The rock turned silently within hard vacuum and the young woman with it. She pressed her nose to the porthole which fogged with her breath while she waited for night to sweep over this part of the base again. It would come, dark and frozen, within a few minutes, revealing the star field of the local volume, the vast blue-green pearl of the planet far below, and the lights of the nearest Hab, another naval station, like this hollowed-out moonlet, but not.
Lucinda waited for the stars. In the right mood, in a rare abstracted moment, she sometimes wondered at the way they wrapped themselves around you, seeming both intimate and infinite at the same time. As she wondered, dusk came pouring over the small mountain range to the east, advancing in a wave of fast shadows and lengthening pools of inky blackness. She could not see the darkness coming for her on this part of the rock, but she imagined it now swallowing the local area point defences and the gaping maw of the docks. The entrance to the port was always illuminated, but the lights would soon burn with a severe brilliance in the accelerated night.
She was not floating, but she still felt light and only barely in touch with the deck in the standard quarter-gee provided by the moonlet’s mass here at the surface.
Surprised out of her reverie, she jumped a little, reaching out reflexively to nearest wall to arrest herself before she could take gentle flight. She was embarrassed at being caught out so.
“Yes,” she said, her voice catching just a little as she turned away from the view, reorienting herself to the spare, utilitarian lines and angles of the transit lounge. As grim as were the outlines of the RAN base and the lunar surface from which its outer shell emerged, the transit lounge was altogether less pleasant to contemplate. At least she thought so after the third hour of waiting here. The glow strips on the carbon armour walls were old enough to need replacing months ago. Rows of hard o-plastic seating looked bleached and brittle under the weak lighting. She was the only other officer in the space. The only other person for the last hour. This part of the facility was restricted and foot traffic was thin.
“Sorry for the delay, ma’am,” said the young man, saluting. He was a second lieutenant, just out of the Academy she guessed from his age and eagerness and his eyes went a little wide as he took in the campaign ribbons on her jacket. He wore dark blue general duty coveralls and carried a sidearm low on his thigh. Lucinda, in her black and white dress uniform, felt awkward in spite of her advantage in rank and experience.
She returned his salute and tried to ignore the feeling that seemed to steal upon her with every new posting, that she was simply masquerading as an officer and would soon be found out.
“You have the advantage of me, Lieutenant…?”
He stared at her blankly for a second, amplifying that sense of dislocation and fragile pretence. Then he smiled.
“Oh. Sorry. You’re not plugged into the shipnet yet. Wilkins, ma’am. Lieutenant Tym Wilkins. Junior Grade.”
They shook hands, close enough in rank for the informal gesture. His eyes flitted briefly to the colored rows of decorations again, but she could forgive him that. He wore no decoration beyond the stitched half-bar on one collar tab.
“Sorry,” he said, when he realised she’d caught him checking out the fruit salad, but he smiled as he apologised. He had a boyish grin that Lucinda imagined had been getting him out of trouble his whole life. He looked very practised in its use. “They told me you fought in the Javan War,” he said, catching sight of her duffel bag under the front row of seats and reaching for it before she could. Lucinda almost told him not to. She preferred to look out for herself. But Wilkins held the lesser rank and it would have been a slight to her if he had not offered. He lifted it carefully in the low-G, testing its mass. Nodding when had the measure of the load.
“They said you were promoted in the field,” he said, leading her toward the exit. “From ensign to lieutenant.”
His enthusiasm was getting away from him. Not looking where he was going, he banged his knee into a chair and cussed, then apologised for cussing. The bag floated up slowly, like an improbable novelty ballon.
“Whoa there,” he said, adjusting his grip and stance and nearly tumbling over while he wrestled the duffel bag and his own mass back under control.
“Damn,” he grinned. “Been in spin and ship grav too long.”
He shrugged off the moment where she would have blushed fiercely with embarrassment.
Lucinda found she could not help but like him. But also, she could not let him go on.
