Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
F irst   exploration   outside   the   galaxy,   the   crew   of   the   Kory Mae    travel   to   the   dark   edge   of   the   universe   and   a   rogue solar     system     searching     for     the     origin     of     a     telepathic greeting.    The    two-year    mission    challenges    the    seventeen, each    with    dreams    and    hopes,    relationships    and    baggage, lives     placed     on     hold.     Isolation     and     the     physics     of accelerating   by   the   speed   of   light   every   quarter   of   a   second will   punish   them.   They   confront   isolation,   greed,   politics, disease—and most surprising, arcane forces.
Urban Fantasy
Chapter One ~ Chandler “Chan” Tao EUSA NW Director ~ W ord   that   frogs   returned   from   extinction   and   learned   to   fly   was   more   likely   to   stay secret. Two years. Deluding ourselves. Chan    reread    the    reply    he’d    manufactured,    and    clicked    the    save    button.    An answer   to   a   senator’s   wrath   required   an   overnight   decant.   He   leaned   back   in   his chair.   Already   the   fifth   week.   He’d   bet   the   project   wouldn’t   remain   under   wraps   for three. Had it been contained? Every    day    new    names    were    added    to    the    disclosure    list.    Would    soon    be    a hundred   long.   No   more   than   a   dozen   should   have   been   in   the   loop,   outside   the mission    team.    But    extraordinary    resources    had    to    be    acquired    and    justified. Experts had to be consulted. With     questions     that     clearly     indicated     a     new     race     had     been     discovered somewhere in the cosmos. Hopefully we’ve learned from our past mistakes. Discovery   of   the   Kreueigians   decades   earlier   would   have   been   impossible   to keep     quiet.     Too     many     colonies     near     Kreueigia     made     subsequent     discovery inevitable.   Like   a   pink-polka   dot   elephant   breaking   wind   in   a   quiet   room.   Hard   not to notice. The   human   race’s   second   shot   at   building   a   relationship   with   a   new   people could   only   be   exposed   intentionally.   They   were   far   outside   the   galaxy   and   had   no transmissions or power sources that were ever going to be noticed by anyone. Undiscovered    through    two    millennia    of    human    space    exploration.    Bizarre happenstance   the   university   group   chose   to   do   their   testing   so   far   out   on   that   edge of    the    galaxy.    To    plot    their    path    in    the    one     direction    they    would    encounter them—too weird . That   the   naval   officer   telepathically   contacted   aboard   the   research   vessel   was astute enough to keep it quiet— surprising . That   he   had   the   wherewithal   to   contact   someone   high   enough   within   the   EUSA to follow-up— extraordinary . That anyone believed him— shocking . A lot of buzz. A frickin’ load of buzz to cover up. Chan   slid   his   computer   into   its   cradle   on   his   hip,   flipped   off   his   desk   lamp,   and let   his   head   slump   forward.   It   was   early   yet,   only   a   little   after   twenty-two-hundred hours.   It   was   going   to   be   the   first   night   he   got   out   of   the   office   before   midnight   in three   weeks.   He   rose   and   slid   into   his   armored   vest.   His   office   line   rang   as   he holstered his sidearm. “Crap.” “Don’t answer it, Chan.” But,   he   was   curious.   He   watched   the   phone’s   text   banner.   A   call   he   had   to   pick up.   If   he   didn’t,   Toni   wouldn’t   leave   a   message,   and   she   had   a   habit   of   making whatever  was on her mind happen if there was no one present to tell her no. Even if I tell her no, she’ll do it anyway. Or already had. At     least     he     could     prepare     for     the     repercussions.     A     resource     probably disappeared   from   someone   else’s   project.   He’d   have   to   scramble   to   apologize   for the pile soon to hit the fan. Chan   checked   his   clock   again   and   smiled.   She   had   certainly   put   off   the   call   to the   last   minute.   