Part Four -- by Becky Ratliff
See disclaimers and copyright information in Part One.
(USS Saratoga, January 25, 2065)
After a quick lunch, McQueen went down to sickbay to check on Alison and Heather. As he approached the desk, he was aware of Mary looking up to meet his eyes -- she had been watching him walk across the floor, if she'd seen the slightest sign of a limp he suspected he'd be on his way back to one of the examination rooms right now. Instead, she smiled and nodded as he passed by on his way to Heather's cubicle.
When he opened the door, a little figure in blue flannel made a break between his feet. Alison had fallen asleep, but she wakened like a cat and made a grab for Heather's pajamas. McQueen was a little faster, he caught an arm around the toddler and picked her up. "Just where do you think you're going?"
Heather gave him back his own steel-blue glare. It took her only a few seconds to determine that she wasn't going anywhere. Accustomed to roaming the whole of her house and yard, most of the time, she wasn't taking happily to being locked in that tiny cell ... and in about two seconds she was going to let the whole sickbay know about it. "Don't you even think about screaming," he told her. "It doesn't impress anyone, and no one wants to listen to it."
She shut her mouth, but her eyes never left his. That was in no way a surrender ... the child simply acknowledged that, this time, he happened to be right. For that matter, so was a stopped clock, twice a day. Surrender wasn't in Heather's vocabulary, any more than in his ... they understood one another perfectly.
On Alison's suggestion, he took Heather over to the station for an ice cream. Gregory pulled three cups of ice cream from the little cold box under the counter, strawberry, chocolate and vanilla. After a moment, Heather picked the chocolate.
Alison set the girl on her lap while she ate the ice cream, to make sure most of it went into the kid instead of elsewhere.
McQueen said, "I'd ask how she is, but she seems to be doing just fine."
Alison held up crossed fingers. "So far, so good," she said cautiously.
(derelict ship, January 27, 2065)
A work detail sealed the last of the alien corpses into a body bag to carry them to the transport and back to the Saratoga for study. Mary O'Leary had already determined a few important things about them from a preliminary observation. They were air breathers who showed several physiological adaptations for living in water much of the time. And although they had apparently died of blood loss, there was no indication of that much blood around the corpses. She wouldn't know more until she had the chance to autopsy the bodies.
"All right, go ahead with them. Remember the anti-contamination protocols."
The detail started carrying the bodies out. Mary was the last one through the air lock.
In what was eventually determined to be an environmental control station, a technician looking for the ship's log accidentally and unknowingly activated a sequence and the ship's life support began to function again. Deep within the ship, the air filtration system began to filter out the poisons, and heaters came on line all through the wreck.
The instant the new systems came on-line, all non-essential personel were ordered out of the alien ship while the engineers who remained behind tried to determine what was happening. The damage from the wreck caused a number of short circuits, which was apparently the reason why the life support systems had been shut down in the first place. However, the effects were minor and within an hour it was deemed safe for the workers to return. Enough of the life support system remained on-line that within 18 hours the ship was barely within tolerable conditions for earth-native life forms. At the time, everyone involved thought this was a bit of serendipity, and went back to work.
(derelict, January 28, 2065)
Cold slowly receding from numbness to discomfort to real pain. Crouch back in the den, confused and for the moment relatively helpless. Eventually, the twin survival drives for warmth and food force movement, slow and stiff at first, then with increasing confidence and stealth.
Movement. Movement is prey? Wait wait wait wait -- prey carries something. Memory: prey holding something that made loud noises, and pain followed. Look for easier prey!
Warmth. Stay to cover. Move quiet quiet quiet. Warmth just beyond foodcreature. Wait wait wait wait .... NOW! Hide in warm place ... wait for food ... warm+safe=drowse for a little while.
Cpl. Hodges thought he heard a sound behind him in the airlock leading to the ISSAPC. Now that the air was good, and the scientists had determined it was safe, they had docked the transport and opened the airlock to make it easier to load samples aboard. He looked around carefully, but saw nothing.
