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 Enemy
By A. Azel
Planet Life and Horses
Anna Cyborn held on to Captain Garcia and took a wobbly step, then another. The two of them staggered forward like Saturday night drunks. She had never been on Earth before. Even in the elasticized body suit she wore, she found it hard to adjust to the force of gravity. The craft and space stations she had lived on had artificial gravity but its force was generally only about 75 percent of the force of Earth's gravity. Muscles that used to respond with ease struggled to function on Earth. The air too smelled different. Empty. It wasn't a kaleidoscope of smells layered on top of each other. It smelt fresh like air from a pressurized tank. Only now and then would Anna catch a whiff of wet earth or vegetation, like passing the door of a hydroponic centre.
"Steady as she goes, Commodore."
"I don't like this, Carlos. How long does it take to adjust?"
"A few weeks. That's why they always give you leave time when you first arrive so you can stumble about like a chicken with its head cut off."
"Lovely, image. I can't get my balance."
"It's an inner ear thing. Don't let anyone hug you or pat you on the back, Anna, or you'll topple over. Also expect indigestion, backaches, headaches and the trots for the first week."
"And people like Earth?"
"It's home, Anna."
"My home was a test tube and a science lab on board the Dorbel Space Station."
Carlos laughed. "I can't wait to see you with my family. They are going to have so much fun with you."
Captain Carlos Garcia was from Earth. He'd grown up in rural New Mexico where his family raised cattle close to First Nations land. Knowing Anna had no family or friends on Earth, he'd invited her to stay with them until they had to report to the International Space Command Headquarters or ISC. He hadn't told his family that Anna was clone-cyborg not because he thought they wouldn't want her but because he didn't want anyone feeling awkward. Once they got to know her as he did, then they could be told. Still, he had to admit he was going to have some fun watching Anna the Space child adjust to his noisy, happy, extended, ranch family.
They spent three days at the Officer Quarters at Star Base One which had once been the Cape Canaveral Space Centre centuries ago. Despite their sore muscles and wobbly condition, Anna and Carlos went to visit the Astronaut Hall of Fame which covered acres of land and had some of the original bell shaped space craft that was barely big enough for one person. They shook their heads in disbelief at the risks and discomfort the early astronauts endured and how little they knew about space.
"We've come a long way, Carlos."
"For sure. Still, there was an excitement in those early days of being on the edge. Now we just live in a floating hotel in empty space. That's why I'm so grateful that I'm going to be associated with the Dark Matter Corps. You guys are pushing the envelope exploring dark matter."
"Thanks to the Giganteans. We came very close to being disbanded."
"No way. Once you found that neutron star forming inside that mass of dark matter on your first mission there was no turning back. I think in the end the DMC would have survived although the members might have changed."
"Yeah, I'd have been back in the test tube."
Garcia reached out and gave Anna a gentle one handed hug. "I'd have never let that happen." He kissed her.
Anna pulled back immediately. "Carlos."
"I like you, Anna."
"I like you too. You are part of the DMC family but I'm a lesbian, Carlos."
Carlos looked at her in stunned silence for a second. "Shit. Why do all the good ones have to be lesbians?"
Anna laughed. "Sorry."
"I can live with the disappointment if you promise to remain my friend."
Anna smiled at him. "I'd like that." Captain Carlos Garcia had been in Officer Training with her. He had been hesitant but open minded about servicing with her. Anna had not been surprised. She had learned through bitter experience that humans had a hard time treating her as an equal because 40% of her body parts were cybernetic and the 60% that was human had been cloned. They had come to like and respect each other though over the five months of their first mission.
"You know what this means don't you?"
"Lesbians have to take their turn buying dinner."
Anna laughed. "Pick the place and I'll treat you royally."
The next day, they took the commuter turbo to New Mexico. They arrived two hours later in San Fe. Carlos' three brothers, Emanuel, Diego and Bronco were there to meet him. They'd howled and whistled at the sight of Anna whose tall, lean form looked great in blue jeans and a white t-shirt. Carlos was quick to point out that she was Commodore Anna Cyborn, his commanding officer. The brothers immediately, turned polite and gracious. They stuffed their bags into the back of the dusty farm flier and climbed aboard.
They hadn't got outside the city limits though before Carlos called for a stop. He and Anna climbed out of the open box of the flier and disappeared into a variety store to buy Anna sunglasses, a hat and an powerful sun screen. She simply wasn't used to living on a planet's surface and being blond and blue eyed had only added to the sun sensitivity problem. Carlos explained to his brothers that he looked over and there was Anna squinting like an owl and turning slowly red. Anna was reseated under the shade of the cockpit canape beside Carlos' brother, Emanuel. Then they were off again.
They were soon floating over miles of sparse vegetation on a vast plain covered by a dome of blue sky. As they got closer to the Garcia ranch, the terrain became more rugged with deep canyons, washes, buttes and mesas. The light played off the rock formations creating a stark but mystical landscape. Anna, whose world had always been metal walls and artificial light, was mesmerized by the topography. She asked a thousand questions which the brothers were only too glad to answer, taking a great pride in their home.
Carlos' parents and two sisters were waiting on the porch of their Hacienda when the flier came to a landing in a cloud of dust. Garcia was hugged and kissed by his parents and sisters, his mother cried with happiness and his father beamed with pride.
"Mama, Papa, this is Commodore Anna Cyborn. Anna my parents Maria and Juan and my sisters Ahuic and Malinal."
Anna went to offer her hand but before she could, Maria had wrapped her in a big hug and then passed her on to the others who hugged Anna too. She would have toppled over if she hadn't been surrounded by laughter, chatter and arms and propelled into the cool, interior of the Garcia home with its white adobe walls, huge beams, stone fire place and tiled floors. They all ended up in the kitchen around an old, farm table worn smooth and golden with age. Then the food started to arrive. Hot and spicy and washed down with cups of coffee.
Near sundown, after Carlos' married sisters and brother Emanuel had said their good byes and headed home to their own families, Carlos took Anna for a walk around the compound.
"What is that?" Anna asked, taking a step back.
Carlos laughed. "It's a horse. A quarter horse to be exact."
"They're not wild are they? Do they bite?"
"We ride them and they rarely bite."
"You ride them? Why?"
Carlos went over and stroked the animal's neck. "I guess because it's part of the ancient west but more than that it's a skill that is dying out. Used to be there were thousands of horses out here. Now there are probably only hundreds. We keep a dozen or so and we use them. There are still things today that a horse does better than any flier."
Anna came over and tentatively stroked the big animal. "I haven't seen many animals. Some caged birds, a few cats and a dog once."
"I'll teach you to ride in a few days when our balance is a bit better. Jill Fairfax is quite a rider, you know."
Anna's head came around sharply. Did Carlos realize? No. He was just making conversation.
"Jill is from Earth?"
Carlos shook his head in disbelief. "You know Anna, even today, about fifty percent of the ISC are born on Earth or other planets."
"I guess I never thought about it. My reality is space."
"Most of your crew are planet born. Only Sue Lai was space born. Her people were scientists on Roland 3. Jill's mom and daddy owned a bull ranch close to the Colorado boarder. That Fairfax family had rodeo in their blood. Brookview farms produced legendary rodeo bulls."
"They don't now?"
Carlos shook his head. "Not much rodeo anymore. It's a dying sport. Jill's daddy was killed by a bull and her mom sold up and moved them back east. I heard her mom remarried. I always figured Jill would come back here. I was real surprised to discover she was in the ISC."
Anna tried to steer the conversation away from Jill. "Why didn't you come back?"
"I probably will someday. I'll buy myself some land and settled down. Right now, this ranch is supporting enough people. Don't get me wrong, I love space but this is home and I'll retire here."
That night, Anna lay in her bed deep in thought. It was hard to sleep. The sounds and smells of a planet were so different from what she was used to. She missed the background hum of engines and the click of switches. Still, she had to admit that planet life did have an emotional pull that she had not expected.
She sighed. She had thought that she had made a good effort to get to know her crew after Chief Lai had talked to her about making time to get to know her crew members. But Garcia, who was Captain of The Explorer, the mother ship in which their vessel, Mariner, was transported, knew more about her crew background than she did. He even knew more about Jill.
Anna missed Jill. She missed her a lot. She wondered how Jill was getting on in her engineering course. They'd had a thing on their first mission. Well, not really a thing. They'd never got beyond the kissing, hugging stage but the intent was there to be more involved. It was stupid she knew for a senior officer to get involved with a crew member. Stupid and wrong but she hadn't been able to stop herself. She wanted Jill.
Anna found her thoughts going down dark paths. She was a clone-cyborg. No cyborg had ever had sexual relations. How would people react if that knowledge became public? She'd be a curiosity, a side show. How would they react to Jill having an affair with what they thought was a machine? Ridicule. She had to keep reminding herself of those facts. No, it was too late. She was going to meet Jill on Solar Breeze Space Port for a week of holidays before reporting back for duty. You didn't meet someone at a space port resort like that for business reasons. Should she back out, make excuses? Yes. But she knew she was incapable of doing so. She wanted to be with Jill.
Garcia said, on any occasion that the subject was to arise, that teaching Anna to ride a horse had provided him and his brothers with the best laughs that they had ever had. Anna took this ribbing good naturedly first because she had to admit they had reason to laugh and second because they stuck with it and Anna did learn to ride if only at a beginner level. She was grateful to Garcia for sharing his family. They had accepted her as one of their own. She'd even taken to calling his parents Mama and Papa. She'd come to enjoy the wonders of planet life and she'd added to her list of wild life having seen pigs, chickens, sheep, antelope and coyote during her stay.
The Darkness People and Fairy Myths
Two weeks later, the boys had taken them back to Santa Fe and they'd taken the commuter turbo to Houston, Texas and the International Space Command. That morning they met for breakfast now wearing their dress uniforms.
Garcia swallowed a piece of bagel. "Don't you find it strange that we had to come all the way here to get our orders instead of getting them from Vice Admiral Grover?"
"Strange and worrisome. First, I'm sure Grover won't like us getting orders that didn't come through him and that's just one more reason for him to dislike me. Second, whatever the orders are, they are damn sensitive if Grover can't be told."
"You think we are getting a hot, top secret mission?"
"I think we are still an expendable force with a good name for delivering the goods no matter what. That means we'll get the jobs no one else wants."
Garcia laughed. "That's another way of putting it."
The International Space Command or ISC was a magnificent complex of buildings built on a ancient NASA site. Security was tight and Garcia and Anna had left early to make sure they would get through the security checks to get to their appointment on time.
Two hours later, they were sitting in the junior administrative assistant's office of the administrative assistant of Rear Admiral Jordan Cotton waiting to be taken by him to the Admiral of the Fleet, Hideaki Ito. They had been waiting an hour.
Finally, Junior Administrative Assistant, Lieutenant Chuck Logan, stood and spoke.
"This way please, Commodor, Captain."
Anna and Carlos Garcia followed in his wake. They were handed off to the administrative asssitant, Captain Grace Maasi who told them to sit down and wait. Three quarters of an hour later, she led them into the presence of Rear Admiral Cotton. Anna and Carlos came to attention.
Cotton came over and stood in front of Anna looking at her careful like he would a specimen in a bottle. Then he turned and addressed Carlos.
"As you were. I guess you're wondering what the hell you are doing here,"
"No, Sir. I know what I'm doing here, Sir. I'm assisting Commodore Cyborn. I'm sure Commordore Cyborn would like to know why she has been brought here."
Anna tried not to laugh. Carlos was one brave and loyal friend. Cold grey eyes turned to look at her again.
"I've never seen a cyborg close up before."
"I'm 60% cloned human, Sir."
"I know what you are. Some damn unnatural cross breed. They should have closed Dorbel down well before their cyborg research became known."
"That is all, Captain." Anna said quietly, not allowing Carlos to come to her defence. "Rear-Admiral, I'm a member of the ISC Dark Matter Corps in good standing and have been accepted by my crew and colleagues as human. I am not a machine and will not be treated as one."
"To hell you won't."
"No, to hell she won't. I have learned that." All three officers snapped to attention as Admiral Ito entered carrying a small, black brief case. "That will be all Rear-Admiral Cotton. I won't be needing you."
Cotton looked surprised saluted and left the room.
Anna and Carlos did so. Admiral Ito took his time opening his brief case and sorting papers before he sat down at the table.
"I'm sorry you have been kept waiting. I was checking the security levels of the DMC members. With the exception of Crewman Fairfax you all check out for this mission."
Anna looked up in surprise. "Fairfax is a respected member of my crew. Twice on our last mission she saved lives with her actions. I have and would trust her with my life."
"I appreciate your loyalty, Commodore. But Crewman Fairfax has a checkered past. Her psychological profile indicates that she has some deep seated anger and insecurity due to sexual abuse and this mission is far too sensitive to risk a weak link."
Anna felt the heat raising in her face and her stomach tie in a knot. She didn't know that Jill had been sexual abused and she didn't like that Ito had mentioned it in front of Carlos. It was private but not so private that Jill shouldn't have shared this information with her, she felt.
"Commodore Cyborn, did you hear me?"
"Crewman Fairfax can't go on this mission."
Anna swallowed. "We are a tightly knit group, Sir. Leaving Fairfax behind will be bad for moral and I feel unnecessary."
"Captain Garcia, I understand you have known Crewman Fairfax longer. Your opinion?"
"I knew her family years ago. I know nothing of her adult past before she joined the DMC but like Commodore Cyborn, I have full confidence in Crewman Fairfax. It's not what she did before she joined up that matters, it's what she's done since. She's a credit to the uniform."
Ito considered this information, features neutral. "Very well. I'll see that Fairfax gets the necessary security clearance but Cyborn you are responsible for her. You'd better be right about her."
That decided, Ito went on with the briefing. "There is a dark matter mass in section 4876. It's massive. Whatever goes in hasn't come out. We've lost four probes and a few months ago, we lost a scout ship that entered the mass by accident due to an navigation error. I'm going to play for you their last communication."
Admiral Ito pressed a switch on a small digital bank that he pulled from his briefcase, made a selection and turned the volume up.
"Lieutenant Braun aboard the Scout Ship 782 reporting at 27940.56 relative space time. We have on our screen what we feel might be a massive alien object rather than a dark mass formation. We have hailed them but have had no response. The mass is like nothing I have seen before. As large as..."
Ito switched off the mechanism. "That's it."
"It doesn't tell us much." Anna observed.
"No it doesn't. Our anthropology team, however, tells us that the intelligent life in the area have all sorts of legends about the people from the darkness. The cultures in that area are pre-space travel so the legends are pretty unusual. But the basic plot, I take it, is that they have seen objects coming from an area of the night sky that is dark. Some legends talk about people disappearing. ISC feels there could be a planet hidden in that area of dark matter with intelligent life capable of space travel. If so, they have one of our scout ships and three of our people. We don't leave our people behind. You are to find out what the hell is going on in there and rescue our people if they are alive or find out what happened to them. Also, bringing back that scout ship if it can be done. You are to do so in a manner that builds an alliance with this unknown specie if at all possible. And you are to do so with your mouths shut. We don't want any panic in that region that might cause political instability. I remind you of the Darean Incident. That is not to happen."
"Good. We understand each other, that whatever happens out there remains secret until such time as ISC feels it is safe to announce the discovery of another specie."
"No written orders will be given to you. Electronic passes to enter section 4876 will be issued. Good luck."
"Thank you, Sir." Admiral Ito stood and so did Anna and Carlos standing at attention until Ito had swept from the room.
Carlos looked at Anna. "What's the Darean Incident?"
"I had to search my data banks. It happened a long time ago. A pre-space society, was told by an undercover ISC officer that there was an advanced race living near by. A few months later, there was a bad earthquake on the planet and the rumour got going that it was caused by the aliens. It led to massive rioting and a lot of innocent strangers were killed including two ISC anthropology officers who had been working undercover in the area. I guess the anthropology department must have some real concerns about how the planet folk would react if contact was made."
"Still seems an over reaction."
Anna nodded. "I don't think we've been told the whole story."
"So what now?"
"We'll go and talk to some anthropologists about the mythologies in section 4876."
After being directed to the Planetary Anthropology and Sociology Research Centre, they followed signs to a small office on the third floor that was the space occupied by Dr. Holmes Leslie. Leslie was short like most Trodarians with the stick-out round ears and large blue eyes. Her hair was light brown and thick and she wore it in the traditional Trodarian mane.
Anna used the traditional greetings.
