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Shoulder of the Giant

Shoulder of the Giant

 

 

Jeannie Meekins

 

Text copyright © Jeannie Meekins (2016)

Published by Storm Cloud Publishing (2017)

 

https://www.facebook.com/StormCloudPublishing/?fref=ts

 

ISBN: 978-1-925285-21-5 (Shakespir Edition)

 

 

This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of study, research, criticism, review or as otherwise permitted under the Copyright Act Australia 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Enquiries should be made through the publisher.

 

 

Science fiction – space opera, action adventure

 

 

 

Contents

 

Chapter one

Chapter two

Chapter three

Chapter four

Chapter five

Chapter six

Chapter seven

Chapter eight

Chapter nine

Chapter ten

Chapter eleven

Chapter twelve

 

Author biography

 

Chapter one

The darkness of the night was rapidly disappearing as the eastern sky brightened. It would be a warm, clear day. A kookaburra called through the trees. Another echoed, then a third, repeating their message of the arrival of day.

Oblivious to all but the passing of time, John Madison sat at the desk. His fingers raced over the keyboard, then hesitated as he waited for a reply. His eyes were focused on the screen in front of him. Unlike the kookaburra, his own message was repeated in vain.

The brightening dawn reached through the window beside him until the light globe above his head made no difference. The first rays of sun touched the far wall and spread down it. The screen caught in glare, he tilted it towards him and tapped at the keys again.

“John!”

John was unaware of the voice calling his name. A firm hand on his shoulder made him jump. He lost concentration and spun around in his chair to face his companion. The half risen sun hit him in the face and he squinted, lifting a hand to shade his eyes.

“It’s too late. The sun’s coming up.”

“Just a few more…”

Lucas shook his head. “You can’t read what’s left of the signal you’re getting, and they’re not replying.”

John knew he was right, but hated the thought of giving up. He turned back to the desk, leaning on his elbows, his face in his hands and he sighed deeply. He ran his hands over his head, fingers sliding through short, fair hair and interlocking at the back of his neck, elbows pointing outwards. He leaned back in his chair and stretched.

From beneath long lashes, his brown eyes looked up to Lucas. Being seated didn’t put him at a disadvantage. Standing a few inches short of six foot, he had to look up at most men. His gaze rested on Lucas, who seemed deep in thought.

“Well?”

This time it was Lucas who didn’t hear.

John’s eyes drifted to the movement in the doorway. A tall, dark haired man entered, carrying three steaming mugs. John gratefully accepted one, took a long slurp and sighed.

“Thanks, Mark.”

Mark handed a second mug to Lucas and took a sip from his own, nodding towards the screen. “Anything?”

“Not for the last few hours,” John answered.

“Well?” Lucas repeated, taking a sip and looking at John over the rim of his mug. “I could ask you the same thing.”

Lucas’s statement gave John an opening, and he waited for his response.

“That star is going to collapse into a black hole and take its whole solar system with it. And our government is just going to sit back and let it happen.” John faced Lucas and his anger increased as he continued speaking. “Three populated planets and no one willing to help. Someone should do something!”

“‘Should’ means someone else’s responsibility. You can’t make someone do what they don’t want.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“You will do whatever you have to.”

John thought back to his meeting with Fleet Command the previous day. He had made his presentation confidently, his evidence convincing, his audience attentive. Or so he had thought. Until the statement by Admiral Powers floored him:

“Thank you for your concern, but our best scientists have been looking into this matter for quite a while now. The star will supernova taking the two inner planets. The inhabited planets are quite safe.”

With that he had been dismissed, almost in a state of shock. The meeting had broken up. His commanding officer, Captain Barrett, had caught up with him in the corridor. “I’m sorry, John.”

“For what? Taking their side?” John’s frustration was evident, but he’d managed to keep his voice low. “I’m not wrong, sir. It’s going to happen. Why won’t they help?”

“Officially, we haven’t been asked for help.”

“I have.”

“You accidentally picked up an illegal transmission. It can’t be verified. Their own government even denies it.”

That technicality was irrelevant to John.

“And what about when our sun goes?” John persisted. “Who’s going to help us?” He had left the question unanswered and walked off.

His thoughts returned to the present. “I have to go. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try.”

Lucas smiled to himself. He had never doubted John’s response.

“Will you come? You’ve got the connections.”

“I have some in the area, but not on that world. And you realise they’re not talking either. Take Mark.”

“What?” Two voices sounded in unison.

“You will need him,” Lucas told him.

It was useless to argue with Lucas. John had never won an argument with the man and now wasn’t going to be the first. So it was settled.

John’s mind was already racing ahead. They would need to “borrow” a ship. He would have to find out what was available. And a crew? No problems there. He knew who to ask – who could keep their mouth shut.

Lucas spoke quietly to Mark, making sure John didn’t hear, though John was so deep in his own thoughts that he wouldn’t have heard a bomb exploding. “Be careful, son. Something’s not right.”

“I’ll keep my eye on him.”

 

  • * *

 

Later that day, John and Mark arrived at the Kuiper space station. The trip from Earth had been slow, and uneventful. Mark could sleep anywhere. He had a wonderful self control that John envied. John had tried to rest but his mind was too active.

There were a couple of other uniforms on the trip. John politely acknowledged them from a distance. He had no intention of getting caught up in any form of discussion with any of them in the long queues through Customs. He held back, seeing which queue they joined and deliberately chose a different one.

Once clear, they hit the chaos of general population. Bodies bumped and bustled, chatted and mingled, and darted and weaved about on their way to a myriad of destinations.

John caught Mark’s eye and inclined his head to one side. Mark made the barest of nods and followed. He dropped his hand to grab a handful of jacket at chest level and tugged it down. John’s jacket was at least one size too small, but they’d figured it was the only way to get him away from general population and access to the Fleet Command section of the station.

They ignored the warning signs telling the general public to keep away and John swiped his ID card at the security door.

They entered a lift and dumped their bags on the floor. John pressed the button to go up, hoping the doors would close before anyone else decided to enter. Mark fidgeted with his collar, running his index finger around the inside of it.

“I don’t know how you can stand to wear these uniforms,” he muttered.

“Stop complaining. It looks good on you.”

Mark glared.

Mark stood taller than John. His hair was long enough that it just sat inside his collar – he’d been meaning to get it cut for the past week. He had a good twenty kilograms on John, which meant he didn’t have the same freedom of movement in the jacket. It was partially that and partially his dislike of anything militant that made him so uncomfortable. For now, he had to suffer.

The doors of the lift opened. Amongst the variety of uniforms moving about the foyer, John saw Captain Barrett heading towards him. His eyes widened and he stepped out quickly, cutting across in front of Mark and pushing him back with one arm.

“Trouble,” he mumbled.

Mark’s response was instant as he ducked against the side wall and pushed the button to close the doors. He would get out at the next floor, make his way down the stairs and catch up with John.

“John, how are you?” Barrett smiled as he approached.

“Fine, thank you, sir.” The doors closed with Mark safely inside and John refrained from breathing a sigh of relief.

“I’d have thought you would be enjoying your shore leave.”

A slight dipping of Barrett’s brow and John read the comment more like an order.

“Have you heard what ship you’re on yet?” Barrett continued lightly, reaching past John to press the lift button. “I would have liked you to stay on mine. You know how I detest breaking in new staff. Still a promotion’s a promotion.”

“Yes, sir, and no. I’ve got another week or so before I find out.”

“Then relax. Patience was never one of your great virtues.”

John began to feel uncomfortable. He wanted to get away from the captain without causing suspicion.

“Off the record…” The captain’s voice lowered, piquing John’s curiosity. “I think Powers was wrong to dismiss you like that yesterday. The data looked good or I would never have organised the meeting for you. It has to be worth checking out.”

“Thank you, sir.” John appreciated the captain’s support.

“I wish I could help you.”

The lift doors opened again. John couldn’t help glancing in to make sure Mark wasn’t there. Barrett cleared his throat and stepped in, turning to face outwards. A couple of uniforms brushed past John in their hurry to enter the lift before it closed. Barrett leaned forward and held the ‘door open’ button.

“Thank you, sir,” one acknowledged.

Barrett nodded and released the button. The doors closed.

John sighed and sagged heavily against the wall. That was close; he’d hoped not to run into anyone he knew.

The bustling foyer caught his attention. He quickly pushed off the wall and straightened up, then walked past the lifts to the stairway door. A quick glance up and down the corridor to check that it was clear, and he opened the door. Mark came out, one bag slung over his shoulder and the other by his side.

“He doesn’t suspect anything?”

“No, but he knows me better than anyone here.”

Mark eased the bag from his shoulder and shoved it at John.

“Thanks.” John took it and slung it over his own shoulder.

They continued down the corridor and away from the foyer. The din faded. They passed a couple of uniforms heading the opposite way. John didn’t recognise any of the faces, and they ignored each other with the same candour of passing someone in the street.

They soon reached the room they wanted. Guilt made John glance up and down the corridor before opening the door.

They entered and the door closed behind them.

Two men were seated at the table in the centre of the room. One leant back in his chair with his feet crossed on the table, his attention taken up by the metal disk he was working on. Only his eyes moved to watch John and Mark as they entered. The other man stood up, towering over John. His blonde hair and blue eyes had charmed many people, but his smile was genuine. He offered his hand to John.

“Thank you for coming.” John let his bag fall and shook the blonde man’s hand with both of his. “You know Mark?”

“We’ve met.”

“Good to see you, Sean,” Mark acknowledged Sean’s words.

The seated man rose to greet them, and leaned over the table, offering his hand. “Anthony Delaney. Good to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Mark lowered his bag to the floor and shook the outstretched hand.

John sat down and the others followed.

“So what’s up?” Sean asked. “Why the secrecy?”

John undid his jacket halfway and pulled out some papers, putting them down in front of Sean. Anthony slid his chair around so he could see properly.

“Take a look at these and tell me what you think,” John told them.

Anthony’s hands were still as he glanced over the papers. He instantly recognised the equations. “Mega boom.”

Sean took longer. He was silent as he took the information in fully. Looking deeper into the facts, he realised the consequences.

“No,” he corrected. “Mega black hole.” He lifted his gaze to John, a worrying look on his face. “Where is this?”

“Betelgeuse.”

Sean’s face screwed up a little as he shook his head. “I’ve seen the figures on that. But this…” He frowned as he studied the information. “I haven’t seen this much detail. Where did you get this?”

“Never mind that. Is it correct?” John asked.

“The calculations look right, so as far as I can tell, yes. You should go to Fleet Command.”

“Been there,” John interrupted.

“And?”

“They don’t want to know about it.”

“Bad mistake,” Anthony chipped in.

“Well… what are we supposed to do then?” Sean knew this was a “we” situation. John wouldn’t have asked to see them otherwise.

“Whatever we can.” John gauged their responses. “I’m asking for volunteers.”

“All right!” Anthony’s exuberance broke the seriousness of the meeting. His whole face lit up. “Count me in!”

John eyed Sean cautiously. He was generally the more practical of them. “It’s your choice.”

“You’re thinking something stupid, I can see that.” Sean glanced quickly at the papers in front of him. “What’s your timeframe?”

John shrugged. “Don’t know.”

“I got plenty of leave,” Anthony told them.

“I haven’t.” Sean hesitated then looked at John and grinned widely. “This has got to be the worst decision I’ve ever made, but I’m in.”

John was pleased; he’d hoped for as much. They high fived. Anthony wasn’t going to be left out, though it meant getting out of his chair to do so.

“I can put in an application for extended leave,” Sean said. “If it gets extended, sweet. If not…” he glanced at John and Mark’s bags, “guess we’ll already be gone.”

“So you have everything organised?” Anthony asked as he sat down again. His feet automatically found the tabletop, his eyes and hands back at work.

“Not exactly.”

“There are three inhabited planets,” Mark took over the details. “Three, five and six. There’s a feudal system ruled from the third planet. However their leader disappeared nearly thirty years ago and a dictatorship took over. We have a contact. He has been supplying us with the data you’ve got and asked us for help. Because it’s not an official request to our government, they refuse to acknowledge it.”

“The Betelian government also denies the request,” John added.

“In other words, we’re on our own.” Sean voiced what they all knew. “So, why are we even bothering?”

“That,” John tapped the papers on the table, “is why we’re bothering.”

“Have you got a ship?” Anthony asked.

“We have some to choose from.” John avoided a direct answer.

“Then I’ll pack my bag and meet you in the observation lounge in a half hour.” Anthony stood up and left the room.

John admired him greatly. Anthony was the one who had never fully grown up. There was a lot of boyishness in his manner. He was average height and had the soft, brown hair that usually only belonged to a child. Bright, hazel eyes lit up a face that seemed to take very little seriously, and his vocabulary left a lot to be desired. He was serious when it counted, but since when did work mean one had to stop having fun?

As an engineer, he was brilliant. There was no machine he could not fix, or build, if it came to that, as long as he had the materials. Like a doctor, he carried his own little black bag of tools. Many were made to his own specifications and he was never without them. His only annoying habit was that he was constantly fiddling with something. But his hands never distracted his mind from the situation. He could rewire a communication device and discuss something completely different at the same time.

Sean, on the other hand, was more of a realist. He liked things to be clear cut and straightforward. His skills were varied, covering the general field of science. But it was his reliability and loyalty that made him invaluable. Being tall, of a solid build and handy in a fight was also an advantage.

 

  • * *

 

An hour later, three men stood at the observation lounge window. From there, they could see out over the entire docking area. The terminal spread out beneath them, reaching a quarter of the way to the space doors. Five arms branched off the main walkway. Three had massive ships docked at them, standing silent and waiting. Security patrols prowled the bay; slung rifles at the ready.

The bay itself was quiet; the observation lounge deserted. John knew that would change shortly.

Anthony joined them, dropping his bag at his feet.

“Thought you said half an hour,” John said.

Anthony ignored him. “What have we got?”

John inclined his head towards the bay. “A couple of class one cruisers and a carrier.”

Anthony smiled. “I think somebody would miss one of them.”

“Class two explorer.”

“Preferably not. Could cause a few problems if she’s still got the original engine.”

“Class one explorer. Sturdy, reliable, complete engine overhaul twelve months ago. Ready to go.”

“You seem to know a fair bit about her.”

John paused. “She’s Magellan.”

“Coool!” Anthony’s exuberance startled them all and he received some puzzled looks. “I rebuilt her after you flew her into that asteroid cluster.”

“I did not fly her into an asteroid cluster,” John ground out. “We lost navigation and hit it by accident –”

“Settle down. I didn’t mean it personally. I’m just saying I know the ship as well as you do, and she’ll do the job.”

John didn’t hear him; he had fond memories of Magellan. He had been second in command of her for the past two years and he knew every inch of her. Now, he was being transferred. To a larger, more powerful ship, most likely, considering the recommendation Captain Barrett had given. A promotion he should have been looking forward to. Somehow he wasn’t. He liked the explorer, and the new territories she ventured to. Something about tackling the unknown appealed to him.

“John. Are you all right?”

“Huh?”

Mark’s voice broke into his thoughts and he jumped slightly when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Yes, I’m fine… Have we come to a decision?”

“Magellan,” they answered together.

“Good.”

“So, where is she?” Anthony asked.

“Bay two.”

Anthony nodded. “You have logged a flight plan?”

“Not yet.”

“How much notice do you need to give?”

John shrugged. “I don’t know. We always logged as soon as we got mission orders. But I’ve seen station engineers get almost immediate clearance.”

“Yeah, but that’s test flights for repairs.”

“Are you worried they’ll reject you?” Sean asked.

“Kind of… My transfer’s not through so I don’t know where I officially stand.”

John and Sean looked at Anthony.

He caught their eyes and his brow creased. “Oh, great! You want me to hack the doors.”

There was a few seconds silence before John asked, “Can you?”

Anthony looked at him as though he should know better. “Yes.”

“But only if we don’t get clearance,” John turned back to gaze out the window.

“It’s gonna take time, though,” Anthony continued.

“How long?”

Anthony shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s not something I’m in the habit of doing. But if the doors are already open, I’ll just need to jam them.”

“Yes, but who’s going to open the doors?” Sean asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Anthony replied. “When they open them for Yorktown, the system is already open.”

“And when it’s open, it’s being monitored,” John added.

“You just get that flight plan,” Anthony told John. “I don’t need the trouble.”

“I heard Yorktown’s due in tonight,” Sean looked sideways at John. “Coincidence?”

John shrugged guiltily.

Yorktown was the flagship of the fleet. Capable of almost limitless space travel, she had spent the last eighteen months exploring. Only time was against her. The further she went, the further man realised there was to go.

“What time’s she due?” Sean asked.

“Couple of hours,” Anthony answered.

“And then this place is going to be packed. Anyone who’s anyone is going to be crammed into this lounge to see her,” John told them.

“Are you sure she’s going to fit?” Sean’s gaze wandered back to the bay. “Kirov’s almost hanging over the end of the dock.”

“She was built here.”

“Last of the big ships,” Anthony added. “That’s why they’re building a new station out Andromeda way. Somewhere they can build and home these monsters and not have to rely on Earth.” He frowned. “As long as they don’t decide to dock her outside.”

“I doubt that,” John reasoned. “It’s hard to impress someone looking outside. She’s wanted in here.”

“She’s impressive all right. And it’s been a long time since she’s been home.”

For a few moments, they simply stared out into the bay. John could almost see Anthony’s mind ticking over.

“Magellan should be empty,” John continued quietly. “Sean, I’ll need a line through Yorktown so I can monitor what she’s up to.”

“I can handle the doors from engineering,” Anthony added.

“Anything I can do?” Mark asked.

“Take science and download all the data we’ve collected,” John answered.

“How long’s she been switched off?” Anthony asked.

“A couple of weeks.”

Anthony’s face screwed up slightly. “She’ll need time to warm up.”

“Four minutes?”

“Yeah, that’s the minimum safety for a ship of her type.”

“Wait,” Sean hesitated, turning to Anthony. “We’ve got to sit around for four minutes in dock with the engines running?”

“Pretty much”

Sean rolled his eyes.

Anthony glanced to John. “Another reason why you need to get us that flight plan.”

“Well, we’ve got a few hours to kill,” John checked his watch. “Coffee?”

“Prefer a scotch,” Sean answered.

“Coffee it is.”

John helped himself to the coffee-making facilities and they settled themselves in the comfortable chairs around a table. The observation lounge was quiet – for now.

John’s eyes drifted between his watch and the clock on the wall.

Anthony was relaxed, but John knew his mind was on overdrive. Sean? Yeah, he was glad he hadn’t given him too much time to change his mind. Mark was using his time to study an environment civilians never saw.

A uniform or two began arriving, then small groups. Mainly middle rank officers. John checked his watch again. Still plenty of time. The big boys wouldn’t be here for a while.

“Looks like everyone’s after prime viewing,” Sean noted.

“I suggest we leave,” Mark put his empty mug on the table.

That was probably a good idea. John looked to them for assurance as he reached for his bag. “Let’s go.”

The corridor was empty and they headed directly to the lift. A uniform sprinted from a side corridor, shrugged a bag from his shoulder and squeezed into the lift as the doors were closing. As he turned around, he saw John and the others, and put his hands on the closing doors.

“Going down?” he asked.

“No, we’re fine, thank you,” John answered.

The uniform let go of the doors and they closed.

The lift beside it was going up and they had to wait for it to come back down.

As the lift doors opened, they were confronted by uniforms. Nothing lower than a captain as gold braid and insignias shone in the light.

They stepped clear, dropped their bags and immediately stood at attention, except Mark. A swift elbow in the ribs from John and he followed suit. Anthony shoved his bag behind him with his foot. The officers bustled past them.

“Not coming to watch Yorktown come in?”

Barrett’s voice rocked John and his automatic response surprised himself. “No, sir. I have something else to do.”

Barrett’s eyes scanned each of them briefly before his name was called from the group of uniforms. “Coming, sir,” he replied, a hint of curiosity as his eyes flicked back to John and he moved away.

They sank into the empty lift and closed the doors as the officers disappeared towards the observation lounge. John watched Barrett’s back through the closing gap, hoping like mad the captain didn’t decide to turn back.

Sean broke the silence. “Bay two.”

The lift moved downwards.

The lift stopped; the doors opened directly into the bay. A dozen arms branched off either side of the main walkway. The space doors were almost within reach of the terminal. Depending on how many ships were docked, small ships had the advantage of being able to turn around inside, allowing easier departure.

Magellan was near the front of the bay. The class two explorer sat at the next dock, slightly closer to the doors. Two small frigates and a freighter were docked along the other side of the bay.

Plenty of turning room, John smiled.

A few random uniforms were moving around the frigates and a team of painters were working on the hull of the freighter. The rest of the bay appeared to be quiet.

John hitched his bag on his shoulder and moved towards Magellan.

“Wait.” Mark tapped him on the shoulder and pointed.

John’s gaze turned to follow Mark’s arm. Two armed guards were scouting between the two explorers. A few more were scattered around the bay and a second glance at the frigates told him some of those random uniforms were security guards.

The uniform they’d seen in the lift turned along the dock to the other explorer. As he neared the ship, he was stopped by a guard. He dropped his bag and reached into his jacket pocket, producing something that he handed to the guard. The guard inserted it into a scanner and waited a few seconds.

He withdrew it with a nod and handed it back to the uniform. The uniform pocketed it, reached down for his bag and continued to the ship.

“Damn,” John muttered. “They’re checking IDs.”

Sean frowned. “Why?”

“Guess someone’s on overkill because of Yorktown,” Anthony reasoned.

“Fair enough if we were in the same bay, but…”

“We can’t all tramp on board with bags,” Anthony continued, letting his bag drop. “That’s just way too suspicious looking since it’s not our ship.”

He moved clear of the lift, staying out of sight of the patrols behind some crates. “Dump your stuff here and I’ll pick it up with the transporter later.”

They dropped their bags, shoving them between the crates and the wall. Anthony squatted down and unzipped his bag, reaching around inside it. He pulled out a pouch of folded cloth and tucked it inside his jacket.

“These, I’m taking with me,” he grinned as he stood up.

“Mark, with me,” John instructed. “You two, wait until we’re clear.”

John edged forward and peeped around the crate. The patrolling guards were past Magellan, heading to the far end of the bay. He checked to see where any others were. None were heading in his direction. He cast a quick glance upwards in the general direction of traffic control. They didn’t have the same view as the observation lounge, but all the bays were covered by the myriad of screens.

“Come on,” he whispered.

He refrained from moving his head, but his eyes darted around constantly. Trying not to look guilty or suspicious only made him tense and he envied Mark’s ability to remain relaxed as he walked beside him.

They reached the ship and turned along the dock to the main hatch. The hatch was open, which meant someone was on board. It wasn’t the captain, so John wasn’t worried.

“Problem?” Mark whispered.

“Skeleton staff, probably,” John answered. “They’ll do what I say.”

John felt better when he set foot on the ship and he was out of sight of anyone in the bay. They didn’t come across any crew as they headed to the lift and took it to the bridge.

As the bridge door opened, John saw a uniform sitting at his usual station of navigation. She turned her seat to face the door. He almost stopped in his tracks at the unfamiliar face.

He pointed Mark to the science console and made himself at home in the captain’s chair. Being second in command had given him access to almost every security code on the ship. A few seconds and he’d have himself reinstated. He slipped his ID card into the slot in the right armrest and keyed in the security code clearance, keeping an eye on the uniform.

She sat there facing him, her arms folded in front of her chest, her long legs stretched out and crossed in front of her.

John appeared to ignore her, but took in every detail. His clearance came through. “Good afternoon, computer.”

“Good evening, Commander,” the computer corrected.

Good. The computer accepted him and he had full voice command of the entire ship.

“Manual control at the helm,” he ordered.

“Captain Barrett is not on board,” the computer told him.

“I am aware of that.” His fingers worked at the keypad beside him. As long as the computer recognised him, he didn’t need the captain’s permission to command.

“Manual control at the helm,” was confirmed a few seconds later.

It was comforting to know that the central controls of the ship were at his fingertips. The control panels and keypads built into the arms of the captain’s chair allowed full access to every department.

He glanced across to Mark, who was familiarising himself with the console, then began to draw up a flight plan.

The navigation officer rose to her feet. John’s eyes flicked up momentarily at the movement. She wore the uniform of a lieutenant commander and he realised she was his replacement as second in command of the ship. A complication he hadn’t expected.

She looked him in the eye and closed the distance between them without appearing to take a step. Her dark eyes were hypnotic and her long, brown hair was pulled neatly away from her face. She held his gaze for a second before speaking. Her voice was soft, but authorative.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“You can either do what you’re told or get out of my way!” he ordered her.

Her eyes turned cold, but he stared back defiantly. He was not about to let some replacement upset his plans.

The bridge door opened.

John turned to Sean, who baulked at the sight of the lieutenant commander, and pointed to the communications console.

Sean nodded. He took the console, slipped on a set of earphones and proceeded to tap into the channels.

Mark was busy at his console; data quickly scrolling down the small screen.

The intercom beeped.

“Commander, Lieutenant Delaney here. Ready when you are.”

“Switch on,” John answered. “Silent,” he added as an afterthought.

His eyes locked back on those of his replacement, almost daring her to challenge him. She didn’t, conceding his authority. He knew she’d be trouble.

“Aye, aye,” Anthony answered happily, unaware of what was happening on the bridge, and not particularly caring.

 

  • * *

 

Anthony and Sean had only waited a few minutes. A quick check that there were no patrolling guards before they strolled down the dock and boarded Magellan. Sean headed to the bridge and Anthony made his way to engineering at the rear of the ship. Two cadets immediately stood to attention at his appearance.

“Good evening, guys,” Anthony greeted them.

“Good evening, sir,” they mumbled together.

“You alone?”

“Yes, sir.”

Anthony grinned and headed straight to the main console. He punched in a code and a panel underneath opened. He took his toolkit from inside his jacket and slipped it inside, closing and locking the panel.

He called up a blueprint of the docking bay on the console and focused in on the space doors. The inner doors were to the bay itself. A small airlock between the two sets of doors allowed ships to come and go without having to empty and pressurise the bay itself.

Glancing at the cadets, who stood frozen to the spot waiting for orders, he asked, “You guys ever broken any regulations?”

“No, sir,” they both denied strongly.

“Well, you’re about to. Come here.”

They hesitated, looking to each other with uncertainty.

Anthony sighed. “Don’t make me order you.”

They moved beside him.

“Okay, here,” Anthony pointed to the blueprint. “Trace these lines back until they meet and let me know where it is.” He moved to the next console and called John on the intercom. The bridge seemed to be under control and he was given permission to continue.

He checked his watch. Timing was going to be crucial, and he hoped John was getting that flight plan approved.

He switched on the reactor core and waited for it to warm up before turning on the engines. They came to life with a gentle purr, which disappeared as Anthony set the silent running mode. Station security would be aware of the moment the core was turned on. From that second onwards, they could expect trouble. Hopefully, everyone’s attention was on Yorktown.

“Sir, these are the space doors,” one cadet announced.

“I know that,” Anthony answered.

 

  • * *

 

On the bridge, John had felt the slight vibrations as the engines came on. So too had the lieutenant commander. It really wasn’t the done thing to switch on before a flight plan was approved – unless engine tests were underway – but Anthony needed those four minutes.

The intercom came to life. Sean immediately blocked every department except engineering.

“Main screen on,” John told the computer.

The main viewing screen switched on, showing the bay area in front of the ship, the scaffolding of the terminal, and the wall.

“Traffic control,” Sean advised.

As John turned to answer, Sean tossed him an earphone. He caught it, fitting the receiver into his ear and plugging into a socket in the chair.

“Traffic control, this is Magellan, logging flight plan.”

“Traffic control to Magellan,” the voice came through John’s earphone. “Receiving flight plan.”

There was a moment’s hesitation before traffic control continued. “This is for immediate departure.”

“Yes.”

“On whose authority?”

“Commander Madison.”

“Sir, I can’t give approval for an immediate departure.”

“Then get me someone who can.”

The lieutenant commander still held his gaze.

“I have my orders,” he snapped at her, glad she couldn’t hear the conversation with traffic control. “If you have any objections, we can discuss them later!”

“Sir,” she answered evenly, resuming her seat at navigation.

John waited, listening for traffic control.

When the intercom had activated, he knew the lieutenant commander wasn’t the only person on board. He quickly brought up the crew figures on the display beside him. Fifteen in total. Taking out the four of them on the bridge and Anthony in engineering, there were another ten. The computer identified five of them. That meant the rest weren’t Magellan’s crew and their identities needed more checking out. Later… He had more important things to concentrate on.

“Commander Madison, this is Major Grigson at traffic control,” a different voice came through the earphone. “What are you doing down there?”

“Logging a flight plan, sir.”

“Our system indicates you have no authority on that ship… You want to try another answer?”

John bit his bottom lip as the hairs on the back of his neck prickled.

“Switch off and stand down, Commander.”

“Yorktown?” he mouthed to Sean.

Sean nodded.

“Sorry,” John whispered as he switched off traffic control.

The new voices came through clear as Sean switched to the line between traffic control and Yorktown as she made her approach to the station.

“Mister Delaney –” John began.

“I heard,” Anthony growled, a clear indication to John that he’d heard the conversation with traffic control.

“Welcome home, Yorktown.” The traffic controller’s voice came through John’s earphone.

John moved from the chair to the helm, taking the earphone with him and plugging it into the new console as he sat down. He brought up the opening space doors on the main screen. The flagship was slowly being revealed as she neared the dock.

John heard the lieutenant commander’s sharp intake of breath. He glanced at the ship, distracted momentarily by her grace and majesty, before he shook himself back to the job at hand. He switched the view back to the bay.

Magellan rose slowly, floating.

The main intercom barked. “Magellan, this is traffic –”

John’s hand shot out and shut the link off.

Magellan turned and glided towards the bay exit. Into the airlock; the door remained open behind her.

“Mister Delaney –”

“I know. Give me a minute…. Geez…”

John felt the lieutenant commander’s eyes, but refused to acknowledge her.

The airlock door began to close. A second later, the main doors began to open. Slowly. Way too slowly for John, who hated to think what was going on in the bay itself. Visions of a hundred armed security personnel flooding into the bay were shoved from his thoughts.

Then the doors locked halfway.

Anthony’s incoherent words indicated it was not his doing. John knew someone was trying to override his hack. If they succeeded, the doors would close. He calculated; his head turning at a slight angle. The gap was big enough – barely.

Mark’s gaze went from John to the main screen and back again with a slight frown.

“Retros online?” John asked.

“Yes,” Anthony answered.

John engaged the retro boosters, banked the ship slightly, and sped out the half open doors.

They were moving too fast for the station’s tractor beam to lock on, but that didn’t mean someone wouldn’t try.

There was also a chance they would be followed, but no ships were ready to do so. Yorktown didn’t even have time to back out and give chase. The continuing voices over the earphones indicated she was none the wiser, and that brought a smile to John’s face.

Once they hit light speed, Magellan was going to be extremely hard to track.

They cleared the station’s perimeter. John reached across to navigation and scanned ahead. Nothing but clear space.

He hit light speed. Nearby stars shot past as streaks of light. Distant stars remained blurred specks in a sea of black.

John pulled the earphone out and dropped it to the console. He switched helm control back to automatic and let the computer fly. Leaning back, he sighed. As his body relaxed, he realised how tense he had become.

“Where are we going?” asked the lieutenant commander.

“Plot a course for the Alpha Orion system.” He stood up, unplugging the earphone and tossing it back to Sean. “Can we get a channel open?”

“Yes, sir.”

The bridge door opened. John turned to see three men in the doorway. One he recognised.

“Easy, guys,” he put a hand up to settle his companions, his questioning eyes locked on John.

John looked past him to the other two. He didn’t recognise either of them, but did note the bridge officers’ uniforms.

“Communications, Mister Gillespie,” John spoke quietly.

“Yes, sir,” Gillespie nodded acknowledgement and moved to the console where Sean was. “I’ll take it.”

Sean looked up at Gillespie. “What?”

“I’ll take the console,” Gillespie repeated.

Sean turned his head slightly to John for conformation. John lifted a hand and waved him over.

“Sort out those two,” John inclined his head to the bridge doorway.

Sean’s eyes followed.

“Check on Anthony. Then get settled and familiarise.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sean headed to the doorway. Both men watched him cautiously.

“Gentlemen, if you’ll come with me…” Sean eased his arms out to either side and guided them back the way they’d come. “You, too.”

John turned at the mention of another, recognising the young Magellan officer Sean was blocking from the bridge.

“Let him through,” John instructed.

Sean obeyed, stepping past and bundling the other two away.

A bewildered expression covered the officer’s face when he saw John, and his mouth opened.

John shook his head, effectively cutting off any questions the young man might have had. “Science, Mister Randall.”

“Yes, sir,” Randall acknowledged, obeying immediately. “Anything I need to know, sir?” he asked Mark.

“No.”

As Mark stood up he caught John’s eye. John inclined his head towards the door and Mark nodded. He’d need a lot more time than Sean and Anthony to familiarise himself with the ship.

Even with her back to him, John could see the lieutenant commander’s attention following.

 

  • * *

 

The bridge remained quiet. John easily fell back into his familiar routine, though it was from the captain’s chair and not his usual position at navigation.

Nearly an hour passed and nothing changed. John shifted in his seat. He caught Randall’s attention, lifted a finger and beckoned him.

Randall glanced back at his console; a final check that everything was still normal before obeying.

“Lieutenant Commander, the bridge is yours,” John rose to his feet. “If you need me, I’ll be in the captain’s office.”

“Yes, sir,” she acknowledged.

Almost as an afterthought, he turned back. “Do you have a name?”

“McReidy, sir.”

“McReidy,” he muttered to himself.

John headed to the office. Randall followed. The door closed behind them.

“Have a seat,” John indicated a chair while he settled himself in the comfortable chair behind the desk. The leather creaked softly.

“Thank you, sir,” Randall dragged up a chair and sat down.

John sighed. “What are you doing here?” he asked, a hint of regret in his voice.

“Babysitting,” Randall grumbled.

“Yeah, I see there’s a couple of cadets around.”

“Not my idea of fun.”

“Not anyone’s idea of fun… They any good?”

“Only been here two days, sir. Carter wants to be spoon fed. Kowalski seems to know a bit. Seems to keep it to himself though.”

John nodded thoughtfully, then asked, “What do you know about the lieutenant commander?”

“Nothing. She logged in last night and…” he shrugged. “That’s about it. I don’t even know where she came from.”

“You better get back out there.”

“Sir, if I may ask…?”

“What am I doing back here?” John guessed.

Randall nodded.

“Just obey orders.”

“Yes, sir,” Randall answered formally.

Though the conversation had taken on an informal tone, John wasn’t revealing anything to the young bridge officer. And it was Randall who had ended the conversation with a return to formality.

With Randall gone, John punched up the crew figures. McReidy, Gillespie, Randall, a botanist and a couple of cadets freshly assigned to the ship. It was the others he was interested in. Unknown and in the company of Gillespie, they were gambling – an illegal pastime on the station, but obviously unnoticed on board a docked ship. And he had lost track of the number of times he had caught the supply officer doing so.

He hesitated. The computer was bringing up twelve crew. Weren’t there fifteen before? He double checked – twelve. That still didn’t seem right.

“Computer, what were the original crew figures I asked for?”

“Fifteen,” the computer answered.

“Why are you only showing twelve?”

“Three are no longer on board.”

“What?” John was at a loss. “Why?”

“They were transported off before we left the station.”

It took him a moment. Anthony. For whatever reason, he’d ask him later.

“Can you identify the two remaining unknowns?”

The computer searched. “Affirmative.”

John hadn’t actually planned on any crew being on the ship, but he soon realised he needed crew to run her. Having a few around was kind of handy.

While the computer didn’t have access to the full personnel files of the men, it did bring up a few lines of basic information along with a picture. A navigator and a geologist. Not too bad.

The cadets were assigned to the ship and their files were more detailed. Both engineering cadets set for a three month placement.

That left only the lieutenant commander. He’d deliberately left her until last. He brought up her file, leaving it unopened as he leaned back in the chair. Her picture and basic information stared back at him.

She’d be trouble; he was convinced of that. He had nothing to base his opinion on apart from the brief interaction on the bridge, and she’d ceded to his authority. Still…

He reached out, tapping the key with his forefinger, opening her file.

A few minutes later, he closed the file, and his eyes.

His feet rested on the desk, his head at the same height, his body almost horizontal. His arms rested on the chair, his fingertips touching over his chest, and he let his mind wander. Here, in this soundproof room, he was isolated from the entire ship, unless he chose otherwise. For a minute, he was silent, motionless, then he spoke.

“Computer, open a personal log… This is Commander John Madison. I have taken control of space explorer Magellan and am heading for the Alpha Orion system. I dispute the conclusions of the Fleet Command scientists and will do whatever must be done to save the people of these worlds. I take full responsibility for my actions and for those of the crew and anyone else on board –”

The door beeped, interrupting him.

“Computer, stop.” He flicked on the intercom. “Yes?”

“It’s Mark.”

“Come in.”

Mark stepped just inside the doorway, letting the door close behind him. “Meditating?”

“No… Trying to explain myself.” John’s feet came down and his body tilted upright.

“As long as you believe in yourself, you will make the right decisions.”

“There is always doubt.”

“In the world around you, yes. But not inside.”

“So the right decision is to ignore everyone else and throw away my entire career on some crazy attempt to save the lives of people I know nothing about?”

“For you, yes.”

“You sound more like your father every day.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” John changed the subject. “Have we heard anything from our contact?”

“Not yet.”

“You’re finding your way around the ship?”

“It’s a bit different. Sean’s helping, but I tell you, if I leave the bridge again, I’ll get lost.”

“Ask Sean for a blueprint. It’ll show you where everything is. You’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.”

“I’ll leave you to it.”

Left alone, John continued with his log. This was his own record of his thoughts and actions, including a crew manifest of those on board.

He sipped at a mug of coffee he had ordered from the computer’s menu and remembered with distaste that the computer didn’t know how to make a decent coffee. With all its technologies and capabilities, it had never managed to mix the right ingredients the right way to match his taste. It was drinkable and he had gotten used to it, but that was all he could say for it.

“Another job for Anthony,” he muttered to himself.

 

Back to top

 

Chapter two

 

By the end of what would have been a normal shift, John had retreated to the office again. The desk, console and wall screen were covered with star charts. There was nothing new. He had seen them hundreds of times. The star’s current state was displayed on the wall screen and he’d drawn it on the paper chart spread across the desk in front of him.

He leaned over the chart, straight arms planted on the desk supporting his weight.

The door beeped.

“Yes,” he called out.

“Sir?” Sean’s respectful voice answered.

“Come in.”

John kept staring at the chart as the door opened, then closed. When he looked up, he saw Sean had Anthony and Mark with him. He lifted one hand and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Any luck?” Anthony asked, dragging up a chair.

John shook his head.

“They’re going to be asking for overtime,” Sean nodded back towards the bridge.

John frowned, then looked at his watch. “Damn.”

He straightened up, pushing off the desk. His elbows and shoulders creaked and tingled as they unlocked.

“Can you tell Steve to stay and let the others go?”

“Steve?” Sean asked.

“Gillespie.”

Sean dismissed the crew, Mark dragged up another couple of chairs and Anthony kicked his boots up onto the desk.

“Get yourselves settled?” John asked.

“Yep,” Anthony answered.

Sean glared at Anthony.

John looked from one to the other. “What?”

“Someone didn’t get our bags.”

Anthony glared back. “I was busy.”

“I haven’t even got a change of uniform,” Sean grumbled, dropping into a chair.

“Coffee?” John suggested.

“We going to be here that long?” Anthony asked.

“Guess we could always go back to…” John’s eyes narrowed slightly and he muttered under his breath.

Sean grinned. “You haven’t got any quarters, have you?”

“I wasn’t planning on getting replaced that quickly. Randall said she logged in last night, so she’s probably already taken over my quarters. Guess I’ll have to take the captain’s.”

The three of them looked at him with disdain.

“You think I’m going to let a lieutenant commander have better quarters than me? I’ve got to maintain some sense of order.”

“Perhaps.” Mark folded his hands in front of him and rested his eyes on John. “How many people are you going to tell?”

“Just us.”

“You think that’s a good idea?”

“I’ve lost track of the number of times Barrett has left me in the dark.” John moved to the small alcove in the wall and punched in an order for four coffees.

“Computer coffee?” Sean cringed.

“Unless you want to go down to the galley and make it.”

“Next time… Thanks.” He took the coffee John offered him.

“Speaking of which…” John held out a mug for Anthony, not letting go until Anthony had made eye contact.

“What…? No!” Anthony snatched the mug, careful not to spill it. “I am not wasting my time on a machine that… A… cannot be fixed and… B…we’re not even going to be here long enough to make it worthwhile.”

“Can’t?” Sean queried with a smile.

“It’s a software problem,” Anthony threw back. “Not my field.” He took a sip, regretting it instantly. “Ohhh, someone should shoot those software programmers.”

“An experience for you, Mark.” John offered the third mug, then settled in the chair behind the desk with his own mug.

Mark sipped and pursed his lips. “I’ve had worse.”

“Okay, let’s get down to business.” John’s tone turned serious. “On the plus side, we have no one chasing us and we’re not being tracked. We have a handful of crew, including a navigator from Sheridan, so he should have been around the block a few times.”

He stopped for a slurp of coffee.

“On the down side, we have a couple of cadets fresh from the academy and a first officer who’s spent the last twelve months doing the mail run between Earth and the Vega sector. I don’t even know how she got a commission on this ship.”

“That why you left Gillespie and not her on the bridge?” Sean asked.

“Him, I trust. And Randall. They’ll do what I say without question. Botanist is also from Magellan. She was in hydroponics when we left.” He looked up at Anthony. “What happened to some of the personnel on board? The computer said three were transported off.”

“Yeah, surprise that. Security. As soon as I turned the engines on, they called flight deck and asked what was happening. I locked onto them and transported them off.”

“Unharmed, I hope.”

“I don’t know about that,” Anthony grinned. “I put them in the ladies’ room on level three.”

John couldn’t help smiling. “What about the other two? I see they’re still around.”

“Left them. I had doors to hack because somebody didn’t get a flight plan cleared.”

John cleared his throat and stared at his coffee for a moment.

“Which is also why I didn’t have time to get the bags,” he threw Sean a sideways look before returning his attention to John. “Anyway, I thought you might find them useful. Didn’t know we had a nav, so that’s a bonus.”

“And some cadets for you to play with.”

“If they don’t break anything, I’ll be happy.”

“What about the star?” Mark asked.

“Nothing,” John shook his head. “I asked for an update on the data and that,” he pointed to the wall screen, “is what it currently looks like.”

They all turned to look.

“It’s in scale with the planets.”

Anthony was the first to turn back, his mind instantly grasping the full concept. “What about your contact?”

“Nothing.”

“I got that. What I mean is, who’s our contact?”

John squirmed a little, shrinking back into the chair. “Well… we don’t really know. We got a name but…”

“Physicist?” Anthony pushed. “Government official…? Bus driver…?”

“We can’t find him in the database,” John confessed.

“Oh, great.” Anthony lifted a hand and let it fall down onto his thigh.

“You’ve seen the data.”

“I know I’ve seen the data,” Anthony’s voice began to rise. “And it’s not from a bus driver!”

Anthony let out a long sigh, sliding his hand through his hair and balling it into a fist at the back of his head.

“Geez, man. You dragged us out here, and we don’t even know what we’re walking into.”

“No wonder Command wouldn’t listen to you,” Sean added. “You can’t even verify your source.”

“The data verifies the source.”

“And yet you’ve heard nothing.”

John’s eyes fell on Mark, who was sipping his coffee and listening.

“I picked up the first message when I was mucking around with Laura one night,” John continued. “She was supposed to be studying for finals with Kaitlyn –”

Sean rolled his eyes.

“Exactly.” John didn’t need to explain. “We rolled the frequencies and hit this one and picked up this weird message. It didn’t seem right, so I punched the calculations into the computer and…”

He raised an arm, indicating the wall screen.

“I went to Barrett and he said I’d probably misinterpreted and shouldn’t be eavesdropping. So I went to Mark, ’cos I know his father’s got some connections in the area. Just kept hitting brick walls until we got another message and then started communicating. I didn’t approach Command until I had as much information as possible and the data was irrefutable.”

“Our contact’s name is Moloch,” Mark picked up the story. “No professor, governor, general…” he turned to Anthony, “bus driver…”

Anthony smiled and tipped his head in acknowledgement.

“How come you never joined the service?” Sean asked Mark.

“I don’t like being told what to do by idiots who can’t see past their own egos.”

“And we’re going to a world with a military dictatorship,” Anthony added. “Awesome!”

“Mark’s a… people person,” John decided.

The comment drew a doubtful look from Mark.

“So…” John finished his coffee and put his mug on the edge of the desk. “They know we’re coming. We can’t do anything until we get there. Guess they’ll contact us. Anything else?”

They all shook their heads.

“Anyone want a spot on the bridge for a while? I’m tired.” The day had well and truly caught up with John.

“I’ll stay for a bit,” Anthony offered. “I don’t get to see this end of a ship much.”

“Thanks,” John stood up.

The others took it as a sign to leave, and got to their feet. Mark and Sean headed off. John lingered with Anthony in the office doorway.

“Am I wrong?” John asked.

Anthony shook his head. “I went right through that data today. It’s gonna collapse. It’s just a matter of when.”

It felt good to have Anthony’s confirmation. “I’ll get the navigator up here to give you a hand. Pilson, I think his name is. If you hit any problems, yell out.”

“Nice class of ship, these explorers.”

John nodded tiredly. “Yep.”

Anthony began to explore the bridge while John called the navigator. As he switched the intercom off, he caught Gillespie’s eye.

Gillespie was curious – they all would be – but he would obey. And he’d keep his mouth shut if anyone questioned him. They both knew full well that anyone who was not part of the crew was not required to do anything. That was only going to make it a long, boring trip for them and he figured they’d rather be doing something.

“Can you set up a duty roster?” John asked Gillespie.

“For how long?”

“Until I say otherwise.”

“You want to tell me what’s going on?”

“No.”

Gillespie nodded. “All right then.”

 

  • * *

 

The captain’s quarters felt strange. They weren’t luxurious. They weren’t much bigger than John’s had been, but there was something that breached every form of trust John had known.

Sleep, he decided, was pretty much the only thing he’d do in here.

Coffee didn’t suffice when it came to dinner, but he was too tired and too worked up to do much about it. And he certainly didn’t want any company. As he tucked into a pasta – which the computer could actually produce decently – he hoped Anthony wouldn’t call him.

 

  • * *

 

Anthony spent his time studying the bridge. He pulled panels off consoles and studied wiring, circuits and other accessories.

“Something you’re looking for?” Gillespie asked.

“Nope,” Anthony answered, his head buried beneath a console. “Just having a look around.”

He suddenly pushed out and sat up, looking at Gillespie from the floor.

“You know your way around the bridge?”

“Pretty much.”

“So… something goes wrong, you can fix it?”

Gillespie screwed his face up slightly. “Pretty much… depending on what it is.”

“Specialty?”

“You want it, I can get it.”

Anthony grinned. He got to his feet, offering his hand. “Anthony.”

“Steve.” Gillespie met him halfway, shaking the offered hand. “Engineer?”

“Yep.”

“Never met a good one who didn’t want to know how everything worked.”

“Josh Pilson,” the navigator waved in acknowledgement, remaining in his seat. “I fly and tell people where to go.”

“He’s good at that second bit,” Gillespie admitted.

“And you owe me on that last hand.”

“We didn’t finish it.”

“You folded.”

“Work.”

“You folded,” Pilson smirked.

“All right,” Gillespie gave up. “I owe you.”

 

  • * *

 

Mark was more worried than he let on. It had never actually occurred to him that Moloch didn’t have a title. What if he were a nut job looking for attention? That question answered itself; the data was irrefutable. Just because those in authority didn’t wish to acknowledge it, didn’t make it wrong.

Something was wrong. Something had to be wrong. A message on a random frequency picked up by accident. No formal request. No proper recognised channels, contacts or approach. Yes, his father had a few contacts. But they had all thrown back an official, “We know nothing,” a couple of unofficial, “Yes, we know,” and one very firm, “Stay out of it.”

Telling John to stay out of it was just asking the opposite. Especially when he’d been smacked over the head by his own authorities. The sticking point was that no one had ever said the calculations were wrong.

“People person?” Mark snorted in disgust.

No, he simply saw through the agendas of others. Sometimes that agenda was simply to maintain the status quo.

John cared. That’s what made him a good officer and, in Mark’s opinion, a good man. He also had a temper that he couldn’t quite keep in check. When his emotions got involved, his brain could be a step or two behind.

Apart from the adventure – which he was looking forward to – and the opportunity civilians rarely got, Mark was just as curious to get down to the bottom of it as everyone else.

He didn’t see McReidy as a problem and he couldn’t quite see why John did. As a lower ranking officer, she should just obey his orders. Like everyone else would.

Mark knew he’d be the biggest culprit in giving that ruse away. He wasn’t in the habit of calling anyone “sir” for no reason. John’s jacket gave him authority in a society that valued it. Its comfortable style still didn’t make up for the fact that it was at least a size too small – and was annoying him. He undid it, pulled it off and tossed it over a nearby chair. He shook himself metaphorically free of it.

Yes, Sean was right about a change of clothes. Ahh… for a casual shirt and pair of jeans.

 

  • * *

 

Sean brooded silently. Kaitlyn! That sister of his was obviously up to no good. Especially when she got together with Laura. At least there hadn’t been the need for big brother duty. But it made him miss her – and the others. Guess that’s what you got with a broodful of sisters. He’d make time and catch up with them all when he got back.

If he got back.

Idiot John. Half baked plans went out in their school days. Growing up meant you did your research and… And he really should have through this through more. There was no guarantee he’d get his leave extended and he could be in a whole lot of trouble when he did get back.

But Anthony agreed. And Mark… well he was just scary in some of the things he knew. Sean was convinced he could read minds. And not just that old magician’s trick of watching body language and tricking you into saying something that would give you away.

Mark was smart and calculated, and Sean had never seen anything faze him.

 

  • * *

 

The days rolled into each other. The crew did as they were told and the cadets didn’t break anything. The botanist was concerned about the date she’d missed and wanted to contact the unfortunate man to explain. John said no. The ship was on communications blackout. Nothing was coming in and nothing was going out.

Occasionally, John tapped the line to Earth – just to see if there was anything about them running through the networks. Anthony told him not to. If anyone picked up the tap, they could trace it and find out where they were. The last thing they needed was to have Yorktown or Kirov waiting for them at the edge of Betelian space.

The line to their Betelian contact was permanently open. It remained silent.

That worried John in more than one way. No response in their mercy flight. But no updates on the star. Every evening, he spent time in the office, asking the computer to update. With repeated instructions that there was no new data to update with and any results would only be an estimate based on previous information, the computer was sounding more like a broken record.

Gillespie wrote up a duty roster but John found he had to change it. Regardless of what uniform he wore, Mark could not be left in charge of the ship. It was like giving a car to an unlicensed teenager.

John made the changes and handed the roster back to Gillespie, who glanced at it and didn’t even bat an eyelid. As though he’d expected it.

McReidy was the one John worried about. She outranked everyone bar him and he didn’t trust her. He could say that he didn’t know her well enough to trust her. But he didn’t know Pilson or Lakers either, yet he trusted them to obey him.

Realistically, he couldn’t have anyone else in charge if she was on the bridge. On one level, Mark could handle her. On another level, she’d take five minutes to figure out that he was not an equivalent officer and his knowledge was on a par with the cadets.

John found that he was on duty whenever she was. Either on the bridge or in the office with the intercom constantly open so he knew exactly what was going on in his absence.

She did nothing wrong. She was polite and respectful and if she hadn’t had a natural curiosity, she wouldn’t have been suited to an explorer.

Sean wanted to trust her and let her in to what was going on. He broached the subject a couple of times. John firmly refused.

 

  • * *

 

Anthony amused himself with the entire ship. He took the cadets under his wing, much to the relief of Randall.

Kowalski was quiet. He seemed to have a natural aptitude for machinery and he was willing to learn. Carter seemed more overwhelmed, answering a lot of requests with “Huh?” or, “It looks different from what we learned in classes.”

