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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

Blackwelder 2164

Copyright © 2018 by Christopher D.J.

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

Edited by: Jason Bradley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com

Printed in the USA

First Edition

January, 2018

Also available in paperback, ISBN: 978-1-947904-78-1

Warning: This book contains sexual content, which may only be suitable for mature readers.

Blackwelder 2164

Christopher D.J.




Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

About the Author

Chapter One: Out of the Dark

“All right, Jinx Squad, listen up,” said First Lieutenant Robby Macke as he stood before Sergeant Spencer Blackwelder and the other crew members. “As you know, an abandoned Elumerian starship floated into the Barack’s space sector forty-eight hours ago. It’s been subjected to long-range and short-range drone scans, and we know that the propulsion and guidance systems are damaged beyond repair. There are several vacant exterior ports, suggesting the crew evacuated. Zero life signs on board. We are the lucky squad who get to be the first to dock with it. Our mission is to search the vessel, determine its threat level, collect any useful data, and return to the Barack. Any questions?”

“Just one, sir: with those giant sat dishes Miller uses for ears, there’s no need for us to actually dock, is there? He can just conduct an audio scan from here,” said Mudunuri. The other squad members laughed as Miller, the pilot, whipped his head around to shoot Mudunuri a scathing look.

“Is this the comedy hour? Or are we here to do a job?” Blackwelder asked. “Knock it off.”

“Sorry, Sergeant Blackwelder.”

Macke smirked. “Don’t be absurd, Mudunuri; Miller couldn’t possibly pull that scan off from here. He’d need to be, what, at least three clicks closer?”

Miller shook his head from the cockpit. The other soldiers sniggered.

“Lieutenant Abernathy, com check, if you please.”

Abernathy adjusted her headset, then pressed and held a yellow button until it turned green. “This is Jinx Squad on Raider-1 to Barack actual. We’re conducting a com check; do you read, Barack?”

“Raider-1 this is Barack actual, we read you. Coms are go, over,” said a voice over the open channel.

Satisfied, Abernathy slid her hands along the console to a different cluster of brightly lit buttons. “Jinx Squad, internal com check, channel three. Confirm.”

“Coms are go,” they all said in unison. Over her shoulder, Blackwelder could see several lights flash green on Abernathy’s console.

“Coms are go, Lieutenant,” Abernathy said to Macke with a wink.

Raider-1 was a small ship with cramped quarters. There was a cargo hold beneath the floor of the ship, but its capacity was limited, not that they were expecting much of a physical salvage. Four soldiers shared the seating compartment with Blackwelder. Macke stood over the backs of the pilot and Abernathy, talking navigational tactics. They sat close together, their knees touching and occasionally banging into one another as the ship jostled. Several lit panels—some with loose-hanging cables—beeped above their heads. Expecting the atmosphere aboard the Elumerian ship to be completely inhospitable, the Allied Earth soldiers were wearing their space suits, sans helmets, and held their heavy-duty laser rifles at the ready.

The air was rife with tension; they had joked before, but Blackwelder knew it was a weak ploy to cover their mounting fear. None of them had ever stepped foot onto an alien, enemy vessel before. Blackwelder felt the concern himself, of course, but had to master it. Macke might have been the one giving the orders, but Blackwelder knew he’d be the one to keep them on point.

“Don’t forget to breathe, Jinx,” Blackwelder said to them all. “This is nothing more than a standard recon mission. You’ve trained for this.” A couple of them nodded, but they seemed little put at ease by his words. He took a quick look at Macke, though the lieutenant didn’t turn to meet his glance.

“And if any one of you shoots one of your own, I guarantee you you’ll be eating nothing but veg-ox for a week.”

A couple of them chuckled at the comment. “But what if you like veg-ox?” one of them said softly.

“Shut up, DeFrank,” Mudunuri said.

“Target in range, LT. Better get strapped in,” Miller said. On screen, Blackwelder could see a massive vessel that was rounded and bulbous on one end and through the middle, but that tapered off toward the tail. Cascading rows of spikes adorned the middle of the craft on both sides. The spikes, rounded at the edge and faintly glowing from their center, could almost be mistaken for fins. In fact, the whole ship had the look of a mutated whale, which reminded Blackwelder of the aquatic life they’d discovered years ago in some of Earth’s more polluted oceans.

Macke nodded and turned to take his seat, the only available one being next to Blackwelder. Blackwelder looked up at Macke; he kept his expression blank, but inside he was laughing. He could see a moment of nervousness sweep over Macke’s face, but he mastered it immediately and took his seat. Blackwelder couldn’t help himself; he found Macke’s discomfort utterly amusing. Raider-1 docked with the Elumerian ship shortly thereafter.

Macke stood up quickly from his seat and grabbed his helmet. “Miller, Abernathy, you stay with Raider-1 and monitor us. Mudunuri, you’re with DeFrank. Pazmiño, you’re with Sergeant. Blackwelder and Wine, you’re with me. We’ll split up, clear the ship section by section, and rendezvous on what we’re eighty-seven percent sure is the bridge. Questions?”

Mudunuri opened and closed his mouth. Blackwelder could see the confusion mounting as he childishly raised his hand. “Uh, sir? Normally in the incursion scenarios, I partner with Pazmiño.”

Jumping to his feet, Blackwelder cut across Macke before he could answer. “This isn’t a scenario, dusties! In live missions, you take the orders given to you.” He took a step closer to Macke and leaned in to whisper: “Though, sir, the familiarity of the old pairings may be an advantage for us in this situation. One less thing for them to think about. Unless there’s a particular reason you want to readjust the teams?”

Macke glanced at Abernathy, who was close enough to overhear them. Her expression was quizzical, as she too seemed to be confused by the sudden change in the lineup.

“Besides,” Blackwelder said, “it will be easier for me to keep you alive if I can watch your back.”

“Yeah, okay,” Macke said impatiently. “Old pairings: Mudunuri/ Pazmiño, DeFrank/Wine, and Wellie, you’re with me. Let’s get in there and get this done, people.”



