I often discuss writing with my fellow fantasy writer Andrea and we have both agreed how impossible it can be to resist the pull of a new idea. It can be dangerous to get distracted, though, I know to my cost. I have many unfinished projects to my name and whilst I’ve got further than any other project with The Road Elsewhere, and find it compelling and enjoyable enough to know I will see it through, I none the less found myself coming up with an idea for yet another novel whilst lying in bed one night. I know TRE will continue to be my focus and to move forward steadily but I found this science fiction story, (working title: Zero) just unfold in my mind almost uncontrollably and couldn’t put it aside until I recorded the chapter that has already mapped itself out in my head.
Here it shall stay, safely stowed, until I am ready to come back to it. It is just one chapter and will not be the first. There will be build up and a hell of a lot of action to follow. But I would still be interested in any comments you might have.
I have gone for third person this time and hard it was too, having gotten so used to first person narrative for TRE. Generally when writing I find a story flows more naturally if actually told to you directly by one of the characters. I also dislike ‘head-hopping’ as it’s called when a story is told from the point of view of a myriad of characters, making me lean toward first person all the more. That’s just taste though and even with me two or three character’s points of view can be ok, but any more than that and I find the emotional commitment gets diluted. Ironically I feel more separated from the characters if you have to try and get into the heads of too many.
But for this one and knowing what I know is going to happen, I wanted to be able to get both Hugo and Webb’s points of view. It will be important for what happens later on. This segment is told from Hugo’s perspective but some upcoming events will be seen through Webb’s eyes.
It is still incredibly early days but it was fun to try something different and this chapter that presented itself to me, and the knowledge of what follows, was too compelling for me to just put to one side in my head. At least here I know it won’t get lost! And hopefully one day it will see fruition.
(If anyone wants more or fancies some action, a excerpt from further down the timeline can be found here)
Once again, especially sci fi fans, I would be interested to know what you think 🙂
The deaths in battle were easy. Hugo had admitted that to himself long ago. He had set explosions, lead fire fights, even killed with his bare hands without hesitation. Even the civilian casualties didn’t stir more than the odd pang deep inside him whilst he lay awake at night staring at the bulkhead. This was war. Victory didn’t come without a price.
But this was different.
Hugo’s hand was trembling as he pressed the gun to the temple of the man who had been his friend. Twenty seven years of training were screaming at him to fire and some small part of him marvelled that he hadn’t pulled the trigger already. But his hand shook. The other man looked up at him through the blood and dirt and all Hugo could feel was breakers of shame crashing up against his insides. He cursed internally everything he could think of: God, the Service, fate. The blood pounded in his ears as he raged at all and anything that had caused him to end up where he was.
Hugo fought back a scowl as he took the envelope from the duty officer. Even the fact that they felt the need to deal in hard-copy instead of easier-to-trace electronic records did not go far to bely his scepticism.
“Your contact will meet you at the spaceport, terminal 10, tomorrow at the allotted time. Good luck, Captain.”
And then the duty officer’s comm was bleeping and she gave him a harried salute and moved to answer it, dismissing him. Hugo turned away staring at the envelope in his hands, jaw tight. He shoved the papers into his pack with a grunt and stormed out before he said something he regretted. He felt eyes watching him as he left the control room but did not look round.
If anything the next morning found him in an even blacker mood. He stood at the terminal with his pack containing everything he owned and a plastic cup of black coffee from one of the dispensers that tasted like it had engine fuel in it. He glowered around the busy waiting area. Most people moving about were uniformed in the black and grey of Service Officers but there were some in flight suits or oil-grimed boiler suits. They all looked like they had somewhere important to get to and Hugo ground his teeth on the rush of indignation that rose once again as he stood there in plain combat trousers and civilian shirt and jacket. No uniform for his assignment.
He swallowed the rest of the sour coffee and threw the container in a bin and scoured the throng for his contact, almost hoping he wouldn’t turn up. But he did. And on time, Hugo noted with mild surprise.
