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.
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.