Blackwelder and Macke approached a sealed doorway. They and the other members of Jinx Squad had been working for more than 90 minutes to clear the various areas of the starship, a task made more complicated by their inability to read the alien language that marked the corridors. Blackwelder brought up the rear as he continued to scan their periphery through the scope on his laser rifle. The helmet on his suit prevented him from bringing the scope as close to his face as he would have liked, but the screen had 3D technology that helped to compensate for the difference.

Macke reached for a panel near the door, one similarly placed to their own entry controls, but he hesitated. “Jinx Squad, check in.”

“This is Wine, sir. DeFrank and I are just about to clear what appears to be a storage unit, and will continue moving starboard toward the bridge.”

“This is Mudunuri. Pazmiño and I figured out their vertical transport system, so we’ve finished clearing the lower decks. We should be moving toward the bridge too.”

Macke nodded in satisfaction. “Good work, everyone. The sergeant and I will rendezvous with you ASAP.”

Blackwelder stared at the alien language printed above the control panel. “It’s kind of freaky,” he said, tilting his head to one side. The lettering was thin, slanted, and curved, but completely dissimilar to anything resembling Earth’s linguistic characters.

“Yeah. We have no idea what’s on the other side of this door.”

“That’s never stopped us before.”

Blackwelder couldn’t see Macke’s face, but he could feel him rolling his eyes to dramatic effect.

Macke pressed a button on the panel, and as it had for several other rooms previously, the door slid open.

The room had a high ceiling with two large, dark pink circles in it. Blackwelder presumed from their experience thus far that they were the source of the light illuminating the room. The lighting had a different effect than Blackwelder had ever seen before; instead of streaming down from the source, and casting shadows in the process, the light seemed to brighten every item and person in the room individually. It was as if, instead of projecting light, they were absorbing darkness.

Along one wall were various computer stations. On the other, there were cubbyholes that contained small metal instruments. In the science fiction he’d seen growing up, humanoid aliens always seemed to travel in ships that were at least partly organic, with fleshy, slime-covered walls. But not the Elumerians. From what he’d seen, their designs were as clean and matter-of-fact as any Allied Earth ship. The overall shape of the room and corridors seemed to be more round and less angular than human ships, but that was the only real major difference Blackwelder could immediately detect.

Weapons at the ready, Blackwelder and Macke quickly moved across this new space, splitting to pass around two nine-foot tables planted in the center of the room. At the rear of the room, a pockmarked glass-like substance separated them from what appeared to be a collection of vialed liquids.

After poking their rifles in every conceivable corner, Macke finally said, “Clear.”

“Clear,” Blackwelder repeated, lowering his weapon just slightly. He made eye contact with Macke.

Macke held his glance for a moment before looking awkwardly away. “This appears to be their medical bay,” he said stiffly.

“I’d agree with that. I’ll check the computer, see if there’s any data here we can salvage.”

“Good call.” Macke walked back toward the entrance of the room as if to keep watch.

Blackwelder pulled a data-sync disc from his pocket. It was thin, circular, and translucent black. He placed it against one of the monitors and it immediately adhered itself. Thin strokes of red outlined intricate circuitry detail that had previously been invisible, and then, like a spreading virus, the lines extended onto the screen. Fortunately, smarter people than him had designed the disc to worm its way into locked and encrypted systems and automatically retrieve data, so all he had to do was wait for it to finish its work.

He turned to Macke. “So, are we gonna talk about it? Or are you just gonna keep being weird?”

Macke whipped around, his expression deadly serious. He pointed toward his neck, where a green light shown on his suit. He tapped it twice, and it began to slowly blink. Blackwelder did the same.

“What do you think you’re doing? We were on an open channel!” Macke said.

“I figured you’d switch us to internal coms. Just trying to get your attention.”

“This is neither the time nor the place, Wellie,” Macke said as he paced near the entryway.

I would agree, sir. Except you’re letting it affect you on-mission. So clearly we should discuss it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Switching the lineups around last minute? Are you trying to get them killed? We practice them in pairs for a reason, to develop certain routines. Routines they fall back on when they get nervous or scared, not that I should have to explain this to you right now. Who knows what we’re going to run into on this ship?”

“Well, I wouldn’t be affected if you wouldn’t keep flirting with me.”

I am not flirting with you! We’re combing the halls of an alien ship, the first people on the Barack to do so, definitely, and probably some of the few humans to do it ever! This is terrifying and amazing, and despite the seriousness of the situation, I’m kind of having fun. And I’m here with one of my best friends!” He pointed at Macke. “So if you catch me with a smile on my face, or I’m looking at you, or whatever, it’s not because I’m flirting with you. I’m just excited.”

“Oh. Well, I guess that’s fine. Yeah, I guess it is pretty exciting.” Macke looked around. “Look, I just didn’t want you to get the wrong idea, okay? It was just a one-time thing. An accident. We were drunk.”

The first time we hooked up was an accident, yes. But the second time was pretty intentional, on both our parts.”

Macke narrowed his eyes, his body adopting a much more defensive posture.

“Calm down, Mack. It was a just a little fun between friends, all right? No big deal. It’s not weird unless you make it weird.”

The data-sync beeped, indicating that it had completed its task. The distraction was timely as it allowed a welcomed release from the tension. Blackwelder pocketed the data-sync and moved toward the door.

I’m just saying, though—if you wanted it to happen again, you wouldn’t necessarily need to get me drunk first. And just so you’re clear, that was me flirting.”

Macke moved his mouth as if he we about to speak, but before he could, Blackwelder slapped the blinking green light on his collar.

“Raider-one, Lieutenant Macke and I have cleared the med bay. We are heading to the bridge.”

“Copy that, Sergeant Blackwelder,” Abernathy said.

Blackwelder smirked at Macke as he exited. He brought up the rear once more as he and Macke entered the bridge. Mudunuri, Pazmiño, DeFrank, and Wine were already there. At the sight of their commanding officer, Mudunuri shot up out of the captain’s chair, where he’d apparently been pretending to helm the ship.

