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Commander Amanda Hays was every bit as military as her erect, uniformed one hundred and sixty centimeters suggested; her ginger and butterscotch colored hair, cut to rest precisely above her shoulders, was her most feminine feature. Her eyes locked onto Phillip’s as he and his passengers were escorted to the bridge of the light cruiser. The rescue party did not include the ship’s captain, who remained on her own bridge pending their arrival.

“Captain Barreda,” she said as Phillip was led up to where she stood. She took a moment to pull her tunic taught and remove any imaginary wrinkles that had presented themselves when she stood to survey his party. One corner of her mouth was turned up in a predatory smile, like a shark that has finally run a particularly juicy fish into a corner. “Can I assume that you have an explanation for why NexCorp has just lost a frigate and your own ship lies adrift beyond Merak III?”

“Perhaps I can be of assistance,” Dr. Portman interjected. Both Phillip and Amanda ignored him.

“I was in need of help,” Phillip said testily. “That crazy ship appeared out of nowhere and started shooting at us.”

“And you did nothing to provoke it? Perhaps some of your charming invective caused them to lose their temper?”

“No, of course not,” Phillip countered. “We didn’t speak to it at all.”

“And so you brought it back here where it could wreak havoc on the Merak colony? Did you even think of the lives that would have been lost had I not been around to save your worthless hide?”

“Come on, Amanda. You know my poor trading ship would never have stood a chance against that thing. And saving my hide is your job. It’s about time you started actually taking care of people instead of just collecting taxes from them.”

“Taxes which you find inconvenient to pay.”

“Captains, please!” Samantha Wilder said, exasperated with them both. “We found a large spatial anomaly in Megrez space that appears to be a man-made gateway. We saw the ship come through it. I think it tried to communicate with us, but it attacked us when we tried to run away. Perhaps it was a simple case of cultural misunderstanding,” she said and then furrowed her brow as her momentary irritation waned.

Hayes turned her intolerant gaze upon Samantha. “Misunderstanding? One hundred seven men and women aboard the Cutlass have perished and we may have the possibility of invasion to consider. I think you have a talent for understating what is readily apparent.”

“So what are you going to do about it, Amanda? Round up your fleet. Let’s see you rock them back on their heels. That’s what you get overpaid to do, isn’t it?” Phillip interjected.

Amanda focused her cool gaze on Philip and then walked over to the signals console. She looked over a communication that had come in and placed her hands behind her back, showing Phillip that she was ignoring him.

“I have here,” she said, turning to face them once more, “a priority one signal from Alcor. It came in just before you arrived. We will first see to the needs of our paying colonists there, and then I will turn you over to NexCorp security, where you can explain, with no loss of detail, what you undoubtedly did to provoke the attack we just witnessed.”

“What about my ship?” demanded Phillip.

“We will have the station authority go and collect it in a few days,” Amanda said with a look of smug indifference. “It doesn’t appear to be going anywhere very fast.”

“Alcor isn’t there anymore,” Jerry stated. He was not looking directly at Hayes—his eyes were focused on her boots.

“What did you say?” she said, rounding on him.

“Nothing,” said Phillip, moving to interpose himself in front of his brother. “I want to know when we can get back to my ship.”

With a flourish, Amanda Hayes turned and took her place in the captain’s chair at the center of the bridge. A security officer stepped aside to give Phillip and his shipmates passage to the stairwell that would lead to the guest quarters. His hand rested close to his sidearm. Amanda’s intention was clear and her crew knew the drill. Phillip and his party were being summarily dismissed.

With a final stare at the back of Captain Hayes, Phillip took the passage indicated by the security officer. The others followed him, a little dazed by the rude treatment from the ship’s captain.

In a guest compartment slightly larger than an oversized closet, Phillip and Jerry sat beside each other on the bunk closest to the ground. More hammock than bed, it swung easily as Jerry propelled it back and forth with his feet. He stopped just as Amanda entered the compartment, not having bothered with the courtesy of knocking.

