Elizabeth stared at the augmented image on the screen, trying to make sense of it. Although the object remained indistinct, it was clearly not a fragment of an obliterated asteroid. What it was, though, she had no idea.
“What do you make of that?” Devereux asked, directly her question primarily toward Hawkes.
“I’ve seen nothing like it before,” Hawkes replied. He studied his console, but made no further comments.
Devereux turned toward the Science station. “Anything?”
Gho consulted her console and then shook her head. “We’re still not reading it, Captain.”
“Is that what’s causing the interference?”
The Science officer tapped several controls on her station before lifting her hands away from it in frustrated surrender.
“I don’t know, Captain,” she sounding apologetic. “I can’t tell.” She gestured toward the main bridge displays. “It’s almost at the center of the interference field, so it might be.”
“Chief,” Devereux called over the open comm channel. “Can you zoom in any further?”
“All you like, Cap’n,” the Chief replied. “But I don’t think it’ll help you much.”
“Humor me,” Devereux said without rancor. “Give us another ten.”
A moment later, the screen was filled with the hazy image. As the Chief had warned them, it provided very little in the way of new information. Devereux turned toward the Science again, but Gho interrupted her before the Captain could speak.
“That’s the best the computer can do, Captain,” she stated. “There just isn’t enough data for it to extrapolate from.”
Devereux frowned, looking toward Hawkes and then at Elizabeth.
“Your assessment, Commander?”
Elizabeth fought not to let her surprise show.
“I think,” she said, hesitantly, trying to gather her thoughts into some organized fashion. “The Chief should go take a closer look.”
Devereux nodded slowly, giving her a faint smile. “I agree.” She tilted her head toward the main screens. “See to it.”
Elizabeth smiled back even as she swallowed hard.
“Chief,” she called out, trying to ignore the slight waver in her voice.
“Yep,” the Chief replied. “We’re still here. No one remembered to pack stuff for a coffee break.”
Elizabeth let the quip go unnoticed.
“Chief,” she repeated. “We need you to take a closer look at the object.”
“‘You’, meaning me, personally?” Even through the slight flattening effect of the comm channel, Elizabeth could tell that the Chief was toying with her.
She looked over at Devereux. The Captain waited patiently for Elizabeth to respond, giving her absolutely no indication of what she thought. Turning to face the main screens, Elizabeth studied the image, using those few moments to decide.
“You,” she answered aloud. “And a member of your team.”
In her mind’s eye, she could see the Chief’s smirk for having placed her in that spot fade as he considered his choices.
“All right then,” he agreed. There was a pause while he considered the situation. “Lieutenant,” he said, “we’re going for a nice romantic walk under the stars.” If Ferahim responded, it was obscured as the Chief continued. “Tsu,” he said. “Stay here with the professor and make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.”
“Yes, sir,” the engineer responded. Elizabeth could not tell solely by his tone over the comm channel whether he was disappointed or relieved.
Rusty stared out into the debris field. He could make out the object in the distance, although without any of the detail that the telescope had revealed.
Still, he had to admit to being intrigued by the mystery of the object. It was scrambling their sensors, which probably meant that it was hiding something. That was the part that worried him. When someone went to that kind of effort, it almost always meant they had something to hide. Sometimes it was only an effort to conceal pirated cargo behind a curtain of sensor static, but it always led to trouble.
“Check your tanks,” Rusty told Ferahim.
He verified the readings on his own. With a full charge, each suit should have enough air for at least twelve hours. They had been out for less than two.
“Air at eighty-six percent,” the attractive young Security officer replied. “All power systems are nominal.”
His own showed eighty-two percent, slightly less than he had hoped, but still within the expected range.
Must have been all that heavy lifting . . .
He moved over to inspect the safety lines for Tsu-Tao and Jeffries. He checked the fastenings, making doubly sure that Jefferies’ was secure.
Last thing we need is him floating off . . .
Tsu-tao, he knew, could handle himself. The ensign was a veteran of several EVA repair missions. He had not, Rusty recalled, enjoyed any of them, but he had done them. If Ferahim was having any issues, she was doing a superb job of hiding it.
“I’m thinking just our cameras and our portable sensors,” he said aloud. “That okay with you, Cap’n?”
There was a moment’s pause before the captain’s voice sounded in his helmet.
“Confirmed,” Devereux said. “Activate the data feeds before you head out.”
