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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The End of All Things

Old Man's War (Volume 6)

John Scalzi

Tor Books



So, I'm supposed to tell you how I became a brain in a box.

Huh. Well, that starts off a little dark, doesn't it.

Also, I don't really know, technically, how they did it to me. It's not like once I woke up as a disembodied brain they showed me an informational video about how they did it, just in case I was curious. Here's the part where we snipped off all the blood vessels and peripheral nerves, the video would say. Here's how we removed the skull and spinal column, and here's how we stuffed your brain full of nifty little sensors to track your thoughts. Pay attention, there's a test later.

Jesus, I'm really bad at this.

I'm not a writer or an orator. I'm not a storyteller. I'm a spaceship pilot, so let me just get that right out there. The Colonial Union asked me to tell what happened to me because they think that information will be useful to them. Fine, I'll do it, happy to help. But it's not going to be, you know, classic literature. It's going to skip around. I'm going to get lost telling the story and come back to points and then get lost again. I'm doing this off the top of my head.

Well, metaphorically. I don't have a head anymore. Pretty sure they tossed my head into an incinerator or something.

See what I mean?

Someone's going to have to edit this if it's going to make any sense at all. So to you poor anonymous Colonial Union editor: I salute you and I apologize to you. I'm not trying to make your life difficult, I swear. I just don't know what they really want, or how they want me to do it.

Just tell us everything, I was told. Get it all down. Don't worry. We'll sort it out. Which I guess is where you come in, anonymous editor. Happy sorting.

And if you're reading this: I'm sure the editor did an excellent job.

Where to start this damn thing? I don't think any of you will give a crap about my childhood; it was standard-issue pretty happy, mostly noneventful, with decent parents and friends. Schooling likewise unremarkable with all the usual bits of stupidity and libidinousness with occasional moments of cramming for tests. Honestly, no one will want to hear about any of that. I hardly do and I lived it.

So, I think I'll start at the job interview.

Yes, that's a good place to start. The interview that gave me the job that turned me into a headless wonder.

In retrospect, I kind of wish I hadn't of gotten the gig.

Oh, and maybe I should say what my name is. Just for the record.

It's Rafe. Rafe Daquin.

I'm Rafe Daquin, and I'm a brain in a box.


* * *

The reason I got the interview at all was because of a university friend of mine, Hart Schmidt. He works as a Colonial Union diplomat, which I always thought was the very definition of a thankless job, and in some recent downtime was in a bar on Phoenix Station and talking to the executive officer of the Chandler, a cargo hauler doing a standard triangle run between Phoenix, Huckleberry, and Erie. Not exactly a prestige job, but a gig is a gig. They can't all be glamour postings.

Anyway, in conversation the XO was griping about how when they got to Phoenix Station the Chandler was met by a bunch of law enforcement types. Seems one of the Chandler's pilots had a little side thing going, down on the actual planet of Phoenix, the details of which I'm still a little hazy on but which involved blackmail, intimidation, graft, and bigamy, the last of these being one not so much like the others. The point was the Chandler was now down a pilot and needed one, fast.

Which was nice, because I was a pilot, and I needed a job. Also fast.

"This tells me you were a programmer before you were a pilot," the XO said, as he looked at my work history. We were in a burger joint on Phoenix Station; I had hauled my ass up from the planet as soon as Hart told me about the gig. The burgers were legend, but I wasn't really there for the culinary thrills. The XO's name was Lee Han and he had the look of someone who was going through the motions. I had a feeling that as long as I didn't admit to murdering adorable kittens in front of children, I was going to get the gig.

"I went to school for computer engineering," I said. "Graduated and did that and programming for a couple of years. Worked for Eyre Systems, mostly on starship navigation and maintenance software. You might have one of our setups on the Chandler."

"We do," Han said.

"I can throw in some technical support," I said. It was a joke.

I'm not entirely sure Han got that. "It's not the usual move from programming to piloting," he said.

"It's the programming that got me interested in piloting," I said. "I was one of the programmers who had some semblance of social skills, so eventually I was assigned to go up to Phoenix Station and work on ships to customize the software. So I spent a lot of time in ships and talking to crew and listening to them talk about where they've been in the universe. You do that long enough and just sitting at a desk pushing code seems like a way to spend a lot of time wasting your life. I wanted to see what was out there. So I hustled my way into an apprentice piloting gig. That was seven years ago."

