Forgotten in Kaggen
Earl T. Roske
The Hospitaller ship, Pryderi, bucked underneath Lieutenant Dewey Tyler’s feet. Down the corridor, several Hospitallers yelped as they collided with each other. They helped each other to their feet while Dewey gripped a handhold tighter with one hand. The Hospitallers who’d regained their feet came in his direction.
“Lieutenant Tyler,” said one of the Hospitallers, Corporal Merle Fleming. He had his fireteam with him. Private First Class Lela Ramirez was limping, favoring her left leg.
“You need to get to your escape pod,” Dewey said. He was watching a small window on an auxiliary data drive he’d plugged into an emergency access port. He turned to take a quick glance at Cpl Fleming’s fireteam before returning his attention to the data drive. “Move now.”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” said Cpl Fleming. “What about you? Do you need help?”
Dewey shook his head. “I’m good, Fleming. Get your people to safety.”
As if to encourage them, the ship tilted, staggering Cpl Fleming’s fireteam, causing PFC Ramirez to gasp in pain. Dewey, still gripping the handhold, reached out to steady one of the other Hospitallers.
“Move now, Corporal,” Dewey said. “You don’t have much time. I’ll be along in a moment.”
“On it,” said Cpl Fleming. He slipped PFC Ramirez’s right arm over his shoulder. “You heard the lieutenant. Section C. Let’s go.”
The ship screeched. Somewhere, an alarm for decompression went off and was quickly muffled by the slamming of an emergency hatch. Dewey could only hope that none of his people or those operating the ship were stuck on the other side.
Meanwhile, a green bar visible on the screen of the data drive was slowly growing longer. Numbers below it counted their way to one hundred percent. He was almost there.
“It’s not your ship to go down with, Lieutenant Tyler.”
Dewey didn’t have to look to recognize the voice. It was his platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Diane Castro.
“I’ve no plans on going down with this or any ship,” Dewey said. The green bar had almost reached its end. Ninety-four percent and climbing. “Hopefully, Major Toronto doesn’t plan on staying either.”
It might have been an ancient ritual that a captain stayed with his ship as it went under the waves. But these were modern times, and no one was expected to remain with a spaceship breaking up while in jump space.
“He’d like to leave,” said SSgt Castro. She laughed, as she often did when things were at their worst. “But he says he needs to at least be the last one off. You’re holding him up. He’s ordered me to drag you to the escape pod.”
Ninety-eight percent. Dewey tapped the screen. “Almost there.”
Deep in the ship, something exploded. The vibration shook the deck where Dewey and SSgt Castro stood. They both staggered but kept their feet. Another decompression alarm sounded and was quickly muffled by a closing emergency hatch.
Ninety-nine point four percent.
“Wasn’t there a closer access port?” asked SSgt Castro.
“No,” said Dewey. His hand hovered over the plug connecting the data drive to the emergency access port. The moment the growing, green bar touched the right side of the screen and the number flashed one hundred percent, he yanked the connecting plug free. He grabbed the drive and turned to SSgt Castro. “Ready?”
“Been ready, Lieutenant.” SSgt Castro turned and started running down the corridor.
Dewey was right behind her, the drive cradled in his right arm. The ship bucked several times as he and Castro made their way to a stairwell that would take them down one level. Castro used the handrails and slid down to the next deck. With the drive in one arm, Dewey had to settle for jumping when he was halfway down.
The ship chose that moment to buck, and the deck came up to meet him. His feet slammed hard against the deck. He bent his knees to absorb the shock, hitting himself in the chin. His mouth was awash with the taste of blood as he bit the side of his tongue.
“You okay, Lieutenant?” SSgt Castro helped Dewey up and got him moving.
“Been worse,” Dewey said. He allowed SSgt Castro to guide him along.
Not far behind them, a decompression alarm sounded. They immediately lunged for the next hatchway, colliding with each other and the deck. At their heels, the hatch swung shut.
Several hands suddenly pulled Dewey and SSgt Castro to their feet.
“Cutting it a little close, Lieutenant?”
“Don’t we always, Sergeant Maxwell?” Dewey clapped her on the shoulder and then pushed her toward the access hatch leading to their escape pod.
There was a row of escape pod access hatches. All save one was closed. The red lights over them indicated the escape pods had already ejected. Each red light was a relief to Dewey as it meant Hospitallers had gotten to safety. Of course, where they were safe at remained to be seen.
“Lieutenant?” SSgt Castro was standing near the hatch entry, her eyebrows raised in expectation. Dewey knew she was waiting for him to board.
“You know it doesn’t work that way, Castro,” said Dewey. “Get these people on board first. I have to comm Major Toronto first.”
SSgt Castro shook her head but turned to Cpl Lena Wong. “Wong? Get your people on board.”
Cpl Wong hesitated for a second, looking in Dewey’s direction.
“Go, Corporal,” said Dewey as he tapped his comm.
“Russell, let’s go,” said Cpl Wong. She grabbed Pvt Russell by the arm and guided him to the hatch. “Bryant. Webb. You’re next.”
“Lieutenant Tyler,” said a voice over Dewey’s comm. “You’re buttoning up your escape pod, I assume.”
“Loading now, Major.” Cpl Wong had disappeared inside the hatch. Sgt Maxwell was ready to step in.
“Unfortunately, there was a decompression in our corridor, and I had to get inside my own and shut the hatch. But I’m not leaving until you do.”
Dewey laughed. “Of course, Major Toronto. I’ll comm you right before we exit.”
“See that you do. I have no intention of blowing up with this ship.” The comm went silent.
Everyone was in the escape pod but Dewey and SSgt Castro. She had a stubborn look on her face that Dewey had to fight to keep from laughing at.
“Get in, Staff Sergeant. That’s an order.” He didn’t have to force her into the pod, but he could see on her face she didn’t like him going last, despite that being the tradition. However, as soon as she’d cleared the entry, Dewey was right behind her, slapping the button that started the hatch closing.
Inside the escape pod, Sgt Maxwell and the others were either buckled in or in the process. The two seats nearest the control panels were empty. SSgt Castro took one but didn’t touch her restraints until Dewey was sitting. This time Dewey did laugh.
After securing the restraints, Dewey did a visual check on everyone else in the pod. The seating arraignment was circular with the hatch and several cabinets on one end, the control panels for launch and navigation on the other. In the floor were several hatches that provided access to food, emergency EVA suits, adjustable-sized clothing, and weapons. There were more hatches overhead securing more supplies.
“Everyone ready?” Dewey asked. When he got a thumbs up from everyone, including SSgt Castro, Dewey tapped the comm to let Maj Toronto know they were exiting the ship.
Instead, the ship exploded, forcefully ejecting the escape pod into jump space.
Though he couldn’t feel it, Dewey knew the escape pod was tumbling as it sped away from the ship. They hadn’t heard it explode, but they felt the vibrations and the clatter and thunking of debris colliding with the pod. Dewey hadn’t the chance to speak with Maj Toronto. He could only hope that the major and whatever crew was with him had managed to escape the explosion as well. It would be a long time under the best circumstances before he knew. It might also be never.
That was the problem with an emergency ejection while in jump space. Those inside the pod had no control over where they would exit. The absolute worst case would be that their escape pod would be destroyed dropping out of jump. The second worst would be coming out of jump space between solar systems. Truly in the middle of nowhere.
However, as long as their pod’s systems were working when they reached their unknown destination, they would be able to send out a signal. Then, as long as someone reached them within ten days, they’d still be alive. After that, chances of survival diminished by the hour. So, all Dewey had to do was hold on until they fell out of jump, hope the systems were working, and that help wasn’t far enough away.
He’d been in worse situations.
“How’s everyone holding up?”
“Good here, Lieutenant Tyler,” said Sgt Maxwell. “Corporal Wong? Have your fireteam check in.”
Cpl Wong didn’t have to respond. PFC Webb, PFC Bryant, and Pvt Russell responded in the affirmative.
“What about you, Staff Sergeant Castro?” Dewey asked. “You holding up okay?”
It was rare for Dewey to not see a smile on SSgt Castro’s face. Typically, the more dire the situation, the broader the grin she wore. This time, despite the direness of their situation, Castro was not smiling.
“Our beacon’s busted.” SSgt Castro tapped the screen she’d been watching. “Something hit us hard enough to damage the internal antenna. Power’s glitching, too.”
“So, a normal day in the corps?” asked Sgt Maxwell.
Castro flashed a quick smile, but it was clear to Dewey that she was worried. Their survivability depended on ample power for lights, air scrubbing, heat, and the aforementioned beacon.
“What about comms?” asked Cpl Wong.
“Can’t tell,” SSgt Castro said. “Not until we’re out of jump.”
“Wait,” said Sgt Maxwell. “We’re still in jump space?”
Castro nodded. “Whatever hit us knocked us at the right angle. Or the wrong angle. So until we slow down, we’re stuck in here.”
That was a problem Dewey hadn’t anticipated. There were tales of ships being lost in jump space forever. Those were usually reserved for serial vids on Friday nights. But Dewey’s reading and his near-perfect recollection of everything he’d ever seen reminded him of fourteen times since the Radial War that it had happened.
“We don’t have propulsion powerful enough,” Dewey said. “We will slow down. It’s inevitable.”
“But where will we end up, Lieutenant?” asked Pvt Russell. He was looking too pale for Dewey’s liking. He didn’t need anyone losing control. “We don’t have a beacon.”
“We’ll know when we get there,” said SSgt Castro. “Hopefully, it’ll be someplace interesting.”
“I could read a book,” said Dewey. He reached for this tablet, secure in the pocket along his outer right thigh.
“Please, not that.” But Dewey could see the smile returning to SSgt Castro’s face.
Twice, Dewey had his reading interrupted by the discovery of a lost planet. Each time there’d been an adventure that involved attacks and ships exploding. SSgt Castro liked to blame the events on Dewey, but Dewey denied them. Well, most of them. He was going to make a retort in response to SSgt Castro’s comment, but a beeping noise filled the air.
“There we go,” said Sgt Maxwell. “We’re about to drop out of jump. That wasn’t so bad.”
“Don’t curse us,” muttered Cpl Wong.
It was the traditional military fear that pointing out the good fortune would ruin it.
No one responded to Cpl Wong’s admonishment as the pod began to vibrate and shiver. Dewey had never been in an escape pod in jump space. He was pretty sure not even SSgt Castro had, either. He could only hope that this was a normal response for a pod dropping out of jump.
“It’s the speed we’re going,” said SSgt Castro. “Ships usually exit at high speed at a chosen point. We’re tumbling along, rubbing against the tunnel created by the Pryderi before it exploded.”
The vibration increased. A whine spiraled high enough to hurt Dewey’s ears. He was considering that this would be the end of them all when the sound disappeared and the vibrations ceased just as abruptly. Now, the only noise was the heavy breathing of seven Hospitallers counting their lucky stars.
“Is this what being dead is like?” asked Cpl Wong after several moments of silence.
“I hope not,” said Pvt Russell. She looked at the others with a slanted grin on her face, adding, “No offense, but I don’t want to spend my death with just you all.”
“Likewise,” said SSgt Castro. “However, all that has happened is that we have fallen out of jump and are in normal space.”
“Where in normal space?” Dewey asked. Around him, the others turned to SSgt Castro, eager for her declaration.
“Let’s see, shall we?” Castro tapped at the virtual keyboard on the screen. Dewey could see the screen’s light and various windows opening on it, highlighting SSgt Castro’s face. Though she looked relaxed, he knew her well enough and long enough to know that the way she composed her face was telling him she was concerned.
Dewey’s concern escalated when Castro dramatically tapped the screen and the interior of the pod was engulfed in darkness.
“Not funny,” said Sgt Maxwell. Her voice had a nervous edge.
“You’re right,” said SSgt Castro. “It’s not funny. It’s very serious.
“What’s going on, Staff Sergeant?” Dewey asked.
“Everything. Nothing. We’ve lost all power.”
It had been silent before SSgt Castro’s bad news. Dewey noticed that it had now gone even more silent as nearly every breath caught in their respective throats. The only positive in the dark moment was the gravity plates having their own uninterrupted power supply. Customarily intended to keep the pull consistent even during power fluctuations, the plates now provided some comfort from the disorienting feeling of being in zero gravity.
Less than fifteen seconds after the power left them in darkness, Dewey reached into a side pocket of his uniform and pulled out his tablet. He tapped it awake and set the screen to its brightest setting, bathing the silent space in a weak glow.
“Good idea,” said Cpl Wong. She repeated Dewey’s actions, adding a little more light with her tablet.
Seconds later, the interior of the pod was awash with pale light from seven tablets.
“Now what?” asked PFC Webb.
“Sergeant Maxwell,” said Dewey in response to Webb’s question. He spoke slowly and calmly. “I need you to open that floor hatch between you and PFC Bryant. You’ll find the emergency evac suits inside. Distribute them and get everyone suited, starting with Pvt Russell.”
“Will do, Lieutenant Tyler.” Maxwell’s words were followed by the sharp, metallic snap of her restraints being released. Once Dewey saw that she had the floor hatch open, he turned his attention back to SSgt Castro.
“Can we reboot the entire system?” Dewey asked. The forceful ejection from the ship, followed by a tumble through jump space, could have been too much for the systems to correct for and they’d shut down out of precaution.
“Doing it now,” said SSgt Castro. She looked over at the other Hospitallers. Dewey followed her gaze to where Sgt Maxwell was handing each of them an evac suit. When he looked back to Castro, she was already looking in his direction. She added in a whisper, “I don’t think that’s the problem.”
Dewey hadn’t thought so either. “We need to try everything, Castro,” he said. “So we start with the simplest and move on to the more difficult.”
“Of course,” said SSgt Castro. “On the bright side, we haven’t lost atmo, so the pod hasn’t been compromised.”
“There you go,” Dewey said. He cracked a smile before adding, “Let’s count that as a win.”
“I’ll try and get us another one.”
“I don’t doubt you one bit.”
SSgt Castro nodded and turned back to the console, a determined look on her face. Dewey had known from the first day that he’d joined the company with Castro as his Staff NCO that he’d gotten lucky. She’d always shined with a positive attitude, loved being a Hospitaller, and would wade through fire for her people.
Dewey turned at the sound of Sgt Maxwell’s voice. The sergeant was holding two emergency suits and two helmets.
“Thank you, Sergeant Maxwell.” He looked at the others, still partially into their emergency evac suits. “Get everyone sealed, helmets off for now, and adjusted. I’ll look after Staff Sergeant Castro.”
“You got it, Lieutenant Tyler.”
Dewey took possession of the two suits. Sgt Maxwell returned to the others, helping PFC Webb adjust the leg length of his suit. The suits were a one size fits all affair. That being said, they were also adjustable so that people didn’t have suit legs encumbering their movement or loose material that could catch and tear.
“Castro. I need you to suit up.” Dewey held the suit out for SSgt Castro.
Without looking in his direction, Castro replied, “You go ahead, Lieutenant Tyler. I can wait.”
She continued to tap at several keys at her station. All that Dewey could see was the single, blinking cursor and nothing more. The reboot didn’t seem like it was working.
“It’s an order, Castro,” Dewey said. He gave her a crooked smile when she looked his way.
After a pause, she nodded and shifted over one seat, freeing up space in front of the terminal. As she took the suit, she said, “We need to try a hard reboot now. So that panel by your leg needs to be removed.”
“On it,” Dewey said.
While SSgt Castro unpacked the suit, Dewey knelt on the deck and started removing twist-locks that held the indicated panel in place. By the time he had the panel off, Castro had her emergency suit over both legs and up to her hips. She paused to join Dewey at the opening where the panel had been. The aroma of outgassing from long-stored supplies newly set free followed her.
“You need to open that back box. The orange one. Disconnect the green connectors and then connect them to the unpaired orange connectors.”
“And you need to finish suiting up, Staff Sergeant.”
Castro laughed softly and moved back. She began fishing for the suit’s armholes as she went.
To reach the box with the connectors, Dewey had to hunch down even further. Opening the box and handling the connectors was challenging to do one-handed. It was also hard to lean forward without support. He found, though, that he could rest his forehead against the cabinet wall above the opening to steady himself. That, though, also limited his point of view.
“Whoever designed this must have been in a bad mood on that day,” Dewey grumbled.
“I can help, Lieutenant.” Pvt Russell had joined Dewey on the deck. “I’m a bit smaller, so that might make a difference.”
