Exeter did not want to be found.
Vice-Captain Hugh Mothram sat on the edge of his seat on the command deck of the Exeter. Outwardly he appeared calm, a facade he had to maintain for the benefit of his crew. Inwardly, however, he was extremely tense. He had to fight the urge to stand and pace the bridge to work off his nervousness. Instead, he looked once again at the data flashing intermittantly across the sensor log at his elbow, searching for the telltale flashes indicating either the ship for which Exeter waited, or signs of the enemy from which she hid.
He looked around at the strain on the faces of his crew. How much more of this tense waiting could they take? None of them liked being in territory which the Banshees had forbidden humans to enter. The longer Exeter was here, the greater the chance of being discovered. But orders were orders, and they had been ordered to wait at G313M for two days. So wait they would.
Mothram glanced at the chronometer, though he knew to the second how much time remained before he could give the command to leave: over thirteen hours.
There was a low buzz of conversation among the officers on duty. Light-hearted bantering and laughter traveled the bridge, at odds with the almost palpable tension that hung so thickly in the recycled air. Chet Rickman, the pilot-on-duty, appeared to be giving little attention to his monitors, though Mothram knew that his fingers would be gliding over the acceleration pad at the first sign of trouble. Likewise the engineer, Logan White, was engaged in quiet conversation with his assistant, but would be working feverishly on his control panel at the first hint of an energy leak which could betray them to any Banshees that might be in the area.
And beneath it all was the high probability that none of their precautions would hide them from the Banshees. Humans in forbidden zones, no matter how well equipped, were never able to hide themselves from the Banshees for long. Mothram was surprised they hadn't already been discovered. He had an uneasy feeling that the longer they were hidden from the Banshees, the greater would be the punishment when they were discovered. And it wasn't a question of whether they would be discovered, but when.
Mothram turned to the young woman sitting quietly in the seat next to his. "Let's get some coffee," he said to her.
She nodded, and they both stood. Mothram strode to the door, followed closely by the young woman. Ordinarily, the Vice-Captain would not be seen leading females off the bridge, which could lead to speculation among his crew. Especially women as attractive as this one. But Marah Finnis was the Earth Council Representative assigned to the Exeter. It was acceptable for him consult with her in private.
At the door Mothram, ever the gentleman, stood aside and motioned for Marah to precede him. As they walked down the wide corridor towards the mess hall, he carefully kept his eyes off the tempting sway of her hips. Several crewmen turned their heads to watch as she passed. Mothram looked sternly at them and they quickly continued on their way. He could understand their leering, because Marah was extremely attractive, with her long blonde hair and slim, well-proportioned figure just blossoming into womanhood. But Mothram was never sure whether he could not tolerate men staring at her because of some old-fashioned chivalry within him, or because he felt more than just a fatherly responsibility for the seventeen year old. It was a question he didn't feel comfortable pondering. He just told himself that he was Vice-Captain and she was crew, and left it at that. Any other relationship under current circumstances would be inappropriate, not to mention against regulations.
Not only was Marah the Exeter's Earth Council Rep, she was also Enhanced. Meaning she had a computer chip connected to her cerebral cortex. This gave her a perfect, eidetic memory, as well as instant access to the entirety of knowledge collected over thousands of years of human civilization. Each generation, only a handful of humans were allowed to undergo Enhancement. Candidates were selected before birth, and sometimes before conception, after careful analysis of family genetic history. Shortly after birth, the chip was implanted. The Enhanced child then underwent rigorous training, a large part of which consisted of indoctrination by the government, if not literal programming, until they were loyal agents of the United Earth government. Rumours abounded that Enhanced humans were actually bred, and were part of a larger, darker, ultra secret plan with unknowable goals. Mothram gave little credit to such rumours. The Enhancement program was frowned upon by the general public, but it was a carryover from the time of Reconstruction. Like so many things from those days, people mistrusted it.
It was strange, serving with Marah. Technically, he was her superior. She had to follow his orders unquestioningly. She was his advisor only; he could ignore or follow her advice as he chose. But in actuality, she had so much power on the Council that she was, in a way, his superior.
