The commander of the League ship Banneker didn’t often have admirals on her ship, much less apoplectic ones, and she was finding the experience to be distinctly unpleasant. Knowing that the admiral’s fury was directed at the fates and not herself or her staff was only a minor comfort.
“How could this sort of thing happen? Are we back in the Dark Ages? Where was the medical staff? What happened to all the failsafes designed to prevent exactly this sort of thing?”
This was easily the sixth time the admiral had voiced that very question, and Captain Shannon fought down the urge to sigh deeply. Instead she answered, as calmly as she could, “The pathogen appears to be the result of a new mutation; DNA analysis indicates that it developed from one of the bacteria which is considered normal flora for Betelgeusean physiology. That’s why the screening programs failed to detect it and remove it from the food processing units.”
“But it wasn’t normal, was it?” Admiral Jarrock demanded, his normally polished tones hoarsened by anger and worry. “No, there were a few teeny modifications in its genes, and instead of benignly manufacturing a vitamin for the Betelgeuseans, it began chewing up the intestinal tract of every humanoid on board! If the first officer hadn’t been one of the photosynthetic Melcostans, the ship would never have made it this far!”
“At least Commander Tuwllop was able to navigate to the rendezvous point,” Shannon pointed out, “and my medical staff produced an effective drug against the--”
“Effective? Are you insane? The entire crew -- except Tuwllop -- will be bedridden for at least two weeks!”
Shannon reminded herself that one of the roles of a subordinate was to put up with a superior officer’s temper, no matter how unreasonable he or she might be. “Considering the number of casualties they’re caring for, I think it was remarkable that my science people developed an appropriate drug so quickly, and if Dr. ver’Tlp hadn’t kept such careful notes, it might have taken much longer. Even those with the most severe cases will eventually make complete recoveries.”
“ver’Tlp should have tumbled to the epidemic much faster,” Jarrock growled. “It never should have spread as far as it did.”
“My medical staff disagrees,” Shannon said, her tone deliberately mild. “They feel that ver’Tlp did an excellent job, especially considering that she was one of the first people stricken. Since the bacteria is, for all intents and purposes, a new disease organism, ver’Tlp’s task was Herculean. She had to rule out all possibilities from airborne pathogens to radiation sickness. My staff can hardly believe that in the midst of a growing epidemic, she correctly identified the food preparation unit as the culprit.”
“A lot of good it did by then. The entire ship was already infected.”
“By the time the first cases were reported, it was too late. These beasties are mean. It’s a miracle that there were no fatalities.”
Jarrock actually chuckled, albeit briefly. “I think some of the patients would rather have died. Dysentery-like symptoms coupled with projectile vomiting? No thanks.”
“If ver’Tlp hadn’t discovered the pathogen, you might have had a more personal encounter with the bug. We couldn’t have quarantined the Charles Drew when it arrived; by that time most of the crew were comatose, and my medical staff had to board the ship immediately. Thanks to the doctor’s notes, though, we realized where the source of infection was in time to prevent it from contaminating our food systems.”
“All right, all right!” Jarrock snapped. “Your point is made, Captain. ver’Tlp’s work was exemplary, and I’ll stop blaming her for this fiasco. Does that satisfy you?”
Shannon couldn’t wholly suppress her grin. “Yes, Admiral. Would you like a cookie? Or some raw meat?”
The Tuarian admiral’s crimson eyes narrowed. “Nobody likes a smart-ass, Captain. Remember that.”
“No, sir,” she replied obediently, but her own eyes were still twinkling.
Jarrock sighed, the worst of his temper over. “I apologize, Captain. I shouldn’t take my ill humor out on either you or Dr. ver’Tlp. But the success of this mission is crucial to the League, and I still can’t believe that it’s gone up in smoke all because some microorganism decided to evolve in an unexpected direction!”
“Perhaps a replacement could be sent out from -- “
Jarrock shook his head, cutting her off. “There’s no time. We deliberately waited until the last possible moment to minimize the chance of security leaks. But, now, that very caution has defeated us!”
