Local Date:September 13, 2248
Local Time: 1015
My father is a man with an eye for detail, I thought as I leaned against our cabin’s small lavatory door and watched him unpack his clothes.
Whereas my own shirts and pants came aboard in the duffle I’d just crammed into my cubby, each of his pieces were perfectly folded and arranged for optimal use of storage. As he placed his garments into the drawers—socks and underthings to the right, overshirts and jumpers on the left—he examined each as if to decide their worth.
The cabin was cramped. Two sleep bins, the zero-g shower, and just enough leeway to shimmy out to the door. But the ventilation was good, and the place was clean. Which was more than enough. We were on a cruise, after all. It wasn’t like we were planning to spend any real time here.
The data wall kept us abreast of progress toward launch.
When he finished unpacking, my father lowered the restraining screen to cinch his clothes down, closed the drawer, and stretched his back with an expression of such extreme satisfaction it made me wonder if he’d been drinking.
He hadn’t, of course.
His adherence to form and process was one of many traits that could make him damnably hard to be around, and even being on a five-star cruise with his only son, a trip he’d—surprise of all surprises—arranged himself, wasn’t enough to make United Governments Chief Inspector Evan Whittier drop his discipline.
Regardless, the idea of alcohol slipping past his lips before dinner was laughable.
There was a reason my mom had eventually split, after all.
The patch on his collar made sure no one would forget that he was a ranking official in the UG Justice Department, and the handkerchief served to ensure people knew he had standards. He’d worked his way to his position. He wasn’t above cashing in on his capital.
I’d never bought into the UG structure as heavily as Father had wanted. He’d always been hard for me to understand. But having him as a father had as many benefits as it did drawbacks. This cruise was a celebration of sorts in that vein. I’d just passed the Academy and would be joining the department when we returned.
This would be our last blast, he’d said.
Two guys taking two local weeks to adventure around the galaxy, he’d added in a tone that said taking an expensive adventure cruise together would make up for years of being a remote father.
I didn’t have much to lose. Two weeks adventuring with Father? How much damage could that do?
So that’s how we found ourselves together on Voyager, an older Excelsior Class Star Drive chartered by the United Government’s Interstellar Command, but, like most activity in the Solar System, underwritten by several companies.
It was older than most, built just after the first wave of the war with Universe Three, or, as the United Government called it, our skirmish with the terrorists. With that conflict at a very slow boil these days, Voyager was used more often for commercial enterprises than military.
Our first jump would take us to Hebron B, a planet in the Bernard system that was smaller than earth-standard, but known for amazing rafting and cliff climbing—interests I’d also inherited from Father when he was younger. From there the cruise would jump to the Arcturus system, experience a pass through the energy fields of a nebula in the outer ring, then climax with a three-day stint at several of the wild planetoids found at Sagittarius A, the galactic core of the Milky Way itself.
It was the last I was most anticipating.
The idea of camping on a mile-wide slab of iron floating in space felt important in ways I could barely describe.
If it brought me closer to my father, so much the better.
I smiled as he slid an antiquated handkerchief into the pocket of his immaculately clean jumper’s pocket.
Asshole or not, at 72 years of age, he was still fit and trim.
With extensions, he’d probably live another hundred.
“Are you ready?” he said.
The question was so like him—a simple statement with multiple layers underneath, an open-ended query that dangled like so much cord with which so many would eventually hang themselves. It was a trick I’d learned myself, perhaps too well, Angela might say. I was always leaving a question for her to respond to, then arguing about why she was wrong.
Like father, like son, I suppose.
Both of us liked a good argument. Neither of us was any good at taking care of people close to us.
Instead of answering him, I waited while he clasped his hands.
Something else I’d learned from him.
“I thought we might go to the observation deck,” he finally said. “See the show.”
“The instructions said we can’t leave the cabin until after separation. Something about how space accidents at Newtonian speeds lead to very expensive lawsuits.”
Rather than laugh, he grunted, then scowled. “Fascists,” he said as he looped his thumbs in his belt loops and went to the radiation-hardened screen.
The ship’s outer shell was pulled back to pre-flight position, allowing passengers a full view of deep space. Below, Aldrin Station’s command ring gleamed with sunlight that washed out several of the dimmer stars. Aldrin was a departure station locked into Lagrange point L4.
We would separate within the hour.
First jump was fifteen minutes after that.
His frown hardened the longer he stood there.
I was about to ask him how work was going when the proximity beacon flared from the ceiling light. Footsteps came from outside, and the intercom chimed.
“May we enter?” a voice came over internship comms.
