Flash of Briliance

Flash Of Brilliance”

by Mark Murata

Tayla walked down a corridor on deck 1, ignoring the burnt smell of overloaded wiring and circuits that sparked the flight-or-fight part of her brain. Her fingers jittered. But she had to let the air scrubbers in the walls do their job. And all the while, the lingering scent of damage heightened the unfamiliar feel of the Agassiz.

She made her hands into fists. “And me stuck with a tin-plated dictator on the bridge.”

The surviving crew from the gamma ray burst that had crippled this little science vessel had been evacuated to her own ship, the Concord. After she and the others finished the damage inspection, the prize crew would come on board. They would plod through the umbilical connecting the two ships, careful with their tools and supplies. Then she would have fun zipping back to the Concord the fast way—hanging onto the moving “clothesline” at head level, watching the flexible sides of the umbilical rush by. But right now, she could use some pleasant company on her break.

Where’s the shy guy? There. Lieutenant, junior grade Johnny Van Dorn was up ahead, working at an open electrical door. She made her boots quiet in the narrow corridor.

Johnny was twenty-five, a few years older than Tayla. A decent fellow—too decent for the rigors of the Heritage Liberty ships. While the other officers had made sure her meals were served cold, or had dumped dirt on her pillow—real dirt she had been required to return to emergency storage—he had always been nice to her. There was the time she had made the bonehead error of entering the wrong readings into the tactical database, and he had rushed over and shown her by hand how to correct them before they went higher up. He hadn’t rebuked her. Just a mistake anyone could have made, so he said.

But she couldn’t let a good turn go unpunished.

As usual, he was tunnel-visioned on his work. She stomped her foot on the deck plate, right next to his. Startled, he jerked on a data cord he was working on. The loose end flew up and snapped Tayla where the blouse of her uniform was tightest.

Tayla grabbed herself and gasped. Then she proceeded to beat on the embarrassed lieutenant’s shoulders with mock blows.

He said, “Ease down, Ensign Kravich.”

She got her hair back in place. She would have to crop the dark ends shorter than they already were to get out the stench of this place.

Just three of us left here, Johnny. Don’t call me ‘Ensign.’ You’re the only good company.”

Fair-haired and broad-shouldered, he always handled whatever guff she dished. He said, “Because I don’t mind when you beat on me, thou shrew of a woman? Another lieutenant would mind.”

Tayla kicked at the open electrical door with her boot. “So it’s me and Casters on the bridge. She’s in the command chair, of course. The way she orders me around! Give a prig like that temporary command of a burnt-out shell like this, and she’s a toy soldier on parade.”

She gave the door another kick, enjoying the satisfying snick as it smacked closed. “They say she’s being groomed to be a lieutenant commander. Why? Why is she a full lieutenant, and you’re just a junior grade? You’re more competent than she is.”

I don’t know.” Johnny’s smooth face was honest. None of the usual the-fleet-knows-what-it’s-doing stuff from him.

He said, “But this is her chance to show she can command, even if it’s a temporary one on a damaged ship. She’s under a lot of pressure. Support her as you would me in that chair.”

Tayla was in no mood to be reasonable. “I wonder if the rumors are true, that she’s advancing because she’s a real kiss-up.” She tapped her lips with her fingertips. “Literally.”

That earned her Johnny’s disapproving tone. “That’s beneath you, Tayla.”

She leaned towards him and inhaled. “Ahh. What’s that scent? Burnt Ship No. 5? You’ll drive the ladies crazy when you get back to the Concord. Maybe you’ll be the one up for promotion.” She waved at his puzzled eyes, then sauntered back towards the bridge.

Tayla glided her fingers on the smooth wall as she walked, glad the gamma-ray burst from the pulsar had hit the little ship from the rear. It had wreaked havoc in the engine room, as Johnny had found out, but the command controls were in good shape. She waved her wrist ID over the glass square to the right of the double doors, then they slid open.

