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Star System XC-137

Premiered June 24, 2003

Chapter One
 

As the carefully timed effects of the drug shed their hold on his psyche, Woodward felt the first hint of numbness throughout his body.  This was followed by a light tingling effect in his arms and legs. His vision then began to sense a low level, flickering light -- which slowly dissolved into a diffuse, bright fog.  Then almost abruptly, as if being doused with a bucket of cold water, he was back!  For Chuck Woodward it was his seventeenth hyperspace jump.

His immediate thought was that he had just made his seventeenth return. It had always seemed particularly important to Woodward that he log as many returns from hyperspace, as entries. No one had ever been lost in hyperspace – officially, at any rate -- but it seemed to be a good rule to follow.

Within an instant of his relief at a safe return, his discipline and training began to assert themselves.  Without the slightest movement from his couch, he did a rapid sweep of the starship’s engineering control and status board.  His eyes darted across the matrix of indicators, status lights, numerical and graphical readings.  Silently he said to himself, “Green board”.  With these words, he relaxed slightly, knowing every essential factor of the ship’s operation was unimpaired.  With that moment of relief, he briefly tried to recall from where the phrase, “green board”, had originated. He suspected no one really knew for sure, and therefore quite logically, he dismissed the idea.

With one more rapid, but careful, sweep across his board, he double checked his green board.  Satisfied, he looked up, apparently only now aware of the seven other people in the starship’s control pod. Everyone was still sedated, with the single exception of Thomas.  She was already requesting and analyzing data from her astronavigation command console.  Briefly she looked up and gave him a broad smile; then returned to her work.

Woody realized Thomas would be intently searching for planets in the local star system. It was, after all, the primary goal of their mission: to seek out and establish relations with other intelligent species. More specifically and succinctly the ultimate purpose of New Space Exploratory Mission-Six (NSEM-6) was to find trading partners for earth’s transnational corporate interests. Failure to do so would be more than an ugly word; it would signify the end of several promising careers.

Woody recalled the intensity of one of his last briefings before leaving earth. Lieutenant Commander Hastings had been all too clear in his description of the realities of what kept the Space Exploration Command in business. Woody could still remember his words: “Commander Woodward, I am well aware of your reputation within the Space Exploration Command. I personally view it as that of a legendary hero. I have the greatest respect for you and your accomplishments. However, due to your extensive off-world experience, it may be that you are fully conversant with the realities of earth’s political structure, particularly at this time. Therefore, allow me to capsule the political situation as it presently exists.”

When Woody had made no objection, Hastings had continued. “Interstellar space exploration is, to put it mildly, extraordinarily expensive. An Interstellar Star Ship represents a vastly greater investment than most major transnational corporations consider even in their wildest dreams. The Intrepid, being the newest and with its special designation of ISC (Exploratory), constitutes an extremely steep investment in time, dollars, and manpower. Essentially, the world government is the only organization in existence, which is capable of supporting even a minor interstellar space exploration program.

“But make no mistake; it is the commercial interests and the possibility of large scale trade-markets, with their potential for very large scale trading-profits that keeps the money flowing from the world government and into the coffers of Space Exploration Command. Quite simply, it is the transnational conglomerates that keep the pressure on the highest levels of government and thereby maintain the momentum of the program. Without their support and interest, the SEC budget would be halved overnight, and subsequently left to slowly trail away.”

Woody suppressed an urge to frown. He’d heard the “basic funding lecture” numerous times before.

“Note particularly that it is not the thrill of discovery or some sort of unbiased scientific interest that keeps the transnational corporations greasing the money skids. Rather, it is the only commodities they’ve ever understood: Wealth and power. The TNCs have now reached a saturation of the earth’s potential market. With the existing laws on population control, there is simply no room for market expansion. That leaves the gigantic corporations with just three choices. If they are to continue to grow and gain more control over the economic and political structure of the earth, and this they feel destined to do -- you can be absolutely sure of that fact -- then they must either do away with limits on population growth, compete aggressively with each other, or find extraterrestrial markets.”

“There is very little interest by the TNCs in returning to an exponentially increasing population growth, if only because the available resources won’t really support it. And what's worse, an increasing population growth can be shown to guarantee a lowered standard of living. The end result is the overall market value -- i.e. the buying power of the earth's consumers -- actually shows a decrease with increased population. Spreading the limited resources around does not increase the market, and in fact does quite the opposite and restricts the market. Therefore this can not be considered as a realistic alternative.”

Woody smiled slightly despite himself. Anyone with an ounce of brains could see that increasing population growth inevitably contributed to virtually every human problem on earth. Obviously the earth could not return to uncontrolled population runaway growth!

“The thought of active and aggressive competition between the big seven TNCs, on the other hand, our second choice, is even less desirable. All too well do the powers that be remember the security and industrial espionage organizations developed by the super corps a decade ago. That specter would be enough to discourage anyone. For not only were there no limitations on who might get assassinated, but the cost of just maintaining a defensive organization sufficient to protect executives -- up to and including board chairmen - became untenable.”

