In the section C control room on deck nine of the Venus 1 space station, Ensign Maureen Smith sat at her desk and stared through the terminal screen, her mind more on her coffee than her work. She wrapped her right hand around the cup, her palm not quite touching the hot mug. The heat from the coffee comforted her. She slid her finger up the smooth glass, testing the heat to see if the coffee had cooled enough not to burn her tongue.
It was still too hot, but the warm steam slipping between her palm and the glass was comforting. She took her eyes off the screen, leaning over to put her nose over the cup and let the comforting scent slide up her face and into her nostrils. She instantly felt more awake, as if the very scent was infused with caffeine.
A blip appeared on her screen. Maureen saw the flash out of the corner of her eye, gave herself one more luxurious second of steam, and finally turned back to her controls.
She knew at once the ship was moving fast, much faster than normal for a ship coming so close to the station. She typed in the commands to route the radar, her hands a blur of movement over her keyboard. Pounding the enter key, she waited the few precious seconds for the radar to locate the ship and read its identification. The screen to her left responded by filling up with text.
Ship Name: Anaconda 09684. Class: Small Fighter. Pilot: Hans Grucher. Co-Pilot: None. Flight Plan: Classified. Mission: Classified. Docking Code: X1R289
She flipped the switch to her communications and triggered a command. “Anaconda 09684, this is the Venus 1 station, please state your docking code for verification,” she said in the practiced, bored voice she used when talking to the pilots.
“Anaconda 09684, this is the Venus 1 station, do you read me?”
She glanced at the radar screen. The ship’s speed had not decreased and its trajectory was still on target with the station. Her fingers flashed to life again typing in several other commands. The radar at the top of the station was already fixed on the ship and the results of her commands appeared on her screen.
Scanning Life Signs. Life Form Scan: Positive. Life Forms: 1 Life Form Status: Alive Command Complete. Scanning Movement. Movement Detected: None. Command Complete. Scanning Sound Waves. Sound Waves Detected: Level 1. Command Complete.
“Damnit,” she whispered. One person, still alive, not moving and the sound inside of the ship was so light it could simply be the slight buzz of the retro engines.
She punched in another command to her keyboard. “Lieutenant?”
“We’ve got a problem. I have a ship traveling at .04 headed straight for the station. Radar has detected one person on board, alive, but no movement and little sound.”
There was a slight pause and then, “Holy Mother! Are you sure you read that right, Ensign?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, letting a little bit of her irritation slip into her voice. “Is there something I should know about the ship, sir?”
“Umm, no, just keep track of it, Ensign, and await further instructions.”
“Of course, sir.”
Lieutenants. They wanted you to know what to do but they never wanted you to know what you were doing. Her hands danced above the keyboard again as she programmed the system to automatically track the ship and alert her to any change in velocity, trajectory, life signs, movement or sound within the ship.
“Looks like we have an unconscious pilot again,” she said to the Ensign beside her.
“Second one this month,” he noted, whistling. “That’s rare.”
“Probably asleep.” She snorted. “Well, he’ll be getting a hard wakeup call soon enough.”
She waited, still tracking the ship’s movement. Every ten seconds she repeated her hail of the ship, “Anaconda 09684, this is the Venus 1 station, do you read?” She wasn’t expecting a reply from the ship, but she did expect further instructions from the Lieutenant. When several minutes passed without hearing from him, she became nervous.
She flipped the communications link over. “Lieutenant?”
There was a slight pause, and then, “Yes, Ensign? Has there been a change in the ship?”
“No, sir. I was waiting for further instructions.”
“Then why aren’t you waiting for them?” he rebuffed her.
“Yes, sir, it’s just that the ship is getting rather close.”
“I realize that, Ensign, please wait for further instructions.”
Damn. What was going on? Normal procedure would be to remotely activate the ship’s computer and guide the ship safely into one of the docking bays. There, the ship’s pilot would be in for a rude awaking if he was found asleep at the helm, as had happened just a few weeks previous with a young pilot in his first year. Maureen had seen him sweeping the halls the next week, and knew it would be some time before that one was let back into a ship again.
She watched the dot on her radar screen get closer to the center and began to tap her fingernails on the desk. She looked over at her mug of coffee, putting a finger up against the glass. It was nice and warm. She picked it up, bringing it to her lips for a soothing sip, but her eyes never wavered from the small dot crawling closer to the center of the radar screen.
Above her terminals was what appeared to be a large glass window looking out onto space. Of course, it wasn’t a window. The station was completely encased in metal several dozen feet thick. But the display was so clear it could easily be mistaken for a window. She stared at the display trying to spot the small pinprick of light moving toward her. There were several ships in orbit around the station, but this one was the only ship in her section.
She had just located what looked like a moving star when the entire display lit up in a blaze of green light. There was no accompanying sound — the laser turrets on the top of the station above her were out in the vastness of space where sound did not travel. Maureen stared at the display, horrified, and watched the small dot of light flare briefly and then wink out altogether. The dot on her radar screen disappeared at the same time.
What had just happened? She glanced at her comm control, her finger hovering above it, but she didn’t press the button. She had already been rebuffed once. If she called her Lieutenant again, it would be written up in her file.
She didn’t need to bother. In a few seconds, his voice came through the receiver in her ear. “Ensign?”
“You are to forget what you have witnessed in the past few minutes.”
“The other Ensigns in your section will be requested to do the same.”
“Good day, Ensign.”
“Good day to you, sir.”
Maureen was preoccupied. The image of a green flash still floated in her head, and try as she might, she couldn’t banish it from her mind.
She stepped into the civilian area of the space station, a fact that she knew only because she knew the station so well. The walls were still colored non-descript gray and the floors covered in a white marble tile that echoed each step. But there was a feeling she got when she stepped into the civilian area, a relaxed air that drifted in through her flesh to soothe her bones.
Other than that, the area was much like any other portion of the station. Not even the civilians were much different. They may not be enlisted, but they had to suffer through the same security checks for the benefit of about the same pay, which was not that much. Many of the civilians had worked on this station, or other stations, for years and were so engraved in the culture that they were frequently mistaken for being military.
But not where she was headed. It was a restaurant that would have been considered quaint Earthside, but quaint had no business on this space station and so business suffered.
It was Maureen’s favorite.
She stepped inside and spotted Jill, the owner and hostess, dealing with a couple of officers. They locked eyes, and Jill told her to find a seat with a nod of her head. Maureen nodded and walked over to her favorite table in the corner.
The table was wood — real wood not a plastic imitation — and so were the chairs. There wasn’t a terminal at the table. Instead, a real live person would come by and take her order. Quaint. Maureen dined at the restaurant enough to know the wait staff, and she spotted Frank rounding the bar as soon as she sat at the table.
She liked Frank. He was an older gentleman — not an old man, but an older gentleman — who had been on the station for nearly a decade...