Back | Next


Life in the Great Northwest, as the Casey-Rosewood training school sector was informally called, was much easier physically than boot camp had been. The endless hours of marching and hikes were gone, though there were still enough weekly formations to ensure that the spacers didn’t forget what they’d learned. The calisthenics and twenty-five-klick hikes were also less frequent, with most of the physical exercise requirements being filled by more intensive unarmed combat training. Where and how such techniques would ever be used in a modern navy, Travis noted, was never really explained. Those particular workouts ushered in their own set of bruises and sore muscles, but in general they were far less of an annoyance than the permanent muscle aches of boot camp.

Which was just as well, given that the brain pummeling had just begun.

Travis had always known, in a vague civilian sort of way, that impeller nodes and ring systems were complicated pieces of machinery. But until he began studying them he’d had no idea how insanely complex they truly were.

The mechanics were bad enough, with thousands of components built to the specifications of a physics that could be mathematically defined but not—at least to Travis—intuitively understood. The electronics driving the multiton tangle of components were even worse, with critical timings in the attosecond range and multiple, delicately balanced redundancies. Casimir cells running on plasma coming directly from the ship’s fusion plant drove the creation of the wedge, the nodes heterodyning between each other and the wedge planes themselves, the process eventually reaching a threshold where it began to extract much of its power directly from the Alpha hyperspace band.

Even sitting in a nice safe lab at Casey-Rosewood, with the forces and energies involved merely a computer simulation, Travis found the procedure to be both awesome and terrifying.

The impeller system’s software, naturally, was its own special brand of nightmare.

For the first few weeks Travis trudged back to the barracks every evening with either a massive headache or a sort of information overload haze. His dreams alternated between nightmares and some of the most bizarre traveling excursions he’d ever experienced. Most of the latter involved looming cliffs or creatures that chattered exactly like the node computerized analysis readouts. Way too many of them involved showing up for a test or demo in his underwear.

They were two months into the training when, as had also happened in boot camp, his brain abruptly seemed to find a private handle on the flood of information. After that, even though the deluge didn’t let up, he was able to stay with it. He began to handle the disassembly and assembly exercises with more confidence, and his test scores began to edge up. Best of all, the nightmares mostly went away.

With his new abilities and confidence he was able to relax a bit, and instead of being completely buried in his own struggles was able to open up his horizons and pay some attention to the struggles of his fellow students.

To discover that at least half of them were cheating.

It was so stunning a revelation that at first he refused to believe it. It took him three weeks’ worth of surreptitious observation during tests and quizzes before he reluctantly concluded that his earlier discovery hadn’t been an aberration.

He wrestled with the situation for another week, trying to reconcile the ethics of such fraud with the unspoken rule of loyalty to one’s unit.

Unfortunately, there really wasn’t a choice. This wasn’t stealing a few bites of food to help a starving comrade. The impellers were an absolutely vital aspect of ship operation, and a single error or lapse in observation could literally spell the difference between life and death for hundreds of men and women. Every detail of their training was vital, and a spacer who cheated was by definition not properly learning those details. Travis owed it to the crews of the ships on which these spacers would eventually serve to make sure his class could be trusted to do their jobs right.

And so, with reluctance and heart-pounding trepidation, an hour before lights-out one evening he made his way to the office of the Impeller Tech Division’s senior officer, Lieutenant William Cyrus.

Only to find that, for all intents and purposes, Cyrus didn’t care.

The lieutenant said he cared, of course. He made all the right noises, and made all the right promises.

But nothing happened. Not the next day, not the day after that, not the week after that.

He went to Cyrus again, and again, and again. But it was the same each time. The lieutenant thanked Travis for pointing out the problem, promised to fix it, and sent Travis on his way.

And after that, nothing. Except more cheating.

Apparently, despite what it said in the Casey-Rosewood manual, cheating was simply part of the routine.

It was two days after his latest attempt, as he was finishing dinner and mentally mapping out his strategy for the evening’s studying, when he had an unexpected visitor.

