Monday, February 12, 2018

The Blue Moon of Benue                      


187-1107, Narmada, Red Sun City Starport

Atopia regarded the woman sitting across the table from her.  She was a fairly average sort, dressed in simple, quality work clothes in earth tones that were just starting to show some wear.  Her short hair was a sun-bleached shade of red that was very neatly trimmed.  The woman had a fairly light complexion with a smattering of freckles across her cheeks.  Her eyes matched the color of Narmada’s sky at midday – pale blue.  When their eyes met, the woman cocked an eyebrow and smiled.

Atopia returned the smile.  “So, Ms. Kelly,” she began, “I’ve called you back for a second interview because security doesn’t seem like your sort of work, and yet, here you are.”

The woman nodded.  “I’m surprised, too,” she said.  “So what about me made you think it was worth your while?”

“The fact that you’re a colonist with a Class I certification in tactics, for one,” Atopia said.  “The rest of your resume was equally unconventional.  I was curious how that came about.”

“I ran into unconventional situations while trying to tame worlds,” the woman replied with a shrug, “often without any support or directives to cover them.  The only options were to either solve the problem or die.  Well, I’m here to tell the tale, so you can guess which option I chose.”

“Indeed,” Atopia said with nod, “since I also encounter the unconventional from time to time, it sounds like I should have a person of your talents on my crew.”

The woman chuckled at that.  “If you don’t mind my saying so, your ladyship,” she said, “I’ve heard a few wagging tongues say you go looking for them on occasion.”

“They aren’t wrong,” Atopia replied as her features grew more serious.  “Does that bother you, Ms. Kelly?”

“Not in the slightest,” she said.  “In fact, I’d call it an incentive.”

Atopia smiled and extended her hand.  “Then, welcome aboard –“

“Kim,” she interrupted as she gently grasped Atopia’s hand.

*         *         *

Olivia was sweeping the cargo deck floor when the young man arrived.  Olivia could see he was military man – he was wearing an Imperial Army duty uniform, but it wasn’t all tightly tucked and pressed like Cassandra used to wear her ADF fatigues.  He was using his hand to shield his eyes from the glare of Narmada’s oppressive midday sun, like he was looking at the ship’s registry on the hull.  Olivia stopped sweeping and leaned on her broom while dabbing at perspiration on her brow with a brightly colored bandana.  Narmada is always hot, she thought, but I like it.

“Hello?” called the young man up the cargo ramp as he stepped into the ship’s shade.

“Hi!” Olivia called back as she strode toward the ramp.  As she did, another nearby starship’s thrusters roared to life, drowning out what the young man was saying.  Olivia shook her head, pointed to her ears first and then toward the sky.  The young man smiled and nodded.

As he gazed out in the direction of the departing ship, Olivia stepped on the head of the push broom, deftly unscrewing the meter-long handle from it, hefting it up so she could grip it near its center of balance, just like Cassandra had taught her.

The ship lifted away, its noise fading into the ambience of the starport’s bustle.  “I said,” the young man began, “I’m Lieutenant Colonel John van Ert.  Is this the Golden Dawn?”

Olivia nodded while twirling the handle slowly in her hand.  It was heavier than it needed to be.  Its carbon fiber shaft had been weighted at either end with metal inserts.  “I’m Lady Olivia Verne,” she said with a smile.  “Are you expected?”

“Many pardons, milady,” he said with a formal bow.  “I didn’t recognize you.”

She stopped twirling the handle long enough to offer a curtsy in return.  “That’s okay,” she said as she set the handle spinning again, “I’m just a kid, after all.”

The young man eyed the handle.  “You are the child of nobility,” he said slowly, “that makes you considerably more.  You are the future of the Imperium.”  He met her gaze.  “Your mother, Baronet Atopia, has hired me for ship security.  So are you going to take a swing at me or welcome me aboard?”

“I’ll welcome you aboard if you promise to spar with me later on,” said Olivia as she set one end of the handle on the floor with a metallic clank that startled the army vet only slightly.  “I haven’t had anyone to practice hand-to-hand with since Cass – er, General Mutabe took command of the ADF.”

John broke into a broad grin.  “Of course,” he said, “It will be my honor to continue your training, milady.”