“Acknowledged,” Rusty replied.
He looked toward Ferahim and saw that she already had her sensor unit out. Rusty activated his own, waited until it was fully powered on, and then switched on its transmitter. A stream of data appeared along the lower edge of his helmet visor.
“Are you getting that, Bridge?”
“Affirmative,” Elizabeth replied. “Lieutenant, your . . . there it is.” There was a murmured conversation in the background before her voice returned. “We’re receiving data from both of you now, Chief.”
He looked up into the debris field again, peering at the position of their target.
“I don’t suppose anyone thought to bring a map?”
“‘X’ marks the spot, Chief,” Devereux remarked.
Rusty rolled his eyes.
Everyone’s a comedian . . .
“We’re sending you updated telemetry now, Chief,” Elizabeth reported. “Are you receiving it?”
Rusty checked his helmet display. The trio of location coordinates for the object changed slightly, just by a decimal place or two. Still, he knew it did not take much more than that to miss a target in deep space.
“I’ve got it,” he confirmed. “What about you, pretty lady?” she asked Ferahim.
“Updated coordinates received,” she replied, sounding disappointingly professional.
That old fossil really needs to lay off his poor people, Rusty observed silently, while trying to think of a snide remark to offer aloud to Hawkes.
Rusty checked the coordinates again, noting the distance and position of the mysterious object in their “sky”.
“I’m thinking a six-second initial thrust,” he mused aloud, not really caring if anyone agreed with him or not. “That should at least get us closer for some better readings.”
“Just keep it to a straight line,” Pryafox said. “We’re picking up some microgravity pockets along the periphery.”
“Just like bumper pool,” Rusty remarked.
In his mind, he could see both Devereux and Elizabeth reacting to that one: Devereux shaking her head and Elizabeth with wide-eyed dismay.
He turned to Ferahim. “Ready, Lieutenant?”
“Okay then,” Rusty said, taking a deep breath. “Six seconds. On my mark . . .”
The image being broadcast from the Chief’s helmet camera changed. The objects ahead of him, particularly the oddly shaped construction, increased in size as he moved closer.
“. . . six! Disengage thrusters.”
“Thrusters off,” Ferahim acknowledged. “Confirmed.”
The speed at which images grew larger steadied, now that he was traveling at a constant velocity.
“Are you seeing this, Bridge?”
“Affirmative, Chief,” Elizabeth replied.
Devereux glanced over at her with a quick smile. The young Commander glowed under the silent praise.
“It doesn’t look any prettier from out here,” the Chief reported. “I think I saw something like it in a museum once. I don’t remember which one.”
Devereux’s interest was piqued. The object, what they could make of it, did not look familiar to her at all. Although there was a remote chance of any connection, it might still reveal a clue to its origin.
“The Boston Museum of Science? The NASA museum? The Sagan Observatory?”
“No,” the Chief answered abruptly. “I remember now. It was the Toyota-Ford World Wrestling Arena.”
“What was it doing there?”
“A piece of their ceiling caved in.”
Devereux was certain that she heard Pyrafox snicker. She stared hard at the back of his red-furred head, but he did not turn around.
Rolling her eyes, she sighed and looked over at Elizabeth. To her credit, her First Officer’s expression displayed a very straight face. The tension of that corners of Elizabeth’s jaws, though, told Devereux how hard she was working to maintain it.
“I suppose we should start taking some readings now or something. Huh, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir,” Ferahim answered promptly.
Devereux’s eyed turned toward the main Science station. They were already receiving automatic telemetry from the suit, but not the detailed readings there were looking for. The Chief and Ferahim were still too far away to see anything that the telescope back on the large fragment had not already shown them.
Muffled sounds came over the comm channel as the pair detached and readied their portable scanners. Few of the words were clear, but Devereux was certain that at least a half dozen of the ones coming from the Chief’s suit radio would be considered profane in at least three cultures.
“Okay,” the Chief finally reported. “We’re ready. Transmitting now.”
“Bring them up on Screen Three, split screen,” Devereux instructed Gho.
The image flickered and then two almost identical computer-rendered images formed at the top and bottom of the bridge display. Each seemed filled with a thin haze, preventing any real details from being seen.
Devereux looked toward Gho, but the Science officer just shook her head.
“Can you adjust your resolution?” Elizabeth asked.
“You seem to think I know how to work this blasted thing . . .”