“That leaves only the prospect of extraterrestrial trade markets as a viable choice. It is on precisely this basis the transnationals act as the real force behind the space exploration program. By the same token any failure of the SEC to produce these markets for their backers is bad news for the SEC command wing. For our purposes, to bring it right home to our own situation, the success of Intrepid's mission is vital to the future of space exploration, and consequently to the careers and lives of numerous officers like yourself.

“You are undoubtedly familiar with the famous ‘Rynangi Blunders’?”

Woody had been more than familiar, but limited his reply to, “I was on the Eagle during the first NSEM, yes.”

“You saw the reality of what happened, certainly; but I doubt you saw all of the implications.  Try to imagine the enthusiasm and excitement of the transnationals (not to mention Space Exploration Command), when the very first New Space Exploratory Mission comes up with contact with an advanced, independent and autonomous race. Command was ecstatic; all their fondest dreams had been realized. The corporations were already counting their profits. Even the reports of the ‘incident’ did not completely daunt their enthusiasm. After all, everyone assumed it would eventually be smoothed over. The fact they had hit pay dirt on the first time out, only meant they were already well ahead of schedule, and that they could afford some delays.”

“But the Rynangi, apparently, don’t forget. All the evidence points to the fact the Rynangi believe the incident fully and accurately shows our true colors. Consequently they won’t have anything more to do with us. All of the last six missions to Rynangi space have been courteously received, but there has not been one ounce of improvement in the possibility of opening trade negotiations. The Rynangi simply have no desire to do business with inferiors, and inferiors are exactly how they have tagged us.”

“The problem now is that the commercial interests and the conglomerates are beginning to find it hard to believe that the Rynangi are really so adverse to trade; that perhaps the real problem is the numerous and possibly continuing diplomatic blunders by the Space Navy.  Witness the fact the last three missions to Rynangi space have included a host of non-essential diplomatic and business types.

“The big boys have spent over eight years trying to interest the Rynangi in trading anything! They were just about fed up, when NSEM-4 made first contact with the Molikian civilizations.  Command was sure their butt had been saved by the Seventh Calvary.”

Woody’s smile slipped slightly, as he tried to recall what the hell the Seventh Calvary was. But Hastings was continuing.

“Unfortunately the intransigence of the Molikians has proven them to be either very shrewd and tough negotiators, or a people who simply don’t give a damn.  In either case it’s a position of enormous strength at the bargaining table.  The trade negotiations to date, consequently, are not at all to the liking of the commercial interests of earth.”

Finally Woody’s patience ended. “Sir, I’m not totally unfamiliar with these facts.”

“Certainly, and you undoubtedly realize that the existence of a third world -- an independent and autonomous race potentially subject to serious manipulation -- would greatly strengthen earth’s bargaining position with the Molikians.  The Rynangi incident could be tolerated as part of doing business, IF the end result of the Space Exploration Program is a third race with which Earth can become a trading partner. That, in essence, is the whole reason for NSEM-6.”

“I fully understand why NSEM-6 was authorized.”

“Undoubtedly. And I’m sure you know why the concept of Intrepid was
conceived as well.  Designing a highly automated and expensive Interstellar Star Cruiser around only eight crew members greatly reduces the possibility of incidents by dumb sailors. The choice of you as the Intrepid’s Chief Engineering Officer was predicated on the fact you were present at the Rynangi Incident. You, of course, were not directly involved; but part of the justification for choosing you was that you might appreciate the problem more.”

Woody did appreciate the problem, even more now. For NSEM-6 already had three star systems behind them, and not so much as a single earth-type planet to their credit; much less a potential trading partner for earth. They were going to have to get lucky soon, or face some potentially very unpleasant consequences. Woody wondered for just a second if Captain Michaels, instead of returning to earth with a failed mission, would just keep going from star system to star system, always searching until their energy drive failed and they had to colonize anything at hand. Woody abruptly smiled as he realized how silly the idea was.

Then quickly shaking his head to clear the memories out of his mind, Woody returned his attention to his engineering console. With a precise, almost automatic gesture he requested more details on the medical status of everyone aboard.  Both Thomas and he showed normal readings, although Thomas’ readings indicated a slight excitement.  She was like that, Woody knew; this for her was still the great adventure.

The other six officers of the Intrepid showed normal, drugged state conditions. Then the numbers flickered on one, someone else was waking up. Woodward looked up as Captain Michaels began clearing the cobwebs from his mind.  Then suddenly he was awake.  He glanced at Thomas, who was now too busy to notice any of the others; and then turned to Woody. Chuck smiled at his Commanding Officer, and then returned to studying his engineering console.

Woody’s expression grew more intense, as his deep green eyes flickered over the readings and outputs of the Intrepid’s engineering data.  His light, slender fingers draped themselves almost gracefully on the display of buttons and status lights.  His soft, gentle face with its unruly brown hair seemed out of place on an engineer with such a fierce concentration. His body maintained a continual air of tension, as if ready to pounce. And yet it was totally non-threatening; as if he were just a big, overgrown sheep dog with a heart of gold.