“Mommy says we don’t use titles here,” Olivia replied.

“Good,” he replied, “I’ve never been fond of them, even though I still pay my respects where required.”

“Welcome aboard, John,” said Olivia, “I think you’ll fit right in around here.  You’ll be bunking on the middle deck.  Come on, I’ll show you where!”

192-1107, aboard Golden Dawn, in hyperspace between Narmada and Benue

-- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

I hate goodbyes, but I think this is the last I’ll be seeing of Narmada for a long time.  Yeah, I’ve thought that before, but this time around it feels different.  I want to be on Belaya in a little less than a year, which means Dawn and her crew will need to be hopping if I want to see the rest of the subsector before then.

Baronet Yunni was doing her best to smile through her tears and the marquis was stoic and formal to hide his.  Cassandra wished us well and came down to our landing pad with a squad of honor guards to see us off.  The Duke and Baroness Selene were there with nearly a company of their bodyguards to do the same.  A dozen other nobles showed up as well, including Baron Ian Richards, who presented me with a holograph of his father and I together at the target range nearly two years ago, when he was teaching me how to shoot.  Then it was my turn to cry.  The local news networks probably had that all over the vids by the time we hit hyperspace.

The crewmembers are settling in.  Olivia seems to like both of them – in fact, she’s the only one who’s been able to get Kim out of her cabin into the commons.  I hope I didn’t make a mistake hiring her, but she probably just needs some time to adjust.  John and Olivia now spar with some regularity.  Kim joins in occasionally, but she’s still very wary of hurting my daughter.  When Olivia puts a few more lumps on her, she’ll probably start giving my girl a few, too.

My head is still full of Olivia’s lessons for the day, too.  Today, she was studying Benue, our destination.  It seems like a fairly nice agricultural world, though right now The Five Nations are not getting along with one another.  Two of the nations are getting off-world support from two of my least favorite megacorps – Sternmetal Horizons and SuSAG – and that’s got the rest of them edgy.  Dame Zuri Fentiri, the Imperial Liaison and a local girl turned hereditary noble, isn’t helping matters by hiring out her house’s guardsmen to lead raids on the militia training camps of the corporate-backed countries.  I can only imagine the kind of heat she getting from Duke Darius about that…

Olivia doesn’t have a head for politics just yet, but she took a shine to pictures and descriptions of Modra, the beautiful blue habitable moon orbiting Benue.  About eight hundred years ago the Benuens made an exploratory landing there, finding an amphibian race.  The Modrani were cordial enough but insisted that nobody else should ever visit them again.  Surprisingly, the Benuens respected their wishes and Modra has remained isolated to this day.  However, that hasn’t prevented Benue and the Imperial Science Bureau from sending numerous probes there over the years to observe and study the race and its conservative agrarian culture as unobtrusively as advanced technology permits.

Hm.  I just had a thought.  Could it be that as a world of farmers, the Benuens were just respecting the wishes of other farmers when they decided to leave the Modrani in peace?  It’s an interesting notion.  Maybe I can engage Olivia in a political discussion by having her explore that aspect on Benue’s planetary data network while I’m doing business…

196-1107, Benue, Harvest City Starport

Samantha met Atopia at the foot of the cargo ramp.  Atopia read her expression immediately.  “What’s wrong?” asked the baronet.

“One of our low berth passengers forgot his luggage,” she said as they walked up the ramp into the cargo hold.  “According to the passenger list, the bag belongs to Deon Hobart, berth number four.”

“Have you contacted the starport authority yet?” Atopia asked as they crossed the cargo bay.

“As soon as Sir Winston discovered it, about an hour ago,” Samantha replied, “but they’ve had their hands full keeping a lid on that protest in the duty-free zone today, so they’ve been a little slow in responding.”

“Well, they did a good job with that,” commented Atopia as the pair ascended the stairway to the middle deck.  "The protestors were voicing their opposition to off-world influences on their world," she added, "But I have to admit, today's demonstration was the most orderly protest I’ve ever seen – even if it was loud.”  The door to the low berths compartment slid open for them.