Anthony turned to Kowalski. “How do you put up with him in class?”

Kowalski shrugged and muttered something quietly unintelligible.

There wasn’t anything that needed to be done in engineering but Anthony was happiest when he was busy. He brought up the schematics of the ship. He worked his way through them and then went scouting through the ship. He considered the coffee making facilities but he’d told John he wasn’t going to touch it – though he did nearly change his mind at one point.

He immediately sent Kowalski to the galley to make a decent drink.

Every few days, he’d have a catch up meeting with John and the others. With nothing new to report, it ended up more of a social affair. And every evening he’d call John for an update. To the point where John answered his call with, “Don’t even bother asking.”

 

John’s increasing frustrations were kept in check by having a few sane heads around him. They could do nothing without contact and they could do nothing until they got there. One usually outweighed the other, but there was always that missing, “What if…?”

 

  • * *

 

“Are you going to tell McReidy?” Sean asked one evening as he relaxed into an office chair and sipped his coffee.

“No,” John answered without hesitation.

“Why not? We’ll be there day after tomorrow.”

“Because it’s none of her business.” He eyed Sean over the rim of his mug as he took a drink.

“You made it her business when you left her on the ship,” Anthony told him.

He turned to glare at Anthony. “I didn’t leave her on the ship.”

“You didn’t tell me to get rid of her,” Anthony claimed in his own defence.

“She’s a bridge officer,” Sean continued.

“I don’t care.”

“She’s your replacement.”

Silence filled the office.

“Ah, that you do care about,” Sean grinned. “You haven’t even received your new placement yet, and she’s already got your position.”

Mark remained deliberately silent, but there was a hint of amusement in his demeanour.

John’s eyes narrowed as he glanced at all three of them. “Star?” he ground out. “Going to blow up. In case any of you had forgotten.”

Three long slurps of coffee filled the silence.

“What if they don’t contact us by the time we get there?” Anthony asked.

“They have to.” John was glad to get back to the subject at hand. “They asked for help. We told them we were coming.”

“And we do what?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. They do.”

“You sure?”

John looked at Anthony. His own doubts were reflected in the engineer’s eyes. “They have to.”

John looked to Mark. Mark’s expression showed very little

“You can’t keep McReidy in the dark,” Sean continued. “Not forever.”

John sighed. “We’ll see how it plays out.”

 

  • * *

 

The intercom beeped and startled John. His head lifted from his arms, folded on the desk in front of him. Another night waiting for a message that hadn’t come. Bleary eyes registered very little. One hand reached out, fumbling for the intercom and he flicked it on. “Yes?”

“Commander, approaching Alpha Orion system,” McReidy informed him.

Her voice registered and he shook himself awake. He forced his voice to sound normal. “Put us in orbit around the third planet.”

“Confirmed.”

Sitting upright, John felt the stiffness in his body. Falling asleep at the desk was a bad idea – even though it wasn’t planned. He had spent a fair bit of time in the office during the trip. Several fruitless discussions had been propped up by coffee and the innate feeling that something was drastically wrong. They’d had no contact and were no closer to finding a solution to the star.

He felt the coffee mug. It was cold and he guessed he had slept for a few hours. Stretching his back and wriggling his shoulders soon had his circulation back to normal. A shower would have been nice, but that was going to have to wait. He dragged himself to his feet, straightened his jacket and raked a hand through his hair. He rubbed tired eyes and went back to the bridge, throwing off all sense of tiredness.

McReidy was at the helm. He still had no idea what he was going to do with her. He could ask himself a hundred times what she was doing here, but it didn’t change the fact that she was here.

“Sean, Mark, take readings from the sun,” John ordered, taking the captain’s chair.

“We started as soon as we came within range,” Sean answered.

John looked hopefully to Mark, asking a silent question. Mark shook his head, confirming that nothing had come in while he’d been asleep.

“Open all channels,” John continued. “Let’s see what sort of a response we get.”

McReidy turned her seat to face him. “Sir, permission to speak.”

“Granted.” John caught the smirk from Sean. He was surprised she had managed to keep quiet for so long. He’d come clean if he had to, but if he could bluff her, he certainly would.

“In private.”

“In my office.” John stood up. “Mister Daniels, the bridge is yours.”

Bluffing might be a little difficult without the moral support of Sean and Mark and the comfort of the bridge. He’d have nowhere to look. No way to avoid those eyes that he had already found could cut through him. Nothing to distract him.

McReidy followed him into the captain’s office. She spoke as soon as the door was closed. “I want to know what’s going on!” she demanded.

Caught off guard by her blatant approach, John was defensive. “What do you mean?”

She eyeballed him and he could tell she was in no mood to be trifled with.

“I mean you and those two out there.” She waved an arm behind her, indicating the bridge. “And that one you’ve got down in engineering. First, you’re transferred off this ship. Then you come charging in here, steal out of dock like a thief and head off on some secret rendezvous. And I’m pretty sure that flight plan you logged didn’t get accepted because you cut traffic control off way too quickly.”

“We’ve had no recall.”

“We’re on communications blackout! We’ve got a handful of crew, some of who are not even from this ship, and a couple of cadets.”

She paused for a second to catch her breath, watching him for a reaction.

He gave none.

She glared briefly. “So, are you going to tell me what’s going on or do I have to find out the hard way?”

He took a breath, making her wait longer. “You’re kind of insistent to a superior officer, aren’t you? Do you always question authority like that?”

She looked like she wanted to hit him.

“With respect, sir, I’m beginning to wonder if I have more authority on this ship than you.”

“Check regulations,” he threw back at her. “You don’t.”

He didn’t know why he let her speak to him like that. If she were a man, he wouldn’t. He’d never had to deal with a woman who was almost the same rank as him. Not with any authorative form. And definitely not when he was so clearly in the wrong. Sure, there’d been women… girls… at the academy and they were all on a par as far as rank and authority went. But that was school, and this was the real world.

“Have you been talking to Sean?”

“Lieutenant Daniels?” she queried.

He nodded.

“No. Why?”

“Never mind.”

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” she asked again, this time more respectful.

John gave in. McReidy had done her homework as any good officer would – male or female. She was right about the flight plan, though that could have been a guess, and if she did decide to defy him and try to contact Earth…? He figured he would rather have her on side than against him.

He sat on the corner of his desk. She stood where she was; dark eyes fixed on his. She was in the right, which was what allowed her to assert herself. But there was also curiosity and a touch of naivety.

“Betelgeuse is dying,” he began.

“Everyone knows that,” she interrupted.

“But she’s going a lot quicker than first thought –”

“Is that what we’re doing? Studying the supernova?”

“If you’ll stop interrupting, I might be able to tell you.” His voice was firm and she was silent. He took a breath. “It’s not going to supernova. The collapse is total. It’s going to become one of the biggest black holes we’ve seen and wipe out the entire system. We’re here to help… in whatever way we can.”

Her eyes clouded and her brow creased. The enormity of the situation was beginning to sink in and her voice was calmer. “But this ship’s not big enough to evacuate entire planets.”

Magellan was an explorer. Packed to overflowing, she could only take hundreds, not millions.

“That’s not our intention.”

“But…” she frowned, her thoughts jumbling into words. “Fleet wouldn’t send… There’d be scientists and… And you didn’t…”

The intercom beeped. John reached behind him and flicked it on. “Yes.”

“Sir, a Colonel Trair, representing the emperor, wishes to know our intentions,” Sean answered.

John’s eyes lit up. “Coming.” He flicked the intercom off. His voice softened as he spoke to McReidy. “For the moment, we play it by ear. Just do your job.”

She hesitated, taking it all in, then nodded. “Yes, sir.”

He slipped off the desk and past her to the door.

She turned, taking a couple of giant strides to catch up. “Yes, sir,” she reaffirmed as he showed her out.

“Put the colonel on screen,” he ordered as he resumed the captain’s chair.

The image of Trair appeared on the main screen in front of them. He was almost reptilian in looks with a flat, lizard-shaped head. His nose and jaw protruded from beneath large, dark eyes. Two nostrils on the front of his nose were flat. His skin had a scaly pattern. A short, thick neck disappeared beneath a uniform that looked more like armour plating, decorated with jewels of different colours. His massive shoulders were the only other part of him visible.

McReidy gasped, then dropped into her seat. Sean gulped. Mark closed his eyes and focused his concentration on the screen. John’s hands tightened on the arms of the chair, then relaxed as soon as he became aware of his tension. None of them had come across Betelians before and this one’s appearance was intimidating.

Communication was one thing, John realised. And pictures only half told the story. The image of Trair filling most of the main screen in front of them gave those pictures reality.

“I am Trair.” The Betelian’s deep voice had a slight hiss to it and was not altogether friendly. “Who are you and what do you want?”

“John Madison, captain of the Earth ship Magellan.” John spoke with calm confidence. “We received a call for assistance.”

“We need no assistance from you.”

“May we come down and discuss the matter with you?”

“No, you may not.” Trair was civil but definitely not friendly. His stare moved from John to something off screen, then flashed back. “One moment.”

The picture disappeared. John turned to Sean. His eyes widened a fraction and one brow lifted.

“Not me,” Sean shrugged. “They’ve turned off.”

An inquiring glance to Mark produced more information.

Mark’s eyes opened, almost as if he were unaware of John’s eyes on him. “He is unsure, quite wary of us, but he is not alone. We may have to talk our way in.”

McReidy cast a curious eye towards Mark.

“Suggestions?” John asked.

The bridge fell silent. John looked to Sean and Mark but neither one was willing to offer. Then he looked to McReidy.

“Hey, don’t look at me.” She held her hands out in front of her, holding back an imaginary approach. “This is your plan, not mine.”

A touch of subtle defiance, John noted.

A security warning beeped. Sean switched his screen across and brought up the warning. “We’ve got a ship on our rear.”

“What?”

“Carrier class. Hang on while I… That can’t be right.” Sean shook his head in disbelief as he looked up at John. “It’s Makdon.”

John’s jaw clenched. The screen came on before he could answer and all eyes shot back to it.

“We will meet with you,” Trair told them. “We will give you the co-ordinates…”

“Mister Delaney –” John had left the intercom open.

“I’ve got it.” Anthony cut John off.

“You will bring no weapons,” Trair continued uninterrupted. “Or we will destroy you and your ship!”

“Thank you.” John’s gratitude was a formality. The screen went blank. “Well… that wasn’t too hard.” The rhetorical statement went unanswered as he turned to Mark. “And we didn’t have to talk our way in… Mister Delaney, transporter room.”

“On the way,” Anthony answered.

“Mark, Sean –” John hesitated. Makdon was sitting behind them. No, he wasn’t leaving McReidy in charge. A frown formed as he realised that she could be more trouble to him left on board the ship. “McReidy, you’re with me.”

“Commander.” McReidy stood up. “It’s against regulations to leave a ship without a command officer in charge.”

“I’m not.” John flicked the intercom. “Mister Gillespie.”

“Sir,” came a reply that was simply too formal to be trusted.

“Put the cards away and get to the bridge.”

He didn’t wait for a response before flicking the intercom off. McReidy was still watching him; still standing at her position.

“Now, get a move on,” he told her, barely hiding his smirk.

He waited for Gillespie and briefed him on the situation.

“We’ve got Makdon on our tail?” Gillespie repeated concernedly.

John nodded.

“Shouldn’t she have more important things to do?”

“Don’t upset her.”

 

*

 

Shouldn’t she have more important things to do?

The question rang around John’s head as he walked to the transporter room.

Yes, she should. So why wasn’t she?

They hadn’t been questioned or even contacted when they reached Betelian space, which went against any form of protocol. This was definitely not right. He was glad he had Mark with him.

Anthony was in the transporter room handing out equipment and explaining its use when he arrived.

“Scanners but no weapons,” John stated as he entered, knowing what Anthony would be doing.

Anthony shot a quick glance to John but said nothing as he opened the equipment locker again.

A black, inch-wide wristband with a digital timer drew a puzzled look from McReidy.

“Universal communicator with environmental timer,” John informed her, picking up the last one and strapping it onto his wrist. “The ships have them built in. We need something more portable. You’ve never met any aliens?”

“Yes… but…”

“Only those that speak English,” he answered for her. “These are programmed with every known language. Everything you hear will be translated to English, everything you speak, to their language. What’s the atmosphere?” he turned to Sean.

“Basically hydrogen oxygen, but with a high nitrogen content. We’ve got one hundred and four hours before we hit nitrogen narcosis.”

“You mean we’ll get the bends,” John clarified. “Anything else we should know?”

“Scanners.” Anthony dumped them on the console.

“If we overexert ourselves physically, the time reduces in direct proportion,” Sean continued.

“You want the mini oxygen canisters?” Anthony asked.

John shook his head as he grabbed a scanner and slipped it into a jacket pocket. “We won’t be there that long… Set timers for one hundred hours. First signs of distress in any of you, I want you back on board.”

They all nodded and headed to the transporter pads. Anthony grabbed John’s arm, holding him back.

“You know that carrier is Makdon.”

John’s eyes lifted to Anthony. “We’re not here to cause trouble.”

For the first time, a touch of doubt came through in his whispered voice. If he could not convince the Betelians…

“Sir?” A level of impatience came through in McReidy’s voice.

“Coming.” John’s demeanour became serious again as he joined the others on the transporter pads. “Mister Delaney, I’ve got Gillespie on the bridge, but the ship’s yours. Don’t rebuild her while I’m gone.”

 

  • * *

 

The room had a medieval feel to it. It was cold and damp; the air was heavy to breathe. The walls and floor were made of a marble-like substance: the floor in a single sheet; the walls bricked together. There were no windows, yet the room was well lit. The ceiling appeared to be entirely fluorescent.

The only articles of furniture were a rectangular table, and a comfortable chair in which was seated the Betelian whose life size image was portrayed in a picture directly above and behind him on the wall: The Emperor.

Colonel Trair stood to the emperor’s right. His full size did justice to the headshot they’d seen on screen. He had the stance of a hardened battle warrior – outwardly relaxed, inwardly assessing every detail about them.

The officer to the left also wore a colonel’s uniform. His eyes hid any sense of what he was thinking or feeling.

Two armed guards stood at attention along either side wall; belted weapons within easy reach.

John took in the hostile environment at a glance and rested his eyes on the emperor.

Sean swivelled around on the spot, taking in as much as he could. At the sight of the armed guards, he instinctively reached for a weapon on his belt. He felt slight frustration as he remembered they didn’t have any. His uneasiness increased and he saw it reflected as his eyes met McReidy’s.

She, too, had focused in on the guards. Two on either side and two more behind, blocking the only doorway out. Approximately two metres tall, well armed and wearing the same type of armoured uniform as Trair.

Only Mark appeared to be at ease. He paid the guards no attention, almost as though they did not exist. His concentration focused on the emperor and his colonels, taking in every feature, every movement; looking for whatever he felt wasn’t right.

“You will hand over all weapons,” demanded the emperor. The voice didn’t have to raise. Its quiet, deep tone was a threat in itself.

Suspicion and distrust were rife. Not only in the emperor, but pulsing through John. There was nothing about this situation that he liked.

His stare became almost defiant as he answered the unspoken challenge, his voice calm. “We have none. We were… asked not to.”

“You are either a wise man… or a fool. We shall see.” The emperor leaned forward, reaching an arm over the table and activating a console.

The room dimmed slightly, or perhaps it was that a more concentrated beam of light scanned over John’s party. John stood motionless. He knew that the Betelians did not make idle threats and this emperor ruled by fear.

He’d been in power for thirty years since ousting the previous emperor, and had put down any uprisings through sheer force. A peace remained – as long as no one put a foot out of place.

Obviously satisfied, the scanning beam disappeared.

“You are not a fool,” the emperor leaned back comfortably in his chair, “yet you enter Betelian space. Uninvited, unannounced and unapproved.”

“We were not questioned on reaching Betelian space,” John answered.

“Neither did you contact us and ask permission.”

He had John there. His eyes flickered with a surety John couldn’t fathom.

John felt that Mark had picked it up but wasn’t breaking eye contact to check.

“We received a call for assistance –”

“So you say.”

John felt a sense of resentment increase inside himself. “Your sun is dying. It has already begun to collapse and it will take your worlds with it.”

“Nonsense.” The emperor flicked an arm, as though dismissing the notion. “It has been burning for millions of years and will do so for millions more. True, it is shrinking, but soon it will expand again. It always has. It always will.”

“You are wrong.”

The emperor stood up, slamming both fists down on the table. His arms straightened, his elbows locked as he leaned forward. The table creaked under the weight. He glared at John, his thunderous words spat out through clenched teeth echoed around the room. “I am Rache! I am never wrong!”

McReidy flinched at the tone. Sean put his hand on her arm for moral support and squeezed gently, although he wasn’t sure which one of them needed it most. As their eyes met, he tried to reassure her. She placed her free hand over his, then just as suddenly released it. His arm fell back to his side.

Mark had closed his eyes. Confusion blocked his thoughts. Rache was baiting John. The words, the tone, the sudden fury.

As Mark’s mind cleared, he opened his eyes. Taking in the three Betelians at a glance, his eyes met those of the third, standing at Rache’s left.

Knowing this conversation wasn’t getting anywhere, John felt his temper boil. He had not risked everything to come all this way and play games with a tyrant who refused to listen. After all, they had asked for his help. The words blurted out before he could stop himself.

“I wish to speak to Moloch!”

As it suddenly hit Mark what was wrong, he heard John’s last words. He spun around to face him, but not quick enough to stop him. His eyes darted back to the Betelians.

John felt the full rage of the emperor wash over him with a hot sweat that left him chilled. His expression was of disbelief. His eyes showed mistrust, almost… fear.

Trair jerked forward to speak to Rache, who quickly flung an arm back, brushing him away. Trair straightened and resumed his position.

Rache regained his momentary lapse of composure and his tone changed, almost to one of friendliness. He sat down again, leaning back in his chair. His long fingers interlocked and rested on his chest. “What do you know of Moloch?”

“Not much,” John answered, knowing his outburst had sent a wave of fear through them, but puzzled as to why. “Only that he asked for help to save your people from destruction.”

Rache smiled, making them all uncomfortable. “I’m afraid you have been misled. Moloch does not exist. He is a legend in our mythology.”

John had the sense that he was being played with.

“I have also been in touch with your superiors,” Rache continued.

Oh, that explained why they hadn’t contacted directly – almost. John cringed, and saw Rache’s eyes glint. Something was still wrong

“They also know nothing of your… mercy flight… I think, is the correct term?” Rache’s tone again changed, the overt sweetness gone. “You call yourself a captain, yet you wear the uniform of a commander. You come here with no authority and talk to me of stories. We shall see your true purpose.”

John felt McReidy’s glare burn into him.

Rache pointed to the wall to John’s right. A screen appeared, showing Captain Barrett. The grain of the wall remained as its faint background.

John swallowed hard as his eyes lowered, and wished he could disappear. There would be no bluffing. No apologies. No excuses. Just… His gaze lifted upwards again, determined not to let his insides rule his outsides.

Rache grinned, obviously taking great delight in what was about to happen.

“Emperor, I wish to apologise –” began Barrett. He had to remain polite; humble. Tearing strips off John in front of the Betelians would turn this incident into a major diplomatic nightmare.

“No need, Captain.” Rache brushed away any hostility, his voice controlled and polite. “It seems your commander has a mind of his own. And a very vivid imagination, I must say.”

“I hope he hasn’t caused any problems.”

John was convinced that his problems were just about to start.

“On the contrary.” Rache’s amusement was clear to see. “He has been most…” he searched for the right word, “entertaining. Do you wish to speak to him?”

The sugary tone made John feel sick. Or perhaps it was Captain Barrett’s mood. He had great respect for the captain and the hurt in the man’s voice upset him.

“And just what did you think you were doing?” Barrett demanded.

“I had to do something,” was all John could manage. His mind ticked over rapidly. “Anthony,” he mumbled, almost under his breath.

“Can’t stop it,” came Anthony’s whispered reply.

Anthony had been in voice contact with John and could hear everything. He had tried to shut off communications with Earth as soon as he picked it up, but his attempts had been in vain. He could do nothing but listen.

“Lieutenant Daniels,” Barrett began.

Sean squirmed and stared at his boots.

“And I suppose you’ve got Lieutenant Delaney around somewhere?” Barrett asked, his attention returning to John.

The question went unanswered.

Then Barrett frowned. “Lieutenant Commander McReidy?’ he asked incredulously. “I never thought you would be caught up in something like this.”

“He had orders,” she explained, recalling John’s earlier statement on the ship. And with that simple reply she had completely exonerated herself from all guilt.

“You what?” Barrett’s focus turned back to John.

John opened his mouth to answer, but Barrett continued before he could say anything. The tone was murderous.

“You go against direct orders, steal my ship and crew, and take off on this hairbrained scheme where it is perfectly obvious you are not wanted. Have you completely lost your mind? What could have possibly given you such an idea?”

“You said you wished you could help.”

“I didn’t mean for you to steal my ship!”

“Gentlemen, please,” Rache interrupted softly. “This is neither the time nor place to argue. I can see the commander is acting on his own. Would you like us to keep him for you until you can make arrangements for his return?” He indicated to the guards to move in.

“Thank you, Emperor, but that won’t be necessary.” Barrett’s voice calmed to polite respect. “I deeply regret any inconvenience. The ship will leave immediately. Commander Madison, consider yourself under arrest. Lieutenant Commander McReidy, bring my ship home.”

“I can assure you, Captain, it is no trouble at all. We do not want your ship wandering Betelian space unescorted.”

Barrett had no answer as it seemed the emperor was going to do exactly as he insisted. Weapons raised, the guards moved in.

Mark had allowed himself to be distracted by the scene unfolding before him. He had not seen the third Betelian move. It was the voice in his ear and the feel of something in the middle of his back that sent a chill down his spine.

“Do not move.”

John turned his head slightly to Sean, who was watching him for a reaction. “I think we’ve outstayed our welcome.”

A warm smile showed that Sean understood clearly. “Definitely.”

John and Sean moved in unison, spinning to the guards nearest and letting fly with their fists. John aimed for the underside of the jaw. It was a softer target than he had anticipated. The guard reeled back as his head flew upwards, his arms spread out to steady himself, unintentionally hindering his companion beside him briefly.

A kick to the inside of the knee gave John a few more seconds as the guard reeled sideways almost in slow motion as he dropped to the floor. His weapon went off, the phaser beam skimming over John’s shoulder as it traced a line up the wall and across the ceiling. The entire room ducked for cover.

A second beam grazed the sleeve of John’s jacket. His eyes shot from the scorch to its source and saw McReidy disarming the firer. A breath escaped as he rose to confront the next guard.

Sean had dealt with those on his side of the room. He was quick and confident, the element of surprise catching his opponents completely off balance. He grabbed McReidy and shoved her towards the door.

A guard moved to block her path, raising his weapon.

He fired before she could disarm him, but she managed to knock his arm clear of her head. The shot hit the wall behind them. Glass shattered. As she reached the door and fumbled to open it, her head turned momentarily back to the room. The portrait of Rache was swaying unsteadily, the emperor out of sight and Trair peeping around the side of the desk, his arm raising, finger on the trigger.

The door flew open outwards. McReidy fell through it, Sean close behind her. John leapt through the open doorway, landing on her and knocking her to the ground. Phaser beams traced over their heads.

Sean dropped to a crouch as more weapon fire strafed after them. He threw himself at the door. It slammed into the oncoming guards.

“Lock it!” John yelled at Sean.

“How?” came the bewildered reply.

“After them!” ordered Trair, as the guards’ weapon fire hit the closed door.

A hand held Mark’s collar from behind. He froze. His eyes darted back to Rache and Trair. As he watched John and Sean take on the guards, he felt himself dragged backwards away from them and unable to help. He could have tried, yet something told him not to.

As phaser beams shot around the room, he was pushed down. He dropped instantly, his hands raising beside his head.

 

*

 

John’s eyes met McReidy’s. “Get off me!” she glared, pushing him sideways.

He scrambled to his feet and threw himself at the door with Sean. “Anthony, get us –” He looked around. “Where the hell is Mark?”

The Betelians slammed against the door. Their impact jolted John and Sean. They threw all their weight and strength into keeping it closed.

“No idea,” Sean ground out, his boots slipping on the floor as he tried to get more leverage.

“Anthony, get us out of here,” John called.

“No can do. Someone’s jamming me.”

“Makdon’s just brought her forward weapons online,” Gillespie interrupted from the bridge.

The door thumped again, jolting John and Sean. John threw his shoulder and his anger into it.

“Keep the ship safe,” John yelled. Without the ship, they had nothing.

“Great. Where to now?” McReidy’s mood was not improving.

“I don’t know.” John was also resentful. “Just move it.”

 

  • * *

 

Rache rose from behind his desk and resumed his seat. Outwardly, he appeared unconcerned by what had just happened. He turned to Barrett, his apology sounding sincere. “I am sorry, Captain, but there will be a slight delay in returning your ship and crew.”

Barrett’s fury showed clearly in his face; beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, his eyes wide, his mouth falling open. He licked dry lips and took an unsuccessful calming breath, his words strained – practiced. “I understand, Emperor. Thank you for your patience.”

Rache turned the screen off. He sat back, thinking for a moment as the guards smashed against the door again, then beckoned Trair forward with a finger. “Let them go. Follow them, but do not apprehend. They will not leave without their companion.”

“But, Emperor, what if they find Moloch?” It was almost a whisper.

“Then we shall too.”

 

  • * *

 

The thumping on the door stopped. John and Sean looked at each other for a second. They didn’t care why, but took full advantage of even a few seconds break.

John reached a hand to grab McReidy, but Sean already had her, dragging her to her feet and racing down the corridor.

“Give me –” she began, scrambling to get her feet under her.

“Move,” John shoved her from behind, almost knocking her over again.

Sean checked every door handle and stopped at every intersection, slamming his back against the wall and peeping around to see if it was clear before taking off again. Footsteps echoing behind them filled John’s ears. Every time Sean stopped, or even slowed, he expected tracer beams to come at them.

He couldn’t help thinking about Mark. He’d left him behind. That went against everything inside him. He was torn between the desire to go back and the footsteps echoing in his head.

At one stage, his head turned back and his body began to shift.

Sean grabbed his jacket front and dragged him back; their faces met inches apart.

“No.” Sean’s voice blazed as much as his eyes.

McReidy pushed them apart as they squashed her into the wall.

 

  • * *

 

Rache stood and walked slowly around in front of his desk. His eyes drifted to his portrait, which gave up its fight to remain on the wall and crashed to the floor. A snort of anger shot out his nostrils.

Mark felt the tug on his collar and rose to his feet. He felt Rache’s fury as he approached and tried not to let it engulf him. Only the repeated notion floating around in his head of not being shot because Rache needed him stemmed his fears.

He was tall, but Rache was taller. The full height bearing down on him as few humans had managed.

Rache closed the distance until his full presence swept over Mark.

Mark had felt his threat a good two metres away. Now, with only centimetres between them, he was almost drowning.

“On your knees,” Rache ordered.

Mark was about to do so when the back of one knee was kicked out from under him. He dropped heavily. The hand remained firmly holding his collar, the weapon rammed into the base of his skull.

“They left you,” Rache spoke. Anger and emotion gone, only power remained in his voice. “Are you of so little value?”

Mark didn’t know what to say; didn’t know if he should say anything. He didn’t even know what to think. For once, nothing was clear in his head. Thoughts were racing around, clambering over the top of each other.

Rache grabbed his jacket front in one hand and hauled him up to eye level. His feet were off the ground; the colonel no longer held his collar.

Rache spied the communicator on Mark’s jacket and pulled it off. His hand closed, as though about to crush it, but he pocketed it instead. His eyes bored through Mark and into the wall behind him.

“I asked you a question,” he breathed.

His breath flooded over Mark, filling his nose, eyes, mouth, flowing into his ears and every pore on his face. Its heat consumed him and he shuddered. His bladder had an overwhelming desire to empty. For the first time in his life, someone had made him feel insignificant. His mind suddenly blank, he had no answer to the question.

“Humans,” Rache spat, opening his hand and letting Mark fall. “Worthless.”

Though only a few inches, Mark’s knees almost failed him.

 

Back to top

 

Chapter three

 

After hitting several locked doors, Sean grasped a door handle that turned. He hesitated, glancing at John before turning the handle fully and opening the door a tiny crack. He listened for a moment as John looked back down the corridor behind them. It appeared quiet inside. The lighting was on, but the lighting appeared to be on everywhere. Sean couldn’t hear any voices or direct movement and it seemed a better option than an open corridor.

He dropped to a crouch. John and McReidy followed suit.

He inched the door open and slid inside, pressing his back against the wall and creeping far enough along it until they were all inside the room. John’s hand covered the handle from the inside. Keeping it jammed on full open, he eased the door closed, slowly releasing the handle until the bolt slipped into its catch.

John let out a long breath as he turned around to face the room, sliding the few inches down the wall until he sat on the floor.

“Ssh,” McReidy silenced him, pointing forward.

In front of them were rows of consoles with at least a dozen Betelians working at them. A main screen on the wall had a random set of red lights flashing, closely followed by a green set making an identical pattern.

John inched forward as he watched, fascinated. The identical patterns told him they were tracking something, but he had no idea what. From the layout, it appeared to be a central operations room, with information constantly coming in and going out. Two Betelians sat quietly in the middle of the room observing everything and giving relevant instructions.

“What do you make of this?” John whispered to Sean.

“I’d like to get a closer look.” Sean crept beside John.

“I can’t get you off the surface,” Anthony’s voice rang out in the quiet.

“Ssh…” John’s hand smothered his communicator, muffling the rest of Anthony’s words as he and Sean ducked instinctively.

“But I can move you.” This time Anthony’s words came through at a bare whisper.

As Anthony spoke, McReidy frowned and began to rise. She tapped Sean’s arm to attract his attention and pointed as he grabbed her jacket and dragged her to the floor.

There was quiet; the soft sounds of machinery filling the air. Then a chair scraped across the floor and creaked as the weight in it shifted. Boots echoed on the floor as they began to advance.

“That will be fine,” John whispered to Anthony.

Within a second, they appeared on a small hillock. A lone tree rose a few metres above their heads. Scorched branches blocked less sunlight than they let through. Around them, the land was bare but for a few scattered trees and the occasional clump of desert grass. The sun burned down intensely; the rocky ground reflected the heat back up. In the distance, the land dipped into a small valley. Some scattered stone buildings were the only sign of civilisation.

McReidy suddenly felt dizzy and her knees buckled. John reached out to steady her, but Sean already had his arms around her.

“I’m all right,” she told them both. Using Sean’s support to steady herself, she staggered to the shade of the tree, where she sat down leaning against its trunk. She undid her jacket a couple of inches and began fanning herself with one hand. Her eyes closed and she breathed heavily. Sweat began to trickle down her face.

Sean dropped beside her, while John sprawled out on his back in the filtered shade of the branches and loosened his collar.

Above them, the star burned a deep orange. Transparent, orange rays filtered through the leaves. The air was still; closing in on all of them. It had a hint of blue, filtered with orange from the star.

“Mister Delaney,” John panted. “Where are we?”

“About two kilometres west of where you were.”

“Makdon?”

“She’s happy. Not talking to us, but happy… She’s taken her weapons offline.”

“Good,” John exhaled loudly.

“What happened down there? I started getting static and what sounded like weapon fire,” Anthony hesitated, his voice suddenly serious. “I only picked up three signals to move. Please tell me no one got shot.”

“We lost Mark.”

“What?” Anthony cried incredulously. The line was silent for a second. “I… I’m sorry… I know he was a good friend –”

“I didn’t mean it that way. We, literally, lost him.”

McReidy’s head flopped to her chest. She struggled to lift it. Sean reached a hand under her chin, feeling almost dead weight, and lifted it. Her glazed eyes met his.

“John,” Sean interrupted. “We’ve got to get McReidy back to the ship.”

John looked to McReidy, then quickly dragged himself upright. He drew his knees up, resting his arms across them.

“Surface temperature is forty five degrees centigrade and rising. It’s playing havoc with her metabolic rate.” Seam checked her environmental timer. “She’s just lost ten hours.”

“No way, Sean,” Anthony answered. “Someone down there is playing games with me. I’m having enough trouble keeping in touch.”

There was silence for a moment.

“I’m sorry,” Anthony apologised, “but I’ve got to shut off till I sort something out. When I get a clear signal, I’ll pull you out. Until then, you’re on your own.”

The line went dead. There was silence, disturbed only by the sounds of their breathing.

John looked to McReidy, but met Sean’s glare.

“We were set up,” Sean snapped. “They didn’t contact us because they contacted Earth.”

“No, Rache contacted Earth. Moloch…”

“Moloch what…? Just what did you tell Command that they would have passed on to Rache? He let us in without question. Without any of the accepted protocols. And he sat Makdon on our rear. The freaking flagship! It could blow us out of the sky with a puff of its exhaust.”

John had to concede some truth in Sean’s words. “Yeah, but why go to this trouble? It makes no sense.”

“What aren’t you telling us?”

“Nothing.”

“Geez, John,” Sean ran a hand over his head in frustration. Sweat oozed between his fingers. He pulled his hand out and looked at it, wiping it on his pants. “Homework. Always do your homework!”

“I did.”

“No, because we wouldn’t be in this situation if you did!” Sean turned away before his anger got the better of him. When he turned back, he was calmer. “You don’t even know who Moloch is. But I can guarantee you this. Rache does. And they ain’t buddies.”

John didn’t answer. He looked around at the landscape.

There appeared to be no animal life of any sort around them. The air was still, clinging to their bodies preventing the escape of heat. Even though their uniforms were insulated, the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere seemed to counteract this.

“Current status?” John asked Sean.

Sean pulled his scanner out. “If we stay here, we remain as we are. If we head towards those buildings,” he nodded towards the valley, “we lose hour for hour up to fifty degrees. Expected surface temperature to reach… forty eight degrees.”

John let out a low breath.

“Other directions…” Sean moved his scanner around in an arc, “we’re looking at almost complete desert.”

“How long till nightfall?” John looked at McReidy sitting with her eyes closed.

Sean shook his head, then looked back at his scanner. “About five hours, with an estimated night of twenty hours.”

“Well,” John began slowly. “Going by Rache’s place and the look of this, I’m guessing everything is underground.”

“Trees…? Well,” Sean looked around dismally. “What there is of them.”

“There’s got to be a water source around somewhere.”

“Not that my scanner is picking up.”

“Most likely underground as well.”

Sean lifted an arm and pointed towards the buildings. “Ruins or village?”

John shrugged. “No idea.”

For a minute, he and Sean simply looked at each other.

“I’m open to suggestions.”

McReidy opened her eyes. “I say we move.” Her voice was controlled, but her anger was directed straight at John. “If we stay here, they’ll probably find us. And they weren’t too thrilled with us being here.”

“Why, McReidy, I thought you’d be anxious to go home.” The joking comment received the glare it deserved.

Climbing to her feet, McReidy stormed past John without another word, and headed in the general direction of the buildings. She wobbled the first few steps, one hand lifted to her head to help shake off the dizziness.

John felt the wave of anger as she passed him and he couldn’t prevent the small smirk that came to his mouth as he rose to his feet.

“Don’t upset her,” Sean advised, as he stood up. “You might need her on side. And none of us need the stress right now.”

The going was not as easy as it looked. The bare ground was rocky and the dry gravel slid beneath their feet. Dust kicked up and hung in the air, as did the sounds of their boots crunching the gravel.

There was nothing. There didn’t look like being anything. The trees were bare branches that, from a distance, didn’t even look like they had leaves.

John wondered if the water source no longer existed and the trees were dead remnants. But the tree they had rested under had leaves and seemed alive. His limited experiences with other worlds had taught him not to judge things by Earth’s appearances.

The sun appeared stationary in the sky, adding to the feeling that they weren’t getting anywhere. Only the barest of landmarks told them they weren’t going around in circles.

If any of them regretted their decision to move on, they said nothing. Heavy breaths and dragging boots were the only sounds they made as the heat burned bare skin and sweat flowed freely.

John kept his eye on McReidy. She seemed to be doing all right. She was vertical and putting one foot in front of the other – the same as he and Sean were.

They reached the valley and the land began to dip. John had hoped for an easy way down, but there was no path of any description to follow. The land looked like it had never been trodden. It shifted underfoot and they had to resort to climbing on all fours at times.

As John slipped and slid the final few metres on his backside, he caught a hint of a smile from McReidy before she turned away and hid it. He stood up, brushed himself down and checked his watch.

It had taken almost two hours to get there. The outer buildings were a few hundred metres away. Sean was already scanning them.

“I can’t detect any life,” his dry throat rasped. “But…”

He frowned, scanning a full three sixty, and headed to the nearest building.

John dragged his sleeve down his face for the hundredth time, and followed.

The land levelled; flat, solid – trodden.

John hesitated, looking down at what appeared to be a road. He looked up to see Sean had disappeared. His skin prickled as his head darted from side to side, eventually seeing Sean with his back against the shaded side of the nearest building. One hand was held up for silence while he watched his scanner. McReidy leaned against the building beside him, dropping her hands to her knees as she doubled over.

John sprinted up beside them. The shade was an instant relief. The rock wall cool to lean on.

“Village,” Sean mouthed.

John nodded, pulling his own scanner out and switching it on. The small, flat buildings were made of the same metallic rock as the surrounding land, but he was unable to detect any life. That only reinforced his “underground” theory. The streets were bare, but the village did not look deserted.

McReidy gasped for air only to choke and splutter on the dust.

“Are you all right?” Sean leaned down to whisper.

She nodded. “A glass of water’d be good,” her voice rasped.

“We’re going to have to wait a bit for that.”

John glanced at her briefly, but appeared otherwise ignorant of her distress. Sean could make a fuss of her; he had other things on his mind.

He inched along the wall to the end. With the sunlight on it, he could feel the heat in the rock. He touched it with his fingertips and pulled back quickly. It felt like a hot coal. Moving on, he followed the building’s outline, square and flat with all doors and what could have been windows sealed. The heat dumped on him as he entered full sunlight again.

As he moved to the next building, he kept watching all around, listening for any sounds of movement.

This building was similar to the first. He crept up to a window on the shady side. It looked like a rectangular slab had been carved from the wall and placed back in its original position. He headed back to Sean and McReidy.

“Everything’s fully sealed,” John told them. “The rock is acting as a heat reflector. It’s probably quite cool inside.”

“Coober Pedy.”

John nodded. “It’ll probably come to life when it cools off. Betelians don’t like this much heat.”

“Temperature is beginning to drop.” Sean consulted his scanner. “We might not have to wait too long.”

John looked up to the sky. “Sun doesn’t look like it’s going down.”

“Temperature could be the location. We are in the valley. Or it could be the sun’s unpredictability.”

None of them liked that alternative.

“And no detectable water source,” Sean added.

McReidy slumped to the ground, leaned back against the cool rock and closed her eyes. Both men showed concern as they watched her breathe – deep and steady. Sean went to check her environmental timer, but she smacked him away.

John set his scanner to detect any movement and slid down the wall to rest in the shade. “I say we stay here and find out what we can.”

With nothing to do but wait, John had time to fully take in what had happened, and what might have happened to Mark.

The more he thought about it, the calmer it seemed to make him. Although the fight had erupted in seconds, he hadn’t seen Mark throw a punch – and the man knew how to look after himself. He’d had John down for the count more times than he cared to remember. He must have allowed himself to be captured. For what purpose, John had no idea.

They waited patiently. As John had predicted, once the temperature dropped, the village came to life. Grinding rock ripped them out of their drowsiness as window slabs were removed, allowing light and air inside the buildings.

They quickly looked for somewhere to hide, but there was nowhere to go. They were at the outermost building against a solid wall and had to hope that no one decided to venture there.

Sean crept to one end while John crept to the other. They peeked around the corners, assessing the situation.

Doors opened and children barrelled out to play in the street. Deep voices carried on the still air. For a few minutes, John wondered if there were only men in the village, then realised that the women and children also had deep voices. There were also higher pitched squeals, indicating a range of vocalisation.

Compared to the well adorned uniforms of the soldiers, the people wore simple clothes of a light cotton appearance. Adults had the barest of footwear; children had none. The women wore long skirts tied at the waist, a slip on shirt and a shawl that covered their heads. Men wore long pants. Some wore shirts; others didn’t, revealing strong bodies of what appeared to be complete muscle. The faded scaly pattern was apparent on all bare skin.

Many of the men were heading to the far end of the village. They were waved goodbye by the women while children ran around their feet. Soft, stern words or a pointed finger soon had most of them slumping away, while an occasional persistent child wrapped themselves around an adult leg and had to be pried off.

“Off to the salt mines,” Sean mumbled, creeping up beside John.

John jumped and spun around as a sudden sweat hit him. He hadn’t heard Sean and thought he was still at the other end of the building. He let out a breath and turned back to the villagers.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he whispered. “The rock’s metallic. It probably has all sorts of uses.”

“Well they’re not farmers because there’s no livestock or any crops,” McReidy added as she crouched beside them.

“Feeling better?” Sean asked.

She nodded.

They waited and watched as the men disappeared towards the other end of the village. John also kept an anxious eye on the women and children in case any of them headed towards them.

McReidy watched fascinated. It didn’t seem credible that these people were living like this, when only a few kilometres away they had seen a technology that rivalled their own.

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” John answered the thoughts he guessed filled McReidy’s mind.

A bell rang from somewhere, echoing through the valley and causing the children to rush off in a mad pack. The village settled down.

The shade moved and they moved with it till all three were cramped and sweating it out at one corner of the building. While there was plenty of movement and voices, no one came near them.

Mixed aromas hit them in bouts. Some reminded them it had been several hours since they’d eaten. Others made them glad their stomachs were empty.

The sun dropped. Shadows lengthened in the valley until it became one, huge shadow. The sun burned across the top of the land above until it too became black.

The cool did wonders for McReidy. She checked her environmental timer several times. Occasionally, she noticed Sean trying to get a look at it.

“I’m fine,” she mouthed to him, but he didn’t seem reassured.

He checked his own timer. It was down to eighty hours.

The cool soon turned cold and they shivered into their jackets. John huffed on his hands as his breath condensed in front of him.

The men hadn’t returned, but the women and children had retreated inside, obviously not liking the bitter cold of night. The streets were quiet. Only an occasional Betelian ventured out, making quick progress to their destination.

At one stage, John looked across to find Sean gone. “Where’s Sean?” he hissed at McReidy.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

He scrambled to the edge of the building and looked around, but it was too dark to see anything. “Idiot,” he mumbled, his teeth chattering.

Sean returned a few minutes later with a small clay cup of something.

“Water,” he told McReidy as he offered it to her.

She grabbed it and sipped slowly, smiling her thanks.

“Don’t disappear again,” John growled.

The night passed slowly. There was no contact from Anthony aboard the ship. With no way of contacting anyone, they had to wait.

 

  • * *

 

Mark was locked in a prison cell. The force field covering the front distorted his view of what was beyond. Trair and the guards who had accompanied him to the cell had become no more than a blur of uniforms once it was activated. The only access panel was outside.

Mark sat on the lone bench and dropped his head to his hands, balling his fingers into fists. Uncontrolled thoughts and emotions raced through his head. No one had ever made him feel that way. No one broke through the barriers. No one saw his vulnerabilities. He was better than that.

He tried to tell himself that it was because he was dealing with aliens and not humans. Aliens had capabilities beyond what he had encountered. But he also knew that it was power and a power struggle.

Look after John? Yeah, right. John’s reckless behaviour usually got himself into trouble. It usually didn’t rebound to everyone else, and it was something Mark had always been able to avoid. And, for the sake of a distracted second, he could have smacked a gag on John and prevented a firefight.

Distracted… yes…

He let the thoughts rage through him and find their way out. He ignored their meanings and implications. He wasn’t going to be able to think clearly while he gave them substance.

He lifted his head, resting back against the wall. He had to get his composure back. Pull himself together, if only outwardly.

He surveyed the room. Three solid walls of rock, washed with that same light colour as the rest of the place. A red light flashed in a corner of the ceiling every thirty two seconds – reminding him that he was under full surveillance.

He took a while to calm. He was in no immediate danger; he knew that. That could change, depending on who came through that door.

They wanted him. They needed him. Otherwise he’d be dead already. Especially considering John and Sean had left a bloodied mess of guards. He smiled as he noted that McReidy had gotten in a couple of nice moves. The woman knew how to look after herself.

Those thoughts helped calm him. But Rache’s presence kept forcing its way through. There’d been no compassion in his eyes or his tone. He was calculating and apathetic. Results, power and absolute certainty oozed from him. John had bluffed, but Mark had felt the threat. Rache didn’t care for his own kind. Why would he care for others?

Mark shivered involuntarily. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall, forcing those thoughts away.

He would wait – he had no choice.

Minutes dragged into hours. His thoughts cleared and began to make sense. Nothing had been right about this from the beginning, and there were still big holes, but it was making sense.

Magellan had the Betelian flagship sitting on her rear and he was sitting here in a prison cell. All because Rache believed John would lead him to Moloch. Problem with that was John had no idea who Moloch was.

Several times, Mark opened his eyes to nothing. He contemplated the thought of lying down on the bench and settled for standing, stretching and walking the perimeter of his cell.

By his reckoning, a good five hours had passed. Though it could have easily been longer as he’d nodded off a couple of times.

He looked down at the bench again. It didn’t look comfortable. Neither was the thought of sitting merely to exude a presence. Especially as his internal body clock told him it was well past any respectable bed time.

He sat down, leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes again. If he hit sleep mode, he’d give in and lie down.

A minute later, his head dropped to his chest. He instinctively jerked upright, his eyes shooting open. A small, dark shape outside the cell caught his attention. He rubbed his eyes, watching as it moved, becoming larger as it came closer. He blinked strongly to try to focus better. All that cleared up was a uniform.

His eyes flicked to the corner. The red light remained constant for almost ten seconds before it flashed.

The figure was alone. It moved to one side of the room, reaching up above head height and fiddling with something Mark couldn’t see properly – then waited.

The red light went off. Mark noticed it in his peripherals, flicking his eyes briefly up to confirm that it was not simply the off phase of its flash. It wasn’t.

The force field cleared, and Mark recognised the colonel who had detained him.

He held up a hand to Mark, indicating that he remain still. Mark obeyed, watching the colonel working in a cavity in the wall. A second or two later, the red light came back on.

Motioning Mark forward, he spoke softly into a communicator.

Mark rose to his feet and moved out of the cell. An image of him remained seated on the bench.

“Quickly, we do not have much time.” The colonel stepped back to the wall and reactivated the force field.

Then he moved to the main door, leaning an ear to it. Satisfied, he quietly turned the handle, opening the door a fraction and peeking out.

Mark heard boots fading in the distance.

The colonel stepped out into the corridor, his eyes remaining forward, and waved Mark to follow.

Mark spotted the red light at the end of the corridor. The colonel didn’t even give it a second glance as he moved quickly and quietly, his boots soft on the hard floor.

He unlocked and opened a door halfway down the next corridor and pushed Mark inside, checking both ways before entering himself. He locked the door, then brushed past Mark to a side wall. The wall opened as he approached it. Beyond was black.

The colonel reached into a jacket pocket as he stepped into the darkness. Mark hesitated. He looked around uncertainly, knowing he didn’t want to get caught in the open, before following.

The wall closed, leaving them in complete darkness.

The colonel switched on a small torch and held it at shoulder height, aiming the light down the tunnel in front of them. It was enough to make out the walls and roof only inches above their heads. Mark kept his eyes down, checking where he was putting his feet, his hands reaching out to the uneven walls on either side.

The colonel knew where he was going, taking each corner and side tunnel without hesitation. Mark followed, guided in direction by the shifting torchlight.

“I will have to return you before Rache finds you missing,” the colonel spoke softly, the dark muffling his voice. “You are Mark?”

Mark nodded, not that it could be seen in the dark. “And you are Moloch.” It was not a question.

“Yes. I am sorry I could not contact you before you arrived. It was not possible.”

“Why?”

“Officially, I do not exist. Unofficially, I am Rache’s worst nightmare.”

“Rache has my communicator.”

“He will use it to monitor your friends and try to find out your plans.”

“Our plans –”

“Yes, an awkward predicament. He will not believe that you have no ulterior motive.”

Mark wished he could see Moloch’s face, for he wasn’t the one standing at the wrong end of a weapon back there.

The wall opened in front of them. Light glared in, blinding Mark. He instinctively lifted a hand to shade his eyes and blinked strongly. It took several seconds for his eyes to adjust.

He heard Moloch’s hushed voice, then two bodies brushed past him into the darkness before he could step out of it.

The room was a hive of activity. Tables and walls were covered with equipment, screens and consoles. About a dozen Betelians sat at consoles. Some worked away at keyboards, their attention focused on their screens. A few were still, simply monitoring their stations. Another couple moved between consoles, pausing to check scrolling data, compare written notes or converse. Two remained on watch near the entrance Mark and Moloch had just used.

The majority wore light grey uniforms different to Moloch’s. Those on watch had weapons strapped to their hip. Others wore simple clothing of a shirt and pants, seeming to have no affiliation to anything.

Two plain clothed Betelians were arguing at the far wall as they sat in front of screens full of calculations, diagrams and the star.

Other screens showed landscapes, villages, cities or people. On one screen, Mark identified Magellan in orbit around the planet. Makdon sat just off her stern.

“We have been following you carefully,” Moloch explained, following Mark’s line of vision. “The entire planet is surrounded by a force field. Nothing comes in without Rache’s knowledge. Unfortunately for us, very little also gets out. Do not concern yourself with Makdon. Her orders are to watch and report. Especially since your commander threw my name into the mix.”

Mark folded his arms across his chest. This was only going to get better.

Moloch sighed. “We run an underground resistance network. Since our true emperor’s imprisonment, we have remained hidden. Until we can find and free him, we do what we can.”

“I thought your wars were over. Emperor Komodo is rumoured to be dead.”

“Rumour. Not fact. Our wars will never be over as long as Rache is in control.” The contempt showed in his voice. “He is a power-crazed tyrant, who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Anyone who stands in his way is eliminated. The battle here is lost, but it continues on the outer planets.”

“Then why do you not eliminate Rache and return your worlds to peace?”

“If only it were that simple. We do not know where he has hidden our emperor. Every time we get close to finding out, Rache moves him.”

“Surely one man’s life is not worth that of millions.” Mark knew the stupidity of his words as soon as they came out.

“To us it is. Your Earth has a history of wars over the beliefs of religion. The emperor is our symbol of belief. It is this belief, more than the man, which gives our people hope. As long as there is the slightest possibility that he is still alive, we will continue to fight.”

“And where better to hide yourself than under Rache’s nose.”

Moloch spoke briefly to one of his companions, then turned back to Mark, changing the subject. “We appear to have lost contact with your friends. Tell me, does the commander always speak…?” He hesitated, seeming lost for words.

“With his brain in neutral?” Mark finished. “Only when he loses his temper.”

“Sir, I cannot find the humans anywhere on the surface,” a uniformed Betelian interrupted, one hand holding something to his ear, the other tapping at a keyboard. “We had them near Patnak village.”

“I have detected a brief fluctuation in the force field,” another reported.

“Enough to get off the surface?” Moloch asked.

“Possibly,” came the reply.

Anthony, Mark realised warmly.

Moloch suddenly became active and turned to a console behind him, speaking to the operator. “Treak, can we get a message out?”

“Not at the moment.”

He jotted a brief note on a piece of paper and gave it to Treak. “Send it once only, when you are clear.” He turned back to Mark, a look of doubt on his face.

“Our line’s open,” Mark assured him. “It’s permanently monitored.”

“So is Rache. We have to hitchhike along the force field and transmit directly from the magnetic pole of the planet.”

Rising voices at the far end of the room caught Moloch’s attention and he let out a breath as he turned to the plain clothed Betelians. One stood with his hands on his hips; the other threw his arms in the air and spun his chair away in apparent disgust.

“Come.” Moloch waved Mark towards the conflicting Betelians. “Gentlemen!”

The Betelians stopped in mid argument, turning to Moloch.

“Doctor Drion and Professor Kemal,” Moloch introduced them.

Each nodded slightly at his name.

“They are the ones who first discovered our sun’s fate.”

“Gentlemen,” Mark acknowledged politely, ignoring the suspicion in their eyes.

“This is Mark. He has come from Earth to help us.”

