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by John Ringo & Victor Mitchell




Sean Tyler tapped on the open door to the sickbay and entered at a grunt from within.

Tyler was just pushing twenty-three T-years and was on the beginning of his second hitch with the Manticoran Navy. He was dark complected and stood a bit under normal height for a Manticoran, both of which would help him blend with his new Grayson crewmates. On the other hand, he seemed nearly as broad as he was tall, a situation of being "big boned" rather than massive. He had been assigned to the superdreadnought Victory until his sudden, unexpected and late in the "day" departure for his new assignment.

A chief warrant officer in his thirties, short and dark as most Graysons were, with a lean, gray face, was sitting at a desk staring at a pad as if the message on it might leap out of the screen and bite.

"Sick Berth Attendant Third Class Sean Tyler reporting for duty!" Sean said, snapping to attention and throwing a parade ground salute. He was mildly surprised to find the warrant still on duty; it was nearly 2400 hours, ship time.

The warrant tossed the pad on his desk and made a gesture towards his forehead that might graciously have been considered a salute and waved at a chair.

"Welcome, my friend, welcome to the Francis Mueller," the officer replied. "Grab a seat. I'll be with you in a minute."

Sean sat down and looked around at what was his new home, for however long he was going to be stuck here. His first impression was that the sickbay was small, less than a quarter of the size of the main sickbay on the Victory-class superdreadnought that had been his first assignment. It was even smaller than the three secondary sickbays scattered throughout that massive ship. On the other hand, the complement of the heavy cruiser Francis Mueller was less than a tenth the complement on the SD.

Not only was the Francis smaller than the SD, it was far older; indeed the class was among the oldest designs in the Alliance fleet. Although it was already obsolete, the ship had been sent to Grayson early in the current war against the Peeps. At the time it was one of the most powerful ships in that planet's fleet. Now, though, between the large number of converted Peep SDs, captured at First and Second Yeltsin, and the new Grayson SDs and cruisers that were starting to flow out of the yards, it was again in the position of being an outmoded and under-armed relic.

Furthermore, it looked it. No matter how many times a ship was sent into the yards for overhaul, no matter how thoroughly that overhaul was done, the ship always showed its age. It was apparent in the little patches of mold that crept out from bulkhead corners, in the worn spots on corners, even in the design of bunks, tables and other fittings, which had changed subtly over the years of war.

So there was a reason Tyler had a sour expression when the warrant finally tossed the pad on his desk.

"You don't look happy, SBA," the warrant said, pulling open a bottom drawer on his desk and extracting a half-filled, flaccid bladder of unidentified liquid. He squirted a generous measure into a mug of tea on the desk then waved it at Tyler. "Medicinal belt?"

"No, Sir, thank you, Sir," Sean replied, wondering if the clear liquid was anything other than water. Then the smell hit him.

"Chief Warrant Officer Robert Kearns," the warrant continued, putting the bladder away. "I'm the physician's assistant on this tub. You may call me Doc."

"Yes, Sir," Sean said.

"Did you get stowed away? Got a locker, bunk, all that stuff?"

"Yes, Sir. The Bosun met us and assigned us quarters."

"Good, good," the warrant replied. "Where'd they ship you in from? You're Manticoran, right?"

"Yes, Sir," Tyler said.

"Wanted to come slum with the religious nuts?"

"No, Sir," the SBA replied. "I had applied for a transfer to the Grayson service nearly a year ago. It's considered a good move promotion-wise, working with other Alliance forces."

"Uh, huh," the warrant said. "So, you're telling me you volunteered for the Francis Mueller?"

"Well, I volunteered for Grayson service and there was a priority opening on the Mueller, Sir, so here I am." He looked around, then decided to take a chance. "I made a serious mistake, didn't I?"

"Yup," the medic replied, taking a pull off of his reinforced tea. "You ever have to trank anybody on your previous ship?"

"Once," Tyler replied. "Is that . . . a particular problem?"

"We get about one trank call a week," the warrant admitted. "Sometimes more on bad weeks. What we do then is put 'em in a jacket and tie 'em to their bunk. When they come around we try to decide if it was temporary or permanent. If they talk nice, we let 'em out. If they don't, we leave them in confinement until we can get a transship to a safe ground area."

"One a week?" Sean gasped. In his six months on the Victory there had been a total of four people who had succumbed to "situational stress disorder" or "the bug" as most people called it. "And you've still got a crew at all?"

"We've got guys on this ship, I swear, are addicted to trank. Kopp, he's a missile tech, he's been tranked about six times. Cooper in Engineering, it's about once a month, like clockwork. Heck, the reason you were a priority replacement is that the other two SBAs were both medical evacs. If the timing had been different you would have met your predecessor on the way over; we transshipped him to the Victory."

"Weird," Sean said. "Any particular reason?"

