After a week of R&R on Plutonia – which was neither restful nor relaxing – the crew of the Artemis heads back out on patrol …
All was quiet on the Artemis as the silver rocketship glided through space.
In the command module, Epsilon was alone at the helm. A long data spike from her finger was plugged into the navigation console, linking her directly with the ship. It was past midnight, Earth time, and the rest of the crew was asleep, which was fine with Epsilon. She enjoyed the restfulness of solitude nearly as much as the three hours of actual sleep her biocomputonic body required.
The door hissed open behind her, and Cadet “Flock” Powers entered the CM, only glancing Epsilon’s way before settling behind her tactical station. She tried to busy herself by checking the diagnostic readouts which flashed across her console.
Epsilon slowly spun her chair around.
“Why are you not sleeping, Flock?”
Flock kept her eyes down and on the controls. “I need to do some system updates. I don’t trust that the Plutonians managed all our repairs to the proper specifications.”
“We ran a complete diagnostic before we blasted off,” Epsilon replied evenly. “Everything appears to be functioning normally.”
“Appears,” Flock muttered.
The matrix which covered Epsilon’s body sent white lines shooting down her arms and legs. Processing. She stood and approached Flock’s station.
“You have been having nightmares.” Flock’s head shot up – as if she were about to say something – then looked down again. “I have heard you talking in your sleep.”
“Maybe you should stop eavesdropping on people then,” said Flock curtly.
“I do not mean to. I am often awake when you sleep. It is difficult not to hear when I move about the ship.”
Flock sighed hard before looking up again. She knew Epsilon wasn’t going to be satisfied until she gave her a suitable response.
“It’s just a phase. Humans have nightmares.”
“I do not.”
“That’s because you’re not –” Flock’s bark stopped short, regretting herself. “I’m sorry. I appreciate your concern, Epsy. I guess I have a lot on my mind.”
Epsilon spoke carefully. “Did you not have a fulfilling week on Plutonia?”
Flock’s laugh was bitter. “Sure, I did. I know you did.”
Epsilon’s bio-sensors monitored Flock’s rising blood pressure. “You … are jealous. Flock, that first night, K’wari and I –”
Flock hopped into her seat and hit a button. “A distress signal.” She looked up at the main viewing screen covered in stars. “Coming from … somewhere up ahead. Can’t get a fix on it. Maybe a vessel.”
Epsilon had moved to the helm. “Possibly. The signal is faint. It originated approximately 2.47 hours ago.”
“Approximately? It’ll take a while to get there. I better wake the captain.”
Captain Jette Jones entered the CM, still tucking in her Star Ranger tunic as she sat in the command chair. She looked around.
“She … she said she wasn’t feeling well, Sir,” Flock answered.
Jette nodded. “What’s our status?”
“We’re enroute to the source of the distress call, Sir. The transmission was a bit garbled but we’ve been able to establish it’s a civilian vessel, the Ceres. Some sort of engine problem. We should reach them in 8.62 hours at present speed.”
“Let’s see if we can cut some time off that. Increase speed to Factor 4, Epsilon.”
“That should make our arrival time … 5.22 hours, Captain.”
The intercom beeped. “K’wari to Captain.”
“Go ahead, K’wari.”
“Captain, I need to see you in the med lab right away.”
“Can it wait?”
There was a pause. “It’s about Lt. Riesga.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Epsilon pivoted in her chair. “Captain, if I may accompany you?”
“Alright. Flock you have the ship. Let me know if there are any changes.”
As the two left, Flock shook her head. “Alone again, Flock.”
Jette and Epsilon entered the med lab surprised by what they saw. The room was dimly lit with candles placed in specific spots. The room smelled of incense.
“What’s all this?”
K’wari approached Jette. “It is my opinion that whatever happened to Lt. Riesga on Plutonia still affects her, Captain. Perhaps even more than before. I’ve gone through her records. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with her. Physically, she’s fine. Mentally …”
“Captain,” Epsilon spoke up. “If I may?”
“As you have taught me, Captain, my ability to monitor the brainwave and bodily changes in those I encounter has helped me more fully appreciate their sincerity or motives in a given situation.”
“Yes. And you’ve done wonderfully with that, Epsilon.”
“Initially, my motivation was to more accurately understand the human condition, especially as a member of a crew, working in close quarters. Over time, each crewmember’s emotional state when they interact has changed to some degree. Some more than others. I used you as a baseline.”
“Because your emotional and psychological responses to each crewmember have always remained essentially the same. Unlike …”
Epsilon looked at K’wari, who nodded reluctantly.
“Go ahead, Epsilon.”
“Unlike, for example, K’wari and Flock. Whenever they encounter each other, they both become highly agitated.”
Jette forced back a smile. “I understand that. What’s your point, Epsilon?”
“Lt. Riesga. Since we have returned from Plutonia, she is behaving in a very un-Riesga-like manner. Lethargic, irritable and …”
“She is … having intermittent, sudden releases of endorphins.”
Jette glanced at K’wari. “She’s having orgasms, Jette.”
“Yes. Quite … extensively,” Epsilon continued. “I thought it was as a result of ingesting catatonic [see Issue #07], but the doctors on Plutonia found no evidence of it in her system.”
“Kitka did say Nu Marr had her own methods of mind control. Honestly, I didn’t think a couple days of rest was just going to make her … normal.” Jette sighed. “There may be some residual damage from the brainwashing.”
“There is something else, Captain,” Epsilon said. “I believe I have located the cause of her current behavior. Although I cannot determine why.”
“It’s you, Captain. Every moment she is around you, she’s … well, she …”
Jette patted Epsilon’s shoulder. “I get the picture.”
“I agree with Epsilon’s assessment, Jette.”
“Well, from what she remembers and what we were able to figure out from our interrogations of catwomen, Riesga thought she was following my orders. They just happened to include orgasms. Perhaps as a behavioral trigger?” Jette shrugged. “I don’t know how to snap her out of it.”
K’wari waved her hand across the room. “I may have a solution, Captain.”