She stepped into the wide oval of the bridge, consoles with monitors lining the long wall opposite the doors. Rows of other monitors above those showed ship’s data along with internal and external views. Even though the bridge hadn’t suffered much damage, many of the monitors were blank, giving mute testimony to how many cameras, scanning arrays, and circuits had been burnt out by the pulsar burst.

The chairs could slide in their tracks but didn’t roll free, in case the ship lurched. The command chair was in the center, but Lieutenant Casters wasn’t in it. Tayla mainly had a view of the lieutenant’s rear end as she bent over one of the consoles. She smirked to herself over the disrespectful view of her senior officer, but then reflected for a moment. Johnny didn’t believe the rumors about her advancement. Tayla didn’t have any real reason to believe them either.

She stepped forward, Johnny’s words still in her ears, willing to show respect and be supportive.

Ensign Kravich, I need your assistance.” Casters didn’t look up, so she must have heard the sound of the doors opening. “The comm console is malfunctioning.”

Tayla walked over without replying. On the Concord, they didn’t do much of the “Aye sir” routine. They didn’t say “Sir” much at all, except when things got stern, which suited her just fine. She stood beside the blonde lieutenant and bent over to inspect the console.

Look here.” Casters pointed an authoritative finger.

Tayla leaned further. The digital readouts looked normal. “Which readouts do you … OOF.”

Her breath rushed past her lips as she bent almost double. Through a haze of pain, she realized Casters had swiveled the chair of the console, jamming the back of it into her solar plexus. Worse than the pain was her inability to breathe. Her lips worked uselessly as she tried to suck in air.

She felt the chair back get jerked away from the bottom of her ribs. That hurt just as much, her body filling in the cavity left from the gut-wrenching blow. Gasping, she couldn’t straighten up. Casters had an iron grip on the back of her neck.

The console must be malfunctioning.” The lieutenant’s voice was close enough to her ear that Tayla could feel her breath. “I thought I heard an ensign’s voice over it, spreading rumors about me.”

Tayla’s vision clouded—her shortness of breath, being bent over, the thumb and fingers squeezing at the base of her skull. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said between gasps. The fingers gave an extra squeeze, then released her.

She stood up straight, feeling her head clear. As her breathing returned to normal, she glanced at the lieutenant’s face—the dark eyes were hard with anger. Tayla stared forward, shoulders square.

Oh ho, that was a resentful look.” Casters took a step closer, voice quieter. “Look, Kravich, you seem a competent sort. Play fair with me, and I’ll play fair with you. Stop repeating nonsense about me, and I’ll give a fair report about your work here on the Agassiz.”

Resentment rattled around inside Tayla, but with a nagging sense of her own judgmental slip. She tried to keep her lip from trembling. “This ensign will keep her mouth shut, sir.”

Still some bitterness there.” The taller woman stepped even closer, the oval face hostile. The cold exhale from her nostrils brushed Tayla’s cheek. “Forget the ranks. Think you could take me?”

Kick that cute heinie of yours from one end of this bridge to the other. Without moving her head, she looked Casters right in the eye.

A chime sounded from the console.

Tayla kept up her stare. “Incoming message.”

Casters hesitated, then sighed, disappointment shading her eyes. “All right, answer it.”

Tayla let her breath out past her lips. She realized she had been holding it during the stare down. But she couldn’t feel victorious. She had made an enemy, and one that was about to be promoted. So smart.

She flicked the speaker on. A clipped voice from the Concord informed them an unidentified object was passing through a nearby nebula. The captain had requested the Agassiz use its scanners to help identify it. The message brought the ensign back to herself. It was hard to remember this damaged ship was traveling at high-grav speed, attached to the larger ship with the umbilical and tow lines.

After a nod from Casters, she acknowledged the message and walked to a scan console. The undefined blip showed on its monitor. After punching in some numbers, the blip in the blue-gray nebula registered in several monitors on the wall.

Natural? Artificial?” Casters had seated herself in the command chair and swiveled it to face Tayla. Her hands rested on the chair arms as she crossed her trousered legs.

