The Commander was in his cabin when I stepped onto the bridge and looked around the space. It was a mass of screens and projectors, showing our position relative to Earth and Luna and the millions of objects that floated in between the two.
The XO was finishing up with the release orders for clearing the nearest shipping lanes so we could put the burn on a bit earlier than normally allowed by civilian vessels. It would shave off a few days and let us put by past Mars on the way out. He put his tablet down as I approached.
"Captain," he said with the grace of a man for whom being a drill instructor would have been too cheerful a career in the navy.
"XO. Smooth launch."
"Ensign Laign to thank for that," the XO said, cocking a thumb over his shoulder to point at a young pilot. She was buckled into her gimbal seat and oblivious to us both as she concentrated on the vacuum beyond the bulkheads. The watchstander sat next to her and was similarly engrossed in his own screens.
"Commander Somerville is in his cabin. Just knock before you go in."
"Aye Sir," I said.
"And Captain, third watch reported a ruckus in the commissary last night." I hid my grimace. "Next time you want to throw a party, do it on someone else's ship or you'll find your entire compliment in the airlock if it happens again."
And so went the oldest story in the book. We were just marines, the simple grunts who pulled a trigger and it was the navy who did all the hard work, plotting the courses across the vast distances between planets.
You could fight them, the men who'd spent their life in service of a glorified bus, but it got you nowhere. I nodded, took the verbal threat, and knocked on the door to the Commander's cabin.
"Don't let Laskin get to you," the Commander said as I stepped inside and closed the hatch.
The Commander's cabin would have seemed spacious, were it not for the books, crammed into every nook and cranny like a fungus that had grown out of control. The Commander himself was sat hunched amidst a sea of tablets, calculations scrawling across them.
It was work a computer would do, work an ensign could double check if it ever required a human to look over it. The Commander was the kind of man though who left nothing to chance. He wanted to know every detail of the run and every possible variation it could take so if the shit hit the fan he could switch tactics without even having to think about it.
My kind of commander.
"I've seen plenty worse Sir, the XO is just looking out for his ship."
"Your men squared away?"
"Yes. The doc sends her thanks for the separate accommodation as well."
"A respectable lady like that shouldn't be forced to bunk with jarheads."
I smiled and Somerville put away his tablets and turned to face me. He had flecks of grey in his hair and his jacket was unbuttoned but there wasn't an ounce of fat showing beneath the shirt he wore. Early sixties, maybe, I pegged him at.
"Frost," Sommerville said, as if he were trying out the word. "Any relation to Baxter Frost in the four two?"
"My father Sir."
"He was a good man. A good marine."
"You knew him?"
"Only very briefly. He saved my life."
I was on tenterhooks and it must have shown on my face. My father had died when I was a kid. As far as my mum had been concerned he hadn't passed the minimum number of hours required to be considered a dad. I'd grown up knowing only he'd been a marine and he'd died off world. My own active duty hadn't brought me any closer to knowing anything more than that. Sometimes I liked to think I was walking in his boots. A childish notion.
Funny how a secret mission would finally shed some light on his service.
"How did you…?"
Somerville pulled out two glasses and poured a finger of scotch into each. The liquid tilted slightly to one side, the curve of our orbit throwing out the level and making my brain ache.
"This was long after the Hour War. We were just patrolling the system then. There was a new group we were coming across back then, the Acolytes, but they weren't the same threat that they are now. You're talking maybe twenty years ago now, all of this." He took a drink and went back in time. "I'd reached my pilot rating by then so I'd decided to stay on and go career. A lot of guys in my squadron were dropping out, joining the expansion effort and flying commercial, but I liked having the power of god at my fingertips, running the helm on the big buckets.
"Your Dad, he must have been nearly the same age as me back then. You're what, 25 now?"
"You were barely a kid when he shipped out then," Somerville said.
The Commander finished his glass but didn't refill it. Mine sat untouched and I watched the vibrations play across the surface of the amber liquid inside. This would have been only months, maybe a year, before my dad's death and it was the closest I'd been able to follow his timeline.
"I saw him kill a man on the Titus."
"Never heard of it Sir."
"Not surprised. It was a dark stain on everyone's memory. The fleet was running a drill in the Greeks, just inside Jupiter's orbit and a large group of those dammed Acolyte's managed to take control of a ship, the Titus. They'd planned it for a long time, a small group taking key stations and letting a shuttle dock with extra reinforcements, but the one thing they didn't count on was your father.
