Dondo Kriz sat in mess hall aboard water shuttle TB-7, quietly eating his dinner along with his crewmen. Kriz rarely enjoyed mixing with the other hydras, but he felt it necessary to share at least one of the meal sessions with them per week. He had done breakfast two days ago, and now he ate with the dinner crowd. The different shifts enabled him to show his face to varying crewmembers without having to spend too much time around any one particular group. The appearance of effort was the key to maintaining a sense of respect and order. Even on days when the Captain was as horribly distracted as he was today.
Dondo was dragged from his daze by comments coming from two tables over. The conversation had surrounded the ship's unusual recent guest. What had caught his attention the most was Ensign Hayden Pauling. He had started talking about his brief encounter with the interloper, providing a jump suit to the mercenary Kro.
"I know it's been two months," Pauling was saying, "but that guy just haunts my dreams, man. I mean, still. Have you ever met anyone so... creepy?"
Three of the other crewmen at the table agreed that the man was, indeed, somewhat off-putting. One suppressed a shudder while another nervously shoveled food into his mouth.
"Yeah, I'll say it," the third man piped up, "I'm damned glad he's gone."
"No kidding," Pauling agreed while the others around him nodded furiously. "I still keep on wondering who he was, though, you know? It was so random. Kind of hope that we won't see him again, but who knows, right?"Kriz stood up from his meal and approached the table where the Ensign and his fellows continued talking about the mysterious crewman. The Captain hovers over them until the nervous eater elbows Pauling sharply. Silence drops across the group as they all look up to see their commanding officer looming like a thundercloud. His face was an angry mask, a vein pulsing on the left side of his neck. Not a one of them could figure out what might have caused this furious intrusion, but they were all taken aback at the sight.
It had been two months since Kro's short-lived stay aboard the TB-7. The Water Captain had given his men explicit directions on that time. It appeared, he had realized with frustration, that the Hydras had forgotten their orders. Holding himself together as best as possible, he began to reprimand them, trying as best he could to keep some sense of self-control.
"What's the meaning of this conversation? You've been specifically told to forget all trace of that man. He was never here. He never existed. Are you too stupid to follow directions that are so simple?""With all do respect, isn't that a bit of a crazy order sir?""Yeah, we do our best to listen to you, Captain, but that one is kind of nuts," Pauling retorts, balking at the command. His youthful exuberance continued its habit of causing him trouble. "I mean, I can't un-remember someone like that! That guy was pretty distinct. Guys like that, they leave a mark on your mind. You don't forget, ever."
"You damned well better learn to forget, Ensign," Kriz told him, "or you can learn all about the most miserable jobs in the corps. You'll have no time to talk, or dream, when I bust you back to central command, stuck washing the inside of the waste water barrels. I can boot you off this tub for any reason that I want. Don't you forget it."
The Ensign was stunned to silence, but his jaw clenches tightly, fists half formed. Dondo didn't even notice the gesture.
"That goes for the rest of you, too," he said, looking at each of the men in turn. He glared and pointed at each of the crewmen. "You can all scrub toilet tanks for the rest of your lives."
Water Captain Kriz strode along the deck, inspecting the ranks before a delivery at Demeter's Clutch. He gave his usual pre-delivery speech, differing only slightly in the details for Demeter. It wasn't he first time that they had been to this particular orbital prison, and it wasn't even the first time that they had heard this particular variation of the speech. That added a bit of surprise when someone actually raised his hand after the obligatory ending: "Are there any question?"It was Ensign Pauling who had a question. Dondo clenched his teeth but managed to honor his request. Pauling asked if there would be any special instructions on this particular clutch's delivery. The Captain fired an angry, ugly glance, at the young man, but ignored the question and moved on. His ire was up now, unfortunately, and he needed to get them out the door as quickly as possible. If he could just hold it together for a little bit longer, he'd be back into his office shortly, isolated from the peons, and swathed in comfort.
In fact, maybe he would have his XO finish up here.
"Sir," another one of his men spoke up, "will there be any unscheduled stops after the delivery?"Kriz came to a halt. His blood was starting to boil, but he wouldn't allow Pauling's foolishness to carry over. This man wasn't a part of the group at dinner the other night. This wasn't a pot shot, just an honest question.
"Well, sir," the man explained, "I was on duty when the TB-7 made that unexpected stop off, entering the Martian atmosphere. We don't generally associate with natural bodies, but it was worth asking. I wasn't designated for Clutch-side work last time, so I'm not sure what impacted us that time."
"I have repeatedly told you people to let that go," Kriz hissed. He tried envisioning the plush synthetic leather of his chair, so close to the real thing, lovingly embracing his body. Nothing seemed to calm him, though. "It was a one time maneuver," he added, slightly less heat to his voice, but by no means calm. "No more questions about stops outside of the Clutches and Space Stations. Everything is going to be by the book from here on out."
That was it. He was heading to his office to decompress. The stress had mounted over the last two months and he was starting to crack. Too many close calls, poorly phrased statements and questions from Command that sounded as if they knew. They didn't. No one knew about the deal with Kro. Still, he needed a break. He turned to his First Officer, all set to turn the rest of the briefing session over to the ship's second in command. Too late, he realized, as the voice spoke out to push him over the edge.