He   turned   the   desk   lamp   back   on   and   picked   up   the   phone’s handset. “Tao.” “Why aren’t you home watching re-runs with your wife?” “I’d have missed the opportunity to tell you no.” “Such a sweet talker.” “You going to make it to communication blackout? No more false starts?” “We   have   engineers   who   can   create   anything.   If   we’ve   forgotten   something, they’ll   have   to   build   it   in   their   spare   time.   Your   people   have   done   a   really   fine   job getting ready for this mission.” “They’ve   been   your   people   since   you   almost   killed   yourself   recovering   them from New Belize.” “Half   of   them   I   had   to   threaten   with   physical   harm   to   make   them   go   home   to say goodbye to their families.” “Only   half.”   He   massaged   his   temples   at   the   coming   headache.   What   was   going to be her last bomb? “You saw Irene stepped forward and accepted the logistics position?” she asked. “That   was   a   pleasant   surprise.   How’s   she   working   the   relationship   out   with   her fiancé?” “That   was   going   to   be   complicated,   and   I   didn’t   need   anyone   on   my   team   with   a lot of emotional baggage, so I simplified it for her. I brought him onto the team.” “What! When did you do that? And when were you going to inform me?” “I   have   a   full   status   report   filled   out   that   Kory   Mae   will   send   immediately   before she engages FTL, Thursday morning.” “So I’ll have more surprises?” “Maybe. You deserve a parting gift, or two.” “So what’s your new crew member bringing to the team?” “Besides   being   an   absolute   technical   geek,   a   trained   medic,   and   security   expert, he’s a triathlete, and a Navy SEAL. Did I mention he has wonderful buns?” “He have EUSA clearance?” “We’re   leaving   in   three   days,   Chan.   Get   a   grip.   As   a   SEAL,   it   was   pretty   high anyway. But I covered it.” “Uh huh?” “I spoke to his mom.” Chan’s   need   to   laugh   pushed   aside   his   intense   irritation.   He   didn’t   speak   for   a moment so he could hide that Toni’s humor got him. “And   yeah,   Chan,   I   know   you’re   all   bent   about   me   bringing   Silva   on   board,   but I’ll   have   you   know   I   read   the   marshal’s   contract   you   made   me   sign.   I   have   the authority   to   deputize   any   EU   citizen   in   the   execution   of   my   duties   if   there   is   a substantial   risk   of   mission   failure   without   the   resource.   Well,   I   felt   the   risk   was significant enough to warrant deputizing him.” “Hard   to   believe   the   attorneys   included   that   kind   of   subjective   language,   isn’t it?” he mumbled. “Remind me to get that the hell out of the boiler plate.” “You   better   record   a   reminder   to   yourself.   This   is   your   last   communication   from me for a long time.” “So I won’t hear from you for eighteen months?” Except for that last status full of bombs. “Depends   upon   how   much   we   like   it   there.   But   if   they   don’t   have   any   eligible bachelors, I’ll see you in twenty-two months.” “The whole time compression thing plays with my head,” he said. “Blame it on Einstein.” “Sounds fair.” She   was   quiet   a   moment.   “Don’t   let   those   paper   pushers   try   to   pay   my   crew   for only eighteen months, when they’ll be engaged for—” “I’ll    have    to    look    into    that,”    he    drawled.    “But    I    suspect    you’ll    all    get shortchanged no matter what, when your taxes are taken out.” “Don’t get me going, Chan.” He   smiled.   “On   a   more   serious   note.   During   the   blackout,   while   everyone   else   is visiting their families, you going to meet with your Morgan beaus?” “You’re   getting   personal.   I   thought   I   only   had   to   worry   about   Julia   sticking   her nose into my love life.” “Well, I’m glad to hear you have a love life.” “I   didn’t   say   that.   I   mean,   no   I   don’t.   I   mean,   no   one   has   to   be   worrying   about who is whispering sweet nothings to me.” Chan   considered   wishing   his   condolences   about   Molly,   but   maybe   it   was   better to    leave    the    subject    alone.    Julia’s    call    about    the    dog’s    turn    for    the    worse    still vibrated in his mind. “You   and   Chewie   aren’t   going   to   spend   your   last   three   days   on   Kory   Mae    before a seven month jump, are you?” Chan asked. “Frankly,   we   haven’t   decided.   