glanced at her orders and immediately looked up at her
commanding officer. "You've got to be kidding me.
Tharans?" She wanted to plead for a different
assignment, but after a few poor judgment calls in the
past and a few things she had no control of, she knew
better than to beg. Her permanent record wasn't the
best, and with her contract winding down, she needed
some good remarks on her file. She could refuse but…
surprised your choice of Intergalactic language has
finally come in handy," the CO remarked, interrupting
Inwardly she groaned. Choosing Tharan as her
Intergalactic language eight years ago had been more of
a joke than anything. While not at war, humans and
Tharans had danced around each other with showy displays
of aggression. Each time the Tharans introduced a new
ship, or colonized a planet in the Grey sector, humans
upstaged every act and then upped the ante. Her skills
had been handy when a random communication drifted
through the data feeds, but she never thought she would
have to use her skills personally.
should be an easy assignment even for you. It's a
transport mission," the CO said as though Jensen was
paying full attention. "They need to run supplies to a
colony that's in the Grey zone. It's been on its own for
a while, but there's a good chance the ship will run
into our forces. With the pirates in the area, we've had
to ramp up our patrols. That shipment will never get
through unless we have an agent on hand. And since we
are supposed to be doing our best to solidify diplomatic
relations, we need to cooperate.”
didn't miss the subtle hint in that last word.
you have to do is show your credentials to any Earth
Force ship that requests it."
sir," she replied, waited to see if he had anything else
to say, then saluted and headed out the door.
glanced back at her orders. The Tharan ship was already
in dock. She'd have to hurry and pack as it was
scheduled to leave in just a few hours.
a bright, cheerful voice said behind her as footsteps
hurried to catch up. "What kind of trouble are you in
this time?" her best friend Marg asked.
forwarded the orders through her wristcom.
Is the CO nuts? Doesn't he realize you almost started a
war with the Ramibles the last time you went planet
was hardly my fault," Jensen argued. "How was I supposed
to know that ordering meat was against policy on the
raised an eyebrow. "It was in the briefing."
said nothing as she read her orders again. "Well, I'm
not screwing up this time."
her friend murmured. "Just in case I'll help you get
ready and make sure you know the latest protocol
concerning Tharans. By the way, have you ordered your
food rations yet?"
big sigh, Jensen answered, "No but we'd better do that
first because I leave in less than two hours."
of the time the EF chain of command moved slowly and
methodically, but when it came to an emergency, all the
cogs responded quickly. Jensen had been on the wrong
side of such actions before, but this time, she quietly
approved of the swiftness. All she had to do was walk
into the Quartermaster's office, scan her ID, and verify
her orders. Her request for food, sanitary supplies, and
gear had already been approved. She was assured that
everything would be on the ship before it took off.
she headed to her quarters with Marg in tow, for
personal belongings. The screen of her computer lit up
as the two stepped inside, illuminating the small room.
The sheets wrapped the bed in a tight, wrinkle-free
embrace. A few odds and ends sat on the shelves.
you keep manage to keep your room so neat while the rest
of your life such a mess, I'll never figure out," Marg
didn't answer as she walked to the storage cabinet and
began pulling out clothes. Marg wasn't lying. She was
only mediocre at best at her job. Some of her personal
choices hadn't been the smartest ones. She knew she
wasn't the only person who could understand Tharan, but
because of certain incidents on her record, she was more
expendable than most. If things went FUBAR, well, her
life wouldn't tilt the balance much.
don't worry about uniforms," Marg reminded her before
she began pulling those out. "You'll be wearing the
diplomatic escort style."
to know," Jensen replied as she pulled out her best
station uniform then pulled a couple of her older
jumpsuits out. At her friend's frown, she explained.
"I've never been on a ship yet where I didn't have to
crawl in some dirty hole to repair something."
shrugged. "Good point."
two of them filled two bags with the necessities for the
two-month trip. Jensen changed into a diplomatic escort
uniform that arrived shortly after she started packing
then looked around the room a moment before she reached
under the bed for the repair tools she had stashed in a
bin. "Just in case you know."
will probably just sit in your bag, why waste the
space?" Marg said. "You really should trust your CO
nodded and stuffed the repair tools in the bottom of her
bag. "Look, I'm heading out on a mission with some
aliens we are just barely friendly with. I'm taking
everything I can just in case something happens out
Tharan ship was unlike every spacecraft Jensen had ever
seen. Unlike human vehicles, which tended towards either
sharp angles or rounded lines, the brightly colored ship
reminded Jensen of a tree. The core of the vehicle was
tubular with strange appendage-looking projections in
the front. During her studies, she had learned that the
Tharan used those appendages to anchor the ships in
their own stations. They also transferred fuel, waste,
and other things.
