SFF author Joel Shepherd recently released an ebook titled Renegade. When asked, he was kind enough to provide this exclusive excerpt from the novel. You can download this ebook for only 3.99$ here.
Here's the burb:
One thousand years after Earth was destroyed in an unprovoked attack, humanity has emerged victorious from a series of terrible wars to assure its place in the galaxy. But during celebrations on humanity’s new Homeworld, the legendary Captain Pantillo of the battle carrier Phoenix is court-martialed then killed, and his deputy, Lieutenant Commander Erik Debogande, the heir to humanity’s most powerful industrial family, is framed with his murder. Assisted by Phoenix’s marine commander Trace Thakur, Erik and Phoenix are forced to go on the run, as they seek to unravel the conspiracy behind their Captain’s demise, pursued to the death by their own Fleet. What they discover, about the truth behind the wars and the nature of humanity’s ancient alien allies, will shake the sentient galaxy to its core.
Hello Readers! I did not want to share an excerpt from any of the many action scenes, for the same reason I don’t like movie trailers that give away all the exciting bits. So here’s a portion of RENEGADE that happens during the buildup to all hell breaking loose.
The thing with being very wealthy that a lot of less wealthy people didn’t understand was that you didn’t have to own everything yourself. As a Debogande, you could just make things happen with a call… like when Lisbeth thought Erik would like to go sailing, for the ultimate experience of wide expanses and freedom after so long in a cramped spaceship. She called Aunt Michelle, who was a member at the yacht club, and soon enough a friend had offered them a catamaran for the day.
It was a forty footer, an automated monster that still left enough ropes and winches free to make you feel like a participant. Lisbeth loved to sail having been taught by her dad, who came along with Cora and Diego. Everyone else was busy, but five was about the perfect number, Lisbeth captaining at her father’s insistence while the men and Cora ran about the huge elastic expanse between hulls and got soaked by the chop exploding off the surface.
The wind was only moderate a few kilometres off shore, but the cat’s huge wingsail converted every breath into motion and they skated across the heaving ocean at a good eighteen knots. Erik loved it, the fresh wind and the salty ocean on his skin, batwing flying fish leaping away from the cat’s approach in flashing silver schools. Every now and then something fast and military would go flying over with a roar — Shiwon was still a hive of military activity, but out here with his family, Erik could almost forget that just a few weeks ago, he hadn’t known if he was going to live another day.
They stayed out for hours, before grumbling stomachs told them it was time for lunch, and they turned the cat for shore. The yacht club was twenty kilometres up the coast from Shiwon Harbour, the hills rising green and lush beyond the shore, and tall houses behind the beach. They edged carefully between flotillas of expensive sailboats and motorised launches, the wingsail trimmed and keel brakes deployed to keep the speed down, and Erik was quite impressed at how certain Lisbeth was in charge, issuing commands at just the right moments, and never so forceful that she’d grate on the nerves.
“So how’s Mum with the whole engineering thing?” he asked Lisbeth as they waited at the wheel for the others to tie the cat to the pier.
“Oh you know,” Lisbeth sighed. Her hair was more African-frizzy than Erik’s or Cora’s. She took advantage by pinning it up and playing, and now it shone with water droplets. “It’s not a thing for girls, she says. But Dad’s fine, so she leaves it alone now. She doesn’t like arguing with him.”
“Still like to join Fleet?”
“Oh I’d love to! But Mum would really hit the ceiling, and I don’t think even Dad would be too happy.” She looked a little forlorn.
“Cheer up Lis.” Erik put an arm around her shoulders. “You might not be able to serve on warships, but with your degree you’ll end up working with Katerina in charge of making the damn things.”
“Yeah but how much better a naval engineer would I make if I’d actually served on them, and know what they were like to operate from the inside? Besides, it’s a dumb family rule. Only boys can serve, I mean it’s not fair is it? It’s not fair on me because I can’t choose my career, and it’s not fair on you because you’ve had to risk your neck while all us girls have been sitting at home.”
In truth, Erik wasn’t so sure. Fleet had been an eye-opener, not only to be around ‘ordinary’ people, but to discover that most of them didn’t share Alice’s notion of gender decorum. Alice had no problem with women being strong, but she did believe very strongly in the importance of traditional social roles. Women should organise and administer, she believed, and thus running a business was just a natural extension of what women had always done — organise families and households. But actually breaking a sweat in anything more strenuous than a game of tennis was man’s work. From Academy onward, Erik had had his butt handed to him in physical pursuits by so many competent women that he’d concluded that his mother’s opinions were slightly daft. But he couldn’t deny that he still felt protective of some of his female comrades in a way that he didn’t of the men… and the thought of his sister sitting post on some warship on an assault run through a hostile system made his blood run cold.
“I’m pretty glad you weren’t out there with me Lis,” he said quietly. “I mean really.”
“Was it that bad?” Lisbeth asked earnestly.