“I know that Lieutenant Olmos is highly qualified for the mission, but surely it would be better to send a replacement than to abort the entire plan.”
Jarrock snorted. “Not if the replacement you offered me is the only candidate!”
Shannon called up her personnel files and swiveled her terminal so that Jarrock could read them. “Look for yourself, Admiral. I understand how important this mission is, but there is simply no one else whom I can send. We’re in the middle of nowhere, almost a week from the nearest base, and my staff is stretched dangerously thin manning two vessels. As you yourself pointed out, the entire crew of the Charles Drew is ill.”
Jarrock was looking hunted. “All I need is one person, trained -- “
“Admiral.” This time she cut him off. “There is only one person I can spare, and that is the ensign I offered you.”
“Surely there’s someone else!”
“Sir, I don’t have a large complement to begin with. There are no supernumeraries on my ship at the best of times, and now, with my staff working double shifts in order to keep the Charles Drew running -- not to mention the people on sickroom duty -- there is simply no one else!”
“What about Tuwllop?” Jarrock’s eyes lit up. “It wasn’t affected by the toxin!”
The admiral was grasping at straws, and it was her thankless duty to point it out to him. “Admiral, you cannot take the one able-bodied person who knows the Charles Drew. Besides, I thought this mission involved covert activities. An eight foot sessile triped with green skin isn’t what you’d call inconspicuous. You explicitly asked me for a humanoid officer.”
“I’m growing less fussy with every passing minute! You can’t seriously expect me to accept this -- this Alec Dawson!”
“He is a qualified -- “
“Qualified? For what? He’s barely out of his training!”
Shannon leaned back in her chair. “He is very young,” she admitted.
“Besides which, the fact that you can spare him is hardly a resounding endorsement for his abilities!”
The captain tugged at her ear, uncomfortable. “I’m sure that, in time, he could be a fine officer.”
“ ‘Could be’? ‘In time’? Captain, I don’t have any time! How much of a shpludbrain is this kid? I can tell you, I’m not overwhelmed by his record!”
“It’s a perfectly acceptable record,” Shannon protested on Dawson’s behalf.
“Have you read the psych report? He’s a twit with a hero complex. If he were any wetter behind the ears, we’d need to have a maintenance robot follow him with a mop.”
Shannon frowned. As much as she might agree with Jarrock’s assessment, Dawson was a member of her crew, and she would not stand idly by while the admiral demolished his reputation. “He is young -- and naive -- but that’s hardly a cardinal sin. We were all young once,” she reminded the admiral icily.
“We were never that young,” Jarrock muttered darkly. “The kid is a menace.”
“He’s your only option.” Shannon had finally had enough of Jarrock’s complaints. “Do you want him or not?”
Jarrock shook his head despairingly. “How can I send an inexperienced ensign on a delicate diplomatic mission?”
“From what you tell me, it’s likely to be nothing more than a simple escort. Dawson is certainly capable of piloting a small craft from one side of the galaxy to the other.”
“He’ll be escorting the heir to the throne of Verdos II. She’s a young woman, a humanoid, and it’ll be just the two of them aboard a tiny ship for over two weeks. I can’t send a male officer!”
“Marianne Olmos may have been your top choice, but right now she’s in no shape to stand up, let alone fly a ship. Her qualifications are impressive, but they’re immaterial, at least until she can stop throwing up. Besides, if you have to send a male officer, who better than a wet-behind-the ears ensign whose head is full of romantic notions about the service? He’d never think of touching her... unlike most of my other male officers,” she admitted, quirking an eyebrow at Jarrock.
“Oh, not that they would do anything,” she hastened to add, catching sight of Jarrock’s expression. “They’re professionals after all, but with Dawson, there won’t even be the thought of impropriety.”
