– 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?”
– 2 The Devil’s Shame
The way Commander Wade screamed it, I was a ninja pirate capable of commandeering the whole ship. Punting Lark’s nutsack to the moon, evading four Tethers, storming the hangar deck, and grappling up the lift. Screw the Navy, I should have joined the CIA according to the XO.
“She’s five-two and a hundred pounds after Thanksgiving,” Chief Haggenmiller said to Wade, putting up the good fight for me.
Wade, the Ford’s second in command, was less composed. His shouting vibrated the glass in his office door. “When Petty Office Nozick hears an order from a ranking officer, the only thing I should hear is the sound of her lips snapping shut.”
There was a pause. I imagined Chief sipping his coffee. “Agreed, sir.”
The chief was so sea-crusted nothing rattled him. Two years ago, he barely acknowledged me the day I first transferred into his command. I stood in front of his desk a good ten minutes in silence while he read my transfer file. He didn’t even raise an eyebrow when he got to the part about me being expelled from college for harassing a professor. He just snorted. “MIT, huh?”
Same thing this morning. After the XO called him at 0400 for my dress-down, he rounded the passageway to see me sitting outside Wade’s office. “Four Tethers, huh?” was all he said.
Commander Wade had been yelling non-stop for minutes. “I won’t have felons on this ship. If she wants to carry on like her clowndick father, I’ll have her taken to mast.”
Dad was paroled. Besides, the Navy recruited almost anyone these days, so long as they were willing to be a Tether.
“Agreed, sir.” I pictured Chief wiping Wade’s saliva from his face. “Four Tethers twice her size trying to steal her service camera is no cause for violence.”
I heard Wade inhale for another onslaught. But Chief, probably still sipping his coffee, interrupted.
“Also, sir, I’m told there was alcohol present. MC Nozick should know better than to interact with sailors who may have been inebriated.”
Silence. The kind of quiet you’d hear if a neutron bomb went off in outer space.
Then Wade’s door opened and the chief stepped out.
I felt him glaring down at me. I didn’t want to check his reaction yet. I fixed my ball cap to be sure my ponytail stuck out square and watched a fat red cockroach climb the bulkhead.
He drained the last of his mug. “On my six, Nozick.”
The chief turned back to level a stare at me. I had forgotten his rule: don’t call me sir, I work for a living.
He had a foot and a half over me and I had to walk fast like a child to catch up. The only thing that slowed him was stooping through the hatches every twenty paces.
“I’m guessing this was for Devil’s Shame?”
He didn’t want an answer. He knew I wasn’t dumb enough to admit to running an underground zine on a Navy aircraft carrier, even if he gave me more tips than anyone. Whenever we were in an editorial meeting and someone pitched scuttlebutt of something the Ford Messenger could never publish, he’d always looked to me and then say to the wall that we’d have to leave it for the Devil’s Shame. But then he would come around later and give me the afternoon off, just in case there was something I wanted to go check on.
“What was the plan?” he asked. “Do you really want to expose Wade’s operation?”
“What makes you think it stops with Wade?”
Chief stopped mid-stride to wheel on me. His long-ago acne pits made him more trustworthy, as if after all the insults as a kid he’d already seen the worst in people, and not much more could surprise him.
“Careful, Lynn.” He pointed his coffee cup at me. “It’s cacks and giggles to post stories about berthing thieves and who’s sneaking who into storage compartments. But aiming too high will start a berth-to-berth Easter egg hunt.”
We hadn’t yet left the command offices, but Wade’s clerical staff wouldn’t arrive for another hour. Still under darken ship orders, the dingy red light of the passageway seeped over stashed and broken office equipment, worn furniture, and spools of wire left forgotten from some unfinished repair project.
Alone together, the chain of command formalities felt unnecessary.
“You know that E5 last month, the one caught naked in the galley and drunk on poppyshine?” I kept my voice below the ship’s hum. “Now she’s an E6 because she kept her mouth shut about who she was with.”
The news registered in the chief’s jaw muscles. He had daughters. Except for them, I’d never seen him display any emotion before. He was the one who passed me the rumors about the secret X-ray parties. He did it offhandedly, as if they’d disappear as soon as I started poking around. But the parties kept going.
“Tell a civilian reporter.”
“How? We’re underway for another four months.”
We both knew the answer: The Devil’s Shame.”/em> Plenty of mainstream journalists followed it. Plus, I already had my tracks covered. I had a network of gateway proxies set up around the ship bouncing my internet traffic around. I could toss them overboard if I felt the noose tighten. They’d have to investigate more than a thousand sailors if they wanted to trace where the posts for Devil’s Shame came from.
Chief started walking again. Stomping nearly. He threw open the hatch to the Ford Messenger, went past the front counter, and shut the door to his office.
Him being this worried was unusual.
The Messenger was the official news source for the sailors aboard USS Gerald Ford. Our offices looked it too. Low-ceilinged, windowless, and gray dull metal everywhere: gray metal filing cabinets, gray metal stools, gray metal pipes crossed over gray metal air ducts. Even the linoleum tile was ashtray gray flecked with toenail white.
Our September issue, stacked in a hand truck in the corner, waited for distribution. The cover story was about redesigning Ford’s battle flag that hung on the ship’s island. Under that was the headline to my hardest hitting story yet for the Messenger : NAVIGATION STEALS PLAYERS FROM REPAIR. Eight hundred words on how sailors assigned to the Repair Division were playing for the Navigation Department in the upcoming, ship-wide basketball tournament.
Devil’s Shame, however, was for news uncensored by command. Every time a sailor was taken to admiral’s mast, I divulged the full details, which always seemed different than what Admiral Hahn acknowledged. Or once, someone slipped me the FMS scores from all the Tethers on the Ford. I published them to show how many extra points they got just for wiring their brains with plastic. In the two years since I started the feed, I kept the writing sharp and trustworthy. The tone I went for was a resigned justice, as my masthead slogan suggested: “Ain’t Hell If Someone Shames The Devil”. I also maintained a steady stream of gossip, like the going price for contraband and who was fraternizing with whom. For one, it kept readership high, but the gossip also gave me cracks to the bigger stories. I exposed the correspondence course cheating ring after first hearing about it from two lovebirds who couldn’t keep a secret. The X-ray parties were shaping up the same way. I just had to figure out how to write it without revealing myself as the author.
My fingers hovered over the keyboard. Plenty of sailors saw the mob of Tethers chase me into the hangar bay. Someone could have easily overheard Wade screaming at the chief. But how could I get at the poppyshine without exposing myself and Dunn?
“Here’s a tip for you, Nozick.” MC Byron swung into the Messenger office with a what’s-up smirk.
Byron did Mass Communication with me. He was also a jujitsu gold medalist from the age of twelve. He taught classes four nights a week in a makeshift gym in the forward anchor room.
“Someone found a jar of poppyshine sitting under a ladder on the second deck,” Byron said.
That’s how I get the X-ray parties into a Devil’s Shame post. That was my first thought. My second was, was he baiting me?
Byron sparred three or four moves ahead. It was more like chess with him. What looked like an opening turned into a gambit. If he backed up I would think I caught him off guard and go in for a take-down. He would shake his head at my foolishness, grab my gi, plant a foot into my belly, and tomoe nage me over his shoulder.
“Thanks, but I don’t drink,” I said.
“Sorry, gotta use your words. I never learned Morse code.”
“Ain’t hell if someone shames the devil”
He really thought I’d cop to it? “I don’t write for Devil’s Shame, sorry.”
“Horse’s ass you don’t. I know you. You’re the only one on this ship with the balls to take on the Tethers like Devil’s Shame does.”
Chief Haggenmiller emerged from his brooding session looking more worried than when he went in. His glare nailed me from across the room. “Report. In here.”
Inside, I shut the door behind me.
He shook his head before any words came out. “No more Devil’s Shame. This is too big. We have to go to command now.”
Didn’t we just come from command? “Sir?”
“This is an order.” Saying this appeared to calm him. His normal unimpressed face of a Navy chief returned. “Wait here.”
He went toward the coffee pot in the newsroom, but I suspected he wanted to leave me here to think. He was making this into a teaching moment. Dad tried to do this too, before he was indicted.
I checked the photo of the chief’s daughters. I looked to see if the photo on his desk still matched the one I had embossed in my head. It was still there, two girls squished into a bumper car with their mother, the chief’s wife of eighteen years, all laughing. Though the photo was less vivid than the one that unspooled in my mind when I couldn’t fall asleep. In my imagination, it was saturated with realness and moved and told the entire story of the day. A birthday party at the amusement park, ice cream cake, fireworks at night. I envied those girls with equal parts gratitude and sadness. While at sea, they could only call their dad once a month on a sailor phone, but for ten months a year they let me borrow him.
“Let’s say everything works perfectly.” He shut the door, sat behind his desk, and leaned back with his mug rested on his stomach. “Let’s say you ID a single officer who’s coercing young sailors. What happens after that?”
“You know how I know about the E6 getting promoted?”
I stared empty-eyed at the back of Chief’s forehead while I spoke. Any emotion here would make him think it’s personal. I think part of him liked that I was expelled for trying to take down a cheating professor.
“Wade demoted her friend for refusing an X-ray party. She’s trying to transfer out, but Wade won’t let her.” I dropped my gaze toward Chief’s left eye. “Not until she goes to a party.”
The HVAC kicked on. His chair creaked as he shifted weight.
“There will be an investigation,” he said. “Your sources will unravel. Brass from Pearl Harbor will ask who knew what when. Your name will come up. My name.”
For a second, he shot a glance at the photo of his family on the desk. His gaze returned harder than before.