Devereux suppressed a slight smile. The Chief was determined to keep up the appearance of being just a overranked deckhand—despite the fact that he knew how to repair and operate nearly every piece of equipment aboard their ship.
“There,” he said, his voice crackling slightly. “I think I’ve got it.” His voice dropped and Devereux assumed that he was conferring with Ferahim. “Is that any better?”
Devereux studied the images on the screen. To her eyes, it looked about the same as before, perhaps even less defined. She turned her head to get Elizabeth’s and Gho’s opinion. Their expressions told her that they shared her appraisal.
“It actually looks worse, Chief,” she told him.
She Devereux had held no doubts about the profane content of his the Chief’s next words.
“Bridge,” Ferahim’s soft, lyrical tones sounded over the comm channel through a thin haze of static. “I have adjusted my scanner. Has the image improved?”
Devereux looked toward the far right bridge display, seeing that the ensign’s readings appeared on the lower half of the screen. It looked no different from the images being created from the Chief’s scanner.
“It’s not any better, Ensign,” Devereux replied. “Sorry.”
There was a short burst of sound that might have been profanity from the Chief again, but it was too garbled to tell for certain.
“Bridge,” the Chief said, a little more clearly, “we might . . . need you to . . .”
Muted hisses of noise swallowed the rest of his words.
“Chief,” Devereux said. “Repeat your message. We lost your transmission at the end there.”
“Bridge,” the Chief’s voice burst from the speakers, but it was awash in interference.
He is either shouting, or has boosted his signal gain. Perhaps both.
The Captain turned to Hawkes. “I want to see their positions.”
Hawkes tapped the necessary controls on his console. The locator grid on Screen One reappeared, showing the Chief’s and Ferahim’s positions.
“Their suits are still transmitting,” the Captain reported. Her relief was apparent.
“They function on a much higher wavelength,” Hawkes reminded her. “Due to the likelihood of just such a phenomenon.”
Devereux flashed him a tight-lipped look of irritation and then gestured for him to take over communications.
“Chief Rayna . . . Ensign Ferahim, please respond,” Hawkes called out calmly. “We are not receiving your signal clearly.”
Several spurts of static answered him, but nothing that sounded intelligible. Hawkes replayed the message through the communication filters, designed for such situations, but they produced only one or two barely understandable words.
Hawkes’ lifted his head to look at the main bridge displays. The images being transmitted from the helmet cameras, while not clear to begin with, now showed ragged flashes of false color from across the spectrum. His eyes turned toward the locator grid. It still showed bright dots that represented the Chief Engineer’s and Lieutenant Ferahim’s positions. As he watched, though, even those began to flicker in intensity.
“Chief Rayna, Ensign Ferahim, please respond on this frequency,” Hawkes called out calmly. “We are not receiving your audio signal.”
He was answered only by a steady hiss.
“Are you still getting medical telemetry?” Devereux asked, turning toward Hope.
Hawkes turned to look as well. He could see that her readings were now as erratic as the other signals.
“But they’re alive?” Devereux asked. Hawkes heard the urgent need for confirmation in her voice.
“They were,” Hope replied. “Readings are now unreliable.”
Devereux frowned, concern evident on all of her features. She stared at the trio of main screens, assessing the situation. Hawkes saw her make her decision. She turned calmly toward Elizabeth.
“Recall them,” she told her First Officer. “Send as much power through the comm grid as it can handle. See if you can punch a signal through.”
“Yes, Captain,” Elizabeth acknowledged, and began issuing the necessary orders to Engineering.
“Lieutenant,” the Captain turned back to Hawkes now. “Work with Lieutenant Gho to see if there are any communications frequencies that can penetrate that interference.”
“Yes, Captain,” Hawkes acknowledged the order swiftly.
He looked toward the main Science station. Everything in Gho’s body language betrayed her mounting anxiety.
She is young. Reassure her, he told himself. And then get to work.
He loaded a tablet with the data he needed and walked over to her.
“Lieutenant,” he approached her with detached calm, offering her the tablet. “Can you please verify these readings of the interference patterns of the field? I believe it would be more efficient for you to do so. It is not my area of expertise.”
Gho looked at Hawkes with unconcealed undisguised surprise, and then eyed the tablet warily caution. She accepted it, studying Hawkes’ expression. It, of course, revealed nothing more.
“I’ll get right on it, sir,” Gho answered diffidently.
