Manxome foe votsb 3, p.3

Manxome Foe votsb-3, page 3

 part  #3 of  Voyage of the Space Bubble Series

 

Manxome Foe votsb-3
 



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  “Just some minor refitting that has to be done, sir,” Blankemeier replied. “Really. We can loft any time. But our personnel are scattered to the winds.”

  “Get them recalled,” the admiral said. “Lieutenant Fey has all the background data on the study team on… whatever that star was called. He’s going to be going with you as an advisor and another set of eyes. You won’t be bringing your usual science group with you. Anybody else you want?”

  “Commander Weaver?” the CO said, looking over at the astrogator.

  “I’d suggest taking the normal SF contingent. They’ve got enough technical expertise to be useful if we need the data without being as… limiting as most of the science team.”

  “He’s trying to say they tend to survive better, sir,” First Sergeant Powell interjected. “Not that any of them made it last time. I’d suggest taking Miss Moon. Keeping her occupied without the usual science teams will be interesting, but we may need a translator. Especially if it’s a species other than the Dreen.”

  “And the Marines are going, obviously,” the admiral said, nodding. “How far away is this star, son?”

  “About five hundred and fourteen light-years, sir.”

  “Astro?” Blankemeier said.

  “Twenty days, sir,” Bill said, doing the math fast in his head. “If we were going straight line. But we’ll have to jink around a bit to avoid gravity bubbles. And more with cool downs. But the real problem will be relative adjustment.”

  “Say, again?” Admiral Townsend said, then nodded. “The star’s going to be moving differently than Sol. Got it. This deep space stuff is taking a little while to sink in on this old sailor. Continents and islands don’t move. Not so you can notice.”

  “A lot differently, sir,” Bill said. “Every star moves at a different rate relatively speaking. Nearby stars generally move at about the same rate as Sol, but even there we’re talking about a relative velocity higher than any human spaceship ever produced until we made the Blade. And in this case, we’re talking about outside of the local cluster. When the Blade exits warp it has the same inertial constant as when it entered. Basically, how Sol is moving. We’re going to be doing a lot of adjustment when we get there. Less when we take a look around, though. But I’d block out a day for adjustment, given cool down time. And most of it at max thrust.”

  “Not to digress terribly,” the admiral said, frowning. “But why don’t those different movement rates affect the people transferring through the gate?”

  “As far as we can determine, sir…” the lieutenant answered, “when you step through a gate you just are there. It’s as if you hadn’t been at another point. We’re still trying to figure out the physics for it. But that’s the effect.”

  “Okay,” the admiral said, shaking his head. “I sometimes long for the days of Halsey. Captain? You understand the mission?”

  “Three weeks to a month to even get there, sir,” Blankemeier said. “Unknown time on site and in the area looking for the hostiles and getting a handle on the situation. Then another month back. I hope we don’t take damage like the last time. Leaking air for that long would be… tough.”

  “You’re just there to find out what happened, Captain,” the admiral said. “Try not to get into any furballs. But… It’s like old time ship captains. If you decide that it’s necessary to take action, take action. You’re going to be very much on your own until the eggheads figure out how to replicate that drive.”

  “We’re doing our best…” Bill and the lieutenant said almost simultaneously.

  “Sir,” Bill added, grinning.

  “I see that you and the lieutenant will have a lot to talk about on the trip,” the admiral said, standing up. “Start your recall. I want you under weigh in no more than two days.”

  “Sir, that may be impossible,” Commander Coldsmith interjected.

  “Say again?” the admiral replied.

  “I’m not sure we can get all the personnel through pre-mission physical that fast, sir,” the commander said uncomfortably.

  “Damn,” Miller interjected. “I’d forgotten about pre-mission physical. How could anybody forget pre-mission?”

  “We try not to think about it, Chief,” Blankemeier said, nodding. “But that’s a real problem.”

  Pre-mission physical was extremely… extensive. Its purpose — besides determining that the person was ready for the rigors of space flight on the Blade — was to ensure that the person that Earth sent out was, in fact, the same person Earth got back. It involved not just all the normal procedures of a physical, blood and urine tests, heart checks, etc., but extensive mapping of the person’s brain and body chemistry. The point was to ensure that the person who came back was not carrying any alien parasites or stranger beings.

