Shore leave had started normally enough. More than a decade had passed planetside during the ten light year round trip that had been their previous mission. But the captain and crew had only aged a total of nine months, including two months shipboard on the trip to the planet, a five month stay on that world then the two month return trip to regional headquarters, all due to time moving much slower than “normal” on a ship traveling at close to the speed of light. Returning planetside after all those years made a star jumper feel like a time traveler. Erik was always fascinated with catching up on years' worth of news that had unfolded in his absence as well as noting how his investments and savings had fared. But that could come later. First priority was R&R.
On the first day of leave, the captain and a couple of the guys on his crew attended a sporting event that ran into early evening. As they were leaving the stadium, Erik got a 3-D flash from his second in command, Lt. Federico Montoya. “Excuse me, guys.” he said to his men, stepping away and setting up a sound block for privacy.
A life-sized visual of Fred appeared. He was standing with a woman on either side. The lady on his left was a blonde in an evening dress. On his other side was a redhead in similar attire. It was an all senses call. Fred was even transmitting the womens' perfume, which mingled with the aromas of various beverages. He hadn't bothered to block out the noisy background. “Hey, buddy. Where are you?” asked Erik.
“Club Skyway downtown,” he shouted above the din. “I'd like you to meet Vega,” he said, nodding toward and the blonde, “and Ginja.” The two women smiled and waved. “Ladies, this my commander, Captain Erik Houston.”
“Pleased to meet both of you,” said the captain. He noticed Ginja, the redhead had large blue eyes. The women returned the greeting.
Fred continued: “Vega is a trade rep for a major interstel corporation and Ginja is a nebuologist.”
“Isn't that a medical specialty?” Erik joked.
Ginja laughed. “No, I do scientific research. I study nebulae.”
“Anyhow,” Fred broke in, “we want you come down to the club for drinks and dancing. It would help get you mind off...things.”
“I appreciate the invitation,” the captain replied, “but don't forget we have to be up early tomorrow to catch our shuttle. We are still going on that outer planet trip, right?”
Montoya pulled on his Van Dyke beard for a moment. “Yes, yes of course. Sure you won't come? You'll be missing a good time.”
Erik sighed, realizing his friend was probably right. “Ladies, is there a chance we can get together in a couple days?”
Ginja looked down. “I...wish I could,” she replied. “My team is leaving on an expedition day after tomorrow.”
Fred put his arm around Vega so Erik didn't wait for a reply from her.
“I hope it goes well,” Erik said to Ginja. “Nice meeting you, ladies. See you in the morning, Fred. In the lobby, 0400 sharp.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Erik terminated the call and shook his head, wishing his first officer weren't so pushy at times.
The next morning, the two men caught a tourist flight to a neighboring world in the same solar system. Hours later, the duo was among a handful of others being buffeted about within a transparent-walled floater, a craft that navigated the currents of the upper reaches of the planet's atmosphere. The immense pressure would instantly crush the fragile vehicle if not for the force field surrounding it. The floater bounced and heaved, the passengers all held in more-or-less place by ener fields. Erik laughed as the vehicle jerked them one direction then lurched in another. His stomach plummeted as the floater dropped a thousand feet within seconds. The craft's unseen crew kept a fine balance between thrilling the passengers and allowing too many of them to get motion sick. Montoya already looked under the weather despite the pill he had taken.
In front of them and on all sides was the murky, swirling atmosphere. Lightning from distant storms occasionally illuminating patches of sky. A bolt flashed in front of them, sending shivers up Erik's spine. He elbowed Montoya in the arm and pointed. In the distance was one of the native creatures. Somewhat resembling an ancient hot air balloon, the being navigated the currents and eddies, sometimes rising rapidly and falling just as quickly. Montoya gestured toward two others, fay-away dots.
