Sovereign’s Journey: Sample

Preface

UNSS BRUSSELS – AUXILIARY ENGINEERING

THURSDAY, 28 MARCH 2083

To say that Lieutenant Rachael Shumway’s duty station was drab would have been an understatement, but she didn’t care as long as that duty station was located aboard a colonial starship. Real estate in UNSS Brussels spine was at a premium, especially in the engineering section located at the center of the massive Alcubierre ring that made travel in hyperspace possible.  Auxiliary engineering was a five-by-ten-meter space just forward of the hypercore. Her work station, like the other six auxiliary monitoring stations in the compartment, was clean and efficient, but lacked any of the comfort found in the command module on the other end of the ship.

As a navigation officer, she knew she would spend most of her career in more pleasant surroundings, so she didn’t mind the orange piping currently topping the collar of her uniform. She knew it would be temporary. Ship’s navigators never looked forward to their rotation as engineering officers, but Rachael didn’t care all that much. While it wasn’t as intellectually stimulating as plotting and maintaining a course in hyperspace, the engineering behind creating a hyperspace bubble was what made her job possible in the first place. To be honest, she thought the process was fascinating. She only wished she hadn’t been assigned to monitoring drive-core readings. Auxiliary engineering was packed with equipment duplicating all of Brussels’ primary systems, so junior engineering officers just had to make do with whatever work space could be squeezed in amongst the hardware.

Her station tonight faced the forward bulkhead, away from the transparent deck to the ceiling bulkhead between the engineering space and the hypercore. She loved the organic patterns created by the swirling plasma contained within the core. Looking up from her console for the third time in the last twenty minutes, Lieutenant Rachael Shumway fidgeted, tapping her fingertips together nervously. When she’d first noticed microfractures in the plasma housing, she’d written it off as a scanning anomaly because the containment readings were well within specs, but she could just feel that something was wrong. She was deep into the second shift and monitoring the plasma-core—which was beyond boring—but digging into the puzzle made the time pass.

Pushing back from the console, she looked at the overhead bulkhead and closed her eyes to think through why her scans revealed microfissures, without any resulting degradation in drive performance or any detectible plasma leakage. Brussels had just completed her post-refit shakedown and passed with flying colors, yet she’d rerun the scan four times and even asked Tor, Brussels’ AI, to validate the results. There were definitely microfissures developing.

Sighing, she looked back down to the panel in front of her. Staring at the communications icon located there, she thought she should try one more time to get Commander Bailey to understand that the harmonics were wrong, and that she’d confirmed that microfissures were developing.

“Dammit,” she whispered to herself. “If I call back up there again, he’ll just dismiss me with another one of his witty little retorts.” On the other hand, she thought, If I don’t let the moron know, he will find a way to make any problems that happen as a result to be my fault for not telling him with sufficient urgency. She glanced back at the readout and made up her mind. She would try once more, this time appending the scan results and Tor’s confirmation, and this time she would copy Captain Andrews. Commander Bailey would be furious, but at least she would be covered. It wasn’t like he wasn’t already going to trash her in her performance review anyway, she thought.

“Lieutenant, come look at this.”

Looking over her shoulder, Rachael spun in her chair, climbed onto her feet, and crossed the compartment to look out at the plasma swirling within the core. “What do you have, Chung?”

“It might not be anything, Ma’am. I was just thinking the plasma is moving a lot faster within the chamber than normal.” The young crewman turned to look back at his watch officer. “Is that normal? I’ve never seen it do that before.”

“No, it’s not, Chung. Please log your concern. I’m going to try again to get the bridge interested.”

Crewman Chung snorted with derision. “Good luck, Ma’am.”

Crossing back to her station, Rachael dropped into her seat and spun back around to face her panel and the communications icon that had been taunting her for the last half hour. Taking a deep breath, she tapped the icon. “Bridge this is aux engineering. I need to speak with Commander Bailey. I believe it is urgent.”

“Are you sure about that, Shumway? He and the skipper are having some sort of debate. He sounded pretty pissed the last time you tagged him.”

“Just put me through, Lieutenant Jessup. I’m doing my job. Maybe he should consider doing his.”

“Pinging him now. Good luck. I suspect you are going to need it.”

Tapping the icon a second time, Rachael accessed her findings, including Tor’s confirmation and transmitted the data to her department leader and Brussels’ commanding officer.

“Ms. Shumway, I believe I instructed you to log your concerns and to stop pestering me with minor maintenance issues.

“Sir, I validated that the drive core is experiencing molecular disintegration. I ran it several times and…”

“Lieutenant Shumway! I get that you probably think that you are some kind of prodigy, and that you are too good to be in engineering, but frankly, I’m just not interested in your theories! I am done with this, and you will not call back up here for any reason. Do you read me?”

“Sir, with all due respect, the harmonic flow is way off! If you would care to come down here, I could sho-…”

“I am not in the habit of debating with junior officers, Shumway. One more word and I will relieve you of duties until I can find some hole to stick you in. I looked at the containment scans when you reported it. Any degradation is very minor and well within tolerances, so log your concerns and quit pestering me. Is that clear?”

Wincing, she closed her eyes. “Yes, Sir, abundantly clear.”

“I would have thought I was abundantly clear the last two times. Bridge out.”

Standing up, she walked over to stand next to Chung as he stared helplessly as the undulating plasma. The crewman smiled with understanding in his eyes. “You tried, Ma’am.”

“Thanks, Chung. I don’t like this at all. I may not be a real engineer, but I do now when a sine wave doesn’t look right. This pattern cannot sustain itself.”

“No, Ma’am, I agree. I want you to know that I just added our findings as a note in the log, and I reached out for the senior chief.”

