Lizbeth stormed down the hall of the Instigator. Each step she took brought her closer to her goal. She could feel the excitement plunging up and down her spine.
She’d found him. Or rather the Heartbeat Locator and Person Identifier, or HLPI as the crew called it, had locked onto his signal. But she’d been the one to reprogram the machine to expand its search parameters to include galaxies that didn’t, in general, contain space travel capabilities yet. It had been no easy task to complete. Her thumb might never recover from the abuse it had taken when the machine had all but hopped off the table and fallen on top of her hand. Well, it had seemed like it had done that, even though it wasn’t possible. Right?
Shaking her head, she forced the thought from her mind. It had been worth it, whatever the personal cost to her digits.
After five years, the others had given up. But she never had. Her determination finally paid off. Captain Acton had been located. Soon she would bring him home.
The word conjured a strange feeling in her gut. She used to think of the Instigator as a home. She’d lived on it for the past fifty years and knew its hallways and rooms like she knew the days of the week or the lyrics of her favorite songs. For instance, she knew that if she walked into the mess-hall right now, the same place where she had taken her meals three times a day for half a century, she would find Simms, the chef, muttering to himself and throwing a temper tantrum about something to do with food preparation. He did this almost every day. Not needing any help, he just liked to fume every day for about an hour before the meal was ready. It would be odd to not have him do it.
Acton once wondered out loud if someone reset the clocks in Simms’ rooms, would the chef still know exactly what time it was just based on his physical need to complain. Most of the ships had computerized feeding systems now but Acton had always insisted that they could never replace Simms, he was part of the ‘other’ element to the ship, the part that made the crew happy, kept them content, and they in turn made the ship run with the highest efficiency in the fleet.
It was a good thing it hadn’t occurred to their current captain that he could save money by not having Simms onboard. There was nothing that man liked more than eliminating what he considered excess waste. The very thought made her pulse speed up and she stopped walking to calm down. Looking right and left, she quickly determined she was alone and gave into her ridiculous need to pound on the silver walls that surrounded her. Two sharp knocks with her fist and she felt slightly better.
Beatrice and Betty, the twin science officers known mostly for the daily dyeing of their hair color ranging from blue to black appeared before her. These days they were completely preoccupied with the healing properties of algae from one of the green planets. As the twins walked by, Betty raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything to indicate that they’d come into the end of her temper tantrum. Lizbeth smiled gratefully. They were her family and sometimes you just knew when it was best to not question your family members about their behavior. That’s what made the place home.
Or it used to be, anyway.
But it had ceased being that for her the day Acton had been stolen from its helm, ripped away from her and the rest of the crew. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how much they all depended on his charisma, charm, and quiet leadership to guide and secure them in the lonely galaxy. But moreover, she hadn’t realized how incredibly in love with him she was.
It was the little things he would do, things she hadn’t appreciated until they were ripped away from her. Acton had always found a way to touch her either on her shoulder or the back of her neck. They were small gestures but the lack of them had felt like someone had removed her liver and she now had to live without it. Had she shown him how important he was to her?
She swallowed and forced the image of Acton’s abduction from her mind as she picked up her pace. They needed to turn the vessel around. In order to get the captain, Instigator was going to need to travel into the Hydro system, a place they were forbidden to go. Captain Acton was being held on a planet composed mostly of water with some scattered landmasses. The population was still relatively primitive, although they had good satellites. Lizbeth and her crew would need to be careful when they approached not to be seen.
The native people, who looked remarkably like Platans, the species that both she and Acton belonged to, called their planet Earth. She’d have to remember that when she went down into place to rescue him.
Of course, two questions remained: who had kidnapped Acton and why had they placed him on that primitive world? Earthlings hadn’t even started real space travel yet. It was a sure fact that they hadn’t kidnapped him. But someone had and she still had no idea who that someone was.
She huffed away her questions. First, she needed to convince Troy, the acting captain, that Acton was still important enough to risk deportation and death to save. She knew better than anyone that Troy rarely broke any rules and he hadn’t liked Acton to boot.
Approaching the door to Troy’s quarters, she waited to be let in. When nothing happened, she looked up at the lights above the door. They blinked blue and white. He had his privacy monitor on. She looked down at her timepiece. It was sleeping time or socialization hour, distinctions that hadn’t been so completely enforced when Acton was in charge, so there was nothing Troy should have been doing that would warrant a locked door.
Lizbeth pushed the button and lingered to hear Troy’s nasal intonations instructing her to come in or go away. If it was the latter, he was in for a rude awakening. She wasn’t going anywhere but in there to demand he turn the ship around.
