WITH CRYSTAL CLARITY
"Is he in there?"
Two crewmen in rugged, blue work uniforms stood staring at the entrance to a sealed area of the ship. Tool belts hung at each man's waist, and red stripes across the back of their navy blue uniform shirts indicated they were systems maintenance workers.
"When he's not on the bridge, where else has he been these last two weeks?" The answer came back sarcastically.
"Yeah, well, one of us has to go in there," the first man, marginally senior, told the second. "The tugs are about to pick us up. Commander Tomei called down and said to give him the word."
"Why can't they just call him on his commbar?"
"You know the force field damps it out. Get in there and tell him." The senior man hurriedly brushed the worst of the dust off the other man's clothing and pushed him toward the door.
"Wait a minute! How come it's got to be one of us?" the junior man protested, stalling.
"We're working right here, that's why," the senior man said in a falsely reasonable tone. "We're nearest. It's not like they picked us just because they know you don't like going in there. Now get moving!"
"Oh, all right." Reluctantly, the unwilling crewman tugged his shirt straight and smoothed his rumpled hair. As tidy as he could get at no notice, he released the locks and shoved. The emergency door swung open smoothly, and the man moved inside on quiet feet. As always, the charred and blackened remains of the battered deck gave him shivers. It was not so much the damage itself that got to him as the gaping rip in the hull. Intellectually, he knew the force fields held the void of open space at bay, but knowing that could not calm his psyche.
He looked around, eager to complete his assignment and get out. He spotted the captain standing practically on the edge of the sheared deck, his hands clasped behind him as he looked out into space. He stood with his shoulders squared in the crisp navy blue uniform jacket, his feet apart. He was erect yet relaxed, apparently oblivious to the nearness of vacuum. The man sent to get him reluctantly approached him, wondering how he could stand it.
"Captain?" He stopped several feet from the edge, unable to bear getting any closer. "Sir?"
A dark head turned and gray eyes, bright and piercing as lasers, locked on him. "What is it?"
"Commander Tomei sent me, Captain. You asked to be informed when the tugs came along side. They're asking permission to take us in tow." The captain said nothing; he just stared broodingly at the man who waited for his answer. The crewman shifted uncomfortably under his captain's eyes. "Will that be all, Sir?"
The captain came back from wherever his mind had been traveling and dismissed him. "Tell Commander Tomei to clear the tugs to begin tow at his discretion. I'll be on the bridge shortly."
"Yes, Sir." The crewman left quickly, glad to be away from that destroyed deck, away from the endless vista of lifeless space that hung so close.
The man who stayed behind turned back to the great emptiness and just stared.
The big ship moved slowly as she approached the spacedocks. The largest of the Starclipper class, the Starwitch was as sleek and graceful as the clipper sailing ships of the 19th century for which the class was named. As they were once famous for speed, beautiful lines and style, so was the Starwitch, remote great-granddaughter of the famous Seawitch that set so many records in her day.
The little tugs bringing her in towed with the smooth precision of a well-practiced team. It was only as she came under the bright lights of the dry dock that workers waiting to secure her could see her damage. Several places on the hull were nothing but blackened and twisted metal, whole sections missing completely with only melted or sheared debris left to mark their absence. The starboard main engine looked mostly intact, but the port engine dragged loosely, nothing but charred wreckage.
"Look at her, John!" the dockmaster murmured to his partner over his headset. "I can hardly believe she made it in on her own!"
"You won't get an argument from me, Kip," the other man agreed as he keyed the locking beams. "The poor girl took a beating from those cursed Gargans. She won the battle, though, and brought her crew to safety. She's quite a ship!"
Kip signaled a secure lock on the ship. "We'll bring her back to what she was in no time; you'll see. The Starwitch is not meant to lie idle in port." Lights on the panel before him went green, so he leaned over and tapped his partner to take his attention from the battered ship. "She's secure, John. Give her the word."
"Dockmaster to Starwitch," John called. "We have you secure. With your permission, we'll take her from here. Welcome to Cail."
A tired man's deep voice came back promptly, the pronounced lilting of a Welsh accent in it. "At your discretion, Dockmaster, and thank you; Starwitch out."
John looked at Kip, his eyes wide. "Was that the old man himself? Captain Thatcher?"
Kip nodded. "None other. Could any other have brought her home?"
John leaned back in his seat. "Wow! I actually talked to Captain Brett Thatcher! I can't wait to tell the wife!"
A worn man in his early thirties sat in the starboard engineering office. His main office on the portside was unusable, blasted wide open to space. Thick blond hair braided back from his face, thick shoulders matched his short, stocky body, and callused, capable hands defined him, the Chief Engineer of the Starwitch.
Young for the post on the fleet flagship, Henry Parks had been Captain Thatcher's personal choice, and he worked very hard to prove himself worthy of the selection. He was the reason the ship came to port under her own power, but he knew the only reason he had anything left to repair was the man up on the bridge, Captain Thatcher. The captain pulled off a near miracle in defeating the much larger Gargan force that ambushed them, Henry reflected admiringly. Outnumbered four to one, Thatcher beat them soundly, destroying two ships and sending the others scuttling for home territory with heavy damage. What a battle! Captain Thatcher reacted to the surprise attack with a display of tactical skill the likes of which Henry had never seen.