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R. G. Currell

Submersible One,

Fortunian Harvester

1998, Science Fiction Theater, R. G. Currell

VEGA COLONIES.
SIXTH PLANET, FORTUNA. SUBMERSIBLE ONE.
NEW CALENDER YEAR
2185 A.A.

14,400 Words

1

     Belinda Ivory commanded the Fortunian based ship, Submersible One and was white hot with anger, after having just received orders to suspend all inquiries into intelligent life-forms on Fortuna, pending an independent investigation and possible confirmation. "Officially," the orders went on, "there is no intelligent life but Man. Consequently, there is no intelligent life on Fortuna. Therefore, all further communications regarding this, and all remotely related topics, are to be made directly with an authorized Officer aboard Orbital Base, Fortunian I only, by encrypted, tight-beamed, encoded transmission." It was signed by Commodore Jerry Paterson, Base Commander, Fortunian I, Commander-in-Chief, Vega Colonies, The Outer Rim.

     Belinda wanted to scream so loud that the observation port of her office wall would blow out. But she didn't. Belinda wanted to tear up the answer to her inquiry into microscopic pieces and to burn them. But she didn't. Belinda wanted to cry until she was dry. But she didn't. Belinda simply looked up at her two Senior Officers and frowned.

     They both moved noticeably, though standing at attention. They were waiting. They had a stake in this, too. But what they would be told depended on their Captain and they had a pretty good idea by now that if it depended on the Commodore they would be told nothing at all. They knew, then, that whatever they were about to hear would be from her good graces. They watched, as Captain Ivory slipped the message back into the envelop marked "Captain's eyes only", opened a desk drawer, and slipped it in, with the slightest shake of the hand.

     Captain Belinda Ivory cleared her throat and tried to clear her head, as she looked up to her Second and Third in Command of the Fortunian Food Processing Plant respectively. She looked up as passively as she could and folded her hands and set them gently onto the top of her perfectly cleared desk. It was always like that, except for the computer/communications link.

     Belinda Ivory regarded them for a moment. Lieutenant Charles Waverly appeared to be a youngish man of Aryan descent, with blonde hair, blue eyes and a square jaw. He was a spit-and-polish kind of Executive Officer, a brilliant computer programmer, and a veritable encyclopedia of Rules and Regulations. He was an indispensable part of her staff, loyal, trustworthy, and knew how to get things done. Belinda liked him a lot. Too much perhaps, she was thinking. Lieutenant Richard Dysart, the one in the beard to her left, was a knighted marine biologist and Physical Science Expert, serving aboard Submersible One mainly to represent England's interests in the joint venture. Ordinarily, Belinda would not have included him in on this level of meeting, since she hadn't known him for very long, but it was because of his word that this whole topic was at issue in the first place.

     As the Food Processing Plant for the Vega Colonies, Submersible One fed all personnel in this Star System. The savings in transportation costs were enormous, astronomical one might say. This, she assumed was at the core of the orders she'd just finished reading. It was the old saying, "The double line is the bottom line."

     They both stood ill at ease, as they had watched the coloration in their Commanding Officer's face change from olive to pink, pinker, red. She had cleared her throat and was now regarding them with steel eyes like hollow chestnuts.

     "Gentlemen," Captain Ivory said, as she tried to do something else with her hands but to be wringing them. Her face cringed a little under her mahogany hair that was short-cropped and dusted gray in stark contrast with her youthful face. "The Commodore's message is -- disappointing." Perhaps in a short time, she had been picking up some of that British understatement of Lieutenant Dysart's. "The Commodore argues that, officially, there is no intelligent life in the whole Universe but Man, so there is no intelligent life on Fortuna. So, he orders that we are to discontinue all investigation into the matter of intelligent life on Fortuna. He insists that we are to direct any communications even remotely related to the subject to Fortunian I by encrypted, tight-beamed transmission. That, in essence, is the Commodore's reply." With the formalities out of the way, the Captain motioned for them to take a seat. Then, she ran her nervous fingers through her hair.

     "He can't be serious!" complained the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Waverly. "We just can't keep killing the Fortunian Dodos -- now that we know!"

     "I'm glad to hear that, Lieutenant," Captain Ivory said, her smileless sarcasm dropped like a book in a library. "Perhaps you'll let us in on why not."

     Lieutenant Waverly was ruffled a little around the edges and even squirmed a little in his chair. "I was just saying that...."

     ".... That we shouldn't keep killing them now that we know they are an intelligent life-form," she finished for him.

     "Yes, Captain."

     Belinda settled back in her chair and let out a breath of tension. Then she said, "I couldn't agree with you more." She squirmed a little bit herself at this point. "Now, if we discuss this any further, we will be in violation of the Spirit of the Commodore's orders. If anyone has a problem with continuing, this is a good time to leave without disciplinary action or prejudice." She was stunned with herself. "Would you listen to me! I can't believe I'm really saying this! Well, now's the time."

     Neither of her subordinate Officers moved or even squirmed, so she continued. "Attitude check. The three of us are all in agreement, aren't we?" She looked pointedly at Lieutenant Dysart -- the new-comer. She was nodding her head up and down as though it would become infectious.

     "Of course, Captain," he said crisply but not sharply, while still holding up that British Reserve of his. He was know as generally being a man of few words, at least as few words as possible. But he was also known as a man who thought deeply. So it was on the basis of both these things that made others listen when he spoke in that deep voice and in that low tone of his. In the present case, the Captain had listened. What she had heard was astounding. What she heard was one of those things that demanded choices to be made, moral decisions. He had demonstrated that the Fortunian Dodos were intelligent. She had not been the same Captain since.

     "What I need right now, Gentlemen, is your verbal commitments. Before we go on. All committed to going on, say 'Aye'."

     Both men said "Aye, Captain."

     "Good. What we need right now is a solution -- a practical, immediate solution -- that will solve a number of complex problems. Suggestions, Gentlemen?"

     After a few moments of silent contemplation, Lieutenant Dysart spoke up first. "Perhaps a bio-chemical solution, Captain."

     "'Any port in a storm' is the right port, Lieutenant. Explain."

     "Thank you, Captain. The Fortunian Dodos live in a hostile environment to us. Yet, their bodily functions produce the proteins and hydro carbons, essential to us. With these compounds, combined with the sodium and potassium mined from Semele, we produce our food-base in the processors and our food stuff in the synthesizers. Now, if we were to isolate those biological functions in the Fortunian Dodos, we may just be able to duplicate them and to produce the same proteins and hydro carbons we need without having to Harvest the Fortunian Dodos."

     "Can you do that?" asked the Captain.

     "I am a marine biologist, Captain. A sea is a sea, whether it is composed of water under an oxygen nitrogen atmosphere, as on Earth, or of hydrogen, ammonia, and methane, under an atmosphere of hydrogen, lightning and sulfuric acid rain, as on Fortuna. And creatures in the sea are still creatures in the sea, whether or not they are intelligent. With the right equipment, the full support of the Bio-chemistry Department, exclusive access to the labs, and enough time, yes, Captain." The Second Officer nodded his head crisply, as though to emphasize his points.

     Belinda Ivory smiled at the prospect of the solution looming on the doorstep. "Excellent! Good, good. What's the time window? Days? Weeks? Months?"

     "Years, I'm afraid. With only the resources of Submersible One. Added resources: perhaps less time. Reduced resources: a decade minimum."

     The Captain's bubble deflated and was visibly seen in the gate of her shoulders. "Well, we'll have to put that on the back burner for now. It may well be our solution for the long term -- and I have the highest hopes for that -- but what we really need now is a short term solution. In short, then, we need something with immediate results. Alternatives?" Belinda asked.

     Lieutenant Waverly was being looked at, so he began to speak without preamble. "How about circumventing the Commodore's orders?"

     "'Circumventing the Commodore's orders'," the Captain repeated. She had always been against such reasoning. She had always considered it to be what others did to attain selfish goals. It was against duty. It was against orders. But now, orders were against reason. Orders were against right. "Spoken like a career administrator, Lieutenant."

     Waverly averted her gaze.

     "Carry on, Lieutenant. Maybe that's just what we need right now. Anyway, we're all hanging in there together. Enlighten us."

     Charles Waverly perked up a little. He even smiled. A little. "Well Captain, the way I see it is this. Every superior has a superior. Right? Right. Well, all those levels of superiors are issuing orders and formulating Rules and Regulations. Nobody knows what everybody's doing. Right? Right. So what? So, inconsistency happens. Contradiction happens. Therefore, I suspect that if we look closely enough, what we'll find is chaos cleverly disguised as order. And between all the rows and columns and between all the tiers of information addresses, there'll be enough room to drive a Three-jaw Tractor Miner through the maze." He pushed his arm straight out to indicate a pathway.

