Chapter 1 [sections 1&2]

“Captain,” the computer spoke over the bridge comset. “We are being relayed a communication form NATO command on Earth.”
“It’s just me, Kitty.” I blushed at the title. It was a technicality of regulations held over from the days of the great ocean-faring navies, that the highest ranking officer in the chain of command aboard a ship be called ‘Captain,’ even if it was only for a short time. “Captain Wright is off duty aboard Venus Station. I’m just keeping his seat warm”
“Well, you are Captain while he is away, Miss Nocona. So you want me to show you the message or what?” Kitty was the ship’s computer. Apparently when they wrote her personality, they thought “childishly obnoxious” would let the crew interact more naturally with her or something.

“Go ahead. Put it up on the main display?” It was the biggest screen on the ship, and I always enjoyed seeing things blown up to the size of an entire wall panel.

For a moment I thought Kitty hadn’t heard me, then there was a burst of screen snow—EM distortion across the video feed—followed quickly by a haggard looking older man in a Japanese fleet uniform, sitting in his command couch and looking much the worse for wear. He was saying something very quickly in what must have been Japanese, while the lights of a battle-stations alert intermittently bathed him in red then white light.

“What’s he saying? Is there more to the message than just the video file?”
“Hold on a second or three, and I’ll have it in English for you. That’s Captain Nakahito from Himeji! Their computer Tsuru was really nice to me when we met before the shakedown.” Kitty liked to babble while she focused on a task. Yet another programmer’s attempt to make her more personable, no doubt. “Here we go. I’ll restart the file.”
The screen burst with static again, but this time when Nakahito spoke it was in standard English.

“…is significant anomalous radiation, and there appear to be significant amounts of debris in the area, though none of our sensing equipment is making any sense. We will continue to search the region for evidence of the–”

There was another burst of static, then the display went dark before the face of an elderly woman with an admiral’s insignia on her uniform appeared.

“Captain Wright, at 2039 Zulu last night, Port Ceres lost contact with Himeji and was unable to regain it. This morning, several observation ports throughout the system were tasked to search for her, and found only trace evidence. The Japanese have asked for help on this, and we’ve agreed. Your orders are to make haste to Ceres, and use all necessary caution in ascertaining the fate of Captain Nakahito and his crew. Tensions are high right now, and nobody wants to point fingers and end up with a second Belt War. But if the Chinese are behind this, we need to know the why and how. Further information is attached, including what we know about Himeji’s mission. Godspeed, Jemarcus. Thompson out.”
“Well, fuck,” I said with characteristic eloquence. “Can you raise the Captain, Kitty?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but the station’s computer is a real blockhead. He won’t let me access anything over there.”
I sighed and shook my head in mild frustration. “Did it occur to you to page the station’s comm officer on the standard frequency? Make sure you tag it highest priority.”
“Oh, I guess I could do that too, Captain. I promise I will try that first, next time. On your screen, sir.”

There was a burst of comm noise, then the swarthy face of Venus Station’s communications second snapped into focus on my command display. What was his name? Rafe? Ralph?

“Rawlins, it’s Nocona on Kitty Hawk.” I tried not to smile over the link. That rarely went well.

He grimaced, of course.

“What do you want, Kitty Hawk?”
I could feel the sudden burn of adrenaline in my chest as I built up the importance of what I was about to say.

“We have a Priority One over here. I need a Return Call for Captain Wright and all Kitty Hawk crew aboard Venus Station.”

Rawlins’ eyes glazed over for a moment, and I realized I was holding my own breath. For a second time in fifteen minutes, I felt my face flush. Only for a moment, though.

“Roger that, Kitty Hawk. I’ll past it along.”

* * *

Lieutenant Colonel Kelly climbed up the ladder onto the bridge, and I quickly evacuated from the command station. I had a moment to stare at the riveted decking beneath my boots, and reminded myself that Kitty Hawk’s executive officer was just another mortal like the rest of us—not a goddess chiseled from living marble. She, of course, spent the entire time staring me right in the face, silently judging my demeanor.

“Report, Lieutenant?” The gentleness of the command did nothing to belie the self-assured physicality behind it.

“Orders from Admiral Thompson, sir. The Japanese lost Himeji in the Ceres sector of the Belt.” I paused to breathe, and felt my ears turn red. Addressing instructors at the academy was one thing,but even two weeks into service aboard Kitty Hawk hadn’t cured me of getting the jitters when addressing senior officers.

The Lieutenant Colonel waited through my pause, presumably to let me put my thoughts in order, then interjected right before I opened my mouth to continue.

“So what does she want us to do about it? Fly out to the Belt and rescue the poor fucks?” She stalked from the ladderway and stood over me, her iron gaze somehow daring me to admit I was joking—then she snorted and let out a half-hearted chuckle. “Relax, kid. You made the right call, waking us up. Queue up the vid for the Captain, and move over to the Communications station to monitor check-ins.”

My face got tight with an uncontrolled grimace. I turned away to hide my reluctance, and said a quick “Aye, sir,” hoping she hadn’t seen.

Kitty greeted me at the Comm station and switched the display on before I got settled in my seat.

“The medical team is reporting. Doctor Godderson says that both her medics are at their stations.” A graphic of the crew manifest popped up over Kitty’s olden LoLCats background of the day. “And Marine Team Two reports all members are at their posts.” The medics and the three marines from Team Two switched from red to black on the manifest.

“Go ahead and list me and the XO as checked in too, Kitty.”

“Of course, Lieutenant.” Quick as she was with calculations, sometimes Kitty missed obvious details of procedure. I guess that’s why they still have us flesh-and-blood people flying around in space instead of just leaving it up to the machines.


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