Woody’s muscles and physique were in a fine tuned condition, without a hint of exceptional strength or endurance.  His greatest physical assets seemed subtly hidden or toned down, as if any other condition might suggest crude display.  A stranger, if asked, would be able to determine by inspection that all of Woody’s six feet (and a half inch) was in great physical shape; but more likely would not notice it at all and simply be attracted to the man unwittingly.

Michaels smiled as he watched Woodward.  He was glad Woody had been one of the first to revive. A sense of pride slipped quickly into the commanding officer’s feelings, like a proud parent watching a son continue to do his job well.  In many respects Michaels felt as if he really were Woodward’s father -- or at the very least his mentor.  Certainly the two had as close a relationship as Michaels had ever allowed himself as an adult to enjoy with any other human being.  It was a relationship that had started when Woody saved Michaels’ life during the Rynangi First Contact Mission. Woody had been so direct and automatic in responding to save another person’s life, so self effacing in acknowledging the fact later, and so undemanding of Michaels’ gratitude, that the Commander had seen an exception to his generalized view of people he had never expected to see.  Michaels had never conceived of another person who was as willing to give of himself as was Chuck Woodward.

Initially Michaels had sensed an uneasy feeling of obligation to the man who had saved his life.  It had been Woody’s generosity in negating all conceivable debts that had been the initial cause of Michaels’ genuine friendship with the younger man.  That friendship had then blossomed into an even deeper understanding when Woody’s disastrous marriage had finally crumbled of its own weight seven years later. For Michaels there was no question, but that he would do everything in his powers to help Woody. And it had been only too clear that Woody needed someone on whom to rely.  Michaels thanked the heavens he had been at ISS Command School and thus available to help Woody. In those days their friendship had grown as close together as is possible with two independent individuals.

His retrospection was then interrupted as Michaels noted just to his right, the first signs of life from Dr. Ryerson.  Shari Ryerson was actually a few months older than Michaels, but carried her years with an uncommon grace. She had, of course, spent a not inconsiderable number of years at a distinguished medical career.  Thus the slow advancement and limitations in the medical ranks of the Space Exploration Command -- combined with her longer years of schooling and training -- had limited her current rank to Lieutenant Commander.

But it was perhaps more than that.  Shari had apparently made a point of not seeking advancement, preferring careful and unassuming research in her own corner of the world. Higher rank to her carried the additional responsibilities of administrative and quasi-political duties, something she would never seek. Shari considered herself an exceptionally competent and able medical practitioner and researcher, but only slightly above average as an administrator or senior medical officer with a staff of MDs reporting to her. While she worked quite well with her peers (in and out of her medical field), she avoided roles of leadership. She felt a strong desire to look after friends and herself, and consequently avoided the duty of concern for one’s subordinates.

In this respect Shari Dianne Ryerson was ideal for the Intrepid.  Here she was among seven other experts in diverse fields (with only the psychologist’s medical training qualifying him as the back-up medical officer), and thus was on equal footing with all.  It was one of Shari’s pet ideas that all organizations should be partnerships, with no subordinates, i.e. all members of the group would have equal status, equal privilege, and equal responsibility.  And while she readily admitted such a concept applied across the board would be totally impractical, she nevertheless preferred that type arrangement for her own work.  One could wonder at her choice of a career in the naval service, where the concept of a peer and partnership group was totally supplanted with strict leader and subordinate relationships. One would in fact wonder were it not for her enthusiasm and excitement at the prospect of exploring the stars and the medical science necessary to move among the heavens.

Michaels smiled slightly as he realized his respect for Shari Ryerson.  He had even toyed with the idea of giving to her a field promotion to Commander (an almost blatant act of “unwarranted assumption of authority”).  But after talking and listening to her over the last five months, he suspected she would prefer not to accept the promotion.  Her worst fear was to become overqualified for what she liked best: roaming the stars. And in the last weeks Michaels had begun to suspect another reason for Shari’s distaste at being made a full Commander.

It had become evident that Max Sorrenson and Shari were starting to develop a serious romantic relationship. With Shari’s old fashioned concept of a woman maintaining a slightly lower profile than her man, her promotion to equal rank with Sorrenson might have made her uneasy.  It had already taken her considerable effort to ignore the fact she was not an insignificant number of years older than Max.  She had even gone to the trouble to practically eliminate the concept of age from her crewmates’ consciousness.  It was to her credit that everyone else was willing to ignore the existence of age if only to allow Shari to feel like a young girl with a grizzled old Sorrenson.

Shari did have the features of a young girl, thus making the pretense a bit more credible. She wore her autumn brown hair rather long, and in lovely, twisting curls.  Her hazel eyes kept their sparkle among a still smooth and unwrinkled face. Her soft and gentle complexion, of which she was actually quite proud, had been helped considerably by her career, where her tours at Clavius Moon Base and in space had helped to maintain her youthful composure and protect her from the ravages of earthly weather. She occasionally claimed credit for her careful management of her career which so agreed with her health and vitality. And for a mischievous touch, she also claimed credit for her five foot eight inch stature, which allowed her the vantage point of looking up (be it ever so slightly) to her man.  In Michaels’ mind it was clear Shari Ryerson was above all else, a very original and charming woman -- if not a trifle old fashioned.  Not his type for romantic involvement (for she was clearly a one man woman), but she was a great crew member and friend on a long trip through space.

