Artificial sunlight streamed through the bedroom window of Crystal Wolf’s family home in Homestead Colony, fifty meters below the surface of the ocean. Crystal sleepily stretched in the bed, refusing to open her eyes. She didn’t want to acknowledge that a new day had started.
Their six weeks of leave was over. They would be heading back to Journey in the afternoon, something Crystal had thought she would feel a lot more excited about.
When she finally opened her eyes, she was rewarded with the sight of Justin propped up on his side, looking down at her with that soft smile that made her first notice him when he arrived on Neophia. “Good morning sleepy head.” He leaned down to kiss her. Crystal was amazed that his kisses could still send shivers through her.
“How long have you been awake?” In all the time they had been there, she could count on one hand the number of times he had woken up before her. She reached up and brushed a strand of brown hair out of his eyes. He had let it grow out a little while they were on leave. She wondered if he preferred it this way. She liked it but could see how it might get in the way during a mission. It was the same reason she kept her hair short.
“Maybe twenty minutes,” Justin said as he gently ran his fingers over her arm. Crystal was going to miss this when they were back on the ship. Spending this uninterrupted time with Justin had been like a dream. Living together, not having to constantly wonder if one of them was about to be called away. For the first time, Crystal found herself wondering if she could live this life. A normal life away from the military. The kind of life Justin always talked about.
“And you’ve just been lying here watching me sleep. That’s a little creepy.” Crystal smirked and pulled the blankets up around her. They had made the most of their last night together, and for once Crystal was happy to just lay in bed and relax.
“I didn’t want to leave in case you wanted to go for another round.” Justin cocked an eyebrow and purred. He leaned down and started to kiss her neck.
She playfully pushed him away. “I’m not sure I’ve completely recovered from last night.”
Justin dramatically collapsed back on the pillow, eliciting a small laugh from Crystal. “Then how about this?” Justin rolled over to look at her, snaking one arm under the pillow to support his head. “I’ll go see if there’s anything left to scrape together a halfway decent breakfast while you shower.”
“Now that’s a plan I can get on board with.” Crystal reached over and caressed Justin’s cheek as he got out of the bed. She watched as he pulled on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt, covering his muscular frame, and left the room. They had kept up their physical training while on leave, and the muscle definition of Justin’s chest always took her breath away.
Crystal relaxed back into the pillow. Adjusting back to life on a submarine was going to be harder than she thought. Justin had spoiled her over the last six weeks. She grabbed her tablet off the nightstand. She wasn’t ready to give up the comfort of the bed, but she needed to do something to bring her heartrate back to normal. Checking in on Journey was just the thing.
To everyone’s surprise, she hadn’t overseen the repairs while Journey was in drydock, though with the shipyard only an hour shuttle ride away, she had spent more time there than she should have. It was her ship, and she could never let go completely. She scrolled through the work list her team would be picking up once they returned today. Most of the repairs had been completed. Once her engineering team verified everything was up to their standards, they would be ready to set sail—a drastic change from Journey’s first tour when they didn’t even have flooring installed in half the ship when she set sail.
Finally admitting she shouldn’t procrastinate any longer, Crystal got out of bed and headed into the shower. When she got out, the house was filled with the smell of breakfast being cooked in the other room. She pulled on a pair of jeans and an old Academy T-shirt and headed into the other room. They had plenty of time before they had to report for duty. Maybe they could squeeze in one last walk around the colony before they left.
Prefect timing.” Justin set two plates of food down on the small kitchen table. It was the same one that she had eaten at with her grandparents when they were alive. Their first few days here, Crystal expected every room to cause her pain—it was the reason she rarely came here—but Justin had a way of only bringing out her good memories.
“I wanted to stop by the Thompsons’ after breakfast and say goodbye,” Crystal said, taking a bite of eggs. Justin really was a fantastic cook.
“It was nice of them to offer to take care of the house until you decide what to do with it.”
“I know I should sell it,” she said. “I mean, This is the most I’ve been here in the last five years. But part of me can’t let it go.” She looked around the room as if she could see the ghosts of her family there before war and heartbreak had taken them all from her.
“Maybe the colony’s board can find a good family for you to rent to.”
“Maybe.” Crystal’s communicator started to ring. She pulled it from her pocket. It was Stiner, second in command of her engineering team. She had been essential in helping Crystal complete the build of Journey and she was the only one Crystal would trust to oversee the repairs during their dry dock. “This is Wolf,” she answered.
“Commander Wolf, you need to get to Journey ASAP.” The urgency in Stiner’s normally unflappable voice instantly put Crystal on high alert. Stiner had been serving in the LAWON military a lot longer than Crystal had, so if she was on edge there had to be a good reason for it.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re receiving an unannounced quality and safety inspection.”
Crystal groaned. She would have preferred Stiner had called to tell her part of the ship had exploded. At least then she would have been able to do something about it. “Who are the inspectors?”
“There’s a woman from Earth—part of the exchange program I think. I didn’t get her name. Captain Kadence is the lead inspector.”
Crystal leaned her head back and sighed. Of all the inspectors in the Lands and Waters of Neophia, did it have to be him? Kadence had a reputation for being the toughest inspector in the program. Last year, he had delayed the launch of at least three ships that Crystal knew were preforming at their peak. “Run them through every safety protocol we have before you let them set foot on the ship. Construction safety orientation too, since there’s still work being done on the ship. Has anyone contacted Reed or Dewite?”
“Commander Dewite’s already onsite,” Stiner said. The older woman already sounded relieved to have Crystal taking the reins. Monica Stiner was a hell of an engineer, but wrangling bureaucrats was not in her wheelhouse. “He met them at the security gate. I’ll call Captain Reed once the safety video starts.”
