covering Sydney's careerbefore she becomes Captain
Cadet Midshipwoman Sydney Chambers caught herself fidgeting. Again.
It was pages on the reader she held beginning to turn on their own that caught her attention, page turns caused by the mindless tapping of her fingers. With a flash of irritation, forced herself to be still. It wasn’t the first time during the routine, two-hour, shuttle cruise, that she had found herself edging into a mild state of physical agitation … which was the source of her growing annoyance. There was no obvious reason, no clear underlying cause, for her to feel in any way distressed. Her presence on the shuttle was, in fact, a form of reward for four long years of achievement.
The Terran Space Military Academy was noted Confederacy-wide for its academic excellence, to say nothing of the prime physical condition of its graduates — or in Sydney’s case, soon-to-be graduates — and Sydney Chambers had repeatedly proven herself the best of the best among those Cadets and Cadet Midshipmen and Midshipwomen attending the Academy. Her imminent responsibilities as valedictorian at the approaching graduation ceremony was proof enough of that; the Graduation Valedictorian was, after all, a position determined by a combination of academic rank and conditioning, and for the entire term of her Academy attendance, Sydney had ranked first in both areas … a rare, if not unprecedented, feat.
Of course, Sydney considered none of this as she once more checked the time remaining before her shuttle’s ETA at Terra Station Three. Her term at TSM Academy was, for all intents and purposes, complete, all courses finished, all exams aced. All that remained was graduation, in just over a month’s time … plus, the reason for her presence on this particular shuttle trip: her fourth, and final, Middy Cruise.
Very few Cadet Midshipmen qualified for a fourth Middy Cruise. The cruises were designed, for the most part, for underclassmen: first-, second-, and third-year, students, with an eye to familiarizing them with the realities of service on space vessels of the Terran Space Military. The vast majority of Cadet Midshipmen were assigned billets on actual ships-of-the-line, serving out their three-week cruises by performing the drudge work that naval vessels of all types — and of all eras — offered aplenty. Indeed, all first-year Cadets spent their cruises in this fashion, for multiple reasons. Sydney had done so and, with the clarity of hindsight, considered herself the better for having had the experience.
But after that first year, the best of each class were treated to a somewhat different experience. TSM Academy maintained a half-dozen older, yet still mission-worthy, corvettes; the cream of the Academy’s students were assigned to crew those vessels and given assignments designed to stretch the training and abilities of those crews: missions important to the Confederacy, yet too off-beat or small to draw ships of the line from their regular stations. Two hundred and forty students — roughly a quarter of those second-year students in the Academy’s Naval subdivision — were billeted as enlisted crew on these cruises. Sixty third-year Naval students were assigned as the ships’ officers. As for fourth-year students …
Only the top six academic achievers ready to graduate were rewarded with a fourth Middie cruise — rewarded for their achievements with a chance at actual command experience by being billeted as First Officer on their chosen mission. Sydney, as Naval Valedictorian, as well as the Academy’s Naval salutatorian, were given their choice of the six missions; the four other top fourth-year students were randomly assigned to the remaining Academy vessels. Each of the six ships was commanded by a seasoned officer. In the case of Sydney’s chosen mission, the captain was an actual Captain, Francis O’Flannery, whose current assignment was professor of tactics at TSM Academy.
Though pleased to find O’Flannery as her captain, his posting hadn’t affected Sydney’s choice; the missions were listed with no reference to participating personnel and only the most general reference to functional orders. It happened, though, that O’Flannery’s classes were some she had particularly enjoyed. Additionally, the Captain had impressed her with an agile mind and a keen grasp of tactics.
In short, Sydney was headed for what was essentially an academic victory lap … yet she couldn’t manage to shake the feeling that something was off. She had reviewed her qualms over and over and there was nothing she could put a finger on, but the continuing itch of misgiving was driving her to distraction.
The mission itself — a precis of which was on the reader she had been studying when her nerves had offered their internal tap-dance — was theoretically straight forward: investigate a star system that, despite its close proximity to Sol, hadn’t yet been surveyed. In fact, the system had barely been approached due to the presence of a hyperspace anomaly dangerous enough to be assigned a “DO NOT ENTER” Delta-Epsilon status on military as well as civilian charts.
Trouble was, the anomaly displayed recent signs of growth. When originally noted it had merely emanated from and surrounded the Epsilon Eridani system’s sole planet. Recent distance scans, however, showed that the anomaly had completely swallowed the star system, to a distance of eight astronomical units — in other words, significantly farther than the distance of Jupiter from Sol. While Epsilon Eridani lurked more than ten light years from the Solar System, any growth in something as dangerous as a hyperspace anomaly raised red flags with the Confederacy’s scientific community. The Terran Space Military had therefore been tasked with investigating … to get, at the very least, a handle on the rate at which the anomaly was growing.
