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Authors: Clare Dargin

Tags: #Cold Warriors Series

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BOOK: Ice and Peace
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A corridor in space used by both civilian and military personnel, the Ross Sea connected Earth to its main colonies. It was the primary thoroughfare for commercial shipping and, because of this, it had been a target for raids and enemy fire during the war. Therefore, it was standard procedure for any military crew to fly “weapons tight,” meaning ready to fire on any confirmed hostiles, when going through it.

Staring out the small window, Keegan tried his best to catch sight of a passing star, though he knew he wouldn’t. A feeling stirred within the pit of his stomach. He inhaled deeply and held it. It was the same anxious feeling he had been trying to quell ever since he’d been cleared by the medical officer in Washington, D.C. Why he had been given this second chance? He figured the Corps to be many things, but gracious about disobeyed orders was not one of them.

“Colonel, we are on approach to the USS Blanchard,” the pilot reported over the com.

He looked at his overstuffed duffel bag on the floor. Caitlin had packed it to the gills with who knew what. In spite of her training and time at Warrant Officer School, she packed a bag like a wife and not a Sailor.

It was hard being away from her, but still, it was good to be back in space again.

“Sir, we’ve been cleared to dock,” the pilot said.

He walked back to his seat and buckled the safety belt. Keegan rubbed his hands together, nervous about the inevitable encounter he was about to have. It was common courtesy for a senior officer, upon boarding, to meet the skipper of the ship. Though officially retired, he still fit the bill.

His pride, normally worn in secret and buried in his files of good conduct medals and high-ranking command, was all gone. All he had now was a mark on his record. Some called it a CRM or career-restricting move that meant it was better to retire than to keep working.

The transport jostled as it landed.

He slumped into the seat when the double gravity from both the transport and the ship took effect. The transport groaned in agreement as it rested on the deck. The cargo door opened with a hiss. He unbuckled his seat belt and walked toward the back wall to grab his bag. He calmed himself and then strolled toward the door.

A young woman dressed in a black-and-tan service uniform stood in front of him. She wore a holstered weapon on her hip.

“Welcome aboard the USS Blanchard. Please follow me, sir. ”

 

***

 

Keegan entered the darkened visitor’s quarters in the VIP section of the USS Blanchard, feeling decidedly out of place. It was as if he was visiting his childhood home after being away for a long time, where everything had changed and stayed the same simultaneously.

A fine layer of dust coated most of the items in the room, indicating how long it had been since they were last used. In fact, the entire ship looked as if it had a fine coating of dust in it. The crew, the equipment…everything had lost its edge.

“Well, that is no longer my responsibility,” he said with a sigh.

Looking around the room, he took stock of his new living space. Small and sparsely decorated, it was nothing like what he had before. As an executive officer, he’d had a large room with a normal-sized bed and a porthole offering a view of space. He’d also had a large desk and shelves for his books and a bathroom with its own shower.

In comparison, the visitor’s quarters was a dimly lit gray room with a private shower, a small cot, and a metal locker in which to hang his clothes. Placing his duffle bag on the floor beside his bed, he glanced inside the locker. It contained a full complement of toiletries, along with various changes of uniforms and other items he would need during his stay. Items bearing his rank and former insignia along with a copy of the ship’s “Plan of the Day” rested on the bed, awaiting his attention.

Somebody’s been doing their homework
.

Strolling over to the mirror, Keegan examined his reflection. He raked his hand through his hair. It was a little longer than he liked.

“Need a haircut,” he said, staring at the image before him. His hair was grayer than it was before. His face was rounder, and his eyes had lost their fierceness. He looked soft and well-worn, like a pair of comfortable slippers. Glancing around his quarters once again, he saw a slip of paper on the nightstand next to his bed. Picking it up, he read the bold black words:
Meeting in general’s ready room at 2000 hours
.

He looked at the clock over the hatch. He just had enough time to get a haircut.