  Alas, certain aspects of such an intense physical were physically debilitating in their own right. Notably, the chemicals used for the brain mapping were similar in composition to those used for chemotherapy. With similar results. Headache, “flulike” symptoms and, most notably, the sort of nausea usually only experienced in really bad hurricanes at sea.

  “Dr. Chet will, of course, be accompanying you,” the admiral said. “You can do pre-mission physical en route. You have, after all, nearly a month before you get to the AO. Takeoff by midnight Tuesday, Captain. With whatever Marines, SF and crew you have available. That’s a hard date.”

  “Aye, aye, sir,” Blankemeier said.

  “Dismissed.”

  Eric had taken his truck for the drive to the church. While he’d taken Josh over with him, he’d asked his brother to let him drive home on his own. He just needed some time.

  After church all sorts of people had wanted to shake his hand. Too many of them had asked why he’d gotten the Cross and all he could do was repeat the mantra “I’m sorry, that’s classified.”

  The Piersons had been one of the groups that stopped to talk to him. Mr. Pierson had just shaken his hand and nodded. Eric remembered he had been in the military but for the life of him he couldn’t remember where or when. Mrs. Pierson had hugged him and seemed to be tearing up. He wasn’t sure why. A lot of people had been that way. It was like they all really knew what had happened but he was pretty sure it was still fully black. Was she reacting to something he was radiating? Hell, he wasn’t that pessimistic.

  He’d nearly panicked when Brooke Pierson shook his hand. She just made his mouth go dry. He hadn’t been able to say anything to her. He wasn’t even sure if he’d smiled. It was upsetting. He was usually suaver than that.

  But the whole experience had shaken him on a really deep level. It wasn’t being worried about the mission. If anything, he was looking forward to getting away. It was just… the changes. Things he thought were solid as the mountains were suddenly… different. And he was pretty sure that the changes were in him, not the world around him. So which version of reality was real?

  He slid a chip into the truck’s player and cranked up the volume, letting the soaring strains of Within Temptation wash over him as he lowered the seat. He had been a country fan before the mission and still listened to it from time to time, especially to Toby Keith and Clint Black. But at times like this it took the lyrics of Goth and metal groups to remind him why he did what he did.

  “ ’Tho this might just be the ending of the life I held so dear, I won’t run, there’s no turning back from here…” he whispered to himself, folding his hands over the stubble on his head and closing his eyes. “If I don’t make it, someone else will, Stand My Ground.”

  He sat up, though, at a tap on his window. He’d deliberately parked at the very back of the church lot. Among other things, he knew he’d probably be cranking up the volume and he didn’t want to bother anyone. But if this was another well-wisher… They could damned well deal with it.

  However, the person standing outside his window was Brooke Pierson. He turned down the chip-player and slid his window down, blinking in surprise.

  “I always thought you wer
e a country guy,” Brooke said, puzzled. “What was that?”

  “ ’Stand My Ground’,” he blurted. “Within Temptation. It’s a Dutch band.”

  “Oh,” Brooke said, still puzzled. “Look, we’re going to Aubry’s for brunch. Your family’s going, too. I was wondering if you wanted to come.”

  “I thought we were going home for dinner,” Eric said.

  “Change of plans?” Brooke said. “My mom asked your mom if she wanted to come and it sort of expanded from there. Anyway, that’s where we’re going. You coming?”

  “Sure,” Eric replied.

  “ ’Kay,” Brooke said, waving. “See you there.”

  Aubry’s was a buffet style restaurant, a tradition in Crab Apple. It served “good ole time” food, which meant heavy on the gravy and “fixin’s.” As Eric filled up his plate he had to admit he’d missed it. Lord knows he could use the calories. And it was nice to see that one thing hadn’t changed.

  “You can certainly put it away,” Mrs. Pierson said as Eric sat down with his second heaping plate.

  “He needs it,” Amanda Bergstresser said. “He’s as thin as a rail. Probably because he goes out running every morning. How far did you go this morning?”