“Not all of it, no. But the worst bits were… just awful. I wouldn’t want you to go through that.”
“But we all have, haven’t we? As a species, we’ve all been through that. Or that’s what the stories all say, how we’ve struggled as human beings together. Only we haven’t really, have we? Some of us have suffered, while others of us have sat and watched. And applauded when the real heroes come home. It’s enough to make me feel like a fraud for ever having listened to those stories at all.”
Erik smiled at her. “I forgot you’re the college debating champ. That was good.”
“Hah,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “That’s just from arguing with Mother, I only joined the debating club because I thought I should put those skills to use.”
“And it doesn’t convince me that everyone should be in the fight. It’s not for everyone, Lis. And it’s for those of us who know we’re good at it to do it well so all those others don’t have to.”
“You don’t think I’d be good?” With a hurt expression. Erik blinked at her, wondering how to try again… and realised she was playing with him. “Scamp,” he said, giving her a shove as she laughed.
They left the cat as tidy as they’d been given it, and walked up the narrow wooden pier between neighbouring yachts. As they approached the shore, Erik saw two black marine uniforms waiting, one tall and one not. Major Thakur and Lieutenant Dale, he recognised with surprise. He waved cheerfully, and was surprised further that they did not wave back. In fact, they both looked grim.
“Marines,” Erik addressed them as he took the lead in his party. A little self-conscious in his wet civvies, while they were immaculate in their dress uniforms. He wondered what they’d been up to since he saw them last. It didn’t look like they’d been having any fun. “What brings you here?”
“You need to come with us,” said Thakur. Her voice was cold and hard, and her words did not sound polite. Off-ship she did technically outrank him, but still…
Erik drew himself up. “What’s going on?” he retorted, mindful of the audience behind him.
“What’d you tell him?” Dale snarled from Thakur’s shoulder. “Fucking Admiral Anjo, what did you tell him?”
Erik was shocked. “Lieutenant, that’s no way to speak of a superior officer!” he snapped as command reflex reasserted itself. As Thakur held up a hand to stop Dale from speaking further. From Thakur to Dale, a hand was all it took. “Explain yourselves!”
“The Captain’s been arrested,” said Thakur. Erik stared at her, not quite believing he’d heard that. “Placed in detention prior to court-martial proceedings. What did you tell Admiral Anjo?”
Erik stared. “Court-martial? For what?”
“We don’t know, they won’t say. He’s in isolation, no one’s allowed to see him. Huang’s up at the ship, so you’re now senior Phoenix command on the ground. What did you tell Admiral Anjo?”
“I… I told him…” That he’d be happy to accept a big promotion for a senior job in Fleet Command. Anjo had to have known. Court-martialing any senior captain, let alone one with the record and reputation of Pantillo, was a huge move. Anjo would be in on it, no question. And he’d just paid Pantillo’s third-in-command a home visit that very morning, and not thought to mention it? Fishy didn’t begin to describe it.
And this offer of huge promotion and responsibility, to a relatively junior and untested officer… a coincidence? To get him onside? To drive a wedge between him and Pantillo? Between him and the crew of Phoenix? He looked at the marines’ eyes, and saw hard suspicion… in Dale’s eyes at least. Thakur was as always unreadable. Isolate the rich boy whose promotional advances to date everyone was already suspicious of? Make sure Family Debogande wasn’t in Pantillo’s corner?
What the hell was going on?
“We have to go and see the Captain,” he said. “Now.”
“They’re not letting anyone see him,” Thakur repeated coolly.
“Oh they’ll let me see him,” Erik muttered. “Or I’ll bring the fucking roof down on their heads.”
They went home first, to silence and concern from the family, while Erik put on the dress uniform, and the marines waited outside in the garden. No one ventured any of them any questions — Alice put a stop to those who tried. This was Erik’s business, Fleet business, and he need not be troubled at this point by family concerns. Erik was grateful for it, and took a family cruiser to the city with Thakur in the passenger seat, and Dale in the rear.
“What did Admiral Anjo say to you?” Thakur asked again. Erik realised he hadn’t answered her the other times.
“He offered me a job as a colonial administrator,” he said shortly. “Helping to industrialise the new territorial possessions.”
“That seems like an enormous promotion for someone with very little relevant experience,” Thakur said matter-of-factly.
“Yes it does, doesn’t it?” Erik muttered.
“What did you say?”
“I said yes.” Thakur seemed to shake her head slightly, and gaze out the windows at the approaching city towers. “What would you have said?”
“They don’t offer these things to normal people,” Thakur answered. “That’s the point.”
“And you’re a normal person, are you?”
Thakur’s lips twisted slightly. “Relative to you, I’m positively pedestrian.”
Erik felt his temper boil. Usually he was good at holding it, but today it was too much. “And so what?” he snapped. “Am I supposed to apologise for the conditions of my birth? I’m not in control of any of this, Major. I have no idea whether I receive favourable treatment or not, I certainly never asked for it. I can’t go around apologising for every damn thing that other people give to me.”