Dewey sat back, feeling a pulse of pain on his forehead where he’d been leaning against the cabinet. “I’ll take you up on the help, Russell. I’ll get in my suit while you have a go at it. Disconnect the greens -.”
“Reconnect them to the orange connectors. Yes, Lieutenant Tyler.”
With a laugh of surprise, Dewey moved out of the way. Something nudged his arm. He looked to see Sgt Maxwell once again holding his suit. He nodded his appreciation before taking the suit and unsealing it.
As he unrolled the legs of the suit, Dewey watched Russell. She had sat cross-legged, no mean feat in an evac suit, and was leaning far enough forward that her arms and head were in the opening. By the time Dewey had his feet in the boots of the suit, he heard a hum in the ship. Seconds later, the emergency lights flicked on.
“Nice work, Russell,” said SSgt Castro. She sealed the front of her evac suit and scooted back over to the pod’s terminal.
Pvt Russell sat back, a smile on her face. Dewey had his suit up to his waist and one shoulder in when Castro gave him the news.
“We’re on life support, Lieutenant,” she said. “There’s no comm, no exterior cams or sensors, no propulsion.”
Dewey shoved his other arm into his suit. He noticed the others were watching the conversation intently. “What do we have?” he asked.
“What do we have?” Castro asked back, more to herself than to Dewey. He could see her gaze moving across the screen. “We have air. The scrubbers are operational. We have lights. Looks like the water recycler is available, too, in case anyone needs to use the head. We have back-up power for all of that for nine days.”
“And then?” asked Sgt Maxwell.
“Then it’s all suit power,” said Dewey. He started pressing the front of his own suit closed. “That’s good for another four days.”
“No need to ask what happens then,” said PFC Webb.
“That’s right,” SSgt Castro said. “No need.”
From where she sat on the deck, Pvt Russell asked, “I’m assuming we’re not going to just sit here and wait to die.”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Dewey. He tapped the collar of his suit closed after making sure the helmet’s gasket was aligned correctly. “We have time. I think we should put it to use.”
PFC Bryant raised her hand and asked, “What did you have in mind, Lieutenant Tyler?”
“On a list of things we should do, what would you suggest we work on first, Staff Sergeant?”
Castro nodded and paused to look at the screen even though Dewey knew the answer she wanted wasn’t there. “Exterior sensors might be helpful. But getting a message out would be my priority.”
“And mine,” Dewey said. “Also, it’s something we can address without having to use the airlock, which would waste oxygen and power we don’t want to expend unnecessarily.”
“We’d need the computers online to access the schematics for the comms,” said Cpl Wong. She looked confused when Sgt Maxwell coughed and the others looked at her with wide grins. It took her a second, then she rolled her eyes. “Right. My mistake. I forgot which officer we had with us.”
She earned the laugh she deserved for recognizing the vital fact that Dewey was with them. They didn’t need to access the computers to call up the schematics because he had read a book once about emergency pod construction, including all the schematics and the troubleshooting guides. It wasn’t instantaneous recall, which was why SSgt Castro had taken the time to tell Dewey how to do a hard restart of the ship’s systems. But with a few minutes to sift through related materials, he was able to pull up what they needed to know.
“That’s assuming you did read the right tech manuals,” said SSgt Castro. She punctuated her comment with a grin.
Dewey returned the grin and said, “First thing I do when on a new class of ship is to do a quick read of all relevant documents. Let’s unbolt those seats over there and we’ll get started.”
The seats Dewey had pointed to were beneath Sgt Maxwell’s and PFC Bryant’s backside. “We’ll need to pull the seats up and remove the plate behind them,” he said. “As we don’t have a lot of space here, Maxwell, I’d like you and Bryant to handle that.”
“On it, Lieutenant Tyler.” Sgt Maxwell stood and waved for Bryant to follow. Then, as a team, they started to disassemble the seats.
“What should the rest of us do?” asked Pvt Russell.
“Good question,” Dewey answered. He’d reopened his evac suit and removed his tablet and a connector, still in the plastic bag it had been issued in. He held both out for Pvt Russell. “I believe you’ll find a connection port for that cable. It should be just to the left of the box you’ve already opened. Cable to the ship. Then cable to the tablet before powering it up.”
“You got it, Lieutenant,” said Pvt Russell as she tore the plastic bag for the connector open.
SSgt Castro was watching the exchange between Dewey and Russell. Once Russell had the connector free and was looking for the port, Castro asked, “You think that’ll work?”
“Technically, it’s supposed to,” said Dewey. “I’ve only done it in training simulations and VR. But if we’re going to even have a hope of getting a message out, we’ll need it to work.”
“So, cross my fingers?”
“Toes, too, if you think that’ll help.”
The other Hospitallers laughed quietly at the exchange. Not every officer had the same relationship with their staff NCO. Some were very formal. Dewey had even heard some of the officers and their staff NCO interact on a first name basis. That would never fly with SSgt Castro, so Dewey didn’t bother. But he was also so used to referring to everyone by their rank and last name, he sometimes forgot they had first names. He’d even had to pause on occasion to remember his own.
“We’re in,” said Sgt Maxwell. “Everything looks okay. Should I run a local diagnostic?”
“You have the tools?”
“Sure do, Lieutenant.” Maxwell opened her suit and removed her own tablet and a small, hard case half the size of her hand. She waved it proudly.
“Let us know what you find,” said Dewey. He turned back to Pvt Russell, who was sitting back, the connector cable snaking its way out of the cabinet interior, the other end attached to Dewey’s tablet. “How’s it looking?”
Russell held the tablet out for Dewey. “Nothing yet, Lieutenant Tyler. It’s still booting up. If there’s something to access, you’ll know soon enough.”
“Thank you.” Dewey laid the tablet on his lap. The loading icon was still pulsing slowly. He took the time to watch the rest of the Hospitallers. Sgt Maxwell was running her diagnostic with PFC Bryant watching over her shoulder. Pvt Russell had turned her attention to PFC Webb. They were both checking in with each other, seeing how the other was holding up. Across from Dewey, SSgt Castro was doing the same thing. When their eyes met, Castro grinned.
“Doing okay there, Lieutenant?”
Dewey nodded and checked the tablet. It was still booting up, looking for some operational system in the pod to connect with. “Doing okay. You doing okay, Staff Sergeant?”
Castro’s eyes shifted to the others and then back to Dewey. “Okay,” she said. It lacked all the jovial energy Castro’s voice usually contained. “I know I keep saying I’m bored, and I’d like some adventure, but I didn’t think the universe was actually listening.”
“Or that it had a sense of humor more wicked than yours?”
SSgt Castro laughed. She sounded relieved to Dewey. “Certainly seems that way.”
Dewey lowered his voice, his tone serious. “I can’t promise you anything, Castro, but I’ll do all in my ability to get us out of here somehow.”
“I know you will,” Castro said. Her smile had squashed into a straight, hard line. “I promise to do the same.”
“Deal,” said Dewey. He looked down to see that the screen of the table was now scrolling lines of code. “Sergeant Maxwell?”
From her position facing into the hardware under the seat, she flashed a thumb’s up. “We have access to the comms, Lieutenant. Just not sure what we can do with them.”
Dewey could now see several comm control windows on his tablet’s screen. He tapped one to enlarge it, revealing the communications systems status. It didn’t look good.
“Well, we won’t be sending any messages,” said Dewey. “Some of the equipment is down. Likely damaged from the explosion.”
“Anything we can do, Lieutenant Tyler?” asked Pvt Russell.
“Can we pick up traffic?” SSgt Castro asked. “Maybe it’ll give us an idea where we are?”
Dewey nodded in agreement as he was tapping the screen, already looking for comm signals to tap into. “Excellent idea.”
Everyone seemed to hold their breath as Dewey tapped and slid his fingers across the screen. It went like this for several minutes. He continued to look even though the first pass through the data had already made it clear. Finally, he closed the program window and sat back.
“Not a single signal, Castro. Not even a satellite ping.” Dewey wiped his hand across his face in frustration.
“So we’re all alone?” asked Cpl Wong.
“Seems that way,” said Dewey. “What makes it worse is that we don’t even know where we are.”
Despite the lack of comms and the quiet agreement that they were alone in empty space, Dewey kept everyone busy. After a meal of emergency rations and packaged water, he broke the team into pairs, starting them on an inventory of everything in the pod. He put SSgt Castro and Sgt Maxwell together and had them look at the propulsion systems from the inside of the pod as best they could manage. Dewey kept busy on the tablet, continuing to access any system running on the emergency power.
The scanning system was online, but the actual scanners provided no data, implying that they too had been damaged during their evacuation. A hull integrity test that Dewey found hidden in a maintenance folder showed that the hull was intact and that there weren’t any mystery leaks to worry about. They would be quite comfortable up until the time they ran out of air and suffocated.
“Hey, Lieutenant.” SSgt Castro took a seat next to Dewey. Her voice was a whisper, though it wouldn’t stop anyone from overhearing in the small confines of the pod. “I’ve a thought.”
“Let’s hear it.” Dewey closed the window for outside cameras for the third time.
“I know it’ll use up air, but I was thinking maybe someone should go outside. Maybe there’s some repairs we can do on the comm, the scanners, maybe even propulsion?”
“You’re right. It would use up a lot of air,” agreed Dewey. “But at this point, I think all other options have been exhausted.”
“I also think I should go,” SSgt Castro said. “Partly because I have the most experience, beside you. But mostly to keep you from going.”
Castro had grinned at the last comment. Her smile was joined by the chuckles of the others who’d been listening more closely than Dewey had anticipated. They all knew that Dewey would never ask them to do something he wouldn’t do. And it was true that his reaction to the idea of sending someone outside was to do it himself rather than risk any other their lives unnecessarily.
Bowing to the unspoken consensus, Dewey said, “Okay. But no wandering off.”
Before Dewey had allowed SSgt Castrol to exit through the airlock, he’d made everyone secure their helmets in place and switch to suit systems. While he had reports from the ship’s systems that the hull’s integrity was ninety-nine percent, any one of the sensors could have been malfunctioning. It might then report the hull in its location to be good when it was actually ready to blow.
Plan for the worst, hope for the best.
Fortunately, the ship did not fall apart when SSgt Castro cycled through the airlock. She had to run the cycle semi-manually, relying on pressure meters rather than the ship’s computer systems. This wasn’t Castro’s first manual exit through an airlock, though. In fact, it wasn’t her tenth or twentieth, for that matter.
Once she was out, standing on the hull with her magnetized boots, Dewey allowed the others to turn off suit systems and remove their helmets.
“But keep them handy,” he said. “Just in case.”
While the others continued their inventories, Dewey monitored SSgt Castro’s brief trek across the escape pod’s surface.
“Lot of scarring,” said Castro. “Yeah, looks like something carved its way through all the sensors on the port side.”
“What about the scan probes?” Dewey asked. “They’re more south, underneath.”
“On my way, now.”
“Lieutenant Tyler,” said PFC Bryant. “We’ve surveyed all the medical supplies. Should I forward them to your tablet?”
“Do that, Bryant. Then start on the survival equipment. Just in case we have a planet or moon we can make our way towards.”
Dewey didn’t think it was likely, but he did want to keep people’s minds occupied.”
“Hey, Lieutenant? Is the scan probe supposed to look like an impact crater?”
Dewey laughed despite the seriousness of the question. “Nothing like an impact crater.”
“Right, thought so.” SSgt Castro laughed, too. “Which means we don’t have the ability to scan either.”
“Not surprised. Go ahead and head back and check the propulsion systems. Maybe a good kick will bring them online.”
As SSgt Castro moved to the aft end of the pod, where the airlock was also located, Dewey’s tablet pinged twice. Sgt Maxwell had sent an inventory, too. They were well supplied with weapons and ammo if they were to suddenly be attacked. Though, Dewey wondered, was there anyone anywhere near enough to attack them. That thought led him to wonder why would they attack? He followed the random thread of ideas and speculation until SSgt Castro commed him again.
“I’ve kicked them a couple times,” Castro said. “One of them is floating away now.”
Dewey blinked himself back to the moment and replied. “Is that your way of saying they’re not working?”
“Pretty much. What about those little engines for adjusting the ship’s position? Can’t use those?”
“They use compressed gasses. They’d get us moving, but we’d be long dead before they got us anywhere.”
Dewey waited for SSgt Castro to make a snappy comment in reply. When she didn’t, he waited a couple seconds longer. Then he started to worry when nearly a minute had passed.
Sgt Maxwell and the others had stopped their inventory work and were now looking at Dewey.
“Sorry, Lieutenant. Just had to make sure.”
“Make sure of what?” Dewey asked. They’d just been talking about engines. Did she doubt him? That seemed unlikely.
“I thought I saw something moving.”
It was Dewey’s turn to pause. He didn’t wait to be shouted at by SSgt Castro.
“What kind of moving?”
The other Hospitallers sat taller, several of them leaning in Dewey’s direction as if to hear the information sooner.
“Is there a ship?” asked Dewey.
“Yes. And it’s heading our way.”
Dewey now had everyone’s attention, even if it wasn’t what he wanted. Most were curious, but PFC Bryant had a gleam of hope in her eyes that bothered Dewey. He was aware of how dashed hope could be bad for morale. Low morale led to mistakes, and they couldn’t afford any mistakes right now.
Worse, Dewey wasn’t able to scan the ship to determine its origins or intentions.
“Too far away to identify?” Dewey asked SSgt Castro. She was the only eyes they had on the outside.
“I’m on max magnification.” She was referring to the face shield’s ability to digitally zoom in on a scene. “I’m actually wondering if it’s a ship or just a ball of junk. Wait. No, thrusters are operating. It’s a ship. Barely.”
“What does that mean?” asked Sgt Maxwell. “‘Barely’?”
Dewey shrugged. “Can you share what you’re seeing?”
SSgt Castro laughed. “Right. Of course I can.”
Dewey donned his helmet just as the request icon started blinking. He reached out and virtually touched the icon. A new image filled his vision. It was a vision of deep space shattered by millions of stars and one irregular object, half in shadow, approaching their position.
Dewey understood SSgt Castro’s consternation. The ship was unrecognizable as a ship. It was irregular in its outline and looked more like something a child would draw if asked to draw a spaceship, and they’d never seen one before. But, it had several running lights and the faint glow where the pilot’s cabin would likely be.
“Want me to stay out here?” asked SSgt Castro.
It was a good question. One for which Dewey didn’t have a black and white answer. Castro was his only eyes outside. In retrospect, he should have had her bring a couple eyes to attach to the hull. But that asteroid had passed. Now Dewey had to deal with what he had.
“If you feel like you’ll be okay, then stay,” said Dewey. “If not, get in now.”
With his helmet on, Dewey could barely hear the others in the pod. Sgt Maxwell had said something, though, because she and the others had pulled on their helmets and started locking them in place.
“I’ll stay for now, Lieutenant,” said SSgt Castro.
“All right. The airlock is still cycled for you to enter if you change your mind.”
Through the image of space, Dewey saw Sgt Maxwell flash him a thumb’s up. Everyone was properly suited and locked in. He considered the weapons in the back of the locker by the airlock and just as quickly decided against them. Even if the approaching ship was hostile, they could do little to it with the weapons they had. Maybe the shoulder-fired rocket could do some damage, but the ship would have to be really close and moving slow.
“Hey, Lieutenant Tyler?”
“Yes, Castro?” The ship had doubled in size, but it still looked like a mish-mash of parts.
“I’m getting a request on the general comm. It’s localized on a narrow band. Should I patch it to you?”
“Yes.” Dewey was even more curious than a second ago. There was no need to comm over a narrow local band. Not unless you didn’t want someone to know you were communicating.
“Coming through, now.”
“…identify yourself. I repeat. Unknown ship, please identify yourself.”
Dewey tapped his comm. “This is Lieutenant Dewey Tyler, Hospitallers. This is an emergency rescue pod. Our ship was destroyed in jump space.”
There was a long enough pause that Dewey started to get nervous. Then, “Understood. Have you sent out any Maydays or communications requests since entering the system?”
“We have not,” said Dewey. “Our systems are all down. We’re sitting here blind.”
It was an admission that Dewey was loath to make, but he wanted the people on the other end of the comm to know that they were harmless and therefore didn’t need to be fired upon. Especially with SSgt Castro standing on the outside of the hull.
Again, the long pause before the other ship replied. “So you haven’t tried to contact or heard from anyone at Kaggen?”
