The engine room buzzed with activity. Crystal had pulled every available engineer on her team to conduct a thorough inspection of all the machinery. There were only three days left in Journey’s first tour. After that, the ship would be going into to dry dock for six weeks to make repairs and upgrades before the next tour. Since Crystal wasn’t going to be overseeing the dry dock herself, she wanted to make sure she provided them with a complete list of all the work that needed to be done. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust the repair team—they just didn’t know the ship the way she did.
Chief Wong walked over to Crystal, wiping his hands on a cloth. “There’s some minor wear on the turbines, but that’s to be expected; otherwise everything appears to be in great condition.”
“Fantastic.” Crystal tapped the tablet in her hand to make note of the wear. “I think we can let the turbines go for another tour, but I’m going to increase the inspection schedule for them.”
“You’re the boss.”
“Lieutenant Commander Wolf, please report to the Ward Room.”
Crystal looked up at the intercom as if it had personally insulted her. She didn’t have time for this. The ship was slowly making its way back to Kincaron through LAWON waters. They shouldn’t have run into anything that would warrant an unscheduled meeting. “It looks like you’re the boss, Wong.” Crystal handed him the tablet. “Check in with Stiner once your team is done in here.”
“Yes ma’am.” Wong took the tablet and walked away.
Crystal made her way through the ship. There was a restlessness in the air that only came with the end of tour. Everyone was ready to get home and enjoy a little rest and relaxation before the next tour started. Most of the crew had already signed on for the next sailing, including the entire command staff. Well, everyone except Flint. Crystal had tried to get an answer out of her, but Flint avoided the topic every time it was brought up. Despite their rocky beginning, Crystal really hoped she would decide to stay. Journey wouldn’t be the same without her.
Crystal pushed open the door to the Ward Room to find Grady, Tyler, Justin, and Flint already there. They looked as confused as she felt. That wasn’t a good sign.
“What took you so long?” Flint straightened up in her chair. “They must have called you at least three times on your communicator before broadcasting the request over the ship-wide intercom.”
“I was down in the engine room,” Crystal reminded her. “You can’t hear anything down there.” Crystal took a seat next to Justin, who gently squeezed her knee under the table. Something that would have sent a shiver through her six months ago. They had come a long way since then. They both had a few hours of down time later that evening, and she was looking forward to spending it with him. They had been sharing every free moment they had over the last week. The end of the tour would also mean six weeks without Justin, who was headed back to Earth to visit his family. “I’m still waiting on those software upgrades for the battery control room, by the way,” Crystal said, turning to Tyler.
“I uploaded them ten minutes ago and sent the repair team the installation instructions,” Tyler responded with a grin. “Once we’re in dry dock all you’ll have to do is hit start.”
“Actually, I won’t be there for the dry dock.” Crystal avoided his eye. She hadn’t told anyone her plans for leave. She wasn’t sure why. Part of her felt guilty about taking the time off.
“Why not?” Grady leaned forward; the concern apparent in his voice. He knew she had only taken a handful of days off in her five years of service. She could only imagine where his mind went. This wasn’t like their counter-terrorism days when the only time she took a break was when she was recovering from a gunshot wound.
“I’m just spending the leave at Homestead Colony,” she assured him. “The family that’s been renting my grandparents’ house moved out, and I need to figure out what I want to do with it.”
“Are you thinking of selling it?” Tyler asked. Crystal wondered if he had some kind of emotional connection to the place, she wasn’t aware of. That was where they had first met and learned they had the same father. Maybe she should offer it to him.
“Maybe.” Crystal shrugged. “It’s not like I’m ever there.”
“When was the last time you were there?” Justin asked.
“It was shortly after my grandfather died, so maybe eight years ago.” She decided it was best to leave out that Ryan had been there with her to help her pack up her grandparents’ belongings.
Crystal turned at the sound of the door opening. Captain Reed walked in, his silver hair shining in the bright lights of the room. Crystal tried to read his face, but it was expressionless. Never a good sign. “Thank you all for coming. I know you’re looking forward to some much-deserved leave, but I’m afraid LAWON has one more mission for you.” Reed hit a button on the control panel built into the table, and Admiral Craft’s face filled the screen at the front of the room.
Crystal looked at the screen. This mission had to be something pretty serious for the orders to come directly from Craft. “As I’m sure you are aware,” Craft began, without preamble, “we are nearing the end of the trial period of the officer exchange program with the U.S. military.”