"Not exactly an upward move, paywise," Han said.

I shrugged. I figured that the shrug would come across as a casual and cool Hey, some things are more important than money rather than Hey, I'm living with my parents who are beginning to resent that fact so I will take what I can get. Anyway both were true. Lots of things can be more important than money when you lacked other options.

Not to paint my parents as the bad people here. It's just that they had made it clear that it was one thing to support me while I was working my way up a ladder, and another thing to support a thirty-two-year-old human while I was sitting on my ass at home between gigs. Maybe they wouldn't let me starve, but they weren't going to make me comfortable.

Which was fine. I wasn't out of work because I was lazy.

"Says here you've been out of work for the last nine months," Han said.

"I've been between ships, yes," I said.

"Want to explain that?" Han asked.

Well, there was no way around that one. "I'm being blackballed," I said.

"By whom?"

"By Captain Werner Ostrander of the Lastan Falls."

I thought I saw a faint smile on Han's lips when I said this. "Go on," he said.

"There's not much to say," I said. "I was second pilot on the Baikal and the first pilot wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, so when I heard there was an opportunity to move up to first pilot on the Lastan, I took it. What I didn't know was that there was a reason why the Lastan had gone through six pilots in two years, and by the time I found out it was too late. I ended up breaking my contract."

"That must have been expensive."

"It was worth every penny," I said. "Also, as I was leaving the ship I dropped my mother's name to the chief steward. My mother's a labor lawyer. The class action suit against Ostrander that followed was, shall we say, verysatisfying."

Han definitely smiled at that.

"But it also meant that Ostrander now goes out of his way to warn off anyone I try to get a pilot's job with," I said. "No one likes a troublemaker."

"No, no one does," Han agreed, and inside I groaned, because I figured this was where I just blew the gig. "But then, I crewed on the Lastan Falls for a year, early in my career."

I blinked. "You did?" I said.

"Yes," Han said. "Let's just say I can understand wanting to break your contract. And also that at some point I want to hear the details of that suit."

I grinned. "You got it, sir," I said.

"I'm going to be blunt, Mr. Daquin, this position is a step back for you," Han said. "It's third pilot, and it's a straight bread-and-butter trade run. We go here, we go to Huckleberry, we go to Erie, we repeat. It's not exciting, and just like the Baikal, there's little chance for advancement."

"Let me be equally blunt, sir," I said. "I've spent nine months at the bottom of a gravity well. You know as well as I do that if I spend too much more time there, I'm going to get stuck. You need another pilot right now so you don't lose time and money on your trade run. I get that. I need to get off the rock so I can have another shot at first pilot somewhere else without Ostrander's blackball over my head. I figure we're both in a spot and can help each other out."

"I just wanted to be sure everyone's expectations were in order," Han said.

"I have no illusions, sir."

"Good. Then I can give you a day to close out your business here."

I reached down and patted the crew bag at my feet. "Business closed. The only thing I have to do is find my friend Hart and buy him a drink for setting up this interview."

"If you can do that quickly there'll be a shuttle to the Chandler at gate thirty-six in a couple of hours."

"I'll be on it, sir," I said.

"Well, then," Han said, stood up, and extended his hand. "Welcome to the Chandler, pilot."

I took the hand. "Thank you, sir. Glad to be aboard."

* * *

I found Hart a half hour later, on the other side of Phoenix Station, in a reception for his boss, Ambassador Abumwe.

"She got the Meritorious Service Award," Hart said. He was on his second glass of spiked punch and he was never one who held his alcohol very well, so he was on his way to being a little tipsy. He was also dressed in a formal diplomatic uniform. I thought it made him look like a doorman. But then I had just spent the better part of the year in sweatpants, so who the hell was I to say.

"What did she do that was meritorious?" I asked.

"She kept her entire staff alive while Earth Station was being attacked, for starters," Hart said. "You heard about Earth Station?"

I nodded. The Colonial Union was pretty good at keeping bad news from reaching the civilians of the colonies, but some pieces of news are harder to hide than others. For example, the news that the Earth's sole space station was destroyed by unknown terrorists, killing thousands including the cream of the Earth's diplomatic corps, and that the Earth blamed the Colonial Union for the attack and severed all diplomatic and economic ties.

