Following the Advance team, the Exodus ship f mutated changers.
Chief Engineer Adina Vantressa, responsible for keeping the Exodus vessel operational, stays far away from her vast family. She doesnâ€™t trust them.
Nurse Briar Lindemay shares a secret with her younger sister Caya, an unregistered changer whom Briar has unlawfully broheads toward a new homeworld. Here they will build a future without the threat ought with her aboard Exodus. Briar constantly worries they may be discovered.
Adina and Briar meet, and their attraction grows despite their attempts to stay apart. Briar fears that acting on her feelings will take her focus from Caya. Adinaâ€™s emotional scars hinder her, but she canâ€™t ignore how Briar makes her feel.
When disaster strikes and the only way to save the Exodus is to trust what the people aboard fear most, will the authorities listen? Or is the journey over and everything lost?
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Pathfinder – Exodus: Book Two
by Gun Brooke
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â€œCommander Vantressa! Behind you!â€
Adina Vantressa pivoted, her tall, lithe body in perfect balance as she kept her rifle at eye level. Several more changers approached, two of them bouncing what looked like balls of plasma between their hands, getting ready to throw. A strange, burned odor emanated from the crackling phenomenon.
â€œStay back,â€ Adina said, her low alto voice carrying through the turmoil. The street along the park of the capitalâ€™s most prestigious area looked like a warzone. Overturned vehicles, injured civilians, and burning structures had transformed the beautiful area into something unrecognizable. â€œIf you donâ€™t stand down, I have no choice but to open fire.â€ She didnâ€™t want to shoot any of her fellow countrymen. Cursing the presidentâ€™s idea to arrange a â€œunityâ€ parade, Adina held her ground as the changers advanced.
During the last few decades, the security issues regarding the Oconodians who carried the previously dormant genetic markers that, when activated, gave them powers beyond what anyone could ever have dreamed up, had escalated out of control. Poor political decisions served to make matters worse as the changers were treated less than humane, some subjected to preemptive incarceration on sketchy grounds. Skirmishes with the authorities had led to deaths among the changers, and other changers had retaliated with even more deaths as a result. Families, torn apart when children or parents failed the screenings, sustained a heartache they would never recover from.
â€œSheâ€™s going for it, sir.â€ Lieutenant Dodgmer, her next in command, a burly man whoâ€™d sat behind her in the damn parade vehicle, spoke behind her. Stepping up next to her, he kept his crossbow armed with stun-arrows trained on the closest changer. The woman, tall, in her early thirties, and with long white hair, let the plasma-ball hover above her palm. She smiled as she approached them.
â€œThatâ€™s far enough. Take her out, Lieutenant.â€ Adina would rather heâ€™d shoot with his non-lethal ammunition.
The arrow penetrated the womanâ€™s shoulder but had no effect. Adina changed the setting on her rifle. So, this would get uglier yet. â€œMy ammo isnâ€™t as benevolent. Stand down.â€ One final warning, which the changer ignored. She tossed her head, making her long hair billow in the wind. Raising her uninjured hand, the changer looked ready to throw the ball. Adinaâ€™s rifle was set to take out a life form three times the womanâ€™s size. She fired. The changer staggered back and sank to her knees. Her smile changed into an ugly frown. With a growl, she tossed the ball at them before she tumbled onto her back and remained still. The rest of her gang pulled back when they saw their leader fall.
Adina looked down at herself. Her left shoulder burned with a fizzing sound. Numbly she waited for the pain she knew was coming, but when the substance in the plasma-ball burned through Adinaâ€™s dress uniform, it was still worse than sheâ€™d expected.
â€œAhhh!â€ Sinking to her knees, unable to work past the pain despite her training, Adina clutched her shoulder. This was a mistake, as it emphasized the agony.
â€œSir!â€ Dodgmer was at her side. â€œMedic! I need a medic over here.â€
â€œJust get me to the base.â€ Adina didnâ€™t trust the civilian hospitals. Their security measures were hardly prioritized now when most people counted the days to the commencement of the Exodus operation. Over two million Oconodians were leaving to make a new home free of changers on another planet. An advance fleet had gone forward and secured a suitable world for them, and people were packed and ready to go.
As Adinaâ€™s lieutenant half carried, half dragged her along the park fence line, she thought how ironic it would be if the Exodus ship lost its chief engineer before the journey even began. For the last fifteen years she had worked alongside the creator of the twenty-some cube-shaped vessels that could maneuver independently or be docked in several patterns as one. The designer, Admiral Korrian Heigel, had handpicked Adina, and together with Meija Solimar, the social anthropologist who was also Korrianâ€™s wife, sheâ€™d reveled in the task of working toward a solution to save their people…
â€œSir! Stay alert, Commander. Weâ€™re almost at the end of the street. Thereâ€™s a checkpoint with hovercraft and theyâ€™ll get you to the base in no time.â€ Her lieutenantâ€™s voice sounded as if it came through bubbling water.
