Tour of Duty

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LOG CELL ENTRY #28949: Tour of Duty

The Onuissance Cells was originally supposed to be a graphic novel project: I’d created characters, city designs, technology and ideas for scenes and action elements.  Then I realized that what I didn’t have were stories.  So I set down to write some opening stories.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the stories I was writing were far superior to any graphic treatment I could give them.  (My illustrative talents peaked far too early, and far too low to be of any use to anyone.)  So I saved the stories, and eventually transcribed them to a more permanent digital format.  Presented here is the opening story.

 

…He imagined he was seeing a caveman, standing at the opening to his rock home, staring out at the open plains. There was a wide, bright, hot, dangerous world out there. But that caveman knew he wanted to see it all, to learn everything about it. He took his first furtive steps into the unknown…

…He imagined himself standing next to Christopher Columbus, as he stepped out of the waters of the Atlantic and onto the beach of an island, somewhere east of the Americas. He was standing on ground no European had trod upon before him, and he had no idea what was beyond the thick trees ahead. But he was determined to find out…

…He imagined himself watching Neil Armstrong, poised on the ladder of the Lunar Module, a few meters above the surface of the Moon. He and his compatriots had come a long way, and if any one of a hundred things went wrong, he may never return home again. But while he was there, he was determined to learn the secrets of Earth’s nearest neighbor. Slowly, carefully, he inched downward, and planted the first human bootprint on the soil of another world…

…He imagined himself watching Claude LaMonde, half-standing, half-floating on the bottom of the sea floor beside a clumsy-looking scaffolding. It had been a difficult journey, with numerous political and financial hurdles that had to be pushed aside. But now that he was there, he was determined to learn all he could about the sea that surrounded them all. Pressing a control stud calmly, he drove into the ground the first support pylon of the first omni-national undersea research lab…

Then, as if his mind’s eye was on the end of a huge rubber band, it suddenly raced back to Midland City, settled amidst forested plains of green. His mind’s image shot past the outer balconies, past shoppers, past the cafes, to the residential levels. It seemed to stop in front of a single door, the one next to the Peacekeeper station’s reinforced door. A small plaque over the announcer of the single door said, “Cartier”. He was back home, in his chair, sitting alone in the dark room, a glass of whiskey on the table beside his right hand. As he’d been for many of the last few days, now.

Grimacing to himself, he swept out his hand and knocked the glass to the floor.

~

Dammit!”

Frank DeJaye jerked his head up from the news screen he’d been reading. It wasn’t that it was so rare to hear an occasional curse in the Peacekeeper station. He was the usual culprit, in fact. But it was incredibly rare to hear such an utterance out of the mouth of Deputy San Kepolis. Although Frank craned his neck, he couldn’t see her in the commander’s office, where she was seated as temporary Commander of the station. He finally called out, “Is everything okay, San?”

San silently cursed again, cursing herself, this time, for being overheard. She subconsciously pulled the sec tablet closer to her, as if trying to prevent anyone from seeing the message printed on its screen. Then she sighed, and put the tablet on the desk before her.

“No,” she called back, “nothing’s wrong. I’m just not as good a counselor as I thought I was.”

She looked up to the right, to the edge of the wall that separated the office from the conference room. Frank was standing there, staring at the face-down tablet on the desk. “Matt?” he asked. San nodded. He stood silent a moment more, before he whispered, “Damn.”

~

The huge propeller fans embedded in the wings of the Drake were beginning to spin under power. Soon they would be losing their forward momentum, and switching to a hovering mode. That meant Midland City was very close, now.

Thomas Beak took his eyes from his sec tablet for a moment to lean his head toward the portal. He could just see the edge of a vast clearing, far ahead, but Midland was probably directly in front of the Drake, and he could not see it. Presently, he turned back to the tablet for a few minutes more, before stowing it in his shoulder bag.

Presently, he became aware of a slight change in the pitch of the engines, audible even through the noise dampers. At the same time, the Drake angled and began a slow turn to port. Thomas looked out the portal again, and this time, he could see Midland slowly moving into view.

They had moved much closer to the city, and Midland filled the portal. The outer shell of the city was round overall, but its surface was made up of numerous flat planes, open spaces, balconies and decks. Many of the outer surfaces were covered with solar glass, which sparkled at some angles and appeared almost black at others. The balconies and decks were usually lined with chromed railings or brightly flowering bushes, giving a soft edge to the spaces. As the transport passed around the south side of the city, its many surfaces caught the light and either absorbed it or threw it gaily back into the sky.

Thomas was sharp enough to know when he was being catered to. He tapped the button for the ship’s intercom, on the back of the seat before him. “Pilot, you didn’t have to give me the scenic view… but I appreciate it.”

“Hey”, the voice of the pilot came forth, “everyone should see ‘The Jewel of Namerica’ at least once, Commander.”

Thomas smiled and nodded. It was an apt nickname, indeed, for this marvelous city, towering two kilometers into the sky and spread over four kilometers of ground. It did have a more than passing resemblance to a huge diamond, placed in a setting of grasses and forests, ready to show off to the rest of the Solar System. As it was, it was a shame he was the only passenger on the transport to enjoy the view… doubtless the flight crew had seen it many times before. But as he was hitching a ride on a cargo transport, he could only have shared the experience with a maximum of fifteen others, the limit of their seating section. Still, if it was as nice to live in as it was to view from up here, Thomas knew he would be very proud to be stationed there.