Neither   of   us   is   very   excited   about   leaving   her unattended.   We   talked   about   treating   ourselves   to   a   night   on   the   town   in   Old Chicago.” “If   security   is   an   issue,   say   the   word   and   I   can   have   a   team   there   in   two   hours   to secure her until you return.” “Even the manufacturer of the ship couldn’t break in,” Toni said. “You should take a break.” “I   think   the   best   vacation   I   could   spend   is   three   days   of   isolation.   I’ll   be   locked up   with   sixteen   crew   members   for   two   years.   Enjoying   Kory   Mae    without   them   will be refreshing. “The   last   two   weeks   have   been   tough,”   she   continued   after   a   pause.   “I   could   use three days on the bench.” The    two    chatted    a    few    more    minutes.    Chan    avoided    any    further    personal questions,   though   he   was   truly   interested   in   how   Toni   had   left   the   situation   with the   Morgan   brothers.   He   hated   to   think   she   may   have   shut   down   any   opportunity for   a   relationship   with   one   of   them   because   of   the   mission.   Chan   had   spent   too many   tours   away   from   family   and   friends.   Having   someone   to   come   back   to   helped make the months bearable. But, in some ways it made it worse. “Chan,   its   time   you   went   home   to   your   wife.   I’m   hanging   up.   I’ll   see   you   in twenty-something months.” “Our   hearts   and   prayers   will   be   with   you   and   your   crew,   Antoni.   Vaya   con Dios.” “Good night, Chan.” Chapter Two ~ Antoni “Toni” Tegaris Mission Commander ~ T oni   toggled   the   com   closed   and   her   chest   tightened.   For   a   few   moments   she couldn’t   catch   her   breath   as   anxiety   crashed   in   on   her.   She   looked   down   at   the   gray Labrador Retriever at her feet and tears flooded her eyes. She   knelt   on   the   deck   to   hug   the   animal.   Other   than   lifting   the   tip   of   her   tail,   the dog   didn’t   respond.   Toni   pressed   her   face   against   Molly’s   shoulder.   She   soaked   in the sensation of the old girl’s soft coat, stroking her side and hip. “What am I going to do without you, baby?” She   cried,   trying   to   ignore   the   smell   of   urine   that   lingered   about   her   old   friend. Toni   forced   herself   to   stand.   She   walked   mechanically   to   the   sink   and   retrieved   the syringe kit she used to empty the girl’s bladder. Probably    be    the    last    time    she    would    have    to    burden    the    hound    with    the uncomfortable    process.    But,    if    it    gave    her    a    couple    more    hours    of    relatively comfortable sleep before she was gone, it was worth it. The   discharge   was   more   blood   than   urine.   Toni   checked   the   other   stats   on   the monitor. Molly’s pulse was so low it was amazing she still breathed. Not long, now. Molly   might   not   even   recognize   where   she   was,   but   Toni   grabbed   the   hover’s remote,   turned   it   on,   and   set   it   to   follow   mode.   She   was   going   to   give   the   girl   her last walk among the beautiful countryside of the Simon ranch. Outside,   the   summer   night   was   hot   and   humid,   with   only   the   hint   of   a   breeze. The   sliver   of   a   moon   only   accented   the   sky,   but   the   glow   from   Houston   a   hundred- sixty   kilometers   away   lent   enough   light   to   see.   The   creatures   of   the   night   sounded like    a    loud    orchestra    to    the    spoiled    ears    of    the    long-time    Spacer,    used    to    the muffled quiet of Kory Mae . Could Molly hear the life around her? As though the thought cued it, the soft buzz of the old girl’s monitor went off. She was gone. Oddly,   Toni   was   awash   with   a   sense   of   release.   She   thought   of   the   puff   of   fur, that   day   Molly   first   stole   her   heart.   Flea   bitten   stray.   A   shared   sandwich   led   to   a   life together.   Toni   thought   of   the   human   sound   of   her   baying   when   the   hound   was stressed,   the   long,   drawn   out,   Earl .   Recalling   the   sound   alone   was   enough   to   make her cry. The girl’s pain was finally over. Wasn’t up for one last, long jump. The   flooding   tears   tickled   as   they   curved   over   her   jaw   and   down   her   throat.   