Which is the first Anonymous Chronicle.
A tale of Sfstory by Dave Menendez.

Days were something of a formality in space, where time passed with an endless, mind-eroding sameness. Whether accompanied by an alternating cycle of light and darkness or not, whether a social convenience or a biological necessity, it was equally arbitrary and subject to redefinition at whim. Hence its unpopularity as a unit among those responsible for space logistics, especially after a few scheduling mishaps when dealing with creatures from slowly rotating planets.

On the Anonymous, the day was set at 86,400 seconds, divided into lighter and darker segments whose lengths varied according to a complex system designed to mimic the seasons of upstate New Jersey. The period of greatest darkness marked each day’s beginning. Tom Kadar was familiar with this system. He had helped draft the report for the light scheduling committee recommending the current system. Nonetheless, in his private thoughts the day began when he woke up in the morning (or early afternoon, on those rare occasions when something important and urgent was happening at the lab.)

Thus, in his mind the day began not with the quiet arrival of a Zakavian task force shortly after midnight, but with the much noisier shriek of his alarm clock several hours later.

After directing some angry but soon forgotten words at his long-time bedside companion, Tom stumbled towards the kitchen to make himself breakfast. As usual, his youngest sister had begun before him and neglected to put the milk back in the refrigerator after fixing her cereal. Every so often, he tried explaining how that gave it an unpleasant, powdery taste, but she always changed the subject, noting that someone of his age and professional status should have no trouble finding a home outside of his parents’ condominium. (Which was true, provided he didn’t want one as nice. His parents had claimed space in tower 608 before anyone had had time to examine the available real estate, and their luck was the envy of many who had been more cautious or less fortunate. The waiting list now was half a kilometer long, and the names at the top were written in bold with red ink and little glittery stars.)

“I’ve been thinking of getting a job,” said Megan.

“What?” replied Tom, who had been concentrating more on putting the milk away once he had finished with it.

“A job. Something to pass the time and provide me with money.”

Thoughts whirled slowly through the fog in his head. “School isn’t exciting enough?”

“Oh, it is,” said Megan, who was remembering that her brother wasn’t a scintillating breakfast conversationalist. “In fact, it’s so exciting that I’m hoping for a really dull job, to compensate.”

“I see.” He ate a few spoonfuls of cereal, and reflected on his tendency to second-guess his breakfast choices. Eggs, for example, were sounding much more appetizing than they had when he was making the decision.

Gradually, like the tides pulling back to reveal concealed detritus, Tom’s sleepiness receded and he became aware that Megan was trying to start a conversation. He glanced up, to judge whether it was salvageable, but before he could speak their mother burst into the room.

“Have you seen your father?”

Tom navigated the day’s first abrupt topic shift without disaster. “Not this morning,” he told her.

“He never came back from his evening jog,” added Megan.

Their mother’s face darkened. “Clever. But I think he’ll find his escape quite temporary.” She slung her foam-ball rifle over her shoulder and joined them at the breakfast table. “Where’s Jen?”

Tom and Megan shared a quick glance.

“She’s out,” said Megan.

“Facing unknown dangers in the heartless void of space with some aliens she’s known for less than a month,” clarified Tom.

“And Roy,” added Megan.

“That’s not much better.”

“Of course,” said their mother. “It must have slipped my mind.” She glanced at her pocket watch. “Oh, the Assembly’s meeting soon. I’ll see you two tonight.” A pair of kisses later, she was out the door, pausing only to swap her rifle for a foam-ball handgun.

Tom and Megan sat quietly for a few moments, picking at their cereal.

“I’m thinking of something where I work weekends,” said Megan.

“They arrived around midnight?”


Captain Harrison leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers. The rest of the Operations Council waited for her to comment. “Why wasn’t I informed immediately?”

Gerhardt, who had been in command at the time, looked a little uncomfortable. “You said you didn’t want to be disturbed, except for emergencies, and, well, you haven’t been getting that much sleep lately, so I figured we’d wait until something happened.”