TSM’s response was as muted as it was unspoken: we’ll do it, of course, but we’re not about to spend any more time or money on the project than we must. Hence, the survey was folded into the next available round of Academy cruises, cruises which traditionally carried formal mission status. The corvette TSM Hurricane drew the assignment; Sydney Chamber had opted for the Hurricane as her fourth middy cruise based on as many factors as can be imagined … not the least of which was her own gut, a thing she had learned to trust over the course of her twenty-two years of life and, in particular, her four years of Academy training.
Now, after learning the parameters of the mission to which she was headed, that same gut was screaming at her: Beware! Beware!
“It’s no secret,” Captain O’Flannery began as he faced the eleven students who comprised his officer corps, “that the Epsilon Eridani planet has never been surveyed.”
Ten of those faces bobbed at him as if in synch, acknowledging the truth of their captain’s statement. Only Sydney, standing behind O’Flannery in the traditional First Officer spot, held her peace. The fact that the planet hadn’t been surveyed bordered on irrelevant; the more relevant question was, can the planet be surveyed? Even more important, can it be surveyed safely? It was that point O’Flannery then began to address.
“Just because the planet itself has yet to be surveyed doesn’t mean we haven’t learned anything,” the captain continued, casting his gaze around the briefing room table where all but Sydney sat. “The anomaly emanating from Epsilon Eridani has been probed … cautiously … over the years. Several important items have been documented.
“Before we got on to the details, though, let me emphasize that I understand the feelings you might have, that we’re sailing into the Bermuda Triangle.” The captain pinned each of his student officers with an individual, steady, gaze. “That is not the case. Ships can safely transit the anomaly. The trick is, approach at what amounts to dead slow.”
“No hyper, Captain?” The questioner was George Gordon, ranked acting ensign as were all third-year midshipman, and designated chief engineer for the cruise.
“No hyper,” O’Flannery concurred. “We will drop out of hyperspace well beyond the reach of the anomaly. Helm officers, make special note and double-check that all automatics drop us to space normal at nine AU. All hyper equipment is to be shut down at that point.” The order drew acknowledging nods from Ernesto Conseco, Geraldine Paige, and Zoey Cummings, the three midshipmen who would pull eight-hour shifts as pilots of the Hurricane.
“Aye, sir,” Cummings added.
“Once in normal space and all hyper equipment is disengaged, we will make as direct a course for Epsilon Eridani as possible, at one-half sublight. Navigators, take note.” Acting ensigns Carl Hemmingway and Theo Georges nodded. “The word is that sublight speeds up to eighty percent are safe, but I see no need to push it for an initial survey.”
“How straight, sir,” Georges asked.
“Straight as an arrow,” O’Flannery returned, “unless you need to bend around something big. Epsilon Eridani may have only one planet, but there is a lot of junk in orbit — a straight approach will compensate a bit for what we give up in speed but we still need to be alert. Helm, watch out for that junk. Most of it is too small for a course to navigate around.” Conseco, Paige, and Cummings, acknowledged silently.
“XO,” O’Flannery said, briefly glancing over his shoulder at Sydney, “and comm. The order is virtual radio silence once we enter the anomaly, unless I order something specific. The science of this is well within our wheelhouses. I can’t imagine that we’ll need to call for help.”
“Yes, sir,” Sydney acknowledged. Comm officer Anita Benning added a terse nod; the other comm-designated student, Eric Friedman, merely blinked.
“That’s it, then,” O’Flannery said, smiling broadly and hoisting himself to his feet. “Make it so. Estimated time to exit hyper?”
“Thirty-seven hours, Captain,” Sydney responded.
“Very good,” O’Flannery acknowledged. “Inform the crew of their orders. XO, a word before you leave.”
There were the usual shuffling noises, but little talking, as the acting officers wended their way from the ship’s conference room. Sydney waited, silent, for her captain to have his say. O’Flannery turned to his executive officer once the last junior was gone.
“Ms. Chambers,” he began with a smile. “I was pleased to see you aboard for this cruise. Everything should go like clockwork, but —” He paused, a grimace briefly flashing across his features. “But, of course, one must always plan for the worst while hoping for the best, and the … ah, the flexibility of thinking … you displayed in my classes gives me to believe you may prove to be a huge asset to this mission.”
