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For descriptions of each episode, check out my Show Notes at the top of the page. This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental.

WARNING: Some of the language may be offensive, but no worse than you would expect in an R rated movie.

Special thanks to NASA for the image of the galaxy.


Chapter Three

     A month went by before Captain Poluka called and asked Aguire to pick him up at the McConnell spaceport.

Aguire drove east through New Wichita and into the wide-open prairie, where the rusty ruins of Old Wichita grew out of the horizon on the left. McConnell, shiny and new, was dead ahead.

McConnell was like a small city, mostly for commercial service, but with sections reserved for Army, Navy, and Corps use. Aguire told the car to go park itself and went into the civilian side.

Halfway to the arrivals terminal, he saw a public com console and remembered he wanted to call an old friend. Eleven years ago he’d joined the Navy. His buddies from the orphanage joined the Army, except one who stayed in Madrid and might know where the others were. Aguire had lost track of them, and the new com system couldn’t seem to locate them.

He punched a search into the com and waited…and waited.

Maybe the com was broken or the system was down.

“Aguire!”A man’s voice barked at the back of his head and spun him around to find Mike Sullivan, a spaceport police officer, right behind him.

“Hey, Sullivan, what the —”

“Get away from the console, Aguire.” Sullivan reached past him and punched the cancel button. Something in his tone prodded Aguire to move without asking questions. The cop’s eyes darted around the bustling spaceport. His every movement was tense, as if some inevitable catastrophe was overdue. A dozen steps from the machine, they stopped and faced each other.

 “I don’t know what you’re doing, Aguire,” Sullivan said, “but don’t do it again.”

“What the hell, Sullivan? I was looking for an old friend. What’s going on, amigo?”

“I got a call,” Sullivan gestured at the radio clipped to his collar, “to see who was using this console. Whomever you were searching for is bad news. The last time this happened I found my kid’s piano teacher trying to make a call. Like a good little cop, I reported what I saw. An hour later she was arrested by federal goons and hasn’t been seen since.”

The policeman squeezed his radio and said, “Sullivan here. There was no one at the console when I arrived.”

“Understood. Hey, Sullivan, the cameras aren’t working again. See if you can fix it. Dispatch out,” a voice replied.

“What the hell’s going on, Sullivan?” Aguire demanded.

“It’s the New fucking Fed, man.” Sullivan scanned the faces around them, not like he used to, not like a cop doing his job, but more like a soldier in enemy territory. The people walking by avoided him, not making eye contact. “I’d quit this job, but you know how many kids I’ve got? Mouths to feed, you know?”

They didn’t talk long. Sullivan continued his rounds, and Aguire needed to meet Poluka.

At the terminal, Poluka was collecting his baggage. Aguire pressed a button on his car key, and the car met them at the nearest exit.

Aguire got a couple of beers from the back seat and handed one to Poluka on the way to Poluka’s suite, which was one of many old houses the Spacemen’s Association owned between New Wichita and Old Wichita.

“It’s a gloomy view.” The captain nodded at the distant ruins of Old Wichita which seemed just a few steps away on the snowy plain.

Rebel generals formed the Federation there forty years ago, after what had been called the Last War. Now, that Federation was gone, too. The clamor of war echoed in Aguire’s memory, not this Last War but the more recent Jupiter War, where he’d first met Captain Poluka.

“Here’s to peace.” Aguire raised his beer.

“Peace.” Poluka raised his bottle and took a swallow. “They passed over you. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” Aguire grimaced. “Turner commands the Livingston now, but I can continue as first officer—under Captain Turner.”

Poluka frowned. “Turner’s a good man, but you should have got it.”

“It’ll take years waiting for another ship as Turner’s first-officer, but I sure as hell don’t want to get stuck working for Admiral Fisher.”

Poluka frowned at the bleak landscape. “You may not get assigned to my new ship. It’s not just my decision.”

Aguire groaned and mumbled, “Things sure have changed.”

Poluka pulled his gaze away from the prairie and studied Aguire. “What do you think of all the changes, Commander?”