“Hey, Stickler,” Chomps said genially, dropping down onto the mess hall bench beside him. The whole bench shook as he did so—clearly, the Sphinxian had gained back all the weight he’d lost in boot camp. “How’s it going?”

“Not bad,” Travis said. “You?”

“Can’t complain,” Chomps said with a grin. “Not allowed, you know. Got a minute?”

“Sure,” Travis said, frowning. He hadn’t seen Chomps except in passing since their graduation from boot camp, when Travis had been sent to impeller school and Chomps had disappeared into gunner’s mate training. Odd that Chomps was suddenly seeking him out now. “Is there a problem?”

“I don’t know,” Chomps said, standing up again. “Finish up, and let’s go find out.”

Two minutes later, they were outside the mess hall, heading through the thinning crowd of other spacers heading back toward their own barracks.

“We going to pass in review?” Travis asked jokingly as he spotted the empty parade ground directly ahead.

“Why, you need the practice?” a familiar voice asked from just behind Travis.

Travis turned his head, feeling his whole body stiffen with reflexive reaction. Striding along just behind them was none other than Gunner’s Mate First Class Johnny Funk.

“Sir, no, Sir,” he said.

“Relax, Spacer Long,” Funk said with a little snort. “And lose the sir—this isn’t boot camp.”

“Yes, Gunner’s Mate,” Travis said, a kaleidoscope of horrible images from boot camp flashing across his eyes. He’d always assumed his deep and multilayered fear of Funk would fade away once he was out from under the other’s authority. Clearly, he’d been wrong.

“I said relax, Spacer,” Funk said, probably as soothingly as was possible for the man. “We’re just here to talk to you.”

Travis gave Chomps a sideways look. We?

“I hear you’ve been trying to light a fire under Lieutenant Cyrus about cheating in the impeller school,” Funk continued.

“Yes, Gunner’s Mate, I am,” Travis said, feeling his stomach tightening around his still undigested dinner. Relax, Funk had said. Right. Like he was going to relax now. “Uh . . . may I ask—?”

“His yeoman’s a friend of mine,” Funk said. “Here’s the question. Are you pressing this because cheating is against the rules, or because it’s a detriment to the future competence of the cheaters?”

“I don’t see how you can separate the two,” Travis said stiffly. “Competence is the whole reason the rule is there to begin with.”

“Yeah.” Funk gave a little sigh. “Look. You’re a good kid, Long, and you’ve got potential. But you don’t get how the real world works. So I’m going to tell you.”

“I’m not sure you understand the scope of the problem, Gunner’s Mate,” Travis said. “This isn’t just some isolated incidence. I have evidence that at least eight of the students in my class—”

“Yes, Long, I do understand the problem, thank you,” Funk cut him off irritably. “Shut up and listen.”

“Yes, Gunner’s Mate,” Travis said between clenched teeth. “Listening.”

“Here’s the deal,” Funk said, taking a couple of longer steps to come up to Travis’s side. “This—” he gestured around them, a sweeping wave of his hand “—is the classroom.” He raised his hand and pointed to the sky. “Out there is the real world.”

“Yes, Gunner’s Mate,” Travis said cautiously. “I was under the impression that the real world was what we were being taught.”

“That would be nice,” Funk said. “But it isn’t. Even in a properly run Navy classroom, there’s a big gap between how things should work and how they do work. Once you’re assigned to a ship, you’ll find out how all this theory really shakes out. And it isn’t always the way you were taught. Maybe it never is.”

“Yes, Gunner’s Mate,” Travis said, peering closely at Funk’s face. If this was a joke, Funk was hiding it well. “That sounds rather . . . inefficient.”

“Do you recall anyone promising that life would be efficient, Spacer Long?”

“No. But—”

“Then back off and let the cheaters be,” Funk said. “They’re getting enough of the basics. That’s all they’ll need when their future petty officers start their real training. The sooner they graduate out of here, the sooner that happens.”