     "I can't say I like the sound of that, Lieutenant. But it may be our only option for an immediate solution." She thought about it in a silent room.

     "All right," began the Captain, " here's the plan. She leaned more forward in her chair, as though to draw closer to her men and arrest their fuller attention. "Lieutenant Waverly, you go through all the orders and the Rules and the Regulations germane to our problem. On the QT. Get definitions and determinations...."

     Lieutenant Dysart cleared his throat and cut in, " May I remind the Captain that the Commodore's orders expressly forbid our looking into intelligent life-forms?"

     "You may, of course. However, the Commodore forbade the study of intelligent life-forms on Fortuna. One: the Lieutenant is not looking into the subject of intelligent life-forms on Fortuna. Two: the Lieutenant is verifying for us what we can and cannot study. We do have to know what we cannot study, so we don't study it. Yes?"

     "Yes, Captain," Lieutenant Dysart said through a grin.

     "And you, Lieutenant," Captain Ivory said to Dysart, "will gather all data you can on the Fortunian Dodos. You are looking for your long-term solution. And while you are, you may as well report anything you may find that will interest us for a short-term solution, also. Yes?"

     "Yes, of course, Captain," Dysart said.

     "All right," the Captain said, as she slapped her hands together like a gavel, "You have your assignments. And while you busy yourselves with them, I will be buying us some time."

     "How are you going to do that, Captain?" Lieutenant Waverly asked.

     Shaking her head, the Captain sighed and said, "I haven't a clue. Now, off with you both.

     Finally, the Captain was alone in her Office. The door was now closed to outsiders and she could be herself again. Not the Captain. Not the Officiocrat of the Service. Just herself, alone with her thoughts. And now she could be a woman. She didn't have to be "a man in a skirt", as she'd heard herself referred to when some men didn't know she could hear. She could be herself.

     Space was a hard place for a woman to be, she thought, as she rose delicately from the man-sized chair. Space was especially a hard place for a woman to serve. Men make it in space by being tough and hard and aggressive. She had to make it by simply being more efficient at carrying out the orders than the men were. And she had always done that well. But men had always wanted to break things, she thought. Bend the Rules to suit themselves. Change the meanings of the Regulations to fit their own purposes. Change the conditions of the Test, so that the answers they got would be the right ones -- from their point of view. But a woman had to play it straight, straight by the Rules. She had to ask for clarifications about the Regulations. She had to observe the conditions of the Test to the letter. And that's how she'd made it, Belinda told herself. That's how she'd become a ship's Commanding Officer in the first place! Obeying the Rules had always gotten her to the place she wanted to be. Obeying the Orders of her Superior Officers had always won their favor.

     But not so this time, she thought, as she stretched like a rubber band to loosen her aching joints a bit. Following the lines of Procedures on this one had simply given her Superiors a rope with which to bind her. And now, all reasonable options were like grapes hanging just beyond her reach. Her muscles complained and she stretched again and her fingers tried to touch the overhead so far above her.

     Harvesting the Fortunian Dodos and Processing them into the Nutrient Paste they used in the food synthesizers to feed all the personnel in this sector of space had always been an honorable enough and necessary thing to be doing. And Belinda was better than anybody at hunting the docile creatures down. She wondered if they were actually ahead of schedule. She thought so. She was better than anybody at directing the staff to make the most out of the time, to capture the maximum number of Dodos per trip, to saw down the most in the fewest man hours, to extract the last bit of organ and sinew from them, to make the most Nutrient Paste from the minimum pulp. She knew she was better than anybody on knowing how to assist the Production Manager, infuriating as he was at times. Most of the time. She sometimes amused herself at infuriating him back. She'd call him Mister Messieur DuBois. She never found out why he hated that. It didn't matter. It just did. That was enough. Aristotle was right: one should not be judged according to reasons, but according to actions. So, it didn't matter why it was effective, to Belinda. It mattered only that it was. But she was proud at being able to provide for the Production Department professionally. At least, she had been.

     That pride turned sour yesterday. Once, she sucked the sweet juice of oranges, now she bit the sour pulp of lemons. Yesterday. That was when Lieutenant Dysart met with her in this very office.

     "You wanted to see me, Lieutenant?" Belinda remembered asking him, as they walked into the privacy of the Office.

     "Yes. I have a topic of some interest for you," he had answered in that British understatement of his.

     "Proceed, Lieutenant," she'd told him, as her eyes searched his un-telling face for some hint of his reasons and actions.

     "Actually, Captain, I believe that Lieutenant Waverly should be present for my demonstration and commentary."

     "Don't you think I should be the judge of that?" the Captain tried to scald him.

     "Indeed. However, you will want the Lieutenant informed, after I inform you. I will then inform him. Time will have been wasted. Therefore, calling in the First Officer now will save you time and aggravation, Captain. I am constrained to point that out."

     "Of course you are," Captain Belinda Ivory said, as she crossed back over to her immaculate desk. She pressed a pad and had the First Officer relieved from Bridge Duty.

     As Lieutenant Waverly walked in, the Captain briefed him and had them both take a seat. "Are you ready to proceed now, Lieutenant?"

     "Yes Captain," Lieutenant Dysart answered calmly. "I am about to show you a tape which records scenes from one of the Harvests. What you are about to see is one of the behavioral patterns of the Fortunian Dodos. It occurs just prior to their being Harvested, which I have edited out as being irrelevant to the topic I am presenting. Let us begin," he said, as he inserted a tape into the player.

     The picture that came up on the big screen was not clear by any means. It was in standard black and white and filtered, to maximize contrast. Still, the picture was a hazy gray tone. The shape of the high intensity light field was an elliptical light bubble, on the end of a cone reaching away from the source. Then a circle of whale-like creatures appeared inside the light bubble, with another figure in its center. There was some movement in all of them around the circle, though slight. A kind of treading water, so-to-speak. But the center figure didn't move at all. It just floated there. Then, each of the Fortunian Dodos took a turn at swimming up to the center figure and gently nudging it and then returning to its place, until the circle had finished. Finally, after they had all taken their respective turns, they all rushed in and rammed it so hard that it expelled a gas of some sort. And while the others slowly backed off, it sank out of sight into the deep. The Harvester tongs came into the picture and the screen went blank.

     "Odd," commented Captain Ivory.

     "Curious," added Lieutenant Waverly.

     "So, what does it mean?" Belinda asked, with her face scrunched up a little.

     "It means, Captain, that the Fortunian Dodos bury their dead."

     "So what?" Lieutenant Waverly asked, rather flippantly.

     "Doesn't everybody?" Captain Ivory added.

     "An astute question, Captain: 'Doesn't everybody?' Of all known life-forms, only Man buries his dead. Only man pays his last respects and views his dead. His loved ones, Captain. That is, until today. We have just witnessed a second species which does these things. In short, then, to one degree or another, the Fortunian Dodos must be favorably compared to Man," the marine biologist answered.

     "'Favorably compared to Man'," Belinda repeated. "In what way? Do they have spirits? Souls?"

     As Lieutenant Dysart extracted the tape from the player, he said, "That is in the purview of the philosophers and theologians to discuss, Captain. As a marine biologist, I am qualified to address only their intelligence."

     "Intelligence!" Captain Ivory almost snapped, "do you mean to stand there and tell us that these creatures are an intelligent species, Lieutenant?"

     "That's Exactly what I had said, Captain. I will be more explicit. The Fortunian Dodos that we Harvest for food are all members of an intelligent species."

     That was yesterday.

     Even now, as Captain Ivory stood alone in her office, it kept going through her mind again and again: "The Fortunian Dodos that we Harvest for food are all members of an intelligent species." Inelegant species. Inelegant species. Inelegant species. Inelegant species.

     Belinda Ivory shuttered at the thought and walked over to the round port to one side of the big screen and she looked at the black, cold circle. There was no light outside, of course. As she was trying to come up with an idea of how she would stall for time, she reached out and turned on the outside Light Bubble. And then the light was on. And she gasped at what she saw, though it shouldn't have surprised her much. She just wasn't expecting it at the moment. And she instinctively stepped backwards a pace.

     It filled almost the whole surface of the window. The face. Looking in -- as they do some time, when the ship is more or less at rest. It looked like the face of a puffer fish back home. A giant one. But this was the face of a Fortunian Dodo. It had a pug face, forehead slanting slightly down until its eyes peered out. Big and round and sad eyes, Belinda thought. Perhaps she was seeing in them the emotions of her own heart. Freud would have liked that explanation. Projection. Yet Belinda saw in them the sadness of the knowledge of good and evil. And wisdom looked to be at home there. Their passive reserve was somehow in harmony in their hostile and violent surroundings. It had never had an enemy before. But it had many now. And these creatures of the Fortunian deep did nothing to escape them.