  “Not far,” Eric said, taking a bite of meatloaf smothered in gravy.

  “He told me he went ten miles,” Josh said. “I’m still not sure I believe him.”

  “Like I said,” Eric replied, looking over at his brother, “not far.”

  “Do you do a lot of running in the Marines?” Brooke asked.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Eric replied. “In my unit we do, anyway. Most Marines don’t run as far, but everybody does morning PT.”

  “What unit is that?” Mr. Pierson asked.

  “Bravo Company, Force Reconnaissance,” Eric replied, automatically. Nobody outside the Barracks used the term Space Marines.

  “I was in the Navy,” Mr. Pierson said. “A bubblehead. Ever been on a submarine?”

  Eric froze with a forkful of green beans in mid-air, then nodded.

  “Yes, sir,” he said, thinking about the cover for his unit. “I’m… well, I’m assigned to one of the new littoral boats. I actually spend a lot of time in a sub, sir.”

  “Do a lot of running around Sherwood Forest?” the vet asked, grinning.

  “Sir, with respect, I’m not allowed to discuss any details of my missions,” Eric replied.

  “But you know where Sherwood Forest is, right?” Mr. Pierson said, smiling.

  “Yes, sir,” Eric replied. “It’s where the missiles are on a normal sub, sir. But I’m not allowed to confirm or deny that there are missiles on the boat I’m on, sir.”

  “Gotcha.”

  “He’s so mysterious,” Mrs. Bergstresser said. “He won’t even tell us why he got his medal.”

  “Don’t push, Amanda,” Steve Bergstresser said quietly. “He can’t talk about it and it’s uncomfortable when you’re in that position.”

  “But we’re not even at war,” Amanda said. “And if he got a medal that means he was in danger. As his mother I’d like to know why.”

  “You will, Mom,” Eric said, somberly. “Someday. Trust me. But right now it’s all classified and I really can’t talk about it.”

  “Do you enjoy what you do?” Brooke asked, frowning.

  “That’s… a good question,” Eric admitted. “There are parts of it I like a lot. And there are parts that scare me spitless. Sometimes they’re the same parts, but not usually.”

  “He told me that the reason he got that medal was because he was one of only five survivors of his last mission,” Josh said.

  “Oh thank you very much for saying that in public, Brother!” Eric snapped.

  “What?” Mrs. Bergstresser said. “You’re joking!”

  “We need to change the subject,” Mr. Bergstresser said. “Right now. And, Josh, when we get home we’re going to have a little talk.”

  “When I was in boats the guys were real practical jokers,” Mr. Pierson said, smiling in fond remembrance. “Is it still that way? Or have they cut the heart and soul out of the whole service?”

  “What, like stealing the XO’s door, sir?” Eric said, grinning. “No, sir, it’s pretty much the same. One time we got one of the sergeants going really bad over… Never mind.”

  “Do all your conversations cut off like that?” Brooke asked.

  “Yeah, pretty much,” Eric admitted ruefully. His eyes darkened for a moment. “Okay, yeah, we took a lot of casualties on the last mission. But I made it and I’ll make it the next time. I’ll be fine, Mom.”

  “You must be very brave,” Brooke said. Eric couldn’t figure out if it was a good thing or bad her voice was so neutral.

  “I just have a job to do,” Eric said, shrugging. “Somebody has to do it and I’m pretty good at it.”

  “Do you still get into science fiction?” Mr. Pierson asked. “I recall you used to read quite a bit of it.”

  Every day, Eric thought. In mission reports, after action reviews… “Not so much anymore,” he replied. “I do a bit of reading on cruises.”

  “Not much else for the Marines to do, I suppose,” Mr. Pierson said, nodding. “Did you get anywhere interesting?”

  You wouldn’t believe, Eric thought again, trying not to snort. But the smile was evident.

  “That interesting, huh?” Mr. Pierson said. “And you can’t talk about it. Sorry.”

  “No, sir,” Eric said. “Look, the missions we do are classified. Where we go is classified. I can say that we get there in a submarine. But we don’t do many shore leaves, sir.”

