Aloha – We’re up to chapter 13 of Demeter. A reminder that you can read earlier chapters in the Blog archives. If you have a kindle membership with Amazon you can download it for free on the lending version or purchase a permanent copy of the entire book. The hard copy version of Demeter is in editing now :o)
So what is happening? In Chapter 13 we get introduced to an officer of the Sagittarian League who is sent to mentor Ryder on the game simulators. Ryder’s not really sure what to think of this callus mentor… human? machine? All he knows is that she is perpetually stomping him on the simulations.
Ryder struggled over the next four weeks. With Aster gone back to his regular duties on the surface, Ryder grappled with making further progress on the scenarios. As far as he could tell, he wasn’t improving at all. Mr. Small dropped in periodically and encouraged him, but Ryder rarely saw anyone during the day. His former teacher was reluctant to play against Ryder on the simulations. “I’m a tactician, not a strategist,” he explained. Ryder was so persistent that Mr. Small finally agreed to a battle scenario with Slick forces defending against a Per-Sian force invasion. Ryder had played a similar scenario with Aster twice, with terrible results. Mr. Small won two quick battles in the scenario, but Ryder successfully drove the Pervs out of the system in the end—with fewer forces than Mr. Small. It was easy once he established the approaches Mr. Small was taking. Ryder ultimately pulled Mr. Small into a trap with a quick flank assault that raked the Pervs in an exposed formation. His former teacher had beads of sweat on his forehead when he finally relented and withdrew. “That went well,” Mr. Small acknowledged.
“You let me win,” Ryder complained, staring at the scenario results.
“Sorry to disappoint you, but no, I didn’t,” Mr. Small replied seriously.
“But you’re a lot smarter than I am, and you know the battle plans,” Ryder said.
“Ryder, do you know why you’re here?” Mr. Small was leaning forward and looking earnest, like when he was trying to share something important.
“Okay, I’ll bite. Other than being kidnapped by rogue pirates out to dominate the universe, why am I here?”
“I have a lot of talents,” Mr. Small began. “You’re right, I’m smart. I love math and science and am good at both. I’m proficient in a fighter. I also don’t take life too seriously, which sometimes irritates Yara, but frankly I think is a talent. I’m also detail oriented. That’s one of the things that makes me good at math, science, and flying. As a tactician, I’m outstanding. I can execute a campaign; I can adjust to sudden changes; I can follow a well-organized plan. You, however, have other talents. The main one that landed you in SPC is that you are a concept thinker.”
“A concept thinker?” Ryder asked.
“A concept thinker!” Mr. Small emphasized. “You can see the big picture. You can draw conclusions with a limited amount of information. You have a combination of a good mathematical head, a love of reading, and the ability to think critically. Put together with your concept thinking approach, you have the makings of a master strategist.” Mr. Small folded his arms and sat back smugly. “And that’s one reason you’re here.”
“What other reasons are there for me being here?” Ryder inquired.
Mr. Small kept his arms folded, but got a different, almost furtive look on his face that quickly turned deadpan.
“This is ridiculous!” Ryder snapped. “I keep running into dead ends and you’re the worst. I want to know what’s going on. What’s the big secret?”
“Ryder,” Mr. Small reached out and hugged his shoulder, “You are probably spending too much time here in the SPC. You’re starting to jump at shadows. You probably should take a day and get away from the center.”
Ryder tensed then relaxed, “You’re probably right. I’ll be all right,” he tried to keep his voice calm. But he was convinced there was something going on, and he was going to get to the bottom of it with or without Mr. Small’s help.
Mr. Small smiled, “By the way, do you have those letters written? I can take them with me.”
Every week, one of the homework assignments every member of the “Grubs” (as they now called themselves) was to complete was to write a letter home. Of course, the letters had to be previewed to make sure they weren’t writing something that wouldn’t make sense. Athena had been especially irritated by this. She groused about it for the first two weeks. “They’re spying on us and censoring our letters,” she said. It became clear, though, that the only thing that Mr. Small and Miss Li were interested in was making the facts add up for a trip to Earth’s Europe.