The crash had dislodged things, occasionally their movements caused the fall of a ceiling tile or some such thing. Hodges figured one of the scientists working further down the corridor must have knocked something over. He knew there was no one on the transport, and he couldn't see anything from his post. One more noise, though, and he was going to report it ... even if the sergeant did think he was hearing things....
An hour later, the transport was full of samples and the scientists were ready to go back to the labs aboard the Saratoga to start work on them. Hodges helped an older gentleman to a seat. Some of these scientists were civilians with a capital "C", and you had to watch them every minute. Sometimes Hodges thought it was like trying to herd gerbils.
As the young corporal strapped into his seat for the trip back to the Sara, neither man was aware of the set of eyes watching them from little more than a meter away....
Noise and light fade to silence. Move out of the den. Look around. Move to the opening. A distant clang -- jump back quickly! Silence again. Large open area ... bad place. But not far, is a small hole ... just barely large enough ... and warmth in there. Maybe a good den? Find out....
(USS Saratoga, January 29, 2065)
Alison put Heather back in bed, she was watching cartoons on the vid and that would keep her occupied for a little while. Alison had no illusions about the bars keeping Heather in the bed if she decided to explore. The tiny private cubicle cut down the odds that the toddler would go exploring through sickbay, but still Alison spent most of her time right here. She opened her pocket computer and checked her mail, there was one marked urgent from the foreman and she hastened to answer it. Several more were inquiries about Heather from friends back home.
There was a tap at the door. The medical staff usually forgot to knock, they weren't used to having civilians in here. "Come in!" She called.
Alison was surprised to see the Commodore step through the hatch. He had a file jacket and a handful of markers. "These make good coloring sheets when my nieces and nephews are aboard," he explained. "I thought they might help you keep Heather occupied."
She opened the file jacket, inside were printouts of various line drawings clipped from tech manuals and so forth. She suspected everything that wasn't classified had been mined for clip art. "Thank you, Commodore, this was very thoughtful of you! Heather loves to color."
Hearing her name, Heather looked up. She stood at the rail, and after studying Ross for a long moment, held up her arms to be picked up.
Alison laughed, a warm feminine version of that same familiar laugh and smile that so completely transformed Ty's expression. "She likes you! She doesn't make up to very many people. She's a good little judge of character, too. Yes, go ahead and pick her up if you want to, you're allowed. But watch out, she plays with pins and she *can* get them off."
Forewarned, Ross kept busy little fingers away from his insignia. It came home to him how long it had been since he had been home, how long since he had held a child. The first little grandnephew, who had been Heather's age when he had last been home just before the war, was in kindergarten now. "Yeah, they do that. My sister was wearing hoop earrings one time and her little boy grabbed one -- ouch! And anyone with glasses--!"
"Well, I'll be -- you'd think she'd known you all her life. I'd say that you pass inspection, Commodore."
He laughed, delighted. "How is she?"
"Just fine. Dr. O'Leary wants to keep her another ten days just to be sure. It will be that long until we can be absolutely sure the transplant has taken."
"That's wonderful news! If you can get away for a little while, would you like to have dinner with me this evening?"
She said, "Some of the nurses have offered to sit with Heather for a few hours while they're off duty. If I can find someone, I'd love to."
Ross laughed. "Rank does have its privileges, Miss Alison. Mention my name, I'm sure you'll be able to find a sitter."
She smiled. "I'll look forward to it."
"Chief? Have you seen Wright lately?"
MCPO Shelby Darnell replied, "No, Culligan, he hasn't been by here. He was working back in them access tunnels off the transport bays. But his watch was over half an hour ago."
"Yeah, I know, I was supposed to meet him to pay him back some money I owe him but he never showed up."
Darnell scowled. "His tool box isn't here. Let's have a look for him." The two sailors crossed the short distance to the cargo bay and found the access hatch to the tunnels still open. They stepped through. Darnell yelled, "Hey! Wright!"