Yeah, that one was a little hard to hide.

The Colonial Union's official story about it, said only that it had been a terrorist attack; the rest of it I had filled in from former shipmates and friends like Hart. When you live at the bottom of a gravity well, you only tend to hear the official story. The people who actually move between the stars, on the other hand, hear a lot more. It's hard to sell the official story to people who can see things for themselves.

"Some people saved themselves," said Harry Wilson, a friend of Hart's who he'd just introduced to me. Wilson was a member of the Colonial Defense Forces; his green skin gave him away. That and the fact that he looked the same age as my kid brother, but was probably something like 120 years old. Having a genetically modified, not-quite-human body had certain advantages, as long as you didn't mind being the same color as guacamole. "Your friend Hart here, for example. He got himself to an escape pod and ditched from Earth Station as it was literally blowing up around him."

"A slight exaggeration," Hart said.

"No, it actually was literally blowing up around you," Wilson said.

Hart waved him off and looked back over to me. "Harry's making it sound more dramatic than it was."

"It sounds pretty dramatic," I admitted.

"Space station blowing up around him," Wilson said again, emphasizing the last part.

"I was unconscious for most of the trip down to Earth," Hart said. "I think that's probably a good thing."

I nodded toward Ambassador Abumwe, who I recognized from pictures, and who was on the other side of the reception hall, shaking hands with well-wishers in a receiving line. "How was the ceremony?"

"Painful," Wilson said.

"It was all right," Hart said.

"Painful," Wilson repeated. "The guy who gave out the medal-"

"Assistant Secretary of State Tyson Ocampo," Hart said.

"-was a fatuous gasbag," Wilson continued. "I've met a lot of people in the diplomatic corps who were in love with the sound of their own voice, but this guy. He and his voice should just get a room."

"It wasn't that bad," Hart said to me.

"You saw Abumwe's face while that dude was going on," Wilson said, to Hart.

"Ocampo," Hart said, clearly pained that the assistant secretary of state was being referred to as "that dude." "The number two man in the department. And there was nothing going on with her face," Hart said.

"She was definitely wearing her 'please shut the hell up,' face," Wilson said, to me. "Trust me, I have seen it many times."

I looked over to Hart. "It's true," he said. "Harry has seen the ambassador's 'shut up' face more than most."

"Speak of the devil," Wilson said, and motioned slightly with his head. "Look who's coming this way." I glanced over and saw a middle-aged man in a resplendent Colonial Union diplomatic uniform, followed by a young woman, heading our direction.

"The fatuous gasbag?" I asked.

"Secretary Ocampo," Hart said, emphatically.

"Same thing," Wilson said.

"Gentlemen," Ocampo said, coming up to us.

"Hello, Secretary Ocampo," Wilson said, very smoothly, and I thought I saw Hart relax maybe a tiny bit. "What may we do for you, sir?"

"Well, since you're standing between me and the punch, perhaps you would be so kind as to get me a cup," he said.

"Let me get that for you," Hart said, and nearly dropped his own glass in the process.

"Thank you," Ocampo said. "Schmidt, yes? One of Abumwe's people." He then turned to Wilson. "And you are?"

"Lieutenant Harry Wilson."

"Really," Ocampo said, and sounded impressed. "You're the one who saved the daughter of the secretary of state of the United States when Earth Station was destroyed."

"Danielle Lowen," Wilson said. "And yes. She's a diplomat in her own right, of course."

"Of course," Ocampo said. "But the fact that she's Secretary Lowen's daughter didn't hurt. It's one reason why the U.S. is one of the few countries on Earth that will speak to the Colonial Union in any capacity."

"I'm happy to be useful, sir," Wilson said. Hart handed him his punch.

"Thank you," Ocampo said, to Hart, and then turned his attention back to Wilson. "I understand you also skydived from Earth Station all the way down to Earth with Miss Lowen."

"That's correct, sir," Wilson said.

"That must have been some experience."

"I mostly remember trying not to go 'splat' at the end of it."

"Of course," Ocampo said. He turned to me next, registering my lack of dress uniform and the crew bag at my feet, and waited for me to identify myself.

"Rafe Daquin," I said, taking the hint. "I'm crashing the party, sir."