“I’m sorry,” said Dewey. He was moderately annoyed by the line of questioning. “I don’t even know what a Kaggen is.”
“Good to hear.” The response had been almost immediate. “In that case, I think we can render you assistance.”
“You think you can?” Dewey asked. It was required by intra-system laws that those in distress were to be given aid. Then again, Dewey reminded himself, he hadn’t established that they needed assistance.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll explain face-to-face. Pull your man back in, and we’ll dock with you.”
“On my way,” said SSgt Castro.
“See you soon,” said the voice from the other ship. Then the comm went silent.
“That’s interesting,” said Sgt Maxwell.
Dewey nodded. It was very interesting. Primarily because they hadn’t announced who they were nor made any comment about Hospitallers needing help. So, were the rescuers pirates? Miners? A local military? Dewey would like to know. He’d have preferred learning more before accepting their help. But considering that he and his team were sitting dead in open space, maybe even pirates were a good thing. Still, better to be ready for surprises.
“Maxwell. Wong. There are two boarding guns in the inventory. Prep them, pass one to me, and remove three ballistic shields, then stand by.”
“On it, Lieutenant Tyler,” said Sgt Maxwell, closely followed by Cpl Wong.
While the two NCOs opened the locker where the weapons were kept, Dewey monitored the airlock. It was almost through cycling the atmosphere in so that SSgt Castro could move inside. His attention wandered as the light faded from red to orange on its way to green. The other members of Wong’s fireteam were looking uncomfortable. Dewey couldn’t deny them that. He was feeling a bit uncomfortable himself.
Inside a ship, even a shuttle, there were several bulkheads to take cover behind if someone was boarding the ship against the occupant’s will. In an escape pod, there was nowhere to hide. The ballistic shields would provide some defense, but they didn’t keep a person’s position a mystery. There’d be no surprising the boarders.
Of course, if their intention was nefarious, they could have just as easily fired on the pod with a missile. It wasn’t like an emergency pod had any countermeasures. Dewey smiled to himself. He’d suggest that the next time he had the chance. If he got the chance.
“Something amusing you, Lieutenant?” asked SSgt Castro. She’d just pressed the button to close the airlock hatch and was removing her helmet.
“Me? Never,” Dewey said. “How close are they?”
“Less than a kilometer. I saw their reverse thrusters come online. Probably a couple of minutes and they’ll be here.”
“Long minutes,” said Sgt Maxwell. “The last minutes are always the longest.”
SSgt Castro snorted in agreement and sat down near Dewey. She motioned towards Sgt Maxwell with her chin. “Expecting trouble?”
“What kind of Hospitaller would I be if I wasn’t, Castro?”
“Fair point,” Castro said while the others laughed.
As they waited, SSgt Castro shared a story about one of her first times seeing action in the Itxamna system. They’d been dispatched to protect a small village of the Tikalin people. While they were waiting for the last of the village’s elders to load their pig-sized rabbits onto trailers, they got word that a fast-moving company of Palenque forces was coming their way. Worst of all, help wasn’t going to arrive on time.
They’d been told they had three hours. So Castro and the rest of her squad dropped trees across the road into town and dug out defensive positions. Then they waited. And waited some more. After five hours, Castro’s squad leader commed HQ, wondering about the opposition forces.
He was laughing when he got off the comm. It seemed that the Palenque forces, in their haste to slaughter the locals of the village, had taken the wrong road. They didn’t just miss the village, they rushed right into the perimeter of a military base occupied by Hospitallers and the Tikalin defensive militia the Hospitallers were supporting.
“So, it wasn’t really an action,” said Sgt Maxwell. She had a sideways smile on her face as she looked at the others.
Castro took off one of her EVA suit’s gloves and pushed back the sleeve. Along one side of her forearm was a thin, white scar. “See that?”
Maxwell leaned forward and took a long look. “Yep, I see that.”
“Biggest splinter you ever saw,” said Castro. She laughed and pulled down her sleeve. “Right to the bone. Got it felling a tree.”
The laughter that followed was stilled by the sound of metal scraping metal on the other side of the airlock.
Castro picked up her helmet. As she lowered it over her head, she said what they all knew. “Company’s here.”
SSgt Castro took her seat. Dewey signaled Sgt Maxwell to proceed with the ballistic shields.
“Bryant. Russell,” said Maxwell while opening one shield. “Open ‘em up.”
PFC Bryant and Pvt Russell popped open two ballistic shields, linking them to each other. They knelt on the floor, creating a wall between the Hospitallers and the airlock. Sgt Maxwell stood between their shoulders, holding the third ballistic shield just above the other two. Next to Maxwell, bent at the knees to reduce her profile, Cpl Wong had one of the boarding guns pressed to her shoulder, the barrel pointing up until she needed it. If she needed it.
Hard, metallic clanks of transit tube locks setting into place vibrated through the hull of the pod.
“Castro.” Dewey held out the second boarding gun.
“Aw, thanks, Lieutenant,” said Castro as she took the weapon and gave it a quick once-over. “I’m afraid I didn’t get you anything.”
“You can owe me.”
The next sound, dulled by layers of pod hull, was a steady knock, three times.
“Should I answer that?” asked Sgt Maxwell.
“No, I got it.” Dewey stood and squeezed past PFC Bryant to reach the airlock control panel. He tapped the button to open the door and stepped back behind the ballistic shield wall.
The red light over the airlock hatch flashed green. This time, the sounds they heard were from their pod as it released the locks on the airlock and swung the door into the airlock’s space. In the airlock, sidestepping the door, were two people in orange coveralls that had the look of quilts with so many patches that even some of the patches had patches. In the coveralls, the two people sported buzzcuts and bemused smiles.
“I’m not sure what kind of company you’re used to,” said one of the people in the airlock, “but you need better friends if this is how you have to greet them.”
Castro looked at Dewey and grinned. “He’s funny.”
“Sorry,” Dewey said. He stood and stepped forward and to the side of Sgt Maxwell. He tapped her arm, and she lowered the shield she’d been holding. She kept it in both hands, clearly ready to raise it if the dynamics of the meeting changed. “We lost our exterior cams. We’ve been sitting blind and didn’t know who had come calling.”
“Just us.” The man held out his arms in a broad greeting. “Humble ice miners. I’m Sherwood Humphries. This is my wife, Savannah.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” said Dewey before introducing himself and the rest of the Hospitallers. “If you don’t mind my asking, what system is this?”
“System?” Sherwood turned and looked at his wife. When Savannah shrugged, the man turned and added, “We’re not sure what you mean. This is just the system where we live.”
Dewey watched his people exchange glances with each other. It was as odd for a person to not know what system they lived in as it was for a Hospitaller to not know what orphanage they came from.
“Listen, Lieutenant. Maybe we could have this conversation in more comfortable surrounds?”
“And a cup of tea,” added Savannah. “We have fresh ice water on the stove.”
Now it was a matter of trust. Dewey had a gut feeling that Sherwood was being honest and didn’t pose a threat. Still, he didn’t like taking chances. Especially when he didn’t know where they were in the galaxy. He also didn’t want to insult the ice miners by treating them with suspicion.
“We’re still trying to fix some of our equipment,” said Dewey. He edged his way around the wall of ballistic shields. “So if you don’t mind, I’ll come along and just bring Sgt Maxwell with me?”
Sherwood exchanged a glance with Savannah. They looked disappointed. But not the kind of disappointment where a subterfuge had failed, rather that they were being seen with suspicion.
“As soon as we have a better idea of what we’re dealing with in our pod’s electronics, I can have everyone else join us.”
“We’re almost done,” said SSgt Castro. Dewey knew she understood the situation as well as he did.
“All right,” Sherwood said. “I can leave someone at the other end of the tube to guide you to the dining hall when you’re ready.”
“That’d be great.” Dewey turned to Sgt Maxwell. “Shall we?”
Sgt Maxwell handed her shield off and stepped around the others. “I’d love a fresh cup of tea.”
“This way, then,” said Savannah. She waved Dewey on as she turned and started back through the tube connecting the two ships.
Sherwood stayed in place until Dewey and Sgt Maxwell drew closer. Then, he nodded at Dewey before also turning and leading the way back through the tube.
Dewey let Sgt Maxwell proceed. He turned back to SSgt Castro for a brief moment, saying, “I’ll beep you on the comm once I’m sure we’re all okay.”
“You’ll beep if you aren’t, too.”
“Yes,” Dewey said and laughed. As he stepped into the tube, he added, “Especially then.”
The tube led to the ice miner’s ship and then into a corridor of odd proportions. The area outside the airlock was wide, with plenty of room to move. To the left, through an open hatch, the corridor was narrower. To the right, they could walk two abreast, but they’d have to be aware of the odd step up that Dewey could see happen twice.
“What style of ship is this?” Dewey asked. He’d flipped through books on working ships several times as an adult and more frequently as a kid. There’d been a dozen different types of asteroid mining ships. Some could grab, crush, and store an entire asteroid. Others could latch onto the rocky surface and drill into it so that miners could search for specific metals. There’d been two types for chasing down ice. They grabbed, melted, and filtered the water from the rock debris. But those ships hadn’t shown dining halls or eccentric corridors.
“Style? It’s an ice ship,” said Sherwood. We hunt down ice asteroids and bring the water back to the station.”
“Right, so is your ship a Wasser class ice hunter or Niru class?” Dewey asked. “I’m only curious because it doesn’t look like any class of ship I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh, right, I understand,” said Sherwood. He grinned as he looked around. After pointing toward the narrow corridor beyond the hatch to the left of the airlock, he said, “That back there is from a Wasser B-100. There’s some Niru on the other side of the ship.”
“This is a scavenged ship,” Sgt Maxwell said.
“Yes,” said Savannah. “Come. We’ll explain over tea.”
She started walking down the wider corridor to the right. Sherwood waved Dewey to come along and walked next to him, leaving Sgt Maxwell to bring up the rear.
“Mind the steps,” said Sherwood. “Things don’t line up as perfectly as we might like.”
“You said B-100, yes?” asked Dewey. Dewey had seen images of the Wasser B-100 in a book, but it had been a history of spaceships book. Ships pre-Radial War, to be exact.
“Yep,” said Sherwood. “I think the engine room comes from one, as well. But that was before my time.”
“A long way before all our time,” said Dewey. He chuckled, mostly to himself. “Unless we jumped back in time. Which I doubt.”
“Seems unlikely,” agreed Sherwood. “We’ve done a lot of scavenging and cannibalizing of ship parts to keep our little fleet going.
“How big of a fleet?” asked Sgt Maxwell.
“Three ships. Used to be five, but times have been tough.” Sherwood held up a hand to stop Dewey and Maxwell from proceeding. Savannah was ahead of them, using grab rails to pull herself across a section of the corridor, her feet floating free of the deck. “Gravity plates here are malfunctioning. You’ll have to pull yourself across. The third plate has one-fifth gravity, so you’ll feel the pull.”
Dewey nodded and stepped forward. He grabbed the handrail just as he felt the odd twist in his stomach as he stepped into zero gravity. Hand over hand, he pulled himself toward where Savannah waited. As Sherwood said, Dewey felt the weak pull of one-fifth gravity over the third plate. If anything, it made the transition to full gravity where Savannah stood easier.
“Replacements are hard to come by these days,” said Savannah.
Dewey turned and watched as Sgt Maxwell and then Sherwood crossed the gap and joined them.
“That was fun,” said Sgt Maxwell. “Reminds me of several field trips I took as a kid.”
“It’s just part of everyday life here,” Sherwood said as he slipped past Dewey and Maxwell. “Dining hall is just around the corner. Come.”
The corner was a T that also continued along the same path they’d already been on. There was a large square hatch where they turned, like one might find leading into a loading bay. However, this one led into the dining area of which Savannah and Sherwood had spoken. Like the rest of the ship that Dewey had seen so far, this was also a patchwork.
The space was large enough to accommodate twenty people comfortably enough. Down the middle of the room extended a long table that appeared to be cobbled and welded together from four or five smaller tables. The surfaces had all been made level by the addition of extensions welded to some of the table legs. Dewey found it interesting that there was an odd number of legs supporting the table.
Surrounding the table was a hodge-podge collection of chairs, stools, and benches. All of them were locked into place with latches and tie-down straps.
“Be it ever so humble,” said Sherwood. He had his hands on his hips, gazing around the dining space with a look of pride on his face.
“Tea,” said Savannah before disappearing through a scullery door on the other side of the room.
“Please, sit.” Sherwood waved Dewey and Sgt Maxwell to the table. “Anywhere you’d like.”
Dewey nodded and then took a seat on a stool that gave him eyes on the hatch and scullery door. Sgt Maxwell took a seat on a bench several spaces away from Dewey. He knew that she was watching his back from that position.
“It’s an interesting ship,” said Sgt Maxwell, looking around the dining area as she spoke.
Dewey agreed. Even the walls seemed to be a patchwork of plastics and metals, cut to fit and tacked to the support beams in a random but pleasing pattern. Over them were a half dozen faded pictures of groups of people, then a seventh picture that was hand-drawn. Dewey thought that he could see Sherwood and Savannah in the picture.
“Thank you,” said Sherwood. He took a seat that put his back to the scullery door but faced the hatchway. “It’s a work in progress.”
“More like a piece of work.”
Dewey and Sgt Maxwell turned to see a younger man standing just outside the hatchway.
“Lieutenant,” said Sherwood. “This is Chauncey Lincoln. Ice miner and son-in-law.”
“And patcher of ship,” said Chauncey. “Don’t forget that.”
“We’re all patchers of ship, Chance.” Savannah had returned to the dining area with a tray. On the tray were four metal cups and a pot that trailed steam through its spout. “If you want tea, though, you’ll need your own cup.”
“Sounds great.” Chauncey started across to the scullery door and then stopped. “Oh, everyone else is looking for an excuse to come see if it’s all true.”
Once he disappeared past the door, Dewey turned his attention back to Sherwood. “If what is all true?”
Sherwood started to speak and then paused as Savannah passed out the cups and poured steaming tea into each cup. Dewey cautiously inhaled the steam. It might have been mint or ginger. He wasn’t quite sure. The aromas seemed slightly off. Any concern about drugs or poison was quickly put to rest as Sherwood took the first sip.
“Not a flavor I recognize,” said Sgt Maxwell as she finished mouthing and swallowing her first taste.
“It’s a root tea,” said Savannah, taking her own sip.
Chauncey returned just as Savannah sat. He poured his own cup and took two quick sips as he sat. He seemed pleased with the hot drink.
“You were asking a question,” said Sherwood.
“Yes. Chauncey said something about see if it was all true. I assume this has something to do with us?”
Chauncey laughed, then drank from his cup. Sherwood shook his head as he looked at the young man.
“Well,” said Sherwood, turning his attention back to Dewey. “To see if you all are real or if it was some sort of joke.”
“Strange joke,” said Sgt Maxwell.
“Perhaps,” Sherwood said. “But you might be suspicious, too, if you thought no one else was alive outside of our solar system.”
Dewey slowly lowered his cup to the tabletop. He had a dozen thoughts rattling around inside his head right at that moment. One of them put a half-smile on his face. SSgt Castro was going to blame this on him somehow.
“I’m not quite sure I understand what you’re saying,” said Dewey. He’d been to planets where the survivors knew that there was a galaxy of other humans. Even the Wenshens, who’d been bred to survive on their planet, knew there were other planets filled with humans.
“What pop is saying,” said Chauncey, “is that we’ve all grown up believing that we were the last humans alive in the galaxy.”
It took Dewey a moment to remember that he had a cup of cooling tea in his hands. He pulled it to his lips and took a long thoughtful sip. It tasted of ginger and turmeric.
Since Wenshen and Juracan, Dewey had wondered how many more planets in the second radial arm of the galaxy remained to be rediscovered. And if there were, would the survivors remember their origins? Or would they assume their planet was the birthplace of humanity?
Of course, those thoughts had assumed a planet with people.
“You mentioned a space station,” said Dewey as he set the cup of tea on the stainless steel tabletop. “You didn’t mention a planet.”
“There’s no planet in our system that’s habitable,” said Savannah. “More tea?”
“Yes, please,” Sgt Maxwell said, sliding her cup toward Savannah.
“Just the space station, then,” Dewey said, his voice soft with thought. “Does it have a name?”
“It does,” answered Sherwood. “Kaggen.”