Erik waved his hand and a close up of the nearest creature appeared at eye level. Near the bottom of the "basket" part of the balloon were two beady eyes, two long, extended feelers and a vice-like mouth. A smaller winged animal, resembling a bat with elongated wings, fluttered within twenty yards of the balloon. It whipped a feeler out to its full length, snagging the hapless flyer and depositing it into the mouth-vice.
Lightning struck one of the more distant balloons, causing it to explode. Several of the passengers applauded while others whistled and hooted. Seconds later, shock waves jostled the floater.
Upon recovering, Erik thought how much fun it would be to hunt the living balloons but he realized the creatures were a protected species. Fred and he planned both holo and live hunts of other animals later in the week.
Erik jumped as a verbal page blasted out his name: "Houston! Urgent message for Starship Captain Erik Houston!" The captain set up a sound block. The message was coming in coded. He set up a de-scrambler.
"Houston here," he growled.
A 3-D of a face appeared in front of him. He recognized it as the regional military director for this sector, his boss' boss' boss. Houston's stomach clenched. The man must be calling from the system's main planet, the one where their ship had docked at the orbiting maintenance station. It would have taken the light and sound from the message a couple hours to travel this far. Since it would take as long for Houston's response to reach the location, this was likely a one-way comm. Still, why was local HQ calling? Protocol demanded a week after debrief before a captain reported in further. You don't interrupt a man's leave. That just wasn't done.
"Houston," the man bellowed, "I've been told you did an outstanding job on your last mission. Congratulations, son. We've had our eyes on you for a long time."
The captain balled his fists. They were calling from billions of miles away just to say "Good job?"
"In fact," the gravelly voice continued, "you've been so effective over the years that's it's time for you to move up. We have an exciting new command for you. And a vitally important one. So important I've got to tell you in person. I want to see you in my office in 0500 hours. Oh, and gather as many of your crew as possible in the next day or so and make sure they stay close by. That will be all," he concluded, saluting.
"Aye, sir," he replied, returning the gesture, knowing that by the time the superior saw it he'd be well on his way back to the planet. The 3-D vanished.
The captain waved his hand to end the sound block. He sat with red face and folded arms.
"Trouble?" asked the chestnut-haired Montoya.
"The brass has ordered me back to HQ," muttered the captain.
"Don't know, but don't like the sound of it."
"I'll go with you."
Erik nodded. Montoya slapped him on the shoulder. The captain placed a 3-D call to the nearest inter-planetary transport firm.
Three and a half hours later, the return ship was piercing the dominant planet's atmosphere. As Montoya stared straight ahead, the captain gazed out the port, emotionally numb. Once the transport had descended to within twenty miles of the surface, he spied the lighted towers of the premier city, looking in the distance like a miniature, enchanted kingdom. The towers all seemed made of light. As the ship continued decelerating, the true scale of the towers became apparent. The city was called Newhattan. Centuries earlier it had gone by New Manhattan, having been named for an Ancient Earth metropolis because of the predominance of soaring towers. The name had eventually been shorted to reflect the common usage.
Once the transport landed, Montoya headed off to seek some local entertainment while Erik
took an automated hover cab to the coordinates of star fleet's regional headquarters. As the cab took off, a twenty-foot-tall headline was scrolling across the sky: Military Appropriations For Next Year to Increase 15%. A second banner followed: Navy Developing New Weapons to Address Alien Menace. Inside the vehicle, a 3-D newscast was blaring about the latest public opinion polls tracking a high state of alarm among the populace. He tuned it all out.