“Thanks, Chung. I really appreciate that.” Folding her arms, she decided that she should bring him up to speed herself. It wasn’t like she wasn’t already committed. “You know what, Chung? That was a really good idea. I think I’m going to main engineering right now to walk Chief Daton through what we’ve found.” She smiled at her crewman. “Can you hold the fort for a few minutes?”

“Aye-aye, Ma’am. I can keep an eye on things, no problem, Lieutenant.”

Rachael headed for the hatch as she spoke over her shoulder. “Back in fifteen.”

With quick strides, Rachael was through the hatch and across the access way, stepping into the waiting starboard maglift located just outside of auxiliary engineering. The circular maglift was three meters across with diffuse lighting in the walls. A handrail extended around the lift, but it wasn’t necessary as Brussels’ inertial dampers eliminated any sense of movement. She reached toward the icon panel to tap in her destination when Brussels’ AI interjected.

“Deck five, main engineering, Lieutenant Shumway?”

“Yes, Tor. Thank you.”

Nervous about what to say to Brussels’ senior engineering NCO, she sighed. Main engineering was only forty meters aft of her duty station. She realized she would be there any second, so she would just have to play it by ear with Chief Daton. The maglift hatch icon turned green and then immediately turned back to red, refusing to allow the hatch to open. Even through the closed hatch, Rachael felt the impact of a pressure wave before even hearing the explosion. Shrieking metal tore at her consciousness as a bone-jarring concussion slammed her against the back wall of the lift with incredible force. Her eyes wide with terror, Rachael felt the Brussels shudder again, as an even more powerful blast wave took her consciousness from her.

Her head throbbing, she realized that she must have been knocked out. Blinking rapidly to force her eyes to function properly, Rachael realized that she was in free fall, floating amongst the little spherical blood droplets, glistening in the emergency lighting of the maglift car. Struggling to understand what was happening, she thought time seemed to crawl by as she began to look for the source of the blood. A moment later, she remembered why she was in the maglift in the first place. It also occurred to her that if the artificial gravity was offline, the ship was in deep trouble. Then her heart suddenly jumped into her throat as her fingers found the five-centimeter gash on her forehead. Like the ship, she was hurt, and she knew she needed to find out how bad the damage was and where she was needed—but more than anything, for the moment, she wanted to see her pair-bond, Jaden, Brussels’ assistant surgeon.

She took a deep breath, grateful at least for the life support. “Tor…” Even speaking made her head pound harder, if that was possible. “I need to get to engineering. Please open the hatch.”

“I am sorry, Lieutenant Shumway, main engineering is open to space.”

“Put me through to PO Chung in aux engineering.”

“I am sorry, Lieutenant Shumway, intraship communications is offline. Also, deck five, including axillary engineering, is open to space. Petty Officer Chung is…”

Closing her eyes, she fought back tears. “I get it, Tor. Get me the bridge, then.”

“I am sorry, Lieutenant, the bridge is open to space. I have sustained severe hull damage above deck eleven, but structural containment is secure at this time.”

“Where can I get to from here? I need you to get this lift away from the damaged area.”

“I am sorry, Lieutenant Shumway, the maglift tubes are impassible forward of your current position.”

“So, you’re telling me I am surrounded by compartments open to vacuum, and this lift can’t move to safety.”

“I am sorry, Lieutenant Shumway. Your statement is accurate.”

“Shit!” Unbidden, tears began filling the space around her, floating as crystalline bubbles amongst the droplets of crimson. Helpless, Rachael didn’t move for what felt like an eternity, as desperately she blinked to access her internal data storage. She didn’t want to die alone. Accessing her digital memory, she sighed as she looked at images of her with her mate. Looking into his eyes, she couldn’t believe her life would end this way.

Heartbroken, she reached out with her mind, grasping for any possibility of repair when it occurred to her that she had air. “Tor, if the lift tubes are damaged, how do I have life support?”

“HVAC systems are intact, Lieutenant Shumway.”

“Ok, Tor, that’s the first good news you’ve had for me. If I recall, the HVAC ducts are co-located with the lift tubes. Is that right?”

“You are correct, Lieutenant Shumway.”

“Where is the nearest HVAC maintenance access point, and can this lift reach that location?”

“The closest HVAC maintenance access is located one deck up on deck four, fifteen meters forward of your position. Access for this lift to HVAC maintenance is confirmed.”

“Good, get me there and open the hatch. I’ll crawl into the HVAC ducts and make my way forward.”

“Understood, Lieutenant Shumway, be advised, that I cannot create a seal between the maglift and the maintenance panel. Atmosphere in the maglift will be lost once the hatch opens. You will only have sixty seconds of life support. You must access the maintenance hatch, climb inside, and secure the hatch within that timeframe.”

Nodding to no one in particular, Rachael reached over to the back wall of the lift to push off against. Propelling herself towards the lift hatch, she reached out to grasp the lift’s handrail. “Tor, let me know prior to opening the hatch, so I can get ready.”

“Acknowledged, Lieutenant Shumway, be advised that you must enter an access code to open the panel. The access code is: G3170D.”

She sighed. “Just what I needed, a code to remember with only a minute of air.”

“You are in position, Lieutenant Shumway, I am spinning the lift to face the panel now. Please advise when you are ready to proceed.”

Taking several deep breaths, Rachael grimaced determinedly. “Open the hatch, Tor.”

As the hatch opened, the lift’s atmosphere whistled past, leaking between the maglift and the lift-tube walls. Tapping in the code, the access panel blinked red. Incorrect Code. “Dammit!” She tried again, G3710D. Incorrect Code. Panicking, she tried again, G3170D. The panel slid aside, with atmosphere now rushing past her from the HVAC duct. Realizing she’d lost count of how many seconds she had, she pulled herself into the duct. Panicking again, she realized she didn’t see the controls for the access panel. Desperately spinning herself around in the duct, she saw it and stabbed at the Close Panel icon. The hatch slid shut, enveloping Rachael in pitch darkness.