Two-thirds of the way down from the nose other
structures branched out. The largest were propulsion
modules; smaller ones were stabilizers, communication
antennae, and others that performed other various
functions. The Tharan ships were semi-organic and came
in many types, but this one seemed to be a small hauler
series. It had limited weaponry, and the hull seemed
flattened compared to some of the fighter ships she had
viewed on screen.
the ship stood her CO and four creatures. Jensen hadn't
seen a Tharan up close, only a few humans had—although
now that there was a treaty in place, encounters were
more common. The Tharan were a bipedal race, but that's
where the similarities to humans ended. Some people
called them Snouts, as the Tharan had a short trunk on
their face that ended in very flexible lips. Instead of
skin and hair, Tharans were covered in scales, some of
which were attached to long shafts that looked similar
to feathers. The colors of the scales ranged from blue
to green, but a few instances of other colors had been
noted. While they didn't wear clothes, they wore jewelry
and had piercings that signified their rank. The aliens
were long limbed and incredibly strong compared to
her other bag from Marg, Jensen squared her shoulders,
took a deep breath, and walked confidently forward. Of
course, after about three steps she dragged her toe on
the flight pad surface. The CO had his back to her and
she noted the way his shoulders tensed, but the Tharans
reacted much less subtlety than she expected. The three
turned their heads, and the scaled shafts lifted, making
them seem larger and much more threatening.
stopped two meters away, feeling her cheeks heat up, and
stood still until her CO turned to see what was going
on. A raised eyebrow and shake of the head showed his
disapproval. He motioned her forward as he turned back
to the Tharans.
here we have your escort, Specialist Jensen Harding," he
said into a small box. A moment later a gurgled mumble
noticed the stiffness in the way the Tharans stood and
the way they clenched their fists. Her studies had told
her they used more body language than vocalizations. It
wasn't difficult to see the aliens weren't any happier
than she was about this mission. She lowered her eyes
and softened her own stance before she said in their
tongue. "I am pleased to accompany you."
largest Tharan tilted its head and the muscles around
its lips pulled back. "We are not pleased."
had a feeling this would be a long couple of months.
least the Tharans weren't overtly aggressive, although
they made it plain they were not happy to have a human
on their ship. Mostly, they ignored her presence, but
she caught many comments that could be considered rude.
on the ship was equipped for human use, complete with a
bathroom, shower, and bed. It was clearly EF equipment
for planet-side deployment, which meant that things
didn't always work properly. The Tharan's home world was
more desert-like, and scales took less daily maintenance
than human skin and hair. The dry air made her skin
itchy and the temperatures were almost uncomfortable.
While she should have worn her escort uniforms at all
times, Jensen found she wished she had stuffed more
jumpsuits into her bags. They, at least, were cooler.
flipped through the water filtration manual again,
hoping for some sort of hint as to why the darn machine
still wasn't working correctly. She had followed all
instructions on the maintenance files and had gone ahead
and changed out the parts that should have been changed
before undocking. This unit was old and in disrepair.
Either this trip was a true last minute emergency or it
was expected to fail. Her suspicions were confirmed when
the filtration unit was covered in slime as she pulled
it out. She had never heard of a diplomatic mission so
Although she had put the filtration machine back
together, what was coming out of the spigot wasn't
anything she was willing to drink, or bathe in for that
matter. The user manual wasn't any help. Jensen pulled
out the pack of tools she had brought along.
just see what's really going on here," she snarled to
herself as she pulled out the tools to open the back
hour later, her door opened unexpectedly. Jensen was on
her knees, head and shoulders deep in the machine as
someone stepped in. So used to being around humans
Jensen muttered "Just a moment, I've almost got it,"
before she remembered where she was and why she was
jerked her head out and looked at the intruder.
smallest of the Tharans, who had a green and amber tint
to its scales, froze at her voice and the chaos around
her. Panels, bits of tubing, a few wires, and even a
circuit board were scattered around like discarded toys.
It was a mess to the uninformed eye; however, Jensen
knew what each piece was and where it went.
she told it and pointed to the water recycler.
eyes darted to the machine and back to her. It took
Jensen a moment to realize that no one on board had seen
her in anything but her official uniforms. She had
donned one of her old jumpsuits and a quick glance at
her arms told her that things had gotten messy.
Tharans didn't wear clothing; they had very little need
to. The brief visit to the station had revealed many
humans, but mostly in the same uniform type. The thought
that a human could look so different hadn't even crossed
their minds. Jensen wondered what kind of response she'd
get if they saw her naked or in non-regulation clothes.
dragged her mind back as she noticed the smaller Tharan
relaxing slightly. Jensen tugged at her sleeve revealing
clean skin. "Clothing," she said in standard then
changed to Tharan as she tried to explain. "Skin,
clean. No scales. More maintenance."
apparently fascinated the Tharan as it stepped closer
and reached out a long limb to her. Jensen stretched out
her hand and allowed it to touch her. It made an
unfamiliar sound like rolling Rs before it pulled its
hand back and turned its attention to the dismantled
water recycler. "Broken?"
she said, "but not for long." She had found the
problem and had been retracing her steps as she put
things back together. The issue, a cracked hose. While
there was no replacement part, she had a roll of fix-all
tape. It wasn't an ideal repair, but it would probably
hold until the mission was complete.
picked at the end of the roll and teased the edge up.