There were a few smaller landing pads on Midland’s upper deck, but the large transport was headed for the commercial pads, at ground level. They made up a cluster of larger landing pads, gathered just outside a large open gateway into the city. Still a good distance away, Thomas could see the storage bays and parked vehicles that filled the inside of the gateway. A few of the other pads held smaller transports, being loaded or emptied by men and cargo movers. Two cargo movers were positioned just off of one of the larger pads, with no other craft nearby. Thomas guessed that would be their landing site.

As he expected, the Drake slowed over the large pad, and presently came to a complete stop. Then it began to descend, slowly and carefully. The transport adjusted its angle once, to bring itself fully broadside to the city beyond. Thomas could now see a number of figures standing by the cargo movers. Two of them were wearing the uniforms of Peacekeepers, he could see. That would be his welcoming committee… his staff. In another minute, the Drake touched down, and the engines immediately began to cycle down. Thomas got up from his seat, gathered up his shoulder bag and slipped on his duty jacket. He joined the flight crew by the main hatch, and waited for them to unlock and open it. They allowed him to step out first, and he wasted no time heading directly for the two officers waiting for him.

~

San and Frank waited on the edge of the landing pad with the rest of the cargo crews, while the Drake touched down in the center of the pad. The soft murmur of the engines began to take on a more relaxed tone as they slowly cycled down, and they could see the flight crew in the cockpit busily shutting down the flight systems.

The two officers, standing at-ease next to the loaders, could have posed for an advertisement. They were both young and strong examples of the Peacekeeper force. San Kepolis, the senior of the two officers, was also the taller of the two, by a few inches. Her short-cropped dark hair was very businesslike, easy to keep neat. She squared back her broad shoulders, and quite a number of the loading crew took notice of the full shape of her tunic and taper of her slacks, along with her classic Greek features. Frank DeJaye had a full appreciation for San’s physical attributes, but he was hardly a strain to look at, himself. His African features were dashing and slightly boyish. He was also slim and graceful of build, but the spread of his chest suggested that he was also more powerful than most men.

Frank noticed motion at one of the portals corresponding to the passenger section. “That must be him,” he commented, and San followed his gaze to the portals. The figure in the portals could just be seen moving forward, towards the still-closed hatch. “I hear he’s the first black man to reach a command position in the peacekeepers,” he said offhandedly.

San stole a glance at Frank. “What of it?”

Frank shrugged. “Just for the record. He’s supposed to be quite a frontiersman, too. You should show him around the countryside sometime.”

San gave him a sidelong glance, before turning back to the transport. “I probably will.” The loader they had been standing next to was already in motion, pulling up next to the cargo bays of the Drake. Since the Drakes were the chief forms of transportation between the ground and the Stratospheric bases and OCOM, they would doubtless be taking on more in the way of supplies than they would be offloading. The ground crews wasted no time opening up the access doors and offloading what cases were stored inside.

The forward hatch opened then, and a tall man came down the steps. From this distance, they could only make out his long, white hair, positively gleaming in the sunlight, over his tan PK jacket. He saw them immediately, and strode in their direction. As he approached, San and Frank avoided squinting to try to make out his features. Soon they could see the whites of his eyes below white eyebrows, then a flash of teeth.

He stopped a meter from them, and they could now see the highlights that shaped his face for them. He had a long face, very angular, with a square jaw and hooked nose that described a Native American ancestry. Similarly the long, straight hair, parted in the center and pulled back behind his ears, suggested Namerican roots, although its bright white color was in sharp contrast to the sable hair of the Old Tribes. The deep glossy black of his skin almost hid his features from them a moment longer, until he smiled and extended a hand.

“Good morning. I’m Commander Thomas Falcon Beak. Would you be Deputy Kepolis?”

“Yes, I am.” San shook his hand warmly, but with only a slight smile. “Welcome to Midland City. This is Deputy DeJaye.”

“Call me Frank.” The two men shook hands. “I noticed they gave you the scenic tour of the place. What did you think?”

“Beautiful city,” Thomas nodded. “Can’t wait to see the inside. Tell me, isn’t there one other member of this station?”

“Yes, Mr. Laird,” San replied quickly. “He’s checking out a distress call southwest of the city. I just spoke to him before you touched down. He shouldn’t be much longer getting back.”

“Nothing serious, I hope.”

“Sounds like a ditched glider pilot stranded with a broken ankle. Teez… Mr. Laird will be bringing him in for medical attention, but he’s otherwise okay.”

“Glad to hear it,” Thomas said. The smile he’d worn since stepping off of the Drake was slowly draining away. San was being more professional than polite, and Thomas had the distinct feeling she was trying not to seem upset. It could have easily been a case of her feeling she had been passed up for promotion… something that, since the announcement of the second Mars mission, had happened all too often to Peacekeepers around the world… but Thomas knew that wasn’t the case here. He had seen the cells on this station when he was assigned, and there was a lot more going on here than simple professional jealousies.

“Well,” Thomas picked up on the pregnant pause, stuffing his free hand in his pocket. “I’m sure it’ll be great working with you both. I’m just sorry the posting couldn’t have been under better circumstances.”

San’s brow furrowed a bit. “Do you know the circumstances?”

