– 1 Poppyshine
If I had any common sense I would have worn something flame retardant.
“Don’t worry,” Dunn pushed the Halloween mask higher on his face. “Ethanol doesn’t burn. It explodes.”
I IDed everything in Ensign Dunn’s stateroom-turned-laboratory that could kill us. Steel bulkheads trapped the vapors. Glass beakers like shrapnel. Drug scales, hotplates, and some sort of electrochemical synthesis device that Dunn still hadn’t explained to me, but it had two metal prods connected by wires to a battery—all of which looked like one giant ignition source.
“Remind me again how you got the car battery aboard?”
“The same way I got the poppy aboard.” Dunn stared through my head. “By not asking too many questions.”
He was a sweetie, though, and probably had a crush on me—likely the only reason he let me record this. Underneath the Halloween mask he wore to hide his face from my camera, he was a pale, corn-fed kid from Oklahoma who knew way too much about chemistry and moonshine to make himself anything but the most popular geek aboard the USS Gerald Ford.
For a workbench he had pried wood planks from a shipping pallet and spanned them from his rack to the junior officer’s rack across from his. On the hot plate sat a pressure cooker filled with his homemade poppy tea. Copper tubing ran out the top of the cooker and coiled down into a bucket of ice. The tubing poked out the bottom of the bucket and dripped out what everyone from deck apes to O-gangers on the Ford called poppyshine, a mildly hallucinogenic concoction that melted away the at-sea blues.
“Watch where you point that thing.”
Dunn would only allow me to post the video to my underground ship-zine if I agreed to disguise his face and voice.
With the launch catapults on the other side of the ship and four decks up, his stateroom almost had a cabin-in-the-woods coziness to it. The drone of the engine compartment below focused the known universe to just the space around the soft, breathy gurgle from the pressure cooker.
A sharp rap.
We both looked at the hatch. We had been expecting this, just not so soon.
“If I go down, you go down,” he whispered. “Roger that?”
That was our deal. He pointed me toward the top rack. I set my camera on the middle rack, partially hidden under the pillow, climbed three bunks up, and drew the curtain shut.
“Who is it?”
The voice on the other side of the steel hatch came back metallic. “Poppy’s poppy.”
Code, I guessed.
Lark entered. Six-foot-plus, huge shoulders, master-at-arms, keys-to-the-brig Lark. He was also a damn Tether.
The Navy tried pressuring me into being a Tether just because of what dad did and the fact I got booted from school. Hell no, though. Only the village-idiot offspring of siblings volunteered to be a Tether.
“It’s just your people on watch tonight?” Dunn tried to hide his nervousness.
Lark didn’t say anything. I swore the cerebral augmentations made them dumber. The glowing cable running from his temple pulsed in slow waves, communicating with someone that wasn’t Dunn.
“Okay. Just the poppyshine then.”
How could Dunn sell to a Tether? Didn’t he understand the shitgale it’d cause if Lark caught me? Linked to the ship’s computer, he could scan the ship’s manifest and figure out I wasn’t in my rack. He could have telepathed with a Tether who saw me enter Dunn’s cabin. No one knew their exact capabilities. Could Lark see my body heat through the curtain? This was insanity.
“16 ounces?” Dunn asked.
I heard the slosh of poppyshine changing hands, the exchange of money.
Lark’s shaved, bluish head was inches below me. The fish stink from his blood disorder rose through the crack in the curtain. The fact that Tethers traded incentive pay for plastic poisoning was more proof of their numbskullry.
“Stay safe,” Dunn said.
Lark grunted. The hatch opened. Closed.
Dunn let go of his breath. “All clear.”
I peeked from the curtain. “A Tether?”
“You didn’t ask.”
“An asswit Tether. I shouldn’t have to.”
I grabbed my camera from the bed and poked my head into the passageway. The Ford’s oily air stung my eyes. Lark went toward the stern. A rat scurried out of his way.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Dunn said. “He found me out.”
I glanced back to see the off-center pull of his lips. I hated to see him so wounded. I had one foot over the hatch when Dunn pulled me back.
“You’re sweet.” I patted his cheek and slipped into the passageway after Lark.
The rumor—and the reason I sweet-talked Dunn into letting me record everything—was that some of the Gerald Ford’s highest-ranking officers bootlegged Dunn’s poppyshine in order to get young sailors drunk and pliable. My plan was to follow the poppyshine to see how high up the chain of command this operation went.
Lark prowled aft like a marionette of logs. Normally, Tethers had this eerie way of walking, chin down with their eye pointed at the deck three feet in front of them. They didn’t need to see in order to move. With other Tethers nearby, they could navigate by their collective sight. But alone, Lark was more cautious, stopping and peering around each hatch he went through.
