Reya moved swiftly through the ship, making a quick stop at the armoury to gather weapons.
Two minutes, maybe three before they break through the outer hatch. Another two for the inner one. Not enough time to scour the whole ship for the elusive ship's crew, but enough to make one more stop. The rifles slapped against her thighs as she ran, like the marker in a countdown to imminent danger.
She breathed a quick sigh of relief as one of the Athol soldiers came into view. Dyre's normally cheerful face crinkled in confusion and his hand was raised to scratch his prematurely greying hair. He'd just woken and he couldn't seem to find anyone. It was all very strange.
Reya automatically slid a rifle from her shoulders and slowing down just long enough to shove it at him, she shouted as she went past, "We're being boarded! Find the others and set up blockades outside the Mid-entry hatch! Now!"
Dyre clutched the rifle and stared blankly at Reya's quickly retreating back for a second then he raced off to follow her orders.
Reya ran into the gym shouting, "We're…" She skidded to a halt and the rifles clattered to the deck as she stared in disbelief.
Baxter, completely nude, was posing with a hand-weight arranged tastefully in front of his private parts. He yelped and his eyes widened several times their normal size when he saw her. The mortified young man dived behind the barely adequate cover of a nearby exercise machine.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Lt. Dain and a large number of soldiers were sitting cross-legged on the ground and intently…sketching. They all jumped up and stood to attention when they saw her.
"What on Athol is going on?" Reya demanded as she took in this abnormal sight.
Dain nearly dropped the sketchpad in his hands and his cheeks flushed pink. He stammered, "We're…drawing…Commander." His eyes lowered in embarrassment.
"And why are you doing that?" demanded Reya.
"Some of the men were fighting. It was getting out of control and I thought…this might be a less destructive outlet so…"
"You decided to give them drawing lessons?"
Dain had the pained look of someone who had been caught doing something he shouldn't. "I know I'm not very good." He quickly clutched the data pad to his chest.
At that moment, Baxter, in proper infiltrating posture, was on his hands and knees, trying to crawl discreetly to the exit, all the while trying not to expose the more interesting parts of himself. This was far more of a challenge than he originally expected and he glanced wistfully over his shoulder at the weight he had left behind.
Reya held out her hand and Dain reluctantly gave her the drawing pad. It was a detailed sketch of young Baxter, skilfully rendered and shaded to give it depth and expression. Delicate highlights added life. Being an amateur artist herself, Reya recognized talent beyond her own. She said in admiration, "This is beautiful, Dain."
The lieutenant's face had turned a bright crimson. "No it isn't, Commander."
"It's a beautiful sketch." She turned her head towards the weight machine Baxter had been hiding himself behind and spotted the young man, out in the open, so to speak. "Baxter! What do you think you're doing?"
The mortified man, like a deer suddenly finding itself in the crosshairs of a battalion of enemy snipers, flattened himself to the ground. "I'm..." He was nearly squeaking. "...trying to find my clothes, Commander."
Reya's eyes narrowed. "Someone find Baxter his clothes."
Bari, the comm tech, was looking over Reya's shoulder at the lieutenant's drawing. He said without a trace of humour, "He didn't come in with any, Commander."
Reya stared disapprovingly at the nude, and tightly toned backside. "Where are your clothes, soldier?"
For some reason, poor Baxter had laced his fingers behind his head, somewhat like a prisoner who had nowhere to go or someone who wished he were currently dead. "I...don't know, sir."
The comm tech kept looking between the drawing and the naked young man. "That's very beautiful, lieutenant. His eyes have a nice soulful quality...not that I've ever noticed, of course..."
Dain snapped, "Shut up, corporal, or I'll be drawing you next."
Bari managed to keep a straight face but his eyes were sparkling.
Reya said, "Well it can't be helped. There's no room for modesty or Baxter's clothes. We're being boarded. Dain, get the men together, and take the weapons."
A dozen sketchpads were dropped unceremoniously to the ground as the soldiers registered alarm at the shocking news and readied themselves for orders they knew were coming.
Dain said, "Sergeant! Arm the men." As the soldiers took the rifles, Dain picked one up and said, "I thought I'd heard something earlier."
"You've never been on a ship that's been boarded?" Reya asked as Dain followed her out. The soldiers quickly exited after them, including young Baxter who lagged behind and had his rifle positioned decidedly in front of him.
"No, ma'am," said Dain as he slapped the control on the side of the rifle and it hummed to life.
"Then it's time for some on-the-job training."
Argus-Wolf reached the flight deck in record time. "Zen, open communications channel with the battle cruiser."
"Confirmed. Communications channel open."
