A Case Of Conscience
Chapter 1

"My lord, the Mystery has vanished!" The sensor technician's voice hissed in alarmed surprise. Every head in the information center whipped about to look at the main sensor display. The Investigator's computer soullessly updated the tank, and, where once there had been one of His Majesties' finest survey vessels, now only empty space was displayed.

Baronet Arrack Wildmere, captain of the Investigator and commodore of the small survey task force that included Investigator, Mystery, and the Enigma, raised himself from his command bench, his wings spreading wide as he launched towards the tech's position. As he landed from the controlled glide which was all he could manage in the tight quarters of the information center, he asked, "You are sure of this?" His basso tone reassured the rating, who managed to collect himself.

"Yes, my lord. There is no indication of an explosion or catastrophic drive field failure. The plot simply shows Mystery there one second, then not there the next."

"Sir Arrack," the voice was that of the senior scientist aboard, "I may have an explanation."

The Baronet raised his head slowly from his review of the sensor log, which, as the young technician had said, showed nothing unusual -- except the disappearance of the survey vessel. "Yes, Dr. Soarheit?" The barely civil tone was that of a noble to a non-warrior whose familiarity was unwelcome.

Unfazed, and undeterred, the scientist beckoned for the Baronet. "The gravitics plot shows something very interesting. At the exact moment of the Mystery's disappearance, there was an intersection with the anomaly I was postulating. The gravitic readings went off the scale, then ceased."

"Can you calibrate the gravitic instruments to detect this anomaly?" Sir Arrack's voice warmed slightly, as he realized that the researcher had spoken in excitement, not discourtesy.

"With your permission, my lord, and the assistance of your technicians, yes, now that I have the spike to work from." Dr. Soarheit was nearly bursting with excitement, but remembered to use the correct forms of address.

"Very well then, Doctor. I'll have Sir Strifon detail a work crew." With this, the Baronet returned to the command bench to relay his orders to the Knight Commander who was his executive officer.

Later, in Investigator's spacious briefing room, Baronet Wildmere looked at the senior officers of his now-reduced task force. His executive, Sir Strifon Firesbane, was unsettled, the claws on his hands extending and retracting, kneading the pad in front of him into shreds, his gold-membrane wings refusing to settle along his back. The captain of the Enigma was in little better shape. He had stilled his nervous kneading, but the distinctive head crest of his Sunland clan was fully displayed, and his wings twitched irritably. Only Dr. Soarheit seemed to be relatively calm, but his was the calm of one who has seen his life's dream fulfilled.

The room itself was unusual, with it's massive holographic projector taking up much of the front of the room. In addition, it was three levels tall, with perches scattered around the upper reaches of the walls. This allowed the arboreal crew to have places to perch, relax, and pray, for this room doubled as the chapel, and trebled as a recreation area.

"All right, what do you have, Doctor?" asked the Baronet, gently grasping his executive officer's shoulder to steady him.

"If you'll look into the display tank my lords, I'll bring up the schematic we have developed." The slender scientist moved to bring up the holographic projection. "As you can see, we are here," his extended claw caused a pair of small green lights to start blinking. "And the position of the Mystery's disappearance is here." A third light began to flash. "Now I will overlay what we know of the standard gravitic patterns in this area," a series of lines began to fill the screen, in an orderly fashion. "And finally, this is the pattern of what I am tentatively labeling zeta-class gravitic disturbances." As he continued, the space around the flashing orange light began to fill with converging patterns of lines, twisting and writhing at the point of convergence, which precisely matched the disappearance point. "As you can see, these zeta field patterns are coming to some sort of point. We've tried sending a remote drone into the point, but it was torn apart before it could reach the center of this phenomenon. We are currently postulating that the Mystery's drive field protected it from the zeta field's effect. Where the Mystery went is uncertain, but the remote reported no debris."

"No debris?" Sir Tavor Sunland, Captain of the Enigma sounded stunned. "Were they completely annihilated without a trace?"

"I don't believe so, my lord." The scientist was almost jubilant. "From the gravitic plot at the time of departure, a great deal of gravitic energy was expended. But it looks as though it was non-destructive. My senior assistant is more skeptical, but I believe that the Mystery was translated to another place."

At this, Sir Strifon roared with laughter. "Bodily assumption? Did we have saints unknown aboard the Mystery?" The laughter of the other officers joined in, but was more strained. Dr. Soarheit only looked pained.

"No, sir. Perhaps I used the wrong word. Teleportation is what I was thinking of, not assumption." The others sobered quickly, thinking about the implications.

Sir Arrack looked encouraged at this, "Does this mean that the Mystery has survived?"

"Perhaps, my lord. I can't say for certain, however."

"So the question has changed. We believe we know what happened. Now we must decide. Do we follow her, or do we count her as lost?" The baronet left the third option unspoken, for a ship was the fastest way to send information to the home world, and the Mystery's supplies, if she still survived, would not last the time it would take to make the round-trip.

"I would suggest we consider Mystery lost, and break off our research. Bringing this information home is the most important task we now have." Sir Tavor was earnest, his blue-edged crest slicking back against his skull, his muzzle wrinkling back from his teeth.

"I disagree." Sir Strifon was equally earnest. "This may be our most important test. God would not want us to abandon our comrades in a time of peril." Investigator's exec was well known for his piety, and silence reigned for a moment.

"I must ponder this." Sir Arrack said, finally. "Return to your duty stations, I will recall you when I have made my decision."