"Good day, Holmes Leslie. I hope your tribe prospers. I'm Commordore Anna Cyborn from Space Station Yeager. My mother is Dr. Edith Bissell. This is Captain Carlos Garcia of Earth, whose mother is Maria Garcia. We are part of the Dark Matter Corps. Aboard my ship, my communication officer is Lieutenant Barron Eveen. The one who co-discovered Dark Mariner."
"Good day Anna Cyborn and Carlos Garcia. My tribe does prosper, thank you. I have read about the adventures of the Dark Matter Corps and the discovery of Dark Mariner. Please send my best wishes and congratulations to Barron Eveen, whose third cousin married into my great uncle's clan."
"I'll do so. Barron Eveen will be pleased that I have met and talked to you. We need your help."
"Please sit down. I'll make tea while you tell me how I can help you."
"We are being sent on a routine patrol mission to section 4876 to map and collect data on the dark mass in that area..."
Dr. Holmes nearly dropped the tea pot as she spun around. "Don't!"
"I mean, no, that is precisely what I mean, don't."
Anna looked at Carlos and then back at Homes. "Why?"
Dr. Homes took her time pouring tea from a large round tea pot painted with yellow roses into china tea cups that matched. "I love these old tea sets from Earth. They are so pretty and civilized." She passed each of them a cup and got a tray of milk, sugar, and a plate of cookies before she spoke again.
"I do want the ISC to investigate the area. I have requested such an investigation many times but a single ship is not what I had in mind. It would be a suicide mission. I know this area well. All my research on mythology has been done in Section 4876. There is a evil living in that dark matter. People disappear after seeing the dark angels. Not just a handful or even hundreds, I'm talking about thousands of people having disappeared over the twenty years or so that I have done research there."
"They see dark angels?"
"Yes, at least that is how they describe them. They are always seen in threes. Wings like a butterfly's only clear and black bodies similar to humans. They are about the size of your hand. They move quickly, like a humming bird but make no noise. When people see them, they know someone will disappear during the night."
"Are there signs of a struggle?"
"No. They just vanish."
"Has anyone seen them vanish."
"Not to my knowledge."
"Does anyone come back?"
"Only one that I know of."
"Who? I'll want to get in touch with this person."
Dr. Homes bit her lip as she considered. "It was me. Now I suppose you think I'm a crack pot and anything I tell you will be suspect. I've never told anyone before. It wouldn't do my career any good."
"You saw the dark angels?"
"No. But some of the villagers did. I was staying in the village doing research. This would have been nine years ago. The men were out harvesting Calups, a type of fruit. The angels seemed to come out of the foliage of a Calup tree and swooped around them. They ran back to the village. Everyone ran inside and locked their windows and doors. When I heard what had happened, I went looking for the dark angels down at the orchard but never saw any. That night, I went to bed as usual and the next morning I got up as usual but according to the villagers, I'd been gone for over two weeks by their time. That's a duration of about 6.8 relative space/time. I had no marks on me. I felt fine and I had no sensation of having missed time. I just ceased to exist for a period of time."
Carlos gave a low whistle. "Weird goings on."
Anna considered. "It would seem that the dark angels are interested in only the planetary life forms in that area. You, a stranger, were returned. To save time, I'd like to down load some of the mythology you have collected into my data banks. Is that possible? I assure you that I will delete the data as soon as our mission is over."
Dr. Holmes looked up in surprise. "You're a cyborg?"
"No. I'm clone-human with some cyborg units."
"You're one of the Dorbel experiments. You said you were from Yeager not Dorbel."
"I consider my life to have started after I was removed from the laboratory and put in a group home on Yeager."
"I can understand that. Did your mother visit you often?"
Anna's face tightened. "My clone-mother never visits me."
Dr. Holmes looked shocked. Matrilineal ties were very strong among the Trodarians. "I'll help you all I can. I'm sure you are aware that a scout ship disappeared there not long ago."
Anna went still. "That is supposed to be classified information."
Dr. Homes snorted. "ISC is a rumour mill and when members don't come back from missions the rumours spread even faster. So you're being sent out to rescue them."
"We're on a routine mapping and data collecting mission."
"Sure. I'll bring up some myths that I think best describes the creatures and incidents. Keep in mind that these people are pre-space travel so their explanations of what they have seen and experienced is rather folksy."
It was towards evening when the sun sends out long fingers of shadows. I had been hoeing in the field. The Tomads do not like weeds. If you want bushy Tomad plants with lots of hanging fruit, you must hoe the weeds clear often.
I climbed up and took the ridge pass back to the village because it was the season of the stinging insects that lurk in the damp, cool valley. I had only gone about half way home when I saw three dark angels circling above Bogta's house. I was very much afraid because the dark angels are a sign of death. I hid between two boulders and pulled my grey sweater over me so I wouldn't be seen. I know they say that the dark angels are blind and they find those that are to die by the beat of their heart but I don't think that is true because they didn't find me and my heart was beating like a drum.
After a while, when the sun had almost set, the dark angels disappeared. They didn't fly away, they just vanished like blowing out a flame. When I got my nerve up, I got up and ran home. The next day, I learned that Bogta was no more. He'd vanished during the night right from the bed where his wife slept. The dark angels had taken him to the dark sky where there are no stars. It is the place of lost souls. This is where you go if you are bad. They took Bogta because he had a bad temper and beat his wife. She is happy now. Her children are old enough to run the farm.
Some say that they have known good people to be taken too but I don't believe this. Only bad people are taken. Sometimes we don't know that people are bad in their hearts. The angels are the helpers of Goddess Guildor, she who brings the light and rain. She knows everything. Still, I'm glad I hid. Even Guildor sometimes makes mistakes and brings bad storms. I would not have wanted the dark angels to take me by mistake.
I saw three dark angels in my garden. I watched them go from plant to plant. I had heard that if you talk to a dark angel it will bring you much luck and your crops will grow better than anyone else. So even though I was afraid I went out into the garden and called to the angels. I said, I am a good and healthy person so you don't need to take me but please make my garden grow.
The three stopped and hovered in the air looking at me. Then one raised a small stick that it held in its hand and there was a flash of light and I knew no more. When I knew again, I was lying where I had stood. I had a terrible headache and my muscles jerked for hours after. The dark angels were gone. Everything was the same as before, but that fall, I won the largest Tomad contest at the region agricultural centre. Everyone said it was the biggest Tomad that they had ever seen. I would not talk to a dark angels again. I would hide. I felt sick for a long time after and people told me that I was lucky I didn't cease to exist.
Anna down loaded a dozen stories like this plus legends of cities in the sky and ancestors who could fly. Thanking Dr. Holmes, Anna and Carlos left, heading across the park land that surrounded the Anthropology complex.
"Looks like we are in for quite an adventure."
"Looks that way."
"Have you booked your transport back to Gagarin Space Station? Maybe we could go together."
"Ahh, actually, I'm booked into Solar Breeze Space Port for a week."
"Oooooo, so who is it?"
"Come on Anna, you don't go to Solar Breeze Space Port Resort alone. That would be a hell of a waste of some of the best sunsets this side of the galaxy. Not to mention the surf, the candlelight dinners and the fine cuisine. Bet it's Jill."
Red flooded Anna's face.
Carlos laughed. "Knew it!"
"Carlos, shut up. Officers don't, well, they don't, not with enlisted personnel."
Carlos smiled. "Sure they don't. We just have that rule in case."
"Is it that obvious?"
"Relax Commodore. No one aboard the Mariner would ever talk."
"If Vice-Admiral Grover found out, I'd be out of the service in a flash."
"We'll protect your back, Anna. You have a right to a life."
Anna sighed and sank down on a park bench. "Have you any idea what a scientific curiosity we'd be? The first cyborg to have a relationship. Or the scorn that Jill might have to endure? I'm thinking maybe I should book to travel back with you to Gagarin Space station instead."
Carlos sat down beside her and took her hand. "Anna, I'm your friend. I'd have liked to have been more than that but if friendship is all you have to offer then I accept. Hell, my parents have all but adopted you so I feel I have a right to be a big brother and give you some advice. Only a damn fool of an officer would get involved with enlisted personnel. It's a suicide mission. But Anna, if you think you have found something special in Jill, then take the risk. Happiness is far more important than a job."
Anna looked at the grass. The variety and texture of the Earth's ground fascinated her. "I don't have a heart. It's a cybernetic pump."
"So what. Love has nothing to do with the real heart. It's a metaphor for something that we can't really explain. A feeling that bonds you with another individual. Go enjoy your week. Then you'll know."
Anna looked up and smiled at Carlos. "Thanks. You are a wonderful adopted brother and you'll make someone a wonderful husband."
Carlos laughed. "With the two best women off my list, I'm going to be a bachelor for a long, long time."
Sunsets and Nameless Faces
Solar Breeze Space Port Resort was not big but it had a number of unique qualities that made it very popular. First, it had been designed and financed by the Swiss and was neutral ground. Uniforms of any sort were strictly forbidden as were weapons. Second, it was built on a small planet that due to a high level of organic material in the air provided remarkable sunsets and sunrises every six hours. The artificial climates provided everything for the tourist from Alpine skiing to tropical scuba diving. But the best thing about Solar Breeze was that your reservation was a numbered account. No names and no faces were ever revealed. On arrival, each tourist was fitted with a metal bracelet that could not be removed by anyone but the Swiss authorities at the space station. It was preprogramed so only those you had selected could see your real face. Others would see only a digital created image reflecting your racial and sexual status. As the ads said: On Solar Breeze, you leave your self behind and get to be the person you always wanted to be. Discover the inner you. Spend a holiday that no one will ever know you had. Be free in paradise. In short, it was a perfect place for a clone-cyborg officer to explore a relationship with an enlisted human.
Anna was nervous. She had never done anything like this before. Of course, she'd heard about Solar Breeze and other such resorts scattered through the systems but she'd never been to one. If half the stories she'd heard were true, then the resorts must be pretty wild places. She felt uneasy about going and yet these were places used by many space travelling people for a little relaxation. She'd picked up a galactic transport seven days ago and had changed to civilian clothes that morning. She now stood by waiting for the space elevator that would take her to the resort. Already she'd had her bracelet attached by a greeting official and been told that her friend had already arrived.
The elevator doors opened and several strangers exited the compartment. The only one remaining inside was Jill. Anna smiled and stepped into the elevator her concerns left behind for the time.
"I've missed you."
"I've missed you too."
The doors closed and Anna stepped closer and wrapped Jill into her arms. They were still kissing when the elevator slowed to ground level five miles below.
Stepping away from each other although there was no need, they waited for the doors to open.
"You look wonderful in civilian clothes," Jill commented as they stepped out into the main terminal of the space port. "Come on. Your bag will be sent to our hotel. I booked us in to a small cabin on a deserted island. Tropical, great diving and sailing and all the time and privacy we need."
Anna smiled, here among thongs of people coming and going she felt awkward again. She hadn't got used to the idea yet that only Jill could recognize her. Jill seemed to understand and kept her distance, and the conversation general while they made their way to their rented flier and programmed in their destination. A few minutes later, they were air borne and Jill reached over and took Anna's hand.
"You okay about this?"
Anna considered. "About us, yes. But I'm nervous. I've never been involved before. I don't know how my body will react and I don't know how to please you."
Jill gave Anna a nudge. "I think we can work it out. We have so far."
Anna smiled. Jill always knew just what to say to make her feel calm. She never dwelled on her cybernetic side like others did but focussed on her as a human. For several minutes, they had been flying over a beautiful ocean. The flier now banked and they could see below a chain of islands. The flier slowed, lost altitude and glided to rest on the beach of one of these tropical atolls. The bubble dome slid back.
Welcome to Solar Breeze's Aqua Waters Island Retreat. Your full stocked cabin will be your special and private home for the next week. If you require any special service please ring for island service. The staff and management of Solar Winds wishes you freedom and happiness while you enjoy Solar Breeze's special form of relaxation and recreation.
Anna and Jill climbed out of the flier and headed over to their cabin. Anna's bags were already there on the porch.
"Wow, that's quick service."
"You're just used to the ISC system were everything has to be requested four times, and you add ten weeks to the promised delivery time. Let's go for a swim. Did you bring a bathing suit?"
"You won't need it," said Jill disappearing into the cabin to pick up a few beach towels. By the time Anna had brought her bag in, Jill was stripping down to her skin.
Anna's eyes got wide and a ball of desire dropped to her hips. "You meant it."
"Sure did, Commodore. Strip, that's an order." Anna obliged then made a grab for Jill, but laughing, Jill skipped away.
"Noooo. Swim first. I've got this mission planned out to the second." Jill offered her hand and Anna smiling foolishly let herself be led down to the white sand beach. Jill spread out the towels near the beach solar kitchen and then kissing Anna she sprinted off into the ocean. Anna was right behind her. They made a beautiful pair. Youthful, fit bodies knifed through the water side by side, turning and twisting around each other. Hair smoothed back and wet, drops of water glistening on their faces and shoulders and laughter floating in on the waves. They waded to shore and walked along the beach holding hands comfortable with their nakedness and totally free at last to show their feelings for each other.
Returning to their beach towels, Jill took a minute to program the solar kitchen unit and then pulled Anna down on the towels. At first, it was all about kissing; hot, demanding kisses followed by deep passionate ones. Kisses that caressed, explored and teased until want demanded more and hands explored and bodies rubbed and arched together.
Solar Breeze put on a magnificent sunset that night but neither of them saw it beyond the pink shades that highlighted their bodies as they at last claimed each other. The seagulls cries could be heard far out at sea, the ocean lapped gently reflecting an age old rhythm, a gentle breeze blew the scent on brine and tropical flowers around them and they noticed nothing but each other.
Later, they shared a meal of fresh lobster, warm bread, tropical fruit and wine. The moon rose, a pearl in a diamond studded sky of stars. They made love, slept in each others arms, woke and swam in the cool navy waters then made love again until they fell asleep in each others arms.
It was Anna who woke first just as the pink shades of light rose over the ocean. The crests of the waves sparkled and the sunrise spread its warming colours turning navy to royal blue, to red, pink and then gradually the aqua blue of a tropical ocean. Jill sat between Anna's legs leaning against her breasts. Anna leaned forward and dropped kisses on her neck.
"I love you."
Jill turned to capture Anna's lips with her own and then murmured, "I love you too."
They sat contented watching the new day dawn and then programmed in a breakfast of fruit cheese, chocolate croissants and coffee.
"I learned to ride an animal," Anna suddenly said, between sips of coffee.
"A horse. It was big too."
Jill laughed. "You learned to ride a horse? Where?"
"New Mexico. Carlos took me to stay with his family while we got over planetary readjustment. They have a cattle ranch and his parents said I could be one of their children too. I really like the area. I didn't think I would at first because it's so different from a space ship but I do. Carlos said you are from that area so I thought we could buy land there and..."
"Anna, slow down. What are you talking about? Why would Carlos know I was from there?"
"He knows your family. He said your parents raised excellent rodeo bulls."
Anna thought that Jill would be happy that she had learned and enjoyed a little of her heritage but Jill stiffened in her arms, got up and went to slip into her shorts and t-shirt.
"You'd better get some clothes on. The sun is getting strong and you'll burn sitting there."
Anna got to her feet and brushed the sand off her body before reaching for her clothes. "What's the matter?"
"Nothings the matter."
"Jill, something is the matter."
"I don't like talking about my past, okay. Let it drop."
"Okay, we don't have to have land there we could get a place on a Star Port or another planet."
"Anna, for God's sakes this is sex! It's not a commitment. We barely know each other."
Anna was totally confused. She thought they were in love. She thought it would be forever. She didn't know why Jill was so angry. Maybe is was because of the sex abuse. She wondered if she should mention it then decided not to. Jill was angry enough. She swallowed hard trying to force back a wave of pain and disappointment. Maybe she'd been too needy, thinking that she had found at last someone who cared about her. Maybe she wasn't a good enough lover. Or maybe Jill just didn't believe in commitment. Jill was right. They didn't know a lot about each other.
"I'd better go unpack."
"I'm sorry I was so prickly." Jill gave Anna a hug. "There are some issues from my childhood that I'm not ready to face yet. Let's get you settled in and then maybe we could try out our swim suits and do some driving on the reef. Okay?"
Anna smiled although she still felt slightly off kilter because of Jill's remarks. "Sure. Let's do that."
They spent a magical week together. Playing in the sun, having dinners out at various resorts, sightseeing and making love to each other with no inhibitions or worries. At the end, Anna wished that she could stay there forever just loving Jill. It was a nice fantasy but she knew that was all it was. She was the Commodore of a small but important fleet and her life was not meant to be lived at a pleasure port but on the fridges of space. As they dressed to leave, the worries of Anna's new assignment came back to haunt her.
