Freya ran her hands over the smooth surface again, tracing the letters with the tip of her finger slowly. In ordinary circumstances, the cargo bay would have been reverted back to a cargo hold in the shift following the service. Now, more than a week later, the trappings had not been removed or stored. A fine layer of dust had collected on the displays, obscuring the names of the dead.
"Freya?" His voice broke through her reverie again, making her flinch slightly. How long had he been standing in the doorway? He shifted, his boots made a scrapping sound against the metal flooring. "Freya."
"Shut up," Freya said softly without turning toward him. She didn't want to see him – not right now. She continued her course along the wall of names, stopping before a familiar name to disturb the dust.
"Excuse me?" he asked, standing up a little straighter in annoyance. It took all his willpower to remain rooted in the doorway instead of getting in her face and forcing her to acknowledge him.
"Shut up," she repeated. She paused, sucking in several deep breaths and leaning against the wall for support. "Just shut up," she whispered with her eyes closed tightly. She reached out for the display, intent on removing the film of dust, but recoiled at the last second as if burned. "Oh Andy..."
She sat away from the other children, curling up into the smallest space possible in order to hide from their view. She had a data pad in her lap but the words on the screen couldn't hold her interest. A cascade of red hair fell across her face but she could just peek between the strands to watch them laughing and playing together. No one noticed the quiet new girl.
"Hi," she said, squatting beside Freya and grinning broadly. Correction, almost no one noticed. Freya twisted around toward the source of the greeting and gulped. The girl's hair shot in just about every direction as if it hadn't been brushed in days and had bright pink tips. "You the new girl? Mrs. Hunt said we were getting a transfer from the tertiary class today. I figure you must be her. Big jump from tertiary to primary! You must be really smart! Are you?"
"Am I what?" Freya asked, her eyes still wide.
"Smart? Oh! I'm Andrea Kawolski by the way – but you can call me Andy, in fact I'd prefer it," Andy stuck out her hand expectantly.
Freya glanced at it for a second before offering her own hand in timid response. "Freya. Freya R--" she trailed off. Her family name would give her away as an embryotic – not that she could keep the secret for long – "You can call my Freya," she concluded with an awkward smile.
"Nice to meet ya Freya. I can introduce you around if you want?" Andy said, straightening up and offering her hand to help Freya up as well. Freya glanced over at the other children and shook her head quickly. "You don't have to be shy or anything, they're all pretty nice. Mostly anyway....you tend to get used to the less pleasant ones." When Freya shook her head, Andy shrugged it off. "Suit yourself."
The children grew quiet and parted as Mrs. Hunt, their teacher, approached the small school. "Good morning children."
"Good morning Mrs. Hunt," they chimed in near unison. Freya, still tucked into the corner, remained silently in awe of them until Andy nudged her with her foot. Freya, reluctantly, got to her feet beside her new potential friend.
The teacher and the other children noticed the movement at the same time and soon all eyes were trained on the timid red-head. "You must be Freya Ryan," Mrs. Hunt said with a pleasant smile on her face. Freya nodded grimly and glanced over at Andy as the others mulled over her name. Most of them seemed ignorant but she could see a few raised eyebrows in the mist, Andy's amongst them. But unlike the hateful look on one of the boy's faces, Andy merely looked surprised. "Mrs. Collins has never spoken so highly of any of her pupils Freya. I think you'll do well here."
"But she's one of them," the hateful boy spat. Those who hadn't made the connection yet glanced his way curiously. "She's an embryiotic," he said, funneling all his anger into the final word.
No one else seemed as bothered by this fact, certainly not Mrs. Hunt. "Xavier James Rheyer, you will keep your prejudice and hatred away from my classroom, do you understand?" Though he was momentarily culled, Freya could see him fuming silently to a band of boys around him. "We should find you a desk Freya."
"The spot next to me is free ma'am," Andy spoke up quickly. "Emily just tested for her ascent last week." Freya smiled, grateful not to end up next to any of the others – especially Xavier.
"Perfect," Mrs. Hunt said kindly. She turned to the rest of the group and ushered them inside. "We have a lot to get done today and I still have to teach the secondaries after you lot so get to your desks all of you. Andy, would you help Freya catch up today?"
