Radecki/Dark : Emerald Flight : Star Wing – Chapter 9 – Fancy Footwork

( From what I remember we were cycling though these chapters about every three days for about two weeks, then reality and other priorities caught up with us.  There is a small easter egg in this chapter.  See if you can find it.  I’ll put up what it is in the next posting.  Happy Hunting!  😉  )

 

An Angel?  What is he talking about?  “..ridge…..opy?”  Elizabeth shifted her feet, and snuck a quick glance back at the captain.  Devereux was working to hide an amused smile as she listened to the Chief.   She turned back to the viewscreens and said, “Chief, what’s your status?”  A strong burst of static drowned any reply.  

If the Chief’s cracking jokes, Elizabeth thought, then they must be all right. 

She moved her shoulder tenderly, then caught herself and rolled her arm like it wasn’t hurting.  When I need to be at one hundred percent, I’m not.  Her attention was brought back to the situation at hand as the captain spoke.  “Chief, if you are hearing this, get yourself and Lieutenant Ferahim back here.”   

Devereux looked over to Elizabeth.  “Keep working at getting through the static.  I’ll feel better when they are out of that interference.”  Elizabeth caught the very faint French accent that crept into the captain’s voice.  

I wonder if she’s as nervous as I am.  

Elizabeth broke from her musings as the Science specialist spoke.  “I think there’s a pattern to the interference.”  She looked over to the lieutenant.  “Show me, screen one display.” She waited as the display shifted, then showed a chart of the interference intensity. 

The graph showed rapid fluctuations that appeared to Elizabeth to have no pattern.  “Don’t look at the little spikes, look at the overall … wait, let me fill it in.   The lieutenant tapped at his station, then the spikes were overlain with a solid color, and the pattern showed itself as a long undulating wave.  “What is your opinion to the cause?”, Elizabeth asked him.  Captain Devereux looked over to the science station as she waited for his reply.  

Elizabeth was thinking furiously.  A regular pattern isn’t seen unless it’s something like a pulsar spinning, then it appears to pulse.  The only regular patterns are in living things or a  She blinked as the realization came to her.  “I think it’s a beacon”, she blurted out.  

She saw  Gho’s face shift as the implication of the pattern became clear to her as well.  Devereux looked over to Hawkes.  “Have the crew stand to stations.  Prep the shuttle for launch.  I want to be ready if we get visitors”, Devereux said. 

“This is Shuttle one, voice check”, came lieutenant Pyrafox’s voice. 

“Check confirmed, Elizabeth replied immediately.  Start launch preparations.”  

“Starting launch prep, aye”, came the lieutenant’s voice.  

Devereux said tersely, “Tsu-tao, are you and the Jefferies receiving the Chief any better than we are?”  

“We hear you, the Chief’s signal is very distorted.  He’s hard to make out”, replied the Ensign. 

“Are you receiving any telemetry from their suits?” asked Elizabeth.  

“Some, reception is very erratic”, replied Tsu-tao.  

“Acknowledged, stand by”, said Devereux.

“Sir, Jefferies and I could move further into the field and see if we can receive the Chief’s transmissions more clearly.”  

Elizabeth looked over to the captain.  Devereux looked to Elizabeth, then shook her head, then turned to talk with Hope again.  

Elizabeth tapped the ‘transmit’ key. “Hold your position for now.  We’re considering options”, She said.  

What did he mean by an angel?, Elizabeth wondered.  In spite of the tension on the bridge, her curiosity had her returning to what the chief said, and turning it over in her head.  Knowing the Chief, it might be anything.

#

How did this get here, and , how in the name of Morris do I find what is projecting this image in all this floating junk?  The debris field had been difficult to navigate.  Pieces of rock, scrap, and unidentifiable debris floated in a loose cloud throughout the central area.  Both he and Ferahim had to take it slow, making a number of small corrections to avoid some of the larger, and more dangerous looking pieces or wreckage.  The large chunk of rock at the center drew at him. The white light  that flickered against the dark, lightless background, struck him with images of a candle in a window, lighting the way home.

The flickering image floated close to the surface of the asteroid, with a large piece of what looked like a thick, irregular sliver piercing the image and embedded in the rock.  The hologram was huddled, arms crossed in front of its face, as if it was trying to protect itself from something. The wings were feathered, white, and  partly furled around the body, protectively, like the crossed arms.  Rusty guessed the wingspan was somewhere around four meters tip to tip. The ‘hair’, or something like hair, shown with a bright copper sheen as his suit lights illuminated it, creating a halo of color around the head of the creature.  

   She. It, must have been caught in the blast and…he shook his head then snarled to himself. Snap out of it Rayna, it’s a Holo, not anything else.  This looks like someone’s idea of an old rock music-slash-video vixen, or a kinky alien date.  Maybe something a guy would dream up after a few too many.

Lieutenant Ferahim landed just ‘uphill’ from Rusty and the hologram.  With her feet against the rock, she hovered at a near right angle to the chief, some five meters away.  His feeling of unease at the tableaux in front of him was echoed by Ferahim through the comm.  “Chief, wha …ou doing?”  The interference was intense.  The suit speakers were constantly crackling in his ears.  His suit camera had   “Just hold on, lieutenant.  I want to look this over, I think we can take it back with us.  We can use it for holo- night.”  

He shook his head and chuckled, then began to look carefully around the image.  If it’s a hologram vid, that means the projector’s here somewhere.  The hand held scanner was useless due to the intense interference, so he turned a slow circle, scanning the cloud of small debris for something, anything that might be projecting the image.  “Lieutenant, do you see any projector near here?  I want to know what’s making this hologram.”  “No …ief”, she said, “Noth …t all.”

Rusty sighed dramatically, then looked down at the image.  “Don’t go away hun, I’ll be right back”, Rusty said to the flickering image.  The two carefully searched the rock around the hologram for any activity.  The scanners were useless due to the high interference, so the search was slowed appreciatively.  After ten minutes of careful searching, they were no closer to finding the origin of the hologram.  “Take a break, darling, while I think about this”, Rusty said with a roguish smile, trying to break the lieutenant’s ice-like demeanor.  Ferahim didn’t react, turning and blipping her thrusters to move her up to the top edge of the rock.

“Chief…up here, now.”  came the static-filled hum of the lieutenant’s voice. Her voice had him suddenly scanning the field for movement.  He suddenly felt exposed, and alone.  To cover his discomfort, he fired his thrusters to floating swiftly up next to the lieutenant, brushing against the sliver impaling the hologram.  Once next to her, she pointed down the backside of the asteroid.  

His eyes followed her finger down  the rock, and to the unmistakable shape of a burn nozzle poking out of  a cloud hanging debris.  His mind whirred as he looked around him mentally noting pieces and striving to fit them like a giant puzzle together.  “This isn’t a debris field”, he said excitedly, “it’s wreckage.”     Ferahim was on full alert, scanning the area, her weapon unlimbered and ready for use.  “Come on lieutenant, don’t tell me that old fossil has you ready to shoot then ask questions”, Rusty said disparagingly as he watched Ferahim study the field.

“Seeing trouble coming first saves more trouble finding you”, she replied, as her helmet turned to face him.  “Hey, was that a dig?”, he chuckled.  “It’s been a while, oh like about two hours, since anyone called me trouble.”  The attempt at a roguish shrug of the shoulders was stymied by the zero-g suit and thruster nozzles.  “You get to know me better and you’ll find I’m not near the mild-mannered engineer I appear to be”

#

Captain Devereux grimaced at the continuing lack of information.   She shook her head, then looked over to her First Officer who was conversing with Gho at the science station.  Elizabeth chose that moment to look up, and her cheeks reddened at the apparent scrutiny.  She shifted the datapad from one hand to the other and rolled her shoulder.  Devereux caught the slight hitch and wince Elizabeth tried to hide.

Toughing it out.

She turned to Hope once more.  “Any ideas that come to mind, Hope?”  Hope stared impassively at her for a long moment before answering.  “It is extensive”, she finally said quietly.    Devereux nodded.   She turned to the communication station, where Hawkes and the science officer had resumed efforts to find a working frequency.  He looked up at her, then shook his head very slightly before looking down again.

“Shuttle One, what’s your status?”, Devereux said, tersely.

“Shuttle One is one minute from launch-ready, Captain”, came Pryafox’s reply.  His Cajun accent garbled by interference and the shape of his jaw and throat.  “Cycling through the last check routines now.  Downloading the latest updated maps of the field, such as we can get.  That interference is going to make this interesting.”

“Keep it as uninteresting as you can, lieutenant.  The Fleet would frown on me if I have to requisition another shuttle and Navigator”, Devereux replied.

“Can do and will do, Captain. Careful is my middle name.”

Everyone is a comedian,  Devereux thought to herself, a small smile forming on her lips.  The Chief’s rubbing off on the crew.

Hawkes stepped away from the communication station, and approached her.  He straightened, then stated, “Captain, the interference is too much for communications.  With its full spectrum of interference, we can only maintain contact for a few seconds on any given frequency.  Cycling frequencies does not solve the problem either.  The interference is continuously making random pattern changes.”

Devereux sighed, running her hand through her short, blonde hair.  “Were you able to get any kind of information back when you did get a signal?   “No, captain”, Hawkes said. She then turned to Hope.  “Send a medic to the shuttle to join Pryafox, he should be ready for launch.” She shifted to face Hawkes again.  “Lieutenant, keep trying to make contact, we may get lucky.”   Hawkes’ carefully neutral face told her he didn’t expect to get lucky at all.  

Hope nodded, and said, “I will go”.  She headed to the shuttle bay, while Hawkes returned to the communications station.  Devereux looked over to navigation, and then to the science, hoping that one might give her an insight to the situation.  All she saw were earnest young faces, doing what they were trained to do.

She listened to the snippets of conversation,  “Trying suite thirty-one to thirty-six megaherz” …”Keep the drift constant, we’re building a slow yaw” … “Try forty-one to fifty” … “mapping complete to twenty percent of centroid.”

“Shuttle One reporting. The Doc’s aboard, We’re just waiting for the extra medical supplies”,  Pryafox said over the comm.

“Acknowledged, report ready when the equipment’s secured”, she replied.

Elizabeth looked up, then to the Captain.  Devereux shook her head.   I hate making them wait, but there’s no proof they’re in trouble yet.  The Chief’s as resourceful as he is a pain-in-the-butt.  I’ll give them a little more time.

She then looked over to Hawkes, who was still in conversation with Gho.  “Anything new to report, lieutenant Hawkes?” she queried.  “No captain, nothing successful as yet”, replied Hawkes.  Christine nodded, then turned to the screens again.

#

Hawkes looked back to  Gho. She looked up, then back to her board, and said,  “I’m going to military channel-skipping, that’s my last gasp at finding a hole in all that noise.  It’s just too strong and it’s too pervasive through the range we’re set up for.  Theoretically, if we could transmit in the nano-wave range, or very long-wave, we might find something.  Gho lifted her hands off the surface and placed her fists together, then pulled them apart, fingers splayed out.  “Pfft, we’re deaf until they get back in range or the jammer, if there is one, is shut down.

Hawkes watched Gho’s frustration.  He understood it, and didn’t remark on her dramatic gesture.  He looked up to the screens,  and closed his eyes as he took a calming breath. There is no standard response to a non-standard situation.  What is needed is a non-standard answer.

In spite of the stress, he maintained the same impassive controlled demeanor he always did.  There IS a method to defeat this.  He reached his hand up to the side of his head, then stopped.  His deliberate steps slowed as he turned over every method so far attempted, trying to find a flaw or a derivation that might give a way to communicate with Lieutenant Ferahim and the Chief Rayna.  Every situation he could remember was considered for anything that might apply.  

His focus had been on security, not rescue.  He had cross-training implemented, and all of his tactical and security teams were able to fill in where needed in engineering, maintenance, emergency medical, damage control, and communications.  Experience is only gained on the job, training works only for being trained. Hawkes’ pacing slowed until it looked like he was moving in slow motion, each step taking seconds to complete.  His cheek muscles clenched, his head snapped up.  Hawkes stood completely still, eyes locked forward as if peering at some distant scene.

After a few seconds of absolute stillness, he resumed a brisker pace, his tense muscles visibly relaxing as he returned to Gho’s side at the Communication console.  The Captain and First Officer watched him as he moved to the Science officer’s side. When in doubt, ask the expert.

“What have we not considered as communications, Ensign?”, Hawkes asked her.

Gho looked at her console, clenched her fists, and then opened them.  “What about pitching a rock with a note attached to it?”, she said.

Hawkes paused, then looked down at Gho.  “That kind of accuracy would need a targeting assist”

Gho looked up into his impassive face, and seemed completely at a loss to how she should reply.  The pause stretched out for a few moments, until Hawkes raised his eyebrows, and queried,  “Ensign?”  

She fidgeted uncomfortably, then answered, “I…I don’t know.”    

“Try cycling the series with the apparent modulation cycle of the interference,” he suggested.  Hawkes looked at the screen then down again.  “If we match our signal to the intensity variation, we may be able to…”   The speakers squealed with ear splitting feedback.  Everyone on the bridge clapped their hands, filled or not, to their ears, trying to shut out the painful squeal.  Gho quickly cut the speakers and fed the transmission through her console.  The interference peaked then dropped back to a quieter hiss.

Gho shook her head and waited a moment to let her ears quit ringing.  “Cycling attenuates it, sir,” she said in frustration.

He nodded, his mind focused on trying to correlate this latest failure with the other attempts.  “Noted.  Continue your study of the phenomena.”

Hawkes returned to Tactical.  He began running a number of potential security exercises through the computer as he worked at breaking his obsession with finding a communications solution.   He focused on his board as it returned potential scenario results.

He could hear the captain’s measured stride as she approached and stopped just behind him.  “Lieutenant, who besides Lieutenant Ferahim has EVA experience in security?”, Devereux asked.   Hawkes stopped, focusing on the request, then brought up a list of security personnel.  There were six others with EVA experience, though two had more than the rest.  Sergeants Sykes and Tuggle.  “Sykes and Tuggle have a number of EVA missions,  I recommend them as first choice for another EVA team”, Hawkes said as he turned his head to address the captain.

“Have them report to the shuttle, and kitted out for rescue.  If the Chief’s and Ferahim’s  estimated air supplies drop past a third remaining, I want them to be ready to go collect the two of them,” Devereux said.  Hawkes noticed her face was pinched slightly.  She’s worried.  He straightened and turned fully to face Captain Devereux.  “I will make certain they’re ready on time, Captain.”  Devereux looked at Hawkes, then ran her hand through her hair, saying,  “I’m sure they will be.”

#

Hope supervised the installation of the portable diagnostic table and the walk-through scanner in the cargo hold.   Once secured, she used security officers Sykes and Tuggle to test the scanner, using them to check its functions and see if it needed calibration after the move.  The tests showed no deviation from it’s baseline settings, so Hope set it to standby and checked the diagnostic table.   Satisfied that both pieces of equipment were ready, she assisted the loading of the extra medical supplies: anti-radiation drugs, hydration packs, and tissue repair nanites for vacuum damage.  She had also brought bone knitters, though chances of their use were low.

Once the supplies were secured, she walked from the cargo bay to the pilot deck, where Pryafox was sitting back with old-style over the ear headphones on.  Sykes and Tuggle were at the back sitting in two of the crew seats, listening to the music.  To Hope, the noise was a cacophonous mix of sound in a scale that was jarring and at odds with her senses.  “That’s one amazing piece of music”, Tuggle said,  a large smile on his face.  “Something raw, and honest.  Where’d you get it, Fox?”   Pryafox gave Tuggle a openmouthed grin and tapped the headphones off, then lowered them to hang around his neck. “Tha saom good ol’ blooz rahk muzak.  Got that fum a 2005 rad-eee-oh broadcast.  Love det stuff”, he said, playing up his cajun accent, getting laughs from both Sykes and Tuggle.

“Is that tribal music?,  Hope remarked.  All three men blinked as one, and turned to Hope.  She noted that their glances seemed to register astonishment at her observation.  “Well, ah, y’see”, Pyrafox seemed at a total loss to answer her question.  He finally gave up and chuckled.  “Y’all maht be raht onna dat”, he said in his exaggerated Cajun accent, as both Sykes and Tuggle listened, chuckling.

She stood absolutely still for a number of seconds, then moved to sit down in the co-pilot’s seat. She buckled into the safety harness.   “I am ready”, she said tersely.  Pryafox shut the music off, and waited for Sykes and Tuggle to strap themselves in.  He half-turned to Hope and saluted crisply.  “Certainement!  Shuttle one taxi is ready to go.”  he grinned and checked his safety harness.  He slipped the headphones back over his ears, and Hope could hear another dissonant mix of sound emit faintly from them.  She wondered if it had any religious significance, and why a devil would go to someplace called Georgia.