Michaels turned away from Ryerson when it was clear she was wide awake and functioning.  Then he noticed Stevens was already awake and starting to put her space survey equipment into action.  Michaels watched as the Intrepid’s most junior officer let her eyes dart momentarily toward Thomas who might be getting the jump on her. The Captain knew Katherine Stevens practically idolized Thomas for her competence, composure and worldliness, but also that Kat would dearly like to outdo Thomas in a professionally competitive way.

No one, including Katherine, ever doubted this young charmer’s ability to compete with any woman on a strictly feminine female basis.  But professionally she yearned for the same respect Thomas commanded.  With that pinnacle of authority and respect, Stevens could feel she was on an equal basis with any human being in the universe.

Not that she was ever looked down upon. She was clearly the youngest and least experienced officer aboard the Intrepid, but there was no doubt she was held in high esteem.  At the same time she was, perhaps, a bit too generous.  Perceived value lies so often in a lack of attainability, and Katherine Stevens was anything but unattainable. She was in fact quite content to meet any and all of the male crew member's physical and psychological needs (if not her own) at any time.  It was not as if she were sexually loose in her affections, but she saw no point in raising even the possibility of entanglements on a long space voyage.  Besides it was clear she enjoyed men, sex, and a bit of variety in both -- and thus could never consider a higher than normal sexual appetite as bad.  Stevens simply had a very generous and loving nature, and sex was one way she demonstrated it.

Early in the formation and training of the crew, Thomas had watched Stevens with some amusement (if not bewilderment).  Marie had at one point made a joke to the effect that Stevens enjoyed collecting specimens -- which according to the joke meant, “specific men, but not too specific.”  The significance of the event was that none of the men even so much as grinned at the intended humor.  They saw Katherine for her loving nature, would not think to frown upon her activities, and clearly rebuked Thomas’ joke.  Marie had been stunned at the reception of her very rare foray into attempted humor, but in the process had developed an unusually high respect for her fellow (but junior) female officer.

Thomas had just been exposed in depth to what had long been common knowledge: Katherine More Stevens was a very attractive and beautiful woman.  She had all the features of a cover girl model: shining, light brunette hair, covering a delicately shaped but very healthy face, and touched off by bright and sparkling blue-green eyes.  Her proportions were optimal; a point made clear by her very graceful and studied carriage. She was perhaps as beautiful as is possible without realizing the slightest hint of putting one ill at ease in conversing with such a beauty.  Only the Captain of Intrepid felt any misgivings when around Stevens; she was simply too charming, attractive, available, and young.

Michaels also felt some responsibility to exert a measure of extra authority for the benefit of Stevens and the other young officer, Van Lantz.  They should as a minimum, he thought, be given some of the advantages of discipline and training that would be essential in their survival of space and in their naval careers.  The Captain gritted his teeth ever so slightly as he resolved to admire Kat- -- strike that, Lieutenant Stevens -- and at the same time make a stronger effort to provide some clear directions in leadership. Her openness was just a bit too unprofessional for her own good.

Then suddenly Michaels noticed Ryerson giving a broad smile in approximately his direction.  The idea startled him until he realized the intended target was Sorrenson to his immediate left.  Max Sorrenson was now fully awake, and quickly returned Ryerson’s wink.  Max would do that sort of thing, Michaels thought.  Sorrenson was not used to the idea of having a loving and faithful woman so near, and consequently tended to over react in returning attentions.  His fifteen years of military discipline was about the only thing which allowed him to keep such return affection to the minimum during the operations of the ship.  Max and Shari’s relationship was accordingly never blatantly obvious, even as Max almost naively attempted the subtlest of acknowledgements to Shari concerning their mutual affections.

The Captain felt great confidence in Sorrenson.  As a scientist, Max was exceptional, and the respect of the entire crew for his abilities and calm, rational attitude, made his job as Vice Commander and Senior Scientist very easy.  In addition he was well liked for his very genuine humanness.  Despite a grizzled face, a thinning brown hair, and a roughened exterior appropriate to a Vice Commander and Senior Scientist; everyone maintained a great affection for him. Sorrenson was in all respects, Michaels thought, a definite asset.

For that matter so was the entire crew.  As the Captain watched Van Lantz and Moltz wake and begin to check their respective status boards, Michaels felt a pride in the choice of his crew.  There were simply no bad eggs.  Moltz was everything Michaels could hope for in a psychologist (a not insignificant consideration, when one considered Michaels’ mistrust of psycho-professionals). Michaels particularly appreciated the psychologist’s instinctive and practical nature.  Moltz knew people, and only secondarily practiced traditional psychiatric skills.

At the same time Van Lantz was typical of the eager but tempered, ambitious but considerate, junior officer on his way up.  Michaels could sense the hint of his own youth in Van Lantz, and thus could find little fault, or at least any fault to which he could not readily understand and thus compensate.  The end result was that Michaels knew he had the ideal crew for Intrepid and her mission.

