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fiction fridays 09 · "Command Prologue" by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

First Installment here. Second Installment.

Command Prologue by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon


At 0600 life in the Command Chair became much more interesting. At least there was activity, something to do. A few pre-loaded shuttles launched by 0620, and Tactical and Combat had their hands full coordinating all the inbound and outbound flights. Alert Status Three meant two thousand Fleet Marines would suddenly come out of the freezer -- just in case. I remained in the hot seat while the Captain and the Exec hosted all the rest of the Upside Command Officers and then the Department Heads for breakfast in the Boardroom. It was frustrating not to know their secrets for an hour, but I had much to do and coordinate, and was actually surprised when the First Officer came out.

“First Officer, relieving you, Three.”

I looked up at him from my screen. “Uh, then you have the conn, sir,” I said sheepishly to his grin.

“The Captain will see you in the Boardroom,” he informed me.

“Yessir,” I said, logging off of the command console. An efficient yeoman handed me my helmet as I rose from the Command Chair.

“Ah, Three,” the Captain beamed from the far end of the table as I entered the Boardroom. “Come in, come in.”

I strode toward the offered chair. Normally, the Captain sits at the near end, surrounded by consoles. But today he sat at the far end where a breakfast service for two was set. Naval etiquette goes back a long way, but space etiquette had to add its own twists. I unlatched both suit gloves and placed them inside my helmet behind me. A steward appeared and seated me, after folding the seatback down to accommodate my suit’s backpack.

“Coffee?” Captain Lucas asked.


As he poured, he talked, “I know that you’ve been patient for a long time, while everyone else got to hear the news. You should know I very much appreciate the way you handled the Command Chair this morning.”

“Thank you, sir,” I breathed.

“Of course, you had access to more information than most of the officers and crew -- do you want some of these scrambled eggs? -- yes, so you knew what Option 3 was.”

He paused for a moment, holding the platter of eggs over his plate after he served me.

“‘Active War Deployment.’ What in the hell is that supposed to mean?” He shook his head and continued to talk and serve the eggs, biscuits, sausages. “That is the correct wording by the manual and it’s the same words which Fleet sent. There’s a situation near Pica N9. Contact and apparently not very friendly. They have a hundred thousand casualties at TT616-5a. The U.S.F.S. Torrance sent a messenger as they went in. Of course, there may be another messenger a day or two behind this one. Who can say? Anyway, Pica N9-III is nearby in the great scheme of our colonization projects, so we will proceed there and hopefully learn more.

“It is truly a shame, after all the life we’ve found in the galaxy, that the first major spacefaring sentient form may turn out to be hostile. Do they still teach Benson’s Theory at the Academy?”

My mouth full of English muffin, I nodded.

“Benson was new when I was there. Oh, the critics railed against him and the cynics rallied to him. ‘No basis for believing that a spacefaring race should be peaceful. The connection between technological progress and development of advancements in weapons of war in our own culture should not be minimized.’”

“I had to write a paper on Benson. Two actually -- one pro and one con,” I commented.

“I daresay every officer on this ship wrote a paper on Benson and his Theory,” he retorted. “You know, I am afraid I am greatly exhilarated by all this.”

“‘Good wars are exhilarating and revered, Bad wars are despised and forgotten,’“ I quoted. “Sung Tsu P’iang. If that’s appropriate.”

“Ah yes, have you read Mister P’iang at the Academy?”

“Actually,” I admitted, “I read him on my own when I was fifteen. My father’s bookcase was filled with great books. I read a great deal and was quite a student of philosophy for a while.”

“Don’t be afraid of your feelings,” the Captain suggested, gesturing with knife and fork, “Don’t be afraid to be exhilarated by this deployment, don’t be afraid of the fear of battle. Mister P’iang had something to say about that.”

“‘The Good Fight is won in the Heart, Not on the Battlefield.’“

“Yes, yes, and my favorite about the passion of the war blood flowing through the hot arteries and the cool blood of peace...”

“‘The Good War surges through the arteries; The Good Peace flows softly in the veins; Spill or poison the blood in either and the Heart dies,’” I recited.