No answer. Five mikes later, she found out why. At Seaman Culligan's sudden horrified yell, she sprinted down the tunnel and found him staring at Wright's corpse. It looked superficially like he'd been riddled with bullets ... but there was almost no blood around the corpse ... and Chief Darnell had never seen anything quite like the look of horror frozen on the boy's face. She gave Culligan a little shake. "Son, go report this -- get the master at arms down here!"
She watched Culligan take off. Then it dawned on Chief Darnell that her orders had left her alone back in here with whoever had killed Wright. She was still thinking it had been a human murderer, and so she didn't leave the crime scene unguarded.
There weren't a lot of people in the O-club this early, and Ross had his usual secluded table. Across from him, Alison finished her dinner and looked up at him. "This is really good, Commodore Ross. We don't get fish very often."
Ross said, "Please, call me Glen."
"So ... Glen ... you and TC are very close, aren't you?"
Ross nodded. "We've known each other for a lot of years, we've been through it all together. I wouldn't be here now if it were not for your brother -- a few times over. I have never had a better friend. He is quite an individual."
"Like a lot of my people who were suddenly freed from our indentures in '63, the first thing I did was look for my family. I have to admit that I was surprised to find that I was related to a legendary war hero."
"Why didn't you contact Ty then?"
"His life was in enough of an uproar at that point, what with his injuries and the war. I didn't want to inflict a penniless sister and her baby on him along with all of that. There was no record that he'd ever made any attempt to find genetic relatives, no address to contact him was listed in the database. I left my address there, in case he decided to search later, but I didn't want to be an unwelcome intrusion. I never wanted my brother to think I was begging at his doorstep."
Ross said, "I'm sure he never would have thought that, Alison, but I do believe he would understand and very much respect your reasons for waiting."
"Situations have changed now. Heather and I are settled, there's no reason that TC should need to feel responsible for us now. It's always been my intention to contact him at least once after the war, I've felt that he has a right to know that Heather exists. Family doesn't come lightly to most of our people, I never meant to keep her from him on any permanent basis. Heather's illness changed everything."
"My old grandma used to say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Perhaps this was intended to bring your family together."
Alison said, "The thought of losing Heather--! And then, to have found TC in addition to getting my daughter back safe and healthy -- I feel very fortunate. Your grandma must have been a very wise woman."
"She was that."
"You've mentioned nieces and nephews. Do you have any children of your own?"
"No. I never met the right lady."
"I've thought of marrying. A father for Heather, and another child or two ... that would complete my life. When I meet the right gentleman, of course."
"You haven't yet?"
She laughed. "I've been raising a daughter, and building a business from the ground up, learning both jobs as I went along. And I've been active in the political situation back home. That hasn't left me with a lot of time for the singles scene ... such as it is on Ganelon!"
"I've heard that it's a ladies' market."
"Yes, that's true. Most of my friends have married. I haven't closed any doors. But I want to be very sure before I bring someone into Heather's life."
"I do understand," Glen smiled. "Building a business? Of what sort?"
"Now don't get me started talking about myself...."
"Oh, but that's exactly what I intend to do," he teased.
"All right. I started up a company that produces aloe vera. Now, back on Earth, aloe has always been known to have healing properties. But when it's grown in the Ganelon ecosystem, it does a lot more than turn bright blue. It becomes one of the primary raw materials for gelskins. It's hard work to grow and harvest, but it's worth its weight in gold.
I homesteaded forty acres to start with in '63. That first season was very hard, Heather and I lived in the back of a truck and I think we saw a total of four other human beings all through that growing season. But the crop was a success. Early in '64 I bought a prefab two-room building and supplies for the next season, and sank everything else back into the business -- hired some help, for one thing! We have two growing seasons a year, and I put more acres in crop every season. Last month, I bought out a neighboring homestead from a guy who decided to call it quits, and now I have two dozen people working for me. Last season several other farmers and myself formed a co-op to do our own processing, we knew we could produce a higher quality gel with less waste than the company if we did it ourselves. I'm CEO of the co-op, and it's growing. Next year we project hiring fifty more workers at the processing plant."
