by Robert Lyman - 2021
Sure enough, there was a problem. A significant one at that. One that was going to cause a lot of issues for a lot of people on the Renegade.
Communications Officer Jones was dead.
As in shuffled off his mortal coil by having his head caved in by a large object, then stuffed into a storage locker near the crew quarters kind of dead.
I stood there with the Captain as the purser and his assistant managed the scene. It was pretty gruesome all in all. Who knew the head held that much blood and grey matter. Pretty ugly way to go if you ask me.
“This doesn’t change what we discussed, Commander,” he said.
“Sir, we need to talk,” I replied. I pulled the message from my pocket and held it out to him. He took it, read it, passed it back.
“Walk with me,” he said and began walking away from the crew quarters and towards his own.
“Has the Chief seen this?” he asked.
“I went to her straight away with it,” I said and explained how I came to be in possession of the message. “She said it wasn’t hers since all her messages are in her native tongue and not English. Which means—”
“Which means we have a spy among us,” he finished.
“The question still stands, Commander. Will you fly the mission?”
Too many questions popping up and not enough answers, but I already knew the answer to this one.
“Against my better judgement, I’m going to say yes,” that was easier than I thought, though in retrospect I suppose I had already decided when I started considering the route we’d take to get there.
“Against your better judgement?” he replied.
“Well like I said before, I really don’t want to go back, but,” I said.
“But now you see there’s a bigger picture here.”
“Pretty much,” I said.
“Okay, we need to get you and the Chief underway as quickly as possible,” he said.
We stopped in the hallway, stepped into a nearby conference room and closed the door. He took the handheld from the sound powered phone and spoke, “AIMD, Captain, status check on aircraft maintenance?” There was a brief pause before the Captain spoke again.
“AIMD, Captain, have bird fueled and ready to depart in one hour.” Unfortunately I only got to hear the Captain’s half since a speaker phone on an SPP causes too much interference.
“AIMD, Captain, say again?” He looked at me, his eyes wide with surprise.
“AIMD, Captain, respond. Chief!” He dropped the handset, “We need to get to maintenance, ASAP!”
He just about ripped the door off its hinges as we bolted from the room into the hallway and took off in a fast run towards the aircraft maintenance bay. Problem was we were on the opposite end of the ship from aircraft maintenance and a good five to ten minute sprint to get there even if there were no warm bodies in the way.
We made it in eight, just in time to see Ack-Ack’s Remora dropping from the launch bay into the open sky. Chief Zilla lay on the deck next to mine, the two-seated trainer, blood trickling from a head wound. Above her smoke billowed from the cockpit of my plane. The one we were planning on using for the mission. I grabbed a nearby extinguisher while the Captain looked at the Chief.
I climbed the maintenance ladder, pointed the nozzle and let it fly. A cloud of white CO2 billowed from the nozzle and within a minute the smoke went from black to a dull gray. The stench of burning industrial materials burned at my nostrils. On the whole it is not a pleasant smell. The volatile organic compounds released when you burn plastic and other composite materials is hard to describe, but noxious is probably as close as one can get. I emptied the extinguisher completely into the cockpit before I was confident the fire was out and further damage to the plane and by proxy, the Renegade was avoided. By the time I was done and climbing down the ladder the Captain had the Chief leaning against the landing strut of the aircraft.
“What the fuck just happened?” she exclaimed. “Why the fuck does my head hurt?”
“It would seem we had a spy on board,” replied the Captain.
“You took a blow to the head,” I said as I pulled a clean kerchief from a pocket. “Not too bad, just a small cut, but they’re always bleeders.” I handed the rag to the Chief and turned to the Captain, “Had?”
“I suspect that they just left in the other Remora,” he said.
“And this one is now a wreck,” I said. “Looks like they tossed an incendiary in the cockpit after they attacked you.”
Chief Zilla rose, placing a hand on the aircraft fuselage to steady herself. “Let me look,” she said as she grabbed at the ladder only to fall backward towards the deck. The Captain and I both caught her under each arm and set her down gently.
