Authors: Mark Wayne McGinnis
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Alien Invasion, #Exploration, #First Contact, #Galactic Empire, #Military, #Space Opera, #Space Exploration, #Science Fiction
“We’ve been cleared onto the
’s flight deck, Captain,” Grimes said.
“Take us in, Lieutenant.”
* * *
Jason entered the
’s bridge with Boomer following two steps behind. The
’s AI announced, “Captain Reynolds has entered the bridge.”
Once again, Jason was reminded of
—so similar, yet quite different as well. The
was larger—far more advanced. Heads turned in his direction, then to Boomer. She immediately moved to the command chair and sat down, her feet not quite reaching the deck. She placed her arms on the armrests, sat back, staring at the bemused faces, and said, “There’s a new Captain Reynolds on board … as you were, people.”
That brought chuckles and several salutes. Jason winked at her and brought his attention to the forward right console where Granger, Ricket, and Bristol were involved in a heated discussion. The console was open, obviously going through some sort of modification.
“Hello, Captain,” Ricket said. Both he and Bristol were on the deck, lying on their backs, holding handheld test equipment. Granger was seated in a chair in front of the console.
“What do we have here?”
Ricket sat up, then stood. “Captain … we understand we’ll be underway soon. In an attempt to get the
operating optimally, we’ve gone ahead and installed several upgrades.”
“Doesn’t look like you’ve been successful,” Jason said, peering into the inside of the console; its wired bundles, he’d learned in the past, were called PhasePath Conduits.
“Hi, Orion … report to your post!” said Boomer. Jason turned to see Gunny Orion entering the bridge as Boomer still play-acted captain.
“Aye, Captain,” Gunny replied, sounding appropriately official and saluting the ten-year-old.
Jason brought his attention back to the others.
“This was a cluster-fuck from the get-go.”
Jason took a step back as young, pimply-faced Bristol scooted out from underneath the console and sat up. Bristol was far from a military person. In fact, his past was checkered at best … brother to a psychotic pirate, Captain Stalls, who, among other things, was a mass murderer. But with all Bristol’s faults, the least of which were a bad temper and a foul mouth, his past genius had saved countless crewmembers’ lives, including Jason’s. So Jason was willing to tolerate some of Bristol’s shortcomings.
“Just tell me what’s going on here. Our timetable for departure has been pushed up. We have to go.”
“It’s another of Granger’s new Caldurian upgrades,” Bristol said.
Jason looked down at Ricket; maybe he’d give him a straight answer.
“It’s a problem tied to the communications system and the whole interchange wormhole process, Captain,” Ricket said, referring to another aspect of what the technologically advanced Caldurian vessels were capable of, including their unique means to travel virtually unlimited distances across the universe. That ability was accomplished through a unique, permission-based communication to an elusive being of higher-consciousness known now as the interchange. The interchange was not a single being but several, or many; Jason wasn’t sure how many. His only point of contact with the interchange was through an aquatic, wormlike being called a Drapple, who could be contacted through one of the onboard Zoo habitats. Staying within the Drapple’s—and the interchange’s—good graces was monumentally important, as it didn’t dole out permission to move unhindered across the universe arbitrarily. Those bestowed with this ability had to adhere to certain moral constraints. The simple fact that his three crewmembers were messing with something so important, especially before a crucial mission, was crazy.
“Are you telling me we’ve lost the ability to call up an interchange wormhole?”
All three shook their heads in unison. “No no,” Ricket said, “but Granger’s upgrade does seem to have instigated a negative byproduct.”
“A significant time delay, Captain … it seems now to take close to an hour from the time we’ve communicated our interchange wormhole in-and-out coordinates request to when the wormhole actually appears.”
“So we’ve gone from something that worked perfectly fine … took mere minutes to accomplish, to now taking an hour? That’s ridiculous … not to mention, the long delay could put both ship and crew in potentially dangerous situations!”
“I assure you, Captain … I will continue to work on this issue … I promise, it will be resolved—”
Jason cut Granger off mid-sentence: “We will be leaving
as soon as an interchange wormhole can be called up. Ricket, you have the coordinates to Trom in the Alchieves system. I expect this mess to be cleaned up by the time I return.” Jason spun around to see Boomer sitting wide-eyed in the command chair. “Come on, Boomer … we need to get you situated.”