Kim and John were waiting for them, both suited up in combat armor.  Kim held up a hand to them, bringing them to a halt at the doorway.  “Something wrong?” asked Atopia.

“Don’t know,” replied John through the external speaker on his armor, “just being respectfully paranoid until we know more.”

Atopia’s comm-link warbled.  Valo’s face appeared on the screen when she answered it.  “Just got word from the authority,” he said, “that they’re on their way.  I’ve got Sir Winston, Olivia and Tabitha up on the bridge with me, for now.”

“Good,” Atopia replied, “I’m sending Samantha up there to join you.  I’m going to the ship’s locker to armor up, just in case.  Are Hawk and Lisa still in engineering?”

“Negative,” said Valo, “They had to go shopping for some spare parts.  Apparently somebody left a storage compartment door unsecured during our landing cycle and few of the more delicate items got loose.   I got ahold of them already, so they’re staying away until they get the all clear.”

“Copy that,” said Atopia as Samantha headed toward the bridge.  “Keep me in the loop.”

Atopia had just finished donning her combat armor when the starport authority’s security team arrived.  The bag, a well-worn, old-fashioned low-tech canvas number with leather handles and accents, was carefully transferred to the cargo hold and given the once-over with a portable densimometer, along with a multi-sniffer for explosives, active biologicals and chemical residues.  When all of it turned up negative, the commander of the squad donned hazmat gloves and carefully opened the bag, revealing its contents.

Deon Hobart’s bag held a sealed plastic bag of unwashed clothes, three sets of utilitarian coveralls, a pair of athletic shoes, two sets of clean underwear, toiletries, a carton of cigarettes from a Narmada arcology, a slightly-less-than-full bottle of Marquis Toyama’s brand of whiskey and a plastic packet envelope stuffed with documents.  Atopia blew out a breath she’d been holding unconsciously.

Her relief was premature.  The packet contained printed Ine Givar indoctrination literature.

“Security!” barked the squad leader into his tactical headset, “Priority Alpha Alert – lock down the port and land-lock all vessels until further notice! Then check the customs logs for somebody named Deon Hobart.  We may have a terrorist on the site.”  He looked over at Atopia.  “Tell me you’ve got a picture or good description of this guy.”

They didn’t, though Sir Winston did remember him, since Deon arrived just before departure, and was able to give security something to work with, at least.  Security gathered up the bag and its contents, ordering Atopia to recall the engineers and remain aboard ship until somebody could debrief them about Hobart.

In the end, Tabitha was able to pull an image from only one security camera aboard the ship – a blurred image of the left side of Hobart’s face.  It took a couple of hours for the Imperial Navy image enhancing program she’d obtained on Paquin to enlarge and clean up the image.

In the end, all she could do was shake her head.  “So much for my improved security measures,” she said to Atopia as she forwarded the image to the starport security force.  “First Olivia, and now this guy!  It’s like that sneaky bastard knew where the cameras were and was able to avoid all of them!”  She pounded the computer room’s console in frustration.

“Hey,” said Atopia, “you got an image, which is more than the port’s security could manage.  Hobart screwed up and you caught him.  You did good.”

“Yeah,” said Tabitha, “but I can’t help but wonder: if Hobart is good enough to ghost two surveillance networks, why didn’t he bring his bag along?”

“You don’t think he forgot it?” asked Atopia.

“Low probability of it,” Tabitha replied.  “I’m thinking he wanted to thumb his nose at somebody.”

Atopia consider it for a moment before speaking.  “I do not like that possibility at all,” she said at last, “which means you’re probably right.”  She stepped onto the bridge, where the rest of the crew was waiting.

“Kim, John,” she said, “you two do a security sweep of the ship, top to bottom, starting right here, and double check every compartment Hobart could have accessed after he left his low berth.  Once you clear the upper deck, I want everyone else in their cabins until you’re finished.”

*         *         *

The security sweep came up empty; so did the starport’s security teams after they’d scoured the extrality twice.  He must’ve high-tailed it off the starport with a fake I.D. and a disguise kit, thought Atopia as her mind turned toward the matter of selling her cargo.  But why leave the bag behind?  He knew it would be found and searched.

