DISCLAIMER: Award winning author, Anne Azel, is pleased to announce the publication of her novel 'Iron Rose Bleeding'. This long awaited book is a fascinating read and is full of surprises and twists. This is a book you'll think about long after you have turned the last page. You don't want to miss owning your own copy of 'Iron Rose Bleeding'. http://www.pdpublishing.com/azel.html Other books Available by Anne, PD Publishing: Seasons, Murder in Triplicate, Three Doses of Murder, Gold Mountain, The Little Book of Big Christmas Tales, Iron Rose Bleeding and American Windows. (Gold Mountain and The Little Book of Big Christmas Tales are both Golden Crown Literary Society winners.) Blue Feather: Journeys and Encounters
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Dark Matter Corps Series
Dark Matter Command
By A. Azel
Anna sat alone at a large oak boardroom table in Conference Room B of the International Space Command. She was reading over the crew profiles that she had been given. Reading was not actually the correct word. Tall, blond and blue eyed, Anna was good looking by human standards but in reality Captain Anna Cyborn was one of the few A58 Clone-Cyborgs. She was not really reading, rather her photo cells recorded each data page, converted the writing into code, sorted, stored, analysed and drew logical conclusions in split seconds. Human in most aspects, Anna had cybernetic enhancements that made her a very unique being.
The over all conclusion that she had drawn was that her first command was simply a political gesture and not the break through that she'd hoped for her kind. Her second conclusion was that her crew were misfits just as apparently she was still. Her third conclusion was that although she had earned an officer's rank in the International Space Command or ISC, she was never going to wear the uniform. A whole new service had been created just for her to prevent that from happening. As of today she was the only Captain and highest ranking officer in the Dark Matter Corps. By one very sneaky political move, everything she had worked for had come to nothing.
The door opened and Rear Admiral Thompson walked in. Anna drew herself up and stood at attention snapping a salute.
"As you were, Cyborn." Thompson took a seat opposite her. Thompson was a fit, rugged looking man with grey starting to form around his temple. Anna knew that he was a hero of the Hydronian Crisis and a man well respected.
"Yes, Sir." Not Captain Cyborn just Cyborn. Humans found it so hard to see her as an equal.
"You've had time to look over the dossier of your crew?"
"About this new division Sir. Is it necessary?"
Thompson played with his pen not looking up. Anna knew it was a sign of human nervousness. He's about to lie or at least evade my question, she concluded.
"It would appear so." Thompson sighed. "Not my doing, Cyborn. Others aren't as comfortable with you taking a command. They want you to earn your stripes. You'll be heading out to Space Port Gagarin. You'll be under the command of Vice Admiral Bart Grover."
"I have, as you put it, earned my stripes. I graduated top of my class, I've spent eight years on space missions and I've seen combat."
"But I'm seen as a Cyborg."
Thompson hesitated and then sided with honesty. "Yes. No one knows how your crew will react to your command. Grover has concerns."
"Cyborn, you have every chance here to make a name for yourself. Ninety per cent of the universe is dark matter and we don't know a hell of a lot about it. Your craft will be assigned to various space ships and launched as a probe into areas of black matter to record and map the areas."
"A probe. The SS Mariner is not a space craft? It's a probe?"
"No, no, it's a space craft. It's small. The size of a large probe."
"It's a command Cyborn. You can't expect to be on the bridge of a major Star Ship on your first command."
"No Sir. I had hoped though to wear the uniform of the International Space Command."
Thompson slipped his pen into his inside pocket and stood. Anna came to attention. "I did what I could, Cyborn."
"Captain Cyborn, Sir."
For the first time Thompson's eyes met hers. He nodded. "Good luck, Captain Cyborn."
"Thank you, Sir."
A few hours later, Anna stood at the window of her apartment. In her mind she reviewed what she knew of her crew. There would be four men and four women.
Chief Petty Officer Sue Lai was the oldest and the paramedic aboard. She was a Chinese American and was 50. She'd served with distinction during the Hydronian Crisis but on returning had suffered a physical and mental breakdown. She had not seen active service for two years. She needed five more years to retire on a reasonable pension.
Sub Lieutenant Barron Eveen was 84 by Trodarian years or 28 by Earth years. She would be the Communications officer. Todarians had acute hearing and an amazing ability to pick up new languages. They were however, flighty and romantic and found it difficult to adjust to the discipline of the Service. Eveen, Trodarians put their clan name first, had been disciplined innumerable times for being late, handing in assignments when she felt like it and not being on task.
Crewman Jill Fairfax was a Canadian who had enlisted at the recommendation of a judge as an alternative to jail. She had dropped out of university in her first year and had been arrested for drug possession, theft, and disorderly conduct. She had done well through training particularly in navigation but was known to be moody and short tempered. Jill was 23.
Lt. Commander Justice Moshapa was from Botswana. At age 33 he had an excellent record and although he didn't have a degree and so hadn't done officer training, he'd won a field commission. He might have made Captain if he hadn't lost an arm in an explosion. The missing limb had been replaced by an prosthetic. Normally, he would have received a medical discharge but his older brother, a significant figure in international affairs, had pulled some strings to keep him in the service.
Lieutenant Adam Wiseman, age 28, was from New York. He was a brilliant young scientist who had got his education through the International Space Command. He was now putting in his five years of service as part of his agreement with the command. Wiseman was not very good at following orders. He resented anything that took him away from his research on dark matter.
Lieutenant Toda was a Gigantean and that said it all. Gigantean males were on an average two and a half metres tall and were built like football players. They had as a people and uncanny understanding of machinery. Their large hands could fine tune the smallest of mechanisms. Despite their size they would have made excellent Command officers if the entire planet of them weren't pacifists. Toda's acceptance into the Command was a political gesture to help cement a treaty with his planet. There was a note added in Toda's file that although very slow to anger it was unwise to make a Gigantean angry. Pacifism it seemed, was the Gigantean way of controlling baser instincts in their society. Toda was 30 by Earth years.
Crewman Aja Sur was a 23 year old East Indian from Bengal. He had done well through his training and had some experience flying trading craft. He was an environmental activist. A man known for his strong views, he had been arrested on several occasions at demonstrations.
Anna sighed. Then there was her. 60 % cloned-human and 40% cybernetics. She'd had a laboratory upbringing and struggled to know who she was and be accepted within society. Yes, they were a bunch of misfits who could be an embarrassment to the Command. Rather than create waves by getting rid of them, the Command had simply relegated them to the backwater of space exploration.
Anna's chin tightened. This was the assignment she had been given and she was going to make a success of it. The International Space Command might not expect much from them but she planned to make the Dark Matter Corps a service that others would envy.
She returned to sit at her desk and looked at the data provided for their first mission. She should review it again. Instead she clicked to a new screen. She wrote.
Service: Dark Matter Marines
Motto: No Boundaries but Honour
Emblem: navy and white symbol representing known space and beyond.
It was a beginning.
The Dark Matter Corps
No Boundaries But Honour
Anna arrived at Docking Station Twenty-six aboard the Space Station Gagarin at 14:00 hours on 2648.72 relative space/time. The space port smelt. It was considered bad manners to mention it but Anna's nose twitched in disgust. Air filtration systems worked well and allowed massive ports like Gagarin to exist but there was still no way to filter out smell. Each craft and space port had its own unique odour. Because of the number of species and races aboard, generally the bigger the facility the greater and more repugnant the smell. Gagarin was a very big station. You got used to the smell after a while and didn't notice but the first few days were a trial for the sinuous cavity. Anna's appointment with the Vice-Admiral in charge of the base was not until this evening so she went first to the area where she knew her craft would be docked and reported to the station's Chief Petty Officer.
"I'm Captain Anna Cyborn. I'm here to take command of the HS1-950 dark matter submersible, The Mariner. Here is the necessary release data." Anna held out a plastic strip of electronic code.
The Chief Petty Officer took it without acknowledging Anna. "When does your commanding human arrive to take possession?"
"I am the commanding officer. I'm here to take possession and that's Captain Cyborn to you Chief Petty Officer."
The man stumbled to his feet looking confused and annoyed and stood at attention.
"Where do I find my ship?"
"Dock 47a, Sir."
Anna nodded and left the docking station office feeling frustrated and concerned. Perhaps ISC was right. Perhaps I can't get the respect I need to command. She let go of these thoughts as quickly as they came. Confidence was the key to success. She would find a way to make her first command work. Getting to ramp 47 she stopped to look out a portal of the main docking arm at her ship. Her heart sank. It was a probe. ISC had just gutted the inside to make it habitable. The HS1-950 was no more than a converted SP- 950 deep space probe. She looked across at the Space Ship docked on arm 47b. The Explorer was an old Galaxy A Class. The sort of vessel of which her fellow graduating officers would most likely be taking command. She looked back at the HS1-950 that was dwarfed next to the Galaxy. It was more than humiliating. It was embarrassing.
Anna made her way down the docking arm and pressed the release button to allow her aboard her craft. She climbed down the conning tower ladder into the common room. No amenities here. The craft was basic in the extreme. The colour was basic grey and the smell was more stale and metallic than living. There were metal chairs and tables that would accommodate ten bolted to the floor. The small galley was made of stainless steel and a media centre had been squeezed in against the opposite bulkhead. She headed through to the bow. The nose cone contained a laser gun and D class missiles. Behind this area was the operations deck or bridge, a series of centres with secured chairs in front of each. Another sealed hatch led through a bulkhead into the common room at the end of which a hall provided access to six crew quarters one a little larger for the captain. Anna dropped her duffle bag in this room and then continued her tour to the stern. Behind the crew's quarters was the engine room and engineering station and behind this was the stern weaponry station equipped with twenty year old depth charges. God help us if we ever did run into an enemy.
She made her way back up the narrow hall to the bridge and started booting up each of the stations, running a diagnostic on each. The Mariner was going to need a lot of supplies and work to make her serviceable. Several hours later she became aware that someone else was on board. Looking up she saw her Number One, Justice Moshapa stepping through the hatch. Seeing her he came to attention.
"Lt. Commander Justice Moshapa reporting for duty, Sir."
Anna smiled and moved forward to offer her hand. "As you were Number One. Welcome aboard. I'm Anna."
Anna looked down. The hand she had grasped was artificial. Justice laughed.
"So the cyborg has a human hand and the human has a cyborg hand. I think we'll make a good unit. We can borrow parts from each other."
Anna laughed. It was a relief to know at least her second in command was going to be accepting of her.
"I was delighted to hear that you'd be aboard, Justice. I'm new to command and knowing there is someone with experience and intelligence at my side that I can turn to for help is a big relief."
"I'll do my best for you."
There was an awkward silence. Then Anna looked at her new Number One. Time to build some bonds. "We got screwed you know. They don't want us."
Justice nodded. "Yes. I know. But this is our lot and we have to make the best of it."
"We'll do more than that. You and I are going to make this service a legend."
"I like the sound of that."
They toured the Mariner together and then Anna left to report in to the ISC space port command to pick up her official orders. She left Justice to greet the crew who should be arriving at 18:00 hours.
Anna walked down one of the spokes of the huge wheel that made up the space port towards the outer rim. The docking bays were all close to the centre of the wheel where the artificial gravity as at its lowest level. Living and working areas were on the outer rim where the artificial gravity was closest to Earth's. Anna felt the unsettling sensation of her body getting heavier as she got closer to the outer rim nearly a nautical mile away. She could have taken an elevator but she enjoyed a good walk when she could get one. Following the directions on the wall maps, Anna made her way to the administration section and reported to Vice-Admiral Grover's office.
A female Warrant Officer was at the administrative assistant desk. Anna reported to her.
"Captain Cyborn, C-C056 from ISC Officer's Training to see Vice-Admiral Grover."
"The Admiral is expecting you, Captain. This way please."
Anna was ushered in to the Vice Admiral's office to find to her surprise a fellow class mate already there sitting in one of the two chairs that faced the Admiral's desk. She came to attention.
"Captain Cyborn reporting for duty, Sir."
"As you were Cyborn. Take a seat. I believe you will recognize Captain Carlos Garcia."
"Yes Sir. Hello Carlos."
"Carlos will be commanding The Explorer. It's the Galaxy class vessel that is docked next to your probe."
"My ship, Sir. The SS Mariner. It's not a probe anymore. It's a dark matter submersible."
"Ah yes. Quite right. Your submersible. At 11:00 hours tomorrow you will dock The Mariner in The Explorer's hold. Explorer will take you to your mission site. It's a small mass of dark matter about two million nautical miles from here. You will have a month to explore the area while Captain Garcia is away on manoeuvres. He will pick you up on 2669.51 RST. Make sure you are there. Here are your orders. As the senior officer, anything else you will need to know Captain Garcia will inform you of in due course. That is all, Cyborn."
For a split second Anna didn't understand what had happened. She managed to get to her feet and salute. Garcia was studying his boots intently and didn't look up. Having dismissed her, Admiral Grover had picked up a file and was going through it, totally ignoring her.
Anna wheeled and left. She didn't go back to her ship. She couldn't, not yet. She needed to calm down first. She didn't know Garcia very well but she had thought him a pretty good guy. He'd got good marks in command training but Anna had graduated top of the class. Yet Garcia was captaining The Explorer and she was under his command flying a converted probe. It was just too much to bear.
She headed into the station café and ordered a coffee. It grew cold as she sat staring at the table.
"Permission to join you."
Anna looked up to find Carlos Garcia standing there. She nodded swallowing hard to fight back the emotion she was feeling.
"I just wanted you to know that I didn't like the way the Vice Admiral treated you. It was weird at first training with a cloned human-cyborg. You know there are a lot of issues for us humans in regards to whether cyborgs should have rights. Truthfully, I don't know how I stand on that argument, but I do know I came to respect you. And although I'm not sure it was fair to have to compete for marks against someone with cybernetic parts, I do know that you always played fair and supported your team.
"For whatever reason, you were the best of our graduating class and I don't like the way you are being treated. If they weren't going to let you wear the uniform they shouldn't have accepted your application in the first place, the way I see it. I know you aren't happy about this and I know I'm not. This is my first command and if I make a mistake I have a Cyborg waiting in the damn wings to show me up. So this is how I figure it. You handle your job and I'll handle mine. Agreed?"
Anna nodded. She respected Carlos's honesty even if she didn't like all he had to say. She'd play by his rules. "Agreed."
"Buy you a coffee? That one looks pretty dead."
"No thanks. I need to get back to my ship."
"I'll see you tomorrow then Captain."
"Aye aye, Captain Garcia."
Anna walked back to her ship. She felt beat up and she hadn't even started her first mission yet. She was used to being treated differently, sometimes even rudely, but she hadn't expected the ISC to turn against her after she had proven herself to be worthy of wearing the uniform.
Boarding, she climbed down the conning tower into bedlam.
"Captain on board!"
Her crew came to attention and went silent.
"Report Number One."
"We've run into a few problems with accommodations, Sir. Lieutenant Toda doesn't fit into his assigned room."
Eyes turned and looked at the massive man that was taking up most of the corner of the room. At attention his head was brushing the low ceilings.
"Oh dear. I'm sorry to be such a nuisance." Toda's voice was soft and gentle in contrast to his massive, strong body.
"I see. To start with, everyone sit down." While the crew quickly slipped into seats around the metal table, She did some fast mental calculating. She remained standing. "Give Lieutenant Toda my stateroom and see what can be done to get a bigger bed for him."
"Yes, Sir. Then Lieutenant Wiseman and Chief Petty Officer Lai have each requested a room separate from their quarters. Lieutenant Wiseman for research and Chief Lai to use as an infirmary."
Anna thought for a minute. There were only six rooms in all. She'd already had to give up her own larger quarters to Toda. Now this. The next largest room would be Justice's. "I'm afraid Number One your room will have to become the infirmary. The sick or injured take priority. We can also set up a small science lab there that can be used by any of us doing research. Lieutenant Wiseman, you'll have to do the bulk of your research in your room but I'll assign you a room to yourself. That means the rest of us have to double up. Lieutenant Barron and Chief Lai will have one room. Lt. Commander Moshapa and Crewman Aja Sur another and Crewman Fairfax and myself the last."
Crewman Fairfax visibly paled. Anna went on. "I know it's unusual to quarter enlisted personnel with officers but the Dark Matter Corps operates by its own rules. Space is limited and although discipline is important, we are first and foremost a team. Having senior officers with less experienced crew will allow for a close working relationship and greater opportunity for training. Understood?"
"Aye Aye, Captain," they chorused.
Anna looked at her crew. By the expressions on their faces ranging from annoyed to shocked, she didn't think they understood at all. The politically correct speech she had prepared was discarded. The crew might be an mix of misfits but they weren't stupid. She struggled to find the words she needed to get her crew off to a good start.
"No Boundaries but Honour. That ladies and gentlemen will be our motto. As you are aware we will not be wearing the uniform of the ISC but our own. Our new uniforms will arrive today. I have designed our badge and I understand our uniforms will be navy as opposed to the sky blue of ISC. I will be blunt. For one reason or another we have been found to be unacceptable to the ISC and they have avoided political unpleasantness by forming this little service. But we are going to prove to them that belonging to the Dark Matter Corps is an honour that only the best get to achieve. We have been handed the last of the great unknowns in this sector the dark matter belts. We are going to go without fear and without prejudice into that great unknown and make history. We are the Dark Matter Corps and we have no boundaries but the honour of our service that we will always up hold."