“You did study your P’iang. Perhaps I had better read up on him soon.”

I smiled, “You know, Benson didn’t like P’iang. Said he was a warmonger.”

“I think I’d rather have P’iang and his good fight than Benson with his hostile aliens,” the Captain observed, as he settled back and sipped his coffee.


You might think that living aboard a starship means you see the beauty of space all the time. In truth, most spacemen spend their time deep inside a starship and most of the officers are too busy for sightseeing. It was therefore a rare event as I took my lunch break on the exterior catwalk outside Hangar 3. Wearing a black suit all day, it seemed silly not to get my EVA time, especially with all the traffic deployment in the sky.

The U.S.F.S. Serrano is a huge warship -- over 1500 meters long. The exterior is a patchwork of varied materials, but the overall scheme is dark. Of course anyone with any knowledge of physics will tell you black objects absorb heat faster than white ones and that radiation of excess heat is a major problem in a vacuum. Among the ship’s many classified details is the Serrano’s heat sink system, including dayside panels which fold out to provide a sunshield if needed. The exterior of the Serrano consists of a complex web of movable panels, weapons, hatches, docking bays, hangars, antennae, sensors, engines and thrusters and tonne upon tonne of other equipment.

As Third Officer, I could tell you fourteen persons were EVA at that moment, including myself. This was down from a maximum of 117, when at ShipTime 1017 an inbound shuttle lost part of a moving surface, which impacted and damaged a small band sensor array. Had we been under power and sealed up, the small particle deflection system would’ve taken care of the ship and no damage would have occurred. But with the arrival and departure of many shuttles, the system has to be on standby, resulting in an accumulation of minor damage to the exterior of the ship. All included in the cost of a large deployment.

I doubleset a safety line to the catwalk and watched the vast expanse of the darkside of the planet. Zero-gee suit rations include water, juice, coffee, and food in a considerable variety of flavors, and despite the unattractiveness of the descriptions, it isn’t bad stuff. Rations are heavy on the liquid base, because it is easier to suck than eat in zero gee, and with low residue solids, much easier to eliminate excess water than waste. Simple biology should convince you this is a better system for a suit you might spend weeks at a time in under worst case conditions, and certainly whole working days.

A star bloomed on the planet below as I watched the nighttime launch of a shuttle from the Eastern Continent 250 kilometers below. The shuttle would complete just over a full orbit before it met up with the Serrano. Clearly this made it a heavy cargo shuttle as opposed to a personnel shuttle, which could launch on the other side of the planet and meet us only 20 to 30 minutes later.

Watching a shuttle approach is an amazing experience in the dark. At first you cannot see anything but the stars. Yet one star in the thousands in the sky is persistent -- it does not wheel across the heavens. Within minutes it is definitely closer than the rest of the sky. Eventually you can see the anti-collision lights strobing in the night. Finally the shuttle is close enough to stare in awe at the sudden and soundless transverse motions, as it makes its approach to the warship.

If you cheat, you can use the suit’s HUD and image intensifiers to pick out the incoming flights and follow the range and speed vectors on the repeaters. Outbound shuttle flights are even more dramatic. Suddenly the bulk of the shuttle emerges ejected from underneath the catwalk and once clear of the ship, powered briefly by the bright drives. All in all it is a pleasant way to spend a lunch in the dark in zero gee.

But given the complexity of any deployment operation and the added adventure of a war deployment, such an idyllic pastime had to come to an end.

“Three, this is Nine,” the voice crackled over my headset. The gain indicator adjusted on the repeater in response to the poor signal. “You done with lunch out on the porch? I could sure use you here in Sub-Hangar 9R.”

I finished chewing my dessert bar and swallowed, “Sure Nine, coming in.” The pretty lights in the night sky would have to wait for another time.

Clambering on the outside of a starship, especially a warship, is not a fast way to get anywhere. I re-entered the Serrano at the catwalk airlock. However, I continued on through several evacuated work spaces and zero-gee conduits to get to Sub-Hangar 9R. Cycling through the airlock, I came onto a scene similar to the setup earlier in the morning -- an area to screen people coming up to the Serrano.