Enjoy the big chair while you can, lady. Tayla manipulated the keys on the console, trying the normal scans. Although the Agassiz was the same distance from the object as the Concord, the unique scanners on the science ship would yield more information as they linked the ships’ computers together. But Tayla’s initial scans were unsuccessful—no tidy captions beneath the blip. She looked back over her shoulder. “It would help if we could get Johnny, er, Lieutenant Van Dorn up here. He could keep an eye on the radar while I try the more specialized scans.”

The lieutenant got out of her chair and summoned him from the comm console. When he came through the double doors, Tayla felt the tension ease from her shoulders. The three of them together would act professionally.

Besides, she could always tell him what Casters did to her when they were back on Concord.

He manned a scan console far to her left and refined the radar readings. She busied her fingers, turning the scans to different wavelengths. They were doing the work, but Casters was in command, so it’d be a feather in her cap if they identified something important. She waited for the linked computers on the two ships to do their work.

A musical note sounded as an identifying caption in tidy letters appeared beneath the blip on each monitor. Tayla looked at it. “Hard S Cruiser!” Although the Heritage Liberty Party now had peace accords with the Hard Soil Party, she knew bitter memories made every encounter tense.

Casters slapped her armrests. “Yellow alert!”

Tayla and Johnny looked at each other and shrugged. With just the three of them aboard the ship, there hadn’t been much point to that announcement.

Meanwhile, Casters had flipped up the clear plastic cover at the end of one of her armrests, frown marks showing between her eyebrows. She pushed two buttons at the same time. “I’m raising the force field.”

No!” yelled Tayla. “We’re too close to Concord.”

Strap in!” Johnny grabbed his shoulder and lap belts. Tayla stretched hers across her body. Endless drills let her click the metal clasp in place on the first try. The hum of the rising force field surrounded them.

The whole ship spun.

She closed her eyes to prevent vertigo. Covering her face with her arm, she hoped the shoulder belt would keep her from smashing her nose or breaking her teeth against the hard surface of the console. She pulled her boots up against the bottom of the chair. Something slammed against the chairs to her left, but she didn’t open her eyes. Helpless, the spinning took away all sense of direction. Dizziness built up inside her head. Her pelvic bones pressed against the lap belt, her chest strained against the shoulder belt. Anger pulsed through her.

Stupid Casters. They had bounced off the Concord when she raised the field. They could have all been killed.

The fact she was alive showed the artgrav computer had done its best to modify the artificial gravity of the ship to compensate. If they had sheered off and spun at the speed they were going without that, the three of them would be a greasy film of DNA coating the inside of the bridge.

The spinning slowed. Tayla wondered if it was her imagination, then realized the attitudinal jets must be firing automatically, getting the ship under control. From her centrifuge training, she estimated it had been several minutes. Still, Tayla knew to keep her eyes closed till the spinning stopped completely. If her brain associated the visual input of a still bridge with a rapid spinning motion, it would compensate by making her feel like she was spinning the other way when it really did stop.

Her body stopped pressing against the straps. Though her dizzy head told her things were no longer spinning, she made herself wait. Slowly, slowly, she lowered her arm, then her legs. When she finally opened her eyes, she saw the console in front of her, as solid as ever. But she felt sick, and she didn’t dare move her head.

Johnny’s weak voice said, “Help Casters.”

She turned her head. That was a mistake. The whole bridge seemed to tilt and whirl. She caught a glimpse of Johnny falling out of his chair, pointing to some of the consoles between them. The bridge threatened to flip over, but she saw what was so urgent: Lieutenant Casters lying crumpled beneath some of the consoles. Her long, blonde hair had come loose and trailed back to the metal post that connected a nearby chair to its track on the floor. The slamming sound had been her head.

Tayla undid the buckle and made herself stand, trembling. She felt like vomiting. She forced herself to walk, arms and legs wobbly. Concentrating on every move, she grabbed chairs along the way for balance, fingernails digging into the padding on the backs. When she reached Casters, she plopped down to her knees. The lieutenant was lying face up, her side close to the wall. The spin had pressed her against it, then she slumped onto her back when it was over. Her eyes were shut tight with painful creases.

