Entering her quarters, Elizabeth lifted her left arm experimentally, prepared to feel sharp twinges of pain shoot along her shoulder. Instead, she felt some tightness, but no real discomfort.
That’s good stuff Hope has, she mused with a faint smile. It faded quickly. No wonder the Chief wanted it so bad.
She eyed her bunk, wondering if she dared try to remove her tunic before she lay down. She swung her arm slowly across her body.
It really doesn’t hurt that bad any more. And a little rest wouldn’t hurt. Hope said “light duty” and . . .
Elizabeth’s eyes caught sight of the chronometer on her desk.
Damn it! I’m supposed to be on the bridge in ten minutes!
Her eyes searched the room for the pieces of her uniform, silently praying that last night had been one when she had bothered to hang it up.
Thank god this isn’t the Washington.
Captain Dresden made it a point to conduct regular inspections of his crew’s personal quarters. Officers were subject to even more severe reprimands than non-commissioned personnel. Elizabeth had discovered this very quickly, but not before she was assigned to three extra shifts and some particularly unpleasant duties with the reclamation maintenance teams. Dresden’s quarters had looked as if he never actually used them.
She located her trousers draped over the side of her chair and held them up, satisfied that they were presentable. Her duty tunic, which she found buried under her pajamas, was a wrinkled mess. She shook it out, but that proved to be of little help.
I could wear my dress uniform . . .
She turned toward her closet.
No, she stopped herself. Stupid idea!
Glancing at the chronometer again, she swore again.
Damn it, I still need to shower!
She knew without checking that skipping that step was not an option. Taking a slow breath to calm herself, she considered her options.
I can do that in ten minutes. She felt her dismay begin to grow again. My hair . . . !
It was stiff with dried perspiration and, she guessed, probably smelled almost as bad as the rest of her.
Damn! Damn! Damn it!
She peeled off her clothing, forgetting about her injured shoulder, and let it fall in a pile on the floor. She palmed on the shower and stepped inside before making certain itt was warm.
Eight minutes later, she emerged, dripping wet and as clean as she could manage. She rubbed viciously at her hair with a towel, feeling its strands tangle, and wondered irritably once again why she liked to wear it long. Her shoulder tingled fiercely. Elizabeth forced herself to ignore it.
She checked the chronometer.
Damn, I won’t have time to brush it out. She swore silently at herself, thinking of the mess she would have to unsnarl after her shift was over. I’ll just have to pull it back . . . and pray.
It was not at all unusual for her to wear her hair pulled back into a ponytail while on duty, but she usually brushed it out thoroughly first.
She dried the rest of her body, having to reach around to dry her back several times as her hair dripped water down it. After dressing in her underwear and pants, she attacked her hair again, getting as dry as she could manage with the single towel.
That’s what I get for not doing laundry . . .
After sliding into her tunic, she reached back to gather her hair. Gritting her teeth, she threaded her hair through a narrow elastic band, managing to snap only two of her fingers with the band. Waving her abused digits in the air, she resisted the urge to place them into her mouth like a child. The abrupt movements did little to appease her damaged shoulder.
Dressed now, and with her hair passably arranged, she glanced at the chronometer again.
Less than two a minutes left!
She darted out into the corridor, nearly colliding with a passing crew member. Apologizing to him breathlessly, and then trying not to look as if she were running, she resumed her dash toward the bridge.
Rusty prowled the main Engineering Deck. He peered into open access panels as his technicians tried to work inside them, generally making a nuisance of himself. The crew had become skittish in his presence. He knew that he was driving morale down right through the deck plates, but he was determined to find out just what was not right with this ship.
“Carson,” he said, walking by a thin, blonde-haired crew member, “watch out for that yellow conduit. You’ll short out the aft radiation sensors.”
Carson started and then stared at the activated micro-welder in his left hand, wide-eyed at just how close he had nearly come to severing that conduit. He swallowed hard and then, very slowly and carefully, deactivated the tool and pulled it clear of the junction.
“Thanks, Chief,” he called out, his voice trembling slightly.
Rusty grunted something unintelligible in response, distracting the technician from realizing that he had not actually looked inside the panel.
He noticed that conversations stopped as he approached. Whispers returned as he passed. Both of these just added to his irritation. It was not at all how he liked to run his department, but he could not shake the feeling that something was wrong, that this ship might be in serious danger.