 

***

 

Keegan’s boots felt uncomfortably tight as he trotted through the corridors of the ship. Though certain of his destination, unease about the upcoming meeting rose. He did not know if he could face General Hollis. He had let her down and now he was about to see her for the first time since the mast. Over the years, she had become more than a friend; she was his mentor. She had taught him everything about commanding a ship. And for all she knew, he had thrown it all away for a girl. There was no telling how she would receive him.

Continuing to the general’s ready room, he glanced at the men and women going about their daily tasks. Most of them were young, just kids. For some, it was probably their first deployment and first time away from home. They wore their uniforms and work clothes called utilities like the kids wore their jeans back home, except with worse care. The crew was definitely lacking discipline and morale.

As he walked by, some paid no attention, while others paused to examine his insignia for rank. Then stopped and nodded when they recognized it. A few years back, this sort of behavior would not have been tolerated, but then again, he was no longer in command.

The corridor leading directly to the General Hollis’ ready room was void of traffic, like a no-man’s land. Only an armed Marine posted outside the door stood in this avoided territory. Nervous, he stopped in front of the guard.

“Sir?” Respectful in his tone, the Marine still gave him a fierce glare.

“Colonel Keegan reporting to General Hollis.”

“Yes, sir. She is expecting you,” the soldier replied, before knocking on the door.

“What is it?” she asked, irritation coloring her tone.

“Ma’am, Colonel Keegan is here to see you.”

“Thank you. Enter, Colonel.”

Pausing in front of the door, he readied himself. Grasping one of the brass handles, Keegan glanced at the two small anchors covered in gold resting at eye level. The solid oak required a little push to open. Inside, the room was even quieter than the corridor. In the distance, he could hear the faint ticking of an old-fashioned clock. The deep burgundy-colored room was filled with memorabilia from the days of the water Navy and decorated with overstuffed chairs and thick carpeting. It was just as he remembered it. Many times he had shared a drink with her, discussing things like life, the ship, and the Corps. Those were fond memories. Remembering himself, Keegan stood at attention.

“It’s good to see you, Colonel. Have a seat,” she said, gesturing to the Marine to close the door behind him.

“Likewise, ma’am.” He relaxed and sat across from her favorite burgundy chair.

“I see life in civilian command has done wonders for you,” she said with her characteristic slight lisp. “You look relaxed.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. Would you like a drink?” she offered, pouring herself one. Though she seemed a bit older, and her hair was a bit grayer, she still appeared as strong and stern as ever.

“No, thank you, ma’am.”

“Well, I’m having one.”

She cradled the glass in her hand. Falling silent, she sipped the amber liquid and then placed it on a table beside her. Her eyebrows furrowed, and her narrow ruby red lips pressed together. The corners of her mouth quirked upward before she opened it to speak.

“Colonel, I’ve never been one to beat around the bush, so let’s get to it. Things have changed around here since your….” She hesitated. “Retirement. We had a new XO, a fine officer and, as usual, some crew and personnel changes. For a moment there, we seemed to be all right. But now we find ourselves in the midst of a transition.”

“Such as?” Keegan asked, shifting uncomfortably.

“Well, you know, modifications to the fleet and the ship of course along with an assignment to a new sector—just your standard operations at the end of an evolution.” She peered at him and sipped the whiskey once again.

He could tell she was holding back.

“Then something happened….” She paused. “I was almost ready to take my long-awaited retirement, you know, and discover what life is like on Rodor. They say it’s a friendly place for space debris like me. But it looks like I’m going to have to put my plans on hold for a while.”

“What happened?” His chest tightened.

“Our executive officer was found dead approximately two weeks ago local time. I suppose, in a time of war, death is inevitable. However, we suspect his death was not a random act.”

“I see.” He nodded slowly.

“This explains the lax behavior by the crew. They were spooked.” Finishing the rest of her drink, Hollis placed the empty glass on the table. “I want to be clear. This conversation is classified and is not to leave this room.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It is believed this attack along, with several others, is connected to a certain program our government is undertaking with the Wacians.”

