Belonging

 

Chapter 3

by

Michelle Pichette

 

 

     Nelson had worked on reports for two hours, but couldn’t shake the unease he had felt since Barris’ visit.  The security system checked out as fine, so Barris had obviously disabled it temporarily while he was in the room.  Even more odd was that Katy didn’t seem to have heard anything going on in Nelson’s office.  Nelson didn’t ask her directly, though, and he didn’t tell anyone about Barris.  Nelson did not like the idea of the alien popping in like that again, perhaps at a more inopportune time, but he didn’t want to involve anyone else until he knew more about what was going on.  Nelson decided he needed something else to put his mind on, so he went down to the dock to see how things were going there.

     The Seaview was bustling with activity now that it had been shifted to dry dock and the hull repairs could be properly assessed and addressed.  Nelson found Ro Simmons was surveying part of the hull and making notes on her clipboard.  “Well, Miss Simmons, I can see that it isn’t pretty.  I got your preliminary report, but now that you’ve had a chance to really go over things, how quickly can your team get us back in the water?” Nelson asked as he went to stand next to her.  He knew what his estimate was, and it wasn’t a pleasant thought, but he thought that he’d see what she had to say.

     “Still three weeks, I think, depending on how our supply stores look, Sir.  If we have to send out for additional titanium hull plating, it will take even longer.  I’m going to check stores as soon as I finish here,” Miss Simmons told him.

     Her estimate coincided with his so Nelson nodded.  “You’ll have to break off early Friday so that you can dress for the fund raiser, of course,” he reminded her.

     “I’d rather be working on the solid waste system,” Miss Simmons said with distaste.

     “It’s not as bad as all that,” Nelson said with a soft laugh.

     “You try being charming for hours in heels and we’ll talk,” she replied irritably.  “And if Senator Barnett grabs my butt one more time, he’s leaving with a black eye.”

     Nelson grew suddenly serious.  “Senator Barnett has been taking liberties?”

     “Senator Barnett’s hands need a leash.  If you don’t believe me, ask Dom.  He’s ‘bumped’ into her for a quick grope more than once.  Why do you think she avoids close quarters with him?”

     Nelson found himself scowling.  “Senator Barnett will be put on notice as to the undesirable results of continued activities of that nature.  Anything else?”

     “Yoshi Kannaka has the worst breath in the free world and he always wants to talk, at length, about the current technology being released,” Miss Simmons said, making a disgusted face.  That brought Nelson’s smile back.

     “He’s also very generous to the Institute.  I’ll arm you with mints.  Any other offending parties?” Nelson asked.

     “None of that caliber spring to mind at the moment,” she replied, taping her clipboard with her mechanical pencil.  She was trying to figure out a way out of the entire ordeal, Nelson knew, but he’d shot down all her previous reasons why she could not attend.

     “Then Captain Crane will be at your house at six sharp to get you Friday evening,” Nelson said, thinking that, perhaps, would solve any transportation issues.

     “I told you, if I must go to this thing, I’ll drive myself,” she replied, proving him wrong.  “I’ll even go pick up Lee if you want us to arrive together.”  Though they were very low key about the matter and gave very little indication when the Seaview was on a mission, Nelson knew they were dating.  It hadn’t interfered with anything as far as Institute business and considering how professional both Lee and Miss Simmons were about their jobs, Nelson doubted it ever would.  The Seaview came first and foremost with both of them.  Perhaps that was one of the common interests that had brought them together.

     “The two of you arriving together isn’t the issue.  I want to make sure you arrive.”

     “I said that I would come, so I’ll come.  And if this is some sort of macho thing, stop it,” Miss Simmons told him, then added an overly sweet, “Sir.”

     “Lieutenant Commander Simmons, you are being picked up from your domicile and transported here for the fund raiser, then home again,” Nelson said firmly.  “Whether it is by Captain Crane or one of the staff cars is irrelevant to me, but that is what will happen.  Are we clear about this?”

     Miss Simmons gave him a slightly surprised look.  “Yes, sir.  I wasn’t aware I was under orders.”

     “You are.  I’d order you to have a good time once you arrived, but I wouldn’t want to overstep my authority.”

     “Thank goodness, because I don’t know if I could do that even under orders,” Miss Simmons said.  “If you’ll excuse me, Sir, I have to go to stores.”

     “Of course, Miss Simmons,” Nelson said, waving her on her way.  He walked the length of the Seaview, looking over the damage from this typically unique vantage point, then sighed.  His poor old girl.  She’d taken a beating.  He was just glad his crew was intact after the attack.  He didn’t let it show, but he considered them almost as much his family as Edith was.  He didn’t like to see any of them hurt.  Each death on the Seaview was like a stab through his heart.  It was not the view most military men would have, but it was his and he did not regret having it.

     Once he’d finished looking over the Seaview, Nelson went back to the dock and looked at the engineers scuttling over the Diving Bell.  It hadn’t been functioning very well for months now and had let them down severely on this mission.  He knew the problem had something to do with the wiring, but more important things kept demanding his attention and he could never address the Bell personally.  His Institute engineering staff was excellent, he thought it the best in the country, but for some reason, the Diving Bell’s problems seemed to baffle them.

     “I think I’ve got it this time, Admiral,” Greg Portman, one of his younger staff members, chirped as he hurried over to where the Admiral watched the activity.  He was what people referred to as tall, dark, and handsome.  Thirty years old, physically fit, from old money, and a very promising Masters degree graduate from MIT, Portman was a bit of a snob, but he was a very intelligent snob all the same.  Portman’s one major problem in Nelson’s eyes was that he was a butt kisser.  Nelson honestly didn’t know what the young man thought he was going to gain from it, since it had garnered him nothing but annoyed looks so far, but here he was, ready for action again.  He’d found that cross words leveled at the engineer only seemed to spur him on to try harder, so Nelson had long since stopped using them.  Portman really was a good engineer, so Nelson didn’t want to fire him, but sometimes he simply didn’t know what to do with the man.  “I found a problem in the guidance program.  Could be a virus.  I’ll run through all the code just to be sure,” Portman said, trailing Nelson as he started toward the Institute.