“Come in Agent Suwanee.”
Troy insisted on calling her by her designation. Agent Suwanee. As if she were no more than the location she’d boarded from fifty years ago. She could hardly remember the place. If it had been up to her, she would forget Suwanee all together. But she would always be the agent who’d boarded there and some people, some unfortunate sticklers for outdated rules, would always think of her that way.
“Thank you, Captain.” The word still stuck in her throat. He wasn’t the Instigator’s captain. He hadn’t even been the first in command beneath the captain. Acton had kept him relegated to the engineering of the ship, a place where he still belonged in her opinion. Brilliant with technology, awful with people. But his brother had recently been elected president of the empire, which meant Troy became captain of the Instigator.
“What can I do for you?”
Lizbeth studied Troy. He was repulsive to look at for too long. The man spent next to no time in the sunshine simulator and his skin tone almost matched the green paint on the walls in the infirmary. There was no way he processed enough Vitamin D for his body’s basic needs. He slumped over slightly, his hand resting lightly on the arm of the dog fur chair.
His quarters had always bothered her. They were so dull, so lifeless, as if the person who lived in them had no interests, no personality. In her own residence, her walls were full of pictures of places she’d been and things she was interested in learning about. There was a particularly beautiful shot of Acton and her on top of a mountain in the Fire System looking down as the hot molten lava from beneath had started to fume. Acton had a big grin on his face. The man had always loved danger.
But Troy’s walls were completely blank. In fact they were still the white color that had been on them when Instigator had come out of the factory fifty years ago. He’d been on the ship for five generations, why couldn’t he at least alter the shade?
Lizbeth cleared her throat. “I’ve found Captain Acton. We need to turn around to retrieve him.”
Raising the arm that had dangled at his side, Troy drummed his fingers on the dark wooden desk in front of him. “Agent Suwanee, as I have repeatedly told you, Captain Acton of the Iberion realm is dead. By constantly bringing him up, you are dragging this ship and all of the people on it through an endless amount of emotional torture.”
“I’m dragging the ship through emotional torture? I wasn’t aware inanimate objects possessed feelings you could hurt.” Lizbeth wished she could rip out his red eyes and feed them to galactic eagles for breakfast.
Troy exhaled a long breath and Lizbeth hoped she hadn’t overdone it. She needed to make her case, not let him bait her. He stood three inches shorter than her with a hump on his right shoulder. She tried not to take a deep breath when he moved closer. “I am trying to be patient with you because the crew loves you and you are good at your job. But please don’t think I won’t put you out an airlock. I will.”
Lizbeth took a deep breath. “I have found his signal, his personal heartbeat signal. It is clear and it is real.” She debated going through the whole explanation of how she had altered the machine to find him but decided against it. He’d probably consider it a misuse of her time and energy and refuse to get Acton out of principle.
Smiling, Troy showed his yellowing teeth. If it were anyone else she would recommend a trip to the dental facilities for a checkup but for Troy she felt content letting his teeth rot.
“And where would these indictors be found that we have missed them for all of this time?”
He spoke to her like she was a child who needed to be humored. His tilted his head to the left slightly and lowered his voice. She wanted to kick him. Hard.
“In the Hydro system. Planet designated Earth.”
Was it her imagination or did Troy blanch for just a moment? Was it possible what she said made him nervous or was he just getting paler by the moment thanks to his bad health and refusal to take care of himself?
He shook his head. “We’re not going to the Hydro system. It’s forbidden. None of the planets there are ready for contact yet.”
“I don’t want to contact the planet. I want to retrieve our person from the planet. A person, I might add, who your brother needs if we are going to successfully sign three treaties and save our collective butts from dying of thirst.”
Lizbeth could see Troy’s eyes moving back and forth in their sockets. He was so predictable. She knew exactly what he was going to say next.
“It would be quite the coup, wouldn’t it? We rescue Acton, he saves the day with the treaties…” Troy’s voice wondered off as he continued to muse in his own head.
Nodding, she decided she needed to handle this very delicately. “That’s right. It would be a huge feat and you would get all the credit. Forget being captain of the Instigator. There would be bigger and better things for you. I’m thinking they would move you up to headquarters and put you in charge of one quarter of the fleet.”
She really hoped they didn’t. It would be a disaster and sooner or later his brother was bound to be voted out of office. Someone would have to get the idea that he was incompetent. Not to mention it would get him out of her hair for a while. Yes, the idea of his promotion sat well in Lizbeth’s mind.