Tayla was still angry, but didn’t let that slow her down. She listened carefully and found the lieutenant was still breathing. A once-over didn’t show any blood stains on the blouse or trousers, but she carefully felt under the arms and legs for tell-tale signs of bleeding.

She didn’t dare move the neck and back.

Finished with that first pass, she looked up to see Johnny crawling towards them on his hands and knees with a med-kit. “Is that easier than walking?”

Without answering, Johnny took a bone reader out and passed it over Casters’ head and neck. Her eyes opened. He put a hand on her slim shoulder. “Lisa. Any bad pain? Broken bones?”

She worked her pale lips, then replied. “No and no. What is the ship’s condition?”

Johnny got up to look at a console. Tayla hesitated, then did the same. For some reason, it bothered her that Johnny was as friendly to the harsh lieutenant as he was to her.

Feeling steadier, she flicked through the line graphs of the ship’s internal systems as Johnny sat at the navigation console. She glided her fingernail over different spikes in the red lines and watched the digital readouts appear. The force field wasn’t good. Looking up, she was puzzled by the exterior views Johnny was punching up on the monitors. They all showed blue-gray—the same color as the nebula they had been passing. But no sign of the Concord.

They went back to Casters, who was still lying on the floor. She was holding a soft-tissue reader over her own head. “I have a concussion. No other injuries. Report.”

Tayla went first. “We can’t use the force field. The other systems are unchanged.”

Johnny swallowed, his cheeks pale. “We are nowhere near the Concord. I can’t detect her. We’re deep inside the nebula, still at high-grav speed.”

Casters closed her eyes, looking puzzled. “How could that happen?” Her voice was faint. “Did I cause the accident?”

He hesitated, then plunged ahead. “As you know, it is considered … unwise to raise the force field when so close to another ship. The Concord is so much more massive than we are, we bounced off, altering our course. The umbilical and tow lines were sheared off.”

Tayla scowled. “Otherwise known as the tight-ass maneuver.”

Casters opened her eyes, irritated.

No, that’s ‘dumb-ass,’” Johnny said helpfully. “It’s the ‘dumb-ass’ maneuver. The spinning’s stopped, but we need to get the main engine to a working condition in order to decelerate.”

Sir, permission to contact the Concord and start the emergency beacon.”

No.” Casters had closed her eyes again, but her voice was firm. “Check for any messages from the Concord.”

Puzzled, Tayla got up and looked at the appropriate monitor and saw no incoming messages. She renewed the screen. Still nothing. “No messages.”

With a sigh, Casters said, “They must be in a cat and mouse game with the Hard S ship.” Tayla stiffened as the lieutenant continued. “I hope we didn’t damage the Concord’s force field—she needs defenses. Attempt no communications until they contact us first. Van Dorn, can you get the engine up and running?”

Johnny tapped a couple fingers against his chin. “The pulsar burst took out the repair bots. With Ensign Kravich’s help, we could get it nominal in six to eight hours.”

He looked at a handheld from the med-kit, information scrolling on its little display. “The medical recommendation is I give you a shot that will put you to sleep for several hours and clear your head.”

Tayla was mortified that the lieutenant had sized up the communications situation better than she had. She knelt again, resentful at being made to look stupid in front of Johnny. But they wouldn’t have had to think of that if she hadn’t gotten them into this.

Casters clenched her jaw at the mention of losing consciousness, then forced out a reply. “All right. But you must wake me if any command decisions need to be made.”

Tayla wanted to volunteer to stick it into her rear. But Johnny used her shoulder.

Casters’ breathing slowed after the shot. Johnny rearranged her hair, gathering it close to her head. He looked reluctant to leave her.

Tayla tapped Casters’ knee with her finger to make sure she was asleep, then stood up. “Think she can get us out of this?” She tapped the knee with her boot.

Don’t do that, Tayla.” Johnny stood up, his shoulders firm and resolute. “I trust her. Let’s get to work.”

