A World You Half Remember (488 Words)
His cabin was like himself, bare and austere, except for a single photograph on the starboard wall that stood a glaring, stark discrepancy amid the otherwise Spartan setting. The lieutenant drew closer to this, looking on it as the one item aboard-ship as out of place as herself. The frame was cast metal, common and unromantic, but the image preserved in liquid plasma was the living converse.
It was a quiet scene. Tall grass profuse in a mountain valley, the waving green-grey a sea of plant life. Thin-limbed trees lined the incline leading to a still, brown lake. The trees’ bark was a striking marble hue and their leaves a full olive, but their trunks were twisted and bent, almost twining in on themselves.
The effect was alien but beautiful and Ella, who dearly missed land after months spent in space, could not suppress a quiet,
‘What a beautiful picture.’
The commander raised his head from the papers at his desk.
‘Indeed, Lieutenant?’ he said.
There was an element of coldness in his voice as if she had concentrated her attention inappropriately. Ella did not notice.
‘Is it your home planet?’ she asked.
The commander’s eyes narrowed. There was an element of confusion in them, and he rested a perplexed finger on his lip. It was an expression he would never reveal to her face but allowed her turned back, and even then the sensation was a new one. He wasn’t often imbalanced.
‘Indeed, Lieutenant,’ he said.
‘Is your family there?’
‘This is not a social visit,’ said the commander, ‘nor do I recall giving you permission to stand at ease, Lieutenant Sanders.’
His tone was low and full of warning. Instantly her glance snapped forward to a point just beyond his shoulder, her spine straight, feet six inches apart.
‘Yes, sir,’ she said.
The commander lowered his head once more. ‘You detected something on the starboard processor.’
‘Was it a ship?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Know, Lieutenant. Could it be a threat?’
‘Have the quartermaster assign a lookout duty between four men. I want shifts at every watch. Can you oversee weapons? Or would you prefer navigation to defense?’
‘I will let you decide, sir.’
‘Good.’ He paused, massaging his temple with two lean fingers. ‘Your marks are highest in weaponry. See that we are ready in case of the worst.’
She saluted and turned in one quick, practiced motion.
Her hand was on the door’s exit sensor when he called her back.
‘Lieutenant,’ he said.
‘I did have family there, once, on Anora 7, but they have gone to Station 14-A.’
He spoke softly, in a tone very different from his former sharpness. Ella studied him cautiously, her hand still raised for escape, but there was no animosity or challenge in his expression. His face was an indecipherable mask.
The commander smiled, barely. ‘Go, Lieutenant. Dismissed.’