The Gargle’s alarm woke her up so bad that for a moment she was sure she was dreaming. Red lights blinked, the PA system kept blasting the two-by-two signal which meant full alert. At least it was not battle stations she thought, and then remembered that they were a civilian ship. Next step would either be a lock-down due to evasive action or abandon ship, and neither of those were good options.
“What the hell is going on?”
She couldn’t discern the male voice coming from the hallway. As if someone heard it, the PA system sounded one long, one short tone. A message was coming.
“This is the captain speaking. All report to the mess immediately for briefing.”
Emma felt rawness in her throat that hadn’t been there when she went to bed. She swallowed a couple of times, and it hurt a little every time. A sour throat was precisely what she needed now. She put on some pants and went for the mess. She was among the first to arrive. The captain and the ambassador were arguing, both using short and precise arm movements to empathize whatever points they were making. Neither of them seemed to be happy about the situation. The ambassador sat down by the table, folded his hands and leaned forward, staring at something in front of him, or more likely, nothing at all.
All sat down around the table.
“At 03.47 Standard Time, the Navy had first contact with the Vanduuls. We are currently tracking them on radar and have hailed them for first com contact.”
“What’s wrong?” Pablo asked.
“There’s nothing wrong. We are in no imminent danger,” the captain said.
“Then why are we here?”
The captain looked at the ambassador before he spoke.
“The scans have confirmed that Vanduuls are coming with a Horde ship. Amongst other.”
The sentence seemed to hang in the air as if the words had trouble pushing through the pressurized atmosphere. Emma looked at Aish, who had the strangest expression on her face. She wasn’t sure if it looked retarded to the point of being comical, or if it was the opposite way around.
“A Horde ship?” Ann said.
“Are you sure?” Pablo asked.
The ambassador nodded, but it was the captain who spoke.
“As sure as any human can be. We knew they existed and this seems to be it.”
Emma considered the captain’s word. He, or they, whoever they were, did not know that Horde ships existed. Horde ships were a myth, a rumour so widespread that even though there were thousands who claimed to have seen one, there was absolutely no hard data on it. Not even a blip on the radar. That didn’t stop the average person to believe they were real. But now there was one here, for this meeting.
“What are we basing our guess on?” Pablo asked.
“Not much more than its size at the moment,” the captain said.
“And how big is that?” Pablo asked.
“I assume you are all aware of the X12 specs?” the captain asked.
“Only roughly,” Pablo said.
“I don’t,” Ann said.
“We believe it to be roughly four times the size of the X12,” the captain said.
Pablo whistled and leaned back on his chair.
“What’s the X12?” Ann asked.
“It is, or more correctly was a Vanduul carrier ship, roughly the same tonnage as the UEE’s Indefatigableclass. It was found dead in space after an engine accident. You are sure that this ship is four times bigger?”
Pablo looked away from Ann to the captain.
“Roughly,” the captain said.
“That’s not the only reason they think it’s a Horde ship, is it?” Aish asked with a tone that made everyone turn to look at her.
“No, it is not,” the captain finally said.
“How many ships are alongside?” Aish asked.
“At the moment the scan says around seventy-five.”
“Seventy-five fighter ships?” Pablo asked.
“No. We count at least four carrier ships, several fuel tankers and a mishmash of shiptypes.”
The table erupted. The captain raised his hands and for some reason people shut up.
“It has been discussed briefly, and it changes nothing. We will continue the meeting as planned.”
Emma was certain that neither the captain nor the ambassador had been part of that discussion. The Navy Intelligence must be going crazy at the moment. They would even consider the escort expendable if they could get information on the Horde ship. It was a game changer, in more than one way. She doubted that the Advocacy had expected this. They were meeting with a Horde ship. No, that was incorrect.
They were meeting with a Clan Chief and she was on a mission.
She felt a shrill running down her spine and she honestly couldn’t say if it felt good or bad.
“What if we don’t want to go?”
Ann looked as surprised of her own question as the rest of the crew did. The captain looked at her as she had spoken in some language he didn’t understand.
“That’s easily settled,” the ambassador said and looked at Ann, “how many of you wish to leave the ship?”
Nobody moved. Nobody spoke.
“Ok, then we do it like this. Everybody raise their hand. Now,” the ambassador said.
They all did.
“If you want to stay, please lower your hand.”
All but two hands went down. Ann’s hand was expected, but Clark’s wasn’t.
“Those who want to leave will be taken to the navy ships for as long as the meeting will last. Ann, Clark, are you sure you want to do this? I don’t have to tell you how big this is. I understand your reluctance, but if you think about it, it doesn’t really change anything. We always knew that they would come in force. That they come as strong as they do, is an honour to us. This is history in making.”
The ambassador knew them well, but Emma couldn’t help wondering if he really had a clue what they were walking into.
“I’m sorry,” Ann said and stood up. “I’m really sorry.”
Clark fidgeted his thumbs’ fingernails against each other.
“I’m sorry Clark, but I need an answer now,” the ambassador said.
Clark looked up, trying to smile.
“Ok. I guess I’m staying.”
“Good. I’m glad you are with us. Ann, you need to pack your things. You’ll be leaving with the 2nd pilot in fifteen minutes.”
Ann ran off, looking more relieved than anything.
“Here’s what I want us to go through in the next two hours,” the ambassador said.
She could hear his voice and listened, but her thoughts were on something else. This was becoming far bigger than expected. A Vanduul messenger was one thing. If this whole thing was orchestrated for trading information to the Advocacy, not only she, but everyone on the ship was in way over their head. They were meeting with a Clan Chief, for fuck sake! She looked at the ambassador. He was much too eager. She could understand why. Being here in the first place was a big move for him, and if this went right his name would be spoken throughout the UEE. He had just won the diplomatic lottery, and he knew it. She hoped he was one of those who got sharpened and not blinded by it.
They worked for three hours, before they went back to sleep.
By then the ambassador had made so many changes that she was certain that the team didn’t remember half of them. Most of the changes made sense, which gave her hope on the ambassador’s behalf. The one thing that didn’t make sense was that her role didn’t change like the others’, which unfortunately made sense if the assumption was that her role was assigned by someone higher than the ambassador. She was still to be the person that followed the ambassador around, almost as a secretary. That role was much more suited for Aish, and everyone knew it. She knew that people wondered why she was even there, but no one had uttered a thing, although she saw the looks.
She almost fell into bed.
She had had four cups of tea, two pain tablets, but her throat felt even worse. She was pretty sure that if she hadn’t taken the tablets, she would have felt a fever. As she closed her eyes, she could see streaks of colour pass by.
Her last thought was that she should really ask Ann about the possibility of her being contagious to Vanduuls.