Hope listened with detached interest to Jefferies excited discourse over the comm.  “We need to go deeper into the field, get more core samples”, he said over the comm.  “This really should be marked and studied.   A full quarter of this debris field appears to be non-natural!  I’m seeing what look like parts of a ship, or a number of ships.  This is a treasure trove of data.  This has to be a research priority.  I’ve never gotten results like these before.  There’s organics mixed with the metals, and silicon.  It’s like … like nothing I’ve ever seen!”

As she waited for the shuttle to launch, she brought up Jefferies vitals on her portable screen.  Her misgivings in allowing him to go EVA prompted her close scrutiny of his vitals.   The baseline readings had not changed appreciably.  Oxygen intake was half-again what a standard rate should be, along with elevated blood pressure, and slightly labored breathing. Nothing of immediate concern.  She noted a new regimen for a dietary restriction on carbohydrates and extra time at physical conditioning, attaching the notes to his profile for the colony medical staff. 

“Is there any way to identify who made it?”, Captain Devereux said.  

“I’m a xeno-geologist, Captain.  I wouldn’t know a Arctican ship from a Heftaur one.  Rocks I know, and most of this field is not rock”, Jefferies replied.  “Besides, most of this wreckage reads as organic.   I don’t know anyone who builds a ship like that outside of old science fiction books”

“Understood,  Devereux said. She stopped, for a moment, then said, “See if you can find samples of the wreckage small enough to handle, and bring it on board the shuttle”,

“Aye aye, captain”, Tao-tsu replied.

“Hope, make certain everything goes through decon procedures.”

“Yes”, Hope replied.  Organics. Proteins.  Some of these are artificial designs.  This trace is a protein of a viral transfer coat.  This is chitin, and myelin, and pure carbon traces. What race uses material like that for ships?  Could there be something applicable to my experiments?  I have to get some samples to study in detail. There was an odd familiarity to the material that disturbed her.

The shuttle was given the green light to launch.  Pryafox deftly maneuvered the shuttle from its bay, using short, delicate pulses of the maneuvering thrusters.  He let the shuttle drift about two hundred meters away from the ship, then fired a braking sequence so that the shuttle was rock-steady off the port side of Emerald Flight. Pryafox looked over to Hope.  “Any closer, Doc, an’ we’ll be in the field, an’ that makes maneuvers a little tricky.”   Hope and Pryafox unbuckled.  Hope donned the zero-g suit, with Pryafox assisting her.  While the suits could be worked by just one person, loading extra equipment on them was slow without help.  “Thank you”, she said to Pryafox when they finished.

Pryafox gave the seals a second check, then grinned, showing Hope a thumbs up.  He moved back into the cockpit, closed the airlock door, then began to depressurize the cargo area.  The hiss of air escaping faded rapidly.  Once the bay read zero atmosphere,  the large overhead doors opened.  Hope moved to the main bay, and switched the portable med table and walk-through scanner from ‘stand-by’ to ‘active’.  

“Hey, how you all doing with the collecting out there?”, Pryafox said over the comm.  “The Doc’s ready and waiting.”

“We’ve got the first piece,” Tao-tsu answered. “It looks like some melted stuff.  Pretty light compared to some of the rocks mixed in.  This looks like it’s pretty representative.  What do you think, sir?”

Jeffries took a moment to reply.  “It looks pretty much like most of them, burned and melted.  I’m going to poke around a bit.”

“Check your tether first, sir.”  

“Oh, yes, right.  My tether.”  Jefferies was silent for a moment.  “How’s my tether?”

“You’re fine, though fifty meters isn’t going to let you near any of that other stuff,  this is one spread out bunch of junk.  Emerald Flight,  just how big is this field, again?”, Tao-tsu asked.

“Our telemetry had it at five kilometers at its short axis, and eight on the long axis”, Eleizbeth replied.

“I wonder if all of this is one ship or more.”, Tao-tsu, said.

Hope tuned the chatter out and reviewed the sensor data.  Tao-tsu and Jefferies were tethered a half-kilometer into the field. The radiation counter detected only the slight background radiation of deep space.  Neither Jefferies or Tao-tsu were in any danger from radioactivity.  The concern was the organics that were there. Among the traces were proteins that were found in viruses. The suits were proof against any disease or parasites, but only so long as they didn’t remove them.  Full decontamination would be required as a safety precaution.

“Tao-tsu, how do I work this tether? Oh, got it.  Let’s go to that big piece over there.  I think we can push it back to the shuttle”, Jefferies said eagerly.

“You bring a big piece back, you take care gettin’ it in my shuttle.  Don’t scratch the paint”, Pryafox said with a yipping chuckle.

“Everyone’s a comedian”, Jefferies said in reply, though Hope heard a small laugh in his voice in spite of the gruff sound.

“Shuttle overhead doors open,  you can bring your souvenirs to the doc.  She’s waiting”, said Pryafox.

“On our way.  See you soon, Shuttle One”,  Tao-tsu finished.

Radecki / Dark : Emerald Flight : Star Wing – Chapter 8 – Objects in Motion

Elizabeth stared at the augmented image on the screen, trying to make sense of it. Although the object remained indistinct, it was clearly not a fragment of an obliterated asteroid. What it was, though, she had no idea.

“What do you make of that?” Devereux asked, directly her question primarily toward Hawkes.

“I’ve seen nothing like it before,” Hawkes replied. He studied his console, but made no further comments.

Devereux turned toward the Science station. “Anything?”

Gho consulted her console and then shook her head. “We’re still not reading it, Captain.”

“Is that what’s causing the interference?”

The Science officer tapped several controls on her station before lifting her hands away from it in frustrated surrender.

“I don’t know, Captain,” she sounding apologetic. “I can’t tell.” She gestured toward the main bridge displays. “It’s almost at the center of the interference field, so it might be.”

“Chief,” Devereux called over the open comm channel. “Can you zoom in any further?”

“All you like, Cap’n,” the Chief replied. “But I don’t think it’ll help you much.”

“Humor me,” Devereux said without rancor. “Give us another ten.”

A moment later, the screen was filled with the hazy image. As the Chief had warned them, it provided very little in the way of new information. Devereux turned toward the Science again, but Gho interrupted her before the Captain could speak.

“That’s the best the computer can do, Captain,” she stated. “There just isn’t enough data for it to extrapolate from.”

Devereux frowned, looking toward Hawkes and then at Elizabeth.

“Your assessment, Commander?”

Elizabeth fought not to let her surprise show.

“I think,” she said, hesitantly, trying to gather her thoughts into some organized fashion. “The Chief should go take a closer look.”

Devereux nodded slowly, giving her a faint smile. “I agree.” She tilted her head toward the main screens. “See to it.”

Elizabeth smiled back even as she swallowed hard.

“Chief,” she called out, trying to ignore the slight waver in her voice.

“Yep,” the Chief replied. “We’re still here. No one remembered to pack stuff for a coffee break.”

Elizabeth let the quip go unnoticed.

“Chief,” she repeated. “We need you to take a closer look at the object.”

“‘You’, meaning me, personally?” Even through the slight flattening effect of the comm channel, Elizabeth could tell that the Chief was toying with her.

She looked over at Devereux. The Captain waited patiently for Elizabeth to respond, giving her absolutely no indication of what she thought. Turning to face the main screens, Elizabeth studied the image, using those few moments to decide.

“You,” she answered aloud. “And a member of your team.”

In her mind’s eye, she could see the Chief’s smirk for having placed her in that spot fade as he considered his choices.

“All right then,” he agreed. There was a pause while he considered the situation. “Lieutenant,” he said, “we’re going for a nice romantic walk under the stars.” If Ferahim responded, it was obscured as the Chief continued. “Tsu,” he said. “Stay here with the professor and make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.”

“Yes, sir,” the engineer responded. Elizabeth could not tell solely by his tone over the comm channel whether he was disappointed or relieved.

#

Rusty stared out into the debris field. He could make out the object in the distance, although without any of the detail that the telescope had revealed.

Oh joy.

Still, he had to admit to being intrigued by the mystery of the object. It was scrambling their sensors, which probably meant that it was hiding something. That was the part that worried him. When someone went to that kind of effort, it almost always meant they had something to hide. Sometimes  it was only an effort to conceal pirated cargo behind a curtain of sensor static, but it always led to trouble.

“Check your tanks,” Rusty told Ferahim.

He verified the readings on his own. With a full charge, each suit should have enough air for at least twelve hours. They had been out for less than two.

“Air at eighty-six percent,” the attractive young Security officer replied. “All power systems are nominal.”

His own showed eighty-two percent, slightly less than he had hoped, but still within the expected range.

Must have been all that heavy lifting . . .

He moved over to inspect the safety lines for Tsu-Tao and Jeffries. He checked the fastenings, making doubly sure that Jefferies’ was secure.

Last thing we need is him floating off . . .

Tsu-tao, he knew, could handle himself. The ensign was a veteran of several EVA repair missions. He had not, Rusty recalled, enjoyed any of them, but he had done them. If Ferahim was having any issues, she was doing a superb job of hiding it.

“I’m thinking just our cameras and our portable sensors,” he said aloud. “That okay with you, Cap’n?”

There was a moment’s pause before the captain’s voice sounded in his helmet.

“Confirmed,” Devereux said. “Activate the data feeds before you head out.”

“Acknowledged,” Rusty replied.

He looked toward Ferahim and saw that she already had her sensor unit out. Rusty activated his own, waited until it was fully powered on, and then switched on its transmitter. A stream of data appeared along the lower edge of his helmet visor.

“Are you getting that, Bridge?”

“Affirmative,” Elizabeth replied. “Lieutenant, your . . . there it is.” There was a murmured conversation in the background before her voice returned. “We’re receiving data from both of you now, Chief.”

He looked up into the debris field again, peering at the position of their target.

“I don’t suppose anyone thought to bring a map?”

“‘X’ marks the spot, Chief,” Devereux remarked.

Rusty rolled his eyes.

Everyone’s a comedian . . .

“We’re sending you updated telemetry now, Chief,” Elizabeth reported. “Are you receiving it?”

Rusty checked his helmet display. The trio of location coordinates for the object changed slightly, just by a decimal place or two. Still, he knew it did not take much more than that to miss a target in deep space.

“I’ve got it,” he confirmed. “What about you, pretty lady?” she asked Ferahim.

“Updated coordinates received,” she replied, sounding disappointingly professional.

That old fossil really needs to lay off his poor people, Rusty observed silently, while trying to think of a snide remark to offer aloud to Hawkes.

Rusty checked the coordinates again, noting the distance and position of the mysterious object in their “sky”.

“I’m thinking a six-second initial thrust,” he mused aloud, not really caring if anyone agreed with him or not. “That should at least get us closer for some better readings.”

“Just keep it to a straight line,” Pryafox said. “We’re picking up some microgravity pockets along the periphery.”

“Just like bumper pool,” Rusty remarked.

In his mind, he could see both Devereux and Elizabeth reacting to that one: Devereux shaking her head and Elizabeth with wide-eyed dismay.

He turned to Ferahim. “Ready, Lieutenant?”

“Ready, Chief.”

“Okay then,” Rusty said, taking a deep breath. “Six seconds. On my mark . . .”

#

The image being broadcast from the Chief’s helmet camera changed. The objects ahead of him, particularly the oddly shaped construction, increased in size as he moved closer.

“. . . six! Disengage thrusters.”

“Thrusters off,” Ferahim acknowledged. “Confirmed.”

The speed at which images grew larger steadied, now that he was traveling at a constant velocity.

“Are you seeing this, Bridge?”

“Affirmative, Chief,” Elizabeth replied.

Devereux glanced over at her with a quick smile. The young Commander glowed under the silent praise.

“It doesn’t look any prettier from out here,” the Chief reported. “I think I saw something like it in a museum once. I don’t remember which one.”

Devereux’s interest was piqued. The object, what they could make of it, did not look familiar to her at all. Although there was a remote chance of any connection, it might still reveal a clue to its origin.

“The Boston Museum of Science? The NASA museum? The Sagan Observatory?”

“No,” the Chief answered abruptly. “I remember now. It was the Toyota-Ford World Wrestling Arena.”

“What was it doing there?”

“A piece of their ceiling caved in.”

Devereux was certain that she heard Pyrafox snicker. She stared hard at the back of his red-furred head, but he did not turn around.

Rolling her eyes, she sighed and looked over at Elizabeth. To her credit, her First Officer’s expression displayed a very straight face. The tension of that corners of Elizabeth’s jaws, though, told Devereux how hard she was working to maintain it.

“I suppose we should start taking some readings now or something. Huh, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir,” Ferahim answered promptly.

Devereux’s eyed turned toward the main Science station. They were already receiving automatic telemetry from the suit, but not the detailed readings there were looking for. The Chief and Ferahim were still too far away to see anything that the telescope back on the large fragment had not already shown them.

Muffled sounds came over the comm channel as the pair detached and readied their portable scanners. Few of the words were clear, but Devereux was certain that at least a half dozen of the ones coming from the Chief’s suit radio would be considered profane in at least three cultures.

“Okay,” the Chief finally reported. “We’re ready. Transmitting now.”

 “Bring them up on Screen Three, split screen,” Devereux instructed Gho.

The image flickered and then two almost identical computer-rendered images formed at the top and bottom of the bridge display. Each seemed filled with a thin haze, preventing any real details from being seen.

Devereux looked toward Gho, but the Science officer just shook her head.

“Can you adjust your resolution?” Elizabeth asked.

“You seem to think I know how to work this blasted thing . . .”

Devereux suppressed a slight smile. The Chief was determined to keep up the appearance of being just a overranked deckhand—despite the fact that he knew how to repair and operate nearly every piece of equipment aboard their ship.

“There,” he said, his voice crackling slightly. “I think I’ve got it.” His voice dropped and Devereux assumed that he was conferring with Ferahim. “Is that any better?”

Devereux studied the images on the screen. To her eyes, it looked about the same as before, perhaps even less defined. She turned her head to get Elizabeth’s and Gho’s opinion. Their expressions told her that they shared her appraisal.

“It actually looks worse, Chief,” she told him.

She Devereux had held no doubts about the profane content of his the Chief’s next words.

“Bridge,” Ferahim’s soft, lyrical tones sounded over the comm channel through a thin haze of static. “I have adjusted my scanner. Has the image improved?”

Devereux looked toward the far right bridge display, seeing that the ensign’s readings appeared on the lower half of the screen. It looked no different from the images being created from the Chief’s scanner.

“It’s not any better, Ensign,” Devereux replied. “Sorry.”

There was a short burst of sound that might have been profanity from the Chief again, but it was too garbled to tell for certain.

“Bridge,” the Chief said, a little more clearly, “we might . . . need you to . . .”

Muted hisses of noise swallowed the rest of his words.

#

“Chief,” Devereux said. “Repeat your message. We lost your transmission at the end there.”

“Bridge,” the Chief’s voice burst from the speakers, but it was awash in interference.

He is either shouting, or has boosted his signal gain. Perhaps both.

The Captain turned to Hawkes. “I want to see their positions.”

Hawkes tapped the necessary controls on his console. The locator grid on Screen One reappeared, showing the Chief’s and Ferahim’s positions.

“Their suits are still transmitting,” the Captain reported. Her relief was apparent.

“They function on a much higher wavelength,” Hawkes reminded her. “Due to the likelihood of just such a phenomenon.”

Devereux flashed him a tight-lipped look of irritation and then gestured for him to take over communications.

“Chief Rayna . . . Ensign Ferahim, please respond,” Hawkes called out calmly. “We are not receiving your signal clearly.”

Several spurts of static answered him, but nothing that sounded intelligible. Hawkes replayed the message through the communication filters, designed for such situations, but they produced only one or two barely understandable words.

Hawkes’ lifted his head to look at the main bridge displays. The images being transmitted from the helmet cameras, while not clear to begin with, now showed ragged flashes of false color from across the spectrum. His eyes turned toward the locator grid. It still showed bright dots that represented the Chief Engineer’s and Lieutenant Ferahim’s positions. As he watched, though, even those began to flicker in intensity.

“Chief Rayna, Ensign Ferahim, please respond on this frequency,” Hawkes called out calmly. “We are not receiving your audio signal.”

He was answered only by a steady hiss.

“Are you still getting medical telemetry?” Devereux asked, turning toward Hope.

Hawkes turned to look as well. He could see that her readings were now as erratic as the other signals.

“Inconclusive.”

“But they’re alive?” Devereux asked. Hawkes heard the urgent need for confirmation in her voice.

“They were,” Hope replied. “Readings are now unreliable.”

Devereux frowned, concern evident on all of her features. She stared at the trio of main screens, assessing the situation. Hawkes saw her make her decision. She turned calmly toward Elizabeth.

“Recall them,” she told her First Officer. “Send as much power through the comm grid as it can handle. See if you can punch a signal through.”

“Yes, Captain,” Elizabeth acknowledged, and began issuing the necessary orders to Engineering.

“Lieutenant,” the Captain turned back to Hawkes now. “Work with Lieutenant Gho to see if there are any communications frequencies that can penetrate that interference.”