For a minute there was silence then Toda rose like a mountain and loomed over them. He placed his right fist over his heart and started to pound his chest. "Dark Matter Corps. Dark Matter Corps. Dark Matter Corps."
The others stood and followed suit, chanting as they beat. "Dark Matter Corps. Dark Matter Corps. Dark Matter Corps."
Anna smiled and nodded proudly. Their first tradition had been established. "You have fifteen minutes to stow your gear. Then report back here for your first mission."
The crew was on its feet and moving, mostly around Toda, but at least they were obeying orders willingly. It was a start. Justice stood but remained behind.
"The Mariner is useless in its present state. We have no science lab, no medical facilities, and only the basics in communications and weaponry. We have approximately fifteen hours to change that situation."
Justice smiled. "Oh, a covert mission."
"Our code of honour prevents us from stealing but we can come as close as possible to that line without crossing it."
By 20:00 hours the crew had been briefed and had disappeared in various directions to do what they could to improve their vessel before departure, each realizing that there were no boundaries but honour.
Dark Matter Cargo
1:00 hours and Anna was busy inventorying what the crew had brought back and allotting it to various storage units and sections. Wiseman was the first one back pulling a large cargo wagon loaded with cardboard boxes.
"Lieutenant Wiseman requesting permission to come aboard."
"Granted. Let me give you a hand. Why don't you pass those boxes down to me."
Together they quickly got the dozen or so boxes stacked in the common room.
"What do you have here?"
"All together a pretty good science lab. It's mine. I've been collecting, swapping, building and buying equipment for years. I never thought it was so I'd have to use it to equip my own ISC lab."
"You'll have to share with the others, understand that. That said, you have my word, I'll replace any equipment that is worn out or damaged."
Wiseman looked momentarily upset. He was not a man used to sharing. Then he nodded. The Captain was meeting him half way.
"Yes, Sir. Request permission to be in charge of the science lab and set the rules."
"Subject to my approval, granted."
Next down the ladder was Sue. She too had come laden with goods in this case medical supplies.
"I didn't steal them," she protested as she passed box after box down to them. "I went to the paramedics and nurses at the base hospital and the three clinics explained that we were going on what amounts to a suicide mission with no medical supplies and begged for assistance. Everyone was very generous in stealing supplies and passing them on to me. With this lot I could even do some surgery."
"Are you qualified to do surgery?"
"Well no, but I could."
Anna looked at Wiseman and he shrugged. "You didn't say we couldn't receive stolen goods."
Jill arrived next and was lowered down the conning tower on Toda's long arm.
"Crewman Fairfax and Lieutenant Toda reporting, Sir. I would just like to go on record as saying I have no idea what he's got but I think it could destroy the universe."
Toda's large head appeared. "Nonsense. It is just basic equipment that an engineer would want to have on hand. Spare parts, tools and a few defensive weapons. We do want to be prepared, now, don't we."
Strange looking pieces of apparatus started to be lowered down the conning tower. "Don't drop anything, please. We wouldn't want an explosion now would we."
The three below deck exchanged looks.
"We got some of this stuff from the classified weaponry area," Fairfax explained.
Anna frowned and looked up the ladder. "Lieutenant, was any of this cargo stolen?"
"Oh Sir! I would never steal. But we engineers do have a rather informal bartering system."
"What did you bargain with?"
"The printouts of your cyborg units. I have to tell you they were a much sought after commodity. There aren't many cyborgs in this area of space and naturally all us engineers are simply fascinated by you."
Anna felt the blood rising up her face. "You traded my personal medical files?"
"Only the cyborg ones. I got them off the ship's data base before I left."
Anna gritted her teeth. She had after all told them to push the limits to get what they needed. "In future discuss such decisions with me."
"Yes, Sir. Please be gentle with these, Boson bombs."
"I thought he was a pacifist?" Wiseman smiled.
"I am. These are strictly for defence" came a voice from above.
Sometime later, Moshapa and Sur arrived with some pretty good navigation and communication equipment salvaged from the spare parts deposit. These too were stored in appropriate places until there was time to integrate them into their systems.
The only one missing now was Barron. Knowing her rather flighty nature, Anna wondered if she'd made a mistake in sending her off on such a questionable and opened ended assignment. A few hours later, however, she returned, grinning with delight.
"I have everything we need. Music, a wide range of specialized foods to supplement the basic supplies, games, and posters for our walls. It's truly amazing what you can find at the pawn shops and market at rock bottom prices."
Anna looked at the mound of junk in dismay. "What did you use for money?"
"Money? Oh I just charged everything to the ISC."
Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at Barron in shock. She looked back in confused innocence.
"Did I do something wrong?"
Then Justice laughed and they all joined in.
"Wait until they try to balance this month's budget at headquarters."
"Fortunately, we'll be long gone by then."
Anna had been wrong. The cargo that Barron had brought aboard had proven to be very important and very much needed. While they had found places for the remaining cargo, Barron had busied herself rearranging the basic food allotment to make room for what she had brought. Then she set about making them a meal of Thai style stir fry over rice. She had even bought a bottle of nonalcoholic wine for them to share and a purple drink that came from Toda's home planet. Toda was moved and said so.
After supper, Barron gave out posters to everyone for their quarters. Fairfax got a poster of the Rocky Mountains. Wiseman of a distance solar system. Toda was given a diagram of the new propulsion engine. Lai a restful forest scene with Peace is all around us if we look printed on it. Sur's poster was of an endangered specie of lizard and Justice got a poster of a herd of African elephants. Barron proudly held up the one she had picked for herself of a flower garden. Then she reached for a large bag that she'd kept by her chair all through dinner.
"Captain Cyborn has given us reason to hope that we can make something of our careers and prove to ISC that we are a special and important service. This is Captain Cyborn's first command and I wanted her to have something to remember us by when she is an Admiral and working out of ISC Central. Getting this done was what took me so long getting back."
From the bag, Barron pulled a framed photo of The Mariner and in ovals around the edge were pictures of herself and each of the crew members. She passed it over to Anna who took it with surprise. Then Barron raised her glass. "To Captain Cyborn."
Everyone stood. "Captain Cyborn."
Anna rose slowly to her feet. "I have to tell you that the last few days have been hell. I struggled to find a way to turn a bad situation into something positive for us. Frankly, I doubted if we could do it. I have no doubt now. I have the best crew that any Captain could command. Thank you.
"This is the beginning of the Dark Matter Corps and I think it's a fine beginning. Mind you, I think that some of what we have stowed away today had better remain our secret. We'll just call it dark matter cargo."
They laughed and then Anna ordered them all to get some rest as they would have to land in The Explorer's docking bay in less than three hours.
The Secret Society of the Dark Matter Corps
Two hours later their uniforms arrived. Anna went immediately to her cabin to change, wanting to set an example for the others. She noted Fairfax held back, waiting, she supposed, to give her privacy. Anna changed quickly and then went forward to the bridge. For the first time she sat in the command seat. It was a funny feeling. She felt like a schoolgirl who had dared to sit at the teacher's desk. Over the next half hour her crew arrived wearing their new navy blue jump suits.
"Engineering, power up systems. Lieutenant Barron, request permission to dock with The Explorer. Crewman Sur, take the helm. Crewman Fairfax, take the navigation seat."
"The Explorer is standing by, Captain. We are authorized for landing in Hanger Bay Three."
"Crewman Fairfax, release the mooring cables."
They heard the mooring cables retract and felt the gentle sway of their craft in space.
"Your command, Number One."
"Yes, Sir. Ahead one, Helm."
"Aye, aye. Ahead one."
Slowly and carefully, Moshapa manoeuvered The Mariner out of its docking bay, around the docking arm and into the large hanger bay of The Explorer. They touched down softly and quietly. Anna resisted a sigh of relief. The last thing she needed on their first day was to embarrass themselves.
"The Mariner has landed, Captain."
"Power down and execute the deck locking procedures, Number One. Then I want everyone to their quarters to make up on some lost sleep. I'll be with Captain Garcia making arrangements for our passage."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
Anna worked her way to the common room and waited for the all clear signal indicating that the cargo bay had been sealed and pressurized. Then she climbed to the ladder of the small conning tower and opened the hatch. She pulled herself up on the deck and waited for the landing crew of The Explorer to bring over the descent ladder. She watched and listened. They were clearly not aware of how acute a cyborg ears were.
"Damn thing is just a probe with cyborg parts."
"Nah, its got some humans aboard. It's a new service that they formed for losers. If you can't make it in the ISC they stick you in these dark matter probes."
The other guy laughed. "Expendables."
Anna stood straight, legs apart and arms folded and looked down at them. "Your information is wrong, gentlemen. We are the Dark Matter Marines. An elite group of explorers that go where the regular fleet fears to go. We are the best of the best. Our motto is No Boundaries but Honour."
The two looked up with startled eyes as they pushed the descent ladder into place.
That should start some positive rumours. Anna descended and waited for the crew member that would take her to Captain Garcia. I need to take some steps to make sure my crew doesn't hear these negative remarks. Their confidence would soon be shattered if they are held up to ridicule while on board.
Several minutes later, she had greeted Captain Garcia and had taken a seat in his ready room. She looked around. By Star Ship standards the room was pretty basic with its table and chairs and small computer centre. Still, it was down right luxurious by The Mariner's standards. Not only did she not have a ready room she didn't even have her own quarters.
Garcia had the decency to look uncomfortable as he opened the screen in front of him. "I have your orders here. It's pretty straight forward. You are to map the size and structure of the dark matter mass and take readings to see what its composition is."
Anna forced a smile. It was busy work. The mass had been mapped and analysed by probes long ago and Captain Garcia knew it. He handed her the down loaded orders and quickly went on.
"I have prepared quarters for you and your crew. Also if you want, Anna, your crew members can be assigned to positions on board to give them a few extra months Star Ship experience while we are en route."
"That is very decent of you, Carlos but you understand that there are orders and there are orders. I felt it was imperative that we leave star base under a cloak of secrecy. Hence the converted probe. My crew will be busy with training exercises while on board. The nature of those exercises I'd rather not reveal. If it is possible I would like you to order that Hanger Bay Three is off limits to your personnel unless otherwise authorized."
Garcia looked startled. Red climbed up his neck. "Oh course. I should have known with your ISC training performance that you were ear marked for something special."
Anna shrugged. "Just routine for the DMC. If it is possible, we would like meals delivered to the hanger. I think you realize with the specialized equipment we need that we can't carry much on board in the way of luxuries and I don't want to diminish our supplies before our mission begins."
"Certainly, Captain Cyborn."
Captain Cyborn. Anna liked the sound of that. At last she was getting some respect even if it was based on misinformation. No matter what, she was going to live up to the lie she had just told Garcia and make this mission one of significance.
Anna stood. "I think that about covers it then, Carlos. I can find my own way back." She offered her hand.
Carlos stood and after only the slightest hesitation took Anna's hand. "I don't know what you are up to Captain but good luck. If The Explorer can be of any help you have only to ask."
"Thank you, Captain Garcia. You have the trust and respect of the DMC." Anna took her leave. She didn't feel good about deceiving Garcia, who had gone out of his way to over come his prejudices and treat her and her crew fairly. A lie was not a good way to establish the reputation and honour of her ship. She and her crew would have to live up to Anna's tales or look like fools.
She went straight back to The Mariner and climbed aboard. "Lt. Commander Moshapa I need to see you in my ready...the infirmary."
"Aye aye, Sir."
Anna paced around the small area while Moshapa waited patiently for her to compose herself.
"I just lied to Captain Garcia. I'm not comfortable with that but it seems our mission is to map the size and composition of the dark matter mass. In short, we don't have a mission. Already we are known aboard The Explorer as losers and expendables. I can't allow that. We are going to create our own mission. I'm not sure yet what it will be but circumstance will provide opportunities I'm sure. This means we will be bending if not disobeying orders. I'm telling you so if you want to transfer off The Mariner you can."
Moshapa thought for only a minute. "In my culture, family and clan are very important. It defines who you are. It is the roots on which your family tree grows. Fate has made me a Dark Matter Marine. Where you go. I go. You need me."
Anna smiled. "Yes, I do. Already, I'm getting us into hot water."
Anna frowned. "I'm not going to lie to them but I am going to mislead them. They need to believe in themselves and be proud of their ship and duty. Is that so wrong?"
"Normally, I'd say it is always wrong to lie to or mislead your crew. Sometimes you can't always tell them the truth but you shouldn't lie to them. But this is a different situation. If we are going to make the Dark Matter Corps a service of importance then we have to take some risks."
Anna relaxed. "Thanks for your support, Justice."
"I'm watching your back, Anna."
Anna followed Justice out the hatch of the Infirmary and ran into a living wall.
"Permission to talk to the Captain," Toda requested.
"Granted." Anna stepped back into the room and got in the corner while she waited for the Gigantean to squeeze through the hatch.
"Oh my, they do make these things small but not to worry our next ship will be much more suited for my bulk."
Anna smiled. "Do you think the DMC will be getting a new ship?"
"Certainly, I'm already designing it. That is what I want to talk to you about Captain."
"Building a new ship?"
"No Sir. Redesigning this one. Frankly it's very ugly. It looks like a converted SP-950 deep space probe."
"That's what it is."
"Yes, but it's bad for our image. I think with a little nip here and tuck there I can turn this vessel into something that would make a Gigantean's eyes light up."
"In two months? With all the other renovations we have to get done?"
"Please, Captain. I'll only work on it on my own time and Jill and Eveen have promised to help and I know the others will pitch in once they know what we're up to."
"Will any of these design modifications in anyway compromise the integrity of the vessel?"
"No, Sir. It will be strictly cosmetic. I have a rough sketch right here." Toda dug deep into a pocket and unfolded a large piece of paper. There was a accurate sketch of The Mariner as it was and below what could only be described as a beautiful mean machine.
Anna looked closer. "It has the look of a shark. The conning tower looks like a top fin and the lateral jets are fin shaped too."
Toda smiled lovingly at the sketch. "I always feel that organic lines are the most powerful. I was a little uneasy with the predator motif but sometimes a threatening bluff can be used as an alternative to violence. I'm opposed to violence."
Anna resisted the urge to smile at Toda's unusual logic. Toda would take some getting used to. "Did you do these drawings? They are beautiful."
"Oh no. I did a rough sketch and Eveen, that is Lieutenant Barron, did these for me. She's very talented."
"Well, Lieutenant, if its only cosmetic and it doesn't take you or anyone else away from your regular work, then proceed."
"Oh thank you, thank you Captain. You won't be disappointed. The Mariner will be simply beautiful."
"Good. Anything that enhances our imagine, I'm all for."
"One other thing, Captain."
"You can't imagine how excited I was to learn my commanding officer was a cyborg. I've studied all the manuals. If you ever have any problems just come to me. I can't wait to get my hands on you."
Anna took a step back and felt her muscles tense in defence before she realized that the Toda saw her as a wonderful machine with which to tinker. She forced herself to control her temper with difficulty.
"Lieutenant Toda, I am not a cyborg. I'm 60% cloned human and 40% cybernetics. All of those cybernetic parts are working at peak performance and will continue to do so long after the human frame starts to deteriorate. Under no conditions will you ever put your hands on me or any of my cybernetic parts and that, Mister, is an order."
"And another thing don't ever share my medical readouts with anyone again."
Anna leaned against the table and took deep breaths until she had herself under control again. Then she laughed. That was the strangest proposition that she'd ever had. Poor Toda must be feeling bitterly disappointed to discover that his commanding officer was off limits.
The next eight weeks and two days were a whirlwind of activity. Drills were run, classes held, exercises performed, new equipment installed and cosmetic work completed on The Mariner. The crew willingly worked double shifts and the mysterious activities of the DMC were becoming the talk of The Explorer. The gallery crew, usually ignored except to throw abuse at during meal times, had become the centre of attention as they relayed information back on the glimpses they got into Hanger Bay Three when they delivered meals.
"They have equipment spread out all over the floor. It looked like really technical stuff and advanced weaponry too."
"They're making changes to the structure of The Mariner. I think it must have been in disguise and now they are revealing its real shape."
"I over heard someone say something about a secret mission. These guys are really serious stuff."
"I mean, I just get a quick look in as I pass the food wagon through. No one gets in that Hanger unless you are wearing the navy blue of the DMC elite."
Very early one morning, near the end of their voyage aboard The Explorer, Anna quietly got washed and dressed and stole from her cabin. Crewman Fairfax and she seemed to have worked out a unspoken system of avoidance. Needing less sleep than her fellow crew members, Anna came to bed after Jill and got up before her. If Anna was in their quarters, Jill avoided them. It wasn't exactly what Anna had in mind when she had re-allotted the rooms but it seemed to be working for them. Jill was clearly not comfortable sharing accommodations with her Captain.