Eight hours later, she and Johnny sat on the carpeted floor of the bridge, their backs against each other, dog tired. She was so exhausted, arms trembling from muscle fatigue, she was glad for the strong feel of his back. The musky smell of sweat coming from both their bodies increased her pride in their coaxing the engine back into working condition. She massaged a sore armpit with her hand, feeling the dampness from an honest day’s work. It was the price she paid for squirming into a crawl space to make the last adjustment, only to jam her armpit on a bent piece of metal. She was stuck, tender flesh on harsh metal, until Johnny used his gentle hands on her hips to twist her body free. She leaned her head back on his shoulder, though her hair was dusty. “It still hurts. Stupid Casters.”

She felt Johnny’s warm back move as he chuckled. “Now Tayla. You can’t blame Casters for that.”

Tayla stroked the place below her ribs that was still sore from the chair back maneuver. “I could’ve gotten out myself, but my abs were weak.” She wanted to say more, but it would just be complaining. “Oh, never mind.”

A musical note sounded three times from the navigation console. Johnny’s warm back left Tayla’s, so she leaned back on her elbows. After manipulating some keys with his fingers, he said, “We’re approaching the far edge of the nebula. Some asteroids are just outside it, one of them close to our path.”

Casters was still on the floor where they left her. She opened her eyes and looked at Tayla. “Help me to a console.”

She was listening? They needed her permission to start deceleration, but they had decided to rest before waking her. Tayla rushed over, putting one arm around the lieutenant’s shoulders and letting her grab the other one. As she pulled her up, she said in a low voice, “Sir, if you think about it, I refrained from starting a rumor.”

The dark eyes under those light eyebrows pierced hers. “I’ll take that into consideration.”

Tayla helped the weak lieutenant to a console. They both stared at the asteroid, fuzzy through the blue-gray mist of the nebula. Casters demanded statistics about the asteroid, then said, “We should decelerate now. Ensign Kravich, take the helm and bring us alongside that asteroid.”

But, but …” Johnny raised a hand in puzzlement. “That will make us harder to spot.”

Yes, in case it’s the Hard Soilers who come looking. Ensign, I assume you would have notified me of any messages from the Concord.”

Tayla hadn’t checked for a while. She glanced at the comm console, then looked back without blinking. “No incoming messages.”

Let’s go.”

Two hours later, Tayla saw the last tendrils of blue-gray thin to nothingness as they left the nebula. Pale stars greeted them in the distance. Despite Johnny’s cluckings over abnormal engine readings, the deceleration had been smooth. They now matched the speed of the looming asteroid. She played the keys of the helm as if it were a musical instrument, making them circle the dark, foreboding object as they inspected all sides of it. The surface was featureless—just an inky blackness. A huge oval the size of a mountain, it seemed to be a gaping hole in space that ate the stars as they circled it. She finished by setting their course parallel. The asteroid was fifty meters to starboard as they practically hugged it.

Casters interrupted her reverie. “I’ve been doing a scan as we circled. The surface is carbon—jet black. And if the scans are correct, it’s the buckyball form of carbon. You know, when each molecule of carbon looks like a soccer ball, formed by a hollow lattice of carbon atoms. They’re usually created by a lab to put some medicinal molecule inside. That way, the human body won’t react when it’s inserted, since it just senses carbon. But these are natural. How many asteroids are there?”

Johnny said, “Two hundred. This is a find of scientific significance. Maybe this asteroid group will be named after you.”

Tayla tried to look interested. Then she stared at her monitor. “What is that?”

She stood up, astounded. So did Johnny, hands clasped in front of him in awe. A beam of white light was coming out of the asteroid, shining into space. It silhouetted a dark edge of the asteroid’s surface, emanating from the other side. The cold light faded in the distance, unable to light up much of the darkness of space. Tayla raised her arm and scratched the back of her head, puzzled by the ghostly sight.

It’s a jet!” Johnny whipped his hands apart in excitement. One of them slapped Tayla’s sore armpit.

OUCH!” It stung so bad, she saw red and punched his shoulder.

Stop fighting,” Casters said. Tayla looked back at her face and was glad the lieutenant was too weak to come charging out of her chair. The scowling blonde asked, “What do you mean?”