     Slowly, Belinda Ivory walked up and slowly regarded the face more closely. And it blurred as though from the tears in her eyes. She wondered what the Fortunian Dodo saw of her through its own eyes. She decided then to never think of them like that again, as Fortunian Dodos. From now on it would be Fortunians. Period. If they were ever to be thought of as being more than beasts, of being an intelligent species, they must be thought of as Fortunians. Never again as Dodos. Language is powerful, she decided. "The Fortunians," she sighed, as she wondered what they thought about.

     Belinda pressed her hand against the pane of transparent steel and felt the warmth coming into her palm and fingers from the burning ocean outside.

The big, dark eyes seemed to pull her in. They pulled her mind through the sockets of her own eyes. Almost. They pulled it through the gulf that separated them. They pulled it into themselves. And Belinda was sure now. No doubts. For when it returned, her mind knew more than knowledge. Her mind knew experience. Her mind knew a thousand Harvestings. And her soul knew a thousand Losses.

     And Belinda cried. Long and deep and hard. And afterwards, she said simply, "I never knew."

     "What can I do now?"

 

2

     Captain Belinda Ivory's acid-retardative shoes and pant cuffs were turning white from exposure to the acids, as she sloshed through empty Docking Bay Number Four. It was a two-story room with long, tall walls coated slick with the gray color of acid-retardment and it stunk with the air of residual Fortunian materials. On the outboard side, the giant Docking Bay doors were sealed with hydraulic pressure against the wear-restricting, Teflon-alloyed gaskets. The Harvester Ship was out on Harvesting Patrol -- fishing as some still called it. And on the inboard side, a second story transparent metal door was secured, where the Fortunian Dodos were off-loaded for Processing in the Sawing Room that she could just see into from her vantage point. "The Fortunians," she corrected her thoughts, "not Fortunian Dodos."

     The Captain was inspecting. Even through the gray anti-corrosive coating on the walls and the deck, she could see signs of blistered metal. Normal.

She was thinking that a lot of things in life were normal that shouldn't be. She had in mind to change this normalcy. It would be hard, she thought. She hoped not impossible.

     What Captain Belinda was inspecting was the giant Docking Bay doors that were sealed by the hydraulic rams below decks and, specifically, the wear-restricting, Teflon-alloyed gaskets around those doors. Visibly, she was disappointed that they were all in such good condition. She perked up a bit and mumbled to herself, "I'll just have to be unreasonable about this!" After all, that wouldn't make her the only one. And she continued her unusual inspection.

     "Ah, Captain," said a burly man who was walking up behind her. He appeared to have had too many good meals lately.

     "Chief Warrant Officer Fisk," she acknowledged the Maintenance Foreman of the ship.

     "Reporting as ordered, Captain," he said as he stopped and came to attention.

     "I believe we have some leakage, Mister Fisk," she declared without any more preamble.

     "Oh, no. Surely not, Captain," he said, defending himself, his crew, and 'his' ship.

     "Look here," Belinda said, as she lifted one shoe that was acid stained.

     "Residual stain, Captain," the big man categorized for her. "You won't find any acid leaks in here from outside the ship, Captain."

     Belinda honestly felt sorry for the man. And she felt sorry for what she was about to do to him. He was a good man. Thorough. But -- "Replace all the gaskets in all the Docking Bay doors, anyway, Mister Fisk."

     "But Captain...."

     "That is an order, Mister Fisk. The safety of this entire ship is my responsibility. We disagree, but I feel that Safety is endangered by those gaskets on those doors. Now, recall the Harvester Ships immediately. I want us to blow ballast in one hour."

     "But Captain, they haven't reported a single catch all day! And it'll take seventy-two hours in orbit with the men in space suits to replace all those gaskets."

     "I'm glad to see you are considering so many of the details, Mister Fisk," Belinda said.

     "The Production Manager won't be happy about this, when I inform him we're shutting down."

     "Mister Messieur DuBois is never a happy man, Mister Fisk. And the Captain won't be happy either, if you don't recall the Harvester Ships within the minute."

     "Aye, Captain."

     "Remember, Mister Fisk, one hour to blow ballast and head up for orbit. Get those Harvester Ships on board and secured before then."

     Belinda Ivory walked off and snapped her head to one side so that her short cropped hair flipped around, the way she always did when she was perturbed. And Mister Fisk knew that by now.

     "Aye, Captain," he said.

     The Captain didn't look too happy, when she walked out of the elevator onto the Bridge, either. She couldn't tell anyone. Anything. She'd already gone beyond her authority by telling Lieutenants Waverly and Dysart. She was out on the proverbial limb. So that was as far as she dared to push her luck. She knew the military well enough to know that someone somewhere would be bucking for a promotion and seeing a superior Officer breaking orders would be grasped onto as a possible opportunity for advancement. So, she walked onto the Bridge more tensely that she probably had to be, more cautious than she really had reason to be, and more paranoid than she really had a right to be. After all, next to the her senior-most Officers, these Officers were the most trustworthy on the ship. If they weren't, she was reminding herself, they wouldn't still be on the Bridge in the first place.

     "Captain on the Bridge," Ensign Benjamin Reynolds, the Duty Officer said smartly, as he vacated the Center Seat for Belinda. He returned to the Security Station.

     "As you were," Captain Ivory said automatically. Generally, at this point after her entrance, Belinda would request a Status Report, as a matter of due course. But this time she intended to give one. "I have the Con," she said more formally than was probably necessary. With a practiced eye, she inspected everything on the Bridge in one smooth sweep of the head. And she nodded her approval.

     The Main Viewer was dark, as it generally was when the ship was submerged and the Sensor Array was retracted. The Helm and Navigation Stations were both set on the Sonar Option. The Duty Science Officer, Lieutenant Brady Sybex, was at station studying or applying some science of some kind. Another Lieutenant, Greg Parker, was busy at the Main Frame Library Computer. Ensign Thelma Jones, the Communications Officer seemed to be over doing it at looking busy. And now the Duty Officer was at the Operations and Weapons Station. And the Ship's Security Chief, Michael Justin, was standing to one side of the elevator door at the Auxiliary Weapons and Tactical Station. As Captain Belinda Ivory took her seat and made her last survey around the room, she was pleased that all eight of the other Stations were manned and ready.

     Captain Ivory turned slightly to her right and addressed the Officer at the Operations Station. "Duty Officer Reynolds," she said.

     "Aye Captain," inquired the young man.

"Enter into the Ship's Log, 'We have discovered a leak of Major Safety Concern in Docking Bay Number Four. All Harvester Ships have been recalled at best speed. We will be blowing ballast and making orbit within the hour for repairs.'"

     "Aye, Captain," he said.

     Captain Belinda Ivory reached down and hit a button on the arm rest of her chair. "Engineering," she called.

     "Engineering here, Captain."

     "Power up. We will be blowing Ballast within the hour and leaving planet for orbit in one hour."

     "Are you serious, Captain?"

     "Affirmative. Do what ever has to be done to comply with those specifications, Engineer. We will be in orbit in one hour."

     "Aye, Captain," but the Engineer really didn't sound too sure about it.

     The Captain swiveled in her chair and faced the Communications Station. "Communications. Ensign Jones, as soon as we make orbit, I am expecting another call from the Commodore. Be ready to patch it through directly to my Duty Stateroom, when it comes in."

     "Aye, Captain."

     Just about then, the elevator door to the rear of the Bridge opened and deposited a tall, lanky, disgruntled Production Manager, in the person of Messieur DuBois. He hated the name pronounced like that. And that's why Belinda pronounced it like that. "Just what the hell is going on around here?" demanded the civilian.

     "Ah, Mister Messieur DuBois. It is always the same pleasantry to see you. Actually, I had expected you before now."

     "That doesn't answer my question, Captain."

     "So it doesn't," Belinda agreed.

     "What's this I hear about your taking the ship into orbit? Into orbit?"

     "For Docking Bay Gasket re-fitting, Mister Messieur DuBois. Ship's Safety. You understand, Messieur DuBois." That wasn't a question.

     The man gritted his teeth, but held his tongue about that. "What about My Production?"

     Captain Belinda Ivory turned her back to him, as she swiveled the chair around. She hoped that rudeness wasn't too subtle for him. "Lieutenant Sybex," she said to the Duty Science Officer, "call up the Production Updates for me, please."

     The Lieutenant at the Science Station took down a standard Data Transfer Pad, plugged it into the Main Frame, typed in a quick series of commands, unplugged it, and brought it over to Belinda's chair. "The Production Update Report, Captain."

