Authors: Nathan Lowell
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
To my father, Earle P. Lowell.
He taught me a lot.
I hope I remember all the lessons when I need them.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. Funny the stuff that pops into my head sometimes. I stood on the observation deck of the shuttle port, salt wind in my face, and shiny third mate pips on a uniform so fresh the starch in the label scratched the back of my neck. I still had a bit of a muddled head from the celebration following graduation, and this weird line from some century long past popped into my brain. That’s what comes from having an ancient lit professor for a mother.
, the academy’s cruising yawl, swung to her anchor with a flutter of luffing sails and came to rest in the bay on the far side of the tarmac. When I’d first come to Port Newmar, I didn’t understand why we had to learn to sail on water. A season or two in the relatively forgiving waters of the outer sound—learning how to take and give orders—had made the reasons abundantly clear. The distance was too great to make out the sound, but I’d been out there often enough to know the routine. My memory heard the commands shouted against the wind and water. I watched the tiny figures of the next crop of cadets man the sheets. They took up the slack on the clews as the great sails dropped to the deck.
High above, a shuttle craft ripped across the pale-gray sky, lining up with the runway, engines shrieking in a dopplered wail as it came in low and fast across the water. While I’d gotten used to the sound of shuttles during my time at the academy, this one was special—the transport which would start the long journey to my first real officer’s billet as third mate. I was headed to the home office of Diurnia Salvage and Transport for assignment to one of their fleet. Not a terribly glamorous berth, but it was a start. I knew only too well that some of my classmates were still scrambling to find a posting. The few like me, without family ties in the industry, found the scrambling to be quite difficult. I suspected that without the commandant’s intervention, I might well be in a similar position.
“There but for the grace…” I mumbled.
As the shuttle made its final bank over the water and began its short run into the landing strip, I turned for one last look at the campus that had been my home for four long years. The manicured lawns looked a bit greener than those I’d grown up with on Neris and the trees still didn’t look quite right. They seemed too squat to be called trees. The classroom and office buildings hugged the landscape, most only a single story, as if officers in training to work in the Deep Dark needed a literal grounding to help them remember they came from planets. The exception, Hutchins Gym, loomed on the far side of the campus.
Thinking back over my time there, from those initial tentative days, to the shock of my first set of final exams, and the exuberance of my maiden summer cruise, I smiled. We stood fire watches and did a lot of what looked like just “playing soldier,” but it forced us to come to grips with the reality of command. I don’t think any of us really understood that, even on graduation. I didn’t. But the seeds had been sown and under the right conditions they would grow. Between the books, the studying, the physical drills, and the summer cruises, it had been a tornado of experiences.
I’d come to the academy with three of my shipmates from the
—Philip “Pip” Carstairs, Brilliantine Smith, and Beverly Arith.
Of the four of us, only Brill had come to the academy already holding a degree. She had followed a shortened curriculum, more akin to graduate studies than the bachelor’s of science that the rest of us pursued. Last I’d heard she was somewhere over in the Gretna quadrant on a Federated Freight clipper and would be sitting for her Engineering Second ticket soon.
Pip was already headed back to Dunsany Roads. His father and uncle had jointly purchased another Damien-class eight metric kiloton ship, similar to the others in their family fleet. Pip had gotten pretty misty when the whole family showed up for his graduation, especially when he heard the news that the new ship would be named
. The full details were kinda sketchy, but between all the cousins, siblings, spouses, and assorted others associated with the Carstairs family, it appeared that Pip would be given a free hand to trade cargo on at least one of their ships and that, in the fullness of time, he’d become the skipper of the
When the shuttle neared the dock, I maneuvered my grav trunk down to the departure gate where Bev waited. We’d take the same shuttle up to the orbital, but we’d separate there. I’d be taking a fast packet to the Diurnia Quadrant, while her family’s co-op ship waited for her. We’d have one last trip together.
When I’d first met her, I’d thought she was a lot older than me. Later I learned we were much closer in age. Thinking back to our early relationship—the “boy toy” period—I blushed a bit as the memories came flooding back. Upon leaving the
, strictures against intra-crew fraternization had became void, and we had taken full advantage of that fact for several days with great vigor—much to the amusement of our observers, no doubt.
As with most youthful romances, however, it failed to survive the rigors and demands of academy life. After that first blush of frustrated sexual tension had subsided to a more comfortable level, we had discovered things in common besides the obvious. We liked the same music and food, but her penchant for military action holos left me cold. Similarly, she didn’t care much for live theatre, a taste I’d acquired at my mother’s knee. The lack of theatre had been one of the things I’d missed in the Deep Dark, but Port Newmar had their own semi-professional company and I had renewed my acquaintance with the venerable masters—Albee and Pinter, Su and Shakespeare. Somewhere around the middle of our first year at the academy, we had stopped sleeping together. Time, energy, and opportunity had been lacking in order for us to maintain the kind of intensity that we had enjoyed. We had found, not surprisingly, that we were just really good friends with more than a passing level of intimacy.
