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Mateo did not like the captain leaving the ship. True, the aliens had not committed any overtly threatening acts, but he thought that Captain Ziv was displaying unwarranted trust. As impressive as these wayfarers were, Mateo believed they were making unbelievable claims, not the least being that their tiny ship was able to attain faster-than-light velocities, but, oh, not right at the moment because of some as-yet-undefined, unfathomable peculiarity about local space. So fiercely skeptical was the first officer that the hair was literally standing up on the sides of his neck.
On the other hand, Mateo had not had any particular desire to leave the vessel either, which would have been his fate if the captain weren't so curious about (and so trusting of) the aliens. Traditionally, the second-in-command was the one to undertake any such diplomatic or exploratory mission, but neither Ziv nor any of his hara were traditional officers. Despite the fact that the captain had been put in command of their mission at the last minute and under some very peculiar circumstances (rumors of some dirtside impropriety had been circulating), Mateo both liked and trusted Ziv, and those feelings extended to the captain's closest advisors.
Mateo scanned the bridge and surveyed his own hara. All seemed as well as they could be, even Cho, who had been terribly rattled by their unexpected, almost disastrous encounter with the aliens. Most of the crewmen had been advised about the possibility of alien encounters (though Mateo suspected that few believed they were real), but no one had expected to meet other spacefarers so early in their journey. How many more are out here? he wondered.
Studying the image of the fragile-looking vessel on his viewer, Mateo wondered about its engineers' claims. "It can't be true," he muttered. A dozen of the alien ships could park side by side inside the exhaust port of his ship's drive unit. How could such a minuscule object have the power to do what they claimed? Yet Maza, as sensible and levelheaded an engineer as could be found in the service, said that he had seen their engines' specs and believed every word.
"Commander," Cho called. "The aliens' chief engineer wishes to speak with Maza again. Should I patch through the call?"
"Certainly," Mateo said. "But ask if they could have our captain call sometime soon. I'd like to hear..."
"Captain Ziv is hailing us on another channel, Commander."
Mateo sighed with relief and lowered himself into the captain's chair. "Very good. Complete the circuit."
The captain's image materialized on the small monitor set near the floor. Ziv looked uncommonly pleased, almost ebullient, as if a great burden had just been lifted. "Mateo," he said, and waited for the gesture of acknowledgment. "All is well?"
"Well and truly well, my captain," Mateo said, trying to sound upbeat. "We have completed all the preparations the aliens requested. Maza says we will be under way soon and moving very quickly." He allowed a slight note of uncertainty to creep into his tone, hoping the captain would notice and respond. Unfortunately, the captain missed it.
"You have no idea, Mateo," the captain said. "I only regret that you have not been able to see this extraordinary ship."
Someone behind the captain spoke, someone with an oddly, even disturbingly high-pitched voice, like that of an annoyingly precocious child. "There may still be time," the speaker said. "If you permit it."
Mateo felt a silly grin creep up over his face. Would I like to see this alien vessel? he wondered, and was surprised to find that the answer was yes. Very much, if only to reassure himself.
"We will discuss it when I return to the ship, Mateo," Ziv said. "But for now, relax and tell the crew and passengers to do the same. Have you informed everyone what will be happening?"
"Word is filtering down through the holds, Captain," Mateo reported. "It is difficult, but I think most of them have the sense that something wonderful is about to occur."
"More wonderful than even they know, Mateo," Ziv replied, and again his eyes shone brightly. "But perhaps it would be best to keep that between us now."
Mateo, sensing his captain's keen excitement, grinned and agreed.
"I will see you soon," Ziv finished, and both signed off.
Minutes later, a bright blue beam of light burst from the prow of the alien ship. The glow from the beam shone through the tiny portholes set into the perimeter of the bridge, suffusing everything with a sapphire radiance. Cho reported that this was the forcefield they had been told to expect. The tiny, sharp-nosed vessel began to move, and Mateo felt a slight lurch as their ship was pulled behind. He couldn't keep himself from releasing a whistle of astonishment and, yes, appreciation. All around him, Mateo heard echoes from his hara and other members of the crew.