“This sucks. Tor?” Working to regain control of her emotions, she stared wide-eyed into darkness. “Tor?” Realizing she no longer had communications access to Brussels’ AI, she began half-swimming, half-crawling forward. After several minutes, Rachael began thinking she had no idea how far to go and began worrying about getting lost when her left hand brushed against an opening to her left. She almost passed the opening when she realized her orientation was probably off. There would be no reason to have any ducts headed to port. The opening must be the duct feeding the decks below. She wanted to cry, but pushed herself back to the opening and swam toward what she hoped were the lower decks.

Moving steadily, her anxiety climbing, she realized the silence surrounded by her breath, suspended in nothingness wasn’t the only thing she was hearing. A definite hiss was coming from up ahead of her. Crawling faster, she realized the hissing sound wasn’t the only thing troubling her. Rachael was all but certain that she could see jagged pinpricks of light ahead in front of her face. It dawned on her that the duct was leaking and it was only a matter of time before it breached. She noticed a panel similar to the one she had entered through. Deck Five glowed softly in the gloom. She sighed, thinking that she had at least made her way back down to the deck she had started from. Still, she had another deck to go.

Panicking again, she moved faster. Her heart thumped loudly in her chest as she moved. Hearing what sounded like a tearing sound behind her, adrenaline surged as she desperately crawled forward. Time seemed to slow to a standstill when finally she saw the next panel, Deck Six, glowing, welcoming her to where she needed to be. Tapping the Open Panel icon, the hatch opened smoothly, bathing her in the red emergency lighting. Sighing with relief, Rachael pulled herself through the opening and closed the panel behind her.

Rachael gasped. “Tor, what is the status of Brussels’ spine and my quarters?”

“I am glad to hear that you were successful, Lieutenant Shumway. The spine and colony modules are secure, but access forward of there is restricted due to hull breaches in the command module.”

Rachael’s eyes went wide. Already sick with fear, her mind raced to find a way to reach trapped crewmembers. “I assume the hyperbubble collapsed with the explosion?”

“You are correct, Lieutenant Shumway. We currently on course, but our relative velocity is only zero-point-five C.”

Holding on with one hand, Rachael tapped in the code to open the hatch to the services deck, better known to spacers as the maze. The services desk was approximately ten meters wide and rand the length of Brussels’ spine, but packed with environmental and bio processing and extensive conduit—only the most experienced crewperson would willingly try to find their way without AI assistance. The hatch slid open and Rachael pulled herself though through the opening and began swimming forward. “Tor, I need to get to whoever is coordinating the recovery.”

“Lieutenant Shumway, other than security personnel and colonial support teams, you are the officer with a command rating.”

“That can’t be right. I am junior officer.”

“I am sorry, Lieutenant Shumway. Brussels’ senior department heads were lost during…”

“What do you mean, lost? They could not all have been on the bridge.”

“You are correct, Lieutenant Shumway. Commander Reynolds was conducting her weekly briefing in the command staff conference room. The command staff conference room is open to space. I am sorry to report that no one above deck three survived the impact. You are now the most senior technically qualified officer with a command rating.”

“How can that be? I get that we lost core containment, but I don’t understand what happened to the bridge. Why is the damage to the command module so extensive?”

“The core breach was catastrophic, Lieutenant Shumway. Debris from the drive ring impacted the command module in multiple locations.”

Her eyes wide, Rachael sucked in air sharply. Suddenly nauseated, she grabbed a nearby structural member to steady herself. “The Alcubierre ring… Is it repairable?”

“I am sorry, Lieutenant Shumway, Brussels is no longer hyper capable, and navigational control is offline.”

“Tor, this cannot be happening. Where is Doctor Shumway?”

“Lieutenant Commander Shumway is in the command module, on deck eight. He is working to set up shielding to regain access to sickbay.”

Suddenly deflated, Rachael realized she would never see Earth again.

 

 

Chapter 1

So She Had a Bad Day

ARLINGTON-TEXAS-USA

DICTORATE RESIDENTIAL HOUSING

WEDNESDAY, 15 MARCH 2084

Lieutenant Rachael Shumway sat at her desk next to the floor-to-ceiling exterior wall of tinted glass in her living area, high atop one of the many residential towers located in the DFW metro district. She stared hopelessly out the window. It was something she did a lot these days. She was intrigued by the antique stadiums below. The antique stadium was one of the few structures that remained from the time before Unification Day in 2024. The height of her building and the fact that it sat across the street from the old stadium—and its surrounding green space—allowed her an unrestricted view all the way to DFW Field, which was approximately seven kilometers to the north.

As with most accommodations built as a part of humanity’s surge into space and colonization midway through the century, the living area was approximately five meters by seven meters. The space, like most common rooms, was arranged in an L shape. A living area was located near the front portal with space for a small office behind that. To one side of the office was a dining space. Meal preparation was usually compact and tucked into where the horizontal part of the L joined with the vertical. Finally, a tiny washroom was located near the front portal, next to food preparation, with the sleeping accommodations and the unit’s primary bathroom located behind the vertical portion of the L.

She stared incredulously at the headline displayed across the screen in front of her and felt sick—trapped by a situation beyond her control. The news feed before her read:

Wednesday, May 21, 2084: Lieutenant Rachael Shumway, hero or villain?

Rachael rejected what was displayed on her tablet. It was inconceivable that the Directorate would hold her responsible for the destruction of UNSS Brussels’ drive core, but that is exactly what seemed to be happening. If they’d listened to any of her repeated warnings regarding microfractures in the plasma housing, the overload that resulted in the Brussels pin wheeling end over end within the hyperenvelope would never have happened. Just because she was assigned to engineering for cross-training didn’t mean she didn’t know her job. She looked at a furtive version of her own image gazing back at her from the news feed, her eyes darting off camera, and an artificially created insincere expression dominated the fictional doppelganger’s face. A single tear crept unbidden down her cheek as she watched her image attempt to duck a determined journalist under the headline: Incompetence Dooms Kepler Mission—Mission Specialist Rachael Shumway Indicted.