“Thank you, sir,” Sydney little more than murmured, and hoped that she wasn’t blushing too badly at the reminder of her flexible thinking. The exercise in question had netted her a commendation from Academy brass in addition to a grade of one-hundred-and-twenty percent.
“Oh, don’t go all shy on me,” O’Flannery chuckled. “You know full well that your analysis will save combat lives down the road, and you need to own that. And, you need to know how pleased I was to be your instructor.”
Sydney felt her cheeks flush and worked desperately to maintain eye contact with the captain.
“Right now, though,” O’Flannery began, then leaned back to half-sit on the table edge. “I need you to — ah, let’s say, ‘do your thing’ with this anomaly we’re headed for. I want to know if you can see any dangers that the brass don’t see, or have shrugged off.”
Sydney drew a deep breath before answering. “Of course, sir,” she finally managed. “Do you have any particular … qualms?”
O’Flannery shook his head. “Just gut ones,” he admitted, and added a particularly sour expression to the mix. “Besides, I need you to look at this with your own fresh eyes. Just let me know what you come up with as soon as possible. Within twenty-four hours, at the latest.”
“Sir.” Recognizing a dismissal when she heard one, Sydney nodded, then headed herself toward the conference room exit.
“Check your mail for a package from me, XO,” O’Flannery added just before Sydney reached the hatchway, causing her to pause and turn back toward her superior.
“I forwarded you some supplemental material about Epsilon Eridani that’s not readily available. It might help you analysis.”
Sydney blinked once, then nodded. “Thank you, sir,” she allowed, then quickly headed for her quarters. Her own gut reaction hadn’t been eased in the slightest by O’Flannery’s words.
The voyage passed with confounding smoothness: Hurricane dropped out of hyperspace exactly on schedule and continued as planned, crossing the anomaly’s edge without so much as a ripple or a quiver. The hours of passage that followed passed in equal smoothness; even the three helm officer found little need to swerve away from space junk. The one notable exception was, of course, that all subspace communication signals vanished, a situation about which Captain O’Flannery expressed a strong lack of concern.
“We’re on a science mission,” he responded to Jimmy Hawkins when the shift comm officer reported the loss. “Command knows we’ll be out of touch for a while. Nothing to worry about.”
“Aye, sir,” Hawkins responded. Sydney felt a twitch in her gut at the exchange; the topic intersected with the one potential problem that her tactical analysis had detected. Out of touch is one thing, the thought again occurred to her, but forcibly out of touch is a bit more worrisome. Still, she had reported the concern to O’Flannery, but made no recommendations … a lack in her command brief that she would later question.
Standard orbit was achieved with nary a whimper. Now, watching the Epsilon Eridani planet rotate placidly on the Hurricane’s command screen, Sydney felt her unease grow despite the apparent calm of the situation. There was still nothing she could point to as the source of her disquiet; indeed, the planet — catalogued unsurprisingly, if unimaginatively, as EE1 — seemed tranquil, almost Eden-like in its features. The oceans boasted a slightly more orange cast than Earth’s deep blue depths … and added emphasis to their odd coloring by covering nearly the entire surface of EE1. No land masses larger than a few hundred square miles spoiled the aquatic expanse, and those were few and far between. The vast majority of dry land appeared as small to tiny islands, specks ranging in size from less than a square mile to large enough to host a medium-sized estate.
It was on one of the islands, a decidedly average sized land mass, to which Hurricane’s instruments pinpointed the anomaly’s epicenter.
Sydney had felt a wash of misgiving flood her when navigator Theo Georges, doubling as science officer given the small crew size, had announced that little tidbit. Reason — not to mention a basic understanding of hyperspace — screamed that an anomaly such as the one they were in should be centered far from any mass, let alone a mass the size of a planet … let alone on an island on that planet. Yet, Georges insisted the reading was accurate.
“Sensors are compensating for the anomaly as per spec, Ma’am,” he reported in response to Sydney’s quick response to the datum. “There is no question, epicenter of the hyperspace anomaly is at or on the surface of the island located nineteen-dot-six degrees north, minus-one-five-five-dot-seven degrees east.”
Sydney drew two hard breaths, then began to make her way to the command center’s high-resolution optical scanner. “Fire up the holo-tank, Mr. Georges,” she ordered as she went. “Mr. Hawkins, please request captain to the bridge.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” came from both officers before she had covered halt the distance, short as it was in the corvette’s smallish command cabin. She had barely arrived and the holo was still resolving itself when a voice announced, “Captain on the bridge!” and Sydney sensed O’Flannery arrive at her side.
“What’s the story, XO,” the captain asked without preamble.