  “I understand,” Mr. Pierson said. “And I was the one trying to change the subject.”

  “I’ve got a change of subject,” Brooke interjected. “What are we doing after dinner? I was wondering if we were going to the movies.”

  It was a bit of a tradition in small southern towns. Go to church. Have dinner. Go to a movie. In many cases you’d see the same faces all day long.

  “I’ve got to go to the Halverson’s this afternoon,” Mr. Pierson said. “But the rest of you can do whatever you’d like.”

  “I could see a movie,” Josh said.

  “You’ve got homework,” Mrs. Bergstresser said.

  “So do Linda and Hector.” Mrs. Pierson looked at her younger two children. “Brooke, I don’t want you going to the movies alone…”

  It was a set-up. He should have seen it coming. On the other hand… He could live. Hell, it wasn’t like fighting crabpus.

  “I didn’t mean to set you up that way,” Brooke said as they got in the truck. “Mom had said we were probably going to the movies after dinner.”

  “I didn’t think you did,” Eric replied, starting up. He couldn’t look at her, though. “What do you want to listen to?”

  “What you were listening to before,” Brooke said. “It sounded sort of like Evanescence.”

  “Similar,” Eric admitted, unbuttoning his collar. “I seriously don’t mind taking you to the movies. But I’ll admit I was looking forward to getting this damned uniform off.”

  “You can take the time to change,” Brooke said, doubt in her voice. “But… It looks really good on you.”

  “I’ll wear it,” Eric said, looking over at her finally. “If you want, I’ll be glad to.”

  “Please,” Brooke said. “What do you want to see?”

  “Let’s just find out what’s playing.”

  There wasn’t anything either of them wanted to see playing for a couple of hours so they found a Starbucks in Beckley and sat and talked. Well, mostly Brooke talked. Eric couldn’t for the life of him recall what they talked about but they talked, a lot. They talked in the café then drove back to the movie theater but by almost unspoken agreement didn’t even go in. They just sat in the truck, listened to Eric’s playlists and talked some more. Brooke was hoping to go to medical school, or maybe vet’s school, she wasn’t sure. Eric admitted to a desire to be a career Marine but didn’t say mu
ch more than that about his future plans.

  Finally, as the sky darkened the talk wound down.

  “You haven’t been saying much,” Brooke admitted. “Usually I just sit there and listen as the guy I’m on a date with drones on about his latest interest. I do admit that I like your music taste, though.”

  “There’s not much for me to talk about,” Eric admitted.

  “Or not much you can talk about,” Brooke said. “But I can tell you’re thinking something.”

  “I’m thinking that this was a really stupid thing to do,” Eric said, then grimaced. “Maulk, did I actually say that? I’m sorry…”

  “Fine, you don’t want to spend time with me… !” Brooke said angrily.

  “It’s not that,” Eric said, grabbing her hand as she started to climb out of the truck.

  “Let go of me!”

  “Can I just please explain?” Eric asked. “Please.”

  “Fine,” Brooke said. “Explain. If you can.”

  “If I should,” Eric said, looking past her even if his eyes were pointed in her direction. “I’ve never had a better time with anyone in my life. I really like you. Probably too much, Brooke. But what Josh said was true. What I do is… It’s really dangerous. And I can’t even explain why. All I can say is that one of these days you’re probably going to hear that I’ve died. That’s all you’ll know, just like all my parents know about my medal is that I got it doing ‘classified actions.’ ”

  He finally looked her in the eyes and felt like crying.

  “I really like you, Brooke. But I hope you don’t feel anything near like what I feel. Because one of these days I’m probably going to just be gone.”

  “Nothing can be that dangerous,” Brooke said, looking as if she was going to start crying. “You’ll be okay.”

  “Seven out of eight,” Eric said. “That’s how many guys died on the last mission among the Marines. Seven out of eight. One of the guys who debriefed us admitted that he couldn’t figure out how any group wouldn’t mutiny with those sort of casualties. We didn’t take them all in one shot; we got hammered over and over again. And we kept going back for more. There were a couple of points where it looked as if nobody was going to make it back to Ear—”

 
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