“Don’t lie,” Miss Li said, “but I’m afraid you’ll have to mislead with ambiguity. After all, you are in Europe. We must retain our secrets.”
It had bothered Ryder at first, but he found that he could be totally honest in his correspondence without revealing the secret.
Dear Mom and Dad:
You won’t believe what happened this week. Debbie got into a tutored driving program. Don’t worry, she has a great teacher. I’m afraid she’ll be ready for drivers ed before I am.
Dear Mom and Dad:
We had a great river trip a couple of hours away from where we’re staying right now. I’ve met some new friends, who are also visiting Europe. Mr. Small has been great, giving us tips on how to use the mass transit system.
Dear Mom and Dad:
It’s been a quiet week. I’ve been studying hard, but don’t seem to be making a lot of headway. I’ll buckle down and make you proud. Good news this week:, Debbie hasn’t wrecked once.
After Mr. Small left, Ryder went back to trying to master the SPC simulations, but he felt a lot like he did when his dad had handed him a Greatest Games of Chess book and had helped him learn how to use it as a tutorial. Together they recreated several games. He had studied the strategies of the masters all summer. His game improved a little, but it wasn’t the same as when he was playing against a live opponent.
When writing letters home, Ryder had to remember that Demeter weeks were ten days versus the seven-day weeks of Earth. Ryder’s tenth weekend on Demeter had been a little slow. He had joined Cynthia, Debbie, and Becky for a couple of days on the beach, then went exploring on the monorail line. They’d visited a farm area that was growing corn. Then they’d gone to the other end of the line, where they were growing dewsnips.
Dewsnips were great. They originated on Cryella. They had large green and red leaves that could be turned into a salad. The part Ryder liked actually grew in the ground like a carrot. They were hard on the outside, and soft on the inside. He tried the leaves as a salad, the outer skin fried like French fries, and the soft center cooked up in a soup. They were all delicious. He thought he could live on dewsnips if all other plants died off.
Ryder’s face suddenly turned ashen. It clicked where he had heard of dewsnips before. His parents had mentioned dewsnips weeks before the trip. They knew. They had to know. Had they been conscripted? If so, why didn’t they tell him? He was in a funk the rest of the weekend.
He was surprised when he arrived back in the simulation room the following week. Someone was waiting for him. She was a little shorter than Ryder, wearing a black uniform with brass buttons and silver tabs on her lapel. She introduced herself as Lieutenant H. Pinoke. She had a hook nose, penetrating gray eyes, and cropped black hair. Her skin looked like it would tan to an almost rust tone, but her pigmentation was only slightly redder than his own. Her skin showed no signs of any blemish whatsoever, except for a small scar between her chin and lower lip.
When Ryder entered the simulation room, he was excited to see someone else—anyone else—in the room. But if Director Steerman was terse, Lieutenant Pinoke was abrupt. “I am here to work with you in the simulations. Are you ready to begin?”
“Sure, I’m Ryder. Where are you from?”
“Apprentice William Ryder. I’m from SL277.”
“No, I mean where are you from? Earth? You don’t look to be from Cryella.” Ryder tried to drill down for more information.
“Shall we begin?” Lieutenant Pinoke looked down at her screen for the selected scenario.
Along with being difficult to communicate with, Lieutenant Pinoke was merciless on the simulations. Even when Aster was trashing Ryder, Ryder at least felt he was in the game. With Lieutenant Pinoke, he felt like a first grader matched against a professional football player in a battle of strength. Ryder began to wonder if Lieutenant Pinoke was even human. She did drink something between simulations, but he considered the possibility that it might be a clear oil to keep her from rusting. She ate at lunch, but chose not to sit with Ryder and Cynthia. Cynthia walked to where the lieutenant sat and tried to talk her into joining them, but she returned to their table flushed.
“Well, how did it go?” Ryder had his feet stretched out under the table while munching French fries.
“I feel like an insect that has just been examined and discarded.” Cynthia huffed. “Where is she from, anyway? Iceland?”
“She’s from SL277,” Ryder said morosely.
“Where’s that?” Cynthia sat down abruptly with her arms folded and brow furrowed.
