TRU FELT BURIED UNDER DOCUMENTS SLIPS AND PADS. THEY WERE STREWN across his normally tidy office and even with two droids helping him, the information on them wasn’t getting filed fast enough.
“Colin,” Tru said, “Come here.”
One of the droids left the stack he was scanning organizing in the computer database and wheeled up to Tru’s desk.
“Orders?” it asked.
Tru placed the doc-slip on a pile of others. He held them out to the droid.
“Take these to the cargo chief. Tell it that these are our bills of lading.”
Tru, you have an incoming message from Admiral Larson.
Tru turned to the vid monitor on his desk, tapping the screen. Admiral Larson appeared.
“Three days out, Tru. How’s it going?”
Tru forced a smile. “It’s…” He couldn’t lie. He put his forehead on his desk. “I was insane to think I could do this, Greg.”
Larson laughed. “Problems?”
Tru sat back in his chair. “They fight all the time. And when they aren’t fighting with each other, they’re fighting with me. And Gracie is being obnoxious.”
A squeal sounded over the COM speakers that Tru talked over.
“There’s an alarm that won’t quit going off and my Senior Engineer is more of a tinkerer than an actual engineer. Where did you find my crew, Greg?”
The squeal stopped.
“I told you. Everyone else was chosen and your dad—”
“I remember what he said, but he was wrong. Besides, he’d probably already polished off half a bottle of Scotch when he told you that. So had you.”
“Neither of us had a drop that night. Tru, I need you to speak to Ambassador Anderson about his wife.”
“Her mother hasn’t spoken to her for a week and filed a missing person’s report today. The Detroit Police Chief is asking if you’d speak to the Ambassador about the situation.
“Why didn’t her mother just contact Anderson directly?”
“She tried and he hasn’t responded.”
Tru nodded. “I’ll talk to him.”
“Thank you. If things get too bad, call me. Day or night.”
“Thank you, Greg.”
Greg disappeared. Tru looked at the other droid.
“Hey, Agent Ninety-nine.”
“Yes?” it asked, turning to him.
“I’m leaving for the day. Finish up these stacks before you leave.”
“Compliance.” It turned back to its task.
Tru left. He would speak to Anderson – and hope he was in a better mood today – and then sneak off to a private retreat where none of his crew could find him.
Tru rounded a corner, seeing two Jaque headed his direction. The aliens resembled bears and like other races that were in the process of evolving, they fascinated Tru. Nearly a million years had passed since they began walking on their hind legs, but the bones hadn’t finished developing to the right density or angles to fully support their weight. Their snouts had shrunk and the hair had thinned across their faces. Their bone and muscles in their front legs had stretched and narrowed. Their paws had splayed and bore a similarity to human hands. The undersides of their paws still had some padding on it, but it was smooth and fleshier. The claws had retracted some, but were still deadly sharp. The rest of their bodies had shaggy hair in brown, black or white, depending on the region they had descended from. In recent years, more cubs had been born with multicolored fur and a few colors unseen before.
Tru smiled at them, not expecting a reaction. To his surprise, they both smiled as they passed. “Evening, Captain,” one quietly said.
“Evening,” Tru said, smiling more. To himself, he thought, ‘Maybe things are looking up.’
“Captain Barnet,” Amanda’s voice said behind him, ruining the moment.
Tru stopped, closing his eyes. He heard her rush up, muttering something rude to the Jaque. She stopped at his side.
“Have you seen the load specs?” Amanda demanded.
Tru looked at her. Her flushed face and light panting suggested she’d been searching for him for some time.
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Our cargo is off! That could pose a very serious hazard, Captain.”
“Executive Officer Wrigley,” someone called.
The two looked up, watching a Ga’reicht trot up. Amanda ignored him, turning back to her complaint.
“Sir, the cargo isn’t within standards.”
“Wrigley, you come up and tell me the cargo is off as if I’m supposed to know what you’re talking about. What exactly is off about it?”
“All the cargo in bay seven is over the cargo lines by three millimeters.”
“Ma’am,” the Ga’reicht said, “I have—”
“Wait,” Amanda snapped at the Ga’reicht. “Sir, that’s outside of regulations.”
“Have you measured every stack of cargo, Wrigley?”
Tru narrowed his eyes a little when indigestion began to creep over him. She stared at him, unwavering.
“Do you remember our Silerium conversation, Wrigley?” Tru asked.
She swallowed, but refused to admit she had measured the cargo.
“Ma’am,” the Ga’reicht said.
“Just a minute, crewman,” Tru told him. “Wrigley, how am I supposed to trust you if you won’t even tell me the truth?”
She was stubborn and holding fast to her lie. He didn’t feel like a confrontation right now, so Tru turned to leave.
“Fine! I did. But it only proves my point, sir,” Amanda told him.
Tru stopped, turning his head. “It’s only three millimeters, Wrigley. It’s not a danger and it isn’t anything we’ll be fined for.”
“Good night, Wrigley.”
Tru continued walking.
“Sir, if you let this slide, it will only get worse!”