So why did he continue to search for the hint that would tell him which
of these exceptional people would prove to be the weak link? 

“Captain,” Thomas called out in her official voice, “Confirmation on achieving real space, star system X-ray Charlie One Three Seven.”

“Very well, Commander. Confirm true course and de-acceleration to inner system.”

“True course and de-acceleration confirmed and laid in, Sir.”

“Very well.  Execute turn to true course, commence de-acceleration.”

“Aye, sir. Executed.” And with Thomas’ acknowledgement, the Intrepid swung itself ever so gracefully into a gentle arc. With appropriate ignitions of her main and auxiliary steering engines, the ship began its slow and careful entrance into her fourth alien solar system.

Woody leaned toward Thomas, and confidentially remarked, “Oh, very good, Marie. You’ll surely get a gold star for this one.”

Thomas answered with the smile of a calm and very patient teacher of small children, “When you get a bit older Woody, I'll teach you how.”

“How to what? I thought we had already fully explored all the possibilities.”

Thomas’ smile modified slightly to a more enjoyable expression. “I had in mind, the maneuvering of this ungainly monster.”

“Of which you’d be hopelessly ineffective without the great power of my computers and engineering demons.”

“I have other ways.”

“Yes madam, you certainly do.”

“To maneuver, you fool.”

“Just as I said.”

“You’re hopeless.”

”Perhaps. But a person of your abilities should consider me a challenge.”

“Oh, you’re a challenge all right.  Now get back to work. The Captain may be curious as to the status of Intrepid’s engineering.”

“Fear not. All of Maxwell’s little people are on the job directing traffic and maintaining order.”

“Wonderful.” Then after a moment’s pause, “Sometimes I think you really do believe in the existence of Maxwell’s Demons.”

“Well of course,” Woody answered in mock dismay; “Doesn’t everyone?”

Thomas turned to look at Woody for just a second before glancing up over his shoulder.

“Pardon me, Woody; time to unplug you.” Woody looked up to see
Ryerson starting to remove the medical sensors used during the entries
into hyperspace.

Woody looked up, suddenly mock serious, “Will I live, doctor?”

“Probably, although I can’t see the reason to bother. It’s clear our Lieutenant Commander Marie wouldn’t be concerned in either case.”

“Don't let that devil-may-care attitude of hers fool you, Shari. She’s absolutely mad about me.”

“I grant you she’d have to be crazy in that case.”

Thomas let out a clear, audible laugh. “Thanks, Shari. I owe you one.”

Woody then grabbed Ryerson’s arm, and in mock seriousness added, “Shari, Max owes me one. Wanna trade?”

As Shari walked off smiling, Woody turned back to Marie. Her attention was already returned to her console, requesting and analyzing data, interacting with the computer on a real time basis.  Woody knew she would be checking and rechecking the ship’s coordinates in this new star system, and in general providing a continual astro-navigational picture. Thomas was above all, an excellent astro-navigator and a person who kept at her work religiously.  

For just an instant, Woody felt a similar inspiration to duty. Quickly but carefully he surveyed his engineering board again, did some manipulations to cross check the readings and ensure the integrity of the board. He even did a brief monitor on Van Lantz’s checkout procedures of the computer complex.  After he was done, he again relaxed slightly -- confident of the electromagnetic, mechanical, electronic masterpiece at his beck and call.

Turning back to Marie, he watched her for a moment; enjoying the sight. Marie Thomas was a quietly attractive woman, with dark brown hair and dark, impenetrable eyes.  She wore her hair short enough indicate she was a professional, but long enough to remind you she was also a woman… from any angle.  Her face was firm with a tan (but not dark) complexion.  She had a pleasant figure, but seldom displayed it.  Hers was the subtle beauty of professionalism.  Seldom would she attract the admiration of passer-bys, but a few moments of one-to-one conversation could easily captivate anyone of high intelligence.

Woody had long been one of those captivated by Marie.  Admittedly Woody was not the hardest person to be captivated by a beautiful woman, but Marie had been special.  Her high intelligence intrigued Woody, if only because she could actually show genuine interest and understanding of his favorite subjects: Science and engineering.  She was also an ambitious and aggressive woman.  

Normally this would not have appealed to Woody, but in Marie, stemming as it did from the inevitable and inherent sexual discrimination of the service, it was a natural reaction.  Moreover, much to Woody’s relief, she was not inclined toward women’s liberation, preferring to concentrate on her own liberation, independent of any question of gender.

Woody had heard rumors to the effect her service career had been sidetracked at one point, purely on the basis of sexual discrimination.  But she had bounced back, putting her sex to use in order to get back on track – which seemed to be simple justice.  It was now clear she was again putting her faith in her professional abilities, her proudest possession. Marie Thomas was basically a competitor, and didn’t care if the opponent was a man or woman.  Her first choice would be to fight fair.  If that failed, she’d quite willingly bring other resources to bear and in whatever quantity necessary to achieve her self-determined goals.