Mark detected a hint of recognition in their eyes at his name, but it did nothing to distil the suspicion.

Moloch strode back down the room as a door creaked open.

Mark looked to the screen Drion was seated in front of. It was in Betelian and he couldn’t read it. His translator worked for spoken language. It did nothing for written language.

“Please continue.” Mark indicated the screen.

Drion turned back to it. Kemal curled his lip slightly and muttered something unintelligible. Drion thrust his hand up to silence any more words before they came out, and focused on his screen.

Kemal resumed his seat at his own screen, his head turning in Drion’s direction every now and then. Drion appeared oblivious.

With neither Betelian speaking, Mark was at a loss. The only thing he recognised on either screen was the star but he thought it best to remain attentive.

Moloch returned a few minutes later, putting a tray down on the corner of the table. A bottle of green liquid and two glasses clinked softly. He uncapped the bottle and poured the drinks.

Mark moved away from the scientists to join Moloch.

“Professional disagreement?” he spoke quietly, nodding towards Drion and Kemal.

Moloch’s eyes widened slightly as he looked up and his jaw tightened. He passed one of the glasses to Mark before taking his seat near the table.

“Thank you,” Mark acknowledged, sitting down and sipping cautiously. He sucked in a sharp breath as the liquid burned its way down his throat, barely managing to avoid coughing and choking on it.

Moloch scanned the screens, but it was obvious he was outclassed in this field of expertise. He allowed himself to be distracted. He couldn’t relax, unable to keep still. His eyes and his attention shifted about the room. His wine gone in a few quick mouthfuls, he refilled his glass. He moved the bottle in Mark’s direction until he saw that his glass was over half full. He put the bottle back down, and took another drink.

“Why is Rache in denial?” Mark asked. “It’s a bit difficult to rule worlds that don’t exist.”

A wry smile worked its way to Moloch’s face as he lowered his glass. “At first, he thought it was a ruse by me. To flush out the emperor’s location.”

“A bit dramatic.”

“Rache is nothing if not dramatic…”

Mark remembered the hand on his jacket, lifting him from the ground, the eyes boring into his and the heated breath that filled his face.

“Realistically, the last thing he wants is fleets of alien ships turning up to threaten his hold on us.”

“You could have used another name,” Mark reasoned.

“Agreed. But then that name has no credibility.”

“And using Moloch shows your people that you’re on their side.” Mark knew as he said it that it was only half the truth. “And shows those you asked for help that you’re on the side of your people. That message was never meant for us.”

“We were after the Antarians. Their sun will supernova in a million years and their technology rivals ours. We used your Earth atmosphere to bounce our signals off. It is almost impossible to get a clear signal through the Milky Way and we, sort of, missed.”

“Will the Antarians help?”

“No, they have had no official request.” Moloch snorted a breath out. “And they will not get one. No one will. And they will not break their neutrality.”

Moloch began to show signs of excitement. He finished his wine and leaned forward in his seat. His eyes locked through Mark.

“The gamma line we use should not have been able to penetrate your atmosphere. But when you picked up our signal, broke our code and answered, we began to regain hope. Anyone capable of this should certainly be able to help. Your presence here is proof of that.”

Mark hesitated. He didn’t have answers. He had no idea how to stop a star collapsing into a black hole. He swirled his drink, watching the liquid circle as he spoke.

“You do realise we’re on our own?”

“That is a setback.”

“And we’re not scientists.” Mark looked up as Moloch remained silent. “Can’t you evacuate your worlds?”

Mark found he was asking the same questions they’d been messaging. Hopefully, face to face, he would get a proper answer instead of an uninformative, “No”.

“With a man in denial in charge? Paranoid enough to see conspiracies everywhere…?”

“Sir, we have picked up a message from the Earth ship, directed back to the Kuiper station,” Treak stated.

Moloch turned his head slightly and spoke over his shoulder. “What does it say?”

Treak’s face creased in confusion. “‘Knight’s guard two, to position three.’”

A puzzled look came over Moloch’s face and he looked to Mark for an explanation.

Mark was laughing to himself. “I think John’s just figured out what’s going on.”

 

Back to top

 

Chapter four

 

John, Sean and McReidy suddenly found themselves back on the ship. Carter was at the controls of the transporter. “Lieutenant Delaney’s on the bridge, sir,” he informed them.

“Thank you, Carter,” John answered. “Take McReidy to the sick bay for a once over –”

“No, you don’t,” McReidy declared. “I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

“You were showing signs of distress down on the surface.” John’s concern was genuine.

“I’m fine.”

“And I want you checked over. Now are you going, or do I have to carry you there myself?” His tone lowered slightly. His eyes left no doubt of his intention to carry out his words.

Her mouth opened to answer, then she hesitated, struggling to maintain eye contact with him. “Fine.”

“This way, sir… uh… ma’am,” Carter bumbled.

“Lieutenant Commander will be fine,” McReidy ground out, her eyes still on John.

“Yes, Lieutenant Commander,” Carter answered.

McReidy followed him to sick bay. Several times, he stopped and looked around.

“Do you even know where you’re going?” she asked.

“Umm… sort of, ma – Lieutenant Commander.” His face turned a shade of red as he poked it into a doorway, then relaxed visibly. “Here, Lieutenant Commander.”

McReidy strode past him into an empty sick bay.

They’d taken off without a doctor – or any medical staff – so there was no one to check her over.

“You don’t have to wait,” she told Carter as he stood to attention in the doorway.

“Yes, Lieutenant Commander.” He turned smartly and left. His boots echoed down the corridor.

Once alone, McReidy dropped into the nearest chair and lifted a hand to her head. She felt like crap. Now that she was alone, she could actually admit that.

And this whole thing – what started out as being a good promotion on a space explorer – was illegal. It could end her career before it even got started.

But, hang on, Captain Barrett had asked her to bring the ship home. Put her in charge and asked her to come home. That had to be a good thing. It had to count for something.

She had to go to the bridge, take charge and take this ship home. Just like Captain Barrett had told her.

She dropped her hand from her head and looked around sick bay. First, she needed to find a medical scanner and give herself a once over.

 

  • * *

 

Anthony had made himself at home in the captain’s chair. He sat still, his eyes closed. They opened and his head lifted slightly as he heard John and Sean come onto the bridge. “Sorry, I couldn’t get you up any sooner.”

“Did you find Mark?” John asked.

“No, and you’re welcome.”

John slid a hand through his hair and sighed. “Sorry, thanks. It was starting to get a bit hectic down there.”

“Always is when you punch someone out,” Anthony muttered. “And then shoot up the place.”

John saw Pilson at the helm. “You can go.”

“Yes, sir,” the navigator spoke quietly.

John watched him leave, then turned back to Anthony. “And Mark?”

Anthony shook his head. “Nothing.”

“So…?” John’s voice trembled.

“He’s… dead?” Sean whispered the word none of them wanted to think.

“No!” John snapped. “His communicator… Even if he were… his communicator…?” It was almost a plea.

“He’s not dead,” Anthony told them. “Even if… I’d still pick up his communicator signal.”

John’s breath escaped, deflating him. He reached a hand to the chair to steady himself as his knees failed. “So… no communicator signal means?”

“Blocked, jammed, destroyed… switched off. I dunno.”

John tried to focus on his earlier thoughts: Mark had let himself get captured. If he truly thought his life was in danger, he’d have fought his way out with them. He had to be okay, and somehow or other, he’d let them know.

“And Makdon?” Sean asked.

John’s head lifted as the question brought his thoughts back to the present.

“She’s been quiet since she took her weapons offline.”

“She just threatened us and backed off?” Sean asked.

Anthony’s face creased with uncertainty. “I think she was just letting us know she’s there.”

“Do we know anything?” John asked.

Anthony slid out of the chair and John took it. Anthony settled at the science console next to communications. He brought the planet up on the main screen and superimposed the relevant data he had discovered.

Gillespie was at communications. He lowered the earphones and rested them around his neck, keeping his eyes on the console but his attention on the conversation.

Sean settled himself at the vacant helm, turning the seat around so he could see everyone.

“The whole planet is surrounded by a force field,” Anthony explained. “It’s generated somewhere under the surface and projected from the magnetic poles. It’s a complete and faultless shield. Nothing can penetrate it.”

“But?” John knew Anthony had found a way around it or they would not be on the ship now.

“The only reason I could keep in touch with you was by upsetting the frequency balance of the field.” Anthony shook his head in frustration. “Someone down there is playing games with me. They’re chasing me up and down the band trying to jam. I tell you, I’ve got RSI of the armpits!”

John smiled.

“But the computer can change frequencies –” Sean began.

“Not quick enough on a random setting. I’d like to get a look at their communications set up.”

“We have.” John began to tell Anthony what they had seen, trying to recall every last detail.

The door opened and McReidy came onto the bridge. Sean let John talk and strode over to McReidy, his hand automatically reaching for her elbow.

“Are you all right?” he asked, genuinely concerned.

She caught his soft, blue eyes, and realised she had no anger towards him. “Yes, thanks. Just a bit dizzy. Med scanner said I’m fine.”

“Good,” he smiled.

Unaware of his touch, she allowed Sean to guide her towards the helm. He resumed his seat. She stood, leaning back against the edge of the navigation console, hearing the tail end of John’s description of the tracking room and the two sets of lights he’d seen.

“So, they are tracking me,” Anthony summed up. “Obviously they want to cut you off from the ship.”

“Wait a minute,” McReidy interrupted. “There were three sets of lights on that screen.”

“But Sean and I –” John began.

“When…” McReidy put her hand to her brow and tried to recall her thoughts through the cloud of dizziness. “When you and Lieutenant Daniels dropped behind the console… Yellow lights came on…”

“I asked Mister Delaney to get us out of there,” John prompted.

“That was when they came on.” She lifted one hand, waving her index finger in confirmation. “When he spoke… I can’t think…” Her hand moved to her brow again.

“Try,” John urged. “It’s important.”

“I can’t remember,” she sighed.

“Close your eyes,” John told her.

Reluctantly, she did so. Her hand dropped to her side.

“Just relax.”

He felt her tension increase as his words came out. Yeah, he remembered, tell someone to relax and they’ll do the opposite.

“Picture yourself in the communications room. Delaney’s trying to keep a frequency open. The red lights are him, the green is jamming.”

McReidy opened her eyes, her mind clear. Her dizziness was gone.

“You spoke. Lieutenant Delaney spoke. The yellow lights came on as he spoke. They made an identical pattern as the other two… Why, what does it mean?”

“Anything going down to the surface is spotted immediately. Outgoing, we have a slight delay. So, they can’t actually follow us on the ground, unless we’re in communication with the ship?” John looked to Anthony for confirmation.

“Sounds about right,” Anthony answered.

“Let’s assume for the moment they can’t. If we –” John caught McReidy’s glare and stopped. “You seem… upset.”

“Upset?” Her eyebrows lifted. “That is the biggest understatement of the year!”

“All right. Out with it.”

McReidy needed space. She pushed off the console and moved across the room. She stopped and turned around to face him, cold eyes cutting through him like a knife.

“You lied to me!” she seethed.

“Yes.” There was nothing else he could say.

“You stole this ship, that’s bad enough, but you’ve endangered the lives of everyone on board! What if Rache had blown up the ship like he threatened?”

“But he didn’t –”

“Don’t patronise me! You told me you had orders –”

“And you weren’t supposed to be here.” He rose to his feet, his tone matching hers.

“So, now it’s my fault?” she asked incredulously, suddenly taken aback.

Putting her on the defensive, John continued. “What were you doing on board anyway?”

“I wanted to familiarise myself with the ship. That’s not the issue. I’m taking this ship home.”

“Over my dead body!”

“Fine by me.”

“I came here to do something.”

“I’ve been put in charge and you are under arrest. Captain Barrett said –”

“I don’t care what Barrett said.”

“Regulations state –”

“And don’t you quote regulations to me!” He pointed a warning finger at her. “I know every one of them!”

“He should. He’s broken all of them.” Sean’s mumbled comment to Anthony received the glare it deserved. Feeling the heat, Sean cleared his throat and turned his seat to the helm, pretending interest in something.

If nothing else, the comment had given a few seconds break to John’s slowly simmering temper. A sharp breath out and he was under control again.

“I’ve got a man down on the surface and I’m not going home without him,” John’s intent was clear. “Or did you intend to just leave him there?”

“Sir, incoming message,” Gillespie slipped the earphones back up.

“Not now, I’m busy.” John’s attention remained on McReidy. “Well?”

McReidy slowly fumed. It was clear to all of them that she had no answer. The tension between her and John increased with every passing second.

“It’s on your gamma line,” Gillespie broke the stifling silence, his fingers tapping the keys. “Give me a sec to decode it…”

The silence continued as John and McReidy glared at each other.

“It says ‘Mark safe’,” Gillespie finished.

“What?” John spun around. “Track it.”

As he broke eye contact with McReidy, the tension snapped.

“It’s gone. That’s all it said.”

“Move.” Anthony stepped in and Gillespie made way for him. His fingers flicked over the console, his eyes fixed on the screen. “Fast track and extrapolate… direction… angle… time frame… wavelength… reverse projection… Come on…”

The computer responded as quickly as it could; data scrolling down the screen. Anthony’s fingers fidgeted above the keys. The screen cleared. The co-ordinates came up.

“Bingo. We’ve got it,” Anthony grinned. “It came from the star.”

“Then he’s okay,” John spoke quietly to himself. Relief flooded through him and the argument with McReidy was momentarily forgotten. “Moloch uses the star’s radiation to carry his messages. It’s a source that’s already there. So obvious it’s ignored. But why the secrecy?”

Then he remembered Rache’s words: “He is a legend in our mythology.”

He dropped into his chair. McReidy could stand there fuming. He didn’t care. He had more important things on his mind.

“Library,” he instructed the computer.

“Library open,” came the automated response.

“Do we have any information on Betelian mythology?”

“Confirmed.”

“Search for Moloch, or any references to him.”

“Confirmed… Moloch. Leader of the Imperial Armies of the Emperor on the third planet. Hero of many major battles. Betrayed to his enemies by the jealousy of the emperor’s son, he was murdered. Rewarded by the gods for his bravery and loyalty, his body was never found.”

“This happened when?”

“Forty eight thousand, two hundred and ten point nine years ago.”

“Well, it’s pretty certain he’s not alive today,” Sean remarked.

“So why is Rache afraid of him?” John wondered.

“Beats me,” Sean shrugged. “What happened to the body?”

“Unknown,” the computer answered.

“Not exactly.” John thought for a minute. Myths never ended with a simple death. “Search for prophecies.”

“Searching.”

“I don’t understand,” Sean frowned.

McReidy moved forward.

Anthony put out his hand to stop her. “Wait. He’s on a roll.”

“It’s not the past. It’s the future,” John’s thoughts weren’t quite there. “Come on, search,” he urged the computer.

“Search completed,” the computer informed.

“On screen.”

The information appeared on the main screen. They all turned to it.

John read quickly to himself. His eyes scanned the words and it began to make sense.

“Here it is,” he spoke aloud. “‘And with the final setting of the sun, Moloch shall rise against the enemies of the Emperor, restoring the throne to its rightful heir, thus creating a new age of peace among the worlds.’”

“No wonder he’s scared.” Sean couldn’t help smiling.

“And no doubt why he won’t admit the star’s dying.”

“But this is pure fantasy,” McReidy joined in, her fury momentarily diverted

“Not to them. It’s like religion. And Rache would sooner destroy an entire planet than risk the possibility of defeat.”

“So they didn’t chase us because they want Moloch,” Sean turned back to John.

“Well, they’re out of luck then because I have no idea who he is.” John shifted his gaze to McReidy. “Make your choice. You’re either with me, or against me.”

John could almost see her mind ticking over.

The star was going to explode. Or collapse. Or whatever. And no one except them seemed to care. And their presence was wrong and illegal. And planets were going to be destroyed and millions of people would die.

And Makdon sat watching. Waiting for an order that hadn’t yet come.

McReidy also had direct orders from the captain. If she chose that route, John was just going to have to throw her in the brig.

“I’m with you,” she decided.

“Good.” John smiled to himself. Throwing her in the brig would not have been his favoured choice.

“For now,” he thought he heard her mutter.

John turned back to Anthony. “How’s the star progressing?”

Anthony switched the screen from the prophecy to the star. It bubbled a deep orange. “Down to six hundred solar diameters. All readings within normal parameters.”

“All right. If they want to play games, we’ll play too.” His tone became formal as he took charge. “Mister Delaney, set up a Strategem board. Mister Daniels, you’re with me. McReidy, hold the bridge – What is it now?” he sighed as she rolled her eyes.

“Why am I staying?”

“I need you here.”

“Why, because I’m a woman?”

“Yes, I mean, no. I mean –”

She spun away from him in anger.

“You were distressed down there.”

She spun back. “To be expected after what you did.”

He felt himself blush. “I need you and Mister Delaney to handle things up here.”

“Aww, man, I never get any fun,” Anthony moaned. His disappointment softened the mood.

“You’re the only one who can get us back out of there.”

Anthony nodded and sighed, knowing John was right. That didn’t mean to say that he liked being left behind. “Yeah… fine.”

“Can you put us back where we were, undetected?”

“Sure, but –”

“Whoa…!” Sean interrupted.

John turned to him. “What?”

“I’m not going anywhere until I’ve had lunch, or breakfast. Or whatever time it is.” Sean folded his arms across his chest.

John ran a hand over his head. His stomach rumbled. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. “Sounds like a good idea, actually.” He turned to Anthony. “Give us twenty. Then send a message back to Kuiper. Tell Barrett…” John looked at the Strategem board and thought for a moment. “Knight’s guard two to position three.”

“You might want to reset your environmental timers,” Anthony advised them.

Both men checked and reset their timers, then headed for the door.

“Pancakes?” John asked.

“Kind of thinking steak,” Sean answered.

“Take too long. And too heavy.”

“Yeah… Okay, pancakes.”

The bridge door opened. Almost as an afterthought, John turned back.

“You’re welcome to join us,” he told McReidy.

“No, thanks.” Her stomach disagreed. If anyone heard it, they made no indication.

As John and Sean left the bridge, McReidy muttered to herself.

Anthony didn’t catch the words but felt he had to defend his friends. “There’s method in his madness,” he found himself quoting.

“Excuse me?”

“He’s got an understanding with Barrett. While they exchange moves on this board, he’s also passing messages to the planet. Two men going down to the third set of transportation co-ordinates. Exactly where I picked you up from.” Anthony grinned as he leaned back in his seat. “And they waste time cracking a code that doesn’t exist.”

“Captain Barrett will agree to this?”

“Definitely.” Gillespie joined the conversation.

“Not that he’s in a position to do anything else at the moment,” Anthony added.

“They’ve built up a great rivalry over the past couple of years,” Gillespie continued. “When it comes to Strategem, the commander is unbeaten.”

As McReidy looked at Gillespie, she detected admiration and loyalty for John. It was the same with Randall and the botanist. They were used to following his orders and did so unquestioningly – even though they knew he’d been transferred off the ship.

Pilson and Lakers gave John the respect his rank deserved. Cadets didn’t know any better and simply did as they were told.

“But how does that relate to Lieutenant Commander…?”

She frowned as she realised she didn’t actually know Mark’s surname. She couldn’t remember anyone using it. He was only ever called “Mark” or, by lower ranks, “sir”.

“How does that relate to Mark? How will he know where they are?”

Anthony grinned. “’Cause everything is being tracked. Rache is tracking us and I’ll guarantee that whoever’s got Mark is tracking Rache.” He switched on the intercom. “Sam, transporter room in twenty minutes.”

“Yes, sir,” Kowalski answered, and Anthony switched the intercom off.

McReidy took the captain’s chair. A sense of power filled her. She had never been in charge of a ship before and she intended to make the most of it. A good showing here could reflect well on her record.

She couldn’t help wondering how this was going to play out afterwards. She was the commander’s replacement. Would she get the same respect and obedience?

Again her stomach rumbled. Maybe she should have joined them; pancakes sounded nice. But she’d had more than enough of both of them for one day. She’d grab something later – when she could enjoy it. And that might help her headache go as well.

 

  • * *

 

Twenty minutes flew by. McReidy jumped when the intercom barked.

“Madison to bridge.”

“Yes, Commander.” McReidy’s voice was calm, showing none of the nerves she felt.

“Ready when you are, Mister Delaney. Once we’re down, stay offline until I contact you.”

“Okay,” Anthony answered. “Computer, engage Delaney program Raindrops.”

“Program engaged,” the computer confirmed.

“You might want to watch this,” he told McReidy. A boyish grin reflected the pride he had in his work as he called up the planet on the main screen. A mass of hazy spots flickered over the surface of the planet.

McReidy was fascinated. It reminded her of fairy lights twinkling on a Christmas tree. “That’s beautiful!”

“Thank you. I’ve got the transporter working overtime sending down some inanimate objects, moving them around and bringing them back up. Should be causing havoc with their tracking systems.” He turned to Gillespie, who was also watching the main screen. “Send Strategem now. Commander, go. And good luck.”

“Thank you, Mister Delaney.”

Anthony waited for confirmation from Kowalski in the transporter room that John and Sean were down safely, then let the program run for another fifteen seconds before turning it off. The screen went black. It was almost like coming out of a trance.

“No sense giving them too much time to figure it out.”

McReidy found herself smiling at Anthony. She couldn’t help liking him. “What do we do now?” she asked herself aloud.

“We wait.”

 

  • * *

 

John and Sean were put down at the edge of the village. It was light, though there was still an hour until sunrise. It was cool, the extreme cold of the night fading with the warmth of approaching dawn.

A tepid breeze carried childish laughter from one side of the valley. Children were scampering around the base of the valley wall while a few were testing their skill and bravery by climbing it. A couple of men sat relaxed under the eaves of a nearby building. Their voices tired, mugs raised intermittently to their mouths. A small group of women chatted a few buildings away, scrubbing brushes scraping on what looked like washing frames. Clothing, strung on a line between two buildings, flapped softly above their heads.

The relaxed atmosphere seemed to repeat at various points throughout the small village.

John and Sean moved to a position of cover where they could keep an eye on the comings and goings.

If John were right, Mark would have understood his message. Hopefully, he would meet up with them soon. There was also the huge assumption that Mark was in any position to be able to hear anything. Communication was unreliable and unpredictable.

He’d obviously gotten away from Rache and found their contact. Without causing a fight. Without getting shot at. John groaned in frustration.

“Wishing you’d kept your mouth shut?” Sean guessed.

John looked sideways at him. “That obvious?”

“Yep.”

John looked up at the lightening sky. A soft, purple tinge to the ozone hinted the approach of the sun.

“You reckon Mark talked Rache into letting him go?” Sean asked.

“If he let us go to lead him to Moloch, maybe he did the same with Mark.”

“Makes sense.”

“We’ve just got to go about this much smarter. And not do anything stupid.”

A thunderous rumble came from the far side of the valley, shaking the ground. John looked across to see boulders and rubble tumbling down. Dirt and dust puffed up the wall, hazing his view of where the children had been. The roar of the rockslide echoed around the valley, drowning out all other sounds.

The village came to life instantly in a tumult of movement. Mugs were dropped or placed down as the men ran to the wall. Women mouthed unheard screams. From inside buildings, doors flew open and Betelians rushed outside to see what had happened. Within seconds, the entire village was converging on the valley wall.

As the roar faded down the valley, deep voices could be heard shouting conflicting instructions and calling names that no one answered to.

While the men concentrated on the children trapped under the rocks, Sean spotted a lone child halfway up the wall.

As John watched the scene unfold, he didn’t notice Sean disappear. He only knew he’d moved when Sean handed him a white, cotton shirt. Frowning, he saw the compassion in Sean’s eyes.

“They can’t climb that,” Sean defended himself. “They outweigh us by fifty kilos, at least.”

Sean was right. Several men were trying to climb up to the child, which only resulted in more rocks being sent down on those below.

“This is not a good idea.” John slipped the shirt over his uniform and pulled the hood over his head.

“I know that,” Sean answered, and took off towards the scene.

“Just keep to the shadows,” John instructed and followed.

They ducked around the buildings and sprinted to the valley wall.

By the time they arrived, a state of panic had erupted and no one seemed to notice them. The child was about twenty metres up, huddled on a small ledge.

Sean sucked in a few deep gasps of air and attacked the wall. He climbed quickly and easily. His fingers and toes found the holds he needed, disturbing little of the dry, crusty rock. He looked up, collecting a face full of dirt. He shook his head, spitting out the muck and wiping his face on his sleeve, and continued upwards.

John climbed clumsily, seeming to find every loose footing that Sean had avoided. He was barely halfway by the time Sean reached the child, and wondered why he had bothered when it was so obvious Sean had the situation under control. He began to make his way back down.

Sean clung to the wall; his fingers hooked into a couple of tiny crevices, his boots barely balanced on the rough, jutting edges. He reached out and put a hand on the ledge, and felt it groan and shift. He took his hand off, and looked at the child.

The child shrank back against the wall, his wide eyes riveted on Sean. His nostrils opened and closed, his chin repeatedly jutting up as he sniffed the air.

“Come on,” Sean grasped the inside sleeve of the shirt to stop his hand showing and waved the child forward. He felt a boot slip and tried to ease his weight off it.

The child shook his head. His mouth opened and a low hiss came out.

Sean realised that he could be more afraid of him than he was of falling.

Sean scrambled for another foothold. He grasped the rock with his free hand and steadied himself. Then he lunged out and grabbed the child’s arm. The child screamed and struck out. Sean squinted as the fists came at his head.

He dragged the child to the edge of the ledge. The rock began crumbling. He slung the flailing arm around his neck and slipped the child off the ledge.

The sudden weight almost caused him to slip. The child’s second fist was about to connect with his head. With a shrill scream, the child opened his hand, clawing at Sean’s face for a grip before he fell.

“Let go,” Sean yelled as he slipped.

A couple of toeholds took his weight, spread eagling him on the wall.

He let go one hand and tried to pry the vicious grip from his face. “Let go!”

The child let go Sean’s face and grabbed his own arm. His full weight wrapped around Sean’s throat, cutting off his air supply.

For a moment, John thought Sean was going to fall.

Sean climbed down quickly, but found himself sliding the last few metres. As he hit the ground, his legs buckled. He collapsed into a heap and his hands went to his throat, coughing and gasping for air as he tried to pry the grip away. The child refused to let go.

John dropped beside Sean and tried to help. The small hands clung with the strength of an adult human and it took both of them to pry them off. Sean rolled to one side, curling up slightly and rubbing his throat as he gasped for air.

The child hissed at Sean, clawing after him.

John saw the woman rush towards them. He kept his head lowered. The hood of the shirt fell past his eyes and his face remained hidden.

“Ishtar.”

The child stopped in mid strike and turned to the woman. He reached up to her and she scooped him up as though he were weightless. His arms went around her neck and he buried his face in her throat.

She spoke too quickly for John’s communicator to translate, but her gratitude was obvious. John nodded and ducked away from her, hoping she’d move on as he turned his attention to Sean.

“Are you okay?” he whispered.

“Fine,” Sean gasped. “That kid’s as heavy as I am.”

As he helped Sean to his feet, John heard a muffled gasp of horror. He turned around. The woman was still there, staring at his hand poking out from beneath his sleeve. As her eyes settled on his face, she put her hand to her mouth to prevent screaming aloud and staggered backwards.

John stepped towards her, placing his hand on her shoulder to steady her. “Please, we mean you no harm.” His voice was calm and quiet.

“You speak… Betelian?” she whispered in panic, barely mouthing the last word.

John was glad the translators worked anywhere. “We only wish to help.”

She kept backing away, shrugging him off and holding the child close. Her eyes darted around.

John risked a quick glance around to see if anyone else had noticed. Sean was on his feet and only a step or two behind him. His body heaved as he sucked in air.

Most of the attention was on the buried children. Combined efforts were manhandling the huge boulders into the brightening light. Children were being dragged screaming and crying from beneath the mess. An occasional child was silent and limp.

The woman recovered from her initial shock and regained some of her composure. She looked from John to Sean and back again. “You are not Antarians?” she questioned cautiously.

“No.” John paused, not seeing the relevance of the question. “Should we be?”

“You are expecting someone?” Sean asked.

She nodded. “Come with me.”

She settled the child on her hip and led them back to the village proper. John and Sean glanced quickly at each other, and then followed. The child looked over his mother’s shoulder, directing low hisses at them.

“Hush, Ishtar,” she reached a hand around to pat his back.

He obeyed, his mouth still opening, but no sound coming out.

The woman stopped at one of the houses, opened the door and waved them inside. The child turned his head to face them, reaching out with tense, curled fingers to swat at them as they passed.

“Ishtar, no.” She put her hand on his arm to stop him and began to bounce him slowly on her hip.

With the barest of glances at the village outside, she stepped inside and closed the door behind them.

The room was simply adorned with basic necessities. A table stood in the middle with four chairs around it. They were hand carved from rock, the legs and edgings finished in intricate detail. A mural had been carved along one wall, depicting a forest hunting scene. The detail striking; the care to capture the scene obvious.

A little contradictory, John smiled wryly, considering there was no forest or animals in the immediate area.

A kitchen area had been fitted out along another wall. All the utensils visible appeared to have been hand made. A metal pot simmered on glowing red stones, bland aromas steaming towards the ceiling.

The woman seated them at the table, then put the child down, inspecting him quickly. He was unharmed physically, his dark eyes still locked onto Sean. Satisfied, she sat him on the floor and disappeared into the next room.

Sean leant across the table and whispered to John. “Antarians?”

“They have a similar age and history. Both stars, and presumably both civilisations, were born at about the same time.”

“And they’re both due to blow around the same time… theoretically,” Sean nodded. “They’re in the same situation.”

The door opened. A man stood there, brushing himself down before entering. John and Sean shrank into their shirts. The woman rushed back into the room and to the man as he entered, quickly closing the door behind him as she spoke in rushed whispers.

The man looked across, then to the child, then back to the woman. He uttered a few brief words, then strode to the table, his focus on Sean.

John and Sean stood up.

The man stopped in front of Sean. He stood almost a foot taller and grasped Sean by both arms, squeezing tightly.

Sean flinched.

“I owe you my son’s life.” The man was indebted, his voice humble.

“It was nothing,” Sean gritted calmly through clenched teeth. The man released his grip and Sean instinctively rubbed his arms.

“Come,” the man instructed.

“Where?” John asked.

“Come,” the man repeated.

John and Sean looked at each other.

“Watch the window,” the man told the woman.

She didn’t move, throwing a worried glance at John and Sean, then back to her husband.

“Ergard,” she hissed quietly. “We can’t. Our village is already being watched. Rache’s spies…” She was too afraid to finish.

“They pulled Ishtar from the rocks. I will not deny them safe passage,” Ergard replied.

She was not convinced, wringing her hands in front of herself.

“You brought them into our home,” he reminded her.

“Because our whole village would be punished,” she answered.

“I will take them to the checkpoint. From there, they will not be our problem.”

Problem? John thought. Great, just what they needed. To be someone’s problem.

“Did anyone else see you?” Ergard turned his attention back to John and Sean.

“I don’t know,” John answered. “No one else was interested. The kids were trapped under the rocks –”

“You are not Antarian.” It was not a question.

“No, human.” John took off the shirt. “Commander –”

“We do not wish to know,” Ergard cut him off. “It is not safe to know. You,” he turned to Sean, “I am indebted to you, but I cannot answer your questions.”

“All right,” Sean nodded in agreement, as if also agreeing to keep John’s mouth shut.

“I will take you where your questions may be answered.”

He easily slid the table across the floor and bent down to brush the dirt away from the edges of a trap door. Lifting the door, he indicated to John and Sean to precede him.

“What if they are spies?” the woman whispered.

“Then they will be dealt with.”

Comforting words to overhear as John and Sean slipped down the steps into darkness. Ergard followed, pulling the door shut. A grating sound above, John guessed, was the table being slid back into place.

The blackness was suffocating; the air stale. It felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen. John felt Sean’s presence beside him. Felt the heat of his stale breath. Sean had overexerted and his body was still craving oxygen.

There was a loud scraping, then a long scratch. A flame burst into life and flared up in the dark. Ergard used it to light the lamp he now held in his other hand. Once lit, he shook the flame out. Its dancing residue seemed to linger a few seconds after it was extinguished.

The lamp gave sufficient light for their immediate steps. Beyond was dark. Behind, the same.

Ergard had told them that he would not answer any questions; he also had no desire for conversation. John’s comments were met with silence.

“Shut it,” Sean hissed, reinforcing his words with an elbow to John’s ribs.

John took the hint. Keeping his thoughts to himself, they walked the best part of an hour in silence. The rock muffled even their footsteps.

From nowhere, they reached a checkpoint. Ergard spoke quietly with two guards who had appeared in the dark – their faces and silhouetted shoulders barely lit up in the faint light – then handed John and Sean to their care.

“They will take you the rest of the way,” he said before returning the way they’d come, taking the lamp with him.

The guards switched on their own lights.

Miner’s lamps, was all John could think as the bright lights shone from the centre of their foreheads, secured by a strap around their heads. The strong beams penetrated the tunnel, showing only the dark rock around them.

A short distance further, they stopped. One guard reached his hand to the rock, then they switched off their lights. As rock scraped, a slit of light flowed into the tunnel, widening and brightening quickly as the door opened.

Glare burst into the tunnel. John and Sean both shaded their eyes as they were grabbed by an arm each and shoved out of the dark.

 

Back to top

 

Chapter five

 

John tensed and immediately backed up, but found only a smooth solid wall. He squinted around the crook of his arm until his eyes adjusted enough to see that he wasn’t in any danger. He lowered his arm, still blinking strongly. Uniformed and plain clothed Betelians shot them startled glances before resuming work at consoles. Mark sat relaxed behind a table full of paperwork. The colonel from Rache’s office sat opposite him, waiting patiently.

John summed up the entire situation at a glance, though he had already put most of the pieces together.

“You could have told me!” he shot at Mark.

“I didn’t know. And I didn’t expect you to go charging through the front door like that.”

“I didn’t know I had to come around the back!”

“First rule of conflict –”

“I know,” John rubbed his eyes, glad he couldn’t see Sean’s look, and shook his head as his vision cleared fully. “Always do your homework. Well, I have. And you, I assume,” he turned to the colonel, “are the cause of our problem.”

“I am pleased to finally meet you, Commander. Forgive me for not contacting you sooner. We could not risk it.”

“So you let us walk in unprepared.”

“Not fully.”

“Say what?” Sean frowned, pinching the bridge of his nose and still squinting slightly.

“Our contact.” John raised an arm to indicate the Betelian. “Moloch.”

It took Sean a moment to register fully. “Oh great!”

“It kind of is, actually,” Mark smiled.

John was not appeased by either Mark or Moloch, but there were more important matters on his mind. “What progress have you made with the star?”

“It’s shrinking faster than we first thought,” Mark informed him. “It will shrink to about five hundred and fifty diameters in thirty hours. Current data suggests it won’t stop there. It’s begun creating the heavier metals and increasing its energy output.”

John walked to the table and Mark raised his hand. Expecting a high five, he looked up surprised as John grasped his hand tightly.

“I’m glad you’re safe, my friend.” He spoke softly; no one but Mark heard.

Mark smiled. There could be no greater symbol of John’s affection and concern. “We’ve got work to do. This,” he lifted a hand to indicate the Betelians at the console nearest him, “is Doctor Drion, astrophysicist, and Professor Kemal, chemical physicist. These two gentlemen were the ones who first discovered the star was in trouble.”

The scientists turned at the mention of their names. Neither looked particularly impressed by the new arrivals.

“Pleased to meet you,” John offered his hand. The Betelian grips were stronger than he anticipated and he flexed his fingers after they let go.

“Likewise,” Sean shook hands. He looked at the data scrolling up the screen and frowned, leaning towards John. “It’s in Betelian.”

“Uh-huh,” John nodded. He couldn’t read it either.

“Apologies,” Doctor Drion immediately began reeling off figures and statistics.

“Which way did they come in?” Moloch quietly asked the checkpoint guard.

“From Patnak. Ergard brought them.”

Moloch nodded thoughtfully. “Send out scouts. Make sure they were not followed to Patnak.”

Sean turned his head at Moloch’s words. “We got there by accident. At least, the first time. Second time, we were careful.”

“Rache would not think it an accident. If his spies saw you in or near the village, he would take it as deliberate.”

Well that explained the woman’s fear and Ergard’s desire to get them out of there.

“Rache also has my communicator,” Mark told them. “He can listen in and track everything we do if the line’s open.”

“Oh, great.” John lifted a hand to switch his communicator off.

Drion stopped talking as it appeared no one was listening to him.

“So we’re not safe?” Sean switched his communicator off as he glanced back at Moloch.

“We are safe underground,” Moloch answered. “Everything from the surface to your ship is blocked.”

“And on the surface?” Sean remembered what Anthony had said earlier about not being able to be tracked on the surface unless they were in contact with the ship.

“His network is extremely efficient,” Moloch answered.

Sean broke eye contact and met the doctor’s silent glare. “Sorry,” he apologised. “Please continue.”

Drion took a breath and continued from where he’d left off.

John pulled a chair over and sat down, making himself comfortable. He knew the basics of what Drion was saying only because he’d studied the data and spent so much time researching the star itself. But the doctor’s language and comprehension were way beyond his understanding. Kemal’s input brought new problems into the mix.

“We could do with Anthony,” Sean hinted, his eyes lifting to John.

John looked to Moloch, who looked to Treak at the communications console. The answer was a firm shaking of the head.

“You’re not making this easy, are you?” John grumbled.

“I have no choice,” Moloch answered.

“Mark?” John asked.

Mark shook his head. “I’m out of ideas.”

John and Sean gave it their best shot: comparing notes, putting forward theories, calculating equations. Whatever questions or theories were thrown into the mix, the doctor and professor had an answer to, backed up with calculations, equations and at least a page of notes. Even written in Betelian, the amount of data seemed to be insurmountable. Every attempt seemed to end the same way – the sun would become a black hole.

John had to concede defeat and backed out. His head was thumping and his eyes ached.

Sean still had some questions and theories, and continued the discussions.

John rubbed his eyes and scanned the room. Mark was involved in a discussion with a uniformed Betelian whose screen was showing a portion of the star. Everyone else seemed busy, except…

John’s attention rested on Moloch. He kept his distance from the discussions and sat a few metres from the table, watching on.

So the rebel leader was their contact. And one of Rache’s closest advisors. Great! No wonder he had access to the star’s data. Which meant Rache did also. The emperor knew the star was going to collapse. He couldn’t be in denial. It had to be bluff. John couldn’t see him staying there and being annihilated along with the planet. Then again, Makdon was hanging around. She’d be the bail out for the emperor and whoever he deemed valuable enough to live.

John didn’t know what to make of Moloch. While he’d figured a lot of it out, there was still much that didn’t make sense.

“Why?” John finally asked.

Moloch turned to him. “Why… what?”

“All of this. You sit there wearing Rache’s uniform, while the people you claim to want to help live in poverty. You have the technology. I assume you also have the troops.”

“It is not as simple as you make it out to be.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Can you possibly understand? A war that puts your own people against you? Almost thirty years this has been going on, and some of us have been in it from the beginning.”

“You’re in a position to do something.”

“Now, I am. For years, every operative we put in was discovered. Tortured slowly and killed in front of their village… their family and friends. A warning to anyone who even thought of going against Rache. Fifteen years, it has taken me, to get where I am. As Moloch, I have freedom and anonymity. Very few people know who I really am.”

“And you scare the hell out of Rache.”

Moloch took the comment as a compliment.

“All this would have been handy to know before we got here,” John continued.

“I could not run the risk. Rache has spies in my network, and I could not be sure of you. I have not met humans before. When you mentioned Moloch… Rache’s spies would not have done that.”

John took slight offence. What if he hadn’t lost his temper? Would he still be getting the third degree from Rache? “You kept Mark.”

Mark glanced to John at the mention of his name, then returned to his discussion.

“He picked me. Easily. Perhaps I am becoming slack. I worried that he would give me away and I could not risk that.”

“Yet you’ve got him here.”

“I will have to return him. Before Rache knows he is missing.”

“Perhaps Rache is setting us all up.”

Moloch stared back at John. It was obvious that he did not like that thought at all.

“The star’s collapse was brought to Rache’s attention a few years ago. At first, he was in denial. Then he believed it was a trick by Moloch. A ruse to get him to move our real emperor. Do not underestimate Trair.”

“This is a waste of time,” Sean’s voice rose in agitation. “Every suggestion I make, you jump on me.”

“You have not come up with anything we have not already thought of,” Kemal replied harshly. “We have been working on this for years.”

“Well, I haven’t. And if you knew this years ago, why did you take so long to ask for help?”

“Sean,” John warned.

“And I’m blaming you for all this,” Sean waved a finger at John.

“It is not your world. Not your lives at risk. If you cannot help, you should not have come,” Kemal stated.

Sean’s frustration almost found him on his feet.

Mark moved quickly. He placed his hand on Sean’s arm, knowing he had no real power to stop him. But it was enough to make Sean hesitate.

Maybe it was the size of the Betelian. Maybe the last comment was simply the truth. Sean lifted his hands in defeat. “All right,” he muttered.

“Gentlemen, this is getting us nowhere. Take a rest.” Moloch called a halt to proceedings before the situation got out of hand.

“Do you have any coffee?” John rubbed his tired eyes, knowing the answer before he asked.

“Coffee?” Moloch didn’t understand.

“Yes, it’s made from beans. You crush them up… boil water…” He tried to explain with actions. “Never mind.” He gave up; realising Moloch had no idea what he meant.

“We do have some wine,” Moloch suggested.

John looked at him curiously, then saw the empty bottle and glasses on the table.

“This particular planet may be desert. The others are quite fertile.” Moloch looked to his men. “Zarema, more glasses, please.”

Zarema disappeared into another room, returning momentarily with some fresh glasses. He put them down on the table and returned to his duties.

“Thank you,” Moloch uncapped the bottle and proceeded to pour.

John glanced to Mark, whose expression wasn’t giving away anything.

“It really is quite good.” Moloch passed the glasses around. “To mutual relations,” he toasted.

All glasses were raised in acknowledgement.

John sipped and spluttered as his throat felt on fire. Sean prepared for the worst as he watched John and managed to control himself as he took a tiny sip. Mark appeared unaffected. Moloch, Drion and Kemal emptied their glasses in one mouthful.

“You do not like?” Moloch asked John.

Mark hid his smirk, but the amusement played in his eyes.

“Let’s just say…” John coughed, “it takes a little getting used to.”

The second sip went down easier and slower. By the time the glass was empty, he was immune to its burning sensation.

“Why don’t we go back to square one?” Sean was acutely aware that his was the only glass not empty. “The star collapses into a black hole. The more matter it pulls in, the greater its gravitational force, the more its capable of pulling in. Can we evacuate the planets?”

“No,” Moloch answered. “Rache’s forces will see any approaching ship as a threat and destroy it.”

“Can we alter the orbits of the planets to keep them out of the event horizon?”

“Its reach is too great. Five planets will disappear before the collapse is complete.”

“So,” Sean pondered. “Theoretically, we need to reduce its gravity.”

“How do we do that?” Mark asked the impossible question.

“We can’t,” Sean answered.

“By reducing its mass.” John was off on a track all of his own. Ignoring the protests fired at him he continued, his thoughts travelling back to his school days. “When trying to explain the unknown, always choose the simplest answer. If the star had a smaller mass, it would not become a black hole.”

“You’re speculating,” Sean began, a horrible feeling coming as he guessed where John was heading.

“No… just work with me for a minute.” John’s brain was working overtime. “Theoretically, it is possible to reduce the star’s mass by a controlled explosion.”

“No,” came a number of voices.

“Theoretically,” John repeated, silencing them. “If we could break off a chunk big enough, we could slow down the collapse enough to produce a stable star.”

“Whoa, back up!” Sean interrupted. “Slow down? As in… what?”

 

“The star continues to burn, but at its smaller mass. The collapse will continue naturally. At its current rate, that’s no problem.”

“We don’t have the resources –” Sean shook his head.

“Or the technology to control that sort of explosion,” Mark added.

“No… but you do.” John turned to Moloch.

“No,” Moloch stated firmly, turning to Drion and Kemal for confirmation. They shook their heads. “We do not.”

“You use the star’s radiation. It doesn’t affect you as it should. Why not?”

“We use it as a source of energy for our system. We can control the radiation, but not heat. If the star was stable, even as a dwarf, we could still survive quite well. A supernova was never a threat to the inhabited planets.”

“Hang on a minute,” Sean scratched his head. “You can’t control the radiation of a supernova. It’ll kill every living thing in a fifty light year radius.”

Kemal glared at Sean. “We are aware of that.”

“You think in thirty years of war we have not prepared for a nuclear holocaust?” Moloch asked. “We just did not think it would come from our sun.”

“Can I get a message to my ship now?” John asked. “I need another man down here.”

“Oh, come on. Not even Anthony can make that happen,” Sean objected.

Moloch looked past John to communications.

“The network is quiet,” Treak nodded. “A solar flare will erupt in the next half hour. We can use that as cover.”

John smiled and dictated a short message.

Treak turned back to his console and keyed in the message. He monitored the flare, waiting for it to erupt so he could send.

The next half hour was reasonably quiet. Everyone was talked out. Another glass of wine seemed to ease the tension before it could build.

Twenty eight minutes later, Treak sent the message. John wondered how long it would take Anthony to reply. What he didn’t expect was for Anthony to materialise in the room within a minute of sending the message.

Moloch and the guards on watch reached for their weapons.

“No. No!” John raised his hands defensively and rushed to put himself between them and Anthony. “He’s one of mine.”

Anthony looked around in amazement, seemingly oblivious of the half raised weapons. His eyes wide, a grin forming on his face. “Wow…! Cool!”

Moloch lowered his weapon – his men followed suit – and threw a questioning look to John.

“There is no translation. Let’s just say he’s impressed.” He turned to Anthony. “How did you get down here?”

“Got a break with the flare,” Anthony shrugged. “It’s disrupting their systems. Anyway, about time you called me in. It’s getting a bit tense up there.”

“Makdon?” John worried.

“Nah, she’s cool. By the way, I’ve got a message from Barrett. ‘Pawn one to face. Scratch the ship and you’re life’s not worth living.’”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” John ran a finger around the inside collar of his jacket. Barrett didn’t make idle threats. “Better switch your communicator off. Rache has got Mark’s. Don’t need to leave him an open line.”

“Right,” Anthony switched off. “So, what’s happening?”

“I’ve got a theory.”

Anthony looked to the others, the doubt obvious on their faces. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“Oh, you’re going to love it,” John grinned, steering him to the table. “What do you make of this?”

Anthony glanced briefly at the amount of paperwork on the table. “You started without me,” he complained. “And it’s in Betelian… Well, what have you come up with?”

“Apart from the fact that he’s completely lost his mind?” Sean answered.

“This is not news,” Anthony ignored John’s narrowed eyes.

“Okay,” John began. “If we took all the antimatter from the ship and put it into the core of the star, how big a chunk could we break off it?”

“First, you’ve got to get close enough. Second, you’ve got to stop it blowing early. And, if by some miracle, you do get to the core, you might break a piece off the size of this planet.”

“So it is possible?”

“Anything’s possible… and you’re actually serious about this.”

One look at the faces around him told him that John was serious.

Anthony pulled a pencil from an inside top pocket. “Never leave home without one,” he smiled as he sat down at the table beside Sean. “Okay, what are looking at?”

“The calculations are here.” John sorted through the papers, looking for those he wanted and discarding the others.

“I don’t read Betelian. I’ll need a written language translator.” He looked around only to be met by blank faces, and sighed. “Great.”

Anthony cleared a spot and reached for some clean paper.

“Just give me what I ask for.” He looked around at the blank faces. “Anyone?”

Moloch waved an impatient hand at Drion, indicating he work with Anthony. The doctor sighed and turned back to his console. The star bubbled on its screen.

Kemal dragged up a vacant chair and sat next to Anthony. “Professor Kemal,” he introduced himself.

“Anthony,” Anthony replied.

“Doctor Drion,” Kemal pointed to the other scientist. “It was he who first discovered the star’s fate.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Anthony nodded to Drion.

Drion grumbled a greeting and eyed Anthony doubtfully.

Anthony began to sketch a rough drawing. Feeding information to Drion, who punched it into the computer console and read back the answer, he soon had the table covered in diagrams. Some he had discarded impatiently as the answers disagreed with his projections. Others looked fine until Kemal pointed at a flaw in logic or practicality.

Moloch leaned towards John. “Does he –?”

John held up a hand. “Let him go.”

Time ticked. Anthony’s frustrations were with himself as the data refused to fit his plans. He refused an offered glass of wine, needing to keep his head clear. Several times, he tossed his pencil down, leaned back in his chair and buried his face in his hands. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples thoughtfully.

He fired questions at the scientists, sometimes encouraged by their answers. At other times, he wished he’d never asked. The star’s changing conditions made things unreliable. He’d seen the data on Earth. Who hadn’t? A star that close about to blow itself out of existence had all the boffins interested. It had been studied at the academy. And any engineer worth his salt had gone off and studied it independently – for any number of reasons.

But the data had been old; distance had a tendency to do that. And the Betelians had not been forthcoming with anything crucial. But this… this was as up to date as the star. Within minutes of it happening. It was possible to take some readings, predict what would happen in an hour and watch it happen. It was an effort for Anthony not to allow himself to be distracted by the majesty of the star.

Finally, he put the pencil down and rubbed his eyes. “If you can get enough antimatter and find a way into the star, I can stop it exploding until it reaches the core.”

“Anthony, you’re a genius!” John barely contained his excitement. “How?”

“We can contain the antimatter in a magnetic field. But the heat of the corona is enough to disrupt it, causing it to burn up immediately.”

“How do we get through the corona?” Sean asked.

“Sunspots… Do you have any regular sunspots?” John turned to anyone in the room who might know the answer.

“Yes,” Kemal answered. “There are many.”

“How do we get in close enough to use them?”

“Wait,” Moloch frowned, putting up a hand. “What good are sunspots?”

“A sunspot is a magnetic field,” Anthony explained. “The temperature is way cooler, which means we avoid a massive amount of heat. It can also contain the antimatter, though we’ll have our own containment as well.”

“Sunspots move,” Kemal told them, his eyes remaining on Anthony. “And they rise, not fall.”

“Yeah,” Anthony squirmed a little. “But they’re predictable. We just gotta pick the right one.”

“Are you aware of the forces involved in any of this?” Moloch asked.

Anthony lifted his head and eyed the Betelian. “Actually… yes.”

Moloch had doubts.

Anthony picked up the last sheet of paper he’d been working on and offered it to Moloch. “You want to check my calculations?”

There was silence as Moloch looked to Drion and Kemal. The scientists’ faces were tired and blank. His gaze turned to each of the humans. Finally, his eyes rested on Mark.

Mark immediately put his hands up in front of him. “Don’t ask me. At this point, I’m lost.”

“You must have some opinion.”

“I see that you don’t have much choice. Mister Delaney is excellent at his work.”

Anthony couldn’t help grinning.

“But you risk the lives of millions,” Mark continued. “One tiny error and the consequences are uncontrollable. Yet, if you do nothing…”

“The consequences are known…” Moloch let out a long sigh. The room waited for his verdict. “Theoretically…” he turned to Drion, “how would we get to a sunspot?”

“The fourth planet has an elliptical orbit,” Drion answered. “At its closest point, it comes within fifty million kilometres of the star. Too close to be inhabitable. It has two moons, both quite small. One has a hydrogen atmosphere. It would explode before reaching the star.”

“The other?” John asked cautiously.

“It has an oxygen based atmosphere.”

This did not inspire much enthusiasm in John, who looked to Sean for encouragement. Anthony’s head crashed onto the table and he groaned in disgust. Kemal shook his head slowly.

“Anything else?” John asked.

“No,” Drion shook his head.

“When does the moon reach its closest point?”

“No,” Kemal cut him off. “You want to put oxygen into a fire, and hope to contain antimatter in it?”

“Then give me something else.” Anthony straightened up quickly, his hands balling into fists on the table as he turned to the professor.

“You would be better to fly your ship into it.”

“That’s not going to happen,” John declared loudly, causing a chilling silence.