Moments later, they encountered the first sign of turbulence. He punched the intercom for the engine room and asked for Maza. "Were we expecting this?" he asked as the deck rattled beneath his feet.
"Some," Maza replied. "Their engineer claimed we would be protected from the worst by the forcefield."
"And is this the worst?"
Mateo sensed the hesitancy in the engineer's voice. "How can I know?" he asked. "Have any of us ever done this before?"
"Then perhaps we should stop."
"If you think so, call the captain. At this point, as far as I'm concerned, we're all just passengers."
This was not the kind of response Mateo had hoped to hear. Usually, Maza was proprietary to the point of maniacal about anything that affected the ship. Hoping to evoke a more useful response, Mateo asked, "Can the superstructure take this? You're not worried?"
"It can take it," Maza said. "And if the captain's plan works, we'll have plenty of time later to repair any damage we take. Consider what we were up against before, Commander."
Mateo knew the engineer was right. Until a few hours earlier, their prospects for survival (let alone a successful mission) had been poor. Now, with the help of these strange beings, they might not only reach their destination, but do it in a fraction of the time they had budgeted. He had been trying to suppress the thought, but now Mateo gave a little rein to the idea that he might actually see home again someday, see his wife..."All right," he said. "Call me if anything doesn't feel right."
Over the next several minutes, the surges became increasingly severe. As bad as the jostles were for him at the craft's bow, Mateo could only imagine what it must be like for the passengers in the sternmost sections. Struggling to focus past his nausea, Mateo tried to read the sensors, but the scanners were scrambled. After one particularly harsh bounce, he saw Cho tighten the harness over her chest, then watched as the rest of the bridge crew followed suit. "Another one like that," Cho said, "and I'm getting off and going home. " The joke got more laughter than Mateo thought it strictly warranted, but he was pleased to hear that everyone was still game.
The intercom buzzed and Mateo tried to answer, though it took him a couple of stabs before he could hit the button. "Bridge," the anonymous caller asked. "Are we almost through with this yet? Passengers are worried. People are getting motion sick."
"Tell the passengers that this is a transitional phase. The aliens told us to expect it and we'll be done soon. Now clear this channel for essential..." But the channel was already closed down.
Without warning, the blue glow that had enveloped the ship disappeared. Blinking at the sudden change, Mateo stared around the bridge. The surges and jumps had ceased. His first thought was It can't have been that easy....Clearing his throat, he said, "Cho, contact the captain. Ask if we've arrived."
Cho was working her console, flicking switches and adjusting dials with her long, sensitive fingers. "I'm trying, sir. Something must be wrong...." Suddenly, Cho jerked back her head so sharply that Mateo heard the hardware in her harness snap against the bolts. "Commander! Alarms! From all over the ship!" Before she could finish he sentence, every light, every device on the bridge died. Mateo waited for the count of three heartbeats for the emergency power to kick in, but nothing happened. The only light came from the stars through the portholes.
Speaking very softly, struggling to be calm, Mateo asked, "What is happening?"
Cho spoke. "External sensors were sending alarms, sir. A possible hull breach..." These were the last words she ever spoke, the last Mateo ever heard. Her voice was lost in a strange crackling noise that seemed to be coming from the prow and was rushing toward them like an icy wave crashing into a frozen shore. The sound drowned out all other noise, even the frantic thrashing of the bridge crew struggling to undo their harnesses and reach the lockers where the environmental suits were stored. Mateo saw one of his hara reach a locker, but when he yanked open the door, there was nothing inside the locker except stars. All around them, the bulkheads were shattering, splintering into slivers that broke apart, then broke apart again until Mateo was staring out into the black of the void.
Remembering his training, Mateo forced the air out of his lungs and shut his eyes, but then opened them again when he felt his hara inside his head calling to him. Someone touched his shoulder, a reassuring grip, but then the pressure disappeared. In the last millisecond before the darkness took him, Mateo stared at his hands and was distantly, distractedly fascinated as his fingers dissolved into tiny fragments and were swept away into the void.
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