Between Woody and Marie, Woody preferred the idea of a close and lasting relationship: something special.  But in his more lucid moments Woody knew Marie was too independent to ever commit herself totally to a concept as unstable as romantic love.  She was more courteous than kind to Woody.  She liked him, but not in the special way he craved.  He was a pleasant fellow in her view.  But then again, she had known plenty of pleasant fellows.  In sum, Marie was special for Woody, but Woody was not special for Marie.  She seldom came down from her cool and aloof position.  She was always willing to meet Woody part way, if only to satisfy her own physical needs.  But she never went further toward Woody than absolutely necessary; it was never enough for Woody.

When Ryerson had finished her rounds of “unplugging” and had re-turned to her seat, Woody feeling a bit mellower, inquired, “Tell me Marie: Were you first out of hyperspace again?”

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

“I just wondered.  I don’t think the Captain is too excited about it.”

“Really?” Marie appeared genuinely surprised and just slightly concerned.

“Well, he is the Captain. And like all dutiful Captains, he’d be quite willing to go down with his ship.  In this case, he’d want to be the first to come out of hyperspace, just as a matter of Command duty.  In that way he’d be allowed to be a good daddy and look out for everyone else.”

“I suppose you're right. He's certainly a sweet old bird.”

“Just don't ruffle his feathers; else he’ll become an enraged tiger, devouring Lieutenant Commanders for lunch.”

“Oh, I'm not worried.”

Woody seemed skeptical.  “Oh?  You have well-placed friends, perhaps?”

Marie smiled sarcastically. “Of course. Matter of fact, I know God personally. We have a direct communications link.”

“I almost believe you.” Then with a quick thought, he asked, “Are you one of those that assumes that God is a woman?”

“You mean you think she's not?” Marie seemed shocked.

Woody gazed back across his board. “Frankly I prefer to think of God as an ‘it’.  God should be above the petty sexual concerns of men and women.

Rip Moltz, typically eavesdropping as a ship’s psychologist is apt to do, added his two cents worth. “You realize of course, Woody, what you just said supports Marie’s contention.”

Woody was immediately perplexed. “How so?”

“Only a woman could be above ‘petty sexual concerns’.”

Woody laughed uproariously, while Marie only smiled broadly, agreeing with the statement, and continuing to operate her astro-navigation board.

Michaels glanced around the control room while each of the officers went through their various check out procedures.  The only problem seemed to be that everything was AOK such that there was no real press for more data.  As a consequence, boredom was becoming a factor. Only Stevens had her hands full as she tried to locate XC-137’s planets (if any).

On the other hand Michaels certainly did not mind a happy crew.  It was rather a question of the suddenly unexpected catching everyone unaware and unprepared. Woody, Marie, and Rip seemed to be enjoying themselves; and Max and Ryerson had something going. Van Lantz was typically observing.  But none of them were really fine tuned to the readiness status that might be required in the event of an emergency. Accordingly, Michaels thought, it might be a good idea to recall them back to reality.

With a clear, distinct, but soft voice he ordered, “All stations, report.”

Max Sorrenson, the more seasoned veteran, responded as if he had anticipated the order. In an equally clear voice, he quickly replied, “Condition One -- Life support, hull integrity, and ship’s monitoring systems. No variances -- engineering, astro-navigation, medical, electronics, and computer systems. Power levels: Fourteen on propulsion (de-acceleration), level three on computational, and level two, support systems.  IFF negative. Space surveillance indicates position in outer space of star system XC-137, with clearance to range four of sensors.”  Throughout he had hardly paused for breath. Then taking a noticeable breath, he requested the other officers to report the status of their departments (even though he had already surveyed their status boards with his own). “Astro-navigation, report.”

As each officer verbally reported on their field of expertise, Kat Stevens could feel a mounting pressure.  On the one hand, her junior status meant she reported last.  This gave her time.  But as the others quickly finished their brief reports, the moment she would have to speak drew nearer.

As all the others finished their reports, it was clear everything was notoriously normal.  Only Stevens did not like the status quo. Her job as space survey officer was to find the planets of XC-137. Conditions normal for her meant no planets – a distinctly undesirable.  At the end of her brief report, Sorrenson even lacked the gallantry not to bring the point up. “Any planets yet?”

“No sir. But I should have some indications soon.”

Then Marie, who had not been idle at her board, suggested, “Kat, you might try the coordinates I have on my board.”  Then she added, almost mockingly, “Earth relative, of course.”

Stevens glanced over at Thomas, said, “Thanks.”  Then, gritting her teeth, she muttered, “Bitch!”

Van Lantz, having the advantage of hearing her remark clearly, leaned back and laughed.  The rest had sensed enough of the drift of her remark to understand Steven’s chagrin, and smiled broadly.

Woody then glanced over to Marie and confidentially remarked, “Good show, Marie.  I just don’t know how you manage to do everyone else’s job so well.”  

Thomas ignored the sarcasm, and said nonchalantly, “Hell, there’ve been earth based surveys which indicated possible planets at those distances and positions.  I simply looked where they were expected to be.”

