Commander Natalia O’Rourke stepped onto the bridge and gave the brass plaque by the door the traditional swipe with her sleeve. “Planetary Community Space Craft 9108 NightHawk, Reconnaissance Cutter.” She tried to suppress her smile, but even now, four months of travel and three light-years from Earth, she couldn’t stifle the once-again realization that this was her ship.
Sure, she’s only a 100-metre Scout, but she’s mine.
A clear, three-dimensional view appeared in her augment.
Image: tall, broad-shouldered woman standing on bridge with her hand on the shoulder of beautifully patterned auguar. His coat shines with the markings of a cloud leopard, but his shoulder reaches her waist. She is a handsome human, but his beauty outshines hers in every way.
Yes, Chakka, your ship and mine. NightHawk?
The ever-present aura of vast knowledge and competence in her augment snapped into focus.
I take the bridge.
“Captain on the bridge.”
This sounded over the ship’s com in NightHawk’s gentle voice.
Natalia’s mood dimmed as she turned to face her First Officer. “Lieutenant Jones, I relieve you.”
“I stand relieved.” A tiny smirk curled his lip; then he raised his eyes to meet hers.
She refrained from stepping closer, because she knew her size intimidated him, tall though he was.
Was he watching me?
The view in her augment took on a lower angle, looking upward from the bridge hatchway.
Image: Adrian Jones glancing across the bridge towards her as she polishes the plaque. His lip wrinkles.
Emotion: simmering protective anger.
Thank you, Chakka. Calmly, now. He doesn’t mean anything by it.
Emotion: supreme feline disdain.
Natalia smothered a chuckle. “Anything to report?”
“Nothing to report, ma’am. All checks complete, all systems normal. Fuel at 87.3%, within 0.5 % of predicted consumption.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” She decided to make another try at cordiality. “Jonny’s whipped up some dynamite eggs for breakfast.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I think I’ll stick to my usual porridge.”
She dredged up a smile. “Yes, the eggs were a bit explosive.”
“Juanita can’t fight that Mexican heritage, ma’am.”
She nodded, hiding her surprise. He almost sounded human for a moment, there.
Jones flashed her a wooden smile and marched off the bridge, his dark head bobbing like a metronome.
How the man can march in 0.3 Gs is beyond me. No, that’s being snarky. He’s a good officer and a wizard communications specialist. Too bad he never learned to communicate with humans.
Slapping herself mentally behind the ear before Chakka could, Natalia did her habitual scan of the crowded bridge — really just a large cockpit — noting everything in the same order as usual. The viewscreens showed only the depthless black of Otherwhere, framed by the comforting glow of the control panels and readouts of the electronics that lined the walls. Except for those readings, NightHawkand her crew could have been floating in a sea of nothingness. Which explained Otherwhere as well as anything could. Five weeks of that scene had not inured her to the shudder that ran down her back every time she looked out.
Chakka did his own patrol, pausing by the helmsman for a scratch under the chin before flowing up to his deeply padded perch behind the Captain’s acceleration couch.
“Anything to report, Pete?”
The helmsman’s blond head tilted, his eyes fixed forward. “Point zero, zero three drift to galactic east noted at oh four thirty-two, ma’am. Navigation adjusted accordingly.”
She stopped beside him. “You made that up, didn’t you?”
He grinned up at her. “Oh, no, ma’am. It happened just like I said. You can check.”
“I will.” NightHawk? Course report.
“Point zero, zero three drift…”
“All right, all right. The two of you are in cahoots. I don’t know how you persuaded the ship, though. ArIns don’t get bored.” A sudden thought struck her.Or do you?
I wouldn’t exactly call it boredom, ma’am. We are programmed to use times of little action to monitor the more subtle aspects of the ship’s operations and environment.
Fair enough. Any sign of the radio signal we’re out here chasing?
Not expecting anything on that band until oh eight forty-three, ma’am. The carrier from the mine is coming through five-nine-nine. The Mine Manager sent in his weekly report at oh seven hundred. They are back to full production after their shutdown for repairs last month. Would you like a précise?
The mine’s business is none of our business, NightHawk, and anything we add would take too long getting there to be of any use.
She considered that problem in a new light. But if you’re bored, keep monitoring their messages for any indication of trouble. They’re in Barnard’s System, with our supposed alien radio signal coming from the same area of space. Anything could happen, which is why they sent a Commando team.
Plus the fact that we’re the fastest thing in the solar system.
We’re no longer in our solar system: Keep your ears on.
Thank you, ma’am. That will help with the boredom.
You’re welcome, NightHawk.
A pleasure doing business with you, ma’am.
I’m sure. And NightHawk, do you know what happens to a ship’s ArIn who develops a sense of humour?
It wasn’t in my training protocols so I don’t know, ma’am.
Nor do you want to, because I haven’t had time to think up something appropriately nasty.She switched to external speech. “Pete, we’re scheduled for some radio calibrations this morning. If you’re bored, we can start now.”
“Right away, ma’am. NightHawk, please take the helm.”
The ship’s pleasant contralto came over the bridge speakers.
“I have the helm, Master Pilot Jager.”
He swung his legs out of the pilot’s accel couch so he could reach the radio controls. “Right, ma’am. Shall we start with long-range, ultra-high and work down and in for a change?”
She stifled a sigh. “Anything for a change, Pete.”