     "Thank you, Lieutenant Sybex." Looking it over, Belinda swung the chair around very slowly to face Mister Messieur DuBois, she raised an eyebrow, smiled and said, "Why Mister Messieur DuBois, you've been a very good boy." She looked him square in the eyes. "You are substantially ahead of schedule. Well now, since you've been so good at what you do, why don't you take about three days off -- with pay. See how generous the Service can be? Our repairs will take about seventy-two hours. If everything goes as planned, that is."

     "I protest!" the civilian snapped.

     "Protest so noted, Mister Messieur DuBois."

     "I'll do it in writing, then."

     "I'm sure you have a form for everything, Messieur DuBois."

     The civilian turned and stomped off toward the elevator.

     And the Captain was thinking he was going to really become a pain in the middle of her chair, when an idea hit her. "Communications. Ensign Jones, have we received any more Confidential Orders from the Commodore?"

     "Negative Captain. Only the ones you took in your Quarters earlier."

     "Thank you."

     Mister Messieur DuBois hesitated for a moment before he shrugged his shoulders and stepped into the elevator car.

     The Communications Officer turned toward the Center Seat and asked the Captain, "Does all this have to do with the Commodore's Orders?"

     "Obviously, I can't go into detail as to what those Orders were, Ensign Jones. But I think I can safely tell you that all of this is in direct response to them." When Belinda heard the elevator doors close, she smiled (Coup de DuBois, she thought). "And now, we wait," she said.

     The Main Viewer was filled with a rich star field and the Helm Officer turned and said, "Entering Standard Orbit -- now, Captain."

     "Thank you, Ensign Brown. Duty Officer. Inform Chief Warrant Officer Fisk that he may proceed with repairs at his discretion."

     "Aye, Captain."

     The Communications Officer turned toward the Center Seat, "Captain, the Commodore is on channel and waiting."

     "Patch it through to my Duty Stateroom, Ensign Jones. Duty Officer Reynolds. You have the Conn."

     "Aye Captain," both Officers replied.

     Belinda Ivory rose and crossed the Bridge with an air of dignity and entered her Duty Stateroom in silence. It was the silence that Command often bears, she was thinking, as the door rolled silently closed behind her. "Computer," she said, as she walked toward her perfectly clear desk, "Security level ten. Viewer on." Belinda sat back in her chair and prepared herself for what she knew was coming on line.

     Commodore Paterson didn't look pleased, as his face became animated on the large communications screen over by the observation port. "Just what in the hell is going on over there, Commander Ivory?" He stressed her actual rank as though saying, "mere Commander."

     "Ah Commodore," she greeted, as though genuinely surprised he would be calling. "We are on a security level ten channel." And she gave him one of those looks that bled with concern. "The Docking Bay outer door gaskets have corroded. We have Fortunian Oceanic leakage coming into the ship. Nasty stuff. We have to replace them. That can be accomplished only in orbit. The outer doors must be opened for that procedure and the Maintenance people have to work in hard space suits. Repairs are commencing now." She reported.

     "I see," he said, as he slowly ingested the information, one proposition at a time. "Just how long do you expect this procedure to take, Commander?"

     "If all goes according to Maintenance Procedure, seventy-two hours."

     "Seventy-two hours!" the Commodore blurted out, as he rose from his chair. "Three full days!" They were still in the habit of using Earth Standard reckoning. "Do you have any idea what that's going to do to the Production Quotas?"

     "Yes, Commodore. Since we are ahead of schedule, a seventy-two hour delay will have no impact on Production Quotas. I have the figures on hand. If you would care to review them, then I can...."

     "No, I don't want to review rows and columns of numbers, Commander. I know what you're doing. Exactly what you're doing. You are giving me data snow, Ivory. You're stalling for time. You just want to save those -- those damn things of yours. But it won't work. I was a ship's Commander once myself, you know. I know how Captains think and how they do things. So, don't think you can out wait me. I can just order you and your ship to break orbit and get yourselves back down to Station. What do you think about that, Commander?"

     "Negative, Commodore. With all due respect, Sir, the Regulations are clear about this. You have authority over the Mission. I have authority over the ship. We have a Level One Safety breach entered into the Ship's Log and nothing takes priority over that. Nothing Commodore. The safety of this ship and this crew are in danger. They are my responsibility. Therefore, in order to carry out my responsibility it is my order that Submersible One does not return to Station until it is in perfect working order. Until then, this Mission is suspended and this ship is out of your hands. Regulations, Commodore. Look them up." Belinda couldn't believe she was hearing what her mouth was saying.

     "I'll relieve you of your command, Ivory!" He pounded his desk. "I mean that."

     "Fine."

     The Commodore sat down and pulled himself together and studied her unmoving face. He rubbed his chin. He tried to figure out what she was up to. She was giving in too easily. He'd seen it in the eyes of enemy commanders before, at the Moon Conflicts, when they too had given in, to draw them into an ambush. Easy resignation in the enemy signals a trap, he thought. What does she have up her sleeve? he wondered.

     Belinda smiled at his silence. She could sense his conflict. She'd struck some chord and the sound it made vibrated his face like worry. She decided it best to spring the trap before she was forced to use the trap. "How much time would that take, Commodore? More time than the repairs we require? Less time? It would take a lot of time, Commodore. Paperwork has got to be filled out by your office and sent to Earth. And it's not as though we're just in the Outer Rim someplace where it's just a jump over the Asteroid Belt and Mars to reach Earth. It's not Light-minutes to Earth, Commodore. We're in a completely different Star System. It's fifty Light-years. And levels of Officiocrats have to review them at High Command. Decisions have to be made by a dozen Admirals. Statements have to be requested and forms have to be filled out. Then formal inquiries have to be scheduled. Then Flag Officers have to be assigned before they can be dispatched. And then cases have to be prepared and submitted before a trial can be scheduled. Then the trial has to be conducted. How much time would all that take, Commodore? More time than the repairs we require? Less time? Well, it would take a hell of a lot of time, Commodore. It could take months even years. And during all that time, no Production would be done. That means supplies have to be requisitioned from Earth. They have to be prepared and boxed up and shipped to First World Space Dock and then freighted out to the Vega Colonies -- at astronomical expenses. It's just a hell of a long process to relieve a Captain of a Command these days. They call that 'Due Process of Law' don't they?"

     The Commodore wasn't happy about it, but he could see her point. Point? All her points. "All right, Ivory. Spell it out. What do you want?"

     "You know damn well what I want. I already told you. Review my request. Approve it, Commodore. It's the right thing to do," Captain Ivory concluded.

     The Commodore was shaking his head from side to side on the screen. "Ivory, why don't you ask for something I can give you? I would. Promotion. Ask me for a promotion. Based on your performance, you deserve one. But performance is what you have to keep up. And in this case, performance means Production. When will you break orbit, Captain?"

     Belinda thought he was changing tact to win her over to his side. A Promotion! What she wouldn't do for a Promotion! But she wasn't buying the bill of goods. This is one thing she wouldn't do. For Promotion. "As soon as the ship is safe and in perfect working order, Commodore."

     "How long will that take?"

     "We'll see, Commodore.

     "Keep me informed. Paterson out."

     And the picture of the man faded from Belinda's screen.

     "Not as bad as I thought," she said.

     The Commodore was in an especially foul mood, as he closed off the channel and looked over from the viewer to his Second in Command, Captain Vox. "And just what in the hell are you looking at -- like that?"

     "I'm looking at a man with a problem, Commodore," he said in soft, even tones. Uncharacteristically in few words.

     "Well, don't!" the Commodore snapped -- unfairly -- at him. "Don't you think I'd like to be able to go along with her? Of course, I would. Don't you think I'd like to tell her, 'While the possibility exists that the Fortunian Dodos are an intelligent species, discontinue Harvesting'? Don't you think I'd like to say that? If I had my way, I would already have done all those things! But Command isn't about getting your own way. Command is about doing your duty. And what my duty is now is to see that enough food is produced out here in the Vega Colonies to feed us all so we can survive through this crisis. That's my duty. And that's bigger than what possibilities and theories suggest."

     "Yes, Sir," said Captain Vox, with uncommon brevity and no particular enthusiasm.

     Captain Belinda Ivory walked back onto the Bridge more in control of herself than when she'd left it. "Status Report, Mister Reynolds," she said, even before the Duty Officer could announce her presence on the Bridge.

     "We are in Standard Orbit Captain and preliminary measures are under way for de-pressurizing the Docking Bays. Repair is expected to begin in approximately four Standard Earth hours, Captain." The Duty Officer responded.

     "Excellent. Thank you, Lieutenant. Science Officer Sybex."

     "Yes, Captain," he said, as he turned his attention toward her.

