Frontiers 07 - The Expanse

Table of Contents

The Frontiers Saga Episode #7: The Expanse

Copyright © 2013 by Ryk Brown All rights reserved.

First Kindle Edition: June 2013

Cover and formatting: Streetlight Graphics

All rights reserved. This eBook is licensed for the personal enjoyment of the original purchaser only. This eBook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this eBook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are a work of fiction or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

CHAPTER ONE

Captain Nathan Scott walked the corridor of the command deck on his way to the captain’s mess. Over the last few weeks, the Aurora had been under repair at the Takaran shipyards. During their downtime, Nathan had renewed his tradition of sharing breakfast with his friend and chief engineer, Lieutenant Commander Vladimir Kamenetskiy. When they had still been in the orbital assembly platform high above Earth, he and Vladimir had shared meals in the ship’s mess with the rest of the crew. However, they had been ensigns at the time, and only a third of the ship’s standard complement had been aboard as well. Now, with the ship fully crewed and the mess hall constantly busy, Nathan and his friend were forced to take their meals in the captain’s mess in order to have an open conversation.

During the last few weeks, both the ship’s executive officer, Commander Cameron Taylor, and the ship’s chief of security, Lieutenant Commander Jessica Nash, had also become regular attendees for the morning breakfast in the captain’s mess. It was a time that Nathan had grown to relish. Over their morning meal, he was not the captain; he was just Nathan. He was hanging out with his three friends. He could relax and be himself, as could they all.

There was something therapeutic about their meals together. After all they had been through during their adventures in the Pentaurus cluster, a little therapy couldn’t hurt. In fact, Doctor Ahlitara, a behavioral psychologist on loan from Corinair, had recommended such interactions among the senior staff. He had warned that the crew needed an outlet, a way to release the stress and tension that had been building up, even during their post-battle downtime in the Pallax shipyards.

Commander Taylor’s idea of therapy was different. She kept the crew busy. Those not participating in repairs spent most of their time in training, as she was determined to make them into a proper crew. Nathan had wondered if it was worth the effort, as there was every chance that, once they arrived back at Earth, the lot of them would be replaced by more qualified officers and crew. The members of his crew hailing from the Pentaurus cluster would undoubtedly be returned to their homes as soon as feasible, which, depending on the current situation on Earth, could be some time. It hardly seemed fair, especially considering what they had sacrificed for not only their own worlds, but for the Aurora and, by association, the Earth itself. Without them, the Aurora and her few remaining crew would surely have perished, and the Earth would have been left with inadequate defense against the Jung.

Nathan finished the short trip from his quarters to the captain’s mess, passing only a few members of his crew along the way as they made their way to their duty stations to start their shifts. The crew had settled into a familiar routine, which also helped to ease their frazzled nerves. A few ‘morning, sirs,’ and his brief journey was complete.

“Good morning, Lieutenant Commander,” Nathan said as he entered the captain’s mess.

“Good morning, sir,” the ‘Cheng’ answered. Vladimir’s tone was more formal than expected, which alerted Nathan of someone else in the room. He looked about the compact dining room and saw no one. The Cheng darted his eyes toward the galley, and as if on cue, one of the ship’s cooks carried out a tray and placed it on the table.

“Good morning, Mister Collins,” Nathan greeted the cook. Mister Collins had been assigned as the captain’s personal cook by the galley chief. The young Corinairan had left culinary school and volunteered for duty aboard the Aurora after the Yamaro had attacked his world. While his culinary talents were evident, the galley chief did not feel that the young man had the right skill set for the volume of cooking required to feed an entire crew. Cooking for the captain and his senior staff seemed the perfect assignment for the eager young recruit. Over the past few weeks, the young man had memorized most of the senior staff’s culinary likes and dislikes. He had even learned to cook a few of their favorite recipes from Earth, especially those of Lieutenant Commander Kamenetskiy, who always seemed willing to spend an hour in the kitchen educating the young chef on the art of Russian cuisine.

“Good morning, sir,” Mister Collins responded in accented English. Along with his studies of Earth cuisine, he was also working on his English skills. His English still carried the heavy brogue so common to the Corinairan version of English they called ‘Angla.’

“It will just be the two of us this morning,” Nathan said, noticing that the cook had set out the usual four place settings.

“The ladies will not to be joining you this morning?”

“I’m afraid they have other duties to attend to this morning,” Nathan told him.

“Yes, sir,” Mister Collins said, immediately removing the extra settings.

“No ladies?” Vladimir said. His face drooped with disappointment.