“The arrival of eight Zakavian warships doesn’t qualify as ‘something happening’?”

“Some of those are support craft, actually, but they’re all within the sixth planet’s gravity well—too close to make an immediate jump here. They haven’t made any hostile moves or tried to contact us. It’s not really clear what they’re doing there. We’re on defensive alert and we’re watching them very closely. As soon as they do anything hostile, we’ll go to battle stations.”

Harrison nodded, neither approving nor disapproving her subordinate’s actions. “Have you informed the Aroruans?”

“Informally. We, ah, talked them out of an immediate attack and suggested they hold off on threatening righteous justice until we had a clearer idea of what’s going on.”

“Good. After the meeting, we’ll contact the fleet and ask what they’re doing.” She looked around the table, silently checking for further comments.

“Would it be useful to send over a stealthed ship to get a closer look at things?” asked Louis Jackson, head of security.

Harrison considered that. “Possibly. Do you think anyone would be willing?”

“Actually,” said Jackson, “I already have volunteers.”

“We’re doing what?”

Across the room, a few members of Gold Squadron glanced up to check the source of the disturbance. Seeing nothing dangerous, they returned to watching Top Gun for the two hundredth time.

At their booth, Green Squadron waited for their leader to explain matters further. Rick Hydrospok’s big, honest face held the look of quiet disappointment it always did when his squadron resisted his important causes. “We’re going to take the Futility out to the sixth planet and observe the Zakavian task force. They say they’ve come with to negotiate the release of the soldiers the Aroruans captured, but the Captain wants us to go take a closer look and make sure nothing underhanded is going on.”

As usual, George Daniels seemed least impressed by his leader’s explanation. “How did she come to pick us, of all the possible choices?”

“I suggested the idea and said we could do it. It’ll be a great feather in our caps, I think.”

“You volunteered us for a spy mission?”

Hydrospok shook his head. “It’s not a spy mission. We’re simply flying near them in secret with a stealthed ship in order to see if they have any secrets we should know. There’s no spying.

“Now, we’ll need— Could you stop hitting your head on the table like that? You’ll injure something.”

The Anonymous, as the reader may already be aware, was a large ship with cubic kilometers of space available for residences, warehouses, factories, and offices. Even with its large population, most of the ship was unused. Thus it occasionally annoyed Tom that he had to share an office with Beth Gaelen. It wasn’t that he disliked Beth’s company or didn’t appreciate the energy saved by not needing to ventilate or heat those unused regions. He just figured that if there was enough space for the Captain to have an office bigger than his house on Earth had been, there should have been enough space to give the technical staff individual offices.

He didn’t complain much. If physical plant started rethinking their office-assignment policies, they might decide to stick everyone in cubicles—or worse.

Beth wasn’t there when he arrived, but the half-eaten bagel by her workstation suggested she had been there earlier that morning. That and the note on his monitor asking him to stop by maintenance bay G4. Tom cleared the note, checked that there were no urgent messages for him, and started on his way.

The trip was long and uneventful, as usual. Bay G4 was located in the Gödel Docking Complex near the bottom of the Anonymous, and pretty much the only people who needed to be down there were the fighter pilots, their support staff, and researchers examining the ancient craft stored in the docks. This made travel something of a challenge, as the volume of traffic wasn’t enough to justify regularly scheduled V-trains, but Beth had warned the operators that he was coming.

It was kind of suspicious, really. He couldn’t imagine anything so important that she would hold a V-train for him. Or, rather, that she would actually think that far ahead and then remember to follow through.

The arrival at bay G4 was something of a disappointment, really. The trip down had given Tom time to speculate, and he had settled on the discovery of a new class of starcraft as the most likely cause for his urgent summons. Instead, he found the Futility, which had not only been discovered already, but had actually been used on an excursion recently. (In fact, Megan had stowed away on it, leading to some irritating new security measures intended to keep her out in the future.) The ship had been painted black, and one of the engine assemblies was undergoing maintenance, but there didn’t seem to be anything that needed the attention of the applied archeology team.

