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23 Bolts-2I wrote this for the Surrey International Writing Conference short story contest in 2010. It didn’t win, but I like it.

It was really cathartic to write, and help me deal with some things I was struggling with at the time. It’s very autobiographical if you can’t tell. The story takes place in one of my wife’s universes. She won the contest in 2007 with a story set in this universe, and hopefully will return to it at some time.

Hope you enjoy:

Twenty-Three Bolts

by Jason Douros 2010


Twenty-three rust rimed bolts hold the eight centimeter steel plate that serves as my bedroom ceiling in place. I’d counted fourteen times before giving up on the entire notion of sleep.

It’s amazing the things you notice when rest eludes you.

I slipped out of bed, habitually careful not to disturb the vision of beauty beside me. Cooper hair cascaded over a stiff military issue pillowcase. Not as radiant as it once was, punctuated with wisps of white.

Three years on a voyage through the silent reaches of space will age a person. A once slim and athletic figure gave way to the sedentary lifestyle of a captain’s wife. Her beauty survived the arduous journey, but the changes haunted me.

I can’t believe she chose to spend her life on this insane journey. She gave up so much to be with me. It wasn’t always like this. We were content and happy on Earth. I’ll never forget the night we met.


I had returned from a supply run during the last Continental Wars. It was nothing out of the ordinary, your typical drop and dash. I wasn’t a soldier, only the captain of a small Ballard class freighter. I contracted out to the North American military effort. I didn’t really care about the war, but it was good pay.

The pub was virtually deserted that Thursday night. That’s why I went. I was examining the ancient gashes and dings on the real wood bar mulling over my carrier choice. My cheap Scotch was almost drained when she slipped in beside me. Startled, I turned as I heard her order.

“Dirty martini, really dirty.”

Red hair cascaded nearly half way down her back. She wore it lose and it beautifully matched her pale skin. Bright blue eyes dancing with life met mine, and a lopsided smile parted her thin lips.

I must have been staring, with jaw agape, like a drunken fool. Her brow crinkled in the middle and her mouth quirked a bit.

“You going to be ok there, cowboy?” her eyes sparkled mischievously.

“Huh…oh…um…yeah, sorry…I was ah just…” Fidgeting with my glass I took a deep breath.

“Can I start again? Hi, I’m John and I’m blithering idiot.”

“I like an honest man. I’m Katrina.” Her full smile emerged. “Trina, actually.”


Pulling on my clothes from the day before, I meandered into the small office adjacent to my quarters. Three bottles of Highland Scotch rested comfortably on a shelf, the last of the twenty I’d brought with me. The past two years sucked them dry at an alarming rate. Grabbing the open one, I filled a dirty glass with the pungent liquid.

A flash of reflected sunlight drew me to the small office window. The massive crystalline sphere of the hydroponics pod rotated slowly. It always kept the plants inside facing any available star light. I could see the lush shades of greens glistening with recycled water. The bay always reminded me of home and the early days of our relationship.

She eventually confessed to me who her father was, my employer. General Edward Hendricks, commander of the North American Military Forces.

Dumb freaking luck.

Needless to say, he wasn’t thrilled about me dating his only daughter. I was, as he put it, a greedy, immoral, dirty, mercenary pilot without the balls to join the real fight. It didn’t help a few months later when we announced our engagement. The General cut off all communication, and ensured I was given the worst assignments.

All that changed after my last mission.

The Forces were on the African Continent locked in a stalemate with one of the Warlords. On a ration run from a factory on Mars, I touched down on my usual back landing pad careful not to interfere with the “real” pilots.

“The commander wants to see you as soon as you’ve unloaded.” A young Private said as I hefted the last of the boxes onto the tarmac. “I can escort you Captain Elders.”

“John, please, and we’re about done here.” I hated the whole military rank system.

“Yes, of course.” Squaring his shoulders, he motioned towards a canopy in the distance.

“Give me a sec. Hey, Travis.”

“Yeah boss…what’s up?” A dark-skinned vaguely Asian man popped his head out of the cargo bay.

