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Days Until Home – Chapter 12

days-until-home-A

Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

“What the fuck have you all done to my ship?”

“Skipper, it’s good to see that you’re still with us,” Jeremy responded as a silence fell on the rest of the survivors in the Kerwood’s escape trunk. Most of them looked as if they’d gotten caught trying to steal one more cookie from the cookie jar. Jeremy turned away from the fuming captain. Jessica and Old Vicky were tethered to the hatch bulkhead with Siebert clucking over them like a mother hen.

Adelaide frowned at a flashing indicator light on the jury-rigged panel. She pushed off the bulkhead, ignoring Captain Hayes in his silent raging impotence. “ChEng,” she called out, “come look at this.”

Jeremy floated to Adelaide as she worked the controls. It amazed him that she seemed to have more access to the system than she was supposed to. He decided that, in her own words, he should just “stow that shit.”

“Someone is popping hatches and moving atmosphere around this boat,” Adelaide commented.

“Look at the ship’s attitude,” Jeremy countered.

“Who the hell…”

“Report!” Captain Hayes barked next to the duo.

Adelaide rolled her eyes and looked to Jeremy.

“Well…” Jeremy began. “Miss Bähr will explain…”

“Someone is opening and closing outer hatches and allowing decompression to slow the ship’s roll.” Adelaide shook her head. “Each time the two remaining atmospheric thrusters are pointed at Egeria-13, they are firing.” She frowned. “Short bursts,” she closed her eyes and appeared to do some calculations in her head. “They’re pushing us into a trajectory back to Earth orbit, but…”

“But what?” inquired Jeremy.

“Well, the trajectory has us shooting well to the side of the Earth. We’ll miss it.”

Captain Hayes steel eyes didn’t betray what he was thinking. “Gauge,” he declared.

The two engineers stared at him.

“That’s why Gauge is my navigator, and you two are grease monkeys.”

Adelaide’s eyes narrowed, but she remained silent.

Captain Hayes brushed an invisible imperfection from the front of his suit. He narrowed his eyes and looked at the two senior engineers as if they were children answering classroom questions – cute, but utterly worthless. “Gauge is pointing us to where the Earth is going to be, not where it is right now.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 11

days-until-home-A

Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

After securing Femke to the bed in order to treat her wounds, Gauge had checked the only working computer panel in the room. He tried to see if there was any way to access the lower levels, where the miners and engineers had been strapped in for the trip.

The explosion had come from that area, and an itch in the back of his mind wanted him to believe that he, Winchester, Marisol, and Femke were the last survivors on the ship.

Winchester Hayes was concerned for his engineers, knowing that they were his only hope in getting his girl back on track. If the Kerwood was damaged beyond repair, the engineers could do what was needed to give them a chance to survive a wait for rescue. They could also get the atmosphere back online so that they could comfortably work on their current situation.

He hated being in the dark. They were floating blind. The black was poking holes in his girl. Starry fingers reaching in to suck the life from anyone that was vulnerable. He had gone from his standard sarcastic but cavalier attitude, to one of intense brooding. Gauge was beginning to wonder if he was truly okay and didn’t believe him when he asked and was given the standard, “I’m good … just thinking.”

They were both leaning against opposite walls of the medical bay and Winchester braced himself between the bed—that Femke was on—and the adjacent wall. Marisol Vega was still asleep, herself, and had not even so much as stirred since Gauge set her nose and she had passed out a few minutes after.

Winchester looked up at Gauge for the first time in an hour and the big man met his gaze with cold blue eyes, embedded inside a mask of stoic resolution.

“You know what one of my biggest fears is, Gauge?” Winchester asked.

“I don’t know, Cap,” Gauge replied. “Is it what we’re going through right now? All of our crew dead. The survivors a mystery to you. And, we here, stuck, helpless, and running out of options?”

“Not this, but something similar. Back on Earth we used to do a lot of hiking. Me and the family that is. Man, we use to travel to parks and just, you know, walk. Well at least the parks that still had trees. Like in Indiana, when we used to go to see my parents. Cole loved our hikes. He thought that trees were the most magical things in the world. But I imagine for a kid growing up in our world that makes sense. Can you imagine? Something as natural and part of the Earth like a tree, an alien thing to my human child? Seeing how he reacted to nature, it made me realize just how fucked up we are, you know?”

