Bradley Warner poked his head up above the barricade, just enough so that it allowed his eyes to peer over the wreckage that had once been a Rayo Motors’ electric sedan. The flakes of paint over his leather-feeling thermal insulating jacket told him that it had once been gold but days of being used as a barrier and countless pulse rifle shots fired into it had left most of the body silver, the kind that comes from buffing metal to a high shine.
“What’dya see, major?” Lieutenant Solov asked.
“A whole lot of nothing.”
“Good nothing or bad nothing?”
Warner laughed. There was a difference. But he didn’t say anything, continuing to scan the field a hundred meters ahead of their position, eyes darting up now and again when he thought he saw a reflection that might have been a sniper’s scope.
“Think they gave up?”
Bradley slouched back behind the car and took a deep breath. “Maybe,” he said. “If I were them, I’d’ve considered it by now.”
Solov held up a cigarette but Bradley waved it away.
“You’ve gone smokeless for six hours already, give it a few more.”
His lieutenant nodded and the cigarette went back into a uniformed shirt pocket. “I don’t hear any more air support incoming.”
“Doubt there’ll be any,” Warner said. “Their ships are destroyed and they’re hunkered down like we are. Our birds would probably hurt as much as they’d help at this point. No… It’s a waiting game. How long before they wave the white flag.”
“Wanna call out? See if they’re willing to wave it early?”
Warner glanced at Solov, first with disbelief and then, as the blond man began to grin, with a slow creeping smile across his face. He pat the lieutenant on his shoulder twice and allowed an honest laugh to escape his chest.
“Think it might work?”
“Always worth a shot…”
Warner stood in Admiral McGregor’s office, the beige walls still smelling of fresh paint. But every building on the new airbase had the same scent. The oldest structure on the massive complex had been erected less than a year ago and the one that housed McGregor’s command were among the newest. Until just a week ago, the co-equal commander of the Republican Fleet had been working out of the corner of an unused hanger.
Standing tall and stiff, Bradley Warner was in the Fleet’s field uniform, a pair of black trousers with a crimson stripe down each leg bloused into combat boots, a crimson button down uniform shirt, and the same knee length thermal jacket over it all. According to the new manual, it was all by the book for an officer of his rank performing his duties, called into a Fleet Admiral’s office at the last minute. The only thing not to spec was the pulse pistol strapped to his thigh. It wasn’t Republican. It was Earth military, taken from a surrendering officer in the last conflict, two years before. But rank had its privileges and choosing his own weapon was one of them.
He remained still as a statue despite being offered a seat by the assistant for ten long minutes as the Admiral paced the inner office, speaking in a loud enough voice to be heard but actual words muffled by what was between them. Shifting his weight from one foot to another in a way that would go unnoticed by anyone not looking for it, Bradley felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, though he couldn’t place why. MacGregor was a disciplinarian and had a holier-then-thou attitude, no doubt brought on by being one of the most religious men in the Fleet as well as being his planet’s chief smuggler hunters for close to a decade, but he was also known for being fair. If that was true, then what did Bradley have to fear from the man?
The question barely posed, he had no time to consider his wrongs when the door opened and the two colonels took the chance to escape, scurrying away as if under fire. Warner took the chance to straighten his posture further, waiting to be addressed. MacGregor held the door eyes fixed on the retreating officers until they were gone from his sight.
In a soft voice, he said, “Major, if you please?”
With a smart shifting of his stance, Bradley marched into the Admiral’s office and whatever might be waiting for him inside.
Solov scratched at the inside of a can of beans with a metal spoon as if shavings of aluminum were the desert at the end of his meal. To his credit he achieved almost a half-spoonful of mostly sauce and offered it up to Bradley. Warner waved it away and the lieutenant licked it up, slow but with a methodology, leaving the spoon clean enough to use again to the naked eye. He tucked it into the breast pocket opposite of the one that held his cigarette.
“Twice in two years? That’s bad luck,” Solov said. “I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting these guys.”
“Not really bad luck,” Warner said. “They keep invading, I keep volunteering. Kind of comes with the job.”
“I’m just saying, I don’t want to have to fight them every two years. Or every five. I just want to whip them bad enough that they let us be.”
