Chapter 20:

The Ebb Tide I - "Crew Expendable"

Destiny Marine

The next morning, Isaac woke up early and walked towards the keep at the back of the base. The big stronghold looked like a giant had stacked big blocks of concrete together, and then, with delicate fingers, placed an assortment of machine gun nests, artillery emplacements, and roaming patrols of Naval Police officers all over it. The biggest guns aimed out towards the ocean, their barrels sitting idle at the moment like silent sentinels.

The whistles and yells of morning assembly drifted all the way over to the back of the base. It was odd - having finally settled into a routine, Isaac had now been pulled out of it. And since his goal was to overthrow the military, conducting a mission for it wasn't exactly ideal. But if he wanted to stay here and avenge his brother and find the truth and all that jazz, then duty called.

The interior of the keep was just as busy as the outside. Clerks and communication operators moved through the halls, clipboards and binders in their hands. Some were quiet, their eyes focused as they moved, but others talked as they walked; when combined with the buzz of the overhead fluorescent lights, the entire keep seemed to have a dull droning sound to it. Isaac only heard bits and pieces of conversations - Arcadia lacks natural resources, possible tariffs on Rusalkan imports, Wampa University just won their football home opener.

A few helpful clerks pointed Isaac in the right direction, and he ended up showing his ID card to two stone-faced Naval Police officers, who allowed him into the basement of the keep. The air seemed colder down here, but at least a patchwork maze of overhead ventilation ducts and ceiling fans kept it from turning stale. The concrete walls appeared darker than on the floors above ground, with lights less frequent in number. A couple more pointers (and badge flashes) from and to Naval Police officers brought him to the wide doors of the Operations Room.

The metal doors to the Room remained closed for now. Two more Naval Police guards stood outside, along with Babs, who stretched her legs idly while sitting on a wooden bench. As always, she had the the pant legs of her tanned fatigues rolled up to her ankles and the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Once her gum bubble popped, her eyes lit up as Isaac approached and she waved in greeting.

“Mr. Big Shot,” she called out. “Mr. Circuit 1B.”

Isaac laughed. “Aw, c’mon. You already congratulated me and said that whole spiel yesterday.”

“We’ll have to go celebrate as a squad,” Babs proposed, mimicking the raising of a glass of champagne. “Once we kick ass on this mission, that is.”

The bench gave a light groan as Isaac sat down next to her on it. “You seem gung ho about this.”

“Of course!” Babs exclaimed. She downed the imaginary glass and started punching the air. “We get to go out and do something! I can't stand just sitting and breathing in this base everyday. And it’s a combat operation. That means I’ll get to beat the stuffing out of something.”

There’s an eleven-year-old with a big, Babs-shaped bruise on his face that would agree with that.

Not that Isaac was opposed to fighting. Or that he didn't enjoy it. He just didn’t have the same innate love for it that Babs did.

Babs shifted on the bench. “I wonder how Reed feels about this-”

“Reed is getting upset,” her low voice answered as she rounded the corner into the hallway. She shambled along, loose strands of unkempt hair everywhere. “Reed doesn’t like this. Reed was happy to just sit around that base and breathe everyday.”

She slumped down onto the bench next to Isaac and yawned. Come to think of it, outside that first day on the base, he had never seen the two girls interact. Babs said she would’ve replaced Reed as leader of Squad 3 by now; Isaac wondered if she remembered it.

She remembered it. “You said you would replace me as leader of Squad 3 by now,” Reed said, hunched over, her eyes glancing up at Babs. “How’s that going?”

Babs crossed her arms. “Just you wait. I’m gonna do so good on this mission that they’ll promote me ahead of you for sure. And I'm Circuit 1B now, just one substage behind you.”

Reed rubbed her chin. “If this was a movie, I guess that would make you my rival.”

“What about me?” Isaac asked. “If this was a movie, who would I be?”

“Well, I originally thought you'd be a main character, but at this rate...maybe comic relief? All you're missing is a wacky catchphrase when things go wrong.”

This is the girl who regularly has things go wrong for her!

Isaac frowned. “Then what about you?”

A lackadaisical shrug answered him. “Obviously, I’d be the main character. We talked about this in Patuxet, remember? I got the looks and talent and interesting things just tend to happen to me, you know?”