â€œGood.â€ Slurring her words now and barely able to breathe, Adina couldnâ€™t see through the haze surrounding her. Voices cried out, and the acrid odor from the burn on her shoulder made her sick. She tried to blink and clear her vision, but the dark became impenetrable. Adina thought she heard the telltale sound of a hovercraft nearby. She had to close her eyes despite Dodgmerâ€™s frantic words. So tired, she needed to rest for a moment. She slumped at Dodgmerâ€™s side, her legs giving in.
â€œSir, just a few more steps. Weâ€™re nearly there.â€ Dodgmer dragged her, her numb legs refusing to cooperate, toward the fluttering sound. â€œYou can do it, sir. We need you aboard the Exodus ships. Donâ€™t you dare die on me.â€
â€œNot dead yet.â€ Adina forced her eyes open, groaning against the blinding light as she did. â€œGet me on the damn hovercraft. Thatâ€™s an order.â€
The last thing Adina knew was how she slammedinto a hard, vibrating surface. It smelled of singed metal.
Finally, the hovercraft. She might just stand a chance.
â€œI canâ€™t believe we made it, Briar. If you hadnâ€™t risked everything, Iâ€™d have been left behind.â€ Caya Lindemay stood in the midst of their quarters, regarding her sister with huge turquoise eyes.
Briar pulled her young sister close as she turned her attention to the large screen showing the view of the space dock and, behind that, Oconodos, their home planet. Former home planet. She kissed the top of Cayaâ€™s head. â€œYouâ€™re wrong. If we hadnâ€™t been able to fake our records, I wouldâ€™ve stayed behind with you. No matter what.â€
Teary-eyed now, Caya only nodded. She was a petite, deceptively fragile-looking nineteen-year-old possessing an ethereal beauty. Normally quite headstrong and willful, Caya had changed during these last months. Briar prayed their being safely aboard Pathfinder would restore her personality. She never thought sheâ€™d miss their butting heads over trivial matters, but she did.
â€œWhy donâ€™t we go to the closest common area and experience the launch with the rest of our neighbors?â€ Briar smiled encouragingly. â€œIâ€™m on duty in six hours, and by then weâ€™ll be well underway.â€
â€œAll right.â€ Perking up, Caya gazed down at herself. â€œWhat should I wear?â€
Briar laughed, delighted, as this was such a normal question for Caya. â€œYouâ€™re fine. Just do something about that mane of yours. Youâ€™ll catch people with those wild curls.â€ Briar thought Caya looked otherworldly, and she always had, with her waist-long golden-blond hair and transparent turquoise eyes. Now Caya tied her hair into a high ponytail.
â€œHow about me?â€ Briar turned and held out her arms. She knew she couldnâ€™t even compare to Caya. Where Cayaâ€™s hair was a golden hue, Briarâ€™s was copper red and only reached her shoulders. Briarâ€™s eyes, transparent light green, were the only of her own features that pleased her whenever she had a rare moment to examine her appearance. Caya claimed Briarâ€™s pink freckles were cute, but having been teased about them as a young girl, Briar disagreed.
â€œYou look awesome. That aqua trouser suit fits you perfectly. Arenâ€™t you glad I persuaded you to buy it?â€
â€œWell, I suppose.â€ Briar nodded. â€œI admit I found it an unnecessary expense then, but you were right.â€
Caya brightened. â€œSee?â€ She checked her reflection in the mirror just inside the door. â€œLetâ€™s go then.â€
They weaved their way through the crowded corridor. People were either trying to find their quarters or on their way to the common area.
â€œItâ€™s so big,â€ Caya said, sounding breathless. She clung to Briarâ€™s hand. â€œIâ€™ll never find my way around here!â€
â€œIâ€™ve studied the blueprints, and once we become familiar with our part of the ship, weâ€™ll be able to apply that knowledge to all the other areas.â€ The Pathfinder consisted of twenty-three units, cube-shaped, that were able to move by changing the polarity of powerful magnets. It could also be divided up in twenty-three separate ships if need be. Each cube could host 100,000 individuals, which Briar thought was an unfathomable number. Some units held hospitals, and others hosted vital functions like engineering, the bridge, and law enforcement. The ship designers had thought of everything: schools, universities, places for worship, and parks. The passengers also enjoyed stores, factories, restaurants, libraries, and recreational areas within a close distance.
Briar, a neonatal intensive-care-unit nurse, was assigned to work at the main hospital, geared toward specialized care, four cubes from theirs. Each cube had its own standard medical unit, but the main hospital would deal with the critically ill or the most difficult traumas. Briar had seen information videos explaining how the transportation system worked and knew it would take her about thirty minutes to get to her duty station, depending on the demand for jumpers.
They reached the common area, where Caya lit up considerably when she saw the trees and grass in the center of the square. This was one of many and, as it was close to their quarters, was no doubt going to be a familiar spot in the future. Briar spotted a free table at the cafÃ© to their right. Sprinting through the crowd, she secured it for herself and Caya. Briar ordered some herbal tea for them and gratefully relaxed against the backrest. She would soon be on her feet for twelve hours straight during the night, and knowing how intense her shifts usually became, she would have very little rest.