     “Fine, Greg, but I’d like the wiring checked over.  There seems to be a bad connection or a partial break somewhere,” Nelson told him, not slowing his pace.

     “I think you’ll find, sir, that once I clean up and update the Bell’s programming, things will run a lot more smoothly,” Portman told him, doggedly following Nelson as he sped up his pace.  Damn, Nelson thought, it was like having a puppy.

     “I’m sure it will, Greg.  Just remember the wiring,” Nelson told him as they entered the elevator to the Institute’s main level.  Portman went on in finer detail about the suspected virus, but Nelson was barely listening at this point.  As the doors opened again, Nelson all but shot out the elevator, saying, "I'm sure you've got it well in hand, Greg.  Dismissed."  Must as he hoped that would be the end of the onslaught, Portman continued to scuttle after him.

     “You can count on me, sir.  Oh, and I had my tuxedo pressed for Friday.  Looking forward to it, sir,” Portman gushed.

     Nelson felt like rolling his eyes, thinking, ‘you would be,’ then spotted Doctor Babin in the distance, walking slowly up the hall as she read something in a file folder.  “Yes, well, see you then,” he said, hoping the man would take the hint.  “Doctor Babin, a word,” he called after her, walking a little more quickly toward her.

     “Uh, Admiral, you know the improved minisub project that Lieutenant Commander Simmons has started?  I was thinking that...” Portman started as he continued to keep pace with the Admiral.         

     Nelson stopped just short of Doctor Babin, who gave him a quizzical look, then said, “Hello, Greg.  Weren’t you working on the Diving Bell?”

     “Actually, I need to go to my office to review code.  I think I found a bug,” he stated as if it would impress her.  Somehow he was the only person at the Institute that had missed the fact that Doctor Babin and technology did not get along.

     “A bug?  Well, you’d better exterminate it then before it causes problems,” Doctor Babin said, nodding seriously.

     “Actually, it’s called debugging and I...”

     “Debugging.  Yes, I think you mentioned that before, Greg,” she said, then turned to the Admiral.  “Do you need to see me in my office about that specimen we discussed, Admiral?”  She gave him a wink, but it was so quick that even he almost missed it.

     Thank goodness for Doctor Babin, Nelson thought as he said, “If you have a moment.”

     “Certainly, Admiral,” she said, then turned to Portman and saying, “Excuse us, Greg.”

     “Of course, I... uh... I was thinking maybe we could meet for dinner tonight to discuss...” he stammered out, flustered because he obviously wasn’t prepared for this latest attempt to lure Doctor Babin into a more private setting.

     “I’m sorry, Greg.  I’m so exhausted that once I leave here, I think I’m going right home to bed,” Doctor Babin told him, managing to sound appropriately spent.

     “Yes, of course.  How thoughtless of me.  Perhaps another time then.  Sorry to keep you both.  I’ll just be in my office,” Portman said, walking off backwards, gesturing in the direction he was moving.

     “Bye then,” Doctor Babin said, giving him a little wave, then turned toward her own office.  Nelson went right along with her, not at all minding the easy escape she’d given him.  After they’d gone a few yards, she let out an deep sigh, then asked, “Have I ever thanked you for putting Engineering and Marine Biology in separate wings, Admiral?”

     Nelson smiled and chuckled.  “Our Mister Portman is persistent, isn’t he?”

     “He asked if I had a date for the fund raiser the minute I stepped foot in the Institute, even though I turned him down just before we shipped out.  I told him I already had an escort.  I hope you don’t mind being my date,” she said.

     “Of course not, Doctor Babin, if you don’t mind being on the arm of an old man all evening,” Nelson said, offering her his arm as they walked along.

     “You?  Old?  That could never happen.  You will always be young and vital and able to outrun and out think the rest of us poor mortals,” she said with a warm smile, giving his arm a squeeze.

     Ah, if only he were in his twenties again, Nelson thought, patting the young marine biologist’s hand.  “You’ve been taking lessons from Portman.”

     “Perish the thought.  I just hope he’ll take the hint and stop asking me out.  He’s really not my type,” Dom said.

     “I thought you liked men of intelligence,” Nelson commented.

     “I do, but Greg’s only real attraction to me has to do with ambition not chemistry,” Doctor Babin said.  “He thinks if he’s involved with the Seaview’s first permanently stationed female Marine Biologist, that will give him clout.  Sorry, but I’m not interested in being a tool to further someone’s career goals.”

     Good for her, Nelson thought with a smile, then frowned a bit that she didn’t have a male companion more her own age that she wanted to attend the fund raiser with.  Certainly some of the sailors on the Seaview would have leapt at the chance of having her on their arm for the evening.  Maybe she didn’t think it would be proper, so Nelson tried to think of someone outside of the Seaview that she had spoken about.  Only one person came to mind.  “And how is your friend in Virginia?”

     “Alex?  Still a friend.  No, I still don’t have a boyfriend, but somehow life has not lost any of its luster.  And if you want to hide out in my office, you’d better not try to fix my up with anyone,” she cautioned him.

     “Then consider the subject dropped.  How are Doctor Lorn’s intelligence tests with the new octopus coming?” Nelson asked, knowing that was what Doctor Babin had been reading about when he’d approached her.  This way he could get an update without having to read the file himself.

     “Very well.  She’s a smart girl.  She got half way across the Institute on one escape attempt,” Doctor Babin laughed softly.