“Lie down, Kanivia. How are you feeling?”
Kanivia Riesga lay back nervously. She was wearing a gray, woolen, long-sleeved t-shirt, which reached mid-thigh. The emblem of the Star Ranger Corps on her breast. Jette and Epsilon kept a discrete distance.
“Did you drink the tea?” K’wari asked.
“Yeah. It tasted terrible.”
K’wari looked over at Jette. “An herbal sedative. It’ll help her relax a bit.”
She squatted down at the end of the exam table, which she had transformed into a fairly comfortable bed, and looked up the hem of the nightgown. Riesga wasn’t wearing panties.
“Kanivia, we’re just going to do some light meditation. Help you clear away some of the thoughts you’ve been having these last few days.”
The Vicar of Yasu put her hands on each side of Riesga’s head. She was whispering, chanting. Jette couldn’t make out the words. Minutes passed. K’wari’s eyes shut tight, her lips were moving but there was no sound.
Epsilon’s head tilted. Processing.
Then suddenly Riesga’s hips bucked, she began thrashing.
“I’m Captain Jones.” Nu Marr purred. Kanivia was in a circular chamber, strapped to an X-frame. She was starring helplessly into Nu Marr’s face on top of Jette’s body. It was a trick. A holographic image of her Captain from the neck down. Kanivia knew it wasn’t real. The toy strapped between her legs made it so easy not to care. “Riesga, who am I?”
Kanivia whined. The toy buzzed relentlessly. “Captain Jones!” Nu Marr smiled and pressed a button. Kaniva barked as an orgasm smashed her mind again.
“Riesga, who am I?”
“Captain Jones Captain Jones Captain Jones!”
Jette saw the front of the gray nightie turn dark as her first mate climaxed once, twice and again.
She finally lay back slowly, her eyes blinking rapidly. Riesga glanced down at the foot of the bed. She saw Epsilon standing next to Jette. Nu Marr’s face looked back at her. Riesga moaned and stiffened into another orgasm almost immediately. K’wari stepped back, her hands up. She looked to Jette, who had stepped forward uncertainly.
K’wari leaned, put her hand on Kanivia’s forehead and closed her eyes in concentration. In a matter of seconds, Kanivia calmed down.
“Jette,” K’wari whispered, “it may be best if you weren’t here.”
Jette looked at her moment. “You’ve got a few hours. Then I need both of you back at your stations.”
“We’ll be ready, Captain.”
Jette nodded, pulling Epsilon along by her hand. She stopped at the door.
“What exactly are you trying to do, K’wari?”
“It’s a hypnotic state, Captain. I am going to attempt to take Kanivia’s mind back to a time before we arrived on Plutonia. Then purge her of the memories and experiences of those events. I know of members of the Order of Yasu who have accomplished this successfully.”
“So … this is your first go at it?”
K’wari didn’t bat an eye.
Jette stared at the open door, then looked back again.
“Purge. How do you do that without …” Jette couldn’t say it. She found strength on K’wari’s face.
“That’s the trick, isn’t it, Jette?”
Five hours later, the Artemis arrives at the source of the distress signal …
“Visual on the Ceres.”
Riesga was in the co-pilot’s chair looking out the main viewport as the ship grew larger – a white passenger cruiser. “Their engines are cold, Sir.”
Jette leaned forward in her chair. “Epsilon, bring us in close and let’s have a look at her.”
As the ship descended toward the starliner, Jette looked over at Riesga. She didn’t know what K’wari’s “treatment” had accomplished, but she was disappointed Riesga still hadn’t called her Skipper since they left Plutonia. “Cut main engines and go to docking thrusters.”
“Aye, sir.” Epsilon’s matrix pulsed gently, the white lines that danced over the matte black surface of her torso and limbs flowed in a smooth, languid pattern. The living computer was in her element at the ship’s controls.
The Artemis banked into an ellipse that grew tighter and tighter as the silver rocketship closed the distance with the sleek starliner. Then the ship’s four mighty engines winked out. Tiny jets of white gas hissed out from the maneuvering thruster banks at the tip of the nose cone and around the base of the engine bell.
The Artemis gently rolled into a slow orbit around the Ceres. The starliner was more than twice the size of the Star Ranger craft. The ship’s nose was a tall prow cutting through space. The lines of the vessel stretched and widened toward the rear forming an elegant wedge of metal and glass. Warm inviting light spilled from the many large view ports along the main deck. Figures inside pointed and waved as the Artemis drifted past.
Jette studied the hull as they glided over it. The pair of engines at the rear were dark. “No obvious damage.”
K’wari entered the CM and stood beside Jette, one hand gripping the command chair to steady herself. She leaned down to whisper: “How’s she doing?”
Jette shook her head tightly. “Later.”
“They don’t appear to have any issues with their power plant.” Riesga’s eyes were on the screen. “Must be a mechanical problem.”
Jette looked over her shoulder to Flock. “Let them know we’re ready to dock.”
“Aye, Captain.” Johansen’s hand danced over the controls at the tactical station. “Ceres, this is Artemis on final approach. Please extend your docking umbilical.”
Jette stood up and straightened her Ranger jacket with a firm tug. “Alright, let’s see if we can help them out.”
Riesga opened a safety panel and pressed the button the within. The Artemis’ hatch squealed briefly as it ratcheted open revealing a circular gangway beyond. The docking umbilical was just over three meters long with a steel walkway running its length. Jette stepped through the portal and grabbed onto the handrails as her brown hair floated off her shoulders in the zero gravity passage.
She was halfway across when the Ceres hatch slid open with a great hiss. Jette sniffed at the escaping air. Every star ship had its own peculiar smell and yet they all smelled like star ships. The Ceres smelled like rich food and synthetic wood furniture. The hatch opened fully and Jette found a short older man with sharp eyes and a white beard smiling at her. His uniform was crisp and black with gold at the belt and collar.
“Captain Yuri Edwards, P.H.S. Ceres.” He bowed slightly and tucked his cap under his arm with a sharp flick that spoke to a military career somewhere in his past.