“Nozick, in a few weeks there’s a weapons test. The entire Seventh Fleet command will be aboard. I’ll tell them about the X-ray parties. The poppyshine. I’ll say I think Commander Wade may be involved. All I ask is that you leave it alone for now.”
He was asking me to cut off an arm. He had his kids. I had The Devil’s Shame. Even as I nodded, I knew I’d disobey. Honest to God, I wish I would—could—I wish I was capable of just shutting my mouth and getting in line like everyone else.
“MC Nozick, are we crystal? This won’t be posted in Devil’s Shame?”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
– 3 Ambuscade’s Fourth Wall
I caught the first Tether watching me that afternoon. Ramirez sat on a bucket outside the Messenger’s office scraping rust from a bulkhead. The light fixture outside the office had been busted for weeks, but instead of pretending to fix that while spying on me, they sent someone to zero-heartedly drag a razor blade up and down the passageway.
Ramirez was a heavily tattooed hick from Florida with teeth so big his lips didn’t quite cover them. How the Navy managed to inflate his ASVAB scores, I had no idea. I pictured him as a teenager getting drunk and shooting trees for fun back home. The perfect Tether recruit, half criminal, future rapist, unfit for anything legit. I wouldn’t be surprised if he used his link to the Ford’s Justwork computers to spy on women in the shower.
His metHb reaction to the plastic implants was bad. The whole passageway reeked with his old fish smell. The cable running down the back of his neck pulsed slow waves of light. I imagined his sighting of me bouncing from Tether to Tether across the ship all the way up to whoever was running this poppyshine operation. Lord knows it wasn’t Ramirez.
I pinched my nose as I passed behind him.
He pretended to focus on the brown flakes gathering around his boots, but his non-monocled eye tracked my feet. He brushed the metal chips into the corner with the rat droppings and popped up as if his orders arrived: follow her.
Dad worked in finance; he never took me outdoors. But Ramirez, the way he stalked in my blind spots, I guessed that he hunted as a kid. I decided to screw with him. I made like I was heading toward my berthing. I kept that course and let Ramirez spread my location through the ship’s Justwork. I let all the Tethers think, she’s going to her rack. Then I about-faced directly toward Ramirez.
His chin jerked up. The prey was coming for him.
Between us was a ladderwell. I sprang left and slid down with my hands on the rails and feet in the air.
Ramirez’s boots chased, but too slow. I was down a second deck before he could sight me again.
Left to starboard. Left again to forward. Up a ladder. Right to aft, up another ladder, and back going the same direction, same deck, but different passageway. Not a single Tether. I shook them. It wouldn’t last long, sixty seconds maybe. But whichever Tether showed up next, that would be the next tier in the poppyshine pyramid.
I headed toward my original destination, the enlisted Comms Room at the end of the ship. Back when the Navy cared about morale, they installed sailor phones, but now with Justwork’s Tether computers hogged all the bandwidth. I got twenty minutes a month to try calling Dad.
Petty Officer Moole jumped into the passageway ahead of me wheezing and adjusting her eyepiece.
Interesting. They chose a woman.
Moole and I shared a berthing. The skin above her snarled lip was noticeably darker. The implants gave her a constant slow nosebleed.
She was between me and the Comms Room. We approached each other like caged tigers.
“Afternoon, shipmate,” I said. “XO is driving his remotes all over the ship today.”
She cracked her knuckles and wiped a run of brown blood from her nose. She hated being called a remote.
“Oh, don’t get so mad,” I said over my shoulder. “Just think of all the special remote pay you’re getting. Not like you had to study for it.”
Twelve non-Tethers waited for an unbroken sailor phone. At least the waiting let me collect scuttlebutt. The best Devil’s Shame tips came from sailors calling home. They gossiped about who got promoted, drama in the ranks. The juiciest intel that day came from a COD boatswain who said he offloaded all sorts of luggage for inbound Distinguished Visitors. Apparently, some of these DVs had so much luggage it was sent in advance. The boatswain told his friend back home that the luggage tags had their names and—a bit creepily—he looked them up. All the DVs were pretty females working for Admiral Hahn’s Pearl Harbor office.
X-ray parties, I thought.
When a sailor phone opened, I sat and punched in Dad’s number. After several rings, a woman appeared on screen. She leaned over the desk like she had to run down the hall to answer the call.
“Good evening. Ambuscade Care Center. How can I direct your call?”
“Hi, Natalie, how are you?”
Natalie smiled and caught her breath. “Lynn, my dear, how you stay? No more trouble you causing?”
“When have I ever caused trouble?”
She lifted her head from between both arms to look at the screen over her glasses. “You a thousand miles aways on a boat. How’d you get there by obeying the rules?”
Compared to the Ford, the scene behind Natalie seemed clean and potpourri smelling. The only walls I had ever seen at Ambuscade were the ones surrounding her. They were the same gentle pink as her bright wool cardigan. There were fake paintings of flowers and haystacks. The furniture was cheap and generic, like the set to an infomercial. It was studio-quiet on her end too.
“You done that computer class already?”
I shook my head, half in response to the automata correspondence course I still hadn’t finished, but also in response to what her chitchat meant: again, I wouldn’t be able to talk to Dad.
“Girl, you say your college credits is gone in four months. You know your dad wants you done.”
“How is he?”
She shook her head like she had the last eighteen times. “Same. Still no speaking.”
“Can’t I at least see him?”
After Dad lost his vision the state released him into a halfway house. Then came a quick descent into spacey uninterestedness. Nothing could motivate him, not even me getting expelled from school and joining the Navy. By the time I finished boot camp he had stopped speaking. His parole officer found Ambuscade for me.
Natalie gathered up the silence in a hurry. “But I know exactly what your father would say. Be done with those college credits. The Navy is no place for somebody smart as you.”
A timer popped on screen. Two minutes.
What the hell? The Navy couldn’t even give me my lousy twenty minutes anymore?
“Can you ask him something for me?” I stammered to get the words out faster. “Ask him to write me. You, or someone else, can dictate.” Ever since he was admitted, Natalie was the only one who ever answered the phone at Ambuscade.
My words hung there like they needed disinfecting. Something in the way her lower lids flitted, something rehearsed, made me feel like I was watching a performance.
“I’ll do just that,” she said. “But I know what he say. He’ll say leave the Navy and stay out of—”
My screen rebooted.
Honest, I think Dad would tell me to figure how to make money off all the Tether dummies. Thinking of it then, if Dad ever did write to me, how would I know it was really him?
Ramirez and his fish stench were on my heels as I left the Comms Room. I didn’t have any more energy to play games with him. Moole’s eye waited to pick me up in women’s berthing.
“That’s why command don’t like you,” she said. “You’re a dropout.”
Her rack was opposite mine in a cubicle of nine sailors stacked three high. She lay with her head propped on a pillow and a brown tissue stuffed in her nose.
“Moron, you didn’t even finish the first year.” The eye behind her monocle glowed white as if she scrolled through my expulsion file right then. “You put on like Tethers are less than you. But you got just as much school as me.”
I wasn’t about to explain about MIT professors testing off-syllabus then offering extra credit for joining a greedy pyramid scheme. “Who’s your brother dating now that you’re Wade’s remote control?”
I scolded myself. Why did I goad her? I wouldn’t even be in the Navy if I knew how to keep my mouth shut.
Moole hissed. “Whoops. Accidentally, marked that public. Guess everyone is gonna know about you and professor Vo-oh-ray.”
Vouray. She was Quebecois. The glare she hammered me with after I went to the provost about her pyramid scheme, it was thrilling. I felt like Lady Justice with her sword coolly by my side. But then the provost called me back in. He told me harassing faculty was expellable conduct. He said I could either voluntarily accept a three-semester suspension, or he would recommend expulsion to the Administrative Board. Turns out, only the Navy takes a drop-out with a disciplinary record.
Moole leaned off her rack and brought the rot around her implants close enough to smell. She whispered, “Least I got a future. Wade’s gonna deep-six you soon enough. And if he don’t, I’ll float-test you myself.”
– 4 The Devil’s Tuning Fork
This wall-less prison they had me in was hermetic. I couldn’t ask anything about the X-ray parties. With my Tether minders always around, no one wanted to be seen talking to me. I even skipped jujitsu just to save Byron and them the hassle.
For two days this went on. Like the sun and the moon passing the planet back and forth to each other, Wade’s Tethers handed me off around corners and between compartments. Always one of them over my shoulder. It was almost an omnipotence they had. An untouchable cage of light, there but unseeable, there but unprovable. All of it bubble-gummed together with a computer and a network of future-less numbnuts needing a paycheck.
“Nozick, come here.”
Commander Wade. He materialized behind me. Not ten minutes earlier, he had been in the Messenger offices speaking with the chief. He left and the chief assigned me to write up the installation of new cooking equipment. Now Wade stood alone in the galley as slit-mouthed as a debt collector.
My Tethers had disappeared, too. What should have felt liberating, instead pinched in around me. Just the XO and me, a Petty Officer Second Class who’d never make First Class if I didn’t Joe Navy right up.
“This way.” He jerked his head toward the bulkhead. He leaned to my ear, hushing. “I know it’s hard to stand by when you think something is happening.”
Like coercing sailors with drugs?
“I feel bad about it,” he said. “I wanted to make it up to you by letting you cover next week’s weapons test.”
He stood back to measure my reaction, but he was getting nothing from me. What happened to Chief’s plan of telling Fleet Command about the poppyshine and X-ray parties? Did the chief say something already? He wouldn’t set me up, would he?
Rather than let any of these tells show in my face, I watched a line of ants climb the wall behind him.