Moments later, the cab touched down in front of a massive building. The structure had no obvious entrance, no obvious windows. He walked up the facade and held up his hand while an auto scanner identified him. A camouflaged door swung open. He stepped inside. “Welcome, captain. We've been expecting you,” said the well-modulated voice of a military android. Houston had never in his career reported to a facility with such tight security. In a narrow, dimly-lit hallway, an enormous security officer ordered him to pass through a full body scan, a retinal scan, a second body scan and a rather intrusive mind probe that he could actually feel inside his brain even though the probe did not utilize any physical devices. A med scan followed all of the others. Houston was certain there were other remote probes and scans taking place. The hallway ended in a solid wall. The wall split into two halves that parted to create a doorway. Two officers wearing immaculate uniforms and side arms stepped into the hall. They motioned for the captain to follow them then they stepped back through the doorway. He followed them into the next area. The two halves of the wall merged back into one, soundlessly and seamlessly. The escorts led him through a maze of hallways. They stopped in front of a massive door made of inch-thick glass. “Sir, Admiral Lefkowicz will see you now!” said one of the officers. He pointed at the door.
Erik saluted them then pushed open the door. A stocky man with a crew cut and a square jaw glared up at him. It was the man who had sent him the video call just hours earlier. The admiral had grown up on a planet of the Gliese 581 system, a world that was seven times more massive than Earth. The man’s somewhat squat and compact appearance was typical of someone who had grown up in a high grav environment.
Houston was typically gone eight to ten Standard planetary years per mission, a much shorter time for him due to the time dilation that took place when traveling at close to the speed of light. He had first become aware of Lefkowicz three or four missions ago when the future admiral had gotten his first senior position with the regional brass. Over the decades, he had continued to move up in rank until he was now the highest-ranking military leader in this sector.
“Sir, First Contact Captain Erik Houston reporting as ordered!” he snapped, saluting the high commander.
He returned the salute. “At ease, Houston,” he growled. “Have a seat.”
“These are difficult times,” the admiral said. “First, we'll have a briefing.” He waved his hand and a 3-D video appeared. It showed a small town on another planet. The view panned to show a number of adults and families going about their daily activities. Abruptly, the idyllic scene ended with shots of fire falling from the sky, followed by scenes of blackened earth, smoke-filled skies and total devastation.
“Sir, who committed this outrage?” Houston cried.
The officer looked him in the eye with a penetrating gaze. “Non-humans,” he replied. “A massive fleet was passing near the colony's solar system when it launched the attack. Our settlement appeared to be a target of convenience. Or maybe they viewed the loss of life as some twisted sort of fun,” the gravelly voiced man spat.
Houston shook his head.
Lefkowicz waved his hand again. A huge sphere filled the room, a schematic of interstellar space for dozens of light years around. Near the upper left hand edge of the sphere was a mass of illuminated yellow dots. Some distance away was a similar sized group of tiny blue lights. “These are two navies, each one belonging to a different alien race. The one on the left was responsible for the destruction of our colony. We've also been tracking communications between these two forces. We've used our most sophisticated de-scramblers and these two species appear to be taunting one another, challenging one another to war back at the one race's home planet. The beingsthat destroyed our colony.”
Houston's jaw was hanging open. “Sir...where do we come in?” he asked.
The officer leaned into Houston and explained his new assignment. A fire grew in Erik's stomach. “Sir...with all due respect since these two species are about to go to war, why not wait to see what damage they inflict on one another before we become involved?”
The fire in the admiral's eyes was even more intense than the one Houston felt internally. “Because these aliens” (he spat the world) “have humans on dozens of worlds scared of their own shadows. The public is demanding we do something and our political leaders are squawking even louder. The soonest we can get a ship, your ship on the scene is about the time those two races will start shooting at one another, but in the confusion it will be the best possible time for you to do what you need to do.”
“Or, the aliens will be on such a heightened state of alert that the danger to us will be exponentially higher,” Erik thought. His stomach knotted until it hurt. He was tempted to decline the job even if it meant resigning the Navy. "We won't come back alive," he thought, his fists clenching. He didn't mind serving humanity but was reluctant to put his crew in that level of danger.
"Sir, permission to comment.”
“Sir, with respect, I'm not a Special Opps guy," he said as his orbs met the other man's steely eyes.
"Nonsense," the boss replied. "You've conducted successful military opps over the years and have hardly ever lost a crew member. Look at the last planet you were on. What's it called? A'laama?"
