~~~ ~~~~ ~~~
“Good morning, everyone,” Thomas Isenberg announced enthusiastically as he entered the ward room, a small room set apart from the rest of the mess hall. The four other people eating started to stand up, and he waved them back down as he took a seat.
“Is that all you’re going to eat, sir?” asked operations officer Ursula Maida, indicating the commander’s coffee and pastry.
“I think I’ll hit the climbing wall in a bit, so I didn’t want to be weighed down.” He noticed the size of her meal, and remembered that she this was her dinner hour, as she had the night watch, and that she is an Alpha Centaurian and would easily burn off any extra calories. He envied her for that.
They ate in silence for a while. Lieutenant-junior grade Sheralin Naaz, an Andorian, had her PADD propped up by her tray. She was either reading some engineer’s technical journal, or yet another trashy romance novel. Ensign Littleton was stabbing at the remains of his food more than anything, and barely looked up from his plate. Ensign Tillman likewise seemed to be in no mood for conversation.
When the ensigns finished their meal, Isenberg gulped down the last of his coffee. “Walk with me, Ms. Tillman, if you don’t mind.” He didn’t use his ‘this is an order’ tone, but it was clear it didn’t matter whether or not she minded, he want to talk to her. The look he gave Ensign Littleton said ‘you’re not invited.’ They crossed the busy dining room and climbed a set of spiral stairs up two deck and began walking towards the bow of the ship. Once out of earshot of the crew, the commander asked, “Is everything okay, Stephanie?”
“Sir?” She tried and failed to mask her feelings.
He gave her a sideways glance and kept walking. “Well, maybe I’m just not reading things right, but there seems to be a bit of tension between you and Ensign Littleton.”
“Oh, that,” she relaxed somewhat, “He made ... well, how do I say this? I was going to say he made a pass at me, but that sounds like he used a cheap pick-up line on me. Daniel kind of asked me out.” Isenberg nodded knowingly. Privacy on a starship, especially one this small, was at a premium. There were a limited number of things a couple could do on a date. She read his mind, “Not that kind of a date, sir, just a movie or something. I turned him down.”
“And has he been pestering you?”
She shook her head. “No, sir, not at all. He only asked once, yesterday afternoon, and this morning he was apologizing to me when Naaz came in. He was really nice about it, although he seemed embarrassed. I don’t know whether he’s not used to asking girls out, or not used to rejection. At any rate, I wanted to tell him it was okay, that he had nothing to apologize for, but didn’t get a chance yet. I think he thinks I’m mad at him.”
“Well, okay. But let me know if he doesn’t know how to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Isenberg ordered, and then immediately reconsidered. “Actually, depending on how serious it is, take it up the chain. Don’t come to me first unless he gets physical.” She acknowledged him. “So, that happened yesterday?” She nodded. “Well, it just seemed to me you’ve been down in the dumps for the past three days, Stephanie.”
There was a bit of a pause. “I guess I have been at that. A friend of mine got off the ship at Star Base Thirteen. And I’ve been a little worried about the Senior Chief. Have you talked with him, sir?” That opened the door to the subject Isenberg wanted to broach.
“I have not. I figured he’ll come to me when he’s ready. You seem awfully fond of him,” he observed flatly.
“I am,” she smiled. “Wait, what?” She stopped and looked at him, “No, not like that
, sir! I’m sorry if I gave you that impressing, but no. Oh God. You don’t think he thinks ....” She was appalled at the notion.
The commander was relieved. “No, I doubt it. So, then … what I misread as a school-girls crush, he’s just more of a father figure to you,” it was more of a question than a statement.
Tillman opened her mouth but no words came out. After a long few seconds, she said, “I don’t have a father. Well, I do obviously; my DNA came from someone, but I’ve never been told from whom.” She took a deep breath and let it out. “Yeah, I guess he’s like a father to me. Is that so bad, sir?”
