Sabrin Keldt, Senior Captain and commander of the SpaceGuard cruiser Tanganyika, stood before the crowd in full dress uniform, eying the vile mix of churning liquids in the crystal flask she held. Swirls of brown and fluorescent green roiled with evil intent. She knew all too well what this was — the dreaded Drum-Out cocktail, the last hurdle for those seeking to retire from SpaceGuard. She swept her eyes across the hushed crowd — fellow captains, first officers, even a couple of commodores, all watching her expectantly. With one swift movement, she brought the flask to her lips and upturned it. It tasted like burnt broccoli that had been marinating in sulfur for a decade, but Keldt restrained her gag reflex and drained the entire flask in one go. The crowd applauded as she turned the empty flask upside down and slammed it on the table. She smiled and gave a mocking bow.
Later, the formal ceremony over, Keldt chatted idly with a steady stream of well-wishers. The conversations covered the the usual inanities — where she would settle down, how she still looked so young, ideal investment opportunities. She engaged minimally, the rest of her mind focused on deeper topics. In three weeks, she would officially retire. In three weeks I will be free. Free of chasing pirates through the outer reaches. Free of enforcing the Firebreak. Free of internal SpaceGuard politics. Free to live and die on my own.
It was the dying piece that bothered Keldt most. She had spent forty years in the SpaceGuard world, her prime years, sacrificed to a career and a sense of duty. Now that she was finally able to retire, she had perhaps two decades before old age claimed her, and far too many things she wanted to experience. And while she had save a portion of her meager SpaceGuard salary, and supplemented it with a nice off-the-books income stream, she was hardly wealthy. In particular, she was far from wealthy enough to afford the one thing that would truly alter her life — rejuvenation treatment.
If only, she thought, not for the first time. To have my body’s cells repaired and restored. To turn back the clock to a physical age of twenty-five. To have the strength, flexibility and vitality of youth once more.
“Congratulations, Captain Keldt. You’ve been a credit to the service.” That was from Commodore Neiman, the new sector commander. If I’d been able to break through to Commodore, I just might have been able to afford a rejuve. Salaries rose exponentially at the Commodore and Admiral levels, as did opportunities to network with civilian leaders, and ensure a profitable second career in politics or board governance. But promotion never came. First I was too young, then I was too “experienced.” Just another officer stuck at Senior Captain — an important title with an unimportant pay grade.
“Thank you, sir,” Keldt replied to Neiman. “It’s a shame we didn’t get to work together for long.” She noticed the subtle stretch marks near his cheekbones. Yep, clearly he’s had no trouble affording a rejuve.
“So, how will you–”, Neiman started, then broke off as an aide tugged insistently at his shoulder. “What is it?”
“Sir, you need to see this right away.” The aide handed him a sheet of plastic film.
Neiman read the film, his expression turning from annoyance to puzzlement, then to shock. Handing the film back, he leapt onto the stage. The din of conversation around the room died as all eyes turned to him.
“Officers. I’ve just received word that there’s been a nuclear incident in the Bilyenka system. Details are scarce, but there is obviously concern about a Firebreak breach, and the resulting possibility of a Tech Plague resurgence. Admiral Svalkot has placed SpaceGuard at defense level 2. Return to your ships and implement standard protocols. Further instructions will follow.”
With hurried glances and low muttering, the party broke up, as officers strode quickly out towards the hangars. Keldt moved with them, propelled by forty years of duty-driven reflex. One thought dominated her mind. Bilyenka? It has to be Theus. What the hell did he do?