“I think that’s the goal.”
“You think it’ll work this time?”
Bradley answered with a shrug.
This was the second open conflict but there had been a third time. Earth marched an army right into the center of the planet’s capital to force the mayor the city to stand down. Turned out the mayor had a surprise for them and they left without firing a shot, cornered as they had been. But it didn’t stop them from coming back three years after that. And then two years after that. This time, what people were already calling the Second Defensive, Earth looked to be just as beat as the last time. And, yet, here they were again. What the leadership on Earth thought, no one had any clue, least of all Warner.
“When it’s over, you going to go back to something?”
“The Fleet,” Bradley said. “I was just here to train you all.”
“No,” Solov said. “I mean, over over.”
“You think this will ever be over over?”
Bradley answered with another shrug.
“So this is it, sir? The military life for you?”
“Already done it most of my life. Might as well as just go for it.”
“But you couldn’t’ve done it all your life. Fleet is only, what? Three years old? You weren’t in the Independents, were you?”
“Nope, just the militia.”
“So… While doing that, what’d you do?”
“Sports reporter,” Bradley said. “Covered the Galileo City Steers.”
Solov laughed. “You’re right. The military is where you belong. At least you’ve won twice in the last fifty years.”
“You’re hitting me where it hurts, lieutenant.”
“Didn’t mean no offense, major.” Solov patted the various pockets on his uniform until finding the one that held a toothpick and put it into his mouth, tongue lolling it about and across his lips. “But, really, how long do you think this can go on for?”
“War with Earth?”
“The Steers’ losing streak.”
“Honestly, lieutenant, I have no idea. After training up you to handle local defense I was supposed to be posted to a NOVA as third lieutenant. The hope was that with those things, Earth might back off.”
“They as big as they say?”
“The NOVAs? Never seen one yet. But I’ve seen the drawings. Yeah, I think they are.”
“Then maybe this’ll be all over for good soon.”
“Your lips to god’s ears, lieutenant.”
Admiral MacGregor waved at the chair across his desk. “Have a seat, major.”
Unlike when one had been offered to him by the Admiral’s assistant, Bradley sat, knees together, hands folded in the center of his lap. The Admiral looked out the window, leaning on the frame, his back to Warner, silent. After a long minute, he turned around.
“I know Sims brought you into the service but I thought I’d speak to you myself because you’re a good officer and I think if he hasn’t already spoken to you then one us of should.”
Bradley said nothing but was well aware of the division within the Fleet. You were brought in by Sims or MacGregor and if you were one, the other would have as little to do with you as possible. The way officers talked about it was as a war for the culture of the Fleet.
Bradley had been the President’s man before he was president and was brought in by Sims. By those two facts alone, MacGregor should want to have nothing to do with him but he had been hailed twice as a hero of Galileo, the second time even ranking as a “Hero of the Republic”, but also one of the few professional officers the Fleet had. He leaned forward, just a millimeter, on the hint that MacGregor might overlook the marks in his disfavor.
“Just like me, you’ve been in a real military before. I respect that about you,” MacGregor said. “I’ve always respected that about you. And your leadership is unquestionable. You are the type of officer I want to see these fleets built around.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“But… I’m sure you’ve already heard and I fought against it tooth and nail…”
“It seems there’ll be two Warners in the Fleet now.”
Warner wasn’t an uncommon name, there were probably more than that, but the Admiral had a clear meaning when he said so.
“Sir… Are you talking about Dutch?”
“Have you heard the way they’re talking about the Athena City defensive? It’s not a defensive any longer. Now it’s the ‘Dutch Push.’ The smuggler who pushed the Authority into the sea.”
“I heard he took charge but I haven’t heard that.”
“It’s almost a legend now and it’s just getting stronger. I overheard a captain the other day in the Officer’s Club saying how he hoped to be assigned to ’Dutch’ Warner’s ship after what he did in Athena, as if the man single handedly saved the city.”
The acid on the Admiral’s tongue was impossible to ignore but something else gnawed on Bradley’s insides. Ship? Did that mean a command?
“–and I understand he ‘skippered’ a smuggling ship for close to a decade but one successful military operation does not change the stripes on a–”
“I’m sorry, sir. But what is his appointment?”