“Yes, Captain,” Hawkes acknowledged the order swiftly.

He looked toward the main Science station. Everything in Gho’s body language betrayed her mounting anxiety.

She is young. Reassure her, he told himself. And then get to work.

He loaded a tablet with the data he needed and walked over to her.

“Lieutenant,” he approached her with detached calm, offering her the tablet. “Can you please verify these readings of the interference patterns of the field? I believe it would be more efficient for you to do so. It is not my area of expertise.”

Gho looked at Hawkes with unconcealed undisguised surprise, and then eyed the tablet warily caution. She accepted it, studying Hawkes’ expression. It, of course, revealed nothing more.

“I’ll get right on it, sir,” Gho answered diffidently.

“Please do so,” Hawkes said. “The Captain expects a prompt response.”

Gho swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”

#

Hope manipulated the controls of the secondary Science console. Nothing she did, however, improved the integrity of the biostatistical data coming from the Chief Engineer’s and Security Lieutenant’s suits. Despite her efforts, the signals continued to degrade until the data they produced was meaningless. She had told the Captain the truth: the Chief Engineer and Security Lieutenant had been alive, and in nominal health, before the readings became distorted. She had no reason to believe that they did not still remain so. Still, she would have preferred intelligible readings that proved this to be true.

She looked at the Science station to see the Tactical Officer and Science Officer conferring, as the Captain had ordered them to. Turning toward the Captain, Hope saw in her solemn discussion with the First Officer. The Navigator’s attention, she noted, alternated between the images being displayed on the main screens and readings on his console. He remained tasked with keeping the vessel at its present coordinates. Of them all, Hope found that, with the remote life sign readings unavailable to her, she was only the one with no immediate function.

“Hope?” the Captain called to her, interrupting her silent assessment. Although mildly startling, she was relieved that her presence still appeared necessary.

“Captain.”

She approached the Captain and First Officer.

The Captain looked at her thoughtfully. “How long can the Chief and Lieutenant Ferahim survive in the middle of that field?”

Hope glanced back toward the life sign monitors to see whether they might now be functioning. They were not: gGarbled data still filled their screens. She turned back to face the Captain.

“While their suits function.”

Devereux frowned in surprise. “So they shouldn’t be affected by the interference fields or gravity pockets?”

“Simulations report no significant effects.”

“What about their suits?”

Hope stared at the Captain in surprise.

Her simulations had revealed no serious detrimental effects on human physiology as a result of exposure to the microgravity fields. As the proper functioning of the space suits fell neither in her area of responsibility or knowledge, she had not included their integrity as a factor in the simulations.

“That was not simulated,” she admitted.

The Captain’s frown deepened. “But their suits should protect them?”

“If they function, yes.”

The Captain turned to the First Officer. “Get me someone from Engineering,” she ordered, the urgency clear in her tone. urgently “I want to know whether that interference field can scramble more than the communications systems of those suits.”

“Right away, Captain,” the First Officer replied. Her expression revealed her growing anxiety.

“Lieutenant Hawkes,” the Captain said, turning to addressing the Tactical Officer. “Any progress on finding us a workable frequency?”

“Not yet, Captain,” the Tactical Officer reported. “We have, however, started are testing athe first set of possible frequencies.” He paused a moment before continuing. “However, the interference spans a large range of the electromagnetic spectrum and is not stable within that range.”

The Captain’s bright green eyes darkened with frustration. “Send some of your people out onto the hull with handheld lasers, if you need to. We need to regain contact with our people.”

The Tactical Officer faced the Captain evenly. His expression revealed almost nothing of his surprise at her uncharacteristic outburst.

“We will consider that option, Captain.” He waited until the Captain turned away to confer once more with the Science Officer.

The Captain stalked the deck of the bridge like a caged animal. Hope waited, observing her carefully when she stopped at the Navigation station.

“Lieutenant,” the Captain said, speaking to the Navigator now. “Get a relief down here. I want you in the shuttle in case we need to go in after them.”

“Aye, Captain,” the Navigator responded swiftly. His excitement was clearly evident. ”I’ll—“.

“Emerald Flight, we are receiving your transmission.” The Security Lieutenant’s voice was barely audible above the background wash of interference. Her statement was clear, though.

Relief was evident in the expression of every member on the bridge crew.

“We’ve established contact, Captain,” the Tactical Officer reported. “Although I cannot guarantee how long it can be maintained.”

 “Chief, Lieutenant,” Devereux called out, probably louder than was necessary, as if she hoped to penetrate the communications interference through the sheer strength of her voice alone. “What’s your status?”

Their first words were lost in a muted burst of static. It was unclear who had spoken them.

“. . . few meters from the . . .”

The rest of the response was washed away by a new wave of interference, Hope was certain that she heard distinct intonations indicating the Security Lieutenant’s voice. For several moments, nothing more was heard except for the irregularly pulsing hiss of the interference field.

“Bridge,” the Chief Engineer’s voice suddenly broke through. It sounded unusually subdued even through the muting effects of the interference. “I think we’ve gone and found ourselves an angel.”

Radecki / Dark : Emerald Flight: Star Wing – Chapter 7 – Coming Attractions

Elizabeth’s surprise mirrored what she saw reflected on the Captain’s face. It took only a moment for the implications of Gho’s announcement to sink in.

There’s been other ships out here before.

“Can you tell what type?” Devereux asked.

Gho’s uncertainty was evident when she shook her head again. “Not yet,” she said. “At least not for sure.”

The Captain looked toward the Tactical station with concern. Lieutenant Hawkes met get her glance squarely. Neither said a word, but Elizabeth was certain that some kind of communication had passed between them. She felt a twinge of jealousy at being left out.

Devereux turned to look at the main bridge displays.

“It will be difficult to detect slipstream events within the field,” Hawkes said aloud.

“I know,” Devereux replied, just barely loud enough to be heard. “Let’s hope it’s too dangerous for them to transition there.”

“That might explain the alloys,” Elizabeth offered.

Devereux looked at her thoughtfully.

“Do you want me to consult with Engineering?” Hawkes asked.

Elizabeth opened her mouth to answer, but Devereux cut her off.

“No,” she turned to Elizabeth. “I want you to,” she said. “Have them provide us with their best guess as soon as possible.” Her eyes held firmly onto Elizabeth’s. “Have them do the work. Keep it internal. We’ll inform the Chief, but he has enough to worry about at the moment without having manage that effort from a distance.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Devereux looked away.

Elizabeth took a slow breath and then headed for the main Science station to ask Gho for her latest readings. Her mind was already working on the problem, thinking through which sensor readings to focus on and how to set up the simulations.

Stop, she told herself. That’s not your job any more.

She felt a muted sense of loss at no longer being in the middle of tasks like that. Stealing a quick glance at Devereux, she wondered how the Captain managed it. She had seen the Captain on the deck, smeared with grime and lubricants, trying to repair a damaged console.

But that had been under battle conditions, with everyone else trying to keep the ship in one piece.

Sure, Elizabeth knew, the Captain got to make all of the important decisions. That was her job. Except when that kind of direct action was needed, though, it was starting to look like Captain’s job consisted of a lot of mindless paperwork—at least that which she did not foist off on her First Officer. Elizabeth began to wonder in earnest whether someday having a command of her own was what she really wanted.

Maybe having your own command isn’t everything it’s hyped up to be . . .

Elizabeth checked the Engineering duty roster and saw that the Chief had left Sanderson in charge. He was coming off duty, though, so she sent the orders to Aruna, who would be taking over the shift in less than thirty minutes. She included a copy of the sensor data, and then had to stop herself from annotating it with her own recommendations.

How does the Captain do it?

Devereux was thorough when she needed to be, Elizabeth recognized, but she never micro-managed her crew. She depended on them each to do their jobs, and assumed that they knew how do them. Elizabeth wondered if she could ever achieve that level of confidence and comfort with her colleagues.

You’d better, she warned herself. Or you’ll have the next crew in the fleet to mutiny.

As serious as the thought was, the relative absurdity of it brought a small smile to her face. It made her feel a little better about the entire situation. Looking down at her tablet, she studied the next set of requests coming in from various departments throughout the ship.

#

Rusty checked and double-checked that everyone’s safety lines were secure, including those attached to the equipment.

No one’s floating off into space on my watch . . .

With the slow speed that they would be traveling, along with redundant locator beacons built into their suits, there was little risk of losing anyone for more than a short time. Still, he was not taking any chances with the microgravity pockets. The last thing he needed was a member of his team smashing against one of the asteroids, becoming a new organic puddle on its surface. Remembering the spectrochemical analysis he had skimmed, and its reports of detecting organic matter, Rusty wondered whether his was the first team to explore this debris field.

“Great,” he murmured. “I finally get to make first contact and it’s probably alien road kill.”

“What was that, Chief?” Tsu-tao asked.

“Check,” Rusty called aloud into the suit radio.

“Check,” came Ferahim crisp response.

Tsu-tao’s sounded an instant later. “Check, Chief.”

Rusty smirked, knowing the young engineer was disappointed at missing his remark. He started to reach for Jeffries when the older man’s voice sounded in his helmet.

“Um . . . check.”

Rusty rolled his eyes, even knowing no one else could see it, wondering if it was too late to leave the old geologist back on the ship.

“Directional sensors on,” he said instead, keeping his opinions to himself for the moment. “Triangulate on that large fragment at zero-zero-four. Mark.”

“Mark,” Ferahim and Tsu-tao reported, almost in unison.

Rusty opened his mouth to prompt the geologist, but Jeffries responded an instant later.

“Mark.”

“Okay then,” Rusty announced. “Four-second thruster burst, and then let’s find a nice little spot for our picnic.” He paused, checking to make certain that his fingers were poised over the correct controls. He knew the suit by touch, but also knew that one does not take chances in open space.

“On my mark,” he told the others. “Three . . . two . . . one. Mark.”

He felt more than heard the tiny suit thrusters fire. Their surroundings moved past them just a little bit faster, gaining speed with each second of thrust.

“. . . two . . . one. Disengage!”

For a moment, Rusty felt as though he was drifting as the acceleration provided by the thrusters ceased. He checked the directional sensor on his wrist and saw that his vector was correct. It also showed four points in close alignment. He turned his head to verify that, and was encouraged to see that both Ferahim and Jeffries were right there with him.

Okay, he considered with some relief. This just might work.

“Okay,” he said peering ahead and then verifying what his eyes told him with the scanner. “Let’s head for that large fragment. It’s as good a place as any to set up camp.”

“Yes, sir,” Ferahim acknowledged promptly.

“Okay,” Jeffries responded in something twhat almost sounded like an unenthusiastic mumble.

Damned scientist types . . .

“Which side, sir?” Tsu-tao asked.

Rusty peered ahead, trying to make out some detail on the fragment’s surface despite the distance.

“Aim for that dark spot,” Rusty replied. “Toward the port side. See it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good,” Rusty responded with grin. “If we’re lucky, it’s a pool with deck-side bar service.”

Someone snickered. Rusty was pretty sure that it was not Jeffries.

#

“One second burst,” the Chief Engineer’s voice came over the speaker. “Adjust your heading starboard three degrees. Confirm.”

Three confirmations overlapped, creating an odd-sounding echo over the communications channel.

“On my mark.” There was a momentary pause before the Chief Engineer spoke again. “Mark.”

A burst of noise like static washed across the speakers as the four team members fired their thrusters, followed by silence.

“Perfect,” the Chief Engineer said. “Stand by for surface contact in twelve seconds.”

Devereux’s eyes turned toward the locator grid, seeing a tight quartet of signals moving toward an outline that represented the large fragment that was the team’s target. Her gaze moved toward the center bridge display. Sharp-edged shadows revealed the raw ridges of the shattered rock as the spotlights from the team member’s helmets shone on it.

“. . . eight . . . seven . . . six . . .”

The granular surface of the fragment became more visible as four beams converged on it.

“. . . five . . . four . . . three . . .”

The image was a wash of light, now too bright to make out the details.

“. . . two . . . one . . . contact!”

A series of Ddiscordant sounds issued from the speakers. Devereux guessed that it came from loose pieces of the asteroid’s surface shifting beneath the team’s boots.

Emerald Flight,” the Chief Engineer said. “I don’t know if the Eagle has landed, but we have. All team members accounted for.” 

Devereux chuckled at the Chief’s announcement, allowing herself a small smile as she joined in the scattered applause that sounded from around the bridge. Neither Hawkes nor Hope, she noticed, participated. She did not find that unsurprising.

“Nice work, Chief,” she called out. “Now be careful out there.”

“Yes, Mom,” Rusty muttered.

Devereux was tempted to roll her eyes, but settled for the mental equivalent. The Chief knew perfectly well that the comm channel remained open.  She saw Elizabeth shake her head, amused but trying to hide it as well, as she moved toward the primary Science station.

“Anything new on the sensors?” Her First Officer asked Gho.

The oriental Science officer shook her head, causing her dark, chin-length hair to brush against her cheeks. “Nothing yet,” she reported. “They’re just setting up the equipment now.”

“How soon?”

Gho frowned thoughtfully for a moment. “Maybe eight or nine minutes.”

“Okay,” Elizabeth responded, noddeding slowly in acknowledgment. as Sshe made a notation on her tablet.

Devereux glanced toward the Tactical console and saw Hawkes busy at his station. There was nothing currently threatening about this situation, at least from a tactical standpoint. She wondered just what it was that he found to do. It was not something she worried over, though.

He’s always doing something, she mused. But then he’s never been one to waste energy on pointless tasks. She fought back most of a smile. Probably torturing the weapons teams with timed readiness drills again.

“I guess we should take some samples or something,” Rusty’s said over the speakers. “How ‘bout over here, Doctor?”

Devereux automatically glanced toward Hope, stopping herself as she realized that the Chief was addressing the geologist, not her Medical Officer.

An unintelligible noise came over the comm channel. Devereux guessed it was Jeffries thinking over the Chief’s question.

“About two meters behind you and to the right, I think,” the geologist finally answered.

“Whatever you say, Doc.” There was a short burst of muffled sound. “You heard the man,” Rusty called out. “Time to unpack our toys.”

#

The communications of the EVA team settled into routine conversation as they unpacked and assembled the sampling equipment. Hawkes continued to monitor it as he resumed his other tasks. At the First Officer’s request, he assigned a member of his team to assist with the preparation of the shuttle. The security risk was low, but he silently commended the First Officer for electing to have one of his officers present. 

The shuttle normally carried only basic emergency supplies. They might be sufficient to stabilize a badly injured crewmember until they could return to the ship, but it was not intended to deal with major or traumatic injuries. Although almost all mission teams included a qualified medic, there were simply some medical situations that required the skills of a fully-trained physician and a well-stocked infirmary. 

“That should do it,” the Chief Engineer’s voice sounded clearly through the speakers. “Right, Doc of the Rocks?”

There was garbled noise before Jeffries responded. Hawkes guessed that it was the geology specialist expressing his disapproval of the Chief Engineer’s sobriquet.

“One second,” Jeffries said. “Let me check something.” Several seconds passed before he spoke again. “Yes,” he announced finally. “That should do it now.”

“Ready whenever you are, Doc.”

“Engaging the core drill now,” Jeffries said. “We should start getting readings in a few moments.”

Several moments of relative quiet passed before Tsu-tao reported, “It’s transmitting the data now, Chief.”

“Bridge?” the Chief Engineer queried them. “Are you receiving this?”

Devereux looked toward Lieutenant Gho. The Lieutenant tapped several controls on her console and then nodded in confirmation.

“Yes, Captain,” she reported. “We’re receiving data telemetry from drill sensors.”

“Anything unusual?”

The young Science officer studied the displays on her console for several seconds before answering. “Nothing particularly strange that I can make out,” she finally replied. “The few unusual elements we detected seem to be only at the surface layer. The rest of the core seems to be pretty much you’d expect from a fragment like this.”

Devereux appeared mildly disappointed by the news. Hawkes found the results hardly surprising. Despite their anomalous location in space, there was been no indications so far that there was anything extraordinary about the asteroid fragments. Rather than feeling disappointment, Hawkes experienced relief that nothing dangerously unusual, and therefore potentially hostile, had been discovered.

“Have you managed to get any new readings past the interference in the field?” Devereux was asking Gho.

Gho shook her head. “No, Captain,” she replied. “There haven’t been any more weakening of the field interference.”

Devereux nodded her understanding, but looked unhappy about the report.

“Chief,” she said. “You brought along the short-range telescope, right?”

The telescope was small and lightweight, approximately the length of an average person’s arm and about twice that diameter. It was designed to be easily carried and operated by personnel while outside their ship. The trade-off in mass meant that it carried almost no automated systems and had to be adjusted manually. What it saw through its lenses would actually be transmitted using the comm system built into the suit of the person operating it, connected via a physical cable.

“Sure thing, Cap’n,” the Chief Engineer replied. “They’re just finished setting it up now. What do you need?”

“Can you aim it toward the center of the interference field and then give us a live feed?”