     They talked for about an hour, until almost five o’clock, then Nelson stood from his chair and said, “I should let you go.  I’m sure you have matters to attend to at home.”  It had been a long day.  He couldn’t believe that they had been in pitched battle at sea less than a day ago.  He was glad that the Seaview and her crew had all made it home.

     “I hesitate to think about the state of my house,” Dom admitted as she rose.  “Not to mention my yard.”

     “Why don’t you get a maid and lawn service?” Nelson asked.

     “I like doing things for myself, not that I’m going to do much more than open windows so the house can air a little tonight.  I think I’m going to make myself a little dinner and sit out on the patio in my hammock and get some fresh air, too,” she said.  She got up, put a couple of open files from her desk into her bag, then shut down her computer.  Nelson knew she wasn’t planning to come in for the next couple of days, but would probably do some work from home.  Nelson almost wished he didn’t have to come into the office either, but there was too much to be done at the moment.  “I hope you weren’t planning to spend the entire night working on the dreaded,” she paused and shifted her tone to one as low as her voice could go, “government reports.”

     “No.  They can certainly wait one more night,” Nelson told her as he picked up his jacket from where he had discarded it earlier.

     “They certainly can,” Doctor Babin agreed, then gave him an assessing look.  “So, going to tell me what you’ve been avoiding telling me for the last hour, or should I go home and forget about it?”

     Nelson had been tempted to talk to her about Barris, just as he had been tempted to discuss him with Lee, but he decided that neither of them needed to worry about the odd encounter.  After all, it wasn’t as if Barris were the first strange visitor that Nelson had ever had pop into his office.  Pem sprang to mind.  No, best not to bring anyone into this unless necessary.  “Nothing really.  Just something I didn’t expect in my office earlier,” Nelson replied as he opened her office door and showed her out before him.

     “Not Olivia, I hope,” Doctor Babin said with a smile.  She was referring to Doctor Lorn’s octopus.

     “No,” Nelson said with a chuckle.  “Get some rest.  I’ll see you Friday evening.”

     “Good night, Admiral,” Doctor Babin said cheerfully, waving as she walked toward the Institute’s lobby.

     Nelson walked back toward his own office, thinking that he would go through some of his mail before going home himself, when Chip appeared, holding a thick file, most likely containing a detailed damage control report.  Nelson sighed at the size of it, thinking that maybe three weeks was a short estimate after all.  He was definitely going out on a scientific mission next, something harmless and bland.  He hated the aftermath of government missions.

     * * *

     Dylan had come down to the aft sensor array because the messages he had been routing through the intercom were not getting the desired results.  He was a little irritated that he’d had to come all the way aft in the first place.  He was the captain.  Why was it that no one ever seemed to listen to him?  Granted, his current crew wasn’t comprised of the Commonwealth soldiers he was used to, but still, would it be so much to ask that someone actually do what he asked them to, especially when it was for their own good?  And here he was, chasing down what was probably the worst offender in that area.  “Harper!” he yelled, even more annoyed when he couldn’t see the engineer anywhere and there was no where further back to go.

     “What?” Harper yelled back his head popping out from one of the overhead access ways.  “Dylan, I’m working here.  If you keep bugging me, you’re never gonna know if there’s a sensor glitch or not.”  He hung there looking at Dylan with an annoyed expression, systems analyzer in one hand, totally upside down, not seeming to notice his odd vantage point.  He was also acting like Dylan hadn’t spent the better part of the last hour telling him that knowing whether there was a sensor glitch came in a distant second to Harper fully recovering from the virus that so recently had very nearly killed him.

     Dylan drew a deep breath, telling himself that losing his temper wouldn’t accomplish anything.  Harper was just antsy because he’d been made to stay still for such a long time while he’d been sick.  Harper had spent five days fighting down the virus, then Trance had kept him in medical for two more days just to be sure that he wasn’t going to relapse yet again and so that he could build up enough strength to stand up on his own.  After she let him out, she told him stay in his quarters and get a lot of sleep and fluids other than Sparky cola.  Trance wanted him to recuperate for at least a week before even picking up light duty because fighting the virus had taken a lot out of him.  The Andromeda had been repaired by the automated systems by that point, so Dylan didn’t have a problem with that.  He wouldn’t have begrudged Harper the time he needed to recover even if the ship weren’t fully operational, though he would have doubted that he could have made Harper stay still if they’d really needed him.

     Harper had behaved for a while, but then he just up and went back to work without saying anything.  Andromeda probably hadn’t thought to notify anyone because Harper working wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary.  He typically built, fixed or improved things to relax.  The only reason anyone knew was because Trance had gone to his quarters and found him gone.  That had not made Trance at all happy, nor did it please Beka, who was still feeling justifiably guilty over Harper getting sick in the first place.  They, in turn, made Dylan very unhappy about Harper not resting like he was supposed to by badgering him as to what he was going to do about it.  At first, Dylan had told them that Harper was a grown man and knew whether he was feeling well enough to work.  That hadn’t pleased anyone.  In the end, Dylan had gone looking for Harper so that the two women would give him a little peace on the matter.

     “Harper, you’re supposed to be resting,” he said as patiently as possible, hoping that Harper, for once, would just acquiesce and go quietly back to his quarters.  It wasn’t going to happen, Dylan knew, but it was nice to think about.

     “I did.  For three whole days, not counting Med Deck time.  My brain was seizing up I was so bored.  I’m just poking around a little, honest,” Harper said.  How could he look so comfortable like that, Dylan wondered.  Wasn’t the blood rushing to his head?  There couldn’t be anything loose in Harper’s pockets.  It would have hit the deck long ago.  Dylan knew for a fact that Trance had hidden Harper’s tool belt, thinking that would deter him from working.  Obviously, they would need to take more drastic action next time he got seriously ill.  “By the way, everything looks fine so far, just like I already told you it probably would, so I think we have a tail.”

