On the Snark Watch
by Karl Dandenell
06:00, THE AIRLOCK HATCH of Distant Observation Station 318 swung open with the groan of poorly lubricated hinges. Seaman Erik Dumet straightened his uniform and glanced at his duffel bag a final time to make sure he hadn’t left his new pen behind. It was a silly thing, really, a cheap plastic pen topped with a fuzzy horse’s head. His fiancé Jessica had bought it at the maglev station in Austin and given it to him the night he shipped out for Charon.
It was typical of her: Jessica loved toys, tchotchkes, comic books, and all manner of practical jokes. While Dumet appreciated her sense of humor, he had learned to be careful in her apartment, especially after the fake spider incident.
The airlock hatch clunked into position, letting in cold air from the DOS. A sailor carrying a duffel bag and a dataslate exited the station side of the airlock. His name tag read Stuart, P. He pushed the dataslate at Dumet. “Here you go.”
Dumet took the dataslate in one hand, and looked at first screen. It shone far too bright. Then again, fleet displays weren’t calibrated with someone like him in mind. His eyes were so sensitive that the draft board had nearly rejected him.
He switched the dataslate to night mode and scrolled to the next page.
“Jesus, don’t read it!” said Stuart. “Just thumb the icon next to your name so I can get the hell out of here. Transport isn’t going to wait.”
“I hear you,” Dumet said, swiping his thumb across the bottom and handing the dataslate back. “Seaman Doo-may, your relief.”
“Nice to meet you.” Stuart shook his hand quickly, then hitched his duffel on his shoulder. “I’m out of here.” He turned and called behind him into the open airlock. “See you later, dickhead!”
“Tell your mother I said hi!” came the response.
Stuart grinned at Dumet. “Have a quiet watch. Don’t let the Bugs bite you in the ass.”
“You too.” Dumet let Stuart squeeze past him. Then he closed the airlock hatch and cycled it. A minute later, he felt the transport push off the station, heading to its next deployment. Dumet stood a moment, letting himself adjust to the station’s artificial gravity.
It seemed about right, though the air felt colder than the transport. He suspected someone had screwed with the environmental controls. Fortunately, the lighting fell somewhere between day standard and night watch, so he might be spared the usual headaches.
“Come on in,” called the voice he'd heard earlier.
Dumet followed the voice down a short corridor, his shipshoes quiet on the deck plating. A few steps took him into the Command and Control blister. A short, round man with a few days’ growth of beard was sprawled on the portside couch. His faded name tag read, Carson, R.
“Seaman Dumet, reporting for duty.”
The other man brushed crumbs off his shirt and stood up, careful not to bang his head on an instrument panel. “I’m Carson,” he said, offering a hand. They shook. “Have a seat, Seaman Dummy.”
Dumet sighed. He’d heard this particular joke a few thousand times since basic. “I'm from Baton Rouge. It’s pronounced Doo-may.”
“I’ve been here longer than you, swabbie, so that makes you the dummy. Nothing personal. Once you figure out things work around here, then you can be Doo-may.”
Dumet considered his response. He’d be sharing border duty with Carson for two weeks until the man's relief arrived, and he didn’t want to start things off on the wrong foot. “How about you call me Erik?”
Carson waved his hands in front of his face. “Sorry, I don’t believe in first names. We’re not going to be together that long.”
“Okay ... ” Dumet had been in the service three years and learned early on that every crew had its designated asshole. He could live a fortnight with this one. “So, where do I bunk?”
“Follow me.” Carson led him down the opposite corridor, into a tiny mess. Two racks were bolted to one bulkhead. A tiny table, folding stools, ration locker, and head completed the compartment. Dumet tossed his duffel onto the neat lower bunk.
“That’s mine,” said Carson, picking up the bag. “You get the one with a view.” He indicated the top rack, which contained a crumpled sleepsack.
“I don’t mind,” said Dumet. Their sleep cycles wouldn’t overlap that much in any event.