“Nothing to see, it’s toast,” I said. “Guess we’re taking a Parasite fighter.”
“Looks that way, Commander,” replied the Captain. “Let’s get the Chief to sickbay for a quick once over and if she can fly. If the doc approves, then you two need to get moving.”
“Yeah, that’ll be swell. Fucking head is killing me,” she reached for the ladder railing and stopped, “I was on the SPP with you Sir, when I turned and saw smoke coming from the plane’s cockpit. I grabbed the extinguisher and ran out here. Next thing I know the two of you are here and I have a splitting headache,” Zilla added. “Hey, has anyone seen my tool kit? It should have been right here on the maintenance ladder.”
“Haven’t seen anything but you, Chief,” I replied. “What did it look like?”
“Green canvas bag with stitching on it, gift from my mother. I can’t loo—” she stopped and rubbed her temples. “Fuck! We need to get to my quarters.”
“Why?” Captain XO asked.
She got to her feet then grabbed the ladder railing to steady herself, “A little too fast on that,” she said. “I’ll explain later, right now I need to know that something is safe.”
The Captain and I led her to her quarters where she ‘politely’ asked us to remain outside. We were only there a minute or so when there was a very audible “FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!” followed by a great deal of banging from within.
The Captain opened the door and we stepped in to find the Chief beating the everlasting shit out of her locker as she screamed with a primal rage, the likes of which I’d never heard from anyone before. It was, to say the least, unnerving. That and the fact that her clothing which prior to this fit close but not tight, was now looking like it might bust every seam.
“Okay, am I the only one who doesn’t understand what’s going on here?” I said. Before the words had found air, I knew it was pretty fucking stupid of me, but in all honesty I had no idea what else to say.
Chief Zilla stopped pounding the locker, took a step back, and turned to face us. Her eyes, her eyes were solid black pools of rage looking for a target, any target to burn to the ground. No whites, nothing but a solid onyx black. Her chest heaved as she gulped huge lungfuls of air through gritted teeth, veins pulsing on muscled arms that threatened to burst at any moment.
In that moment I knew with absolute certainty, never, ever, fuck with the Chief if I wanted to live to tell about it.
“They took it,” she said. Her left hand lashed out, punching the locker one last time. It struck so hard the already dented surface collapsed, pushing it deep within the locker itself.
I’m pretty certain at that moment, I saw something I never thought I’d see ever in my lifetime, the Captain flinch. It was slight and near impossible to see, but I’ll go to my grave knowing what I saw.
Me on the other hand? Well it was pretty damn obvious I flinched. Hell I damn near hit the ceiling.
“What was it?” asked the Captain.
“Something my mother gave me when I left home. A tribal heirloom. She wanted me to keep it safe,” She was not breathing as heavy but her eyes, her eyes still held that dark rage that desperately wanted to tear the Renegade apart from bow to stern.
“Why?” I asked.
She closed her eyes for a brief moment and when she opened them again the blackness that was there before had begun to recede. There was a visible line of white where once it had been black. The veins along her arms began to fade as her muscles relaxed with the receding adrenaline.
“Remember when I said we had help against the NAF?” she asked. She collapsed into a nearby chair.
“Yes,” I replied.
“The UNC isn’t less technologically advanced than the NAF, in fact we’re pretty much the same in that regard. Where it counts on the NAF side is numbers,” she sighed.
“Yeah, I get that, the NAF has more people, resources, et cetera. It still doesn’t explain how the UNC bloodied their noses so badly,” That last part sounded a bit harsh, but I did lose some friends in that battle even though I was still in boot. “Sorry, what’s your point?”
“My people have a very strong belief in the supernatural or spirit world and we called upon our ancestors and mother earth herself to help us,” she held her breath for a moment, “Many felt that it was too dangerous, that it would ‘up the stakes’ with your pe—” She cut herself off, “the NAF. Sorry.”
