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 doesn’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. Adina’s emotional scars hinder her, but she can’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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“Commander Vantressa! Behind you!”
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.
“Stay back,” Adina said, her low alto voice carrying through the turmoil. The street along the park of the capital’s most prestigious area looked like a warzone. Overturned vehicles, injured civilians, and burning structures had transformed the beautiful area into something unrecognizable. “If you don’t stand down, I have no choice but to open fire.” She didn’t want to shoot any of her fellow countrymen. Cursing the president’s idea to arrange a “unity” 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.
“She’s going for it, sir.” Lieutenant Dodgmer, her next in command, a burly man who’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.
“That’s far enough. Take her out, Lieutenant.” Adina would rather he’d shoot with his non-lethal ammunition.
The arrow penetrated the woman’s shoulder but had no effect. Adina changed the setting on her rifle. So, this would get uglier yet. “My ammo isn’t as benevolent. Stand down.” 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. Adina’s rifle was set to take out a life form three times the woman’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 Adina’s dress uniform, it was still worse than she’d expected.
“Ahhh!” 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.
“Sir!” Dodgmer was at her side. “Medic! I need a medic over here.”
“Just get me to the base.” Adina didn’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 Adina’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 Korrian’s wife, she’d reveled in the task of working toward a solution to save their people…
“Sir! Stay alert, Commander. We’re almost at the end of the street. There’s a checkpoint with hovercraft and they’ll get you to the base in no time.” Her lieutenant’s voice sounded as if it came through bubbling water.
“Good.” Slurring her words now and barely able to breathe, Adina couldn’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 Dodgmer’s frantic words. So tired, she needed to rest for a moment. She slumped at Dodgmer’s side, her legs giving in.
“Sir, just a few more steps. We’re nearly there.” Dodgmer dragged her, her numb legs refusing to cooperate, toward the fluttering sound. “You can do it, sir. We need you aboard the Exodus ships. Don’t you dare die on me.”
“Not dead yet.” Adina forced her eyes open, groaning against the blinding light as she did. “Get me on the damn hovercraft. That’s an order.”
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.
“I can’t believe we made it, Briar. If you hadn’t risked everything, I’d have been left behind.” 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 Caya’s head. “You’re wrong. If we hadn’t been able to fake our records, I would’ve stayed behind with you. No matter what.”
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 she’d miss their butting heads over trivial matters, but she did.
“Why don’t we go to the closest common area and experience the launch with the rest of our neighbors?” Briar smiled encouragingly. “I’m on duty in six hours, and by then we’ll be well underway.”
“All right.” Perking up, Caya gazed down at herself. “What should I wear?”
Briar laughed, delighted, as this was such a normal question for Caya. “You’re fine. Just do something about that mane of yours. You’ll catch people with those wild curls.” 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.
“How about me?” Briar turned and held out her arms. She knew she couldn’t even compare to Caya. Where Caya’s hair was a golden hue, Briar’s was copper red and only reached her shoulders. Briar’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 Briar’s pink freckles were cute, but having been teased about them as a young girl, Briar disagreed.
“You look awesome. That aqua trouser suit fits you perfectly. Aren’t you glad I persuaded you to buy it?”
“Well, I suppose.” Briar nodded. “I admit I found it an unnecessary expense then, but you were right.”
Caya brightened. “See?” She checked her reflection in the mirror just inside the door. “Let’s go then.”
They weaved their way through the crowded corridor. People were either trying to find their quarters or on their way to the common area.
“It’s so big,” Caya said, sounding breathless. She clung to Briar’s hand. “I’ll never find my way around here!”
“I’ve studied the blueprints, and once we become familiar with our part of the ship, we’ll be able to apply that knowledge to all the other areas.” 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 café 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.
“It looks like a real sky, almost,” Caya said and peered up at the ceiling. “How did they do that?”
“With some special paint that absorbs the brightness from the light sources, I think.” 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 couldn’t allow major surprises. “It will follow our normal rhythm to not confuse our sense of time.”
“That’s great,” Caya said, tilting her head and making her ponytail fall onto her shoulder. “I’d hate to get the hours all jumbled.”
“Me too.” 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 who’d performed the genetic scan, knew the truth about Caya. When Briar had discovered Caya’s abilitiesseveral years ago, she’d thrown herself into planning their deceit. The authorities mustn’t find out about Caya’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.
“Greetings, Oconodians. My name is Fleet Admiral Orien Vayand. I’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. We’re about to release the docking clamps and begin the journey for which we’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, it’s filled with promise for a safer future, and on the other, it’s a farewell to our world, our past, most likely forever.” Vayand cleared his throat, his deep baritone emphasizing the emotional moment for all of them. “No matter what, we’re on our way and will make a stop at the Loghia homeworld to collect the 100,000-some Gemosians who are joining us.”
