Saturday, July 9, 2011

Slow Boat to China (Chapter 1 -- Part I)

Slow Boat to China

Slow Boat To China is a stand-alone novel unrelated to my Hunters or Land of the Blind series. It concerns hundreds of wary civilians heading to the distant galaxy of Vasco de Gama to begin new lives or pay off old debts. Mixed in is Pegram Kimble, a storekeeper second class in the Federation Navy, off to an assignment on Tedesco, Vasco de Gama's most treacherous planet. A dumping ground for many of the Navy's and Marines' malcontents, nevertheless, it is the front line of a war against ruthless and murderous smugglers, raiders and space pirates determined to exterminate the Navy and Marines and claim the system for their own.

Chapter 1: Voyager (Part I)

Pegram Kimble looked out the porthole and smiled. He’d been sitting at this porthole for more than three hours, staring out at the passing stars and he didn’t seem tired of it yet. He liked looking at the stars for they reminded him of his boyhood back on Earth.

“Hey, Kimble, those stars aren’t going anywhere.”

Kimble looked over his shoulder at the slender man in the engineer’s uniform leaning halfway through the hatch. The man was Lieutenant Marshall Mannix, main propulsion assistant aboard the Federation Naval Ship Medford. The Medford would be Kimble’s home for the next two months until she and her sister ship, Fort Worth, arrived in the Vasco de Gama system.

“Then again,” the lieutenant reversed himself, “considering where you’re heading, you might as well get in all the stargazing you can. Banefield doesn’t allow much time to breathe, much less look at the stars. Anyway, there’s a meeting for all the storekeepers in 30 minutes, section 18, bulkhead 412.”

“Yes, sir,” Kimble replied.

Second-class petty officer sighed. Even in transit, nothing changed with the Navy. Technically, he was in transit and should have been with the civilians heading to Vasco de Gama. Alas, the deep-space Navy was always short of qualified sailors and no ship commander would pass up a chance to add an extra storekeeper for 75 days. 

Kimble turned away from the porthole and left the observation space. It wasn’t much of an observation area, having portholes instead of a large window. But, he understood. Large windows did not work well on military vessels. They couldn’t be covered with heavy metal hatches in case of combat. Still, a porthole was better than having no view at all, which is what most of the civilians had down in the transit spaces.

At 45, Kimble was young for a sailor. With life expectancy now reaching past 240, most people took on at least two other careers before joining the military.  Kimble had carried his spindly, 6-foot, 5-inch frame around most of the continents on Earth and then to the Moon and Mars as a logistician before deciding to serve his planet.

He’d always been good with numbers and with organizing things. But, the space freighter agency for whom he had worked just wasn’t exciting enough. Most of the time, he found himself on deep-space cargo runs where he was the only living thing among the robots that controlled operations. So, he joined the Navy. He was still on deep-space runs but at least he had human company.

He easily passed boot camp and advanced storekeepers school with flying colors. Because he’d been the highest-ranking recruit to come out of basic training, he gotten his choice of assignments. Fat lot of good it did him, though. The Erlacher Naval Observatory & Exploration Station just past Pluto had no openings. So, the Navy had given him his wish of seeing stars by sending him to the Vasco de Gama system, at the farthest reaches of Man’s explored areas.

He was destined for Tedesco, the furthermost world in that distant galaxy. Tedesco was the main base for the escort ships that patrolled the system. It was also the armpit of the universe, being a repository for all of the misfits from other populated galaxies. Criminals, ne’er-do-wells, loners, paranoiacs, adventurers, pioneers all went to Tedesco. So did smugglers and raiders.

The only people with no choice in being assigned to Tedesco were sailors and Marines. They were just unlucky that there weren’t enough screw-ups among their brethren to take care of all the needed billets.

Truth be known, Kimble could have requested – and gotten  -- a permanent berth aboard the dreadnought. It happened all the time, which only exacerbated Tedesco’s personnel problem. However, Kimble hadn’t made the request yet.

His reason was obvious – too many people. A dreadnought like Medford carried a crew of close to 3,000 men and women. It was easy to be lost in that kind of crowd. Making rank would be much more difficult as well. And, if he played his cards right and came out of his Tedesco assignment with an excellent evaluation, he could easily grab a chief petty officer slot aboard a ship and avoid all the competition.

It had better work, Kimble told himself many times since he’d come aboard. He had heard nothing but nasty things about Vasco de Game and about Tedesco, in particular.  The entire system suffered from smugglers and pirates. Some planets tried to ambush their neighbors’ cargo fleets. The people were very rough and tumble, as he could imagine only the strongest surviving in a system about a generation behind in modern technology.

Kimble nodded at passing sailors as he walked down the starboard passageway. He recognized none of them, just tried to seem friendly. He had to admit this ship was far bigger than it had seemed on holographic television. Even the 3-D computer displays didn’t do it justice. It seemed to take forever to get anywhere. He doubted he’d get lost on Tedesco.

Kimble arrived at his destination about the same time as a rather stocky female with no sense of humor. She took one look at him and then brushed by, as if he was nobody. He frowned. Yet another reason to avoid taking a permanent berth aboard the ship. The other storekeepers only saw him as competition for promotion.

“Hey, Kimble, glad you could make it,” a bulky man with flaming red hair commented as Kimble stepped inside the large auxiliary storeroom. “Did you see Kulack? He said he was going to leave you a message about the meeting.”

