Again, I used the Weekly Short Story Contest on Goodreads as an excuse to write another bit of backstory for Alongside the Enemy. The topic for this week had been "The London Kiss" with no other description. To this end, I modified the tradition of the first kiss after a tour to fit my world and to provide insight into the relationship between Mercy Lyons and her "friend" Cordelia Leduc. Leduc has gone through more than a few name changes and if you head over to my post on creating cultures you'll see why.
“The London Kiss”
“All hands, this is the Captain.” Commander Bracegirdle’s voice sounded throughout HMS Foxhound. “As you know we are due to dock at Outpost Behn in a few hours where you are to enjoy your well earned three weeks shore leave.”
Midshipman Mercy Lyons lay on her bunk, one hand behind her head, the other holding to a data pad with the day’s gun deck duty roster. Her bunk mate, Midshipman Cordelia Leduc was on the bridge, as she often was when Mercy was not. The two former classmates, while sharing a tiny stateroom, had never been in it at the same time during their entire eight week tour.
“Since the age of sail,” Cmdr. Bracegirdle continued over the ship’s public address, “It has been tradition for one member of the crew to be drawn by lots to be greeted first ashore by his or her sweetheart.”
Mercy knew this speech well, Bracegirdle taking no small pleasure in reciting it before every extended leave. She scanned down the list again, failing to ignore the address, piped into every corner of the ship.
“It was on the station London Six that this first kiss of shore leave was holographically recorded in tri-dee, earning it the title ‘The London Kiss’. Now we not only extend this honor to our enlisted crew, but also to our junior officers.”
Mercy rolled over onto her side, facing the wall and returned to examining the roster. The number five gun still had three relatively green crewman assigned it, and she could not find a way to rotate them out to other guns without creating a similar problem there. The entire task would have been made easier if Crewman Kilrain had not gotten drunk and had not offended every Hartishian on the ship with a half-shouted, half-sung round of “Hoist the Colors, Bugger the Elves”. Most of the gun deck crew had flat out stated they would rather spend the entirety of the next tour in the brig than share a gun station with him.
“The bowl for names of those crew and officers who will have husbands, wives and sweethearts waiting for them has been on the bridge for three duty cycles so I do believe we have all had time to put our names in.”
Mercy had no companion waiting for her, neither at the station nor back on Earth Prime. Thus she had not put her name in and there was no need to listen. She scanned roster for another name to slide next to Crewman Kilrain. She could simply assign a Hartishian to man the gun and force them to get along. Their next tour would not be for several weeks. Perhaps things would settle down, or perhaps Kilrain would be reassigned.
Bracegirdle’s voice paused as he shuffled through the bowl, muttering as he did. “And the honor of the London Kiss shall go first to Able Crewman Michael O’Keefe.” He paused, presumably to confer with another officer. “Yes, Crewman O’Keefe’s wife Vanessa is actually serving on the HMS Niagara which docked last week for its own shore leave. You two kids stay safe.”
The roster situation was irreparable. Mercy rubbed her eyes and stared at the low ceiling over her bunk. The majority of the crew was human. About a tenth were Oresmen, small stocky men and women from the high gravity mining colonies. Mercy had never had a cause to dislike them as race, but their general bawdiness and bluntness often put her on edge. The space elves of the Hartishi worlds made up another tenth of the crew, and counted her bunkmate Leduc among them. While as passionate as Oresman, Hartishians were more private with their indulgences. At least that had always been Mercy’s experience.
“And now for the junior officer,” Bracegirdle announced, his voice betraying a grin. “Not many names here,” he added.
Swinging her legs off the bunk, Mercy sat up, careful to stay slouched over enough so as not to bang her head on the ceiling. She slid down to the floor and regarded herself in the room’s mirror. White skinned with rich green hair, Mercy looked like every other Allusian. She brushed her hair back with a hand, reflecting on how alone she felt most days. Few managed to escape the Allusian slave trade. Fewer still tried to defect to the Royal Commonwealth. Only one had entered Her Majesty’s Space Navy.
“Midshipman Mercy Lyons.”
She blinked. She had not put her name in the bowl. There was no one waiting for her at the outpost. There was no one waiting for her anywhere. She had left behind any semblance of a family when she was was rescued by Royal Marines. Few had been willing to even befriend one of the enemy at the academy. There had been attempts to bed her, of course, but those were not romantic overtures. Nearly to the man they had been nothing but racist efforts to see what kind of pleasure slave she had been prior to her liberation.
Mercy stared back at her reflection, watching her white cheeks take on an ever growing red hue, the skin warming with her embarrassment. Any moment now Bracegirdle would chuckle at the joke and draw the name of another junior officer, the real winner of the London Kiss.
“Well, good on you, Midshipman,” he said instead to the crew. “I expect the two of you in dress uniform at the airlock smartly at 0745 to be the first to disembark. To rest of the crew, as you were. Bracegirdle out.”
He was not going to draw another name. She was expected to arrive in the morning, to cross over into the outpost and meet no one. Meanwhile a dozen junior officers would walk down behind her, some even with people waiting to meet them. How could she stand there while they went to meet with their lovers and spouses?