“There’ll be a bigwig defense contractor aboard,” he said. “CIA, too. This could be a break for your career. All Hands Magazine will want something on it.”
All Hands, the Navy’s premier propaganda rag. Getting on staff at All Hands got you to the Pentagon and then maybe a cushy post running PR for a three-star. I couldn’t care less. It was still the same brainwashing, only with Pentagon brass reading it. But I knew enough to feign enthusiasm.
“Great, sir. Thank you for the opportunity.”
Why? This weapons test had the whole fleet worked up. Why give a troublemaker like me access? It had to be a trap.
“Good then, I’ll let All Hands know that I’ll be reviewing your articles before they’re sent.” Again, he checked for my reaction and came up empty.
Watertight, sir. AJ-squared-away ready for duty. Don’t know nothing about officers having sex with sailors high on poppyshine. The ant troop was somewhere above our heads by then. I stared through to the back of Wade’s head and gave a curt nod.
He grunted, looking unconvinced. “You should start doing pre-interviews with the combat department ASAP. Also, take this. Chief Haggenmiller said he trusts you with it.”
He walked away, leaving me with a stiff piece of paper. It was a photograph of the chief’s wife and two daughters squeezed into a bumper car. The photo from the frame on his desk.
I was wrong. There were prisons more effective than wall-less ones. You could lock someone up with their past.
My world imploded after Dad went to prison. I barely remembered the trial. Mostly, I remembered the slow unraveling of everything that was regular. Family and friends disappeared. Strange visitation routines. New homes every five months.
The ants now crossed near the oily mesh of an exhaust fan. Single file, even when a wayward ant veered from the procession and the Ford’s vents sucked it up, the ants marched on. That’s what justice was, a greasy, black void. If I pursued this poppyshine story, that’s where I would lead Chief and his family. They’d pin whatever I did on him. My childish idealism would consume us all.
I whispered to the empty galley. “Aye, aye, sir.”
– 5 Contagion
The C-2 Greyhound floated down toward the Ford through an iron blue sky. It slammed into the deck, caught the wire, and arrested to a violent stop. After a moment of frozen tension, it rolled backward a few feet and stopped.
I recorded the landing from the tower with Admiral Hahn in the foreground, just as Wade said. I was getting better at following his instructions. Like a damn circus animal. Next, I shot B-roll of Hahn on the flight deck giving orders, again, making sure I only got back angles so the camera didn’t see his face puckered against the stink of jet fuel swirling around us.
The Greyhound’s cargo streamed onto the deck, a dozen fleet officers with support staff composed entirely of young women wearing white heels and the old dress skirts the Navy tossed out years ago. They even had new white float coats that made their lipstick stand stark against their cranials and goggles.
Lark and Wade bounced a glance off each other. Wade looked away first and then Lark went back to ogling the bare legs crossing the deck. The Tethers outside the ATO shack crackled in laughter. The bluish men grinned and slapped each other while Moole rolled her eye and dragged a sleeve under her nose.
Lark was probably broadcasting to the Justwork. I squeezed my camera tighter and resisted turning it on the chuckling hyenas. It would only upset Wade.
A clique of civilians followed the women, but hardly anyone bothered to notice them.
Hahn leaned into Commander Wade’s ear. Wade then turned to me to yell over the propeller’s roar. “That’s enough filming. Pack up. Prepare for the hangar event.”
Aye, aye. Petty Officer Suckup at your service. For the last week I churned out garbage articles a thousand words at a time for Wade. The new weapons system being tested, the warship we were sinking, even a listicle on how the cooks were preparing for the DVs. All without my Tether minders hovering. They had nothing to fear, not with Chief’s daughters at risk.
I capped my lens and headed back to the ATO shack. At the shack, in part to avoid whatever intimidation Moole wanted to give me, I looked back to the flight deck.
Hahn, wearing dress whites, swaggered past the foul line to greet one civilian in particular. At first they shook hands. Then the civilian pulled Hahn—a rear admiral with twenty thousand sailors under his command—into a hug. As if asking permission, bowing almost, Hahn led the civilian toward the aircraft lift.
Even with all the clumsy flight gear dangling about him, the civilian ambled with his arm over Hahn as if the Ford were his own private yacht. The deck crew scrambled to unbuckle his cranial, but he shooed them away, popped it off himself, and tucked it under his arm. He was rich-handsome, a man with choices. He had surfer length, graying blond hair and rolled up shirtsleeves showing tanned forearms. As the lift descended toward the hangar, he ignored the commotion around him and instead scanned the sea as if looking for a wave he could catch while us worker drones prepared his next appointment.
I had read about John Rawls, but I wasn’t prepared for how calm he’d make me feel.
I had forgotten what I was doing and had to scurry down the ladder in time to record the presentation. A podium, a stage, and half of the Ford’s crew waited for us in the hangar. The women had disappeared leaving just the fleet officers and, I assumed, the Justwork defense contractors.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let me begin by saying…”
Hahn had us bored in seconds. The Tethers stared at the back of the head in front of them while the non-Tethers swung their attention around in search of anything more entertaining.
“Tomorrow morning, the Gerald Ford Strike Group will begin a 180-second barrage of approximately nine thousand missiles, torpedoes, and artillery at the decommissioned ex-USS Themis. Not to see if we can sink her. Instead, we’ll test if a new class of sailor can protect her. I’ll turn it over to Justwork’s founder, John Rawls to explain.”
Hahn and Rawls exchanged a stiff handshake with none of the chumminess from before.
If Hahn’s presence was like brutal sunshine, Rawls was a cool tropical breeze. He unhooked the microphone from the podium and walked out to the edge of the stage.
All the Tethers lifted their heads in unison. Rawls’s unexpected ease must have reset Justwork’s algorithm. With eerie choreography, hundreds of necks craned to gather new information and feed it back to the ship.
Rawls skipped the traditional thank-you-for-your-service and went straight into a joke. “After that long plane ride with all those khakis, I’m surprised I still know how to operate a wrench.”
The hangar echoed with laughter. Even some of the officers chuckled at themselves.
Rawls waited for the joke to fade before he turned serious. “Traditionally, cerebral implants have a processing ceiling equivalent to the human brain. I won’t bore you with the math, but theoretically, we should only be able to intercept roughly nine hundred targets per minute. But Justwork thinks the Navy deserves better.”
“Better than Space Force?” Someone shouted from the back.
Rawls fired back. “A hundred times better than Space Force.”
A few hooyahs rolled through the hangar.
“The problem with Space Force,” Rawls said, “Their augments are slowed by the human brain. By tethering many brains together, Justwork can produce levels of performance exponentially higher than any single entity operating alone. Like flies or insects function optimally in hives, our new Defense Flock93 will combine the best parts of a Navy sailor and multiply it again and again.”
“Hooyah!” Came from the crowd. Then another. “Hooyah! Hooyah!”
The chants gathered and synchronized. Hahn came out from behind Rawls and alternated between clapping his hands hard and ginning the sailors with arm pumps.
Rawls, who looked like he had more to say, bowed and yielded the stage to Admiral Hahn.
I framed the shot in my head, but didn’t dare record it: Hahn, meaty and red-faced, screaming while Rawls watched from behind the way a judge watches a drunk stagger into a bar fight.
“Hooyah! Hooyah! Hooyah!”
I wasn’t the only one not clapping. Another man, who watched me from behind the officers and civilians on stage, kept his arms behind his back. For as large as this man was—as big as Dad, even—it was amazing how he nearly disappeared amongst the defense contractors. He had the same rumpled slacks and button-up shirt. CIA was my guess. He had soft, putty-textured skin, and two faint scars on both temples. He looked shapeable.
“Nozick, pay attention.” Commander Wade took my elbow. “You need photos of the officers shaking hands with enlisted. I want a Tether in each one.”
Wade escorted a parade of fleet officers and enlisted sailors before my camera. We all faked our way through it.
I focused on protecting the chief. Protecting me too. Maybe if I could stay out of trouble, ingratiate myself with Wade and Hahn, I could get myself off this ship. Get out of the Navy. Join the CIA or work for Rawls. Even the Tethers had a better plan than me. Suck up to command, get in line, do what you’re told.
As the bodies cycled through my viewfinder, I spotted a reflection in the windshield of a helicopter. It was the CIA guy above me on the flight deck. I turned to see who he was looking at. But in the time it took me to turn my head and look up, he was gone.
– 6 Every Ventriloquist Needs A Dummy
Wade’s edits rotted my stomach. But I kept my cool.
“Describe the emotions in the hangar better.”
“Say Admiral Hahn inspired them.”
“Tell us how many sailors waited to greet the admiral.”
Propaganda drivel meant to get more funding from Congress. I numbed my brain to it. If I wanted to fight for what’s right, I should have stayed in school and out of the Navy. It was an hour into midwatch by the time All Hands—or Wade—was placated.
I needed to kick something.
Most of the Ford’s five thousand souls slept in her droning silence down passageways draped in the hollow shadows of vacant red light. I took the long way to the gym. Up to the hangar and over all the crew quarters and then back down before reaching the boxing room. I wasn’t going anywhere near the DV passageway. If I didn’t hear the X-ray parties, I stood a better chance of staying uninvolved.
After last week’s pathetic performance pulling myself up the aircraft lift, I wanted to work my abs. I wrapped my legs around the heavy bag and did hanging sit-ups, then shadowboxed the mirror for three rounds before starting on the bag.
Just as I started comboing, Ramirez leaned his head into the boxing room. He gave a sleepy nod—presumably more to Ford’s Justwork than to me: person-of-interest located, I’m going back to sleep.
They didn’t need to watch me. They had an ax over Chief’s head to keep me in line.