Kimble had taken a liking to SK2 Willis Farrier. Prior to Kimble’s arrival, Farrier had been the junior storekeeper aboard. No one liked being the junior guy but Farrier had a laid back attitude that had helped him cope with the endless jokes made at his expense.

“Haven’t seen Kulack since two days ago,” Kimble replied.

“Figures,” Farrier answered, with a smirk. “Can’t trust that guy worth crap. He spends too much time trying to eyeball the goodies.”

Kimble grinned. The “goodies” were the women down in the transit spaces. There was no hard fast rule aboard ship about dating those in transit, except that any resulting pregnancies would severely affect a sailor’s pay status.

“Who let you in on this little affair then?”

“Lieutenant Mannix, the main propulsion assistant,” Kimble replied. “I was up in the observation lounge or what passes for an observation lounge.”

“Mannix, eh?” Farrier asked. “Jeez, Commander Nguyen’s gonna’ hear it from the Cheng, eh, I mean, chief engineer, but you probably already knew that.”

Kimble nodded. He was up on his lingo. He started to say something else when someone up front called “attention on deck.”  Everyone stood up at attention until the same voice – Kimble thought it belonged to Senior Chief Ellen Branaugh – told everyone to stand at ease.

Commander Amos Nguyen was short for a Navy officer, but he more than made up for it with command presence. Not even a more senior officer would make a short joke anywhere near him. The senior supply officer aboard the dreadnought had been prior enlisted, evidenced by his salt-and-pepper hair and the deep bags under his eyes, belying his many years of service.

“Listen up, people,” Nguyen said in a voice that carried all the way to the back of the space. “I’m sure you’ve been wondering why I’ve called a special meeting after normal hours so far out of dock. Well, I’ve just finished a meeting of the ship’s officer corps, with the captain.”

Farrier whistled low. Kimble looked at the man and saw the concern on the man’s face. The captain only called an after-hours officers call when things were extremely unfavorable.

“In case you haven’t guessed, ship’s officer corps is so large it’s rare for all of them to meet at the same time,” Farrier explained when he saw Kimble looking at him. “Usually, the senior officers and department heads will meet and then pass on the news to the junior officers. If all of the officers meet, something big’s going on and it’s going to roll downhill right at us.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard about the increased pirate activity near the Vasco de Gama area,” Nguyen continued. “Well, we and the Fort Worth have been tasked with giving the escort patrols in that area some help.”

While everyone else moaned, Kimble brightened. That was going to be his area. He certainly didn’t want to have to face pirates on his first day, but having two dreadnoughts to guard his back didn’t seem so bad.

“Looks like you get the royal treatment, Kimble,” Farrier commented. “Not too many newbies get escorted in by dreadnoughts.”

“Listen up,” Nguyen called out. “We will be landing small detachments of Marines on several of the planets to bolster the inspection forces aboard the patrol ships. That will mean a vast increase in logistics. We will also have to use our own pinnaces to take supplies and transiters down to their respective debarkation points. Now, I don’t want any moaning and boo-hooing. This is what you signed up for. You can’t expect large, populated systems every time, so this is what we’re gonna’ do.”

Kimble listened attentively, straining to hear if his name would be called out as Nguyen – and, a few minutes later, Branaugh – made assignments. He heard nothing. At the end of the assignments, someone mentioned Farrier and the “new guy.”  Kimble sighed and guessed being the “new guy” was better than not being mentioned at all.

“Hey, looks like I get to show you the ropes,” Farrier said, slapping Kimble’s shoulder. “Let me show you where the supply pinnaces are.”

Pegram Kimble learned the ropes from Farrier well. Before long, he was one of the most proficient storekeepers aboard and he even heard Branaugh mention him by name to her department head. No doubt, she’d want him to be pulled off the list to Tedesco and, instead, assigned aboard the dreadnought. Kimble had gotten along with the other storekeepers reasonably well (once they learned he wanted to go to Tedesco rather than stay aboard). He doubted those good relations would last if he did stay aboard.

By the time the dreadnoughts were three days out from Vasco de Gama, everything was ready. Kimble and Farrier joined Branaugh in making a full rundown. Afterwards, Farrier took Kimble to Section Nth, the ship’s off-duty lounge for a drink. Kimble felt embarrassed going there because usually only personnel directly assigned to the ship could go in.

“I gotta’ be honest with you, Pegram,” Farrier said as he settled into his chair at the bar and waited for a virgin martini that tasted like the real thing, but didn’t contain gin, vodka or dry vermouth. “Master Chief Branaugh’s pressing me to convince you to stay aboard.”

“I figured that,” Kimble replied, as he sipped some cola. “But, this place is too big. Besides, I only get along with the rest of the division because they think I’ll eventually leave when we get planetside.”

“Well, I had to ask,” Farrier commented.

“Nice lounge you have here,” Kimble noted. “Too bad you get the soft stuff.”

“Hey, hey, don’t knock it, newbie,” Farrier remarked. “This is like heaven compared to Tedesco. I’ve been there twice on transit and supply runs. Oh, you’ll get to look at the stars, if they don’t work you to death. You just won’t have anything close to a virgin martini to relax with. Then again, you won’t have any virgins to relax with period.”

Copyright © 2011 Gregory Marshall Smith

All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.

To be continued July 16, 2011.

Gregory Marshall Smith

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