, Open Space – Near Jefferson Station
With Boomer doing her best to keep up with her dad, she and Jason found Jack lumbering along, using a long mop handle to steer a rolling bucket in between the fifteenth row of habitats, deep within the
’s Zoo. Jason interrupted the old caretaker’s duties to let him know he’d be responsible, as he’d once been on
, for Boomer’s care—a minimum of several hours every day.
Looking around her surroundings, Boomer couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this excited. She listened as Jack balked at the request, exclaiming how little time he had to babysit her, but Boomer, unoffended, knew Jack was only being Jack … grumpy. She knew that Jack was actually quite fond of her—liked her company. From what she’d already seen of the
’s Zoo, he’d need her help. She figured it was easily ten times the size of
’s Zoo. And though the same habitats once accessible from
were here as well, there were hundreds of others she’d yet to have an opportunity to explore.
Her father hurried off to other duties on the ship’s bridge, leaving Boomer with Jack. Attending to something, she wasn’t sure what, Jack left with his mop and bucket.
There are droids far better
suited for these types of chores
, she thought … but Jack wasn’t big on technology. She slopped the end of the mop onto the deck, half-heartedly dragging it back and forth, then dunked it back into the bucket. She was having trouble keeping her attention on the boring job at hand. Up ahead was a section cordoned off with what looked like strung yellow tape like she’d seen on TV—where a murder had taken place. She pushed the long mop handle forward, steering the bucket to an open habitat. The common transparent portal window was, surprisingly, deactivated—allowing her to take a step into another world. A warm breeze touched her cheeks and she heard the sounds of small insects, no more than a few feet away. But something wasn’t right. In all the hours spent working around the habitats she’d never found a portal left open. She was well aware of environmental contamination concerns—both for the
as well as the Zoo. The access panel to the left of the portal was blinking with a series of red lights. Boomer’s heart rate elevated and she debated if she should call out to Jack. But there was something familiar about the habitat’s otherworldliness—the humid air, dense tropical trees, and the thick foliage. She turned and looked back at the seemingly empty Zoo corridor behind her and, coming to a quick decision, stepped further into the habitat. It all looked familiar.
Ten feet to her front was a dense wall of ferns, taller than she was. About to turn away and return to the Zoo, a distant noise caught her attention. There was a rustling off in the distance, deep in the overgrown foliage. Birds screeched and took flight all around. Suddenly, an animal burst into the open and Boomer only had time to see something big and black barreling down on her. Paralyzed, she stood immobilized as it leapt for her. Bowled over onto the ground, her face was slathered by a giant blue tongue.
Boomer laughed with delight as the six-legged drog licked her face, making yippy, excited, whining sounds.
Boomer yelled, “Alice! Stop … licking … me!”
With that, the drog leapt off her, running around in circles—going right then darting left. All six legs moved simultaneously, in their strange, unnatural, rhythm. Boomer sat on the ground and watched Alice’s crazy happy antics. She hadn’t seen her favorite pet since
Then she had a sudden insight, realizing their clever ruse: Her father quickly dropping her off; Jack acting annoyed; the open habitat. It was all pre-staged—to reunite her with Alice. Coming from behind her, she heard her name called.
She turned around and saw Dira, Rizzo—one of her father’s young Navy SEAL friends—and Jack standing in the corridor, smiling back at her.
“You all tricked me?”
Dira, laughing, stepped in and gave Alice a scratch behind her ears. Rizzo smiled and waved. “We’ve got to get back; good to see you again, Boomer.” Rizzo and Dira hurried off down the corridor.
“Thank you, Jack … I really missed Alice.”
Jack half-shrugged, scratching at his white scruffy beard. “It’s no big deal. Just thought you’d want to see her again.”
Boomer got down on her knees and wrapped her arms around the drog’s midsection. Placing her head on her back, she cooed, “You’re a good girl, Alice.”
Jack walked over to the access panel. “You can come back and play with her later. Boomer, I need to get this portal closed … its been held open a lot longer than it’s supposed to be.” He gestured for Boomer to join him in the corridor as he entered a code into the access panel. Boomer, watching Alice seated on her back haunches, gave her a goodbye wave while the portal window was reactivated. She heard the familiar three beeps and the portal window appeared again like solid glass.