Drion turned back to the console. His soft tapping of the keys eased the tension.

“The Beta sunspot will be active again in five hours.”

“Five hours?” Anthony’s face screwed up. “That’s not much time.”

“Wait,” John frowned. “That’s Betelian hours?”

“Yes,” Drion answered as though it were a given.

John did the rough calculations in his head. “Okay, then we’ve got plenty of time.”

Anthony’s eyes remained on Kemal. “It shouldn’t take much to knock the moon out of orbit and send it in. You know it’ll work, Professor.”

Kemal didn’t answer; didn’t deny it.

“Run a simulation,” Moloch ordered.

Anthony moved to the console and worked with Drion to set up a simulation. He kept referring to his notes to make sure everything was exact. The simulation ran… perfect.

“Yes!” John hissed quietly, punching a fist slightly into the air.

“Again,” Moloch ordered.

Again the simulation was successful.

“Change the variables,” Moloch ordered.

Drion changed one calculation – and the screen blinded them with a brilliance of the star’s uncontrolled explosion. Drion and Anthony retrieved data in the ensuing silence.

Moloch glanced to Kemal, who remained silent.

“More destruction throughout our solar system than if we’d done nothing,” Drion finally announced to no one’s surprise.

“Again,” Moloch ordered.

Anthony turned his chair around. “Look, we can do this all day. You get it right, it works. You don’t, and it doesn’t… Someone needs to make a decision. Are we doing this or are we going home?”

Moloch waved his scientists towards him and they moved away. Their words were too quiet to be heard, but the discussion was animated. There was arm waving, pointing, eye rolling. Several times Moloch would look or point at the humans, then throw his arms in the air. At one stage, he turned to storm away, only to quickly turn back and wave a threatening finger at Drion.

Drion turned the tables, throwing back his own visual threats. When both turned to Kemal, he hesitated, then sided with his fellow scientist. Moloch was silent. Then he began to slowly shake his head as if the decision were too great for him to make.

Kemal spoke. Then Moloch cut him off, speaking slowly and clearly.

“Do you trust him?” were the soft words filtering through John’s translator.

Kemal’s mouth opened, as he nodded. Moloch turned to Drion, who was also nodding.

Moloch looked back to the humans. It was clear he was going to regret whatever decision he made.

“Is there a pull out point?” he asked, his gaze focused on Anthony.

“Yes,” Anthony answered. “As long as we have control of the containment field, we can pull out at any time.”

“If you lose control of the containment field?”

“Then we won’t have time to worry about anything.”

John glared at Anthony as that sudden reality sank in.

“Hey, you want me to lie?” Anthony asked him.

John shook his head.

“We stuff this up, we are dead,” Anthony stated. “And I’m kinda partial to my existence, so I have no intention of this not working.”

“Do it,” Moloch decided.

“What do you need?” John asked Anthony.

“A miracle.”

“Seriously.”

“I am serious.” He sighed loudly. “Basically, antimatter. For the magnetic field, eight pylons would be nice, but I can manage with six. I can do that from the ship.”

“Give him whatever he needs,” Moloch instructed the scientists.

“You guys, with me,” Anthony nodded towards Kemal and Drion as he gathered some of his papers. “I hope you’ve got some of this stuff.”

“We do,” Kemal answered. He walked past Anthony to the door. “This way.”

Moloch turned to the guards, standing silent at the tunnel entrance. “Go with them.”

“Sir,” the guards moved as one, straightening to attention in acknowledgement of their orders.

Drion retrieved a chip from the console he’d been working at, waiting a few moments as Anthony straightened his wad of papers, tapping the opposite edges with his fingers before lifting the wad and letting it slide between his hands to level one edge on the table. He smiled at Drion and they followed Kemal. The guards fell in behind them.

“If we are to succeed, I need Rache off my back,” John told Moloch. “We need to be able to move around freely without any of his surprises.”

“I do not know if I can do that.”

“You’re the only one who can.”

“I cannot afford to be discovered. He would kill us all.”

“You threw us in at the deep end, and you can’t afford to be discovered? You know I have no authority to be here. Have you got any idea what my superiors are likely to do to me?”

“Sir, I am receiving a distress call from the surface,” Treak interrupted.

“What is it?” Moloch asked, his attention diverted from John.

“I cannot… tell.” Treak froze, his face haunted by a look of death.

Mark rushed to his side, pulled the earphones from the man’s head and lifted one piece to his ear. The line was dead. He lowered the earphones and spoke calmly to Treak. “What did they say?”

There was no response; the man stared blankly ahead.

Mark squatted down to the man’s height and looked into his eyes. His pupils had shrunk – a sign of his withdrawal.

“Just relax,” Mark spoke quietly, waiting for some response.

The pupils flickered momentarily. Mark clicked his fingers in front of the man’s eyes. He blinked, his head moving back instinctively.

“Tell us what you heard.”

“The village…” Treak blinked several times, his focus on Mark. “It is gone… Nothing left…”

“What village?”

“My village… Patnak.” Treak came back to his senses as he named the village. He rose to his feet and turned to Moloch. “Sir, Rache’s forces have wiped out the entire village.”

“Survivors?” Moloch asked.

“I do not know. Unlikely, if the village…”

John stepped forward, grabbing Moloch’s arm. “Because of us? He tracked us there?” he asked fearfully.

“No. Because of me.”

“Would he have checked the cell?” Mark worried.

Moloch considered. “Possibly. Even if he knows you are missing, he will not know where to find you.”

“If revealing yourself means saving the lives of your people, then maybe it’s about time you did,” John stated. “Give them a reason to fight.”

Moloch pulled away from John’s grip and moved to Treak. “Do they know about us?”

Treak sat down, grabbing the earphones and working his console. “If they found the tunnels, they will find us. And every other village they are linked to. If they tracked our earlier signal, they will know.”

“No, we have always been careful about that.” Moloch was sure of that. Maybe the attack was frustration on Rache’s behalf; maybe not. He looked at Mark. A stranger had picked him within minutes. Had Rache also?

“Sir, can you confirm Emperor Komodo’s location?” Treak asked. “Perhaps Rache has let slip –”

Moloch shook his head, his thoughts back to the immediacy of the situation. “Only the planet. I was waiting for more information from Drago. We are not ready, but it appears we have no choice. Call the fleets. We do not have much time.”

They worked too quickly for John to follow. He watched in silence, his muscles tensing.

“Did you hypnotise him?” Sean asked Mark.

“No,” Mark answered. “I allowed him to clear his mind and unblock his subconscious before the shock set in fully.”

“I didn’t know you were a telepath.”

“I’m not. The body will cure itself if you restore balance.”

Moloch gave his men their orders. They drew and checked their weapons, nodding their acknowledgement. A few slipped into the tunnel as the wall opened, the rest headed out the door Anthony and the scientists had used.

Moloch turned his attention back to John. “You will have the distraction you need. It is time our Emperor returned.”

Sean remembered the prophecy, his tone urgent. “John, we didn’t come here to start a war.”

“No, but we may just help finish one.”

“Stop the star,” Moloch continued. “You are our one chance. I could not have asked for more. If you are ever in need of my help, do not hesitate to ask.”

An explosion shook the ground. The ceiling groaned as it began to crack and crumble. John put a hand on the table to steady himself. Sean’s chair rocked. Mark reached for the nearest console and kept his footing. Moloch swayed on his feet, grabbing at the nearest chair, which tumbled over, taking him with it. Treak clung to his console as his chair threatened to topple.

Another explosion erupted, this time closer. The ground shook more violently, causing everyone to grab something solid to keep their feet – except Moloch who was still down. Light rubble and dust fell from the ceiling. The lighting flickered, then came back on.

“It appears,” Moloch concluded, rising to his feet, “that we have been discovered. My men will take you to the surface.”

John looked around and frowned. Treak was the only one left.

Moloch turned to Treak. “Get them out safely, then blow this place. We have too much here for Rache to get his hands on.”

“Yes, sir.” Treak’s voice was laced with a steely resolve. He pulled a weapon from his console drawer and checked its power level.

“Anthony,” John panicked. “He’s with your scientists.”

“I’ll get them out,” Moloch assured him.

The ground shook a third time. John held onto the table tightly, but was still rocked from his feet and found himself half under the table as it threatened to topple on him. The ceiling crumbled down onto them. A huge boulder cracked. John threw himself away from the table, covering his head with his arms as the boulder smashed the table. The sound ripped through his ears.

He looked around as dust filled the air, rising up his nose and into his eyes. He sneezed, the sharp intake of air hitting the back of his throat with dry dust, causing him to choke and splutter before the sneeze fully erupted. Snot and saliva flew everywhere. He rubbed his eyes on his sleeve as the irritating specks made them water. The lights kept flickering.

Moloch was gone. Sean was helping Mark to his feet; the two of them no more than dust ghosts.

The rest of Anthony’s notes were still on the table, half buried under dust and rock. John hurriedly gathered them together and stuffed them into his jacket.

“We haven’t got time.” Sean grabbed John and pulled him away. “This place will come down any second!”

“This way,” Treak waved them towards the tunnel entrance as the lights fizzled and died.

John, Sean and Mark followed Betelian voices into the tunnels. Two tunnel guards were waiting for them, lights swivelling on their moving heads. They shone briefly on each of them before pointing down the tunnel, showing nothing but dust in front of them.

“Move,” John shoved Mark and Sean in front of him, glancing over his shoulder at the dark tunnel behind him before following his friends.

They were buffeted against the walls as the ground shook, the rock disintegrating around them. The ceiling pummelled down and the dust rose. John held one hand out to the wall, which kept shaking free from his touch, and buried his nose and mouth in the crook of his other arm.

He heard Mark coughing and Sean swearing to himself.

“Madison to Magellan,” John called, switching on his communicator and losing his footing as the ground shook beneath him. It was too late to worry about whether Rache was tracking the communicator signal.

He received no answer.

“Madison to Magellan!”

Again there was no reply.

He changed tack. “Madison to Delaney.”

“Yeah, I’m on the surface,” Anthony answered through a line full of static.

“Can you get us out?”

“Not yet. I’m using… transporter…”

“You’re fading, Mister Delaney.”

“I said… the –sporter… anti–…”

“Understood. Keep going.” If Anthony had the ship transporting antimatter, it had to be completed and contained properly before they could think about transporting anything else. The slightest error would cost them the ship. And John doubted anyone on the ship had any experience handling the stuff.

The tunnel shook with enough force to knock them all off their feet; bouncing them into walls before they hit the ground. John buried his face in the dirt and covered his head with his hands as a large portion of the roof collapsed on top of them. Jagged pieces hit his back and legs, scratching at him through his uniform. A piece threatened to slice his shoulder blade. If it hadn’t drawn blood, there was going to be a massive bruise.

A low scream pierced the dark behind him. It rocked through John, its echo bouncing around them all.

As the collapse settled, John lifted his head and looked around, coughing the dust from his throat.

The head lights were on the ground. One pointed ahead, not moving. The other wavered slightly upwards. John could barely see through the haze of dust. A moving body beside him he identified as Sean and he was glad he couldn’t clearly see the murderous look he was being given.

Sean opened his mouth to speak, but sucked in a huge breath of dust and began coughing.

“Everyone all right?” John asked, thumping Sean on the back. He barely heard Mark’s reply over Sean’s coughing, but hearing his voice was enough to know he was alive.

“In a… minute,” came Treak’s strained reply. “Jelak is caught under the rock.”

John and Sean scrambled to their feet and staggered uneasily in the direction of the voice. Mark was straining against the rock, trying to move it. Jelak’s light shone up into his face, silhouetting him against the roof of the tunnel.

Treak snapped the light off the motionless body beside him and rose slowly, putting it on his own head.

In Treak’s light, John could see that Jelak’s upper body appeared to be trapped. He threw himself at the rock, stumbling over Sean in the process. The rock refused to budge.

Treak shone his light down the tunnel behind them briefly, then added his strength to the rock. It scraped slightly across the ground.

“Stop!” Jelak screamed.

All four men stopped.

“It’s just crushing him more,” Sean panted.

“We need a lever of some sort,” Mark added. “We need to lift it, not push it.”

“Delaney to Madison… I’m on the ship.”

“Good,” John breathed.

“I can’t get a clear signal on all of you. I can only take you one at a time.”

“Proceed.” The sound of weapon fire stopped John in his tracks

“Get them out,” Jelak yelled to Treak. “Give me your weapon. I will hold them back for as long as I can.”

“Mark,” John shook his head in acceptance. “Come on.”

Mark hesitated, looking down at Jelak. John grabbed his jacket and shoved him down the tunnel.

“Go.”

A firm shove in the middle of John’s back accompanied Treak’s voice, and he stumbled forward into the dark. He put his hands in front of him to feel his way and brushed Sean’s jacket.

Flashes of light skimmed past him, and he pulled Sean back against the wall. Screams from behind told him all he needed to know, as Treak’s light hit the ground and shone faintly through the dust and down the tunnel. He couldn’t see or hear Mark in front of him, and he hoped like mad that Anthony had managed to get him out.

“Move,” Sean whispered as dark shapes loomed into the hazy light.

They took off. John’s first step bounced him into a wall. His head and nose ached as he rebounded back, smacking the back of his head against the rock behind him. He shook his head, his eyes watering as he lifted a hand to his thumping nose and staggered forward a step.

“And what do we have here?”

A cold laugh sent a chill down John’s spine as he recognised Trair’s voice. The colonel was no more than a haunting, shadowy figure in the filtering light. A hand gripped John’s throat like a vice and he felt himself lifted from the ground. He tried to pry open the clawed grip as he gasped for breath.

He was slammed backwards against the rock and held there. His feet automatically rose and lashed out at chest height. It seemed to have little effect. He was pulled off the wall and slammed back against it. With the air forced from his body, he choked for breath. His head ached and he began to feel dizzy. His body went limp; his mind fought the overwhelming numbness.

Sean swung a fist at his assailant, who caught it and squeezed tightly. As he felt his hand being crushed, he sank to his knees in pain. A tremendous jolt to the jaw sent him flying through the air. He landed on his back in the soft dirt. He shook his head to clear it and pushed himself up from the ground when he saw a weapon centimetres from his head.

“Do not tempt me,” a voice warned.

Deciding against further action, he slumped down, his eyes darting about. He saw John dropped to the ground like a rag doll, his knees buckling beneath him.

“John!” he called anxiously.

“He is alive,” Trair stated. “For the moment.”

 

Back to top

 

Chapter six

 

John slowly began to register. His eyes refused to open. An incredible pressure crushed his chest; a dull ache squeezed his shoulder blade. His head moved, but he was more aware of the tendons running down the side of his neck aching. The pressure eased as his head sagged forward, then seemed to jerk backwards involuntarily. Something smacked his left cheek, shooting his head to the right. His cheekbone throbbed. Then an impact to his right cheek sent his head to the left. His eyes struggled to open; the air to his lungs was stale. A far off noise reached his ears.

“Come on.”

His eyes opened, flickering messages jolted through to his brain. A dark shape filled most of his view; brightness behind it.

He was upright, but his feet touched nothing. The dark shape cleared into Trair’s face. The Betelian’s forearm was jammed across his chest, pinning him to the wall behind.

John’s brain reacted, but his body wouldn’t respond.

His head wanted to fall forward again, but he found the conscious will to hold it up, smacking it against the wall behind him again.

Air seemed to escape his body with verbal accompaniment. He tried to suck in a breath, but the forearm across his chest refused to allow his ribs to expand and he could only take tiny gasps.

The pressure eased and he slid down the wall. His feet touched the floor but were momentarily unable to support him and he continued to sink.

The pressure to his chest increased again as Trair held him for a few more seconds. His head cleared and he began to support his own weight.

He saw Sean to one side of him. He was little more than a figure of grey dust. His face was drawn; his eyes clouded with worry. Moloch held a weapon to his head.

John was aware enough to realise Sean’s concern was not for his own situation. His gaze returned to Trair. The Betelian backed off.

John sagged slightly as the pressure was released. Then he straightened up and took in his surroundings.

Rache’s office. Oh, great!

He wiped his hand down his face and dragged himself back to full awareness. His face ached; his left cheek throbbed and he could feel the heat in it. He blinked strongly to help clear his hazy vision and lifted a hand to gingerly touch his cheek. As he lowered his hand, he saw blood staining the dust on his fingers.

Moloch lowered his weapon and moved away.

John turned to Sean. “Are you all right?” he asked quietly. Fingers felt like they still clutched his throat.

Sean glanced down at his swollen right hand and couldn’t decide whether it hurt more than his jaw. “I think something’s broken.”

“Silence!”

They both jumped as Rache roared. John’s head smacked back into the wall again, and he let out a groan. He lifted a hand to the back of his head, expecting to feel a lump. No lump – yet – but a couple of tender spots.

He tried to summon up his courage. This was no time to show fear. He had to think clearly. He had to stall. It was only a matter of time before Anthony would pull them out of there.

Rache paced back and forth the length of his desk, his hands clasped behind his back. He seemed to be deep in thought. Trair had backed away to sit on a corner of the desk. His hand rested on his weapon, his eyes watching for any reason to pull the trigger. Moloch stood quietly by the desk, a step behind his fellow Betelians, his weapon ready. He watched, but beyond that he was completely veiled.

John’s eyes were riveted on Rache.

“It appears,” Rache began slowly, “that you have placed me in an unusual predicament. You have something, or should I say someone, that I want.” He stopped pacing and spun to face John. His icy glare was met by a forced one. “Where is Moloch?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” John lied.

Rache stormed across to John, glaring down at him.

John lifted his eyes, wary of the wall behind him, as he forced himself to maintain eye contact. The hot, foul breath was suffocating.

“I could easily kill you!”

“But you won’t.” John was confident.

“Not as long as I wish to stay on peaceful terms with your government. However…” Rache’s tone grew dark as his anger rose. “I have been after Moloch for over twenty years. You will tell me where his is.”

“I will not.”

Rache grabbed John’s jacket front with both hands. Lifting him from the ground, he slammed him backwards into the wall.

John groaned as the air was forced from his lungs. But he had no time to recover as Rache flung him sideways. He flew across the room and hit the side wall halfway up. His body crumpled and slid to the ground. Dust clouded around him.

After the pounding a little while ago, every bone in his body jolted painfully. His feet slipped underneath him as he tried to will them back under control. He gasped for air, coughing several times as he sucked in more dust than oxygen.

Rache turned his attention to Sean.

“Mister Delaney,” John whispered anxiously as he struggled to get up, swaying back against the wall for support. He sucked in a breath and coughed it out almost immediately as it stuck in his throat.

“Your ship cannot hear you.” Rache had excellent hearing. “The planet is completely sealed off. If you will not tell me where Moloch is, perhaps your friend will.”

Sean grimaced tightly as Rache grabbed his swollen hand and began to squeeze. He dropped to his knees and cried out in agony.

“Leave him alone!” John stagged towards them. Trair’s weapon lifted, and he changed his mind.

“Rache, let them go.” Moloch’s voice was a welcome relief, if only momentarily.

“You will tell me,” Rache glared down at Sean.

“They mean no harm,” Moloch raised his voice. “They are not your enemy… I am.”

Rache turned slowly. Moloch’s weapon pointed directly at him. Trair had his attention on John. As his head turned to Moloch, his smiled disappeared. He realised he could not move quickly enough to reverse the situation and waited.

Moloch already had Trair’s measure. “I will take that,” he indicated the weapon.

Trair hesitated, summing up his options.

“Rache for him?” Moloch guessed. “You would not do that.”

Trair lowered his weapon. Moloch took it, and moved back out of range.

“You are Moloch?” Rache asked in disbelief. Dismissing the initial shock, he continued angrily. “I never did trust you. You were always too soft.” To move forward he had to release Sean’s hand, or drag him across the floor – which was a viable option.

“Let him go,” Moloch nodded towards Sean.

Rache flung Sean’s hand away.

Sean cried out as the force of it wrenched his arm in its socket. His hand was a ball of agony attached to his numb arm.

John skidded to his knees beside Sean. “Are you okay?”

“No… You?”

John didn’t answer as his eyes remained on the Betelians. Their focus was on Moloch; he and Sean ignored.

Trair inched towards the edge of the desk, his feet brushing the floor. Moloch smiled, raising an eyebrow, and Trair stilled.

Moloch’s eyes moved between Rache and Trair. They would try to corner him. Someone was not coming out of this room alive. That didn’t seem important to Moloch. If the star blew, they would all die anyway. Whether it was today or a year from now, it wouldn’t matter. Get the humans out and there was still some chance.

“Let them go,” he repeated while he still had the upper hand. “I have no hesitation in killing you.”

“I think not,” Rache disagreed. “You do not know where Komodo is.”

“In fifteen years, I have found out a lot.”

“Not enough if you needed them.” Rache tilted his head back in John and Sean’s direction. His gaze never moved.

“Back off… and let them go.” With a weapon in each hand, Moloch pointed one at each Betelian.

Rache valued his own life above that of any human – above that of anyone. He nodded to Trair, who leaned back over the table to the console and released the force field.

“Mister Delaney,” John struggled to keep his voice normal. “Two to transport up.”

“Yes, sir. Stand by,” Anthony answered.

John sighed with relief at the familiar voice. He looked to Sean, who couldn’t even manage a smile.

“This is not your war,” Moloch spoke to John. “Go in peace, my friend.”

John bowed his head slightly with thanks and respect.

“We shall meet again, Madison!” Rache promised.

“Not if I can help it.” As John disappeared, he saw first Trair then Rache throwing themselves at Moloch. The weapons fired.

 

  • * *

 

John took Sean to sick bay and sat him down. The place was deserted.

“Do you not have a medic?” Sean cried out.

“Afraid not.” John looked around for a medical scanner. “Where…?”

“Anyone with First Aid?”

“Well, we’ve all got basic First Aid.” John opened a cupboard above the bench. “Ah, here.” He picked the scanner up and turned to Sean.

Sean glared. “You are not touching me!”

“Fine. I’ll get someone else.” John slapped the scanner into Sean’s left hand and reached to the top shelf of the cupboard. He pulled out a small bottle and slammed it on the bench. “Here are some painkillers.”

He turned and headed for the door, hearing the soft purr of the scanner behind him.

John headed straight for the bridge. His head was reasonably clear. He slid a finger around the inside of his collar, but it wasn’t the collar that he still felt pressing on his throat.

“Sean’s in sick bay,” he announced as the door opened and he stepped onto the bridge. “If anyone has more than a passing knowledge of First Aid, he could do with the help.”

He quickly scanned the bridge for volunteers and was relieved to see Anthony and Mark there. Anthony was clean – a clear sign that he had gotten out with little or no trouble. Mark had a light dusting of grey, most of it already brushed off; his face clean and hair damp. He raised an eyebrow, but John gave him the slightest shake of his head.

The crew looked around at each other, then the botanist got to her feet.

“Sir, I did six months nursing –”

“You’re it,” John told her. “Go.”

“Someone will have to keep an eye on that carrier –”

“I’ll do that.”

John looked up at the main screen, expecting to see Makdon. Instead, the screen was full of calculations and drawings. It reminded him of a school classroom.

Mark was at communications, relaxing in the seat while he paid attention to Anthony. Anthony had the entire console area and part of the floor covered in papers. Lakers was at science, his focus shifting between his screen and the paperwork; the geologist baffled by what he was seeing.

“Glad to see you both back in one piece,” John commented. He stopped in his tracks when he saw McReidy in the captain’s chair, while Randall looked out of place at the helm. “Do you mind?” he asked McReidy.

“What?” she answered, only half listening. Reluctantly dragging her eyes from the main screen, which Anthony was using to run a series of tests, she met John’s frown.

“My chair?”

“Oh, sorry.” She hurriedly vacated the chair and took her position at the helm. Randall shifted across to navigation.

“Did you get enough antimatter?” John asked Anthony.

“You’re a mess. What happened down there?”

“Sean’s worse. Did you get the antimatter?” John glanced down quickly at his clothes. He’d thought Sean was a dust ghost, but he wasn’t any better. Later – there were more important things on his mind at the moment.

“No, but we’re making some of our own,” Anthony answered.

“You’re making antimatter?” McReidy gulped. “That’s what those equations are?”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” John ignored her.

“Do we have a choice?”

John had no answer. Even if he had, McReidy’s persistence cut him off.

“What do you need antimatter for?”

John turned to her. “To take a big chunk out of that star.”

The sheer unimaginabililty of the statement rocked McReidy. “You’re kidding, right?” she asked in disbelief.

“Do I look like I’m kidding?” John doubted if he had ever been more serious. “All right, listen up. Crash course in solar dynamics,” he instructed the bridge. He stood up. Taking the papers from his jacket, he stepped carefully through the paper maze and handed them to Anthony. “Thought you might need these.”

“Considering our ground help’s gone… yeah. Thanks.” Anthony quickly flicked through the papers, then looked up at John. “Oh, and since Rache has got Mark’s old communicator, we’ve switched frequencies. You and Sean might want to adjust yours before I short it out.”

“Mister Daniels, are you listening?” John called out as he pulled his communicator off, reset it and put it back on.

“Yes, sir,” Sean’s voice came over the intercom. “By the way, you didn’t tell me you had such gorgeous medical staff. I’d have been down here much sooner.” A dull thud could be heard. “Ouch! What was that for?”

“I’m a botanist,” came the short reply.

“Just pay attention please, Mister Daniels,” John smiled, stepping back through the paper maze to resume his chair. “Mister Delaney, what can you tell us?”

“Would you like the console?” Lakers got to his feet.

“Thanks.” Anthony took the science console, putting the papers to one side. He could see everyone on the bridge; expectant eyes on him. By turning his head slightly to the right, he could also see the main screen. “Computer, follow with known data on the main screen.”

As he spoke, the screen cleared and the star appeared.

“The Beta sunspot is the major spot in a group of thirty. It grows to about forty five thousand kilometres in three weeks, then disappears until its next cycle. It runs to a fairly large prominence in the corona, leading to a hole at solar minimum. Its magnetic field is open, allowing the gas out. An opposing field should be drawn in.”

The computer put Anthony’s words into pictures. Shown on the screen, it appeared a simple enough idea.

“When does the moon come closest to the spot?” John asked.

“About eight hours. If we can set the magnetic field to oppose the coronal hole, knock it away from its planet’s gravitation, it should go straight in. Only problem is, it’s a multipolar spot. If the field goes down, we lose the lot.”

“Can’t we use a bipolar spot?” John asked.

“Not unless you want to hang around for a few weeks and wait for one. The moon will be slightly closer, but the star will be smaller… and hotter.”

“We haven’t got time.” John wondered what was happening down on the planet and how much time they would actually have to achieve their objective. “The star is already shrinking. The larger it is, the smaller its density per unit, the easier it will break.”

“Anthony,” Sean called. “What sort of temperatures are we looking at in the spot?”

“About five to ten thousand K in the corona, down to a couple of hundred in the centre of the photosphere. When it hits the surface, the field will cancel out.”

“What if we miss?”

Anthony’s eyes rested on John’s. “The corona hits a million, destroys the field and blows us all out of here.”

The computer simulated the explosion on the screen.

John broke the silence before the impact settled in. “Then we won’t miss.”

He hoped everyone shared his determination. Looking around, he saw a little uncertainty on their faces. “Any questions?”

“Yes,” McReidy answered. “I’ve been watching Mister Delaney’s tests. Does that moon have an oxygen atmosphere?”

“Yes.”

“Then it will burn up before it gets anywhere near the star.” She appeared to have destroyed all his theories.

“The atmosphere will burn off. The moon itself will remain intact. But we will be well off it by then. Any other questions?”

No one answered.

“Then let’s get moving. Delaney, Lakers, go and set up. Find Gillespie and take whatever you need.”

Anthony turned back to his papers, quickly sorting what he needed as he rose to his feet.

“McReidy, set a course for the second moon of the fourth planet,” John continued. “Randall, take science. Daniels, I need you on the bridge when you’re ready. Computer, moon on main screen.”

Randall took science as Anthony moved out. He nodded at the few hushed instructions and began collating papers as Anthony and Lakers headed for the door.

“Mark, anything from the planet?”

Mark shook his head. “Channels are extremely quiet.”

Calm before the storm? John wondered. Or simply no storm?

The bridge became silent.

John stared blankly at the screen, as though it would automatically give him the answers he wanted. He ran his hands through his hair. They came out coated in dust. He looked for somewhere to wipe them and realised there wasn’t a clean spot on him.

He stood up, brushed himself down, coughing on the dust cloud he was creating, then sat back down, waving the dust away from his view.

The cut above his left cheek began to throb. His shirt stuck to his shoulder blade. Blood or sweat, he wasn’t sure.

They had hours. He needed a shower and change. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a change of clothes.

He worked the console in silence, the statistics on the screen refusing to register in his head. He switched the view to the Makdon. The carrier sat there watching. He switched back to Anthony’s work. Feeling discouraged, he let his mind wander, but all he could think about were the events of the past few hours. Brooding on that would do more harm than good.

He felt the dirt etch its way into his skin.

He flicked the intercom. “Sean?” he asked softly.

“Yes?” came the quietly curious reply.

“Grab a change of clothes from Steve and give me your uniform. I’m doing some washing.”

“Be better than this gown your medic’s trying to get on me.”

“Botanist!” the female voice snapped.

“All right… botanist,” Sean conceded.

John noted the hint of humour in his tone.

“One uniform coming up.”

“I’ll take it,” the botanist offered.

John drew in a sharp breath. How did Sean do it?

He flicked the intercom off and looked up to find McReidy staring at him. “What?”

“You’re doing washing?”

He lifted a hand and ran it down himself, indicating his filthy state. “I’m not staying like this for the next eight hours. Just keep an eye on Makdon… Mark?”

“I’m fine.”

“At least give me your jacket.”

Mark relented, taking off the jacket and tossing it to John.

John waited for Sean’s uniform, then retreated to the captain’s office. A side door led to a bathroom.

He stripped, glad to see there was no blood on the back of his shirt, chucked the uniforms in the cleaner and set it running. Then he turned on the shower and stepped under the hot water.

Dirt instantly turned to mud. There was dirt in places he didn’t even know existed. He watched it run down his body and swirl around the drain before flowing to the water containment where it would be separated, purified and returned to the main water supply.

The water felt good. He closed his eyes and let it run over his head. His face stung. He lifted a hand and felt his cheekbone. A small cut and a bit of swelling. It didn’t feel broken. Then again, if it were broken, it’d probably be that big he wouldn’t be able to see out of it. He let the water clean it out. It was going to take more than soap and water to take away that choking feeling from his throat.

A lather of soap turned frothy grey for several minutes before maintaining its natural colour. A few more minutes and he turned off the water.

The uniforms wouldn’t be ready for a while yet. He had no problem rifling through Captain Barrett’s wardrobe for clean pants and a shirt. He baulked at the jacket… Nope, he wasn’t putting on a captain’s jacket.

He rolled his shoulder a few times. The movement and hot water seemed to free it up. It pinched a little, but wasn’t going to restrict him in any way.

He towelled his hair, dragged a comb through it and set about applying some cream to his cheek. He couldn’t talk himself into believing the marks on his throat were from the hot water and decided not to look at them. He coughed… dust, he told himself, and headed back out to the bridge. His bare feet padded softly on the cold floor.

He slumped back into the captain’s chair and sighed as he caught sight of Makdon on the main screen. He ignored Mark’s concerned glance and flicked the intercom.

“Mister Delaney, where’s my Strategem board? And how about some coffee up here?”

“Memory two,” Anthony answered. “And get your own. While you’re at it, a few mugs down here wouldn’t go astray.” Anthony refused to be bullied.

“You’re going to sit there and play games?” McReidy asked.

“It helps me relax,” John answered. “And you should be keeping an eye on that carrier.”

“She hasn’t moved.”

John opened the memory and the Strategem board came up on the main screen. It was his move. He switched the game to the small screen in his chair, returning the main screen back to the star.

The game was one of strategy as the name suggested. It could be won in two ways. The first was to completely annihilate the opponent regardless of one’s own losses. The second was to capture the opponent’s forces resulting in surrender.

Every battle from every war in recorded history was programmed in so that one could learn from the mistakes of the past and change the possible outcomes. Recommended tactics for the beginner.

For the advanced player, new parameters could be reached using computer simulations of as yet unproven theories. It was also a game of character, based on one’s own methods and experiences.

John played in silence. He was glad Captain Barrett was listening, but guessed he had the channel constantly monitored. They played very few of the many variations, preferring those showed a chess-like nature. The computer had chosen one such option, setting a three-dimensional Earth-like background.

The bridge door opened. Sean balanced a tray with five mugs of steaming coffee on his left hand. His right hand had a cast with only his fingers and thumb poking out. He held it along the side of the tray to keep it steady.

Sean didn’t look much different in Gillespie’s uniform. It was almost the right size and they were the same rank. The dirt was gone and his damp hair sat neatly on his head.

He offered a coffee to each of them before taking the empty seat at navigation. He placed the tray on the floor beside the console.

“You’re a life saver,” John told him gratefully, taking a sip. “I don’t suppose you sent any to engineering.”

“It’s already there,” Sean answered. “You should see the mess –”

“I don’t want to know about it,” John cut him off. “As long as there’s enough of the ship left to get home.”

John knew Gillespie too well. Whatever Anthony wanted, he would find. And if that meant raiding other departments of the ship for resources, he would do so. Even converting one of the cargo bays into a test area for Anthony’s magnetic field was only a minor problem. Converting matter to antimatter and containing it in the bay without destroying everything in sight was the hard part.

“How’s the hand?” John asked.

“Broken,” Sean answered.

“Sorry.”

“Not your fault… You?”

“I’ll live.”

 

  • * *

 

Anthony monitored the cargo bay on screen from engineering. He had sealed it completely from the rest of the ship. The antimatter was contained in a magnetic field; the bay was a complete vacuum. Every molecule of matter had been extracted.

“Sam, I want to know immediately if there’s any change,” Anthony instructed.

“Yes, sir,” the cadet answered.

“I mean any change,” Anthony repeated. “Even the tiniest fraction.”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right, let’s see how much heat we can put in there.” Anthony began to heat up the cargo bay. Heat would disrupt the magnetic field and he needed to know how to protect the antimatter.

“Field stable, oxygen burning should commence,” Kowalski relayed the information Anthony already knew.

Unable to resist the opportunity for a lesson, Anthony attacked the comment. “Should commence?” he asked interrogatively. “Do you know the ignition temperature of oxygen?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you have the bay temperature on your screen?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then will it or won’t it ignite?”

“It will, sir.”

“Well, be positive about it. If something is a proven fact it either will or won’t happen.”

“Yes, sir,” Kowalski muttered discouragingly.

“Shall we continue?”

Anthony’s tone never changed. He was generally good natured and carefree with a confidence in his abilities that appeared to reflect in others. He taught by example and reinforcement. Yelling did not improve the mind; it only soured the disposition.

“Sir, the field’s flecking,” Kowalski became anxious.

“Compensating,” Anthony keyed in the necessary adjustments. “Flecking should stop. Steady on, Sam, it’s only minor. Let’s keep going.”

As the temperature increased, Anthony’s attention focused on the field. He counteracted each fluctuation by increasing the strength of the field. He was unaware of the new readings Kowalski was beginning to pick up.

“Umm…” Kowalski began, staring at his screen.

“Changes?” Anthony asked.

“Yes.”

“My console’s clear.” Anthony frowned as his eyes ran over his console looking for an error. “Antimatter’s holding.”

“Not the field.”

“Then where…?”

“I can’t find why…” Kowalski panicked. He bit his bottom lip and began frantically hitting keys.

“Steady.” Anthony saw Kowalski move but kept his attention on his own console as the problem refused to show up. “Field’s still holding.”

“Sir, shut it down!”

“Shut down,” Anthony responded immediately, switching everything off. The antimatter and magnetic field remained suspended in mid air. “What’s wrong? Antimatter and field are fine.”

“Take a look at the walls.” Kowalski pointed to the screen showing the cargo bay.

Anthony raised an eyebrow, then turned to the screen. “Damn.”

Under the intense heat, the interior of the cargo bay had begun to disintegrate. The ceiling, to which most of the heat had risen, was vaporising. The walls had turned into molten rivers, like wax running down the sides of a candle. The floor was bubbling.

“We’ve melted the bay,” Kowalski stated.

“Yeah.” Anthony checked his panel. He was still well short of his proposed maximum temperature of ten thousand K. He frowned in frustration.

“What do we do now?” Kowalski asked.

“Scan for extent of damage to adjacent sections. Hopefully, we haven’t breached anything.”

Kowalski did so in a second. “All clear. Exterior walls are stable. The damage is restricted to inside the bay.”

Anthony nodded in acknowledgement and reached for the intercom switch. “Engineering to bridge.”

“Go ahead,” John answered.

“Can you come down here for a minute?”

John could tell by the uncomfortable tone that something was wrong. “On my way.”

 

  • * *

 

Anthony and Kowalski were sitting down with their feet up on the consoles, drinking the coffee that Sean had sent them, when John entered. Kowalski sprang to his feet, taking care not to spill his coffee, and stood to attention. Anthony remained as he was. An upward glance was his only recognition of John entering the room.

“As you were,” John told Kowalski, who immediately resumed his seat. “What’s happened?” he asked Anthony.

Anthony pointed to the screen, which showed the cargo bay. “Take a look for yourself.”

John looked at the cooling mass, unable to figure out what had occurred.

“We tried to simulate putting the antimatter into the star,” Anthony began to explain.

“You melted my ship!” John spoke slowly as the reality settled, turning to Anthony with a look of horror.

“Only the cargo bay,” Anthony corrected. “It’s stable now.”

“This is an explorer. The outside is supposed to stand this, not the inside!”

“Then where am I supposed to test it?” Anthony’s voice rose to match John’s. “We only put heat in there, not oxygen. What do you think’s going to happen when there’s fuel?”

“Hang on… Don’t you need matter for heat?”

“We bypassed. Or we’d have blown the whole ship up, considering what just happened!”

They stared at each other in silence for a minute. Kowalski’s quiet sip of his coffee took on the proportions of a loud slurp.

John let out a long breath. “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault.”

“This is a very uncool situation,” Anthony continued. “I would have preferred to work with something without an atmosphere.”

“But we’re setting the field on the far side.”

“It won’t make any difference. Once that oxygen ignites, it’ll spread over the entire surface in a matter of minutes. The star is already a vacuum. I don’t know how quickly it’ll pull in – or how hot it’ll get.”

John looked to Kowalski, who hid behind his mug. A cadet wasn’t the help that Anthony needed.

“Any contact from the planet?”

“Nope.” Anthony shook his head. “Whatever happened down there… everything’s out. What’s Makdon doing?”

“Still watching.”

“You know she could stop us at any second, don’t you?”

“Be nice if she decided to help us.”

“Unless anyone there knows how to stop this thing from blowing, I’ll settle for being left alone.”

John placed his hand on Anthony’s shoulder to reassure him. “Just do your best. And make sure you take a break, too.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Later.”

John headed back to the bridge. He couldn’t help feeling that this was a total disaster. From the moment he had decided to disobey orders and come here, nothing had gone right.

 

“What do we do now?” Kowalski asked as the door closed behind John.

“See what the others are up to and make sure the transporter can move this in one load,” Anthony answered.

 

  • * *

 

On the bridge, Sean had already worked out the calculations required to move the moon out of orbit around its planet and was now spending his time getting to know McReidy. She refused to be drawn into a personal conversation and was content to let him ramble on. She was relieved by John’s reappearance and the chance to excuse herself from Sean.

“Nothing major, I hope?” she asked John.

“It could be a lot worse… Sean, I assume you’ve figured out how to move the moon?”

Sean computed his simulation on the main screen. His hand and fingers remained rigid with the cast and he moved his whole arm every time he wanted to press a button.

“If we hit it here…” A small explosion indicated the precise location. He used his left hand to manipulate fine movements on the simulation. “It’ll come out in this direction. The ship’s tractor beam is strong enough to steer it, but we won’t be able to change its velocity. When it’s within range, the star’s gravitation will do the rest.”

“What do we know about the interior of the sunspot?”

“Practically nothing.”

“Any known flare activity in the region?” John knew the presence of any solar flares would present major problems.

“Not at this stage of the cycle.”

The Betelians knew their sun well. The spot had been selected for its size, proximity and lack of unexpected activity.

“Okay,” John nodded to himself, then sighed. “Sean, Mark, get some rest. I’m going to need you both later.”

“What about you?” Mark asked.

“I’ll grab a couple of hours later.”

“I can –” McReidy began.

“No. I don’t want everyone down if something happens.” John reached across to the intercom. “Anthony.”

No response.

“Anthony…?”

“Cadet Kowalski here, Commander,” came the reply. “Lieutenant Delaney’s asleep… Closed his eyes a minute after you left.”

John pictured Anthony asleep the way he’d left him – coffee mug in his hands, feet up on the console.

“Do you want me to wake him?” Kowalski asked.

“No… You’re an engineering cadet, Mister Kowalski.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You understand what he’s doing?”

“Sir?”

“Never mind.”

“Yes, sir.”

John slumped down into his chair. He lifted a hand and rubbed his forehead.

“Back in four?” Sean asked.

John dropped his hand and looked to Sean. “Yep.”

The bridge was quiet without Sean and Mark. Randall sat quietly at his console. McReidy… Yeah, he should have sent her for some rest too. There wasn’t much to do while they were sitting in orbit.

“Sir, activity coming from the fifth planet,” Randall suddenly announced.

“What is it?” John sat upright.

“Looks like…”

“Bring it up on screen,” John ordered.

“We don’t have a view from where we are. It’s on the far side of the third planet. I’m only getting audio… Explosions… communication fragments… Oh, no! I’ve just detected warships moving in on the planet.”

“Makdon’s raised to full alert,” McReidy added. “Shields are up and she’s powering weapons.”

Before McReidy could finish speaking, the carrier turned and disappeared into the blackness.

“She’s heading to the fifth planet,” McReidy finished.

John wasn’t aware that he’d been holding his breath. Magellan was an explorer. It had never had to use its weapons against another ship. While he’d been involved in hundreds of simulations and even commanded a dozen or so, they were just that – simulations. The closest he’d come to an actual fight was a punch up with Sean over a girl.

His hand unconsciously went to his throat, before his forefinger lowered to slide around the inside collar of his t-shirt.

“We’ll be heading to the fourth planet,” McReidy reminded him.

“Mister Randall, where’s the fourth with respect to the fifth?”

There was silence as Randall punched up the information. John avoided looking at McReidy.

“Nowhere near it, sir,” Randall answered.

“What about in eight hours?”

A few more seconds of silence before, “A bit closer, sir.”

John stared at the screen, but saw nothing. He didn’t have the answers.

“Anything can happen in eight hours.”

McReidy’s voice broke the silence, bringing John back to himself. His eyes lowered from the screen to her face. She seemed to have a little more confidence than he felt, and he found himself drawing on it.

“Anything,” he agreed quietly. “Mister Randall, when are we in a viewing position for the fifth planet?”

More keys clicked. “In our current orbit, about half an hour, sir.”

“Okay. Everything clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Keep an eye on it.”

“Yes, sir.”

John leaned back in his chair and switched the Strategem game back on the main screen.

“Hope you’re also asking for help,” McReidy muttered as she turned back to the helm.

John was glad she didn’t see his small smile.

 

  • * *

 

A little while later, John switched Strategem off and retreated to the captain’s office. His uniform was clean, dry and still warm. He momentarily fingered the scorch mark on the jacket sleeve. Had it not been diverted…

It was a good feeling to put the uniform back on, though his feet had enjoyed their freedom and didn’t want to go back into his boots.

Strategem had relaxed him. He had played straight. Barrett’s subtle moves of trying to garner more information were ignored. Not that there was anything to report. And now the captain had been called away so the game was on hold again.

John returned to the bridge feeling more settled and a little more confident.

“Sir, we’ll be able to see the fifth planet in a couple of minutes,” Randall informed him as he settled back into his chair. “It won’t be a clear picture until we clear the atmosphere.”

The third planet was currently on screen. It arced across the top right hand corner; its atmosphere hazy against the background of black space.

As the fifth planet began to peek into view, it looked quiet – a hazy ball of reflected light. In less than a minute, it was clearing the atmosphere of the third planet. As its solid shaping came into proper view, flashes of light dotted its visible surface. Impact blasts, causing chain reactions of disaster. Tracers of light were darting above and through its atmosphere as ships attacked each other, firing on the planet and being fired on in return.

John couldn’t help feeling a twinge of guilt. Moloch had taken a stand for him and Sean. Now it looked like all out war. If he’d thought about bailing – and he had – he knew he couldn’t do it. This had to be seen out to whatever end. Rache’s denial was going to get his whole race killed. War, with its inevitable losses, had to produce a better outcome.

 

  • * *

 

Anthony woke. His knees were aching and it took him a moment to realise where he was. In engineering – with his feet still up on the console.

His knees had locked. He leaned forward, the ache shooting up his hamstrings. He put his hand under one knee, bending it back the right way, then lifted his leg from the console and lowered it to the floor, muttering painfully as he did. Then he repeated the process with his other leg. Pins and needles shot through his lowers legs and feet as the feeling began to return.

He tensed, knowing that was the worst thing he could do, and waited for the feeling to ease.

He wiped his face with his hands and checked his watch. Two and a half hours, he’d been asleep. No wonder his knees hurt. A coffee mug was on the console beside him. He leaned across to see that it was almost half full.

He looked around engineering. He was alone. The soft purr of the engines was comforting.

The intercom was too far away so he switched on his communicator. “Sam, where are you?”

“Transporter room,” Kowalski answered.

“Still?” Anthony remembered telling him to head down there – over two and a half hours ago.

“Yes, sir. We’re having some problems… I’m never going to figure this out,” Kowalski groaned the last sentence.

“Who else is there?”

“Lieutenant Gillespie and Cadet Carter.”

Anthony rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand and let out a low rumbling breath.

“Okay… I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

He switched his communicator off and took a few seconds before pushing himself out of his chair.

He glanced at the screen once more – melted cargo bay. Something the Betelians hadn’t taken into account with their calculations.

 

  • * *

 

Mark returned to a quiet bridge. His soft footsteps echoed.

John didn’t even look up as he heard the bridge door open. It would be Sean or Mark. By the quiet steps, he knew it was Mark.

“Randall, go get some rest,” John ordered. “Mark, can you take his console?”

“Yes, sir,” Randall acknowledged quietly.

“Oh, and take that uniform back to Lieutenant Daniels,” John added, pointing to Sean’s uniform neatly folded on the floor at the door to the captain’s office.

“Yes, sir.”

“Your jacket’s there too,” he told Mark, noting the clean pants and boots.

“Anything happening?” Mark asked, slipping his jacket on and taking the console.

“Take a look at the fireworks on planet five,” John answered. “Though it’s been quiet for the past forty eight minutes.”

As he spoke, activity on the fifth planet resumed.

“It’s been on and off for nearly four hours,” said John.

“Rebels taking a stand?”

“I hope so. Otherwise, they’re just getting slaughtered.”

Mark watched the activity for a few seconds. “Moloch did believe that Komodo was being held there.” He turned back to John. “You look like you could do with some rest.”

“I’ll wait till Sean gets back. McReidy, go get some rest.”

She hesitated.

For a moment, John thought she was going to object. Then she stood up and turned to him, a tired look on her face.

“Yes, sir.”

Good, because he wasn’t in the mood for an argument.

 

Back to top

 

Chapter seven

 

John tossed and turned and couldn’t sleep. At least he could close his eyes and let it be someone else’s problem for the next two hours.

But it wasn’t Sean’s problem or Mark’s problem. It was his problem. His idea to come here. He lay in the dark, his eyes refusing to stay closed. The faint red glow of the digits on the clock urging him to stare at it one more time. Twenty three minutes gone – and about the tenth time he’d looked at it.

It was almost a relief when the alarm went off and he could get up again.

As he dragged himself back into work mode and headed for the bridge, something felt different. It was more than missing ceiling and wall panels, ripped out wiring and lighting down to half. He’d noted that earlier, but there was more stripped out now. Something was…

He stopped suddenly; his boots silent on the corridor floor. Something… The ship’s engines rumbled.

Damn it! They were moving!

He raced to the bridge.

“Who broke orbit?” he demanded as he stormed through the bridge door. The bridge had full light, making him blink momentarily.

“I did,” Sean answered.

“Why?”

Sean was sitting in the captain’s chair. He spun it around to face John. “We need to get to the moon.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“’Cos you were asleep.”

McReidy ducked past John and took the helm from Gillespie, who avoided both John and Sean as he headed for the door and out.

“No, I wasn’t,” John ground out.

“Well, you should have been.” Sean spun the chair back to face the main screen.

John simmered, his eyes narrowing.

“We’re coming within visual range of the spot,” Mark informed them.

“On screen,” John told him.

The star appeared; a flaming red fireball that filled the entire screen. Its brightness lit up the bridge and, for a second, they could almost feel its heat as it glowed.

Sean moved down to the helm beside McReidy as she stared wide eyed at the screen. John stepped down beside them; his annoyance with Sean almost shoved out of existence.

“Look at the size of that thing!” Sean exclaimed in awe.

“Shoulder of the giant,” John muttered to himself.

McReidy and Mark were speechless.

As they continued to watch in silence, a small spot towards the bottom seemed to darken to a crimson colour and slowly spread outwards.

“Magnify,” John told Mark. “And turn the brightness down a degree.”

“Brightness?” Mark queried, turning to look at the numerous buttons on the console.

John tore his eyes away from the screen, blinking strongly. “I’ll do it.”

He moved back to his chair and adjusted the screen.

Under magnification, the formation of smaller bubble-like spots could be seen around the edges of the larger spot. John likened the appearance of the surrounding star to a volcano of boiling lava about to erupt. The spot increased in size, both outwards and upwards through the photosphere.

“We’ve got plenty of time.” Sean seemed to read John’s thoughts, but his voice reflected his own doubts.

“You don’t seem as sure of yourself,” McReidy spoke quietly.

“Theoretically it’s correct… but when you see the size of it…” Sean hesitated, pointing to the screen. “It’s impossible.”

“Nothing’s impossible,” John snapped, stepping down to them again. “It’s only a theory until we make it a fact.”

Mark quickly moved in front of John. Placing his hands on John’s shoulders, he marched him backwards to the captain’s chair and sat him down in it. Keeping the same distance between them, he leant down; his eyes locked on John’s, his voice low but assertive.

“Ease up, will you?”

John’s temper rose. He tried to shrug Mark away, but was pinned to the chair.

“Don’t try to tell me you haven’t had doubts. Push Sean too far and you’ll regret it.”

John fumed, but Mark wasn’t letting him go.

A breath hissed out of him as he nodded. Mark waited another few seconds to be sure, then released his grip and returned to his console.

“How soon until we reach the moon?” John asked evenly.

McReidy turned her attention to the helm. “Transporter range in thirty one minutes.”

Sean turned to John and raised a warning finger.

“One day,” Sean tried to keep his voice serious, but couldn’t hide a small grin. “I’m going to beat the daylights out of you.”

John smiled. “I’d like to see you try.”

All hostility gone, the bridge was quiet. John switched the main screen back to the approaching moon. Mark’s geological survey showed the surface directly beneath them to be that of a desert, lightly cratered but almost completely covered with small rocks in a crusted, dirt bed. The atmosphere was predominately oxygen with a high content of ozone.

John frowned thoughtfully. “Don’t we need vegetation for that much oxygen?”

“There’s plenty of it,” Mark answered. “Just not around the equator where we are.”

“Mister Delaney, why are we in the desert?” John didn’t have to switch the intercom on. He knew Anthony would be listening.

“I need plenty of open space to set the field in,” came Anthony’s almost immediate reply. “The atmosphere burning is bad enough. I don’t need an entire forest coming down on top of it. Don’t worry, Mark, Kris and I have got it all under control, timewise. Bit of a bonus having a geologist… We’ll be well out before the burning reaches it. Most of the hard work is already done. We simply go down and put it together. It’ll be just like building blocks.”

“I’m glad you think so. We’ll be within range in less than half an hour. Start putting down whenever you’re ready.”

“Will do.”

John flicked the intercom to the entire ship. “Attention. All personnel not working directly with Lieutenant Delaney are to report to the bridge immediately.” He switched the intercom off and waited.

Within a few minutes, the botanist had responded.

“That’s it?” John wondered.

