Science Fiction The Oracle
#21
Great story so far!  I hope it continues.
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#22
Thanks CatKnight. I'm glad you're enjoying it. I enjoy writing it. I'll try to post something soonish. I just got distracted.
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#23
Episode 14: History

Lieutenant Morgan's already severe face drew down into an even tighter frown as she paced around Ensign Leath, her hands clasped behind her back. To Ardelle it felt like the other woman was a metal spring pressed tighter and tighter with quiet yet barely controlled anger. 

Ardelle, Corporal Whately, and Crewman Walker, and the pilots stood at rigid attention inside the science tent. The Lieutenant drew even with Ardelle and spun on her heel facing the younger woman. Ardelle unwittingly drew even more ramrod straight, if that were possible.

"So, Ensign, what you're telling me one of our finest is dead? By some... some sea monster?" Lt. Morgan's lined face seemed more furrowed with concern and anger than ever before.

"Yes ma'am," Aredelle said, regret darkening her words. "A large...uh...snake ma'am. It..." her voice wavered, and she saw the death again. She clenched her fists until her nails dug into her palms. She fought back the tears that threatened to fall as the memory of McCoy's horrific death swept over her again. So much blood. Blood in the water. Blood on her hands.

"I'm waiting, Ensign. Spit it out!"

"I--"

"It was... an underwater serpent, ma'am," Elliot interjected, probably trying to deflect some of the anger leveled at her, Ardelle realized. "It was beneath the atol. I believe it thought we were encroaching upon its territory, and it attacked."

"Did I ask you for your opinion, Crewman Walker?" Lt. Morgan lanced him with a gaze and twisted his title as if it were something ugly.

"No ma'am," Elliot's will wilted and he dropped his eyes.

"Then keep your trap shut until addressed."

"Yes ma'am," he mumbled.

"So, some giant serpent just came out of nowhere and killed one our men. Didn't you have any weapons? Marines are supposed to have weapons aren't they, Corporal? You do fight with those big sticks you carry don't you?"

"Yes Ma'am. And we do and we certainly did ma'am," Whately addressed her in clipped tones, his response was clearly on automatic pilot. There was no anger there, Ardelle realized. Maybe that was Corporal Whately's way of dealing with grief. Had he withdrawn into himself? His monotone responses seemed unnaturally hollow. Dead even. Dead like... 

"The life-form was very quick," Corporal Whately continued. "We fired everything we had at it. Even Ensign Leath tried to shoot at it, but... well, it was very quick ma'am. We managed to hit it after Private McCoy was killed, and we drove it off."

"Where's the footage? You do you have some don't you? I want to see it. Now! I know military diving suits have embedded cameras."

"We...didn't have military suits ma'am. All we had was civilian gear."

Ardelle flicked her eyes over to Corporal Whately. What he wasn't saying was that the civilian gear did have embedded cameras. But Ardelle had had them removed after the event, suspecting Lt. Morgan might ask for something like this.

"Civilian gear?" Lt. Morgan arched an eyebrow.

"Budget cutbacks I suppose ma'am. Marine Seargent Remy might know for sure."

"Cutbacks," Lt Morgan spat. "Is that the excuse for everything?"

No one said anything.

"Apparently it is," she gave a dissatisfied grunt and massaged her forhead. "Ensign Leath and Corporal Whately, I want each of you to write up a full report on what happened. On my desk in the morning at 0500 hours. Now that's enough. Get out of my sight!"

They retreated outside into the ever present rain and mud and Ardelle heard the prefab door lock behind them. 

Ardelle didn't bother covering up. She let the cool water plaster her hair to her skull. Elliot looked at her, but she ignored him, and he eventually jogged away to drier climes. Ardelle wandered a bit. A part of her wanted to go back and tell Lt. Morgan everything. She found herself walking back intending to knock on the door. She made it as far as the window. She looked through it. Lt. Morgan didn't see her. The older woman gave a muffled groan and sank into the chair, her head in one hand. The other hand was...trembling. 

