The next morning I was up early, packed a kit bag, and took only essentials. I knew that if I was accepted the ISG would give me anything else I needed, and if I was rejected I wouldn’t be gone long enough to need anything more than what I had with me. I made some calls to work and to a couple of other places to arrange for an extended time away, just in case.
I locked up the house and put the house computer on vacation mode so that at least the plants would get watered. The maglev station was only a couple klicks from my place, so I decided to walk. Besides, I wanted to stop off at my folks’ house, and it was on the way.
My parents were both retired government workers and lived comfortably on their pensions in a modest house in a quiet neighborhood in a New Kalgoorlie suburb. They, were not, as you might suspect, inclined toward adventure.
“I don’t see why you have to go,” my mother said.
“What makes you think they need you anyway?” my dad asked. Both supportive as usual.
“They need me because half the fleet just got the shite knocked out of it and the real military types are going to have to stay here and defend New Sydney, Pherat, and Fairhaven if the baddies get here sooner than expected.”
“Jare,” my mom began. “You can’t just up and quit a job every time you get bored.” She had a way of going right for the fissures in my self-esteem. I had tried a lot of different jobs, but not because I got bored. There was more to it than that.
“I’m not bored, ma; I like my work at the plant; but they’re not going to miss me there, and this is something I need to do. I already called Lu and told him what I wanted to do. His family’s all from Farmark. He wants me to go.”
“He wants you to go?”
“Yeah. He said, ‘Jare, I’m too old for that crap, but you Jare—you should go. You’re a good man, good at supply, reasonably good at security, and you might be able to do something. So go, get us some help, and tell ’em to come back here with you and frag those bastards who toasted Farmark.’”
“I just worry, Jare—space is dangerous. I had enough nightmares when you were with the Merchant Marine.”
“Ma, of course space is dangerous. Life is dangerous. We all know that. Padraig Killian knew that.” You could always score rhetorical points by citing the founding patriarch of the family—one of the Pioneers who’d first arrived on New Sydney four centuries ago.
“You’re no Pioneer, Jared,” my father said.
“No, I’m not, Dad,” I said. There was more that I thought about saying, how what they had perceived as an inability to commit was more a longing to find something meaningful with my life. I had tried the merchant marine, thinking that working in space would give my life a sense of adventure. But what it really brought was long stints away from friends and family and long days of difficult work. I had tried teaching in the trade schools, thinking that helping others develop a skill would give me meaning, but it brought me frustration with the administration and low pay. I took a job at a tech plant, assuming that perhaps looking for meaning in my work was a mistake and I just needed a job. But in the end, even though I liked the work and the people I worked for, I was beginning to feel listless and in need of finding something… important.
I could understand that to my parents, it might look like I couldn’t keep my focus on a job, but to me, my different lines of work were all part of the same project. I felt like saying to them that I had finally found something that might give my life some meaning, that might erase the crushing feeling of helplessness that I—and so many people throughout the League—had been feeling ever since the invasion of the Kittim system. I felt like responding that they’d never been supportive of any of my efforts to make something of my life, but this could be my last conversation with them, and I didn’t want to end it on a sour note.
Besides, there was always the nagging feeling that they might be right—what if this is just another way to avoid committing to something long term? On one level, that seemed ridiculous—it would be hard to imaging anything more “long term” than being marooned in the depths of interstellar space on a desperate mission across hundreds of light-years.
“I’m going anyway,” I said finally. “It’s what I’ve gotta do.”
We finished our goodbyes and I headed out and walked down the road to the station.
I took the maglev train into New Kalgoorlie to Bundt Station. When I was in the Merchant Marine, I used to pass through here all the time. Bundt Station was an impressive structure. All the trains came in over bridges across the Crookit River, and the sight was spectacular. And then, once you got out of the train, you emerged into the Great Hall with a dome so high that you swore it had clouds in it some days. Through some trick of the light, it looked like the top of the dome was open to the sky, but I knew that had to be an illusion. The noted absence of rainwater on the station floor was testament to that.