“No, not at all. Just keep it professional,” he recommended as they began climbing another set of stairs up two more decks to the Deck Three, arriving about four meters away from the main bridge. There they found Chief Guzman and his new student, Ensign Littleton, already at the helm. Isenberg relieved Lieutenant Bin-Yi Xiong from the center seat, who then left the bridge after briefing the commander of their current status. Tillman sat down at the science/sensors station with Petty Officer Second Class Elizabeth McAllister.
Normally, the sensor and communications technicians worked in Auxiliary Control, down on Deck Six, because the chatter they created was distracting to the rest of the bridge. On long flights like this, they didn’t analyze every single contact, so having them on the bridge worked out better. Because of this, Isenberg didn’t know McAllister very well yet. She seemed nice enough; just an average looking woman in her late twenties, of average height and build. Even her reddish-brown hair didn’t stand out. She had a scar from her chin along the jawline to her earlobe; one would think that with modern medicine, she could have gotten rid of it.
After an hour of reading reports, Isenberg got bored. His conversation with Ensign Tillman wouldn’t leave his thoughts. “Chief, how is young Mister Littleton doing?”
“Not bad, sir. He remembered more than he said he would. For now, he can fly a straight line,” he winked with a devilish smile, letting the commander know he was kidding. “Tomorrow, I’ll take him back the emergency bridge and put him on some combat sims.” Tillman had already been thru those and scored very high marks. Guzman suspected Littleton would do nearly as well.
Isenberg nodded approvingly. “What’s say you and I take a break and have that private conversation you mentioned a few days ago?” He stood up, as did Guzman. The chief’s body language was one of resignation; he’d put this off as long as he could, but there was no escape now. “Ms. Tillman, you have the bridge. We’ll be across the hall.”
The ensign swallowed hard. “Aye aye, sir. I have the bridge,” she stated formally, not expecting to be able to say those words for several more months. “Sir, do I take the seat,” indicating the command chair, “or stay here?”
“Be wherever you think you’re most useful. I don’t know if this will take ten minutes, or two hours. Just yell if you need us.”
“Will do, sir,” she replied as she sat back down at the science station, “but I think the intercom might be better.” The commander chuckled at that and walked out with the chief in tow. After ten minutes, she moved over to the helm to check on Littleton. She could have configured her station to monitor the helm, of course. “Apology accepted,” she said in a low voice, “I’m not mad at you, Daniel. It’s just that my heart’s in another place. Friends?” He agreed and gave her a crooked smile. She checked on the other stations and then moved back to the sensor controls.
An hour later, the door opened, and the Marine announced the commander’s presence. He wasn’t quite as boisterous as Sergeant McKendrey. “As you were,” Isenberg ordered. He looked at the young Marine, “Son, you look like death warmed over.”
“Sir, have you ever been through de-tox?” He indicated he had not. “I don’t recommend it, sir.”
Isenberg took the center seat. “Anything of interest happen, Ms. Tillman?”
“Maybe, sir. We’re on course, same speed, warp-factor seven, same heading. But every once in a while ... there it is again!” she exclaimed.
Petty Officer McAllister shook her head as she manipulated the sensor fine adjustments, “I don’t see anything, Ma’am.”
The commander could see Tillman was frustrated and irritated. “I have the bridge. Put whatever you think you found up on the main screen, tactical view.”
The star pattern was replaced with a computer-generated grid. The blue cross-hair symbol in the center represented the Magnum
. There were three green symbols, representing the LaMagn
e to Magnum
’s left and slightly behind, the Gendarme
ahead to the right, and the Mazza
near the bottom right corner of the screen. They were all cruising at warp seven. There was a red circle behind and to the right of the Gendarme
. “Five times now, sir, I got a blip in that area, as if we get a quick glance of something.”
