There are few days I remember better than September 10, 2222. That whole year was special – it was the first time since 1111 (Imperial standard calendar… previously known as AD or CE) that we had a year composed of four consecutive digits. But the oddity of the date aside, it was the year Karen and I both earned our first commands.
We’d take over Friendly and Lady Grace that September, and Greg Noyce had sent us home to collect both ships from the Luna yards. It had been an exciting trip, with several important visits on the agenda: we got to see my parents in St. John’s, took care of a particularly important family event, and then we flew up to Terra Nova, to reunite with an old friend.
That meeting took place in an unimposing little coffee shop that no longer exists and it was supposed to happen at lunch. But because we’d been distracted during the morning, Karen and I ended up arriving late. That actually worked out fine; we didn’t realize it until years later, but Grant Merger had been late too – just slightly less late.
Unsurprisingly, the reasons for his delay were nefarious: he’d stopped at the Imperial Archives, purportedly on an innocent mission to look up some service records for a research paper. Instead, he’d found a way to purge and replace some key data from his Academy files, including his DNA print. All part of his plan to go rogue, which wasn’t discovered until years later, when it became necessary to pull that Academy file because he’d been revealed as a traitor.
Anyway, Grant had hurried over to the coffee shop after his covert mission, and perhaps because of the adrenaline that accompanied espionage, he was looking a bit grumpy when we arrived. Of course, he brightened when he saw us.
Coming to his feet, he shook both our hands, then we all sat down together, beaming and laughing in the only-slightly-awkward way friends do when they’re reunited after a few years.
And it had been a few years. Grant had left the Academy at the beginning of his final semester, and while Karen and I had been hurtling up the ranks aboard Alberta, he’d been completely absent from our lives. Then we’d gotten a note from him asking to meet up the next time we were at Earth, and sure enough, we were following through.
It was good to see an old friend – even if he happened to be a friend who’d lost faith in the Empire as a political institution.
But that’s too much exposition; as we sat and ordered our coffees (or in my case, orange juice) from the server, Grant sized us up.
“Karen, I do think you’re glowing. Why exactly are you late again?” my British friend asked a bit cheekily, and even though Karen was never as warm towards Grant as I was, she chuckled.
“No telling,” was her answer. “But you’re looking well. What are you up to these days? Getting into politics?”
It was a natural assumption – Grant had the brain for government, the ability to see all angles and plan in ways that would make most of Capital Island’s operators go pale. I remember the look on his face as she asked the question, the way he seemed to keep any specific reaction to her words from playing out through his expression. At the time I didn’t think much of that control, but now I know why he was being so cautious with us.
“Actually,” my friend replied, “I’ve just put the funds together to commission my own private ship. I’m probably going out to the Belt soon. Private security for some independent asteroids who can’t afford your fine protection.”
Not the answer either Karen or I were expecting – because we hadn’t seen Grant in years.
“What?” I didn’t even manage to gracefully hide my surprise. “You been washing dishes all this time to save up for a warship?”
Grant smiled at me a little more freely, but shook his head, “Just have a wealthy benefactor who’s tired of seeing the pirates get away with so much.”
At the time I didn’t think he meant that as a shot at the Belt Squadron, but Karen began to bristle slightly, “We’ll stop them.”
His eyes shifted back to her, and he calculated exactly how to respond before opening his mouth again: “And now you’ll have some extra help. My ship will be called Rapier, and we’ll be out there before the end of the year.”
Of course he would. Karen didn’t quite know how to respond to that boast – she wasn’t keen on having Grant back underfoot again. My response reflected less prudent concern… all I heard was that my old friend was coming back into the fold, and he was doing so aboard a ship of his own, which would let him go places we couldn’t.
“That’s brilliant!” I didn’t hide my enthusiasm any more than I’d concealed my earlier surprise. “You’ll look us up when you get out there? Don’t know exactly where we’ll be posted, but I’m sure it’ll be easier for us to catch up if we’re all somewhere in the Belt.”
Grant was getting what he wanted from me – blind excitement – so he turned his gaze away from Karen again, then continued with a nod, “Certainly. And if there’s anything I can help you guys with… I won’t have the firepower of one of your posh corvettes, but I’ll still be able to throw a punch.”
Karen distinctly remembers biting off a retort at that remark – something none-too-clever like ‘I hope you’ve gotten better throwing those’. I simply grinned stupidly and then sat back as my orange juice was delivered.
“Well,” I said after a swig of the drink, “we’ll definitely talk to Greg when we get back… let him know we have a deniable asset nearby.”
With another smile, Grant sipped his own coffee. Karen watched him as he did this, waiting for him to erupt into some sort of argument – to tell us, at the very least, that he wasn’t going to be a tool of the Empire, just a helper to his friends if they needed it. After all, the entire reason he left the Academy, despite having a real shot at graduating at the top of our class, was because he started to believe the Black Sun as fundamentally wrong.
Had he experienced a complete change of heart since last we’d seen him?
“So you’ve come round to the Empire’s point of view, I see,” Karen decided to prod him, and she did it with less subtlety than I’d have liked.
I shot her a quick glance, trying to determine what she was about, but she and Grant were again locked into a stare. It was immediately evident that their initial friendliness was beginning to chill, even if they were both doing a respectable job of maintaining somewhat pleasant facades.
“Sometimes compromise is necessary,” Grant answered, tilting his head. “I still think the basic tenets of the Articles are going to eat us away, but I don’t see why the common people should suffer just because there aren’t enough betters around to protect them. So that’s where I’ll come in to help.”
It was a well-delivered explanation – not that I agreed with his premise (obviously), but he said it smoothly enough to avoid sparking an immediate clash. Still, seeing that my old friend and Karen were at each other, I decided to intervene – as an innocent young Commander, I had no interest in seeing this day spoiled by a poor reunion.
“Well, we’ll see how you feel once you’re looking at the situations we’ve been seeing. These pirates are a mob. No organization, nothing but lust and greed. The Empire is the only thing keeping them from pillaging and raping a lot of colonies.”
Grant looked back to me, then shrugged, “Maybe that wouldn’t be the case if more of us privately went out to make the fight against them. But you’re right, the Belt Squadron is doing genuinely good work. No one can argue with that. And I’ll be proud to help.”
I was in too much of a happy haze to detect the artificiality of those words. I think that must have surprised Grant – he was probably worried that, of all people, I’d realize what he was planning, see that he was trying to get my endorsement for some purpose other than the protection of innocents.
Because he knew then what we know now: that Rapier was just going to be the first ship of many, and that when he got out to the asteroid belt and started catching pirates, he wasn’t doing so to prevent raids… but to build an army.
Years on Earth, studying our then-poor defense infrastructure had convinced him that with just a few years of recruiting, he could build a force strong enough to blow Terra Nova off of Capital Island, and force the Empire to reshape itself into a new state altogether. This was not his best plan, but the fact that his Syndicate was ultimately able to attack Earth is proof of how dangerous he really was.
Our friend… my friend, the traitor. A future enemy of the Empire, and yet I’d promised to put in a good word for him with Greg Noyce. This was how it began, with a late coffee on September 10, 2222, the day so many things about our lives changed.