Jette found her footing as she crossed the threshold into the Ceres’ artificial gravity. “Captain Jette Jones, Star Ranger craft Artemis. Permission to come aboard?”
“Welcome Captain!” Edwards extended a hand and shook Jette’s warmly. “This is my first officer, Commander Sewena Carpenter.” A redhead with a strong jawline and a slim figure nodded to Jette from beside him.
“Second Lieutenant Kanivia Reisga,” Jette motioned to the junior Ranger as she led the rest of the Artemis crew into the Ceres’ entry lounge. “We noticed your engines are offline.”
“Yes, we lost them over an hour ago. Let’s head to the bridge.” Edwards motioned for them to follow. “We’re trying to piece together some answers.”
Jette fell into step beside him with Carpenter and Riesga behind the pair of captains. Carpenter’s eyes drifted up and down Jette’s legs a moment before glancing to Riesga and realizing she’d been caught staring by the young Star Ranger. She cleared her throat and tried to keep her eyes above Jette’s belt line.
The lustrous white corridor was paved with deep blue carpet. Jette smiled to herself, trying to remember the last time she’d been on a vessel where two people could walk abreast with room to spare. Jette pointed to a gold plaque set into the wall. “S’donia shipyards?”
“That’s right. I piloted her out of dry dock myself.” Captain Edwards beamed, obviously proud of his vessel. “She’s been under my command ever since.”
“She’s a fine ship, inside and out.” Jette nodded toward one of the many wall-mounted service panels designed to answer questions or supply food and drink. “Is this the main passenger living area?”
“Yes. We’re on deck three. Crew quarters is one level up and the bridge is up on one.”
“How many on board?”
“Seven officers and crew. Seven passengers, this trip.” Edwards stopped and a pair of doors swished open revealing a large lift car. He motioned them all in before stepping aboard and pressing a glowing button on the control plate.
“Where are you headed?” Jette asked casually.
“Alstus IV.” Edwards nodded toward a display on the lift car wall showing off sweeping panoramas of a vast coastal city with amber beaches. Instead of a sky overhead, white stalactites were hanging like huge icicles above the skyline.
“Oh, the underground ocean resort?”
“That’s the one. Have you ever visited?”
“No, but I hear the volcanic heat exchange makes the wind surfing incredible.”
Edwards chuckled. “I’ve never made it past the cocktail tent.” The doors opened and they were greeted by a chorus of pleasant, almost musical tones as the procession entered the bridge. The oblong room was ringed by banks of readouts and displays. A raised dais in the middle held four large command consoles in a curving diamond configuration.
“That’s Franco and Hill.” Edwards gestured to a pair crew members standing at one of the consoles. “They’re helm and navigation.” Jette traded a nod with them then stepped up onto the dais and followed Edwards to the damage control station.
“Two weeks into a three-week trip.” He motioned to the display. “No sign of trouble and then drive output suddenly dropped by more than 70 percent.”
“When was this?” Jette stood beside him, peering at the readouts.
“About eight hours ago. We limped along overnight well enough. But, then this morning … dead in space. Engines offline. We haven’t traced the cause yet.”
“Very odd.” Jette frowned. “If you’re headed for Alstus, then how’d you end up out here?”
Edwards pointed toward the main view port. Jette turned and drew in a awestruck breath. Outside, no more than a million kilometers away, there was an enormous nebula glowing with vivid amber, red and purple hues. The bands of color seemed to dance like grass in wind.
“The Sunshower Nebula.” Jette grinned. “I didn’t realize it was active right now.”
“I decided to change course for a flyby on the way to Alstus IV. Could be a once in a lifetime show.” He frowned as he tapped on a readout that was glowing red. “Unfortunately, that may be the reason for our engine failure.”
“The nebula?” Jette skimmed over the display.
“The nebula spits out high energy photons. They’re not too bad at this distance but even a few hits in the right spot …” He trailed off and shook his head. “We should know more soon.”
Jette turned toward Edwards. “I wouldn’t think it would be a problem this far away, but we’ll wait for the damage report and go from there. In the meantime, I’d like to speak with the passengers. I’m required to do a health and welfare check on all hands in these situations.”
“Of course.” Edwards stood a bit a straighter as he gestured back toward the lift. “I’ll ride down with you.”
“Lieutenant, stay here and let me know once the damage report comes in.”
“Aye, Captain.” Riesga’s eyes were straight ahead. Her body rigid. Jette realized the young Star Ranger was trying not to make eye contact.
“Assign our people as you see fit. See if we can be of any help in the interim.”
“Yes sir.” Riesga followed Carpenter to the damage control station and they began to quietly discuss the business at hand.
Jette followed Edwards into the lift. “Hopefully, we’ll have you on your way in short order.”
“Music to my ears, Captain.”
The doors opened onto a plush viewing lounge with thick carpets and ornate furniture. Foodstuffs lined the cherry wood tables scattered throughout the room. Two rows of chairs and sofas faced away from the lift and toward a transparent wall looking out into space.
Several of the passengers were standing before the viewing pane, admiring the dazzling nebula. The others were relaxing, talking and eating. All heads turned as the captains stepped out of the lift.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Jones of Earth’s Star Ranger Corps. Her ship answered our call for help.” Edwards’ tone was strong and courteous. He clearly had a lot of experience handling the type of passengers who could afford to travel on this kind of vessel. “She needs to speak with you briefly. Captain Jones?” He stepped aside.
“Thank you, Captain Edwards.” Jette looked over their faces, seeing dozens of questions already forming.
“How long will we be stuck here?” Jette turned to a wide woman with short, dark hair reclining in a cream sofa. She was fidgeting with a necklace that could’ve bought a small moon. The squat man seated beside her nodded approvingly at her question but said nothing himself.
“We should have everything sorted out soon. Meanwhile, I’d like to ask if anyone requires any medical attention.”
There was a moment of silence and then a slim, youthful looking man spoke up. “I’m sober, does that count?” That drew some chuckles from the group.
