Act I, Scene 11 of 2100 CE.
Francois Ennis had rarely been one to hesitate. His parents had been opposed to his seemingly impulsive decision to join the service immediately after completing his degree. They were Federal employees, part of the bureaucracy that kept the wheels of government rotating in Sacramento, and naturally saw themselves above the fray of ordinary people. But Ennis had learned early in his childhood the true level of disparity between those who prospered within the Beltway—and the rest of society. He had seen it starkly in the public schools he attended, where the descendants of freed slaves continued to live in poverty. His parents would have attributed it to some sort of character flaw or a disorder within that community.
Ennis knew better. The government had never assumed responsibility for the millions it permitted to be held in bondage, much less the millions killed in bondage and on the journey to slavery. There had never been a Truth and Reconciliation initiative in the United States as there had been in South Africa, Canada, and Australia, and no attempt to compensate the descendants of those held against their will for the compounded generations of abuse, trauma, violence, oppression—the demonstrated evidence linking the inheritance of slavery with the wretched circumstances of its offspring. The evidence was plain to see—one need only open their eyes—and so to Ennis, any variable interpretation was inherently unsustainable.
He left because the very people charged with the enlightened administration of society were themselves willfully blind to its inherent transgressions. More than once he had seen it, from the friend who condemned the notion that her Grenadian fiancé might be Black, to the friends who chose what they termed “made up ethnic identities” for playing board games, laughing among themselves at the perceived absurdity of anyone naming their child Precious, Latoya, or Imani—his girlfriend among them. With a name like Francois, it was easy for Ennis to hide behind nicknames or mispronounced variations of his name: Frank, Frankie, Frances. He had seen how the inbred prejudice spread and knew from the first time someone else told him how to pronounce his own name that he was not among the accepted.
His eyes were opened with the arrest of his best friend David, which had seen no reaction from the groups of people who they both considered friends. But when any one of their number was hurting, in need, or otherwise special, there was no end in the outpouring of support from the larger group. In society’s eyes, David went from being an upstanding kid in high school who played in the school band and got good grades to just another criminal statistic in the community. The conversations he had about it with others inevitably moved towards indifferent resignation, limiting David to the sort of case where more privileged individuals might shake their head in lamentation at the surprise potential they had seen in that boy.
A friend drove him to the Confederation legation in Downtown Sacramento to ostensibly collect some documents for a research paper Ennis was writing. It was then late spring and his final semester at Sacramento State was at last drawing to a close, so it came as no surprise that he might be finishing papers ahead of final exams. What he had not told his girlfriend was that he had enlisted online in the PKF only a few weeks before and was going to complete the final paperwork. He had come out from the embassy gates with a stupid smile on his face and a military ID card in his pocket, still warm from its printing. His girlfriend had noticed the smile, but when asked about it, he only told her that he would explain later.
He did, in fact, explain later—though not for a few months, and by then at a great distance. In that time, he completed his exams and graduated, made arrangements for the storage and shipping of his personal effects, and finally packed what few items he was instructed to bring to training. The only person who took note of these changes was his parent’s live-in housekeeper and his former nanny, Teresa. She knew at once what he was about, having many times spoken with her former charge in the way a mother might, and he had long trusted her with the secrets he could not convey to his parents. Among themselves they spoke in Spanish, and it was in Spanish that he told her about his impending departure. She cried to know he would be leaving, but rejoiced with him in the endeavor, and in the courage that it had taken to make the decision on his own. Among the documents he had signed at the Confederation legation was a final will and testament specifying her as his soul inheritor in the event of his death during training, though he did not tell her.
His parents reacted less steadily. His mother flew into a torrent of angry and confused accusations, saying that he had paid no attention to the lessons of History and the irrationality of idealistic undertakings. “Why would you go risk your life for complete strangers? You’re better than that! You have so much more potential than they do!” His father added little in the way of novelty, though his criticisms lay more in the economic irresponsibility of enlistment and less in the risks or dangers of the service. “You would make much more money here doing something worthwhile.”
When offered the option of a posting aboard the battlecruiser Halsey in orbit, with guaranteed liberty time on Earth, or a shoreside posting at the Ceres Space Forces Outpost, he had not hesitated to volunteer for the latter—to the recruiter’s surprise. Duty that far from the Terresphere, they explained, would be difficult—he would be far from anyone and everything he knew, and there would be few familiar sights to buoy him amid the doldrums between supply convoys. And it was to this that he once more happily volunteered.
They next warned him of the effect it might have on his career, the relative insignificance of a Ceres shoreside posting compared with the notoriety of a battlecruiser appointment being the crux of their argument. They also emphasized the difference in responsibilities, favoring the more gradual approach aboard Halsey to the all-or-nothing approach of Ceres. But this still could not assuage Ennis’ certainty.
He had never again hesitated to act. When orders came down assigning him to the Leopard as its operations officer, he welcomed them with open arms and no small amount of celebration. An operations officer aboard an escort carrier was a commander’s billet, while he was only two years commissioned a lieutenant commander. He had pushed for responsibility from the first, and now he really had it.