"Oh," the warrant said with a slight catch in his voice, "I think you'll come to a few conclusions over time."


"Now hear this! Now hear this! Morning prayers! All hands not on watch, uncover for morning prayers!"

Sean hadn't had a chance to meet any of his fellow compartment sharers last night; they were all on second watch and had racked out by the time he entered the compartment. Now, as the lights came up and the other three stood up and clasped their hands, he wondered what to do.

Being a Manticoran, he was not a member of the Church of Humanity Unchained, so he was under no obligation to join in the morning prayers. But getting up and getting ready for the day wasn't exactly a good idea, either. So he figured he'd just bow his head and sit through it. How long could it take?

"Tester," a nasally voice said over the enunciator, "spare us this day from your Tests."

"Please, Tester, don't let any of the airlocks blow out. Let the environmental system, old as it is, shudder though another day of labor. Please, Tester, let the water recyclers make it through a few more days, even though Engineering says they're just about shot. Tester, please see fit to keep Fusion Two from terminally overloading and blowing us all into Your arms; we love you but we want to see our families again some day.

"Please, Tester, if you could maybe see clear to keeping the compensator on-line? If we don't have the compensator, we can't make our acceleration back home, and we'll drift in space, a derelict, until the systems begin to fail and the power runs out and the air gets foul and we all start eating each other . . ." 


It continued in the same vein for a good fifteen minutes as the quavering voice slowly worked its way through every imaginable disaster scenario.

Spaceships were, inherently, disasters waiting to happen. It was one of the main reasons that "the bug" was a problem; any reasonably intelligent individual dealt with a certain amount of "apprehension," as it was politely termed, as soon as he was out of the atmosphere. Vacuum is very unforgiving stuff and even the most advanced technologies could not make space truly safe.

But most people were polite enough not to mention that in public. Much less broadcast it, in detail, over the enunciator.

He began to see why people tended to flip out on the Francis Mueller. And he wondered, as he was getting dressed in the crowded but mostly silent compartment, how much worse it could get.


"What do you mean we're lost?"

Warrant Officer Kearns had just brought Tyler to the bridge to meet the captain. The first words out of his new commander's mouth were not ones to settle Sean's . . . apprehension.

Captain Zemet was incredibly handsome, with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and a chin that you could use to crack walnuts. He probably could have been a holovid star with one exception; he was short, even by Grayson standards. On Manticore the word "dwarf" might have been used. He was looking up at the not much taller lieutenant with an expression of absolute perplexity on his face.

"We're not lost, Sir," the lieutenant standing braced in front of the captain replied. "We just appear to be . . . off course."

"Do you know why?" the captain asked.

"Not yet, Sir," the lieutenant said. "We appear to have suffered a change in course due to a . . . gravitational anomaly."

"Gravitational anomaly?" the captain replied.

"Yes, Sir," the sweating lieutenant replied.

"We're lost." The speaker was a tall man by Grayson standards, with a pale complexion and a thin, ascetic face. He was dressed entirely in black. Either Death had decided to visit the Francis Mueller, a possibility that had some validity all things considered, or Sean was in the presence of the ship's chaplain.

"We're lost, wandering helpless in the depths of space!" the chaplain said. It was the same reedy voice from morning prayers.

"We're not lost, Chaplain Olds," the captain said. "We simply have to make a course correction. How much of a course correction?" he asked the astrogator.

"We're still computing that, Sir," the lieutenant replied. "But we're at least a hundred and twenty thousand kilometers off base course."

"Good Tester," the captain swore. "It occurs to me that we made a close pass by Blackbird Six. You did figure that into your equations, didn't you, Astro?"

"Err," the lieutenant hesitated. "Let me check my notes."

"You didn't, did you?" the captain said. "It suddenly occurs to me that if you didn't figure it into your calculations, you probably also didn't consider that it was out there, did you? It crosses my mind that you didn't mention that we were doing a close pass until Tactical picked up the moon on lidar at under sixty-three thousand kilometers. I remember thinking that was cutting it a bit close, all things considered."

"I'm . . . not sure, Sir," the lieutenant said.

"Sweet Tester!" the chaplain exclaimed. "In my wildest nightmares, I never considered that we could slam unthinking into a celestial body! The ship would be strewn across its surface! Unless we noticed in time and sent out a distress call, we would be lost for all time! No one would ever find the wreckage! We would die, lost and alone, our bodies and souls left to drift helplessly in the depths of space!"

"Tomorrow's gonna be a doozy," the warrant muttered under his breath.

"Sir." The speaker was a short—how else—broad, lieutenant commander, presumably the XO. Tyler hadn't seen him arrive, he had just appeared out of nowhere as if teleported in. "There are penalties in the rules for court-martial regarding failure to perform prescribed duties and placing a ship in unnecessary hazard. We could convene a summary court and have the Astrogator spaced."

