The time was exactly 0600. Very early, by the standards of the crew of the Christa. Most of whom could rarely be dragged from their bunks at any time before 0800. The only sounds that could be heard in the winding dimly lit corridors were the soft humming of the engines, the secondary thrusters firing periodically only to maintain the starship's stationary position in space. The seven year voyage had come across a significant barrier to their progress in the form of one of the most massive asteroid fields in charted space. The Christa's computers had very little information to give on navigating the safest route. So the crew had 'parked' the Christa and turned in early, planning on tackling the difficult task after a full night's sleep and a good breakfast.
The Christa's computers were on autotracking for the night. But the starship was a vessel of unique qualities. Her systems knew and understood the dangers her crew was to soon face in the asteroid field. So when her scanners locked on the position of another starship, also on autotracking, she immediately formed a signal link with the new vessel's computers. The acknowledging response was automatic. The Christa's secondary thrusters fired again, the starship turning and drifting closer to the oncoming vessel, whose own thrusters reacted in response to slow its progress to a halt. Within a matter of minutes the two ships were side by side.
Down in the Christa's engine room, the resident android Thelma was busily dusting off the edges of the consoles. The Gizbot whirred along behind her, sucking up small bits of debris off the floor. Thelma hummed as she worked, on the sharp lookout for any speck of dust she might have missed. She bent over to wipe a small section of the base of the protomix master controls.
And then Thelma froze. After a moment, she straightened up, a smile on her face.
"Aha!" she said. "How helpfully fortunate. This new data should make today's tasks much easier to accomplish. I should inform the Commander immediately." She paused again, cocking her head slightly. "I sense the Commander has just entered the command post. Let's go, Gizbot."
The Gizbot opened a panel on its side, and Thelma dropped her dusting cloth into it. Abandoning what was left of the chore, she made her way out into the corridor and towards the command post.
For once, Commander Goddard was not startled by Thelma coming up behind him. He saw her enter the room from where he stood. He was standing at the helm, eyeing the array of softly blinking crystals and levers in front of him. The Christa's systems refused to respond to his touch, no matter what he tinkered with. Today he could feel that irritation far more acutely. The task that was facing his young crew would not be easy. The asteroid field was called the Sarattus System Death Zone for a good reason. He had never dreamed he would be so far out in space that he would be faced with the challenge of navigating it.
"Thelma," he said as the android stepped into the room, his gaze still on the helm display. "Good. I want you to be sure the crew is out of bed and in the galley by no later than 0830. It's gonna take at least eight hours to get through those asteroids."
"Yes, sir," Thelma replied promptly. "And speaking of the asteroids, I have good news."
Goddard raised an eyebrow, immediately suspicious. News of any kind from Thelma was always an unexpected surprise…and more often than he liked, they weren't welcome surprises.
"Go on," he said.
"The Christa has just finished obtaining a very detailed navigational readout of the entire asteroid field," Thelma reported. "It turns out there are several possible routes we can take to minimize the risk of taking damage."
Goddard's eyes widened. He stepped down from the helm and approached the android, who smiled at him serenely.
"Where did the Christa get the readout?" he asked. "Is there a navigational drone out there we didn't see before?"
"Oh, no, sir," Thelma replied cheerfully. "The Christa requested the data from a passing ship her sensors picked up a short while ago. The other ship's autotracking system was quite willing to relay the information, and asked for very few things in return. We should be all set for…"
"Wait, wait," Goddard snapped. "What passing ship?"
Thelma nodded towards the head of the room, where the moddled walls hid the main display screen.
"Screen on," she instructed.
A view of the front of the Christa materialized at Thelma's command. Another ship hovered nearby, their respective airlocks linked by the glowing beam of a spaceway. The new ship was nowhere near as exotic looking as the Christa. Goddard recognized it immediately as a common mid-sized freight hauler. Sleek in design to minimize engine usage on long voyages, but dull metallic grey and without any identifying marks on the hull. Goddard could feel his heart pounding in his chest, staring at the spaceway linking the Christa with the completely unknown vessel.
"The Christa linked a spaceway with an unknown ship?" he growled at Thelma.
"At its request," Thelma confirmed. "It was very polite, for a fully automated system."
"For all we know, that ship is full of pirates or renegades! We could be getting boarded as we speak!"
"Oh, do not worry, sir. The other ship had only one crewmember. And its identification did not register as being of a criminal origin. The Fearless mainly transports goods and supplies between the small colonies in this sector."
Goddard froze, stunned by shock. He stared more closely at the screen, studying the other ship.
"The Fearless? Are you sure about that?" he finally asked, his tone cold.
"Yes, sir," Thelma replied.
"And what did the Fearless want from the Christa besides the spaceway?"
"Just her name, and the name of her commanding officer."
Goddard sighed and bowed his head, thinking hard.
"Thelma, did the crewmate from the Fearless come over onto the Christa?" he asked flatly.
"Let me check," Thelma replied. Goddard heard the whirring of her servos. "There is an unidentified intruder…walking very slowly…in the aft corridor past the galley." She gave him a mildly curious look. "Shall I awaken the others?"
"No," Goddard replied, straightening and turning to face the android. "I'll deal with this myself. Tell the Christa to get as much information out of the Fearless' computers as possible."
"Yes, sir!" Thelma replied, giving an awkward salute.
Goddard made his way towards the jump tubes, keying in the code for the galley. In the early silence, the whoosh of his passing sounded even louder than normal. He slid out the other end tensed, immediately crouching into a battle-ready stance. But the room was deserted. Nothing appeared out of place. He scanned the area as he moved towards the door to the corridor, but there was nothing that could make a decent weapon.
"Looks like this will have to be by hand," he murmured to himself.
The doorway automatically slid open as he approached it, and he immediately jumped to one side and pressed himself back against the wall. He paused and listened just in time to hear a very faint breathy hiss from out in the corridor. The intruder had heard the sound of the doorway opening. Goddard stiffened as he heard footsteps slowly coming closer. The doorway started sliding closed, but a hand suddenly appeared, the fingers curling around the edge of the frame and forcing the passage to remain clear. Another soft hiss sounded.
Goddard was not nearly as young as he used to be. In his prime, he had been well known for holding his own in fights. But he had more than a few reasons to summon back some of his old swagger now. The intruder's body was now sliding slowly into the room, intently scanning the area. Goddard could tell the instant those shining eyes caught sight of him, and he reacted immediately. The intruder let out a yelp of shock as he threw himself forward, tackling and driving the intruder to the ground.
The sounds of the fight were quickly swallowed by the quiet of the rest of the ship. In the command post, Thelma was happily focused on the influx of information the Christa was drawing from the Fearless. The Gizbot zoomed back and forth across the floor, doing nothing of any real use.
And the rest of the crew slept on, peacefully oblivious.