But Mothram was glad Marah had been assigned to his ship. She had had an instant, shy attraction to him, which she easily hid from the crew, but which she could never hide from Mothram. He had been able to exploit this attraction so that on occasion he was able to glean facts from her about goings-on in the government to which he would not ordinarily be privy. Becuase of her Enhancement, she had a security clearance that dwarfed Mothram's. She was chock-full of state secrets.
Not only that, he had a genuine affection for her, and they had become close friends in the year she had been a member of his crew.
Rather than going directly to the mess hall, Mothram took a roundabout course in order to stick his head in at several duty stations. He always had the intercom to keep in touch with his crew, but he made a habit of being in the physical presence of all of his men, several times during each watch. Not only was it good for morale, it made him appear more readily accessible to his men than if he were merely a voice speaking to them from the bridge. Made the necessary, professional distance between commander and crew appear not quite so wide.
Exeter was a small ship, with a crew of only two hundred, but it took about an hour for Mothram to make the rounds. Finally he and Marah arrived at the mess hall. Most of the off-duty officers were sleeping this late in the shift, though Mothram didn't know how they could relax given the knowledge that the Banshees could come calling any time. So the mess hall was practically deserted at the moment. He nodded to his few officers who were quietly talking among themselves. After pulling coffee from the dispenser in the wall, he and Marah sat down at a table in the corner.
He took a thoughtful sip from his cup, and carefully sat it on the table in front of him. Marah did the same. She sat staring at him with her characteristic wide-eyed gaze. He always felt slightly uncomfortable when she did that, looking so young and innocent. It was deceptive. Her Enhancement and training gave her the maturity and wisdom of a person three times her age.
He sighed. "Ah, Marah. Who do you suppose we're waiting for? Who could be important enough for the Council to risk our lives sitting in Banshee territory for two days? And more to the point, what the hell was this person doing deep in Banshee territory? No one can possibly stand in downtown Bansheeville and survive. We're probably waiting on a ghost. Ghosts and Banshees." He shook his head and took another sip of coffee. Then he looked directly at her. "I hate it when the Council keeps me in the dark like this."
She smiled, knowing he was asking her for information. She shook her head. "Sorry, sir. For once, you know as much as I do." She quickly took a drink of coffee to cover her laughter.
He ignored her playful remark, thinking of the Banshees. Not much was known about them. It wasn't even known whether they consisted of matter or energy. Popular belief said they were a combination of both, but were predominantly energy. Humans had first met the Banshees six hundred years earlier. They were the first non- human species humanity had found in a thousand years of space exploration. It wasn't known where they came from, how long they had been in space, or how much of the Galaxy their "empire" spanned. And the Banshees showed no interest in communicating with humans. They destroyed most humans that wandered into areas of the galaxy which the Banshees didn't want humans to enter. The humans took this as an emphatic "Do not enter." Hence the forbidden zones. Humanity had only explored a small portion of the neighborhood around Sol. Much of that space consisted of forbidden zones. Though why these areas were forbidden was a great mystery.
And humans were helpless to resist. Banshees could destroy humans as easily as humans could swat flies. The few people who had survived encounters with a Banshee had reported that the encounter had been "unpleasant in the extreme." Banshees apparently emitted some type of energy field which induced a heart-pounding terror in humans, as well as causing them to lose all muscular control.
"I don't like it, Marah," said Mothram. "Something is going on. Something the Banshees are not going to like. At all."
"Look on the bright side," she said. "At least we're right in the middle of it. When it happens, we'll be the first to know."
"Wonderful." He sipped his coffee.
"Hey, you're the one--" Marah began. She was cut off by the loud ringing of the alert klaxon. They looked at each other.
A voice called out over the intercom, "Captain to the bridge!" but he and Marah were already up and running. They burst onto the bridge minutes later. "Report!" Mothram snapped.
"Slivership approaching, sir, thrusters only," Rickman said into the noise of the klaxon.
"Shut that damn thing off!" Mothram yelled.