Keegan sighed and leaned back in his chair. At home, the news had been filled with stories of peace talks, treaties, and cease-fire. After the Battle of Tau Ceti Three, the tide of the war had switched to Earth’s favor, which made the Verneans ready to come to the table. Nothing was mentioned about any ongoing work with the Wacians.

“What I can tell you is this—you were asked to come aboard to aid us in our mission. Soon we will be picking up two guests who are key in completing our work with the Wacians.”

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked, still unsure of his assignment.

“Our original intent after picking up our guests was to go back to the battle group and escort them to their destination. But it seems our journey is to be diverted again.” She shook her head as if trying to keep from saying something she didn’t want to say. “Keegan, I’m old and I’m tired. I was set to retire. It was all worked out. They even had someone ready to take my place, but because of this, things have been put on hold. Command has asked me to stay on. I agreed, but only under certain conditions.”

Hollis stood and walked toward the porthole. She stared out the window. “Colonel, we need your help. I need your help.”

“What is it?” His jaw tensed. He’d known coming back wasn’t going to be simple.

“We need someone to take charge of the ship. Temporarily. I realize this is an unusual request. But I know you, I trust you, and you know this ship. You are capable, and we need a leader who can navigate these unusual times.”

Though he loved his new life, his home, he’d missed the Corps and the ship. His entire adulthood had been spent in the service of his planet and specifically in the Corps. It was something not so easily set aside. It had seared an indelible mark upon his heart and mind. Being forced to retire had been bittersweet. He wouldn’t trade the life he’d built with Caitlin. She’d come to mean everything to him. But he wanted to give her more.
He
wanted more. And given this chance to redeem himself….

“I’m asking this as a favor. I need you to take over command for me. Of course, I’ll remain here as head of the battle group, but I need you to run the ship. Day to day. We need someone who is good and can be trusted. And that someone is you.”

Stunned, Keegan fell silent. Realizing his mouth was open, he closed it and swallowed to wet his dry throat. The idea of someone trusting him with command was amazing and somewhat improbable, considering his record.

“Ruth, I owe you everything. You stood by me when no one else would.”

He recalled the admiral’s mast he’d undergone for going AWOL in a restricted area. When everyone else wanted to throw him out on his ass, she was the only one who spoke up for him, allowing him to retire with full benefits. She’d said it was because of his prior service history; he believed it was because of their friendship.

“How could I ever turn you down?” he said, without even considering the implications of his answer.

“You will command the ship for me? For the crew?” She turned to face him, her eyes wide with surprise.

“Yes.” Keegan stood, ignoring the thousands of questions welling up in his mind.

“Excellent.” Her shoulders relaxed, and her stern expression slackened. The creases around her eyes softened, and a hint of a smile crossed her lips.

Immediately, he began thinking like a CO and not a civilian. There were certain things the captain of every ship needed to know, and one of them was the state of the crew. “Turnover?”

“Like a tumbleweed,” she responded in their old shorthand.

A high rate of turnover on the ship with not enough of the good candidates staying was a bad sign. It meant the crew had no confidence in the vessel or her leaders. It was bad for morale and operations. Also considered bad luck.

“People are starting to talk…. It’s affecting the operations,” she said.

“I’ve never been much for scuttlebutt.”

“But we both know it is often true.”

“What are they saying?” he asked, curious.

“It doesn’t bear repeating.”

He surmised his unexplained departure would have been a hot topic among the crew. More likely than not, any of the original crew who had stayed would not have forgotten the incident and would probably not trust him to remain once again.

“Ma’am, maybe this isn’t such a good idea….”

Hollis clasped her hands in front of her. “Okay, how’s this? Washington wants you here, too. So you’re gonna be here anyway, you might as well make yourself useful.”

Grinning slightly, Keegan shook his head. It was not going to be as easy as it sounded. “The Blanchard is the best ship in the fleet. In fact, she is the best in space. And I owe her everything. I’m here however you need me.”

BOOK: Ice and Peace
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