by Christopher Bulis
Garyl Manten gathered up his kit bag and took one last look around the small service apartment, checking that he had packed everything. Satisfied that all was as it should be, he touched a control on the monitor terminal and said: "Activate vacant maintenance mode, computer. Record or redirect all communications as per the usual list . . . see you in twenty days."
"Goodbye, Mister Manten," replied the androgynous voice of the computer, with programmed friendliness. "Have a nice trip."
The door automatically closed and locked behind him as he stepped out onto the third floor landing of the apartment block. The lift tube beckoned but he took the stairs by habit, lights coming on automatically as he started down them, washing out the view of the night-lit city from the landing window. Over the skyline the brighter stars twinkled invitingly in the clear air. It was nearly midnight, but he did not mind the lateness of the hour. Night seemed an appropriate time to set out, considering his destination . . . besides, the travel tubes would be less busy.
As he stepped off the second floor landing, all the stair well lights blinked off at once, plunging him into semi-darkness.
He teetered at the top of the flight, snatching at the hand rail, fighting for balance . . . and an immaterial force seemed to press at his back, thrusting him out into the gloomy void over the stairs which rushed up to meet him with unreasonable speed . . .
Recovering in hospital the next day, the doctor responded to Garyl's protests with professional intransigence. He was sorry that he would miss the ship's proving flight, but did he not realise what a serious fall he had taken? True, the broken bones were easily repaired, but there was some spinal damage that would need regeneration. With luck Garyl might be up in time to welcome his ship back . . .
He was restless that night, knowing the Broadsword would depart without him. He cursed the faulty lighting circuit that had failed him and the service engineers who could find no reason for the failure . . . When he finally managed to sleep he was troubled by a recurring image: a dark figure wearing night-sight goggles and carrying . . . a force projector? Could his subconscious hold a memory that the trauma of the accident had wiped from his conscious mind? Perhaps it had not been an accident . . ? No. The idea was ridiculous. He was just trying to shift the blame from chance and his own clumsiness. He hadn't actually been assaulted or robbed. Besides, what good did putting him in hospital do anybody?
"Weapons Tec First Class, Toni Pandril, reporting for duty." She handed over her transfer documents to the boarding officer and waited patiently while he made an ID scan.
"It'll jus take a moment to check these through Lieutenant," he said, starting to tap away at the lectern terminal that symbolically guarded the mouth of the boarding tube. Toni walked a few steps away and dropped her kit bag in front of the observation window.
Against the slowly drifting background of the stars the Broadsword hung like a great sable egg, speared by the skystation's docking arms. Toni cast a professional eye over the rings of blister pods that broke the smooth lines of the warship's skin, encircling its tail and mid-section and clustering thick about its nose. Force field nodes, missile tubes, energy projectors. Her domain.
Two of the ship's flight bay hatches were open, shielded by glowing air-curtains. As she watched, a flight of shuttles glided up to one of the hatches.
For a moment Toni seemed to lose herself in the scene before her. She blinked, then realised there was someone sharing the view. Turning slightly she saw it was a man of compact build with a dark, thoughtful face and thick black curly hair. His uniform insignia were those of a Broadsword flight lieutenant.
Toni said quietly: "Quite a sight, isn't it." The man smiled gently.
"Do you mean the general notion of a starship preparing to head out into the big night for the final frontier, or the Broadsword in particular?" he replied.
She grinned back at him. "Both, probably. Either way, it's still something."
He held out his hand. "Nicholas Cort," he introduced himself, looking at her uniform insignia. "And you're the replacement for Manten, I suspect."
"That's right. My lucky break, I guess . . ." she drew in her breath sharply " . . . sorry - no pun intended. Is he a friend of yours?"
"Not specially - we're still getting to know each other. High proportion of first-timers on board. I believe Fleetcom think a new class of ship needs a fresh crew . . . or at least, one not too set in their ways."
Toni chuckled. "Keep going on like that and I'll feel like a grizzled space veteran."
"Oh - I see. What have you done?"
"A tour on Adamant."
"I would have thought that would have been enough to keep you busy. Who put in for the transfer? . . . sorry - I'm prying."
"Nothing to hide. The Adamant's a fine ship and I was happy to serve on her, but when I heard about the Broadsword I . . . " For a moment she hesitated, suddenly unsure of her motivation which seemed so strong but oddly unfounded. Yet she seemed to remember Captain Farrack agreeing with her reasons when he approved her request . . . Then her doubt was gone and she smiled and smoothly continued: " . . . thought it was a chance to work on a wider range of weapons systems than on the Adamant."
"That I think we can promise you," said Cort positively.
"You're cleared to go through now, Lieutenant Pandril," said the boarding officer. He handed her a ship's pass and ident badge then saluted formally. "Welcome aboard."
Cort walked beside Toni as she made her way along the tube.
"Look," he said slowly, with what Toni thought was a hint of shyness, "I'd be happy to show you around later . . . if you like . . ?"
She thought his reserve rather appealing. "Thanks - I'll take you up on that. But I think I'd better report to Commander Foss first, don't you?"
He smiled brightly. "Sure - Admin's on deck two, they'll know where he is and sort out your accommodation . . . " They passed through the hatchway into the Broadsword and he led the way to the central access core. "Oh, yes . . ." Cort chuckled. "I'd better warn you about Doc Yeoland. She wants the Broadsword to have the fittest crew in the fleet. Now, her medicals . . ."
"That's all right . . ." Pandril interjected quickly. "Our doctor on the Adamant gave me a full check-up before I left - it's on my file." Her expression was set hard. Then she relaxed, smiling, seeming a little surprised by her own reaction.
"Well . . . lucky you," replied Cort, with puzzled eyes.
They rode the lift tube in silence for a moment, then Toni started asking him about the rest of the senior officers, and the memory of her sharp response soon faded.
Ten days later he would recall the incident and understand.
Too late, of course.
Source: Doctor Who Magazine #202