The cold of the outside of my suit absorbed the heat of the surrounding air as I strode across the hangar, leaving a chill in my wake. I left the visor of my helmet down, both because I was comfortable inside my suit and because the Ninth Officer seemed to suggest a disciplinary problem.

At one of the processing centers I could make out Nine in the group of suits standing around. On this side of the table, most of the suits were brand new issue, with a scattering of well-worn civilian style rigger suits. Clearly these were new space recruits from Downside. I didn’t think we had time for this nonsense. Meanwhile a report began to autoscroll on a helmet repeater.

FJ113-5a Indiginous:Flora:Fungus
code      : AxJ3B-1579621-b
Scientific: Anticidinous regestii (adult)
Local name: Puffballs
Slang name: Goof-balls
Food value: Use in considerable WC dishes
          : often heavily spiced
Drug value: Spores are possible narcotic
          : Still under investigation

There were pictures and more of the report but I had a fair idea what was coming. By now I could see the large sack of the roundish fungus on the Inventory table.

“Shh! It’s the Third Officer,” someone said.

“Ah the hell with the Third Officer, I know my rights,” bellowed a greasy man in a worn out rigger suit. He spun to face me. I darkened my visor, so the all-black figure standing in front of him startled him for a moment.

“And... and my rights are I can bring native food along when I enlist!” he finished his bluster, folding his arms and trying to dismiss me with a nod.

I killed the exterior speaker and stood with my own arms crossed. I noted that Nine had sealed up behind him.

“Nine, closed circuit,” I told her. “Let me guess. All these Western Continent recruits have a large load of this stuff.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied. “And there are spacemen and Marines Downside who are planning to bring back some, too.”

“Great. Bridge,” I requested.

“Go ahead, Three,” answered the Exec. “What’s your assessment?”

“We don’t have time for this. I’m all for a quick and severe gesture.”

“By all means, Third Officer. What’s your pleasure?”

“Are we clear to starboard?”

There was a brief pause. “That’s affirmative. If you want to dump, I’ll have a gun crew standing by.”

“Hangar master, seal all airtight doors into Sub-Hangar 9R and prepare to bring gravity up to three gees on my mark.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“And I need an ejection rail.”

“You got it.”

I took a breath and then keyed open for broadcast.

“Mister, you’re in violation of Space Service regulations. You want chapter and verse, I’ll get you a Provost Marshall and you can talk to him. But I don’t have time to do that at the moment so you may be in the freezer for a long time waiting. Those ‘goof-balls’ of yours are a narcotic. You’ve got an interest in your native foods, fine. You’ve got an addiction which could jeopardize this ship or your crewmates, that’s not fine. Right now I’ve got two problems. One is that I had to come in here from outside because you couldn’t listen to the Ninth COMMAND Officer. I don’t know how long you’ll last in this Service if you can’t listen to officers. But I can show you how a warship deals with my second problem.”

I set the servo settings to HIGH and then shouldered the troublemaker aside and seized the bag of fungus. I keyed off my speaker.

“Hangar master, open inner doors, full. Go to three gees,” I ordered.

Suddenly a great roar of warning klaxons sounded as the inner door began to open. At the same time, everyone in the hangar staggered as their weight jumped from half normal to six times as much. I felt like I was under a load of wet oatmeal, but the servos kept me upright. I walked halfway to the doors, now mostly open and slipped the bag onto the saddle of the railgun which had slid out of the hard deck.

“Hangar master, jettison this load of trash.”

A second warning siren sounded and strobe lights began flashing. I could see the scramble to get helmets and gloves back on and seal faceplates, though I had no intention of venting the entire hangar. A small airlock hatch inset into the outer doors quickly cycled as the illicit substance was shot into space. Momentarily a haze formed around the hatch and there was enough time to see a bright flash as a gun crew vaporized the bag one hundred meters off the starboard beam.

“Hangar master, secure this op.”

“Yessir,” he answered, chuckling at the violence of the demonstration. “Resetting gravity to one-half gee. Pressure equalizing.”

“Bridge -- which gun crew got it? 14 or 16?”

“It was 16.”

“Tell 16 I owe them a pizza.”