“No offense taken, they’re not my people anymore,” I replied.
“Well, even so, the concern among my people was that the NAF would see what was possible and seek out their own way to use it against us. To exact a certain amount of revenge upon us for the loss.”
“What does that have to do with what’s missing,” asked the Captain.
“Getting there,” the raging blackness in her eyes having all but disappeared. “My mother gave me her medicine bundle when I became of age. It had belonged to her mother and so on down a long line of ancestors. Artifacts like that are not only sacred, they’re how we were able to connect with our ancestors and mother earth to defeat the NAF the last time. It’s more complicated than that, but suffice to say that’s how we did it,” she let out a deep breath and cradled her head in her hands. “Fuck!”
“That explains the message Piper found in the comms room,” said the Captain. She threw her hands out in front of her in a ‘Ya think?’ kind of motion.
“Wouldn’t it have been safer with your people?” I asked.
“That's what I said when I left home and that’s where it was until recently. My mother thought it would be safer with me, especially after I found myself on the Renegade. Something was going on back home, she wasn’t sure what, but it had her worried. So arrangements were made and it was delivered to me by a member of my tribe the last time we stopped in the Free Maritimes. Fuck! To lose my tool bundle was one thing, but that medicine bundle...”
“The LIS intel brief, could this be related?” I asked in a not so subtle attempt to redirect the topic.” I mean, the NAF got busted wandering about in UNC territory. That’s gotta have something to do with this.”
“It’s possible, but I’m not sure. I’ll query them and see what they say,” replied the Captain. “Meanwhile, get her checked out in sickbay while I get another crew to ready one of the Parasite two seaters. You two still have a mission to execute and I suspect it’s importance just went up several notches with the Remora being stolen. By the way, have you seen Ack-Ack lately?”
“Not since I ran into him in—” Now it was my turn to pause. “Actually he was leaving comms when I was going in and he—shit!” I turned and ran down the hallway towards Ack-Ack’s quarters which were directly across from mine. I stopped before the door and knocked. No response. I tested the latch. Unlocked. I turned it and pushed the door open and was immediately hit with the smell of urine and feces.
There lying on the bed was Lieutenant Commander David ‘Ack-Ack’ Flack formerly of the NAF, and more recently of the Renegade, dead on his bunk. And there, laying limp across his arm was the needle still in the vein. Fuck. Dammit Dave, why’d you have to go and do that? You were doing so well. Fuck!
I leaned against the doorframe, my eyes welling up at the sight of him. He seemed okay when I saw him earlier. I knew it had been hard on him, but still I thought he was making progress. A hand rested on my shoulder. I turned to see the Captain standing next to me.
“Damn, Sorry Piper. We all really thought he would make it. I’ll get the Purser here when he’s done with Jones.”
“Me most of all. I really thought the change would help. That it would relieve the pressure he’d been under back in the NAF, that he’d find peace,” I replied. I really did think he would find it. Unfortunately he did, just not the one we’d all hoped he would.
I wiped my arm across my eyes in a veiled attempt at hiding the grief welling up inside me. A gentle squeeze from the resting hand, “We’ll take care of him.”
I said nothing. He left me alone in the doorway. The room was spartan, almost bleak in detail compared to mine. No photos, no mementos, nothing, not even a picture of his parents. He’d had no siblings, no children that anyone knew of, not even a girlfriend. Hell, those he did have tended to depart his orbit pretty quickly once they learned the deeper truth of him.
I stepped in and took a seat at the desk. It was neat and uncluttered. A small stack of papers and a single book sat next to each other. I picked up the book, a dark brown leather bound copy of Candide, ou l'Optimisme. Voltaire. It only figured. I’d given it to him after the accident in an effort to distract him from the swirl of controversy around him at the time.
I flipped open the front cover:
The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect
It's a measure of a life
Lyrics from a song I’d almost forgotten to time. My hope was that he’d find a place in life by nurturing his own garden. That somehow he’d find a way forward even if it was just to feed his own need to live and make peace with the demons that haunted him.