The bridge was unlike anything Blackwelder had previously seen. The captain’s chair, large enough to fit a being twice Mudunuri’s size, was positioned at the far front of the bridge, nearest the view screen. Every other panel and console and workstation fanned out behind it like a two-dimensional pyramid laid flat. The alien command center was as spotless as the med bay had been, but the metal used in the command center was iridescent, the colors shifting between shades along the aquamarine scale. Aside from the captain’s chair, there were no other seats; for a moment, Blackwelder felt a twinge of sympathy for an entire command crew being forced to stand throughout their shift.

DeFrank was busy at a console along the wall. She produced a data-sync similar to the one Blackwelder used in the infirmary and pressed it against the monitor.

“Data download commencing, sir,” DeFrank said. “We should be all done here in about—” She was cut off by a sudden blaring. The thin lines extending from the disc that were once red now turned green, and the disc itself turned white. An alarm sounded, and as it echoed through the halls of the empty ship, the vibrations gained potency until they returned to Blackwelder with an intensity that curled his toes inside his boots.

Blackwelder pressed his free hand to his ear in a vain attempt to dampen the sound. “The command core data must be on a different security system. It’s guarded against unidentified access.”

In front of the captain’s chair, the view screen came alive, flashing three-foot-tall letters in the alien language.

“Macke, I don’t know what you all are doing in there, but we’re getting some strange readings on Raider-1,” said Abernathy.

“We’ve tripped an alarm,” Macke said. “This place is going crazy, and we’ve got a pretty ominous-looking message on screen. What can you tell us?”

“According to the scanners, all of the starship’s available power is being transferred to the engine core, and it’s reaching critical mass. I don’t speak Elumerian, but I’m pretty sure that writing you’re seeing is a self-destruct countdown. Get your asses back here!”

“You heard her! Let’s move, people!” Macke yelled.

Once they’d exited the bridge, Jinx Squad found themselves back in the main corridor, a large hallway with bright white track lighting running along the floors and around the windows that neatly framed the glittering expanse of space just outside the ship. On the wall across from the windows, circular light sources like the ones Blackwelder had seen in the medical bay were separated by what appeared to be the letter V molded into the wall. But as the blaring alarm grew louder, the white lighting slowly turned to a neon green color, which dimmed the corridor considerably. Little dots on the Vs began to flash green as well, in time to the breaks in the alarm.

As fast as they could, the team ran, skidding into walls and doors and stacks of containers that had long since lost their purpose, while the maleficent countdown glared ominously around every corner from screens Blackwelder had assumed to be inactive on their initial pass. The alarm morphed into a shrill whistling sound that reverberated through the halls at regular intervals; Blackwelder knew it signaled their doom if they didn’t quickly reach the lower deck aft airlock, where Raider-1 was docked.

As they ran, one of the doors behind them slammed shut. Before they could register what had happened, another corridor sealed itself. Filling with dread, Blackwelder turned to his right, where the pathway would eventually lead past the medical bay that he’d explored earlier. As he looked on, two metal doors slid from their hiding places and slammed mercilessly in his face.

“The ship is sealing itself. They’re trying to trap us inside.” He had known that to be true from the moment the first door closed, but it wasn’t until he said it aloud that he truly understood, and that understanding was followed immediately by a very real sense of fear.

“This way!” DeFrank yelled, shoving Pazmiño and Wine toward an open entryway on their left. With only a few sources of the sickly green light to show the way, they ran down yet another hallway, this one crowded by large metal cylinders. Blackwelder noticed there was some sort of liquid inside the containers, and that it sloshed about inside as the containers themselves hummed menacingly. The corridor came to an end at a sealed door.

“Dammit, DeFrank! You’ve led us to a dead end!” Mudunuri shouted.

“Wine and I passed by here on our initial sweep; the water reclamation systems are through this door. We can cut through the facility to get to Raider-1!”

Wine nodded aggressively in agreement. “It’s wide open in there, so no random doors to get in the way.”

“Well, let’s get this door open,” Macke said.

“Jinx Squad, switch laser rifles to full-power high-focus. Concentrate your fire on me,” Blackwelder said. He raised his rifle, made the power adjustment, and squeezed the trigger. A dense red blast collided with the door, just inside the seam that sealed it to the wall. The metal sizzled and began to glow.

“Fire!” Macke ordered. The rest of the squad joined Blackwelder, concentrating their fire on the same spot. In seconds, the door began to melt away from the wall. As one, they slowly moved the beams up and down along the seam, until they’d broken through completely.

“Spacer!” Macke ordered. Pazmiño pulled a flat-bladed gadget from her pack and inserted it into the space between the door and the wall. The blades split into two and elongated rapidly, pushing the door open and clearing their way forward.

Once through, Blackwelder looked up; standing before him was a water tank stretching fifty feet into the air and wider around than his entire crew. And there were hundreds of them dotting the landscape of this area, the already dim green light made more eerie by the steam escaping from the vents placed all over the floor.

“The core’s almost critical!” Abernathy yelled over the coms. “You’ve got minutes at most. Get here, now!”

And again, they ran. They blindly darted around tankards, following DeFrank and Wine. Blackwelder was bolstered by the confidence-increasing blip on his com that let him know they were approaching Raider-1. At last, they reached another door, and as promised, the view screen next to it indicated that they’d reached the airlock. Repeating their previous tactic, they melted the edge of the door and returned to the chamber where they’d first set foot on the Elumerian ship.

Macke grinned and gave DeFrank a pat on the back. “We made it. Open the airlock, Miller,” Macke said. But when nothing happened, he looked concerned. “Miller? Get this thing open so we can go home.”

“I can’t! The remote access isn’t responding. We’re completely locked out.”

No, we’re completely locked in. Get us out of here, Miller. Abernathy?” Macke said.

Abernathy shook her head. “It’s no use, Mack. We can’t get that door open from here.”

Wine reached for his laser rifle. “Let’s melt it!”

“It’s an airlock, you idiot; it’s far too thick for that,” Mudunuri said.

Blackwelder quickly scanned the contents of his pack. “Likewise, I don’t think we have enough personal ordnance to blast through it.”

Macke hesitated, then nodded to himself a couple of times. “Then you’ll have to blow it from the outside, Raider-1.”