This couldn’t be possible. Her interviews and vids were positive when she’d first brought the Brussels home. Initially, the media seemed to embrace her efforts. She was, after all, able to get a message drone away, requesting rescue after coaxing the crippled ship on an almost impossible journey back into the transit lanes. The task was no small feat, as the ship experienced an uncontrolled exit from hyperspace following the explosion that killed so many of Brussels crew. At first people were amazed that anyone survived, a plasma core breach having destroyed much of UNSS Brussels’ command module after it physically collided with debris from the drive core, caught in the rapidly collapsing hyperenvelope. The bridge and forward sections of the ship were obliterated on impact as the ship spun end over end following the explosion. She was the one who made it possible for Brussels’ distress call to be picked up before they ran out of life support. Frustrated, she would not accept them blaming her for losing the ship after saving over twenty thousand colonists. She should be lauded as a hero for finding a way to get the Brussels back Earth at all. She should not have to deal with having her life destroyed by the Directorate.

Feeling despondent, she stared at the holographic image of her and Jaden on the day of their pair-bonding, displayed on her desk. She wondered if she would ever feel joy like that again. They looked so perfect together. He was almost two meters tall while she was slightly shorter. He was well-built but not too bulky, and she was thin but not without curves like so many female spacers. They both had brown hair, with his hair being slightly lighter. Finally, he had blue eyes as was common in so many synthetics, while hers were brown. She still adored the way his pale blue eyes seemed to shimmer in the image.

Of course, if she were honest with herself, she got grief on the day the picture was taken, too. She snorted in derision, recalling how appalled her sister and mother were that she wanted to bond with a synthetic. Her mother simply couldn’t accept the idea that his biological components could still be spliced with hers to create grandchildren. Well, her mother was nothing if not consistent. Older generations and religious nuts didn’t like mixed unions between biological and synthetic people—and logic had absolutely nothing to do with it.

She smiled weakly at the image, wishing he were home now. Sighing, she returned her focus to the screen. The reaction by her superiors simply could not be this negative. As she irrationally refreshed the screen with the hope the story would update with some sort of retraction, she heard the pounding of boots in the access way outside her dwelling. Half turning toward the portal to her apartment, she noticed in slow motion clarity that the touchpad on the wall next to the entry indicated her portal lock was being overridden. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest as the circular indicator on the screen turned from green to red as the locking mechanism was efficiently defeated. Within moments, the door slid open to reveal four armored UNSD agents storming through her front portal.

Rachael jumped instantly to her feet. It felt like she was moving in slow motion as the lead agent smashed into her the moment she was on her feet, his shoulder impacting her midsection, driving her backward over her chair and onto the floor. She knew resistance was futile, but the assault drove any air forcefully from her lungs. Her body writhed, desperate to take a breath as the much larger agent straddled her, pinning her arms to the carpet. Her back arched, as she strained to get air into her lungs.

A couple of agonizing seconds passed, and she felt the bite of restraints binding her wrists together before her lungs began to function again. Air finally entered her lungs, burning all the way down. Able to breathe again, she screamed. “I’m not resisting, you imbecile! Back off on the heavy-handed shit!” Her eyes darting around the apartment, she realized other agents were already scanning her tablet and searching the dwelling.

The agent sneered coldly at his quarry. “Lieutenant Rachael Michelle Shumway, you are under arrest for the malicious destruction of state property, the deaths of Captain Sidney Andrews, the rest of the bridge crew, and for endangering your shipmates. Your advocate has been appointed and notified of your arrest. You will be deposed within forty-eight hours and you may offer evidence to exonerate yourself at that time. You are required by law to cooperate with the state’s investigation against you. If you fail to do so or you provide false statements, you will be charged with…” The agent did not finish his sentence as the sound of a pulse dart being fired registered and the agent’s head exploded, showering her with gore.

Although startled, she managed to roll sharply to her right as the man on top of her collapsed. Her head coming up, she was shocked to see her pair-bond, Jaden, wearing only the bottoms to his scrubs, methodically gunning down the agent scanning her tablet and then the woman rifling through her drawers. His unnaturally quick movements and the surgical precision he displayed momentarily stunned her into inaction. It was almost as if he simply appeared upon hearing the commotion. Obviously, he had emerged from their bedroom, but she was shocked to see him with her pulser in his hand. She didn’t understand how he even knew she’d smuggled it off the ship, much less be willing to use it. In the back of her mind, she knew that while it wasn’t impossible, his medical download made it unlikely that he would take the actions he was clearly taking.

She started to scream when she realized there was still another agent in the dwelling, hearing him as he emerged from her meal prep station. Following the sound behind her, she whipped around to see the barrel of his assault fléchette already coming to bear on its target. Her pair-bond also saw the threat and rolled to his left, but the agent was too fast. She heard the high-pitched sound of a stream of pulser darts zipping past her.

Horrified and her eyes wide with terror, she witnessed the darts impacting her mate, spinning him, tearing gaping holes in him, his body shuddering with successive impacts of the high-velocity darts. Suddenly dizzy, she thought she would vomit seeing the only person she cared about being torn to pieces right in front of her. She wanted to run to him, but as hard as she tried, getting to her feet felt like she were lifting three times her weight, as he moved in exaggerated slow motion. She could only scream.

***

Nauseated and covered in sweat, Rachael sat up shaking and took in a deep cleansing breath. “Damn nightmares!” She took in another breath and then another as she forced her mind to calm down. Blinking, she rubbed her face and got out of bed. Standing in the dark, she shook her head in dismay and glanced back at the bed, wishing her pair-bond were here now. His working nights was great for the credits, but all things being equal she would rather have him in bed. “Dammit.”