“Well, just that Commander Cartier didn’t work out, as it was described to me at Jetstream.” Thomas noted San’s reaction, and it was clear that she wasn’t pleased with his reply at all, although she couldn’t quite decide which one—he or Jetstream—was the bad guy. “How long has he been posted here?”

“Six years,” was San’s quiet reply.

“Six years!” Thomas had known that, too, but he also knew the value of expressing his concern to his subordinates. “And now he’s supposedly not working out? That doesn’t make sense to me at all.”

San shook her head. “Nor to me.” She reached out and took Thomas’ flight bag. Although it was heavy, he noted she had no trouble shouldering it. “Why don’t we take you on up to the station? Commander Cartier is still in Midland… I think… so we’ve arranged temporary quarters for you.”

They started walking, through the massive entrance that led into Midland. “You say you think he’s still in Midland?”

“He was out in the mountains a few days ago,” Frank explained. “He was due back today, but we haven’t seen him yet. We haven’t locator’d him yet, though.” They stopped at a lift, and Frank pressed the announcer. The doors opened almost immediately for them.

“He’s still officially off-duty,” San added. “I felt there was no need to locator him.”

“Mm.” Thomas stepped into the lift with them. “Well, he’ll turn up.”

The lift started up, and Thomas immediately noted half the lift’s wall was clear. There was only blue-gray wall beyond it, though, and Thomas watched it swiftly pass below them. Abruptly, the wall disappeared, and they were exposed to the vast interior of Midland City. Midland was mostly open inside, with numerous major and minor levels that ended in freefloating balconies jutting out into the vast open center of the city. Even the level now below them, which suggested itself as the “ground level” of the city, had a large open space in its center, through which the supply and machinery levels could be seen below. The power levels, Thomas knew, were also down there, and it was clear from this vantage point that Midland extended far below the actual ground level Thomas had entered upon.

Above them, Thomas saw more levels, some open at balconies, some solid or windowed walls. Tapestries hung along many of the balconies, and multicolored shrubs and plants adorned the edges of many more. Many of the walls were covered with solar glass, just as they had been outside. In fact, most of the interior looked like the exterior of the city, as if someone had taken an outside wall, copied it, bent it inward, and placed it around the interior. Far above, the “roof” of the city gaped open to the sky, where clouds slid overhead. Many of the upper levels were brightly glowing under the mid-morning sunlight, and the huge semicircle of light spread throughout the interior and created a bright ambient light all the way to the ground.

The lift stopped and opened about midway up the city’s interior, and the three Peacekeepers stepped out. Thomas immediately noted how sweet the air was, and a quick glance to the left revealed a bright row of gladiolas in a window box a few meters distant. The window was apparently part of a commercial establishment named “Glad Tidings.” The large double-door was wide open, and Thomas could see bouquets of flowers and small bric-a-brac adorning its shelves.

They passed the shop and began walking along the wide-open gallery. The entire level seemed to be made up of commercial establishments of every type, mostly small, but occasionally dozens of meters across and possibly as deep. Thomas noted a number of cafes and restaurants, many craft shops, and a few tronics suppliers.

There were a good many people milling around in these shops, as well. San and Frank waved at or said hello to many people as they walked along, and were warmly greeted in return. Thomas was glad to see the PKs were obviously popular around here. There was nothing harder than starting a new posting in an area where no one liked you.

Eventually they came to an area separated from the shops by a few dozen yards, just beyond a corridor that seemed to venture out of sight into the outer areas of the level, perhaps to the outside wall itself. A slightly tinted glass wall nine meters wide revealed two open offices, separated by glass partitions. Other than a large executive table and chairs, a larger conference table and more chairs, and a mini-kitchen, he could see nothing else. If the display screens he could see were displaying anything, they were polarized against the outer window, and blank to anyone outside. Just past the window was an extra-wide door, with the five-sided shield of the Peacekeepers emblazoned in its center, and about as high as Thomas’ chest. There was another door, the size of the average residence door, just a meter past that. That would be the Commander’s quarters, Thomas thought, if standard PK design had been used to set up this station. So far, he mused, he hadn’t seen anything to suggest they hadn’t followed standard designs.

The extra-wide door slid open for them immediately, and they stepped into a small security entry. It only took a moment for the sensors in the entry to scan each of them over, before opening the heavier door into the Peacekeeper station. The station was set up to specs, Thomas saw immediately. The Commander’s desk, to Thomas’ right, was the chief piece of furniture in the room, with chairs and smaller tables facing it or scattered around it. There was a sec built into the desk, and its clear screen jutted up from the table’s surface at the edge of the sec’s control board. Now that they were inside, Thomas could see a few lines of data displayed on the screen, but since he was standing behind the screen, he could not make out the backwards data from that distance. On the left was the mini-kitchen, built into the wall with its own counter. A short hallway to the left of the mini-kitchen led to the lockup rooms, a bath and locker room, and a storage room. And beyond the Commander’s desk and through the glass partition, Thomas could see the conference room, basically one table, six chairs and two wall screens.

Thomas glanced over his left shoulder at another, shorter hallway, with a heavy door at its end. That was the direct door into the Commanding Officer’s apartment, which confirmed Thomas’ suspicions. He also noticed at that moment how clean the office was, and he glanced over at San.