Ardelle watched for a moment and then she saw Lt. Morgan's shoulders gently shake. She shrank back as if struck. She didn't think Lt. Morgan was capable of tears, and she felt like she had just intruded on an inner sanctum of something she shouldn't have seen, an unguarded part of the other woman's soul.

---

Several hours later, Ardelle sat alone inside the shuttle's cockpit. Rain drummed on the thick, hardened, military pexi-glass. It was after midnight local time, and it felt good to finally be alone. Away from the hurt stares of the other marines.

The soft glow of the console's lights reflected off the interior of the cockpit window. She sighed and tapped the transmit button and sent her report to The Oracle. It'd be sliced into secure data packets that were deeply embedded with other data from routine communications and sensor scans from the shuttle's systems. The packets detailed the report of her findings were now on their way up to Captain Alestranda aboard The Oracle.

Through the rain she saw a flicker of motion, and her heart lurched as a dark shape walked past the cockpit. She flicked a switch and dimmed the lights in the cockpit. She sank back into the chair not wanting to be seen. The footsteps stopped, turned and trudged away. It sounded like Chubbs was on patrol. She just wanted alone. She couldn't endure their looks anymore. Their accusing looks were full of too much guarded pain. It was rightly her fault. She was the officer who had called the shots. She was the one who hasn't brought his body back. Both Chubbs and Claxton had been silent when Corporal Whately broke the news to them earlier that day. Chubbs just turned around and walked away on a long walk across the grass where he found a rock. He had sat in the rain for hours. Claxton just said he wanted a beer. Maybe ten. Maybe twenty. Then he moaned about there not being a bar around to get drunk, and he turned into his bunk trying to sleep. Whately finally put him on mess duty just to get him thinking about something else, but he had burned the food. When Chubbs said it tasked like crap, Claxton had responded that Chubbs taste buds were crap. 

They almost came to blows. 

Whately had to step in again and had put Chubbs on patrol duty.

Ardelle sunk lower in the seat and hugged herself, wanting to scream from the bottled emotions. Instead, she worried the inside of her cheek with her teeth until she tasted blood. She felt the salty iron taste and let the tears come. Some time later, tired and spent, she drifted off to sleep under the patter of rain. Her dreams with a dark cruelty, mingled Shane's burned body with McCoy's torn body in discordant images of underwater fire. 

The dull pong of an incoming message brought her back to wakefulness. She tapped accept and some lights on the console flickered to life and over a secure connection, she heard Captain Alestranda's voice.

"Glad to see you're alive and well, Ensign."

"I'm alive," she muttered. "That's more than I can say for Private McCoy."

"An unfortunate incident to be sure," Cpt. Alestranda said.

"He was torn in half, or didn't you get my report?"

"Stow your jets, Ensign. I wouldn't be calling you directly if I hadn't. I know you won't believe me, now, but I hate it when even one of my crew gets a stuffy nose on my watch. I take every death seriously...more than you know."

"Permission to speak freely, Ma'am?"

There was a long silence. Ardelle knew that military phrase was a polite way to inform a superior that disagreements were coming.

"Go ahead. You have something on your mind," Cpt. Alestranda said. 

It was a statement.

Ardelle's voice became tight and pinched. "If you care, why... why all the secrecy? Why are we doing things half baked? Why not send a whole platoon down here? Why keep the secrets from Lt. Morgan? I--I don't know if I can keep this up. All the subterfuge. The secrets..." Ardelle twisted a strand of hair on one finger so tightly her finger felt numb. She kept seeing Private McCoy's mauled body whenever she blinked. Her eyes began to water and she blinked again and again quickly and felt a silent shudder course through her.

The silence stretched.

"You've done well," Cpt. Alestranda said with a note of resigned acquiescence in her voice. "I needed to know if I could trust you. And it seems I can."

"Trust me? What do you mean?"

"You're earned the right to know. Lt. Morgan may not be who she says she is. In fact, Intelligence has been keeping eyes on her."

"What? Why?" Ardelle asked stunned.

"It was a long time ago," Captain Alestranda's voice sounded tired. "Back when the colony insurrectionists were in full swing back when you were in diapers. Lt. Morgan was about your current age, perhaps a little younger. She too was only an Ensign. She was serving aboard Zebra a light cruiser in the 5th fleet."