He settled into his command position. "This is Argus. We are a peaceful ship. Please state your intentions."
For a moment there was no response and then a grey-haired man in a well-decorated Federation officer's uniform appeared. "Commander Argus. I was beginning to think there was no one onboard."
Argus started at the familiar face and his back straightened. "Admiral Tarkov."
"What is the status of your ship?"
"I'm not sure, sir. Something strange appears to have happened." The Wolf inside him snorted its agreement. It found humans unnecessarily complicated.
"That's why we're here, Commander. We've been chasing an invisible anomaly. Three ships…"
The Admiral's face abruptly disintegrated into static.
"Zen, re-establish the comm channel."
"External communications systems are now inoperative. Malfunction at ninety-eight percent of normal efficiency."
"Can it be fixed?"
"Repair monitors are in phase two reassessment."
This was not good. That meant the repair computers had skipped phase one altogether. He needed to talk to the Admiral. "So any repairs would take at least several hours?"
"Phase two reassessment is not yet complete."
Sester had been watching from the flight deck steps, his arms crossed over his chest and leaning lazily against the bulkhead. "That's interesting."
The Argus-Wolf had a ready snarl on its face as it turned to face him. "Don't you have anything better to do?"
The psychostrategist came down the steps. "Not really. You ordered me to stay in your sight, remember?"
Argus-Wolf gave a low growl, "Stay out of my way."
Sester had a slight grin on his face as he sat down on the couch. "How do you propose I stay out of your way and be within your sight?"
A growl rumbled in Argus-Wolf's chest.
Sester's slight grin widened as he made himself comfortable. "You know Admiral Tarkov?"
"I served under him on two campaigns." Argus was not about to tell the psychostrategist that this was one of his military contacts that the Federation had been so interested in trying to extract from him.
Sester found that with constant effort, his mind was beginning to function again. Or needling this man just came naturally even to his partially functioning brain. "Then the people boarding the ship are his men?"
Argus stared hard at him as the implication became clear.
Sester said, "Yes. You'd better stop Reya from shooting anyone."
As Argus ran to the exit, he shouted behind him, "Stay here! Don't touch anything."
Sester smiled with amusement as Argus left. It wasn't as if any of the controls on the flight deck would work for him. With nothing else to do, his hand absently rubbed the cut on the side of his neck and he began to think about Argus and the sounds he had been making.
Avon jerked his hand away as a spark of pain singed it. "Not that one." His lips curled in a snarl of frustration. This entire exercise was testing nerves that were already stretched thin.
He paused briefly and composed his mind. * Cally. * Avon had lost count of the number of times he had reached out into the silence, calling her name and receiving no answer.
The definition of madness was to commit the same action repeatedly but expect a different result. This entire ship seemed to have slipped past the threshold of insanity and his mind was being inexorably drawn to the same place.
A vessel teeming with life had become a mausoleum for the missing, with himself as its blind caretaker.
At least when Cally finally answered, for her it would be the first time. She would never know that irrational sentiment had caused him to keep calling her name despite the evidence that she was gone.
With steady fingers, he touched the side of the casing, counted inwards to single out one wire out of several dozen, and followed its smooth length.
Running a bypass to connect the ship's auxiliary atmospheric systems to the plasma coolant ejectors was a difficult enough procedure for a sighted man. Being unable to see the colours of the wires, he had to trace each lead by touch alone. Even then, there were some he had to depend entirely on guesswork. This was far more difficult than trying to defuse the solium device on Albian. Not a situation he preferred but he had no choice.
The coolant was poisonous but he had sealed off the engineering section he was in.
Cally lay on a circular bed. Her eyes were closed and her head rocked from side-to-side as the scenes on the ship played out in her mind. Through the power of her captor, she had witnessed everything, from Kirsten and Jenna's fight outside Sester's cabin to Sester and Reya's mistake to Argus's descent into the Wolf, and had been unable to stop them.
The most terrible images were of Avon's stumbling progress through the ship, which miraculously managed to miss any of the people running through the corridors. She suspected that her host had something to do with it. He wanted to keep Avon isolated from the others.
* Avon, no! * she desperately tried to project to him but it was no use.
Corinne lay in the dark. Everything took on a reddish glow through the night vision sight. It was very simple. A single squeeze of the trigger and all of the monsters of her childhood would be gone forever.
She didn't like killing but monsters weren't people.
The door slid open and light flooded in from the corridor. A dark, imposing figure appeared at the entrance. Corinne's trembling fingers quickly pulled the trigger.
A flash. A groan. The creature of her nightmares crumpled to the ground.