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Chapter 21: Alone

Ariadne sat in the hospital waiting room seeming to stare out the window. Instead she watched the reflection of her husband as he walked away with the Crockett’s escort. Would watching a reflection count for bad luck? Finally, she averted her gaze just before he disappeared around a corner. He is the stronger of us two.

She struggled to keep from crying, then wondered why. There was no one in the waiting room to see her and why would it matter if there were? Didn’t she have the right to cry? She let go until she felt better, dried her eyes and then glided out of the room.

Ari was ascending the stairwell to Jen’s floor when she was seized with a disturbing thought. There are women in the fleet, women with legs! She was aware of the main-line human male fascination with female underpinnings, but she had not really thought about it before. Now, it was making her feel the first twinges of jealousy. She was confident that if present, she would easily fend off any encroachment. She was also confident of Dri’s sincerity and fidelity, but why subject him to unnecessary distraction?

By the time Ari had arrived at Jen’s door, she had also arrived upon the ideal means to ‘plant her flag’ with a subtle and unobtrusive reminder, in a subtle and unobtrusive manner. In any case, there was more she wanted to say to Dri while he was not yet too far away.

Her ring at Jen’s door was answered by a click and the door swung open. Justin was sitting next to the bed, reading. The baby was sleeping on her mother’s chest. The mother was also asleep. Justin touched his lips with a finger. Ari nodded as she quietly entered. How are things going?

Justin started slightly; he knew about them but had never received a telepathic communication from Ari before. He quickly recovered. Just fine, the surgeons expect her to fully recover and regain function in her hand.

Good! And how are you doing?

Justin smiled. Just full of vim and vigor! Got any mountain bears for me to wrestle?

Please, let’s spare the local wildlife! Ari tried to suppress a laugh. Are you up to a little shopping?

Justin considered for a moment. Don’t see why not. I don’t seem to be needed here at the moment. Jen gave out a slight snore and turned her head.

Great! Let’s sneak out of here. Be sure to bring a holo of the wedding, I’m putting together a survival package for Dri.

They were soon in the hallway headed for the stairs. “Can you drive a skimmer? Do you know your way around Samprime?” asked Ari.

“Yes to the first, no to the second question,” replied Justin.

“I had a corporal at my disposal but he’s up shipped with the rest of the fleet. All the vehicles left in the motorpool need feet to be driven.” Ari sounded annoyed.

“So that’s why you need me,” Justin laughed out loud.

“I’d want your company anyway! Besides, I might need your advice as well as your feet,” she said. “The only man I’ve ever bought gifts for is my father.”

They soon checked a vehicle from the military motorpool at the hospital. It was just barely large enough to stow the rather bulky hoverchair, but it was the best they could do. They went first to a jeweler, where Ari bought wedding bands for herself and Dri. Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent trying to find a rose.

“I spent a lot of time on Terra and you can ask me all you’d like to know about coral or sea anemones, but I never really got to know the flowers that well. I’m not even sure what a rose looks like,” Ari sighed. “You’ll have to help me, Justin.”

After several fruitless stops at local florists, they were given the address of a collector. In the man’s greenhouse was a single rosebush with but a few buds. He was so charmed by the story of the young newlywed Syrenkan woman that he snipped off one of the buds and placed it in her hands, gratis. He was rewarded with a gentle kiss which reddened his cheeks and made him stutter.

She wrapped her bundle in the back seat as Justin drove to the Star port. They found a shuttle bound for the Crockett just before it was cleared for takeoff. Her mission accomplished, a relieved Ari and tired Justin arrived at the door to Jen’s hospital room.

Jen was just finishing feeding Mara and ready for company.

“How are you feeling?” asked Ari.

“Eager to rejoin the two-handed.” Jen held up her bandaged appendage. “I’m certain this will make it much easier for me to care for Mara.”

“Well, I brought your helper back. I hope you didn’t miss him too badly. I needed his feet for a few hours.”

“His feet?”

“For driving,” said Justin.

“Oh! Seeing that you hail from a sophisticated technological world, I’m surprised there aren’t more vehicles modified for Syrenkans.” Said Jen.

Ari laughed. “Let me reveal to you a secret. There are not that many of us. And we have very little technology on Syrenka—and what we do have is imported.”

“Really, why is that?” Asked Jen.

“I think I have the answer,” said Justin. “It’s hard to build tech when you can’t build a fire.”

“Very true,” said Ari. “Syrenka was a prison colony, yet the Directorate never bothered to guard it. There was no need when the inmates couldn’t even forge iron spear-points let alone build space vessels. They thought we were trapped there, and we were, until our world was rediscovered.”

