Year 2156, Day 131, Hour 0800
Maker waited with Kerry at the airlock quietly, watching a repair crew work on an exposed water reclamation node. The Khalid was like a flayed body. Half the hull panels that hadn’t been lost in the combat were shorn off in the collision with the Red class. Impacoral fluid had crusted over the wounds, a thin, brittle barrier between the crew and space. Deep gouges from laser cannons cut through two decks, exposing nearly fifteen percent of the ship to cold vacuum. Inside, it looked just as bad. Pressure fluctuations and power surges had hit almost every system, blowing circuits and lines throughout the ship. Engineering still wasn’t accessible without a full suit and helmet, and the port side fighter bay was quarantined due to a fire that flamed up whenever oxygen was reintroduced. Cullers had boarded in several locations, and the melee combat had taken a severe toll on soldiers, crew, and the Khalid’s décor. Maker purposefully avoided glancing at the bloodstained flooring around Kerry’s feet.
As bad as it looked, the Khalid was in better condition than the rest of the fleet at Navi. It had made a logical meeting place for the post-battle strategy session. Especially given that the lead ship, the Saladin, had no bridge and had lost half of her crew quarters. Maker shied away from that thought and focused on Kerry’s face. They hadn’t spoken since he returned with the first group of priority refugees and Ben-Zvi from the surface. Maker had been busy in comms and Kerry had been working as manual labor with mechanics to clear debris. He should have been on a rest rotation, but had instead volunteered for escort duty with her. He had always been an overprotective sort of friend, which was endearing – right up until it wasn’t.
She sighed. “Just say it.”
“I know you are dying to say something – just get it out with before the delegate arrives.”
“Who’s what now?” Rodriguez slumped around the corner with a smile that belied the fatigue lining his face and the graceless plod of his feet.
“Nothing,” Kerry said at the same time Maker answered,
“I did my job, and John here is irritated about it. What are you doing here?”
Kerry took a deep breath to argue but Rodriguez beat him to it. “You should be more careful, Clara,” he mimicked in his most serious voice. “You are my best friend in the whole universe and I can’t stand to tell you father that your little munchkin body was horribly mangled and you will never be able to experience that handsome Rodriguez boy.”
“I didn’t say-”
“I’m an adult and a trained officer,” Rodriguez continued in a painfully high-pitched voice, “And I’ll do my job – and anyone else – however I see fit, gosh darn it.” He switched back to his regular tone. “Then Maker will tense up like an alcoholic at Oktoberfest – there she goes. Might even stamp her tiny foot – no?” He waited a beat then whined, “But it is so adorable! Kerry will get the big, sad, puppy eyes – yep, just like that.” Kerry scowled again. “And you will both forgive the other and do your secret club handshake or whatever it is you two kids do when you’re alone. Everything’s hunky-dunky.”
“Hunky-dory,” Maker said tightly. It was taking everything in her power not to stomp her foot in frustration. And then to follow it up with shoving her boot down Rodriguez’s ever-running mouth. If he hadn’t looked like sleep was only a passing acquaintance, she might have done it regardless of how right it would make him.
“That sounds stupid. Are those even English words? You’re messing with me now. Don’t mess with people who are this overworked. It isn’t nice. You go to hell for that.”
“Same as lying?” Maker asked through a sharp smile.
Rodriguez frowned, “Don’t think so, or I’d already be there.” He glanced around, wide-eyed, at the destruction of the Khalid. “Oh. Wait.”
“You believe in hell?” Kerry asked with surprise.
Rodriguez, predictably, ignored him. “There’s supposed to be a mechanic and a Class II Engineer coming over with a replacement resistor assortment. We’re trading for our spare hydroponics gray water converter – which isn’t a spare so much as the only working one in the fleet, but we can limp back to dock with our food reserves and Saladin is going to be here at least another week before she’s safe to tow anywhere. I have to inspect the supplies and make the trade before I can take a shift break. Wake me when the transport gets here.” He pressed his back against the wall and slid to the floor, promptly closing his eyes. He was snoring within a minute.
“It’s pretty bad in engineering,” Kerry ventured softly.
Maker exhaled hard and took his olive branch. “Pretty bad everywhere. Sorry I didn’t let you know when I was released from the infirmary. Bretavic knew I was out, I guess I figured he would pass the word along.”
He nodded. “I overreacted. Just didn’t hear anything from you and comms wouldn’t release the casualty list.”