I went at the bag harder, but it wasn’t working. Each strike tempted more resentment. Not that these X-ray parties were happening, I was over that. It was the bullying. Hahn and Wade knew they had me. I spend all this time criticizing Lark and Moole for being mindless Tethers. How was I any different?
My knuckles bled. I was the remote control.
“Oh my God, they have punching bags!” A tiny woman with wavy blond hair giggled at the hatchway. “Aircraft carriers have punching bags!”
She staggered into the boxing room with her uniform unbuttoned showing everything you’re not supposed to.
You forget how monotone the Navy is. Everywhere is drab gray metal. Then in walks a woman with devil red lipstick. Under the boxing room’s milkwater fluorescents, her lips were the color of revenge.
She took a cartoonish squatting position in front of the bag next to mine and made machine guns sounds with each punch. She tried to keep a brawler’s scowl, but after the fifth punch, she lost to the poppyshine and erupted into a giggle fit.
“I punching. I punching.”
Jesus, they were taunting me now.
The woman was a Seventh Fleet shore staffer based in Pearl Harbor. I remembered Lark watching her catwalk across the flight deck. How the hell could they let her out of the X-ray party? They didn’t even care anymore.
Eventually, Lark himself came and took her by the wrist. At the hatch, his ice blue face looked back to me.
If he broadcast my reaction through the Justwork, I hope it said this: “Go to hell, I ain’t falling for it.”
I laid into the bag. Not hard, but methodically. I churned through my combos. Front kick, front kick, cross. Jab, weave, sweep. The rhythm lured me back into a trance, back to dwelling on being Wade’s remote. How did this happen? It was the Devil’s Shame that they took away. That’s what separated me from the Tethers, having an outlet, a voice against the bullies. Such a silly project that tricked me into thinking I was more than a cog in Hahn’s machine.
After eight rounds, I quit the bag and went to the cardio room next door, which was really just a dozen treadmills underneath the Ford’s main HVAC compartment. The soot-colored ductwork above needed constant repair so they just removed the ceiling and let the ship’s innards show.
I propped my computer on a treadmill, typed “John Rawls” into the search box, and started jogging.
Content Blocked. The Navy’s standard page appeared on my screen. Normally, Ford’s filters only blocked porn and high-data vids that stole bandwidth from Justwork’s computers.
I tried other searches. Justwork, Rawls, Tether inventor, biotech entrepreneur. All blocked.
Just as I was about to connect to one of the proxy servers I had hidden around the ship, Moole walked in.
Something changed. The way her eye targeted my computer before looking anywhere else. The way she took a stationary bike in the back which gave her clear view of my screen. The way she moved, like a rat along the floorboard, on a mission. No, they were watching me again. I must have tripped something new in Justwork’s algorithm. I should have used my proxy servers from the start.
I checked my screen to see what Moole could see. My last search had duped the filters somewhat and found news stories mentioning Rawls in passing. They used phrases like “despite his tragic upbringing”, “lived in a shipping container”, or “fatherless from the age of twelve.”
Join the club. I was twelve when they imprisoned Dad.
Moole was mid-sip from her water bottle when her head whipped toward the hatchway. She seemed to hold her breath and brace herself. The CIA guy entered, the large guy with scars on his temples who didn’t clap during the hangar presentation. They faced each other, but neither gave an acknowledgment. They were like two hawks circling the same rabbit.
The CIA guy came toward the center of the room. He didn’t move the way I expected him to. Most people who spent sixteen weeks in boot camp have a rigidness to the spine that never fully leaves. Instead, his knees had more bend than normal, as if he concentrated on absorbing all the sounds his massive body made. Still, his walk had a familiar quality to me that I couldn’t place. His gaze, too, it was spectral in how he seemed capable of taking in the entire room without looking at any one thing. It reminded me of waking in the middle of the night to see my childhood dolls, their white plastic eyes already staring at me. After minutes of screaming, Dad would finally walk in to turn the dolls away.
He threw his sweatshirt across the arm of a treadmill and went to fill his water bottle at the fountain behind me. He passed in front without making eye contact or moving his lips. But he said: “Your water bottle looks empty.”
Spooky as all hell. Never before had I seen someone able to communicate without actually moving their mouth.
I checked Moole in the mirror.
She watched him, not me. Only after I slowed my treadmill did she switch back to me, processing, confused. The LEDs on her temple flashed berserk. I pictured the whole situation sending Justwork’s algorithms into a frantic spiral.
I stepped off the treadmill and followed the ventriloquist.
The water fountain was in an alcove at the back of the room between two tiny changing rooms. By the time I made it to the fountain, the CIA guy was gone. How, I don’t know. I didn’t even hear the locker room door open.
I unscrewed my water bottle and put it under the fountain.
The men’s locker room door opened with no more sound than smoke. The ventriloquist’s head appeared in the crack. The plastic of his eyes had dimmed. He made a slim motion with his head to join him.
They caught me searching the internet for Rawls. That’s what I assumed. The ventriloquist was CIA charged with protecting Justwork. Admiral Hahn sent him to scold me. Another warning to back off.
“Now, Lynn,” he said.
He knew my name. My feet moved like on marionette strings.
“Stand on the toilet.” He pointed to a bathroom stall. “Petty Officer Moole is checking the women’s locker room now. She’ll be here in ninety seconds.”
Again, he said all this without moving his lips, and he did it without raising his voice beyond a hush. It was as if he could crumple his words into a ball and toss them through the air into my ears.
Then it clicked. He knew Moole’s location. Suddenly the scars on his temple took on new meaning. He was a Tether.
“The relationship between John Rawls and Admiral Hahn is of concern to us.” He took off his shirt as he said this. “We’d like to ask your help in investigating it.”
The locker room door opened. From the stall, standing on the toilet, I couldn’t see anything except the ventriloquist whose expression had turned grumpy.
“Do you mind?”
This he said while moving his lips like a normal human. It gave his voice a familiar tone, like a morning call to breakfast.
“Sorry, sir, I’m looking for—”
“There’s no one here but me, sailor. Privacy. Now.”
I knew that voice. My mind chased memories around in circles.
The door closed. The ventriloquist buttoned his shirt and went back to throwing his words.
“You can get off the toilet. She’s in the passageway looking for you.”
How is he driving Moole like his own personal remote control? “Who are you?”
“I put poppyshine in her water bottle. Wait until it takes effect before watching the video.”
What the hell was he talking about? “Who do you work for?”
“Hahn has rigged the weapons test. I need you to prove it.”
No. I mean, hell no.
Who did this guy think he was ordering me around? I wouldn’t risk the chief. He was one of the few people who didn’t care about me being expelled. He never once mentioned that Dad stole millions of dollars. Mr. Ventriloquist could work for the White House for all I cared, I wasn’t going to do anything against the chief.
“Rawls and Hahn are using the Tethers. Using you.”
He seemed capable of seeing more than just my thoughts. It was as if he could see my past. As if he were there himself to know which puppet strings moved me the most: I was no Tether, I wasn’t going to let someone like Hahn bully me.
I didn’t say anything, but he already read me.
“Good. You can call me Marid.”
– 7 Tethered To Who You Are
By the time I turned the corner from the men’s locker room into the cardio room, Marid was gone. He had to be CIA. Who else could disappear around corners like that?
The room, normally pounding with the sound of sailors on treadmills and the catapult launching, was still. On my treadmill, under my computer, was a memory card.
Running boots shuffled to a stop behind me. I smelled the metHb before I turned around. Moole and Lark. She looked tiny compared to his massiveness.
“Where’d you go?” Moole wiped a trace of blood from her nose.
Not your damn business, now is it? I fisted the memory card and kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to cause more problems. For myself and for Chief. But also because I wanted to see what was on the memory card.
“I ran to the bathroom.”
“I checked the head.”
“She checked the head, Nozick.” Lark massaged the crown of his head. “Where were you?”
What, you report my pee breaks to all the ship’s Tethers? They probably got in trouble for losing me again.
“I needed more privacy.” I faked a stammer and looked at Moole. “You know, girl privacy.”
I didn’t even know what that meant, but it made Lark squirm.
I gathered my computer and water bottle from the treadmill.
“Where are you going now?” Lark asked.
“Shower and bed.”
They parted to let me through. Moole fetched her towel and water bottle from the exercise bike and chased after me leaving Lark behind.
I took the route that passed by the DV passageway. Drunk laughing and music grew louder. Down one passageway, the blonde from the boxing room in a heavy kiss with a fleet officer.
“Frickin Wade,” Moole mumbled. She uncapped her water bottle and drank.
Marid, I thought, the poppyshine.
At our berthing, I turned on Moole. “You getting in the shower with me?”
Her feet stayed planted on the deck, but her head swayed. Brown blood ran unwiped down her chin. Her eye glazed over.
What is she reporting back to the Justwork? Did they monitor her in real time? Could they detect her blood alcohol levels?
I pretended normal. I stepped around Moole and stowed my computer under my rack beside the photo of the chief’s family. In one sweep, I collected my shower caddy and camera. I tucked both under my towel and I checked over my shoulder.
Moole’s eyepiece faced my general direction, but she was stoned. Could they still see me? I guess I would find out how tethered the Tethers were.
I went to the shower, turned it on, inserted the memory card, plugged in my earphones, and pressed play.
The display on my camera was small and I could barely make out the title screen, fuzzy-white font over a black screen:
APPLIED FUTURES IMPLANT CONFERENCE 2024, Hong Kong.
Even smaller letters crawled across the bottom of the screen. I had to pause and zoom to read it.
CLASSIFIED SURVEILLANCE FROM CW#3.
