“Hold your fire.”
Rione Sc’lari ran to the command room’s center, background klaxons giving her a splitting headache. The black-haired Lazarian female stood out, not for her jet black jumpsuit, but being the only bronze-skinned beauty in a room full of pale Torians. Men and women in olive green uniforms sat at terminals around the perimeter walls, keeping close watch. She focused on the holographic imager displaying the station and its surroundings.
A small bull-nosed craft drew closer to the station. She moved in, her nose almost touching the projected image. The ship would have been considered derelict had its main engines not switched to full power as soon as it dropped below the hyperspace threshold. Being at war, station defenses went on full alert as soon as its trajectory had been determined; it was headed straight for them.
The weapons officer called out across the room. “Target remains acquired.” His curt tone said everything. He was on edge, as they all were.
All of the station’s new laser cannons were trained on the mystery vessel. Rione couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity. “Is it transmitting an ID code?”
The station’s communications officer looked up from her station nearby. “Sierra-tango-four-two-four.”
Princess Lucian Wren, in a flowing white Torian dress stepped up behind Rione. “Isn’t that code...?”
The Lazarian jerked her head around, ridges protruding just forward of her ear turning pale white. “Aston’s ship?”
The communications officer interrupted, “Still no response.”
Rione’s forehead creased as she mumbled to her friend, “Lucian, something’s wrong.”
The Princess gave the next command. “Have it proceed to landing bay two.”
The officer turned her attention back to the sensor screen and her communication gear. There was no verbal response, but the ship’s thrusters fired, altering course.
“I’ll meet him.” Rione rushed for the exit, hoping the silence was merely an issue with outgoing communications.
She was already out the door when Princess Wren called, “Report back when you find out more.”
The ship’s response to their instructions was a good sign, but Rione had already made a paranoid leap. Pushing on her jumpsuit’s collar, Rione responded through its embedded transmitter. “Will do.”
Far below the circular walkway, Rione passed an unsuspecting commons area. The station had once bustled with life, before Toris had plunged itself into civil war. Now the entire facility seemed like a ghost vessel, the emptiness below broken up by an occasional trio or quartet of dark green Rulusian troops.
The landing bay entry doors split open along the outer wall and Rione raced into the landing bay, only to stop short. Aston’s ship sat at the room’s center, its lights dormant. The hull was scarred and burned, residual ice melting off in waves of cloudy smoke. The station’s two AFI-5 fighter-interceptors rested against the far wall. Her skin crawled as she forced herself closer. She wanted to find out why Aston hadn't already exited his ship, but feared what she might find.
The entry hatch on the ship’s right side popped loose, causing her to jump. Motors ground out their rhythm as the door lowered toward the hangar floor. Relief finally flooded over her, until she heard Jeanie, the ship’s computer, calling from inside. “Come quick!”
Rione scrambled up the stairs, intense fear burning through her heart. She jumped inside the ship, then caught a gasp in her throat.
Aston lay haphazard along the near wall cot, unmoving. Strips of fabric were wrapped around his left shoulder, torn from sheets piled on the floor. Everything under him and below the cot was coated dark red.
“Aston!” she called, but received no response. Her rapid breath formed misty clouds as she rushed to his side. Shoving him did not wake him, either. Her entire body shook violently, not only from the cold, but from building fear.
His breath wasn’t visible as hers was, so she reached up to his throat. Expecting the worst, she felt for signs of life. At first, she found nothing, then pushing a little deeper, a flicker of hope rose as she finally found faint beats, shallow and slow.
Rione’s hands shook as she pressed her transmitter. Her voice chattered. “Emergency medical team to landing bay two. Now!”
Jeanie spoke, almost sorrowful. “He instructed me to bring him here. He knew you would be able to help, Rione.”
The Lazarian female spoke into the emptiness. “What happened to him?”
“Aston instructed me not to explain the circumstances behind his injuries. I must comply.”
Rione crossed her arms, holding herself tight. “Why is it so cold in here?”
“I reduced the temperature to prolong his life.”
Rione backed away as the bay doors opened outside the ship and personnel stormed toward them. She whispered, “What happened to you, Aston West?”