She grasped it with her thumb and forefinger and pulled.
a few tries, a few snarls, and a wadded ball of wasted
fix-all tape, Jensen was fairly confident that the leak
was fixed. The small, green Tharan had watched her with
stayed in her room for the first week, except for using
the main computer for updates on the mission to her CO
and to make sure that everything was going well. The
water recycler was finally working properly. The Tharans
pointedly ignored her, except for the small, green one.
Jensen spent much of that first week reading updates on
what others had learned about the aliens.
research could only occupy her time for so long.
putting on one of the good uniforms, she opened the door
to her room and felt the rush of heat that her ship
mates enjoyed. She had plugged up most of the vents,
which made her room almost comfortable, but stepping out
meant that she'd be sweating in just a few minutes. She
made her way to the front of the ship, where two of the
Tharans were always stationed.
the largest and a dark blue alien piloted the ship. Just
as she walked through the doorway, she stumbled a little
on the slightly raised surface. The smaller one turned.
"Your presence has not been requested," it
"No, but I have not been restricted to my room. I'd like
smaller Tharan glanced at the larger one. It turned and
seemed to consider the request before it turned back to
its duties. "Observe."
took that as permission and stood next to the door.
After a few hours, she found little of interest. While
she could read Tharan, the flashing lights on the
screens had no signifiers, so that meant nothing.
Standing at attention for long periods wasn't one of her
best qualities, so she began to look for something to at
least casually lean against.
Tharan cockpit was sparse. Only two seats and two
command panels. The smaller Tharan sat at the forward
station and the larger one sat at the one nearest the
door. The walls were lined with a dull silver metal that
seemed a bit cooler as Jensen edged her way a bit
farther from the door. Once she knew that she wouldn't
fall backwards if someone opened the door behind her,
she casually leaned back.
alarm sounded, as lights flashed and the ship shook.
Jensen jumped forward just as the two Tharans looked her
way. She looked behind her to see the panels she had
leaned up against, lit up with colored lights, flashing
in time to the sirens.
she yelled as she ran back to her room.
looked through her gear again. "Where is it?" she
growled to the empty room. Chills caused goose bumps to
crawl up her arms. Of all the things that modern
medicine had cured, the common cold wasn't one of them.
Her kit was supposed to include medical supplies;
however, she had yet to find them. She'd have to take a
peek at the cargo container to see if the kit was there.
That meant going outside her room.
Luckily, human diseases didn't affect Tharans, but she
was sure they'd be alarmed. Jensen had already taken a
look at herself in the small mirror. Her eyes were
bloodshot, her skin pale, but her cheeks were rosy with
fever. She had already soaked the jumper she wore with
sweat. A slight cough was quickly deepening into
something much worse, and her nose was running.
Hopefully, she'd be able to dash to the cargo hold, find
the medical supplies, and get back to her room without
meeting any of her crew mates.
wasn't with her. Not far from the cargo bay she came
face to face with the smallest of the crew. The green
Tharan stood frozen as she came around the corner.
Jensen had begun to develop a relationship with this
alien. As the lowest rank on the ship, it was assigned
much of the repair and grunt work. When she was able,
Jensen helped with minor repairs. Slowly the Tharan had
begun to act less hostile and even greeted her by name.
At least until now.
squealed. The unfamiliar sound cut through her headache,
making her flinch, and echoed in the ship. Before she
knew it, the other three Tharans surrounded her.
largest, whom she had begun to call "Captain," showed a
full aggression display. The feather-scales were
upraised, and it held its body stiffly. "What is
this?" it growled.
she replied. "Virus, don't worry, it won't affect
you. I just need to get the med kit in the cargo
nodded carefully. "Not serious. I'll be fine in a few
Apparently, this was not a good answer as the larger
Tharan showed more aggression and hissed at her.
cough crept into her chest that she couldn't hold back.
It startled the four aliens into jumping back.
"Listen," she said, "I just need the medicine and
smaller Tharan moved forward first. "I check, you
stay in there." It pointed back down the hall to her
room. It looked to the other three who were still
clearly startled. Finally, the largest seemed to settle.
Jensen took that as assent and walked back to her room
and closed the door. New chills ran down her body so she
crawled into bed. Fever dreams chased her into sleep.
didn't know what time it was let alone what day it was.