Anna climbed up through the conning tower hatch to the deck and down the new escape ladder. She walked to the other side of Hanger Bay Three and looked back at her craft. It was simply beautiful. Toda's so called nip and tuck had changed an ugly probe into a lean, graceful space craft. The emblem of the DMC was stencilled proudly below The Mariner's name and below that was neatly printed their motto. As she stood there, she saw Moshapa pull himself up on deck and a moment later he joined Anna.
"It's pretty amazing isn't it?"
Anna nodded. "Breathtaking Justice. I can't believe it's the same craft. I knew Gigantean's were good with machinery but I had no idea how quickly and efficiently they could work."
"Lieutenant Toda tells me that Crewman Fairfax would make an excellent engineer. It seems she understands that machines have a life of their own and can talk to them."
Anna chuckled. "Maybe we've been isolated too long if Fairfax is starting to talk to various parts of the craft. I think everyone aboard has really pushed the envelope to meet our goals."
"Lieutenant Wiseman didn't do too much."
Anna shrugged. "Toda said he's all thumbs. Wiseman has put a lot of work into researching the dark matter we will be travelling through and has suggested some mission goals that we could take on. In a small group, everyone has to find their place and role. Wiseman works best alone using his mind rather than his hands."
"I can't disagree with that, Anna."
"I was just thinking, that we should have an open house. The Explorer has been pretty supportive. We can't let anyone aboard, that would dispel the myth we have created, but there is no reason why we couldn't let the crew of The Explorer have a look at the outside of The Mariner. We could set up some tables in the hanger and serve some refreshments. What do you think?"
Justice smiled. "I think that would be a very positive step. It would be a nice thank you for the ride and will build some bonds between the two crews. Hopefully the redesigned Mariner will help to dispel the last of our negative image."
"I'll clear it with Captain Garcia but let's aim for tomorrow at 10:00 hours then. Dress uniforms. Have Lieutenant Barron arrange the refreshments. She's good at that sort of thing."
"Aye aye, Sir."
The next day, Anna had slipped into her jacket and was straightening her tie when Jill hurried into the cabin to shower and change.
"Oh, sorry, Captain."
"Get in here."
Crewman Fairfax was petite yet physically fit. She had dark green eyes and brunette hair that she wore short, as most women in the ISC did. Short hair wasn't so much a style choice as it was a practicality.
"Crewman, this is just as much your quarters as it is mine. It's okay for you to be in here when I am."
Fairfax's face was beet red as she stood at attention. "I was just trying to give you privacy, Sir."
"First, in these quarters, we won't stand on ceremony. No saluting or standing at attention. Perhaps too you could call me Captain rather than sir. Second, my body is cloned-human. Only some of my organs have been replaced or modified with cybernetic parts. I am not going to be embarrassed about you walking in on me. This vessel is very close quarters and by the time this tour of duty is over, we are all going to know each other very well."
"Yes, Captain. Thank you. Permission to speak freely."
"That uniform looks great on you. I was really upset when I found out that I wouldn't be wearing the ISC uniform but you know what? Ours is better."
"I'm glad you think so. I'd better get a move on. Sometimes Lieutenant Barron needs a modifying influence on her enthusiasm."
Jill laughed and they parted on more relaxed terms.
Lieutenant Barron had indeed pulled out all the stops. There were plates of cheese and crackers, of squares and cookies and even a choice of red and white wines. A recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto played softly in the background, and a banner on the wall read "Thank You to Everyone Aboard The Explorer".
"Well done, Lieutenant Barron. How did you manage all this?"
"The food was simple. My cousin is in the galley of The Explorer and he owed me for letting him have peeks in when he brought our meals."
"Good bargaining. The banner and music?"
"Lieutenant Wiseman made the banner and it's his music too. He wired it through the Hanger's intercom system."
"Wiseman? Well, well still waters do run deep."
Barron laughed. "He'll do anything to get me to go away and stop pestering him."
Anna laughed too.
Captain Garcia and Anna had agreed to have the social overlapping a shift change so that as many of The Explorer's crew who wanted to could come down and meet the crew of The Mariner. Quite a crowd did just that.
Anna watched anxiously at first but soon relaxed as she saw that her crew was getting the respect that they deserved. In fact, Lieutenant Toda told her in passing that one young engineer aboard The Explorer had actually asked how one went about applying for service with the DMC.
Captain Garcia came up beside her as Lieutenant Toda moved off.
"I can't believe it's the same ship. It's small but a fine looking craft. Looks like you are planning to get pretty close in. I hear the manoeuverability of The Mariner is state of the art."
"I have Lieutenant Toda. He is one of the best in terms of design and construction."
"You seem to have an outstanding crew. Hand picked are they?"
"They stood out from the others for many unique reasons. I'm proud of them but they will have to prove themselves over the next few months."
"I envy you."
"Sure. You are going on a real mission. My orders are to get you there and back and to fill in my time in between doing standard manoeuvres with several other galaxy class ships. I might have the bigger ship and crew but I'm still doing training sessions while you're out there on the cutting edge."
Anna blushed. "Mariner's tour might be very routine. We'll just have to see what is out there."
"Still, two months exploring inside an unknown region. That's pretty exciting."
"Not too exciting I hope."
"I won't pry. It's become general knowledge that the DMC plays by its own rules and its missions are secret. I do have one question though that I hope you can answer."
"What is that?"
"Is it true that DMC members belong to a secret society?"
Anna smiled. "I suppose you could say that. We are a small group yet we have some fine traditions that have melded us together into a strong unit."
"Good leadership. I'm impressed, Captain Cyborn."
"Thank you, Captain Garcia. It has been a pleasure to serve with you. Hopefully, in two months time we can do this again.
"I look forward to it and to hearing more about your mission."
Voyage Into The Unknown
Two days later, The Explorer stopped 50,000 miles from the dark mass that The Mariner was to chart. Crew members eagerly sought glimpses of the large cloud mass through portals, speculating on what the Mariner might be researching within. Those aboard the Mariner went through their last check lists making sure that everything was A-okay for their mission. At 2725.03 relative space/time they watched the bay doors of Hanger Three open and Anna gave the order for their craft to release its docking clamps and move out into open space. The entire crew was on the bridge and Anna could sense their excitement and nervousness.
"Mariner is clear of The Explorer, Captain."
"All ahead at five units, Crewman."
"Aye Aye, Sir."
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to make history. Might I suggest we all stop staring out the viewing port and get to our stations. There's work to be done."
After that it was just routine. For eight hours Anna was on the bridge. Then Moshapa would take over for eight hours. The remaining eight hours was taken by one of the junior officers on a rotation basis. For the most part Mariner was on automatic pilot following coordinates input to the Mariner's computer on a daily basis. This meant that a skeleton crew of two could manage the bridge and allow the others time for research, sleep or relaxation. Toda, as the only engineering officer, set his own hours and would request Fairfax when he needed extra help.
Several weeks later, The Mariner was closing in on the dark matter. Anna had called a meeting of the crew and asked Lieutenant Wiseman to do an overview for them of what they might expect. The crew had all been busy doing their own research and observations, of course, but Anna wanted Wiseman to focus and coordinate their scientific endeavours.
"It goes without saying that we were a long time recognizing and understanding dark matter. We knew it had to be out there because research indicated a flat universe that is one that was expanding. If that was the case there had to be more mass in the universe than we had originally thought. Otherwise gravity would pull us all back into a Big Crunch. Also our observation of distant galaxies showed that light was being bent by an unseen force. Scientists speculated that it was the gravity of dark matter.
"As you know, dark matter is stuff that we can't see from a distance such as brown dwarfs, stars that never reached a critical mass high enough for a nuclear process to get going. White dwarfs, medium sized stars that are slowly burning out, and black holes, stars big enough that when they died they went supernovae and became super dense.
"The problem is that there is other stuff too like that cloud mass out there. Readings indicate that it's a cloud formed from hydrogen and helium or star stuff. But several probes disappeared after recording increased gravitational force and possibly evidence of neutralinos which are a sort of large neutrino. In short, we don't know what is going on inside."
"Thank you Lieutenant Wiseman," said Anna and then went on.
"We could play it safe and map the exterior edge of this phenomenon gathering what data we can in the process. That would meet the expectations that ISC has for the DMC. I'm suggesting that we head in and really see what is going on in there, even though that means risk for this ship and crew. I'm going to ask you to speak freely."
It was Chief Lai who spoke first. "There is nothing in there that could be any worse than what I have lived through already. I came back from sick leave to be on active duty again. I'm for going in."
Wiseman flipped his pen in the air and caught it. "For me, this is my chance to get off a space ship and into a real lab where I can do some significant work. The data we might gather in there could make my career. I'm for going in."
"Well, I'm an engineer not an explorer but where this ship goes, I go. She needs me," stated Toda.
Barron sighed dramatically. "I can't communicate with neutralinos so I'm not sure what good I'll be on this mission. But really, people, we can't go back without doing something after all the rumours we helped create. We'd be a laughing stock again."
"Crewman Sur?" Anna asked, making sure the junior crew knew they had a right to their say.
"There are risks with space exploration, I accept that. We go, I say."
Anna's eyes turned to Fairfax.
"This is my first mission. I'd rather not die so let's make it a success."
Anna smiled and her eyes went to her First Officer. "Lt. Commander Moshapa?"
"I think we all know the risks. We could have played it safe and stayed in the back water of space exploration but right from day one we were committed to making the DMC a respected, elite group. Now we have to live up to all that big talk."
Anna nodded. "Then we go. Number One, set our course. Ladies and gentlemen, stations please, we are going in."
The next few weeks were disappointing. The Mariner travelled through a thin cloud of hydrogen and helium. The farther they travelled into the mass the less clearly they could make out the star clusters until darkness was all around them.
Morale was low and boredom was setting in. Anna sat in the command seat rethinking a conversation that she'd had with Chief Lai before coming on duty that morning.
"I'm concerned about they crew, Captain. Especially, the younger ones. We know that space travel is 90% boredom with 10% total terror added in. But the younger crew expected more. We are all starting to get cabin fever but them more than most."
"I did notice that Lieutenant Wiseman has become more antisocial than usual."
"He thinks he's brilliant and this mission was going to make him a famous name in science. He might be not cut out for ship duty."
"He certainly feels he could do better with an Earth posting but he is an excellent scientist."
"Crewman Fairfax is having trouble sleeping."
Anna nodded. "That can be a problem in space for humans I've heard. I don't think she is very comfortable sharing a room with me either."
"You need to get to know her. In fact, you need to get to know all the crew better."
"I've read their files."
"Not the data, Sir. Them. Take an interest like Moshapa does."
"Okay, I'll make a greater effort. It's difficult. When a fellow human asks a question, people think they are taking an interest. When I ask a question they think I'm collecting data and analysing it."
Anna laughed. "I've learned not to store what most humans tell me. Otherwise I'd have been on over load long ago."
"Permission to speak frankly, Sir."
"You are human. You just have a lot of cybernetic parts. You need to learn to mix with your own."
Anna felt a sadness build inside her. She quickly deleted it from her thoughts. "I met my clone-mother once. She is Doctor Edith Bissell a leader in genetic research. She looked me up and down and said, "Satisfactory. Very satisfactory", then she left. I will never be treated as a human. I went from being an interesting cloning experiment to an interesting cybernetic experiment under Doctor Lars Brunn. Frankly, I consider myself lucky that I was allowed to leave a lab and start a life for myself. Of course, I'm being monitored. I'm still an experiment."
Chief Lai, wisely did not show the shock she was feeling. She knew that her Captain was not ready to handle sympathy. She did, however, express her views on the situation. "I would think it a fragrant violation of your rights if they hadn't allowed you to have a life of your own. The moral and ethical issues involved in that very questionable research were staggering. It's just as well that it was outlawed. Captain, you have won the respect of your crew. Now you need to make them accept you as a human. It's a small start but it is a start."
Anna nodded although she didn't look convinced. "Whatever the moral or ethical issues, the experiments did give me life. I'll work on bonding better with me crew."
Anna pulled herself back from her thoughts and checked her command readouts to make sure everything was okay. Then she looked over at the helm station where Crewman Sur sat sharing the watch with her.
"Crewman Sur, I understand you are from Bengal."
"Yes Sir. I'm Bengali. My father was a merchant. He decided because I was good at school that I would study science at university."
"I understand you have been very active in environmental issues."
"I would have liked to take a post graduate degree in botany but my father insisted that I study at the International Space Command. He felt having an astronaut from our region would bring much prestige to Bengal and our family. I am the first astronaut in my family but not the first from India of course."
"Your father has shaped your life. Mine was not much different. Scientists shaped mine but I at least got to live my dream and train with the ISC."
"You then are lucky. My home is not far from Kolkata that the British once called Calcutta. It's one of the most over populated places in the world. The city sits on the Ganges delta and not far away is the Sundarmans a massive area of mangrove swamp where you can still find a few wild Bengal Tigers. I wanted to spend my life protecting them. Instead, I am here."
"We need environmentalists on space too, Crewman Sur. We don't want to be taking the mistakes we made on Earth out into the universe. I hope you will feel free to be my environmental conscience aboard the Mariner."
"If I were Captain, I would have advised that we just to leave this region alone."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because it will have to be explored, and better by us than a Star Ship."
"Captain, I'm starting to see dust particles increasing in number in the gas cloud. Also the gravitational pull is starting to increase."
"Steady on at two units thrust, Crewman."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
At the end of her shift, Anna turned over her bridge to Moshapa. "We're running into more dust debris and the gravitational force is rising. I've slowed us down to two units of thrust. Call me if there is any change in our situation."
"Aye, aye Captain."
Anna leaned closer to Moshapa. "Do you play chess?"
"Sure but if you think I'm playing against you, you are mistaken."
"I thought maybe we could have a chess tournament. I'll be the chess master and take the rest of you on."
"Even at seven against one we wouldn't have much of a chance but it might be fun. I'll ask Lieutenant Barron to arrange it."
Feeling that she'd made a start at bonding with her crew, Anna spent her evening taking her turn with general maintenance and cleaning of their craft. When she finally did turn in, she found that Fairfax was already sound asleep.
Fairfax. Anna saw very little of her even though they were living on a very small ship together. She tended to take the graveyard shift when a junior officer was on the bridge and she spent more and more time with Toda in engineering. They made a ridiculous looking pair for Fairfax was petite and looked even more so next to Toda.
Anna decided that she must make an effort to learn more about her room mate. Then she drifted off to sleep.
I'd Rather Not Die so Let's Make It a Success
Several hours later, Anna awoke to a bang that shuddered through the ship. The breach siren went and the hatches locked automatically into place. Anna was on her feet before she was even aware of the hiss of air venting out and the sudden drop of pressure and warmth from their cabin. The skin of their craft had a layer of soft foam that would close and reduce leakage for a small time but immediate action was needed if they were to survive.
The breach in their bulkhead was only the size of a grain of sand but it would kill them if she didn't work quickly. She pulled the emergency sealer package from the wall and ripped it open. Already it was hard to breathe and she was shivering with cold.
Suddenly, Fairfax was beside her, fitting an oxygen mask on her face and wrapping a blanket around her. As Anna pushed the doughy plug into place, Fairfax cut the pressure seal sheeting to size and peeled off its paper back. Anna took it and pressed it firmly over the plugged hole, making sure there were no air pockets. Meanwhile, Fairfax was cutting a larger sheet to go on top.
They finished the job in less than three minutes from when the object had torn through their wall. Then they stood side by side allowing their heart rates to return to normal. Anna lowered her mask.
Anna placed her mask back in place and went to their intercom. It was down. She tried the lights. No power except for the red emergency light that blinked on and off over head. She turned to Fairfax and saw her standing perfectly still, her head cocked to one side as humans did when they were listening.
Fairfax lowed her mask. "I think the craft is stable Captain. The thrusters sound fine but are off line by the sound of them. I don't detect any sway in our trajectory. I think the bridge crew has stabilized our course and cut engines. I can hear the heating and ventilating systems functioning too. The Mariner is breathing just fine. I think this is the only breach but our quarters has been automatically bypassed by the systems to prevent resource bleeding."
Anna nodded. They were trapped for the time being. Space was a dangerous place and when a breach occurred the hatches automatically closed and sealed. That sometimes meant a loss of life for those caught on the wrong side of the hatch but it allowed the remaining crew to survive. The hatch could be opened manually from the outside but that would not happen until a EVA crew had been sent out to evaluate the damage and do a repair job. It would take at least two hours for two of the crew to suit up and start repairs. In the meantime, they were trapped with limited air pressure, toxic air and no heat.
Who would Moshapa send? Toda would be best but the ISC spacesuit that had been sent for him didn't fit well enough that he could work with ease in space. It would have to be used for an emergency only. Moshapa would be her next choice but it would be illogical to risk their remaining commanding officer. Wiseman would know the procedure but was not very practical or good with his hands. Barron probably couldn't remember the procedure. Lai then. It was well out of her area of speciality but she certainly had the experience and would know what to do. But how was she going to be in an emergency? Could she hold it together or would she have another break down if put under pressure? Sur would have the training but had no experience in dealing with an emergency of this sort. The cracks in her crew's abilities were suddenly painfully obvious.
Then she looked at Fairfax, who was curled up on the corner of her bunk wrapped in blankets. Fairfax had no experience either and was the least qualified of their group and yet she'd come through with flying colours in the emergency. Anna relaxed. She had to believe in her crew.