“The captain tells me he wants me to give you more responsibilities,” Jack said, looking serious. “He thinks you’re ready for it. To be honest … I’m not so sure.”
“I am ready!”
“Uh huh. Well … okay … come with me. We’ll start right now.” He strode down the corridor, not waiting for Boomer, while talking over his shoulder. “With Ricket’s help, I’ve begun work on several of the more distressed habitats in the Zoo … some have gone long periods of time without any attention … what’s necessary in maintaining and retaining viable eco-systems.”
Boomer, catching up and walking by his side, took in the various habitats they passed along the way.
“Although there are some habitats that are more self-sufficient … ecosystems needing little in the way of oversight … there are others, like Alice’s HAB 209 back there, that require significantly more attention. Animals of all different species need to be fed … cared for. If that doesn’t happen, you know the result?”
“Yes, that’s right, they die. And I won’t have that on my watch.”
Boomer continued walking by Jack’s side until he slowed. They reached the end of the corridor and stopped in front of a habitat. “This one is in bad shape. Ignored from way back, when the
was under Caldurian control, before Granger had …”
Boomer finished Jack’s sentence for him, “Before Granger stole the
from them, right?”
Jack didn’t respond to that. He pointed to the habitat. “Unattended for over a year, all indigenous animal life perished. Starvation, the primary issue. This is HAB 7 and I want you to see firsthand what happened here.”
“What is it you want me to see in there?”
Jack moved off to the access panel and began entering the code. She kept her eyes on HAB 7’s portal window. It looked dark and foreboding inside, as if a storm was brewing. Like any moment the skies would open up and pour down a deluge of rain. She realized that this habitat seemed different, too. Where other habitats were naturally primitive, untouched by civilization or environmental changes—this one clearly showed evidence of some habitation by intelligent life. Dreary-looking in the darkness, there were ancient ruins scattered across the distant landscape.
“What is this place, Jack?” she asked.
He entered the last digits of the code and immediately three beeps sounded. Preparing to enter the open habitat, he reached out his hand to Boomer. “Come with me.”
Together, they crossed over the threshold and entered HAB 7. Taking no more than ten steps, she heard the portal reinitialize. They were now trapped in this dreary place until Jack reentered the code.
Boomer looked back over her shoulder and found the nearly hidden metal box containing the inside access panel. It started to drizzle. “Jack, are you sure we should be in here? Maybe we should wait for Ricket. He’s a scientist.”
“I’m more than qualified to be here, young lady,” he scoffed.
But she knew he wasn’t. He was older, and looked to be having trouble walking on the uneven terrain. The last thing she needed was for him to break a hip, or something … and she didn’t know the code to get them out of here.
“Jack, I think we should activate our suits,” Boomer said, her senses alert.
“Why?” he snapped.
“Well … it may be dangerous. Please?”
“All indications are we’re entering a dead environment. Now look here, Boomer, I felt it necessary to show you the importance of what we’ll be doing in the coming days … show you the ins and outs which come with your new responsibilities. Most importantly, what happens when a habitat is not properly cared for. This place is an example of that kind of neglect.”
Jack tripped and went down on one knee. He slowly stood back up, but looked unsteady.
“We’re initiating our suits, Jack … we have to!”
He looked at her and let out a breath. “Fine. I’m not sure I remember how, though.”
She watched as Jack used his thumb and forefinger to pinch two small indentations on both sides of the small, metallic device worn on his belt. It took him several tries. She let out a slow breath, trying to be patient. Everyone on board the
was required to wear a SuitPac device, which was relatively new Caldurian technology to both
’s crew. The SuitPac transformed itself before her eyes as small sections, segment-by-segment, expanded and followed the contours of Jack’s body. The last section to unfold enveloped his head in an oblong helmet. Within the span of two to three seconds every inch of Jack was encased in a hardened battle suit. Boomer then initiated her own SuitPac and several seconds later was staring back at Jack through the visor of her helmet. A myriad of semi-transparent numerical and symbolic Heads-Up Display, HUD, indicators danced in front of her eyes. Boomer was well acquainted with the amazing functionality of a battle suit. A suit that was, in all practicality, a self-contained space ship unto itself.