Mercy put a hand on her bunk to steady herself. She was supposed to go on duty in a few hours. How would she face her fellow officers after this?
That was an option: to arrange to share a kiss with one of them. She was pretty sure that a romance was against regulations but maybe the captain would overlook taht and at least save her from the embarrassment of having no one to kiss. She started to tick through the various officers aboard that she knew. First she mentally cleared those that had shown her open hostility. That was three of the eleven gone. Of those remaining two were married. Then she mentally removed Thompson. Like Leduc, they’d been at the academy together and and there she developed the deep seated hatred for him she quietly carried. That left five, of which three were women, and one of Bracegirdle’s tolerated eccentricities was his disapproval of such a pairing. That left just two other junior officers.
She put her arms on the bunk and laid her cheek on them. She was Allusian; there was no mistaking that. On this tour alone they had engaged three Cartel-sponsored pirates. They had consigned seventeen crewman to the black, and a dozen more had been wounded. None would want to be seen in the embrace of the enemy. None should want to be seen holding one of the ruthless foe close to them in celebration.
The door to the stateroom slid open suddenly. Midshipman Cordelia Leduc stepped into the space. Standing behind Mercy, the two of them occupied all of the standing room in their quarters.
“Thompson.” Her tone was low and annoyed.
Mercy turned around, now face to face with Leduc for the first time since they had brought their trunks into the room eight weeks ago. “Thompson?”
Leduc’s lips peeled back in a sneer, her sharp teeth flashing in the light emanating from under the bunks. “I heard him say he was going to drop your name in for the London Kiss yesterday. She shook her head and squeezed herself down onto her own bed. “I didn’t think he could stoop so low, the maudite ostie.” Her green skinned cheeks showed patches of blue from her frustration.
Mercy regarded her bunkmate. She had not expected this response. The fact that they had never seen each other during this tour was one that Mercy considered a boon, an attitude she was convinced that Leduc had shared. “I appreciate your sympathy,” she ventured diplomatically, still standing against the bunks.
“Oh, this isn’t about you,” Leduc shot back, her enormous eyes narrowing as she glared. “It’s bad enough that he put his name in, but to double the odds that no officer was to win a Kiss? Le petit verre de pisse singe.” She scoffed and shook her head, leaning down to rest her elbows on her knees. Mercy stood awkwardly for a few moments and then twisted her body to try to move past the Hartishian.
“I guess I had better head down to the mess. There’s a small chance Ensign Hanover might be willing to-”
Leduc cut her off. “He was sharing a bunk with Crewman Gulliford.”
“And she was killed-”
Again Leduc cut her off. “In our second engagement with your former friends.”
The words stung. The Allusian Cartel were friends to no one, let alone the women they raised and sold into slavery. Mercy disliked every reference to them that suggested her former life. And in the immediate it also meant that there was no chance Hanover would be her savior. She considered the new facts. She admitted to herself that he had done a good job of hiding his disdain from her, though she now understood why he had never initiated a conversation. “Well, then,” she managed, finally.
Leduc looked up at her, her lips pressing together as she grinned conspiratorially. She held Mercy’s gaze for a second before speaking. “You’re kissing me.”
Mercy froze, her hands on her bunk as she tried to move around the other woman. She stared down at her. “Kiss you? I didn’t even think you liked me.”
The Hartishian chuckled wickedly. “I don’t like you. Frankly I hate just about everything about you.” Mercy blinked, dumbfounded, as she continued. “I hate that I had to score in the top forty percent of all Hartishians just to get an application to the academy, but you, the only Allusian, was granted a seat for the asking. I hate that for every engagement you get called into the briefing to provide some insight that you and I both know you don’t have. I hate that everyone likes to talk about how beautiful pleasure slaves are supposed to be, and what great lovers they make, and I hate that even that oiste de marde Thompson makes no secret he’d take you to bed before he’d dain to consider a ‘space elf’.” She stood up, forcing Mercy to take a step back. She felt the bulkhead behind her as the smaller woman stood before her. “But no matter how much I may hate you, the Kiss is a sacred tradition. It’s bigger than me, you or Thompson, and it’s not a joke, not to those who will be at that airlock looking for someone who’s not coming back from the black.”
Mercy nodded. “That makes sense.” She mulled it all over. “You hate me?”
Leduc took a step back and folded her arms. “For the most part. I respect what you’ve done but it really it doesn’t make me want to like you much.”
“And you want me to kiss you tomorrow morning.” Mercy was starting to smile.
“Yes,” Leduc answered. “We’re going to make a show of it. The London Kiss is a ritual that will be honored, even if it is done with polite formality between two bunk mates. And it’s not like anyone will believe that there’s something between us.”
“Because,” Mercy continued for her, “it’s common knowledge that you hate me.”
“Exactly.” Leduc beamed. “It’s a perfect plan that honors the kiss, shames Thompson, provides the public a quick kiss to see, and then we can go back to pleasantly avoiding each other.”
“And puts you center stage.”
Leduc shrugged off the observation. “Not a downside to me, but not my only motivator.”