Gathering her blankets off her own bed she got in beside Fairfax. She lowered her mask to speak.
"I can increase my body temperature. It will keep us alive a bit longer." Fairfax nodded and Anna wrapped her in her arms as they snuggled under the blankets. They had maybe two hours and twenty minutes before their supply of oxygen ran too low and the carbon dioxide became toxic. Already condensation was forming on the walls. It was going to be a cold and wet wait.
Lt. Commander Moshapa had still been on the bridge when The Mariner was struck. Sitting at the helm was Chief Lai.
"Holy cow! What was that?" Lai struggled to bring the craft back on course.
The breach alarms sounded and the hatch doors shut and locked. Moshapa looked at his readouts. They were venting air on the port side at midship.
"Throttle back to drift, Helm."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
"Crew report your condition and location."
"Lieutenant Toda in Engineering. I'm okay and the engines are functioning well."
"Lieutenant Barron. I'm in the common room and everything seems okay. I got a few bruises from a fall but I'm okay."
"Lieutenant Wiseman in my quarters. I was a sleep. What's going on?"
"Crewman Sur reporting in, Sir. I'm in my quarters. Everything is A-okay."
Moshapa waited. There were no further reports.
"Captain Cyborn report in. Crewman Fairfax report in."
"Crew open your emergency survival kits. I'm going to start opening the hatches on the areas that I know are safe." Moshapa released the hatch on engineering first.
"I'm out in the hallway. Atmospheric pressure and air mixture is stable," Toda reported in.
Moshapa released the hatch on Sur's quarters.
"I'm out with Toda in the hall. We are moving forward to the common room hatch."
Next, the hatch release was opened on Wiseman's door.
"I'm out with the others, Sir."
Moshapa opened the hall hatch that separated them from the common room.
"Barron here. Toda, Wiseman and Sur have just arrived."
Lastly, Moshapa opened the hatch between the common room and the bridge and his crew moved forward to the bridge. Toda was the last one to arrive.
"The breach is in Captain Cyborn and Crewman Fairfax's quarters. Their door is cold to touch. Someone is alive. I knocked and someone knocked back."
Mosapa looked at his read outs. "We've stopped venting. They've managed to seal the breach but readings indicate they are without power, ventilation and heat. Toda, see what you can do. Barron take the helm. Sur, Lai suit up. Wiseman get the craft skin repair kit out and power up the EVA chamber."
They had rehearsed scenarios like this both in their ISC training and in drills that Captain Cyborn has conducted but this was for real and Moshapa knew that his Captain would be pleased at how well the crew was following procedure and keeping their heads.
He left the bridge and worked his way through to the common room. Sur and Lai were laying out the space suits and methodically going through the check lists. Going out into space was very dangerous and every joint and apparatus had to be checked and rechecked. Time was of the essence but rushing and losing more crew would be foolhardy. Lai was making sure that Sur stuck to procedure. She had done EVAs before and knew the drill and the risks. They each breathed pure oxygen from small tanks on their backs as they worked. The increased oxygen levels would help them from getting cramps while out in space.
The conning tower ladder had two semi-circle walls around one side. Once the two astronauts were suited up, they would stand one on the ladder and one at its base. A flick of a switch would cause one of the semi-circular walls to curve around making a sealed unit. This area could then be depressurized so that the two astronauts could open the conning tower hatch and leave the vessel. Lieutenant Wiseman had already powered up the system and run a check to make sure it was in good working order. Moshapa nodded his approval and went back to the first cabin hatch on the port side. Condensation was running down the cold door. Moshapa tapped out a line of Morse code. He waited. Then taped again.
A few seconds later, a message was tapped back. Moshapa wrote the code down in his flight notebook and translated it.
"They're both alive and okay. They're on their breathing apparatuses and are trying to stay warm."
Wiseman passed the word forward to the bridge before returning to his post. What Moshapa didn't tell them was that the two trapped inside were slowly freezing and that their air supply would only last a little while longer. He tapped a brief status report back to Anna.
Inside, Anna huddled against the hatch listening for the Morse code message that she had requested on the status of her ship. With shaking, blue hands she scribbled down the letters as the dots and dashes came and then read the messages. Ship stable. Crew safe. ETA three hours forty minutes.
Anna tapped back that she'd got the message and then stumbled back to the bed she was sharing with Fairfax. Once under the blankets again and curled around the Crewman she lifted her oxygen mask to speak. "It's going to be close. Here's my flight notebook. You might want to write a message just in case."
Fairfax looked at her and then nodded. She hesitantly took the small notebook that was offered her and turning her back to Anna she wrote for a few minutes. She slipped the notebook under her pillow and then turned and hugged Anna's body. At first startled, Anna held the young Crewman close.
"Crewman Fairfax, you conducted yourself well on your first mission. You're a fine addition to this crew. I'm proud of you."
Anna remembered Farifax's words from just a few weeks before. This is my first mission. I'd rather not die, so let's make it a success. What more could she do to make it a success? Nothing. The rescue team would either get the repair job done in time or not.
Moshapa looked at his watch. The EVA team had just opened the conning tower hatch. It had taken them one hour and forty-eight minutes. Not bad but perhaps not good enough depending on what damage they found.
"Lieutenant Wiseman, stand by the decompression chamber in case an emergency re-entry is needed."
Moshapa moved forward to the bridge and sat again in the command seat.
"Chief Lai, what do you see out there?"
"We are just making our way over. So far we can't see any damage. Wait, there it is. It's an impact wound. It's pretty small but there are some radiating cracks. I can see it's been sealed from the inside. Sur is just anchoring us and we'll start repairs. I think several sheets of foil glued in place will hold it before we cold weld a patch over the area."
"Probably three hours."
"We haven't got a couple of hours never mind three."
"We'll do our best, Sir."
"I know you will. Don't take chances. We'll work on a solution to the problem at our end."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
Moshapa looked around at his crew. "I need suggestions and I need them quickly. They haven't got long now."
Toda looked at his feet, then at the ceiling.
Barron stared at the helm desk.
Moshapa rubbed his forehead.
It was Wiseman who came running forward with the answer. "Toda is a pretty tough guy. We'll put him in the hall and seal the hatches at both ends then depressurize the area. He can pull the Captain and Fairfax out into the hall and then reseal the quarter's door. Then we'll flood the hall with air again and open up the hatches. What we'll be doing is turning the hallway into a decompression chamber. There won't be time to put on a suit. Toda will just have to wear an air tank and hang tough."
"I can do it."
"See that it's done." Moshapa ordered, then flicked the switch to speak to Lai again. "Take your time out there. We have a plan for getting them out from this side."
Toda slipped on a jacket and then swung a small air tank over his back and slipped on the mask. He gave a thumbs up after checking his air flow and stepped into the hallway.
Wiseman yelled up to the bridge. "He's in place. Seal the doors and depressurize."
Toda felt his head go light and his ears ring as the air hissed from the hallway. When the pressure had dropped low enough he unsealed the hatch to the quarters and squeezed his body through. The walls were dripping wet and the air frigid. Toda found the two of them unconscious and huddled under a blanket covered in frost. He lifted the captain out first and then went back for Fairfax. Quickly, he sealed the hatch once more.
"Hurry! Hurry! Get some air in here!"
Moshapa opened all the values and flooded the hall with air again. As soon as the atmospheric pressure stabilized, he released the hallway hatch to the common room and ran back to offer assistance. Toda dragged Captain Cyborn into the common room while Wiseman fetched Fairfax. Toda increased the oxygen flow in his mask and put it on the Captain. Moshapa had got a second tank out and was doing the same for Fairfax while Wiseman ran about finding blankets and covering the two women.
"Take care of them and report to me on any changes." Moshapa went back to the bridge to oversee the repair crew.
It was Captian Cyborn who came around first.
"Are you okay, Sir?" Toda asked.
Anna nodded. "Fairfax?"
Wiseman looked over from where he was kneeing by the Crewman. "She's just coming around now, Captain. I think she's okay."
Anna nodded. She felt sick and light-headed and she was freezing. She closed her eyes and drifted to sleep.
All Hands to the Bridge
It was some hours later when she woke up again feeling tired but much better. She was now lying in a bunk in the infirmary deeply buried in blankets. Slowly, she sat up. Crewman Fairfax lay across from her covered in her own mound of blankets. She was sleeping and she was still blue around the lips.
Anna kept one blanket for herself and took the other two over and placed them on Fairfax. She knelt down by the young Crewman and touched her cheek. It was still cold. Anna had been impressed by Fairfax. She'd kept her head and followed the proper procedures and when it looked like they weren't going to make it she'd accepted her fate calmly.
What had Fairfax written in her notebook? Was there someone special in her life waiting back on Earth?
Anna felt a loneliness that she'd never felt before. She an illogical urge to hold Fairfax in her arms again. A Captain is like a parent, always wanting to guide and protect her crew. Somehow this conclusion did not seem right. Anna got to her feet, wrapped the one blanket around her and made her way to the bridge.
"Captain on the bridge!"
"As you were. Lt. Commander Moshapa, status report."
"The EVA crew finished work about an hour ago. Lai reports that they have a good patch cold- welded into place over several layers of foil they glued on. We are still floating on course. Lieutenant Barron has an interesting theory."
Anna turned to face Barron who still sat at the helm. "Report."
"Well, I've been sitting here all day looking at the gauges and I've noticed a pattern. The clouds are swirling counter-clockwise and in towards a centre just ever so slightly. I think it's the effects of a gravitational pull. If we changed our course and followed the flow, we'd be less likely to be hit by debris. The steady increase in gravitational force and dust indicates to me that there is a really large planet masked in there. We could spiral slowly towards it by following the cosmic current."
Anna came over and looked at the readings. "Number One?"
Anna nodded. "So do I. If nothing else going with the flow instead of cutting across it will put The Mariner on a much safer course. Change our course to 44.62 and match our speed to that of the cosmic current."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
"Well done, Barron."
"Thank you, Sir."
"Number One, I'll take the command seat for a while. You must be done in. That was a fine bit of rescuing and repair."
"It was Wiseman who came up with the idea of using the hall as a decompression chamber and it was Toda who went in to get you and Crewman Fairfax out."
Anna nodded. "I'll read your duty report while I'm on deck. There will be a debriefing on deck at 22:00. Send Wiseman up to take over the helm from Lieutenant Barron who I'm sure needs some down time."
"Aye, aye Captain."
For the next five hours, Anna worked on the bridge with Lieutenant Wiseman at the helm. Wiseman was excited about Barron's hypothesis.
"This could help my career if we find something interesting in there. Perhaps, a gas giant like Jupiter or a brown dwarf."
"Perhaps. I'm sending over to your station some data from the ship's particle readings. I'm seeing some very strange patterns. Like neutrons but different. Have you seen anything like that?"
Wiseman looked at his data screen as Anna's material downloaded. For a while he just stared. Then he got to his feet, remembered that he was at the helm and sat again.
"Captain, I think they're neutralinos. Maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part because no one has seen their pattern before. You are right, they are acting like neutrinos but they are bigger and heavier. Captain, what if they are neutralinos? It would be the find of a century!"
Anna smiled. "It would indeed, Lieutenant. I guess we'd better stay on our present course and have a look, don't you think?"
At 22:00 hours, Anna stood on the bridge with her crew. She looked around at them. They had been together now for over three months. They'd gone from a bunch of misfits that no one wanted to a small team with a lot of pride and confidence. Anna needed to express that.
"I want to thank you all for not just doing your duty but going beyond it to make a bad moment into a success. Lt. Commander Moshapa, you set the example by taking immediate and positive action. You knew who to call on for each part of the rescue and you trusted them to live up to your orders. You are worthy to serve as Captain on any Star Ship."
"Thank you, Captain."
"Lieutenant Wiseman, when minutes counted, you kept your head and problem solved. Your creative idea, saved the life of Crewman Fairfax and myself. Thank you."
Wiseman looked at his feet and blushed.
"Lieutenant Toda, you followed procedure and made sure this vessel was secure and running smoothly as a good engineer should even though you knew your engineering assistant was in trouble. Then you willingly put yourself in danger to get Fairfax and myself out. You are a credit to the team."
"Oh my, that's very nice of you to say so, Captain. I was so worried."
"Lieutenant Barron, you brought the craft back on course after the collision and remained at your post throughout the crisis. More than that you used your remarkable skills to see what the rest of us missed and as a result The Mariner is on a safer course and perhaps on the brink of a major discovery. Well done.
"Chief Lai, you willingly took on a dangerous EVA to repair this ship and I understand that you and Crewman Sur have done a fine job. It shows real bravery and steady nerves to step up and take on duties and leadership outside your speciality in an emergency. You were there when it counted and I'm sure you always will be."
"You don't live through a combat situation without having learned how to repair a craft but thank you, Captain."
"Crewman Sur, you took on a dangerous mission without hesitation to help save members of this crew. The task was beyond your realm of experience and training but you followed Lai's lead and came through with flying colours. You'll make a fine officer someday.
"Crewman Fairfax, we had only minutes to save our lives. You remained calm and followed procedure to the letter. Without your assistance we wouldn't have made it. You are an outstanding member of this crew."
For a second, Anna thought that Fairfax was going to cry but she pulled herself together stood tall and smiled her thanks.
"I will be adding commendations to each of your files. The DMC has started a history that others will follow with pride. We have shown that wearing this uniform is an honour and a privilege that few get. Skill and guts has got us here, now fate might have handed us a real prize. If there is a mass out there with a high level of neutralinos associated with its make-up, we will be the first to record the phenomena. But let's not let our excitement rule our common sense. We have no idea, what Mariner might find. We've already dealt with a dangerous breach. Let's be alert and continue to live up to the high standards we have set for ourselves. Ladies and gentleman as long as we are under the influence of whatever is out there we'll be under general alert orders."
"Aye Aye, Captain."
"Crewman Fairfax, are you recovered enough to take the helm?"
"Do so. I'll stay on the bridge until 25:00, then Lt. Commander Moshapa will take over with Crewman Sur at the helm."
After the crew had left, Anna did a routine check of each of the stations coming last to lean over the helm to verify their headings. Crewman Fairfax was wearing perfume. Anna had never noted her wearing perfume before. Makeup of any sort was against regulations but on long missions there was a little more tolerance of such issues. It was a nice scent that reminded Anna of warm days and wild flowers.
"Course change, Captain?"
"No steady as she goes, Fairfax. Are you feeling any ill effects from our accident?"
"I'm still a little cold and I have a slight headache but other than that I'm fine. Thank you for sharing your body heat. I might not of have made it otherwise."
Anna blushed and stood straight again needing space between herself and Fairfax.
"There are a few advantages to having cybernetic parts."
Anna went and sat in the command seat. She busied herself with writing up her own report on the incident but found that her eyes kept drifting over to where Crewman Fairfax sat. Fairfax was fit and good looking. Anna liked the way she wore her hair short. Her hair was brunette with touches of red in it. She had a nice voice too. Deep for a woman's and with a resonance to it.
A wave of shock rolled through Anna. I'm attracted to her. Then relief followed. No, it wasn't possible. What I'm experience is just the deep bond that can develop between individuals who have lived through a crisis together.
For the next week, The Mariner spiralled towards their objective. Then one morning, Anna was awoken from her sleep by the intercom.
"Lieutenant Wiseman on deck with Chief Lai. You have to see this Captain. We've just broken through all that gas and we're looking at a massive planet some 150,000 miles away."
"Growing but still within safe perimeters."
"I'm on my way."
Anna slipped from bed and stood naked as she stretched her cramped muscles, smiling to herself she headed for the shower. Fairfax had been awake and had taken quick look. Cybernetic eyes had an advantage. They didn't miss much. Anna was aware that she was by human standards a good looking woman with a fit body. She was tall, lean and her features were well proportioned and framed by short, sandy coloured hair. Her looks had never really mattered to her other than being physically up to her job. Now she realized to her surprise that she wanted Fairfax to like what she saw. She shook the shower water off her hair. I'm being irrational. Prolonged space travel can lead to these sort of illogical reactions. She towelled off and dressed then made her way to the bridge. Fairfax was still faking sleep when she closed the hatch on their quarters.
Wiseman stood as Anna walked in. She went over and stood beside him looking at the massive planet on the periscope screen. Then she sat in the command seat and looked at the readings.
"We're not going much closer. That thing is exerting a massive gravitational pull and the radiation levels are high. We have less than a week to do a survey before we need to head back to the rendezvous point. Let's make the most of this."
Anna switched on the intercom. "All hands to the bridge. All hands to the bridge."
Fairfax was there almost immediately. She had got up as soon as Anna had left the room. Soon the others were on deck as well. Anna gave them time to look at the planet on the viewing screen before she set out her plan.
"We have six days to observe this phenomenon. You all have a speciality, use it in anyway you can to make observations. I want to know the size, composition, evolution, abnormalities, anything that you can find. Let's make these days count. Wiseman, you are the scientist aboard. I want you to coordinate all the research. Everyone will report to you and you will report to me daily or whenever something of significance arises."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
"Let's get on with it. Dismissed."