“At first, I thought it wouldn’t make much difference.” Aguire shrugged. “You know. A new system, a new calendar, a Senate. Big deal. But everybody’s scared. I liked the old way better.”

“Having a Senate is the only improvement that I can see,” Poluka said. “That new calendar business was a mistake. The idea was to get rid of religious holidays. It’s no secret that Batastia blames religion for most of the world’s problems.”

“Batastia? The vice president?”

“Yeah, the President is just a figurehead. Vincent Batastia runs the show.”

“That explains the trouble when I tried to buy Christmas decorations.”

“Eh? You got in trouble?”

“Yeah, some of our officers wanted a holiday party with some local girls. We’ve done it before and it always gets us…um….”

“I understand what it gets you, José. I know the kind of women you invite to parties, but how did you get into trouble?”

“The stores aren’t carrying anything for Christmas. It made them nervous just hearing the word Christmas and they tried to get me to leave, so I made a stink about it. They called the cops.”

“You got arrested?” Poluka seemed oddly pleased.

“Well, I got an order to appear in court for disturbing the peace.”

He was embarrassed now. He once got in trouble during a stopover on Mars. Poluka had been furious.

“How will you keep it off your record?” Poluka asked.

Aguire took a deep breath. “I’m not going to. This is a matter of principle. I’m not religious myself, but the government can’t dictate what people believe, right? I mean…where will it stop?”

The car entered a neighborhood of rustic houses on huge lots, slowing to navigate through rural, snow-covered roads.

“When’s the new ship getting commissioned?” Aguire asked.

“Soon. They won’t let me choose my own crew, but I get to pick the first mission. I’m going to investigate the Zone, and then Arcturus.”

“The Zone? It’s about time. Didn’t your brother’s ship disappear there?”

“Yeah. Like every spacecraft going that direction, he never returned. Hundreds of robot probes have vanished attempting to reach Arcturus.” Poluka was getting excited now, gesticulating as he spoke. “The Himilco—my brother’s ship—was equipped with the very first Stokes Tube, but she was a tiny ship cobbled together on a shoestring budget. She might have made it, but she didn’t, and we still don’t know what’s out there to be afraid of.”

“Your new ship can do it?”

“Exactly. Think of it, Aguire.” Poluka pointed at the sky. “We’ve explored star systems hundreds of light years away, except in the direction of Arcturus, which is only 36 light years from where you’re sitting, and all because of the Zone, the mysterious region of space that scares the snot out of most spacemen. My new starship, the Hanno, will be the first to make it there.”

His love of discovery was something they had in common. For explorers, it’s being first that counts. Nobody cares who got there second.

“The government agreed to Arcturus for the first mission?”

“For simple self-interest, I can assure you. Construction of the Hanno was practically complete when New Fed took control. Otherwise, they’d have scrapped the whole project. So, they got a very expensive starship with experimental engines that some people think won’t work right. They took a gamble, after a little persuasion, because there are still powers who aren’t part of the New Federation, independent worlds, fortune hunters and so forth. If someone else gets to Arcturus first, it’ll damage the prestige of the new government as well as cloud any legal claim to Arcturus. The Alpha Virginus system is a likely candidate. They’re in a good location to simply go around the Zone to get to Arcturus. If the Hanno is a failure and never returns, the New Fed can say it was a project of the old government and their hands were tied, but if she makes it, well, that would be something.”

“So, we’ve got idiot politicians making a scientific decision,” Aguire concluded, “and we like the decision, which was made for all the wrong reasons.”

“Beautiful how that works, isn’t it?”

The car stopped at a house with a big, covered porch and deer tracks all over the snow. Nearby pine trees lent a delicate scent to the crisp winter air.

Some of Poluka’s stuff was already there, hastily dropped off when they returned to Earth. Trinkets and artifacts from bygone times lined the bookcases and shelves. A meter-long model of a wooden sailing ship sat on the kitchen table.

“You finished it,” Aguire said, referring to the model.

“Almost. It needs paint now.”

“I can imagine you on an old ship. When will we know something about my next assignment?”

“In the next few weeks. Training starts soon. Even if you don’t know your status, you should take some classes. Maybe it’ll help convince people that you should be on the Hanno.”

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