“Are you insane? Sir,” DeFrank said, quickly correcting herself. “The explosive decompression could kill us all.”

Macke looked around the room. “We’ll be fine. Our suits will hold. We just need to strap ourselves down.”

“But sir—” DeFrank began.

“We don’t have time to argue this, Corporal! This ship’s gonna blow in a matter of seconds. The only question is whether you still want to be in this room when it happens. Now strap yourselves down!”

Blackwelder pulled a towline from his suit’s belt pack and wrapped it around his waist and arm before looping it several times around one of the chamber’s support beams. The rest of the squad quickly followed suit, and once they were all secured, Blackwelder nodded to Macke.

“Miller, blow the airlock now!”

Miller decoupled Raider-1 from the alien ship and moved it a safe distance away. Then, he turned and lined Raider-1 up with the airlock.

“Raider-1, firing in three, two, one….”

A torpedo rocketed from the small craft toward the alien ship. Inside the airlock, the impact was marked by a deafening explosion. A monstrous, purplish-orange fireball reached out of the cosmos like the hand of God as the air inside the ship briefly ignited. Deadly projectiles rushed toward them, mirroring the torpedo’s speed and intensity. Miraculously, none of them were harmed, but a sharp metal fragment embedded itself in the support beam where DeFrank and Wine had secured themselves, severing both of their lines. Helpless, the two soldiers were sucked toward the fire-tinged onslaught. Macke reached out and was just able to grab Wine’s hand, but no one was able to reach DeFrank in time. The wave of light and heat from the explosion washed over them, and once it had subsided and the vacuum of space had reasserted its dominance, DeFrank was nowhere to be found.

“DeFrank!” Wine yelled, twisting in Macke’s grasp.

“She’s gone. And we’ve got to get to the ship,” Macke said sternly, glancing over at Blackwelder.

Blackwelder released his rifle and, shooting quickly, cut each individual’s mooring with a focused laser blast before severing his own. Jinx Squad began to float aimlessly in the normalized microgravity. Pazmiño flipped around end over end now that she was cut free.

Macke flipped a switch at his belt and his position was righted, as if he were standing on solid ground. “Rotational stabilizers on!”. The others did the same. “Miller, open the lock.”

“We’re not going to make it…” Miller’s voice was shaky. “There’s no time.”

“Miller! Open the damn lock!” Macke demanded. “The rest of you, activate your Man-U’s. Full thrust. We’re going to zip right into the cargo hold. Miller, the second we’re in, you jump. You got it? Miller!”

“Yes, yes, got it.”

“We can pressurize the hold, but everything down there now will get vented,” Abernathy said.

“Better some random supplies than us. Blackwelder—” Macke began.

“I got the rear. Let’s go!”

Macke clicked a control on the inside of his right forearm, and two small holes opened on his upper back. Nitrogen shot from the openings, propelling him forward toward Raider-1 with a jolt. As the other members of Jinx Squad activated their maneuvering systems, Raider-1 realigned and dropped its rear-landing platform. As it did, several crates flew out of the opening and then drifted listless into space.

Macke was zooming toward Raider-1. Mudunuri and Pazmiño were close behind, but Wine was flipping in a spherical pattern rather than being pushed forward. Blackwelder switched his Man-U to manual control. He was still sharpshooting, except he would make his body the bullet. After carefully timing his thrusts, he shot forward quickly, catching Wine in a perpendicular position and forcing him forward. He felt the nitrogen racing to escape from his back, a sensation that reminded him of being shoved repeatedly by a large schoolyard bully. Wine’s arms were flailing, but Blackwelder could just make out Macke and the others narrowly making it into the cargo hold. Now it was his turn, and he knew this shot would take considerable skill.

He took a deep breath, calculated the distance still left between them and Raider-1, and deactivated his stabilizer. As he sensed his body becoming disconnected from the invisible restraints forcing him to stand upright, Blackwelder leaned forward and gripped Wine’s shoulder, effectively pulling them both into a “flying Superman” position. With the combined effort of both their Man-U’s, Blackwelder and Wine shot headfirst into the hold, where Macke was already waiting next to the auto-lock controls. Blackwelder crashed into Mudunuri with a painful thud, but he heard the hold slam shut behind him.

“Jump jump jump!” Macke yelled.

Raider-1 hummed loudly for a moment, and then there was a sound like bass dropping. Blackwelder was familiar with the tone, as it accompanied a ship jumping into hyperspace. He knew they’d vanished on the spot, leaving behind only debris to mark their former position. Still lying on the floor, Blackwelder finally relaxed and closed his eyes. They couldn’t have been more than a second away from witnessing the Elumerian ship being destroyed in a violent explosion that would have sent pieces of the vessel soaring through the darkness in every direction. They’d narrowly escaped with their lives. Well, most of them had.

Chapter Two: Turn the Third Wheel

Blackwelder stood behind the upper railing on the observation deck of the AES Barack as he admired the scene. At this distance, Saturn’s girth took up about a third of the view. He’d been coming to the deck with a lot more regularity, determined to take full advantage of the respite in their raging war; the Elumerians had been relatively quiet since their flagship had been destroyed and they’d retreated just beyond the reaches of Neptune. Despite this, Blackwelder knew they would not be spared; losing DeFrank those months back had confirmed that for him. It was 1900 hours Standardized Earth Time, but Blackwelder’s face was as fresh as if he’d just woken up, his dress browns as pressed as if they were newly dry-light cleaned. His reputation for being the best-dressed enlisted man in the Allied Earth Forces was well deserved. More so, given what he had to work with.

Below him, about a half story down, he noticed two enlisted soldiers, a male and female, sharing an intimate moment as they gazed at the vastness of space. They seemed so happy to be with one another. In public. In the relative privacy of the deck, which, granted, was walled in with floor-to-ceiling glass, but in view of other people nonetheless. Blackwelder sneered at them despite himself.

Macke walked up behind him. “Don’t know why you keep coming here.”

Blackwelder snapped to attention. His hand flew to his brow and froze there as if his whole body had been cast in iron.

“You’ve seen one of the Solara-Neuf, you’ve seen them all,” Macke continued.

