The tension was almost palpable on the bridge. I wasn't sure if it was my presence seated in the captain's chair or whether it was Sergeant Hollen and her Valkyrie or even the fact that Melanos' sun loomed large in the view screen. The Elafi bridge was practically palatial compared with the Havoc's it was even larger than the bridge of the Jakarta. Then the Jakarta's bridge was minimal at best and like the Jakarta's bridge it contained seats for the captain and two officers seated either side of him or her. Lieutenant Kyrikia occupied one of the seats. She slumped back in her chair looking resigned. I couldn't blame her I had asserted my authority and had taken command. Com Ops had backed my decision every step of the way. Sergeant Hollen and her Valkyrie had volunteered to back my every command. I wondered where I had got such power that even Valkyrie obeyed me. I wasn't going to let it go to my head I was a realist I knew my position was temporary. Nor did I want such a command despite what everyone thought I was still GF to my core and not navy. I glanced at the tactical display on my armrest console. The Havoc was there shadowing my every movement.
"Helm come to a stop once we've reached optimal distance from the sun," I ordered the Fandaren at the helm.
"Aye ma'am," he quickly replied.
I tapped the comms button on my console. "Missile room are you ready?"
"Aye ma'am," they responded."
I turned my attention to the young human woman at the weapons console. "Ready?" I asked her.
"Target locked and will fire on your command."
I gestured to Prousenos standing with the Valkyrie. For some reason they hadn't objected to his presence. "Lieutenant monitor the missile if you could?" I wasn't sure why I thought that way but it seemed to be the right thing to say.
"Of course ma'am," he responded.
"Tactical on screen."
The image showed the position of the ship, the Havoc and the sun, which looked awfully close to the ship.
"In position ma'am," the Fandaren said.
"All stop!" I commanded. "Fire!"
I tracked the missile as it left its tube following its progress through the sun's exosphere.
"It's gone ma'am," Prousenos told me sounding puzzled, "I swear in the last few seconds before the sun swallowed it was alive? I thought I heard it scream."
"Are you ok Prousenos?" I asked anxiously.
"Yes ma'am. I feel relieved that it's gone. I must apologise ma'am."
"For doubting you ma'am. I was angry at first but you've proved me wrong. I'm proud to be under your command."
"Ok," I replied I felt a little uncomfortable. I never wanted to be hero-worshipped. I was just doing my job. "Helm head back to Melanos," I said and added, "all off duty senior officers to the briefing room."
The briefing room was crowded when I reached it. I clearly hadn't taken account of how many senior officers there were on a ship of this size. I had taken a detour on the way down to send off my latest report to Com Ops.
"Is this everyone?" I said as I pushed my way in. The room made even smaller by the squad of Valkyrie at my back. It took me a while to get it sorted out and I had whittled down the officers to more manageable size.
"Be seated!" I said sitting at the head of the table Kyrikia on one side and Tutor the other facing each other.
They all sat I could feel the apprehension in the room. I had my orders Com Ops wanted this wrapped up as quickly as possible. "I want an explanation of how an impostor had you fooled from months," I sounded harsh even to my own ears.
The officers shifted uneasily each looking at each other. Most of their glares were directed toward Kyrikia. The young T'Arni seemed to shrink in her chair.
"And Doctor Rutherford I want an explanation as to why the impostor was never given a full medical?" My comms unit chirped before I could say anything further.
"Yes?" I moderated my tone.
"Message from the Havoc your ears only ma'am," the voice said.
"Take over LT," I said to tutor.
I stepped outside making sure I wasn't overheard. "Comms relay message." I blinked see Marsha's ID on the screen. "Marsha?"
"Want the good news or the bad news first?"
"Ok, from the sound of it which is worst?" I wondered what she was up to Lieutenant Armaradies' comments earlier had me on edge.
"The bad news is that Com Ops is sending a relief force." That was the bad news I'd be stuck on the Elafi for month or so while the relief travelled through hyperspace. Any time I had spent with Tony with fade into a distant ache. I suddenly wished I were back on the Jakarta when things were simpler. But I was a realist I had my tasks no matter how onerous they were. "And the good?" I asked cautiously.
"Once they arrive they'll be taking over the investigation."
"That could be months away we could have it over by then," I moaned.
"No, they'll be here in eight hours," she sounded if she was enjoying my torment.
My mind did a back track. "Wait a minute you said eight hours?"
"They found a way to trigger the wormhole?"
I couldn't have been more surprised or relieved. "How'd they figure that out?"
"Not really. It was Constantina that told them."
"I'm not sure but I could make a few guesses. I would have done what she would have done in her place."