A few seconds later, Randall staggered onto the bridge, still trying to shake the sleep from his head.

“You’re with us. I need you awake, Mister Randall,” John told him.

“Yes, sir.” Randall rubbed his eyes and shook his head again.

“The ship is temporarily yours,” he instructed McReidy, emphasising the word ‘temporarily’. “I need everyone else on the surface.”

John took Sean, Mark and Randall with him, leaving McReidy with the botanist.

As they headed towards the transporter room, the internal raiding of the ship became more evident. Control panels and intercoms had been removed from doors and walls. Many ceiling panels were disturbed or missing. The lighting seemed to be dimming even more.

Around the transporter room, it was complete havoc. John stepped sideways between Pilson and Lakers as they rushed out. His glance followed them, then went to Anthony, who appeared irritated, as he worked the transporter controls. A pile of scanners sat to one side of the console.

“Problem, Mister Delaney?”

“Sam, I’m going to need more power,” Anthony called down to engineering, raising his eyes to acknowledge John’s presence. “Can you adjust the internal output?”

“Not unless we cut back on a few systems,” Kowalski’s voice came back.

Anthony muttered under his breath, then spoke calmly over his communicator. “Okay, we’ll do it later. Is Stephen ready to transport down?”

John looked around. Gillespie wasn’t even there.

“Ready when you are,” Gillespie answered over his communicator. “Put us in the right spot and we’ll have this thing up in no time.”

“Wait –” John moved to the console beside Anthony. Gillespie’s communicator signal located him in geology.

“Easier than carting everything here,” Anthony told him.

Mark and Sean cleared the doorway and backed up against the wall, keeping out of the way as Carter came flying in. Randall wasn’t quick enough and nearly got bowled over.

“We’re out of gravity magnets,” Carter blurted out as he crashed into Randall. “Lieutenant Gillespie sent me to get some but –”

“Did you check both lockers in the storeroom?” Gillespie asked.

“Both…? Hang on.” Carter was out the door again.

“Cadets,” he muttered quietly, his communicator fading. “Put me down, Anthony.”

“I could transport the entire storeroom,” Anthony grinned.

“Don’t need all that extra stuff,” Gillespie returned.

Rather than move everything to the transporter room, Anthony began transporting equipment from various places on the ship. He had programmed the locations of the six pylons into the system and sent the equipment to its correct location. Then he began transporting the crew.

“Scanners are set for the field. They’ll tell you if anything is off. Half a degree and this won’t work.” He passed a scanner to Randall. “Get on the pads. You’re going down to Stephen.”

Randall obeyed and moved onto one of the transporter pads. He began dematerialising immediately. John, Sean and Mark grabbed a scanner each.

Kowalski rushed into the transporter room and paused to catch his breath. “Everything’s down… It’s just us.”

“Good.” Anthony pointed to Carter, who was just strolling in with his arms full of magnets.

“Found them,” the cadet grinned. “Everything’s set.”

“Alex, go with Sam. He’ll show you what to do.”

Kowalski grabbed two scanners then he and Carter moved to the transporter pads and Anthony sent them down. It was suddenly quiet, and Anthony seemed to relax.

“Hard day at the office,” John asked quietly.

“I wish you’d give me more warning when you plan these things. I like to be well prepared. How’s your set up?” Anthony asked Sean.

“There’s enough power in the weapons system to move the moon. I’ve programmed it through the bridge. McReidy can handle it if I’m not back in time.”

Anthony stared at Sean’s cast.

“I’m fine,” Sean stated.

There was a few seconds silence during which no one wanted to contradict him.

“Okay… well, the transporter’s locked on a timer to bring me back up,” Anthony continued. “We shouldn’t have any problems there.”

John, Sean and Mark moved to the transporter pads. Anthony switched the timer on, grabbed the last scanner and rushed to join them before they were sent down to the moon.

 

*

 

The air was clean with a hint of sweetness in it. A pale blue tinge in the upper atmosphere showed the unmistakable presence of ozone. The ground was crusty underfoot. In the distance, another group could be seen erecting their pylon.

“Just like building blocks?” Sean asked.

“Sure,” Anthony answered and drew a rough diagram in the dirt. “Once it’s up, switch this on.” He showed them a switch in the base. “And a gravity field will bolt it to the spot. Saves digging foundations to sit these things in. When they’re all up, I’ll link them together, set the field and we’re in business. Any questions?”

They all shook their heads.

“Then I’ll leave you to it. The next one’s in that direction.” He pointed past them to a rocky outcrop, then turned and jogged towards another group in the distance.

The pylons were put up quickly and easily under Anthony’s directions. They were simple structures about ten metres high with a huge magnetic resonance pad pointing towards the centre of the field and tilted downwards slightly, so that each one focused on the exact same spot.

 

  • * *

 

The bridge was a hive of activity. McReidy was monitoring everything from the captain’s chair; the star, the moon, the containment field in the cargo bay, communications on the moon chattering through the intercoms. She decided she was not being paranoid in monitoring the fifth planet, even though their current position put them out of direct view.

The ship was on autopilot, sitting directly above the magnetic field array on the moon. The botanist was at the science console; its screen rotating views of the star, moon and cargo bay.

As the gravity fields were switched on, McReidy’s screen lit up, beginning to form what would be a perfect hexagon. The pads were correctly aligned.

Halfway between pylons, Anthony found himself back on the ship.

“Okay, I’m back on board,” Anthony told everyone. “Bridge, how many’ve we got on?”

“Four,” McReidy confirmed.

“Okay, who’s done?” he called down to the moon.

“We are,” Lakers answered.

“Need a few more minutes,” Gillespie replied.

“I need Alex,” said Anthony.

“Take him,” Gillespie answered. “We’re fine.”

Anthony brought Carter back to the ship and sent him to the cargo bay.

“Kris, Josh, I’m bringing you back up,” Anthony told them. “Stephen, let me know when you’re done. John?”

“Getting there,” John answered.

“Sam?”

“Heading to the commander.”

“No, they’re fine. I need you back here.”

 

  • * *

 

An alarm beeped on the bridge. The botanist jumped in her seat. McReidy flew out of the captain’s chair and scanned the console.

“I swear I didn’t touch anything,” the botanist panicked.

“I know you didn’t.” McReidy’s answer was automatic. She looked for the source of the alarm, but couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. She decided to ask for help and called down to the surface. “Magellan to Lieutenant Daniels.”

“Daniels here,” Sean panted. The resonance pad refused to fit neatly in place and he was glad of the interruption.

“We’ve got an alarm up here, but I can’t find anything wrong. You were at science last.”

“It’s all right,” Sean interrupted. “It’s time to get this moon mobile.”

“But you’re still down there.”

“That doesn’t matter. Fire the main torpedoes. They’ll all come out at once. Gravity field disrupters will also fire towards the planet. As soon as we’re mobile, lock on the tractor beam.”

“Gotcha.” McReidy had never fired live torpedoes. She pushed the button, then watched on screen.

They emerged as one and proceeded along their designated path. The disrupters reduced the gravitational attraction between the planet and its moon. The torpedoes impacted simultaneously, little more than a visual pop of light. The force of the explosion shifted the momentum of the moon the barest fraction.

McReidy hoped it was enough as she locked onto it with the ship’s tractor beam. The moon resisted, being drawn back by the force of its planet’s gravity. She checked the disrupters. They were working, but didn’t seem to have the power to counter the planet’s pull.

“Put everything into the tractor beam,” she ordered, then hesitated. “Is anyone in engineering?”

“Kowalski is,” Anthony answered over the intercom. “Pull the reserves.”

“No, I’m at the cargo bay with Carter,” Kowalski answered. “Do you want me to –?”

“No, stay there.” Anthony figured that Carter obviously needed the help.

McReidy switched on the reserve power as the conversation continued. The bridge dimmed, the main screen went out.

“Hmm, that shouldn’t have happened,” Anthony’s surprise was obvious.

“We’re blind!” McReidy panicked.

“Don’t worry. I’ll head down to engineering and fix it. Have you got the moon?”

McReidy checked. “Yes,” she breathed. “And the fifth magnet just came on.”

The moon began to slowly move away from the planet. The tractor beam directed it towards the sunspot. Soon the star’s gravity would take over.

 

  • * *

 

The ground shook underfoot, resembling a small earth tremor. Then it was still. Sean smiled reassuringly at John and Mark. John would have preferred to have been finished and back on the ship by now. He quickly glanced in the general direction of the star, as if he could sense the closeness of it.

“I would suggest we finish this and get out of here,” Mark voiced everyone’s opinion.

They slid the resonance pad into its bracket. With a few adjustments, it locked into place. As the pylon was pulled upright, the ground shook again. The force knocked the three men from their feet. The pylon swung freely and came crashing down.

Mark saw the pylon falling towards him. He tried to scramble out of its way on all fours, but was hindered by the crumbly ground. All he remembered was the sound as the pylon hit his right leg, snapping it below the knee. The pain shot through him and he swore loudly.

“Are you all right?” John asked, rushing to Mark’s side. Stupid question: legs weren’t supposed to bend at that angle.

Mark didn’t answer. He heard John’s words, but his attention was focused on trying to fight the overwhelming threat of unconsciousness.

Sean struggled to lift the pylon a fraction. John grabbed Mark’s shoulders and heaved. The ground shifted beneath his boots, and he stumbled and nearly fell before managing to drag Mark free.

“Look out!” Sean yelled as he lost his grip and the pylon dropped, barely missing Mark’s boot.

John let out a breath as he dropped to the dirt. Mark was white, his pupils shrunken. “Mark…? Mark, can you hear me?”

With the pressure now relieved, the blood began to circulate again, crushed nerves became alive and the pain became unbearable.

“Get me out of here,” Mark cried. “Before I… pass out…”

John began to sweat. His throat was dry and he swallowed hard, yet when he spoke to McReidy he tried to sound calm. “We’ve got an emergency down here. Can you transport Mark straight to sick bay? We should be finished here in about five minutes.” He looked to Sean, who nodded his confirmation.

McReidy turned to the botanist, who was already on her feet. “I’m going,” she whispered.

“Mister Delaney –” McReidy began.

“I heard it. Gimme a sec. I’m halfway to engineering.” Anthony bolted back to the transporter room. “Sam, get to engineering. Now.”

“Yes, sir,” Kowalski answered.

Anthony lunged at the transporter console. He locked onto Mark’s communicator and transported him straight to sick bay. Then he transported the rest of the crew up, leaving only John and Sean on the moon.

“Where do you want us?” Gillespie asked as he and Randall materialised on the transporter pads.

“Better head to the bridge. I’m still waiting on John and Sean.”

 

  • * *

 

It took all Mark’s effort not to scream at the top of his lungs. It took an equal effort not to pass out.

The botanist raced through the sick bay doorway as he materialised on a bed, took one look, put her hand to her mouth and backpedalled a few steps.

“Come here,” Mark ordered roughly.

Her head began to shake as she took another step back.

“Come here.” His low tone cut through the room.

Shallow breaths were all he could manage as the nausea hit him. His head was spinning. His eyes had trouble focusing as darkness threatened to engulf the entire room.

This time she obeyed.

“I can’t… I don’t know…”

He reached out, scrunching a fist into her jacket front and hauling her close. His sharp breaths bounced off her face back into his. Her pupils widened and he knew he’d scared her.

“I know what to do,” he tried to keep his voice even. “I just need you to do it… Okay?”

She took a steadying breath and began to nod slowly. “Okay…”

“Good.”

He let her go, flopping onto his back on the bed. Words fell out of his mouth. He felt movement and he was aware of a ripping through his leg before nausea and darkness overwhelmed him.

 

  • * *

 

McReidy relaxed a little. Things seemed to be back under control. Five pylons were up. The sixth was only a few minutes away. The moon was moving nicely towards the star. It was still under the control of the tractor beam.

Pilson was at the helm and Lakers had taken over science from the botanist. The rest of the crew were on their way back.

She waited impatiently, her eyes locked on the screen, almost willing the sixth light to come on. She leaned on one elbow, resting her chin on a clenched fist.

“Come on,” she mumbled determinedly to herself.

Her attention fully absorbed in what she was doing, she didn’t notice the security light flashing beside her. The security console lit up, the image of an approaching alien ship covered its small screen. With the shortage of crew on the bridge, the station was unmanned; the warning went unnoticed.

The ship rocked violently. Pilson fumbled with the helm as the lights and electricals blacked out for a few seconds. A security alarm instantly sounded throughout the ship. McReidy looked around the bridge trying to figure out what had happened.

“Mister –”

“Not me,” Anthony answered.

The security console caught her attention, but before she could get there Gillespie bolted through the bridge door and beat her to it. Randall hesitated in the doorway, waiting to be told what position to take.

Gillespie assessed the situation instantly. “We’re under attack.”

“Evasive manoeuvres and shields up,” McReidy instructed.

Randall raced to the weapons console, bringing them online.

“Shields up,” Pilson confirmed, “evasive manoeuvres engaged.”

Pilson flew the ship according to its defensive programming, struggling to hold her steady as impacts to the shields bounced them off course. Tracers of light flashed across the main screen, arcing in at all angles as they tried to dodge and weave a clear path.

McReidy barely had time to settle herself and take in the situation fully.

“McReidy to Commander Madison.”

“Madison here.”

“We’re under attack.”

John was speechless. In the background, he could hear the security alarm and voices that weren’t quite clear enough to understand. Sean paled, indicating that he also realised the seriousness of the situation.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” John ground out quietly. “We’re supposed to have cover.”

“Commander?” McReidy’s voice flinched.

“Take care of the ship. Get back here as soon as you can.”

Gillespie interrupted McReidy before she could answer. “They’ve just sent a landing party down to the moon.”

“You’ve got company,” she briefly summed up Gillespie’s statement.

“Understood. Madison out.”

Phaser beams skimmed into view across the main screen. The ship rocked again, less violently this time as the shields absorbed the impact. All systems remained on.

“Damage report,” McReidy called over the intercom, regaining her composure and seat.

“No good. Departments aren’t manned. We’ll have to scan manually.” Gillespie proceeded to scan the entire ship for damage. “Tractor beam’s gone. Weapons down partially… no, fully… Shields holding.”

“Mister Delaney, we’ve lost weapons.”

“Don’t look at me. I’m still in the transporter room. Sam, what’s happening down there?”

Kowalski’s voice came over the intercom, coughing on the smoke that was beginning to fill the engine room. A blast from the fire extinguisher then a deafening silence as he waved the air clear with his arms.

“That shot hit engineering… Weapons are offline…”

“Manual override…” Anthony ordered.

Kowalski keyed in the access code. “Manual override working… Sir…?”

Anthony didn’t like the worried tone. “Yes,” he answered hesitantly.

“Transporter’s down… Completely.”

“Anyone who knows how to load and fire manually, get to weapons immediately. Alex, transporter room. Sam, I’ll be there in a minute.”

“I’ll do weapons,” Lakers answered, looking to McReidy for confirmation as he got to his feet.

She nodded, her attention on the main screen, and he bolted to the door.

If McReidy felt undermined by Anthony’s takeover, she showed no signs of it. She was watching the main screen. Gillespie had transferred the security image to it. The massive ship loomed up threateningly.

“It’s a battlecruiser. Bigger, faster…” He swallowed hard before continuing. “And outgunning us by about fifty to one.” He turned and looked hopefully to her. “I hope you’ve got some bright ideas.”

 

  • * *

 

Tracer beams from the sky strafed the ground between the array and the outcrop. The ground erupted, spewing material a hundred metres into the air. Clouds of dust and dirt swirled, blocking everything from view.

“Reprieve?” Sean sneezed.

“Hope so.” John looked up to see what might have fired as brown dust covered the sky and fell into his face. He dropped his head, wiping his face on his sleeve. His cheek stung as his jacket grazed it.

Sean switched his scanner to security mode, setting a proximity alert for the Betelian landing party. John’s scanner remained set to the magnetic field array.

“Out of range,” Sean noted when nothing registered. “Must have got driven back to the rocks.”

“Good. If they think they need cover, we might have a few more minutes.” John turned his attention back to the fallen pylon.

Two bolts connecting the resonance pad to the pylon had sheared off when the pylon hit the ground. The pad sat at an awkward angle. They were going to have to unbolt it, readjust its position and bolt it back on.

“We don’t have any spare bolts,” said Sean, fumbling with a shifter.

“I know,” John nodded. “And we can’t get any from the ship. It’s just going to have to hold.”

“Anthony would have allowed more than we actually needed. Just in case.”

“You did see the state of the ship,” John reminded him.

“Yeah, but a good engineer can make a nut and bolt from a file and a lump of metal.” Sean gave up trying to unbolt with the shifter. He grasped the shaft tightly and tried to thump a broken bolt piece out of its hole.

“Lucky we got a great one then.” John’s nut slipped off and he pulled the broken bolt out, and moved on to the next one. “Just loosen the others. Hopefully, we can fix it without taking them right off.”

Sean bashed the bolt a couple more times before it fell out. He sighed and looked to John through the clearing dust. “You loosen. I’ll try and hold it steady.”

With Sean taking a lot of the weight and pressure off the bolts, John found them easy to loosen. They wrestled the pad into place; the scanner telling them when they had it right. John began tightening the bolts.

Sean’s scanner went off. He looked to the rocks. Dust and dirt was settling and he could make out the freshly ripped trench a little more than halfway. He couldn’t see anyone or any movement.

“Done,” John stated.

Sean grabbed his scanner and pointed it towards the rocks. Two life sign signals indicated the enemy’s position. “They’re moving around the rocks.”

“Let’s get this thing up and then we’ll deal with them.”

Together they heaved the pylon upright. It teetered unevenly; the heavy resonance pad swinging it in an arc and threatening to topple it again.

“Switch the lock on,” John yelled as the pylon balanced on an edge of its base.

“It’s not up properly,” Sean threw back.

“Switch it before it falls again.”

The switch was just out of Sean’s reach. He braced himself against the pylon, which began to wobble sideways, and kicked out with his boot. He hit the switch. The gravity lock came on, ripping the pylon from their grasp as the base rammed flat to the moon’s surface in a swirl of dust. The pylon was slung vertical, stopping instantly at ninety degrees. The resonance pad snapped to an abrupt halt; its momentum diverting through the bolts with a squeal of metal.

But it stood firm.

John wiped his brow in the crook of his elbow, careful of his cheek this time. He was sweating.

Sean swore.

John looked to him, expecting his focus to be on the Betelian landing party. He was staring at the resonance pad.

John’s gaze slid up the pylon to see that the pad seemed slightly out of alignment. “We –”

Then his gaze went to the base. It sat a few degrees off Anthony’s outline.

If he switched the gravity lock off even for a second, the pylon would fall. Would it matter? A few degrees?

Stupid question. Of course it mattered. A few degrees and they might as well not have bothered being there.

John looked to Sean, then his cast.

“I’ll cover you,” Sean told him

“No.”

“I can’t get up there with this cast on. And I sure as hell can’t manage those bolts. The more you argue, the more time you waste. I’ll run decoy round to the right and try to keep them away.”

“You haven’t got a weapon.”

“I might be able to bluff them with the scanner. Get up that pylon and fix it!”

John undid his jacket part of the way and shoved some tools down inside it as Sean took off. Then he tackled the pylon, wrapping himself around it and inching his way up. Pulling with his arms and pushing with his legs as the tools dug into his chest.

He reached the pad, and reached out with one hand to see if he could reach all the bolts. Good.

He looked across to the array. The other pylons stood in position, ready to be linked. The land around was deserted – everyone else was back on the ship. The star filled the centre half of the horizon; an arc of bright red slowly rising.

The scanner took less than a second to calculate the necessary adjustment.

John clung to the pylon, his legs aching, leaning back enough to undo his jacket a bit. He felt for the shifter, pulling it out and resting it in his lap before reaching for the socket wrench.

With a tool in each hand, he held a nut firm and loosened the bolt a fraction. Then moved to the next bolt.

He heard weapon fire; his eyes instantly darting to the sound. He saw nothing but the granite features rising from the surface, and prayed that Sean was all right.

It was hard, heavy work on his own. The scanner tweaking a movement too far; the star growing larger in his peripherals. When the scanner was happy, he wrenched the bolts tight, checked the scanner was still happy and slid down the pylon.

Now to find Sean and keep that landing party away from here.

John ran towards the rocks. He reached the trench and tried to jump across, missing a clean clearance and smacking into the side at about knee height. He threw his weight forward, arms reaching out and scraping at the ground as his boots scrambled in the fresh dirt and drove him out. He kept his head up, eyes darting around for any sign of movement.

The outcrop loomed up in front of him, higher than he’d first thought. It could have been close to a hundred metres and nearly twice as wide, he figured, diving for cover once he was close enough.

The rock was warm and hard, with a granite consistency. Huge boulders uplifted at some time in the past, with most of the soft material eroded away to become the surface of the moon.

With his back pressed against the rock, he switched his scanner to security mode and scanned for the enemy while he caught his breath. He was in direct sunlight from the star, but at least he was protected from view of the Betelians.

There were eight of them – all over the place. The logical thing to do would be to take out one and arm himself.

He picked one out and began to creep his way towards him. He moved as stealthily as a cat, slipping easily between the huge boulders and seeking cover in the shadows. All his senses were alive; tiny hairs prickling all over him. Heavy Betelian boots crunched the dry ground, but were almost silent on the solid rock. John hoped his own boots weren’t as audible.

After a few minutes he stopped, trying to make himself invisible in the shadows of a small overhang. He tried to steady his own breathing and hoped that his thumping heartbeat could not be heard.

Tracers of light shot off to his right, almost immediately followed by a shrill zipping, culminating in a small explosion and a puff of dust rising above the rock.

He scanned, but flicked it off almost immediately. A Betelian was above him. He shrank back further into the shadows and glanced up. The rock was three metres high. He looked down. The ground was ahead of him was clear, but sloping slightly.

John set the scanner to emit a pulsating sound. With his eyes riveted on the overhang above, he placed the scanner in the open, then flung himself back against the rock. He strained to hear the heavy boots above him move to the edge. The Betelian was silent; the rock gave away nothing. The star did, as a shadow peeked then lengthened on the ground in front of him.

John moved only his eyes as he looked up. The tip of a weapon poked past the edge. He began to shake, unsure if it was adrenalin or fear, or a bit of both.

The Betelian leaned over the edge looking down. John moved clear of the overhang and leapt up. His hands locked around an enemy boot. He pulled his feet up as high as he could and pushed against the rock, adding leverage to his strength as he dragged with all his might.

With his leg ripped out from beneath him and already leaning forward, the Betelian fell, taking John with him. Instinctively putting his hands out as he landed face first, the impact knocked the weapon free.

John landed on his back, winded as the Betelian half landed on top of him. Both heads turned, eyes following the weapon as it slid away. A bare half second before both scrambled for it.

Unable to match the size and weight of his opponent, John struggled violently. His mouth opened, the barest breaths of air getting sucked in.

He threw his head to one side to avoid the massive fist, and the Betelian groaned as he connected with the ground. John threw a punch upwards. He missed the soft underside of the jaw and hit the hard bone surrounding it. He let out a moan as the impact jarred through to his elbow. The Betelian grunted as his head was pushed away at an angle creating a small amount of distance between them.

John managed to get both his arms free. He cupped his palms and cracked them against the sides of the Betelian’s head. With his ears ringing painfully, the Betelian’s hands automatically rose to his head. John managed to push him away enough to crawl clear. He turned and lunged for the weapon.

A hand around John’s ankle stopped him in midair and he landed flat on his stomach. He flung an arm forward; clawing at the dirt only inches away. As he felt himself dragged backwards, he lashed out with his free foot. He connected with something and the Betelian’s grip loosened. A few more kicks were enough for John to pull free. Scrambling the few feet forward, his fingers locked on to the weapon. Turning to fire, he fell backwards onto his shoulder.

The Betelian was halfway to his feet. The blast hit him in the chest, rocking the top half of his body backwards. He staggered back a step before his legs gave out, then collapsed onto his back and lay motionless.

John swore as a wave of heat and sweat rose through him.

He knew from the swift result that the weapon had been set to kill – and it swamped him. He’d killed someone. Actually killed someone. This was not like simulations. This was not like he’d always been told. This was never meant to happen!

Moisture pricked his eyes and filled his nose. The body lay there not moving. A few seconds ago, he’d been a living, breathing man. Now… Now, he was dead. By his hand.

John looked at the weapon in his shaking hand. It was still raised. It suddenly felt heavy, and he let it fall.

He didn’t have time to think. He didn’t have time to feel. If he didn’t pull himself together, the next body he saw could be Sean.

He rested momentarily, suddenly aware of how tired he was. Wiping the dirt and sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, he caught his breath and turned his focus to Sean. He knew he had to keep moving. He rose slowly to his feet, hurriedly brushing himself down, retrieved the scanner and proceeded to locate the next Betelian – about a hundred metres to his right.

Being armed, he could now afford to wait. He had ambushed two more – simple, straight kills that had involved no physical contact and a steely determination to feel nothing – before he saw Sean crouched behind the cover of a large boulder.

Sean hadn’t noticed him. He picked up a small stone and lobbed it to hit the rock just above Sean’s head. Sean spun around, his eyes cold and a weapon pointed at John. Then he breathed and relaxed, and John let out his own breath.

John raised three fingers, then drew his forefinger across his throat. Sean nodded understanding and held up one finger, indicating that he’d taken one out. John nodded and pointed in the direction of the next target.

The Betelians were aware that they were being eliminated and they became more cautious.

John knew if the Betelians gave up chasing them, they’d most likely head for the array. It probably wouldn’t matter that they wouldn’t know what it was. The fact that he and Sean were setting up something would be enough.

Keeping the Betelians away from the array now became John and Sean’s main objective. Having worked their way behind the enemy, it was an easy matter to draw their fire and keep their interest.

John couldn’t help wondering what was happening on Magellan. When would he and Sean get pulled out and would they have to kill all the Betelians to stop them getting to the array?

The Betelians began to work together and tried to outflank them. Scanner readings showed the four remaining coming in from three sides.

John and Sean quickly drew back, unwilling to be caught in a crossfire. They ran out of cover and suddenly realised they were on a ledge that was coming to an end. There was nothing but air and what hinted to a massive drop behind them.

John pointed to their right where a gap between two rocks was barely visible between the shadows. He took off for it, but Sean’s vice-like grip on his left shoulder halted him. Coming through the gap was a Betelian.

“We’re in trouble.” Sean backed up.

John looked over his shoulder, aiming his scanner at the edge and checking the drop.

The Betelian directly in front grinned with anticipation as he closed the distance. From either side, the crunching of boots became louder. Sean glanced over his shoulder, checking how close they were.

John turned back, his face set. He aimed his weapon and fired. A cold chill ran down his spine when nothing happened. Set on maximum power, it had been quickly drained and was now useless. Sean fired his. The blast was enough to stun the Betelian directly in front and stop him momentarily in his tracks, but that was all.

A small rock beside John’s left foot disintegrated. His eyes automatically followed the tracer beam back to a second Betelian coming in from the left. He backed away another step, as a beam hit the ground where his boot had been.

“How far down?” Sean asked.

“About six or seven metres.”

“Not as far as I’d thought.”

John nodded. They were only a few steps from the edge. “Watch the first step!” he called as he spun round, ran two steps and leapt into the air.

Sean ducked around and followed, mumbling under his breath.

They hit the ground rolling, not allowing their bodies to absorb the impact of the fall. Even so, rock banged into flesh and the air was jolted from their bodies. They had no time to recover, sucking in whatever oxygen they could as they ran.

A Betelian came over the edge. He hit the ground harder, taking a moment to recover as John and Sean scrambled over, around and through small gaps between rocks. Tracers followed them.

They kept moving, slipping through gaps the Betelians couldn’t hope to fit through. Weaponfire stopped. They might have been out of sight, but didn’t for a moment think they were safe. Still, John felt he couldn’t go on, and dragged Sean into the shadows.

“If they can’t…” John had no breath for words and sucked in a few deep breaths. “If they… can’t get us… they’ll…”

“Go for the array…?” Sean guessed.

John nodded.

For several long seconds, the only sound was their heavy breathing.

Sean flung an arm at John and grasped his uniform inches below the throat. Drawing him forward, their eyes met. Sean held him for a moment, his anger beginning to build.

“Why do I let you talk me into these things?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” John hoped Sean’s anger was directed at the situation in general and not himself personally.

“The next time you need help, you ask somebody else.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. You and Anthony are always my first choice.”

Sean shoved John backwards, releasing his grip. He knew John was right. In spite of all their arguments and disagreements, they had always been there for each other. “Well, we can’t stay here all day.”

 

  • * *

 

McReidy had managed to keep Magellan out of trouble. The ship’s shields were holding and they were returning fire. Even though they could not outrun the Betelian cruiser, they had the ability to outmanoeuvre it. The huge ship was heavy to handle and slow to turn, relying on her firepower. The smaller Magellan was constantly on the move.

The ship’s defensive programming was too slow to react to the live situation and McReidy began calling out instructions to Pilson. He obeyed without question.

The Betelian captain was observant and quickly learnt McReidy’s tactics. His correct anticipation of her next move scored him a direct hit on the bridge area.

The small ship thundered to her foundations. The main screen went down, electricals shorted, lighting blacked out. A security siren screamed.

McReidy was slung from her chair as the ship fell sideways. She hung onto its arm, only to be thrown back again as the ship straightened.

The lights began to flicker as power kicked back in. The main screen came back on as a blur of fuzzy pixels.

Randall was sprawled on the floor a metre away from his console, not moving. The botanist was also on the floor, groaning and moving. Pilson was slumped over the helm as thick smoke poured from it.

Gillespie was already assessing the damage; one hand on the back of his head, the other rapidly punching keys on his console.

McReidy staggered to the helm. She waved the smoke away, trying to see if anything looked damaged. Burnt wiring reached her nostrils, but nothing was visible.

“Shields are down to sixty per cent,” Gillespie blurted out. “One more direct hit –”

“I get the picture,” she shouted back, cutting him off.

She slipped her arms around Pilson, locking them around his chest, and dragged him out of his seat. He weighed a ton. His head slumped forward and his feet tangled each other and the seat.

“I got him,” Gillespie said as McReidy stumbled and nearly fell into his arms.

“Thanks,” she sighed.

They lowered Pilson to the floor and McReidy dived back to the helm, steadying the ship.

“Bridge! What the hell is going on up there?” Anthony yelled over his communicator.

“We just scored a direct hit,” McReidy answered.

“Everyone okay?” Anthony asked.

“No.”

McReidy glanced back at Pilson. Gillespie was checking for a pulse. Yeah, she should probably have done that first.

“He’ll be okay,” Gillespie said. “He always did have a hard head.”

“Give us some time to get some power into those shields,” Anthony continued.

Time? McReidy’s eyes widened. What did Anthony think they were doing up here?

The scratchy view on the main screen showed the cruiser preparing for another attack. Gillespie left Pilson and dived at Randall’s console. Navigation sensors flashed beside McReidy, indicating something approaching from behind. Before its identity could be confirmed, a huge ship skimmed over Magellan and placed itself in a direct line with the first. It fired instantly. The cruiser appeared to absorb the initial attack, then suddenly exploded into shrapnel.

“Is that Makdon?” asked a stunned Gillespie.

“I don’t know,” McReidy breathed with relief. “Can’t see anything clearly on the screen. But I’m glad she’s on our side.”

The second ship hesitated briefly, and then disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. McReidy chased it. Although it was much faster, she plotted its course to the moon.

“Or maybe not,” she mumbled.

McReidy glanced around the bridge. The botanist was attending to Randall. She stayed at the helm, though her concern was obvious.

“How is he?”

“I’ve got a pulse,” the botanist said.

Concern seemed to disappear a little at the signs of a pulse.

The communications console sparked again. Gillespie grabbed a fire extinguisher, aimed at the console and fired a short blast. The sparks died, a wisp of smoke eked out. He punched a few keys, then turned to McReidy and shook his head.

“Bridge to Mister Delaney,” McReidy called over her communicator.

“Fireworks over?” Anthony asked.

“Makdon took out a battlecruiser.”

“You’re kidding!”

“No.”

“She took out one of her own? For us…?” Then he mumbled to himself, “What the hell did you do down there?”

“We’re going back to the moon,” McReidy continued. “Communications are down.”

“Okay.” There was a pause as Anthony thought. “Is Stephen there?”

“Huh?” McReidy wasn’t on a first name basis with the crew.

“Gillespie?” Anthony clarified.

“Affirmative.”

“Get him to run a bypass through navigation. We’ll be back in business in no time. Meanwhile, you’ll be pleased to know that we have got the transporter back.”

The botanist was easing Randall to a sitting position. His head rolled on his neck and his eyelids flickered. Pilson still wasn’t moving.

Gillespie moved to the navigation console beside McReidy, ripping off the panel near her legs and looking around inside the cavity. Smoke and the stinging fumes of burning wire filtered out.

“Need some help?” Randall’s head lifted towards Gillespie. One hand went to his temple and he hauled himself to his feet. The botanist tried to help him, but he brushed her away. “I’m okay.”

Gillespie nodded, waving the fumes clear and quickly assessing the damage. “Can you grab me some pliers, a couple of nav circuit breakers and about a metre of wiring?”

 

Back to top

 

Chapter eight

 

Mark woke slowly. Glare swam in front of his eyes and background noise reached his ears, echoing around before bouncing back out again. His mind began to clear. The glare took shape and movement. Noise gave the movement life. Sick bay and its inhabitants brought him back to full consciousness.

He lifted a hand to shade his eyes from the brightness while they adjusted. His leg felt… nothing.

His eyes widened and his body tensed. He jerked himself upright, ripped the blanket off and looked at his leg. His breath rushed out in a wave of relief.

A cast went from his ankle to his thigh. A bit extreme considering it was his lower leg that was shattered. He cringed just thinking about it.

The botanist was leaning over an unconscious body on a bed and had her back to him. She heard the movement and turned her head, lifting her eyes. On seeing Mark semi vertical, she turned back to her patient.

“Thank you,” Mark smiled, aware that his words were slightly slurred and his smile was lingering way too long.

“Thanks for telling me what to do.”

“Nooo problem.” Oh, yeah, he was doped up!

“Just stay here for a –”

“Nooo, I need tooo… Bridge.” His head swirled and he flopped backwards onto the bed.

 

  • * *

 

By the time Gillespie finished, they were within transporter range of the moon. The star loomed up ominously on the main screen, dwarfing the tiny moon. Distorted image or not, it was still a threatening sight.

“McReidy to Commander Madison.”

Hidden amongst the rocks, the magnetic field array in sight, John was never so pleased to hear her voice. He grinned at Sean as he answered, “Madison here.”

“We’ll be bringing you up as soon as we’re within range. Everything set down there?”

“Field’s up and waiting. Transport the antimatter as soon as –”

Sean held up his hand for silence and John froze. The sound of running footsteps fading into the distance told them they had been overheard.

“Stand by to transport,” McReidy continued.

“Just take Sean,” John snatched Sean’s weapon.

“No,” Sean tried to snatch it back as John jumped to his feet and checked the power.

“But –” McReidy questioned.

“We’ve got a problem down here.” John took off running before Sean could stop him.

“Idiot!” Sean hissed. He pulled out his scanner, leaned out and began shooting beams of light over the rocky face. Even though the beams couldn’t hurt anyone, they provided visible cover fire as John scampered down the rock, barely glancing for any enemy.

John knew the Betelian would head for the field array. He didn’t know how, but knew he had to stop him. He was almost at the bottom with a clear view of the torn up ground and the array beyond it, and glanced across to see where the Betelian was.

The land was bare. The star covered the horizon and half the sky. Its surface rippled, heating the small moon’s atmosphere. Dark crimson spots appeared randomly in the bubbling mass; growing as they moved outwards, then disappearing.

“What…?” He spun around on the spot, looking around everywhere. The cover fire disappeared and he knew Sean was gone. One less problem – good.

Crumbling rock fell past him and he looked up. The Betelian was climbing up.

Up? Was he calling his ship? One blast and the whole array would be gone.

John tucked the weapon into the waistband of his pants and hooked around to his right, picking the easiest path to the summit. His legs ached as they drove him upwards. The rock was heating up under his hands. Sweat filled and stung his eyes, and his cheek throbbed. His mouth and nose were dry. Each breath of pure heat drained him and there was an incredible pounding in his head that he couldn’t shake off.

As he neared the top, a tracer beam hit the ground near his foot. The surface crumbled and he slipped. He slid a metre before he could stop, reaching for the weapon. He spotted the Betelian inching out of a crevice and fired. The beam hit the rock, forcing the Betelian to retreat before the weapon fizzled out.

“Great!” John groaned, dropping it as he tackled the last few metres.

The rock peaked and flattened. John heaved himself up. Somehow he dragged himself to his feet, staggering a few steps to maintain balance.

The Betelian was on the crest of the rock. He had his back to John; his attention on something in his hands. Even so, John recognised the colonel – and his throat suddenly closed.

Not calling a ship, John assumed as he heard no voices. But he quickly looked to the sky above just in case.

As his eyes lowered to the Betelian, he could pick out the field pylons beyond. He knew he didn’t have the strength left to tackle anyone.

“Colonel Trair,” he shouted.

Trair turned. A fresh wound burned across his cheek. “So… it is you. I thought as much.”

“Don’t do it,” John repeated, slowly closing the distance between them. His feet were barely able to leave the ground as he moved.

“Stay where you are.”

“All right.” John held his hands up in front of him as he stopped. “I’m not coming any closer.”

He saw what Trair had. A remote control. Someone had gotten close enough to the field to plant something. One pylon down was enough; one pylon out of alignment was enough to take the field down. Trair had come up here to set it off. That meant he needed a direct line, or a short distance.

“Just listen to me for a minute,” John pleaded.

Trair kept his eyes on John. A smile formed as he flicked a switch with his thumb and the remote armed with a green flashing light. “Why?”

“We didn’t come here to get involved in your domestic problems.”

“Ah, but you did. You assume that you know better than us.”

“No, we –”

“But you did flush out Moloch. I must thank you for that.”

John licked his dry lips, but his tongue was every bit as dry. “Where is he?’

“Dead… where all traitors belong.”

“He was not wrong. While you kill each other to decide who rules who, your sun will end it for all of you. You’re an intelligent man, Colonel…” A small degree of flattery usually helped and John bet that it would this time. “Haven’t you seen the signs… the colour change, increase in solar activity –?”

“I am not a physicist.”

“You don’t have to be. But I can prove it. If you just let me –”

“No!” Trair’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. He raised the hand holding the remote, waving it at arm’s length at John. His thumb twitched above the flashing button. “Emperor Rache said you would try to stop me. You are using our sun to create a weapon for the rebels that will destroy us.”

“Rache is a fool!” John felt his temper slipping.

Trair spoke, but John didn’t hear him. A flash on the horizon caught his attention. Looking past the Betelian, he saw the sky beginning to glow. It quickly spread as far as he could see to the left and right. A quick glance towards the magnetic field showed him that it was on. Safely enclosed, was the antimatter.

“Mister Delaney, get us out of here,” he spoke urgently into his communicator. “Both of us.” Getting Trair off the moon was just as important as getting himself off. It meant the Betelian and the remote were away from the field.

“No can do,” Anthony replied. “The transporter overloaded. You’ll just have to stay put a bit longer.”

John turned his attention back to Trair, his voice surprisingly calm as he heard footsteps behind him. “Get your men off this moon.”

“And leave you here to destroy us? I have my orders.”

“This moon is going to hit the sun. Get off while you still can.”

“You lie! Even I know that it would burn up before it got within a million kilometres.”

John pointed.

Trair hesitated, then slowly turned around. The horizon glowed; a wall of fire that reached as high as the atmosphere. He turned slowly back to John, the remote clutched tightly in his hands, a look of acceptance on his face.

“Then we will all die together.”

“No!” John refused to accept that option.

He stepped forward, eyeing the remote. A transporter beam suddenly enveloped Trair and he disappeared. Spinning around, John caught the traces of two more Betelians as they also disappeared. He was suddenly alone.

“Mister Delaney.” John stared at the oncoming fire, swaying uneasily on his feet.

“It wasn’t me. We’re still out.”

“What’s going on up there?”

“Just cool it a minute.”

“That may be all I have!”

Anthony cut John off as he spoke to the bridge. “I need at least five minutes.”

McReidy spoke quietly to Gillespie. “Can we contact them?” She indicated the Betelian ship.

“We can try. I don’t know what frequency they’re on,” Gillespie added as he opened the entire waveband. “Go for it.”

“This is Lieutenant Commander McReidy of the Magellan calling Makdon.”

“This is Captain Drago. Do you need assistance?”

The main screen was not showing visual, but the voice was clear.

“Assistance?” Gillespie mouthed.

“Yes,” McReidy answered. “Yes, please. Our transporter is down and we still have our commander on the surface. Can you bring him up for us?”

“I am sorry. I would like to help. We lost the men we tried to bring up. I would not like to chance it again.”

“I understand.” McReidy’s heart was in her mouth.

“We must return to our duties. You will have no more… interruptions.”

The line went dead. Makdon disappeared into space.

Sean slid out from beneath a console where he’d been rewiring the shields. “You can’t leave him there. Send down a shuttle.”

“There isn’t time.” McReidy knew it would take ten, maybe fifteen, minutes to get a shuttle down to the surface of the moon. By then, the whole thing would be a massive fireball. “Mister Delaney has assured me the transporter will be back online in a few minutes. And, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve got some work to finish right here.”

Her demanding tone forced Sean to reorganise his priorities. Magellan was in a bad state. With the shields at a reduced capacity, the ship would not be able to withstand the shockwave from the moon’s explosion. Anthony was preoccupied, but still managed to yell instructions over Sean’s communicator.

 

  • * *

 

Anthony was having enough problems of his own. The repairs to the overloaded circuits refused to hold and kept burning out. To reset the programming would take too long. He needed every shortcut he could take. He found himself admiring Kowalski’s work. Although only a cadet with limited knowledge, he could easily follow complicated directions and relayed back to Anthony all the data he needed to know.

Anthony paused, his eyes scanning the equipment, his brain mentally skimming the circuits. He switched John’s communicator back on. “I think we’re cooking. Stand by to transport.”

John looked at the rapidly approaching wall of fire. Above him, the star covered the entire sky. His face felt burned; the skin tight. His eyes hurt; the moisture being sucked out of his body by the intense heat. Blinking caused his lids to scrape across the dry surfaces. His mouth and throat were beginning to swell. He tried to breathe as little as possible, taking small breaths and holding them for a few seconds.

“Ready when you are.” His voice was little more than a dry rasp.

Anthony powered up the transporter. It came to life briefly, then fizzled and sparked in front of Kowalski. The cadet jumped backwards, half expecting the console to explode.

“Whoops,” Anthony mumbled.

“Whoops, Mister Delaney?” John cried incredulously. “Whoops?”

“Sean,” Anthony called the bridge. “Give me back my auxiliaries!”

“I can’t. I need them to boost the shields up.”

“And I need them for the transporter. Now give them back before I come up there and rip the circuits out!”

Sean transferred power back to the transporter.

“Thank you.” Anthony returned to his usual calm self. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kowalski fumbling as he rushed to repair the circuits. “Take it easy, Sam. There’s no need to panic.”

Kowalski looked to Anthony for reassurance. A warm grin gave him all he needed.

“I’ll tell you when to panic,” Anthony joked.

“Anything I should do down here?” John asked.

“Praying would be nice.”

Feeling as desperate as he did, John couldn’t help smiling at the comment. His knees began to buckle as he struggled to support his own weight. The pounding in his head drowned out the fire.

“Not necessary. I have all my faith in you.” John’s words lifted his spirit as their truth calmed him.

“Just what I need. More pressure.” Anthony worked skilfully, his own emotions hidden deep. He glanced to Kowalski, who nodded. “Stand by.”

There was no answer.

“John?”

“I’m still here.”

John watched silently as the fire reached the magnetic field. It rapidly burned around and over the top of it, leaving an empty pocket. The field held together, completely unaffected.

At least something was working right.

The fire rejoined around the field and John lost sight of it.

He didn’t notice that he had stopped perspiring, but felt the heat welling up from inside, seemingly unable to escape. The soaked jacket weighed a ton. Brown dirt had dried in his sweat and stuck to him. Dizzy and overcome by exhaustion, his head slumped and his knees gave out. He heard faint words, barely recognised Anthony’s voice.

 

*

 

John opened his eyes, unaware they had been closed. He shivered. The ship was freezing. Anthony, Kowalski and the transporter console were on their side. His cheek rested on a cold hard surface.

Kowalski rushed at him, his face twisting in front of John’s, covering his view.

“Sir?”

Kowalski wrapped his arms around John and helped him upright. The room straightened.

John’s mouth opened but nothing came out. Cold air sucked into his throat and he choked and coughed. Kowalski thumped him on the back, nearly dropping him to the floor again. It seemed to bring him back to his senses. Getting to the bridge was all he could think of.

His eyes rested briefly on Anthony, who was now transferring power back to Sean. He pushed Kowalski aside and stumbled to the console. Anthony automatically held out his hand, expecting a high five. John grasped his palm tightly.

“Thank you,” was all John could manage before he raced towards the bridge.

Anthony smiled as he watched John go.

 

*

 

John stormed onto the bridge. His hair was plastered to his forehead. A light film of brown dust covered him from head to foot. Momentarily surveying the bridge, the damage refused to sink into his brain.

The main screen drew his attention like a magnet. For a moment, he stood motionless. The star filled the entire screen, just as it had filled the sky above the moon.

“Are you waiting for an invitation, McReidy? Get us out of here,” John ordered.

McReidy had never been so relieved to see anyone in her life. She had turned her chair to face the bridge door, knowing he would return there first, and waited impatiently. She wasn’t taking this ship anywhere without him.

“Yes, sir,” she answered turning back to the helm and proceeding to move the ship away. She couldn’t help the smile on her face.

Sean, at navigation beside her, had already plotted a tentative course.

John stepped down to the captain’s chair and flung himself into it, feeling as though he now owned it. The faint smell of burnt wiring and smoke still permeated the air.

He kept the star on the main screen as the ship turned. The screen flickered, hazed and threatened to cut out before holding firm. The image cleared.

Moving away from it, the star looked smaller and the moon could now be seen. The sunspot had grown to enormous proportions and was large enough to swallow the smaller object entirely.

“Have we still got control of the moon?” John asked of anyone who might know.

“No, sir,” Randall answered.

“Do we know if it’s on target?”

“Not really, sir. The last reading said yes, but…”

“That’s okay,” John assured him. “We’ve done all we can. The rest is up to the laws of the universe.”

John was downing his second glass of water when he heard the bridge door open. He turned to see Mark hobbling on a pair of crutches. “Should you –?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Mark answered. “Even if someone did try and dope me up until next week.”

John smiled and turned his chair back to the main screen, feeling sorry for the botanist.

His head still thumped and he still felt hot. The water seemed to evaporate as soon as it hit his system, yet he felt it dragging in his stomach.

Mark hobbled towards the science console.

“Sir, would you like the console?” Randall asked.

“Thank you.” Mark took the console, resting his crutches on the floor beside him. Randall moved to the vacant seat next to him.

The bridge door opened again. John turned to see Lakers.

“Sir, can I –?” he began unsurely.

“Certainly,” John waved him onto the bridge.

Lakers let out a breath at the sight of the star filling the main screen. He moved to the side, taking a viewing position next to Randall.

“We’re at a safe distance now,” McReidy announced.

“Good,” John answered. “Let’s watch this happen.”

Anthony had the intercom working again. The science console was running off the auxiliary engines, as was sick bay, communications ran through navigation, shields were almost at full power, weapons were nonexistent. No other departments were registering.

“Magnify the main screen.”

It took a few adjustments and a quick thump by a closed fist on the right side of the console before Mark managed to magnify the image on the screen.

“Mister Delaney, how is it holding up?”

“Considering we lost the tractor beam, we’re doing just fine. But it is getting pretty hot down there.”

“No kidding,” John mumbled.

Kowalski’s voice could be heard in the background as he spoke to Anthony. “Sir, the field’s starting to dissipate.”

“Saturate,” Anthony instructed.

“Not at this distance, we can’t.”

“Sorry, guys,” Anthony spoke back to the bridge. “I need auxiliaries.”

Science shut down and Mark turned to John. “I now have no idea what’s going on with the moon.”

“Unavoidable, Mark,” John apologised. “Keep us informed, Mister Delaney.”

“We’re in range of the sunspot,” Anthony continued. “Being multipolar, we’re getting knocked around a bit. If we don’t find a stable area, the moon could get knocked out and fall straight into the sun. It’s a bit like playing pinball –”

“Field fully saturated and holding,” Kowalski informed Anthony.

“Good. Now, just… uh-oh… Sam?”

The cadet shrugged his shoulders.

“Mister Delaney?” John didn’t like the sudden silence, but considered that “uh-oh” was probably better than “whoops”.

“We’ve just lost contact with the moon. It’s out of our hands. Switching auxiliaries back to you.”

“I hope we’re recording this,” said John.

On the bridge, all eyes except Mark’s focused on the main screen. He was attempting to lock onto the moon. The scanners picked it up and began to record observations.

“And David put his hand in his bag.” John’s quiet voice broke the silence as he recited. “And took a stone and slang it and struck the Philistine in his forehead. And he fell upon his face to the earth.” John was silent; every muscle tense, every nerve on end.

Mark smiled to himself at the appropriateness of the quote. The scanners lost contact with the moon. As the instruments read nothing, he also turned to the main screen.

Over the intercom, Anthony could be heard counting down. “Fifteen… fourteen… thirteen…”

“Shields at maximum strength?” John asked Sean.

“Twelve…”

Sean nodded. “As good as they’ll ever be.” His voice momentarily blocked out Anthony.

“Nine… eight…”

“Mister Delaney –” John began in an irritated tone.

“What?” Anthony interrupted, knowing John couldn’t touch him, then continued. “For those interested, we have four seconds to impact… Three… two… one… Kaboom!”

The bridge was still silent; the image on the screen remained unchanged.

“Do we have impact?” John asked, turning slightly towards Mark.

“I assume so.” Mark looked puzzled as the instruments showed nothing. Then they suddenly sprang to life. He called out the details as they registered. “Increase in all forms of radiation. Photons and neutrinos being ejected. Rapid increase in temperature. Thermonuclear fusion is off the scale.” He summed up briefly. “If we haven’t broken a piece off, we’ve certainly put a decent crack in it.”

“Yes!” John cried, punching the air with a fist, a grin of triumph on his face.

Mark frowned as he hurriedly fiddled with the instruments. “Something…” he began, but didn’t finish.

The outer envelope of the star was becoming larger, redder and brighter.

John looked quickly to Mark, then back to the screen. But it was Mark’s words that sent a chill down his spine.

“Output slowing down. All readings are right off the scale. We’ve just sent a chain reaction through the entire star. It’s going supernova… and quickly!”

“It wasn’t supposed to supernova,” John groaned. “Not for years. Are we far enough away?”

“I doubt it. At a guess… it’s got less than a minute.”

“We can outrun the shockwave,” John assured them.

“We can’t even anticipate it. This is not a normal explosion.”

A wave of desperation swept the entire bridge crew and their instincts took over. McReidy didn’t have to be told to move the ship away. Sean switched the navigation to autopilot – at least they wouldn’t hit anything – as the ship took off at maximum speed. It didn’t matter where they went as long as it was away from where they were.

The ship hurtled through space, trying to stay clear. The star blew up like a balloon, threatening to swallow the ship at any second. It enveloped everything in its path, feeding off whatever it could find. The inner two planets, moons, and asteroids all disappeared inside the glowing red corona.

John’s mind worked overtime. The shockwave would slowly dissipate as it spread outwards, but not before it had wreaked havoc throughout the entire solar system and beyond. “Send out a warning to all the planets, and any ship that might be in range. Across all frequencies.”

The collapse halted suddenly. The core temperature rose billions of degrees in a fraction of a second. The star glowed blue, and then, causing a brightness that would light up the galaxy for a year, it exploded.

Already at communication, Gillespie sent out the warning. Sean’s shaking head caught John’s eye. Trying at first to avoid it, he changed his mind.

“We’ve just blown up their sun. The least we can do is try to warn them,” John spoke quietly.

Sean nodded. “They did say they could survive a supernova.”

