The Mars Imperative - Excerpt (part 2)

 

CHAPTER 2 (continued)

 

 

“My God, look at the moon. It’s huge!”

 

Daniel nodded. “Yeah, we’re an eighth of the way there now, and there’s no atmosphere to obstruct our view. Impressive, isn’t it?”

 

“I’ll say! It’s incredible!” He marveled at the sight a while longer.

 

Daniel broke the spell that gripped James. “By the way, did you hear that they recently discovered life on the moon?”

 

“You’re kidding! After all this time? What is it? How does it survive? Where’d they find it?”

 

Daniel smiled and raised a hand to fend off further questions. “Give me a second and I’ll tell you. It’s apparently some form of parasitical blood-sucking insect.” He paused for effect. “They’re called Lunatics.” Daniel nearly fell out of his chair as he delivered the punch line.

 

James slapped his forehead and groaned. “Jeez. I can’t believe I fell for that. I might as well go ahead and have yagger tattooed to my forehead right now!”

 

They continued to admire the scenery until a brief bump signaled that the magnetic brakes had kicked in and were slowing the car gently. Moments later the Fasten Safety Restraints sign flicked off.

 

“We’ve still got time for a couple of games of speed chess,” Daniel offered. “I’ll give you a chance to try to even up the score.”

 

“Thanks, but maybe another time. I’m all chessed out right now.”

 

“What, after only ten games? What a jellyfish! I took you for sterner stuff than that.”

 

James shrugged. “What can I say? Now that we’re almost there I’m excited to see Nautilus in person. I don’t think I’d be able to concentrate on a game.”

 

“Ah. Gotcha. Yeah, I felt that way myself the first time. Okay, we can pick up where we left off later.”

 

“Thanks. Then I’ll kick your butt.”

 

* * * *

 

The Fasten Safety Restraints sign lit again, and the recording intoned, “Arriving at destination in two minutes,” in a repeat of the departure procedure. Once again the flight attendant checked everyone’s restraints before securing her own.

 

James continued to watch their approach on the main holoscreen as the huge Orbital Docking Facillity filled the viewscreen. The first four cars on the cable were easily visible now as the car containing the two young men crawled up behind them.

 

“Thank God that’s over,” Daniel said. “These trips always seem to last forever.”

 

James sketched a sardonic smile. “What’s the matter, was the company boring?”

 

“Yeah, that must have been it.”

 

In truth, they had become close friends during the trip. As the two discovered, they had several interests in common, including fútbol, “moldy oldies” from the late twenty-first century and their fierce passion for chess.

 

Moments later, the car docked and they departed with their bags. Because this was the fifth car on the space elevator cable, the passengers exited through the four cars docked ahead of them. James consulted his wristpad to see where he needed to go.

 

“I presume you’re supposed to report to Murtagh for orientation,” Daniel said.

 

“Yeah. I just have to figure out how to get there. How’d you know?”

 

Everyone reports to Murtagh for orientation. Don’t worry, I can take you. I’m in no hurry. How long before you have to report?”

 

“A little over an hour.”

 

“Tell you what: let’s find your quarters first, drop off your bag, then get you a haircut. I could use a trim myself.” He ran his fingers through his unruly mop.

 

“A haircut?”

 

“Didn’t they tell you about Murtagh back home?”

 

James frowned. “Tell me what?”

 

Daniel shook his head. “Probably someone pulling a fast one on you—you know, haze the rookie. Murtagh is retired old-school British military. He absolutely insists on buzz-cuts on rookies, kinda like in boot camp. He gets pissed off when new-hires—he calls them recruits—arrive with long hair. He thinks they’re showing a lack of respect and makes it twice as tough on them during orientation.”

 

“Really?” James frowned again. “Are you sure?”

 

“Believe me; I heard all the horror stories from the other new-hires last year. Oh, and one other thing: when you introduce yourself, stand up straight like you’re at attention. He hates recruits who slouch; again, a lack of respect. And do change into something a bit more formal; he hates casual. And always address him as sir. Believe me, orientation is tough enough. You don’t need to get on Murtagh’s bad side!”

 

“Wow, thanks for telling me. You’re right. I sure don’t want to start off on the wrong foot. He sounds like a real tight-ass.”

 

“No problem, mi amigo. I just wish someone had warned me last year.”

 

They passed through the elevator terminal and out into the ODF reception area. When they turned a corner they were faced with a spectacular view of Earth, seen through a wall-length window. The entire western hemisphere was laid out before them: lightning flashed over northern Mexico; clouds obscured Cuba and northern Canada; the snowcapped Andes gleamed in the late afternoon sun. Skinning the curve of the Earth, a thin blue rind revealed the dimensions of the atmosphere. James stood there speechless for a solid minute before shaking himself out of his reverie.

 

“That’s…incredible. It looks like I could reach out and touch it.”