Rickman flicked a button on his control panel. The klaxon shut off, leaving Mothram's ears ringing in the sudden silence. Rickman touched another button, transferring the view on his monitor to the large screen at the front of the bridge. Over the horizon of the cratered planet they were orbiting, a small, smub-nosed ship was hurtling towards Exeter. The picture was slightly fuzzy, crackling with static. Exeter was using old-fashioned computer-enhanced video cameras, since her sensors were at a minimum.
Rickman turned to look at the Vice-Captain. "She's hailing us on tightbeam, sir. Ordering us to break orbit and run as soon as she's docked."
Mothram nodded. "Extend docking ring." He walked quickly to the exit. "Finnis, with me to the docking bay. Rickman, bring all systems back up to full power, and fly like hell the instant that ship is docked."
The doors shut behind Mothram. He and Marah pounded down the corridors to the docking bay, to greet whoever was about to come aboard.
They arrived at a long, narrow hall that was lined with six airlocks, three to a side. There was a soft metallic clanging sound, and the ship jolted ever so slightly. Then a light above the middle airlock on the right flashed green. Mothram moved over to the lock and pressed a button on the wall. The thick metal hatch popped up towards the ceiling with a hissing rush of air. A tall, thin man with a pale face and bald head stood in the middle of the airlock. He held a neural shunt cable in his hands, one end of which was connected to a small socket in the back of his head. Upon seeing Marah, he held the unnattached end towards her.
"Hello, Marah," he said. "Quickly now. No time. They're coming. Stick it in. Quickly now!" He shook the cable at her. Marah took the free end. She brushed her long hair aside, exposing the back of her slender neck. At the juncture of her neck and head was a socket identical to the man's. Mothram watched as she plugged the shunt cable into the socket.
The man nodded, and closed his eyes. A moment later, Marah's eyes closed. Her head lolled on her shoulders. Then for long moments nothing appeared to happen, but Mothram knew the man was dumping information into Marah's head through the shunt cable. Mothram felt a sudden jerk, and then a steady acceleration as Exeter left orbit. Soon she would make the transition to hyperspace, headed for home.
Marah's head raised and her eyes opened. The man opened his eyes, and Marah nodded at him.
That's when all hell broke loose.
The intercom chimed and Mothram heard a shouted "Captain--" and then he felt as if someone had kicked his testicles. He doubled over. A loud screeching sound began drilling into his head, and quickly became a whining moan. He saw Marah staggering down the corridor, and the man was listing against the airlock wall. Suddenly the Banshees were there in the corridor, shiny bright ethereal presences, whispy smears of glowing smoke drifting above the deckplates. The deck seemed to turn sideways, and his vision began to come and go, as though a strobe light had been turned on. Fear slammed into the base of his spine and transfixed him. He felt as though he were having a heart attack. And over and over, that sensation of his testicles being pounded to a pulp. He opened his mouth to scream, but all that could be heard was the screeching moan produced by the Banshees.
Mothram fell to his knees, and then crashed to the ground, fighting for breath. He watched helplessly as the Banshees moved toward the man in the airlock. They surrounded the man. One of the Banshees sent out a wispy tendril which seemed to disappear into his head. The man's knees went limp, and he would have collapsed had his head not been "impaled" on the Banshee. His eyes widened, and his face contorted in agony.
Mothram was awash in pain, but he fought to crawl towards the man, to offer his vain help. An inch. Two inches. His muscles gave out. He twitched once then lay limp on the deck, conscious but unable to move. He finally managed to look up to see more of the Banshees "impaling" the man. Suddenly the Banshees began to spin. Mothram's eyes widened as the man was ripped into four ragged bloody pieces that slammed against the wall and fell slowly to the floor. The Banshees drifted out of the airlock. Coming towards Mothram. As they came closer his pain rose and grew in him until it was all that existed. His body writhed uncontrollably, and he screamed at the top of his lungs but heard nothing.
Then they vanished, disappearing as suddenly as they had appeared.
Mothram's ragged scream echoed in the corridor, but was quickly silenced as his stomach heaved and its contents spattered wetly onto the deck plates. His muscles felt suddenly atrophied, and his head dropped limply onto the vomit-covered deck. "Ah, god," he sighed heavily.
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