Travis was my First Mate. I’d picked him up right out of commercial flight school. He was young and inexperienced, but a gifted navigator.

“Get Will and prep the ship for launch, I’ve gotta pick up the payment and see what the brass wants.”

Will was our medic, mechanic, and all around mother type. She was a mouthy blonde with more attitude than sense. Will kept the others in line, and knew both the crew and the ship inside and out. I couldn’t have gotten by without her over the years in more ways than one.

“Oh, and tell Nate and Mickey to make sure the bay is clear in case we need to bring something back to Seattle.”

The muscle of the group, they were inseparable lifelong friends after being the sole survivors of their unit in Northern Europe. I often wondered if they shared a personality, but they got the job done and mostly kept to themselves.

The last member of the crew was a college student named Jenni. Drop dead gorgeous, brilliant as they came, and inseparable from Travis. She handled the ship’s systems.

“Bring the boys and Jenni and meet me by the tents when the ship is ready.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

I let the Private lead me through the camp. As we rounded the bend, I was greeted by an unexpected sight. News crews bustled about filming interviews and asides. They swarmed the large interior of a tent.

Seated at the head table where two men flanked by a mass of people that screamed power and influence. The first had deep ebony skin, a traditional green African military uniform and one of those goofy berets tilted to the side. He was immaculately groomed and carried himself with an overconfident air.

The man sitting across the table I recognized immediately. Tall, lanky, pale, and older, he was dressed in his usual simple black suite. He sat with an easy yet assured posture and smiled absently at his aids.

“Is that the North American President?”

“Yes, sir. He’s here to negotiate for peace.”

“With Warlord Mustazzi?”

“Yes, sir.” The private answered through clenched teeth.

Mustazzi was one of the most brutal Warlords in the region vying for control of the continent. This must have been promising to bring President Wilcox here in person. Or maybe it was the election year.

“Is that safe?”

The Private, stopped, turned, and glared in one fluid motion. He had a good five inches on me. Pretty much everywhere.

“Every precaution has been taken to ensure the security of the President and his delegation. You needn’t be concerned for your safety, Captain Elders.”

I raised my hands in mock surrender.

“My mistake. Lead away Private…Jackson.” I made a show of reading his name and rank.

Narrowing his eyes, he turned on his heal and continued to walk. We weaved through the sea of humanity and chaos until we arrived at a small building away from the tent. Jackson opened the door and ushered me in.

A collection of moderately high ranking officers sat around a table littered with Vids of all sizes. They displayed three dimensional maps of the surrounding terrain.

“Captain Elders, glad you could join us.” My contact, Lieutenant Commander Ramirez said.

“We need you to make a supply run to Johnson Orbital Platform before tonight.” He handed me a small Vid.

Glancing over the list it became apparent my precious cargo was the night’s dinner and party supplies. Damn you, Hendricks.

“Planning on celebrating something Ramirez?”

“The President is negotiating the treaty with Mustazzi, and they feel it’ll be a success. Afterwards, they’re having a dinner party to officially announce the results and celebrate. It won’t end the war, but it’s a move in that direction.”

Evidently, real pilots don’t pick up punch bowls. We spent the next few minutes working out the details, and settling up for the rations. Jackson watched my every move. I had the distinct impression he didn’t care for me. I can’t imagine why, perhaps he knew Trina’s father. He certainly looked and acted like a young version of the General.

“Always a pleasure Ramirez, we’ll be back in few hours with your folding chairs and tablecloths.” I flicked my finger up from my forehead in a mock solute. He grunted and returned to his Vid. “You coming smiley or can I walk all by myself?”

Jackson squinted at me but opened the door and stiffly slipped through it. I couldn’t help but grin. Once we were out in the stifling African heat, I noticed my crew ten meters from the Presidential canopy. They were flanked by their own small group of Jacksons. My god, was there a factory for these guys?

Jenni leaned on Travis’ arm listening intently while he told some story of his exploits complete with grand hand motions. Nate and Mickey were engaged in a conversation with the soldiers around them.

