– 1 –
“I don’t need to stay here,” Elizabeth protested, rising from the diagnostic bed. “I can . . .”
She gasped as pain stabbed across her shoulder and down along her left arm. The analgesic that Hope had given her had not taken full effect yet. With deliberate care, Elizabeth lowered herself back onto the bed. The pain subsided, but she still winced with the slightest movement of that arm.
“You will remain here.”
Elizabeth glared back at Hope, finding the Aerian physician’s dark alien eyes as unreadable as ever.
“Right,” Elizabeth conceded unhappily, and settled herself back to wait.
Hope studied Elizabeth for a moment. She said nothing, and then turned away to examine the readings on the diagnostic displays. Elizabeth wondered if she was thinking about running some additional tests. Hope had reported that the injuries to her shoulder were more painful than serious. With immediate treatment, she should recover almost completely within the next few days. Hope also maintained that she had not suffered any damage to her head. Elizabeth wanted to believe her, but her throbbing headache claimed otherwise.
Hope said nothing.
Turning back to Elizabeth, she said, “You are restricted to light duty.”
Elizabeth sagged against the thin cushions. “Does the Captain know?”
“I will inform her.”
“Do you have to?” Elizabeth sincerely hoped that had not come out with as much of a whine as it sounded.
Hope seemed puzzled by her question. “The Captain awaits my report.”
Elizabeth released a long, slow breath. “Great,” she murmured aloud. “Just . . . great.”
Hope turned back toward Elizabeth. “You will recover.”
“I know,” Elizabeth sighed. “But do you have to tell her how it happened?”
Still seeming perplexed by Elizabeth’s persistent questioning, Hope replied, “It is in the report.”
“All of it?”
Hope picked up and consulted the tablet. “Minor internal damage to the anterior—“
“Yeah, I got that part—” Elizabeth interrupted irritably.
“. . . improperly compensated change in equilibrium during competitive recreational athletic activity.”
Elizabeth was silent for a moment.
“That’s it?” she finally asked.
“Is information lacking?”
“What?” Elizabeth replied. She paused a moment with stunned surprise. he began to laugh out loud. “No! It’s fine the way it is.”
Elizabeth flexed her shoulder experimentally. It still hurt, but much less than it had a few minutes earlier. Enough time must have passed for the analgesic Hope had given her to take effect. Elizabeth dropped onto her feet from where she sat on the edge of the diagnostic bed and reached for her tunic.
“Thanks, Hope,” she said with renewed cheerfulness. “I’ll take it easy on it.”
Before the Aerian physician could respond, the Elizabeth strode toward the hatchway. She exited without looking back, certain that she left a confused Chief Medical Officer behind her.
Rusty shouted from the status panel just outside his office.
The ensign appeared from behind the adjacent bulkhead as if summoned by genie’s lamp. That was fitting, Rusty decided, considering where the young woman had been raised on Earth. Her Indian heritage was clearly evident in her dark hair and clipped English accent.
“Check out the flow regulators on the primary core power conduits.”
The engineering technician frowned, creating lines of worry on her dark-skinned features. “Is there a problem with them?”
“I don’t know yet,” Rusty replied quickly. “Just check ‘em out. Run full diags.”
Aruna failed to completely hide her skepticism, but she made no effort to object. Instead, she responded with a snappy, “Yes, sir,” and grabbed an equipment case from a nearby rack.
Rusty watched her depart for only a moment before he turned once again to survey the interior of the vast main Engineering Deck, searching for any sign of something amiss with one of the systems. He saw nothing. All of the diagnostic tests that his teams had run had also shown nothing wrong.
He ran his large hand through his short, sandy-blonde hair. Something felt vaguely wrong here, but he could not put his finger on it. It was an odd sort of premonition, even for him. Unlike most of his foresight, this lacked the dark presence that usually clung to them like a malevolent excretion. He had tried to dismiss it several times, but it returned like a vague itch in his mind.
That’s exactly it, he decided. No matter how he tried to soothe it, he could never seem to hit exactly the right spot.
“Xi!” he called out.
The young crew member’s response was not nearly as prompt as Aruna’s had been, but was every bit as enthusiastic.
“Inspect the primary power junction at sixteen forward.”
“Um, sir?” Xi inquired hesitantly, his brown eyes blinking quickly.