Travis clenched his teeth. But this wasn’t just about grades and graduating. Couldn’t Funk see that? Ignoring such a fundamental tenet as academic honesty eroded the entire structure of discipline and respect for authority. If the spacers got away with it here—worse, if they recognized that their misconduct was known and simply being ignored—it would seep into every aspect of their attitude. Part of the oath he’d taken flashed to mind: enemies domestic . . .


“But why don’t we teach them the real-world in the first place?” Funk gave a little shrug. “Because the book assumes Navy ships are all bright and sparkly and have all the gear they’re supposed to have. Sadly, they don’t.”

“Yes, Gunner’s Mate,” Travis said uncertainly. He’d read articles about how the Navy didn’t have all the equipment it was supposed to. But most of the reporters involved with those stories had framed it as a tactic by First Lord Cazenestro to squeeze more funding out of Parliament.

He looked questioningly at Chomps. The Sphinxian grimaced, but shrugged.

“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Chomps admitted. “But Gunner’s Mate Funk is right. That’s the way things are, and not just in impellers. The big question is whether you’re going to be able to put your rule-stickling on hold enough to ignore it.”

“Because if you can’t,” Funk said, “and if you keep at this, you’re just going to piss off Lieutenant Cyrus. Trust me: pissing off officers isn’t a smart idea.”

“And don’t worry—the cheaters will do all right once they’re finally on their ships,” Chomps assured him. “They’ll take a little longer to get up to speed, but they’ll make it.”

“We’ll straighten them out,” Funk promised. “Trust me. So. Any other questions?”

Travis thought about it. He had plenty more questions. But it was clear that none of them were going to be answered. Not to his satisfaction, anyway.

“No, Gunner’s Mate.”

“Good,” Funk said briskly. “You two probably have some studying to do. You’d better get to it.”

“Yes, Gunner’s Mate,” Chomps said. “Thank you for your time.”

“No problem.” Funk peered closely at Travis. “And don’t worry, Long. You said half your class was cheating. That means half the class isn’t cheating. Try to focus on that half.” Giving each of them a brisk nod, Funk angled off at the next walkway and headed back toward the boot camp section of the base.

“So what am I supposed to do?” Travis asked bitterly. “Just ignore it?”

“Ignore it, or else join in,” Chomps said. “Sorry—lost my head. Seriously, it’s going to be all right. You just focus on getting through the training, graduating, and getting assigned to a ship. It’ll work out. Really.” He tapped Travis’s arm with the backs of his massive fingers. “I’ve got to get back to the barracks—big test tomorrow. Hang in there, okay?”

“Sure.” Travis hesitated. “Thanks for—you know. I guess I needed to hear that. Even if I didn’t want to.”

“No problem,” Chomps said. “I know it’s a travesty, but—sorry; couldn’t resist.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Travis growled.

“Oh, come on,” Chomps cajoled. “Look, I’ll make it up to you. Next week we’re going to be watching a combat simulation. Why don’t you come by and watch?”

“Sounds exciting,” Travis said without much enthusiasm.

“No, really, it is,” Chomps assured him. “Got to be better than the vid lectures you’re getting in impeller class. Besides, they’ll be doing missile simulations—you can tell them if they programmed the missile impellers right.”

“I’m sure they really need my input.”

“Even officers need to be kept honest,” Chomps pointed out. “In fact, especially officers need to be kept honest. I’ll let you know when we get our schedule.”

“Sure,” Travis said.

“Okay.” Chomps tapped him on the arm again. “Hang in there, Stickler.”

Travis thought about it on the walk back to his barracks. He thought about it some more during the next few days, especially as he watched the cheaters taking tests with their hidden formula cards and glow-etched crib notes.

He thought about it even more during four agonizing hours as he sweated over a particularly nasty electronics problem set, and then completely nosedived the subsequent quiz. Especially when the three highest scores on that quiz went to some of the cheaters.

But ultimately, all of his thought and analysis was just so much mental gymnastics. He simply couldn’t cheat. It was against Casey-Rosewood policy, and it was against his own personal ethics. No matter what anyone else did. No matter what it did to his own grades or standing in the class.

