The five families that made up the Delta team were nervous as they boarded their space shuttle in 2176. Their mission had seemed honorable when they joined the Council for a Better Life, but now that it was their turn to leave Earth, they were starting to have second thoughts—while the Alpha and Beta teams had traveled successfully beyond the outer limits of the solar system, no communication had been received from either team since, and the Charlie team had had a fatal meeting with an asteroid while still inside the sun’s orbital field. The Delta Mission was the Council’s fourth attempt to search for a new planet that could sustain human life.
After seventeen years of travel, the Delta team landed on a new planet, Neophia, that had an atmosphere nearly identical to Earth’s. The members of the Delta team were shocked to find that the native intelligent species mirrored them in appearance. Had they found the descendants of one of the earliest deep space missions that had left Earth in the late 2040s? For years, they looked for some evidence of a shuttle from Earth that would prove their common ancestry, but they found nothing. It was as if their God had merely given up on Earth and decided to start over on Neophia.
While their external appearances were almost identical, the Neophians possessed unique genetic traits that separated them from the Humans: among their native races, the Aquineins were capable of drawing oxygen out of liquids and could stay submerged for hours at a time, and the Sertex could—with immense concentration—blend into their surroundings, allowing them to move among the forests of Neophia unseen. The Aquineins and Sertex lived in small communities, and interaction between them was minimal, with each race preferring the ecosystem that best fit their skills.
Because of their long tradition of living in isolation, the Sertex did not acknowledge the presence of the newcomers to their planet. Shielded from sight, they simply observed the Humans to access any threat they might pose. The Aquineins, being much more curious in nature, welcomed the Humans into their communities, and it wasn’t long before basic communication was established between them. As the Humans became fully assimilated into the Aquinein culture, intimate relationships began to develop between the two species. The first child of two planets was born three years after the Delta team arrived on Neophia.
Over the next ten years, the Humans taught the Aquineins everything they could about the technology that had brought them to Neophia. Given that the Aquineins had no advanced technology of their own, the Humans were shocked by how quickly they were able to understand and improve upon what the Humans showed them. Working together, they were able to engineer a portal that would provide direct passage between Earth and Neophia.
It wasn’t long before new shuttles started to arrive from Earth, bringing with them plants, animals, and new technology to replace what the Human settlers had left behind on Earth.
The Human population on Neophia grew rapidly. The Sertex began to fear that Humans would soon outnumber the native Neophians and deplete the planet’s natural resources.
The Sertex leaders reached out to the Aquinein leaders and pleaded with them to shut down the portal. Unwilling to cut off ties completely with Earth, the Aquineins suggested a compromise: together with the Sertex, they would create a set of citizenship laws that would greatly restrict the arrival of new Humans to the planet while allowing those who were ingrained into the Aquinein culture to remain. It was the first time the two races had worked together.
The air under the subfighter tasted stale. Crystal had spent the better part of an hour lying under the machine, trying to figure out why the sub’s thrusters kept shorting out at 68 percent of their maximum capacity. Her eyes stung as sweat rolled behind her safety glasses. She had had to contort her body into an awkward position so that she could reach the central wiring unit deep in the ship’s underside. It was complicated and time-consuming work and Crystal was loving every second of it.
When her plans for the state-of-the-art mega submarine Journey had been accepted by the Lands and Waters of Neophia Military Advancement Division and she was asked to oversee the build (while receiving a promotion), she had jumped at the opportunity. She hadn’t considered that she wouldn’t be able to do hands on work anymore. Or how much she would miss it.
The tips of Crystal’s fingers finally connected with the panel she needed to access. She grunted with satisfaction and leaned forward, weaving her other hand through the wiring to locate the release pins. She had just found them when she noticed someone standing outside of the subfighter not far from where her own feet were sticking out from under it. The shoes were far too clean and shiny to belong to anyone on her team.
“Lieutenant Commander Wolf,” the owner of the shiny shoes said in a slightly trembling voice.
“Yeah?” Crystal said as she carefully removed the first of four pins holding the thruster control panel in place. She was used to people being nervous when speaking to her for the first time, especially the lower-ranked crew. It was almost like they thought of her as some kind of celebrity. It had been happening to her for most of her life.