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 Gemosis’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.
“We heard from Admiral Caydoc and her interim government on P-105 only hours ago. She assures me they’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 can’t travel as fast as they did by magnetar drive.” Vayand smiled. “With 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.” Nodding briskly, Vayand motioned for someone not yet in sight. “Now I will let President Gassinthea de Mila Tylio take over. Madam President?” He gestured toward the transmitter and a white-haired woman in her fifties stepped into view.
“Greetings on this historic day, my fellow Oconodians.” President Tylio went on with her speech, but Briar wasn’t listening anymore. She focused on the woman standing to Vayand’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.
“Imagine being on the same ship as the president.” Caya interrupted Briar’s thoughts. “I never realized she’s so beautiful. Just look at her.”
“A ship with more than two million individuals. I daresay the chance of you ever even spotting Tylio at a distance is miniscule. Let’s keep it that way.” She raised her eyebrow deliberately at her dreamy-eyed sister. “And don’t give me your ‘let’s just see about that, shall we’ look.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Caya crinkled her nose. “No matter what…“She 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.
“Sweetheart. What’s wrong?”
“Dark…dark and no air.” 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 couldn’t happen now. Not in public. Briar hauled her sister up and wrapped a steady arm around her. “Let’s get you out of here. Must be something you ate before we came aboard.” 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 who’d realize what was really going on. Inside, she helped Caya lie down in her alcove. “There. We’re alone. You’re fine.”
“It’s not clear.” Caya sobbed. “So strange. It isn’t clear when it’s going to happen or where, but everything is dark and lives are lost. So much pain comes from that darkness and…you’re there.” She looked up at Briar with turquoise eyes framed by wet lashes. “You need to be very careful.”
“Of course I’ll be careful.” Briar knew better than to doubt Caya’s premonitions. Her accuracy in seeing details about what would happen in the very near future was uncanny. Usually, Caya’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 wasn’t the worst reaction Briar had witnessed, but strong enough for her to feel unsettled.
“I—I need to sleep now.” Caya squeezed her eyes shut. As Briar pulled a blanket over her still-shivering body, Caya snapped them open again, panic radiating from her. “Did anyone see me? Did anyone—”
“No. I mean, I don’t think anyone saw anything but a girl getting overwhelmed and perhaps a bit sick. Everyone was watching President Tylio.”
“You sure?” Gripping Briar’s wrist with strong, ice-cold fingers, Caya flicked her eyes back and forth, as if trying to read the truth in her older sister’s.
“I am. Rest now. I’ll make us something to eat later before I have to report for duty. I can’t be late for my first shift.” Briar smiled wryly. “No doubt the chief nurse would have my head. I’ve met her only briefly, but I bet she can be scary.”
“Ha. She’ll love you, like all your previous bosses have.” Sounding calmer now, Caya yawned and turned on her side. “Wake me in time to help you set the table.”
“All right.” Briar sat on the side of the bed until Caya fell asleep. She tenderly stroked the long tresses from Caya’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 parents’ 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 couldn’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 she’d struggled to keep Caya with her, Briar switched the screen from the exterior viewfinders to the president’s broadcast. Tylio had finished, and now the tall, dark-haired woman, the chief engineer, spoke.
“Once we are safely away from the space dock, we’ll go to magnetar drive, which we’ll maintain for a little more than thirty days. We’ll slow down to march drive as we approach Loghia. There, we’ll evacuate the Gemosians, which will take approximately six days.”
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, that’s right. Adina Vantressa. Forceful, and…there was something arrogant, even disdainful around her.
“Once they’re all installed and the cabinet approves a final passenger manifest, we’ll be on our way to P-105. I’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 don’t expect anything serious to come up, but we all enjoy our recycled hot water for our showers, don’t we?” 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. “I’ll give the floor back to Fleet Admiral Vayand now.” She turned with military precision and resumed her place behind Vayand.
“As you can tell, we’re in the best of hands. I know you’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.”
“Peace and splendor,” 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 he’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, and…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 people’s lives and minds, they’re not getting anywhere near me. As chief engineer I rarely have to interact with the passengers, no matter the size of the vessel—this ought to make it easier for me to stay clear of the Vantressa clan.
A chirping sound from her communicator automatically put Adina’s log entry on pause. “Vantressa here.” She impatiently tapped the surface of her desk.
“We have a major power loss in sector eleven, sir,” a stress-filled voice gushed at the other end.
“For some reason, several of the generators aren’t kicking in. Most power sources are off-line.”
Adina stood and pulled on her jacket. “I’m on my way over there. Have the team on standby in main engineering.” Thundering in her chest, Adina’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 didn’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 didn’t appear affected by the power cut. Tapping her communicator, Adina barked her orders. “I’m on the threshold to sector eleven.” She peered through the dark tunnel. No jumper cars appeared. The power outage was affecting the main grid as well. That wasn’t exactly good news.