“Tsu?” the Chief asked. “Can we?”

“No problem, Chief,” the ensign replied. “We’ll need another three or four minutes.”

“You have two,” the Chief told him.

Hawkes was surprised and impressed by the Chief Engineer’s attempt to drive his team to higher levels of performance. It was atypical behavior for the Chief. Considering the Chief’s recent spell of unusual behavior, even given the Chief Engineer’s history of questionable conduct, Hawkes considered questioned whether the Captain and Medical Officer had been prudent in allowing him to lead this mission.

“We’re set here, Bridge,” the Chief announced a few minutes later. “Ready for some pretty pictures?”

“We’re ready here, Chief,” Devereux replied. “Lieutenant,” she said, addressing Pyrafox, “bring the feed up on Screen One.”

“Aye, Captain,” the helmsman acknowledged.

The locator grid faded from the screen, replaced by a slowly resolving image of an arc of the debris field. Its resolution was not as high as that that could be provided by the ship’s sensors could produce.

But at the moment, Hawkes considered, the ship’s sensors are providing nothing except for occasional fluctuations in the interference field.

There appeared to be nothing extraordinary in the images being transmitted from the telescope. Additional fragments, in a variety of sizes, were visible within the debris field. For the most part, they did not appear to be significantly different from those in other asteroid fields that Hawkes had visited in his lifetime. Although nothing they showed was remarkable, the fact that they could see anything at all was.

#

All eyes on the bridge turned toward the main bridge screens. The ship’s sensors had provided them with little but garbled data for the past several hours. Using a low-powered portable telescope, they now had an unobscured view of the phenomenon.

Perhaps now we will know, Hope thought.

“How’s that, Bridge?” the Chief Engineer asked.

The Captain quickly surveyed the expressions of the others on the bridge.

“Keep going,” the Captain instructed him. “Give us a full sweep of the area. We’ll let you know if we want you to go back.”

“Copy that,” the Chief Engineer replied. “You want a full souvenir album to commemorate your fun-filled journey through The Mysterious Asteroid Field of Doom.”

It took Hope a moment to reconcile the Chief Engineer’s statement with the cheery tone with which he delivered it. The name he had assigned to the phenomenon denoted serious danger; his recitation the manner in which he stated of it did not.

The image on the center screen moved very slowly, but noticeably, as the telescope tracked through the region of space that the Captain had indicated. There was nothing visible that hinted at the source of the interference field. It appeared, essentially, to be just another section of the asteroid debris field.

The Tactical Officer studied his own displays intently. His expression revealed puzzlement and a growing concern. Others members of the crew might not have noticed it, Hope suspected, except for perhaps the Captain.

“What is, Lieutenant?” the Captain asked, confirming Hope’s assessment of her abilities to understand her crew.

“I’m not certain, Captain,” the Tactical Officer said. His answer surprised Hope. The Tactical Officer rarely admitted to a lack of knowledge. “May I?” he requested, gesturing toward the main bridge displays.

The Captain nodded her approval.

“Chief,” the Tactical Officer called out. “Please redirect the telescope back to these coordinates.” His fingers moved across his console as he transmitted the data back to the team. “I believe there may be something of interest there.”

“Got it, Lieutenant,” Tsu-tao reported. “Adjusting the angle now.”

The image on the center screen moved more quickly, giving the illusion that the vessel was spinning to starboard. After several moments, the scene steadied. Positioned almost directly in its center was an irregularly-shaped object, probably smaller than the asteroid fragment on which the EVA team was now standing.

“Congratulations, Lieutenant,” the Chief Engineer said. “You’re discovered another rock. Do you want us to name it after you?”

“That will not be necessary,” the Tactical Officer replied icily. There was a momentary pause while he reinforced his composure. “Enhance by a factor of ten, please.”

The image on the center screen grew larger, but revealed nothing of obvious interest. It still appeared to be a rock fragment, although perhaps a more oddly shaped one than most.

“By another factor of ten, please.”

The screen shimmered and then displayed the  even closer view of the fragment. Its details remained indistinct, looking more like an oversized dust mote than a chunk of rock.

“Can you augment the image?” the Tactical Officer asked.

“I might be able to at this end,” the Science Officer replied. “Let me see what the computer can do with it?” She tapped a few controls. “Chief?” she called over the comm channel. “Are you transmitting at maximum resolution?”

There was a momentary delay before the Chief Engineer answered. “Tsu says we are.”

“Okay,” the Science Officer acknowledged. “Stand by.”

For several moments, the image on the screen remained the same. Then, slowly, the computer extrapolated more information from the sensor data and updated the image. Edges gained definition. A collective hush fell over the bridge as details became more apparent.

“Chief,” the First Officer asked. “Are you seeing this?”

“Yeah . . .” the Chief Engineer answered in a hushed tone. “What in the name of Morris is it?”

Radecki / Dark : Emerald Flight: Star Wing – Chapter 6 – Outside Opinions

– 6 –

Elizabeth checked the seals of the Chief’s space suit. He was not making it easy on her as he shifted and turned as she tried to adjust the fittings.

“Hold still!” she scolded him, laughing.

Rusty grumbled something unintelligible in response. Elizabeth was certain the remark was uncomplimentary to her in some way. She just smiled. Regardless, he stopped fidgeting for the most part. Elizabeth fastened the straps that ran over his left shoulder, checked to make certain they were tight, and then worked to fasten the ones on his right side.

They were in the corridor alcove outside the interior hatchway to Airlock Three. The team member assigned from Engineering, Tsu-tao, assisted Ensign Ferahim, while Lieutenant Hawkes performed a final check on the Ferahim’s weapons. Elizabeth was struck once again by the ensign’s exotic beauty, understanding why she had no problem capturing the attention of male crew members. From what Elizabeth had heard, Ferahim had her share of female admirers as well. Those same stories also implied that one or two of those had also successfully shared the ensign’s bed.

She glanced across the alcove, trying to understand why Jeffries looked so incredibly awkward. At first, Elizabeth thought the stocky geologist might have brought a suit that was too small. She then realized that it was simply because he was trying to reach all of the straps and fastenings by himself.

That’s why we have the buddy system, Elizabeth chided him silently, trying to recall who he had been paired with.

A wave of embarrassment washed over her. It was her duty, as First Officer, to see that those kinds of details were dealt with.

Damn it, I wonder if I’m ever going to get this right . . .

Elizabeth tried to remember the last time she had been directly involved in an extra-vehicular mission . EVA missions were not uncommon among the Engineering teams. It was often a necessary part of dealing with ship-wide maintenance and repairs, but they were generally managed by the Engineering shift officer in charge.

That’s no excuse, she admonished herself. The next time, she promised herself solemnly, I won’t forget.

She looked guiltily in the Captain’s direction, but the Devereux did not seem to notice.. The Captain’s attention remained focused on her conversation with Hope.

Hawkes finished his inspection of Ferahim’s weaponry and returned it to her.

“Thank you, sir” she said quietly and saluted.

Hawkes gave no response other than for a small dip of his head as Ferahim slipped her weapons back into their places on her belt. She snapped Hawkes a quick second salute, then glided over to aid Jeffries with his suit. With a slight nod of approval, Hawkes walked over to offer his assistance to Tsu-tao

“All right,” she told f. “Let me check your boots.”

Elizabeth stole another quick glance in the Devereux’s direction, but the Captain remained deep in discussion with Hope. She turned her attention back to the Chief’s boot seals.

“It’s amazing your feet fit in these things,” Elizabeth murmured, just loud enough for Rusty alone to hear.

He impishly  grinned down at her. “Just be glad I washed them first.”

Elizabeth fought back most of a giggle and bent down to check the calf bindings.

#

Rusty waited grunted with only mild impatience while Elizabeth tightened and locked the fastenings on his left boot. He grunted his approval. She smiled, and started work on the right one. While he probably had logged more hours in a suit than almost anyone else on the crew, that did not necessarily make him happy about it. The suit itself did not make him feel particularly claustrophobic. It was more that only a few millimeters of airtight fabric and polyglass separated him from the life-sucking vacuum of space.

He felt a tag around his middle.

“Going for seconds on dessert again?” Elizabeth asked him, teasing him quietly. Rusty sucked in a deep breath and held while she fastened the waist straps. The belt fastenings were snug, but not uncomfortably so. “That’s better.”

Elizabeth stepped back and visually inspected the suit. She frowned for a moment before nodding, apparently satisfied.

“Not very stylish,” she admitted.

“Hey!” Rusty protested, a little too loudly. “This suit was designed by the best designers on, well, Taipei Luna, or some place.”

Elizabeth snickered, handing Rusty his helmet. “In case you forgot, the transparent part goes on the front.”

Rusty studied the helmet for a moment. “So much for them seeing my new haircut.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes and stepped aside.

Rusty joined Jeffries and Ferahim at the hatch. He had never met the older geologist personally. His immediate take was that the man might be competent at his job, but probably about as interesting as the rocks that he studied. Ferahim he remembered. He had never worked directly with her, but she was hard to miss when they passed in the corridor. Seeing that her head was turned in his general direction, he gave her a quick wink. She looked away, giving him no other indication that she had noticed him.

He smiled to himself, pleased. Love it when they play hard to get.

Jeffries was struggling with his helmet now. Ferahim strode over to assist him with a grace Rusty would have thought impossible in a space suit. The Security officer fitted the helmet over Jeffries’ head and checked the seal. She turned closed the fastenings and stepped back, gesturing for Hawkes to double-check her work. The older man held completely still the entire time.

Probably in shock from the attentions of a pretty girl, Rusty guessed with a smirk.

Rusty lifted his own helmet and dropped it into place with practiced ease. He had begun to close the fastenings when he felt a pair of hands assisting him through his gloves. Turning his head, his caught a glimpse of Elizabeth’s chestnut hair flash past his faceplate. A moment later, he heard a knock echo from the top of his helmet.

“You’re good to go, Chief,” Elizabeth told him.

He gave her the traditional thumbs-up sign. Walking over to the hatch, he stopped to stand beside Hawkes at the airlock control panel. Ferahim joined him a moment later. Jefferies stumbled over next.

Looks ready to trip over his own boots, Rusty observed. He is a space geologist, right?

For a moment, he considered asking Elizabeth aloud. For a change, he opted for discretion, and waited while Ferahim and Tsu-tao brought the last of the equipment closer to the hatchway. Elizabeth stepped out of their way. She flashed him a quick smile before moving out of his line of sight. For no reason he could explain, he found her small gesture reassuring.

#

Devereux gestured Hope aside, moving them toward a corner of the airlock corridor alcove.

“Have you determined anything new on the Chief’s . . . condition?”

Hope’s eyes moved for an instant toward the Rusty before turning back to Devereux.

“No.”

Devereux nodded slightly, breathing a quick sigh. She had hoped for more, but Hope’s report was pretty much what she had expected.

“Do you believe there’s any danger to him or the team?” She persisted. “He’s the best choice for this mission, but I’ll yank him right here and now if you think there might be an issue.”

Hope hesitated for a moment before answering. Devereux found that troubling. She turned toward Rusty, but Hope’s voice stopped her.

“No.”

Devereux turned back to face Hope. “You’re certain?”

There was less hesitation from her Medical Officer this time.

“No.”

Devereux frowned.

She’s really rattled—for her. Not knowing the answer’s really gotten to her.

Devereux studied the Aerian’s dark eyes, but found nothing there that worried her.

“Okay,” she told Hope. “He’s going.” Her eyes turned toward the four spacesuit-clad figures as they made final preparations to enter the airlock. “But check the remote med systems on the suits,” she instructed Hope. “Double-check them. Make sure they’re working.”

Hope nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes, Captain.”

“Ready, Captain,” Hawkes reported, poised ready at the airlock hatch controls.

“One moment, Lieutenant,” she told him. “Hope wants to check the med systems.”

“Of course, Captain.” Hawkes moved aside and waited patiently while Hope approached the four members of the team.

Devereux watched as Hope began with Ferahim. After completing her inspection of his suit, she moved to Tsu-tao, then to Jeffries, finishing with Rusty. She spent longer with him, Devereux noticed, than she had with the others.

I hope that’s because she’s really double-checking and not because she found something else.

During the few minutes that Hope worked, there was no conversation among the group. Some of them watched her inspection for a few moments before turning their attention somewhere else. It was not a particularly interesting procedure to observe.

Hope stepped away and addressed the Captain.

“Verified.”

Devereux nodded, feeling a small ripple of relief.

“You may proceed, Lieutenant,” she told Hawkes.

“Yes, Captain,” her Tactical Officer acknowledged.

Hawkes tapped the controls on the bulkhead panel. Several status lights glowed red now. The distinctive thunk of the locking mechanism disengaging could be heard. A number of the indicator lights changed color again and then the inner hatch slowly swung open into the alcove.

Ferahim and Tsu-Tao moved the equipment cases into the airlock and secured them with magnetic bands. That would prevent them from being blown from the airlock when the outer hatch was opened and the pressure equalized between the airlock’s interior and the absolute vacuum of space beyond.

There’s nothing worse than having to chase after your luggage, Devereux mused lightly. She knew this from personal experience early in her career.

Ferahim and Tsu-Tao remained in the airlock. Rusty and Jeffries joined them inside. All four of them moved deeper into it, well clear of the hatch. Hawkes looked at Devereux, who nodded her assent to continue. The Tactical Officer worked the controls again and the hatch slid closed. Most of the status lights glowed green now.

“Depressuriziing,” Hawkes announced.

A faint alarm could be heard coming from inside the airlock. Yellow warning lights strobed, changing to red as the pressure dropped below survivable levels.

“We’re ready, Captain,” Hawkes reported.

Devereux walked over to the control panel and tapped the intercom. It was keyed to the general frequency of the suit radios.

“All set here, Chief,” she told him. “Ready when you are.”

“Leave it unlocked,” Rusty quipped. “I think I forgot my keys.” There was a long moment of silence as he positioned himself at the control panel inside. “Opening outer hatch.”

The lights flashed brighter as the outer hatch unlocked and swung slowly inward.

“Here we go . . .”

“Good hunting, Chief,” Devereux offered.

A faint hum of electronic static sounded over the speaker, and then they heard Rusty reply.

“I’ll bring you back something nice,” he said. “You too, Lizzie.”

Elizabeth’s cheeks brightened slightly. Devereux could not recall a time recently when Rusty had referred to her First Officer by that nickname. She chose to take it as a positive sign.

“I’ll settle for you and your team back here in one piece,” Devereux responded seriously, but she could not help but smile just a little.

“You betcha,” Rusty replied. He bent and began to unfasten the equipment.

#

“They’re clear,” Hawkes reported.

Devereux nodded in acknowledgment. “Close the outer hatch.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Hawkes worked the airlock controls again. Red and yellow lights strobed, shifting finally to green. Hawkes’ eyes never left the status display until they all indicated that the airlock hatch was closed and locked. With that confirmation, he deactivated the airlock’s interior lights, plunging the chamber into darkness. He turned, ready to follow the Captain back to the bridge.

Devereux turned and began to head down the corridor.

“Hope,” she addressed the Medical Officer without pausing. “You’re with us. I want you to monitor their readings from the bridge.”

The Medical Officer hesitated for only the briefest moment, seemingly surprised by the order.

“Yes, Captain.”

She fell into line between the Captain and Hawkes. They were nearly back in the main corridor when the Captain paused, turning back toward the airlock.

“Commander?” she asked, seeming both bemused and concerned. “Are you joining us?”

Hawkes turned to see a slightly startled Elizabeth. From what he could tell, she had been staring out the adjacent view port. She looked away from them with awkward embarrassment.

“Sorry, Captain.”

She approached them quickly. Devereux waited until Elizabeth stood beside her, and then moved out into the quarter.

“Have a team prep the shuttle,” the Captain directed her First Officer. “I want us seconds away from launch, if needednecessary, in case we need to attempt a rescue. Understood?”

Elizabeth hesitated for an instant, surprised at the request, and then nodded her acknowledgment. lifted her tablet and began logging the orders.

“Yes, Captain.”

She lifted her tablet and began logging the orders.

“Hope,” Devereux continued, addressing the Medical Officer without turning. “Make sure they add any emergency equipment or supplies you might need.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Are you expecting trouble, Captain?” Elizabeth asked, also taking note of the Captain’s order to Hope.

“No,” Devereux replied confidently. “But I’m sure our Tactical Officer will agree that we should be prepared anyway.” Her eyes darted toward Hawkes. A faint smile played along her lips. “Don’t you agree, Lieutenant?”

Hawkes studied the Captain for the length of a heartbeat before answering.

“Completely, Captain.”

Devereux’s smile was thin, but genuine. “I’m glad you approve.”

The four officers had reached the main hatch to the bridge. Hawkes moved forward and keyed in his access code. He then opened the hatch and held it open for the others to enter.

Devereux did not slow as she entered the bridge, moving to stand behind the helm station.