“Kaggen,” Dewey said under his breath. His mind was already sifting through the thousands of books he’d read or perused over his lifetime. He was helped by his innate talent of never forgetting anything that he had read or seen. Several times in his life, he had seen a list of space stations in the second radial arm. This included abandoned stations. There’d been another list, from a ledger just around the time the Radial War had heated up, drawing seven hundred twenty-nine systems into its fires. “I’ve never heard of Kaggen.”
“That’s what it’s called,” Chauncey said.
“Oh, the lieutenant doesn’t doubt you,” said Sgt Maxwell. She pulled her cup, now full of hot tea, back toward her. “He just means that he’s never seen or heard the name before.”
“Can’t remember everything,” said Sherwood.
Maxwell laughed. “Lieutenant Tyler can.”
“It might not have been on any of the lists I’ve seen,” Dewey said. It was possible. Unlikely, but possible. “And there’s never been a planet or system named Kaggen either.”
“Could be because it’s not one station,” said Chauncey. “Way I learned it, Kaggen is a bunch of stations cobbled together.”
“Like this ship?” asked Maxwell.
“I guess,” Chauncey said and shrugged. “But the way I heard it, each province that makes up the kingdom was actually an individual station that was added to the main station.”
Dewey looked at Chauncey and then Sherwood. “Did that station have a name?”
“Probably,” said Sherwood. “I just don’t know what it was called.”
“Someone might,” said Savannah. She moved the teapot and drew Dewey’s attention to it. He pushed his cup forward. As she filled it, she added, “Might be someone who remembers. One of the historians, perhaps.”
Chauncey snorted. “Good luck with that.”
Dewey raised his eyebrows as he looked at Sherwood.
“The king controls the historians.” He smiled ruefully. “They can only answer questions cleared by the king’s council.”
“I’m sorry,” said Sgt Maxwell. She leaned her elbows on the table, bending into the conversation. “First, you said provinces and kingdom, and now you’re saying king. Isn’t that fairy tale stuff?”
“Not here,” said Sherwood. “King Celestine, the Sixth.”
Something itched at Dewey’s mind. A thought. But it didn’t make sense. He ignored it and focused on something more important.
“Let me see if I understand this,” he said. “You’ve existed here for hundreds of years with no knowledge of the rest of the galaxy?”
“I guess it’s been hundreds of years,” said Sherwood. Savannah and Chauncey shrugged.
“You have parts from a Wasser B-100 in this ship,” said Dewey. “That’s pre-Radial War design. In fact, I haven’t seen anything here that doesn’t remind me of a ship that’s less than four hundred years old. So you’ve been isolated since the Radial War.”
“Okay,” said Sherwood. “And your point?”
“My point is that if you haven’t communicated with the rest of the galaxy since the war, it’s because you can’t.”
“I guess that’d be so.”
“Oh, stars,” muttered Sgt Maxwell.
Dewey nodded. It had just dawned on Sgt Maxwell. But Dewey had been considering it since they fell out of jump. The idea had grown stronger since they first met the crew of the ice miner. “That means we can’t contact anyone either.”
“We’re stuck here?” Sgt Maxwell sounded doubtful and incredulous at the same time.
“What if you get your ship fixed?” asked Sherwood. He, like Sgt Maxwell, was now leaning on his elbows, bending into the conversation, an earnest look on his face.
“The escape pod?” Dewey shook his head. “They don’t have intra-system comms. The emergency beacon does. Well, did. It was damaged as we dropped out of jump.”
The room fell quiet as the three ice miners shared looks that Dewey couldn’t interpret.
“Your pod can’t jump?” asked Chauncey. He seemed reluctant to ask the question, as if knowing what the answer would be and that it wouldn’t be what he was hoping for.
“Engines aren’t powerful enough even if it could,” Sgt Maxwell said. “The idea is that they’re used in-system, not in jump. So all the communication you’d need to do would be right there in the same place. Worst case scenario, you sit for a few days until someone responds to the beacon.”
“Can’t fix the beacon?”
Dewey turned to Savannah to answer her question. “Not likely. If anything was torn off, even one wire, it’s likely in a different system or stranded in jump space.”
A beep that only Dewey could hear alerted him to his comm.
“All right if the rest of my team comes in for a cup of tea?”
“Cup of tea and bad news,” said Chauncey. He was slouched over his cup, looking into it but likely not seeing it.
“Who’s at the airlock, Chance?” asked Sherwood.
“Huh?” Chauncey looked up and looked around the room as if he’d just materialized there. “Oh, Tristan was on his way there when I was coming here.”
Savannah stood and then approached a panel on the wall closest to the entrance to the dining room. On it were a small mesh grill and six buttons in two columns of three. She pushed the top left and middle right buttons before leaning in to talk to the mesh screen.
“Tristan? Bring our guests to the dining room when they’re ready.” Savannah turned and nodded to Dewey.
Dewey tapped his comm. “Staff Sergeant Castro?”
In his ear, SSgt Castro replied. “Yes, Lieutenant?”
“One of the ship’s crew, Tristan, is at the other end of the airlock to guide you all to the dining hall. Come get a cup of tea.”
“And bad news,” muttered Chauncey.
“No Insta?” Dewey could hear the humor in Castro’s voice.
“Don’t think they’ve ever heard of Insta, Castro. See you in a few.”
“On our way.”
The comm went silent, joining the silence of the dining hall. Sgt Maxwell was busy accepting another refill on her tea with the help of Savannah. Chauncey continued to stare past the bottom of his cup. Sherwood was watching Dewey. Through the doorway, Dewey could hear the distant sound of conversation. Likely it was Castro and the ice ship’s crewmember.
“We’re used to adversity,” Dewey said. “Granted, we’ve never been stranded without a chance to communicate for help. But Chauncey seems to be taking it a lot harder than me or Sergeant Maxwell. I find that curious.”
Sherwood nodded as he sat back, pulling his cup with him. “You’re going to see a lot of disappointed faces, Lieutenant Tyler. You see, despite being told there was no one left in the galaxy, except those of us in Kaggen, many of us have had our doubts. Even if the war had been extreme and extensive, someone had to have survived. There were hundreds of planets already occupied by the time the war happened.”
“Why didn’t someone here call for help? Or take a ship and go for help?” asked Sgt Maxwell.
“We don’t have any ships with jump capability,” said Savannah. “It’s all legend now, but what we’ve been told is that before the last passenger ship left the system, the captain said they’d be back. But they never came.”
“And the comms?” asked Dewey.
“Depends on who you ask,” said Sherwood. “Some say that the system broke after a few decades. Others say communications were damaged during the infighting. And there are whispers of sabotage.”
Dewey wanted to ask about the infighting, but at that moment, SSgt Castro entered with a civilian that he assumed to be Tristan. Just behind them came the rest of the Hospitallers.
“We’re going to need more cups,” said Savannah.
“And more tea,” said Sgt Maxwell. “May I help?”
Savannah smiled and said, “That would be appreciated. Come along.”
Sgt Maxwell followed Savannah through the scullery door as SSgt Castro scanned the room.
“So, Lieutenant, did you find another missing planet?” she asked.
Chauncey’s stare ping-ponged between Castro and Dewey. “Missing planet?”
“Lieutenant Tyler has a knack for finding missing planets,” said SSgt Castro. She’d placed one hand to the side of her mouth as if sharing a secret with Chauncey.
“Not this time,” said Dewey.
Castro looked crestfallen. “No mysterious planet with two-headed people?”
“Nope.” Dewey smiled. “Sorry.”
“But he did find a missing space station,” said Sgt Maxwell as she backed into the room with a tray stacked with more metal cups.
“Technically, I didn’t find it,” Dewey said. “Everyone, have a seat.”
While the rest of the Hospitallers joined Sherwood and Chauncey at the table, Sgt Maxwell set the tray down and returned to the kitchen.
“Tristan, join us,” Sherwood said.
Tristan looked awestruck as he nodded and took a seat close to Sherwood.
“Technically, you didn’t find the missing planets, either,” Castro was saying as Tristan sat. “But yet, you did.”
“And there were two-headed people?” Chauncey’s eyes looked like they might pop out of his head.
“It’s an exaggeration,” said Cpl Wong. “But not much of one.”
“And the lieutenant blows up ships,” Castro said. Her grin grew with the stunned look on Chauncey’s face. Sherwood seemed to get that there was some play going on. He smiled softly as he shook his head. “That’s how we ended up here.”
“Okay, Castro,” said Dewey. His smile gave away his feelings. “That’ll be enough. We have bigger problems than your imagination.”
“Like we may be stuck here,” said Dewey.
Cpl Wong held up her hand, drawing Dewey’s attention. “For how long?”
“If we can’t find a solution,” said Dewey, “then possibly forever.”
Dewey waited for SSgt Castro to come back with a joke or jest. But just like on the pod when they fell out of jump, she had a somber look on her face.
“Forever?” asked Pvt Russell.
“Well, until we die,” said the returning Sgt Maxwell. She and Savannah were carrying several pots of steaming tea.
While it was clear to Dewey that Maxwell’s intent was levity, the comment did the opposite, chilling the room. In typical bad scenarios, Hospitallers had the ability to find something positive or even humorous in their situation. But they’d never been stranded in such a way that there didn’t seem to be a solution to the problem. So it was very likely that some of the Hospitallers had taken Sgt Maxwell’s words to heart rather than as a normal Hospitaller jest.
“We haven’t given up yet,” said Dewey. He could see Pvt Russell, PFC Webb, and PFC Bryant pull their shoulders back. Dewey took that as a positive sign. They hadn’t given up yet. “Staff Sergeant Castro? The emergency beacon?”
“Gone but not forgotten, Lieutenant. Pieces of it anyway.”
SSgt Castro looked down the table where Cpl Wong was sniffing at the tea in the cup before her. “Wong?”
“Comms,” said Cpl Wong. “There’s a couple relays burned out. There’s one board that’s ruined, but I think it’s common enough we could pull one from another system. But the relays are a problem. We fix all that we can, then determine if the transmitter is still good.”
Dewey turned back to Sherwood. “Is there someone on Kaggen that could help us with parts? There might be something we can adapt to fix our comms.”
“I thought your comms were only good for inside the solar system.”
“Yes,” said Dewey. He paused while he received a third cup of tea. Then he continued. “But if we get our comms up, we might be able to work with what’s left of the emergency beacon. Couple all that to a strong enough power source and we might be able to broadcast our location. It won’t be near-instantaneous. The time to reach someone could be a year or longer, but Hospitallers are never forgotten. Someone will be looking for a sign from us.”
Sherwood looked even more defeated than Dewey’s Hospitallers had a few seconds ago.
“That’ll be a problem,” he said. He flashed a quick look at Chauncey and Savannah. “Anything electronic and most of the mechanical is controlled by the king through the historians. You’d have to apply to the king for a dispensation.”
“So we talk to the king,” said SSgt Castro.
“The king won’t want to talk to you,” said Sherwood. His words were followed by a bitter laugh. “He’s not even going to want to know you exist. Which is probably for the best.”
“Why would that be for the best?” asked Cpl Wong.
“Because if he did know you existed,” said Chauncey, his cup of tea halfway to his mouth, “he’d have you killed.”
Dewey watched as his people collectively forgot the tea either in front of them or in their hands. Their brows knitted in confusion. Checking each other for a response, they found they were not alone. It did seem like a harsh response to strangers suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Dewey had met a few communities that didn’t take well to strangers. But those people limited themselves to glares and rude words.
“Chauncey may be exaggerating,” said Savannah.
“‘May be’?” asked Cpl Wong.
“No one really knows what would happen if someone from the outside arrived here,” said Sherwood.
“Because it’s never happened,” added Tristan before giving attention to his tea.
SSgt Castro asked. “Why would he not be glad to see us?”
“Power,” said Sgt Maxwell.
Dewey agreed. He took a moment and explained the society based on what he’d been told so far. What he had to say wasn’t a lot. Like the other places he’d been recently, questions had sprouted faster than weeds after the rain.
“So you all have been isolated since the Radial War?” asked PFC Webb.
“Yes,” said Chauncey. “Or so we’ve been told.”
“Don’t start that rumor going,” said Sherwood. He turned to Dewey and explained. “There’s a rumor every generation that the king has been in contact with the outside universe. It’s never been proven, and it’s the same rumor every time.”
“Wishful thinking,” said Savannah.
Chauncey laughed, drawing everyone’s attention. He grinned then added, “Except now it’s true.”
“Not for the king,” said SSgt Castro. She grinned and then took a sip of her tea, which earned a shrug of appreciation.
“Let’s assume the king might not appreciate our presence,” said Dewey. “There might be someone else who would be interested in helping us? Someone besides yourselves so that you don’t get into trouble?”
Dewey was assuming that the station was not a hundred percent harmonious. He’d been to few places that were. As he waited for an answer, he watched Sherwood and Savannah share a long look that ended in a nod by Savannah so subtle that Dewey almost missed it.
“There may be someone,” Sherwood said after the nearly imperceptible nod. “I have a distant cousin that might be able to offer advice. And if speaking to the king is possible, he’ll be the one to go through.”
“Sounds like your cousin has some serious pull in the kingdom,” said Cpl Wong.
“Oh, he does,” said Sherwood as he stood and leaned forward to grab one of the teapots. “He’s prince of the Vody Province.”
“And you’re related to him?” asked Sgt Maxwell.
Once more, Chauncey laughed. It seemed to be his default manner before making a snappy comment. “Everyone’s related to everyone in Kaggen.”
“Except Nelville Saymour is your father-in-law’s uncle’s son-in-law.” Savannah’s comment cut sharp with a chill for emphasis. “Which is why we still have three ships. Don’t forget that.”
“Of course not, Savannah,” Chauncey said. He found a scratch on the table surface and picked at it with a fingernail.
“Not sure how it is outside Kaggen,” Savannah said, “but here, the better your connection is, the better your life is. Like their father before them, Sherwood’s dad and uncle have tread carefully, patiently, and correctly to put us all in a good position for the next few generations at least. If we could have gotten one more family member married into the prince’s line, we’d have been set.”
“Sandy,” said Sherwood, “that’s the prince’s younger brother, would have been a lousy match for Jeanette. Still, we would have pushed for it. But then she met Chauncey.”
Chauncey threw up his hands. “How was I to know of your grand plans?”
“Relax, Chance,” Sherwood said. He laughed as he reached over to pat Chauncey on the arm. “You have more character than Sandy Saymour.”
Tristan looked momentarily frightened at the casual comment.
“Jeanetta also promised to throw herself out an airlock before she’d ever marry Sandy,” Savannah said in an aside to Dewey and the other Hospitallers, earning a laugh of amusement and appreciation.
“Okay, so speaking to Prince Neville may be useful,” Dewey said. He was trying to put the conversation on the right path for him and his people. He enjoyed hearing how other societies lived, but he also had to consider the wellbeing of the Hospitallers under his command.
“Yes. But that will take time.” Sherwood paused and drank the remainder of the tea from his cup before standing. “Until then, we’re going to have to keep you all out of the way.”
“You don’t mean staying in the escape pod, do you?” asked Pvt Russell.
“What? No,” Sherwood said. He set the cup down on the table where it made a metallic ringing sound. “I mean we’re going to have to find a way to keep anyone else from seeing you. At least until I can get a message to Neville.”
Chauncey was standing now, too. “Yeah, but first we have to get the ice to the station. Then dock the ship. How are we going to get them from the ship to the homestead?”
“Small engine malfunction,” said Sherwood. He turned to Dewey. “Would you like to see more of the ship?”
Dewey stood, too. “I’d like that very much. But first, what about our escape pod? Left adrift, someone else might discover it. Even if they can’t access it, the design will raise questions.”
“Good point,” Sherwood said.
“We could pin it to a rock,” said Tristan, who hadn’t gotten to his feet but instead was pouring himself more tea. “Slap a proximity beacon on it.”
Chauncey seemed impressed by Tristan’s idea. “That’d work. Sherwood?”
Sherwood nodded in agreement. “If there’s anything you need from your ship,” he said to Dewey?”
Dewey had now gotten to his feet, followed by SSgt Castro and the others. He waved them all to sit. “A couple of things,” he said. “I’ll take Cpl Wong as we won’t want to bring too much with us. The rest of you enjoy your tea.”
In a whisper, SSgt Castro said, “I think there’s Insta in the emergency rations.”