     “Fine.  We have a tail.  Now go get some sleep,” Dylan said.

     Harper rolled his eyes and groaned.  “I’ve been sleeping!  I rested.  I ate all the soup and drank all the tea Trance brought me even though I didn’t particularly like the stuff.  I watched every movie I own while I was still trapped on the Med Deck.  I even read Andromeda’s entire technical manual.  There’s nothing left for me to do in my quarters.  My disgustingly clean and tidy quarters, I’ll have you know.  Thank you Beka and Rommie ever so much for putting all my stuff just the way you like it so I can’t find anything anymore.  And they took my tools!  Not just my tool belt, which better be all right, but all the ones in my quarters too!  I was using them on stuff in there!  Anyway, I’m all better now.  I need to do something or I’m gonna go nuts.”

     “I see,” Dylan said, trying not to laugh at Harper’s rant.  Poor Beka had been so proud of straightening out his room for him to surprise him.  He wondered if Harper would tell her what he thought of her efforts.  Rommie, no doubt, already knew, since she knew everything the Andromeda did because she was another aspect of the ship.  Trance must have taken the tools when she had taken his tool belt.  Dylan cocked his head, trying to look Harper in the eye, but it was impossible.  “Could you... come down here.  You’re making me dizzy.”

     Harper sighed dramatically, then flipped out the access way and dropped down in front of Dylan.  Unlike last time, he landed firmly, still looking as fit as he had when he'd been hanging upside down a moment ago.  He didn't look pale and haggard as he had when Trance had released him from the Med Deck, but he'd lost a lot of weight and hadn't come anywhere near putting the majority of it back on.  That alone made Dylan a little worried, afraid that Harper was rushing things.  “Look, Dylan, I’m fine.  Really.  I just want to do something other than bore myself to tears for a few hours, okay?”

     Dylan looked him over closely and he had to admit, Harper did seem mostly recovered from his illness, weight loss aside.  “All right.  Just don’t overdo it,” he gave in.  Harper gave Dylan one of his big, sunny, dimple filled smiles, but he was probably the only one that was going to be happy about Dylan’s decision.  “So, is there anything we can do with our sensors to get a little more range and catch our tail unaware?”

     “I’ve been thinking about it,” Harper said, then pulled a flexie out of where it had been crammed into his back pocket, “and while I was trapped in my quarters I designed this.  It’ll give you a boost of about another hundred and fifty thousand meters range on sensors.  I’ll have to make one for each array, but I can try it out on rear sensors first and see if it helps at all with our shy friend back there.  I can probably amp up whole sensor system permanently later, but this will give you a quick boost for the short term.”

     Dylan looked at the flexie, not entirely sure what he was looking at, but then he wasn’t an engineer.  “All right.  How long?  And remember, we are talking at quarter normal Harper speed.”  Harper usually worked at a manic pace that made those watching him dizzy.  Dylan didn’t want him to wear himself out.

     “How ‘bout half?” Harper asked with his little cocky grin.  Dylan gave him a glare and Harper backed right down.  “Okay, okay, working at a leisurely pace with lots of breaks...” he paused and shrugged, “four hours?”

     Dylan nodded and gave him the ‘you have pleased the Captain’ smile, patted him on the shoulder and said, “You get to do one, then you go lie down for the rest of the day.”  Harper drew in a deep breath, obviously preparing to offer rebuttal, but Dylan didn’t give him a chance.  “Or Trance is going sneak up on you with tranquilizers and strap you down so you can’t get up again until she feels you have sufficiently recuperated, and she will do it with my blessing.  Got it?”

     “Yeah, I’ve got it, but all this inactivity is under protest,” Harper said irritably.

     “Duly noted,” Dylan told him and started to leave, then thought better of it.  Best to leave Harper with no loop holes, he thought as he turned back to find Harper right on his heels.  He looked the engineer dead in the eye, looming menacingly over the much shorter man, and instructed, “Straight to the machine shop, make one sensor array enhancement and nothing else, install it, then straight to bed, Harper.”

     “I said okay, already,” Harper carped, but he did look a little uncomfortable in Dylan’s glare.  Dylan smiled mentally, thinking Harper might be a self proclaimed genius, but he had never been in charge of four thousand people.  Harper was going to have to work at it a little harder to slip something by him now that Dylan knew him as well as he did.

     Dylan returned to the Command Deck to find everything quiet there for the moment.  Beka was at the helm.  “Did you straighten him out?” she asked after a moment.

     “I gave him a reprieve.  He’s doing one thing in the machine shop, then he’s going back to bed,” Dylan told her.

     “You spoil our kids so,” Beka teased him.  “Why don’t you just find a nice, safe, watery world and strand him on a beach without his surfboard.  He’ll have to rest then and he’s always complaining that he wants a vacation.”

     “Don’t think that I haven’t considered it, but you know how Harper attracts trouble.  He’ll make a pass at some local girl and wind up in jail or sentenced to be sacrificed to the volcano god or something,” Dylan sighed.  That much about Harper was all too predictable.

     “All right, an uninhabited, nice, safe... Oh, forget it.  He’d still find a way to get into trouble,” Beka said with a little laugh and a shake of her head.  Dylan laughed with her because, for the moment, Harper was fine.  His recent illness was one example of how bad luck hunted Harper down and pounced on him with alarming frequency.  Beka seemed to be reading his thoughts, because she added, “And if he gets sick again, it isn’t my fault.”

     “I know, I know, but he promised to behave.  And he is tweaking our rear sensors.  Maybe we’ll finally get a look at whoever is back there,” Dylan said, then thought about it and asked, “Andromeda, they are still back there, aren’t they?”  He hadn’t gotten any updates for a while.  Maybe their tail had given up and gone away.  He doubted it, but stranger things had happened.

