Elizabeth’s surprise mirrored what she saw reflected on the Captain’s face. It took only a moment for the implications of Gho’s announcement to sink in.
There’s been other ships out here before.
“Can you tell what type?” Devereux asked.
Gho’s uncertainty was evident when she shook her head again. “Not yet,” she said. “At least not for sure.”
The Captain looked toward the Tactical station with concern. Lieutenant Hawkes met get her glance squarely. Neither said a word, but Elizabeth was certain that some kind of communication had passed between them. She felt a twinge of jealousy at being left out.
Devereux turned to look at the main bridge displays.
“It will be difficult to detect slipstream events within the field,” Hawkes said aloud.
“I know,” Devereux replied, just barely loud enough to be heard. “Let’s hope it’s too dangerous for them to transition there.”
“That might explain the alloys,” Elizabeth offered.
Devereux looked at her thoughtfully.
“Do you want me to consult with Engineering?” Hawkes asked.
Elizabeth opened her mouth to answer, but Devereux cut her off.
“No,” she turned to Elizabeth. “I want you to,” she said. “Have them provide us with their best guess as soon as possible.” Her eyes held firmly onto Elizabeth’s. “Have them do the work. Keep it internal. We’ll inform the Chief, but he has enough to worry about at the moment without having manage that effort from a distance.”
Devereux looked away.
Elizabeth took a slow breath and then headed for the main Science station to ask Gho for her latest readings. Her mind was already working on the problem, thinking through which sensor readings to focus on and how to set up the simulations.
Stop, she told herself. That’s not your job any more.
She felt a muted sense of loss at no longer being in the middle of tasks like that. Stealing a quick glance at Devereux, she wondered how the Captain managed it. She had seen the Captain on the deck, smeared with grime and lubricants, trying to repair a damaged console.
But that had been under battle conditions, with everyone else trying to keep the ship in one piece.
Sure, Elizabeth knew, the Captain got to make all of the important decisions. That was her job. Except when that kind of direct action was needed, though, it was starting to look like Captain’s job consisted of a lot of mindless paperwork—at least that which she did not foist off on her First Officer. Elizabeth began to wonder in earnest whether someday having a command of her own was what she really wanted.
Maybe having your own command isn’t everything it’s hyped up to be . . .
Elizabeth checked the Engineering duty roster and saw that the Chief had left Sanderson in charge. He was coming off duty, though, so she sent the orders to Aruna, who would be taking over the shift in less than thirty minutes. She included a copy of the sensor data, and then had to stop herself from annotating it with her own recommendations.
How does the Captain do it?
Devereux was thorough when she needed to be, Elizabeth recognized, but she never micro-managed her crew. She depended on them each to do their jobs, and assumed that they knew how do them. Elizabeth wondered if she could ever achieve that level of confidence and comfort with her colleagues.
You’d better, she warned herself. Or you’ll have the next crew in the fleet to mutiny.
As serious as the thought was, the relative absurdity of it brought a small smile to her face. It made her feel a little better about the entire situation. Looking down at her tablet, she studied the next set of requests coming in from various departments throughout the ship.
Rusty checked and double-checked that everyone’s safety lines were secure, including those attached to the equipment.
No one’s floating off into space on my watch . . .
With the slow speed that they would be traveling, along with redundant locator beacons built into their suits, there was little risk of losing anyone for more than a short time. Still, he was not taking any chances with the microgravity pockets. The last thing he needed was a member of his team smashing against one of the asteroids, becoming a new organic puddle on its surface. Remembering the spectrochemical analysis he had skimmed, and its reports of detecting organic matter, Rusty wondered whether his was the first team to explore this debris field.
“Great,” he murmured. “I finally get to make first contact and it’s probably alien road kill.”
“What was that, Chief?” Tsu-tao asked.
“Check,” Rusty called aloud into the suit radio.
“Check,” came Ferahim crisp response.
Tsu-tao’s sounded an instant later. “Check, Chief.”
Rusty smirked, knowing the young engineer was disappointed at missing his remark. He started to reach for Jeffries when the older man’s voice sounded in his helmet.
“Um . . . check.”
Rusty rolled his eyes, even knowing no one else could see it, wondering if it was too late to leave the old geologist back on the ship.
