Each orb became a reflective silver surface. Maker could see her own face in them. No helmet protected the expression of terror that twisted her features. Her breathing was shallow; she couldn’t get enough air and her heart was pounding even harder. The carapace began to split, the hard plates of its chest parting over the soft tissue surrounding its beak.

They want your kind to die.

The talons on either side of her face folded up, revealing two appendages on each arm. Reaching for her like jointless fingers or hairless, moist tails they grew, extending and brushing against her skin. The maw opened, beak and bone grinding together in a threat that made her pulse lurch. Eyes drew closer, locking her in place more than the threat of talons or the weight on her chest. The fingers, flat on the ends and cooler than her skin – sticky and slimy at the same time – gripped her jaw with bruising force.

We obey.

Maker woke with a strangled shout and the crack of her head against wood. She lay there for a moment – half in and half out of bed, the cold floor on the exposed skin of her arms and waist a reminder that she was not in a hot Culler ship. She sucked in air and kicked off the blankets that were tangled around her legs. There was no humidity or sugary-rotten smell. Only the vaguely lemon scent of the cleaners her dad used at the house and the crisp detergent still clinging to her sheets. Sweat too. As her breathing returned to normal she became aware of the drying moisture that made her tank top stick to her back and gooseflesh rise across her ribs where the shirt had ridden up.  She lay still, shivering and pushing back the fear of the dream while she waited to see if her sudden fall had woken her father or Kerry in their rooms down the hall. When no knock came at her door, she pushed off the floor and walked down to the kitchen on trembling legs.

Kerry was already there, two mugs of tea on the counter. He was fully dressed and his duffel was packed and leaning against the wall. Without saying anything, he handed her a heavy coat from the hook by the back door and picked up both cups. She followed him into the sun room, shutting the door behind them. The brick floor was bitingly cold without the heat of the rest of the house, and Maker was quick to pull on the coat and tuck her feet between her body and a cushioned chair. The heat of the tea seeped through the ceramic as he handed it to her, and they both took a few sips in silence, staring out at the dark farm yard and the wide, starry sky.

“You okay?” He didn’t look at her as he asked, and Maker was grateful for that. Kerry was her closest friend, and he knew when she needed a little longer to pull herself together.

“You’re leaving this morning?” She changed the subject rather than talk about the nightmares that had grown less frequent, but more intense in the years since that first failed mission on the mining station.

“Due to report to Ben-Zvi at 0800 on Wednesday at Titan. The transport departs orbit at noon today.”

“Sorry our leaves didn’t overlap more.” She smiled a little into her cup, “I hope Dad didn’t abuse you too badly.”

“Just the usual.” That could have been anything from setting fence to moving cattle to rebuilding a combine, but Maker didn’t interrupt. “He froze a meal – says I should wait until Thanksgiving to eat it.”

Maker rolled her eyes, feeling the tension from her dream start to ease with the application of hot tea and light conversation. “He probably roasted a whole turkey for you and made sweet potatoes. I think he likes you better than me.”

“I smelled fresh rolls too.”

She glanced up to find his grin wide and white in the faint light over the stove which shined through the glass door. “Sure, rub it in.”

“Do you know where you are going to be stationed next?”

She shook her head and took another sip of tea. It was cooling quickly. “Orders haven’t come through yet.”

“So you might get the Kahlid,” he prompted.

“It’s a win either way. The Kahlid has Bretavic’s poker games and a decent captain.”

“It also has Rodriguez’s mouth and Soon.”

Maker laughed, “I you trying to make me hope for another assignment?”  Kerry’s eyes turned to the door a long minute before it opened. Greg Maker stood there in a thermal shirt and pants printed with cartoon cowboys – Kerry’s Christmas present to him the year before.

“You’re up early,” the older man said with a yawn.  He leaned back into the kitchen and squinted at the clock. “It’s only four.” Kerry shrugged and Maker hummed into her tea. “Well, we’re all awake now. You want breakfast before you go, John?” He didn’t wait for Kerry’s reply. “I’ll make breakfast. Come on, lazybones.” He ruffled Maker’s hair. The frizzy mess of black fell into her face. “Get up and help. You can cut fruit while I work on biscuits.”

