Chapter 23: The Mist Became the Light
The first thing Ari was aware of was a soft, rhythmic beep. For some reason it annoyed her. Please turn it off Dri.
“She’s coming around, Doctor.”
Who is that and why is she in our bedroom?
“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
This is too much! Can’t a body sleep in peace? She tried to move but felt resistance. This brought her to full awareness. “What’s going on?” She sat up and found her tail tightly wrapped in a blanket. “What is this?”
Instead of her own quarters, she was in a hospital bed with pillows and blankets stuffed around her and a heart-monitor beeping in the corner. Ari sat, dazed, as memories gradually trickled back into her.
“You had a seizure, actually two major seizures, milady. We wrapped you up so you wouldn’t hurt yourself,” said a strange woman in a nurse’s uniform.
“Oh?” Dri’s not here, he’s far away. An overwhelming feeling of dread washed over her. She put her face in her hands and groaned.
“Are you alright? Can I help?” Asked the woman.
“No…” The feeling began to ebb. “…Yes. If you don’t mind, you can help me unwrap my tail. I never could stand feeling confined.” In a few minutes Ari’s tail was loose. She flexed her caudal fin like a large Japanese fan. “That’s much better, thank you so much.”
A man wearing a white coat entered and smiled at her. “You look much improved, Lady Ariadne!”
“Thank you, but I feel stretched and wrung out like an old towel.”
“That’s not surprising, considering what you’ve just been through. I’m Doctor Bell by the way.” He offered his hand which Ari shook.
“What have I just been through?”
“Two gran mal seizures, less than an hour apart.”
“That’s a very good question. We scanned you thoroughly more than once…”
“Scanned me thoroughly?”
“Yes. The only thing we came up with is rather minor, perhaps not enough to be the cause.”
Ari watched while he fiddled with a CT-scanner he had pulled from one of his many pockets. “Go on.”
“Have you suffered a blow to the head recently, within the last thirty days?”
“She frowned and leaned back. “No, I…Oh…I did have a rather unpleasant experience involving a grenade about three weeks ago.”
“A grenade?” Bell’s eyes widened.
“I was out for hours.”
“Well, that would explain the remnants of brain bruising. It’s almost totally healed but it must have been the cause for the seizures.”
It wasn’t the cause but I’m not going to argue with him. “Thank you.”
“It probably won’t happen again, but we’ll keep you under observation for a day or two, just in case.”
Ari fidgeted and sat up. “There is one other thing.” I have to know!
The doctor raised an eyebrow.
“You scanned me thoroughly?”
“Yes.” He nodded.
Do I have to drag it out of him? “I was pregnant! Am I still?”
“Oh, I wasn’t looking for that. Let me check.”
What’s his notion of thoroughly?
“Yes you are and…everything seems to be in order. By the way, congratulations!”
Ari exhaled, closed her eyes and crossed herself. Dri, even if I’ve lost you I won’t be alone. I wish I’d told you now! “You don’t know how relieved I am, thank you!”
“You’re welcome. Would you like for us to leave and let you rest?”
Once she was alone, Ari leaned back and tried to relax. Alright now, what’s happened? She had heard that among her people telepathic links could be strong enough to make the leap across interstellar distances. She had heard nothing about gran mal seizures, however.
She frowned and rubbed her eyes and forehead. There’s something else going on! Though the primary cause had to be her fear and anxiety for Dri, that wasn’t all; this was bigger than just her and Dri. Also, somehow, Jen and Mara were involved. Whatever was happening, she knew it was vitally important that there be no more episodes of seizures or anything else of that sort. Dri might need her, Jen and Mara might need her, hell, the Empire might need her!
One person certainly did. Ari smiled and placed both hands on her abdomen; her fin quivered with excitement. Knowing was a great relief and a source of energy. She had been almost but not quite certain that she was with child before Doctor Bell confirmed it. Syrenkan women do not have a menstrual cycle. In fact, they have no cycle at all. They ovulate at will, helped along by an orgasm. As soon as Ari had found out that Dri was going into battle without her, she became desperate to make love to him one more time. She knew now that she should have told him why, he certainly would have approved, but for some reason she just couldn’t bring herself to say it. Perhaps she believed that Dri knowing her fear would have somehow brought what she dreaded to pass. In any case, what was done was done. She was now equally desperate to find him alive and tell him the good news.
