Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Bark: Incursion - Chapter Twenty-Nine



2702.3.25.23.11 – Caldwell 50; CFV-B Pallas

The following day we got the news confirming that every ship and facility at μ Gemini had been utterly annihilated by the Thrinax behemoth and its support fleet. I went over the reports again and again, desperate to find some kind of hope to cling onto. Fleet had been able to confirm that Kat’s shuttle had arrived in the system during the attack, and their subsequent investigation had found wreckage from her shuttle, Nausicaa. Kat herself was reported as missing, presumed dead. Despite the harrowing end to Kat's video, I was unwilling to believe that Kat was gone until I had hard DNA evidence proving it, but the odds were stacked heavily against the possibility that she'd survived the Thrinax assault. What made things worse was the fact that now the Thrinax had ships operating within a hundred light years of Earth, Fleet had placed the task group under strict EMCON, with no transmissions in or out. Our final orders would arrive with Gene Powell’s task group and then we wouldn't receive any more updates from Fleet Command until the conclusion of our mission in the Crab Nebula, which wouldn’t be for months. Neither would I be able to receive messages regarding Malia's condition, and I wasn't sure that I could deal with not knowing about how she was that long. The last message from my mother had not been encouraging. Malia was physically stable and our son was only seven weeks from reaching full term, but Malia had shown no signs of increased brain activity in the last two months. The neurologists in London said that she now had only a 10% chance of recovering.

I'd left Robson in charge of the ship and retreated to my quarters to try and put my emotions into some kind of order. Unable to think, I sat in my thick leather armchair, staring at the ceiling, a half empty bottle of single malt spinning slowly in the air next to my elbow. I couldn't remember how long I had stayed like this, motionless, almost catatonic. Then the doorbell chimed. The unexpected sound startled me and I felt an almost overwhelming urge to ignore it, but something deep inside me made me respond. I tottered semi-drunk to the hatch and opened it without looking to see who it was. I had expected it to be Kimi and turned out to be quite wrong.

“Nova? What are you doing here?”
“No-one's heard from you in days, Admiral. I was getting worried.” Nova peered over my shoulder into my quarters and saw the bottle of whisky floating next to the armrest my chair. “You shouldn't drink alone, Admiral, it's bad for you.”
“You better join me then, because I'm a long way from being done yet.” I collected two fresh drinking bulbs from the kitchen and measured out two generous doubles. I handed one to Nova as she sealed the hatch behind her and took a seat on the couch. I collapsed back into my chair, my head throbbing.
“How are you doing, Gus? Are you okay? No, of course you're not okay, but you know what I mean.” Nova took a sip of whisky and paused before trying again. “People are concerned, Gus. We're all the way out here on the edge of the arse end of nowhere, possibly about to go behind enemy lines and the CO's gone AWOL. I want to help you Gus, but I need you to tell me how. Before someone like Fforde-Hughes starts questioning your fitness to command and assumes control of the task force.”

That grabbed my attention. I wouldn't put it past Miranda either, just to take some small-minded revenge for our past history at the Academy and the affront I’d subjected her to at the Thanatos briefing, but I but it shocked me that she would consider jockeying for control of the fleet this quickly.  