She shuffled in behind Kerry, the kitchen already beginning to feel warmer. The coffeepot kicked to life and the smell of fresh ground beans permeated the room. Maker pulled a dish of pears and figs toward the cutting board and reached for a knife. Light caught on the blade, silver and deadly. She had to take a deep breath before she began to cut. Worth it, she reminded herself. Being home, knowing there was a home for her, for Kerry, for the billions serving in the Coalition – that should have been enough to justify the nightmares. The death. The fear.

Kerry made fun of her bedhead and her dad laughed, just as they had been doing since she first brought her new friend home from basic training. Worth it, she said to herself again. She wasn’t sure if she was reminding herself, or uttering a prayer.

 

***

One month later. Outside Close Space Near Sol.

“I requested these documents yesterday, Lieutenant Maker.”

Maker gripped her tablet harder in an effort to keep from saying what she was thinking. Primarily, that there were two months’ worth of backlog in the communications department since the previous lead translator had been KIA. The junior comms staff had utilized the opportunity to push all of the work they didn’t want to do into a black hole labeled ‘undermanned’ and their superior officer was far too busy planning his retirement from his second tour to reprimand anyone. As the XO on the Kahlid, Soon was next up the food chain who should have been making certain the department continued to run while they waited for SC Command to assign another translator.  Apparently, Soon was too busy shining the new pips on his uniform to deal with minor problems.

“Yes, sir, Commander Soon. Requests are being processed in order of priority, and staff is working double shifts. We should be on schedule again by tomorrow afternoon.” The comms enlisted had made their feelings on Maker’s tenure as their duty supervisor clear. In the two weeks she had been on board, she had found salt in her coffee three times, multiple files inexplicably rearranged, her desk covered in peppermint candies once, and the AI in her quarters was still stubbornly refusing to speak anything but German. There was no point in bringing up the mild hazing. The comm staff on her shift were her responsibility, and things would settle down once the workload had been cleared. She hoped.

“That sounded like an excuse, Lieutenant.” He stood beside her station, his average height placing him head and shoulders above her. Familiarly sour, his face was set in a frown that hinted at both irritation and enjoyment of her discomfort. His tablet tapped against the top of her console to illustrate the files she had sent him less than an hour previous.

“That was not my intention, sir.” Maker could feel the eyes and ears of the other soldiers. She could practically feel their delight. In keeping with his general reputation as a hard ass, and his particular dislike of her, he had called her out towards the end of the shift when there would be a maximum amount of eyewitnesses to her humiliation. The open door to the communications meeting room was less than two meters from her, but there was no way Soon would have requested she join him there when he could berate her in front of her staff.

“Are you contradicting me?”

“No, sir, I-“

“Since you can’t manage to discipline your own people, I will do it for you. To whom was this assignment given, Lieutenant?”

Delight instantly turned to dread, clouding the atmosphere in comms like a thunderstorm. Communications was comprised of two core responsibilities: translation and encryption/decryption. The cryptographer that had worked on Soon’s assignment would be dressed down within an inch of his life if Soon got ahold of him. Maker took a deep, steadying breath. “Task assignment and workload on this shift is my responsibility, sir. If you do not find the results satisfactory, we can speak to my superior officer regarding my performance.” Maker dimmed her display and waited expectantly, trying to suppress the angry blush that threatened to burn her face. It almost made her look fondly on her time with the Raiders.

Soon’s voice dropped several degrees in temperature and volume. “Do not let this happen again, Maker.” He folded his tablet and tucked it into the breast pocket on his uniform. Louder, he continued, “Report to the Captain’s ready room at 0800 hours. Try to be more punctual than your work.”  He turned swiftly and left. The soft swish of the doors opening and closing were the only sound for a full minute. A hastily muffled laugh and whispers soon broke the silence. Maker finished the translation she had been working on, sent out duty assignments for the next week, and logged out of her station. Her counterpart on second shift was entering with a cup of coffee when she faced the room.

“Enough.” She had to raise her voice slightly to be heard, but she was proud of how even it was. “Close out of your projects and go home.”  A sarcastic ‘thanks, mom’ came from one of the back stations. Maker didn’t bother looking for the culprit. There were a few compliments centering on how she had handled Soon and protecting the soldier responsible for the Commander’s late document. There was also some snark suggesting she wouldn’t be requiring any overtime soon – as she would probably be demoted. Another supervisor would have handed out insubordination marks until the cows came home; Maker raised her eyebrows. “If you want to try your hand at this job, be my guest.” She stepped to the side and motioned at her station. Silence – surprised and a little belligerent – met her statement. Shift supervisor in communications was in the running for worst middle management position in the Coalition.  . “No? Then show up, do your job, and stop running your mouths.”