“I should have kept my mouth shut,” he grumbled to himself. He tapped his stylus nervously on the tablet in his hands. Around him members of the hangar crew—what few were left after the gutting they had suffered before leaving Suffolk—looked curiously in his direction, but Ennis was too deeply in his own thoughts to notice.
“I don’t like it,” a grizzled voice said at his side.
Ennis looked up. “What?”
“I said, I don’t like it,” the ship’s hangar master, a gruff chief petty officer old enough to be his grandfather said at his side. As if an afterthought, he added, “Sir.”
Ennis nodded. “Well, that makes two of us.”
“I imagine,” the hangar master went on, as though Ennis had not spoken, “that the captain is sorting it out right now. Sir.”
Ennis looked back down at his tablet. Chiefs had a way of knowing more than their paygrade said they should. The final point on his checklist was to receive approval from the commanding officer, but after Captain Braddox had come down and actually seen what was in those containers…
That was over four hours ago.
“I reckon nobody’s seen those things on the battlefield in almost a hundred years,” the chief said.
The lieutenant commander nodded. “Just about. The Treaty of Reykjavik made them illegal,” Ennis said, adding, “at the end of the last world war.”
The chief petty officer nodded gravely as he watched members of the hangar crew at work. In all there were five shipping containers measuring some eleven meters by six by six, each painted the standard cargo yellow intended for the conveyance of non-military materials. Their size alone certainly merited the reduction of the carrier space wing prior to their departure from Suffolk, but both he and Ennis agreed that it had not required reducing them to a single squadron. The contents of the containers, however, changed that calculus.
Overhead, using a system of guidewires and drones acting as thrusters, deckhands shouted to one another as they moved the last of the containers to the ceiling-tracked vehicle crane. Once attached to the crane’s arm, the container would be moved down to the lower storage hangar to join the others. There they were to be locked away for the duration of the voyage, under the guard of a detachment of Dragoons assigned to the task. The reduction to a single squadron permitted the isolation of the cargo.
“The treaty expires in a few weeks,” Ennis said.
The hangar master gave a low, knowing murmur. “I guess we want to be ready.”
Before Ennis could respond, the figure of Commander Cseltor came floating down the companionway. As the ship’s executive officer approached, the hangar master excused himself, barking orders out at the hangar crew as he floated away. For his part, Ennis waited until the other officer was nearly at his side before turning to render a salute.
Simultaneously returning the salute and bringing himself to a stop—no easy feat in zero gravity—Commander Cseltor said, “How is the operation coming?”
Ennis gave the crane an appraising glance before responding. “The final container is being prepared now. The other four containers are in place and locked down. All we need is the captain’s approval and we’ll be ready to go. Sir.”
“Very good,” Cseltor said, surveying the work before them.
With a touch of amusement, Ennis saw how bored-looking loafers suddenly become busy, animated deckhands at the sight of the ship’s second-in-command.
“Once you have the approval order from the captain,” Cseltor said, “seal the storage bulkhead. The Dragoons are on their way over from al-Basra.”
“Yes, sir.” Ennis looked down at his tablet, but there was no update. “I met their commander. He wore a terracotta beret.”
“Did he?” Cseltor said, unaffected. “I did not take notice.”
Ennis suppressed the urge to squint at the other officer and instead chose to let it go. “Can I ask you a question, sir?”
His eyes still on the work happening out in the main hangar, Cseltor responded, “Of course.”
“Sir…” Ennis hesitated a moment, trying to find the right words. “These…weapons—should we be taking them…? Even if our presence here is legally ambiguous, these weapons…” he said, trailing off.
Cseltor remained silent a while, still watching the crane, which now firmly gripped the container and began lumbering past spacecraft strapped to the hangar deck and walls. He stayed silent for so long that Ennis began to wonder if he had been understood and whether he should repeat himself—
“Our duty, Commander,” Cseltor suddenly began, “is to carry out our orders to the best of our abilities. In the event you are given an unlawful order, you are obliged to report the situation to a superior. Are you implying that the order to load and stow this cargo was unlawful?”
Ennis thought that over a moment. “Knowing what’s in them—” he started.
“Do you know what’s in them, Commander?” Cseltor said, turning to face the younger officer. “Or did a curious deckhand decide to see what’s inside? Did that curious deckhand receive a subtle order to check—despite explicit orders not to open the containers?”
“In point of fact, we do not know what is in these containers,” the executive officer resumed. “And so, I ask you again, Commander, have you received an unlawful order?”
“None, sir,” Ennis replied mechanically, almost involuntarily. “I am only expressing my concern.”
“Noble, but misplaced,” the executive officer said, his tone unsympathetic. Cseltor regarded him from behind violet alien eyes. “We all have to do things we do not agree with.”
A ping from the tablet drew their attention.
“That would be the captain’s approval,” Cseltor said. Out in the main hangar, the cargo container disappeared from sight, carried down belowdecks. The executive officer glanced at his watch before saying, “I am returning to the operations center. Report in when the final container is secured, and the bulkhead is sealed. The captain should be aboard shortly.”
Ennis nodded and responded with a low, “Yes, sir.”