“Hello?” called Tom. G4 was large, noisy, and seemingly empty, but he figured it was worth a shot.

“Over here!” yelled Beth from behind the disassembled engine assembly.

Tom worked his way over, careful not to step on any paint-spattered rags or random equipment piles. He found his office-mate kneeling near the engine’s base, wearing a grease-smeared maintenance coverall, and holding a nine-function space wrench (its shape suggested a tenth function, but those jokes had been old for years). Tom decided to get right to the point. “What’s going on?”

“The Captain wants us to run a secret observational mission, so we’re trying to make the Futility stealthy. We figured out how to trade some efficiency for lower visibility, but we’re operating under a tight schedule so we can’t do everything as cleanly as we’d like.” She adjusted a few doo-dads with her tool while Tom wished he had spent more time studying the engines used on the ship so he might have some idea of what she was doing.

For that matter… “Why are you doing the adjustments? You’re a senior scientist in applied archeology, not a maintenance guy.”

“It’s okay,” Beth assured him, brushing away a stray lock of hair—and in the process smearing grease on her forehead. “Don’s here to make sure I don’t screw up.”

Sure enough, Gödel Docking Complex’s chief mechanic was watching her from a chair near the wall. His expression was hard to read, but he might have been amused.

“Okay,” said Tom. “You know the engines a lot better than I do.”

“That’s what I said, but with the risk and all it’s ‘out of the question’. You were sort of the compromise pick.” She looked up, concerned. “Not that you’re expendable, or anything. It’s just— You know how the boss is.”

Tom looked at her, nonplussed.

“I forgot the part where I tell you what’s going on, didn’t I?”

“Possibly. Or I could be dreaming all this.” Even the oblique suggestion that he was going to do something their boss had deemed too risky for her to do was enough to start his palms sweating. Tom was not a friend of risk.

Beth set to work reassembling the disassembled engine assembly and explained the facts thus far. A Zakavian task force had appeared in-system a few planets out and declared itself to be a diplomatic envoy. Since there was a chance the Zakavians might try something sneaky while the diplomat spoke with the Anonymous and Aroruan representatives, Captain Harrison wanted something nearby to keep an eye on them. That something was to be the Futility, piloted by Green Squadron and retrofitted to be not easily seen.

He, for some reason, had been selected to accompany Green Squadron during their secret, possibly very dangerous and denied after the fact mission.

This news did not fill him with joy.

Tom had met Green Squadron before. Beth’s brother Roy had been a member and Tom’s sister Jen had been in Blue Squadron, so he had been present at some parties and other informal events. With Roy gone, they were missing a fifth of their manpower, but since the fighter squadrons didn’t actually do that much it wasn’t a problem.

Rick Hydrospok met them at the pilots lounge door. “Ah, Tom, Beth, you’re, ah, here. Welcome.”

“Hi, Rick,” said Beth sunnily. She and Tom were lead in and reintroduced to the rest of Green Squadron, who were gathered in a briefing room playing Scrabble. They were pretty much as Tom remembered them. George Daniels was a little shorter than him, with a sly look for any occasion. Sally Winters was trustworthy and loyal, but would have made a terrible Boy Scout on account of being female. Stan Losar was large and quiet, which everyone agreed was probably for the best.

They would be working as a team on the Futility, which is to say that Green Squadron would be doing most of the actual work, while Tom was there in case something went wrong with Beth’s modifications. (He wasn’t quite sure how to thank her for recommending him for that task.) Tom predicted some cultural friction. The pilots and the research staff were both casual, but they were informal in different ways. He wasn’t sure, for example, whether to address them by their first names, like he did, or last names, like they did. Beth addressed everyone by their first names, but this was accepted as one of her charming quirks.

Also, being around armed people, even theoretically friendly ones, made Tom uncomfortable. That was one of his quirks.

There wasn’t a lot of small talk going on. Tom didn’t speak much for fear of sounding foolish, George seemed annoyed by something, and Stan never spoke much anyway. That left Sally, Rick, and Beth, all of whom were expressing their confidence in the mission and agreeing that it was good for Green Squadron to be involved.

