“The secret to walkin´ on water is knowing where the rocks are.” Bootsy Collins
Lieutenant Naiche Decker was past ready for this mission to begin. From the pilot seat of Lovelace’s most battle-ready shuttle, she watched Chief Corpsman Marvin Werther distribute particle rifles to tactical corpsmen José Abello, Priya Kapoor, and Yenlin Quan. Slouched against the bulkhead, re-reading the briefing package on his hand-held computer, was Lt. Commander Conway Kennedy, leader of the expedition to the enigmatic planet, Saclaten-c.
The team had been waiting in the shuttle bay for nearly an hour for Captain Ricci to green-light their departure. The captain was conferring with the science department, who were still seeking a sensor mode that could penetrate the planet’s bizarre atmosphere and scan the surface.
Decker killed time by once again running though her preflight check of the L3 shuttle. As she finished up, a soft whine from the Blue-Heeler dog at her feet reminded her that the Search and Rescue animal was feeling a similar impatience. Though she relished the heady mixture of anticipation and anxiety that bubbled within at the prospect of a mission like this one, Decker believed it was go-time – no matter what news came from Scientific.
“I’m gonna let Kayatennae stretch his legs a bit,” she said to Kennedy. He was chatting with Werther and simply nodded.
Before Decker and Kay had made a half-loop of the shuttle bay, she saw Lt. Commander Talako Jacoway enter and head towards her. She gave her boyfriend a warm smile but had to check her reflexive impulse to greet him with a kiss. Tal’s temporary assignment to Lovelace was of recent vintage, so she hadn’t yet acclimated to treating him as no more than a colleague – a necessity while they were on-duty.
“Please tell me you’re here with word from Captain Ricci.”
“I am – but probably not the word you’re looking for.”
“His order was for me to ready the L2 shuttle as mission support in case you guys need help down there on Saclaten-c.”
“Sounds like he’s not expecting Scientific to have a last-minute breakthrough.”
“No, he’s not. And apparently he doesn’t want to send his daughter into the great unknown without expert back-up ready and waiting.”
Decker knew Tal was teasing her but couldn’t curb her knee-jerk irritation at the deliberate mention of her kinship with Ricci. “I’m sure the captain is equally concerned about the entire mission crew.”
“Equally? I don’t think so.” Rather than answer directly, Naiche let her scowl do the talking. Tal laughingly continued, “I know, I know, while on-duty we’re all supposed to maintain the polite fiction that you two are just like any other captain and lieutenant.”
“It’s not a matter of pretending, it’s one of…what’s that word Lindstrom’s so fond of?” A moment’s thought brought the first officer’s favored term to mind. “Decorum.”
“And you are ever the decorous one.”
Knowing how far that was from the truth, Naiche grinned. “And yet even I manage to maintain decorum regarding my relationship with Captain Ricci, while on-duty.”
“Touché, Decker.” His tone softened as he added, “You win this one.”
“What do I win?”
Tal threw his hands up in a mock gesture of surrender. “Whatever you want.”
With a wink, Naiche replied, “I’ll collect tonight.”
Any planned rebuttal from Jacoway was interrupted by the entrance of Captain Matteo Ricci, Commander Nils Lindstrom, and third in command, Chief Engineer Carla Ramsey. They were followed into the shuttle bay by Lovelace’s chief science officer, Lt. Commander Aqila Lateef, and senior linguist, Lt. Commander Jeffery Sasaki.
The mission crew crowded around to hear what the Command Unit had to say. Ricci announced, “I’m afraid that Scientific has exhausted all options. We currently possess no sensor technology which can penetrate the dielectric-barrier around Saclaten-c.” There was a breathless pause while they waited to hear what that meant for the mission. Ricci continued, “I’m still green-lighting the operation – but mainly for reconnaissance purposes.” He looked at Kennedy, ordering, “You’re not to make planetfall, Commander, unless you’re convinced it’s safe.”
“Understood, sir,” Con replied.
Corpsman Quan turned to the chief science officer. “Commander Lateef, is it possible that this barrier shield thing is some kind of…defense that the inhabitants put up?”
“No,” Lateef answered. “It’s an entirely natural phenomenon – but an impenetrable one. The Carraiks did warn us about that in the briefing packet they turned over.”