“Sir.” Blackwelder’s salute was picture-perfect.

“At ease, Sergeant.” Macke sighed. “You’re so formal these days.”

Blackwelder considered Macke for a moment. He had the effortless charm of a six-year-old boy: every joke he told was the funniest, every adventure he had was the most exciting, every compliment he paid the most endearing. A wink and smile later, Blackwelder felt giddy, as if every happy memory from his childhood had flooded back to him en masse. Then he took a quick glance around, and the wellspring of joy he’d felt dried up immediately, leaving him cold. He had to remember that he was in public. He wasn’t like the couple below him.

He turned away from Macke and faced Saturn. “I come here because it’s still the same. Everything changed so fast after the first attack: the Global Peace Pact finally bringing us under one government…actual spaceships battling in the void? Like something right out of a movie. Even the sky is different. Home will never be the same after what they did to the moon.” Blackwelder slumped down a bit on the railing. “Who knows what damage the next major incursion might cause? Gotta appreciate the beauty of the Solara-Neuf before they all get blown to hell. We are none of us safe, after all.”

Macke rested one arm on the rail next to Blackwelder and slung the other arm over his shoulder. He leaned in close. “See, that’s what I love about you. You’re so sentimental.” Macke’s eyes glistened mischievously.

Blackwelder pushed Macke’s arm off. “Don’t do that.”

He left Macke and walked toward the far end of the deck. Where the hull met the shatterproof expanse of glass, there was a somewhat narrow archway that led back to the 2030, the Barack’s on-board bar and principal point of post-work shift convergence. The day was only just winding down, so the boozehounds hadn’t made it out yet. Through the glass wall, Blackwelder noted that there were only two bartenders prepping glassware and one or two patrons who were clearly too absorbed in their own lives to notice him. Not that they could hear him at this distance anyway.

Macke caught up and grabbed Blackwelder by the elbow. “Hey, don’t do what?”

“Don’t put your arm around me and then look at me like that.”

“Like what?” he said innocently.

“We’re in public, remember?”

Blackwelder reached the very end of the deck. On the hull wall was the image of a giant globe with two Lego-like hands, one yellow, one brown, almost touching, the letters A and E displayed in the center in huge block font: the symbol of the newly Allied Earth. He leaned his back against the wall. Macke took up the space next to him.

“Being in public’s not a big deal as long you don’t make it a big deal,” Macke said almost imperceptibly while scanning his periphery.

“Well, I’m sorry I can’t be as subtle as you.” Blackwelder was careful to keep his volume in check. “When you look at me like that, it makes me want to kiss you. And if I kiss you, here,” Blackwelder indicated the wide-open space of the deck, “and word gets back to Hanson and the admiral, I’ll be scrubbing toilets for the rest of my military career. Or until I get blown up by aliens. Whichever comes first.”

“That’s not true.”

“Maybe not for you. I could take a picture of us having sex, blow it up, hese it to this globe, and almost everyone on this boat would still deny it. ‘Not Macke. Can’t be.’ Hanson’s a master at only seeing what he wants to, even if it’s glued to a wall right in front of him.”

“You’re exaggerating. You’re the best damn marksman in this command.”

“That makes a difference to you and exactly one other person. Not to the people running this ship. And you know that.”

“You’re a well-respected NCO, Wellie.”

“Only so far as I manage to keep you out of trouble.”

“You know, you’re being a real downer right now.” Suddenly, Macke’s forearm began to ring. He touched two fingers to his arm just below the crook of his elbow and slid them toward his wrist. A view screen appeared. “It’s Lyta.”

“Ah. Well? Are you going to answer it?”

Macke slid his fingers back toward his elbow, and the screen vanished. “I’m with you right now.”

“You’re with me.” Blackwelder shook his head. “I wonder what your new fiancée would have to say if she knew you were ‘with me.’”

Macke’s eyes flashed dangerously. Blackwelder suspected, for a moment, that he might have to put his expert marksmanship to use, but then Macke’s look dissolved into a playful smile.

“Let’s grab a drink.”

Blackwelder and Macke had downed several drinks by the time the bar began to fill up. Blackwelder looked up from his vodka tonic and saw a steady stream of soldiers, officers and enlisted alike, as well as the Barack’s civilian crew, filing into the 2030 in earnest. Some had come from the mess hall, some were just finishing their shift, but they all looked like they were ready for a drink. One officer in particular waved to Blackwelder, and then made her way over.

Lyta Abernathy was a Disney princess: usually the cleverest person in the room, bold beyond her years, beautiful, and motherless. On their first night together in boot camp, she’d told Blackwelder how she joined the Force to escape an abusive home life back in the European Union. She’d said it with a muted smile, showing off a hard-fought self-confidence that made Blackwelder doubt that she had any regrets. He was impressed by the way she faced each challenge, somehow secure in the knowledge that everything would work out in the end.

“My two favorite boys. Should have known you’d be here, together. And you’ve started without me, I see.” Abernathy nodded toward their nearly finished drinks, then gave Blackwelder a hug and a quick peck on the cheek.

“Sorry, babe,” Macke said. “Wellie and I were just hanging out. You know, a little guy time.”

“Right,” Abernathy said. “More like ‘guy on guy’ time.” She sauntered over to Macke and plopped down into his lap. The cheap chair gave a dangerous groan but held steady. “Hello, my love.”

“Well, hello…” Macke and Abernathy’s lips met, and it was like the entire bar dimmed in deference to them.

Blackwelder stared into his drink. He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to control his expression if he looked at them straight on, sitting there, being so open—like the couple from the lower deck. Blackwelder thought of Saturn’s rings instead.

“So did you make captain today, my love?” Macke asked.

“No, not today. Though, grapevine has it Hanson and the admiral are still buzzing about that coded message I deciphered, about the Elumerians possibly preparing to regroup in Neptune space. Admiral Vaughn has convinced them to redouble our efforts on Triton.”

“Triton,” Macke blurted. “The moon colonies are the worst. Practically a death trap.”

Abernathy nodded and then reached down for Macke’s beer and finished it off in one quick swig. Blackwelder was still looking in every direction except at the couple, though as inconspicuously as possible.