She didn’t wait for a response, but exited through the tiny break room. The second shift supervisor followed her into the corridor.

“Maker, hold up a sec.” She paused and waited for him impatiently. It was Thursday. She had plans, and they were a far sight more enjoyable than rehashing her issues regarding Soon. “I just wanted to say, nice job in there. Soon’s a real bastard, but he’ll respect that you held yourself accountable.”

She snorted. “I doubt that. Was there something else you needed?”

“We are both off rotation on Sunday. Would you like to see Summer Knight with me?”

Maker considered the officer; he had dark blond hair, tanned skin, a nice smile, and was of the same rank as her – circumventing any fraternization regulations. He looked a little on the thin side, compared to her last  date. Not that what Gormann had invited her to do after their mission together could even charitably be called dating. There had certainly not been any blockbuster movies involved. “No, thank you. I have other plans.” She made a mental note to make plans with anyone else who had Sunday off.

“Some other night then? If you haven’t tried out the theatre on the Kahlid yet, you really should. This model has pretty good entertainment spaces.”

“Thanks, but I’m more of a book person.” She quickly changed topics, there was nothing like a firm let down to make working with someone uncomfortable. “The array at L-223 was blipping a little today. I sent in a notification, but you might want to monitor comms directed to Gliese until the local tech get it repaired.”  Thankfully, he let it go and Maker was able to escape to her quarters for a quick shower. Junior officers shared bathrooms between two people, but her suitemate had second shift so Maker rarely had to resort to using the communal showers provided for enlisted on her deck. She pulled on standard-issue rec clothes; the soft grey pants and shirt made serviceable with a long jacket that had deep pockets. She grabbed a meal in the mess before winding through corridors and using two lifts to reach her destination.

“1-2-3-4,” she muttered with a smile as she punched the security code into a door lock. The hiss of air alerted those inside to her arrival and a head poked out from behind a stack of supply crates.

“L.T.!” Rodriguez grinned. “So glad you could make it! I really need a little cash this week.” Maker gave him the bird, but returned his smile as she joined one of the small makeshift tables playing poker. The bootlegged liquor flowed freely. Bretavic moved to another table after Rodriguez took his third hand and bragged obnoxiously about it.

Kerry and Gonzales were also both stationed on the Kahlid – under Ben-Zvi as ground troops, but neither had been able to make it to the game. By 0700 the next morning, Maker felt that they had been fortunate in having to work. Her head was pounding and her eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. She washed down an analgesic with hot tea and felt only marginally better by the time she had to leave for her meeting with Soon. The AI in her quarters announced the time in German.

The Kahlid was a Sidus-class, the same as the decommissioned Pershing, so Maker was familiar with the layout but not with the command deck. On a ship with five hundred crew, another thousand fighter pilots, and capacity for forty-five hundred ground troops, there had never been a reason for a low-level comms officer like her to go to the bridge. It took a moment when she stepped off of the lift to orient herself. The door into the bridge was directly across from her; to her right was a wall of plastiglass, artistically frosted, that sectioned off the break area for on-duty officers from the corridor.  The hallway curved back around the lift behind her on either side, but a short alcove on her left had one more door, discreetly labeled: Ready Room. Her bracer alerted her that she was five minutes ahead of schedule as she straightened her uniform and pressed the control pad.

Soon had his back to her, pouring coffee at a console under the massive window in the outer hull. The Kahlid was travelling at sublight into the dark, moving out of a star system towards a safe ISG area. The distant stars moved slowly but visibly. A long table, with enough chairs to seat eight, was placed at one end of the room. At the other end, two steps above the doorway and the table, was an impressive desk made of real wood. The reception chairs were real leather or close enough that Maker couldn’t tell the difference.