Nathan looked at him funny as the chef left the room and returned to the adjoining galley. “We’re talking about Cameron and Jessica here, Vlad, not a couple of hot nurses.”

“Just because I am not trying to sleep with them does not mean I cannot enjoy their company,” Vladimir argued. “After all, they are women, even if they are not susceptible to my obvious charms,” he added with the slightest hint of sarcasm.

Nathan smiled as he took his first sip of morning coffee, or what the Ancotans had provided as a substitute. It was bitter, more so than the coffee on Earth, and required a considerable amount of sweetener to make it palatable for the small Terran portion of the crew.

“Where are they?” Vlad asked.

Nathan winced slightly at the bitter flavor as he set his cup down and began to add more sweetener. “Cameron is down on Corinair. They’re giving her a final deep scan to ensure that all the nanites have left her system.”

“I thought they were gone weeks ago,” Vladimir said.

“So did I. Apparently they just wanted to be sure before she left the Pentaurus cluster for good.”

“What about Jessica? What’s her excuse?”

“The shuttles bringing the crew back from Corinair are arriving this morning,” Nathan explained. “She wanted to oversee their check-in.”

“Doesn’t she have staff that can handle such details?”

“You know Jess,” Nathan said as he took another sip, finding the level of bitterness more tolerable, “still the one to do it herself whenever possible.”

Vladimir chuckled softly as the cook placed a plate of the Corinairan version of bacon and eggs on the table in front of him. “It was not so long ago that you and I were much the same way, my friend.” Vladimir began devouring his breakfast in earnest as he spoke. He paused, taking notice of the weary look on Nathan’s face. “Still not sleeping?”

“Not much, no,” Nathan admitted as he took his first bite. “At least not as much as I’d like. To be honest, I’m really looking forward to getting back to Earth and handing everything over to Fleet. Perhaps then I can get some sleep.”

“Yes, I hear the beds in prison are quite comfortable.”

“Funny.” Nathan took another bite of his food, chasing it with a sip of the Ancotan coffee. He tried to ignore his friend’s remark, fully aware of its sarcastic intent. However, the thought still haunted him to some degree, just as it had since the day he decided to form the alliance with the people of the Pentaurus cluster and share the jump drive technology with them. “You don’t really think they will…”

“Pssht.” Vladimir smirked as he continued to shovel food in his mouth. “You have done amazing things while in command, Nathan. You liberated billions of people and gained advanced technologies, but more importantly, you managed to save this ship and return her to Earth. You will be welcomed as a hero, my friend.”

“Let’s hope,” Nathan said, unconvinced, “but we’re not home yet.”

“Pssht!”

“What? Did you spring a leak or something?”

Vladimir finished chewing his food and swallowed before continuing. “We survived four attacks, destroyed a dozen enemy warships, and invaded a technologically advanced empire.” Vladimir scooped up another load of eggs, his loaded fork hovering at his mouth. “After all that, how hard can a thousand light year journey be?” Vladimir loaded his mouth up once again. “Trust me,” he continued, his mouth again full of food, “you will become a legend on Earth, just as you are in the Pentaurus cluster.”

“I think you’re exaggerating again,” Nathan said. “I’m not worthy of such status. You and I both know that most of it was just dumb luck.”

Vladimir raised his finger to pause the conversation as he finished swallowing. “Legends are not born as such; rather, they are persons no different than you or I who accepted a role thrust upon them by fate and had the fortitude to live up to the challenge to the best of their ability.” Vladimir smiled, obviously pleased that he had remembered the quote correctly.

“I’ve heard that somewhere before,” Nathan said, a quizzical expression on his face.

Vladimir smiled even more broadly. “I too know something of history.”

“Who said that?”

“That I do not remember,” he admitted as he took another bite, “but I am sure he was Russian.”

* * *

Lieutenant Commander Jessica Nash stood silently behind the security detail while they checked the credentials of each crewman as they stepped off the shuttle. Despite the fact that the Ta’Akar Empire had been defeated and the few remaining loyalists left on Corinair had all but disappeared, she did not intend to take chances. The identity of each and every person on board was confirmed with both retinal and DNA scans before they were allowed to leave the Aurora’s main hangar bay.