San managed a slight smile, and nodded. “Welcome to Midland Peacekeeper station, Commander.” She placed his flight bag on the table opposite the desk. “You’re not scheduled to take over command until tomorrow, but if you’d like to assume command now…”

“No, that’s all right,” Thomas said, “tomorrow is fine. And call me Thomas. Tell you what: Why don’t you just bring me up to date on your operations, and then I’ll get settled into some quarters until the CO’s apartment is ready.”

“All right.” San started forward, stopped and turned back to Thomas a bit self-consciously. “And I’m San.” She took the seat at the Commander’s chair, and Thomas pulled up a chair beside her.

“Excuse me,” Frank said. “I’m going to check up on Teez… uh, officer Laird.” With that, he stepped past them and into the conference room.

San and Thomas spent the next half-hour going over the general concerns of the PK station. With the season being mid-spring, apparently more than the usual amount of calls were related to people outside of the city with equipment that had gone untended over the winter, or were out of shape themselves for the strenuous recreational activities they were undertaking. There were a few projects going on outside of the city that they were keeping an eye on, but otherwise things were relatively quiet in the area. San took the opportunity to use the sec’s regional databases to familiarize Thomas with the flora, fauna and general terrain of the NA(s)5 region, taking care to point out some of the more interesting or scenic sites of the region. Thomas showed great interest in a number of the mountain areas and forests, and his genuine interest in the world outside of the station seemed to soften San.

“That’s right,” she said at one point. “You’re supposed to be a frontiersman.”

Thomas nodded. “I was born and raised out there. Actually, I know a lot of this land west of here… but I’d never gone this far east. My tribe was semi-nomadic.”

“Which tribe was that?”

“Cayache,” Thomas replied. “Southern Cayache.”

“Ah. I was about to say, I know most of the northern Cayaches. We see them hereabouts quite a bit. But not the southern tribe.”

“We should be known as the eastern and western Cayaches,” Thomas commented. “We used to be north and south of each other, but we haven’t been for generations. Still, you know how names tend to stick.”

“I know this land better than the rest of the PKs, Commander,” San told him. “I’ll be glad to give you a tour of the sights, since you need to see it all anyway. Maybe we can start tomorrow.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Thomas nodded.

Frank came back into the office at that moment. “Spoke to Teez. He’s a few minutes away from Midland, heading for the medcenter. He’ll be awhile longer.”

“Well, I can wait ‘til later to see him, I guess,” Thomas said.

“I also tried to page Cartier again,” Frank added, more to San than Thomas. “His com is off, looks like.”

“Oh, it is, is it?” San frowned and thought a moment. “Commander, we have a room reserved at the Maria for you. Frank, why don’t you take him down and let him get settled. I’m going to talk to Matt.” She stepped past them and headed for the door.

Frank turned to follow her. “You know where he is?”

“I know exactly where he is,” San said, before the door slid closed behind her.

Frank turned back to Thomas, and shrugged. “What can I say? You caught us on a down week.”

“I got that impression,” Thomas replied. “Is there anything personal involved with those two?”

“Oh, no,” Frank said. “But she’s been with Matt for over four years here. He’s like a mentor to her… almost like a father to her. The thing is, Matt is a pioneer. This is the longest he’s stayed in one place for years. He’s got the itch to move on. And San…” Frank trailed off, trying to think of the best way to phrase his next comment.

“Well, San just doesn’t appreciate Matt’s point of view.”

~

San stood, her back to Midland, looking down the sandy shore of the river that passed through Midland. Actually, the river itself still followed its original path, which took it past Midland, but a channel had been cut that led through Midland’s ground level of docks. Directly under Midland, the waterway was broken by the boat slips and loading stages of the docks. But on either side of Midland, the waterway had been shaped to form lakes that were regularly used for recreation by the city’s residents.

It only took her a moment to find Matt Cartier, downstream from her. He was sitting on a grassy bank that hung just above the water line, dangling his bare feet in the meandering flow of the river. A few children played not far from where he was sitting, but they were leaving him alone, and he just sat there, staring out across the river at the far bank and the fields and trees beyond.

San started walking towards him, following the natural contour of the ground. The path brought her up just behind and to the left of Matt. She hadn’t made much noise, but Matt’s head inclined a bit in her direction, then turned back to the waterway. San stopped just behind him, glaring down at the full but slightly graying hair on his head, and put her hands on her hips. “You know you’re supposed to keep your com switched on at all times,” she said coldly. “You may not be Commander anymore, but you’re still a Peacekeeper.”

Matt slowly craned his neck back to look at her. “No need to quote regs at me, San. I’m on leave, remember?”

“Your leave ended this morning at zero-hundred hours!” San snapped. “Your replacement is here. I tried to call you, but you wouldn’t even give him the professional respect of showing up to greet him!”

“San, why don’t you sit down…”

“If I so much as bend a knee, it’ll be to kick you into that river!” San’s voice had dropped a good half an octave, and Matt knew what that meant. “Get up, dammit!”

Matt almost winced at the order, then slowly pulled himself to his feet, pausing long enough to grab the sandals on the grass beside him. When he straightened up, he found himself eye to eye with San, who was starting to redden in the face. Her mouth opened, and she started speaking through gritted teeth. Matt had to fight the urge to look for sharpened canines.

“Absent Without Leave. Dereliction of Duty. Deliberate Disregard for Communications Protocols. Deliberate Disregard of Professional Protocols—”

“Professional protocols! C’mon, San—” Matt started to put his hands up in supplication, but San snapped out as if in defense of herself.

