Her eyes fluttered open for a brief second, but the light seemed harsh, making her reluctant to open them again. The last thing she remembered was sitting in the cockpit of the pod, her heart racing as she again spiraled down into the wormhole. Her first experience doing that had taught her that it would not be pleasant.
But now she was lying on a bed, a sheet up to her neck, while muffled voices floated in from nearby. Her curiosity finally won out and she chanced another glimpse, cracking her eyes, allowing them to acclimate as she determined her surroundings. Of course it had to be Galahad, her mind told her, but her experiences in the past week—Was it a week? Was it a year?—kept her from accepting anything until she could see it with her own eyes.
Although, she had to admit, what she’d recently seen with those eyes was mind-shattering.
She pried her lids open a bit wider. When the room gradually swam into focus, she positively identified it as the hospital ward on the ship. She let out a contented sigh.
The sound must have alerted the people in the room, because moments later a shape loomed over her. Pulling her gaze upward, she felt a wave of comfort when the face of Lita Marques beamed at her.
“Welcome home, Tree,” Lita said. “Why don’t you stick around for awhile?”
Triana Martell found the strength to smile, and mumbled a thick “hi.”
“I’m sure you have questions galore,” Lita said. “Let me answer a few before you ask. Yes, you’re back safely; at least my preliminary scan doesn’t show any physical problems, unless you have any aches you want to share with me.” When Triana shook her head once, Lita continued: “Everyone here is fine, not counting the usual drama and a few bumps and bruises. The ship itself has a few problems, but Gap can get you caught up with that. And, let’s see…” She sat on the edge of the bed. “Lots of people have come by to welcome you back, but I’ve shooed them away for now. Oh, and the friend you brought with you is doing okay. Well, at least as far as I can tell.”
Triana stared up at Lita, then cleared her throat and croaked: “Where?”
Lita nodded toward the door. “Down the hall. Same place we had the vulture. Only this time we’re keeping people out. Remember, it was a zoo when we brought in the vulture. I get the feeling that this is much different, so we’re keeping a lid on things for now.” She paused and studied Triana’s face. “It’s actually quite different, isn’t it?”
Raising up on her elbows, Triana looked at the table beside her. “Is that water?”
Lita helped her take a few sips. “No comment about … it?”
Triana licked her lips, then rubbed her eyes. “I’ll have plenty of comments for all of you.” She swallowed more water and felt her strength returning. “You’re not gonna keep me in bed just because I passed out, are you?”
“Like I said, you seem fine,” Lita said, standing up. “You know me, I’ll always caution against doing too much after a traumatic experience, or a shock to the system. I’m guessing you’ve had both. But I know these are special circumstances, too. Let’s get some food and water in you, we’ll watch you for an hour or so, and then you can walk out of here. Deal?”
Triana lay back and smiled at her friend. “I won’t fight you on that. I’m starving.”
Lita patted her on the leg. “Good to hear. We’ll get you something right away. Time to feed all of my patients anyway.”
“All?” Triana said.
“Uh-huh. That wormhole you rode in on has banged up a few people. In fact…” Lita lowered her voice. “Your good friend Merit Simms is just three beds down. Sleeping, thanks to pain medication. You’ll probably be gone before he wakes up.”
She walked toward the door. “Don’t wander off, or we’ll bring you back and put you in the bed next to him.”
* * *
Gap Lee trudged along Galahad’s curved hallway toward his room. It was well after midnight, and the halls were deserted. Exhausted, he wondered when he’d be able to crash for a good ten or twelve hours. With Triana’s return, and the surprise which accompanied her, it might not be anytime soon.
He tried to wrap his brain around that surprise. Tucked into the back of the pod which had delivered Triana into—and back out of—the wormhole, it floated inside what appeared to be an old-fashioned aquarium. Gap’s mother had kept exotic tropical fish in a similar container, and likely would have identified the contents as Gap had. But it was impossible … wasn’t it?
Secured aboard a wheeled cart and covered with a sheet, it was moved to an isolated area in Sick House. Curious crew members along the way had stopped and followed the procession with their eyes, but nobody asked questions. Gap knew that it would dominate the conversation that evening in the Dining Hall and throughout the ship.
The next few hours had been spent alternating between Engineering—where the radiation shield was holding up, thanks to the energy siphon from the main engines—and the Spider bay. A thorough examination of the pod revealed no particular damage, other than an odd assortment of shorted-out electrical components. Other than the aquarium, there were no additional surprises.
Now the door to his room slid open and he stepped inside, mindful to be quiet. Daniil was sound asleep. Gap rarely had contact with his roommate these days; just another sign, he noted, that time off was overdue. His social life had withered away.