"He was on the Titus. We both were, though we'd never met before, him being a marine and all. When the call came in over the 1MC most of the crew were in prep for another drill, not expecting a call to arms. And then the boarders started venting compartments before we even realised what was going on. When was the last time you did a pressure-loss drill?"
I knew the answer was not as often as I should. It used to be, as a maggot fresh out of boot, I could tell you where the nearest locker was at all times. You could cut the thrust, kill the lights, and I'd still be out of my rack and pulling on a mask before my lungs started to burn.
I wouldn't even know where to start now and it made me realise I needed to get familiar with this new class of ship. Myself, and all the men. Hannah popped into my head and I realised she'd probably never even seen a pressure mask let alone had to don one in an emergency.
"Lost a lot of men in those first few minutes," Somerville said. "Too many. The XO received a court martial when it was over for failing to adequately prepare the men. It's something I've never let my men forget. The Commander, well he never had a chance to stand trial.
"I was on the bridge when they took it. You have to remember son, the Acolytes, they were nothing at this point. They'd caused a few riots and burnt down a few recruitment posts and so the news just called them radicals with a grudge. That was it. But they came onto that bridge and they shot the Commander point-blank in the head.
"You ever seen a man killed in zero-gee?" Somerville asked.
I nodded. Of course I had. It was part of my job description and there was no amount of training that could let you know what it felt like. Down a gravity well, you shot a man and he fell to the dirt, blood and all. In null-gee it was like a spider-web exploding in every direction from his skull, the drops of blood flying out until they hit a bulkhead or a person or your visor. Sometimes the blood just hung in the air and you had to swim through it all.
"I hadn't. I'd plugged plenty of pirates with the PDCs but never once seen a man die in front of me."
The Commander stopped. The heartbeat turned into a pause and the moment stretched on until I reached for my glass. The Commander refilled his own and then mine after I had downed it's contents.
"They started herding men towards the loading bay and, let me tell you, I thought that was it. Any moment now they're going to put everyone in an airlock and we'd all be spaced."
"Forty-seven men and women made it off that ship at the end of the day. We could have fought back but they had all the guns so it'd just be a turkey-shoot in the corridors. Your father's squad, they were off the manifest, just hitching a ride, and the Acolytes missed them in their sweeps. While we were crapping in our pants, the marines were already in motion.
"They scuttled the engines. It takes a snipe a hundred hours a week just to keep a Ramanujan drive purring and your dad turned one into slag quicker than the auto-brew can kick out a coffee.
"I may be a navy boy but watching the marines that day. It made me proud to be a part of the UNNC. They would drop in in the confusion, inverted descent in the zero-gee, and fire off a burst and then be gone. Pretty soon the Acolytes had fallen back to the bridge. It was me and another ensign along with the XO and our remaining hosts, one for each of us."
The Commander took another sip and I followed suit. I'd followed in my Dad's footsteps, but I never knew what he'd done, how he'd operated. Years of absence had fostered a sense of wistfulness.
"Your father, when he came onto the bridge, oh son. I'm telling you this for two reasons Captain; first, because I am an old man and there's a chance none of us will make it back from this mission." Somerville paused, pinched at his nose and fixed me with a stare. "And the second is because you deserve to know about your father."
"What happened on that bridge Sir?"
"The marines breached and took up positions behind the nearest consoles. The Acolytes were holding us to their chests and we were all just suspended in the air. They would fire and your father's men just took cover. The dead-eye popped up a moment before your men did, their eye pieces slaved to the visuals from the dead-eye's camera and they took down the terrorists holding the XO and the other ensign in a flash. Perfect aim. The one holding me shifted at the last moment though and the round tore through both of our shoulders.
"This guy was screaming and I kicked back sending him into the bulkhead and me into the killbox. Your father drifted past me then, taking all the time in the world, and he stopped in front of the Acolyte. I could have sworn they knew each other son. The way they squared off against each other, the things they were saying."
"What did my dad say Sir?"
"It's been a long time and…"
"Please. I need to know."
"He called him his brother."
I wasn't listening. My mind was somewhere else. Rationalising and thinking and not accepting it.
"They got into a discussion and then your dad pulled his sidearm and held it to the Acolyte's skull. I didn't hear what they were saying then. When he pulled back I thought it was over but he was just giving the round time to ignite when he pulled the trigger."
"My dad wouldn't execute a man in cold blood."