“Directional sensors on,” he said instead, keeping his opinions to himself for the moment. “Triangulate on that large fragment at zero-zero-four. Mark.”
“Mark,” Ferahim and Tsu-tao reported, almost in unison.
Rusty opened his mouth to prompt the geologist, but Jeffries responded an instant later.
“Okay then,” Rusty announced. “Four-second thruster burst, and then let’s find a nice little spot for our picnic.” He paused, checking to make certain that his fingers were poised over the correct controls. He knew the suit by touch, but also knew that one does not take chances in open space.
“On my mark,” he told the others. “Three . . . two . . . one. Mark.”
He felt more than heard the tiny suit thrusters fire. Their surroundings moved past them just a little bit faster, gaining speed with each second of thrust.
“. . . two . . . one. Disengage!”
For a moment, Rusty felt as though he was drifting as the acceleration provided by the thrusters ceased. He checked the directional sensor on his wrist and saw that his vector was correct. It also showed four points in close alignment. He turned his head to verify that, and was encouraged to see that both Ferahim and Jeffries were right there with him.
Okay, he considered with some relief. This just might work.
“Okay,” he said peering ahead and then verifying what his eyes told him with the scanner. “Let’s head for that large fragment. It’s as good a place as any to set up camp.”
“Yes, sir,” Ferahim acknowledged promptly.
“Okay,” Jeffries responded in something twhat almost sounded like an unenthusiastic mumble.
Damned scientist types . . .
“Which side, sir?” Tsu-tao asked.
Rusty peered ahead, trying to make out some detail on the fragment’s surface despite the distance.
“Aim for that dark spot,” Rusty replied. “Toward the port side. See it?”
“Good,” Rusty responded with grin. “If we’re lucky, it’s a pool with deck-side bar service.”
Someone snickered. Rusty was pretty sure that it was not Jeffries.
“One second burst,” the Chief Engineer’s voice came over the speaker. “Adjust your heading starboard three degrees. Confirm.”
Three confirmations overlapped, creating an odd-sounding echo over the communications channel.
“On my mark.” There was a momentary pause before the Chief Engineer spoke again. “Mark.”
A burst of noise like static washed across the speakers as the four team members fired their thrusters, followed by silence.
“Perfect,” the Chief Engineer said. “Stand by for surface contact in twelve seconds.”
Devereux’s eyes turned toward the locator grid, seeing a tight quartet of signals moving toward an outline that represented the large fragment that was the team’s target. Her gaze moved toward the center bridge display. Sharp-edged shadows revealed the raw ridges of the shattered rock as the spotlights from the team member’s helmets shone on it.
“. . . eight . . . seven . . . six . . .”
The granular surface of the fragment became more visible as four beams converged on it.
“. . . five . . . four . . . three . . .”
The image was a wash of light, now too bright to make out the details.
“. . . two . . . one . . . contact!”
A series of Ddiscordant sounds issued from the speakers. Devereux guessed that it came from loose pieces of the asteroid’s surface shifting beneath the team’s boots.
“Emerald Flight,” the Chief Engineer said. “I don’t know if the Eagle has landed, but we have. All team members accounted for.”
Devereux chuckled at the Chief’s announcement, allowing herself a small smile as she joined in the scattered applause that sounded from around the bridge. Neither Hawkes nor Hope, she noticed, participated. She did not find that unsurprising.
“Nice work, Chief,” she called out. “Now be careful out there.”
“Yes, Mom,” Rusty muttered.
Devereux was tempted to roll her eyes, but settled for the mental equivalent. The Chief knew perfectly well that the comm channel remained open. She saw Elizabeth shake her head, amused but trying to hide it as well, as she moved toward the primary Science station.
“Anything new on the sensors?” Her First Officer asked Gho.
The oriental Science officer shook her head, causing her dark, chin-length hair to brush against her cheeks. “Nothing yet,” she reported. “They’re just setting up the equipment now.”
Gho frowned thoughtfully for a moment. “Maybe eight or nine minutes.”
“Okay,” Elizabeth responded, noddeding slowly in acknowledgment. as Sshe made a notation on her tablet.
Devereux glanced toward the Tactical console and saw Hawkes busy at his station. There was nothing currently threatening about this situation, at least from a tactical standpoint. She wondered just what it was that he found to do. It was not something she worried over, though.