“But how would we get in and out of Hydro undetected?” His eyes bored into hers and for a moment she shivered. There were depths to Troy she never wanted to understand.
She swallowed her fear. “Leave that to me, sir.”
Having been dismissed she turned around and walked out keeping her head down. What had she seen in Troy’s eyes that had made her so uncomfortable? She decided not to dwell on it. The important thing was that she would be getting Acton back. He would fix everything.
Leaving Troy’s quarters, Lizbeth practically sprinted down the hall toward the command operations room, or the deck as Acton used to call it. The air smelled stale as she walked through the door, another thing she could blame Troy for. He just didn’t see the ‘need’ to refresh the filters in the air system on the Instigator. It didn’t ‘bother’ him.
She could almost guarantee it would be among the first things Acton changed back.
The boys on deck, a terrible nickname they had picked up somewhere along the way, looked up from their seats at her arrival. ‘The boys’ wasn’t really a fair description as the people who worked on the deck—most of them rotating in and out with sleep shifts—consisted of five men, three women, and an androgynous member of the Septor race who had yet to determine his own sex. But the name had stuck from some terrible drunk night probably hosted in Acton’s quarters after he had outmaneuvered or outgunned a ship attacking them.
The memory filled Lizbeth with warmth and given the circumstances, she let herself grin.
“There’s a smile we haven’t seen in a while.”
Emo had to be one her favorite people on the ship. They’d been recruited for the Instigator at the same time and she could say we pride had each been promoted to their respective positions of authority at a rapid rate.
“I found him.” All of the joy she’d held back in anticipation of her meeting with Troy flowed out her on a wave of excitement.
“Acton?” She was thrilled he knew who she meant. Emo stood from his seat. “Where is he?”
“Now there is the problem.”
She crossed quickly to Emo. He would be the one who needed to input the coordinates into the computer and make sure they weren’t spotted by any primitive satellites. Once, in an attempt to bring water to a group of dying planets, Acton had accidently crashed the ship thus alerting a pre-space travel society of the existence of intergalactic travel. This couldn’t happen again with this rescue mission.
“Let me guess, we have to fly through a black hole.” Coming up behind her, Tilla, Emo’s wife, placed a hand on Lizbeth’s shoulder.
“No.” She exhaled a breath. “Best to just say it, I suppose. We are going to the Hydro system to a planet referred to locally as Earth.”
Emo placed his head in his hands. “Only for Acton would I attempt this. It’s going to be a planning disaster.”
“I know you can do it.”
Tilla and Emo both snorted. Lizbeth raised her eyebrow. “What?”
“That’s what you say…and what Acton says, I might add, whenever he wants us to handle something but doesn’t want the details of how we’re going to handle it.”
Lizbeth considered this for a moment before she cracked up. “You’re absolutely right.” For the last few years Acton and Lizbeth had become so ensconced in each other’s lives—everything but lovers—they had started picking up each other’s phraseology. For the life of her, she had no idea if she had started saying that particular expression first or he had.
“I’ll do it, I’ll get us there and back again but you have to promise me something,” Emo said.
Lizbeth sighed. She knew he would come through. “I’m not the captain, you know. Do you want promises from Troy?”
The look Emo sent her said he’d rather take assurances from a corpse. She snickered. “All right, what can I do?”
“When he gets back, tell him. This time you tell him that you love him.”
She didn’t bother to ask how he knew her feelings. It seemed that everyone knew except her and she’d been too dense to catch on to her own love interest before it was too late. “I will. This time I won’t let a minute pass without letting him know.”
* * * *
Charles Roswell ran as fast as his legs would allow him to go. His daily run was the favorite part of his day. He never got tired of feeling the sun on his skin—even in the rain and snow he could feel it beat down on him through the clouds. It warmed him and made him feel alive.
He puffed out a breath and tried not to think at all about how much his feet hurt. He was going to have to complain—again. It seemed to always fall to him. But if none of his neighbors were going to pick up the slack, so be it. He would not let the Riverwalk sink into the Hudson River. The view of New York City was pivotal for housing prices and commercial business in the small town of Edgewater. If they didn’t keep up the Walk no one would come to shop there and they would become just another commuter town to Manhattan. Picking up the bottom half of his shirt he wiped a large dab of sweat from his forehead.
The bricks were literally disappearing under water one by one. The contractor had done shoddy work and now they were going to have sue to get it fixed. He would have to rally the condo board to get behind that idea soon.