Maybe that made him more noble than the others. Maybe it just made him more neurotic and stupid.

Or maybe it made the RMN not the organization he’d thought it would be.

He hoped that wasn’t the case. Hoped it desperately. Because he’d signed his name to a promise that he would give five T-years of his life to this Navy.

And by God, by First Lord of the Admiralty Cazenestro, and by Gunner’s Mate First Class Johnny Funk himself, Travis would do whatever it took to fulfill that promise.

Captain Horace “Race” Kiselev had always liked his nickname. Race. It resonated with adventure and action, the sort of name worthy of the heroic characters Kiselev had always admired in his impressionable book- and vid-filled youth.

Still, he’d always had the sneaking suspicion that the sobriquet had been awarded with more irony than conviction. As much as Kiselev admired the action heroes of fiction, he knew down deep that he wasn’t anything like them. Academics were more his forte. Academics, and the dogged and painstaking attention to detail that made for a good administrator.

Or, in the case of HMS Mars and her fellow mothballed battlecruisers, a good nurse.

Because that was really what he was. He and the fifty spacers in his crew were the caretakers of the RMN’s six mothballed warships, parked in orbit and abandoned during the plague years when the Navy ran out of money and personnel to crew them. Kiselev’s job was to oversee his people as they traveled the circuit of the evacuated ships, checking for vacuum welding, stress and tidal-force microdamage, and all the other problems that could befall spacecraft that had lain empty for so long in the hostile environment of space. Especially ships that had been mothballed as hastily and haphazardly as these had been.

But it wasn’t just an extended wake for vessels long past any hope of utility. As the RMN slowly rebuilt its manpower, there were increased rumblings that Parliament might start bringing the remaining heavy cruisers and battlecruisers out of their forced retirement and returning them to active service.

That was the hope that continued to drive Kiselev and his people. The hope that one day someone would come with orders to restart the quiet fusion engines, to flood the empty decks with air and heat, to refill the fluid reservoirs, and to reactivate the electronics.

And when those orders came, Kiselev had privately promised himself, Mars would be the first ship that would be brought back to life.

Because Mars was their home. It hadn’t made sense to create a new space station just for the caretaker crew, not with six perfectly serviceable ships sitting out here. So Mars had been nursed back to partial life, her fusion plant turning out enough power to keep the spin section running and supplied with the necessities of life. Kiselev had spent the past five years living aboard her, first as the caretaker unit’s XO, then as its CO.

And finally, the day of new orders had arrived. Admiral Carlton Locatelli, commanding officer of the Star Kingdom’s System Command, had personally come to Mars to deliver them.

Only the orders weren’t the ones Kiselev had hoped for. Not in his wildest nightmares had he ever expected to receive orders like these.

Kiselev’s beloved Mars wasn’t going to be brought back to life. She was going to die.

To be murdered.

“I don’t understand, Sir,” Kiselev said, his heart sinking, his stomach tying itself in a succession of ever-tighter knots. “She’s being dismantled?”

“Only partially,” Admiral Locatelli assured him, offering Kiselev his tablet. “She’s going to be cut in half and turned into two new sloops.”

Kiselev sent a hooded glance at the image on the tablet. One glance was all he wanted.

“That’s ridiculous,” he insisted, turning his eyes resolutely away. “Whose stupid idea was this, anyway?”

“You can blame it on Breakwater, if it makes you feel any better,” Locatelli said. “He’s the one who started the ball rolling. Just be thankful he didn’t get to mulch all nine of the battlecruisers at the same time. That was his original wish list.”

Kiselev mouthed a silent curse. The Chancellor would have done it, too. He would have taken the battlecruisers apart, and in the process emasculated the Star Kingdom.

“He should be charged with treason,” he bit out. “In fact, he should have been charged a long time ago. If he’d given us the funds we needed to keep Mars and the others running like they should, they could have been the precious patrol ships he claims to want.”

Locatelli smiled faintly as he pointed at Kiselev’s chest.

“Preacher,” he said. He tapped his own chest. “Choir.”