“Don’t ‘C’mon, San’ me!” San slapped down one outstretched hand, and stepped down until she was almost nose-to-nose with him. “Matt, what’s wrong with you? You’ve never acted like this before! You’re like a spoiled child, ignoring your responsibilities, goofing off like a kid on the last day of school! It’s bad enough you won’t act like an officer, you’re going to get yourself a dishonorable discharge like this!”

Matt stood up to her, throughout her tirade. Downstream, the children had stopped playing and were silently watching the two adults arguing with each other on such a nice, sunny day. When San finally ran down, she stood over Matt with clenched fists, breathing heavily as if she had just jumped out of a brawl.

Matt took a deep breath before he spoke. “Listen. You are not in any position to lecture me, young lady, nor are you in enough of a temperate frame of mind to discuss this. I’m going back to my apartment. If you want to discuss this any further, you can calm down, follow me, and we’ll talk in private.”

With that, Matt turned on a heel and strode across the grass back to Midland. San, still breathing hard, was caught unprepared, and it took her a moment to realize he was not going to return to finish her argument. Finally she snapped out of her astonishment, spun about, and followed after him.

~

“Here you are, Mr. Beak.” The hotel manager opened the door for Thomas and stepped inside with his flight bag. Thomas followed him inside and took a quick look around. The room was about half the size of the average single apartment, with a good-sized sec on the long wall opposite the bed. There was a small desk, a closet, a bathroom, and a balcony overlooking the interior of Midland. In short, your average hotel room. But the trim and finish of this room marked it as one of the better hotels in Midland, even given its simple arrangement.

“Sir, are you sure you wouldn’t like one of our suites instead? There are plenty of them available, and it wouldn’t be any trouble at all.”

Thomas smiled and shook his head. San had arranged a suite for him here, but one look at it made him opt for this smaller room. “No, that’s all right. I don’t need that much… and I’ll only be here for a few days. This will be fine.”

“Certainly, sir.” The manager placed Thomas’ bag on the desk. “Let me know if you change your mind. Just ask for Stan. There is a tour cell preloaded on your sec, if you’d like to familiarize yourself with Midland.”

“Thank you, Stan, I’ll check it out.” The manager bowed and left Thomas alone in the room. Thomas first hung up his jacket, then he walked over to the balcony to take a look around. The Maria Lane Hotel had one of the more impressive views of interior Midland, having a clear view of almost the entire interior space, including the fountain gardens just a few levels below, but too far back to see down into the physical plant levels below ground level. Just below and to the right was a large restaurant, with a number of people at its many tables. Thomas hoped he’d find room to eat there himself, later that afternoon.

He turned back into the room, closing the balcony door. It took him a moment to find the switch that opaqued the glass… hotels always managed to find new places to hide that switch, Thomas mused… but once the window was opaqued (and mirrored to the inside), he took off his uniform and selected some casual attire from his flight bag for the rest of the day. Still in his shorts, he moved over to the wall sec and tapped the small blinking rectangle in the left corner. Then he sat on the edge of the bed opposite the sec.

The screen lit up in seconds, displaying a moving panorama of Midland. “Welcome to the Maria Lane Hotel, another bright light in the Jewell of Namerica, Midland City.” The voice sounded familiar, and Thomas was sure he had heard it on many other public broadcasts. “We hope your visit to our city will be a long and pleasant one. To make your stay more enjoyable, we’ve prepared a presentation of Midland’s sights and services, as well as information about our frontiers, our city structure, our local crafts and our culture. Please browse through the cell, and you’ll be—”

“Go to the menu,” Thomas interrupted, and the voice-over halted in mid-word. The views were replaced by a list of subjects, and various selections of data presentation. After looking over the choices, Thomas said, “Show me city services, abbreviated presentations.”

What followed was a series of short presentations… advertisements, really… of many of the shops, restaurants, offices and departments in Midland. Thomas usually found that this presentation method was the best way to learn the basics about a new city, although the presentations he expected to see in a luxury hotel such as this would necessarily be biased towards the nicer places to go. Still, it was always a good place to start. Occasionally, he paused on a presentation and asked for the full version, and the sec switched to a much more detailed production, sometimes lasting for over ten minutes. After a few minutes of any one, Thomas switched back to the abbreviated versions and resumed the presentation. Most of them were rather generic, unlike programs that accessed the public records of a guest and offered subjects to match individual interest. Thomas was surprised to realize this hotel offered an inferior program to many of the more commonplace hotels he had visited in the past.

After about an hour of this commercial tour, Thomas ended the program and switched to city structure. He spent the next half-hour studying the layout of Midland, from its public areas to its restricted levels, the physical plant specs, the zoning layouts, the transportation and communications networks, the supply networks, and the power distribution systems. While he went over the wealth of data, he took notes on his own sec tablet. Later, he planned to pass on these notes to his sec in the Commander’s apartment, and to his sleeve sec, but he planned to recompile and edit them first, into a form that would be more useful to him professionally.

When he was finally through with that, Thomas put his tablet down and set the wall sec to display regional views around Midland. Thomas got dressed as the sec presented images and sounds derived from the frontier. He occasionally stopped just to watch the images going by, then resumed dressing. Finally, he slipped his tablet into a shirt pocket below his left breast, put the key to the room in another pocket, and headed out the door. He planned to start with a meal in that lobby restaurant below, browse through a few shops, then check out some of the social spots he’d seen in the presentation. If all went well, he hoped, he’d end up in one of the hospitality houses with a few new friends to add to his list.