â€œIt looks like a real sky, almost,â€ Caya said and peered up at the ceiling. â€œHow did they do that?â€
â€œWith some special paint that absorbs the brightness from the light sources, I think.â€ Briar had worked so hard on studying everything required of them before the Exodus, and even gone beyond what was mandatory. To keep Caya safe, she couldnâ€™t allow major surprises. â€œIt will follow our normal rhythm to not confuse our sense of time.â€
â€œThatâ€™s great,â€ Caya said, tilting her head and making her ponytail fall onto her shoulder. â€œIâ€™d hate to get the hours all jumbled.â€
â€œMe too.â€ Sipping her tea, Briar tried to grasp the fact they were actually aboard and nobody had suspected Caya was anything but a regular teenage girl. At nineteen, she looked several years younger. No one, not even the lab tech whoâ€™d performed the genetic scan, knew the truth about Caya. When Briar had discovered Cayaâ€™s abilitiesseveral years ago, sheâ€™d thrown herself into planning their deceit. The authorities mustnâ€™t find out about Cayaâ€™s gift. The punishment for concealing and hiding a changer was severe. For the changer it was even worse. If anyone found out about Caya before they reached their new home planet, she would no doubt be put into an escape pod and jettisoned. Briar would be incarcerated for a very long time.
Shaking off her onset of nerves at such prospects, Briar regarded the crowd around them. She had delayed coming aboard until the very last minute, thinking the guards would be less diligent in their scans and probing questions with launch time only hours away. Her plan had worked splendidly. A weary ensign had waved them in and confirmed their quarters and status among the population. Now, two hours later, all two million passengers and crew were aboard. Briar tried not to think of the people left behind, either voluntarily or because their genetic makeup disqualified them. They would soon launch into march speed. Everything was carried on remotely since the space dock was now deserted.
Speakers crackled briefly and a huge holographic screen appeared across the square. A tall, distinguished-looking man in uniform came into view, flanked by one man and one woman, also in uniform.
â€œGreetings, Oconodians. My name is Fleet Admiral Orien Vayand. Iâ€™m the military commander for this mission of taking our people to our new home, so far called P-105, but that designation will change, of course. Weâ€™re about to release the docking clamps and begin the journey for which weâ€™ve prepared for decades. Some of you have already lived aboard Pathfinder for months as you embarked first; some of you arrived only hours ago. You may or may not have family or friends left behind on Oconodos, and I recognize this is a bittersweet moment. On one hand, itâ€™s filled with promise for a safer future, and on the other, itâ€™s a farewell to our world, our past, most likely forever.â€ Vayand cleared his throat, his deep baritone emphasizing the emotional moment for all of them. â€œNo matter what, weâ€™re on our way and will make a stop at the Loghia homeworld to collect the 100,000-some Gemosians who are joining us.â€
Briar had closely followed the disastrous event two years ago, when the Advance team from Oconodos had come upon the destroyed Gemosian homeworld. The use of garnet oil in a mining endeavor on one of Gemosisâ€™s moons had caused the moon to explode, which in turn created natural catastrophes all over Gemosis. Only a little more than 100,000 Gemosians survived and had to take refuge on their closest neighboring planet, Loghia. Ironically, it was the same world where garnet oil originated. Now, most of the Gemosians, including those of their cabinet of ministers who had survived, had arranged to join the Exodus fleet.
â€œWe heard from Admiral Caydoc and her interim government on P-105 only hours ago. She assures me theyâ€™ll be ready for us to arrive approximately two years from now. As you know, it took the Advance team a little more than a year to reach P-105, but as our vessel is so much more intricate and larger, we canâ€™t travel as fast as they did by magnetar drive.â€ Vayand smiled. â€œWith me to my left is my next in command, Commodore Numeyo, and on my right, my chief engineer, Commander Adina Vantressa. They are in charge of day-to-day business when it comes to getting us all to our goal safely.â€ Nodding briskly, Vayand motioned for someone not yet in sight. â€œNow I will let President Gassinthea de Mila Tylio take over. Madam President?â€ He gestured toward the transmitter and a white-haired woman in her fifties stepped into view.
â€œGreetings on this historic day, my fellow Oconodians.â€ President Tylio went on with her speech, but Briar wasnâ€™t listening anymore. She focused on the woman standing to Vayandâ€™s right, the chief engineer. Brown hair, short and wavy, framed a strong face and widely set brown eyes. No, not brown, more like liquid amber. She stood at attention slightly behind her superior officers but looked completely confident.