A disembodied voice intruded on her thoughts. “Do you require lights, Rachael?”

“No. What time is it?”

“It is 04:00, Rachael. Also, you have another request from Info-Comm. The message concerns you reconsidering their interview request to follow up on your initial statement. Shall I display the message?”

“No!” Rachael rolled her eyes in frustration.

“Are you awakening for the day?”

“How the hell do I know? Quit asking me questions.”

“Of course, Rachael.”

Her heart calming, she moved toward the bathroom a few feet away. Walking up to the sink, she waved her hand past the sensor, gave the water a moment to come up to a reasonable temperature, and cupped her hands under the flow of water. She gently splashed her face and sighed. “Well, this is getting old.” Rachael thought she should just go ahead and get up since the chances of getting back to sleep were thin at best. On the other hand, she was tired and being rested couldn’t hurt.

“What the hell. I might as well try, I guess.”

She moved back to the bed, straightened the sweat-soaked sheets a little and climbed back in, this time on Jaden’s side of the bed. It might not be logical, but she hoped that Jaden’s scent on the pillow might calm her nerves enough to allow her some sleep. Staring up at the ceiling, she pondered for what seemed like the hundredth time what her nightmare meant.

The Directorate wasn’t pleased that the Brussels seven trillion credit drive core was destroyed or that the entire bridge crew, along with the over one thousand officers and crew, were killed in the ensuing collision with debris, but the investigation would clear her once they reviewed the logs. No doubt they would try to say that being trained as a flight officer instead an engineer that she made a mistake, but she hadn’t made any mistakes—and she could prove it. She had reported the maintenance issue to her section leader, Commander Bailey, and to Captain Andrew, and the fact that she managed to get the ship and the colonists back to Earth should make her a hero.

Agitated and suddenly too hot, she threw back her blanket. It was probably going to be one of those nights, she thought. Rolling onto her side, she took in a couple of slow deep breaths, but her mind didn’t miss a beat.

The documentation was irrefutable; still, doubt plagued her heart. Something about the way her superiors responded to her questions about her next assignment just didn’t feel right. She told herself that she was imagining it and worked diligently to think of nothing at all. Sleep is what she needed more than anything else. She could think on it again in the morning.

She was just beginning to feel sleepy again when it occurred to her what was bothering her subconscious. It was the impatience on Assistant Director Bashir’s face; she was supposed to be conducting an interview to understand Rachael’s perspective regarding the events leading up to the drive core overload. Rachael had gone into the interview with comprehensive documentation loaded to her halo-drive. AD Bashir accepted the data transfer readily enough when it was offered to her, but she didn’t even bother to display any of it on her halo.

Thinking back on the meeting, Rachael recalled that the woman seemed to be irritated with having to talk to her. It was clear that she couldn’t have cared less about her repeated reports regarding the microfractures in the plasma housing or her repeated calls to the bridge just prior to the overload to report that, although not exceeding parameters, the core temperature readings were fluctuating wildly. When she called with AI confirmation, Commander Bailey even told her log it, but to stop pestering the bridge crew with minor maintenance issues. Anyone with even the slightest engineering experience, much less someone who was investigating a major incident would know how ridiculous Bailey’s reply to her was, yet Bashir sighed and blinked at her as if the whole interview was a waste of time.

Initially, Rachael thought that Bashir was just tired or perhaps was just uncomfortable having to investigate such a high-profile incident, but lying in bed now, she understood that the woman wasn’t tired or nervous. She was bored because their conversation didn’t matter.

She sighed, the frustration overwhelming her. Rolling onto her other side, she stared at the emptiness of her bed, wishing she had something other than the disaster that her life had become to ponder. “Dammit!” she screamed to no one. Her mind continually impaled itself on the fact that the Directorate held absolute power when it came to matters involving colonization or for that matter, anything associated with operations off world. Space was the Directorate’s playground. She knew that world government officials might technically have oversight of Directorate activity, but she also knew that humanity’s dramatic growth due to the rapid expansion into the universe resulted in almost complete Directorate autonomy.

Rachael realized that her predicament wasn’t really even about her, but it absolutely made perfect sense given what seemed to be happening to her since the Brussels settled into orbit over the Roosevelt Lunar Yard’s refit facility. “Tish, display news items, Renew Core project.”

“Of course, Rachael, please specify date range.”

“Dammit, Tish … um, just display results corresponding to a time frame beginning two weeks prior to the first mention of the return of the UNSS Brussels and ending two weeks after the return of the Brussels.”

“Please clarify, Rachael. You request includes three-thousand and twenty-seven records.”

“Seriously, over three-thousand stories in a four-week period?

“Yes, Rachael, seriously.”

Frustrated with the dwelling’s obstinate AI, she sighed loudly and flopped onto her back once again.

“What are the two most common themes from these stories?”

“The two most common themes relate to cost over-runs associated with the Renew Core project exceeding anticipated parameters by two-hundred-seventy-five percent. A Directorate level investigation is now underway. The Collective opinion rating for Directorate effectiveness has fallen below thirty-one percent.”

“Display news items relating Renew Core Project and the UNSS Brussels return.”

“Of course, Rachael, please specify date range.”

“Give me a break, Tish. Repeat the same time frame as the previous request. I’m looking for correlations between these stories.

“Understood, Rachael. You request includes seven-hundred and twelve records. The common theme is oversight failure resulting in unnecessary loss of life and capital expenditures.”

Rachael closed her eyes and sighed. Her new theory was all too possible for her comfort. The Directorate can’t afford any further bad press associated with mismanagement she thought. After the fraud was revealed surrounding the government’s handling of the massively over budget Renew Core project, the public obviously became highly critical of any news relating to a second fiasco hitting the news cycle so soon after the Renew Core disaster. The result, Rachael realized, was that the Directorate needed a scapegoat to take the blame for the good of the collective. Dejectedly, she realized now that she was to be that scapegoat.