Muscles ached like she had gone through basic again. Her
head fuzzy from fever and dehydration. Her lips chapped
and her skin tight.
sat up and realized the ship wasn't moving. The soft
rumble of the engine had died to a low whisper. When she
had lain down, they were still five days out from their
destination. It was possible she had slept that long but
highly doubtful. She wasn't feeling good enough for
got up out of bed and immediately regretted the change
in altitude. Her vision darkened before it regained
normalcy. Stumbling, she headed to the bathroom before
finding out what was going on. The screen on the wall
blinked and came to life. Tharan script flashed.
Enemy faction. Boarded. Stay.
"Lovely," she said to herself. While the Tharan fronted
a unified body to the EF, in reality, they were factions
of the same species. The most war-like populated most of
the military; more peaceful sects colonized worlds.
While the Tharans and the EF were standing off against
each other, much of the disagreements between factions
had been set aside, but now, those rough spots were
showing through. Jensen wasn't sure what faction her
crew was, but they weren't the most aggressive. She was
sure of it.
meant it was probably a highly aggressive faction that
had boarded. There had been several reports of Tharan
pirates in the area, which was why the EF had patrols
out this far in the Grey zone.
ship wasn't large. It was somewhat crowded with the five
of them. A boarding party would probably consist of only
a few Tharan, five at the most. They'd be after the
cargo, not the crew. Since the ship was currently
stopped, it meant there was a good chance the pirates
were still aboard.
started to boil up. This was her mission. She wasn't
about to stay here and let things go wrong. But she'd
have to be smart about it. A plan began to bubble in her
fever-crazed head. Jensen looked in the mirror. She
wasn't for sure but there was a good chance she looked
worse than earlier. Certainly, her hair made her look
like she was crazy. Maybe it could work to her
moved quietly through the ship. As expected, no one was
in the cockpit area, so she started to move towards the
aft. She paused before she left the control center and
slapped at the panel beside the door. Sirens and lights
began to flash as she hurried down the corridor.
had pulled on her oldest, most stained jumpsuit. With a
few cosmetics, she painted bright lines over her wrists
and under her eyes. She pulled some of the trim off of
her other uniforms and used it to tie her hair into wild
tails. If any of her crew mates had seen her, they'd
have been sure she was nuts.
Perhaps she was, she thought as she moved through an
alien ship to confront the pirates. The thought made her
giggle a little then cough.
sound drew the attention of an unfamiliar Tharan. It
spotted her and began to shriek, but she growled and
rushed forward raising her arms. The Tharan squawked and
then ducked back into the cargo bay.
followed right on its heels.
four crew mates huddled in the corner of the bay. In the
middle of the room, six more Tharans stood over her
crew. The largest was taller than Captain and had a
purple sheen at the edges of its dark blue scales. The
others were smaller, in colors ranging from nearly black
to a pale blue. The strange aliens were in full
aggressive display, clenching their long hands and
standing as tall as they could.
had seen it before and had learned something in her
Growling and stomping, she approached the group of
pirates. She hissed and lunged and as she got closer,
the aggression display of the pirates began to erode.
The blue and purple Tharan began to lower its feather
scales and shrink. The other Tharans cowered as she got
within touching distance.
she shouted at them.
flinched, ducked and began crooning at her.
unfamiliar aliens glanced at the larger one. It had
recovered its confidence, the feather scales began to
Jensen sneezed. Not a cute little baby sneeze, but the
sort of explosive sneeze that comes only from the vile
infection she had been suffering from. She didn't even
have time to turn her head; it simply exploded from her.
sprayed the aliens with thick, wet speckles of mucus.
confidence of the pirates dissipated. If they had been
dogs they would have tucked their tails and run.
Instead, they backed out of the room in the most
immediate way. Jensen didn't follow but listened as they
moved back through the ship to the docking bay. She
heard the rush of the door, then sounds of something
approached her crew. "Injuries?" she asked.
of the four would look at her. They kept their heads
low. A cough deep in her chest began to build again. It
nearly doubled her over as she tried to wheeze a breath.
The world around her spun a moment, but a firm hand held
her upright. The smallest Tharan steadied her carefully.
the cargo room stopped spinning she glanced back at the
aliens. The feather-scales on Captain's body had
lowered, and it seemed more relaxed.
"I'll just go back to my room now,"
Jensen told them. Now that the emergency was over, fear
began to clutch at her. She didn't have any authority to
act in conflicts between the Tharans. Who knows how many
treaties she violated? The CO wasn't going to be happy.
deal with it later, she told herself as she began to
head back to her room.
garbled noise made her stop. She had to think a moment
in order to translate the word. Finally, she came up
with the closest translation: Appreciated.
turned to see the Captain once more standing upright and
calm. Bowing her head she smiled as relief flooded her.
Maybe it wasn't the mission her CO had intended but
she'd take it as a success.