“What do you mean, Cap?”

Pah, I’m rambling. Feels like I’m just wasting precious oxygen,” Winchester said under his breath.

“I wouldn’t worry about it, Captain. If there’s anything we’re set on, it’s oxygen. Now you were saying that the world is, erm, fucked. What’s the reasoning?”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 10

days-until-home-A

Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

Viktor drifted through his cube-shaped bubble of atmosphere a few millimeters per second. Such slight movement was practically still relative to the walls, but the airlock was small enough that within seconds he neared the ceiling. He reached up with his good hand and let his fingertips absorb the inertia. The result was that he began floating back the way he’d come, a fraction of a degree slower than before.

There was a comfort, there. Whatever disaster had befallen the Kerwood, the laws of physics still applied. A reminder that they were still in the world of the living.

He couldn’t muster the energy to do more than float back and forth. He couldn’t muster the energy to care. Once the adrenaline from the action had worn off extreme exhaustion had taken its place, like he’d worked a double shift in high-G with no calorie break. Simply floating there was a soft, calm luxury.

When Viktor was a child, his father had taken the family on a trip to the Caspian Sea. The people in the markets there were exotic compared to the stoic Russians: they called their wares in high-pitched, almost singsong voices, pointing out strangers and gesturing wildly to attract attention. One rotund man sold blown-glass ornaments, small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, intricate and precisely crafted. Viktor had never seen glass with colors swirled inside, greens and reds mixing and dancing like water. He’d begged his father to buy him a glass figurine of a ballerina, leg extended and dress blown out in a swirl. Of course they could not afford it, and Viktor’s father had been angry at the request.

The man selling the ornaments had smiled sadly at Viktor. What he remembered most about the man was that he wore a white turban around his head, tightly wrapped like a cloth beehive.

The gauze wrapped around Jessica’s head wound reminded Viktor of the glass salesman. A big, swollen, turban.

Jessica occupied the wall opposite him, looking alarmingly like a dead body, though he knew she lived and could see her chest rise and fall. Despite what she said, the pain from her scalping had become too severe for her to suffer. Viktor shot her up with drugs from the medical bag before wrapping her head in gauze. They clipped Jessica’s tether hook onto the wall to keep her in place.

Viktor envied Jessica her unconsciousness. He wanted to curl up and sleep. Not in his Kerwood bunk, but in a real bed, with the warm lump of his wife an arm’s length away. A warning indicator on the wall next to Jessica changed from green to yellow with an emphatic blink. He knew he should be thinking about what to do, but he couldn’t bring himself to focus.

Jimmy smashed the comms button again and spoke louder, as if volume were the reason nobody was responding.

“Hey there boys and girls, it’s your friendly precious mineral extractor here. Still here. In the airlock. Waitin’ for death. We’ll be here for–oh, I don’t know. A few more hours, depending on how much O2 I consume speaking into this squawk-box.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 09

days-until-home-A

Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

The view of the black would’ve been breathtaking if she weren’t slowly suffocating in a suit that was supposed to keep her alive. Even the heads-up display was reduced to a quarter-inch piece of Lexan. No alarms told her that she wasn’t getting oxygen. A severe chill pressed against her, leeching the warmth from her bones. She could feel the X-shaped bruise forming across her torso. Erika closed her eyes and willed the sea of glowing emeralds, rubies, and sapphires from her sight.

No engineer worth her training couldn’t feel a tether’s gentle tug against her EVA suit. But, Erika thought, I’m not on an EVA.

The tug was there nonetheless. The thin material of her launch suit wasn’t designed for extended forays into the black of space. She tried to cross her arms to warm her torso, but her arms splayed akimbo. She had gotten used to the soft roll of Egeria-13, and like it was a religious pilgrimage, she had always found a portal to watch Sol rise during each of the three times it happened every Earth day. She was used to the microgravity produced by the spud’s nineteen kilometers a second, and now that it was gone, she felt an impending dread in the pit of her stomach.

Her tether tugged at her again. The lurch pained her bruises, and her arms floated into her field of vision for a moment. Her eyes welled with tears. Her left glove appeared fine, but her right glove was missing, as was everything below her forearm. Erika sucked in a breath. Cold radiated up her right arm and settled in her elbow.

