Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: “The Ellsberg Variations”

“Follow the money” takes on a whole new meaning for reporter Della Monroe when she decides to track down thirty-six missing Space Fleet sailors and Marines.

Lost Signals

The presenter at the Pentagon staff awards ceremony dropped his gaze from the floating teleprompter and stared solemnly at his audience. I braced myself. It’s never good news when a senior Defense official goes off-script.

“But before you congratulate our honorees and celebrate their achievements, I want you to take a moment to remember the people who couldn’t be here, the reason we are here,” he said, “the lost heroes of the Battle for Earth, forever frozen in time and space…”

I winced. Corpse-icles. In. Space. Right before they cut the cake, too.

A Space Fleet Marine standing near the entrance to the Hall of Heroes flinched. Marines don’t flinch at plasma, much less sticks, stones or high-speed projectiles. The only way the official’s words could have hurt her would be if one of those lost heroes was someone she loved.

Hands pressed against her stomach, she fled the room. I followed. I wanted to help. Trouble shared might not be trouble halved, but my misery craved company.

She’d vanished by the time I reached the entrance. Experience suggested she ducked into the restroom halfway down the corridor. The air inside smelled of bleach, and the doors to all but one of the stalls hung askew. Deep, shuddering breaths echoed from the single closed compartment.

Sometimes I hate being right. I slipped a packet of tissues under the stall partition. “Would you like some water?”

The woman in the stall gulped. “I don’t know.” Her voice rose to a howl: “I don’t know!” I heard a soft smack, like she’d clapped a hand clapped over her mouth, then silence. A moment later the she murmured, “Water would be good. I’ll be done soon.”

I waited by the sinks while she pulled herself together. A few minutes later she marched out of the stall, shoulders squared, a major’s gold oak leaves gleaming on the epaulets of her service uniform. Her face was still pink from crying but otherwise composed. She had the austere beauty you see in a lot of women Marines—fine-boned, spare, lithe and deadly as a Japanese katana. But even tempered steel can break.

Her hazel eyes widened. “You’re the reporter from Military News, Della Monroe.”

“Guilty as charged.” I was impressed. The News is the definition of niche media, and the tiny photo accompanying my bylined articles was twelve years out of date. I assumed she was a military aide who fed names and other useful info into some VIP’s earbud, possibly even today’s ranking idiot. “I’m also a military widow with spare tissues and potable water. Truce? Strictly off the record, of course.”

She chuckled ruefully and thrust her hands into the basin of the all-in-one sink. “That’s good, because I’m a disgrace. I don’t know why I broke down like that. The war’s over. We won.”

“Yeah, it’s a complete mystery,” I drawled sardonically. “Earth gets invaded by a pair of alien races we didn’t know existed three years ago. Millions die. Six thousand years of religious beliefs and cultural expectation go up in smoke, and the only way to get rid of the giant cockroaches and sentient starfish is to turn the whole planet into Vietnam. I can’t imagine why you’re upset.”

A pair of creases pinched the space between the major’s well-groomed brows. “Vietnam? The theatre of operations was Indonesia and the South Pacific.”

“Sorry. Recovering historian here. I was talking about the twentieth century conflict between the U.S. and Vietnam.”

“But we lost that one.”

“Because the Vietnamese made it too expensive to win. They sacrificed strategic resources to lure us into a series of indefensible positions at the end of over-extended supply lines, then forced us to fight a guerilla war on their turf, where we couldn’t tell friend from foe. Sound familiar?” I asked.

The in-sink dryer finished its cycle. She waved her hands under the sensor to restart the cleansing process.

“You’re forgetting the Viet Cong’s Fifth Column campaign to turn public opinion against us.”

I smothered a grin. Impromptu history lessons weren’t part of my grief therapy, but I never argue with results. The shattered woman I trailed to the restroom had reverted to a fully functioning, politely argumentative Marine reciting chapter and verse from the Armed Forces-approved version of history.

“The Viet Cong didn’t turn America against the war. We did it all by ourselves,” I said. “When Daniel Ellsberg released The Pentagon Papers, the American people found out four presidents had lied to them about what was really happening in Indochina and why. They got a little upset.”

The major tossed an impish smile over her shoulder as the sink finished drying her hands a second time. “And the media got rich.”

“Yeah,” I deadpanned. “Good times.”

I offered her the water bulb. She reached for it with her left hand. Her third finger sported a Naval Academy ring with second, narrow gold band nestled against the shank. From the Vietnam War era into the beginning of the twenty-first century, philandering academy grads used their cadet rings to hide their wedding bands. But like so many other things, the custom changed over time. Now a double ring ceremony between graduates was as much a part of a military wedding as the saber arch.

“Is your spouse a Marine, too?”

Her face blanched. She clutched the bulb against her collarbone.

“What makes you ask?” She tried for a light tone, but the breathiness of her voice told a different story.

“Your ring. My husband graduated from Annapolis.”

“That’s right. You said you were a military…” She stopped abruptly before she said “widow” and turned almost as gray as her blouse. I knew exactly how she felt. “I’m sorry. I’m a mess, and I think”—she tapped her collar comm—“I’m late for a meeting. Thank you for the water.” She double-timed from the room.