She knelt next to the hover and lay over the silent form of her life-long friend. “Baby, you had a long life.” She choked. “We had a good life together.” Toni   flipped   on   her   computer   and   whispered   Chewie’s   name.   The   device   dialed her co-pilot and friend. “Chewie. She’s gone.” He didn’t cut off his groan fast enough. “Where are you?” “Outside.   I   was   taking   her   for   a   last   walk.   We’re   along   the   fence   line,   about   fifty meters from the ship.” “I’ll be right there.” Toni   flipped   the   computer   off,   and   the   sobs   hit,   with   a   jolt   of   pain   through   her chest,    tightening    her    throat.    The    back    of    her    head    throbbed    with    an    unreal pressure. Kory   Mae’s    forward   lift   lowered,   opened,   and   light   speared   the   dark.   In   seconds Chewie   was   there,   holding   her   tightly,   rocking   her.   She   closed   her   eyes,   pressed   her head   back   against   his   chest,   choked   back   a   sob,   and   hugged   his   arms   against   her. His   velvety   fur   felt   too   much   like   Molly’s   coat,   and   an   angry   force   ripped   the   air from her lungs. The   vibration   of   his   voice   massaged   her   back.   She   choked,   swallowed   back   the sobs.   He   sang   a   soft   Kreueigian   song   nearly   at   a   whisper.   The   baritone   soothed, understanding the alien words unnecessary. Chapter Three ~ Marshal Uiaiahiaherautez/”Chewie” EUSA Mission Copilot ~ H e   stood   outside   Toni’s   stateroom   mulling   what   to   do.   He’d   been   aboard   Kory Mae ,    around    humans,    for    only    nine    months,    and    still    didn’t    understand    their dynamic   emotions.   If   human   women   could   be    understood.   A   Kreueigian   female stood   like   a   pillar   of   granite   compared   to   the   unexpected   emotions   that   sprung from a woman. I wish Julia was here. She   would   know   what   to   do   for   Toni.   But   they   were   in   communication   blackout until   their   departure.   Blackout—an   odd   concept.   He   never   grasped   the   value   of   it   in the first place. Humans were wired—oddly. Would   a   call   that   had   absolutely   nothing   to   do   with   the   mission   break   the blackout?   Julia   could   console   Toni.   She   would   know   what   he   should   do   about Molly’s body. That   was   the   present   problem.   Would   William   still   be   awake   at   the   Simon residence?   He   pulled   out   his   computer   to   check   the   time.   It   was   almost   twenty- three hundred hours. No. They all rose early on the ranch. He   slogged   to   the   forward   hold.   Toni   had   been   very   discrete   when   she   brought on    what    she    called    the    carrier .    Responsible    for    managing    the    cargo,    he    had inspected   the   crate.   It   was   a   pet   coffin.   Helped   him   understand   Toni’s   fluctuating mood.   He   had   assumed   it   was   still   tied   to   the   depression   she   experienced   during her   hospital   stay,   and   the   stress   of   the   last   three   weeks.   Hadn’t   connected   the   dog’s lethargy   to   illness.   He   was   far   from   expert   about   the   species.   Nothing   like   canines on Kreueigia. “Oh, don’t let me be breaking any Terran customs.” He   gently   scooped   up   Molly’s   body   from   the   hover   and   moved   it   to   the   carrier . There   she   would   rest   until   he   could   get   direction   from   William   or   Toni   in   the morning. ~ S everal   from   the   Simon   residence   joined   Toni   at   the   spontaneous   memorial   that morning,     even     Cyn,     who     wasn’t     much     for     displaying     emotion,     other     than impatience and irritation. He   was   even   more   surprised   when   Cyn   rushed   Toni   away   minutes   later   in   a hover. He gawked as the vehicle disappeared, heading for Houston. Hours   later   they   returned   with   an   even   more   surprising   package,   especially considering the pain he knew Toni was experiencing. The    four-month-old    chocolate    Lab    bounded    out    of    the    hover,    her    brassy- colored   eyes   frantic   to   take   in   its   new   world.   