“What is it?”
“We checked those conduits yesterday.”
Rusty stared at the oriental crewman. “So?”
Xi swallowed, hard.
“Check them again,” Rusty instructed him deliberately.
“Yes, sir,” Xi acquiesced, appearing properly abashed.
Rusty shook his head slowly as the technician departed. It felt like some kind of absurd scavenger hunt, but one where he was forced to find the hidden treasure by searching places at random and without any clues to aid him.
Luckily, he considered with some relief, no one has asked me why.
His gaze explored the upper deck of the Engineering section.
That’s a good thing, he decided. Because I don’t have an answer for them . . . yet.
“Captain, this is the bridge.”
Devereux’s eyes narrowed. She glared at the intercom as her Tactical Officer’s faintly accented voice came over its speaker.
This had better be good. If he’s just calling to report a drop in the drill response times, I’ll have him on sanitation maintenance for a month.
Without slowing her pace, she reached over and tapped the control on the bulkhead in front of her.
“Captain,” Hawkes replied. “Our long-range gravitational sensors are picking up a series of small objects to starboard just at the range of our instruments.”
Devereux frowned. Based on the summary of the area she had reviewed earlier, they should not be detecting anything more than random space dust in this region.
“Impossible to confirm at this distance, Captain.”
“How long will we be in sensor range?”
There was a brief pause before Hawkes answered. Devereux guessed that he was checking with Pyrafox at the helm or the officer at the main Science station.
“For approximately twenty-two more minutes.”
Devereux considered this for a moment. Something currently just at the range of their sensors would mean a significant change in their planned course if they decided to investigate it.
It’s not as though anyone is expecting us to be anywhere any time soon. Still, she thought, we can make the time up easily, if we need to.
“Maintain current course and speed for now,” she ordered them. “I’m on my way.”
She took a cautious sniff of herself as she stopped the treadmill and jumped from its platform. While her personal aroma could hardly be mistaken for a field of flowers, she did not believe that anyone would find it to be overwhelmingly offensive, at least for a short period of time. In any case, she did not have enough time to shower and make it to the bridge before the anomaly slipped out of sensor range.
When she arrived on the bridge, she found Hawkes standing near the helm console. The left of the three main bridge displays showed a computer-enhanced image of the data being captured by the starboard long-range sensor array.
“Still no better guess?” she asked as she moved toward them.
She saw Pyrafox’s vulpine nose wrinkle as she approached. She ignored him even as her cheeks tingled with mild embarrassment. Offering him a silent apology, she slowed to a stop, leaving more distance between them than she had originally planned.
“No, Captain,” Hawkes reported. “But there is definitely mass of some kind out there.”
“Nothing on any the charts?”
“No, sir,” the helmsman responded. “But this area has only been very lightly explored.”
“What’s our ETA if we alter course?”
“We should be within nominal sensor range in eighty-six minutes at maximum cruising speed,” Hawkes reported. “Our readings should improve significantly at that point.”
Devereux frowned, trying to make sense out of the false-color images on the screen. Nothing about their patterns looked familiar. Her intuition, she noted, was not screaming for attention. It only niggled at her quietly, but then it often did that whenever it encountered anything new and unknown.
“Helm,” Devereux announced. “Change our course to intercept.”
“Aye, Captain,” Pyrafox responded.
His fingers danced over his console. Devereux heard the faint click-click of his claws as they moved across its surface.
“Course change completed, Captain.”
There was another audible sniff from the direction of the helm station. Devereux managed to suppress most of a smile.
“Lieutenant Hawkes,” she said, turning to the Tactical Officer. “You have the bridge—again. I’ll be back shortly.”
Devereux turned and headed for the main hatchway that led off the bridge. She was not certain, but she thought she heard Pyrafox breathe a faint sigh of relief at her departure.
The next time we’re caught in a rainstorm on some distant planet, I’ll remember that, Lieutenant, Devereux thought with wry amusement. Once out in the corridor, she permitted herself a quiet chuckle as she headed back to her quarters.
Hawkes watched the Captain leave the bridge, and then tapped into the sensor feed from the main Science station. It was not that he doubted the competence of the young ensign who monitored it. He was, actually, intrigued by the unexpected sensor contact.