“Thank you,” she said, nodding at the bag. “But I went into the war as a baby Louie, just like you. And I came out a fully grown LT simply because it went on long enough for my turn to come around.”
Wilkins, unconvinced, gave her a theatrically dubious side-eye as they exited the Spartan surrounds of the transit lounge.
“No. The Chief told me you were promoted in the field. And the Chief is never wrong. He told me that too.”
She shrugged and essayed a small uncertain smile.
“I would never want to correct a Chief Petty Officer,” she said—and she was not lying—“but the first promotion, from ensign, that wasn’t in the war. It was nothing, really. Just a small engagement during a counter-piracy patrol.”
“Okay,” he grinned, as though he knew she was hiding some greater truth. “If you say so.”
They walked down a long, wide corridor. The passageway twisted like an elongated strand of DNA, and curved down into the body of the rock. She could feel their descent in the slope under her feet and in the increasing pull of gravity. There were no more portholes to the surface, only screens carrying data feeds and imagery from around the base. At first they passed by no other personnel, but the traffic in automats and bot trains was moderate to busy, and once an Autonomous Combat Intellect floated past. They saluted the black, ovoid lozenge. It pulsed in acknowledgement, turning briefly purple, before a male voice, said, “Lieutenant Hardy, Lieutenant Wilkins, good evening to you both.
The Intellect drifted on serenely.
They watched it disappear around the twisting curvilinear passage.
“Those guys,” said Wilkins, shaking his head. “So chill.”
The corridor spiralled down for another five minutes. Lucinda’s duffel bag grew visibly heavy in her colleague’s hand. She did not so much make conversation as ride it downslope. Wilkins, unlike her, wasn’t shy of talking about himself. By the time they left the long spiral passage they had completely inverted themselves relative to the surface and stood in a secure reception bay, enjoying one Earth-standard grav, provided by the moonlet’s power-assisted spin. She also knew all about Wilkin’s family (wealthy but not yet ennobled), his service (just beginning), and the ship’s command group (pretty chill, except for…)
“Except for this guy,” he muttered out the corner of mouth.
“Wilkins! Where the hell have you been?”
Hardy started at the barking voice, as much at the accent as the volume and sharpness. The rich, stentorian tones of someone who grew up at court on the Armedalan home-world were unmistakable, especially when the speaker made an extra special effort to gild their speech in gold leaf.
The reception bay was a small area, not much larger than the transit lounge where she’d spent so many hours. The walls and ceiling were bare rock, save for a thin but obvious coating of sealant, shining under the glow strips. Three of the four security checkpoints were closed. The fourth stood open and a man in day uniform stomped through. He wore the insignia a First Lieutenant and Wilkins snapped to attention. Hardy stood at ease. The man did not outrank her. Not in any military sense.
His expression turned dark as he took in her lack of deference.
“Lieutenant Hardy?” he asked, giving her the impression that it was an onerous and unwelcome duty to even say her name.
She left the question open. For the merest second he had almost elicited a ‘Yessir!’ from her, his long experience of assumed privilege conspiring with her trained obedience to the chain of command to force a submission to which he was not due. Not while he served in uniform.
“You took your time, Lieutenant,” the officer complained.
He did not offer his name. Perhaps she was supposed to know him, or know of him?
“I was waiting at surface level transit, as per my travel orders… Lieutenant,” she said, annoyed by how much his tone of voice seemed to compel her to call him ‘sir’. Wilkins, she sensed, remained at attention beside her.
Lucinda guessed herself to be in the presence of some minor scion of the Royal House, serving his three years before taking up a directorship on one of the Habs or possibly even down on the planet below. He was a First Lifer, like her. Like all of them. Junior officers were always First Lifers. After all, who would go back for a second bite of that cherry?