Another tug, and another brief moment of her limbs coming into view. Some metal, scorched, and black against the white of her suit reflected ambient light. Stress was evident from the bubbled edges of the metal. Even in that moment of visibility, she could see that her suit terminated at the metal, brown and black residue ran up her suit arm.

What the hell is that tug? she thought as her arms floated into view once again.

Her left glove twitched. No, she thought, not my glove, my fingers.

She clenched her fist, and her left hand slowly responded. She could feel the thin material of her launch gloves against her knuckles.

When the tug happened again, she tried to memorize what she saw of her left arm. The white material formed around her arm, and it appeared to be the proper color. She rotated her elbow and felt the material shift against her forearm and elbow. The tugs were happening at regular intervals, and she braced herself against the impending pain.

She may have wanted to brace herself, but shock defeated her plans as her vision filled with debris from the Kerwood. Beyond that, she caught a glimpse Egeria-13. To her, it looked like a gray, partially deflated soccer ball. They were moving away from the rock, but in what direction?

Dark shapes danced at the edges of her vision, and she was tugged back once again.
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Days Until Home – Chapter 08

days-until-home-A

Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

“Hey Skip, this is the guy that I was telling you about. Booker Hawkins,” Angelo Lu said as he approached the lone, dark table in the back of the lounge.

Winchester Hayes kept his eyes on his coffee for a few more seconds before looking up to acknowledge him. Goddamn it Lu, he thought, you know that I need prep time before meeting these candidates. He inhaled and tried to not make it look obvious that he was doing so and checked his speech to make sure that he was coming off professional.

“Mr. Lu, always a pleasure to see you, Chief.” He got up and shook the shorter man’s hand and applied the squeeze in a way to let him know that he wasn’t happy.

He noticed for the first time the handsome black man that was standing behind Lu. He was his height, 6’ even, broad shouldered, and wore a look of determination across his smooth, shaved face. Winchester stepped away from Lu and shook hands with Booker.

“So you’re Dacascos’s old pilot eh?” he remarked, noticing that Booker’s shake was strong but not as firm as he expected.

“Yes sir, that’s me, alright. I piloted the Shirley for Captain Dacascos for three long years. Good to meet you, Captain Hayes.” He seemed to want to get off the subject as fast as they had wandered into it.

“The Shirley … what a dumb name for a ship – don’t worry Booker, me and Dacascos are tight. I wouldn’t sit here badmouthing his sweetheart with anything new. You know what I mean? I break his balls about that ship every time I see him. You do know why he named her that, right?”

“I dunno, Captain Hayes, I’m thinking it was an ex-wife, mom, something like that?”

“It was his damn dog back on earth. That clown had one of those annoying chihuahua hybrids. Rat dogs I call them. Loved that beast more than his own damn wife, and then it ups and dies on him.” He reached back for his coffee mug and drained the rest, then looked past Booker to the waiter and raised it up to let him know that he was empty. “So, yeah. A beautiful piece of machinery like that ship of his, he names it after a rat dog.”

“I’m sure the Kerwood has a noble history behind its name, Captain,” Booker said, and Hayes looked at him as if he had just insulted his mother.

“First rule, Booker T—”

“Just Booker, Captain—”

“First rule, Book. Keep it respectful like you’re doing now, but other than the Kerwood, my orders, and the mission, you and I are still two men. So, stow the pleasant wafting of smoky fumes up my hairy, earth-born ass, please. I know that some of these douchebags love that shit,” Winchester swept his arm across the room to indicate the numerous officers and ship owners that were enjoying their meals, “but I ain’t one of them.”

“So I hear, Captain. No smoke up your ass, I got it,” Booker said, smiling for the first time and looking as if he was stifling a laugh.
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Days Until Home – Chapter 07

days-until-home-A

Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

The taste of the stale calorie bar still lingered in Viktor Sharapov’s mouth when the ship began to tremble.

His eyes shot open.

“Whoo boy,” Jimmy said. He was two seats down, and his voice sounded muffled. “Now it’s a party.”

