( 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
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.