"He's a friend of mine who happened to be on station," Hart said. "He's a pilot on a trade ship."

"Oh," Ocampo said. "Which one?"

"The Chandler," I said.

"Isn't that interesting," Ocampo said. "I've booked passage on the Chandler."

"You have?" I asked.

"Yes. It's been a few years since I've taken a vacation and I decided to take a month to hike the Connecticut mountains on Huckleberry. That's the Chandler's next destination, unless I'm mistaken," Ocampo said.

"You could just take a department ship, I would think," I said.

Ocampo smiled. "It would look bad to commandeer a State Department ship as a personal taxi, I'm afraid. As I understand it the Chandler lets out a couple of staterooms for passengers. I and Vera here," he nodded toward his assistant, "have taken them. How are they?"

"The staterooms?" I asked. Ocampo nodded. "I'm not sure."

"Rafe has just been hired as of about an hour ago," Hart said. "He hasn't even been on the ship yet. He's taking a shuttle over in about an hour."

"That's the same shuttle you'll be on, sir," Vera said to Ocampo.

"So we'll experience it for the first time together," the secretary said, to me.

"I suppose that's true," I said. "If you would like I would be happy to escort you and your assistant to the shuttle gate, when you're ready to depart."

"Thank you, I'd appreciate that," Ocampo said. "I'll have Vera tell you when we're ready. Until then, gentlemen." He nodded and wandered off with his punch, Vera following behind.

"Very diplomatic," Wilson said to me, once he was gone.

"You jumped out of an exploding space station?" I said to him, changing the subject.

"It wasn't exploding that much when I jumped," Wilson said.

"And you got out in an escape pod just in time," I said to Hart. "I'm clearly in the wrong line of space travel for excitement."

"Trust me," Wilson said. "You don't want that much excitement."

* * *

The Chandler, as advertised, was not exciting.

But it's not supposed to be. I said before that the Chandler had blocked out a triangle run. That means that you have three destinations, all of which want something that's made and exported on the previous planet. So, for example, Huckleberry is a colony that's largely agrarian-a large percentage of the land mass there is in a temperate zone that's great for human crops. We take things like wheat, corn, and gaalfruit and a few other crops and take them to Erie. Erie colonists pay a premium for Huckleberry agricultural products, because, I don't know, I think they think they're healthier or something. Whatever reason, they want 'em so we take them there. In return we load up on all sorts of rare earth metals, which Erie has lots of.

We take those to Phoenix, which is the center of high-technology manufacturing for the Colonial Union. And from there, we get things like medical scanners and PDAs and everything else it's cheaper to mass produce and ship than try to put together yourselves in a home printer, and take those to Huckleberry, whose technology manufacturing base is pretty small. Wash, rinse, repeat. As long as you're working the triangle in the right direction, you'll get rich.

But it's not exciting, for whatever definition of "exciting" you want to have. These three colonies are well established and protected; Huckleberry's the youngest and it's nearly a century old at this point, and Phoenix is the oldest and best defended of any of the Colonial Union planets. So you're not exploring new worlds by trading there. You're unlikely to run into pirates or other bad people. You're not meeting strange new aliens, or really any aliens at all. You're shipping food, ore, and gadgets. This isn't the romance of space. This is you and space in a nice, comfortable rut.

But again, I didn't give a crap about any of that. I'd seen enough of space and had the occasional bit of excitement; when I was on the Baikal, we were pursued for four days by pirates and eventually had to ditch our cargo. They don't chase you anymore when you do that because then you have nothing they want. Usually. Sometimes when you ditch your cargo they get pissed off and then try to send a missile into your engines to register their displeasure.

So, yeah. As Harry Wilson suggested, excitement can be overrated.

Anyway, right now I didn't want exciting. What I wanted was to work. If that meant babysitting the Chandler's navigational system while it crunched data for a run that it had done a thousand times before, that was fine by me. At the end of the stint I'd have the blackball off my career. That was also fine by me.

The Chandler itself was your basic cargo hauler, which is to say a former Colonial Defense Forces frigate, repurposed for cargo and trade. There were purpose-built cargo haulers, of course, but they were expensive and tended to be built and used by large shipping lines. The Chandler was the sole ship owned by its small consortium of owners. They got the obsolete frigate that became the Chandler at an auction.