~

Matt leaned against the wall of his apartment, holding a sizeable tumbler of whiskey in one hand. He watched San as she paced slowly in front of him. She was much calmer than she had been outside, but clearly she was still upset.

“Matt, Matt…” she began, trying to organize her thoughts. She finally stopped pacing and faced Matt. “Matt, why wouldn’t you talk to me… why didn’t you tell me what was wrong? Maybe I could have helped.”

“But there isn’t anything wrong…”

“How can there not be anything wrong?” San started pacing again. “You’ve been moping around, you’ve been so distracted you’ve neglected your duty, and you wouldn’t talk to your closest friend in Midland, you wouldn’t let me help you with anything!”

“San—”

“So here I am—”

San—”

“Let me finish! —So here I am, trying to do your job, trying to keep Jetstream from finding out you’re goofing off—”

“I wasn’t—”

Shut up!” San had to refrain herself from swatting him with the back of her hand. “You were goofing off, which is all I knew you were doing, since you wouldn’t talk to me! And now you’ve gotten yourself fired, and it’s too late for me—”

“I wasn’t fired—”

SHUT… UP! —and now it’s too late for me to help you, and it’s too late to transfer, and…” San’s tirade began suddenly to falter, as she stared into Matt’s eyes. “And it’s… and you can’t… and I… you…”

Matt pushed his head forward a bit. “Did not get fired.”

San stood staring at him, screwing her face up as she tried to make sense of what he was trying to tell her. Suddenly, like a hammer on the head, she realized what he was saying, and her eyes went wide. “No. NO. NO! You can’t! You didn’t!

Matt simply nodded. San stood there a moment more, her head slowly shaking back and forth. Then, she struck out, a lightning-fast swing that knocked the tumbler out of Matt’s hand. It shot across the room like a rocket, impacted on the wall, and sprayed whiskey and glass shards across half the room.

Shit! How could you quit! Twenty years in the Guard! Six years as a Peacekeeper Commander! How could you throw it all away?”

“God-dammit, San…” Matt nursed the hand San had struck, which was stinging as if the glass had broken while still in his grip. “You know, there’s just no talking to you when you turn Earth-Mother and start raving like this! Look, this didn’t exactly work out the way I wanted it to, either, and I’m sorry I didn’t explain earlier, but everything happened at the last minute, and I just didn’t know how to break it to you!”

“Matt, you’ve known for over a season that you weren’t going on the Mars expedition!” San stalked over to the sofa and threw herself down into it. “We’ve all known. And I know how much of a blow it was to find out you were disqualified, but you have to be able to live with it and move on. You should be thankful that pressure sensitivity isn’t something that’ll keep you out of the Peacekeepers. There’s no reason to quit!”

“There is.” Mat walked over to her and sat down next to her on the sofa. He took a moment to decide on his words, before he continued. “About two weeks ago, the Mars Group got back in touch with me. There was an error in my health cells. The pressure sensitivity isn’t as severe as they thought it was. They’ve given me the go-ahead to be on the Mars mission.”

San sat there, dumbfounded. Her mouth slowly opened in a silent “O”. Matt turned away, his relief at finally telling her causing him to relax visibly. “I wanted to tell you earlier, but after being turned down, I couldn’t decide whether or not I still wanted to go… I mean, I’d already gotten used to the fact that I couldn’t go. I just decided a few days ago. I tried to tell you then, but I just couldn’t manage to. I’m sorry.”

San remained silent, her gaze leaving him to stare at the floor. Finally she managed to say, “You’re going anyway. You’re going to Mars. Matt, you idiot…”

Matt’s head snapped up. “There: That’s why I couldn’t tell you sooner. I knew you wouldn’t appreciate—”

“Appreciate what, Matt? Going on that God-damned trip to Mars… wasting all that money, all those resources we should be spending on the eastern reclamation project, Samerican reforestation, Gulf recovery…”

“All right, all right, I know the list.”

“God, Matt, how could you be a part of that? It’s such a waste of time and money!” She suddenly bolted up out of the sofa. “We don’t need Mars! We don’t need its resources, its space, its water, its gravity…” She turned back to Matt. “Why go there and tear it up, for God’s sake?”

“San, we are not going to ‘tear up’ Mars. And yes, there’s nothing there we need. But we’re going to go, anyway.”

“It’s insane! The last time anyone went to Mars, they got stranded out there! They didn’t have the resources they needed to get back, Earth didn’t have the resources to go get them, and they left them up there to suffocate—”

“San, that was almost two hundred years ago! You know as well as I do, this is not the twenty-first century!”

“It doesn’t matter! You’ll be all the way out there, all alone! And if any one of a thousand things go wrong, you’ll all die out there—”

San’s voice choked off then, so abruptly that Matt jerked his head up to look at her. He came up out of the sofa, and San wrapped her arms tightly around him. “Oh, God, I don’t want you to go,” she sobbed against him. “I don’t want you to die, out there all alone.”

“Stop it. I won’t be all alone. You know that. We aren’t going to be a few dozen people with ancient machinery and no margin for error. We’re not going to be dependent on Earth to help us, like the First Mission. We’re going with all the resources and equipment we need.” Matt held San out at arm’s length, and looked deep into her eyes. “They’re going to go, and they can make it. And I’m going to take advantage.”

