Second Chapter Sunday: Dusk

It’s Second Chapter Sunday, and this week I’m featuring Dusk, my MFM menage sci-fi/fantasy novel! If you missed First Chapter Friday, please click here to check it out!

Chapter Two

“About face!”

The detail of Marines took one step forward and pivoted, everyone in the formation keeping precise dress and cover with those around them as they executed the close-order drill maneuver with flawless precision. The leather-faced sergeant, her face tanned to the consistency of a dried apple by years of unshielded exposure to the light of a thousand stars, brought her right hand crisply up her torso in the ancient Terran hand salute. The slight divot between her middle and index finger seated against the slightly curved brim of her peaked dress cap.

“Sir, Platoon Six One Zero all present and accounted for, sir!”

Captain Pedro “Pete” Silva returned the salute with the same “snap and pop” as the sergeant. “You may dismiss the platoon, First Sergeant Wynn.”

“Sir, yes, sir!” Wynn barked. She stepped forward two exact paces and performed another about face so she faced the formation.

“Platoon, dis-miss!”

The formation fragmented into clusters of Marines in dress uniforms heading in all different directions, chatting and whooping excitedly. Pete allowed himself a small smile. They had earned the right to be excited, after thirteen weeks of hell on earth in training. The latest crop of basic trainees had largely been everything a commanding officer could ask for: hard-working, tough, and committed, but far from stupid.

He thought back to his own training and the illiterate, sadistic fuckheads who had made him and his platoon into Marines. If someone had offered him ten million credits and all the women from Terra to Taurus, he wouldn’t have cared to relive the experience. Even so, he had to admit the lessons he’d learned from the brutal bastards had stood him in good stead.

“A fine batch of new devil dogs, wouldn’t you say, Captain?” asked a low, quiet voice from behind him.

He twitched a little, as much at the ancient nickname for Marines as the fact he’d been so lost in his reverie he hadn’t heard the telltale scuffs of polished dress shoes on the parade deck. The familiar voice put him at ease, but he still hated being caught unaware. Clumsy, Silva! He scolded himself. Daydreaming’s a fine way to get yourself killed. You’re getting sloppy

He turned and saluted the newcomer.

“Good morning, General.”

“How’s tricks, Pete?” General Fritz Neville returned the salute casually.

“Good, General. We’re off for a week. Good thing for First Sergeant Wynn…I’m pretty sure she’s going stir-crazy.”

“Think we need to reassign her for a while?” Neville asked the question slowly, as if pondering each syllable before letting it out of his hard-lipped mouth.

Pete shook his head. “No, sir. She’s got this, but you and I both know she’d be happier in a line company.”

Neville nodded pensively. “After that clusterfuck on Regina IV–”

“Don’t remind me.” Pete shuddered.

The general didn’t correct his slip of military manners, whether because he had always expressed a somewhat paternal affection for the junior officer or because he was thinking the same dark thoughts every Marine in the galaxy had anytime the Regina IV massacre came up in conversation.

Among Marines, the debacle could be safely discussed. Any civilian or newsie brought it up in the presence of devil dogs at great personal peril.

Instead he nodded thoughtfully.

“You’re free for the day, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Pete replied dutifully.

“Well, how about you come to my office?”

Although phrased as an invitation, Pete knew the “suggestion” was really an order.

“Yes, sir.”

* * *

“How do you take your whiskey?”

“Neat, please.”

Although it was technically the middle of the duty day, the end of a training cycle was always considered a special time for not only the new Marines, but their chains of command. Moreover, no one in their right mind would tell a lieutenant general that he couldn’t have a drink whenever he damned well pleased, and if he decided to entertain a junior officer in his Table of Organization, that was entirely his right. Because of that, and because Pete could hold his liquor just as well as any other leatherneck, he didn’t think twice about having a friendly snort with his Regimental CO.