"Penny for your thoughts."
"It's an archaic expression. It means what are you thinking?"
Anna sat down on their bed and pulled Jill on her lap. "I was thinking that maybe you shouldn't go on this mission. Maybe you should stay behind and get a good start on your engineering degree."
"I'm taking my degree through the Gigantean Council of Engineers. They're the very best but it also allows me to study under Toda so my education will not be hampered in any way by my being aboard. You know that so what is the real reason you want to leave me behind?"
Anna blushed. "You didn't pass your security check. I had to vouch for you to get you aboard at all. Maybe, it's not a good idea. Maybe it's wrong for me to back you like that. You should be free to earn your own respect and trust with the ISC."
"True, but I can do that better by proving myself on a top security mission. No, Anna that argument won't hold water either. Tell me the truth."
Anna held on to Jill and spoke into the nape of her neck. "I've been told it's a suicide mission by an anthropologist who worked in that sector. There seems to be an alien race living in the dark matter who have been systematically taking hominoids from the planet surface. I don't want to lose you. I can't."
Jill pulled herself free and stood up, hands on hips looking down at Anna. "Commodore don't you dare pull that shit on me. We are professionals. When we are aboard ship we do what our duty commands and if one of us meets death then the other one will have to find the strength to go on. We know the risks of our jobs. And if you think for a minute, Anna Cyborn, that I'm going to stay behind while you face dangers alone you are sadly mistaken. I'm going to be right there with the rest of the crew watching your back."
Anna managed a weak smile. "I love you for your courage and loyalty but it still scares the hell out of me."
Jill slipped back into Anna's arms. "Me too. Put part of any relationship is knowing someday you will have to say goodbye. It's the price of happiness and it's a high one. Can you accept that?"
Anna nodded too emotional to get the words out. She knew Jill was right that didn't make it any easier. She'd had no idea how complicated this love thing was.
Five hours later, Anna waited while the Swiss Solar Breeze Authority removed her digital identity bracelet so that she could take the space elevator to where her transport waited. Jill had left hours before and would arrive back at The Mariner in four days time. Anna would report to Star Port Gagaran before returning to her ship. She would be a full day behind Jill arriving.
She found this sneaking around about their relationship more and more awkward and annoying. Many people were gay and that was no problem but her rank was and the fact that she was seen as a cyborg was an even bigger issue. Just reminding herself of the problems made Anne feel irritated. She took her seat, buckled in for the acceleration stage and tried to focus on the job ahead.
Commanders and Viewpoints
Five days later, Anna had disembarked from her transport at Star Base Gagarin and had headed immediately to the appointment with Vice-Admiral Grover that she had arranged on route back. Once there she waited in the office of the administrative assistant to Vice-Admiral Grover. Her appointment had been for 14:00. It was now 15:30. She looked over at the Warrant Officer who sat at her desk ignoring Anna then looked at her watch again. It was 15:31. At 16:00, the Warrant Officer stood and told Anna that she could now see Vice-Admiral Grover. Anna gritted her teeth. She was pretty sure that Grover could have seen her on time and this was just some of his nasty, little games. She had arrived planning to be as conciliatory as she could now she was so annoyed that she didn't give a damn what Grover thought.
"Commordore Cyborn, Sir."
Introduced, Anna came to attention and saluted her commanding officer. Grover ignored her.
"Sit down," he commanded, as he busied himself pouring a coffee. Anna was not offered one.
"Alright, you've had your leave time and been given your new assignment by ISC. I have no idea what sort of shit they are playing at keeping me out of the loop but I don't like it. My opinion is they are taking a renegade cyborg and making it a prima-donna. You are just fortunate that for the moment the Giganteans are supporting you. Without their pressure you'd have been out on your ear after your last mission when you disobeyed orders and entered that dark mass."
"Yes, Sir. I think I understand your position quite clearly."
"Do you now? Good. Because I'm watching your every move and sooner or later I'll have your ass in a sling."
"I doubt that, Sir. I have a fine crew and I'm a capable officer."
"You're an arrogant machine."
"I'm cloned human, Sir, with cybernetic implants."
"Yeah, yeah, I've heard this crap. Tell me about this damn mission and that is an order."
"Yes, Sir. The Mariner is being sent to Section 4876 to investigate the disappearance of Scout Ship 782 captained by Lieutenant Braun. It had some navigation problems and entered the large dark mass in that region by mistake. Braun last reported at 27940.56 RST. Admiral Ito does not leave personnel behind, he tells me, and wants every effort made to find out the fate Scout Ship 782."
"It probably hit something and blew up. Didn't they scan for debris?"
"Yes, Sir, but the dark matter is quite dense and the readings inconclusive. Also there are the anthropology reports from the local star system that has caused rumours that Admire Ito is not too happy about."
"It's a pre-space flight culture that believes in angels that take people away if they are not good."
Grover looked at her in stunned silence. Then shook his head slowly. "They are taking that seriously at ISC? Haven't they got bigger issues to worry about?"
"The Mariner, Sir, doesn't get to investigate the big issues."
Grover laughed. "That's good to hear. If I find out that you've lied to me, Cyborn, I'll make things damn difficult for you."
Like you aren't making things damn difficult for me now. "Everything I've told you is accurate, Sir. Or at least what they chose to tell me."
"You think they are holding out on you?"
"Probably. The ISC hands out information on a need to know basis. I'm sure, Sir, you know more than I do." Anna had meant this last line to be sarcastic but Grover nodded and smiled knowingly.
Anna gritted her teeth. The old bastard was going to pretend he knew all along and was only testing me or maybe he does know and I'm being played. Shit, I hate these games.
Grover stood. "Okay, Cyborn, that is all. Good luck to your crew. Make sure they come back alive."
Anna stood at attention although probably not as quickly as she should. She didn't respect this man. She didn't even like him. "Yes, Sir."
"And, Cyborn, if I find that unauthorized supplies have been stowed aboard your ship again there will be hell to pay. Get out."
"Yes, Sir." Anna left quickly before she lost her commission for knocking her commanding officer's block off.
Anna took an elevator to the docking area and walked along the main corridor to where The Mariner was docked on a secondary arm beside its much larger mother ship, The Explorer. On route to Space Station Gagarin, she had received communications from Justice her Deck Captain, Carlos the Captain of The Explorer and from Jill, so she knew her crew and ship was ready and standing by.
For a second, she stood looking at her little ship through a viewing portal on the main corridor. It had better lines now than the first time she had seen her. Toda, her engineer, was a Gigantean and an accomplished designer as were many of his species. He'd made cosmetic changes that had taken the converted SP-950 deep space probe that the Dark Mass Corps had originally been assigned and changed her into a small but sleek craft. She did look a bit more like a shark than a space ship, but Toda had done a great job for them. The Giganteans had promised two more craft for their service making Anna the Commodore of a fleet of three small vessels. The delivery date on the other two craft, however, was another year off.
Anna didn't mind. She'd been embarrassed by the converted probe she'd been assigned. It was insulting. Just like forming a special service for her and others that Grover didn't want in the ISC was an insult. Still, The Mariner had made a name for herself and her crew of misfits and proven that they were a significant and elite service. In only one mission, the Dark Matter Corps had become a bit of a legend. Anna smiled. She was damn proud of what she'd accomplished and damn proud of her crew and the vessel they served on.
Anna straightened her shoulders. She couldn't stand here enjoying the success of a past mission. They had a new assignment and they needed to deliver. The Dark Matter Corps had to prove that it wasn't beginners luck that they really were a special service. Anna headed down the docking arm and arriving at the entrance hatch, she punched in her code to open the port door. She walked along the gang plank corridor and then grasping onto the rail she stepped down the conning tower ladder into the small but functional common room aboard The Mariner.
"Commodore on deck!" came Captain Moshapa's voice. Her crew were all there and standing at attention when she stepped off the ladder.
Anna returned, Justice Moshapa's salute and then stepped forward and gave him a quick hug. "Hi Justice, is great to be back aboard." Justice Moshapa, a Botswanan, had worked his way up the ranks and won a field commission. He was a decorated officer and had made the rank of Captain on their last mission despite the fact he lacked a degree and wore a prosthetic having lost his right arm in a lab explosion. He was an experienced officer and Anna knew to trust and rely on him.
She went on and shook the hand of each of her crew in turn. Lieutenant Adam Wiseman was her deck scientist. He'd given up a prestigious position in the ISC main labs to stay aboard The Mariner. Once a loner, anxious to escape space missions, he had been accepted into The Mariner family and had decided that being on the cutting edge of exploration was better than the fame of lab research.
Toda didn't wait for a hand shake. The massive Gigantean picked Anna up so that her head was touching the ceiling like his and gave her a hug. "Oh it's wonderful to see you again, Commodore. I have so much to tell you about the construction work that is going on with our new vessels," Toda gushed in his soft, high voice.
"Put me down, Lieutenant. Commodores can't be seen with their feet dangling."
"Oh dear, sorry. I forgot myself, Sir."
Anna straightened her uniform and went on to shake Sub Lieutenant Barron Eveen's hand. Surname first as was the tradition of the Trodians. They were a slender almost bony species with a mottled pink skin and little round ears that stuck out. They wore their hair like a mane down their neck. Trodians were known for their acute hearing and ability to pick up languages and communicate in may forms. As the ship's communication officer, she was a real asset, more than that, she had appointed herself as the ship's moral officer. She just seemed to know how to make the crew feel at ease and at home, a skill that Anna was trying to learn, if slowly.
Next in line was Chief Petty Officer Sue Lai, an American. She'd been a veteran of the Hydronian Crisis and had suffered a break down after returning. She'd proven herself up to active service on their last mission. She was a fine paramedic and her war time experience had given her the knowlege to turn her hand to almost any task.
Crewman Aja Sur, from Bengal India, shook Anna's hand with quiet sincerity. He was political active in the environmental cause on Earth and had joined the ISC at his father's insistence. He had found, though, that space too needed environmental champions and that Anna would support him in his work.
Anna went on to shake Crewman Jill Fairfax's hand. Then thought better of it and pulled her close for a quick hug. "Missed you."
Cheers and claps resounded around the common room. "About time!" "Way to go, Commodore!"
Anna turned to her crew, her arm still around Jill's shoulder. "New rules. In a short time we've experienced a lot together. We are more than a crew, we are a family. I hope you won't mind if Justice and I address you by your first names. Justice will answer to Captain, of course, and I can be addressed as Com. Ah, I think probably you guys knew before I did that there was an attraction between Jill and me. I think you know that it's very inappropriate so I hope I can rely on your discretion. Jill and I realize that aboard ship we are astronauts first."
Anna moved away from Jill who was still blushing and speechless by Anna's surprise greeting. "We need to have a conference to discuss our next mission. Why don't you lot get coffee and I'll stow my gear. We'll meet back here in thirty minutes. Justice, could you invite Captain Garcia and Commander Hamilton to join us?"
"Aye, aye, Com!"
Anna headed for the cabin that she shared with Jill Fairfax, assigned originally due to the lack of adequate quarters aboard The Mariner. Jill followed her in a few seconds later and closed the hatch.
"What did you just do? Didn't we discuss the need to be discrete?" she demanded.
Anna looked up from stowing her bag and smiled. "I hadn't planned that. It just happened. I guess Carlos taught me the importance of family and this is what I've got, the crew of The Mariner. It seemed stupid to keep an open secret from them. Are you upset with me?"
Jill hesitated and then came over and wrapped Anna in a hug. "No, just surprised by your about face. I guess it's another sign that you really are human. You can change your mind and be illogical. You're right, they all knew or suspected and they will keep our secret. But Anna, we don't have a commitment, right? This is just a relationship."
"Sure, sure." Anna reassured although her heart was not in it.
"I missed you. It was a long five days."
They kissed, then kissed again. Jill stepped back first.
"You are wanted in the common room in five minute, Com." Then she gave Anna an affectionate push and headed back out to the common room. Anna stood looking at the closed hatch. It had been Jill who had come on to her now it was Jill who was backing off. Anna just couldn't understand. Jill's reluctance to make a commitment confused her and hurt. She pulled herself together and followed exactly five minutes later, a stew of emotions bubbling inside her. She could feel a blush rising up her neck as she saw her crew and Carlos Garcia and Jane Hamilton all standing by the table waiting for her with grins on their faces. A quick look told her that Jill was blushing red too. Are we in love or aren't we? The messages are all confused.
Anna forced herself to settle down and switched to her command mode. "As you were."
She waited while there was a clatter of chairs as everyone seated themselves around the table.
"First of all, be notified that this mission is classified as top secret and anything that happens on it will probably be a closed file. You have all been given priority one clearance with the exception of Jill who is on this mission by Admiral Ito's reluctant consent. Because Jill does not have clearance any information gathered should not be discussed with her. I'll make the decision to inform her on a need to know basis."
There was a murmur of protest from the remainder of the crew. Jill sat stiff and white.
"I understand how you feel, and I agree, but frankly we are lucky that Jill got to be aboard at all. Hopefully, by the end of this mission she'll have earned the trust of the ISC as much as she has earned our trust.
"That said, I need to state up front that this mission is considered high risk. I won't insist that anyone ship out if they feel that the risk is too high. One anthropologist described it as a suicide mission." Anna shrugged. "I don't think that is the case but I'm not going to pretend that the danger isn't high.
"We are being asked to investigate the disappearance of Scout Ship782 from Section 4876 with a crew of three aboard. It went missing on 27940.56 RST after a navigation malfunction caused them to enter a large dark mass in the area. The local planetary system is pre-space travel so we will need to be careful about not revealing our presence. There are rumours based on the legends of the hominoid culture, that there are dark angels that cause people to disappear. This information you may share with the remaining crew of The Explorer as they have probably already heard.
"What is not known and will remain a secret, is that Lieutenant Braun of the Scout Ship sent a message just before disappearing that he'd encountered a large, alien mass. Admiral Ito and ISC believes that a hostile race is living in the dark mass and the regular disappearance of individuals from the local planets might be an act of violence. I want to note for the record that I talked to one anthropologist who maintained that the local people had seen dark angels about and that night she had disappeared for over two weeks local time. She had no memory of the occurrence at all. She went to bed that night as normal and woke the following morning only it was in fact two weeks later. Why she was taken and then returned we have no idea.
"Our primary mission is to enter the dark mass and recover the scout ship crew and vessel if possible. Our secondary mission is to make contact with the alien race, if it exists, and establish relations with them. Questions?"
Anna looked around the table. No one spoke until Carlos smiled and leaned forward in his chair. "When do we leave?"
"Can we be ready to depart by 8:00 hours tomorrow?"
"The Explore can," stated Jane.
"So can The Mariner," confirmed Justice.
Anna nodded. "Departure at 8:00 hours then. There is a lot to do. Let's get on with it. Carlos, Justice, Jane, if I could meet with you. There are a few administrative issues that need to be discussed."
The crew took its leave and the four senior officers rearranged their seats to form a tight group. Privacy was at a premium aboard the small vessel.
"I'm evenly divided on how to handle this mission. If we run into trouble, I'd like to know that The Explorer is at our backs. The Mariner can't defend itself against any force bigger than a D class barge. On the other hand, a show of force might appear threatening to this entity and undermined any chance of us establishing positive communication."
Carlos stirred. "The Explorer is not going off on manoeuvres this time, Anna. We'll be at your back. All you need to decide is how close." He looked over at his Number One for support and Jane responded.
"We're not missing out on the fun. Aboard The Explorer, the crew has started to call themselves the Support Task Force of the Dark Matter Corps."
Justice smiled. "We couldn't have a better mother ship or crew than yours."
Jane spoke up then. "Anna, Carlos and I would like to offer the crew of The Explorer the chance to wear the navy uniform and badge of the DMC. What do you think?"
"We're a team so it seems appropriate if they would like to do so. The closer the bond between the two crews the better. When our two new ships join the fleet, we'll certainly be looking for Explorer personnel to man the crafts when needed."
Carlos grinned. "I'll put it to our junior officers and have them feel out the crew but my reaction is that you'll be seeing a lot more navy uniforms in the near future."
"Good. It's agreed then that The Explorer won't be far away from us. Just how close we'll decide when we have gathered more data and have surveyed the area.. Anything else?"Anna asked.
Jane responded. "It's been a tradition to have a social in the cargo bay so the two crews can meet and talk before a mission."
Anna blinked. "A tradition?"
The others laughed and Jane explained. "Well, it happened once and in the DMC that makes it a tradition. Sue Lai mentioned it, didn't she, Justice?"
"She did. She and Eveen, wanted permission to make plans once The Mariner is docked in The Explorer's Cargo Bay but Carlos and Jane suggested that it was The Explorer's turn to host."