“Considering how much we traded for the information,” Lindstrom complained, “it would have been nice if the Rock People had told us just how it was that they managed to breach the atmosphere.”
Lateef said, “As far as I can make out, they just sent their drones down through it. And the drones did survive the trip intact.”
“Small comfort that,” Decker volunteered. “I remember those drones from the war, they were tough as…well, rocks.”
Kennedy offered, “At least they warned us about the hostile creatures they encountered.” He turned towards Sasaki. “What did they call them again? Jaw-something?”
“‘Jaw-snake’ – or ‘jaw-ribbon’ – is the best translation I could come up with. We’re still finding the Carraik language extremely difficult to translate into Standish.”
“Jaw-snake,” Decker repeated, nodding thoughtfully. “Pretty ominous-sounding name. And they fly, too.” She looked up at Kennedy. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yep. They fly.”
Decker expelled a long sigh and then laughed, “All this to pick up some rocks.”
Ramsey chided, “The amount of kiatilium that is said to exist on this planet can hardly be classified as ‘some rocks,’ Lieutenant.”
“If everyone in the galaxy is chasing after this stuff,” Werther asked, “why would the Rock People—”
“Carraiks, Chief,” Jeff Sasaki interjected. “They dislike being called ‘Rock People’ – they find the term rather insulting.”
Werther glanced back at Lindstrom but apparently knew better than to ask why he hadn’t been similarly admonished. He continued, “Why would the Carraiks turn over the location of so much kiatilium for some easily obtainable technology? Doesn’t add up.”
Ricci said, “Well, they did admit that the planet is inhabited by a highly dangerous lifeform. Additionally, with their stone-based technology, steinium is not a valuable metal to them. And therefore, the mineral needed to make it, not as attractive a prize to them as it is to us.” He clapped his hands together in an obvious signal that the time for discussion was over. “All right, Kennedy, you know your mission. Recon first, planetfall if possible, bring back an estimate of how much kiatilium we’re looking at – and exactly what we’re up against with these…flying ‘jaw-snakes’.”
“Aye, Captain.” Con quickly hustled the mission team onto the L3 shuttle, pausing only briefly to exchange an affectionate farewell with his wife, Aqila Lateef. Decker settled for a smile aimed Tal’s way, then she and Kayatennae followed Con onto the shuttle.
Minutes later Naiche was piloting the shuttle towards the electric-blue cloud cover enveloping Saclaten-c. She hailed the communications officer, Lieutenant Leticia Evans, on the bridge. “Lovelace, L3 shuttle here. I’m approaching the planet atmosphere. I’ll keep my comm line open the whole way. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk to you on the other side.”
“Copy that, L3. Lovelace standing by.”
Decker steered the shuttle into the atmosphere and as she expected, lost all visibility on the view screen. She was using the sensor read-out to ably guide the shuttle towards the planet surface when a klaxon sounded from the control panel. The alarm stopped abruptly as the entire shuttle was plunged into darkness. Based on the muffled exclamations of concern and alarm, Deck didn’t feel it necessary to announce that they’d lost all power and were in free fall. She took a deep breath to steady herself, then focused on attempting to restart the shuttle by touch. Decker had never heard of a situation where a shuttle’s power had failed so completely as to lose emergency reserves, leaving her extremely pessimistic about her chances.
Beside her in the copilot’s seat, his voice taut with apprehension, Kennedy asked, “You can work this thing in the dark?”
“Pretty much. Score one for muscle memory.” As they continued falling towards the planet’s surface, Naiche concentrated on using her available senses to take stock of their situation. “The atmospheric drag is slowing us down – but not enough. If I can’t get this thing restarted before we hit—”
Her dire warning was interrupted as the lights and controls flashed back to life; the shuttle had returned to full power so suddenly that the warning klaxon resumed blaring for a moment. A glance at the view screen revealed that they’d cleared the dielectric-barrier. Evan’s tense voice resonated from the shuttle’s comm unit. “I repeat, L3, do you copy?”
“We copy, Lovelace – had a bit of a situation there. We’re fine now and approaching the planet surface.”
Ricci barked, “Define ‘situation’, Decker.”
