Friday, February 16, 2007

Chapter One

The intelligence office was a small cabin on the main deck of the flag ship. It was one of the few with a hatch that could be locked because of the nature of the work done on the other side. When Price arrived and centered himself, the hatch irised open without his having to use the combination.

Sitting at the console, her back to him, was Lieutenant Emma Coollege, know as Jackknife. She was looking up at a display screen, her fingers on a keyboard. The information was parading across the screen and was easily visible from the hatch.

"If you're reviewing classified data," said Price, "the hatch should be locked."

She glanced over her shoulder at him. She was a tall, slender woman with delicate features and short black hair, the result of a recent assignment. She was as deadly as any member of the team yet looked sweetly innocent. It was the best disguise she could have.

"I know the security regulations as well as you, Tree. I don't have to be reminded."

Price stepped deeper into the office and let the hatch iris shut. He stood looking at the array of screens attached to the bulkhead. The smaller, satellite screens were dark. Only the center screen was being used.

He dropped into the chair next to Coolledge and twisted around so that he could watch as she worked. Finally he asked, "Is that anything important?"

"No. Idle curiosity," she said. She let her fingers fall from the keyboard and looked at him. "I was trying to figure out the most likely candidates for the home world... Is there something wrong?"

"We lost our major asset."

For a moment she was confused and then said, "What happened? He escape?"

"After a fashion. He died. I just heard the results of the autopsy."

Coollege fell silent and then put her hands back on the keyboard. She cleared the data from the screen, thought for a moment and then tried to access the new data. She couldn't find it on the menu, and tried to access security files from the flag area. When that failed, she tried the medical section, science section, and finally the intell section though she knew that they had added nothing to it. Access to the intell section was strictly limited to only a few people and it seemed logical that someone else who had that access might have added the data in there.

"I find nothing here," she said.

Price had been watching. "The doctor might not have his notes input yet... or it might be under the captain's log or in the regimental commander's private logs."

"Uh-huh." She thought for a moment, glancing up at the top of the bulkhead as she concentrated and then began to type again. When the security screen flashed, she only grinned, shot a quick glance at Price, and typed in a six digit code.

"Where in the hell did you get that?"

Still grinning, she said, "I'm in intelligence and part of my job is to know these things."

The menu came up and she began to scroll through it. "Might be here."

The screen showed a coded document labeled simply, "Alien Harvest."

She opened the document and saw that it was nothing more than a report to higher headquarters detailing the finding on the alien ship, including pictures of the equipment found, the interior of the ship, and a brief look at the powerplant. It suggested where detailed information could be found under various tabs in the supporting documentation.

"Hell of a lot of work when into that," said Price.

"Nothing about the alien being."

Price leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin. He realized that he was going to have to shave soon. As a teenager he couldn't wait for his beard to form. Now it was becoming courser, darker, and the chore of shaving was beginning to annoy him. He thought about having it permanently removed but hesitated. There were still areas where beards were grown and to fit into the local population he needed to be able to grow his own.

"There is something fishy about this," said Price. "I don't like it."

"Why? Because you weren't told that the being had died?"

"That's part of it. We should have been informed immediately. And, I should have been at the autopsy."

Coollege shook her head. "You ever been to one of these autopsies?"

"Hell, this wasn't a human. Nothing to get squeamish about. I would have liked to watch just to make sure that everything was done according to the book."

Coollege laughed. "Talk about your intelligence officer getting paranoid. What in the hell are you thinking?"

"Nothing," said Price. "I just don't like relying on information supplied by others when I haven't seen the source of that information."

"I'm sure the doctor was qualified," said Coollege.

"Yeah," said Price.

Coollege turned her attention to the screen and then the keyboard. She closed the files and returned to the main menu. "I don't know where to look for the data."

"Well, we're authorized to see it, so I guess I'll ask the chief of staff where it's hidden."


"No," said Price. "It's too late for us to do anything constructive anyway. Tomorrow. At which time I'll brief both you and Rocky on the next mission."

"Let me guess," said Coollege. "We're going to make a concentrated effort to locate the alien's home world."

"How'd you know?"

"Just makes sense. We find an alien intelligence out there and the first thing we're going to want to do it learn where their home world is located."

Price didn't respond for a moment, thinking. There was nothing else he could say. The briefing in the morning would cover the mission and until that time there was nothing more to discuss.

Finally he said, "You interested in getting something to eat?"

"You know, Tree, that is the one thing we seem to do all the time. Work awhile and then you want to get something to eat."

"Is that a no?"

"It's merely a comment on the situation. It's more of 'a just a minute and let me get ready.'"

"Shut down the computer and lock up," he said, "and I'll meet you in the corridor."


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