Another man, broader and covered in scaley blue skin, rolled his eyes in that way only a spouse can. “Forgive him, he uses humor to deal with stress.”
“And alcohol,” the slim man cut in.
“We’re fine,” the blue scaley fellow assured Jette.
“And the rest of you?” Jette looked at each of them in turn. A tall, handsome man with dark hair stepped forward. He wore impeccable, formal evening wear.
“Captain Edwards has taken very good care of us. Though we are all, no doubt, very thankful for your concern, Captain Jones.” His voice was warm with an accent Jette couldn’t place. He extended a white gloved hand. Jette shook it as he stepped closer.
“That’s good to hear, Mister…”
“Professor, actually. Forgive me, I’m a creature of titles and formality.” He winked immodestly. “Professer Emeritus DeÉrzi Lóng.”
Jette shook his hand firmly. “Emeritus? You don’t seem that old Professor Lóng.”
He clapped a gloved hand to his heart, making an affectionate purring sound. “You flatter me, Captain.”
Jette smiled as she released his hand and turned to another passenger. An alien woman with a delicious figure, piercing green eyes and copper ridges across the sides of her head stepped forward and bowed slightly. She tasted the air with a thin tongue and smiled approvingly at what she found. “I am Karmilla. You’ve been in the newsfeeds recently, haven’t you, Captain Jones? That coup de tat in the Te’ Sareez System?” [See Issue #04]
“That’s correct.” Jette forced a change of subject. “Are you enjoying the cruise?”
Karmilla nodded slowly. “Ever much more so now, Captain Jones.”
Jette was about to reply but was cut off by an impatient groan.
“Yes, yes. Thank you. Excuse me, please.” An elderly woman with long gray hair and bright eyes framed by clever wrinkles stepped forward and waved off Karmilla. “Thank you for checking in on us, Captain, but we’re all quite eager to get underway again. How long do you think repairs will take?”
“We must locate the problem first. Captain Edwards has his people on that. Mine are standing by to help once we know what to fix.”
The old woman looked confused. “Captain Edwards said it was damage from a particle strike. The nebula.”
“Once we find the exact point of failure, we’ll know for sure.”
“Well, shouldn’t you be hauling us away from the nebula? Just in case?”
Jette nodded patiently. “Particle strikes are extremely rare.”
“What about your ship? Isn’t it in danger too if there’s another— ow!” The woman gripped her wrist in one hand and massaged it.
“Are you alright, Ma’am?” Jette stopped short of putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Zaleska. And, yes. Thank you, Captain. I’m afraid my joints aren’t as compatible with space travel as they once were.”
Jette smiled. “To answer your question: our ship’s armored hull is shielded against particle strikes. So, the Artemis will be fine.” She stepped back and addressed the group once more. “And so will the Ceres just as soon as we get repairs underway.” She nodded to Captain Edwards to hand the proceedings back over to him but his brow was furrowed as he listened to something on his hand comp. He gave Jette an odd look.
Jette kept her voice low. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Do we have any news?” Zaleska called out.
Edwards traded a tense glance with Jette. “Would you mind staying a few more minutes to keep them calm? Maybe an anecdote or two?”
Jette’s eyes went wide as she shook her head tightly. “I’d rather not.”
“I promise I’ll pull you out as soon as I can,” Edwards implored.
Jette swallowed then nodded.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to step away for a few minutes to meet with our repair team. I’m going to leave you in Captain Jones’ company a bit longer.”
There was a happy noise from the crowd as Edwards smiled and stepped into the lift. Jette took a breath before turning back to the passengers.
“What was that about Te’ Sareez?” The wide woman with dark hair called out. Her eyes were huge. “Do you know the four queens?!”
Jette forced a smiled as the crowd pressed closer, hanging on breathlessly for her reply.
The lift doors opened in the middle of a long, dull gray corridor that fell into shadow between the pools of light from the occasional overhead panels. A pale yellow stencil on the wall opposite the lift announced that this was deck four: “Engineering, Life Support and Power.”
Flock stepped off followed by K’wari and Epsilon.
“Do we know if it’s fore or aft?” Flock looked both directions for some indication of where they were supposed to be going.
Epsilon scanned the forward end of the corridor. The white lines of her matrix glowed softly on the dark walls. K’wari was beside Flock, looking the other direction. Just then a door opened and a young blonde woman stepped out and began fast-walking toward them. Both Flock and K’wari stopped in their tracks as the woman’s gold curls and ample bosom bounced excitedly with each clap of her boots on the deck plates.
“Oh, my,” K’wari said slowly.
“For once,” Flock whispered, “I totally agree with you.”
The woman finally reached them, trying to catch her breath. “I’m crewmate Gillerson. Ruk and I are back in Engineering. If you’d follow me?”
“Gladly,” Flock flashed a wicked eye at K’wari as they all began walking.
“What is the status of the engines at this time?” Epsilon called from behind them.
“Still down. We’ve run a quick check but that turned up nothing.”
The Vicar spoke up, “Perhaps we should begin a detailed diagnostic of the drive systems?”
“Already in progress.” Gillerson led them through a set of double doors into the engineering control room. Beyond a wall of thick wire mesh lay a dim stairwell going up into the service area of the ship’s two great engines.
Gillerson waved a hand at a tall man watching a large display wink on and off with information. “This is Ruk.”
He scratched the dark hair of his beard and shook his head at the readout. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
“You’re a crewmate as well,” K’wari observed.
Ruk nodded without looking away.
“Who is your engineer?” Epsilon asked, glancing between them as her matrix ebbed and flowed.
Gillerson and Ruk traded a strange look. “Chief Compton,” Ruk said flatly.
“Well, shouldn’t Compton be here?” Flock asked.
“Yeah, he definitely should.”
“So, when did you end up fighting those warriors made from diamonds?” The thin, youthful man pulled another glass of wine from the service module in the wall and gulped it.