“That’s very clever of you.”

Kat interrupted everyone. “Oh, hell; they’re just gas giants.  That's hardly fair.”

Again everyone smiled. Then Van Lantz asked, "Permission to check accessible engineering and computer spaces.”

As this was normal procedure for the Assistant Engineer, Michaels quickly assented.  Van Lantz shoved the seat belt mechanism to one side and got up to leave the control room.  He took just a moment by his chair to get the feel of the artificial gravity from the main propulsion's de-acceleration before leaving control. On the way out, his hand gently and considerately brushed across Katherine’s shoulders, as if to voice his support. Quickly she turned and blew him a quick kiss, and then re-turned to the task of finding potentially habitable planets.

For just a moment Rip Moltz caught her eye and smiled knowingly.  Kat returned his smile and then silently voiced a reply, “later.”  Moltz continued to smile his kind and friendly way, hardly giving any sign of his slightly increased pulse rate stemming from the offer of Kat's rain check.

Woody watching the interchange for a moment, thought about how nice a person Kat Stevens was.  He glanced back at Marie, thinking how completely competent she was.  Woody then leaned toward Marie and asked, “Why are you so cruel to Kat, anyway? Are you jealous of her?”

Marie looked surprised, but after just a second, “She’s got to learn. A slight embarrassment among friends is hardly cruel; but it will serve to spur her to learn a lot quicker.”

“Ah, I see. Your actions were completely thoughtful; just looking out for her training, education, and enlightenment.”

Marie smiled slightly. “Of course.  What else?”

“Then, why are you so cruel to me? Do I need training?”

Marie watched his smiling face for just a second. “It’s just that you’re so easy to be cruel to.”

Woody smiled at her remark for a moment, thinking that perhaps she might be right. Then he countered, “But why not be nice to people?  It can’t be that hard for a woman of your exceptional abilities.”

Marie looked up as if the question was hardly believable. Then half sarcastically she asked, "To what advantage?”

“Perhaps to obtain someone's undying gratitude.”

Marie tilted her head slightly, and with her voice of wisdom replied simply, “Gratitude is a very poor medium of exchange.”

Woody put on his mock look of horror.  But before he could reply, Stevens interrupted everyone, announcing, “Ha! I’ve got the son-of-a-bitch now!”  

A startled but smiling Max, replied, “Is that your official report -- for the record?”

vvvvvvvvv

Max Sorrenson studied the face and countenance of the officer in the stateroom mirror.  As always, he looked for minor flaws.  They were actually not that difficult to find.  The eyes lacked luster and brilliance and only occasionally displayed his unique, wicked gleam.  Max, in fact, reserved any display of exceptional mischievousness for only the most special occasions. His fine, light and straight brown hair had not the slightest touch of distinguishing grey; with the only evidence of age stemming from a slight thinning at the top.  The grizzled face had a certain softness hidden in those cracks and craws that had been brought about by premature responsibility.  Still the overall effect was a clean and washed appearance combined with mature wisdom.

Abruptly the face frowned at the clear illogic of finding any noble
features in such an ignoble face.  A knock on the door, caused him to turn away. “Enter”, he announced with infinite simplicity. 

The stateroom door opened and Shari Ryerson stepped inside, with just a shade of flourish.  “Hi there.  Ready for dinner?”

Max smiled and turned back to the mirror.  Giving the reflection a final check, he said, “Sure.”

“Admiring your self in the mirror again?”

He glanced at her smiling face, reflected alongside his in the mirror.  “Of course. It’s such an admirable face. There’s hardly enough hours in the day to give it its just due.”

Shari smiled even more, and slipped her arms around his waist. “Oh, I agree. That’s why I enjoy looking into it so much.”  Then to belie her statement, she grasped her hands into a double fist and gave him a short abrupt hug in the solar plexus.

Max grunted excessively and answered, “Your physical demands are
going to be the death of me yet.”

“Oh?  Do I demand that much?”

Grinning from ear to ear, he replied, “Actually, not nearly enough.” He turned slowly and carefully in her arms, until he faced her and could embrace her. 

The dinner chime piped throughout the ship interrupted the next obvious move.  Shari smiled, “Ah, saved by the bell.”

“Fat chance!”  Then he carefully, slowly, and uncompromisingly planted a passionate kiss on her ready lips.

vvvvvvvv

In the wardroom the others (with the exception of Van Lantz) were waiting for them.  Stevens was reporting to the Captain she had been relieved by Van Lantz as Control Officer.  She had finished her report by the time Max had helped Shari to her seat.

Kat smiled at the outdated courtesy.  Then seeing some of the counter smiles of the others, she commented, “I think it’s nice when a gentleman helps a lady with her chair.”

Both Thomas and Michaels looked at Kat, as if she had just said the sky was falling.  Neither said anything as Woody chuckled at the expressions on both their faces.  Shari smiled her support for Kat’s statement and said, “I enjoy it too, Kat. But with me, it’s a bit of an accomplishment. It took me four long months to get Max to do it.”