“I see.” Jen maneuvered Mara from her breast onto her shoulder and patted her back. “I never considered the disadvantages of building a civilization underwater. Don’t you have any dry land at all?”

“Just a few small, lifeless islands. Not very hospitable, and there’s the mobility problem. We have some factories there now and on floating platforms too, but even so most of the workers are bipeds from elsewhere.” Ari held out her arms. “Would you like for me to hold her?” There was longing in her eyes.

Jen nodded and allowed Justin to hand Mara over.

“We have universities but most of our science is of the social and mathematics type. We have a good reputation for law and medicine as well. My father started as a physician. Even in medicine though we have to stick to low-tech methods.” Ari grinned mischievously. “You can be proud to know that Rii already is far ahead of Syrenka in creating technology.”

Late that night, in front of the hotel, Ari crawled out of her cab and into her chair. She hesitated for a moment in the lobby then headed for the pool, needing a good swim before facing the empty suite and her lonely bed. Thankfully, she had the water to herself. She slid in and swam hard, trying to make herself tired. I wonder if I could sleep here on the bottom, just for tonight. Anything’s better than a cold, empty bed. Instead, she opted for the tub.

Ari drew a nice, warm bath, threw in some salt to make it feel more like home and eased herself in. She submerged, emptied the air from her lungs and felt her gill slits open to let the warm water seep into her chest. She allowed herself to imagine that the warmth came from Dri’s skin. Main-line humans always feel so warm. Her caudal fin quivered with excitement and stirred the water. I’ll never get to sleep like this! She turned onto her side and tried again to relax. She started to drift off but then sat up suddenly, sloshing the floor. Was it wrong for me not to tell him what I did? Will he be angry when he finds out?

I awoke just before seven bells of the middle watch. I was glad to see that my talent for waking up at the right time was beginning to kick in. I beat the alarm by a good fifteen minutes. I shaved, showered, dressed and stepped onto the bridge well before the beginning of the morning watch. I’d hardly sat down when a yeoman arrived with a cup of black coffee and a fried egg sandwich. Someone in the galley must be psychic. The watch officer made his report. I nodded sagely between bites; there was nothing really to report. As I washed the sandwich down, the watch changed and the morning bridge crew, including Vennick and Ransome took up their duties. It was a good opportunity to get to know the latter and her railgun.

“Mister Ransome.”

“Aye, sir.”

“If you don’t mind, let’s take a look at that marvelous weapon of yours.”

“Certainly, sir. It would be a pleasure.” She grinned.

“Vennick, you have the con.”

The railgun was impressive. At two thirds the Crockett’s length, one third its diameter and nearly half its tonnage, the ship was literally built around it. I was also impressed with Ransome. Her knowledge of this ship-killer was vast and practical. Also, I’ve seen parents with less pride and tender affection for their offspring than the lieutenant had for her charge. I was confident that any enemy ship foolish enough to get in our way would soon be sporting a freight-car sized hole completely through it.

“Is the fact that this gun could be used against a planet as troubling to you as it is to me?” I asked.

“Yes, indeed. It would have as much destructive effect as a large asteroid impact. That’s why, even though it shoots nothing but solid lumps of iron, it falls under the ban against using nukes on populated worlds.” The young officer explained.

“That’s a relief!” I said and I meant it. “I would hate to see this thing used like that.” I hope the Imperium can resist the temptation!

We were almost done with the inspection when a message from the Admiral arrived. “All units, begin preparations for jump. Jump will occur at 1400 hours.”

“Well that’s it,” Ransome said solemnly. “We’re really going to do it.”

“Yep, looks that way,” I responded as I clicked off the intercom.

She grinned, grabbed my hand and shook it. “Then let’s go smash some pirates, Cap’n!”

Making a warp jump into possibly hostile space is a serious matter. For one thing, all jumps are blind. Electromagnetic energy cannot penetrate a warp-bubble once it is active. Any force planning on making such a leap must be prepared in advance for whatever may await. Getting into a formation that allowed our weapons to be mutually supporting and able to provide cover for the less heavily armed vessels, such as the carriers, was vitally important. I expected this to take a long time since none of our captains and few of our squadron commanders had experience with forming or maintaining large groups of ships.

Fortunately Ferrell, who was in charge of this, proceeded with infinite patience. Each ship slid into position slowly and carefully. There were no collisions or near collisions. The lack of emergencies allowed us to finish before 1230 hours.