I could guess as well. Ellie and Camelia were protecting me. I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Feeling happier I stepped back into the briefing room straight into a full-blown argument. Tutor and Kyrikia had half-risen from their seats and were facing each other off and yelling at each other. It appeared that Tutor was as bad as I was at conducting an investigation.
"Enough!" I yelled, "sit down all of you!"
They both sat their faces red and glaring at each other.
"I said enough both of you!" I spoke harshly, "Com Ops are sending a relief force they will be here in less that eight hours."
"Ma'am?" Kyrikia asked.
"The relief force is coming through the wormhole?"
"Wormhole, what wormhole?"
"They'll explain when they get here. In the meantime I want full reports from all officers."
"I don't understand?" Kyrikia wanted to know more, "eight hours you said?"
"Yes that's correct. You will be debriefed at that time. Until then you have your tasks. Dismissed!"
The crew filed out but Kyrikia remained.
"You have something to say Lieutenant?" I said to her mildly.
"I'm going to be court-martialled over this aren't I?"
"What gave you that idea." I gave her a look.
"I let something aboard that was Rhosani," she hesitated, "you are sure it was Rhosani."
"I'm afraid so the Terrans encountered these devices on a handful of their ships. That was after we defeated the Rhosani controlling the Terran Emperor."
"You defeated a Rhosani?"
"They can be killed."
She looked relieved but some of her doubts remained. "It still remains that I let it on board and never noticed."
"How could you. I didn't know until it started to access the systems. Still it could be worse it could have been a Rhosani masquerading as the Vice President."
Kyrikia went pale she put her hand to her mouth and drew in several deep breaths. "This actually happened?" she sounded as if she didn't believe me.
"How long have you been here?" I asked her.
"A couple of days. The captain told us to maintain comms silence. I guess now he didn't want us learning the truth."
I nodded and explained what we had discovered in the senate and Com Ops."
Kyrikia was shaken. "I didn't know."
I glossed over my own involvement in the incident. "I'll let you inform the crew and as to the court-martial there won't be one. I can assure you of that. You weren't the first to be taken in by the Rhosani. But it's up to the likes of you and I to stop it ever happening again."
"Of course ma'am," she said and saluted.
"Dismissed Lieutenant and I still want your report?"
"Yes ma'am!" she said and hurried out.
I sat in the captain's chair Kyrikia was seated beside me the air thick with tension. After Kyrikia's announcement several fights had broken out which my squad and the Valkyries had put stop to. In the case of the Valkyrie the fighters had ended up in medbay. It seemed like Valkyrie were running true to their blood. There wasn't anything I could do about that reigning in the Valkyrie was near impossible. I tried that before in the GF and failed. The Elafi's reports showed be a catalogue of errors that more experienced crew would have picked up. I began to understand the Rhosani logic. They had deliberately picked a green crew because they didn't know any different. Naval training had taught them to obey without question and they believed the impostor was who he said he was. Only someone with more experience, even someone like me could see the discrepancies in the log reports. It wasn't until we showed up as we did, that the Rhosani plan started to unravel.
"You be ok," I said to Kyrikia to reassure her that no action would be taken against her.
"Yes ma'am," she replied not sounding assured.
I sighed inwardly and turned my attention to the screen. We had the shutters closed and the tactical screen up. All it showed was empty space with the Havoc at our flank. Under Marsha's instruction I had taken point. Anyone exiting the wormhole would sense the Elafi first. It made sense when I though about it. We were the larger mass.
"Sensors anything yet?" I asked the young human woman on at the console.
I pressed a button on the arm of my chair it gave me a direct comms link to the Havoc. "Havoc picking up anything yet?" The Havoc's sensors were better than the Elafi's.
"Nothing yet Elafi," I heard Marsha's voice.
I was a little surprised to hear her. We were currently in geostationary above the archives.
"Hang on, there's something on long range sensors from the direction of the wormhole and approaching at speed?" the Sensor Operative said.
"Still too far away?"
"Havoc?" I commed Marsha, "we've got incoming."
"Yeah got it. Picking up four ships at speed."
"Stay safe," I said to Marsha, I wasn't sure why I said it and winced. Marsha was my friend and nothing else any feelings I had for her were as a sister. Thanks to the stunt Sigrunn had pulled on me I was a bond sister but still was clueless as to what it actually meant.
"Picking up four ships."
"Any chance we can ID them?"
"Not in range yet ma'am."
"Action stations, amber alert," all I got was frightened stares from the bridge crew. "Go to amber alert."
"Sorry ma'am we're still not over the shock of the captain ordering us to attack you." Kyrikia replied quickly with a glare at the bridge crew.
