Great News from Anne Azel
Anne is proud to announce that her anthology “America” is now available in print from PD Publishing. These are twelve positive stories about Americans and America that are filled with adventure, humour, romance and heart warming feeling. They are a great read for all.
More great News!
Are you enjoying the Dark Matter Series? The first five missions will be published by PD Publishing late in 2011.
Join the crew of the DMC!
This is a limited time offer. When the Dark Matter Command stories are published you can be listed in the book as a member of the support crew. Send your name or pen name to < firstname.lastname@example.org > There is limited space aboard The Explorer so email soon.
Bears with Sore Paws
Commodore Anna Cyborn had been as grumpy as a bear with a sore paw. Captain Justice Moshapa had just about had enough of her. He was a reasonable man. Everyone had their down days but Anna had been a misery to be with for well over six months now and something had to be done. The reason for Anna's mood, of course, was obvious. Jill Fairfax had been away for over six months. It was understood aboard The Mariner that Anna and Jill were an item. They thought they were being discrete but anyone with a pair of eyes could see that fireworks went off every time they were near each other. Justice contacted Anna and asked her to meet him at the Vostok Bar on Star Port Gagarin.
The bar wasn't very big but its booths allowed some privacy. It was where the residence of Garagrin hung out. Travellers and those new to the station gravitated to the more flash Galaxy Tavern with its panoramic view of open space. Those who had lived in the area for several years had seen all the empty space they wanted to. The cosy, interior of Vostok with its ancient and quaint photos and models of the early space program was more to the liking of seasoned space port dwellers. By the time Anna arrived, Justice had found a booth in a back corner, ordered drinks and was munching on biogenerated peanuts. Justice stood when Anna came over.
“Good evening, Commodore.”
Anna flopped down on the bench opposite Justice. “Shit. When you address me like that, I know to expect trouble. What is it now?”
Justice got straight to the point. Subtlety was wasted on Anna. “You.”
“You're so moody and quick tempered, the crew thinks you should be checked for rabbis.”
“It's what mad dogs and love sick Commodores get apparently.”
Anna blushed deeply. “I'm not that bad.”
“Yes, you are.”
“I miss her.”
“So do we all. You are driving us nuts.”
Anna fiddled with her glass. “It's not just Jill being on Gigantean taking engineering courses, it's the inactivity. I know we brought back a wealth of information on the Dark Angel, but I'm sick to death of debriefings, report writing and medical reviews. I don't do well in labs.”
Justice nodded. “I've wondered too why we've been sitting here on our asses all this time as well. Do you think Vice- Admiral Grover is freezing us out of the action?”
“I don't think so. Our orders come from higher up the chain of command now thanks to the Giganteans. They have supported us one hundred percent because of Toda. But the longer we stay here, the more chance of Grover finding some way of sticking it to me. He hates my guts. He really believes I'm a cyborg and shouldn't be in the International Space Command never mind commanding.”
“He's a biggot. You proved him wrong by completing two amazing missions.”
“Then way are we sitting here?”
“I don't know, Anna. I really don't.”
They nursed their drinks in silence for a while. Anna thought over what Justice had said. Captain Justice Moshapa was a man that she greatly respected and trusted Anna knew Justice was honest and open both in his praise and criticism.
“I'll try to be more patient and supportive.”
“We'd appreciate that. You know you have our support. I have to admit we're all feeling this inactivity. If they weren't going to reassign us they could've at least given us some shore leave.”
Anna nodded and looked at her glass moodily. “I don't understand why Jill went to Gigantean. I mean, I want her to get her degree, if that's what she wants, but she didn't have to go to Gigantean to do that.”
“Being invited to study on Gigantean is a great honour not offered to many. It is supposed to be a paradise for those interested in engineering.”
“Yes. Justice, do you think she'll come back?”
“It's a planet of giants. I think little Jill must feel very out of place there no matter what her talents in engineering.”
“She tells me she has issues that she needs to work out. Shouldn't she be working them out with my help?”
Justice shook his head. “Men don't understand women that well. Maybe you should talk to Eveen or Sue.”
“Aja heard that The Orion docked here this afternoon.”
Anna sat up straight and alert. “Admiral Ito's flag ship? Justice, maybe we'll get an assignment soon.”
“I hope so but it would be difficult. Our mother ship, The Explorer, is being refitted on Gigantean. Wiseman is on Space Port Andromeda doing research. You know when he gets with researchers he starts questioning whether he should stay aboard The Mariner. Then Jill is on Gigantean and you still haven't been given medical clearance.”
“There is nothing wrong with me. Grover is just trying to prove I'm unfit for duty because I'm an unreliable machine. The medical department assure me that eventually, he'll have to sign my clearance papers as they can find no reason why he shouldn't.”
“We'll still be short crew.”
“We'll have to borrow a few crewman from The Explorer that are still stationed here. I would prefer to have Carlos Garcia's Explorer at our back but any Galaxy class ship could get us where we need to go.”
Anna tried to sound indifferent. But the look on Justice face said it all. The crew didn't want to have to put up with her bad moods if Jill wasn't aboard. That's why Justice was having this talk with her. He knew that if Ito was here that they'd be heading out on a new mission soon.
“I'll be more patient.”
Justice just laughed.
At 10:00 hours, Anna was ordered to report to Vice-Admiral Bart Grover's office. Anna dashed to get into her dress uniform and head over to the Administration wing of Star Port Gagarin. There were no delays this time. She was led immediately into Vice-Admiral Grover's office. Grover wasn't there. Standing behind his desk was Admiral of the Fleet, Hideaki Ito.
Anna came to attention and saluted.
Ito did not return the salute. Instead, he turned his back and paced across the room before coming back to face Anna who had remained at attention.
“If I could, I'd court marshal you right here and now. Shit, Cyborn. You graduated top of your class, you've had a distinguished service record and have had several outstanding missions under your command. You are the youngest Commodore the ISC has ever had and what do you do? You have it off with some Midshipman under your command. It's a bloody shame, they outlawed the cat and nine tails a thousand years ago. Sit.”
Anne sat. She could feel the sweat on her back and her guts had formed an icy ball.
“The ISC needs the Giganteans on our side. We need their technology and we need their political clout. For some reason beyond my understanding, they fancy you. That, Commodore is the only thing between you remaining in the ISC instead of commanding a garbage scow headed out of this galaxy.”
“I'm prepared to resign my commission, Sir.”
“Shut up, Cyborn. I'll do the talking.”
“You're going on a mission. Try not to mess it up. Do you know what sort of advanced life form lived on planet Earth a billion years ago, Cyborn?”
“Not much, Sir. Maybe worms.”
Ito nodded. “Yes. Worms. The farther we go out into space the earlier the universe formed. At the very edge of our universe life might have formed a billion years before us. They could very well be a billion years more advanced than we are and when they look back at us we still must look no more advanced than worms.”
Ito pushed a file towards Anna. “There is a worm hole within a dark mass in sector 1284. All indications are that it is a link to the outer most reaches of the universe. We believe it will allow us to have a brief look at those on the edge of time. Just a brief look, Cyborn. We don't want to do anything to antagonize a specie that could be that advanced to ours. Just look over the cosmic fence and then get the hell out of there. Understood?”
“I don't need to tell you that being hurled across space/time at the best of times is dangerous. To be thrown across the entire universe could be deadly. You'll take a hand picked skeleton crew.”
“The Explorer has been refitted and is on its way back here as we speak. Your crew has all been notified to report for duty. You'll be shipping out in six weeks.”
“Midshipman Fairfax has resigned from the ISC. She has married into a Gigantean house. She will be aboard The Mariner as a civilian contracted to the DMC. Get out of here, Cyborn.”
Anna felt like she had been shot. She stumbled to her feet, saluted and grabbing the file folder, she swayed unsteadily to the door. Jill had resigned from the ISC and had married. Tears pricked at Anna's eyes.
Anna didn't remember how she got back to The Mariner. She half climbed and half fell down the conning tower ladder and ignoring everyone, she went straight to her cabin. She sat on the edge of her bunk and stared at the empty bunk across from her. She had thought they were in love. But it had just been a conquest for Jill and once she had got Anna, she'd backed off and found someone else. Anna's body heaved in huge sobs and she let the tears roll down her face. She'd lived through a lot of pain in her life but nothing like this.
Sometime later, Chief Petty Officer, Sue Lai, the ship's paramedic, slipped in to her cabin.
“Com? Forgive me for coming in without permission but the crew is worried. They could tell you were upset.”
“Jill? Is she okay?”
“She's left the ISC and married on Gigantean, Chief.”
“Admiral Ito just told me. He burned my ass about having a relationship with a Midshipman and then told me about Jill.”
“Shit.” Sue came over and put her arm around Anna. For a while, they just sat there. Anna grateful for the quiet and loyal support.
“We need Eveen.”
“Because she understands alien cultures a lot better than I do.” Sue got up and slipped from the cabin. In a few minutes, she was back with Sub-Lieutenant Barron Eveen. The two women sat on each side of Anna and held her hands.
“Tell me exactly what Admiral Ito said,” Eveen requested.
Anna repeated what Ito said word for word. “He said that, ‘Midshipman Fairfax has resigned from the ISC. She has married into a Gigantean house. She will be aboard The Mariner as a civilian contracted to the DMC.'”
“She married into a Gigantean house. That might not be as bad as it seems, Com. On Gigantean, you can be sort of adopted into a clan by a clan marriage. It doesn't mean you are married to any individual necessarily just to the clan. This might be Toda's way of protecting Jill. And by the sounds of it Jill will still be shipping out with us. She'll just be a civilian under contract.”
Anna grabbed at this small hope. “Do you think so?”
“I can't say for sure but that's what it sounds like to me. I know Jill would protect you with everything she has and if that meant quitting the ISC to do so, she would. What do you think, Sue?”
“This news is a real shock but I'm with Eveen on this. Jill, wouldn't walk out on you without talking to you. She just wouldn't. There has to be more to the story.”
“I just couldn't think. It was like a blow to all my senses.”
“Com, you're in love. Believe me I know how hard that can be.” Eveen gave an embarrassed laugh. They all smiled, recalling Eveen's first battle with love sickness on their last mission. She'd broken out in spots and had been moody and quick tempered.
“Is it that obvious,” Anna sniffed.
“Yes.” Both women said together.
“I'm making a fool of myself.”
“Love does that to everyone. No one is going to point fingers,” Sue stated. “Do you know when you'll see Jill again?”
Anna shook her head and got up. “It will be in this report, I imagine. I haven't looked at it. I was just too upset. I'd better do that. We have a mission. We'll need to get ready. Thanks, Ladies. I almost fell apart there.”
Eveen and Sue stood to take their leave. “We're here for you. The DMC is more than a team, it's a family,” Sue stated and the two women left.
Anna took a deep, ragged breath. She didn't know if Eveen's interpretation was right or not but she wanted to believe that Jill wouldn't deliberately hurt her. She'd have to hold her emotions together until she could talk to Jill. Then no matter what, they were going to have to establish some sort of a working relationship so that they could get this mission accomplished.
A few hours later, Anna met Justice in the infirmary that doubled on their small ship as a science lab and ready room.
Anna felt herself blush. “I was pretty upset by the interview I had with Admiral Ito. He really laid into me and then told me that Jill had quit the service and married into a Gigantean house. I thought... I reacted before I thought things out.”
“It will be okay, Anna. Jill loves you.”
Anna nodded but didn't feel as confident as she was trying to pretend. She hadn't heard from Jill in several weeks and she was worried. After all they hadn't spent a lot of time together and even before she left, Jill was sort of putting up barriers to their relationship developing. Anna wanted to believe that everything was okay but she just couldn't trust herself to do so.
Then there was Vice-Admiral Grover who probably fed information to Admiral Ito about her relationship with Jill. Up until now , she thought that Ito would protect her from any moves by Grover to get rid of her. She wasn't sure that was the case anymore. Ito was very angry about her relationship with Jill. He'd also made it pretty clear that he wasn't too happy that the Giganteans were using the DMC for their own agenda. The power politics of the ISC could end up exploding in Jill and her faces. It was just one more stress on their relationship.
Anna passed the file over to Justice. “There is a lot in here. We'll need Wiseman as soon as possible. He's been ordered to pick up a transport and be here in the next few days. When we're ready, we'll be heading to Sector 1284. That's not too far away. On The Explore, we should be able to get there in a month or so. The research ship Beagle, got readings of a vortex worm hole within a dark mass last year. Follow up research indicates that it ends near the edge of the universe. If so it is a rare opportunity to see the very edge of existence. It's a vortex not a tunnel so all we can do is follow it to the bottom, have a quick look and hopefully get back out again. It will take some pretty precise calculations and research to make sure that if we get in there we'll have enough power to get back out.”
“I thought vortex's were to be avoided at all costs. They're bottomless pits.”
Anna snorted. “Yeah. But we're the DMC. The scientists believe because this one doesn't seem to narrow too significantly that the centrifugal forces will not be great enough to hold us in there. The bottom seems to flatten out like it has hit a force field. Of course, all this research has been done with data gathered outside the dark matter so no one knows for sure.”
“Great, we're going into a space maelstrom and hoping that whatever stronger force that lies in the bottom will spit us back out.”
“That about covers it. We're not going to rush in there. We'll send in some of Toda and Jill's Minnow probes and see if we can get them back out with some readings before we commit to this mission. We'll have to proceed with great caution. ISC feels that it is entirely possible that a civilization a billion years more advance than ours might lie on the other side.”
Justice shook his head and smiled. “This mission is just full of surprises.”
“The Explorer has been refitted double time on Gigantean and should be back in operation in another four weeks. That will give us just two weeks to get the crews, The Mariner and The Explorer ready to ship out.”
“What about Jill and Toda?”
“They are to be aboard the Gigantean ship, Flarmorr. It will rendevous with us on the way to section 1284.”
“The Gigantean flag ship? Toda travels in style.”
Anna shrugged. “He is a Prince Royal, so they tell me.”
The weeks had gone by quickly for the others. For Anna they had dragged. Now nearly seven months after she had last seen Jill and six weeks since she'd heard anything from her, Anna was about to meet Jill again. The Explorer, twenty-two days into her mission had rendevous and docked with the giant Flarmorr. Anne stood alone at the air lock hatch. On the other side, Jill would be waiting in the access chamber. The door hissed as the air pressure adjusted. Anna, standing in her dress uniform, squared her shoulders and steeled herself for their meeting.
The door slid open and Anna stepped through closing the hatch behind her. Jill stood in front of her wearing an officer's uniform. She wore no rank but over her chest pocket she wore her service ribbons and her medal of valour. Above these a brass tag read:
Dark Matter Corps
Jill Toda Fairfax
Mission Specialist: Engineer
It was anger that Anna felt first, a defence against a wall of emotion that had been building for weeks. “What kind of damn getup is that? And what the hell does that mean?” Anna pointed to Jill's name tag.
“Anna, I haven't got time to go into this now. Toda and the senior officers of this ship are waiting to meet you. You need to understand that on Gigantean, you are a legend. They see you as everything they want to be, part hominoid and part machine. The Giganteans have strived to reach such perfection for years but their natural immune systems simple won't allow their bodies to except cybernetic implants.”
“I'm not a machine.”