“Tsu-tao,” Rusty called to the dark-haired technician. “Make sure all the ramscoop feeds are closed and sealed tight before we get too close to . . . whatever this thing is. The last thing we need is to flood the intakes with a bunch of magnetic or irradiated ore.”
“I’m on it, Chief,” the short, but sturdy, engineer replied with a genial smile, making a note on the tablet he carried.
“You’d better be,” Rusty warned him in something that resembled a growl. “Or you’ll be cleaning them out with tweezers.”
Tsu-tao’s smile faded. Swallowing visibly in response to his Chief’s uncharacteristically sour mood, he looked down at his tablet as he walked away.
Rusty’s eyes turned upward and surveyed the ceiling, the equivalent of two decks above him. It was covered in a maze of tubes cabling, most of which were accessed from the deck above. He had not thought to study it before.
It took a moment, but then a male voice answered him from across the wide space of the deck.
Rusty continued to stare up at the ceiling as he spoke.
“I want a team to inspect every conduit, junction, and vent up there.”
“Right now?” Sandersen’s voice sounded incredulous.
“Right now,” Rusty replied flatly.
His eyes remained pointed toward the ceiling, but there was no change in the nagging sense of uneasiness that drove him. That was not it.
Still, it won’t hurt to check.
He looked down and his gaze quickly swept the Engineering Deck again.
Maybe it’s not here at all.
“I’ll be on the bridge,” he told Aruna, who had come up beside him. “Don’t break anything while I’m gone.”
“I’ll try not to, sir,” she responded softly, sounding far more sincere than was probably necessary.
Rusty did not look at her as he headed for the main hatch.
Devereux sat at the command station, trying to review status reports. Despite her best efforts, she was unable to keep herself from glancing up at the main bridge displays every few minutes. Although they would be entering nominal sensor range shortly, it would be a while before they provided any new information about the mysterious field they had detected. Given the many types of suspense to be had out in space, Devereux was more than willing to experience this kind than that of heading into combat.
Looking up from her desk, Devereux covertly surveyed the other members of the bridge crew, noting with a certain relieved satisfaction that few of them were having any better success at staying focused on their routine tasks than she was. At the helm, Pyrafox occasionally made what were probably unnecessary adjustments to the navigational controls. He leaned forward in his seat, as if by willpower alone he could propel the ship ahead more quickly. She even caught Hawkes taking a glance at the trio of large displays. Only Gho appeared to be solely focused on her assigned tasks.
But then she actually has work to do.
Devereux was tempted to ask for an update, but stopped herself.
She’ll report when she has something to report.
The main hatch opened and Elizabeth entered. Devereux turned to look, watching as Elizabeth appeared to nearly stumble over the hatchway. She also seemed to be slightly out of breath, but trying to hide it. Devereux fought back a smile.
“Nice of you to join us, Lieutenant . . .” she paused, seeing her First Officer’s light-skinned cheeks grow pink. “. . . Commander.”
To her credit, Devereux noted, Elizabeth met her eyes. The young officer was less than not even two minutes late. Still, A a little light-hearted teasing would ease the general tension of the crew—and probably ensure that the Elizabeth would not arrive even remotely tardy for a duty shift for weeks to come.
Like you’ve never overslept . . .
“I’m sorry, Captain,” Elizabeth said, standing straight and nearly at attention. “I was—”
The hatch opened again, interrupting her, and Rusty stepped inside. Devereux was surprised. She had not expected the Chief Engineer to make an appearance on the bridge.
“Is there something wrong, Chief?”
Rusty turned to look at her and seemed, for a moment, to have trouble focusing on her.
Damn. He’d better not be—
“I don’t know yet,” Rusty replied. His words came out as a kind of loud mumble, not slurred exactly, but definitely the indication of a distracted man.
Devereux and Elizabeth exchanged a glance. Elizabeth moved closer to Rusty. He seemed unaware of her until she nearly touched him. At that moment, he stepped forward, staring with fixed intensity at the main bridge displays.
“What’s going on?”
Devereux and Elizabeth exchanged another look. They both knew that the Chief had been briefed when the course was made.
“We’re entering scanning range of the debris cloud,” Devereux said, trying sound as matter-of-fact as possible.
Rusty nodded as if he understood.
Devereux looked toward the main Science station and caught Gho’s eye. The science officer shook her head.
“Nothing new yet, sir,” she said. “From this distance, it still appears to be just a collection of rocks.” Gho tapped some controls. “We’re having trouble getting high-resolution scans,” she reported, frowning. “There’s probably a lot of some ionized dust particles in the way floating around out there.”