“Well, it seems like there was some vital information about that dielectric-barrier that we didn’t get from the Carraiks’ data packet.” With a shaky laugh, she added, “Please tell Commander Ramsey that I’ll need assistance from Engineering in calculating our return trip to Lovelace. I need to know how much of an ignition thrust a shuttle needs to achieve in order to compensate for a complete loss of power in the upper atmosphere.”
Ricci, echoed by Lateef, exclaimed, “What the hell happened?”
Deck and Con exchanged brief smiles as she replied, “Just what I said – a complete loss of power in the upper atmosphere. I’ll transmit the data for your review as soon as we land.”
The L3 had been skimming the planet’s surface for ten minutes, covering a 150 square-kilometer area. Kennedy watched Decker consulting the data screen; she announced, “Still not reading any technology and the life-signs seem pretty evenly spread out over the entire surface.”
“Where are you detecting the highest concentration of kiatilium?”
She pointed to an area on the sensor display. “Right there.”
“None of those ‘jaw-snakes’ in sight, so let’s touch down in that area.” While Decker landed the shuttle, Kennedy relayed his decision to Lovelace.
A minute later, Con surveyed the rocky terrain from the open shuttle hatch. He was about to declare an all-clear when he spied possible movement on the horizon. “Deck, come here.” She leapt out of the pilot’s seat and jogged over to him, shadowed by Kayatennae. Together they watched as the faint signs of motion resolved into what looked like four-foot-long tubes of amber ribbons floating towards them in a twirling motion. Pointing toward the figures, Kennedy asked, “Could those be the ‘jaw-snakes’?”
“I don’t see any signs of jaws but I guess they’re kinda snake-like, so…maybe?”
The creatures kept advancing until dozens of them hovered about ten-feet from the shuttle in a formation that definitely had a menacing air to it. One of the aliens glided over to a near-by rock face and extended several jagged knife-like appendages from its upper orifice. Con and Deck both jumped back when, with a strident whine, the creature started cutting into the rock more readily than any plasma drill could.
“Okay! Guess that’s the jaw part,” said Decker.
“I’m going out for a better look,” Kennedy announced. “Deck, I want you and Abello both covering me.” Con figured his survival in the next few minutes might depend entirely on the reflexes of his back-up and he wanted his two best marksmen at the ready. With Decker and Abello in position, Kennedy inched down the ramp.
“Hello,” he called out, slowly advancing towards the creatures. “We don’t mean you any harm. Just wanta take a look around.” There was no immediate reaction and Kennedy couldn’t tell if the jaw-snakes were capable of recognizing human speech or not. Suddenly, two of them surged forward, extending their deadly jaws towards the Terrans. Con paused; he sensed Decker and Abello moving into a firing stance behind him. When the shuttle crew ceased all movement, the aliens stilled, too.
Everyone was frozen in place until Kayatennae, overcome by the rising tension, barked – once. The entire horde of jaw-snakes instantly flew back in panic.
Con turned towards Decker. “Did they just back-off because of Kay or because—” The dog barked again and the flotilla of amber ribbons increased their rate of retreat. Kay, unable to resist the chase, ran after them, barking the whole way, until the creatures were once again nothing more than a yellow smudge on the horizon.
Decker walked down the ramp and stood next to Kennedy. “Did that really just happen?” She recalled Kay to the shuttle with a sharp whistle. “The fearsome creatures that terrified the mighty Carraiks, are afraid – of a barking dog?”
As the proud, panting canine rejoined them, Con said, with a bemused smile, “Sure looks that way.”
Several hours later, Con and Decker watched as a second crew of Engineering personnel emerged from the L1 shuttle. They converged on the trove of kiatilium like ants on a candy-apple, using plasma drills to pry the dull gray-metallic stone out of the ground. Kennedy hailed Lovelace and asked how many more could be expected. Commander Ramsey replied, “I think that’s it for now. Why?”
“I just want to ensure that I have enough Tactical personnel to cover them.”
Ricci broke in to observe, “Sounds to me like Kayatennae could cover the entire lot of you. Right?” It was true that if any of the alien snake creatures got within sight of the Lovelace crew, Kay went to work and chased them away with a few menacing barks. The exuberant dog was having the time of his life.
With a resigned sigh, Kennedy admitted, “Yes, sir. Pretty much.”