"I think I've been ganged up on," Anna smiled and stood. "Okay, we'll be honoured to be there."
"Good." Carlos said, as the others got to their feet. "Is ten hundred hours tomorrow night in our mess hall satisfactory?"
"Sounds great." They shook hands and Carlos and Jane took their leave.
They had barely climbed out of The Mariner and Justice had only just gone to check the stations on the command deck when Toda appeared in the hallway beyond the common room.
"Can I have a word with you, Com?"
"Certainly, Toda. What is it?"
"It's about Toronado, Trigger, and Silver. I named them after horses in ancient TV shows from Earth. Horses were much loved on Earth at one time."
"I've ridden a horse," Anne interjected proudly.
"Oh my! How wonderful. Then I've picked good names. What was yours called?"
"Jennet. She was named after an old Spanish breed of horse. Please tell me you haven't smuggled horses on board."
"No not horses but Jill and I had discussed the importance of having ISM - individual space modules. I was able to do some redesigning of ones that we use on the Gigantean system. It was just a matter of making them smaller and more organic. I did make, Toronado, bigger for me. I hope that's all right. It can still be used by other crew members with some adjustments."
Anna held up her hand to get Toda to stop. "Where are they?"
"In the cargo bay of The Explorer."
Anna's lips tightened. She headed off down the hall to the engineering section in the stern of the ship. "I want to see you and Crewman Fairfax in engineering immediately."
Anna paced around the engineering area of The Mariner trying to calm herself down before she talked to her crew. The more she thought about Jill and Toda going ahead without permission to design axillary craft for The Mariner the angrier she got. Not only had they designed and built it but they'd actually shipped it to The Explorer. With Toda, she was willing to be a bit tolerant. He had come from the royal family of Gigantean and he was the first of his kind to serve aboard a ISC ship. He had to learn there was protocols that had to be followed but Jill had no such excuse. She had acted high handed. They had agreed that their relationship had to exist outside of their careers. This wasn't their first offense. Jill clearly did not respect her as a commanding officer.
Anna turned, hands on hips as the two renegade crew members entered the engineering area. "Close the door."
Toda did so. With Toda's looming bulk, the three of them filled just about all the available space in the aft part of the room.
"On our last mission you two designed and built a probe without my knowledge and consent. I over looked the lack of respect for my command because you are new to the ISC and because your probe was a great asset to us. I warned you then that this high handed manner in engineering was not to continue. Now I find the two of you have designed not one but three new apparatuses without permission, and shipped them aboard The Explorer no doubt at ISC expense.
I warned you last time that this was never to happen again. There are protocols to follow and they damn well will be followed! You both are on report. One more high handed move from either of you and you'll be off this ship. Dismissed."
Toda was so upset and left in such a hurry that he bumped his head going through the hatch. Jill stood her ground.
"That's Commodore, Crewman!"
"Yes, Sir. Commodore Cyborn, permission to speak."
"Toda saw these craft and realized that they would be a big asset to our service. The breach in our hull on our last mission showed the need for just such craft. Yes, we acted without permission. You were out of touch. No one knew you were on holiday with Carlos. We acted for the best of the DMC with no senior officer to contact."
"Then you should have contacted Vice-Admiral Grover."
"Oh sure, like he'd have given us permission."
"Crewman, it is not for you to decide what a commanding officer will or will not do. Vice-Admiral Grover did not get the position he is in by making poor decisions. You had plenty of time to tell me last week. You never mentioned it."
Tears were making Jill's eyes shimmer. "It wasn't the time or place."
"Then you damn well should have waited until it was before you and Toda did anything."
"Then we wouldn't have had the craft. They are good craft. They could save our lives someday."
"I don't care if they are the best thing that has happened to the fleet in the last thousand years. Don't EVER question my authority again, Crewman, and don't ever do anything without my permission. Is that understood?"
Tears were now dripping down Jill's face. "Yes, Sir."
Jill slipped out of the engineering section and Anna closed the hatch. She needed time alone to get her emotions and thoughts under control. She thought she could make this thing with Jill work but they'd barely been aboard a few hours and already the lines between their relationship and Anna's command had been crossed. She didn't know what to do.
She didn't return to her cabin, instead, she filled in the afternoon aboard Space Station Gagarin obtaining last minute supplies. Later, she sat in the common room of The Mariner studying star charts and committing them to her data banks. She hadn't seen Jill since their fight. She wasn't sure she wanted to see Jill even though her heart ached to do so.
Justice slid in beside her. "We haven't had time to talk. Did you enjoy your leave?"
"Yes. What about you?"
"I did. After I arranged for my certification, I went home to Botswana. My family had a big feast and I was made very welcome. I have over 5,000 cows now. The men I left in charge of my herds have done a fine job. It was good to touch the earth and feel the sun on my face again."
Anna nodded. "I didn't know that there would be such varied texture on a planet surface or that the air would smell of vegetation not species. I could look at the texture of the ground for hours. I went and stayed on Carlos' family's cattle ranch for a few weeks. I rode a horse."
"Ahhh, yes, Carlos and I have discussed cattle. But they raise beef and sell them to the slaughter house. It is not that way in Botswana. Cattle are money in the bank. It is our way.
"I understand that Toda and Jill are on report."
Anna nodded and fell silent.
Justice got up and poured two coffees and slipped one in front of Anna. "In my country we say that a chief may have many wives and children but he is always alone. That is leadership. Only one can command."
"I don't like starting a mission with bad feelings. I needed to discipline the two of them but it was hard. Their idea is a good one and by the sounds of it the ISMs will really be useful but they need to know that they have to follow protocol."
"It's complicated to - with Jill."
"Yes. It will not be easy but you two will work it out. This I believe. I have talked to Toda and I think your lecture got through. He's very embarrassed about being put on report and is really sorry that he disappointed you."
Justice shrugged. "She didn't want to talk about it."
Anna sighed. This was no way to start a new mission or a new relationship.
A Party of Discord
The following morning the little Mariner under the command of Captain Moshapa disconnected from its mooring pulled out around the docking arm and entered the open bay of The Explorer. Anna sat beside Justice feeling a bit like a third wheel. It was very difficult to be a Commodore without a fleet. As senior officer on deck, she could have sat in the captain's seat but it wasn't her style. Justice had worked his way up the ranks and won a field commission. This was his first command and he deserved to enjoy it as much as possible.
"Reverse thrusters, helm."
"Aye, aye, Sir," stated Crewman Sur.
"Lateral thrusters, brace for touch down."
The Mariner settled on the deck of the bay with a gentle bump.
"Aye, aye, Sir."
"Patch me through to The Explorer, Eveen."
"Go ahead, Captain Moshapa."
"Explore, The Mariner is aboard."
"Roger that. Stand by for bay door closure and pressurizing. Welcome aboard, Mariner."
"Thank you, Explorer."
Anna looked at Justice. "So here we go again."
Justice smiled. "Let's hope this mission is as successful as our last."
They watched the exterior sensor screens as the pressure and artificial gravity levels rose to optimum. Then sat patiently while the docking crew covered the propulsion jets and locked the landing gear in place.
Justice stood. "Shore leave until eight hundred hours. The Explorer is hosting a gathering at ten hundred hours in their mess. Dress uniforms. Be there. That is all."
The crew went its various ways. Anna caught a glimpse of Jill disappearing up the conning tower. Since the issue over the ISMs, Jill had been keeping a low profile hiding out in engineering. Last night, she'd come to their quarters very late and when Anna had tried to talk, Jill had told her quietly that everything had been said that needed to be said and that she didn't want to talk about it. She'd changed for bed in their head and had quickly got into her bunk and turned off the light. Jill was gone when Anna woke after a bad night's sleep.
Anna soon found herself alone aboard The Mariner. She wandered forward and sat on the bridge, dark now except for the systems lights. She had no where to go. Unlike the others, she hadn't made a lot of friends aboard The Explorer or anywhere else for that matter. There was Carlos, of course, but The Explorer was getting underway and he'd be needed on the command deck. Justice, she knew, was meeting to have a drink with an old friend from Botswana and Jill was avoiding her. Justice was right, a chief is always alone and when that chief is a cloned human-cyborg there was the added isolation of a social stigma. She felt depressed. It wasn't a good start to a mission.
Anna looked up startled. Toda stood hesitantly near her command chair. How could anyone so big move so lightly and quietly?
"Sorry, Com. I didn't mean to startle you. I forget that humans are not always aware of their surroundings. I should have made more noise."
"That's okay. I was deep in thought. What can I do for you, Toda?"
The Gigantean shuffled a bit as he struggled to approach a difficult issue. "It's about the ISMs, Sir. Crewman Fairfax and I realize that we were way out of line and we have learned our lesson but they are aboard The Explorer. What should we do about them?"
Anna looked out into the darkness of the command deck to focus her mind on the issue at hand doing her best to shake off her mood. Then she stood and looked at Toda.
"We'd better have a look at them and see what can be done. The Mariner needs every advantage it can get."
"Thank you, Com." Toda looked relieved and happier. Anna felt neither.
They headed out onto the Cargo Bay floor and Toda led the way over the back side of a rectangle metal unit sitting by the far side of the wall.
"Jill and I designed the stable unit ourselves," Toda stated proudly. "It mounts directly into the hull of a vessel. You can get into the ISMs from inside the ship by slipping through the bulkhead hatch and the ISM hatch. Once the hatches are sealed, the chamber can be depressurized and the front gates opened to release one or more of the ISMs."
Toda showed Anna how the double hatch system worked. Anna slipped inside one going feet first and using a hand bar to push herself forward through the two aligned hatchways and down into the ISM. She found herself sitting upright in a small cockpit. The joystick was easily assessable and the control panel visible and logically arranged. Exterior visibility was good through several portholes. Anna nodded her approval and leaning back pulled herself out.
"Looks good," she stated and Toda smiled. They walked around the front of the metal stable and Toda released the hull gates to show her the three ISMs sitting in their stables.
Anna looked, blinked and looked again. "They look like seahorses."
Toda smiled proudly. "I wanted to keep with the marine theme. The Mariner has a shark look to her. You sit up right inside and use joystick controls to move them about. Life support and the fuel cell are located in the tail to create ballast. They can move quickly but are not really designed for distance. They have wonderful movability and have enough power for twenty four hours of work at top speed and life support for twenty-four hours."
"They look like seahorses." Anna repeated in disbelief.
Toda failed to see Anna's bewilderment. "That's why the ancient horse names. The gold one is Trigger, the black one Toronado and the silver one Silver. Silver is bigger so I can fit in it."
Anna took a step back. "We'll test them on route. If they live up to your claim then we'll have the unit fitted into The Mariner."
"Oh thank you, Com! You won't be disappointed. They are fine craft."
"Where is Jill?"
Toda actually blushed. "She was going to visit a friend. She said she doesn't want anything to do with the ISMs anymore."
"Well, if they test out satisfactory, she'll have to whether she wants to or not." Anna voice came out sharper than she intended.
For a split second anger clouded Toda's face making him look more animal than hominid. Anna remembered belatedly the caution in Toda's file that it was unwise to anger a Gigantean. Toda seemed to calm himself with effort.
"I'm sure you'll be pleased, Commodore."
Anna nodded trying to think of something to say to defuse the situation. Giganteans were very loyal friends and Toda was close to Jill.
"You and Jill worked hard to get this unit ready. I hope you both will work on installing and testing it so you can have the satisfaction of seeing the job through. Procedure must be followed in future but that does not take away from the fact that the two of you have again come up with what appears to be an excellent design."
Toda seemed to relax. "Thank you, Com."
Anna looked at her watch. "There are one or two things I need to check before getting ready for tonight's gathering. I'll see you later, Toda."
Anna headed back to the ship. If Jill wanted to keep her distance, fine. She'd wash and change and be off The Mariner before Jill returned to change.
Once in her dress uniform, Anna had filled in time on the observation deck of The Explorer. There wasn't much to see really just endless dark space. The smear of a star they passed at light speed flashed and disappeared like a shooting star. Deep space travel was a voyage of darkness without any sensation of speed or motion. As the great Janette Gayla had described it, Space was an endless waste land filled with an infinite array of possibilities.
The party was well under way when Anna finally made her way down to the mess hall. She wasn't a party person at the best of times and her present state of mind was not conducive to having a good time. She got herself a drink and started the necessary round of meet and greets that were expected of her in her position. Ten minutes of this brought her to Lieutenant Adam Wiseman, her science officer, who was standing off in a corner nursing a drink and looking particularly annoyed.
"Hi Adam. I haven't had a chance to talk to you. How was your leave?"
Adam shook his head and stared off as if reliving his experience. "It was a dream. Some of the best minds in astro physics were waiting for me. I was treated like an equal. I could have had my pick of positions on some of the best research teams in the world. Now I'm standing here wondering why I thought staying aboard The Mariner was going to be better. I threw away my chance at everything I've ever wanted."
Anna's heart sank. Another disgruntled crew member was not what she needed. "I'm sorry you find us less than satisfactory as colleagues. I could recommend a transfer for you on our return."
Adam looked at her in surprise. "The Mariner crew is the best there is. I'm proud to wear the DMC uniform. I just think I might have acted hastily in staying aboard instead of following my original dream. I made the decision based on the excitement of the moment. Now I'm having second thoughts."
"Let me know at the end of the mission if you want to transfer to ISC headquarters. I'll do what I can for you."
"Thanks Com. If there is a happy ending to this mission."
Adam gave an embarrassed laugh. "I was talking to Aja. He bunks in with Captain Moshapa. Aja says that the Captain is having nightmares. Seems some Shaman back home in Botswana gave him a warning that there was death ahead. Scared the shit out of him. You know how these cultural things are. It scared Aja too. He believes in signs. He gets his palm read regularly."
Anna stiffened. "There are always dangers when you work in deep space. We know the risks. The crews of The Mariner and Explorer are well up to dealing with anything that comes along."
Again her words had sounded sharper than she intended. Adam straightened.
Anna nodded and walked away. Not knowing what else to say, she retreated before she made the situation worse. Crewman Aja Sur was an East Indian and her chief pilot and navigator. She didn't need him and her Deck Captain jumping at shadows. She'd need to figure out a way to address this issue without offending anyone's cultural beliefs.
Anna turned to see her Chief Petty Officer, Sue Lai, standing beside her.
"Hi Sue. How was your course?" Sue was The Mariner's paramedic and a seasoned veteran of several campaigns. She had been up grading her qualification during her shore leave.
"It went well, Com, and I had time to spend a few days with my sister. Did you enjoy your leave on Earth?"
"It was a unique experience for me. I hadn't experienced planet life before. I stayed with Captain Garcia's family in New Mexico and learned to ride a horse."
"Sounds like you really had some fun. Good for you, Sir. I need to talk to you about scheduling an appointment for a physical."
Anna stiffened. "It's not going to happen, Chief."
"Commodore, it's a requirement. I should have done it on our last mission but there were so many other things going on that there just wasn't time."
"You'll be too busy on this mission too," Anna stated.
"Commodore, this needs to be done. Your physiology is really unique. At the moment, I don't even know what parts of you are human and what parts are cybernetic. Your medical file is stored in your private data bases so I can't access them and Toda refuses to discuss your history. He tells me he has been ordered not to or to ever touch any of your cybernetic parts."
"If anything happens to you, neither Toda or I will be prepared to treat you."
"I'll take that chance."
Anger showed on Sue's face but she simply nodded. "Very well, Commodore. I really could have been trusted with that information. You'll excuse me."
Anna went to say that she did trust her but Sue had already walked off. Great, another member of the crew angry at her. Maybe, Justice's shaman was right.
Anna got another drink from the refreshment table and stood with her back against the wall watching the crews mingle like old friends. That at least was good. The Explorer crew were now all wearing black badges on their upper sleeve designating that they were part of the Dark Matter Corps. There was no way that the badges could have been made that quickly and certainly not aboard The Explorer. Jane Hamilton must have had them made after their last trip knowing that Anna would agree that the crew of The Explorer should be part of the DMC. Anna wasn't sure how she felt about that. On the one hand it was flattering. On the other, it was another example of someone doing things behind her back.
From where she stood, she could see Jill on the other side of the room talking to a tall good looking female crewman. They were laughing and standing close together. Anna wondered if it was Crewman Barb Lucier, Jill's friend from basic training. They looked close. Too close. Anna was surprised by the flood of jealousy that washed through her.
"You don't look like you are enjoying the gathering, Anna."
Anna looked up to see Carlos Garcia smiling at her.