“I know and Toda understands that but the Giganteans don't. Anna, I have to take you though into the Flarmorr in a few minutes. No matter what they say and do, you will have to be diplomatic and not lose your temper. You will need to treat Toda not as a junior officer but as a powerful member of the royal clan of Gigantean. Anna, this is important to the ISC, the DMC and me.”
“So just what rank are you that you give the orders now?”
“Anna, for God's sakes!”
“Why haven't you answered my communications?”
“The hatch is opening. Please Anna. I'll explain. I promise. Please cooperate.”
Anna stepped through with Jill behind her. The room beyond was huge and crowded with giant forms. Their soft melodic voice fell silent as Anna entered with Jill. Toda, waiting on the other side, snapped to attention and saluted and Anna did the same.
“Welcome aboard the Flarmorr, Commodore.”
“It's an honour and privilege, Prince Toda,” Anna responded.
“Commodore, might I introduce you to my clan father, King Keleg Toda. Your Majesty, this is Commodore, Anna Cyborn of the Dorbel Laboratories.”
Anger boiled inside Anna. Then she felt Jill's hand touch her back for just a second. What had Jill warned her? No matter what they say and do, you will have to be diplomatic and not lose your temper. She hoped the ISC appreciated this.
She bowed. “How do you do, Your Majesty.”
“My, look at you. Just look at you. You're perfect. The eyes. One would never know. Forgive me, I must touch you. Warm. Warm. You are indeed living and breathing.”
Anna stiffened. It was Toda who gently removed Keleg's hand. “I'm sorry, Clan-Father. Hominids from Earth do not like to be touched.”
“Ahhh, I see. Yet she is amazing. Such cybernetic perfection.”
“I'm clone-human. Only forty per cent of my being have been replaced by cybernetic adaptations.”
“Forty percent, clan members. We have never achieved anything over two per cent and then for only limited periods of time. You're systems are completely integrated?”
Anna felt the red of embarrassment creeping up her neck. She was not comfortable talking about her personal functions. Damn Toda and Jill anyway for putting her in a situation like this.
“Not completely, Sir. My body needs two spinal cords. One that runs the cybernetic impulses and one that runs my remaining biological functions. They do, however, work in sync together.”
“Fascinating. But I mustn't horde you all to myself. There are many engineers and scientists here tonight who have come all this way to see you. Please, let me introduce you around.”
The next five hours and thirty-eight minutes were a living hell for Anna. She was touched, asked the most personal questions and forced to recount the horror of her transformation. Ito had got even. He must have known what she would be facing when she docked with the Flarmorr and hadn't bothered to warn her. Emotionally drained and shaken, she finally stepped back through into the airlock with Jill and Toda and with relief watched the doors closed on the Gigantean ship and its host of adoring engineers and scientists.
“I'm sorry, Commodore. My people might have seemed rude to you. We have a very different world view than yours.”
“I understand. The ISC is grateful for the support of the Gigantean nation. Naturally, I was quite prepared to answer questions and explain my functions.”
Toda seemed to visible relax. “Thank you, Commodore, for being so understanding.”
Jill stood silently in the corner looking pale and stressed. She had remained behind Anna throughout the evening and had said next to nothing the whole time. There was a moment of awkward silence. Then Anna spoke. “I would appreciate it if as little as possible was said aboard The Mariner or The Explorer about this social evening. I prefer among my own people to be viewed as completely human.”
“Toda, Lt. Wiseman is anxious to discuss some issues with you in regard to our present mission. Crewm... Ms. Fairfax, I will need to see you in my Explorer ready room immediately.”
Anna stode off trying her best to look strong and in control when she felt anything but. The last five hours had been a total violation of her privacy and sense of being. She hadn't realized that the price of the Gigantean support was going to be so high. Ito had basically handed her over to the Gigantean world as a prize. Anna was well aware that Ito had a reputation of being fair but tough if crossed. Anna's relationship with Midshipman Fairfax had crossed the line and Ito had hung her out to dry.
The Explorer was now a beautiful and practical design. Anna had been assigned her own quarters and small ready room aboard that allowed her a lot more room and privacy than she could enjoy on the tiny Mariner. The Gigantean engineers had informed Anna that by next year, she would have the first of her new Cyborn class ships for the DMC. Anna was of mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it would be good to have a real ship instead of the converted probe from which The Mariner had been constructed. On the other, Anna felt a loyalty to The Mariner that made it hard for her to imagine exchanging her for a new vessel.
Anna placed her hand on the hand print recognition panel and the door to her ready room slid open. She went and stood behind her desk and turned to face Jill for the first time since they had met hours ago.
“That was an order.”
“I'm a civilian and you're lover.”
“You're under my command no matter what your status. As for being my lover I haven't seen you in seven months or heard from you in six weeks.”
“Are you going to let me explain or are you just going to judge?”
“I can't see how you can explain.”
“Then there is no point in me wasting my time standing here, Commodore. I'll be in engineering if you need me.” Jill turned on her heel and was gone before Anna could respond.
Anna sank into her chair and buried her face in her hands. That had gone all wrong.
Sometime later, she was interrupted from her gloomy thoughts by the short buzz and flash of a warning light that someone was at her ready room door. Anna sighed, got to her feet and gave the verbal command that would cause her door to side open.
It was Midshipman Aja Sur. He came to attention at her desk and saluted. Anna returned the salute.
“Please be seated Aja.” Anna sat down and so did Aja.
“Your reason for being here?”
“Commodore, I heard that you'll be spending some time over the next few days aboard The Flarmorr.”
Anne tried not to grimace. “Yes.”
“One of the scientists aboard, so I've been told, is called Glee Axaa.”
Anna searched her memory banks. “Yes, I was introduced to him.”
“Glee Axaa's grandfather was paramount in the clean environment movement on Gigantean. That role has passed from father to son. Glee is a true environmentalist and has done some of the first research on protecting the environments the ISC explores. Commodore, I would love the opportunity to talk to him.”
“Why didn't you ask Toda or Jill?”
Sur blushed. “I did. They told me that I had to go through you.”
“I see. They were right to do so. I see no reason why you shouldn't get this opportunity as long as Glee Axaa agrees. I'll make a formal request on your behalf.”
“Thank you, Com.”
“No, Com. Well, yes, there is.”
“And that is?”
“Commodore, are you aware that there is some mystic significance to the dark mass in sector 1284?”
“Mystic significance? What do you mean?”
Sur squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. “There are those that believe that a life force emits from there.”
Anne frowned. “There is nothing in any of the science surveys that indicates any energy force being given off from the dark matter in 1284.”
“Nothing that measuring devices can pick up, Com. I'm talking about a force that is spiritual and is felt by individuals who are spiritual conscious of such things.”
“Are you telling me that dark matter 1284 is a holy site to some culture?”
“No, no not that. Its just that, maybe it's a myth, but many believe that the area is special.”
“You think our exploration might be met with protests?”
“Perhaps, but I'm more concerned that we might go somewhere that we should not go.”
Anna kept silent. Religion, superstitions, myths, none of it made much sense to her. She only knew that it was best to show respect rather than offending those that believed.
Sur tried again. “You said that I could be the environmental conscience of the DMC. I guess I want you to be aware that this area is sensitive and that perhaps the DMC should be considering whether we should recommend that Dark Matter 1284 be a no go area for exploration.”
“I'm glad you made me aware of this, Aja. You do realize that we will have to gather data to base such a recommendation on?”
“In the mean time, I want you to gather any available information you can on the beliefs and myths associated with this area and be prepared to make a report to the crew. We will certainly keep your concerns and suggestions in mind when making any decisions.”
“Thank you, Com.”
Anna sighed. So far this mission just kept getting more complicated. Anne liked science. She didn't like issues.
The next morning, after a poor night's sleep, she found Jill waiting for her by the airlock.
“Toda, has already boarded the Flarmorr, Commodore. We'll meet the high council for brunch. I need to warn you that they will find it fascinating that you can eat. Your talk on cybernetic functions is at 1:00.”
They stood in silence a few seconds then Anna spoke.
“We got off on the wrong foot yesterday.”
“Yes. We were both very stressed. You from having to deal with the Giganteans and me because I feel very vulnerable with my new status.”
“We could talk later.”
“Yes. We'll see how the day goes.”
The air hatch hissed open and they entered, standing against opposite walls from each other. It was going to be a long day.
It was far more than a long day. It was a brutal day. When Anna lifted the first bite of food to her mouth, the large reception room went quiet and all the Gigantean stared at her while she chewed and swallowed. The food felt like a hard lump going down. It was only after Anna had taken several bites and a drink of her wine that the crowd eventually started to talk excitedly amongst themselves and to eat their own brunches. Even then, they continue to stare at Anna. It was pretty obvious that the talk at each table was about her.
Later, she discovered that the Giganteans had managed to get her spec sheets from Dorbel and wanted her to go through her transformation process with them. Anna obliged. She didn't have any choice but to be gracious but inside she was very angry at what she saw as a violation of her privacy and indirect approval of what Dorbel had done to her.
Her talk on cybernetic functions went better. She was able to talk objectively about various components and their applications and usefulness without directly referring to herself. At the end of her speech, she improvised. She hadn't meant to, it just all poured out from her soul and she couldn't stop it.
She told them about the pain and fear that she had felt as a child. Her loneliness and rejection. She talked about what Dorbel had planned for her and how she had no say over her body. Then she talked about her rescue and the years it had taken to learn to be comfortable with human society. She talked about the bigotry that she faced and how important the DMC was to her because they had become the family she never had. Lastly, she talked about the role Sue and Toda had played in saving her life on their last mission and the role Jill and Toda had played in developing equipment that proved vital to the success of several of their missions. She closed by emphasising that cooperation between Giganteans and humans made the impossible a reality. At the end, she stumbled to her chair. Totally, drained. The audience stood and pounded their chests chanting, Cyborn! Cyborn! Anna managed to stagger to her feet and acknowledge the cheer. Her head ached and she felt close to tears. Her concept of self felt beat up and abused. All she wanted to do was escape.
“Come on Anna, we can get out of here now.”
Anna heard the words but still stood there in shock. Jill, took her elbow and led her off the stage. Anna managed to get through the formal thank yous and good byes back stage and then Jill led her down the halls to the airlock.
“Hang on. I'll have you back in your quarters on the Explorer in no time.”
Once through the airlock, Jill stayed at Anna's side, as they made their way back to Anna's quarters.
Anna put her hand on the ID plate and entered once the door slid open. She made her way over to drop her notes on the dining room table and stood there for a few seconds letting the emotions she had so carefully repressed boil to the surface. With a shift movement, she heaved a glass dish across the room and it shattered against the wall.
“I'm not a machine!”
“No, you're not.”
“Those Giganteans are nuts.”
“No, they just have a very different world view than ours. They honour machinery and would like to be in harmony with it like they see you are. They have no history of fearing machines like we do on Earth.”
Tears started to roll down Anna's face. She sank to her knees and cried. Jill was there beside her, holding her and comforting her. “Every time, I think I've worked pass this and I've finally been accepted as a human being, something like this happens. That was so degrading.”
“By our world view, yes, but the Giganteans meant to honour you. They don't see you as a machine. They see you as an enhanced human being. Better than any others.”
“Is that why you were attracted to me because you love machinery?”
“No, silly. I fell in love with you because you are an amazing human being. Kind, sensitive, intelligent and brave. Not to mention very hot,” Jill added with a smile.
“I missed you. Why didn't you write?”
“It's a long story. Let's get out of these uncomfortable dress uniforms and into something more comfortable. Then we'll have a drink and I'll explain why. Okay?”
“Are we still lovers?”
“Lovers, yes, and now I hope we can become more than that.” Jill kissed Anna and helped her to her feet. “You go have a shower and change. I'll do the same and meet you back here in less than an hour. Okay?”
Anna nodded. “Okay.”
Anna stood under a hot mist shower going well over her allotted time and knowing it would mean cutting out a few showers over the next week. She just needed to wash away the last two days. Jill was right, of course, the Giganteans meant to honour her. Maybe now they had a better idea of the price she had paid as a child to be an enhanced human being. Some how it had felt good to let it all out and talk openly for the first time about those terrible years. Maybe in the end, however painful the experience, the Giganteans had helped her break through an emotional wall. Standing under the blow driers, Anna felt totally drained and exhausted. She slipped into her duty jumpsuit and flopped on the bed. She thought she'd just close her eyes and relax for a bit until Jill came.
A shudder ran through The Explore. Then the air vents closed and hatches sealed. Anna woke with a start. Something was terrible wrong. She looked at her watch. Shit! She'd been to sleep for seven hours. Jill must have come and gone. Anna rolled from bed and made for the door, stopping only long enough to grab a weapon and a breathing apparatus should they be needed. She checked the air pressure and quality in the hall outside her quarters and found it well within normal range. Then, she opened her door and stepped out into the hall closing the door behind her. Quickly, she made her way to the bridge, checking the air pressure at each hatch before opening it and sealing the hatch after her as she went. It took her nearly twenty minutes to make her way The Explorer's command deck.
Carlos Garcia was in his command seat flanked by his Number One, Jane Hamilton on his right and Justice Moshapa on his left. Jane went to stand but Anna waved her down and took the seat beside Justice.
It was Carlos who responded. “There's been a small explosion in Engineering. Minor injuries reported and no serious damage to the area. The area is in lock down while a sweep is being completed for any dangerous leakage. We've lost lateral navigation controls and have shut down propulsion.”
“Unknown at this time, Com.”
Anna wanted to go immediately down to Engineering. It was her way, but this was Carlos's ship and she wasn't about to undermined his authority. She wanted too, to ask if Jill was in Engineering but again, she remained silent. She did her best to maintain a calm, neutral expression and waited with the others.
The intercom crackled. “Captain Garcia, the sweep has shown no danger of leakage and our primary survey indicates that the damage is minor and easily repaired. We are in the process now of flushing the smoke and particles from the area. Request permission to lift shut down procedure and allow medical personnel to enter. ”
“Granted.” Carlos turned to Anna. “Commodre, request permission to send Jill Fairfax and Lt. Toda to the area to run an investigation with our chief Engineer, Lt. Alrik Erickson.”
Carlos turned to his communication panel. “Lt. Toda, Ms. Fairfax, report to Explore's Engineering immediately. Erickson, I'm sending Toda and Fairfax down to help you with a damage report.”
“Aye, aye, Sir.”
Anna breathed a quiet sigh of relief. At least she knew Jill was okay.
“I'm going down to Engineering to see for myself,” Carlos stated. “You are in command of the bridge, Number One.”
“Aye, aye, Sir.”
“Commodore Cyborn, would you care to join me?”
“I would.” Anna and Carlos left the bridge together and made their way down to Engineering.
“I'm at a loss to think of a cause for such an explosion in the navigational systems.” Carlos commented, once they were out of ear shot of the bridge crew. “Can you think of any, Anna?”
“It's unusual. A fire would be possible from a short but an explosion, even a small one, seems unlikely. That said, all ships have their unique situations. Ganobees, I've heard it called.”
“Little mischievous spirits that cause things to go wrong,” Carlos laughed. “You, Anna, are the last person I would have suspected of believing in such things.”
“In Ganobees, no, but in ships having unique issues, sure. Some call it structural variation syndrome, others Ganobees. It amounts to the same thing. Trouble and headaches for the crew.”