There was a reason that this area of space had only been lightly explored. Until now, nothing of any astronomical or strategic importance had ever been reported here. It was of so little interest that no side in the current conflict had expressed even the smallest claim to it.
That, of course, could change.
Even though their sensors detected no other vessels in the immediate area, Hawkes was certain that they were being monitored in some fashion. If their survey of the anomalous objects turned up anything interesting, this previously neglected region of space might become a focus of great attention.
Hawkes brought up the updated chart for this area of space on one of his tactical displays. What he saw did not surprise him: the region was essentially empty space for several light years in all directions. Without any large astronomical bodies present to create hazardous gravitational effects, incoming vessels could approach from any direction. It would a difficult region to defend and manage from a tactical standpoint.
Not impossible, Hawkes noted. Just . . . difficult.
One advantage of this situation was, should they need to retreat quickly—assuming they were given enough time to bring the slipstream drive cores properly online—they could do with relative ease. The lack of any significant gravitational fields meant any direction out from the fighting would be a good one. Their escape would be dependent on the positions of any enemy ships, rather than the locations of immovable celestial bodies.
Hawkes checked the chronometer display, comparing it against his internal time sense. Assuming that she followed her usual routine, the Captain would return to the bridge within the next ten minutes, having stopped at the galley along the way to obtain a low-fat cappuccino and processed protein bar. He had that long to update the readiness status of their weapons and defense systems.
It took him even less time than he had estimated. The changes in those systems were almost trivial since the report he had delivered at the beginning of his shift, almost not worth updating it for—almost. He filed the report in his duty log and then submitted it for the Captain’s review.
Checking the chronometer display on his station one more time, he performed a quick mental calculation. There was time for one more battle alert drill before the Captain returned.
There’s was no telling what they might find ahead.
After making a few final notations on the Lieutenant Commander’s medical report, Hope approved it and then filed it. Checking her schedule, she confirmed that she had no appointments scheduled for the next several hours. She placed the diagnostic equipment in standby mode, returned the tablet to its designated storage place, and headed toward her private laboratory.
She felt a faint, almost imperceptible tingle as the security access panel tested her palm. A moment later, the door unlocked with a faint click and Hope pushed it open. The lights eased into full brightness as she entered the small chamber. It was cooler here than in other parts of the infirmary, adjusted to a temperature more comfortable to Aerian physiology. Hope tapped the door and it swung slowly closed.
Only one of the testing chambers appeared to be active. It status display emitted a soft blue glow. Hope nodded slightly, relieved to see that the analysis had completed successfully. Many of her earlier attempts had proven too fragile to survive even the primary testing process. The cryptic symbols displayed on the small screen would have been meaningless to almost anyone else aboard this vessel—at least to those lacking her knowledge of genetics and the genomes with which she was working.
Her cautious optimism over the successful completion of the test was short lived. The samples had survived the testing process. They had not even mutated. They had, however, broken back down into simpler forms, hardly better than amoeba or algae. Their usefulness in a higher, intelligent form of life was limited at best.
Hope recorded the data to her archives and then sterilized the sample. It was of no further use to her—no more so than the hundreds that had preceded it. After making certain that the sample was neutralized and disposed of, she turned off the chamber. The glow emanating from its display panel faded into darkness.
I need older samples.
These latest samples that she had received from her home world, while centuries old, still contained too many of the genetic errors that were now threatening her people with extinction. No one had yet discovered original genetic sources from more than a few centuries ago. The degenerative process, it appeared, had begun further back even than that. What had caused it, no one seemed to know for certain.
The most widely held theory among the Aerian scientists was that it was the result of centuries upon centuries of small genetic errors creeping into the genome, increasing with each generation. Countless other theories abounded, ranging from the equally possible to the incredibly unlikely.
The Creators would know, she told herself. But the Creators are not here.
Even if the Creators did not know the answer, as unlikely as that seemed, they would, presumably, have the original genetic blueprints for each of the Aerian races. The flaw that faced them now affected all Aerians equally, although its effects differed with each race. Even with those differences, Hope knew, their extinction was inevitable.
Activating the holographic display, she studied the slowly rotating representation of the base Aerian genome. She had seen it uncounted times before. This time, as it had during all of those others, it revealed none of its secrets to her.