It obviously wasn’t enough.
I was about to put it down when I noticed a dog eared page. Damn him! I was always ribbing him about that habit. I opened the book to that page to find a slip of paper tucked within. I pulled it out, but stopped to see where it had been placed. Chapter five, where Jacques saved the sailor, but at the cost of his own life. How prophetic I suppose.
I put the book down and opened the note. Dave’s penmanship was always a thing of beauty. Every word flowed effortlessly into the next, never a scratch out or spelling error. Absolutely gorgeous.
First I want to apologize for all the times I was an asshole when we were growing up, you deserved a better friend than you got from me. For that I am truly sorry.
Guthry is an NAF agent, probably NAFSB. I’ve seen him before but can’t place where. Hell I’m not even sure Guthry is his real name.
I didn’t even notice who Guthry was when he first arrived aboard the Renegade. I didn’t have much interaction with him since he wasn’t part of the aircraft operations section. Go figure.
He knew who I was and used my family in Baltimore to get to me. Yep, you heard right, I have a son and an ex-wife. Guthry promised to have them arrested for treason if I didn’t help him. I wanted to talk with you about it, but couldn’t find a way. Either way I knew I was screwed. When you ran into me outside comms I was waiting for a message from his NAF handlers he wanted me to retrieve. Someone else got it and he panicked. I suspect that someone was you. Probably for the best I suspect.
Not sure what he’s going to do, but I can’t have him holding my family over me anymore. He can’t harm them if he can’t control me.
Should you ever have a chance, look in on them. My ex’s maiden name is Collins and they live south of Baltimore in Brooklyn Park. Tell them I’m sorry and that I loved them both very much.
There’s also another reason I’m doing this, I don’t want you to become Jacques. Stop trying to save me. Save yourself instead. My garden will have to wait till the universe decides to bring me back.
Stay safe and give Miriam a hug for me.
I wiped the tear from my cheek with my sleeve. I was without words or breath at that moment and closed my eyes to focus on the here and now.
I folded the note and was about to place it within the book when I noticed handwriting on the back of the paper. It appeared written in haste so it didn’t have Dave’s normal precision. It merely read, “Six Grandfathers”
I had no idea what that meant. I mean who has six grandfathers?
I placed the paper in the book, closed it, and placed it in my tunic pocket. I took one last long look at him and left for the Chief’s quarters just as the Purser arrived.
“Treat him with respect, Mr. Parsons.”
“We will sir, we will,” Parsons replied.
The Chief wasn’t in her quarters, so I headed to sickbay where the doc was giving her the once over.
“How’s the patient, doc?” I asked as I entered the room. Always hated sickbay. So cold and sterile. Gives me the willies.
“Grouchy as ever,” he replied as he finished the last couple stitches in her scalp.
“Hey, I’m in the room you know,” exclaimed the Chief.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” replied the doc. “Ouch!” The doc flinched as the Chief gave a gentle thrust with her elbow to the doc’s ribs. “Keep it up and you look like the bride of Frankenstein.”
“You never know, might be a good look for me,” she replied.
I opened my mouth to reply and was met with the ‘If I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you’ stare. I closed it.
“Heard about Ack-Ack, and for what it’s worth I am truly sorry. He was a good man,” she said.
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“You’re done here Chief,” said the doc.
“Thanks doc. Let’s go,” she replied as she leapt off the table. “Need to get Mr. Smashy back before he gets into more trouble than we can manage.”
“Mr. Smashy?” I asked as we departed Sickbay.
“Yes, Mr. Smashy,” she paused in the corridor, ”He’s a forty six inch enchanted spanner with a terrible disposition when he’s away from me.”
“Away from you?”
Her eyes darkened a bit, her veins pulsed, and then she turned and headed for the launch bay.
“ESPECIALLY, when someone has taken him away from me.”