AMANDA SAT ON THE FLOOR OF THE TOILET STALL SOBBING INTO HER HANDS. She had never had sole command of a ship before, let alone a ship that would be attacked the second it left the protection of the nebula. How was she going to take Tru’s place? The crew hated her and no one listened to her. Amanda tried to draw a breath and couldn’t. She felt panic starting to rise as she tried again and again to draw a deep breath.
“First Executive Officer Wrigley,” she heard Jackie say outside the toilet stall.
A deep breath suddenly filled her lungs, followed by a feeling of dread. Jackie was the last person she wanted seeing her like this. She tried to collect her nerves, but knew that wasn’t going to happen either.
She jumped when the stall door slammed open. Jackie stood over her, leaning on the doorframe and wearing a smug grin. Amanda pulled herself to her feet. She tried to look proud, but that was futile.
“I’ve longed for this day,” Jackie ridiculed.
Amanda pushed past Jackie and went to the row of sinks. She turned on the water and began scrubbing her face. She jumped when someone grabbed her wrist, pulling her back. Jackie glared at her, holding out a towel.
“I know you’ve jeopardized stints when we’ve had marauders attack because of this disorder of yours, but you really need to stop scrubbing your fucking face off and pull it together! If Tru had any idea how unfit you really were to—”
“You wanna join those two aliens in the Brig, Jackie?” Amanda yanked the towel away. “You may be the best COM officer, but I don’t need the best COM officer right now. I need one that can be respectful and obedient. And don’t lecture me about the stakes. I’m well aware of the stakes!” Amanda started drying her face.
“They just got higher.”
Amanda looked at Jackie in the mirror. “What are you talking about?”
“I decrypted the logs. Those two we have are called Jit. Some Terallians came across them at an outpost and found out another race called the Varlikon are offering a million qubits for each Jit returned to them because, apparently, they are slaves, but that seems like an awfully large reward for escaped slaves. The most interesting part, and the part I particularly despised, was a communiqué from Terallian Battle Fleet Command ordering this transport to turn back, find us, infiltrate Prosperous, and use whatever means necessary to get the ship to Tetra. But hey, at least that means they want us all dead, not just you and Tru.”
Amanda leaned over the sink as nausea washed over her.
“We have to get the information about the Terallians to Righel,” Jackie told her.
“And how do you propose we do that!” Amanda put her hand over her stomach, muttering, “I can’t do this. I don’t know how to command a ship.”
“Well you’d better figure it out fast, because the sonar showed five more ships have arrived, so reaching the com buoy is completely out of question now. So enjoy freaking out, XO. I’m going back to the bridge, where you should be right now.” Jackie walked away.
Amanda didn’t respond.
“Oh, almost forgot. I found Terallians at the back of the transport ship. You should see what the venom that little girl injects does to a healthy Terallian. I hope Q’al won’t need any supplies from the full medical facility on Righel Prime to save our captain.”
Amanda looked up, watching Jackie walk toward the door. She hated to admit that Jackie was skilled at helping captains get their ships out of tight spots. A few times Amanda caught herself wondering why Jackie went into communications because she was a walking encyclopedia of tactical maneuvers, ships, and armory specifications. Amanda had used more than one of Jackie’s ideas to make a captain think she was competent.
Jackie stopped, looking over her shoulder.
“What would you do?” Amanda asked.
“Stealing another great idea of mine?” Jackie hissed.
“The crew and Gracie need it. Please tell me. What would you do?”
“No. You’re on your own this time, Wrigley!”
Jackie walked up to the door and held her hand over the biometric pad. It didn’t open. She looked up, pursing her lips.
“Gracie, open the door.”
Not if you have an idea that could save us, Ensign Rhoades.
Jackie turned, leaning on the wall. “I’m not telling this bitch anything, Gracie. For years she’s taken credit for my ideas.”
Then tell me.
Jackie looked at the ceiling. “That’s not fair, Gracie.”
Neither is letting this crew, me, or your captain die because you and First Executive Officer Wrigley have a past that is creating a conflict now. I demand you tell me your plan of escape.
“You’re hooked into the computer, Gracie. I’m sure you’ve come up with a plan that would trump mine.”
On the contrary, I haven’t. Please, Ensign Rhoades, tell us. I don’t want to die.