Rusty made a thoughtful sound, his eyes never leaving the main screens.
“There’s something out there,” he murmured, loud enough to be heard.
Devereux looked over at Elizabeth, whose mouth tightened into an frown.
“Yes there is,” Devereux agreed, trying to sound calmly reasonable.
She noticed a change in the Chief Engineer’s posture. The muscles along his back and shoulders appeared to relax. Not certain whether to take this as a positive sign or a warning, she considered ways to reach the intercom and alert Hope without alarming Rusty. She caught Elizabeth’s attention and directed her eyes toward the intercom controls on the Science station. Elizabeth nodded almost imperceptibly and then turned her eyes back toward Rusty.
“That’s what it is,” he announced, sounding surprisingly lucid and relieved.
“What is, Chief?”
“That,” Rusty replied, nodding toward the screens. “It wasn’t the ship at all.”
Devereux’s expression tightened with concern. Looking toward Elizabeth again, her First Officer just gave a faint shrug.
“Chief,” Devereux said, calmly. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in telling us what you’re talking about?”
Rusty continued to stare at the main bridge displays. Devereux wondered if he had not heard her, then he turned around. He looked like a different man from the befuddled one who had wandered onto the bridge. Although his grin appeared to be genuine, Devereux remained unconvinced that there was not something else going on with her Chief Engineer.
Rusty regarded her for a long moment, glanced at Elizabeth, and then back to Devereux. His grin faded, making him seem somehow less menacing.
“It was out there,” he said, smiling happily. “It was out there.”
“What was, Chief?” Elizabeth asked gently.
Rusty turned to her, still smiling, but his eyes reflected his seriousness.
“I don’t know.”
Hawkes watched the Chief Engineer carefully. Although the man appeared intoxicated, Hawkes found himself surprised . . . and not quite ready to accede to that explanation. To his knowledge, Chief Rayna had ceased his usage of unauthorized medications ever since returning to the ship. For him to regress now was too great a coincidence for Hawkes to readily accept.
He had seen the Captain and Elizabeth exchange a number of meaningful glances. Based on the direction that their eyes moved, Hawkes concluded that their intent had been to reach the intercom. They could not without attracting the Chief Engineer’s attention, so Hawkes had keyed a silent request for medical assistance on the bridge. He also instructed a security team to report to the bridge, but not to enter it without orders to do so.
Devereux moved closer to the main Science station.
“Anything new?” she asked Gho.
The lieutenant checked her console before shaking her head. “Nothing, Captain,” she reported. “We’re still too far out.”
Devereux nodded, frowning slightly. She looked over toward the Chief Engineer, but he offered no reaction to Gho’s report. Devereux started to speak, but was interrupted by the sound of the main hatch opening.
Hope entered, carrying a medical case. Hawkes noted with satisfaction the two Security personnel that flanked her, but remained outside the hatch, taking positions of each side of the hatchway.
“Hope,” Devereux said. It was almost a breath of relief.
“Hey, Doc!” Rusty called out without turning away from the bridge displays.
For several moments, no one spoke. Devereux’s eyes directed Hope toward Rusty. Hope placed her case down on a nearby console and removed a portable medical scanner. Hope finished her scan of the Chief Engineer. Although she said nothing while she scanned the Chief Enginner, Hawkes noticed that she appeared to be startled by something the scanner had shown her. It was only the most subtle change in the Aerian physician’s expression, but Hawkes was certain that it was there. The Captain appeared to have noticed it as well.
Hope finished her scan of the Chief Engineer. Even as she stepped back, her dark eyes fixed on the scanner’s readout display. After a moment, she looked up and stared at Devereux. The Captain read something in the Aerian’s expression that made her jaw tighten.
“Chief,” she Devereux said, sounding reasonable, but firm. “I want you to go with Hope back to the infirmary.”
Rusty did not respond, nor did he move for several moments. Finally, he turned slowly around. He regarded Hope critically, as if he had never seen her before.
Although Hawkes saw nothing belligerent in the Chief’s manner, he held his fingers over the control that would summon the guards waiting out in the corridor. He noticed a change in the Captain’s posture. She, it appeared, also waited for the Chief Engineer to protest or resist.
“Chief,” Hope addressed him flatly.
Rusty looked down at the scanner in her hand. Awareness seemed to dawn on him.
