– 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.
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.
Devereux turned back to face Hope. “You’re certain?”
There was less hesitation from her Medical Officer this time.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”