***

The maglift doors hissed open and Jaden nodded a smile at a woman and her child as they paused a moment to allow him to exit the lift so that they could take his place. As he exited the maglift, the woman returned his smile with a slightly raised eyebrow and just a hint of a smirk. As an artificially sentient life and a surgeon, enhanced eyesight was only one of his many gifts. He noted the dilation of her pupils, but her reaction to him wasn’t unusual. Women, synthetic or otherwise, often responded in a similar fashion. Her reaction was in fact part of an ordinary day. He decided he didn’t really mind the twinkle in her gaze in any case. He was used to glances from women, especially humans. What he did not understand was why a human who was in state service, and who could essentially look almost anyway they wished, would value esthetic beauty in another person. Sure the common classes didn’t typically avail themselves of physical modification, but anyone assigned to this building would have access to enhancement.

At one point nine meters tall, with a lean but athletic build, sparkling pale blue eyes and light brown hair, he seemed to get that reaction frequently, but it was yet one more facet of humans that was simply unexplainable.

Pondering the thought a bit further, he decided that he was really fortunate that humans desperately needed more people than could biologically be produced. He knew he was truly lucky that political expediency in preceding decades had resulted in the more advanced AIs having been granted sentient status and obtaining civil rights. He had rights and a life today because synthetic votes were needed then to achieve government objectives. He recalled thinking the move was risky politically until Rachael explained that elections were basically predetermined by the elites, so any risk was unlikely.

Jaden turned left past the floor’s comfortably appointed sitting area with its ferns and flowering plants, and proceeded down the spacious access way toward his apartment. After a twelve-hour shift, he decided that he really appreciated the peaceful environment he and Rachael enjoyed as a result of being assigned living quarters in one of their building’s spires. With only six units on this level, there was little noise from their neighbors or this far up from the external environment. Jaden detected the circular indicator on the touchpad next to his entry portal flash a slightly darker shade of green, releasing the magnetic lock and allowing the door to slide aside as he and Rachael’s AI, Tish, sensed his approach.

Stepping through the portal, Jaden sighed, glad to be home. He placed his d-pad on the small table by the portal, and chuckled as he headed toward the meal prep station. The slightly smoky aroma and sizzle of cooking bacon registered the moment the dwelling’s front door slid open. “You know that eating meat every morning is not healthy or responsible, Rach. I would think that if nothing else, you would get tired of it.”

“What is the point of having nanites in my bloodstream if not to neutralize the stupid crap I do to myself?” Rachael appeared through the opening to the meal prep station and he took her into his arms.

Shaking his head, he looked down into her smoky brown eyes, the skepticism of a medical professional overcome with his complete adoration of the woman before him. “You do realize there is a limit to what even your nanites can repair?

“Yeah, whatever, Jaden. I like bacon, and I like all the other crap I eat that you think is so bad for me. I keep telling you that humans are far from perfect. Besides, I have faith that somehow it will work out if it’s supposed to. If nothing else, I have you to take care of my medical needs.”

Eyebrows raised, he sighed. “Ok, ok… Well, I may as well join you, I guess. My biological components may as well become as corrupted as yours are. At least my non-biological components will burn whatever I offer them as fuel.”

Rachael flashed him an understated smile and nodded slightly. He felt her fingers interlace with his and she turned to draw him behind her to their little dining area. Pushing him into a chair across from hers, she turned and headed back to the prep station. He knew that he’d never win an argument regarding what she ate because she already had his number, —and she knew it. He adored everything about her, from her single-minded dedication to her work and irreverent wit to the texture of her smooth, olive skin and the luxurious color of her warm, brown hair. Although human and therefore imperfect, he thought that she was the most beautiful creature he’d ever known.

Jaden took a sip of cool water and turned slightly to his left to gaze out the window while he waited for Rachael’s return. Scanning the horizon and the Dallas skyline in the distance, he decided that he had to find a way to get them both off world. His pair-bond should be celebrated for saving the crew and colonist from the UNSS Brussels, but clearly it wasn’t working out that way. Determined to find a way, he logged on to the Directorate’s neural web and initiated a passive background search for options while dedicating his primary functions toward his pair-bond. “Did you sleep ok last night?”

Rachael snorted derisively. “About like normal. Are you looking for anything specific out there?”

“No … just enjoying the view”

She smiled. “The view is the best thing about these quarters, isn’t it?”

Jaden turned back to his mate as she moved to sit across from him as she nodded in agreement. “How much sleep did you get last night, Rach?”

She looked up into his eyes. “Four hours or so, I guess.” She paused and stared at her eggs and bacon. “I can’t help it that I am having stress dreams, Love.”

“Of course not, Rachael. Were you reliving being trapped in the maglift again?”

“No. I dreamed that enforcers stormed in here.” She nodded toward their bedroom portal. “You came out of firing a fléchette pistol.” Rachael looked down and closed her eyes. “They shredded you before my eyes, Jaden.”

“Really? I am sorry, Rach. I wonder what put that in your subconscious. I have excellent dexterity, but I am not exactly suited for combat. It is curious how the human subconscious processes stress through dreams. Are you worried about something like that?”

“I don’t know, Babe. I would like to say no, but I still can’t believe any of this is happening. Anyway, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“Look, Rachael, I may only be thirteen years old and be a Synthetic, but I still process emotions, even if they are based on sub-routines copied from human imprints. I just wish you would let me give you something for it.”

She too looked off toward the Dallas skyline, and then back to her pair-bond. “We’ve had that discussion, Jaden. I need to stay really clear, I think.” She toyed with a strip of bacon before popping it into her mouth in one bite. “I figured it out last night. The Directorate is going to come after me. They need someone to take the heat for what happened. I realized that AD Bashir was just going through the motions. She couldn’t have cared less about any of the facts.”