“No,” Thakur agreed with measured calm. “None of us are in control of anything. We just go along as it comes. Your family in particular.”
“You know, what the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that one day, Lieutenant Commander Debogande, you’ll have to either grab the wheel, or admit that you just don’t care, and go where ever your fortuitous life takes you.”
“Well fuck you,” Erik retorted. “I don’t care what row of tin you wear on your chest. If you’re going to accuse me of something, come out with it straight and stop insinuating like a coward.”
“You watch that tone with the Major, boy,” Dale warned from the rear seat.
Thakur held up her hand again, and Dale silenced. But she was smiling. “That’s much better,” she told Erik. “More like that, and we might just get through this.”
Fleet HQ was located on the edge of southern Shiwon against the Feicui Hills, and could be seen from orbit with the naked eye. Erik, Thakur and Dale marched from parking across the huge central courtyard, large enough to land a squadron of assault shuttles on. It was centred by an eternal flame that burned within an inspired artistic scaffold, many storeys high. In concentric circles around it, inscribed in the acres of paving, the names of worlds conquered and battles fought, across the last twelve hundred years. There were thousands of inscriptions, some of them dating back to Sol System, and the krim invasion. Touring the courtyard was a ritual of all Fleet officer training on Homeworld — by the end of three years all cadets were expected to be able to march from one important battle to another, blindfolded.
They headed for one of the surrounding ring of glass towers, and were admitted past armed guards and automated security with their Fleet IDs. The circular, central foyer was awash with uniforms, striding, talking, pursuing various business. Hats off, Erik and the marines waited for an elevator, then rode it up to the twenty-third floor.
Then more halls and offices, busy with staff. Erik knew the way well enough — he’d done six months here straight out of the Academy, learning how to salute while walking without bumping into things. And not much else, he thought sourly, entering the main reception for First Fleet Command. An Ensign glanced at him from behind her desk.
“Lieutenant Commander, can I help you?”
Erik walked briskly to front her. “Lieutenant Commander Erik Debogande, third-shift UFS Phoenix, reporting to Rear Admiral Bennet.”
The Ensign glanced at her screen. “Yes Lieutenant Commander, she’s currently in a meeting. Do you have an appointment?”
“Please tell her I’m here,” Erik told her. “I’ll wait.” He turned on his heel, strode to a seat by the wall, and sat. Thakur and Dale joined him, not a word spoken. The baffled Ensign spoke quietly into a com.
“She doesn’t know,” Thakur murmured. “They’re keeping it quiet.”
“This is all kinds of fucked up,” Dale muttered. “Court-martial for what?”
“The flanking jump to Dhuvo system,” said Erik. Both marines looked at him. “It was irregular.”
“It was brilliant,” said Thakur.
“Yes, and irregular. Typical Captain. But he left the scene of the battle to hit the reinforcements before they came in. If someone’s being a total ass hat, which seems increasingly likely, they might book him for leaving the battle without orders.”
“Thus saving everyone’s ass,” said Thakur. “Captains always improvise, with light-delay in battle it’s impossible to wait for orders in an unfolding fight.”
“You don’t need to tell me, Major,” Erik said through clenched teeth. “I’ve flown the damn ship.”
“And you’re sure Fleet Admiral Anjo said nothing about a court-martial when you talked to him?” Erik just glared at her. It had no effect on Thakur at all. She looked at the file-pushers at work behind their desks instead, broodingly thoughtful.
The Ensign Erik had spoken to got their attention. “Lieutenant Commander? The Rear Admiral will see you now. Just you,” as the marines made to follow him. Neither protested, and Erik continued down the hall.
Rear Admiral Bennet was in charge of personnel administration for all of First Fleet. Her office looked out over the huge courtyard and flame. From above, it looked like a solar system, with the flame at the centre where a sun should be, orbited by the many thousands of places where human Fleet had lost ships and lives. Erik walked in and stood to attention before her desk.
“Rear Admiral, Lieutenant Commander Erik Debogande reporting.”
Bennet let him stand at attention, leaning back in her chair with a frown. She was a tall woman, with blonde hair pulled back in a bun, accentuating sharp cheekbones. “I did not order you to report, Lieutenant Commander.”
“No Admiral. Fleet disciplinary proceedings manual, chapter five, section 23-D; in the event that a ship captain is court-martialled, junior command staff should report to the appropriate Fleet Command administrative officer. In this case, that would be you.”
A brief silence from Bennet, as though she were checking that reg on uplinks. “Yes,” she said, a little uncertainly. “Yes, that would be me.”
“Admiral, I request to know on what charge Captain Pantillo is being court-martialled.”
“I’m sorry Lieutenant Commander, that information is covered under wartime secrecy. I’m not at liberty to divulge it.”