â€œImagine being on the same ship as the president.â€ Caya interrupted Briarâ€™s thoughts. â€œI never realized sheâ€™s so beautiful. Just look at her.â€
â€œA ship with more than two million individuals. I daresay the chance of you ever even spotting Tylio at a distance is miniscule. Letâ€™s keep it that way.â€ She raised her eyebrow deliberately at her dreamy-eyed sister. â€œAnd donâ€™t give me your â€˜letâ€™s just see about that, shall weâ€™ look.â€
â€œYeah, yeah.â€ Caya crinkled her nose. â€œNo matter whatâ€¦â€œShe stopped talking and paled. Her hands began shaking, and she dropped her tea mug, which made a loud clatter as it hit the deck. People around them paid hardly any attention, but Briar trembled from anxiety as she rounded the table quickly.
â€œSweetheart. Whatâ€™s wrong?â€
â€œDarkâ€¦dark and no air.â€ Stuttering, her lips tense, Caya was losing all color as the blood drained from her face. Her voice was slow, and she spoke with a slur Briar recognized only too well.
Damn it, this couldnâ€™t happen now. Not in public. Briar hauled her sister up and wrapped a steady arm around her. â€œLetâ€™s get you out of here. Must be something you ate before we came aboard.â€ Briar spoke the latter in a louder voice for the sake of potential onlookers. She knew alltoowell what was happening to Caya.
Helping Caya back to their quarters, Briar managed to remember the lock combination despite her fear of meeting someone whoâ€™d realize what was really going on. Inside, she helped Caya lie down in her alcove. â€œThere. Weâ€™re alone. Youâ€™re fine.â€
â€œItâ€™s not clear.â€ Caya sobbed. â€œSo strange. It isnâ€™t clear when itâ€™s going to happen or where, but everything is dark and lives are lost. So much pain comes from that darkness andâ€¦youâ€™re there.â€ She looked up at Briar with turquoise eyes framed by wet lashes. â€œYou need to be very careful.â€
â€œOf course Iâ€™ll be careful.â€ Briar knew better than to doubt Cayaâ€™s premonitions. Her accuracy in seeing details about what would happen in the very near future was uncanny. Usually, Cayaâ€™s visions stretched only one or two days forward. They came to her at any given time, and her physical response ranged from mild surprise to violent convulsions, depending on the subject matter. This wasnâ€™t the worst reaction Briar had witnessed, but strong enough for her to feel unsettled.
â€œIâ€”I need to sleep now.â€ Caya squeezed her eyes shut. As Briar pulled a blanket over her still-shivering body, Caya snapped them open again, panic radiating from her. â€œDid anyone see me? Did anyoneâ€”â€
â€œNo. I mean, I donâ€™t think anyone saw anything but a girl getting overwhelmed and perhaps a bit sick. Everyone was watching President Tylio.â€
â€œYou sure?â€ Gripping Briarâ€™s wrist with strong, ice-cold fingers, Caya flicked her eyes back and forth, as if trying to read the truth in her older sisterâ€™s.
â€œI am. Rest now. Iâ€™ll make us something to eat later before I have to report for duty. I canâ€™t be late for my first shift.â€ Briar smiled wryly. â€œNo doubt the chief nurse would have my head. Iâ€™ve met her only briefly, but I bet she can be scary.â€
â€œHa. Sheâ€™ll love you, like all your previous bosses have.â€ Sounding calmer now, Caya yawned and turned on her side. â€œWake me in time to help you set the table.â€
â€œAll right.â€ Briar sat on the side of the bed until Caya fell asleep. She tenderly stroked the long tresses from Cayaâ€™s face. Her little sister did look like a fairy-tale creature with her long hair and transparent, all-seeing eyes. Even as a baby, she had drawn people in. Fascinated by her delicate features and strong presence, all their parentsâ€™ friends and family had worshipped Caya. Briar, in turn, was never envious of her sister. She never sought the attention Caya always attracted, nor did she begrudge her sister the way she always remained center stage. Instead, Briar took it upon herself to protect Caya against those of her young peers who were jealous.
Briar sighed as she stood. She found it impossible to avoid the painful memories of the unforeseen events that had taken their parents from them. First their mother became ill with the Garazabian plague when Caya was five and Briar eighteen. She died in the hospital within a week. She was gone so fast and it broke their father, who left them to fend for themselves during long periods of time when he worked off-planet. It was as if he couldnâ€™t bear to be around his daughters, especially Caya, who strongly resembled her mother. Briar had just finished her training as a nurse when she learned their father had died in a mining accident on the Hosoni asteroid belt. Caya was eight and Briar twenty-one. Apart from a few elderly, distant relatives, they were on their own.
Pushing away the memories of how sheâ€™d struggled to keep Caya with her, Briar switched the screen from the exterior viewfinders to the presidentâ€™s broadcast. Tylio had finished, and now the tall, dark-haired woman, the chief engineer, spoke.
â€œOnce we are safely away from the space dock, weâ€™ll go to magnetar drive, which weâ€™ll maintain for a little more than thirty days. Weâ€™ll slow down to march drive as we approach Loghia. There, weâ€™ll evacuate the Gemosians, which will take approximately six days.â€
Briar had never heard such a vibrant alto voice with such a dark timbre and obvious strength. Briar easily imagined her in command. What was her name again? Oh, thatâ€™s right. Adina Vantressa. Forceful, andâ€¦there was something arrogant, even disdainful around her.