“Captain Hugo?” The young man was tall, almost as tall as Hugo with clear, pale eyes and a broad smile. He wasn’t in uniform either, just practical garments and sturdy boots. His black jacket looked like it had once been part of some sort of uniform in the past but was faded and scuffed beyond recognition and had no trace of insignia, of course. He held out his hand. “I’m Commander Webb. Pleased to finally meet you.” His smile only faltered slightly when Hugo didn’t take his hand but just continued with his appraising look. To Hugo’s mild irritation, Webb just gave a slight shrug, unfazed. “This way,” he said.
Hugo followed the commander, noting with disapproval that the other man wore his hair long. What didn’t fall across his face was bound back in a tail down his back but still, it was no look for a soldier and Hugo felt his reservations broaden.
“You’ll like the Zero, she’s a great little craft,” Webb was saying. He had an the odd tang to his voice, the remnants of an accent that had the afterthought of American to it. A colony accent, Hugo knew. “Seen us through many a scrape, she has. Though, gods, it’ll be good to have a captain for her again, I don’t mind telling you.”
Hugo just grunted in reply. Webb seemed to be impervious to his mood however and prattled on, voice light, hands gesturing easily as they paced down the corridor. Hugo slid a sideways glance at his new commander, noting his easy stride, so unlike the regimented gait Hugo instinctively used from hours of drilling. If it hadn’t been for the gun Webb had strapped to his hip, Hugo would have wondered whether the man was any sort of officer in the Service at all. He racked his brains for the thousandth time to try and figure out what he had done to be landed with this.
“There she is,” Webb paused at one of the windows and pointed, a proud grin spread across his face. Hugo stepped up to the viewing window and followed Webb’s gesture. He could see the little craft docked at the end of the next walkway. Against the vast nothingness of blackened space beyond, she looked particularly tiny. She was also angular, ugly and extremely battered. There was carbon scoring all over her hull and parts of her had clearly once belong to another, or even several other vessels.
“Don’t be fooled, Captain,” Webb chirped and Hugo realised too late that his thoughts must be showing on his face. “Most of that’s for show. You wouldn’t believe how many times the enemy have fallen for it. She’s a little hellcat when she wants to be.”
Hugo surpressed a snort and turned back to Webb. “Lead the way,” he grunted, trying to keep his voice level.
“Yes sir, can’t tell you how much the crew are looking forward to meeting you,” Webb said as he turned into the walkway. Hugo couldn’t figure out if the other man disliked silence or just liked to talk. “We’ve been getting by, don’t get me wrong, done pretty well for ourselves if I do say so myself. But the Zero needs a captain, no doubt. And can’t tell you how honoured we are to have been allotted you, Captain Hugo. I read all about the Vanyala, that was some damn fine piloting. Here we are.” And they’d reached the end of the walkway, the docking door to the Zero in front of them. Webb keyed a code into the door pad and the panel clunked and slid open. “After you, captain.”
Hugo stepped onto his first command with a catch in his breath. After the dimness of the walkway the ship’s corridor was almost too bright. He stood there blinking for a moment until his eyes adjusted. The docking door creaked closed again behind him and Webb moved past him to lead the way, a stupid smile still on his face.
“This way,” he said needlessly and Hugo followed, their boots echoing sharply against the metal grill floor. He had to admit it looked better on the inside than out, all the wall panels shining white and the lighting uniform and clear, though the air did have that metallic tang that told of an older model oxygen generator. Hugo made a mental note.
“This is our lab,” Webb had paused at a double doorway. The door hissed open, a little smoother than the docking door had and Webb stood aside and let Hugo proceed him into the room. If anything the lab was even brighter than the corridor, the ceiling almost all lighting panels and the walls and work surfaces the same white polyfibre as the corridor. There was endless cupboards and one wall was all computer screens and blinking equipment. There was a a couple of bunks embedded in the far bulkhead and a he could see through the glass front of the cupboard next to them regimented containers of gauze, needles, surgical scissors and bottles of all shapes and sizes and realised that the research lab must also double as the sickbay. Closer to the door was a round table with two people, one sat and one bent over his shoulder, studying a hand-held computer panel. They both looked up as we came in.
