by L.M. Townsend-Crow
copyright ©2009 L.M. Townsend
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Rowan received her orders and cringed.
Damn, she thought.
She really thought that this time the powers that be would have seen her worth and assigned her to an eco-ship, but no. She was still a float in the fighting fleet on the Conglomerate air troop carrier, U.C.P. S. Panhaema.
"And after wasting my time on all those extra classes, too," she said with a sigh. "Maybe it's time to resign and do something else for a while."
She was always thinking about resigning, but the Space Service had been too good to her. She always held out the hope that her Terran heritage would be overlooked in light of her other assets, but she was still getting all the shit details. Life planetside was no better. Unemployment was outrageous since Global Warming had wiped out most of the natural resources in the late twenty-fourth century. In fact, the Space Service was all that was left for anyone young enough – and poor enough – to want to work.
The wealthy old men lived in their biodomes planetside. Most of the remaining population had relocated to either space stations in orbit of the old home planet or the experimental colonies on other reachable planets. Rowan dreamed of a day when they could all live as her great-great-great grandmothers had, breathing the air and walking on the soil of the home planet.
She had graduated from the university with that work in mind. Certainly the home planet was salvageable, but the old squatters put up obstacle after obstacle. If one didn't know better, one could almost believe that they actually liked breathing canned air and drinking water that had been filtered so many times it still smelled faintly of sewage.
Once the Federation of Planets had stepped in, Terran sovereignty had all but disappeared – except for those old men who still thought that their money could hold sway – Terrans knew their place. They had destroyed their home planet, it was shaming and embarrassing to anyone with a conscience – and a brain.
Rowan sighed. She knew Terrans like herself were always assigned to the military fleets until they could prove themselves worthy or capable of the eco-ships which were the scientific stations working on projects to start the re-birth of the home planet.
Briefly she considered petitioning for a change of orders, then she tossed her long russet curls over her shoulders and tucked the chip containing her orders into her uniform pocket.
I'll sleep on that decision, she thought.
The next morning found Rowan still convinced that she wanted to change her assignment. She arose and went through her morning routine, planning to see her Commanding Officer after the noon meal. Instead, she was summoned to Captain Kee before breakfast.
"Caltuinn, Rowan reporting as ordered, ma'am," she said, standing at attention.
"Your rank, Caltuinn?" asked Captain.
"I have none, ma'am," said Rowan, inwardly cringing.
The Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Piole leaned in and whispered to Captain Kee.
"Ah, I see," said the captain. "How would you like the opportunity to change that?"
"No thank you, ma'am," said Rowan.
Kee was surprised but did not show it outwardly. Rowan picked up on it. She had expected more of a reaction.
"Why not?" she asked.
"I'm looking for a transfer to an eco-ship," said Rowan, bluntly. "I'm no fighter, Ma'am."
"That's a shame," said Kee. "And that is precisely why you will never make an eco-tech."
"I don't understand," said Rowan with a frown.
"Eco-tech's are warriors," said Kee. "They are battling for the survival of the planet and as many of its species as they can preserve. You Terrans destroyed so much – "
The Commanding Officer cut herself off, trying to maintain her composure, but it made her angry. She had to ride clean up on so many damaged worlds because the inhabitants had no idea how to care for their own homes. Or worse, they didn't care to do so. Terrans were among the worst with that obnoxious sense of entitlement they all seemed to have. This one, though, seemed a little different; Rowan Caltuinn was willing to work for what she wanted without rank. Maybe there was hope for the Terrans after all.
"With all due respect, Captain, that was before my time; I'm out to fix all that," said Rowan, her voice trembling with her own anger.
"Very well then. You may begin by taking the assignment for which I called you here this morning," said Kee.
"Yes, Ma'am," Rowan acquiesced with a slight inclination of her head.
"You are on rotation as a security float and we have a situation," said LCDR Piole
She went to the computer and touched the screen. The entire wall lit up, illuminating the image of an ancient, 21st century earth manufactured spaceship.
"Initial reports are that this is an abandoned vessel. No records can be found of its registry," said Kee. "Its hull has been scoured clean of its registry number."
"Any attempts to communicate?" asked Rowan.