McAllister gave the skipper that knowing, sympathetic look. “I’ve checked and double-checked, sir. I think it’s just a misaligned sensor panel.” It was probably nothing, Isenberg agreed, but he ordered her to run a diagnostic on the sensor array, which came back clean, and to keep an eye on that area. The petty officer stayed on the controls, with her student watching her every move.
Three times over the next hour, Ensign Tillman jumped to point at the blip, only to have it disappear again. Once, Isenberg thought he saw it, too. It was probably just the power of suggestion. He ordered the two of them to take a break because they were getting target fixated. That could be dangerous as one could easily lose situational awareness of other hazards.
After they left, Chief Guzman stood up and walked over to the science station. He kitted his eyebrows in confusion. As a quartermaster, his training was in helm and navigation, but to make chief he had to be cross-trained in many aspects of running a ship. Half the sensor controls were still on default settings. That made no sense to him, but McAllister was trained and certified, so she must know what she was doing. He shrugged. Any time he watched over Sahani’s shoulder, she was constantly adjusting everything. Maybe they had changed the default settings with the upgraded system, one that Sahani helped design. That must be it.
He sat back down and looked at the tactical display. “Sir, isn’t the Gendarme
heading for Kzinti space? Look at her course.” The other ship was well left of the path to her destination.
Strange, thought Isenberg. He pinched his lower lip and contemplated the situation. “Please open a channel to the Gendarme
,” he ordered. A petty officer, human male, appeared on the screen. From the angle, he must be sitting at the communications station. “This is Lieutenant Commander Isenberg of the Magnum
,” he announced, “Is Commander Christensen available, please?”
“No, sir, I believe she is in a meeting. May I take a message?”
“Yes, please. Have her call me back at her convenience. I wanted to ask her about a book she mentioned.”
The communications tech acknowledged this and reached to close the connection. Chief Guzman piped up, “Is Chief O’Hara around? I need to talk with her about a personnel matter.”
“I believe she’s in the same meeting. I’ll let her know to call you.” And with that, he closed the connection.
“How rude,” Ensign Littleton observed.
Strange and stranger, thought Isenberg. After a minute, he gave the helm new orders. “In fifteen minutes, start a slow acceleration to warp-factor seven point seven five, and a slow turn to fifteen degrees to starboard. Not all at once; stretch it out over ten or fifteen minutes.” He pressed a button on the arm of his command chair. “Lieutenant Zychowski to the bridge, please.” He released the button, and pinched his lower lip again.
Less than two minutes later, the turbolift door opened. The Marine lieutenant exited carrying his gym bag, trailed by Gunny Thorns, who was wearing her P.T. uniform. “Good morning, skipper. And good timing; another minute and you would have caught me in my skivvies.” Ensign Tillman entered the bridge through a side door just in time to hear that. She blinked twice and shook her head; that was a mental image she didn’t need.
Isenberg ignored the comment. “Round up the troops, Lieutenant, and get ready for anything.”
The smile faded from Zychowski’s face, and he stopped twiddling the small object in his hand. “Aye aye, sir. What’s the mission?”
“I don’t know yet,” the commander admitted, “Maybe I’m just being paranoid. All I’ve got is a sister ship that appears to have drifted off course and a comm tech who’s not following standard protocol.”
“And a sensor ghost,” Ensign Littleton interjected. “Any chance that could be a stealth ship, like an Orion?”
Tillman shook her head, “No, I suggested that, and McAllister said the signature was all wrong.”
Zychowski had begun twiddling the object but dropped it at the word ‘Orion’. The Private picked it up and handed it back to his superior. “What is that thing you’ve been playing with all the time?” Gunny Thorns asked, somewhat annoyed.
“Oh, this? I don’t know for sure,” he showed it to Hawthorn and Isenberg, “some sort of German lapel pin.”
It looked vaguely familiar to Isenberg. “Why do you think it’s German?”
“Because of the note that came with it,” the marine officer explained. “Do you remember Madre Chavez of the freighter I was on?” Isenberg nodded; how could he ever forget her? “She slipped this to me with a note saying it belonged to the man I was looking for, someone with a fake German accent.”
