Excerpt from “The Vanguard”

Sahara Thar stirred from a disturbing dream. She had been adrift for days, alone in a void between stars, neither here nor there. There was little point in calling for help. No one would hear her. And so, she drifted in and out of consciousness, dreaming about floating on the waters of her home world. Or was she dreaming about being adrift in space? Sometimes, as the hours passed, it was hard to tell.

Sahara had been outside making repairs to the Aristides’ propulsion system after a meteoroid strike had damaged one of its maneuvering thrusters. The wash from the sudden activation of the thruster forced her off the hull with enough force to snap the carabiner that held her tether to the service hatch. It also knocked her senseless for several hours. When she awoke, the ship was gone.

To save breathable atmosphere, Sahara would force herself to sleep. At first, she held onto the hope that her crew mates would notice her absence and return for her. Surely someone noticed the open hatch, the broken carabiner, and the missing environment suit. She had always considered herself to be essential personnel on board the AristidesPerhaps they had considered her to be an acceptable loss.

Sahara Thar turned off the exterior lights on her environment suit and shut off the homing beacon to conserve battery power as she drifted toward the planetary umbra. She was in the planet’s shadow for days. As the atmosphere soured, Sahara slowed her respiration rate to survive in the carbon dioxide rich mixture of the suit. She was concerned about her viability in this altered state. She needed sunlight to replenish her suit’s energy.

As Sahara floated out of the planet’s shadow, bright sunlight passed through the face shield, rousing her from her dormant state. She raised her arm and flipped the sun filter out of the way in an effort to absorb as much energy as possible as quickly as possible. She debated shedding the environment suit, but decided to hold on to it for a few more hours. She had lost track of time, unsure of how long she had been adrift, until her suit’s systems reactivated. The heads-up display showed her the current elapsed time. “Good,” she thought, “my suit is recharging, too.” She reactivated the beacon, but kept the lights off.

The Mnemosyne had just entered the small star system when Sahara impacted its hull. As she started to rebound, she activated the magnetic soles of her boots. The ship was traveling faster than she had been drifting and her boots gained a foothold on the hull plating. After detaching the tether attached to her suit, she moved to the closest airlock. Sahara entered the secure code that she had memorized. The airlock did not respond.

Sahara walked to the manual service hatch located on the ships lower deck and after working the mechanism for several minutes gained entry to a service airlock, the last manual airlock on board this class of ship. Inside the airlock, she removed her environment suit and took a deep breath. The air smelled wrong, acrid and stale like the air in her suit. She discarded her environment suit from the Aristides and donned one of the suits hanging in the Mnemosyne’s service airlock. The new e-suit was fully charged and contained a full supply of oxygen.

Sahara left the service airlock to explore the ship. She climbed through the interior hatch into the engineering service tunnels. She trudged down the main corridor toward the Engineering Control Center and cranked open the hatchway. The ECC Hub was unmanned. The low level of illumination led her to believe that the Mnemosyne was operating in night mode. It would explain the lack of crew in the Hub.

She removed the environment suit’s helmet and tasted the air. It still seemed off, but she couldn’t tell how. She took a seat at the Environmental Master Control and examined the readout. The oxygen level of the ship’s atmosphere was registering a little below normal. One of the air filtration units was offline due to a malfunction in the circulation unit.

Sahara put her helmet back on and opened the corridor to the aft starboard section. It took her the better part of an hour to reach the damaged unit. The repair was simple, but it would take a good fifteen to twenty minutes to rebalance the impeller. When she rechecked the system back in the ECC, she noted the steady decrease in carbon dioxide throughout the ship. After completing a check of the Engineering Systems, Sahara began a slow climb toward the uppermost deck.

After a long climb, she arrived inside a small secure chamber. She removed her environment suit and opened the chamber hatch. A short corridor led to the ship’s bridge. As she emerged, she was immediately confronted by two security officers who escorted her to the Captain’s chair.

“Who are you and how did you get on board?” The Ensign was roughly the same height of Sahara. She smiled at him.

“First Lieutenant Sahara Thar, Chief Engineering Technician assigned to the Aristides. And you are?”

The Ensign’s complexion paled momentarily before he regained his composure. “Ensign Donovan Calder, acting Captain of the Mnemosyne. Are you going to relieve me of command?”

“This isn’t my ship, Ensign. But since I’m here, I’d like to help. I’ve already repaired the Environmental. What else can I do?”

Ensign Calder glanced nervously at one of the guards on the bridge before answering. “Could you repair the damage to the hull?”

Sahara nodded. “I’ll get right on it.” She started down the corridor from which she had emerged earlier. The two guards watched as she donned her environment suit and started down the shaft. Two decks down, she grabbed a bar and swung into a side shaft. “Repair the hull? I’m guessing you meant locate the Captain. First things first.”