“I hear you. Lets hope this is the last of these issues.”
“The Explorer was redesigned and refitted in a hurry for this mission. Even Giganteans can make mistakes. I think, Carlos, you'll be lucky if this is the only issue you have.”
“Wonderful. I can tell, I'm really going to enjoy this mission.”
The now faint tang of smoke in the air, indicated they were close to Engineering. Unlike the Engineering compartment aboard The Mariner, The Explorer's engineering section was large, complex and multi-functional. It was divided into six areas covering, life support, navigation, propulsion, maintenance systems, tactical and weapon storage. At the moment, crew, their uniforms stained by oil and smoke hurried about bring order to the chaos the explosion had created.
Carlos stepped aside to let Anna go first. It was a courtesy to her rank but Anna showed her respect for Carlos by letting him question his crew.
“We're almost cleaned up here, Sir,” responded Lt. Erickson. “Lt. Toda and Jill are just doing the last of the repairs on the Nav systems. We should be up and running in a few minutes.”
“Good. Any idea of the cause of this mishap?”
“No Sir. We're speculating it was a friction spark or heat that caused the explosion but why that should happen is not clear.”
“Make it clear, Lt. Erickson. I need a ship I can trust.”
Anna looked over at Jill. She was dirty and sweaty like the others. She didn't look up from her work.
Carlos turned to leave waiting for Anna to go first. She did so reluctantly.
“Things rocky with you and Jill?”
“How did you know?”
“Word gets around. I heard Jill stormed out of your quarters the other day and last night you wouldn't let her into your quarters.” They walked down the now slightly sooty hallways working their way back to the bridge.
“Shit. I fell asleep. I didn't hear her.”
“Ohoh, Commodore, you are in level three trouble.”
“Flowers, wine, an expensive dinner, sincere apology and no sex until she forgives you.”
“Shit. I didn't know there were levels. What are the others?”
“It's a guy thing. Level one, is a cute smile with a “I messed up, I'm sorry.”
“Level two is, a sincere apology delivered with chocolates or roses.”
“Level four, is I still love you. Can we try seeing a counsellor? I want to change.”
“Level five, is when you come home and the furniture is gone, your bank account is empty and you kids call you daddy-asshole.”
“Yup, that about sums it up.”
Anna left Carlos to handle the fall out issues from the explosion in Engineering. She had greater problems of which to deal. Heading back to her quarters, she sent a message through to Jill.
Meet me in my ready room at 18:00. Commodore Cyborn.
A little blunt and cold but it guaranteed that Jill would come. She might be a civilian now but she was aboard a ISC vessel and was under the authority of the senior officer which was Anna. She ordered flowers for the ready room from hydroponics, wine for the Officer's mess and picked a selection of music that she knew Jill liked. She lowered the lighting and placed the ice bucket on the small table that sat between two chairs and commanded a small view out a port window of space.
Then she entered her own quarters and set up her dining table for two. She selected a meal that set her back considerable amounts in her food credit allotment. They'd start with a pheasant pate on fresh french bread. Then a salad of greens, old cheese, raisons, and walnuts. A tiny cone of lemon sherbert would follow to clean the pallet. The main course would be Beef Stroganoff and for dessert fresh strawberries and cream.
Anna showered and changed into to a clean jumpsuit. She was ready. There was no way she wanted this Level Three situation to escalate into a Level Four. Anna looked at her watch. Three quarters of an hour to go. She spent that time pacing.
At exactly 18:00 a warning light flashed to let her know someone was at the ready room door. Anna straightened her shoulders, swallowed the nervousness she was feeling and gave the open command.
Jill stepped in looking stressed and worried. She too had showered and changed but she was wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt. The door closed behind her.
“I messed up. I'm sorry. I took a shower, dressed, and lay down on my bed to wait for you and fell asleep. I didn't wake up until the explosion this morning. Can you forgive me?”
Jill relaxed and laughed. “I thought you'd had a change of heart about working things out. I cried myself to sleep.”
“Oh, Jill. Sweetheart.” Anna wrapped, Jill in her arms and held her close. “My heart belongs to you. Always.”
Jill reached up and kissed Anna's throat. Anna smiled and captured Jill's lips with her own. It was a gentle kiss. An apology given and accepted.
Anna stepped back. “Flowers,” she stated pointing them out where they sat in a vase on her desk. “I couldn't get roses. These are called red tulips. And wine. I have wine and I've ordered us the special dinner.”
Jill looked at Anna. “Flowers, wine, dinner, from where did these ideas come?”
“Carlos explained the levels to me and how I'd really messed up and so this was a level three situation.”
Anna poured two glassed of wine and held a chair for Jill to sit down.
“You know. Flowers, wine, an expensive dinner, sincere apology and no sex until you forgive me.”
Jill laughed. “I love Carlos!”
Anna, who was about to take a sip of her wine, spilt it down her front instead. “What?”
“Not in that way, Silly,” Jill choked out, as she wiped tears of laughter away from her eyes. “He's just so funny.”
“Anna, he was pulling your leg. There are no levels.” Jill got up and came and sat on Anna's lap, kissing her softly. “But the flowers, wine and dinner are a lovely gesture. How about we take the flowers and wine into your quarters, curl up on the couch and talk this whole things through.”
Anna hugged Jill close. “I'd like that. No levels?”
“I'm going to kill him.”
Jill took the wine bottle in one hand and pulled Anna to her feet with the other. “No, you're not. He gave you good advice even if he did set you up. Grab the flowers and glasses, Commodore, and lead the way.”
They curled up on the couch, Jill snuggled between Anna's legs her head resting on Anna chest. For a few minutes, they sipped their wine and listened to the music that Anna had put on. Then Jill filled Anna in on what had happened.
“I know you weren't too happy with me taking off to study on Gigantean but it was such a rare opportunity I didn't think I could pass it up.”
“No, I wasn't happy but I felt it was the right thing to do. You wanted to finish your degree. It was important to you so it was important to me. It was a wonderful opportunity.”
Jill bent her head to look up at Anna. “Thanks. Everything was going well. It was hard work but I was holding my own. My biggest problem was not getting stepped on. Most Giganteans are not in the habit of looking down for humans. Then Toda came to me a few months ago. His cousin had been at some reception and had over heard Grover giving Ito an ear full about you and me. Ito said that he was heading to Gigantean on a ISC matter the next month and he'd find out if there was any truth to the rumours that Grover had heard and if there was he'd have you out of the service.”
Anna hugged Jill. “If that was the cost, I was willing to pay it.”
“Well, I wasn't. I was in a state. Poor Toda. I think I gave him heart palpitations. It was his mother, Princess Mara Toda, who came up with the solution. Wait until you meet her, Anna. She's a very impressive woman. Seven feet tall and its all muscle. She was an architect and a commoner before marrying Prince Barna Toda, the heir to the Toda clan. She is very much the power behind the throne, believe me. She recognized me as an adopted daughter of the clan of Toda, then and there, and then ordered me to quit the ISC before going on a retreat to be trained in the ways of the clan.”
“She ordered you?”
“Things are different on Gigantean. So I had no time to contact you. I was carted off to a retreat to be trained as soon as I had sent my resignation to the ISC. She told me not to worry, that by the time I got back, she'd have made everything right.”
“Sounds like her power is hardly hidden behind the throne.”
“Hardly. I got back to discover I was a civilian attached under contract to the ISC. The uniform, by the way was her idea. She said, that from now on I had to act like my civilian status was equal to an officer's rank in the ISC. Do you really mind?”
“You've proven yourself as far as I'm concerned.”
Jill laughed. “You could be biassed. Anyway, I have no idea what she said to Ito but she really must have pulled his strings to get me assigned back to The Mariner with you.”
Anna grimaced. “I had a conversation with Ito before I left on this mission. Well, not really a conversation. It was more of a lecture. He gave me a real dressing down and told me if he had his way I'd be commanding a garbage scowl out of the universe.”
“Oh Anna, I'm so sorry.”
“He was right. I had no business getting involved with a Midshipman. I just didn't care. I love you. He told me that you'd quit the ISC and married into a Gigantean clan. I almost fell a part. Sue and Eveen sat me down and explained that it didn't necessarily mean you'd married an individual, that you probably just joined the clan. But when I didn't hear from you, well, I got myself in quite a knot.”
“I'm so sorry, Anna. I had no idea that you hadn't been informed of what was going on.”
“Ito is known to be a man that you don't want to cross.”
“Bastard. And then after all that stress, you had to run the gambit with the Giganteans. I know that was hell for you. I suspect it was Princess Mara Toda's idea. Payment for saving our relationship and careers, and of course, Admiral Ito would have been glad to support her plan to get back at you.”
Anna hugged Jill close. “It's over and we are together again. How do you feel about having to leave the ISC?”
“Mixed. On the one hand, I can be more open about our relationship now and I feel I'm more on an equal footing. On the other, I really wanted to do well in the DMC, and instead, I had to quit before I got thrown out.”
“I think you are wonderful. You already have made a name for yourself with the DMC and you will continue to do so. It's just your status has changed.”
“So what about this swanky dinner?”
“You're going to be impressed.”
Anna got up and went to a consol to buzz for their meal to be sent up from the ship's galley. Jill made herself comfortable in the corner of the couch curling her feet up under her. “I should wait for Erickson and Toda to hand in a report on the explosion but the bottom line is it didn't happen.”
“Nothing in Navigation exploded. The explosion was separate from the system and it caused the damage to the navigation systems.”
“A bomb you mean? Sabotage?”
“We're evenly divided. Erickson said it is virtually impossible for someone to get into that area without being noticed. Also there is no evidence of a bomb. Nothing. Toda feels that it very well could be sabotage but we just don't know how.”
“What do you think?”
“I have no opinion. This is well beyond my level of expertise. Toda will get to the bottom of it though. He won't give up until he figures it out.”
Anna sighed. “This is not good news. I've already had... That should be dinner. Come.”
The door slid open and a crew man wheeled in a trolley with their meal and then he quietly left.
“Let's eat. There is nothing we can do about this problem for the moment. Tell me about what you learned and saw on Gigantean.”
They had a lovely meal, at least by star ship standard, and Jill told Anna all about her studies and experiences. Then, Jill pulled Anna up to dance. They held each other close, Jill resting her head on Anna's shoulder.
Anna nuzzled Jill's ear. “I love you.”
Jill kissed Anna's waiting lips. “I love you too. Let's go to bed.”
Anna was only too willing.
They helped each other out of their clothes and fell into Anna's bed. Kissing and rubbing against each other. It had been a long time. They were both needy. Anna nuzzled Jill's throat while her fingers teased Jill's nibbles until they were hard with desire.
“Oh, that feels wonderful, Anna. Oh Anna.”
Anna had run a line of kisses down her lover's chest until she touched the wet hairs of Jill's desire. Her tongue felt Jill's clitoris now hard, swollen and sensitive teasing her gently before entering her. Jill cried out with release and Anna could feel on her finger's the after waves of desire that ran through the woman she loved. Then she moved up to kiss Jill's lips, sharing the taste of their love making while she rode Jill's raised leg, rubbing her own sex against it. The sensation brought her to a climax and left the cream of her own coming on Jill's leg.
Anna moved to hold Jill close. “Okay, Lover?”
“More than okay. Totally spent. Oh Anna, I've missed you so much.” They curled closed together. The sensation of being one again so intense that neither wanted to pull away until they were ready to make love again. In the early hours of the morning, they finally fell asleep spent with love making.
It was Anna's communication system that brought them groggily awake a few hours later. “Commodore Cyborn?”
“Here. Go ahead Lt. Toda.” Anna managed, blinking at the clock to see what time it was. 7:00 am.
“I have a theory, I wish to share with you and Jill. Are you available?”
Anna felt red spreading up her neck.
Jill laughed. “Hi Toda. Give us an hour and then join us for breakfast.”
“Shit!” Anna jumped from bed and started to pick up things.
“It's okay. You think nobody knows we are lovers?”
“I'm supposed be the Commodore of the DMC not some love sick woman shacked up with her girlfriend.”
“Even Commodore's get to enjoy their off duty hours. Come on, shower with me. It will save time.”
It didn't save time, of course, but they did manage to get presentable and have breakfast on the table when Toda arrived.
Toda came to attention and saluted. “Commodore.”
“As you were, Lieutenant. Join us for breakfast.”
“Thank you, Commodore. Hi Jill.”
“Hi Toda. What's up?”
“I think I have it worked out. I can't prove it, Commodore, but I think I can make a case for it being sabotage.”
Anna frowned. “Let's eat first and then you can give me a full report.”
Toda tucked into a large bowl of dry grains and nuts. Crunching happily. Anna and Jill opted for oatmeal and coffee.
They sat after with their second coffees and Toda's glass of Tadberry juice.
“I have to admit the idea came to me by a chance conversation I had with Lt. Erickson. He's assigned to Engineering although he really doesn't have empathy for the mechanical. He tries hard and has a good knowledge base, but he just doesn't sense the ship's moods.”
“To the point, Lieutenant.”
“Oh yes. Erickson had been down to sickbay because he had a tingling sensation in his toes. The doctor couldn't find anything wrong with him. Well, I suspected right away. So I asked him where he'd been working before going down to sick bay and he said he was over near the secondary fuel cells doing a diagnostic and that he was very lucky to have gotten out of there before the explosion. I sympathized although really he would have been quite safe. It wasn't that big an explosion.”
“There is an air vent directly over the Navigation terminal. Pure oxygen can make your toes tinkle.”
“So you think someone directed a flow of pure oxygen into the area and it caused the explosion.”
“Anyway to prove it?”
“No, Com. It could have just as easily been an accident but I had a talk to the ship and it was quite indignant. She definitely feels she was attacked.”
Anna managed to keep a neutral face. “I don't think ISC will accept your talk as evidence, Toda.”
“No, I don't suppose so. But Com, I'm sure it wasn't just an accident.”
Anna nodded. “I'm going to assume that there could be an element aboard The Explorer that is hostile to this mission. I'll brief the senior officers of your theory. I want you to keep this to yourself. If anyone asks, you don't know what went wrong. If we do have a saboteur on board, we don't want to alert him or her to the fact that we suspect anything. In the meantime, Toda, I want you to stay alert and spend as much time as you can in Engineering.”
“Aye, aye, Sir.”
Anna stood and Toda came to his feet.
“Thank you for your hard work. I'm taking what you said very seriously. Dismissed.”
Toda left after a little finger wave and smile at Jill.
“He had a talk to the ship?”
“Giganteans see mechanical things as a different type of life form. He meant he checked her gages, listened to her sounds and felt her pipes. You're going to take him seriously, I hope.”
“I'd be a fool not to. I need to see my senior officers.”
Jill got up. “I've got things to do. See you tonight, if you are free.” They kissed and Jill was gone.
An hour later, Anna sat with Captain Justice Moshapa, Captain Carlos Garcia and Commander Jane Hamilton in Carlos's ready room just off the bridge.
“He had a talk to the ship?” Carlos had just asked in disbelief.
Anna shrugged. “It's a Gigantean thing. The bottom line is his theory could be true and I think we need to be cautious.”
As First Officer aboard The Explorer, Jane was responsible for the crew. “I find it hard to believe that anyone aboard The Explorer would be involved in an act of terrorism against this vessel.”