“John.” Ramirez called behind me as he emerged from the tent.

I waved to Travis to get his attention, and he acknowledged me with a nod. I turned my back to the crew to engage Ramirez.

“When you return, I want to talk to you about a mission I may need your services on.”

“Leave your dry-cleaning on Europa?” I couldn’t help the bitterness in my voice.

“John, please, you know…” He stopped mid thought as a strange rumbling reverberated in the distance. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as the air became charged with a humming energy.

Ramirez’s face turned white and he launched himself past me back into the tent. I looked over at the crew the same instant. Nate and Mickey’s faces were flush with fear as they frantically whipped their heads around.

Then I saw the first flashes in the distance.

“Plasma! Get to cover!” Jackson yelled. I surged towards my crew.

In seconds the flashes increased. Closer and closer to our position.

The rumbling became the clear sound of explosions. I took off towards my crew. Jackson grabbed my arm throwing me off balance. Wrenching free, I stumbled forward. My crew stood dumb founded. Nate and Mickey frozen in remembered fear.

I regained my balance and charged forward.

“Get to cover” I tried to scream.

The super heated blast of plasma hit directly where they were standing. The light blinded me. The explosion instantly cut off any other sound.

The shock wave hit. Searing heat singed my skin. Debris slammed into my body throwing me through the air end over end. I hit the ground with a bone jarring impact. My left shoulder and head took the full weight of my decent. I felt a sickly pop in my shoulder.

The world went black and silent.

“Captain Elders…can…you…hear…me?” Jackson’s voice barely cut through the intense ringing in my ears. Consciousness swirled and churned as my body fought to keep the world dark and indifferent to the madman trying to rouse me.

Sharp intense pain pierced my neck and I tried to mumble something coherent. Suddenly my heart raced and the world crashed back into focus as my eyes fly open. I shot up into a sitting position. Jackson knelt over me with a needle. He face was ashen and covered with blood as he grabbed my shoulders.

“Captain Elders, can you hear me?”

My heart pounded. My vision cleared. My hearing returned with a slight ring. “Yeah I can…what the hell happened?” I managed to get out.

“We’re under attack, we need your help.”

Blood drained from my face. Memories took the place of confusion. The realization of what I’d seen sank in.

On my god, the crew. What happened to the crew?

Lurching forward I tried to get to my feet. White hot pain radiated from my shoulder. I screamed as my shoulder gave out. Tears streamed from my eyes and I landed face first in the dirt. I pushed myself up on my right hand and saw the spot just ten meters away.

The ground was deeply scared and coal black. Small fires still burned around the edges. I realized with sick clarity that clothes and body parts fueled them from the people near the rim of the explosion. I could see a skeletal arm and the bottom half of a torso. That would have been me if Jackson hadn’t tried to stop me.

I squeezed my eyes shut from the horror. The screams of survivors flooded my hearing. Tears flowed unchecked. My god, how long had I been out?

“Captain Elders,” Jackson twisted me over on my back. He grabbed my face. “We need your help. All of our transports were destroyed in the attack. Yours is the only one still sky worthy. Can you fly her?”

“My crew, my god there’re all dead. I brought them to war zone and I killed them.” My teeth clenched tight. My eyes squeezed shut.

“Yes, they are, and there is nothing you can do to change that,” urgency and desperation in his voice. “The delegation is still alive and we must evacuate him. Can you fly? Our pilots are dead. The transports destroyed. The Commander needs you. Do you understand me?”

Will, oh god I forgot about Will. My eyes flew open and I blankly stared past Jackson. The sounds of the battle raging around me finally registered. Rifles sounded in the distance. Bullets pinged nearby. Soldiers barked orders. Screams of agony cascaded from all directions.

I was in the middle of a battle. I’d gotten almost all my crew killed. I had to get Will to safety.

“Captain Elders, can you fly the delegation out. I need to know, NOW.” His voice was hard and commanding.