"5th fleet, but that was the one that..." she swallowed.

"Yes, the one that was butchered at Vega. You know the story."

"Everyone does," Ardelle murmured. "The fifth fleet suffered something like forty-five percent casualties, wasn't it?"

"That common estimate is overly conservative. Casualties were over seventy percent," Captain Ardelle's voice was a dead thing.

"Seventy percent!" her mind reeled at the staggering loss of life. "But... but that's not what--"

"Not what you heard?" The Captain's voice barked out an soft mocking laugh. "Yes, I suppose it isn't. You'll find that the propaganda arm of our government is quite good at spinning the truth. It's the nature of governments to paint every debacle that might cast a shadow on it in the softest of hues."

"But the media--that many deaths? You can't hide that."

"You most certainly can. One only needs a firm hand at the helm. An iron hand you might say. The media, of course, wasn't at the battle, and they were only told what the government wanted told. The insurrectionists did try to reveal the truth, to take credit for the victory, but those attempts all failed. In the end it didn't matter. 12th fleet crushed the insurrectionists and took no prisoners. But it is a very dangerous secret to know."

"Why are you telling me then?" Ardelle's asked and she couldn't help the fear nibbling at the corners of her mind. 

"I have my reasons," Ardelle's fancied she could hear the woman smile on the other end of the line.

"But how did you find out, ma'am, if it's such a carefully guarded secret?"

"I was...there, aboard the the heavy cruiser Frontier. We had lost our shields and several decks were badly mauled by laser and pulse shots. Our reactor core was only at 15 percent capacity, but our ship still managed to limp to the jump point with only a skeleton crew. Fifteen survivors out of hundreds. I--I lost a lot of friends that day..."

In the silence of sadness that followed, the lights in the cockpit flickered like the flickering eyes of a fading heartbeat.

"And Lt. Morgan?" Ardelle finally asked.

"Ensign Morgan served at the time as a low-level watch standard aboard Zebra. It was one of ten ships to survive the engagement. The fleet was ambushed by hundreds of insurrectionist ships that had been lying in wait. Their signatures were masked by the dust and asteroids and the other mining equipment scattered throughout the asteroid field. But they had ample time. They knew exactly where we would be and exactly when."

"You're saying Lt. Morgan is responsible?"

"Of course not. But I'm saying that she may be suspect."

"Why?"

"Being aboard the bridge crew, she could have accessed sensitive intelligence about the operation. In addition, her colonial background and her family history among the colonies leaned sympathetic to the insurrectionists. And... well... the data logs on her system later showed she had sent a flurry of messages by courier ship before the fleet began jumps."

"But anyone would do that wouldn't they? Anyone who has family would want them to know that--" she swallowed, thinking of her uncle who had been the only one for her, but her own parents who hadn't been a real part of her life. She continued, "Well, they would want to know that you might be in danger." 

"True. The messages were analyzed. Nothing substantial was found, of course, but higher-ups needed someone to blame. They think that her messages could have been encoded with the jump times from the fleet."

"But they can't prove it?"

"No. But her service record was flagged, and she was busted down Warrant Officer for 'negligence'. And the rest is history..."

That certainly explained much of Lt. Morgan's attitude. 

"But she's a lieutenant now," Ardelle said.

"She knew her record had been flagged, but that only spurred her to work harder than any of the other officers. Despite the record flag and its limitations, she climbed in rank. She would have made captain twice over if not for that flagged record. She really is a good officer, Ensign, though you may find that hard to believe. She is dependable and reliable when given a task and she does her job very well. Her superior attitude can be a pain in the butt, and she hates babysitting junior officers, as you know, but..."

"But you're not sure you can trust her?"

"I want to. In fact, I think I do trust her. But this information about... about an alien race... well, two alien races now if what you sent me is accurate," she murmured, "if that gets out into the wrong hands, the aliens are only going to be half of our worries."

"But ma'am, you can't keep a secret like this forever. Too many people know. It's only a matter of time before someone says something."

