September Stories (9/4)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-4

Diospyros
By Danielle Davis

“I’ll be honest, boss,” Merrin said with a dubious frown at the vis-screen, “I have no idea where this thing came from.”

Akasha scowled at him. “Unacceptable.” The quiet menace in her tone made the engineer grimace.

“You can—“ Merrin’s voice dropped in a baritone mimicry “—‘unacceptable’ all you want, but the fact is this ion cloudstorm came up on us faster than the system could detect it.” Merrin sat perfectly still in his chair with his fingers touching the vis-board like a pianist about to begin. Data charts raced across the vis-screen as Merrin used the technokinetic connection to scan through the system’s weather detection files.

Akasha walked over and clamped a hand on his shoulder. As she leaned her full weight on it, she growled close to his ear, “Ion cloudstorms take days to mature. They. Cannot. Just. APPEAR!”

Merrin flinched away from her yell with a curse, his fingers slipping from their connection on the vis-board. Immediately the vis-screen went dark. With a dark glare at his captain, he resituated himself and replaced his fingers on the indentations of the vis-board. A light blue glow faded in at the points where each finger initiated a technokinetic point of contact. As the rest of the crew watched, the vis-screen flared back to life as Merrin resumed the system scan.

“And it’s ‘Captain’,” Akasha grumbled at him.

Merrin finally found the file: the meteorological scan log. “And yet…this one seems to have done just that. Captain.” Merrin’s voice was soft with wonder and Akasha gave him a sharp look to make sure he wasn’t mocking her again. Nothing startled Merrin. He was the top systems engineer on board—hell, one of the best around for about four galaxies—but this seemed to have genuinely given him pause.

According to the log, this ion cloudstorm had risen in mere hours.

“That is impossible,” Clotha murmured next to Akasha’s shoulder. She jumped, then turned her glare to the psychic. The woman often seemed to simply appear when she was needed, with next to no noise announcing her arrival. Clotha’s milky eyes, pure white with no discernible pupil or iris, stared at the screen.

“Unless,” the psychic continued in a calm voice, ”the energy from the ship’s atmospheric shield was manually boosted. Such energy pushes have been known to kick off the ionic reactions that precede ionic cloudstorms. Of course, that could only have been done by an engineer, and I’m sure First Lieutenant Merrin would know if one of his engineers had performed such an action…”

“This is hardly your area of expertise,” Merrin grumbled.

Clotha turned her unblinking gaze down to look at him in silence. After a few moments, she cocked her head. “Professionally you resent my presence on the bridge. You feel my abilities are unnecessary when it comes to data analysis. But, from a personal perspective, your resentment is also territorial.” Akasha opened her mouth to intervene, but Clotha held up a hand without deterring her gaze from Merrin’s. “It is all right, Captain. He cannot help his animosity. Like a hound marking his territory by peeing on a sign post, it is an instinctual reaction.”

A deep flush suffused Merrin’s cheeks and he made as if to stand. Akasha stepped between them, placing a hand on Merrin’s chest to push him back in his seat. She held her hand in the air inches from Clotha’s chest. She knew firsthand how uncomfortable it was to be drawn into Clotha’s visions, and physical contact made the connection stronger.

The Captain looked at her engineer. “Merrin, look over the last few days of meteorological scans. Tell me if there’s been an increase in ionic activity building. Also keep an eye out for some transverse radiation—sometimes there’s radioactive residue from the ion reactions.”

When she turned to Clotha, she had to suppress a shiver. Looking into Clotha’s empty, white eyes was unnerving. As if reading her Captain’s thoughts, Clotha’s lips curved into a small smile. “Clotha, I want you in the lab. I need you to continue to monitor Judge Gushiken’s condition. Tell me if his dreams give any clue about what happened. We need to know why he collapsed.”

Clotha nodded her head in acknowledgement and left the bridge. If Akasha hadn’t watched her walk away, she would never have heard the woman leave.

“Like a damn ghost,” Merrin muttered and Akasha looked at him in surprise. Surely he wasn’t turning psychic on her, too. But he was connected to the vis-board and meant the way the cloudstorm had appeared. He stared up at the corner of the vis-screen, where a jagged line showed the transmission static rendered by the ion cloudstorm.