     “Our last contact was three minutes ago.  I expect one again at any time,” the ship responded.

     Dylan nodded, saying, “Keep me posted.”  The ship had been back there for more than a week now.  It had even followed them through slipstream somehow without giving any indication of having used slipstream itself.  Once they were repaired, Dylan had tried to hail them.  There was no response.  He sent out drones.  The ship disappeared until the drones were recalled.  It had now gotten to the point where Dylan wished they would either approach in a friendly manner or attack, but they just stayed back there, doing nothing.

     At first Dylan had tried to think of reasons for this.  Perhaps they didn’t have means to communicate and were working on something to rectify that.  Maybe this ship had been attacked previously and wanted to see whether the Andromeda was mainly peaceful or if she attacked everything she encountered.  He’d come up with a dozen such scenarios, but there wasn’t much he could do about any of them so he’d tried to go back to life as usual.  Then he thought about approaching a world to join the Commonwealth only to have his mysterious tail cause trouble.  No, he had to solve this problem before he could do anything else, so they went to a fairly uninhabited area and were just killing time.  Suddenly, Dylan began to sympathize with Harper.

     A couple of hours of nothingness passed, then Trance came onto the deck, asking, “What happened?  I’ve been waiting at Harper’s quarters and he never came!”

     “He’s in the machine shop working on something,” Beka said with a smirk.

     Trance turned to Dylan, giving him a tight lipped look of frustration.  “Dylan, I thought you were going to talk to him.”

     “I did and if I’d sent him back to his quarters, he would have just been pacing in there, not resting anymore than he is now.  He’s doing one thing for me, then he’s promised to go to his quarters and sleep,” Dylan told her, hoping that would appease her.  She didn’t look very happy, but she went to the environmental station and made herself busy there.  Dylan was pleasantly surprised at not being made to argue with her about his decision.  How refreshing!  Maybe people were going to start actually taking orders from him without giving him lip, like in the good old days of the Commonwealth.  Wouldn’t that be a pleasant change?

     “Dylan the sensor contact aft has just come into full sensor range,” Andromeda said, giving him still another surprise.  Whether it was going to be pleasant was another matter.

     “Who are they?” he asked.

     “Unknown.  The ship is of a previously unrecorded configuration.”

     Dylan pushed down the urge to start sighting weapons.  The last time this had happened, the Andromeda had wound up getting  fired on and badly damaged.  Dylan had just gotten her whole again and didn’t want her all banged up so soon.  Still, he couldn’t just open fire on people for no good reason, much as his gut feeling was to do just that.  “Great,” he grumbling under his breath, then ordered, “Hail them.”

     “No need, Captain Hunt.  I have come to speak to you about the current status of your crew,” a voice came from behind him.  Dylan turned, as did everyone else on the deck, to the owner of that voice.  There, three paces behind Dylan, was an alien the likes of which Dylan had never seen before.  The fact that he wore what looked to be armor did not seem to be a good sign.  The only saving grace was that he didn’t appear to have any weapons.  He was smiling, though, or at least his lipless mouth was drawn up into what looked to be a smile, albeit one full of small, sharp teeth.

     “I’m sorry, but... who are you?  Why have you been following us?  And what do you mean by the current status of my crew?” Dylan asked, not at all pleased about this individual invading his ship with such casual ease.

     “I am Barris and my crew and I have come to serve you on your quest to restore the Systems Commonwealth,” the alien replied quite amiably.  “We’ve been following your fine vessel because we were assessing your current crew strength to see where there were gaps to be filled.  Your ship is designed for a compliment of about four thousand, is it not?”

     “That isn’t really...” Dylan started.

     “I’m afraid my crew is only one hundred strong, including myself, but we are all skilled warriors and are more than capable of relieving some of The Shining Path To Truth and Knowledge’s automated systems from some of their current burden,” Barris informed him.

     Dylan let out an uncomfortable laugh.  Barris knew the Andromeda’s official name.  That was interesting.  And he knew all about his rather limited crew, which Dylan found a little disconcerting, considering that Barris had just told him that they were vastly outnumbered and Barris seemed to be able to invade the Andromeda at will.  “I’m not exactly recruiting crew at the moment.  I’m not familiar with your species.  Where is your home world?”

     “It’s far from here,” Barris said, waving off the question as if it were inconsequential.

     “None the less, if you could arrange a meeting, I would be interested in speaking to your leader to discuss the possibility of your world joining the Commonwealth,” Dylan told him, deciding it was better to try to make friends than enemies.  Since Barris seemed to know all about the Commonwealth and the advantages it offered, Dylan thought he might actually have an easy sell this time out.

     “My crew and I need no further authorization to join your ship,” Barris told him, still ignoring Dylan’s desire to know where he was from and to get to know his people as a whole.  That didn’t sit well with Dylan.

     “Be that as it may, I like to know what I’m getting before I open my ship to people.  You still haven’t told me anything about yourself or your crew except that you’re here to help me.  It would help me to know more about you,” Dylan said.

     “My crew and I are warriors, as I have said, on a par with your weapons officer, Tyr Anasazi.  Nietzscheans are interesting and he seems to exemplify their quest for perfection.  We are accomplished pilots, though we would not attempt competition with Captain Valentine.  The way you navigate alternate dimensions is beyond skill, it is art.”  Barris showed Beka his toothy smile and she gave him a plainly forced one, then raised an eyebrow at Dylan, as if to ask, ‘What’s with this guy?’  Dylan shrugged at her, turning his full attention back to Barris.  “My crew, as I have said, is capable of manning whatever stations are needed to make the running of your most excellent ship an easier task.  I also have an engineering team that would keep your vessel in good repair.  We would be loyal onto death to you, Captain Hunt, and we would tirelessly aid you on your mission and after its completion.”