“If they’re prepared, which they’re not.”

“Responses coming in,” Gillespie confirmed.

“No time for answers. Repeat the warning.”

John watched the screen in silence for a moment. Even though they were moving away from the star, the shock wave appeared to be growing as it neared. It occurred to him that if they could not avoid the wave they would be overtaken and flattened by it, or they would have to go through it.

“McReidy,” John called. “What’s the best way to face a tidal wave?”

“Head on,” she answered, confused by the irrelevance of the question. “But this isn’t –?”

“Oh, yes, it is.” John’s face lit up as he felt himself gaining control of the situation. His words came out as quickly as his thoughts. “Bring us about one eighty degrees and hold her steady. Drop speed to one quarter,” he told her.

Flicking the intercom on, he turned his attention to the rest of the ship.

“All stations evacuate and move forward to sick bay.” A mental picture of the ship told him that sick bay would be the most protected part; that was its purpose after all. “Mister Delaney, I want full power to the forward shields. Everything you’ve got to put a buffer around the front section. We’re going through.”

Anthony muttered inaudibly under his breath, then spoke aloud. “Okay, guys, clear out.”

Carter bolted for the door. Kowalski disobeyed.

“You heard me.” Anthony pulled the cover off the main power console.

“I’m not going anywhere.” Kowalski moved to the transference tables and reset the safety switches to avoid an overload shutdown. “You can’t do it on your own. And I don’t think you’ve got time to argue with me.”

Anthony didn’t answer. Hopefully, by creating a large enough buffer around the front of the ship, the wave’s energy could be deflected enough to clear the ship. The primary circuits began to overheat; the secondaries automatically took the bulk of the power flow and a number of auxiliary bypasses came online.

“Shields are at one hundred per cent and holding steady,” John reported.

“And that’s about all you’ll get,” Anthony answered.

Heat levels rose into the danger zone. Anthony glanced briefly at the gauge as the cooling system activated. The gauge dropped slightly and the temperature settled just above the danger line. The circuits began to melt and fuse together. Somehow, the power supply remained steady.

The system reached critical. Anthony sensed the imminent danger. “Sam?” He couldn’t help the worried tone.

“Hmm?” Kowalski answered, only half listening. He was too busy re-routing the power flow to avoid overloaded circuits. Each time something blew, he compensated and was continually trying to keep up with the systems to avoid complete overload and shutdown. No power, no shields – and no anything else.

“You can panic now!” Anthony grabbed Kowalski’s shoulder, pulling the cadet backwards as he charged for the door.

Kowalski spun around and raced the dozen or so steps to the door, which locked automatically behind them. They slid across the corridor as they tried to turn left, Anthony bumping Kowalski into the wall, and then sprinted the length of the corridor.

The ship shook with the force of a major earthquake. Unable to stay on their feet, Anthony pushed Kowalski to the floor before diving onto his stomach. Lying face down, their arms instinctively covering their heads, they waited. A deafening explosion sounded from behind them, then silence, and the ship was still.

Anthony spun onto his back, his weight resting out outstretched arms behind him as he looked back toward the engine room. An eerie stillness enveloped them.

He sat up, drawing his knees up, arms looping around them and his head dropped. He closed his eyes and rested for a moment, not wishing to contemplate the inevitable. If the ship were going to blow, she would have done so. That was the only thing in their favour.

“That was close!”

Anthony lifted his head slightly and turned to look over his elbow at Kowalski. The cadet was sitting up leaning against the wall. His eyes were glazed and he held his right palm to his forehead above his nose.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, but…” Kowalski dropped his hand to look at it and was relieved to find he wasn’t bleeding. “Man, am I going to have some massive bump on this in the morning.”

Anthony smiled and began to slowly drag himself to his feet. “Go and get Alex and a couple of the boys and we’ll see if we can fix this mess.”

Kowalski rose to his feet and staggered off towards sick bay, shaking his head slightly to clear the haze that was forming.

“Get yourself checked out while you’re down there.”

Kowalski raised his hand in acknowledgement and Anthony headed back to the engine room. The door refused to budge. The keypad lock felt hot to his touch. Pulling a laser screwdriver from his pocket, he disconnected the keypad and removed it from the wall. He could smell the smoke before he saw it. Waving the black fumes away with his hands revealed a molten blob of what had once been the door controls. He dreaded to think what lay behind the door.

 

  • * *

 

It had been almost impossible to pinpoint the shockwave. Visually, it showed nothing. It moved too quickly for the sensors to be able to compute and struck while they showed it to be a million kilometres away.

McReidy fought desperately to maintain control of the ship. Appearing to have a mind of their own, the controls ripped from her grasp. John’s hands closed over hers. She felt his strength seep into her. He stood behind her, leaning over her shoulder, his eyes focused in front. Together, they steadied the ship; the controls responded, and then all was still. The shields had held; the ship remained in one piece.

McReidy could still feel John’s grip on her hands, even after he let go. He had not fought the controls as she had done, but had felt a part of the ship – guiding Magellan through a storm. Still feeling his presence behind her, she turned her head and was surprised to find he was back in the captain’s chair.

“Everyone all right?” he asked, looking around to see nods of confirmation.

Lakers had his hand to his forehead, blood flowing freely down his face.

“Get down to sick bay and have that looked at,” John told him.

“Sir,” he acknowledged, wiping a sleeve down his face. He then pressed his palm to his forehead to stop the bleeding.

“Randall, go with him.”

“Yes, sir,” Randall nodded. He grabbed Lakers’ sleeve as the geologist staggered towards the door.

“We’re still in one piece.” Sean’s statement was of relief. “Although…”

“Although what?” John asked as Sean did not appear to be more enlightening.

The bridge suddenly blacked out. The total darkness was numbing to all their senses. Sean fumbled over his console, which was as silent as all the others. John sensed something and hushed the crew, listening carefully.

“What is it?” whispered McReidy.

“Don’t you hear it?” John answered.

McReidy listened for a moment. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Me either,” said Sean.

“That’s what I mean. The engines have stopped.”

There was a crash and a loud groan from Gillespie. “Who put that console there?” he demanded.

The lights began to flicker then came on, but only reached half brightness. The main screen came back on, showing only the immediate area in front of the ship, consoles slowly reactivated and things became relatively normal.

“At least the generators are still working,” Gillespie groaned as he picked himself up from the floor.

“Mister Delaney! Where’s my power gone?”

Anthony either couldn’t or didn’t wish to hear John. The intercom remained silent although the lights indicated it was working. John sighed, looking thoughtfully at the crew. Gillespie, working intently at his console, caught his attention.

“What’s our status?” John asked.

“We’re up and running again, but only on emergency generators. Head count in sick bay puts us two short. Engineering’s dead.” As soon as he said the last word, he wished he hadn’t.

John was already on the intercom. “Mister Delaney, where are you?’ Receiving no response, he switched to sick bay. “This is Commander Madison, is Lieutenant Delaney there?”

“This is sick bay,” the botanist answered. “Hold on a minute.”

The wait was nervewracking. John began to bite his thumbnail.

“He’s not here, sir.”

John pointed to Sean and Gillespie, then to the door. “You two, go.”

They had no sooner reached the door than the intercom stopped them. “Wait a minute, sir. Kowalski’s just turned up.”

Kowalski’s voice came on, sounding a little dazed. “Sir, it’s… Kowalski here.”

“Where’s Lieutenant Delaney?”

“He’s…”

John waited impatiently for Kowalski to continue. “He’s… what?”

“He’s fine. We just had… a little… accident… in engineering.” Kowalski suddenly felt faint. His eyes blinked heavily and he leant backwards against the wall for support. “If you don’t need me any more, sir… I think I need… a little rest.”

A loud thud came through the intercom as Kowalski hit the floor. Sean and Gillespie bolted out the door before John spoke. He turned back to the intercom.

“Mister Delaney, if you can hear me, answer!”

“Keep your shirt on, I’m here.”

A wave of relief swept over John. “What’s going on down there?”

“We had a slight mishap. But I see you got the generators working.” He added the last statement quickly without giving further information.

“Mister Delaney!” John pushed.

“We’re dead in the water.”

“For how long?”

“Well I won’t know that until I can get back in the engine room.” Anthony’s frustrated reply silenced John momentarily. “Can I have some help down here? Where’s Sam? I asked him to get some help.”

“Sean and Gillespie are on their way.” John looked around the bridge. Mark would be useless on his crutches, and that amused look in his eyes was more medication than anything else. He doubted McReidy would be any help to Anthony, and his own head was thumping. He switched on his communicator. “Mister Randall, see if there’s anyone in sick bay who can help, then head down to engineering.”

“Yes, sir,” Randall answered.

“Kowalski’s having… a little rest.” John continued to Anthony, smiling slightly as he used Kowalski’s words. His eyes met McReidy’s and she smiled back.

Anthony sighed and hesitated. John could almost imagine his mind ticking over.

“Yeah, okay… I can do without Sam for a while… What’s the damage up there?”

“Scanning now,” John answered, looking up at the ceiling briefly as the lighting dimmed another degree. It stabilised, and he leaned back comfortably in his chair. “What happened?”

There was a few seconds silence before Anthony answered, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

John nodded. “Okay.”

The scan of the bridge would take several minutes. Probably longer, now that they were relying on generator power and not main engine power.

 

  • * *

 

After tracing the wiring back a short distance, Anthony realised he was not going to get into the engine room that way. By the time Sean and Gillespie arrived, he had begun to cut around the door seal. By resetting the frequency of a phaser, the beam was now able to slice through metal like a knife through butter. Grey smoke escaped through the cut he was making.

“Is that toxic?” Sean asked.

“I hope not,” Anthony answered.

Within a minute, the door was free. Anthony kicked it with the sole of his foot and the door fell inwards.

The engine room was still. With the familiar purring of the engines silenced, the room took on a ghostly feeling. Smoke hung in the air, still curling from a couple of the consoles. Mixed with the pale red of the emergency lighting, it created a shadowy darkness that was difficult to see through.

Gillespie flicked at a switch just inside the door. It didn’t move.

Anthony turned to him. “You’re assuming the vents are going to work?”

“Generators are on,” Gillespie shrugged.

“The door controls were melted. Vents aren’t going to be any better.”

Anthony stepped cautiously to the first console. Sean and Gillespie branched out to either side of him.

Anthony touched the console. It burnt his fingers and he pulled back. To him, everything looked normal – just lifeless. He used the phaser to cut away a few random panels, enabling him to check the degree of damage, then went straight to the engine core. He could barely make out the readings on the gauges. The dials had melted and set into place. Then the gauges themselves had started to melt, distorting the dials.

If the melted cargo bay had been bad, this was a whole lot worse.

He looked to Sean, who was using a scanner on the core. Sean turned the scanner so Anthony could read it. It only revealed what he already knew. The engine core had melted.

“Whoaa!” Anthony was awestruck.

“Could you repeat that, please?” John’s voice brought him back to his senses.

“Ahh… well…” Anthony cleared his throat. “We’ve had a meltdown in the engine core. The whole electrical system is shot. At least for this section of the ship.”

“Can you fix it?”

“Fix it…? No way! It’s going to take a complete rebuild. What about the bridge?”

“Scans aren’t finished. Looks like it’s only minor though. How long to rebuild?” John didn’t like the idea that they were immobilised and completely defenceless.

Anthony looked around him. Carter and Randall ran into the engine room, jumping over the fallen door and skidding to a halt. “If there’s any sleep you’d like to catch up on, now would be a good time.”

“Alternatives?”

“Well, we could get out and walk!”

John knew better than to answer a comment like that and waited for Anthony to continue.

“I’m also going to need a jump start to get going.”

John did some quick mental calculations, and then turned to McReidy. “Can you fly a shuttle?”

“Yes… why?” she asked puzzled.

“We’re going to have to push,” was all John answered before speaking again to Anthony. “There are three shuttles on board. We can use them to jump it. Take whatever else you need.”

“Will do. The entire ship is running off your generators, so you better start sealing off whatever sections of the ship we don’t actually need. We need to conserve everything. Power, oxygen, water. Food, if it comes to that.”

With the ship running off generators, everything they took for granted was under threat.

John brought up a schematic of the ship on the main screen. “We can run life support from sick bay. That’s not a problem… All crew, report locations so I can start sealing off the ship.”

“Oh, and… John,” Anthony’s voice lowered. “You might not have much of a ship left… but I’ll get us home.”

“Thank you.” It was almost a whisper.

Reports came in quickly. Everyone was on the bridge, in sick bay or engineering, or en route to one of those areas. John began closing bulkheads and sealing off sections of the ship that weren’t needed.

 

  • * *

 

“What do you need?” Gillespie asked Anthony.

“How well do you know the ship?”

Gillespie grinned. “You want it, I’ll find it.”

Building an engine from scratch? Easy, Anthony knew, if you had the parts. Time consuming, but easy. Without all the right parts…?

He reeled off a list of what he wanted and Gillespie wrote it down.

“John’s sealing off the ship. You’re going to have to go into those areas, so get him to open them up as you get to them. Suit up, because it’s going to get cold very quickly.”

“Gotcha,” Gillespie answered, heading towards a melted door.

Anthony looked at the others. “Alex, go with him.”

“Yes, sir,” the cadet grinned, bouncing after Gillespie.

“Sean, you’re with me. What –?” Anthony looked around sharply, his ears screeching as he saw Gillespie wrenching at the cupboard door. He turned back to Sean. “When he gets that open, grab us a couple of radiation suits. We need to vent the radiation.”

The metal screeched again.

Anthony sighed as he looked to Randall. “Can you grab a hand scanner and run it over everything in this room. Let me know if anything’s alive.”

“Yes, sir.”

Anthony lifted his hands to his ears and ducked for cover as a phaser blast echoed around the engine room. Randall dropped to the floor and covered his head with his arms. Metal scraped and screeched. Anthony turned to see a smouldering hole was all that remained of the cupboard door handle. Sean held a phaser while Gillespie wrenched the door almost off its hinges.

“Could you warn me next time?” Anthony ground out.

“Sorry,” Sean apologised.

Anthony turned back to Randall, who was lowering his arms and looking around in surprise. “I’ll be in the ventilation ducts if you need me.”

“Yes, sir,” Randall acknowledged.

 

  • * *

 

John raised a hand to his brow. The pounding in his head had increased. He felt exhausted; every joint in his body ached. He closed tired eyes to try and clear his head, but the blackness overwhelmed him. He fought against it but there was no strength left in his body. The voices around him faded.

“Commander!” McReidy cried in surprise. One moment John had been talking to Anthony; the next he was on the floor. She froze, unsure of what to do.

Mark was at his side instantly. He dropped down to a sitting position, his cast keeping his leg straight at an awkward angle from his body. He rolled John from his side to his back. Heat pouring from the limp body hit him as it rose. He opened one eyelid, then the other – both eyes were glazed, his pupils not reacting to the light in the room, his pulse racing and breathing short.

Without a word, he scooped John up in his arms as though he were weightless. He struggled to his feet. McReidy rushed to help. He shrugged her off, using the chair to support both him and John while he gathered his feet under him.

“You can’t carry –”

“You certainly can’t,” he cut her off. He steadied himself, shaking off the remaining effects of the drugs, and hobbled off to sick bay, leaving McReidy alone on the bridge.

She looked around the bridge. Only the slight droll of the backup generators and the system scanning the various consoles broke the silence. The lights flickered.

 

  • * *

 

Mark placed John down carefully on the nearest bed and undid his jacket. A wave of heat rose, hitting him in the face.

The botanist was stitching up Lakers’ head and only caught a glance of Mark. “I thought I told you to keep off that leg,” she growled. “That cast is not supposed to support weight.”

Mark ignored her, concentrating on John. He didn’t have time to worry about her.

Lakers pointed to Mark. She finished tying the stitch and turned around. She silenced herself with a gasp when she recognised John.

“The commander…” She hurriedly put in the last stitch; Lakers wincing as she jerked it tight, then left him with a damp towel and rushed to John. She paled. “Is he…?”

“Dehydrated and concussed,” Mark answered. “Take his boots off.”

The botanist grabbed a boot. The body heat burned through it. “He’s on fire. He should be in an ice bath.”

“Only if you want to put him in shock. He’s too far gone…” He stopped as John’s eyes opened – and began blinking rapidly.

Good, Mark breathed. Retinal response.

Although he could see a little, John had no idea where he was or what had happened. He recognised Mark, but not the worried look on his face.

“Hi, Mark… What are you doing here?” he drawled.

“Someone’s got to keep an eye on you,” Mark answered softly. “And stop you from getting yourself killed.”

“You’re just the person… to do that.” John tried to get up, but couldn’t move a muscle.

Mark slapped him gently across the side of the face. “Get some sleep. I’ll let you know when we need you.”

“Okey dokey.” John’s half shut eyes closed completely and his breathing began to slow.

“I’ll take care of him,” Mark told the botanist. “You’ve got others to attend to.”

Not willing to be dismissed that easily, she challenged him. “I could do with a hand here when you’ve finished. If it’s not too much trouble.”

Mark glanced around. Pilson was still unconscious, Lakers was mopping the blood from his face and someone had moved Kowalski from the floor to a bed. There were bandages and other supplies scattered about the room. The botanist was flustered and way out of her depth, and he knew he hadn’t made things any easier for her before.

He nodded. “All right.”

 

Back to top

 

Chapter nine

 

Sean and Anthony crawled through the partially melted ventilation duct from engineering towards the hull of the ship. Sean kept an eye on his radiation counter, the constant beeping reminding him they were in the danger zone. Anthony had turned his off. The only noise coming through his helmet was Sean’s voice.

Anthony didn’t need regular updates on how high the radiation was. Or that it was getting higher the closer they got to the core. He knew all that.

They reached the first vent, only to find that it was melted shut. Anthony didn’t bother to check the connections; they’d be fried or melted. The manual lever sagged in a long drip halfway to the floor.

He grabbed the lever. Even through the glove, it felt warm. He tried to move it, not expecting anything to happen, but hoping there might be a little give in the vents. They were fused to the ship.

He turned to Sean. “If I go outside, can you handle it from here?”

Sean nodded. “Yeah.”

Ten minutes later, the outer airlock door opened and Anthony stepped into space. It had been a long time since he’d been outside a ship in zero gravity. He knew he should switch on the magnetic boots and make his way to the vents, but he just wanted the feeling of being weightless for a while.

He was on the wrong side of the ship to see the star, but he could see swirling gas and dust, lit up by the radiation and material spewed from it. A clear enough indication that he shouldn’t stay outside long.

He pulled on the lifeline, swinging his feet towards the ship and switching the boots on. He was immediately drawn to the ship, hitting it with a jolt.

A few minutes walking across the hull and he reached the first vent. It looked normal.

“Okay, Sean, I’m here.” He tried to open the vent, expecting but still disappointed that it didn’t move. He gave it a few thumps to try to loosen it, then tried to lever a wedge between the closed slats. It felt like a solid surface. “Nothing’s budging. Do you want to try and cut away the mess?”

“All right.” Sean pointed the laser at the vent and began cutting. Sparks flew about him and he flinched even though he was protected by the suit. He found it difficult to move his arms in the cramped space and kept knocking the helmet. “Tell me something. Do all designers think that engineers are midgets?”

Anthony laughed. “Probably. I know they want to save space, but really, some of those tubes are just tiny.”

“Especially when you’ve got a suit on.”

Anthony turned around and looked into space. Glowing dust curls flew in and out of his vision. Beyond was black. None of the planets were visible and the stars beyond were dots.

“Okay, I think I’m through,” Sean called.

Anthony looked back. The flattened surface had a tiny blue glowing dot. “Almost. I can see the laser burn.”

“Stand clear then. I’m going to try and make it bigger.”

The dot began to glow brighter, competing with the curling dust, before it broke through and shot a tiny beam past Anthony’s right arm and into space.

“You’re through!” Anthony yelled.

Sean switched the laser off. The beam disappeared. Anthony placed the wedge to the hole and began to bash it in, levering it up and down every few hits. Sean cut away a bit more metal, stopping every few seconds to scrape away the debris and make sure he wasn’t cutting too deeply.

The vent suddenly levered open, and both men stopped. Anthony peered through the slats to see Sean squashed in the access tube.

“One down,” Anthony grinned.

 

  • * *

 

Gillespie and Carter reached the first sealed door. Gillespie switched on his communicator.

“Bridge, this is Lieutenant Gillespie.”

“Bridge here,” McReidy answered, sitting at the lifeless helm.

“Where’s the commander?”

“He’s not here. What do you want, Lieutenant?”

“Can you open up geology? And put the lights on?”

“That area’s been sealed off.”

“I know. We need parts to fix the engines. And we need access to the sealed areas to find them.”

McReidy hesitated.

“Just open up the sections that I ask for and seal them again when we’re through.”

McReidy rushed to the captain’s chair. The commander had sealed the ship from there. Where were the controls?

“Just… give me a minute, Lieutenant.”

She looked up at the main screen. The schematics were still showing. A couple of wrong buttons pressed before she saw the tiny screen in the arm of the chair that showed the main screen. She put her finger on it. The section she touched highlighted and she turned to see it also highlighted on the main screen.

She turned and sat in the chair. Full view of the main screen and full control of the tiny touchscreen.

“I’m not familiar with the layout of the ship. You’ll need to give me an exact location. Deck and section number.”

It had been a long time since Gillespie had had to use co-ordinates. He went to scratch his head, his gloved hand hitting the helmet instead. Carter giggled.

“Deck four…”

“Section?” McReidy prompted.

“Umm…” He shot Carter a glare as the cadet looked like he was going to giggle again. “Twelve… thirteen-ish…”

“Well, what is it? Twelve or thirteen?”

Gillespie let out a breath. “Can you just ask the computer to find me and open it?”

A couple more buttons and Gillespie’s signal popped up on the screens.

“Got you,” McReidy confirmed. “Opening section and…” she scanned the indicators, “lights.”

The bulkhead unlocked and opened. The corridor beyond was black, the only light reaching it was the weak beam coming from the section Gillespie and Carter were in. Their silhouettes stretched across the floor as the gap widened. The bulkhead was almost half open before the lighting switched on.

“Thank you.”

“Any idea how long you’ll be?” McReidy asked.

“Depends on how long it’ll take us to find what we need,” Gillespie answered. “Gillespie out.”

He held the list up in front of him, his other hand reaching to the tool bag slung over his shoulder. Then he turned to Carter.

“Come on.”

 

  • * *

 

Sean sat on the engine room floor. His helmet sat on the floor beside him. His forearms rested across drawn up knees and his head was lowered. He heard footsteps and knew it would be Anthony. He turned his head to one side and opened his eyes.

Anthony pulled off his helmet and looked around. Randall was sitting on the floor, his attention on his scanner. Sean was looking exhausted, and he made his way over.

“You okay?”

“Tired,” Sean answered.

Anthony looked down at him, his face partially screwing up with concern. “Get out of that suit and go to sick bay.”

“I’m fine. Just need to rest for a bit.”

“Your hand’s stuffed.” Anthony shook his head, muttering to himself. “I shouldn’t have got you doing those vents. Randall could have done them.”

Randall looked over at the mention of his name, realised Anthony wasn’t talking to him and turned back to his scanner.

“It’s not your fault it’s broken.” Sean looked at his gloved hand. It was thumping against the cast and the glove felt tight. “Anyway… I’m too tired to move.”

“Sick bay. Now,” Anthony ordered.

Sean didn’t look like moving. Anthony grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet. Sean took a moment to steady himself.

Anthony undid the catches and seals to the suit that Sean couldn’t manage. Sean pulled his arms out of the sleeves and let the suit fall about him. He stepped out of it, kicking his feet free.

“Send Sam back, if he’s awake,” Anthony told him.

Sean nodded, scooping up the suit and dumping it near the buckled cupboard door.

 

*

 

The first person Sean saw in sick bay was Mark, attending to a patient, and he was almost tempted to turn and leave. With her back to Sean, arms waving wildly in frustration, was McReidy. She was obviously trying to get some answers out of Mark, who was barely acknowledging her presence. His attention was on the patient he was leaning over.

Sean’s eyes dropped to the patient. It was Pilson.

Mark’s calm, quiet exterior was often mistaken for coldness, but he had a depth of precision and knowledge that he rarely shared. He took in every word McReidy said, and could have repeated it perfectly if she asked, but he had other things on his mind.

Sean moved close enough to eavesdrop. Mark’s eyes barely left Pilson, a tiny torchlight shining into a pried open eye and a glance at the monitor to see if anything registered, before repeating the procedure with the other eye.

“I want to know what’s wrong with him,” McReidy demanded.

Sean frowned. Why would McReidy be so concerned about the navigator?

“He’s fine,” was all Mark answered.

“People don’t just collapse for no reason.”

Mark didn’t answer.

“The botanist says you won’t even let her near him,” McReidy persisted.

“She’s a botanist.”

“And you’re not a doctor!”

Mark sighed. She obviously wasn’t going to give up. “He’s severely exhausted, dehydrated and has a mild concussion. He’s been running on pure adrenalin for the past few hours. Past few days, probably. Once he relaxed, his whole system collapsed. He’ll be fine when he wakes up, although he’ll feel like he’s been run over by a truck.”

“You’re sure?”

Mark lifted his head and glared, but something in her eyes made him soften. “I think…” He hesitated for a moment. “I think, Sean, that if you want to listen, you should move closer.” He turned his head and caught Sean’s gaze.

Sean frowned. Mark hadn’t seen him; he was sure of that. Unable to think of an answer, he meekly did as he was told.

“How’s Anthony coming along?” Mark asked quietly.

“Slowly. Kowalski awake?”

“Not yet.”

Mark turned his attention back to Pilson and the monitors. “Go back to the bridge,” he told McReidy, his quiet voice was almost hypnotic. “Make sure all systems are functioning properly –”

“You’re not in charge,” she told him.

“I never said I was.”

She hesitated, frowning uncertainly.

“Captain Barrett put you in charge,” he continued. “If you can’t handle it –”

“I can handle it.” Her voice filled with professed certainty, then she glanced to a bed a few metres away.

Sean followed her glance. John – and his gut tightened. For a moment, his hand was forgotten.

John was lying peacefully asleep. A drip was running into one arm. Wires ran from his head, out from under his t-shirt and others disappeared to places Sean couldn’t see, hooking up to some machines that were monitoring his vitals. Screens showed bleeping graphs and numbers that meant little to Sean apart from telling him that John was alive.

McReidy hesitated, then turned and strode out. Sean’s eyes remained on John, watching his chest rise and fall as the graph beeped out a steady heartbeat.

“He’ll be okay,” Mark assured him. “What’s your problem?”

“Huh…?” Sean took a moment for the question to sink in, then lifted the hand with the cast, turning it over and looking at it. “My hand is killing me.”

Mark straightened up and turned to face Sean, placing his hands on Sean’s shoulders. “Look at me and breathe,” he instructed.

Sean’s eyes strayed over Mark’s shoulder and found the botanist. She was busy reading a chart at the end of Kowalski’s bed, frowning and scratching her head. His eyes ran approvingly over her.

“I said look at me, not her.” Mark didn’t have to look to know where Sean’s attention was.

Sean sighed heavily as he tore his eyes away, stared blankly at Mark and concentrated on his breathing. His heaving shoulders slowed and were soon still.

“That’s better.” Mark lowered his hands. “How many painkillers have you had?”

“Probably not as many as you.”

Mark managed a rare smile. “Guess we’re both in trouble when they wear off.”

“Mine already have. Got any spare beds?”

“Plenty.”

Sean glanced at John again.

“I didn’t lie to her,” Mark told him.

Sean was quiet for a moment. “I guess none of us are coming out of this unscathed.”

 

  • * *

 

Sean and Anthony were having a quiet dinner. Anthony was exhausted, barely picking at his food. Some painkillers and a few hours rest had done wonders for Sean.

“I can’t do this on my own,” Anthony confessed tiredly.

“You’re not on your own,” Sean answered, digging his fork into a bowl of noodles.

“Your engineering marks weren’t that good.”

“About the same as John’s.”

“He, at least, knows the ship.”

“We’re trying, Anthony.”

“I know.” Anthony sighed. “Still got at least another day’s work before we start the engine core. Once we get that up and running, we’ll at least be able to get fresh air and water.”

For a few minutes, Sean slurped on his noodles and Anthony stared at his plate. The dining room was quiet. Randall and the botanist were at a far table, enjoying a meal and unwinding.

A soft tapping and shuffle of boots made Sean look up. Mark was making his way to their table, juggling a mug of coffee and his crutches. He put his coffee on the table and dropped into the chair opposite Sean, laying his crutches on the floor in the gap and sliding them half under the table. Then he took a long slurp of his coffee.

“Ohh, needed that,” he sighed.

“John awake yet?” Anthony asked.

Mark shook his head, swallowing another mouthful and putting his mug down. “Should be in the next few hours.”

“If he’s not?” Sean worried.

Mark hesitated. “Then there’s stuff going on inside him that I can’t even guess at.”

“But you’re not a doctor,” Anthony reminded him.

“No,” Mark shook his head. “What I know didn’t come from universities or textbooks.”

“Care to enlighten us?”

“Prefer not to.” Mark picked up his mug and took a sip.

Sean and Anthony nodded. They were all entitled to their secrets. Sean returned to his noodles. Anthony pushed his half eaten plate away and leaned back in his chair.

For a few minutes, none of them spoke.

“What do you think will happen when we get back?” Anthony eventually asked.

Sean shook his head. “I hate to think.”

Mark said nothing.

Sean eyed him curiously. “What aren’t you telling us this time?”

Mark looked from one to the other, seemingly undecided. Then he stared at his empty mug for a moment before putting it down. “John always intended to keep you two out of it.”

“What?”

“No!”

“He’d answer to Captain Barrett and cop whatever punishment the captain dished out. Fully expected to lose his promotion in the first place.”

“But…” Sean shook his head, lost for words.

“It’s not between him and the captain any more,” Anthony spoke quietly. “It wasn’t from the moment Rache called Earth.”

“Yeah, but that was Barrett Rache had online –” Sean began.

“Do you know how many channels it would have gone through to get to him?”

“No,” Sean shrugged awkwardly.

“Do you think Barrett just happened to pick up Rache’s call? Or that he didn’t first call the moment we hit Betelian space? You said it yourself, Sean, you were set up.”

“Okay, enough.” Mark could see frustrations were about to boil over. “My impression of that call,” he cringed at the memory of the immediate aftermath, “is that the captain was trying to smooth things over as best as possible. I assume he would have been notified and questioned as to why his ship was entering Betelian space without authority. And had to explain why his ship was anywhere without him.”

Sean’s face screwed up and he rubbed his forehead. “I can’t see that being pleasant.”

Mark had just hit them with a realisation neither of them had expected. Immediate thoughts of self preservation kicked in in the ensuing silence before Anthony leaned forward, his forearms resting on the table.

“So, what’s John going to do now?”

Mark shook his head. “I honestly don’t know.”

Over Mark’s shoulder, Sean saw McReidy enter the dining room. She spotted him immediately and approached the table, stopping in the gap between him and Mark.

“May I join you?” she asked.

Mark grabbed his crutches, moving them to his other side, while Sean lifted a hand and indicated the gap between him and Mark.

“Thank you.”

McReidy grabbed a chair from a nearby table and dragged it up. The gap wasn’t quite big enough and Sean inched his chair towards Anthony to make a bit more room.

She sat down, her eyes moving to each of them. “So… are you going to come clean with me?”

Anthony jumped to his feet and Mark scrambled for his crutches; a hand on the table helping to push himself upright.

“Gee, is that the time?” Anthony asked, barely glancing at his watch. “I’ve got to get back to engineering.”

“I’ve got a check up in sick bay.” Mark nearly knocked his chair over as he fumbled to get his crutches into position and support his weight.

“Cowards,” Sean muttered as he lowered his head.

“Excuse me?” McReidy asked.

Sean looked up again to see Anthony at the door and Mark not far behind him. He smiled awkwardly at McReidy.

“Lieutenant Daniels –” she began.

“Call me Sean.” His smile eased and became natural.

She decided not to call him anything and proceeded to question him. “Are you going to come clean with me?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Damn it! He was turning into John!

“Why?”

“’Cos it’s going to hit the fan when we get back.”

“It already has, in case you haven’t had a good look around. We’re dead in the water and there’s a war raging on the fifth planet. We’ve already had one close encounter and I don’t want another.” She shivered involuntarily at the memory. “Not to mention that we blew up their sun.”

“Well, we won’t mention that then,” he tried to lighten the situation.

“Lieutenant,” she growled.

“All right.” Sean put his hands up defensively; cast on one, fork in the other.

She watched him carefully as he lowered his hands and dived his fork back into his noodles, and he couldn’t help wondering if she’d given John that look.

“First,” he lowered his eyes to focus on his noodles and avoid her look for a moment. “When you say ‘we’ blew up the star, that refers to us. Not you.”

“But –”

“No,” Sean insisted, meeting her eyes with determination. “‘We’ refers to us. The four of us. You, and everyone else on board, were following orders given to you by a senior officer.”

“But Captain Barrett –”

“I don’t know Barrett personally. But no captain is going to order you to leave a man behind. No decent captain. And not without a damn good reason.”

This time, she was the one who looked away. His confidence boosted.

“Second,” he continued, “we came here to help.”

“That’s what the commander said.”

“You doubt his intent?”

“I don’t know him.”

“You don’t know me either, yet you’re taking what I say at face value.”

Her hands fidgeted briefly before she forced them still.

Reserving judgement, Sean realised.

“If we choose not to obey simply because we don’t know someone, then the whole system falls apart,” he told her.

He slurped the last noodle from his fork. The end flicked up and spat a drip of sauce onto the side of his nose. He wiped it off with his sleeve.

“Third, you are not in any form of trouble. And it’s going to stay that way.”

She considered his words, then leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest, eyeing him closely. “So… you’re not going to tell me?”

He put his fork down, pushed his empty plate away and leaned back in his chair. His eyes smiled defiantly. “Coffee?”

 

  • * *

 

John woke. The glare of the ceiling stabbed through his eyes and smacked at his brain. He lifted his arms. One felt restrained and he let it drop, drawing the other one across his eyes. He blinked strongly, his head heavy – his entire body heavy.

Noises reached his ears and it took him a moment to realise they were coming from him. His breathing was hesitant. Each breath seeming to be held momentarily before being expelled.

His eyes adjusted and he lowered his arm, letting it fall to his chest.

He was in sick bay.

“Commander, you’re awake,” the relieved voice asked as the botanist’s face suddenly filled his field of vision.

“What happened?” The words scraped out his dry throat.

“You passed out on the bridge. The Lieutenant Commander carried you down here.”

McReidy? What? No, she couldn’t –

“I told him to keep off that leg, but does anyone listen to me?” she continued. “No, I’m just a botanist.”

Oh, Mark. That made more sense to him.

“How long…” he tried to clear his throat, “have I been out?”

“Two days.”

“Two –” He tried to push himself up, dragging his elbows under him for support. A wire ran out the throat of his t-shirt to a monitor and another couple of wires bobbed around his peripherals. His restricted arm pulled and he looked down to see a needle inserted in and taped to his forearm. A tube of clear liquid flowed into it from a bag on a stand.

His head began spinning. He tore his eyes away and sank back down to the pillow.

“You should take it easy, sir.”

He screwed his eyes shut for a moment, sucking in a huge breath and letting it out slowly.

“Anyone else still here?” he asked, opening his eyes.

Her forehead dipped.

“In sick bay,” he clarified. “Any serious injuries?”

“Lieutenant Pilson woke up a few hours ago. Apart from the Lieutenant Commander’s leg and Sean’s – Umm, Lieutenant Daniels’ hand, the rest are just bumps and bruises.”

“Good… Can you –?” John turned to the needle in his arm, turning back again almost immediately. “Can you take this out?”

She looked like she was going to shake her head as her face filled with confusion. “I don’t…”

John looked at the readings displayed on the screen. They were steady and pretty close to what he remembered from his basic training as being normal.

“I’ve got to get to the bridge,” he added.

“You really should –”

“I’ll take it easy,” he promised.

She looked at the monitor again. A long ten seconds of steady readings seemed to make up her mind. “Okay.”

He didn’t look as she pulled the needle out. Then she pulled various sensors off him. The finger clamp came off easily. The others were taped and pulled at his flesh.

“Jacket?” he asked, sitting up slowly.

She strode to the wall, opening a cupboard where his neatly folded jacket and pants sat on a shelf.

Pants! He lifted the sheet, had a peek and quickly lowered it.

She grabbed his clothes in one arm and reached down for his boots. Then she returned and deposited them on the end of his bed.

“I’ll… umm…” she pointed over her shoulder behind her, “be over there.”

She blushed as she quickly turned and headed away, staring at the floor as she went.

John quickly slipped into his pants and dragged his socks and boots on. He hopped off the bed, legs momentarily unsteady, and he grabbed the bed with both hands. He looked up quickly to see if she was watching, and was glad to see she wasn’t. Then he tucked himself in properly and reached for his jacket.

He concentrated on his footing as he headed for the door, stopping briefly in the doorway to smile back at the botanist.

“Thanks for looking after me.”

She blushed again. “That’s okay, sir.”

He put a hand on the wall for the first few steps down the corridor. He felt like he’d been hit by a truck. His body had no strength and it was an effort to get his feet moving. The drip would have replenished his fluids, but he still felt dry. It wasn’t just his mouth and throat. Every part of him seemed to crave liquid.

It took several metres to fall back into the routine of walking – one foot in front of the other, weight shifting easily, vision clear; head still a little groggy.

Lighting was dim and the air seemed a bit stale. Obviously, not back at full power. Sick bay had been normal, but that was one area Captain Barrett had always insisted maintain full power.

The walk to the bridge showed chunks of ceiling and walls removed or missing. Intercom boxes lay on the floor; their insides removed. Connections hung loose where their wiring had been stripped. An entire section of lighting was missing from a section of corridor that branched off to his left. Only the half light from behind him filtered into the black as he stopped and looked down the corridor.

It was silent and cold. The bulkhead at the far end was sealed.

He turned back to the main corridor and listened. Silence. Engines were still off. They could have jumped them while he was out, so there were obviously still problems. He rubbed his forehead. Two days. Was that really long enough to rebuild the engines?

He needed to get to the bridge and find out what was going on.

 

  • * *

 

Anthony and Sean had managed to crawl through the air conditioning duct to the engine core. Scanner readings showed the radiation was negligible. With the vents now open, the system had been able to filter most of the core radiation into space. Anthony still wasn’t taking chances and insisted they suit up.

The majority of systems had been repaired and were working at a basic capacity on generators. Most of the engineering systems could not be repaired and it was a case of ripping them out and replacing them. All sections apart from sick bay were stripped.

The generators were overloading. They were never designed to supply the entire ship’s power demands for any length of time. Lighting fell to almost one third as life support programming took priority. The generators struggled to keep the air supply fresh and water was reserved for drinking only.

Anthony had the engines repaired as best he could, but he wouldn’t know their full capacity until the core was rebuilt and they could switch on.

Anthony felt quite at home. Hanging upside down by his ankles to gain access to the core didn’t faze him in the slightest. He was in constant contact with the engine room and Sean was ferrying various tools and equipment to him. It was slow work and he’d spent the best part of the first hour trying to figure out how he’d be able to connect the core once it was active. At least it had only overloaded and blown out everything it was connected to. It hadn’t actually blown up. Then again, if it had, they’d have been nothing but scattering dust.

Sean sat crouched over in the access tube. The thick radiation suit seemed to take up more room than he did in the cramped space. He looked at his timer. Almost six hours they’d been here and he was squashed and exhausted.

The timer ticked to six hours and beeped.

“Anthony, six.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Gimme a minute.”

As Anthony did a final scan and everything showed clear, he pulled himself back up into the access tube. He sat on the opposite side of the opening from Sean and slid the panel back into place.

“All finished down there,” he announced, taking off his helmet. “The core should begin to recrystallise and reach maximum capacity in a few hours.”

“You know, you amaze me,” Sean took his helmet off and rested it to one side.

“It’s not that hard if you’ve got the right gear. At a subatomic level it’s, all building blocks. Now we need to check the power cell array –”

“Done. It can hold just under half its capacity.”

“Hmm,” Anthony frowned. “That’ll give some kickback when we jump.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for it to reach full?”

Anthony shook his head. “The generator batteries aren’t recharging themselves. We’ve either got a leak or they weren’t fully charged to start with. Stephen’s on it now.”

Anthony lay down on his stomach, his feet down the tube behind him. He opened the access panel a few centimetres and peeped in. It was too dark to see anything. “Scanner,” he called, raising an arm to Sean.

Sean picked up the scanner and placed it in Anthony’s hand. Anthony slid his hand into the gap and turned the scanner on. It beeped briefly, the readings showing the changes in the crystals below. Anthony smiled, turned the scanner off, and watched. A small glow began to emanate from the darkness, slowly spreading a soft red light.

“Wanna see this?”

Sean lay down and watched from his side of the opening. The crystals that had formed began to glow, magnifying and dispersing the light as it hit them. Sean expected the light to brighten as it spread. Instead, it remained soft, the crystals glowing like warm coals in an open fire.

“They’re coming along fine.” Anthony sat up, sliding the panel shut.

Sean jumped as the panel shut and cut off his view.

“Come on, we’ve still got lots to do if we want to get this ship up and running,” Anthony urged.

“Yeah, I know,” Sean agreed, slowly pushing himself upright.

He felt suddenly tired. He closed his eyes for a moment and thought how easy it would be to just stay where he was. He opened his eyes and saw Anthony staring blankly at him.

“Can we rest a while first?”

“Are you okay? You don’t look so hot.” Anthony’s look turned to one of concern.

“Yeah, I’m just… tired.”

“Go and get some sleep. It’s still going to be a few hours till we’re ready to jump.”

“But there’s still –”

“You pass out when we jump, I can’t guarantee the tractor beam’ll work to get you back.”

They were both silent for a moment.

“What about you?” Sean asked.

“I’ve still got a few things to do here. Nothing I can’t handle on my own. And I’ve got Sam and Alex down in engineering.”

“No,” Sean shook his head. “You need a break too. When do you get to rest?”

“When we’re underway.”

Sean ran a hand over his head and stifled a yawn.

“Go on,” Anthony bullied. “Back down that tube,” he pointed back past Sean, “there’s a hatch to your right just past the corner. It’s a cross link to the ventilation shaft. It should bring you out in the main corridor.”

Sean nodded, not wanting to argue. “Okay.”

Sean managed to turn himself around. He pushed the helmet in front of him down the tube and crawled off. Behind him, he could hear Anthony scrambling around with some tools.

With Sean out of sight, Anthony closed his eyes and dropped his head to his arm. He let out a long breath. It would be so easy to fall asleep.

 

*

 

Sean found the ventilation grate to the main corridor in the floor and fumbled to get a grip on it with the gloves. He lifted his left hand, pulled the glove off with his teeth, then hooked his fingers through the slats. At first, it refused to budge. He braced one foot against the wall and tried again. The grate lifted away and he put it down beside him.

He looked down the opening. He was in the ceiling, at least three metres from the floor.

He dropped the helmet through the opening, watched it bounce twice then roll awkwardly away. He tossed the left glove after it, then sat on the edge with his legs dangling into the corridor below.

He looked at his right hand, then tested his grip on the opposite edge of the hatch. Zero. He ripped the glove off and tossed it down. He took a breath, then curled his fingers against the edge. He had little grip and no strength. He put both hands on the opposite edge, gritting his teeth and tensing as he expected his entire body weight to rip through his broken hand.

All he wanted was to be able to steady his drop so his full weight didn’t crash onto the floor. The jump from the rock on the moon had been twice this far and he hadn’t thought twice about it. Amazing how a weapon aimed at you changed your thinking.

He swung down, trying to take his weight with his left hand. His right hand wrenched and he let go, swearing loudly. His left hung on long enough to steady his drop.

He landed on his feet, doubling over and staggering a few steps to steady himself. He grabbed his right hand with his left and cradled it against his stomach, his eyes screwing shut.

When the pain began to ease, he retrieved the gloves, stuffed them in the helmet and headed to his quarters.

 

  • * *

 

The bridge was half lit; the main screen black. McReidy sat leaning against a wall next to an open access panel. A box was tipped on its side and random parts were scattered across the floor near her.

She looked up as the door opened. “Commander –”

“Circuit board,” Gillespie’s muffled voice called out from inside the wall as his hand reached out the opening.

“Should you –?” she continued, halting as John put a hand up for her to stop. She turned back and put the circuit board into Gillespie’s hand.

“Thank you.” The hand and board disappeared behind the wall.

John slumped into the captain’s chair and surveyed the bridge. It looked relatively normal. He put one elbow on the arm of the chair and massaged his temple with his fingers. “Generators?”

“Not holding power,” she explained.

“Gimme a sec…” Gillespie crawled out of the opening, catching sight of John as he stood up. His brow creased. “Sir, you look like crap.”

“Thank you, Mister Gillespie.” Good to know he looked as good as he felt.

Gillespie wiped his hands on his pants. “Okay, switching on.”

McReidy scrambled to her feet.

The generators rumbled before kicking over. Consoles came to life as lights came on. The main screen switched on in a blur of static, capturing all their attentions, before it came to life.

“Yes!” Gillespie grinned triumphantly.

“How’s the star?” John asked.

McReidy glanced at the science console. It was still set to monitor the star. The latest readings suddenly scrolled down the small screen before they stopped and a one word summary stood out.

“Stable,” McReidy read.

“Fifth planet?”

She leaned across and flicked through the communications channels.

“Scanners and communications have been intermittent with the generators draining,” Gillespie told John. “Not that anyone feels inclined to keep us updated anyway.”

“Have we had any trouble?”

“None that we’re aware of, sir,” McReidy answered. “I’ve got crew watching out windows with hand scanners.”

“Resourceful,” John nodded approval.

“The range is not good, but at least they can pick up what we can’t actually see… Fifth planet seems to be quiet.”

Gillespie moved to navigation, checking over the console as he switched on his communicator. “Anthony, we’ve got the generators back online. Everything here looks to be coming back.”

“Cool!”

“Quite a few blown circuits though.”

“Take them down to engineering. I’ve got Alex rewriting circuits and boards down there.”

“Yeah,” Carter complained. “’Cos that’s fun –”

A screeching crackle ripped through their communicators.

“Aagh! Damn! Son of a –!”

“He’s not too good with the solder,” Anthony cut the cadet’s words off. “He could do with the practice.”

Carter’s voice grumbled low in the background.

“Anything I can do?” John asked.

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Anthony answered warmly. “How are you?”

“According to Mister Gillespie, I look like crap.”

“Same as usual then.”

John shook his head. “Where are you?”

“Engine core. Just getting this baby up and running.”

“Navigation’s a bit slow,” Gillespie corrected his earlier statement.

“Problem?” John asked.

“Anthony had me run communication bypass through navigation. I thought it might have been the generators dropping communications out.” His face screwed up in indecision. “Might have been navigation.”

“Hey, John, can you have a look at navigation?” Anthony asked.

“Sure.”

John heaved himself out of the chair and moved to the console beside Gillespie. The buttons were barely lit. He looked to the helm. Those buttons were a lot brighter. Navigation obviously wasn’t getting the same power supply.

“How are we going with the engines, Mister Delaney?”

“They’ll still need a few more hours. Get us nav, we’ll jump, then go home.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me.”

John pushed a few random buttons, rotated some dials. There were delays of a second or two before anything responded.

“Is this hooked up to the generators?” he asked.

“Yes,” Gillespie answered.

John looked across at the parts strewn across the floor. “Get that stuff down to engineering.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gillespie scooped everything up and dumped it in the box. Then he headed to engineering.

John knelt down, pulled the access panel off the navigation console and looked inside. Most of it looked intact, though he saw several fused and burned out circuits. He reached in and tried to pull one out.

“Should you even be here?” McReidy’s voiced filtered to him.

“Yes,” he answered. It refused to move and he tried another.

“I mean, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Nothing budged.

“You were in a pretty bad state.”

He let out a low growl and turned to her, her knees inches from his eyes. “Can you do something for me?”

“Yes?”

“Be quiet or go away!”

 

  • * *

 

Mark stared out the dining room window, the scanner resting on his lap. It was quiet – inside and outside. The slurps of his coffee seemed to echo around the room.

“Lieutenant Commander McReidy to crew. Communications are back up and running. Whoever’s on window duty can take a break until further notice.”

“Yes, Lieutenant Commander,” Lakers’ voice acknowledged.

“Thank you,” Mark answered.

He kept staring out the window. The fifth planet was no more than a first magnitude star. Occasional flashes, like a meteor shower, streaked through the black immediately above its atmosphere. For the most part, it was still.

Even after the star’s explosion, the Betelians’ interest was fighting each other. Whoever won was going to have to deal with the aftermath of a slowly cooling star.

Mark was in no way denying his involvement in it. Could the whole situation have been handled better? Definitely. Could he – should he – have anticipated what they were walking into?

As much as he wanted to say yes – partly because he wanted to think that he was capable of more than he was and partly because it seemed like sheer stupidity otherwise – he had to admit no.

Sean was right. None of them were getting out of this unscathed.

He glanced again at the silent planet. Then he switched the scanner off, slipped it into his pocket, grabbed his crutches and hobbled back towards the bridge.

 

Back to top

 

Chapter ten

 

Anthony’s head popped out from beneath a console and he slid himself out into the engine room. Kowalski was at the main console and Carter was looking after the launch bay. A cable from the back of the console hung low above Carter’s head as it disappeared into a wall behind him.

“You guys finished yet?” Anthony asked.

“Yes, sir,” Carter answered.

“Just about,” Kowalski answered. “Everything seems…”

“Normal?” Anthony finished for him. He locked the panel into place, stepped over the cabling taped to the floor and joined Kowalski at the main console.

“Well… about as normal as it’s going to get, considering we have half a ship left.”

“Then let’s get this show on the road.” He looked over Kowalski’s shoulder and was satisfied with the results. “Delaney to bridge.”

John heard a soft clicking and shook his head, trying to clear it.

“Oi, you up there. Wake up!”

Anthony’s voice rang clear over the intercom. John jumped; it was the intercom and not his head. The rest of the bridge crew turned, expecting to find Anthony right behind them.

“Yes, Mister Delaney.” John answered.

“We’re ready to power up down here.”

“Shuttles are ready,” Sean anticipated John’s question.

“How’s the hand?” John asked.

“Fine.”

Gillespie could fly a shuttle, but John preferred to have him on the bridge in case something overloaded. And Mark wasn’t an option.

“All right. You two,” he pointed to Sean and McReidy, “with me.”

As John dragged himself from the chair, he thought for a moment that he would collapse. He was surprised to find that he was only stiff and sore, and not weak. He ignored McReidy’s queries as they walked to the shuttle bay, and she soon gave up.

The three shuttles looked intact and they claimed one each. As John opened the hatch and climbed in, he noticed that his shuttle had not been left completely unscathed. He seated himself at the controls and switched the intercom on.

“I see you’ve had a field day, Mister Delaney.”

“You wanted to go home,” was the only answer.

John switched on the engine and was relieved to find it came on immediately. All systems automatically came online. He checked them while the engines powered up. Nothing appeared to be adversely affected by Anthony’s skilful surgery.

“This is shuttle one. I’m ready for take off,” John called over the intercom.

“Shuttle two ready,” Sean confirmed.

“Shuttle three ready,” McReidy added.

“Sir, this is Carter at launch controls. Just give me a minute to open the doors.”

The bay doors opened slowly, jerking to a standstill every few seconds. Had the bay not been a vacuum, John imagined he could have heard the groaning as the doors jammed to a halt, then strained in their fittings to open further. On reaching halfway, the problem appeared to fix itself and the doors slid open easily.

“Thank you, Mister Carter.”

“Sir, I’m leaving them open. If they close, we might not get you back in again.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you.” John hoped he didn’t sound patronising; that wasn’t his intention. “Shuttle one, clear for launch.”

John pushed the throttle forward. The shuttle glided out of the bright bay into the blackness of space. It was completely dark and silent. Millions of stars were only pinpoints of light in all directions.

He had forgotten the stillness of space. On the ship, there was always sound. Enough to make him forget where he was. Now, he was alone, the intercom his only link.

“Shuttle two on your port bow.”

John looked across. Sean’s shuttle glided beside him. He felt he could reach out and touch it.