"What are you doing tonight?" Hoshimi Katou asked, dropping down onto the lounge without preamble. Ari grumbled at the sudden intrusion but Hoshimi could always see right through the facade she put up. The fact that Ari's face lit up and her mouth curved into a mischievous grin may have also given her away. "You're not! Ari! You know it's against the rules!"
"We're just friends," Ari lied. She glanced away, refusing to make eye contact with her inquisitive friend. "And even if we weren't, it's just a dalliance. It's nothing..."
"If you get caught, you'll lose your position Ari! You've worked half your life to be selected for the security team. Do you really want to throw that away for a boy? Especially one of them?" While Hoshimi could respect Ari's physical attraction to Jake, she couldn't understand her friend's growing attachment.
"Well I have no intention of getting caught Hosh. You're not going to tell and I'm certainly not – nor is Jake. It's not like we're meeting on the main deck or anything..." Ari jumped to her feet and danced away with a giggle. "I have to go get ready!"
"I thought it was just a dalliance." Hoshimi said grimly. "Ari!" she called out as her friend reached the door way. "Just don't do anything too stupid?"
"When have I ever done anything stupid?" Ari asked grinning.
"Too many times," Hoshimi said under her breath. With a sigh, she pushed off the lounged and followed Ari out onto the deck. Her path back to her family's quarters meandered through half of the second section. She didn't realize until then that she'd been counting on Ari's availability tonight so she wouldn't have to go home for dinner. Twice she spun around, intent on going back to the lab and feigning work but both times, fealty turned her back toward home.
"Hoshimi!" her mother smiled broadly as she entered. "I hoped you'd be home for dinner this evening, I'm making your favorite – Trilec Soup."
"That's Han's favorite," Hoshimi said, barely resisting the urge to roll her eyes.
As if on cue, the aforementioned Han ran out from his room, thrusting a data pad excitedly in her mother's face. "Look Mom! I finished it!" The blond haired, blue eyed boy looked nothing like the rest of the family of course. To Hoshimi, he was a unpleasant blemish that she'd like to erase from all the pictures and memories.
To her parents, however, Han was a salve that eased their secondary infertility. After years of trying to have a second child, they'd entered an application into the Embryiotic Host Program. Given their status, it took the committee less than a week to approve the application. It wasn't long before her parents were gushing over the pregnancy and soon a newborn with whom they shared no biological connection.
Apparently forgotten, Hoshimi turned her attention to the Trilec soup that was simmering on the stove top. She frowned as the vegetables and meat rose the surface with each twist of the spoon. "I think I'll get something in the mess..." The meat, though undoubtedly replicated, made her stomach churn on sight.
"Now don't be silly Hoshimi. We're going to have a nice family dinner," her mother said, using her scolding voice. "Han, darling, please set the table. Your father should be home any minute."
"He's not his father," Hoshimi said, earning a admonishing look from her mother. "And I'm a vegetarian remember? I'm going to the mess."
"Hoshimi! You come back here right now," but the words were lost as the doors slid shut behind her. She practically ran from the quarters, praying she didn't pass her father in her retreat and face further censure.
She wandered the main deck for a few minutes before setting her course for the lab. With any luck she could bury herself in work until everyone had gone to bed. First thing in the morning, she'd put in a request for her own quarters. Maybe she could find refuge with Ari until it processed.
The science lab was dark and empty already as the ship had entered the simulated evening phase. Hoshimi found the solitude welcoming tonight and slipped behind her computer station. As her station was booting up, she heard a stifled sob and twisted around to find the source. A sliver of light from one of the tanks fell across Ari's feet, revealing her hiding place. "Oh Ari! What's wrong?" Hoshimi said, jumping up from the chair and to comfort her friend.
"He....he....he was..." Sobs erupted again, shattering the speech into incomprehensible bits. Hoshimi reached out a comforting hand but that only served to make Ari cry harder. "He was with someone else!" Ari finally managed to shout, between gasps. Hoshimi wrapped her arms around Ari and let her cry for several minutes in the darkness. She whispered soothing lies all while cursing the boy who'd betrayed her friend. "He waited to get what he wanted and then just... he just moved on..."
"What he wanted?" Hoshimi asked, feigning innocence. Ari's renewed jerking cries confirmed her fears more than any words every could. "Oh Ari...."
"Commander? We have new scans," a young, unfamiliar lieutenant clutched a data pad close to his chest.