Carson grinned. “Hey, I think we’re going to get along just fine.” He lifted Dumet’s duffel bag. “So, what’ja bring?”
“Sorry?” Dumet had been reading the labels on the ration packages. Same shit as the last deploy. At least the coffee smelled decent.
“What’s in your PWA? Zero-gee distilled vodka? Synthetic opioids?”
“Nothing that interesting,” Dumet said, taking his duffel and opening the Velcro seam. “See?” Inside sat the pen from Jessica, his spare uniform, neatly pressed, three pairs of shorts, another pair of shipshoes, a personal data chip, an extra pair of reading glasses, a pencil box, and several heavy drawing pads and notebooks. He hung up his uniform in the spare locker and stacked everything else on the shelf above his bunk.
Carson leaned against the bulkhead. “Well, this is a serious letdown, Seaman Dummy. I’d expected at least a courtesy beer.”
“Sorry, but the art supplies took up most of my PWA.” Dumet was born without lenses in his eyes, a rare condition known as aphakia. It made him quite farsighted; at the same time, it allowed him to see in near-infrared and ultraviolet. The downside was that standard displays always seemed washed out, so he'd never learned to draw on a dataslate.
Besides, Jessica loved his paper sketches—they'd met at an art class—and she wanted him to document his tour of duty. That way you'll be too busy to cheat on me, she'd joked.
“Seaman200000000 Dummy, it is the duty of every able-bodied seaman to cram as much contraband into his Personal Weight Allowance as humanly possible.” He held his thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart. “I am down to this much whiskey, so don’t expect me to share.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Dumet. He closed his locker. “How’s the coffee?”
“Gourmet,” said Carson. “Served in fine English china with cream from an actual cow.”
God, he speaks asshole fluently, he thought. “Fleet coffee, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Carson, “but it’s free. Make me one with sugar and we’ll do the checklist.”
Dumet hadn’t pulled Distant Observation Station duty before, and he’d used his transit time to familiarize himself with the station specs on the long journey out from Charon base. The DOS was essentially a Bucky dome crammed with a fusion plant, communications and sensor arrays, life support, and most importantly for Carson and him, the forward observation pod, or FOP.
“We’re actually here to back up the software,” Carson said as they settled into their couches in the Command and Control. “System monitors all the sensor input and filters out the background crap. If it sees or hears anything that looks like a Bug ship, the duty sailor goes into the FOP to confirm.”
“Has it happened recently?” Dumet asked, pulling his reading glasses from a front pocket.
Carson held up two fingers. “Twice this month. First one was a regular Snark hunt, and I spent two hours stuck in a overheated pressure suit until Seaman Stuart decided it was a glitch and rebooted the system.” He sipped his coffee. “Asshole.”
Dumet nodded. Fleet computers were good, until they weren’t. Their software didn’t like deep space any more than people did. “What about the other time?”
Carson turned on his side and looked directly at him. “That, Seaman Dummy, was a Boojum.”
Dumet felt his pulse quicken. In Fleet jargon, chasing down a possible enemy contact was a Snark hunt because the Bugs had a nasty habit of disappearing when you got close. A Boojum meant close contact with a Bug ship, and that could turn to shit without warning.
“Jesus Fucking Christ.”
“On toast,” Carson said. “It didn't look like anything at first. Just a flicker on radar, you know? So Stuart went out there like a good little sailor and floated half his goddamn shift in stealth mode. Nothing showed up on his board, so I called him back in. Before he could fire his thrusters, though, this fucking thing just popped up out of nowhere. One minute there was zilch, and the next, it was parked on his ass. I called the cavalry, but the Bugs had ghosted before a patrol made it out here.” He sipped his coffee. “Stuart swore he never saw it coming.”
“That must have been freaky.”
“Seaman Dummy, it just isn’t safe out here.”
“I don’t know about that,” Dumet said, looking around the compartment. “Compared with the front line, this doesn’t seem so bad.”
