Ensign Andrew Dahl looked out the window of Earth Dock, the Universal Union’s space station above the planet Earth, and gazed at his next ship.
He gazed at the Intrepid.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” said a voice.
Dahl turned to see a young woman, dressed in a starship ensign’s uniform, also looking out toward the ship.
“She is,” Dahl agreed.
“The Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid,” the young woman said. “Built in 2453 at the Mars Dock. Flagship of the Universal Union since 2456. First captain, Genevieve Shan. Lucius Abernathy, captain since 2462.”
“Are you the Intrepid’s tour guide?” Dahl asked, smiling.
“Are you a tourist?” the young woman asked, smiling back.
“No,” Dahl said, and held out his hand. “Andrew Dahl. I’ve been assigned to the Intrepid. I’m just waiting on the 1500 shuttle.”
The young woman took his hand. “Maia Duvall,” she said. “Also assigned to the Intrepid. Also waiting on the 1500 shuttle.”
“What a coincidence,” Dahl said.
“If you want to call two Dub U Space Fleet members waiting in a Dub U space station for a shuttle to the Dub U spaceship parked right outside the shuttle berth window a coincidence, sure,” Duvall said.
“Well, when you put it that way,” Dahl said.
“Why are you here so early?” Duvall asked. “It’s only now noon. I thought I would be the first one waiting for the shuttle.”
“I’m excited,” Dahl said. “This will be my first posting.” Duvall looked him over, a question in her eyes. “I went to the Academy a few years late,” he said.
“Why was that?” Duvall asked.
“It’s a long story,” Dahl said.
“We have time,” Duvall said. “How about we get some lunch and you tell me.”
“Uh,” Dahl said. “I’m kind of waiting for someone. A friend of mine. Who’s also been assigned to the Intrepid.”
“The food court is right over there,” Duvall said, motioning to the bank of stalls across the walkway. “Just send him or her a text. And if he misses it, we can see him from there. Come on. I’ll spring for the drinks.”
“Oh, well, in that case,” Dahl said. “If I turned down a free drink, they’d kick me out of Space Fleet.”
* * *
“I was promised a long story,” Duvall said, after they had gotten their food and drinks.
“I made no such promise,” Dahl said.
“The promise was implied,” Duvall protested. “And besides, I bought you a drink. I own you. Entertain me, Ensign Dahl.”
“All right, fine,” Dahl said. “I entered the Academy late because for three years I was a seminary student.”
“Okay, that’s moderately interesting,” Duvall said.
“On Forshan,” Dahl said
“Okay, that’s intensely interesting,” Duvall said. “So you’re a priest of the Forshan religion? Which schism?”
“The leftward schism, and no, not a priest.”
“Couldn’t handle the celibacy?”
“Leftward priests aren’t required to be celibate,” Dahl said, “but considering I was the only human at the seminary, I had celibacy thrust upon me, if you will.”
“Some people wouldn’t have let that stop them,” Duvall said.
“You haven’t seen a Forshan seminary student up close,” Dahl said. “Also, I don’t swing xeno.”
“Maybe you just haven’t found the right xeno,” Duvall said.
“I prefer humans,” Dahl said. “Call me boring.”
“Boring,” Duvall said, teasingly.
“And you’ve just pried into my personal preferences in land speed record time,” Dahl said. “If you’re this forward with someone you just met, I can only imagine what you’re like with people you’ve known for a long time.”
“Oh, I’m not like this with everyone,” Duvall said. “But I can tell I like you already. Anyway. Not a priest.”
“No. My technical status is ‘Foreign Penitent,’” Dahl said. “I was allowed to do the full course of study and perform some rites, but there were some physical requirements I would not have been able to perform for full ordination.”
“Like what?” Duvall asked.
“Self-impregnation, for one,” Dahl said.
“A small but highly relevant detail,” Duvall said.
“And here you were all concerned about celibacy,” Dahl said, and swigged from his drink.
“If you were never going to become a priest, why did you go to the seminary?” Duvall asked.
“I found the Forshan religion very restful,” Dahl said. “When I was younger that appealed to me. My parents died when I was young and I had a small inheritance, so I took it, paid tutors to learn the language and then traveled to Forshan and found a seminary that would take me. I planned to stay forever.”
“But you didn’t,” Duvall said. “I mean, obviously.”
Dahl smiled. “Well. I found the Forshan religion restful. I found the Forshan religious war less so.”
“Ah,” Duvall said. “But how does one get from Forshan seminary student to Academy graduate?”
“When the Dub U came to mediate between the religious factions on Forshan, they needed an interpreter, and I was on planet,” Dahl said. “There aren’t a lot of humans who speak more than one dialect of Forshan. I know all four of the major ones.”
“Impressive,” Duvall said.
“I’m good with my tongue,” Dahl said.
“Now who’s being forward?” Duvall asked.