Viktor realized why his voice sounded strange: it wasn’t coming from the receiver in his helmet. Because Jimmy wasn’t wearing one.

It sat in his lap, quiet and unused.

The trembling grew stronger, wobbling Viktor’s seat.

“Jimmy!” Viktor yelled. “Put your helmet on!”

The kid picked up his helmet, but not to put it on. He held it to his ear to use the comms, like a sphere-shaped telephone. “What’s that, Vicky?”

“Put your slagging helmet on!” Viktor looked around the launch hallway, at the handful of other miners who hadn’t bothered to follow protocol. The vibration in his seat bones increased.

“All of you. Do as I say. Connor! Do you not feel this?”

The ops manager twisted in his seat. “Relax. The ship isn’t exactly new. Always some bumps. If the engineering team signed off on the launch…”

A sudden jolt threw everyone’s heads forward.

The room spun. Everything was wrong. For a brief, horrific moment Viktor was certain his head had been sliced off and was now tumbling across the room independent of his body.

But it wasn’t just his head. The entire seat had become dislodged from its base, sending him in a slow arc through the air, tugged by the miniscule gravity created by the Kerwood’s thrust. Viktor bounced off the far wall gently. Two screws and a hexagon nut hit the wall within his view. From the seat mounting.

Cheering echoed in his helmet, and in the muffled air on the other side of his visor. He looked around the hallway as his seat rotated back into view.

The entire mining crew was whooping and whistling, clapping their gloved hands together. Only Jessica didn’t join in the cheer, and leaned back in her chair defeated.

“I do not understand,” Viktor muttered to nobody in particular.

“Of course you’d be the one,” Jimmy said. “Luckiest Russian that ever lived.”

“Lucky?”

“The fun seat,” Jimmy said, as if that were explanation enough. When it became clear it was not, he added, “We’ve been taking bets on when it’d finally go. I put a week’s pay down that it would happen on launch. Jessica took the bet.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 06

days-until-home-A

Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

She couldn’t help but hear it. A chorus of overlapping voices she didn’t recognize. The terse orchestra of unknown instruments playing notes that did not exist. The bark of a hellhound banished to the darkness of humanity’s worst nightmare. It was like infinite simultaneous strikes of a hammer on a single anvil. Each strike was more thunderous than the last, compressed into a fraction of a second. The sound hit Adelaide’s chest and pushed her against her launch chair. The warm familiar embrace of her chair was something that her brain could actually comprehend. Vomit sprayed the inside of her launch helmet, tendrils formed mucousy bubbles as the lack of gravity pooled them into slimy globules of the breakfast she missed as she ran around the Kerwood just before launch from Egeria-13. She could only gape at the violence perpetrated on her, her shipmates, and the metal can she had called home for far too long.

Adelaide reached to her chest to feel the copper mesh beneath her coveralls. She knew, as she had known so many times leading up to launch that her pirate transponder was where it needed to be for her plans. They won’t be able to find me, her overtaxed brain decried. She tried to assess the situation, but her neurons fired faster than time could account for. Her heart paused, the cacophony of destruction lasted the finite gulf between beats. She reached to wipe the grotesquery from her vision, but her gloved hand struck the smooth Lexan dome of her borrowed launch helmet. She dared not act without thinking long and hard about what was happening. A wrong move so far from home would leave her floating in the black with only the rocks, and the smell of vomit as her companions until she became another statistic in the treatise of space travel.

This is going to be foul, she thought. She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, pushed her face against her visor, and slowly rotated her head back and forth. The topography of her eyes, cheeks, and nose, performed their job with diligence, collecting the spew from her only view of her new reality.

Foul does little to describe it, she thought as greenish bile oozed to the sides of her face as she continued to shake her head. She blinked the stinging stench from her eyes and as she focused through the Lexan, the first thing she saw was an ashen face introverted, tongue hanging out as an unsuited miner, still strapped to her launch chair floated by. The nametag on her dirty mining coveralls declared this unfortunate soul to be FREITAG. German for ‘free day,’ she thought. It amazed her that her addled brain would endow these useless tidbits upon her at such a time. A sudden shock ran up Adelaide’s spine as her eyes locked on a piece of shrapnel that protruded from Freitag’s chest, with a trail of crimson bubbles that floated away like a comet that just couldn’t be bothered to have a proper tail.