Ari thought for a minute longer, then made a decision. She took her tablet from the night stand and held it up. “Justin Chang,” she said.
In a few moments the man’s smiling face appeared on the screen. “Ari! They told us you were doing well, but it’s nice to actually see you!”
“Thanks Justin!” Ari smiled back. “Are you busy at the moment?”
“Not at all.”
“Would you mind terribly coming and getting me out of here?”
“Certainly. They’re cutting you loose, eh? That’s good news!”
“Uh, not exactly. It’s more like I need to be sprung.”
Justin looked doubtful.
“They’ve admitted that they can find nothing wrong. They just want to keep an eye on me.”
“Is that so bad?”
“Justin!” She flapped her fin in frustration. “Please? They don’t even have a pool here.”
“Alright then.” He grinned. “I’m on my way.”
“I’m going to need some clothes and I don’t see my hoverchair in here.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Bless you!” I wonder how he’s going to take to commandeering a ship?
I lay there a long time watching the light from Rii’s star trace its way across the bulkhead again and again. Part of my mind told me to stop that, to get up and do something. Another said. No you’re seriously hurt, just lay there.
The first part was beginning to win out. I tentatively moved my arms and then tried to move my legs. An electric bolt of pain shot up my right leg. This had the benefit of bringing me to full consciousness, but I was not eager to move it again. I tried to do an internal inventory. My head hurt, but everything above the neck was obviously functioning. I was having difficulty breathing. Part was due to what were probably cracked ribs; the rest to lack of atmosphere. There had been, evidently, a hull breach on the bridge; small enough for the hull to self-seal or I’d be dead, but big enough to be a problem. My arms and left leg were bruised and sore but otherwise fine.
Finally, it was time to actually see what I could do to get myself useful again. I opened my eyes. There seemed to be a post, about a meter and a half long and seventy-five millimeters in diameter sticking out of the deck between my knees. I raised myself on my elbows. No, it was sticking through my right leg, just above the knee. Well, I guess I really am hurt. I felt queasy and thought I might throw up. I was caught, pinned like a specimen insect!
It was clear that we’d been hit by a Mk VII torpedo. Rather than a conventional high-explosive charge, it had a bundle of two-meter-long penetrator rods, designed to pierce and wreak havoc inside lightly armored ships, like the Crockett. Ironically, this may have saved our lives on the bridge. Our lives?
I sat up, called and looked about for Han and Tyra. My voice sounded thin and tinny in the sparse air. Han was nowhere to be seen. Tyra sat at her station, hunched over her panel as though studying it. The illusion was broken only by the penetrator rod sticking out from between her shoulder blades. I fell back, spirit and hope gone from me.
Somehow I’d thought that if any of us made it, Lieutenant Ransome would; that the cards would fall in her favor despite the odds, as in so many of our games of whist. If she is gone, what hope can there be for the rest of us?
Rachel Pym was sitting in her room playing solitaire when Ari’s call came. The Ambassador hadn’t intended to involve the Captain, but she had little choice. She needed someone who knew how to plot and navigate interstellar jumps. “Can I meet privately with you?” Ari asked.
Pym had no objections.
When she arrived at the Captain’s quarters, the Syrenkan diplomat got right to the matter.
“You want me to show you how to program a jump plot to Rii?” said Pym.
Ari nodded. “I can pilot a ship in system. It’s just that I’ve never made a jump.”
“It’s impossible! There’s a lot more to it than just pushing some buttons. I can’t just show you how to do it and turn you loose!”
Ari’s face hardened. “I’m sorry to have bothered you then.” She turned to leave.
“Whoa!” Pym raised a hand. “Don’t just glide away and leave me here! Why can’t I go with you?”
Ari sighed. “I was afraid you might ask. Going with me might be a career-killer.”
“And losing my command due to getting crippled in a skiing accident isn’t?”
“There’s no telling when or if we’ll be back here. What about your treatments?”
“Treatments?” Pym laughed. “There was only one treatment. All the doctors do now when they see me is poke and prod my legs and ask, ‘Can you move this?’ or ‘Can you feel that?’ It’s no more in their hands than mine and will either work or not depending on the nanobots.
“I hate to brag and jinx myself,” She continued. “but last time I thought I did feel something! So you needn’t worry about me.”
“That is good to hear.”
“Now, can you tell me what you’re planning?”