Robert glanced up at the timid face and smiled reassuringly. He held out his hand expectantly but the lieutenant remained rooted in place, unsure of his next course of action. Robert cleared his throat and glanced at the data pad. With a small jump of realization, the new officer thrust the report into outstretched hand. "Thank you," he said, ignoring a small smirk coming from the station behind him. "How current are these?" he said, skimming the data.
"Um, within the last hour sir," the officer said, gulping.
"Thank you, you may go," he said with a frown. Behind him, Dex waited for the lift doors to hiss closed leaning forward to comment. Robert, expecting this, held up a hand to stop him. "There's been activity."
"Near the asteroid field? Gahzi?" he asked, letting his rebuff die. Robert nodded, still reading the data. "Should we cancel the operation? I don't need to tell you how badly we need that ore Robert," he dropped his voice to a near whisper.
"No, you don't," he said, sighing. "I'll be in the office – you have the bridge Dex." Once he was safely ensconced in the Captain's office, he dropped into the desk chair and swiveled casually back and forth as he read and reread the scan report. "It's just a patrol," he mused out loud. "We negotiated with the Valran for mining rights." He ran his hand through his hair, a nervous habit that would probably make him a candidate for early hair loss, as he considered the options. Making his decision, he pressed the comm button, "Dex, bump the morning briefing back an hour – we're going ahead with the op but we should take a few extra precautions. And have Lieutenant Nally send a squad leader to the brief."
"You sure about this?" Dex asked when they were alone a few hours later, still waiting on the others to arrive. "We could wait for the Gahzi to pass through..."
"The Gahzi don't pass through anywhere quickly Dex. Time is not a luxury we have and we have a deal with the Valran," Robert said, trying to sound confident. For the first time since assuming temporary command, he longed to step back and let someone else make the tough decisions. "We're going ahead with it." Dex nodded but made no further comment. In a few minutes the mining team Dex had assembled filed into the conference room. Darius Hunt came in last, looking slightly frazzled and out of breath. "Run the whole way Lieutenant?" Robert asked, raising his eyebrows.
"I – I only just got the message Da- Commander," he said, blushing. "You could have commed me," he whispered under his breath.
"Well where would the fun in that be?" Robert grinned and pointed out an empty seat at the table. "Take a seat Lieutenant." He waited for the general scuffle and scrape of chairs to stop before calling their attention forward. "Most of you have already been briefed by Lieutenant Dexter on the mining operation so we'll skim over that part. What you need to know is that a Gahzi patrol was picked up in the field on scans last night. As of this moment, there are two small ships – standard Gahzi formation. They're not directly in our path and we're outside of their short range scanners."
"What about long range?" Darius asked, raising his hand slightly as an afterthought.
"Gahzi patrol ships have limited long range capabilities. Usually because there is a larger mother ship somewhere in range; we don't know where she is yet. The point is, we need to get in and get out as quickly as possible," Robert said, turning toward Dex.
"Will take us at least twelve hours," he said, while the engineers around him nodded in agreement.
"You probably have six – maybe. But we'll give you as long as we can. Lieutenant Hunt will lead a squadron to escort you all to the rock and patrol."
"I will sir?" Darius asked, his eyes wide. A few of the engineers snickered. "I mean, shouldn't Lieutenant Nally be here?"
"Lieutenant Nally has already been briefed and assigned you. If there's no trouble, he'll bring in a new squadron to relieve you after six hours. I don't need to remind any of you how desperately we need to pull this off do I?" Robert asked, meeting each of their eyes for a moment. "Alright, Lieutenant, get your squad assembled. Departure is in two hours, good hunting everyone."
Darius took his time collecting his single data pad and getting to his feet. He glanced up as the last of the engineers – Dex – left the room. "You didn't...you know...arrange this assignment, did you?"
"Darius, you've been a squad leader for six months and have barely seen the inside of a cockpit – let alone any real flight time. It's just time. Besides, this will hopefully be nothing more than a babysitting mission," Robert said.
"Yeah, okay," Darius said with a sharp nod.
"Stop by and say goodbye to your mother before you leave," Robert said.
"Dad, it's a six hour mission..."
"Darius, you know how she'll worry the moment she finds out you're out there. Just do me this favor please?" Though he rolled his eyes, Darius nodded once more before leaving his father alone in the briefing room. Robert ran his fingers through his hair nervously. "And she won't be the only one..." he mused aloud.
