A mug of obscenely strong coffee, a bowl of potato wedges, and a good paperback. Kari was content.
Everything about Gaidana Exchange was abnormally grand, and the Pearl View Cafe was no exception. There were tables for over a hundred customers in the high-domed cafe, with long vertical windows stretching up the curved walls like some kind of ancient temple. Kari had secured herself a table at the very edge of the cafe next to one of the windows, and through it she saw the only thing which could dwarf Gaidana Exchange, and that was Gaidana itself. From high orbit, the planet was large enough to fill most of the view. White polar caps, deep blue oceans, green continents and long, wispy clouds. Gaidana had significantly less land mass than most colonised worlds and was inhospitably hot at the equator, but the lush and beautiful native rainforests at the cooler latitudes, plus endless stretches of immaculate coastline, made Gaidana one of the most populace worlds in the Republic.
It certainly looks pretty from up here, Kari thought.
It was late afternoon, according to the station’s clock, so the lunch crowd had dispersed but the dinner crowd had yet to roll in. There were enough patrons in the cafe that she didn’t feel out of place, but not so many as to make things crowded or noisy. She loved this time of day.
She scooped up a dollop of sour cream with a potato wedge, but let it hang in front of her eyes for several seconds. The food they served on the Sirius wasn’t bad, in fact some of it was quite nice, but none of it was comfort food. They didn’t serve potato wedges, or peanut butter and jam sandwiches, or fried endari strings. But here on the exchange, where fresh ingredients were shipped up from the planet every day, they could serve what most spacers only dreamt of.
Kari consumed the wedge with more gusto than class.
The vid screens around the cafe showed what they usually showed on this day of the year – attractive young citizens of the Republic swimming, picnicking, partying, playing sports, all with the flag of the Republic draped over their shoulders, or cheap temporary augs of the flag on their cheeks, or with a plastic flag in their hands. One teenager, shirtless, had his entire upper body pigmented in blue, white and gold, the colours of the Republic, using nano-augs which glowed in the dark.
The good news was that the volume was down, and from where Kari was sitting she didn’t have to see the screens if she didn’t want to. She was almost able to forget what day it was.
She opened the paperback to chapter one.
For several minutes she enjoyed escaping into a world of elves, dwarves and stern but irritatingly cryptic wizards while devouring wedges and sipping coffee. She knew the other pilots would think her mad for it, but as far as she was concerned, this constituted a good shore-leave.
“Lieutenant Tyrell, as I live and breathe!”
Speak of the devil.
Kari kept her paperback open but cocked her head up to look at a face which would be perfect for an old-fashioned recruitment drive. He was every part the classic R.A.S.F. fighter pilot – young, handsome, with a chiselled jaw which somehow always had the perfect amount of stubble, short dark hair and eyes of such a piercing blue that he should be required to carry a license to stare. His grin alone could probably be a lethal weapon were it to fall into the wrong hands.
The craziest thing about it was that Pat Jennison, ‘Stardust’ to his fellow pilots, seemed to know nothing of his powers.
Kari smiled politely at her Commanding Officer.
“Aren’t you supposed to be planetside?” She asked. She quickly added, “Sir?”
Pat shrugged his shoulders and pulled a chair over from the next table, apparently oblivious to the grinding sound it made as metal legs scraped against floor plating. He slumped into the chair, “Suzie’s flight’s been delayed, so we’re meeting here tomorrow.”
“Weren’t you going to the unveiling ceremony in Horus?”
“Naah. Well, yeah, but I don’t mind, just a bunch of generals and politicians patting themselves on the back for a war which was fought while most of them were still kids. Hardly even a real war anyway. You know they say for every Darani pilot killed, over a dozen Cirins died?”
Kari glanced meaningfully at her book, “Yeah, I heard that.”
“More like a serious spanking really.”
She smiled, “You really wanted to go, didn’t you sir?”
He growled, “Maybe, but don’t tell Suzie – she’s feeling guilty enough as it is.”
“Sorry to hear that,” she pretended to return to her book, and hoped he would get the hint. Kari liked Pat, but she also liked reading, and right now she knew what she needed.
“Question is,” Pat said, “why aren’t you planetside?”
She closed her book, but kept a finger in the page, “How did you know I was here?”
“I passed Tully outside the shuttle bay, said he’d seen you here, so I thought I’d come say hi.”
She stared at him, “Hi.” She returned to her book.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
She gave him the nicest glare she could manage. He was her superior after all, “I like it here.”