“I just need a little time, Nova. The news about μ Gemini and Kat. I feel like I've had the ground shot out from underneath me.”
“I know, Gus, but Commodore Powell’s task group is due to arrive tomorrow evening. Once he’s here, we need to hold a briefing and issue the task force with new orders. I don't know about you, but I'd be a whole lot happier if those orders came from you, rather than him or Fforde-Hughes." Nova emptied her glass and set it aside. "I understand you're upset about Katrina. I know she wasn't just your XO, but this is war, Gus. People die. You've got to move on.”
“She wasn't just my XO, you're right.” There must have been something in the way I'd said it, because Nova sat bolt upright in realisation.
“Oh, god. You were still in love with her, weren't you?” Nova's eyes widened when I nodded. “Gus, that's terrible. I'm so, so sorry.”
"Kat's dead and my partner probably won't ever wake up to see our son, assuming they don't both die before he's born. It's like someone out there doesn't want me to have anything to go back to."
"I saw the report about the accident on Starbase Hera. It's just coincidence. Bad luck."
“I don't believe in coincidence.” I said as Nova crossed the room to sit on the armrest of my chair. "The two people I love most, just gone."
“Oh, Gus. No wonder you're in pieces.” Nova gave me a hug and I began to weep softly on her shoulder.
“I couldn't do anything about Malia, but Kat... I could have saved her. It’s my fault she was there. She wanted to stay an extra day, but I forced her to go.”
“There’s no way you could’ve known.”
“I sent her away, Nova. I made her leave. If I’d listened to her, if I'd waited just another few hours, she never would have been there during the attack. I killed her, Nova. I killed her.”
“Ssh, ssh... No, you didn’t. It’s not your fault, Gus.” Nova caressed my neck as I clang to her pitifully. “It's alright, Gus. Let it out.”

I held onto Nova and cried, properly releasing my grief and guilt for the first time since I'd heard the news. Nova rocked me gently in her arms, murmuring wordless reassurances into my ear. I felt her lips brush my cheek and lost myself in the scent of her perfume, overwhelmed with emotions I couldn't even identify. What happened next was inexplicable. What started as a consoling peck on the cheek somehow escalated to a full-blooded, passionate kiss on the lips. It happened so quickly and naturally that I couldn't be sure whether it was instigated by me or Nova. When I gasped for breath I realised our uniforms were floating to the other side of the room and I was lying on my back on the floor. Nova was kneeling over me, her hands holding mine to her flawlessly sculpted body, guiding my fingers over her smooth, synthetic silver skin, the chromatophors pulsing an intense, aroused crimson, reflecting her increased body temperature, as Nova put all of her senses into overdrive. I felt oddly detached as I watched her make love to me. Nova was passionate and sensitive, yet insistent and hungry in the way that she moved against me. I knew it was wrong. In my mind's eye, Katrina's body wasn't even cold, and Malia could awake from her coma at any moment, but here I was, already having sex with a former lover. Yet I made no effort to try and stop her and surrendered myself to the sensation of it, yearning for a sense of intimacy that could alleviate my despair. I didn't recall moving into the bedroom either, but somehow Nova and I were on the bed. She made love to me again, getting me to explore every square centimetre of her. After we finally reached our last climax, we slept in each other's arms. I was still holding her when I woke up the next morning. Nova stirred and pulled me closer, our legs intertwining. She smiled beatifically when she opened her eyes, satisfied and blissfully serene.

“Hello, you.” Nova said, leaning forward to kiss me. I didn't have the heart to pull away from her. Perhaps I actually wanted to feel her lips on mine. Her breath was sweet from the silicone-based lubricant that coated her mouth and tongue, with faint vanilla and oak trace scents from the whisky we'd drank the evening before, and her artificial skin was soft and pleasantly warm. I felt a surge of lust for her, but knew it was only because I wanted her as a substitute for the two women I'd lost. “I've waited a long time for that. I missed you, you know.”
“I know. And I'm sorry, Nova.” I said as I started to disentangle myself from her and the bed.
“Whatever for? Last night was wonderful.”
“I think we both know it was a mistake.” I despised myself as I said it, feeling guilty for having done nothing to stop Nova last night, in effect leading her on. “This was wrong.”
"Wrong? Tell me this feels wrong." Nova said, leaving me gasping as she slid down my torso to take me into her mouth, her silky platinum blonde hair tickling my chest as her tongue gave me faint, rapid electric shocks, stimulating me almost instantly to the brink of a climax. I could have, perhaps should have stopped her, but instead lay motionless and let her tease me with her lips and tongue. Nova straddled my waist and brought my fingers to her breasts. "How about this? Does this feel wrong?"