â€œOnce theyâ€™re all installed and the cabinet approves a final passenger manifest, weâ€™ll be on our way to P-105. Iâ€™m in charge of engineering, and if you have technical issues of any kind, you will talk to my subordinates. We have a hundred engineers on each cube. We donâ€™t expect anything serious to come up, but we all enjoy our recycled hot water for our showers, donâ€™t we?â€ She smiled, and this expression altered her severe features altogether. Her amber eyes sparkled, and stepping closer to the screen, Briar saw the fine lines around them. Perfect white teeth glimmered between her full lips. â€œIâ€™ll give the floor back to Fleet Admiral Vayand now.â€ She turned with military precision and resumed her place behind Vayand.
â€œAs you can tell, weâ€™re in the best of hands. I know youâ€™ve all read this in the information package you received, but it bears repeating. When you hear the signal and order to strap yourselves in, including the children, do so immediately. Going to magnetar drive is a dizzying experience, even for those of us who have been through it before. Our new life is about to begin. I wish for us all to go in peace and splendor.â€
â€œPeace and splendor,â€ Briar muttered under her breath and turned the screen back to exterior viewfinders. Oconodos sparkled like a blue-green pearl in the upper left corner. Once they engaged magnetar drive, she would never see her home planet again. She and Caya were headed for a new home, a new world, and nothing was going to happen to her sister. As long as Caya never gave anyone a reason to doubt her genetic makeup, they were home free.
Starting to prepare some of the food available through the automatic system hooked up to all quarters, Briar found herself gripping the dicing tool so hard, her hand hurt. Who was she trying to fool?
A lot could still go wrong.
**Commander and Chief Engineer**
One day and my family is already breathing down my neck and demanding things of me. They should know better. Correction. They do know better. Mother is only doing this to reestablish herself as the ultimate matriarch. My stepfather #4 uses his proverbial blinders, and I swear heâ€™s getting increasingly out of touch with reality each time I see them. Then there are the siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and the grandparents, andâ€¦I honestly could have gone on this mission alone, without one single member of my family aboard the Pathfinder, and never missed them for a second. No matter how easy it is for them to weasel their way into peopleâ€™s lives and minds, theyâ€™re not getting anywhere near me. As chief engineer I rarely have to interact with the passengers, no matter the size of the vesselâ€”this ought to make it easier for me to stay clear of the Vantressa clan.
A chirping sound from her communicator automatically put Adinaâ€™s log entry on pause. â€œVantressa here.â€ She impatiently tapped the surface of her desk.
â€œWe have a major power loss in sector eleven, sir,â€ a stress-filled voice gushed at the other end.
â€œFor some reason, several of the generators arenâ€™t kicking in. Most power sources are off-line.â€
Adina stood and pulled on her jacket. â€œIâ€™m on my way over there. Have the team on standby in main engineering.â€ Thundering in her chest, Adinaâ€™s heart felt like it was about to trip and fall. Sector eleven. That was the main hospital cube. A power loss on a space ship was always serious, but when it affected a medical facility, it could be disastrous. If she didnâ€™t fix this problem instantly, and on day one of their journey to a new and safer world, her reputation would become seriously dented. Not to mention her own self-confidence.
The jumper shuttle system took her to the tenth sector, which didnâ€™t appear affected by the power cut. Tapping her communicator, Adina barked her orders. â€œIâ€™m on the threshold to sector eleven.â€ She peered through the dark tunnel. No jumper cars appeared. The power outage was affecting the main grid as well. That wasnâ€™t exactly good news.
â€œThe power cut is to a defined area in sector eleven. The starboard part of the hospital and the shuttle system.â€
â€œAll right. When can you reach the department heads in the hospital cube, sector elevenâ€”â€
â€œHello? Nurse Lindemay, NICU unit, university hospital cube eleven here. Hello?â€ The clear, young-sounding voice broke through the channel assigned to engineering. â€œWe have no power. This is an emergency, as the backup system hasnâ€™t kicked in. Our incubators have no power! Can anyone hear me?â€
Adina frowned. â€œYouâ€™re on the official engineering channel, Nurseâ€¦ehâ€¦Lindemay,â€ Adina said curtly. â€œI suggest you check your manual and find the nearestâ€”â€
â€œCheck my manual? Are you joking? Itâ€™s pitch-black in here, my premature babies are on oxygen, or I should say, they were on oxygen, but now we have no power. And no backup power.â€
â€œThis is being dealt with. I suggest your return to you duty stationâ€”â€
â€œI heard you before. Youâ€™re Vantressa, from the broadcast this morning?â€
â€œYou need to come here and figure this out. I have my entire staff hand- ventilating twenty-six babies who canâ€™t saturate themselves on their own.â€
â€œAs I saidâ€”â€
â€œNot good enough,â€ Lindemay snapped. â€œMy babies will die. The future generation of our people. These are someone elseâ€™s beloved children, and without the technology available to keep them alive, they wonâ€™t make it. That will be on your head since you refuse to come here.â€
Adinaâ€™s mind whirled. Children. Tiny, premature babies struggling for air. Damn it. â€œAll right. Iâ€™m on my way. Keep the kids alive until Iâ€™ve solved the problem.â€
â€œYouâ€™re handling this yourself?â€ Lindemay sounded hesitant.