The screen lit up to a tiny restaurant scene saturated in pastel colors with tables and chairs packed together. The camera angle moved as if positioned from a human head. It was a head-up display. Data framed the recording: location, a map of the restaurant and surrounding buildings, a recording counter, a distance meter, and a message box.
Two icons floated in the vision field and pointed to the only two visible diners: #H and #R.
Is this what Tethers see all the time?
Hahn and Rawls sat at a table near the window under a neon sign advertising noodles. Hahn wore a civilian suit. If the title date was accurate, the years since the video was shot had not been kind to him. He was much healthier there in the noodle shop, thinner with a longer neck that bobbed up and down listening to Rawls.
To me, Rawls had the same ageless peacefulness that he had on the flight deck. He took slow sips of broth while explaining—dumbing down, I thought—something to Hahn.
“The problem with NeuroScan’s implants is they don’t allow for a multi-path process, something I perfected back at Dannemora.”
Hahn cocked his head.
“The penitentiary,” Rawls explained.
Dannemora was where Dad was held. Where he went blind. I pulled the camera display closer to inspect Rawls’s face. What was he doing at Dannemora? What was he perfecting?
Hahn shrugged. “NeuroScan’s implants don’t need to be improved. With billions in DARPA funds, they control the market.”
“Listen, defense is not Justwork’s market. I couldn’t care less. My prosthetics are minimally invasive. We network them to brain’s perforant for a quicker reaction time, especially during stress. I’m not going for soldiers. I want cops.”
They talked about Justwork’s specifications, but the words drizzled over me like mist. I was still hung on the possibility that Rawls might have known Dad. He might have been there when the accident happened.
Dad didn’t know what happened to himself. I learned a lot about how freedom of information laws worked—or didn’t work—but I never got an answer to how he lost his sight. Listening to Rawls change the subject so quickly from Dannemora to helping police make quicker decisions, it felt like a bully stabbing his finger against my chest.
“Nozick, you still alive in there?” Lark’s voice echoed through the shower room.
What the hell was he doing in the women’s berthing?
“Private time, Lark, private time.”
I focused back on the surveillance footage.
“I’m not quite sure who you pissed off,” Hahn said, “but the Secretary of the Navy is pressuring me to buy NeuroScan’s implants. Not Justwork’s.”
Rawls leaned back. The head-up display zoomed-in on his face. As calm as he appeared, his beach blue eyes came alive. “I think the secretary made a bet on NeuroScan earlier in his career and he’s willing to double down to preserve his ego.”
He paused and regarded Hahn like a bonsai tree.
“Ego is a powerful thing,” Rawls said. “Perhaps the most powerful thing.”
The Tether recording the footage zoomed-out to show Hahn again.
“I could make a similar bet,” Hahn said. “On you.”
Rawls batted his hand. “Not sure I’d take that kind of career risk if I were you, Captain.”
“I could be convinced.”
There was a clang of a dropped piece of silverware. Hahn and Rawls looked directly at the camera, at the Tether or whoever recorded it. Hahn went back to his soup, but Rawls leaned forward as if he couldn’t be sure what he saw.
“John—” Hahn pulled Rawls back. “I could be convinced.”
A long hesitation stretched between them. “How much?”
“A thirty percent stake in Justwork.”
Rawls shrugged. “Fine,” he said before turning back to look harder at CW#3.
– 8 Ain’t No Shame For The Devil
My camera had been moved. That was the first thing I noticed when I woke. My computer too. My dress uniform was hung backwards. Someone had to have taken it out and put it back wrong.
Moole had left already. Her bunk was perfectly made and smooth. On the floor beside my rack was a drop of black blood.
I was scared to check. If the video with Rawls and Hahn was missing… It would mean things would get so much worse for me and Chief. My hands shook as I reached for the empty soap bottle where I hid my valuables.
Lark. It had to have been Lark watching me through Moole’s monocle and seeing me take the camera to the shower. The people who became Tethers, to them justice was a tool for getting what’s owed to them. Hahn should be court martialed, but instead Lark would use the video to get something for himself. Shaming the devil was a joke for Hahn and them to laugh at in the officer’s ward.
I spent the next thirty minutes searching my clothes and shower caddy to be sure I hadn’t misplaced the card somehow. I begged the universe for it to be a mistake. Not for me, really, but for Chief and his girls.
I was late when I finally arrived at the Messenger offices. Byron stopped typing to look up at me. It wasn’t a why-are-you-late look.
“Commander Wade is in with the chief,” he whispered as if sharing a rumor. “Wade was here before Chief. Waiting.”
I spoke before I thought. “Did he have a memory card with him?”
Byron squinted the same way he did when I made a mistake while sparring.
“Never mind.” I crept around the front desk.
“They said to tell you to knock when you got here.”
I tried to think, but my head rang like a dropped cauldron. What could they possibly accuse me of? I didn’t make the video. I didn’t post it to Devil’s Shame . I just watched it.
As I knocked on his office door, it occurred to me: Chief didn’t ask for any of this either.
Neither Wade nor the chief looked away from each other when I entered. It felt like walking into a poker showdown. Did Wade know about Hahn’s corruption? Was he in on it? Did he tell Chief? Would the chief choose to protect his family over me?
It was selfish of me, I know, but I wanted to know who Chief would choose.
“Nozick,” Wade said.” “We—All Hands—wants you to get some video of the Themis before the weapons test.”
“We’ll go over this morning.” The normal grit of the chief’s voice was robotic. “All of us.”
He lifted his eyes for the first time, right at me. The concern was gone. The pits and lines of his face that I had known so well turned hieroglyphic. I’d let him down. All he wanted was no problems, and here I was making a huge problem.
Wade stood. He looked at my camera. “Always ready, aren’t you, Specialist.” He didn’t wait for an answer. “A heli is standing by.”
“Now?” I asked with more shock than I should have.
Wade marched out without so much as looking at me. The chief stood and waited for me to leave.
I couldn’t read him.
He seemed to understand this. With the XO in the outer office, he picked up a picture frame from his desk—the one that held the photo of his wife and two kids. It was still in my rack. He flipped it up so I could see it was empty. He nodded toward the door.
I understood. He wasn’t going to ruin his family for me. I was on my own.
Lark waited outside the Messenger office and led us single file—Wade, me, then the chief—toward the flight deck. Even through the passageway’s grime I smelled the metHb fish stink approaching. Sure enough, Moole, Ramirez, and two other Tethers met us halfway, their gazes waiting to receive us as we rounded a corner. Moole raked me over with an eye still puffy from the poppyshine. She didn’t even bother with a tissue, she just licked at the trickle of brown blood coming from her nose.
A helicopter and several Justwork employees, including Rawls, waited for us on the flight deck. The civilians were hungover in rumpled clothes and guzzling water. We coptered to an amphibious ship where two twin-engine patrol crafts were lowered into the water and sped us toward the Themis.
I picked the boat with mostly Justwork contractors. Except for Rawls, the civilians appeared equally creeped out by the Tethers’ synchronized movements.
The ex-USS Themis was anchored ten miles south of the strike group’s position. We smashed through the waves for thirty minutes before reaching her. One of the Justwork bros turned green and vomited over the side. He drank more water and threw up again. Rawls sat calmly admiring the sea, occasionally grinning at the sudden drop off the backside of a wave.
The Themis was an ancient, Newport-class tank landing ship built before combat shifted to AI and augmentation. She didn’t have the Ford’s garish bloat, instead, she had a long and elegant hull like a rusted nail waiting to be shivved into a sleeping child. Lonely and beautiful, when the PB pilots cut the engines, we could hear the groan of her steel plates shift with the rolling sea. The tape I got in the shade of Themis was haunting.
The last crew aboard installed the Defense Flock93 systems and left a small dock and accommodation ladder to climb the sixty feet to the main deck.
At the top, Rawls tapped my shoulder. “Can I show you the D-Flock components?”
The entire trip to the Themis I resisted the urge to ask him what he was doing at Dannemora Correctional Facility. Now might be my chance. Did he know what happened to my father?
“The system is essentially a series of canisters.” Rawls pointed to some fifty oil drums daisy-chained around Themis’s deck and hanging over the bulwark. He lifted the lid off one canister and reached inside and pulled out a palm-sized aviation drone.
“Six hundred per canister. Thirty thousand, all simultaneously controlled by just fifteen Justwork Tethers back on the Ford—or hundreds of miles away if we want.”
Rawls grinned like Christmas.
“When they swarm, they can immobilize missiles, mass shooters, drivers who blow stop signs. They are like night insects, always there but never seen.”
I got heartburn looking into the canister. I imagined a human Tether with mile-long tentacles made up of these flying shards of metal. Thousands of tiny fingers extending around the world, plucking me from a crowd, reaching down my throat, clogging and nicking until I drowned in blood.
He whispered just then. “Imagine a world where the law is finally more powerful than the lawless.”
I wasn’t sure if he said this to me or my video camera, but the stare he pinned me with was definitely not for the camera. It occurred to me that Justwork wasn’t creating a new level of computing power. It was playing with godhood.
I whispered back, “Not if the lawless control these things.”
Moole’s shadow fell over us. “XO wants us to take you below. To video the D-Flock power system.”
Lark waited by the steering tower massaging his scalp in pain. Under the beating sun, his ice blue skin vanished behind his web of metHb veins. When I didn’t move right away, Moole positioned herself behind me and Lark pointed down a ladder that disappeared into the Themis’s dark belly.
I looked for the chief, but he had wandered to the far side of the deck with one of the Justwork engineers.
“Nozick, hurry.” Wade laughed. “We don’t want to be here when the tests begin.”