When I did my research of the Chandler before the interview (always do your research; I didn't with the Lastan Falls and it cost me), I saw pictures of the frigate at the auction, where it was sold "as-is." Somewhere along the way it had gotten the living crap beat out of it. But refurbished, it had been doing its run for almost two decades. I figured it wouldn't accidentally spill me into space.

I took the shuttle ride with Secretary Ocampo and his aide (whose last name I finally learned was Briggs; that came from the crew and passenger manifest, not from the secretary), and said good-bye to them at the ship. Then I reported to Han and my immediate boss, First Pilot Clarine Bolduc, and then to Quartermaster Seidel, who assigned me quarters. "You're in luck," she said. "You get private quarters. At least until we hit Erie, when we take on some new crew. Then you'll get two roommates. Enjoy your privacy while you can."

I went to my quarters and they were the size of a broom closet. Technically you could fit three people in it. But you wouldn't want to close the door or you'd run out of oxygen. I got to pick my bunk, though, so I had that going for me.

At evening mess Bolduc introduced me around to the other officers and department heads.

"You're not going to be running any scams in your spare time?" asked Chieko Tellez, who was assistant cargo chief, as I sat down with my tray.

"I did a thorough background check," Han said, to her. "He's clean."

"I'm joking," Tellez said, to Han. She turned back to me. "You know about the guy you're replacing, right?"

"I heard a little about it," I said.

"A shame," Tellez said. "He was a nice guy."

"As long as you're willing to overlook corruption, graft, and bigamy," Bolduc said.

"He never did any of that to me, and that's what really counts," Tellez said, and then glanced over at me, smiling.

"I can't tell whether you're joking or not," I admitted.

"Chieko is never not joking," Bolduc said. "And now you know."

"Some of us like a little humor," Tellez said, to Bolduc.

"Joking is not the same thing as humor," Bolduc said.

"Hmph," Tellez said. It didn't look like she was particularly put out by the comment. I figured she and Bolduc ribbed each other on a frequent basis, which was not a bad thing. Officers who got on okay were a sign of a happy ship.

Tellez turned her attention back to me. "You came over on the shuttle with those State Department mucky-mucks, right?"

"I did," I said.

"Did they say why they were on the ship?"

"Secretary Ocampo is going on vacation on Huckleberry," I said. "We're headed that way so he and his aide rented a couple of spare staterooms."

"If I were him I would have just taken a department ship," Bolduc said.

"He said it wouldn't look very good if he did," I said.

"I'm sure he's actually worried about that," Bolduc said.

"Seidel said that Ocampo told her that he wanted to travel inconspicuously and without having to feel like he was dragging his title around," Han said.

"Do you believe that?" Bolduc asked. Han shrugged. Bolduc then turned to me. "You talked to him, yeah?"

"Sure," I said.

"That sound reasonable to you?"

I thought back on what Wilson said about Ocampo being in love with the sound of his own voice, and thought about the shuttle ride, after the polite conversation was over, listening to Ocampo dictating notes to Vera Briggs. "He doesn't strike me as the kind who prefers to be inconspicuous, no," I said.

"Maybe he's just screwing his aide and wants to be inconspicuous about that," Tellez said.

"No, that's not it," I said.

"Explain," Tellez said.

I shrugged. "I didn't get that vibe from either of them."

"And how is your vibe sense in general, Daquin?"

"It's all right."

"What's your vibe about me?" Tellez asked.

"You have a quirky sense of humor," I said.

"His vibe sense works just fine," Bolduc said.

Tellez shot a look at Bolduc, who ignored it. "Why would anyone vacation on Huckleberry anyway?" she said. "We've been to Huckleberry. A lot. There's nothing there worth a vacation."

"He said he wanted to hike the Connecticut mountains," I said. "Whatever those are."

"I hope he packed a jacket," Han said. "The Connecticuts are a polar range, and it's winter for Huckleberry's northern hemisphere."

"He had several trunks," I said. "His aide Vera complained that he brought three times the clothing he'd need. There's probably a jacket or two in there."

"Let's hope so," Han said. "Otherwise, he's in for a disappointing vacation."

But as it turned out there was no vacation at all.

Copyright © 2015 by John Scalzi