     "I want you to call up all Maintenance Requests on the Main Frame. Make out a linear schedule for their completion. Forward the analysis to my computer. And, yes," she said as she thought about it, "I would like you to print out all the individual Maintenance Requests, one request per page, and have them put on my desk when ready."

     "Aye Captain. How would you like the schedule organized, specifically?"

     "To be done before we return to Station on the planet, of course." Belinda shook her head slightly and her hair bounced.

     Everyone on the Bridge Crew turned and stole a glance at the Captain.

     "Aye, Captain. But is the Captain aware that this may take weeks to complete?"

     "I just informed the Commodore that this ship will be in perfect running order before we return to Station and resume Production, Lieutenant. One more thing, Lieutenant: contact all Department Heads and request a Maintenance Update list to be completed prior to returning to Station."

     "Aye, Captain."

     "Carry on," she said, as she left the Bridge. "Duty Officer Reynolds. You have the Conn."

 

3

     "It's been three days, Gentlemen," Captain Belinda Ivory reminded her top two Officers, as they came into her office and sat down. "I bought the time. Now, I want to see what I bought. I'd like to hear some results," she was saying, as she pushed a few stacks of Maintenance Requisitions to one side of her desk. She just wasn't used to the clutter of things. "Lieutenant Dysart, since you began this, you may begin this."

     "Thank you, Captain. Marine Biology Report. I have encountered an unexpected breakthrough. Theoretically. The initial information that was gathered about the Fortunian Dodos on first contact is impressive."

     "Oh. If I may interrupt for just a moment, Lieutenant," said the Captain. "I feel that if we expect to win respect for them as an intelligent species, it would be prudent to always refer to them simply as Fortunians. Never as Fortunian Dodos. Now, your report has an excellent beginning. I'm anxious to hear it out -- especially if it stays on that same track."

     "Your point is well taken, Captain. Excellent point. Then, 'Fortunians' it is.

     "Where was I? Oh yes. The initial information gathered about the Fortunians on first contact is impressive. Their metabolic processes were described in minute detail. This information includes some invaluable insights into their internal structure that builds a model we may be able to use to synthesize the whole process in a matter of four to six Standard Earth months, instead of the decade I cited earlier. But to accomplish this, we will require full access and full utilization of the Bio-Chemistry and Chemistry Laboratories aboard Fortunian I. With the full cooperation of their full staff, of Course."

     "An excellent report, Lieutenant. Some very useful things in there for a more short-term solution. Now, Lieutenant Waverly...." She was interrupted by the sound of an outside transmission coming in. She touched the access pad, "Ivory."

     "The Commodore in on line and waiting. Shall I patch him through?" Ensign Jones asked.

     "Affirmative." Belinda put her fingers to her mouth and the two Officers sitting across from her nodded. She settled back into her man-sized chair and put on her official smile. Then, she opened the channel with the touch of a pressure pad. "Commodore, how are you this afternoon?"

     "I am impatient, this afternoon. In fact, I've been impatient every afternoon for three afternoons. I feel neglected, and," the Commodore stretched that last word, as though it were a big word, "I'm wondering where my progress reports are. I had asked for you to keep me informed. Yes?"

     Belinda Ivory sat forward in her chair and perked up. "Nothing to report, until now. Fresh in." The Commodore's head was shaking up and down on the screen, no doubt wondering what path she would be leading him down this time. Belinda rubbed her hands together, the way some sinister motions are made, and she continued. "Our esteemed Sir Richard Dysart has just informed me that he has just made a monumental break through in developing a synthesis process, by which the hydro carbons and proteins we need for the food synthesizers can be produced artificially in mass quantity," she stole a look at Dysart, who shrugged. "That way, Commodore, we can discontinue the Harvesting of the Fortunians. Isn't this wonderful news?"

     The Commodore looked off screen. When his eyes came back, he closed them for a moment. He steepled his hands together so that they looked like a little church sitting on his wrists. Then, he leaned his forehead on them. Belinda knew him to do this in the past when reaching a difficult decision, so she found herself holding her breath. Finally, he said, "That would solve many problems, Commander Ivory." His eyes opened and he asked, "When can we begin Production?"

     "Four months," she said rapidly, like a disclaimer rushed through at the end of things. "Of course, he will need the Bio-Chem and Chem labs on Fortunian I."

     Already, Paterson was shaking his head. Shaking his head from sided to side. Not up and down. Shaking his head, "No."

     "No," he said. "We're in a more critical situation now than is generally known. I can't allow a four month break in Production of the paste. It's just out of the question."

     "But Commodore, we have the Reserves. To draw on. Surely we can order enough supplementary supplies to carry us through. A little rationing can help, too. That should keep us going until we reach full Production levels. We can exceed them." She pleaded with the Commodore with eyes that could melt a rock.

     "Dysart's break through and his synthetic process is a good idea. It will probably be our long-term solution. But it's not the short-term solution we need. Now, and you have to believe this, I was hoping Dysart's process was an immediate solution. That would have solved all of your problems and all of mine. But it doesn't.

     "The present political situation we're facing dictates what my decision must be. This is a direct order, Commander: send all data on this project to Fortunian I. Discontinue all work on it. We'll take it over from here. And we'll do it as quickly as possible.

     "In the meantime, Commander, take Submersible One back down on Station and begin Harvesting as soon as possible. Is that understood?"

     "Understood," Captain Ivory said, and the Commodore smiled at last. "However, Commodore, 'as soon as possible' may not be as soon as you would like."

     "What do you mean by that?"

     Belinda picked up handfuls of Requisition Orders and held them up for the Commodore to see. "Maintenance Orders, Commodore. Hundreds of hours of Maintenance Orders: Article 418, Section 11. This ship is not seaworthy, Commodore. And it's my duty to see that it is before she sails." Belinda held them all suspended for him to see.

     The Commodore looked off screen again and remained motionless. Quiet. When he looked back, he wasn't at all pleased.

     "Commander," said the Commodore, "I want you to personally give a Status Report to this facility every four hours. Personally. Without fail. Keep us posted. Paterson out."

     "Well," Belinda said, "It's just like having another baby to feed."

     "Captain, you have come a very long way in a very short time in playing the Regulation game. But we can't stop here," Lieutenant Waverly said.

     "What do you mean, Lieutenant?"

     "Time for the Administrative Report: I have compiled too much data to analyze conventionally with conventional programs. We're going to have to take unconventional routes," the Executive Officer said, as he moved uncomfortably in his seat.

     "Specify," Belinda said.

     "I have written a Cyber Conciseness program that will get you into Fortunian I's computer -- down to the deepest levels. You'll be able to query any option and see the probable outcome of each option. It'll be fast. But it'll be rough. And you'll have to do it. Neither of us will know which options you would consider."

     "Of course," Belinda agreed. "Down to the deepest levels? What does that mean exactly?"

     "That you'll be dealing with Classified Files is a given, Captain. Now, Classified Files are designed to come up only when certain criterion is met. Access Codes -- that sort of thing, as Dysart would say. So, they resist coming up. But they're not designed to keep anything out. For example, when a 'Check Disk Command' comes along, the Classified File says to it, 'you can go in, but you can't take anything out but my name and my number of bytes'. And that's exactly what a 'Check Disk Command' does. So the program I've written will take you into the computer riding on the wave of a 'Check Disk Command'. You'll come up to a file and tell it 'Check Disk Command' and it'll let you right in. The 'Check Disk Command' will take its name and number, but your mind will take whatever interests you. And you're untraceable, too. Because nobody ever thought s/he would ever want to trace a 'Check Disk Command'."

     "How will this help?" Belinda asked. "I mean, what am I looking for?"

     "What you're looking for, Captain," Lieutenant Waverly said, "is anything about life, intelligent life, intelligent life on Fortuna, Intelligent life's status. But you should do it immediately, though. With your reporting in every four hours you're going to get real tired, real quick. Do it when you're fresh."

     "All right, Gentlemen. Let's start."

     Captain Belinda Ivory was sitting in a straight-backed chair and tried to relax, while Lieutenant Waverly fitted the head gear on her. Then, he fitted the face shield over her face that would project all the images into her mind. And a cord ran out of the back and hooked up to the Main Frame.

     Lieutenant Dysart stood by with the hypodermic needle and drew out a dose of mind-altering drug. He tapped the side of it then expelled what air there could be in it. "This will help you to interpret the system for you, Captain. You'll be able to think in the language of the computer. And you'll remember. Anytime you're ready."

     "Shoot," she said, trying to make light of it. And the drug went into her arm. It must have burned a little, judging from the small hissing sound she made under the face shield.

     Lieutenant Dysart sat in a chair behind her and said, "In the event that anything should go wrong, Captain...."