"No response," said Piole. "Now that could indicate either no life onboard, or it's harbouring a rogue crew."
"Rogue? I don't understand. You mean like salvage poachers or pirates?"
"Or worse," said Kee.
"What is worse?" asked Rowan, noting the look shot from Piole to Kee.
"Need to know applies," said the Kee. "There is a fringe group planetside who call themselves 'Gaians' after an archaic earth deity.
Kee brought up a screen showing an artist's rendering of a group of fierce looking prehistoric women battling an enemy army.
"The Gaians named themselves after an ancient earth goddess, Gaia," said Kee. "Gaia was also a name for the earth itself. This group has modelled itself after the Amazons, a nation of women warriors from a time when there was no such thing as women who fought battles."
"Really?" said Rowan, surprised.
"Yes. Earth's history is pretty ugly in some spots," said Piole. "The attempts of one group to maintain its imagined superiority over another caused most of their wars from pre-history on up to the time of the Great Exodus. After two centuries of the effects of global warming eroding the planet, most of earth's population left when the Conglomerate -- or as you Terrans call us, the 'Glom' -- arrived to offer an alternative. The Gaians chose to remain, although a few have infiltrated the Glom. Their purpose is to keep the earth from Glom control, even at the expense of never being able to re-seed. They also want to remove most of the bio domes and their occupants. The Gaians say that bio domes suck up more of the earth's dwindling resources than is warranted for the small population inhabiting them. Besides the people inhabiting the domes contribute nothing to the planet's recovery of sustainability."
"I can understand the domes, by why force out the Glom when they're only here to help us?" asked Rowan.
"The Gaians cite examples from Terran prehistory about a civilization called Roam or something like that," said Kee. "Evidently these Roamers invaded all their neighbours and demanded that they be worshipped like gods and paid tribute to. They supposedly also came to smaller countries and offered to help them with their problems, then took over the territory and forced the people to worship them and pay taxes. They say that the Glom is just like that empire. Sure, they're offering to help now, but at what price later?"
"I never heard of these Roamers," said Rowan.
"You went to a Glom school on the space station," said Kee. "The Gaians have maintained Terran knowledge repositories. They're called libraries and also some are called museums. Despite earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and all the other crazy weather that global warming has caused, some of those things still stand. The Gaians want to use some of the bio domes to preserve their contents until the earth's recovery, including atmosphere, is complete and they want the squatters out."
"Well, except for alienating the Conglomerate, I have to agree with these Gaians about routing the squatters and the more useful applications of the bio domes to protect Terran history," said Rowan. "Of course, that's not for the likes of a Terran non-rate like myself to decide."
"Well, you never know, Rowan," said Kee, quietly. "You might just be more important than you think. Your team is being assembled and briefed for boarding the ship. Your mission is scheduled for 0600 tomorrow. We'll expect a report within twenty-four hours of landing. Sooner if you find anything of interest."
Rowan saluted and left to follow her orders. She walked down the corridors of the ship to the cabin she shared with eleven other non-rates. As she walked, she pondered the meeting with two highest ranked officers on this ship. Perhaps all her hard work was finally being recognised. More likely the derelict was busywork; something that had to be checked out, but not important enough to send someone with rank.
She entered the briefing room in which was assembled her crew. Rowan brought up the derelict craft on the big screen.
"We all know what our mission is, so let's get to work," she said. "Shuttle to the craft leaves at 0600. Let's figure out as much as we can before get there. Here's what we know so far: the vessel is Earth manufactured and estimated date of manufacture is between the twenty-first to the twenty- third century CE."
"That's a century or two before Conglomerate contact," added the recorder.
"Right, but it is around the time people started getting serious about the climate changes taking place," said Rowan. "This is probably a probe vessel – they sent out quite a few of these looking for someplace inhabitable when they figured out that earth wasn't going to be sustainable for more than a couple more generations. Too little too late."
"Is there a registry number?" asked one of security officers.
"No, it's been either scoured off by space debris or deliberately removed years ago," replied Rowan.
"What about an internal shot?" asked the security officer. "Do we have a prep team?"