     Dylan listened to Barris’ little speech very carefully and noted two things.  He hadn’t said anything about Harper or Trance when he had been handing out compliments.  He also hadn’t said anything at all about his crew other than what jobs they were capable of preforming.  All this evasiveness was not sitting well with him.  He had enough crew members with secrets as it was.  “I meant more along the lines of your customs and habits.  For instance, you can obviously survive in our atmosphere, but what sort of diet do you have?”

     “You needn’t worry about our upkeep.  We will nourish and cloth ourselves.  We are here only to...”

     “Only to serve.  Yes, I got that,” Dylan interrupted him.  This was getting him no where.  “I’m sorry, really, but unless you can actually answer my questions, I don’t have a use for you and your people on the Andromeda.  Even then, I would require some testing be done, both technical and medical, to be certain if such an arrangement were possible that it wouldn’t be harmful to anyone involved.”

     “We are perfectly fit and carry no harmful microorganisms, as the being that chooses to call herself Trance Gemini could attest within moments, I’m sure.  She is a most excellent medical officer, but my people would not require her services.  We do not get sick and we are extremely difficult to injure,” Barris said, still not seeming to understand that Dylan wasn’t buying what he had to offer.  “As for being capable of handling the technical aspects of your vessel, we are educated in all forms of mechanics and can easily assume any duty you would assign.  My engineering team, for example, would have had your vessel repaired within hours of its last encounter rather than days and with our help, she might not have been so badly damaged.  You would be surprised what the addition of a proper engineering team alone would do for your vessel.  Shall I bring them over so that they might demonstrate their skill?”

     Dylan eyed Barris warily.  Not only wasn’t Harper getting any compliments from Barris, he was being totally ignored.  Maybe Barris wasn’t aware of Harper because of his recent illness.  “I appreciate the offer, but I have an ship’s Engineer.  A good one.”

     Suddenly, the alien’s ever present smile was gone.  Barris lifted his chin and sniffed, looking affronted.  “You speak of the damaged weakling that barely keeps your ship in one piece?  It is unworthy of its post.  This is a battleship, a place for warriors, not a place for the convalescence of the chronically ill.  It doesn’t belong here.  It doesn’t belong anywhere.  You should have put it off your vessel the moment you realized it was of little use to you, but that, certainly, can be rectified.  Perhaps you felt sorry for it, that you were trying to be kind, but considering the importance of your cause, you shouldn’t be bothered any further.  The time and resources you had expended for its benefit have been more than generous.  You won’t miss it.  My Engineers will do a far superior job and will be available for combat on request.  After your first battle with our addition to your crew, you will see vast improvement.”

     Dylan could see Beka bristling at the insults Barris was heaping on Harper out of the corner of his eye.  He was actually rather glad that Harper wasn’t present to hear what Barris was saying, not knowing whether the engineer would be more offended by having his skills impugned or being called an ‘it.’  Dylan let out a short, humorless laugh.  “No, I won’t, because you won’t be joining my crew.  Insulting my current engineer and insinuating that he should be put off my ship is only making me trust you less.  Now, if you would like to sit down and civilly discuss the possibility of your people joining the Commonwealth, I would be more than happy to listen, but I’m afraid that is all that I am prepared to offer you.”

     “But we have so much more to offer you.  Your ship is not being used to its full potential.  We can change that,” Barris argued doggedly.  He certainly had a one track mind.

     “I honestly don’t know what your fascination with the Andromeda is,” Dylan said, shaking his head at Barris.  “You have a ship of your own, one that seem an equal to ours at least in maneuverability.  Why are you so desperate to leave it?”

     Barris stood silent for a moment, then seemed to make a decision about something.  “Because your ship is a pivot point in time, as are you.  She knows,” he nodded toward Trance, who looked a little startled by his statement, “and that is why she is here.  We wish to be a part of the history that you make.  We will give you success.  Without us, you may very well fail.”  When Barris said no more about her, Trance seemed to relax a little, that was until she realized that Dylan was looking at her.  He nodded to Barris and Trance shrugged, indicating that she didn’t know what to make of him.  That was strange.  Usually Trance had an opinion about everyone and everything that they tangled with, though Dylan knew that he only got hints and whispers, never the whole story.  He decided that he’s had enough and that he didn’t need Barris’ people adding to his frustration.

     “I’m afraid I’ll have to take that chance.  Are you willing to discuss Commonwealth membership or are you leaving?” Dylan asked, his patience worn out.

     A wicked smile formed on Barris’ face, his eyes glinting.  “You really don’t want me to leave, Captain Hunt.  You will see how much you need me and my crew, and soon.  Such as it was, your single, broken worker that you used for repairs was all you had.  Automated systems can only do so much.  How will you fare without its meager efforts?”

     “Are you threatening one of my crew?” Dylan asked, his mood swiftly moving from distrust and annoyance to full outrage though he kept his face as neutral as possible.

     “A threat would imply future action.  You shall be better off without it, you’ll see.  I will be in touch, Captain Hunt,” Barris said, then he dissolved himself into black mist and vanished from the Andromeda’s bridge.

     Dylan had a very bad feeling and quickly said, “Andromeda, monitor Harper at all times.  I think...”

     “Dylan, my sensors in the machine shop stopped relaying shortly after Barris’ appearance.  I was unaware of this until Barris’ departure,” the ship interrupted him.

     “Harper!” Beka breathed, scrambling off the bridge and running toward the machine shop where Harper was working.