Jette smiled and shook her head. “Well, Diamond Warriors aren’t actually made of diamonds. The name comes from a ritual scarification practice where they embed precious gems into their skin.”
Several of the passengers had wandered off but most were still listening intently to Jette’s stories. Occasionally interrupting with a question or observation.
Jette’s hand comp chirped on her wrist and she glanced down. It was a message for a Ceres crew member to contact the bridge. She realized that Riesga must’ve had their devices tied into the Ceres network.
“What about … heirs?” The large woman asked. “Do the queens of Te’ Sareez take husbands?”
Jette made an uncomfortable face. “Sometimes. Each planet and, for that matter, each queen decides that for themselves.”
Jette’s hand comp crackled as a voice spoke: “Compton, this is Carpenter, what’s your location?”
“So do the men there do anything?” The blue scaled alien was asking. “Other than look delicious?” He added under his breath.
Jette laughed politely. “There have been a few royal spouses and at least one concubine that did actually sit on the throne and wield power. But it’s very rare. They’re a matriarchal society and —”
“Chief Compton, please go to the nearest terminal and contact the bridge.” It was Carpenter again. This time she was on the ship’s internal speaker system. Her voice echoed as it flooded the hallways. “Repeat. Chief Compton, contact the bridge.”
Jette’s eyebrows creased. She checked the notifications on her hand comp. They’d been trying to get in touch with Compton for over an hour.
“Pardon me, everyone.” Jette stepped toward the lift, thankful for the excuse. “I’m needed on the bridge as well.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Epsilon asked, her matrix jittering slightly.
Flock paused at the stairs leading up into engine bay. “Maybe go back to the Artemis and grab our tools? We’ll need them sooner or later.”
Epsilon headed out quickly.
“Sorry for the trouble,” Gillerson offered. “With a ship as automated as the Ceres, diagnostics take time.”
“I’ll just give the engines a look and see if it’s anything obvious. I’ll be on the hand comp if anything comes up.”
Without making eye contact, they looked each other up and down. Then the Star Ranger cadet took the stairs two at a time.
The bridge doors swished open and Jette felt tension in the air like thick moisture. Riesga, the helm operator and navigator were hunched over a console pouring through data records. K’wari stood next to the first officer, who was reporting to the Ceres’ captain and, from his tone, it was not good news.
“He has to be here somewhere,” Edwards fumed. “The ship just isn’t that big!”
“Who saw him last?” K’wari asked.
“I did.” Carpenter ran a hand through her hair. “He was going off duty and he gave me his shift report.”
“What else?” Edwards pressed. “Anything else?”
“He seemed … tired.” Carpenter paced as she tried to coax forth more details from her memory.
“In what way?”
“Trouble?” Jette was at Edward’s side. He shook his head, uncertainly.
“My chief engineer is missing.”
“He just didn’t seem to really be listening. Like he was checked out of the conversation.” Carpenter shrugged. “I thought he was just eager to turn in and sleep.”
“When was this?” Edwards was tapping at his hand comp.
“Nineteen forty hours last night, Sir.”
Jette looked between Edwards and his first mate. “And no one has seen him since?”
Edwards’ beard twitched as he flexed his jaw. He looked at Carpenter. “I want Compton found.”
K’wari locked eyes with Jette. Her captain was standing off to one side, scratching her chin. The Vicar stepped close and kept her voice down. “They found his hand comp in his quarters but no sign of him.”
Jette nodded. “What’s going on down below?”
“The Ceres crew is waiting for a diagnostic report. Flock elected to go ahead and give the engines a look herself. Riesga is helping them scan surveillance data but it feels like we’re burning a lot of fuel and going nowhere.”
“Maybe Flock is right to be proactive,” Jette said.
“Anything to report, Captain Jones?” Edwards was looking at them with obvious desperation.
“Yes.” She gave Edwards a nod leading him to the lift. “If I may, Captain. This is your vessel. But I think it would be advisable if I were to have my people assist in the search for Chief Compton.”
Carpenter stood next to her captain. He gave her a reassuring smile.
“Of course, Captain. Take Carpenter with you. She knows the ship and can get you into any secure areas.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
Carpenter marched to the lift, motioning K’wari and Jette in ahead of her.
As the doors closed, Jette turned to Carpenter. “I was thinking we’d start at the top and work down. Deck by deck search. Any suggestions?”
Carpenter raised an eyebrow. “That will be fine. But …”
“Speak freely, Commander,” Jette instructed.
”Sir, we both have crew members in the lower levels, standing by for repair work. We could have them start searching there and work their way up. Meet us in the middle.”
“Good idea. I’ll have Epsilon get things organized.” Jette tapped out a message on her hand comp.
“And thank you, Captain.” Carpenter kept her eyes forward.
“Captain Edwards is a good man. I appreciate that you didn’t take command of his ship, as is your prerogative.”
Jette waited for Carpenter to look her in the eye. “We’re all in this together, Commander. It’s good to know you have his back.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Carpenter smiled genuinely. “It’s an honor to work with you.”
Flock slammed the hatch closed and crawled out from under the stasis unit she had checked for circuit burnouts. The penlight between her teeth helped her feel her way back out of the J-tube. She dropped the reader into the bag of tools Epsilon had brought her. So far, she couldn’t find anything that may account for the Ceres’ power failures.
A couple of blinking yellow lights were all she could see in the darkness beyond the small beam from her penlight. She sighed heavily from the strain of trying to manage her 5-foot-10 frame through the tight accessways. Another wiggle freed her and she sat back on her knees. She was weary.
She hadn’t been sleeping well and a week of R&R on Plutonia – despite her annual night of passion with HZ124 – hadn’t remedied that.
She had made a mental checklist of what to inspect in the Ceres’ engines, but it wasn’t the Artemis. She was the de facto mechanic on the Star Ranger ship with her knowledge of mechanics and electronics, but she had never worked on a vessel like this. Primitive by space-travel standards, this was a cruise ship – not needing military armaments nor the ability to hit Speed Factors above 2.