“Lieutenant,” she said, addressing Pyrafox. “Switch the external view to Screen Three. Put the locator grid on Screen One and the feed from the Chief’s camera on Screen Two.”

“Aye, Captain.”

The field of stars vanished from the first screen, appearing seconds later on the one to the far right. It was replaced by a three-dimensional representation of the EVA team’s progress across space. The center screen showed a scene similar to the one on the third screen. Its vantage point was far less steady as the Chief moved his head.

Devereux tilted her head toward the Tactical station, where Hawkes had resumed his customary post.

“I want an open comm channel with them at all times.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Hawkes tapped the necessary controls on his console and a faint electronic hum filled the air around them. The only discernible sound was that of a team member’s heavy respiration. Hawkes quickly concluded that it came from Lieutenant Jeffries.

The Captain nodded with approval.

“All right then,” she called out. “Let’s get back to work.”

#

Although surprised by the Captain’s order that she monitor the team from the bridge, Hope had, of course obeyed. She would have preferred to do it from the private sanctuary of the infirmary, but as she had no patients there right now, she could raise no justifiable objections.

Hope took a position at one of the secondary Science stations. Activating the console, she reconfigured it to display the medical telemetry being recorded and transmitted from the mission team’s spacesuits. The console surface cleared and then displayed four distinct sets of medical data, one for each member of the team.

All within expected ranges.

Lieutenant Jeffries’ respiration was on the higher side of normal, but still within the acceptable range. The readings for everyone else caused her no concern.

“How are we doing, Lieutenant?” the Captain asked Navigator Pyrafox.

“Holding position, Captain,” the Navigator replied. “No more problems.”

“Glad to hear it,” the Captain responded. Hope heard the laughter and relief in her voice. It faded as she continued. “I want you to plot a course from here to the center of the field that the shuttle can take without too bumpy a ride.”

The Navigator frowned, showing the top points of his teeth. “Are we taking the shuttle in?”

“I hope not,” the Captain replied, patting the Navigator lightly on the shoulder.

The Navigator glanced at the scene slowly playing out on the center bridge display. “Understood, Captain,” he acknowledged quietly. “I’ll get right on it.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.”

The Captain glanced toward the main bridge displays once more, turned away, and headed for the command deck.

Hope continued to monitor the medical telemetry, but saw no noticeable change in the readings. Lieutenant Jeffries’ respiration had stabilized. It remained high, but had not risen any further.

Accessing another set of controls, Hope verified that she had remote access to the medical systems incorporated into each of the team members’ space suits. They all reported as functional, including the overrides. That task completed, Hope turned from the console to observe the other members of the bridge crew.

The Navigator remained busy at the task assigned to him by the Captain. Occasionally, he emitted small noises that Hope was not certain that the others on the bridge could hear. She had no idea what the sounds indicated, and found them quite distracting. During her time with humans, she had learned that they often made such sounds for a variety of reasons. Often, they were used as a means to indicate that they were thinking or, more commonly, delaying while they considered a less candid response than the one in their thoughts. This was not an Aerian shortcoming.

“Captain,” the Science Lieutenant called out from her station. “I’m getting some new readings from the debris field.”

The Captain looked up with interest. “What do you have?”

“There was a small break in the interference,” the Science Lieutenant reported. “We’ve picked up another source of those organic components, and some additional metals.”

“Anything interesting?”

The Science Lieutenant shook her head. “It’s hard to tell,” she said. “We’re still too far away. But they look to be some unusually complex ores.”

“Why do say that?”

The Science Lieutenant looked uncomfortable. “Because if they’re not,” she finally said, “then the debris field contains manufactured alloys.”

Radecki / Dark : Emerald Flight : Star Wing – Chapter 5 – A Walk in the Dark

Elizabeth arrived at the conference room ten minutes early and closed the hatch. She sat down, lowered her head against the table, and breathed out a tired sigh.

So much for “light duty” . . .

It had taken her more than twenty minutes to receive acknowledgments out of everyone. The Chief, of course, had responded last. She had been tempted to go down to the Engineering Deck herself to make certain that he had seen her message. He responded, though, just moments before she made up her mind to do soheaded for Engineering.

Acquiring the conference room had been no less of a challenge. The Emerald Flight held countless little spaces where two or three people could meet. However, it contained only two conference rooms that could seat more than five. It was almost impossible to get access to one without several days’ advance.

Unless you’re the Captain, Elizabeth mused with more than a touch of smugness. Rank does have its privileges . . .

“I’ll be speaking to the Captain about this,” Lieutenant Sheldon had threatened, when informed that he would need to re-schedule his astrophysics report because the Captain needed the conference room.

Elizabeth suspected, though, that most members of his team viewed the postponement as a blessing. She had attended a few of Sheldon’s lectures, her interest drawn by their stated topics, but she had managed to sit all the way through only one of them until the end. It was not just that she found the mathematics involved to be nearly impenetrable, but Sheldon’s presentation style alternated between a deadly monotone and an irritating high-pitched squawk.

Elizabeth had nodded, and tried to keep a polite smile fixed onto her expression. Still, she had little doubt that Sheldon would contact the Captain. The Captain, then, would tell Elizabeth to handle it.

No matter how I slice it, Elizabeth told herself, it’s going to come back to me.

She heard the hatchway open and jerked her head up from the table, concerned that she might have dozed off during those brief few moments of quiet. Wiping at her mouth, she was relieved to find it dry. She glanced down at her tablet, relieved to discover that only slightly more than two minutes had passed.

Lieutenant Hawkes walked in, regarding her silently for a moment.

“Commander.”

Elizabeth smiled at him, trying to be friendly without being too informal. “Lieutenant.”

Hawkes regarded her for another moment, and then moved to take the seat on what would probably be Captain Devereux’s left. Elizabeth wondered again why he had never been promoted to First Officer.

He must have years and yearsmore experience than I do.

It was not that she objected to her promotion, but she was certain that there must have been other officers like him who deserved it more than she did. Still, she could not imagine anyone else standing at the Tactical station. She could not decide whether it was his quiet, almost serene competence, or his utter calm under fire that she appreciated more.

It was interesting, she realized, that on planet-side missions, she felt safer with Rusty at her back. She was certain that both men would sacrifice themselves for her, while at the same hoping that it never came to that. She had seen Hawkes take down men three times his mass, almost without effort, but there was something about Rusty that reassured her more. He had a much more impressive physical presence than Hawkes did, but Elizabeth did not believe that was the reason—or at least not the sole one.

As if prompted by her thoughts, the Chief entered, making more noise than was necessary. He winked at Elizabeth. His mischievous grin looked much like it always did.

There’s something about his eyes, though . . .

As he seated himself, the Chief opened his mouth, ready to remark on something to Hawkes, but was distracted by Hope’s arrival.

“Hey, Doc!” he greeted her cheerfully. Leaning back in his chair, he announced to the others, “You all might be glad to hear that the Doc here now has irrefutable proof that I really do have a brain inside this thick head o’ mine.” His eyes narrowed mockingly at Hawkes. “Contrary to some people’s opinions.”

Hawke’s eyebrows rose slightly, almost unnoticeably. Hope stared at the Chief for a long moment, but said nothing. Still, her gaze seemed to deflate him.

But only a little, Elizabeth noticed.

Hope made her way around the table to the chair beside Elizabeth. She seated herself, maintaining a rigid posture that Elizabeth was sure would leave her own back stiff for days. Elizabeth started to greet the doctor. Her word were lost in the Captain’s entrance.

“My apologies for being late,” she offered, making her way to the empty seat between Elizabeth and Hawkes. As she sat down, she turned toward Elizabeth. “Commander,” she said. “Can you please bring up the charts on the anomaly in debris field?”

“Yes, Captain,” Elizabeth acknowledged quietly

She worked the controls for the room’s holographic display. The sensor data and visual recordings of the debris field flickered into view above the table.

#

Rusty studied the holographic images as they floated above the table. He had heard about the reports, but had not had a chance to look over the data himself. At first glance, he was unimpressed. He had seen rocks in space before.

“Great . . .” he murmured, a little too loudly. “It looks like we stumbled on some giant’s rock garden.”

He opened his mouth to express another remark, and then stopped abruptly. Something in the slowly scrolling data caught his eye. Releasing a slow breath, he turned his gaze toward the visual images of the debris cloud.

“Microgravity displacement,” he mused aloud. “Now there’s something you don’t see too often.”

Devereux gave a slight smile. Rusty tried to maintain a disinterested look. It took considerable effort.

“There’s something inside this field,” Devereux said, tapping a control on the table. A section of the debris cloud grew brighter. “Our sensors can’t penetrate it clearly enough for us to get a good look inside.”

“So we take the shuttle in,” Rusty proposed.  It was the obvious solution, after all. Without looking, he could sense Hawkes’ disapproving look. He ignored it.

Devereux shook her head. “I checked with Pyrafox,” she said. “He says he’s having enough trouble holding position with this ship, but can manage it because of its mass. He doesn’t think he can maneuver the shuttle safely through that field.”

 “We have other pilots,” Rusty countered persisted. He shot a brief glance in Hawkes’ direction.

The Tactical Officer regarded him dispassionately, disappointingly refusing to be baited.

“I have to concur with the Lieutenant’s caution,” Hawkes announced. “The navigational challenges of traversing such a field are not to be underestimated.”

Rusty made a rude noise. 

Hawkes’ eyebrows rose slightly above the rims of his glasses.

“It doesn’t matter,” Devereux interjected, giving Rusty a sharp look. “We’re not going to attempt this with the shuttle.”

Rusty settled back in his chair and then his eyes widened. “You’re not taking my ship in there, are you?”

Devereux stared at him with a controlled look, but one that clearly told him that he had insulted her intelligence.

“No,” she replied flatly. “By EVA.”

There was a long moment of silence before anyone spoke. Rusty kept quiet, fighting back a sudden wave of uneasiness.

“Are you sure that’s wise, Captain?” Hawkes asked steadily.

“No,” Devereux answered him with a slight smile before her more serious demeanor returned. “But there’s something out there . . . and I want to find out what it is.”

#

Devereux quickly surveyed the reactions of those seated around the table. While Hawke’s expression was, as usual, nearly unreadable, she saw concern in the autumn brown eyes behind the lenses of his spectacles. Rusty, on the other hand, appeared ready to jump right up, don a spacesuit, and head out to find whatever was waiting out there for them.

That worked out so well when we found that derelict Argolian vessel, she mused without rancor.

Hope’s large dark eyes revealed nothing of the Aerian’s thoughts. They simply watched her, waiting for her to continue. Elizabeth was clearly uneasy, and Devereux suppressed a slight smile. Extra-vehicular excursions were far, far down on her First Officer’s list of favorite activities.

All part of the job, Devereux considered. The truth was, Elizabeth might be spared this time around, as she had not decided yet who would participate in this particular mission.

“Based on what we have so far,” Devereux said, “it might turn out that the best instruments we have for investigating this phenomenon are our eyes.”

“Doesn’t it always come to that?” Rusty quipped. “I’ve said so.”

Devereux shot him a quick glance. He countered with a quick grin, but quieted down.

“We wcould be putting ourselves at considerable significant risk, Captain,” Hawkes stated.

We’re not going,” Devereux responded with an impish smile. She turned back to the rest of the group. “I want to keep the team small,” she told them, surveying their expressions again.

“I’m assuming for the moment that we’re dealing with some kind of astronomical phenomenon,” she went on. “But I don’t want to discount the possibility that there’s some of device in there causing these effects.”

She turned toward Rusty. “Chief,” she said, “I’d like you and one of your engineers on the team. You’ve probably logged more space hours than any of us, so you’ll be in charge.”

Devereux turned next to Elizabeth. “Who do we have who might be a specialist in space geology?”

Elizabeth consulted the tablet in front of her, running a quick search through the crew records. “We have two,” she reported a moment later. “Laneville and Jeffries. I’ll see which is coming on duty next.”

Devereux nodded her approval and then turned toward Hawkes. “Lieutenant,” she said, “I want someone from your Security team accompanying them—preferably someone with heavy weapons experience so they can help out the others with the core sampling equipment, if needed.”

“Yes, Captain,” Hawkes responded evenly. “I’ll see that someone is assigned immediately.”

Devereux offered him a quick smile. She leaned back and addressed the others again. “Have your team ready to depart in two hours,” she told them. “Make sure they review what material we have beforehand.”

Elizabeth and Rusty each nodded their understanding. Hawkes entered something onto his tablet. Hope, as usual, remained almost perfectly still.

“Any questions?”

Devereux surveyed the faces around the table. She saw nothing to indicate that anyone was holding back.

“All right, then,” she said. “Dismissed.”

She rose, but waited until the others had left the room before exiting it herself, musing silently that there were sometimes distinct disadvantages to being the Captain.

I hardly ever get to see the sights any more . . .

#

As Hawkes headed back toward the bridge, he consulted the tablet in his hand. He had the duty roster for his staff committed to memory, of course, but wanted to confirm that no changes had been made since he had last checked it. There were none. He then searched the crew profiles for members of his proficient with heavy armaments in zero-gravity environments. This last part was key. It was quite a different experience to manage heavy weapons in space than it was while under gravity.

He agreed with the Captain’s reasoning. The light mining and ore sampling equipment that the EVA team would be bringing along operated on very similar in principles to many of those heavy armaments. Having his Security officer there to assist with those operations would be a highly efficient means to keep the size of the EVA team to a minimum. 

Checking the results of his inquiry, he sent a message for Ensign Yvonne Ferahim to report to him on the bridge for a mission briefing. She had, he noted, spent nearly two years working with the asteroid miners in the belt between Mars and Jupiter before enlisting in the Star Force.

Reaching the bridge, Hawkes relieved Ensign Cortez at the Tactical station and begin to prepare a briefing packet for Ensign Ferahim. He glanced up a few moments later when the First Officer Banks entered the bridge. She did not look over at him, but went immediately over to confer with Lieutenant Gho.

Hawkes reviewed looked over the sensor data again. Based on his analysis, this appeared to be a comparatively low-risk mission. While there was always danger when dealing with previously unknown astronomical phenomenon, experience had shown him that the odds of something potentially fatal happening would be far less than sending someone into a combat situation.

The main hatch opened again. Ensign Ferahim entered and immediately approached the Tactical station. She stopped in front of it and saluted him smartly. Her silken black hair was pulled back into a tight knot, exposing her cocoa-hued features. Her eyes matched the color of her skin.

“Ensign Yvonne Ferahim, reporting as ordered, sir!”

Hawkes returned the salute, silently pleased with her adherence to proper protocol. Noting with approval that she had already exchanged her duty uniform for utility fatigues, he passed the tablet over the console to her. She accepted it without looking at it, tucking it sharply under her arm while she waited for any further orders.

“Review the mission briefing,” Hawkes instructed her. “Let me know if you have questions. I have authorized your access to the armory. My recommended personal armaments are listed as an appendix in your briefing. Report to Airlock Three aft at seventeen forty for EVA departure.”

“Yes, sir!”

Hawkes studied the Ensign for a moment, mentally verifying that he had covered everything with her that he needed to for now. Satisfied, he told her, “Dismissed.”

She saluted again, waited while Hawkes returned it, and then turned and left the bridge. Hawkes nodded once again with approval. As he watched her go, he made a mental note to see when she might qualify for a promotion.

#

When she arrived back at the infirmary, Hope immediately got to work . Just because she was not part of the mission team did not mean that she did not have plenty to do to help prepare for it. She began by accessing the medical records for the known team members. The Chief Engineer’s was already updated on her tablet. Hope read the message from the Tactical Officer assigning Ensign Ferahim to the mission team and downloaded her medical profile as well.

Moving to one of her research stations, she downloaded a copy of the astronomical data for the debris field. She studied the radiation levels, and strength of the magnetic and gravitational fields. None appeared to be particularly troublesome. Still, she asked the computer to run some simulations on how prolonged exposure might affect the crew members during their passage through it. The simulations would take several minutes to run, Hope knew, so she turned to other tasks.

A message on her tablet from the First Officer informed her that Lieutenant Jeffries had been selected as the team’s geology specialist. Hope noted that his medical records, while current according to regulations, required updating before she could authorize his participation in the mission. She sent him a request to report to the infirmary for an updated assessment. His response was prompt, but, if Hope judged his tone correctly, grudging. She prepared Diagnostic Bed Two for his examination.

While she waited for his arrival, Hope examined the results of the Chief Engineer’s brain scans again. She still had no more of an explanation for the increased activity in his Gamma band. His behavior during the mission briefing had been slightly on the boisterous side, but far from being out of character. Hope wondered if there was time to run a new set of neurological scans before the Chief Engineer left on the mission. 

Unusual that the Captain assigned him.

She had never fully comprehended the relationship between the Captain and the Chief Engineer. In all other things, the Captain was almost always predictable. Her attitude toward the Chief Engineer, though, often seemed irrational, given some of the risks that the Chief Engineer exposed the ship and crew to. There was not, as far as Hope had been able to determine, an emotional component that might imply a deeper relationship between the two. The Captain spent no more time with the Chief Engineer than she did any other member of the crew—even less, perhaps.