"There was nothing innocent about those terrorists, they got what they deserved and the military swept the whole thing under the rug. All told, nineteen sailors died that day. There were medals given out for a fight without a name, hands shaken followed by a stern-warning not to mention anything about the incident to anyone."
"And my dad?"
"I saw him, before he left the ship. I shook his hand and thanked him. You look a lot like him son. I heard he was transferred to a special investigative division after that but you know how it goes, trying to keep track of anyone or anything out beyond the belt, least of all a covert-ops unit."
I sipped at my glass and let the details sink in. The Acolytes and their early attacks, my dad and his squad executing them, and then nothing. He'd just vanished. Something didn't quite sit right though.
"What did they want with the ship?" I asked.
Somerville twisted in his seat and set down his empty glass. He didn't refill it this time.
"I don't know."
A lie. The kind that gets stuck in your throat even after the bile has already come up around it. He could tell me my dad was a murderer, but he wouldn't tell me why. Fine.
"Thank you Sir."
"Son. Your father was a good man, don't ever forget that."
"I won't Sir."
It was pretty clear the meeting was over and I handed the Commander my glass. He put them away, the sticky foam of the cabinet sealing itself to the bottom of the glass as he shut the door.
"We'll break orbit at solar noon. You should get Doctor Adams to her crash seat beforehand," he said.
"And Captain," Somerville said as I stood in the low-gravity, feeling my knees pull me back down at the sudden motion. "Next time you throw a party on my ship…"
"I know Sir, I'll keep the men in line."
"I was going to say make sure you invite the rest of the crew first."
I smiled and snapped off a crisp salute that the Commander returned.
"My head is pounding."
Hannah was stretched out across one of the bunks when I entered the second dorm. She'd requisitioned one of the other bunks as a store for her work; tablets and papers stacked amongst the vacuum-sealed bedsheets. It would all go flying the moment the ship passed one-gee.
"Never drink anything Solomon offers you," I said.
I began sweeping the items into a heap and shoved them into a locker. Hannah just rolled over on her own bunk.
"I would give you some meds for the hangover but you need the anti-gees more or else you're going to pass out and not be of any use to us."
"Does it hurt? The acceleration?"
"Like an elephant's doing a tap dance on your chest."
She moaned again. Of all the xeno-shrinks on Earth we got the one who'd never been into orbit before. She'd have to get used to it. We had eight weeks and a lot of prep to do and I wasn't going to let her sleep it all away on a crash couch.
I reached into her bunk and hit the controls. The mattress adjusted and she sank an inch into it's surface as the gel layer accepted her form. She tried to roll over but I put a hand on her chest to stop her.
Her eyes opened and looked up at me.
"No funny ideas," she said in slurred words.
I pulled the sheets up until they covered her and fed the two straps across her torso. When she was secure I opened her locker and removed her stat-pack. It was a marine's best friend, everything they'd need. Their medical history, a micro-blood bank and an assortment of stims and chems designed to keep them going, all tailored to their particular genetics and size. The docs looked anaemic compared to my own. I noticed her blood type, no genetic-warfare in her past.
I took out a red tab, anti-gee medication, and held it above her until her eyes lazily focused on it.
"Stick out your tongue doc."
"I bet you say that to all the girls."
A few days ago it would have been funny. Now she was just another member of my team. I wanted to keep her safe but she'd dashed any hope of anything further than that. She poked her tongue out and I slipped the tab beneath it.
Three. Two. She started bucking and her eyes shot open until the pupils were just pinpricks. Her heart kicked up a gear until you could watch it beat beneath the sheets above her breasts.
The hit died down and her breathing returned to normal, only a sheen of sweat across her brow.
"Woah," she whispered.
"I'm going to take the bunk opposite," I said, stripping out of my jumpsuit until I was just in my boxers and shirt. Her eyes watched me.
"I thought this was my room marine."
"I don't want you noxing on your first burn," I said, slipping into the bunk. I hit the controls and felt the gel of the crash couch suck me in. "If you feel your toes go cold, that's normal. If you feel your breath going cold, let me know because your chest is about to implode."
"Thank you," she said, staring up at the cracked plastic roof of her bunk.
I took my own tab and pulled the straps over myself, a move that took a considerable amount of training before you could do it right. I felt the rush. It felt like the prelude to battle.
"Frost," she said quietly and I turned my head to look at her. "I'm going to make it up to you," she said.
The 1MC blared into life. "Burn, burn, set condition 1-alpha. All hands to couches. Burn, burn."
The engines screamed into life and my body became as heavy as my thoughts.