Jackie looked at Amanda. “Since Gracie’s hearing this… We make a hyper jump.”
Amanda scoffed at her. “Aris said we’re in a negative position. We can’t make a jump.”
“We were in a negative position, but we probably wouldn’t be if we crossed to the other side of the nebula and jump from within the nebula.”
“So now you’re a pilot?”
“You know what? You asked me for help, Wrigley! You don’t like what I’m saying, come up with your own idea.” Jackie spun to face the door. “Open the damned door, Gracie!”
The door opened and Jackie stormed out.
Amanda sighed, dropping her head. “Are there any other tactical maneuvers you recommend, Gracie?”
I have played thousands of scenarios since we have taken refuge in this nebula. Nearly all have a ten percent or lower survival ratio.
Amanda looked at the door. “And what about her plan?”
I’m running the scenario now.
Amanda waited the few seconds it took the scenario to run.
The survival ratio is twenty-six percent. We will not be able to use sensors or readout station data; we will have rely solely on star charts.
“That sounds like a problem. Why does that sound like a problem?”
Many star charts haven’t been updated since readout stations were put in place. Most are fifty to a hundred years old and solar systems change. We run the risk of jumping into the middle of a sun, a planet, or something else equally lethal.
“So there’s a seventy-four percent chance this jump will kill us, and a twenty-six percent chance we’ll survive?”
Correct, but since all the other scenarios I've run have resulted in ten percent to zero percent.
Amanda threw up her hands. “Well, if we die in a hyper jump, at least none of us will feel it! Transport me to the bridge.”
Amanda marched off the transport pad to stand before the captain’s chair. She pulled her hands behind her back and for the first time in years, appeared confident; not that any of the crew noticed. They never paid much attention when she came onto the bridge. Today it had to be different. Today she was either going to save them all or kill them all.
She swallowed hard, cleared her throat, and asked, “Aris, have the hyper jump cells reached full capacity?”
“How wide is the nebula?”
“A hundred meters short of eighty kilometers.”
Amanda shot her a glare. “Couldn’t you just say seventy-nine kilometers?”
Aris smiled. “Only my captain gets exact information.”
The bridge crew chuckled at the joke.
Amanda leaned over her shoulder, speaking next to the Paskian’s ear and loud enough that the rest of crew heard her.
“Aris, we all know that Paskians are sniveling cowards and what I’m about to ask you to do, I doubt you can pull off. So why don’t I ask Jason to come up here and take your place? After all, he is a man and he can do much better than you.” Amanda reached out to the intercom control.
Aris slapped her hand away, growling, “The nebula is seventy-nine kilometers wide and eight hundred and ninety-three meters long, ma’am.”
Amanda stood up. “On screen show me where we can jump from the nebula to five hundred kilometers from Righel Prime.”
“Ma’am!?” Aris turned to her. “We can’t jump from the nebula! We need sensor readings from—”
“I am aware of the sensor and readout station readings, Aris. If you believe you can’t do this, then you need to step down now.”
Aris’ face took on more of a dog-like appearance. “I can do this jump, ma’am.”
“Then show me the requested data.”
“The Terallians are going to follow us even if we make a jump, ma’am,” Reuben told her.
“Which is why we’ll have to come out of hyperdrive at full speed and make a run for the Merchant Raitor perimeter.”
“And the jump is going to drain the cells,” Aris told her. “We won’t be able to jump for two days.”
“Then you’d better plot it right the first time.”
“I can assist you, Ensign Dariket,” Gracie offered.
“I’ll have to check the calculations based on star charts.” Aris turned back to the controls to start plotting the jump.
“How long will that take, Aris?”
“Give me an hour.”
“I want us headed for the edge of the nebula in twenty minutes; you have twenty-five minutes before the ships will detect us.”
Aris gaped, looking up at her.
Amanda kept her eyes on the screen. She couldn’t show them her fear, even if her world was continuing to crash and breathing was difficult. She was aching for the order she’d known before this had happened and the safety of her daily routines. She longed for Tru to be standing next to her, making all the tough decisions.
Q’al ran into the Brig, stopping at the control center in the middle of the room.
“I need in their cell now.” He pointed at the alien’s cell without looking.
“Doctor, I ca—” the guard began.
“OUR CAPTAIN IS DYING! I NEED IN NOW!”