She sat on a narrow bench against one wall, next to an Ensign that was focused on her own tablet.  Soon gave Maker a narrow-eyed look as he sat to the right of the head chair, his back to her. Other officers filed in and took their seats. She recognized most of them, even if she hadn’t met them. Soon was the Executive Officer, the XO, on the Kahlid and Captain Jones’s first officer. Chiefs of Medical and Engineering were involved in a friendly discussion. The Chief of Intelligence sipped his coffee quietly while the Chief of Science and Research breezed in at the last minute without apology. The Tactical Officer, in charge of ship security and ground forces, was the only other person she knew  – Colonel Ben-Zvi. The woman nodded to Maker sharply as the Captain pulled out her chair.

“Before we move on to ship’s business, Lieutenant Commander Giradot has a pressing matter for discussion. Go ahead.” Jones folded her hands on the table, sitting straight-backed and at attention.

“Thank you, Captain. Late yesterday afternoon, I received a priority translation from comms regarding the interrogation of one of the Cullers taken in last week’s engagement. I found the transcript to be of extreme interest.” He tapped his tablet, and the window at the end of the room clouded over to become a display wall. A video recording played, with subtitles at the bottom. Maker recognized the words, if not the images; she had done the translation. They all sat quietly during the torture and elicitation of information from the alien, although the Ensign next to Maker twitched and closed her eyes each time the Culler screamed.

“As you observed,” Giradot continued as the video ended, “there appears to be a new supply depot under construction in this sector.”

“Have you cross-verified this information?” Ben-Zvi stared hard at Giradot, her animosity for the Intelligence officer obvious.

“There were a few minor inconsistencies between the software and the translator from comms, so I have requested Lieutenant Maker here to answer any questions.”

“I would suggest running the linguistics program again, or having the senior comms officer review this.” Soon was perfectly professional, and technically correct in his advice, but his voice dripped with condescension. It could have been directed at Giradot, but Maker was certain it was meant for her.

“I did consider that, Soon, but Maker is the most experienced and highest scoring Culler translator we have on board. Lieutenant?”  All eyes at the table swiveled to her, and Maker stood. Her legs did not tremble, but there was a voice in the back of her head, speaking to the tempo of the hangover headache that had grown while listening to the Culler recording. You-are-screw-ed. You-are-screw-ed.

“Sir, I do stand by my translation, sir. I would respectfully note, however, that you stated the supply depot ‘is’ under construction. The prisoner specifically said ‘would be’. The James program has a known glitch for future tense inflections.”  Giradot acknowledged her comment, so she sat while he replaced the video with a map of the sector.

“My staff has narrowed down the possibilities to one: RB14-7d2. This moon is-”

“That system is currently a no-fly zone,” Ben-Zvi interrupted.  She dragged a finger across her tablet and a corresponding red ellipse surrounded Giradot’s moon and the two nearest star systems.

“I am aware, Colonel. However, no justification is listed in the order from the GA’s administrative division for that designation, and since the SIS does not have any intelligence that supports such a decision, nor any cause to consider the system non-traversable, there is no logical reason not to investigate.”

“Fortunately, Lt. Commander,” Ben-Zvi stressed his lower rank, “the opinion of the SIS on edicts issued by General Pool’s office has no effect on their authority.”

“It does seem that way at the moment,” Giradot murmured with a smile. Maker sucked in a breath, sure that the Colonel who had taken command of the bloodbath at VK10 would not take veiled insults sitting down. “However, the opinion of the SIS, and the ranking Intelligence Officer of any Coalition ship, is required to be weighed during discussions regarding in-field command decisions that violate direct orders. Captain?”

Jones had not moved an inch, and her face remained professionally calm. “Colonel, bring the matter to the attention of the brass. I’d like a revision from Admin before we enter ISG.”

“You’re considering altering course, Captain?” Ben-Zvi did not look pleased. “We are scheduled to begin wide-range patrol around the Alnitak system. As there are several million colonists there, and this RB14 has been declared no-fly-”

“I am considering all of my options, Colonel.”

Giradot interjected, “Captain, if I may, there is currently a communication delay with Sol. Waiting for a revised decision from the administration division could take several days.”