I was prepared for that. If the approaching ships were hostile the crews' hesitation could mean the end for us. I had as the Terran expression said I had an Ace in the hole. "Sync systems with the Havoc."
It wasn't ideal any Naval commander could tell me that. It meant our systems were locked in with the Havoc's. We would fire when they did at the same target but there was no flexibility. The Terrans had used it in the recent war and found it lacking. Tony had told me about it. Suddenly just thinking about him had me missing him terribly. An ache I was at a loss to explain. I hadn't the time to think of him now I had a job to do and lives on the line. "Any luck on those ID's yet?"
"Yes ma'am I have a IFF on them. The Alpha Crucis, the Sovran, the Geraki and the Rodo."
"Comms open a channel to the approaching ships." I said and pressed the link to the Havoc, "you getting this Marsha?"
"It's your show Colonel Locke."
I understood her formality we weren't on a private channel. "Comms open channel."
"Comms open ma'am."
I nodded to the young T'Arni male at the comms console. "Elafi to approaching ships we are maintaining amber alert until you are verified." It was standard procedure the Orsini had a habit of using captured equipment against its original owners as we had encountered on Anoxi. Thoughts of what I had seen welled up through my mind. I savagely closed them off. I wasn't about to travel down that nightmare ever again.
"Ma'am the ships are slowing." Sensors told me sounding relieved.
I wasn't about to drop my guard."
"Message coming through." Comms said.
I recognised the familiar face on my screen. "Captain Hanyard." He and his crew helped me when I was as I was here temporally in charge of the Sovran.
"Good to see you ma'am."
I had to admire his professionalism. "And you."
"Permission to dock with the Elafi on arrival."
"Permission granted." I guess that they had decided to let him to talk to me. He was someone that I could recognise as a friend. "Old times captain," I said to him.
He laughed. "That it is colonel," he said and broke the link.
"Stand down from amber," I said to the relieved faces of the bridge crew. "Got that Havoc," I commed Marsha.
"Will stay on station and synced, Havoc out."
A feeling of déjà vu washed over me as I waited for the Alpha Crucis to dock. The last time I had been in this position was on the Sovran. Sergeant Hollen and her Valkyrie waited with me their hands on their weapons and armoured as I was. At least I had one less worry when I raided the Elafi's stores. They actually had decent synthacotton underwear in my size. No more itching for me until I got back to the Havoc. My eyes were on the doors watching the flashing light above the door. In my minds eye I could see the docking clamps engage and the umbilical extend. A loud clang and the hiss as the space behind the doors pressurised told me that it was time. We waited as the light above the door changed from red to green and the door slid open. Outlined in the harsh light of the umbilical were several figures most of them in dress uniform. I scanned the faces of the officers as they stepped through the door relieved to see a couple of familiar faces. My hand dropped from the grip of the AR 32 strapped to my chest and into a salute.
"Captain Hanyard," I said, "welcome to the Elafi."
"Colonel Locke, you remember Lieutenant Carl Chivers."
"Yes sir," I replied although technically as a colonel we were of equal rank. I flicked a signal to Hollen to stand her Valkyrie down. I hoped they would obey but with Valkyrie it was always touch and go.
Hanyard smiled. "We're all friends here call me James. Protocol is ok sometimes but we know each other."
"Of course James," I said, " if you please follow me this way."
I led James' party to the briefing room where officers from the Elafi waited anxious expressions on their faces.
"This is my XO Lieutenant Kyrikia." I introduced her then the others and he introduced his officers.
"With your permission colonel," James stated, "All officers with the exception of the bridge shift officers should leave." He stopped them before they left. "As from now Lieutenant Chivers will be taking command. He has full authority from Com Ops."
Kyrikia seemed to shrink into a pit of misery. "Colonel Locke?" she appealed to me clearly still thinking that she was going to be court-martialled despite my assurances.
"Lieutenant Kyrikia." James said.
"You're 2IC to Chivers."
"Thank you sir."
"And me?" I asked.
"You are to give me a full report," he paused and gave Kyrikia a look, "Lieutenant I'd like a full tour of the ship once I've finished debriefing Colonel Locke."
"I have at the data slices here." I said handing James a handful of two centimetre square pieces of plastic, "these are the reports from all of the officers and my own included."
"Thanks I know how through you are. Now I'd like to speak to this masquerader. My tepe," he indicated a short T'Arni woman hovering in the background, "will interrogate him."
I had noticed her, she had been the only one of his party that he had not introduced. "That might be difficult since I had to kill him."
I explained what happened and my solution. "Com Ops fully sanctioned my actions. It's all in my report."