“You think I’ve finally gone space happy, don’tcha?”
“Chief,” she repeated. It was a command, not a plea.
The Chief Engineer met Devereux’s eyes. Elizabeth shifted awkwardly on her feet. Devereux’s throat moved as she swallowed, but she remained resolute. The Chief’s eyes moved to Elizabeth, causing Elizabethher to shifted awkwardly on her feet awkwardly. and His gaze then fixed on Hope. Hawke’s fingers hovered above the security alert signal.
The Chief Engineer smiled, but Hawkes saw no signs that he intended to attack Hope or bolt for one of the hatchways. He continued to smile, the familiar bright twinkle returning to his eyes.
“I think you miss me, Doc.”
Hope stared back at him silently. Her large dark eyes revealed nothing. Devereux nodded once to her and then inclined her head in the direction of the main hatch.
“Come,” Hope said.
She waited for him to move in the direction of the hatchway. The Chief Engineer waited for only a moment, and then before headinged for the bridge’s main hatch. When it opened before him, he paused and looked back at Hawkes.
“For me?” he said, grinning with clear amusement at seeing the guards positioned there. “You shouldn’t have.”
He stepped into the corridor, the two security personnel falling in behind him. After a moment, he stopped and turned around.
“Whatcha waiting for, Doc?” he called out. “The Captain doesn’t have all day.”
Devereux exchanged a look with Hope that Hawkes interpreted as silent approval to depart. Hope stared back at the Captain for a long moment and then headed for the hatchway. Hawkes raised his hands from his console and looked at the Captain. Her expression betrayed deep concern as she watched Hope depart. Her eyes continued to follow the Medical Officer until the hatch closed behind her.
Devereux glanced for only a moment at the main bridge displays before turning and returning up the ramp to the command deck. Hawkes regarded her for a moment, and then turned his attention back to his console. He keyed the security monitors so he could follow the Chief Engineer’s progress to the infirmary, to ensure that he actually arrived there.
Hope trailed the Chief Engineer and his two Security escorts. She had been surprised by the Tactical Officer’s signal. His message had been brief and vague, giving her little other information than that the situation was potentially critical and she needed to report to the bridge immediately. She had done so, and was still not clear on what had transpired there. Clearly, there was an issue involving the Chief Engineer, but she had witnessed nothing that deviated significantly from his typical behavior. She would follow the Captain’s orders, of course, hoping that doing so might provide her with some answers.
She still held the medical scanner in her hand. The readings that it had produced her troubled her, not so much from that data that it had reported, as it did from what it had not shown her. After they reached the infirmary, she could conduct more detailed physiological and neurological tests that might explain what the portable scanner had reported.
When they reached the infirmary, the two Security personnel stopped outside the hatch and waited for her open it. One took a position on each side of the Chief Engineer with one hand resting openly on their weapon. Hope completed the security procedure quickly and efficiently, standing aside as one of the guards pushed open the hatch. The other one, using nothing more than his physical presence, ushered the Chief Engineer inside.
Hope entered, letting the hatch close behind her.
“Bed Four,” she instructed them, moving toward one of the starboard cabinets.
Although the diagnostic beds were essentially the same, she had equipped Bed Four for more detailed neurological diagnosis. One thing she had learned during her first voyage on this ship was the wide variety of ways that myriad spatial phenomenon could affect the human brain. She was now also better equipped to deal with human birthing as well. However, sShe was not surprised then suspected the likelihood that she would needed to use either the new equipment or the knowledge was low so soon.
The two Security personnel moved closer to the Chief Engineer. He appeared to ignore them, stepping forward before they approached him. Standing next to the diagnostic bed, he surveyed each of the displays as Hope brought them online.
“The Cap’n wants you to make sure I really have a brain in there?” the Chief Engineer said, snickering.
He stood beside the bed for a moment and then lifted himself onto it. Parts of its metal structure creaked as he settled more comfortably onto its pad. He looked toward the ceiling, seeming uncharacteristically calm and composed. The two Security guards stepped back, taking positions between the Chief Engineer and the hatchway.
“Remain still,” Hope instructed him.
“I’ll do my best not to boogie too much.”
Hope regarded the Chief Engineer for several moments, but he remained motionless. This behavior added to her uneasiness. Despite his customary quips to the contrary, he was being far too compliant. After giving him one more look, she activated the diagnostic scanners. Within a few seconds, the first results appeared.