The main hatch opened and Lieutenant Jeffries entered. He was an older Human male. His thick hair contained patches of gray and white. Slightly shorter the most human males, his thick body contained a surprising amount of muscle, despite its slightly flabby appearance.

“You wanted to see me, Doctor?”

“Yes.”

“I’m rather busy just right now, you know,” Jeffries protested, remaining just outside the main chamber of the infirmary. “I’ve got an expedition to get ready for.”

Hope stared at him, expressing none of her annoyance.

Why they always delay? It is inefficient and there is no discomfort to the procedure.

“Come.” She pointed toward Diagnostic Bed Two.

Jeffries hesitated, and then shuffled toward the designated bed with obvious reluctance.

“I don’t have to take off my clothes or nothing?”

“Remove any equipment.”

Jeffries patted down his uniform before removing a small case. “Just this.”

“Place there,” Hope directed him, pointing to an empty space on the counter.

Jeffries carefully laid the case on the countertop.

“Come,” Hope repeated, pointing again at the diagnostic bed.

Jeffries shuffled over to it and, with incredible slowness, lifted himself onto it. He sat there for a long moment and Hope thought she might need to instruct him again. Before she could, though, he lowered his body onto it.

Hope began the scan, watching as the medical data appeared on the various displays.

Respiration: normal. Pulse rate: slightly accelerated. Heart rate: slightly accelerated.

Both of these readings, while higher than normal, fell within their acceptable ranges. Their cause could be attributed to several non-pathological factors. Human physiology, Hope had long ago learned, was astonishingly susceptible to changes based solely on psychological and emotional factors. It was entirely probable, she suspected, that the increase was due to nothing more the Lieutenant’s anticipation of his participation in the upcoming mission.

Blood pressure: High.

Both measurements were highlighted in red.

Hope waited while the rest of the scans completed. Other than for a minor trace mineral imbalance in the Lieutenant’s blood chemistry, all of the readings, except for blood pressure, satisfied the requirements for an EVA mission. Hope studied the data once more, comparing it once against the baseline readings in the Lieutenant’s medical records.

“I cannot approve.”

The Lieutenant turned his head to see the results for himself. His expression betrayed a flash of anger, and then went slack with disappointment.

“Look, Doc . . .” the Lieutenant said, almost pleading. “I know I haven’t been good about getting my medication . . . or watching what I eat . . .”

“I cannot approve,” Hope repeated, hoping to forestall a litany of excuses so that she could inform the First Officer that a different crew member must be selected for the upcoming mission.

“Please, Doc,” the Lieutenant went on. “I’m going to retire soon and taking a teaching position at the University. This could be my last chance to see something truly astonishing.”

Hope stared back at the Lieutenant. He fidgeted uncomfortably under her gaze, but did not look away. She was prepared to repeat her statement once more, but spent a moment considering his request. There was medication she could provide for him, that had only minimal side effects, which would bring his readings within acceptable levels. Doing so, however, would violate the intentions of the medical regulations.

Hope lifted her tablet and made the necessary notations.

Radecki / Dark : Emerald Flight : Star Wing – Chapter 4 – Cloudy Space

( Things are starting to get a bit more interesting as the ship begins to work into the debris field.  Microgravity as envisioned is a small but comparatively intense gravitational field that can effect ship travel.  Enjoy Chapter 4 🙂 )

 

Elizabeth walked the bridge, trying to ignore the cold sensation of dampness between her shoulder blades. The collar of her uniform adhered with clammy wetness against her skin. She had given up try to pull it away.

What I wouldn’t give for ten minutes alone with a hair dryer . . .

Status reports from the various stations throughout the ship appeared on the tablet she held. Other than on the bridge, things appeared routine through the ship. Until they were close enough to actually enter the main body of the debris cloud, there was little else beyond their usual jobs for anyone else to do.

The Captain had come back down from the command, apparently surrendering to her urge to be closer to where the action was happening. She paced a slow circuit between the helm and main Science station. Neither Pyrafox nor Gho had anything interesting yet to report. Elizabeth could tell, though, that they were both growing increasingly nervous under the Captain’s constant attention. She suppressed a tiny smile at the sight, silently glad that Captain Devereux’s attention was on someone else for a little while.

I can’t believe I was late. I’m never late.

That had been true even at the Academy, although it had been a near thing on more than a few occasions. There was that one morning in particular when she had slipped in the rain crossing the quad from the dormitories. Her stumble sent her tablets and other materials skidding across the wide puddles. Commander Atchison had given her no sympathy, and had seemed genuinely irked that she could not grant Elizabeth at least one demerit for tardiness. The last Elizabeth had heard, Commander Ilsa Atchison was still terrifying second-year cadets in both intermediate quantum mathematics and championship volleyball.

Her eyes kept drifting back toward the main hatch. She had seen the Chief escorted away by the two guards, followed by Hope. Some part of her, though, still expected him to walk back through the hatchway with his usual jaunty smile and stride.

“Elizabeth?”

Devereux’s voice interrupted her reverie.

Elizabeth’s cheeks burned with embarrassment.

Twice in the same day? I’m going to be back on reclamation maintenance before mid-shift at this rate.

“Yes, Captain?” she answered as smartly as she could manage. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” Devereux replied, studying her carefully, “exactly.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said, almost too softly to hear. “I’m sorry, Captain. I’m . . . I’m worried about the Chief.”

Devereux’s expression softened and yet also became serious. That makes two of us, is what Elizabeth thought she would say.

Instead, the Captain responded with, “I understand.”

Her eyes darted toward the main hatch for a moment before turning back to Elizabeth.

“Hope will let us know when she has something to report,” Devereux went on. “For now, I need you to do your job.”

Elizabeth’s face tingled again. “Yes, sir.”

Devereux looked at the main bridge displays and then over toward Gho at the Science station.

“Who’s in charge in Engineering?”

It took Elizabeth a moment to realize that the Captain was addressing her.

“The Ch—“ she cut off her automatic response, looking down at the tablet she carried before anyone could see her reaction. She consulted the duty roster before answering. “Lieutenant Aruna, sir.”

Devereux nodded slowly. “Ask her to assign a team to monitor the starboard sensor junctions. I don’t want us to miss anything if something in the cloud interferes with those units.”

“Yes, Captain.” Elizabeth entered the appropriate orders onto her tablet and then looked back up at Devereux. “Anything else, Captain?”

Devereux thought for a moment before answering.

“Not right now,” she said. “Return to your duties.”

“Yes, sir.”

Elizabeth swallowed hard, determined to remain focused and make no further mistakes that day. Taking a firm grip on her tablet, she began another circuit of the bridge.

#

Rusty paused in the corridor outside the infirmary.  He noticed then that the two Security guards were still with him. Although they remained stoically composed, Rusty was convinced that they were as uncertain as he was about what they should do next. The Captain had given them no orders what to do after they had escorted him to the infirmary.

I’d better decide before they do.

As he was still technically on-duty, he could not return to his quarters. He quickly considered his other options Going to the bridge probably meant lots of questions, almost none of which he could answer. He did not know any more than what Hope had told him—and that he had barely understood. From what he had gleaned, his brain appeared to be producing extra Gamma waves. As they had not seemed to have granted him telepathic or telekinetic powers, his interest had pretty much ended there.

Engineering, he decided. Fewer questions.

Word of his trip to the infirmary had probably already circulated among the crew, but it would be a lot easier for him to deflect those on his home turf than on the bridge. He took only a few steps toward the shaft that would take him to the Engineering Deck. The guards fell into step behind him after a moment of shared uncertainty.

“You two don’t have something better to do?” Rusty asked them, trying to sound annoyed.

“Captain’s orders, sir,” the dark-haired one on the left replied. While taller than his partner, he was the clearly the younger of the two.

“That’s interesting,” Rusty countered conversationally. “I heard her tell you to take me to the infirmary. I didn’t hear nothing about you tailing me around the entire ship.” He stared at each guard individually for a moment. “I mean, I’m flattered and all . . .”

The two guards exchanged a long look.

“I’ll need to check with the Captain,” the older one finally told Rusty.

“You do that,” he agreed. “I’m heading for Engineering.”

Without waiting for a reaction, he turned and continued on his way. A moment later, he heard two sets of footsteps echoing behind his own. As he climbed into the shaft, he considered sliding down the rails and scampering off on a higher deck just to see how the guards reacted. He bowed to reason, though, deciding that being monitored on the Engineering Deck was far preferable to being subjected to it in the brig.

He exited the shaft and entered Engineering. Without turning, he addressed the guards.

“Just stay out the way,” he warned them. “Or I’ll put you to work.”

He did not bother to check their expressions. What he imagined was amusing enough. Humming quietly, he strolled across the deck.

#

Devereux remained on the command deck, although she was sorely tempted to follow Elizabeth on her rounds throughout the bridge. Like her First Officer, she was deeply concerned about her Chief Engineer’s recent behavior. Even during his previous assignment aboard the ship, despite his other shortcomings, he had at least been reliable.

“Captain,” Gho called out from the Science station. Although she addressed the Captain, she received the attention of everyone present on the bridge. “We’re picking up some more detailed readings now.”

“Post the data on Screen Three,” Devereux told her.

The scene of the star field ahead was replaced by a representation of the data coming in from the ship’s sensors. As they watched, the information was updated in real-time, the numbers and graphs changing as new data as the systems received new data.

Some of it made sense to Devereux; much of it did not. She recognized the spectroscopic and metallurgical analyses, even if she did not understand what some of the details meant.

“It looks the typical ores and elements you’d expected to see from a moon or asteroid,” she remarked.

Gho nodded in agreement. Devereux felt tiny swell of pride that she had interpreted the data correctly. Her training and experience leaned more heavily on the tactical side. The hard sciences were not her strong suit.

“The configuration is strange, though,” Gho said, highlighting the boundaries of the debris field on the screen. “There’s a lot more dust than you’d expect and not as much mass still in larger chunks.”

“Debris from a comet then?”

Gho studied the results again. “I don’t think so, Captain. The mass and elements don’t match any comets we’ve ever recorded. Although there are organic components.”

That got Devereux’s attention. Pyrafox’s ears perked up as well.

“Organic?”

Gho nodded, appearing unsurprised. “Organic compounds have been found on a number of comets,” she replied. “Nothing complex, though,” she explained. “Mostly simple hydrocarbons.”

Devereux continued to study the image in silence, watching as its resolution slowly improved. Behind her, Gho took deep breath that sounded a lot like an exasperated sigh.

“What’s wrong, Lieutenant?” Devereux asked, turning to face the young Science officer.

“I’m still having trouble getting clear readings from one section of the debris field,” she answered. She tapped controls on her console and the previous highlighting on the main screen was replaced by a new one position toward the upper right quadrant of the field.

“What’s there?” Devereux asked.

 “I don’t know,” Gho replied, shaking her head. “There’s something scrambling the sensors in that section of the cloud. We can’t get a clear reading.”

“What would do that?” Devereux asked. “Do the sensors need calibrated?”

Gho tapped some controls and intently studied one of her console displays for a moment. “The sensors seem fine,” she reported. “And there’s any number of things that might confuse the sensors.”

Devereux nodded at that.

I know a few tricks for doing that myself. Almost none of them, though, exist without artificial means.

She studied the image on the screen again, paying particular attention to the area that Gho had highlighted. She found the data associated with that region, but saw nothing that caught her eye as unusual—other than that it was annoying incomplete.

“Let’s take a closer look,” she announced quietly. “Helm,” she called to Pyrafox. “Slow our approach to one-quarter. Head toward the patch there on the outer edge.”

“Aye, Captain,” Pyrafox acknowledged quickly. “Slowing to one-quarter. Adjusting course.”

Devereux watched the navigational display as their velocity and heading changed. She turned back toward the Science station.

“Anything new yet?”

Gho studied her displays for a moment before shaking her head. “Not yet, sir” she replied, sounding disappointed. “I think we’re going to have to get a lot closer before we can punch through the interference.”

Devereux nodded her understanding. Although it was the prudent thing to do, decreasing their speed meant that it was going to a bit longer to get that much nearer.

She glanced toward the Tactical station. Hawkes worked intently at his console and she wondered what he was so focused on. There was absolutely nothing for him to fire at or defend them from except for some drifting chunks of rock.

He’s probably expecting to discover at any moment that one of those chunks is a disguised enemy vessel.

Devereux turned her attention back to the data display, seeing once again the highlighted area of the debris cloud.

If I was going to hide a ship in there, she considered. That’s where I’d do it. Force them to move in. Lure them nice and close.

For a moment, she considered ordering Hawkes to place the ship on a standby alert.

It’d just be a distraction, she decided. And so far we’ve found nothing but rocks out here. She glanced over at Hawkes again. He’ll be the first to tell me if he sees anything even remotely suspicious.

Devereux allowed herself to relax and went back to studying the data displays.

#

Hawkes studied the feed from the Science station. He understood most of the data, enough to determine that there appeared to be no immediate threat from the debris within weapons range of the ship. The patch of obscure readings, toward which the Captain had now directed their course, troubled him. During all of his years of combat experience, he had witnessed a variety of techniques used to scramble sensor feedback. This was unlike any he had seen. He took some small comfort that the area affected could not mask any particularly large vessels.

We might end up being outgunned, but we’re not likely to be outnumbered.

Based on what they had discovered so far, he saw no reason yet to bring the ship’s weapons systems online. He had hoped that Captain might at least place the crew on stand-by alert status, but she had so far failed to do so. She seemed to feel comfortable with the risk.

He studied the sensor logs for some the larger fragments, examining them for signs that might indicate a masked vessel or hidden weapons platform. So far, the readings had indicated exactly what Lieutenant Gho had reported: rock fragments and conventional ores. The lack of active energy signatures of any kind told him that whatever force had created these fragments had done so a long ago.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Gho called out hesitantly. “We’re getting some new readings.”

Hawkes looked up from his station as Gho tapped out commands on her console.

“It’s not much,” she reported as the data on the third bridge display changed, “but it’s something.”

Devereux stared at the screen for several long moments before shaking her head slowly. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she admitted, turning toward Hawkes.

“Nor have I, Captain,” Hawkes reported. “I can find no matches for it in the Tactical database.”

“There’s nothing in the cosmological records either,” Gho reported. “We may have encountered a new astronomical phenomenon.”

“You just might get yourself into the record books yet, Lieutenant,” Devereux smiled at the Science officer.

Although Gho tried to mask it in her expression, Hawkes could tell that the young officer was pleased by prospect.

“It looks like a gravitational disturbance,” Elizabeth offered, looking at the data display.

“That small?” Devereux asked. “And erratic?”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose in the equivalent of a shrug. Her eyes turned toward Gho.

“It could be pockets of microgravity,” the Science officer hypothesized, “caused by heavy elements in the ore. If they’re highly radioactive as well, that would explain the trouble our sensors are having with them.”

Devereux nodded. Hawkes agreed that it was a reasonable explanation, but by no means the only one.

“Can you give me a visual?” Devereux asked.

“I think so, Captain,” Gho replied. “Let me see what I can do.”

“Center screen.”

The image of the star field displayed on the center display, now littered with jagged chunks of rock, flickered, turned gray, and then resolved into a new view. A soft gray haze now muted the definition of objects visible on the screen. It reminded Devereux of the ground fogs she would see during early morning rugby practice in the spring.

Except there’s no fog like that in space . . .

“Can you magnify that?”

Gho tapped some controls and the image shifted again. It did not help much. Some of the objects were larger now, but not much clearer.

“Any idea what’s causing that?” Devereux asked.

Gho consulted her console quickly before answering. “It’s just dust, sir.”

“What’s holding it there?” Elizabeth asked.

“Good question,” Devereux replied, nodding slowly. “It should have dispersed long ago.”

“It might be the microgravity pockets,” Gho suggested. “They might be holding it in place.”

Devereux nodded again. “That would explain why it’s localized there and there almost none at all in the outer sections of the debris field.”

The deck of the ship seemed to sway beneath her feet slightly. She glanced down and then over at the helm station, seeing Pyrafox working furiously at his console.

“Something wrong, Lieutenant?”

Pyrafox’s hands slowed. He paused a moment, both his hands poised ready over the helm controls. After a few seconds passed, he began to relax, breathing out a hoarse sigh. It reminded Devereux of the irritated growl from a long-haired Chihuahua one of her secondary school friends had owned.

“Sorry about that, Captain,” he remarked without turning. His gaze remained fixed on the navigational displays. “Just a small issue with the gravity pockets.” He reached down and tapped a control, although with less urgency, Devereux was relieved to note, than before. “I think the computer’s got most of them mapped out now.”

“Is there any danger to the ship?”

Her question was directed to anyone who had information, but it was Pyrafox who answered her.

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “They’re more like potholes in a dirt road than anything really dangerous.”