Erik's head dropped. "Yes," He returned to piercing the other man's gaze. "A'laama. They'd make a prime candidate for a second visit. I was hoping..."
"All Followup trips have been canceled due to the Emergency,” the big man snapped. “We're putting most of our resources into defense just in case...So, you have your assignment. You're being relieved of your command of the Initiative." (Erik swallowed hard when he heard this.) "We're giving you a new, state-of-the-art ship. It's a smaller vessel so you'll need to limit your crew to sixteen, including yourself. You and your crew will receive some brief but intense training on the ship and its offensive and defensive capabilities. The mission launches in 9600 hours. That is all, captain."
Erik felt as if he had been kicked in the stomach. He stood up from his chair and saluted. The commander returned the gesture. Erik turned to leave. "God be with you, son," the gravelly-voiced man called after him.
Erik stopped in mid-motion. Electricity ran up his spine. "Thank you, sir." he said quietly.
After being led down another maze of hallways, he stepped out into the bright sunlight, shielding his eyes with his hand. But even once his eyes adjusted, he was oblivious to the bustle of the city. If his mind had not been occupied with other matters, he would have noticed that several of the most prominent buildings in the skyline hadn’t existed the last time he’d been here. His shoes began to pound the sidewalk. After walking about twenty minutes, he was suddenly aware of his surroundings. A few blocks ahead stood a tower that seemed to be made of light, typical of a modern skyscraper. The top of the structure disappeared into the clouds. He strode over to the building and stepped into one of the lift shafts. He began to ascend. As he accelerated, he shot past dozens, hundreds of floors but without any sensation of motion. Huge numbers on either side of the shaft noted the floors. The shaft was moving him so fast the numbers were barely discernible. Realizing that the top floor was approaching, with split-second timing he hopped out of the shaft. His feet hitting the solid floor so quickly caused a sharp twinge in his right knee. His gait slowed a little as he headed down a plush carpeted hallway while trying to work out the kink in his knee.
A suicide mission. That wasn't what the brass had called it. They'd given it nicer, politically correct terms. His career had consisted of one-shot visits as head of a First Contact ship, following up on colonies founded generations, even centuries earlier and kept isolated by the vastness of space. He had visited dozens of different worlds, no two of them the same. Some missions had gotten his crew and he into life and death circumstances. But never had he been ordered on into certain death. And this was what the brass called a promotion!
The big bosses had been quite plain. No married couples on this ship. Singles only. The brass had offered a fortune in combat pay and life insurance to all who signed up to go. A fat lot that meant if there was no one left behind to inherit it.
Erik jiggled the drink glass, causing the remnants of the ice cubes to race around in little circles. He'd been staring at the amber liquid long enough. He tossed down the drink, feeling the burning down his throat, into his stomach and out to his extremities. BImaanian resa liquer. The best stuff in this sector. Maybe anywhere.
The spaceman looked up from his drink and gazed out the glass-like walls. He was on the 695th floor of the Triumph Tower, the tallest monument to man on the planet. Outside the transparent walls a bank of clouds, looking like a fluffy carpet, filled the horizon. Peeking through this false floor was a scattering of other buildings. Some were miles distant but they still looked close enough to touch. It was late in the day and the sun was just beginning to turn a portion of the cloud floor a lemon hue.
He pictured her face as if she were sitting across from him. A face that could be as studied as that of an ancient poker player. Round, slight double chin, a bump on her nose from a gang attack as a teen. Brown eyes that could be steely with determination, laughing mischievously, or wide with curiosity. A neck that was always adorned with a gold cross necklace. Soft, light brown hair flowing past her shoulders.
He thought of how aloof she had seemed when they had first met. He thought of her fiery temperament and how she'd clashed with him on several occasions. He had finally fallen under her spell. But it had been a match that couldn't last. The leader of a starship and the ruler of a planet. Two different lives with no way to integrate them.