“I have a message from Admiral Craft,” Shiny Shoes said, this time without the tremble.
“I can clearly hear you so go ahead and deliver your message.” Crystal removed the second pin, and the right side of the panel came lose in her hand. She shifted her body to give her left arm a little more leverage.
“I can’t, ma’am, it’s a secured message. You are going to have to activate it.”
“All right, give me a minute.” The secured message didn’t concern her. These days, every message she got from headquarters had come with some unnecessary level of security. She imagined it gave the sender an elevated sense of self-importance.
Crystal removed the last two pins from the panel, freeing it. Slowly, she worked her arms out of the subfighter’s guts, then slid out from beneath the machine and got her first look at Shiny Shoes. He was young. If she had to guess, she would say he had only been in the service for a few months.
“Here,” Crystal said, holding the panel out to him. “Hold this for a second.” It wasn’t exactly an order, but Shiny Shoes was in no position to refuse.
Gingerly, he took the panel from her. Crystal hid a grin as the thick blue gel insulating the panel dripped and pooled into the palm of his hand.
She rose gracefully to her feet. Shiny Shoes held the panel out to her, but she didn’t take it, instead turning to the small portable workbench she had set up next to the subfighter. She wiped the gel off of her hands with the rag hanging from the edge of the bench before reaching for a clean plastic bag. She dropped the four pins into the bag, sealed, and labeled it.
Shiny Shoes maintained a respectful silence as she went through her procedure, but she could feel his eyes on her. She was sure she didn’t look like much of an authority figure at the moment: her white tank top clung to her body, sticky with a mixture of sweat and oil; her bare arms were coated in grease; and several small red lines had appeared on her forearms, scratches she must have gotten while searching for the panel.
Crystal slid her safety glass up onto her head to hold her shoulder-length brown hair out of her face, then used another rag to wipe the sweat from her eyes and face before she grabbed her uniform top off of the workbench.
Once she had finished buttoning her shirt, Crystal turned back to Shiny Shoes, holding open another clear bag. “In here, if you don’t mind,” she said with a smile.
He placed the panel in the bag. Crystal quickly sealed it and handed him a clean rag to wipe his hands with. “So, how about that message?”
“Yes, ma’am! Right away, ma’am.” He finished cleaning his hands before giving Crystal the small electronic tablet he was carrying.
Crystal spoke her full name and rank into the voice identifier at the top of the tablet, prompting the screen to spring to life. She read its message quickly.
You are to report to LAWON Headquarters at 13:45 for an emergency meeting regarding Operation Water Tiger. Be prepared to discuss status and schedule of the operation.
A sense of dread started mounting in Crystal. Operation Water Tiger was the code name for Journey. What emergency could there could be regarding Journey’s status and schedule? She had been sending weekly progress reports to Captain Reed and Admiral Craft since they had begun construction.
Crystal read through the message once more to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. Before handing the tablet back to Shiny Shoes, she pressed her thumb on the scanner to confirm receipt of the message and erase it.
“Do you have a message you would like me to return, ma’am?”
“Please inform the Admiral that I will proceed as requested.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Shiny Shoes turned and walked away.
Crystal leaned against the subfighter and watched him go. She had just over an hour to get to headquarters, which was enough time to either finish her work on the subfighter or get cleaned up. She decided to keep working, besides she was fairly certain she had a clean shirt in her office she could grab before she left the build site.
She returned to the workbench and started examining the panel she was holding. She saw the problem almost immediately. “Those cheap bastards,” she muttered under her breath.
“Who are we talking about this time?”
Crystal whipped around to find Chief Stiner standing behind her. Her second-in-command had a curious look on her face.
“When did you learn how to sneak up on people?” she asked.
“I must be spending too much time with you,” Stiner said with a smile.
“There’s a scary thought,” Crystal said with a smile of her own.
“Did you figure out the problem with the thruster?” Stiner motioned towards the panel on the workbench.
“Yeah, the idiots who built these used a cheap substandard filament here…and here,” she said, pointing at the offending wires. “The panel can’t tolerate the energy surge we need to get the thrusters to full power.” She sighed. “I would be shocked if this is the only time they used this crap. I knew we should have built them in-house.”