Walking through the Great Hall, I noticed Curtis’ Frybread—a favorite hangout when I was in the Merch. I did a quick check of the time. Yeah, I had time for a bite before my appointment at the Recruiting Station.
The Naval Recruitment Office was in the League Building on Market Street, just a block away from the station. There was a line of people around the block—I had guessed there might be and had taken the extra effort to make an appointment ahead of time. I was never much for lines. And having some connections in the Fleet certainly helped.
I skipped the line and took the elevator up to the 29th floor. As the doors opened, I was greeted by a stunningly beautiful woman. I knew better than to smile or flirt with her. That would have earned me a ticket right back downstairs to stand in that long line around the block. She was a lieutenant, and her division insignia showed that she had experience in security, which meant she could have knocked me on my arse without much effort. Given how many women hold positions of power and influence in the Fleet, I realized that there are tests that you show up expecting to take, and there are tests you don’t. I think I passed that one.
“Jared Killian, reporting for enlistment interview,” I said.
She smiled slightly and checked a datapad she was holding. “You’re with me, as it turns out, Mr. Killian. Follow me.” She turned and walked toward a small office off to one side. Not a bad office. It had a great view of the Crookit River and Pioneer Square. I imagine the view was intentional: stirs up all kinds of sentimental patriotic feelings and makes you want to sign up to risk your life for the League.
Once I got in the room, she extended her hand. “Marya Tavares,” she said. “Please have a seat.” I sat down in the client chair as she took a seat behind the desk. She began scrolling through some information on her data pad. About me, I supposed. After a few moments, something caught her eye, and she looked up. “Says here you have experience in cargo and security, Mr. Killian.”
“Yes, ma’am. I was cargo master on a freighter in the Merchant Marine.”
“How was it that you became security chief?”
“Our security chief got killed in a freak accident. The captain tapped me for the job because I had done a lot of work with the chief securing and guarding some of our more sensitive cargo.”
“What kind of cargo was it?”
“Injector nozzles for anti-matter containment bottles. Deuterium shielding. Hyperspatial rudders. Long Radar arrays. That kind of thing.”
“That’s some pretty impressive cargo, Mr. Killian,” she said. “It says here that in seven years, you never had a single breach of security. A laudable feat for cargo that is so prone to theft for the black market.”
“Yes, ma’am. We had a good crew.”
“Perhaps it was good leadership. You certainly have recommendations to that effect from Captains Mfese and Bloch in your file. They seemed to think pretty highly of you.”
“I was just trying to do my job,” I said, trying desperately not to show too much pleasure. Mfese and Bloch were two of the best captains I had ever served under. Their praise meant a great deal to me.
Lieutenant Tavares made some adjustments to her datapad and passed it to me. It now displayed an enlistment contract. “On behalf of the Intersystem Guard, I am granting you a commission of the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. As you have already served with the Merchant Marine, you are eligible for abbreviated basic training, to take place at the Fleet facility at Novaroma, after which you will be assigned to a vessel in the Expeditionary Fleet. Given your experience and the great need we have for talented people, I would expect you’ll be assigned to the command of Captain Kavanagh, but that is for others to decide.” She rose quickly, and I followed. I gave her a crisp salute, and she returned it. “Report to Ensign Stein on the 18th floor, and he’ll give you your travel orders for Novaroma. Good luck, Lieutenant.”
I left her office stunned. A lieutenant? I had made no assumptions that I’d be accepted for the Expedition, and if I were to be, I had expected a non-commissioned rank at best. But an officer? Fleet must be nervous about sending too many of its current officer corps on this expedition when the alien fleet was still out there and showing no signs of relenting. I made a note to self: in future job interviews, the fewer words said the better.