Adelaide couldn’t believe her ears. Silence. It could’ve been due to shock, but she was certain that missing was the telltale hiss of the suit’s oxygenator. Even without gravity, she knew her constant companion – a neighbor she trusted – the Kerwood’s thrusters were dead.

So much for the plans of mice and men, she thought as she continued to survey the destruction that a vengeful God had wrought. She looked around the passageway she had sat over in Auxiliary Propulsion only moments before, and she knew that they were now more than forty-one days until home. Who knew how long the potato-shaped gray features of Egeria-13 would be their only neighbor?
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Days Until Home – Chapter 05

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Days Until Home: 41

“This is slim, Lu. When I gave the okay to cut the rations, I was assuming it would be about 500 calories.”

Winchester Hayes paced the small space like a panther as he looked at Angelo with some frustration. “This sort of thing could get messy. You’re a small guy, so it works out for you but imagine a man my size trying to live off of this.” He gestured with a block of hardened nutrient paste.

Lu slicked back his hair and looked around, then leaned in to the captain and whispered, “You can always get more if you like, Captain. It’s the—”

“Not the point,” Winchester said, his voice loud and commanding. Angelo Lu looked around frantically and then resigned himself to listen.

“Captain, we had no choice with the food supply going bad all of a sudden. You told me to always plan for the worst case scenario and with our trip, these reduced rations will get us all the way through. I’m not trying to see my crew mates hungry, but we’ve been generous with rations the entire time here.”

“What about the packets from the esprISSo coffee maker? Is there something we can do with that?” Winchester said.

“In a pinch I suppose, if we deplete all our rations. But I don’t see that happening now. We caught it just in time and everyone gets to eat … really, Skip, it’s not that big of a deal.”

Winchester Hayes considered the situation and decided that Lu knew what he was doing—

Femke Gerhardt slipped in through the narrow passageway and placed her back on the bulkhead near Angelo Lu. “We can hear you guys in here discussing the rations. Do you mind if I give you my two cents?”

“What you got, Funky?” Winchester said, and he folded his arms defensively.

Femke said, “This is going to sound like paranoia, but hear me out. I have a hunch that someone purposefully sabotaged our supplies.”

“Oh boy,” Angelo said and rolled his eyes, “Do we really want to go down this path, Skip?”

“FIFTEEN MINUTES!” Gauge yelled out from the bridge and Winchester winced at the lack of time.

“Got it, big man,” Winchester yelled, “We’ll be right there.”

“Listen Cap,” Femke said, “You should talk to Marisol. There’s a rumor that we have a Lunar baby onboard the ship. Now, I’m not saying that he means to sabotage the mission, but what if he could make us sweat, you know, to meet some sort of anarchist agenda?”

“I don’t like to tell people this but I have an uncle who was a member of that church,” Angelo said. “People make mistakes. Come to our house and he’d dote on you until you begged him to stop. Just because someone’s parents were a part of that sick cult does not mean that they are out to poison our food supply. I mean, really, Femke? That is your enlightening addition? We just lost five minutes of strategy listening to your bigoted opinion.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 04

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Days Until Home: 42

The sensation of removing a vacuum enviro-suit after a fourteen hour shift was the closest thing to pure pleasure Viktor ever experienced.

First he had to walk backwards into his locker, hooking his backpack-like life support system onto the wall so it could disconnect the various electronics. His bulky outer suit came off next, a ten minute process which required twisting the torso off the waist, unsnapping the seemingly endless pressure clips at the seams and along his hands, before pulling it all over his head. After that, the pants came off easier.

That left the three underlayers. The micrometeoroid garment, which crumpled loudly like plastic as it came off and went into the locker. The bio layer, which contained his waste bag, water supply, and liquid cooling flow system. All of it had a habit of shrinking when he perspired–which was every time he put the damned things on–so fifteen minutes of twisting and struggling and he was down to his underwear.

He sat on the bench of the Kerwood’s change room, allowing the cool air to hit his exposed body. He was red and splotchy all over, with crease lines criss-crossing his skin. They were done. The last load completed, all the excavation equipment returned to the cargo hold. He took long, deep breaths, savoring the satisfaction. If Helena could see him in that moment she’d frown, cross her arms over her breasts, and demand to know why he never looked that happy when he was with her.