Per Castro’s suggestion, Dewey retrieved several screw-top containers of Insta. From there, he moved to the weapons locker, pulling out enough sidearms for everyone. Cpl Wong was supposed to be packing a medical kit, but something else caught her attention.
“What about this, too?” asked Wong.
Dewey looked up to see several green canvas bags, the straps wrapped around Wong’s fist. They were T-n-T bags filled with small toys and hard candies for any children they might encounter. Besides their multi-use weapons, it was the second most likely thing to find hanging on a Hospitaller.
“Not this time,” Dewey said. “Like the pod, Wong, none of that is going to be common on the station. Some sharp-eyed individual will notice. Then someone will start asking questions.”
“Fair point, Lieutenant.” Wong stowed the T-n-T bags. “Seems a shame, though.”
“Agreed. However, I could use one of the bags once you empty it.”
“Okay.” Cpl Wong seemed confused but did as Dewey asked, stuffing most of one T-n-T bag into the other, the rest she poured into the compartment she’d found the bags in. “Here you are, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you. Also, after you’ve packed the medkit, could you retrieve my tablet, Corporal?”
It took another ten minutes for Dewey to stow the handguns and ammo packets in the T-n-T bag before they could secure the pod’s interior and move into the airlock. Dewey then secured the hatch with his passcode and palm print. While he didn’t think the people on the ice ship would scavenge through before securing the pod to an asteroid, it was always best to not take chances. Besides, what if someone else found the pod? There were still enough weapons and ammo in the arms locker to cause a lot of problems.
With the pod locked down, Dewey and Cpl Wong returned to the dining hall. Several more of the ice ship’s crew had stopped by and were sipping tea while staring at the Hospitallers. After a few introductions, Dewey left Castro in charge to discreetly arm the rest of the team while he joined Sherwood for a tour of the ship.
Similar to the sections of the ship Dewey had seen earlier, the rest of the ice ship, introduced to him as Beth, was an amalgamation of at least a dozen shops from the end of the first expansion and the beginning of the Radial War. While Dewey didn’t have enough information to name each type of vessel used, the stylization and metals employed provided clues. There was at least one luxury shuttle, a spaceport tug, and two in-system gunships that would have once been used by the military or local security forces.
The bridge of the ship was of two minds. The starboard side was from a tugboat that would have been used to move ships under construction or repair from one dock to another. The port side belonged to the luxury shuttle, though most of the filigree and shiny details had been worn away with time or intent.
Unlike a military ship, the bridge was on the top level and forward enough to see the four claw arms that were the business end of the vessel. From Sherwood’s description, Dewey knew the arms were used to catch, cut, and stow pieces of ice asteroids for delivery to Kaggen. Currently, the arms were curled inward as the ship made its way back to the station. As of yet, the station was still too far away to be seen with the naked eye.
As Dewey had been guided on his ship tour, he also learned some more about Kaggen. Like the ice ship, Kaggen was the overall name for the kingdom made from somewhere between six and ten old stations hewn together. This had begun shortly after the people forgotten in the system accepted that no one was coming back for them. The intrasystem war started around that time as station commanders began raiding other stations for resources. Some of those resources were the stations themselves, as a few of them were designed for very specific purposes.
“I think most of those reasons have been forgotten,” said Sherwood. He and Dewey had been standing by a porthole, examining the large chunks of ice in the hold. “Perhaps if you got a look at some of the remaining equipment you might be able to tell us what they were for.”
What Sherwood did know was that the Vody Province had equipment to melt, filter, store, and pump water to the rest of Kaggen. The equipment had always been there, so Dewey could already surmise that whatever station the province was carved from, it had initially been used for making water. With that came the possibilities that it had also originally been used to make breathable air, fertilizers for hydroponic systems, and fuel for in-system propulsion. Unfortunately, hundreds if not several thousand stations had been designed for a similar purpose prior to the Radial War. So that information wasn’t enough to tell Dewey which system they were stranded in.
The question Dewey had but didn’t ask was if the Vody Province could do all these other things, why were they only melting and filtering water? He wasn’t sure if time would provide the answer or not. What he did know was that he’d become used to not getting all the answers to all the questions he raised during a mission.
From the bridge and the ice hold, Sherwood showed Dewey the crew quarters, life systems, and engineering. He seemed most proud of the engines. Dewey could well understand why.
“Original engines,” he said with some awe.
“And from different ships,” said Sherwood. “So we had to account for different thrust, electronics, even how the fuel is delivered to each.”
“And there aren’t no manuals, either,” said an approaching woman wearing coveralls more patched than even Sherwood’s. She had a scrap of cloth with which she was wiping her hands. “It’s all learn-on-the-job, and learn it right. Or we all go boom.”
Dewey smiled and shook hands. She reminded Dewey of SSgt Castro in some ways. “In this instance, ‘boom’ is bad.”
“There’s an instance when a boom is good?” She had a feigned look of shock on her face. And her grip rivaled SSgt Castro’s.
“Lieutenant Tyler,” said Sherwood. “This is Master Engineer Malia Walden.”
“Pleasure, Lieutenant,” said Malia. She paused long enough to twirl the rag and then snap one end at Sherwood. “He forgot to mention I’m his sister-in-law.”
Dewey nodded, but his attention was more for the engines and the workstations to either side. He’d seen one service manual for pre-Radial War ship engines. However, it had been for a battlecruiser he’d had a temporary interest in as a young boy. The ship had appeared on a Friday night vid where it had been transported to the future through a wormhole that opened up in jump space. The engines for the battlecruiser were three and a quarter times as large as the largest one here in the ice ship. They were also of a far different design.
“There may be manuals still available on a computer system somewhere,” Dewey said. His words were spoken more as a thought than a comment. “We’ve lost a lot of data from before the war, but a lot has also been recovered.”
“We’ve done pretty good all these centuries without them,” said Malia as she turned to stand next to Dewey. They were now both looking at the engines. “But we’d probably do better if we had some manuals to answer questions we don’t remember how to ask anymore.”
Dewey turned to Malia. “If we ever get back, I’ll make sure you get those manuals.”
“I hope you make it back, then. We’re all kind of hoping it, to be fair. I think we’ve about run out of cable to unwind.” Malia nodded to Dewey and snapped the rag at Sherwood once more before returning to her duties, shouting at someone to use the right tool.
“I haven’t known any of you very long,” said Dewey. “But your sister-in-law seems of a different personality than Savannah.”
Sherwood laughed. “Oh, yes. Very different. Still, she’s the best engineer we’ve ever had.”
They exited engineering. Sherwood turned them in the direction of the bridge.
“What did Malia mean about running out of cable?”
“Oh, that.” Sherwood nodded and then turned onto a wider corridor that ran the ship’s length, though not in a perfectly straight line because of the mixed construction. “It means we are running out of time in a bad sort of way. Stuff’s breaking down more frequently. Repairs are harder to do as parts become more scarce. The historians make a big deal about this thing or that thing not being worthy of repair or some other obvious excuse. That’s why we’re down to three ships. But we’re better off than other ice crews. Several families had to be absorbed into other families when the last of their ships failed. Neville figures we have two or three generations left before things completely fall apart.”
Dewey recalled the failing gravity plate in the corridor near the airlock as they entered the bridge.
“Status?” Sherwood asked.
A young man turned in his seat before saying, “Almost there. Still braking.”
“Ah,” said Sherwood, tapping Dewey on the shoulder. He pointed out the forward observation windows. Dewey looked and sucked air in surprise. Sherwood laughed and said, “Agreed, Lieutenant. Welcome to Kaggen.”
When Dewey had come to the bridge the first time, Kaggen had been nothing more than one more star in the dark. Having returned from his tour, he discovered that they had crossed the distance between the asteroid field and Kaggen. The distant star at the system’s center was no longer a dot of light. And Kaggen now had volume and size and detail.
Still, Dewey found it hard to think of it as a space station. He’d only seen a station similar to this once before. It had been a colored drawing, in a frame, in the office of his dorm father. Dewey’s dorm father had drawn it when he’d been six years of age and had no clue what a space station was supposed to look like. It had been loops and discs all randomly intersecting each other with a smiling sun off in one corner.
The sunlight from the star highlighting Kaggen was far enough away that it looked about twice the size of Dewey’s thumb. On the opposite side of Kaggen was a bright hazy line that was the asteroid belt. Kaggen was highlighted along the sunward side and didn’t look nearly as chaotic as Dewey’s dorm father’s drawing. But it was close.
There was a central spike impaling four rings and discs. That, Dewey was assuming, was the original space station. Around it, though, connecting spokes made from other stations and what looked like cargo trunks and recycled ship parts, seven other layers of rings encased the primary station. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to the additions. LIkely because the acquisitions hadn’t been planned but more a matter of the intrasystem war Sherwood had described.
“That’s Vody,” said Sherwood. They were close enough to Kaggen that it was beginning to fill the forward windows. Sherwood was pointing to a series of rings to the right of their field of view. “Water operations are in the bottom ring. The commercial districts are in the middle. Most of us live in the top ring. Just inside the top ring and above are the control systems for the water redistribution and Neville’s palace.”
“How are you going to sneak us into your home?” asked Dewey. “You mentioned engine malfunction earlier.”
“Right,” Sherwood said. “We’ll have to move the ship after we unload the ice. Our docks on the second ring are right below our homestead. We have a minor malfunction and drift past the docking lock. Since we’re up there, we’ll unload most of the crew before proceeding back to the docks. We’ve done it before.”
“Scavenged parts?” Dewey asked. “There’s probably old equipment or junked ships and equipment out there, especially in the asteroid belt.”
Sherwood nodded and then chuckled. “Just that. We’d strip them at the docks, but they aren’t as private as the homestead. Neville wouldn’t mind so much, but historians are nosey and show up at the oddest times. They see us with anything found out there, and we haven’t reported it before getting back to the docks, well, let’s just say we wouldn’t have to worry about maintaining our ships anymore.”
“Because they wouldn’t be your ships anymore.”
“Just that, Lieutenant. Just that.”
“So you’ll move us with whatever crew you unload,” Dewey said. He paused and looked at the station, still growing in the observation windows. “How is the rest of your family going to take our appearance?”
Sherwood held up his hand to pause the conversation with Dewey. He conferred with several of his crew who were bringing the ship into the dock. Dewey took the time to study the station some more. The ring they were approaching was about twice as big as the ones above. That would allow for large industrial machines and storage of liquids and gasses. Along the outer edge of the water ring, other ships were docked. Dewey counted six within his view. One of them was backing away from the ring, slowly beginning its turn for an outward bound journey.
“That’s the Carl,” said Sherwood as he rejoined Dewey. “It’s part of the Anglin family. They’re down to two ships, soon to be one if they can’t find parts.”
“Is there a lot of rivalry among the families?” asked Dewey. “Considering the scarcity of parts?”
“You’d think. And for a time, when I was just a kid, things were like that. But you marry across family lines enough times, your enemy becomes your family and even your friend. Beyond all that, though, is the understanding that we all need each other to survive. Once we’re done with this run, Malia will head over to the Anglin’s homestead. She’s helping them reconfigure part of the engine that’s got their third ship tied to port. Between her and old man Erasmo, they’ll rig something.”
“And your other ships?”
Sherwood laughed and clapped Dewey on the shoulder. “Why do you think we’re down to three ships? We’ve been parting one of them out so the others can keep at least three ships running. It’s the minimum we all need. Like I said, we all need each other to survive.”
To Dewey, it reminded him of the ways that the Hospitallers grew up and lived. They were raised as teams, helping and depending on each other. Each could stand alone, but they were stronger together.
“As for my family,” Sherwood said, drawing the conversation back to where it had been interrupted. “We are mostly of the same mind. Those that aren’t will be shocked, but no one will speak of it outside the homestead. They all know the danger.”
Outside, the water ring dominated the view. Directly ahead, ringed by an odd number of green lights, was a large docking port. Dewey could see movement behind one of the small windows set into the port’s hatch.
“Any chance I can stay with your ship and shadow you?” Dewey asked. He patted his chest. “Though I may need a change of clothes.”
“Indeed you will. And, yes, you may.
It had taken some convincing for Sherwood to accept Dewey wearing his protective armor under the coveralls they’d supplied him with. Dewey might have had second thoughts if the coveralls hadn’t fit so loosely. As it was, even the handgun on his utility belt went unnoticed unless someone knew exactly what they were looking for.
“No one would even know to look for it,” said Malia. She’d been the one to bring the spare coveralls. “We know what they are, of course. See them in the vid-shows all the time. But we don’t have all the chemicals necessary.”
“King would love to have them,” said Chauncey, who was still hanging around the mess hall. “He’d really have all the power, then.”
“Now see,” said Savannah. “The problem with talk like that is that your tongue gets used to saying them. Then, when you least expect it, your mouth blows a seal and you’re in hot water with the historians.”
Chauncey nodded but seemed to bite off any other comment he might have made.
As most everyone else in the room was busy watching Dewey adjusting to the coveralls, Chauncey’s comment had otherwise gone unnoticed.
“You look good in them, Lieutenant Tyler,” said SSgt Castro. “Where’s mine?”
Dewey was about to comment that she didn’t need any when he was stopped by a bundle sailing past him and into Castro’s waiting arms.
“Thank you, Malia,” Castro said. She shook out the coveralls and then started opening her EVA suit.
“Wait. What?” Dewey was confused. “How did you even know to ask?”
“She didn’t,” said Malia. “But if you had a subordinate worth their salt, and salt is expensive in Kaggen, they’d insist on coming along with you. She’s worth more than salt.”
“Coffee,” said Castro. “I’m worth coffee here.”
“Heard of it,” said Sherwood. “Never had it.”
“It’ll have to wait,” said Savannah. “They’re ready to unload the ice.”
“Right.” Sherwood stood. After a quick look at his cup, he shook his head and started toward the door. “This way, Lieutenant.”
“Wait for me?” asked SSgt Castro.
“I’ll catch you up,” said Malia. She shooed Dewey and Sherwood. “Go on. I know my way better than you.”
A wave of laughter washed Dewey and Sherwood out of the dining hall. Sherwood had a smile on his face as they went.
“She wasn’t joking,” he said. “Malia could lose her eyesight and she’d still be able to walk these corridors unchanged. And it’s not an exaggeration, not really. She’s done repairs in complete dark and zero gravity. Though, I’d be okay never repeating that experience.”
Dewey agreed silently. He was noticing his boots, comparing them to Sherwood’s. His boots didn’t match and were patched, too, just like the coveralls. Dewey’s Hospitaller-made boots were bright and shiny by comparison. He’d have to see about scuffing them up and getting the rest of his team to do the same.
For now, though, they were still in friendly territory, so Dewey returned his attention to Sherwood, who’d come to a stop at a corridor dead-end.
“Can’t go into the storage bay. No atmo. So we’ll watch from here.”
In the short wall of the dead-end there were four large portholes. Stepping up to one of them, Dewey could see the large volume of the storage bay. Floating in the space were fifteen or more ice rocks. Most of them were roughly the size of a dropship. The rest were about as big as a rapid response vehicle.
At the far end of the bay, Movement drew Dewey’s attention away from his study of the ice rocks. The bay doors were slowly opening. They moved accordion-style, folding themselves against the side bulkheads, revealing a section of the ring’s interior. Inside spherical cages of metal tubes and propelled by small compressed-air rockets, several people slowly jetted into the bay.
“We used to have autonomous arms that would grab the ice chunks and put them in the melters,” said Sherwood. He emphasized his explanation with a finger jabbing in the direction of several mechanical arms folded in on themselves. “That was before my time. But I do remember my dad and uncle operating the arms with levers and buttons until those failed, too, and there were no more parts to scavenge.”
“And the cages?” Dewey asked. He watched several people using the cages and their air jets to herd the ice nearest the ring toward several open tubes big enough to hold the largest ice rocks.
“Thirty years, give or take. Didn’t have them at first, but at least once a year, someone would get caught between moving ice chunks. The cages protect the people and actually make it easier to move the ice into the melters at the back of the ring’s loading bay.”
“Interesting,” said Dewey. He and Sherwood watched in silence as the people in the cages made quick work of moving all the ice out of the ship’s bay and into the ring. Two of the ice herders made a last pass through the bay, grabbing up all the small pieces, propelling them into the ring’s bay before exiting themselves. Then the doors of the ring and the ship’s bay unfolded themselves, sealing off both spaces.
“All right,” said Sherwood. “Time to move to the docks.”
They turned to find Castro and Malia approaching.