Isaac joined Babs in crossing his arms. “I think I’d be the main character.”

Reed analyzed him for a moment. “...ppffffttt.”

As Isaac sighed, Reed yawned and wiped her face. When she dropped her hands, Isaac spotted dark rings below her drooping eyes. “Did you have a rough sleep last night?”

“I didn’t sleep,” she complained. “I rarely do. But tonight was even worse - the sleep paralysis demons were back. They threatened to lobotomize me again.” She rubbed her forehead as if to make sure the front of her brain was still there.

Their chat was interrupted by the arrival of heavy footsteps. With his blue suit and a head of gray hair, General Stockham emerged from around the corner, a heavy binder in his hands. The trio on the bench, along with the two officers nearby, rose to attention and saluted. Well, Reed stumbled upwards and gave a little flick of the wrist in the general area of her head. Isaac cringed; Osip would’ve had her run laps for something like that. But Stockham paid her no mind.

“At ease, everyone,” he said, his voice jovial. “Squad 3, why don’t you join me for a bit?”

Leaving the two officers outside, Stockham led them inside the Operations Room. In the center of the room stood a large table, presumably where maps would go. Paintings of Arcadian history, such as the suicide charge that led to Arcadia’s victory in its first war over Quinsigamond, hung from the walls. A map of Arcadia was up there as well, with the barbarians of Lawrence and Elysia looming large over Arcadia’s lonely spot in the corner of the continent.

With a relaxed sigh, Stockham sat at the head of the table and gestured for the three to take their seats. As they did, he lit up a cigar, using an old lighter rather than his finger as Reed tended to do. This reminded Isaac that Stockham wasn't a cultivator; he earned his appointment as head of the Cultivator Marine Corps due to the murky reasons of backroom politics. The newspapers had little to say about Stockham, good or bad; upon first impression, he seemed like another faceless bureaucrat that dominated the upper levels of the Arcadian military. At least he gave off the appearance of a happy faceless bureaucrat.

As smoke drifted towards the ceiling, Stockham reached into his binder and pulled out several papers. He slid them across the table; the one that landed in front of Isaac depicted a grainy, black-and-white image of a freighter ship. White letters near the ship’s bow indicated its name - Melusine.

Next to him, Reed blinked herself awake, struggling to look at the two photos in front of her. Sitting across the table, Babs leaned over to get a better look at them, even if they were upside-down. Each photo displayed a man - surprisingly, each were dressed in the same uniforms that Isaac and his friends wore. One man appeared tan with messy black hair, while the other had dark stubble and looked bored.

“The darker-skinned man is named Panama,” Stockham explained. “The other is named Jackson. The two used to be members of the Navy. When their conscription periods ended two years ago, they fell off the grid, and we hadn’t heard from them since - that is, until just recently, when we discovered that they are currently working as crewmates on the Melusine.”

The tiniest hint of a breeze emerged; Babs was using her breathing technique to push the cigar smoke away from her. Stockham paid no mind to that either; he simply continued with his briefing. “Over the past few months, the Navy has been investigating a series of underground drug deals in Arcadia. We’ve collected enough information from both buyers and dealers of all ranks to reasonably believe the Melusine is responsible for regular smuggled drug shipments into Arcadia from abroad.”

Isaac wasn’t sure if he was supposed to ask questions here or not, but if he was going to do a combat operation, he was going to do it right. “From where abroad?”

“The Melusine carries grain imports from the nation of Tanja across the sea.”

Babs’ ears perked up. “Isn’t that Zhanghai’s ally?”

Stockham nodded. “Indeed. Based on cargo reports, the Melusine has been bringing grain imports from Tanja to Arcadia. However, we also know from the ship’s logs that the Melusine stops in the Zhanghai treaty port in Tanja before steaming across the ocean to Arcadia.”

The General leaned forward, folding his fingers together, deep in thought. “We believe that, after loading the Tanjanese grain, the ship stops in the treaty port and secretly brings aboard illegal Zhanghai cultivation pills as cargo. When it reaches Arcadia, it unloads them discreetly and distributes them to Arcadian dealers.”

Isaac briefly wondered if the Saint Grass pills he took with Babs a few weeks ago were one of those pills illegally brought here from abroad. “Doesn’t Arcadia import most of its cultivation pills from Zhanghai, though?”