“So you haven’t heard.”
“No, sir. I’ve been preparing my shakeout crew for transport to the zero-zero-one.”
“He’s been appointed first lieutenant to the zero-zero-three.”
First lieutenant, which made his rank either a colonel or lieutenant colonel. Above Bradley…
“Permission to speak, sir.”
MacGregor waved his hand in such a way as to imply that everything they said to one another was off any sort of record and informal.
“Sir, my brother is one hell of a leader. If half of what I’ve heard from Athena City is true, he turned around a losing situation. But a colonel? He’s never served in a military or command structure a day in his life. I think he prides himself on it.”
“I made the same objections to Sims myself. But he has the ear of our most honorable president and he cited his actions in the First Defensive as a proven track record.”
“I am well aware. While you–”
Solov nodded but, still, an expression of confusion remained. “I don’t get it.”
“We made them fight block by block to get in.”
“That I get. What I don’t get is why you left once they were inside.”
Bradley took a stick and drew a series of concentric circles in the mud in front of them. He then bisected them with a line up and down and then again with a line running left and right. Then twice more with lines running diagonal.
“Galileo City, right?” Bradley said.
“There’s only a few ways to the center, especially when coming from one direction. They came from the south, which left them Southern, South West, and South East Avenues to push in to take the city. But aside from some alleys that aren’t on any maps, those three roads are the only way in.”
“I got that.”
“Okay, but if they’re the only way in, they’re also the only way out. So we made them fight past the E-ring, the D-ring, to the C-ring where it looked like they had us. And then we faded back behind them and re-erected the barriers.”
Solov nodded, eyes focused on the map until the strategy struck the part of his brain that understood. His lips pressed into a shape that would say “ooh” but no words came out. Instead, he studied the mud map harder. After a long minute, he looked up.
“But how did you get back behind them?”
Warner answered with a shrug. “It’s our city. We know the alleys, we know the basements. We know the rooftops. It was actually pretty simple. Harder was taking their ships but not, you know, a lot. Most of their soldiers were inside, behind our new lines.”
“And you slaughtered them!”
“Who? The ship crews? No.”
“No, the soldiers stuck inside the city.”
“A lot of them died, yeah, but it wasn’t a slaughter. People lived there. We tried to evacuate as many as possible but scavenging was possible and they did their best. And they didn’t mind firing mortars at us but were we going to fire them back at our own city? We won through attrition but it was still a close thing.”
“So what made them give up?”
“We captured their ships. There was no means of escape even if they could break out of the city.”
“Still, a solid victory.”
Bradley stared at his crude map and shook his head.
“We won,” he said. “But we lost, what, close to twenty thousand people?”
“But you made them think twice. Like we’re doing this time.”
Inching back toward the barrier, Warner poked his head up once again to see what he could see which was still nothing. Just darkness.
“I don’t know that we did,” Bradley said. “After all, they’re here again, aren’t they?”
“–but I don’t know if actual military experience is even valued–”
“With all do respect, sir,” Bradley said, cutting in. “My brother is clearly a leader. The Fleet could do with him in it. But the First Fleet, surely, is more within his wheelhouse.”
“You mean with the other smuggler captains and their hangdog crews?”
“I’m sure they’re better than that…”
“Why do you think we’re starting over with the Second Fleet, major? If those pirates could’ve protected us, we wouldn’t need the NOVA. But now that they’re being built, we need a better class of officer. Men and women like you, major. And, yet, we have another pirate corrupting our fresh start. I’m sure no one is more upset than you at the news.”
Bradley remained silent. His brother had run off with a shipper crew when Bradley was barely eleven years old. And the brother he remembered prior to that had never been much of a student and ran with all of the neighborhood troublemakers. Led them, in fact. But, five years after that, he was first mate on the boat he’d joined. And less than seven years after that he was skipper himself. The things that could be said about “Dutch” Warner could fill a book and, after the events on Athena, he was certain one would be written. But there were also two truths that couldn’t be denied. He’d led volunteers and militia in strategic actions in both defensives and he had a reputation among shipper crews as being one of the best skippers to serve under. These things did not happen in a vacuum. One did not just inspire mercenary shipper crews to suddenly fight battles that had nothing to do with their own prosperity nor did one just rally random citizens to fight with them. Bradley had commanded men. He knew that even the most dedicated could falter when making a charge against enemy lines. What Dutch had done, few people could lay claim to.