Anna watched as her crew took to their stations or headed to set up observation equipment. She couldn't feel prouder. Her crew had learned to be confident enough to work as individuals but had also learned to trust and respect each other so that they could work as a tight focussed team. They had lived up to the myth they had spread aboard The Explorer.
Reading a Secret Letter
Anna busied herself with mapping the currents on the gaseous giant. There would be time for one orbit only and in that time she would have to gather as much data as possible. Some hours later Wiseman, Toda and Fairfax appeared by her station.
It was Wiseman who took the lead. "Captain, Toda and Fairfax have been up to no good. I think you should hear what they told me. I was really impressed."
Anna's eyes went first to Fairfax and then to Toda. "Well?"
"We've been building a probe over the last month. It was Crewman Fairfax's idea and I designed and built it with her assistance. We actually made it to sit in the dark matter and send back readings after the Mariner left but we think we can modify it to send it into that gas mass and get some good readings back before it's crushed."
Anna smiled. "Would this be unauthorized use of ship board equipment, Lieutenant Toda?"
"Ah well, dear me, I hadn't thought..."
"It was my idea Captain. I talked Toda into it."
"Really? Why am I not surprised? You two have done fine work. In future though, okay this sort of thing with me. We are a small vessel and materials are precious. Lieutenant Wiseman, work with these two renegades to do any modifications you need to collect as much data as we can. Well done. Dismissed."
The three hurried off, clearly excited about their project. Anna watched them go and smiled, then turned back to her work. Some hours later, Lt. Commander Moshapa came to take over the command seat followed shortly after by Crewman Sur who would relieve Chief Lai at the helm.
"How are things going, Captain?" Moshapa asked.
"It's been a quiet shift. What have you been up to?"
"I'm doing studies on the dark matter flow and the influence of this mass on it. I suspect, Captain, we are not looking at a gaseous planet. We're looking at a star in the making. This mass has only to gain another 1.23% of its mass for it to hit the necessary threshold to form a star. There is well enough helium and hydrogen about to make that a reality. This thing has been sucking in the dark matter around it for eons."
"What does Wiseman say?"
"He agrees. He feels it will become a neutron star but he's not sure what the effects of the high concentration of neutralinos will be."
Anna nodded. "Keep at it. Crewman Sur, what has been you assignment?"
"I'm photographing the surface in ten kilometre blocks."
"What about Lieutenant Barron?"
"I understand that she is doing research and testing on the radiation levels and Chief Lai is working on some methods for reducing any radiation poisoning."
"Good. The helm is yours, Number One."
"Aye, aye Captain."
Anna headed back to the common room and stood contemplating the gallery stores deciding what to eat. Now nearing the end of their mission, the good stuff had all been eaten and the tasty choices were limited.
Anna turned to look down at Fairfax.
"I wanted to apologize for going ahead with the probe construction without first going through proper channels. It wasn't Toda's fault. It was mine. I..."
"Crewman Fairfax, I made two points. First, that in future proper channels have to be followed. Second, that your idea for the construction of the probe was an excellent one that will certainly help us collect a lot more data than we'd initially would have. The issue is closed."
"Have you eaten?"
"Not yet, Sir."
Anna felt an irrational spike of annoyance. It was proper protocol to address a senior officer as Sir no matter what that officer's sex. She had no problem with that usually but for some reason she didn't like Fairfax calling her Sir. Anna shrugged off her reaction.
"I'm having meat loaf surprise. I'm hoping it will be a pleasant surprise and not a nasty shock. Would you care to join me and you can tell me more about your probe."
"That wasn't an order, Crewman. It was an invitation."
Anna gritted her teeth and slid her dinner out of the microwave and carried it over to the table. She got a fork and a glass of water and sat down. A few minutes later, Crewman Fairfax joined her.
Anna took a bite, swallowed and sighed. "It's not bad but I'm glad it was labelled because otherwise I wouldn't have known what I was eating."
Fairfax laughed. She had a nice laugh, Anna thought.
"I had fish yesterday but it could have passed for wall paper paste. Poor Toda is really suffering. Giganteans are very fussy about what they eat. Lieutenant Barron smuggled aboard a lot of tasty treats for him but he's gone through his Luctarian weed and the dried Caral root and now he's forced to eat what the rest of us do."
Anna smiled. "I must remember to consult my crew about dietary needs on our next mission."
Fairfax looked up from her plate with a worried expression. "I wasn't complaining. I was just making conversation."
"Understood. But I think it's a valid point. Didn't Napoleon say that an army marches on its stomach."
"He sounds like he was a very practical leader."
"In many ways he was. We'll be due for some leave time when we get back. Do you have plans?"
"No, not really."
"No family? Significant other?"
"I'm not on very comfortable terms with my family. I thought I might sign up for an engineering course. Toda has taught me a lot and I really like working in engineering."
Anna nodded. "I'm glad you've found your experience with the DMC a positive one."
Fairfax played with her food moodily. "I'm not as bad as my record would indicate, Captain. I was angry and confused when I dropped out of university and started doing the party scene. Some bad stuff had happened and I just wanted to forget. I suppose, looking back, I probably was suffering from post traumatic syndrome." Fairfax shrugged. "I'm not making excuses. I messed up and I was lucky the judge let me choose the ISC over jail.
"I thought I'd been handed a chance to get my life in order again. I'd worked hard through my training and had really done well in Navigation. I thought I'd get a junior post on a Galaxy or Jupiter class vessel but my past was held against me. No one wanted me. I admit I was pretty angry when I was assigned to the DMC but now I'm proud. We've shown them that we are worthy to wear the ISC uniform."
"If that's what you want, I hope you get that chance. I certainly will be writing a very positive report on your service aboard The Mariner."
Fairfax shook her head. "Thank you, Captain but you know what? I don't want to wear the ISC uniform now. I'm proud to wear the navy of the DMC. If I get the chance, I want to ship out on The Mariner on her next voyage."
Anna smiled. "Me too. Let's hope that we can convince the powers that be that the DMC has earned its rightful place as part of the fleet."
They talked then about the probe, the equipment that could fit inside the small cylinder and the technical problems they were facing. Then Anna was called to the bridge to deal with a navigation correction and when she came back Fairfax was gone. She wasn't in their quarters so she had to be with Toda in engineering. Anna felt a pang of jealousy. Surely, those two weren't involved? It doesn't seem possible, yet relationships between interplanetary intelligent life forms are not unheard of.
Anna sat down on her bunk to think. There had been only six clone-cyborgs created by Dorbel Cybernetics before the program was scrapped for ethical reasons. She had been the last. The others were more machine than humanoid. She was unique in that she was more human than cybernetic. Had the program been allowed to continue no doubt she would have ended up more of a machine than she was human. Her lab history indicated that she was scheduled for more alterations and cybernetic parts. But the program had been shut down by the government and Anna had been removed from the Dorbel Cybernetic Lab with the others and raised with care workers in a group home. To her knowledge no clone-cyborgs had ever had sexual relations or even a boy or girlfriend. She couldn't recall ever being attracted to a man. Thinking back, she did see a pattern of respect and admiration for certain female instructors that she'd had. She knew that her clone-mother was a lesbian. It would stand to reason then that if she were capable of such emotional reactions then she would have a higher probability of being a lesbian too.
There had been that social worker, Gail Patterson, who had taken her out to social functions to acclimatize her to the real world after her time in the lab. They'd had lots of fun together going to concerts, restaurants, the zoo, the library, museums and countless other places, some as simple as the grocery store. Gail had been a significant influence in her life. Had she felt an attraction there? Perhaps. Anna could remember being both disappointed and yet tantalized to discover that Gail was happily married to a woman.
Then there had been Admiral Afel Tabak. Yes, there was no doubt that she'd had a crush on that beautiful Turkish woman. She'd hung on every word and gesture her instructor had made and had gone out of her way to take courses that Tabek taught. But Tabek was not a lesbian. She was married to a male research scientist and had three children.
Anna gave herself a mental shake. This line of thought was not productive or useful. She slid off her bunk and as she did so she saw her flight notebook lying on the floor beside Fairfax's bed. It was the one Fairfax had written in when she though she might die and had tucked under her mattress. It had been forgotten in the busy days that followed the accident and must have fallen out unnoticed when Fairfax had made her bed that morning.
Anna picked it up. It would be wrong to read what Fairfax had written. She looked to make sure no one was in the hallway and then flipped the notebook open to the last page.
Written by Crewman Jill Fairfax on solar rotation 2759.26 RST
It has been an honour to serve with the Dark Matter Corps. They are a fine crew and I have learned a lot from all of them. They have become my family. Toda has been an inspiration to me and has given me a wonderful gift in introducing me to his love of engineering. Thank you Toda.
Captain Cyborn, is a fine Captain but more than that she is an amazing human being. Yes, not a cyborg but a human who happens to have some artificial parts. I have seen her strength of character, her humour, her moments of sadness and the pride she has in her crew. I have seen her toughness and her caring. Captain Cyborn, has made me live up to my potential. She let me start my DMC career with a clean slate and judged me on my ability not my past.
Anyone who joins the ISC knows that it is a high risk job. I have accepted that I might die. I can't accept though that Captain Cyborn might. She would be such a loss to this universe. I care about her, as we all do aboard The Mariner. She is an outstanding officer and a wonderful human being. It is an honour to serve with her.
Anna snapped the notebook shut and placed it back where she had found it. Then she headed for the bridge.
"Captain Cyborn. Do you want the command seat?"
"No, no thanks, Lt. Commander Moshapa. I'll work over at the science consol."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
But Anna didn't work. She opened up the screen but uncharacteristically she was unable to compartmentalize her thoughts to focus on the task.
Fairfax's first thought had been about her fellow crew members. Then for Toda with whom she obviously had a close relationship. Only then had she mentioned Anna. Anna liked that she saw her as a human with cybernetic parts. She liked that Fairfax thought she was a good leader. But what had hit her like a punch had been that one line, "I care about her". Fairfax had feelings towards her, real feelings and she had written that the rest of the crew did too. They didn't see her as a useful gadget or intelligent computer, they related to her on a human level. Anna wasn't sure that had ever happened to her before.
Anna thought about her own feelings. Was she capable of love? Was she attracted to Fairfax? It was impossible, of course. Fairfax was an enlisted crew member and Anna an officer. And what would happen if it got out that Anna was dating? On one level, she and her partner would have to put up with society's distain of a human dating a cyborg, on another they would be little more than specimens in a detailed lab study. No, she could never have a relationship no matter how she felt. Besides, the whole idea was ridiculous. Anna forced her mind back on her work. That night when she returned again to her quarters she found her flight book lying on her bed. The page that Fairfax had written on had been removed.
They used the six days well. On the fourth day, they had launched the probe that Toda had nicknamed Tadpole. Thanks to Fairfax's idea, Toda's hard work and Wiseman's suggestions for the modifications, The Tadpole had sent back incredible amounts of data before it was crushed by the gravitational and atmospheric forces. Wiseman was elated and couldn't stop talking about how his career was now made. Anna was proud of what they had accomplished and relieved that they wouldn't be heading back to ISC empty handed.
Leaving the bridge that afternoon, she returned to her quarters to find Fairfax sitting on the edge of her bunk crying. She jumped to her feet and wiped away the tears when she saw Anna.
"As you were, Crewman. What's the problem."
"Nothing really, Sir."
"Don't call me Sir. Captain will do." Anna responded a little more forcibly than she had meant. She went on more softly. "If I find one of my crew crying it is a problem. Explain."
Fairfax blushed. "The Tadpole was my first creation and I lost her. I know she wasn't meant to return but it still makes me sad."
Anna smiled. "I understand." She reached out and patted Fairfax's shoulder. "The Tadpole had a short life but a productive one. Her name will be forever associated with one the greatest finds in our time."
"Thank you, S...Captain."
Tears rolled down Fairfax's face. Anna impulsively pulled Fairfax to her and hugged her gently. She rationalized the move as a show of support to an upset crew member. On a small vessel a Captain had to be more than a leader she had to be a mother as well. Yet, the hug lengthened and neither let go. Finally, Anna stepped back.
"The Tadpole design needs to be patented. See that's done. Also, if the materials are available or can be accessed from The Explorer, we could do with having a few more of them aboard. You and Toda can work on it on our return voyage. I can see how we could use the probes to our advantage. Aim for building Tadpole 2, 3 and 4 with some flexibility in the payload area for modifying the data flow that we might need."
There was a second of awkward silence, then Anna gathered the things she needed and left.
Such a Sick Baby
On the sixth day, Anna gave the command to break orbit and to head back through the gas clouds to their rendezvous. It had been a very successful mission. One for the record books, Anna hoped.
They spiralled out through the gas clouds. Sur at the helm scanned the readouts continually, aware that they had a much greater risk of hitting debris as they moved against the flow of gas. Several hours passed in quiet work. The Mariner's systems hummed and bleeped in the background. Then suddenly everything stopped. The bridge dimmed to the red emergency lights only.
"All systems down, Captain. I have no control of the helm. We're adrift."
"Crewman Sur, maintain your post at the helm and go to red alert."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
Anna made her way back through the dark halls to Engineering, pushing passed Lai, Barron and Wiseman who stood in the darkness of the aft hall. She found Moshapa just inside the Engineering compartment manually opening vents and Toda and Fairfax wearing head lights and masks as they worked feverishly among the jumble of machinery.
It was Moshapa who answered. "The main NFG coupling has broken. Toda has had to shut down the systems in order to make repairs."
Fairfax looked over. "It's a major job, Captain. It will be hours."
Toda was mumbling to himself. "Oh dear, you poor sick baby. Toda is going to make you better."
Anna turn her gaze to her Number One. "Lt. Commander Moshapa, I'll need you on the bridge. We have about two hours before our orbit decays to the point where we are not going to be able to escape the gravitational pull of that planet. Hopefully, that will not be our fate, but let's make sure that if it is, all the material we have gathered is transmitted to The Explorer. Notify all the crew to down load their material to the main computer and have Barron stand by to transmit. I'll code in from here authority for you to access my research. Get it ready to send with yours."
"What's going on?" It was Lai, Wiseman and Barron at the hatch.
"The main coupling has gone and the systems are down for repairs. Everyone is to take what data they have gathered so far and down load it into the ship's memory bank. Get on with it."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
Anna strode to the computer centre and coded in the necessary password for Moshapa to access her material. Then she grabbed a mask and head light from the emergency cabinet.
"Fairfax, go and down load your material. Toda, give Fairfax access to download yours."
"That was an order Fairfax."
Anna wove through the engineering mechanisms to where Toda and Fairfax were working. She grabbed the broken coupling that Fairfax was holding and felt her body hot against the Crewman's. NFG coolant sprayed over them wetting their shirts and hair. Looking down, Anna could make out the curves of Fairfax's breasts and her hard nipples. Without the coolant system working, Engineering was hot and humid. An acidic smell stung her eyes and burnt at her throat despite the protective gear she wore. Sweat trickled down Anna's neck and she wiped it off on her shoulder as she reached for the broken coupling.
"I've got it. Go."
Fairfax nodded and waited only long enough for Toda to authorize her access of his research material. Then she was gone.
"Toda, you have less than two hours to get this engine up and functioning."
"Oh dear. She is such a sick baby."
"Not half as sick as we are all going to be if this engine is not up and running in time."
Toda nodded and worked away at assembling a new coupling joint while Anna did her best to stem the leaking NFG coolant.
Half an hour later, Fairfax was back and working with Toda to fit the new coupling into place. In thirty-two minutes, the leak had been stopped. Toda gave them NL Vacuums and they started to decontaminate the equipment and deck while Toda changed filters and filled the coolant cells.
One hour and eighteen minutes had passed before they were ready to start the complex process of bringing the engines on line. Anna started to enable the back up protocols while Toda brought each system on line. Fairfax sat at the engineering station watching the readouts.
"NFG coolant system on line." Fairfax stated calmly.
"Base line fuel cells set."
"VBEM computer system up and running. Stand by Toda. Four, three, two, one."
"No. Shit! The propulsion system is not coming on line. There is no pressure."
Anna and Toda converged on the propulsion ram system. It was Toda who saw the problem.
"Contaminated filter duct. We'll have to shut down while I replace it."
Anna nodded. "Lt. Commander Moshapa, how are we doing up there?"
"We are sixteen minutes away from being trapped in the planet's gravitational pull. We need the main engines on line, Captain."
Toda worked quickly and competently with Anna assisting where she could. Replacing the filter took eleven minutes.
They rushed to their places once again.
"NFG coolant system online."
"Base line fuel cells up."
"VBEM computer system are on. Stand by Toda. Six, five four, three, two, one."
"The propulsion system is on."
"Get us out of here, Justice!" Anna yelled.
Toda stood still, listening to the SP-950 propulsion systems. "That's right baby. Use all you've got."
Anna worked her way over to where Fairfax stood. The next few minutes would tell if they had been quick enough to save The Mariner and their own lives. Fairfax seemed to need that closeness too. She looked up at Anna with eyes filled with worry. Anna put her hand on Fairfax's shoulder. A minute ticked slowly past. Then another.
Toda shook his head. "This is putting an awful strain on The Mariner's systems. The poor thing is going to snap something if this keeps up, I just know it."