     Dylan was right on her heels, pausing to yell, “Trance, take the con!”  He couldn’t catch Beka, which surprised him a little and told him just how scared she was.  He tried to think where Tyr and Rommie were, but decided that they could probably take care of themselves.  Damn it, he should have fired on that ship the second they came within range.  He knew he didn’t like them.

     Dylan nearly ran into Beka when she stopped just within the machine shop itself, having just half called out Harper’s name again.  This time the shout was cut short by whatever Beka saw in the room.  Dylan prayed it wasn’t what he feared it was as he eased next to her.  There had obviously been a fight in the room.  Carbonized areas marked one wall where Harper’s gauss gun had hit it.  The gun itself lay among the debris scattered across the floor.  Harper was nowhere to be seen.  “No, no, no,” Beka murmured softly where she still stood at the door.  “Oh, Seamus...”

     Dylan gently put his hands on her upper arms and squeezed lightly before moving past her.  He had seen a wet patch shining on the worktable in the middle of the room and went to touch it.  When he lifted his fingers, they were red and had the distinctive coppery odor of blood.  Fury boiled in him, but he pushed it down.  He didn’t have time for it.  He had a crewman to find.  Harper wasn’t dead.  Dylan refused to believe that.  Barris had to know that Dylan would hunt him down and destroy him and his ship if he had done that.  ”Andromeda, what happened here?  Why weren’t you aware of intruder that assaulted Harper?”

     “I’m sorry, Dylan.  Something delayed senor readings from this room.  I am only just getting them now.  Would you like to view the log?” the ship replied.

     “Yes,” Beka said quickly, joining Dylan as he turned to the monitor as it flickered to life.

     There was Harper at the worktable, building the sensor array enhancement that he and Dylan had talked about earlier.  He was drinking a Sparky cola and singing something, but he was so off key and plainly faking out so many of the words that it was impossible to tell what song it was.  Then what had to be one of Barris’ crew appeared about a dozen paces in front of him, saying, “You have outlived your purpose here, little thing.”

     Harper backed up a couple of steps and pulled his gauss gun out of its holster where it hung on one of the equipment racks.  “Uh, guys, we have a visitor and he doesn’t seem very friendly,” Harper said, erroneously assuming that the Andromeda already knew and that his words would be relayed to the Bridge.  The warrior took a step forward, cracking the knuckles on one hand, then the other, obviously doing it to intimidate Harper.  It worked, because the blaster trembled in Harper’s hand for a moment before he lifted the other to steady it.  “Dylan... Rommie... Anybody?  A little help?”

     “You are an insult to this vessel, a defect.  You should not be allowed to waste her valuable resources,” the soldier said as it took another step forward.  “I am here to correct this oversight.”

     “Oh, crap,” Harper murmured, then said more loudly, “Guys?  I really think this fella doesn’t like me, so if you could get back to me on the whole help issue...”

     “No one is listening to your tireless whining, worthless worm.  You must prove yourself or be crushed like the insect you are,” the soldier interrupted him.  He was moving slowly.  He was making Harper sweat out what was going to happen when he got to him.  He was playing with Harper, tormenting him.

     “All right, fine.  Be that way.  You take one more step and I’m gonna...”  Harper didn’t get to finish his threat because the soldier smiled, the same evil grin that Dylan had just seen on Barris’ face, and took two steps forward.  Harper didn’t wait for more incentive and fired at the soldier.  One bolt hit the alien dead center in the chest, the second somewhere in his face.  Both bounced off of him, doing no damage whatsoever to him.  Harper looked appropriately terrified and took a couple of faltering steps back.  “Crap, crap, crap!  Guys, change of plan!  Lots of help!  I need lots and lots of help!  Big, honking, tank loads of help!  Send Tyr with his biggest gun!  Send...”

     “Enough!” the soldier said, swiping an arm viciously across the worktable, scattering most of the items on it with a loud clamor.  “You talk instead of fight.  You dishonor your vessel.  You will do so no longer.  Fight or die, irksome flea.”

     Harper tried to bolt.  Dylan didn’t blame him.  The soldier was an armored hulk of a creature, more than twice Harper’s size.  The kid didn’t have a chance in a stand up fight.  However, the soldier suddenly displayed remarkable speed and was standing at the door as Harper reached it.  Harper tried to backpedal, tried to get out of the soldier’s reach, but the alien quickly seized him by the shirt front and lifted him, kicking and flailing uselessly, into the air.  He caught Harper’s right wrist and gave the gun now pointing harmlessly behind him a withering look. 

     “Pathetic,” he sneered into Harper’s face, then ripped the gun out of Harper’s hand and tossed it aside before he punched the engineer in the stomach.  Harper tried to fight back, but his reach was no where near that of the soldier, so he only managed some blows to the alien’s armored arm.  The alien hit Harper a few times, then threw him across the room and onto the worktable, scattering the remaining items on it.  Harper rolled off, barely dodging what would have been a bone breaking a double fisted blow to the abdomen.  He rose from the floor with a determined expression and a welder.  He turned it up high and raked its flame over the arm that was reaching for him again.  He caught the alien in his exposed palm, the one unarmored spot presented to him, and the soldier howled in pain.  Harper tried to bring his new weapon to bear on the alien’s face, but the soldier swatted it away with his other arm then grabbed Harper again, this time by the throat.  Pinning the kid to the wall high enough so his feet dangled in mid air, the soldier hammered blows into Harper’s body and a few into his face.  It was no longer a fight, if it could ever have been truly called one.  It was a sadistic beating, plain and simple.

     “You are nothing,” the alien snarled at Harper angrily as he rained blows onto the helpless engineer.  “You are dirt beneath my heel.”  He hauled Harper off the wall, still gripping his throat.  He was not fully strangling Harper, he was letting him have just enough air so that he could remain conscious.  He dragged Harper to the worktable and smashed the his head into it, stunning him, before throwing him bodily onto it and releasing him.  Harper moaned, plainly dazed, blood all over his face, and he rolled onto his side toward the door, making a feeble attempt at escaping.   The soldier was back on him before he could even get off the table and now he had Harper’s welding torch in his hand.  It wasn’t on, but the soldier used it as a cudgel, smashing Harper across the face with it once, probably for revenge, because he released it after hitting Harper with it.