He’s always doing something, she mused. But then he’s never been one to waste energy on pointless tasks. She fought back most of a smile. Probably torturing the weapons teams with timed readiness drills again.
“I guess we should take some samples or something,” Rusty’s said over the speakers. “How ‘bout over here, Doctor?”
Devereux automatically glanced toward Hope, stopping herself as she realized that the Chief was addressing the geologist, not her Medical Officer.
An unintelligible noise came over the comm channel. Devereux guessed it was Jeffries thinking over the Chief’s question.
“About two meters behind you and to the right, I think,” the geologist finally answered.
“Whatever you say, Doc.” There was a short burst of muffled sound. “You heard the man,” Rusty called out. “Time to unpack our toys.”
The communications of the EVA team settled into routine conversation as they unpacked and assembled the sampling equipment. Hawkes continued to monitor it as he resumed his other tasks. At the First Officer’s request, he assigned a member of his team to assist with the preparation of the shuttle. The security risk was low, but he silently commended the First Officer for electing to have one of his officers present.
The shuttle normally carried only basic emergency supplies. They might be sufficient to stabilize a badly injured crewmember until they could return to the ship, but it was not intended to deal with major or traumatic injuries. Although almost all mission teams included a qualified medic, there were simply some medical situations that required the skills of a fully-trained physician and a well-stocked infirmary.
“That should do it,” the Chief Engineer’s voice sounded clearly through the speakers. “Right, Doc of the Rocks?”
There was garbled noise before Jeffries responded. Hawkes guessed that it was the geology specialist expressing his disapproval of the Chief Engineer’s sobriquet.
“One second,” Jeffries said. “Let me check something.” Several seconds passed before he spoke again. “Yes,” he announced finally. “That should do it now.”
“Ready whenever you are, Doc.”
“Engaging the core drill now,” Jeffries said. “We should start getting readings in a few moments.”
Several moments of relative quiet passed before Tsu-tao reported, “It’s transmitting the data now, Chief.”
“Bridge?” the Chief Engineer queried them. “Are you receiving this?”
Devereux looked toward Lieutenant Gho. The Lieutenant tapped several controls on her console and then nodded in confirmation.
“Yes, Captain,” she reported. “We’re receiving data telemetry from drill sensors.”
The young Science officer studied the displays on her console for several seconds before answering. “Nothing particularly strange that I can make out,” she finally replied. “The few unusual elements we detected seem to be only at the surface layer. The rest of the core seems to be pretty much you’d expect from a fragment like this.”
Devereux appeared mildly disappointed by the news. Hawkes found the results hardly surprising. Despite their anomalous location in space, there was been no indications so far that there was anything extraordinary about the asteroid fragments. Rather than feeling disappointment, Hawkes experienced relief that nothing dangerously unusual, and therefore potentially hostile, had been discovered.
“Have you managed to get any new readings past the interference in the field?” Devereux was asking Gho.
Gho shook her head. “No, Captain,” she replied. “There haven’t been any more weakening of the field interference.”
Devereux nodded her understanding, but looked unhappy about the report.
“Chief,” she said. “You brought along the short-range telescope, right?”
The telescope was small and lightweight, approximately the length of an average person’s arm and about twice that diameter. It was designed to be easily carried and operated by personnel while outside their ship. The trade-off in mass meant that it carried almost no automated systems and had to be adjusted manually. What it saw through its lenses would actually be transmitted using the comm system built into the suit of the person operating it, connected via a physical cable.
“Sure thing, Cap’n,” the Chief Engineer replied. “They’re just finished setting it up now. What do you need?”
“Can you aim it toward the center of the interference field and then give us a live feed?”
“Tsu?” the Chief asked. “Can we?”
“No problem, Chief,” the ensign replied. “We’ll need another three or four minutes.”
“You have two,” the Chief told him.
Hawkes was surprised and impressed by the Chief Engineer’s attempt to drive his team to higher levels of performance. It was atypical behavior for the Chief. Considering the Chief’s recent spell of unusual behavior, even given the Chief Engineer’s history of questionable conduct, Hawkes considered questioned whether the Captain and Medical Officer had been prudent in allowing him to lead this mission.
“We’re set here, Bridge,” the Chief announced a few minutes later. “Ready for some pretty pictures?”
