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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.