“Well, you’re awfully quiet over there,” she said.

“Just got a lot on my mind.”

“Hm. Like Trey Licata?”

“Lyta!” Blackwelder said, blushing but also smiling.

“Wait, Licata? The new mechanic? You two…”

“No!” He withered under Macke’s gaze, feeling apologetic. Macke’s eyes narrowed.

“But they could,” Abernathy offered. “He’s hot, Wellie!”

“But he’s not gay,” Macke said.

“As far as you know. You didn’t believe me when I told you Wellie was gay either, remember?”

“Boy, were you right there.” Macke seemed to remember himself the moment the words escaped his lips, but it was too late. Blackwelder shot him an icy glare that Macke reluctantly met. Abernathy, for her part, looked back and forth between the two, trying to interpret the unspoken as if it were just another alien code. She finally slipped from Macke’s lap into the chair next to him.

“Anyway, let’s talk about this engagement party,” Abernathy said. “I’m so glad you’re gonna help me with this thing.”

Thankful for the break in tension, Blackwelder managed a small smile.

“Look, Lyta, just because Wellie’s of the queer kind doesn’t mean—”

“That’s not why I asked him, Mack. It’s because he’s got the best taste of anyone in this fleet. If I asked you for help, I’d be stuck with Irish Car Bombs at the mess hall with cut-up old White Papers as streamers.”

They all started laughing, a small, intimate laugh at first, that slowly grew into a roar. The three of them were laughing so hard their eyes watered, Macke suddenly in danger of falling out of his seat. Blackwelder wasn’t sure where the sudden fit was coming from, but it felt great, and it was obvious they all needed a break in the tension. Blackwelder steadied himself, gazing at his two friends. He realized then that he would miss them both terribly.

Colonel Hanson, the second-in-command aboard the Barack, appeared suddenly behind them. He cut an intimidating figure, with his broad shoulders, thick neck, and heavy brow. “Well if it isn’t the three musketeers! Macke, Wellie, and Abernathy. Together as always!”

“Sir!” the three of them yelled in unison, jumping to attention.

“At ease, all of you. I heard the news, Macke! Just wanted to come over and congratulate you two fine officers in person!”

Macke shook the colonel’s hand vigorously. “Thank you, Colonel Hanson.”

“And our prize code cracker! You’re gonna make the prettiest bride this ship has ever seen.” Colonel Hanson leaned in for a hug. Abernathy obliged, leaving the old man with a kiss on the cheek as well. “Set a date yet, young lady?”

“No, sir. I’m still trying to fumble my way through this engagement party I’m supposed to be having.”

“Well, I don’t wanna pressure you kids, but I would think sooner than later might be best. If your intel’s correct, Lieutenant, and we have every reason to believe it is, the ‘quiet’ days might be long gone here real soon. I’d hate to see anything get in the way of your special day.”

Macke grinned. “I have a deal with God, sir; we’re covered until at least a week after the honeymoon.”

“I bet you do, you slick bastard!” Hanson said, pounding Macke on the back.

Hanson turned to Blackwelder. He tried to look relaxed, although he was uncomfortable. “You ought to get yourself one of these fine young ladies too, son. Folks ’round here might start to get the wrong idea about you.” Still smiling, Hanson playfully clapped Blackwelder on the back, who was trying very hard not to take the joke as the accusation he knew it was meant to be.

Macke glanced nervously between Blackwelder and the colonel. “Uh, buy you a drink, sir?”

“No, no. Like I said, just stopped by to wish you my best,” Hanson said.

The colonel turned back to Blackwelder. His look wasn’t unsympathetic, but it was stern, as hard as the steel girders that held the ship together. “Just finished reviewing your scores from our most recent arms training, Blackwelder. Exceptional. Can’t wait to put that eye of yours to good use.”

“Yes, sir.”

Colonel Hanson gave Blackwelder a knowing nod and excused himself to the bar.

The three of them sank back into their chairs a bit uneasily. Blackwelder’s latest run-in with the brass had left him shaken and a little pale. He downed the remainder of his drink.

Abernathy reached out and patted Blackwelder on the hand. “It’s nothing, okay? Just like Staff Sergeant Nguyen, back when we were in boot camp. He’s just blowing smoke.”

“Still, maybe you should lay off the party planning for a while,” Macke said. “I’m sure Lyta and her friend Jacobson can handle it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Blackwelder said without any confidence. “Lyta’s been fantasizing about finding her perfect prince and getting married for as long as I’ve known her.” Another quick look passed between Blackwelder and Macke, but Blackwelder pressed on. “You’re one of my best friends. I want to be there for you.”

“I’m your best friend!” She punched him in the arm from across the table. “I know you two like to think you’re it, but you never would have even met if I hadn’t introduced you. So I should get top billing.”

“You absolutely should.” Blackwelder’s smile faltered. Macke and Abernathy acted as if they didn’t notice. “Well, I’m gonna get going.”

“Already?” Abernathy asked.

“Yeah, I’m on rifles tomorrow. And being hungover around the ammo, even the practice rounds, is a recipe for disaster. We can talk more about the party tomorrow, though. I promise.”

“A word before you go?” After Blackwelder nodded his assent, Mack kissed Abernathy on the forehead. “Be right back, babe.”

Macke followed Blackwelder back through the archway and onto the observation deck. Blackwelder didn’t stop until he’d reached the lower deck, now empty and guaranteed to stay that way until after the 2030 booze rush died down.

Down on the level, the deck had a photograph taken at the peace accords, the summit where 75 percent of the world’s leaders created the Allied Earth Council. In the photo, thirteen men and women shook hands as if they’d always been best friends. As if each of them hadn’t tried, on more than one occasion, to blow the other up. Blackwelder focused on Chancellor Bumani, the former French president who, five years prior, had somehow managed to get everyone on the same page just in time to stop the Elumerians from blowing a gigantic crater into mainland China.

“What are you doing, Wellie?”

“Spencer,” Blackwelder corrected.

Macke sighed. “Look, I know that Hanson sniffing around for a bite can really mess with your head, but you’ve got to keep your shit together around Lyta. She’s been asking me what’s wrong with you.”