He looked around the cafe, “This is our first proper shore-leave in eight months, don’t you want to stretch your legs a bit? Breathe some fresh air?”
“It’s Armistice Day, that means fireworks,” he spoke as if tempting a child with lollipops, “you get to watch things blow up for no reason.”
Kari sighed, “Look, Commander…”
“Good God woman, we’re off-duty, call me Pat.”
“Pat, I’m happy here. I like this,” she lowered her voice, “Why don’t you ask me what you really want to know.”
“It’s just that you’re missing out on all the excitement, hiding up here.”
“Commander, ask me what you really want to know.”
He sighed and scratched his stubble. “Why do you want to resign?”
She nodded, “There it is.”
He leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head, “I was more than a little surprised when I got your message this morning. You’re a good pilot, one of the best. Why would you want to resign?”
Kari closed her book and put it on her table. She picked up her mug in both hands and slowly drained the last of her coffee before turning to look at Gaidana through the window, “You know I grew up on a cruise liner, right?”
“Yeah, your father was a… shuttle pilot?”
She nodded, “I learned it from him. During downtime he’d let me co-pilot his FR-40. I flew through the Silent Veil, the Kerensky Belt, the Glittering Weave, it was… breath-taking. I’ve just been… lately I’ve been wondering what he’d think of what I’m doing now.”
“You’re one of the best pilots on the finest carrier in the fleet, Kari, you don’t think he’d be proud of that?”
She shrugged, “He’d like that I was good at something, but I think he was a little disappointed when I applied for the Academy.”
Pat blinked, “Why?”
“His work on the liner wasn’t particularly glamorous, and the pay wasn’t great – but he loved it. He loved seeing the galaxy, he loved that thrill you get when the hangar doors open and you see it all stretched out in front of you. He loved the beauty of it all.”
Patrick didn’t say anything.
“I guess,” Kari continued, “it feels as though… we’re not about that. Our galaxy isn’t beautiful, it’s just… it’s like I betrayed him.”
Patrick frowned, and they sat in silence for a minute.
“Why did you enlist?” Patrick asked.
Kari shrugged, “Something to do.”
She idly fidgeted with a cold potato wedge, “I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, especially with Armistice Day. Mum died when I was born, my grandparents are dead, no brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins… my big Armistice Day family get-together was always just Dad and myself. We got on pretty well when I was a kid, but then I became a teenager. A teenager who blamed her father for the fact that there were hardly any other teenagers on the liner, and those who were there generally only stayed for a month or two.”
“You’re saying,” Patrick said, “you think you enlisted to piss him off?”
She cringed, “Maybe a little.”
Pat frowned and drummed his fingers on the table for half a minute, “Look, Kari, I wasn’t kidding when I said you’re one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen.”
“Tactics, intuition, marksmanship – seriously, the only reason you’re not Squadron Leader already is because of your age. I have no doubt that one day you’re going to make Wing Commander.”
Kari watched a shuttle fly past the windows.
“And,” Pat continued, “I’ve no doubt that as Wing Commander, you’re going to save lives. Don’t you think your Dad would’ve been proud of that?”
She remembered the look on her father’s face the last time she saw him, waving goodbye at the star port. He had tried to look happy for her, but she knew him too well. Their last exchange of words had been little more than platitudes, as she tried to skirt around the fact that she was really going to miss him while she was at the academy. She wished she’d been able to tell him that much at least.
“Maybe,” she whispered.
“Look, I haven’t forwarded your resignation to anyone yet – these things take a while to process anyway. You don’t have to decide right now. It’s Armistice Day, they don’t call this the silly season for nothing. Family makes people crazy, whether they’re sitting around the dining table, or lost to memory. I don’t want you committing to something now which you may regret for the rest of your life. Come back to me in two weeks. If you still want to resign then, then we’ll… argue some more.”
Kari smiled weakly, “You might be right.”
“I’m always right, lieutenant.” She threw the wedge at him, it struck him neatly on the forehead and he flinched, “Did you just strike a superior officer?”
“No sir, you were struck by a potato wedge sir.”
“Hmm, well, remind me to have it shot.”
“Good. Now, tomorrow there’s a Red Ball tournament lined up between the Scimitar and Sabre pilots in Horus. I’ve seen you play, so I’ve signed you up.”
“Are you kidding? I suck at Red Ball.”
“No you don’t.”