"I know that." Captain Alestranda said. "Sol system and its allies have many enemies. You're aware of the so called Independent Coalition of Colonies?"

"Yes," Ardelle said. 

The T.I.C.C. had formed when she was a child and had steadily grown in numbers and supporters. Those sympathetic to Earth and Sol's allies often referred to the T.I.C.C as "blood suckers", due to their acronym's similarity to the insect. She doubted that was far from the truth. T.I.C.C. members had a penchant for preying on trade routes and engaged in active piracy and impressment of Earth vessels and officers.

"Well, I received word just before we jumped out here that five more colony worlds joined the T.I.C.C."

That she hadn't heard. Five more worlds...! She gave a low whistle.

"Another war could very well be the offing, Ensign, and one of those colony worlds was Aitera 4."

"But that's--"

"Yes, that's Lt. Morgan's home planet," Captain Alestranda finished.

Ardelle didn't know what to say. And the silence stretched again each lost in their thoughts. 

"So, business as usual then?" Ardelle finally said and felt the tiredness and stress creeping in.

"What do you think I should do about Lt. Morgan?" the Captain asked her and the sudden change caught her off guard.

"You're asking me?"

"You work closely with her. I want to know your thoughts."

Ardelle thought back to the previous day and her conversation with Lt. Morgan. Everything seemed to be sliding into place about the other woman. But was Lt. Morgan a traitor? A spy? As much as she disliked Lt. Morgan at times, she honestly couldn't believe that the woman was disloyal. 

She shook her head and muttered something.

"What's that Ensign?"

"I was only saying that I think the time for secrets among us is over, Captain. I think you should tell her."

"Only her or the entire crew?"

"That's your call, ma'am. But I do know they'll all find out sooner or later. I do think the bridge crew should be told at least. There was something I read from an ancient statesman, I can't remember who, but he said something about a house that wasn't united would fall. Our bridge is our house. It's the head of the ship. It needs to be able to act and plan unitedly, especially with this latest information we found about about the aliens."

Long seconds drifted by among the whir of fans in the shuttles cockpit. 

When Captain Alestranda spoke, her voice was firm, as if some decision had been made. "No secrets," Captain Alestranda said. The finality that underlined her words. "That feels...right. You have a good head and a good heart. I'll trust your judgement Ensign Leath and inform all the bridge crew, including Lt. Morgan. I'll hold off on informing the entire crew of The Oracle at large for the moment. 

"In about ten minutes you'll receive a data dump on your console. Please deliver it in person to Lt. Morgan with my compliments. For your remaining day on planet, I want you to find out everything you can about these aliens. Scour the land for any thing that might lend a clue to what happened to them. Record anything you can find."

"Yes Ma'am. And thank you," Ardelle said. 

"No. Thank you. That is all Ensign." The call ended, and Ardelle leaned back in the chair. She looked out the cockpit and felt a great relief lift off of her. She still wanted to scrub McCoy's death out of hear heart, but that piece of darkness would have to wait. At least she wouldn't have to sneak around Lt. Morgan anymore. At least she had another person she could talk to.

She opened the hatch with a hiss and stepped out onto the sodden springy ground. Something was different. But it wasn't until she looked up that she realized what it was. Through a break in clouds she saw stars and a cool breeze ruffled her hair.

The rain had finally stopped.

---- Rolls ----


What is Lt. Morgan's mood?

3 = +1 +0 +1 +1 0

Fiercely / Ancient

Is she suspicious about Whately's ommission?

(50/50 | 3[d10]) No

Did the rain finally let up?

(Somewhat Likely | 9[d10]) Yes

What are some events that Lt. Morgan went through?

Waste / Tension

Befriend / Messages

Release / Portals

How does she take the news of Whately's death?

Haggle / Death

Does Lt. become distraught?

(50/50 | 6[d10]) Yes, but...

But she doesn't show it in front of the others.

What does Cpt. Alestranda want Ardelle to do?

Antagonise / Nature

She wants Ardelle to scour the country side to find out more about the aliens.

Does she give permission to Ardelle to tell Lt Morgan what is going on.?

(Likely | 10[d10]) Yes, and...
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