There was just the sound of our breathing as Nova let me slip inside her. She was hot, wet and tight around me and her breasts felt smooth and firm beneath my fingertips. Nova rode me sensuously and I let my hips respond to her movements for a few minutes before she pushed herself off me, letting herself float a few inches above the bed in the zero gravity. She turned her back to me, reaching down to take me into her hand. She placed her other palm on my chest to keep me flat against the bed and she sat down on me delicately, her fingers guiding the head of my cock upwards. Nova lay back on my chest, trembling as my hips rose involuntarily to meet hers. Her hands again guided mine, pressing my fingers down between her legs, holding my other palm to the curve of her breast. My fingertips instinctively began to search for the warmth of her cleft and nipples. "That's it, Gus... that's right. Oh, that's so right..."

I was surprised when Nova interfaced her neural link to mine, letting me share her mind state and experience her own sensations of pleasure as we made love. It was an act of the utmost intimacy, usually reserved for couples in long-term relationships or marriages. It was something we had done routinely during our relationship on Chrysus, but wasn't something I had anticipated she would do now, after an estrangement of over a decade and a half. I reciprocated purely out of politeness. It was considered the apex of rudeness to withhold your own emotional state from a sexual partner if they had chosen to share theirs with you. Through the link I was able to feel the effect my every motion had on Nova, every one of our emotions and sensations reflecting and amplifying from one to the other, coupling our minds as well as our bodies. The effect was profound enough between unmodded humans, but when one of the partners was a hyper-aware and hyper-sensitive synthetic, the effect of the slightest, most subtle of touches and caresses was magnified out of all proportion, giving both parties rapturous waves of pleasure, internally reflected back and forth from one partner to the other. For what seemed like an eternity there was nothing but the sensation of our bodies touching each other in an erotic, languorous and sinuous rhythm, slowly building tension up to an ecstatic release. I felt Nova arch her back, the synthetic bands of muscle in her chest and legs shuddering slightly in spasm as they contracted. Her fingers held my hand between her legs and she breathed "Hold it... just a little longer."

Nova was very different to Kat and Malia physically: taller, longer-legged and heavier-breasted, but the three women did have one thing in common. They all believed that sex without enthusiastic consent was crap sex and that it wasn’t worth bothering having making love at all if it wasn’t planet-shattering. It was a philosophy that I wholeheartedly agreed with. I massaged the base of her body firmly with three slick fingertips, my hips pressing upwards urgently against hers, our arousal building beyond all endurance, until I felt her tremble again. This time, Nova's cry was emphatic.

"Oh, fuck! Yes! Go on! Come for me, Gus!" she urged, her hands clawing at the bedclothes. It was all I could do to hold onto her when Nova felt me surge inside her. "Oh, god!"

I could feel Nova's upper torso and ribcage flexing rapidly to simulate rapid, excited breathing as I held her against my chest, gulping in one lungful of air after another as I came down from the peak of my own orgasm. Nova turned around in my arms to face me again, her cheeks flushed and taking irregular, ragged gulps, her virtual respiration slowing only gradually back to normality.

"Oh, you're good. I almost forgot how good." Nova stroked my cheek with soft fingertips. "Thank you, Gus."
"Was that your 'unfinished business'?" I asked, perhaps more pointedly than I intended. I had to look away, as I was feeling guilty for not stopping her when I had the chance.
"What? No! It was never just about the sex, Gus. We used to have so much more than that."
"You could have fooled me just now." The words sounded harsh coming out of my mouth. I knew I was equally to blame for what had happened, but I took it out on her nonetheless. I was having difficulty staying on top of my feelings. I was angry and ashamed with myself, yet elated from the afterglow of our lovemaking.
“Gus, it's my fault. I'm sorry. I took advantage of you. I shouldn't have done that, and I'm sorry.” Nova took my face in both hands tenderly. “But I've wanted you for so long. I couldn't stop myself. I love you, Gus. I always have.”
“Nova... I like you. You know that. You're sexy, intelligent and cultured... you're just about perfect.” I looked across at her, seeing the mix of her emotions written across her smooth, attractive features: sincerity, compassion, love, lust and fear of rejection. “But I love Kat and I love Malia, and until I know for sure what's happened to them, I'm not sure I can deal with this.” 