Max ignored the grins and decided it was time to change the subject. As he selected his meal, he asked, “What’s the status on the planets?”  He looked up at Stevens in order to reinforce the question.

Forgetting her food for the moment, she began to outline the basic facts of the XC-137 solar system. “There are, so far, seven known planets.  The three nearest the sun are hardly larger than asteroids, the biggest being less than half the size of Mercury.  They are really too close to the sun at 0.23, 0.37, and 0.46 Earth Standard distance to be of real interest.  Consequently, we’ve more or less discounted them.  The outer three planets include Marie’s two gas giants, which are therefore of limited interest; and the seventh planet, which is a smaller, apparently runaway moon at a distance of 508 million miles.”

“How small?”

“The seventh is about five earth masses, the 6th at 339 million miles is
about the size of Saturn, and the one at 246 million miles is slightly larger than
Neptune. The two big ones have periods of revolution of 15 to 16 hours each. We don’t have anything on the others in terms of revolution periods yet; apparently they exceed 22 hours.”

“Anything else?”

“Not much on the uninteresting six.  It did occur to me we might name the fifth planet ‘Marie’.” When Kat had gotten everyone’s attention at the unexpected suggestion, she continued, “After all, it’s just a ball of hot gas.” 

Everyone smiled at the joke, with Woody appearing to enjoy it the most, and Michaels the least.  Leaning toward Thomas, Woody kidded, “At least it’s not the biggest ball of hot gas.”

Marie smiled at the questionable support.

Michaels continued to frown slightly at Stevens, and prodded her, “What about the fourth planet?”

Kat’s smile lit up even more.  With a certain pride, she answered, “Lady Katherine is about 102 million miles out from XC-137, and looks very good.  It may be an earth type planet.”

“Lady who?” Michaels demanded.

“Oh,” Kat caught herself. Embarrassed, she conceded, “I had sort of gotten into the habit of calling it Lady Katherine.  I did find it.”  

Max smiled. “That's your right of course -- provided that there are no inhabitants with prior claims at naming it.” 

Kat smiled. “I know.  And funny enough, I’d be willing to bet there are some.  The fourth planet just looks too good to be barren.  I wouldn’t even mind not having the name stick.” 

Marie added, “Sounds very scientific; your anticipation of intelligent life there.”

Kat was quick to her defense, “Well after the busts we found in the first three star hops, probability should be turning in our favor.”

“Not yet, it hasn’t,” Marie answered.  “We’ve less than a 37 percent chance of finding anything in all seven of our proposed star hops.  And even that figure is based on pretty meager statistics.”

“Which just proves my point. You can’t base a judgment on the number of prior contacts -- there are two few contacts and too few attempts. Thus your science is no more likely to be correct than my intuition.”

“Okay,” Michaels interrupted, “Let’s proceed.” As the others quietly accepted his directive he continued, “Thomas, how does our present course work with regard to the fourth planet?”

“Lady Katherine,” Stevens added for clarification.

Marie smiled briefly at Stevens and then answered the Captain, “We'll miss Lady Katherine by 0.21 Earth Standard distances on our present course.  We can approach it directly, however, by a minimum course correction at 2314 Z.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll want to review your data after our meal.” 

Marie then added, “We can also take a close pass by the fifth planet on our way in as well, for a 7.3 percent additional energy cost.”

Michaels considered her suggestion for just a moment. “How does Engineering feel about that?”

Woody smiled slightly. “Compared to the prodigious energy requirements needing for punching through hyperspace, the energy necessary just to veer over to Lady Katherine is almost negligible.  7.3 percent of that, in order to make a tour of the fifth planet is even less significant.  That calculates out to be about 0.137 percent of the last hyperspace jump. Based on anticipated energy requirements per solar system, the visit to both the fourth and fifth planets is less than four tenths of one percent of the available energy.”

“How much time are we talking about?”

Thomas answered, “About 54 hours.  We also get a nice gravity boost from swinging off the gas giant.”

Michaels glanced at Sorrenson, who acknowledged his agreement with the idea.  Then the Captain agreed. “Okay, we'll make a pass at the fifth planet.  Thomas, lay in a course after we're finished here, and Max and I will check it.”

Marie smiled and added quickly, “Oh, it’s already plotted and ready to go.  All I need is a check and an ‘Execute’.”

Michaels hardly noticed the obvious display of foresight.  He had come to expect it from Thomas.  But Kat could not resist, “Marie, you're so competent!”  Michaels looked at her as if she’d violated a nun.  Quickly Kat added, looking directly at the Captain, “I didn’t mean anything nasty; she really is competent.”  Then when no one offered to help her out of her embarrassment, she went one step further, “Besides, I love her like a sister.”

Woody grinned and said, half under his breath, “I always hated my sister.”

Everyone laughed, including Marie and Kat. Then Rip Moltz, the ship’s psychologist, asked, “Woody, was there any member of your family you liked?”

 

Copyright 1983, 1996, 2003 Dan Sewell Ward

Dawn the Chosen

Forward to:

Chapter Two -- Lady Katherine

 

               

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