Anna nodded. “I feel the same about The Mariner crew. Yet, I know that Midshipman Sur is a Environmentalist with real concerns about the exploration of dark matter. I know that Lt. Barron is also not comfortable exploring this area of space. It seems that to many it has some significance.”
“What does that mean,” Jane asked.
“I'm not sure. I've asked Midshipman Sur to report here at 10:00 to elaborate on that very theme. Ah, that's probably him now.”
Anna looked at Carlos.
Carlos nodded. “Come,” he said, and the door opened to admit Midshipman Sur. Sur took three steps in, came to attention and saluted.
“As you were, Midshipman Sur. Take a seat,” Carlos instructed.
Anna took over. “Aja, I asked you to be prepared to make a report to the crew of The Mariner on information related to the Dark Matter in sector 1284. I thought it best that we hear that report first so that we are better prepared to set goals for this mission and field any questions the crew might have. Are you ready?”
Aja arranged his notes nervously. This was a heady situation to be in for someone of his age and rank. “The dark matter in section 1284 has had mystical significance to many cultures since the dawn of time. The three habitable planets in sector 1284 have different names and legends associated with it. On Gorvantar, the people believe that the souls of the dead travel through a portal hidden in the dark matter to travel to the world beyond. It is a mirror image of their own but occupied by the spirits of the dead. They call this place Erata. On Sollon, it is called Sol. A place of spacial nothingness. The inhabitants of the planet meditate on this dark place in space in order to find an inner peace. While on Jassmat, the inhabitants believe that their God Karlot, took the stars from that area of the sky to make their planet and everything on it. Karlot is believed to reside within this dark area of space.”
“Have any of these cultures attempted to go to the area?”
“They have rudimentary space programs but nothing that would allow them to cover the large distance to the dark matter. I suspect, that none of these cultures would be pleased about our current assignment.”
“Yes, Commodore. Thousands of legends. On Earth, it is the area associated with the Pleiades from which the shooting stars that are seen in the summer originate. Some native peoples, believe it is the source of the universe's energy. I could go on and on. The bottom line is we'll be entering an area that is culturally and mystically significant.”
“Why this area?”
“Its hard for us on Earth to understand because we are so far away. I have read a lot of reports by travellers who have travelled close to the dark mass and they use expressions like this. It called to my soul. I felt so at peace. I saw everything I was and I was afraid. I couldn't sleep. Dreams haunted me. I can't explain it, Commodore other than to say people are spiritually moved in some way when they get close to that area.”
“Thank you, Midshipman Sur. This has been most enlightening. Please see that we all get copies of your report.”
“Aye, aye, Commodore.”
Anna looked around the table. “I think our present mission could raise some pretty high emotions in someone who has a belief associated with this region. Suggestions?”
There was a moment silence. Then Carlos shook his head. “We have a mission to complete. We can try to be as sensitive to beliefs as possible but I can't see how we can avoid causing some offense.”
Jane frowned. “Do you think ISC was aware of these belief issues when they assigned us to this mission?”
“When I talked to Admiral Ito, he seemed more concerned that we not have direct contact with a species that might be far advanced to our own. He failed to caution me that there might be beliefs associated with the area that would make our mission seem a violation of a spiritual site.”
“We always get the hard ones,” Carlos said.
Anna nodded. “I think we need to get the word out that this is a survey mission only, in the hopes of declaring this area a no go region of space. I think we should form a committee to follow up on Midshipman's Sur's research to show that we are making every effort to protect this region of space.”
“Are we?” Jane asked.
“If this area proves significant, we'll certainly make that request of ISC. What they choose to do will be totally out of our hands.”
Weeks went by, even travelling close to the speed of light, space is vast and distances formidable. Anna found herself busy. As well as overseeing the on going research of the dark mass, there were simulation programs to develop, drills to be run, repairs and maintenance to assign and check, crew issues to discuss, and various proposals for their mission to evaluate. Each night, Jill would join her in her quarters for dinner. If neither of them had night duty, Jill would stay over. After, the unfortunate issue in Navigation, everything aboard ship had gone relatively smoothly and Anna had begun to think that the explosion was indeed an accident.
Over the weeks, they had developed numerous scenarios based on computer data gathered by earlier missions of what they might face when they entered the worm hole and were thrown across the universe. Once the programs were developed, they had chosen three teams to train on the simulators in eight hour shifts each day. The simulator was a small contained shell that represented the bridge on The Mariner. It was mounted on hydraulics and linked directly into the computers systems. It allowed four crewmen to work in the confined space experiencing as close to possible the bumps and G forces they would expect in entering the worm hole. They had started working in the simulator only four days before, despite their best efforts and training, so far they had not had a successful mission. The Mariner simulator program always had them imploding.
That morning, Anna, Carlos, Jill and Sur were in the simulation chamber. They had just sealed the hatches and had brought up the day's program when the emergency light started to flash.
“We have an oxygen leak. Oxygen levels are rising,” Jill reported.
“Sealing off tank four,” Sur stated, following the correct simulation protocol.
“Negative results. Oxygen levels rising.”
“Running diagnostic,” Carlos stated.
Anna reacted almost before the realization had hit her. “It's not a simulation. Open the EE hatch. Emergency evacuation procedure”. Each crew member responded immediately. Shutting off their centres and sliding out the emergency chute one after the other. Anna was the last one clear just before there was a pop and flash from within.
“Oxygen explosion,” Carlos muttered in disgust.
“So it would seem. Everyone okay?”
“Yes, Com,” Sur responded.
“I'm fine too,” Jill state. “Permission, to have a look inside, Commodore.”
Anna nodded, keeping her face neutral. “Granted. Make sure the oxygen levels are within normal range first and the craft purged of atmospheric pollutants.”
“Aye, aye, Com,” Jill smiled.
Anna blushed, realizing she had acted over protectively. Any engineering Midshipman knew to check levels and purge before going into an area where an explosion had taken place.
“Sorry. You know how to do your job. Get Toda and Erickson down here too. We'll want a report as soon as possible.”
“Carlos, I'm going to meet again with Sur. Would you see about briefing Justice and Jane?”
“Will do, Com.”
Anna headed to her ready room with Midshipman Aja Sur and then had Sub Lieutenant Barron Eveen summoned.
“Come.” Anna called, once she saw the warning light flashing. “Take a seat, Eveen, Aja. We've got problems. There was another small explosion less than an hour ago in the simulator. Fortunately, we all got out in time although my impression was that this one would not have caused injuries or much damage. It was oxygen based again.”
Aja and Eveen looked at each other. “We'd heard there been a problem in the simulator this morning but we hadn't heard what it was,” Eveen stated.
“Once could have been an accident, twice looks like mischief. I hesitate to use the word sabotage as the incidents seem to be more of a warning than an attempt to do harm. That said, it's serious. It's also difficult because it appears to be someone associated with the DMC. I'm going to have to ask for names. I need you to go through every personnel file on this ship checking for any connections with organizations that might want to undermined this mission.”
Aja looked disgusted. Eveen looked shocked and expressed her concerns. “These people are friends, Commodore. Aboard The Mariner, they are family. Being a person of belief or holding strong view on environmental protection doesn't make you a terrorist.”
Anna nodded and went on more softly. “I know. It hurts. But it needs to be done. We're a long way from home and without a life line. Mischief can soon escalate into a deadly situation. I'm giving you a tough assignment. I'm also putting trust in you. I'm well aware that both of you have backgrounds that could very well make you candidates for the list. Like you, I don't want to believe its someone on board, but we can't take the chance. Make the list. Have it too me as soon as possible. Any questions?”
Anna got up. “Dismissed.”
Aja and Eveen left looking less than happy about their assignment. Anna couldn't blame them. She didn't like it herself and now she had a worst task. She needed to bring up the files of Aja, Eveen and Jill and check their backgrounds carefully. To have to put Jill on the list really upset Anna but Jill hadn't pass her security check with ISC and so would always have to be the first person of suspicion when something like this occurred. It was a matter of following procedure. Several hours later, Anna's door light flashed. “Come.”
Justice walked in. “Hi. Please tell me you are bringing good news.”
“Sorry, I'm not. Sue asked me to come and get you. Jill's been hurt. She's okay but she's down in sickbay.”
Anna felt the colour drain from her face. She was on her feet heading for the door with Justice in her wake. “What happened?”
“I don't know any details yet. She was up on a cat walk checking atmosphere regulators to the simulator and fell. She managed to send a distress signal to sickbay. Lt. Lai and Lt. Heon responded and got her on a stretcher and brought her to sickbay. Sue contacted me to come and get you. Dr. Barr is examining her now.”
Anna nodded as they stepped into the elevator that would take them to the medical section of the ship.
Anna nodded again. She didn't feel up to conversation. She just needed to see Jill.
Sue met them in sickbay. “Commodore, Dr. Barr and Lt. Heon are with Jill in surgery now. You'll have to wait a bit before you can see her.”
“Surgery?” Anna's voice shook with emotion.
“Broken leg. The fibula. They had to put her under to set it. With treatment, she'll be as good as new in a week or so.”
“How did it happen? Did she say?”
Sue nodded. “She said she had climbed up the ladder onto the cat walk to check the atmosphere regulators to the simulator when she became aware of a presence below her. She turned around but all she could see was a bright, white light. She stepped back and toppled down the ladder. She got the wind knocked out of her, but she said she was aware that whoever it was checked to make sure she was okay before leaving.”
“Didn't anyone see this person?”
It was Justice that answered. “No one. How he or she could have got back out without being noticed is beyond me. Toda and Erickson were working on the simulator near the only hatch leading out of the area were Jill was working. You know how good Toda's hearing is and Erickson is no slouch when it comes to observation skills.”
Dr. Barr came out form surgery. “Commander, Ms Fairfax is in recovery. I wouldn't suggest that you question her for a few hour yet.”
“Jill Fairfax is my girlfriend, Doctor.”
“Oh. Well in that case go right through. She's groggy but she'll know you are there.”
The three watched as Anna disappeared into the next room.
“Was I the last to know?” Barr asked.
“Pretty much,” laughed Justice.
In the next room. Anna leaned over to drop a kiss on Jill's forehead. “Hi Love. How are you feeling?”
“Okay, just a little sleepy.”
“Why is it you have to put a scare into me on every mission?”
Jill reached out and Anna took her hand. “Sorry, I scared you.”
“You just get better. Sleep now. I'll sit here until the doctor says you can leave.”
“Thanks,” came the mumbled reply before Jill slipped back into sleep.
A few hours later, Anna had Jill tucked up comfortable in Anna's quarters. Her quarters aboard The Explorer were not big. A small living area, a bedroom and a bathroom but by ship board standards it was pretty luxurious.
“People will talk,” Jill smiled.
“I don't give a damn. Do you want anything?”
“Yes, but I don't think we can for a day or two until my bones knit a bit more.”
Anna laughed and bent to kiss Jill. “At least you don't have to wear a cast like they did years ago. It took months then for the bone to heal.”
“The doctor said I can return to duty in a few days if I'm careful and in a week the bone will be nearly as good as new. It will be easy to rebreak, though, for a few months.”
Anna frowned. “That means your off the mission, Jill.”
“Jill, we don't know what sort of G force or banging around we might experience inside that worm hole. An injured crew member would just add to the dangers. You know that.”
“Hell. Who will you take instead?”
“Eveen, off team B. Her communication skills might come in handy.”
“Good choice. I hate this.”
Anne gave Jill a hug. “I know. You like to be at the centre of the action.”
“I like to be guarding your back,” Jill said, reaching up to hug Anna.
“I have a good team. They'll take care of me.” Anna lay down carefully beside Jill and held her close until she went to sleep.
Anna was acutely aware of the sudden silence when she walked into The Explorer mess hall. It lasted only a few seconds before the crew filled in the vacuum with unnecessary chatter. Anne frowned. It was never a good sign when the crew were talking about things they didn't want the senior officers to hear. She wondered if the gossip was about Jill's move to her quarters, the accident, or the mystery of who was causing the explosions. Probably all three, she concluded. The mess hall was more comfortable and much bigger than the common room aboard The Mariner. Here tables were set in groups of four to promote conversation and provide some privacy. The tables and swivel chairs were still bolted to the floor but the chairs were padded and table extensions could be pulled out and locked into place to make the separate groups of four into two long banquet tables that could sit 50. Senior officers didn't have a separate dinning hall but they did have a head table set aside for them at the far end of the room. In away this was nice but as the galley was at the other end of the room it was a long hike to the officers table. Unless it was crowded, the senior officer tended to take any table near by. The best part about the mess was the walls were not the regulation white. The Giganteans had opted for a warm rose colour. Anna made it a point to visit the mess regularly but today she decided not to stay. Her presence was making thing awkward. She got herself a coffee and then headed out.
Usually, she made the effort at least once a week to walk around the mess and talk to various crew members. Sue had suggested she get to know the crews of The Mariner and Explorer better. Anna had really made an effort to do so. She'd stored significant information on each crew member in her memory banks and now she could call each by their name and ask relative questions. Jill, still seemed to be able to get the crews to talk more openly with her but at least Anna was able to pass the time of day with all the crew members without having them stand at attention and get tongue tied. Today wasn't going to be one of those days. The crew was not going to share. A quiet retreat seemed the best course.
Anna made her way to the bridge. Jane was on deck and stood when Anna walked in.
Anna waved her back into the command seat.
“Where can I find Captain Garcia?”
“He and Captain Moshapa are in the ready room, Commodore.”
Anna raised and eye brow and headed over to The Explorer ready room. What would Carlos and Justice be up to?
“Come,” came the command from Carlos and the door slid open. The two men scrambled to their feet guiltily when they saw Anna. Playing cards and a cribbage board sat on the table between them.
“As you were. Am I interrupting a good game?”
“Not from my point of view. Justice is about to skunk me.”
“I was just down in the mess hall. I got the feeling that everyone wanted to gossip but not with me.”
Carlos sighed and leaned back. “Yeah, Justice and I were talking about that. There's a lot of talk going on.”
“Are the crew loyal?”
“You mean can we expect a mutiny? I doubt it but belief runs deep. I think we've got a situation on our hands that if left could blow up in our faces.”
“I agree. Someone is being very clever, I think. There are lots of rumours and they have to be starting some where. If I was home in Botswana, I would say that there was a shaman involved in black magic. It's an old expression we use to mean that someone id trying to stir up trouble.”
“What are you hearing?”
Justice shrugged. “Nothing. Everyone clams up as soon as I arrive.”
“Same here. No one is talking when I'm around.”
Carlos looked at Justice. Justice nodded. “Get Jill down to Engineering. Toda has ears as sensitive as a radar disc. Whether he's involved in the gossip or not, he's over heard talk, you can count on it, and he'll talk to Jill.”
“Jill isn't ready for active duty.”
“Then send her for a walk down there,” Justice countered.
“I could have Toda report to our quarters.”
Carlos snorted. “Toda would be marked as a stool pigeon immediately. Justice is right, send Jill.”
“I'll talk to her.”
“Anna, we need to get on top of this pretty quick.”
Anna nodded but frowned. “I'll go talk to her now.”
When Anna returned to her quarters she found Jill asleep. Bones could be knitted fairly quickly now but the down side was that there was several days of considerable discomfort. Anna didn't have the heart to wake her. Instead, she requested that Sur and Eveen meet her in her ready room.
