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Chen I

“Santiako to Khali?” challenged Warrant Officer Tomerett.

SpaceGuard Lieutenant (junior grade) Kekio Chen, third watch overseer on Arboria Station, drummed her fingers slowly on the arm of her chair.  Poor Tomerett, she thought.  So naive.

“37 light-minutes.  21 from Santiako to here, 16 more to Khali.  Including wormhole transit time, of course.” A standard route, one she memorized long ago.

Tomerett snorted.  “Not through Arboria,” he replied.  “A bypass route.” His face glowed with barely concealed triumph.

Non-standard.  Chen breezed through a few mental calculations.  The most stimulation I’ve had all day.  “68 light-minutes,” she replied.  “17 from Santiako to New Papua, 12 from New Papua to Tatlostinga, 39 from Tatlostinga to Khali.”

The look of triumph faded from Tomerett’s face.  “There’s a wormhole gate between Tatlo and Khali?”

Chen sighed.  “Of course there is.  It’s been there forever.  Really, Tomerett, you’re pathetic.  Pay up.”

Crestfallen, Tomerett walked up to the command rail and handed his superior two vouchers for the SpaceGuard commissary.  Chen shook her head as she pocketed the vouchers. “Give me a challenge next time. Do some research.”

Tomerett sulked back to his station, and Chen resumed drumming her fingers.  This shift had been uneventful, like her previous 984. A grand total of three freighters had transited through the active wormhole gates, along with the usual stream of communications traffic.  The maintenance division had delivered their quarterly report on gate stability, revealing no signs of decay. Chen yawned, then pinched her arm in an effort to stay awake.

When she first arrived at Arboria Station, fresh from the Academy, Chen spent hours enjoying the surreal view of the wormhole gates from the station’s command deck.  Twelve gates shimmered, out-of-focus patches superimposed over regular space, each providing a distorted glimpse of the starfield at their opposite end. Three years later, she was immune to their charm and noticed the gates about as much as she noticed the worn fabric in her chair, the coffee stains on the operations pit floor, and the general dullness of her subordinates.  Just like the station itself, her once-promising career was deteriorating. Once I dreamed of chasing space pirates.  Now I’m a glorified traffic cop.

Three harsh beeps sounded from the operations pit.  Oh, the excitement.   She got up from her chair and peered over the railing.  “What is it, Tomerett?”

He frowned at his display.  “We’re getting an energy stream of some kind.” He looked up at her in puzzlement.  “From gate 11. That’s an inactive gate.”

Chen felt the tiniest flicker of excitement.  The only inactive gate traffic should be remote monitoring reports.  “Data only, I assume?”

“Yes,” Tomerett replied.  “But much more than the usual remote report.  A mix of video and scanner data, from wherever gate 11 connects to.”

“Bilyenka,” Chen replied automatically, too intrigued to bother reprimanding Tomerett for his lack of geospatial knowledge.  “Send the transmission to my station.”

Twenty minutes later, Chen burst into Station Commander Lupingo’s office and gave him an overview of the situation.  Lupingo leaned back in his chair, wearing the look of resentful annoyance he usually wore when she spoke to him.  When she had finished, he sat there for a long minute, then leaned forward and propped his elbows on his desk.  “What’s the average distance between the Bilyenka monitoring satellite and the Bilyenka end of the gate?”

“Fifteen light-minutes,” Chen replied instantly.

“And the message file contained sixteen hours of data,” he mused.  “So this happened within the last day.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Lieutenant, you are aware of policy directives concerning the Lost Colonies and the Firebreak.”

“Of course, sir.”  Why does he always insult me?

“Review them again.  Then take a patrol cutter through the Bilyenka gate.  Investigate the status of the monitoring satellite and of Bilyenka itself.  Do not under any circumstances, land on the planet. Quarantine rules apply.  Make it fast.”

Chen nodded, trying to keep from bouncing on her heels.  “Yes, sir. Crew for the cutter?”

Lupingo brought up the crew schedule.  “Gamma Section is on call. Make sure they understand that this is classified Secret Level Two.  Tell them only the bare minimum they need to perform their duties.” He stood up. “This entire incident is Secret Level Two.  Do not discuss with anyone other than myself. I will report this up the chain of command. If what you find corroborates this transmission, the security and political implications will be profound.”

“Like what?” Chen asked.

Lupingo snorted.  “That’s not for you to worry about.  Let the higher pay grades deal with it.”  He waved his hand. “You’re dismissed, Lieutenant.”Chen saluted and left the room, failing to keep the grin off her face.  At last, a chance to prove myself.  With a quick fist pump, she set off for the Gamma Section barracks.