“Will do, Three.”

It was time to finish this off.

“Ninth Officer,” I publicly ordered, “Have all supplies of this fungus seized and destroyed. Next return any recruit who isn’t interested in serving in the Space Service and receiving their training on the U.S.F.S. Serrano. Third, have a squad of Marine sergeants explain the chain of command and the Space Service Articles of War before the recruits disburse from this area. That is all.”

I switched to a secure link, “So, Nine, there’s more of this on the surface to deal with?”

“Afraid so.”

“How come no one caught this before now?” I asked.

“Seems to be a well-kept secret among the locals. Most of the people I talked to never thought of the fungus as edible. I get the impression it doesn’t taste all that good. Kind of bitter, possibly from a minor alkaloid poison. So most of the natives wouldn’t ever consume enough to notice any buzz.”

“Uh-huh,” I commented.

“I thought the problem would be best handled Upside. That’s what the manual says -- separate the people and their problem away from home. But once they got belligerent, I knew I had a real addiction potential.”

Well, that sounded right. If it was a minor vice, then leaving it wasn’t so bad. When people get upset, it’s a sure sign they would have trouble living without it.

“Carry on,” I told Nine.

“Well, Sam, that was certainly a dramatic gesture,” the Exec noted as soon as the link was clear. “It seems an expensive way to dispose of a sack of fungus, but it definitely got their attention.”

“I believe a Command Officer should be Downside to prevent any of the infected crew from trying to return with this stuff, sir,” I said.

“The Captain and I concur. There is a shuttle launch from Hangar 6 for civilian departures. You should drop on that flight.”

Civilian departures. Of course. In peacetime, warships provide a variety of commercial, transport and scientific services such that hundreds of civilians are on board at any given time. Going off to active war deployment meant the Captain had to ask if any of them wanted to leave the ship here.

In Hangar 6, a group of supercilious Marine guards and Navy yeomen directed the activity. The Marines were armed with patience, the yeomen with clipboards. As usual when civilian and military interests collide, the civilians were complaining.

“You ruined my experiment!” the elderly Dr. Waltrip shouted as I came over, stripping off my gloves and helmet.

“Sir, I assure you,” an earnest young man tried explaining, “Our people and your people took the utmost care to take your lab down.”

“That’s not the POINT! The experiment itself had to be destroyed.”

“Dr. Waltrip,” I greeted him.

“Ah, Third Officer Chisholm. So very nice to see you. Perhaps you can make this person understand what a loss I have sustained.”

“But Dr. Waltrip,” I patiently explained. “We are deploying in a few hours. Your only choices were to remain on the ship or disembark here. And if you wanted to leave without your lab equipment...”

“Oh my no! Oh, dear, I do see your point,” he said, then pleaded, “Oh, but couldn’t you have waited a few more hours?”

“Dr. Waltrip, every hour you delay there is less and less room to maneuver in these hangars as all our shuttles return. It is much better to get you out now and make sure your crates make it safely Downside.”

“Downside, oh yes, you mean on the planet below. Oh yes, but...”

“And if you had continued your experiment, you simply could never stop work on your own -- it’s too interesting,” I gently chided.

“Oh, dear, I suppose you’re right. It is interesting work, isn’t it? Ah well, oh, Horace! Horace, old man, did you get all your books from that storage...?” he continued as he wandered off, clomping ungracefully in his ill-fitting spacesuit.

“All ashore that’s going ashore? Is that it?” a voice behind me asked. It was Dr. Calvin Hill, carrying his light space suit over his arm like a raincoat. I had helped him set up a biological field station in the early part of our visit. A large athletic black man, he once played football in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

“I would say so,” I agreed. “And your family?”

“They’re down already,” he said. “Originally they were due to return today.”

“By the way, Doctor, what do you know about ‘goof-balls’?” I inquired.

“Oh, those,” he rolled his eyes. “Do you mean the plant or the people?”

“The people?”

“Yes, the ones who don’t want any questions asked.”

“You had problems?”

“Let me say that my job isn’t always made easy by dealing with the native populations.”

“Ah-ha,” I nodded.