“Can’t Dawson take over the duties of one of your female officers?” Jarrock asked plaintively. “Then she could act as escort and -- “
“Admiral, my people are not interchangeable. There is no female of any rank or species whom I can presently spare. Maybe in a week or two, when the Charles Drew’s crew are beginning to recover, but definitely not until then.” She looked at the admiral shrewdly. “And, if I may say so, sir, you know that. You’ve been over my personnel files with the same scrutiny as I have.”
Jarrock slumped into a chair. “I keep hoping there’s someone I missed, some scrap of information that’s not in the files but to which you’re privy, that will allow for a substitution. We can’t wait for the Charles Drew crew to recover; even a week from now will be too late. The princess has to reach Verdos II in exactly thirty-five days to participate in the coronation ceremony.” He held up a hand, forestalling the obvious question. “The date is set by ritual and law. It cannot be postponed. In order for them to reach the planet in time, I need an escort now.”
Shannon cast about for an alternate suggestion. “What about a cruiser? It would take several days for one to get all the way out here, but at maximum speed they could get her to Verdos in plenty of time.”
“No. Our involvement is at the request of the princess’ father, not the Verdosi government. As far as they’re concerned, we’re outworlders with no business interfering in domestic affairs. Providing a single escort is one thing, but it would be impolitic to send a cruiser. Discretion is the watchword for this mission. Discretion and delicacy -- not two traits you’d normally associate with Dawson!”
“Sir.” Shannon looked reproving.
Jarrock gave a muffled roar of frustration and defeat. “Oh, all right. Send the ensign in. Let me see how much worse this can get.”
Shannon tapped the intercom panel as she relinquished her chair to the admiral. “Xuatec, we’re ready for Dawson now.”
Outside the captain’s office, on the ship’s main bridge, the senior command staff exchanged a glance as Shannon’s words crackled over the intercom. Hang Thanh, the navigator, rolled her eyes at the blue furred helmsman, and Chief Engineer Larossa snorted in ill-disguised amusement.
“Did you have something to say, Chief?” Xuatec, the ship’s executive officer, inquired silkily.
Expressions were hastily composed. “No, sir, not really,” Larossa cleared his throat and tried to control his twitching lips.
“The poor admiral!” Thanh exclaimed, unable to restrain herself any longer.
“Lieutenant,” Xuatec began severely, but the captain’s aide interrupted him.
“Oh, come on, Xua,” Mika Twain intervened, nudging his shoulder. “You know the situation. Jarrock was determined to get someone -- anyone! -- else for this mission.”
“But our estimable captain proved more than a match for him!” Stiptop, the Denebian helmsman, added in his whispery voice. “Ah, to have been a common invertebrate eavesdropping within the confines of the -- “
“He means a fly on the wall,” Thanh put in.
“That’s enough,” Xuatec remonstrated. “Sniping at one’s shipmates is -- “
Twain tucked a stray lock of raven hair behind her ear as she spoke, and her tone was more one of resigned amusement than deliberate unkindness. “But it’s not sniping, Xua. It’s just an honest evaluation of Dawson’s abilities. I mean, he’s not really someone you can seriously envision being trusted to take out the trash, let alone -- “
A warning cough from the environment station by the door alerted them to a new arrival.
“Commander?” A tall young man stepped onto the Bridge. He wore the simple insignia of a newly minted ensign, and he had a puppyish air of enthusiasm about him. “You sent for me, sir?” Xua got the impression that, had Dawson possessed a tail, he’d be wagging it.
He glanced at the rest of the Bridge crew, busily hiding their smirks and I-told-you-so expressions. “Yes, ensign,” he said with a sigh. “The captain and admiral wish to see you.”
“Me?” Dawson choked in delight. “Really?”
Larossa coughed, a bit too late to muffle the laugh completely, and Xuatec shot him an annoyed look. Dawson was too thrilled to notice.
“You can go right in,” Xuatec said, beginning to share Thanh’s opinion. Admiral Jarrock really was in trouble if he needed the services of this young man.
Dawson knocked once on the office door, then stepped through. “Ensign Alec Dawson reporting as ordered!”
