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The toilet gleamed. It sparkled. It shined. In fact, the man known as Kyle Rankin thought as he rocked back on his heels, he would go so far as to say that no other toilet in the known universe had ever been quite so clean as the one that sat before him now.
You know, when my sixth-grade teacher told me to shape up or my future would be in the toilet, I'm not sure even she thought it'd be literally.
But it definitely looked as good as the day it was installed. He supposed he could take pride in that if he ever ran into Ms. Fitzhugh.
He maneuvered himself up from the crouch, sucking a breath in through his teeth as his knees protested. Eight-hour cleaning shifts, it turned out, were murder on the joints. He felt like he had the knees of a seventy-two-year-old — which meant somewhere out there was a seventy-two-year-old with the knees of a twenty-seven-year-old. Some day he'd find that guy and have a few words.
The bathroom door creaked — he grimaced and reminded himself to lubricate the hinges — and a voice echoed off the tiles.
"Rankin? You in here?"
Oh, good. Farrell. This day just keeps getting better. Maybe if I don't say anything he'll —
"I can't tell you how happy I am never to have to do latrine duty again." A Cheshire-cat grin was plastered across the blond man's face as he leaned against the sink counter. His crisp, immaculately pressed uniform was code-perfect, except for the unfastened collar at the top, open just far enough to show a hint of chest.
Kyle jammed his mop into the auto-wringer and watched with satisfaction as it squeezed out every last drop of water. He probably shouldn't be picturing Farrell's head while doing that, but hey, it was a free planet.
"What do you want, Farrell? Or did you come here just to enjoy my misery?"
Farrell laughed, but it was a little too forced, like someone had once told him they liked his laugh and he'd spent the last ten years trying to achieve that perfect guffaw again. "No, my son, I'm not here for the company — we have business to conduct." Kyle's jaw clenched. The bloody gate.
"The first ship is due through the gate in a few minutes. It wouldn't do for us to be lurking in the johnny when we should be getting ready to pay out. We need to be down in the Ops Center with everybody else."
Suddenly, cleaning the rest of the toilets didn't seem like such a bad idea. "You handle it," Kyle said, shaking his head. "You don't need me there."
"Oh, come now," said Farrell, waving a hand expansively, "we're partners. And aren't you the least bit curious?"
Because curiosity never got anybody killed. "Honestly? No. What's it matter to me? I'm not going anywhere long as there are toilets to be scrubbed."
"It's been five years, Rankin." Wide-eyed, Farrell shook his head. "Jesus. Five years of our lives stuck in this ice-hell. All because some idiots thought it was a good idea to blow up our wormhole gate."
Acid roiled in Kyle's stomach. "The planet was being invaded at the time," he pointed out.
Farrell snorted. "We could have taken the Illyricans even without destroying the gate."
"Well if you'd been up there, sure."
"Hey, not my fault I was still in the academy. I could have flown rings around any of those Illyrican flight jockeys."
Or, more likely, you'd be an expanding pile of space dust right about now. If the entire Illyrican fleet had made it through the gate, they would have outnumbered the paltry Sabaean Defense Forces about five to one.
"I tell you, I am not going to be sorry to see the ass end of this place," Farrell said, talking right over Kyle's thoughts. "I am done with the fucking tundra. I mean, on a nice day the winds are gusting up to 50 kilometers per hour. You have any idea what kind of nightmare it is to land a jump jet in that kind of shitstorm?"
Kyle's stomach did a sympathetic barrel roll. "I'd rather not think about it."
Farrell, though, was on a different sort of roll. "They ought to have put this goddamn place in mothballs a long time ago."
"Come on, you know the brass keeps Davidson Base around so they have somewhere to dump the people they're pissed at."
Farrell's smug expression faltered, but it wasn't enough to permanently dent his enthusiasm. "Maybe for Antony, but not me. The minute the gate is open, I'm out of here. They're going to need trained pilots by the boatload — the military, transport lines, private contractors; they'll be fighting it out over someone with my qualifications."
Kyle did his best to turn a snort into a cough, but Farrell was too wrapped up in his rich fantasy life to even notice.
"It's too bad you can't come with me," Farrell continued, laying a comradely arm around Kyle's shoulder. "We're a good team. Think of all the trouble we could get into out there." He waved a hand slowly in front of them at a vista only he could see. "Of course, I'd need a reason to bring you along." His face lit up suddenly. "You could be my butler! People still have those, right?"
"If I go to Ops with you, will you leave me out of your grandiose plans?"
"Absolutely," said Farrell, drawing an "x" across the place where science had not proven he had a heart. "First drink's on me."
"Great." Kyle leaned his mop against the stall door with only slightly less reticence than most soldiers leaving their sweethearts to go off to war.
Five minutes later, after wending their way through the base's labyrinth of mostly similar-looking corridors, Farrell pushed open the door to the Operations Center. A raucous cheer of his name greeted him, and he waved and smiled like he was on camera, acknowledging his adoring public with a slight bow.