I went first down the ladder. I didn’t get three steps before Lark started down.
The ruthless equatorial sun made the blackness below deck nearly complete. The only light came from the glowing D-Flock cables running from the canisters above deck and wrapping around the ladder’s rails. They pulsed in slow, rolling waves, the same as a Tether’s cable. Only when the cables turned and ran horizontal to the ladder did I know where the deck was.
I reached the bottom.
Rawls leaned over the open hatch above. “Just follow the cable around the corner. Down the passageway.”
Lark reached the deck. “Let’s move, Nozick.”
His monocle filled one eye socket with a faint pink light. The rest of his face was a black hole.
He had night vision I realized. He could see just fine. I set my camera’s flash to stay lit and act as a flashlight.
We were in a long starboard-side passageway that ran the length of the Themis. The air was hot, still, and moist. Closed hatchways lined the passageway and continued past where the D-Flock cables turned port side around a corner. Beyond the glowing cables, the Themis reverted to a cavern echoing with the long slow creaks of hatches swinging with the roll of the sea.
My camera display flashed. Low battery.
“What’s your malfunction, Specialist?”
“I can’t keep my strobe on like this.”
“Just follow the light from the cables.”
What if instead of standing behind me like a parking lot rapist, you lead the way with your night vision?
To save batteries, I set my camera to take stills using the flash. I snapped a photo and then looked at the image in the display. There was a small cardboard box in the passageway ahead of me. Some sort of empty package probably left over from installing the D-Flocks.
I walked forward blind until I felt my boot kick the empty box. I checked the image again. Three more paces before I reached the corner. One, two, three. I stopped and took another photo.
“Dammit, Nozick, you’re messing with my retinal display.”
I check my viewer again. I had reached the intersection where the cables turned and ran athwartship.
A cool draft moved against my skin. The sound was different too, more hollow. The wires ran inboard far, far into the distance. After forty yards they branched out. It pissed Lark off, but I took photos every five steps as a comfort against the blackness.
The passageway ended amidships in a giant open room. The mess, I guessed. Or maybe Justwork removed the bulkheads to make room for the power system. Either way, the space was larger than my camera’s flash could reach. The glowing wires webbed through the dark toward metal boxes the height of a four-year-old.
“Unlink,” Lark said.
Before I could ask what he meant, he let out a long, relieved sigh. “Sweet Jesus.”
Boots came from my left. Several. Running.
I pointed the camera and shot. Something, I couldn’t see.
“Frickin, I can’t see!” A woman’s screech.
From behind—Lark?—my knees buckled. I fell forward. I braced with my arm out, but in the dark, I couldn’t see the deck coming. Pain streaked up from my wrist to my elbow.
“Give me the camera,” Lark said.
Before it was ripped from my hand, I saw the display. Moole and three other Tethers.
“How do we do this?”
“Just pour it down her throat.”
“She’ll spit, believe me.”
“Not if we shove the—”
“Shut up,” Lark said. “We’re not framing her for the poppyshine anymore.”
“We’re not working for Wade right now.” He came to where I could smell the rot of his skin. He whispered. “A ten percent stake in Justwork. Ain’t bad for a dumb Tether.”
They weren’t even speaking in code. Lark’s unlink command, he ordered them to disconnect. They could just go off the grid like that? But wouldn’t—
“I get first.”
The air rustled. Something—a boot?—landed below my eye. White light. Metallic pain like fire above my gums. No, the taste was metallic. Familiar. The dentist? Then my hair, my scalp, burned and pulled my head up. Then down. Face against the deck.
“Who’s the remote control now, bitch?”
– 9 Keelhauled
“If only you were a Tether.”
I thought that’s what I heard someone say. I hope it was someone else and not my own words.
Over and over, I heard that sentence in my head. It was my only time marker as I was dragged half-conscious through the passageways of the Themis.
If only I were a Tether…
I came into focus while dangling midair, all of my weight hung on two ropes under on my armpits. My heels thumbed each ladder step one by drawn-out one as the light above me grew brighter until the daylight smashed through my eyelids.
“You’d of seen us coming then.” Moole’s dumbdeaf drawl was close enough to be inside my head. “So smart you think you are. But you just as owned by your ego. Chasing this justice garbage. You’re the remote control, but don’t even know it.”
“That’s enough,” Lark said. He towered above. He looked so loose and eased that, if not for the bluish skin, I almost didn’t recognize him.
I lay on my back, Moole’s words ringing in my head. If only I were a Tether. If only I’d stop fighting everything and get in line, I wouldn’t be in this mess.
I lifted my hand to block the sun.
They didn’t bind my hands. Why?
“How long do we have to wait?” one of the Tethers asked.
“Ramirez, go check if Wade is gone yet?”
They were talking, not communicating over the Justwork.
“If you link then everyone would see me here.” My words came out funny. I was missing a tooth.
Ramirez scurried up a ladder to the bridge and poked his head around the pilothouse. He waited, watching.
I scanned the sea. I was on the other side of the Themis from where we docked. Even if I screamed the others would never hear.
“They’re leaving now,” Ramirez reported back.
“Tie her,” Lark said.
Moole crushed an ugly laugh from her throat like she had been waiting all year for this moment. She had the nylon around my feet before I even had time to kick.
“You’re going to pretend it was an accident?” I tried to squirm. I searched for just one Tether eye that cared. “If they’ll get rid of me like this, what makes you think they won’t do it to you too?”
Moole grinned and tapped her eyepiece.
Lark lifted me by the underarms. “Don’t break my drones on the way down.”
The drop took seconds.
Wouldn’t the Navy see five Tethers suddenly unlink like that? Could Wade just make the records—
The rope snapped taught and bit into my ankles. Knees, hips, spine, all shouted in sudden white pain. Arms and neck whipped upward. Just as I realized that I hadn’t hit the water, the Themis’s hull smashed into my back and head.
Only fog. I felt the sun’s heat. An agony throbbed through the daze into my missing tooth. I smelled the sea. Slowly, I felt the blood in my mouth drain to my nose. My hair had come undone and swayed above me—below me? I was looking up to see the water. Fifteen feet, thirty? The pressure in my head made it hard to think.
They had to make it look like an accident. That’s why they didn’t tie my—
Plummeting. I slid down the hull. The water zoomed closer. My head and shoulders plunged under. Sharp barnacles cut against the back of my neck. I lifted my face out of the water, but I could only stay above by crunching my stomach.
Was this Moole torturing me? Or they had to keep me hidden while they linked back to the Justwork and conducted a fake search.
I yanked up to catch my pant leg. My cuff ripped and I fell back below the surface. The saltwater stung the cuts on my neck. I lurched again, this time grabbing my boot laces. I pulled and prayed until I got the rope. I hauled my body above my feet. When I could finally pinch the knot between my boots, my stomach muscles swooned in cool relief.
If I got out of this, I swore to God I’d work my abs every damn day.
Above, no one watched. They just left me to die. It was sixty feet up to the gunwale. My hands were already cramping. I started climbing.
Halfway up the side were two Justwork canisters. I scrambled over them and accidentally kicked the lid off one. Hundreds of palm-sized drones spilled into the sea below and sank.
I couldn’t care less. Up I went.
I reached Themis’s deck a bloody mess. The flayed skin of my hands burned while the breeze stung the open wounds on my neck. I didn’t even bother checking if Lark and Moole were waiting for me. I couldn’t hang on anymore. I threw my leg over and collapsed on the deck.
Three luxurious breaths. One, two, three. Alive. If I wanted to stay that way, I needed to find Chief or Rawls. Anyone but a Tether.
My camera lay tossed by the steering tower. I untied my legs, picked it up, and ran toward the starboard. Maybe if I saw Chief I could wave at him. Maybe he wasn’t too far away.
But there was only empty ocean.
I leaned over the edge and looked down.
He was there, Chief came back to look for me. He was down on the makeshift dock mooring one of the patrol crafts. He did care about me.
I turned to bolt toward the accommodation ladder—
Lark. Ten feet away. Between me and the accommodation ladder. It would take the chief two minutes to climb to the deck.
“You’re still unlinked?” I asked.
His eyelids sank and he smiled like water. I’d never seen him so relaxed. To be a Tether and to pause all that information flowing into his head, it must be exalting.
“How will you explain being unlinked for so—”
Lark charged toward me and swung.
I leaned back. The wind of his knuckles grazed my cheek. Off balance, I fell to the deck. I imagined Byron shaking his head at me.
Lark stooped over me. His massive arms moved in slow motion. The lapels of his uniform hung free.
The tomoe nage throw. A move Byron had us drill all the time.
I grabbed Lark’s uniform and pulled as I planted my foot into his belly. I rolled backward. As he fell forward, I kicked him over me.
He flew through the air and slammed to the deck.
I was up and sprinting toward the accommodation ladder without a glance toward Lark. He was no match for my speed and I was at the ladder waiting for the others when he finally caught up with black blood rimming his nostrils.
“They reported you missing,” Chief said when he reached topside. “What happened to your face?”
Behind him, Rawls looked incredulous and Wade’s jaw clenched like he wanted to chew through Lark.
Wade watched me carefully. “MC Nozick, what happened here?”
I was no dummy. Anything I said they’d refute. Get in line, stay in line. That’s how you move ahead in life.
“Nothing,” I said, “I fell.”
Besides, better to shame the devil in front of a larger crowd.
– 10 Devils Of The Past
The chief stayed by my side the whole way back to the Ford, keeping between me and Moole. He looked at my puffy lip and swelling eye as if I were his sick child. But his children were back home and my Dad had turned into a blind mute.