The anonymous princeling, or count, or whatever he was, lost focus while he consulted his neural net. A lieutenant, she reminded herself, he was just a lieutenant, like her, possibly with even less time in service. He stared through her and Wilkins, who was still standing rigidly to attention and saying nothing. It was the first time he’d shut up since she’d met him. Lucinda was tempted to grab an image cap of the nameless officer and run a personnel search while he made them wait. See if she could track down his ‘legend’, the public record of his naval service. See if he’d been the sort of second or third tier wastrel who kept the scandal services and gossip archives busy before he had to sign on.
But she kept her interface shut down and her expression neutral. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. He seemed to getting altogether too much satisfaction from Wilkins’ discomfort and her irritation.
His eyes came back from searching the middle distance and he smirked.
“A charity case, eh?”
She felt her cheeks beginning to burn and knowing that she was blushing only made it worse. Lucinda stared at him, refusing to drop her gaze. Her anger growing. Beside her, Wilkins remained as silent and still as the hard vacuum outside.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Did Naval Records get it wrong?”
He made a show of checking his neural net again, although she doubted he even bothered pulling it up. He simply pretended.
“It’s says you were recommended for officer training school by Habitat Welfare because…” again, the play of consulting records, “…because your father was transported to a debtor colony.”
The still anonymous lieutenant sucked air in through his teeth. “I wouldn’t go lending money to this one, Wilkins,” he snorted. “Would you?”
Wilkins took just half a second too long to answer.
“Well?” asked the Lieutenant, sensing more fun to be had in that moment of hesitation. “Would you?”
Still at parade ground attention, Lieutenant Wilkins seemed to be struggling to lift a great weight, as though Lucinda’s kit bag, which he still carried, had somehow increased its mass tenfold.
“If Lieutenant Hardy was in need of a loan, Lieutenant Reence,” he said at last. “I would be happy to help her. As, I’m sure, she would do for me.”
Lucinda smiled. She knew who he was now. Or who his family, at any rate. House Reence. And that was the same thing really.
“Of course I would, Tym,” she said.
Reence did not smile. He seemed about to double down on whatever game he was playing when he suddenly came to attention as rigidly as Wilkins. Lucinda followed his lead. Something or someone behind her had brought the young man’s theatre of cruelty to an end.
“Ah. Excellent,” said a gruff male voice. It sounded bearish but kindly.
Lieutenant Reence performed a textbook salute.
Lucinda and Wilkins followed suit as the eerily glowing, spherical jewel of an Autonomous Combat Intellect floated up at chest level. It was smaller than the Intellect they had passed on the upper levels. That had been oblong in form and at least a metre in length.
This entity was much smaller, a ship’s Intellect, rather than a Fleet Level adept. About the size and shape of a baseball, it looked like nothing so much as an itinerant blackhole, turned sentient and footloose.
“Is this our new tactical officer?” it asked, although it knew full well who she was. The Intellects knew everything. “Lieutenant Hardy? Welcome aboard, young lady. I’ve heard marvellous things about you from Admiralty, and from the Intellect 4717, who was with you during that spot of bother with those dreadful pirate fellows in the Archon System. Come along, Reence!” The Intellect scolded. “We have a genuine hero piping aboard. I hope you’ve seen to the supper arrangements. Captain Dickinson will expect the silver service. It’s not every day we welcome a Medal of Honour winner to the wardroom. Remind me again, Reence. Do you have a Medal of Honour? I can’t quite recall you winning one, which is odd, because as you know my memory is virtually infinite and actually infallible.”
The Intellect moved off with regal grace, clearing a path through the security barrier and humming a tune Lucinda thought she recognised from a musical she’d seen back on Armedale, during a rare weekend off from the Academy.
“You didn’t tell me about the medal,” Wilkins stage whispered as they fell in behind the merrily humming super-intelligence. Lieutenant Reence stalked ahead of them, but behind the Intellect.
“The records were sealed,” she said.
The Intellect should not have known, and if it did know it should not have revealed that it knew.
But the Intellects were like that.
You never really knew that the hell they were thinking.