“This is our researcher, Doctor Spinn,” Webb said and the small man with thinning hair ducked his head shyly, scrambling to his feet and almost dropping the panel. His eyes were shining and throat swallowing as he took Hugo in. “Though we just call him Prof, isn’t that right?” Webb continued and Spinn laughed nervously, glancing about.
“And this is Rami, Lieutenant Rami,” Webb quickly corrected, like he wasn’t in the habit of using her rank. “Medic, assistant researcher and you would have to go pretty far to find someone better at getting round computer systems.” Rami stood stiff and tall, Hugo noted with approval, with the bearing of an actual solider, arms clasped behind her back and eyes sharp as split glass.
“This is Captain Hugo,” Webb said and she bowed slightly though Hugo could see her giving him just as an appraising a glance as he was giving her. Spinn appeared flustered, muttering under his breath with a watery smile on his face, managed a ducking of the head.
Hugo spared them a nod and turned to leave, Webb at his heels. Webb prattled on as they carried on down the corridor, pointing out workstations, emergency hatches, stashes of lenslights and medkits and Hugo bit his tongue having already familiarised with the schematics provided in his information pack the night before. But then, he thought bitterly, maybe this kind of crew wasn’t aware of the professional methods of trained officers of the Service.
Next was the galley. Like the rest of the ship, it was clean but cluttered, cupboards overstuffed equipment and supplies and hardcopy pictures and posters tacked to the walls. There was another crew member sat at the table. He too was also bent over a panel but looked up as we entered and I was pleased to see him, also, get to his feet.
“Sub Lieutenant Moore,” Webb said. “Technician, maintenance, weapons expert and a damn good gunner. Moore, this is Captain Hugo.”
Moore nodded, not speaking, just looking Hugo up and down. Hugo took a deep breath, liking this constant feeling of examination less and less.
“How’s the port thruster doing?” Webb asked, almost as if he sensed Hugo’s mood and wanted to break the tension.
“It’s sorted, Webb…Commander,” Moore corrected himself, catching my eye. He was a stout man, dark hair just starting to silver at the temples and with two days worth of growth on his chin. At least he didn’t wear his hair long, Hugo admitted, but whereas he seemed fine answering to the much younger Webb, the presence of Hugo was clearly making him uneasy. “We were able to get replacement driver plugs from the spaceport this morning.”
“Good job. We’ll be moving out on the hour, make sure all is ready.”
“Aye, Commander,” Moore acknowledged uncomfortably, one eye on Hugo.
Next was the hanger and storage decks and, even though Hugo knew what was there form the reports, he couldn’t help but acknowledge a grudging admiration as Webb carried on his commentary.
“Three stealth fighters, all in top notch condition,” Webb said as his boots clanged onto the floor of the hanger. “And if you think the Zero is fast, these things could be past you before you even realise they’re coming.”
Hugo eyed the fighters appreciatively, spirits lifting. New model one-man fighter craft and, as Webb said, gleaming, expertly maintained, even to Hugo’s critical eye. There wasn’t even any carbon scoring around the barrels of the pulse cannons. If the Service saw fit to furnish the Zero with craft like this then its missions surely had to have some credibility after all.
“Handy for aiding a retreat as well as assault. Saved my ass more times than I care to admit,” Webb said, patting the metal side of the nearest one like an old friend. I heard movement from behind the furthest fighter and the unmistakable metal clank of tools being stowed.
“Sub? Bolt?” Webb called. “Come meet the new Captain.”