Julian lunged forward, throwing himself at the other boy and dragging him to the ground. Even now, only moments after the various insults had been tossed around, Julian couldn't recall what had been said. All he knew was the red hot feeling of rage coursing through him as he and the boy brawled in front of the school room.
"Julian! Stop being such a jarek!!" Andy shouted from the sidelines. She pushed through the gawking crowd and tried to get close enough to pull the fighting pair apart but was too slow. One leg whipped out and caught her ankles, bringing her too the ground with a huff.
Freya was at her side in a moment, offering her a hand. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Andy grumbled a few choice words for the boys and brushed herself off. "I'm fine," she muttered. "He's such and idiot! Why is he such an idiot?" Freya, unsure of what answer was expected, merely shrugged her shoulders.
Andy was seconds away from launching back into the fray when the booming voice of Mrs. Hunt sent the audience scattering and gave each boy pause. "What are you two doing?! Stop it right now!" The boys stumbled away from each other, each nursing a few new bumps and bruises. "Both of you – in the classroom now! The rest of you I imagine have places to be and things to do?" Those who hadn't left, wilted under her glare and hurried away.
Andy hooked her arm with Freya's and dragged her away from the scene as well, lest they suffer the same fate as the two brawlers. "Do you know him?" Andy asked, when they were several feet away.
"Who?" Freya asked, looking around for the 'him' in question.
"The other boy – the one Julian was beating up on," Andy said with a small smile.
"No – why would I?"
Andy just shrugged, "I guess I just thought...I mean he is an em..." she trailed off, glancing over at Freya anxiously.
"An embryiotic? What, you think I know every embryiotic on the ship just because we're of the same class?" Freya asked, her anger building quickly.
Andy shook her head quickly. "No I didn't mean it like that...I was just curious. I'm sorry Freya." Before Freya could reply, they were shoved aside by a frantic yeoman running back the way they'd come. "Hey watch it! We're walking here!" Andy shouted after him. He didn't even turn to acknowledge them. "Rude!"
Back in the classroom, Julian and Meng glared at each other over their respective data pads. Mrs. Hunt had assigned them a load of extra work as punishment but neither was getting much accomplished. She hovered between the two of them, occasionally reverting their eyes back to their work.
"Ma'am?" Mrs. Hunt whirled around toward the sound, a harried looking service man. He stood in the school house doorway, clutching a pad between his trembling fingers.
"Can I help you?" she asked, giving each of the boys a warning look before stepping away from them.
"A message ma'am," he said, holding out the pad. "From Commander Hunt."
She took the pad from him and waved him away as she read. She let out a strangled gasp and stumbled back a few steps. Both boys jumped up immediately, coming to her aid, but she pulled away from them. Leaning against the wall to catch her breath she glanced at them both. "You're both dismissed," she whispered. Julian started to protest but she shooed them from the room before dropping onto the nearest desk.
Confused but relieved, Meng hurried away from the school room. He was nearly home when he pulled up short and spun around with a grin. He checked his watch to be sure and then ran toward Engineering, where his father should still be on shift. As usual, Meng glanced around the bay before slipping in, unnoticed, and crept up behind him. "Boo," he said with a chuckle.
"What are you doing here?" Hiro Asada asked, looking over at his son. "Shouldn't you be in school..." he trailed off, getting a good look at Meng's face and sighing. "Have you been fighting Meng?"
"No!" Meng said, instinctively reaching up to touch his bruised eye. "I mean yes I was but it wasn't my fault. He wouldn't leave me alone."
"He who?" Hiro asked, setting down his tools to focus his attention on Meng.
"Julian Ice," Meng said, looking at his feet. Hiro, despite his horror, merely shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry Dad – I am, he just...ugh he's such a jarek! You wouldn't believe some of the stuff he was saying."
"I'm sure I would," Hiro said soberly. "They're just words Meng. Violence is never the answer, do you understand me?" Meng mumbled under his breath but Hiro caught his chin and made him make eye contact. "Tell me you understand me Meng. This is important."
"Alright! I understand!" Meng said, pulling away from his father's grasp.
Hiro wasn't convinced but let the subject drop for the moment. "Now, tell me why you're here? Were you sent home early because of the fight?" he asked as he picked his tools back up and resumed working at the console.