“Of course,” my father said, clearly relieved to be doing anything other than waiting.
The door retracted on itself, and two crew members, complete in fitted gray uniforms, entered. Both wore short-cropped hair. One male, the other uncertain. Both were tall and thin.
“Welcome aboard, Chief Inspector,” one said. “The captain would appreciate a word with you.”
“I would be happy to see her,” he replied. “Is this business or pleasure?”
“She would like to speak prior to launch, sir,” said the second.
“Business, then,” Father said, glancing to confirm I’d come to the same conclusion.
The two stepped out, leaving room for us to egress.
“Alex,” my father said, motioning me first.
“The captain would like to see you alone, sir,” the crew said.
“My son has just accepted a position in the department,” Father replied, placing a simple command into the tone of his voice. “Speaking with him is the same as speaking with me.”
The two crew gave an unspoken communication, then motioned me forward.
As they led us from our cabin, I suppressed a grin.
I’d seen my father work before. Sometimes the sense of manipulation behind it bothered me, but I admitted fully to wanting to learn his way of telling people what they were going to do without making his words a direct command. Even after watching him for years, it never failed to amaze me.
A few corridors and a lift tube into the heart of the spaceship, we found ourselves across the table from one Captain Kelly Johnson, a woman who looked the part of command, tall and firm while still having a comfortable way about her. The office was at once intimate and spacious. A flat wall decorated with images of birds of prey and a few awards connected the space. A broad, woven tapestry hung from nearly ceiling to nearly floor to lend the space a warm sensibility. Curved portions of the walls opposite were active displays, lined with real-time status reports from the Voyager’s central command.
Johnson was young for a captain, but her reputation was strong enough that even I knew she was headed for grander things. The sensation of being in her office did nothing to dissuade that idea.
“Welcome aboard, Chief Inspector Whittier,” Captain Johnson said, rising and coming to clasp my father’s hand. “This is Alex, I assume?” She shook mine just as warmly.
“Yes, Captain,” I replied. “Alex Whittier.”
“I’ve heard your performance in Academy was outstanding,” she said, leading us to chairs. “I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before you’re following in your father’s footsteps.”
“Perhaps,” I replied.
“I’m sure Alex will find his own path,” Father said.
“Of course,” the captain replied. “But first you’ll both be hitting the white water and camping on flatiron, right?”
“Yes, indeed,” Father said with a smile as broad as when he asked if I would take this trip with him. The realization made me wonder how real that expression was.
“I’m envious,” the captain replied, sitting back in her chair. “It can be annoying to captain a cruise and not be able to partake of the experience.”
“I understand that,” Father said. “It’s always harder to be the parent than the child.”
The captain smiled at me. “I’m sure that’s not always the case, now, is it?”
Father gave a proper chuckle. “So, what brings us to the captain’s office before launch?” he said, shifting the tone of the conversation.
“I need to ask you a favor.”
“I understand you’ve been involved in the investigation and prosecution of several cases that involve Universe Three treachery.”
“So, you’re an expert regarding their methods.”
“I would never profess to being an expert.”
“Then you would be disagreeing with Joint Commander Atta,” the captain said, referencing the person who represented Justice at United Governments’ Solar System Law Enforcement Council, a group responsible for setting guidance across the entire span of UG control.
Father shrugged in defense. “I’m not an intelligence agent,” he said in his humble voice. “But sometimes I guess I can hum a few bars right enough.”
Captain Johnson took that as an admission.
“You’re aware that Voyager sails without a Government Officer.”
“Budgets, I assume?”
“And lack of resources.”
Father nodded, then turned to me. “Do you understand, Alex?”
“Yes, I replied.
My classmates often debated the role of the GO; many supporting it, though I was never sure if that support was driven by paranoia of possibly being tracked. I didn’t like it, though. The United Governments was supposed to be about freedom. That’s why I’d gone into law enforcement. The idea of a Government Officer made me uncomfortable, but, yes, I understood their existence.
“Every UGIS ship is expected to have a representative of the government on board to ensure proper oversight of missions, but it appears we don’t have this person on board.”
“Our last GO left the deck six local months ago, and I haven’t felt the need for one until now,” Captain Johnson said, turning back to Father. “Joint Commander Atta has approved your temporary assignment for this cruise.”
“I see,” Father said, obviously startled. He recovered quickly, but it was interesting seeing him stymied, even if it were just for a moment. “And why would you need a GO now?”
The room seemed to pause for an instant as the captain made a final calculation that I assumed had to do with me.
“I’ve received a report that Universe Three has slipped an agent on board. I’d like you to determine who it is.”