The guard posted outside the door to the Captain’s Quarters didn’t know what hit him. One human looked like any other to him and he knew that he could easily kill one. But Sahara wasn’t human despite her appearance. Her species had infiltrated human culture centuries earlier, slowly contributing to human technical development. Every human ship had one or more of her species on board as guardians. After she freed the Captain, she would need to find her counterpart on his ship.

Sahara unlocked the door to the Captain’s Quarters and dragged the incapacitated guard inside. The guard inside turned his full attention to the newly arrived intruder just long enough to get shot by the Captain. “Lieutenant Commander Thar, it’s good to see you again!”

“Well met, Captain Calder. I wish our reunion had been under better circumstances. I saw your son on the bridge. He’s a lot happier since I came on board.”

“Then the fleet knows about our problem?”

“No, I came here by accident. I was caught in the wash of a thruster burn. I broke loose from the Aristides and had been drifting for days before literally running into the Mnemosyne. They’ll eventually notice the guard missing. I need you to follow the corridor to the shaft, don the environment suit, and descend to the Engineering Hub. My counterpart has locked down the systems. If I didn’t outrank him, I’d still be looking for an override.”

“But my son…”

“…is my problem. I’ll get back to the bridge. Now go!”

For her second appearance on the bridge, Sahara had a few surprises in store for the guards. And all she had to do was surrender. Seconds later they were laid out on the floor. Like the guard outside the Captain’s cabin, they didn’t see it coming. Sahara deactivated the stingers and went to work locking out bridge controls.

“Captain Calder is safe. We need to move off the bridge. Let’s lock everything down and toss these intruders in the brig.”

The unconscious alien guards were dragged into the rail car while Sahara and Lt. Calder locked out the bridge controls and transferred operations to the Engineering Hub. The car descended to the Captain’s Quarters level where the two unconscious intruders were locked inside. Once all four had been loaded, the car descended to the detention level. Sahara ordered the Ensign and his crew mates to join their Captain in the Engineering Hub while she went in search of her counterpart.

When Sahara finally found him, she also found the missing complement of the Mnemosyne’s crew. First Lieutenant Nile Amazon sat in the midst of the hostages held in the cargo bay. Nile was the first of the Mnemosyne’s crew to notice the sudden disappearances of the guards. He slowly worked his way from the center trying not to draw attention to his movement. Arriving at the controls to the cargo bay, he engaged the mechanism to close the exterior cargo doors just as the last guard fell.

“I tried to tell them that using this ship to get past planetary defenses was a bad idea. But did they listen? NO! It was ‘Shut up, human. Move along, human. Sit down, human.’ I thought about lodging a formal protest.”

“Shut up, Nile. I’m surprised your Captain didn’t space you in your first year.”

“Believe me, Sahara. I’m fairly certain the thought crossed his mind more than a few times.” Nile planned the quickest route to the mess hall to feed the half-starved crew, while Sahara was busy making arrangements for the detention of the downed invaders. She assisted Nile in ferrying the weaker members of the crew through the ship from the cargo hold without attracting much attention. Although, anyone not monitoring the Mnemosyne from the Hub would continue to receive the computer simulation that Sahara had set up earlier.

Nile gingerly took a sip of his coffee. “What’s our next move? We’ve freed the bulk of the crew. You freed the Captain and bridge crew. What’s next?”

“I presume that you aren’t asking me. I’m just a visitor here.” Sahara winked at Nile before sipping her own coffee.

A low voice spoke to both of them through the implanted comm-links. “Free the rest of the crew and kick these things off my ship!”

“Aye, aye, Captain. Where would we find the rest of the crew?”

“Try sick bay, and hurry before those things start carving up my crew!”

Nile and Sahara made simultaneous entries into Medical Bay taking out the guards before darting the rest of the aliens. Nile went about freeing the crew and helping them to safety while Sahara hoisted one of the aliens onto an exam table. She performed a quick scan while its unconscious comrades were taken to detention level.

“Find anything of interest?” Nile peered over her shoulder at the scanner display.

“Whatever they are, they aren’t in the Vanguard database.” Sahara decided to risk an interrogation. She placed a hand against its skull close to what appeared to be its brain. Her other hand went over the creature’s heart.

“Are you sure you want to take the risk?”

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Seriously?” Nile slowly backed away. “You could kill it.”

“I’ll be gentle. I promise.” Sahara took several deep breaths and then removed her hands.

“There. All done.”

“That was quick. What did we learn? I mean, other than they’re idiots.”

“There is a shuttle in the main bay. It is currently unoccupied and unguarded. There is also a parasite attached to the Mnemosyne’s hull. That is where the command crew is stationed. Everyone in detention is considered to be expendable. Their commanders are not.”

“Home wants to know the extent of their operation, the details of their invasion attempt. All Vanguard have been notified. We didn’t conquer Earth to lose control of it now.”