“You say the word, major, and I’ll object. As much as our other admiral has the ear of certain people, he still can’t make an appointment like this without my approval.”
Bradley sat silent, still. His eyes were fixated on a paperweight on the Admiral’s desk.
Snapping out of his thoughts, Bradley stood up and at attention. “Sir, I’d prefer if you not object. Despite what you think, I believe he’ll make a fine officer.”
“A pirate? A man who’s spent his career–”
“With all do respect, sir. My brother has been a smuggler. It’s my understanding that piracy and smuggling are two very different acts.”
MacGregor stood frozen, mouth open but with no words his brain could form.
“Honestly, sir, I couldn’t have won the Galileo City engagement if he hadn’t blocked the road. And I don’t know his full involvement in Athena City but if half of what you tell me is true, he’s your kind of man for the job.”
Finding his voice, MacGregor cleared his throat and leaned on his desk, fists supporting his bodyweight as he chewed the inside of his cheek. “I asked you here as a courtesy, major. Out of respect for your record. So your family could maintain some dignity despite your brother’s profession. If you ask me not to object, I won’t but any dishonor that he might bring will land directly on your shoulders.”
“Sir, I think he will surprise you, sir.”
Without giving the Admiral another chance to speak, Bradley snapped a smart salute and marched from the office without waiting for permission to be dismissed. It was an informal discussion? Let the rules of informality apply. He marched straight to the stairs and down two levels and then into the park around which the senior Fleet officer offices surrounded.
The park was as artificial as the buildings around it, a graded lawn of Kentucky bluegrass and American oak on a planet that had seen neither until about seventy years before. The oaks were still saplings and provided little shade but Bradley found what little he could and popped the top two buttons on his shirt. Fumbling around in his coat, he found his phone and dialed his brother.
It connected through a radio tower less than twenty meters from where he stood that connected to a dispatching node that wirelessly connected him through four other nodes until reaching one that had a quantum connection with the planet Athena. The node on the other side tried four different wireless routes to other nodes until finding one that had the cheapest rates and best connections. The last node on the network rang Dutch Warner’s phone and he answered on what was, for him, the third ring.
The sound of bass was thrumming through the connection with high note squeals and some cheering in the background.
“Stewart, it’s you’re brother.”
“I know, kid, I can see. Look, it’s kind of a party here, what can I do for you?”
“I wanted to congratulate you on your victory on Athena. They’re already beginning to talk about it here.”
“Thanks, kid. But, I heard about New Chicago, too. It sounds like you also went through the meat grinder.”
“Yeah… It wasn’t easy…”
“I wouldn’t think so. Look, Brad, things are about to jump off here and I have several young Athenian girls who would like to show their appreciation for everything I did…”
“No… I get it. Do what you do. I just wanted to welcome you into the service, that’s all.”
“You heard about that, huh? How amazing is that? Give me a year and I’ll be NOVA Master Dutch Warner.”
Bradley kicked the sapling in front of him and left a black mark on the bark. He leaned down, wet his thumb with his tongue, and began trying to rub it out.
“Yeah,” Bradley said. “Look, Stewart, I just want you to take this seriously. I believe in the Fleet. I hope you do too.”
Muffled conversation took place on the other side of the connection that lasted a minute. Then Dutch was back on the line.
“Yeah, kid,” he said. “Don’t worry. I believe in our ability to kick ass. Just wait, the two of us with a pair of NOVAs, we’ll be unstoppable. Look… I gotta go. Patience is not what they’re teaching kids these days. But I’ll see you on Galileo or maybe on Yamanashi, yeah? God bless those Japanese ship builders.”
The line disconnected.
Bradley looked at his phone to confirm it wasn’t a momentary network disruption. It wasn’t. The line had been disconnected from the other end. He pocketed his phone and looked around the small campus on the massive base. A lot of money was being poured into the Fleet. Many of the officers were political appointments and not worth their ranks much less their paychecks. Bradley hoped that he was different. And he hoped that his brother was too.