Erik stared at her. “I can’t know what my own Captain is charged with?”
“That is correct. And neither can you discuss this case with anyone else, military or civilian, outside of this office. Should you fail to observe this restriction, you yourself could be up on charges. Do you understand?”
Erik blinked. “I understand, but…”
“This is a matter of operational review,” Bennet continued. “No one can discuss Fleet tactics, past, present or future without clearance, least of all with civilians. The media can’t touch this, and would risk prison time if they did.”
Her eyes sought understanding from him. Erik felt incredulity battling cold disbelief. Bennet was worried about outside reaction… and so she should be, Pantillo was a hero. But she hadn’t expected to see Erik here, that much was obvious. It felt like a rush-job, Fleet was a big institution and wires were frequently crossed, one hand on the thousand-armed-beast not knowing what the other nine hundred were doing. Probably she’d thought someone else had already dealt with him. That would mean this whole thing was cooked up recently, with little planning. Court-martials never happened like that. Never. Or at least, they weren’t supposed to…
“Now I understand that Commander Huang is currently back on Phoenix?”
Erik nodded. “Yes Admiral.”
“Which with the Captain in detention makes you senior Phoenix command staff on the ground. You are responsible for all Phoenix crew still on Homeworld until Commander Huang is ordered to return.”
“Is there an ETA on that Admiral?”
“Not at this time. Now I’m half a mind to order Phoenix crew to barracks, but I’m advised that’s not practical at this time. Whether the situation remains like that depends on their ability to keep their mouths shut. Do you understand?”
“Yes Admiral.” Talk, and we’ll lock you on base with no coms, that meant. “Admiral, I request JAG representation at this point, as is my right under Section 31-B.”
Bennet frowned. “You haven’t been charged with anything, Lieutenant Commander.”
“My testimony in the upcoming court-martial will be integral to proceedings,” Erik replied, still stiff and straight before the Rear Admiral’s desk. “I am third-shift commander on Phoenix, I have commanded the ship before in combat, I know her capabilities and I know the Captain. I also happen to know that he didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Noted,” Bennet said coolly.
“And the regs say I’m allowed JAG assistance to help me prepare.”
“Lieutenant Commander… I’m not sure that’s necessary at this…”
“I’m not asking what you are and aren’t sure of, Admiral,” Erik said coldly, meeting her gaze directly. “I’m informing you what I’m sure of. And I’m sure that this is my procedural right. Denied that right, I will go higher.”
Bennet glared at him.
The Judge Advocate General officer was Captain Sudip — army, young and quite wide-eyed about this crazy thing Fleet had just dumped in his lap. They sat in a diner booth, one of dozens of restaurants about the base, but the booth provided at least some privacy. The windows looked away from Shiwon, onto the low campus buildings sprawling up the green hills behind — the Admiral Shuan Academy, and bringing back for Erik a three-year rush of memories.
“It’s been declared an S-1,” Sudip told Erik and the two marines in a low voice beneath the hubbub of diner conversation. Sudip was thin, bookish and well spoken, the kind of guy who wouldn’t have lasted a week on combat deployment. But Erik had learned not to disrespect those kinds. Not everything Fleet did involved blowing things up, and in those other things, officers like Sudip were often invaluable. “That’s the highest level of secrecy. I wasn’t aware they could even do that for a legal proceedings…”
“Who can authorise that?” Erik pressed.
Sudip swallowed hard. “Well no one below the very top level. I mean Bennet can’t do it… I mean Rear Admiral Bennet, sorry… she’s just a First Fleet administrator. S-1 is like… like what you declare before you invade a planet or something, those battleplans are S-1. There’s only three people at that level in the Fleet — Fleet Admirals Anjo and Ishmael, and Supreme Commander Chankow.”
Erik, Thakur and Dale looked at each other.
“Word of this is going to spread,” said Thakur. She ate a steak and salad with methodical precision. Erik thought the Kulina were supposed to have spiritual dietary requirements, but if so, that didn’t appear to exclude meat. “They can’t stop people from talking.”
“Major,” Sudip said earnestly. “I really wouldn’t test those secrecy provisions. There are people in prison today, who were put there ten years ago, for doing that sort of thing. People who used to hold a higher rank than you do now.”
“I didn’t say I would talk, Captain,” said Thakur. “I’m saying that people will. Pantillo is well known politically. His political friends will be wondering where he is, and asking Fleet for an explanation. They can’t put both Congresses in prison.”
“I’m sure they’d like to put the Worlder Congress in prison,” Dale muttered. Dale was originally a Worlder, Erik recalled, living his entire childhood downworld before enlisting. Like all Fleet, he was registered as a Spacer, and could vote for Spacer Congress representatives only… but that didn’t mean he forgot where he came from.
Humanity had two governments. Ninety percent of the population lived on planets. Each governed itself, with little interference from anyone. Those planetary governments in turn elected representatives to the Worlder Congress, which made collective decisions on the kinds of things that mattered to people who lived on planets.