â€œYes. Get off the official channel system. Vantressa out.â€ Adina climbed onto the magnetic track where the jumpers normally ran continuously. She tugged at a lever and a large hatch opened, deploying a two-seated mini-jumper, which utilized hover technology instead of relying on the track. She entered and was about to head into the black tunnel when a male voice stopped her.
â€œCommander! Glad I caught up with you.â€ Lieutenant Dodgmer climbed into the mini-jumper. â€œMy teamâ€™s meeting at the hospital entrance.â€
â€œGood.â€ She lowered the bubble around them that would protect them in case of an atmosphere leak in the tunnel system. â€œWhat the hell could be wrong? I surveyed the systems over the last week and everything functioned perfectly.â€ Adina shook her head in dismay. â€œAnd now, of course, little babies, the future of our people, are in danger of asphyxiating.â€
â€œOh, Creator of Oconodos, thatâ€™s just too much.â€ Dodgmer, usually stoicism personified, looked ill at ease. â€œMy youngest was in a NICU ward on Oconodos for six weeks.â€
Adina had forgotten that about Dodgmerâ€™s twelve-year-old son. Now she remembered how as a lieutenant commander she had visited the Dodgmer family in the hospital, and how impossibly tiny the little girl had been. â€œWeâ€™re going to fix it,â€ she said through gritted teeth.
The mini-jumper hummed through the tunnel system, not as fast as the regular ones, but at enough speed for Dodgmer to actually strap himself in. â€œNobodyâ€™s going to help anyone if we crash into a tunnel wall,â€ he muttered as Adina barely scraped along the left side. â€œCreator, Iâ€™d already forgotten how you drive.â€
â€œAh, come on. Weâ€™re almost at the hospitalâ€™s jumper gate.â€ The lights alerting them about the gate flickered erratically. Slowing down, Adina pulled the mini-jumper to the side and let it hover a few moments near the exit while checking out the situation around the gate. The crowd gathered there was not agitated, but it was obvious that the blackout and subsequent transportation malfunction was having a direct effect. â€œLetâ€™s go,â€ Adina said, and grabbed her tool kit. â€œKeep your sidearm ready.â€ While they stepped out of the mini-jumper, Adina opened a channel to security, requesting extra personnel. â€œPeople have become used to riots the last few years. Letâ€™s make sure we donâ€™t have one here.â€
The hospital gate was heavily guarded. Adina and Dodgmer merely nodded at the ensigns flanking it. Hoping the guards werenâ€™t the trigger-happy kind, Adina took in the scene in the lobby. Information staff had their hands full, and everywhere, extra lanterns cast a golden glow, so different from the bright, crisp light in the hospital.
â€œMy teamâ€™s here.â€ Dodgmer waved the engineers over.
â€œExcellent. I have two other teams deployed throughout the hospital. Weâ€™re going to focus mainly on the childrenâ€™s wards, the NICU in particular.â€
â€œAye, sir.â€ Dodgmer handed out assignments to his team, consisting of five men and three women, all in uniform.
â€œUsing the elevators is bound to get us stuck in a shaft,â€ Adina said. â€œIâ€™ll join my crew on the NICU floor.â€ She nodded toward the stairwell.
â€œMy teamâ€™s already on its way up the stairs,â€ Dodgmer said. As he spoke, the voices outside became increasingly louder, and Adina hoped the added security details would arrive quickly. If concerned relatives decided to force the entrance, the guards in place wouldnâ€™t stand a chance unless they began shooting. For any Oconodian soldier or law-enforcement officer to fire on their own kind was traumatizing. Adina knew of many whoâ€™d left their chosen profession after having to perform such a task.
â€œWe better get going.â€ Adina strode toward the stairwell. No matter what took place on the first floor, her duty was to restore power and safety to the NICU units.
Nurse Lindemay hadnâ€™t exaggerated. Apart from the handheld lights, the NICU wards were completely dark. Still, most of the occupants seemed calm and spoke in low voices, with the exception of a few people who called out in worry and fear. Judging from their echoing words, they were parents of the children cared for in these wards.
â€œAre you from engineering?â€ a firm voice asked, and a light shone in Adinaâ€™s eyes. â€œCommander Vantressa. I recognize you.â€
Assuming this might be the nurse she had spoken to before, Adina held her hand up. â€œMind pointing that somewhere else, Nurse Lindemay?â€ The light shifted instantly.
â€œYes. Sorry. Do you know your way to the control consoles?â€ Lindemay flicked her light to the left side of the corridor.