“Boss, while the cloudstorm’s throwing all that signal noise around us, we’re unable to transmit.” Akasha sighed and rubbed her temple. Without a signal, they couldn’t alert the Central Docking Station that the Judge had fallen ill. Of a disease the medical examiner couldn’t identify. Two days before he was to rule on one of the biggest federal hearings in history.

“Can’t we just fly out of the cloudstorm, Captain?”

She turned at the meek voice and found it belonged to a cringing girl in uniform. “Merrin, who let this Cadet—“ Akasha spit the word out like an insult “—onto my deck?”

“No one that I heard, boss.”

Akasha arced an eyebrow expectantly at the Cadet, who flushed a bright pink.

“I was on the…you know…over…” The Cadet waved her hand vaguely at the Viewing Room that served as the waiting area for people unauthorized to be on the bridge. A glass wall separated the room from the activity on the bridge, but visitors could monitor all bridge conversation via the intercom system. It was the perfect place for passengers so that they could feel involved without interfering with the crew’s work.

“Anyway,” the Cadet continued, staring at the Captain’s shoes to avoid eye contact, “I know ion cloudstorms are slow-moving. Why not just fly until we’re out of its range of interference? Then we could radio back to the…” Her voice died as she peeked at the Captain’s face.

“Arturo!” Akasha exclaimed in mock-surprise. She frowned as she turned to her Senior Navigationeer. “The Cadet is brilliant! Why don’t we just fly out from underneath it?” Akasha made a fluttering motion with her hand like a bird soaring up into the sky. From the corner of her eye, she could see the Cadet’s lips tighten to a thin line.

Arturuo’s upper body pivoted in place so that he was facing Akasha and the Cadet. “The cloudstorm mucks up with our navigation, Captain,” Arturo reported back in a monotone. Because the spaceship was older, the microchip that served as his brain lacked the voice modulators some of the newer-navigationeer androids had. Arturo himself had an advanced silicon cover that made him appear like a human from the waist up, but there his “body” ended. Where his hips would have been, instead was a large cylindrical casing that housed the wires and cords that connected him to the ship’s navigational controls.

Message delivered, his upper body swiveled back around to the vis-screen in front of him. Akasha glared at the Cadet. “And since you’re so well-versed in ion cloudstorm activity, I’m sure you already know that cloudstorms can cover an entire planet. So without navigation, we’d have no idea if we were flying out of the storm or further in. Does that satisfy your curiosity, Cadet…?”

“Middleton,” the Cadet said in a quivering voice. When Akasha’s eyebrow arced warningly, she added, “Captain.”

Akasha nodded. “And what is your primary field of study, Cadet?”

The Cadet straightened her back and snapped out a salute. “Galactic aerodynamics and warm fusion, Captain.”

“Uh-huh. And that makes you an expert in meteorological studies, too?” At the Cadet’s renewed flush, Akasha nodded as if she suspected as much. “If all is to your satisfaction, Acting-Captain Middleton, perhaps we can get back to work then?” She wielded sarcasm like master swordsmen managed their blades, and her words were pitched for maximum effect. A humiliated tear rolled down the Cadet’s cheek. “And never let a superior see you cry, Cadet. It’s a sign of weakness. Now get off my bridge.”

Cadet Middleton nodded furiously and scurried away.

“You didn’t have to make her cry, boss,” Merrin intoned behind her.

“She made herself cry,” Akasha retorted. She gave him a sidelong glance. “And that’s ‘Captain,’ Merrin. Geez…”

“Sorry, boss. Hard habit to break.”

Akasha stalked off the bridge, scowling at the smirk she heard in his voice. Sleep with the man for two semesters while at the Academy and suddenly he thinks he’s got some kind of pass when it comes to the chain of command. He was hardly just a two-semester diversion though, she thought. If she let herself remember correctly, there might have been a time she had thought herself in love with him. Of course, that all changed when she made the top of her class and was promoted, as a result.