She smiled at me when I trundled my grav pallet around the corner and into the waiting area. “You wanna pilot the shuttle to the orbital?”
“Nah, that’s okay,” I told her with a grin.
She was twitting me. While she’d easily picked up her shuttle pilot certification during the course of our studies, I lacked some necessary dimensional sense and had never mastered the mind-body integration required to fly a shuttle “off-the-wire.” As long as the computers were in control, I could tell the machine where to go, but I’d never completed the required emergency procedures. As such, I had never been able to earn that qualification.
In a matter of a few ticks, the shuttle had pulled up to the loading dock, and the academy port crew waved us aboard. Regular civilians used the terminal just across the tarmac. We weren’t civilians—exactly—and senior cadets, who needed flight time, crewed the academy shuttle. There was a fully licensed pilot in the cockpit, but everybody else was in training.
“Hey, Martyn,” Bev greeted the grinning cadet who held the cargo tie-downs back for us while we maneuvered our gear into the small craft.
“Hi, Bev,” he said. “Your mom’s waiting up at the landing bay. She’s not excited much, is she?”
Bev chuckled that low, dangerous laugh I knew I’d miss. “Not much. I’m surprised she didn’t ride down with you.”
“She tried, but the skip pulled rank.” He nodded toward the bow. “Said the academy insurance wouldn’t cover passengers.”
“Well, Mom knows insurance.” Bev chuckled again. “Probably the only argument that would have worked.”
“She’s just excited,” I said. “You’ve been away for a long time.”
I’d met Bev’s mother—an attractive woman with the same deadly grace as her daughter. While she served the family as bursar and chief accountant, I was certain that “bean counter” had never been one of the epithets applied to her.
Bev snorted. “She’s just waiting to install me in Officers’ Country so she can twist Uncle Jeremy’s nose.”
The ship’s announcer crackled in the overhead, and a laconic voice commented, “Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Casserly. Port control has granted clearance and I’d rather like to take advantage of their magnanimous offer.”
Bev sniggered. “Spence hasn’t mellowed any, has he?”
Martyn grinned, finished latching the tie-downs, and did a final safety check on the gear before ushering us to a pair of seats. “If you’d be so kind as to strap in, sars, we’ll be lifting off in the next few ticks.” His voice was professionally neutral but his eyes twinkled merrily.
We obediently took our places, snapped the belts across our bodies, and settled in for liftoff. Casserly made his way forward and disappeared into the cockpit, leaving us alone in the cabin.
Almost immediately the engines started winding up, and the ship slipped down the taxiway. Casserly’s crewmate up front must have completed the checklist while we settled in, as there was practically no pause at the final turn. The small shuttle bumbled along the taxiway, swung smoothly into position and exploded exuberantly into the air after a short, but stiff, acceleration.
We banked left off the ground and out over the water. The shuttle tilted its nose and gravity reminded us of its presence. The engines’ scream faded as the air pressure outside fell, leaving only the space frame conduction to carry sound into the cabin. Within ten ticks, the sky outside turned black and Newmar’s horizon took on a limb-like curve.
I looked over at Bev and opened my mouth to speak, but she cut me off with a smile and a single word. “Don’t.”
Her eyes said it all. We’d said our goodbyes. Whatever we’d had was a long time gone, a long way away. Life in the Deep Dark was demanding—too demanding for us to carry extra baggage.
I smiled back but didn’t speak. I held out the hand that had been resting on the armrest between us. She took it in hers, smooth and strong, then squeezed it once. We rode in silence that way, hand in hand, all the way up to the orbital. When the locking clamps latched on, she let go. We had our belts unlatched and were waiting when Martyn came to release the cargo tie-downs.
Command Pilot Mike Spence followed Martyn out of the cockpit and hunched his lanky frame over to prevent scraping the overhead. Spence had been one of a long, long string of flight instructors who’d despaired over my lack of dexterity. While Martyn released our baggage, Spence held out his hand to me. He smiled with a sympathetic twist to his mouth.
“If we’d had a few more months to practice, you’d have gotten it down, I think.”
I shook his hand and returned the grin. “I’m not so sure, Mr. Spence, but thank you for the effort on my behalf.”
“Good luck, Mr. Wang. It’s been a pleasure.”
He extended a hand to Beverly then and his whole face lit up in a warm smile. “Congratulations, Ms. Arith, you’ve got the knack of it, no question.”
“Thank you, Mr. Spence,” she said, shaking his hand and then leaning in to give him a brief hug. “Don’t let the dolts get to ya.” She winked while pulling away and reached for the tote-handle on her pallet.
By then, Chris Miller, the other student pilot, had come out from the cockpit and was helping Martyn clear the docking protocols. When done, they stood away from the hatch to give us room.
Mr. Spence surprised me by barking, “Hand salute.” He snapped to attention as did Miller and Casserly on either side of the hatch. They looked for all the world like an honors party, which I suppose was the point.
Smiling, Bev and I braced and returned the salute crisply.
“Carry on, Mr. Spence,” Bev said, as our hands cleared.
“Yes, sar. Thank you, sar,” Mr. Spence said and grinned.