"Don't fret, Toda. If we can't break free it won't matter if we have propulsion or not."
Anna felt Fairfax lean closer to her. Seconds passed. Then the intercom cracked on.
"Captain. Mariner is moving away from the planet slowly," Moshapa reported from the bridge. "Our thanks to everyone down in engineering."
Anna smiled and patted Fairfax's shoulder. "Well, done you two."
Don't Count your Cattle Until the Rains Have Come
She pulled off her mask and hung it up as she left engineering to make her way back up to the bridge.
"We are increasing velocity. I have instructed Crewman Sur to reach 3 units and hold steady. We don't want to hit any debris too hard and yet we do want to get away from the planet's force fairly quickly."
Anna nodded. "Agreed. I'm going to have a shower and change. Want to meet for dinner when you come off duty?"
"Sounds good to me."
"Your bridge, Lt. Commander."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
Anna headed back to her cabin. The adrenalin rush was over and she suddenly felt very tired. She opened the hatch to her quarters and stepped in. The shower was running. Fairfax had beaten her to it. Anna started to peal off her wet and dirty clothes. She had just slipped into her housecoat when Fairfax stepped out of the head wearing nothing but a towel.
They stopped and looked at each other. They were open stares with no attempt to be subtle. Anna liked what she saw. Fairfax was petite but in good shape. She had the most remarkable green eyes and with her hair slicked and her skin warm and damp from the shower, she was very sexy.
"I'm attracted to you." Anna stated before she thought.
Fairfax closed the distance between them and reached up to wrap her arms around Anna's neck. Then Fairfax kissed her. It was a soft, tentative kiss. Fairfax pulled back and looked into Anna's eyes. Anna responded to the unspoken question by pulling Fairfax close and kissing her with all the passion that had been building up inside her for months. Hungry mouths sought each other over and over. Fairfax's towel was lost and Anna's robe pulled open. Their hands roved over each other's naked body arousing deeper needs.
Finally, Anna pulled back with a jerk.
"We can't do this."
"I know. But we have. I don't think there is any going back. Do you?"
Anna pulled her robe shut and tightened the sash. Then she reached down and got Farifax's towel and gently wrapped her in it again. She took, Fairfax's hand and they sat on the edge of the bunk.
"For a Captain to be having a relationship with a Crewman is about as wrong a situation as there could possibly be."
"You didn't come on to me. I came on to you. I don't feel the least bit intimidated, just relieved that I can finally show how I feel."
"It doesn't change the fact that we'd be both kicked out of the service if it was found out."
"I know. We could be discreet."
"On a small vessel of eight people, it would take more than discretion. And there are bigger issues."
"That isn't big enough?"
"Could you call me Jill. Just for now?"
That brought Anna up short. She'd always thought about her Crewman as Fairfax. But she did have a more personal name. Of course she'd want Anna to use it. Anna wondered what her own given name would sound like on Fairfax's lips.
"Hi, Anna." Fairfax leaned forward and kissed Anna softly.
Anna took Fairfax's hand. "I'm an unique being. I'd like to think that I was liberated from the Dorbel Cybernetics Lab but the truth is I'm watched and studied all the time. A cyborg has never expressed sexual feelings before. If that got out the two of us would be a sensation both in the scientific world and in the general populace."
"You are not a cyborg. You just have cyborg parts."
"Most people don't see it that way. There are many who view cyborgs as machinery even the few of us with human elements. Some people would be horrified that you were attracted to me and I to you. They'd think it was unnatural. We can't have a relationship, Jill. As much as I want to, we can't."
Fairfax nodded. "I like the way you say my name. I understand, Anna. Can we go on sharing a room?"
"We can try."
Fairfax smiled and Anna kissed her.
"I'd better have a shower. I bet I don't smell too good."
"Can I kiss you one last time when you come out."
Anna nodded and hurried off to have her shower.
They had kissed after Anna's shower. More than once. Now Anna sat in the common room waiting for Moshapa to come off duty. Fairfax has returned to engineering to help Toda with a diagnostic review of the systems.
What have I done? I've crossed a line that no officer should cross. Worse than that, I have put Fairfax in a very difficult position that could have a long lasting impact on her life.
Anna reached up and touched her lips. They felt swollen. Would others notice that I've been kissing? I hope not.
"You look deep in thought, Anna."
Anna looked up to see her first officer standing across from her. "Hi Justice. Yes, I was. You know, a lot to think over now that we are heading back."
"You've pulled off a pretty impressive mission."
Anna shrugged. "I hope they see it that way and not as me over stepping my authority."
Justice laughed. "You'll probably move up a rank."
"If I was seen as human, maybe. There are different rules for me."
Justice nodded. "For me too."
"I would have retired, you know. I miss Africa. The sun and the red baked land. Getting up early to look at my herd of cattle. The wonderful rain when it comes. I miss it."
"Why did you stay with the ISC?"
"My younger brother is a big statesman. While I was recovering, he arranged for me to stay in. If I went home, I would be head of the family and of our village. Maybe in the next election the people would vote for me and not my younger brother, then he would no longer be a big statesman."
"Maybe you would be the better statesman."
"Maybe someday, I will be." They laughed.
"How about we get dinner? That is if Toda hasn't eaten everything. That would be ironic if we survived two near disasters only to starve to death on the way back."
"I'm opting for spaghetti."
"I had that last night. I think I'll have the chili."
They heated their meals in the microwave and carried them back to the table.
"Are you married Justice?"
"My wife died some years ago. We had been at university together in South Africa. I took a degree in science and planned to revolutionize farming in Botswana. The young dream big. But my wife and child died in childbirth."
"I'm sorry, Justice, that must have been a terrible time for you."
"It was. The Hydronian Crisis was just heating up then and ISC was recruiting." Justice shrugged. "So instead of becoming a successful farmer in Botswana, I live in the vacuum of space. I never saw the action that Sue Lai did. I won my field commission aboard The Lunaria."
Justice nodded. "We lost the bridge and decks two and three. Some of us managed to survive in the science sections by rigging an air cleaning system. We did a dozen or so EVAs to attach makeshift thrusters to the damaged hull and used them to bring the craft around on a course for home. She was barely drifting forward but we held on for forty-two days until help came."
"You took command?"
"Someone had to."
"The survival of those aboard the Lunaria is legendary. I hadn't realized that was you. Is that where you lost your arm?"
"No. That was years later. Ironically, it happened on Earth in a lab accident. The bones were so badly shattered that the arm had to be removed."
Anna looked at her plate. She hadn't eaten much. "At least there was a reason for removing your arm and giving you a prosthetic."
"Yes." Moshapa wisely let it go at that. His Captain's past was a very touchy subject.
"Permission to join you." Lieutenant Wiseman stood over by the galley holding his dinner tray.
"Granted. How is the research going Lieutenant?"
"Amazingly. I think I've got a pretty good idea how neutralinos form and then decay into neutrinos. Not to mention witnessing the birthing of a neutrino star. It would take years of work to verify my findings but it could win me a Nobel Prize in Physics."
"Congratulations. Looks like your dream of being able to pick and chose from the positions available in the research labs of ISC has come true."
Wiseman put down his fork. "Captain, all my life I've been a geek. I was smart all right but I never fit in anywhere. I told myself I didn't care and just acted like an arrogant, self-centred bastard. Well, I did care. Much to my surprise I find that I've enjoyed this voyage and I hope you feel that I'm a valuable member of the crew."
"My report will certainly indicate that you are a good man in an emergency and an excellent science officer."
"Thank you. Captain, I want to stay aboard. I want to be a member of the DMC."
Anna looked at Wiseman for a few seconds. "You could be throwing away a Nobel Prize. You certainly will be giving up a risk free, high paid job at ISC that will reap you a lot of acclaim. Have you thought about this? The DMC has a very tentative future."
"I'm part of the team. The first members to wear this uniform. I want to be on the cutting edge of things. I want to be with the DMC. I want to be where I feel I belong."
"I'll do my best, Lieutenant Wiseman, to make that happen."
"Thank you, Captain. One other thing."
"This planet, potential star, it needs a name."
"I rather thought we'd call it the Wiseman-Barron phenomenon. It's become traditional to give the name of the discoverers to an uninhabited planet."
Wiseman shook his head. "We all took the risk. We all did the research. Eveen and I have talked about it. We'd like that it be called the Dark Mariner."
Anna smiled. "I'll make that recommendation."
"Oh dear. Is this a private party or can anyone join?" asked Toda, as he and Fairfax brought their food trays over. Fairfax was dwarfed by the towering form of Toda walking behind her. Poor Toda's head nearly touched the ceiling and he had to duck over to get through the hatches.
"Please join us. You too if you want, Crewman Sur." Anna called over to where Aja Sur was waiting for his meal to heat.
The smell of a variety of foods mixed together as they all took a place around the dining table.
Anna looked around. Everyone was there except the duty crew of Lieutenant Barron and Chief Lai.
"This is the first time in a long time that we've had the leisure to have a meal together. It's been an eventful trip."
"Crewman Sur was just telling me that he has never been happier despite the dangers. Space has so much room and most of it unspoilt. I have to admit, that I've stretched my abilities and discovered that I have other talents beyond communication. Us Trodarians have been fit into a certain role in the ISC and done it very well, I think, but now I can see we could be involved in a lot more."
"What about you, Toda? This ship's engine must seem like a toy to what you are used to managing."
"Oh dear, I don't mean to be insulting, but I was so upset when I saw her but you know, she's become my baby. I have great plans for her. I'll probably be an old man on my planet before I get the chance to design and develop star ships. This is a wonderful opportunity for me. More than that, I'm the first Gigantean to serve on a star ship. That is very important to my people."
Anna looked at Justice with questioning eyes. He nodded once.
"I have to be honest. I don't know what will happen when we get back. We were a misfit group that the ISC got rid of by forming a little service and giving us a renovated probe. We've gone well beyond the mandate we were given and hit the jackpot. They're going to have to deal with us now. Whether the DMC will survive or not, I have no idea."
"It's got to!" snapped Fairfax.
Toda thumped the table and everything rattled. "It must."
"Of course it must. We've proven ourselves," said Barron, as she stopped a tumbler from falling over.
"I just need you to be prepared. I hope you all will be looking forward to good positions after this but it might not be under my command."
"We'll see," stated Moshapa. "In my country we say not to count your cattle until the rains have come."
Politics is a Jungle even in Space
A few weeks later, Anna sat in the command seat as The Mariner gently manoeuvered into the The Explorer's docking bay hanger.
"Steady as she goes. Landing gear down. Forward thrusters to equalize."
"Touch down, Captain."
"Shut down systems, Crewman Sur."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
The intership communication light flashed.
"Welcome aboard, Captain Cyborn."
"Thank you, Captain Garcia. It's good to be back. The crew and I are looking forward to being able to stretch our legs."
The crew aboard The Mariner waited for the hanger doors to close and for the bay to be pressurized. Anna leaned back in her seat. The last week she had ordered a general clean-up and stowing of equipment. The Mariner had a few dints and scrapes but she was coming back in the best shape that the DMC could make her. It was a matter of pride.
Without thinking, her eyes turned to where Fairfax sat at the bridge engineering terminal. They had not touched since the day they had expressed their feelings for each other but it hadn't been easy. Sometimes they were able to talk and laugh. Other times there was a tension in the air that made everything awkward. Anna knew that something needed to be done but she didn't know what. Aware that she was staring, she forced herself to look at the other centres in turn. With the exception of Toda, the entire crew was on deck. Anna had ordered that their duty uniforms be washed and pressed. When they stepped off The Mariner she wanted to give the best impression she could.
She had filed her report to ISC several days ago and according to Garcia, it had arrived like a bomb shell going off. Anna wasn't sure what to expect but she was sure that she and the crew would be in for a lot of attention.
"Hanger Bay is pressurized, Captain Cyborn. Standby."
Anna watched as a side door opened and a landing crew ran forward to block the landing gear and cover the thrusters. Then they moved stairs into place alongside their craft. This finished, much to her surprise, the main doors opened and in marched a colour guard from The Explorer. The six astronauts came to attention by the main hatch. Then Captain Garcia and his first officer, Commander Jane Hamilton, walked in and stood ready by the stairs.
"All crew stand by at main hatch to meet colour guard,"Anna ordered and left her command seat to lead her crew to the conning tower hatch. When Toda had joined them, Anna ordered them to attention.
"Disembark by order of rank and form up across from the colour guard."
Anna put her fist on her chest and pounded the beat that they all took up.
"The DMC, The DMC, The DMC!"
Then Anna climbed the conning tower and undid the hatch pulling herself up on deck.
Anna stood on her craft and returned the salute that Captain Garcia and Commander Hamilton had given her. She headed down the stairs knowing her crew would be right behind her.
"Captain Garcia, Commander Hamilton. Good to see you again." Anna shook hands as her crew lined up.
"Dark Matter Corps, Attention!" came Commander Moshapa's voice.
Anna turned and looked at her crew. She had never felt so proud. Her eyes fell on Crewman Fairfax who stood at attention at the end of the line. She looked magnificent, Anna decided.
The formalities over with, the two captains and their first officers adjured to Captain Garcia's ready room of drinks.
"The rumours around here have been growing bigger by the day. Just what is it that you found in there, Anna?"
"A gaseous mass; we've named it Dark Mariner. We believe it's in the process of becoming a neutron star. It's very close to critical mass. But most interesting is the ring of neutralinos we found associated with it. Our science officer, Lieutenant Wiseman, has made some exciting discoveries about how neutralinos form and decay."
"It's true then. My congratulations, Anna. What a find!"
"Thanks, Carlos. My crew made it happen. We were in several tight situations but working as a team, we managed to over come them."
Garcia nodded, then a frown formed on his face. "Anna, Justice, I wanted to make your arrival special. I wanted you to know that the crew of The Explorer greatly admire the Dark Matter Corps. But beyond this ship, I'm not sure what sort of a welcome you are going to get."
"Could you explain that?"
"I've been commanded by Vice Admiral Grover to rendezvous with the fleet's flag ship, The Adventurer, tomorrow. The Vice Admiral will be on board."
Anna did her best to appear unconcerned. "The Adventurer, she's a Goddard class vessel isn't she? I believe there are only three in the area. I'd be interested in seeing her."
Anna was relieved that Garcia did not press the issue. If he was warning her, he must know that she had no secret orders and that she'd far exceeded her mandate.
"You mentioned you ran into some tight situations, Anna. Can you tell us more?" asked Jane Hamilton.
"It was Justice who was in command for the first crisis. Justice, why don't you tell the story?"
The warning given and the subject changed, the evening went on quite pleasantly. Anna enjoyed being treated as an equal. She hoped she got to serve with Carlos and Jane again. Still her mind couldn't help wondering what Fairfax was doing tonight.
Anna and Justice walked through the corridors of The Explorer back to The Mariner.
"Anna, do you think you are in trouble?"
"You know the crew will support you a hundred percent."
"I know but I don't want you involved and that's an order. You lot are to stay out of it and if questioned you were just following orders. There is no point in all our careers being wrecked over this."
"You'd have got a hero's welcome if you weren't clone-cyborg."
Anna shrugged but said nothing. Justice was probably right. They entered the hanger and walked over to the Mariner. There was evidence that Toda had started repairs on the hull already. Anna took the arrival steps up to the conning tower and then lifted the hatch to climb down into her ship. Her ship, at least until tomorrow anyway. Saying good night to Justice, she made her way back to her quarters.
Fairfax looked asleep when Anna came in but she suspected that she wasn't. Anna undressed and got into her sleep wear.
"It's worse, you know, if you look. I know from experience." Anna observed, turning to meet Fairfax's eyes.
"I can't help myself. You look worried."
Anna went to wash up but left the head door open so they could talk. "We're rendezvousing with The Adventurer tomorrow. Vice Admiral Grover is on board. I rather got the impression the last time that I met the man that he didn't have a very high opinion of cyborgs or humans with cyborg parts."
"Will he cause trouble for you?"
"I suspect so."
"We'll all back you."
"No you won't. I've given Commander Moshapa strict instructions that the lot of you are to stay out of it. Your careers have had a nice boost with this mission. Supporting me would only get you marked as a trouble maker."
Fairfax slipped from her bunk and met Anna as she came out of the head. "Do you think that matters to us?"
Anna drew Fairfax into her arms and held her close. "I know my crew would go to hell and back for me. That's a wonderful feeling but I won't let you. That's an order Fairfax."
"That's an order, Jill."
With considerable emotional effort, Anna took a step back. "Go to bed. That's an order too."
Jill looked like she wanted to argue, bit her lip and slipped back into bed. Anna sighed, got into bed and forced herself to sleep.
Anna spent the next morning with her crew, approving the repairs that Toda wanted to under take and reviewing the various research projects that the crew were involved in. After lunch she retired to her quarters and changed into her dress uniform. Pale blue shirt and navy tie and jacket. The slacks were also navy with a pale blue stripe down the side. She looked at the DMC shoulder patch and wondered if this would be their one and only mission.
Anna squared her shoulders. She meant to face whatever lay ahead with courage and dignity. That was the DMC way. Picking up her briefcase of mission reports, she headed for the conning tower.