Her   legs   seemed   to   never   quite   sync   up with   her   mind,   each   appearing   to   be   trying   to   go   in   a   different   direction   at   once. She   barked   meekly   at   everything,   the   hover,   blades   of   grass,   a   bug,   every   foot   that approached. Her teeth were ready to clamp down on anything. Though   Toni’s   eyes   were   red   and   moist,   she   wore   a   silly   grin.   Even   the   stoic   Cyn smiled. Chewie leaned toward the ranch woman. “I’m surprised you were able to talk Toni into—into—” “Best    thing,”    Cyn    whispered    back,    “was    to    replace    the    space,    and    give    her something   else   to   keep   her   mind   on.   The   pup   won’t   replace   Molly.   But   make   the pain easier to accept.” It   only   took   minutes   for   the   ranch’s   working   dogs   to   show   up   to   investigate.   The puppy    leapt    at    their    ears    and    chewed    on    their    feet    like    a    crazy    thing.    Mean- sounding   growls   lowered   her   to   a   submissive   posture,   but   only   for   a   moment.   She was quickly up and pestering the older dogs again. As   they   tired   of   her,   they   trotted   away.   Unable   to   keep   up,   the   puppy   plopped down,   legs   pointing   in   four   directions.   She   let   out   a   high-pitched   yelp,   as   though demanding her friends return immediately, to give her something to chew on. Toni, laughing, retrieved her. “Feel how buttery soft she is, Chewie.” She   held   the   squirming   little   bundle   out.   He   reached   down   to   scratch   its   back. The   stinking   thing   turned   around   in   her   skin   and   had   his   fingers   in   her   mouth.   Not expecting   the   needle-sharp   teeth,   he   jerked   away,   which   wasn’t   the   smartest   move. Blood oozed from the fur covering the back of his hand. “You didn’t warn me the young are carnivorous,” he said. “There’s   a   good   first   warning   for   you,”   Cyn   shot   back   in   that   always-stern   tone of   hers.   “She’s   going   to   chew   on   anything   she   can   find   for   the   next   year.   You   better not   leave   a   wire   exposed,   a   computer,   shoe   or   assault   rifle   within   her   reach   or   she’ll demolish the thing, centimeter by centimeter.” Toni    laughed.    “She    isn’t    kidding,    unfortunately.”    Her    smile    lessened    a    bit, perhaps remembering. “You   better   fetch   a   hover,   Chewie,”   Cyn   called   over   her   shoulder.   “We   had   to shop for two years of supplies for the little beast.” Toni screeched, “Oh, don’t start being mean to her already.”   © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
Dystopian Fantasy SCI FI
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
First Contact Chapter One ~ Chandler “Chan” Tao EUSA NW Director ~ W ord   that   frogs   returned   from   extinction and   learned   to   fly   was   more   likely   to   stay secret. Two years. Deluding ourselves. Chan        reread        the        reply        he’d manufactured,      and      clicked      the      save button.    An    answer    to    a    senator’s    wrath required   an   overnight   decant.   He   leaned back   in   his   chair.   Already   the   fifth   week. He’d    bet    the    project    wouldn’t    remain under wraps for three. Had it been contained? Every   day   new   names   were   added   to the     disclosure     list.     Would     soon     be     a hundred    long.    No    more    than    a    dozen should   have   been   in   the   loop,   outside   the mission        team.        But        extraordinary resources      had      to      be      acquired      and justified. Experts had to be consulted. With   questions   that   clearly   indicated   a new   race   had   been   discovered   somewhere in the cosmos. Hopefully   we’ve   learned   from   our   past mistakes. Discovery   of   the   Kreueigians   decades earlier    would    have    been    impossible    to keep     quiet.     Too     many     colonies     near Kreueigia     made     subsequent     discovery inevitable.   Like   a   pink-polka   dot   elephant breaking   wind   in   a   quiet   room.   Hard   not to notice. The     human     race’s     second     shot     at building   a   relationship   with   a   new   people could   only   be   exposed   intentionally.   