Chapter 0 - Put Up Your Dukes!

As timing would have it, Tobias, having just left the lounge in search of his mark, found CPO Basin working with younger non-coms in the training deck. Believing it might calm himself to proverbially count to ten first, Tobias slowly circled the perimeter of the room, trying to look nonchalant about it– no different than any other officer observing the training in progress. 

The room was a sea of gold-accented uniforms, their wearers huddled together in anticipation. The air was thick with the sound of bustling and heckles, a clear sign that a fight was underway.

“Keep your guard up,” A low, gravely voice could be heard dictating between beats, “and your eyes open.”

“I,” the other replied, “am! I, Bwugh!?”

The sudden kick beneath his guard sent the petty officer back into the crowd with such force as to cleft the hecklers in two as they all cried out excitedly. Most of them didn’t get out of the way fast enough and were brushed aside as the young human male landed on his back with a huff.

“Attention!” The deep voice of the victorious Chief Petty Officer pierced through the crowd almost as quickly as the ragdoll he’d kicked into it, “Officer on deck!”

Bobbling heads turned toward the entrance before everyone went silent. Arms clapped to sides, legs locked straight, and heads held high. The commotion from just moments ago had all but ceased.

Adorned in his exercise-oriented sleeveless top, baggy pants, and jackboots, Daniel Basin strode through the center that had opened up, dabbing at his muscular physique with a plain towel as he spoke simply, “Commander.”

Regarding the human, Tobias’s teeth ground side to side, trying to tell himself there wasn’t anything for Elli to see in the guff, steel cut CPO. “General exercises? Or are we working on a particular technique, Mister Basin?”

With the tip of his boot, Daniel tapped the ragdoll on the floor on the shoulder. In response, the younger man opened his eyes in panic. He jumped up to his feet and saluted, “S-sorry, sir!”

With a single nod, Basin gave him his chance to get away and escape from the situation. With that settled, the Chief returned his gaze to the commander, “Just a little exercise to keep them alert.”

Tobias paced in a spiral inward toward the center mat as he inspected the crew at attention now. They all looked to be alert enough. When he’d come around to the middle of the room with their instructor, he had half a notion to pop him in the nose and suggest it was for the sake of the lesson, but he managed to check himself. The urge was less than sportsman-like, and would not have been becoming of him as an officer. Besides, Tobias didn’t want an audience. “It’s near the hour. You may dismiss them, Chief.”

“You heard ‘em, people, time to pack it up.” Basin followed his words with a spinning index finger in the air, “be back at Oh Six Hundred tomorrow,” the finger quickly moved down, pointing at random passers as they were leaving, “and don’t be late!”

The room wasn’t treated for sound, allowing the many footsteps to reverberate wildly before slowly fading into the distance. As if to button the moment, the doors’ automatic shut function activated, swiftly closing the two of them off from the outside hall.

Basin turned his body back around and faced Tobias directly, a curious look in his eye as he asked, “Is there something you need, commander?”

“Defend yourself,” He growled low as he wound up to throw a punch. They were practically of the same height, and, Tobias had considered beforehand, in the neighborhood of the same weight class. The natural build of Tobias made him something of an ox, however, with a powerful upper body.

He was tired. He wasn’t ready. The one saving grace he had was how limber he’d become after two hours of boxing his trainees into submission. Leaning into that, he weaved around the incoming blow. The sudden maneuver had him waning backward, the left heel of his boot planting further back to regain his balance. One step became two as his right heel quickly followed, and Basin found himself just out of the commander’s swing radius, hands up and mind spinning. Was this a test? He wondered briefly as his eyes focused anew on the incoming grazerite.

Still closing, the Grazerite left fist quickly followed from below forcing Basin to cover his gut while Tobias took a second swing for the face with his right.

It was like getting one-two’d by the corners of a crescent moon, with almost as much weight. Basin managed to block low and high but at the cost of his arms spreading wide. There wasn’t enough leverage to stop the incoming haymaker from clipping his forearm, knocking it into his cranium. Blood pounded through his temple as tinnitus rang through his ears. Adrenaline joined in, giving him a high he hadn’t felt in a long time while slowing down his perception. There was an opening. He’d seen Elli and how her grazerite legs moved so many times that the way they bent was almost second nature to him. Both feet planted hard, then one booted-heel snapped forward into the commander’s shin.

Tobias snorted with the pain that sparked from the strike and it staggered him backwards for a second. Long enough to shake both of his arms out and for him to lower his gaze, tilting his horns forward as he rushed Basin, a deep grazerite instinct leading him to want to literally butt heads.

There it was. That was the confirmation he needed. This was no simple sparring session. No grazerite would fight with their horns over nothing… right? Something was wrong, and he may just get lectured by the doctor if he didn’t at least try. Here goes nothing. He thought before raising his hands, “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute!”

