Preview: Balance’s commander tries to learn the Sergeant’s fate.

Every Wednesday, I offer a free preview of a current project. The excerpt below is taken from Music of the Spheres.

“Sergeant, are you en route to ship?” The question was routine, but as the seconds crawled and no answer came, Captain Eckard began to worry. “Sergeant, please respond.” Silence.

It had been fifteen minutes since Balance’s report that the target had been destroyed. Maybe his communications signal was jammed. Maybe an explosion had damaged his equipment. Maybe, maybe, maybe. It was too coincidental for a technical malfunction to happen this very moment. Too convenient for the enemy. Too dangerous for Eckard’s men, and for the Dominion.

“Tactical, what is Captain Balance’s last known status?”

A young officer answered. “Ballistics shows a single shot fired inside the enemy craft. Plasma cannon at medium range.”

Plasma cannon instead of rifle. Enough heat to incinerate any living target and burn through most metals. It was also the kind of weapon guaranteed to show up on scanner. Rifle fire might not be detectable at this range with so much interference.

Was Sergeant Balance playing it safe?

Or was he covering his ass?

Eckard decided he had better check with Biology. They were not on the bridge, but they had better equipment for what he wanted to know. He signaled his Communications officer to open a channel.

“This is Captain Eckard. I need a biological sweep performed of the enemy vessel at the following coordinates.” He waited as his tactical officer rattled off a series of numbers.

There was silence on the line while Eckard imagined them scrambling to fill the unexpected orders. His eyes swept idly over the glowing displays and colorless metal of the bridge.

The answer came back: “Yes, sir. Two life-forms detected until seventeen minutes ago. Then only one signal.” Seventeen minutes would have been more than enough time for Balance to clear the enemy vessel and report in.

“Thank you, officer. Stand by for further instructions.” Eckard had a hunch, but getting more information without giving anything away was complicated. He turned to Communications. “Route that call to my quarters, encrypted.” Without waiting for assent, he left the bridge and jogged the short corridor to his quarters. Even after years aboard the ship, he found it cramped and dreary. No cubic inch had been wasted, and every surface seemed slate gray or dull black.

In his quarters, a blinking light indicated the call was ready. He put on his headset.

“Biology?”

“We’re still here, sir.”

“Good. The signal you’re reading…is it possible it could contain two life forms?”

“Two, sir?”

“Assuming one was very small.” How much to reveal? No choice, he had to know. “Like a child, or an infant.”

A pause on the line. “If we were reading a pregnant woman, or a child being carried by an adult, we might only read one signal at this distance.”

One signal. No guarantee at all.

“And you’re still tracking it?” At least he would have a location.

“No sir. There were two signals, and then one, but now the ship has no life signs.”

“Dead?” For all his fear of failure a moment ago, Eckard’s only thought now was for a man lost.

“No indication, sir. The signal reached the perimeter eight minutes ago, but we have no records of the surrounding area to refer to.”

Balance had left the ship, but there was no recording to show where he had gone.

“You’re scanning now?” Balance prompted.

“Yes, sir. Everything between our ship and the other, plus several hundred kilometers in all directions. No life signs.”

“Thank you. That will be all.” He closed the line, but already another indicator prompted him. It was Communications.

“Captain, Admiral Geiger wants a status update.”

“Is he on the line now?” Eckard asked, uneasy.

“No sir. He asked you to report at your earliest convenience.”

“Thank you,” Eckard said and hung up. He was now 90% sure that Captain Balance was AWOL. In another fifteen minutes, he would know for sure.

It was hard to fault the Sergeant. The order was despicable, no matter how necessary. Eckard had chosen Balance because he had always followed orders without question, improvising when necessary, usually exceeding expectations. Never so much as a whisper of insubordination.

I chose a good soldier, Eckard thought. Too good.

Maybe things were not as bad as he feared. Maybe the reports were wrong. Or exaggerated. Maybe, maybe, maybe. “Maybe” was not a foundation you could build on. Since the birth of civilization, “maybe” had been the buzzword of failures and frauds. Captain Eckard could not report to Admiral Geiger with “maybe”.

Maybe the Admiral would be angry enough to kill him before the Redeemers destroyed them all.

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