“There is a lot of gossip going on aboard ship. What are you hearing?”
Sur frowned. “The crew are aware that we are working closely with you on this project so we don't hear much. There are wild stories about aliens being on board and others about gods warning us to turn back.”
“The prevailing story is that Jill saw a bright light that was a sign from the gods that we'll all be struck down if we continue with this mission. All the mythology and beliefs associated about this area have been dredged up and discussed over and over again until they have become elaborate belief structures. The crew is worried,” Eveen explained.
Anna sighed. “Not good news. Do you have a list for me?”
Sur and Eveen looked at each other. They were clearly not comfortable. It was Eveen that finally spoke. “Here is the list but we've decided to give you a name as well.”
“You know who caused the attacks?”
“We suspect. We think it might be Lt. Alrick Erickson.”
“Erickson has an outstanding record with the ISC. He's a seasoned officer and a fine engineer. Why him?”
“A number of things. First, Aja went through his record and he had once trained to be a Ecoterra priest. He never completed his training and joined the ISC instead, but he's maintained his connection with the faith as a lay preacher. Second, he is the only person who had easy access to the areas where the problems arouse. Lastly, Aja was approached by several crew members to join an Ecoterra group aboard The Explorer. The reasons they gave for renewing their beliefs was that The Explorer was violating sacred territory.”
“I pretended to have an interest in joining and was able to discover that these ideas had come from Erickson. He is not advocating any sort of revolt or anything. He just wants the crew to realize that this mission shouldn't be happening. I think he's hoping to put enough doubt out there that the mission will be scrapped.”
“The ISC doesn't scrap missions. He's a fool if he thinks that. How sure are you that it's him?”
“Fifty-fifty, if I was to give it odds,” Eveen stated.
Anna sighed. “It's a starting point. Keep this quiet. Captain Garcia and I will investigate Erickson from here on. I want you two keeping your eyes and ears open. We don't know if its Erickson and there could be others involved.”
“Aye, aye, Com.”
Anna leaned back and considered. This was going to be a very tricky situation. The last thing she wanted to do was cause a rift between the two crews. Also, Carlos and Jane would have to be handled with care. Their natural reaction was going to be to defend their crew member especially one as important as their chief engineer.
She leaned forward pressed a button on her consol and paged Carlos.
“Captain, I want the senior officers in your ready room at 14:00 hours.”
“Aye, aye, Commodore.”
Having got the wheels in motion, Anna went to check on Jill again.
“Hi, sleepy head. How are you feeling?” Anna leaned over the bed and kissed Jill on her forehead before sitting carefully on the edge of the bed.
“Better. A lot of the discomfort has gone. How is your day going?”
“Busy. I've decided to take Erickson on the mission instead of Eveen.”
“What? No way. If you need an engineer it should be me or Toda. Besides, you said yourself that Eveen's language abilities could be a great asset on the mission.”
For a second Anna bristled, then calmed herself. This wasn't Jill the Midshipman speaking anymore but a civilian and her lover. She had to adjust to this change in Jill's status in the DMC. “What have you got against Erickson? He's got a good record.”
“He doesn't understand machinery. He doesn't listen to their needs and understand their personalities.”
Anna laughed. “You've spent too much time on Gigantean.”
“Well, its true.”
“I think I'm going to put him on the mission anyway.”
Anna shrugged. She didn't want to admit that the words had come out of her mouth before she'd even consciously thought about it. “It will be good for inter crew relations to have another member from The Explorer aboard.”
“I guess that's true.” Jill admitted reluctantly. Jill reached over and pulled Anna into a hug. “I hate you going on a mission without me.”
Anna kissed Jill's neck and rubbed her head against her hair. “This from the person who flew into a dark mass in a one person ISM and then headed out into deep space in one.”
“Somehow its not as scary when I'm taking risks. I don't want to live without you, Anna.”
“You won't. How about some lunch?”
Jill laughed mischievously and pulled Anna down on the bed. “Oh yeah.”
Anna arrived at the meeting she had called six minutes late. Her officers stood when she walked in.
“As you were. Sorry I'm late.” Anna took a seat at the head of the table aware that she was blushing. “I called this meeting to up date you on several issues. First, I have Midshipman Sur and Lt. Barron investigating crew files to come up with a list of individuals that could be involved in these incidents. I personally have investigated Fairfax, Sur and Barron and they remain on the list, although, I don't think they had the opportunity to sabotage the ship.”
“When do we get to see the list, Commodore?” Jane asked.
“I have it here. One copy. I'll pass it around for you to see. I don't want any record. Most or all of these people could be innocent. I don't want to be pointing fingers or creating suspicion where it isn't needed. Our crews have bonded well together. I don't want rifts. It's bad enough that all these wild rumours are circulating.”
Carlos and Jane bent over the list. They didn't look happy. Carlos looked up at Anna.
“Why is Erickson's name highlighted?”
“He's the only one we've found so far who has motive and opportunity.”
“He's a good man. A fine Engineer.”
“Yes. That's why I have decided to assign him to the mission to replace Jill.”
Carlos and Jane looked surprised. The anger seemed to drain from Jane's face. As First Officer, she was responsible for the crew aboard The Explorer and was loyal to them. Jane bit her lip. “What if Erickson is the saboteur?”
“If that's the case, he won't get away with much with us near by and with luck we can win him over.”
“It's a risk.”
“So is flying into a vortex worm hole. One more risk will hardly matter. You're First Officer on this mission, Carlos. How do you feel about taking Erickson?”
Carlos considered. “He's got a good service record and I like him. He'd be a top candidate on any mission I was planning. Also, if he is the saboteur, he's my responsibility and I want to be there to deal with it. Yes, let's put him on the mission.”
“I'm not happy with the decision. This mission is very high risk already. That said, having an Engineer aboard would be advisable. The craft could easily be damaged by the forces within the vortex. Jill is out, what about Toda?”
“I considered Toda but if Erickson is the saboteur better he undermined a crew of four rather than a star ship of 168. The mission crew will also have the advantage of being aware that he's a suspect.”
“I think The Explorer has a fine crew and that includes Erickson. I just want to state for the record that you two had better come back in one piece because if Erickson does undermine this mission, Jill will have my flayed skin mounted on her wall.”
Anna stiffened. “Jill Fairfax is assigned to this crew. Our relationship does not take precedence to any decision we make as officers. She might be a civilian now and not a Midshipman, but she is still under our authority while aboard an ISC vessel.”
Carlos laughed and broke the tension that had flared in the room. “Anna, you are such a newbie when it comes to love!”
Anna blushed but had to laugh too. Her outburst had been triggered more by Jill having put her on the defensive earlier than it had by anything Jane had said.
“I stand corrected, Number One. You might want to have an escape route planned.”
“Aye, aye, Com,” Jane smiled.
Anna dismissed her officers and then made her way down to engineering. She found Lt. Erickson in his small office just off the engineering section and closed the door behind her.
Erickson snapped to attention and saluted. Anna returned the salute and then sat down leaving Erickson standing at attention.
“You and I have some interrelated problems. My problem is that my mission keeps getting undermined. Your problem is you don't know where your loyalties lie. I understand you did some training as a Ecoterra priest. Is that correct?”
“I looked the Ecoterra movement up. They have some reasonable beliefs in wanting to create and maintain a world that is totally in tune and supportive of the environment. I like that they see the interconnectedness between Earth and the universe and want to live in harmony with both. Those are honourable goals. They do, however, put you in a difficult position with this mission. Many feel the dark matter we are heading for has spiritual significance. Is that not so?”
Erickson looked grim. “The area does have spiritual significance, Commodore.”
“Sit down Alrick,” Anne said softly. “I had a similar discussion with Midshipman Aja Sur on our first mission. He is, as I'm sure you know, a committed activist in Earth's green movement. He would have liked to be a biologist but his family insisted he join the ISC. That put him in a very difficult position on our first mission. Fortunately, instead of undermining the mission he came to talk to me about it.
“I told him, that exploration of dark matter was going to happen and it would better if the DMC did it because we would care. I put him in charge of researching and presenting any environmental concerns. As a result, we have already submitted a good argument to the ISC to declare several regions of space no fly areas. Aja now sees himself as a universal environmentalist. ”
Emotion flashed in Erickson's eyes. “The ISC does not have a great record for protecting environments.”
“No it doesn't. Especially in the past, but we do learn from our mistakes. I couldn't promise Aja that we'd always be successful in protecting sensitive areas but we'd do our best. Sabotage rarely gets the results you want with out considerable loss. Working within the system is frustrating and slow but it can bring positive change. That's why you joined the ISC isn't it? To bring positive change?”
Erickson looked down at his hands. He couldn't meet Anna's eyes. “I'm an Engineer, like my mother and my grandfather. I never questioned becoming an Engineer until I got involved with the Ecoterra faith. Then I saw the damage my kind had done. It was a revelation for me. I quit the job I had and starting training as a Ecoterra priest. Half way through my training I had this calling to try and save space from the destruction that Earth went through. So I dropped out of my training and joined the ISC. I wanted to be involved in environmental studies but instead they stuck me in Engineering.”
“Jill tells me that a good Engineer can hear the machines issues and problems.”
“Sure they can. Machines have unique personalities. I try not to listen anymore. Its not who I am now.”
“I disagree. I think you're a born Engineer and a good one. You have to stop denying who you are and start using your talents to meet the goals you have set for yourself. The Mariner is going on a very dangerous mission. Jill's off the team because of her injury. I want you on the mission. Here's your first chance to use your skills to achieve the change you want.”
“How? By violating a sacred area?”
“No, by going on a mission to learn and to do so without doing damage or harm. I know Aja has some ideas in motion for how that can be done. I'm sure he'd be glad to share in return for some guidance on how to fly The Mariner through the worm hole. You want to be on the cutting edge of positive change. Now's your chance. ”
“Do you really think the ISC will seriously consider any recommendations we have?”
Anne stood and so did Erickson. “Maybe, maybe not, but at least we'll have done all we can to set the wheels of motion in the right direction.”
“What if we are violating a sacred area?”
Anna considered. She had to get this answer right. “Then better its people who care and have a spiritual awareness and respect that touch the face of God. The simulator will be up and ready by tomorrow. First session will be at 7:00 hours. Be there.”
Anna left hoping that she'd won Erickson over and not sealed The Mariner's fate. She stopped to look out a port into deep, dark space. To touch the face of God, she'd heard herself say. Where had that come from? She must have read the line somewhere. Anna didn't believe in gods. Yet somehow, she was glad that aboard her ship there would be people who did.
The next morning, Anna boarded the simulator with Carlos, Aja and Alrik. As a precaution, Anna had asked Toda to stand by. He was making an effort not to be noticed by working over at the research centre of Engineering. It was not easy for someone so big to not be noticed.
“Hi Toda. What are you doing?” Aja called.
“Hello, Aja. I'm just doing research. Nothing important.”
Alrik looked over at Toda and their eyes met before he slid inside the simulator. Anna allowed herself a sigh. This was not a good start. She wanted Alrik to feel part of the team not to feel like he was under suspicion.
They strapped themselves in as if it was a real mission. The artificial gravity aboard The Mariner would not work with in the confines of a worm tunnel. The external pressures were just too great.
The speaker crackled on. “Program 16. Stand by for entry into the worm hole in eight minutes, forty-two seconds.”
“Aja, bring us into position. Carlos, stand by with navigational coordinates. Alrik monitor structural integrity and life support. Readiness report.”
“All systems nominal, Com.”
“Take us in Aja.”
“Aye, aye, Com. Four minutes to event horizon. Three. Two. One. We're in.”
The craft tossed and whirled as the crew endeavour to keep their craft within acceptable pressure limits.
“Pressure rising, Aja,” stated Erik calmly. “Advise twenty second firing of retro rockets.”
“Space/time trajectory stable,” Justice added.
“Steady as she goes, Aja.”
“Aye, aye, Com.”
“We're through the event horizon,” said Justice.
Anna nodded. “Fire forward retro rockets.”
“Speed still increasing as is external pressure,” Alrick stated.
“Fire the retro rockets again.”
An alarm went off and red lights flashed. The craft stopped its wild bouncing. Anna slumped back into her seat. “Damn. Report Alrick.”
“We slammed against something. Has this always happened in the simulator?”
“I think, what we have here is a very narrow event horizon. We're impacting into the worm hole and disintegrating instead of getting through to the other side.”
“Are the readings taken by earlier mission accurate?”
“They've been verified The simulator should be giving us a pretty accurate ride. We plan to send some probes in to gather more data before we an attempt an entry.”
“Permission to talk to Toda about various options, Commodore, before we continue simulation training.”
“Granted. Simulator Control, that's all for now, we're coming out.”
Carlos slid out first then Aja. Anna was ready to go next when Alrick spoke.
“Thank you. You could have ended my career and had me up on some pretty serious charges instead you gave me a chance to prove myself. I'm going to do my best to win your trust and respect.”
“You have a good record. Make sure you keep it that way.”
Anna slid out and Alrick followed. He headed over to where Toda was working. Anna looked at Carlos who had remained behind.
“So far so good, Carlos. Of course, maybe he just likes the idea of our craft imploding into nothingness.”
Anna smiled. “Yup.”
Lunch was not a happy experience. Anna arrived back at her quarters to find Jill sitting in her wheel chair looking very angry.
“What's the matter?”
“This.” Jill held up the sheet of suspects that Anna had take to her meeting. “I found it on your desk. Why is Alrick's name highlighted?”
“Because he is the only one we know with a possible interest in undermining the mission and the opportunity and knowledge to do so.”
“So you picked him for the mission.”
“We have no proof he's our man and if he is what better way to keep an eye on him. I've had a talk to him.”
“Damn it, Anna. This is a very dangerous mission and you've just made it more so.”
“I'm the Commodore of the DMC. I make the decisions. I don't care if you are in the ISC or not. If you want to stay with the DMC then you'll have to accept my authority on mission matters like anyone else.”
Jill paled and her jaw set in a straight line.
“As you say, Commodore. I'll be in my quarters.”
“Jill, for God's sakes, you can't manage with a broken leg. Don't be silly.”
“I can manage. And just for the record, this has nothing to do with your command and everything to do with our relationship.”
“I can't stop putting myself in danger just because I'm in a relationship. You know that. You wouldn't think twice about doing the same.”
“Sure. But I'd take every precaution because I'd want to get home to you.” Jill wheeled herself to the doorway and was gone.
Anna slumped into a chair. Just when she thought they were going to make a life together this happened. Why did it always end in a fight with them?
Her door warning light flashed. Anna sighed and got to her feet. What now?
“Come.” Jill wheeled herself in. “Why can't we live together without getting into a fight?” Anna asked
“It's me not you. Not that you can't be infuriating but the problem is me.”
Anna came over and kneeled by Jill's wheel chair. “Do you want to explain?”
Jill nodded tears welling in her eyes. “ Can you hold me. It would be easier to tell then.”
Anna picked Jill up and carried her to the couch. She wrapped her tight in her arms and kissed her temple. “I'm here for you. Tell me.”
“I loved the west. I loved everything about it. My dad was my hero. Mom and dad would take me to all the big rodeos. It was a wonderful life for a kid.”
“I'm sure it was.”