“Come in, Ensign.” Captain Shannon motioned him inside from her position at one side of the room. Admiral Jarrock sat behind the desk, and he brightened a bit at his first sight of Dawson. Standing at attention like that, the ensign looked quite grown up.
“I assume you know why you’ve been summoned,” the Tuarian began.
Dawson involuntarily glanced over his shoulder to where the captain stood. “N-no, sir.”
“Well, perhaps ‘know’ is too strong a word, but surely you have your suspicions, eh?” Jarrock amended with a conspiratorial chuckle.
Dawson gazed back at him, his eyes wide and guileless. “No, sir, not at all.”
Jarrock’s jaw dropped. “None whatever? But I -- Ensign, how long have I been aboard?”
Dawson’s brow cleared. Finally, a question he could answer. “Twelve days, sir,” he supplied promptly.
“And do you mean to tell me that in all that time, the ship’s grapevine hasn’t come up with one rumor about my reason for being here?”
The ensign looked primly virtuous. “I wouldn’t know, sir. I never listen to gossip.”
Incredulous, Jarrock looked past Dawson to Shannon. She shrugged apologetically.
The admiral sighed. How could he entrust a diplomatic mission to a boy who hadn’t yet learned the value of keeping an ear to the ground? Still, this ensign was his only choice. “Very well. Let me start at the beginning. What do you know about Verdos?”
Dawson gulped. He looked exactly like a primary schooler who had just been confronted by a pop quiz. “Um...”
Jarrock stifled a groan. “Never mind. It’s an independent star system on the other side of the galaxy, comprising three inhabited planets. The worlds are joined in a loose confederacy under the guidance of the largest planet, Verdos II.”
“Yes, sir?” Dawson prompted.
“For millennia the planets were ruled by a dynasty, but four generations ago there was a revolution and most of the royal family were killed in the resulting violence. When the bloodshed finally ceased, there was only one dynastic branch left, whose members had fled to the far side of the galaxy. They’ve lived there in exile ever since.”
“Wow!” The comment, almost inaudible, escaped the ensign’s lips. He was so captivated by the admiral’s tale that he didn’t even notice. Jarrock did, but he forced himself to continue anyway.
“Things on Verdos have quieted down in recent years. They tried several forms of government in the decades since the coup, and they’ve finally decided to return to the dynastic form -- with a few modifications of course, but that’s not your concern.”
“No, sir.” Dawson’s eyes were huge, and he hung on the admiral’s every word.
“The point is, they want the last remaining heir to the throne to come back to Verdos, and we’ve agreed to escort her.”
“How many ships will be going, sir? Will there be a full honor brigade?”
“No, no, you misunderstand. The Verdosi government itself has not requested our presence. It’s the princess’ father. He seems to feel that there may still be some opposition to his daughter’s ascension to the throne, and he wants us to safeguard her.”
“Why doesn’t he just ask the Verdosi government for help?”
Jarrock’s hopes rose. Maybe the boy had a brain after all. “He doesn’t know whom to trust. Besides, if his suspicions are groundless, he doesn’t want to color the outset of his daughter’s reign with distrust. As outsiders, with no stake in the power struggle, we are a natural choice to shepherd the Princess ShiyrTana to her new home.”
“A princess in distress? Gee!”
Jarrock devoutly wished the ensign would stop sounding like a starstruck teenager. Even his vocabulary was nauseatingly squeaky-clean. The admiral began to long for a few of the saltier expressions common to older crewmembers. “We have been asked to ferry the princess -- incognito -- from her home in exile here in the Esteppan system to the coronation ceremony on Verdos II. She will be transported in a small, two-person pod to minimize attention. Lieutenant Olmos of the Charles Drew was selected to be the escort, and your ship brought me to the rendezvous so that I could deliver her final instructions. Unfortunately, the food poisoning affair aboard the Charles Drew has forced a change in our plans.”
“Then -- You mean -- Am I to be the escort?” Dawson finally got it.
Jarrock sent one last look of appeal to Shannon, but she shook her head firmly, and he was forced to mutter, “Yes.”
“Oh, boy!” It was clear from his expression that Dawson was mentally recasting the latest installment of the “Commodore Brooks, Space Command” serial with himself in the lead role.
Jarrock massaged his temples. He could feel a headache coming on. “Your assignment is to escort the princess to Verdos II in time for the coronation in thirty-five days. Because of the threat to her safety, you will keep her identity a secret until you are actually in the presence of the Verdosi authorities, is that clear?”
“The ceremony to install the princess is full of mystic rituals whose origins are shrouded in legend. The coronation cannot be postponed. No matter what, the princess must arrive in time. Understood?”
“Once you have turned her over to the Verdosi authorities, your job is complete. At that point, the matter becomes an internal one, entirely within the Verdosi sphere of influence, and you’ll return to the Banneker. We’ll be in orbit around Verdos by then; once the Charles Drew’s crew has recovered sufficiently to resume control of their vessel, we’ll leave for the planet, and with our superior speed and more direct course, we’ll arrive before you. All right? Any questions?”
“Will the princess have any special physiological requirements? Is the shuttle going to have two separate environments?”
“No, although Verdosi physiology is quite different from Terran, they belong to the same environmental classification as you. Their atmosphere is very similar to Terra’s.”
“Were they once a Terran colony, like Tuara?” Alec asked with ill-timed curiosity.
Shannon closed her eyes. Leave it to Dawson to phrase it that way.
Jarrock’s reddish skin grew dusky, a sign of suppressed ire. “Tuara was settled as an independent world, six centuries ago. Its climate was never suited to Terrans.”
“But the first colonists -- “ that disastrous word again. Did the boy never learn? “ -- were Terran conscripts. They were just genetically engineered so that their descendants could inherit the physiological adaptations which permitted them to function in the -- “
“Thank you for the refresher course on the history of my world,” Jarrock said between clenched teeth. He was clearly reining in his temper so as not to affect the Verdosi mission, but Shannon had an all-too-clear idea of where the admiral’s irritation would be directed once Dawson left the room. “However, this is irrelevant to the matter at hand. Do you have any questions about your mission?
Dawson drew himself up, oblivious to the admiral’s offended patriotism. “Just one, sir: when do I leave?”
The heroic pose would have been more effective if Commodore Brooks hadn’t used it the night before.
“Ensign, don’t get carried away,” Captain Shannon cautioned, moving to stand beside Jarrock. “With any luck, this assignment should be very routine. You’ll do nothing more than pilot the princess from Esteppan Alpha to Verdos II.”
“I understand,” Dawson assured her, nodding vigorously. “And I’m to keep her identity a secret and make sure she arrives in time for the ceremony.”
“And turn the matter over to the Verdosi at the earliest opportunity!” Jarrock added strongly.
“If you simply follow the route that has been entered into your shuttle flight computer, you should have no problem,” Shannon continued in a calm, clear voice. “The princess’ identity will be a moot point, as there will be no one else aboard to whom you could reveal it, and the flight plan has been carefully selected to deliver you to Verdos in plenty of time.”
“Oh.” Dejection began to set in as the ensign realized just how mundane the assignment was. “Is that all?”
“Gods, I hope so!” Jarrock exclaimed fervently. “This isn’t some potboiler fiction, Dawson! We’re talking about interplanetary diplomacy!”
“Yes, sir!” the ensign exclaimed, once again impressed with his new responsibilities. “I’ll do my best.”
“Just follow your orders, Ensign. It’s a very simple mission,” the admiral’s tone was almost pleading. “Don’t mess it up.”
“I’m sure Dawson will do just fine, Admiral,” Shannon said, smiling encouragingly at the boy. She was rewarded with a straightening of his shoulders and a setting of his jaw.
“I certainly will!” he agreed stoutly. “Permission to pack a few things, sir?”
“Granted.” When the door had shut behind him, Jarrock turned to Shannon. “So do you really believe that? That he’ll do fine?”
She sighed, sinking into a chair. “No. Not for a minute. But I can hope, can’t I?”