“After the Dub U mission failed, it advised that all non-natives leave the planet,” Dahl said. “The head Dub U negotiator said that the Space Fleet had need of linguists and scientists and recommended me for a slot at the Academy. By that time my seminary had been burned to the ground and I had nowhere to go, or any money to get there even if I had. The Academy seemed like the best exit strategy. Spent four years there studying xenobiology and linguistics. And here I am.”
“That’s a good story,” Duvall said, and tipped her bottle toward Dahl.
He clinked it with his own. “Thanks,” he said. “What about yours?”
“Far less interesting,” Duvall said.
“I doubt that,” Dahl said.
“No Academy for me,” Duvall said. “I enlisted as a grunt for the Dub U peacekeepers. Did that for a couple of years and then transferred over to Space Fleet three years ago. Was on the Nantes up until this transfer.”
“Promotion?” Dahl said.
Duvall smirked. “Not exactly,” she said. “It’s best to call it a transfer due to personnel conflicts.”
Before Dahl could dig further his phone buzzed. He took it out and read the text on it. “Goof,” he said, smiling.
“What is it?” Duvall asked.
“Hold on a second,” Dahl said, and turned in his seat to wave at a young man standing in the middle of the station walkway. “We’re over here, Jimmy,” Dahl said. The young man grinned, waved back and headed over.
“The friend you’re waiting on, I presume,” Duvall said.
“That would be him,” Dahl said. “Jimmy Hanson.”
“Jimmy Hanson?” Duvall said. “Not related to James Hanson, CEO and chairman of Hanson Industries, surely.”
“James Albert Hanson the Fourth,” Dahl said. “His son.”
“Must be nice,” Duvall said.
“He could buy this space station with his allowance,” Dahl said. “But he’s not like that.”
“What do you mean?” Duvall said.
“Hey, guys,” Hanson said, finally making his way to the table. He looked at Duvall, and held out his hand. “Hi, I’m Jimmy.”
“Maia,” Duvall said, extending her hand. They shook.
“So, you’re a friend of Andy’s, right?” Hanson said.
“I am,” Duvall said. “He and I go way back. All of a half hour.”
“Great,” Hanson said, and smiled. “He and I go back slightly farther.”
“I would hope so,” Duvall said.
“I’m going to get myself something to drink,” Hanson said. “You guys want anything? Want me to get you another round?”
“I’m fine,” Dahl said.
“I could go for another,” Duvall said, waggling her nearly empty bottle.
“One of the same?” Hanson asked.
“Sure,” Duvall said.
“Great,” Hanson said, and clapped his hands together. “So, I’ll be right back. Keep this chair for me?”
“You got it,” Dahl said. Hanson wandered off in search of food and drink.
“He seems nice,” Duvall said.
“He is,” Dahl said.
“Not hugely full of personality,” Duvall said.
“He has other qualities,” Dahl said.
“Like paying for drinks,” Duvall said.
“Well, yes, but that’s not what I was thinking of,” Dahl said.
“You mind if I ask you a personal question?” Duvall said.
“Seeing as we’ve already covered my sexual preferences in this conversation, no,” Dahl said.
“Were you friends with Jimmy before you knew his dad could buy an entire planet or two?” Duvall asked.
Dahl paused a moment before answering. “Do you know how the rich are different than you or me?” he asked Duvall.
“You mean, besides having more money,” Duvall said.
“Yeah,” Dahl said.
“No,” Duvall said.
“What makes them different—the smart ones, anyway—is that they have a very good sense of why people want to be near them. Whether it’s because they want to be friends, which is not about proximity to money and access and power, or if they want to be part of an entourage, which is. Make sense?”
“Sure,” Duvall said.
“Okay,” Dahl said. “So, here’s the thing. When Jimmy was young, he figured out that his father was one of the richest men in the Dub U. Then he figured out that one day, he would be too. Then he figured out that there were a lot of other people who would try to use the first two things to their own advantage. Then he figured out how to avoid those people.”
“Got it,” Duvall said. “Jimmy would know if you were just being nice to him because of who his daddy was.”
“It was really interesting watching him our first few weeks at the Academy,” Dahl said. “Some of the cadets—and some of our instructors—tried to make themselves his friend. I think they were surprised how quickly this rich kid had their number. He’s had enough time to be extraordinarily good at reading people. He has to be.”
“So how did you approach him?” Duvall said.
“I didn’t,” Dahl said. “He came over and started talking to me. I think he realized I didn’t care who his dad was.”
“Everybody loves you,” Duvall said.
“Well, that, and I was getting an A in the biology course he was having trouble with,” Dahl said. “Just because Jimmy’s picky about his companions doesn’t mean he’s not self-interested.”
“He seemed to be willing to consider me a friend,” Duvall said.
“That’s because he thinks we’re friends, and he trusts my judgment,” Dahl said.
“And are we?” Duvall said. “Friends, I mean.”
“You’re a little more hyper than I normally like,” Dahl said.
“Yeah, I get that ‘I like things restful’ vibe from you,” Duvall said.