“I’m going to take the Compass Rose to Rii.”
Technically, the Rose was Admiralty property and would remain such until sold at auction and the proceeds divided among those responsible for seizing her. Meanwhile, if needed, she stood ready to carry news to Terra or jump to wherever ordered.
Pym grew thoughtful and tapped her chin with a forefinger. “Yes, commandeering a ship would be a career-killer, not to mention piracy being a capital offense and all.”
“That’s why I can’t ask you to take part. I’d hate to see you walking again just so you can climb the steps of a scaffold.”
Pym waved her hand dismissively. “Right now I’d help you out of sheer boredom. Anything’s better than just sitting around here. Also I needn’t mention that the safety of the Crockett and her crew mean a lot to me too. Anyway, as an ambassador, can’t you requisition a ship?”
“Well, yes, in theory, but I have to be able to justify it as necessary to fulfill my mission. My mission now is to protect the Rii royal family. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include taking them with me while I search for my husband in a combat zone.”
“On the other hand, it shouldn’t be that hard to make up an excuse to take the Rii royal family back to their own home planet.”
“That’s what I’m depending on to keep my pretty head out of an ugly noose.”
Pym laughed. “Make that two pretty heads! I’m coming with you!”
It took a few minutes, but I roused myself for an attempt to get free. I sat up carefully. I’d already lost a lot of blood and didn’t want to get the bleeding going again. I took the rod in both hands and pulled. It wouldn’t budge and the effort hurt like hell. That was it, I was out of ideas.
That was when the hull breach alarm sounded. It was startling but lasted only a few seconds. Then after a brief silence, it sounded again. What the hell? Finally, I understood. Somebody was overriding the vacuum fail-safe so they could hot-wire the air-tight door to the bridge. Though it’s not enough to kill me, the difference in atmospheric pressure is enough to activate the fail-safe. I wished I had some gum, for when the door began to rumble open the pain in my ears was as bad as that in my leg.
Several men from damage control, including Lieutenant Rashid, Doctor Holt and some medical orderlies rushed in. Holt knelt by my side and sucked in his breath. “The leg looks pretty bad, but we’ll do what we can to save it.”
“What about the others?” I asked.
He looked at Ransome and shook his head.
“We can’t leave her hanging there like that!”
He flashed me a stern look. “Just let me handle the triage, Captain.” He turned. “Orderly, get a tourniquet on him! I’ll be right back.”
Holt left to help take the unconscious Han away. The orderly spoke soothingly while performing the painful procedure. “Looks like the bleeding’s already mostly stopped, but it’s likely to get going again when we start working on it. They got a diamond cutter to saw this rod down, after that we’ll just lift you off!”
I tried to apologize for my outburst when Holt returned. He just told me to save it. One of the damage control men knelt down with the cutter, warned us to turn away and started working on the penetrator rod. The sound was skull-splitting. He switched the machine off a few seconds later amid a stream of curses. “The damn thing must be tyrillium alloy! This is gonna take a while.”
“We don’t have a while, Doc!” Shouted Rashid. “This observation panel’s going to go any time now!”
“Dammit!” said Holt. “You won’t like this, Captain, but we’ve got to go and the leg has to stay. Do you understand?”
I nodded. “Do what you have to do.”
He took out a syringe and adjusted the settings.
“Can you keep me awake?”
“Sorry, if this doesn’t knock you out the pain will. You’ll just have to trust Vennick to run your ship.” He plunged the needle in my shoulder then nodded to the man with the saw. “Do it now!”
“We’ll be at the pad in five minutes.” Pym checked her chronometer. “I hope everyone has their stories straight.”
It took no persuasion at all to get Jen to agree to return to Rii. In fact, once she heard what Ari had in mind, it was impossible to get her to stay behind. Justin was more skeptical but was determined to follow Jen and Mara where ever they went. The plan, such as it was, was to simply board the Rose, and then leave; no attempt at trickery, no show or threat of force. “Just act like we belong and know what we’re doing,” said Ari. Unfortunately, it went off the rail almost immediately.
First, there were some awkward questions at the launch-pad, followed by a query to the Harbor Master, followed in turn by an order to hold Ari and her party until that official arrived to ask some questions.
“Well, what do we do now?” Asked Pym as they waited under the ship’s wing. A fine drizzle fell from a gray sky. Little Mara began to fuss.