Flock yawned. Oh what she would do with eight hours of peaceful sleep. She dared not daydream – even those turned to nightmares. She could still see Hunni in her recurring dream, kneeling at Zeta’s feet, just as she was now, her naked body wet and writhing as she beckoned Flock to follow toward the darkness that surrounded her. There was a hiss of snakes. Zeta’s evil smile pulling Flock forward until she was engulfed in it …
The sound snapped Flock back to awareness. Then another sound … like a marble rolling across a hard floor. There were shafts of light here and there between the equipment and platforms in the engine room. The angular shadows’ blackness turned blacker. She stood and leaned her head around a corner.
“Hello? Who is it? Epsilon?”
She used her hand to guide her around the sharp corner, leading into an auxiliary room with banks of monitors. Their dimly lit readouts and motorized hums.
“Don’t be afraid, child.”
“Who is it?”
In the blink of her eye stood a figure shrouded in a long, black cloak across the room. Flock couldn’t tell if the deep voice was male or female at first, but the intruder’s body was unmistakably feminine – the curves taking form as the figure stepped closer. The cloak fluttering behind her like a black rose in its bloom.
Flock strained her eyes to see the face. Hidden within the shadow of the hood, all Flock could see were two gleaming red dots. Eyes.
“I have come for you, Flock.”
“Is something the matter? Did Captain Jones send you?”
There was a long quiet.
“No. I have come for you, child.”
Flock put her hands on her hips. “I’m not a child. You shouldn’t be in here. Passengers aren’t allowed below decks.”
Silence again, and Flock was getting more pissed off the more freaked out she was. Then …
“I am not a passenger,” she said. It was definitely a she. “I am a traveler. And you are the one I have chosen.”
There was something ominous about this strange woman and it put Flock on her guard. She didn’t need power armor to kick ass. But at this moment … her heart pounded even as she felt oddly drawn to the shrouded figure. She fought her budding fear.
“Alright.” Flock moved sideways, trying to steer the woman into some light, yet it was if light extinguished itself around the dark figure. “What can I do for you? I’m pretty busy here.”
The woman raised her hand, and Flock felt a breeze in her face forceful enough to catch her breath. She felt choked. Barely able to gasp. The chilled gust passed through her, into her. Cold like decay, it spread across her body and down her legs. Flock felt her insides being pushed and pulled to make room for the freezing draught.
A presence. Flock was frozen.
Those two red eyes were at her nose.
“There, child. Let me join you.” Flock sucked in a breath. She couldn’t move, could barely breathe. She didn’t know what to think. “Accept.”
Flock felt something alien enter her mind. The barren coldness she felt at first was gone. Replaced by a euphoric warmth that touched at Flock’s tactile vulnerabilities. It made her painfully aroused. Her nipples stiffened into throbbing nubs and tented the fabric of her tunic.
She grimaced. This wasn’t right. She couldn’t let this happen. Not again. Flock’s eyebrows slowly creased as she tried to find something to grab onto and push back. Push this alien presence out of her mind. Her body shook as she focused all her—
The voice chuckled. “Look here, child.”
Flock groaned as she fell into the red eyes. Oceans of time danced within them. She felt the eyes slip into the folds of her brain. Like familiar fingers pressing past her thighs and stroking the quivering pink flesh there. Her mouth dropped open in a quiet, blissful moan.
“Yes,” her mind’s voice whispered, “an interesting mind. So damaged. Vulnerable. That brave face is a façade. Isn’t it, Jo?”
Only her parents called her Jo.
“Yes,” the voice continued. “Your captain will be a problem. Nothing I can’t handle. Such deep feelings for your shipmates.
“Captain Jones … your parents … your shipmates. I suspect you’d fuck them all if given the chance, wouldn’t you, my sweet young thing?”
Flock shuddered. She felt so gooooooood. She barely heard the words. Her mind was between her legs.
The woman made a purring sound. Her head leaned back slightly, enough to see deep red lips and white grinning teeth. “A Caretaker? Yessss … she would be of use to me.”
Flock cursed in her mind as she felt herself dripping down the insides of her thighs. She almost felt thankful she couldn’t speak or move. She couldn’t shame herself by begging for permission to touch her sopping pussy. She shuddered just as the smile vanished.
“Those fang marks.” Flock felt her arm lifted. There was a long, slow, wet lick across her left wrist. Then a low growl. “From a snake. A very special snake. It looks to be the kiss of a queen snake from the planet Serpentarius. In Te’ Sareez. Very rare. Very special.
“Your blood has been poisoned, my pretty one. But we’ll make due. I can be patient as well as merciful. After all, it’s your mind I need to use for now. I would take you completely and be done with you. Your soul has already been stolen by another.”
Even as erotically dazed as Flock was, she understood. “If you are of service to me, I will keep you alive. Now it is time to forget.”
She heard a laugh as a mind-numbing orgasm ripped through her body. The woman pressed her thumb to Flock’s forehead. “Your Queen Zeta may not find what she’s looking for when I’m done with you, my pretty one.”
Jette twisted the handle and pulled the cover from the access panel mounted in the ceiling. Carpenter’s torch lit up the the crawl space inside. It was empty. “Couldn’t be that easy, I guess.” Jette pushed the cover back into place and latched it once again.
“That’s the last panel on the crew deck,” Carpenter pointed to the floor. “Shall we head down?”
Jette shook her head. “We’re missing something here. The main deck is the living area for the passengers. He’d have been spotted there.”
“The next level down is Engineering and then the cargo hold,” said Carpenter. “And our people are already crawling over those areas.”
K’wari was staring out a view pane at the stars beyond. “Do you have escape pods?”
Carpenter nodded. “Six. All accounted for.”
Jette’s eyes were narrow and focused. “He’s here somewhere. Maybe we’ve just —” She was cut off by a shrill noise from her hand comp. She raised her wrist. “Yes, Riesga?”
“We’ve got something, Captain. Any passengers in your vicinity?”
Jette looked at Carpenter with a cocked eyebrow. “No, Lieutenant, we’re on the crew deck. It’s just us.”