“Shuttle three moving up starboard.”

“Let’s take them round to the engines. Mister Delaney, directions please.”

“The engines will be at the rear of the ship,” Anthony happily informed them.

John rolled his eyes.

“Setting up a targeting beacon for you,” Anthony continued, slightly more serious. “Please don’t miss it.”

The shuttles cruised to the rear of the ship. John looked at the damage to the exterior of the hull. A long burn of blackened, buckled metal grazed one side. Lucky the shields had held long enough to take the brunt of that. Somehow, it didn’t seem as bad as the cargo bay – or possibly the engine room. He had to smile when he realised the inside of the ship probably had more damage than the outside.

Anthony set a beacon on the target spot. By redirection of the shuttles’ power through their weapons systems, the joint supply would be enough to send a charge through the ship’s engines to restart them.

John turned on the targeting computer. “Ready when you are,” he told Anthony.

“Lock your timer on,” Anthony ordered. “Any more than three and a half seconds and you’ll short out the systems.”

“How strong is the kick back?” Sean remembered his earlier conversation with Anthony.

“Pretty strong… I can’t guess at how fast it’ll throw you.”

“Slow down. I’m losing track,” McReidy’s voice became agitated.

John spoke calmly, briefly explaining what would happen. “We send a charge through the engines. When they fire up, the initial output blast will send us hurtling backwards out of control. Sean, jam hard to the left. McReidy, hold your rudder hard to the right. Don’t use your thrusters until you get clear and regain control. With a bit of luck, we won’t hit each other.”

From Anthony’s position, he could see the shuttles approaching. Once he set the beacon, he stayed where he was. As he lay flat on his stomach along the top of the exhaust tube, he looked out into space behind them.

“Move in a bit closer, you’re out of range,” Anthony guided the shuttles. “Sean, drop down level. This is basic formation stuff, you know… John, get your nose back… Easy… Slow it down.”

“Any closer and we’ll hit each other,” John growled.

“No, you won’t. I can see you perfectly.”

The shuttles lined up.

“That’s better… Set targets.”

John lined up the targeting beacon in his weapons sights, waiting less than a second for the system to zero in and flash its confirmation light. Then he locked onto the targeting beacon.

“Locked,” he announced.

“Locked here,” Sean added.

“Locked as well,” McReidy added.

“All locked on…” Anthony confirmed to himself. “Good. Now give me thirty seconds to get out of here, then fire!”

Anthony turned and scrambled back along the exhaust tube. He swung himself up to the next level and turned left through two crosslinking passages. Ten metres further and he slid down into the engine room. Kowalski was expecting him yet still jumped with surprise.

“Firing now,” John told them.

All systems lit up as the power flowed through them. Anthony threw himself at the engine mains and switched it on. The engines coughed and spluttered, then went silent. Half a second later, a low-pitched whining began as they strained for power, trying to kick over.

“Come on,” Anthony urged.

The whining increased in both pitch and intensity as the engines roared to life, with a kickback that blasted power back through the circuits. The familiar humming began as the engines settled into normal running mode. The whole room seemed noisy compared to the deathly silence of the past few days.

The shuttles were thrown backwards, spinning wildly. Following John’s orders, they stayed well clear of each other. Sean spun to the left and found himself spinning sideways as well as backwards. It took him a few moments to regain his bearings before he righted himself and slowed the shuttle, bringing it around to face the ship.

McReidy’s head spun faster than the shuttle. She gripped the controls tightly as though her life depended in it. The shuttle slowed, her head didn’t, and she realised that it was only Sean’s voice telling her to use the thrusters that had made her do so.

John’s shuttle spun head over heels. He counted slowly to ten, got as far as five and went blank. Deciding that was close enough, and that the others were well clear of him, he slowly applied thrusters. The shuttle’s spinning slowed and came back under control.

“Everybody all right?” John asked, lifting a hand to his forehead as the spinning reactivated the dull throb.

“Fine over here,” Sean answered.

“Umm… yes… I’m fine.” McReidy sounded dazed.

“Mister Delaney?” John called.

Anthony grinned as he checked the power levels. Everything was normal. “She’s purring like a kitten.”

“I don’t believe it,” Carter muttered, shaking his head in disbelief. “I just don’t believe it.”

“Just keep an eye on those shuttles and make sure they get back safely,” Anthony told him.

Kowalski was staring around the engine room fascinated. He had had doubts, but kept them to himself. Only one word described how he now felt. “Coool!”

John laughed to himself as he realised the effect Anthony had on the cadet. “Mister Delaney, you’re not there to teach vocabulary.”

“He’s a quick learner.”

Kowalski was deaf to everything around him. He jumped as Anthony grabbed his shoulder and realised he was being spoken to. “Huh?”

“Sit down and take it easy.” Anthony guided him to the nearest seat and sat him down.

“It’s just…” He still stared in fascination.

“I know… cool,” Anthony finished for him. He took the main console and reset the main systems. “Fresh air and water… Up and running…”

The system whirred softly as it fired up, the air vents kicked open and a blast of stale air filled the engine room.

“Yes!” Anthony punched the air. “Commander, by the time you get back to the bridge, all systems should be back online.”

“We’re coming in now.”

The shuttles returned to the bay entrance. They glided in slowly, landing softly at their original positions, ready to launch again. The bay doors closed a little smoother than they had opened, only sticking twice, and the bay was pressurised.

John sighed with relief and he listened to the shuttle engine wind down. Now they could go home. But that brought a new set of problems for him. He knew he was in serious trouble with Fleet Command for his disobeying of orders and his mood was somewhat solemn.

Sean was out of his shuttle as quickly as he could be and reached McReidy as she opened her door. She stumbled out and, as he grabbed her arm to steady her, he could have sworn he saw her eyes rolling in her head. When he took a second look, he knew he was wrong.

McReidy held Sean’s forearm tightly as she swayed on her feet. She raised one hand to her forehead and tried to focus her eyes, sighing audibly. “Simulators don’t spin that fast!”

“Not if they want to stay in one piece,” he answered.

She looked curiously at him, guessing there was a story behind his answer.

“I’ll tell you about it sometime,” he jumped at the opportunity she’d just given him. “When we get out of this.”

“I’d like that.”

He grinned. As far as he was concerned, it was a date, and he intended holding her to it.

The three of them walked back to the bridge in silence. Sean sensed John’s mood and McReidy felt the tension build. They took their positions on the bridge.

“McReidy, take us home.” John’s quiet statement showed none of the emotion that had fired up his earlier actions. He was quiet for a long time before he finally spoke to Anthony. “Mister Delaney, how long?”

“We’re not at full power and we probably won’t be for quite a while. At a comfortable speed, about twice as long as it took us to get here.”

McReidy turned to John. “Comfortable?” she asked.

“We won’t blow ourselves up,” he translated. “Keep the speed within power levels until the engines are warm enough.”

 

  • * *

 

The journey home was slow. As the engines warmed, the power output increased, finally settling at about eighty per cent of full. The ship increased speed accordingly. The stars that were dotted about became blurred streaks of light.

The hours dragged.

Home…. John had choices. He could run. Take a shuttle and tell them nothing. Get them to drop him off on an inhabited planet. And let them go home and face up to the consequences of his actions? Without him?

They were the actions of a coward.

He looked around the bridge – his friends, the crew, and the illegitimates. There were all here because of him. Because he’d asked. Because they’d had no choice. Because they’d just happened to be on the ship at the time. And most of them were as battered and knocked about as she was. She was a good ship. A tough little explorer that had brought them through everything he threw at her.

John hadn’t realised he’d let his mind wander and he jumped at the loudness of Sean’s voice.

“Huh?” he asked. From the look on Sean’s face, he knew it was not the first time he had spoken.

“Sir, incoming message from Kuiper.”

“Put it on screen.” John felt a lump in his throat as Captain Barrett appeared on the main screen.

The captain’s expression was blank, his eyes emotionless. He gave away nothing.

At least I don’t have to worry any more, John thought.

“Would you rather take this communication in private?” the captain asked.

The question sounded ominous. The tone devoid of emotion, John knew he wasn’t about to get torn to strips. As much as he wanted to say yes, he found himself answering, “No, sir.”

Barrett cleared his throat, eyeing John directly and holding him entirely responsible with his words. “Would you mind explaining yourself? We’ve had reports from that entire sector about you.”

“I don’t think I can.”

John could see the look of anger rising on the captain’s face. His eyes narrowed as the fury began to burn – the only sign of his true feelings.

“Well, you’d better come up with some answers by the time you get back here. Consider yourself under arrest pending a full court martial. Confine yourself to quarters.” Barrett paused briefly as a sudden thought struck him, and a hint of contempt hit his tone. “No, wait a minute, you’re probably using my quarters! Confine yourself to the brig! And take Daniels and Delaney with you!”

“Yes, sir.” John’s voice remained quiet and accepting.

“I assume you’ve kept a log.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Download all logs and records to Kuiper’s database. And I warn you now, they will be used as evidence against you.”

John nodded. He keyed his log access code into the computer. It cleared immediately. He glanced to Gillespie, who was waiting. “Do it,” he whispered.

It surprised John that Gillespie had waited. On Barrett’s orders, he should have begun downloading as soon as John’s code cleared.

Barrett was now speaking to McReidy, having dismissed John with his last statement. “The ship is under your command, Lieutenant Commander. Bring her home safely.”

“Yes, sir,” McReidy acknowledged. “Will we be having some sort of escort?”

“There’s one sitting on the edge of Betelian space. Command won’t risk another breach into Betelian territory. Its orders are not to contact you until you’re outside Betelian space.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Commander Madison will not be a problem to you.”

The transmission ended. John was already on his feet. Sean was slowly rising. Mark reached for his crutches.

Almost as an afterthought, John turned back to the intercom. “Mister –”

“I heard him,” Anthony cut him off. “I’ll meet you down there.”

 

*

 

The walk to the brig was quiet. Boots padded the corridor and Mark’s crutches tapped the floor with each step.

“You could have stayed on the bridge,” John told him.

“And miss all the fun?” he grinned.

“You’re a civilian. They can’t touch you.”

Mark stopped, turning to look seriously at John. “Let’s start with impersonating an officer… Then, add everything else to it.”

“He’s right,” Sean said quickly.

“And if you even think I could sneak off this ship undetected when we do get back…”

John didn’t answer. He didn’t know what to think. He dropped his head and continued down the corridor in silence.

 

  • * *

 

The bridge suddenly felt cold and empty. McReidy looked around. The computer was downloading. Gillespie was leaning back in his seat, his legs straight out in front of him, his arms folded across his chest, watching her. They were alone and his gaze began to make her feel uncomfortable.

“Well?” she asked.

He waited a second or two before answering. “I want to know what you’re going to do.” He spoke as though he had already made up his mind about something.

Knowing that she didn’t owe him an answer, but somehow feeling that she did, she decided to ignore him. For the time being anyway. Instead, she switched the intercom on and called Randall and Pilson to the bridge.

 

  • * *

 

Anthony was waiting outside the brig. There were two small cells, separated by a wall of vertical bars running from floor to ceiling. A bench along the back wall doubled as a bed. Bars ran across the front, broken only by the doors and a keyed lock.

“I didn’t realise you were in such a hurry to be thrown into jail,” John commented.

“I’m not, but I didn’t take the scenic route,” Anthony answered. “Two brigs, huh. We gonna toss for it?”

“Do what you want.” John grabbed the cell door in front of him and pulled it open. He walked straight to the back corner and sat down, placing one foot on the bench and resting his forearm on his bent knee.

Mark followed him, sitting along the back wall and sliding his crutches under the bench.

“Guess that settles that,” Anthony answered his own question.

Sean stepped inside the second cell, cringing instinctively. “Do we have to actually lock it?”

“I don’t think so,” John answered. “But I don’t think we’re allowed to leave it wide open either. It’s more symbolic than anything else. With me in here, the rest of the crew will do whatever McReidy says.”

“And what’s to stop you doing something stupid?” Anthony asked, pushing John’s door closed. “As opposed to everything you’ve done so far?”

“Captain Barrett knows I won’t.”

“Speaking of which,” Sean changed the subject and turned to Anthony as he entered the cell. “Escort.”

“Sitting outside Betelian space. Told you.” Anthony pulled the door closed behind him, triggering silence.

Each of them had their own thoughts.

They were in the brig and they had an escort waiting for them. That told John that this had been taken out of Captain Barrett’s hands. A higher authority wanted them back to face judgement.

They were all wrecked. Anthony hadn’t stopped for nearly four days. Now, with nothing to do, the tiredness hit him. Mark could sleep anywhere. Sean still needed medication for his hand. If he’d rested it like he was supposed to, he’d be fine.

Anthony’s head sagged, then jerked upright. He struggled to keep his eyes open. He caught Sean’s attention and nodded slightly in John’s direction. Sean risked a glance. Yeah, something was going on in that head. He turned back to Anthony and nodded agreement.

Anthony rubbed his brow and his tired eyes before curling up on the bed and closing them. He was asleep almost immediately.

Sean shifted to the floor, letting him have the bed. Anthony had worked himself into the ground. He needed a decent sleep.

 

*

 

John felt a flicker of warmth as he recalled the events of the past… He couldn’t even remember how long they had been gone. It had seemed almost a lifetime ago since he had left the peaceful realm of Earth. So much had happened in so little time.

He knew that without his friends he would have gotten nowhere: Mark, who had more common sense than the rest of them put together; Sean, whose stubborn loyalty had been pushed to its limit; and Anthony, who had a solution to every problem, no matter how massive it had seemed. Now, it was payback time.

 

  • * *

 

Anthony woke but he was too tired to move. Sean was sitting against a wall with his knees drawn up and his good arm across them. His head rested in the crook of his elbow while the cast dragged his other arm to the floor. Yeah, he should probably give Sean the bed, but that was as far as that thought went.

He looked to the other cell. Mark was sitting on the bench, his legs outstretched and his eyes closed. John was awake, staring into nothing.

Anthony watched him curiously. Something was going on in John’s mind that baffled him. It wasn’t just the anticlimax of coming home, or the indignity of being arrested. He recalled the conversation with Sean and Mark over dinner the other night about how John had intended to keep them out of it.

John lifted his eyes and caught Anthony’s. He saw the concern, felt it cutting through him. He turned away.

Anthony checked his watch. Fourteen hours? Had he really been out for fourteen hours? He still didn’t feel much better for it.

He rolled onto his back and listened to the ship. The engines were running smoothly but he could tell she still wasn’t at full power.

He switched on his communicator. “Hey, bridge. How are things going?”

“All systems are holding up,” Gillespie answered. “Still focusing on essentials until we reach full power.”

“What about Sam?”

“Trying not to freak out. He’s pretty much running the engine room on his own.”

“He shouldn’t be on his own.”

“What I know about engineering, I could teach him in an hour. No one else is any better.”

Anthony ran his hand through his hair. The cadet didn’t have the knowledge or experience to handle the engine room on his own – or with Carter.

“If he gets stuck, send him down here. That goes for all of you. If something starts to play up, I want to know about it.”

“You’re wrecked,” John spoke quietly.

Anthony looked across to him. Then he looked at Sean and Mark, both hampered by casts, and back to John, who could easily have been fried on that moon. “I’m just tired.”

John nodded slowly.

“As long as nothing else goes wrong, we’ll get home,” Anthony assured him.

 

  • * *

 

Kowalski was at the brig within minutes. He was both anxious and relieved. One look at Anthony and he was also a little hesitant.

“What’s the problem?” Anthony asked.

Kowalski’s mouth moved, but nothing came out as his thoughts jumbled around his head. Then he sighed and shook his head slowly. “It’s all too much. I can’t… There’s nothing wrong. I just can’t…”

“Stop stressing,” Anthony told him. “It’s not your problem.”

“But…”

“If something breaks down, it is not your fault,” John added.

Kowalski looked across to John. “Yes, sir, but –”

“No buts, Cadet. It is not your fault. Understand?”

Coming from Anthony was one thing. Coming from John was another matter entirely. Even in the brig, his authority was not questioned.

“Yes, sir.”

Anthony pulled his pencil from inside his jacket and found a scrap of paper in his pants pocket. He smoothed out the creases and began writing. “Look, these are the things you’re going to have to keep an eye on.”

Kowalski twisted his head around to see properly, and nodded.

Anthony hesitated, feeling John’s eyes on him as he kept scribbling. “Any issues, let me know immediately.”

“Sure,” Kowalski nodded, a smile brightening his face and his mood. He headed away feeling much happier.

“More stress for you,” John told Anthony.

Anthony shrugged. “He’s a good kid. They both are.”

John couldn’t help a smile. “They’re going to go back knowing more than half their teachers.”

Anthony grinned at both the comment and John’s smile.

 

  • * *

 

Kowalski wasn’t the only visitor. The botanist checked on her patients. Mark suffered a scan of his leg – it was healing nicely – but refused any more painkillers. Sean decided a top up for a day or so would probably do him the world of good. The more he’d used his hand, the more the bones were inclined to shift. They needed time to knit properly. His choice was to rest it or risk infection and the chance of permanent damage.

Her inquiries into John’s health were met with a firm, “I’m fine”. His own concerns were for the rest of the banged up crew. Kowalski and Randall only had minor bumps and bruises. Lakers’ head wound was superficial. Pilson seemed to have recovered and scans showed no lasting effects.

Good, John nodded. No one was supposed to have gotten hurt.

It was well after the botanist had left that Mark pulled his crutches out from under the bench and dragged himself to his feet.

“Where are you going?” Sean asked.

“Like you said before, I don’t have to be here,” he smiled.

“Oh, that’s just great,” Anthony groaned.

“Need to get some exercise into this leg,” Mark told them. “I’ll be back.”

“You don’t have to,” John reminded him.

“I know.”

They watched in silence as Mark left the cell, pushing the door over behind him, and hobbled back towards civilisation.

“You know, I reckon I could get out of here,” Anthony continued.

“With or without your lockpick?” John asked.

“Without… Or at least I could have fun trying.”

“Door’s open, remember.”

“Will you be quiet!” Sean growled.

John and Anthony looked at each other, then back to Sean.

“More painkillers,” they nodded.

 

  • * *

 

McReidy jumped, one evening, as the message came through the bridge. They were still in Betelian space and weren’t due to catch up with their escort for several days.

“Kuiper,” Gillespie told her. “Captain Barrett. It’s coded.”

“What?” She could only think she’d done something wrong. Or some emergency had struck. “The Betelians?”

“Nowhere around,” Randall checked his sensors. “We’re in clear space.”

Gillespie flinched. “Not for you, Lieutenant Commander.”

“Not for me?” she repeated.

“Oh, you’re not going to like this.” He met her eyes. “It’s for the commander.”

Her eyes darkened, her mouth twisted and she held off saying anything for a minute. Then she turned and thumped the intercom.

“Commander, I –”

“Go away,” John cut her off.

Sean leaned through the bars and punched him on the arm.

“Oww! What’d you –?”

“Be quiet,” Sean snapped. Then his voice softened as he spoke to McReidy. “Go ahead.”

“I have a coded message for the commander from Captain Barrett.” Her voice remained even.

John opened his mouth, caught Sean’s glare and sighed in defeat. “What does it say?”

“It says,” McReidy paused. “‘Your move.’”

John smiled. The message hadn’t been coded to avoid the crew’s knowledge, but to avoid translation from its source. The captain still wanted to play. Maybe not all was lost.

“I’ll need a Strategem board set up. I can’t very well access the computer from here.” He lifted a warning finger to Anthony as he saw him open his mouth to contradict. “I know you can,” he mouthed.

“Do you mind if we follow the game?” Gillespie wanted to know. “Some of us are interested in the outcome.”

“You’re not running a pool on this, are you?” John knew Gillespie’s reasoning.

“That would be against regulations, sir!” Gillespie’s tone and direct avoidance of an answer showed that he was.

John’s spirits lifted. “No, I don’t mind.”

Carter brought a table and Strategem board to the brig. He frowned as John opened the door for him, his brow furrowing deeply as he looked around the cells. He didn’t say anything, simply standing there with the table under one arm and the board under his other.

“Problem, Mister Carter?” John asked.

“No,” Carter almost jumped at the question. “No, sir,” he added quickly.

He put the table down, set the board up on it and placed the pieces to the computer’s instructions. With his eyes lowered, he headed out the door.

“Thank you, Mister Carter.”

“You’re welcome, sir,” Carter answered, not even hesitating in his stride.

John turned to the board. With something positive to concentrate on, he was now much happier.

Gillespie posted a board for permanent display on the bridge.

Coded messages ran back and forth from Magellan to Kuiper. Gillespie coded John’s moves, transmitted them to Barrett, then decoded the replies and forwarded them to John.

Advice from Sean was not welcomed. The few times he had begun to indicate a move, John had silenced him.

Every now and then the game was stopped. The captain had work to attend to that was more important than playing games and the breaks were often long – sometimes lasting days. Restarting late at night was perfectly acceptable. It wasn’t like anyone was going anywhere.

 

  • * *

 

Mark picked a quiet time every night to take a walk. It was good to be able to stretch his legs and get away for a few minutes. The close quarters was getting on all their nerves. He turned a corner to see Gillespie leaning his back against a wall, arms folded across his chest.

“I need the exercise,” Mark explained. “Physio. Ask –”

“The botanist?” Gillespie smiled. “Yeah.”

They both knew that was way beyond her knowledge.

“Technically, I’m not under arrest,” Mark continued.

“Technicalities aren’t going to get you out of this… Any of you.”

Mark knew Gillespie was fishing, and he wasn’t about to bite. “If you don’t know, you can’t lie.”

Gillespie nodded to himself. “You’re right about one thing.”

One thing? Mark’s eyebrow raised in curiosity.

“Technically… you’re not under arrest. And I can’t figure out why you choose to be in the brig.”

Mark wasn’t answering.

“I do know this much. When we get back, it isn’t going to make one scrap of difference.”

Gillespie pushed off the wall, his arms dropping to his sides.

“Enjoy your walk.”

He headed down the corridor, leaving Mark to ponder his words.

 

  • * *

 

McReidy began to feel isolated. The rapport between the captain, John and the crew was unlike anything she had known before. As much as she tried to deny it, she found herself following the Strategem game.

In her off time, she told herself she wasn’t interested. She had more important things on her mind. But when she returned to the bridge at the beginning of each new shift, she found herself checking the progress.

With their escort now only hours away and the game on hold, she was able to switch back to work mode.

Scanners had detected the light cruiser during the night. Lakers had woken her to notify her and confirm a course change to intercept. She’d spent the rest of the night half awake, anticipating and running over in her mind the potential meeting.

No sooner had they crossed the border into open space than communications were established.

“Incoming call,” Gillespie confirmed.

She took a breath and composed herself. “Put it through.”

The light cruiser captain appeared on the main screen. A couple of fuzzy pixels distorted his left shoulder.

“Lieutenant Command –” McReidy began.

“You’re late,” the captain cut her off. “You were supposed to be here five days ago.”

McReidy was taken aback and lost for words. “We… only got full power back a couple of days ago, sir.”

His eyes narrowed and his lip curled. “Maybe I should send my chief engineer over there to have a look at it.”

McReidy’s face lit up. “Oh, would you, sir? That’d be wonderful!”

This time, it was the captain who was lost for words. His mouth opened to speak, then he changed his mind. He turned to someone off screen. “Send Chief Schneider over there.”

He turned back as the muffled acknowledgement was voiced.

“New co-ordinates coming through. Set your course and stay where I can see you.”

“Yes, Captain,” McReidy acknowledged.

“Co-ordinates received. Course changed,” Pilson confirmed.

The captain barely waited for acknowledgment of his orders before switching off.

As the screen reverted to space and the image of the light cruiser sitting off their bow, McReidy was suddenly aware of how tense she was. Every muscle in her body was tight and she had to will herself to relax.

Gillespie switched the communications link off and rose to his feet.

“Where are you going?” she asked him.

“I’ll meet the chief in the transporter room. Take him to engineering.”

“Okay,” she nodded.

 

*

 

The transporter room was empty. Gillespie switched the transporter on as Carter reached the door.

“Sorry, sir,” the cadet apologised.

“Don’t worry about it,” Gillespie told him.

“I was having lunch, sir.”

“Go back and finish it.” One look at the cadet told him he’d gulped it down and rushed to the transporter room. “Just keep your mouth shut.”

Carter frowned and looked like he wanted to question the order when the transporter activated and the chief engineer materialised.

“Welcome aboard, Chief,” Gillespie greeted him, his smile and demeanour relaxed.

“Zank you,” the chief acknowledged with a strong accent and a slight nod of his head. “Zee engine room, please.”

“This way,” Gillespie indicated the door.

The chief stepped into the corridor, stopping immediately as he looked all around. “Vot…?”

Gillespie also looked around. While the ship had been tidied up, the stripping of her was obvious to someone who knew what they were looking at.

The Chief’s eyes were immediately drawn to the imperfections that many wouldn’t have seen – a fresh weld, a different bolt, a string of intercom boxes with the active light not on. He said nothing.

The door to engineering was wide open. The access panel for the door was nothing more than a melted mess.

“Watch your step, Chief,” Gillespie advised.

Visually, the engine room was a mess. Many areas were still buckled, burned, melted or distorted out of place. Normally concealed cables ran across the floor, connecting sections by the shortest possible route; held together in bunches to allow clear space or taped to the floor. A faint hint of burning copper still permeated, the vents and air system seemingly unable to remove it.

The chief stood in the doorway, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. He mouthed words that were unidentifiable to anyone but himself. Then he blinked and shook his head.

His body rocked forward to take a step, but he quickly pulled himself back, looked down to where his feet were going and carefully made his way to the main console.

“Vot happened here?” he asked. “Who has done zis?”

“Lieutenant Delaney,” Kowalski answered.

“Vere is Lieutenant Delaney?”

“In the brig, Chief,” Kowalski answered.

The chief didn’t answer. The cadets looked to Gillespie, who shook his head quickly.

The chief put one hand on his hip and rubbed his brow with the other. He looked at the main console and the lines running out of it. A quick glance and he knew where they were all going. A few frowns and curling of his mouth indicated he wasn’t always sure of the reasoning.

He pulled the access panel off the main console and began to study the insides.

There were a few “Mm hmm”, “Vot…?” and a couple of “I zee” as he moved between consoles. He stepped over and around cabling with the expertise of a man used to moving in awkward confinements. He seemed to take everything in almost at a glance, occasionally tracing a connection with his eyes and moving his finger through the air.

He left the engine core till last, stopping halfway between it and the main console. He held up a hand for silence and listened carefully. He turned back, a hint of a smile softening his features.

“She zounds healzy,” he spoke softly. “Zis…” he indicated the room with a sweep of his hand, “iz excellent vork. Unconfentional, but excellent.”

“Thank you, Chief,” Kowalski answered.

The chief snapped to attention, his heels clicking together, and he nodded slightly. Then he turned and headed out the door.

Gillespie took him back to the transporter room and sent him back to his ship. Then it was back to the bridge where an anxious McReidy was waiting.

“He’s satisfied we’re not lying,” he told her as he resumed his position.

A few minutes later, the light cruiser captain was also satisfied. “We’ll match your speed,” he conceded before switching off.

The screen returned to its view of space; the light cruiser sitting just off their bow.

 

  • * *

 

McReidy was on the bridge early one morning when the Strategem game restarted from a two day break. The game had left off at a potentially crucial point. When Gillespie announced the arrival of the next incoming message, the whole crew waited in expectation until he decoded and updated the board, passing the move onto the brig.

“Uh-oh,” Gillespie whispered.

John moved the opponent piece as Gillespie instructed. The comment “You lose,” was not well received.

“What!” John asked incredulously.

“Message ends ‘You lose.’” Gillespie repeated. He dropped his face into his hands as he realised the money he had lost. John had been undefeated previously and he had given generous odds for Barrett.

“That can’t be right.” John still didn’t believe it. He stood up, hands on his hips and stared down at the board, trying to see another move.

“It is,” Sean told him. “You shouldn’t have made that last move.”

Anthony glanced to the board and nodded.

“Game’s over. Back to work,” McReidy informed the crew. She switched off the intercom and the crew grumbled back to work.

But she hadn’t completely switched off. Using an earphone that she had secretly plugged in, she kept listening. She knew she shouldn’t, but she had to know something. What it was, she wasn’t sure, but she had to clarify her own mind.

Gillespie had said nothing more since his initial outburst, but she’d seen his looks. Only subtle, and always when he thought she wouldn’t notice.

“You don’t like losing, you never have,” Sean continued.

“No, I don’t,” John agreed. He left the board and moved back to his seat in the corner. “You know, when we were younger, we were going to change the world.”

“I think we have.”

John ignored Sean. His mind had gone back to their school days and the dreams they had shared.

Anthony was worried. He detected a sense of loss in John’s words. He glanced at Sean, who appeared not to notice it, and decided to change the subject. “How come he can sleep?” he pointed to Mark, who was sitting upright with his eyes closed.

“He can sleep through anything,” John answered.

“Do you think anyone will care that we saved those worlds?” Sean continued.

“Are you kidding? No one will ever know.” John was opening up. “They’ll lock me up, throw away the key, and file it: Top secret.” He moved his hand in front of himself as though he was printing on a file. “Do not open… Ever!” He underlined ‘ever’.

This time Sean caught Anthony’s glance. “We’re all in this,” he added.

Anthony stood up and moved to the bars between the two cells. He reached through and held his arm straight out in front of him, palm facing the floor. “All for one.”

Sean reached through and his hand covered Anthony’s. Mark reached across and placed his hand, as centuries before the three Musketeers had done, over Sean’s.

“Who can sleep with you lot yakking, anyway,” he told them with a smile.

They waited for John, who didn’t move. “Not this time. It’s my responsibility.”

“We knew what we were getting in to,” Anthony reminded him.

John shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.” He smiled slightly. “Although… it would have been nice to take the ship home one last time.”

McReidy nodded to herself. Her mind cleared a little. She switched the intercom off and pulled the plug from her ear. Feeling Gillespie’s eyes on her, she glanced in his direction. He was busy with something else and hadn’t been watching her. Her conscience completely free, she made her decision.

 

*

 

Anthony pulled his hand back through the bars and let it fall by his side. Sean and Mark withdrew their hands.

“Would you do it again?” Anthony asked.

John didn’t have to think about it. “In a minute,” he grinned. “But I’d leave McReidy at home.”

“Why?” Sean asked. “Without her, we might still be on that moon.”

“She’s so infuriating,” John answered. The blank looks all round showed that no one agreed and he felt he had to explain further. “She questions my orders, constantly argues –” He rose to his feet and began pacing back and forth.

“If you didn’t argue back, you’d get on much better,” Sean told him.

“She starts it. She’s so annoying, so frustrating, so… so…” He clicked his fingers as he searched for the right word.

“Female?” Mark finished as John stopped in front of him about to turn around.

“Exactly!” John pointed to Mark as though he had found the perfect word, his eyes shining.

Mark glanced across to Sean and Anthony. John spun around to find them nodding silently to each other. He knew their thoughts immediately.

“No way!” he told them, shaking his head.

“We didn’t say a word,” Anthony smirked.

“You didn’t have to!”

“You have to admit she is quite attractive,” Sean pushed.

“I admit nothing!” John sulked and sat down silently. The thought that he might actually like McReidy sent a shudder down his spine. What Sean thought of her didn’t count. As far as that man was concerned, ninety per cent of the female population were attractive. John pushed the thought from his mind, refusing to accept even the remotest possibility.

 

Back to top

 

Chapter eleven

 

The rest of the journey home was uneventful. Magellan was running almost perfectly. The escort kept an eye on her, though there was no need for further inspections.

As the Kuiper space station came within scanner range, McReidy couldn’t help the feeling of unease. The crew didn’t seem to reflect it and those in the brig… Yeah, something was going on there. They’d been way too quiet – and it had nothing to do with the Strategem game finishing.

She’d tried listening in a few times but had only caught a word or two. Either they were resigned to their fate or they knew she was listening – oh, who was being paranoid now?

She shifted uneasily in the captain’s chair and let her gaze wander around the bridge.

Pilson was flying, Randall had navigation and Gillespie was at communications. They were all relaxed, as though they’d done this a million times before.

Traffic was light; moving dots that reflected sunlight the only indication of their existence. Randall and Pilson worked together easily, plotting traffic and keeping a clear course with the escort.

As they neared Kuiper with its gleaming exterior, McReidy began to see the ship for what was left of her, and the crew for what they had made of her. Her slight embarrassment as she remembered Captain Barrett’s words to John about returning the ship unharmed was replaced by a feeling of pride and achievement.

She straightened up in her chair, quickly flicking a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. She was in charge, and she was bringing this ship home.

“Escort slowing,” Pilson stated.

“Match it,” McReidy told him.

“Escort calling,” Gillespie put the light cruiser captain on the main screen.

“We are now in station traffic lanes. Switch to traffic control for docking instructions.”

“Yes, sir.”

No sooner had the escort captain switched off than the station called.

“Traffic control. Audio only,” Gillespie advised her.

“Put it through.” She waited for him to nod, indicating the call was clear. “This is Lieutenant Commander McReidy of the Magellan, requesting docking instructions.”

“Magellan, this is traffic control. You are to dock in bay four. Link up at dock three. All crew to remain on board until further notice.”

McReidy tensed. She caught Gillespie’s eye; saw the concern. Bay four was top security and had all those big ships.

“Station security is locked onto you,” traffic control continued, “so don’t try anything.”

They’d voluntarily come back with an escort. Did traffic control really think they were going to try anything at this point?

“Take us around to bay four, Mister Pilson.”

“Yes, Lieutenant Commander,” Pilson replied formally.

They cleared the commercial lanes and eased around to bay four. Two destroyers were docked outside on a recently added wing.

The bay doors were already open. Yorktown, her name emblazoned across her port bow, sat at dock two, almost blotting out the ship at the near wall. Two empty docks dwarfed beside her and another ship was on the far wall. McReidy didn’t recognise the other ships on sight and couldn’t see their names painted on their hulls.

“Reduce speed and set docking mode,” the traffic controller continued.

“Reducing speed now.”

Pilson obeyed and the ship slowed to a crawl.

Magellan cruised up beside Yorktown. She docked gently, as though she had landed on a cloud. Pilson switched off. The engines slowly wound down and were still.

“Traffic control, this is Magellan. We have landed,” McReidy confirmed. “All engines off. Awaiting further instructions.”

Gillespie pulled his earphone out and tossed it on the console. “No prizes for guessing what happens next.”

Within seconds, armed security guards materialised on the bridge. Weapons were drawn, but not levelled with any real intent. Not yet.

They were led by an officer whose weapon was still holstered. She had a clipboard in one hand; her gaze focusing on McReidy.

“Lieutenant Commander McReidy,” she confirmed.

“Yes,” McReidy answered.

She ticked McReidy off.

She glanced around the bridge, asked the others their names and ticked them off. Then she looked up to McReidy again. “Where are the rest of the crew?”

“Apart from those in the brig, I have no idea,” McReidy answered.

“Tell them all to report to the mess hall.”

McReidy obeyed.

The security officer raised an eyebrow at the use of her communicator and not the intercom, but said nothing. Instead, she turned to her team and instructed each pair who to take and where to take them.

“Debriefing,” was the only reason she was giving.

 

  • * *

 

John heard the boots pounding the corridor long before he saw their owners. He felt Sean and Anthony’s eyes on him and ignored them. Mark, he couldn’t guess at, but he was ignoring him too.

An entire troop of guards soon filled the corridor. Weapons were drawn, resting diagonally across their bodies.

A bit extreme, but then, there were four of them in the brig.

The sergeant in charge stopped a metre or so from the cells. His men fell in behind him. He looked from one cell to the other, his eyes drifting from faces to the rank worn on their collars.

His eyes rested on John. “Commander Madison?”

“Yes.” John remained seated in a last act of defiance.

“Would you stand up please, sir?”

While the man wore a sergeant’s insignia, police ranking was a different system entirely, and he had the full authority of the law.

John slowly rose to his feet, the look in his eyes daring the man to make a mistake. But he knew there would be no technicalities to fall back on. The sergeant would follow his orders to the letter.

The sergeant unclipped a set of keys from his belt, flicking easily through them for the right one. He put it in the lock and went to turn it. The key didn’t turn more than a quarter turn. He frowned and pulled the door. It swung open easily, and he stepped back quickly, a hand going to his holstered weapon.

His men levelled their weapons. Tensions increased as they hit full alertness.

None of the prisoners made a move. None of them even looked like moving. The sergeant’s eyes shot over them, his forehead creasing slightly. Then he let out a soft breath that filled the silence before his eyes returned to John. His hand lifted from his weapon, and he waved his men to lower theirs.

“Commander Madison, by the authority vested in me, I hereby place you under arrest.” He slipped a set of handcuffs from his belt. “Turn around please, sir, and put your hands behind your head.”

John looked at the cuffs in disbelief. “What?”

“I have my orders, sir. Please do not resist. I would not like to have to shoot you.”

The sudden dryness in John’s throat made it impossible for him to speak. He swallowed and nodded in agreement, before clasping his hands to the back of his neck and turning around slowly.

He couldn’t ignore Mark’s look as he stared directly at him. There was genuine worry in his friend’s eyes.

The sergeant moved into the cell. The expert search took seconds and found nothing.

John still felt the hands on his body as the sergeant snapped the cuff onto one of his wrists and pulled it down behind his back. Then his second wrist was drawn down to meet the first and they were cuffed together.

“Turn around, please, sir.”

John turned around to face the sergeant.

“Senior Constable Reynolds.”

“Sir!” the senior constable snapped to attention. Two constables beside him prepared to follow his lead.

“Take the commander to his cell.” He stepped to one side, allowing John to move past him yet still keeping his eye on both him and Mark.

“Yes, sir!” The senior constable saluted smartly, then turned his attention to John. “This way, sir.”

The constables moved to either side of the cell door, flagging John as he stepped out and headed down the corridor. The senior constable followed behind.

The sergeant then turned his attention to Mark. “Lieutenant Commander…”

There was irritation in his tone as he had no name to put with it. A slight hesitation before civility and formality saw him follow procedure to the letter.

“Stand up, please… sir.”

Mark reached under the bench for his crutches.

The sergeant instantly drew his weapon and positioned it a few centimetres from Mark’s forehead. “Slowly, sir.”

Mark momentarily stilled. All it would take would be one trigger-happy idiot to overreact. He lifted his head and glared at the sergeant, noting that weapons outside the cell were also pointed at him, as he slowly pulled his crutches out. He placed the tips on the floor, steadied then slowly hauled himself to his feet.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught and ignored Sean’s slight frown as he leaned heavily on the crutches.

The sergeant looked at the cuffs in his hand then back at Mark. One side of his face screwed up indecisively.

“Wait,” he decided.

Mark steadied his weight onto his good leg and rested on his crutches.

The sergeant left the cell and pulled the door closed. A second glance to Mark as he locked it and removed the key.

He turned to the other cell. “Lieutenants Delaney and Daniels.”

“Yes,” Sean and Anthony answered.

The sergeant unlocked the door. “Lieutenant Delaney.”

“Sergeant,” Anthony acknowledged, choosing politeness and complete respect for a man with a weapon.

Anthony was searched. The sergeant stopped within seconds, his hands on Anthony’s jacket. He spun him around, undid his jacket and took his toolkit from an inside pocket.

“Oh, come on. That’s just not fair,” Anthony complained.

The sergeant opened the folded cloth, glanced briefly at the contents and closed it back up. He tucked the kit inside his own jacket and finished searching Anthony. He found nothing else.

Anthony wasn’t happy, but decided to keep his mouth shut. There were too many weapons pointed at him for his liking.

He was handcuffed. The sergeant flicked a forefinger from one of his security teams to Anthony, his eyes never moving from the prisoner.

Anthony stepped slowly out of the cell, and headed away with his escort.

Sean made no objection or complaint at his turn. As the footsteps of the departing prisoners died down, the sergeant again turned his attention to Mark.

 

  • * *

 

John marched from the ship in silence. Yorktown loomed up shining and pristine. Ark Royal was under repairs on the other side of the bay. An arc welder lit up a point near her bow, its crackling echoing through the air.

John’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of the carrier.

He slowed, turning to catch a glimpse of Magellan. She was blackened and burned. Creases dented the metal where the shields had been penetrated.

“Move,” Reynolds shoved him from behind.

John kept moving forward, looking over his shoulder a little longer before turning away from the ship.

When they reached the brig, he was checked in – Reynolds confirmed his name with the desk officer. The man’s eyes ran over John critically, before he inclined his head to the corridor to one side of the cells.

“This way, sir,” Reynolds repeated like a broken record as he indicated the corridor.

Boots echoed in the enclosed space, echoing louder in John’s head.

“Stop, please, sir.” Reynolds moved in front of John and unlocked the cell. He opened the door, then stepped aside, allowing John to enter.

“Cuffs?” John asked as he turned around to face the senior constable.

Reynolds was already reaching for the keyring on his belt. It took him a moment to find the right key.

John turned again, to allow Reynolds access to the cuffs. Did he hear the weapons prime or did he only imagine it? It didn’t matter. He had no intention of assaulting the guards and making a run for it.

The door closed. The lock clicked. A few buttons were pressed and he heard the soft buzz of the force field activating. Boots faded down the corridor. His only view was the walls around him.

John rubbed his wrists. Although the cuffs had only been on for a short time, it was more for his own psychological benefit that he needed to feel free of them.

Solitary. They were keeping him well away from the others. He wondered how long he’d be here. How long before the interrogation began. Or would they just leave him here and forget about him?

No, they couldn’t do that. Could they?

He sat down, propping his elbows on his knees and dropping his head into his hands.

This had snowballed. Those asking for help had turned out to be the enemy of the legitimate ruler of the worlds. Legitimate? Recognised, was probably a better word. Earth recognised Rache as ruler. He was the one Earth – and every other world – dealt with.

He was the one who had assured Powers and everyone else that the star was in no danger. That they didn’t need any help. Powers and the whole committee had acted in good faith, in the firm belief that the star was safe.

His words from an earlier conversation with Mark came back to him: So the right decision is to ignore everyone else and throw away my entire career on some crazy attempt to save the lives of people I know nothing about?

He let out a long sigh. At least he now had the knowledge that the star wouldn’t black hole and the worlds were saved. Yeah, great.

It was hard to feel enthusiastic about anything when civil war could just as easily wipe them out.

Time dragged. On Magellan, he’d had company. Even though he’d spent the last part of the journey home not wanting to talk to anyone, he’d still had that company. Now, he only had his thoughts.

He checked his watch for the hundredth time.

 

  • * *

 

McReidy sat on the hard wooden chair. Its padded seat was more for show as it provided no comfort from the hard surface beneath. The rectangular table was bare. The empty chair on the opposite side was waiting to be filled. A two way mirror lined a side wall. Well, she assumed it was two way. All she could see was her own reflection in the empty room.

She’d been put in here and told to wait. So she sat, and waited. At first, she was calm, but now she was fidgeting.

She was trying not to stew. She’d done nothing wrong. Madison said he had orders. As a superior officer, she’d had no reason to doubt him.

She kept telling herself this and tried to remain calm. But her feet kept tapping the floor, her hands scrunching and squeezing each other until she’d forced them to be still by folding them across her chest. As this caused her whole body to tense, she soon dropped them to her lap and told herself to relax; she’d done nothing wrong.

The door opened and she jumped, turning around sharply.

The major smirked behind his folder. He settled himself in the chair, placed a recorder on the table, opened the folder and sorted through his papers.

McReidy watched him, almost relieved to have something else to focus on. He appeared to notice this, though he didn’t look up and continued to unduly delay the procedure with his papers.

He finally looked up. A smile forced its way to the surface. “Lieutenant Commander McReidy…”

“Yes,” she acknowledged slowly when it didn’t look like he was going to continue.

His hand reached to the recorder and he switched it on. “Let me advise you now that this debriefing will be recorded.”

He went through the basic introductory formalities – names, time, date. McReidy noted that he didn’t read her her rights. From that, she assumed that she was not under arrest. She still had the feeling that could easily change.

“Would you like to make an opening statement?” he asked.

“Umm…”

“Just, in your words,” he hinted, “your version of the events as they played out.”

She hesitated. Was he genuine? Or was he trying to get her to say something damning? “I was just obeying orders.”

He kept staring at her, that fake smile plastered on his face, his eyebrows lifting in anticipation of her expanding. The silence remained.

“Right,” he eventually nodded. “So, violating alien territory, interfering in alien culture and politics, and firing on alien ships is obeying orders… Is it?”

She felt the heat rise. Her collar choked, sweat began to bead and slip its way down her temple. “Commander Madison said he had orders. He’s a superior officer. I had no reason to doubt him.”

“And when you were ordered to take command of the ship and return home?”

“Do not answer that, Lieutenant Commander.” Captain Barrett’s voice drowned out the sound of the door opening.

McReidy jumped. She fought the desire to turn around as the captain strode into the room. Her eyes flicked to the mirror, then back to the major.

The captain stopped beside McReidy, a hand moving to rest momentarily on her shoulder. His eyes burned through the major. “My crew are not to be questioned without my presence.”

“I was assured you had been notified,” the major answered. “I assumed that under the circumstances –”

“Do not make assumptions on my behalf.”

This was the second time McReidy had met the captain in person. The first was when she’d reported for duty and she’d felt his constant scrutiny. Now, she felt she was under his protection. A strange feeling indeed.

The two men eyed each other, before the major conceded. “My apologies, Captain.”

The major shuffled his papers, turned his attention back to McReidy and continued his questions.

“What did you do when you were ordered to return home?”

Oh, that’s right, she grimaced. The commander had punched out some of Emperor Rache’s guards and they’d run for their lives, getting separated from Mark in the process.

“I understand you were separated,” Barrett prompted.

“Captain, please,” the major warned.

“Yes,” McReidy responded. “We became separated.”

“And I wouldn’t expect you to leave a man there.”

“Captain!”

Barrett turned to the major.

“With respect, sir, if you interrupt again, I will ask you to leave.”

Barrett held up a hand in apology and remained quiet.

The questioning continued.

McReidy didn’t lie. But she did find the wording precise, the implications twisted and, if she hadn’t been there, it began to sound worse than it was. They’d interfered, sought out the fascist rebels when they’d been refused, incited war, threatened and almost succeeded in wiping out the population of the homeworld.

Questions were repeated. They were worded slightly different. As though the major was looking for a different answer – or a different meaning.

With a man missing, she’d had to defer to the commander’s rank and seniority and things had gotten way out of anyone’s hands.

In hindsight, could she have handled things better?

The major withdrew the question when it looked like Barrett was about to step in again. Hindsight and speculation were well beyond the boundaries of fact and completely out of the realm of any legal proceedings.

The major looked at his notes. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to get the answers he wanted with the captain there, and the captain was not baulking.

“You may go, Lieutenant Commander,” the major’s hand reached for the recorder, hesitating above the off button. “Do not leave the station. We may need to speak with you again.”

He switched the recorder off.

McReidy had to admit that she was in a bit of shock. That was the first, and hopefully the last time, she’d go through that experience. Though the bit about him maybe needing to question her again stuck in her brain.

She sat a moment longer than she wanted to because she felt her legs would fail her, then dragged herself to her feet. She couldn’t stop herself from glancing at the mirror, wondering who and what was behind there and what their judgement would be.

Barrett led her out while the major gave his notes a once over. The door closed behind them and he turned to McReidy.

“The first thing you will learn, Lieutenant Commander, is that my crew answer to me. First and foremost.” His voice was quiet, yet held a power of expectation.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.”

“But,” she ventured. “You’re out of your jurisdiction, aren’t you, sir?”

“Yes.” He softened. “But not with you. You did nothing wrong.”

It sounded almost like praise.

“Now, if you will excuse me,” his tone turned serious again, “I have some more crew about to be interviewed.”

The captain headed away down the corridor. McReidy turned and headed the opposite way. She had the feeling that this wasn’t over, and it had nothing to do with her interview. She couldn’t quite grasp it – she’d been playing catchup on this “mission” since it started. She had switched on the intercom to the brig several times on the way home. Only when Gillespie was not around. He was watching her too much for her liking. Or was she just paranoid? A bit of both probably.

An earphone and a minute here and there hadn’t revealed much. Maybe she just hit quiet moments. But the quiet seemed as foreshadowing as when they’d arrived. They didn’t need words to plot and communicate. And…

And she’d feel cheated if she didn’t see it through. But how could she find out what they were up to when they were all locked away in jail?

Maybe if she found Gillespie and started giving him the same treatment he’d been giving her. Order him to fess up. She did outrank him after all.

Assuming he was out – like she was – where would he be?

Well, that was quite simple. Away from home for any length of time, men hung out at two places. She headed to the bar. Only problem – there were at least a dozen on this station.

 

  • * *

 

Mark settled comfortably in his cell. He was in trouble. He’d known that from the beginning. The same as he’d known something was wrong. Well, they’d all known something was wrong. Even from the outset, communication with their Betelian contact had been intermittent at best.

Impersonating an officer should have been the least of his worries.

Sean and Anthony had been scheming every moment they’d thought John was asleep. They were going to try and help him out of this mess. Mark wasn’t familiar with their regulations and had no idea what they could use. And with all out civil war raging on the worlds of Betelgeuse…

At least he knew where they were planning on meeting up – if they were ever released.

The cell door opened. The officer spoke quietly to his escort and they waited outside as he stepped inside the cell. The door closed quickly behind him.

His jacket was grey. The rank of Inspector more of a police rank than a service one.

“Lieutenant Commander…” he began, his tone remaining civil while his eyes showed suspicion. “It seems you are not listed anywhere in our database. With that, a jacket that doesn’t fit you and boots that are definitely non issue, I can only conclude that you are a spy.”

Mark’s eyes widened at the word, giving him away.

“Not how you see yourself?” the Inspector queried. “Well, you could explain. I hear I am very easy to talk to.”

Mark said nothing. He met the man’s eyes. Gauging his effective power over his authorative power. It only took a second to realise the man was good.

Mark held the gaze for several more seconds before lowering it to stare at the wall in front of him.

“I could even get that leg looked at for you. I hear you didn’t even have a doctor on board.”

The leg wasn’t causing Mark any pain so he knew there was no infection and he’d been off painkillers for a while now. Still, a proper medical assessment was at the top of his list when he got out of there.

“I’ll call a doctor now,” the Inspector continued. “A sign of good faith.”

He moved to the door and spoke to his escorts, then moved back to his spot at the wall. He waited patiently, watching Mark as much as he was being inadvertently watched.

The doctor arrived, began a complete check up and scanned the leg. His quiet questions were answered as briefly as possible.

How and when did it happen? What meds was he on and was he still on them? And so on.

Blood pressure normal, no infection and the break was healing nicely. He’d probably need the crutches for a few days after the cast came off. Apart from that, he was in excellent health.

Mark thanked the doctor – so did the Inspector – as he packed up his equipment and returned to his duties.

“See? I am quite a reasonable man,” the Inspector said. “Now is there anything you’d like to say or would you prefer to be shot as a spy?”

 

  • * *

 

The longer Anthony waited, the more impatient he became. He knew he was being made to stew. They probably all were. They wouldn’t turn on each other and they wouldn’t turn on John. But, suddenly, this was becoming all too real.

He’d been bored sitting, bored pacing, bored sitting, and now he was pacing again. One hand rubbed the back of his neck in frustration.

The door opened.

He turned sharply, his hand still at the back of his neck.

The Inspector entered; the door closed behind him.

“Sit, please.” He indicated the bench.

Anthony obeyed.

“Lieutenant Delaney,” he began politely. “You really know your stuff.”

“Thank you… I think.” Anthony squirmed.

“Oh, no, take the compliment as intended.” The Inspector was genuine. “You found a way into that star, causing it to explode and changing the course of the universe forever.”

“Shouldn’t I have a lawyer?” Anthony asked.

“Why?” the Inspector frowned. “Do you need one?”

“I’m under arrest.”

“What makes you say that?”

Anthony lifted a hand and moved it from one side to the other, indicating the four walls around him. “Looks like a cell to me.”

“You’re merely helping us with our enquiries.”

“Yeah, right.” Anthony leaned back against the wall.

“You rebuilt a ship from nothing. With nothing. And got her home. A man of your intelligence and ingenuity is wasted locked up.”

Anthony’s suspicions hit overload.

“What do you like to do, Lieutenant?”