“Yeah…yeah I can.” Blinking and pushing his hands away with my good arm I pulled myself together. I needed to get Will out of here. I had to get back to Trina, whatever that took.

His face softened. Jackson extended his hand to help me up. In his other arm he held a mean looking rifle with his finger resting casually on the trigger.

“Good, can you walk?”

Getting painfully to my shaky feet with Jackson’s help, I looked him in the eyes. “Yes, I can. Which way to my ship?”

He touched his right ear, “He’s a go.”

“Half click west of here.” He pointed behind me. “The forces are attacking from the east and north. That should buy us the time we need before we’re overrun. The president and his aides are en route. We’ll meet up on the way. We need to move…now.”

“Right, okay then. Just you and me?”

“The rest of the forces are holding the army back to give you time. We lost a lot of men in the orbital plasma attack. They won’t last long.”

“Orbital attack? No African has orbital weapons. What the hell?”

“I don’t know Captain. My orders are to get you to the ship no matter what. We need to move out now.” The commanding tone was back.

“Right. Oh, and Jackson,” I grabbed his arm as he tried to push past me. “Thanks for saving my life.”

He smiled a little at me, for the first time all day. “Just doing my job. Now make it worth my while by getting that hunk of crap into the air, and back to North America.”

“I’ll do my best.”  I half smiled back at him.

Jackson suddenly jerked. The report of a rifle sounded. His neck and right side of his head exploded in a shower of blood as the shells ripped through him from behind. I tried to catch him as he fell forward to his knees dropping the rifle behind me. His weight took me down with him, and we tumbled to the ground. His body shielded me from the unseen attacker.

I found myself face to face with Jackson’s remaining eye and gaping mouth. Horrified, I scooted away from the nauseating sight. My hand bumped into his rifle. Tearing my gaze from him, I snatched the rifle and awkwardly swung it around looking for the enemy.

Not four meters away stood a small man, his back half turned to me. The uniform hung from his body, ill-fitting on the tiny frame. It was ragged and torn around the edges, but still the same green Mustazzi wore. His boots seemed a size too big and worn through in spots. He had no armor or helmet, and was holding an ancient looking rifle.

The weapon was pitted and stained on the faded black metal parts. The wooden stock was gashed and scored from what looked like decades of use. I was amazed he could use the rifle at all. It was a stark contrast to the polymer and alloy killing machine I held.

Fear and anger waged for control of me as I pointed the rifle in his direction. I slipped my finger onto the trigger. I felt the handle vibrate and a faint green light lit on the sights. I heard the internals whir and shift as the auto targeting locked onto the man. He swept his rifle around looking for something and turned to face me.

His dark eyes locked on me. I was left staring into the face of boy no older than twelve.

His expression, full of alarm and vigilance, relaxed for a second. Thin arms lowered the rifle slightly. He stared at me, and I could see in his face a confused child. Maybe it was the lack of uniform or the sleek weapon I trained on him. Or maybe it was the scarred little boy he was bubbling to the surface. A solider forced to fight a war he knew nothing about at the expense of his childhood. A child stood before me in alarming clarity, and I had a weapon trained on him.

I tried to use my left hand to signal him. To tell him I wasn’t going to hurt him, but my arm wouldn’t respond.

As quickly as it appeared, the scared little boy retreated into a determined solider. He trained the rifle on me again. Oh god, he was going to shoot me like he had Jackson.

“Wait, no…” I stammered. He pointed the marred barrel in my direction.

My finger instinctively twitched on the trigger as I tried to move. The rifle erupted in three quick bursts.

I could see them strike his chest dead center in a fine mist of blood. The boy stumbled back a step. His rifle going lose in his hand as eyes widened. He stared to collapse. The rifle pointed harmlessly at the ground. I could see him reflexively squeeze the trigger.


The gun jammed as he crumpled.

A group of men raced out of Ramirez’s tent followed closely by the Commander. They surrounded the body, rifles trained on the still form. One kicked the useless weapon aside while another checked the boy for life. A quick nod and they descended on me.