So long as there weren’t other Tethers around, I could follow him from a close distance without fear of—
Lark stopped and spun. His blue face and black monocle aimed dead at me.
The open cabin to my right. An enlisted rec room. I hadn’t noticed it.
Inside, was a compartment full of Tethers. They stood near a cornhole board looking at me and my camera. While the rest of the ship’s passageways smoldered in the crimson light of midwatch, these Tethers had two white fluorescents hung over their hillbilly game. Their bluish faces were raked with heavy shadows, and I imagined each of them cataloging everything about me and broadcasting it through their network: my rack was two decks below, my morning shift started in three hours, my posture was furtive behind Lark.
My mouth ran dry. Fuckall and be cocky about it, as Dad used to say.
I kept walking as if nothing had changed, as if I weren’t walking toward a chief petty officer holding a jar of contraband in the middle of the night. I fought to keep my legs from turning to run. I faked a real good game. The problem, of course—
“Shipmate, why are you filming me?”
While following Lark, I had been holding the camera casually at my side recording the mason jar of poppyshine swinging by his legs. Maybe he saw the blinking light. Maybe the Tethers playing cornhole noticed it. Either way, my only option was to play dumb.
“Huh? What are you talking about?” My hand began twirling my ponytail. I yanked it away. No way I was letting this box of rocks know he had me anxious.
He pinched his forehead just above his implants like they pained him. His naked eye winced at my name tag and rating badge. “MC Nozick, you think being mass communication makes you smarter than me?”
Lock it. Don’t laugh. Not a peep.
He moved his hand from his head toward my camera. His metHb fish stink was worse than other Tethers. The veins down his forearm were so dark they were almost black. “Surrender your camera.”
Ballsy. Lark outranked me, but I was a Navy broadcaster. My official duty on the Gerald Ford was literally to record things. If this escalated, he’d be questioned as much as me. And he was the one holding a jar of poppyshine.
I hadn’t edited the footage yet though. If Lark got the video, he’d know Dunn allowed me to hide in the rack. Dunn would get brought to mast while Lark—and whoever Lark was bootlegging for—would get off.
Judging from his pained migraine squint, Lark was calculating his options too. Except he had the benefit of the ship’s Justwork computer. It was straining him, though. He hadn’t yet noticed the black blood collecting on the rim of his nostril.
The three Tethers stepped into the passageway behind me like schoolyard bullies. The computer decided. Lark reached.
I dropped to the deck. As Lark swiped for me, I rolled past him and popped to my feet.
Tethers were truck stop crackheads patched together with plastic, but they could think fast. Linked through the Justwork, they could swarm you in an instant. They could even tell the ship to lock hatches, turn off lights, and sound alarms. Still, they were reliant on the same, fragile human body.
I kicked him in the groin before he could turn around. I bolted aft. Left at the first intersection, left again, right.
Cabin doors flew open. Tethers up and down the passageway poked their heads out. Feet pounded toward me.
It was hopeless, where was I going to go? The ocean?
At the next ladder, I climbed toward the hangar deck. I heard the hydraulics of the hatchway closing. The green light bathing the hangar bay was getting smaller. The clangs below me were getting closer. I dove into the hangar.
The hatch behind me sealed with a crisp puff of air. A handful of non-Tether aircraft handlers working overnight stared at me. A few seconds passed and they returned to their work, loading an aircraft on the lift.
My heart settled chestward. The ship’s engines droned. An empty trash bag swirled in the corner. I caught a whiff of the sea under the heavy jet fumes of the hangar. Beyond the lift was the night’s vast sky. Dawn was not that far away and lent a tranquility that you don’t often find on a carrier, like the moment before you unwrap a care package from home. So long as I didn’t expose Dunn, everything would work itself out.
The hatch behind me released its hydraulics. The next sound was the aircraft lift kicking on. It went up toward the flight deck loaded with an F35.
I removed the memory card and left my camera on the deck for Lark to find. Maybe it would buy me some time. I put the card in my mouth and ran for the lift.
Three feet high. Four feet. It was rising faster than I anticipated. Below the lift, the howling dark of the sea appeared. If I missed this…
I jumped. My hands clamped the edge. My fingers dug into the asphalt as the wind gusted through my dangling legs.
A grating metal screech came from the lift followed by pings of snapping metal rods. The lift stopped.
Dammit, nothing on this ship worked right. The Navy used to pride itself on being shipshape. Now, if it wasn’t a computer-brain hybrid, no one cared.
“MC Nozick, get down here.”
Below, my ankles dangled beside Lark’s ice blue head. I let go and thumped back on the hangar deck.
Just on the other side of a safety chain and twenty feet down, was the Pacific Ocean. Four more Tether MAs circled behind Lark. The whole hangar stopped to watch.
I spat the memory card into the ocean.
“Good morning, Lark,” I said. “Can I help you?”