Two men emerged, wiping hands on oily cloths. Big men these were too, broad shoulders and both taller even than Hugo. They walked with the wide gate of men used to space decks and both had dark hair cropped close to their heads, making it difficult for Hugo to tell them apart at first glance until they got closer and he could see one had a livid scar across his brow, starting at the left eyebrow and arching up his scalp, pulling his face into a permanent sardonic look. Hugo had two more pairs of eyes looked him up and down but at least these men had the decency to mumble, “Cap’n,” as they did it. Hugo once again noted how they looked to Webb for guidance and wondered if he should be annoyed or reassured by all this suspicion.
Webb made introductions and Hugo found out that scar-face was Crewman Subune, or Sub and the one with the square jaw and black eyes was Crewman Bolt.
“Where’s Rolo?” Webb asked, looking around.
“On the bridge…Commander,” Bolt said. “We’re about done here by the way. Everything checked over and ready to go.”
“I still want to replace some of the supports in Father’s harness,” Sub muttered. “But they didn’t have the right resistance straps in the supply dock.”
“We’ll stop by a colony supplier on the way,” Webb said. “They’ll do for now.”
“Father?” Hugo asked.
Webb smiled a lop-sided smile. “The fighter furthest to port,” he gestured. “The middle one is Son and this one is Ghost.” He patted the fighter next to him again. “The Holy Trinity. We like to think they watch over us.”
“Who flies them?”
“We’re all trained, even the Prof. You never know when and where you might need backup in this job. But the best pilots are Sub and Bolt here. And Moore’s skills aren’t anything to sniff at either.” Webb was grinning but Sub and Bolt were just trying to steal glances at Hugo without looking directly. “And over here, Captain, these are my pride and joy,” Webb moved deeper into the hanger.
“Land transports?” Hugo ventured, sullenly, remembering the inventory.
“Not just any land transports,” Webb said, pulling a cover off the first shapeless bundle against the hull. “This is my baby.”
Hugo had to admit the motorcycle was impressive. He hadn’t seen many in his life, just in pictures. Like Father, Son and Ghost it was in pristine condition, not a speck of oil and the chassis was black as space. The tyres were off-road, Hugo noted and Webb stroked the handles fondly. “Mighty handy for missions planet-side,” Webb expounded before showing Hugo the further three motorcycles battened down under protective covers against the back bulkhead of the hanger and in the corner hunkered an ancient jeep, dented and battered but with new tyres and gleaming metal work. “You wouldn’t think they would blend in but most surface folk still use transports like this. Fighters and fliers stick out like a sore thumbs anywhere but the spaceport cities. And even there it’s best for our sort of missions to keep low. Now come on, I know you want to see the bridge.”
Hugo fallowed Webb back up the ladder, ignoring the stares of Sub and Bolt as they left the hanger and emerged once more into the bright corridors. A couple of twists and turns and one stairway later and they emerged into a dim space, the walls lined with the blinking lights of controls, dominated at one end by a massive plexi viewscreen. The vastness of space yawned beyond it, specks of distant stars glinting in the blackness of it. A large control panel spanned the width of the viewscreen with two harnessed chairs bolted in front of it, facing out.
“I like to have a co-pilot and have Rami and Moore up here on the monitors when we’re in flight,” Webb said,” “depending on the mission. But you can pilot her single handed if needs be.”
Hugo noted with relief that at least the bridge was free of the clutter that seemed to cram up the rest of the ship. All workstations were clear, albeit all the chairs and harnesses were worn well-used.
A small figure emerged from the shadows of on of the workstations as we entered. She clutched a panel in her hands and as she came into the light from the stars outside I saw her eyes were saucer-like and that her boiler suit was too big for her.
“Rolo,” Webb greeted her, affection in his voice. “Come and meet the new Captain. Captain Hugo, last but by no means least, this is Midshipman Rolo. She’s training up with Bolt and Sub but I think she has the makings of a systems expert in her.”
“Captain Hugo,” Rolo said, voice small, but she executed a perfect salute.
“At ease,” Hugo nodded and she let her spine soften but then just stood there blinking between him and Webb. At least her eyes weren’t narrowed or delving like the rest of the crews had been, but the wide eyed expectancy made her look even younger than she probably was.
