A Bitter Advantage

Characters: Terry Hale, Margaret Morgan

With a surge of power that was born in a roar and ended in a sigh, the Phoenix rode the sapphire tunnel out of hyperspace. With weapons ready, and hands poised warily over the controls, they exited into unbelievable peace.

“Niall, any sign at all of the Hellfire?” Terry Hale asked, frowning over the charts that were resolving with the incoming sensor data.

“None, Captain,” reported the Minbari female commanding the sensors. “Neither in this area of space… or down on the planet.”

Hale allowed a small grimace for the last. She wasn’t the only one thinking the Hellfire destroyed. Even hoping, in a way. It was better than the alternatives. Imagination was cruelly inventive, conjuring monsters in the fog of ignorance to dog your steps. There were worse ends than dying. If a whole ship could be captured without a trace, how could they hope to get it and its crew back?

Much less keep from suffering the same fate.

Hale pushed the thought aside and stood from the seat she had just taken. She paced past the viewscreen’s curtain to look out the unenhanced viewports. The planet was beginning to expand in their sights, a globe thick with swirling clouds, giving tantalizing glimpses of high, lush ranges or water.

“An intriguing planet,” Niall went on to report, “It is the eighth planet of this system, but we are reading surface temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celsius, which would appear to be attributable to the heat of high volcanic activity trapped by the atmospheric –”

Hale glanced back at the abrupt silence to see Niall looking sheepish, if that were possible. Margaret Morgan had joined her briefly by the sensors, in a reminder that this was a serious situation. Niall collected herself from her scientific curiosity and back to the goal at hand. “I am not reading any indication of artificial structures, as we know them. I will deepen the scans and broaden the parameters,” she said and bent her head to the task.

The seconds passed into minutes, and when the minutiae of directing Helm and Operations failed to distract, Hale approached Tactical.

Morgan glanced up at Hale and nodded, still unsure about the new Captain. If Hale noticed it, she hid it well. Returning the nod she came to stand beside Morgan at the tactical station.

“Granted where we are and how it’s going, how insane would you say I was to run investigative parties down to the surface?” Hale proposed suddenly, her voice just loud enough for Morgan to hear.

Morgan snorted softly. “Extremely, but I think that’s in the job description for us, ie?”

Hale folded her arms and looks forward, the slight twitch of a smile pulling at her mouth. “Agreed.”

“Captain, I’ve picked up at least two locations with recent disturbances. Still no reading on structures….” Niall reported, bringing a worrying frown from Morgan.

“Underground perhaps? Or as you said, not as we know it,” Hale said. She brooded over the possibilities then shook her head. “It doesn’t matter what it is. We’ve got to do something; check it out.”

Morgan ventured into the conversation. “Captain? I don’t think a fighter or two in first would be amiss.”

Hale glanced at her consideringly, then slowly nodded. “They would be able to get us deeper scans and visuals. I don’t think we can wait long, though, on a full recon.” She strode around the tactical station to look at the view screen. The sites were marked with glowing outlines, the largest around the northern area. “Send DeVries and McGregor immediately. DeVries to the northern site, McGregor South. See their fighters are linked and updated by the bridge computer. We’ll hold high orbit in the shuttles and if it’s clear enough to land, we come down. I want this to be quick.”

“Acknowledged,” Morgan said and activated the comm.

While Morgan made her calls, Hale made one of her own, tapped into her link. “Yoshino, report to the bridge immediately. Your second will brief you on the situation.” Hale closed the line immediately and looked to Morgan. With barely a missed beat, she said, “And you’re with me.”

Morgan blinked, startled, then quietly paged her backup to the bridge. Neither of them got more than a couple steps toward the lift when Niall called their attention back with an urgent, “Captain!”

“Yes?” Hale prompted.

“Sir, just for a moment, at the edge of our range, sensors detected two ships.”

Morgan scowled, hating this more by the moment, her worry rising as quickly. Hale stood tensely watching the Minbari work furiously for more information.

“No designation but… the signatures look to be of Narn design,” Niall said, and looked up at them with a puzzled frown.

Morgan and Hale exchanged a glance. It didn’t take much to guess what that meant, or what happened. “Treasure hunters?” Morgan voiced.

Hale nodded, and just before she turned away again toward the lift, Morgan caught the grim turn of the Captain’s expression. Hale spoke as she walked. “Keep scanning, Niall, but there’s nothing we can do. We’re too far.”

Morgan set her jaw and followed. She could see the necessity, but it was impossible to find any comfort in that reality.

Neither said a word about it until the doors closed on the lift and they were alone.

“Assuming this is one force against us, we should now have a safe window of a few hours, at least,” Hale said quietly. She liked no better than Morgan that they were being handed an opportunity at the expense of another’s safety… or lives.

Ie.” Morgan agreed. She gave no voice to all the potential problems, foremost among them their luck, or lack thereof. Hands clasped behind, she stared at the floor.

Hale tapped her link to an open channel. “Santiago, Awenata, Matsumoto, Darquin, Evers and Brannon. Report immediately to the shuttlebays.”

With a final quiet order, the lift began its track down to the shuttlebays. Silence seemed determined to take a hold with Hale broke it again.

“I am at something of a loss. I stand alone, when this ship needs more than one person to command it.”

Ie?” Morgan said automatically, even as she got a sinking feeling.

Hale sighed. “And records show, you’ve been here almost from the Phoenix’ commissioning, among other qualifications.” As lift doors open, Hale glanced to Morgan before stepping out. Over her shoulder she added, “So… congratulations. As they say, you’re ‘it’.”

Morgan stayed behind a moment as it sank in. A humorless chuckle escaped. “Why did I let them talk me into becoming an officer?” It was an old joke, from her days in Earthforce, and on hearing it, Hale looked back briefly with a crooked smile.

“Temporary insanity,” Hale’s voice came back to Morgan and then she was gone around the corner toward the gathering. Morgan followed, shaking her head with honest startlement at the choice.

Hale surveyed the small group that assembled loosely in the cargo bay and nodded as the last arrived; Darquin in the quiet company of Dr. Brannon.

Hale wasted no time in the briefing.

“As we speak, two of our fighters are heading out to scout out two sites of disturbance on the planet’s surface. We will not be waiting here, but in the shuttles in orbit, until each group has gotten an all clear from their respective scout.

“Morgan, Darquin, Brannon and Matsumoto will be with me in the Silencer, following DeVries in. Santiago, you will be taking Awenata and Dr. Evers aboard the Stalker and follow McGregor in. Yoshino will be coordinating all information and updates from the bridge.

“We must be quick, but thorough. Our most important goals are to find out who has been here, and if possible, just what has been taken. Considering how radical the environments may be, I know that’s a tall order, but do your best. We finally may have a fresh trail and let’s make quick use of it.

“That’s it. Good luck and watch your backs.”

Copyright (c) 1998 Leslie McBride and Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.

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