â€œYes.â€ Adina could distinguish the nurse now. Automatically she registered her average height, slight build, and reddish hair kept back with a broad headband. She wore the usual scrubs of indeterminable color. â€œAdditional security officers will arrive shortly. From now on, each of the wards, individually, is on lockdown.â€
â€œLockdown? For a power outage?â€ Lindemay said, but seemed to change her mind. â€œAll right. Sure. Just hurry up, all right?â€ She held up her other hand, demonstrating the oxygen tanks she was carrying. â€œThese wonâ€™t last forever.â€
â€œGot it.â€ Adina hurried toward the consoles kept in a small room. Everything in there was off-line. â€œHow the hell did this happen?â€ she muttered as she began to rip off the plating to the circuitry and crystals placed there.
â€œNo clue, sir.â€ Dodgmer was busy erecting work beams to give them enough light to see what they were doing.
Adina lifted off the tray holding the guiding crystals that ran every single calculation and operation of Pathfinderâ€™s systems and gazed behind it. â€œWhat the hell?â€ She directed the beams toward the area farther into the console.
â€œDamn it. Thatâ€™s not just any malfunction. Creator of Oconodos.â€ Dodgmer leaned in to feel one of the almost-liquefied circuits.
â€œDonâ€™t. This isâ€¦something I havenâ€™t seen in years.â€ Adina tapped her communicator. â€œVantressa to Admiral Heigel.â€ She was about to repeat her hail when a somber voice replied.
â€œHeigel here, Commander. What are you doing to my ship?â€
â€œNot much, sir. Yet. I need your input into whatâ€™s going on at the NICU wards on cube eleven. Itâ€™s bad, sir.â€
â€œWeâ€™re on our way,â€ Heigel said, her voice as commanding and stern as itâ€™d been when Adina had first met her twenty years ago. The word â€œweâ€ hadnâ€™t escaped her. It was clear Heigel was going to bring her spouse, Chief Anthropologist Meija Solimar. The two women had worked tirelessly together for the better part of their lives. Admiral Heigel was now close to seventy-five years old and Solimar a few years younger.
â€œWeâ€™re in trouble, arenâ€™t we?â€ Dodgmer said gravely. â€œAs youâ€™re calling in the woman who made this possible on the first day.â€
â€œIf I didnâ€™t, itâ€™d be a dereliction of duty on my part. This,â€ Adina said, gesturing toward the still-melting mess, â€œcan destroy the entire cube unless itâ€™s contained. And we need to double security. If Iâ€™m right, this is manmade.â€
â€œFuck.â€ Dodgmer engaged his communicator and ordered more security to the hospital and also to checkpoints at the open airlock to the surrounding cubes.
Adina donned protective gloves. Pulling out her scanner, she ran it from a distance. The readings turned out to be all over the place. â€œThis doesnâ€™t make sense, Lieutenant,â€ she said, tapping the screen. â€œIâ€™m reading components that couldnâ€™t possibly end up in there, unlessâ€¦â€ She broke off and scanned closer to the melted circuits. â€œUnless this indeed is sabotage.â€ Adina stared at the readings. â€œI donâ€™t believe this. Dodgmer, have your people evacuate this ward. We have to open every damn system console in the entire unit, but for now, weâ€™ll work with this as unit zero.â€
â€œOn it, sir.â€
Adina was headlong into the console when a loud exchange of voices reached her. â€œWhat the hellâ€¦?â€ She stood and strode into the corridor. Right in front of her, Dodgmer and Nurse Lindemay stood, toe to toe, the feisty nurse actually pressing a fingertip into Dodgmerâ€™s vest.
â€œWhat about â€˜it canâ€™t be doneâ€™ donâ€™t you understand, Lieutenant?â€ Lindemay said. â€œSome of the wall units are just that. Wall units. As in attached and unable to move around.â€
â€œYou need to evacuate the ward.â€ Dodgmer pointed toward the exit. â€œThe areaâ€™s not safe.â€
â€œWhat am I supposed to do? Put the premature babies in my pockets and run?â€ Lindemay flung her hands in the air, and from Adinaâ€™s point of view it was smart of the woman to stop poking Dodgmer.
â€œMove your staff and the children that arenâ€™t attached to the wall.â€ Adina glared at the other two. â€œAsk for volunteers to help care for the remaining babies.â€
â€œActually only two are fragile enough to require the non-mobile units. Iâ€™ll stay behind and ventilate one andâ€”â€
â€œShow me and Iâ€™ll take one,â€ Dodgmer said brusquely. â€œThat way you free staff members to help out at the other units.â€
Lindemay blinked. â€œEh, all right. Itâ€™s pretty easy. Come on.â€ She motioned for Dodgmer to accompany her, and Adina returned to the console room. Approaching steps made her glance over her shoulder, and she was relieved when she spotted Admiral Heigel and Meija Solimar.