“How’d you get back so quickly, anyhow? Thought they’d assign you to corpse detail.” It wouldn’t be the first time. Not that Maker wasn’t grateful that Kerry had been on the priority transport; he deserved the same rotations as any other soldier.
Kerry shrugged and glanced away. “We good?”
She nodded. “Can we agree not to tell Rodriguez about this? He’ll be insufferable.”
“I’m the best,” the sleeping mechanic mumbled. Maker snorted out a laugh; even in sleep the man had a high opinion of himself. Kerry grinned. Quiet resumed, punctuated by the occasional snore, with a new lightness until the proximity alert sounded for an incoming transport. They docked without any issues, and Maker checked their security code before Kerry manually opened the hatch. The squeal of malfunctioning hydraulics was loud enough that it woke Rodriguez and he leaped into a ready position, his hand on his belt where his service weapon should have been. The holster was full of tools and a half-eaten meal bar.
“What the fuck!”
“At ease, Ensign,” Maker mumbled, lightly smoothing the back of her hand down his forearm. She gave him what privacy she could to settle down by angling her body in front of him and facing the airlock. A soldier, just as tired looking as Rodriguez but his pupils wide with stims, stepped out first. He checked the corridor and his eyes roved over her group efficiently and with no emotion. The delegate came next.
“Welcome aboard, Commander Neils. Willkommen im Khalid.”
He answered her in heavily accented Standard English, “Thank you, Lieutenant. It has been some time since I have heard German. Egal wie sehr ich es benutze, Englisch fordert mich immer noch heraus.”
“It does not sound that way, Commander. However, Captain Jones wanted to offer you the option of a human translator or access to the James program during the meetings, at your discretion.”
“I do not believe that will be necessary. Between you and I, even in my day – before Standard English was adopted – German schoolchildren learned English.” He smiled, and deep lines curved around his mouth and across his forehead. Neils was easily the oldest person she had ever met still serving in the Coalition. “Although it has been so long since I was stationed anywhere but Intelligence, I’m not certain I remember all the protocol.” Maker nodded and tried not to dwell on why Niels, at the ripe age of eighty-seven, had been promoted to the field command of a captain. Damage to the Saladin was still being assessed, and large sections had not yet been cleared for survivors or bodies, but currently Neils was the officer with the most command experience.
More than thirty years prior he had served half of a tour as the Executive Officer on board a Rungo class. The best the Saladin had left to offer.
“I am sure it will come back to you, sir. If you will follow me?”
Niels fell in step beside her. Kerry brought up the rear while the stone-faced soldier remained sentry at the transport and Rodriguez waited for his parts. Everywhere they went, tired men and women were hard at work to get the Khalid back into fighting shape. Cargo ships bearing supplies and emergency crew replacements were still two days out and the nearest reinforcement was twelve hours away. It was unlikely the Cullers would manage another attack in that time, but Jones preferred to be prepared for every eventuality.
“This is the ship that rammed a Red Class, is it not? I was assisting with repairs during most of the battle, but I had heard the rumor.”
“Yes, sir. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to prevent the damage to the Saladin.”
“It was a difficult decision for your Captain, I am certain. But I trust that the gains justified the losses.”
Maker wasn’t certain. Not about the justification. Not about the Captain’s decision. It had not been Jones, after all, that ordered the maneuver. Jones had been barely cognizant at the time, although she backed it after the fact. Maker had suggested it. Bretavic had carried it out. She didn’t even remember the aftermath. Soon had tackled her. Her head had been hurting. Her eyes felt hot. Then she was woke up in the infirmary and the battle was over. Navi had been cleared of Culler ships, those not destroyed had fled – the first recorded incident of an enemy destroyer running from a fight. The civilians on the surface were safe, all those that made it to the extraction point had survived – so far. They would be ready when the evacuation ships arrived. Ben-Zvi would return to the surface as soon as the meeting was over to command a portion of her ground troops and those of a few other ships to maintain defenses and hunt down the few remaining Cullers on the surface. A portion of the technetium reserves had even survived. Coalition number-crunchers would no doubt rejoice when they heard the news.
Niels was still speaking, “Although we took heavy damage, it would have been worse if the Red Class was successful in its plan.”