Tru waved his hand. “Good night, Wrigley. See you in the morning.”
“Sir, you have to—”
Tru turned a corner. She clenched her fists, considering going after him and convincing him to order the cargo moved.
“Ma’am,” the Ga’reicht said.
Amanda turned on the crewman, bellowing, “What!?”
“We found the rest of your luggage; somehow it ended up in cargo bay two. I had it sent to your quarters.”
“No. Have it all sent to laundry and washed.” Amanda walked away.
“Ma’am, it was just sitting under stairs. I’m sure it’s not dirty.”
“I gave you an order!” Amanda yelled at the Ga’reicht.
“Fine, ma’am. I’ll have the steward drop it off when it’s done.”
Amanda turned, storming toward the Ga’reicht and wagging her finger at her. “No. Absolutely not. I will pick it up. Only droids can go into my quarters. Is that understood? No one else.”
The Ga’reicht stared at her.
“Is that understood!?” Amanda demanded.
“I… Uh… Yeah. I mean, yes, ma’am.”
Amanda hurried off, leaving the stunned Ga’reicht to sort out her strange reaction.
Jackie looked up, seeing Tru walk past the end of the hall. She had wanted to ask him about her shift assignment that the Lead Communications officer swore Tru had put her on. She ran to catch up with him and at the corner, saw him go into a storage room.
She stopped outside the door, waiting for him to come out. After several minutes she began to wonder what he was doing. Five minutes later she swiped her hand over the biometric pad, but the door didn’t open. Jackie’s eyes fixed on the door. She narrowed them into a glare and pressed her hand against the biometric pad. A small spark jumped from the biometric pad and the door disappeared. She walked into a small jungle of stacked crates and boxes.
Ensign Rhoades, you are not permitted in this area. You must leave, Gracie informed her.
“Shove it, computer,” Jackie replied.
Jackie slowly made her way around the small room, but there was no sign of Tru. At the back of the room she noticed a spot on the wall that had been polished to almost a mirror finish from years of hands brushing against it. She put her hand on it and a secret door slid open.
Ensign Rhoades, you are not permitted in this area, Gracie repeated.
“You keep saying that like I care,” Jackie retorted.
Jackie stepped into a dark hall. Spotlights shone through metal cutouts overhead, silhouetting a scene of a castle, dragon, and a knight on a horse along the walls.
“What is this place?” Jackie asked.
You have ten seconds to vacate the area.
Or I will transport you to the Brig.
“Found a guarded secret, huh?” Jackie jabbed.
You have not been granted access this area, Ensign Rhoades.
“Why? What’s Truman hiding?”
You are not to address him by his first name, Ensign.
Jackie walked down the hall, coming to a T. In both directions, silhouettes of fairy tales and children story characters wrapped the walls and floor. She reached out and ran her hand over the wall in search of the biometric pad she knew was hidden in the dark.
You have three seconds to comply, Ensign Rhoades, Gracie said.
Jackie’s eyes narrowed slightly and a spark leapt from the wall. A door slid open in front of her and she stepped into the hall it revealed. The ceiling here was lower than the rest of the ship, definitely under regulations, and the walls looked like they were made of weathered bricks. Jackie touched the wall, finding the brick was an illusion of paint and light. The hall went several meters before making a right angle turn. Halls broke off at uneven intervals along it.
Security droids are being dispatched, Ensign Rhoades.
Jackie walked down the hall. “Tru?” she called.
There was no answer. She heard the door open behind her and turned. Two security droids entered, marching toward her.
“You are to be escorted to the brig,” one stated.
Jackie flashed a grin and ran. The droid’s heavy footsteps pounded after. She turned into another tunnel, and then another, and another, not realizing she was becoming very lost in the ship’s Catacombs. She ran around a corner into in a small room. The only thing in it was a simple wooden wardrobe opposite the entrance. She walked up to it, looking it over.
“Gracie, stand down security,” she heard Tru say. She turned.
He stood in the doorway, watching her with his arms crossed over his chest.
Compliant, Gracie replied.
“What is this place?’ Jackie asked.
“You were told this place was off limits, Jackie.”
Jackie walked up to Tru, smiling. “What is this place, Truman?”
“Captain Truman, Jackie.”
Jackie waved him off, turning back to the wardrobe. She opened a door and found coats hanging inside. She looked back at him.
“Coats? What the fuck?”
Tru’s eyebrows lifted. “I wasn’t aware the situation called for cussing.”
Jackie leaned against the closet door, smiling seductively at him. “Does it turn you on, Captain?”
“No.” Tru walked up to her, reaching out to shut the closet door. “And you need to leave.”
Jackie quickly moved between him and the door. “I’d love to, but I’m a little lost.” She reached out to grab his shirt and he moved back. “There’s no one here, Captain. We could sure make a lot of noise. And I’m into pretty much anything.”
“Jackie… You know I can’t have a relationship with a subordinate. You have reported other crewmen for that regulation.”
Jackie walked up to him, laying her hand on his chest. “Then let’s keep it secret. We can meet here. I’m sure no one else knows about this place.”