Spacers, who made up the remaining ten percent, had their own governments, one per solar-system, or outlying settlements that were placed into system jurisdiction because they wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Those systems then elected representatives to Spacer Congress, which represented the interests of those who lived and worked in space.
Humanity’s great wars of the last twelve hundred years were almost entirely an affair of Spacers. After Earth had been destroyed, humanity had become for a time entirely a race of Spacers, without a single planetary body to its name. Survival had become about resource harvesting, mining, industry and Fleet operations. Spacer interests were all anyone knew, and were key if there were still to be a human race in years to come.
When humans had begun to claim worlds from the krim, it hadn’t taken long for those newly colonised worlds to do what worlds did best — populate rapidly, and think primarily about themselves. Even before the krim had vanished, many of those planetary populations had settled into comfortable centuries of relative peace, content in the illusion that all was safe and well. Isolated from the harsh realities of inter-species politics beyond, they’d quickly begun to vote for withdrawal from conflict, expansion of social services, and other self-interested things.
Spacers had responded by cementing the primacy of Spacer Congress as humanity’s singular, collective Federal Congress. Spacer Congress had the power to make foreign policy, which meant wars and trade treaties, that no Worlder body could legally stray from. All Worlder jurisdictions were also required to pay the Fleet Tax, just as Spacers were, which was adjusted by complex formula to account for individual circumstance, but averaged out at six percent of annual wealth. All of which led to the present situation, where the great affairs of humanity were conducted by those with ten percent of the total human vote, while ninety percent either applauded from the sidelines or were told to shut up and mind their business.
Most Worlders accepted this state of affairs — most did sympathise with Fleet, and most were not so naive as to think that pacifist isolation would ever work in a galaxy that contained assorted krim, sard and tavalai. But as the latest war had dragged on, against a race that most acknowledged were not krim-like in their goals and psychology, the disquiet had begun to grow.
“That has to be it,” Erik muttered, picking at his salad. They looked at him. “It has to be something to do with the Captain’s Worlder ties. He should be an admiral by now, we all know why he’s not.”
“Lieutenant Commander,” Sudip cautioned with a careful glance around. “That’s really some very heavy speculation. Accusing your seniors of corruption really isn’t helpful at this time, and could be very dangerous for you personally.”
“It’s not corruption, Captain, it’s politics. Fleet runs this war on its own, there is no civilian oversight from Spacer Congress, just a rubber stamp. Nearly half of Spacer Congress are retired Fleet. Those are just facts, they’re not accusations of anything.”
Sudip took a deep breath. “Look. As your attorney advisor in this, it’s my responsibility to advise you not to repeat those allegations too loudly. That’s all. Besides which, there’s no proof here of corruption that I can see — these kinds of crossed-wires allegations come out of post-combat reviews all the time. Another captain sees Captain Pantillo doing something that he doesn’t understand, and reports it as such, in isolation. Further review usually clears it up, presuming the Captain does have good reasons for having done what he did, which to judge from what you’ve told me, it seems he does.”
“Fleet Admiral Anjo paid the Lieutenant Commander a visit this morning,” said Thakur around a mouthful of steak. “At his home. Offered him a promotion to colonial administrator in the new order.”
Sudip blinked at her. Then at Erik. He opened his mouth to speak. Then shut it again, looking confounded. “Well that’s… that’s highly irregular.”
“It’s corrupt,” Dale muttered. “But that’s the system.” His stare shifted to Erik, accusingly. He’d said yes. Erik looked down at his salad.
“And he said nothing about the court-martial?” Sudip pressed Erik.
Erik shook his head. “No,” he murmured. “I think the conclusion’s pretty obvious. They offered me a big promotion to shut me up when they court-martialled the Captain.”
Sudip shook his head. “Well, if we are going to entertain this line of thinking…” He took a deep breath. He was a lawyer, after all, trained to argue cases from multiple angles. “Then there’s an even more obvious conclusion. They offered you a big promotion to shut your family up. You’re nothing special…” and he held up his hands, “… no offence Lieutenant Commander.”
“None taken,” Erik said drily.
“But Captain Pantillo isn’t the only one with known Worlder sympathies.” With a meaningful look at Erik. Erik grimaced.
“I’m sorry,” Thakur interjected. “I’m a little out of touch with this politics?”
“My mother has supported the idea of a constitutional convention before,” Erik explained. “To reshape human politics. Give Worlders a bigger say.”
“Are you guys even Spacer or Worlder?” Dale asked.
“Spacer,” said Erik. “Debogandes have life citizenship. It’s not subject to review based on current living conditions, like most Spacers. We can live anywhere and still be Spacer citizens. I grew up on Homeworld.”
“The war’s been winding down,” Dale observed. “If either side was gonna try something, now’d be the time to try it. Because when peace is declared, logically, everything changes.”