“I take it you don’t do restful,” Dahl said.
“I sleep from time to time,” Duvall said. “Otherwise, no.”
“I suppose I’ll have to adjust,” Dahl said.
“I suppose you will,” Duvall said.
“I have drinks,” Hanson said, coming up behind Duvall.
“Why, Jimmy,” Duvall said. “That makes you my new favorite person.”
“Excellent,” Hanson said, offered Duvall her drink, and sat down at the table. “So, what are we talking about?”
* * *
Just before the shuttle arrived, two more people arrived at the waiting area. More accurately, five people arrived: two crewmen, accompanied by three members of the military police. Duvall nudged Dahl and Hanson, who looked over. One of the crewmen noticed and cocked an eyebrow. “Yes, I have an entourage,” he said.
Duvall ignored him and addressed one of the MPs. “What’s his story?”
The MP motioned to the one with a cocked eyebrow. “Various charges for this one, including smuggling, selling contraband and assaulting a superior officer.” She then motioned to the other crewman, who was standing there sullenly, avoiding eye contact with everyone else. “That poor bastard is this one’s friend. He’s tainted by association.”
“The assault charge is trumped up,” said the first ensign. “The XO was high as a kite.”
“On drugs you gave him,” said the second crewman, still not looking at anyone else.
“No one can prove I gave them to him, and anyway they weren’t drugs,” said the first. “They were an offworld fungus. And it couldn’t have been that. The fungus relaxes people, not makes them attack anyone in the room, requiring them to defend themselves.”
“You gave him Xeno-pseudoagaricus, didn’t you,” Dahl said.
The first crewman looked at Dahl. “As I already said, no one can prove I gave the XO anything,” he said. “And maybe.”
“Xeno-pseudoagaricus naturally produces a chemical that in most humans provides a relaxing effect,” Dahl said. “But in about one-tenth of one percent of people, it does the opposite. The receptors in their brains are slightly different from everyone else’s. And of those people, about one-tenth of one percent will go berserk under its influence. Sounds like your XO is one of those people.”
“Who are you, who is so wise in the way of alien fungus?” said the crewman.
“Someone who knows that no matter what, you don’t deal upward on the chain of command,” Dahl said. The crewman grinned.
“So why aren’t you in the brig?” Duvall asked.
The crewman motioned to Dahl. “Ask your friend, he’s so smart,” he said. Duvall looked to Dahl, who shrugged.
“Xeno-pseudoagaricus isn’t illegal,” Dahl said. “It’s just not very smart to use it. You’d have to either study xenobiology or have an interest in off-brand not-technically-illegal alien mood enhancers, possibly for entrepreneurial purposes.”
“Ah,” Duvall said.
“If I had to guess,” Dahl said, “I’m guessing our friend here—”
“Finn,” said the crewman, and nodded to the other one. “And that’s Hester.”
“—our friend Finn had a reputation at his last posting for being the guy to go to for substances that would let you pass a urine test.”
Hester snorted at this.
“I’m also guessing that his XO probably doesn’t want it known that he was taking drugs—”
“Fungus,” said Finn.
“—of any sort, and that in any event when the Xeno-pseudoagaricus made him go nuts, he attacked and Finn here was technically defending himself when he fought back. So rather than put Finn in the brig and open up an ugly can of worms, better to transfer him quietly.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny this interpretation of events,” Finn said.
“Then what’s with the MPs?” Hanson asked.
“They’re here to make sure we get on the Intrepid without any detours,” said Hester. “They don’t want him renewing his stash.” Finn rolled his eyes at this.
Duvall looked at Hester. “I’m sensing bitterness here.”
Hester finally made eye contact. “The bastard hid his stash in my foot locker,” he said, to Duvall.
“And you didn’t know?” Duvall asked.
“He told me they were candies, and that if the other crew knew he had them, they’d sneak into his foot locker to take them.”
“They would have,” Finn said. “And in my defense, everything was candied.”
“You also said they were for your mother,” Hester said.
“Yes, well,” Finn said. “I did lie about that part.”
“I tried to tell that to the captain and the XO, but they didn’t care,” Hester said. “As far as they were concerned I was an accomplice. I don’t even like him.”
“Then why did you agree to hold his … candies?” Duvall said. Hester mumbled something inaudible and broke eye contact.
“He did it because I was being nice to him, and he doesn’t have friends,” Finn said.
“So you took advantage of him,” Hanson said.
“I don’t dislike him,” Finn said. “And it’s not like I meant for him to get in trouble. He shouldn’t have gotten in trouble. Nothing in the stash was illegal. But then our XO went nuts and tried to rearrange my bone structure.”
“You probably should have known your product line better,” Dahl said.
“The next time I get something, I’ll run it by you first,” Finn said sarcastically, and then motioned toward the window, where the shuttle could be seen approaching the berth. “But it’s going to have to wait. Looks like our ride is here.”
Copyright © 2012 by John Scalzi