“I really don’t know. It might be a ship. It might be the way they identify planets. I’ve asked three times, and every time it’s the same thing: SL277.” Ryder made Cynthia spurt soda out her nose as he finished in his best imitation of a mechanical voice. Returning to his normal voice, he whispered, “I’m not even sure if she’s human.”
“She’s eating a salad,” Cynthia whispered back. “I don’t think machines eat food.” She paused. “Do they?”
“I don’t have any idea.” Ryder leaned in. “She also pours liquid into her mouth, but I’m not sure what’s in the container. It might be fuel oil or something. We could leave early and go back to the lab to see what’s in that bottle she sips on all day.”
Just then, Mr. Small and Miss Li came into the cafeteria, hand in hand.
“I haven’t seen Miss Li in weeks.” Cynthia waved and caught their attention. A few minutes later, with food trays in hand, the couple joined them for lunch.
“How are things going?” Miss Li inquired as she sipped on a water.
“Great! They actually let me assist on a procedure this morning,” Cynthia said, gushing.
“I didn’t know you operated on somebody today?” Ryder said in awe.
“I really didn’t perform the operation,” Cynthia clarified. “I was assisting with some of the monitoring equipment.”
“It sounds like you are progressing extremely well.” Miss Li beamed. “I worked through the medical program when I first arrived and wasn’t able to assist until early in my second year.
Mr. Small looked impressed, then he turned to Ryder. “And how about you? I understand you got a new partner today.”
“I’m not sure. See that black uniform over there?” Ryder pointed with his eyes.
Mr. Small smiled. “Yes, I know her, Lieutenant Pinoke. I believe she’s aboard the SL277. I served with her on my second tour with the Slicks.”
Cynthia and Ryder bent down close to the table and simultaneously asked in a whisper, “Is she human?”
Miss Li snorted, and Mr. Small laughed so hard he fell off his chair. He tried to get back up, but every time he looked at Cynthia and Ryder with their confused look he doubled over and started laughing again. Miss Li started chiding him. “Roger, stop that. Roger, you’re making a scene.” That only seemed to make matters worse, which resulted in Cynthia and Ryder starting to laugh. Then Miss Li couldn’t contain herself and started laughing as well. By the time Mr. Small was able to rise back to his chair, Lieutenant Pinoke had disappeared.
“What makes you think Lieutenant Pinoke is not”—Mr. Small started giggling again—“human?”
“She crushes me in the simulations and doesn’t talk, except like a robot,” Ryder replied.
Mr. Small tried to get a serious look on his face, but was failing miserably.
“So you think she’s not human because she beats you at the simulations?” Miss Li asked.
“No, that’s not it. Aster beat me all the time. But she crushes me. She never laughs, or teases me. And, and…she talks like a robot.”
Miss Li smiled again, but didn’t laugh. “I believe Lieutenant Pinoke is what we would call human. I know her genetic structure is as close to yours as mine is.”
Ryder stared at Miss Li suspiciously.
“I’m human,” she defended. “And furthermore, I’m Terran. Same gene pool and everything. Lieutenant Pinoke is from the Sagittarius arm. I’m not sure which planet. Do you know, Roger?”
Mr. Small looked up, holding his face with his hands, and shook his head negatively.
Miss Li gave Mr. Small an exasperated look and punched him in the arm. “She is trained military personnel in the officer corps. With the Slicks, that means she is likely from a multi-generational military family. It’s sometimes hard for us to understand, but they have been at war since before we inhabited Earth. It makes them hard in so many ways.”
“She’s also a probe,” Mr. Small added, trying to hold a straight face.
“A probe?” Cynthia asked.
“I never had the interest for being a probe,” Mr. Small confided. “I’m too much of a people person. Probes are kind of like scouts. They take small ships out and monitor space and systems. They’re often out for weeks at a time, with nothing but a machine to talk to. It’s a tough job, and even the Slicks lose a lot of personnel in the probes.”
“Shot down?” Ryder asked.
“Oh, a few are found out and shot down or captured, but more of them just snap.” Mr. Small snapped his fingers loudly, and both Cynthia and Ryder jumped. “They go crazy. I actually saw one fly his probe right into a star. He’d been out for four weeks by himself. We were in the system to pick him up. When we entered, he put the pedal to the metal, and we couldn’t catch him. He was convinced that we were Pervs. We couldn’t talk him down.”