They passed an exterior window on the path, and Maker doubted Niels’ sincerity. Or his sanity. The Saladin had been moved to a LaGrange point between one of the moons and Navi-3, so that it would not have to hold an orbit during repairs. If the Khalid had been flayed, the Saladin had been drawn and quartered. Her command deck was gone; a massive chuck of the three decks below it was destroyed as well. Neither of the main hangar decks were operational. Transports and fighters were reduced to using a small lower repair bay and airlocks to gain access to the ship. Urchins had drilled so many holes in the hull the Saladin could have doubled as the galaxy’s largest cheese grater and her starboard exhaust ports were melted closed. Only one communications transceiver had survived at all and it wasn’t capable of enough signal strength to get out of the local star system.
As they entered the lift Maker changed the subject. “The Captain’s ready room had some micro breaches, so the conference will be held in the Officer’s Mess, sir.”
“At least we’ll be closer to the coffee.” He raised his eyebrows. “You do still have coffee?”
“Of course, sir.” They arrived on the correct floor and Maker gestured for Niels to follow her. “The Rommel brought over tablets to replace those lost or damaged, and a tech is on standby to sync it to your personal codes, if you are in need.”
“Excellent. I’m certain mine will turn up eventually, but that will make discussions progress more smoothly. As a comms officer, I’m sure you have…”
Maker tuned him out as they approached the mess. Soon was standing in the hallway, along with Giradot and Lin Yamamoto. Her spine straightened. Dealing with Soon was always an exercise in biting her tongue – more so since her latest defiance of his orders. She didn’t trust Giradot any further than Kerry could throw him. The last thing the situation needed was her mother. She stopped several yards away so as not to interrupt their conversation, but Giradot immediately turned to her, an expression on his face she couldn’t identify, but which made her uneasy.
Maker wanted to hand off her charge as quickly as possible. “Commander Niels, this is Commander Soon, the XO for the Khalid. And Captain Yamamoto of the Rommel, and Sub Commander Giradot, SIS officer on board. Sir,” she addressed Soon and hoped he would be more interested in getting rid of her than dressing her down in front of an audience. “Commander Niels, Acting Captain of the Saladin. Is there anything else, sirs? Ma’am?”
“Are you asking for orders, Lieutenant?”
Niels gave Soon a strange look at that comment, but politely declined. Giradot shook his head and struck up a conversation with Niels, leading him into the mess. Yamamoto, smiled, but it was the way she gently gripped Soon’s forearm that caught Maker’s attention.
“Not at this time, Lieutenant. However, after the meeting, if your off-duty schedule allows-”
“It won’t,” Maker cut her off short. Soon stiffened, mouth open and ready to tear her down, Maker was certain. “Ma’am,” she tried to add some professionalism to her response. “Mandatory repair shifts for all personnel.”
Yamamoto did not appear phased by her rudeness. “I saw the casualty lists. Would you care to-”
“Lieutenant!” Soon’s rough bark, accompanied by the vein throbbing in his forehead were clear indicators that he wasn’t going to tolerate her attitude. Kerry shifted his weight behind her, and Maker had the wild thought that if he punched Soon in the face, they’d never make the Thursday night poker game. “You will-
“Lieutenant Maker.” A strong, bold voice from behind her interrupted Soon. Ben-Zvi strode down the hall, her short hair still dripping from a shower and a short temper sparking in her eyes.
She continued, “A word, Lieutenant. You,” she flicked a thumb at Kerry, “Lock down this corridor and lose the next ten.”
Maker saw his eyes slide to hers, but he snapped a salute at Ben-Zvi, “Yes, ma’am.” Soon looked almost eager for a show, and Maker resigned herself to being disciplined in front of the two people she least wanted to see her weaknesses. What, exactly, she had done to upset the Colonel so much was a mystery, but would no doubt be revealed in exacting tones. Probably with a side of extra duty or permanent record notations.
“I need a moment, Soon.”
“If you insist.” Irritation made the Commander frown. Yamamoto was not so easily dismissed.
“Colonel, I must protest. Cla-”
Maker sucked in a breath, anger flaring up. Never had Yamamoto revealed their relationship openly. It was a matter of medical record, of course, and a few of her most long-standing subordinates knew or could guess, but Maker had always believed that the one thing she and her mother agreed upon was that their connection was private.
Salvation came from a likely source. “Protest all you want,” Ben-Zvi said flatly, “Take it up with my Captain if you like, but on this ship, I outrank you. Clear the corridor.” Yamamoto stiffened as if she had been slapped, her eyes narrow, but she turned without another word and entered the mess, Soon right behind her.