Atopia suddenly stopped, a frown forming on her features.  To discredit me and the Imperium, that’s why.  I’ve been in the public eye ever since the Narmada Moot.  I’ve helped expose details about their nearly successful attempt to unleash weaponized biologicals on Narmada.  I’ll bet my profits for this run that there’ll be a terrorist attack on this world soon that’ll eventually be traced to him, which will then be traced to my ship and me.

Atopia got back to work with a determined expression.  If he does, I’ll make sure he pays for it – and by The Maker, I’ll make him pay in full.  In the meantime, let’s find some buyers who want fifty tons of sodium nitrate…

*         *         *

Atopia was reclining on her bed, reading the latest dispatches from the TAS News Service on her dataslab when Olivia came into their cabin.  Olivia was wearing work coveralls that were just slightly too large for her.  They were stained on the knees and elbows, the legs cuffed in the hope that she’d grow into them.

It was Olivia’s idea that she start pulling her own weight with the crew – partly in an attempt to be part of the action that she’d been forced to sit out of for the past year.  While the Interstellar Trade and Commerce Commission frowned on child labor, being a noble had its privileges and allowed Atopia to make her an official crew member on the payroll.  While most of her earnings were going toward a trust fund, the young lady noble, still received a portion as her “allowance.”

Olivia plopped into the chair in front of the computer terminal.  “Mom?” she asked, “Got a minute?”

“Certainly,” Atopia said as she set the dataslab aside.  “What’s on your mind, hun?”

“I’m officially requesting that the Dawn take on a job I saw posted on the public boards a few minutes ago,” said Olivia.

Atopia's brow furrowed.  "You don't think I'm making us enough money?" she asked.

"I know we're short on passengers for the transit to Trave," said Olivia.

"How - ?" started Atopia

"Samantha said something about not having to grocery shop for any passengers," replied Olivia with a smile, "and Sir Winston commented that he only had four low berth passengers to look after."

Atopia smiled and shook her head.  "All right," she said.  "So what sort of job is it?”

Olivia smiled.  “Deploying probes over Modra for the Imperial Science Bureau,” she said.  “They’re willing to pay a ship with missile racks up to a thousand credits per probe.”

“That’s not a lot,” said Atopia.  “How many do they need deployed?”

“Ten,” replied Olivia.  “A few of them will have to be launched from just thirty-five kilometers in altitude, right at the top of Modra’s atmosphere.  We’ll be able to get some great images of the surface while we’re there!”

Atopia smiled broadly.  “Well, I suppose it’s the price I have to pay for trying to get you interested in local politics,” she said.  “Let me talk it over with the rest of the crew.  If nobody objects, I’ll contact them right away.”

“Yay!”  Olivia jumped from her seat and threw her arms around her adopted mother.  “Thank you, mom!”

Atopia held her daughter close for a moment.  “You’re welcome, honey,” she said and then kissed her cheek.

197-1107, aboard Golden Dawn, in close orbit around Modra

Atopia eyed her sensor displays while she spoke into her headset microphone.  “We’re coming up on our first deployment point in thirty seconds… mark.”

“Copy that,” replied Tabitha from the missile turret on Dawn’s port side.  “Probes One and Two are in the racks and are ready for launch.  Launch continuity is good.  Ports are open.  Fire control transferred to your board.”

“Confirmed,” replied Atopia.  “Squirt communication test… nominal.  Birds are ready to fly.  Ten seconds – auto-sequencers started and running… Five seconds… four… three… two… one… mark.”

There was the tiniest of lurches as the planetary probes cleared the racks and began their descent into the Modra’s atmosphere.  “Birds are away and clear,” said Tabitha, “closing firing ports and pressurizing the tubes.  John will load Probes Three and Four in just a moment.”

“No hurry,” said Atopia, “the next deployment point is just over five minutes from now.”

The ship shuddered a bit.  Atopia looked over a Valo who nodded without looking away from his displays.  “We’re skimming Modra’s exosphere,” he explained.  “So expect some chop until we get the other pair free and clear.  After that, we’ll climb to geo-stationary and deploy the rest.”