"It sounds like a good combination of very hard work and getting in on the ground floor."
"That, and I have some very good people working for me. They know how important our work is to the war effort, they've all given a hundred and ten percent. I'm very proud of them."
Ross nodded, but before he could answer, his beeper went off. "Excuse me a moment, please, Alison."
He stepped aside to return the call. It was Mary. "Glen, I'm sorry to interrupt you, but there's something down here you've got to see right now."
"Where are you?"
Ross made a face. "I'm on my way, Mary." He returned to the table. "Alison, I'm very sorry, but I'm going to have to cut the evening short. Duty calls. May I walk you back to Heather's room? It's on my way."
She stood and replaced her chair. "Of course. Is something wrong?"
He smiled a little. "There's always something wrong somewhere on a ship this size."
"I suppose so."
"I'm truly sorry about this. May I make it up to you another evening?"
A slow smile crossed Alison's face. "I hope that you will, Glen, I was really enjoying myself."
Ross saw Alison back to Heather's cubicle, then continued on to the morgue. The bright white lighting and the harsh chemical smell of the preservatives used here assaulted his senses almost as much as the bleak silence of the place--he wanted to shout at the top of his lungs to drive out that silence.
He found Mary standing over a boy's corpse. No matter how often he saw his men and women lying dead, he never ceased to feel the waste of young lives ... and they seemed younger and younger with every passing day. When he had been twenty, he'd thought he had the world by the tail. Now, twenty was still just a kid.
"What the hell happened to him?"
Mary's green eyes locked on his for a moment. "Same thing that happened to those poor bastards," she replied grimly, pointing towards a glass-enclosed bay where two of the aliens were laid out on identical tables.
Ross took her meaning, even from here he could see that the puncture wounds and ligature marks were the same. "What could have done this?"
Mary shook her head. "All I can tell you to begin with is that death was due to loss of blood. Very quick way to go ... if the poor lad hadn't got a look at whatever killed him, I doubt he'd ever have known what hit him."
Ross stared down at the body. His face was an emotionless mask, but his imagination was working overtime. How many of those stab wounds were there? Fifty? One hundred? More? He didn't think you'd pass out fast enough to keep from knowing about it.... "Whatever?"
"These ligature marks were made by something the same diameter as whatever made the punctures. Right now, I'm thinking multiple thin tentacles about ten millimeters in diameter -- the punctures seem to have been made simultaneously."
"How could one ... creature ... have caused the evacuation of a ship that size? If worse came to worst, why not just isolate it in one bay and decompress the bay?"
Mary said, "No one's saying just one, Glen, the puncture wounds on those two victims are different enough in size that I'm almost sure they were killed by different attackers. I'll be able to tell you more about it after I complete a post-mortem on Seaman Wright. But we know we have one, and it's got into the infrastructure of the Sara, apparently through a maintenance hatch in the docking bay."
"What's been done so far?"
"I know that the Master at Arms has sealed that area, because I heard him say so. But if you ask me, that may've been locking the barn after the horse was stolen. Wright was dead upwards of an hour before Chief Darnell found him."
"What am I looking for, Mary?"
"Something that crawls, from a track the 58th found in a pool of blood aboard the derelict I'd say it's about a meter in width. No indication of how long it would be." She paused thoughtfully, considering how much of her speculation she could support with evidence. "You're probably looking at a roughly snake-like creature in form. My guess is that it hunts by stealth. We haven't found any dead ones aboard the derelict, so whatever they are, they're tough."
"Let me know when you have something." Ross scowled. This situation had to be contained before the Sara ended up in the same shape as the derelict, and contained without starting a panic. He'd worry about what the damned thing was after the threat it presented was neutralized.
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