“Dad sexually molested me. When I turned thirteen.”
Anna felt like she'd be hit so hard that her senses closed down. “Shit.”
“I...I told mom and they argued. Dad stormed off and that's when he was gored by the bull. I don't know if he didn't know it was in the pasture or if he didn't care. It killed him. Mom sold up everything and moved east. We were never close again. I guess it was easier for her to believe it was my fault. Then she remarried. Walter is a nice guy but I didn't want anything to do with him. I couldn't trust, not again. Anyway, I started to act out and before I knew it I was in trouble with the law.”
“What does this have to do with us?”
“How can I trust you? The people I loved betrayed me. How do I know you won't be any different?”
Anna pulled Jill close. “Because I know how you feel. I know what its like to be rejected as a human being. I know what its like to be violated. I understand why its hard for you to trust and commit yourself to a relationship. All I can tell you is that I'm not like them. My love is real. We might argue but it's not going to change how I feel about you. All my life I've wanted to find someone who loved me for who I am not what I was made into. I've found that love and I don't ever want to lose it.
“I can never take the pain away or repair the scars from what was done to you. I wish I could. All I can tell you is that I understand and that I will never betray you like your family did. Looks like neither one of us really has a family to turn to. I figure we need to form our own family. We need to put the past behind us and move on knowing that our love is something we can always trust.”
“You're wonderful. I'm sorry I yelled at you.”
“You were worried about me. You were trying to protect me. The discussion just came out all the wrong way and got both our backs up. Thanks for coming back.”
“I don't want to lose you.”
“You're not going to.”
The communication panel came to life.
“Commodore, to the bridge. Commodore Cyborn you are wanted on the bridge.”
“Shit, now what?” Anna carefully picked Jill up and placed her in her wheelchair. Dropping a kiss on her head. “Are you going to be okay?”
“I'll be back as soon as I can.”
Anna arrived on the bridge and slipped into the seat beside Carlos.
“A message came through from Star Port Garagrin. It's from Vice Admiral Grover.”
“Let's look at it in your ready room.”
“Aye, aye, Com. You have the bridge Number One.”
Carlos and Anna headed into the ready room. Carlos's ready room was basic. It was just big enough for a table that sat eight. At the head of the table was a built in computer terminal and slide up screen.
“Have you read it?” Anna asked as soon as the hatch closed.
“Not yet. I figured I'd better get you seeing it was coming from Grover.”
“Shit.” Anna dropped down in Carlos's chair and brought the message up on his computer screen.
From the Office of Vice-Admiral B. Grover
Re: Mission progress reports
I have read over The Explorer's mission progress reports with much attention and dismay. It appears that Commodore Cyborn is having a problem maintaining discipline aboard ship. This saboteur is in a position not only to undermined a sensitive mission but also to put the crew and vessel in danger. I have decided that the only prudent course of action is to end this mission. The Explorer is ordered to abort the mission and return to base.
Anna gritted her teeth and took a minute to get her temper under control. Then she typed rapidly on the keyboard.
Carlos paced angrily. “Why didn't Admiral Ito tell Grover to back off? This is stupid.”
“I don't have the Admiral's support anymore. He won't undermine us like Grover but he won't protect us anymore either.”
“Because of Jill?”
“The only thing between me and captaining a garbage scow is the good will of the Giganteans.”
“So that's why the meetings earlier on this trip. The Giganteans have you at their beck and call.”
Anna sighed. “Pretty much.”
“So what do we do about this message?”
“You haven't seen this message yet. Probably our communication system was damaged when we went through an ionized particle burst. That can happen. In fact, it can often put a ship's communication system down for days.”
“Anna, I can't disobey a direct order.”
“You're not going to. You'll be aboard The Mariner and won't know about it. We are close enough to the dark matter for The Mariner to get there on her own, go through the worm hole and come out. Then The Explorer will have to rescue us. In the meantime, The Explorer will heave to and do repairs. Explorer's next communication to ISC in three days time will state that communication systems were down but The Explorer has now received their message and needs clarification on what should be done because The Mariner has already entered the worm hole.”
“Holy shit, Anna, you're nuts! So far you've been killed on ever attempt in the simulator.”
“Alrick and Toda are coming up with some new ideas. Toda and Jill can test them out in the simulator as we head to the dark matter. If they can't find a system that works, we'll abort and head back.”
Carlos stood with his hands on his hips looking at the carpet for a few seconds. Then he met Anna's eyes. “Okay. I'm in. The DMC always rides the edge, why should this mission be any different. How are we going to undermined the communication system?”
“I already have. I sent a communication overload through the system. A continues loop that will repeat Grover's message over and over until the system crashes. It happened as soon as we tried to open the message.”
Carlos laughed. “You're nuts!”
“Must be to hang out with a guy like you. Let team A know, we'll be leaving 20:00 hours.”
To the Beginning of Time
Anna returned to her quarters feeling dead tired and on over load. She had to give the news to Jill and that wasn't going to be easy. Jill had just shared a very personal and emotional part of her life and her emotions must still be raw. And although broken bones healed very quickly with advanced nano treatment, Jill was still in some discomfort. Jill met her at the door standing with the support of a cane.
“Should you be walking so soon?” Anna asked, giving Jill a kiss and a hug as soon as the hatch closed behind her.
“I saw Dr Barr this afternoon and he said that I'm making excellent progress and I can use a cane for short distances now. I should be fine for walking in several days, but I can't run or do leg presses for a month.”
“Good. We need to talk but first I need a shower and some food.”
“I'll order dinner while you shower.”
“I'll be out as quickly as I can.”
Anna showered, enjoying the warm water that ran over her body. Aboard The Mariner there were only mist showers as their water supply was limited. She changed into a duty jumpsuit and got her small travel bag ready. It didn't take long. If there is one thing she'd learned from her years in the ISC it was how to be packed and be ready to go in minutes. She left her bag in their bedroom and joined Jill in their living space.
A half hour later, Anna sat beside Jill, playing with the last of the chicken teriyaki that Jill had ordered from the mess. It was one of the advantages that she really enjoyed about being aboard The Explore. Senior officers could have their meals delivered to their quarters and the food was so much better. The Explorer had a galley staff while The Mariner had to get by on prepackaged microwave food.
“So, you ready to talk?”
“This is off the record and you never heard it. I got a memo from Grover. He'd read the daily transmitted reports and feels that I've lost control of the crew because of the sabotage incidents. He's ordered The Explorer to abort the mission and return to base.”
“That bastard! That is so untrue. You can't let him do this, Anna. What are you going to do?”
Anna smiled. “The Explorer is shutting down for repairs. It seems there is a communication system over load and we didn't get Grover's message before The Mariner entered the worm hole. Team A is going to leave aboard the Mariner in five hours time.”
“But Anna, we've never been successful in the simulator.”
“I know. That's why I want you and Toda working around the lock in the simulator trying to find the answer. You've got 48 hours. If you haven't found a successful approach by the time Mariner reaches the worm hole, we'll turn back.”
“You know Toda and I will give it our all.”
“I've know doubt about that. Jill, I hate to leave you now. You need my support and instead I'm asking you to take on an assignment in the simulator that could re-injure your leg.”
Jill smiled. “I'll be worried sick while you are away but at least now I can be doing something positive to help. You are the Commodore of The DMC and that always comes first. Don't you worry about me, I'll be fine and you have my full support.”
Anna got up and hugged Jill. “You are amazing. How about I spend the next few hours showing you just how much I love you?”
“I love that you want to spend these last few hours with me but you have lots of things to do. I have to find Toda and Erickson and find out what they have being working on. I want a lot more from you than a few hours so getting you back in good shape is essential.”
Anna smiled. “I hate it when you pull rank on me. Use your wheelchair if you are going down to engineering.”
Jill gave Anna a long kiss and hug. Each knew if could be for the last time and they held on not wanting to let go.
“Come back to me.”
“That will be my top priority. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Five hours later, Anna climbed down the conning tower into The Mariner and moved forward to the bridge. The rest of the skeleton crew were already on board.
“Commodore on the bridge!” Carlos called, and her crew stood and saluted. Anna came to attention and returned the salute. The gesture was not a matter of protocol, it had been done to show solidarity and respect. It filled Anna with confidence and pride.
“As you were. This is a very dangerous mission. We won't take any stupid risks but we will put balls to the wall,” Anna stated, using an old jet pilot expression for moving the joy stick hard forward. “I couldn't have a better crew for this mission. Let's get the job done.” Anna put her right fist over her heart and pounded her chest. The others followed suit. “Dark Matter Corps! Dark Matter Corps! Dark Matter Corps!”
“Captain Garcia, get The Mariner on her way.”
“Aye, aye, Com. Mariner to Explorer. Requesting removal of ground blocks and jet covers.”
“Ground crew has been deployed. Stand by.”
While they waited for the ground crew to make sure The Mariner was ready for launch, Carlos went through the flight check list with Aja and Alrik sat at the Engineering centre checking readouts. Anna busied herself with navigational coordinates.
“Explorer to Mariner. The ground crew has given the all clear and has evacuated the area.. You are ready to launch.”
“Roger that. Bringing systems on line. Request that hanger be depressurized.”
“Depressurization under way.”
Anna felt herself float for a brief second before Mariner's artificial gravity took over. “Navigation coordinates approved and ready for input Aja.”
“Aye, aye, Com.”
“Explorer to Mariner. Depressurization complete.”
“All systems A-okay. Request that cargo bay doors be opened,” Carlos said.
“Roger. Stand by. Doors opened and locked. You are ready for launch, Mariner. Good Voyage.”
“Thank you, Explorer. We'll see you in a few days.”
Anna felt the slight pitch and roll as the Mariner lifted off the cargo bay deck and moved forward out into space. They drifted forward slowly for ten minutes making sure they were well clear of The Explorer.
“Main engine thrust in three minutes, Alrik.”
“Standing by, Captain.”
They were pushed back in their seats as The Mariner gained speed accelerating the small craft almost to the speed of light. Thirty minutes went by.
“Cruising velocity reached,” Aja stated.
“MECO,” Carlos ordered. The main engines cut off and acceleration stopped. They felt for a second weightlessness as if they'd just plunged in an elevator, then they settled back in their seats as they drifted towards the unknown.
Anna looked up from her consol. “Get us in contact with the simulator crew, Carlos. We have time to run a few programs with them before we need to do a navigation correction.”
“Aye, aye, Com.”
“Mariner to Simulator Team B.”
“Team B standing by. We'll be with you until 24:00 hours then team C will take over.”
Anna nodded. The two remaining teams would do twelve hour shifts until they returned. It was a tough schedule but no harder than the one they would have to keep. Team B was headed by Justice Moshapa. First officer was Toda and Eveen and Jill made up the rest of the crew. Team C was led by Adam Wiseman, his first officer was Sue Lai and the crew was made up of Explorer personnel, Betty Wheeler and Rob Polinski. Anna felt confident that if there was a safe way into the worm hole and back again, they would find it.
Twenty hours later, Anna was just slipping into her jumpsuit when there was a knock at her quarter's hatch. Anna did up her zipper and went over to open the hatch. Midshipman Aja Sur stood on the other side looking like he'd been dragged through a black hole backwards.
“You look like hell. What's up?”
“Sorry about my appearance, Commodore.”
Anna smiled. “Forget it. What's going on.”
“I have the answer. I was on the graveyard shift and so had many hours alone to think and suddenly I remembered what Sue Lai had told me about Taoism. In Taoism the path of non-action leaves nothing undone. They believe you can't force the universe into the shape you want that you must allow it to unfold as it should.”
“I see. And this is going where?”
“We have been trying to fly into the worm hole in our simulations. We are forcing our will on a greater concept. As soon as I realized this, I contacted Team B and got them all out of bed. We worked on it all night. And we've got it. In four of our simulations, we went into the worm hole settled to the bottom and then flew out. Four!”
“And the other simulations?”
“The other nine do not matter. They didn't work.”
Anna laughed. “I think I'd better have a talk to Justice. Aja, well done. I'm impressed. Better try to get some sleep now. We are going to need you well rested and ready to sit at the helm.”
“Aye, aye, Commodore.”
Anne went forward to the bridge and sat in the command seat. She smiled a greeting at Carlos who was sitting at the helm. “Did Aja tell you?”
“Aja has told the world as far as I know,” Carlos laughed. “He's really excited.”
“And well he should be. It was a brilliant quantum leap.” Anna opened the communication channel.
“The Mariner to Explorer. Mariner to Explorer.”
“The Explorer here.”
“This is Commodore Cyborn. Patch me through to Commander Moshapa in Engineering.”
A sleep voice yawned a greeting. “Jill here, Anna. Have you talk to Aja?”
“I have. Where's Justice?”
“Asleep. A super nova couldn't wake him at the moment. But before he turned in, he assigned me to stay awake and wait for your hail. It's punishment for falling asleep in the simulator last night,” Jill chuckled. “I have all our data here. Toda and Justice got it together because they knew you'd want it right away. It's on its way to you now. We did thirteen missions last night in the simulator and the last four were successes. It was a matter of allowing the worm hole to draw us in rather than flying in. We also had to make sure to come in at just the right trajectory. Today, you should be able to program a minnow probe to send in tomorrow and see if it meets with success.”
“Excellent. How are you besides tired?”
“Missing you. Come back soon.”
“Will do. You know how I feel.”
“I do and I feel the same.”
“Thanks to everyone there.”
Anna leaned back and smiled. She was glad Justice was asleep and she got to talk to Jill. She looked over at Carlos who was smiling broadly.
“You sure got a way with words, Com.”
“It's an open line.”
Carlos just laughed.
They had worked all day programming the probe and getting it ready for launch. Now they waited on the bridge listening to the elongated deep tone that was actually high bleeps sent by the probe and stretched by space/time. Two hours passed, then three. They waited. No one willing to leave the bridge until they knew the probe's fate. Then suddenly there it was spinning out towards them.
“Alrik, get that probe under control. Carlos, take the helm and bring us around. Aja, take an ISM and retrieve the probe. I'll see to getting Aja launched and stand by for reentry procedure,” Anna said. Everyone took off in various directions to see that Anna's orders were carried out. Carlos took over the helm, Alrik went to communication to write the commands necessary to bring the probe to a full stop and Anna and Aja headed aft to prepare a Individual Space Module for launching.
Two hours later, everyone sat around the table in the common room going over the data that the probe had gathered.
“The probe shows some heat burn but well within the structural limits of the Mariner. I noted some pitting and a closer examination showed mineral particles. The worm hole is chuck full of space debris. We'll get sand papered. Again we can handle that but if we do encounter a later piece of space debris, it will be game over.”
“According to my calculations we'll experience about six Gs. The Mariner can handle up to twenty without structural damage. The original Apollo astronauts handled six Gs without too much difficulty.”
“The probes navigational program worked flawlessly and can easily be modified to handle the weight and size of the Mariner. The probe data does seem in line with the data sent on the simulations.”
“Carlos, what do you think?”
“The crew and ship are ready but this is a high risk mission. I'm not ordering the crew in. We all agree or we turn back.”
Anna nodded. “Agreed.”
“I'm in,” Carlos stated.
Sur nodded. “I want to be there first to see if this region of space needs protecting. I'm willing to go.”