“What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong is that I’ve been living a fucking lie, Robby! I’m secretly in love with my best friend, not to mention fraternizing with an officer. With Lyta, I’m betraying the one person who’s had my back since day one, and I’m hiding my true self from every other person on this boat. It’s not fucking fair.”

“Look, Spence, I really don’t want to have this conversation with you again. It can’t be the way you want it to be, okay? No matter how unfair it is. And it’s unfair to all of us, not just you.”

“I’m not talking about me, for once. I’m talking about Lyta. Every time I see her face I hate myself that much more. I’m sleeping with her fiancé while helping her to plan her engagement party. Do you have any idea how fucked that is?”

Blackwelder turned toward the view. From this angle, he caught a much better shot of Saturn’s rings: hundreds of thousands of kilometers of ice and rocks and dust. He wondered if he’d ever see anything as beautiful again in his lifetime.

“I can’t do it anymore,” he said, turning back toward Macke.

“You’re not going to tell her, are you?” Macke furrowed his brow, and his expression soured; an intense panic seemed to be coming over him. “You can’t! Do you have any idea what that will do to her?”

“I know. But I can’t keep lying to her either. That’s why I’m leaving. I’m transferring to Triton, to the front line command at Fort Felix. I’ll be leading their marksmanship training.”

“You can’t be serious. Triton? With all that second-rate colony tech? Every other day you hear about somebody getting nitrogen poisoning or freezing to death. And you heard what Lyta said: it’ll most likely be the Elumerians’ first target when they come back.”

“I know. That’s why they need trainers. I’m gonna stay on board the Barack until after this party, and then I’m gone.”

Blackwelder started to leave, but Macke grabbed him by the arm.

“Wait. Just…wait, okay?” A deluge of emotions flushed Macke’s face: anger, confusion, fear…love? Desperation. Blackwelder’s own heart pained at the sight of him. He wanted to hold him, even started to open his arms, but remembered where they were and thought better.

“Don’t,” Blackwelder said. “Because there’s nothing you can say—”

“I’ll tell her. I swear. I just…I just need a little more time, but I promise.” Macke started to shiver as if he’d walked into a cold front.

“No. If you don’t love her, which I know you do, then don’t marry her. But don’t tell her because you’re trying to convince me. It’ll destroy her. And quite frankly, you deserve to carry that guilt and shame around. We both do.”

“But you’re throwing your life away.” Macke’s expression was strangely emotional, but his volume was quite controlled. “No one asks to get sent to Triton. The number of people who actually make it back—”

“It’s my choice, Robby. The leadership sets the attitude of this place, and that’s not going to change any time soon. You heard Hanson; it’s only a matter of time before someone starts asking, and I have to start telling. At least this way, the two of you don’t have to get implicated in any stupid scandal of mine. Besides, it’s only a six-month tour. I’ll be back before you know it.” The lie was already effortless. Blackwelder knew he’d be saying it to himself every day until he met his end.

“Spencer…please….”

Blackwelder headed for the door again, but this time, Macke didn’t try to stop him. For the briefest of moments, Blackwelder hoped that he would. But when the door closed behind him, he breathed a sigh of relief: he had survived the temptation. He’d passed the test. He’d proven that his head could rule his heart. As he made his way back to his quarters, though, he was unsurprised at how little comfort that fact actually brought him.

Chapter Three: Dawn at Fort Felix

Blackwelder boarded the transport as quickly as possible. It was 0400 Standard Earth Time. He didn’t want a send-off, and he certainly didn’t want a scene. He knew Lyta would ask too many questions. Robby, he was less concerned about; he doubted Robby could come up with anything more convincing than what he’d already said, and there was no way he’d say any of it in front of other people. Still, a quiet exit was easier. Cleaner. Colonel Hanson had approved the request for the early departure without question. It was obvious he understood. So Blackwelder boarded the transport, strapped himself in, nodded to the pilot, and departed. He couldn’t have known it for sure then—though of course he suspected—but he would never step foot onto the AES Barack again.



After a long series of hyperspace jumps, Blackwelder’s new home came into view. Triton was a bright white dot, shining at the edge of human space. They looked like handsome jewels together: Neptune, a giant sapphire, and its moon, a little pearl spinning happily around it in a perfectly circular orbit. They were beautiful, but he didn’t want to think about that. Instead, he reminded myself that this is where it would happen. When they finally came back, when the war finally resumed, this would be where it started. The vaunted glory of the front line. As he approached Triton, more and more of the surface became visible. A pinkish band stretched across the southern pole of the moon. Unlike Earth, or even Neptune, Triton didn’t have much atmosphere to speak of, and the pink mark looked like a scar on the skin of the world, like a trail a blood left on the snow-covered rock.

He should have been filled with dread. He should have been afraid, and yet, all Blackwelder could do was crane his neck like an excited child as the transport made its final descent toward the base. Triton’s surface was covered in dazzling ice and snow, or at least what would pass for ice and snow, as water was actually very rare on the moon’s surface. Crystals began to form along the edges of the window, confirming what he’d read about Triton only a day before: that its surface was actually colder than its atmosphere. They flew through a couple clouds of dark gray dust before finally spotting the base. It was a massive compound, broken down into multiple domed sections that were connected by several covered passageways, most only big enough for foot or small cart traffic, but the two biggest domes were connected by a large corridor that could easily accommodate a tank. The pilot tilted toward one of the large domes, and a small port opened up to reveal a hangar bay below. Even from that altitude, a small assemblage of women and men were visible in the dome. On the floor near where they were standing was the base’s emblem: nine white stars arched and floating above a golden trident pressed again a blue shield. The tips of the trident and shield seemed to be pointing to the gathering in what felt like an obvious and intentional way. Apparently, he was going to have to endure a scene after all.

Once on the ground, the hatch to the transport slid open. Blackwelder stole a brief moment to adjust himself, to make sure his uniform was presentable. They’d been flying for twelve hours, and it was the first time he’d ever worn the new uniform, so he’d allowed himself to get at least a bit more comfortable by unbuttoning the jacket and loosening the tie during the trip. The last thing he wanted was for his new commanding officer’s first impression of him to suggest he was in any way messy. Promotion or no, he was still the best-dressed enlisted man in the Allied Earth Force.