It would be ShipTime 1311 before the civilian shuttle finished loading. I made one trip back to the civilian apartments to verify that, indeed, all who were going ashore went ashore on this run.

I got to ride Downside backward, facing our distinguished civilian passengers in order to ride herd on them. The civilian shuttle was much more comfortable than the ones used for regular crews -- leather seating and subdued indirect lighting like the Captain’s barge. We could easily have traveled in real comfort, in shirt sleeves, but following military flight rules, everyone was suited.

“Eighty-five civilians present and accounted for,” the yeoman announced as I strapped in.

“How many civilians Downside already?” I asked, taking the flight roster.

“Two-hundred-and-eleven, sir,” he checked and then added in a low voice, “That leaves one-hundred-and-ten civilians remaining for deployment. Mostly military contractors I understand, sir.”

“Very good. Seal us up and let us be away.”


The pilot’s voice came on overhead, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are switching on the ten percent internal gravity field. You may feel your stomach bounce a bit while it comes on and the field in the hangar drops to zero.”

The view out the ten centimeter high strip of windows was dimmed by the tint, but I could see men in suits walking to the side of the shuttle. With gravity boots, they easily handled the shuttle by muscle alone in zero-gee and I felt a slight swaying sensation as we slowly turned to the massive exit airlock. The one-tenth gee gravity inside the shuttle was not designed to counteract these motions or the big gee forces of re-entry. It was sufficient to keep stomachs settled among the civilians by maintaining a horizontal and vertical.

“We have entered the air lock and the suppresser fields are on. We will launch in seconds.”

The walls of the airlock began to move past and then we were through the air curtain suppression field. As the sides of the Serrano blurred by, we shot very quickly away from the ship.

“We have launched and are now in space. Our first de-orbit burn is in two minutes.”

In space all motion is illusion. We were actually flying backwards -- slowed by the electromagnetic launchers while the Serrano moved away from us still at orbital velocity.

“First burn in ten seconds. The engines will fire for ten seconds. Mark burn. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. End of burn. Our next burn will be in three minutes,” the pilot patiently explained. “This is our major de-orbit burn, for ninety seconds, beginning in five, four, three, two, one. Mark burn.”

Unlike a military flight, where the deceleration would hit you like a fist, this civilian shuttle throttled its engines more. This was not bad -- a two-gee peak burn.

“Our burn is over in five seconds. Mark, end burn. We will now turn around and get us in the correct angle for re-entry.”

Dr. Calvin Hill sat in the seat closest to me. He spoke up, asking, “Why do they call it ‘re-entry’ even if you’re a visitor?”

“I had a course on semantics once at Selene University,” I smiled. “The instructor said ‘re-entry’ is usually the incorrect term throughout the galaxy, but general usage made it the only one that people agreed on to mean the opposite of a planetary launch.”

“‘The opposite of a planetary launch,’” he repeated. “I like it.”

“We are now in our re-entry,” the pilot commented. “It will take six minutes to penetrate the atmosphere and slow down for air flight to begin. The maximum gee-force will be just a shade over three-gees.”

Dropping through the thickening atmosphere at speed makes you suspect the air is full of boulders, or at least bumps. Some of the military fast shuttles, which power their way down, ride smoother than free fall plus aerodynamic drag.

A larger bump reverberated through the shuttle.

“The air engines have been deployed and we have engaged powered air flight mode. As you can tell, we are leveling off and descending to the Aarchen spacefield.”

“We will be landing in three minutes,” the pilot added a moment later.

The landing, though fast, was very smooth. An unremarkable flight, one that probably didn’t require the presence of a Third Officer. I exchanged farewells with some of the scientists I had known. There was some logistics debate over whether this civilian shuttle should remain, or return to the Serrano. Once ground confirmed the shuttle’s return, I told the flight crew to hold it for me.

I carried my helmet as I walked across a stretch of grass to the embarkment area. It felt good to have the air and sun on my face. Whatever problems this job may offer, I am truly blessed to be able to enjoy both this moment on this planet and watch space travel from my hangar catwalk perch all on the same day.

This was part of the Western Continent, and 125 Marines and spacemen had spent a good deal of time Downside here and in the neighboring districts. I strode in among the suited figures and their equipment.