Johnny had backed a step away to avoid another punch. “It’s not light; it’s a jet of vapor or gas. Imagine a patch of some kind of ice—say ammonia ice, for instance—beneath the surface of a comet. As it approaches its sun, it heats and evaporates, becoming a jet of gas blowing out to space.”

Tayla was rubbing her armpit. “So this is closer to the comet end of the asteroid/comet spectrum. But these asteroids or comets are nowhere near a sun. How—” Her shoulders slumped. “Oh. Our jets must have caused some heating when we circled it.”

Casters nodded, her eyes thoughtful. “Hope it doesn’t blow too much of the buckyballs into space.”

Tayla managed to swear in a way that rhymed with “buckyball.”

Casters stood, eyes hardened. She pointed a finger at Tayla. Then her arm sagged, eyes wide. “If that’s a jet, is the comet moving towards us?”

Tayla and Johnny dove for their consoles. They confirmed each other’s figures. Johnny stood straight. “The comet is now forty-eight meters away.”

Sweat broke out on Tayla’s brow. “Shall I compensate?”

Casters plopped into her chair, the temporary strength from her anger gone. “No, staying near a comet isn’t a good idea after all. Use the main engine to move us clear of the entire comet field.”

Tayla entered the command for the main engine. “Powering up.”

Her chair shook at the dull sound of an explosion. She even felt it through her feet. Half the remaining monitors went blank.

Johnny jumped to another console and brought up figures and images on his monitor. “At least two power manifolds have blown. I’ve got to seal them off.” He strode towards the double doors at the back of the bridge.

No!” Tayla leaped out of her chair and sprinted. She wasn’t stupid enough to tackle one of his broad shoulders, so she went for his knees. He tried to pull away, but she sank her teeth in the blue micro-cotton, feeling her friend’s warm thigh muscles beneath.

Stop fighting!” Casters’ voice cracked.

Sir, he’s trying to be a hero. Look at the energy readings.” She went back to tasting the micro-cotton, ready to bite again if he tried to keep walking.

After a moment Casters said, “There’s too much free energy flooding the engine room. Lieutenant Van Dorn, do not leave the bridge.”

As Tayla stood up, Johnny said, “And you can stop biting my leg, Ensign.”

She pointed a finger in his face. “Don’t get yourself killed on me.”

Back at their consoles, Tayla manipulated the keys, but the attitudinal jets would not fire. It was like a piano with the wires cut.

Johnny tried the auxiliary controls, with no better luck. His face was pale. “We have no way of maneuvering. Forty-one meters from the comet.”

Slumping in her chair, Casters seemed to be suffering a relapse from the strain. She pressed buttons. “No choice: I’m starting the emergency beacon. Let’s get in the air suits.”

Tayla and Johnny clambered into the white suits, fastening the helmets and checking their air supplies. They helped Casters stuff her weak body into her suit, then strapped her into the chair at the comm console. They sat in the chairs to the left and right of her, with nothing to do but watch the remaining monitors, all trained on the starboard external cams of the Agassiz.

Tayla stared at the emergency escape hatch—on the starboard side of the bridge. They all knew there was no time left to safely cycle through before being crushed, so no point wasting air discussing it.

The looming bulk of the comet swallowed up the stars on that side. The live monitors were as black as the dead ones, except for the decreasing numbers along their bottoms. Tayla visualized the approach of that immense mass of carbon and ice.

Nineteen meters.” Johnny’s voice came over the radios in their helmets. “The comet’s jet has stopped, so its speed is steady.”

It’ll crush us like an egg.” Casters tried to raise the Concord. Her voice had become rock steady, a Heritage Liberty officer to the end.

Johnny unstrapped himself and checked the sturdiness of the post that kept his chair on the floor track. Tayla sweated inside her suit, knowing that when the ship cracked open, everything not bolted down would fly out. He checked Casters’ chair, then Tayla’s. As he straightened up, he patted Tayla on the shoulder. The friendly gesture came through the padding of her suit. She gave him a brave smile.