"I don't think that will be necessary, XO," the captain said helplessly. "Chaplain, why don't you go tend to your flock? Or maybe say a few private prayers for our well-being in your cabin. Astro, go punch in the gravitational pull of Blackbird Six and see if that works." He turned to Tyler and the warrant and gave them both a brilliant smile. "I take it this is the new medic?"

"Captain Zemet, Sick Berth Attendant Tyler," the warrant said. "Late of the Manticoran Navy."

"Good to meet you, Taylor," the captain said, holding out his hand. "You've joined the best ship in the Grayson Navy and, I think, the best in the Alliance. I'm sure you'll fit in well. All you have to do is give me one hundred percent of your abilities."

"Yes, Sir," Sean replied, wondering if a little 120,000 kilometer course error, not to mention forgetting that you were doing a close pass of a celestial body, was one hundred percent of the astrogator's abilities. The scary part was that it seemed to be. "I'll try to do my best. And it's Tyler, Sir."

"Glad to hear it, Taylor," the captain said. "Give him the tour of the ship, Chief. I've got a few things on my plate at the moment."

"Yes, Sir," the warrant replied.

"Good meeting you, Taylor," the captain said. "Glad to have you aboard."


It appeared that the chief chose to skip the instructional walk-around as he led Tyler back to the sickbay.

Doc flopped into his chair and opened up the bottom drawer, pouring a shot into his tea again.

"So, what's your impression so far?" he asked, taking a sip.

"You only lose one guy a week?" Sean said with a quivering laugh.

"You noticed," the warrant said, lifting the bladder. "Medicinal belt?"

"Not yet," Tyler said, deeply tempted. "Is it just me, or is everyone on this vessel insane?"

"Certainly the entire chain of command," the warrant replied, taking another sip. "You haven't even met the Chief Engineer, who at least is competent."

"And . . . the Chaplain?" Sean asked, carefully.

"Chaplains, by law, have the run of the ship and are an entity to themselves," Doc replied with a grimace. "In the case of Chaplain Olds, he has two problems: an overactive imagination, and insomnia. I can't do anything about the former but I've tried to prescribe sleeping pills. No luck, he considers them to be a Devil's Brew. So he lies awake all ship's night, imagining all the horrible things that can, and very occasionally do, go wrong on the ship. He's also . . . egged on by some of the ship's company that have more of a sense of humor than common sense. Ribart, down in Engineering, is forever coming up with new things that 'need your prayers, Chaplain.' I've considered just tranking Ribart to get him off the ship, but that seems over the top. Then there's the automatic deference to chaplains that is instilled in Grayson at the bone."

"I'll admit that after the morning prayer I'm a little . . . apprehensive. And I've never considered that an astrogator might just forget that there is a planet around. But I still think that what the Chaplain needs is a good lay; he seems really uptight."

The chief grimaced and Sean realized what he'd said.

"I hadn't meant to impugn your faith, Chief . . ." Tyler said formally.

"Oh, it's not that," the warrant replied wearily. "You weren't here for the infamous STD incident." Doc took a healthy slug of his tea and then poured a straight-up refill.

"STD?" Tyler said. "I'm not sure what that stands for."

"Sexually transmitted disease," the warrant said dryly. "I'm aware that they've been wiped out among the Manticorans, but they do occasionally crop up in Silesia. We had a little . . . incident on our last cruise that way. Let's just say the Chaplain was not one of those who did not contract it."

Tyler looked at him questioningly and the warrant shrugged.

"Long story. Stupid story. Maybe some other time."

The chief took another sip, obviously gathering his thoughts.

"It's like this—you know the Grayson Navy has expanded nearly fifty fold since we joined the Alliance?"

"I'm aware of that, Sir," Tyler said. "Is that part of it?"

"That's most of it," Doc replied. "Whenever you do that fast of an expansion, you get people who rise beyond their level of competence. When that is realized, if nobody gets killed by it, you have a few choices. You can demote the person, which requires a lot of paperwork and time by competent authorities, time which is in short supply. Or you can shuffle them off where they aren't going to be much of a bother. Are you getting my drift?"

"Oh." Sean started to open his mouth and then closed it.

"And, yes," the warrant said dryly, raising his cup, "I'm included in that bunch. Whatever my competence as a doc, I've . . . got a bit of a drinking problem. So here I am, exiled to Siberia."

"Well," Tyler said with a laugh, "at least the Exec has a sense of humor."

"What do you mean?"

"Well," Tyler said, grinning, "when he said they should court-martial the navigation officer and sp—" He stopped when he saw the warrant officer's face. "He was joking, right?"

"Nope," the medic said, pulling out the bladder and taking a squirt from the neck. "Welcome to Siberia, friend."

"I think I'll have that drink now," Tyler said weakly.


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