And, he realized, it was more insight into the life of Triana, or anyone with heavy responsibilities. It was the side of leaders rarely seen or understood.
Although his bed called out, he kicked off his shoes and checked his mail again. There was a single new entry, a note from Triana. Clicking on the file opened a group message to the Council, with a personal attachment for him. The main message called for the Council to assemble at seven in the morning—his shoulders sagged as he calculated the amount of sleep he would not be getting again this night—and thanked everyone for their great work during her absence. The note was short and to the point, in pure Triana style.
Standing behind his chair and leaning on the desk, he clicked open the attachment.
Gap, I’ll certainly thank you in person, but didn’t want to wait to let you know how grateful I am that you took charge of the ship while I was away. We haven’t had a chance to talk yet, but I’m pretty sure you weren’t happy about my decision to go. I know I put you in an awkward and difficult position, but I hope you understand that I had to do it.
We have a lot to cover, and some very important decisions to make. I’m glad to be back, and glad that you’re on the team. And I’m glad you’re such a good friend.
See you in the morning.
He couldn’t think about any of that at the moment. If he didn’t get some sleep he’d be worthless to Triana and the Council. Snapping off the vidscreen, he passed on his usual bedtime routine and simply fell onto his bed, covering his face with one arm, willing himself to clear his mind and find the shortest path to sleep.
It wasn’t easy.
* * *
As always, Bon Hartsfield found escape in his work. Overseeing the Agricultural Department on the ship meant long hours anyway, but his office—tucked within one of the two massive domes atop Galahad—provided an insulated nest, especially this late at night.
The ship was programmed to simulate the natural day/night rhythms of Earth, which meant that the lights in many of the common areas slowly dimmed in the evening and then gradually grew brighter beginning around six in the morning. Now, while the majority of the Farms were lit only by the brilliant splash of stars through the clear domes, Bon’s office was awash in light.
He stood behind his desk, inputting data from the latest harvest report. It was easily a task that could be entrusted to one of the workers under his supervision, but Bon preferred to remain busy. To sit idly—or worse, lie awake in bed—only invited the troubling thoughts to return. And there were far too many of those lately.
Topping them all was the startling return of Triana. Fight as he might to keep his mind elsewhere, the image of her slumped in the cockpit of the pod muscled its way back to the fore. Where had she been? What had happened to her on the other side of the wormhole? What was that … thing that she’d brought back?
Or had it brought her back?
And, most importantly, had his connection with the alien beings known as the Cassini created what Lita described as a “beacon” to guide Triana back to Galahad? How should he feel about that, when it was never his original intent?
The thoughts were overwhelming. He tossed his workpad stylus onto the desk and dropped into his chair. His blond hair, already long and unkempt, had grown shaggy from weeks of neglect, and now fell across his face. At some point he’d need to either visit Jenner for a quick cut, or chop it off himself.
It wasn’t near the top of his priorities.
Triana’s return, and his confused feelings regarding Galahad’s Council Leader; a raft of guilt over the death of Alexa, or, rather, guilt over his inability to return her feelings; the news from Lita that his Cassini link had begun a physical transformation of his brain …
All of that in addition to a full workload in the Farms, and his stubborn reluctance to delegate as much as he should. Plus his Council duties.
A low guttural laugh escaped him. Council duties. He’d been almost invisible in Council meetings, speaking up only when irritation got the better of him, or when challenged by Gap. Those two events often went hand in hand. Yet he knew that his position as the head of the Agricultural Department came with leadership responsibilities, and he would never consider turning the Farms over to someone else. The soil, the crops—the very atmosphere of the domes—combined to create his personal haven aboard the ship.
The looming Council meeting would be exceptionally difficult. In a few hours Triana would begin the debriefing, and Bon dreaded the expected eye contact. He would, of course, sit sullenly and listen, but now—hours ahead of the meeting—he could already feel the burn of Triana’s stare and the probing looks from Lita.
His head throbbed, a dull ache that was exacerbated, no doubt, by the seemingly nonstop activity of the past week combined with a lack of sleep. He had never requested a sleep-aid of any sort, but now he wondered who might be manning Sick House at this late hour. Would they be required to report to Lita on every pill dispensed, or merely log the random request?
It wasn’t worth the chance. Perhaps he could shut down his brain through meditation. Just a few hours of sleep might cure the headache and give him the strength he needed to power through the morning meeting.
He killed the lights to his office, grabbed the blanket he kept stashed for nights like this, and stretched out on the floor.
Copyright © 2012 by Dom Testa