Carson shook his head. “Are you shitting me, Seaman Dummy? We're sitting in a steel can with no weapons on the ass-end of the Solar system, surrounded by hard vacuum and Bugs.” He glanced at ascreen. “If I’m going to face Bugs, I want to do it with a battle group and a magazine full of missiles, not this shit.”
“Well, you’ll have your wish soon enough,” said Dumet. “Can we do the list, now?”
Carson gave him an adequate, though somewhat bored walkthrough. Both sailors had to stand twelve-hour watches, with the duty sailor checking the sensor feeds at least once an hour. There were random drills, too, just to keep things interesting. The station would feed them bogus information and monitor their responses. The resulting reports were no doubt forwarded to HQ for some statistician to review and file away. The usual Fleet bullshit.
When Carson had signed off on his first watch log, he smiled and nodded. “Not bad, Seaman Dummy, not bad at all.” Then he yawned. “In fact, I think I’ll let you try it solo while I get a little rack time.”
“Sounds good,” Dumet said. “Oh, before you go, can you show me how to lower the lights in here?”
Carson pointed out the controls. “Going to take a nap yourself, eh?”
Dumet shook his head. “Nope. I have just have exceptional night vision. Clear up to 900 nanometers.”
“Well, aren't you exceptional.” Carson shuffled off to his rack, and Dumet waited until he heard the other sailor snoring loudly. Then he eased out of his couch and retrieved a drawing pad and a charcoal pencil.
There wasn’t much to look at in the C2. Even the tiny quartz window set between the consoles showed just a few stars, so Dumet set himself the task of drawing Carson’s face from memory. He produced a rough sketch quickly, then spent a few minutes carefully adding details like the beard stubble, and the small mole on this left side of this nose. Or was it the right? He worked on other parts of drawing for a few more minutes, then signed it at the bottom and added a note: Jessica, this is my new roommate. You have nothing to worry about.
He flipped the page over to begin another sketch, yet Carson’s mole nagged at him. Finally, he crept back to the mess and stole a glance at Carson. Definitely the left side.
Carson rolled onto his back and snored in a different rhythm. Dumet pulled away, though not before he smelled chocolate on the other sailor’s breath. He checked his locker. There had been six chocolate bars, stashed away in his underwear. Now there were five.
Fucking son of a bitch thief, he thought.
Now Dumet had a dilemma. If this had been a normal ship, he would simply gather up a few off-duty sailors and beat the hell out of Carson. That wasn’t an option here, and Carson knew it.
It was going to be a long two weeks.
The next day, Dumet asked Carson if he could do a practice run in the FOP.
“Seriously? Aren’t you busy enough?” They were sitting in the mess, eating fake ham and cheese sandwiches. Carson pointed to Dumet’s locker, which sported drawings: the C2, the maintenance hatches, and even a pen with a fuzzy horse’s head.
“Yeah, I’m serious. Besides, I’d feel better if I could sit in it a bit, get used to it.” In reality, Dumet just wanted time away from this asshole. If he could draw at this same time, so much the better.
Carson thought about it a minute, chewing his sandwich. “What the hell. The pod’s due for maintenance, anyway. If you promise to clean it up afterward, you can take it out for a test drive.”
“Excellent! I’ll meet you down there.” Dumet washed his coffee cup and dish, grabbed a drawing tablet, and left the mess. In the central corridor, next to the C2, he found the ladder that led down to the FOP.
At the ladder's foot, Dumet located the p-suit locker and the FOP access hatch. He began zipping himself into a p-suit.
A moment later, Carson slid down the ladder. He let Dumet finish dressing, then double-checked the pressure seals on helmet and gloves. He gave him a thumbs up, then waited for Dumet to climb into the FOP before dogging the hatch behind him.
He clipped a comm bud to his ear. “Radio check,” he said.
“Radio check, roger,” Dumet replied.
“Ready to rock and roll,” Carson said, then started up the ladder. “Don’t forget to vacuum under the seats.”