"No, we haven't been able breach the integrity of the hull," said Rowan. "We're going in blind. In fact, one of the things we need to do is power up the onboard computer. We'll be on battery packs. This expedition will be a short one; I suspect we'll merely be setting up to take a look before opening bids to salvage companies while keeping the privateers at bay."
"Ah, I wondered why I'd been included on this little expedition," came a voice. Rowan turned to see a woman sitting behind her in a shadowy part of the room.
She rose, flipped long black hair back over her shoulder and joined the group.
"Oh, it's you," said Rowan said, barely concealing the squeak of dismay.
Willow Catháin had sat behind her in school from primary to the Academy and had been her bane throughout. She was always better at sports, scored higher on every exam and all without seeming to try.
"Willow Catháin –" began Rowan.
"Ah, ah – that's 'Engineer Catháin'," said Willow, teasing. "I'll be responsible for powering up the computer. Who's the tech to retrieve the data after I get it running?"
"That would be me," said a young man.
"You're going to have to be quick; I won't be able to maintain the power up for more than about ten minutes. It's either carbon or primitive nuclear."
The tech pushed a pair of glasses up the bridge of his nose and nodded.
"The rest of us will be gathering physical data," said Rowan, regaining her composure. "Let's go get suited up."
The team dispersed to the equipment room. Willow stayed behind with Rowan for a moment.
"Caltuinn," she said.
"Willow," said Rowan, eyeing a shining new insignia prominently displayed on Willow's Conglomerate uniform. "Officer Willow. You took rank. I suppose proper form requires me to congratulate you, so ..."
There was a very long and silent pause, finally broken by Willow's low chuckle.
"Can't do it, eh?" she said, genuinely amused. "Don't worry about it; I only accepted the commission so that I could finish my engineering degree at the Glom's expense. What about you? Don't tell me they haven't offered you the same deal?"
"Yeah and me mum's threatened to flay me if I ever do, but I'm thinking it's the only way I'll make Eco-Tech," she admitted.
"Eco-Tech, really?" she said. "Aren't you afraid to go planetside with all the toxins and radiation still about? You have no immunity to that stuff. You were raised on a station, same as me, weren't you?"
"Most of the work takes place in a Space Lab," Rowan admitted. "But no, I am not afraid. I dream of the day earth is restored and even though I know that it probably won't happen during my life, I'd like to have a hand in saving her for future Terrans to come home to some day."
Willow grew quiet.
"I hope that dream comes true," she said softly, patting Rowan's arm. "Meet you up top, eh?"
"Sure," said Rowan, collecting her charts and papers before heading through the corridors up to the equipment room.
The techs suited her up and Rowan noticed that the equipment techs had encased the entire team in clean room gear.
"Is this right?" she asked.
One of the techs shrugged.
"Captain's orders" she said.
"Organic salvage?" mused Rowan.
"Or an antique crime scene," said Willow, quickly. "These suits would protect any forensic evidence we find which deep space would have – literally – frozen in time."
"Evidence? Who are they going to prosecute?" asked the tech.
"Well, no one, but anything we may find could be of anthropological value," said Rowan.
"Yeah, Terran anthropology," said Willow, darkly.
"Terrans are not the only species which commit crimes," said Rowan. "You know it is possible the ship may have been attacked by another space travelling species, like the Agrestis."
"Yeah, that's true," said Willow with a shrug.
"Anyway, let's get out there and see what's up," said Rowan, making final adjustments to her suit before embarking on the shuttle which would carry them to the derelict now orbiting her ancestors' home planet.
To Rowan's chagrin, Willow sat next to her and buckled in with a grin. They sat in silence as the shuttle finished loading and left the ship's bay to carry them toward their destination.
"I make you uncomfortable, don't I?" Willow asked.
"No," said Rowan, a little too vehemently. "I mean, why do think that?"
"You avoid me, pretend not to see me in the dining room, the library – why is that, Caltuinn?" asked Willow.
"It's Rowan – Caltuinn is my father's name," said Rowan. "I only use a patronymic for convenience sake. For all their progressiveness, the Glom are every bit as patriarchal as the Terrans were."
"You're changing the subject," observed Willow.