“Interesting.” Father furrowed his well-trimmed brow. “A U3 mole.”
“Yes, interesting,” the captain said. “You can continue your vacation. In fact, it’s important you fulfill your plans so as not to cause suspicion that we’re tipped in to their operation. But while we’re en route to each destination, you’ll be working under my command.”
I could see wheels turning in my father’s mind. He’d been doing this kind of work since before I was born, and the feel of the chase registered on his expression as a narrowing of his eyes and a widening of his nostrils.
“Would you accept Alex working with me?”
“I assumed as much.” Johnson glanced at a portion of her desk display where a report sat. “His clearance is good.”
Father turned to me. “What do you say? Are you okay if we use part of our trip to help out?”
My mind boggled, then.
This was why he’d pushed me to join him when the cabin crew had come to get us, I realized. He had guessed immediately that there was some kind of work assignment at hand, and had wanted to get me involved. Perhaps even just wanted to work with me in this way before I went off to take my own post—his own version of a post-graduation blowout, only with a security detail at stake rather than a whitewater run.
I didn’t know whether to be honored, excited, or mad as hell.
Still, I needed an answer. “Who wouldn’t want to play spies?” I said.
“All right, then,” Father said, turning back to the captain. “Who knows of the breach?”
“Myself and my second in command.”
“No one else?”
“I’ll need access to all your security systems,” he said. “Skeleton Key Access is preferred, but it’s your ship. I’ll want to meet your staff. A social interaction is probably best to avoid arousing suspicions too soon.”
“That can be done.”
“Excellent,” Father said.
The captain relaxed noticeably, then glanced at the shipboard time. “Would you like to see the jump from the bridge? Inter-dimensional jump is better than the aural lights. I promise you don’t want to miss it.”
Father looked at me.
A jump across space was accompanied by a legendary display of lights and energy, a phenomenon that stemmed from the way the ship disturbed the zero field between matter and antimatter. We’d planned to watch “the show,” as my father had put it earlier, from the public observation deck, but sitting in Voyager’s command center would give us a remarkably intense view.
“Thank you, Captain,” I said. “That would be magnificent.”
I strapped into an observation seat beside my father.
We chatted amiably, watching the crew go about its work.
The bridge was configured in amphitheater seating, with a dozen crew monitoring a dozen stations. After detaching from Aldrin, and after a brief thruster burn to clear space, the captain ordered the jump.
I gripped the armrest as the front screen blurred.
Then space folded and the forward screen shimmered, flowing with rivulets of red and orange and colors laced with a light quality that I knew hadn’t existed before this moment. A wave swirled in pink and lavender. I thought I heard music, but I’m sure it was just the pounding of my heart as my fists clenched the armrests.
I saw a bird flying.
Lighting flashed purple and green that made me feel like a boy watching fireworks. Stars became yellow flares. The screen pulsed in gold.
Finally, as the ship settled, colors faded and the screen became dark with the normal space-time field.
The pounding of my heart was replaced only with the sensation of perspiration at my armpits and forehead.
Father’s face was flushed, and he was grinning like a teenaged schoolmate.
“That was worth the price of admission,” he said.
Suddenly I felt closer to him than I could ever remember.
Local Date: Undefined
Local Time: Undefined
Hebron B was a destination, but one that only a few arrived at.
It was a hard place—its environment is rugged and harsh, partially because its axial tilt and its preponderance of water made for harsh climate swings between its seasons, summers filled with rain, winters with icy snow. We chose Hebron B, however, because it was now fall time local—which meant the days were warm and clear while the evenings took on a sharpness that required precautions.
It was also beautiful.
The land was rugged. Sheer cliffs were interspersed with wild flora—red trees with leaves that were more frondlike and enduring rather than deciduous. The air was clear and filled with awkward-looking creatures that were something between what I knew of as birds and pterodactyls from Earth’s history books. The sky blazed at sunset, and a local amphibian community made night sounds that reminded me of a croaking fish I’d caught as a boy.
Late that first evening, we set down at a lush clearing that sometimes served as a landing pad for a nearby mountain camp.
The next morning, Father and I rose, donned our wet-gear and gathered our protective helmets, then went to the required safety brief.
The plan was to kayak down the mountain our first day, then hike back the next two.
Kayaking down the mountainside went nearly to plan, and after a full second day’s hike, we made camp that third night, putting up the sensor barrier that would warn us of large predators, and setting the sonic repellent that would hopefully keep them away to begin with.
I lit our fire.
The smell of woodsmoke was rich.