“Take advantage?”

“And explore Mars.” Matt smiled, and his eyes seemed to focus past her. “Explore a real wilderness! It’s the next frontier, San. It’s beyond this world, which we’ve seen and catalogued and explored every inch of, already. I’ve been to every mountain, every jungle, been to the trenches, swam the underground rivers… there are no more places on Earth for me to go. And in all the traveling I’ve done, all the places I’ve been, I was always aware that one thing was missing: I wasn’t the first.”

Matt looked back into San’s eyes. “Well, this time, we’ll be the first,” he said. “The First Mission didn’t see a tenth of a percent of Mars before they died. We’re going to see everything first.”

San could see that familiar sparkle deep within his eyes. He’d had that same look when they had climbed Mt. Hood, three years ago. When he’d gone off to explore the Antarctic ice shelves, she remembered seeing that same look. It was the look of someone who lives their dreams, someone who loves their life more than any other person, any object, any passion. It was a look that San had seen in Matt’s eyes many times before, but not at all in the months since he’d been turned down for the Mars mission. Now, it was back. She could see it, she could feel it.

And it meant he’d be leaving.

San pulled herself out of Matt’s grip and drifted across the room, to stop with her back against the wall. She wrapped her arms tightly around herself and stared at the floor just in front of her.

Matt regarded her from across the room, at a loss for anything else to say. He started to lift his hand to his mouth, realized he no longer had a glass in it, and looked across the room at the broken glass that littered the carpet. Finally, he walked over to San, and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“I’d better get busy cleaning up,” he said. “I planned to be out of here tomorrow morning… be sure to tell Commander Beak. I’ll be moving to a hotel room for a few days, before I have to fly out.”

San continued to stare at the floor silently. Matt took a deep breath, and continued. “I promise we’ll see each other before I go.” He bent forward and kissed San on the cheek. “You… better get going. You’re still on duty, Deputy.”

San finally looked up then, and for a moment, Matt could see her resolve battling with her emotions. He wasn’t sure whether she would refuse to leave, or refuse to see him again. Finally, resolve won out, and she straightened up and dropped her arms to her sides. After a moment, she nodded, and calm finally returned to her eyes.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll talk to each other later… tomorrow, when I’m off duty.” She looked across the room at the shattered glass. “You might want to call for a crew to help with that carpet… get the glass and liquor stains out. I’m sure Beak would appreciate it.” She paused long enough to flash Matt a slight smile, then walked quietly out of the apartment.

Matt stood there a moment longer, before turning and walking into the kitchen, being careful to avoid the broken glass. He removed another tumbler from a cabinet, filled it to the brim with the last of his whiskey, and gulped half of it down. Then he looked over the broken glass and whiskey stains littering the carpet, and called out, “Secretary: connect me with any Midland residential cleaner.”

~

“Aha! There you are!”

Thomas heard the voice across the courtyard, and sheer force of habit made him look for the source of the voice. Here in the middle of the hospitality house he’d stumbled upon, the noise levels were kept very subdued for its patrons. Everyone in the courtyard was now looking up, slightly annoyed at being so loudly disturbed. Most of them looked back down upon seeing two Peacekeepers threading their way through the tables, but since one of them was waving at Thomas, he waved back and turned to the young lady he had been speaking to. “Excuse us for a few minutes, please? Business.”

Frank DeJaye reached the table and offered a big smile to the girl next to Thomas. “Hey, Luna! I haven’t seen you in seasons! How are you?”

“I’m fine, Frank. Hi, Teez!” she directed at the younger PK behind Frank. “Why don’t you guys come up and see us on Saturday? We’re having a big party at six.”

“We’ll see if the boss will let us come out and play that day,” Frank smiled. The girl excused herself, and Frank slid up to the bar next to Thomas. “Thomas, this is T.Z. Laird. We call him Teez.”

The younger PK extended a hand. “Welcome to Midland, Commander. Sorry I wasn’t here to greet you…”

“That’s all right,” Thomas said, “I heard you had your hands full. How’s that pilot?”

“He’ll be fine,” Teez replied. “His ankle was mighty messed up, but he should be able to walk on it again in about a week. He said he hit a nasty downdraft and got pulled into a rock wall. When I found him, he was still tangled up in his chute, he couldn’t pull it off. Oh, and his glider is ruined.”

“Oh, well,” Thomas chuckled. “Well, I just wanted to say hello before I started duty tomorrow. You didn’t have to come up here after me, though.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” Frank said. “I did want to talk to you myself before tomorrow. About San.”

“Oh?” Thomas put down his drink. “Has she come back in? Did she talk to Cartier?”

“Yeah… she’s in the station, now. And she did talk to Matt. Turns out he’s leaving because he’s been accepted for the Mars mission.”

Thomas gave a cough of amazement. “The Mars mission! So, that’s why he’s quitting. I didn’t even know he’d applied… and I thought the Mars mission had already gone through selection, for that matter.”

“Oh, well, there’s a story behind that,” Frank explained. “You see, he applied and tested last year, with everyone else. But there was supposed to be a problem with his test results… I think a pressure sensitivity thing. So they turned him down.”

“Oh. That’s lousy.”

“No, that’s not lousy,” Frank continued. “What’s lousy is, they made a mistake. They just figured it out a few weeks ago, and after he’s all used to the idea that he’s staying here, they offered him a slot anyway.”