It had been two months since he'd left her behind. Two months, as marked aboard their ship that had traveled at close to the speed of light. But he knew that five Standard years had passed back on her planet. Curse Einsteinian Relativity! She'd had a long time for life to intervene. Did she still feel the same about him?
The captain shook his head while the bar android chortled in amusement. The starman returned his gaze to the transparent walls and sighed. The cloudy carpet had become golden with a little pink at the edges. His heavy heart was unable to appreciate the beauty that was before him. Fighting back a tear, he continued thinking of the one person with whom he'd like to share this sight. The woman he loved. Light years away and inaccessible. The woman it was impossible that he'd ever see again. Even if he lived.
A few hours later Erik was pacing the room, his eves viewing the seated crew members who had signed in for the virtual meeting, sending 3-D images of themselves to the captain's location. The meeting would consist of multi-way conference.
The captain was slightly tall and had powerful shoulders and a narrow waist. He had dark hair and was clean shaven but was prone to five o'clock shadow, sometimes giving his face a greyish appearance. His somber mood added to the impression.
His eyes rested on several crew members. Luci Strong was short, blonde and thirty-ish with a round, pink face. She worked out frequently and had close to zero body fat. Her face reflected a serene beauty. She'd been on the crew for years and was one of his most capable assistants. She haled from a star system where the inhabitants' accent sounded like an old Southern drawl from ancient America on Earth. After all her years in space and visits to dozens of planets, Luci still had the accent.
Seated next to her was her best friend, Marji Faubner. She was medium height and had light brown hair that she sometimes wore in a ponytail. Luci and Marji were like sisters only without the arguing. Marji had a sharp mind and had been one of Erik's senior engineers aboard the Initiative. His only engineer who had ranked higher was Daj Minj, who had fallen in love with an A'laaman woman and had stayed behind on the planet. Erik paused a moment and wondered how Minj had been doing since the Initiative had departed.
Erik shook his head as if to clear it. His eyes fell upon Irv Malvo who was average height, balding, grey-headed. Over time, Irv had appeared to be ageless. He looked sixty but was past ninety. He was Erik's longtime security chief and spiritual advisor. Normally a jolly man, today Irv was poker-faced, seeming to sense the gravity of the situation.
Standing next to the captain was his second-in-command, Montoya, the one person with whom he had so far discussed the mission. Fred also served as the crew's doctor. He had chestnut hair and a Van Dyke beard, which he was stroking with thumb and forefinger, his eyes having narrowed to slits of concentration.
The leader continued to survey the crowd as more crew members signed into the meeting. He had hated to interrupt everyone's shore leave so early on. It had been over a day since the crew had disembarked and by now, they could be anywhere on the planet, perhaps orbiting it or even elsewhere the solar system. His hand-held device noted forty-eight of the fifty-two were virtually present. Close enough.
"Thank you all for coming," he started off, louder than he had intended. "I apologize for the short notice," he continued, clasping his hands behind him as continued to pace. "Ladies and gentlemen, I've learned that I've been relieved of my command of the Initiative."
A collective gasp echoed around the room. The captain had been in charge of the vessel for more than a dozen years as measured by the odd combination of shipboard time and the collective time spent on various planets. He held up his hands for silence. "I've been offered...actually, ordered to assume command of a newer, sleeker ship. But...the nature of my orders have drastically changed. I've been transferred to Special Opps. Our assignment will be far more dangerous than any we've previously undertaken: re-con on an alien planet where two rival species are expected to go to war." He looked around the room again. The silence was palpable. A number of mouths were hanging open. “You're probably wondering why we humans are getting involved. One of the alien species has struck us hard.” He waved his hand to show the 3-D of the destruction of the Rantran colony. The crew sat in stunned silence as the record of the brutal attack unfolded.
“I won't mince words,” he continued after the video ended. “There's a better than average chance we'll never come back. Our new ship has a crew capacity of only sixteen. I appreciate all of your hard work and faithfulness over the years. We've been like family. I don't feel right ordering any of you to take part in this mission. So I'm asking for volunteers. We launch in less than four days. The rest of you will be assigned to other ships."