Though both of us were sore, the day had been perfect—every day had, actually. I had been worried about the old man, but true to his trim body, his fitness level was excellent. Even in his 70s, he more than kept up with me.
I pulled foils from the fire and unwrapped the sandwiches in them, realizing that, for at least the past two hours we’d been silent, just living together, breathing the same air and simply going about doing our business. These three days had been great, really. Water. Wind. Unique trees and fish. We hadn’t talked much about the past, nor about the future. Nothing about his new job. Nothing about, well, anything of great importance.
Three days of simply being in the world together had seemed to pass in a comfortable flash.
I couldn’t remember a time when I was this relaxed in the presence of my father.
“Here,” I said as I handed him his dinner. “It’s hot.”
Seated across the fire from me, he took the foil carefully. The smell of warm bread and meat that came as he unwrapped it made my stomach surge in the most delicious way.
It was a traditional meal from back when he, Mom, and I had camped. Roasted meat, horseradish, mustard, and cheeses stuffed into a big bun along with peppers and onions and whatever else—then wrapped in foil and cooked in the embers of a campfire. It was amazing.
Father took a bite of the sandwich. Oil from the meat ran down the silvery stubble on his chin. He drank from a canteen he’d filled at the river’s edge a while back.
“I’m not sure the woodsman look works on you,” I said, to fill space while he chewed.
He laughed a real laugh, then wiped his hand over his lips.
“What are we going to do when we get back to the ship?” I said, staring up into the darkening sky and seeing the white dot that was Voyager sliding across the dome.
“What do you mean?”
“What are we going to do about the spy?”
“We go over the crew,” Father said, sighing.
In that moment, my father went from gentle hiker to representative of the government. The transition happened so rapidly that a chill came to my skin. This was his thing. Walls. Cover. Focus on the target.
“We look at everything. Where they went to school, who their friends are. Where they spend their money, what they read, where they gather and what they’ve said in the past.”
“Looking for what?”
I took a bite of my sandwich. I knew it was good, but I couldn’t taste it.
It was my fault, I thought. I shouldn’t have said anything. Shouldn’t have broken the moment.
“Anything that says they have interest in Universe Three,” he replied.
His brow furrowed with an unspoken question.
“I mean, how much are we looking for? What do we report? What if a guy just reads a book about Deidra Francis?”
“Just because he reads a book?”
“Deidra Francis leads Universe Three, Alex. It’s relevant, so we take it in.”
I breathed in the cold air and took another bite of sandwich. It was already getting cold.
“You know the game, Alex. It’s a long game for them. Universe Three puts people in place so they can activate them when they need to. They’re fighting for the future. They’re not going to quit just because the situation turned against them. It’s my job—your job now—to find them and root them out.”
“Not everyone who picks up a biography is planning to overthrow the government,” I replied.
The corner of one lip ticked upward on Father’s thin face.
“We gather bits and pieces together like the good Government Officers we are, and we connect dots that are there for people to see.”
“What if the dots are just dots?” The words slipped out of my mouth before I could stop them.
The clearing got quiet then. The fire popped, and the sound of the woods around us was suddenly deafening. In only eight words, I’d gone too far.
I looked up to find Father staring at me, waiting.
“Tell me what you mean,” he finally said.
“I don’t like spying on our own people. What if they haven’t done anything wrong?”
“You would have us stop, even if it means that we let another Katarina Martinez through the system?”
Katarina Martinez. The name was famous.
She’d been a deep mole who Universe Three activated prior to the events that led to the Galactic War. She helped run a counteroperation against Operation Starburst, and pulled off the hijacking of Orion and Icarus, two of the first Star Drive spacecraft. Her backstory was hard to piece together. The official story was that she’d been turned by a girlfriend while in school, but others said she’d had kids who died and she blamed the government for it. Whatever the origin, it was true that Katarina Martinez had been educated by the system, had served for years. Then gone traitor.
She was a hero to Universe Three, a pariah to the United Governments.
“It’s not how we’re supposed to be,” I said, unable to go further.
The whites of Father’s teeth gleamed in the firelight as he smiled, then he gave a gravelly grunt and reached over and patted my knee with his bare hand.
“You think that way because you’re a good man, Alex.”
Sitting back against a rock, Father ripped a bite of his sandwich and chewed.
I ate, feeling a change come over me.
My father is a dangerous man, I thought as the fire burned down and the muscles around my neck tensed. He had made his living giving in to small transgressions in the name of greater good. I had felt it before, but now I understood exactly how true it was. Looking at my father, I realized I had been wrong about so many things. Wrong about the United Government. Wrong to think they lived by their own creeds.