* * *
One duty that helped relieve her boredom was the simulation training. She spent several hours every watch on her augment with NightHawk,Chakka and often Lieutenant Jones, working through every possible attack and defense situation the fertile (and she suspected, bored) minds at Headquarters had thought up.
“I don’t know why we even bother with this configuration, ma’am.”
“Why not, First?”
“Because it always comes out the same way. When you and Chakka pair against the ship’s ArIn and me, we end up in a stalemate.”
“Yes. You in a defensive shell like a turtle, us dancing around outside in frustration.”
“Every time. So what’s the value in that?”
She shrugged and glanced over to where the lieutenant somehow sat at attention in his accel couch. “Two things I can think of. One, it tells us which combination to use, depending on the situation. Two, and perhaps more important, it tells each pair that there is a certain type of response that we can’t beat. We probably ought to work on this specific teaming more, rather than less, because it strengthens a weakness. Want to try again?”
“Of course. But please, let’s change the teams.”
“Fine. You take Chakka; I’ll go with NightHawk.”
“Sublime to the ridiculous. At least I have a chance to win.”
“NightHawk, run attack simulation 45B with the teams as mentioned.”
Ready, ma’am. Go…
Natalia’s vision was blanked out by the stars of the Milky Way Galaxy, sweeping out in a brilliant display, the three-dimensionality of her augment giving them the same depth and immediacy she would feel if she were swimming out there among them. But their beauty contained a threat.
Three corvettes confronted her, their hulls bristling with projectile, plasma and laser weaponry. Her heads-up display showed one destroyer backing her up. She watched the trajectories of the enemy ships while NightHawkfed her weapons analysis, and a plan began to form…
* * *
Action on mission band, ma’am.
“Damn. I was just about to finish them off.”
“No you weren’t, ma’am.”
She sent a querying glance at Jones.
He gave a grim smile, but his hands were busy on the control screens. “You didn’t take Chakka into account.”
“I always take Chakka into account.”
“And he knows that you do.”
“Chakka! Have you been playing me?”
Image: auguar lounging on his bed in the mess hall, licking his stretched-out hind leg in a show of casual disdain.
I’ll deal with you later. Back to business.
Natalia dropped out of her augment with a grin of satisfaction. As long as her new partners were surprising her with original ideas, the team was growing and learning.
She glanced at the viewscreen, where the graph of a familiar audio signal zigzagged its usual pattern. “Same message?”
The ship also spoke aloud.
“Right on schedule, ma’am: oh eight forty-three on the nose.”
“Pete, what do you make of that?”
“The regularity? I can’t see anyone, alien or not, setting up a schedule like that for any reason. Earth has been receiving alien messages ever since we invented the tech to hear them. The usual explanation for a schedule is due to planetary rotation, and they always turn out to be natural phenomena.”
“So they’re broadcasting a narrow signal from the planet’s surface, and we catch it as it sweeps by? The boffins at Space Arm disproved that. This signal shuts off. It comes on, pointed straight as a die at Earth, then shuts off after, what, ten hours?”
“Ten hours, thirteen minutes…give or take, as if that matters.”
“Anything could matter. We just don’t know what or why.”
First Officer Jones had been leaving the bridge, but he turned in the doorway. “Solar power.”
“If the rotation of the planet was twenty hours plus, and the signal was sent by solar power, it could only be sent during half the day.”
She raised her eyebrows. “And that would in turn suggest that it is a real alien message.”
“Also that it is set on automatic and could be centuries old.”
“It follows. Where did you hear that theory?”
“I thought of it myself.” His brows were drawing down.
“Not bad, First. I haven’t heard a new idea in weeks. I’ll put it in tonight’s report. Space Arm will get it in…what… three months or so?”
“Three months, seven days, three hours, twenty-six minutes, if you send it right now, ma’am.”
At your leisure, NightHawk. I don’t think there’s any rush.
“As you wish, ma’am.”
Natalia dropped into her accel couch, trying to look industrious.
A nagging sensation in the back of her brain alerted her. She focused on the crew vitals, where the change originated.Second Engineer B’kose, why am I getting elevated readings from your augment?
No it isn’t, Fiona. Sergeant Jacobs, you too. What’s going on?
It’s Fiona. She just won’t…
It isn’t Fiona, Sergeant. It’s Otherwhere getting to you, and that’s a fault on your part, no matter what small, niggling character flaw one of the other crew exhibits. We are Commandos. We are part of a team. We do not let our personal feelings get in the way of our function. Do you follow, Toni?
Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.
Don’t apologize to me. Second Engineer?
Totally my fault, ma’am. I was…
I’m doubtful it was totally your fault, Fiona, and I’m not interested in the details. You and Toni settle it between you, or we’ll set up the training ring and you can do some training on each other.
She let an evil chuckle escape. At least that’ll keep the rest of the crew entertained.
A spate of denial washed through the augment, and Natalia closed them out. What do you think, Chakka? Do we need a bit of training?
Emotions: boredom and the need to hunt.
Yes, well you’re not going to get that for a while.Don’t worry, Barnard’s Star has at least one oxygen-atmo planet. Maybe we’ll get to stretch our legs in four months or so.
Emotion: instant enthusiasm!
Don’t get set on it. This isn’t that kind of a mission. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what kind of a mission this is going to be. So far, a boring one.
She straightened her posture in the couch. Can’t let it get to me. Show a good example and all that. She called up another image in her augment and got to work. Hmm…crew eval reports. What fun.