Atopia nodded, glancing over at her daughter, quite the accomplishment considering the bulk of her vacc suit.  The youngster was entranced by the view of the moon, so very, painfully close.  She was operating one of ship’s exterior cameras, zooming it in and out while seeking interesting surface features.  Kim was looking over her shoulder.  “Hey!” she said suddenly, “lock onto that!  That’s a Modrani city in the coastal shallows!  See if you can get a few images of that.”

“Okay,” replied Olivia with a smile as she worked the control at her station.  The ship shuddered again, markedly longer than the first time, blurring the image.  Olivia looked over a Valo in irritation, but said nothing.

“Hawk,” said Valo into his headset microphone, “set up a five percent thrust on the maneuver drive.  I want to touch up our close orbit.  We’re starting to wallow, here.”

“Copy,” came the reply from the chief engineer.  “Five percent at your discretion.”

“Tabitha,” Valo said, “do you have those probes loaded?”

“Almost,” she said, “John needs another twenty seconds on Probe Four.”

The ship shuddered again, a sustained shaking that lasted for nearly five seconds.  Several warning indicators lit bright yellow on the navigator’s board.  “Valo,” said Atopia.

“I see it,” he replied.  “Tabitha, tell John he needs to hurry up.”

The seconds dragged by.  “Done!” crowed Tabitha.

“Thank the Maker,” breathed Valo, “Hang on everyone, I’m going to maneuver.”

Suddenly, Dawn lurched.  Atopia saw multiple indicators on Valo’s displays flash bright red as fire alarms began to sound throughout the ship.  “Fire in engineering!” yelled Atopia.

“Hawk! Lisa!” shouted Valo, “Damage report!”

Silence.  The ship shuddered again and continued shuddering.  “Nine Hells!” snarled Valo as he began methodically working controls, “We’ve lost too much speed and the maneuver drive is offline!”

“Plasma fire!” yelled Tabitha, “Hawk and Lisa are down!”

Atopia was already up and moving.  “Olivia,” she said, “stay here.  Do what Valo tells you to.”  Olivia nodded, wide-eyed but comprehending.  Kim was already climbing into the navigator’s couch, securing the restraints as she went.

Atopia could feel the heat of the fire through the insulating layers of her vacc suit as she descended the portside stairway.  She helped Tabitha drag Lisa’s limp body into the passage beyond.  John had already gotten Hawk to safety.  Sir Winston was already working on the chief engineer with his medical bag.  Both engineers’ coveralls were scorched, their faces bright red from radiant burns.  The ship was shaking now, a constant vibration that was getting more pronounced with each passing moment.  Atopia tore her gaze away to face the matter at hand.

The plasma fire raged around the junction between the power plant and the maneuver drive.  All Atopia could do was stare at the conflagration, transfixed by the memories of the plasma fire aboard the INS Polaris.  She could hear the screaming of her shipmates, burnt and blackened bodies twitching in their agonized death throes, and the fire, everywhere the fire…

“ATOPIA!”  A blow to her helmet brought her back to the present.  She found herself faceplate to faceplate with Tabitha.  “Tell me what to do!” Tabitha shouted, “We gotta get this fire out!”

Atopia pointed at shutoff valve levers, pantomiming them being operated.  Tabitha threw herself at them while Atopia found the others and started closing them as well.  With no fuel to feed them, the pulsating plasma streams died out.  Tabitha grabbed a portable fire extinguisher and doused the remaining hot spots while Atopia assessed the ship’s condition.

It wasn’t good.  “Valo,” she said, “the fire’s out but we’ve lost all the primary and backup power conduits to the maneuver drive.”

“How about the attitudinal thrusters?” Valo asked.

Atopia quickly rigged a bypass as the ship began to shake.  “How’s that?”

The shaking subsided slightly but continued.  “Okay,” he replied, “that’s better.  We were starting to tumble.  How long will it take you to replace those conduits?”

Atopia took a look at the lumpy pile of metal slag that was the parts locker and swore.  “I can’t,” she said after a moment, “The plasma fire got to the spare parts locker.”

“What about the jump drive conduits?” asked Valo.  “Can you use those?”

“If we had a couple of hours, yeah,” replied Atopia.  “I’d have to dismantle part of the jump drive to get to them.”

“What about the launch, um, Daybreak?” asked Kim over the link.  “Could you cannibalize parts from that to save the ship?”