The final test would come during acceleration. Jumping from deep in a gravity well is rarely a good idea. It’s an act of desperation, like our escape from Rii. Normally, it’s recommended that a ship jump from at least one hundred diameters from the nearest celestial body. For New Samarkand, that would be about 1.2 million kilometers. Each vessel would need to accelerate precisely to keep the formation from distorting out of shape. In comparison, the simultaneous hyper-space jump would be easy.

Not all the ships were capable of making the five parsecs to Rii in one jump. Serret was chosen to be our mid-point. We would arrive there in four days, refuel, regroup and then make the final jump to Rii. Unfortunately, Serret was the only stop-over between New Samarkand and Rii. If an attack is expected from the former, some sort of reception is very likely.

The burn to our jump-point started at 1245 sharp. This too proceeded slowly and carefully. Never the less, the formation began to stretch and contract like something tossed into a black hole. There was a good deal of yelling and cursing over the aether as well as a lot of frantic course corrections. I was happy to note that our own squadron gave Ferrell few problems. Score one for Caldwell. He may actually be a competent prick. It looked like his fixation on formation maneuvering actually did some good.

Though awkward, the burn was successful. Six hours later, we were far enough from Samarkand to jump. As the last second ticked down, I gave the order to engage the warp drive. A void opened in front of us and slowly blotted out the stars. The Crocket lurched and shuddered as the blackness engulfed us. Finally, the ship settled and the darkness was complete. We were committed now until we would pop out of our warp-bubble in almost ninety-seven hours. I turned to Vennick and Ransome. “Well, Irian, Tyra, care to suggest who we should invite to be fourth hand at whist?”

It was a tradition in the navy that the first twenty-four hours of a jump were set aside for the officers and crew to rest and do as they wished. There was little to do during a jump in any case except eat, sleep, drill or amuse oneself. We played several rubbers, changing partners and inviting others to join to replace those who tired. I genuinely enjoy cards but there was a hidden agenda to my indulgence. How one plays cards, especially whist, reveals a lot about a person. How one deals with risk, abundance and adversity for example. Vennick played cold, calculating and careful, but if an opportunity arose he would pounce like a coldhound and rip his opponents to shreds. D’Aubigny played with passion and breathless daring. He sacrificed many a queen, trying to finesse, but always seemed able to fight his way out of a hopeless position. Speaking of hopeless positions, Tyra Ransome was at her best when dealt a horrific hand. From almost nothing, she seemed to always produce a trick or too when most needed. When I turned in that evening, I felt I understood my officers better. Perhaps I’ll try poker on the next jump. I thought.

After the Jump Sabbath was over, we returned to routine. I added at least one general quarters drill each day at a random time for the remaining three days. I wanted to make sure each watch would have no less than one drill during the trip.

There was a touch of excitement as the seconds ticked down to emergence. We went to full battle readiness, though I thought it unlikely that there would be any serious trouble. As it was we received an Enemy in sight signal immediately our warp bubble folded. A hostile destroyer was lurking at jumping distance from the gas giant, Serret. Since our squadron had the highest thrust to weight ratio, we were ordered to give chase. The destroyer, having no wish to fight, immediately turned to flee and within a few seconds warped out. The Kirov did manage to show excellent long range shooting with her heavy particle cannon and placed a salvo close enough that the pirate captain probably needed to ‘check his britches’ once he was safe. We then set up a destroyer picket, sent fighters to check out all the hidey-holes in the system and began preparations for the next move.

Those preparations would need to be completed as rapidly as possible, since we had now lost any possibility of surprise. Unfortunately, most of our capital units would need to refuel before another jump. It would take at least twenty-four hours for each of them to load what they needed. Crown Imperial and Salamis went first, going into close orbit around the large, orange gas giant and opening their magnetic scoops to take in hydrogen for their fusion reactors.

The Serret system had only one, small mining settlement called Doomsday. It got that name because the moon upon which it had been built was gradually being torn apart by tidal forces. Despite having at least a few more centuries before becoming uninhabitable, Doomsday had a constant air of anxiety and gloomy temporariness about it. Nobody wanted to settle there on a permanent basis. We sent a contingent of marines to make sure the pirates hadn’t left any mischief there and then settled in for our short stay.

As we maneuvered to top-off our own fuel, Ransome stood next to me. “Will the pirates stand and fight?” she asked.

“That depends,” said Vennick mysteriously.

“Alright, I’ll bite.” She rolled her eyes. “Depends on what?”