He started back towards his chair, then bolted into a run. “Tayla, stay with Lieutenant Casters!” He sprinted to the escape hatch.

Johnny, no!” She reached for the release button of her belt, then stopped. He knew she wouldn’t abandon Casters in her condition.

He opened the inner door to the airlock, and with a few flicks of his fingers on the doorpad, forced the door to stay open. Now he was working on the outer door—the only thing between him and the vacuum of space. Anguished, Tayla glanced at a monitor. Ten meters.

Johnny grabbed twin steel bars in his gloved hands. He slammed them down. The outline of the door flashed as explosive bolts went off. Johnny and the door blew out of the Agassiz.

The air rushed out. Water vapor condensed into mist that swirled past the chairs toward the square opening of the airlock. Then the swirls vanished. The bridge was now in vacuum.

Tayla was too shocked to cry. She didn’t know how long she stayed like that. Then she realized Casters was holding her gloved hand.

He did it.” The dark eyes looked sad through the faceplate. “The force of the air blowing out prevented us from colliding with the comet. In fact, we’re drifting away.”

I don’t care.” Tayla finally sobbed.

Quiet. Do you hear breathing?”

They both held their breaths, listening to their suit radios. A faint, rhythmic sound.

Frantic, Tayla stabbed at console keys with clumsy gloved fingers. An external cam spotted him on the comet, a white figure on black. Unconscious, his hands still gripped the metal bars of the blown airlock door, his body limp like a rag doll. He was about forty meters up on the comet surface. The door had sledded its way through black carbon dust, as fine as powder snow.

Sir, I volunteer to do a spacewalk to retrieve him.”

A note sounded in their helmets. They looked at the comm console. The Concord was contacting them.

Back on the Concord, Tayla walked into Medical. It turned out their shipmates had followed the Agassiz into the nebula. But the Hard S ship had come close, almost colliding with the Concord. After several hours of cat and mouse games, they made a beeline for the emergency beacon, with the Hard Soilers declining to follow.

Caressing the taffeta-lined get-well card with her hands, she found the curtained area that held Johnny’s bed.

Casters was sitting there. “They said the hairline fractures in his arms will heal okay. He’s sedated.”

Tayla hesitated, then sat next to her. Johnny’s face looked peaceful. “I want him to get at least the silver nova for this. I suppose you’ll get a citation for discovering the buckyballs.” She had already heard that mining ships might be dispatched.

Want to talk without the ranks?”

Tayla was careful to keep staring at Johnny.

Kravich, what do you have against me?”

She sighed. “You order me around, but so does any senior officer. You make mistakes, but you seem to take being corrected in stride.” So why don’t I like her? “I don’t know.”

The silence became uncomfortable.

Casters spoke in a quiet voice. “I’m the one who corrects your attitude. To your credit, you improve. Perhaps you associate the discomfort you feel over the process … with me.”

Tayla felt as if an outer layer of her personality had been stripped off, leaving her exposed. “That’s possible.”

Casters gave her a light punch to the arm. Tayla looked up in surprise. The lieutenant caught her eye. “Stick with me, Kravich.”

You mean it?” The gesture and words were well known: As Casters moved up through the ranks and received transfers, she would request Tayla to go with her. Tayla, shocked, realized she could look forward to being trusted with important assignments and responsibilities. If she followed.

Johnny thinks well of you. And you did perform well under difficult circumstances. I’ve been advised to find people like you two. I’ll leave you alone now.”

Tayla remained shocked for a few minutes after the lieutenant left. Then she put the taffeta card next to Johnny’s head, on the pillow. “Wake up soon, Johnny. I can’t wait to tell you the latest stupid decision by Casters.”


Mark Murata has had a variety of office jobs in the Seattle area, from writing procedures at a huge gaming company to updating web pages for a major medical center. He currently works in a medical records department. When he was a child, he snuck out to the living room past his bedtime and saw the Horta incinerate a man in the old Star Trek. He ran out of the room screaming, but it doesn’t seem to have scarred him. His blog is at http://suburbanfantasy.blogspot.com

This entry was posted in Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *