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The Way to the Stars

By Kira Bacal All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Scifi

Blurb

Captain Miri Davner is ordered to lead a covert ops team behind enemy lines to assist an armed uprising. Once they are deep within enemy territory, the uprising is revealed to be a fiction, dreamt up by her foes in an effort to lure her ship across the border so that heavy reparations could then be extracted. Now Davner must not only escape from her captors and rejoin her hidden ship, but she must also get them all safely back across the border. She manages that – though not without casualties – and almost immediately finds herself in the middle of a First Contact, unexpectedly encountering a new alien race whose initial congeniality is soon replaced by something much darker and more dangerous.

Chapter 1

“Blessings on your young courage; that’s the way to the stars.” (Macte nova virtute, sic itur ad astra.) --Virgil, Aeneid ix.641

“... The plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows...” -- Oliver Cromwell, September, 1643

I hate it when orders begin with “Due to your unique talents..” Sealed orders are standard practice in the League, but ones that are coded six different ways and only open after a retinal verification make me uneasy. Very uneasy.

I should have guessed something was up when my ship’s scheduled R&R was extended until new orders arrived. HQ isn’t peopled with fairy godmothers, and longer shore leaves usually come with a price tag. Still, at the time the extension came through, I didn’t wonder about nefarious missions in the offing -- I just danced around the kitchen with my husband and daughter.

Then I collected myself and ordered my communications officer to alert the rest of the crew and passed word to my Executive Officer (whose turn it had been to stay on the orbiting ship) that my return would be pushed back a few days.

Those were good days, too. I don’t see my kid often enough, or my patient spouse either for that matter. Oh, we knew what we were in for when we signed our marriage contract; even back then I had stardust in my eyes. In fact, we met when my ship was assigned to assist Tom’s planetary design team. That mission lasted over six months and by the end, the two of us were engaged. I was only chief physician and third officer at that point, but I knew I wanted a command of my own, and I warned Tom about what such a career would entail. To my everlasting joy, he was unfazed. His work makes its own demands, but between the two of us, we have a larger-than-average supply of determination and somehow it’s all worked out, even to the point of having Katja. She’s a sweetie and if I were around more, I would probably spoil her rotten. As it is, though, her father and grandparents do a damned good job of raising her and my mistakes are thankfully kept to a minimum.

In fact, Katja has turned out so terrific, and the bond between Tom and myself is so strong, we’ve begun negotiations into having another one. Child, that is. I’m ready for a boy, but Tom likes daughters. I’d just about twisted his arm enough to agree to a son (it didn’t take that much persuasion) when my new orders came through.

Although I certainly enjoy my family and the unexpectedly long visit with them had been wonderful, I’d been getting increasingly edgy. I couldn’t help wondering what was in the offing for me and my crew and so, as much as I hate to leave my family behind, it was something of a relief to board the shuttle when the orders finally came.

I kissed everyone goodbye for the hundredth time, then stepped aboard the shuttle that had come down from the ship to fetch me (rank doth have its privileges, and don’t let anyone tell you differently).

“Have a nice time, Captain?” the pilot asked as I slipped into the seat beside him.

“Yes, very,” I replied, trying simultaneously to wave out the window and brush off the sticky handprints with which Katja had decorated my uniform.

“Boost now,” the pilot warned a second before the acceleration pressed me against my seat. My family shrank to dots, then were lost to sight.

I sighed. Returning from liberty always required a certain mental readjustment. On leave, my biggest responsibility was remembering to feed my kid -- a task she wasn’t likely to let me forget -- while on my ship, I was the ultimate authority on every aspect of shipboard life. Distraction could prove fatal.

Three hundred and two people depend on me. They follow my orders and through them I control one of the miracles of modern technology: a Corona class interstellar exploration and defense craft. My ship has enough power to reignite a dying sun and can speed through the vastness of space even faster than light itself. (It has to do with creating a wrinkle in space-time between yourself and your destination. I understand the theory and even some of the applications, but nowadays I just tell my astrogation people what I need and let them worry about making it happen.)

“Cap’n?” The pilot interrupted my reverie, his tone a little too cheerful. He must have been one of the skeleton crew who, by the luck of the draw, had been left to man the ship and had therefore missed out on the extended R&R. At least now he could enjoy his role in ending other people’s vacations.

“Yes, N’Kebe?” The chill in my voice had nothing to do with his glee in being the liberty-ending grinch; I hate nicknames, especially when they’re applied to me. However, one cannot simply abrogate free speech, even when one is captain, and so there’s a limit to what I can do about their use. I have managed to stamp out use of the term “Skipper”, but it’s much harder to nail someone for slurring his pronunciation. My crew responds to my “eccentricity” by holding surreptitious contests to invent new (and increasingly imaginative) nicknames for me. I ignore the whole thing, in a dignified manner of course, and everyone is happy.

The pilot’s grin widened, and I had the distinct impression that he was enjoying himself. I could remember when he had first come aboard my ship, only a few years ago. He’d been a skinny kid, just out of Training, and too timid to speak harshly to a computer. Back then, his speech was liberally sprinkled with honorifics, and he would no more have teased a superior officer than walked naked into the power core. What could have happened to him?

Actually, I had a sneaking suspicion, based on comments made to me by other captains who inherited some of my former crewmembers. “How do you manage them?” they ask. “They’re not insolent, nor even disrespectful exactly; they know their jobs and how to think, but they don’t act with the proper deference!”

I simply shrug. Bowing and scraping annoys me, and I find that it causes more problems than it alleviates. My crew are perfectly cognizant of our respective ranks, and when I issue a command, it’s obeyed -- perfectly. But do I expect them to kowtow along the way? What nonsense!

Of course, I thought, studying the young pilot’s impish expression, there was something to be said for passive obsequy.

When he spoke, though, he kept the levity from his voice. “Commander Stevens said to tell you that the crew will have been reboarded by the time we get back, and we’ll be ready to leave orbit whenever you say.”

“Hm. Thank you, Lieutenant.” I stared out the window at the sky, darkening now from blue to black. So my Exec had taken charge of recalling everyone, had he? I’d wondered why no one from the ship had called with the inevitable questions about conflicting shuttle schedules and untenable rendezvous coordinates, but I’d been too occupied with Katja and Tom to follow up on it. I’d assumed (rightly) that if any real problems arose, I’d be contacted soon enough.

It wasn’t improper for the Executive Officer to coordinate crew returns, and in fact, it was exactly the kind of nice surprise I should have expected from Rick Stevens. I just wasn’t used to working with other Terrans.

My last Exec had been Leoan, a felinoid race whose personal honor is sacrosanct and who are therefore very clear on things like oaths of allegiance, hierarchy, and regulations. Snraal might have done the very same thing as Stevens, but she would have told me first. Leoans are not lacking in initiative, but they believe in informing the commanding officer of everything which transpires aboard his or her ship. Now that she has her own vessel -- an eighty-five person science ship which she was awarded just over a year ago -- Snraal is learning what it’s like to be on the other side of the desk.

Six years of working with Snraal had made me forget how unpredictable Terrans can be, and the first months with Stevens required some adjustments, mostly by me. Snraal had hand-picked him as the Number Two, so I knew he was good, I just couldn’t understand how Snraal had reconciled herself to his unexpected bursts of initiative. Then (a bit belatedly), it dawned on me that Stevens and I work in much the same way, and if Snraal could get used to me, Rick wouldn’t have posed a problem for her. I, on the other hand, had never had to get used to myself, and so Stevens kept surprising me. Fourteen months later, though, we had developed a good working relationship -- as witnessed by his maximizing my treasured time with Tom and Katja. I made a mental note to thank him once we reached the ship.

“Any idea what we’re in for, Cap?” At my glare, he added, “Tin.”

“You’re probably more familiar with the latest rumors than I am,” I pointed out. “Anything happen while I was downside?”

“Just the hull breach and the mutin-- Ooops. Commander Stevens made us swear not to tell.”

Just what any captain wants: a funny crew. “If you don’t have anything intelligent to say, lieutenant, you can concentrate on piloting the ship.”

“Yes, Cap’n.” He sounded suspiciously unsquelched, but I had bigger things to worry about. I activated the computer panel by my seat and accessed the ship’s mainframe. Calling up the log, I scanned the entries for the time I was away.

I didn’t expect problems; the ship had spent the last fortnight at the Lancaster SpaceDock for a refitting, and with only a skeleton crew on board, there just weren’t that many things that could have gone wrong. Besides, I trusted Rick.

According to the log, my faith was not misplaced: Everything seemed to have gone smoothly; the regular reports had gone out on time; the engineers had given the ship a clean bill of health; and -- aside from the sealed orders waiting in my cabin -- nothing unusual had transpired. I closed my eyes, envisioning the ship. She’d been mine for the past five and a half years, and as far as I was concerned she was the best Thrumsnarfing vessel in the whole fleet. I couldn’t even imagine holding another post.

The Serengeti was a modified scout ship -- larger than the typical Explorer Corps vessel and with heavier armament, but not so big that we lumbered like a stranded leviathan. We had speed, maneuverability, and firepower. We could outpace and outshoot anything close to our size, though happily the Icosian border had been quiet of late and there had been little call for our more martial talents. Mostly we acted to prevent trouble from occurring -- by convincing pirates to move out of League space, by evacuating colonies before they were devastated by natural disasters, by ferrying medicines or other supplies to stricken worlds. It was pleasant work, and if my crew were getting a little complacent, I didn’t blame them. There was too much to do for the job to become boring, but if a little of the risk had left -- that was fine with me. I had a family, and I wanted to be sure I would return home to them.

The tranquility which had brightened our lives for the past year or so had made it easier to arrange shore leaves. Tom’s work in planetary design -- telling the terrafarmers how to make a barren rock inhabitable -- naturally requires him to travel around quite a bit, and between his work schedule and mine, we can often work out a rendezvous at a nearby planet. Unlike my career, his allows him to take Katja along, and so when I have a break from staring down Icosian marauders, I have the chance to see not only my spouse but my child as well.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the détente to squeeze in extra family visits. Most of my crew make their homes in the nearby systems -- the League is good about staffing their ships that way. Not only does it mean that when conditions permit we’re in perfect position to spend time with our loved ones, but it also ensures that when trouble threatens the area, the people assigned to fixing the problem are the ones most dedicated to the region. These are our homes, not just some anonymous planets. We have a stake in their welfare.

“Captain, we’re approaching the ship,” N’Kebe’s voice warned me, and I lifted my eyes just as the Serengeti came into view. As always, the sight made me catch my breath. We paused there for a long, long moment, then the pilot touched the controls and we moved forward, heading for the bay doors.

“Thank you, lieutenant.”

His smile held none of its former mischief. “It still gets to me too, Captain.”

We shared a look of perfect understanding. Then I pointedly glanced at his instrument panel, and with a poorly hidden roll of his eyes, he returned his attention to the task at hand. Within a few minutes, we were safely aboard and the bay was repressurizing. I stood up and stepped over to the hatch while the lieutenant went through his post-flight check.

“Welcome aboard, Captain!” The second the hatch opened, my Executive Officer boomed his welcome. Rick Stevens is a big bear of a man, but his baby-faced good looks and sunny disposition make it easy to forget his size. Just then, he was beaming, and I found myself grinning back. Rick wears his emotions on his sleeve, and it was rather flattering to see how pleased he was by my return. Plenty of Executive Officers turn surly at having to relinquish command, and I’d heard horror stories from colleagues who were saddled with overly ambitious Execs.

I was lucky that Rick and I got along so well. I never doubted that there was a command of his own in his future, but for now he was perfectly suited to his present role.

He still had a few things to learn -- not the least of which was how to mask his emotions. There was never any question about Rick’s state of mind, a fact that made him the most sought-after (and least successful) poker player on the ship. Even Rick’s attempts at impassivity tended to backfire -- every crewmember knew that if Stevens wasn’t smiling when he summoned them to his office, there was trouble afoot. Similarly, he could never withhold good news -- half of our crew had received news of their promotions simply by the smile on Rick’s face when they walked through his door. I had debated discussing the matter with him, but I’d decided to wait, at least for a while. It would be more effective if Stevens realized the truth on his own -- that at times, a captain must play his cards very close to his chest.

It’s not that Rick was predictable or incapable of subterfuge. He had a positive talent for strategy and tactics, but he was lamentably unskilled at duplicity, and I was uncertain how best to advise him. How do you coach someone in the fine points of lying?

For now, though, the matter was moot, and I allowed my own pleasure to show as I walked down the shuttle ramp. “Hello, Rick. Permission to come aboard?”

“Granted! Computer, transfer all command codes back to Captain Davner.”

“Confirm transfer request.”

I hadn’t yet reattached my link, the device which would connect me to the ship’s computer and, through it, to every crewmember on board, so I spoke loudly enough that Rick’s would pick up my voice. “This is Captain Miri Davner. I authorize transfer of command codes, effective immediately.”

“Command codes have been transferred,” the artificial intelligence reported after only the briefest delay.

I raised my eyebrows at Rick. “Do I detect an increase in processing speed?”

He nodded happily. “The AI people gave us a complete retool -- even double checked the baffling on the protected core circuitry. The ship’s running better than ever.”

“Excellent. I understand that the crew has been reboarded, so -- “ Even as I said it, something nagged at the back of my mind, and I frowned, trying to chase down the thought.

“Not quite the entire crew,” Stevens began, just as I realized what was missing.

“Gortaa Hss?” I glanced around for the seven foot saurian who served as my head of Ship’s Safety. It was most unlike him not to be there at my return; he tended to serve as my shadow on the ship. He reminded me of an overprotective nanny at times, but I’d profited from his caution too many times to voice any real complaints. Not that they would have done any good if I had -- Gortaa Hss and I have a rather unorthodox relationship.

Stevens understood the unvoiced question. “The crewmembers who took their shore leave in the Delgauth system haven’t made it back yet -- the liner that was supposed to arrive yesterday was delayed by an engine flaw.”

“How many people are we short?”

“Just over three dozen, but I’ve already spoken with the liner captain and arranged a rendezvous by the Panedian Asteroid Belt. The crew will be back on board by late tomorrow.”

“Good work. I’ve glanced over the logs, so I have a sense of what’s been going on. Let me just drop my things off in my cabin, and then you can fill me in on the rest.” I turned back to the shuttle, intending to pick up my carryall, but Rick cleared his throat apologetically. When I glanced at him, he nodded to the bay doors through which the shuttle pilot was presently walking, my bag in his hand.

“I’ve got it, Captain. I’ll deliver it for you!” He called just as the door shut behind him.

“Lieutenant!” The closing hatch might have drowned out my call, but I rather doubted it. I glared after him. “He knows perfectly well I don’t approve of junior officers toting my personal items around! It smacks of servitude!”

Stevens did his best to hide a smile. “Well -- “

“I know. That’s precisely why he did it! Doesn’t anyone on this ship have the proper attitude of respect for their commanding officer?”

Rick turned his laugh into an unconvincing cough. “I’m sure he meant it as a sign of respect. Do you want me to call him back?”

“Luckily for him, I’ve too much to do just now,” I muttered darkly. As a junior crewmember, I had deeply resented being asked to fetch and carry for senior staff, and I had sworn that I would never impose upon my subordinates in such a manner. What I hadn’t figured on was having a group of subordinates whose perversity was such that they would discover my bias and, out of sheer deviltry, do their level best to circumvent it.

“They really do intend it as a gesture of affection,” Rick persisted. “You’ve made it clear that you don’t require such treatment, but there aren’t that many other ways the crew can show their feelings. We’re all glad to have you back aboard.”

The last of my pique evaporated in the face of Stevens’ obvious sincerity. Besides, although I could hardly permit a crewmember to flout one of my rules with impunity, I wasn’t blind to the favor the pilot had just done me. “Thank you,” I told him with a smile of my own. “And thank you for letting me spend all the extra time with my family, rather than wrestling with logistical nightmares.”

He turned pink. “It was -- I just -- You rearranged the duty schedule so I could attend my brother’s wedding last month.”

“A captain’s first duty is to ensure the well-being of her crew -- physical and emotional,” I said crisply. “If it was at all possible to arrange matters so as to permit your participation, I had a responsibility to do so.” My voice softened. “That’s not yet in your job description, Rick. I appreciate your taking on the extra chore in order to spare me.”

Embarrassed, Stevens shrugged and swiftly changed the subject. “I see Katja’s getting bigger by leaps and bounds.”

I stared at him, puzzled. How could he know that?

He chuckled and pointed to my uniform. Glancing down at myself, I saw the handprints I’d been unsuccessful at removing. “The smudges were much smaller after your last liberty.”

I cleared my throat and made some ineffectual brushing motions. “Computer, permit Lieutenant Shaha N’Kebe access to my quarters for the next ten minutes.” Having thus insured that the pilot would be able to drop my effects off, I turned my attention to Rick. “Walk with me, Commander. Fill me in on what’s been happening.” Stevens wasn’t the only one who could change the subject.

“As I said, the refits went exactly as planned,” Stevens began as we headed for the bay doors. “The engineers were a little concerned that our power core was -- I’ll get that, Captain.”

Because the shuttle bay has direct access to space, its doors must be opened manually, and with his customary courtesy, Rick reached over to tap the activation panel. Oddly, he used his far hand, awkwardly stretching to touch the switch.

My physician instincts aquiver, I rapped the panel the next second, canceling the command. Stevens gave me a quizzical look. “Captain?”
“Show me your arm, Commander.”

A slow flush crept up his ears, and I sighed inwardly. Katja masked her emotions better. “Um... It’s really nothing.”

“Commander.”

Reluctantly he obeyed. Even as I pushed back his sleeve, he was assuring me, “Doctor Rreah has seen to it, Captain. She says it’ll be as good as new in a few more days.”

Sure enough, there was an infusion drip set on his forearm, delivering growth enhancement factors to speed the knitting of the bones.

“Commander, you were on board with a minimal complement and virtually no duties. How in the Thrumsnarfing galaxy did you manage to break your wrist?”

He looked even more sheepish. “Er, well, it did get a little boring here, especially after all of you had gone on leave, and the crew that remained behind--”

“Yes?”

“Well, they were naturally a bit unhappy about missing liberty, and so -- “

“Yes?” Now I was really intrigued. What could he be about to confess?

He stole a glance at me. “So I thought it might be the perfect opportunity to stage a ship-wide, multi-day Tournament.”

“Rick, you didn’t!” My exclamation was out before I could stop it. “And Admiral Feleen had such high hopes for you.”

He shrugged apologetically but couldn’t smother his chuckles.

I sighed and reactivated the door. “Oh well, I guess it was only a matter of time before I corrupted you too.”

“The admiral was under a misapprehension.”

“Yes, but it was one that could have proven helpful to you.” I gave him a sidelong glance. “Was the Tournament worth a busted wrist and some shattered illusions?”

“Yes!” The word rang off the corridor’s walls, and the dazzling grin which accompanied it left no doubt in my mind. “I have a feeling when you hear about it, it’ll be you folks on shore leave who’ll think you missed out.”

I just shook my head. When the admiral found out about this -- and she would, of that I had no doubt -- I’d be in for another lecture. By now I could practically recite it along with Feleen.

Shortly after I assumed command of the Serengeti, I’d instituted a tradition known as the “Tournament”. I had originally intended it as nothing more than a training aid, but somehow it had assumed a life of its own, and the admiralty wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Up until this latest incident, Admiral Feleen, the supervising admiral for this quadrant of space, had been (erroneously) convinced that Stevens remained free of the “Tournament taint”. Now she would be forced to acknowledge that I had made yet another convert.

One of the aspects of shipboard life which has always proven problematic is maintaining one’s crew in peak performance despite the long days of unremitting boredom. (Contrary to popular opinion, most of the Fleet’s time is spent simply traveling from point A to point B. Space is big, and emergencies are -- luckily -- few and far between. They do happen though, and so keeping personnel in a state of readiness is naturally important.) I had seen how unpopular the various refresher classes were; most crewmembers simply studied like mad before the mandatory competency checks and let their skills slide in the intervening time. How then could I convince my crew to keep themselves in shape?

First I studied the situation and realized that physical condition was only part of the problem. The crew was even more lax about martial skills, both weaponry training and hand-to-hand fighting techniques, and they knew the bare minimum about areas of the ship not immediately connected with their daily routine.

Don’t misunderstand; my crew was no better or worse than any other in the Fleet, but I was not satisfied with the status quo, and -- naturally -- I determined to do something about it.

My solution was the Tournament: a combination scavenger hunt and war game, it pits teams of crewmembers against each other in a full-contact conflict scenario. In the past, teams have been assigned either to capture or protect certain areas of the ship, role-playing pirates and defenders, respectively. They have raced against the clock to repair simulated hull breaches, and they have retaken the ship from mutineers, also simulated, thank the gods. In all cases, strategy and tactics are vital to success, as well as skill in weapons (we reduce the energy weapons’ output until the beam is nothing more than visible light) and unarmed combat (we wear protective gear).

Teams are randomly assigned by computer, so each time the makeup of the groups is new, and this prevents any one team from becoming particularly expert and sweeping the games. In addition, the spontaneity of team composition mimics real life. In an authentic emergency, my crew will not be able to choose on which of their colleagues they will depend. Each one needs to be comfortable working with any of his, her, or its shipmates. One happy byproduct of the Tournament is that my crew has become acquainted with each other to an almost unprecedented degree.

On most Fleet ships, people tend to associate only with their immediate colleagues, and there is little mixing between Ships’ Systems and Safety personnel or interaction between highly disparate ranks. The Tournament changed all that. Now Stellar Cartography personnel hang out with plasma field technicians, and talk in the mess has veered away from technical debates or rehashings of the day’s work to genuine “normal people” topics: politics, gossip, and universal truths. I like it, and the collegial bonhomie cuts down on brawls during liberty. My crew understand each other’s roles too well to take part in the sophomoric internecine battles which erupt over whether engineers or computer hacks are more vital to a ship’s function.

The computer also assigns roles within teams, allowing lowly ensigns to assume command positions and forcing senior staff members to remember what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an order. To the astonishment of many, this has been one of the most successful aspects of the Tournament. It allows people to escape from their daily tasks and experience first hand the responsibilities of their comrades. Suddenly the mantle of command isn’t all that glamorous, and with an appreciation of the headaches of command, the underdeck grousing has been somewhat muted. The Tournament has also sparked several applications to Command School, which I have enthusiastically endorsed.

The spontaneity of the exercise is one of its most vital components. Players report for the game not knowing what the scenario will be, with whom they will be working, nor what role they will be called upon to fill. Just like in a real emergency. My crew understands this, and they enjoy a challenge, hence the Tournament’s appeal.

Originally, my plan was to require participation in the Tournament at least twice a year, but I reckoned without my crew. From its inception, the game has been wildly popular, and there’s always a waiting list for spaces, even though we now have a Tournament at least once a month.

Even I have been astounded by the reaction. I had hoped merely to encourage my staff to keep up on minimal requirements, but because my crew are highly competitive individuals, each one wants to ensure that theirs is the winning team. And to do that, they quickly realized, the more highly trained each person is, the better their collective chances. As a result, preparatory “reconnaissance missions” have been spotted in every corner of the ship, including the service tunnels, and virtually every member of my crew now knows the ship’s design inside out. Ship’s Safety must run continual courses on weapons and self-defense to keep up with the crew demand, and when last I checked, 87% of my crew had been certified in more than three weapons and 92% regularly attended workouts at the gym. People even debate strategy in the mess, waiting for the time when they will be assigned command of a squad. Actually, it’s getting a little scary. If we don’t have a real emergency soon, my hyper-trained crew is going to start inventing ones.

Given this huge jump in productivity, intra-ship harmony, and preparedness, you would think HQ would be delighted with my idea. Not exactly. To be fair, their caution is well-intended; admirals don’t earn their rank by jumping onto the latest craze, and there have been a few minor injuries, mostly when crewmembers get overly inventive with their tactics, or a simulated battle turns a little too realistic. In addition, my crew’s rather vociferous enthusiasm may have alarmed some of the admirals. Entirely on their own initiative, crewmembers have organized mini-Tournaments at popular Fleet hangouts. The rest of the Fleet responded in much the same way as did the staff of the Serengeti, and other captains were subsequently besieged by crewmembers who wanted to halve the gravity in a cargo bay and simulate a major disaster. I have also shepherded several officers to commands of their own, and all of them have established the Tournament on their ships. The admiralty is feeling a little swept away by these events, and they are responding by digging in their heels and invoking hoary codes against needlessly endangering crew safety.

Admiral Feleen, the Serengeti’s direct supervisor, had hoped that Rick was immune to the madness. As his broken wrist could attest, he was not.

“Rick, we had scheduled a Tournament right after the liberty; why did you go ahead and have another one? Feleen was sure to find out about it, and, joking aside, you know she’s liable to question the judgment of any officer holding a Tournament.”

“Well, Captain, as you said, I was in command of the ship, and the crew left behind was feeling pretty low, especially after the extension came through, so since ‘a captain’s first duty is to ensure the well-being of his crew’, I felt I had to take action to improve morale.”

Quoting my own words back at me, eh? I should have known that somewhere beneath that teddy bear exterior lurked the soul of a smartass. “And how did the engineers who were engaged in the ship’s refit react to your wargames? Or was the scenario to fend off enraged design teams once they learned of your intent?”

He grinned. “I was a little taken aback at how possessive those teams can be, but we stayed out of their way. At first.”

“Commander, if I find a stack of formal complaints on my desk, I will --”

He hurriedly interrupted me. “No, no, Captain. It wasn’t like that at all. You see, after we had a game or two, and everyone was really getting into the spirit of the Tournament, some of the amphibian crewmembers, like the Teledians and Ankoshans, asked if we could have an aquatic version. So I said we could flood Cargo Bay D -- “

What?

“-- if the SpaceDock engineers agreed that it was safe to do. That’s when we first approached them. They hadn’t heard about the Tournaments, but after watching one, they were wild to try. They arranged for the flooding, and even built scaffolding that went in the water, partly submerged, so that nonaquatic races could participate too.” He paused, looking sheepish. “That’s how I broke my wrist. I tried to outwrestle Lt. Shhh’nl, but I forgot how well that tail torques in the water. She was very apologetic.”

“You not only obtained the designers’ permission for your Tournament, but you also enlisted their participation?” I was amazed. I’d have better luck convincing an engineer to surgically alter one of his children than to tinker with one of his ships, yet Rick had somehow charmed entire groups of them.

“Their enthusiastic participation,” he corrected me gently. “And are they ever inventive! They rewired the gravity grids so that we were walking on the ceilings of some rooms and the walls of others! You never knew which way up was going to be when you opened the door! And then they thought of -- “

“Commander. All of these little novelties have been deactivated by now?”

“Oh, yes, Captain. And it was a great Tournament. Oh, you might notice a minor change in a bulkhead or two, but really, they’re all trivial.”

“Where someone’s head made a nasty great hole, I suppose? Or were you the only casualty?”

“There were a few more -- mostly among the spacedock teams -- but when you consider that the entire ship was in play, the number is really quite low.”

“The entire ship.”

He nodded.

“And you allowed the spacedock personnel to participate.”

“We didn’t really have enough people to play otherwise. But our crew wiped the floor with them,” he added with more than a hint of pride. “I had to readjust the teams so that each had a mix of people. But the spacedockers loved it!”

“Did their C.O. play?”

Stevens thought for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t think so, Captain, but why? Does it matter?”

I sighed. “No, Commander. Except that now there’ll be yet another C.O. whose crew keeps bugging him to initiate the Tournament on his command, and of course this poor shplud has a space station full of ‘inventive’ engineers, just waiting to design scenarios for him. I can’t imagine why he would want to call and ‘thank’ me.”

Rick’s countenance had fallen as the import of my words sank in. “I’m sorry, Captain! It never occurred to me that -- Do you want me to contact Commodore Ittikt? Any blame rightly belongs to me.”

“That’s all right, Commander,” I reassured him. “Those insectoids tend to be an excitable lot anyway, and the Tournament was originally my idea. I’m used to catching the flak over it, and my shoulders are broad enough to take it. Just next time, see if you can convert the C.O. along with the staff, all right?”

Rick grinned in relief. “Thanks, Captain.”

“And another thing: I want to see that arm in a sling. I can’t believe Rreah would allow you out of one so soon.”

“Well, actually...” He pulled a restraint strap from his pocket and fastened it about his neck. “I just didn’t want to overwhelm you right away.”

“I appreciate your consideration,” I told him wryly. “What other news?”

“That’s about all that didn’t make it into the ship’s log. I did record all the details of the Tournament and my injury in the Captain’s log, though,” he quickly added.

“Relax, Rick. I know you’re an excellent historian. Any changes in crew?”

“We’re scheduled to pick up two new crew members when we rendezvous with the liner. They’re junior crew for the labs, but their dossiers haven’t arrived yet.”

“Very good.” By then we had traversed several hallways, two interdeck tunnels, and were in the lift to the Command Center.

“The new orders arrived less than six hours ago and are keyed into your terminal.” He glanced at me. “Any guesses? Maybe a First Contact?”

Rick’s background was in cultural anthropology and he never stopped hoping to get the chance to use it. “If so, I’d think the Explorer Corps would have sewn it up.”

“Yes, but maybe they need some help?”

I smiled at him. Hope springs eternal. “Maybe.”

Then we were at the Comm Center, and I stepped through the hatch.

“Captain on the Bridge!” The yell nearly startled me out of my shoes, and my crew shot to their feet like newly minted cadets.

“Captain!”

I glanced around at the motionless forms, locked in stiff military braces. Well, this was better than the last time when they welcomed me back from liberty by changing the color of every computer terminal to a bilious green. Or the time before when they -- I think I mentioned my crew’s predilection for needling me.

Two can play at that game, however, and I took my time about inspecting the Comm Center, strolling slowly from station to station, perusing readouts and testing instruments while my command crew congealed in their uncomfortable positions.

Finally, with a happy sigh, I lowered myself into my own chair. Rick cleared his throat. “Captain...” He nodded towards the others.

“Oh, yes. As you were.” My crew relaxed with noisy sighs of relief and exasperation.

“Don’t you earthbound species have any sense of time?” my avian navigator groused to his Terran colleague at the helm.

“There is a reason I dispense with all that frippery, Eetan, and now you know what it is,” I retorted. For a Terran, I have excellent hearing.

“Yes, Captain. Welcome back,” he replied, smoothing his plumage in my general direction.

My computer chief was busy massaging the kinks out of her muscles with her prehensile tail and double jointed fingers. “Eetan’s idea stupid was. Like its originator, no brainer was,” she muttered.

“Allora idea endorsed,” the navigator hissed back, mimicking the Rognathian speech patterns. “Allora enthused, she did.”

“Early molting you wish? Assisted defeathering, you desire?”

“You and what army?” Venethans are notorious for hair-trigger tempers, but their ire cools as quickly as it flares. Eetan and Allora have been bickering for as long as I can remember.

“Hey, guys. Keep it down, will you? The captain’s back!” Helmsman Stewart MacDuff poked his colleague’s pinfeathers, and the argument instantly expanded to include him.

Visitors to my Comm Center often find it difficult to believe that this is the crew that has held the Fleet proficiency record for the past three years. At times, I find it difficult myself.

“Did you have a nice liberty, Captain?” The Chief Engineer, a bearlike Hermean, squeezed through the hatch and distracted me from the squabble.

I turned to face her and was struck, as always, by the incongruity of the tiny spectacles which teetered on her snout. Through them, Gruath peered at me benignly, her tranquil nature belying her enormous physical strength.

“Yes, thank you. How are things behind the walls?”

“Ship’s Systems are fully functional and ready to go,” she acknowledged gravely. “Once we know where we are going.”

I ignored this blatant noodge and continued reassuring myself that my command terminal was in working order. “Navigation, set a course for our rende-”

“It’s in the computer, Captain. Just waiting for your order.” Eetan chirped, turning his head completely around to look at me. My own neck always ached sympathetically whenever he did that.

“Then, Helm, do it.”

“Aye, Captain. ETA in 18 hours.” The planet began to recede in our main screen, and I rose to my feet.

“Commander, I’ll be in my office until further notice. You have the comm.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Oh, and Brarr?” I halted on my way out the door and glanced back to my communications officer.

“Captain?” The tawny furred Leoan perked his ears forward obediently.

“Go ahead and patch a line through to HQ. At the very least I’ll need to confirm our orders.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Captain?” Rick looked over to me. “Do you want a secured channel?”

I remembered that the orders were coded and sealed. “Yes, excellent thought, Commander. Do it, Brarr.”

I entered my office and, as the hatch closed behind me, sank into my chair with a happy sigh. Everything was just as I left it. Rick and the crew were in fine shape, and I felt confident that with a retooled ship and refreshed crew I could handle anything HQ could throw at me. I glanced around my room, replete with images of Tom and Katja, along with mementos of my years in the Fleet, and knew a deep sense of peace. Much as I love my family, this is where I belong.

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