“On the size of King Edgar’s fleet and his intestinal fortitude.” I said.

Vennick smirked. “I was going to say ‘On the size of his balls.’”

Ransome tried to swat the First Officer with her tablet.

“That’s government issue. Break it and it’ll come out of your pay,” Vennick teased.

“Now behave children.” I chuckled. Ransome gave me a fierce look and turned red. She must be sensitive about how young she looks. I’d better change the subject. “I know from personal experience that Edgar has no less than eleven ships: a carrier, a battlecruiser, four heavy cruisers and five destroyers. It’s safe to bet there are more.”

“Keep in mind we’re risking only a fraction of the Imperial Navy while he’ll be betting everything he has,” said Vennick.

“True but I’d hate to be the one to have to explain to Emperor Michael how I lost thirty of his starships,” I replied.

Ransome shrugged. “From what I’ve heard about Edgar, he’s just the type to risk everything on one throw.”

“I’ve met him and I agree. He’d do it, but first he’d make certain the dice were loaded.” I looked at my two officers. “We need to be ready for anything. And I pray God the Prefect knows that too.”

When Ari awoke, the bathwater was cold and very stale. She stuck her face out of it, shut her gills, took a deep breath of fresh air and inflated her lungs. Whew, I need to stop doing that. Part of her wanted to change the water and go back to sleep, but it would be the same thing in two hours. She’d been doing that nightly for days now. Finally, she pulled the plug and reached for a towel. I have to pee anyway.

She slid across the tile to the wooden floor of the bedroom, then pulled herself onto the bed. She made a little nest of the covers and curled up in it. Without Dri to distract her, she was beginning to miss the deep and the freedom it gave her. The indignities of living on land were actually starting to annoy her. Everything would be fine if you were here. Dri, where are you?

Light-years away by now. How long has it been? Ten days! A moan escaped her lips. She then sat up, disgusted. What’s wrong with me? I’m a grown woman pining like a fairytale siren. What’s next? Will I dissolve into sea foam? She sighed. I probably would if something actually did happen to him.

Ten days is how long it would take the fleet to get to Rii, if they stayed on schedule. Dri could be fighting for his life right now! She shivered and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders.

Alright! Time to put a stop to this! She threw aside the blanketand bounced into the hoverchair. Jen had invited Ari to teach her to swim some morning. Now seems as good a time as any. She rummaged through drawers until she found her most brightly colored swim top. Yellow with pink flowers, where did I ever find that? She then set out to fetch Jen.

Ari turned down a narrow hallway and almost collided with another woman in a hoverchair.

“Excuse me!” said the woman. She had shoulder-length auburn hair and had her right foot in an inflatable plasticast. “Let me get out of your way here.” She tried to back away but bumped into the wall and nearly got jammed. “Damn! I’m not used to this thing!”

“Here,” said Ari, “You can just go over me.”

“I thought we couldn’t. That if we superimpose two repulsor fields the upper wouldn’t work.”

“It’s simple.” Ari opened a panel and flipped a switch. Her chair settled onto the carpet. “I just turned mine off. Go ahead, I promise you won’t squash me.” Even so, she couldn’t help but cringe just a little as the novice chair-driver maneuvered over her head.

If you don’t mind, let’s talk for a bit,” said the stranger. “There’s a wider hallway just up a ways.”

Ari agreed and soon they sat facing each other. “The name’s Rachel Pym.” The woman reached out and shook Ari’s hand. “And you, I’ll bet, are the Lady Ambassador Ariadne.”

“Correct,” Ari giggled. “It’s not hard to pick out the only Syrenkan in the solar system."

Ari continued. “My husband told me about you, Captain Pym. He thinks highly of you and said we should meet.”

“Hmn, he did? I don’t recall…”

“Captain Rhodri Morgan.”

“Oh him! I’d heard that you’d snagged yourself a naval officer,” Pym winked. “He made a good impression on me as well. Very serious and conscientious.”

“That would be Dri all right,” Ari smiled.

“Has there been any word from the fleet?”

“None, I was just headed for the pool to relieve some stress.”

“You know we probably won’t hear anything ‘til the matter’s decided. Stress relief is therefore a good idea,” Pym continued. “I should take a swim as well. It was recommended to me as therapy, ‘til I get my legs working again.”

“Speaking of which, how are you doing?”

“Not bad, the little nano-buggers have been knitting me a new spinal cord for about a week now. Can’t tell any difference yet.” She slapped her knee and shook her head. “I feel nothing—but of course they did tell me it could take up to a year. I know I really should be thankful rather than complaining. I’ve always been the impatient sort. Perhaps this whole thing is the Lord’s way of teaching me forbearance.” She looked at herself and sighed. “I just wish He’d found an easier way than wrapping me around a pine tree.”