“Good.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sending it to all of you now.”
The other two women raised their wrists and watched the feed. A fixed camera recorded a man shuffling down a ladder. His movements were odd. Not drunk but … something. He turned at the bottom of the ladder and the camera caught his face.
“That’s Compton,” Carpenter said quietly. “Something’s wrong. He seems out of it.”
“This is the engineering level?” K’wari asked.
Carpenter’s eyes were fixed on the screen as Chief Compton lumbered toward a door and unlocked it.
“Still knows his entry code.” Jette’s voice was tense.
The feed switched to a new camera inside the room Compton had just entered. He went to a wall panel and opened it revealing an old-fashioned keypad. He tapped away and a moment later an alarm began droning in the room. He tapped again and it cut off.
“He’s just disengaged safety protocols,” Carpenter said with disbelief.
“Why would he need to?” There was a sharp thunk over the feed. “What was that?” Jette tapped to replay the moment.
“He just closed the coolant valve!” Carpenter exclaimed.
“Why didn’t diagnostics find this problem?”
“Because the coolant levels were correct. But with that valve closed it wasn’t being circulated. Eventually the automation system caught on and took the engines offline. After they nearly melted.”
Jette unclasped the catch on her rayvolver holster and looked at Carpenter. “Commander, you have a saboteur aboard.”
Carpenter was shaking her head. “He isn’t … this doesn’t seem possible.”
K’wari studied the woman. “We should search his quarters. There may be answers there.”
Carpenter looked at her, seeming insulted by the suggestion before catching herself. “It’s this way.” She pointed toward the far end of the corridor.
“We’ll catch up.” Jette motioned for her to go ahead of them.
The Star Ranger tapped her hand comp and opened a private channel. “Attention, Artemis crew. The situation has changed. Riesga, I want you back at the ship. Search her thoroughly. Then stand guard at the umbilical and don’t let any unauthorized personnel onboard without my approval.”
Before Riesga could answer another voice cut in. “Captain?”
“I could use Riesga’s help down here. Now that I know its damage from overheating, I also know where to start on the repairs. Could Epsilon stand watch at the ship instead?”
“Riesga, report to engineering and Epsilon you heard the order.”
“Aye, Sir,” Epsilon and Riesga replied in unison.
The door swished open and Jette led the way into the small room. The white furnishings of Compton’s quarters were simple but as elegant as the rest of the Ceres. K’wari went to a door and tapped the access button. It opened revealing an empty shower and toilet.
Jette examined a desk and the book modules there. “How long has Chief Compton been on board?”
“Nearly 10 years.” Carpenter stood in the doorway, arms folded. “He was with Captain Edwards on his last ship too.”
K’wari searched the room. “Hardly seems a likely person to turn saboteur.”
“I’m glad to hear someone else say that. I feel a little less crazy now.” Carpenter hugged herself. “It’s also strange because he was always going on about —“ She stopped short as K’wari pulled back the room’s sofa. There were piles of clothes folded neatly against the wall.
K’wari looked up at her. “Where are personal affects usually stored?”
Carpenter’s eyes went to a wide panel set into the wall near where Jette was standing. The three women slowly gathered around the inset drawer. Carpenter’s hand trembled as she reached out and touched the button.
The drawer slid open and Carpenter’s hand clutched at her mouth. K’wari bowed her head and whispered something. Jette’s jaw flexed. She raised her hand comp and tapped it. A moment later Captain Edwards responded. “Yes? Captain Jones?”
“Captain.” Jette’s voice was steady. “We’ve found Chief Compton.”
Every creak and automated beep drew Epsilon’s attention as she stood guard just outside the Artemis’ main hatch. The living computer wasn’t exactly nervous, but her processors were active and the white lines of her matrix fanned across her body irregularly.
The sudden shock of Compton’s death – Epsilon had seen it over her hand comp – had unsettled the quiet calm of the vessel and Epsilon was immediately attuned to it. She wished Flock was at her side, in her power armor. Epsilon never carried a weapon.
There was another long creak, and Epsilon moved forward two paces. The dull glow of the nebula played tricks with the shadows which appeared more pronounced now that she was concentrating on them.
“Is someone there? Flock?”
From the other end of the long access walkway, a shadow moved. A figure appeared then disappeared in a blink. Epsilon thought she saw blonde hair.
“Flock? Is that you?” Her voice echoed as if smothered by the darkness. Yet she also noticed that her voice was higher, more strained. “Are you here to relieve me?”
There was movement again. Then a hooded figure appeared wearing a long, dark cloak at the far end of the entranceway.
“No,” the voice said. It was female. “But I am here for you, Epsilon.”
“What may I do for –” Epsilon cut off as the figure seemed to float toward her. “Stay in the light! You are not from the Ceres!”
She heard a lilting laugh, then a chilling breeze blew back the hair around Epsilon’s face. Cold, forbidding.
“Your friend Flock has joined me, Caretaker. How fortunate I am that one of your kind should cross my path again. You are just what I need.”
Epsilon tried to move her feet but they felt locked in place. Her computer-precise mind began to lose focus, as if the breeze had scattered her thoughts like fallen leaves.
“You … are an intruder. You mean to do harm.” She forced out the words.
Red lips grew larger as they approached, twisted into a dark smile.
“I have no intention of harming you, Caretaker.”
“Stop … calling me that. I am Epsilon.”
“Harming you is the one thing I shall not do,” the specter said. “I will keep you with me always. You will give me life and youth. And power. The blood in your veins … unique and fulfilling.”
A hand waved before her eyes and Epsilon shut them tightly. Her body began to quake, then went limp. She was being held upright by an unseen force.
Epsilon opened her eyes slowly as if from a deep sleep. The lights everywhere had gone out, except for the red running lights at her feet. In the soft, red glow Epsilon saw something that was impossible.
The image could not be real. Standing before her was Tanya Kovelenska. Dead 147 years!
“Yes, my love. We are Tanya. And we are here for you.”