After exiting the transport, he came to attention before two women and two men. The person closest to the middle stepped forward and extended her hand.

“Warrant Officer Blackwelder, I am Lieutenant Colonel Andrea Lee, Area Commander for the Weapons Training Battalion, and your new Commanding Officer. Welcome to Fort Felix.”

Lt. Col. Lee was a bit taller than Blackwelder. She had black hair that was white at the temples. It hung loose, as it was too short to be pulled into a ponytail. She had the kind of face that looked like it couldn’t help but smile.

“Thank you, sir.” He shook her hand. “I am very pleased to be here.”

“This is my XO, Major Arthur Page,” Lee said.

“Sir,” he said, saluting the major. Page was very tall with a lean build and head full of white hair. Blackwelder couldn’t help but think that Page was too old to only be a major. It was a centuries-old expectation that an active duty officer should continue to progress through the ranks, at least until the level of colonel or a similar position. A notion inspired, Blackwelder assumed, by sharks, one of the ocean’s great predators, who had to keep moving forward or die. That Page had presumably been passed over for promotion to colonel or even lieutenant colonel seemed suspicious. Especially as promotions were easier to come by during a time of war, a fact to which Blackwelder could personally attest. But, perhaps Page had simply grown comfortable working with Lt. Col. Lee? He would not have been able to serve as her executive officer if he shared her rank or outranked her.

“Warrant Officer Blackwelder,” Page said coolly. His stare gave Blackwelder the uncomfortable sensation of being probed, as if Page could somehow hear his judgmental thoughts. His facial expression didn’t change at all, though. He reminded Blackwelder of men he’d seen during boot camp and basic training: men with something to prove but without all that reckless bravado. Presumably, he was incredibly well disciplined (as XOs should of course be) but probably held a grudge. Blackwelder suspected Page was the absolute last person he’d ever want to cross. He averted his eyes but held his salute until the colonel spoke again.

“And this is my SNCO Sergeant Major Vernita Burton.”

“Warrant Officer,” Burton said, saluting him. Her voice was sonorous and commanding, as though she had enough authority in one hand to lead all of the Allied Earth Forces.

Blackwelder returned the gesture. “Sergeant Major.”

Vernita Burton had a presence that was hard to define. She was taller than average, but not distractingly so. She radiated a well-defined sense of control, like the XO, but there was also something infinitely more pleasant about her. Even from her stance, Blackwelder could tell that her physical training was superior, and that she was confident and capable. He had a feeling he was going to like her.

Lt. Col. Lee indicated the last man standing with the welcoming party. “And last but certainly not least, this is Fort Felix’s senatorial ambassador, Mr. Juan Miguel Arías.”

“Warrant Officer Blackwelder, on behalf of the Tridecagon of Allied Earth, I’d like to welcome you to Triton and Fort Felix. I understand your mission here will make us all much better prepared to move forward in this war,” he said, shaking Blackwelder’s hand enthusiastically.

Juan Miguel Arías. He had bronze skin with baby-soft hands, just like a civie. He had the practiced tone of a politician, but his amber eyes emoted sincerity. His black hair was short but wavy, and he smelled like…like a forest after a light rain. It had been years since Blackwelder had spent any time in the forests near his childhood home in the Allied Earth region of America North—his father’s native Canada, to be specific—and yet here he was, somehow connecting to one of his favorite places from his youth. His head began to swim. Captured snapshots of Juan Miguel’s smile started floating down the river of his thoughts. His name, Juan Miguel Arías, licked Blackwelder’s ears like a song. He could feel Juan Miguel’s heartbeat in his fingertips as they shook hands. It was the last thing he could have ever expected to find in Fort Felix, out of all the places in the universe; he had found him.

Blackwelder closed his eyes and opened them again. He was desperately hoping that he hadn’t been staring at this man for the last ten minutes, that any of the thoughts he’d just been having hadn’t accidentally slipped from his lips, in whole or in any part. Suddenly his mind returned to him. He had merely blinked. It had been seconds, not minutes. And he had managed to keep his mouth shut, both verbally and physically.

“Thank you, Ambassador. It’s very nice to meet you.” He pulled his hand from Juan Miguel’s grasp. He took a step back and tried not to stare too intently at the floor. It was incredibly childish, he knew, but he just couldn’t bring himself to look Juan Miguel in the eye.

“Well,” Lt. Col. Lee began, cutting in, “I’m sure you’re a bit tired from your travels. I will see you in my office at 0800 tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I will leave you in the sergeant major’s capable hands.”

“Thank you, sir.” And with that, Lt. Col. Lee, Major Page, and the ambassador all turned to leave.

“Would you like to go to your quarters, sir?” Burton asked.

With great effort, Blackwelder finally tore his eyes away from the exiting welcome party. “No. The Training Grounds. Please.”

“Very well. Corporal, take the warrant officer’s belongings to the officers’ quarters in C-Dome.”

“Yes, sir!” A green-uniformed blur sped past off to the transport. Blackwelder nodded to the soldier as he collected his bags. Burton indicated a cart parked nearby, and following her lead, he jumped in the passenger side.

They left the hangar in D-Dome and entered B-Dome, which was sometimes referred to as the central hub because from there, one could access any part of the base directly, except for the officer quarters, engineering, and the brig. On that first day, though, they drove through B-Dome in silence. Blackwelder pretended to be carefully observing the structural work of the walls and ceilings, such as the crisscrossing white beams, and the spotless sheets of thermo-glass, the only thing standing between them and temperatures one hundred times colder than the Arctic Circle back on Earth. Every time they passed a fresh-faced enlisted private, they saluted him. He had only officially become an officer about twenty-four hours prior, the gold bar and single red star on his collar still as new to him as he was to everyone else. Whether Colonel Hanson had convinced Admiral Vaughn to authorize the promotion out of a sense of respect, or as a celebratory “good riddance,” he guess he’d never know.


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