“Alright Rolo, go help make sure everything’s stowed below decks. We move out soon.”
“Yes sir, Commander Webb,” she said, saluting again and was gone with one more wide-eyed glance at Hugo.
“So, I think that’s everything?” Webb mused, spinning round one of the command chairs and dropping himself into it. “Anything I’ve left out?”
Hugo gave him a narrow glance. “You.”.
“Me?” Webb blinked, stretching out his long legs and leaning back in the chair like it was part of him. “Well, let me see. Pilot, navigator, gunner…know fair amount about computer systems though not as much as Rami. Munitions I’m good at.” He quirked a grin.
Hugo didn’t return it.
“You must have read our files. Anything else I’m missing?” Webb leaned back again, hands interlaced across his chest, not letting his gaze waver and Hugo could see the steel behind the smile.
“Just the fact that you are far too young to be in such a commanding position of any vessel, even sneak-tub such as this.”
The smile was gone. “I’m not all that much younger than you…Captain.”
Hugo acknowledged the hit. Webb had read his file also. “There’s a difference between age and experience,” he said. “I’ve been trained since I was six. But you already know that.”
“If I were being pedantic, Captain,” there was an edge to the way Webb said the title, not quite distinct enough for Hugo to acknowledge the disrespect. “I would say I’ve been learning what I know for even longer. But then…you will already know that, too.”
“I meant formal training, training by the Service,” Hugo countered. “Not picking up tricks from the streets of the colonies. The Service has assigned me here and I will respect my orders, but I still don’t see why I’ve been put in charge of such a crew – ”
Webb was on his feet then and his voice was dangerously low. All trace of his easy grin was gone. “You can say what you like about me, Captain, but I won’t hear a word against this crew. They have fought and bled for the Service every bit as much as any Service Officer, except at a higher cost because they did it in the dark. You could never find a stronger or more loyal band of mates were you to scour the fleets of the Service or any private fleet. And if you pulled your head out of your academy-trained ass for more than five minutes and give them a chance, you will see it for yourself…Captain.”
They stood almost toe-to-toe. Hugo felt heat broiling inside him and if it hadn’t been for the years of discipline that had beaten his resolve stiff he would have struck the younger man. As it was he stood, eyes locked with Webb’s.
“Since I don’t assume full command of this vessel until the hour, I’m going to let that slide, Commander,” Hugo said in a low voice. “But I would like it noted that any future insubordination will land you in the brig before you can blink.” Webb leant back out of the confrontational stance, arms folded, eyes still watching him, but didn’t respond. Hugo eventually let his eyes slide from the exchange and paced to stare out the viewscreen. “I will trust you will relay my first set of orders to the crew?”
“Of course,” Webb responded and Hugo heard the smile was back in his voice.
This made Hugo bridle but he surpassed it. “Firstly,” he said, turning and drawing himself up. Webb lifting his head slightly to be sure they were making direct eye contact. “Some memebers of the crew seemed unsure on how to deport themselves. I am the Captain and I will be respected as so. I will be addressed as Captain or Sir. This is a Service ship, sneak-tub or not. And I will have the discipline and order that is expected of a craft of the fleet.”
Webb ducked his head, though Hugo could see ice in his smile. “Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“We depart for the first meet-point on the hour,” I said, checking my watch. “I want everything ready to leave on time. You and I will collect the cargo. I want everyone else at their stations taking readings and monitoring surroundings.”
Webb actually made a slight bow, but Hugo could see that damned infernal glint in his eyes before he did that suggested the crew needed no such order to be issued. But Webb just replied, “Yes, sir,” again and paced back to the hatch to go and relay the instructions.
Hugo was left alone on the bridge. His bridge. He sighed, feeling something rattle out of him and dropped himself into the other command chair. The Captain’s chair. He stared out at the glinting specks of the stars trying not to think at what lay out there for him.