“Yes, Sir, I know,” Kiselev said, feeling slightly ashamed of himself. He was an officer of the RMN, and he shouldn’t be venting his frustration this way. Not to a superior officer. “My apologies, Admiral.” He braced himself. Horrible or not, he had a duty to see what they were planning to do to his ship. “May I see that, Sir?”

Silently, Locatelli handed him the tablet. Kiselev took it and forced himself to look.

It was as bad as he’d expected. It was certainly as insane.

The first sloop was to be created from Mars’s stern section, making the cut through the hull just behind the spin section, leaving the aft fusion plant and impeller ring intact. The aft endcap would be removed, taking with it the aft laser and autocannon, with the various conduits, flowlines, power and sensor cables rerouted or repositioned to accommodate the shorter length. The work stations and living quarters would also have to be drastically rearranged, he knew, with those details presumably on a set of schematics lower in the stack. A truncated neck and small forward endcap were to be added to the stub, with the heavy armored hull plating removed, presumably to save mass. A pair of autocannon jutted from the endcap, with a pair of missile box launchers attached midway down the neck. “Box launchers?” Kiselev asked scornfully.

“A concession to us,” Locatelli explained. “First Lord Cazenestro insisted the sloops be armed. I doubt Breakwater ever expects the weapons to actually be used.”

Kiselev grunted and keyed to the next page. The forward sloop was just as ridiculous looking as the aft one, though with a slightly different flavor of insanity. Again, the cut here was to be made in front of Mars’s spin section, with the forward part of the ship left mostly intact, except for the large middle section where the hull plating was again to be cut away. The forward autocannon were intact, but the amidships autocannon and missile tubes had vanished with that section of hull. Two more of the box launchers had been installed behind the endcap. Apparently, box launchers were Breakwater’s idea of a consolation prize.

“And he thinks this is actually going to be cheaper than building a pair of corvettes from the keels up?” he asked.

“So he says,” Locatelli said, gesturing toward the tablet. “And he has numbers to back him up, supposedly from a professional ship designer named Martin Ashkenazy.”

“Then Ashkenazy’s even more incompetent than Breakwater,” Kiselev growled, scrolling down the document and finding Ashkenazy’s bottom-line estimates. “These estimates can’t possibly be right.”

“I agree,” Locatelli said, his voice darkening. “So do our own engineering experts. But Ashkenazy had answers for everything, and in the end Parliament gave him the go-ahead.”

“It’s insane,” Kiselev insisted. “Ashkenazy can’t be this much of a fool.”

“A fool?” Locatelli shook his head. “Consider. Ashkenazy now has at least a year’s worth of steady work ahead of him, probably two or three, with all the prestige and comfortable funding that comes from a Parliament-sanctioned project. Breakwater gets what he wants: a small but immediate reduction in RMN monetary outflow, at least on paper, which fits his long-term philosophy of having more to spend on his own pet projects. Not to mention that the sloops will be transferred out of the Navy and straight into MPARS. Under the circumstances, I hardly think either of them would be motivated to honestly look for flaws in their proposal.”

“I suppose not, Sir,” Kiselev said with a sigh. It was still criminally insane, and it was going to hurt like hell to watch his ship being slowly tortured to death.

But he was an officer of the RMN. He had his orders, and he would obey them.

“Do we have a timetable yet?”

“The final details are being worked out,” Locatelli said. “But you won’t be the one dealing with it. You’re being transferred to Casey-Rosewood as the new CO of the Northwest Sector training school.”

Kiselev felt his mouth drop open. No—that had to be a mistake. Aside from a short stint teaching electronic warfare at the Academy three years ago, every minute of the past five years had been spent aboard Mars. This was his ship; and if she was to be destroyed, it was his right and responsibility to oversee that destruction.

“Sir, I respectfully request—”

“Save your breath, Captain,” Locatelli said. “It’s already been decided at the highest levels that your particular talents will best serve the RMN at Casey-Rosewood.”