“Do you think Lieutenant Pinoke went bonkers?” Cynthia asked, leaning forward.
“No, she’s in good standing. I actually asked for her help.” Mr. Small smiled. “The fleet is still here on maneuvers for the next several months. I wanted a top strategist to help you, Ryder. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“It would be nice if she could laugh once in a while, or at least talk.” Ryder scowled.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Mr. Small chided. “Besides, she’s one of the three best strategists in the fleet, outside of senior officers. She’s actually on the fleet commander’s strategy team. I had to pull strings to get her loose.”
Cynthia spoke up. “Well, probe or not, strategist or not, she still looked at me like I was a bug when I invited her to join us.”
Miss Li gave Cynthia a sympathetic grimace. “That is real. The Slicks don’t really think of people of Earth, or Cryellians for that matter, as real people. The best comparison I can come up with would be if a chimpanzee invited you to eat bananas with her. We are sort of human, but not quite. We’re more of caretakers for the Slick’s needs.”
“Well that makes me feel special,” Cynthia said, pouting.
Mr. Small cut Miss Li off. “It’s a common misconception. Deep down, they know we’re from the same ancestry, but we—how do I say it?—lost our way and devolved. We might be salvageable in a millennia or two, if they feed and care for us sufficiently”
“If they didn’t need us, they’d probably forget about us. But we’re so well placed to help defend Demeter that they make exception,” Miss Li pointed out.
“That doesn’t make sense. Either we’re capable or we’re not. They can’t have it both ways.” Cynthia’s voice rose dangerously.
“Not everyone believes that,” Mr. Small continued, “but many do. Perhaps the relationship is more like India in the nineteenth century. Indian’s were capable of serving in the British army, but not commanding. Yes, that’s a better parallel, or perhaps the African-Americans who served in the Civil War. We’re actually beyond that. The Senior Director for Demeter was the first person from Earth commissioned as an officer in the Slick force. His son was also commissioned. Since then, let’s see, I was the forty-seventh person from Earth commissioned in the Slick military. So over forty years, we are now averaging about one a year.”
Ryder didn’t say anything, but he was mad. Cynthia was definitely mad, spitting tacks mad. Ryder knew one thing, and that was that he was going to show Lieutenant Pinoke that people from Earth were not inferior. He would beat her at the simulations.
“I wish I knew something more about her at least.” Ryder let out an exasperated sigh.
Mr. Small smiled again. “Has she told you her first name?”
“I assume that it is H,” Ryder replied.
Mr. Small swelled up didactically. “Even in Slick vernacular, which is very diverse, her first name is odd. I’m not surprised she didn’t share it, as it does bother her a bit. It took me six months to find out what it was when I was serving with her.”
“What is it?” Ryder and Cynthia were both suddenly interested.
Mr. Small bent forward conspiratorially. “Heliotrope.”
“Heliotrope?” Ryder looked quizzical. “What kind of name is that?”
Cynthia started giggling to his side, then burst out laughing in loud guffaws. Ryder was actually shocked. He’d seen Cynthia laugh before, but never like this. Gasping for air, Cynthia finally got out, “Violet,” and started laughing hysterically. Miss Li was chuckling, and Mr. Small looked like he was about to roll on the floor again.
“Okay, okay. What’s the joke?” Ryder asked perplexed.
Wiping a tear from her eye, Cynthia managed to get out, “Heliotrope is a shade of….violet…associated with dainty flowers.” Then she did fall off her chair on the floor.
“Violet? Dainty flowers?” Ryder said, then he started to laugh as well.
Ryder was determined that somehow he was going to beat Lieutenant Heliotrope Pinoke at the scenarios. Unfortunately it wasn’t going to be the first week. She continued to crush him in every simulation. Like a bug, he thought. With his best efforts, he was still zero for thirty by the end of the week.
The next week his letter home was even shorter than usual:
Dear Mom and Dad:
Hard to believe we’ve been here seventeen weeks already. I got a new study partner this week. She’s really challenging me. I’ve got to run.