Which ultimately was the reason she was Captaining this wretched trip in the first place. Mere weeks after she’d graduated and been given this rattletrap of a ship, she’d been given her first mission. Though her commanding officer had tried to make it sound like a privilege—transporting the High Judge of the Universal Federation–, she’d seen it for what it really was: a grunt mission. Go fetch that passenger and bring him back.

Only now they were stuck. And their passenger, their very important passenger, had collapsed and now lay in the medical quarters in a coma. All in all, this entire mission, grunt work though it may be, had the serious possibility of irredeemably sinking her career.

“Not while I’m on board,” she growled. “Not on my ship.” She slapped a hand over the scan panel of the elevator and stepped in. “Med room!” The doors swooshed shut with a quiet hiss.

Seconds later, they opened to reveal the ship’s expansive medical laboratory. Since it had been a medical research vessel in a past life, the ship was equipped with some of the newest technology available, despite being an older model.

“What cha’ got, Doc?” she called.

“He’s dreaming about persimmons again.”

That halted Akasha. “Um…what?”

Dr. Giancarlo glanced over her shoulder and shook her head. The beads in the tight braids that made up her hair clacked together gently. “It’s all he’s thought about since he came in. Otherwise I don’t have any answers for you, Captain.” Her accent made almost anything sound wonderful, said as it was with the lilting dialect of those that used to live in Jamaica on the planet of Old Earth. “I found a small puncture mark on the back of his neck, but his symptoms don’t seem to give me any new answers.”

Akasha walked over to where Judge Gushiken lay prone on the laser stretcher. He was undressed to the waist, leaving the colorful whirls and designs of his tattoos visible. Underneath him was the red glow of the laser stretcher, with the thin beams of light that were as solid as steel extending all the way to their source in the wall.

The Captain passed a hand over her face. Gushiken’s face had the still look of someone dead, rather than merely sleeping. There was a gray pallor to his tan skin that she didn’t like the look of.

“Please tell me you’ve got something better than that,” she pleaded in a tired voice.

Dr. Giancarlo pursed her full lips as she pressed a dark red dot on one side of the laser stretcher. A glowing holo of the Judge’s body appeared in the air above him. At the head, colored blobs light up here and there around a stenciled image of a brain. Farther down, two oblong sacks contracted and expanded in time with his breaths. In the chest area, a video image of a heart beat as clearly as if it were exposed to the open air. Throughout the whole image, small red and blue lines traced spidery paths like ants marching in formation across his entire body.

“What are those?” Akasha murmured.

“Bloodflow. But here’s what concerns me.” The doctor made a pinching motion at the brain images while her other hand made a quick wiping motion to the side. The rest of the body image disappeared and the head image enlarged. Dr. Giancarlo pointed to several bright red blobs that pulsed and shifted across multiple areas of the brain. “Those are the areas being affected right now. The red shows abnormal brain patters. I remember seeing something like this in a very old textbook once, back when I was doing my med studies. The damage is occurring in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes simultaneously. Those are the areas that handle intelligence, judgement, and behavior; memory; and language.” She pointed to each area as she named them.

“What did the textbook say, Doc? I have a feeling time’s running out.”

The doctor’s steady brown eyes turned to Akasha’s. “Captain, I fear time has already run out. This man is showing the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”

“That’s impossible,” Akasha snorted. “That disease was—“

“I know. Eradicated almost two centuries ago. But here’s where it gets weird…” The doctor pressed more buttons along the edge of the laser stretcher.

“You mean it wasn’t up till now?” Akasha muttered. She wondered how it could have all gone so wrong so fast. She’d run through all the checklists before undocking. Double- and triple-checked the background of each person on her flight crew and passengers, which had taken the better part of a month. And she was watching it all unravel right in front of her. In the span of hours

“Here,” Dr. Giancarlo said. She waved a brain scan image up so that it floated parallel to the first one. While the first image showed the abnormalities in red blobs all over, the second image showed nothing but blue and green blobs shifting in and out. “The second image? That was taken when Judge Gushiken boarded the ship.”

“Two days ago,” Akasha supplied.

The doctor nodded. “But since then, the Alzheimers-like illness has consumed his brain. Such damage should have taken years to reach that point.”