“Granted,” said Rick, “there won’t be much glory for us. That’s always the case with, er, secret observational work: great risk for small personal rewards. But the knowledge that you’ve helped your nation is all the true warrior seeks.”

“Oh?” That was Marshall Stanford, leader of Black Squadron, who happened to be passing by at the moment. “That’s funny, in a way our mission is the inverse of yours.”

“How so?”

“We’re escorting the Zakavian diplomat’s ship. It’s highly visible, yet extremely easy, whereas your job requires hard work and long hours and most people will never know you did it.”

“Unless we screw up,” said George. “That’d be pretty visible, I think.”

It always surprised Tom to learn how long things took to set up. The Zakavian envoy didn’t actually reach the Anonymous until more than a day after the task force’s arrival. Granted, some ship preparation and transit time was expected, but the Zakavians had just accepted that the Anonymous needed additional time for no readily apparent reason. (The Futility needed to be launched well in advance of the envoy’s fighter escort or else the Zakavians would notice something going on, but of course they couldn’t tell them that.)

Even after Beth and Don put the Futility back together, there were a few hours of pre-flight tests. Tom had to get fitted for a flight suit. George needed to go back and make sure the oven was turned off. But eventually, they were able to launch and head towards the sixth planet.

The transitions to and from overly-hyped space were rougher than usual. The changes Beth made to improve stealth also resulted in considerable rattling onboard the ship, but of course the noise didn’t carry through space. They timed their reappearance in realspace to match the envoy’s departure from the fleet. That, combined with appearing on the other side of the gas giant, was hopefully enough to mask their arrival.

They weren’t immediately attacked, which was a nice stress reducer. In fact, that part of the plan had succeeded completely, to the delight of everyone—even George, who had bet against it.

They hid in the ring system, figuring that the Zakavians might not notice a matte-black object moving under its own power if it were surrounded by millions of brightly-colored, unpowered chunks of rock and ice. Once they caught up with the fleet, they shut down the engines and orbited, their passive sensors waiting for something interesting to observe.

There wasn’t a whole lot of it.

Most of the communications they picked up from the task force were encrypted, except the entertainment broadcasts. It took Tom a few hours to work out the encoding, but eventually they could get an acceptable picture. Unfortunately, George latched onto one channel showing back-to-back episodes of some incomprehensible soap opera about a game show, or game show that was a soap opera. Tom began wishing he had loaded more books into the ship’s library.

“It may seem boring,” Rick assured them, “but the work we do here is no less important just because there’s nothing to observe.”

“Is there a difference between seeming boring and being boring?” asked George.

If nothing else, the resulting debate helped pass a few hours.

Every so often, the non-spies signalled the Anonymous that nothing of interest had happened. To minimize the chances of detection, they communicated via extremely brief pulses from their signalling laser. The Zakavians couldn’t detect the beam unless they were directly between the two ships, and Green Squadron made sure they weren’t before signalling. It was if they weren’t there.

In theory, at least.

Subcommander Tsfar approached Captain Mellikt on the bridge and whispered: “The signals intelligence group think they’ve found something of interest.”

The task force commander raised an eyebrow. “I should hope it’s of interest. Otherwise you’re wasting my time.”

Despite the skepticism, the two adjourned to the nearby briefing room to discuss the potentially interesting thing.

“My people have been watching the Anonymous very closely since we got here,” Tsfar explained. “We’ve noticed a very faint, periodic glow around one of the sensor arrays. We guessed it might be a signal laser being sent from far enough away that the beam had spread. Based on the angle of reflection and the amount of diffraction, we started observing the local ring system.” He brought up a highly-magnified, false-color view of the rings on the monitor. “It’s hard to see from here, but this line is most likely the same signal passing through a dust cloud in the rings. Following that line backward, we found this.” Another, more magnified picture showing a black, ship-like speck among the rock and ice particles. “This appears to be the source.”