Montoya, who was already standing, immediately held up his hand to volunteer. Luci sprung to her feet, as did Irv and several other men. Marji immediately followed Luci. Within a moment, more than half the attendees were on their feet. Three-quarters. Practically everyone. The captain swallowed hard, overwhelmed by the display of loyalty. The group broke into applause. A few cheered.
The captain lowered his head, shaking it from side to side. He again raised his hands for order. "Thank you," he muttered. Then, slightly louder: "I appreciate so many volunteers. Lt. Montoya and I will make the final selection. You'll all be notified as soon as possible. That is all."
Over the next couple hours, the captain and his first officer discussed the qualifications and loyalty of the various volunteers. After a detailed and sometimes animated discussion, they came to an agreement on the crew. In addition to the captain and Montoya, officers would include Irv Malvo in charge of logistics and Marji Faubner as chief engineer. Marji would also serve as flight director supplemented by two backup pilots and the ship’s autopilot. The versatile Luci Strong would be the head of communications, assistant head of logistics and, when needed, helping as a med tech. Luci typically fulfilled several roles on a given mission and had been exemplary at all of them. Rounding out the crew would be several enlisted men and women for a total contingent of sixteen. The skipper hated to dismiss more than two-thirds of his old crew but was grateful that whatever their re-assignments, they would likely entail less risk than what the sixteen would face.
That evening, the entire crew was physically present in a hotel suite for a goodbye party. At one end of the room was a levitating, cake shaped like a 3-D of the Initiative. The mood in the room was palpable when the hotel staff began to carve up the cake. There was a punch fountain and various refreshments. Several knots of crew members talked animatedly. Some of the men and ladies were dancing to lively music. Others were in a glass-walled zero grav room, laughing and floating various objects around as they, also floated from one part of the weightless zone to another.
Marji was slow dancing and with Jev, a tall, blonde man with long sideburns. He had been her fellow crew member. They'd had an on-again-off-gain relationship for years. They had drawn close on their last mission but Marji had learned Jev had not been chosen for the new mission.
In another part of the room Luci, wearing a light blue gown and a silver pendant necklace, glanced around at the festivities. Where was the captain? He must have ducked out shortly after the crew had done a comedic roast of him followed by android waiters serving cake and punch. Houston had seemed unable to relax even at the party.
Luci waved her hand to summon an auto-cab. By the time she reached the sidewalk, the cab was hovering a few feet above the ground. A round entry port appeared in the side and a ramp descended. She hiked up her gown at the knees and hurried up the ramp. The vehicle launched skyward without creating any sense of motion. The city of light retreated until it looked like a miniature carnival. The cab sped to the destination Luci had pre-entered. The darkness of the night quickly gave way to the blackness of space.
Minutes later, the cab touched down hundreds of miles above the planet at an orbiting station. The star port was deserted at this hour. She slipped off her high heels and held them in one hand while she jogged across an ice cold floor over to the cavernous bay where the Initiative was to be serviced prior to being turned over to its new captain. Standing off to the side, staring at the vessel in the dark was a lone figure. He stepped up to it, stroked the hull's skin.
She crept up to him, laid a soft hand on his shoulder. "It's been a great ship," she said.
He smiled without turning around. "The best. How'd you know I'd be here?" he asked, still looking at his former space home.
"Where else would you be?"
"You're missing a good party," she said.
He didn't respond.
"Captain, I...know you have a lot on your mind. The Skymasters are playing in Betaville tonight..."
He turned and looked into her eyes. "You know my rule about dating crew members."
"It wouldn't be a date. Look, I know you're still thinking about… that lady and I wouldn't mess with your mind. This will just be two friends, two coworkers looking for some R&R."
He sighed. "You win. But aren't we a little too dressy for a fly hockey game?"