“Please do so,” Hawkes said. “The Captain expects a prompt response.”
Gho swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
Hope manipulated the controls of the secondary Science console. Nothing she did, however, improved the integrity of the biostatistical data coming from the Chief Engineer’s and Security Lieutenant’s suits. Despite her efforts, the signals continued to degrade until the data they produced was meaningless. She had told the Captain the truth: the Chief Engineer and Security Lieutenant had been alive, and in nominal health, before the readings became distorted. She had no reason to believe that they did not still remain so. Still, she would have preferred intelligible readings that proved this to be true.
She looked at the Science station to see the Tactical Officer and Science Officer conferring, as the Captain had ordered them to. Turning toward the Captain, Hope saw in her solemn discussion with the First Officer. The Navigator’s attention, she noted, alternated between the images being displayed on the main screens and readings on his console. He remained tasked with keeping the vessel at its present coordinates. Of them all, Hope found that, with the remote life sign readings unavailable to her, she was only the one with no immediate function.
“Hope?” the Captain called to her, interrupting her silent assessment. Although mildly startling, she was relieved that her presence still appeared necessary.
She approached the Captain and First Officer.
The Captain looked at her thoughtfully. “How long can the Chief and Lieutenant Ferahim survive in the middle of that field?”
Hope glanced back toward the life sign monitors to see whether they might now be functioning. They were not: gGarbled data still filled their screens. She turned back to face the Captain.
“While their suits function.”
Devereux frowned in surprise. “So they shouldn’t be affected by the interference fields or gravity pockets?”
“Simulations report no significant effects.”
“What about their suits?”
Hope stared at the Captain in surprise.
Her simulations had revealed no serious detrimental effects on human physiology as a result of exposure to the microgravity fields. As the proper functioning of the space suits fell neither in her area of responsibility or knowledge, she had not included their integrity as a factor in the simulations.
“That was not simulated,” she admitted.
The Captain’s frown deepened. “But their suits should protect them?”
“If they function, yes.”
The Captain turned to the First Officer. “Get me someone from Engineering,” she ordered, the urgency clear in her tone. urgently “I want to know whether that interference field can scramble more than the communications systems of those suits.”
“Right away, Captain,” the First Officer replied. Her expression revealed her growing anxiety.
“Lieutenant Hawkes,” the Captain said, turning to addressing the Tactical Officer. “Any progress on finding us a workable frequency?”
“Not yet, Captain,” the Tactical Officer reported. “We have, however, started are testing athe first set of possible frequencies.” He paused a moment before continuing. “However, the interference spans a large range of the electromagnetic spectrum and is not stable within that range.”
The Captain’s bright green eyes darkened with frustration. “Send some of your people out onto the hull with handheld lasers, if you need to. We need to regain contact with our people.”
The Tactical Officer faced the Captain evenly. His expression revealed almost nothing of his surprise at her uncharacteristic outburst.
“We will consider that option, Captain.” He waited until the Captain turned away to confer once more with the Science Officer.
The Captain stalked the deck of the bridge like a caged animal. Hope waited, observing her carefully when she stopped at the Navigation station.
“Lieutenant,” the Captain said, speaking to the Navigator now. “Get a relief down here. I want you in the shuttle in case we need to go in after them.”
“Aye, Captain,” the Navigator responded swiftly. His excitement was clearly evident. ”I’ll—“.
“Emerald Flight, we are receiving your transmission.” The Security Lieutenant’s voice was barely audible above the background wash of interference. Her statement was clear, though.
Relief was evident in the expression of every member on the bridge crew.
“We’ve established contact, Captain,” the Tactical Officer reported. “Although I cannot guarantee how long it can be maintained.”
“Chief, Lieutenant,” Devereux called out, probably louder than was necessary, as if she hoped to penetrate the communications interference through the sheer strength of her voice alone. “What’s your status?”
Their first words were lost in a muted burst of static. It was unclear who had spoken them.
“. . . few meters from the . . .”
The rest of the response was washed away by a new wave of interference, Hope was certain that she heard distinct intonations indicating the Security Lieutenant’s voice. For several moments, nothing more was heard except for the irregularly pulsing hiss of the interference field.
“Bridge,” the Chief Engineer’s voice suddenly broke through. It sounded unusually subdued even through the muting effects of the interference. “I think we’ve gone and found ourselves an angel.”