“How do you want us to fix it?”
“We’ll need to upgrade the filaments on this panel. I also want to do a scan of the whole ship and replace any other substandard wiring we find. We can’t have these ships shorting out during a fight. I won’t put our peoples’ lives at risk just to save a few cents on wires,” Crystal said, her frustration clear in her voice.
“On a lighter note,” Stiner said, obviously attempting to squelch Crystal’s anger, “a cute guy was looking for you earlier. Did he find you?”
“Seriously, Monica, he was a kid,” Crystal said, finally turning away from the workbench.
Stiner’s eyebrow went up. “I’m sure I can find someone more age-appropriate for you…that is, if you want me to.”
Crystal rolled her eyes. “Like I have time to go on a date.”
“You would if you ever took any time off.”
“I can’t afford to take any time off,” Crystal said with a sigh. “I can’t even afford to have this argument with you. I have to finish my notes on the subfighter repair and then report to headquarters for a meeting.”
“Is it another special ops mission?”
“No, I asked to be removed from the normal combat rotation once construction began on Journey. I’m sure it’s nothing.” Despite her words, Crystal couldn’t keep the worry out of her voice. She was sure Stiner was picking up on it.
“Well, I’m sure whatever it is, you can handle it.”
“Yeah, thanks. Listen,” Crystal said, turning the conversation back to the subfighter, “I’ll have my repair notes finished in a few minutes. Can you have someone work on these four units? I want them done by the end of the day.”
“No problem. Have fun with the higher-ups.” Stiner gave her a friendly nod and then headed towards the shiphands working on the other side of the bay.
Crystal arrived at LAWON headquarters exactly seven minutes before her meeting was scheduled to start, leaving her motorcycle helmet with the receptionist before heading to the military wing. After a quick retinal scan, she was granted access to proceed through the smoky-steel doors and into the main hallway. The conference room was at the end of a long corridor, she remembered, and was lined with offices occupied by some of LAWON’s highest-ranking officials. Crystal walked confidently through the building, ignoring the globs of insulating gel she could feel hardening in her hair.
When she opened the door, Crystal saw Commander Dewite already sitting at the conference table. “This must be bad news if they pulled you into this emergency meeting, too,” she said.
Dewite’s expression went from stoic to grinning. “What happened to you?” He asked, trying and failing to contain his amusement. His dark skin and bright smile were reflected in the glossy conference table as his laugh echoed through the bare room.
“It’s not really that bad.” Crystal strode to the back of the room and grabbed the metal pitcher of water, holding it up to see her own reflection. Her hair was pasted to her head with gel, and her forehead was smeared with dirt and oil. She ran her fingers through her hair in an attempt to break up some of the dried clumps and used a dampened napkin to try to rub some of the grime off of her face. Unfortunately, although the fabric felt refreshingly cool against her skin, all she really managed to do was smear the dirt around more evenly. Her mirrored lips pursed in an involuntary sigh.
“That’s about as good as it’s going to get,” she said aloud, “especially when they call a meeting on such short notice.” She set down the pitcher and took a seat next to Dewite.
“They gave you an hour-and-a-half,” he pointed out, still chuckling at her appearance.
“If they expect me to show up without oil in my hair, they need to give me a few days of warning, and even then, it’s questionable.”
“Your life must be so hard,” Dewite teased.
“Finally, someone understands,” Crystal said with an exaggerated wave of her hands. “And how about you? Life behind a desk seems to be agreeing with you.”
Now Dewite was the one who sounded frustrated. “Don’t get me started. If I have one more conference call to discuss the merits of plate A over plate B, I might actually lose it.”
“Aren’t you glad you took the position of Journey’s XO instead of captaining your own ship for the past four months?” she said with a wry grin.
“Don’t remind me,” Dewite said.
She had liked Dewite the moment she met him. They hadn’t worked together prior to him accepting the position of Journey’s Executive Officer, but she had been aware of his reputation, namely that he was on the fast track—every rumor she had heard said he would make Admiral within the next five years. Accepting the position on Journey had derailed all of that, though. Everyone had been shocked that he had chosen to make a lateral move instead of taking one of the several promotions that had been offered to him. But within five minutes of first meeting him, Crystal had known why—he didn’t care about rising to the top as fast as he could. All he wanted to do was serve where he could do the most good, and that place was Journey.