“And certain Spacer interests,” Thakur added slowly, “with a lot of power to lose, start getting nervous.”
The constitutional convention, Erik thought. Shit. Had his mother been pushing that, behind the scenes? Had her Worlder friends? Had Fleet noticed, and gotten worried? Had their Spacer Congress allies?
“Erik,” said Thakur, observing his disquiet. “What is it?”
“Something Fleet Admiral Anjo told me,” said Erik. “I asked him if I was receiving special treatment because of my name. He denied it. Because even people on Phoenix have wondered.”
Thakur and Dale said nothing. “But Anjo said that Captain Pantillo asked for me himself. That that’s why I got the Phoenix. That Fleet Command had nothing to do with it.”
“He could be lying,” Dale said helpfully. Thakur gave him a frown. ‘What?’ Dale said with his eyes, defiantly.
“Which would mean the Captain might have seen this coming.” And would also mean that he hadn’t been selected for this duty purely on merit. That scared him nearly as badly as the Captain’s court-martial. These last three years on Phoenix had been hard, but they’d come to mean more to him than anything else in his life. He thought he’d done a good job, and earned the respect of his peers. Surely he deserved to be here?
Across the table, Lieutenant Dale was all skepticism.
“I have to talk to the Captain,” said Erik.
“Well you can’t,” Sudip replied. “No one can.”
“Then that’s the first thing you have to work on. There’s got to be some legal angle on this. Get us some access to him, find a way.”
Sudip nodded nervously. Worried, but thinking hard. Professionally a case like this could see him crash and burn… or skyrocket into high orbit. If Sudip was the kind of person who thought about such things. In all his time in Fleet, Erik had only known two people who weren’t — one was currently in isolation awaiting court-martial, and the other was munching a steak at Erik’s side in the booth.
“I’ll get on it,” said Sudip. “No promises. But I’ll see what I can do.”
“Make a lot of calls,” Thakur suggested, with a sip of water. “You’re not breaking secrecy provisions, you’re a lawyer doing your job.” Sudip nodded warily. Spread it around, she meant. Get everyone talking, the only way they legally could.
“And I’ll talk to my mother,” said Erik. “She doesn’t like talking politics at home. This time I’ll insist.”
Lieutenant Commander Debogande called on uplink just after dinner. Trace Thakur sat in cross-legged meditation before her view of the beach, and listened. He said that his mother denied pushing any particular support for the constitutional convention, or that she supported the Worlders’ cause in general. Yes she had friends there, but Debogande Incorporated was huge, and a well-maintained network of political friends was essential for good business.
Beyond that, she sounded a little vague. Or he did. Trace didn’t know which. She’d served with Debogande for three years, but didn’t know him that well. It wasn’t his fault, or hers — as Phoenix’s marine commander, she timed her onboard shifts to Captain Pantillo’s, which meant that unless they were on combat alert, she was usually asleep when the Lieutenant Commander sat the command chair. He was the night shift, she the day, and despite the close proximity of Phoenix’s bowels, marines and spacers ran vastly different routines. Usually she saw him at command meetings, which happened on average every few days, but there Debogande would listen and say little, as befitted the junior command officer.
Fleet Admiral Anjo might have been lying when he’d said the Captain had picked Debogande personally for Phoenix command, or he might have been telling the truth — it did not particularly matter to Trace. She might not have known Debogande, but she knew the Captain, and the Captain would never have selected an officer for third-shift command if he wasn’t qualified. And properly qualified too, on all the indices that actually mattered, rather than just having shiny boots and pleasing instructors at the Academy. Debogande had very shiny boots. Among Phoenix’s marines, whose boots were rarely shiny, it had only increased skepticism of how Debogande got the post. Phoenix spacers were less skeptical, particularly the officers on bridge third-shift with him. Several times in the past three years, Phoenix had run into trouble so fast the Captain had not been able to assume the chair, leaving Debogande in charge in combat conditions. He’d done fine, though again the skeptics had muttered that any dozens of other young officers could have done as well, but they weren’t given the Phoenix. Trace had shut it down on several occasions — all soldiers liked to bitch about their commanders, and needed enough space so they could do that and let off steam, but it was her job to recognise when that bitching crossed the line from harmless to harmful.
She wasn’t about to tell Debogande that she did not actually doubt his ability, however. If she knew anything from her meditations and teachings, she knew that all people needed to find and draw their strength from within. Relying on the praise of others could become a habit, and those in the habit would seek that praise like an addict and his drug. Strength came through self-belief, and the belief of others without belief in yourself was useless. Chalk was still chalk, even surrounded by granite.
She sat in her loose pants and shirt long after Debogande’s call had ended, on the small footrest she used as a meditation stool. The sound of waves on the beach was soothing, nothing at all like the sounds of her homeworld, or the sounds of the Phoenix. She’d used to meditate in her small room in The Perch, the Kulina Academy, halfway up a mountain and listening to the howl of freezing wind across the sheer, rocky cliffs. That was a peacefulness too, of a sort. But she had to admit, the beach was nicer.