Crystal felt Justin tense next to her. Even though he had already signed on for the next tour, they both knew there was the possibility that he would be recalled to Earth. A fact they both had been avoiding talking about. She placed her hand on his and gently rubbed it until she felt him starting to relax.
“LAWON would very much like to see the program extended,” Craft went on. “However, the U.S. military isn’t convinced that the program should be continued. They are holding a hearing to determine if the exchange program should be extended.” Craft shifted in his seat.
“What exactly does this have to do with us, Sir?” Flint asked. Crystal noticed her foot tapping under the table. It wasn’t like Flint to let her nerves get the better of her.
“We would like the five of you to go to Earth and represent LAWON at the hearings.”
If Crystal had had the rest of her life to guess what the mission was, she never would have guessed that Craft was sending them to Earth. She looked around the table at her teammates. Grady and Tyler looked as shocked as she felt, but the looks Flint and Justin were exchanging were different. They were laced with concern. Earth was their home planet; if they were worried, Crystal knew there must be a good reason for it.
Crystal turned back toward the monitor. “With all due respect, why send us?” As far as she knew there were at least two dozen U.S. military officers currently serving on Neophia as part of the exchange program. There had to be a more qualified team to speak at the hearing. None of them were diplomats or politicians. In fact, Crystal was known for her ability to avoid talking to politicians whenever possible.
“This team has accomplished great things over the past six months, and a large part of that is due to having Flint and Anderson as members of our crew.” Reed nodded to each of them as he spoke. “LAWON recognizes that. We feel that the five of you are in the best position to show the U.S. military the benefits of the program and convince them to extend it.”
Crystal should have been taking notes. Reed was choosing his words very carefully. What was he not telling them? She looked back at Craft to see his eyes linger on Flint. What Reed said about them being the most accomplished team in the program might have been true, but Crystal suspected the real reason they had been chosen was because of Flint and her strong reputation within the U.S. military.
“Do we have any idea which way the U.S. military is leaning?” Tyler asked, looking back and forth between Reed and Craft.
“I can tell you that.” Flint leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest. “They see it as a drain on their resources that doesn’t add any value to them.” She shook her head in disgust.
“Which is why we need you to change their minds.” Craft glanced down at his watch. “Your space shuttle leaves first thing in the morning from the launch pad at LAWON Headquarters. We’ve arranged for you to stay at the LAWON embassy. You’ll have a day on Earth to prepare before the hearings start.”
“Yes sir,” they said in unison, though Crystal noticed that it lacked the normal conviction she felt from her team before a mission. Craft nodded and closed the connection.
Reed sighed and sat down at the table. “This mission will take you through the end of the tour. Wolf, Price, and Grady, you’ll receive your leave orders once you return to Neophia. Flint and Anderson, once the hearing is over, you will be able to remain on Earth for your leave. Anderson—and Flint if you decide to join us for a second tour—you’ll receive your return orders at the end of the leave.” They all nodded. “A launch is being prepared to take you to the mainland in two hours. I suggest you all go pack.”
They stood up and slowly started to make their way out of the room. Crystal noticed that Grady hung back to talk to Reed. “Sir, I’m sure you’re aware that I have another commitment after Journey’s tour.”
“Don’t worry Lieutenant, you’ll be back in time.” Reed stood up and put his hand on Grady’s shoulder, leading him to the door where Crystal lingered. Reed smiled at her and then took off down the hall.
Grady tried to follow him, but Crystal reached out and grabbed his shirt. “Not so fast.” Grady turned to look at her with a guilty look at his face. “What kind of commitment do you have?”
“I’m not supposed to talk about it,” Grady mumbled.
“You took a special ops mission, didn’t you?” She put her hands on her hips.
“I swear if you miss the next tour, I’m going to hunt you down and drag you back here myself.”
Grady draped his arm around her shoulder and started to lead her down the hall toward their quarters. “Relax, it’s only supposed to be a two-week mission. A quick in and out.”
“Your last two-week mission lasted over a year,” she reminded him.
“That was different. Our intelligence was sorely lacking on that organization. It wouldn’t have been right to pull out after two weeks once I had befriended their leader.” Grady shrugged his shoulders like this was a completely logical response, and Crystal hated that she agreed with him.
“And who’s to say the same thing won’t happen this time?”
“It won’t. It’s just a simple recovery mission,” he promised. “No undercover work involved.”