She raised an eyebrow, “I can’t catch, I can’t throw, I haven’t even learned all the rules yet.”
“Yeah,” he grinned, “but you can get awfully competitive when the heat’s on.”
She chuckled, “Maybe a little.”
His eyes widened, “So you’re in?”
Kari smiled and shook her head slowly.
“Pat, I can’t. I really can’t.”
“It’s just for a couple of hours – it’ll do you good.”
“No, Pat, I really can’t. It’s not a matter of choice.”
He looked at her, and his eyes widened, “Wait… you mean?” She nodded. “Spacer Syndrome?”
He whistled, “Well, that sucks. I mean… I knew you grew up in space, but not many…”
“Roughly three percent. I’ve been planetside twice in my life – both times I was sick to my stomach for the entire stay. I’m a Spacer, through and through.”
“That really sucks.”
“Yeah. But space is good. Nice and quiet, and plenty of room.”
“So… damn, you’ve never walked through a forest, swum in the ocean… you’ve never seen rainfall.”
“Oh, I did once. My second time planetside, when I was fourteen, it rained for the entire week, and I was able to see it through the bedroom window. That was kind of cool. Well, it was one of the worst weeks of my life, but seeing rainfall helped a little. I’ve seen vids of all this stuff of course.”
He shook his head, “It’s not the same. Try explaining what space is like to a Grounder.”
She narrowed her eyes, “This scheme you have for cheering me up, it needs work.”
“Yeah, sorry, it probably doesn’t help to… wait, is this live?” Pat was looking over Kari’s shoulder, his brow furrowed.
“What?” Kari turned around.
She saw what had caught his attention. The vid screen was no longer showing attractive young citizens, and was instead showing what looked like several tall pillars hidden in a large cloud of dust. As she watched she saw that the pillars were buildings. The news ticker along the bottom was flashing red.
“Hey,” Pat rose to his feet and shouted across the cafe, “Hey! Turn the volume up!”
Some patrons had started gathering around the vid screen, others were looking up from their meals. Confused chatter rose among the crowd until one of the cafe staff managed to work out how to turn the volume up and the female presenter’s voice filled the cafe.
“…will be advised in a moment. Currently there are mixed and conflicting reports coming through, but we can confirm that there has been at least one explosion, possibly more, at the unveiling ceremony for the new war memorial in Horus.”
The image on the screen changed to an overhead view of the city which Kari presumed to be from a satellite camera, showing a massive plume of smoke pouring out of the centre of the city, while a dust cloud spread through the streets like an inky, grey void. She suddenly felt sick.
“There has been no official word on the number of dead or injured, but eye-witnesses have reported seeing hundreds of bodies and body parts scattered across what can only be described as a horrific scene.”
The image returned to the presenter, her eyes wide and her hands visibly shaking as she tried to focus on the teleprompter, “Wait… yes we’re just getting official word now. As many as four bombs have been detonated among the crowds at the unveiling ceremony in Horus. At least four hundred are believed to have died in the attack, and we have word that the Prime Minister is among them. The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Foley, will be making an official statement in a few minutes’ time, and we will of course cross live to Parliament House when he does.”
“Son of a bitch.” Patrick muttered.
Kari stared at the screen, barely believing what she was seeing.
“This is it,” Patrick breathed.
The vid-screen now showed ambulance-lifters landing at the scene with blood-streaked victims being carried on stretchers.
“What…” Kari’s voice caught in her throat, “what do you mean?”
“We’re at war,” Patrick scratched his stubble.
She looked at him, “You think… you think the Alliance did this?”
“Of course they did, who else would? They’ve been talking about payback ever since the last war and now…” He met her eyes, “Kari, we just saw a public declaration of war.” He stood briskly and adjust his uniform, “We’re going to have to…” he stopped and looked around the cafe at patrons – some staring at the vid screen in horror, others talking to each other in hushed voices. One woman had her hands over her face and was crying. “They’re going to mobilise us,” he said, “I need to recall…” he looked at her, “Wait, Kari… I need to delete your message.”
She nodded, “Okay.”
“Sorry Kari, but resignation is off the table now. If anyone finds out you even asked, today of all days…”
“It’s okay,” she said, “I understand.”
He turned to leave, but then stopped, leaned forward on the table and lowered his voice, “You ready for this?”
She looked at his eyes, and whispered “No.”
He glanced back at the vid-screen, “Me neither. Let’s go.”