     “You aren’t worthy of a warrior’s death,” the alien sneered at him.  “My people would hand you over to the surgeons to have you dissected cell by cell to see where your genetics failed so miserably to keep the universe from ever be cursed with another like you.”

     “Yeah, I can see where you’re so much prettier than me,” Harper sneered back, though his voice was higher than usual with fear and pain.  He got punched in the gut for his valiant effort toward bravery.  “Big man, hammering on an unarmed guy half your size when you’re all armored up.  Real brave,” Harper spat at him breathlessly, but he looked more than a little woozy from the beating he’d taken.  What he said obviously touched a nerve, because the soldier’s face twisted with fury and he grabbed Harper by the throat again, strangling him in earnest as he pulled him back off of the table.

     “I would pull you apart for that if my commanding officer had not forbad it, insignificant flesh bag,” the soldier growled as Harper clawed at the hand crushing his throat, his feet well off the floor again.  “But he said nothing about stopping others from doing so.  How will it be to die slowly at the hands of your own, tied to a table and carved up by doctors wondering where your species went wrong?  Will you live long enough to suffer that indignity?  One last chance, little thing.  Can you swim?”  With that, the soldier motioned with his free hand and a glowing circle appeared behind him.  He threw Harper through the vortex and it closed as the engineer vanished.  With that, the soldier came to attention, then he disappeared as Barris had.  Mere seconds after he vanished, Beka appeared at the machine shop door, shouting Harper’s name, then the monitor went blank.

     “We were too slow,” Beka breathed in horror at what they had both just witnessed.  “If we’d been just a little quicker...”

     “Harper’s still alive and we’re getting him back,” Dylan declared, refusing to believe otherwise.  “Andromeda, the... vortex that Harper was thrown into, what was it?  Could you detect where it sent him?”

     “No, Dylan.  It is a previously unrecorded phenomena,” the ship replied.

     “Then hail Barris’ ship.  His crewman sent Harper somewhere, he can bring him back,” Dylan said, trying to remain reasonable as he waited a few moments for contact to be established.  It was no easy task.  What he wanted was to hit something, preferably the soldier that had been beating Harper.  Dylan hated bullies.

     “There is no answer to hails,” the Andromeda informed him.

     Dylan was sorely tempted to turn the Andromeda on Barris’ vessel and open fire.  The only reason he didn’t was that he couldn’t be certain Harper wasn’t there.  “Send this then.  Until Mister Harper is returned to the Andromeda, Barris and his people will be viewed as hostile and treated appropriately.”

     “Now, Captain Hunt,” Barris said, suddenly in front of Dylan again.  He was smiling coolly, as if nothing were amiss.  “So much fuss over such a small thing.”

     “Stop calling Harper a thing!” Dylan demanded furiously.  “He is my ship’s Engineer and I want him back!  Now!”

     “You were attached to... Harper?  As one would be to a pet, I suppose,” Barris mused aloud, ignoring Dylan’s demand, which infuriated Dylan further.  “Harper’s new master was kindly, despite the yapping.  I suppose you will miss... him,” the word was spoken very begrudgingly, “for a while, though I would think the silence would be a refreshing change.  Your new engineering staff awaits your summons when you are ready for them.”  With that, he disappeared again.

     “No!” Beka shouted at the empty space where Barris had been.  “Harper isn’t a dog, you bastard!  Bring him back!”

     “Barris’ vessel has fallen back out of weapons range and is holding to that distance,” Andromeda informed them.  She probably had anticipated that Dylan was about to train weapons on Barris’ ship.  He was only sorry that Barris had anticipated him as well.

     “Bring all weapons on line and sight them on that vessel,” Dylan ordered.  “And I want you to start analyzing the data from the sensor log.  I want to know what that vortex was and how we can duplicate it or where it sent Harper.  I want whatever information we got while that ship was in sensor reach.  I also want logs of both of Barris’ visits and the log from this room sent to my quarters.”

     “Dylan, they sent Harper someplace where they’re going to enslaved him or worse,” Beka stated urgently as she turned him around to face her.  “We don’t have time to sit here.  We have to find him now, before this ‘Master’ decides to start kicking him around like Barris’ goon did.  I don’t think he could take much more of that kind of abuse.”

     “I know, and I’d like nothing better than race to the rescue, Beka, but where do we go?  How do we find him?” Dylan asked, trying to make her see reason.

     Beka was glaring at him, fists clenched, then she turned and kicked something across the room.  “He didn’t do anything to them!” she bellowed at the unfairness of the situation.  “He didn’t even know who they were or why they were attacking him!  I don’t even know why they did!  That bastard Barris, he wouldn’t even acknowledge Harper as a person and now he’s...”

     Dylan set a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently.  “Harper will be all right.  He’s a survivor.  We’ll find him.”  Beka lifted a hand to Dylan’s and squeezed it hard.  She was worried, but Dylan didn’t blame her.  He was worried too.  Harper had taken a really bad beating and Dylan didn’t like the ominous question, ‘Can you swim?’  Harper could swim, thankfully.  Dylan knew Harper was an excellent swimmer, but that was under normal circumstances.  Dylan hoped Harper wasn’t too badly hurt from being beaten or too weak from his recent illness to get himself to whatever safety there was in the place he’d been sent to.  “Hang on, Harper,” he thought.  “We’re coming as soon as we can.  Just hang on for a little while.”

     * * *

 

 

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