“Yes, Sir, I’ll just bet that was what they were thinking,” Kiselev ground out. “I don’t suppose there were any suggestions that I might take this personally, and therefore might not put the necessary effort into the operation?”

“Rest assured that no such thoughts were ever voiced,” Locatelli said, his tone studiously neutral.

Which wasn’t to say Dapplelake or Cazenestro or Breakwater hadn’t thought it, of course. Not only were they going to take his ship away from him, but they were going to bring his professionalism into question in the bargain. Snakelike butt-coverers, the whole lot of them.

“Yes, Sir,” he said stiffly.

“If it makes you feel any better, I opposed the decision,” Locatelli said. “That’s just between you and me, of course.”

“Yes, Sir,” Kiselev said again. That was Locatelli, all right—a man by, for, and from the RMN, without a single political bone in his body. “Thank you, Sir.”

“I’m just sorry I couldn’t carry the day,” Locatelli said ruefully. “What’s the old quote? If it has to be done, a real man shoots his own dog himself.”

Kiselev winced. No political bones, but not always the most tactful of men, either.

“Something like that, Sir.”

“Yes,” Locatelli said. “At any rate, you’re to report to Casey-Rosewood at oh-nine-hundred next Tuesday for a preliminary briefing from Colonel Massingill. The two of you will have some flexibility as to when your permanent transfer will take place.”

“Yes, Sir,” Kiselev said. “I assume my replacement will be aboard before I leave?”

“Yes, assuming Breakwater gets his rear in gear and confirms one of the people the First Lord has put forward,” Locatelli said. “Not sure why he was allowed veto power over that decision, since the transfer to MPARS isn’t going to happen until after the conversion. But it is what it is. At any rate, you’ll still be in command here until he or she is approved and on board.” He pursed his lips. “Well. I’m sorry to have been the bearer of bad news. If there are no further questions, I’ll be on my way.”

“No questions, Sir,” Kiselev said. No questions that Locatelli could answer, anyway.

“Very good,” Locatelli said, his voice all brisk and businesslike again. “I’ll be sure to check in with you again after you settle into Casey-Rosewood and see how you’re doing.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Oh, and one other matter I don’t believe I mentioned. Along with your new assignment, you’ll be receiving a promotion.” He offered his hand. “Congratulations, Commodore Kiselev.”

Swallowing, Kiselev took the other’s hand and shook it.

“Thank you, Sir.”

“No thanks needed,” Locatelli assured him. “It’s long overdue. Good luck, Commodore, and I’ll see you again in a few weeks.”

With a nod, the admiral turned and left Kiselev’s office.

The office that had been Kiselev’s official working home for the past three years. The office, and the home, that would soon be torn up and mangled, all at the egomaniacal whim of an ignorant, pennypinching civilian. And there was nothing Kiselev could do about it.

But maybe there was someone else who could.

Circling his desk, he sat down in his swivel chair and keyed his com system. On a real ship, the odd thought struck him, he would have a yeoman or communications officer to do this for him. Maybe at Casey-Rosewood he would, as well. But for right now, he was perfectly comfortable doing such things for himself.

The com ran through its protocols and self-checks and aimed its laser at the nearest System Command relay satellite.

“This is Captain—this is Commodore Kiselev, aboard HMS Mars,” he said into the mike.

“System Command communications,” a brisk feminine voice came back promptly. “How may I direct your call, Commodore?”

Kiselev smiled tightly. So his promotion had already popped up in the system, without the mid-rank delay that could be embarrassing to a newly minted officer and disconcerting to the subordinates who hadn’t yet received an official notice. Leave it to Locatelli to get even the small details right.

“Patch me through to Defiant,” he ordered.

“Direct or message?”

“Message,” Kiselev said. He wasn’t exactly sure where Defiant was at the moment, and even a few of seconds’ time delay made direct conversations awkward.

Besides, there was no guarantee the recipient would even remember his old division CO. Best to post a message that would give him time to sort it out before responding.


Kiselev took a deep breath. “Commander Edward Winton,” he said. “That’s Commander Prince Edward Winton.”

Back | Next