Jaden watched her eat for a moment, frustrated that he could not shield her from the events causing havoc in their lives. He sometimes hated how stubborn she could be. “I came to the same conclusion.” Casually taking a bite of his own breakfast, he reached out to give her arm a comforting squeeze and casually took a stress reading from her. “There is far too much scrutiny on recent failures for the Directorate’s comfort, I guess. People seem not to want to let it go.”

His mate smiled warmly at him for all of two or three seconds before the smile morphed into skepticism. “You’re scanning me, Jaden. I keep telling you I’m fine. I’ll get through this.”

He released her arm, a sheepish expression displaying on his face. “So you say. All I can tell you is that this isn’t going away. Today I had at least three patients mention government corruption as being the cause of what happened to our expedition. They, of course, didn’t realize that I had been aboard UNSS Brussels.”

Rachael shook her head to acknowledge his comment and snorted. “You know what? For the two-and-a-half years it took us to get back after the drive core went, I never guessed even once that we would get anything less than a heroes’ welcome. For the sake of humanity, Jaden, it’s obvious that my actions couldn’t have caused what happened.” She shook her head in dismay. “Do you remember the first few days after we got the fire out? You were doing all you could to print new tissue for Captain Andrews and working almost around the clock for the others. We didn’t think we’d live through another cycle, much less manually make the calculations to retain our momentum after using the Hydra-Seven gravity well as a slingshot to get us headed for the transit lanes.”

“Rachael, don’t. You should be afforded hero status. That you are not is clearly outside your control. You were quite compelling in your Info-Comm interview about what happened. People will believe you. You know I think of you as a…”

Rachael threw her glass, shattering it against the window and grimaced, her eyes shut tight. “It pisses me off, Jaden. It isn’t fair. I did what I was supposed to do. More than I was supposed to do. I’ve always believed that I was meant to do something special with my life. I honestly thought that getting those stupid colonists back in one piece might have been a big part of my contribution.”

Jaden stood and moved over to the woman he loved and pulled her to him, enveloping her in his arms. “I know, Rachael. I know. You have the data on your halo-drive, and you have the crew to back you up. We just need to get our side of the story into the media cycle. We will make the Directorate recognize what you did was heroic. I won’t let you get inverted over this.”

Tears in her eyes, she looked up at her mate and smiled weakly. “I love you. I just need to get a damn grip on things. I’m sorry for being so pathetic.”

His emotional attachment swelling, he smiled grimly. “Come on, Sweetheart. Anyone would be emotional over this. Even an AI would be worried they would end up getting sorted, but that will not happen to you … to us. We will find a way to get around this. After all, you figured out how to get us back to Earth. This will be piece of cake.”

“Yeah, right. You say that, but interstellar space travel sounds pretty straightforward compared to dealing with regulators. Anyway, this isn’t going to get us anywhere. Let’s finish eating. You should get some rest for a couple of hours.

Jaden agreed with a brief nod. “Right, I’ll shut down for a little bit.” He then took a breath followed by a knowing look. “Rachael, I’m serious. I don’t know how, but we will find a way to make everything turn out ok. Regardless of what people say, we’re a couple. You received a posting as the assistant space flight officer aboard a colony ship at an incredibly young age. You have unprecedented skills, and because you do, we got home alive against all odds. What else is there to say? You did the best anyone could have done. You just need to keep a good attitude.”

***

Walking out into the sunshine of a spring day in Texas, Rachael assessed her and Jaden’s new surroundings since being assigned quarters planetside again. She decided that the area looked much like cities built anywhere on the planet. They all had people crammed in on top of each other. The façades might differ in hue or the architecture might look different from one building to the next, but they all consisted of plaza-level retail shops, with industrial centers in the floors above that, and residential located in the upper levels. In larger cities, that often meant living in spires that rose several hundred meters over the surface.

Looking up at the pale green plexi that made up the exterior walls of her building, she was pleased that her dwelling faced Arlington’s historic Texas Sports Authority Complex and the spacious park that surrounded it.

Shaking herself mentally, she thought that she should try to enjoy the weather. It really was pleasant outside, even if the reason for her little trip wasn’t. Taking in the smells of grilling meat from the food kiosk located near the front of her building, she scanned the street around her. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she could not help but feel as if she were being observed. People dressed in utilitarian clothing were everywhere but almost no one looked up, or even seemed to notice her. She had to remind herself how ubiquitous life was dirtside. She understood the reason: scaling back on consumer goods made more resources available for the colonization effort, but she hated the way dirt dwellers all looked like drones. Rolling her eyes, she swallowed, chiding herself for being emotional.

Blinking twice in rapid succession, she brought up the message on her comm that had her out and about in the first place, to double-check her destination’s address. Rachael focused her gaze on her hand where the message displayed as a holographic image of the data pad in her purse. She blinked to delete the welcome message offering her assistance from a psy-analyst and proceeded to her message center.

Good day, Lieutenant Shumway. My name is Terra Chong. I have been appointed as your advocate for matters related to the Kepler Mission. I have an opening tomorrow at 14:00 hours to conduct an initial interview. Please confirm that you can meet at this time. The nearest facility for full-rez conferencing is located on the plaza level in the quad located just north of your residence. The address is 610 N. Collins. Please plan to arrive a little early to validate.

Rereading the message, she shivered a little, thinking that her needing an advocate was far too close to her repeated nightmares. Taking a deep breath, she shook off her ominous thoughts before they took her down a darker path than necessary.

Determined to make the best of it, Rachael changed her focus, looking for something pleasant to distract her mind for a moment. She could smell the flowering honeysuckle, and the light breeze on her face was really nice. Standing in front of her building, she stared down the street at the multitude of busy pedestrians moving her past on the walkway. No doubt they were rushing to or from work in one of the densely packed commercial or industrial centers that always inhabited the lower floors of most residential buildings.