"Yes, because I am not interested in pursuing that topic. It is ridiculous," said Rowan, rising and making her way to computer console to prepare for tethering the shuttle to the derelict craft.
The shuttle's tether cables began snaking out of their compartment, looking all the world like some sort of Halloween creature's tentacles. With a strange mechanical gentleness, the tether cables probed the fragile eggshell of the ancient craft's hull. Suddenly, the tethers clamped on and the shuttle jerked forward. Both women lost their balance and the rest of the team, many of whom were dozing for the short trip, yelled and double checked their restraints. The tethers continued to unfold and plait themselves into a quarter-mile long bridge over which the team was to cross.
"Damn!" said Rowan, as the shuttle began shaking, making it difficult to get back up to her feet. She managed to grab hold of the console and pulled herself to her knees.
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Willow at the same time. "This is not normal! We're coming too close to the planet's atmosphere!"
"Which means the derelict craft is trying to enter the atmosphere," said Rowan, punching buttons furiously. "We can't let that happen – the hull might not survive the burn and I know this shuttle won't."
"What are you doing?" asked Willow, joining her at the computer.
"Probably making a huge mistake," said Rowan, as the shaking increased to a sudden hard shudder, then stopped. Both craft hung there, suspended in space.
"You turned off the propulsion?" asked Willow
"No, I actually put it in reverse. It stopped on its own" said Rowan.
"Clearly the hull of the Terran craft is magnetized," said Willow.
"Yeah, I noticed. Well, we're tethered, so let's get out there," said Rowan.
"But, we're stranded!" cried one of the computer techs.
"Hardly," said Willow.
"We brought all the equipment to set up communications from the relic to our ship. The shuttle just powered down," said Rowan. "I need our power tech to have a look at the generator, but I'm certain that we have enough juice to get back to Panhaema."
"Yeah," said the power tech, rising from another console in the floor of the shuttle. "Just a temporary shutdown. Safety mechanism. If it heats up, it shuts down. By the time we complete the mission in a day or so, she'll fire right back up."
"And if we need to get out of here sooner?" asked a health tech.
"We shouldn't," said Rowan, shortly. "Come on, let's get to work."
The team crossed the tether bridge to the ancient Terran craft. Rowan and the other security officers boarded first. They passed through the ancient airlock with their portable O2 packs engaged.
"Okay," said Rowan, very muffled through her suit's microphone. "We have six hours of O2. Let's see of we can sweep for hazards and then get the oxygen manufacturing plant up and running."
"Uh, there is no oxygen manufacturing plant here," said Willow.
"What? How do you know that?" asked Rowan.
"Residual O2 tanks," said Willow, turning so that the light mounted in her spacesuit illuminated her jerking a gloved thumb towards some large green cylinders against the bulkhead. "No need to store what you can make more of."
"We have six hours of oxygen. Let's try to be out of here in four," Rowan amended. "We'll have to refill on the shuttle and come back after we sleep and eat."
"Can the shuttle handle the O2 load of all of our tanks?" asked one of other security officers.
"No," said Darrina, the O2 tech. "But we have a cache of extra tanks."
"Okay," said Rowan with an exasperated sigh. "Then we have no time to waste. Let's get the power up so we can retrieve the computer's hard drive and set the surveillance equipment so Panhaema can monitor her remotely. Hopefully the next party will be able to be better prepared."
"Hey, you had no idea what we were walking into," said Willow, placing a gloved hand on Rowan's shoulder. "None of us did – this old relic ran on fossil fuels, can you believe it? I have to muck about and try to rig a nuclear charge that won't blow the whole computer."
"Yeah, but you know how to do that," said Rowan. Her shoulder tingled where Willow had touched her. "Darrina, check these residuals and see if there are any we can use for our refills to extend our time here."
"After all this time? I doubt it, but okay," said Darrina.
"Sue, Jen, Mark, you three stay here with the techs," said Rowan. "The rest of you, come with me, we're sweeping for hazards."
The beams from their suit lights flashed and bobbed through the dark corridors, even as their magnetized boots clanged across the steel floor. Rowan imagined they looked like a group of Frankenstein's monsters, clomping through the old ship. She recorded their progress on her helmet camera to send back to Panhaema once the computer tech established the uplink.