I started to slide out from the bed, but Nova stopped me, wrapping her arms around my shoulders and back.

“You must think I'm a callous bitch, making a move on you like this, when Katrina's MIA and Malia's in a coma."
"I don't, Nova." I reassured her honestly; silently thinking to myself, Kat would, though.
"It can't be easy being left in limbo like this, but we both know the odds for Katrina aren't good. MIAs usually stay missing, and when they don't... well, you don't need me to say it. And I think you know that if Malia was going to recover from her accident, she would have done so by now. I'm so sorry, Gus.” Nova stroked my neck and shoulders lovingly, her eyes sympathetic. She felt so soft, warm and reassuring against me, it was like being caressed by warm silk. "I just want you to know that I'm here for you. I'll always be here for you."
"Nova, I..." I felt like I had to say something, but no words would come.
"However you need me. Whether you need me as a colleague, a friend, or a... a lover."
"Right now I don't even know what I need."
"I do: a shower. You stink of whisky and sweat." Nova laughed, levering me out of bed and propelling me towards the bathroom with a single push of her slender arms. "Go on, freshen up. I'll wait for you here."

Showering in zero gravity was almost as tricky as going to the toilet. Early designs of zero-g shower had required the occupants to wear breath masks, almost like scuba gear, to reduce the risk of inhaling water droplets, but the shower unit designs were much more sophisticated these days. The shower cubicle was a sealed unit, with handholds to help ease yourself in and out and two loops to secure your feet to the pan. The shower pan itself was studded with tiny holes to drain away water using a suction unit to force the water downwards through the pan using the difference in air pressure. The showerhead covered the entire top surface of the cubicle and the water was expelled at high speed in short pulses to stop droplets floating in the air that would cause its occupant difficulty breathing. Soap and shampoo were dispensed via the showerhead on demand using touchscreen controls inlaid into the tiling, which could also alter the temperature and spray pattern of the showerhead. I started the shower as soon as I had the door sealed, immediately getting drenched by a fine stream of scalding hot water droplets. I nudged down the temperature a few degrees and prodded the touchscreen to start dispensing shower gels. I spent a few minutes beneath the hot torrent of water, scrubbing myself down and trying to wash away my hangover along with my sense of guilt at having spent the night with Nova. The steam cleared my head and helped alleviate the hangover, but my guilt stubbornly remained. Eventually I shut off the shower, dried myself off and used the handholds on the walls to pull and push my way back to the bed, where I had to face the consequences of the previous night's indiscretion. Nova lay waiting for me, wrapped demurely in the bed linen, a satisfied yet expectant look on her face.