Crystal had been thrilled when Dewite accepted the XO position. She knew there was a lot she could learn from him. Besides, while she had been leading a combat team for the last few years, that was nothing compared to being third-in-command of a major vessel like the Journey. With Reed and Dewite’s guidance, there was a good chance she wouldn’t make a complete fool of herself.
She nodded, still half-smiling. “Do you have any idea what this meeting is about? The message I got was pretty vague, even for Craft.”
“No idea.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I of course assumed that you had blown your budget and were behind schedule already.”
“If you had bothered to read the progress updates I’ve been sending, you’d know we are a few weeks ahead of schedule.” Crystal tried not to sound too proud of herself, but she couldn’t help emphasizing ahead. This was the first build project she had managed. Some people expected her to fail, she knew, but she refused to let that happen. The fact that she was a third of the way through construction and hadn’t had any major issues was proof of her determination.
“That’s what I like to hear!” Admiral Craft said as he entered the conference room with Captain Reed. Crystal and Dewite rose to their feet and stood at attention. “As you were.” Craft waved them back down into their seats.
Crystal tried to decipher the expression on Reed’s face as he took a seat across from her. He gave her a warm smile, but she could see the concern in his soft brown eyes. Crystal and Reed had known each other for years, ever since Reed had been one of her teachers at the Academy and had pushed for her to be allowed to take an accelerated program. He was the captain of the carrier she had been assigned to after graduation, and he was the one she had first approached with the concept drawings for Journey. Reed was also the one who had stood by her and pushed to get the project approved. He was one of the few constants she had in her life.
“Commander Wolf, how is the build going?” Craft asked once everyone was seated.
“Like I was telling Commander Dewite, we are about two weeks ahead of schedule,” she answered calmly, not letting her voice betray her anxiety. “Everything has been progressing smoothly.”
“LAWON’s Executive Board has been very impressed with the reports you have been sending,” Craft said. “That’s why I asked you all to come in today. The Board would like Commander Wolf to give a presentation about Journey at the annual Summit Meeting next month.”
Dewite gave Crystal a smile that she knew was genuine. “Congratulations!”
“Thank you. I would be happy to speak at the conference,” Crystal lied. The idea of speaking in front of a room full of politicians repulsed her, but she knew she didn’t really have a choice in the matter. She glanced across the table at Reed. His facial expression had not changed, which made her realize there was a catch to this request.
“Fantastic! The Board has also requested that tours of the ship be given during the conference.” Craft paused for a moment before continuing. “Journey is being ordered to report to the capital two days before the conference is scheduled to begin. I understand that this will push the completion date up nine months.”
Crystal quickly did the math. There was no way Craft was serious. “With all due respect, sir,” she said, “that’s impossible. The ship’s just a skeleton at this point. There’s no way I can have her completed in five weeks.”
“You’ll have all of LAWON’s resources at your disposal,” Craft offered. That did nothing to ease her concerns.
“I’m going to need every skilled tradesperson and craftsman in Kincaron,” she said immediately. “And a hell of a lot more money.” She could feel the panic beginning to set in.
“Sir, is it really that important to have the ship at the Summit Meeting?” Dewite asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to wait and show her off once the build team has a chance to properly finish construction?”
The smile faded from Craft’s lips as he shook his head. “It’s critical that LAWON has a strong showing at the Summit Meeting. Membership is dropping, and I don’t have to tell you that we’ve seen an increase in instability across the planet over the last several months. Journey can swing things back in our favor. The last thing we need is more nations joining forces with Teria.”
Crystal knew that Craft was right, within the last month alone, Teria had laid claim to three unaffiliated regions. LAWON had decided not to intervene, but Crystal suspected the regions had either fallen prey to President Rank’s charm or a show of force. Given the harsh laws of his country, it was unlikely they had joined him willingly. That meant it was only a matter of time before Rank went after a LAWON member nation, and once that started, Crystal feared the weaker members would fall like dominoes.