"I'll need to do a full sweep of my crew?" he nodded to his tepe, "gather your squad and head back to the Havoc there's an inspection team from the Geraki inbound as we speak."
"Certain?" I asked, "Lieutenant Prousenos will let yours know what to look for."
Hanyard gestured to his tepe. "Do so." He turned back to me, "we'll handle things from here."
It was a dismissal. There wasn't anything further I could do anyway.
Sergeant Hollen was waiting for outside I did wonder why she kept following me. It was the wrong thing to do asking her. Valkyrie were quite volatile it partly explained my occasional flying of the handle although I really doubted that it was true.
"I'm heading back to the Havoc, Lieutenant Chivers is in command and Lieutenant Kyrikia is second in command. Just keep and eye on things."
"Yes ma'am, you think there may be?"
"I'm not sure what the Rhosani will do next but we must be ready."
"You can count on us ma'am."
"Tutor," I commed Tutor, "grab the squad we're heading back to the Havoc."
"On it ma'am."
Ocynca was waited for me as I exited the shuttle. "Want to talk about it?" he asked me.
I shook my head. "All I want is a shower and couple of hours sleep. That's if Captain Yanik doesn't need me?"
"I think she can cope on her own for a few hours. I will be around if you need someone to talk to Sandra."
"Oh we're on a first name basis now?" I said that more harshly than I intended.
He just smiled. "Go get some rest your quarter's have been cleared and one other thing."
"His highness returned your gear we've put it in storage. Just ask Vorra or Shawna to retrieve anything you need."
"And I can't do it myself?"
"Ok I'll do that." I had no intention of letting someone else do what I could do myself. It was bad enough having Gena run around for me. I wasn't about to make others my servants.
Feeling refreshed after my shower and nap. I was thinking of heading to the mess hall for something to eat. As I stepped out into the corridor from my quarters Ocynca stood waiting for me.
"Time to talk about it now?" he asked, "I know you are hurting?"
He was the ship's counsellor and it was his job to know these things and try and prevent someone going over the edge. We didn't have them in the GF, which was why I went off the rails before anyone could stop me. On the ground I was a danger only to myself which happened more than once and I'm not proud of that. On a ship this danger could affect the ship and it crew. That's why all Confederacy ships had a counsellor normally one of the weaker types of tepes. It explained why the Elafi didn't have one. A counsellor would have detected an impostor.
He nodded thoughtfully. "Don't bottle it up," he warned, "make sure you talk to someone."
My comms unit chirped saving me from giving him answer. "Yes?"
"You are wanted in the captains ready room." The T'Arni comms officer told me.
I was puzzled if Marsha wanted to talk to me she would have called me herself. "I'm on my way." I turned to Ocynca. "Another time duty calls."
"Remember what I said please don't bottle it up."
Marsha sat her desk and I entered. She looked up as I saluted.
A faint frown crossed her face. "Why so formal?" she sounded hurt.
"Sorry force of habit," I apologised.
"I just wanted to see how you are Ocynca was concerned about you."
"I'll be fine," I lied feeling guilty about shooting a man in cold blood. He might have been a danger to the ship but in my minds eye I just couldn't justify his death not in that manner. I hadn't given him a chance to surrender or shouted a warning. I had to protect the crew.
"No you won't," Marsha stated, "I can see it in your eyes."
"I will be fine," I said a bit harder than I should have.
She shook her head. "Just make sure you are and don't start playing hero. Too many people are counting on you. You were the captain on the Elafi it isn't you job to do everything. You have a crew for that!"
I took her warning to heart. I was used to doing things myself. "I'm just doing my job to best of my ability."
"About what happened on the Elafi?"
"I'll take full responsibility for what happened. I did what I did to protect the ship."
"Good I wouldn't want you to have a guilt trip over it."
"So where do we go from here?" I changed subjects I didn't want another of her lectures.
"Com Ops are dealing with the search for more of these devices. Elafi was the only ship one was found on so far. You on the other hand are to head back to Melanos. Joyce Neilson wants to speak to you."
"You know why?" I hadn't told Marsha about Joyce's secret.
"No, all I was told was she wants to speak with you," she added as I turned to leave, "be careful Sandra."
"I wouldn't be me if I was."
All she did was sigh.