Maker blinked and opened her mouth – before promptly snapping it closed again. She had reported an issue with the communications relay system less than twenty-four hours previous. At the time, the array had been sporadically blinking out, but still operational. The senior staff continued to debate the issue and discuss the urgency of the situation in the Alnitak system. Maker discreetly pulled her tablet from her uniform pocket and unfolded it. A message was waiting in her inbox. The array she had reported as malfunctioning was listed as inoperable. Seven sectors in the area were all directed to reroute communications directed to Sol. Maker jotted some hasty calculations on the side of her screen. From the Kahlid’s current position, there would be exactly a two-day delay in sending a message and receiving a response from the Sol system. She glanced at the map. Alnitak would have another two or three days delay on top of that. Without the closest array to act as a triangulation point, local communication between ships, stations, and colonies would also be delayed.

It was rare for part of the Confederation’s communication to go down. Repairs were frequently necessary, especially outside of CSNS, but it wasn’t often that an array was taken completely offline. Maker could only think of one other time that she had rerouted comms for that reason – and at the time the array she needed had been destroyed by a Culler fleet. She doubted that was the case for array L-223, but the why of the issue wasn’t what concerned her. It was the when. She had sent her report at 1542 the day before, about an hour after she first detected problems. The notice that the array was being taken out of operation for repairs had been sent at 0756 that morning. It went offline at 0800.  The Coalition was, at its heart, a bureaucracy. It took Maker three weeks to requisition a new tablet the last time she broke hers; she couldn’t imagine a situation where minor glitches were responded to with the speed appropriate to an invasion. And taking L-223 completely down shouldn’t have been necessary, at least not immediately. The problems had been minor.

“Very good.” The Captain’s voice startled Maker out of her thoughts. “We’ll assume for now that the target is unoccupied, and reassess once we are in-system. Colonel, prepare a small landing party. Soon, set assignments for the transport. I’ll leave the specifics up to you. Lieutenant Maker, you are dismissed.” Maker saluted before she left, listening to the meeting as it moved on. “Ensign, you have a report on the data packages losses? Go-” The door closed behind Maker.

She spent the rest of the week trying to determine what had gone wrong with the communications array, and why it had been completely shut down. A voice in the back of her mind repeatedly questioned how the Chief of Intelligence had known about it before comms had even been aware. She stubbornly refused to examine that idea. The travel time to RB14 passed relatively smoothly despite the cumbersome manual calculations and rerouting required for sending communications; Maker did not find salt or any other inappropriate condiments in her drinks, although her quarters still greeted her with Guten Morgen when she woke up.

It was no surprise, as they left ISG and entered the target system on sublight engines, that Soon called her into his office. Things had been going well, so it stood to reason that there was something terrible about to happen. She was proven right when he almost gleefully sent her a new duty assignment. It had been completely unnecessary to do so in person – and highly irregular – but she supposed he wanted to see her expression when she read the subject line on the order.

Transport and Landing Crew. 2153-004. Bay 6. Report to Major Awls.

“You will be the senior cael officer. I assume you are capable of selecting your own crew?” Soon’s malicious smirk made her want to say something smart about making asses of people. Or possibly break the Commander’s nose.  She bit her tongue instead and nodded sharply. Reading through the rest of the order as she took the lift to her quarters made her swear. Creatively. The private in the lift with her raised his eyebrows and left quickly when she scowled at him. The Kahlid was going to drop off Awls and his team in a Runa-class to investigate the situation on RB14. No enemy activity had come up on sensor sweeps of the system, so the Kahlid was scheduled to leave orbit and continue on to Alnitak. Once the preliminary investigation was complete, Awls would order the Runa to follow. It would take the smaller ship twice as long to catch up with the Kahlid, but the Captain would remain on schedule.

There was zero need for a comms officer on the mission. Any private who had completed rotation training in communications could manage the signals. Soon has assigned it to her just to fuck with her. He justified it using the downed array as an excuse, but Maker wasn’t fooled. Requiring her to pick her own crew – on a ship that she had been stationed on for just over a month – was his attempt to heap misery on her. Standard operations required cael forces to man a Runa with a pilot, co-pilot, mechanic or engineer, and a sensor or comms officer. She was lucky she had a few friends on the Kahlid. The ground troops would provide their own medic. Maker punched in a direct comm – a clear abuse of her position – and cursed more as she stomped to her quarters to gather her armor suit and field pack.

“Bretavic,” he snapped. The sound travelled from her implant to her ear and almost brought out a smile.

“It’s Maker. Do you know a good pilot?”

Next Chapter