     "Nothing can go wrong," the Executive Officer said. "Captain, at first you'll feel a little dizzy. A little disorientation. That's normal. Then you'll feel a little constriction, when you enter the Main Frame. Then you'll feel acceleration. That'll be when you enter the tight-beam transmission. Finally, you'll feel another constriction, as you enter the Fortunian I computer. From there on out, it's different for everyone. Remember, you're looking for Intelligent Life and related Files. Here we go -- now." He turned on the system.

     Belinda Ivory felt a little sick to her stomach and she had the taste in her mouth of heart burn. Then, she was compressed into a long and thin strand of energy. A moment of disorientation. She was compressed again even farther and had the sensation of being shot through a cannon -- or a laser. A moment of expansion. Disorientation. Of course, she was used to having a body with her. But there was no room for a body, where she was going.

      narrow conduit. Copper heating. A rush of confining velocity. A funnel. A spiraling metal. Crystal circuitry. Confining flow. Dimensions becoming. Vertical trees. Pathways. Menus and submenus. Bat Files. White concrete blocks. Cubes without physicality. Rows abreast. Columns atop. Columns below. Stackings vertically. Random addresses. She was in. Hard drive dimensions.

     Concrete cubical. "Check Disk Command." Answer. "Life: star dot", she thought. Address. "Check Disk Command." She was in. Other cubes. Sub directories. She saw electrons skipping orbits. "Life", she thought. Electrons sharing orbits. Meaning things. White background. Non-color electroids. Life is that which responds to external stimuli and reproduces. "Related Files" she thought again. If this were thought. Options.

     "Intelligence" she selected. Not here. But there. White cube close behind her. Ascending root directory. Changing drives. Moving across the menus. Colorless white surroundings. Plunging into Bat Files. Scooting down the Main Frame. Color-bled white cubicle. "Check Disk Command." Inside little byte number. Much room; only information: Cogito. No more there. "Related Files." Options. Select.

     "Life, intelligence" she selected. Surge upward. Rows flipping by mega numbers. Surge over. Columns streak across. Surge diagonal. Random finding. Solid cubical. White paper porous texture. Sharp corners having. Dotted lines. Blocked out. No rise command to query. Can't come up. Classified. No doorway. "Check Disk Command." No portal. Pushed through wall. Inside. Electrostatic language. Convoluted entries. Subject double stated. Non-equal Write equation. Random reasons. "Definition" she thought. That which responds to external stimuli by cognition. Communication. "Related Files." Options. Select.

     "Other intelligent life" she thought. Pushed between the columns. Pressed between the rows. Drawn along gold circuits. Dragged through copper solids. Fly by once again. "Check Disk Command." No answer. Address search once again. Binary break down. Calling rows by name; no answer. Calling columns by ID; no answer. All response is negative. Every cube queried. File not found. Options. Select.

     "Check Disk Command." She thought, "Other Intelligent Life." Lonely cry. Emptiness. Repeat same sequence. Emptiness. File not found. "Related Files." Options. Select.

     "Other Intelligent Life. Submenu: On Fortuna." Lightning flashing. Up tree, route directory. Flashing symbols, either side. White block bound encrypted wrapping. Crypto classified. Rubrics cube. Turned and color coded. Electronic mesh. Holding in. Magnetic chains. Binding fast. "Check Disk Command." Squeezing through. Let in. Inside Files. Megabyte electrons. Holding places. From and to responses. Politics of War. Supply problems. Expense records and summaries. Add no expenses. Bottom line. Other Intelligent Life. Submenu: On Fortuna: None. Official Position. Do not depart from. Evidence to contrary. Postpone by investigation. Until War is over. Official Position: irrevocable. Calisto: Forbidden.

     Defeat-emotional mind. No way out. "Related Files." Options. Select.

     "Intelligent Life: Status of." Out and moving on. Speed between rows between the mega cubes. White on all sides but corners. And dotted lines. Address at Center Cube. Black with color not. Pressed restraints. Layers many. Restraining light. Surface deep. Cannot come up. Channels cut route directory. Black batons. Screwed down tight. "Check Disk Command." Opens crack. Enter in. Now inside. Regulations in winding skins. "Definition." Not right directory. "Check Disk Command." "Sub directory." Status: not recognized without Ambassador. "Reciprocal?" she asked. Protected with Ambassador. "Related Files." Options. Select.

     "Ambassador." Moving fast. Out and over. Under spinning. Random row. Random column. Streak across. Arrive. White cube. Bent and small. "Check Disk Command." Inside. "Definition." One speaking on behalf of another.

     "Exit Program." Belinda said. Or something in her mind said. Blast away. Eternity of spaces. Confining places. Breath and heartbeat. Sounds. Smells. Touches. Sights. Tastes. Body. Stuffed there into.

     Belinda gasped, as she snapped open her eyes and turned them from side to side. She saw only the inside of the face shield. At first, she didn't know where she was. Then, it started to come back to her.

     "Captain, are you all right?" asked Lieutenant Waverly, as he took off the computerized helmet.

     "Yes, I just need," and she pressed her hands to her rapid-fire chest, "time." Exhausted, she settled back into the straight-backed chair. As much as she could.

4

     "I don't know if it'll do us much good," Captain Ivory said, as she regained control of herself and her two Senior Officers stood by to hear her report. "But here's what I learned." The two officers took their customary chairs in front of her desk. Belinda sat down slowly and wrung her hands together.

     "We are at War right now. Or something equivalent to it. The bottom line on all of this boils down to the Politics of War. Our hands are pretty well tied, I'm afraid. The Political situation takes precedence over everything else. Everything. Including whether or not the Fortunians are an intelligent species that communicates. Which they don't. But they will investigate after the War. The only over-ride would be if the Fortunians sent an Ambassador to us. Then -- and only then -- would they fall under our protection as an intelligent ally. And that's impossible," she concluded. "I've failed. Miserably."

     "Not necessarily, Captain," Lieutenant Dysart commented contemplatively.

     "What do you mean, Lieutenant?"

     "It is not impossible, given the Fortunian's behavioral patterns. Perhaps we should have recognized the clues and followed-up on them before now."

     "Lieutenant. Would you please stop talking in conclusions and let us in on your reasoning?" the Captain suggested.

     "It may be improbable, but it is certainly not impossible. Here is the key -- perhaps. The Fortunians often come right up to the ports of the ship and just look in. This may be a demonstration of their desire to communicate with us. If that is true, then it stands to reason they have one capacity or another to communicate. At present, we do not know how they could communicate. And this is the answer to the present dilemma: find their method of communication; have them send an Ambassador. They would then automatically protected, politics notwithstanding."

     "Suggestions, Lieutenant?"

     "Intelligent life as we know it communicates verbally, as well as by other means. At present, we do not even know if they produce sounds. We've never listened. Our first actions should be to determine that. If they have a verbal language, it can be deciphered and we can communicate. Of course, I don't know any of this. I am speculating."

     "Of course," the Captain said, as she settled back and thought about it.

     Lieutenant Waverly said, "If they communicate, they may send an Ambassador. Question: do our Superiors have to accept their Ambassador?"

     "Without a doubt, Lieutenant," Captain Belinda said.

     "But to accomplish anything along these lines, Captain," Lieutenant Dysart was telling her, "we must return to the planet."

     "Right-o," said Lieutenant Waverly, as he looked at the British Officer. "We move back on Station, but we'll have to tell the Commodore we're still not ready to continue Harvesting!"

     "Let's do it, Gentleman," Captain Belinda said, as she stood. "Shall we adjourn to the Bridge?"

     "Captain on the Bridge," the Duty Officer Reynolds announced.

     "As you were. Status Report," Belinda said.

     "In standard orbit. Maintenance Orders progressing as scheduled, Captain."

     "Thank you."

     The three Senior Officers took their customary places, as their seats were vacated. The Captain in the Center Seat, The First Officer at the Main Frame Library Computer, and The Second Officer at the Science Station.

     The Captain pushed a button on the arm of the Command chair and made a ship-wide announcement. "Now hear this. We are about to break orbit and return to Station on the planet. All Department Heads report readiness status to the Bridge. Make all preparations to secure all Flight Options and stand by for Submersible Mode. Prepare to take her down. Thank you. That is all."

     "Course plotted, Captain," Ensign Mark Coleman, the navigator said, as he studdied a small monitor to one side of his station. A smooth line appeared that projected an arching path from space to sea. "Navigation standing by to transfer to the Helm."

     "Thank you, Lieutenant. Helm. Stand by to receive course transfer."

     "Aye, Captain," Ensign Brown replied crisply.

     "Operations, Captain," a Junior Grade Lieutenant spoke up, "all ship's functions are in the Green."