She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. Phillip was suddenly uncomfortably aware of the tiny size of the compartment and how close he now was to the formidable Amanda Hayes. “It seems we have a problem,” she said, standing at parade rest just inside the cramped quarters. “This ship just attempted to make the jump to Alcor, but our grapplers were unable to take us into hyperspace. Do you know why?” she asked, staring at Jerry.

Jerry just looked at her shiny boots and said, “Alcor isn’t there.”

“You said that before. But I can see it shining right where it should be.”

Phillip looked at her and said, “Dr. Portman is an astrophysicist from Bellmeade. He tried to explain to me that the light from a star hasn’t reached us yet. If something has happened at Alcor, we might not know it yet. In fact, you should be talking to him. He is more of an expert than I am.”

“I did,” she conceded. “He told me virtually the same thing.”

She took a deep breath and fixed Phillip with a slightly thawed version of her typical icy demeanor.

“You have given me something of a perplexing puzzle, Captain Barreda. I have made my request to sector command, and the soonest a fleet squadron can be assembled at Pollux is over a week away. They won’t even pull the ships together unless I can give them concrete proof that there is a credible threat and of what magnitude I judge that threat to be. According to their view, you could have simply disturbed a nest of pirates that need to be dealt with. The instruments on your ship are a wreck, which gives me only your testimony and that of your passengers. At this point, there isn’t any evidence of an impending invasion.”

She paused for effect, not wanting to admit what she must do next.

“And since I can’t go to Alcor to see what has happened there, I have no choice but to take us to Megrez to see for myself this gate anomaly of yours.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Phillip said, leaning back against the wall. Jerry began to rock the hammock again.

“Nor would I,” she admitted. “If it is an invasion, my standing orders are to fall back to the Pollux or the Sirius binaries, abandoning the Merak colony here until we can assemble a response fleet. I am hopeful, however, that I might be able to make a better first contact than you did.”

Phillip opened his eyes and saw a woman standing in front of his bunk. Jerry was sleeping peacefully in the lower hammock. The woman motioned for Phillip to be silent. “You must find us,” she said.

“Who are you?” asked Phillip, trying to figure out if she was the same woman from the dream he had before. He was reasonably sure she was. Her face had that same sad quality to it as before, but she was wearing a single robe with a bright sheen to the fabric.

“I am in the land of the dreams. When you come, you must find us. I will show her how.”

She turned to leave. “Wait!” he shouted. But she was gone. He woke and found that he was tangled in his bedsheet. Looking down, he saw Jerry staring up at him.

“Sorry, Jerry. Bad dream, I guess.”

Unable to go back to sleep, Phillip got up and undogged the hatch with a creak. He found the head just down the corridor. He opened the hatch and pulled it shut behind him as he squeezed into the tiny washroom. He splashed some cold water on his face and neck and tried to make some sense of what was happening to him. Was he going mad?

He glanced at the wall chronometer and figured they must be getting very close to Megrez by now. They had passed through M–sixty-one fourteen during the night hours, obviously without incident.

Since it was close to ship’s morning, he decided to see if he could talk to Amanda again and get a better idea of what her first contact scenario would look like. Although he still didn’t care for her attitude or her NexCorp shoulder boards, she did have plenty of courage, and he was curious as to how she could have managed better. He had to grudgingly admit she had the kind of training he had hoped to have gotten if he had completed his training at the academy and been posted out here in the frontier. That seemed so long ago as he stared at the reflection looking back from the mirror. Disgusted that he was dwelling on the past again, he showered and put his clothes through the steamer.

Jerry and Samantha were already on the bridge by the time he had finished getting dressed. The first shift bridge crew was efficiently going about its work, ignoring the newcomers as long as they stayed out of the way. Amanda came onto the bridge, talking with her engineer about some maintenance he was performing. As she took a cup of coffee and sat in her command chair, a signal indicated they would soon be dropping out of hyperspace.