“We’re ready here, Chief,” Devereux replied. “Lieutenant,” she said, addressing Pyrafox, “bring the feed up on Screen One.”
“Aye, Captain,” the helmsman acknowledged.
The locator grid faded from the screen, replaced by a slowly resolving image of an arc of the debris field. Its resolution was not as high as that that could be provided by the ship’s sensors could produce.
But at the moment, Hawkes considered, the ship’s sensors are providing nothing except for occasional fluctuations in the interference field.
There appeared to be nothing extraordinary in the images being transmitted from the telescope. Additional fragments, in a variety of sizes, were visible within the debris field. For the most part, they did not appear to be significantly different from those in other asteroid fields that Hawkes had visited in his lifetime. Although nothing they showed was remarkable, the fact that they could see anything at all was.
All eyes on the bridge turned toward the main bridge screens. The ship’s sensors had provided them with little but garbled data for the past several hours. Using a low-powered portable telescope, they now had an unobscured view of the phenomenon.
Perhaps now we will know, Hope thought.
“How’s that, Bridge?” the Chief Engineer asked.
The Captain quickly surveyed the expressions of the others on the bridge.
“Keep going,” the Captain instructed him. “Give us a full sweep of the area. We’ll let you know if we want you to go back.”
“Copy that,” the Chief Engineer replied. “You want a full souvenir album to commemorate your fun-filled journey through The Mysterious Asteroid Field of Doom.”
It took Hope a moment to reconcile the Chief Engineer’s statement with the cheery tone with which he delivered it. The name he had assigned to the phenomenon denoted serious danger; his recitation the manner in which he stated of it did not.
The image on the center screen moved very slowly, but noticeably, as the telescope tracked through the region of space that the Captain had indicated. There was nothing visible that hinted at the source of the interference field. It appeared, essentially, to be just another section of the asteroid debris field.
The Tactical Officer studied his own displays intently. His expression revealed puzzlement and a growing concern. Others members of the crew might not have noticed it, Hope suspected, except for perhaps the Captain.
“What is, Lieutenant?” the Captain asked, confirming Hope’s assessment of her abilities to understand her crew.
“I’m not certain, Captain,” the Tactical Officer said. His answer surprised Hope. The Tactical Officer rarely admitted to a lack of knowledge. “May I?” he requested, gesturing toward the main bridge displays.
The Captain nodded her approval.
“Chief,” the Tactical Officer called out. “Please redirect the telescope back to these coordinates.” His fingers moved across his console as he transmitted the data back to the team. “I believe there may be something of interest there.”
“Got it, Lieutenant,” Tsu-tao reported. “Adjusting the angle now.”
The image on the center screen moved more quickly, giving the illusion that the vessel was spinning to starboard. After several moments, the scene steadied. Positioned almost directly in its center was an irregularly-shaped object, probably smaller than the asteroid fragment on which the EVA team was now standing.
“Congratulations, Lieutenant,” the Chief Engineer said. “You’re discovered another rock. Do you want us to name it after you?”
“That will not be necessary,” the Tactical Officer replied icily. There was a momentary pause while he reinforced his composure. “Enhance by a factor of ten, please.”
The image on the center screen grew larger, but revealed nothing of obvious interest. It still appeared to be a rock fragment, although perhaps a more oddly shaped one than most.
“By another factor of ten, please.”
The screen shimmered and then displayed the even closer view of the fragment. Its details remained indistinct, looking more like an oversized dust mote than a chunk of rock.
“Can you augment the image?” the Tactical Officer asked.
“I might be able to at this end,” the Science Officer replied. “Let me see what the computer can do with it?” She tapped a few controls. “Chief?” she called over the comm channel. “Are you transmitting at maximum resolution?”
There was a momentary delay before the Chief Engineer answered. “Tsu says we are.”
“Okay,” the Science Officer acknowledged. “Stand by.”
For several moments, the image on the screen remained the same. Then, slowly, the computer extrapolated more information from the sensor data and updated the image. Edges gained definition. A collective hush fell over the bridge as details became more apparent.
“Chief,” the First Officer asked. “Are you seeing this?”
“Yeah . . .” the Chief Engineer answered in a hushed tone. “What in the name of Morris is it?”