They were   far   outside   the   galaxy   and   had   no transmissions   or   power   sources   that   were ever going to be noticed by anyone. Undiscovered    through    two    millennia of     human     space     exploration.     Bizarre happenstance   the   university   group   chose to   do   their   testing   so   far   out   on   that   edge of   the   galaxy.   To   plot   their   path   in   the   one   direction         they         would         encounter them—too weird . That    the    naval    officer    telepathically contacted   aboard   the   research   vessel   was astute           enough           to           keep           it quiet— surprising . That     he     had     the     wherewithal     to contact   someone   high   enough   within   the EUSA to follow-up— extraordinary . That anyone believed him— shocking . A   lot   of   buzz.   A   frickin’   load   of   buzz   to cover up. Chan   slid   his   computer   into   its   cradle on   his   hip,   flipped   off   his   desk   lamp,   and let   his   head   slump   forward.   It   was   early yet,   only   a   little   after   twenty-two-hundred hours.   It   was   going   to   be   the   first   night   he got   out   of   the   office   before   midnight   in three    weeks.    He    rose    and    slid    into    his armored   vest.   His   office   line   rang   as   he holstered his sidearm. “Crap.” “Don’t answer it, Chan.” But,   he   was   curious.   He   watched   the phone’s   text   banner.   A   call   he   had   to   pick up.    If    he    didn’t,    Toni    wouldn’t    leave    a message,   and   she   had   a   habit   of   making whatever     was    on    her    mind    happen    if there was no one present to tell her no. Even    if    I    tell    her    no,    she’ll    do    it anyway. Or already had. At     least     he     could     prepare     for     the repercussions.       A       resource       probably disappeared   from   someone   else’s   project. He’d    have    to    scramble    to    apologize    for the pile soon to hit the fan. Chan     checked     his     clock     again     and smiled.   She   had   certainly   put   off   the   call to    the    last    minute.    He    turned    the    desk lamp   back   on   and   picked   up   the   phone’s handset. “Tao.” “Why    aren’t    you    home    watching    re- runs with your wife?” “I’d    have    missed    the    opportunity    to tell you no.” “Such a sweet talker.” “You        going        to        make        it        to communication   blackout?   No   more   false starts?” “We    have    engineers    who    can    create anything.    If    we’ve    forgotten    something, they’ll   have   to   build   it   in   their   spare   time. Your   people   have   done   a   really   fine   job getting ready for this mission.” “They’ve    been    your    people    since    you almost    killed    yourself    recovering    them from New Belize.” “Half   of   them   I   had   to   threaten   with physical   harm   to   make   them   go   home   to say goodbye to their families.” “Only   half.”   He   massaged   his   temples at   the   coming   headache.   What   was   going to be her last bomb? “You   saw   Irene   stepped   forward   and accepted     the     logistics     position?”     she asked. “That   was   a   pleasant   surprise.   How’s she   working   the   relationship   out   with   her fiancé?” “That    was    going    to    be    complicated, and    I    didn’t    need    anyone    on    my    team with    a    lot    of    emotional    baggage,    so    I simplified   it   for   her.   I   brought   him   onto the team.” “What!    When    did    you    do    that?    And when were you going to inform me?” “I   have   a   full   status   report   filled   out that    Kory    Mae    will    send    immediately before      she      engages      FTL,      Thursday morning.” “So I’ll have more surprises?” “Maybe.   You   deserve   a   parting   gift,   or two.” “So    what’s    your    new    crew    member bringing to the team?” “Besides    being    an    absolute    technical geek,     a     trained     medic,     and     security expert,     he’s     a     triathlete,     and     a     Navy SEAL.   Did   I   mention   he   has   wonderful buns?” “He have EUSA clearance?” “We’re    leaving    in    three    days,    Chan. Get   a   grip.   As   a   SEAL,   it   was   pretty   high anyway. But I covered it.” “Uh huh?” “I spoke to his mom.” Chan’s   need   to   laugh   pushed   aside   his intense   irritation.   