"So, what about the stranger with the weird eyes from two months ago?" Ensign Pauling asked, a broad smile spread across his face. His fellows from dinner could barely suppress their own smiles. Little did they know that the remark had been the final straw. The Hydra's Captain knew that he was about to make a mistake, but he simply couldn't help it. He had run far too lax of a ship in the last several months and it was catching up to him. Such a blatant disregard of orders was unforgivable for a man with such a large ego. Dondo charged over and roughly grabbed the offending Ensign by his collar. The other men's smiles melted away.
"This boy has been stripped of his rank for failure to follow orders," Kriz screams.In a fit of rage, Dondo threw the surprised Pauling to the ground. When the young man tried to get up, the Captain kicked the Ensign's left arm out from under him. This maneuver earned gasps from the assembled Hydras. Kriz looked up at them all, a murderous hatred burning in his eyes.
"Did anyone else want to make an issue about our unfortunate stow away?"He was met with silence and a few heads shaking.
"Of course not," he nodded, still angry, "because it never happened. I want Pauling hauled to the brig," he told his XO. "Anyone else willing to join him may do so by saying something stupid any time between now and the end of their tour on my boat. All other crewmen," he continued, no longer willing to acknowledge anyone else in the cavernous room, "are to head off on their specific assignments. I want everything done as quickly as possible. We've got deliveries to make, and I haven't seen anyone around here challenge for time records in the last three deliveries. They're all getting soft."
Dondo Kriz turned and marched off the deck, up to his office. The First Officer moved swiftly to have the former ensign dragged away and urged the other crewmen off to their assignments. Not another word was mentioned about their mysterious visitor for the rest of that day.
Dondo Kriz, Water Captain of the TB-7 sat with his First Officer in the Captain's office. The XO had managed the delivery itself, Kriz hiding away here after the events. Over in the mess hall, the Hydras were celebrating one of their own who had broken one of the various speed records for water transport troops. The two men were in a far more serious state of mind here, however; Dondo's second had never been one for revelry anyway.
"I must admit my curiosity, Captain. What is it that you intend to do with the Ensign?"
"Former Ensign," Dondo corrected.
"Yes, of course, former Ensign," he allowed the correction with his customary grace and dignity. "Still, my question stands. What is it that we shall do with this disobedient little man? He is young and arrogant, which we could undoubtedly whip out of him over time, but do we have that time? We must clearly do something. He has no ability to keep his mouth shut."
"I know we need to do something with him. He obviously can't go back into the duty roster. Not after all of that. I'm just uncertain what the best course of action really is. If I send him back to Central Command, no matter how much I'd love to watch him cleaning the waste water tanks, that'll backfire on us. He'll obviously open his mouth, they'll investigate, and the rest of the crew clearly can't be trusted either."
"Are you open to suggestions, sir?""Of course," the Captain nodded absently. "You know I'm always ears for your recommendations."
"Thank you sir, very well. We could make to drop him on Mars, in the middle of the desert, the way that we did for his beloved mercenary. Of course, without the preparation and territorial foreknowlege for the drop, he would be far less likely to survive, I should think. If we were to hold an actual trial, of course, it might silence his supporters. With myself as prosecutor, and you as judge, his advocate would matter little. Fair or not, they would see him convicted by the rightful governing body of this shuttle, and it might stem their talk a little. Of course," the man let slip a tiny smile, "shoving him out the airlock always achieves the most simple and efficient results."
"Well, that might be fun," Dondo laughed heartily, breaking his melancholy. "I'd love to see his baby blue eyes bulge and explode! The fear and pain in that pretty little face of his!"The laughter escalated into something rather manic. His First Officer waited while the Captain struggled to contain his rather hysterical laughter. After several minutes he reigned himself in, taking large, gasping breaths. The other man just regarded Dondo impassively, waiting as if he might for bread to toast.
"Yes, so," Kriz started again, struggling mightily, "the air lock solution is really just a pipe dream." He snorted one last vestige of laughter, and then took a deep breath, slowly exhaling. "The trial is an interesting idea. Definitely has its merits, but trials require paperwork. Even if we tried to get around it, one of those idiots would find a way to send in documents. That brings us back to the issue of investigations if Central Command caught word of this. I'm not sure about you, but I've got no interest in cleaning out the waste water tanks."
"No," his XO agreed, "I certainly have no interest in that. That leaves us with one last possibility, then. Perhaps an executive order based on his insubordination? It is far from a death sentence, should he reach civilization in time."
"Yeah, we could give him a day's worth of provisions, leave him in his uniform, and just make sure we drop him at least two day's walk from the nearest city. It would definitely scare the hell out of the others. Probably keep them quiet."
"So, then," the First Officer nodded, standing, "an executive order for abandonment on Mars. Shall I go make plans for the actual delivery time and coordinates?""Yeah," Dondo waved a hand, leaning back in his chair, "go take care of that. I'll be here looking over the reports from today's delivery. Good work running that, by the way. Maybe you'll get a ship of your own of of these days, soon."
"Yes," the First Officer agreed on his way out the door, "maybe."Hayden Pauling sat in the cramped cell thinking. He was buried down at the thinnest point of the ship, in the very bowels between the two enormous water cisterns. He was tired and hungry, having lain on the cold floor for nearly a day. Mostly forgotten, he hadn't had so much of a sniff of food or water. It mattered little however; the young man's mind was made up.
Some way or another, Hayden would get out of that cell. When he did, he needed to find that black eyed stranger. With proof, he knew, vengeance would come.