“It better be.” Crystal gently elbowed him in the stomach, just to get her point across. The possibility of losing Justin and Flint was too much already. She didn’t want to entertain the idea of the ship without Grady too.
Desi paced in her quarters. Something about this mission didn’t feel right. She was sure she wasn’t the only one to pick up on it. She had seen Justin’s eyes fill with fear when Craft told them about the hearing. He knew as well as she did that the U.S. military wasn’t going to waste their time weighing the pros and cons of the exchange program. It had been a miracle they had agreed to it in the first place. If the government was having second thoughts about the value of the program, they wouldn’t hesitate to cut it. There had to be something else at play here, something the military couldn’t control. She just wasn’t sure what.
Desi whipped around at the sound of the door opening. “Where have you been?”
Wolf held her hands up in surrender as she walked in. “I was talking to Grady.”
“Oh.” Desi resumed her pacing.
“What’s got you on edge?” Wolf pulled her duffle bag out and laid it on her bed. How could she be so casual right now? Didn’t she realize what they were walking into? But of course Wolf didn’t understand. Craft had told them that the hearings were to determine if the exchange program should be continued, so that’s what Wolf believed. And why shouldn’t she? LAWON was always upfront with the objective of the mission they sent their people on.
“We need to discuss this mission.” Desi stopped pacing again and turned to look at Wolf who was carefully putting her uniforms into her duffle bag. “Could you stop packing?” Desi’s words were laced with more panic than she intended.
Startled, Wolf dropped her clothes on the bed and turned toward Desi. “I’m sorry. What’s going on?”
Desi took a deep breath. “We need to be ready for the possibility that these hearings are about more than the exchange program.”
“You think Craft isn’t telling us everything?” Wolf pulled a chair out from the table that divided the room in half and sat down. Desi wished she could tell what was running through Wolf’s mind, but her commander was so skilled at hiding her emotions, it was impossible.
“No, I think the U.S. military isn’t telling LAWON everything.” Desi plopped down in the chair across from Wolf.
“Why wouldn’t the U.S. military be up front about the hearings?”
Desi had to choose her words carefully or Wolf would think she had cracked. “There’s a lot of mistrust on Earth toward Neophians.”
“That’s not really a secret,” Crystal said calmly. “I mean that’s why the exchange program was created in the first place. To help ease that distrust by better understanding one another.”
“That might have been LAWON’s objective, but I doubt the U.S. military had the same goals for the program.” Desi got up and started to pace again. She was too nervous to sit still. “You have to understand, the U.S. military doesn’t do anything unless they think it can further their own objectives. And they never had a mission to increase understanding with Neophia. I mean what could they gain from that?”
Wolf shifted in her seat. “Then what do they care about?”
“They only care about recruitment numbers and gaining new resources.”
“You mean Neophian resources.”
Desi stopped pacing and turned to face Wolf. She wasn’t prepared for the intensity in Wolf’s eyes. “It’s possible. There’s a theory on Earth that Neophia is hoarding an abundance of natural resources, and that if the U.S. could get their hands on it, then none of the other countries on Earth would dare to challenge us.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you were sent here to spy on us for your military?” Wolf cocked an eyebrow at her. Desi wasn’t sure if she was trying to humor her, or if Wolf was trying to assess if she was a threat.
“No, of course not,” Desi huffed. “But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Justin and I both get asked a lot of questions about what we’ve seen while we were here.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?”
“I want you to be prepared in case things go south. This mission may be framed as a simple political visit, but it won’t be that way once we get to Earth. Who knows what we’re going to face once we get there?” Desi locked her fingers behind her head.
“I’ll keep my guard up, I promise. I’m not sure what else we can do.” Wolf stood up. “Let’s finish packing. We need to be in the launch bay in an hour.”
“You’re right. It’s too late to do anything now. I’ve got to go grab some things from the laundry.” Desi pointed behind her back toward the door and took a few steps backward. “I’ll be back.”
She couldn’t help but feel defeated as the door closed behind her. It wasn’t that Wolf had dismissed her, but she certainly didn’t seem as concerned as Desi thought she should be. Could Desi be wrong? Was it possible that the hearings were just that? She knew in her heart that nothing with the U.S. military was ever that straightforward. She thought back to her last time on Earth, when she had been told she was getting the Medal of Honor and was to be paraded around the media like some kind of mascot. It was the reason she had signed up for the exchange program in the first place. She was no one’s mouthpiece. Desi was sure she would pay for that decision once they were back on Earth.