A lawsuit wouldn’t come cheap which would mean their condo dues would go up. No one was going to like that and he couldn’t blame them. He wasn’t in love with the lawsuit idea either but that was the problem with the state of their society, nothing got done unless you forced someone to do it. Sometimes when he was alone at night, he’d imagine there was a better way to live. Some place where people from other nations and places would all come together to work toward a common purpose. Obviously, he had gotten lost reading some sort of 1960’s propaganda but he still couldn’t get it out of his mind.
He sighed and pushed himself harder. The cool mist on his face rapidly turned into small raindrops, not surprising for March in Edgewater, New Jersey but he still didn’t like it. He would swear he’d been born to live in warmer climates. But that was impossible. His family had been in the Northeast of the United States since they’d arrived on the Mayflower. As his father had liked to say, they were cool weather people and he should suck it up.
He looked at the group of runners who passed him in the opposite direction. Two men who were maybe in their mid-fifties and a woman who appeared about forty years old. She was probably older. Plastic surgery did wondrous things to disguise age. They nodded at him and he did the same. Hell, with that much contact they were practically old friends, passing each other on their morning runs every day of the week even in bad weather. But he’d never meet them. They’d forever be the running trio and if someday they disappeared he’d always wonder what happened to them and he’d never find out.
The watch on his wrist beeped twice reminding him that he needed to cut his run short. Today, he had three clients coming into his office before noon and he required at least half an hour to prepare to meet with all of them. A touch to his watch stopped the beeping as his legs pumped.
The button stuck and he fooled around with it then slammed into the brown haired beauty that stepped out into his path.
“Arg.” She said something he couldn’t make out. He reached out with his arms to stop her descent toward the bricked ground but wasn’t fast enough. Whoever she was, he’d just knocked her into the ground beneath them.
He knelt down to grab her. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going. Are you okay?”
She made a noise that was something between a parrot’s squawk and a grunt. In any case, he was sure she hadn’t spoken English. Great, he’d run into a brown haired, blue eyed goddess who probably wouldn’t understand anything he said to her in English but was bound to know the words lawsuit and liability.
She placed a hand on her head and shook it slightly before looking up to grin at him. “Acton.” Her smile was flawless. He wondered how much she had spent on dental work to look that good and he was glad he hadn’t knocked out any of the veneers. He’d have to get the name of her dentist; some of his clients would want to know.
He held out a hand to help her up. “I’m sorry I ran into you. Are you hurt?”
“Acton.” There was that word again. What the hell was she trying to say?
“Well if you’re okay…then I’ll just be going.” He shook his head. Except he knew he wouldn’t be. He’d never leave a woman who might have a potential concussion on her own after injuring her. Especially one that couldn’t speak English. What if she was lost?
A strange sensation filled his mind and he blinked his eyes twice to clear the feeling. He’d never been lost and confused on these paths. He’d grown up in this area for goodness sake.
The brown haired stranger shook his arm, hard. He furrowed his brow and stared at her. What did she want from him?
He shook his head. “What is an Acton? I don’t speak your language. Parlez-vous Francais?”
He didn’t speak French that well either but he could communicate a little bit in the Romanesque language. Enough that he could find out if she needed to go to the hospital.
She looked at him, her right eyebrow raised slightly as if she considered him for a moment, not sure what she wanted to say next. She glanced up at the sky for a moment and shook her head.
“Hmmm.” He knew that noise, and he was sure it was the same in every language. It was female displeasure. He had done something to irritate this woman and he had a feeling it had nothing to do with their earlier collision.
She said something else he couldn’t understand and looked down at her watch. He observed, as she seemed to be fooling around with the dials. Her smile when she made eye contact with him again caused his heart stop beating for a moment. What was it about the small woman staring up at him that made him think of otherworldly things?
He realized he had puffed out his chest like a turkey trying to attract a mate and he quickly took a deep breath and tried harder to act cool. He didn’t date very often and when he did they were usually women that he was set up with by a colleague or a friend. He wasn’t sure what the protocol was for asking out women who didn’t speak his language that he just happened to have knocked down on the ground.
A blue light surrounded his body and he reached out to see if he could touch it. His heart pounded. What the hell was happening to him?
“What have you done? What is this?” He shouted and sounded insane but he really didn’t care. This was nuts. Was this an out-of-body experience? His every cell seemed to vanish and he had the sensation of floating. He thought he heard her utter that strange word again. Acton. He still had no idea what that meant.
In front of his eyes, he watched his hand start to disappear. How was the possible? His torso went next followed by his legs. A black void surrounded him and he wasn’t sure if he’d live to see another day.
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