The sound of the door banging open broke the reverie. Jimmy waddled inside, his own enviro-suit covered in grey bits of asteroid. He grinned at Viktor and spoke in a muffled voice behind his helmet.

Viktor raised an eyebrow and tapped his own skull. Jimmy rolled his eyes and then twisted the helmet off. “Every time, boss. I swear I do that every time.”

“You should be more conscious of your environment,” Viktor said.

Jimmy sat heavily onto the bench. “Oh I’m conscious, alright. I’m conscious of the fact that we busted our butts and finished an hour early! Time to get off this potato rock.”

For once the kid’s enthusiasm didn’t grate at Viktor.

Jimmy began removing the various clasps from his suit. He eyed the older Russian. “Hey. Vicky. Listen, about what happened yesterday…”

Viktor waved a hand. “Forget it.”

“No, see, I feel bad. Connie told me you rushed over to the site. Is it true?” He paused. “You steeplechased your way to save me?”

Viktor sighed. After Connor wrote the kid up he’d been apologizing every hour on the hour. Viktor hated the retroactive sympathy more than the recklessness of the act itself.

“Da,” he said. “It’s true.”

Jimmy whistled through his teeth. “Connie showed me the position logs, but I wasn’t sure if he was foolin’. You were only a few meters per second of delta-v from hitting escape velocity.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 03

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Days Until Home: 43

Jeremy Thompkin swirled the caramel liquid in his middy. He regarded the dead soldiers stacked on the smooth wood surface. The quality of spirits and the mere existence of the wooden table in this bar spoke volumes to the money that flowed through the Kerwood Conglomerate. He drained the middy. The damn thing’s made of glass, he thought and scowled as he turned it over and nestled it on top of the pyramid.

“There are a lot of dead soldiers in that pile.”

Jeremy looked toward the feminine voice. “That used to mean something entirely different,” he replied.

“Only to servicemen,” the auburn haired woman started, and she let the sentence fade when she saw Jeremy’s face cloud. “War veteran?” she asked and smoothed the top of her pale blue dress. The color was like a cloudless spring day, and it matched her eyes as if the cloth were individually dyed to match.

Jeremy’s head bobbed, and he kicked the equally opulent wooden chair facing him out from the other side of the table. “Sapper Regiment,” he declared and motioned to the empty chair with one hand while waving the other to garner the attention of the wait staff.

“Fourth ADF Engineers?” the brunette in the blue dress asked.

Jeremy frowned. He cringed at the thought of the Australian Defense Force reduced to an acronym. “You obviously know, uh, miss?”

“Sullivan,” she replied, and extended a hand to Jeremy. He shook it, and internally acknowledged her firm grip. She didn’t flinch from his missing fingers. “Sapphire Sullivan,” she concluded as she withdrew her hand into her lap. “That means you saw action in your own backyard,” she said. “The Fall of Brisbane?”

Jeremy nodded. He could hear the capital letters when she spoke of the battle. “Anywhere they sent us.”

A server placed two new middies at the edge of the table. “Lone Pine?” Sapphire asked with a quiet reverence.

Jeremy flinched.

“Ah,” Sapphire said and held out her hand palm toward the fidgeting Sapper from the Fourth Australian Defense Engineering battalion. He had not only seen the worst humanity had to offer; not only the end of the war but had been there to witness the scorched glass that had at one time been the oldest animal refuge on the planet. “No need to elaborate, Lieutenant Thompkin, your reaction to the name even ten years later confirms my suspicion.” She reached for one of the middies. “To fallen comrades,” she declared and held her middy aloft.

Jeremy picked up the remaining middy, and echoed, “To fallen comrades.”

They clinked their glasses, and each took a small sip of the single cask. The bar wouldn’t breach a bottle unless the patron in question knew that it was his or her responsibility to purchase the entire bottle.

Jeremy and Sapphire did their duty, and each sipped the two fingers of whiskey until the middies were empty. Jeremy placed his middy beside the pyramid, starting another layer.

Sapphire clutched her middy to her breast, and declared, “Many veterans claim they were at Lone Pine.”
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