“At the very least, we would have noticed something when he boarded.” Akasha’s eyes suddenly burned with fatigue. “What could cause this kind of rapid-onset, Doc? I’m running out of functional brain matter myself here.”

“Well, Captain.” Dr. Giancarlo hesitated. “The puncture mark is the best clue we’ve got. The only way I can conceive of something like that would be if he had something injected into his spinal fluid.”

Akasha fixed the doctor with eyes that seemed to glow in their intensity. “Do you know what it could have been?”

Silently, the doctor shook her head.

“What do you need to find out?”

Dr. Giancarlo opened and closed her mouth several times. Each time it seemed she had an answer and then changed her mind. Finally, she put a thumbnail in her mouth and chewed on it. “I’d need a sample of what he was injected with. I suppose it could be a variant on an old disease. That would explain why none of our tests have made any matches to diseases known or eradicated. It would be just different enough to throw the machines off. If I had a sample, I could break it down and hopefully reverse the damage done.”

With a sigh, Akasha gave a weary nod. “I’ll do my best, Doc. In the meantime, you keep him alive.”

She was halfway down the hall on the third tier when Merrin came flying down the hall.

“Boss! I got something.” He halted in front of her, then bent to brace his hands on his knees as he tried to recover his breath. In between gulps of air, he gasped out, “I checked the engine logs. On a hunch. Something Clotha said…” He noticed Akasha’s uncomprehending look and waved his hand. “Nevermind. Doesn’t matter. The important thing is that all my crew on the engineering team were accounted for at their stations in the hours leading up to the ion cloudstorm.”

“This is not helpful, Merrin,” Akasha said. “I’ve just found out someone had the nerve to attempt murder under my nose and they very well might get away with—“

However,” Merrin said loudly over her. “That didn’t stop someone from making an unscheduled trip to the engine room after it had been cleared for the hour.”

Akasha wanted to reach out and shake him for making her ask. “Who then? Who was it?”

Merrin cocked an eyebrow at her. “Me.”

“That’s impossible. You were on the bridge long before the cloudstorm could have begun. How could you have been in two places at once?”

“A very good question, boss.”

“What happened in the engine room during this…visit?”

Merrin gave a rueful nod. “The log isn’t as specific about that part. But I did cross-check some of the external ship stats around the time of that check-in. Seven minutes after my ident code was entered at the engine room entrance, we sustained a surge in electromagnetic blast output. And you’ll never guess what caused that blast.”

Akasha came to the conclusion at the same time Merrin answered, “Manual boost of the atmospheric shield!”

“How could someone have lifted your ident code? Isn’t that something that’s supposed to be memorized. Did you ever right it down?”

Merrin shook his head.

“Then how could someone know what was—“ Akasha broke off.

Her eyes widened fast enough that Merrin grabbed her arm in alarm. “Boss? Akasha? Are you—“

“I need to conduct a search,” she said. Her eyes sparkled with the urgency of her idea. “I need you to call an all-hands on the bridge. Essential personnel only.”

“Why only the essentials, boss? It could be anyone on the crew.”

On impulse, Akasha leaned forward and pressed her lips tight against Merrin’s. When she pulled back, Merrin had the dazed look of someone in a dream. A small smile played at one corner of his mouth. She grabbed his shoulders in both hands and squeezed as she looked him in the eyes.

“Because one of the essential personnel just tried to murder Judge Gushiken to keep him from making it to that federal hearing. I need to confirm my suspicion with some proof. Just get everyone on the bridge and wait for me.” She started to move away, then paused. “Oh, and send that upstart Cadet to help me. Middleburg was it?”

“Middleton, boss.”

“Captain,” she sighed in exasperation.

“Captain Middleton? Pretty sure she was just a Cadet, boss.” Merrin’s eyes sparkled with mischief. A small smirk curled the corner of his lips.

Akasha leaned forward until they were in kissing distance once more. Her lips were pulled to one side in a wry grimace. “And fire yourself while you’re at it, ok?”

Merrin’s smirk turned into a full grin. “Sure thing, boss.” She stuck her tongue out at him.

An hour later, the essential personnel were getting fractious.

