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The Stars Down Under

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The Stars Down Under

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Author: Sandra McDonald
Publisher: Tor, 2008
Series: The Outback Stars: Book 2

1. The Outback Stars
2. The Stars Down Under
3. The Stars Blue Yonder

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Chief Terry Myell and Lieutenant Commander Jodenny Scott are in that most precarious of military situations, a mixed marriage. Enlisted and officer. It's unnatural.

Terry and Jodenny have been assigned to duty on the planet Fortune, away from the huge ships that carry colonists from the wreckage of polluted Earth to clean new worlds across the galaxy.

But there's another way besides spaceships to travel from world to world. A group within Team Space is exploring the Wondjina Spheres, a set of ancient alien artifacts that link places and times. Now those spheres have shut down and Team Space thinks that Terry and Jodenny are part of the key to make them work again --no matter how the two of them feel about it. They can volunteer, or be "volunteered."

What the researchers can't anticipate is that the status quo, in which Team Space holds the monopoly on travel between worlds, is about to change. And as a result, Terry and Jodenny will be tested to their limits and beyond....


Chapter 1

Terry Myell drizzled oil on the vegetables in the wok, reached past his comm-bee for seasoning, and jumped back in surprise as a crocodile scurried through his kitchen.

"Christ!" he yelled, bumping up against the hard countertop. It was just after seventeen-hundred hours, a sunny afternoon in the military suburb of Adeline Oaks on the planet Fortune. His wife, Jodenny, would be working until midnight and he was cooking dinner just for himself. The last thing he had expected to see was a three-meter-long reptile with sharp teeth, gray scales, and black, hook-shaped claws that screeched against the floor tile.

The creature whipped around the refrigerator and was gone so quickly that surely he had imagined it.

"Betsy!" he said to the house computer. "Report."

A soothing woman's voice flowed out of the microspeakers in the ceiling. "Inside temperature is twenty degrees Celsius. A front stovetop element is operating at a setting of two point seven. There's a slight leak in the guest shower--"

Myell fumbled for the longest knife in the silverware drawer. "Any mammals, reptiles, supernatural creatures?"

"There's a spider in the living room closet, and several termites burrowing through the rear foundation. A gecko is hanging off lanai screen number four. That's all I have to report, sir."

Myell crept forward. The floor showed no gouge marks or smeared dirt. The dark beige carpet in the living room was similarly unmarked, and the front door was closed. With cold sweat on his neck, he headed for the master bedroom. He edged past half-empty packing boxes in the hall to the ajar door. From outside came the sounds of a neighbor's kids kicking around a soccer ball and the hum of flits as parents returned from work. Everything else was quiet.

"Come out, come out," Myell murmured. "Show yourself."

The master bedroom was awash with afternoon sunlight. His dress white uniform hung neatly on a hook outside the closet doors, the ribbons and insignia carefully aligned. The bed was a messy rumple of blue linens and pillows. Beneath them, a hump moved back and forth slowly, obscenely.

He steeled himself and yanked the sheets away.

Karl the Koala blinked up at him with golden eyes and rolled over.

"Rub me, rub my tummy," he sang.

Myell let the knife drop. "Go to sleep, Karl."

The bot rolled to his haunches and scratched himself. Though he understood basic commands, the programming defaulted to mild disobedience. A real koala would never follow orders like a dog, anyway. Nor would it talk. Myell still wasn't convinced they needed any mechanical pets underfoot, but Karl made Jodenny happy.

"He's so cute," she'd said when they saw him at the mall.

Myell could think of something much more adorable and cuddly, but Jodenny had said she wasn't ready for kids.

Betsy spoke up. "You have new imail in your account, sir. Four challengers have questioned your score in the latest Izim tournament. And I believe your dinner is burning."

Cursing, Myell hurried back to the kitchen and pulled the wok off the stove. Betsy's vents began sucking up smoke that reeked of burnt oil and blackened string beans. He dumped the mess into the disposal and accidentally knocked the knife off the counter. When he tried to catch it, the blade cut into his finger.

"I detect blood, sir. Do you have a medical emergency?" Betsy asked.

"I'm fine," he said through gritted teeth. The slice was long but shallow. "And I've told you, stop calling me sir. It's Chief Myell, or Terry. Got it?"

"Yes, sir."

A little self-sealant took care of the cut. The stir-fry was ruined, so he threw together a salad instead. Afterward he checked the imails and saw three more media inquiries. Reporters, always damn reporters. He deleted them, as he had all the other requests that had come in during the last four weeks.