Her crew completed the maneuver as efficiently as if they were merely cruising around the block. Phillip didn’t even notice the sensation as he would have had they still been aboard the Star Voyager. What a difference military grade hardware made.

“Captain, we have sensor contact,” her sensor officer said. Setting down her coffee, she looked at her repeater plot in front of her command station and raised an eyebrow.

“Put it on the main viewer, Mr. Kelsey,” she said. The officer smoothly complied, and she saw a heavy cruiser hovering just under one hundred and forty thousand kilometers from the giant pulsating disk that they had seen before.

“All stop,” she said. Chimes registered that her order was carried out concisely. “Send out friendship messages on all channels. Prepend them with the same mathematical symbols the Star Voyager reported receiving.”

Phillip noted that although the Hornet had come to rest relative to the cosmos outside, the approaching ship continued to close the distance between them. If Amanda Hayes was concerned about this, she gave no indication.

The signals officer complied and they waited. Soon, the other ship was also sending out a signal. Once the two protocols were matched up, the signals officer routed the transmission to the central view screen and nodded to Captain Hayes, who stood.

“I am Captain Amanda Hayes of the NexCorp cruiser Hornet. To whom am I speaking?”

The image on the viewer resolved to a man in his late twenties. The interior of the cabin behind him was clean, its walls white. The man smiled and spoke in an odd English dialect.

“Hello. I represent the Republic of New Troy. We come in peace. It is so good to meet other humans so far from Earth.”

“Sir,” Amanda interrupted. “We regret that our last encounter with your fellows may have resulted from a grievous… misunderstanding,” she completed. “I’m afraid the ship perished and all hands were lost.”

Amanda neatly omitted the fact that they were lost firing weapons at a NexCorp frigate and then summarily dispatched in a violent collision with the surface of the nearest moon.

“That would explain why our scouting vessel was reported missing. But it is no matter; we are content to have discovered that we are able to communicate with you. Are you part of an expeditionary force?”

“No sir. I am a space marshal representing the NexCorp colonization company. It is my duty to keep peace in this region of space.”

“How marvelous,” the other went on. “I can see that our civilizations have much to learn from each other. When can we meet face to face?”

Phillip was still conscious of the fact that the other ship was coming ever closer. Surely it would be within weapons range soon. And yet, Amanda appeared to be completely at ease. She had not raised shields during the entire conversation.

“If you will slow your vessel’s approach, we can match velocity and send a shuttle over to meet with you. If you will give us a few moments, we would like to prepare an envoy to begin diplomatic discussions.”

The man glanced at another aboard his vessel as if to confirm the distance to be adequate. He continued to smile and drone on about how they were so pleased to have an opportunity to do this or that as the scene on the bridge of the Hornet changed to one of complete chaos.

Near the back of the bridge, a blue disc, similar to the one that hung in space, shimmered to life. It had no apparent thickness, and was only visible if one was looking at it from the front. From where Phillip was standing, it was not there at all.

Seven heavily armed men came boiling out of the misty disc and quickly began taking control of the bridge. Amanda was immediately out of her chair, grappling with the invader closest to her. Alert sirens began to wail as someone had the presence of mind to stab the intruder alarm button. Two of the intruders expertly applied stun batons, and three members of the bridge crew went down in a heap as they attempted to repel the boarders. Although Captain Hayes and her officers were well trained, they were unable to repel such a swiftly executed surprise attack, and were soon in custody, stun batons held menacingly in their direction. Those who had resisted, including the armed sentries, lay unconscious on the deck.

Phillip wanted to run or to fight, but since he was not a member of the of the crew, he simply tried to blend into the wall plates and hoped he and his party would be overlooked. Unfortunately, the trooper in charge of subduing the ship had other plans. Along with Amanda and one of her senior officers, Phillip and the rescued passengers of the Star Voyager were frog-marched to the blue disc and pushed through.


© Brian Jeffreys.