While Carson headed back up to C2 to monitor him, Dumet ran through his pre-flight. It was almost brain dead simple: airlock, communications, environment, propulsion. The controls wouldn’t allow him to exceed the thrusters' recommended output for any reason, and it was almost impossible to bypass the safety systems.
He eased the FOP out of its tiny bay, gave the thrusters a nudge, and drifted away from the DOS. When he reached a hundred meters from the station, he killed his forward momentum and gently rotated the FOP until he could see the station. It wasn't terribly inspiring, although the communications array had some interesting angles. Hedecided to focus on that. He tapped the thrusters until he framed the array in the porthole.
The radio crackled, “How’re ya doing up there, Seaman Dummy?”
“Good to go. All systems nominal, over.”
“That’s a relief,” said Carson.
“I’m going to do a few drawings before I come back in, over,” said Dumet.
“Just don’t take all night,” said Carson.
“Roger and out.”
Dumet tried to sketch the array, and found the p-suit gloves too bulky to hold his pencil with any real control. He considered removing his glove, then tossed the idea. Not only was it against regs to break suit integrity inside the FOP, but he sat a meter away from vacuum.
Using the biggest charcoal pencil he had, he managed to produce a passable outline. It was enough for now; he'd fill in the details later. He sent the FOP on a leisurely orbit back to the station. Docking was even easier than he expected: when Dumet was close enough, the DOS sent out a tether that grabbed the FOP and reeled it in.
Topping off the FOP's fuel tanks and completing the maintenance checklist took the better part of two hours. He might have finished the job sooner, but Dumet noticed something odd as he checked the active stealth system. A series of thin, flexible display screens no larger than his hand covered the FOP's outer skin. When they were active, the pod's cameras and software constructed a real-time view of the surrounding space, projecting it on the screens. This made it challenging to see the FOP under normal space conditions.
Dumet, however, could pick out a regular pattern of pixels lit up in the ultraviolet range. This pattern repeated across each screen. That made him suspect that some Fleet subcontractor had used off-the-shelf parts that emitted light both in the “normal” visible range and a bit above that, say, 730 nm or so. He made a mental to add it to his log, then went looking for some chow.
He found Carson reading in his rack. There were dishes in the sink that needed to be scraped into the recycler, and the coffee pot was empty.
Is he trying to piss me off? Dumet thought, surveying the dishes. Or is he just a naturally gifted asshole?
Carson looked up from a dataslate. “How’s the FOP, Seaman Dummy?”
He glanced over at Carson, who gave him a grin and a wave.
“Clean from stem to stern,” Dumet replied.
“That’s the spirit!”
Dumet fixed himself some fake eggs and put on a fresh pot of coffee. While the coffee brewed, he went to this locker and dug around for a chocolate bar. When he pulled one out, he discovered that a quarter of it missing, and the foil had been re-sealed. He knew that he hadn’t touched it.
He breathed slowly until his anger subsided. Then he ate his meal in silence, cleaned up, retreated to the C2.
He spent the rest of his watch trying to devise an appropriate revenge he could enact on Carson without endangering himself in the process. There weren't many options in the DOS. It wasn’t like he could leave an airlock open.
He wished he could talk to Jessica. She had a knack for handling difficult people, and probably wouldn't waste her time trying to make Carson look foolish. No, she'd say something like, That's too easy. Dumet heard her Texas drawl clearly in his mind. Best thing to do is figure out what he wants, then find a way to keep him from getting it.
Well, Carson wanted to get the hell back to the Fleet, away from the Bugs. Dumet decided to do something about that.
He had plenty of motivation. A week into their joint watch, Carson stopped flushing the toilet. Two days later, he spilled a cup of coffee on Dumet's C2 couch, and “forgot” to clean it up.
The final straw came when Dumet found several of his duty logs wiped from his dataslate, replaced by a pornographic story, complete with crude illustrations. The backup index was corrupted, of course, so he had to spend an extra hour digging around the DOS raw files until he restored his work.