I looked at the weapon in my hand and threw it away in disgust. It whirred and buzzed before going still. The soldiers were on me checking for wounds an instant later. They shoved Jackson’s body out of the way.

“Shit Elders, looks like an advanced scout slipped through. You hit?” Ramirez loomed over me.

I could hardly speak. “Child… he was a child…” And I killed him.

“I know. They all are. That doesn’t change the mission. Can you get them out of here?”

“Yeah…I can.”

I was heaved to my feet by a couple of men. We headed in the direction of my ship flanked on all sides by soldiers.

I filled my glass again and took another swallow. Was that my forth of fifth glass, I’d lost track.

We made it out with the President and his entourage in tack. The military men ushered me onto the ship and then returned to the fight. None of them made it out including Ramirez. Once news of the battle broke, there was a global outcry. The rest of the world banded together and ended the war.

I was heralded a war hero complete with parades, banquets, awards, and more press coverage then I could handle. What I realized though, is that wars don’t have heroes, only victims. No matter what end of the weapon you’re on.

Suddenly, the General had a change of heart. He resumed contact with us, and gave his very public blessing to our engagement. He used my fame to catapult his career even further. Meanwhile Trina was left to deal with me. I still had Africa to come to terms with, and it wasn’t going to be a quick recovery.

Trina came onto our back deck as I stared out over the pristine waters of the Puget Sound. Memories and emotions were tearing me apart again. I couldn’t escape the face of the child solider or the deaths of the crew.

“Hey there, handsome.” She slid onto the bench beside me and slipped her arm through mine.

“Hey, gorgeous.” I tried to smile, but I imagine it looked more pathetic then joyful. Trina was the only one who saw me like this. The only one who knew the whole story.

We sat in silence with our arms entwined. She had brilliant blue, bright red, and sunshine yellow paint smears on her hand. They were her favorites to paint with, and I’d often sit for hours just watching her work.

“So I finished the final piece for the wedding.”

I looked at her and smiled a bit more genuine this time. “That’s great. So are you ready to do this?”

“I’m not the issue. We’re waiting for you remember?” She smiled back.

“I know. I’m sorry Trina. You deserve so much I can’t seem to give you.” I looked away and back out at the water.

“John, you know I love you no matter what. I’ll wait as long as you need.”


“I remember how long it took me to deal with Mom’s death.” It was her turn to look distant.

Her mother, Vare Hendricks, died when she was a teenager. Trina was the love of her life, and the two were very close. I think because of her father. The General was a domineering, brutal husband and father. Never physically, from what I understood, but in his expectations he ran his family like he did the base.

Vare died under questionable circumstances. Her death was declared an accident, but Trina always thought it was suicide. That wouldn’t have been good for the General, and their relationship had never been the same since. Trina rarely talked about her mother. Whenever she did I listened.

“I always blamed myself for her death. I couldn’t understand why she would leave me unless I did something wrong. It dominated my art for years.”

I held her hand as she spoke.

“I slowly came to realize I wasn’t to blame. It was my father and all he put us through. I don’t know if it was the healthiest of choices, but it got me through the worst of it.”

She looked at me with those amazing blue eyes.

“You know it wasn’t your fault they died.” She said.

“Yeah, I know that on some level, but I just can’t seem to make it stick. I want to move on, but it’s so damn hard to forget. I don’t have art like you do.”

She nestled her head into my shoulder.

“Maybe you need to find something. Find your own art. How about calling Will and seeing if you can get flying again?”

“Maybe, I’ll think about it.”

Emptying the last drop of Scotch I reached for the bottle with a wobbly hand and sat down at my desk.

I wish it all got better after that day, but there was still a long road ahead. Trina walked it with me. Eventually I did start flying again. We settled into life and those couple of years became the best of our lives.

Then the last elephant died.

A rich activist partnered with some of the most powerful corporations on the planet. They used it as a rallying point. Earth was declared a sanctuary, and the newly unified global senate passed its first decree. The planet was to be evacuated and left as a terraforming template. All the planets and moons in our solar system had been terraformed that could be.