“Ma’am,” Maker began once they were alone.
“How long have you been in contact with Keres Legion?”
Maker blinked. What? “Excuse me? Ma’am?”
“Drop the bullshit, Lieutenant. How long has SIS had you running C&E for a blackout operation?”
“They haven’t,” Maker blurted. “The SIS? They never…” She clamped her mouth shut, finally getting her shock under control so she wouldn’t say more than she should.
Ben-Zvi leaned back into her heels, arms crossed over her chest. “So that’s how it is, then?” Her gaze was on Maker, but she was speaking mostly to herself. “Allmaks? Gafor? No, Thomas. Only George would have the balls. About bloody time.” She snorted. “Giradot must be salivating over the spectacle you made.”
“Ma’am?” Maker ventured, when Ben-Zvi remained quiet for a long moment. What does she know? Her heart was beating a little too quickly.
“Met a friend of yours,” Ben-Zvi transitioned abruptly. Maker’s head was spinning. Gonzales and Kerry had been on the surface, but a couple of privates wouldn’t merit a Colonel’s attention. “Excellent fighter. Good tactics. Could stand to blow up fewer things, but to each his own.”
Maker blinked. She can’t be…
“He came out looking just as…handsome as he went in. For what it’s worth.”
Oh god, she is. Maker could feel sweat forming in the climate controlled air. She had suspected that the Legion weren’t straight humans, not with their size and skills. But if Ben-Zvi had seen proof, things were going to get much more difficult. The SIS was already suspicious and Maker had sat through more than enough interrogations and debriefs with them to last a lifetime. If Ben-Zvi filed an official report, Maker would spend the rest of her tour behind one-way glass lying until her face turned blue. And the others, she couldn’t let Rodriguez and Kerry, Bretavic and Gonzales get dragged into this. It had been her choice to open the channel to Malak, her choice to reveal his position to the bridge crew on the Khalid.
“Tell me one thing, Lieutenant.” Ben-Zvi didn’t move, but Maker suddenly felt physically threatened. The rank of Colonel wasn’t handed out at carnivals, and there was no doubt Ben-Zvi could take her down if she wanted. “Where does your loyalty lie?”
“My unit, ma’am.” Maker answered without hesitation, even knowing it wasn’t the answer the Coalition preferred. The tension did not ease.
“The next time you have information regarding my field of battle, you will report it to me. Directly. Not the SIS. Are we clear?”
Ben-Zvi nodded shortly, then left for the meeting. Maker sagged against the wall as soon as the Colonel was out of sight. Her brain was churning with all that had been implied in that brief conversation. It was Kerry who brought her back to reality with a gentle elbow to her side.
“I think I need a drink.”
“Rodriguez will be pleased.”
Hours later, when Maker had finished her shift and taken a brief, very cold shower, she sat in her quarters waiting for her sub-communications time slot to begin. The call connected with a ping, but the screen remained blank for several long moments.
“Hello? Clara? What’s going on? Are you okay?” Her father was slightly off center from the camera, his face creased from sleep and his pale gold hair sticking up in different directions. He was wearing a thermal shirt – she had forgotten how cold it could still be at home this time of year.
“Greg?” A woman’s voice, rough with sleep, mumbled in the background.
“I’m sorry Dad, I didn’t know you had company – but we’re on restricted sub-comms and I couldn’t-”
“It’s okay.” He shuffled, the camera flashing at the ceiling as he picked up his tablet and moved. “Go back to sleep, Raine.” Raine. The elementary teacher. Maker hadn’t realized they had moved past the occasional date. The familiar walls of the back staircase slid by and then the red brick surrounding a massive gas stove fell into the background as Greg propped the tablet on the kitchen island. Probably against a bowl of fruit.
“Okay, tell me.” He looked more awake now, but no less mussed.
Maker tried to sound lighter than she felt. “Is she sleeping over now? Nice job, Dad.”
“Clara.” It was the voice of her youth. The one that said she should stop stalling, give in and get it over with.
“There was an engagement. A big one. I can’t say where, but the report should be released to the press tomorrow. It was…it was pretty bad.” She took a deep breath, feeling the tightness growing in her chest, the overwhelming guilt that she should have done more, couldn’t have done more. If she hadn’t convinced Bretavic to ram the Red Class, the bridge on the Saladin might have survived. Greg was still waiting patiently. “You should go over to Aunt Evelyn’s. Seamus. He didn’t make it.”