Most of the Aurora’s Corinairan crew had already returned from their two-day shore leave on their homeworld. At this point, the only crewmen left on Corinair were the two platoons of special forces troops that Corinari command had insisted the Aurora bring along. Captain Scott had been reluctant to do so, as he was already concerned about what would happen to his crew once they returned to Earth. Bringing an additional one hundred highly trained combatants might further complicate matters. However, Jessica had convinced her commanding officer that since there was still a lot of unknown space to pass through on their way home, there was nothing wrong with having some extra muscle on board, especially highly trained muscle. In the end, Nathan had agreed, with the stipulation that the platoons remained attached to her security command.

Jessica, of course, had no problem with the captain’s stipulation. She was also trained for special operations, and having two platoons of similarly trained troops at her disposal made her feel better. They had already defended against three boarding actions, and with the Corinari spec-ops aboard, they would be more prepared for any other such attempts.

Of course, she expected nothing of the sort during their journey back to Earth. They had no idea if there would be any more inhabited systems along their course home other than the few known systems all lying within fifty light years of the Pentaurus cluster. The truth, however, was that neither they nor the people of the Pentaurus cluster knew exactly what lay within the vast expanse of space that separated the Pentaurus and Sol sectors. It was nearly nine hundred light years of unexplored space. As far as they knew, the Aurora would be the first ship from Earth to explore this area of the galaxy since getting back into space.

“Lieutenant Commander,” Sergeant Weatherly said as he stepped up and saluted.

“Sergeant. Has Commander Taylor checked in?”

“Yes, sir, about an hour ago. She went down to the cargo bay with the chief of the boat to check over the food supplies that arrived from Ancot this morning.”

“I guess Mister Soloman’s old man came through after all,” Jessica said with amusement.

“Yes, sir. I heard the Ancotans have been sending over as much food as they can fit in that heavy cargo shuttle the Corinairans fitted with a jump drive.”

“Yeah. Last I heard they had three more heavy jumpers just about ready to go.”

“Major Prechitt came back with the commander as well,” the sergeant reported.

“I thought he was staying behind to oversee the rebuilding of the Corinari forces.”

“I guess not. Commander Taylor told me to put him back on the roster as CAG.”

“I wonder who’s going to lead the Corinari,” Jessica said.

He shrugged. “You’d have to ask the major.”

Jessica glanced at the sergeant’s data pad. “How are we doing with crew check-in?”

“First platoon just checked in. All their bio and DNA scans matched, and they all scanned clean of contraband. Second platoon’s in the transfer airlock pressure-cycling.”

“How about their arms?”

“Came aboard last night,” the sergeant reported. “Passed inspection by the weapons master.”

“Yeah, I saw the report. Those boys carry some sweet gear,” Jessica said.

Sergeant Weatherly smiled. “Yes, sir, they do.”

“Any word on who they’re sending as their company CO?” she wondered.

Sergeant Weatherly said nothing. Instead, he held up his data pad for her to see.

Jessica looked at the roster for the shuttle that was still in the transfer airlock waiting for the pressurization cycle to complete before it rolled into the main hangar bay. “You’re kidding me,” she stated as her eyes widened. “I thought he was still in the hospital.”

“Says he cleared med and psych yesterday.”

“I thought Waddell had family on Corinair,” she said. “Between his family and his injuries, I assumed he’d be staying behind.”

“His son was killed on Takara. Rumor is he and his wife are on the outs.”

“Yeah, I heard about his son,” she commented as the massive airlock door began to raise. “I didn’t know about his wife, though.”

“I guess there wasn’t much left for him on Corinair.”

The shuttle rolled to a stop twenty meters in front of them, and its boarding ramp began to deploy from its hull just below the main, port-side boarding hatch. A minute later, the hatch swung outward, and a flight tech stepped out onto the fully deployed boarding ramp, checking that it was locked securely in place before allowing the passengers to disembark.

The first man out of the shuttle was Waddell. He paused at the top of the ramp, taking a moment to scan the hangar. Jessica watched as Waddell stepped down the ramp. His face was different than she remembered. His scraggy blond hair was trimmed high and tight, so much so that its true color was almost indiscernible. His face was scarred from the thermal burns he had suffered when he had ordered the Aurora’s fighters to bomb the staging area and destroy the Ghatazhak forces that were about to overrun his position. The nanite therapy used by the Corinairan doctors was impressive, but apparently they were not capable of repairing everything. She suspected that the scars of that day would be with him, in more ways than one, for a long time to come.

One other thing had changed about him. His eyes. They were cold, and his expression was unreadable. She had seen this before, back on Earth. Despite the sudden burst of prosperity and cooperation that had taken place over the hundred years since the discovery of the Data Ark, her world was still not without its own conflicts which had produced their own share of men with such scars.

As he approached, she also noticed the change in his rank.

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