"Who cares?" she laughed with a shrug.
They walked silently from the bay and found a shuttle heading planetside. They were soon zipping through the sky a few thousand feet above the planet surface. The stadium was one of several buildings that hovered far above the city. The vehicle approached the arena and descended toward a wide ring of concrete that surrounded the building and served as a landing pad and parking area. “Say, isn’t this place new?” he asked. “I don’t think it was here last time we were home.”
His partner laughed. “No, it’s over twenty years old.”
“With our job, I always feel like we’re in a time warp.”
“That’s because we are,” she drawled.
“Game's about to start. Let’s go,” said Erik, glancing at his wrist chronometer. Luci and he hurried out of the vehicle and into the sports venue.
Sky hockey was modeled after the ancient ice hockey except that it was played in three dimensions by players who soared through the air on antigrav belts and used magnetic poles to guide a metal ball to a goal. Erik had always been a huge fly hockey fan. As the game progressed, Luci was glad to see him begin to relax. He rose to his feet and shouted when his team scored strategic goals. She even joined in some of the mayhem.
Hours later, the captain had a smile on his face as they headed toward an exit. She looked up at him and smiled, too. Mission accomplished.
He strode over toward an empty part of the lobby. "Will you help me with some shopping?" he asked.
She raised an eyebrow. The captain? Shopping?
He waved his hand to set up both a visual block and a sound block. A virtual jewelry store sprang up around them. He walked over to a case displaying dozens of expensive-looking rings. She looked at him even more uncertainly.
He pored over the selection. "Are there any that you like?" he asked.
"Any that I like? Uh...that one's nice. But Erik. What...?"
"I've got her ring size from the security scan we did of all major officials on her planet..." he said absently. His eyes lit up. "Whoa! Look at this." He pointed at a ring with a large, elegantly-cut local gemstone, ice blue in color. "Do think she'll like it?"
Luci was breathless. "I-I think any woman would be flattered..."
"I'd like to see that one, please." The incredible ring appeared in the palm of his hand. He studied it, turning it over. "Size 11." The ring re-appeared in the display case and a slightly larger one materialized in his hand.
“How much?” asked the captain.
“Thirty-two thousand units,” said a dis-embodied female voice.
“Thirty-one,” the unseen female said more firmly.
“Twenty-nine. You're not the only jeweler in town.”
“Done,” the disembodied voice sighed.
He waved a coin-sized debit chip as payment. A decorative box appeared around the ring. He stuck it in his pocket.
Luci stared at him, slack-jawed. Her normally-sensible boss had just paid a fortune for a ring for a woman he would never see again.
Montoya was pacing up and down, his face red. What was the captain trying to do, get them all killed? They were days ways from leaving on a critical mission. Yet all the boss seemed to think about was this woman from their previous job. Montoya had never liked her. Temperamental aristocrat. He'd hoped that after the months on the return voyage he'd gotten her out of his system. A First Contact ship like their old vessel never returned to a previously-visited planet. Zama Elle was ancient history, as if she had never existed.
Plopping into a chair, the second-in-command was almost trembling. He swallowed hard as he thought about what he had to do. He hesitated for a few minutes until the fire in his stomach got best of him. He waved his hand and placed an audio-only call, saying in a low voice: "Central Command? Yes. I-I've got some critical information affecting Mission Alpha-Four-Gamma."
An hour later, he was standing in person before a long desk of dour officials. He was wearing a grey, hooded cloak, which covered his face.
"Lt. Montoya, what is this all about?" demanded the lead official.
He pulled the hood off his head. "Sir, I have grave concerns about Captain Houston's ability to lead this mission. He's mentally unstable."
"On what grounds do you make this accusation?" shot a second dignitary.
"He thinks he's in love with the ruler of the last planet we visited. He kept talking about her the entire return trip."
"So, where's the mental instability?" snapped the third council member, a lady who wore her auburn hair in a bun.