There were her crew, lined up on each side of the tower standing at attention. Anna came to attention and returned Commander Moshapa's salute.
"The crew and I wanted you to know that it's an honour and privilege to serve with you Captain."
Captain Moshapa, placed his fist over his chest and the crew followed suit. "Cyborn! Cyborn! Cyborn!" they chanted as they pounded their chests. Anna climbed the conning tower and left her crew behind. Reaching the deck she took a few minutes to compose herself. Her crew's loyalty had touched her deeply. Then she headed to her meeting aboard Vice Admiral Grover's Flag Ship.
Anna was ferried by shuttle over to the massive Flag Ship. The Adventurer made The Explorer look like a toy. She thought about her own converted probe. The Mariner might be insignificant but she had made a far bigger discovery than the other two ships had ever achieved.
Once aboard The Adventurer, Anna followed the hall directions to the Captain's offices.
"Captain Cyborn to see Vice Admiral Grover."
The young Lieutenant on the desk got up and opened a door. "Please wait in here Captain. The Vice Admiral will be along presently."
Anna nodded and stepped into the Captain's ready room. Captain Brenda Taylor might command one of the largest ships in the fleet but when Vice Admiral Grover was aboard it appeared she lost her rights to her private rooms. Anna sat.
She sat for forty-eight minutes then the door opened and she stood at attention when Vice Admiral Grover stepped in. The Vice Admiral came over and sat at the head of the table. Spreading out his papers he finally acknowledged that Anna stood there saluting. He didn't return the salute.
"The Mariner has made quite a stir. I have recommended Commander Moshapa for promotion. His brother will be pleased. Botswana is a significant member of the ISC alliance of nations. I think a medal of valour to Toda. We want to keep the Gignantean's firmly on our side. Their abhorrence of physical force makes them questionable as members of the ISC but they are wizards with machinery and I'd be the first to admit that. They are building most of our science class star ships now. Wiseman, of course, will be transferred to the research facilities at ISC Headquarters. The data he has gathered is being waited for with bated breath. The rest of the crew has proven themselves fit to serve and will have commendations put in their files. They'll be posted to other ships accordingly. Then there is you, Captain."
"You far exceeded the bounds of the orders that I gave to Captain Garcia. I agreed to give you a try but clearly there have been problems. I don't blame you. The whole Dordel's cybernetic program was flawed right from the get-go. Can't expect a machine to understand a chain of command."
"I beg your pardon Sir. I'm not a machine."
"I'm talking, Captain."
"You've been assigned to Dorbel."
"Dorbel Cybernetics. The place where you were created. Your home for want of a better word."
"What would I do there, Sir?"
"I have no idea but they want you and I don't."
"Permission to speak freely, Vice Admiral."
Vice Admiral Grover was already on his feet packing up his papers. "Captain Cyborn, I don't want to hear it. Dismissed."
Later, Anna didn't recall leaving the ready room or making her way back to the shuttle. It was only as she sat there watching The Adventurer retreat through the shuttle portal that the shock was replaced by an over all feeling of fear. She was happy for her crew. They would all fare well but she wasn't a fool. If Dorbel got hold of her again she would be little more than an amazing curiosity to entertain prospective costumers or worse, a rat for experimentation. She didn't think she could stand that. She knew she couldn't. She'd grown as a person since being liberated from the lab as a child. What choice did she have? She'd been given a direct order. She could lay a formal complaint against Vice Admiral Grover and request a review. She might win, although the chances were slim, but her career with the ISC would be over. She didn't seem to have too many options. If the worst came to the worst, she'd go awol, change her identity and try to find work in the merchant fleet.
Her crew was waiting in the common room when she returned to The Mariner. They looked at her in silence, sensing that things had not gone well. Anna squared her shoulders. She was Captain and she had a duty to keep her crew positive and focussed on their jobs and careers. It was important to put a positive spin on all this.
"I know you're all eager to hear so let's sit down and I'll tell you what I know."
Everyone quickly pulled up a chair and sat around the table. Anna remained standing. She wanted to make this quick and escape.
"First, The Vice Admiral was very impressed with the Mariner's performance. We are the talk of the town. Commander Moshapa, I'm proud to announce that you'll soon be Commander Moshapa. You'll be commanding your own vessel and I know that any crew will be delighted to serve under you."
Anna paused while the crew expressed their congratulations. Anna caught Fairfax's eye. She saw the worry there.
"Second, Toda, you will be receiving a medal for valour for rescuing Fairfax and me. Well done. Your people and this crew are proud of you."
Again Anna waited while the crew voiced their congratulations. This time Anna avoided looking at Fairfax. She need to keep her control and she couldn't do that when Fairfax seemed to see into her heart.
"Lieutenant Wiseman, you have been assigned to the research centre at ISC command. It's a great honour for someone so young. We're all proud of you." Anna went on before she could be interrupted again. "The rest of you have received commendations and will be transferred to better ships. I'm proud of you all. That is all."
"Captain, what about the DMC?" Wiseman asked.
"Disbanded, as far as I know."
"The Mariner?" Toda asked.
"It wasn't mentioned."
It was Moshapa who finally asked the question to which they all wanted an answer. "What about you, Captain?"
"I've been ordered to report to Dorbel Cybernetics. I'm not sure what my assignment will be. I know you are all a little disappointed that we won't be doing more missions aboard the Mariner. When you come together as a group and face dangers together a certain bond develops that makes it hard to move on. But I remind you, none of us wanted to be assigned to the DMC or to serve on the Mariner. Through your hard work you have now all got what you wanted. I want you to set aside the emotion of leaving this vessel and realize that you are doing so for a better position. The ISC is all about moving on. Now, I have some work to see to. Dismissed."
Anna walked quickly away and hid in her quarters. She dreaded and yet needed Fairfax to follow her and insist on knowing how Anna felt. But Fairfax didn't come. No one did. Anna did her paper work and then went to bed. She didn't sleep. It was a very long night and Fairfax never did turn in.
The next morning, Anna got up groggy and tired. She showered and dressed. They would go ahead with the repairs to the Mariner. Whatever happened to her, Anna wanted to leave her ship in good shape. She owed the Mariner that for bringing them all home safely. Gathering her resolve, she made her way to the galley to get breakfast anticipating that crew members would be needing to question and debate with her today now that they'd had time to think things over.
The only one in the common room was Moshapa.
"Good morning, Justice. Have you seen Crewman Fairfax? She didn't come to her quarters last night as far as I know."
"I gave her and Toda permission for twenty-four hour shore leave. It seems a Gigantean Flarmorr class Star Ship is in the neighbourhood and Toda wanted Fairfax to see it."
"Oh." Anna felt the bitterness of jealousy and disappointment and pushed it from her mind. Fairfax needed to get on with her life. It was a good thing they hadn't got more deeply involved. Anna wasn't going anywhere but back to the lab where she was cloned.
"Admiral Hideaki Ito is aboard the Gigantean ship. He hitched a ride from ISC Command."
"Admiral of the Fleet Ito? What would he be doing out here?"
"Seeing you. The orders arrived about half an hour ago. You are to report to The Adventurer's ready room at 9:00."
Anna looked at her watch. "That doesn't give me much time. When Toda and Fairfax get back I want them working on repairs. The rest of you, I want working on the data we've collected while we are still all together to collaborate easily."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
Anna hurried off to change into her dress uniform. What the hell was going on? Admiral Ito is a major player at ISC. I must be in far more trouble than I realized.
Anna changed quickly and left The Mariner for the shuttle bays aboard The Explorer. To her surprise she found Captain Garcia in his dress uniform waiting there.
"I've been ordered to report to The Adventurer too."
Anna frowned. "This isn't your problem. I'll make that quite clear that The Mariner was acting alone."
"Hey, I don't mind a little grief to have my name associated with one of the biggest finds in years," Garcia joked. "Have you ever met Admiral Ito before?"
"I went to a lecture he gave once. I was so far back I almost needed field glasses to see him. The guy is a legend."
"Yeah." Garcia was talking because he was nervous, Anna realized. She was finding it hard though to hold up her end of the conversation as fear gnawed at her gut. She didn't want to go back to Dorbel.
They boarded a shuttle and waited for the chamber to depressurize and for the bay doors to open, slowly feeling the effects of weightlessness. The craft lifted gently and they felt the craft effortlessly glide out into open space.
With a pilot and co-pilot on board, neither Captain spoke. There were enough rumours already. The shuttle made its way over to the Adventurer. A Goddard class ship, she was a huge craft, but next to the Gigantean Flarmorr class vessel she looked small. Anna checked the name of the Gigantean craft. It was the Todmara, their Flag Ship. Was Fairfax on it now?
Once the docking and pressurizing process had taken place and the artificial gravity activated a land crew came out to cover the jets and block the landing gear. The co-pilot had moved back and had opened up the hatch and lowered the stairs.
Anna and Garcia exchanged looks. This was it. Anna stepped out first to find an escort waiting this time.
"Captain Cyborn? Captain Garcia? I'm Midshipman Ellis. If you'll follow me, Admirals Ito and Grover are waiting."
They walked through the passages of The Adventurer to Captain Taylor's office. This time it was not a junior officer on the desk but Lt. Commander Piet De Groot, Taylor's First Officer.
"Lt. Commander De Groot, this is Captain Cyborn and Captain Garcia." They exchanges salutes and then hand shakes.
"Right this way," De Groot said. He led them into the Ready Room. Standing around talking were Admiral Ito, Vice Admiral Grover, Captain Taylor and a very important looking Gigantean whom Anna didn't recognize. The two of them came to attention and saluted.
"As you were," said Ito. "Sit down." They all gathered around the table, the junior officers waiting for the senior officers to be seated first. Then Anna and Garcia sat down. It was Admiral Ito who did the talking.
"Captain Cyborn, Captain Garcia, might I present, His Royal Highness, Prince Altoda of the Gigantean Royal family and one of the seven Supreme Counsellors of the ISC Civilian Commission."
"Your Highness," Anna and Garcia said together.
"This is not an official enquiry. Nor have you been charged with any misdemeanour. Quite to the contrary, the Mariner has had a very successful mission. However, Vice Admiral Grover has expressed some concerns that I would like to discuss with you and Captain Garcia."
"Captain Garcia, were you assigned as the Senior officer?"
"And given orders that you were to give to Captain Cyborn when you had arrived at your destination?"
"Could you outline those orders to us now."
"I informed Captain Cyborn that her crew was to take The Mariner and map and analyze the structure of the dark matter phenomenon identified on our space charts as 107289. I told her that she was to rendezvous with The Explorer in thirty days time."
"Did you stay in touch with The Mariner during that month, Captain Garcia?"
"No Sir. I had been ordered to participate in manoeuvres in CDG sector and return to pick up the Mariner."
"And was The Mariner there when you returned?"
"Thank you, Captain Garcia. You can wait outside."
Garcia got up and looked fleetingly at Anna with worried eyes before he came to attention. He saluted and left.
"Captain Cyborn, you made the decision to go into the dark matter?"
"Vice Admiral Grover had formed a special unit, the DMC, to study and explore dark matter. He was farsighted enough to realize that dark matter areas are virtually unexplored and that it would take a specialized group in a small craft to do any real exploration. My crew and I were well aware that probes had done a pretty good job of mapping the area and analysing its exterior features. I felt that for our assignment to have any meaning at all we needed to explore within the dark matter mass."
Grover interrupted, slamming his fist against the arm of his chair. "That's just it, Admiral Ito. Cyborn here makes decisions like a human. This is artificial intelligence that we simply can't trust."
Anna felt anger boil up inside her but she gritted her teeth and remained calm. Her only chance of coming out of this with any sort of dignity was to argue quietly and intelligently.
"I beg your pardon, Sir. I am human. I might not have been born but I have a human mother and I have far more human structure than I do cyborg implants. My intelligence, reasoning and emotions are human and I draw on human experiences. I'm not an artificial life form."
"Come on Cyborn, you have cyborg implants in your brain."
"Yes, Sir. They increase my memory and allow me to reason quickly. They do not take away from my human qualities. They enhance them."
Admiral Ito leaned back in his seat and considered. "So the real issue here is not whether Captain Cyborn disobeyed orders but whether she has the right to command with the discretion of a human or if she, as a cyborg, should have been programmed to always follow orders."
"As a result of Cyborn's decision to enter the dark matter, several dangerous incidents occurred that could have easily resulted in the loss of the human crew and their vessel," argued Grover.
"Admiral Ito, I discussed our options with the crew and they were all willing to enter the dark mass knowing the risks involved. Based on experience and research I feel I made the choice that any officer in my place would have made. For our unit to have any credibility at all we need to explore within dark matter masses. I think our first mission has proven that there is a lot to be gained from doing so. The DMC is a small specialized group with a very specific mandate. We know that our work can be high risk. We accept that."
"She's forming her own elitist group outside the perimeters of the ISC."
Anna's temper snapped. "No Sir. You formed the group as a dumping ground for a few individuals that you thought were misfits. You didn't feel we were fit to wear the ISC uniform. We can't be blamed for proving that we aren't weak links but strong members of the DMC you formed."
"Admiral Ito. Cyborn is well out of line!"
"If I might interject." came the soft voice of Prince Altoda. "This issue seems to me to be irrelevant. For whatever reasons, Anna Cyborn was accepted into officer training at ISC. She did outstandingly well. I have done some informal interviews and have discovered that her crew consider her an outstanding leader. They used words like, intelligent, resourceful, brave, fair and so on to describe her. Are these qualities not what we are looking for in our officers? But the word that they used the most was human. They reinforced many times that their captain was a fine human being. Whether Captain Cyborn's cybernetics make her more machine than human is of no importance, in the Council's opinion. Her crew accepts her as human and respect and trust her to lead."
"It sets a very dangerous precedent. If we grant one cyborg freedom of choice then others might feel they should have these rights."
"You used the word "feel" Admiral Grover. How can a cyborg feel? It can't. Only living things feel. Captain Cyborn feels. Therefore, although she is not human in all the many definitions of the word, she certainly functions in a human manner."
Admiral Ito nodded. "I think Prince Altoda has made a valid point."
Grover clamped his jaw shut and made no comment.
Prince Altoda went on. "But there is another issue of far more importance to the Gigantean nation. Toda was our first citizen to be accepted by the ISC. We would not be pleased to find he has not been assigned to a post of some importance. The Admiral's idea of a small group of hand picked individuals to explore the dark matter of space seems to us to be an excellent one. Our government would be most distressed to find that the formation of this group was a farce and their mission was conducted by a renegade cyborg. This would strain our relationship with your planet greatly."
Ito was quick to respond. "The ISC recognizes that no matter what the reasons behind the decision to form the DMC, it was an excellent idea. We also acknowledge that The Mariner and her crew has done an exemplary job. They have been rewarded accordingly."
"Captain Cyborn hasn't. Instead, she has been subject to what we feel is discrimination. The Gigantean nation is one of extreme tolerance. We also have a high respect and regard for machines that we feel are extensions of our very existence. We would be uncomfortable dealing with a people who degrade what we value highly."
Admiral Ito nodded. "I understand your concern, Prince Altoda. I have to admit that within our cultures there is still a fear of artificial intelligence. We have also struggled with cultural misunderstanding between our nations. We have over come many of these issues over the years. That said, we have many things we can learn from the Gigantean people. Vice Admiral Grover, how do you feel about this issue?"
Anna saw Grover straighten in his chair. He might be narrow and bigoted in his views but he knew his duty and would do it.
"Prince Altoda has made me see that there is another side to this issue that I hadn't considered. I think a lot of my concerns have been addressed."
"Good. Captain Cyborn, I here by award you the rank of Commodore."
"Thank you, Sir," Anna managed to get out. She had prepared herself for the worst but not for a better situation. She felt in shock.
"This pleases the Gogantean nation. Now that this misunderstanding has been resolved I think I'm free to discuss another issue that has caused some excitement within a select element of my planet. Lieutenant Toda has submitted plans for a new class of exploration ship. Normally, one so young would not be in a position to do so on our world for we have many outstanding engineers and designers. His status as our only member of the ISC and his part in the success of The Mariner's first exploration, however, has won him some recognition. His design for a small, fast craft that can explore anomalies seems sound and elegant. It is the intention of the Gagantean Authority to build two of these craft to join the ISC's Dark Matter Corp Mariner. Naturally, we hope that Commordore Cyborn would head this small fleet with Captain Moshapa commanding one of the crafts. Toda has requested that this new breed of Gagantean craft be known as the Cyborn class in honour of his commanding officer. This wish we have granted."
"Thank you, Your Highness. I'm deeply honoured." Anna managed to get out. She had gone from shocked to stunned by the sudden turn of events. All she wanted to do now was escape this room and hug Fairfax and shake the hand of Toda.
Even Admiral Ito seemed taken back by the Prince's news. He too managed to stammer a reply. "This is indeed very generous of the Gigantean people, Your Highness. The ISC will be overwhelmed by this gift."
"The new DMC fleet will need a mother ship. I understand that Captain Garcia and his crew have formed a tight bond with the members of the DMC. If The Explorer were to continue in its role as support craft to the DMC, I think the Gagantean Authority could see fit to renovate this Galaxy class vessel to make it suitable to support the exploration and research of the DMC."