Pulse slightly elevated.
Blood pressure slightly elevated.
The latter two readings did not surprise her. Although both were higher than normal, they were not significantly out of range based on her previous medical scans of the Chief Engineer. Still, Hope noted them in her log. It was data and might prove useful later.
The preliminary blood scans showed no traces of any restricted pharmaceutical substances. This both surprised and frustrated Hope. She had not expected to find any, but their presence would have helped to explain the Chief Engineer’s unusual behavior. It meant the cause was something else entirely.
She waited for additional reports. These scans involved deeper analyses of the Chief Engineer’s body functions, measuring factors such as hormonal levels and tissue density, and would require more time to complete. Hope looked at the Chief Engineer, but he remained uncharacteristically still and silent. She looked back at the readouts just as the next set of results began to appear.
Hope studied each one with increasing incredulity. There was not a single deviation from any the Chief Engineer’s previously recorded medical scans that would account for his unusual behavior. If anything, there was a marked improvement in several of them as his body began to repair itself after years of chemical abuse. All that remained now, was were the results of the deep neurological scans—and . Hope was rapidly losingheld diminishing confidence that those they would reveal anything useful.
The diagnostic indicator flashed blue, signaling that the neurological scans had been completed. The results appeared on the screen. Hope noted without surprise that variations among the different bands fell well within both established norms and those previously recorded for the Chief Engineer . . . except for one.
“What is it?” the Chief Engineer asked, breaking her concentration. “What’d you find, Doc?”
Hope looked up at him, said nothing, and then turned her eyes back to the display. The Chief Engineer turned his head. Unable to see the display clearly from that vantage point, he sat up and looked at the diagnostic readouts.
“Good thing my engine outputs don’t look like that,” he remarked, “Or we’d be spinning in circles.” He studied the graphs more closely. “Or in lots of little pieces.”
Hope said nothing, but continued to stare at the diagnostic display. The graphs showed a distinctive spike in the Chief Engineer’s Gamma band.
“Okay, Doc,” the Chief Engineer said. “Want to tell me what we’re looking at?”
“Gamma,” Hope said.
The Chief Engineer peered at the graphs on the display, clearly without comprehension. “Which means . . . what?” he asked with clear irritation. “I’m going to turn big and green and nasty the next time someone ticks me off?”
Hope turned to face the Chief Engineer.
“That’s a relief,” he replied, grinning back at her. “I don’t look good in green.”
Hope said nothing, failing to understand either his meaning or the cause for his sudden amusement. She was nearly certain that her response had not prompted it.
There was a long silence as Hope studied the results again. The Chief Engineer fidgeted. He had stopped looking at the diagnostic display, as it was essentially meaningless to him. He tried staring at Hope, as if willing her to turn around and address him. A few seconds into his little game, his eyes widened suddenly with realization.
“You don’t know what it means either,” he announced. His grin widened. “Do you?”
Hope regarded him for a long moment. His eyes continued to study her expression, although she was reasonably certain that it revealed nothing.
“No,” she admitted. Her voice, normally soft, was barely more than a whisper. “I do not.”
The Chief Engineer burst out laughing. Hope turned quickly to the medical monitors, but none of them signaled that he was in any distress. All she could do was to wait until he regained a measure of control, although his grin never went away completely.
“You really don’t know what it means?”
“I do not,” she repeated. “I will research.”
“I’m sure you will,” the Chief Engineer chuckled. He slid from the table. His boots banged against deck, echoing in the infirmary chamber. “Is there any reason you can think of I can’t return to duty?”
Hope studied him critically. His behavior, while needlessly boisterous, was not atypical. Based on the results of the scans, she had no medical reason to detain him. The spikes in his brain’s Gamma band were not justification enough. At least, they were not sufficient enough that she wanted him to remain there while she conducted her research.
“No,” she answered finally.
The Chief Engineer grinned with triumph.
“You will return,” Hope said firmly, “when I inform the Captain.”
“You do that.”
Hope held the Chief Engineer’s gaze for a long moment. She was the one who looked away, turning to face one of the Security personnel.
“He may depart.”
The Security guard nodded her understanding and stepped back, clearing the way to the hatchway. The Chief Engineering strode past her, seeming to be in no hurry.
“Doctor,” the other Security guard said courteously, and then turned and followed the Chief Engineer and the first Security guard out of the infirmary.
Hope watched the hatch close, and wondered what she was going to tell the Captain.