As the officers filed out, the baronet launched upwards, to the meditation perch that was installed nearest the ceiling. His brightly colored, scaled form quickly reached the perch, and his nictating membranes closed over his eyes as his foot and leg muscles locked him onto the perch. His membranous wings settled over his back, and he relaxed into a deep meditation, seeking his soul's answer to the question before him. Should he risk his life and the life of his crew on a thin hope, or should he abandon a large portion of his command? He knew that the decision was his, and his alone, and he felt the weight of responsibility that came with his noble birth settle around him.

Suddenly, his eyes flew open, his breath quickened, and his wings and tail stretched. He had his answer.

Reassembled in the briefing room, the senior officers of the task force, and their senior scientist, looked towards the baronet. "You have made a decision, my lord?" asked Sir Strifon.

"Yes I have. My lords, here are your orders. Sir Tavor, you are to embark as many of our civilian scientists aboard your vessel as you can. Sir Strifon, you are to prepare the ship to enter this anomaly. Shields up, drivefield at full strength, and crew strapped into the crash couches for the approach, if you would. Dr. Soarheit."

"Yes, my lord?" The scientist looked up from his study of the gravitic plots.

"You are a civilian. I cannot command you to enter this danger in the same way I command my crew. However, your expertise in finding these zeta waves may be vital. Are you willing to volunteer to join us in this mad expedition?"

"My lord, I would be more than willing. I am eager to see what is on the other side of this anomaly." Dr. Soarheit's crest was at full extension due to his excitement. "By all that is holy, I would have refused to board the shuttle to Enigma, had it come to that. You need me, and I must be part of this experiment."

Sir Arrack was somewhat taken aback by the vehemence in the scientist's voice, but was pleased by his response. "Good man. If we come out of this alive, be sure you will be mentioned in my dispatches to the Crown." This was high praise, the highest honor a civilian could receive from the military, and Dr. Soarheit preened, just a little. "Sir Tavor, you will have copies of my orders to lay before the Crown and council, in case they wish to accuse you of cowardice. I know, it's not likely, but I'm trying to be prepared. The Home Party may have gained more power in the council."

Sir Tavor nodded, well aware of the tricky balance the Crown was striking between the Expansion and Home parties. The Home party wanted the Crown to concentrate on domestic travails, while the Expansion party wanted to relieve the pressure by forming more colonies. The task force was one of the compromises, because their research could benefit both parties. If two extraordinarily expensive ships were lost, however, the Home party would, in all likelihood, be furious.

"Good. Do you have any questions? No? Then let's get moving."

As the meeting broke up, Sir Strifon pulled his captain to one side. "Sir, I had a thought that the others shouldn't hear. Do you wish to have the crew at battle stations for this transit?"

"That's a good thought, Strifon." The Baronet's muzzle wrinkled in thought. "We don't have any idea what may be waiting for us on the other side. Do it, and note it in the log."

A few hours later, those scientists who had been aboard Investigator were safely transferred to the Enigma, and Enigma was standing off well clear of the anomaly. Dr. Soarheit was on the radio, giving last-minute instructions to his chief assistant. "I don't care what you think, keep a constant scans on those zeta emissions. If I don't come back, the Royal Sciences Institute will need to have the best data to work with. Now get to it."

"Are you ready, then, Doctor?" Sir Arrak's voice was laden with gentle amusement. "Or do you have more subordinates to harangue?"

"I'm ready now, my lord. And the instruments are..." he adjusted two switches on his console, "now recording. The science instruments are ready."

Sir Arrak leaned into his bench. "Helm, are you ready?"

"Ready as I'll ever be, my Lord," the junior officer replied unsteadily.

"Buck up, Mr. Quickflow. Remember, you're an officer, a gentleman, and in God's grace." Sir Strifon was absolutely serene, lending his own confidence to all those on the bridge.

"Aye, Sir." The helmsman's wings smoothed against his back, and his tail stood absolutely still. "My apologies, Sir Arrak. Helm stands ready."

"Very good. Head into the disturbance, shields at maximum, speed ahead one-half."

"Ahead one-half, aye." The helmsman spoke into his annunciator, "Engine Room, ahead one-half."

"Ahead one-half, aye." The voice of the engineering chief sounded soothed by the most formal of the Naval traditions. Sir Arrack was secretly pleased that the young officer had chosen formality over the quicker computer automated adjustments.

As the ship leapt into motion, only the Chaplain's voice could be heard over the sounds of the ship. "Yea, though I fly in the forests of the shadows of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with..."

"... me." And the ship was... somewhere else.

"My Lord!" The sensor tech was once again panicking. "All of our equipment is off-line. Wait. We've got huge amounts of electrical surge throughout the ship. It will take a moment for us to clear it."

"He's right, my Lord," this was from the electronics technician. "We've got huge amounts of surge across the board. It seems to be clearing up, though."

"I'm getting readings." This was from Dr. Soarheit. "We've got what appears to be an identical anomaly to the one we entered behind us. But the star..."

The sensor tank now showed what the scientist was talking about. Their ship was moving through space approximately seventy light minutes from a red giant. And there was something else in the display.

"Sensors show a drivefield less than two light seconds away." The sensor tech was suddenly much less panicky. "Its signature is consistent with the Mystery!"

"Helm, all stop. Communications, if that is Mystery, get her on the line." The Baronet spoke loudly to cut through the cheers of the bridge crew.

"Sir, the Mystery is hailing us. They want to know where we've been."

Sir Arrak felt vindicated. And he knew that a new era was dawning for his people.

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