No such reception met Kyle. Few would recognize him without a mop in his hand and, even then, most wouldn't be able to come up with his name without consulting the tag on his chest.
"Told you it was a party," said Farrell, slapping Kyle on the back. "Even Antony's still up." He nodded at a glass-walled cubicle overlooking the Ops Center's concentric rings.
Tall and spare, with close-cropped silver hair, Colonel Indira Antony cut an imposing figure, even in her everyday uniform. The colonel's eyes met Kyle's, and she tilted her head in a casual nod.
Kyle returned the nod, ignoring a searching glance from Farrell.
"You never did tell me how you managed to get so buddy-buddy with the Old Wolf," Farrell said, nudging him with an elbow.
Kyle's shrug was noncommittal. "Even a colonel's wastebasket doesn't empty itself."
Despite the late hour, the base's personnel were surprisingly cheery — even those who were nominally on the graveyard shift. Kyle suspected that the bottles of booze being freely passed around were to thank for that. Normally, anyone on duty would have been on their way to the brig before they could take a single sip. But given the celebratory mood, Antony seemed to be turning a blind eye to the proceedings. Kyle thought he even spotted a tumbler on the colonel's desk.
A drink appeared in his hand, courtesy of Farrell. The pilot grinned and clinked it with his own plastic cup. "To our return to the galaxy," he said. "To clear skies and new horizons. And," he added, under his breath, "last but not least: to getting the hell out of here."
Some of us, anyway. Kyle raised his glass. "Cheers."
The Sabaeans threw a decent party, at least. But it wasn't quite enough to make Kyle forget that they were the architects of their current predicament. Confronted by an overwhelming invasion force, they'd taken the one tack that their enemy hadn't expected — because it was absolutely, brain-bendingly, antifreeze-drinking crazy: the Sabaeans had blown up their own wormhole gate, and with it their only connection to the rest of the galaxy.
Still in transit through the wormhole, the majority of the Illyrican fleet — dozens of ships, thousands of people — had vanished in an instant. They'd been carved right out of the fabric of the universe, their last remaining echo a hollow pit in Kyle's stomach.
Raucous laughter echoed from one corner of the room. Farrell had found a refill and was now leaning on a nearby console, leering down at one of the recent arrivals — a communications lieutenant by the name of Polakov. In the two weeks she'd been here, Farrell had dedicated himself to getting into her uniform, but her expression suggested he'd have better luck going topside, building a snowman, and propositioning it instead.
Someone jostled Kyle, splashing his shirt with alcohol. He glanced over his shoulder, but the offending party was already gone. Sighing, he cast around for something to dry his shirt, but somebody had evidently forgotten to lay out any napkins. Typical military efficiency.
His gaze caught upon Antony, leaning over the balcony railing in front of her office. The colonel was staring at the large holographic display that floated overhead, showing the solar system. A large green circle — Sabaea — stood at the center. Not far off hung a smaller blue dot: the reconstructed gate. A few green blips around the planet sketched the Sabaean fleet, loosely arrayed in a defensive formation. The last time something had come through the gate, it had been an invasion fleet. The Sabaean Defense Forces weren't taking any chances. Let's hope they have a different strategy this time.
Antony's eyes caught Kyle's; smiling slightly, she tilted her head in his direction. Kyle looked around, but none of the other partygoers seemed inclined to risk conversation with a lowly maintenance tech, so up the stairs he went.
Still leaning on the railing, Antony glanced over at Kyle as he reached the top, then nodded to the holographic display. "So, who's your money on, Mr. Rankin?"
Shit. Kyle summoned the blandest expression he could manage. "Ma'am?"
The colonel fixed him with a knowing look. "Your little pool with Mr. Farrell? On who's going to be the first to come through the gate?"
Kyle suppressed a grimace. He'd kind of hoped they'd flown under the radar. "Odds favor a trade ship from the Bayern Corporation," he admitted. "Though a surprising number of people seem pretty convinced that an Illyrican ghost fleet is going to pop out and take their revenge." He tried to summon a laugh, but it lacked conviction.
Antony snorted. "Well, if they've figured out how to survive in a wormhole for five years, then maybe they deserve to win next time."
But nobody survives in a wormhole, Kyle thought. Despite all those "wormhole survival training" drills they run. It was like falling through the ice — and then having the ice freeze over you. Kyle shivered, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end.
"If there'd been any other way ..." Antony murmured, glancing over at him.
It was Kyle's turn to snort. "Well, until some brainiac figures out a way to travel between star systems without using a wormhole gate, I'd say it's a pretty effective tactic." Figuring out how to prop open the naturally occurring wormholes that humanity had stumbled across had been hard enough; anything beyond that had so far proven elusive.
Antony shook her head. "Doesn't make it right."
No, it doesn't. But it's done. Time to move on.
They stood in silence for a moment, both watching the carousing below.