“Build stuff.”

“Like what?”

Anthony’s face lit up.

 

  • * *

 

Sean’s hand had been seen to as an immediate courtesy. While the doctor knew exactly what he was doing, somehow Sean preferred the botanist.

Then he thought about McReidy. A bit strong minded. A bit naive. She had no loyalty to any of them and John hadn’t won any brownie points with her. It wasn’t necessarily a matter of whether she’d turn on him – or all of them. She’d simply answer the questions her superiors asked. Just as he would in her position.

He was still thinking about her when the door opened. The Inspector’s entrance soon cleared all thoughts from his mind and his anxiety levels rose. He felt he should stand to attention, but realised his shaky legs probably wouldn’t support him.

“Lieutenant Daniels, it seems you’ve had quite the adventure.”

“I wouldn’t call it an adventure,” Sean muttered.

“What would you call it?”

Sean’s eyes shot up to the Inspector. He read nothing in the man’s eyes.

“A rescue mission? A sense of misguided loyalty?”

Sean folded his arms across his chest, realised his cast didn’t permit him to do so easily, and rested that arm across his other.

“I won’t turn on John.”

“I hadn’t mentioned anyone else. But since you did…” The Inspector paused for effect.

Sean’s jaw clenched.

“He nearly got you killed. More than once.”

Sean remained silent.

“Do you fear nothing?”

“Oh, I fear a lot of things,” Sean was willing to admit. “A man who fears nothing is either a liar or a fool… Or both.”

The last comment brought an unintended smile to the Inspector’s face. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

“Why don’t you listen to the logs?”

“I have.”

“Then I’ve got nothing to say.”

“Your loyalty is admirable. It won’t get you very far, but it’s admirable.”

 

  • * *

 

It wasn’t so much the boots coming down the corridor as it was the familiar step that caught John’s attention. Lying on his back on the bed, he rose to a sitting position, swinging his feet to the floor.

The force field deactivated, the lock clicked and the door opened. Barrett stepped inside, his eyes zeroing in on John.

“I’ll call you when I’m finished,” he told the uniforms behind him, and the door was closed.

John stood up. Being yelled at over communications was one thing; personal confrontation was another.

Barrett tossed a folder onto the bed. Neither man followed the action; their focus on each other.

“I asked for time alone with you. Don’t worry. It’s not being recorded.”

Barrett’s face was calm, showing none of the anger John expected. He looked tired and drawn, his eyes dull. It was obvious that he had received some of the backlash from John’s actions.

“I’m glad to see you’re back in one piece,” Barrett began calmly.

John remained silent. He knew he was about to get the lecture he deserved.

Barrett hesitated briefly, unsure of what track to take and expecting the interruption John usually gave him. Then he let out a loud breath.

“Of all the stupid, idiotic, irresponsible,” his voice rose with each adjective, “things you could have done… What on earth did you think you were doing out there?” he exploded.

The question was rhetorical. All John could think of at that moment was that he was glad the cell was soundproof.

“Do you realise the implications of your actions?” Barrett slid a hand over his head, scrunching a handful of hair in frustration before his arm dropped back to his side. “It’s a war zone out there! You take my ship and crew, a green first officer who’s never flown anything bigger than a bio-lab! You think I didn’t cop the flak after the way I supported you –”

The verbal onslaught continued. John flinched as the words struck him like physical blows. He had never known Barrett to be so angry. His mood dark; his face coloured to match it. But there was also disappointment in the tone. John began to fully realise the extent of his actions. In the past, he had been responsible for his mistakes, but Barrett had always been there to fall back on. This time, he knew he had gone too far. There was too much at stake.

“And now this is completely out of my hands. Admiral Powers has taken over and wants you prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Barrett finally finished; the last sentence echoed around John’s head.

The captain had been pacing back and forth. Now he was still, staring at the blank wall in front of him, his anger gone as he sighed and slowly shook his head. He turned to John, who remained silently at attention.

Barrett sighed again, his hands lifting then dropping by his sides. “You blew up a star!” The statement was one of shock and disbelief.

The silence lingered.

“That was purely unintentional.” John felt it was now safe to defend himself.

“You nearly lost my ship and got yourselves killed in the process.” Barrett seemed defeated.

“Actually that thought never entered my head.”

“And a few other sane thoughts disappeared too, I’ll bet.”

John felt it better to leave the comment unanswered and debated whether or not to bring up the next subject. But he had to know. “Where do we go to from here?”

“There’s a hearing in the morning pending a full court martial. Admiral Powers is gunning for you. You’ll be given time to prepare a full defence –”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m pleading guilty.”

“Are you completely insane? They’ll crucify you!”

“I have conditions –”

“You haven’t got a leg to stand on. They’ll convict you by your own log.”

“I want the charges against the others dropped,” John continued. “I’ll plead guilty if they get off.”

Barrett shook his head. “Not going to happen. They were complicit. They knew what they were doing.”

“But –”

“And don’t give me that ‘superior officer’ crap. No one in their right mind is going to believe you ordered Daniels and Delaney to participate.”

“Then –”

“Don’t ask. I don’t know.” Barrett shook his head. “There’s been a lot of behind closed doors stuff that I’m not privy to.”

John’s knees weakened and he sank to the bed in defeat. His elbows propped on his knees and his head dropped to his hands. He didn’t want them punished for his actions.

“And a civilian. You think there hasn’t been a fight going on over him… Sure you don’t want that lawyer?”

John’s head tilted slightly and he looked up at Barrett.

Barrett squatted down to John’s eye level. His voice softened. “Fortunately for you, you still have some friends around. No one on that ship is willing to testify against you.”

John hesitated. His arms lowered and he straightened up.

“Not even –”

“No one!”

John couldn’t help the smirk of pride that covered his face. When pushed to the limits, the crew was as loyal to him as they were to their captain.

“Walk into that court martial tomorrow morning with that look on your face and someone will shoot you!”

Barrett’s comment only made John’s grin widen for a moment.

“I assume it’s Gillespie’s doing,” Barrett hinted.

“Undoubtedly,” John agreed.

“I can’t protect you any more.”

“I don’t expect you to.”

“They’ve got me as a witness.” He sighed.

“You?” John couldn’t help the suspicion that flowed through him as he tensed and his eyes narrowed slightly. “Then why are you allowed in here?”

Barrett didn’t answer. He reached across and grabbed the folder, then stood up again. “Without the crew’s testimony, they’ll have trouble proving intent. Last I knew, sheer stupidity was not a criminal offence. Plead not guilty and you might be able to get off on a few serious ones.”

“Is it going to make any difference overall?”

Barrett hesitated. “I honestly don’t know. Perhaps with the penalty.”

“Who’s on the panel?”

“Did you not see what ships are in? Powers’ got more than enough admirals to choose from.” Barrett looked at the folder in his hand, then handed it to John. “Your court martial documents.”

John went to take the folder but Barrett still held on to it.

“Read it carefully,” he warned, his voice dropping.

“Sir,” John nodded.

He opened the folder and flicked through it. There had to be twenty or thirty pages there. The first pages outlined the charges and he began to study those first.

“Is there anything else you need?” Barrett asked.

John answered without looking up from the file. “A shower, shave and a clean uniform wouldn’t go astray.”

 

Back to top

 

Chapter twelve

 

Anthony was confused by two things. The Inspector had said nothing about John. Nothing about what had happened or how much trouble any of them were in.

The conversation had continued for a good hour or more. A few times Anthony had stopped talking, aware that his excitement was running away with him and having to check what he said. He was sure the Inspector had simply been trying to make him feel comfortable. Comfortable enough that he’d just blurt everything out.

But nothing had led along those lines.

And then he’d been left alone for several more hours. And then he’d been released. No reason, no threats, no penalties – no nothing.

He stood outside the cell for several minutes trying to figure out what was going on before being moved away by the guards.

He wasn’t tagged. He wasn’t bugged. He was sure of that.

No one had actually laid a hand on him – on any of them – since they’d taken his tools off him on the ship.

Halfway down the corridor, he stopped and headed back to the cells.

“Can’t you take a hint?” one of the guards groaned.

“I want my stuff back,” Anthony answered.

The guards looked at each other indecisively, then shrugged. One took a set of keys from his belt, unlocked a door and disappeared into a side room. A minute later, he returned with a box and upended it onto the counter. Anthony checked that everything was in the kit before slipping it inside his jacket.

“Thank you.”

Still suspicious, he headed away.

He had no idea where Sean was. They’d made plans on the off chance they’d scored bail. Sean could be waiting for him or he could be locked up indefinitely. Mark had wanted in, but he was a nightmare situation none of them wanted to guess at. The one thing Anthony was acutely aware of was the station’s cameras just about everywhere.

He headed to the observation lounge. He hadn’t been able to have a good look when they’d been marched off Magellan, but he knew Yorktown was here. And, unlike those others on the bridge monitoring her when they’d left the station, he hadn’t seen anything from engineering.

The observation lounge was quiet. Nothing coming in or out and most people had better ways to spend their evening.

“Whoa!” Anthony stood in the doorway and stared.

Yorktown took up half the viewing area. Her size and splendour dwarfed the lounge. She was the last major ship to be built here. Looking at her massive, shiny exterior, Anthony could see why. Constant extensions to the station had barely kept up with its increasing usage.

Magellan looked no more than a tug docked beside her.

As Anthony moved closer to the viewing window, he identified the other ships.

Kirov hugged the wall beside Yorktown and Ark Royal took up the far side, making the bay look tiny and cramped. The terminal allowed for five ships, but Anthony doubted another could fit.

He stared at the ships. They were beautiful. Sparks flying around Ark Royal’s bow didn’t detract from her beauty. While he had spent the past few years fiddling around the engines of explorers and frigates, he was in awe of those who had designed and built these ships.

He sighed, losing himself in the insignificance.

 

  • * *

 

Sean headed to the bar. He needed to be around people – a lot of people. He also needed a drink and coffee wasn’t going to suffice.

He’d been let out. The Inspector had assured him he was not in trouble and their discussion had gone way off track. But he also felt he was being played.

At least in the bar, around a hundred other people, he could begin to feel normal – and check out if he had a tail.

The noise and the bustle were relaxing. He ducked his way to the bar and only had to wait a minute or so before being attended to.

“What’ll it be?”

“Scotch.” Sean reached into his pants pocket and felt suddenly faint as it was empty. A quick search found his wallet in an inside jacket pocket and he let out a breath as he pulled it out and paid for his drink.

He leaned against the bar, took a sip and scanned the room.

No tail. But he did see McReidy slip inside the door. Maybe he should invite her for a drink. No, he had things to do. He’d catch up with her another time – like he’d promised.

He turned his back as she scanned the bar. When he turned around again, she’d disappeared from view. He looked around, but couldn’t see her, and shrugged. She’d probably found her own friends to catch up with.

As he was about to finish his drink, he saw a couple of station security guards enter. He hesitated, the glass only centimetres from his mouth, his eyes darting around.

They didn’t even glance his way. He finished his drink, rolling the last of the liquid around in his mouth before swallowing, and placed the glass back on the bar.

“Another?” asked the barman.

“No, thanks,” Sean shook his head.

The barman attended another customer and Sean slipped away.

 

  • * *

 

The Inspector buzzed the door.

“Come in,” a voice called almost immediately. The door opened a moment later.

The Inspector entered, remaining just inside the doorway as he saw the admiral seated behind the desk was in discussion with two other men; their backs to him.

The admiral ended the conversation in hushed tones, then dismissed the other two.

The Inspector cleared the doorway for them, immediately standing to attention as he saw the admiral insignia on their collars. Neither man acknowledged him – not that he expected otherwise.

He remained where he was even after the door had closed behind them.

“Come,” the admiral behind the desk waved him forward.

The Inspector strode to the desk, standing as comfortably as formality allowed.

The admiral looked tired. This nightmare had both infuriated and embarrassed him. He wanted it ended as quickly as possible and those responsible dealt with. Strange that he had set such an unusual agenda but, after those lengthy interviews, the Inspector could see why.

“The engineer,” the admiral spoke softly, relaxing back in his chair as his eyes raised to the Inspector.

“He’ll take the deal when it’s offered,” the Inspector confirmed. Not that he would have a choice.

“The fighter.”

“Is extremely loyal. Questions authority. He won’t follow blindly.”

“We’ll knock that out of him… The civilian.”

The Inspector hesitated, knowing the admiral expected complete honesty. “Actually, I would have liked to have had him shot.”

“Not while his father holds the balance of power in that sector.”

The Inspector’s mouth fell open as he frowned, but no words came out.

“If you’d known that going in, he’d have seen right through you.”

The Inspector considered. “He probably would have.”

“If I never see him again, I’ll be satisfied,” the admiral’s voice came out even.

The Inspector noted a touch of history in the tone, but knew better than to ask. Instead, he carefully enquired, “The ringleader?”

The admiral’s mood darkened. His fist slowly clenched, his face set and his words deliberate. “I will crush him into the ground.”

For a few moments, the only sound was the admiral’s breath slowly exhaling as his focus seemed to be elsewhere. Then he snapped out of it. His face softened and his hand relaxed, resting on the desk.

“Thank you, Inspector. You may go.”

“Sir,” the Inspector acknowledged. He turned and strode to the door. It opened, closing behind him as he stepped into the corridor.

 

  • * *

 

After leaving the observation lounge, Anthony took the scenic route to the academy grounds. Several side routes and some doubling back were sure to shake any tail he might have.

The academy had an entire wing. Cadets with overinflated egos and the assumed knowledge of the universe roamed the corridors, too full of their own importance to give Anthony a second glance. Years of strolling the corridors took him where he was going without conscious thought.

He would have preferred a quiet time of day, but was fully aware that the academy ran outside the security restrictions of the rest of the station.

Late night classes were not unusual, but midnight to dawn was usually reserved for those who thought their classes deserved it or that rare breed of teacher who enjoyed inflicting such schedules. The room he was after fitted neither of these.

He stopped at the door, listening – just in case he was wrong. A quick glance down either end of the corridor before he picked the lock. The door opened in seconds. As it closed behind him, he flicked the light switch on and glanced around.

The classroom brought back memories – mostly good. It was set up to teach communications skills to cadets. As such, it had everything he needed. He made straight for the instructor’s console, settling comfortably in the chair. Within a minute, he had deactivated the security alarms and set up a cross link into the navigational programs.

“How’s it going?”

Anthony nearly hit the roof as Sean’s voice startled him. “Geez, man! What do you think you’re doing?”

“Sorry, I –”

“Don’t ever sneak up on me like that again.” He took a few deep breaths, shook his head slowly and mumbled almost to himself. “You’re getting as bad as John.”

“Need any help?” Sean decided to change the subject.

“Yes. That map up there,” Anthony pointed to a map of the world displayed on the teaching board above and slightly to the right of the console. “Can you confirm these relay links?”

Sean looked up at the map. As Anthony gave the first location, a green light appeared at that point. As he gave the second, a second light appeared and the two points were joined by a solid line. As Sean confirmed the link, the map moved. The new location became the centre of its viewing area, and Anthony reeled off the next location. Twice the line left the map as Anthony locked onto two satellites.

“A quick trip around the Earth should confuse anyone trying to track us,” Anthony grinned. “And believe me, they will. Security will be on to me as soon as I start hacking.”

“Are you sure you can do this?” Sean asked.

“Of course I can.” Anthony was shocked at Sean’s apparent doubt. “I’ve hacked security to level three before. Now… let’s see what we can do.”

“So,” Sean shoved his hands in his pocket to stop fidgeting, “thought we’d be doing this from Earth. In a few years time. What did they say when they let you go?”

“Nothing. What about you?”

“Same nothing.”

“Bail?”

“Didn’t even ask me.”

Anthony looked up from the console. “You reckon they’re up to something?”

“Uh-huh. We’re just as responsible as he is, and you know that idiot is going to plead guilty.”

“So, why let us go?”

“They know something we don’t.”

“Like what?”

Sean shrugged. “Search me.”

“Access blocked. Damn.” Anthony turned his full attention back to the console. The only sound was his fingers tapping the keys.

They both looked up as the door opened. Mark hobbled in stiff legged, but without crutches or jacket. Anthony lowered his eyes and his fingers moved over the console again.

“Crutches?” Sean asked.

“Didn’t need them after the first couple of days,” Mark shrugged, limping towards them.

“You bluffed!”

“Yes.”

“Guess that explains all your walks,” Anthony mumbled.

Mark smiled.

“But the sergeant in the brig –” Sean began.

“Was never going to shoot me.”

“Looked like he wanted to.”

“You’ve got a lot to learn about human nature, Sean… And your directions were a little vague.”

Sean shrugged. “Didn’t need John catching wind.”

Mark looked up at Anthony. “Any luck?”

“Still trying to avoid all the security they’ll throw at us… You reckon your dad’s contacts will be any good to us?”

Mark shook his head. “They weren’t willing to commit from the beginning.”

“Yeah, but we were right,” Sean put in.

“Since when does being right make a difference?” Mark queried.

Sean let out a breath and changed subject. “Any idea why you’re out?”

“They took John’s jacket, dumped me with civilian authorities and… advised me… to take the first shuttle back to Earth.”

“You never did like being told what to do,” Sean smiled.

Mark shrugged indifferently. “There’s something still in play and I don’t think they’re finished with any of us.”

Mark held up a hand for quiet, his attention distracted. He listened carefully but heard nothing. As he made his way towards the door, it opened and McReidy burst in.

“What are you –?”

Mark’s hand was over her mouth before she got any further. He dragged her from the doorway, the door silently shutting behind him. He lost balance as she struggled against him and fell backwards against the wall.

He quickly spun her around so that her back was pinned to his chest, his arm wrapped tightly around her. His hand clamped on her mouth and pulled her head back into his shoulder, his fingers digging into her cheeks.

She tried to pry his hand from her mouth but he was too strong.

“Don’t scream,” he warned her, “And I’ll let you go.”

Barely able to move, she tried to nod, loosening her grip on his hand.

“Lay off, Mark.” Sean’s look challenged him as he quickly crossed the room to them.

Mark released her.

She dropped instantly as her knees buckled slightly. Sean caught her arms to steady her. She regained her composure, but was glad of the buffer Sean put between Mark and herself.

“Did they get to you?” Sean quietly asked Mark.

“A bit more than I’d care to admit,” was all Mark answered.

“Don’t take it out on her.” Sean turned his attention to McReidy, his voice softening. “What are you doing here?”

He still held her arms and she found herself staring into his eyes – those soft, blue eyes that had charmed many a woman. “I… umm…” She shook her head, realising she could easily fall into that same trap. “I wanted to help.”

“Why?” Mark demanded. “John means nothing to you.”

Sean glared Mark into silence, but the question deserved an answer and he waited for one.

“The commander is in serious trouble,” she began.

Sean was the one she could get through to most easily. He was the one who would believe her. His eyes wanted to believe her.

“I know things didn’t work out how you thought. I also know there was nothing malicious in his intentions. The whole crew has pulled together to back him up.” She paused, avoiding Sean’s eyes before continuing. “I saw you in the bar and figured you must have gotten bail. I guessed you would be up to something… so I followed you.”

“I didn’t think you saw me.”

“Who else followed you, Sean?” Mark wanted to know.

“No one!”

Sean hesitated. If he hadn’t known she’d followed him, how could he be sure no one else had?

“I mightn’t have been with you in the beginning,” she continued softly. “But I’m in it now.”

“Right up to your neck,” Mark told her.

“Will you cut it out?” Sean snapped at Mark.

Mark’s words had the desired effect, and sent a chill down McReidy’s spine. Sean realised he still had hold of her arms and released them.

“Is he always like that?” McReidy whispered to Sean as he led her away.

“Yep,” Sean nodded.

“Will you lot keep the racket down? Some of us are trying to work.” Anthony’s frustration was obvious. He was striking more problems than he had anticipated. “And I hope one of you bothered to bring breakfast, considering some of us spent the night locked up and missed dinner.”

“What’s wrong?” Sean asked.

“I’m starving.”

“I meant with the hacking.”

“Someone’s taken out my access codes.”

“What do you mean your codes?” McReidy asked.

Anthony turned and stared at McReidy. A quick nod from Sean reassured him, and he explained. “Every time I hack into a system, I leave in my own codes so I can get back in any time I like. Will someone keep an eye on the door? I don’t need any more interruptions.”

Mark was still leaning on the wall next to the door. He hit the lock button, and moved across the room to join the others.

“You’ll just have to start from scratch,” Sean told him.

“I know, but…”

“But… what?”

“The whole system seems different. It’s like –” The screen cleared as the console accepted Anthony’s code. “Yes! Level one cleared. Now… if I can override time delay, I should have a few minutes.”

“What about trackers?”

“They won’t lock on until I try to access level three.”

McReidy frowned and turned to Mark. “What happened to your crutches?”

Mark simply smirked.

Over his shoulder, she saw the door handle turn. Her eyes riveted to it, her arm flailed behind her and hit Sean.

“Ow, what?” Sean mumbled, lifting an arm defensively.

Mark looked from McReidy to the door handle and frowned. “I locked it,” he muttered, rushing towards the door as it opened.

A grey-haired, balding man with a goatee beard strode silently across the floor. His eyes focused directly on Anthony, he gave the others only a fleeting glance.

Anthony was the only one oblivious to his presence, his eyes still on the console, and he continued talking to Sean. “I don’t understand it. No one knew I got into the system.”

“Mister Delaney,” the stranger spoke quietly.

Anthony closed his eyes and flinched as he recognised the voice of his engineering professor. He slowly opened one eye, then the other, meeting the look of tired disapproval, and rose to his feet.

“I thought it would be you. And using my schoolroom. You think I don’t have this room secured? Prying eyes always trying to steal exam papers…” He shook his head in disgust, then turned away from Anthony. “Mister Daniels, Miss McReidy, nice to see you both again.”

Sean and McReidy both mumbled something to the same effect as Sean’s hand twitched towards his stubbled jaw and McReidy flicked a stray tendril of hair from her eyes.

The professor ignored their rank; it meant nothing to him. He remembered everyone as the young cadets they had been in his classes where he had insisted on proper grooming and etiquette.

“Mark, my dear boy, how are you?” He turned and shook Mark warmly by the hand.

“Fine, Professor.”

“Good, good…” the professor nodded. “How is your father?”

“He’s well, Professor.”

“Splendid. I hope to see him the next time I return to Earth.”

“He will be just as pleased to see you.”

“What gives?” McReidy whispered to Sean.

“More than we’ll ever know,” Sean whispered back. The extent of Mark’s connections never ceased to amaze him.

“It’s not polite to whisper, Mister Daniels,” the professor frowned. “If you have something to say, speak up so we may all hear… And perhaps you should reacquaint yourself with a razor and a comb while you’re at it.”

Sean and McReidy silenced themselves. The professor had an annoying habit of treating everyone as a cadet, and in doing so, made them feel as though they were.

It only took the professor a glance at the map to see what Anthony was doing. “Mister Delaney,” he repeated. His voice had all the authority of a teacher chastising a student. “You were the best student I’ve had in ten years. But no one breaks into my system! Yes, I took your codes out.”

“Professor, I need to get in,” Anthony pleaded.

“Why?”

Anthony squirmed. “I can’t tell you.”

“Well, let’s see if I can’t guess.” The professor began to pace back and forward in front of them. “I would say… you wish to help Mister Madison, whose hearing is due in about,” he glanced at his watch, “half an hour or so.”

Half an hour? Sean mouthed silently, his face screwing up. The professor glared momentarily at him as though he had spoken the words, and he quickly resumed a normal expression.

“What I fail to see is…” the professor continued, “how?”

Anthony groaned.

“There is very little that goes on around here that I do not know about. This system,” he indicated the entire room with his arms. “This station. Everything you take for granted in everyday life. It’s all mine. Admittedly, I had lots of help. And now I spend all day teaching students how to use it, only to find half of you trying to abuse that knowledge. But you…”

He turned to face Anthony. A light beeped on the board above them, but he appeared to pay it no attention.

“You were different. Trackers are on. You’ve got about fifteen minutes before they find you and every security guard in the place will come storming in here.” The tone of his voice never changed.

“It shouldn’t take that long.” Anthony took the last comment as a challenge, an offer of help.

“No, Mister Delaney,” the professor shook his head and smiled at Anthony’s shining eyes, “I will not help you. I also will not stop you. And remember your manners. It doesn’t hurt to be polite. Computers are people, too.”

The professor turned away, a silent nod to each of them as he headed for the door. He would neither help nor turn them in. Sean and McReidy both heaved a sigh of relief. Without realising it, they had both been standing at attention. Now, they relaxed.

Anthony dropped into the chair and spun back to the console. His fingers moved rapidly over the keyboard as he tried every method he knew to crack the security system. All attempts were denied and his frustration grew as Sean monitored the trackers on the map.

Anthony slammed a fist on the console in frustration. He propped his elbows on the console and dropped his head in his hands momentarily. “I could do with all the help you can give me.”

“First satellite’s down. You’ve got about eight minutes,” Sean told him.

That was not the type of encouragement Anthony needed.

“What sort of help do you want?” McReidy asked.

“I don’t know. Something typical of the professor that I can work on. You both had him for classes. There must be something you can think of.”

“He could have at least given you a clue,” Sean sulked.

“The professor doesn’t give clues,” Anthony began, then straightened up as an early academy memory flashed through his head. Another lesson? Or a testament of his teaching? For a few seconds, it was out of his mental grasp. His face lit up as it suddenly dawned on him. He saw the console as though for the first time and found himself quoting from one of the professor’s lectures. “‘You must find your own path between two points, for what you learn along the way may be more important than what you find when you reach the end.’”

“So?” It didn’t make any more sense to Sean than it had all those years ago when it had come out of the professor’s mouth.

“He didn’t give me a clue,” Anthony continued. “He gave me the answer. What was the last thing he said?”

He looked at the other three hopefully.

Sean shook his head; he had no idea. He had been too busy hoping the professor wouldn’t turn them in. McReidy also was at a complete loss. Yet it surprised no one that Mark remembered.

“He said that computers are also people.”

“No, no, no, before that.”

Mark hesitated and then quoted the professor’s last paragraph. “‘No, Mister Delaney, I will not help. I also will not stop you. And remember your manners. It doesn’t hurt to be polite. Computers are people, too.’ And he seemed amused… if that’s any help.”

“I think that’s just because he’s smarter than we are,” Sean said.

Anthony slowly turned back to the console, allowing the words to sink in as he thought of an approach. His fingers twitched above the keyboard.

“Polite… people… manners…” he whispered to himself. “Okay.”

His line was completely different this time as he struck the keys and the system seemed more open to him. The ‘access denied’ lockout activated twice, then was replaced by a message he had never seen before – ‘Considering Request.’

“What does that mean?” McReidy frowned, moving to the console beside Anthony to have a look.

“I have absolutely no idea,” Anthony answered. There was nothing to do but wait for the computer.

“Trackers have reached Antarctica,” Sean announced.

“There’s a spreader there. That should slow security down a bit,” Anthony told him.

Sean watched the map. As Anthony spoke, the polar relay station sent the tracking signal north – a three hundred and sixty degree north that would spread it across the entire globe. He knew it would not take long to correct; any good security officer would soon find the right signal to continue tracking.

The computer asked for a password. Being almost desperate enough to try anything, Anthony typed in, “Let me in.” As an afterthought, he added, “please.” As he was about to hit the enter button, McReidy stopped him.

“No, comma.”

“What?” Anthony had no idea what she was talking about.

“Comma,” she explained. “After ‘in’, there should be a comma.”

Sean glanced at the console. “She’s right.”

“But passwords don’t have punctuation… Cunning…” Anthony grinned. He corrected the sentence, and then pressed the enter button.

“Password accepted. Access granted,” the computer generated voice told them. “Security overrides in effect. Trackers cancelled. How may I help you, Professor?”

“This is not the professor. My name is Anthony Delaney.”

“Delaney, Anthony, Lieutenant.”

Personnel files scrolled down the console screen and the teaching board on the wall. Both stopped as Anthony’s file and smiling face appeared.

“Present assignment, second engineer on the explorer class ship Columbus. One hundred and seventy five centimetres tall, brown hair, hazel eyes –”

“That’s enough,” Anthony cut in before any more vital statistics could be revealed. “You’ve got the right person.”

“How may I help you, Lieutenant Delaney?”

“For starters, call me Anthony. Next… how much access do I have?”

“Level ten. Access to central core.”

“Whoa…! Man, this is unbelievable!” Anthony couldn’t contain his excitement. Complete access to every department of the entire station.

“Please repeat command.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Anthony turned to Sean. “Any idea where they are?” he asked hopefully.

Sean shook his head. “Fireworks were on the fifth planet, but… Who knows now? Can the computer find out?”

“Let’s hope so. Computer, I need to find Moloch and the rebels of Betelgeuse. Check Magellan’s logs for the last known co-ordinates. Also, monitor all ships’ communications for relevant data.”

“Can I ask what you’re doing?” McReidy whispered to Sean.

“This whole thing started because John wanted to help the Betelians,” Sean explained. “Now he needs their help. If we can get some sort of support from them, it might make a difference.”

“You are crazy. You heard the professor. The hearing’s about to start. How can you possibly expect to find anyone out there? It’s a war zone. And even if you did, we didn’t exactly leave there on the best of terms.”

“Makdon covered us when she should have blown us out of the sky. You think that means nothing? We were trying to save their worlds –”

“And supernovaed their star,” she cut him off.

“I couldn’t forgive myself if we didn’t try.”

McReidy shook her head slowly. “We didn’t hear anything. All the way home, we heard nothing.”

“Nothing directed at us… and communications not up and running properly,” Sean finished.

For a few minutes, there was silence. Sean had nothing more to say. McReidy thought it better not to ask anything else. Anthony sat tensely, biting his nails; knowing what he had asked was almost impossible. The tension increased.

The clock on the wall ticked.

Anthony looked at it. The professor loved the sound of a ticking clock during exams.

“Station database search complete.” The computer’s voice shattered the silence. “No records found. Searching Magellan logs.”

McReidy shook her head. “There won’t be –”

“Message from Betelgeuse three to Magellan,” the computer cut McReidy off. “Emperor Komodo restored to power.”

“What?” A huge grin lit up Anthony’s face as he met three stunned expressions.

“Emperor Komodo restored to power,” the computer repeated.

“Why wasn’t this picked up earlier?” Anthony wanted to know, his gaze on McReidy as she shook her head in denial. “It should have been downloaded with all the earlier information.”

“Message received after Magellan logs were downloaded,” the computer answered.

Anthony raised his eyebrows as he looked to Sean for agreement. Knowing they had nothing to lose, Sean nodded.

“Okay, guys, let’s go straight to the top… Computer, open a secure channel to Emperor Komodo.”

“Please be more specific.”

“Umm… to any location where you think he might be.”

“I do not ‘think’.”

“All right. Back to where the message came from. Keep broadcasting until we get an answer.”

Anthony checked the clock. The computer had cancelled the security alerts, but that half hour to John’s hearing was still ticking down.

It didn’t take long for an answer to come through. Putting communications on visual usually made Anthony feel more comfortable. This time, it was strangely different. This was no minion taking the call. Though the years had not been kind, they all recognised Komodo. There was something about the emperor that set him apart from other Betelians.

He exuded a presence that could be felt as though he was in the same room. It was easy to tell why he held such an awesome power over his people. Appearance-wise he was older, his face more weathered, as though he had lived for a hundred years and carried the physical and emotional suffering of his people under Rache’s rule.

“Emperor Komodo, my name is Anthony Delaney, and I need your help.” Anthony had not meant to be that blunt. He could have kicked himself, but he had been unable to stop the words coming out.

“Yes, Anthony Delaney,” Komodo managed a smile. “I know who you are, and I am grateful for what you have done. How may I repay you?”

Anthony briefly explained the situation, fully aware of how little time there was to do anything. Komodo listened intently until he had finished.

“I understand the predicament you are in. Do not worry. I will do what I can to help your friend. I believe I still have some influence with your government.”

 

  • * *

 

John sat silently in the courtroom. Seated at the bench directly in front of him were the five admirals who would decide his fate. He had met three of them – Powers, Booth and Simpson – when he had first put forward his presentation of the fate of Betelgeuse. The fourth was Jordan, captain of Yorktown, who did not appear to be at all sympathetic. The fifth, seated to John’s far left, was Harcourt, who may be the wild card among the pack.

As John tried to sum up each individual, he found he was constantly drawn to Harcourt. The man sat quietly, his papers neatly arranged in front of him. He took a sip from a glass of water and leaned back in his seat, his arms folded across his chest. His dark hair and beard were showing streaks of grey and he looked tired. He waited impatiently while the others organised and reorganised their papers and discussed things among themselves.

As captain of the Ark Royal, Harcourt’s reputation preceded him. He was a level-headed, no-nonsense officer who had managed to turn diplomacy and politics into a universal form of peace. The largest carrier in the fleet had rarely fired a shot in anger.

“May we get on with it?” Harcourt spoke without moving.

Powers, sitting in the middle of the five, stopped talking. He picked his papers up, straightened them once more, and placed them down in front of him. He cleared his throat. There was silence as they all turned their attention to John.

John suddenly felt more alone than he had ever been. He had no counsel with him and, for a moment, he wished he had. Even the prosecutor sitting at a desk five metres to his right seemed a little nervous and he had nothing to be nervous about. The court was closed to everyone else.

“Commander Madison,” Powers began, his tone civil – nothing more.

John rose to his feet and stood at attention.

“This is just a preliminary hearing to sort out the facts. You are under no obligation to answer any questions or make any statements whatsoever. I must caution you that anything you do say may be used at a later date. You do not have to enter a plea if you do not wish to. I see you have no counsel.”

“No, sir.”

Powers turned to Simpson who was beside him. “Was he offered counsel?” he whispered urgently. It was illegal not to do so, and he wanted no grounds for dismissal.

“I assume so,” Simpson answered.

“I was offered counsel, sir,” John spoke on his own behalf. “I don’t believe it’s necessary at this time.”

“You may change your mind and request the advice of counsel at any time,” Powers continued. “Do you understand these conditions as I have put them to you?”

“Yes, sir.” John swallowed hard as he felt his throat dry up.

“You have been charged with the following: disobeying direct orders of Fleet Command and your superior officers; theft of the class one explorer Magellan; kidnapping crew of said ship; malicious damage of said ship; interference in alien matters; conspiring with the rebels to incite a civil war; firing on our alien allies in a time of peace; attempted assassination of Emperor Rache; destroying the star Betelgeuse resulting in the loss of at least two planets…”

He had to stop sooner or later, John thought. Even the paperwork he’d read listing his charges had stopped at a page and a half. And how could he possibly be charged with blowing up a star? That had to be outside the realm of court martial law.

The charges echoed around his head. He hadn’t seen his actions in quite the same way. Though none of them had actually attempted to assassinate Rache, he realised the rest was all true. Circumstance had blown everything out of all proportion and he had found himself out of his depth.

“Do you have anything to say?” Powers finished. He looked over the top of the papers at John. His eyes and his body language hid everything bar his anger.

John sweated. He’d defied the admiral directly and while personal insult was not a court martial offence, it was sitting at the top of the emotional outrage. Oh, yeah, Powers was gunning for him.

“Yes, sir, I do.”

Having already made up his mind, John wasn’t going to back down. And what would be the point? Any one of those charges would be enough to finish him. He wasn’t taking down Anthony and Sean with him.

He took a deep breath and looked straight at Powers.

“I wish to waive my right to this hearing and request that you proceed with the court martial immediately. I also waive my right to counsel and am prepared to enter a plea.”

Harcourt sat upright, leaning his forearms on the bench in front of himself. “Do you understand the seriousness of these charges?” he asked.

John turned to face the admiral. “Yes, sir. I do.”

Harcourt paused for a moment, unable to understand John’s motivation considering the severity of the charges against him, but winning instant admiration in his acceptance of the consequences. “Then I have no objections.”

John knew the hearing was only a formality and he felt he was losing nothing. A hearing to decide whether or not to proceed with the charges. Like they were ever going to decide otherwise. It took only a brief discussion before the panel agreed.

“Sir, I object!” The prosecutor stood up, deeply disturbed by the proceedings.

“What do you mean, you object?” asked Powers.

“Sir, I haven’t had enough time to prepare a proper brief for trial. There are witnesses I need to interview –”

“I think we have enough to start proceedings,” Powers interrupted.

The prosecutor sat down sulkily and pretended to read his papers.

Powers turned to John. “You were about to enter a plea?”

“Yes, sir. I –”

Before John could speak any further, a high pitched electronic chattering assaulted the senses. The communication screen on the wall to his left came to life in a rolling of streaky static. A shadowy shape refused to hold steady on the screen.

John’s face screwed up as he put his hands to his ears, his gaze shifting between the screen and the panel, who were also visibly affected.

Powers blocked one ear with his hand as he turned in frustration to Simpson. “I thought we were not to be disturbed.”

“I don’t know what’s going on.” Simpson’s head was lowered over the bench, his finger repeatedly tapping a key as he tried in vain to switch the screen off. “I can’t shut it off. It’s locked from somewhere.”

“Then override it.”

“It won’t respond.” Simpson kept glancing to the screen and back to the controls in front of him. As the screen cleared and the noise faded, he stopped and stared. “Oh, my…”

Words failed him as recognised Emperor Komodo.

At Simpson’s stunned look, Powers felt a sudden chill. His face set for anything, he turned slowly to the screen.

“Clear?” Komodo appeared to ask someone off screen, and nodded once. He turned to stare directly in front of himself. Every man felt the Betelian’s eyes were on him alone. He spoke slowly and calmly, in a tone that commanded respect. “This is Emperor Komodo calling Earth station Kuiper. Do you read me?”

“Yes, Emperor,” Powers choked, trying to clear his throat as he spoke.

“Ah, Captain Powers, is that you…? It is good to see you again.”

“It’s Admiral now, Emperor,” Powers politely informed.

“My apologies, Admiral. It has been quite a long time since we last spoke.”

Harcourt smiled to himself. Komodo’s subtle putdown of Powers went unnoticed among the others. The look of shock on John’s face told him he knew nothing of what was going on.

“Yes, it has,” Powers bumbled on.

“I do hope that I am not interrupting anything.”

“Of course you’re not,” Powers lied.

“I see you have young Madison there with you.” Komodo ignored Powers and spoke directly to John. “I would like to thank you for coming to the aid of my people. I wish that one day I might get to thank you in person.”

John hesitated briefly, trying to sum up the mood of the panel as his eyes flicked between them and the emperor. “I would be honoured, sir,” he answered sincerely.

Komodo turned his attention back to Powers. “Now, Captain… My apologies… Admiral. Now that this war is almost over, I would like to discuss the possibility of reopening the treaty talks we began. Too much time has passed already and I do not believe in wasting any more.” As a deliberate afterthought he added. “If you have finished your business with Madison, that is?”

Powers reddened. His mouth opened and closed, then opened again, but no words came out. Komodo wanted his answer. A treaty with the Betelian world far outweighed the court martial of one man. Somehow, this choice made him even more determined to punish John, but being in favour with Komodo now made this impossible.

Harcourt turned his chair slightly to get a better view of the unfolding scene, leaning back and folding his arms across his chest. Jordan’s head kept twitching between the screen and the papers on the desk in front of Powers. Simpson leaned across and whispered something to Powers. Nearest to the screen, Booth simply stared at the emperor before remembering his manners and turning back to the others.

Powers listened to Simpson for a moment, then lifted a hand and brushed the admiral away.

Komodo waited patiently, knowing full well what he was asking Powers to do.

“Commander Madison,” Powers spoke between clenched teeth, his anger apparent as he tried to hide it from Komodo.

John had relaxed. At the sound of his name, he came to attention. Powers left the bench and stormed the few steps to John. Only the table separated them.

The prosecutor’s eyes followed the movement and he went to get up. Powers held out a hand and he sat again.

“I’ll be watching you!” Powers threatened, his voice low enough that only John could hear. “One wrong word, one step out of line and I’ll come down on you so hard you’ll wish you had been court martialled today. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” John answered.

“Now get out of my sight!”

The fury burned in Powers’ eyes a moment longer before the diplomat in him took charge.

“You’re dismissed,” Powers announced to the room – and to Komodo – his voice calm, even and well restrained.

Daring not to look at anyone but desperately wanting to, John turned and marched straight out of the room. As he closed the door behind him, he leant back heavily on it, trying to regain his composure. He couldn’t contain his elation. He leapt into the air, punching it with his fist.

“Yes!” he cried to himself.

Uniforms coming around the corner at the far end of the corridor caught his peripherals and he quickly checked himself.

On recognising Sean, Anthony, Mark and McReidy, his face lit up. He frowned slightly as Mark was walking almost normal without any crutches in sight, then shook his head – it shouldn’t have surprised him.

The prosecutor followed him out and he subdued himself for a moment.

“Congratulations.” He shook John’s hand firmly. “It appears you have some powerful friends. But a word of warning, you have also made a powerful enemy of Admiral Powers. Be careful.”

“I will,” John answered. It surprised him that the prosecutor was so gracious. His job had been to convict John, but his attitude lacked the resentment one might have expected. John shook his head as he watched him walk away.

“You got off?” Sean ventured cautiously.

“Did I ever!” John shook hands excitedly with Sean then threw his arms around him, slapping him on the back.

Anthony received the same treatment, cringing slightly from the overt show of affection. “A handshake will be fine,” he objected.

“You guys are all in the clear?” John asked as he let Anthony go, his hopeful eyes wandering over the three men.

“Ahh, that’s up for debate,” Anthony answered.

“I don’t know how you guys got hold of Komodo.” John shook his head in disbelief.

“We weren’t after him,” Sean confessed.

Mark offered his hand. John ignored it and hugged him instead.

“I’m with Anthony on the hugging,” Mark stated, managing a couple of light taps before John let him go.

Forgetting himself for a moment, John flung his arms around McReidy and hugged her. Almost immediately, he pulled back and stepped away.

“I’m sorry,” he apologised, checking that he was now at a safe distance from her as his hand slid uncomfortably through his hair. “I didn’t mean to –”

“That’s all right,” she told him, as surprised by his actions as he was.

His eyes lowered as he felt he couldn’t meet McReidy’s as he tried to explain. “It’s just… I’m so happy… I guess I got a bit carried away…”

“It’s all right. Really.”

“John!”

A familiar female voice made him turn around instantly. A young, blonde woman came running along the corridor and threw herself into John’s outstretched arms. He bent his knees, his arms wrapped around her waist and he lifted her into the air, spinning around with her before putting her back on her feet.

“Laura.”

“You got off?” Laura repeated Sean’s question.

“No, these guys got me off…” He nodded over his shoulder.

“No more hugging,” Anthony objected, putting his hands up defensively and taking a step backwards as Laura glanced in their direction.

“You don’t know how pleased I am to see you,” John continued. “But what are you doing here?”

“I got a commission,” she told him, jumping up and down in excitement. “Results came in last week. I passed all my finals. You’d know that if you bothered to call me. Now, I am officially a Junior Medic on the Ark Royal.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“I ought to thump you.” Laura’s mood darkened slightly as she pounded a fist into John’s chest. “You are the most irresponsible person I know. How dare you worry me like that. How dare you go off without telling me. I’d have come with you.”

“Exactly why I didn’t tell you.”

She turned to Mark, putting her hands on her hips. “And your dad wouldn’t tell me anything.”

“I don’t blame him,” Mark replied.

“And he was going mental –”

“Can we not talk about this here?” John was acutely aware of the door beside him and those behind it. He spun Laura around and pushed her down the corridor in front of him.

She let out a low growl of frustration as she took a few forced steps. Then turned back and threw her arms around John’s neck and squeezed him tight.

“I’m glad to have you home.”

“I’m glad to be home.” He realised that he had never spoken a truer word.

“Where to now?” Sean asked as they headed down the corridor.

“Breakfast,” Anthony answered. “I’m starving.”

“Pancakes?”

“Sure.”

Sean stopped and turned back as McReidy lagged behind them indecisively. She squirmed, wringing her hands as five pairs of eyes zeroed in on her. Sean glanced to John, catching his attention with the barest of nods and meeting agreement.

“Coming?” John asked, inclining his head for McReidy to join them.

“Yes.”

Without each one of them, John knew they would not have succeeded and he couldn’t thank them enough. Somehow he knew it would useless to try. But he hoped that one day he would have the opportunity to do so.

 

  1. # #

 

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The adventure continues in Shades of Grey

 

Here’s a sneak peak

 

“There is nothing to discuss.” The menacing look in Rache’s eyes met an equal one from Barrett. “You are the Magellan.”

“If you know that, then you also know we are an explorer –”

“Magellan is Madison’s ship. I want him.”

Barrett’s mind ticked over rapidly. Obviously Rache knew nothing of transfers and that the former first officer was no longer aboard. McReidy was right. Rache was after revenge and would probably destroy the ship even if he got what he wanted.

“I don’t go around handing over my officers to anyone.” A sudden possessiveness showed his determination. “You can’t have him.” The words were slow and defiant.

Rache lost his temper. “Then I will destroy you!”

“Go to hell!”

Gillespie severed the communication. The screen showed into space in front of them where a huge ship began firing on them.

The captain barked out orders that were already being followed. “Keep the shields up to maximum. Fire all weapons when ready. Let’s get out of here.”

“Engines are off line, sir,” came the reply from the engine room.

The pilot swore as the helm failed to respond to generator power.

“Evacuate. Get those shuttles out of here,” Barrett ordered.

The ship rocked as it was hit again, blacking out momentarily with the force of the explosion.

Gillespie leapt from his console as it sparked and caught fire, throwing himself on the floor. Lifting his head, he saw the greater part of the bridge had been destroyed. The main screen dangled by one corner, pixels sparking and smoking. Beside it, the hull had a buckled inwards; metal piercing through the wall. The roof crumbled and began to fall.

The captain sat immoveable in his chair, barking orders while he rapidly worked the controls, and McReidy was coughing at her console. The rest of the crew were silent, sprawled awkwardly over their consoles or motionless on the floor. He immediately began to check them, but was greeted by the open-eyed stare of death.

McReidy coughed and spluttered as the smoke poured up from in front of her. Her eyes stung and watered. She shut them tightly and lifted an arm to rub them. A hand grabbed her shoulder.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Gillespie told her.

She shrugged him away. He held on, stepping closer.

“The ship’s done for. We were lucky to get those two torpedoes fired.”

“But the captain –”

“He’s buying us as much time as he can.”

This time McReidy moved. At the door, she turned and peered through the smoke one last time at the captain. He was at the helm of his ship. On emergency power, the ship had manoeuvring ability only. All weapons that were capable of being fired had been. The shields were failing fast. It was only a matter of time. Precious seconds to allow the crew to escape.

 

 

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About the author

 

Jeannie Meekins writes adult fiction along with children’s fiction and non fiction. She has been published in Australia and the US, and many titles are available worldwide.

While targeted at children, her non fiction is popular with adults. Many titles have been picked up by schools and public libraries, as well as secondary and tertiary institutions. Popular topics include over 25 books on the Solar System and beyond, biographies of famous (and not so famous – but should be) figures who have changed our lives and our world, and wonders of the natural world.

Fiction is generally aimed at younger readers, with picture books, chapter books and junior novels.

Scroll down for further information.

 

Storm Cloud ebooks

 

By Any Other Name – for readers 15 years to adult

Shades of Grey – due in 2017

 

Four young readers

Under the Bridge – for readers 8 years upwards

Girls Can’t Play – for readers 8 years upwards

Slimming Down Santa – for readers 8 years upwards

The Great Tadpole Hunt – for readers 6 years upwards

Scully the Cat – a rhyming book for readers 6 years upwards

Who’s Scared of the Dark? – a picture book for 18 months upwards

Grandpa’s Hat – a picture book for non or beginning readers, or foreign language readers

 

Collections

Short Tales – a short story collection for readers 8-12 years

Short Tales 2 – a short story collection for readers 8-12 years

 

Junior Series

The Virtues of Drac (complete edition)

Into the Land of Clubs (The Virtues of Drac: Book One)

Through the Land of Diamonds (The Virtues of Drac: Book Two)

Fallen Virtues (The Virtues of Drac: Book Three)

 

For information and updates on Storm Cloud books, writers and illustrators, visit the Storm Cloud Publishing page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StormCloudPublishing

 

To connect with Jeannie and find more information on her books, visit her writer page on Facebook: Jeannie Meekins Writer: https://www.facebook.com/jmeekins.

 

 

Other ebooks by Jeannie Meekins

 

Fiction:

A Ghost At Midnight

A Seat At The Theatre

A Head For Ned

The Ghost of the Penny Woodley

The Final Dive

Courtney Case and the Pobblebonk

Courtney Case and the Dinosaur

Courtney Case and the Missing Lemons

Courtney Case and the Missing A-man

Courtney Case and the Secret Admirer

 

Non Fiction

14 Fun Facts Series:

 

Space:

14 Fun Facts about Mercury

14 Fun Facts about Earth

14 Fun Facts about Mars

14 Fun Facts about Uranus

14 Fun Facts about Neptune

14 Fun Facts about the Sun

14 Fun Facts about the Moon

14 Fun Facts about Asteroids

14 Fun Facts about Comets

14 Fun Facts about Dwarf Planets

14 Fun Facts about Pluto

14 Fun Facts about the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud

14 Fun Facts about the Solar System

14 Fun Facts about the Space Shuttle

14 Fun Facts about Eclipses

14 Fun Facts about the Galilean Moons of Jupiter

14 Fun Facts about the Ring Moons of Jupiter

14 Fun Facts about the Rings of Saturn

14 Fun Facts about the Strange Moon Titan

14 Fun Facts about Stars

14 Fun Facts about Black Holes

14 Fun Facts about Nebulas

14 Fun Facts about Exoplanets

101 Fun Facts about the Solar System – a compilation of 7 books, plus bonus facts

101 Fun Facts about the Planets – with Caitlind Alexander

 

Places:

14 Fun Facts about the Grand Canyon

14 Fun Facts about Machu Picchu

14 Fun Facts about Yellowstone

14 Fun Facts about Yosemite

 

Rivers:

14 Fun Facts about Australia’s Murray River

14 Fun Facts about the Danube River

14 Fun Facts about the Everglades

14 Fun Facts about the Hudson

14 Fun Facts about the Nile

14 Fun Facts about the River Thames

14 Fun Facts about the Rhine

14 Fun Facts about the Seine River

14 Fun Facts about the Yangtze

101 Facts about the World’s rivers – with Caitlind Alexander

 

Senses:

14 Fun Facts about Ears

14 Fun Facts about Eyes

14 Fun Facts about Noses

 

Strange But True:

The Bleeding Glacier of Antarctica

The Mysterious Lines at Nazca

 

[* Biographies:*]

St Francis of Assisi: The Patron Saint of Animals

St George: Dragon Slayer

St Patrick: Ireland’s Beloved Saint

St Valentine: The Man Who Became The Patron Saint of Love

Joan of Arc: The Girl Who Fought For France

Bloody Mary: Queen of England

Edmund Barton: Australia’s First Prime Minister

John Flynn: The Man Who Created Australia’s ‘Mantle of Safety’

Mary MacKillop: Australia’s First Saint

Thomas Edison: America’s Greatest Inventor

The Wright Brothers: America’s First Flyers

Paul Revere: American Patriot

Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride: The True Story of How it Happened

The Lives of Seven Saints – a compilation of 7 books with Melissa Cleeman

Benjamin Franklin: The First American

John Adams: The Forgotten Founding Father

Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father

 

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Shoulder of the Giant

Commander John Madison intercepts a message about the fate of a nearby star and notifies his superiors. They dispute his findings and are unwilling to do anything without a formal request from the worlds involved. Unable to sit back and do nothing, John gathers his friends, borrows a ship and sets off to help. He has no real plan in mind, figuring that those who asked for his help have the answers. The worlds are in the throes of civil war. The legitimate ruler ousted and a military dictatorship in control. John’s contact is the rebel leader; a man whose choices for his people seem to be all out war or cosmic destruction. With a tentative solution at hand and the military on his back, John sets in motion a series of events that will change the course of the galaxy forever – and from which none of them will escape unscathed.

  • ISBN: 9781925285215
  • Author: Storm Cloud Publishing
  • Published: 2017-01-01 12:20:17
  • Words: 86166
Shoulder of the Giant Shoulder of the Giant