“Aw, did I miss it?” asked Castro as she looked past Dewey.
“Sorry, Staff Sergeant. All done.”
“Would have been here sooner,” said Malia, “but the coveralls tore putting them on. Had to loan Diane one of my last pairs.”
Dewey’s brain hiccuped as he realized that Malia was referring to SSgt Castro. Diane was her first name and so seldom used or heard that, like his own first name, Dewey wasn’t used to hearing it.
“We’ll get you some more from supply,” said Sherwood. “For now, let’s get back to the bridge for docking.”
“Boring,” said Malia. “I’ll be in engineering. Have fun, Diane.”
“Thanks, Malia. See you soon.”
Malia turned and took a side corridor, quickly disappearing from view.
“Okay, let’s go,” said Sherwood and started moving as quickly as Malia had disappeared.
Dewey and SSgt Castro hurried to catch up with Sherwood, both laughing as they bumped into each other, taking the next corner, trying to keep up.
In the last section of corridor leading to the bridge, the ship vibrated raggedly. A klaxon sounded off, filling the corridors with its message of alarm. Dewey’s palms were suddenly damp with sweat as his mind flashed back to the last moments on the Hospitaller ship. When he looked at SSgt Castro, she had a startled look on her face, her eyes wide.
“‘Again?’” asked Sherwood. Then, as if the sound was only now registering, he added, “That’s nothing.”
And as if his comment was a signal, the klaxon went silent.
Castro laughed nervously as they continued walking hurriedly after Sherwood. “That was unexpected.”
“Not if you do it often enough,” said Sherwood. “Happens every time we load into that bay. There’s a problem with a docking clamp there, so even though it’s disengaged, it doesn’t think it is. Thus the alarm.”
“Has Malia ever taken a look at it?” asked Castro, following Sherwood onto the bridge.
“Enough times that she gets frustrated just thinking about it.” Sherwood pointed to a section of bridge deck off to one side. “If you can stand out of the way there, thanks.”
At that point, Sherwood seemed to forget Dewey and Castro existed. He was bent over the shoulder of one of the pilots, having a quiet but intense conversation. Dewey stood where Sherwood had directed. Castro joined him.
“What do you make of it?” Castro asked. “I mean everything, all of it.”
“Isolated like this for centuries. I’m surprised they still speak standard like us. But I think I can explain that. As for the rest? I’m not sure, but something is nagging at me.”
“Maybe when you know where we are,” said Castro.
“Maybe. But then we have to figure out a way to contact H.Q.”
Castro leaned a little in Dewey’s direction. “You think they’re not being honest about the comms?”
Dewey shook his head. “No. I think they believe it and have no reason to think otherwise. If you think of some of the dictators and despots we’ve encountered, then you’ll remember the ways they’ve kept control of the people under them.”
“Yes, fear.” Dewey smiled at Castro. “But also the flow of information.”
Castro was silent for a few seconds. Dewey spent the moment watching the station as the ship rose toward the next ring.
“Wait,” Castro said. “Are you suggesting that someone does have intersystem comms but is keeping it a secret?”
“It’s possible.” Dewey pressed a finger to his lips as Sherwood waved them to join him. “We’ll talk more about it later.”
When they stepped over to where Sherwood waited, he pointed at the station. Docking hatches were just starting to slide into view. They were half the size of the ones on the water ring. To the right, Dewey could see another ship secured to the ring.
“Any moment,” said Sherwood.
“For what?” asked Castro.
An alarm sounded. Dewey was grateful it wasn’t a klaxon, considering how the last one had affected him.
“For that.” Sherwood stepped over to the comm station where one of his crew handed him a headset. He put it on and, turning to face Dewey, said, “Docking control, this is the Beth. We’re having some trouble with one of our engines.”
He flashed a thumbs-up at Dewey while bending his head in the manner of someone listening.
“Yes, this has happened before,” Sherwood said. “It’ll probably happen again.”
Outside, the dock hatches of the commercial ring slipped past. Sherwood pointed at one of the two pilots who’d been watching him closely. With a nod, the pilot turned back to their station and began making adjustments before holding one hand in the air. After a pause, they made a fist and brought their hand down.
“Oh, great,” Sherwood said. “We have control of the engines again. Say, control, since we’re already up here, we’re just going to disembark some of the crew so they can get a shower and a decent meal.”
Sherwood paused to listen. Dewey could almost hear the person on the other end. It was a buzz of someone angry and annoyed.
“I’ve put in for a dispensation with the historians,” Sherwood said. He had both hands on the comm set, the ear cups pulled several centimeters from his ears. “But I’ve tried a dozen times. Maybe if I crash into the ring?”
More angry buzzing from the headphones.
“Of course I’m joking. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to reattempt docking. Beth out.”
Sherwood handed the headphones back to the crewmember at the comm station and joined Dewey and Castro.
“That sounded fun,” Dewey said.
Sherwood harrumphed. “None of those people in docking control has ever piloted a ship. I think most have never been off station. Still, they yak back like they’re the ones with experience. Anyway, welcome to Kaggen.”
The Beth had now turned port side to the station. It provided Dewey with a clear view of the next ship over that Sherwood had identified as the Bruce, which was scheduled to depart in twelve hours. The captain, Sherwood’s younger brother, would be joining Dewey and some others for dinner and a discussion.
For now, though, most of the crew of the Beth was exiting through the airlock. With them were Sgt Maxwell and Cpl Wong’s fireteam. They were under the guidance of Savannah and Chauncey.
“Still don’t feel comfortable leaving you and Staff Sergeant Castro on your own, Lieutenant,” said Sgt Maxwell over their comm. Dewey had insisted that they be allowed to keep this, too. As it was easy enough to conceal and secure, Savannah hadn’t seen the harm of it. Neither had Malia, which put a quick end to the debate.
“I’d have you all along if it was possible,” said Dewey. “But we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves if we can help it. We’ll see you soon.”
“Wong says if you can find something better tasting than tea to grab it.”
Dewey laughed and assured them he’d keep a lookout for an alternative. They did have the canisters of Insta from the pod, but it wouldn’t last long.
“There are other substances to drink,” said Sherwood when Dewey shared the comment about the tea. “Most of them are intoxicating. Several of them are addicting. I’d stay clear of them.”
“No problem there,” said SSgt Castro. “Hospitallers are too busy to bother with an addiction.”
Dewey knew she meant it sincerely, though it might have sounded like bravado. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always true. Even the most well-intentioned Hospitaller could make a mistake, and that mistake could derail their life for a while or forever.
“Well,” he said. “We got used to Insta. I think we’ll get used to the local tea in time.”
The conversation was interrupted by the vibration of the docking clamps releasing. The crew and Hospitallers were in the station. Dewey was pleased that this time there wasn’t a klaxon alarm. The ship drifted back from the station and then began powering its way down to the second ring.
Sherwood was busy with the bridge crew. Castro had gone silent, so Dewey allowed himself to study the view. It was still his hope that he’d see something that would match something in his memory. Then he’d know the station’s name and thus their location in the galaxy. However, by the time the Beth latched onto the station for the third time, Dewey still had no clue where they were, except the second ring of the Vody Province of Kaggen.
All but two of the bridge crew shut down their stations and exited with brief comments for the others and unsure waves for Dewey and Castro. Sherwood conversed softly with the remaining crew before joining Dewey and Castro. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder as he began talking.
“Claudia and Jayson will shut down the systems not needed while docked. Malia is doing the same in engineering. So why don’t I take you onto the Avenue so that we can get Malia and your crew some coveralls.”
Dewey started to nod and then paused. “Sherwood, I don’t think our credits will spend here. And I don’t even know what you use to pay for your purchases.”
“I worked that out already,” said Sherwood. He stepped past Dewey and Castro, waving them to follow. “As for us in Kaggen, it’s a bit of a barter system and a chit system commingling happily. You can owe me for now.”
“We could work to pay it off, too,” said Castro. She looked at Dewey as she added, “If we don’t have anything to do, we’ll get bored.”
“Could always find some work for you,” Sherwood said. The conversation held until they reached the bottom of a flight of stairs. “You’ll have to let me know what your people already know how to do.”
“You mean besides fight?” Castro winked at Dewey as she spoke.
Sherwood either didn’t understand it was a joke or was playing along as he said, “Might come in handy, too.”
Dewey didn’t like the idea of Hospitallers providing services like a mercenary. Though, in conversations with friends and a few people he’d been at odds with, there was the occasional philosophical debate about whether or not the Hospitallers acted like mercenaries in their duties. As Dewey reminded people, mercs did it for money while the Hospitallers didn’t make such demands. To which some had added that it wasn’t always about money.
Either way, Dewey maintained his silence as they crossed from the ship to the station. These were the docks controlled by the Humphries family. It had been segmented rather than leaving the space open across the five docking points that belonged to them. Considering the ages of the stations, it seemed like a good idea to Dewey. If anything broke or gave way, it wasn’t as likely to suck out all the atmosphere in the area, along with all of the workers.
They were met as soon as they stepped on the station deck by one of Sherwood’s people. They handed over a thick, awkward-looking tablet that had a power source strapped to the underside. As they gave the tablet over to Sherwood, they said something in a hushed voice that Dewey didn’t hear.
Whatever it was the other person said, it certainly gained Sherwood’s attention. He waved vigorously with his hand for Dewey and Castro to follow him to a hatch in a side bulkhead.
“This is Floretta,” he said as Floretta opened the hatch. “She’s going to give you a surprise tour of the next section. I’ll come for you when I’m done.”
Floretta had stepped through and now waited. Dewey waved Castro through before asking Sherwood, “Is there a problem?”
“When isn’t there,” said Sherwood. He smiled a tight-lipped smile. “There’s a historian in the front office.”
“Understood,” said Dewey. He stepped into the next section with Castro, helping Floretta pull the hatch shut, setting the handles to seal it.
“There’s not really much to see here,” said Floretta. She started walking across the large empty space. “We don’t use this dock much anymore. Not since we lost the Brit.”
Floretta seemed to be taking Dewey and SSgt Castro’s presence as casually as if a neighbor had stopped by. Dewey found that curious.
“Floretta,” Dewey said. “Do you know who we are?”
She stopped and turned to face him, a look of amusement on her face. “If you mean do I know you are from somewhere outside our solar system, then, yes, I know who you are.”
“Not a very well kept secret,” said Castro. “How long before this king person finds out?”
With the motion of one hand, Floretta seemed to dismiss the concern. “Not everyone in the Humphries business or family knows. Most of us can be trusted, but Uncle Sherwood is only sharing the information with people who need it. I work the front desk with my mom. She’s a worrier, so he didn’t tell her. And that’s why I am here with you. Come on, there’s a small office we can wait in that’s out of the way. I think there’s even a teapot still there.”
“Oh, tea. Wonderful,” Castro said. Floretta had turned just as Castro spoke, so Dewey was certain she missed the staff sergeant’s eye roll.
The office was unused enough that Floretta had to open a panel and reconnect the power. The room was chilly. Therefore, the tea was appreciated even by SSgt Castro. As they drank their tea, it occurred to Dewey that the office they were in was original to the station and not added after the station had been added to Kaggen. So rather than sit and enjoy the unique flavors of the Kaggen tea, he walked the perimeter of the room, opening the few cupboards and access hatches present and looking under the built-in table.
“Looking for something, Lieutenant?” asked SSgt Castro.
“Information,” Dewey said. “Something that might tell us what the original name of the station was.”
Floretta, who’d been sitting on the counter cross-legged, laughed. “You mean a name like the Beth? Or the Bruce?”
“Sort of,” said Dewey. He was reclaiming his cooling cup of tea after resetting a small hatch in the floor. There’d been some pipes and parts numbers but no station identifiers.
“The station never had a name,” said Floretta. She slid off the counter and set her cup down. “It had a designation, though.”
Dewey followed Floretta to a second door. She opened it to reveal the corridor on the other side. The only light came from the office, and small lights in the walls set ten meters apart. The staleness of the air and the dust on the deck indicated that it wasn’t an often used area, if ever. She waved Dewey to continue and lead him to a section of the corridor where a plaque was on the wall.
Dewey wanted to laugh. “Help? It’s perfect. Would you mind?”
Floretta took the proffered teacup from Dewey’s hand. He dug out his tablet and took a picture of the plaque. It not only had the station identifier, WFP-0104, it also had a map of each of the rings. After taking the picture, Dewey secured his tablet out of sight and studied the map and other data on the plaque while sipping cold tea. He read every word and followed every line of the map. Just a brief glance was enough to secure the image in his mind, but by giving it more time, he’d be able to pull more detail should he need it.
Castro was leaning against the door frame when Dewey returned with Floretta. “Learn anything?”
“Learned something,” said Dewey as he followed Castro back into the office. “This was a water and fuel production plant. Muscovy manufactured. They made two hundred eighty-seven of them before the Radial War. This is one of fifty unaccounted for.”
“So you know where we are?”
“Not yet, Castro. But it’s one step closer.”
“You don’t know what solar system this is?” asked Floretta. She looked surprised.
“Wait,” Dewey said. “Do you?”
“We just call it the Kaggen system. I figured that’s what it was always called.”
It was too much to hope for, and Dewey knew better than to get his hopes up. “There was never a system with that name,” he said to Floretta. “That’s why I need the names of all the stations that make up Kaggen. I get those. I can probably pinpoint our location in the galaxy.”
“Still won’t be able to make contact with H.Q.,” Castro said.
They were on their second cup of tea when Sherwood appeared at the door that led in from the empty loading bay. The look on his face suggested amusement to Dewey.
“Everything work out with the historian?”
“About the usual,” said Sherwood. “Floretta, your mom is looking for you. We need to run numbers for the ice that we just brought in.”
“On my way.” Floretta offered a short, vigorous wave to Dewey and SSgt Castro before stepping around her uncle and jogging across the open space back to the other office.
“You can just drop those in the sink,” Sherwood said. “I’ll have Floretta collect them later. Let’s get out to the Avenue and home.”
Dewey collected Castro’s cup and put them in the sink next to Floretta’s. They stepped out of the office and waited while Sherwood disconnected the power to the room. “We get charged for power, and it’s a lot of chits to cover the expense. So we turn it off completely in places we don’t need to go. Fortunately, the heat from Avenue radiates through the inner walls and keeps places like this from turning to ice. This way.”
As they made their way back to the docking bay of the Beth, Dewey asked about the historian.
“Just the usual, ‘I happen to be in the neighborhood,’ kind of thing,” said Sherwood. “But they are always in the neighborhood. Apparently, we were out longer than expected. Which is a surprise as I didn’t know we were on a time schedule. Now I have to start taking that into consideration.”
“A lot of changes recently?” asked SSgt Castro. They’d left the empty docking bay and were now where the last of the Beth’s crew were disembarking.
“There’s always been new changes and new rules,” said Sherwood. “But, yeah, they’ve come more frequently this past decade at least. I think as the situation in Kaggen continues to deteriorate, the more control the historians and the king attempt to exert. As if tighter controls will keep Kaggen from eventually collapsing.”
They approached two doors. One of them was open, several of the crew already passing the threshold. Sherwood took them to the second door. It opened onto an office that was empty of people. It was furnished with several desks, a small conference table, and plenty of chairs. The room had two more doors. One lead to the left, the direction where the crew had been passing through, and the second was straight ahead. The second door required a physical key and a passcode.
“Rarely use it,” Sherwood said, patting the door for emphasis as he pulled it open. “Don’t usually need to hide stuff from the family or the crew. Not everyone is good at keeping secrets, though.”
“Like Floretta’s mom?” SSgt Castro asked. She had her mischievous grin on her face.
“Surprising how much Floretta can keep secret despite how much she gossips,” said Sherwood.
They were now in a busy corridor. Tens of people could be seen walking towards or past where Dewey and Castro waited for Sherwood to secure the office door. To the right, Dewey could see the main office door with the Humphries name across it in bright orange letters.
“This way,” Sherwood said after pocketing the key. “Remind me to pick up greens for dinner. Savannah says we’ll need more if we’re feeding all of you, too.”
“Will do,” Castro said in response. “It’ll be nice to not have to eat rations for a while.”
Sherwood laughed and led them away from the offices. He nodded to several people as they made their way down the corridor. They got several looks from people, but no one seemed interested enough to inquire. Only once did someone seem inclined to ask, but a subtle shake of the head by Sherwood stilled the question before it was asked.
