Burning Bridges - Chapter 1

28 September 2142

Kalis sneered at the dish of chicken and rice that Dr. Edward Sergas had left on her bedside tray. It had gone cold hours ago, but the doctor seemed to hope she'd change her mind and eat eventually.

"Eddie tells me you're not eating." Alex walked into the sickbay and took a seat on the side of Kalis' bed near the door. "But I'm a hopeless optimist, so I thought I'd ask if you wanted to grab something at the officers' mess. It's still starship food, but the chef knows his way around the spice rack, and he makes a mean chili."

"Not really hungry," Kalis said.

"That's okay," Alex said with a shrug. "The doctor says you're well enough to leave sickbay, and the fresh air — or what passes for it on a starship — might do you some good. Plus there's a better view from the officers' mess."

"View here's just fine, really."

"I understand." Alex walked to the bed and took a seat beside it. "When were you going to tell me you're a lieutenant in the Terran Marines?"

"I'm not a line officer," Kalis said. "I graduated from the Terran Naval Academy and went straight into postgraduate school."

"Where you got your nanobiology doctorate in three years," Alex said. "You're probably the smartest person on this ship! But I didn't stop by to sing your praises. I stopped by because I want to see if I can get you to eat something."

"Commander, with all due —"

"Whoa, hold on," Alex said. "You're not in my chain of command, and sharp as you are, you'll probably outrank me a year from now, anyway. So call me Alex."

Kalis barked a laugh. "What class were you in?"

"I wasn't academy," Alex said. "I went through FCOT — field commissioned officer training. It was either that or retire as a chief, and I wasn't ready to get out."

"How long have you been in?" Kalis asked.

"I'll tell you over dinner," Alex said with a sly smile.

"Cheater. Fine," Kalis said. "Better get a wheelchair, though. I don't think this leg will be better for a few days. And I'll need something to wear."

"No problem," Alex said. "I'll grab Eddie and see what we can dig up."

Kalis stabbed a cherry tomato in her salad as Alex finished his bowl of chili. "You were part of the Kentauran first contact mission?" she asked. "I've heard so much about the Kentaurans, but I've never met one."

"Picture a lizard standing two and a half meters tall and weighing about 150 kilos," Alex said. "When you first meet one, your fight-or-flight instincts go haywire. But once we learned more about them, we realized they evolved as prey animals, so you can imagine what the predators on their planet look like."

Kalis finished her salad and chased it down with the rest of her water. "Alex," she said after a moment, "what happened to the outpost?"

"Are you sure you want to talk about it?" Alex asked.

Kalis and John had found a quiet spot on the beach in Palisades Park to watch the sun set. Palm trees caught the salt-scented seabreeze and rustled behind them. 

"John, you can come with me or not. But either way, I'm going," Kalis said, talking over a flock of seagulls that had found food about 20 meters from the couple.

"Oh, that's all fine and well for you, Lieutenant," John snapped. "You get to go gallivanting around the goddamn galaxy, but what about my career? What do you expect me to do out there? Is there a production studio within five light-years of ... whatever that system is?"

"The Ross 154 outpost," Kalis said. "It used to be a waypoint between Earth and the New Earth colony in Altair, but now it's mainly a research station. It's not the kind of assignment someone asks for, John, so don't act like I had a choice in the matter. But you do have a choice. Stay here and pursue your acting career — who knows, maybe you'll make it big — or come with me."

"And do what?" John asked. "Die of boredom?"

"Maybe you could grow up while you're out there." Kalis felt tears welling in her eyes and turned away from him. 

She felt his arms around her a moment later. "I'm sorry, Kalis. I love you. I'll ..."

She turned around and leaned her head on his shoulder. "No, John. Don't tell me you'll go unless you want to go. I don't want you stuck light-years away from everything and everyone you've ever known unless you're positive that's what you want." She looked up at him and saw tears in his eyes as well.

"Kalis, all I've ever wanted since I met you was to spend my life with you." He smiled. "I have to admit, I didn't know what I was getting myself into at the time. But I'll find something out there — and maybe I will grow up. It could be good for me."

"Oh, dammit, I didn't mean — I'm sorry, love. I —"

"Hush," John said and kissed her. 

Kalis sighed, melted into the kiss. "Well, when you put it that way ..." she said and kissed him again.

"Not talking about it won't bring John back," Kalis said. "So yes, I'm ready to talk about it."

"Glad to hear it," Alex said. "We brought some other survivors aboard a few days ago, and we've had search and recovery teams scouring the outpost since then. I'll get you an invitation to the captain's briefing at 0900 tomorrow. In the meantime, let's get you moved out of sickbay and into some temporary quarters." He took their plates over to the kitchen area, then motioned for Kalis to follow him. He led her through the ship's corridors for about a minute before opening the door to a a room with a single bed, plain walls, and a small bathroom with a toilet, a sink, and a stand-up shower.

"Spartan. Suits me fine, though," Kalis said. "I don't exactly have a lot of belongings to try and fit in here."