"So," said Kyle, scratching a temple. "I guess you'll want me to return the personnel's money, ma'am?"
"That won't be necessary. As long as it's all in good fun." She raised her eyebrows. "It is in good fun. Isn't it, Mr. Rankin?"
"Good," said Antony. "I'd hate to have to confiscate Lieutenant Farrell's cut."
Kyle grinned, some of the tension finally ebbing away, and raised his own nearly empty glass. "You have a favorite, then, ma'am?"
"That depends on what kind of odds you're offering."
"Well," said Kyle, his face scrunching up in thought, "the Illyricans — the non-ghost ones, anyways — are on the board at 9 to 2, with the Commonwealth a little bit ahead at 4 to 1. Bayern is definitely the favorite, at 2 to 1 — and nobody's really expecting the Hanif to come near the place."
"Thorough. I'm impressed. You considering a new line of work as a bookie?"
"Beats cleaning bathrooms."
Antony ran her thumb around the glass's rim. "About that," she said, looking up at Kyle. "This is going to change a lot of things." She nodded at the screen again.
"Why?" said Kyle. "Are we finally getting that new auto-mop I've had my eye on?"
"Not exactly what I meant. Just that, with your situation being what it is — "
"Colonel!" came a voice from the floor, as if on cue. Polakov, the communications officer, was looking up at them, one hand on her headset.
"Message from gate control, ma'am. Something's coming through."
The entire room trickled into silence as their eyes swiveled to the display overhead, staring at the blue dot of the gate. Kyle's breath caught; beside him he could hear the colonel's doing the very same. It wasn't hard to imagine the entire population of Sabaea holding their breath at this very moment, staring at the same image with equal feelings of hope and fear.
A yellow dot blinked into existence next to the blue one.
There were a couple of scattered cheers, but the crowd quickly went quiet again, the bigger question still unanswered.
"Incoming transmission from the ship, wide spectrum," said Polakov.
"On speakers, lieutenant."
A filtered voice blared through the room, caught mid-sentence. "— to the Sabaean monarchy. We welcome you back to the galactic community, and hope to usher in a new age of prosperity and cooperation between our two cultures."
"Get on with it," muttered Kyle.
"Repeat: this is the frigate Indefatigable, bringing greetings of the Commonwealth of Independent Systems to the Sabaean monarchy."
A murmur of surprise rippled through the room. There were more than a few people on Sabaea who believed that the Commonwealth should have come to their aid during the invasion; most, though, didn't seem to blame them for not wanting to put themselves in harm's way. Either way, they probably won't get a hero's welcome.
"Four to one, was it?" said Antony. "Not bad, considering that five years ago the Illyrican Empire had them more or less painted into a corner."
"Yeah, well, the Illyricans have one less fleet than they used to." It came out more flip then he'd intended.
Antony grimaced. "It's never wise to speak ill of the dead, Mr. Rankin. You never know when it might come back to haunt you."
Kyle swallowed. "Yes, ma'am."
"As you were," said Antony, waving her glass at the party. "Enjoy the revelry. Eat, drink, be merry, all that."
For tomorrow we ... what exactly? Drawing himself up, Kyle turned toward the stairs.
He glanced over his shoulder, and saw that Antony's expression had thawed slightly. The colonel nodded down at the Ops Center. "I know you don't exactly feel like you fit in down there, but everybody's Sabaean today."
With a nod, Kyle excused himself and returned to the party, already well underway. Somebody — Farrell again, he thought — shoved a mug of what smelled like 120-proof motor oil into his hand, and knocked their own cup against it before disappearing back into the crowd.
Kyle stared at the drink. There were some things that not even liquor could wash away, despite his best efforts.
A blonde head snapped up in the middle of the crowd. Kyle raised his eyebrows as he recognized Lieutenant Polakov, trying to flag down Antony. After a moment, she gave up, peeling off her headset and taking to the stairs, two at a time.
Kyle watched as she tapped the colonel on the shoulder. Polakov said something to her, and Antony frowned. The colonel's eyes searched the crowd, suddenly locking onto him. Holding his gaze, Antony's lips thinned and she jerked her head at Kyle, summoning him again toward the platform he'd just left.
Discarding the untouched mug of liquor on top of a convenient console, Kyle reluctantly climbed the steps back up to the colonel's station, passing Polakov on her way back down. She eyed him as if seeing him for the first time.
As Kyle reached the top, the colonel motioned him into her office proper. The din cut off abruptly as Antony closed the door.
"Mr. Rankin. Sorry to interrupt your celebrations so soon, but there's been an interesting development." She inclined her head toward her own private screen, which was currently mirroring the display that hung in the Ops Center. On it, the Commonwealth ship — now marked green for friendly — was closing the distance between the blue dot of the gate and the larger green dot of Sabaea. "You have friends in the Commonwealth?"
Excerpted from "The Caledonian Gambit"
Copyright © 2017 Dan Moren.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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