The Department was supposed to be about enforcing laws. It was supposed to be about keeping the peace. The Department was important. But it wasn’t supposed to be able to rip into people’s lives like that.
Tomorrow was going to be a hard walk.
“Are we going to find anything?” I said, breaking a silence that had gone on long enough that our meals were gone.
“How can you be so certain?”
“Because I am a mole, Alex.”
The hypocrisy of that statement—to compare his work as a GO to that of a hidden agent was so absurd that it made me laugh out loud. There was nothing devious about the role. A GO was nothing more than unregulated power. And I saw something deeper, too. All those arguments against the idea of a Government Officer I’d made back in school—all those conversations and debates I’d had at bar tables with drunken friends—they were something deeper than arguments.
“That’s a real kicker, Father.”
“You think I’m bullshitting.”
I scoffed. “You bullshit for a living, so, yeah.”
Father took a pull from his canteen and put it back down. “You think I brought you out here for me to be a dad?”
The comment sat me back. After a moment, I shook my head. “I don’t know why you brought me out here, anymore.”
“I am the mole, Alex. You’re in the department now, so you need to know that. I could keep things separate before, but now anything that comes down on me will also come down on you. That’s how this game works. It’s important you see that.”
This was too big. My thoughts jammed themselves up and it was like my entire brain shut itself down.
“I am the person Captain Johnson is looking for, but it’s also not that simple.”
My brain did flips.
“You’re on an op,” I said, the statement not a question anymore. I could see the pieces now, even if I hadn’t lined them all up. “It’s not a coincidence that we’re on Voyager.”
His smile held an instant of fatherly pride.
“I’m going to get into the system,” he said. “And I’m going to find material on people because, as you insinuated, no one can live a life without doing something out of line, or at least something that can be twisted to look like it is. I’m going to send people to jail.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m looking for people Captain Johnson has hired or promoted. I’m going to find people she’s written recommendations for, and I’m going cast shadows on all of them.”
“I’m going to find anything she’s done that’s even close to controversial, and I’m going to take her down.”
I added two and two for far longer than it should have taken me to get to four, but when I did, everything cleared up.
“She’s too good,” I said. “You’re getting rid of the most competent leaders in UG’s military command. She’s too competent, so she’s got to go.”
Father nodded, and took another drink.
“The United Governments is lying to us. You know that. It says Universe Three wants to destroy the Solar System, when the entire war could have been avoided if UG leadership had simply let them go. That’s the truth, Alex. Universe Three gains nothing from the war, but the United Government does.”
“Fear,” I said, seeing agreement twinkle in starlight that reflected in my father’s eyes. The United Government used the threat of Universe Three to fuel their own fortunes. They used the anger the Universe Three actions created as fuel to keep their own citizens in line.
“It’s important to fight for the truth, Alex. That’s what I think. Truth is the only thing we have to fight for. And you can’t stop fighting simply because you’re losing or because the other side is too big.”
The expression on his face grew more intense. “And, yes, Johnson is too good. She’s got to go before she can get a command where she can do real damage.”
He paused again. Wood smoke made my eyes itch.
My father is a man of secrets, I thought.
“You’re not telling me this just because you want to save me from your fallout.”
He shook his head gently. “No, Alex. I’m not.”
I looked at my father, then. Really looked at him for perhaps the first time. He was an open book, now. I was seeing the real man. A man who’d built walls from years of seclusion, and who’d lived his life probably more alone than anyone I’d ever known.
I could take him down. I could go to the captain and expose him. If I did that maybe I’d even get ahead. Or would I? Would the UG and the Department see me as more trustworthy or less for exposing him?
I didn’t know.
“You’re asking me to join you,” I said.
I closed my eyes and put my head back against the hard stone behind me. An edge bit into my shoulder blade.
“Sometimes good people have to make decisions,” he replied. “This is one of those times.”
The night drew cold around me, and it was like I could feel the universe breathing, the rock moving underneath me, the air crisp and alive. I felt my life rolling ahead of me, I felt weight carrying me forward. I felt the enigma that was my father beside me on this cold and beautiful planet, surrounded by safety systems that might or might not work, and smelling the aroma of wood that was still burning in the pit we’d made together.
When I opened my eyes, I was in a new world.
“You’ll teach me what I need to know?”
He smiled, and looked suddenly at ease.
“I’ll teach you,” he said. “And you’ll teach me.”
There, in the small clearing of a woods on Hebron B, listening to the sounds of alien insects in the night, I raised my canteen to him.
We clinked aluminum and drank.
You’ve reached the end of STARCRUISE. If you enjoyed this short story, you might like the whole series!