She was drawn to a port in the far bulkhead. The other two security officers kept moving through the corridor and turned to stop.
"No, I'll catch up," said Rowan. "I just need to record all the nooks and crannies for Captain Kee."
She tried the latch and found it locked. The sign outside the door said "Cryogenics Lab". Suddenly, there was a cheer from the computer chamber.
"Come on," she called to her security team and they went to join the others.
"We got it," said Willow.
"We have the uplink to Panhaema and we're sending the data from the computer to the main ship now. And they are sending out another shuttle to pick us up so we don't have to wait for the re-start," said the Communications Technician.
"Excellent," said Rowan. "Hey, Willow, come check this out with me."
Willow followed her the locked door.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"I think whatever is in there is beyond rescue or even salvage after centuries," said Willow with a shrug.
"Or whatever is in here is why we're wearing these bio-clean suits," said Rowan.
"Wait, you think Piole and Kee knew about this? How? The ship isn't identified," said Willow.
Rowan led her closer to the bulkhead and aimed her suit light to the faded door sign. Below the Cryogenics sign, there were the words, "U.S.S. Panhaema".
"This Terran ship has the same name as our Glom ship," Rowan whispered to Willow. "Do you really think it's a coincidence?"
"I think it might be dangerous not to assume so," said Willow quietly. "Come on, we need to get out of here."
"Wait, but why?" asked Rowan.
Willow closed her eyes.
"Please, trust me on this – nothing else, but this, please, just get us all out of here," said willow, propelling Rowan by the arm back to the main group gathered around the computer.
"Tell them we need to leave – you found a hazard, a leaky gas vent or something," said Willow and her grip grew painful, even through the layers of Rowan's spacesuit.
"Why?" Rowan whispered.
"I can't tell you," said Willow. "If I do I'll have to kill you."
"Funny," said Rowan, rolling her eyes.
She caught the steely look in Willow's eyes and realized that the other woman was not joking.
"You better tell me later what's going on," she whispered.
"Fine, but you'll regret the knowledge," said Willow.
"Let me decide that," said Rowan.
She gathered the team and evacuated them from the relic to await the rescue shuttle.
"The uplink is running," said Rowan. "I need to send Panhaema the footage," said Rowan, disconnecting the camera apparatus.
Willow bumped into her, causing the camera to fall to the metal floor and crack the memory disc.
"Why did you do that?" asked Rowan.
"It was an accident – sorry," said Willow, kicking the camera against the bulkhead.
"What in the hells is the matter with you?" asked Rowan.
"You and I are going to volunteer to stay behind and wait for this shuttle to power back up," said Willow.
"Well, of course I am – I have to as lead security officer, but why you?" asked Rowan.
"Because we are going back to the derelict and rescue – um, check out that cryogenics lab," said Willow.
"Oh, no I am not!" said Rowan. "Are you nuts? We'll both be terminated – and that's all if we're lucky. Most likely, we'd be prosecuted."
"We have more right to be on that ship than the Glom – we're Terran!" said Willow, vehemently. "And whatever is in that room is, too."
"You sound like one of those Gaians Captain Kee was talking about," said Rowan, her green eyes narrowed.
"She ought to know," said Willow, cryptically.
"B- but she's Glom!" said Rowan.
"No she isn't," said Willow. "She is a Terran like us."
"And she made ship's captain? Wow," said Rowan. "Maybe there's hope for me yet."
"Never mind, are you going to help me?" asked Willow.
"Yeah," said Rowan. "I will probably regret this, but yeah. What about the video uplink?"
"I've taken care of that," said Willow. "The cameras on the derelict are sending ghost images, so nothing new is being recorded."
As soon as the shuttle was evacuated, Rowan and Willow took the extra O2 tanks left by the evacuating crew and crossed the tether bridge to the ghost ship. It was spookier with only the two of them and the lights strung by Willow on their first expedition cast weird shadows which creeped out Rowan even more.
As they approached the door to the cryo lab, Rowan felt cold. It wasn't possible to feel the temperature through the space suit, but she shivered with cold. Willow took a pack of tools and began to work on the door.
"What are you doing?" asked Rowan.