Two days later, Lovelace was on its way back to Uniterrae with a colossal haul of kiatilium. It was well into gamma-shift when Decker and Kay quietly slipped into her darkened quarters. After whispering an order to VICI, the AI unit, to set lights to thirty-percent, she stripped off her navy-blue uniform, removed her moonstone necklace, and loosened her hair from its crown of braids. While watching Kay settle onto his bed, Naiche tried to ascertain whether the other occupant of the room, Talako Jacoway, was sound asleep in the bunk or merely dozing.
Her question was answered when she slid in next to him and Tal turned to face her. “Welcome back. How was the midnight drill?”
“It went as well as could be expected. After such a dull mission, Tactical personnel are bound to be a little sluggish.”
“Only you could term a mission as ‘dull’ when you nearly ended up as a silicon stain on the surface of an alien planet.”
“That was three minutes of excitement in a three-week mission. So, yes, dull.”
“Dull but successful. UDC Engineering will be thrilled with all that kiatilium we’re bringing back.”
“Yeah, a whopping hundred kilos. I guess that’s worth the journey to the Auriga system.”
“Of course, it is. That’s more than has been found on all the other missions combined.”
Rather than responding to something she had little real interest in, Naiche pulled Tal against her. When he rolled over, she spooned behind him, idly combing her fingers through his thick, shoulder-length hair. Since, like her, he usually wore his hair in braids, she relished any opportunity to feel it loose and free. “I love your hair,” she whispered.
“I know. You say that all the time. Sometimes I worry that’s the only thing you love about me.”
“You have nothing to worry about there.” She cupped his left buttock lightly and laughed. “Not with this ass, anyway.”
Tal snorted with amusement but answered drily, “That’s my girlfriend – always the romantic.” His pronouncement carried no sting since he followed it up by pulling her arm more tightly around him.
Naiche nuzzled her nose into his neck. Sighing with contentment, she asked, “How am I ever going to go back to sleeping alone?”
“What does that mean? You’re not breaking up with me – are you?”
“No! I meant that Petrović will presumably return from her leave at some time. And then you get to go back to being a test pilot. And I have to go back to sleeping single on missions.”
Rolling over to face her again, Tal asked, “What if she doesn’t come back? Or doesn’t want to come back to Lovelace? Would it be okay if I requested permanent assignment here?”
Naiche sat up in surprise and excitement. “Okay? That would be awesome.” Her conscience immediately nagged her and she said, “But I can’t ask you to make that kind of sacrifice for me.”
“What kind of sacrifice? Getting to spend more time with you?”
She smiled warmly at his assertion but remonstrated, “You know what I’m talking about. Giving up being a test pilot to permanently sign on with a Command ship – the dullest piloting job in existence.”
He pulled himself upright and leaned back against the bulkhead explaining, “I don’t see it that way. I’m not quite the adrenaline junkie you and Con are.”
“We’re not adrenaline junkies!”
“Uh, you just categorized finding yourself at the controls of a dead shuttle as ‘exciting’. And are you telling me that you two scheduled an arbitrary midnight drill because it was necessary? And not because you’ve both been completely bored?”
“Not absolutely necessary, but sometimes it’s good to…umm….” After failing to find an honest refutation of his point, she conceded with a grin, “Maybe we lean a little bit on the adrenaline-seeking side. But you gotta admit – hauling rocks is not exactly what Command ships were designed for.”
“Hauling very valuable rocks. And finding them in half the time they originally predicted.”
Yawning, she absent-mindedly quipped, “Don’t remind me.”
“What does that mean?” Since her complaint had slipped out inadvertently, Naiche remained silent, hoping Tal would let it go. Perceptive as ever, after a moment of thought he said, “Oh, I see. You’re not so much disappointed that this mission was dull, as you are that this mission was short.” When Deck still didn’t respond, Tal prodded, “You were hoping to miss the Cadet Orientation Sessions – weren’t you?”
With a sheepish shrug, Naiche said, “Okay, yeah, I was.” After contemplating the horrible fate which lay before her, she complained, “I don’t understand why Commander Lieu insisted on me leading a session.”
“Who better than you to lead the session for cadets from Independent Communities?”
“Someone who wants to do it?”
“Come on, you’ll be great. You can be very charming – when you want to be. Did you come up with your three most essential lessons for the cadets, like Lieu suggested?”
“I did.” Doubt crept into her mind. “I think so, anyway.”