“There has to be another way to provide a sense of security to the planet without jeopardizing the integrity of Journey,” Dewite said.
Craft removed his glasses and gently squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Just focus on making the ship look nice,” Craft said firmly. “The politicians won’t know the difference.” He stood. “I’ll leave you three to work out the details.”
Crystal felt helpless as she watched him leave. “They can’t be serious,” she said, breaking the grim silence. She got to her feet and leaned against the back of her chair, feeling like she would jump out of her skin if she stayed seated a moment longer.
“I’m afraid they are,” Reed said. Crystal took it as a bad sign that he hadn’t spoken before now. It meant there was no hope of reversing the decision.
“You got to love politicians. They would do anything to increase their membership, even if it means putting their new ship at risk,” Dewite said, clearly frustrated.
“I tried to reason with them,” Reed said, “but the fact of the matter is that we have orders to get Journey to the capital in five weeks.” His voice was controlled, but Crystal could tell he wasn’t happy about the order, either. “And it’s up to us to figure out how to do it.”
Crystal felt everything she had been working for slipping away. “Journey’s appearance at this conference is going to be highly publicized,” she pointed out. “That’s going to put us at a lot of risk.”
“I agree,” Reed said.
“You think someone might try to stop Journey from reaching the Summit Meeting?” Dewite asked.
“I’m concerned that someone might try to put Journey out of commission altogether,” Crystal said, her hands involuntarily clenching on the chair. “If we aren’t prepared to confront them…” Her voice trailed off.
Dewite’s eyebrows shot up. “Who would be crazy enough to attack Journey on her maiden voyage? There’s no way they would be able to get away with it.”
“President Rank tops my list,” Crystal said, her voice tense. “Followed closely by any number of anti-LAWON terrorist groups. Think of the honor and glory of bringing down the flagship of LAWON’s peacekeeping mission. The hit to LAWON’s reputation would be enough motivation. There would be no coming back from that.”
“So we forget what Craft said and instead we make sure the ship is combat-ready,” Reed said. “I don’t give a damn if the politicians have to jump over holes in the floor or if we have temporary lighting hanging everywhere. I want sonar, weapons, propulsion, communications, and life support at 100 percent. Consider everything else a luxury.”
“I have to give her a hull first,” Crystal said.
“Can you have her in the water by the end of next week?” Reed asked.
“I’ll give it everything I’ve got.” At least Crystal knew that Reed was on her side.
“The rest of the crew should be arriving over the next few days,” Reed said, turning towards Dewite. “Focus your training on the bridge crew. I want them to function as if they have been working together for years. Send anyone not in training over to Wolf. I’m sure she can find something for them to do. And contact Dr. Emerson and have her give you a list of essential equipment she will need. Any questions?”
“No, sir,” Crystal and Dewite said in unison.
“Then let’s get to it,” Reed said as he stood and headed to the door. “We have a couple of long weeks ahead of us.”
Crystal returned to the build site with a heavy heart. The familiar buzzing and humming of tools was starting to taper off as the end of the day approached, and she knew that the team was already starting to think about going home and spending the evening with their families or going out with friends. She dreaded telling them that despite all of their hard work, now they would have to work even harder in order to meet LAWON’s ridiculous new deadline. Failure wasn’t an option. Considering what Craft had said, the peace and stability of the planet might depend on Journey being at the Summit Meeting. She wouldn’t let her failure be the trigger for another war.
She wasn’t surprised to find Stiner at her desk when she entered the office trailer the two of them shared. Crystal went over to her own desk, plopped down in the chair, and put her face in her hands.
“So how bad is it?” Stiner asked.
“Bad.” Crystal didn’t move her hands as she spoke.
“Are they shutting us down?”
“Worse.” Crystal finally looked at Stiner. Her face radiated kindness and concern. Stiner had been by Crystal’s side since the first day of construction, and her support and friendship gave Crystal the strength she needed to keep going each day.
Crystal tried not to let frustration creep into her voice. “I need you to gather everyone on the west lawn in the 20 minutes,” she said. “Get anyone who’s not here on a video call. I have an announcement to make.”
“Of course.” Stiner left the office without any further questions.