Mercy shook her head. “And all I have to do is kiss someone who hates me.” She put her arm up along the bunk. The perfect plan still felt horribly unfair.
“There is that,” Leduc conceded, her voice starting to show a trace of regret. “Think it over. I’m due back on the bridge for the rest of this rotation. Leave me a note when you go on duty so I know if I need to get up and get into my dress uni or not.” The door to the hallway slid open as she stepped back towards it. “And yes, I do hate you, and this won’t change that. But this wasn’t about you, blanche.”
And she was gone, stepping out into hall, and disappearing from sight.
Mercy rested her forehead on the rail of the bunk. There was little question. She was going to have her bunkmate, a woman who hated her, meet her and share a public kiss to celebrate the end of their tour, the London Kiss.
* * * *
Midshipman Mercy Lyons eased along the passway, twisting back and forth to keep the white of her dress uniform from touching any of the bulkheads, or from grazing against the grease of one of the hatches. Her hair was pulled back tightly and knotted low, per regulations and several times she was forced to reach up and hold her white garrison cap in place as she went. Commander Bracegirdle was already at the airlock with Crewman O’Keefe. O’Keefe shifted nervously in the limited room he had to fidget. Space was a luxury on any ship, and the Foxhound was tighter than most.
“Who are you meeting ashore, Miss Lyons?” Bracegirdle’s smile was easy and casual. “A gentlemen we’ve not heard of?”
“No, sir,” she answered coming to attention. “My guest will be along shortly.” She stood opposite the two men in the small area before the hatch. Crew were already starting to file in as well, duffles in hand. They did not crowd the captain or the two honorees.
A few minutes Leduc’s voice filled the tight space. “Make a hole,” she called out down the passageway. Crew grumbled as they pressed themselves to the bulkheads to allow her small slender form to pass through. She took a place next to Mercy and came to attention.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Bracegirdle’s smile vanished. Mercy had known him to be a little radical in his thinking but had hoped he would not embarrass them. She had been mistaken. “You cannot kiss another woman, let alone a Hart-”
Mercy cut in quickly, her voice firm but as polite as she could manage. “Let alone your bunkmate. Fortunately I reviewed the regulations last night and you are correct, romantic liaisons between officers, indeed between any sharing quartering aboard ship, would be violations of Her Majesty’s Rules of Engagement for Crown Ships, that is without special dispensation from the ship’s captain.”
Bracegirdle puffed out his chest and smiled. “Well, that just means we’ll have to find someone else. I’m sure there’s a gentleman or two who would escort you on to the station. I offer you an informal dispensation now if that gentleman will step forward.” He pushed up on his toes to look past Mercy at the ever growing crowd.
“Which is why,” Mercy continued, “I am lucky that Midshipman Leduc and I are not romantic. At my suggestion we both put in our names to be drawn with the plan to share a platonic kiss if we were chosen.”
“Why?” Bracegirdle’s voice pitched up wards with alarm. “I won’t have this tradition made a mockery of, not on my ship.”
“Because as grateful as I am sure Crewman O’Keefe is to see his wife, those of us who have chosen to remain unjoined are equally grateful just to have survived another tour. We are not afraid of our duty, but we,” she nodded towards Leduc, “agree that there is no shame in simply being pleased to live to serve the Crown again.”
The comm next to the airlock crackled to life as the technician on the station side confirmed that they had a good seal and that all docking clamps were secure. Warning lights started to flash as the station opened its hatch to the airlock and the interior pressure stabilized.
“Well, I don’t know,” Bracegirdle grumbled, clutching his hands behind his back and rolling back and forth on his heels. “Tradition says this is an occasion for, well, lovers and sweethearts. And, strictly speaking, no one would confuse you two to be either.”
Mercy felt her cheeks betray her efforts to remain calm. She took a breath. “We meant no offense, Sir,” she mostly lied. “But it was important to both of us to celebrate the tour on behalf of all of us who have no one to meet here.” She licked her lips nervously. “If it matters you may put me on report for this. It was my idea. I suggested it to Midshipman Leduc and convinced her of its merits. Sir.”
“Oh, damnation this isn’t the time.” The light next to the airlock changed from amber to green, and the hatch gave a hiss as the pressure equalized. “Let’s just be done and neither of you speak of it to me again. Understood?”
“Aye, Sir,” the two women answered briskly.
Bracegirdle nodded to O’Keefe. Grinning like a schoolboy, he pulled open the hatch and climbed through quickly to seize his wife in his arms. Mercy gave him a few moments before following. She turned and offered a hand to Leduc to help her through the hatch. They shook hands, and then pressed their lips to each other’s cheeks. Unsure the small crowd watched, quietly. While they had cheered for O’Keefe, none seemed quite prepared for this. Mercy just took Leduc’s hand again, and lifted it high in her own as she smiled at the crowd.
“To living another day in the service of Her Right Majesty Queen Glorianna the Fourth. Long Live the Queen!”
The crowd shouted back in unison, “Long live the Queen!” and the moment of awkwardness was gone. Then the crew began to file into the receiving area, and the time of the London Kiss passed, another completed tradition, followed and forgotten.