Some marine commanders stayed with their troops, on long downworld leave. Most found officers of similar rank to socialise with, to maintain a proper command distance, and to let their men get their kicks free from higher supervision. But both higher and lower ranked marines would then indulge in much the same thing — drinking, fucking, sometimes even fighting… as though they hadn’t had enough of that on deployment. Trace would join with them sometimes for interesting excursions, to see sights, climb mountains or dive reefs. But the rest of it disturbed and depressed her. She could not meditate in such surroundings, and deprived of her outlet for rage, pain and grief, she suffered.
And so on this momentous leave, she’d sought this place — a small hotel by the beach, well down the coast from Shiwon, to sit with a view and meditate to the sound of waves. And she struggled, as she always had of late, to find any particular peace of mind. But here at least, she found far more than she would have, in other surroundings.
There was a knock at the door. Trace unfolded herself and went, taking the pistol from the table on the way. An uplink view of the outside balcony showed her marine uniforms at the door, and a familiar face raised to the camera. Trace smiled and unlatched the door, tucking the pistol into her waistband so she could namaste the visitors, both palms together, pointed fingers at her chin. They replied in kind, all three of them.
“Friends,” she said. “Svagata mitraharula. Please enter.”
“Bahini,” said marine Colonel Timothy Khola with a smile. “Good to see you. These are Majors Naldo and Kriti, from the warships Glory and FarReach.”
He entered, presenting the two majors behind him. “Yes I have met Major Naldo,” said Trace with another namaste, “we served at Pacamayana together.”
“Bahini,” said Major Naldo, “good to see you again.”
“And Major Kriti, I have not had the honour.”
“Third class of Capricorn,” said Kriti behind pressed hands. “Fifteen years ahead of you, yet only the same rank.”
“It is as nothing,” Trace gave the usual reply, with a dismissive wave, welcoming them both inside. “Forgive my informality, I was meditating. Can I make you tea?”
“Tea would be perfect,” said Colonel Khola, removing his shoes and placing them in the hall, as the majors did likewise. “We shall join you. A pity we do not have time to meditate together, but from what you have told me, we have much to discuss.”
Trace made her three fellow Kulina tea, while they sat shoeless on chairs that did not make cross-legged sitting easy. The posture was in breach of all marine protocol in uniform, but for Kulina the marines had long ago learned to make allowances. Tea presented, Trace retook her low seat before the windows, and sipped.
“And how goes the meditation?” Colonel Khola asked her. Khola was pushing eighty, still young and fit. He’d seen more combat in the war than seemed reasonable even for a Kulina legend. These days he taught at Fleet Academy on Homeworld, and had declined further promotion as it would take him too far from his greatest love — the mentoring of marine officers, and Kulina in particular. Of only eight living marines to hold the Liberty Star, half were Kulina, and half of those Kulina, between Trace and the Colonel, were here in the room. Kulina made up barely one percent of total marine officer strength, but no one was surprised that they won nearly half the top combat awards. That too was tradition, nearly a thousand years old.
“Not so well,” Trace admitted. It was so good to talk with fellow Kulina officers. Here she could be honest, and be sure they would understand and not judge. “It is hard to fight a war without rage or fear. But we strive.”
Khola smiled. “Bahini, one cannot fight in a war such as this and not expect sleepless nights and peaceless meditations. If our paths were easy, we would not need to meditate at all.”
“I saw the combat reports of the Moana Junction action,” said Major Kriti. She was tall and lean, hair trimmed short like Trace… fifteen years older, she’d said. That would make her forty-seven. “That was some impressive fighting. Paralim Station is a monster, you took it with minimal damage or losses.”
“That station was defendable,” Trace said sombrely. “If the tavalai had been prepared to booby trap it properly, and lose parts of it to save the whole. They were not. It was an important facility for them, and they do not like to destroy what they have built.”
“I once saw an infantry squad of tavalai die to defend a temple,” Naldo agreed. “I suppose they did not mean to die, I think they thought they could defend it successfully. But they did not realise we were marines on the ground, not army. And they did not retreat once they realised their mistake.”
“It is easier fighting sard,” said Trace. “Against sard, one is certain. Against tavalai…” she took a deep breath. “Well. One regrets. Too much, I think.”
“Never forget that tavalai chose the sard for their allies,” Khola cautioned. “Cultivated them in fact, for many, many centuries, to do all their dirty work. The sard have earned their reputation well, and every time it was a tavalai hand holding their leash.”
Trace nodded reluctantly. “As you say.”
“Now tell us about your Captain’s predicament,” said Khola. “We will see what is to be done.”