Crystal sat at her desk, trying to gather her thoughts. She wasn’t looking forward to addressing her team even though she knew no one would argue or complain. They would take the challenge in stride, but the thought of all those eyes on her shook her to the core. She should be more comfortable with public speaking given that she had spent most of her childhood in the spotlight. It wasn’t easy being the only child of two of the planet’s most celebrated war heroes. Every year on the anniversary of their death—and again on Peace Day—the media would be lining up for interviews. Her grandparents had obliged most years, dragging Crystal along for the show. They thought they were honoring their fallen son and his beloved wife. What they didn’t realize was that every one of those events had reopened the fissures in their granddaughter’s heart. It had become easier for Crystal to avoid the press once her grandparents had passed away.
She spent a few minutes trying to organize the mess that had overtaken her desk. Anything to distract herself for a few minutes. She couldn’t go up on that stage with memory of her parents still in her mind. She didn’t get up until she felt she had her emotions in check.
The hum of voices reverberated across Crystal’s skin as she approached the west lawn, but the sound died out almost instantly as she climbed the steps to the stage. Two hundred pairs of eyes looked back at her as she clutched the podium. Her mind instantly transported her back to the day the of her parent’s funeral, when she was asked to say goodbye to them in front of the hundreds of attendees present and the millions of people whom she knew were watching the live broadcast. She had been seven years old.
Crystal took a couple of deep breaths to push away the panic. “Our orders have changed,” she began, forcing herself to look at her team one person at a time. She had been working side-by-side with these people for months, so why should she have any issues talking to them now?
“Journey is now required to report to the LAWON annual Summit Meeting being held in Episonia five weeks from today,” she continued. “I understand that this is pushing Journey’s completion date up by nine months. I have spent the day working with Capitan Reed and Commander Dewite devising a new plan that we feel will best prepare Journey for her maiden voyage without sacrificing the quality or integrity of the ship.” Crystal paused to take another deep breath, keeping her expression smooth and confident.
“I know we face a seemingly impossible challenge, but I have faith that we will not only meet expectations, we will surpass them. You have brought my dream to life with more pride and dedication than I would have thought possible. I feel honored to be a part of this team.” Another pause to make sure her voice was steady.
“So go home and enjoy your night off,” she said, forcing a smile onto her face. “Tomorrow we’ll pass out new work assignments. Dismissed.” Crystal turned and walked off the stage.
Stiner was waiting for her at the bottom step. “New work assignments?”
“Don’t worry about staying late tonight, I’ll get them done,” Crystal assured her.
“That will take you all night.”
“That’s what I signed up for.” This time the smile on her face was genuine. “Long hours, hard work, lousy pay…who wouldn’t want to join the military?”
“Sounds like fun. Count me in.” Stiner blocked Crystal’s path.
Crystal knew Stiner wouldn’t let her pass until she accepted her help. “There’s nothing I can do to convince you to go home?”
A voice came from behind her. “Excuse me, Commander Wolf, Chief Stiner.” Crystal turned to find Larry Thompson standing next to them. The hull construction supervisor had a calm expression on his face.
“Yes, Mr. Thompson,” Crystal said.
“I have spoken with my team, and we would like your permission to keep working tonight.”
“Are you sure?”
“Permission granted.” She couldn’t prevent gratitude from leaking into her voice.
Thompson left to go gather his team. His place was immediately taken by the electrical supervisor, Tara Cummings.
“Commander, my team would also like permission to stay and work tonight.”
Crystal noticed that all of her supervisors were waiting to talk to her. “Are all of you here to ask to keep working tonight?” she asked the group at large. Everyone nodded.
Crystal was overwhelmed by the dedication of her team. She felt a lump forming in the back of her throat and did her best to swallow it. She had to remain professional. “All right,” she said, “but please stress to your teams that this is voluntary. Anyone who wants or needs to leave is encouraged to do so without any repercussions.”
The supervisors nodded solemnly, and the crowd dispersed until Stiner was the only one left.
Crystal gave a short nod. “I guess I should give Marco a call, we’re going to have a lot of people to feed tonight.”
“What about our budget?” Stiner asked.
“Screw the budget. The brass up at headquarters is going to owe this team a lot more than dinner by the time we’re done.”