“We go on to the next plan,” said Ari. “Though I’d hoped it would, I didn’t think this one would get us very far.”
“It is nice to know that there is a plan ‘B’.”
Ari sighed and shook her head. “I just hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me.”
When the Harbor Master arrived, it soon became plain that Ari’s answers did not satisfy him. As with most holders of his office, he was a suspicious sort and seemed inclined to do more than simply refuse permission to leave. This forced the Syrenkan to produce her ace of trumps. “I have an imperial podorozhna.”
The Harbor Master’s eyebrows met his hairline. “You do!? I mean, of course you do. Ah…uh, may I see it?”
“Yes.” Ari raised her skirt, pulled a scale from her hip and handed it to the official. “Place it near the data port of your tablet.”
The man did as he was asked. The scale glowed briefly then the screen changed to show a very familiar man’s face. Very familiar because those African features were found on the wall of every government office, including the Harbor Master’s; as well as on nearly every piece of currency in circulation. Justin thought the official might faint; in fact he turned quite pale.
The image spoke. “This is to show that Lady Ariadne of Clan Spindrift is authorized to enter and use any facility, any means, and requisition any supplies or mode of transportation necessary to accomplish her mission without question, limit or expiration. To this I, Michael, Dominus et Imperator, do affix my personal seal.” There then appeared an elaborate electronic seal that was impossible to fake or copy.
“You may use any means at your disposal to verify the authenticity of this document,” said Ari.
“That won’t be needed.” His hand shook slightly as he handed the scale back. “Is there anything else you require, milady?”
“The Compass Rose is fully stocked and fueled?”
“That will be sufficient.” Yes! It is good to be the Emperor’s favorite tail!
Five minutes later, the Courier/Packet took off and headed for orbit.
Waking up minus a leg was gut wrenching, but not nearly as bad as it might have been. I was fully aware that the same nanobot technology that was reconstructing Captain Pym’s spinal cord could build me another leg in about the same amount of time.
As soon as I was out of the drug fog, I asked Vennick to report on the condition of the ship and her crew, but only if he could spare the time. The Crockett was my responsibility, though Vennick had been and was still for the time being in actual command. As it turned out, time was one of the few things we weren’t quite out of yet.
From a crew of seventy-five, twenty-seven were now dead and eighteen seriously enough injured to require the services of sick-bay. That left thirty fit for duty. I intended to take myself off the second list as soon as I could keep steady on crutches. I had been out for near twenty-four hours. During that time Holt had seen to it that most of my lost blood had been replaced. Even a small vessel’s sick bay usually included a blood synthesizer. Other than the lingering effects of shock and drugs, the only thing holding me back was a feeling I can only describe as being out of balance or lopsided; even when I was just lying or sitting. I suppose it was my mind trying to deal with a major portion of my body being gone. It was something I would need time to get used to.
The situation of the ship herself was grimmer. We were on batteries alone and those were expected to last for another seventy-two hours, but only if we limited their use to life-support. That meant no weapons or maneuvering. Also, our sensor and communications array was destroyed by that second torpedo hit. To put it simply, we were blind, deaf and paralyzed. On the other hand, we weren’t mute. Our distress beacon was operational, if we dared to turn it on. That was our dilemma. Who was out there, the navy or the pirates?
I went ahead and made the decision to broadcast our distress signal. There was really no good reason not to. If we did nothing, we would be dead in three days. Capturing what remained of the ship gained little for the Pirates. Railgun technology was not exactly new and unheard of. The worst they could do was kill us, which made us no worse off. Also, Vennick and I agreed that there was a better than even chance that our side had won anyway. After that, there was nothing we could do but wait.
Rachel Pym sighed with pleasure as she slid herself into the pilot’s seat of the Compass Rose and made herself comfortable. “This is what I need,” she said. “Better than any therapy.”
Ari suppressed a smile as she buckled herself into the copilot’s seat. “You sounded like you were easing yourself into a warm bath!”
“Did I now? I’m not surprised.” She started feeding data into the navigation computer. “Do you want to take her to the jump point?”
“It would be a privilege!” The mermaid reached for the controls.
“Now that we’re on our way, I’m starting to wonder. What exactly are an old man, an adolescent widowed mother, her infant and two women in hoverchairs going to accomplish?”
Ari grinned wickedly. “Just leave that to me.”
“You have a plan then?”
“I didn’t say that.”