“You can’t keep us here without telling us why the Captain called the all-hands,” a midshipman raged at Merrin. Merrin stared back impassively.

“And where is the Captain, Lieutenant?” Clotha crossed her arms as she sauntered toward him. “She called us here but did not choose to attend herself? Most unusual.”

Merrin glared at her and mimicked her stance by crossing his arms, too. “She has her reasons. I’m sure she’ll be here soon.”

“Just how soon is soon?” Clotha’s voice carried a thin thread of anger as she leaned forward. Her blank eyes seemed to bore holes into his. He had the uncomfortable feeling of shuffling going on in his head, as if someone where moving things about in a hurry. “You don’t know,” she said, surprised. “You’re just as in the dark as the rest of—“

“I hope you didn’t start the party without me!” Akasha declared as she marched onto the bridge with long, easy strides. Behind her, Cadet Middleton struggled to keep up. She clutched something small in her hands.

The midshipman took an authoritative step forward into Akasha’s path. “Captain, what is the meaning of—“

Akasha skipped on nimble feet to one side and continued around the midshipman as if he hadn’t spoken at all.

“Clotha! Just the person I wanted to see. It has come to my attention that Judge Gushiken did not fall ill, as we’d thought. Well, not by himself, I suppose. Someone tried to have him killed.”

Clotha’s eyes widened as a startled gasp went up around the people assembled on the bridge. “Captain, are you sure?”

The captain gave her a smug smirk. “Dead positive.” Then her voice changed to a lighter tone. “Thankfully, Dr. Giancarlo was able to discern the virus from a sample of the serum and is whipping up the antidote as we speak.”

Clotha narrowed her eyes. “The doctor already has an antidote?”

“She will,” Akasha said in an offhanded tone. “Soon.”

Clotha seemed to gather herself and gazed suspiciously at the shocked faces gathered around them. “I assume you want my help in discovering who the culprit is? My services are yours, Captain.”

“Not quite. We already know who it was.”

Clotha paused in her examination of the faces nearest them, then cocked her head toward the captain. “You do?” Her voice was carefully neutral.

“Oh yeah,” Merrin spoke up, with relish. “It was obvious from the start.” He missed Akasha’s look of shocked indignation. “How they thought they could get away with it simply reveals how incredibly careless and idiotic they are. I mean, to be so stupid as to think we—“

Akasha rubbed her temples and sighed. When she looked up, she spoke right over Merrin. “Clotha. You’re bound by law for the attempted murder of Judge Gushiken. You are hereby stripped of all administrative rights and privileges aboard this ship.”

For a moment Clotha gaped at her. “Me? You think I could have done something like that? What makes you think so?”

Cadet Middleton stepped forward and displayed the item she carried. It was a syringe with a small amount of viscous, yellow fluid in the reservoir. “We found this hidden among your personal things.”

Clotha’s laugh pealed through the room like clanging bells. “You think that is mine? Anybody could have planted that there!”

“But nobody could have known Lieutenant Merrin’s ident code and used it to access the engine room while he was on the bridge.” Akasha’s voice was deadly quiet. Her eyes held a predatory look as she gazed at Clotha. “But a psychic… I imagine it wasn’t too hard for you to glean that information, now was it?”

Clotha’s white eyes didn’t deviate from Akasha’s. “You have no proof.” Her voice, too, was soft and carried a menacing edge. Merrin narrowed his eyes and quietly moved a few steps closer.

“I don’t need it. You have a copious amount of excuses but I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to come up with a convincing alibi for the time between when we picked up the Judge on Navarro and the time he—“

“Navarro?” Arturo’s monotone voice spoke up. “That was the last navigation point referenced prior to our return trip to the Docking Station. It is also the hometown listed in the file of Clotha Marigold Harridan.”

Akasha and Merrin shared a surprised look. “Homedown, huh? Merrin, do you think I might be able to find some connection between Clotha and Judge Gushiken?” Akasha’s voice was sharp with sarcasm.