Devereux tried to map that analogy to space navigation in her mind. She did not find herself particularly comforted by the imagery that arose.

“Bring us to a stop, Lieutenant,” Devereux ordered. “I don’t want us any closer until we have a better idea of the effects.”

“Aye, Captain,” Pyrafox responded crisply. Something in his posture expressed his disappointment at no longer being allowed to meet the challenge of their course ahead. “Answering full stop.”

The images on the main bridge displays became stationery, but not before the deck rolled one more time underneath Devereux’s boots. She opened her mouth, but Pyrafox interrupted her before she could speak.

“Sorry, Captain.” He sounded genuinely apologetic. “One last pothole.”

“Better check the tires,” Devereux chuckled.

Behind her, Elizabeth snickered.

“Yes, Captain,” Pyrafox replied, making no effort to hide the laughter in his own voice.

Devereux’s expression grew serious once more. She studied the data still being flashed onto the third screen. So far, even at this closer distance, the sensors had revealed little new information.

“Commander,” she called out to Elizabeth without turning. “Have all stations continue to collect data for now. Assemble the senior staff for a briefing in one hour.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“You have the bridge, Commander,” Devereux told her. “I’ll be in the infirmary.”

#

Hope puzzled over the results of the Chief Engineer’s medical scans. Except for the unexplained increase in his Gamma band activity, all of his other readings fell well within established ranges for humans. Some of them, she noted with some surprise, had even improved since his last complete examination. There was, as far as she could determine, no biochemical cause for the change in the Chief Engineer’s brain activity. Her research on the subject so far had produced frustratingly little new information.

The Captain will want a report.

She could produce one, of course, but it would be one that would yield more questions than answers. Hope possessed a deep understanding of the human nervous system and neurological biochemistry, but she had never seen readings like these before. The most relevant analogy were the examinations conducted of suspected Psi-actives, but even those tests had yielded completely different results than what she had received from the Chief Engineer.

The main hatch opened. Hope knew, without turning, that the Captain had entered. She heard the familiar cadence of the Captain’s footsteps as she approached. That was, of course, not her only clue to the Captain’s presence.

“Hope?”

Hope turned to face the Captain. “Captain.”

The Captain glanced over at the empty diagnostic beds and then took a closer look around the infirmary.

“Where’s the Chief?”

“He is gone.”

The Captain frown deepened and she examined the infirmary again.

“You released him?”

Hope hesitated for a moment. The Captain was displeased.

“Yes.”

The Captain stared hard at Hope. Her words came out sharp and clipped.

“May I ask why?”

“The data,” Hope said. “I do not understand.”

The Captain frowned thoughtfully and then shook her head slightly. “What do you mean?”

Hope stared at the Captain for a moment longer and then gestured toward the diagnostic equipment still connected to Bed Four.

“Come.”

The Captain followed her to the diagnostic bed. Hope activated one of the displays, showing the results of the neurological scans. The Captain studied the screen carefully for several moments before turning back to Hope.

“I don’t understand what I’m seeing here.”

Hope tapped a control and one of the waveforms displayed on the chart grew brighter.

“Gamma.”

The Captain studied the image again and then shook her head again. “I’m still not seeing it,” she said, leaning back slightly. “Is it something dangerous?”

Hope stared silently.

“Is it?”

“I do not know.”

The Captain’s expression held a mixture of astonishment and concern.

“And you released him?”

“Yes,” Hope answered flatly. “Security went too.”

The Captain visibly relaxed. She studied the diagnostic display again.

“But you don’t know what this means?”

“No.”

 “Could it explain his strange behavior?”

“I do not know.”

The Captain released a long, slow breath.

“What do you know?”

Hope stared back at the Captain for a moment before answering.

“Increased Gamma band activity.”

The Captain breathed deeply.

“All right,” she said, stepping back from the display. “Let me know when you do find something. In the meantime, I’ll have Security keep an eye on him.”

“Yes.”

The Captain laughed softly. “I’m glad you approve.”

The chime from the communication console sounded. The Captain’s smile grew a little bit more.

“That’ll be Elizabeth letting you know about the briefing.” The Captain’s expression became more serious. “See what you can find out before then.”

“Yes.”

The Captain frowned, looking at the diagnostic display and then back at Hope. She appeared ready to speak, but seemed to change her mind. Turning away, she strode purposefully toward the main hatch.

Hope watched the Captain leave, feeling the familiar sense of emptiness as she departed. She turned away from the hatchway and studied the diagnostic display once more. Again, it failed to reveal the answers she needed.

Radecki / Dark : Emerald Flight : Star Wing – Chapter 3 – Off to a Rocky Start

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.

“Sandersen!”

It took a moment, but then a male voice answered him from across the wide space of the deck.

“Yes, Chief?”

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.

“Anything yet?”

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.

“Captain.”

“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.

Respiration normal.

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.

“No.”

“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.

Radecki / Dark : Emerald Flight : Star Wing – Chapter 2 – Dust to Dust

Elizabeth slid into her tunic, gritting her teeth against the twinge of discomfort as she slid it over her left shoulder. The heat from the shower had helped somewhat, aided no doubt by the analgesic that Hope had injected her with.

I won’t be swinging a racquet with that arm any time soon, she considered sourly.

Wincing in anticipation of another stab of pain, Elizabeth fastened the waistband of her uniform. Relieved when she felt only the slightest twinge from the strained ligaments and muscles, she released a slow breath. She still could not decide which hurt more: the physical pain from her injury, or the embarrassment of being seen tripping over her opponent.

It had happened during the second match of her racquetball game with Ensign Manuel de Marco. He was good, better than she had expected, but not very experienced. Although he had kept her moving on the court, Elizabeth had held back slightly, trying to keep the score close. Manuel had fired in a particularly adept shot. Elizabeth raced over to volley it. Instead of moving toward the wall as she expected, though, Manuel had stepped back. She stumbled over his extended leg, sprawling and unable to stop her slide until she smacked hard against the wall.

And all because I was trying to impress him . . .

A certain amount of off-duty fraternization among the members of the crew was, while not encouraged, expected. Since she had been promoted to First Officer, though, she discovered that those boundaries were now far less flexible. Technically, none of the crew reported directly to her, but she was a member of the command staff now. So it was critical to her career that she maintain a certain level of professional detachment. There was something about Enrique de Marco, though, that kept bringing her thoughts of him back to him. Since he was not assigned to the bridge crew, she had given herself permission to see what might happen if they met while off-duty.

I found out all right, she sighed heavily. It must be a sign.

Sitting down on the edge of her bunk, she pulled on her left shoe, managing to do it with surprisingly little difficulty. She was startled by the tight knot of pain when she attempted the same action with her right shoe. It took her several clumsy attempts with her left hand, with some awkward twisting, but she finally managed to get her foot into it. She stood, wiggled her foot so that the shoe fit more comfortably, and then took a long, slow breath.

Light duty, huh? She looked in the mirror, checking the appearance of her uniform. At least I don’t have to wear a sling.

It was a small consolation. She knew the Captain would review Hope’s medical log at some point during the day and probably ask her what happened.

Assuming that she doesn’t know already . . .

One of the things that she had learned at the Academy, and the lesson had been reinforced during her postings on the both the Emerald Flight and the Washington, was that, like those ships, some information also traveled faster than light.

Particularly, she mused unhappily, the kind that you wished wouldn’t.

#

Rusty eyed the twin slipstream drive cores warily. Quiescent now, as they were traveling under normal thrust, he still could not shake the feeling that there was something off about them. Each one had been tested, calibrated, and re-tested—and not a one had revealed any significant issues.

Seen that before, he mused glumly. But put them all together and . . . KABOOM!

He had heard about it happening, but never on any ship that he had ever been on. The most serious problem he could find on his ship, in fact, was a blemish on the aft coolant flow casing where someone had dropped a tool on it, probably weeks ago. Out of sheer irritation, Rusty had ordered a detail to repair and polish it out.

He studied the engineering status displayed on his desktop monitor, and then the diagnostic reports contained on the tablet his hand. Only an immense effort of will kept him from hurling them both across his office. That was fortunate, he realized, as Aruna appeared in the hatchway.

“Chief?” Her soft, clipped tones sounded hesitant.

Rusty looked up from the tablet, trying to decide whether or not to snarl at her. He wanted to be alone, to puzzle this out without interruption.

Then you should have locked the door . . .

He opted to behave civilly.

She doesn’t deserve it. She’s just trying to do her job.

“What is it?”

“The Bridge has asked if we can send a maintenance crew to the galley. There’s some kind of leak from one of the refrigeration units.”

Rusty looked away from her for a moment. He really had no good reason to refuse. All his engineering teams were doing now was wearing out parts by replacing them when there was nothing wrong with them.

“Yeah,” Rusty finally answered. “Go ahead.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And Aruna?”

The young Indian ensign paused in the doorway. Rusty saw tension tighten her posture. Seeing it made him realize just how wound up he was.

“Take the rest of the day off.”

Aruna turned, puzzlement evident on her mocha-tinted features. “Sir?”

“You heard me,” Rusty replied. “Do it,” he said, trying to sound gruff. “Before I change my mind. The waste ducts on Deck Two still need to be cleaned.”

“Yes, sir.” A faint smile then formed on her dark lips. “Thank you, sir.”

Rusty grunted, turning his attention back to the status display. Once he was certain that Aruna was no longer there, he allowed himself to smile.

I do have a reputation to maintain, after all.

#

The distance from the bridge to Devereux’s quarters was short, but it gave her enough time to consider her growing restlessness. She had felt it even before Hawkes had interrupted her workout, attributing it to the current monotony of their mission. The unexpected sensor readings had done nothing to fan those feelings, so she assumed they were unrelated. Yet, there was something . . .

Entering her quarters, she palmed the lights up to a brighter daylight level. Activating the “Do Not Disturb” indicator, she began to strip out of her workout clothes. Pulling her shirt off over her head, she caught a whiff of her dried perspiration. Other than for Hawkes and Pyrafox, no one else on the bridge had been close enough to smell her.

It’s not that bad . . . 

She pulled and naked now, studied her body’s profile in the long mirror.

The soft edges she had acquired during her leave of absence were nearly gone. Her legs and hips had regained nearly all of their previous muscle tone. She did not have them back in the same shape as they had been when she been a Lieutenant, but she was close to doing so. Although she had tried to maintain a rigorous exercise regimen during the last weeks of her father’s life, it had been nearly impossible at a time when even sleep had become a precious commodity.

She studied the curve of her breasts for a moment, grateful for the ship’s low gravity. During her personal leave on Earth, she had noticed that they had begun to sag slightly. It was, she knew, as much an unfortunate side effect of being planet-side as it was a reminder of her brief pregnancy. The hollow feelings of loss no longer came immediately upon her at that memory. What she did not expect was the remembered sensation that came unbidden to her next—that of Scott’s touch on her body.

He is gone now, she reminded herself, closing her eyes against the memories. Long since dead and gone.

No matter how many times she had practiced that litany since she had returned to her own present—his future—a part of her refused to believe it. They had touched, talked, and made love. For her, it had happened only months ago, not more than a century past. With some effort, she shrugged away the visions, turned on the shower, and stepped inside. The instantly heated spray cleansed her body, but did little to ease her mind.

#

Twenty-four minutes later, Hawkes heard the main hatch open and looked up from his station. The Captain entered, carrying a mug in one hand, just as he had predicted. Her other hand, though, did not contain the protein bar he had expected. Instead, it held some kind of pastry. Hawkes recognized it as one of the scones from a batch that Ensign Evelyn Jaccard had baked that morning. Apparently, the Captain had opted to sample one.

“Anything new on the sensors?” Devereux asked, taking a small bite from the scone as she waited for an answer.

“We’re still out of the optimal sensor range, Captain,” Lieutenant Gho reported from the main Science station. “It still looks like it could be an asteroid cluster,” she went on, “or maybe a comet, or maybe even some other kind of debris field.” Gho consulted the displays on the station before continuing. “There’s nothing to suggest that there’s anything the size of a planet or small moon out there.”

That, Hawkes considered, would have been intriguing.

Planets and moons were typically not found outside of established solar systems. None of the previous surveys had reported any of the usual signs of a planetary system in the region. Their own sensors now appeared to confirm that as well. Hawkes knew that was no guarantee that one was not present. In his experience, the universe made it a point to remind those who explored it that they did not understand everything about it how it worked.

Devereux stared at the trio of main bridge displays, chewing another bite of pastry thoughtfully.

“Still,” Devereux mused aloud, “it’s odd for it be out here in the middle of nowhere.”

Hawkes found that he had to agree.

“And there’s nothing at all unusual about this region?”

Gho shook her head, her sleek shoulder-length hair casting dark waves across her face. “Nothing, Captain,” she answered. “At least nothing our sensors can detect.” She waved her hand toward the Science station, indicating that the Captain could check the readings for herself.

“What about spatial displacement?” Hawkes asked.

The ensign tapped at the surface of the console and then glanced at Devereux before answering.

“There’s nothing, sir.” She tapped a control, replacing the image on the leftmost main bridge display. “If there’s been any FTL traffic through here, it happened a long time ago.”

The Captain’s posture relaxed slightly. Hawkes felt an undercurrent of relief as well. It seemed unlikely now that they were heading into some kind of ambush. There were no known ways to obscure the spatial displacement caused by the passage of a vessel using a faster-than-light drive, regardless of the technology being used.

Devereux turned toward Hawkes with a bemused expression.

“I hate to tell you this, Lieutenant,” she said, “but it looks like we’re going to get that spot in the history books after all—for discovering a new cloud of space dust.”

Hawkes met the Captain’s eyes for only a moment before turning away. Until he was convinced that the region was safe, he would not share in her amusement. With that thought in mind, he turned back to his station and studied the tactical readouts once more.

#

Hope stood, engrossed in her examination of the data from her last experiment, despite its clear failure to produce the results she had hoped for, It took a moment to recognize that the insistent buzzing sound was the intercom calling for her attention. She had also failed to notice the blinking alert signal. Feeling only a faint twinge of chagrin, she reached over and lightly tapped the intercom control.

“Infirmary.”

“Doc!” a voice shouted over the speaker. “Sanchez tumbled down a maintenance shaft and banged herself pretty bad.”

There was brief delay, filled with a background of unintelligible sounds.

“She’s says she’s all right,” the voice went, hesitating slightly as it added, “but there’s a lot of blood.”

Hope picked up a tablet and linked it to medical monitoring network. It her a moment to determine which “Sanchez” the voice might be referring to, but guessed that it was the one named “Ensign Sheryl Sanchez”, as she was the only one currently assigned to Engineering-related duties. Hope accessed the Sanchez’s medical record and checked the current readings from the Ensign’s embedded physiological monitor.

Pulse rate slightly elevated. Respiration elevated. Blood volume slightly reduced.

While definitely in some discomfort, the Ensign did not appear to be going into shock.

“Bring her,” Hope said.

There was a noticeable pause before the voice returned to the intercom.

“Are you sure?” If Hope interpreted the vocal intonations correctly, the individual sounded both uncertain and incredulous.

“Yes,” Hope said. “Bring her.”

Once again, there was a burst of undecipherable noises.

“Okay,” the voice said. “We’re on our way.” The intercom speaker hissed into silence.

Hope put the tablet down and began shutting down the equipment, placing those she might want to use again soon in standby mode. Picking up the tablet again, she rechecked the Ensign’s readings then headed for infirmary’s main section, letting the lights dim and the hatch close and lock behind her.

She just finished preparing Diagnostic Bed One when the main hatch opened. Through it came the Ensign, supported by a Human male wearing maintenance coveralls which hid his rank insignia. Hope was forced to identify him from his facial features, finally deciding that he was Ensign Josef Gogorsky, also a technician assigned to Engineering. Dark stains streaked the front of his coveralls. Hope was certain that an analysis would report it was Ensign Sanchez’s blood.

“Bring her,” Hope said, directing him toward the diagnostic bed.

Sanchez’s face twisted with pain as Gogorsky guided her toward the platform. Her teeth showed brightly as she gritted them together. The front of her tunic was slick was a coating of blood. She released a sharp moan as Gogorsky helped her into the bed.

“Remain still,” Hope instructed the Ensign, and tapped the control to begin the diagnostic scan.

Ensign Gogorsky watched with obvious concern, fidgeting as Sanchez continued to breathe rapidly while the scan was run.

“Doc!” Gogorsky called out sharply. “Can’t you see that she’s in pain?”

Hope quickly glanced at the Ensign’s face, but saw no significant change in it from before.

“Yes.”

Gogorsky’s eyes widened, the change in his posture adding to his expression of incredulity.

“Aren’t you going to give her something?”

Sanchez’s eyes also watched Hope as they waited for her to respond.

“Yes,” Hope replied.

Some of the tension on Sanchez’s face eased away.

“When scan is complete.”