Tobias was leaning back at the neck and about to connect the plate of his forehead with the human’s when the call to break off reached his brain. “You concede?” he roared, towering as tall as he could.

“Concede?” Basin seemed perplexed, “to what?”

His lip was snarled, Tobias’ typically broad bovine face taking on something more of minotaur. “From pursuing Commander Navine? You concede?”

There was a beat in the conversation where nothing was said. Basin’s eyebrows shot up at the words as they registered in his mind. “Elli?” He huffed a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding, a hand wiping sweat and blood from his face. “Pursuing her? Wait, what?”

“I won’t stand for anyone pressuring her.” Tobias leveled a warning finger. “If I hear of it again, you’re finished.” The restraint from discontinuing the fight was built up in his chest, and made him breathe heavily. Tobias wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by his own threat, only that he’d make good on the promise.

Labored as it had become, his breaths were starting to slow, as did his heart. The Chief lowered his bear arms back down as the sweat began to drip off of them. Smears of red could be seen still lingering where he’d been hit. He took one deep breath and sighed. “… I don’t know where you got the idea from, but you’re wrong.” The previously discarded towel was then picked up and used as he continued, “Elli and I aren’t like that. I haven’t… ‘pursued’ her. Actually, after what happened in the-”

Basin stopped himself. He began running over his memories of the alternate timeline. Was that stuff classified? Should he even be talking about it? Did the commander know?

“-anyway, why would you think I was going after her in the first place?”

Tobias’ mind whirled, and he realized that Basin had never been much of an actor, or a smooth talker, meaning this wasn’t a deferring act or a weaseling lie. So there had to have been some mistake. “She said someone was writing her love letters and trying to make plans for her… she… it isn’t you?”

Dryly, Basin retorted, “Do I seem like a poet to you?”

It was true. That didn’t sound like Basin. “She didn’t say whether they were well written letters or not.”

“Haha, I get it,” The snark that had slowly built over the last minute came to a head.

Trying to rewind the thought process that had even lead him here, Tobias explained. “It’s just that you spend so much time together. And she likes you.” Or at least she behaved with Basin happily and in stark contrast to how she acted with him. That had always grated on Tobias. “Who else could she be with?”

“Look,” Basin became as serious as the fight had been just seconds ago, only with less blood, “I’m no detective, but… maybe you should be asking her that.”

“You don’t think I would have tried that?” Tobias threw two hands up in the air with frustration. “If we’re not talking about the shield grid or something work related, she just gets difficult and avoidant with me. Even more than usual.”

His right hand reached for his forehead as Basin seemed to be reviewing his thoughts. It then went around and scratched the back of his head, “The last time she got emotional around me, I barely understood her through the sobbing. Are you sure you know what she told you?”

“It’s never clear.” Tobias had gotten more of a grip on his own emotions as they both cooled down. “The more I try to get out of her, the less sense it makes.There’s so little to go on… I assumed it had to be you. I’m sorry.”

“I’ve been through worse,” the Chief gruffed, “I’ll be fine. Just don’t tell Artopolis or he’ll keep me locked up in sickbay for a month.”

“Sure thing….” It suited him fine not to bring the Doctor into this. The last thing Tobias wanted was having this on the record, and being called in to the new Captain and dressed down for striking the Chief. Tobias was glum again, the wheels turning once more. He still needed to piece together who it was upsetting Elli. She had said it was someone who followed her to the Potemkin. So few of the old Potemkin crew was even aboard the Wabi Sabi. Pride had been reassigned over a year ago. McIntyre he had been given guard detail elsewhere, as far as he knew. Carl Hedley had taken a provisional command. Doctor Artopolis was still with them, but he was a long shot. She seemed to bicker with him more like a beloved sibling. It was possible Tobias had misinterpreted that, however.  He was doubting his ability to suss out anyone’s intentions, now.

“If you figure out who it is, you’ll tell me, right?” Tobias asked.

“I’ve seen Elli take on enemies who can blow up suns. She’s stronger than you think and has higher standards than anyone I know. There may be pieces of the story you don’t know, yet, but they aren’t mine to tell. Just talk to her again. Don’t give up.”

Tobias frowned. It was obvious to him now that Basin knew more than he was going to tell. Something he could neither beg or threaten out of the man. Whatever it was, it seemed Elli felt she could confide in Basin something she wouldn’t with him, and that didn’t help assuage what remained of his jealousy. He rubbed a hand over his muzzle. It was time to leave before he said something he would regret, added everything else.

“Thanks, Chief,” Tobias said over his shoulder as he wandered back out of the training room.

With a slow, long-drawn breath through his nose, Basin turned and caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror on the opposite wall. He looked terrible. It was definitely time to take a sonic shower. He paused on his way to the door, looking back at the spot where the two of them had fought. The implications of the accusation started eating away at his insides. No. Maybe he didn’t need a sonic shower. Time for a cold one.