The guard quickly tapped the control to lower the energy shielding. Q’al ran in, watching the two stand up from the bunk, the male pushing the child behind him. She peeked around his thigh to watch Q’al.
“I need to get some of her venom,” Q’al told the man.
The alien stepped back, forcing the girl to retreat.
Q’al looked at the floor. “How can I make you understand this?”
The man spoke quietly and Q’al looked up. He was pointing at the canister in Q’al’s hand.
Q’al held it up. He pushed his lip back, pointing at his canine teeth. He put them on the rubber and bit down so they punctured it. Q’al pulled his mouth away. He held it out to the male.
“I need her poison in here.” He pointed down at the girl, then his canine teeth again.
The boy took the canister, looking it over. The girl spoke quietly. The man looked down at her, speaking to her. He knelt in front of her, dropping the canister on the bunk. He grabbed her arms, saying something while giving her a firm shake. She replied, looking scared. He stood, looking around him. His eyes found the canister. He motioned at it, an action indicating he expected her to do something.
The girl hugged the canister to her chest, but didn’t do anything else.
“All crew be prepared to come under fire,” Amanda said over the ship COM. “We will be near the edge of the nebula in ten minutes and we are detecting seven ships. The Terallians are likely to open fire before we can make a hyper jump.”
Q’al crouched down, coming to eye level with the child. She started to step back but the man caught her and pushed her closer to Q’al.
“Child, I need you to put your poison in there and do it quickly. My captain is dying from your poison.”
She said something to the man. He angrily motioned at Q’al, but his focus was on her. She shook her head, trying to pull away from him. He hissed at her and she shrank back, staring wide-eyed at him. He scolded her and ripped the canister out of her hands. He bit down on the rubber and a milky fluid start dripping from his fangs. He worked his jaw, forcing venom out of his venom sacs and into the canister. He pulled his fangs out, handing it off to Q’al and then sat down on the bunk, holding his head.
“Are you all right?” Q’al asked, laying his hand on the man’s shoulder.
The girl hissed at Q’al. In a surprising move, the man slapped her, knocking her off her feet. He hissed and then started screaming at her. She quickly got to her feet, grabbed the canister and forced venom into the container, producing twice what the man had milked. Q’al grabbed it when a light on the side went green. She let it go, looking up at him. Q’al smiled, gently taking her hand.
“Thank you, child. Thank you.”
Q’al got up, turning to leave. His heart leapt when one of them grabbed his wrist. He looked back, staring into the girl’s wide blue eyes.
“I’m… Sorry?” she said.
Q’al smiled, laying his hand on her head. “I know you are.”
Q’al stepped out of the cell.
“Gracie, transpor—” He was transported before he could finish speaking.
“XO…” Reuben turned to a screen. “Sonar is showing ships are moving to intercept.”
“Can we hyper jump through them, Aris?”
“Yeah, but we’ll rip right through anyone in our way.”
“Not out problem. Plot the jump and tell me when you’re ready. Reuben, shields up and fire at will.”
“Aye, ma’am,” the two replied.
Amanda put her hand to her mouth, sinking into the captain’s chair. An anxiety attack threatened to send her screaming from the bridge. She pulled her stone from a pocket, pressed her thumb into the center, and mentally began reciting, ‘This moment will pass.’
The ship rocked from a hit.
“We are being targeted,” Reuben told her.
Amanda looked at the floor. Things were about to get worse.
Q’al materialized in Sickbay, handing the canister off to nurse Tipton. “I need an antivenin, stat!”
Tipton ran off to make it. Q’al grabbed a scanner, running to Tru’s bedside.
“He’s having a hard time breathing,” Ilka told him. “His fever won’t go down and I’m showing a buildup of white blood cells.”
“BRACE FOR TORPEDO IMPACT!” Jackie screamed over the ship intercom.
The ship rocked and Q’al used his body to keep Tru from sliding off the bed.
“RAILS UP!” Q’al ordered.
The medical staff raised the bedside rails and secured Tru to the bed.
“Doctor, his heart rate is becoming erratic,” nurse Henrich told Q’al. “He’s going into cardiac arrest.”
Q’al ran the scanner over Tru’s chest. The venom had reached his lung.
Q’al mentally whispered, ‘Ja’rie, keep his soul safe until I can fix this. Don’t leave him alone out there.’