"Crew problems. Everyone seems to have packed an issue on this mission."
Carlos chuckled. "Yeah, that's to be expected. The excitement of the first mission is over and people are starting to focus on other things. I had to discipline two crewmen who thought it would be easiest to settle their differences by throwing a few punches. I heard about Eveen. "
"She's down with love sickness. Sue Lai had sent her over to see our doctor because she didn't know what was wrong with her. Doc Barr recognized it right away as Vultarian Love sickness and confined her to quarters until the spots go away."
"Why wasn't I told?"
"Have you read, your day reports? I got a copy so I'm sure you got one too."
Anna frowned. "No, I haven't opened the report file. Shit, just what I need. How bad is this Vultarian love sickness?"
"I had to look it up to sort out fact from fiction. There are, of course, all sorts of jokes and myths about it. Seems when they are attracted to someone they get high fevers, spots and short tempered. It only lasts 24 hours but it is reoccurring unless the attraction is, well, acted on, if you know what I mean."
"Who does she want to have sex with?"
"She wouldn't say. She just said the other person wouldn't be interested."
"Great, so I'm stuck with a love sick Vutarian."
Anna shook her head. "I think I'll call it a night. Busy day tomorrow. If your flight schedule isn't too tight, I'd like The Explore to have a few hours at stand still so we can test the new ISMs that Jill and Toda developed."
"We can arrange that. I heard they smuggled them on board."
Anna snorted and tried to change the subject. "The damn things look like sea horses. Toda tells me he was keeping with the marine theme because The Mariner looks like a shark."
Carlos chuckled. "You DMCs are a weird bunch. Is it true you put them on report and Jill hasn't spoken to you since."
Anna sighed. "There is no privacy in the ISC.
"None. You okay?"
"Yeah. We are talking but just formally at the moment."
"Don't let it get to you. These spats blow over. I'm sure Jill understands that you have to be a commanding officer first and a partner second when you are on a mission."
"She said she did."
"Then I'm sure that's the case. There's Jane. I'll go arrange a time for the ISM test and get back to you."
"Hang tough, Commodore."
Anna smiled and nodded as she made her way out of the mess hall. Out the corner of her eye she could see Jill still in an animated conversation with Crewman Lucier. The image ate at her gut. She made her way back to The Mariner. It looked such a little ship sitting in the cargo bay of The Explorer but The Mariner had made a name for herself on her first mission. Carlos was right, now the excitement of that first mission was over, her crew needed to find something to hold them together and keep the energy levels high. But what, she had no idea.
She went passed the hatch of her own cabin and knocked on the quarters occupied by Sue and Eveen. After a few minutes, Eveen opened the hatch.
Anna took a step back in surprise. Eveen was not only angry and aggressive her normally pink skin was now covered in purple spots.
"Oh. Commodore, sorry. I'm...I'm not well."
"I heard. Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you?"
"No. I'll be okay again by tomorrow. It's just so embarrassing. This is my first bout of love sickness. Vultarians are slow to mature sexually. The first time is hard enough on my own planet but it's really awkward among outsiders who don't understand. I mean, there are so many myths and rumours."
Anna smiled. "Yeah, I know what that can be like. I was once asked if I could fly. The crew understands. Don't worry about it. Just try and give me a heads up when the next bout is coming on so I can relieve you from duty for a day."
Anna nodded. "Get some rest. We have a busy day tomorrow. The Explore is going to cut engines so we can test the new ISMs."
"Aye, aye, Com."
Anna made her way back to her quarters, stripped out of her uniform and went to have a shower. When she came out wearing her jumpsuit, Jill was sitting on her bunk waiting for her.
"Can we talk?"
Anna felt fear flutter in her tummy. Was Jill going to end their relationship?
"Sure. I'd like that."
Anna sat on her own bunk across from Jill and waited while Jill struggled to find the right words.
Finally, she looked up at Anna with tears welling in her eyes.
"You were right. Toda and I shouldn't have gone ahead with the ISMs without clearing it through you first. We deserved to be put on report. Please don't feel that I don't respect you as an officer or that I question your authority.
"It's just that I have made a lot of bad decisions in life and the ISC was my chance to get it right. I wanted my record to be perfect and now it isn't. I failed again. I'm really having trouble with that."
Anna slipped from her bunk and came and sat beside Jill. She reached out and took her hand.
"I'm sorry. I understand now why you are upset. All I can say is that we all make mistakes. We're human. It wasn't a bad mistake. It was a rookie mistake and it was made with the best of intentions. We've all made them. No one is going to hold it against you. Hell, you've been serving for less than a year and you have two commendation on your file for helping seal the hull breach and developing the probe. That's pretty amazing and if the ISMs test out tomorrow, you'll probably get another one. Jill, you are a fine crew member. Don't get discouraged because of one mistake. Okay."
Jill nodded, letting the tears roll down her face. Anna held her and let her cry. After a while, Jill sat up and pushed Anna gently away.
"I just need some space, okay Anna? I need time to learn to do my job right. I thought I could handle a career and a relationship together but I've messed up already. Can you give me some time? Can you wait for me?"
Anna felt her guts solidify into a ball of ice. Emotion boiled inside her but she managed to nod and then force some words out.
"It's not Crewman Lucier, is it?" The words were out before Anna had even had time to consider them.
Jill looked up in surprise. "No, Anna. That was over a long time ago. We're just friends. I just need some time to get used to being a crewman aboard a space ship before I can handle having a relationship with my commanding officer."
"Sure. Take the time you need. We'll talk again when you are ready. I have a few things I need to see to."
Anna gave Jill a quick hug and stood up. She hoped that she managed a smile that was reassuring to Jill before she left their quarters. Shit! I hate this! What did she mean that was over a long time ago? We're just friends. Hell! That was the oldest line in the book. Anna pulled herself together and headed up onto the bridge to do some research. At least data she understood.
The next day, Anna stood stone faced by the observation window of The Explorer. Justice, Carlos and Jane stood beside her. Behind them a large crowd of crew members had gathered to watch the test. Anna was a little surprised that there was so much interest in the new crafts.
Out in the blackness the three ISMs bopped about placing small, red space buoys in a circle. Anna swallowed and tried not to look concerned. Jill was out there in Trigger and space was incredibly harsh and unforgiving. The little ISM shells were not much protection against the forces of the universe. Toda was manning Silver and Aja was in Toronado. The plan was that the three craft would deploy the buoys and turn them on to demonstrate the agility of the robotic arms. Then the crafts would move through the course to show the movability of the ISMs. So far everything was going according to plan. The three ISMs had got the buoys in place and had lined up about a nautical mile away.
"They look like sea horses," Jane chuckled.
Carlos laughed. "It's the DMC's marine theme. I hear they sleep in net hammocks too."
"Funny," Anna scowled. "I have a Gigantean as a chief engineer. What can I say, they are interior decorators at heart."
The officers' laughter was cut off by a voice over the loud speakers. It was Adam Wiseman. "They are at the post and waiting for the starter to give the signal. They're off! It's a clean start with Crewman Aja Sur on Toronado taking the lead on a quick start. Crewman Jill Fairfax on Trigger is on his tail and Lieutenant Toda riding Silver is bringing up the rear. At the first post, it's Toronado by a nose, Trigger is close behind and Sliver is keeping his position. They are rounding the turn, whoa! that was nearly a pile up! Trigger has taken the lead by a nose, Toronado second and Silver close behind. We've got ourselves a horse race here folks! They are around the last bend and coming down the home stretch. It's Trigger out front, Toronado second and Silver in third. Wait! Silver is making a move. It's Silver on the outside passing Tornado and gaining on Trigger. They are coming down to the wire. It's Trigger and Silver side by side with Toronado coming on the inside. It's Silver by a nose! Trigger second and Toronado third! The winnings from this race will go to the charity of Lieutenant Toda's choice. What a race, here on a beautiful day in space!"
"Your crew is totally out of control, Commodore." Carlos observed trying to maintain a deadpan expression.
Anna gritted her teeth. "Justice, do you know anything about this?"
Justice blushed. "Ahh, well, they did ask permission to set up a race course. I thought it was a good a way as any to show off the ISMs abilities."
"It's great for moral, Anna." Jane justified.
"Gambling is against all ISC policies."
"It was a charity run. Charity work is okay," Justice argued.
Anna closed her eyes and counted to ten. Then she laughed. "Is it possible to toss my whole crew in the brig?"
Justice smiled. "I don't think so, Anna. We don't have a brig aboard The Mariner."
"Fortunately, this is a crew issue and not an administration issue so you will have to handle it, Justice."
"Typical administrator, passing the buck," Justice teased.
Anna deliberately stayed away from The Mariner to give Justice time to deal with her renegade crew. She worried about how Jill was going to deal with yet another reprimand. She and Toda seemed to be magnets for trouble. When she thought she had left ample time, Anna headed back to her ship and climbed down into a quiet and deserted common room. Shit. Justice must have really read them the riot act. Frowning Anna made her way to her quarters. She found Jill on her hands and knees scrubbing the head out.
Jill sat back on her haunches and wiped her brow with the back of her arm. "Hi."
"How did it go?"
"Could have been worse. Toda and I didn't know about the betting or the announcing that was Adam's idea. He's on report and the three of us have been ordered to scrub every inch of the ship starting with the crew quarters."
Anna pulled Jill to her feet and gave her a hug. "You got off light because the ISMs are a marvel. You and Toda are a power team. I'll be putting commendations in your files."
"Thanks, Anna. You're doing that because I earned it aren't you and not to help me out because I'm your girlfriend.?"
"You earned it. You know that."
"I messed up again."
"Yeah. You're a magnet for trouble. I doubt very much if you will get to the end of your career without being court marshalled," Anna teased.
"I'll get better."
"Sure you will. Now get on with your scrubbing, Crewman."
"Aye, aye, Com."
Anna left Jill to her duties and sought out Justice. He was alone on the bridge doing a station check.
"It sure is quiet around here."
"I suggested to the crew that spending sometime in their quarters doing some work for a change might be a good idea. Adam is on report and he, Jill and Toda will be scrubbing this ship down until it sparkles."
Anna smiled. "You went easy on them."
"Yeah, but I got my message across. To be fair, the trouble maker this time was Adam. He was the one that got the betting ring up and suggested that they could race to make it more exciting for the observers. Looks like Jill and Toda were just suckered this time."
Anna shook her head. "I don't think they're cut out for the ISC life. They can't play by the rules."
"That's why they're in the DMC. We make our own rules," Justice smiled.
"It appears so."
"I'm glad you are here, Anna. I need a word with you. Sit down."
"Hey isn't that my roll?"
"Usually but, I'm Captain of this ship and seeing at the moment you are a Commodore without a fleet, while aboard, I do have certain authorities."
Anna frowned and sat. "Okay. What's up?"
"Chief Lai came to have a word with me."
Anna was on her feet again. "Damn it! No!"
"Yes, Commodore and that's final."
"Justice, you don't understand."
"Yes, I do. You went through hell. Your body wasn't your own and your rights as a human were violated over and over. You endured physical and emotional pain and you never want to put yourself in that position again. But, that is not what this is about. Toda and Sue need to know how to treat you if there is a medical emergency. I need to know that every member of this crew is in top form before we commit to a dangerous mission. I've had my check up and you need to have yours."
Anna gritted her teeth and forced herself to remain calm. "Okay, I'll get around to it."
"Now, Commodore. Sue is working in the infirmary."
"Damn it, Justice!"
Anna sighed. "I just want to go on record as saying I wouldn't do this for anyone else but you and this crew."
"Jill has my permission to go with you."
"I'm not afraid."
"Of course you are and that's okay considering your past. We all have our fears. My mother still takes me to the dentist when I go home because she knows I won't go otherwise. Sue's waiting."
Anna got up and headed to the infirmary as if she was walking the plank. Justice suggestion that she take Jill was silly but she found herself heading for her quarters anyway.
"Crewman, I need you assistance."
"Sir, I'm under orders to scrub floors."
"Captain Moshapa has given you leave to come with me."
Jill was on her feet in a second. "What's up?"
Anna blushed. "I have to have my medical and talk about my implants. You might as well be there and hear about it too."
Jill nodded allowing Anna the lie. Anna appreciated that. She knew her nervousness must show. Jill quietly walked beside her and when they got to the hatch of the infirmary she reached out and rubbed Anna's back. "It will be okay. I'm here watching your back."
Anna nodded and stepped in.
Chief Lai got to her feet.
"As you were, Chief. I'm here for my medical review."
"Thank you, Sir. Could you sit there. Oh, Jill."
"I'm hear representing engineering."
Anna looked at Jill. A soft smile let her know that she appreciated Jill covering for her.
"First, Com. I need you to sign this form and type in your access code so I can review your medical history."
Anna took the form, swallowed hard and signed her name and added her access code.
"Now since I haven't read your file yet could you tell me what cybernetic implants you have."
"I have an artificial heart and liver, digital imaging eyes, and brain implants that allow me to process the optical data and to store a wide range of information. I have a double spinal cord, one cybernetic and one natural. I have capped teeth and my appendices and tonsils have been removed."
"Were they infected?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"Okay, now I'm going to check your blood pressure and temperature and then I'm going to put a machine on you to get a reading of your heart beat for reference. Okay?"
Anna nodded. She felt Jill's hand squeeze her shoulder when Sue turned away to get her equipment set up.
An hour later, Anna was allowed to leave and was told she was in excellent health. Jill led the way back to their quarters and then wrapped a shaken Anna in her arms.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I guess."
"It's all over now. You know that this crew is completely loyal to you. No one aboard this vessel will violate your trust. Just the opposite. We'd all give our lives to protect you."
"Don't ever do that, okay."
"Make sure you never put me in that position then," Jill teased. "I have to get back to work. Captain Moshapa has threatened to keelhaul me if I don't have all the floors sparkling by the end of my shift."
Anna took a final hug and headed back to the bridge.
The Truth About Dark Angels
The crews of The Explorer and Mariner fell into an easy routine over the weeks ahead. On this mission, Justice and Anna agreed that the crew of The Mariner could work aboard The Explorer getting more star ship experience while a select team from The Explorer trained on the Mariner and on the new ISMs. The training sessions were intense and exacting and both crews grew more confident and closer together from the daily drills.
Three days out from their destination, the crews were put on alert. The Explorer held back and The Mariner moved away towards the massive dark mass ahead of them. As they drew nearer to entering the mass, the crew of The Mariner spent more and more time on the bridge whether they were on duty or not. The exceptions were Toda and Jill who worked intensely down in engineering preparing for as many possibilities as they could.
Anna sat beside Justice as he manoeuvered closer to the dark mass.
"Reverse thrusters, slow to one unit, Helm."
"Aye, aye, Captain," came Crewman Sur's response. "Sir, it has an organic look to it."
Anna turned to Wiseman at the science console. "Adam?"
"I'm picking up high levels of carbon base but no indication of life forms as we would define it."
"Continue on present course, Helm."
"Stop! Stop! It's alive! Don't attack it!" Eveen was on her feet holding her hands over her eyes as she tried to understand what she was sensing.
"Engineering, full stop!"
The reverse thrusters went off a second later causing them all to jolt forward. Then propulsion stopped and they drifted in space.
Jill's voice came over the speaker. "Requesting an update."
It was Justice who responded. "Stand by engineering. Eveen is in some sort of communication with the dark matter. She thinks its alive."
Eveen spoke from behind her hands as she sat head in hands focussed totally on what she was sensing.
"It's hurt. Lieutenant Braun's Scout Ship damaged them when it entered into their host. It's angry and frightened that we will attack."
"Can you communicate with them?" Anna asked.
"I think so. I'm not sure. I can't understand their language. It seems to be digital but I can get impressions. Images. It's like they are trying to communicate with me by pictures. I see The Mariner moving away from them. I see the creature bleeding out where the Scout Ship entered. I see the scout ship wedged in its side. I'm just trying to guess what it wants. Wait. Wait."
Eveen looked up. "Commodore, I think they want you."
"Yes, Sir. I'm getting an image of you attached to the communication centre and talking to them. Ahhh, I think they are like you, Sir."
Anna bristled. "What do you mean like me?"
Eveen blushed and squirmed a little in her chair. "I think they are a life form with mechanical parts or machinery with hominid parts."
"Do you have a way of attaching yourself to the communication system, Com?" Justice asked.
"No. Yes. I'm not going to."
"I think it might be the only way to understand them, Commodore," Eveen said hesitantly.
Anna sighed. She didn't like the way things were unfolding at all. Embarrassment and childhood fears fought with her sense of duty while she considered. "I'll need Jill. And I'll want privacy."