Gogorsky’s hands and arms moved in a motion that she could not identify. Hope presumed it was a physical expression of his frustration. She ignored it. Based on established medical protocol, she would not administer an analgesic of any kind until the type and severity of the injury was determined. This might displease Gogorsky, and prolong Sanchez’s discomfort, but such caution was required.

The instruments connected to the diagnostic bed completed their evaluation and alerted Hope that the results of the scan was ready. She studied them quickly, confirming what she had surmised on her own: the Ensign had suffered a deep laceration along the anterior thorax, penetrating the pectoralis major. The ribs had prevented any damage to the organs beneath them. Had she suffered the same injury, Hope considered, it might have proven fatal. Her skeletal structure, at least where it supported and protected her torso, was much less durable.

She quickly considered the proper sequence of treatment, knowing that if she delayed much longer, the Ensign would likely slip into shock. Hope had found Humans to be surprisingly resilient, even after suffering severe—and even life-threatening—injuries. There was a wide variation among Human responses, she had learned, though.

Hope checked the Ensign’s medical record again and then selected a medium-strength analgesic. She loaded an injector and pressed it against the Ensign’s chest, just above the wound. The injector beeped once, emitting a barely audible hiss, and then Hope removed it. Sanchez watched her, still grinding her teeth.

“That’s it?” Gogorsky shouted. “That’s all you’re going to do for her?”

When Hope did not immediately respond, he went on, his voice rising, “You don’t care when we’re in pain, do you? We’re all just some sort of alien experiment to you!”

A moment later, Sanchez relaxed, releasing a long, slow breath. Glancing at Gogorsky, she flashed him a quick, relieved smile, and then settled back into the bed’s cushions. Hope turned away and began gathering equipment from one of the cabinets. She then paused and turned back the face Ensign Gogorsky. Her dark eyes fixed on him.

“You will depart.”

Gogorsky stared back at her, blinking in stunned surprise.

“What?”

Hope considered his question for a moment, wondering if perhaps her instruction to him was unclear. She searched her memory for another Human word that might more accurately convey her message.

“Leave.”

Gogorsky’s eyes widened. His mouth opened, but only sputtering noises came out before Sanchez interrupted him.

“Get out, Go-go,” she said, chuckling hoarsely. “I’ll be fine.”

Gogorsky’s mouth closed. His eyes shifted between Sanchez and Hope.

“Okay,” he finally said, his shoulders squaring in a gesture of mock defiance. “But I’ll be back to check on you later.”

He shot one final glare at Hope and then trudged out of the infirmary.

Sanchez breathed another soft chuckle, shaking her head slowly. “I think he’s got a bit of a crush on me,” she told Hope.

Hope paused for a moment, considering the truth of the Ensign’s statement. Gogorsky’s actions were consistent with some of the mating behaviors she had observed among Humans. Whether Ensign Sanchez desired Gogorsky as a mate, Hope was not yet certain.

“Yes.”

Sanchez stared at Hope, trying to read some meaning into the Aerian’s large dark eyes and flat expression. When she found none, she settled back once more and closed her eyes as Hope began to cut away her ruined tunic.

Dark Renaissance – Chapter 14 & 15

Chapter 14

Hamish Montrose settled in behind his new, polished oak desk. The promotion ceremony went without any incident. He was surprised by the appearance of Donald McDonough, the executive secretary to the High Magus Harold Crist. “Congratulations on your promotion, Captain Montrose. Your rise in the ranks bodes well for your future”, McDonough informed him. Montrose smiled and replied, “I’m at the Council’s beck and call. I serve with pride.” McDonough nodded, then smiled slyly. “Indeed, your service has been impressive. The only blemish being The Yellowjakket. I’d heard that she’d beaten another sweep for her.”

Montrose gritted his teeth behind a bland smile. “She’s certainly a challenge. One could wonder that with the power of the Council, how she has managed to survive.” Montrose smiled internally as he saw McDonough’s eyes narrow. “It is a puzzle”, McDonough replied, with feigned nonchalance. “I hope that, for all our sakes, she’s brought to account soon.” With that McDonough proffered his bare hand. Montrose made certain his glove was on as they shook. He felt a tingle of an attempted spell in his fingers, and smiled knowingly at McDonough, who finished shaking and released. He turned away and disappeared into the crowd, as others moved in line to shake Montrose’s hand.

Once the crowd had thinned, he left the ceremonial to sit in his new office. He was now Captain of East London, with the power to move resources about as he saw fit. He reported directly to McDonough he found out after the man had left. The spell bothered him. It was so subtle, he couldn’t determine what it’s intent was. McDonough also hadn’t seemed to notice the failure of the spell to affect him. Perhaps he had noticed and was playing ignorance. Either way, he would bear watching. He would need to be very careful about his position.

The political waters ran very muddy and very deep at this level. Any mistake would be magnified. That worked both ways however. He knew that the Council was always in flux. With some luck, and some careful planning, a seat could be his. He reached for the mind-crystal. It was time to inform Root and Thorpe of their new duties. The game’s stakes had been increased, and he was determined to win.

Chapter 15

Yellowjakket had run hard through South London, looking for a potential target. The mages here with the authorities were the ones most likely to have any information on the raid, and where any prisoners were taken. She’d had no luck at all as she ran the streets. The notorious London Fog had come in off the river, blanketing the city in grey so thick that she had to slow down to avoid the ubiquitous double decked buses, autos, and cabs. It made movement like a huge game of blind man’s bluff. She turned hard left at a main street and finally spotted her target. The short distance of maybe forty meters visibility worked to her advantage. She was among them like a fox in a hen house before they realized she was there.

A quick look at the situation made her focus harder. This press-gang was in the middle of hauling away a teen-aged girl, who was hanging limp in her captor’s grasp. A man in work clothes lay sprawled on the step, and a woman was huddled against the door lintel, clutching a little girl to her as she tried to stab another mage who was trying to pull the child from her. She concentrated and hit the first man with an electrical cage, locking his voluntary muscles. The cage was about two meters in diameter. One mage who spun towards the speeding huntress, brushed the cage, and grunted as his body locked in place. Two out of the fight, six to go.

She fired an electrical blast at a mage who’d pulled a stone from his pocket. The stone glowed reddish and pulsed as he was hit in the chest. The blue-robed mage was lifted off his feet and propelled four meters away, striking a trash receptacle, and falling stunned to the sidewalk. One mage finished a quick spell, and a blue glow covered him. He drew a pistol, and fired a quick pair of shots at Yellowjakket, who skidded sideways, and leapt into the air. The bullets cut a path of disturbed air through the fog underneath her, to shatter some glass in the fog.

This is unit three-oh-five”, she heard and turned to look at the speaker. He’d ducked into the house, using the door as a partial shield. She fired again, and the surge of power hammered into the man struggling with the woman. He blew backwards into the door and frame. She missed the mage trying to contact help, but did startle him enough to stop his communication. Right now that was all she wanted.

Another mage began glowing blue. The first who’d set a defensive screen began intoning a quick spell she’d heard before. He was trying to hit her with a disruption spell. She didn’t fire, knowing the blue would stop electricity, so she sped at the man rolling her shoulder forward at the last moment before impact. She caught him flush in the stomach, knocking him backwards into the front of the townhome. A quick cage locked up another wizard mid-spell. Five down three to go. The three left were going to be difficult. One was the mage in the doorway, trying to call assistance. Another still had the girl, and had retreated down the street, holding the girl between him and Yellowjakket.

The third aimed the pistol and fired again. Yellowjakket dodged, and hear a meaty thwack behind her. She glanced back, and saw a blotch on the girl’s thigh. She’d been hit by the bullet. Something clicked off inside her. The next blast took the shooter in the chest, burning away the robes, and charring his skin as he was hurtled towards the townhome, snapping ribs on impact with the brick facade.

The next shot tore the door away from the frame, blowing it to flinders and blasting the mage with splinters. He screamed and clawed at his eyes as he blasted backwards, colliding with the inner wall headfirst, and dropping to the floor, bleeding from a dozen wounds. The last man dropped the bleeding girl and vanished in the fog. Yellowjakket sent a blast his direction, and a yellow-orange ball erupted from a unseen vehicle in the fog.

She sped over to the girl, and dropped to one knee to inspect the wound. To her untrained eye it looked bad. The area was swollen already at least half-again as much as her undamaged leg. “I’m taking her to a doctor, Where’s the closest hospital?” The woman stood silent, clutching her child and staring that the downed wizards. Yellowjakket looked at the man, who was trying to sit up. “Lewisham, I think. She’s North of here and a few streets left.” His voice was rough, unsteady. He sounded drunk, or maybe a concussion. “I need to know NOW! Exactly where it is! This girl’s been shot! I need you to think!” She urged him. The desperation in her voice lending it an urgency that helped the man focus.

Go west to the one-two-one then north, it’s about a kilometer, maybe two up. It’s on the left.” His eyes dropped to the unconscious girl then back to Yellowjakket as she shouldered the girl in a fireman’s carry. The fear in his eyes lent Yellowjakket a desperate strength and she lurched into motion, hitting a solid stride after a few shaky steps. She accelerated, turning right on one-twenty-one and speeding north.

The hospital loomed out of the fog, the lights creating a soft whitish glow in the fog. She turned and sped to the doors, her free hand yanking the door open and stepping through. “Emergency! I’ve a woman who’s been shot! I need assistance for her! The activity in the lobby stopped in shock as she shouted over the din. The distinct costume drew officers and medical staff. “Take her she’s been hit in the thigh. I’m not certain how bad”, she explained hurriedly. The police were moving between her and the door, trying to box her in.

All righ’ gel, settle, an’ we’ll take it easy on ye”, an older man in uniform said. He was about one point eight meters tall, and stocky. His paunch lapped out over his belt, which he adjusted as he spoke at her. His left hand had an automatic pistol, and his right was up to his microphone on the shoulder. He had it tight on the mic, so everything was being radioed to his precinct house. She didn’t hesitate. A quick glance showed three halls that would be possible exits. She chose the leftmost and accelerated past the surprised officer, and disappeared into the hall before the officers could react.

Yellowjakket sped through the halls, finally coming across signs the guided her to an exit at the back of the building. She slowed to push the door open, then was out in the open once more speeding northwest away from the hosptial. She darted back south after a moment, intent on finding the mages she’d fought. It took her about eight minutes for the full round trip back to the fight. One of the mages was trying to struggle up, confronted by an ugly sounding crowd of people. She datarted past the men and women to the mage’s side. “They’re in a foul mood. I think they dislike you”, she told him with a smirk. “I’ve a mind to help them out, unless you can tell me something I want to know.”

The mage peered at her. He’d been the first one hit, and held in the electric cage. “You come in quiet, and I’ll put in a good…hrrk!” He dropped to his knees as Yellowjakket kneed him in the groin. “Try anything at all and I leave you here. You’re screwed, mate. Think you can get a spell off before they decide to beat you to death? I don’t think so. They’re too close, and you’re too slow. You’re about to die here. Unless you give me something. There was a sewer squat hit just south of here a little while ago. What do you know about it? Where’d they take the people?” Her voice was hard, brittle. She meant every word.

Faerie Thoughts

This is a story from the writing challenge a friend and I are doing as a way of practicing our writing skills.

The picture is below the story, and here is

Faerie Thoughts

Taeliun Highfeather slowed her wings as she gently touched down next to Chuckling Creek. The buzzing clatter faded to a bubbling quiet from the waters as she sat on a small boulder. She concentrated, and both leaves and grass, bent and flowed to her, covering her with a rich emerald dress held by two thin straps across her shoulders. She shook out her short brown hair that she’d cut just that morning, and waited for Siki’ek to arrive.

The morning sun had barely started to shed its orange coat for yellow when the Iridescent Drake made his appearance in a whirl of colors and melodic chirps. Siki’ek noodled through the air to hover in front of Taeliun. She gazed at the miniature Drake hovering scant inches from her nose as a wistful pout formed about her lips. The Drake noticed the change and hovered higher concern darkening his scales.

“Whyfor are your wings not humming the air and your nose reveling in the scents of morning little Taeliun?” The young faery blew her bangs away from her forehead then brushed them to the side with her left hand.

“I’ve been told by Mother to wait here. So I’m waiting.”

“Wait for what?”

“I asked Mother the same question, and she said, ‘you will know when it happens.” She rested her elbow on a knee, and supported her chin as she sat. The other hand draped across her legs. “I do so wish I knew what I was waiting for.”

The diminutive Drake whirled in the air, his colors brightening as he gamboled above the ground. “Perhaps it is an adventure! All adventures wait to happen!”

Taeliun perked up, her eyes getting a sparkle of mischief. “I do so hope it is! I shall wait for it!”

For the next while she and her companion waited eagerly, and quietly. It wouldn’t do to startle the adventure into running off before it started. Birds flitted from tree to tree in colors of brown and green, and red and yellow, and orange and black. Each melodius whistle and chirp felt like a premonition of excitement to Taeliun as she cast her eyes everywhere looking for the adventure. Finally she slumped back down on the tree root once more and sighed.

“I suspect it is not an adventure. Adventures must be what one goes looking for, not waiting for.”

The Drake whirled again, flitting a quick circle about her head, and stopping to hove mischieviously in front of her once again. “Maybe adventure is something that needs to be looked for. I shall think more about it.” Siki’ek settled with a quick whoosh of wings next to Taeliun. “Perhaps it must be something else we are waiting for.”

“You do not have to wait with me, Siki’ek, Mother did not ask you to wait.”

The little Drake scoffed and huffed and fluttered his wings. “Whyfor should I not wait? You are waiting, I can wait also.” He gave a dragonly smile of iridescent good cheer. “If I do not wait, I will miss what you are waiting for. It is much more fun to wait with another than adventure alone.”

Taeliun smiled and Siki’ek bounded off the ground, bright colors dancing as he noodled about once more in the air in front of her. “I wonder what it is we are waiting for, Taeliun. Whatever it is, it is certainly taking its own time getting here.”

He settled on the ground and resumed his waiting along with Taeliun’s. Over the next while of aniticipation the observed deer of brown and white pick carefully through the trees; small brown rabbits scampered about, nibbling plants. They froze mometarily when the birds squawked loudly. The sped off in a blur of brown just before a fox in soft orange appeared just where the rabbits had been.

It sniffed the ground, casting back and forth slowly, then began trotting the direction the rabbits had sped off. Taeliun wished them well. A hungry fox was a fast fox, and rabbits were smart to be elsewhere when one searched for food. Siki’ek lept into the air, startling the fox, which vanished into the low growth in an instant. The two friends gazed at each other, smiling and Siki’ek once more dropped from the sky to sit next to Taeliun.

A leaf chose that moment to drop from the lofty branch it clung to. It’s fluttering descent captivated both companions as the light breeze flipped it, spun it in a circle then lifted it higher in the air before finally allowing it to tumble to the ground. The breeze played with it, and rolled the leaf onto its edge and then over onto its back, finally laying flat against the ground. The breeze tried to lift it once more but now the leaf clung stubbornly to the ground and refused to move.

The little Drake pounced on the leaf, grasping it by its stem and leapt into the air, flying near the tops of the trees and releasing the leaf to begin fluttering back down once more towards the waiting earth. “It’s fun to chase, but slower than dragonflies. Flying bugs are easier to catch than it. They don’t bounce around as much.” Siki’ek swooped at the leaf which the breeze flipped into a roll, causing the Drake to undershoot. He rowed at the air, wings buzzing determinedly for altitude, then he flattened out and dove, snapping up a butterfly before returning to attack the leaf.

“I wonder when waiting is going to be over. Today has been fun, but I do not want to stay here after dark.” She remained properly proper sitting on the root as the leaf fluttered once more to earth. Siki’ek remained in the air chasing moths and butterflies for a snack. Seeing the little Drake eat reminded Taeliun that she had not eaten anything since setting out to do as Mother asked.

“Perhaps,” said the tiny Drake thoughtfully, “Perhaps what was to happen, did happen?”

“What do you mean?”

The Drake settled on Taeliun’s knee for a moment, then flitted up to eye level.

“Perhaps it was to find what we could wait for?”

Taeliun frowned and gazed at the iridescent creature. “What do you mean?”

“Did your Mother tell you what to wait for?”

“No, she did not. She only said I’d know when it happened.”

“Maybe that was what happened.”

“I am very confused, Siki’ek. Why are you saying something happened? All we saw were bugs, and sky, and clouds, and rabbits, and birds, and foxes, and deer” she said in frustration.

“Because that was what happened.”

She glared at Siki’ek, and as she opened her mouth, it closed again just as quickly.

“We were supposed to see all that?”

“Yes, Taeliun! We saw what we were supposed to find! We saw it! We saw what happened!”

“But, if what was supposed to happen, did happen. Why was it not an adventure?” She pondered for a moment, then found herself getting caught up in the idea. “We saw the day happen, and it happened around us! No one else could see what we did!”

“Let’s go tell your Mother!” The Drake noodled in the air then darted straight for Taeliun’s home, darting and dodging between branches and leaves. Taeliun laughed and spread her wings. She buzzed after her friend and back toward home.