"Feeling better?"
"A little." I admitted, sitting next to her on the bed.
"I remember when we used to shower together on Chrysus."
"You fell foul of the water recycling regs a couple of times, didn't you?"
"Yeah. The CO never did quite figure out why I used to spend so long washing my hair." Nova chuckled as she took my hand, stroking my palm and wrist tenderly, as if urging me to come back underneath the covers with her. If was difficult to resist the temptation.
"How did this happen, Nova? I get the worst news of my entire life, and we end up in bed together?" I asked, still bemused by the events of the previous few hours.
"I don't know, Gus." Nova replied, shrugging. "I wanted you, you needed me... I'm not sure what else there is to it."
"Three quarters of a bottle of single malt?"
"It might have affected your judgment, but not your performance." Nova's eyes twinkled. "Come back to bed. The fleet can wait another couple of hours."
"I don't think that's a good idea, Nova." I said, Nova's face falling in disappointment.
"Did you ever love me, Gus?" Nova asked, her frown forming the faintest hints of creases around her eyes. "In all that time we spent together, I never did hear you say those three words. Sure, you said, 'I love your cunt' or 'I love your tits' when we were fucking, but you never told me 'I love you.' Three years together, and I never did get you to love me."
"Nova, that was a long time ago. I was barely out of the Academy, just a kid. I enjoyed being with you, just having dinner, reading, talking or watching the holo. We had some great times. Who knows what love is at that age, anyway?"
"You seemed to know when you dumped me for Katrina."
"Ah. Yeah. Point taken." It was deeply uncomfortable having this kind of argument with Nova when we had just been intimately entangled, but Nova showed no signs of letting me go or pushing me away, as she was still caressing my arm sensually.
"What did you feel for Katrina that you didn't have for me? What is love for you, Gus?"
"Nova, come on." I reproached, with an exasperated sigh, unable to look at her.
"Please. Indulge me. You owe me that much."
"Love is being with someone and knowing you belong to them, as much as they belong to you. Knowing that you're incomplete as a person without them. Knowing that their happiness is more important than your own."
"I've lived a long time, and I couldn't have said it better." Nova sat up and cradled the back of my head in her hands, drawing me towards her. Her eyes still looked sad, but there was a hint of hope and perhaps desperation mixed in too. "Gus, being with you makes me feel whole. Why did you leave me?"
"I never could be sure with you. There was always a doubt. Was what you were feeling because of me, or because some pre-programmed algorithm in your AI told you that was how you should react? I never could tell."
"Oh, it was always you. Just you." Nova told me, with an ecstatic shiver as her hand strayed down my back. "We synthetics are entitled to a few fetishes of our own, you know. I love how it feels having you inside me, and I'm very picky about who I share my sheets with."
"The sex was incredible, I'll grant you, but there has to be more to a relationship than that."
"We were only just really starting to get to know each other properly when you left. Just being around you made me happy. I don't want to lose you again, Gus. Even if you'll never love me the way I love you, or the way you loved Katrina, I still want you. Transfer your command to Erebus. Stay with me."
"Nova, I can't do that. Even if you're right and Kat is dead, I can't do that. Not while there's still a chance that Malia might recover."
"Gus, I'm sorry, but Malia's gone. The odds were against her from the start, and it's been months now with no change. You're going to need to accept that sometime. You can't live your life waiting for something that'll never happen."
"I can't just give up on her, Nova. I can't. Not yet." I wiped away beads of water from my face, letting them mix with the tears forming in my eyes. My emotions were in utter turmoil, running from grief, shame and guilt, all the way up to lust and ecstasy. Nova brushed her torso against mine, stretching upwards to kiss away my tears. "Nova, stop. I need to think. I'm sorry about the way things ended on Chrysus. You deserved better. Maybe if I hadn't met Kat I would have come to feel for you that way, in time. But I did meet her and I can't change that. She'd never approve of this."
"I know you're hurting, Gus. But I had to tell you how I feel. Even if you think I'm an opportunistic bitch in the way I did it." Nova held me tightly against her, unable to let me go quite yet.
"What do you want from me, Nova?"
"What do I want? I want what we had, and more. I want to share every day with you. I want to eat every meal with you. I want to watch films, play A/VR games and read books with you. I want to argue with you about that awful Icelandic baby music you listen to. I want to have you in my bed at night." Nova's voice took on a pleading tone. "There's something about you Gus, something I can't give up. I can't explain it. Love is irrational, even for an AI with an IQ of 800. I like being with you. I want you to be happy. And I want to have a family with you. I never got over you. I don't think I ever will."
"God, Nova..."
"Gus, I know it's a lot to take in right now. I can wait. I can give you time. I'll be here when you're ready." Nova kissed my cheek and I broke down, my sense of grief overwhelming my other emotions. This time Nova simply held me, whispering reassurances into my ear as I cried into her long, blonde hair. "Shush, now. It's okay. I'm here. It's going to be alright."

I don't know how long we embraced together like that on the bed, but when I opened my eyes, I was taken aback by just how beautiful Nova looked, such was the serenity and compassion on her face. For an instant I wondered whether I was in love with her or not, it was such a perfect moment of calm and beauty. The spell was broken when Nova kissed my lips with the kind of tenderness and hunger that I normally associated with Kat. I felt another stab of guilt as Nova’s lips lingered on mine, only reluctantly allowing me to come up for air a minute or so later. "Come on, Gus. Let's get dressed. It's going to be a long day."