“No,” said Atopia, “The systems aren’t compatable.”

“What about using the maneuver drive of the launch as a thruster for the ship?” asked Kim.  “Could that get us out of the atmosphere long enough for a rescue from Benue?”

“Negative,” said Valo, “Daybreak doesn’t have enough delta-vee to accomplish that with us already in atmo.”  There was a pause.  “But it might have enough to get us down on Modra in one piece!” he added suddenly.  “Kim, you’re a genius!”

“How is that going to work?” asked Atopia.  “You’ll tear her loose from her docking cradle, doing that!  Then she’ll tear right through the ship before you can shut it down!”

The ship began to lurch again.  “There!” exclaimed Valo.  “I’ve got Dawn into an aerobraking attitude.  I’ll launch in Daybreak and use her to help slow our descent, giving Dawn a nudge or two to help trim her out for a hard landing!”

“Who’ll fly the ship?!” shouted Atopia.  “Hawk and Lisa are down!”

“I’ll fly it,” said Tabitha.  “I did it before when you guys did the rescue mission on Moksha!”

“Go!” said Atopia.  “Everybody else, get aboard Daybreak! Hurry!”

Atopia attached safety tethers to her vacc suit as Dawn continued to buck and sway.  Atopia started jettisoning fuel from the middle deck tanks as Daybreak undocked.  Can’t dump the fuel on the lower deck, she thought as she studied the soot-stained display panels.  There’s nearly a hundred d-tons of cargo in the nose, so unless I want ride the final plunge of the universe’s largest lawn dart, they’ll have to stay full.

There was a dull grinding noise coming up through the deck that Atopia felt more than heard.  “Contact,” said Valo, his voice tight, “applying thrust now.”  The ship lurched and then groaned.  Atopia watched several stress sensors on Dawn’s superstructure start flashing yellow.

“No more than what you’re doing, Valo,” Atopia warned as she eyed the sensors.  “If we encounter any more chop, Dawn will buckle under the strain.”

“Copy that,” Valo replied.  “It’s not doing Daybreak any favors, either.”

“If push comes to shove,” replied Atopia, “your priority is to abandon us and get my daughter down in one piece.  That’s an order.”

Valo’s reply was vulgar and decidedly unaccepting of that idea.

“Hang on back there,” said Kim on the link, “we’ll hit the troposphere boundary layer in twenty seconds.”

“What in Nine Hells are you still doing aboard?!” cried Atopia.

“Tabitha may be able to fly a computer console solo,” replied Kim, “but this kind of flying needs two pair of eyes and four hands.”

Hitting the upper edge of the thickest air bore Atopia to the deck with the sudden deceleration.  The air screamed around the hull as secondary support members on the lower deck failed with staccato reports.  Atopia managed to climb into her acceleration couch and strapped in.  “Are you still with us, Daybreak?” asked Atopia.

Silence.  Atopia double-checked her status board and scowled – exterior comms were out.  “We’re still getting delta reduction on our trajectory,” said Kim, “so they’re still with us.  Thirty-five seconds to impact.  It’s going to be an ocean landing.”

“Copy,” replied Atopia.  She tightened the restraints on her couch and tried to will her body to relax.  There was nothing left to do but wait.

There was a lurch and a grinding sound from beneath her feet.  “Daybreak’s away!” called Kim.  “Ten seconds to impact!”

The ship hit nearly parallel to the ocean’s surface.  It rebounded and then hit even harder on the second skip.  Distantly, she heard the shriek of overstressed metal failing toward the ship’s nose.  Cargo containers are breaking loose, she thought, tearing their way through the hull.

The entire ship pitched nose-down as her forward momentum was finally checked by the ocean’s friction.  Loose objects in engineering flew forward as all of Atopia’s mass was thrown onto the restraints.  Something struck the back of her vacc suit helmet, knocking her senseless.

*         *         *

“Mommy?”

Her head hurt – something cold was being gently pressed against the back of her skull.  She could hear the sea, smell its salty air, feel the warmth of the sun on her body, the cool sand beneath her.  Alive, I think – maybe not whole, but alive.