Even with the console on my Confederacy issue thermal suit cranked up to full the freezing breeze brought a chill to me. My hands felt frozen and my face was red and raw from the cold. I trudged across the ground heading for the caverns wondering why I was doing this. I was tempted to head back to the comparative warmth of the shuttle at least until the wind died down but I determinedly walked on I guess I was pandering to my Valkyrie heritage. It was went some way to explain my mother's own stubbornness when it came to Camelia's attempts at a reconciliation. The tunnel to the habit cavern was warmer than the exterior. A sudden blast of heat as I passed the heat shield into the habit cavern had me frantically turning down the console controls. Joyce stood by the entrance to the archives deep in conversation with a male T'Arni. The T'Arni gestured in my direction and Joyce turned a smile on her face.
"Hello Sandra what are you doing here?" she said.
Her comment caught me off guard Marsha had said she had asked for me. "Didn't you call the Havoc and ask to see me?" my surprise echoed hers.
"I do want to talk to you but I never called your ship. I don't use the comms often. Rossatas here was the last to use the comms."
Rossatas gave me a slight bow. "Your highness."
I wondered who he had been talking to. "Just Sandra, I'm not big on titles," I glanced to Joyce to see if she was going to comment. Camelia constantly lectured me on not using my titles. I couldn't see why I had to they weren't me.
"Just Sandra," Rossatas replied with a twinkle in his eyes then laughed loud. "Only kidding you. I did use the comms a couple of days ago. To get news from home and send our monthly reports. It should be on the logs."
"Someone sent a message calling me down."
"That's strange," Joyce remarked thoughtfully, "we should take a look."
"We?" I had to ask.
"You and me," she turned to Rossatas, "Let the others know where we've gone and why."
"That goes without saying," Rossatas replied, "stay safe out there."
"Stay here!" I said to Joyce.
"That's not an option, I'm in charge of this expedition. If one of the students in playing around with the comms. I want to know."
"You are hardly dressed for it." I pointed out to Joyce. Her T-shirt and work suit were hardly the correct clothing for the weather outside.
"I'll change. Just give me a minute," she nodded to Rossatas, "we'll continue our conversation later.
I wasn't sure how she persuaded me to wait for her but I did. We treaded our way through the maze of containers to the comms hut. Joyce seemed to want to talk despite the chill.
"It good to be out here we can talk in private. In the archives I'm always in demand."
"About what?" I asked her.
"You, Constantina and Camelia. I want to know your thoughts you've been through a lot."
"Because you need to talk, and you are reluctant to tell your friends in case they judge you."
I knew she was right. Hiding my feeling wasn't going to help me. Slowly I told everything including my feelings on killing the impostor.
"Don't fret over what happened on the Elafi. You did what you had do."
"It's what everyone keeps telling me."
"Then listen. We might only be related through Constantina but we are family and that what matters."
I felt a lot better by time we reached the comms hut. Unburdening myself to Joyce had lifted a weight off my shoulders. The comms hut was a yellow box ten metres by ten on a platform. Cables ran from it to the tripod base of the comms spire. A thin needle that reached into the dull overcast sky. Joyce punched in a code on the door.
"We had to put a lock on the door," she paused, "some of the youngsters were using the hut for something other than comms."
I caught her meaning. "It's a bit too cold for that."
Joyce laughed. "Yet that's no deterrent. I won't condone them for it but let them know they should show some decorum and think about their fellows."
It was warmer inside. A comms console stood at the far end of the room further from the door. There was one chair and the floor was rubberised not exactly comfortable for the activities Joyce had been alluding to. She strode over to the comms unit and turned it on.
"We leave it on stand by. We tried running a cable from here to the caverns but something about the archives disrupts the signal. It had our Ezaran engineer scratching his head. You know Ezarans they hate puzzles and this one has got him frustrated." She leaned over the console her fingers tapping symbols faster that I thought possible. "I can't see any transmissions from this unit. Just the reports Rossatas sent and a few personal messages. Nothing sent to the Havoc or any other ship in the system."
"And the deleted logs?"
"What about the lander? Marsha said the comms came from Melanos."
"It's possible the lander has it own comms system. But highly improbable."
"And why not?"
"Only the senior staff have access to the lander. The same reason the comms hut is locked." She tapped on the console touching several symbols. "The lander is on standby for emergencies. You would need the access codes to launch it let alone use the comms units. Anyone accessing the lander would send an alert to our wrist units."
"Which the archive block?" I pointed out the flaw in the system.
Joyce sighed. "Which is why we are archaeologists and not rocket scientists"
Rocket scientists weren't a Terran term I had heard before. I hid my ignorance filing the words way to reference them later. "I'm sorry," I apologised, "I'm trying to look at this from all angles."
"This is odd. I hate to say it someone or something wanted you on the surface. We should head back to the caverns before it gets dark. The night cold isn't good for these old bones."
I commed the Havoc before we headed back to the caverns letting Marsha know what was going on.