During this process, he came across the maintenance library for the DOS. And that led Dumet to small file that listed the standard test protocols for the sensor array. He smiled. With two lines of code, he could force the DOS sensor array into test mode and run a custom script to simulate a Snark hunt.
Dumet copied out the code he needed in one of his sketchbooks so Carson wouldn’t find it, then looked up the transport’s schedule for their DOS. The ship carrying Carson's relief should arrive just before the end of asshole's next duty shift. Perfect.
During Carson’s sleep shift, Dumet set the all station clocks back an hour, then went to bed early himself. When he woke up, Carson’s shift was nearly over. The sailor sat in C2, singing along to some rock and roll song from the last decade.
Dumet quickly dressed and packed his own duffel, then retrieved the last bar of chocolate he’d stashed away in an air duct.
When Carson took a break from C2, he found Dumet at the table, sipping coffee and reading a dataslate. “Ahoy there, Seaman Dummy.”
“Ahoy.” He casually tossed the dataslate to one side. “So, last day in the can, huh?”
“You want some coffee? It’s fresh,” Dumet said.
“Sure. I got time,” Carson said. “Only two more hours and I’m history.”
Dumet got up and filled a cup, which he handed to Carson. “One sugar.”
“Thanks.” Carson took a seat and glanced over at the dataslate. “What’s this?”
“Your transfer orders. I couldn’t sleep, so I downloaded them for you.” Dumet shrugged. “Figured you hadn’t done that yet.”
“Yeah, I getting to get to that.” He set his cup to one side and flicked through the first two screens. “Looks good. Thanks, Seaman Dummy.” He pressed his thumb to the screen and picked up his cup again. “Now for more important matters.” He drained his coffee and stepped into the head.
Dumet stole into the C2 and rebooted the sensor array into test mode using Carson’s ID, which was still active. Once he had a prompt, he initiated a Bug drill with a three-minute delay.
Carson came out of the head and saw Dumet holding a chocolate bar. “Last one,” he said. He held it out. “Help yourself.”
“Are you sure? You’ve got two more weeks.”
“It’s okay,” Dumet said. “Maybe the next guy will have something better.”
“That's big of you.” Carson unwrapped the chocolate and took a large bite. “Good stuff. Thanks.”
He was taking a second bite when the alarm sounded from C2. Dumet was closer, so he reached his couch first. “We’ve got a bogey. A thousand clicks out.”
“Shit and shit,” said Carson, peering over his shoulder. “Fucking Bugs! You couldn’t wait three fucking hours?!”
Dumet clipped on a comm bud. “It’s moving toward us, I think. Shit.” He turned and looked up at Carson. “You better get to the FOP.”
“Ya think?” Carson said and jumped for the hatch. “Fucking Bugs!”
Dumet helped Carson with his p-suit, then returned to the C2. As soon as the FOP cleared the station, Dumet pinged the transport. It was still on schedule.
“What the shit?” yelled Carson over the radio. “I've got strong readings right in front of me, but I can't see a thing. Where are the fucking Bugs, Dummy?”
“Ghosted,” said Dumet. “Better hang a minute while I do a manual sweep.”
“Fucking hurry up, will you? I’m sitting out here wearing a sign that says ‘Eat me!’, for fuck’s sake!”
Dumet refilled his coffee and picked up the dataslate, humming one of Jessica's favorite songs. He opened up the transfer orders and carefully replaced Carson’s info with his own. Then he grabbed his duffel from the mess. “They’re closer now, Carson,” he said, slipping back onto his couch. “About a hundred clicks from you, almost directly to port.”
“Fuck. I got nothing on this piece of shit computer. Are you sure this isn't a drill?”
“I checked it with the a long-range camera. It's small, but it's there. Maybe you should try for a visual.”
“And maybe you should go fuck yourself.” Still, Carson rotated the FOP and hit his thrusters.