“Good. I’m on my way.” Crystal ended the call and looked across the table at Justin.
“Go. I can take care of everything here,” Justin said.
“I haven’t even packed yet.” Crystal started to clean up her plate. She didn’t want to deal with Kadence, or this inspection. She wanted one more perfect morning with Justin before they went back to the reality of life on a military submarine.
“I’ll take care of it,” he promised. “Don’t worry. You need to go change into your uniform and show that inspection team who they’re dealing with.” Justin took her plate from her.
“You’re right. I love you.” She kissed him for a moment or two longer than she should have. She was slightly breathless as she ran into the bedroom to change. She was glad she had prepared her uniform last night. She didn’t want to show up wrinkled and give Kadence an excuse to mark them down before he even set foot on the ship.
Desi walked through the classroom that had been hers for the last six weeks at the LAWON Military Academy. When Reed suggested she teach a class during their leave, she thought he was crazy, but with nowhere else to spend the break, she agreed. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. If she ever tired of active duty, she could see herself doing something like this. Though she doubted teaching at one of the military schools on Earth would be anything like the Academy. After a week here, she had sent a message to General Sloan suggesting they extend the military exchange program between Earth and Neophia to include students. They could try to change the culture of the U.S. military before it was completely ingrained in its soldiers. She hadn’t gotten a reply. Despite the reassurance that she would be welcomed back once she returned to Earth, reality suggested otherwise. Even her mom was still keeping her at armlength. Desi had reached out to her repeatedly trying to explain why she left Earth the way she had but even when her mom did respond, which wasn’t often, it was always one word answers. Maybe she should talk to Justin when they got back to the ship and see if he had found a path to Neophia citizenship yet.
“Excuse me, Lieutenant Flint,” a voice came from the open classroom door.
Desi turned to see Jarred and Trina, two of the students who had taken her advance combat strategy workshop. “Hi guys. What can I do for you?”
“We know you’re heading back to Journey soon,” Jarred said as he took a step inside.
“The class pitched in and got you this to remember us by.” Trina held out a bag.
Desi took it and pulled out the Academy faculty sweatshirt that was inside. “Thank you,” Desi said as she held the shirt against her chest. “This means so much to me.”
“Does it mean enough that you’ll come back and teach another workshop after your next tour? You treat us differently than most of the teachers here—like we’re equals,” Jarred said.
“It’s definitely a possibility,” she said with a smile. “You guys should go before you’re late for your next class.”
“Good luck on the tour,” Trina said as Desi shooed them from the room before they made her cry. Teaching had turned her into a big softy, but maybe that was a good thing. After what happened with the U.S. military the last time she was on Earth, she was determined to get their win at any cost mentality out of her head.
Desi looked at the shirt for a moment longer before shoving it in her bag. Now she would be able to match Wolf when they were off duty in their quarters, though she was pretty sure none of Wolf’s Academy shirts said faculty.
She turned to see Reed watching her from the doorway with a smirk on his face. He had come to see her teach a few times and always had the same expression, like a proud father. “I knew you’d be a good fit here,” he said as he walked in. “The students really responded to you.”
“That’s only because you gave me the best students at the Academy to work with,” Desi said with a smile. She had gotten close to Reed while at the Academy. He was also teaching a workshop. Desi had learned that several of LAWON’s officers would teach special classes and workshops during longer periods of leave. Reed had gone out of his way to make sure that she felt welcomed and was included while she was there. He introduced her to several high-ranking officers and sang her praises at the several dinners they had been invited to. She had gotten more support from Reed over the last six weeks than she had ever received from any of her commanding officers on Earth.
“I gave you students that were up to the challenge of what you had to teach them. I’m heading to Journey, care for a ride?”
“That would be great.” Desi grabbed her duffle bag from a nearby desk. She took one last look at the classroom then followed Reed out the door.
They were halfway to the parking lot when Reed’s communicator went off. He pulled it out of his pocket and gave it a strange look. “This is Captain Reed.”
“It’s Chief Stiner. I’m sorry to bother you Captain,” Stiner’s voice came from the communicator. Desi wasn’t sure what to make of the call. Stiner reported to Wolf and typically went to her with any issues. “Captain Kadence just arrived at the ship to perform a quality and safety audit. Commander Dewite is with him now reviewing safety protocols to board the ship, and Commander Wolf is on her way to port.”
The more Stiner reported, the more Reed’s face fell. Desi had never heard of a quality and safety audit, but it had to be serious if just the mention had caused such a drastic change in Reed’s usually unshakable demeanor. “Thank you, Chief Stiner. Please let Commander Dewite and Lieutenant Commander Wolf know that I’m on my way and to try to hold Kadence off till I arrive.”
“Yes, sir,” Stiner said, and the line went dead.
“So I take it this is pretty serious.” Desi picked up her pace to keep up with Reed, who was nearly jogging across the parking lot. She brushed a loose strand of dark curls from her eyes; she had not been planning on doing any kind of PT today.
“It’s the one thing in LAWON that can keep us from sailing, and Kadence is the most overzealous auditor we have,” Reed explained. “He loves to dig into the most obscure things to tear a ship and its crew apart until he’s totally demoralized everyone.” Reed got in the car.
“It can’t be that bad.” Desi said as she got in and shut the door.
“It is. And to make matters worse, Kadence and I have a complicated history I’m sure he’s going to use it to his advantage. He’s been waiting years for a chance to get back at me.” Reed shook his head and pulled the car out of the parking lot.
Desi watched her captain out of the corner of her eye as he drove them to the ship. She couldn’t imagine anyone having a score to settle with him. Everything about Reed, from his slightly greying hair to the kindness in his eyes, screamed supportive father figure. Not someone you’d expect to be on someone’s grudge list.