We put on our uniforms in total silence, unable to even make eye contact. It reminded me uncomfortably of the awkwardness of the morning after my ill-advised one night stand with Miranda Fforde-Hughes at the Academy when we had been teenagers. I shuddered briefly at the memory as I zipped up my uniform jacket, pulling it down firmly over my undershirt. Nova sidled over to me, her movements lithe and elegant, bending a final time to give me another uncomfortably long kiss on my lips, her slender fingertips digging hard into my shoulders and leaving dents in the fabric.

"The briefing with Powell is at 2100 in the Ready Room. I'll see you there?" Nova asked, her eyes searching my face for clues as to what I was thinking. I nodded silently, and Nova made her way to the exit.
“Nova.” I called to her as she opened the door. She stopped and met my eyes with a brittle smile. I returned it as best I could. “Thanks. Thanks for being here.”

Nova's smile waned a little when she sensed the sadness and grief hidden behind the words, but she nodded encouragingly toward me, and then she was gone. I relocked the door behind her and took a breath before sending out a distress call.

RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{Kimi, I need to speak to you. Now.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{I'm in the middle of a consultation, Gus. Can it wait?}-
RADM. Kncd#11892166 -{No. Kind of an emergency.}-
SCMR. Hrmjrv#11884799 -{Okay, I'll be right there.}-

I stalked the length of my living quarters restlessly until Kimi arrived a few minutes later. I pressed a drinking bulb into his hand and sealed the door behind him. Kimi sniffed the pressure valve of the drinking bulb expertly, raising his eyebrows.