“I take it that black speck is a spy ship?”

“It seems likely. The signals themselves are very short and don’t seem to contain any complex information, so it could just be a beacon.”

“This is interesting.” The Captain drew a lace-edged handkerchief from his breast pocket and held it up to his nose. “If they were spies, could they have learned anything?”

“We don’t think so. There isn’t much for them to see.”

Mellikt inhaled through the handkerchief. “I’ll order a quiet investigation, but I can’t imagine they’re too dangerous. For one thing, a smart man planning to hide between us and the planet would have painted his ship orange.”

“Patrol coming.”


Stan smirked. “Relax, Kadar. We’re a grain of sand at the shore; they’ll never see us.”

“They just happened to start patrolling after four days of nothing?” To think he had come to the cockpit because he thought it would be less stressful than staying in the main cabin with George and the endless Game of Chance marathon.

Rick stuck his head into the cockpit. “Did I hear a cry of alarm?”

“Zakavian patrol,” explained Stan. “Kadar here is having a cow.”

“Will they come this way?”

“I’m not sure,” replied Stan, pressing the tips of two fingers against his forehead. “Lemme contact the spirit world….”

Rick blinked. “Right, ah, you do that.” He quickly turned to Tom. “I wouldn’t worry too much. There’s no reason to assume they saw us.”

“Why else would they be sending a patrol?” asked Tom.

“If their entertainment programming is any indication, I think their soldiers would jump at an excuse to get away for a while.” Seeing Tom’s unconvinced expression, Rick added, “Don’t worry; we’ve prepared for this possibility.”

The pair of Zakavian fighters had been given a specific flight plan, but hadn’t been told to look for anything specific. Speculation during the flight lead them to conclude that they were looking for a spy ship, but the Captain wanted them to act naturally so the spies wouldn’t know they had been seen.

They quickly learned that trying to act naturally on purpose is surprisingly difficult.

“You think we’re fooling anyone?”

“What am I, an acting coach?”

Since patrols were traditionally a great excuse for stupidly dangerous stunt flying, they decided that, in the interests of acting naturally, they would have some fun with the ring particles. Besides, zooming around chunks of rock and ice was valuable training. And the weapons needed testing, didn’t they? You didn’t want to suddenly find out that your cannon were misaligned during battle.

“Okay, I think that’s enough.”

“Wait, I think I can blow that one in half.”

She could, as it happened, and they both agreed that the explosion was quite satisfying. They followed one of the fragments that happened to be going in their general direction, then sped up to rejoin their flight plan.

“You think that’s it?”

“It certainly looks like a spy ship, but what’s that written on the side?”

“It looks like… ‘Unmanned Orbital Research Probe’.”

They slowed down a bit, to get a better look before they passed it.

“‘If found, please notify Beth Gaelen, c/o The Anonymous.’”

“Sounds legit.”

“A research probe?”

“Kind of a let-down.”

“I’ll say. We’re missing Game of Chance for this?”

Tom watched the fighters leave with a physical sense of relief. He had almost forgotten to breathe when they had slowed down to take a closer look. Watching them leave without a confrontation was the sweetest feeling he could remember. “I can’t believe that worked.”

“Well,” said Stan, “they might be acting casual so we won’t know they know we’re here.”

“You enjoy destroying the happiness of others, don’t you.”

Stan shrugged and returned his attention to the ship’s status displays. “That’s odd.”

Tom refused to panic again. “What?”

“This blinking light here. It means we’re on a collision course with something, but we haven’t moved since we got here so I can’t see why it’s suddenly a problem. Also, it’s coming up pretty fast, which is weird since we’re in the same general orbit as everything else.”

It was becoming clearer why people preferred Stan to be seen but not heard. “I guess we should tell Rick.”

“Ah, the insights of the scientific mind.”

“Shut up.”

One quick conference later, it was decided that a research probe might plausibly change course to avoid crashing into something. Actually plotting the course change was slightly more complex, since they wanted to reach another stable orbit without crashing into anything else, but ring systems are less densely populated than they appear from a distance, and the navigation system had already mapped the orbits of the nearby debris.