"I know," Alex said. "Eddie's taking up a collection from the crew to get you some clothes, and if there's anything else you need, there's a communications panel on the wall next to the bed."

"Thank you," Kalis said. "I ... don't really feel like I deserve the kindness, but thank you."

"Of course," Alex said. "I do need to ask you, though: Are you going to be okay by yourself? You're not thinking of hurting yourself?"

Kalis blinked. I should have been dead days ago, she thought. And quick is too good. "I'll be fine," she said. "Thank you."

"If that changes, use the comm panel and call me. Promise me that."

"I promise," Kalis said.

"Okay," Alex said. "I know you've had plenty of rest the last few days, but try to get a bit more. I'll come get you in the morning." He left the room, closing the door behind him.

Kalis maneuvered herself out of the wheelchair onto the bed and cried herself to sleep.

She woke to a knock at her door and looked at the clock beside her bed. It was a few minutes after seven.

"Just a minute," she said, pulling herself out of bed. She tried putting some weight on her legs — the right one could carry her, but the left one ached where she had fractured it. With a sigh, she dragged herself into her wheelchair and wheeled toward the door. Alex said the meeting wasn't until 9. What's he doing here this early?

She opened the door, but the person on the other side wasn't Alex. For starters, it was a woman. She looked to stand a few centimeters shorter than Kalis, and her blonde hair was tied back into a regulation hairbun. She held a box about half a meter square in her manicured hands. "Morning, ma'am," she said. "I hope I didn't wake you up?"

"You did, but it's all right," Kalis said. "What can I do for you, miss ...?"

"Masterson," the other woman introduced herself. "Ensign Kim Masterson. I'm sorry to bother you, but me and the women on the third shift bridge crew had some clothes and makeup we wanted to give you. The clothes are secondhand, but the makeup's all new, courtesy of the quartermaster. Would you like me to bring it in?"

Kalis' eyes were out of tears from the night before, or she might have started crying again just from the young woman's simple act of kindness. "Yes, please," she said. "And thank you. I'm sure I look like a mess."

"Not at all, ma'am," Ensign Masterson said. She walked in and set down the box, folding clothes and putting them away in a small dresser opposite Kalis' bedside table. "I'm just sorry we couldn't meet under better circumstances. I can't imagine how hard this must be for you right now."

Kalis offered a weak smile. "Here, let me help put some of that stuff away. I feel awkward just sitting here." She pulled out a maroon shirt, folded it, set it on the bed, and reached in again, while Kim took containers with eyeshadow and foundation and set them on the bathroom counter. They spent the next few minutes unpacking the gifts.

"Thank you again," Kalis said when they were done.

"You're welcome," Masterson said. "I need to grab dinner and then a shower, but I'll be up for a few more hours. My quarters are on Deck 4, Charlie Section, if you feel like stopping by."

"I need to get ready for this meeting Alex invited me to," Kalis said. "Two hours might be just enough time to make myself not look like death warmed over. And then hopefully I can trade in this wheelchair for some crutches and start moving around before I go stir-crazy."

"I'll leave you to it. Good day, ma'am." Kim left, and Kalis started looking for a foundation among the donations that matched her skin tone.

Kalis spent the next hour and a half putting herself together, physically and mentally, so that she was ready to go when Alex knocked at the door.

"You're looking better," Alex said once they started for the briefing room.

"The miracle of makeup," Kalis said. "But I'm hoping whatever your people have found will give my mind something else to focus on for a little while."

"There are a few other survivors, including one who was on the outpost's command center when everything hit the fan," Alex said. "Hopefully she can give us some answers."

They entered the briefing room, which was as sparse as the rest of the ship. The walls were flat white, with no decorations except for a digital clock on the wall near the head of the table. The table itself was glass, with metal legs bolted into the floor and a holodisplay mounted in the center. Officers had already taken most of the seats at the table, but Alex pulled one chair away and motioned for Kalis to pull up.

Once she was settled, he took a seat near the back of the room, looked toward the entrance to the briefing room, and called, "Captain on deck!" Everyone stood, including Kalis, though she favored her right leg as she did.

A second later, a baritone voice just inside the door said, "As you were." Kalis settled back into her wheelchair and turned to get a look at the Galahad's commander — and barely concealed her double take. His face was feline-shaped and angular. His skin was coal-black, and his electric blue eyes had slits for pupils. He's Altered, Kalis thought. With his own command! 

His appearance came as a shock to at least one other person as well. A woman dressed in a plain, light gray shirt nearly jumped out of her chair at the sight of the man. Kalis assumed that the other survivor Alex had mentioned.

But if the captain noticed, he didn't betray any reaction of his own as he took a seat at the head of the table.

"Lieutenant Vilneaux, Doctor Reed, thank you for joining us this morning," he said. "I'm Loren Darien. Lieutenant, Alex told me about your loss. I'm very sorry."

Kalis nodded and gave a faint smile in thanks as Captain Darien continued. "Doctor Reed, you told our security chief you were on the outpost's bridge when the Birds attacked. Can you tell us what happened?"