For the next ten minutes, Dumet watched as Carson followed his fake readings, taking a zigzag course that eased the FOP further away from the DOS. Dumet had plotted out the drill so the DOS would lie directly between the FOP and the incoming transport. When the ship did its braking burn, Carson wouldn't see their engine flare. By the time he figured out what had happened, Dumet would be well on his way to Charon.
Dumet flipped a telescopic lens over the Command & Control's tiny porthole, tracking the FOP's tiny shape by its ultraviolet pinpricks. “Enjoy the extra fortnight, dickhead.”
As he was waving goodbye, a glittering of stars appeared directly aft of Carson. After a moment, the stars formed an ellipsoid outline that rippled as it moved, closing in.
Dumet checked his console. It was still running the drill. He quickly killed that and pinged the space near the FOP with his sensors. Apart from the FOP's own transponder, he didn't read anything.
He fumbled around until he switched off the main lights in the C2, then pressed his face against the telescopic lens once again. In the near darkness, he let his eyes relax. Soon, he could see two distinct shapes in the darkness: the FOP and something else.
“Hey, what's going on?” asked Carson. “My board just cleared.” The DOS had stopped feeding false images to the FOP.
“Hell if I know,” Dumet said. He watched as the Boojum flew lazy circles around the FOP. It was actually quite pretty.
“Well, I still can't see shit,” said Carson. “What about you?”
Dumet was suddenly struck by the idea that the Bugs' eyes (whatever form they took) might perceive their environment in ultraviolet, rather than visible light. If that were the case, Fleet would have to completely re-examine their stealth systems. He needed to file a report. No, he needed to talk to somebody.
A console pinged loudly. Dumet looked up, and saw that the transport was making its final approach. He didn't have much time. When he looked back through the porthole, he observed the Bug ship rotate on its long axis so that its “tail” was facing the DOS. Then it accelerated away, growing smaller as he watched.
“They ghosted,” Dumet whispered.
“Are you sure? Damn, that was close.” He heard the relief in Carson's voice.
"Yeah," he raised his voice. “Whatever it was, it's gone now. Why don't you stick around for five more minutes just to be sure?”
“As long as I've time to shower before I leave,” said Carson.
“Don't worry, you've got plenty of time,” said Dumet, and switched off the radio. Asshole.
He quick erased his sabotage from this computer, reset the DOS clocks, and headed for the airlock, whistling an ancient chantey.
As soon as the airlock cycled, Dumet squeezed through and extended his hand, “Seaman Dumet.” A tall, powerfully built man with thinning hair stood in the airlock, holding his duffel. He took Dumet’s hand with an almost painful grip. “Chief Petty Officer Rizzo. I’m your relief.”
“Believe me, I'm relieved.” Dumet passed over the dataslate. “Sorry to keep you waiting. Had a visit from the neighbors.”
Rizzo thumbed the screen and handed it back. “Anything serious?”
“Carson went out after a Snark and it turned into a Boojum. It ghosted on us, of course, but I have some new intel on their ships. I'll send you a copy of my report.”
“Appreciate it, Dumet,” said Rizzo. “Is Carson in C2?”
“Seaman Carson should be finishing up with the FOP about now.” Dumet picked up his duffel bag and stepped to one side so Rizzo could enter the airlock. “Don’t let the Bugs bite you in the ass.”
“You, too,” Rizzo said.
Dumet punched the airlock controls. He hesitated a moment, then said, “Oh, one more thing. Please tell Seaman Carson that Seaman Doo-may doesn’t put up with thieves, even on a Snark watch.”
As the lock was closing, he heard Rizzo cracking his knuckles. “I'll be sure to pass along the message."
Dumet hadn’t pulled
Distant Observation Station
duty before, and he’d used
his transit time to
familiarize himself with the
station specs on
the long journey
out from Charon base.
Dandenell is a graduate of Viable Paradise writing workshop, works as a
First Reader for “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science
Fiction,” and is an
Active Member of the SFWA. His previous
stories for Perihelion were “Three Breaths,”
“The Packrat Machine,”
and “Human Faces.”