Stockham puffed thoughtfully on his cigar. “Indeed. However, only the military can legally use and distribute cultivation pills in Arcadia. However, given the certain…pleasure that cultivation pills can bring, the smugglers have found a market in the common man. Smugglers bring in pills, the masses buy them off the black market, and you have a whole lot of untraced money that can go toward certain…revolutionary things.”

A breeze inadvertently shook a cigar ring. “You mean the Restorationists might be making money off of this?” Babs asked, giving the General her full attention.

“Astute as ever, Barbara,” Stockham said. “Many of the dealers we interrogated paid money - whether it be through honest support or violent pressure - towards the Restorationist cause. We believe ships like the Melusine bring in the illicit pills from overseas, Restorationist and Restorationist-allied dealers distribute them to the city, and everyone makes money and everyone wins. Everyone, that is, except for the military, and the moral fabric of this nation.”

Reed’s head slumped forward, with the sudden motion waking her back up. She yawned and wiped her eyes. “So, you’re sending us to raid the ship or something?”

“Astute as ever, Hibiscus,” Stockham said. “The Melusine is due to land in the port of Fore River - south of the capital - tomorrow afternoon. Squad 3, aided by a fearless platoon of marines from the Combined Fleet, will storm the ship once it docks and seize any and all illicit goods. The marines will be doing the majority of the work; you three will be responsible for handling the cultivators - Panama and Jackson.”

A sudden banging sound echoed through the room - Reed had face planted onto the table. As she groggily rubbed her nose with one hand, she raised the other. “Question. All due respect, but is sending three novice cultivators against drug smugglers such a great idea?”

Isaac nodded along. Was he confident he could beat them in a fight? After all that training, he thought he had a chance. But he would hate to end his quest early by dying to a random pair of smugglers.

“Cultivation works faster when you fight an opponent in a true match of life-and-death,” Stockham explained nonchalantly. “Ask our dear friend Isaac here - did he not gain his powers due to a fight?”

Isaac nodded in agreement. His brother mentioned the same thing - forced into a corner, the cultivator has no choice but to improve his skill right then and there on the pain of death. When he put it that way - this was an opportunity to get stronger, an opportunity to get closer to his destination. But at the same time, he still felt ambivalent about the Restorationists. The constant exposure to military drilling and talk about the base steadily conditioned him to look down upon the Restorationists, and according to both Greg and Reed, the leaders of the movement were not to be trusted. But at the same time, if people like Kassandra made up the Restorationist rank and file, then perhaps Panama and Jackson were fighting for their own sense of justice. Did Isaac have a right to put them down in pursuit of his own justice? He stewed on that question while Stockham continued.

“And, based on our files, Panama and Jackson weren’t the greatest of cultivators,” Stockham continued. “They were merely northern conscripts, and only reached 1B before their period ended. Given their lack of improvement during their years of service here, we should assume they’d only be 1C by now. Circuit 2 was most likely out of their reach.”

He looked at Reed encouragingly. “And besides, what happened to the esprit-de-corps? When I ask you to jump, shouldn’t you ask ‘how high?’ rather than give me sleepy mumblings and complaints?” Stockham’s voice was gentle and encouraging, which surprised Isaac; Osip would’ve been screaming at Reed by now. Perhaps knowing how to handle peers and subordinates let Stockham rise to the top.

The deep breath Reed took made an audible sound. “Alright. I guess I can try.”

This also threw Isaac for a loop. Reed had seemed, in general, to display an odd mixture of dour enthusiasm during their time together. So why so glum now? It couldn’t have been just the lack of sleep. Maybe she really does just want to stay in the base and breath all day.

Isaac felt tapping on his shoulder. When he looked in that direction, he saw nobody; he then heard Reed snicker from the other side.

Guess she’s still the same girl after all.

Stockham rose, placing his hands on the table. “Alright. Your train leaves in two hours. You’ll stay at the local marine barracks in Fore River, where you’ll meet the platoon backing you. Prove to me that Squad 3 can be counted on in the future.”

The three members of that squad glanced at each other. Isaac still felt a little unsure, but ultimately, his own desire to get stronger led him to accept the mission; Reed pinched the bridge of her nose, but then gave them a weak smile; Babs rose from her seat and placed her hands on the table, mimicking the Chairman.

“Naval country, let’s ride!”