He took a beer to the sofa and kicked his feet up. "Betsy, are there references to crocodiles in Australian Aboriginal mythology?"

"I find several instances in which people are reputed to have been eaten or transformed into crocodiles. One tribe revered the crocodile as a totemic god. Would you like me to send the information to your bee?"

"No. Forget I asked." On the Aral Sea he had experienced visions of an Aboriginal shaman, and on a long, strange top-secret trip across the galaxy he had seen a Rainbow Serpent. He'd hoped he was done with all of it.

Karl climbed up onto the cushions beside him.

"Koala, my ass," Myell said. "You're probably a god in disguise."

The robot rolled backward and repeated his plea for a tummy rub.

"Talk to Mommy," Myell said.

Betsy was the oldest house in the neighborhood, and her nighttime temperature controls were erratic. Though he meant to stay up for Jodenny, Myell fell asleep on the sofa and woke every hour or so because he was too cold, or too hot, or too cold again. When he did sleep, he dreamed of crocodiles in a deep cave, hissing and snapping their razor-sharp teeth. At oh-four-hundred he woke shaking with dread, and stumbled to the bathroom to splash cold water on his flushed face.

He went to the bedroom and burrowed into the sheets. He was just dozing off again when the wallgib beeped and Jodenny's image rolled into view.

"Betsy told me you were up," she said. "Everything okay?"

"Fine." Myell turned his head into a pillow, then turned to eye her. "Why aren't you home?"

"There was an accident with some academy students, a big mess." She was as beautiful as ever, but dark circles hung under her eyes. Her lieutenant commander bars glinted on the screen. "They borrowed a birdie for fun and crashed into the ocean. I've been fending off the media for hours. I don't think I'll be home before you leave."

He shrugged one shoulder.

"I wanted to send you off to your new job in style," she said. "I'm sorry."

Myell was sorry, too. Their last ship, the Aral Sea, had barely entered orbit before new duty assignments arrived in their queues. Fledgling plans for a honeymoon had been abruptly discarded. Jodenny's new position at Fleet was prestigious but demanding. Lately he'd seen more of his reflection than he'd seen of her.

Jodenny touched the gib screen, as if trying to pat his cheek. "Be kind to your students, won't you? I remember how hard it was for me to memorize everything."

"I don't think they're going to throw me in front of a classroom today."

"They should. You'll be great." A gib pinged, and Jodenny glanced offscreen. "Got to go. Call me later."

"Love you," he said, but the connection was already dead.

Further sleep eluded him. He played Izim for a while but got killed multiple times. Just before dawn he pulled on some gym clothes. He opened the top drawer of his dresser and palmed a small dilly bag. Inside were two carved totems of geckos. One had been a gift, and the other had been his mother's.

For the first time in months he tied the bag around his waist and felt its comforting weight.

Outside, the air was hot and dawn was just lightening the sky. The faux-brick homes were a bit affluent for his tastes, but Jodenny's rank had its privileges and he supposed he'd have to get used to them. At the end of the street was a steep wooded hill dotted with senior-officer homes. He jogged up it, the dilly bag bouncing against his skin. The exertion left him winded but the view at the top was worth it.

"Good morning, Kimberley," he said.

The rising sun sent yellow light streaking over Fortune's capital city. Myell could see the Parliament buildings, the graceful expanse of the Harbor Bridge, and a wide, disorienting expanse of silver-blue ocean. He hated the ocean. In the center of the city stood the Team Space pyramid, blue and clean and beautiful, the hub of its interplanetary operations.

The birds had woken up, kookaburras and doves mostly, and over their song he heard the unmistakable sound of an approaching security flit. Myell kept his gaze on the city and his hands in plain sight on the railing.

"Good morning, sir," a woman's voice said behind him. "Routine security check. Everything all right up here?"

Slowly he turned. "Good morning, officers. Everything's fine."

The woman was a brunette with the insignia of a regular tech. Her nametag read m. chin. Her partner, Apprentice Mate H. Saro, was smaller and slimmer, and had the coiled tenseness of a dog with something to prove.

"Do you live here, sir?" RT Chin asked.

"Chief Myell. I just moved in. Twenty-four hundred Eucalyptus Street," he said.

"Chiefs don't live in officer housing," Saro said.

Myell pushed down a flare of annoyance. He reached carefully into his pocket and handed over his identification card. Chin retreated with it to the flit. Saro rested one hand on the mazer in his belt and tried to look fierce.