The Private stepped forward. “May I see that again, sir?”
“Not now, DeWitt,” Gunny Thorns commanded, but Lt. Z. handed the pin to him.
Private DeWitt examined it closely. “It’s not German, sir, it’s French. It’s called a fleur-de-lis. One of the leaves is broken off, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.” He handed it back.
“Why would someone,” Zychowski asked rhetorically, “with a fake German accent wear a French lapel pin?”
The ship’s captain had a sudden enlightened look on his face. “I don’t know, but what about someone with a fake French accent?” He looked at his Chief of the Boat and could tell they had the same thought: Faucheux. He pressed the button on the chair’s arm. “Senior officers to the bridge.” He released the button. “Chief, initiate that course change now.”
Ensign Tillman looked at the Marines. “Your sergeant, McKendrey, is on the Gendarme
, correct? Maybe you should give him a call.”
“That’s not a good idea,” Guzman interrupted. “The skipper tried to call Christensen, and I tried to call Julie O’Hara. If the El-Tee or Gunny tries to call the sergeant, it might look suspicious.”
She considered this, and then said, “I have an idea.” She asked for the pin, and then took a towel from the Gunny, sniffed it and wrinkled her nose, and draped it around her shoulders, covering up her uniform and rank insignia. She closed her eyes and took a couple of breaths, and magically transformed from a junior officer into a young girl who had been crying. She motioned the comm tech out of his seat and sat down. Making sure none of the others were in the field of view, she opened a channel. The same tech answered the hail. “Hi. I’m Stephanie. I need to talk to Arthur McKendrey, please. It’s important.”
“I’m sorry, missy, but I believe he’s in the gym.”
“Can you get him, please? It’s really important,” she begged.
“I can take a message, if you like,” the Gendarme
’s comm tech answered helpfully.
“Nooo,” she pouted, “It’s private. It’s ... it’s a personal matter. I really need to talk to him, please.” She really laid it on thick. She noticed McAllister returned to the bridge. The petty officer entered from the far side of the room, fortunately, so she was not in view of the camera. She took three steps in and stopped as she looked at the main view screen, still showing the tactical display, and then hurried to the sensor station.
“I’m sorry,” and he really was, poor girl, “I can’t. But I’ll tell him you called.”
“Okay. I’ll call back in, say, twenty minutes. Okay?”
“Well, I don’t know,” the man replied. “You know how those guys are; they’ll probably be in the gym for an hour or more. Sorry.”
“Okay.” She clicked the connection closed and puffed out her cheeks as she exhaled. “Well, that was a bust.” Turning around, she saw everyone else was staring at her. “Four years of drama club,” she smiled.
“Award winning,” Gunny Thorns dry-panned. “It still doesn’t get us anywhere, Ensign.”
The side door opened; Lieutenants Kinsley and Dupree entered. A few moments later, Bin-Yi Xiong and Sheralin Naaz stepped off the turbolift. How Naaz could walk around reading her PADD and not run into walls was anyone’s guess. That gave Tillman another idea. “Gunny, did McKendrey turn in his PADD before he left?”
Hawthorn thought about it for a moment. “No, there wasn’t time. And I think he took it with him. Why?”
Instead of answering, the ensign pulled her data PADD out of the cargo pocket on the thigh of her pants. The comm tech informed her, “Ma’am, if you doing what I think you’re doing, they’ll be able to read it.”
“Then I’ll just have to write a message that only he will understand.” She typed for several seconds, and then showed the RapidChat message to the others.
“I don’t know what that means,” Gunny Thorns stated.
“He’ll know. At least, I hope he’ll know.” Tillman looked at Isenberg. “Sir?” He nodded ‘yes’, and she hit the send button.
“Will that work?” asked Zychowski.
“Yes. Maybe. I don’t know,” Tillman admitted.
~~~ ~~~~ ~~~