Tru smacked her hand away. “Jackie—”
Jackie began unbuttoning her shirt. Tru grabbed her hands, stopping her.
“Even if I was that kind of captain, I still wouldn’t be interested, so stop.”
“We can be any type of woman you want. Just tell us what you want.”
Tru caught the unusual reference. “Who are you referring to when you say us and we?”
There was a tense silence. Jackie pulled back, buttoning her shirt.
“Why did you say us, Jackie?” Tru pressed.
“You probably go for women with money. I knew you were too perfect.”
“I don’t go for women with money. Why did you say us?”
“It doesn’t matter. How do I get out of here?”
Jackie walked past him. He grabbed her arm as she passed. She spun around, swinging her hand to slap him. He caught her other wrist. The two stared at each other in silence for several minutes.
“You’re into women like Aris, aren’t you?” she spat. “Someone that fucks everything?”
“Then what?” Jackie yanked free from his hold. “We’ve never liked the same guy before and I don’t understand why you don’t want us?”
“Why do you keep referring to yourself in the plural?”
“WHY NOT US?”
Tru stared at her for a long minute. “I’m attracted to men.”
All the anger that had flushed Jackie’s cheeks faded into surprise. “You’re gay?”
“Yes. Now answer my question. Why us and we?”
Jackie looked down, a tear sliding down her cheek. “You’re gay?”
“I’m sorry, Jackie,” Tru said quietly.
She leaned against the wall as she shook her head. “You were too nice. It makes sense now.”
“Why are you referring to yourself as us?”
Jackie looked at him, anger again in her eyes. “I’m not going to get stuck with some shrink because you think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t see a shrink around here.”
“You’re talking to one of the shrinks.”
Jackie stared at him. She suddenly stormed past him to the wardrobe and threw both doors open. She turned to him.
“What the hell is this?” She motioned at the closet. “What the hell is this place?” She pointed back down the tunnel she’d come through.
“I can’t answer that until I get an answer.”
Jackie stared at him for a long minute. “Why should I trust you?”
“Jackie, this area is off limits and you chose to ignore Gracie. There is only one way you’re getting out of here and not landing in the Brig, and that’s by working with me. Tell me why you are referring to yourself as us and we? Why do you have such a drastic personality changes?”
Jackie looked down, thinking over the options she had. She looked back at him.
“Fine. You won’t believe me anyway. There are two Sileriums living in this body. I’m Joan, and Jackie is your COM officer.”
“So you have a split personality?”
“Sure. Let’s go with that. Now, I get an answer to one of my questions.”
“These tunnels are the Catacombs. When my dad installed the cannons and torpedo tubes, he had to redesign the decks below them and lost half a deck. Since this doesn’t meet standards, he converted it into a playground for me and my siblings.”
Jackie sat down on the edge of the wardrobe. Tru sat down next to her, watching her face. A distant look came over her face and Tru suspected she was going someplace she hadn’t visited for a long time
“Our dad beat us until he had a heart attack. We were eight then and ended up in an orphanage,” Jackie told him. “That’s all the bastard ever gave us.”
“What about your mom?”
Jackie shrugged. “He said she was a whore. I don’t know anything about her.”
Tru leaned on his legs, staring at the floor.
“Have you ever seen anyone about your split personality, Jackie?”
Jackie nodded. “All the time before I joined Merchant Raitor.”
“Joan deleted all those files so we could get in.”
“Joan is the one that likes to be insubordinate, isn’t she? She’s the one that’s built quite a record?”
Jackie nodded. “She’s a good sister, though. She only thinks of us.”
“She’s a little out of control, Jackie. I didn’t appreciate her hitting on me.”
Jackie buried her face in her hands.
“Or was it Joan?”
“Yes. No. Both of us.”
Tru sighed. “I’m sorry, Jackie. It’s nothing personal. I think you are very pretty and smart but I’m not altogether crazy about Joan.”
Jackie dropped her hands, looking at him. “You just don’t know her. She’s not all bad. She’s tough and she gets us out of jams. I can get us through a cocktail party and know what colors look good on us. She’s strong where I’m weak and vice versa.”
Tru smiled. “Well then, we should probably try getting the two of you working better together. You feel your two personalities are sisters?”
“In some ways that’s good but Jackie, I need one body and mind that I can depend on as a COM officer. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Jackie smirked, leaning close. “Yeah, Tru, we get it, but don’t expect me to like it.”
“You have to like it, Joan. And don’t hit on a commanding officer again.”
She sat back, looking at the wall. “Yeah. Fine.” She looked back at him. “Now what’s up with the closet here?” She hiked a finger over her shoulder.
“Did you ever read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe?”
Jackie shook her head.
Tru stood, smiling down at her.
“In the book, the wardrobe leads to Narnia. In here, it leads to the Beaver’s dam, complete with a swimming hole. Come on.”
Tru stepped into the wardrobe, parted the coats, and disappeared into the back. Jackie smiled and with a spring in her step, followed him.