The doctor didn't meet his gaze. "I've already shared all of this information with your security chief," she said. "Certainly you have a recording and don't need me to repeat everything I said there?"

"I'm not asking you to repeat everything you gave my security chief," Darien said. "I'm asking you to summarize." Kalis couldn't read his face, but she could tell the conversation — even his presence — was making Reed uncomfortable.

After several seconds of silence, she relented. "Yes, sir, but first I must ask anyone without infrared-level security clearance to leave the room," she said, glancing toward Kalis.

"What clearance do you have, lieutenant?" Darien asked.

"Top secret, red level," Kalis said.

"I'm clearing you to stay for this briefing. Alex will have you sign the requisite nondisclosure forms once we're adjourned. Now, doctor, please continue."

Kalis suppressed a smirk. Twice Reed had tried to set the ground rules in the commander's briefing, and twice now he'd rebuffed her. How far was she going to push him?

"As I mentioned in the debriefing, I'm the chief scientist for the Riptide project," Reed said, and Kalis figured she was done pushing. "It is a weapon system capable of destabilizing trans-dimensional space out to 5 million kilometers. We were in the early stages of testing and had hoped to refine the weapon to destabilize the exotic matter that the Birds use in their trans-dimensional drives."

One of the officers at the table whistled in awe. Alex raised a hand and asked, "Do we know whether the Birds' trans-D drives use a different form of exotic matter than ours?"

"That's one of the things we had hoped to research," Reed said. "We never got the chance. A few days ago, the Birds appeared in system, practically on top of us. Captain Aurelius ordered us to activate the Riptide device, even though it was untested for combat. It didn't have any effect. The Birds made short work of our defense emplacements, and then ... they pulverized the entire outpost."

"Thank you, Doctor Reed," Darien said. "I do need to know: who was funding your research?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Who funded the Riptide project?" Darien cocked his head and stared at the doctor.

"I couldn't say," Reed said. "I wasn't really down in the weeds enough to know the ins and outs of our funding."

"Okay," Darien said. "Does anyone else in the room have any questions for Doctor Reed?" He surveyed the room and, after seeing no raised hands, continued. "Doctor, you're dismissed. I'd like you to remain in your quarters in case my chief has any follow-up questions for you."

"Very well," Reed said. She glanced at Kalis again, then at the commander, before leaving the briefing room. Alex sat down in her seat as the door closed behind her.

Darien looked around the table again. "Thoughts?"

"She's lying," Kalis blurted out, immediately regretting it as every officer at the table turned to look at her.

"Why do you say that, lieutenant?" Darien asked, tilting his head. His catlike gaze made her feel like a mouse, but she powered through her discomfort.

"She said she was the chief scientist for her project, but there's no way a chief scientist doesn't know who's paying for their research," Kalis said. "If the funding was classified beyond her clearance level, she would have said so."

"You're sure?"

"Yes, sir," she said. "The research team I was on had a $4 million annual budget from the Health Research Authority, and everyone knew it. And every single one of my instructors in postgrad knew who was funding their research, too. It's just smart to know who's paying your bills, and you don't get to work in trans-dimensional physics without being smart."

"Why would someone even lie about that?" a young man at the table asked.

"Because she thinks she's smarter than everyone else in the room," Alex said. A couple of the other officers smothered their laughs at the blunt remark.

"Can you recall your version of events for us, lieutenant?" Darien asked. Alex frowned but didn't say anything.

Kalis recalled running toward the shelter with John when the klaxon sounded, how the attack knocked them both off their feet. "He reached back to pick me up, and ..." her voice faltered.

"It's all right," Alex said. "You don't need to continue if you don't want to."

"A plasma conduit blew," she said, fighting back tears. "One second he was there. The next second, he was gone, like he never existed. That's when the gravity failed and the passageway collapsed."

No one said anything for several seconds, until Captain Darien spoke. "It took a lot of strength to relive that. I know Alex has probably said this, but let him know if you need anything at all while you're aboard."

"Thank you, sir," she said. "I will." 

Darien tossed his first officer a glance, then addressed the room. "That's it, ladies and gentlemen. The Birds could be back at any time, so I want Condition II throughout the ship. Dismissed."

Everyone stood but Kalis, who started to before Darien interrupted her. "At ease, lieutenant," he said. Alex held the door as she wheeled out, closing it after the other officers left the briefing room.

"Our crews have almost made it to the command center," Alex said. "We'll have the outpost's data recorder in another couple of days, provided the Birds leave us alone long enough."

"Good," Darien said. "I want to see what else she lied to us about."


"I know why she lied about her research funding: trans-dimensional weapon development is illegal under the Geneva Convention of 2122. And I knew Justin Aurelius. He would have known better than to fire a weapon like that with the Birds nearby; it would have given away the outpost's position."

"You think she's responsible for firing that weapon?" Alex asked.

"And the outpost's destruction? That's exactly what I think," Darien said, his eyes narrowed to slits. "I want that data recorder in the next 18 hours, Alex. Make it happen."