"Are there regulations against people taking a morning walk?" Myell asked him.

"Most people don't walk around when it's still dark out."

"Sun's up," Myell pointed out.

Saro glared at him. "And they have the common sense to exercise in the gym."

"Fresh air's better for you."

Chin returned. "Sorry, Chief. You're all clear. People get nervous when they look out their windows and see a strange face, that's all. Welcome to the neighborhood."

"But he's not--" Saro started.

"Shut up, Hal." Chin nodded briskly at Myell. "Can we give you a lift home, Chief?"

"No. I'll walk."

Saro gave him one last suspicious look before the security flit drove off. Myell started downhill. He imagined eyes watching him from every window. An hour later, after forcing down breakfast and checking his uniform for the tiniest flaws, he joined the morning crowd at the monorail station. He hung back against the railing so he wouldn't sprain his elbow offering salutes. A few curious glances came his way, but no one spoke to him or challenged his right to be there.

He didn't flaunt his Silver Star, but a lieutenant with bloodshot eyes said, "Earn that the hard way?"

"Is there any other way, sir?" Myell asked.

The lieutenant squinted at Myell's deployment patches. "That's the Aral Sea's emblem. You help beat off those terrorists at Baiame?"

"Something like that."

The lieutenant raised his coffee cup in salute, then turned away as a train pulled in.

Kimberley's public transportation system was a hub-and-spoke design. At Green Point Myell transferred to another train and rode several stops with civilians, students, and other military personnel until they reached Water Street. Supply School was easy to find. It occupied a pierside base wedged between shipping companies and freighter lines. The flags of Fortune, the Seven Sisters, and Team Space flapped overhead, bright in the sunshine. The air smelled like fuel and vile salt water.

"Second building to the right, Chief," a gate guard told Myell. "They'll help you over there."

Once Myell was inside the steel and glass building, a receptionist took him past cubicles where RTs and civilian staff were busy socializing. The enlisted men saw Myell and got to work. The civilians were slower about it. Large vids on the walls displayed student status, lists of instructor assignments, and announcements for Saturday's graduation ceremony. The name of the Supply School commander, Captain Kuvik, was prominently displayed everywhere.

The cubicle maze ended in a small office where Moroccan rugs hung on the walls and hand-woven baskets decorated the shelves. A bald sergeant with brown skin rose from his desk, offering a smile and a handshake.

"Bob Etedgy, Chief," he said. "Welcome back to Supply School."

"Thanks. In truth, I never came through in the first place."

"Got all your training in the fleet? Me, too." Etedgy cleared off a chair for Myell. "Don't let them hear you say it around here, but direct experience is always better than sitting on your ass in a classroom."

Etedgy had already arranged for Myell's security pass, had requisitioned a parking slot in case he ever wanted to drive in, and had put together a bright red orientation folder emblazoned with the Supply School emblem.

"You'll be meeting with Captain Kuvik at oh-nine-hundred. He meets with every new instructor, nothing to worry about there. Until then I'll take you on the guided tour. Officer training is down the street, in their own building with their own faculty and staff, so we'll skip that. I'll also get you set up with a locker down in the training room. Most of us commute in civilian clothes and change into uniform here--saves on the wear and tear, you know, and it's okay as long as it's before the students arrive. Captain's not keen on us being seen as regular human beings."

He said it with a smile, but Myell didn't think he was joking.

The classrooms were on the second and third decks of the building. Khaki-clad chiefs were already lecturing, administering tests, or conducting multimedia presentations. The upper decks contained computer labs, a library, and a chapel. The mess hall was in an adjacent building, and beyond it was the gymnasium.

"So where did they stash you and your wife for quarters?" Etedgy asked. "Widen? Sally Bay? My wife and I have been on the waiting list for Lake Lu for a year."

"Nice, is it?"

"Best you can do for enlisted housing around here."

"Is that how long you've been here? A year?" Myell asked, and successfully diverted the topic.

Just before oh-nine-hundred they returned to the main building and rode the lift to the fifth deck, which offered marvelous views of the sea traffic heading in and out of port. Myell kept his gaze averted. Captain Kuvik's suite was impeccably furnished and much larger than a shipboard captain's. The walls were vidded with photos of square-shouldered graduating students, all of them ready to march off into the fleet and inflict invoices for every last roll of toilet paper.