The former immediately knelt next to Adina. â€œReport.â€
â€œIâ€™ve completed two different readings.â€ Adina handed over her scanner. â€œItâ€™s bad, sir. Weâ€™re looking at some sort of white-garnet compound.â€
Heigel didnâ€™t flinch, but her eyes snapped to meet Adinaâ€™s. â€œSo. Sabotage.â€
â€œYes. Thereâ€™s no way anyone would place anything so volatile anywhere in a hospital. White garnet is used as a lubricant around the magnetic tracks on the outside of the cubes. Well, I donâ€™t have to tell you that, butâ€”â€œ Adina stopped, knowing she was stating the obvious to the woman who was in charge of designing these vessels.
â€œBut it couldnâ€™t possibly end up in here unless someone deliberately put it there.â€ Heigel looked up at her wife. â€œWe need to bring the top brass into this. Youâ€™re the best person I know to be the liaison.â€
â€œBy that you mean my body count is lower than yours,â€ Meija Solimar said with a wry smile. â€œIâ€™ll page the fleet admiralâ€™s office and let him break the news to the president.â€
â€œThank you.â€ Heigel returned her gaze to Adina. â€œI suppose weâ€™ve evacuated this ward?â€
â€œAll but two very fragile premature babies. A nurse and my next in command are tending to them. The rest of the patients and staff have moved into another unit. My teams are scanning every system console in this ward and will extend their search once they make sure theyâ€™re clear.â€
â€œInstruct them to set their scanner to high sensitivity for white garnet.â€ Heigel sighed as she studied the hot mess inside the console. â€œAnd I donâ€™t have to tell you how volatile this is. Nobody can touch it.â€
Adina tugged at her communicator and relayed Heigelâ€™s orders. â€œMark anything you find and seal the plates in question so nobody opens them accidentally. A steady fizzing sound interrupted Adina and she pivoted to glance at the molten components. Behind them, a light flickered steadily. â€œWhat the hell?â€ She leaned in further, vaguely registering Heigelâ€™s words of caution. Somewhere in the back, a small row of tiny lights flickered rhythmically, and the sound was louder.
â€œCommander?â€ Heigel sounded concerned.
â€œYou have to get out of here. Take the nurse and Dodgmer in the next room with you.â€ Swallowing against the sudden dryness in her throat, Adina forced herself to remain calm. â€œIf the nurse gives you trouble, tell her I said itâ€™s time to put the preemies in her pockets and run. We have an explosive device, and if I canâ€™t disarm itâ€”well, you know.â€
â€œI do. Iâ€™ll be right back.â€ Heigel left before Adina had time to object. Again, she heard loud voices from the next room, but they quieted much faster this time, and as Adina scanned the device in the back of the console, Heigel returned.
â€œThe nurse wasnâ€™t happy, but sheâ€™s showing the lieutenant how to wrap the little shrimp of a baby he was ventilating in a blanket. She wasnâ€™t sure theyâ€™d make it to the next ward, but theyâ€™re going to try.â€
â€œAll right. Now, sir, you need to follow themâ€”â€
â€œIâ€™m not leaving. Let me have a look.â€ Heigel crawled forward and poked her head in next to Adinaâ€™s. â€œDamn, this is bad.â€ She flipped open a mini-scanner, clearly a prototype of some sort. â€œLetâ€™s use this. It has some handy settings.â€
â€œOne of yours.â€ It wasnâ€™t a question. Adina ran the scanner, keeping her gloved hand well away from the white-garnet meltdown. As she pulled it back, it began to beep. â€œNow what?â€
Heigel looked at the readings as well. â€œIf we donâ€™t stop this, weâ€™ll lose more than this ward. We could lose the entire NICU unit.â€ She donned protective gloves. â€œVisors on.â€
Adina knew better than to waste time by trying to persuade the older admiral to leave, so she handed one visor to Heigel and put one on herself. â€œWeâ€™re going to have to use a double set of laser spanners. If the timingâ€™s off by even a fraction of a sec, weâ€™ll spend the last of our days as space dust.â€
â€œI have no intention of widowing my wife.â€ Grabbing a laser spanner, Heigel switched it on. â€œCome on, Adina. Letâ€™s do this.â€
Adina nodded solemnly, knowing the success of the mission rested on their shoulders. She leaned into the console, adjusted the spanner, and set it to synchronize with Heigelâ€™s. When the spanners began the countdown sequences, she counted her breathing at the same pace. As the last tone ended, Adina engaged the spanner and extended it toward the connection buds on the device. A clicking sound emanated as she and Heigel maneuvered it and, one by one, turned off the flickering lights. Once it was completely dark, they began to pull it out in the open.
Now, when it wasnâ€™t attached near the white-garnet mess, Adina drew a deep breath. As they passed just above the melted components, another fizzing sound startled Adina and she flinched. Her lower arm rubbed briefly against the melted white garnet, and it permeated the glove within a moment.
â€œOh!â€ The pain made Adina give a rare moan. â€œIâ€™m going to drop it, sir. Take over!â€ The garnet was already burrowing through her skin and would soon hit her blood vessels. It might even burn her hand completely off. Either way, it would lead to a painful death.
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