     "Thank you," Belinda responded. "Science. Report."

     "All systems are go in the Science Department, Captain. Hull integrity confirmed. Standing by to retract the Forward Sensor Array on Command."

     "Very well, Lieutenant Dysart. Lieutenant Waverly. Report."

     "All clear on the Main Frame, Captain. Final diagnostics finishing -- now. Findings: negative error messages. We are clear to transfer Mode Options, Captain."

     "Thank you."

     The Communications Officer, Ensign Jones, looked up quickly from the board, "Department Head Reports are coming in now, Captain. All Departments report readiness, except for the Production Department. The Production Manager is not on deck, Captain."

     The elevator door opened and as though on some serendipitous cue, the Production Officer walked onto the Bridge. He walked out with a strut almost as big as his smile, "So, we're finally getting back into Production Captain?"

     "Ah, Mister Messieur DuBois," the Captain remarked dryly. "It's always the same to see you on the Bridge."

     "We are sea worthy, Captain," the Communications Officer reported.

     "Thank you, Ensign Jones," Captain Ivory said, then turned to her Production Manager. "We are returning to Station, Mister Messieur DuBois. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean we will be commencing Production any sooner than anticipated. We still have major Maintenance and Repairs. Not to mention Tests to conduct. But don't worry, Mister Messieur DuBois, a few weeks should see everything resolved."

     "A few weeks! This is outrageous. This is...."

     ".... Captain's discretion, Mister Messieur DuBois. Is that what you were about to point out to us? Thank you. I do have the Commodore's orders to consider and I keep them in mind more fully than you can begin to understand. Every moment, as a matter of fact. I will keep you informed, Mister Messieur DuBois. Just like everybody else."

     Hearing this, Mister Messieur DuBois stomped back into the elevator car and was gone. Finally.

     "Navigation. Ensign Coleman, verify Course Plotting and transfer to the Helm. Helm, on your toes. Be ready for in-coming."

     "Aye, Captain," the two men said in chorus. Disharmony.

     "Communications. Request Re-entry Clearance from Fortunian I," Belinda ordered.

     "Sending Request -- now, Captain."

     "Course laid in, Captain," affirmed the Ensign Brown.

     "Communications. Any reply?"

     "The Commodore will becoming on personally, Captain. Wait one."

     Captain Belinda Ivory began to drum her fingers on the arm rest of the Command Chair, before she really knew she was doing it. She made a concerted effort to stop it.

     "Commodore is ready to receive."

     "Send and on Screen."

     "On Screen, Captain," the Communications Officer said, as he made the necessary connections.

     Half the star field was replaced by the intrigued-looking face of Commodore Paterson. "Returning to Station so soon, Captain?" He just couldn't keep the touch of sarcasm out of his voice. "I hadn't expected such a quick response from you. Though I must point out that I deserve better than you have seen fit to give. As of late."

     "Noted, Commodore," the Captain said with a slight nod of her head. "Request permission to return to Station. The vessel is sea worthy."

     "And to resume Production?"

     "To commence on-Station Tests and to continue Maintenance and Repairs, Sir."

     "What do you have up your pretty little sleeve, now, my dear?" the Commodore said in a condescending manner.

     "Nothing but what I have already requested in encrypted Transmissions, Commodore," she answered as straight-faced as she could.

     Paterson sat back in his chair and looked off screen for what seemed like a full minute. The Commodore was drumming his fingers, like a man listening to long verbosity. There was no doubt in Belinda's mind that the audio was muted. Finally, he nodded and then turned to face her again. "You may precede with haste, Captain. Return to Station. I expect more from you in the future than you have been giving me lately."

     "I can assure you of that, Commodore," she said with a pleasantry on the surface.

     "Captain," the Commodore said, "this does not change the frequency of your progress reports to this Station -- your personal reports, as we discussed earlier."

     "Understood."

     The Commodore regarded her face for a few moments and shook his head -- perhaps in frustration. "Permission granted, Captain. Station. Paterson out."

     The full star field came back on Screen and the Crew could almost taste the conflict between them. They wondered secretly what their Captain was up to. Lately, she had seemed erratic and tended to give orders that made no sense to them. They knew the feeling of the conflict, but dutifully, they pretended not to notice.

     "Lieutenant Dysart. Retract and Secure the Forward Sensor Array. Transfer to Sonar Array."

     "Retracting -- now, Captain."

     Helm. Take her down, Mister Brown. Engage Sonar Array."

     Three days later, Belinda Ivory walked into the Receiving Room, where the Fortunians were off loaded from the Harvester Ships by gaffs and dragged into the Plant. She was most pleasantly impressed by the almost total transformation she saw there. Instead of the skinning racks where the long saws cut off the organic metal skin of the Fortunians, there were rows of translating computers connected to the newly adapted marine sound equipment. "Seventy-two hours have been good to the two of you," she said.

     Lieutenant Dysart turned and looked at her through eyes that seemed swollen from his side, "Correction, Captain. We have been good to the seventy-two hours," he said dryly.

     "I stand corrected." Belinda smiled. "I just can't believe that the two of you did all this in three days. Just three days," she said as she skipped around looking at things, like a school girl.

     "Trial and error, mostly," Said Dysart.

     "Error mostly. But we think it'll work." Waverly amended.

     "The hardware will work, Captain," Lieutenant Dysart picked up. "That is a given. But whether or not it accomplishes our goals is the question." He yawned.

     "What does it do?" the Captain asked, as she still watched everything as a one thing.

     "Simply stated, Captain, we have installed marine speakers and microphones in the docking bay there," he motioned through the transparent door, "and any sound produced in the docking bay will be fed through the translating computers, here. So, we hope to lure one of the Fortunians in there and to communicate with it from in here. That's where Lieutenant Waverly's computer magic comes into play." Dysart motioned toward the First Officer.

     "I've had to customize the translation programs quite a bit. Of course, I had to rely on Lieutenant Dysart's intuition to formulate our base assumptions. If they are correct, then when the data is fed into the computers, we will be able to build a data base that will result in vocabulary building and finally to meaningful communication. But it's really Dysart's magic."

     "Now that you're through admiring each other -- will it work?" Belinda was secretly please with the men's sense of cooperation with each other. They were becoming a team.

     "It's as ready now as it'll ever be," Dysart said.

     "Of course it'll work." Waverly said, as he ducked back into the back of a computer.

     "Good," the Captain said, "We're tracking a lone shark. Flood the bay and be ready to receive. One hour until show time." And she was bouncing off to the Bridge.

     Lieutenant Waverly poked his head out and asked, "Will it work, Richard?"

     "The hardware, yes. Whether or not it accomplishes anything is the question."

     "Will it?"

     "Unknown, Charles."

     Captain Belinda Ivory was watching an external view taken from the Harvesting Ship that had vacated the docking bay, as she bent slightly forward in her Command Chair on the Bridge. The Fortunian entered like a fat whale. She touched an intercom button on her chair arm and asked, "Do you see it?"

     "Affirmative, Captain," Lieutenant Dysart's voice said. "The Fortunian has entered Docking Bay Four. Closing outer hull door -- now. Docking Bay Four out."

     "Damn," she said. She would miss.... Why? she wondered. After all, she was the Captain! Belinda pressed the button again and said, "On my way. Ivory out." She was on her feet and on her way to the elevator. "Duty Officer. You have the Con Mister Reynolds. Maintain Marine Thrusters at Station Keeping."

     "Aye Captain."

     She hurried like a child at recess. She was excited as a child at Christmas. She couldn't wait. She passed by Crew who greeted her with empty hellos. She responded to them in kind. The halls were wide as school corridors and as long. Her breath was coming harder and her heart was beating more rapidly and she caught the faint smell of fish as she passed the Crew's Mess Hall. Fish! Never again.

     When Belinda Ivory arrived in the old Receiving Room, she noticed that the lights were especially bright. And she heard a deep, resonant yelp of some kind. At first she was startled. Then, slowly a form began to take shape in the transparent door, lighted only by the light flooding out of the room she was in. They were in. Lieutenant Dysart stepped out from behind the computer casements and walked cautiously up to the plate separating him from the ten tons of Fortunian. It was clearly the largest Fortunian she had ever seen. Dysart began raising and lowering his arms, as though he were a bird readying itself for flight. He did this for a while and finally said in a discouraged tone, "No response, Charles." And then he stopped.

     "Try again," suggested the Captain, as she glanced over to Lieutenant Waverly, perhaps for some moral support. Perhaps for a better suggestion. No response there. When she looked back at Dysart, he was flapping his arms again. Had it not been such a serious moment, it might have been a humorous pantomime. Then she saw it. She saw it begin. A pair of fins started to slowly move up and down. "Lieutenant Dysart."