Colonies were being planted all over the new worlds, and for many it seemed like a natural step. A few million people were selected to tend to the new sanctuary by voluntary lottery, and the rest forced to migrate off planet.

The corporations providing the hardware for the colonies made billions as new ventures started off world. The poorest of the world’s population were promised bright new futures full of opportunity. They boarded transports in droves, only to depart as virtual slaves to the corporations. Scores resisted and were forcefully relocated as evacuation deadlines loomed.

I finally found something to pour my energies into and give my life direction. I used my fame to become their voice. I was the war hero decrying the forced resettlement of the poor. Trina was there by my side the whole time. The General didn’t approve and cut us off again. That was the final piece I needed.

We were married on the shores of a placid red lake on Mars. We invited the press and surrounded ourselves with those we sought to help. It was a political statement as much as it was our long awaited day. Trina never complained. She took the name Katrina Vare-Elders in honor of her mother, and to cut her father out of our lives entirely.

Nothing changed though. People were still forced off Earth, and my passion for the mission died out. That’s how I ended up on the Endeavor.


I tapped the screen on my console and brought up the fuel status. I stared at the two bars on the monitor. One was three quarters full and green. The fuel we used to navigate the inner solar systems. In five years of searching we’d only used a quarter as we hopped from planet to planet trying to find one we could terraform.

They told us the Sun’s planets couldn’t hold us all. To avoid an environmental disaster the human race had to expand. They asked me to take a ten trillion dollar ship, four hundred people, and leave everything behind in search of humanities hope for survival. I took the challenge, and we ended up here.

The other bar on the screen wasn’t doing so well. The only thing that remained was a small sliver of red. It was our Rifting fuel, what we used to get out here. We’d made four Rifts to cross the vast expanse. It stranded us unless we found more fuel.

I turned to look out the window at the brown lifeless planet we orbited. It’s shifting sands and treacherous winds were our last chance. We’d tested every other planet or moon in the system with any hope of sustaining life. We couldn’t use any of them with the technology we carried with us.

This barren wasteland was our last chance. I’d sent a survey team in three days ago. They were testing for the essential ingredient we needed, water. We couldn’t leave the system, and there was no money to send us fuel for another ten years. We’d drift around until the tanks were empty and perish long before that happened.

I picked up the framed medal they gave me after Africa. My reflection stared back at me in the gold of the medallion. I scratched my salt and pepper beard. Had I led yet another crew to their deaths on a one way trip?

The intercom beeped behind me and I almost dropped the medal. I tapped the screen. “Yeah.”

“John, this is Will, did I wake you, or is that a stupid question?”

“It’s late Will, and I’m trying to sleep. Is this important?”

“Maybe. I’ve got the team on the line. They want to talk to you.”

Running my hands through my short cropped hair I said “Go ahead and patch them through to my desk.”

I sat down again just as the interior of our shuttle came into view with two excited crew members staring at me.

“Gentlemen, do you have any idea what time it is?”

“Sorry sir, but we thought you’d want to see this’”

Their image was replaced by sensor readings. I realized right away what had got them so worked up. Water. There were large pockets of liquid water under the surface.

The readings weren’t unusual. We’d seen similar ones, but none of them this promising. It was far from a guarantee of success.

“Do you see sir,” He said. “We found water. Do we get to name the planet now?”

It was a tradition. We wouldn’t name a planet unless it had water, and whatever we named it would be permanent.

This was our last hope of survival. We’d make our stand here. I looked out my office door into my bedroom.

I could still see the image of Trina sleeping, but only for second. Then it faded back into my memory. She’d been gone for two years now, died in her sleep of an aneurysm. They say less than five percent of the population can’t handle prolonged space flight.

She’d been one of them. I woke up one morning to find her dead.

“Yeah, we do.” I said turning back to the monitor. “Trina-Vare, this planet will be named Trina-Vare.”

I punched it into the database. Succeed or fail, Trina and I would do it together one last time.

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