“Oh on a tiny moon like Navarro?” Merrin echoed the same tone. “I’m sure you probably could, boss. It’s a pretty backwater area, though. I imagine the money needed to get to a central planet like the Docking Station might be hard to come by without a certain benefactor. Money like that is often traceable…”

Clotha’s face tightened on itself as she sneered at Akasha. “You cannot do this. I am a certified Guild Telekinetic. You cannot just accuse me without proof.”

“Actually, I can.” Akasha smiled and gestured to the small gold pin attached to her uniform lapel. “See this insignia? That means I’m the Captain. Means I get to make the rules. And until we can contact the Central Docking Station for proper legislative procedure, I get to decide how to keep order on my ship.”

Akasha straightened and nodded to the man on her right. “Midshipman Kean? Please escort Clotha to our solitary brig. Find a few friends to help you, please?”

“At once, Captain!” The midshipman saluted before snatching Clotha’s arm and dragging her toward the bridge entryway. With a furious huff, Clotha acquiesced, though, from the white knuckles on the Kean’s hand, Akasha guessed Clotha would have some serious bruises in a few hours.

She dismissed the rest of the personnel back to their workstations, then turned a weary eye to the vis-screen ahead of her. The electric crackle of the ion cloudstorm raged onscreen, casting a spectacular light show of violet, lavender, and white charges across the display.

“Now if we could just figure out a way home,” she murmured to herself.

“Actually, Captain?” Cadet Middleton’s timid voice came from next to her shoulder. Akasha jumped and turned to see the Cadet peeking shyly at her. “I might be able to help with that…”

“I’ve gotta admit, I did not see that coming.” Merrin gave a rueful shake of his head as he and Akasha strolled down the ramp at the Docking Station. “I mean, to use the shield’s energy field again? Brilliant! She’s got quite a brain on her, that one.”

Akasha gave him a sideways look. “Yeah, I suppose she did ok.”

Merrin halted and stared at her in shock. “Ok? OK? What she did defied anything I’ve been taught about the thermodynamics of atmospheric shields. To create the anti-ion charges that cause the negative reactions… I mean, she actually dispersed an ion cloudstorm using the thermal thrust calculations to alter the shield’s energy field. So far as I know, no one has every dispersed an ion storm.”

“Ok, fine, I’ll say it. Upstart Cadet Middleton did a good job. Happy now?”

Merrin grinned and nodded. When Akasha began walking again, he followed. “So what will you do with her?”

“I’m going to recommend her for a promotion.” At Merrin’s suspicious glare, she continued, “And I might have offered her a position on my crew once she graduates.” She jabbed a finger at the air under Merrin’s nose. “Might have.”

Merrin rolled his eyes with a smile. But it faded as three orderlies in haz-suits wheeled Judge Gushiken past them on a hovering gurney. “Will he be ok?”

Akasha followed the group with her eyes and shrugged. “Doc seemed to think so. Luckily there was enough residue in that syringe for her to discern that he’d been injected with a mutated strain of Alzheimer’s—that’s why the brain scans seemed so similar to it. Someone had added a bioaccelerant to hasten the effects so the serum did the maximum damage in a few short hours. I hope they’re able to get him back. He’s important to the federal shindig going down at Central.”

“Did Dr. Giancarlo ever figure out why he was dreaming of persimmons?”

With a bark of laughter, Akasha grinned. “The antidote she needed came from them. Well, actually from the genus of the persimmon tree, to be exact. Diospyros. Old Earth Greek for ‘divine fruit.’”

“How’d he know?”

“I don’t think he did. But perhaps his subconscious was reacting to the serum. I know Judges and federal officials have to undergo certain gene alterations—for all I know he was able to detect the presence of something foreign in his body. Either way, once the doc broke it down to a cellular level, she was able to combine the strands of the mutant version with the old cure developed centuries ago. She had to do some fun splicing and dicing, but he’s still here when he shouldn’t be. That’s gotta count for something.”

“And us?”

Akasha stopped and gave him a long searching look. “Us?” she repeated softly.

“What’s to become of us?” One of Merrin’s fingers trailed lazily down the arm of her uniform.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Akasha said in a breezy voice. “This was just our first run.” Her eyes sparkled at him with barely concealed mischief. “I can’t wait to see what happens on our second mission.”

Total Writing Time: 5 hr.

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