“He told San he couldn’t figure out how to tell her,” Teez added. “They’re very close.”

“Well, it’s no wonder she’s upset,” Thomas said. “I know a lot of people that feel the New Mars mission is probably going to end up like the First Mission. Hell, after the incredible disaster the First Mission was, it’s amazing they were able to get enough support to try a second one. He’s a very brave man to want to risk that.”

“Yeah,” Frank nodded. “And you know, San is very practical-minded. I mean, she enjoys getting out into the frontier, rock climbing, trail blazing. But she doesn’t really have that ‘pioneer spirit’ that Matt has. She can’t really appreciate his wanting to do this.”

“Not to mention,” Teez added, “the fact that the Mars mission is spending a lot of money and resources that could be going into the Global Reclamation Fund.”

“One of her pet projects,” Frank clarified. “This is almost a slap in the face to her… to see her mentor joining this mission, using resources that would have gone into global projects.”

“I see.” Thomas took a sip from his drink. “In short, Cartier has managed to do almost everything possible to piss her off.”

“Yeah, that’s about it.” Frank motioned to the bartender, who grabbed a glass and began filling it from a tap. “He’s scheduled to leave for Sao Luis in three days. He’ll be there for final training, until launch day.”

“Can you imagine?” Thomas shook his head. “We’ve come a long way since the 2100s, but they’ll still be going out there virtually alone. If something doesn’t work out, they probably won’t be able to just turn around and come back. Even Tranquility won’t be able to help them, all the way out there. They’ll be the most isolated people since…”

Frank finished the thought. “Since the First Mission.” The bartender placed a glass down next to Frank, and he raised it solemnly. “Here’s hoping they have much better luck.”

~

Just three days after arriving in Midland, Thomas mused, here he was again at the airlift port. This time, however, he was the Commander, and he was seeing someone off. The transport—an Osprey, this time, much smaller than the suborbital Drake that had brought him down—waited on the pad, its flight crew already in the cockpit making final checks. Thomas stood, about halfway between Midland and the pad, with Frank and Teez. They alternated between watching the Osprey and glancing back into the gateway behind them.

Teez was the one to finally say, “There they are.” They all turned to see Matt and San walking out of the gateway, down the wide road to the pad. Before they reached the halfway point, San stopped and handed Matt a flight bag, which he shouldered along with two others. They spoke for a brief moment… they were too far away to be heard, however… then Matt continued in their direction, while San stood where she was.

A moment later, Matt reached the three Peacekeepers and stopped beside them. “Thanks for seeing me off, guys.”

“Hey, it’s not gonna be the same without you, Matt,” Frank said. “We couldn’t let you get away without saying ‘Aloha’.”

Matt smiled at that. “That’s right. I’ll be back… eventually. And when I get back, you guys will be the first people I’ll be looking up.”

Teez extended his hand. “It’s been great working with you, sir. I almost wish I was coming with you.”

“Almost, huh?” Matt gave him an amused look. “Well, I appreciate it, Teez. Keep up the good work. Don’t pick up too many bad habits from Frank.”

“Thanks a lot!” Frank gave him a light clap on the arm, then shook his hand. “Take care of yourself, Matt.”

“I will.” Matt looked at Thomas, then back to the others. Frank and Teez picked up on the hint, nodded, said their last goodbyes, and headed back inside. On the pad, the Osprey was just beginning to power up its engines. Matt waited until they were out of earshot before turning back to Thomas.

“Commander. I’m sorry I didn’t get more time to spend with you.”

“That’s okay,” Thomas replied. “You’ve had plenty on your mind, as it is.”

“You’re getting a good crew… a great crew. They’ll never let you down. Take good care of ‘em, and they’ll take good care of you.” Matt paused, and looked back at San, still standing there.

Thomas also looked her way. “Anything I should tell her?”

“No,” Matt replied, adjusting the bags on his shoulder. “We went over everything last night. Try to keep her busy for a few days. She’ll get over it okay.” He paused, glanced at San in the distance, then looked quickly away. After a moment, he shook his head sadly.

“God, how I wish I could take her with me.”

Matt took another glance at San, not bothering to hide the raw pain in his eyes. Then he turned to the Osprey. After a long moment, he straightened up, and the pain disappeared behind a blank mask. “Well: Gotta go.” He offered Thomas a salute. Thomas returned it, then shook his hand.

“Good luck, Commander,” Thomas said. Matt smiled and nodded, and without another word turned and strode to the transport. He climbed aboard and shut the hatch himself. Half a minute later, the Osprey lifted off the ground in a rush of air, climbing vertically into the sky. Soon it began drifting southward, as its wings slowly tilted forwards and brought the twin prop engines to a horizontal attitude.

Thomas stood there while the transport drifted off, and in a moment, started back into Midland. He stopped next to San, who was still standing where she had left Matt, watching the swiftly departing Osprey.

She didn’t look at Thomas as he stood there. “He’s leaving behind the animals. The trees and grasses. The sweet air. The blue sky. He’s going to miss it all so much,” she said.

Thomas placed a hand on her shoulder. “I know of one thing he’ll miss more than all of that.” Then he turned and continued inside.

San kept watching the Osprey, even after the moisture in her eyes caused the tiny plane to wash about in her vision. After another minute, the tears had evaporated, and she could see clearly again. Then she turned and walked back to Midland.

 

Next story: Recovery

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