"Hmm. Quinta Ruban. It's a bit early in the day, even for me." Kimi's eyes glistened with amusement, eyebrows raised.
"Shut up and drink." I warned, taking a long slug from my own glass. "I slept with Nova."
"What? You're going to have to run that one by me again. I must be hallucinating, because I swear you just said-"
"I. FUCKED. NOVA. NYHUS... THREE. FUCKING. TIMES." I interrupted Kimi loudly, leaving big gaps between the words to make sure that the gravity of the message wasn't lost.
"Oh my. What was the word you taught me for occasions like this? Oh, yes, that’s it. You... numpty." Kimi closed his eyes and drank his whisky in a single long gulp, shaking his head.
"Is that it? All you've got to say?" I asked, refilling his glass and mine.
"Was it good?"
"I was hoping you'd take this a little more seriously."
"Oh, I am. And I hope it was good, because Malia's going to murder you if she finds out."
"Jesus fucking Christ, what am I going to tell her, Kimi?"
"Gus. In the event that we actually make it home from this mission, and the equally unlikely event that Malia wakes from her coma, you should tell her absolutely nothing."
"I don't want us to get into the habit of secrets from each other, Kimi."
"What? Really? You're not that naive, Gus. Every successful relationship is built on two things: compromise and deception. Being totally honest breaks up more couples than keeping secrets badly. Lord knows it worked for you and Kat."
"What? How would you know if Kat kept things secret from me?"
"Gus, I was her psychologist, too." Kimi mouth twisted into a wry smile, so I knew he wasn't simply pulling my chain.
"What kind of things?"
"You know better than to ask me that, Gus. Though if it's any consolation, I've kept your secrets from her when she asked, too." Kimi sipped his whisky enigmatically.
"Oh, Christ on a bike. What a mess."
"Tell me what happened."
"Nova came to speak to me. We talked about the situation with the fleet, about what happened at μ Gemini and somehow we ended up in bed together."
"Who made the first move? You or her?"
"I don't know. I'm tempted to say Nova did, but I wasn't exactly putting up resistance."
"So it was mutual?"
"I guess."
"How do you feel about Nova?"
"Clearly, she's gorgeous and we've got chemistry. I've always liked her."
"Do you love her?"
"I... I don't know. I love Malia. That I do know."
"But she's probably never going to come out of her coma."
"You don't know that! Nobody does!"
"Not with 100% certainty. But on the balance of probabilities, Gus, I'm sorry to be the one to say it, but she's not coming back."
"I don't care what the doctors say. I'm not going to believe that until I see a body. There's still a chance she might recover."
"Gus, you're in denial. Understandably, but you're not in a position to have that luxury. Not with nearly half a million people under your command. Half a million people who need you to have your head on straight, or we might all die out here."
"I won't give up on her, Kimi."
"Won't or can't?"
"Can't - ah! You bastard! You've done it again!" I sat down, angry more with myself than with Kimi, because he was right. I looked up to the ceiling before closing my eyes. "Swimming in Cairo. Who would have thought..."
"I'm sorry, Gus. Truly. But you have to face up to it now, before it's too late." Kimi took the seat opposite me, his eyes narrowing to scrutinise my reaction.
"What should I do?" I had to look away from him, burying my face in both palms.
"Grieve for her. Accept she's not coming back, and grieve for her. And for Katrina, too."
"I'm not sure I can do that yet."
"You must. For all our sakes. Otherwise I'll have to relieve you of your command."
"You wouldn't do that. Would you?" I raised my head, meeting Kimi's clinical gaze.
"Gus, don't put me in the position where I won't have any other choice. The regulations are clear. I can't leave you in command unless I know that you're completely rational, objective and emotionally stabile. I don't want half a million deaths on my conscience." Kimi stare pierced me with an intensity I'd never seen from him before. I didn't doubt for a second that he'd put aside our friendship to do the right thing for the fleet if he had to.
"Without Kat and Malia, this job is all I have. Present company excepted, of course." I added quickly, realising how insensitive that must have sounded to my best friend and confidante.
"What about Nova?"
"What about her?"
"Gus, if you want my advice, and I assume I'm here because you do, take happiness and pleasure in life wherever you can find it. Don't push it away because the timing's inconvenient."
"Jesus, Kimi. She asked me to move my command to her ship. How would that look?"
"Since when do you care? You're the admiral of this fleet. We're about to fly into the heart of enemy territory, and Erebus is the best ship we have by a country light-year. No-one would question it if you did."
"Fforde-Hughes would." I spat.
"Miranda Fforde-Hughes is an ugly, spiteful troll. No-one takes her seriously."
"Mister Harmaajärvi, I never knew you could be so judgmental."
"That was a personal opinion, not a professional one." a hint of a smile tugged at the ends of Kimi's lips.
"What's your professional opinion, then?"
"Pretty much the same as my personal one." Kimi laughed. "Whatever convinced you to sleep with her at the Academy?"
"About ten pints of Czech Pilsner and six thousand credits in dare bets. Not the finest judgment call I ever made."
"The follies of youth." Kimi grinned, before reverting to his usual business-like demeanour. "Gus, get back on the bridge. It's where you belong; where this fleet needs you. And it's where you need to be. Not here, brooding about what might have been."
"As simple as that?"
"Of course not. Nothing's ever that simple. But we both know that you're the best person to lead this mission. And you can't do that from here."
"Okay. You're right. You're always right, damn you." I took one look at the half full drinking bulb of whisky in my hand and stood, moving to the kitchen to drop it into the recycling unit. I turned back to Kimi, straightening my uniform. He stood and embraced me affectionately, before handing me a pack of breath mints. I scanned the label and saw that the mints were also packed with caffeine and other natural stimulants. I ripped open the packet and crunched half a dozen in a single mouthful.
"Those will keep you wired for the day." Kimi said, relinquishing me of the packet and downing a couple of them himself.
"That's it, then? Just get back on the horse?"
"If you're on top, it can't trample you. The only thing you need to do is remember to hold on tight. "
"I'll try."
"Gus?"
"What?"
"Would you like me to arrange a wake? For Katrina? The crew need to grieve, too."
"Yeah." I told him after a long pause. "I think I would."
"Leave it with me. I’ll get something sorted for tomorrow night at the end of second watch." Kimi said as he steered me out of my quarters and nudged me in the direction of the bridge.
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