“Third Officer, on deck!” a Marine sergeant called out.

“At ease, gentlemen,” I called out, then waited for the incidental noise to die down before I started.

“Gentlemen, you are about to return to the U.S.F.S. Serrano. What I am about to say will not please some of you. Many of you have been exposed to food prepared locally with a plant known affectionately as ‘goof-balls’ by some in the native population.

“I want you to know these plants contain addictive narcotics, which you cannot be permitted to bring to the Serrano. Since all of you assembled here are already in the Space Service, you have only two choices -- going Upside clean or under charges. I should also add that since we are under Active War orders, penalties are harsher than under peacetime regs.”

I paused to look around and gauge my audience.

“I know, or at least suspect, that many of you bought puffballs to add spice to your mess and simply dumping the product will cost you money. Turn over your supplies to the Navy purser and he’ll get you fair market value by selling it back to the locals. Your losses will be minimized and you might even make a profit.

But, there will be no illicit drugs on the Serrano, per Unified Star Fleet regulations. And if you’ve picked up any other illegal goodies as a souvenir of your stay here, you better toss them in that trash can before you get to Inspection.

“See you back aboard the Serrano. That is all,” I concluded and stood straight.

“Ten-hut!” bellowed a sergeant, and the men all came to attention.

I ordered the Marines to be thorough in their inspections, then returned to the shuttle once I saw the mass of men gather into lines. Hopefully there would be one hundred percent compliance.

The pilot was waiting for me at the base of the ramp. He saluted as I walked up. “Sir, we’ll launch as soon as you’re aboard. We have a window right now.”

“Then let’s go,” I said advancing up the ramp. “Though it seems quite a shame to not carry anything up with us.”

“All scheduled and accounted for, sir.”

“I understand,” I replied, but it did seem such a waste.

“Just consider yourself a V.I.P. and forget it, sir,” the pilot winked as I settled into a seat and he sealed the forward hatch. “We’ll launch in two minutes.”

As the engines spooled up for take-off, I leaned back dog tired, but my day wasn’t over yet. Sighing, I pulled out my dispatch pad and worked on my current letter to my father, then ended up dozing during the last thirty-five minutes inbound to the Serrano. I thanked the flight crew for a smooth ride and headed back up to the bridge.

“Third Officer arriving Command Center.”

The bridge had become fairly busy. A refreshed Fifth Officer held the conn for the moment. The Captain and the Exec sat in the Boardroom surrounded by yeoman and junior officers, as well as two platters of sandwiches. One was full of cheese, the other looked to be chicken salad. I took one of each and then tossed my helmet onto the bench seat and sat down next to it.

“Sam,” the First Officer noted when he looked up. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Eating,” I replied, doing the old Navy trick of mashing the two sandwiches together into one and taking a bite.

“Well,” he said, “As soon as you’re done stuffing your face, get the hell out of here. You’ve been up forever and we’ve scheduled an early wake-up call for you already.”

“You mean to say ‘sleep’, but the words come out ‘early wake-up call,’” I teased between bites.

“Three,” the Captain spoke, without looking up from the papers he was fighting over with two yeomen, “You will eat, you will sleep, you will get up when you are called. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied.

“Oh, and good work on that damned fungus.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Wearily, I got up, popped the last of my sandwich in my mouth, grabbed my helmet and headed out. By the time I reached the compartment I share with Four, I began to feel the energy drain from my body. Probably all that blood pooling around those sandwiches. Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the hours I had been keeping.

My quarters were empty. Mark was presumably on-duty elsewhere.

“Third Officer in quarters,” I spoke to the annunciator. The message light flickered. The automatic sensors would have registered anyway, yet it was nice to know the yeomen were on their toes.

My bed looked inviting with the soft sheets, but I was tired and still in my suit. The easiest thing was to pull the back of the bed down to form the carpeted bench. With the bolster, this became a good bed to sleep on while in a suit. I trimmed the gravity down to one-quarter gee and lay down.

I don’t remember the lights dimming automatically. I certainly don’t remember falling asleep.


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©2008 · Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

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