“The power cut is to a defined area in sector eleven. The starboard part of the hospital and the shuttle system.”
“All right. When can you reach the department heads in the hospital cube, sector eleven—”
“Hello? Nurse Lindemay, NICU unit, university hospital cube eleven here. Hello?” The clear, young-sounding voice broke through the channel assigned to engineering. “We have no power. This is an emergency, as the backup system hasn’t kicked in. Our incubators have no power! Can anyone hear me?”
Adina frowned. “You’re on the official engineering channel, Nurse…eh…Lindemay,” Adina said curtly. “I suggest you check your manual and find the nearest—”
“Check my manual? Are you joking? It’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.”
“This is being dealt with. I suggest your return to you duty station—”
“I heard you before. You’re Vantressa, from the broadcast this morning?”
“You need to come here and figure this out. I have my entire staff hand- ventilating twenty-six babies who can’t saturate themselves on their own.”
“As I said—”
“Not good enough,” Lindemay snapped. “My babies will die. The future generation of our people. These are someone else’s beloved children, and without the technology available to keep them alive, they won’t make it. That will be on your head since you refuse to come here.”
Adina’s mind whirled. Children. Tiny, premature babies struggling for air. Damn it. “All right. I’m on my way. Keep the kids alive until I’ve solved the problem.”
“You’re handling this yourself?” Lindemay sounded hesitant.
“Yes. Get off the official channel system. Vantressa out.” 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.
“Commander! Glad I caught up with you.” Lieutenant Dodgmer climbed into the mini-jumper. “My team’s meeting at the hospital entrance.”
“Good.” She lowered the bubble around them that would protect them in case of an atmosphere leak in the tunnel system. “What the hell could be wrong? I surveyed the systems over the last week and everything functioned perfectly.” Adina shook her head in dismay. “And now, of course, little babies, the future of our people, are in danger of asphyxiating.”
“Oh, Creator of Oconodos, that’s just too much.” Dodgmer, usually stoicism personified, looked ill at ease. “My youngest was in a NICU ward on Oconodos for six weeks.”
Adina had forgotten that about Dodgmer’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. “We’re going to fix it,” 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. “Nobody’s going to help anyone if we crash into a tunnel wall,” he muttered as Adina barely scraped along the left side. “Creator, I’d already forgotten how you drive.”
“Ah, come on. We’re almost at the hospital’s jumper gate.” 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. “Let’s go,” Adina said, and grabbed her tool kit. “Keep your sidearm ready.” While they stepped out of the mini-jumper, Adina opened a channel to security, requesting extra personnel. “People have become used to riots the last few years. Let’s make sure we don’t have one here.”
The hospital gate was heavily guarded. Adina and Dodgmer merely nodded at the ensigns flanking it. Hoping the guards weren’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.
“My team’s here.” Dodgmer waved the engineers over.
“Excellent. I have two other teams deployed throughout the hospital. We’re going to focus mainly on the children’s wards, the NICU in particular.”
“Aye, sir.” Dodgmer handed out assignments to his team, consisting of five men and three women, all in uniform.
“Using the elevators is bound to get us stuck in a shaft,” Adina said. “I’ll join my crew on the NICU floor.” She nodded toward the stairwell.
“My team’s already on its way up the stairs,” 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 wouldn’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 who’d left their chosen profession after having to perform such a task.
“We better get going.” 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 hadn’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.
“Are you from engineering?” a firm voice asked, and a light shone in Adina’s eyes. “Commander Vantressa. I recognize you.”
Assuming this might be the nurse she had spoken to before, Adina held her hand up. “Mind pointing that somewhere else, Nurse Lindemay?” The light shifted instantly.
“Yes. Sorry. Do you know your way to the control consoles?” Lindemay flicked her light to the left side of the corridor.
“Yes.” 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. “Additional security officers will arrive shortly. From now on, each of the wards, individually, is on lockdown.”
“Lockdown? For a power outage?” Lindemay said, but seemed to change her mind. “All right. Sure. Just hurry up, all right?” She held up her other hand, demonstrating the oxygen tanks she was carrying. “These won’t last forever.”
“Got it.” Adina hurried toward the consoles kept in a small room. Everything in there was off-line. “How the hell did this happen?” she muttered as she began to rip off the plating to the circuitry and crystals placed there.
“No clue, sir.” 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 Pathfinder’s systems and gazed behind it. “What the hell?” She directed the beams toward the area farther into the console.
“Damn it. That’s not just any malfunction. Creator of Oconodos.” Dodgmer leaned in to feel one of the almost-liquefied circuits.
“Don’t. This is…something I haven’t seen in years.” Adina tapped her communicator. “Vantressa to Admiral Heigel.” She was about to repeat her hail when a somber voice replied.