“Mommy?”  Olivia’s alive too!  Oh, thank The Maker!

Atopia managed to groan.  That’s when she felt the rest of her body hurting.  Definitely alive.

“I hear you, honey,” Atopia said.

She felt her daughter’s hands clasp her right hand and forearm.  Olivia was sobbing, pressing her head against her upper arm.  “I thought you were dead!” she bawled.

“Shhh,” said Atopia.  “I was worried about you, too, little one.  Shhh.”  Atopia tried opening her eyes, but the world remained black.  “I can’t see,” she said.

“I’m hoping that’s temporary,” said Sir Winston who was somewhere near her left ear.  “You’ve taken a pretty good shot to the back of your skull.  Do me a favor and try not to move or open your eyes right now.”

“Did everybody make it?” asked Atopia.

“Yes,” replied Sir Winston as he kissed her forehead gently.

“Good,” Atopia said.  “What’s our situation?”

“The ship is resting in about four meters of water,” said Valo, who was close by on her right.  “Kim had the presence of mind to extend the landing gear before Dawn settled, so only the lower deck is underwater.  The crash site is about twenty clicks of southwest of here.  I picked you, Kim and Tabitha up after I dropped everybody else off here.  Daybreak’s no longer space-worthy, though she can still fly, barely.  Most of us are pretty beat up.  Hawk and Lisa are recovering in the launch right now – nothing serious, but they’ve got first and second-degree radiant burns from the plasma fire.”

“We need to get back aboard Dawn,” said Atopia.  “There are still four low berth passengers aboard.”

“They’re going to need at least another fifty hours before they’ll have a ghost of a chance of surviving being brought out of hibernation early,” said Winston.  “The battery backups on their berths will hold for five times that long.  As long as the seawater doesn’t get to them, they should be in better shape than we are right now.”

Atopia tried to nod and instantly regretted it.  “Okay,” she said around a grimace, “what about the natives?  They’re not supposed to be friendly.”

“No welcoming committee as of yet,” replied Valo.  “I’ve got Kim and John walking our perimeter right now.  We’ll have some warning when they do.”

“I’m sorry, mom,” said Olivia, “I shouldn’t have asked you to do this!”  Atopia could feel her daughter’s tears on her arm.

“Shhh,” Atopia replied as she gripped her daughter’s hands tightly.  “Listen to me, little one.  If we hadn’t been doing this, that explosion would have happened while we were in hyperspace – and we all could have died there.  Instead, we were close to a habitable world and everybody is going to pull through – even me.”

“But you can’t see,” protested Olivia.

“It’s starting to come back,” said Atopia, “I can see sunlight through my eyelids now.”

“That’s very good news,” said Winston.  “Give it a few more minutes before trying to open your eyes again.  Hawk!”  She heard Winston rise from her side.  “You shouldn’t be up yet!”

“Tha’ ‘splosion wuzzn’ ehny acks-uh-den’” he slurred with effort.  “Iht wuz uh ssaped ssarge ahn da blyn’ syde.”

“Nine hells!” exclaimed Tabitha.  Atopia could hear her fists hammering the sand of the beach as she continued.  “He means that sonofabitch, Hobart!  He got into engineering somehow – he had to!”

“Tabitha!” yelled Atopia, “Calm down!  That’s an order!”  The pounding stopped.  “If that’s the case, we’ll deal with Hobart when the time comes.  Right now, we lick our wounds and find some way to contact Benue for a rescue party and a salvage team.  We should be declared overdue in a couple of hours – so let’s focus on staying alive for at least that long.”

Kim Kelly  767BC3  Retired Colonist Project Coordinator   5 Terms, Rank 6, Age 38
JOT-3, Blade-1, Brawling-1, Bribery-1, Carbine-1, Cutlass-1, Leader-1, Medical-1, Streetwise-1, Tactics-1, Vacc Suit-1, Admin-0

John Van Ert  BA7685  Retired Army Lt. Col.  3 Terms, Rank 4, Age 30

Tactics-2, Admin-1, Brawling-1, Computer-1, Cutlass-1 (owns), Electronics-1, Forward Observer-1, Gambling-1, Rifle-1, SMG-1, Vacc Suit-0, JOT-0

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