Alrik looked up from his notes. “I was dead set against this mission. I'm still not sure the ISC should be exploring this region but Aja is right, better us than anyone else. I'm in.”
That left it to Anna. Surprisingly, she was the one who hesitated the most. She was ultimately responsible for the crew and ship. But the real reason was she didn't want to die, not now when she and Jill had found something special. She had so much more to lose this year than she did last year.
“Commodore?” Carlos asked.
“We're here to explore. Let's get the job done.”
Journey to the Other Side
Anna mist showered and dressed in a fresh jumpsuit. Then she used her private communication devise to contact Jill. It was to be used for top secret communication only, but Anna, like many commanding officers, felt that personal message could fit into this category with a push.
“The mission is a go. We'll be dropping inside the worm hole in 14:00 hours.”
“There is no point in waiting.”
“I'm scared for you.”
“I know. It's easier to be the person on the mission than the one left behind. Thanks for all your help. Feel my arms around you.”
Jill's voice was rough with emotion. “Be safe. Come back to me.”
“I'll do my very best. I have to go. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Anna swallowed back her own tears and squaring her shoulders, she left her quarters to head up to the bridge. The crew were all in their places. Was she the only one who needed to say good byes?
“In a little while we'll be travelling to the very edge of the universe. Millions of light years from our homes. We might not be coming back, but we'll have pushed the door a little wider on the beauty and mystery of this vast universe. We are no different from those brave few who climbed aboard sailing ships and ventured beyond the edge of the know world. This mission is dangerous but it is also a privilege and a duty that we of the DMC will live up to. I'm honoured to be serving with you.
“Carlos, you are to send data stream packages to the Explore every five minutes. Alrick, you're in charge of engineering issues, Aja, you have the helm. I'll take the science desk and gather the data for Carlos. Captain Garcia, take us in.”
“Aye, aye, Com. Helm put in the coordinates and bring us on course to enter the dark matter.”
“Yes, Sir. Course entered. Entering dark matter in five, four , three , two , one.”
“The worm hole is on target,” Anna reported.
“In twenty seconds cut engines, Alrick.”
“Three, two, one. Now.”
“MECO. Engines off line.”
“Strap yourselves in and hold on tight, gentlemen. This could be quite a ride,” Anna stated, as she made sure she was secured in her seat. They sat quietly waiting as The Mariner drifted slowly towards the worm hole pulled by its gigantic forces. Then suddenly, Anna's world smeared into a straight lines and she felt the G force pushing so hard against her chest that she could barely breath. She felt herself getting dizzy and nauseous. Suddenly, her eyes were nearly blinded by a bright, white light and a second later they slammed to a jarring stop.
Anna blinked then squinted her eyes against the dazzling light that surrounded them The whole bridge seemed to glow with it, draining the colour from the room. Anna checked her suit gage. No sign of a radiation leak. Atmosphere seemed stable.
“Condition and status report,” she managed to request. Her throat felt rough and parched.
Alrick reported in first. “I'm shook up but okay. We've crashed, Captain. Stern first which means propulsion has probably taken a beating. I can't verify anything. All instruments are off line. I don't even know if the fuselage has maintained integrity.”
Anna unbuckled herself and sat up slowly. Every muscle in her body ached and her nose was bleeding. She wiped the blood away with her sleeve.
“Communication systems are down, Commodore,” Aja reported. He was over looking at Carlos who sat slumped in his seat. “I feel bruised but I'm okay. Helm isn't responding and Captain Garcia was hit in the head by some debris during the crash. He's coming around now.”
Anna walked over and squatted down by Carlo's command chair. “Eh, Carlos, you okay?”
Carlos reached up groggily and rubbed the back of his head. “Yeah, just got my bell rung. Status report?”
“We hit bottom. Hard. Everything is off line. The good news is the bridge seems to be maintaining integrity,” Anna told him.
“What's that light?”
“Don't know but we need to find out. Let's see what we can do to get a few things up and running.”
The crew took their places and each attempted to run diagnostics. No one could get anything.
Aja looked over at Anna. “I don't understand. Nothing seems to be the matter and yet nothing will work.”
“Alrick, have we lost all power?”
“No, Commodore. I can't detect a drain anywhere.”
Carlos looked up from the command panel. “I'm thinking that light is a dampening field. Something is blocking all our instrumentation. It seems to be glowing through the fuselage.”
Anna nodded grimly. They were trapped. She had barely formulated this thought when the bottom fell out of her world. Her last thought was that she felt like she was dropping through a well of white light.
Carlos found himself standing on a mesa looking out over the vast plains of New Mexico. He turned and realized that he was on the edge of a Pueblo village. The sun baked bricks dwellings rose in several terraces. They were without windows or doors. Wood pole ladders leaned against the side to allow access through the trap door in the roof. Carlos knew his mother had Acoma blood, one of the many Pueblo clans. The Acoma, Hopi, Lagua, Zuni and others were decedents of Anasazi whose ancient cliff dwelling still amaze people today. Suddenly, a warrior dropped down in front of him from the roof of the building beside him.
“Here are your weapons, brother. Today, we will find and kill an antelope for our families. I feel it in my blood.”
Baffled, Carlos played along smiling at the young man's excitement. “Then let's hunt.”
Carlos allowed the warrior to lead the way down the steep sides of the Messa. They descended carefully, finding the small foot holes that had been carved in the cliff face. Once on the bottom, Carlos looked around. The sky seemed endless and the air fresh and clean. He felt very happy and strangely at home in this new world. Yet he knew logically that none of this belonged to his place and time. He wondered if these were his ancestors. Had he been transported into the past? Where were the others?
Aja found himself in a paradise. Or at least what he thought a paradise should look like. He woke to find himself lying on a sun drenched rock beside a clear brook that tumbled its way around rocks. On each side of the brook was a tropical forest. Orchids in all sorts of colours grew on tree trunks and logs. The air was perfumed with their scent. Yellow sulphur butterflies wove patterns through the foliage and magnificent coloured birds swooped through the branches. Aja got to his feet and looked closely. No trodden paths, no rubbish left behind, the water was clear and fresh and the foliage thick and health . Where was this place? For a little while, Aja explored up and down the steam being careful not to do any damage to the pristine world around him. He came around a bend in the brook and stood still in surprise. There laying out a picnic was the girl who had lived down the street from him. They had been friends growing up and Aja would have liked to have made her his wife but her parents had arranged a marriage for her.
“Come Aja, you must be hungry.”
Was he dreaming? If so he hoped he'd never wake up.
Alrik felt cold. He shivered and opened his eyes to snow. Struggling to his feet, he looked around him. He stood on a hill side. Below him, pine forest spread out around a small quaint village. Smoke rose from the chimneys. He knew this place. It was the village where his grandparents had lived. He had spent many happy hours here until his parents had separated. Then his mother had taken him to live in the city. He had never seen his father or his father's parents again. A noise behind him made him turn. A small herd of reindeer grazed on some cedar brush. They didn't seem the least afraid of him. Turning, Alrik, slid and ran down the hillside to his grandparents home and knocked on the door. His grandmother opened the door. She hadn't changed from how he remembered her all those years ago.
“Alrik! Where have you been all this time? Come in out of the cold and sit by the fire. I have a big pot of soup on the stove and fresh bread in the oven. Come in, come in.”
Alrik stepped into the warm, wood home, letting the scent of fresh bread and hot stew fill his senses. It was all as he remembered and a feeling of deep happiness settled on him. He was in the spirit world, he knew, but he didn't care.
Anna smelt dust, sweat and leather. Her world moved beneath her and she realized that she was sitting in a saddle slumped over a horse's neck. She straightened up and looked around her. A high mesa stood on the horizon and buttes carved by the rain and wind formed majestic sculptures on the landscape. One outcrop had eroded into a beautiful arch way. She watched as a hawk circling over head, trailed a shadow that drifted like a ghost over the rock face. The area looked remarkably like New Mexico on earth. It didn't make sense. She used her sensors to gather all the impressions she could. They all supported her initial assumption. This was New Mexico. She urged her horse forward and rode down into a long canyon, enjoying the stark beauty around her. A while later, Anna heard the echo of a galloping horse and turned to see Jill riding up. But it wasn't Jill as she knew her. It was someone much older.
“What are you doing out here? Looking for shape changers?” Jill laughed. “Come on, the family is waiting for us.”
“I'll be along in a minute,” Anna stated, and watched as Jill turned her horse and rode away. She felt happy, free and contented. She was home. Yet, what she was experiencing wasn't logical. She tried to access her memory banks. Nothing. They weren't there. The shock made her heart beat faster. Had she been genetically altered again? Then she became aware of her pounding heart. Not a pump. A heart. The realization made her heart beat even faster and she put her hand on her chest to feel it. She was whole again. Anna gave herself a mental shake. It wasn't possible. She had to be under the influence of some mind controlling drug or hypnotised. She was hallucinating.
Aboard The Explorer, Commander Jane Hamilton cursed Carlos to a lower level of hell as she sat at his computer terminal in the ready room of The Explorer trying to explain to Vice-Admiral Grover why the mission through the worm hole was under way and possibly in trouble. She was using a in-line system. Answering Grover's pre recorded questions one by one. She knew it would be days before he got her replies but it still felt immediate as if she was being grilled.
“I gave a direct order that the mission was to be aborted! Why wasn't it?” he boomed.
“Yes, Sir. Unfortunately, your communication got caught in a looping sequence that crashed our entire communication system. It took us several days to boot it up again and by then The Mariner had already left on its mission. As soon as I could, I up dated you on The Mariner's situation.”
“Commodore Cyborn, Captain Garcia, Lieutenant Erickson, and Midshipman Sur.”
“Have you heard from them yet? Was an ACA recieved?”
“We got a steady data flow for two days. For the last ten hours, we haven't heard anything but we do believe that their craft is intact and most likely through the worm hole. No Automatic Collision Alert was sent.”
“ Not that an ACA is all that conclusive. There might not have been time.”
“A data package was sent only seconds before we lost contact. We are pretty confident that the ACA would have had time to send an alarm. We think the craft is intact lying at the bottom of the worm hole and the crew alive.”
“If they are still alive, what the hell is Cyborn up to? I need answers.”
“We have no idea, Sir, of the crews situation at this time.”
“And don't tell me The Mariner is having another damn communication failure. The DMC seems to have a lot of convenient communication failures. I hope by the time this message is received you have heard from them. If that is not the case, whatever their status, we need to take their lack of communication seriously. If you have had no word from The Mariner, you are ordered to treat this as a possible disaster situation. You are to proceed as close as you can and search for and rescue any surviving crew. You have three weeks. Then you'll assume The Mariner and her crew are lost and return to star base. Before you do, deploy a location beaker for them so if they do show up after The Explorer has left, they can get a message to us. Understood?”
“What about this sabotage situation?”
Jane rubbed her damp palms on her pant legs forcing her face to look calm and confident. “Commodore Cyborn handled the situation. There has been no further incidents. It was a matter of which the Commodore took direct charge, Sir. She informed me that the problem was resolved.” Jane wasn't about to lie to Grover but there was nothing wrong with avoidance.
“Get back to me on regular intervals.”
“Yes, Sir,” Jane responded, but Grover's message had already signed off. Jane pulled a face at the blank screen. Then sighed and got up walking over and activating the ships stigmatic drawing and requested a crew locator. Names appeared on the diagram. As she thought, Justice was down in engineering. She needed to talk to him face to face. For a second, she considered asking him to join her in the ready room and then decided against it. He'd be busy trying to find some way to reach the missing crew. No, she'd go to him.
She turned off the wall screen and headed to the door that hissed open allowing her to enter the bridge. Lt. Commander Alice Knox was the duty officer. “Al, I'm in Engineering.”
“Aye, aye, Sir. You're in Engineering.”
Jane found Justice, Toda and Jill down in the simulator in engineering. She poked her head inside for a second. “Can I get an update?”
Toda wiggled out of the simulator and straightened. towering over Jane. Not for the first time, Jane thought it was a very good thing that Giganteans were pacifists. Jill pushed her way out of the simulator and sat down on the steps. She looked pale and shaky. Jane knew she was worried about Anna but the doctor had also sent her a report that Jill had requested pain killers. Being bounced around for hours in the simulator so soon after she had broken her leg was taking a total. Lastly, Justice slipped out.
Justice sighed. “There is nothing to report. We have been through every possible simulation that we can imagine and none gives us the results we are seeing.”
“So what are you seeing in the data?”
It was Toda that answered. “The Mariner crashed, Sir. She didn't impact into the side of the vortex, she hit something at the bottom. She should have been flattened by the forces but she isn't. She's sitting in tact on the bottom according to her last communication. We don't understand what is going on because by all the laws of physics, there can't be a bottom in a worm hole. It's simply not possible.”
“Could the data flow have been inaccurate?”
Justice answered. “Unlikely. I think we're fairly safe in assuming the data was accurate up to the last communication. What's happened since then we don't know.”
“Could the craft have crashed, sat on the bottom a few minutes and then imploded under the stress?”
“Yes,” Jill said sadly.
“But we don't think so,” Justice added quickly.
“There was no ACA given off. No energy signature. No nothing,” Justice explained.
“Would the worm hole allow for such signs to reach us?”
“Worm holes are supposed to be two way channels. Yes, we should have seen something if The Mariner had met with a disaster.”
“Keep working on it. I've just had a message from Vice-Admiral Grover. The Explorer has been ordered to move closer to search for and rescue any survivors.”
Jane didn't voice what she was thinking. If a worm hole could have a bottom in it, it also could only go one way. They searched for the next eighteen days. Slowly doing large sweeps back and forth across the possible exit paths that The Mariner might have taken. Down in Engineering, Justice, Toda and Jill worked night and day on possible scenarios and Wiseman, Sue, Bet and Rob tested them in the simulator.
On the evening of the eighteenth day, Justice asked to see Jane in her The Explorer's ready room. “Hi. What is it Justice?” Jane asked, as they took seats.
“It's not good news, Jane. It's a bit detailed to explain but basically we sent both a transmission and a receiver to The Mariner. I wanted to know if The Mariner was there and hearing us. The message came back. The Mariner can hear us. They could respond but they haven't.”
Jane sighed. “So they are either dead or not aboard The Mariner.”
“Does Jill know?”
“Yes. She's upset but continuing to work on possible solutions.”
“Do you have anything?”
“I did consider taking a ISM in to see what is going on down there. I reasoned that the probe was able to get in and out so maybe the ISM would be small enough to do the same.”
Jane frowned. “Are the ISMs designed to withstand that sort of speed or pressure?”
“We tested it and the answer is no. An ISM can't make it.”
Jane rubbed her lip with a finger and considered. “Could we send another probe in. One with a camera?”
“It's possible. But all we'd learn is what we know now. The Mariner is down there.”
Jane nodded. “Keep me posted. In the meantime, I need a rescue beacon readied for deployment.”
“I'll get Toda working on it.”
Hours later, Jane woke from a restless sleep to the sound of her intercom bleeping. “Commander Hamilton. This is Captain Moshapa in Engineering. The Mariner is gone.”
“What do you mean gone?”
“It's no longer there.”
“She flew out!” Jane sprung to her feet in excitement and hope. She headed to her closet to get out a clean uniform out and hurriedly started to get dressed.
“Negative. There is no ion trail.”