"No, it was weird actually. Mrs. Hunt had us doing this extra work and then got some message that upset her so she made us go," Meng said. He hopped up on an empty workstation and swung his legs idly. Hiro murmured some sort of acknowledgment but his attention was clearly diverted by work now. "So can I hang out here? I'll stay out of the way..."
"You really ought to go home Meng," Hiro argued just before sliding under the open console. Meng grinned, knowing his father wouldn't put up much of a fight if he was working. "Why don't you go see what your mother is doing."
"Daaad, she works in the laundry," he said, rolling his eyes.
"Meng Asada, I can't be sure but I'm certain you are rolling your eyes – stop it, right now," Hiro admonished. "Your mother works hard at a respectable job."
"I know that Dad. I didn't mean that she didn't – just that it's kind of boring compared to engineering."
"What have we here?" her voice, though pleasant, had a hint of malice that frightened Meng before he even looked up. Her black hair was pulled sharply back and she stood with one hand resting on her phase weapon. "Are you supposed to be here young man?"
Meng gulped as Hiro started to slide out from the console. He was in such a hurry to defend his son that he sat up too soon, conking his head on the console. "Niso lemat tegt!" he cursed as he rubbed his forehead.
"Excuse me?" Bonwick asked, looking down her nose at him.
Hiro got to his feet and dusted off his pants once before straightening up. "Sorry about that Lieutenant. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Children are not permitted in the engineering bay," she said, glancing passed him to glare at Meng. "Given the state of your work area," she picked up the only errant tool and flipped it once in her hand, "it's hardly safe. And it's against regulation Mr...."
"Asada ma'am. Hiro Asada. And my son was just stopping by to tell me about something that happened at school – he'll be leaving right now," Hiro looked back at Meng who slid off the console obediently. "And I'll just put that in my box..." he said, reaching out for the tool in her hand.
"Oh you will, will you?" Bonwick asked. "Asada you said?" Without warning or provocation, she whipped the tool around until it struck him in the face. Hiro crumbled to the ground and Meng screamed. With a satisfied smirk, she dropped the tool into his lap and began to stride away.
"Come back! You can't just...!" Meng shouted as he dropped down beside his father and wiped at the slow trickle of blood. "Wait! He needs help!"
Hiro reached up and grabbed Meng's wrist, "let her go son. I'll be okay – you just get Dex for me okay?" He heaved a heavy sigh and groaned. "You remember Dex right?" Meng nodded anxiously. "Good. You'll go get him?" Meng nodded once more.
Commander Hunt shifted awkwardly behind the podium, "we honor the fallen amongst our crew with the sounding of the bell and today that bell will chime a dozen times. One toll for each of the fallen. It hasn't been sounded so many people at once in this past generation. I pray it never does again."
When her father's name was read, Freya let out a strangled sob. Andy reached out for her hand and her mother stroked Freya's hair quietly.
Julian sat stoically between his mother and his aunt. Lady Ice showed no visible pain when her son's name was read; a stark contrast to Mrs. Ice, who cried openly.
A sullen teenage girl, Kieran Hunt, was the only other representative of the Hunt family. Mrs. Hunt hadn't come out of their quarters since receiving the news of Darius's death.
Though Hiro Asada hadn't been part of the ill fated mining operation, his death had been absorbed into the memorial service simply due to timing. No one from the Asada family was at the memorial service to hear his name read.
"I know that you blame me. And I accept that Freya but please just talk to me," he was standing behind her now, unable to keep himself confined to the door of the cargo bay.
"What was the fight about?" Freya asked, still not turning around.
"Excuse me?" Meng asked, confusion etched across his face.
"You had a fight with Julian...years ago. What was it about?" She turned around toward him and raised her eyebrows expectantly.
Meng shook his head and shrugged. "It was twenty years ago Freya, I didn't even remember it until now."
"That's not true," Freya narrowed her eyes. "You do remember. You'd never forget that day, not the day your father died."
Meng sighed, "he and his friends were saying some crude things about a new student in their class. A new embryotic student..."
"Me," Freya nodded, as if the answer made perfect sense though it flew in the face of the Julian she'd always known.
"Well I didn't know that at the time," Meng pointed out.
Freya nodded, "you defended my honor?"
"As I said, I didn't know that at the time," Meng said with a tiny smile.