The room shook violently knocking several half full cups of cold coffee off the central desk to smash on the ground.
‘That one was close,’ remarked Zaren bleakly, ‘likely ten or eleven decks away.’
‘Aye, it won’t be long now,’ replied Captain Tetch.
Zaren, Tetch’s aide bent down to pick up one of the shattered cups.
‘Leave it.’ Tetch sighed. ‘It’s not going to make much of a difference.’
Zaren ignored Tetch and picked up the shard all the same. Turning it over in his hand he gently rubbed his thumb of the golden winged hammer emblazoned on it, the emblem of the Navy.
‘This was my favourite mug you know?’ Zaren said half to himself.
‘Yeah?’ Tetch asked looking up from the stream of data coming in across his monitor.
‘Yeah, it was just like all the others really except for a small stain that reminded me of, of similar times really.’
Tetch took a deep breath and turned off his monitor. Their fate was out of their hands now and communications with the rest of the ship were all but down anyway. Looking over at Zaren it was all too easy to forget how young he was, young by Tetch’s standards at least.
‘Where did you grow up Zaren?’ Tetch asked while rubbing the two-day old grey stubble on his jaw.
The question seemed to take Zaren by surprise as the ship shuddered from another impact, this one further away that the last.
‘I assume my file would have told you sir no?’ Zaren answered looking towards the entrance of the Captain’s quarters where the two men stood.
‘It did, but I never heard it in your own words so humour an old man why don’t you? And please, call me Allander, I am done with formalities at this stage,’ Tetch said as he walked over to a cabinet on the far side of the sparsely furnished room. He had t steady himself as two quick succession impacts rocked his mighty ship.
It would not be long now indeed thought Tetch. But they only needed a little longer.
‘I grew up on the west coast, a little farming town by the name of Talaho si- Allander,’ Zaren answered, the naming coming awkwardly to him.
‘A farming town?’ Tetch asked with crooked eyebrow. ‘That is not what your file said.’
‘No sir, sorry, Allander. I forged my papers so I could enlist, most of us rural folk have.’
‘Aye that is true, though I did not expect someone as strait laced as you Zaren to be in the business of forging papers.’ Tetch said with more than a little surprise.
Zaren just shrugged in reply.
Tetch returned to the desk with three glasses and a dusty bottle. Eyeing the bottle Zaren could not help but think that in the twelve years that he had served with Tetch he had never once shared a drink with him.
‘I suppose it was a choice between a life of toil in the fields or the glory of serving in the Grand Navy eh?’ Tetch said with a smile that did not quite reach his eyes.
‘Something like that.’ Zaren replied reservedly.
Tetch looked at Zaren a moment to see if he would elaborate further, when it was evident he would not Tetch turned his attention to the bottle in his hand.
‘Why three glasses?’ Zaren asked, eager to change the subject.
‘An old Navy tradition.’ Tetch replied. Not willing to elaborate further himself.
‘Farways Malt Single Barrel,’ he continued as he rubbed away the dust from the label. ‘Almost as old as I am, a fine brew.’
‘And how old is that exactly sir?’ Zaren asked, the ghost of a smile on the corner of his lips that he did not quite hide well enough.
Tetch was well aware of the pool going between the officers and some of the enlisted personnel as to his exact age. Old Man Tetch they affectionately call him. Mind you those foolish enough to utter it within earshot of Tetch got publicly flogged as punishment, regardless of rank. Zaren could attest to that fact.
‘What is the pool up to now eh?’ Tetch asked as he poured three generous measures into the glasses.
’Eh, I, I don’t know what you are talking about sir. Zaren stammered.
‘I wouldn’t be a very good captain if I didn’t know about all the extra-curricular activities of my officers, now would I?’ Tetch said as he handed Zaren one of the glasses, ‘and you are not about to tell me, in this of all damned hours that I’m not a good captain, are you?’ Tetch added with his signature tone of imminent violence.
The blood from Zaren’s face all but disappeared but before he could answer Tetch burst out laughing, a sound Zaren had never heard in all his years of serving under Tetch. The sound of his laugh unsettled Zaren even more than their current situation. Another impact shook the room and caused some of the whiskey to spill out of the glasses, including the third glass on the desk.
‘Azaroth’s balls,’ Tetch swore, ‘damn bastards, they’ll pay for that.’
He refilled the third glass as he continued, ‘Tell you what Zaren, tell me what the pool is up to and I’ll tell you my age. Then we split the winnings, fifty-fifty eh?’
Zaren smiled despite himself.
‘One hundred and seventy-two thousand.’
Tetch let out a low whistle of amazement.
‘That much eh?’
‘It has been going for some time now, every year you have to pay back in to stay in.’ Zaren explained as he sniffed the whiskey gingerly, the smell reminded him of home, of his father’s old tool shed.
‘I should have made his deal with you years ago,’ Tetch said as he knocked back the whole glass and licked his lips appreciatively.
He raised his eyebrows to Zaren for him to follow suit which Zaren did with gusto and then immediately regretted it. The drink tasted like battery acid and reactor fuel with an aftertaste of exhaust fumes. Zaren managed to keep the drink down but coughed uncontrollably.
‘Ha-ha a fine brew indeed!’ Tetch chuckled as he poured himself and Zaren another.
It took several moments for Zaren to regain his composure. At his age he though he had long ago put aside all notions of embarrassment, but he could not help but blush red at the though of his display.
Tetch handed him another glass full and did not seem to notice Zaren’s embarrassment, or at least just did not mention it.
‘Well?’ Zaren asked, eager to move things along.
Tetch raised a quizzical eyebrow in response.
‘How old are you sir? It would sure be nice to split that pool.’
The whiskey was already starting to warm Zaren’s limbs.
‘Call me “sir” one more time Zaren and the deal is off.’
‘Sorry si- Allander. Sorry Allander.’
‘Seventy-two,’ Tetch said as he swirled the whiskey and inhaled its fumes with a smile.
It took Zaren a moment to realise that Tetch had just told him the answer to a question all off the officer class onboard had been pondering for nearly a whole decade.
‘Did anyone have it?’ Tetch asked after a moment.
‘I think Lieutenant Rein did actually,’ Zaren answered while absently scratching the stubble on his chin.
‘Of course it was Rein, always intuitive that one, one of the youngest Head of Engineering in the whole Navy you know? Make sure she sees some of your cut.’ Tetch remarked absent minded.
Zaren let out a quiet snort and gently shook his head.