“You’re definitely welcome to swim with us.” Said Ari. “I’ll be teaching a friend who’s never swum before.”

“Well, I do know how to swim; just never tried without using legs.”

“I never use legs! Doesn’t bother me.”

“Hah! That’s a good one!” Laughed Pym. “I’ll meet you at the pool in a half hour. Just have to change into something swimmable.”

“We’ll be looking forward to it.”

They turned and parted ways. Ari made for Jen’s suite. When she was discharged from the hospital, the young Rii mother, her daughter and a nanny/maidservant were installed in a set of rooms worthy of a monarch in exile. Justin moved into an adjoining suite.

It was still a bit early when Ari arrived at Jen’s door, but she rang anyway. Jen was an early riser, when Mara let her sleep at all. She answered the door herself, barefooted and wearing a thick bathrobe.

“Are you ready?” asked Ari.

Jen hugged herself nervously and nodded.

“Is Justin coming?”

“I knocked on his door. He said he’ll be along later. I think he wants to sleep.”

“Are you bringing Mara?” Ari tried not to sound too eager.

“She’s asleep. Annika will watch over her this morning.”

“Alright,” she tried not to sound disappointed. “Let’s be going.”

Ari and Jen arrived first. The pool was neither especially large nor deep. It was just enough to allow Ari to get a reasonable workout, if there was no one else in it. The Syrenkan paused her chair at the edge and tipped herself in. She swam about under water for a few moments then surfaced and invited Jen to jump in. Jen looked uncertain but removed her robe. She was wearing a black one piece swimsuit that complemented her form and coloring. There was very little sign that she had given birth just sixteen days before.

“I hear it’s best to jump right in. Creeping in slowly just prolongs things,” stated Ari.

Jen frowned, shook her head and gingerly dipped her toe in.

Ari sighed, dove then leapt from the water and landed on her back; emptying much of the pool at Jen. The air was instantly filled with shrieks of Rii cursing and Syrenkan laughter.

That was when Rachel glided in. “Did I miss something?”

“No, nothing at all!” said Ari.

“You’re Just in time to witness the strangling of a fish-girl!” Growled Jen as she leapt in after Ari.

Ari spun away and kept her distance until Jen realized she was in over her head and began spluttering and yelping. Ari took hold of her and deposited her in the shallow end. “See, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?”

Jen wasn’t sure she agreed but had to admit she was no longer afraid, at least of the shallows.

“Nothing cures fear quite so well as red-faced rage!” said Ari.

Rachel took advantage of the quiescence long enough to glide out over the water and slide herself off her chair. She was wearing a green two-piece that was also complementary. The captain swam awkwardly, not because of her legs, but because of the cast. Its buoyancy kept twisting that side of her toward the surface. She completed a couple of laps then pulled herself onto the steps for a rest. “Whew, that was a chore! I think I’ll wait ‘til they take the cast off before I try this again.” As she sat there, she watched Ari show Jen how to relax and float on her back. “Have you taught before? It seems natural to you.”

Ari snorted. “Me? I haven’t the patience. If I’m doing well now, it’s just that I love swimming and Jen is like my little sister.”

Jen smiled. “That’s sweet. Now I no longer feel like assassinating you in your sleep.”

All three women laughed. Then Ari grimaced, backed away from Jen and rubbed her temples. “My head! It’s splitting of a sudden!”

“Are you alright?” asked Rachel.

Ari closed her eyes and nodded, but then went limp, sank and began to convulse.

“Ari!” Cried Jen as she moved through the water to help.

“Stop!” Pym shouted.

“She’ll drown!”

“She can’t drown! But you can!”

Ari thrashed. Her large caudal fin slapped the surface of the pool.

“Push my chair over here!” Pym dragged herself from the water; her eyes wide with fear. “I have a communicator, I’ll call for help!”

Ari had stopped seizing by the time the medtechs arrived and pulled her from the water. She was unconscious but made the transition from gills to lungs smoothly. She moaned, opened her eyes and saw Jen kneeling next to her. “Jen!” She grabbed her wrist.

“I’m here.” The Rii woman brushed Ari’s wet hair from her eyes.

“Something’s happened to Dri! We have to help! I’m losing him!”

Jen didn’t know what to say. How could she know?

I just do! Ari slipped back into unconsciousness.

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