She decided that her apartment assignment could have been much worse. She would have preferred to have been closer to the spaceport, but like any spaceport, if you didn’t know someone, the chances of being assigned to newer quarters near DFW field were slim to none. Still, at least she had a nice green space across the street from the residential units that surrounded the Sports Authority, and she was walking distance from any exhibitions that might be held at one of the stadium complexes. Smirking, she wondered if watching a football game would be entertaining or boring beyond belief. The locals seemed to be devoted to their team, she thought, regardless of their archaic name. “Dallas Cowboys,” she mumbled. “Like anybody could identify with that as a team name.”

Shaking her head, Rachael sighed and set off to the north, in the direction of the football stadium and her appointment. As she made her way up the crowded pedway amongst Arlington’s denizens, Rachael reflected that her life had not exactly unfolded as she would have preferred from the moment she was assigned as the mission specialist about the UNSS Brussels.

From the moment she reported in with Commander Bailey, she could tell that it was going to be a tough assignment. Officers like Bailey got their posts through patronage, not because of their skill set. The practice was disgusting, but it was just the way the universe spun.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t worked for other careerists who only cared about how things appeared to their superiors, but Bailey was, she thought, without question the stupidest human being she had ever met, regardless of his engineering background. Not only was he bereft of any imagination or insight into anything but the patently obvious, but the idiot actually believed himself to be brilliant.

Clearly, he confused his ability to suck up to leadership with actual engineering skill. Rachael shook her head in disgust and almost collided with a young man walking ahead of her as the scene of her now-dead section leader chewing her out on her first day aboard replayed in her mind. He made note of her high scores and had asked her how she achieved her ratings. He seemed to be concerned who she might know to achieve her rating. She replied that she studied and logged a lot of net time. She referenced that she had faith that things generally worked out if one worked hard enough. Apparently, he took that comment to mean that she was religious. From that moment, he completely dismissed her as having anything to contribute.

Sensing the man in front of her moving off to her left, she looked up to see that she was almost to the primary entrance of the quad she needed.

The glass and steel structure was at least fifteen floors, with spires atop the structure, just like her building. Over the portal, large metal numbers and letters of the structures address glowed softy, giving the address, 610 N. Collins, a slight blue aura. Taking a deep breath, she too moved off to her left, following the man through the entrance to the plaza level of the building before her. Rachael passed through portal security with no issues, and she blinked twice rapidly and paused for a moment to scan the holographic displayed indicators point out the closest path to her destination, the full-rez conferencing center. Rachael steeled herself and moved in the direction indicated by the pale holographic indicator displayed before her. She began to move that direction when again the feeling of being watched overpowered her. An amorphous feeling of dread permeated her senses. She realized she was likely reacting to the lack of sleep but stopped abruptly and turned sharply, scanning faces of those around her.

Most looked away, not wanting to engage her or simply rolled their eyes in annoyance at her odd behavior. Most looked away, but not all. Across the room stood a man in a crisp suit. The man almost seemed to smirk at her. Her head tilted ever so slightly as she considered the man. At approximately two meters tall, he was a light-skinned black man with closely cropped hair, brown eyes, and a thin mustache. He was clearly in superior physical condition, but just imperfect enough that he was more likely than not, a human being.

Rachael realized she was standing out but at this point, there was nothing to be done for it. She stared pointedly at the man, not flinching or shrinking under his gaze. Narrowing her eyes slightly, her left eyebrow rose in challenge to the crisply dressed man’s brazen contemplation of her. The man smiled slightly and nodded to her, giving her a sardonic wave as his hand moved to tap his jaw just below his right ear to activate his comm. Mouthing something, he then headed for the portal and the pedway beyond.

“Shit,” she whispered. “I’m in trouble.” Rachael closed her eyes for a moment before moving again to follow the holographic indicators that now glowed persistently to indicate the way to her destination.

As she approached the rez-center, she decided that whatever was coming her way, she would just have to deal with it as best she could. She didn’t think of herself as being religious, but she did think there was something beyond the current existence. In her opinion, the mathematics involved with deep-space navigation hinted at the existence of extra-dimensional realities. Hell, in truth, even hyperspace was an extradimensional reality. No one with a strong enough stomach to watch an image of hyperspace could argue that it was normal space. To say that the oozing color and undulating patterns of energy were nauseating was a massive understatement.

Standing at the entry portal to the rez-center, she reflected on her situation. She paused to offer a quick thought to any entity in this dimension or any other, who might happen to care. I did my job; I saved thousands of lives. Looking up slightly, she sighed. “I sure hope there is some sort of equity in this mess somewhere.”

Passing her hand over the rez-center entry scanner opened the portal, and she stepped through, once again feeling as if she were being observed. She shivered, thinking that everyone was tracked all of the time. Why would the Directorate go to the trouble to actually assign someone to follow her?

 

Buy Sovereign’s Journey – Coming in late fall, 2014

 

Author’s message to Americans from all walks of life.

It is my belief that there is far more that binds us together than separates us. The problem, as I see it, is American culture tends to encourage people to get on a team and support that team, right or wrong.  Most of us view our environments through the prism of what our “team” promotes as its core values.   My question for you is this:

Do you believe in one-hundred percent of what your team says you should believe?

  ***

I’d love to hear from you. Here’s how…

If you liked the novel, it would be amazing if you would take a moment to “Like” us on Facebook.  Also, if you want to take a look behind the scenes or interact with me and other readers, check out the following links.

 

Website

http://www.LoneStarNovel.com/

Facebook

Danielle’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DanielleEWedgeworth

Twitter

Danielle’s Twitter handle: @Danielle_Wedge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s