"Opening the door," said Willow., rising and pushing open the door.
It was dark , illuminated only by the lights in their space suits.
"We need to be very careful here," Willow whispered. "There's no camera, but the Glom suspects that what is here is here."
"What is here, Willow?" asked Rowan.
Willow connected some wires and flooded the room with blinding light. Gleaming silver tanks labelled with the same archaic writing as the sign on the door lined all of the walls and were stacked to the ceiling.
"DNA from every known species existent in the late twentieth Terran century," said Willow. "And the deep space near vacuum condition and sub-zero temperature has kept it perfectly preserved, just as we had hoped."
"Who's we?" asked Rowan.
"The organization known to the Glom as the Gaians, true Terrans determined to take back control of our planet," said Willow. "Listen, Rowan, we're not some crazy fringe looneys. The Glom intends to destroy Earth and replace it with a synth – synthetic planet. The only things holding them back have been the squatters and the lack of Terran species to seed the synth."
"So did you Gaians launch these specimens?" asked Rowan.
"No, but we've kept track of it," said Willow. "It drifted too close to the Glom and caught their attention. "
"So what do we do?" asked Rowan.
"We have to jettison the specimens," said Willow.
"What?! Are you crazy?" asked Rowan.
"No, but it's the only way to protect earth from being destroyed by the Glom," said Willow. "Believe me, it's not what I want to do, either, but once the Glom gets a hold of these, earth is doomed."
"This is not right," Rowan argued. "This – these – are earth, not some dying rock! If the Glom creates a synth planet that can support the life these represent, then why not let them?"
"You do not understand, " said Willow. "We can keep earth the way it is if we can make the Glom go away!"
""The way it is not the way it should be. Maybe the Glom can help us fix that, maybe not, but in any case, they are not ever going to go away, Willow, just like those Roamers in ancient Terran history," said Rowan.
"That's Romans and they did eventually go away, they died out, but not before they destroyed the indigenous cultures they were supposed to be helping. That's why we need to destroy these," said Willow. "To save earth."
"You're not making sense," said Rowan. "Willow, I cannot let you do this."
"And I can't let you stop me," Willow said as she shot a stun stream into Rowan.
Rowan felt even colder as she dropped, paralyzed, to the gleaming metal floor. She moved through space and feared for s moment that Willow jettisoned her body. All was darkness and cold. Rowan tried to move, but felt as though she was bound. She saw misty shapes swirling about in the chamber. They were drawing from her, making her feel colder. She could feel their confusion, and then concern and finally, anger. They misty figures began to grow more solid in appearance and soon, Rowan could almost hear them, buzzing like a hive of bees. She tried to cry out to them, but all she could do was watch as Willow began carting the cryo storage cylinders to the non-operational airlock in preparation to jettisoning them into open space.
"Noooo," Rowan cried, but silently. She raised her eyes to the swirling mists. "Help me stop her!"
The buzzing grew louder and more angry. Suddenly, the misty figures coalesced into a single figure and took solid form.
"Stop, my daughter," said the figure.
Rowan imagined that it was a manifestation of that ancient goddess Gaia.
"I have to save the planet and this is the only way," said Willow.
Rowan was feeling more inside her body as she watched the confrontation.
"No , it is not," said Gaia. "As that one said, I am more than just a dying rock, hurtling through space. As long as these exist, I am for I am in all of them as much as I am in you and in her and all that is. If you would save the earth, save these first."
"How? If the Glom get these, they will not only destroy the planet, but these as well, experimenting and re-engineering their DNA to suit synthesis. We need Terran Eco-Techs to prepare for the re-seeding, not Glom ones who have no emotional stake in our world!" cried Willow.
"I know what to do," said Rowan. "We need to untether this ship. You have any more of those nuclear charges?"
"Yeah?" said Willow.
"Let's get these back in that room," said Rowan. "We'll disconnect the uplink – send some gobbledy-gook computer language instead – and then send the ship back out into space. You said the space conditions protected these before – they will again. The Gaians kept track before; you can do it again."
"'You'? Heh – I got news for you, you're one of us, now," said Willow, watching the figure of Gaia dissolve back into mist and float back up to the ceiling. "Sorry about the stun."