As soon as the helicopter landed, Wade called Chief away.
On my own, I went back to my rack and dug out some makeup to see what I could do with my face. It was hopeless. The bruising had already started around the socket, and my lip had an uneven, purple lump. At least I could scrub the blood off. At least my blood was red.
I looked down to stow my makeup gear. When I looked up to fix my hair, Marid appeared in the mirror behind me. I didn’t even hear anyone come into the bathroom. How did he even get into the women’s berthing without getting caught?
“They canceled your security clearance.”
So creepy how his mouth didn’t move. His doll-eyed stare didn’t blink. His presence was like an infection, an invisible, unstoppable, cannibalizing force that never rested.
“I had it restored. You can access the Combat Direction Center now,” he said. “The weapons test is proceeding. Go shame the devil.”
“Who are you?”
“I’ll help you when necessary.” He turned for the hatch.
“Stop! I want to know.”
He stopped and turned to look at me as one would look at a child stamping her feet. “You should know that they threatened Chief Haggenmiller again. He chose to protect his family.”
My heart split from the inside as Marid left. It felt like losing Dad all over again. I ran into the passageway after him.
I ran to the nearest cross passageway. Nothing.
Was this guy a figment of my imagination? How did he “restore” my security clearance? What puppet strings did he hold?
I staggered back to my rack.
Shaming the devil.
The idea, it excited me. Wade and Hahn thought they controlled the whole situation. They thought they controlled me.
I threw my makeup back under my bunk and grabbed my camera and computer bag. I quick-timed it topside three decks to the Auxiliary Combat Direction Center they had set up just for the D-Flock93 test.
Two Tethers were posted outside. Not five paces after they eyed me, Lark came from nowhere. His face had returned to its normal pained squeeze. He blocked my path. Two hours ago he threw me overboard to die, and now he stood so close I could smell the metHb coming from his pores.
Neither of us said anything. The Ford’s hum vibrated around us.
In unison, Lark and the two Tethers guarding the hatch looked over my shoulder. Two beats. One. Two.
A clutch of bleary-eyed Justwork contractors turned the corner and raced toward the Combat Center.
“We’re so late,” one said.
Each pressed their thumbs to the bioscanner at the hatch. After it flashed blue, one by one, the Tethers admitted them.
Fuckall and be cocky about it.
Before the last Justwork contractor scanned his thumb, I stepped around Lark and cut in line. “Excuse me, sir. I’m late for duty.”
Marid better be right.
The silicone disk on Lark’s temple fireworked, but he couldn’t do a thing with the Justwork contractor there.
My hand shook as it lifted. If Marid was BS, I was dead. Breathe. The scanner’s plastic was cool on my thumb. My legs bowed wetly.
The Tethers at the hatch leaned in to watch.
An eternity passed. If only I wasn’t a constant screw up—
Ding. Blue. A psst of air released. The hatch opened.
Lark growled something, but the other two Tethers stopped him. “Top secret, sir. No Tethers.”
I entered the Combat Center and the airlock puffed behind me. I turned just in time to see Lark’s ice blue grimace. I smiled as the hatch closed. Did he see it?
Justwork’s D-Flock93 Auxiliary Combat Direction Center was a long, dark room lined with computer workstations manned by young sailors and contractors bathed in green and red shadows. Ensign Dunn had a station. He avoided my gaze at first, but finally acknowledged me with an uncomfortable smile. The chief was there too, observing the test and probably also me. He nodded toward a small stage in the center of the room, an elevated and roped-off pen labeled “Distinguished Visitors”. Several of the fleet’s female support staff waited there. It must have been quite a sight, my bruises beside their makeup.
From the DV stage, I had a clear view to the front of the room to where all the D-Flock cables led. They were more radiant than normal Tether cables and changed colors in slow waves. They ran up the center of a group of fifteen sailors, Tethers, leaned back in what looked like dentist chairs. Each sailor was fitted with helmets that dangled wires down the back like dreadlocks. These wires had a strange black glow to them like a muggy night’s sky. These new Tethers wore sleeping masks and their mouths hung slack as if they were drugged.
Admiral Hahn cleared his throat and stepped toward the largest monitor. “Bring up the video.”
The screen came to life and showed an aerial view of the ex-USS Themis. The view zoomed tighter. I recognized the dock and accommodation ladder where I was just that morning.
Hahn wore his khaki work uniform. He moved from the monitor to walk among the seated dreadlocked Tethers. “In a few moments, the strike group will launch an unprecedented number of attacks on the Themis. These Dreads will defend her.”
A countdown started. When it hit zero the room shook like a cardboard box in a hail storm. A chemical taste tainted the air and stung the back of my throat. The heads of the Dreads twitched almost imperceptibly. On the overhead monitor, streams of tiny drones fire-hosed from the canisters ringing the Themis. The sky exploded into a ring of fire and smoke. As the pounding outside the Combat Center subsided, we all watched the monitor for the smoke to clear.
The Themis looked untouched and placid, lolling in the blue water like a bath toy.
The shout came from the front of the Combat Center where Admiral Hahn beamed and slapped Rawls’s shoulder. His secret thirty percent stake in Justwork just demonstrated how omnipotent their Dreads were.
I couldn’t read Rawls.
He didn’t appear excited. He studied Hahn like a chessboard for a moment before stepping away and lifting his hands above his head to applaud Hahn. Justwork’s contractors did the same, and soon a human circle surrounded Hahn and rayed him with attention and praise.
Commander Wade stayed back. He was just below my corner of the elevated DV platform bent over a green monitor and talking in hushed tones to Ensign Dunn.
I pretended to tie my boot and bent lower to listen.
“Are you sure?” Wade asked, scrutinizing a tactical data screen.
“Yes, sir, two hits.” Dunn’s voice trembled under Wade’s double-barrel stare. “Minor, but here and here. On the starboard quarter. It looks like one D-Flock canister didn’t launch.”
I remembered all those palm-sized drones pouring into the ocean as I climbed my way up the side of the Themis.
Wade lifted his head to look across the room at Admiral Hahn who was still basking in his ovation. He looked queasy and unsure. But then he stoned his jaw.
“Ensign, erase the data.”
Dunn, who must have known I was there, swiped a glance toward me. Then Wade.
I looked down at my camera. I was recording everything.
Wade’s mouth sucked a tiny breath.
“Commander Wade.” Admiral Hahn had appeared beside us. “Which two-by-four hit the smile off your face?”
Wade whispered in his ear.
Hahn’s cheeks drained. But he refused to drop my eyes. “You think I care what some trainwreck orphan records? Erase the damage report or I’ll bring you to mast for this poppyshine numbskullry.”
Hahn moved closer to me. The skin around his nose barely moved. Instead, it became a blank canvas. I saw Professor Vouray. I saw Natalie shaking her head to say that Dad still wouldn’t speak. I saw the warden from Dannemora telling me he had no further information. Finally, I saw Rawls in the Hong Kong noodle shop telling the surveillance camera he knew the whole story of what happened to Dad.
“Sailor,” Hahn held out his hand for my camera. “Unless you want Chief Haggenmiller’s daughters to have their sweet sixteen in a Leavenworth visit room.”
Chief was on the other side of the DV stage and could only watch.
I couldn’t look at him. I was causing him so many problems. I wavered.
Hahn saw it. His cheeks brightened with satisfaction. It was another win. Pat the child on the head and go back to ruling his fiefdom.
But only if I let him.
I lifted my camera and pointed it right at the damage report screen. One second. Two. Hahn reached, but I snatched my arms to my chest. I turned and ran.
– 11 From A Forest In Hell
I charged out of the Combat Direction Center cradling my camera as if it were the last child on Earth. My computer bag slapped against my lower back.
Lark and two other Tethers were right outside. Their walled-up faces reminded me they had no idea what was happening inside.
I stammered the first thing that popped in my head. “Chief Haggenmiller is being held hostage.”
Lark rushed for the hatch, but the others blocked him.
I wasn’t going to wait around for them to figure it out. I walk-ran until I reached a cross passageway and turned out of eyesight then pounded as fast as I could to the main port passageway toward stern.
Two Tethers shot past toward the combat center. A third, Ramirez, also ran full speed down the main passageway. He slowed and then stopped. His head cocked confused and looked at me. His Tether cable frenzied with light.
Five seconds until they figured it out. Where to hide from Tethers? On an aircraft carrier? Where to hide from omnipotence? Where the mob ruled. The mess hall.
Ramirez straightened his chin at me. He got his orders.
I ejected the memory card and I sprinted toward him. At ten feet apart I threw my camera at him and juked down a ladder. Down one more then forward to the mess.
As soon as I walked in, all the Tethers looked up at me. They sat on their side of the mess. The non-Tethers on the other side.
I ran to the non-Tether side and spotted Byron. “I need time to shame the devil.”
He clocked my bruised eye socket and fat lip, then the advancing Tethers.
“Under the table,” he said. “We got you.”
I ducked and scurried toward the center of the table. I was surrounded by a forest of legs. Byron called more boots over. There must have been a hundred non-Tethers all leaned around the table, talking and joking. I couldn’t see out at all.
I had maybe ten minutes before this ruse fell apart. I took out my computer and started writing a Devil’s Shame post.
Admiral Attempts To Fake Weapons Test
USS GERALD FORD — During a high profile test of the Justwork Defense Flock93 system, two of the Ford’s highest commanding officers ordered an ensign to delete test results that showed the system failed. During the test, Admiral David Hahn and Commander Adam Wade viewed NTDS results showing vulnerabilities in the system. Hahn ordered the evidence destroyed and threatened retaliation if the failure was announced.