He   didn’t   speak   for   a moment    so    he    could    hide    that    Toni’s humor got him. “And    yeah,    Chan,    I    know    you’re    all bent   about   me   bringing   Silva   on   board, but     I’ll     have     you     know     I     read     the marshal’s   contract   you   made   me   sign.   I have    the    authority    to    deputize    any    EU citizen    in    the    execution    of    my    duties    if there    is    a    substantial    risk    of    mission failure   without   the   resource.   Well,   I   felt the      risk      was      significant      enough      to warrant deputizing him.” “Hard       to       believe       the       attorneys included   that   kind   of   subjective   language, isn’t   it?”   he   mumbled.   “Remind   me   to   get that the hell out of the boiler plate.” “You     better     record     a     reminder     to yourself.   This   is   your   last   communication from me for a long time.” “So   I   won’t   hear   from   you   for   eighteen months?” Except     for     that     last     status     full     of bombs. “Depends   upon   how   much   we   like   it there.   But   if   they   don’t   have   any   eligible bachelors,     I’ll     see     you     in     twenty-two months.” “The    whole    time    compression    thing plays with my head,” he said. “Blame it on Einstein.” “Sounds fair.” She    was    quiet    a    moment.    “Don’t    let those   paper   pushers   try   to   pay   my   crew for   only   eighteen   months,   when   they’ll   be engaged for—” “I’ll     have     to     look     into     that,”     he drawled.    “But    I    suspect    you’ll    all    get shortchanged   no   matter   what,   when   your taxes are taken out.” “Don’t get me going, Chan.” He   smiled.   “On   a   more   serious   note. During   the   blackout,   while   everyone   else is    visiting    their    families,    you    going    to meet with your Morgan beaus?” “You’re    getting    personal.    I    thought    I only   had   to   worry   about   Julia   sticking   her nose into my love life.” “Well,   I’m   glad   to   hear   you   have   a   love life.” “I   didn’t   say   that.   I   mean,   no   I   don’t.   I mean,   no   one   has   to   be   worrying   about who is whispering sweet nothings to me.” Chan         considered         wishing         his condolences    about    Molly,    but    maybe    it was    better    to    leave    the    subject    alone. Julia’s   call   about   the   dog’s   turn   for   the worse still vibrated in his mind. “You   and   Chewie   aren’t   going   to   spend your   last   three   days   on   Kory   Mae    before a    seven    month    jump,    are    you?”    Chan asked. “Frankly,   we   haven’t   decided.   Neither of    us    is    very    excited    about    leaving    her unattended.     We     talked     about     treating ourselves   to   a   night   on   the   town   in   Old Chicago.” “If   security   is   an   issue,   say   the   word and   I   can   have   a   team   there   in   two   hours to secure her until you return.” “Even    the    manufacturer    of    the    ship couldn’t break in,” Toni said. “You should take a break.” “I    think    the    best    vacation    I    could spend    is    three    days    of    isolation.    I’ll    be locked   up   with   sixteen   crew   members   for two    years.    Enjoying    Kory    Mae     without them will be refreshing. “The   last   two   weeks   have   been   tough,” she   continued   after   a   pause.   “I   could   use three days on the bench.” The   two   chatted   a   few   more   minutes. Chan      avoided      any      further      personal questions,   though   he   was   truly   interested in   how   Toni   had   left   the   situation   with the   Morgan   brothers.   He   hated   to   think she   may   have   shut   down   any   opportunity for     a     relationship     with     one     of     them because   of   the   mission.   Chan   had   spent too    many    tours    away    from    family    and friends.   Having   someone   to   come   back   to helped make the months bearable. But, in some ways it made it worse. “Chan,   its   time   you   went   home   to   your wife.    I’m    hanging    up.    I’ll    see    you    in twenty-something months.” “Our   hearts   and   prayers   will   be   with you    and    your    crew,    Antoni.    Vaya    con Dios.” “Good night, Chan.” © R. Mac Wheeler 2017