Ensign Stein was an agreeable fellow who gave me my travel orders to Novaroma. Since Novaroma was on the other side of New Sydney, I’d have to fly. I looked at my orders and was shocked to find that I had a ticket for a commercial sub-orbital. I’d be at Novaroma in a few hours instead of the day’s travel it would otherwise take me on cheaper transport. The government was clearly sparing no expense in making this expedition happen.
I took the high speed tram out to the airport. After most of my fellow passengers got off at the main terminal, the tram proceeded onto a special track toward the suborbital terminal. I looked around me at the other people remaining on the tram: an odd mix of clearly high-end business types and a far more pedestrian group. Other recruits like me, I figured. The suborbital terminal was a good mile away from the main airport terminal and had far fewer craft on the runway.
We got off the tram and walked into the terminal. A central reception kiosk processed our IDs and paperwork and we proceeded down toward the gate where a suborbital plane was waiting: TransOceanic flight 815. I had only ever been on a commercial suborbital once before when I treated myself to a flight coming back from my last stint with the Merch. Their wedge shape with stubby wings doesn’t give you a lot of confidence that they can fly, at least not on an intuitive level. But then again, the sub-orbitals are more like objects being catapulted from one end of the globe to another than the winged craft that carry most of New Sydney’s passengers to their ports of call.
We boarded and I got a seat by a window. The attendants came by to secure us and make sure we were comfortable. They presented the standard safety video before take-off. I watched but also knew that the purpose of the video was more to make us feel comfortable than anything else. If we suffered an explosive decompression in the upper atmosphere, the problems we would face were a lot more serious than whether air-masks would drop from the ceiling in time. Finally, I felt the maneuvering engines come to life and the craft moved from the gangway toward the runway. I say, “runway” but it wasn’t a runway in the traditional sense. This was a maglev tube that would accelerate us to a near supersonic speed before arcing up and hurling us into the atmosphere, at which point the craft’s engines would kick in fully and take us up into the upper atmosphere.
We took our place at the end of the runway. Our main engines began to stir and a hum filled the cabin. The hum was not from the engines but from the runway as it polarized to create a magnetic support field. Suddenly, the runway began to pulse and we began to move forward. Over the course of the kilometers-long runway track, we were accelerated to near supersonic speed and then launched into the empty sky. The main engines kicked in and we surged forward. I looked around: most of the passengers were used to it, but there were a few who could be seen gripping their seats a little tighter than perhaps they needed to.
The ground dropped away quickly and continued to do so. This was somewhere between a normal long-distance flight and an orbital launch, not quite as high as we would be on an orbital launch, and more than twice as high as a standard flight in half the time. We continued to climb and the sky became ever darker shades of blue until it was replaced by a black starry field. The view out the window, coupled with the sudden feeling of weightlessness always created a certain atmosphere on a suborbital, the sense that what you were doing was truly out of the ordinary. I looked briefly around the cabin; everyone was staring out the window. Understandably, of course: the view of the planet below us and the stars above was breathtaking. But, just like that, the nose of our craft began to dip and we began to head back downward, a descent that was no less dramatic than our ascent.
As we neared Novaroma, the pilot used the maneuvering thrusters and our airfoils to guide us toward the receiving end of the runway. Shaped like half of a funnel, the receiving end was designed to catch us in a magnetic field, guide us to land on the runway in a straight line, and slow our descent. Again, it’s one of those things where looking at it doesn’t inspire you with a lot of confidence, because you think that can’t possibly work. But it does. And it did: we landed without incident.
The terminal in New Sydney was full of ISG and new recruits. I was directed over to a ground transport station where a few hundred other recruits were standing with duffels. We boarded ground buses and were taken out to the ISG base outside Novaroma. The ride was uneventful, but the guy sitting next to me—a man named Feers—kept trying to strike up a conversation with me. He was a pleasant enough guy; I just wasn’t in the mood. Eventually, he stopped trying and we rode out to the Port Giancarlo base in silence. Basic training—even abbreviated basic—was grueling enough. I was glad for the stillness before it all began.