 

Daniel nodded. “It’s amazing all right. I’m awed all over again every time I come back. But there’ll be plenty of opportunities to marvel at the view. Right now, we need to get you suitably attired and shorn. There isn’t a moment to lose!”

 

* * * *

 

An hour later, they walked together to Murtagh’s office.

 

“Good luck, James. Remember everything I told you and you’ll be fine. You look perfect. Knock ‘im dead. I’ll catch you at eighteen-hundred for dinner. Remember: Leoni’s In The Square.” He slapped James on the back of his starched tunic and headed for his quarters.

 

James smiled to himself. I may not know anybody else up here, but at least I’ve found one friend. He braced himself and opened the door into the waiting room, where he faced the receptionist.

 

“New recruit—I mean new hire—James McKie reporting for duty, ma’am.”

 

The receptionist—Ms. Josephson, according to the nameplate on her desk—looked at him askance. “I’ll let Mr. Murtagh know you’re here. Please be seated.”

 

James sat on the edge of the sofa, stiff-backed.

 

It wouldn’t do to let Murtagh see me slouching when he comes through the door. He ran a hand over the stubble on his newly naked scalp. The draft from the overhead air vent tickled.

 

His eyes wandered over the reception area. It seems odd that such a hard-ass would have all these pastel colors in here. He shrugged mental shoulders. Who knows? Maybe he’s color blind and has no idea what the colors are.

 

“Mr. Murtagh will see you now, Mr. McKie. Please go right in.” She gestured at the other door in the room.

 

“Thank you ma’am.” He noticed her shake her head slowly as he passed through the door. What’s that all about?

 

As soon as he entered the room, he announced, “James McKie reporting for duty, sir!” He stood as stiffly as he knew how, staring straight ahead and hoping he showed the proper amount of respect. He certainly didn’t need to get chewed out in his first meeting!

 

Elmer Murtagh looked up from his papers, assessed James, and shook his head. “This ain’t the friggin’ army, son. Y’all can pull that stick outta yore butt and relax.”

 

James was stunned. Huh? Is this the same “hard-ass ex-British military” Murtagh that Daniel was telling me about?

 

“Y-yes, sir.” His hand twitched by his side.

 

“You can stuff the ‘sir’ nonsense, son. The name’s Murtagh; just Murtagh. And if y’all were about to salute me just then y’all might want to think twice about that.”

 

James was thoroughly perplexed. “B-but—”

 

“If yore gonna fit in here, son, y’all gotta learn to relax; wear something more comf’table. That outfit ain’t gonna cut it ‘round here. And what’s with the scalp job? Don’t it get cold in Winnipeg this time o’ year?”

 

James finally looked closely at Murtagh, who was wearing a floppy moth-eaten sweater, and was clearly several weeks overdue for a haircut. Wha-? The light bulb finally clicked on in his head.

 

Lim. That sonofabitch! I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna kill him dead, if it’s the last thing I ever do! I’ll take that “we rookies have to stick together” crap and shove it right down his throat! That sonofabitch! James fought to keep the anger and humiliation off his face.

 

The rest of the meeting went quickly. At the end, James vaguely remembered doing more nodding than talking.

 

“That’s all for now,” Murtagh concluded. “Report to Hangar Fourteen at 0800 tomorrow.”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

Murtagh gave him a dirty look.

 

“I mean, okay Murtagh.”

 

“That’s better. See you tomorrow, James.”

 

James turned and left. As the door closed behind him, he heard, “Rookies!”

 

At the appointed hour, James stopped sulking in his quarters and showed up at Leoni’s In The Square with fire in his eyes.

 

* * * *

 

Daniel beckoned James to the table where he awaited, stifling a grin. Uh-oh, he looks pissed. Maybe I went a bit overboard, but he made it so damn easy!

 

Ah, screw ‘im if he can’t take a joke. “Hi, James, how’d it go?”

 

James loomed over the table, arms waving. “You sonofabitch! What did I ever do to you? I thought we were friends. What was that crap all about?”

 

“Hey, calm down, James, it wasn’t anything personal; just a little friendly hazing—sort of a tradition. They did the same kind of thing to me last year. It didn’t kill you, did it?”

 

“Obviously not; but it was humiliating. I’m sure I came off as some country bumpkin fresh off the rutabaga truck. Thanks a lot!”

 

Daniel finally gave up trying to hold in a laugh. “God, I would dearly love to have seen your face when you figured out what was going on! Pull up a chair; I’ll buy you a beer. It’s the least I can do.”

 

“I think you’ve done quite enough for one day, thank you very much!” Nevertheless, he sat. “Make it two beers and you’ve got yourself a deal.”

 

When the first round arrived, Daniel raised his glass with a crooked grin. “Welcome to ODF Nautilus, rookie!” He whipped out a portable holochess board. “I’ll even spot you a pawn this time.”

© Mark Terence Chapman
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