By Patrick Hester
©2010 All Rights Reserved
Ulysses Sean Starker struggled to right himself, open his eyes; anything. No hangover in all his fifty years compared to the throbbing in his head every time his heart beat, to the ball of cotton in his mouth or the way his body trembled on the decking where he lay. Even with eyes closed, he knew the world around him was spinning… the wrong way.
Sounds soon assault him; sobbing, crying, shouting, screams of pain – all the sounds of fear and trauma. Eyes flickering open he moans, the red blinking light cutting through him like a knife, arm moving of its own volition to block it out. He knows he must do something, something important, but his mind can’t yet grasp anything beyond his body’s discomfort. His stomach rumbles and he rolls over, vomiting. Through it all, he can hear others following suit, still his mind rebels against him.
Hands clutch at him after a time, pulling him to his knees, pressing cloth into one hand, something else in the other, something familiar he can’t quite place. Blinking away a barrage of light and pain, he stares at his hands – in one hand, a small, wet towel, in the other, a canteen of water. Looking up, he can make out the blurred outline of someone with red hair and a roguish smile that screams ‘trust’ to his befuddled mind. He nods slowly, painfully, wiping at his mouth with the cloth to clear away the last of his breakfast, before taking a pull from the canteen, letting the cool, clear water wet his mouth again. He chokes on it, coughing, head screaming in agony, before spitting it back out and gasping for breath.
The words are muffled, yet they thunder in spite of it, causing him to wince. He gives a half-nod acknowledgement of the advice, and takes a tiny sip of the water, realizing that his lips are dry, cracked and sore. He lets the water trickle into his mouth slowly, swishing it around before swallowing. No choking this time, for which he is profoundly glad. He didn’t think he could take another coughing fit, not the way his head felt at the moment.
The cobwebs slowly start to break apart and he takes the offered hand to get up, standing in a great rush that sends his head spinning again. He leans against the blurry redhead for a moment, before he is transferred to a nearby chair for support, half falling into it, clutching the arms to keep from spinning right back out of it again, canteen dropped and forgotten. Even as he remembers dropping it, it’s pressed back into his hand and he takes a few more short sips.
He nods again, this time without sending waves of pain through his head. It was helping.
Everything starts to come back to him and through sheer anger he blinks through the stabbing in his eyes to survey the damage, take in everything going on around him. The bridge is a mass of frightened people crying, screaming vomiting, some simply standing or sitting in a daze, faces blank and expressionless. The whole scene before him is cast in red, the color of the emergency lights, causing each and every person to appear blood red to his eyes. Fumbling at his right side, he finds the button he wants and the damn thing at least stops blinking, but the blood red remains.
A hand on his shoulder again and he looks up to see the now clear image of Samantha McBride standing just to his left, her long red hair, normally pulled back into a ‘not quite regulation’ length pony tail looking very much disheveled, hanging free yet pulled over just the one shoulder to stop just at the upper curve of her left breast in a damned sexy manner. He is reminded, once again, that Sam is a beautiful woman, not too tall, not too thin, with curves where a woman should have curves, but one he can never have for more reasons than he cares to admit, even in the privacy of his own mind. She smiles that roguish, ‘I know exactly what you’re thinking’ smile that women have and Starker grimaces. All damned women know exactly what men are thinking and it’s not fair.
He goes over the list in his mind just to reinforce it: Sam is seven years younger than he – she’d snap him in two, she is the Chief Security Officer for this ship – under his command, she is his oldest living friend. He also remembers that he’s pulled her head out of the toilet as many times as she’s done it for him, he held her when she was with Gerrod and he dumped her cause she couldn’t have kids – what a bastard, and she was there when his daughter died, and his wife and son wanted nothing more to do with him. Sam represents the only relationship with man or woman in his life that he hasn’t completely screwed up – why complicate or doom it with sex?
Absently, he taps her hand on his shoulder, letting her know that he’s fine, and she nods, all serious again, removing her hand to clasp it with the other behind her back – she’s all business again. A shadow across his face announces the arrival of his XO, Commander Leland; a short, thin, slimy little prick more into politics than in the business of serving the United Earth Defense Force. His normally perfect blonde hair shows signs that it was hastily smoothed back, and spots of something on the front of his tunic indicate that he wasn’t above a little puking of his own and, from the look of his green skin, more may be on the way shortly.
Leland would be, he knew in his heart, a Senator or Congressman one day. He was on the ‘fast track’ Starker had hear so much about throughout his career. This assignment was proof of that. Odyssey, as the first in a new fleet of ships, was considered a plum assignment, and Leland was ten years shy of being ready for it. Yet, here he was, and Starker was stuck with him.
“Computers are down. Sir.”
Leland always did that, added the ‘sir’ almost as an afterthought. The man really did think he should be in command, and never let Starker forget it for one moment, but he did his job as defined and never did anything truly worthy of reprimand. It was always some verbal slight implied, or a look that would cross his face fleetingly. The man was worthless as an officer and if Starker could have him off this ship he would, but he didn’t have that kind of pull, and Leland did.
Starker had never been one to play politics, and it had cost him some power but also meant that he wasn’t beholden to anyone. He’d been bitten in the ass more than once for his lack of political savvy, but, dammit, he could sleep at night. Well…most nights, anyway.
“Emergency power only. I’ve tried intraship communications – nothing. Also, I’ve tried to reboot systems but the terminals are just dead – no power at all or else the core is offline.”
“Send runners to Engineering and the Computer Core – I want updates asap.”
“I’ll go to the Core…”
Sam smiles again, this time all business, and Starker nods. She trots off and he remembers something else. “Sam!” She turns at the door to the hall and he notices that she is wearing her side arm again, something she didn’t have when the fun started however long ago – he couldn’t remember right at this moment.
“I want armed Security at all critical areas – no one in or out without rigorous questioning and even then, they dammed well better have a good reason for being there – got it?”
“Planned on it, but, it’s good to hear you say it.” She flashes a grin and then she’s gone in a blur of red hair as she trots around the corner.
Starker turns to see Leland still standing before him. “Well?” Leland jumps as if woken from a daze, turning beet red before spinning around and snapping his fingers at a pair of nearby ensigns who get orders barked at them through clenched teeth. They are soon running from the bridge on their way to Engineering, one to come back immediately with an update, the other to wait. They will trade off until communications can be reestablished.
“Sir? Any theories?”
“I prefer not to speculate, Commander,” Starker answers, silently wishing the man would have many, many bad things suddenly happen to him.
“But, the weapons… we-”
“Fired on the fleet. I am aware, Commander.” Starker stares straight ahead, visions of the fleet being slaughtered as his ship fired volley after volley of torpedoes, concussion blasts and ion blasts at the defenseless ships gathered to celebrate Odyssey’s launch and maiden voyage. The last thing he saw before darkness fell on them all, was the image of Air Force One being sliced into a thousand pieces by the forward laser.
“I am aware, Commander.” Starker would not sleep this night.