Montoya pulled at his beard. "Ma'am, he just bought a ring for her. An expensive ring."
"And you saw him do this?" asked the council leader.
"No. A lady crew member did. Then she confided in me. She's concerned about him, too."
"Dr. Montoya," snapped the leader. "Captain Houston has effectively served the Association on dozens of missions spanning centuries of planetary time. That's why we chose him to lead the new mission. We do an auto psych scan of each captain when they first arrive for leave. This is frankly none of your business, but the captain is well within the range of normal. Everyone has their own way of reacting to the stress of conducting a mission, particularly one like this. If the captain wants to throw away money on some phantom woman from the past, so be it!"
The lady commander jumped back in: "And might I remind you, lieutenant, your recent track record has been less than stellar. At your last port of call, you and engineer Daj Minj engaged in a minor mutiny that temporarily cost us the goodwill of that planet and almost scuttled the mission. For this you were both disciplined and demoted one full rank. Is this not correct?"
Montoya dropped his eyes to the floor. "Yes, Ma'am."
The third official jumped in: "Given your previous lack of loyalty, you should be glad we're not pulling you from the mission. Now get out of here while you still have an assignment."
"Yes, sir." He shuffled out of the meeting room.
Barely twenty minutes after he left the meeting, he was startled by a 3-D message in tall red, letters that raced in front of him just inches from his eyes: “MONTOYA! MY OFFICE! NOW!” He cursed before responding. The brass must have told him. Or Luci did. Who else knew? He hustled over to the temporary office the Navy had assigned to the captain for the few days until the mission launched. The skipper was standing and drumming his fingers on his desk when Fred burst into the room. Both officers were equally red-faced.
“Lieutenant, take a seat,” the captain ordered.
“What’s the meaning of going behind my back to complain to the brass about my leadership?” Erik demanded. The first officer looked at the floor. “Well?”
“It's that woman,” Fred snapped. “That Zama woman. Erik, you bought her a ring?”
“Is that any of your business?”
“It is when we're about to leave on a mission. I need you, we need you to be thinking soundly, not day dreaming about sex or romance or whatever is going through your head. Humanity needs strategic information on these hostile aliens. And fifteen other people are trusting you with their lives.”
“If you had concerns, why didn't you come to me?”
“Sir, I was concerned about the soundness of your judgment.”
“Still no excuse. I'm your commanding officer.”
Montoya glared at his boss then dropped his eyes. Finally, the captain resumed speaking. “Look, my mind and heart are totally on this mission. I'm determined to get it done and get it done right. I'm committed to bringing all of you back home safely.”
“Or die trying,” said Montoya, reading the captain's mind.
Houston ran his hand through his thick hair. “But I'm also deeply disappointed in you. First that stunt on A'laama. Now this. I can't keep having you stab me in the back. If you want reassigned, just say the word.”
“No, no. I want to go on this mission.”
“Then act like it. I want you on the mission, too. You're definitely the most qualified. You just said you want me to have your back. But I need you to have mine, too. So, no more second guessing. You've got to trust me.”
Montoya sat in silence.
“So, are you with me?” snapped the captain.
“Okay. But any more disloyalty and you'll force me to replace you. I can even do that mid-mission if I have to. Are we clear on that?”
“Get some sleep. It's late and we've got an early date with the new ship tomorrow.”
Montoya arose from his chair and shuffled out of the room.
The captain began pacing the floor. He wondered: “Why did I buy that ring? I'm anything but impulsive.” He had spent more money on the jewelry than a new Space Academy cadet earns in a year. “I've been kidding myself. It's over and that I'll never see her again. Maybe this is what I've needed for closure.”
But another voice in his mind told him: “Closure would be sticking that ring into a disintegration chamber. Or pitching it into the blackness of space. You know she could never love you. You're too different from one another.”
He stuck his hand into his pocket and touched the soft velvet of the ring box. The captain stood there for some time, lost in his thoughts.