The problem came when they tried to execute the course change and the engines failed to come on-line.

“Okay,” said George, “no engines. That’s bad, right? We’re gonna die, right?”

“Don’t panic,” said Rick firmly. “The true warrior faces adversity with calm and composure.”

“I’m a poseur, we’re all about panic!”

“Isn’t that why Tom is here?” asked Sally. “In case something went wrong with the engines?”

“She’s right!” said George. “I wasn’t alarmed for an instant, knowing that he was here!” He started to laugh hysterically, but stopped himself with a cough and proceeded to look very calm, indeed.

“I’ll do what I can,” promised Tom. The fear of oncoming death, he was learning, is even worse when combined with the pressure of being the person expected to save the day. “We’ll need to go back to the engine access.”

Rick nodded. “Okay. You and Sally check the engines, the rest of us will keep an eye on things.”

The Futility had been designed in the general style of a naval ship rather than a rocket ship, so the engines were in the back. This made acceleration confusing, with the rear walls suddenly becoming “down”, but it did reduce neck strain for people in the cockpit. Tom was hoping that the problem was something he could solve without going outside. He told himself that he didn’t want to blow their cover, because that sounded better than being afraid of the safety line breaking and leaving him tumbling through the endless reaches of space.

Spacewalks made his teeth ache.

“This looks like the main hatch here.” It was locked, naturally, and Tom wasted several seconds looking for an automatic control before he realized there wasn’t one. “How long do we have?”

“An hour or so.”

The manual control comprised a lever that had to be pulled through ninety degrees to unlock the hatch. It needed to be pulled sideways, rather than away from the wall, so he couldn’t easily brace himself. Also, as he discovered when he tried pulling it, it was really tightly closed.

“Let me help,” said Sally, but even their combined efforts couldn’t move it.

Hearing the grunts, Stan floated over and pushed his smaller crewmates aside. “Let me handle this.” He grabbed the lever with both hands and pulled, his muscles visibly straining beneath his skin.

“Maybe if we all pulled together?” suggested Sally.

Stan almost looked irritated for a second, but he just rolled his shoulders and shook out his hands. “Okay, this time for real.” He braced himself and pulled again, harder.

“I think it moved a little,” said Tom.

“Quiet.” Stan looked at the lever assembly more closely. “There isn’t a lock on this thing, is there?”

“It is the lock.”

“Right. Let’s all try then.”

This time, the lever moved. Unfortunately, it moved by breaking off entirely.

“Such craftsmanship,” spat Stan. He hurled the broken metal post against the wall, where it bounced off and sailed forward towards the main cabin.

“Okay,” said Sally, watching the broken post sail off, “is there another way to do this?”

Tom was searching his memory for answers for that very question, but it had been a long time since he had thought about this class of ships. Also, he was thinking about how getting the hatch open was probably the easiest step involved in fixing the engines, and how time was running out because a gigantic chunk of rock was hurtling towards them and they couldn’t call for help because there was an enemy fleet sitting right next to them….

“Are you okay?”

“Yes! Er, that is, there should be another hatch over there. The builders were big into symmetry.”

“Great. But this time let’s try not to break the door.”

Stan smacked his forehead. “Now she says it.”

The alternate hatch was in the other corridor, thankfully, and Tom repeated his earlier search for an automatic control, with similar results. “No harm in looking, right? Except for that rock hurtling towards us and getting closer every second….” He grabbed the lever, braced himself, and pulled with all his might, which was enough to unlock the hatch and send him spinning into the wall.

Sally grabbed his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Why do you keep asking me that?”

“Because you keep— Never mind, let’s get started.”

They opened the hatch and peered into the maintenance crawlspace. There were perhaps fifty notes stuck to various parts of the equipment, all labeled don’t touch —beth.

“That’s weird,” said Sally.

“I’ll say; the handwriting’s the same on all of them. She must have them printed up in bulk.”

“I meant, how are you supposed to fix anything if you can’t touch it?”