Neville poured a generous jigger of top-shelf Canadian whiskey from a delicately shaped spiraling carafe into a tumbler of Plutonian ice crystal. The golden liquid and the smoky gray facets of the glass made a visually pleasing composition, and something about ice crystal enhanced the flavor of just about anything poured into it, drawing out its essential essence and making it somehow more robust. Because of this unique property, Plutonian ice crystal was extraordinarily expensive and well out of the budget of even a lieutenant general.

The set had been a gift from the Chancellor of Sigma Phi VII, as a thank-you for quelling a corporate uprising that had threatened to hurl the planet into civil war. Pete had heard the story more than once, but it always enthralled him. Neville had put down the nascent coup without a single shot fired or a drop of blood spilled, omitting the broken nose he’d given the head of the Takamura Conglomerate as the general helped him on his way to unconsciousness. The story was both damn funny when Neville told it and a powerful reminder that while physical power won battles, intelligence could stop a war before it ever started.

It was a lesson Pete had taken to heart.

Neville finished pouring his own drink and placed both tumblers neatly on a tray of Peruvian silver. He hailed from Rigel II, a small planet where the natives were unusually paranoid about assassination thanks to a series of unfortunate attempts on their leaders’ lives shortly after the first humans made planetfall. As a result, Rigelians tended to allow the guest to choose which glass they would drink from, eliminating doubts about the host’s sincerity. While Pete found the ritual unnecessary for a number of reasons, he still respected the general enough not to give him too much grief about the precaution.

Pete chose the nearer one and lifted his glass. “To our new Marines.”

Zum Wohl!” Neville responded.

Salud.”

The two Marines clinked their tumblers together and sipped. Pete smiled as the mellow bite of the oak-aged whiskey hit his tongue, aided by the ice crystal. He swallowed gingerly, and the whiskey warmed his gullet as it traveled down into his gut.

“God, that’s good,” he sighed with satisfaction. “What is it?”

Neville smiled, one eye fluttering closed and flickering back open again in the barest ghost of a wink. “It’s a trade secret, is what it is. A certain lady of my acquaintance in Vancouver sent me a case of it for my birthday.”

“Happy birthday to you,” Pete joshed.

Neville smiled around a derisive snort and took a good-sized slug of his drink. He closed his eyes appreciatively, apparently enjoying the whiskey as much as Pete did.

For a few minutes the men sat in silence, studying the ever-dwindling contents of their tumblers. Finally, Neville spoke.

“As much as I wish I could say this is a social call, Pete, we do have business to discuss.”

Something in his voice set the hair on Pete’s neck on end. Neville’s tone was reluctant, and Pete knew from long experience when a senior officer started a conversation that way, said officer had something to convey that the junior officer was going to actively hate. Usually it served as a prelude to a world-class ass-reaming the general didn’t want to give, but had been compelled to by Above. That didn’t seem to fit here. If the general had wanted to rack his ass, he would hardly have given Pete a drink of whiskey worth forty credits if it was worth an ancient American penny.

“What’s on your mind?”

Neville depressed a control stud on his desk. Three things happened simultaneously. The heavy blinds on the airy windows locked down, the lights dimmed, and a holovid cutaway view of the Milky Way flickered into view above the desk’s faux slate surface. He took another sip, the lines of his face suddenly haggard and sinister-looking in the blue nimbus from the holo field, and grimaced as if the whiskey had soured in the glass.

Although, Pete thought, if anything soured the whiskey, it’s probably planning how to deliver whatever shit sandwich he’s about to hand me and not the sauce itself.

Neville touched another control stud and the holo seemed to swoop in on itself, zeroing in on one of the galactic arms. Pete knew astrogators who could name the different galactic arms by a dozen celestial landmarks, but he’d never much cared to learn. Since astrogation wasn’t his headache, it was all the same to him. He just needed to know where to go and what to shoot at when he arrived.

A blue-green point of light flared to life, pulsing gently about halfway down the arm.