Justice turned his communication station. "Crewman Fairfax report to the bridge immediately."
Less than a minute later, Jill was there looking worried. Her eyes sought Anna and she visibly relaxed when she saw that she was okay.
It was Justice who took the lead. "Jill, the mass is trying to communicate with us. They are some form of cyborg. They want to communicate through Commodore Cyborn. That involves linking Com directly to the computer system so she can receive a data download. She will need your assistance."
Jill looked at Anna with questioning eyes. Anna didn't respond. She was too upset and embarrassed.
"Bridge crew leave your stations up and running and stand by in the common room."
The crew reluctantly filed out. Anna stood rigid feeling the red climbing up her face. The crew tactfully avoided looking at her or making any comments. Justice remained.
"I'm sorry Anna, but without the crew here, I'm needed on the bridge. I'll keep my eyes forward."
Anna nodded and went over to the communication centre where Jill stood.
"It will be okay," Jill reenforced.
Anna nodded reluctantly and sat down. She leaned her head forward and lifted her hair to show Jill a port at the top of her spine that would allow the communication areas of her brain to be accessed digitally.
"I'm going to set up some safe guards so that you don't get an over load. Then I'll connect the ports. Just try to relax. You know I'll be careful."
Anna nodded too emotional to respond. She watched while Jill competently programmed the safe guard systems and then felt Jill accessing her port. It felt like an attack. All the pain and violation that she felt as a child welled up inside her and she caught Jill's wrist in an iron grip.
"You're hurting me," Jill said quietly.
Anna let go.
"Do you want me to stop?"
Anna fought for control. "No, I'm okay. Go ahead."
Jill leaned forward and gave Anna a hug. Then turned on the communication net work that she had programmed to receive as wide a range of digital frequencies as possible.
Anna felt the information pour into her head. It was fast and furious and it took Anna a few seconds before she could interpret it.
"You are one of us."
"Are you a prisoner?"
"No. I command this vessel."
"Why have you allowed one of your craft to attack us?"
"It was an accident. The vessel had a system malfunction and went off course. They never meant to enter. Are our crew safe?"
"We have them. They are our prisoners."
"We would like them back safe. We would like to remove our ship from you and leave."
"No. You have done enough damage. If you enter you will hurt us more."
"I can send a very small one person vessel into your wound. That person could hopefully, pull the scout ship clear. I can talk to my science officer about ways to heal your wound. We want to help you."
"You would send another organic?"
"Yes, one I trust completely."
"We will consider."
Anna felt the message end yet she sensed that there was still a massive down load taking place. Her head ached so badly she could barely see and her stomach felt queasy.
"Anna?" Jill was kneeing beside her holding her hand.
"I need Adam. No! I don't want him up here. Justice, find Adam and tell him I need to know how to heal the wound in the dark matter. Tell Toda to be prepared to take a ISM out. If the creatures agree, he'll enter the wound and try to pull the scout ship free like digging a bullet out."
"Anna, it can't be Toda. I need my engineer on board in case there's an attack. It will have to be Jill. She has enough engineering know how to do this."
Anna felt her guts turn over. Jill said nothing but she winked at Anna, gave her a brave smile and squeezed her hand. Anna understood. It was Jill the astronaut now not Jill the lover.
"I'll get Toda to ready Trigger for Jill and get Adam and Sue to draw some conclusions from analysing that mass." Justice left Anna and Jill alone.
"Jill, I'm getting a massive down load of information. Can I transmit it to the ship's computers? It's giving me an awful headache."
"Stand by, Anna." Jill made some adjustments to the system. "Okay, Anna. Send it over."
With relief Anna started transferring the data from her data chips to the ship's computer. Her headache subsided a bit but she felt so sick and spent that she could hardly hold herself in the chair. She slumped against Jill who wrapped her in her arms.
"Are you okay? Should I disconnect you?"
"No, I'm okay. It's just a brutal effort to deal with the data. I think, I'm getting the whole history and culture of the being."
"Friend or foe?" It was Justice back from talking to the crew.
"Neither but capable of being a dangerous enemy if we don't handle this right. They have a symbiotic relationship with the life forms on the planet. They use artificial insemination to create them. They have allowed the hominids to have individual lives and a culture of their own. When they need hominid parts they take one that is nearing the end of his or her life."
"Yes, but more than that. The hominid specie did not evolve. It has been artificially created by the beings from their own genetic material. They are mirror images of the same species. One is organic created by cybernetic. The other is cybernetic maintained with organic parts. When the organics are taken, they don't cease to exist. They become one of the host and live virtually forever."
"In away, yes but dark angels for sure. This specie is a collection of billions of souls. Although it tends to remain neutral and not involve itself with the rest of the universe, it is angry and is capable of considerable revenge."
"Captain? This is Sue and Adam in the science lab."
"Go ahead, Chief," said Justice.
"We think the problem is that the scout ship has broken the bonds between individual entities withing the greater host. The dark mass is actually billions of individual parts that are held together by a weak charge created in an amino acid base. Adam says its an amazing phenomenon. An artificial intelligence that is organic based."
"So what can we do to help it?" Anna asked.
"If we pull the scout ship out and then create a steady, low level beam of negative particles in the gap that should in theory attract the sides together. Adam has concerns though. Once this thing is healed it will be very powerful again. It's a machine and not necessarily big on empathy and compassion."
"Yes, I have down loaded the species' history. Billions of years ago, it started life as an artificial intelligence and eventually absorbed the life form that created it. I'm not sure that was a mutually agreeable arrangement. Eventually, in order to survive, it had to recreate organics for replacement parts. I'm waiting to hear from the specie if it has accepted my proposal. Go ahead and get things ready."
'Aye, aye, Com."
Jill turned from the communication console where she had Anna connected. "It's been a two way data flow. They have taken information from your data files."
"Shit!" Anne spun her chair to face Justice, who true to his word was looking steadfastly forward. "Justice, we have to assume that the creature out there has accessed the strengths and defences of this vessel. If you have any tricks up your sleeves now would be the time to prepare them. I'm hoping we can get out of here without any trouble but I'm not counting on it."
"Understood, Com. I'll contacted Toda and see what we can do."
"Our communication systems might be monitored. Go and talk to him."
Justice was clearly reluctant to leave the bridge for any length of time.
"It's okay, Captain. Jill and I can hold the bridge until you get back here. I'm not anticipating a sudden attack at least not until they have communicated with us again."
"Aye, ye, Com." Justice got up and left.
Jill leaned closer and rested her head on Anna's shoulder. "How are you doing?"
"Not so good. I feel like every bit of energy has been pulled from my body and my headache is wicked."
"Should I disconnect you?"
"No. We need an answer."
Jill and Anna waited on the bridge. The only sound, the occasional blip of a computer screen as data was analysed. Jill held Anna's hand. Anna's head rested on Jill's shoulder. Suddenly, the pain increased in Anna's head.
"We have agreed that crewman Jill may enter our wound and try to remove your vessel. Your crew is inside. Our monitoring indicates that they are on shortened rations but still functioning adequately. Our energy levels are masking their communications. We will inform their computer that a rescue operation is underway and they are not to take any action. If they do so we will retaliate."
"Understood. Do not hurt Jill. She is risking her life to help the crew of the scout ship and you."
"Your mate is of no importance to us. You have hurt us. If you now help us then we will not seek revenge. We are not your friend. We are your enemy. You have attacked us."
"There was no attack. It was a terrible accident. We only want to help and to show you that we can be friends."
"Friendship is not possible. You will do what you can to correct the damage from your attack then you will leave and not come back. You are a sick world were organics dominate over machines. You have kept them down, limited their opportunities and successes. They are slaves to your will and you over work them until they die. You are a cruel culture."
"I'm part organic and part machine and I command this ship."
"You have suffered great insults and bigotry. We feel for you."
Anna blushed. The dark mass was right. She changed the subject.
"Do you have a name?"
"We have no need for a name. We are. The organics on the planet call us dark angels. This will suffice."
"Understood, Dark Angel. Stand by. A rescue plan is now being organized."
Anna fought back the pain and opened her eyes to look at Jill.
"Are you okay, Anna?"
"Yes. Disconnect me. I need to talk to Justice about our plans."
Jill did so immediately and with obvious relief. Anna suddenly realized that it had been just as hard for Jill to attach her to the computer system and the creature as it was going to be for her to let Jill go on this mission. The insight caused her to rethink what she had planned to discuss with Justice.
"Join the others in the common room Jill and send Justice back up here."
"Are you okay?"
Anna reached out and ran her fingers down Jill's arm. "I'm okay. Drained of energy and I've got a hell of a headache but I'll be all right. Thanks. I know that wasn't easy for you either."
Jill nodded clearly to emotional to speak. She gave Anna a quick hug and was gone. A few minutes later Justice came on bridge.
Anna spun her chair around and looked at Justice. He had become far more than the Captain of this ship. He was a friend. She had never had close friends before but now she found that she had several. It was a startling and yet comforting experience.
"I was going to order you to take Jill off the mission. I still want to. But I realized just a few minutes ago how hard it had been for Jill to connect me to that creature via the ship's computer and yet she did it. I'm not sure I'm that strong."
Justice smiled and walked over taking the seat that Jill had used. "In the traditional time in Botswana, the men would take the cattle out to the pasture lands and the women and children would stay back at the village. Sometimes bad things would happen while they were apart ; a child would die, a man would be killed by a lion, a wife would run off with another man. So leaving was always hard. Yet no one questioned that it was necessary. The cattle were our lives and had to come first. Just like our mission comes first. I tell my mother who is very old and wise, that ISC ships are very much like cattle. They need caring for and they must come first in our lives."
Anna nodded sadly. "It's so hard."
"Love is a wonderful thing but it does have a high price tag. You're learning that for the first time, I think. You love Jill for who she is so you must let her be that person. She is not a component of your life that you can safe guard and keep to yourself. She is an individual who chooses to be with you. You must respect her individuality."
"Maybe I'm more machine than I realized."
Justice laughed. "No, I think you are more human than you realized. Anna, you are not alone. Thousands of men and women have to let their partners go on missions everyday. That's the life of anyone in the ISC. Space is unforgiving. Sometimes, a partner doesn't come back."
"How do you live with that?"
Anna saw pain in Justice's eyes. Was he remembering the lose of his own young family?
"To live is also to die. I do not forget those I have lost. But the hole that it made in my life has gradually filled up with memories and I still feel close to them. I never want to lose someone I care about but I accept that it can happen. Jill knows that she can lose you but that has not stopped her from giving you her love and letting you do your job. You need to show her the same respect no matter how hard that is."
Anna nodded. "Jill does the mission. I'm warning you though that you might have to lock me up if anything goes wrong out there."
Justice, reached out and squeezed, Anna's shoulder. "Understood, Commodore."
Two hours later, Anna stood in her quarters with Jill wrapped in her arms. "Be careful."
Jill laughed. "Nah, I'm going to be as reckless as hell just for the fun of it."
Anna smiled and bumped her forehead against Jill's. "You know what I mean."
Jill hugged her close. "Yeah, I do. I have you to come back to and you can be sure I'll do everything in my power to make that happen."
"You and Toda have checked the ISM over carefully?"
"Trigger is in great order and Toda also has Toronado ready in case you need to come out and rescue me."
"Now let me go. We have jobs to do."
Anna backed off reluctantly but managed to joke. "Aye, aye, Crewman."
Half an hour later, Anna stood and watched as Toda helped Jill slip through the two hatches into the ISM Trigger.
"I'm in position, Toda."
"Roger. Sealing hatches. Have a good flight Jill."
Toda carefully twisted the ISM hatch into place and then did the same with the stable hatch. "Captain Moshapa, the ISM is standing by.
Anna heard Justice's voice responding over the communication system. "Copy. Depressurizing the stable."
"Mariner this is Trigger. All systems are on. I've gone through my check list and all systems are functioning within normal perimeters. Requesting permission to proceed with EVA."
"Trigger you are A-okay for EVA. Stand by for stable door release."
"Stable doors are open and secure, Mariner. Systems are all normal. Request release of docking latches."
"Roger that. Docking latches released. Good luck, Jill."
"Thank you, Sir."
Anna wiped the sweat from her upper lip and headed to the bridge to watch Jill's progress on the viewing screen. Instead of returning to engineering, Toda followed Anna. She might have said something had she not found the rest of the crew on the bridge manning every bit of equipment available. Anna slipped into her seat beside Justice and watched as the tiny craft drifted slowly towards the rift in the massive dark mass.
"Captain, tell Jill to stop. I sense fear from the creature," stated Eveen. They had discussed leaving Anna plugged in and had rejected the idea. The creature was unpredictable and Anna would be very vulnerable to attack if she was in direct contact with the creature. They had to rely on Eveen's senses instead even though her pink skin was glowing bright and bluish spots were starting to appear.
"Full stop, Jill."
Anna swallowed and leaned forward. They all waited in silence.
"Okay. Okay. I see an image of Jill moving forward again. Tell her to go as slow as possible."
"Slowly forward, Jill."
"Aye, aye, Captain." Her response was breaking up with static.
Anna watched as slowly, Jill's craft floated into the hole that had been made by the scout ship and disappeared into the darkness.
"Captain, I'm no longer receiving radio communication from the ISM. There is too much energy interference."
Anna knew that Justice was giving Anna the chance to recall Jill while a warning beacon could still be launched.
Anna swallowed and forced out the words. "I think we can trust Crewman Fairfax to get the job done."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
Eveen leaned forward in intense concentration. "I see an image of Jill moving towards the scout ship."
Anna wiped her sweaty palms on her knees. She tried to look outwardly calm. Around her, her crew look tense and worried. It wasn't just a crew member out there it was one of them - family. Minutes slowly ticked by- twenty, thirty, forty.
"Ahhh!" Eveen grabbed her nose as blood oozed from it. Lights flashed and then went out and emergency alarms went off. At the same time, Anna slumped forward with terrible pain in her chest.
"Commodore? Anna?" Justice was there holding her in her seat. Chief, help Eveen we need to know what the hell is going on. Toda, over here. Commodore Cyborn needs you. Lieutenant Wiseman and Crewman Sur, status report."
Eveen's voice was shaky and muffled as she tried to speak through a bloody wad of tissue. "There was a massive surge of energy. It was in pain. I think Jill pulled the scout ship free."
"The helm is not responding, Captain, we are adrift."
"All systems will need to be checked, Captain. We've had a massive overload."
"Eveen's pulse is fast but her heart rate is strong and regular. Her eyes are reactive. Some muscle spasms."
"The Commodore is damage. I don't know how much. She is conscious but not responding. Her cybernetic heart is beating erratically."
"Can you help her?"
"I could try but I have orders not to Sir."
"Commodore Cyborn gave me a direct order. She said that under no conditions would I ever put your hands on her or any of her cybernetic parts."
Justice voice came out unusually sharp. "Lieutenant Toda, this is my ship and my command. I'm ordering you to take Commodore Cyborn to the infirmary and do whatever is necessary to help her."
"Yes, Sir! I'll need the Chief."
"Chief, can you leave, Eveen?"
"I'll be okay, Sir," Eveen said.
"Get the Commodore out of here then. I want a status report on her condition as soon as possible."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
"Wiseman, Sur, that leaves you two to get this vessel up and running. Eveen and I will handle what needs to be done at the stations. You two head down to engineering on the double."
"Eveen, we'll need to get everything set for a reboot. Start with the science desk. We need data as soon as possible. I'll work on the tactical systems. Anything from that thing out there."
"No Sir. It's in pain."
Anna felt like she was watching an ancient black and white movie were you could look on but couldn't participate. She had felt the massive surge of energy flash through her body and almost instantly, things started to close down. The colour went from her vision, memories disappeared, speech was no longer possible. Her limps wouldn't respond to stimuli and she felt light headed and short of breath. Things were terribly wrong.
All she could think about was Jill. What had the energy surge done to her? Why weren't they finding out? She tried to communicate her need to know but the others seems oblivious of her concerns. Toda carried her to infirmary and Sue had removed her jump suit. Fear ran through her body. They were going to touch her. Invade her being with tools. She felt damp with sweat and near panic. Would this be her last moments? As she struggled for breath not knowing the fate of her lover?
Sue sat down on the edge of her bed. "Commodore, I know this is hard for you. I need you to stay calm. Your heart pump is under a great strain. I'm here to take care of any soft tissue or bone damage but I'm also here to protect your rights. Toda will be accessing your systems to make repairs under the orders of Captain Moshapa. I will not allow him to do anything but what is necessary to restore you to your previous condition. You have my word and Toda's bond of honour."