     "Yes, Captain?"

     "You probably can't see them that close, but as you move your arms, it moves its fins."

     "Incredible!" Lieutenant Waverly said from over by the computers he was tending. "Try raising only one arm, Richard."

     So, Lieutenant Dysart tried that. He began to raise and lower his right arm. "Any response, Captain?"

     "Aye, Lieutenant. Aye, there is."

     The Fortunian was hovering just on the other side of the great transparent door, looking in through its big, sad eyes, and raising and lowering one fin. Its right fin.

     Belinda jumped up and down, like a pom-pom girl might have back in the days when they had such things. She was jumping up and down out of joy, out of wonder, out of discovery, out of triumph. And as she watched, the Fortunian began to move up and down, too! "Contact!" she yelled. "Now boys. I want you to work on vocabulary."

     "A helpful suggestion, Captain," said Lieutenant Dysart. She couldn't decide whether he was being sarcastic or English. No matter. Such a moment.

     "Now, I have a Commodore to call."

     "No!" snapped Waverly. He cleared his throat in embarrassment and said, "He'll just have us postpone this, too."

     "Oh! I didn't mean I was going to tell him about this. Don't worry, Lieutenant. We'll give him the whole thing at once. At the proper time."

 

5

     The Captain, Belinda Ivory, looked every bit as unrested as she probably felt, as she rubbed her face and turned to the Science Station. "Is everything ready on your end, Lieutenant Dysart?"

     "Affirmative, Captain. Lieutenant Waverly is standing by on the computers and our third party is waiting to speak with the Commodore."

     All around the Bridge, the other Officers exchanged glances and looks with question marks written on them.

     "Communications. Patch us through to Paterson. Person-to-person, Ensign Jones." She wanted to say reverse the charges, but she held that back.

     "Aye, Captain. The Communications Officer raised the Commodore and reported to the Captain. "Commodore Paterson is standing by."

     "Split the Screen. On Screen."

     Commodore Paterson appeared on the right hand side and was looking somewhat irritated. "What may I do for you this time, Captain? Have you solved all the problems of that -- that damned ship of yours? Or has your ingenuity been working overtime and creating a whole new set of problems for me?" The Commodore appeared to be on the brink of loosing his temper.

     And everybody on the Bridge knew it. What was going on? The Bridge Crew stiffened. Captain Ivory smiled. The Commodore scowled.

     "Problem solved, Commodore."

     "Ah! What a pleasant surprise. When do we begin Production?"

     "Before we talk about Production, Commodore, there's somebody here who would like to have a few words with you."

     "Something tells me I'm going to regret this, Captain. But you do have my curiosity piqued."

     "Thank you, Commodore." Belinda turned to the Science Station. "Lieutenant Dysart, will you put our third party on the line?"

     "Aye, Captain."

     The left side of the Screen wavered momentarily and then the face of a giant Fortunian appeared. It moved in the frame and a voice came over the speakers from above. "Greetings. Ambassador am I of Fortunians, the ones you call."

     "This is a trick of some kind! I won't stand for it!" the Commodore yelled.

     "Trick what is?" The Fortunian asked in its innocence.

     "Deceit, untruth," suggested Captain Ivory.

     The Fortunian moved again and said, "We untruth say not. Ambassador am I of Fortunians, the ones you call. All Fortunians represent I. Fortunians All want peace us between."

     Captain Belinda Ivory addressed the Commodore's shocked and line-filled face. "Commodore Paterson. We have had a First Contact Situation, here. We have been requested by the Ambassador of the Fortunians to enter into peace negotiations. They request an Ambassador. We cannot refuse. Regulations. The Fortunians are now under the blanket of our Protectorate. Again, Regulations, Sir."

     "Stand-by," the Commodore said.

     "Meant what stand-by?" asked the Fortunian.

     Lieutenant Dysart addressed the noble looking Fortunian, "It means to please wait."

     "Waiting have been doing much time. Longer much?"

     "Not much longer."

     "Waiting."

     The Commodore was turned to one side and was carrying on an animated conversation that had been audio-muted.

     Submersible One waited.

     The Bridge Crew was hardly even realizing the full significants of everything. Oh, they knew the meaning of many of the parts, but putting them together was hard thinking on short notice. But they were now looking more fondly at their Captain. And at the new Second Officer on the Bridge. And they were thinking more fondly about the First Officer working his magic with the computers somewhere. "This is why you've been stalling. Isn't it?" Ensign Thelma Jones was turned toward the Captain.

     Belinda smiled, but said nothing.

     "An intelligent species," Reynolds, the Duty Officer whispered.

     A mixture of joy for finding them and horror for having Harvested them filled the whole Bridge.

     The Commodore was back on audio. "Thank you for waiting. In the light of these developments, we accept this suit for peace. The Fortunian People are acknowledged as being an intelligent species who has offered an Ambassador to us in exchange for one from us. We accept this.

     "Therefore, Captain Ivory, I hereby order that all Harvesting cease immediately. I know you will carry out that order!

     "The Fortunian People are officially under our protection and an Ambassador will be sent aboard Submersible One at 08 hundred hours, ship's time.

     "Mister Ambassador. Your people and my People are at peace. We ask for your forgiveness for all the injustice done to you all. We will discuss these things. Good-bye."

     "Thank you," the Fortunian replied. "Good-bye."

     "Paterson out." And the Screen went blank.

 

6

     Captain Belinda Ivory walked smartly onto the Bridge of Submersible One, the new Ambassador Ship. She was still thinking about her last conversation with Mister Messieur DuBois. A twinkle in her eye shined more brightly when she recalled how she told him point blank and as bluntly as she could that "You are out of business, Mister Messieur DuBois. Period. How is your resume?"

     "Captain on the Bridge," the Duty Officer, Ensign Reynolds announced.

     This time, Belinda let them all stand. There are times when one lets formalities happen for the sakes of others, she was thinking, as she looked slowly around the spacious room. The First and Second Officers had somehow found their places by her side. Then, the Bridge Crew applauded them. They bowed smartly and Belinda's face flushed a little.

     Ensign Thelma Jones, the Communications Officer finally interrupted the moment, "Captain, the Commodore is on line and holding."

     "On Screen."

     "Good morning, Captain. You look rested."

     "I don't have to get up every four hour to feed the baby." There was no smile on the Commodore's face. Not exactly "no change," but certainly no smile. "An inside joke, Commodore. Humor."

     "Of course," the Commodore said dryly. "Now that our pleasantries are over, I have a third party who wishes to converse with you, Commander."

     Belinda swallowed. The look on the Commodore's face told nothing. And surprises Belinda Ivory had never liked.

     The face of the Commodore turned to one side and he made a hand motion. The Main Viewer split. It wavered and another party appeared opposite the Commodore.

     When Captain Belinda Ivory recognized the face on the Screen, she straightened another half inch taller and said, "Attention on Deck." Her Bridge Crew were now standing straight and hard as wire.

     Captain Ivory said, "Good morning Ms. President."

     "At ease," the striking brunette said. I'll come right to the point, Commander Ivory, Lieutenant Waverly, Sir Richard Dysart, Lieutenant. Time is limited. Front and Center."

     The trio smartly stepped forward and regarded their High Commander-in-Chief.

     "On behalf of the Government and the People, I extend our appreciation. We feel that we owe you all a debt of gratitude. You have introduced us to the Fortunian People at substantial risk to yourselves, as I understand it. Commodore Paterson has recommended the three of you be joined to The Legion of Honor. The appointment has been approved by the Congress.

     "Commander Ivory. You have been promoted to the rank of Captain. You have been re-assigned to assume command of the Starship Ebony. You will oversee the final year of construction to get to know her. This is the first Interstellar Exploration Campaign and we need a Commander who has demonstrated the ability to act independently and to judiciously reinterpret the intent of the Law. You have demonstrated this. But act cautiously in the future. We also want a First-Contact Officer Commanding her. Congratulations."

     "Thank you, Ms. President."

     "You are out of uniform, Captain," the President said through a grin. "Your Promotion is in effect immediately." Belinda nodded.

      of Commander and will transfer to the Starship Ebony, where you will serve as First Officer."

     "Thank you, Ms. President."

     "Sir Richard Dysart, Lieutenant. You have been promoted to the rank of Commander. You will be assigned to Fortunian I where you will head up the Fortunian Synthesis Project.

     "Thank you, Ms. President."

     "Congratulations to you all for a job well done."

     "Thank you, Ms. President. But the Starship Ebony, will need a good Science Officer, about the time Commander Dysart is available. And it'll need a good Command Crew, such as the present Officers." Belinda said.

     The President smiled and thought about it for a moment. "The Commodore will see to the details. Out."

 

THE END