She appeared just as Epsilon’s distant memory could recall – youthful, beautiful, adoring. “You will join us, won’t you, love?” Her voice was breathy, carnal. “It’s been so long. How I have waited to hold you again.”
Tanya’s arms reached out. Images of Epsilon’s past – the endless years since that fateful disaster aboard the USE Victory. The desperate struggle to stay alive. Asteroid strike! Commander Ilea Bowman had done everything she could. She sacrificed herself in vain to save her shipmates, but the hull breach had suffocated them all in minutes. Tanya, the love of her life, was the last.
Bowman miraculously survived. Long enough for the dead ship to drift past a peculiar asteroid. That’s when They found her. Bowman was saved … but forever changed.
And now Tanya was alive!
Fingers wormed their way between Ilea’s legs. Where … are my pants? Slipping in deeply, coaxing a moan. Her nipples stiffened as if plucked.
“There, there, my love. Enjoy the sensations. We are here with you. There is nothing to be done. Join us. I can be with you now and for 10,000 tomorrows. We can always be together. As we were meant to be.”
This isn’t real!
Epsilon’s mind screamed but she could not speak. The pleasurable shock, the soft caress to her clit, set her adrift in unwelcomed and unexpected arousal.
“Give yourself to us, my love. You know it is inevitable. You know of our power now. Feel it. Taste it on your lips.
“No one on this ship is going to survive. Just like the Victory. All humans perish in fate’s good time. There was nothing you could do then. There is nothing you can do now.
Those pouting, red lips were on her, and Epsilon embraced them fully, taking Tanya’s tongue deeply into her mouth. She spasmed from the unwanted orgasm she nonetheless desperately embraced.
Her knees parted, and the hand forced its way fully inside her, fingers spreading across her uterus, touching private places never before touched.
Tanya broke the kiss and smiled, her white teeth gleaming amid the reddish shadows that danced across her face. Slowly, her incisors began to grow – long and sharp. Epsilon felt her head tilt, another inevitability. She was lost. Defeated. And in the far recesses of her mind, she found logic in it. Fight … or surrender to Tanya’s desires.
She shut her eyes again as the fangs sank deeply into her neck.
Captain Edwards’ beard trembled. His eyes were wet with tears. “And he was just stuffed in there?”
“Folded is how I would describe it,” Jette said solemnly.
K’wari stood at a large screen as the articulated sensor arm of the medical bay finished its sweep of Compton’s nude, pale body. Data began appearing on the screen and she raised a finger to parse it. She looked at the figure lying on the scan table and then flashed a strange look at Jette.
“What is it?” The Star Ranger stepped over to the screen and glanced over the report.
K’wari took a moment to find her voice. “Chief Compton’s legs were broken at the hips and knees, postmortem. I believe this was to facilitate hiding his body in the drawer where he was found.”
Edwards’ hands were clenched fists at his side. “Do you know how he died?”
“Blood loss,” said K’wari. “He was exsanguinated. Completely.”
They all looked at the alabaster corpse on the table. No one commented on the obvious. Even in death, Compton’s cock was impressive and rigid enough that it rested just below his belly button.
Carpenter was shaking her head. “We found no blood in the drawer where he was hidden. And I don’t see any wounds now. Where did it go?”
Jette ran a hand through her long brown hair. “I know of some species of ants that can do this. Pull blood right through the pores but … it takes thousands of them. And they’re very rare.”
Edwards cast the idea aside with a wave of his hand. “We’d know if we had thousands of ants crawling around here.”
“Excuse me, Captain,” K’wari interrupted. “Chief Compton is wounded, after all.”
K’wari slipped on a pair of examination gloves. She took hold of Compton’s penis and pulled it away from his stomach. There, at the base of his cock, were two puncture wounds.
“What did that?” Carpenter stepped forward and bent low to examine them.
“Something very sharp,” K’wari muttered. She reached up and flicked several switches over her head. The lighting over the scan bed changed to a deep purple color and bright splotches of something were suddenly visible all over the dead Chief’s stomach and thighs.
All heads turned as Professor Lóng strode into the medical bay.
“Excuse me, but we’d all like to know what’s going on. There are rumors that a crewman is miss—ing …”
Lóng stopped cold, his eyes wide on the rigid prick pointed toward the heavens.
“Please, Professor,” Jette said, stepping forward. “Wait in the lounge with the others.”
Side-stepping Jette, Lóng approached Compton’s body. “I have a medical doctorate, Captain. Perhaps I can be of some service?”
After a beat, “Very well,” Jette said grudgingly. She returned to the scanning bed. She breathed out as she studied the stains. There were two different colors. One a pale cyan and the other a warm gray. “What are we looking at?”
K’wari glanced at the nearby screen for the chemical analysis. “Blood and semen. Lots of both.”
They all looked over the body, seeing the story written in the colored blobs smearing the dead white skin. The cyan color was most vivid around the puncture wounds near Compton’s penis.
“The blood loss occurred here,” K’wari confirmed. “Every drop in his body drawn out through these wounds. And while that was occurring Chief Compton … orgasmed. Vigorously.”
“Definitely not ants then.” Carpenter sniffed away her tears.
Lóng broke the awkward silence. “Come on, people. We’re all thinking the same thing. No one wants to say it.”
“It’s just a story,” Edwards whispered.
K’wari nodded to the body. “Chief Compton is dead.”
Jette was shaking her head slowly, her eyes fixed on the colorless face. “I’m not so sure.” The others turned to her. “About it just being a story. I’ve seen things that I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen them.”
Edwards gestured with an outstretched hand. “Captain, I know what deep space is like. I’ve been where you are and heard the legends.”
“One of my crew is a unique lifeform,” Jette countered. “Undocumented in thousands of species registers. That shouldn’t be possible. But it is.”
Edwards lowered his hand. “You really think that …”
Jette took a deep breath. “Yes, Captain. There’s a vampire on board the Ceres.”
To be continued next month in Part 2 of “The Draining Terror”! …