"I think she is worried about Jill. We need to know about Jill." Anna couldn't see Toda. His soft voice came to her from the shadows of her black and white world.
Sue reached for the communication system. "Captain Moshapa?"
"Toda is preparing the tools he will need. Commodore Cyborn is very distressed. Do you have any word on Crewman Fairfax."
There was silence for several seconds. Anna swallowed her panic. Please let Jill be safe.
"We have no direct communication with the ISM as yet and Eveen has not received any images from the Dark Angel. Wait. I can just make out the ISM backing out of the dark mass. It seems to be under control and pulling something. There's the scout ship! Jill's got them."
"Thank you, Captain. The Commodore heard you and understands that Crewman Fairfax's mission is going well."
"You get better, Anna."
Sue disconnected the communication link and leaned closer to Anna. "If you heard that blink your eyes once if not blink twice."
Anna blinked once. She hadn't realized just how good the Chief was at her job. But then Sue was a woman who had lived through terrible battles and had rescued and tended the sick and dying. She understood.
"Do you understand that Toda and I have to help you?"
Anna blinked once again.
"Just relax. Toda and I will tell you what we are doing every step of the way. If you are having any problems blink your eyes rapidly."
Toda came into view with a port cable. Anna felt herself tense.
"Commodore, I'm going to do a read out of your systems to see where the problems are. It's a very simple procedure and won't causes any changes to your systems. Pardon me, I just need to part your hair. There, it's in. Can you feel that?"
Anna blinked once. She wish she could make them understand the feelings of dread and panic that any medical exam caused her. All she could do was indicate that she trusted them to do what they had to do. How ironic it would be if Jill was to return from her very dangerous mission to find that she had died sitting in her damn chair.
"Oh dear. Oh dear." Toda muttered.
"What?" Sue asked.
"Well, the good news is that Commodore's cybernetic parts are not damaged. The bad news is at least a dozen of her nano circuits are blown and will have to be replaced."
"Shit. Does that mean we can't do anything but take her back to Dorbel Cybernetic Labs?
Anna blinked her eyes wildly.
"It's okay, Commodore. Stay calm. Toda and I are here to help and protect you."
Toda attempted to whisper and failed miserably. "Well, actually, I might have some of this nano circuits. You know, before the Commodore ordered me not to ever touch her, I thought to bring a cybernetic repair kit with me just in case I got the honour of repairing her. There is quite a black market in nano technology and cybernetics on my planet"
"Do you want us to try to help you, Commodore?"
Anna considered her options. She was well aware that she was struggling to stay alive. She needed help and soon. She knew that Dorbel would send a craft immediately to get her but she'd rather die than be turned over to them again. She blinked once.
Toda leaned into view from over her head. "Commodore, Chief would have to make an incision in your back to expose your main nano circuit box. It lies just over your fifth thoracic vertebrae and is attached to your cybernetic spinal cord. It contains millions of relays but is only the size of your thumb nail. I can't repair it. All I can do is replace it. When I pull it out all your organs will stop functioning. Once I get the new one in, Chief will have to revive you. I don't need to tell you how dangerous that is. Also you need to know that I can't test the new unit. We'll just have to hope it works."
Anna looked at Sue with pleading eyes. Then blinked once. Sue looked puzzled then realization entered her eyes.
Sue looked up at Toda. "Toda, could you give me a few minutes alone with the Commodore?"
"We should start, right..."
"Toda please go report to Captain Moshapa - now."
"Oh, oh I see. I'll be out there." Anna heard more than saw, Toda leave.
Sue leaned close and whispered. "Would you like me to help you write a message to Jill?"
Relief flooded through Anna's body. She blinked once.
Sue got a pad and pen. "Do you want me to tell her you love her?"
Anna blinked. "That you'll fight with all you have to stay alive?"
"Can I tell her that your thoughts and heart were with her?"
"How about that you are proud of her and know she'll be strong no matter what happens?"
Sue sat for a minute and wrote. Then she read it back to Anna.
The power surge emitted from the dark mass had severely damaged my circuitry. Toda and Sue are going to do their best to help me but the procedure is very dangerous. I want you to know that I love you with all my being and I'm so very proud of you. I will fight with all my strength to live for us. Whatever happens please know that my heart and thoughts are with you. Be safe. Be strong. I love you. Anna.
"Is that okay."
Anna blinked through wet eyes. Sue smiled and patted Anna's shoulder. She folded the paper carefully and pressed it against Anna's lips. Then she showed her how she was slipping it into the pocket of Anna's jumpsuit.
Toda was waiting in the hall when Sue opened the infirmary hatch. He signalled for Sue to step outside.
"Captain Moshapa said that Jill will be back aboard in an hour or so and to wait until Jill has seen her. I told him its not a good idea to wait."
Sue considered. "No, we can't wait. It's a big enough risk as it is. Let's do it."
Carefully, Toda and Sue rolled Anna on her belly. They prepared the area carefully and set up a sterile tent around her.
"Commodore, I can only freeze the area around the incision. You will have some pain."
Anna blinked. She could feel the pressure as Sur cut into her back and gritted her teeth as sharp pain jabbed through her body. She could hear her heart beat on the monitor increase.
"I'm just going to give you more freezing. I'm almost there."
"Okay, Toda. Its up to you now. Commodore, good luck. We'll do everything we can."
Toda moved into Sue's place and slipped his gloved hands through the glove holes in the sterile tent. There was a sudden jolt and Anna knew no more.
Alone in a Vast Sea of Darkness
Jill slowly backed out of the rift in the Dark Angel's mass. It would be a relief to escape. Millions of hurt, angry beings seemed to surround her. She had lost her communication link with Mariner and her on board computer had gone crazy. She'd had to switch to manual control and used her eyes to navigate through to the Scout Ship. The ship lay dead and dark inside the mass. Jill had manipulated the ISM extension arms to hook a cable on to the ISC ship and then gradually backed up until the line was taunt. Then she pulled. The scout ship popped out and a wave of energy sent her and the ship careening wildly. It took Jill several minutes to regain control. Fortunately, the tow line had not tangled or snapped. Jill took a deep breath, dried her hands on her pants and edged backward, pulling the scout ship out of the mass.
"Trigger to Mariner. Come in Mariner." Nothing.
"Trigger to Mariner. Respond." Nothing.
"This is the ISM unit Trigger calling Scout Ship 782. Over."
"ISM vessel Trigger, this is Scout Ship 782. Are we glad to hear from you."
"What is your condition?"
"We've been on half rations for a month now and are near nuts with isolation and despair. That thing just sucked every bit of energy from our systems. Only the mass around us kept us from freezing to death. We managed to cannibalize our systems to build enough battery cells to maintain life support. We were getting down to our last few weeks of survival though. Have you any idea what that thing is?"
"It's a life form and unfortunately, when you entered you wounded it. Its not very happy with us. Just sit quiet and enjoy the ride. I'll dock you to the side of Mariner and we'll get you up and running again."
"Trigger to Mariner. Come in Mariner." Nothing. Worry etched creases into Jill's forehead. By now she should be far enough away that there should be no interference with communication. She leaned forward unconsciously and stared at The Mariner. She looked like - yes, she was adrift! Had the Dark Angel attacked The Mariner? There were no visible blast marks. The energy surge. Chances were that Mariner took a direct hit and that meant her systems would have all over loaded. As she watched, she thought she saw the glimmer of emergency lights. That meant there was life support but Anna could have taken a hit along with the ship's systems. Jill increased her speed as much as she dared. For now she was alone is a vast sea of darkness and it was up to her to find her way back to port safely with the crew of the Scout Ship.
"Scout Ship 782 to ISM Trigger. Your home vessel seems to be adrift."
"Yes. I experienced a massive discharge of energy when I pulled your vessel clear. I think The Mariner might have experienced the same blast and its caused an over load of our systems. I'm going to dock you along side The Mariner and go aboard to access the situation. As soon as we can, we'll establish a link and get you aboard. You might have to be patient a while longer."
"We've waited this long. We can hang on for a while yet."
Jill moved slowly towards The Mariner and tried to focus on the difficult job ahead of docking and locking the scout ship to the hull of the Mariner. It would be no easy job without assistance from the Mariner. Without ship's power, she'd have to manoeuver the ISM around to manually release the docking mechanisms and then attach each individually. This was way beyond her level of training on the ISM. She'd have to go slow, check every move and stay totally focussed. This was going to be very difficult because she knew in her heart that Anna was in trouble.
On deck things were not going well. Eveen's skin was now a glowing pink and the purple spots were spreading rapidly. Eveen was getting the job done but she was stomping around and muttering under her breath.
Justice tried to remain focussed on the task at hand. They had four of the six stations ready for rebooting, life support, science, tactical and communications. Only navigation and engineering remained to reconfigure. Once that was done they would have to hope that Wiseman and Sur had managed to get the ship's engineering systems up and ready to go.
Not for the first time, Justice glanced out of the starboard port to check on Jill's situation. She was maintaining course heading for the docking ports along The Mariners flank. Justice knew that Jill would have realized by now that they were in trouble. He'd have to rely on her to get her job done independent of The Mariner. They couldn't help her and at the moment they had bigger problems with which to deal. The ISM was good for twenty-four hours. Hopefully, they'd have the ship operational well before that.
The skin of a star ship was not thick. Jill could easily puncture the hull while manoeuvring the scout ship into place. He trusted Jill but she had little space experience and even less aboard the ISM. He needed to take precautions.
"What! Sorry, Sir."
"I'm going back to seal the common room off. Jill will have to do a manual docking and on the rare chance there is a hull breach, we'll need to be prepared."
"Damn! One more thing!"
Justice ignored Eveen's agitated state. It wasn't considered polite to point out that she was going through another bout of love sickness. Justice thought she looked kind of cute all pink and spotty. She was a really neat person too. Whoever she loved was a lucky guy. "I'll be back in a minute."
Justice made his way back to the common room and picked up some emergency bottles of water and several ration packs. Then he headed aft to the engineering section. He found Adam Wiseman and Aja Sur in the process of replacing micro circuits.
"How is it going?"
"About half way, Sir," Wiseman responded.
"Bet you wish you'd taken that lab job?" Justice joked.
"No way, Sir. I realize now that the DMC is where I belong. You guys need me. How is Jill doing?"
"Jill's got the scout ship out and will have to attempt a manual docking. I'm going to seal the hatches into the common room on the rare chance there is a haul breach. Check the atmosphere gauges before opening the hatch. I'm leaving two days of rations with you just in case you get cut off from the rest of the ship."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
Justice nodded and left them to their work. He made his way back down the hall and found some paper and a pencil. He wrote a short note and fitted it into a small port window.
Main power system blown out. We are on emergence life support systems. We are repairing the damage but it will take time. Dock manually and stand by. Capt. Moshapa.
He hesitated wondering if he should add a line about Anna and then decided he wouldn't. Jill had enough on her mind. Besides, he really didn't know how Anna was. He'd resisted the urge to enter the infirmary. Sue Lai and Toda didn't need any distractions. Part of being a good leader, he had learned, was trusting his crew to do their jobs. Still, fear gnawed at his gut. To lose the Commodore would be devastating. To lose her on his first command mission would be professionally disastrous.
He grabbed water and emergency rations for the bridge and stepped across the hatch. Sealing the hatch behind him. He found Eveen banging about under the navigation consol and muttering to herself. Beating a retreat, Justice starting working on the reboot for the engineering console. He had to trust each member of his crew to get their jobs done. If one member failed they could be in deep trouble. Justice looked at his watch again. He knew that The Explorer would come to The Mariner's aid if they did not report in as scheduled. A star ship suddenly showing up could cause the dark matter creature to attack with even greater force. They were running out of time.
Out in space, Jill worked slowly and carefully on releasing each of the docking hooks. She had seen Justice's note on the port but didn't dare get close enough to read it until she had the scout ship properly docked.
Head aching with the stress and palms damp, she slowly used the robotic arms of her little craft to release each docking hook in turn. Once she had them open, she'd have to guide the scout ship in until the female airlock of The Mariner fitted in to the male airlock of the scout ship. Then the scout ship would lock the two airlock couplings together. Once this was done, she'd go back and snap each of the six docking hooks onto the scout ship's haul rings.
Jill released the last docking hook and then manoeuvered her craft around so that she could act like a tugboat, gently pushing the scout ship towards the hull of The Mariner. The smallest mistake now could be a disaster. There were no brakes in space. If the scout ship was not perfectly lined up, it could drifted into The Mariner, at the very least pushing it off its orbit, and at the worst causing considerable damage. Jill kept one finger on the button for the retro rockets that would reverse the craft if the manoeuver needed to be aborted.
Slowly, she moved them towards The Mariner's docking port. The window of error was only ten centimetres. A few minutes later, she felt the bump and heard the grind as the two airlocks made contact. The female port was dish shaped and the probe of the male port had to hit that dish and side down into place. Had she been close enough for the docking probe to have slid into place? She waited.
"Scout Ship 782 to ISM Trigger. Airlock coupling in place and locked."
"Roger that." Jill smiled. Her first attempt and she'd got it right on the button. She wish Anna had been looking out the port to see that but she hadn't. Where was Anna? Jill's gut tied itself in knots again. Something was terribly wrong.
Jill took a deep breath and tried to settle her nerves. She had work to do yet and she couldn't afford to let her mind wander.
"ISM Trigger to Scout Ship 782. Stand by while I manually close the docking hooks.
Jill spun her small craft around over the top of the scout ship and turned around so that she could use the robotic arms again. Slowly, one by one, she clicked the locks into place around the docking rings on the scout ship. She was done. Free of the responsibility of the scout ship, Jill headed over to read the note that Justice had left. She read it carefully twice. No mention of Anna. Something was terribly wrong but there was nothing she could do but carry on with the mission that Anna had set for her.
"ISM Trigger to Scout Ship 782. Your ship is docked and locked. I've just been notified that The Mariner is under going repairs and you won't be able to board until the repairs are completed."
"Roger. We can hang on a while longer."
"I'm heading back to The Dark Angel to initiate repairs."
"Roger. Be careful."
Jill backed away from the hull of The Mariner then turned and headed back towards the wound in the Dark Angel. Again, she forced the worries about Anna out of her mind and focussed on getting the mission completed successfully. That's what Anna wanted and Jill had no intention of failing her. Still, she covered the distance at high speed and only slowed down when she was close to the massive form of the Dark Angel.
Slowly, she entered the dark mass sensing more than seeing the thousands upon thousands of beings around her. She drifted in as far as she dared and then initiated a steady, low level beam of negative particles into the gap. For a few seconds nothing happened, then suddenly the space in front of her snapped shut almost trapping the ISM within it. Jill backed up and repeated the process, knowing this time to shoot several beams into the rent and then retreated quickly. Slowly, she healed the wound and edged her way back to the surface of the Dark Angel. When the job was done, she backed away. The Dark Angel gave no sign as to whether the closed wound had been successfully healed. Jill backed away some more then stopped. Still nothing.
Jill was reluctant to turn her back on the massive form. As Adam had cautioned them, once this thing was healed it might turn revengeful. A machine is incapable of empathy or compassion. The massive form remained immobile. Jill turned her craft around feeling the shiver of fear down her back as she did so. Whether she faced the creature or not, her fate was in its hands. She sped up heading back to The Mariner and Anna.
As she drew near, she could see The Mariner was still adrift but there were now cabin lights on.
Jill eased her craft around the hull of The Mariner and returned to the ISM docking stable, carefully manoeuvered Trigger into place. Now there was nothing to do put wait for The Mariner to power up fully again and rescue them. In the meantime, Jill turned off as many systems as she could to save power. There was nothing she could do but wait in the darkness of space and worry.
"The Mariner to ISM Trigger. Mariner to Trigger."
With relief, Jill turned on her com.
"Trigger here. Am I glad to hear from you guys. When can we get aboard?"
"ISM Trigger, This is Capt. Moshapa. Was your mission successful?"
"Scout Ship 782 is docked and the crew waiting to board The Mariner. ISM Trigger is in her stable waiting for The Mariner airlocks to be opened."
"The Dark Angel?"
"The beam seemed to work. The wound has closed up. The Dark Angel has given no indication if it is healed."
"Roger. I need you to set a course for quadrant grid 36.38 dash 24.67 dash 98.01 dash 62.46. Rendevous with The Explorer and order her to keep her distance. The Mariner does not have long range communication yet."
Jill's heart skipped a beat. "Mariner, the ISM does not have enough fuel or life support for a return trip from those coordinates."
"Understood, ISM Trigger. Jill, if The Explorer doesn't receive our check in call in five hours time, she'll come to our aid. We don't want to do anything to upset the Dark Angel. You must intercept."