"We'll discuss that later," said Rowan. "Come on, we have work to do. We need to send this ship out of the planet's gravitational pull. Someday, we'll retrieve them and earth will be complete again, but for now, we have a lot of hard work to repair the planet and make her ready to be re-seeded."
It was a close call, but the women managed to place the cryo tanks back in the lab, disconnect the uplink to the Panhaema, and get back to the shuttle before the message from the bridge on the Panhaema came through.
"Come in shuttle one," came the voice.
"Yes, Captain?" Rowan replied.
"We lost the link to the ship," said Lt. CDR Piole.
Rowan looked to Willow who shook her head.
"Say again?" said Rowan as she pressed the button to release the tether cables holding the relic in tow to the shuttle. "We have a problem, Bridge, I repeat, we have a problem. Derelict craft is being pulled toward Earth's atmosphere. We must release the tether. I repeat, we are releasing the derelict. Stand by!"
Rowan looked at Willow who set off the remote charge which sent the U.S.S. Panhaema hurtling off safely into space. She checked the device which would allow them to monitor the location of the ship for some time. The charge appeared as a bright flare and Rowan looked to Willow, who smiled, shook her head, and showed Rowan the safe escape made by the ship. Rowan muted the comlink to the Bridge.
"You do realize we are in pretty deep shit, don't you?" she said.
"Nah we have friends in the highest of places," said Willow.
"What do I tell the Captain?" said Rowan.
"You'll think of something," said Willow.
Rowan scoffed, then started up the shuttle and headed back to the ship. The women disembarked and were ushered immediately to the Captain's quarters for debriefing.
"What happened out there?" asked the Captain, quickly before the XO made her appearance. "Was it -- ?
She cast a furtive glance at Rowan.
"She's initiated, Kee," said Willow. "And yeah, it was. We sent her back out."
"Your orders were to destroy them all," said Captain Kee.
"Yeah, well, you were over ridden by a higher authority," said Willow.
"What does that mean?" asked Kee.
"The ship was haunted," said Rowan.
"Nonsense!" said Kee, although Rowan's sharp eyes caught an uncertainty flash past the captain's eyes for a moment. "Let's not bring your unfortunate ethnic superstitions into this situation."
"Kee, lay off," said Willow, quietly, holding a hand up to silence Rowan's attempt at protest. "Get it together before Piole gets here – it was confusing, but I wouldn't swear that Rowan is wrong."
"Look, here 's what 'officially' happened and what I will be putting in my report," she said. "Willow and I noted some irregularity in some of the data from the derelict. We went back in to investigate and found that the computer was transmitting junk data, possibly virus material. We shut down the link and returned to the shuttle. It was then we noticed that the derelict had drifted close enough to the planet's gravitational pull to start dragging the shuttle – which is not shielded for atmosphere burn. Evidently, neither was the derelict and I made the decision to untether the derelict and save the shuttle – including its two passengers. I witnessed the destruction of the derelict from that burn, but I will attest that there was nothing of salvage value and so will my team."
"Here," said Willow, handing her the monitoring device.
"And you will both corroborate this, I suppose?" said Kee, slipping the device into her uniform pocket.
"Yes," said Willow.
"Very well, you are both debriefed and dismissed. I want the reports on my desk by 0600," she said.
Both women saluted the captain as Piole entered the quarters.
"What happened?" asked Piole.
"I'll fill you in," said Kee, staring at the two women until they rounded the corner. "In short, it was a ghost ship that merely drifted too close to earth's gravity and almost dragged their shuttle along with it. Nothing on the derelict amde the salvage worth the value of the shuttle and it's contents and personnel."
"Ugh, the sooner that planet is replaced with a synth and controllable atmosphere and gravity, the better off those of us assigned to the Terran problem will be," said Piole, shaking her head and turning to examine the data sheets which had been downloaded from the USS Panhaema before the link had been severed. Unseen by Piole, misty figures writhed around Kee, rising up to the ceiling and boiling, buzzing angrily at the executive officer. With supreme effort, Kee pulled them back in and smiled at her executive officer. It was a smile which did not reach her eyes.
"Hm, we'll see," she said.