Aboard The Kreltonian Skull – Andromeda Class Battle Cruiser
Official Status: Assigned to Andel-Kreit Coalition Fleet.
Ship’s Log: Earth Orbit – Awaiting Deployment.
Commander Stanch stepped out of the executive office and crossed the bridge, his spine straight and his hands clasped behind his back. The eyes of every officer followed his path, and when he reached the captain’s chair, Stanch turned to address all those who sat waiting at their stations. Zeb, the cybonic science officer, caught his eye and offered an encouraging smile.
“You’re probably all wondering about my meeting with the Andel-Kreit High Command,” Stanch began, the thick skin of his scaly cheeks creasing as he forced a smile. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but thanks to the vid recordings made by Lieutenant Commander Zeb, Lord Pelligrew was happy to accept my testimony, and they understand that Admiral Norph was to blame for the unfortunate recent events.” He paused, the silence broken only by the gentle hum of the dehumidifiers and the incessant beeping of the comms console. “I’m pleased to say that we’ve been offered a chance to redeem ourselves and to prove our worthiness as a crew. I have been appointed Acting Captain of The Skull, and my orders are to lead the diplomatic effort to restore good relations between the Andel-Kreit Coalition and the Gloabon Government.”
For a full second no one made a sound, then Zeb brought his palms together with a single loud clap, prompting the other officers to do the same. Stanch’s smile broadened. Andelian applause was always brief, but it was also very rare, and pride swelled his chest.
“Well done, sir,” Zeb said. “Whatever the task, we’ll rise to the challenge. We won’t let you down.”
“That’s good to hear,” Stanch replied, buoyed up by the atmosphere on the bridge, “because we are to host a series of high-level talks between a group of senior Andel-Kreit officers and a delegation from the Gloabons. The Andel-Kreit High Command will be represented by Lord Pelligrew himself.”
“Oh, flek!” Zeb muttered. “We’re screwed.”
“Zeb!” Stanch snapped.
Zeb dipped his chin. “Apologies at my outburst, Captain, but if these talks go ahead as planned, my situational analysis predicts a ninety-seven percent chance of failure. The Gloabons are slaves to protocol, and they will have been disturbed by Admiral Norph’s flagrant misuse of power. Inviting them aboard the ship where Norph hatched his plans and then facing them with Lord Pelligrew will…” Zeb’s lips moved silently for a moment. “It will be like shaking a sack full of screech hawks. One way or another, somebody’s going to get their eyes pecked out.”
“Then we’ll have to take full advantage of our three percent chance of success.” Stanch jutted his jaw. “A lot is riding on these talks, and we won’t be the ones to mess them up.”
“With respect, that’s not quite what I said,” Zeb replied. “The talks have a ninety-seven percent chance of failure, but there’s a two point eight percent chance that they’ll result in interplanetary war. My algorithms have allocated the remaining zero point two percent to the possibility that this sector of the galaxy will be annihilated entirely.”
Stanch bridled. “Hold your tongue, Mister. You’re out of line. You’ve been through a lot, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, but be warned–we’ll have no defeatist talk on this ship.”
“As you wish, Captain. Technically, I don’t have a tongue, but I’ll have Chief Engineer Dex check the configuration of my vocalization modules at the end of my shift.”
“No, you’d better see to that immediately,” Stanch said. “It might take Dex a while to fix you up, and we can’t have you cursing in front of Lord Pelligrew, or the Gloabons for that matter.”
“Aye, Captain.” Zeb made to leave his station then hesitated. “But, Captain, surely the meeting will be for higher ranking officers only. I won’t be attending, will I?”
“On the contrary, Zeb,” Stanch said with a smile. “The way you dealt with Norph impressed Lord Pelligrew. He mentioned your courage and quick thinking, and he made a point of requesting your presence at all the meetings. He believes that your capabilities will impress the Gloabons. Remember, whatever you might think of them, the Gloabons value advanced technology above almost everything else, and you represent the height of our scientific achievements.”
“Oh, shim!” Zeb’s hand flew to cover his mouth. “I’m sorry, Captain, that slipped out, I—”
“Just go and see Dex,” Stanch interrupted. “And when he’s done with your adjustments, have him meet me on the bridge. We have some environmental changes we need to make for our Gloabon guests, and I need to pick his brains.”
“Aye, Captain.” Zeb snapped to attention and then hurried from the bridge, his head down.
Give me strength, Stanch thought. Are we really doomed to failure? He took the captain’s seat and ran his hands over the control panels built into the armrests. He checked the ship’s status out of habit, but his mind scarcely registered the data. For many years, he’d dreamed of taking this seat, of taking command of The Skull, one of the most powerful ships in the Andel-Kreit fleet. And he knew that others in the crew revered this ship as much as he did. Perhaps that was why Norph had been able to sweep them all up in his insane scheme: they’d believed in The Skull. They’d seen it as a symbol of something that went beyond the sleek curves of its hull. Now, he had the captain’s chair, but at what cost?
Stanch sat back, his gaze roving over the officers, his officers. They would look to him for leadership, so his doubts and fears must not be allowed to surface. He must remain calm and in control; he owed the crew that much. But how would he steer them through this almost impossible task?
There’s only one problem with Zeb’s analysis, he thought. It’s correct. The two sides in these talks had always been at loggerheads, but thanks to Norph, the Andel-Kreit Coalition had lost face in front of the Gloabons, and that would not be allowed to stand. For their part, the Gloabons had always looked down on the Andelians and Kreitians alike, seeing both races as primitive savages. Now, thanks to Norph’s brutality, their prejudices had been confirmed.
We have less chance than a butterfly in an orchid patch, Stanch told himself, and the image stayed fixed in his mind: a jeweled butterfly flapping its six wings pitifully as a scarlet blood blossom closed its deadly petals around the creature’s struggling form. The analogy was apt. He’d been drawn toward the sweet nectar of command, but unless he was swift, the machinery of the galaxy’s two great powers would draw him into their schemes and devour him whole.
They stand on the brink of war, Stanch thought. But what will it take to make them step back from the precipice?
The mellow tones of the comms officer, Ensign Chudley, snapped him from his reverie. “Captain, I have an incoming message from Lord Pelligrew’s adjutant, Captain Dunworthy. He sends his regards and asks if we have a supply of Brahmian liquor aboard.”
“Tell him, no,” Stanch replied quickly, and under his breath, he added, “Thank the gods.” The Brahmian drink was mildly toxic to Andelians, but he’d heard plenty of stories of what it did to the Gloabons, and the thought of trying to keep order with a bunch of inebriated aliens aboard sent a shudder down his spine.
“Relaying that, sir,” Chudley said. She paused. “Captain Dunworthy says not to worry–he’ll bring a case with him.”
Stanch pressed his fingertips against his temples, his talons digging into his tough skin. “Thank you,” he said to Chudley. He stood stiffly. “I have some plans to make. When Dex arrives, send him through to the XO.” He headed for the door. Lieutenant Grulb, the ship’s counselor, tried to catch his eye, but Stanch ignored him. When these talks were over, he’d see the counselor every day for at least a month, but until then, if there was one thing he couldn’t afford to have, it was a sense of perspective.
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