“Heigel here, Commander. What are you doing to my ship?”
“Not much, sir. Yet. I need your input into what’s going on at the NICU wards on cube eleven. It’s bad, sir.”
“We’re on our way,” Heigel said, her voice as commanding and stern as it’d been when Adina had first met her twenty years ago. The word “we” hadn’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.
“We’re in trouble, aren’t we?” Dodgmer said gravely. “As you’re calling in the woman who made this possible on the first day.”
“If I didn’t, it’d be a dereliction of duty on my part. This,” Adina said, gesturing toward the still-melting mess, “can destroy the entire cube unless it’s contained. And we need to double security. If I’m right, this is manmade.”
“Fuck.” 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. “This doesn’t make sense, Lieutenant,” she said, tapping the screen. “I’m reading components that couldn’t possibly end up in there, unless…” She broke off and scanned closer to the melted circuits. “Unless this indeed is sabotage.” Adina stared at the readings. “I don’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, we’ll work with this as unit zero.”
“On it, sir.”
Adina was headlong into the console when a loud exchange of voices reached her. “What the hell…?” 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 Dodgmer’s vest.
“What about ‘it can’t be done’ don’t you understand, Lieutenant?” Lindemay said. “Some of the wall units are just that. Wall units. As in attached and unable to move around.”
“You need to evacuate the ward.” Dodgmer pointed toward the exit. “The area’s not safe.”
“What am I supposed to do? Put the premature babies in my pockets and run?” Lindemay flung her hands in the air, and from Adina’s point of view it was smart of the woman to stop poking Dodgmer.
“Move your staff and the children that aren’t attached to the wall.” Adina glared at the other two. “Ask for volunteers to help care for the remaining babies.”
“Actually only two are fragile enough to require the non-mobile units. I’ll stay behind and ventilate one and—”
“Show me and I’ll take one,” Dodgmer said brusquely. “That way you free staff members to help out at the other units.”
Lindemay blinked. “Eh, all right. It’s pretty easy. Come on.” 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. “Report.”
“I’ve completed two different readings.” Adina handed over her scanner. “It’s bad, sir. We’re looking at some sort of white-garnet compound.”
Heigel didn’t flinch, but her eyes snapped to meet Adina’s. “So. Sabotage.”
“Yes. There’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 don’t have to tell you that, but—“ Adina stopped, knowing she was stating the obvious to the woman who was in charge of designing these vessels.
“But it couldn’t possibly end up in here unless someone deliberately put it there.” Heigel looked up at her wife. “We need to bring the top brass into this. You’re the best person I know to be the liaison.”
“By that you mean my body count is lower than yours,” Meija Solimar said with a wry smile. “I’ll page the fleet admiral’s office and let him break the news to the president.”
“Thank you.” Heigel returned her gaze to Adina. “I suppose we’ve evacuated this ward?”
“All 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 they’re clear.”
“Instruct them to set their scanner to high sensitivity for white garnet.” Heigel sighed as she studied the hot mess inside the console. “And I don’t have to tell you how volatile this is. Nobody can touch it.”
Adina tugged at her communicator and relayed Heigel’s orders. “Mark 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. “What the hell?” She leaned in further, vaguely registering Heigel’s words of caution. Somewhere in the back, a small row of tiny lights flickered rhythmically, and the sound was louder.
“Commander?” Heigel sounded concerned.
“You have to get out of here. Take the nurse and Dodgmer in the next room with you.” Swallowing against the sudden dryness in her throat, Adina forced herself to remain calm. “If the nurse gives you trouble, tell her I said it’s time to put the preemies in her pockets and run. We have an explosive device, and if I can’t disarm it—well, you know.”
“I do. I’ll be right back.” 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.
“The nurse wasn’t happy, but she’s showing the lieutenant how to wrap the little shrimp of a baby he was ventilating in a blanket. She wasn’t sure they’d make it to the next ward, but they’re going to try.”
“All right. Now, sir, you need to follow them—”
“I’m not leaving. Let me have a look.” Heigel crawled forward and poked her head in next to Adina’s. “Damn, this is bad.” She flipped open a mini-scanner, clearly a prototype of some sort. “Let’s use this. It has some handy settings.”
“One of yours.” It wasn’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. “Now what?”
Heigel looked at the readings as well. “If we don’t stop this, we’ll lose more than this ward. We could lose the entire NICU unit.” She donned protective gloves. “Visors on.”
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. “We’re going to have to use a double set of laser spanners. If the timing’s off by even a fraction of a sec, we’ll spend the last of our days as space dust.”
“I have no intention of widowing my wife.” Grabbing a laser spanner, Heigel switched it on. “Come on, Adina. Let’s do this.”
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 Heigel’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 wasn’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.
“Oh!” The pain made Adina give a rare moan. “I’m going to drop it, sir. Take over!” 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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