Anna watched the change in the attitude of her superior officers. At first, Grover had been aggressive and determined and Ito had been confident and in control. Now, Grover looked like he'd just swallowed poison and Ito was on the defensive doing damage control. Prince Altoda was the man in charge and much to Anna's surprise, he was bargaining for everything that the DMC could want. She knew if she could see her own features they would reflect shock and confusion. She was well out of her league here and had no idea what was going on.
Prince Altoda continued. "Excellent. We will leave it to our various departments then to work out the details. Vice Admiral Grover, although we originally disagreed on a few points, I want you to know that the Gigantean council appreciates your brilliant idea to form the DMC. I hope we can look forward to more mutual understanding and co-operation in the future."
"I do too, Sir."
"Admiral Ito, my thanks on behalf of the Gigantean nation. The formation of the DMC with a Gigantean one of the original members and the designer of this new fleet has raised our participation and status within the ISC. This is something that we have desired."
"Naturally, the ISC appreciates Gigantean's support and co-operation."
"Commodore Cyborn, I'm sure you are a little over-whelmed by all this power politics associated with your creative if questionable mission. You are young and have limited experience to have achieved the rank and position that you have been awarded today. I'm sure the helpful guidance of your excellent senior officers will be of significant help to you. A great responsibility has been placed on your shoulders. Do not let the Gigantean nation down."
"My crew and I will do our very best to live up to the goals of the DMC and the ISC."
"This would be wise." Prince Altoda stood and the others scambled to their feet. "Now I must be going. It has been, as always, a very productive meeting of minds. Good day."
"Good day, Your Highness."
"Thank you, Sir."
Prince Altoda swept from the room leaving the three officers standing at the table. For a moment there was silence, then Admiral Ito laughed.
"Admiral Grover, we've been out flanked and out manoeuvered by one of the best."
Admiral Ito's eyes turned to Anna. "You, Commodore, have been handed a hell of a prize. Make sure you don't drop the ball or I'll have your ass in a sling."
Anna came to attention, saluted and made a fast retreat. Out in the hall she saw Lieutenant Toda talking to Prince Altoda. The Prince patted Toda on the shoulder and was gone. Toda turned saw Anna and came to attention. Anna returned his salute.
"Commodore, let me be the first to express my congratulations," he said in his soft voice. "My, isn't it exciting. I had no idea that my interspace ethermail to my uncle would result in such amazing developments. Dear me, I can't wait to see my Cyborn design being constructed. It will be so much fun. You can't imagine what an honour this is for me. This simply doesn't happen on my planet until you have been a design engineer for years."
Anna smiled. "I think the DMC provided your people with a foot in the door with the ISC. They no longer just build craft for the ISC, they design them and support their own small fleet. I wasn't aware, Lieutenant Toda, that you had such significant players in your family."
"Oh my, you won't tell anyone will you? I just want to be one of the crew not a Prince of the house of Toda."
"Agreed. But I'm grateful, Toda, for your family's intervention and your support and help. You have saved me from a terrible fate. This is the second time I'm indebted to you."
Toda blushed and looked uneasy. "I can't take credit, Commodore. My uncle used the information in my ethermail to his own advantage. This time it benefited us. It might not always. Politics is a jungle even in space."
"I'm sure any down side associated with your position in the house of Toda will be balanced by the positive. I think we need to get back to the Explorer and spread the good news, don't you?"
"Where's Crewman Fairfax? I thought she was with you."
Again Toda looked uneasy. "I didn't want her to know about my association with Prince Altoda so I sent her back with Captain Garcia. I don't think she was very happy with me. She's very close to you."
It was Anna's turn to blush. "Crewman Fairfax is a good and loyal member of the crew."
Nature has a Way of Taking Control
Anna and Lt. Toda found the rest of her crew waiting outside The Mariner in the cargo bay. They all looked worried and stressed. Anna smiled. They were a fine crew and their loyalty to her was a real gift.
"Everything is going to be okay thanks to the Giganteans. They wanted a more active role in the ISC and have achieved that by supporting the DMC. We've become their pet project. I just hope we can live up to their high expectations. The Gigantean council has committed to building two more exploration craft for the DMC and to renovating The Explorer as our base ship. They have really gone to bat for us."
Her crew interrupted with excited remarks and cheers. Toda, however, added a word of caution.
"Oh dear, I'm afraid they do have their own political agenda."
"We'll mange, Toda," Anna reassured him.
"How about you, Captain?" Crewman Fairfax asked.
Anna couldn't prevent the grin of relief. "I'm not going to Dorbel. To get out of a sticky political situation, the ISC had to raise my rank to Commodore and make me in charge of the DMC fleet."
"You'll still be commanding us, won't you, Sir?"
This brought cheers and congratulations from the group which ended with a DMC chant of "Commodore Cyborn, Commodore Cyborn, Commodore Cyborn!"
Anna blushed and laughed. "Okay, okay, enough. We need to get back on track. Lieutenant Toda The Mariner is going to have to serve us for many missions yet. You and Crewman Fairfax need to get back to work on her. The rest of you I want to see significant progress on your research projects by the end of the week. I need to go and have a word with Captain Garcia. I want everyone in the common room at 18:00 hours for dinner. I'll provide it."
"Aye, aye, Commodore."
Fairfax would have stayed behind and talked but Anna didn't give her the chance. She turned and strode off. She knew if she so much as looked at Fairfax, she'd have been in her arms immediately. Anna hadn't realized until recently that in moments of emotion nearness to someone you care about is an over powering need.
Anna found Captain Garcia in his quarters.
"Anna! Come in. Come in. What happened? I've been worried."
"Hi Carlos. First, everything is all right. In fact, it's more than all right. But let me start from the beginning. I thought I was in big trouble. Grover wanted me sent back to Dorbel because I was a renegade cyborg that if allowed freedoms would organize the others to revolt."
"Oh for God's sakes. That's 20th Century thinking and then only in Science Fiction."
Anna shrugged. "Admiral Ito was more reasonable but I still wasn't sure I was going to keep my position until Prince Altoda spoke up. He wasn't going to allow the DMC to be seen as a group of misfits or allow it to be disbanded because the only Gagantean in the ISC was a member. He made it quite clear that his nation would be pretty upset if that was what was going to happen."
"Then he had this battle of wits with Grover over whether or not I was human and argued that I was and that Grover needed to have a greater respect for me and machines if he was going to do business with the Giganteans."
"Damn! I'd have loved to have been there to see Grover taken down a peg or two."
"The best is yet to be told, Carlos. By now I was pretty angry with Grover and just sitting there grinding my teeth watching the big boys play power politics with my life."
"I'll say. Anyway, once it was clear to everyone that the Prince had won the day, he really dropped a bomb shell. Seem that Lieutenant Toda had submitted plans for a new craft for the DMC. The Gagantean Authority realized that such a design could be used to grab a bigger piece of the action. They have agreed to build two of them to create a small fleet for the DMC."
"Holy shit! You game up roses, Cyborn."
"He also suggested that the Explorer could be over hauled and become the mother ship for the DMC. How would you feel about that?"
"No, I'm not."
"Anna that would be wonderful. I'd get the chance to be with you on the cutting edge of things instead of doing manoeuvres in some empty area of space."
"Carlos, you had reservations about me..."
Garcia waved his hand. "That was then, this is now. During Officer's Training, I knew you more by reputation. I know you now as a person. I saw how you built up a service out of nothing and I saw the loyalty of your crew and I sure as hell saw the results of your mission. I'm in your corner, Anna."
Anna smiled. "Thanks, Carlos." They shook hands.
Anna spent the afternoon and evening with Carlos working and celebrating. She told herself it was so they could establish a working relationship between the two ships and develop some ideas of what crew requirements they would need. The reality was that she wasn't ready to spend time alone with Fairfax.
Having had more than her quota of wine, Anna headed back to her ship, tired and drained from a day that had been a roller coaster ride of emotions. She wearily climbed aboard and into the gloom of the common room. This late at night only the equipment lights were on. Little squares and circles of red, blue and green shone like stars about the room. Anna moved to the hall and opened the hatch that was first on the left slipping quietly into her quarters. Fairfax wasn't there.
Relief flooded over Anna to be followed by a second wave of concern and jealousy. Where was Fairfax?
She didn't sleep well. Her stomach was upset from the wine and she had a stress headache. She woke in the early morning with a dry, nasty taste in her mouth and a bad hangover. Anna showered and got into her duty jumpsuit and headed for the gallery. She needed a coffee badly. Chief Lai was just in the process of filling a coffee mug when she saw Anna. She passed her Commodore the cup.
"Good morning, Commodore. It looks like you need this more than me."
"I drank too much wine last night. I don't drink much. It puts my cybernetic parts out of sync with my body that is no longer working at its normal level."
"Do you need a check-up?"
"No, I'm okay. Just paying for a poor decision."
"If I'd gone through what you have over the last few days, Commodore, I'd still be drunk."
Anna smiled, a laugh being too risky an undertaking with her headache. "Where is everyone?"
"Commander Moshapa has allowed us twelve hour shore leaves while we are on board. We're on duty here from eight to eight only. Some of the crew have opted for quarters on board The Explorer. Adam, Lieutenant Wiseman, has permission to stay aboard The Explorer while we are in dock. He's overseeing expansion of the science lab and doing his own research there. I'm spending a lot of time with the doctor aboard The Explorer. We're working together on developing better methods for protecting the crew from the effects of radiation. Lieutenant Barron is doing research on particle theory to understand gas flow better and is in the process of improving our communication system, which she tells me is little better than two cans with a string. Crewman Sur is aboard. He's studying navigation skills because he said Fairfax has been stolen from him by Toda. Also, he's working on a paper to submit to ISC for the formation of ecological protected zones in space. Jill, I mean Crewman Fairfax is staying with a friend aboard The Explorer but she's to be back within the hour to help Lieutenant Toda with repairs. Toda is back in engineering explaining to The Mariner how he's going to make her more beautiful and powerful."
Anna tried a nod and thought better of it. "Where's Commander Moshapa?"
"He's on the bridge up dating the data files."
Anna thought about going to the bridge, reconsidered and sat down at the table instead.
"Let me making you some dry toast, Sir. It will help settle your stomach."
"Thanks. Chief Lai?"
Anna sat for a bit thinking things over. "Chief, I've changed my mind. I'd like to talk to you about a medical problem."
Chief Lai came over immediately and sat down beside Anna. "If it's anything serious, I should call Doctor Albin Bohninski on The Explorer and probably Toda too."
"No, it's not a physical problem. This is - delicate."
"I'm the medical personnel on board. Anything you say to me, Commodore, is confidential."
Anna chewed on her lip for a minute. Then she plunged ahead. "I'm having feelings."
Sue smiled. "Oh, you mean you and Jill."
Anna turned red. "She talked to you about it?"
"Of course not but it's obvious there is an attraction there. I noticed and I'm sure Eveen has. Probably not the guys. They have to be hit over the head before they clue into those sorts of things."
"It would be a major infraction of the rules if I got involved with her."
"If it got out a cyborg was having feelings it would cause a hell of an up roar."
"You're not a cyborg."
"No, but many people believe I am, including the regional Vice-Admiral. It would be just the ammo he needs to use against me. Worse than that, Jill could be exposed to some really nasty comments about having a relationship with a cyborg."
"Is there anything you could give me?"
"I can give you pills to suppress your sexual urge but there is no cure for love. Do you know how Jill feels about you?"
"She feels an attraction too."
"You'll need to bunk separately."
"There's no other way unless one of you wants to leave the service. It still wouldn't help much because one of you would always be away."
Anna nodded. "I can put off re-allotting accommodations for a while. At least until our next mission."
"If you want but I recommend sooner rather than later. Nature has a way of taking control. Come and see me anytime you need to talk to someone. It can help."
Crewman Farifax came aboard a few minutes later. She saluted Anna, said hello to Sue and disappeared into her quarters. Anna got up and followed. Had she looked behind her she would have seen Chief Lai shake her head in disbelief and smile.
Anna closed the hatch. "Who are you staying with on The Explorer?"
"My private life is not your concern, Commodore."
"Jill, for God's sakes."
"Commodore, I agreed to stay away from you so as not to jeopardise your career. I did not promise to give up living."
"I thought you cared about me."
Jill wheeled on Anna and got in her face. "Cared? I was worried sick. I'd have done anything to save you from having to go back to Dorbel because I know how scared you are of that. And when you got back from your big meeting you made a general announcement and walked away. You wouldn't even look at me."
"Jill we agreed...."
"Sure we did. So why does it matter to you where I sleep?" Jill poked Anna in the chest. "Is your heart real or cybernetic?"
"That explains it. If you'll excuse me, Commodore, I have work to get done." Jill grabbed up her tool pouch and headed off to engineering.
If Jill had meant her words to hurt she'd succeed. The rejection was a painful blow to Anna. She was a fool to think a human could love her. How could anyone love someone without a heart? Humans talked all the time about the love in their hearts. Anna didn't understand this. It was just a pump. It wasn't who she was. Couldn't Jill see that?
For the second time in twenty-four hours, Anna was too shocked to think or move. Tears slowly rolled down her face. She couldn't remember the last time she'd cried. She couldn't remember crying after the painful cybernetic operations as a child. She'd never cried when she'd been taken from the lab and stuck with strangers in a group home. She'd never cried when she couldn't make friends or when she was bullied or ridiculed for being a cyborg. She hadn't even cried over the bitter disappointment when her mother hadn't seen her as a daughter but only a successful clone. But she was crying now because she'd thought she'd found the one thing that she'd never had, love, and she'd lost it so easily.
The hatch door opened with a jerk. Anna tried to wipe away the tears. The hatch slammed shut again and Jill was in her arms.
"Oh Anna, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to say those things. I was just so angry and hurt. No, I'm not seeing anyone else. I stayed with an old school friend because it was just too painful to be here when you wouldn't look at me. Anna, I'm sorry!"
Anna held on tight, tears rolling freely now down her face. "I'm sorry too. I couldn't handle my emotions so I ran away. I do know what love is. The heart is just a pump. I do feel. I'm not inhuman," she choked out.
"Oh God, I know that Anna. I know that better than anyone. Please forgive me. Please. I care so much for you."
Anna pulled back and wiped her eyes. "Do you?"
"I could re-allot the rooms if this is too hard."
"I don't know how to handle what I'm feeling. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Please kiss me. I want to know you care as much about me as I do you."
Anna did. In fact, she pulled Jill onto her bunk and they did a good deal of kissing and touching.
"We can be discreet." Jill said, kissing Anna's neck right where the vein throbbed with need.
"Chief has all ready guessed and she thinks Barron has noticed too."
"The crew won't talk."
"Jill, I'm beyond caring. I know this is wrong but I can't stop. The attraction is too great."
"I know. I feel the same way. We'll make it work somehow."
Anna sat up and looked down at Jill. "About sex, I don't know...I mean I've never..."
Jill pulled Anna down to her and kissed her softly. "I haven't had much experience myself but I think these things just come naturally if you give them time."
Anna laughed softly. "The Chief did tell me that nature has a way of taking control."
Jill smiled. "Look at you. Commodore of your own fleet after your first mission. Head of a new service and co-discoverer of the Dark Mariner Phenomena. My commanding officer and my girlfriend. I'm the luckiest woman in the world."
"No, I am. I never thought anyone could care about me."
"We all care about you but I love you."
"Then I am the luckiest woman in the world."
It's All About Believing
Some days later, Anna stood before her crew in the common room. They were all in their dress uniforms. They had been invited to a social gathering aboard The Todmara, the Gigantean vessel.
"I think I don't need to say that I need you on your best behaviour. They might have had their own agenda but the DMC is deeply indebted to the Gigantean's for pulling our bacon from the fire. Let's make them proud. Just before we leave, I have some announcements to make. The Explorer will be taking us back to the Gagarin Star Port for some training. While that is going on, The Explorer will be refitted. Lieutenant Wiseman, you'll be meeting several scientists there from ISC's main research facility who want to pick your brain. Chief, I've arranged for you to take some advanced medical instruction under Doctor Chan. He's the best when it comes to understanding medical issues related to deep space travel. Crewman Sur, you are enrolled in a navigation course and Crewman Fairfax you'll start your degree in engineering. Sub Lieutenant Barron, you'll be stationed aboard The Mariner to over see the new communication net work that we are getting and you'll be in command of the ship in my absence. Lieutenant Toda will not be flying back with us. He will remain aboard The Todmara to work with engineers on the designs for our new craft. He'll join us later. Commander Moshapa will be travelling to ISC to start his officer certification program and Captain Garcia and I will be returning on the first flight to ISC Command for debriefing and to receive our orders on our next mission.
"We'll all be going our separate ways for the next few months but I want you all to remember that you wear the elite uniform of the Dark Matter Corps. Live up to our name and traditions and remember that we are more than a service, we are a family."
Anna's eyes briefly fell on Fairfax. It would be hard to be apart when their relationship was so young. She and Jill had discussed it long into the night. What they did know was that there was no going back. No matter what the consequences, they were committed to a relationship. As Jill had told her between kisses it was all about believing in their love, in the DMC and in the future.
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