Arranging his pillow behind him, Jacoway settled comfortably against it. “Great. Let’s hear ‘em.”
She sat erect and recited, “Number one: show up to all your classes – even when the weather stinks, even when you think it’s a waste of time, even when you’re hungover.”
“I think you can skip that last codicil,” Tal murmured.
“Number two: don’t be afraid to ask questions. A question asked in imperfect Standish is better than staying quiet in ignorance.”
“Wonderful – love that one.”
“Number three: don’t sleep with an instructor until at least two months after you’re through with their class.”
Tal stared at Naiche for a second. “Umm, what? Are you serious with that last one?”
“Yeah…why? You don’t think that’s good advice?”
“It’s great advice,” he explained, relaxing back against his pillow. “It kind of goes without saying though – since it’s against the regs.”
“It’s against the regs for an instructor to sleep with a current student, but you could technically have sex with them the day after you get your final grade. That’s where the two months comes in – that’s the crucial bit of wisdom I’m imparting.”
Cocking his head in a gesture of obvious skepticism, Tal advised, “Let’s keep that one as back-up material. What else ya’ got?”
Naiche tossed her hands up in defeat. “See. I suck at this kind of thing.” She flopped down next to him. “I’m just not good with people.”
“That’s not true.” Pulling her up into a warm embrace, Tal assured her, “I think you’re great with people.”
While she snuggled closer to him, Deck protested, “That’s only because you’re worse than me.” He simply snorted in response so she closed her eyes and yawned, adding softly, “Our kids are going to be the most socially awkward people ever born.”
Naiche could feel the sudden tension in Tal’s body. She looked up at him, asking, “What’s wrong?”
“We’re gonna have kids?”
“Well, not right away but yeah, some day. I mean, I’d like us to have children.” Suddenly concerned she’d misjudged the nature of their fourteen-month relationship, she searched his face for the truths hidden there. “Don’t you?”
“Of course, I would – it’s just…we’ve never actually discussed it.”
Reassured by his response she offered up a cheeky smile. “Yeah, I guess I was skipping a step, there – but I’ve given it a lot of thought. I’d like to muster out by the time I’m forty and have a couple of kids. With you.”
“That sounds perfect.” His voice grew animated as he continued, “We could get married….” He paused, seeking confirmation from her. Naiche nodded since she was amenable to marriage if that’s what Tal wanted. He smiled brightly and continued with increased enthusiasm, “…and retire together. We’ll take our pensions, immigrate to the Centauri settlements and—”
Horrorstruck at the idea, Naiche pulled back and blurted out, “You want to live in the settlements?!”
“Yeah, I do.” Sitting up straight, Tal explained, “It’s a great place to raise kids. There’s so much growth, so many opportunities—”
“So many horrifying memories.”
After expelling a resigned sigh, Tal leaned towards her. “Naiche, I think if you gave it a chance….” He paused, obviously choosing his words carefully. “…you could make some new memories. Good ones. The settlements are more than just the place where we fought the war.”
“Not to me. They’ll never be anything but that to me.”
He was silent but even in the dim light she could read the exasperation in his eyes. After a moment, he asked, “Where would you want to live?”
“Chiricahua territory. I want to rear my children as Chiricahua.”
“Just Chiricahua – not Choctaw?”
“Yes, Choctaw, too. I’d want them to know both parts of their heritage. But we could do that there.” Tal was shaking his head as if he couldn’t agree. Naiche’s heart sank as she felt the bright and certain future she had envisioned, slipping away from her. “You don’t like my home?”
“I do. I love visiting there – and I really respect what your people are doing, how they live lightly upon the land and are actually reversing some of the damage to the planet.”
“But…that way of life – it’s just not for me.”
Betraying her rising frustration, Naiche challenged, “What do you propose we do then?”
“Right now, I don’t know. But we have years to figure it out. The important thing is we love each other and we have time.” She remained silent rather than pointing out that time wasn’t going to make the settlements more acceptable to her – nor it seemed, make Chiricahua territory more palatable to him. He laid a gentle hand on her arm, explaining, “We don’t have to solve this problem at 0200 hours or even—”
Whatever Tal was about to say was interrupted by VICI urgently summoning them both to the bridge – while informing them that Lovelace was at DEFCON-beta.