I wasn’t as insulted as I might have been. Marines might not flinch in the face of live fire, but most military personnel share an uneasy relationship with the press. She could have been afraid I’d take advantage of her vulnerable state to extract the embarrassing details of her boss’s sex life. As if I could. I didn’t know who her boss was. I didn’t know who she was. She spent most of our conversation hunched over the sink and the rest of it drinking—left-handed, with her arm in front of her nametag and service ribbons.

Had she deliberately obscured her nametag? I shrugged. It didn’t matter. I needed to get back to the Hall of Heroes before all those newly honored, potential human interest stories scuttled back to their offices in the secured areas of the building. My productivity had recovered from Cal’s death, but the News’s owner never met a reporter he couldn’t fire.

Luckily he couldn’t fire my thoughts, because I couldn’t get that restroom conversation out of my head. In the dark of the morning, long after I filed my articles and settled down to sleep, I heard her say, “I don’t know. I don’t know!” Where was the emphasis—“I” or “know”?

I didn’t wonder who she was worried about. She choked on the words “military widow”.

But how could she not know whether her spouse was alive or dead? Every member of the U.S. Armed Forces has an ID chip inserted in their collarbone. The chip’s signals piggybacked on military jump ships and regular transports, providing real-time proof of life, death and location. Thanks to the chips, we knew the fate of every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine who fought in the recent war, even if we couldn’t recover their remains. The technology spared us from one of the great tragedies of the Vietnam War. Our military families would never spend a lifetime not knowing the fate of their loved ones. The death blow was immediate, sharp and brutal, but ultimately cleaner.

That’s what I told myself, anyway.

Around four a.m. I gave up pretending my questions didn’t matter. There was a story in the major’s odd behavior. I wanted to know what it was. I had to. After two and a half years of hibernating on the job, curiosity gnawed my insides, and with it, a small, stupid, starving hope. What if the chips are wrong? For the first time since Space Fleet casualty officers notified me of my husband’s death on that ship, I logged into the family side of the News communities.

There’s a trick to finding your first willing source: follow the noise. Find the person who’s making everybody mad and invite them to tell their side of the story. I wasn’t surprised to discover the most strident voice demanding a post-conflict accounting of military personnel was a Marine’s mother. Parents tend to be more concerned about lives than livelihoods. It’s a luxury spouses and partners, especially those with children of their own, can seldom afford. What surprised me was I knew this gadfly.

Enola Irons graduated from the same Academy class as my husband Calvin. They dated as undergrads and parted amicably a short time later, mainly because Space Fleet kept assigning them to different planets. (Cal specialized in forensic accounting. Nola pursued a medical administration track. Only the Department of Defense could fail to make that work.) But Cal confessed he was relieved Personnel and Readiness screwed up their assignment requests. Nola could be, in his words, “a little intense”—which in Cal-speak equated to downright scary. Remember, the man ended up with me, aka “Pitbull Monroe”.

I met Nola in Pensacola twenty years ago during Cal’s second tour at Sub-lunar Fleet Support. After ten years of lackluster assignments under senior officers who ran the gamut from envious to intimidated, Nola was already planning her transition to the corporate world. It proved a brilliant move. Within a few years, she rose to the top of the executive heap at Medieina Care, the military’s biggest health services contractor.

Still, I almost abandoned the project. Reading her posts about service members who went missing during the run-up to the Battle for Earth, I sensed the story was bigger than anything I’d tackled since Cal died, maybe bigger than anything I was ready to handle. But Nola had played a major role in Cal’s life. The part of me still reaching for him saw it as a sign I couldn’t ignore.

She took the call in her office. The winter white designer suit revealed when she switched from voice to video made my mouth water. I hadn’t given a damn about clothes since Cal died, except to ensure mine were reasonably clean and appropriate to the occasion. But I wanted that suit the way I craved the first ripe strawberry of summer. The sudden yen rattled me more than my revivified curiosity the night before. Crazy as it was, the urge to preen felt like a betrayal. How could I care about my looks when Cal wasn’t around to see?

Not that Nola and I were the kind of friends who traded wardrobes. She was six inches taller than me, and lean where I was curvy. But sometime in the five years since our last face-to-face, her slenderness had turned gaunt. Her complexion, which I remembered glowing like polished ebony, had dulled to the color of soot. In contrast, her red-rimmed eyes burned hotter than the lighter flame she touched to her cigarette.

The habit was new and subject to a company fine, but she plainly didn’t care. She took another fortifying drag and leaned forward.

“Three ships—Jonah’s clipper, a patrol ship and a navy transport—on a standard Mars transit a couple of weeks before the 2119 Alien Convocation,” she rasped, her voice rough from more than smoke. “The ships arrived at their destinations in perfect condition. They immediately returned to service. But everybody on board had vanished, and Space Fleet won’t say why.”

My stomach clenched. I remembered Jonah as a toddler-sized whirlwind of dark, skinny limbs with a blazing daredevil grin. Not him, too. “Nola, I’m so sorry.”

“They’re not dead! They’re still getting paid.”

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