“I’m serious.”

“Sorry. The threat of impending death is making me giddy.”

At the very least, the designers of the crawlspace could have lit it, Tom grumbled to himself. He had a few flashlights, though, so he could see the important bits. Unfortunately, with Beth’s modifications to the engine assembly, he wasn’t sure what it was supposed to look like when it wasn’t broken. He couldn’t see anything obvious, like broken pipes, but that was probably a good thing, as it reduced the chances of a sudden explosion.

After a few moments of fiddling, he was able to link his datapad to the status displays, and was alarmed by the number of high-level metrics reading “inconclusive”. Beth hadn’t had time to modify the control software, it seemed. Or else she derived some obscure pleasure from throwing obstacles in his path.

“Have you found anything?” asked Sally from just outside.

“Not yet.”

“Hydrospok thinks it might be something with the fuel regulator.”

“Thanks, but I’ll make my own diagnosis here.”

“Don’t forget we’re losing time.”

Tom gritted his teeth. “Wouldn’t want to forget that, no.”

“I think we’re ready!”

“Great!” said Sally, helping him back into the corridor. “What did you end up doing?”

Tom coughed. “I, er, overrode the fuel regulator.” He hurried on before she could comment. “The readouts are all positive, but I haven’t actually confirmed that this will work….”

“Look at it this way,” said George. “If you’re wrong, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.”

“Everything’s ready,” announced Rick from the cockpit.

“How much time do we have?” asked Tom. “I’m worried about how some of the other elements are going to hold up if we move too—”

The engines activated, and suddenly everyone was in motion relative to the ship. Perhaps as much as three seconds later, the engines cut out, accompanied by a short warning klaxon.

“—quickly. Crap.”

“Hey, you’re back from your spy mission!”

Tom tried to indicate that Megan should go away and leave him alone while he recovered, but she chose to interpret his inarticulate groan as a “yes”. After hanging up her jacket, she sat down on a chair near the sofa he was sprawled on.

“Rumor is, you had some mechanical problems.”

Tom groaned again. It was strange; he hadn’t been doing anything particularly tiring, and it wasn’t as though the last few days on the Futility had been especially uncomfortable, but he felt exhausted. He had only gotten as far as the parlor before collapsing a few hours ago.

“They had to send Red Squadron out to tow your ship home after the Zakavians left, or something.”

He made a non-commital noise. It wasn’t clear to him how much of the mission was supposed to be a secret, and he knew his sister well enough to assume she would ferret out the truth eventually—if she hadn’t already.

Beth had told him to look on the trip as extra paid vacation, and that was accurate in the sense that he hadn’t needed to come into the office and work, but he couldn’t remember the last vacation which had left him so wrung out. At least it was over now; he would return to studying the artifacts left by the ship’s creators, and Green Squadron would return to whatever it was they did when the Anonymous was at peace. In the past, he had agreed with those who argued that the fighter squadrons didn’t actually do that much, but now he realized that they concentrated their stress into brief moments of absolute terror, rather than spreading it evenly through their lives. It sounded like an easy life, but as far as he was concerned, they could have it. He, on the other hand, was looking forward to going back to the office in a few days.

Megan handed him an envelope. “This came for you.”

Strange. Tom tried to guess who might be sending him actual physical mail. He tore open the envelope and glanced at the letter.

“What’s it say?”

Tom tried to tell her, but his mouth was dry. “They, uh, Louis Jackson says he was very impressed by my performance during the observational mission…”

“That’s good.”

“…so he’s offering me a position as a reserve member of Green Squadron.”

“Hey, cool! You’d get to do your job and be a fighter pilot!”

Tom stared at the paper, unseeing.

“First Jen, now you. You think I could be a pilot? When I’m older, I mean. It’s not like they get to pilot giant robots, but there’s still…”

What really disturbed him was that he didn’t immediately refuse. He absolutely didn’t want to accept, so why couldn’t he refuse?

“Tom? You okay there?”

SFSTORY. 1987–2002