Trace told them. That she’d been specifically ordered not to talk about it barely occurred to her. She was Kulina, and these were her people — the elite club within the elite club of marine officers. Theoretically she could have been court-martialled herself for this breach, but if Command were going to start disciplining Kulina for behaving like family, then Kulina everywhere would resent it. For Fleet, that was not a happy prospect. When Trace had finished, all three of her visitors looked concerned.
“And you are certain that Captain Pantillo did nothing wrong?” Major Kriti pressed in the lengthening silence. At Trace’s back, the sun was setting, turning the ocean sky orange and red.
Trace felt anger, and emotional certainty, and forced it down. To seek peace was to seek objectivity. She could not allow her attachments to rule her. “I’m a marine commander,” she said. “Space warfare is not my speciality. If the Captain’s accuser is another spacer captain, I would be unlikely to prove a good witness for the defence, as my expertise is infantry combat in space facilities.
“However, I didn’t see the Captain do anything wrong. On the contrary, I thought his action was exemplary, and contributed greatly to our victory.”
“Do you consider it possible that another captain may have misinterpreted?” asked Khola.
“Yes.” Trace nodded. “As I said, we left the battle. Tavalai reinforcements were massing at Dhuvo. If they’d been allowed to gather unmolested, we’d have been flanked, and taken heavy casualties. Captain Pantillo broke them up before they could hit us. It was unconventional, but that is his style. He’s done the same thing a hundred times before, and been commended for it. Now this.”
She could not keep the anger and frustration from her voice. It was an effort just to hold her pose on the footstand. Small muscles tensed and twinged, that should have been calm.
“This is troubling,” Khola admitted. “But misunderstandings do occur in battle. To presume that it is corruption seems a stretch, despite the Lieutenant Commander’s concerns.”
“Colonel,” said Trace, attempting patience. “Let me be blunt. Command’s actions regarding Captain Pantillo have been unjust. The offer of promotion to the Lieutenant Commander just that morning was highly improper, and beyond suspicious under the circumstances. Now it appears the Captain is even being denied due process, despite all his service to the human cause.”
“Major.” Colonel Khola held up his hands, calming. “The process has only just begun. Fleet makes mistakes, it’s a big organisation and often a flawed one, run by flawed human beings. Let us await an outcome before judging this or that.”
“We must assist the Captain in getting a fair hearing,” Trace insisted. “He’s certainly not getting one now.”
“I’m not sure that’s yet been established,” Major Kriti cautioned.
“They won’t even tell us what he’s charged with!” Trace retorted. “It’s unheard of, our JAG Captain Sudip says that in every preceding case with a court-martial of this rank and magnitude, they’ve always declared the charge so that the defence could prepare.”
“Major,” Khola said calmly. “Major you are upset.”
“Yes I am,” Trace said shortly. She swallowed hard. It would not do to lose her cool completely, and show her comrades just how far her control had slipped. The Captain had entrusted her with things that he had not entrusted to others. She could not let him down. “I owe that man. All humanity owes that man, whether we are aware of it or not.”
“Major the Kulina exist to serve,” said Khola. “Our founders made a decision, a thousand years ago, that humanity required selfless sacrifice to survive. We are the embodiment of that sacrifice. We do not fight for blood lust or revenge, we do not thrill in the kill, we do not seek glory and remembrance. Our lives have meaning only in that they are currency, to be spent in the service of all humanity.
“Now we all gave that oath, and we gave it to Fleet. We knew Fleet’s imperfections when we gave it. Fleet has done far worse than accuse an innocent man before, Fleet has made a mess of assaults, has let complacency and poor judgement lead to the deaths of… well, of millions, depending on the incident. Yet our oath stands, Major, because Fleet is all humanity has.”
“Will you assist me to get him a fair trial?” Trace asked, attempting calm. “The Kulina are influential.”
“Captain Pantillo is not Kulina. We use our influence with High Command sparingly.”
“And we would deny a warrior as worthy as Captain Pantillo our assistance, because he does not hold membership of our club?” Trace retorted. “Colonel Khola, this sounds like Kulina ego.”
“It is pragmatism,” Khola said calmly. “Ego is that we intervene at all. Pragmatism says we do so very sparingly.”
“We spend of ourselves as the need of humanity requires,” Trace insisted, her voice hardening. “That is what I was taught. That is true peace, to place aside personal need to do what is necessary for the whole.”
“Even Captain Pantillo is not the whole. He is just one man. Fleet is the whole.”
“And Fleet without Captain Pantillo would still be another five years at war. You know it, and I know it. He won us several battles just that important, single-handedly. He saved us that many years of war. How many lives must a man save before the Kulina will bend a single precious rule to help him? And what is this stubbornness if not pride?”
Colonel Khola took a deep breath, and glanced at the Majors. Their looks were guarded. “I will have a word with High Command,” he said finally. “I will express our concern, and our interest to see that the Captain is treated fairly. More than that, I cannot do.”