“You are here,” Neville remarked with a chuckle. Pete laughed along with him at the old astrogation joke. A tri-dee representation of the galaxy was fine as it went, but “here” today could mean “a hundred thousand fucking klicks elsewhere” next week. To compound the problem, to get anywhere, one also had to account for not simply one’s current position in three-dimensional space, but also the projected location of the destination, which had a nasty habit of changing. Then factor in several hundred or thousand meteors, asteroids, dust clouds, moons, planets, and other navigational hazards lying in wait between “here” and “there,” and the ballistic irregularities of any number of gravitational phenomena, and one began to see the magnitude and shape of the problem. The earliest forms of astrogation had often been described by frustrated or pissed-off explorers as trying to shoot a moving target the size of the head of a pin with a BB gun in a shooting gallery with all the lights off on a dark night while some ass-clown randomly flung variously sized rocks at the shooter.

As the art and science of navigating among the stars improved, such dangers and difficulties were greatly reduced, but even the best and most accurate models could not fully account for every possible navigational hazard. Mastering the theoretical underpinnings of superluminal travel had also reduced the dangers in one direction, allowing ships to “sidestep” most ordinary physical threats, but increased them in another. Many ships had been lost, costing trillions of Terran credits and tens of thousands of human lives, as inexperienced or unwary navigational staff or faulty astrogation programs sent experimental ship designs into newly formed wormholes, black holes, or gravitational anomalies.

There were a million different ways space could kill a person without even trying, and none of them were as cute and cuddly as lions, tigers, or bears.

It was just one of the many reasons Pete despised space travel. Unlike many Marines of his acquaintance, who viewed interstellar and transgalactic travel as about as out of the ordinary as blowing one’s nose, Pete hated being shipboard for long periods of time. He had never managed to shake the “drops” caused by low- and null-gravity conditions, giving him a distinct feeling of kinship with seasick Marines throughout history. The galactic rim, even at ten thousand c, was over a week away from Terra’s current position, and that was under full power using the Alcubierre-Fermi drive, the fastest superluminal engine ever conceived by man.

His stomach writhed uneasily at the very thought.

Neville touched another stud, and a deep indigo star near the rim in the “southward” adjacent arm and somewhat “down” from Terra’s represented position began to glow. “You will be there.”

“Assuming we don’t get scattered into our component neutrinos by a drunken navigator,” Pete quipped. Neville shot him a faintly reproachful look, but made no further comment. He turned back to the holo.

“This is Dusk.”

Pete nodded. “Okay…”

“We are interested in Dusk for possible military applications beyond the body armor we typically wear.”

Pete raised his eyebrows with a snicker. Anything of military interest that far out in the middle of galactic goddamn Siberia had to be important indeed. “Let me guess. It’s a superweapon that turns all our potential enemies into fuzzy bunny rabbits.”

“That’s not funny, Captain.” Neville’s authoritative tone stopped Pete’s cackle dead in its tracks. “I cannot tell you what the mission parameters are at this time. What I can tell you is that we want someone on-scene who can help negotiate for the materials we require and analyze them for their military usefulness. I personally picked you for this mission, Pete.”

His stomach lurched as if the floor had suddenly given way beneath his chair. “Why me?”

Neville took another long swallow of his drink, a mannerism Pete recognized as the general getting ready to issue a commandment from on high that was not at all to his taste. He’d give the order, but he would stall as long as he could beforehand.

“Because you have a cool head and understand that an itchy trigger finger creates more problems than it solves. You and I have talked before about this, Pete. You understand diplomacy better than most devil dogs, and you’re willing to explore other options before you start anything.”

Neville touched the first stud again, and the holo faded away. Warm Terran sunlight flooded the room. Pete blinked against the sudden brilliance and sipped at his drink.

“You’ll be attached to Ambassador Al-Aziz’s party as a military adjutant. This posting comes with a brevet increase in rank and pay. If the negotiations are successful, you’ll be confirmed at the higher rank as a permanent instatement.”

Pete’s eyebrows shot up.

“Just how high are we talking, here?”

Neville’s voice was smooth enough to make silk feel bad about itself.

“Colonel.”

Pete choked on his drink.

To purchase your copy of Dusk in all popular e-book formats, please click here.

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