“Erase the damage report or I’ll bring you to mast,” Hahn said to Wade and the ensign.
A media observer—
I stopped typing.
There was no coming back from this. If I posted this, I’d be outing myself as the publisher of The Devil’s Shame . I didn’t have to do this. I could just ignore that bully’s finger against my chest. Everyone else did. That’s how you got ahead in life. Stand in line. Let the powerful stab their finger at you, because if you didn’t let them, then someone else would.
Byron leaned under the table. “You almost done? We’re running out of humans to distract the Tethers.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Ain’t hell if someone shames the devil,” he said. “Just hurry.”
I repeated the line back to myself. It ain’t hell…
I inserted the memory card from my camera into my computer and transferred my video to the post.
“Nozick, they’re here,” Byron said.
I typed faster.
A media observer from the Navy’s All Hands Magazine assigned to the Flock93 Command Center recorded the interaction and the tactical system display showing the damage to the target, the ex-USS Themis. The classified weapons system being tested was an advanced human-computer hybrid engineered by Justwork meant to protect military assets during an attack.
A commotion built up around me. I tried to block out the shouting, but there was movement. The legs that hid me under the table started disappearing.
When Hahn became aware of the media observer’s presence, he threatened retaliation against the commanding officer of her department. He then ordered ship security to detain her.
Chairs disappeared from around the table.
I pressed the post button.
Hands took hold of my feet and pulled me across the linoleum.
I dragged my computer with me. I held my breath as my file ricocheted between my proxy servers.
“Post successful,” the screen said.
I watched the pageviews.
The Tethers had me fully in the open. There were dozens of them, but they coordinated the wrestling of my hands behind my back in eerie silence. Their metHb stink enveloped me like a rotting pile of fish.
My heart bloomed warmth all the way to the cold handcuffs on my wrists.
Lark’s breath was on my ear. “Petty Officer Lynn Nozick, you’re under arrest for—”
Dummy had to wait for the Justwork to put the words in his mouth.
“—for disobeying command orders.”
They lifted me to my feet as I tried gripping the floor with my knees in order to watch the pageviews climb. Each one was another slap at the bully’s finger.
They had me upright, but I tucked my knees and collapsed right back in front of my computer to watch more. Not Hahn nor Wade, nor whoever sent Dad to jail—all the devils in hell will get shamed. Eventually.
An email alert popped up. From cnn.com. More: navy.mil, npr.org, washingtonpost.com—
A boot kicked my laptop across the floor. Moole crouched and put her face beside mine. Brown streaks of blood cut through her grimace.
I grinned back. “If only you weren’t a Tether. You’d like this feeling of being free.”
– 12 Lady Justice Sees The Devil
They did the chief’s Article 91 before mine. I think they wanted me to suffer. They wanted me to spend more time in pre-trial confinement. They wanted to haul me to court every day so Chief’s wife could have something physical to hate. The Navy wanted its revenge for embarrassing them and their D-Flock test.
I recognized Mrs. Haggenmiller from the photo I still had of her and her daughters in the bumper car. She came to court everyday with her hair tied back like she just walked in from a tornado ready to make dinner. She wasn’t allowed into the courtroom to hear how many times I told the Naval prosecutor that Chief had nothing to do with Devil’s Shame, that I didn’t doctor the damage report screen, that my bruises didn’t come from attacking Lark and Moole on the Themis.
Admiral Hahn had transferred his command to Pearl Harbor so he could stop by each day as court let out. Every afternoon, the jury got an eyeful of the admiral whispering in Mrs. Haggenmiller’s ear and squeezing her shoulder. Then the jury would glare at me as if they already decided I was the one who orchestrated the Navy’s total humiliation.
This went on for a week. The second week was a little different. They seemed more tense, like something had changed.
After a full day of denying all the lies the NCIS prosecutor shoveled on me, I watched Hahn go up to comfort Mrs. Haggenmiller as normal. But as he whispered in her ear, she began trembling. Her fingers turned to claws and she dropped her purse. She took off a shoe and threw it at me.
“You lying bitch!”
She lunged at me. The Tether MPs held me tight by the arms but didn’t stop Mrs. Haggenmiller from taking off her other shoe and hitting me four times with it on the face. They dragged me down the hallway by my wrists, letting her kick me until she got too tired and collapsed to her knees sobbing.
The Tethers didn’t take me back to my confinement quarters. Instead, they brought me to a small gray interrogation room. The room had a table, a broken fluorescent light fixture, and two chairs.
The NCIS prosecutor sat waiting for me. “Sit, Specialist.”
The Tethers left and shut the door. The room’s light buzzed and flicked. The Navy couldn’t afford to replace light bulbs anymore, but they had all the resources in the world for a mock trial.
“Ms. Haggenmiller is upset because she’s learned of your deal with NeuroScan.”
He shrugged and slid a piece of paper across the table.
“She had to sell their house to pay for the chief’s defense. Her girls are having trouble adjusting. They miss their dad. You know what that’s like.”
The prosecutor leaned back, but there was something unrelaxed with him. His name was Keer. He was older and tall with hair around the rim of his ear. He was a captain. This whole thing seemed tedious and below him. A JAG captain trying insubordination over a underground zine. The way his jaw rocked side to side suggested his own annoyance too.
“You don’t even want to read it?” Keer asked.
I had forgotten about the piece of paper, actually. But that’s when it clicked. It was the paper he was concerned about.
“I, Lynn Nozick, am the sole author of the publication know as Devil’s Shame . In order to earn a kickback from NeuroScan, I bribed Ensign Michael Dunn to lie about damage suffered to the ex-USS Themis during the test of Justwork’s Defense Flock93 system. I also admit to doctoring videos and misleading prosecutors during the investigation. Justwork’s Defense Flock93 system was a complete success. I made the story up.”
His pig-stare waited for me to finish. “Sign it and you can save your chief.”
I almost threw the table at him. The chief never needed saving until he came along. I wasn’t going to sign his coerced confession. This wasn’t justice. He was lying, Hahn was lying, the Navy was lying.
“I told you, Chief didn’t—”
I stopped. The chief’s two girls. It wasn’t justice to ruin their lives. There was a cost to shaming the devil.
“You guys are good,” I said. “You had this whole thing planned. All for a weapons program?”
“It’s about the relevancy of the Navy. Brain-computer hybrids are the future of…”
He droned on. I couldn’t care less. I hated that I did this to myself all the time. Justice wasn’t real. It was like poppyshine, something people got drunk on while they toiled in hell.
“Can I sign it in the morning?”
It slipped out. It was like my consciousness was taking over. I couldn’t ruin another family.
“Sign it now.”
So I did. He handed me a cold pen that clacked when I set it back on the table.
Keer let out a long breath. He called the MPs and I half thought he might kiss the piece of paper after I left.
With my fate—and the chief’s—sealed, sleep came easy. I woke resolved. How different would Leavenworth be from the Ford? I’d have a job, same crappy food, some books to read. The next morning, as the Tethers walked me across the sunny courtyard toward the court building, I thought, maybe this is my fresh start. The breeze felt new on my cheeks. Now, finally, I could be by myself and stop thinking about Dad all the time.
The MPs stopped short. The pulse of their cables quickened.
A parade of female sailors came from the other direction heading toward the court building. Some officers, some enlisted, but all grave-faced and in dress uniform. I recognized a few of them from the Ford. I saw the woman from the boxing room with red lipstick. Then, at the very tail of the formation, John Rawls followed. He wore a suit, but still had his wild, surfer-boy hair.
My guards stood bewildered and gawking at everything, completely forgetting about me.
From behind, a figure crossed going the other direction, away from the court building. A voice, words tossed through the air, landed in my ear.
“Did you sign a confession?”
I looked. It was Marid. He didn’t slow his pace, but he drilled a scowl into me.
“Did you?” His lips didn’t move.
He passed behind without looking back, slipping around the corner with no one but me noticing him.
Captain Keer waited at the entrance to the court building watching the formation of female sailors. He seemed unsurprised and unconcerned with his hands in his pockets. Rawls moved toward the front and spoke with Keer who nodded and shrugged. He waved my Tether MPs over.
“Go to Admiral Hahn,” Keer said. “Detain him and take him to confinement.”
Before the Tethers could move, the crack of a gunshot pierced the blue sky. Their cables flickered as they absorbed the information. They turned toward each other in disbelief.
“What happened?” Captain Keer asked.
“Admiral Hahn,” the first said.
“Self-inflicted,” the other added.
Rawls’s temper was unreadably placid, as if Hahn—and his thirty percent stake in Justwork—were insignificant. His only movement was a small slice of the eyes toward me.
I had been staring at him for almost a minute.
“Take her inside,” Keer said.
They took me to the same interrogation room. Keer’s pen still lay on the table where I left it. Hours passed until the door opened.
“Follow me.” His mouth didn’t move.
I walked fast like a child behind him to catch up. We went down the main hallway, out the front doors, and past the confinement building where they kept me during the trial. We kept walking.
Keer sat on a park bench reading a pile of papers. He looked up, then went back to his reading.
Marid brought me to the parking lot where court clerks and stenographers waved end-of-the-day goodbyes to each other. Two Marines waited for us.
“The charges against you have been dropped,” Marid said mouthlessly. “You are to report to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, Africa.”
I watched his jaw to see how he was able to speak without moving his mouth. I couldn’t understand it. Only the scars on his temples moved as he spoke.
“What happened?” I asked
“You’ll have plenty of time in Djibouti to figure it out.”
“What’s in Djibouti?”
He handed me a piece of paper. It was my signed confession. A small spray of blood clouded the corner.
“That’s where Rawls went.”
Charles is a reporter living in New York