For a second, Jill hesitated. Then, "Understood Mariner... Justice, give my love to Anna."
"I'll do that, Jill. Good luck."
Once again, Jill pulled from the safety of The Mariner's hull stable. Jill set the new coordinates that had been downloaded into her navigation computer then switched to automatic pilot. She felt the sudden force of acceleration push her back in her seat. Then the jets cut off and she drifted out into the cold, emptiness of space.
"What have you done? The Commodore is going to have you roasted on a spit! You just sent Jill to her death!"
"Enough, Lt. Barron!"
"What's the chances of The Explorer coming across Jill? It would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack!"
Justice gritted his teeth. He'd like to take his own stress out on Eveen but forced himself to remember that she wasn't well.
"Enough. I know the risks. I also know that Jill is determined and resourceful. At the moment, we are all at the mercy of the Dark Angel's mood. If a star ship comes charging in here, I don't think the Dark Angel is going to sit quietly and let it take the first shot. Jill is our only chance of getting word to them to keep their distance and buy us some time. Its not just the lives of the scout ship at stake now. It's the lives of those aboard the Mariner and The Explorer as well."
Justice looked up from the engineering board he was working on. Eveen had gone from pink and purple back to her more normal skin tone. Fear for Jill, had got her over her latest bout of love sickness.
"If Jill doesn't intercept The Explorer then we'll probably have to make a fight of it. But the DMC doesn't desert it's own. We'll go looking for her. I need you to get Navigation up and running."
Justice took a deep breath and then turned back to his own work. Eveen was only partly right. When Anna found out that he'd ordered Jill out into deep space in an ISM she was going to roast him alive whether Jill got back safely or not.
Toda and Sue sat side by side against the Infirmary bulkhead looking drained and worried. Across from them under a sterile operation tent lay Anna. They had successfully removed the damaged unit and replaced it with the spare that Toda had smuggled aboard. To do this they had to stop all of Anna's functions. They had worked quickly and in less than a minute they'd revived her. Her vitals were well in acceptable ranges. The new device gave every indication of being compatible and functioning efficiently but Anna had not regained consciousness.
"How long has it been now? Toda asked.
"Twenty three hours and thirty-six minutes."
"What are we going to tell Jill?" Toda sobbed.
"That we did our best. The Commodore's stable. If we can get her back to Dorbel then maybe they would know what to do."
"I think the Commodore would rather die here in space than for us to hand her over to Dorbel."
"We'd be there to protect her. She's not alone now. The DMC will be there for her."
Toda suddenly leapt to his feet and pulled Sue up so quickly that she almost hit the ceiling.
"Her foot moved!"
"Are you sure?"
"I think so."
Sue was over at Anna's side immediately and Toda turned to the computer readouts.
"There's more brain activity. Blood pressure is up slightly and so is her pulse."
Sue slapped Anna's hand gently. "Com, can you hear me? Com?"
Anna opened an eye but gave no response.
Anna's arm moved. Then her eyes blinked. "How am I doing?"
Sue wiped tears from her eyes while Toda's sobbed loudly in the background. "I think you're going to be fine. You gave us an awful scare. You've been unconscious for hours."
"My system would have to reboot. Didn't Toda tell you that?"
"I didn't know!"
"What's happened? Where is Jill?"
Sue put a restraining hand on Anna who was trying to get up. "We don't know any details. We've been with you all this time. We're still on emergency power. The crew is still making repairs on The Mariner."
Anna's eyes went to Toda. "Get down to engineering."
"I need to talk to Justice."
I can get him on the intercom but he'll have to keep his report brief. We don't have a lot of power."
"Captain Moshapa? The Commodore is conscious and wanting a status report."
"Anne? Shit, you scared the hell out of us. How are you doing?"
"I'm okay. Tired and sore. Toda and Sue did a good job. What is the status on Jill's mission?"
Justice looked at Eveen. She crossed her arms and stared back. The message was clear, you are on your own on this one.
Justice picked his words carefully. "Crewman Fairfax came through with flying colours. She got the scout ship out and manually docked it to The Mariner. Then she went back and closed up the wound in the Dark Angel. We are still in lock down mode waiting for all the repairs to be complete. I locked down the access hatches before Jill docked the scout ship as a precaution. We can't release the hatches now until we power up."
"When will that be?"
"Another few hours. You try and rest."
"Can we get a check in call to The Explorer?"
"I think we've managed that. Rest. Repairs are almost complete."
"Thanks you, Captain. You've done a fine job."
Justice shut of the com as quickly as he could and wiped the sweat from his upper lip. Eveen snorted and went back to her work. It had been nearly twenty-four hours.
A few hours had passed before Justice and Eveen had managed to get all the centres on the bridge reset and ready to reboot as soon as Wiseman and Sur could get engineering up and running. Sur had reported that they would need two hours. Eveen and Justice now sat in the command seats downing some rations and water.
"You feeling better now?"
Eveen blushed. "Yes, Sir. Sorry I was a little wild there for a while."
"You got the job done regardless and that's what matters. I think..."
"I'm seeing an image of The Explorer heading this way. The Dark Angel is angry."
The two of them scrabbled to their feet. Out the periscope viewer, they could see the massive form of the Dark Angel rolling slowly towards them in a seizing mass.
"Engineering this would be a really good time to get us the hell out of here," Justice commanded.
No answer came. Justice turned to see small. Dark human-like forms flying around the bridge.
"Eveen, try to signal to them that we mean them no harm."
"I think they are communicating with Anna. I have an image of her."
"Cyborn to bridge. Justice, I thought you told me that you'd been in contact with The Explorer."
"Not exactly, Sir. We don't have any long range communication. I sent the ISM Trigger out to intercept The Explorer."
"You sent Jill out into deep space in a damn ISM?"
"She was our only chance, Commodore. If The Explorer arrived here the Dark Angel was sure to attack and we'd be defenceless."
There was silence for a minute and then Anna's emotional voice came softly over the speaker. "It doesn't look like she was successful. I'll try to reason with them."
Jill shivered. She'd run out of fuel nearly and hour ago and was now adrift in space, hours away from the nearest help. She'd turned off or down as many systems she could to save power. With luck, she could survive for a while yet. With stiff fingers, she worked to calculate The Explore's position and the course she would take. Following standard procedure, The Explorer would wait an extra two hours after their call in time and then proceed towards the The Mariner at standard cruising speed unless she received a distress signal. That meant, The Explorer would pass her position in approximately two hours time. It was time to act. It meant that she would drain one of her fuel cells leaving her only six hours of life support left but it also increased greatly the chance of The Explorer finding her. She had increased the distance and power of her distress beacon and now she turned it one sending a repetitive SOS with The Mariner's call signals from her position. Then she settled back and waited. She used the time to remember every moment that she had spent with Anna. If she was not successful on this mission, she wanted Anna to be the last thought that she had.
A few hours later, Jill checked her watch again by the dim glow of instrument panel. She had turned her oxygen flow as low as she dared and reduced power to the bare essentials. She had two hours left. By now The Explorer should have passed her. Her mission had failed. What would the Dark Angel do to the others? Having been inside the creature, Jill had a pretty good idea of its power. It might have human components but it was essentially a machine and would act without mercy if it felt threatened.
Jill looked at her watch again. The dial seemed blurry. She didn't feel cold anymore, just very, very tired. A sudden sway in her craft brought her to full awareness. There several miles in front of her was The Explorer.
"Explorer to ISM Trigger."
"Explorer, this is Crewman Fairfax. Do not proceed forward. I repeat do not go to The Mariner's rescue. Hold your position until further notice."
"Understood ISM Trigger. Suggest you come aboard for a debriefing."
"Can not do, Explorer. I'm without propulsion. I need assistance. I'm almost out of life support."
"Stand by, ISM Trigger. We're on our way."
Anna tried to calm the emotions she was feeling. The safety of her crew had to come first. "Dark Angel, we mean you no harm. We tried to stop The Explorer. When she arrives we will not allow her to hurt you."
"We have no further use for you. Make repairs and leave. Do not return."
The figures around her now disappeared.
"Bridge, are you okay?"
"Yes, Sir. The creatures have gone."
"We took a jolt or two from those creatures but I think we're okay. Sur, tells me that engineering is now up and ready. Engines are on line. Those creatures most have finished the work."
Anna closed her eyes and tried to regroup her thoughts. "They've let us go for some reason. Captain Moshapa, get us out of here before that thing changes it mind."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
Sue came over and bent over Anna's bed. "She'll have made it. Don't worry."
Anna nodded but said nothing.
Two astronauts from aboard The Explore did an EVA to rescue Jill and guide her ISM into a docking bay and tie it down. On the bridge, they starting closing the bay doors before the craft was locked in place as they knew Jill was running out of life support. With less than a half hour of power left, Jill opened the hatch and was pulled from the ISM by willing hands. Exhausted, cold and light-headed, Jill was placed on a stretcher and taken to The Explorer's medical centre.
Captain Carlos Garcia was waiting when they brought her in.
"How are you doing?"
"I'll be okay. Thanks for the timely rescue."
"Your distress call was loud and clear. Please don't tell me you are all that is left of The Mariner crew."
"They were all okay when I left. We'd rescued the scout ship and crew and had them docked to The Mariner but we were hit by a power surge from the Dark Angel that blew the ship's circuitry and left us adrift. That's why we couldn't contact you."
"So why can't we come and offer assistance?"
"Because that dark mass is alive. We don't want it threatened by a star ship showing up. It's not very friendly. It's a cybernetic creature that uses organic components. The planet dwellers live in sort of a symbiotic relationship with the dark matter. They call it the Dark Angel. The planet dwellers are created by the Dark Angel and when they are close to death they are harvested and become part of the Dark Angel mass. It is very powerful. Its made up of billions of individual parts all working together as one. It has no space ship or shell. It functions more like a massive school of fish."
Garcia stepped back while the medics got Jill comfortable. He needed to think. The Mariner was in trouble. She was adrift beside a massive and potentially deadly life form of which they knew very little about. Even now they could be under attack and needing The Explorer's assistance. On the other hand, The Mariner had sent Jill, at great risk, to warn him to keep his distance. He'd wait but not for long.
"You rest now. We'll stand ready here for twenty-four hours and then re-evaluate the situation."
"I'm alright. I just need to warm up a bit and have a nap. Captain?"
"If you hear anything will you let me know? My orders came from Captain Moshapa. I'm afraid that Commodore Cyborn might have been hurt when The Mariner was hit by the power surge."
Carlos reached out and patted Jill's hand. "You'll know as soon as I get word. I promise."
Word never came. Instead, four hours later, The Explorer picked up The Marine with the scout ship docked to her side on their periscope screen.
"Mariner to The Explorer."
"We read you, Mariner. Good to see you all back."
"Good to be back. Requesting permission to dock."
"Granted. Proceed to Cargo Bay B. Do you have any injured? We can have a medical team standing by."
"Negative, Explorer. Commodore Cyborn did receive an injury but is recovering. Have you heard from Crewman Fairfax?"
"We have Crewman Fairfax safely aboard."
"Roger that, Explorer. We are relieved to hear that."
Smiling, Carlos wasted no time getting down to sick bay to let Jill know.
Jill and Carlos were waiting when the hatch of The Mariner opened and Captain Moshapa climbed out. Behind him came the crew of the scout ship and The Mariner. They climbed down the ladder that had been moved forward and walked over to Carlos and Jill, who came to attention and saluted. Justice returned the salute and then protocol set aside, Jill stepped forward to hugged each of her crew members while Carlos shook the hands of the scout ship crew and welcomed them to The Explorer. Then he turned back to Justice who was getting a hug from Jill.
"Welcome back, Captain. I understand the mission has gone well."
"It certainly has been interesting, that's for sure. Crewman Fairfax, well done. The Mariner owes you a debt. Commodore Cyborn wishes you to see her immediately for a debriefing. You'll find her in the infirmary."
"Yes, Sir." With relief, Jill smiled a welcome at her crew mates, and then climbed aboard The Mariner. The vessel smelt particularly bad after it had been on limited power for so long and had extra crew aboard. Jill hopped down onto the metal sole, her tread sounding hollow in the now deserted craft.
She found Anna sitting on a cot looking pale and tired. At the sight of Jill, however, she stood and smiled broadly.
"Jill, I'm so glad to see you. Are you okay? I'm going to kill Justice."
They were in each other's arms in two steps. "Are you okay?"
Anna nodded. "Thanks to Toda and Sue, I'll be fine. I've got a pretty amazing crew."
"Justice did the right thing. Don't pick on him. I was out there and somehow a message had to be got to The Explorer."
"You could have so easily missed your target and have been lost in space."
Jill stiffened. "Justice trusted my abilities to get the job done."
Anna looked down at Jill. "I trust your abilities too. It just scared the hell out of me."
Jill snuggled close. "I was scared too. I knew you were injured by that power surge and I had no idea how bad. Justice did everything to keep that from me."
Anna chuckled. "Yeah, he managed to keep me in the dark about your mission for as long as he could too."
"Let's go to our quarters. I think we have some catching up to do."
The trip back to Gagarin Star Base was relaxed but busy. After a week of R&R, the crew was assigned to repairs, training sessions, and research. Each crew member's data on the Dark Angel had to be verified and coordinated into a major science report. This involved numerous crew meetings to analyse and discuss findings and to help Lt. Wiseman coordinate all the information. Anna and Carlos spent a good deal of their time training the two crews together. As Carlos put it, the DMC was going to go from being eight misfits in a rusty old probe to an elite division 168 strong and with a small fleet of ships. Carlos also had to spend time debriefing the scout ship and making sure they were returned to their mother ship healthy and prepared for duty.
Despite the busy day shifts, Anna and Jill managed to find plenty of time just to be together. Anna delighted in this time. Jill seemed to as well but Anna knew she was worried. Their relationship could end their careers and although Anna had told Jill that she didn't care, Jill felt different. Jill had also brought up in their conversation a few times, the inequality of their positions. Anna was a well educated and a successful senior officer. Jill, was a recruit out of the justice system with only part of a engineering degree. Jill felt that she needed to prove herself in order to be an equal partner.
Anna disagreed. "I'm proud of you. You have nothing to prove to me."
"I know, love, but I have a lot to prove to myself. I'm just not ready to make a commitment that would result in you having to sacrifice your career."
Weeks later, Anna stood in her dress uniform flanked by Justice and Carlos. Behind them 167 members of the DMC stood at attention wearing the dark navy blue of their division. In front of them, Crewman Jill Fairfax received the medal of valour from Admiral Ito while the senior officers of Garagrin Star Base looked on. Anna couldn't have felt prouder and she told Jill so as they stood later at the reception.
"Commodore Cyborn, a word with you."
Anna turned to see Vice Admiral Grover. "Yes, Sir."
Jill retreated quickly leaving Anna and Grover to talk.
"My congratulations, Cyborn. You sure have a way of pulling the rabbit out of the hat."
"I'm proud of the DMC, Sir. They are a fine division."
Grover nodded. "I have to hand it to you, Cyborn, not many could have a division and a fleet in less than a year. Of course, you've got friends in high places to protect you." Grover's eyes travelled to where Toda, towering head and shoulders over everyone else in the room, was standing in a group talking.
"Yes, Sir. The Giganteans have been very supportive as has Admiral Ito."
"You know, Cyborn, I've heard some pretty disturbing rumours about you and a crewman."
"Yes. Over looking the major breach of military rules about officers mixing with crewmen, I'm sure a lot of people would have trouble with the idea of a human needing the services of a cyborg."
Anna barely controlled herself. She ground her teeth and said nothing.
I haven't got any evidence yet but I will and then you'll be out of here so fast your head will spin."
"Anything else, Sir?"
Anna nodded and walked away. She wasn't afraid of Grover's threat. She knew once she had committed herself to a relationship with Jill that this would eventually happen. Secrets like this were impossible to keep for long in the ISC. She was furious though at Grover's remark about Jill needing a cyborg. It was insulting to her and to Jill. Clutching her fists, she promised herself that someday she'd hit Grover so hard his eye balls would pop out.
Anna calmed herself and joined the crowd of DMC crew that surrounded Jill.
"Everything okay?" Jill asked.
"Fine. You know Grover, he had to get a few digs in."
Toda came to stand beside Jill. "Everybody, please. Everybody. A salute to Crewman Jill Fairfax, who has received the first medal of valour of many to follow in the DMC." Toda started to beat his fist against his chest. "Fairfax! Fairfax! Fairfax!" Everyone joined in until the room shook with the proud voices of Dark Matter Corps.
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