They then arrived at a set of double doors in constant motion as people disappeared past them or appeared from them into the corridor Dewey and the others occupied. Each time the doors opened, there was a rush of sound. It was a mix of footsteps, people talking, the occasional clang of metal against metal, and a bit of music unknown to Dewey.
“The Avenue,” said Sherwood as he pulled open one of the doors and ushered Castro and Dewey through.
Dewey collided with SSgt Castro, who had come to an early stop rather than continuing to move.
“Agreed,” said Dewey after several seconds.
Most stations had a concourse where foodstuffs, clothes, electronics, and local wares were sold. They all had a different energy to them. Some were sedate. Others were more festive depending on the time of year on the planet the station belonged to. Kaggen, or at least the Vody Province, was on the far end of the spectrum opposite sedate.
Just across from where Dewey had collided with Castro was a stand where clothes and textiles were neatly folded and displayed. Behind a table, an older man and a young woman were haggling with four different people at the same time. There seemed to be some order to it, but all Dewey heard was chaos.
Next to the clothes shop was a shop that looked like one for repairs of metal items. A woman, two children shadowing her, was shouting at the man on the other side of the counter as she banged a pot and pointed at an ugly patch along one side. In response, the man was tapping the patch with a long, narrow ball-peen hammer and growling his response. He sounded intimidating to Dewey. However, the woman appeared unimpressed by him and his handiwork as she continued to try to force the price down.
To the left and right, as the Avenue slowly bent out of sight, there seemed to be more of the same happening repeatedly.
“Is it always like this?” asked SSgt Castro? She looked bewildered and amused.
“Comes in cycles. Mid-day isn’t so bad. But the day’s about done. They all want to get home, so the energy is up a bit.” Sherwood turned right and started walking. “We’ll get clothes this way. I’ve got credit at Otto’s place. He does the best patchwork, in my opinion.”
Dewey and Castro followed Sherwood, avoiding collisions while looking at the variety of wares and services available.
“For an isolated system,” said Castro, “they seem to have a lot of stuff.”
“A lot of old stuff,” Dewey replied. “And most of it is patched together. I saw several tablets that were four times thicker than original. The insides are probably a designer’s nightmare, but the people of Kaggen seem to be able to keep them working.”
“Not all the clothes are old and patched, either.” Castro used her chin to point to a shop with large rectangles of cloth that hung in long strips from overhead lines. They had patterns woven into them and looked to be recently made.
“That’s a Tessuti Province shop,” said Sherwood after one quick glance in the direction Dewey was looking. “They make all the daily stuff. Clothes, boxes, teapots. They have several shops in each province to sell what they make. Everything else you see here is pre-Tessuti, or used Tessuti.”
“Except for in their shops,” said Dewey.
“Just so,” said Sherwood. “And here’s Otto’s.”
Otto’s may not have been filled with brand new textiles like the Tessuti shop, but it was bright and colorful. All of the used and repaired clothes looked like they’d been pressed and folded by a machine, such was their consistency on the tables and racks. Several people were being attended by what looked like twins. At the same time, an older man with bright, white hair watched over everything.
The white-haired man wobbled over to Sherwood and gave him a giant hug and several good thumps on the back.
“So good to see you, Sherwood.” Otto turned and eyed Dewey and Castro. “I don’t recognize your friends.”
“They’re over from Kastella Province. We’re trying to find them a part for one of their ice miners.”
Otto looked Dewey and then Castro up and down before saying, “I have relatives in Kastella. Never seen these two.”
Sherwood laughed. “Well, you can’t have seen everyone.”
“I remember every piece of clothing I’ve ever sold,” Otto said, turning his attention back to Sherwood. Dewey noticed that Otto wasn’t accusatory. “And I remember every face I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen these two. Where are they really from?”
“From Sklenka Province, Otto.”
Otto leaned back several centimeters. His eyes traveled rapidly from Dewey and Castro then back to Sherwood. He did this several times before he slowly nodded his head. “Sklenka, you say?”
“Just so.” Sherwood flashed a smile.
“Very good.” Otto clapped his hands together and rubbed the palms against each other. “Are they here for clothing?”
After a quick flash of a smile, Sherwood shook his head. “Not them. But I am. I need twelve pairs of good coveralls, about his size. And two about her size.”
“Twelve and two. Because Malia would probably like her clothes back, eh?”
Dewey looked at Castro. The coveralls looked very much the same as the ones he wore and the ones Sherwood wore.
SSgt Castro laughed, saying, “She very much would, Otto. And I like them a little loser in the waist if possible.”
“Of course.” He turned to Sherwood. “You collecting I.O.U.s on this?”
“I am,” Sherwood said.
Otto turned his attention to Dewey and Castro. “Sherwood makes sure I get a little extra water each day.” He waved a hand at the clothes in his shop. “A good steaming removes the wrinkles and makes everything look crisp and fresh. Even the merchants from Tessuti don’t do that. Come, let’s find you some good clothes.”
An hour later, Sherwood guided them back the way they’d come and along another eighth of the commerce ring. They were each carrying hard-sided totes with stacked coveralls, salad ingredients from a small, local greengrocer, and six long skewers of protein cubes from a corner stall. Dewey and Castro followed Sherwood as he took a turn down a short, wide corridor that ended at a spiral staircase.
“Homestead is this way,” Sherwood said, using his chin to point upward.
“That was a curious thing that happened between you and Otto,” said Dewey as he continued to follow Sherwood.
“What was curious?”
Dewey had kept his questions to a minimum amongst the shops and shoppers. He’d asked only about immediate things like the source of the protein cubes and the green onions from the grocer. The entire time, though, he’d been thinking about the conversation killer uttered by Sherwood.
“The province, Sklenka,” said Dewey. “That seemed to have had an effect on Otto and changed the course of the conversation.”
Sherwood came to a stop. Dewey did the same and was jostled by SSgt Castro, who hadn’t realized what had happened. She apologized and stepped down one step. As a group, they moved to the outside edge of the stairs, letting several people pass on the way down.
“Sklenka Province is a myth,” Sherwood said. “Or it’s not. Depends on who you ask.”
“What’s it to you, then?”
“I think there’s some truth to it. As are most myths, legends, and lies.”
“So, Sklenka isn’t a real place?” Castro asked. “Unless it is? I have to say that I like my stories simpler.”
“Many people believe it existed. That was back in the time of the first king, Celestene the First. A hundred years or so after the wars that unified the stations into one. When Celestene declared himself king, all the stations but one agreed to his rule.”
“Sklenka. What happened to it?”
“The story goes that when Celestene demanded they swear allegiance to him and his family, the people in Sklenka voted against it. So Celestene cut the water supply. When they still refused, he cut power. After that, when they still refused, according to the legend, mind you, he had all the connections between Sklenka and the rest of Kaggen severed. Then he had several ships push Sklenka away from the rest of us, setting them adrift.”
“And I thought the Allied Planets played dirty,” said SSgt Castro in a hushed voice.
“It’s conjectured that Sklenka had managed to survive, but they had no supplies and no external power. People believe that the first Celestene had set the trajectory of Sklenka so that it would eventually spiral into the system and into the sun.”
“Without food and water, it’s likely they never survived long enough to know that was going to happen,” Dewey said. “But why did you say we were from there?”
“It’s a saying we use,” Sherwood said as he picked up his crate of coveralls and food. “When anyone invokes the name of Sklenka, it’s a signal to anyone listening that the conversation goes no further. So when I told Otto you were from Sklenka, he knew that I didn’t want to discuss it anymore. Fortunately, he and I trust each other. Someone else had asked? I might have had to come up with a better answer.”
He started up the stairs once more.
“Which is also why you chose to deal with Otto,” said Dewey. He followed Sherwood up the spiral.
“Just so. Just so.”
Sklenka wasn’t a rare name in the universe. At least not before the Radial War. Dewey didn’t connect it to a specific space station but to a trading co-op. Hundreds of companies too small to do their own inter-system trading alone. But as part of the co-op, they were able to own and maintain dozens of trading stations along the more popular jump routes that were in use at that time.
If Dewey was correct, the name here implied that Sklenka had a station in this system. Of all the systems with a Sklenka trading station and a WFP station, Dewey could narrow the possibilities down to several dozen.
He was slowly getting closer to uncovering their location in the galaxy.
The spiral staircase opened onto a corridor three meters wide. The foot traffic here was non-existent compared to the Avenue in the ring below. Several people passed by, greeting Sherwood and giving a quick glance for Dewey and Castro.
“There’s a hundred homesteads here,” Sherwood said. “Some families have taken over parts of the inner wall of the commercial ring as things have gotten crowded up here over the decades. Mostly, though, we’ve gotten used to not having a lot of space and not much in the way of privacy. Most generations, though, have always lived like this, so it’s normal for them.”
“What about your generation?” asked SSgt Castro.
They were walking towards a pair of double doors with a painted frame. Dewey noticed other paintings on the walls to either side, each framed with a painted border. Some were of what Dewey thought of as life inside Kaggen. Other paintings were of spaceships and distant planets.
“My generation? Things were already getting crowded by then. Still, I had my own room when I was a teenager. It was small, mind you, but I had it to myself. Teenagers now have to share with at least one other person in the same age group. If there are problems, we’ll shuffle them around until we find a level of harmony. Young adults share dorms. You’ll see. Savannah will have put your people in one.”
“So there’s still space to expand?”
Sherwood gave a vague shrug to Dewey’s question. “Maybe? Not much. There’s talk of converting more spaces in the commercial ring. We have all that warehouse space that could be used. But we’d need materials to make walls, plumbing, and wiring.”
Dewey understood. “Sounds complicated.”
“Just so.” Sherwood elbowed a button hidden in the designs framing the doors. The images here were of people’s faces, asteroids, ships, flowers. Someone had allowed their imagination to run wild.
A second after Sherwood had pushed the button, the door opened.
“Hey, Uncle Sherwood.” A young man, likely in his early teens based on Dewey’s assumption, stepped back, pulling the door with him. “You want me to take that for you?”
“Thanks, Rigo, but you’re still on door duty. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, Unc. Anything you say.” Rigo seemed to just notice Dewey and Castro. “Oh, hey, more special guests. Hiya.”
Dewey and SSgt Castro returned the greeting. They quick-marched a few steps to catch up with Sherwood. He was already moving down the corridor away from the entry. Rigo had returned to a podium and stool where he resumed whatever he’d been doing on a bulky tablet before responding to the request to open the door.
The corridor branched several times. Down the offshoot corridors, Dewey saw tens of doors, mostly evenly spaced along the walls. Everything seemed quiet until they pushed through another set of double doors that didn’t require a button or a duty desk.
A wave of laughter and elevated conversation volume washed across Dewey as he stepped into a relatively large space. The space was about ten meters deep and twenty meters broad. It was filled with tables and benches in the middle. There was one large rectangular window that looked out into space. On a patchwork of rugs, beneath the window, were children’s toys, children, and a fireteam’s worth of Hospitallers.
“Officer on deck!”
The Hospitallers all jumped to their feet at Sgt Maxwell’s warning. The laughter of the children was stilled by the shock of the Hospitallers’ sudden movement.
“As you were,” said Dewey.
Laughter returned as the fireteam resumed whatever activity they were in the middle of when Dewey had arrived. Where Sherwood stopped, Savannah and Sgt Maxwell converged.
“I wish the children would respond as quickly,” said Savannah.
“Start them young,” said Castro. She set her tote of coveralls and salad greens on the nearest table. “That’s what we did.”
“Probably too late then,” Savannah said. She looked over her shoulder in response to an exceptionally loud peal of laughter. Cpl Wong was giving one of the smaller children a spaceship ride through the air.
“Next generation,” suggested Sgt Maxwell. She had turned her attention to Dewey. She’d started to salute but stopped when he shook his head. “We’re all safe and accounted for, Lieutenant Tyler. They’ve assigned us a bunkroom. We’ve stored the EVA suits there for now.”
“Good work, Maxwell.” Dewey looked around, counting Hospitallers. “I don’t see PFC Webb.”
“The kitchen,” said Savannah. “He insisted. Seems he knows his way through a kitchen, and he’s been of great help getting the evening meal together.”
“We have stuff for salad,” Castro said, indicating the lettuces, green onions, and the protein cubes on the skewers. “If you’ll point me in the right direction.”
“Better than that,” Savannah said. “I’ll show you.”
She paused long enough to pull the other vegetables from Dewey’s and Sherwood’s containers, passing the skewers over to SSgt Castro. When she had removed everything edible, she waved for Castro to follow her. They weaved their way through the tables with several greetings to small groups of people they passed. Then they were out of sight beyond a swinging door with a porthole window.
“Come relax,” said Sherwood. “It’ll still be a while before the meal is ready.”
Dewey nodded and followed Sherwood. Sgt Maxwell shadowed Dewey. They were led to a table where Dewey recognized Chauncey and Tristan. They were not alone.
“You’ve met Chance and Triss,” said Sherwood, indicating the two men with a brief wave of his hand. “This is my daughter, Jeanetta, married to Chance.”
“Greetings,” said Jeanetta. Rising to her feet, she revealed that she was eight to nine months pregnant.
“Please, don’t get up for us,” Dewey said.
“This is Meril and Mericruz,” Sherwood added. “Sister and cousin to Jeanetta.”
The two women, younger than Jeanetta, waved. Dewey nodded in reply.
Sherwood had already taken a seat and pointed with his hand to a spot next to him. “Come, join the happy crew.”
“Pained crew,” said Jeanetta. She was rubbing her hand over her belly in small circles.
Dewey sat, asking Jeanetta. “Your first?”
She and the other women laughed. “No,” she said. “One other. Parker. He’s the one currently getting a shoulder ride.”
In the play area, filled with children and Hospitallers, Pvt Marlene Russell was giving a young boy of four or five years a shoulder ride while several other children trailed along behind, laughing and asking loudly for their turn.
“You sure your people are up to this?” Chauncey asked.
“They’ll never admit it if they aren’t,” said Dewey. “There’s a sort of natural affinity between Hospitallers and children.”
“I heard you are all orphans,” said Jeanetta’s sister, Meril. “That must have been sad.”
Sgt Maxwell laughed and then quickly shoved a fist against her mouth. Maxwell’s behavior caused Dewey to laugh in turn.
“Why was that funny?” asked a confused Meril.
“Go ahead, Sergeant,” Dewey said.
“Sorry,” Maxwell said. “I wasn’t laughing at you, Meril. It’s just that we are so often thought of as deprived or somehow taken advantage of. Yet to us, our lives were filled with love and camaraderie from as far back as we can remember.”
Meril and her cousin, Mericruz, looked embarrassed.
“It’s okay,” said Dewey. “As I look around here, it seems like the children have lots of adults looking after them. Your family is more than just parents and children if I’m right.”
“We are an extended family, sure,” said Sherwood. “While parents have primary responsibility, there’s always an adult somewhere looking out for the children’s safety and wellbeing.”
“Much the same for us. We grew up in dorms of nine to thirteen, depending on the size of the orphanage. We always had a dorm mother and dorm father with us.”
“And there were always other adults in the orphanage, too,” added Sgt Maxwell. “It was kind of like this.”
“You don’t feel like you were missing out on anything?” asked Chauncey. “You know, what with not having a real parent?”
“I’m not sure any of us can answer that fully,” Dewey said. “Most of us were infants when we came to the Hospitallers. A few of us remember our parents, but mostly we have the orphanage and those memories of happiness, support, and being loved.”
“Probably the way you all feel about yourselves,” said Sgt Maxwell. “And how your children feel.”
“Just with fewer options,” said Chauncey. Jeanetta gave him an elbow to the ribs, softened with a smile. “What? It’s true. They’re crossing the galaxy. We can’t even cross the entirety of Kaggen.”
Dewey found the comment interesting. “Your travel within the station is limited?”
“Not completely,” said Sherwood. “You have to get a permit. Though they are rarely denied, people are discouraged from making extended trips to other provinces.”
“Did Otto move here from the Kastella Province?” asked Dewey.
“He did. But that was a few decades ago. His family is spread across a few of the provinces. That benefits him because he can move his wares into different provinces to maximize his profits.”
Dewey looked across the dining hall where Pvt Russell was being chased by several children. They caught her handily when she tripped over something small and likely invisible. There were shouts of “Got you!” and laughs of surprise as the children clambered across Russell’s back. All of this was easier for children. If they were well fed, loved, and treated fair, they would adapt, thinking this was the natural way of things until they got older.