“Then they didn't use propulsion. You know how damn resourceful Anna is. If The Mariner is not in the worm hole, I'm going to believe that it's because she got out until I know better. Get Jill and I'll meet you on the bridge.”
Jane ran a comb through her short black hair as she stopped by her communication system. “Hamilton to the bridge.”
“Sound general alert. The Mariner might be out there now and we have less than forty-eight hours to find her.”
Later, the initial excitement worn off in hours of tedious searching of black space, Jill paced a silent bridge. Jane sat in the command seat watching The Explorer repeating her search pattern once again. Near by Justice stood looking at the viewing screen of the dark mass lying a thousand nautical miles away . They were trying to find a needle in a hay stack as his grandmother used to say. Then suddenly, he knew. “Request that you bring The Explorer to a full stop, Commander.”
“Full stop, Helm.” Jane ordered.
Anna woke to darkness and cold. She had a sense of real sorrow that made the tears roll down her face. She had been confused and yet so happy and content in the other world. Where was she now?” Slowly, she sat up. She was on the bridge of The Mariner. Her crew lay about her, slowly coming around themselves. Anna staggered to her feet and checked her instrument panel. They had life support but not much else.
She went to Carlos first. “How you doing?”
“I'm so sad now.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, I'm fine.”
“We're on The Mariner. Aja, Alrik, are you two okay?
Anna sat back of her heals, allowing Carlos to get his emotions under control. “Did you hallucinate, Carlos?”
“Yes, I was with my ancestors and I was going out to hunt with my brother. I was so at peace and happy. I think I travelled back into the past.”
“I was in Sweden again at my grandparents home. I too felt so at peace and happy there. But my grandparents are dead. I thought I was dead too.”
“I was in a tropical paradise with...with an old childhood friend. I was very happy there. I thought I was dreaming. Then I realized that I was in paradise. I have seen the other side.”
Anna frowned. “What?”
“You call it heaven.”
“Aja, I don't think...”
“We were thrown into the past,” cut in Carlos. “I was hunting with a bow and arrow. I met my ancestors. I know I did.”
“And I was with my grandparents. I saw them. It was the spirit world.”
“Gentlemen, it's unlikely we'll agree on what we experienced. We've come in contact with a vastly superior race that has given each of us the experiences that we most desire. It was wonderful but it was an illusion. Look around you. We are still aboard The Mariner.”
There was silence aboard The Mariner. Each of them busied themselves at their consoles not willing to accept what they had experienced might just have been an illusion.
“Commodore. The Mariner is adrift in space. Eighteen thousand nautical miles outside the dark mass,” Aja observed.
“How'd we get here?”
“Not by propulsion. The engines are off line.” Alrik looked up from the engineering control panel.
“We got to see our ancestors and they returned us safely to our own time and place,” Carlos stated.
“God,” Aja stated. “It was God's hand.”
Again they fell silent. Each trying to make sense of what they had experienced.
It was Anna who brought everyone back to earth. “It is not for us to interpret what we experienced. Only report it. We might not be able to agree on what we experienced but I think we can all agree that this region of space should be a no fly area. If any of us say we've touched the face of God or visited our ancestors, we'll have every crack pot religious fanatic trying the get here. I think its best that we put a spin on the facts that is entirely different. Our ship was seized by a powerful, unseen force and was eventually hurled back into space. During that time we were under its control, we experienced realities that had deep spiritual significance to each of us as they were based on what we wanted the most. Agreed?”
“Yes, Com but we did see paradise, this I know.”
Anna nodded and answered diplomatically. “I hope you are right, Aja. If you are, we have experienced something very profound and beautiful. Now we need to get this tub up and running and get a message to The Explorer.”
“What is it, Carlos?”
“We've been gone almost three weeks.”
“I checked. We've been gone nineteen days.”
“My...experience was only a matter of minutes.” Everyone nodded agreement. “We must have been thrown ahead in time.”
“Maybe,” muttered Carlos, but no one believed it. In their hearts they knew what they'd experienced. They had been in a wonderful place were time had no meaning. It could never be understood. It could only be justified away with logic.
“Let's get to work,” Anna stated, and she turned to her own computer consol.
The hours ticked on. Anna started to work on rebooting any system that was still operational. Alrick had gone down to engineering and found that the propulsion systems were badly damaged and that bring the engines on line wouldn't be possible without major refitting inside a cargo bay. Justice reported that their long range communication system was completely fried after a massive overload but that they could manage a ship to ship communication. Aja discovered that there was enough power to launch a small distress beacon. This they did. Then they filled in their time gathering and recording as much data as they could with the equipment that was left functioning. They all knew that their only hope now would be if The Explorer was able to find them. That would be a daunting task.
That evening, they sat around the common room table reviewing their days efforts while they ate dinner. “I think we've done all we can. We'll just have to wait for The Explorer to find us,” Anna concluded with more confidence than she actually felt. She had no doubt that The Explorer had been looking for them but traditionally three weeks was the maximum time allotted for a search and they were very close to the end of that duration.
“We could pray,” Aja said and Carlos nodded his agreement.
“Pray? I didn't know you were particularly religious, Carlos. I know I'm not.”
“I haven't been but I do believe we're sitting near the entrance to a spiritual place. I think we all felt something very special while we were in that worm hole. I can remember the very old people telling stories of the ancestors. Who knows.”
Anna nodded. She didn't understand what she'd experienced but she felt that she had experienced something very wonderful and profound. Not a god, but something far beyond their understanding. “We all have different beliefs and world views. I'll take the first bridge watch, then Alrik, Carlos, and Aja. In the meantime, I think Aja and Captain Garcia have made good points. We've done our duty and faith in our being rescued is what we have left. You might want to adjourn to your cabins for some quiet prayer or meditation.”
“Thank you Commodore.”
Anna made her way up to the bridge and sat alone. She knew from her training that supporting belief was important to the emotional needs of her crew. That said, their experience was having a powerful effect on her crew. Aja was sure that he'd had some sort of enlightenment. Carlos was convinced that he'd been hurled into the past, Alrik knew that he'd visited some sort of spirit world and each had been profoundly moved by the experience. What did she believe? Disregarding all her common sense and logic, she felt she'd been given a glimpse into a happy future. But she couldn't afford the luxury of a God. No whatever, or whoever dwelled on the other side of that worm hole was far more advanced than any specie Anna had ever known. More than that, whoever it was could not just read minds but the inner most desires of a beings soul and make that come true for them. God or alien, they had no right to be here. They were way out of their league.
Faith and Duty
“I suggest that we sweep space with a microwave beam. We should be able to pick up a shadow echo if it passes over The Explorer,” Justice explained.
“And every other piece of space debris,” Jane noted.
“Yes, but with a worm hole being so close, its gobbled up a lot of the near by debris already. There can't be a lot out there. If we note the location of the large stuff, we can go take a look.”
Jane nodded. “It's worth a try. Jill, can you and Toda get us set up for such a scan?”
“I'm on my way to Engineering. Could you have, Toda meet me there?”
“Will do, Jill.”
“Lt. Toda to Engineering. Toda to Engineering.”
Jane looked at Justice. “If this doesn't work, we're not leaving. I figure the three weeks search procedure started today when we knew they were out of the hole.”
Justice smiled. The DMC did things their own way.
Anna sat on the bridge letting the hours of her watch drift by in thought. She had never thought about God before. It had never been part of her early training. She knew, of course, the fundamentals of the major religions. It was required reading in officer's training so as not to give offense. But she had never felt it on a spiritual level. Yet, like the rest of the crew, she had felt something. Something so much more than just a hallucination: a peace, an understanding, a feeling of completeness. Now her crew were in their separate rooms praying, she supposed, in their various cultural ways. What did they pray? Probably to get them out of this fix. Maybe forgiveness in case there was no rescue. What would she pray? She'd pray for some insight, some way to get The Explorer's attention.
Anna sighed. The beacon seemed about as best as they could do but was it enough? She needed answers to their problems and she needed them now. This was her ship and her crew. They were good people and she needed to get them home. She needed to get home to Jill. She'd promised.
Inspiration hit her almost immediately . Anna stood. She knew the answer. She knew how to be found. Anne reached for the intercom.
“All hands to the bridge. All hands to the bridge.”
The crew arrived within a few minutes. “Carlos, do you think Jane has stopped looking for us?”
“Neither do I. So I asked myself, if you had a massive expanse of space to search and only limited time, what would you do?”
It was Alrik who answered. “Send out some sort of search beam.”
“Exactly. And it will be on a microwave frequency.”
“How do you know that?” Carlos asked.
Anna blushed. “I just know.”
Carlos shrugged. “Works for me.” And the crew laughed.
“Okay, how do we get noticed by that beam?”
“Make ourselves bigger,” Sur stated.
“A debris field. We need a debris field,” Alrik said excitedly.
“But then they will think we have exploded,” Sur protested.
“They'll come and look anyway.”
“What do you think, Captain Garcia?” Anna asked.
“Aye, aye, Commodore. Alrik get the torpedo tubes ready, Sur you and I are going to collect everything that isn't nailed down to blast it out into space. Commodore, will you hold the bridge?”
“Yes. Let's make it happen, Gentlemen.”
While Anna scanned for signs of The Explorer and worked on trying to get more of the systems functioning, her crew blasted as much carbon based material as they could out into space. Then they waited. Each keeping busy working to get the systems up that they knew in their hearts were not going to run. Keeping busy was important. Never giving up was essential.
On the bridge of The Explorer, the search went on. They had been scanning space for ten hours and had located and charted three meteorites and a dust cloud. Jill stood close to Toda who rested one of his massive hands on her shoulder. Waiting wasn't easy.
“Commander Hamilton, I have a debris field,” stated Midshipman Bet Wheeler. “Seventeen hundred nautical miles from here. Coordinates 472.23, 230.81, 90.65.”
“Helm, take us there.”
“Aye, aye Commander.”
“I don't think they would disintegrate if they were able to get out of the worm hole,” Toda observed.
Jill smiled. “They didn't. Anna's dumped a trail to make a bigger target for us to find. She knew we'd use a beam.”
“How do you know this, Little One?”
“I just do. They're okay and they're waiting for us.”
Jane looked at Toda but said nothing. She hoped that Jill's confidence was well founded.
Seventeen minutes later, The Explorer slowed within a hundred nautical miles of the debris field.
“Periscope up. Image on screen,” Jane ordered. There before them in a large circle of debris sat The Mariner. She looked the worst for wear but she was intact.
“The Mariner to Explore. Mariner to Explorer.”
“Hello Commodore. You're a sight for sore eyes. How is your situation?”
“We're all okay but The Mariner has taken quite a beating. We have no propulsion. Request that explorer provide assistance.”
“Aye, aye, Commodore. We're on our way. Glad to have you back.”
Anna stood on her bridge. She should feel happy but instead she felt a great sorrow like something very beautiful that had settled in her soul had fluttered away. She looked around the quiet deck at the bleak faces of her crew and knew they felt the same.
“Whatever we experienced out here, gentlemen, we weren't meant to do so. We're members of the Dark Matter Corps. It is in the DMC where we belong. Our duty is to do what we can to protect this area of space. Our feelings must be kept secret and our thoughts must be filtered in an appropriate manner. Agreed?”
“Aye, Aye, Com.”
“Agreed, Commodore Cyborn.”
“Good. We came in contact with a vastly superior being that held us for sometime keeping us occupied by pleasant hallucinations or dreams. We were eventually released unharmed but our ship was left inoperable except for life support systems. We strongly advise that this dark mass and the worm hole associated with it be declared a no fly zone. It was not possible to get through to the other side. We're not ready yet.”
“Amen,” whispered Carlos.
Five hours later, The Mariner was back aboard The Explorer having been wrenched in on a tow line that had been attached to the Mariner with an EVA mission. Jill, Jane and Justice came out into the hanger as soon as the bay doors had closed and the atmospheric pressure had been stabilized. It was a quiet, tired crew that disembarked to shake hands and offer well wishes.
Anna wrapped Jill in her arms and held her tight for a few seconds before letting go to address the group.
“Commander Hamilton, Captain Moshapa, thank you. My crew and I are going to take some much needed R&R for twenty-four hours. In the meantime, set a course for Space Port Gagarin”
Jill led Anna back to their quarters and together they undressed, showered and crawled into bed together. “I missed you,” Jill sighed snuggling close.
“I missed you too.”
“You want to tell me about it? Whatever happened out there has clearly upset you all.”
“Jill, do you believe in God.”
“Yes, I guess I do. I was raised a Lutheran but I stopped going to church after we left New Mexico. I don't feel any need to worship within an organized religion but I pray sometimes when I need guidance, or to say thank you for a blessing. Why?”
“Faith was not part of my background. I studied religious beliefs in my training but I never gave it much thought. This mission, we all had a really moving experience. Each of us interpreted it in our own way. Carlos thinks he went back in time, Alrick was in some sort of a spirit world. Aja, actually believes he had some sort of a religious revelation. I don't know, Jill. I'm just confused about the whole experience. Who or whatever is out there, was able to create special worlds for us to dwell in. That in itself would have been amazing enough, but there was more, I experienced something wonderful.”
“Tell me about it.”
So Anna did as they lay in each others arms. “Whatever I experienced, you were with me and that is all that matters.”
“I like a happy ending,” Jill smiled and then leaned over to kiss Anna. Warm hands explored Anna's body as the kiss deepened to passion. Jill's tongue slipped between Anna's open lips and Anna moaned as skilled fingers touched her clitoris now wet with desire. Anna closed her eyes as kisses trailed down her body lingering over her hard nipples and dipping into her navel before licking at the cream of her desire. Anna bucked with excitement and need but Jill teased and caressed her just enough to keep her on the brink of coming. When Jill finally did let her come Anna's climax was wet, powerful and long lasting. After, Anna lay exhausted in Jill's arms.
“Missed me, eh?” Jill chuckled.
“You have no idea,” Anna smiled and then showed Jill just how much with her own love making until they both lay spent side by side holding hands.
“You have no idea!,” Vice-Admiral Grover roared as Anna stood at attention in front of him several months later. “How much trouble you might have caused by allowing yourself to be seen and held by these super advanced beings. They could be planning an invasion of this quadrant at this very moment. Your role was to make careful and subtle observations and then get the hell out of there. If you knew you couldn't do that you shouldn't have damn well flown in there. And don't give me this crap about not getting my message. I wasn't born yesterday. You and the DMC just feel you can bloody well do what you want.”
“Certainly not, Sir. We endeavour to meet the goals and high standards you have set for us in forming the Dark Matter Corps. We realize that our group was formed to push the envelope and that sometimes means thinking more independently than other ships in the ISC. That's why you created our group, isn't it, Sir?”
Grover's face was beet red with fury. “Get the hell out, Cyborn.”
“Yes, Sir.” Anna saluted turned and left. There was no point in waiting for Grover to return the salute. It wasn't going to happen.
“How'd it go?” asked Jill, who had been waiting in the hall.
“The usual dressing down but at least he didn't threaten to make me Captain of a garbage scow leaving the universe like Admiral Ito did.”
“You do have a winning way with people.” They walked through the white corridors of the star port together.
“Just as long as you find me attractive that's all that matters.”
“You'll do for now, Commodore,” Jill teased, “But I do have my eye on this Captain of a garbage scow...”.
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