Not that Myell thought poorly of his career track. Supply sailors didn't earn the same glory as flight crews and didn't save lives like the medical corps, but someone had to keep food, equipment, uniforms, materials, and weapons moving down the Alcheringa and throughout the Seven Sisters.

"Chief Myell to see the captain," Etedgy announced.

Captain Kuvik's secretary, a thin man with antique glasses perched on his nose, gave Myell an unfriendly look. He pinged the inner office and repeated Etedgy's words.

"Send him in," a man replied.

Myell stepped into Kuvik's office. Windows screened out the sunlight. Classical music from pre-Debasement Earth played softly on a hidden radio. Kuvik, an older man with rugged features and white hair, nodded Myell toward a chair. Five rows of ribbons were pinned above his left pocket. Some of them were for enlisted sailors only, meaning he'd worked his way up through the ranks. The office smelled like peppermint.

"Sergeant Etedgy show you around?" Kuvik asked.

"Yes, sir." The chair was hard under Myell, and a little low to the floor. "It's an impressive complex."

"The enlisted school graduates three hundred ATs a month, and we teach advanced courses to twice as many RTs and sergeants. Do the job right or don't do it at all, I tell them. I disenroll anyone who doesn't take the job seriously, and I won't have any instructors who think this is a three-year vacation after years of running down the Alcheringa."

"I don't think of this is a vacation, Captain."

Kuvik gave no indication of having heard him. "Just because Fleet assigns someone here doesn't mean you get to be in front of one of my classrooms. My instructors are role models for young ATs who need direction and guidance. You don't pass muster, I'll stick you in a basement office and make you count requisitions eight hours a day."

Myell knew all about being shoved into dead-end, tedious jobs. "I hope I pass muster, sir."

Kuvik's gaze hardened. The music on the radio rose in crescendo. Something by Beethoven, Myell thought. Or maybe not.

"I know you were instrumental in saving your ship after the insurgent attack off Baiame," Kuvik said. "That Silver Star they gave you proves that. Commander Wildstein on the Aral Sea speaks highly of you, and she's damned hard to please. But you also married your supervisor, Lieutenant Scott, which indicates an appalling lack of decorum and brings up serious issues of fraternization."

"No fraternization charges were filed against Lieutenant Commander Scott or myself," Myell said, making sure Kuvik knew her current rank.

"I'm not interested in whether your former captain had the balls to court-martial you for violating regulations." Kuvik leaned forward, a muscle pulling in his cheek. "Worse than your playing house with Lieutenant Commander Scott is the fact that you've never undergone chief's training."

Ah, Myell thought. The true crux of the problem. He and Jodenny had discussed the ramifications of his refusal, rehearsed possible scenarios, but he'd sincerely hoped the issue wouldn't arise.

"I was promoted in the field while recovering from my injuries," Myell said. "Authorized by my captain on behalf of Team Space to wear the insignia and uniform, and receive all the ranks and privileges of a Chief Petty Officer. When we arrived here, seven other sergeants on the Aral Sea were also approved for promotion."

"And those seven sergeants immediately volunteered for chief's training over at Fleet. You refused."

"Because the training is voluntary, and has been ever since the death of that sergeant on Kookaburra."

Kuvik wagged a finger. "One mistake shouldn't override hundreds of years of tradition. Initiation marks the transition from sergeant to chief. You don't just put on the uniform. You're expected to be a leader, and being a leader means being accepted as an equal by your peers."

Myell could already picture that basement office with his name posted by the door.

"That's where we disagree, sir. A leader rises above his peers instead of hovering in the pack with them. Team Space promotes us because of who we are and what we've done, not so we can reinvent ourselves. You can do whatever you like with me, but you're not going to convince me that a month of being humiliated and bullied will make me more fit to wear this uniform."

Myell realized his voice had risen. He clamped his mouth shut. He'd given the captain enough to hang him with already.

Kuvik leaned back in his chair. The radio fell silent, and a cormorant cried out behind the windows as it swooped down toward the water.

"There are some people from Fleet in my conference room," Kuvik finally said. "They want to talk to you. Something hush-hush and very important. Any idea what?"

Myell thought instantly of the Rainbow Serpent, and of the jobs he and Jodenny had turned down in a secret underground complex back on Warramala a few months ago.

"No, sir," he said.

Kuvik rose from his chair. "Go talk to them, Chief. And if they offer you a transfer, you'd better take it. It'll be a better deal than anything you're going to get here."

Copyright © 2008 by Sandra McDonald


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