When Pvt Russell roared like a lion and pretended to gobble the children, Dewey turned his attention back to the table. Sgt Maxwell was leaning into a discussion with Jeanetta, Meril, and Mericruz. Chauncey was looking at the backs of his hands. Sherwood was shifting his attention from the children back to Dewey. He smiled a content smile that was lined with concern. Likely the concern was always there.
“How do you petition Prince Neville?”
“Go before the gates,” said Sherwood. “Really just a hatchway with a grill across it. The scribe will take down my request, along with a dozen others on most days, and then we wait for a summons.”
“How long will a summons take?”
Sherwood’s grimace did not fill Dewey with confidence. “Couple of days,” Sherwood said. “Unless there’s an emergency. Then it could be a week to ten days. But on average, I’ve received my summons in a couple of days.”
Dewey was about to ask what they would do to keep busy until then. Instead, his attention was pulled by a flurry of movement by the swinging door that led to the kitchen. Several women Dewey hadn’t seen before, PFC Webb, Savannah, and SSgt Castro, were entering the dining hall. They came single file, each laden with a tray.
One by one, they set a tray on each table. The trays held bowls of rolls, soup tureens, and metal bowls piled with salad that was dotted with cherry tomatoes and the protein cubes cut smaller. The older children jumped up from the floor where they’d been playing with the other Hospitallers and rushed to a sideboard stacked with plastic totes. They carried one large and one small tote to each table. Inside the larger totes was a variety of metal and plastic plates and bowls. The smaller totes had round canisters, and in the canisters were forks, knives, and spoons.
The smaller children pulled the rest of the Hospitallers to different tables where other adults sat. Dewey presumed these were family. PFC Bryant looked at Dewey, a question in her expression. Dewey nodded that it was okay. Likely, Bryant thought Dewey would want all of them together. However, he was sure that if they’d isolated themselves at a separate table it would make the civilians uncomfortable. Plus, listening to different people would make for good intel to share back later.
As the last tote and tray were set on the last table, the room fell silent. Sherwood stood and looked around the room. He smiled and gave a little wave to two children who’d been waving before. Then he gave a single, curt nod.
“Let’s eat,” he said.
The children laughed or shouted in response before snatching rolls from bowls while adults filled their plates and bowls. Sherwood did the same, but he also set a meal aside on the tray that had brought the food.
“Meril,” said Sherwood, his hand still on the tray. “Would you take this to Rigo?”
As Meril picked up the tray and left, Sherwood turned to Dewey and Sgt Maxwell. “Please, eat.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” said Sgt Maxwell, and she reached across Dewey to snag a roll and promptly stuff it in her mouth.
Giggles of children at tables nearby were joined by chuckles and guffaws from other Hospitallers and finally by adults. The laughter rolled outward like ripples from a stone dropped in still water. Collectively, there seemed to be a relaxation among the adults, Hospitallers, and Kaggenites alike. Dewey had a feeling that the acceptance of the Hospitallers among Sherwood’s family had been solidified in this moment.
For his part, Sherwood appeared to have reached the same conclusion. He gave Dewey a nod. Then, with exaggerated actions for the children, he mimicked Sgt Maxwell and received laughter and applause.
From there, the meal relaxed into what Dewey presumed to be its normal routine. People talked about what had been accomplished that day and laid out what was to be done on the next day or beyond. Hospitallers fielded questions from curious children and equally curious adults who had shown restraint before. An hour passed in easy company and Dewey only slowly became aware of the dwindling numbers when Meril and Mericruz excused themselves from the table. They placed their used dishes and utensils on the tray as they stood. They each said their goodbyes, giving Floretta a kiss and Savannah a hug. Then they were gone.
SSgt Castro, a small child holding on to her neck, took Meril’s place at the table.
“Enjoy your meal, Lieutenant?” she asked.
Dewey looked down. His plate was empty except for the second half of a roll he’d been using to soak up the last of the soup. He picked up the bit of roll. Before slipping it into his mouth, he nodded and said, “A meal I could get used to.”
“Agreed,” said Sgt Maxwell. “I’m curious, though, about the logistics.”
“Logistics?” Savannah asked. Having seemed to have noticed Savannah’s presence, the child hanging on Castro was now trying to negotiate the space between the two women. Savannah accepted the child while she waited for Maxwell to answer.
“Clean up,” Maxwell said. “I don’t see a recycler slot or a place to put all the used dishes.”
“It’s a by-hand job,” said Sherwood. He’d reached over and gave the child now in Savannah’s arms a gentle pinch on the cheek. “A dozen of the kids will be along soon to clean up. Those that don’t have other responsibilities.”
Across from him, Dewey caught a questioning look from SSgt Castro. He nodded in response and then said, “Well, we don’t have any responsibilities right now. Why don’t you show us what to do, and we’ll make quick work of it.”
“Least we can do for now,” said Castro.
Chauncey stood, a half-smile on his face. “You’re going to make a bunch of teenagers very happy. Come, I’ll show you what to do.”
Water wasn’t exactly scarce on the station, but the Kaggenites were still cautious with how it was used. Over the decades, they’d designed and redesigned nozzles and sprayers to maximize water use while still getting things like dishes clean.
Chauncy had cautioned them not to get their hands in the way of the water jets that scoured the dishes clean. He demonstrated with a small zucchini which was sliced quickly and cleanly in half the moment it made contact with a stream of water. Dried food didn’t stand a chance as the dishes were moved through the dishwashing system in the kitchen.
“That should make short work of this,” said Cpl Maxwell.
As was often the case, the Hospitallers made quick, efficient work of the washing up. They soon had everything clean, dry, and put away. When they came back from the kitchens, Dewey noted a lack of people in the dining hall. Where he’d been sitting when the Hospitallers took over kitchen duty, Sherwood remained, nodding as they approached.
“You made quick enough work of it.”
“I’d say don’t get used to it,” said Dewey, “but I don’t know how long we’ll be here.”
“We’ll put your people into the rotation if they want,” Sherwood said. “The younger people won’t mind.”
“And it’ll give us a first chance at contributing,” added SSgt Castro. She made a quick show of looking around the empty hall. “Everyone off to bed?”
“Yes.” Sherwood stood. “I stayed so you didn’t feel completely deserted. I believe that some of your people know where you’re staying?”
“We do,” said Sgt Maxwell.
“Excellent. I’ll see you all in the morning.” Sherwood offered a hand to Dewey. “Welcome to life on Kaggen.”
They shook hands before Dewey responded. “Nothing personal, but I’ll be trying to make it as short a stay as possible.”
“I’m rooting for you.” Sherwood gave a short wave to the other Hospitallers. “See you in the morning.”
As Sherwood turned and made his way back toward the main entrance, Dewey turned to Sgt Maxwell.
“Take us to our bunk, Sergeant?”
The Hospitaller’s bunkroom looked as if it was hastily arranged for their benefit. Dewey thought that the room was more fitting for an office or storeroom. However, there was access to a washroom and several shower units.
A quick, cautious test of the shower spray assured Dewey it wasn’t the same power that scoured food off dishes.
Sgt Maxwell and Cpl Wong’s squad had arranged the space so that Dewey had a little extra space set apart from the rest of the Hospitallers. Onboard a ship or at a base, Dewey would have an area to himself. The company commander had a little more, the battalion commander more than that, and so on up the chain of command.
This was different. This was a strange situation. A situation none of Dewey’s people had ever been in before. They needed to be cohesive and work together. Yes, he was their commander, but at the same time, he was just like them, lost in the universe.
So, instead of keeping himself separated from the others, Dewey dragged the bunk set aside for him closer to the others, opposite SSgt Castro. When he finished adjusting it, he turned to find that Sgt Maxwell was transferring credits from her card to Cpl Wong’s.
“Do I want to know what’s going on?” asked Dewey.
“It appears Wong knows you better than Maxwell,” said SSgt Castro.
“What can I say,” said Sgt Maxwell as she stowed her cred-card. “I’ve been at this longer, and I’m used to things being a certain way.”
“We warned you, Sarge,” said PFC Webb. It’s Lieutenant Tyler.”
Maxwell threw up her hands. “I know. I know.”
There was a round of laughter that included several thumps on Maxwell’s back. Dewey waited until everyone had settled down.
“All right, people,” he said, taking a seat on his bunk. Castro did the same, and the others took the hint, sitting in twos and threes on the bunks closest to Dewey’s. When he had their attention, he asked, “Impressions?”
“Of the people?” asked Pvt Russell.
“The people,” said Dewey. “The place. The situation they’re in. The one we’re in.”
“They might have been told they’re all that’s left of humans in the galaxy,” said Sgt Maxwell. “But I don’t think a lot of them actually believe it.”
“Not even after four hundred plus years?” SSgt Castro asked.
“Even after,” answered Sgt Maxwell.
“They have a lot of theories,” added Cpl Wong. “We’ve been here only a few hours. I bet there’s plenty more.”
“Enough theories to keep the Starship Gallant vid-series going for another decade,” PFC Bryant said.
“Another ten years? How long’s it been on?”
Dewey laughed. “Focus, Webb.”
“Okay, so what do we have?” Dewey rested his elbows on his knees. “They really have been here, isolated for over four hundred years? They believe or don’t believe they’re alone in the second radial arm of the galaxy?”
“And they have a king?” asked Pvt Russell. “I thought that was Saturday morning vid stuff.”
“There’s still kings and queens in the galaxy,” said PFC Webb.
“Elected ones,” Cpl Wong said. “None of them are hereditary.”
SSgt Castro cleared her throat loud enough to make the point.
“Sorry,” said half the team before everyone laughed.
When they were done, Dewey admitted, “It is odd that they have a king. Stations would have been run by governors, executives, or directors. Even military officers, but no kings.”
“Not even on adventure vids,” said Pvt Russell.
Dewey could have interjected with information, but he’d lost them on several tangents already. When Dewey had been ten and a half, he’d gotten interested in a few long-running Saturday vids. He’d researched them and found a history of shows that went back almost to where the Radial War ended. And as he remembered everything he saw or read, he still knew all about them. There were a few vids with kings and royalty.
“So what do we do now, Lieutenant Tyler?” asked SSgt Castro. Dewey understood that she was trying to keep the conversation on track.
“Get some rest,” Dewey said with a smile. “And then keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t give too much in the way of answers. Not until we’re sure what we’re dealing with. Once I get a chance to talk to this Prince Saymour, I’ll have a better idea of what to do next. I hope.”
SSgt Castro stood, clapping her hands for attention. “You heard the lieutenant. Keep alert when you’re out there. But, for now, lights out in ten.”
Dewey had his share of nightmares as an orphan. Fortunately, there’d been his dorm parents and other adults in the orphanage to help with the nights. In addition, there’d been several psychologists to help during the day.
The one thing Dewey knew was that he hadn’t been the only one. Some of the other kids screamed in the night. Some of them sobbed. Others, like Pvt Russell now, woke and seemed to be afraid to go back to sleep and encounter once more whatever it was that woke them in the first place.
It was Pvt Russell gasping that roused Dewey. He turned to see Russell sitting on the edge of the bunk. She was bouncing her left leg on the ball of her foot, clearly agitated. Across the way, SSgt Castro had turned and looked to be ready to speak. When she looked in Dewey’s direction, he shook his head, indicating she shouldn’t interfere.
“Private Russell?” Dewey asked as he sat, too. “How you feeling?”
“Fine, Lieutenant,” answered Pvt Russell. “Well, maybe not. I’m not sure. I’m just….”
“Are you worried? About our situation?”
“I guess that’s it. Maybe? I’m just feeling very agitated. I was trying to sleep. I thought I was asleep. Then I dreamt I was floating in space without a suit, and I was all alone. Totally alone. Even the stars had left.”
Russell laughed nervously.
“You know you aren’t alone, right?” Dewey leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. The deck, being all metal, was cool against his bare feet.
“I know.” She laughed. “But still couldn’t convince myself in the dream that it was all going to be okay.” For the first time in the conversation, she looked at Dewey. “Are we going to be okay? Lieutenant?”
Dewey nodded. “We’ll be okay no matter what. We have each other. Will we make it back to our people? To the rest of the Hospitaller organization? I don’t know. But I know that I’m not ever going to stop trying. And I don’t doubt that our people are out there looking for us, too.”
“You can’t really know that,” Russell said. She sounded bitter. “No disrespect, Lieutenant Tyler.”
“None, taken. But would you give up looking for friends if you knew they were lost?”
Pvt Russell’s pause was long. Then she sighed a shoulder-shaking sigh. “I would hope not.”
“We’ve been in some crazy situations the last couple of years,” Dewey said. He laughed at the flash of memories. “Shot down on a planet whose air we couldn’t breathe. Trapped on a radioactive planet.”
“Don’t forget that space station we had to hide in,” added SSgt Castro.
“And Lieutenant Tyler has always seen us safely through.” Dewey turned to look at Sgt Maxwell, who was propped up on one elbow. Then he realized that everyone was awake.
“Listen, everyone,” Dewey said. “I’m scared too. This place might be nice, but I want to get back to our family. And I’m not going to stop trying. You need to do the same thing. Don’t give up. Even if something were to happen to me, keep trying.”
“Is that an order?” asked SSgt Castro with a grin.
Dewey returned the smile. He knew Castro wouldn’t give up. He wasn’t sure if she even knew how. “It’s an order, yes. It’s also a request.”
“You got it, Lieutenant,” said Sgt Maxwell.
Her response was echoed by Cpl Wong and the others. Pvt Russell looked up, her eyes were glassy with unspent tears, but she nodded yes, too.
All of them had grown up in an environment that had fostered support, teamwork, and trust. All of those lessons were going to be put to the test here on Kaggen. But they’d be easier to face after a decent night’s sleep.
“Okay,” Dewey said. “Now, try and get some sleep. We’re going to need to be at our sharpest. Especially these next few days as we figure out more about this place and what we can do to get home.”
PFC Bryant reached over and clapped Pvt Russell on the shoulder, exchanging nods. Russell looked Dewey’s way and flashed a half-hearted smile, but at least the tears were gone. She laid down, turning her back to the room as she pulled the blanket up to her shoulders. She’d brood for a while. Dewey knew it because he’d done it before and would again. But then she’d sleep. And things always seemed brighter after some sleep.
Dewey laid down, too. He checked on SSgt Castro, who snapped a wink at him before rolling onto her back and closing her eyes. The others had all settled down as well. After a few minutes, Dewey overheard at least one person beginning to lightly snore.
It took Dewey longer to fall asleep than usual. He’d always been good at clearing his mind and letting sleep take over. But even after he fell asleep, his mind was troubled. He had bad dreams that had him repeatedly tossing through the night.
The worst was that the same dream kept recurring. It was simple yet carried a lot of dread despite the simplicity. In the dream, he knew that he could save everyone because he’d read the solution in a book. The only problem was he could no longer remember anything he’d read.
Despite the dream, Dewey was confident they were going to be okay. He’d make sure of it at any price.
When the alarm on Dewey’s tablet alerted him to the hour was already awake. After the last iteration of the dream, he stayed awake, searching through the many alleys of his memory, looking for something he’d read that would provide a solution. The only reason he’d made an effort was because of the dream. Maybe instead of the dream haunting him, it was meant to alert him. And so he’d searched.
But there was no book, and he still didn’t have an answer.
After rolling over and untangling himself from the covers, he sat and looked around. He was not the only one awake.
“Did anyone sleep?” he asked.
Sgt Maxwell grinned and pointed. There was only one person asleep. Now that he was paying attention, he could hear the gentle snores of Pvt Russell on her bunk. She was curled into a semi-fetal position, one arm over her head.
“She adapted fast,” said PFC Webb.
PFC Bryant and Cpl Wong both snickered in appreciation. Dewey smiled, but he also understood that depression affected different people differently. Some couldn’t sleep. Others, all they could do was sleep.
Dewey was about to remind everyone to let Russell sleep if that was what she needed. But the hollow clang of someone knocking on the metal door to the bunk room fixed that. Pvt Russell rolled out of her bunk, crashing to the floor before fighting her way free of the blanket to stand at attention, just like basic training.
This time, everyone laughed, including Pvt Russel, albeit a little sheepishly.
“Enter,” SSgt Castro barked over the laughter.
The door opened just far enough that Rigoberto Humphries could slide his head past. He gave everyone a nervous smile and then asked, “Anyone interested in breakfast?”